Wednesday, February 28, 2018

John 3:16 and the rest of the story

As delivered Feb. 25, 2018

John’s third chapter opens with Jesus in conversation with a highly-respected Jewish leader named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus to commend him as man of God, but Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the compliments. Jesus talks about faith and the proper object of faith. Jesus explains that everyone must be born “again” to see the Kingdom of God. It is also possible to translate the words as “born from above,” that is, spiritually, rather than “again.”
In verses 14-15, Jesus explains why he must be crucified to bring eternal life to everyone who believes in him. Then this:
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

We almost always recite only verse 16, then stop. But there is the rest of the story and Jesus told it. It is a blunt, unpleasant truth. Jesus drew a genuine distinction between salvation and its lack. Furthermore, Jesus said that there is no neutral territory. There is no spiritual space where we are neither saved nor unsaved, there is no halftime where we get to ponder the question for awhile off the clock. Jesus said those who do not believe “are condemned already,” that is, unsaved to begin with. This is a “hard teaching,” as Jesus disciples put it about another subject later in John. Either one believes in Jesus or one does not; there is nothing in between.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is himself proof that faith is justified. Jesus is clear that he is the actual embodiment of God on earth. To make that confession about Jesus, to affirm his teachings about himself, is to be born “from above,” that is, spiritually reborn by the Spirit of God, just as Jesus was himself born of God.
To believe in Christ is more than merely acknowledging that Christ was a real person. There is a difference between saying, “I believe I have a neighbor” and “I believe in my neighbor.” It is one thing for us to believe that there was a Christ, it is another thing for us to believe in Christ. To believe in Christ is to place one’s destiny in his hands.
The story is told of a husband and wife walking in their town when the sidewalk gave way beneath them. It was a sinkhole, and they fell to the bottom, almost twenty feet down. They yelled for help because they knew that the sinkhole would cave in again and bury them. They were, we might say, “condemned already.”
Shortly a philosopher came along. He saw their plight and said, “Let me explain to you the metaphysical meaning of sinkholes.”
Next came a psychotherapist, who asked, “Did you ever have arguments with your mother over sinkholes?”
Then came a self-help, motivational speaker, who jumped up and down excitedly and exhorted them, “Yes! Yes, you can! You can get out of that sink hole. Say it after me, now: I can! I can! I can do it!”
Then Professor Schrodinger walked by with his cat and told them, “In another quantum state you are already buried.”
The next fellow was a congressional candidate who said, “Vote for me and I’ll introduce legislation to outlaw sinkholes.”
Then President Trump came by and said, “I am going to build a yuuuuuge wall around that sinkhole!”
A lawyer came by and said, “I will help you sue the property owner.”
Their parents came by and told them, “If you loved us you would move out of that sinkhole.”
The county inspector walked up and asked, “Do you have a sinkhole permit?”
A news reporter asked, “Can I get some video of you in the sinkhole?”
An IRS agent informed them, “Medical expenses from sinkhole injuries are deductible only for the amount that exceeds seven percent of your adjusted gross income.”
An optimist told them, “Cheer up! Things could get worse!”
A pessimist came along and said, “I promise you, things will get worse.”
A Methodist preacher arrived and asked, “Did you know that sinkholes can be used as metaphors for the human condition of John 3.16-19?”
A Buddhist showed up and told them, “The sinkhole is not real.”
A television evangelist told them, “Send me money and I will pray for you to get out of the sinkhole.”
A Hindu guru came along and told them, “The sinkhole is your karma.”
A Zen master walked up and asked, “What is the sound of a sinkhole?”
A Confucian appeared and said, “Confucius says, ‘In all lives there are sinkholes, such is fate.’”
A Muslim approached and said, “It is Allah’s will for you to be in the sinkhole.”
Finally, Jesus Christ came to the sinkhole. He did not pause to ponder sinkholes or to explain them to the couple trapped there. He just leaped to the bottom of the sinkhole and said, “Jump on my back and I will carry you out of the sinkhole.” And he did.

We are in the season of Lent, of course, and that is the season that even Methodist preachers really, really like. During Lent we get to really hammer sin and bang on the pulpit about what miserable sinners and reprobates make up the human race. During Lent we have a preaching license to give all the explanations and warnings about the sinkhole of human sin. Well, that or something like it has a place in Lenten reflection. And I am pretty sure that a lot of people really don’t understand that the sinkhole problem of the human condition is indeed grave. We may wonder about it in the aftermath of Parkland, Florida, but even that horror rarely evokes true conviction of the sinkhole problem of human sin.
In 1998 I went on a study trip to Appalachia as part of a course at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. One Sunday we attended a service in a small up-hollow town in coal country. It was a congregation of the Old Regular Baptist church. That was the name of the denomination: Old Regular Baptist. The service started at nine and ended at noon. Three hours of church, five preachers!
It was an engrossing experience. The first preacher was like the guy with a guitar who plays and sings before a Garth Brooks concert: just starting out. He gave a heartfelt testimony but got sung down by the choir because he went on too long. Then there was another man, one who had preached before. He was more polished. And so it went, each preacher more talented than the one before. After the fourth preacher sat down, everyone took a short break.
Then the choir sang a hymn and the headliner preacher stepped up to the pulpit. At first he spoke slowly, softly, then he picked up the tempo and the volume. He knew about every sin in the book, and apparently somebody in the congregation had done at least one of them recently. Eloquently, he covered all the bases: the human inability to love God right, the need for repentance and the imperative that we throw ourselves at the foot of the cross and pray for the precious blood of Jesus to cleanse us.
By and by he took his coat off. Then a few minutes later he loosened his necktie. Awhile later he rolled up his sleeves. Before long he took out his handkerchief and wiped his sweating brow. “Though our sins be red as scarlet, Jesus will wash them white as snow. Jesus stands at the door and knocks, but in our pride we won’t answer the door – we should be ashamed to leave him standing there in the cold, the one who suffered and died for us.”
And finally, the expected ending: though no one has any right to ask God anything, and none of us are worthy even to untie Jesus’s sandals, from his infinite and incomprehensible grace and love Christ will accept us if we sincerely beg his forgiveness. Then he sat down, the choir sang another hymn, and everyone left.

We don’t always take God very seriously as God, a God who is as close to us our next breath. For sure the Old Regular Baptists up there in Appalachia take God pretty seriously. They live a hard life and they sometimes know a hard God. Their kind of worship is not for us, but the wind of the Spirit blows where it chooses. Yet while we need to be reminded that sin is a serious, in fact fatal, condition, we must not lose sight of the great thing about Lent. Lent is about sin, yes, but how much more is it about love and mercy and forgiveness of sin! We think we are doing pretty well and that God must love us because we are doing well and because we are are pretty good people. I mean, look at us: What’s not to love? Yet those Appalachian Baptists knew what Nicodemus had to learn: God does not love us because of who we are, but because of who God is.
Bishop Will Willimon wrote:
In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done.
The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love.
Now we remember. It was for this that we began the journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.
The cross is heavy and clouds gather, and we shall have more days for honesty, more Sundays to examine our lives again and pray for the courage to be truthful about all, the ways in which we betray so great a love. Lent is not over; “there is still more repenting to be done. But as we turn our steps again” toward Calvary, “let us take these words with us: it was not for condemnation that he was sent to us, but for love. He beckons us on, not to condemn but to save. (Christian Century March 17, 1982, p. 292)
Shall we be born again, be born from above by the wind of the Spirit? Yes, we shall. We shall have faith: we are ready to bet our lives on the Son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Thanks be to God!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Post-Parkland: Yes, the AR-15 is a very deadly military weapon


I advise readers in advance that parts of this post will be both technical and probably unsettling. I am going to describe the wound ballistics of the 5.56mm round fired by the civilian-model AR-15 rifle, which is the civilian version of the US military's M4 carbine rifle. The only difference between the two weapons is that the M4 has a selector switch that enables it to fire fully automatic. That is, if the shooter depresses and holds the trigger, the weapon will will continue to fire until its ammunition supply in exhausted (see end note).

Both weapons will fire semi-auto, where a trigger pull shoots one round only. Trained shooters can fire very rapidly that way by pulling and releasing the trigger, but the rate of fire will not be nearly as high as full auto. Nonetheless, it can still be very high.

In ballistics, the general principles of which I learned at the US Army Field Artillery School, there are three phases for rifle (or artillery) ammunition: barrel ballistics, flight ballistics, and terminal ballistics. For rifles, terminal ballistics are usually called wound ballistics - what happens to the bullet when it strikes a target. For this discussion, the target is a human body.

I gained my expertise, such as it may be, in this arcane subject area during the years I served as a principal staff officer of US Army Criminal Investigation Command, which is the Army's version of NCIS (for which there is an extremely unrealistic series on TV). Investigators become specialized over time in diverse forensic fields ranging from accounting to blood-pattern analysis to wound ballistics. They were my tutors. So that is where I learned most of these factors. I asked CID agents to review my final draft of this article and received very learned and concise additions and emendations, which I have incorporated. One retired agent who reviewed it spent 40 years in forensic ballistics work, including wound ballistics. He had investigated a large number of cases involving military rifles. I am grateful for the agents' contributions.

This is, btw, a long post of several minutes reading time.

History of the rifle and ammunition

After World War II the US Army and NATO countries adopted 7.62mm rifle rounds as the standard. I am, not trying to sound pedantic, but that means that the bullet is 7.62 millimeters in diameter. "Caliber" is expressed as a decimal of inches, for example, .30-caliber means the bullet is 3/10 inch in diameter.

By the latter 1950s, the U.S. began working to find a different rifle round for the NATO standard. Finally, the Armalite Rifle (hence, "AR") company produced a rifle that in 1963 was adopted by the US Army as the M16. Armalite worked on the rifle in concert with Remington Arms for the ammunition, which was type-classified also in 1963 as the 5.56mm M193 round. However, while the 5.56mm round was adopted as the NATO standard in 1977, it was not the US the M193 that was adopted because several NATO nations considered the wounds the M193 produced to be so devastating that they approached inhumane.

The M16 rifle itself had serious teething problems in the Vietnam war. Early models were prone to misfeeding and jamming. These were finally corrected and the rifle and ammunition became extremely lethal tools in the hands of American soldiers and Marines. Because the M16 was lightweight and the M193 round produced low recoil compared to previous military rounds, US troops were able to achieve very high rates of accurate fire, much higher on both counts than the 7.62mm round or its .30-06 WW2 predecessor. (.30-06 means that it is a .30-caliber round that was adopted by the military in 1906.)

The NATO standard 7.62mm round, left, and the 5.56mm round next to a AA battery. 

Why is the 5.56mm round so deadly in school shootings?

The 5.56 round is so devastating is because of its ballistic characteristics and its very high velocity. Barrel ballistics are not significant for this discussion.

Flight ballistics: The bullet exits the muzzle of the AR-15 (or M4) unstable. The bullet is not merely spinning around its long axis (the front to rear line). It also "yaws" circularly, up to 4 degrees off center line (a form of gyroscopic precession). At about 100 meters, however, the yaw disappears and the round flies very stable out to about 400 meters, when it starts yawing again.

Victims of school shootings are all shot at ranges of much less than 100 meters. So the bullet strikes them while still yawing. That directly affects what happens to them,

Terminal, or wound, ballistics: There is a term or art among law-enforcement officers called, "instant incapacitation." It means a firearm wound that is so severe that the stuck person becomes functionally incapable either immediately or within very few seconds. Instant incapacitation is caused by two things: First is massive and sudden loss of blood. Second is severe interruption of the central nervous system. The 5.56 does both.

1. The 5.56 round exits the rifle at just more than 1,000 meters per second, about three times the speed of sound.  When the 5.56 bullet hits a human body, it immediately begins to decelerate. This bullet's length to width ratio is high. The nose of the bullet begins to decelerate but the rear is still traveling supersonic. The rear is going faster than the nose. This causes the rear to overtake the nose, meaning that the bullet begins to tumble end over end. This tumbling in turn causes the bullet to fragment not quite completely and the fragments travel through flesh, bounce off bone into new directions and sever nervous-system connections. This tumbling is enhanced if the bullet is yawing at impact, as every bullet fired during a school shooting is. That is part one of what causes instant incapacitation.

2. Many ballisticians also say that the supersonic shock wave, shaped like a cone pointed in the direction the bullet was flying, enters the entrance wound and expands it rapidly for a distance into the body (how much depends on the location of the entrance wound and the angle). This causes excess bleeding over what the bullet would cause alone. This effect is called "hydrostatic shock," but not all armaments ballisticians agree that it is significantly damaging. In fact, while sound travels four times faster through human tissue than through the air, sonic waves have been proven not to damage the body.

Cavitation: Any high-velocity bullet (and almost all non-HV bullets, too) not only creates a cavity in the body corresponding to the width of the bullet, they also create large-diameter cavities from the sudden displacement of tissue caused by the speed of the bullet. This is called "cavitation" and highly variable from one weapon to another. A radiologist who helped treat victims at Parkland described it this way:
The bullet from an AR-15 passes through the body like a cigarette boat traveling at maximum speed through a tiny canal. The tissue next to the bullet is elastic—moving away from the bullet like waves of water displaced by the boat—and then returns and settles back. This process is called cavitation; it leaves the displaced tissue damaged or killed. The high-velocity bullet causes a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path. It does not have to actually hit an artery to damage it and cause catastrophic bleeding. Exit wounds can be the size of an orange.
However, the effects of cavitation depend on the tissue affected. Muscle tissue is much less affected and, given survival of the victim, muscle tissue will recover. Vital organs are not so hardy. They can be badly damaged by cavitation but even so, actual destruction is caused by bullet fragmentation much more than cavitation.

Here are photos of cavitation in ballistic gelatin hit by a 5.56 round. The top photo is of a non-yawing round, the bottom of a yawing round. At the far left of each photo is the bullet angle of attack.

 As you can see, while both impacts are horrific, the yaw "wound" is truly devastating. Earlier in the same article, the radioligist observed,
I was looking at a CT scan of one of the mass-shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who had been brought to the trauma center during my call shift. The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively. How could a gunshot wound have caused this much damage?

The reaction in the emergency room was the same. One of the trauma surgeons opened a young victim in the operating room, and found only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet... . Nothing was left to repair—and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done to fix the problem. The injury was fatal.
These facts are why I reject as unfounded - indeed, invalid and misleading - that the 5.56mm round is nothing special compared to other rifle rounds and is not very powerful at all, a claim that was explicitly made in  Tennessean op-ed only yesterday (Feb. 25), "Why blaming the AR-15 for mass shootings is misguided." The author, Robin Patty, "is a disabled veteran and a former Special Forces operator who resides in Murfreesboro." While I thank her for her service, neither being a disabled veteran (so am I) or a Special Forces operator bestows special expertise in this area.

In her op-ed, Ms. Patty writes of the AR-15 firing a 5.56mm round,
It’s not powerful, so much so that some states don’t allow the cartridge that it fires to be used on deer.  
This weapons system was never designed or intended to be used to hunt any kind of game animal. It was developed by the Defense Department to do one thing only: kill humans beings of enemy armies as quickly as possible. For that purpose, it is extremely powerful. That some states do not allow it to be used to hunt deer is true. It is also irrelevant.
It’s not military grade. It simply looks like a military rifle, as the M16/M4 are all capable of automatic fire and the AR-15 is not.  
As I wrote above, that is the only difference between the military M4 and the civilian AR-15. I again say it is true but also irrelevant. Perhaps (as in maybe) Cruz could have mowed down 45 killed and 25 wounded if he had been shooting an M4 on full auto. So what? Does that make 17 dead and 12 wounded somehow less serious or less urgent for actions to prevent another repeat? Of course not.

When discussing school shootings - and not other kinds of murders or even other mass shootings - there is a unique threat in the 5.56 round fired from the AR-15 rifle.

That is why I find it difficult to oppose raising the legal age to 21 to possess these weapons because frankly, an average 18-year-old today is mentally and morally at about the level of a 14-year-old (and often younger) of any prior generation. At the same time, though, Cruz is the only school mass killer under age 21; all the others were mid-twenties except Lanza, 20, and he murdered his mother to get his hands on her AR-15 that he used to shoot school children.

So while I will not oppose raising the legal-possession age, I also do not really think it will much matter. But I will go one step further: if 18-year-olds are too immature to own a rifle, then we sure as H E double hockey sticks should not let them vote, either.

Coming soon: The other op-ed in Sunday's Tennessean saying, "A solution to ending mass shootings: Ending sales of guns to civilians," and why it is even more gravely in error than Ms. Patty's op-ed. In fact, it is downright looney. But that is for later.

Related: Mass shootings: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans"

End note: M4 carbines issued to soldiers for combat will fire full auto, but only three rounds at a time. Extensive testing by the Army showed that because of recoil, the soldier's aim is degraded after the fourth round so that it and subsequent rounds miss. Therefore, those weapons are modified so the soldier will shoot three, stop, re-aim, shoot three, stop, etc.

Also, a commonly-used round in AR-style guns is the .223-caliber round rather than the 5.56mm. They are very similar but are not identical. However, the terminal ballistics, which are what matters, of the .223 are the same as for the 5.56.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Time of Your Life

As delivered Feb. 18, 2018

One Saturday in July a few years ago, Cathy and Elizabeth and I were returning from North Carolina. They wanted to stop at Black Mountain, a small but thriving town in the foothills of the Appalachians, just north of I-40. The ladies wanted to relieve me of my hard-earned coin at the Doncaster outlet store there. I argued not. I wanted to go to the town also. Not to shop for clothing but to buy some more time. 

There is a place there called Pellom's Time Shop. My friend Gerard Vanderleun wrote about it a few years ago on his web site.
It's the oldest shop in Black Mountain, North Carolina. None of the other shop keepers can remember a time when it wasn't here. Nobody in town can remember a time when Pellom himself wasn't here. The Time Shop and Pellom may well have been here before the town was here; before even the Cherokee were here. Nobody can say. ...
Most people look into the cluttered and dust-layered window of the Time Shop and walk on by. … After all, most … are retired and have, they think, all the time in the world.
Pellom doesn't mind. He knows what time it is. He also knows what can happen to time. How it can come unsprung. How it can run slow and still run fast. How time runs down. How time goes by. How time runs out. That's why he's careful, when he can, to save time.
You can, if he decides he likes you, buy some time at the Time Shop. All you have to do is to step through the seldom used door of the Time Shop and say "Good afternoon, Mr. Pellom." Then you need to look around the shop carefully and slowly. You need, most of all, to take your time. 
In time, if the time is right, Pellom will glance up at you from behind his bench, his green eyeshade shadowing his eyes, and say, "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"
You'd be well advised to take him at his word and say, "I'd like to buy some more time."
Then, if your request is timely, Pellom will nod and fetch a small loud-blue glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of you with a sharp, satisfying clack on the glass of the counter. Looking into it all you will see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.
"Very good, sir," Pellom will say. "How much time would you like?"
I'd advise you to buy as much time as you can afford, as often as you can afford it, time after time.
Just because Pellom has some extra time today doesn't mean he won't be out of time tomorrow. Most of the time, time is always in short supply. Tonight, while you sleep, your government will be awake printing more money. Nobody is printing more time.
Which is why you should be careful how you spend time in the first place. Just ask Pellom down at the Time Shop.
"Nobody is printing more time."
One day in seminary we pulled our desks into a circle and took sixteen squares of paper the instructor passed out. She'd been years a chaplain at a large Catholic hospital. On four squares, she said, write the names of the four people you love most. On another four, the names of the four places you enjoy most to go to. The third, your four favorite ways to spend leisure time. The fourth, your four favorite restaurants. We complied.

"Now listen," she said. "You have recently had exploratory surgery and the doctor has the lab tests back. You are in his office. 'It's cancer,' he says. (Pause) Now, select any one of the sixteen pieces of paper, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the middle of the room."

My piece of paper marked "Six Flags" went sailing. I don't get there all that often and anyway, I can’t take the roller coasters any more.

She said, "You will begin chemotherapy this coming Monday. Toss another piece of paper."

This time I crumpled up a restaurant and pitched it into the pile. 

"The chemotherapy did not work. Next is radiation therapy, but the oncologist has already told you that its chances are less than the chemo. Throw one more piece." 

And so it went. You throw away a piece of your life one at a time. At first, it's not hard because for each of the four categories for which you have written four items, there is always one item that does not mean that much to you and so is quickly tossed. 

Until about the ninth or tenth throw when you realize that you have kept every piece of paper with the names of the people you love most. Almost every restaurant is gone and all but one favorite place to go. Before long she says, "The cancer is in stage four and is inoperable. The doctor prescribes hospice care." 

And your papers mock you like a two-high hand with a missing card, because all that are left are the names of the four people you love most - for me they were my wife and three children.

"Throw away a piece of paper," she says.

I stare. Who shall I throw away? And the answer is no one. Game over. I fold my hand by laying the papers down and leaning back in my chair.

"Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care about time?"

So, I went to find Pellom's Time Shop, not really believing that Pellom will fetch a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of me with a sharp clack on the glass on the counter. And even if he did such a thing, I did not think that looking into it that all I would see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.

It was not easy to find the Time Shop because it is so small. I almost went into the shop next door but corrected myself. A gray-headed man was standing near the door facing the right wall, passing time when I walked in. He turned slightly toward me and said hello. 

"Hello," I answered. I awaited the question I knew had to come: "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"

"Pretty cool day today," he said. 

"Yes," I answered, "it is." Chit chat was not what I expected. I asked, "Are you Mr. Pellom?" It 
seemed a foolish question, for who else would be in here?

"John Pellom," he said. "Indeed." He put his right hand out. 

I took at and shook it gently. "My name is Don Sensing." 

There were clocks scattered around the whole shop, some in pieces. One thing John Pellom has plenty of is time. Time is everywhere in the Time Shop. (It is a real place, you know.) 

"Ah, well, Mr. Don Sensing, I am glad to meet you,” John said. “What brings you here today?" 

"My wife and daughter are presently bankrupting me over at Doncasters, and I don't want to be there for that bloodletting. So I searched for your Time Shop."

"How did you know I was here?"

"I read about your shop on the Internet." I pulled out my smartphone and opened Gerard's essay and showed it to him. He scanned it quietly. He read about the small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle and the mist of stars. 

"Well," he said, "that would really be something." 

We made small talk for a few moments. I gave him my card and briefly explained what we had done on vacation. He told me that he kept busy repairing globe clocks and putting antique wristwatches back into service. His father opened the Time Shop in 1929. "Not before the Cherokee?" I quizzed.

John chuckled. "Well, I don't think so."

My phone buzzed. I knew it was the deadly shopping duo texting me that the MasterCard was now maxed out and would I please go to a bank and bring them a wheelbarrow full of ben franklins. A look at my phone showed I was right. I nodded at Mr. Pellom. "John, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you are open for a long time." I turned toward the door.

"Reverend Sensing," John said. I glanced back. He peered kindly at me a moment. "One more thing I have to ask you." I felt his pale blue eyes looking right through mine to the infinity beyond the Time Shop. 

"What can I get you?" 

I said nothing for two heartbeats, then spoke slowly. "I'd like to buy some more time."

There was no shelf behind him. He reached into his pocket and produced a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle. "Take this," he said, "and look inside." 

There was, just as Gerard had written, a faint mist of a color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. 

At that time, time stood still. Traffic outside ceased, birdsongs stopped, the dust mites in the sunbeam froze in the air. The ticking of the clocks in the Time Shop stopped. 

The bottle drew me in so that I barely had time to think, then I was surrounded by timelessness. There were scenes. Sometimes just still shots and sometimes short clips of short seconds - except there were no seconds, or minutes, or hours, because those things are all time. Inside the cloud-blue bottle there was no time.

There I was as a small boy learning to ride a bike. There I was with neighborhood kids playing kick the can after dark. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, unjustly punishing me for another kid's spill of paint, but I didn't fink. A home run in a backyard game. Walking Valerie home from school. My first job at Woodlawn Market and owner Pappy's fondness for the bottle, but he was always a jolly drunk.

My grandfather teaching me to milk cows and my grandmother rocking me when I was small. Creeks I stomped in, Boy Scout hikes and merit badges. First girl I kissed. Hunting and golfing with my dad. First day of college. First parachute jump. A pretty girl who told me she liked my beard. Learning to fly. Wedding day. Births of children. Honors and awards. Ordination service. This was the highlight reel and it felt good. 

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The lies I told. The kids I treated badly because they were different. The lessons I would not learn. The defiance to my parents. The anger at my brothers. The blows I landed. The push I gave a child when I got home and all he wanted to do was hug me. The prideful stands and the cruel words said. The barriers I put up. The books I didn't read to my children. Contemptuous words uttered. Affections neither accepted nor given. Arguments started. The cursory treatments. The tantrums. The self-centeredness, the caring never rendered, the people dismissed, the love-worthy ignored. This was the low-light reel. It burned white hot.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The kindnesses given. Taking Mrs. Adams’ paper to her in the winter because she couldn’t walk in the snow. The elderly befriended. The mother's hand held at her son's last breath. The prayers for the grieving, the bereaved consoled. The shoulder to cry on. The blessings invoked. The needy assisted. The children cared for. The life I saved. The celebrations blessed, the dying anointed. The Word spoken truly, the sacraments offered duly. The friendships offered and the hands extended. The prisoners visited, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the strangers welcomed, the sick cared for. The counsels offered. The listening ear.

The scenes ended. Time returned. I looked up. John Pellom was there as before. I dared to ask, "Did I get more time?"

He shook his head. "Son, no mortal can give you more time."

"But the blue bottle ..."

He raised his hand. "All it can do is show you the time of your life, so far."

My phone buzzed. I ignored it. "Is there a lesson here?"

John glanced at my card. "Reverend, you know the lesson."

I did, but I needed to hear it. "Tell me."

He locked his eyes on mine. "There is only one question you will have to answer before the Lord when that time comes: ‘How did you spend the time of your life?’."

A gentle smile crossed John's face. "Now what do you think the right answer is?"

My phone buzzed again. "It's time for you to go," John said.

"Thank you for your time, John," I answered. We shook hands. "Anytime," he said.

I left the Time Shop and walked back to the car. The damage that a pair of human females can do working as a team would put a pride of lionesses to shame, allegorically speaking, but this was no time to worry about that. Plenty of time to do that later.

We sat in the car for a short time. "Where did you go?" Cathy asked.

I told her of the Time Shop and showed her the two photos I had taken. I tried to read her Gerard's explanation of the Time Shop but could not make it to the end. Time was out of joint. The fabric of time had been ripped and had not yet been woven back together. Rain was falling, closing the world off from us. We were silent for a time, then she said, "It's time to go." 

I started the car and we drove home.
It is Lent. We confront our mortality and lay our sins at the foot of the cross. We are on the Jerusalem road with Jesus, preparing ourselves to remember his suffering and death. But we already know the rest of the story, that He is Risen, He is Risen indeed! Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – and his coming again will be in judgment. No matter how it is phrased, the Lord will really ask each of us only one question: How did you spend the time of your life?

What do you think the right answer is?

When the Lord  returns in his glory, he will say to those at his right hand, 
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” 
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. 
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"

No one is printing more time. The time of your life is measured only by the love you give away, so make sure you always have time enough for love.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mass shootings: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans"

First of a series

If things proceed according to pattern, there will be energetic debate after the Parkland high school massacre about stopping such a horror from happening again, then the news media will move on to other topics. And the American people, who have generally been trained over the last 50-plus years not to think something is important unless it's on TV, will move on also.

And in a few months or next year, when it happens again, lather, rinse, repeat.

This inability to take meaningful action is due to several factors, one of which is the existing (and strengthening) political divide in the country. But the main reasons, I think, are pretty simple:
  • both sides firmly believe that the other side alone is responsible for the deadlock, 
  • both sides' most prominent voices insist that there is a "silver bullet" solution that by itself will completely resolve the issue, and
  • neither side will admit that its own broader political core beliefs are already part of the cause for these shootings. As I said, all of the surrendering must be done by the other side.
So I proceed on the basis of this post's title: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." I learned this very well when I was assigned to the Army Operations Center in the early 1990s at the Pentagon. The Army's chief of staff was Gen. Carl Vuono. He sometimes found occasion during our briefings to him about current and planned operations to hammer home a point: "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." 

Don't tell me what you hope will happen, don't tell me what you wish you could do, he repeated. "Give me a plan that makes it happen."

Stop offering "Bell the cat" solutions

... concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.
Anyone who thinks that there is one thing that, if done, will stop mass shootings (whether at schools or elsewhere) is actually not thinking at all. They are making political statements, not relevant statements, and are so convinced of the moral purity of their own side that they think that a wish is a plan and that their wish, if fulfilled, will automatically result in zeroing out mass shootings. 

Here are two examples, one from each side. On the Left: 
  • "We must ban AR-15s and similar weapons."
In fact, we cannot ban these weapons. I am not saying we should not ban them, or must not ban them. I am saying we cannot ban them. It is impossible. The same with "high-capacity" magazines. 

Yes, we could legislate that they may not be manufactured or imported into the country. So? There are still tens of millions already here (no one knows how many). Will you ban them also? If so, as The Beatles sang long ago, "We'd all love to see the plan." 

Don't even utter the word, "Australia." Their 1996 ban was mandatory, requiring residents to hand over their firearms to the government, but the government paid for them, which would be mandatory here (that pesky Constitution's "takings clause"). Where will the the US government get $30 billion (at minimum) to do that? Do not even dare to suggest cutting only spending beloved by the Right, such as defense. If you are not willing to pare Left-loved spending, then you are not serious about stopping school shootings at all. You're just trying to score political points. 

Are you willing to zero out payouts and tax-money support, for example, of Planned Parenthood, the NEA, NPR, etc. to diminish the number of AR weapons in America? No? Then you will understand why I am completely ignoring you. 

That said, in Australia's ban, only 20 percent of Australian gun owners complied. One out of five. The ban, btw, had little effect on crime rates or suicides there, but it did create a thriving black market in firearms, including black-market importation. See here and here, for example. 

Ban AR-type weapons? Well, show me your plan. If in your plan no one's ox gets gored but your political opponents', you have not got a plan to save kids' lives, you have a platform for fund raising and campaigning. 

On the Right:
  • "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." 
If I hear that one more time I will not know whether to throw up or just laugh out loud. Okay, good guys with guns do stop bad guys with guns countless times per year (that's why we arm police, after all),  and yes, schools by law are "gun free zones," and yes, "gun free zone" really is a euphemism for "defenseless people here."

Fine. But then your advocates post stupid stuff like this:

This meme has been around since at least 2012 and is simply false. False as in "untrue," as Israelis on social media have attempted to refute. Here is Israel Today:
There is a picture going around the Internet that I have seen about a dozen times today that claims that Israeli teachers are packing heat. Well, are they? The answer is “NO.” There may be some exceptions in dangerous areas like the West Bank (where five percent of Israelis live), but in general, Israeli teachers are not walking around like it’s the Wild Wild West, strapped with a six shooter. No, our teachers are not focused on shooting, but educating. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t protect young students.

In the picture, the students are on an outing. While it appears that the teacher is holding a rifle, I have never seen such a thing in ten years of living here. Rest assured however, they are under armed protection. In most cases it is an armed guard or a soldier that will accompany a class, not the teacher. And my guess is that the woman with the gun is a security guard, not a teacher.

Secondly, they are not armed in the classroom. Is that really the image you want to imprint on the minds of six-year-olds? (That would be Hamas.)
Even so, suppose that it was made legal for faculty and staff to volunteer to go armed in schools. What's your plan to implement? Just let them get a carry license and go for it? Will they be required also to take shoot-or-no-shoot training, repeated at intervals? Will they be paid extra for carrying? Will they wear distinctive identifying clothing so they don't shoot each other by mistake? Will their local governments accept the financial liability for using their weapons when the shooter, if he lives, or his family, if he doesn't, sue the teacher who shoots him and the rest of the district? (and they will sue.) All of these factors also apply to other categories of potential guards, such as veterans or retired police.

In the wake of the Aurora, Colo., mass murder in a movie theater, I wrote elsewhere about the ignore-reality advocates of the "good guy with a gun" argument as applying to crowded venues of panicked people, which is what Parkland's high school became when the shooting started.
But let's assume you do unmistakably locate the shooter and decide to engage him. You have a 9mm compact-sized, semi-auto pistol with the typical 7-10 round magazine (though the Beretta PX4 compact holds up to 15). The killer is firing madly, apparently about 25 feet away. You shoot at him.

You will miss. Your heart rate is through the roof. So is your respiration rate. You are sweating like a marathon runner. Your hands are shaking. These are involuntary physiological responses and you can do pretty much nothing about them. They badly affect shooting accuracy. Also, you are being jostled by panicked people trying to get away. And firearms trainers know that even on a range, firing under stress makes people fire high unless they are collected enough to correct for it intentionally. However, being a typical permit holder, the only actual pistol training you ever got was when you went to the class to certify the permit application. When you shoot again, you will miss then, too. And the next time.

But now you have identified yourself as a threat to the killer, assuming his state of mind lets him notice your fire (which he might not, to be fair). So he turns his semi-auto AR-15 on you and starts pulling the trigger. Now you are dead or badly wounded. The shooter is unharmed and still shooting.
In 2011, not even the very pro-gun site, The Truth About Guns could endorse the idea that more people going armed would do anything to stop public-venue mass shootings. Even so, as I have said, show me your comprehensive plan and I will listen. Not until then. See here, too. (However, it is probably appropriate here for me to explain why I am an armed pastor.) 

Stop proposing to bell the cat, all of you. There are zero steps to end school shootings or make them much more difficult that are not going to press hard on what all of us hold dear.

What can we do now?

Let's start with what can be done fairly quickly, which is make carrying out such a shooting more difficult, perhaps so difficult that that fact alone will deter an attempt.

The Saturday after Parkland, Nashville's Tennessean newspaper printed an article about such measures. Online it is only on video.

URL here. Not everything he says translates cleanly to civilian schools. For example, just getting onto a military installation is highly restricted and requires vetting at the entrance gate. But we can and should start with physical security measures for three reasons.

  1. First, they will be effective.
  2. Second, they don't tread on either sides' core values.
  3. Third, they are local-government initiatives, hence do not depend on the federal behemoth to rouse itself, and these initiatives would be poor federal ones anyway. 
The basic principal is simple: Make school shootings hard to do

Making school shootings difficult to carry out consists of two main things: First, it must become very difficult for a shooter to enter a school or its ground with weapons. Second, the schools' designs must inhibit successfully carrying out attempts.

The same Israeli site that refuted the notion that Israeli teachers go armed also says this:
On the other hand. I have never seen a school in Israel that was not fenced in. You must go through a locked gate that is guarded by an armed shomer, a security guard. He or she, on the other hand, is not concerned with educating, but protecting. He or she will ask you why you are there? “What is your child’s name?” “Show me your I.D. card.” And he or she would not let you bring a weapon inside.
Entry security and simple access to school grounds must become more arduous than now, all the time. Every active doorway into a school must become guarded, and not by teachers or staff. Metal detectors and backpack inspections, all intrusive, yes, must become the routine. Arrival times for grades, not just for schools, must become staggered to avoid large clusters of students standing outside the school, presenting mass targets, and to avoid large numbers enduring bad weather awaiting entry. End-of-day exits must likewise be staggered.

Interior reinforcements must be made - bullet-resistant glass in all windows, for example, and strong locks with backups on doors. Classrooms in newly-built schools should have very quick and easy exits to the outside (I believe this has actually been designed in for a number of years).

Shooter drills need to be rehearsed by all, teachers and students alike. They can be age appropriate, but trust me, high-school students already know what's happening in America, and will not be traumatized by rehearsing what to do in case of gunfire.

We will have to "do school" differently to reduce the likelihood of shooters attempting the deed or succeeding if they do. It will not look like what we are doing now.

TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

None of this will happen overnight - nothing can - but they are all doable and can happen relatively quickly compared to the federal leviathan. And yes, they will cost money, but that can be raised far more quickly at local levels than federal.

So to the Right side of this issue, are you willing to pay higher taxes to implement such measures to protect the children? If not, then you don't have a student-safety agenda, you have a low-tax political agenda. But I would hope that the fact that new taxes will stay local, and not disappear into the black hole of the US Treasury, would make this more palatable.

Besides, there is no reason that significant federal funds cannot be reallocated to states for this purpose without raising expenditures or the deficit. As I have said, anyone who is not willing to take unpalatable actions, or who in convinced that all the pain must be borne on only the other side, is not serious about this. Federal expenditures dear to both the Left and Right need to be identified for deletion and reassignment.


Don't talk about the "gun culture" unless you also want to talk about the general culture

Are school shootings really a mental-health matter?

Is gun fetishization in America real? Yes, on both Right and Left

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