The Man in the Marine Cap

Which of us was the "real American" and "true patriot"?

Here’s my July column for the Holland Sentinel. Since it appears on Fourth of July weekend, it’s got just a tiny discussion of patriotism…

On my walk today I passed a man who, from the color of his hair and telltale older man gait, seemed to be about my age. But while I was wearing a baseball cap, I could see that he was wearing a United States Marines cap—also known as a “utility cap” or “eight-pointed cover.” (I know this because I went home and looked it up.)

From a distance I could see that he saluted the American flag whenever he passed a home with an outdoor flag. It wasn’t a stand-at-attention (or even an especially snappy) salute, but it wasn’t anything casual either. He recognized the flags he saw and saluted them. And where I live in Park Township, there are a lot of American flags to acknowledge.

When I passed this man, I said a friendly “hello,” and he offered me an enthusiastic “good morning!”

I’ve been thinking about him ever since. Almost immediately of course I recognized him as patriotic, probably a veteran, and certainly someone who is proud of his country. Anyone who paid any attention to him this morning could see those same things. The saluting didn’t seem strange—curious, but not weird. I thought it was touching.

I didn’t salute any of the flags I passed. I noticed them, though, just as I notice all the yard signs and other declarations of faith and patriotism common to my neighborhood. But I wondered: “Am I patriotic even if I don’t salute, even if I seem to hurry past, more concerned about my heart rate and step total than acknowledging each flag?”

The answer, I believe, is yes: I do love my country, but I am not uncritical of it. I am grateful for all the privileges and freedoms I enjoy because I was born here, but most days I wish that my country was better than it often is. I write this column in part because I know that we are capable of being better. I want to experience that “more perfect union” described in the Preamble to the Constitution.

Is wanting my country to be better, to aspire to something more, a sign that I am not patriotic? To some, I know, it is.

In the current political climate, it is not unusual to hear about “real Americans” and “true patriots,” terms which are used to make clear distinctions between some Americans and others (like me) who seem to find fault, who are always complaining about something, who keep hoping that the “liberty and justice for all” mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance will one day extend to every citizen.

This Independence Day weekend I will make sure my flag (the biggest one I could find on Amazon) is attached to the front of my house. When the Olympics begin in Tokyo, I will be the first to stand and cheer for athletes wearing the red, white, and blue. I am a patriot. Through and through. I shouldn’t have to insist on the right to use that word to describe myself.

In 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota, then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain was taking questions from voters when a woman named Gayle Quinnel took the microphone and said: “I gotta ask you a question. I can’t trust Obama,” she told McCain. “I have read about him and he’s not…he’s not…he’s an Arab. And….”

Before she could ask her question, whatever it was, McCain stopped her and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”

It all seems so quaint now—this notion that we are all Americans who “happen to have disagreements.” I find myself wishing that we could get back there. I wish we could acknowledge that we are all Americans who occasionally disagree on “fundamental issues”–like taxes and the economy and how police should do their jobs. We disagree precisely because we love this country. We disagree because we have competing ideas about how to be better. The notion that some people “hate America” because they do not agree with the policies of one party is, well, absurd. And we need to get rid of it.

In hindsight I wish I had stopped this morning and asked the man wearing the Marine cap if he wanted to walk with someone. I would have enjoyed getting to know him. I almost always enjoy those conversations. If he had been willing to talk, I could have learned something about how others see things and what they are most concerned about. That would have been a good way to start the day.

Lunch with My Mother

Here’s an essay I wrote for the Reformed Journal…

The last time I had lunch with my mother had been fifteen months ago—in other words, before the pandemic.

A few months after the pandemic began, I came to see her at the assisted living facility and sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She came out to her fourth-floor balcony, and I stood on the ground below. My voice, as it turns out, doesn’t carry as well as I thought it did, and so I sang into my phone while my mother listened to hers. When I was finished, she said I sounded “wonderful.”

Read more…

What I learned during the Pandemic

It's not what I expected

Here’s my June column for the @HollandSentinel, which just keeps winning awards:

What did I learn during the pandemic? I’m tempted to say, “Not much,” because that might get a laugh, and I have always enjoyed being the class clown. But the truth is, I learned quite a bit.

I learned for example that, as much as I like being around other people, I can get along just fine by myself. I can be happy and content without having anything at all on my calendar—no meetings to attend, no appointments to get ready for, no lunch dates for catching up with friends. I’m catching up with them now, and it turns out that waiting 15 months makes getting together more enjoyable.

A surprise bit of new knowledge for me is that I was able to go for 15 months without catching a cold or the flu. I’ve never felt healthier. As much as some people are ready to rip off their masks and throw them into the backyard fire pit, I’m thinking that I will keep wearing mine on airplanes and in other germy places. Why not? I’m proud of my teeth, but I like being healthy even more than I like showing off my toothy grin.

Speaking of germy places, I gave up my gym membership early in the pandemic and discovered that I like to walk, often for long distances, usually while listening to podcasts. My Google Fit watch is impressed by all my walking too and gives me encouraging vibrations at regular intervals.

Where I live (in Park Township) there are miles of walking and biking paths, and I have walked many of them and am determined to walk more of them. I pass blueberry farms and a park known as Riley Trails, I notice my neighbors’ (sometimes disturbing) yard signs, I say hi to other walkers and bikers, and I find that my cardiovascular fitness is every bit as good now as when I paid all that money for my gym membership. I will miss the comraderie of spinning class, and maybe those meetings with my personal trainer, who was very nice, but I’m enjoying my new routine.

Here’s something else I didn’t see coming: My wardrobe needs have changed. I had to get dressed up for something yesterday and had to search my closet to find dress pants and a sport coat. And when I put them on, I laughed out loud at how odd I looked. I decided that I didn’t want to look like that anymore. Instead, I put on some casual pants and a nice sweater. I may never wear a tie again, something I never expected to hear myself say. (I find myself wondering if Goodwill is going to get lots of “lightly worn” ties and sport coats. But who will wear them?)

At one point during the pandemic, I taught a six-week class via Zoom. I had a few dozen participants, and most kept their video and audio off during the presentations. At first this was disconcerting, since I have been in class situations where the give-and-take has been fun and gratifying for me, but after a couple of weeks I came to see that—for some students, at least—staying unseen and silent was a far better option. They learn better when no one is watching them and hoping that they’ll offer a comment or two in class. (Not everyone wants to be the class clown.) I listened to a few lectures myself during the pandemic and enjoyed the freedom to look out the window as I listened with the microphone and camera turned off.

And then, maybe most surprising of all, I learned self-care. I was raised to think that self-denial was the ideal state, the preferred way to live, the closest to godliness I was going to get in this life, but I learned just the opposite over the last 15 months. Pampering myself, or just being attentive to how I was feeling day by day, turned out to be an extraordinary luxury.

One of the simplest pleasures turned out to be spending time with my grandchildren. I got to know each of them better than I ever had before. And do you know something? Children can be demanding and irritating, yes, but they’re just about the most delightful part of life I can imagine. Who would have thought that potty training could be so much fun? I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much.

With the pandemic just about behind us, and with potty training just about complete, I may have to find other ways to enjoy myself.

Photo: How’s your Dutch? I didn’t stop here for a meal—it’s in Amsterdam—but I liked the straightforward signage. The Dutch have a well-deserved reputation for being blunt.

Say good-bye to "herd immunity"

Say hello to "manageable threat"

Here’s my May column for the @HollandSentinel which, for the second year in a row, has won a “general excellence” award from the Associated Press, its third such award in the last five years.

This morning I woke to the news that, even with half of the adult population in the U.S. now vaccinated (with at least one dose), the country is now unlikely to achieve what has been called “herd immunity.”

Daily vaccination rates are declining, and not because of a shortage of vaccines. Herd immunity—the point at which enough people become immune to the disease to make its spread unlikely—no longer seems to be the path back to normal, or whatever passes for normal in 2021.

One in four Americans say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, and about half of Republicans under 50 say much the same thing. Instead of disappearing, the expectation now is that the virus will instead become a manageable threat. It will continue to circulate through the population for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths, though in much small numbers and mostly in older age groups.

For something like 15 months I followed the advice of public health professionals and stayed home, not going to church or any of the other activities which I had enjoyed pre-pandemic. Then, with the news late last year that not one, but several vaccines had been developed in record time, I was overjoyed and began to look forward to resuming something resembling my former life. Based on what I read, I was in awe of the development of the latest vaccines (and the breath-taking science behind them), knowing that other deadly diseases still do not have vaccines. (HIV is one example.)

My first response to all of this is not to understand: Why wouldn’t my friends and neighbors be as eager as I am to get the vaccine and knock this virus out once and for all? I remember going with my family to get a polio vaccine (mine came in a sugar cube) and noting how relieved my family was to get it. We once cut short a summer vacation to Lake Michigan, thinking that swimming was one way to get polio. I don’t recall any hesitation then, only joy and relief, which is what I felt once again when I received my coronavirus vaccine not long ago. And how I felt when I learned that my 94-year-old mother had received her second shot.

I even wrote my congressman, Bill Huizenga, and asked if he had been vaccinated and if he recommended the vaccination for everyone. Some weeks later I received a reply that made no mention of his own vaccination status, and instead argued against mandatory vaccinations and for personal freedoms—“the very foundation upon which America was built,” he wrote.

A week or so ago, the hugely popular podcast host Joe Rogan (more than 190 million downloads per month) told his listeners that they should skip the vaccine. “I think you should get vaccinated if you’re vulnerable,” he said, “but if you’re 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go, ‘No.’”

To better understand his friends who don’t want the vaccine, a science and technology writer for the Atlantic Monthly decided to survey them. Mostly what he found was a lack of urgency about the disease, most calling the coronavirus “wildly overrated.” One wrote,

I don’t know why I should consider this disease more dangerous than driving a car, a risky thing I do every day without a moment’s worry. Liberals, Democrats, and public-health elites have been so wrong so often, we’d be better off doing the opposite of almost everything they say.

Moreover, according to the same writer,

I don’t need some novel pharmaceutical product to give me permission to do the things I’m already doing. This isn’t even an FDA-approved vaccine; it’s authorized for an emergency. Well, I don’t consider COVID-19 a personal emergency. So why would I sign up to be an early guinea pig for a therapy that I don’t need, whose long-term effects we don’t understand? I’d rather bet on my immune system than on Big Pharma.

So, I now know a few of the reasons people give for avoiding the vaccine, but I still don’t understand and maybe never will.

Also, viruses are unpredictable, and spread is affected by other issues, including what happens in the rest of the world. As of this week, less than two percent of the people in India have been fully vaccinated, and less than one percent in South America. Travel (as well as continued mutations within the virus) may upend all our efforts, allowing the pandemic to continue for a long time.

Even knowing all of this, I would still make the same decision and get the vaccine. I hope others get it too.

Here's the official announcement

The publication date is "sometime this year"

How it started…

How it’s going…

I signed a book contract!

It’s my fifth book with the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and of course I’m thrilled beyond words and want to share this good news with you.

My latest project is a memoir of my 40 years as a Presbyterian pastor. It’s honest and funny (I tried) and encouraging. What it’s honest about mostly is my frequent disillusionment with the church. If you’ve read the Mitford series about Father Tim, then you’ll discover that I was no Father Tim. Happily, the story comes full circle (mostly), leaving me chastened but wiser. Which is probably how life leaves most of us.

The title is Chasing after Wind: A Pastor’s Life. If you’re familiar with the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes, then you’ll get the reference. In my 40 years as a pastor, there was a lot of “chasing after wind,” but there was plenty of good stuff too, which I describe in the memoir as “the holy bits.”

I’ll keep you posted about the publication date. “Sometime this year” is all I know.

My first book tour took me to Toledo, Fort Wayne, and Las Vegas (that last visit resulted in one of the strangest experiences of my life, which I describe in the memoir). My second book—about marriage—landed me on a little-watched cable TV show from rural Indiana, hosted by a former Miss America, who was very pretty and who did most of the talking. It was her show, after all. And my last book got me an interview on a podcast called “Tell Me Your Story,” hosted by Richard Dugan. You can listen to that interview here. As soon as it’s safe to travel, I’m hoping to re-live all of those book-tour experiences and have a few new ones.

That’s the news! Thanks for sharing my excitement. I hope you have a good week.

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