Archive for November, 2009

Guadalupe Peak

I’m back from my backpacking trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and will be blogging again soon.  I just wanted to post this picture of Joe, Chuck, and Jim on top of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.  Hey, don’t laugh!  It’s 8,751 feet high, more than a mile-and-a-half, and a good 2,000 feet higher than any mountain east of the Mississippi.  On the day we climbed it the wind was whipping around the summit and the chill factor made us glad we had brought warm clothing, but what a trip!

More to come…

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RainierJust after worship today I will head to the airport to catch a flight to Dallas, Texas.  I’ll be away for a week, backpacking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park with my friends Chuck Treadwell and Joe Perez.  Here’s a picture from another trip—Mount Rainier in the summer of 2005—just to give you an idea of why I do it.  Yes, I’m grizzled and footsore in this picture, but I’m sipping hot tea on the Wonderland Trail, with Mount Rainier looming over my left shoulder. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

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coffecupGood morning, Campers!

It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning.  The front page of the newspaper is still scratching its head over the bloody massacre at Fort Hood on Thursday, wondering what would motivate a man to open fire on his fellow soldiers.  Just below that on the page is the shocking news that U.S. unemployment is above 10 percent for the first time since 1983 (Yikes!).  But there’s good news, too: the Jefferson Hotel has managed to hold on to its five diamond rating, Thomas Dale High School beat Meadowbrook 35-34 (which is good news if you’re from Thomas Dale; not so good if you’re from Meadowbrook), and today is going to be a gorgeous, sunny day with a high of 59 degrees.

So, what should we do with a day like today?

We could begin by praying for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones in the Fort Hood shooting, and for those who have lost jobs in the recession.  I’m going to follow that up with a hot breakfast (most important meal of the day) and then get on with sermon writing, which is my usual all-day-Saturday occupation.  This week I’m well ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the difficulty I had getting the sermon together last week.  I’ve been working overtime this week, and although the sermon is not ready to preach yet, it’s close, which opens up the possibilities for the rest of the day.

I’d love to get in a run if I could, although I’ll have to bundle up.  It’s cold out there!  And then, at 10:00, I’m hoping to stop by the Community Outreach Center at 2944 W. Marshall Street (just a few blocks from the church) to help out with the Refugee Outreach Work Day.  Have you met these refugees from Nepal?  They’re precious, and even the children press their palms together in greeting and say, “Namaste.”  I’ll have to be finished in time to get a shower, get dressed, and go to a cookout hosted by one of our church families, and then I’ll need to leave early to get back to church in time for the Dennis Swanberg concert at 7:00. 

It looks like it’s going to be a busy day.  So, what am I doing still sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and blogging?  I need to get up and get on with it!  If you’re in the area I’d love to see you at the Refugee Outreach Work Day, and if you can’t make that maybe I’ll see you in church tomorrow, either in person or through the lens of the camera as you participate in our live webcast, at 8:30 or 11:00. 

And whatever you choose to do with this day:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
     and be gracious unto you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
     and give you peace.


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glockI’m still learning details of yesterday’s Fort Hood massacre, and haven’t processed enough to be able to comment on it at this point, but it brought to mind this essay written by David Von Drehle shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech.  David is an editor-at-large for Time magazine and a close personal friend.  Few people are able to put thoughts and feelings into words as well as he.

We won’t know, for some time now, what prompted Major Malik Nadal Hasan to open fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, but David’s thoughts on what has motivated other shooters is worth reading.  As we remember the victims and their families, may we continue to pray for peace in the world, and in the troubled souls of those who aim to kill.


It’s All About Him
by David Von Drehle, Thursday, April 19, 2007 

My reporter’s odyssey has taken me from the chill dawn outside the Florida prison in which serial killer Ted Bundy met his end, to the charred façade of a Bronx nightclub where Julio Gonzalez incinerated 87 people, to a muddy Colorado hillside overlooking the Columbine High School library, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrought their mayhem. Along the way, I’ve come to believe that we’re looking for why in all the wrong places.

I’ve lost interest in the cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The pain, grievances and self-pity of mass killers are only symptoms of the real explanation. Those who do these things share one common trait. They are raging narcissists. “I died–like Jesus Christ,” Cho said in a video sent to NBC.

Psychologists from South Africa to Chicago have begun to recognize that extreme self-centeredness is the forest in these stories, and all the other things– guns, games, lyrics, pornography–are just trees. To list the traits of the narcissist is enough to prove the point: grandiosity, numbness to the needs and pain of others, emotional isolation, resentment and envy.

In interviews with Ted Bundy taped a quarter-century ago, journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth captured the essence of homicidal narcissism. Through hour after tedious hour, a man who killed 30 or more young women and girls preened for his audience. He spoke of himself as an actor, of life as a series of roles and of other people as props and scenery. His desires were simple: “control” and “mastery.” He took whatever he wanted, from shoplifted tube socks to human lives, because nothing mattered beyond his desires. Bundy said he was always surprised that anyone noticed his victims had vanished. “I mean, there are so many people,” he explained. The only death he regretted was his own.

Criminologists distinguish between serial killers like Bundy, whose crimes occur one at a time and who try hard to avoid capture, and mass killers like Cho. But the central role of narcissism plainly connects them. Only a narcissist could decide that his alienation should be underlined in the blood of strangers. The flamboyant nature of these crimes is like a neon sign pointing to the truth. Charles Whitman playing God in his Texas clock tower, James Huberty spraying lead in a California restaurant, Harris and Klebold in their theatrical trench coats–they’re all stars in the cinema of their self-absorbed minds.

Freud explained narcissism as a failure to grow up. All infants are narcissists, he pointed out, but as we grow, we ought to learn that other people have lives independent of our own. It’s not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us–let alone die because we’re unhappy.

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don’t have to buy Freud’s explanation or Lasch’s indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. “I’m so lonely,” he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

In Holocaust studies, there is a school of thought that says to explain is to forgive. I won’t go that far. But we must stop explaining killers on their terms. Minus the clear context of narcissism, the biographical details of these men can begin to look like a plausible chain of cause and effect–especially to other narcissists. And they don’t need any more encouragement.

There’s a telling moment in Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, in which singer Marilyn Manson dismisses the idea that listening to his lyrics contributed to the disintegration of Harris and Klebold. What the Columbine killers needed, Manson suggests, was for someone to listen to them. This is the narcissist’s view of narcissism: everything would be fine if only he received more attention.

The real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.


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LeenaWe had the privilege of hearing Leena Lavanya last night at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Leena is from Narasaraopet, Andhra Pradesh, India, where she works with lepers, AIDS orphans, prostitutes, and others who rank among the poorest of the poor.  She has been called “the Baptist Mother Teresa” and is this year’s winner of the Baptist World Alliance’s prestigious Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award.

Leena was raised by Christian grandparents (her grandfather was a seminary professor and one-time vice-presisdent of the Baptist World Alliance).  When she was in her early twenties she won a scholarship to attend the Baptist Youth World Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was challenged by noted speaker Tony Campolo to dedicate her life to Christian service.  “He talked about that hymn ‘I Surrender All,’” she said.  “But he told us, ‘We don’t surrender all.  We surrender a dollar, a pound, a rupee.’”  In that moment Leena decided that she would surrender herself completely to Christ. 

And then she began to tell us what happens when you do that.

It started when she found herself seated beside a prostitute on a bus.  She struck up a conversation with the woman and eventually told her, “You should give up your prostitution.  You should start a new life.”   “Fine!” the woman answered.  “If you will feed the eight people in my family I will start a new life.”  And so Leena and her grandparents gave up breakfast for three months, saved the money, and bought this woman a sewing machine.  Then they spent six months teaching her how to use it.  Now the woman owns her own small business.

Leena talked about finding a boy crying by the side of the road.  His family had learned that he was HIV positive and put him out of the house.  “They had a nice barn,” Leena said.  “Their animals were well-kept.  But they put their son out of the house!”  She had to do something.  And so she found a place for this boy to live, and then discovered that there were others like him.  Now there are twenty boys living in an orphanage run by her ministry, Serve Trust.

One of the most touching stories she told last night was about her work with “leprous people.”  She said these people lie under trees outside the towns and villages.  No one will touch them; no one will take care of them.  But she had surrendered all to Jesus, and Jesus ministered to lepers.  And so, approaching them hesitantly, she began to talk to these people.   She began to feel compassion for them.  Before long she was caring for them, even dressing their sores.  “Why are you doing this?” one man asked her.  “Because of Jesus,” she answered, cheerfully.  “Who is Jesus?” he asked, and she began to tell him.  When she finished he told her through tears that he wanted this Jesus in his life.

But he also wanted to be baptized, and since Leena is not a pastor she asked the pastor of the local church to baptize the man.  The pastor came and had a look at him, but eventually shook his head and walked away.  The man was very sick, almost at the point of death.  How would they get him into the baptistery?  So, Leena began to tell him that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to be baptized.  Look at the thief on the cross!  Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”  But the man still wanted to be baptized.  He pleaded with her.  Finally, Leena said, “I dragged him over to a water spigot, turned it on, and as the water poured over his head I said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”

He died a month later.

She went on and on like that last night, telling one story after another about seeing human need, feeling the pain of others, and doing something about it.  Her organization, Serve Trust Ministries, operates a home for the aged, a home for lepers, homes for HIV/AIDS-infected children and adults, and an HIV/AIDS counseling center.  She has been instrumental in starting more than 40 Baptist churches in the villages surrounding her hometown of Narasaraopet.  And yet she retains the bubbling enthusiasm of the young woman who went to a Baptist Youth Conference in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago.  When she finished speaking last night I stepped to the podium and said:

“Now I think we know the difference between surrendering some and surrendering all.”

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