So, when someone asks you if you are religious or if you believe in God, what do you say? It turns out that we human beings think about this a lot–all over the planet–and have been thinking about it from the very early stages of our species. Given the size and nature of our brains, we Homo sapiens cannot help asking fundamental questions like why are we alive, what is the meaning of our lives, how do we find fulfillment, how should we live our lives, and what happens when we die.

In a previous series of blog posts  (September/ August 2023) I wrote about how the concept of God evolved focusing on the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions share belief in the God of Abraham as the true God and central to their faith. These three religions have been very successful and according to survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 now account for more than 55 percent of the world’s population. (Christianity is the most popular with over 30 percent of the world’s population.) However, there are many other religions in the world today—The Pew Research Center identifies 21 major faiths—most of which have a different view of God. I find it interesting that only about 15 percent of those surveyed describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. What all major religions have in common, however, is a set of beliefs, religious and ethical practices, and rituals. Which one is right and which ones are wrong, and what does this all mean?

I am an Episcopalian, a lifer or “cradle Episcopalian,” as we are called. If truth be told, however, I am Episcopalian mainly because my parents were pillars of the Episcopal church in Nashville where I grew up. I suspect a major factor affecting the religious affiliation of anyone is the religion that they were exposed to at an early age. In 1968 I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which was at the time a nondenominational seminary and now an interfaith religious institution. Union exposed me to the beliefs, worship styles and values of other Protestant denominations. I was never ordained, however, because my bishop and I agreed that I was not called to be an Episcopal priest. If you know me, you can understand why.

What sets the Abrahamic religions apart from other faiths is that God is first and foremost a God of history, who has taken decisive action in the history of the world. The early Jews acknowledged the existence of many gods but believed their God, “YHWH,” was superior to all. Their God created the universe in six days, made humans in His own likeness, identified Israel as His chosen people, helped the Israelites destroy adversaries, gave Moses the Ten Commandments, parted the Red Sea, and caused the flood which would have wiped out all life on Earth were it not for Noah, whom God chose to save life on the planet. The history of Israel for most practicing Jews is the history of God’s actions on Earth.  Abraham is thought to have lived in the early 1,800s BCE and the Ten Commandments given to Moses around 1,300 BCE. Monotheism did not become prevalent until around 700 BCE. Two or three hundred years later–between 450 and 350 BCE–the first five books of the Bible—the Torah– were written.

Then along came Christianity about  half a millennium later. Jesus, of course, was a Jew. He is honored as a Jewish prophet by both Jews and Muslims. He preached a message of a loving and just God, and of helping the poor and the downtrodden. He performed miracles, healed the sick, and became a popular figure and a threat to the Jewish establishment and the Roman Empire, actions for which he was crucified in his early 30s. Had this been the end of the story, no one would have paid much attention to Jesus of Nazareth, and there would be no Christianity. But two things happened. The first is what I call the “resurrection experience.” Something happened that made Jesus’s disciples believe that Jesus had not died but had “risen from the dead.” This was followed some forty days later by the Ascension when Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven and then in ten more days the Pentecost when Jesus appeared again to a large following, speaking in different languages. Had this been the end of the story, it is not clear if a new religion would have been sustained. The stories about the resurrection and what followed were not written down until a over a generation after his death. (Mark, the first gospel was written in the mid 60s CE. The Gospel of John did not happen until near the turn of the first century.)

But something else happened, and that was the conversion of an erudite, Greek speaking rabbi whose name was Saul of Tarsus and who experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus  four or five years after the resurrection. Saul changed his name to Paul and began a journey to spread the word of the resurrection, which in Paul’s thinking proved that Jesus was the son of God. Paul became a tireless missionary making five journeys to countries at the eastern end of the Roman empire converting people—mainly gentiles who had been worshipers of Constantine and the sun god—to a new religion 50 years later called Christianity. (Jewish Christians referred to themselves as “The Way” probably coming from Isaiah 40:3, “prepare the way of the LORD”. Other Jews also called them “the Nazarenes.”) Paul was a great communicator, dictated numerous letters to early converts to the faith and developed a Christian theology which is spelled out in the most detail in his last letter, the letter to the Romans. Salvation and “justification by faith” are major themes in Paul’s writings. The rest is history. In 2024 there are estimated to be more than 2.4 billion people who call themselves Christians.

About 600 years later, another new religion emerged called Islam, which acknowledged Jesus as a great prophet but did not buy into the notion of his being God. This religion embraces a radical monotheism and a strict prayer life and strong dietary rules. There are about two billion Muslims in the world.

Then there are the non-Abrahamic religions. What about Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many ethnic and tribal religions? These religions for the most part see God not as a person but as a mystical being or force. Some like Hinduism see God as being itself. Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they are said to have experienced nirvana. The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god.

So, I will repeat my question. What do you believe? If you are a Christian, the fundamentals of the faith that are often cited are these:

  • That humans are made in the image of God, which would seem to imply that God in some way is like us humans.
  • That God had a son whom he sacrificed for our sake to forgive humans for our sins and create a pathway to heaven.
  • That to believe that Jesus was God’s only son is your ticket to eternal life in heaven. (“Justification by faith,” not good works.)
  • That failing to believe the Gospel–the “good news” –has dire consequences, like being doomed to an eternal life in hell.

Now I call myself a Christian because I believe in the message of God’s love and the commandment to love your neighbor, not because of a literal interpretation of scripture or the wording of the early creeds that some insist you are supposed to believe to be a Christian. Here are some of my questions:

  1. Heaven and eternal life. Given what we know now about the universe, what does eternal life mean? Where might heaven be anyway? The Christian creeds and the theology of Paul speak of resurrection of the body. Really? How does cremation fit into this picture, and can we choose which body we want—maybe a 25 year-old body rather than an 85 year-old body? Mark Twain once said he would take heaven for the climate, but hell for the company. If going to heaven means your only companions will be fundamentalists and evangelicals, does this sound appealing? If there is no heaven or eternal life, does this make a difference about how we live our lives or the meaning of life on the planet Earth? What about all the other good people who are not Christians on the planet? Having 30 percent “market penetration” is pretty good, but what about the other 70 percent? Many are profoundly spiritual people and many live lives of goodness. Will they all end up in hell just because they do not “believe”?
  2. The nature of God. Some Christians believe that God is all powerful and all good. Given the sorry state of the planet, the human condition, and the suffering many experience, why hasn’t God intervened more often? How do you explain hurricanes, droughts, and all other natural disasters? The National Council of Churches was located next to Union Seminary when I was a student, where several friends worked part time, who spoke of all the lawsuits filed every year against the organization by people who had been turned down by insurance companies which had exclusions for “acts of God.” Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God really a he? It seems to me that the religions that describe God as Spirit–and a Divine Mystery which we humans are not able to fully understand–are closer to the truth.
  3. The universe. Most religions see God as the creator of the universe. The founding fathers were mostly deists who visioned God as the great clockmaker, who got everything started but has taken mostly a hands off position ever since. Only in the last couple of decades have we learned that the universe is much, much larger than what we thought and could be part of a multiverse. What is that all about?
  4. The information we have about God. The scriptures and creeds we rely on for information about God are very old and were written centuries before science had provided information about the nature of our world. On many issues where there are scientific explanations, science often trumps religion.

So now you know why I was not ordained and why becoming an Episcopal priest would not have been a good fit. Some have accused me of not being a Christian, to which I respond that that is God’s business, not yours. In one instance after proclaiming what I thought to be a profound understanding of the Christian faith, one person in a church discussion group angrily responded, “Well, if that is what you believe, why not just join the Democratic Party?” I still hang in there, if by a thread, and do believe in goodness, mercy and the Christian message of love and redemption even if I can’t buy into the whole program. At the same time, I acknowledge that Christianity has had profound benefits for millions and millions of people over the years, that a relationship with the Divine is possible, that spirituality is real, that prayer is important and beneficial, and that truly holy people exist on Earth. For many, many people of all faiths, God is not an idea. God is real. I agree though my answer is more nuanced.  I suspect that there are a whole bunch of people not all that different from me, many of whom are hanging on by a thread or leaving the church because they don’t find the message relevant to their faith journey. As I mentioned in my last blog, this is an issue and a challenge for Christian churches today.



Religion Adherents Percentage
Christianity 2.382 billion 31.0%
Islam 1.907 billion 24.9%
Secular[a]/Nonreligious[b]/Agnostic/Atheist 1.193 billion 15.58%
Hinduism 1.161 billion 15.2%
Buddhism 506 million 6.6%
Chinese traditional religion[c] 394 million 5.6%
Ethnic religions  300 million 3.0%
African traditional religions 100 million[7] 1.2%
Sikhism 26 million 0.30%
Spiritism 15 million 0.19%
Judaism 14.7 million[8] 0.2%
Baháʼí 5.0 million[9] 0.07%
Jainism 4.2 million 0.05%
Shinto 4.0 million 0.05%
Cao Dai 4.0 million 0.05%
Zoroastrianism 2.6 million 0.03%
Tenrikyo 2.0 million 0.02%
Animism 1.9 million 0.02%
Neo-Paganism 1.0 million 0.01%
Unitarian Universalism 0.8 million 0.01%
Rastafari 0.6 million 0.007%
Total 7.79 billion 100%


From the Pew Research Center



To Believe or Not To Believe. That Is the Question.

Strange times, these times. Many conventional Christian churches have been losing members for decades while mega churches are expanding, and many evangelical churches have gone all out for Trump and are part of the Maga movement. Some believe that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. While some in my generation have tended to drift away from conventional Christianity, many have stuck with it although we and most of our friends have children who do not attend church regularly or, for that matter, do not have grandchildren who have even been baptized. When asked by surveys why former church members of mainline Protestant churches have thrown in the towel, often the reason cited is something like “no longer meaningful,” or “not relevant,” or “too busy.”

Embry and I have been attending a small, neighborhood Episcopal Church since the mid 1980s though our church has had it s up and downs over the years as have others. Being part of a small but welcoming and diverse religious community which is more than a social club is important to us, and that is certainly one reason we  have stuck with it. Embry has sung in the choir for more than thirty years, and we have both had held leadership positions in the church. Embry is currently senior warden, the top lay position in the church. Maybe another reason is just inertia. We have been doing this for so many years it is just part of our routine.

However, the decline of traditional religion and religious practice is a concern. Why is this happening? Where are we headed when so much spiritual energy is centered on a neofascist who could take the country into authoritarianism? There are lots of reasons for this, most more sociological than spiritual. The divide in our country along class and educational lines has gotten deeper, and many  traditional mainline churches are viewed by Trump supporters as elitists and examples of the establishment. Many right wing, populist revolutionaries see us “mainliners”—especially Episcopalians—as too snobbish and too woke and believe we look down on them.

That explains part of the challenges to mainline churches but does not fully explain why many former church members say conventional religion is no longer relevant in their lives. Part of the reason for this, I believe, boils down to religious practice and particularly religious language. There is a conflict for many between what we know to be true from science and experience and the religious language used in many churches—especially in the Episcopal Church.

For example, in the Episcopal Church what we say we believe does not sync with what we know to be true based on our education and experience. These are laid out in the two main creeds we Episcopalians say every Sunday, either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed: that humans are created in the image of God, that Jesus was God’s only son, that He died for our sins, rose from the dead on the third day (after spending three days in hell, according to the Apostle’s Creed) and that all (and for some, “only”) those who believe in Jesus as their savior will have everlasting life. Given what we know about the scientific understanding of the world, it is hard for many people to sincerely answer, “Yes, I believe all of these things.”

Afterall, scientists mostly agree that the Big Bang happened over 13.7 billion years ago, that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and that there have been five mass extinctions wiping out over 85% all animals and plants on the planet each time. We humans are newbies since modern humans–and most world religions–have been around only a few thousand years. We also know the world will perish in about a billion years when our sun starts to become a red giant. We know that natural selection is how we evolved from apes.  We now know that the universe is millions of times greater than what we thought only a few decades ago.

The writers of ancient scripture lived before Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. They did not have modern tools like the Hubble and Web telescopes, space stations, computers, and now artificial intelligence.  

Knowing what we know now, can we really say we believe that we humans are made in the image of God? Does God have two arms and legs and is a “he”? Really? No, we have it backwards: Humans have made God in our own image. Did Jesus really “descend into hell”? Did he really rise again and now “sits at the right hand of God”? Certainly, there was a resurrection experience, but do we know what really happened? And does this really make a difference in our faith?  

To insist or even imply that we should take the creeds and ancient scripture like the Bible literally makes no sense to some people of faith. It certainly makes no sense to me.

While we should take scripture seriously for what these ancient wise men were telling us about the meaning of life in their age and their time and their experience, we do not have to take their stories literally. If the stories are viewed as myths—sacred stories which convey profound meaning– then yes, there is truth in these scriptures and creeds, which have meaning for our lives today. For the contemporary, mainline church to stop the outflow of people who can’t say yes, I believe every word in the creeds and in the Bible, the message from the pulpit should embrace what the meaning is today of those ancient creeds, stories, and myths. And churches should focus on putting into practice what those stories tell us: “Love your neighbor.” “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

To be fair, many mainline churches are already doing this, and I would suspect that there is a high correlation between these “progressive” churches and robust church attendance.

 Of course, it is a completely different story among evangelical and fundamentalist churches, some of whom see Trump as their savior. Religion and religious practice have always been influenced by culture and politics. Our country has never been so divided since the Civil War, and there are no indications that it is going to get  better any time soon. The culture and political wars we are in now also includes a war of religions, or perhaps more accurately, a war of religious beliefs. How we end up is anyone’s guess. As both evangelicals and progressive church people would say, “Pray for us.”


Next installment: “God”

Is the Planet Earth Living on Borrowed Time?

On Saturday, February 17, 2024, an article in the New York Times online edition by David Sanger and Julian Barnes reported that the United States has evidence that a new satellite designed by the Russians when launched may contain a nuclear weapon. Their assessment was based on top secret information now being shared with high-level Chinese and Indian officials, who have closer ties to Putin and the Russian government, presumably to convince the Russians to stop the launch. The primary purpose of the weapon would be to destroy the satellites of its adversaries, primarily the United States. Should this happen, virtually all communications we routinely rely on would be destroyed such as cell phones, the internet, radio, and television, and many other things which rely on satellites. While this act would be a violation of international law and the nuclear arms agreement we have with Russia, there is little question that Russia has the technology to do this as does the United States and many other advanced countries. If Russia goes through with this, how long will it be before we launch our own nuclear-armed satellite or that China or North Korea or India will follow? Welcome to Star Wars!

Does this situation remind you of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Here we go again. One more horrible thing to think about. Don’t we have enough on our plate already with climate change and global warming, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the massive migrations to our southern border by persons seeking a better life, the rise of authoritarianism,  all the threats that A.I. is likely to bring, and the thought of another Trump Presidency?

At what point does all of this become too much for our small planet to handle? The match that ignites the haystack may not even be intentional. Some mistake by a technician somewhere punching the wrong button which signals a message of Armageddon to his country’s adversaries, which must respond in kind. Or maybe the villain is A.I. Remember Hal in “2001 Space Odyssey”?

I can hear some readers objecting, “Will you stop all this negative, doomsday thinking and relax? There is nothing we can do about it, so why bother? Just enjoy the life you have now and the beautiful planet you live on. There is so much to be thankful for. And surely at your advanced age it will not affect you.”

Well, you have a point. But I can’t help thinking that at some point, the weight the planet is bearing will simply be too much. Something very bad will happen. Not in my lifetime and hopefully not in the lifetime of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, but sometime. Unless we humans can change our nature, conflict will continue to be part of our existence, and so far just about every weapon we humans have created has been used.

In previous posts I have been obsessed with how old our planet is and how short the time we humans have been on center stage. Our sun and solar system are over four billion years old. We human-like creatures have been around only a few million years and we Homo sapiens only a few hundred thousand. Modern humans only a few thousand. Afterall, written language was developed only about 7,000 years ago, and the size of the human population remained steady in the low millions for many thousands of years until a few centuries ago. The human population explosion began in the Industrial Revolution and has now reached over eight billion.

While I do not want to be a doomsday fanatic, I can’t see the path we are on continuing for a whole lot longer without serious calamity. Afterall, if you have been reading my blog you know that our planet has already had five mass extensions where over 80% of all planet and animal was wiped out. These have occurred on average every 130 to 150 million years. It has been about 130 million years since the last mass extension, and scientists say that we are now entering the Sixth Mass Extension due to loss of animal habitats—due mainly to us humans.  What are the chances that we Homo sapiens will we be part of the Sixth Mass Extension?

Unsettling questions to be sure but as they say in Washington, “above our pay grade” to answer. Better just to forget about the possible disasters and get on with our lives.

But there are people who do keep track of such things. Have you heard of the “Doomsday Clock”? A group of nuclear scientists came up with the idea in 1947 as a warning to the world as to the dangers of nuclear war. The group publishes “The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,” which has updated the time left before “midnight” every January since its inception when the atomic scientists voted to set the clock at seven minutes to midnight. When the minute and second hand hit midnight, it essentially signals the end of the world—at least the end of the world as we have known it. In the early years, the major fear was nuclear catastrophe, but the threats have been expanded to include climate change and, recently, artificial intelligence. Note that the clock has fluctuated over the years  with the most optimistic estimate of 17 minutes before midnight in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. It was updated in 2023 to show 90 seconds, with no change in 2024, the closest to doomsday that it has ever been. Of course, this is only a metaphor of where the world stands regarding existential threats, and the scientists do not say exactly how long a “second” is—a year, a decade, a century?

But still. Is there any doubt that the fragile planet we inhabit is in danger? It is one thing to cry “the sky is falling” like Chicken Little without doing anything to avert the looming catastrophe and another to take decisive action now to move the hands on the clock back. This is the existential challenge of our era. The stakes have never been higher.

Now About This Age Thing

Suddenly after lurking just under the surface, Joe Biden’s age has surfaced to become a major issue in the campaign for the President of the United States in 2024. This is thanks to the damning-with-faint-praise report by the Special Counsel, Robert Hur, which let Biden off the hook from being indicted for mishandling classified documents primarily because of Biden’s age. Hur (who not coincidently, happens to be a Republican) implies Biden is too old, too frail, and too confused to stand trial before a jury. Many Democrats are starting to panic. The talk is all about Biden, however, not his presumed opponent, Donald Trump, who is only four years younger. Both are old codgers. When Biden was a senior in college, Trump was a freshman. Should we be concerned about the age of these two old men?

Yes we should!

But first full disclosure. I have been a loyal Democrat all my adult life. I like Joe Biden. I will vote for him in 2024 despite what I write in this essay, since there are no better alternatives. In my view Joe Biden has not only been a good president, he has been a great president, given the hand he was dealt. There is no medical diagnosis that he has dementia, and he has always been subject to gaffes. The Hur report was a hit job, unfair, and a punch below the belt. Shame on him!

But still.

I am nine months older than Joe Biden. I and most of the people I know who are my age have health issues. The “organ recitals” (hips, knees, joints, livers, hearts, lungs, and, sadly, brains) are a common subject of conversation. Health issues for people in their 80s are just a fact of life. We slog through our remaining years  knowing  that slowing down is better than the alternative. We all know we can’t do what we could do years earlier. 

But it is not all gloom and doom.  If we don’t currently have a life threatening disease, we 80-something men have a life expectancy of about eight years–even longer for women. Hey, you can argue, Biden will serve for only four more years, so what is the problem? Well,  another way to look at the eight year life expectancy is that in 2032 half of us in our cohort will be dead by then and half still alive. Glass half full, glass half empty.

The problem is that the chance of having a disability increases significantly with every passing year, including suffering from dementia. For having a disability of some sort, the chances increase from 46 percent of people over age 75 to almost 85 percent for people over age 80, for one chronic condition, 60 percent for two chronic conditions at age 80 and older. Only just five percent of people age 70-79 have dementia. For people over 80, it is 24 percent, almost one in four. Biden appears to be fit for his age even though he occasionally shuffles his feet and slurs his speech. Should we be worried? 

Come on, people! First, the age issue should not be only about Joe Biden.  It is about  Joe Biden and Donald Trump. They are both old. It is basically about everyone over age 75. And one could argue that Trump is much worse off than Biden regarding mental acuity. Confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, saying he beat Obama in 2016, accusing Biden of starting World War II, constantly confusing the names of world leaders? Please. This dude is not playing with a full deck.

Compare this to the private sector, where except for Warren Buffett, heads of Fortune 500 Companies–and most publicly traded companies, prestigious law firms, and high powered consulting companies–are well below age 75. The median age is around 56; and while mandatory retirement is no longer legal, most companies have figured out ways to nudge their CEO out at age 65 or 70. There is a reason for this. The demands on these people are enormous. These jobs require people to be at the top of their game mentally and have energy, vigor, and staying power. And it is not just CEOs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 5.3 percent of all  people in the U.S. age 80 or above have full time jobs or are actively seeking work. What does this tell you?

I was hardly the CEO of a big company, but for almost 20 years I was the CEO of Howell Associates, a consulting company which had between 15-25 employees. In my mid fifties I realized that I did not have the energy or fire in the belly to keep it going. By a miracle–which I often describe as defacto proof of a benign deity–I was able to sell the company when I was 57. I kept an oar in the water in the retirement housing consulting world, but not as CEO of a small company. It would have been too hard.

Now compare these private sector jobs with the job of President of the United States. Good heavens! There is no comparison. The President of the United States is arguably the most difficult and demanding job on the Planet Earth. And the stakes in 2024 have never been higher as the war in Gaza continues to rage on, Ukraine appears to be faltering, Iran is on the cusp of creating a nuclear weapon, our country is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and authoritarianism is increasing all around the world.

The solution? For this election, there does not appear to an obvious solution. Hold your breath and pray that The Donald does not get elected. This would be the end of democracy as we have known it in our country. Work like hell for Biden, vote for him, and pray that Biden’s health, stamina, and mental acuity does not falter. Yes, Biden is too old, but that is the situation we are in, and there is no obvious alternative at this point. We should have never allowed ourselves to get into this mess in the first place.

The lesson going forward, however, is to amend the Constitution setting a maximum age limit regarding at what age a presidential candidate cannot run for office or seek re-election. We already have a minimum age of 35. Why not a maximum? The maximum age should not exceed 75, maybe even 70. No brainer, people! After Roosevelt we passed an amendment limiting the presidency to two terms and for good reason. The Battle of the Codgers in 2024 is a good enough reason that we should never, never, allow this to happen again.




Follow up to the AI post: Persistence Pays Off, Goodness Prevails.

I am happy to report that this week my Afghan friend and I both received emails from the apartment house he had applied to. He has been approved as renter and I as guarantor. The family will move into a much better building only a few blocks away—hopefully mouse free. Humans one, AI zero.  Happy ending!

I talked to three different leasing agents, wrote numerous, desperate emails, and finally wrote one of my outrage memos to management, with a few tongue-in-cheek sentences thrown in to get a chuckle or two. This strategy often works if you are talking to a human rather than a machine.

This happy ending raises the question: Are we humans basically good or basically bad? Another example of goodness is that this week someone dropped off my driver’s license at the front desk of the Kennedy-Warren, the apartment house where Embry and I live. We had attended a concert the previous evening at the Austrian Embassy where I had to show identification to get in and must have dropped it. Good heavens, how often does this happen?

The answer is probably a lot. I think about the almost 82 years I have been on this planet and conclude that the experience for me has been that good people far outnumber the bad, and that goodness prevails over evil much of the time.

Embry and I have traveled a lot over the years, visiting over 70 countries, and we have both spent several months living in a foreign country—France and Tanzania for Embry, Japan and Mexico for me. While our extensive travel and living abroad has had its challenges, at the end of each trip I have found myself coming down on the optimistic side: In every country you will find good people.

Not so fast, you might say. You and Embry are the lucky ones. You were born into loving families. Your parents were financially secure. You had opportunities to attend great schools, have great friends, and have lived in nice homes in nice neighborhoods. You were able to get good jobs and establish careers and never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. You have a great family and enjoy good health. Face up to it: You got dealt a strong hand. Not that you deserved it, but that is not the case for a lot of people.

And you would be right. Lots of people get dealt weak hands. Poverty and inequality persist. Some families are dysfunctional. Suffering is also a fact of life for many. Racism is still with us. Poor health, depression, and conflicts with others affect many.

Plus, this fragile planet is in bad shape. We live in a time when it feels like the entire world may be up for grabs and could go up in flames. Nuclear weapons are now abundant and in the wrong hands. One mistake or miscalculation could set off a catastrophe beyond description. We are trashing the planet and paying the price for it as temperatures rise. Wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels are increasing every year. Scientists tell us we have only a decade or so to make necessary, difficult choices to avoid the worst outcomes of global warming. And think of the wars happening now—Russia versus Ukraine, Israel versus Gaza–where there is no end in sight. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world and could even happen here.

The truth is we humans are both good and bad. And this is not only true for our species but for each of us as individuals. No one is perfect. We all have good days and bad. We all do foolish things and make mistakes. Most at one time or another face major personal challenges and disappointments. This is the human condition. Welcome to Planet Earth.

But still. The small victory for our Afghan friend is worth a shout, along with the return of my driver’s license, small victories, I suppose, compared to the many blessings I have received over the years. For this I give thanks to the mysterious force in the universe that we humans on Earth call “God.”

A Haunting Memory

In 1965 I was a first year, graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Part of my training as a seminary student was  fieldwork which required being assigned to a church. My assignment was an historic Episcopal church, Saint Mark’s in the Bowery, in New York’s Lower East Side.   I taught Sunday School and was an assistant to the coach of the church’s basketball team.

I was also assigned to a family who attended the church—the Martinez family (not their real name). Hector, who coached the team, and Mary Martinez lived in one of the massive public housing projects in New York’s Lower East Side. They represented a kind of fairy tale for me. In her mid 30s, Mary was the white daughter of a banker and was a college graduate. She had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb. Hector was born in Puerto Rico, came to the city as a child, was part of a street gang as a teenager, and was a high school dropout.  The two met when she was  a social worker in the Lower East Side. They fell in love, married, and were raising their four stairstep kids ranging from age four to twelve. I had dinner with them in their apartment once a week and became an adopted member of their family. They represented for me the hope that our country could bridge the race, cultural, and class barriers that seem so difficult to overcome. The family seemed happy, optimistic, and upbeat, and I thoroughly enjoyed the weekly conversations over delicious dinners prepared by Mary.

Mary was a stay at home mom, and Hector worked in the garment district as a “runner,” someone who pushed large carts of clothing from one building to another. I shadowed him on several occasions and could not believe how hard he worked and, I assumed, for very low pay. But they were managing and surviving thanks in part to affordable housing, at a time when public housing in New York City was clean, safe, and well managed. And, I surmised, thanks to being part of a loving congregation at St. Mark’s Church. This was the reason, I told myself, that I wanted to become an Episcopal priest—to work with people at the margins and to make a positive difference in their lives.  

The experience for me had its challenges. The rector of the church was young, arrogant, ambitious, and a self-described radical, who because of my Southern accent disliked me from day one, accusing me of adolescent enthusiasm and being immature and naïve. I recall one of his sermons he preached after he had marched in Selma in the spring of 1965, when he said that he hated all white Southerners— paused for a moment, looked directly at me, sitting in pew in the first row, and finished his remark with “no exceptions.” So, life was not perfect. I had uncomfortable weekly meetings with him as he tried to make me aware of how difficult the priesthood was, how hard it was for churches to succeed, and how great a job he was doing. I endured, however, relishing my time with Hector and Mary and their kids. They were for me Exhibit A that his grim assessment of the world—and his high assessment of himself—were misguided. Miracles can and do happen.

As the year went on, my naivety was put to the test. The team Hector coached consisted of six or seven tall, Black teenagers, who came from the projects, were members of the same gang, and were very good basketball players. Most of them could easily do slam dunks. I do not know how Hector recruited them; but as far as I could tell, they did not have anything to do with St. Mark’s Church. They all seemed fond and respectful of Hector but very wary of a young, white guy with a Southern accent. And it is true I did no real coaching. I just sat beside Hector at the Saturday morning games as his “assistant,” providing moral support.

At some point during the Saturday morning games, the feel good moment of being with the family changed when I noticed the smell of alcohol on Hector’s breath. Maybe their lives were not so fairytale after all. One morning Hector showed up so drunk he could hardly walk, departed before the game was over, and asked me to take over. When Hector stumbled out of the gym, we were ahead by 10 points. We lost by five. Not a single player would speak to me. Before the game ended, it had become painfully obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.

As was the custom, after each Saturday morning game, Hector would take the players out to a corner grocery and pay for cokes and junk food—win or lose. So that day with Hector gone, this was my job. I realized that I had barely enough money in my pocket to take a subway back to the seminary and had to tell the team that they were on their own for buying snacks. I watched in horror as the team members roamed through the small store stuffing candy and donuts into their mouths and their pockets, guzzling cokes, and angrily knocking items on the floor. A balding, older white guy behind the checkout counter shared my look of horror and consoled me, “It will be ok. Let them have what they want. It will be ok. I don’t want trouble.” It is funny how the mind works. I can still remember what the old guy looked like and where I was standing as I watched the team rip the candy off the shelves and trash his store without paying a dime.

As the year went on, I continued my weekly Friday evening dinners, but Hector was often not present. When I asked Mary where he was, she answered unconvincingly “at a meeting” or “helping someone” and eventually “not sure.” In the late spring when my first year at Union was nearing an end, I showed up for what was supposed to be my last dinner with them. I arrived early, around 4 PM, and noticed that Mary was not working on dinner as she usually was when I arrived, and no kids were present. She had her back turned to me when she opened the door, and then when she turned to face me, I was stunned. She had black eyes, swollen lips, what looked like a broken jaw, scars on her face, and bruises on her arms. Flabbergasted, I asked what had happened.

“Oh, I am fine,” she said, “I just slipped in the shower a couple of days ago. I’ll be fine.”

She apologized for how she looked and tearfully said there would be no dinner that evening. We chatted for a few minutes and then I headed back to the seminary. I knew something had gone terribly wrong but was at loss as to what to do.

The next week when I had my session with the rector, I mentioned that I was concerned about the family. He replied that Mary had disappeared with all the children, even the oldest, who was Hector’s child by a previous marriage, and that no one knew where she had gone. He looked at me with a self-satisfied grin, “Not exactly the fairytale story you thought it was, is it? Welcome to the real world!”

I never heard where Mary took the kids or what happened to Hector or if there was ever an attempt at reconciliation. My field work assignment at the church was mercifully coming to an end, and I was not offered a position there for the next year. When visiting New York many years later I did return to visit the church and was surprised to see that it had been repurposed as a theater and performing arts center.

But I am still haunted by the story and can remember the faces of all the Martinez family members even now, some 59 years later. I wonder what happened to them and what their lives have been like. Are the children still alive? Did any go to college? Have careers? Marry and have their own kids? How did Mary manage and what about Hector?

Approaching age 82 in a few weeks, I have failed to rid myself completely of adolescent enthusiasm though I have accumulated battle scars of my own as all of us humans do over the years. But as for the kind of suffering the Martinez family must have experienced and the obstacles that they faced, my life has been easy sledding. Their story is sadly not that unusual. I suppose that suffering is part of the human condition. The haunting images of the Martinez family –and especially of Mary on my last visit–will be etched into my brain for as long as I live and is a reminder to me of how tough life can be for far too many.