When did we decide to put politics above relationships?

I love the Facebook “memories” feature, but at times it is also painful. Between 2016 and 2021 I was quite vocal (both in person and on social media) in my opposition to Trump; my conscience would not permit me to remain silent about the terrible things happening to our nation.  In the months since those dark days finally ended, I have tried to return to being mostly apolitical on Facebook.  But the memories feature regularly reminds me of the friends and relatives which I used to have,–and interact with regularly–who chose their love for Donald Trump over their relationship with me. I will forever be sad about that. 

In 1980, I wanted Jimmy Carter to win and some of my friends preferred Ronald Reagan.  But a funny thing happened after that election: we still liked and respected each other.  In those days there was no expectation that Christians would monolithically vote for one party.  Those civil, mutually-respectful political times have long since ended.  

Today we tend to put political affiliation above relationships. Obviously, those people, who unfollowed, unfriended, or in some instances BLOCKED me (to be sure that we can never be friends again) are not reading this post and so won’t know how saddened I am by the dissolution of those relationships.  But I guess I wanted to say it anyway, and to thank those of you who are still hanging in there with me.  Not all of us see eye-to-eye politically, but we care enough about each other to refuse to allow some politician to end our friendship. And for that, I am grateful.

And to all of us…is there any path back to civil political discourse and friendships that transcend politics? Back to the united in United States?

“Did heaven look on and would not take their part?”

Watching the atrocities being committed against the Ukrainian people, their children, even their pets, is incapacitating me.  Putin’s evil forces are destroying homes, infrastructure, and power sources, thus leaving the Ukrainian people to suffer, flee, freeze, starve, and die. The madman appear to be actually targeting fleeing civilians. Peace-loving people around the world watch in horror as the elderly stumble in flight, children sob, dogs howl in pain, and families are torn asunder.  And why?  How can Putin get away with this? Is there no justice in the world?  Putin is a multibillionaire totalitarian ruler who already controls the nation with the largest land mass on earth. 

Fleeing Ukranian family lies dead in the streets near Irpin

In the Old Testament book of Samuel, God sends the prophet Nathan to tell King David the tale of a rich man who seized a poor man’s beloved only animal–his pet lamb–and slaughtered it to feed his guests, even though the rich ruler himself had thousands of animals.  Outraged, David decreed that the man must immediately be put to death.  God?  Where are you?  When do reach out with your righteous hand of justice for the people of Ukraine? Matthew 8:26 promises us: Look at the birds of the air… your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine call to mind Macduff’s anguished cry in the Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth, “Did heaven look on and would not take their part?” 

I know that inhumanity to others has always been with us around the globe and throughout history, and that suffering is not unique to the Ukrainian people, yet somehow, something feels worse about this. Perhaps because Europe has enjoyed relative peace since the second world war. Perhaps it is merely the wall-to-wall news coverage of the images of the terror raining down from the skies. My faith in humanity, and even in God, has been decimated by the scope and horror of this human tragedy, specifically by watching the force of pure evil that Putin has unleashed on these innocent, freedom-loving people. 

History has been a long struggle between civilization and savagery. Have we made no progress at all since 1945? How can this be happening in 2022? Maybe it was the woman sleeping in a bomb shelter with her collie. Maybe it is tearful goodbyes between sobbing children and grieving fathers: knowing they may never see one another again. Confronted with these scenes, something dies inside of me as well. How can each of us not imagine ourselves in their places? Putin has no soul, but the rest of us still do; God, are you watching your children also? Will You take their part?

Fleeing Ukranian woman sleeps in bomb shelter with her pet collie

6:00 pm Update. War criminal Putin bombed and destroyed a maternity hospital in Ukraine today. “The Russians have lost their humanity.” — President Zelenskyy

Farewell, Sweet Tillie

“Everyone thinks that they have the best dog, and none of them are wrong.” – W. R. Purche

I chose you, sight unseen, and went to retrieve you over in Busti (?), New York.  The breeder had two simultaneous litters, born one day apart, and I could hear the noise from the puppy pen before I even got out of my car. I held out my hands to first hold my beautiful little bundle of joy, wrapped in sable & white; I fell in love with you in an instant.

One of my earliest memories was taking you for a walk, a couple of weeks later at a basketball tournament in Binghamton. Off in the distance you and I both heard the familiar cacophony of puppies barking.  I looked at you and saw a faraway puzzled look in your eyes as your tiny ears perked up, hearing the siren call of your litter mates.  You had no way of knowing that we were 250 miles from your homestead.  We were in a big wooded open field so you were off leash.  I could tell from your stance that you were about to make a break for it, and go and find your family again.  You started, then looked back at me, then started again, then looked back at me. “Tillie” I said softly. You looked back in the direction of the barking then came bounding full throttle back to me…..I chose you over the internet, but on that day in Binghamton, you chose me.

Neither of us could have known then–when you were that little bundle of energy and mischief—of the endless comfort and companionship you would provide during the tumultuous decade that lay ahead:  unemployment; Uncle Bruce’s death; first Anthony, then Samantha, then Olga, and finally JonDavid moving away, until it was just you and me rattling around the empty house.  We faced the haunting specter of cancer and open-heart surgery with you faithfully lying by my side during my long recoveries.  A move to a new job and a new home. A terrifying pandemic.  Whatever the world threw at me, my days always began and ended the same way: snuggling with my faithful furry friend.

I think of the thousands of miles we walked together, where I sorted out my thoughts and we silently bonded over the shared experience of exploration: the greenway trail, the ocean beach in Virginia, that one single day when we hiked 27 miles in Letchworth Park. Sometimes we walked with Snickers, sometimes with Troy, sometimes with Sally & Gunner, but usually just the two of us, up our favorite path — Dugway Road in Fillmore, watching the changing cycle of the four seasons.

Tim & Tillie, Tillie & Tim…at the end of the day, at the end of the trail, there was always the two of us.  But the years passed too quickly for us and this past Saturday night, you were gone, and I was left alone; nothing feels right in my world anymore. The big house in Alfred feels impossibly empty without you and every room bears reminders of you.  There were still trails and treats and adventures for us; we have barely even explored Alfred; please come back, we weren’t done yet. Eleven years wasn’t nearly enough. Yes, there will be other dogs, but no others will have lived in both houses; will have lived with and known the kids; will know Fillmore; and will have known me as anything but an old man.  

My cousin says you are waiting for me at my heavenly mansion.  Jan says you are playing on God’s lawn with Toby, Tasha, Taylor, and Tessie.  Will Rogers said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then I want to go where they went.”  I am not sure what to believe, sweet Tillie, but I have to believe that you and I will be together again in the world that is to come, otherwise I will never make it through this one alone.  I love you forever, my precious girl.

The dog no one wanted…

Too big.”
“Too loud.”
“Too strong.”
“Too aggressive.”
“Too naughty.”
“She runs away too often.”
How many times had she been brought back to the shelter?
Sarah didn’t know any of that.
All she knew was this:
For a creature who wanted nothing more than to run wild & free,
She was dying a little, every day, in this tiny cage, at the Norfolk Animal Shelter.
Eventually people stopped taking a chance on her.
And so, day after day, Sarah stared listlessly out of the cage,
with her big, baleful, brown eyes.
Until one day, her beautiful brown eyes met another pair:
But these brown eyes were kind, twinkly, loving, and full of promise.
A 9 yr. old troublemaker that no one else wanted sounded perfect to Samantha.
And so, as had happened many times before,
Sarah was loaded into a car and driven to another new home.
But this time, something was different.
Samantha offered Sarah unconditional love and acceptance;
Samantha loved Sarah for who she was, not who people wanted her to be.
In the beginning Sarah still ran away, daily, weekly.
Always looking for something. What was it?
Freedom? The home she had once loved and lost?
But Samantha cheerfully chased after her, and always brought her back home.
Not back to the animal shelter.
Eventually Sarah moved with Samantha to a big house and yard in a small town,
Where Sarah finally had all of the room and love she had always craved.
A funny thing happened at the new house: Sarah eventually stopped running.
And when she did run….she ran home.
Sarah had found what she was looking for.
Because for Samantha, Sarah wasn’t too anything, except too perfect.
Sarah’s only real fault,
Like that of all dogs,
Was that her time with us was too short.
And so on a cold December day, Sarah left us,
But not before Samantha made Sarah’s last two years, the best of her whole life.
Farewell, sweet Sarah. Thank you for coming home to us.

Seeking Common Ground

 I know that it can’t be easy to be my friend, either in real life, or on Facebook. The past five years of deep political turmoil, societal inequity, and racial reckoning have been traumatic for me and I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut and my Facebook profile focused on pictures of my pets. Partly because of the times we live in, partly because of my career in education, and partly because of who my kids have grown up to be, I care DEEPLY about social justice issues.  This year at Alfred I am teaching one of the “Common Ground” classes for new students in which we struggle to come to terms with our differences and to discuss them with civility.  I applaud Alfred’s efforts to do on a micro level what we desperately need on a macro level in our society.  20 years ago, the Sept. 11th attacks historically brought us together.  Now, the greatest–and far deadlier–crisis we have faced since then has only served to divide us more bitterly. We have prolonged the pandemic because we cannot even agree on if it exists and how to best survive it.  We have responded by shooting minimum wage clerks trying to enforce mask policies; by plotting to kidnap, try, and execute the governor of Michigan over COVID restrictions; by punching schoolteachers in the face; and by distrusting and vilifying the very doctors, scientists, and health-care workers who are trying to save us. When our capitol was invaded and vandalized earlier this year, and police officers were beaten with American flags, despite endless video footage and multiple deaths, we cannot even agree on whether it was an insurrection or loving and patriotic tourists snapping pictures. There is little or no “united” left in the United States.

If you are reading this post it means that, unlike many, you have hung in there with me through my various rants, angry posts, anti-Trump vitriol, and sarcastic memes. I have lost a lot of friends and even family members. I have never unfriended anyone on Facebook because of politics, (although I did unfriend two over abusive treatment of my friends and me.) I try, and I desire to be, quite willing to put up with different political viewpoints and to consider the validity of counter arguments.  This road of deep division and distrust leads to nowhere good, for us, for our communities, our schools, and our society.  While I want to remain open to input and reasoned arguments from the other side and respond with civility to differences, I cannot “agree to disagree” on racism and homophobia.  I know that my liberal views put me at odds with many other believers. I can only offer that I am trying my best to live out my faith in the way that makes the most sense to me; the Jesus that I understand means that I envision a very wide and inclusive path to heaven.

Even though I am likely “preaching to the choir” here–because most of my Facebook friends who disagree strongly with me have unfollowed, unfriended, or in some instances, blocked me–but I want to thank those of you who have stuck with me.  I always tried to instruct my own kids that, “no one gets up in the morning and plans to be a jerk.”  We are all doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt. My concern is that families, churches, communities and indeed our nation, is in danger of unraveling over these divisions. Human beings have always solved our challenges by coming together.  When I taught high school Social Studies, I always asked my classes to remember “A Bug’s Life” and to watch for “strength in numbers” as one of the most significant and recurring factors in history.  We need strength in numbers more than ever today. I’m not referencing nationalism, but rather, the human community and our need to save the planet, defeat COVID, overcome racism, end gun violence, and live in harmony with one another.  To be honest, I have little or no optimism that this will ever happen. And yet–from time to time–I see little glimmers of hope.  I see it in Alfred University and its Common Ground course, in the self-sacrifice of the members of the local Fire and Ambulance Company that I have joined, I see it in believers who are trying to live out Christ’s message of transcendent love and social justice.  I see it in the next generation of teachers I encounter in my work at Alfred, and I want, desperately, to see it in myself. 

And so, today, I want to thank you for hanging in there with me and I want to know that if I have offended you with my posts and yet we are still friends, that we are—together–a tiny part of the solution to all of this.  Peace.   

Above all else: protect the children

From the time we were expecting our first child, at least until the last one left for college, I saw myself as having ONE JOB ABOVE ALL OTHERS: protecting my children and keeping them safe. Nothing else really mattered. Our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage and so we were frantic to protect the next child. We read of a possible link between waterbeds and miscarriage, so we slept in the twin beds in the guest room until the baby arrived safely.  Even if there was a microscopic chance that the waterbed could harm our child, it was worth the extra precaution. From doctor visits to nutrition to car seats to outlet covers to bike helmets to anticipating any possible dangers at home or at school, their mother and I were vigilant in keeping them safe and well.  (Once when a carseat check determined that JonDavid’s seat wasn’t up to standard, their grandpa–my dad–gave me his credit card and told me to go an buy the safest carseat I could find. Getting my kids safely over the finish line of adulthood was always priority one for me.

As such, I am flabbergasted by the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in which parents are protesting against mask safety, fighting for their child’s constitutional right to get (and possibly die of) COVID. So deep and irrational is their devotion to the former president, that they gladly use their children as a sacrificial offering.  Because Trump insisted on virus-denial and mask and vaccine resistance as hallmarks of devotion among his followers, we find parents punching teachers because of mask policy; an Austin TX father assaulted a teacher and ripped the mask off his face!  Angry parents are protesting school boards for attempting to keep students safe.  We have murderous governors in Florida and Texas legally forbidding schools from having a mask policy, even withholding the salaries of superintendents who defy their orders. Superintendents fighting to protect their students and teachers will now have to work without pay.  The world has gone mad. A simple face covering might protect your child from a deadly virus that has killed more than four million people worldwide. WHY THE HELL WOULD ANY PARENT RESIST that added measure of safety?!

Imagine how ridiculous we look to the rest of the world: countries who can only dream of our access to free vaccines. How I grieve the deadly politicization of this virus by the former president.  If only we could have UNITED to fight it instead of using it to increase the bitter divisions in our nation.  How many untold thousands of Americans would still be alive? And now I’m faced with preparing the next generation of earnest young teachers for this chaos in our classrooms and schools.  Please deserve them.  Please honor the incredibly challenging work being done by schools during the Pandemic.  Please make their lives easier, and safer.

When I don’t understand the other side of an argument, I try to consider it from the other person’s perspective.  So if you get all your information from FOX News or from Trump himself, maybe you believe that the entire virus is a hoax, or that masks don’t work, or that the vaccine doesn’t work.  I can (maybe?) see that. But you know what, where my kids are concerned: I err on the side of caution….Every. Damn. Time.  Ask yourself: How will you feel if you are wrong?  The worst that can happen to me is that I put up with the minor annoyance of wearing a mask around other people. The worst that can happen to you: you lose your kid.

Let’s fight the virus instead of each other.

Roll up your sleeves, America!

Last night on the news I watched the tragic images coming out of India and they destroyed me. India lacks the resources that we have and the situation there is horrifying. Family members desperately–and with utter futility–trying to save their loved ones dying of COVID: without hospitals, medicine, doctors, ventilators, oxygen, or vaccines. Funeral pyres signaling India’s sorrow and desperation to the heavens. What those people wouldn’t give for the opportunity to get a vaccination. And yet here, in the United States, ANY of us can now waltz down to the nearest hospital, drug store, or abandoned K-Mart and receive a FREE vaccine to protect us, our loved ones, and our communities. We have a pathway forward. But we also have a tragedy in the making because of the dangerous seeds of misinformation that have been sewn about the virus and the vaccine. 45% of Republicans say they will never get it; more shocking still, 41% of evangelicals say they never will. This ignorance, fear, and selfishness will doom us to living with this virus for years to come.

I have survived cancer twice and open-heart surgery; my health is precious to me. Thus I was the first in line in January to get my vaccinations (with zero side effects.) I can now safely be with my family and friends. I can visit my elderly mother and fly to Texas to see my son. I can invite friends over to my house again. Won’t you please roll up your sleeves and join me in gaining the peace of mind that comes with being vaccinated? I want our lives back.

“A man after God’s own heart”

Across my four decades in the Genesee Valley I have been immeasurably blessed by the ministry of three godly senior pastors at the Houghton Wesleyan Church: Mark Abbott, Mike Walters, and most recenty Wes Oden. On the occasion of Wes and Cindy’s quarter century of ministry with us I’d like to pause and pay tribute to the third member of that trilogy. I’m a lover of written communication, but words fail me as I try to explain how deeply I appreciate, and have been blessed by, Pastor Wes Oden, and I know that I’m only one of hundreds that have been so deeply touched by his ministry, and yet one of Wes’s amazing gifts is that he often makes me feel as if I am his only congregant. Just as a loving parent makes each one feel that s/he is the favorite child, so it is so easy for me to imagine that Pastor Wes and I have a singularly unique and special relationship.

The bond I feel with the Pastor Wes was forged early as our children grew up in the church.  One Sunday nearing the end of the sermon, Anthony proclaimed loudly “that guy will be done soon!” And another time Anthony whispered loudly to me in church, “that guy has a direction name!” Once when two-year old JonDavid somehow wandered out onto the platform mid-sermon (long story) Wes looked over at him as the congregation all laughed and said “Well, hello there!” with JonDavid beaming brightly at everyone in the congregation.  Wes, who was speaking on “What mean these stones?” walked over and picked up JonDavid and wove his impromptu appearance so eloquently into his sermon: discussing how critical it is that we raise our children to know the meaning of the altar and the stones. Wes barely missed a beat, and afterwards several asked us how we had managed to stage that scene!

But it was another incident with our children that I remember most fondly. In those days, Nathan & Casda Danner and their four children and Olga and I with our three were always the last ones to leave after church. We visited while our children played happily together, usually in the fellowship hall. One memorable day–while there were still quite a few people in the sanctuary and we were standing in the back visiting–one of the doors at the front burst open – crashing into the wall and our seven whooping, laughing raucous children came racing into the church. Casda and I were mortified and apologized to Wes and everyone standing around and tried to shush the kids. Wes said, “No, no, please don’t quiet them. This is how children should feel about being at church. They should be joyful and happy to be here and feel like they are at home. I love the sound of their voices!” I still get tears in my eyes remembering his wise words.

In more recent years, when I have faced crises in my life, Wes has always been there to support me. In 2009 when I learned that my job at the college was being cut, I’d barely gotten the news myself and was sitting in my office, alone and stunned, when Wes appeared in the doorway and said “I’ve just heard, I don’t know what to say, but can I pray with you?” When I took my terrifying ambulance ride to Strong three years ago and learned that I had to have open-heart surgery, my cell phone rang in my hospital room, I looked down and of course it said “Wes Oden.” Like Radar O’Reilly, he has an uncanny ability to know when I need him and then rushes to my side. He and Cindy came to visit me in Roswell after my cancer surgery. More recently when I went through some unsettling experiences at my home in Fillmore, related to my “Black Lives Matter” sign, I got several messages from both Wes and Cindy offering their prayers, concern, and support for me. I never have to ask for prayer or support. Wes is already there before I even realize I need him.

It’s hard to imagine a nicer and more gentle spirit than Pastor Wes Oden, or someone more ideally suited to the pastorate. But Wes’s gifts to our community go beyond niceness.  Last summer, as our nation was being ripped apart by the long overdue racial reckoning, I saw a tweet that said “If your church isn’t talking about racism this Sunday, you need a new church.”  I somehow doubted that we would at our church because of the volatile topic and the conservative nature of this area.  But then Wes beautifully preached the most caring, compassionate, timely and yet also BOLD sermon about a Christian response to racism.  He perfectly named and honored the moment, not shying away from a volatile and controversial topic, and yet like everything else he does, he did so graciously, and grounded in his faith and wisdom.

I was working at the college the day the Odens were candidating at the church. A small but memorable incident was a harbinger for this past quarter century. I briefly met the Wes and Cindy early that morning when they came by the Student Life Office on a campus tour. I was one of literally hundreds of people they met that day. When I was going home from work that evening the Odens were arriving for a dinner meeting. I smiled as I passed them and Cindy said “Tim, it was so nice meeting you this morning, thank you making us feel welcome.” I am the WORST with names, and yet Cindy cared enough to memorize mine and has this amazing capacity to let those around her know how deeply she cares. That has been shown and proven time and time again across the past quarter century. It is also impossible to understate the myriad ways that Cindy’s quiet, loving graciousness has blessed our church through her ministry.

During our turbulent socio-political times, I have at times lost faith in the organized church, but our dear pastors remind me of what Christendom should and can be. Wes and Cindy, thank you, from the bottom of my heart; I am forever grateful that God brought you into our community, our church, and my life.

Once upon a house…

“There’s a house whose rooms I know by heart,
where I hosted friends and celebrated holidays,
where dreams were dreamt and memories made,
where my children grew up and I grew old.
There’s a house where life was lived,
a house where I belong.”

I knew I’d love you from the start:
I walked in on a day in May in 1992, got as far as the staircase,
and said to the realtor: “I’ll take it.”
When I was growing up, my family always rented and moved frequently;
I wanted my children to have a permanent place to put down roots;
And to think I found it on Emerald Street.
Twenty-eight years ago our story together began,
and today, it comes to an end.
I love my new house in Alfred, but I know that for as long as I live,
I will carry with me the sadness of leaving you today.

You were the beautiful canvas on which I painted my life.
Memories of barking dogs, crying babies, playing children, laughing teenagers;
Olga and I planting a flowering crabapple on the day we moved in;
That very first meal, in a pile of boxes, with Bruce, Kathie, & Suzanne;
Toby, Tasha, Taylor, Tessie, & Tillie romping on the lawn;
Setting up the nursery and bringing three little bundles home from the hospital.
The birthdays: the yellow-brick road, Hogwarts castle, giant Candyland board;
Christmas decorating, cookie baking, carols around the piano, the annual parties;
Adding on the not-so-new-anymore family room;
The trampoline, playground, and pool: the best money I ever spent;
The bonfires and backyard campouts in the tent;
The dog and hamster burials we will leave behind;
Friday Night Pizza, cousins’ visits and sleepovers; and always: the Brennemans;
Adding a fourth child — from Switzerland;
The last time my dad visited, our last meal with Bruce;
The RA parties, cast parties, slumber parties: kids crowded into the family room;
And then in a blur of the school bus stopping at the end of the driveway
And the minivan pulling in and out of the garage, it was over.
Then I was home alone with Tillie, comforted by this beloved old place;
Every room, nook, & cranny alive with happy memories and ghosts of the past;
Across three decades we were rarely separated:
The longest was my seven weeks in Virginia for open-heart surgery;
I wasn’t sure if I would live to walk through your doors again;
I’ll never forget turning onto Emerald Street,
and discovering that my precious kids had decorated for Christmas, inside and out;
In 28 years, this house had never looked more beautiful to me than that day.
My mom has always said, “It takes a heap o’ livin’ to make a house a home.”
I wish I’d gotten to do all of the retirement projects I had in mind for you.
May your new owners love you as well as I did.
You served us well; I will carry you forever in my heart.
My home.

At Twenty-Six

At 26 I had not yet been to Italy;  I had not even seen California.

At 26 I had not yet been to Central Park, nor stuck my feet in the ocean.

At 26 I had not yet experienced a computer, the wonders of the internet, nor a smartphone.

At 26 I had not yet owned a home of my very own.

At 26 I had not yet met many of the friends I cherish so deeply today.

At 26 I had not yet embarked on life’s greatest adventure: fatherhood. 

At 26 I had not yet held my child in my arms; my precious children did not even exist.

At 26 I still had at least 35 more years to go.

At 26 all of my best years and adventures still lay before me.

At 26 Breonna Taylor had no more years, no more adventures, no more days, no more breaths. 

At 26 Breonna Taylor was shot and killed, in her bed, by the Louisville Police.

At 26 Breonna Taylor had the rest of her life stolen from her by the police, who were found “not guilty.”

#JusticeforBreonna #BlackLivesMatter #EndPoliceBrutality