Viral Humans

Like many of you, I spent the morning chatting with friends around the nation, self-secluded folks holding their friends’ welfare in their hearts as the latest plague descends.

Life-long friends in Nevada. Colorado. Minnesota. Illinois.  And they’re all saying the same things:

  • This pandemic will change the way we live going forward.
  • Truth always floats to the top, eventually.
  • The Earth shrugs off humans as needed.

My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves.  This is not a new idea:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.

You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

You’re a plague.

-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)

During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:

Genesis


Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.

He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:

Can God do anything?

Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.

Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?

Her face turned red.  She thought for a moment.  Then said:

No, he certainly cannot do that!


My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition.  Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.?  That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.

Send Lawyers Guns and Money …

The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.

Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed:  “Get your guns now!  This bastard is taking your guns!  Better get your guns now!”

I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising.  Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town.  Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades.  He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.

Fear has already accomplished a stellar sales promotion.

A run on guns.

Whether we buy into the idea that humans are a virus or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how we react to the situation. 

Call your friends. Call your loved ones.  Call the elderly in your church, parish, synagogue, or mosque. Let them know you are thinking of them, that you care.

My friends in Colorado and Nevada have millennial children nearly the same age as my own.  We know their characters.  This is their chance to shine, and we know how they’ll act.

There are a lot of good eggs in that petri dish.

Let’s pray they outnumber the grabbers, grifters, and scoundrels always emerging from the viral slime in troubled times.

 

 

The Lifers’ Club

The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way.  When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly.  Kept our distance.

After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.

“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.

Uh.  This is why I love her.  No one else stands up to me this way.

So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee.   Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.

Hank and AJ.

Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape.  The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget.  Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.

The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.

Fast forward thirty years.

My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives.  We asked about the Fergusons.

“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said.  “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”

These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville.  He’s married and has a son in high school.

A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.

Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55
Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55

Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes.  That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons.  Since then  I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.

But it’s not about me.  I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.

And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.

Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.

According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
Kairos Statistics
Kairos Statistics

Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates.  I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry.  Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.

Harold’s old prison name was Thumper.  Why?  If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell.  One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.

Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.

Not this Thumper.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history.   Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.

While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.

“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said.  “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”

“Because Thumper no longer exists. “

Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.

Then he told me what they do:  a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines.  And the final plank?   Lifers' Club Charter


Lifers pool their limited resources to help others. 

They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids.  Clothed and fed the homeless.  Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school.  Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.

Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.

How to Survive Life in Prison
How to Survive Life in Prison
The Lifers' Club Course Contents
The Lifers’ Club Course Contents

I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.

One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.

Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers.  And that’s ugly.

To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive.  Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:

One man's childhood memory...

I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.

We may be free, but do we cherish it?

Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that.  There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.

We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:

Hebrews 13:1-3

We all can lift ourselves.  By simply lifting others.

While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.