Preacher’s Kid: Honest Faith, Real World

Baxter: Unspoken comfort

I love dogs.

I believe in the unconditional love and loyalty these furry companions give as a gift from God. Our relationship with these animals in unique and special. It goes beyond the rational and into the transcendent, even the spiritual.

They know us in ways we do not understand; they seem to sense our most basic emotional needs even when we lose track of them ourselves, underneath a churning sea of our “higher consciousness,” our ability to complicate everything, to worry, fret and lose sight of what matters most.

That would be love. Giving it, receiving it, passing it on.

That said, I urge you to watch this video, which speaks more eloquently that a thousand words.


It's what he did after handing over the wallet . . .

Hey, I admit, I don’t quite know what to think of this one.

Part of me, a big part, says this guys lives, even if he doesn’t identify it as such, the “Golden Rule.” He gave up both coat and cloak, walked the second mile, etc., all those biblical parable/analogies taught by Jesus Christ.

Another part of me thinks, “What were you thinking?” But you cannot argue with results.

So, here is the story of a 31-year-old Bronx social worker, Julio Diaz.

Julio had just gotten off his one-hour subway commute home and was walking to his favorite diner for a bite. That’s when a teenaged boy, knife in hand, demanded his wallet. Julio handed it over.

So, another mugging in New York? What’s the story? Happens all the time.

Well, not like this.

As the robber walked away, Julio called out. “You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

Weirdness always makes people stop and take notice. It did in this case. The kid was stunned. He had to know. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.

Julio says it’s really simple. He figures if the kid is willing to risk prison for a few bucks, then he must truly be desperate. Then Julio says that, by the way, he was on his way to eat . . . why don’t you join me?

The kid does. They reach the diner, and Julio exchanges pleasantries with the staff. Waitress, cook, dishwasher, all are friends. Julio’s a regular. The kid is stunned, doesn’t get it. “You’re even nice to the dishwasher!” he says.

Well, yeah. Julio says that’s how he was taught: be nice to everybody. The kid says he’d heard that before, but hadn’t really seen it practiced.

Finally, the bill arrives. Julio reminds the kid that he’s the one with the money, now. The kid returns his wallet, Julio pays the tab . . . and then hands the kid a $20 bill. All he wants in return? The kid’s knife. He got it.

A bargain, that transaction.

And, an investment in a life.

For more about Julio, listen to this NPR interview.

Good? Evil? Both.

How Evil Are You?

The answer for a preacher’s kid, growing up in a fundamentalist/Pentecostal home, was clearcut: All Humanity was broken by sin, its efforts to do “good” transitory, because at the core of our beings was rebellion against a righteous and holy God.

In a world of believers and non-believers, we differ on causes and origins of evil; but there is no debate that evil exists, whether as something tangible in itself, or as the result of human greed, bigotry and cruelty. We stand apart on this planet for our cognitive abilities, our unique sense of self and ability to worry . . . our ability for selfishness and rationalization of wrong acts.

When I left my parents home for college, I first majored in Psychology (I still had it as a strong minor when I switched my major to History and Journalism). I read a lot of B.F. Skinneresque tomes back then when Behaviorism was all the rage. I seasoned that with Yung, a bit of, by then, largely discredited Freudian theory . . . and then there was the infamous “Milgram Experiment.”

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, tested how far Americans would go in following demands of an authority figure to inflict pain on another person in the name of scientific enquiry. In the study, the participant s were led to believe that they were delivering increasingly painful jolts of electricity to another, each time that person answered a question wrong.

The pivotal point comes where the other person, really an actor, screams that they have a heart condition that is beginning to manifest. In other words, the next jolt, the actor claims, could conceivably be fatal. In the study, some people refused to go on; others argued, but allowed themselves to be bullied by the “study director” to continue; some didn’t even question it.

Recently the Discovery Channel’s “Curiosity” series aired an episode entitled “How Evil Are You?” Hosted by horror film director Eli Roth (“Hostel,” “Cabin Fever,” etc) that recreated the experiment 40 years later. Similar results followed, despite – as Roth points out – decades of societal emphasis on political correctness, compassion, tolerance and nonviolence.

As a preacher’s kid, it was so simple, what was right and wrong. As an adult, a man with a job, a family to support, and working within an almost military-like hierarchy in an international news gathering organization, it seemed far more complicated.

Many years ago, I was assigned to cover a coal mine disaster. More than two dozen miners had been trapped when gases built up, ignited and exploded into a hellish, underground firestorm. As the days went by, hope had all but disappeared that any survived. I was in a makeshift office with other reporters, a few miles away from the scene when Christmas Eve arrived.

Editors at our New York office, I was informed, decided I needed to call the families of the miners that night. Basically, I was ask what their thoughts were, on Christmas Eve, with their fathers, wives, sons, daughters still missing in a burning mine, presumed dead.

I balked. My supervisor sympathized, but firmly let me know it was an order from the top. Fail to do this, and it would be considered insubordination, grounds for dismissal.

I wish I could say that I heroically refused, telling the editors in the Big Apple what they could do with their demands. But I had my excuses, like I guess we all do. I proceeded to make the calls. The first two people answered, a mother in one case, a wife in another: one politely said, “No, I don’t want to talk with you.” The second sobbed and hung up. But the third call changed everything.

A man answered that time. His wife was one of the trapped miners. And, thank God, he unloaded on me. “So, you want a quote? Use this, then: ‘I hope your wife dies, in bed, with another man.” Click.

I called my supervisor back. I’ve got something for you, I said. “Go ahead,” he said.

I gave him the quote, the shame and anger rising in me as I did, nearly swelling my throat shut. I heard his fingers typing, rapidly as first, then slower, then stopping. Then, I just heard his breathing for 10-15 seconds. Finally, he said, with some ill-concealed emotion, “OK. I’ll send this to . . . New York.”

A few minutes later, a New York editor called. “We can’t use this! Keep calling.”

“It’s not right,” I said.

“It’s not a debate. Do it. We can’t use this. Make the calls, again. It’s your job!” He hung up.

Well, no, I decided. It’s not. Finally, I was resolved. I was not going to do this anymore. So, I began dialing again, let it ring once, then hung up. Then, I simply dialed, hanging up before it rang. More than two dozen times.

“I’ve dialed all the numbers. No answers,” I told my supervisor, my voice flat. There was silence. Just that breathing, again, a seeming eternity of it. “I understand,” he said. “We’ll let it go, then.”

All these years later, I often wish I had just followed my heart from the start and said “No,” clearly, even if it had cost me my job. The hardship that may have followed would have passed, and it would’ve been a legacy of moral strength to hand down to my kids, maybe even some of my colleagues.

But, like most humans, I was ultimately willing to go on with what I believed was wrong, rationalizing it for what a lot of people would see as legitimate reasons. Situational ethics, I believe that approach is called.

We all face our own version of the “Milgram Experiment.” We fail, however reluctantly, to be righteous.

My failure, and the belated decision to resist — however indirect or deceitful by omission — gave me strength later to be more resolute in refusing to cross my personal, ethical lines in journalism.

So, How Evil Are You?

Ultimately, we all have the capacity to be monsters. But we also have the ability to hold the monsters of our darker natures at bay, to choose the light, however painful it may be to see at first.


Wind as a metaphor for life, for God

On Thursday, northern Utah was hit by a windstorm of historic proportions. Hurricane-force winds, topping 100 miles per hour, shredded the region, toppling semi-trailer rigs, ripping away roofing and tearing trees out by their roots.

I got off the train two stops short to walk a few miles in the icy gusts, a mere 50-60 mph on my route. Bracing, that.

And I thought about how prevalent “wind” has been as a metaphor for our trials, our blessings, both the finite and infinite nature of our lives, and even for God.

In religious texts, such uses of the word and concept of the wind are universal.

From Islam:

“. . . and [in His] directing of the winds, there are Signs for people who use their intellect” and “By the (winds) that scatter broadcast, and those that lift and bear away heavy weights, and those that flow with ease and gentleness, and those that distribute and apportion by command, verily that which ye are promised is true. . . .” (Qur’an, 45:5 and 51:1-5, respectively)

From Hinduism:

“Life trembles, like a drop of water on the edge of a lotus leaf then it is swallowed by the wind.” (Verse 35,Vairagya Satakam)


“Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.” (Attributed to the Buddha)

A Sioux Indian prayer:

“Oh, Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life to all the world,

Hear me, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom.

Let me walk in beauty. . . .” ((translated by Lakota Sioux Chief Yellow Lark in 1887)

I respect, even admire those sentiments held to be holy by others. But what speaks to me, personally, are the scriptures in the Bible. There are 113 verses in the King James Version that deal with the wind. Each carries meaning special to me; here are a few.

In 1 Kings 19:11-12, the prophet Elijah finds himself shaking through a series of frightening natural elements, only to find the Presence in the quiet that follows:

“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

In the Book of Acts, the same pattern is echoed:

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” (Acts 2:2-3)

In the story of Job, the narrative’s namesake is the type for suffering humanity recognizes the limitations of intellect when pitted against the cosmos.

 “Thou liftest me up to the wind; thou causest me to ride upon it, and dissolvest my substance.” (Job 30:22)

The Psalmist muses on the transitory nature of life:

 “For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.” (Psalm 78:39)

The Prophet Hosea seems to plumb the imagery of wind as the retribution, in this life, for evil-doers:

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.” (Hosea 8:7)

And, finally, this about Jesus of Nazareth, whose grace and peace I treasure, even if I cannot begin to understand it:

 “And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.”

Some things to think about.