The Hummingbird

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This short story originally appeared in the first edition of the anthology God Makes Lemonade.

It was the first time I received a check for something I wrote. A friend asked where he could find the story, which reminded me that I’ve never shared it on my blog. The story is very personal, emotional, and true. The “baby” in the story is now a gorgeous cheerleader in high school.]

The Hummingbird

Lisa heard a tapping sound but when she checked the front door, no one was there. It wasn’t the first time during the past year she’d thought she might be losing her mind. Given all that had happened, it was understandable.

Her beautiful daughter Stephanie dropped out of high school during her senior year because of excessive absences for a mysterious illness that turned out to be morning sickness. A surreal sequence of events caused a rollercoaster of emotion through the course of her pregnancy. In the end a beautiful baby girl named Ava Grace was born, but months of pain and anguish preceded that happy delivery.

The baby’s father was 21 year old Josh.   Both Lisa and her husband liked the polite young man who seemed to calm their impulsive and unpredictable daughter. Stephanie and Josh met at church. Both families were cautious about their relationship given their age difference because a few years can make a big difference at their age. Although the young couple needed to complete their education, Lisa secretly thought Josh might be the right man for Stephanie one day. His tender and caring nature was demonstrated by the small things he did when he was around, from treating Stephanie’s younger brother like a human being to helping care for the menagerie of animals both inside the house and out. Josh often took care of the hummingbird feeders for Lisa. He took his self appointed task very seriously, religiously checking the feeders, keeping them cleaned and loaded with fresh hummingbird nectar.

Lisa was an avid gardener whose large backyard contained a beautiful lawn surrounded by lush perennial flower beds the local avian population found particularly inviting. Bird feeders were strategically positioned among the flowers and beside a small waterfall that re-circulated water from an underlying pond filled with goldfish.

The centerpiece of the waterfall was a long, flat slab of rock jutting out from the hill bank to form an excellent birdbath. Often Lisa would look out the picture window in her kitchen and marvel at the number of birds lined up waiting impatiently for their turn in the showers. Two or three birds could bathe comfortably and luxuriously in the running water, yet four or five would invariably be waiting their turn, stamping about impatiently on the ground, chirping and scolding those lingering beyond their allotted bath time.

Stephanie and Josh began having trouble in their relationship. Her impetuous free spirit was trying the limits of his practical responsibility. The young lovers decided some time apart would be best and Josh stopped coming around the house where he had come to feel so comfortable.

Only then Stephanie learned she was pregnant. Before deciding to tell Josh, she went to a family counseling service looking for help trying to decide what to do. After choosing to keep the baby, she told Josh.

The young man reacted badly to the news.  He was not eager to marry Stephanie. He felt they were both too young to become parents and pleaded with Stephanie to give the life growing inside her up for adoption. Stephanie adamantly refused, and the distance and bitterness between them grew.

Lisa felt very hurt and great sympathy for her daughter and felt betrayed by her own affection for the young man. Lisa struggled to squelch her feelings of bitterness and resentment. No matter what happened between Josh and Stephanie, he was going to be the father of her first grandchild.

Tensions developed at home between Stephanie and her parents. Her father encouraged her to put the baby up for adoption while Lisa supported Stephanie’s decision to keep the baby.   Despite her failure to finish high school so close to graduation, with no husband, no job prospects or means of support, Stephanie stubbornly insisted she would not give up her baby. Friction built between Lisa and her husband. Both loved their daughter, but Lisa’s maternal instinct to protect her young superseded her concern for her marriage. Their household was constantly on edge.

Stephanie and Josh went to counseling together.   Both families held out faint hopes for reconciliation between them. Failing that all hoped for at least a softening in Josh’s heart toward his unborn child. Although Josh agreed to help pay for his daughter’s care and upbringing, it was clear he wasn’t happy about a sudden lifetime commitment. Josh felt trapped by circumstances and struggled to come to terms with his pending fatherhood.

Three months before the baby’s due date, tragedy struck without warning. Josh lost control of his car late one night coming home from work.  It ran off the road and into the woods. Before leaving work for home, Josh had taken some cold medication that caused him to be disoriented.   Though he was dazed by the accident and the medication, Josh was mostly uninjured. But in his confusion he wandered deeper into the woods that dark and frosty night in February instead of back toward the road.   Before help could find him, Josh died of exposure, only a few miles from the warmth and safety of his parent’s home.

The news was devastating. In addition to the incredible sadness Lisa felt at the loss of such a young, handsome, genuinely goodhearted young man, Lisa felt incredible guilt for the resentment she held about his relationship with Stephanie. Raw emotion magnified and increased as it transformed from anger into grief and turned bitterness into remorse. Lisa alternated happy thoughts and growing anticipation for the pending birth of a new life with mourning the loss of another.

Lisa wallowed in misery, sorry for Josh’s parents, sorry Josh would never see his daughter or be able to demonstrate a change of heart, sorry she hadn’t seen it all coming and done more to prevent it.

The baby came into this world in a birthing room surrounded by mothers and aunts from both families. Eyes that spent months crying for the loss of Josh now wept tears of joy for the birth of his daughter.

After Stephanie and the baby came home from the hospital, Lisa resumed going through the motions of her life.  She took over the maintenance of the hummingbird feeders to honor the memory of Josh. Lisa watered her guilt with her tears like she used to water her flowers before his death, before her world was shattered.

Ava Grace was a magic tonic that initiated the healing process for Lisa. The baby girl was more photogenic than a Gerber baby. Her beauty was only surpassed by her sweet personality. Her thin blond hair gave her an essentially bald appearance that only accentuated her piercing blue eyes.

Seeing Ava Grace at the hospital for the first time, Josh’s mother said she was the spitting image of her father when he was a baby. That proved indisputable after a comparison of their respective baby pictures. Josh had been a beautiful baby as well. The pictures triggered a new flood of sad and sweet memories.

Ava Grace cemented the relationships between all those who loved her. The parents of Josh and Stephanie found common ground in their love for Ava Grace. Josh was sorely missed by all. His death seemed so senseless, so…wrong. It felt like he should suddenly reappear and shout something stupid like “April Fools” and everyone would laugh in an explosion of relief.   But his presence remained only in their memories.

Lisa heard the tapping again. Where was it coming from? She walked back into the kitchen to check on Ava Grace, still asleep in her baby carrier resting on the island countertop.   Lisa looked at the picture window and saw a small red and green hummingbird striking at the glass if was trying to get inside. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Hummingbirds just don’t do that sort of thing.

With all the birds that visited the backyard habitat, it wasn’t the first time a bird tapped at a window. There was one whole summer a bluebird who nested atop one of the columns on the front porch conducted an ongoing war with his reflection, determined to drive the intruder away from his territory. Once in a while a thrush or sparrow would accidentally fly into a window in a desperate attempt to flee the occasional hawk hunting on the premises.

Yet Lisa had never seen a hummingbird behave this way before, and she’d seen a fair number of them in her lifetime. The bird looked perfectly normal, but it certainly was acting strange. She often saw one hummingbird chase another from a feeder and as a result she’d placed one on each end of her backyard, but Lisa had never seen a hummer attack its reflection or try to chase anything but another bird. The hummer persisted, striking repeatedly with its beak against the glass. A quiet whisper of an idea entered Lisa’s mind.

Remembering Josh’s affinity for hummingbirds, she thought “Could it be?”

Almost immediately she dismissed the thought. It was crazy. But apparently so was this hummingbird. It kept striking at the window as if earnestly auditioning for a part in the remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic movie. There was food in the feeders and an abundance of blooming plants that should have attracted the bird. What could the hummer want?

Lisa watched for a moment, fascinated. The bird seemed to have an unusual intelligence considering the miniscule size of its brain, and it seemed to be following some sort of pattern or routine in its approach. Whatever it was trying to accomplish, it obviously wasn’t giving up easily. Again the same quiet whisper flitted through her mind, but this time on instinct she reacted. Lisa turned the baby’s carrier around to face the window, so Ava Grace could see the bird and it could see her.

The bird stopped hitting the window. It darted around as it had before, but no longer struck the glass. Seeing the baby’s face somehow mollified the bird. It flew back and forth, up and down, but it didn’t leave. Lisa picked up the carrier and moved Ava Grace closer to the window.

The bird wasn’t the least bit frightened by her approach. It continued to dart high and low as if searching for the perfect vantage point to see this beautiful baby. A long, indescribable moment passed where the bird seemed to hover in midair, its wings beating so furiously their movement was only a blur. Then as unexpectedly as it came, the bird disappeared in a streak of red and green.

Tears welled in Lisa’s eyes. The floodgates holding her emotions in check burst and she wept for the child who would never know her father and for the young man who never got to know his daughter.

This time her tears of sadness were mixed with tears of joy. She felt a new peace and comfort. Somehow she knew Josh had managed to see his new daughter after all. Lisa didn’t expect she’d ever see the bird again. She also knew she’d never see Josh again in this lifetime. The remarkable encounter she experienced allowed her to say goodbye to the tragedy and finally turn to face the future. She had a daughter to help establish her own life, and a new grandbaby to love.

The federal budget

Do you remember the very end of the movie Animal House? Future U.S. Senator John Blutarsky drives away (presumably toward Washington, D. C.) with his kidnap victim/bride-to-be, toward a career in politics.

The scriptwriters didn’t warn us that the Senator (who flunked out of college with a zero point zero G.P.A.) was going to be given an unrestricted credit card with no limits, or that the American taxpayer will ultimately get stuck with the bill — because that isn’t even remotely funny — but it’s absolutely true.

During the 2016 fiscal year, tax revenue collected by the U.S. Treasury was approximately $2.99 trillion dollars. Even more amazingly, the federal government managed to spend about $3.54 trillion dollars, increasing the national debt by another $500 billion dollars.

What spendthrifts we’ve elected to Congress!

If only we were talking about Monopoly money, the national debt wouldn’t be that big of a deal. However, these are real U.S. dollars we’re talking about. Eventually, that debt will need to be repaid. I believe I read somewhere that every American citizen — every man, woman, and child — would need to come up with more than $60,000 in order to pay their share of the federal debt.

In 2008, at the beginning of President Obama’s first term, the federal debt was roughly $10.7 trillion dollars. As of this writing, the federal debt has grown to more than $19.9 trillion dollars and counting, with no end in sight. How is this even possible?

Part of the problem is that Congress and the federal government have totally divorced themselves from reality. To suggest that Congress blows through money as bad as drunk sailors on shore leave is an insult to drunk sailors. Eventually the sailors must sober up and behave more responsibly as they resume their duties. With Congress, not so much.

The average American taxpayer uses a method known as zero-based budgeting. This means that in every new accounting period, each expense must be justified, with the goal of making sure that expenses don’t exceed income.

As an illustration, let’s pretend that Joe Taxpayer earns $100,000 per year. Based on his withholding information filed with the IRS and the number of dependents declared for his family, Joe’s net pay comes out to be about $3,000 per direct deposit, or a little over $6,000 per month. That translates to an annual net income of $72,000.

Joe never even sees the other $28,000 of gross income. About six percent of his gross income is diverted into a special long-term savings account, the company 401k program, but the other $22,000 was paid directly to the federal  and state government in the form of income tax, Social Security tax, Medicare tax, etc.

As for the Taxpayer family’s expenses, the mortgage payment is about $2,000. Joe had a $500 per month car payment, but recently paid off the auto loan and owns his vehicle free and clear. The household utility bills average another $1,500 per month. Insurance premiums and other miscellaneous expenses run the Taxpayer family another $750, and they usually spend around $200 per month for entertainment. Joe and his wife don’t eat out very much, managing to keep their grocery bill about $800 per month, leaving $250 per month on average for savings. Over a period of several years, Joe has accumulated about $7,000 savings for a rainy day expense.

The Taxpayer family’s monthly budget is heavily influenced by their income. And when the company Joe works for closes the local office, his net pay drops from $100,000 per year to the amount of his unemployment benefits. The family will sacrifice the $200 usually spent on entertainment and take other cost-cutting measures with their monthly budget until Joe finds another job and replaces his lost income. Budget items will be classified as needs or desires and funded accordingly, because the Taxpayers live in the real world.

By comparison, Senator Blutarsky doesn’t need to worry about the constraints and hassles of zero-based budgeting because the federal budget (in the years that Congress bothers to pass one) uses a completely different accounting method known as baseline budgeting. 

Federal spending almost never gets a real cut (to his great credit, the rare exception is President Trump, who has actually proposed a number of real, honest-to-God spending cuts in his 2018 budget, according to CNN.)

If Joe Taxpayer used baseline budgeting to manage his household expenses, he would assume that his family would always have a car payment that would never be less than $500 per month, a payment that would only be expected to increase over time. In other words, logic and fiscal responsibility are mutually exclusive when the conversation turns to the federal budget.

The nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste offered this most excellent illustration of baseline budgeting at their website:

For example, if an agency’s budget is projected to grow by $100 million, but only grows by $75 million, according to baseline budgeting, that agency sustained a $25 million cut. That is analogous to a person who expects to gain 100 pounds only gaining 75 pounds, and taking credit for losing 25 pounds. The federal government is the only place this absurd logic is employed.

Washington politicians have an insatiable desire to spend our money, and have even convinced themselves that every U.S. dollar naturally belongs to them — this is why in economic discussions in Washington, D. C., the rhetoric is often centered on how Congress should “pay” for tax cuts for the American people, and not why they waste so many of our tax dollars.

The obvious answer to the question of how to pay for tax cuts would be for Congress and the federal government to learn how to spend less of our money. That would require voters electing politicians of superior intelligence and tremendous personal integrity, politicians who will exercise fiscal responsibility on behalf of the American people while they serve in Congress, and won’t waver on their promises after they get elected.

Unfortunately, maybe only a half-dozen or so members of Congress (out of 535) fit that description. Considering the fact that Congress just betrayed the American people on healthcare reform, we should set our expectations about tax reform low, until we elect politicians we can trust to keep their promises.

 

An open letter to Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain
(official portrait)

Dear Senator McCain,

I’d like to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude for your time spent in military service. You showed remarkable courage under extreme duress, enduring torture by the enemy while refusing an early release, or any special treatment. As a result, you’ve suffered from permanent physical disabilities after six years in captivity. I have enjoyed a lifetime as a free citizen in the greatest nation on the face of the earth, because of brave warriors like you. Thank you for your service, sir. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

Secondly we, the people, recently learned the very serious news about your cancer diagnosis, and I wanted to convey my sympathy to you. Twenty years ago my father died from that exact same disease, a glioblastoma tumor in his brain, so I am well aware of the challenge you face. It was shortly after his retirement that my father began acting uncharacteristically confused and disoriented. He also  complained of a constant headache. An MRI confirmed that he had a large brain tumor,  a glioblastoma. The neurologist diagnosed him on a Tuesday, and he had surgery the following Monday, but never regained consciousness. About two weeks later, his life support was disconnected. I’m glad your surgery was more successful than his, and I wish you the best as you continue to recover.

While I’m fairly confident that a sitting U.S. Senator such as yourself has access to the very best healthcare in the world (probably much better care than a retired serviceman living in Savannah, Georgia would ever get), I do not blame my father’s surgical team for his death. Clearly the tumor killed him, not the operation to remove it. The doctors did their very best, I’m quite sure. It just wasn’t good enough, though I’m not sure any other doctor on earth would have done much better. It was a long time ago, and medical progress in the United States has advanced at an incredible pace during my lifetime.

And we will all die, sooner or later. It’s never been a question of “if”, but “when.” Though my own death should not occur anytime soon, (at least, not as far as I know) I’ve still prepared for that possibility by creating a living will. I’ve even gone as far as planning for my own funeral. When my demise becomes imminent, it won’t matter whether it comes as a surprise or not.

I also don’t blame Big Medicine or Big Government for my father’s death. Dad died years before Barack Obama was elected President and the Affordable Healthcare Act was passed. I would like to say a few words about your vote in opposition to repeal of the ACA, which I will describe from this point forward as “Obamacare.”

Frankly, to describe my feelings as bitter disappointment would be putting it mildly. I’ve read your excuse for voting against repeal, and Senator, I’m very disturbed. You seem to think it’s more important that you redistribute wealth than keeping your primary campaign promise. Only last year you won a difficult campaign for reelection by promising the voters of Arizona that you would repeal Obamacare if given the chance. You just broke that solemn vow with an excuse that is truly pathetic. It is not the responsibility of Congress to provide healthcare insurance to every American.

Obamacare is an abomination of a law that has been doomed to fail from Day One, and the Democrat politicians who crafted the legislation never expected it to work as promised, with lower premiums and better options where you could keep your existing doctors if you liked them. Obamacare was designed with the goal of creating a path to single payer healthcare — in other words, socialized medicine. With a gleeful thumbs-down, you killed the bill.

Senator McCain, does your word mean nothing? How can the American people ever trust you again, if you won’t keep your most important campaign promises?

Your excuse for voting no is that the bill doesn’t offer a replacement for Obamacare, but your first obligation is to repeal the existing law. You promised you would. If the law gets repealed, Democrats will have no choice except to negotiate earnestly in bipartisan fashion, trying to insert the bits and pieces of Obamacare into new healthcare reform legislation, or during the next election cycle they will have to explain to voters why they obstructed reform and wouldn’t cooperate to draft a law that will actually help alleviate the obscenely high cost of healthcare services.

My concerns about Obamacare can be summed up using only two words: Charlie Gard. That poor child in the U.K. died today, after his parents were refused the opportunity to seek treatment here in the U.S. that may have given him a chance. But soulless bureaucrats embedded in a single-payer system wouldn’t let Charlie’s parents take him home. We can never know if that new treatment would have helped, but we can be absolutely certain that refusing to allow the treatment doomed the poor child for sure. His parents had healthcare coverage, but it offered them no choice, and no hope.

Single payer healthcare is also where our healthcare system is headed, unless obstructionists like you will vote for repeal of Obamacare. The most galling aspect of the current law is that you and your fellow members of Congress have exempted yourselves. You don’t have to suffer the consequences of your own vote. And you don’t have to worry like my friend in Georgia, who wrote:

(For a while) I could not get health insurance and when I did, it didn’t help me pay for anything. There is also only one insurer in the market this year in Georgia that many doctors don’t accept, and it was announced this week that their premiums are going up 41% next year.

Another friend who lives in Florida said that she can’t find a doctor who accepts her insurance with an office within a 100 mile radius of her house, and only one insurance provider offers a plan in her state under Obamacare.

What good is insurance coverage, if no doctors within a reasonable distance from home will accept it? My friend is an entrepreneur currently getting zero benefit from her policy, but she has no choice but keep it because Obamacare has practically destroyed the free market, and she needs insurance in the event of a major medical issue. For every friend of mine who previously couldn’t get coverage because of some preexisting condition, a half dozen or more have been adversely affected.

President Obama didn’t keep his promises of lower premiums and better choices to the American people when he shilled for support for this insidious new law, and you have broken your promise to the American people as well, by voting no on its repeal. I have always thought of you as being a man of principle and integrity, making your vote on this crucial issue particularly disappointing.

We are NOT a Socialist country, Senator McCain. The Constitution does not give everyone a right to free healthcare. Nor does it give the government the right to force its citizens to buy a product that isn’t very good.

Our nation thrives on free-market capitalism. I would hope that you realize that millions of Americans are suffering financial hardship trying to pay for expensive, lousy insurance coverage. Obamacare WILL ultimately fail, just as President Trump has predicted. Many people have lost significant income due to Obamacare. Companies have cut back on the maximum number of hours an employee may work per week to avoid being penalized by this horrible law. A law that you promised to repeal, until you decided to change your mind.

I hate to suggest this, sir, but I have to wonder if you have put politics and your personal feelings before your patriotic duty — do you really hate President Trump so much that you would hurt the entire country just to spite him? I’d like to believe you’re a bigger man than that, Senator McCain, because it would be both childish and churlish to put politics before principle at such a critical time for our country. But I’m trying to make sense of your vote contradicting your campaign promise, and at a loss for a logical explanation. Where is your better idea, since you didn’t like this particular repeal law?

We the American people are sick and tired of our politicians lying to us.

Please, either keep your word, or resign immediately.

Sincerely,

A Thoroughly Disgusted American Citizen

 

 

Planning my own funeral

My_Headshot

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you don’t follow the links and listen to the music, it will be your loss, not mine. I’m listening to every song as I check the links in preview mode. There is a point being made with each song selection.]

A friend of mine likes to wish me a happy birthday with the encouragement to have another pleasant journey around the sun.

Thank you, Sir Charles, I believe that I will celebrate my birthday. But today I’d like to plan a very different kind of celebration.

When I was young and foolish, I appreciated the cynical perspective of Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, expressed with a faintly similar ring in their classic song Time:

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Unfortunately, it seems the older I get, the better I was. And now that I’m getting a little shorter of breath and closer to death myself, I don’t play that song nearly as often as I once did. The lyrics remain brilliant, but they are also depressing as hell. Thanks for that reminder!

On the other hand, death is…natural. The end of life is part of the life experience. There’s no need to get all worked up about something that is guaranteed to happen. While I’m fully cognizant of my own mortality, I personally don’t like to dwell on negative thoughts. I want to enjoy life to the best of my ability as long as there is quality, and I have been blessed with extraordinary genetics. But I have no desire to prolong the inevitable.

Besides, I have no real reason to expect death for at least another thirty or forty years, so these plans may seem a bit premature. On the other hand, this is a one-and-done proposition; I don’t expect to have to plan my own funeral more than once.

And eventually, I am going to die. So let’s just get this over with, shall we?

Spoiler alert — you’re going to die, too. It’s not a question of if, but when. No exceptions. From the day I was born, my days have been numbered.  Over time, I’ve watched family and friends transition into death before me, inspiring me to start thinking about that eventuality. Some deaths were expected, lingering and painful. Some were swift and without warning.

I enjoy life, but I do not fear death. I know too much about NDEs. I’ve become friends with a man who once died and went to hell. I believe death is nothing to fear. The process of death will be a temporary discomfort no matter how I die, because I’m taking every painkiller they’ll give me if I’m ever diagnosed with terminal cancer. When the end becomes inevitable, just sign me up for that morphine drip. Only after I’ve maximized my potential for this life will I be ready for it to end. Of course, my death may come when I least expect it — not unlike the Spanish Inquisition.

Therefore, I’m formalizing these plans in advance to spare my family any unnecessary decision making when they might be feeling some stress. Barring unforeseen circumstances, these plans won’t be necessary for another thirty or forty years at minimum, but you never know.

This is one of those situations where proactive action is absolutely necessary, because by definition, at the point they will be needed, I won’t be reacting to anything. As far as my mortal body is concerned, I’ve only asked that the undertaker would stab my corpse with a very long, sharp needle…just to be absolutely sure that I’m really dead before he incinerates my body.

Then scatter my ashes as fertilizer when you need to plant a tree, or scatter me over the ocean.

Just don’t be standing upwind if you do, like Walter did in The Big Lebowski. Personally, I like the idea of new life benefiting and growing as a direct result of my death. Please don’t waste good, hard-earned money burying ashes.

But that’s enough of this morbid stuff. It’s time to plan the celebration!

11813410_761979513910924_5889506527636804664_nWorking from the assumption that some of the people attending my funeral will actually be mourning (admittedly, there will probably be a few atheists glad to see me go), I don’t expect people to be happy to be there for my sending-off party.

So I’m thinking Hurt, written by Trent Reznor and performed by Johnny Cash, might be the perfect song to begin my funeral service. And while the Man in Black still has the stage, I think his classic God’s Gonna Cut You Down will serve as the perfect reminder to the attendees that their day will come, too.

Naturally, as a Christian, my funeral should have a few readings from the Bible. My preference is for reading verses that are short and get right to the point, because I don’t want people to get bored at my funeral. Keep it snappy, and keep it moving, so you can get back to living the rest of your lives.

What I do not want is a bunch of people to stand up and tell lies about what a great guy I was. Remember, Jesus once berated a guy for calling him good, saying no one is good but God.

Since I’m Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus, as Audio Adrenaline pointed out, that would not be appropriate. I’ll leave it up to whomever is handling my final arrangements to decide if a song ought to make the final cut…if left up to me, there’d be music, read a couple of Bible verse, and then move on to the potluck buffet.

It’s a bold transition to go from Johnny Cash to Christian rock, with nothing in between. I know my favorite AA song would definitely weird out people at a funeral, but I’d love to hear it one more time…I even like the cheesy video that goes with it. Perhaps a more appropriate choice for transitional music would be Awesome God by Rich Mullins, but I have told my son it would be funny to play like Breakfast in Hell by the Newsboys because the lyrics amuse me, but only if he deemed it appropriate.

For the constraints of time, it probably won’t make the final cut. But if I had my way, my friends in ApologetiX would show up and play a whole concert of their songs such as Death. Because I don’t really know how or when I will die (yet) it might be appropriate for them to play Lemonade or perhaps Sufferin’ Just Finished.  I want everyone there to see me off to fully appreciate my admittedly warped sense of humor.

In the hopes that people are there to remember me fondly, perhaps the readings could start with the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 7:1 sounds appropriate: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.”

I especially like the positive spin there at the end. As for any other Bible verses to be read, I will leave some of the choices up to the person handling the details, but I’d like them to include the wisdom of Jesus from Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8 would also be appropriate:

…The time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

No matter what happens between this day and my last, I cannot envision that should ever change. And of course, read Philippians 1:21-23, to end on a high note:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

Because I believe Romans 10:9 is true, I am almost obnoxiously confident of what happens after my end, so people at my funeral should not be too bummed out. Hopefully when I do die, I will have become too old to be the life of the party anymore.

One of the great joys of my life has been listening to really good music. When I attended the visitation for my friend Derek only two short years ago, who passed away suddenly and much too soon, I was reminded by the similarity in our musical tastes that went all the way back to high school. I do hope people might hear a song at my funeral that brings a smile to their face.

Not everyone will appreciate my sense of humor, but those who do think I’m hilarious. For those who don’t, I have Carrie Underwood.

I am hoping the very best versions of a few personal favorite hymns would be played: Amazing Grace by Il Divo, and Carrie Underwood’s version of How Great Thou Art would be nice. Just so no one will be offended by my idea of a joke. I want the people at my funeral to have at least half as much fun as I’ve had planning it.

Most importantly, I want the people at my funeral to feel uplifted on their way out the door, and that calls for this terrific “flash mob” version of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

Send me home on a high note.

People who think they know everything

[FULL DISCLOSURE: Herman L. Mays, Jr. recently published a somewhat ruthless review of my book Counterargument for God, which may lead some readers to conclude this particular article has been written to gain some measure of revenge. However, after reading the rather vitriolic exchanges between academic/intellectual types such as Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier, I’m convinced that hostile rhetoric is now a perfectly acceptable form of criticism. Therefore, I won’t be mincing my words, either.]

Professor Herman L. Mays, Jr. teaches at Marshall University, and he’s probably a very nice guy (Anybody who can make me laugh out loud can’t be all bad in my book). And when I read the following sentence his review of my book, I literally burst out laughing:

To say Leonard’s book should be taken with a grain of salt gives undue credit to the power of salt to ease the swallowing of the foulest of meals.

I have to admit, that’s a pretty clever zinger. Could his rhetoric be exaggerated? That’s not for me to say. Because my brain often works in strange and unconventional ways, when I read his little quip my mind wandered back in time to revisit an old installment of the comic strip Bloom County, in which Opus the Penguin wrote a scathing review of the movie Benji Saves the Universe. He described the movie as achieving “new levels of badness” — could I be as equally untalented a writer?

Given his perspective as an academic who earns his paycheck teaching evolutionary biology, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Professor Mays took exception to my criticisms of Darwin’s theory as the best explanation for the origin of new species. However, when he claimed that virtually anything offered on Amazon for $2.99 was a better use of one’s hard-earned money (and knowing that Professor Mays received a free copy) I had to wonder if his penchant for hyperbole overruled his good judgment, and if he was aware of the quality of the competition in Kindle books offered for that same price.

I find it extremely difficult to believe his claim that my book (which won an award) worse than such literary classics as Hillary Clinton: What America Lost by not Electing Hillary Clinton, or the incomparable (and equally incomprehensible) Donald Trump Versus the Were-Yeti.

Alas, that question is moot and must be left for future readers to decide.

It should be noted that for a man who forcefully argues using his position of “authority” as an academic, Professor Mays becomes squeamish and remarkably evasive when asked a rather straightforward question: was he an atheist?

After all, our acquaintance was initially made after he posted several disparaging comments either about creationism or people (like me) who believe in a supernatural creator God. Therefore my question seemed reasonable to ask, and I didn’t expect it would be difficult to answer. But this was the verbatim response from Professor Mays: “I’m not an atheist because I don’t not believe in a god.”

Typically the use of a double negative is considered weak grammar unless the author has intentionally used litotes to imply a suggestive double entendre or to understate an opinion. For example, using the phrase “he isn’t a complete idiot” as a description of Professor Mays could be taken as a sly innuendo suggesting that he is actually an exceptionally clever man, or it might be interpreted to mean he’s at least a slight improvement over a boorish imbecile.

How does one resolve a triple negative?  There is no known convention in the English language advising how someone should parse and interpret such a convoluted mess of a reply.

“I’m not an atheist” seemed clear enough, but when combined with “I don’t not believe in a god” a possibly clear and coherent answer to a direct question turns into muddled nonsense.  “I don’t not believe in a god” and “I believe in God” clearly do not convey the same meaning. “I’m not an atheist because I believe in God” would be a clear and coherent statement that makes perfect sense. “I’m not an atheist because I don’t not believe in a god” is simply gibberish.

Two lefts don’t make a right, but three do.

But that somewhat egregious abuse of the English language may be excused given the context — surely Professor Mays takes greater care when writing for publication than he does for his personal correspondence. In fairness, we should examine some of his published material. This paper titled “Speaking Out Against Climate Change Denial in West Virginia” by Professor Mays, found in Reports from the National Center for Science Education, begins with this rather audacious claim: “The scientific consensus on climate change is clear. Global temperature is rising and the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities is the primary cause.”

Oh, really?

Now of course it’s just my opinion, but I think it’s rather brazen for Professor Mays to lecture others with feigned authority on the subject of climate change, especially considering the fact he doesn’t study climate science, and his primary source seems to be a book by a couple of historians on climate change, or possibly even the movie of the same name. An inconvenient truth, perhaps?

With his opening statement, Professor Mays sounded a lot more like Bill Nye, the sciency guy than an academic writing for publication in a professional journal. Bill Nye is an entertainer who likes to frequently portray himself as an academic and some sort of scientific authority, with considerable success in the mainstream media. Nye often pontificates his opinions on subjects that he knows little or practically nothing about, which includes climate science, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. For whatever reason, a bow tie and a lab coat appear to give Nye an air of credibility. At least Herman Mays, Jr. really does hold a PhD…it just doesn’t have anything to do with climate science.

Bill Nye loves to cite statistics, and he often talks about “scientific consensus” that greenhouse gases caused by human activity are causing irreparable harm to our environment. However, as Dr. Roy Spencer (a bona fide expert on climate science) testified before Congress, that particular statistic actually refers to the percentage of people who believe human activity has an impact on our environment, not the number of experts who claim that we all must install solar panels, erect a windmill, and drive a Prius, or else the seas will rise, we’ll have droughts and famines, and the world will end.

Tomorrow, or next Tuesday at the very latest.

Unlike the recommendations of Professor Mays in his review of my book, I’m going to strongly recommend that everyone read this execrable opinion piece of dogmatic climate alarmism, because it is illustrative of the most significant problem faced by modern academia: they no longer understand the purpose of their job.

Professor Mays seems to have forgotten it is his job to teach young and impressionable minds how to learn, not necessarily what to learn. Academics like Professor Mays don’t even realize the harm they are doing to humanity as a whole, when they attempt to suppress critical thinking and espouse blind indoctrination. If you want me to believe something, all you need to do is convince me. At least when Professor Mays rhetorically poses the question, “Could the consensus on climate change be wrong?” he was honest enough to admit the answer is “yes.”

Unfortunately, Professor Mays seems to be relatively certain that he’s right and you’re wrong, assuming you disagree with something he believes. He uses adversarial language and demonizes his opposition in this theoretically civil and “intellectual” debate: he calls them climate deniers. Advocates of governmental action to do something about climate change are said to all have equally valid, probably even altruistic reasons for their legitimate concern.

But those opposed are climate deniers who allegedly do so for some nefarious and ambiguous political or economic motives.  One sentence in particular effectively sums up the discouraging bias against intellectual debate that exists in the mind of Professor Mays: “I view the strategy of climate change denial in the same light as the denial of the scientific consensus on evolution. Both are assaults on reason.”

There is no possibility for open dialog to have even a prayer of success if one party in the conversation starts with the assumption that anyone who disagrees with him must be unreasonable. And the irony that Professor Mays appears to base much of his understanding of climate science on the work of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, co-authors of the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming is delicious: his most frequently cited authorities on climate science are not scientists. They are a couple of science historians. Yet Professor Mays lambasted my book in his review for using direct quotes excerpted from “popular” texts such as The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, or Why Evolution is True by biologist Jerry Coyne, rather than some snooty academic publication like Reports From the Center for Science Education.

Though he lists a few academic papers among his sources, Professor Mays didn’t seem to be quoting from their work, but he made quite a few references to Oreskes and Conway. Occasionally Professor Mays stumbles over the truth, as when he wrote, “Political and economic interests are exerting an influence on the that has little to do with the actual science.”

Professor Mays might protest my summary of Merchants of Doubt with only two short sentences: “Big oil bad. Environmentalism good” but it is an accurate assessment. If Professor Mays was called before Congress to contradict the testimony of Dr. Spencer, I can imagine that it would go a lot like the exchange between Senator Ted Cruz and the president of the Sierra Club.

Science is never settled, and anyone who prefers agreement to evidence isn’t qualified to be considered an authority. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but they are not entitled to silence the opinions of others. And if someone who thinks he knows it all can’t or won’t engage in civil conversation, perhaps they should consider remaining quiet themselves.

Dan Barker’s open Bible test

[Originally this article and the followup article that “graded” this test were published in my column when I wrote as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner.]

We all have our weaknesses. I’m a sucker for a good challenge. And I am especially susceptible to books with eye-grabbing, thought provoking titles such as The Book Your Church Doesn’t Want You To Read.

Naturally, I grabbed a copy from the shelf of the Roswell Public Library and added to my stack of books to check out and read. The End of Faith by Sam Harris was my other nonfiction selection. My reading interests do not often match that of the typical Christian.

The subtitle promised to be “An Enlightening Anthology by World-Renowned Theologians, Historians & Researchers that Exposes and Challenges Misrepresentations and Age-Old Beliefs!”

My beliefs are not “age-old” so I didn’t feel particularly threatened, and dead center in the book, on page 223, I discovered Dan Barker’s essay No Stone Unturned, which proposed an intriguing challenge. Mr. Barker is a former minister, now co-director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. His biography claims Mr. Barker’s IQ is above the 99th percentile, which sounds…smart. Perhaps I’ll be biting off more than I can chew.

And perhaps not. Ominously, his essay is followed by this warning:

This article was copied and distributed around the country in many different forms. A lot of readers sent it to their area ministers and priests. Only two attempts at accepting the challenge were made and neither one of them kept to the terms, preferring to pick and choose particular contradictions to explain. Dan Barker is the public relations director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin.

See what’s being done here? Someone could faithfully put for their best effort after accepting the challenge and be judged a failure by Mr. Barker for failing to measure up to his standard. So beware of moving goalposts.

And this is his full challenge:

Read the resurrection accounts found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21 and Acts 1:3-12 and reconcile them without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, but produce a simple, chronological narrative of the events between resurrection and ascension.

Before we go through these five books, should we assume that Mr. Barker concedes that the historical Jesus existed, and we won’t be asked to revisit the Jesus mythicists arguments after we finished our open Bible challenge?  That certainly will save us some time. And for the sake of time, I’m not going to list every single detail from 175 Bible different verses to keep these lists somewhat manageable…I’m simply going to list the salient points in their chronological order.  So without further ado, let’s do this!

Matthew 28

  1. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb with another Mary, presumably the sister of Martha.
  2. The tomb is open and empty. The account suggests a violent earthquake moved the giant stone that had blocked the tomb opening
  3. An angel announces the resurrection and tells the women to inform the disciples and send them to Galilee.
  4. On their way, the women are greeted Jesus.
  5. They touch him.
  6. The chief priests concoct a cover story to explain the empty tomb and bribe the guards.
  7. Jesus appears to his followers in Galilee and gives them The Great Commission.

Mark 16

  1. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (and Jesus, or “The Virgin Mary”), and Salome visit the empty tomb, the stone already having moved.
  2. An angel tells them of the resurrection. He sends them to inform the disciples and send them to Galilee.
  3. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene. The other Mary and Salome are not mentioned.
  4. Jesus appeared in unrecognizable form to two people walking in the country.
  5. Jesus appeared to the remaining disciples as they ate.
  6. He gave them a hard time, then he gave them a muddled variation of the Great Commission.

Luke 24

  1. “The women” discovered the empty tomb. They were Mary Magdalene, the same Virgin Mary mentioned in Mark, and Joanna, not Salome, unless she was among “others with them” not mentioned in the first two accounts.
  2. The women tell the disciples about the resurrection. Peter visits the tomb for confirmation, a detail omitted from the first two accounts.
  3. Two people (one named Cleopas) are greeted by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but they fail to recognize him at first. He admonishes them for not believing in the resurrection and goes with them to meet the disciples, who also do not immediately recognize him.
  4. Jesus reveals his true identity to his disciples while they ate.
  5. He gives the disciples another, darker version of the Great Commission and then ascends into heaven.

John 20-21

  1. Mary Magdalene is the first person to arrive at the tomb.
  2. She tells Peter, who visits the tomb. They believe the grave has been robbed.
  3. Mary sees two angels after Peter’s visit.
  4. The angels tell Mary the grave was not robbed, but Jesus was resurrected.
  5. She tells the disciples the good news.
  6. Jesus appears to Mary but she is not permitted to touch him. (obvious difference from Matthew’s acct)
  7. Jesus appears to the disciples in a closed room
  8. Thomas is not with the others (discrepancy or unique detail) / Doubting Thomas detail
  9. New detail introduced of fishing disciples and the miraculous catch post-resurrection
  10. Peter jumps into the Sea of Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee) for some strange reason after realizing Jesus had returned.

At this point we now dispense with line-by-line analysis of the text in question. We’ve certainly hit all the highlights. May I concede that the books of Acts and Corinthians will also contain some level of detail with minor discrepancies in the descriptions for events that occurred between the alleged resurrection and ascension to heaven and simply grant that point rather than belabor it? We also ought to be able to agree that some books of the Bible contain information that conflicts with information found in other books of the Bible, as my article Encouraging My Christian friends to think explained.

“God” did not write the Bible. An unknown number of men, and possibly women as well, recorded. Some of these accounts conflict or provide apparently insignificant detail.  Some biblical scholars now believe just the book of Genesis had at least four contributing authors, plus an editor who expertly wove together multiple narratives. The assertion that the Bible must be inerrant, meaning indisputably true without flaw or mistake, is a false standard.

Quid est veritas?

Let’s cut right to the heart of the issue at hand. Obviously, Mr. Barker wishes us to recognize is that our “eyewitness” accounts include a few relatively minor discrepancies in order to cast doubt on the veracity of the accounts as a whole. Apparently, we are to infer that because his assignment to the Christian is assumed to be “impossible”, meaning these stories cannot be reconciled and cannot possibly be true. I have a different take on this subject.

Admittedly, my head is filled to capacity with information I often find useless. For example, in pursuit of my undergraduate degree, I absorbed enough history and political science to earn a degree with a double major in those fields of study before losing interest in pursuing a law degree. Once I realized that Perry Mason was only a fictional character and that most of my real clients would probably be guilty, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer.

I couldn’t stand the idea of doing my job to the best of my ability and having the result be a rapist or murderer escaping punishment for their crimes, literally.  I changed majors from pre-law to a BBA, and the rest is now history. Prior to that fateful decision I understood that as an attorney, knowing criminal investigation techniques and strategies could prove useful one day. So I took several classes in criminal justice.  One of my professors was a former FBI agent who entertained the class with stories about his days in the field. Now it’s my job to write detective novels, and that knowledge comes in handy. I’ve worked hard to train my mind in the art of deductive reasoning. Applying those techniques combined with logic and common sense, I’ve constructed this single narrative by synchronizing the four Gospel accounts according to the most important details:

  1. Mary Magdalene found an empty tomb. Jesus’ mother and others were probably in small group that visited the gravesite. Every gospel account agrees that the first witnesses on the scene were women.
  2. One or possibly two angels announced the resurrection of the physical body of crucified Jesus.
  3. The disciples find out about the resurrection from the women. Peter may or may not have visited the tomb to verify their account.
  4. At some point in time after the resurrection and before the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the disciples travel to Galilee.
  5. Before his ascension, Jesus gives his followers marching orders in some form of the Great Commission.

My assignment was to write a cohesive narrative that did not fail to omit every single detail, and the most important details have been carefully and accurately catalogued and ordered. The whole point of this open Bible “test” was to create doubt in the minds of Christians by focusing the fact that the four Gospel accounts contain variations of the same basic story and do not agree on every little detail.

But here’s the problem with Mr. Barker’s test: any half-decent detective who earns a living by the application of deductive reasoning will tell you that when two witnesses give the exact same account in every minor detail, those witnesses were coached and their testimony will be considered unreliable.

The gospels may be considered reliable eyewitness accounts because they don’t agree in every minor detail. The most important facts to glean from the Gospels are the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection.  Jesus’s followers believed he was the promised Jewish Messiah so fervently that many were willing to suffer their own gruesome crucifixion and death. None of the disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes. Most were martyred in gruesome forms of execution and suffered horrible deaths.

Who on earth would die to protect a known lie?

My question for Mr. Barker in return is simply this: can you find even one prosecutor willing to try a felony case before a jury using four witnesses to the alleged crime offering the exact same testimony in every detail? Even more daunting, can he find four witnesses willing to offer testimony while in fear of their own life?

A good defense attorney like Perry Mason would turn a D. A. foolish enough to depend on obviously coached witnesses into Ham Burger.

Reincarnation, and the problem of an open mind

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: As a Christian, I will admit this is information that I have trouble reconciling with my religious beliefs, and it especially bothers me because it’s something that wouldn’t upset me if true — it actually solves theological issues I have about sticky issues such as the premature death of a child. As a human being, curiosity got the better of me, and I’ve learned that I cannot simply reject the idea of reincarnation. Like Dr. Tucker, I’m merely more open to the possibility, in the light of evidence such as that I’m about to describe.]

Little five-year-old Ryan from rural Muskogee County, Oklahoma began having nightmares involving a past life.

Ryan claimed he had been a well-known actor who lived in Hollywood, had a sister who was a famous dancer, and once knew Rita Hayworth. He said that he had been really rich, married multiple times, loved Chinatown and Chinese food, lived in a house with a swimming pool on “rocks” drive, owned some sort of agency that changed names, and provided a host of other details about this mysterious “previous life.”

Ryan’s father Kevin, a police officer with thirteen years experience, proposed that mother Cyndi should keep track of all Ryan’s past-life claims. To be precise, over a period of several months Cyndi documented 102 unique claims that her son made about a past life.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s nightmares continued to get worse. He would turn white and gasp for air, struggling for every breath. He talked about things that seemed gibberish, like a meeting in a New York graveyard with someone he called “Senator Five.” His parents desperately felt the need to do something to help their son. “Do you know who I am yet?” Ryan would regularly demand.

Cyndi had heard that if you could get books about the places where children claimed to  experience in their past lives, the children often opened up and found some relief. Cyndi began thinking it might help stop the nightmares, and she was willing to try just about anything to make them stop. So she bought a few books about Hollywood. Flipping through one of them one night, Ryan got excited when he saw a still photograph from an old movie. “You found me, Mama, you found me!”Ryan said excitedly. “That’s me, and that’s George” he said, pointing to a picture of George Raft.

The movie from which the promotional photo was taken was titled Night After Night.

Claiming he had worked on the film, Ryan proceeded to describe the plot in detail. He said that George Raft played a boxer who lived in a mansion and kept a closet full of guns.

Ryan pointed to an unidentified extra shown in the photo and claimed that had once been him. After his parents obtained a copy and watched Night After Night, they were flabbergasted as they realized Ryan had predicted specific details of the plot with eerie accuracy without ever having watched the movie.

But they were equally disappointed to discover that the actor Ryan had identified as his previous life had a minor, uncredited role. Desperate to help Ryan cope with his recurring nightmares, Kevin and Cyndi then contacted Dr. Jim Tucker, medical director of The Child and Family Psychiatry Clinic and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. After interviewing the young boy, Dr. Tucker decided that he and his parents were credible, and their claims merited further investigation. Tucker figured that the best way to help Ryan end his nightmares would be to identify the man from the movie, so he began to research.

Ryan and his parents looked through hundreds of head shots of actors from the 1930s. An actor named Ralf Harolde seemed to resemble the man in the photo, but Ryan wasn’t sure. Kevin and Cyndi were so determined to help their son they flew with Ryan to Hollywood, to trace the footsteps of Ralf Harolde. However, other than handling chopsticks like a seasoned pro in Fong’s Chinese restaurant, Ryan showed no signs of familiarity in his tour of Harolde’s old stomping grounds, and seemed particularly troubled to hear that Ralf Harolde didn’t have a sister. And when his mother told Ryan that Harolde’s wife’s name had been Mary, Ryan said, “Maybe that’s the wrong wife.”

But Dr. Tucker suspected Harolde was the wrong actor. And he believed Ryan harbored the same suspicion. So he enlisted the aid of professional film footage researcher Kate Coe. She went to the physical Academy Library archives and carefully pored over every scrap of information that she could find about the movie Night After Night. Finally she identified actor Marty Martyn as the man in the picture with George Raft.

With that breakthrough in hand, Tucker thoroughly researched the life of Martyn, and then put Ryan to a full battery of tests while employing the scientific method at every opportunity to ensure the results were genuine. Without mentioning his name, Tucker showed Ryan “photo lineups” of pictures in groups of four, and the boy easily identified Marty Martyn (born Marty Kolinsky) at various stages of his life.

As another test, Dr. Tucker asked Ryan’s father to read several other alliterative names such as John Johnson, Willie Wilson, and Robert Robertson, and Ryan quickly chose the name culled by Coe’s research, that of Marty Martyn. From photo lineups Ryan also correctly identified photographs of Senator “Five” (Senator Ives of New York), Martyn’s former wife Margie, and several other key figures that Ryan had mentioned on the bullet list of 102 memories from his alleged previous life.

Tucker managed to contact the daughter of Marty Martyn as part of his research efforts. He was able to confirm that 90 of 102 specific details from Ryan’s list were confirmed to be accurate and true. There was insufficient documentation to validate or refute the other 11 claims.

Next Ryan and his family traveled out to Hollywood again, this second trip to meet his “daughter”, who was now approximately the same age as Ryan’s grandmother. Seeing his “daughter” had grown to adulthood seemed to give Ryan closure. He no longer has nightmares and now acts much like any other child his age.

Now as a professed Christian, I readily admit that this sort of information falls well outside my comfort zone in terms of experience. But as someone who regularly chastises my atheist friends for being unwilling to challenge their personal system of beliefs with new information, it would be hypocritical for me to refuse to acknowledge that information such as this allegedly exists. If I’m going to “practice what I preach”, I have to investigate. And only a fool would suggest a 90 percent success rate was due to luck, or a fluke.

It turns out that Dr. Tucker is a well known, accredited expert in his field. I respected how he applied the scientific method to the bizarre, and somewhat unbelievable problem of reincarnation. And I also respected his candor in an interview with David Ian Miller about his book Life before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives when Dr. Tucker said,

What I say in the book is that after reviewing many of the strongest cases we have, the best explanation for them is that memories and emotions at times seem to be able to carry from one life to the next. So I think the evidence is there to support [reincarnation]. Now, if you are asking, Is it part of my personal belief system? Not particularly. I’m not a Buddhist or Hindu or anything like that. I’m open to the possibility, obviously, or I wouldn’t be spending time on this research. But I’m not a zealot as far as pushing some sort of religious doctrine.

The problem with information such as this is that it falls outside of our comfort zone, or our normal expectations of reality. On the surface it sounds like, well, something that could only be dreamed up in Hollywood. I can’t say I’ve experienced a previous life. I have no memories or experiences that would be in any way comparable to those Ryan claimed to have.

Could it be a hoax? Anything is possible. I can understand why Dr. Tucker might hope to perpetuate a ruse — the person who could confirm reincarnation, or life after life, might expect to achieve some level of fame and fortune. What I cannot understand is why Ryan or his parents would participate in a fraud.

I cannot simply dismiss the evidence offered in this particular case, especially in light of the fact it was so thoroughly documented, and the scientific method was applied during the data collection process. I can’t swear under oath that the information is true, either. I can only ask “Cui bono?” (who benefits) from the lie? I can also call to your attention that such alleged information exists, and relay that information as accurately as possible.

But I cannot tell you what this alleged information means, not with any certainty.

[Primary original source: The Unexplained television program on the Biography Channel, episode on reincarnation.]

The real face of Jesus, part 4

Artwork by Ray Downing

Russell Breault of the Turin Education Project said, “It’s human nature to always want to put a name with a face. The scripture gives us the name. The Shroud gives us the face.”

The highlight of the History Channel program “The real face of Jesus” was the work of Ray Downing and his team at Studio Macbeth in an effort to cull a human face from the image on the cloth. Ray and his team are some of the best computer graphics artists in the world, specializing in the creation of accurate and lifelike death masks of famous people.

Downing said,

When you look at the Shroud, you have the impression that it’s a picture, but it’s not a picture at all. It’s a database of information. If one were to single out one single thing about the Shroud of Turin which separates it from every other effort on the planet is that it encoded three dimensional information in a two dimensional surface.

Downing and his team meticulously studied the Shroud. They had to overcome a number of difficult issues that were unique to this assignment. For example, the cloth was very dirty, with copious marks of bloodstains overlaid on the image of the body and had to be cleaned. At one point Downing said to a coworker, “I think the solution [about the problem of separating the distortion of the image] to it is to realize the Shroud wasn’t hanging on a wall. It was wrapping a corpse.”

To separate the image of the man under the Shroud, bloodstains on the material had to be contrasted and highlighted in order to be digitally scrubbed from the body. A special raster algorithm known as Fast Fourier Transformation was used to mathematically eliminate the herringbone weave pattern in the fabric from the image. Every conceivable effort was made to produce an end result that was as accurate as possible, and the results were remarkable.

Downing traveled to meet with John Jackson, the lead scientist of STURP. Together they conducted experiments to better understand how distortions in the fabric altered the image. With the blood temporarily removed from the enshrouded face, the weave patterns in the fabric was found to also interfere with the extraction of the image. This problem was caused by stretch distortion naturally produced by a two dimensional surface of the fabric covering the three dimensional object, in this case a human face.

Ray Downing described the physical damage on the body that had been wrapped in the Shroud: “It looked like an automobile accident. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was devastating, vicious….that’s all you can say about it, vicious.”

Then Downing abruptly stopped speaking, seemingly overcome by emotion. The result of their efforts significantly cleaned up distortions in the three dimensional image projected from the Shroud. It provided the computer with sufficient information from which a head mold could be cast, which was equivalent to creating a death mask of Jesus.

The next step for Downing and his team was to take this death mask they had been able to create from the cleaned up three dimensional image and using a regular office scanner, load it back into the computer. Next, the three dimensional model of the death mask was overlaid with the computerized three dimensional projection extracted from the Shroud itself for comparison, and the two images matched perfectly, as the Shroud covered the death mask.

Artwork by Ray Downing

Finally, Downing brought his computerized image to life, colorized so that the skin, hair and blood looked quite realistic. The head slowly rotated and tilted upward. Then the eyes opened and blinked as light shone on the face, and that sent a chill down my spine.

Ray Downing would the first to concede that there is no way to assert with any certainty the image he composed using information obtained from the Shroud was the face of the crucified Christ. On the other hand, Downing seemed confident the image his team helped cull from the “database of information” on the Shroud was as accurate as the technology and their skills would allow, working under the assumption that the Shroud was the genuine article.

Was their effort all a waste of time?  Did the Shroud ever cover the body of Jesus?  Have Ray Downing and his team at Studio Macbeth accomplished the impossible, and given us the opportunity to see the real face of Jesus, two thousand years after his death and resurrection?

“Prince of Peace” by Akiane Kramarik

What is most interesting is to compare the efforts of Downing to the work of Akiane Kramarik titled Prince of Peace and note the uncanny similarities between them.

Dan Porter of the website ShroudStory.com said it best:

It’s hard to imagine a forger could have done this.  The question is: why would he? Why create something that’s a negative with all these three dimensional attributes to it…unless somebody in the medieval period said, “Gee, I’ve got to fool somebody in the 21st century.”

Why indeed. Why would anyone go to all this trouble to create an elaborate hoax? It might make sense to do it for money, but where is the profit in it?

God only knows…

The real face of Jesus, part 3

The Sudarium of Oviedo

Many people concluded that the Shroud of Turin must be a clever forgery once the carbon 14 dating test results of 1988 were announced. Those results apparently established a date of origin for the material ranging between 1260 and 1390 A. D.

The three laboratories selected to perform the tests had impeccable reputations. They worked independently, yet achieved remarkably similar results — all three labs declared the shroud had a medieval origin, more than a thousand years after the death of the Christ. Assuming their work was stellar and the results were accurate, the Shroud could not possibly have been used to cover the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. So why has it been preserved and continues to be venerated, if the shroud is nothing but a fake? And why have people continued to study a forged relic?

These and several other questions came to mind while watching the History Channel special (link to full program here) titled “The Real Face of Jesus”:

  1. Is it possible to still believe the shroud could be real, given the results of carbon dating experiments performed in 1988?
  2. Should the veracity of the scientists and the results of the tests be trusted?
  3. If the Shroud really wrapped the body of a dead human being, was that man the crucified Christ?
  4. If the Shroud is genuine, can it be used to somehow determine what Jesus looked like?

The first three questions enumerated above will be answered in this article, and the fourth question will be addressed in the fourth and final installment of this series.

In my personal opinion, the integrity nor reputations of the scientists who performed the carbon dating tests should be impugned, nor should their motives be questioned. Any impartial observer should realize that their efforts were sincere and the results of their experiments were accurate for the sample tested. The problem with the carbon dating turned out to be that the sample taken from the shroud as part of STURP came from a contaminated section of the shroud. Those carbon dating results were first challenged in a 2000 paper published by a couple of amateur investigators named Sue Benford and Joseph Marino. Benford and Marino had asserted that the sample tested had been contaminated when repairs were made in the past.

Their claims infuriated a member of the original STURP team named Ray Rogers. Rogers carefully examined residual material he kept that had been left over from the original sample used in the carbon dating tests. It was a known fact that the shroud had once been damaged by fire. Bedford and Marino theorized that repairs to the original material had been made on the very section of the shroud from which the sample to be tested was taken.

Determined to prove them wrong, Rogers re-examined his sample only to discover cotton fibers that weren’t consistent with the rest of the fabric, which was a linen weave. The result of Rogers’s investigation inspired by Benford and Marino turned into the 2002 paper titled “Scientific Method Applied to the Shroud of Turin.”

In his paper, Rogers invalidated the carbon dating test results from 1988 and even announced that he was close to proving the shroud was genuine — a point I would contend is impossible, given a lack of DNA evidence.

Chemist Robert Villareal of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said this about the carbon dating results controversy:

The age-dating process failed to recognize one of the first rules of analytical chemistry that any sample taken for characterization of an area or population must necessarily be representative of the whole. The part must be representative of the whole. Our analyses of the three thread samples taken from the Raes and C-14 sampling corner showed that this was not the case.

However, even before Rogers published his 2002 paper refuting the carbon dating test results for the Shroud, there were several more excellent reasons for harboring lingering questions about the accuracy of the test results.

For example, a copy of the Shroud had been painted in 1516. The copy clearly showed the “L” shaped burn marks from fire damage, but not the larger scorch marks that also can be seen on the Shroud today. Therefore, prior to 1516, the Shroud must have been damaged by fire, even though a second fire is known to have occurred in 1532. The painted copy was obviously made before the second fire created the scorch marks. But there is much better corroborating evidence for the shroud that allowed the skeptical mind to wonder about the validity of the carbon dating test results.

Interestingly, a relatively obscure book known as the Hungarian Pray Manuscript has an intriguing, very unique image depicted on its cover. It clearly shows the same distinctive herringbone weave pattern found on the actual Shroud of Turin, and even shows the L-shaped burn marks (but not the scorch marks, which is an important point to note.)

Documentation proves that the Hungarian Pray Manuscript existed as early as 1192-1195 A.D. — in other words, more than half a century prior to the earliest date estimate for the Shroud that was produced by carbon dating tests. That fact alone could only mean one of two things — either the current Shroud is an exact duplicate of material that existed prior to 1260 A.D., or somehow, the carbon dating test results had to have been wrong. However, the Hungarian Pray Manuscript is not even the oldest relic with a direct connection to the Shroud of Turin that called the carbon dating results into question.

The history of a second corroborating relic known as the Sudarium of Oviedo dates to at least 614 A.D. The Sudarium is a piece of cloth saturated with human blood that’s about the size of a dish towel. It is believed to have been used to clean the worst of the blood from the face of Jesus and cover his face, as his body was prepared for burial. Expert analysts have claimed that the bloodstains on the Sudarium perfectly match the blood patterns on the Shroud.

Furthermore, pollen evidence found on both the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo match a flowering thorn known to only grow within a fifty mile radius of Jerusalem, which strongly suggests that both pieces of material were in Israel at one time. This pollen evidence establishes a very credible second link between the Shroud and the Sudarium that is unrelated to the blood evidence.

Does the Shroud of Turin prove Jesus was resurrected? Or does it only prove that a man crucified in a manner matching the biblical descriptions was wrapped in it and buried somewhere in Israel, within 50 miles of Jerusalem?

For skeptics and believers alike, the truth will always rely on an element of faith. If one doesn’t believe in the crucifixion and the resurrection, simply pointing out that without the DNA of Jesus to compare to the blood on these relics (assuming it hasn’t already deteriorated to the point where analysis cannot determine an exact match) there is no proof, and therefore no reason to believe as fact that Jesus really was the promised Jewish Messiah.

Likewise, Christians can take comfort from the knowledge that the carbon test results were proved wrong, and the Shroud absolutely could be genuine. The Shroud was almost certainly not forged between 1260 and 1390 A.D. Quite frankly, there isn’t a forger in the world who would have thought of faking that pollen evidence.

At this point, proposing that the Shroud of Turin was the product of a deliberate and malicious intent to deceive by some master forger takes more than faith; it requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

And there is still more to be learned about this crucified man by studying the Shroud of Turin.

The real face of Jesus, part 2

What is the Shroud of Turin? What does it mean?

Photographer Barrie Schwortz of STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) describes the Shroud as “religion and science living on the same piece of cloth.”

And he should know; Schwortz spent five days in 1978 working as a principal photographer documenting the efforts as part of the Shroud of Turin Research Project that was led by physicist John Jackson, who worked for NASA in the 1970s.

When Jackson ran a photograph of the Shroud of Turin through a VP-8 digital analyzer  (a specialized computer typically used to map three dimensional simulation models from two dimensional images) at NASA, the remarkable result of his experiment led to the commission of the STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) team.

Jackson’s test culled a three dimensional image from the two dimensional photograph…and no other painting or work of art has ever reproduced such a phenomenon. Only photographs of three dimensional objects can produce that same effect. The test result clearly indicated that the fabric had once been used to wrap a three dimensional object, which in this case was the dead body of a human being, believed to be none other than Jesus, the Christ.

No matter what else might be said or written, this religious artifact will always have doubts about it veracity and authenticity due to the lack of a clear chain of custody and the now controversial results of carbon dating tests. Like any other religious artifact, the fact that it exists cannot be offered as irrefutably proof of the existence of God, because proof does not require faith.

Russell Breault of the Turin Education Project said of the Shroud:

It is not a fake, not a painting, not a photograph–in essence we can tell you what is not, but not what it is. The Shroud is either an authentic burial shroud or it isn’t. All tests indicate there is no paint, ink, dye, pigmentation stain, nothing on the cloth used by an artist to fabricate the image….it’s just not there.

Even if the Shroud was as young as the carbon test suggested, there is real human blood and no evidence of any residue, particulates, paint, or any other material on the fabric that would suggest it was produced artificially. Scientific experiments and tests have confirmed this fact. Only the outermost fibers of the cloth are slightly discolored, and those fibers have no paints or dyes.

Whether or not it was the burial shroud of Jesus is arguable, but that it wrapped the dead body of a man is not. In addition to human blood is an image which has a phenomenal characteristic that is not reproducible in any painting or drawing in the world. In layman’s terms, the lights and darks on the fabric are reversed, an inverse of what is normal — just like a photographic negative. Amateur Italian photographer Secondo Pia discovered this most unusual characteristic of the Shroud in 1898 when he was allowed to photograph it. Pia found he could see the image of the crucified man much more clearly in the negative than when viewed by the naked eye. What makes this idea so unusual is that the shroud predates the invention of the camera by more than 500 years, assuming the 1290-1360 date from carbon testing was still valid. When viewing the negative, the image burned into the linen cloth becomes as clear as Stonewall Jackson’s visage on the face of Stone Mountain.

The amount of blood on the fabric and pattern of wounds is astounding….those who have seen Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ can relate to the brutality this man suffered, but they were watching a Hollywood reenactment. The Shroud shows the real deal, and it was incredibly brutal.

When computer graphics were used to highlight the bloodstains on the fabric and color them bright red, the shocking result that leapt off the screen was gut-wrenching. This person suffered unbelievable pain, and torture well beyond human comprehension. If this person wasn’t Jesus, the man wrapped in the cloth suffered the same fate as that described by the Gospels.

It was quite easy to count over 120 scourge marks and wounds on the body of the man wrapped in that piece of cloth. There was a sizable wound in the wrist that was clearly visible, where a nail apparently was driven (the other wrist was covered by the first), and a similar puncture wound was on the one foot visible (the feet were also stacked on top of each other.) A wound seemingly made by a spear was evident in his side, and blood drenched his hair from wounds consistent with a crown of thorns.

Breault asked, “Is it possible this fourteen foot piece of linen cloth captured the greatest paranormal event of all time?”

Of course, it is possible.

However, the authenticity of the shroud could never be proved beyond all reasonable doubt to a serious skeptic. And this unsettling fact gives some solace to both the believer and the unbeliever, assuring them that they are in the right. Lack of irrefutable proof in either direction allows everyone to comfortably maintain their existing worldview.

In other words, you may continue to believe whatever you wish.