By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Much ado is being made of a new medical study questioning the power of intercessory prayer. The New York Times reported on the front page of its Friday edition that a ten-year medical study, led by Harvard Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, indicates, “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery.” The study, involving more than 1800 patients, noted a higher complication rate in patients who were the focus of prayer.
So, where’s God in all this: encased in kryptonite; resting on the seventh day; or perhaps the Lord didn’t get the memo?
“One conclusion from this is that the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further,” Dr. Charles Bethea, an Oklahoma City cardiologist and co-author of the study, told the Times, responding to the controversy the study has engendered.
As well intentioned as this and related studies might be, a quick check of scripture tells us that God doesn’t do tests. The premise is as scientific, as it is spiritual: You can’t put the Lord in a box when the heavens the Almighty created know no bounds. Moses himself finally got the point after wandering aimlessly in the desert for 40 years with the grousing Israelites. “Why do you quarrel with me,” Moses asks them in Exodus 17:2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
In fact, there is only one place in scripture, whether you are reading from a Catholic, Protestant or Jewish perspective, where God encourages a test of faith. In the last word of the Old Testament—Malachi 3:10—the Lord promises to bless those who tithe: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me in this.”
The problem with studying religion in scientific terms is that “you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion,” Dr. Richard Sloan, a Columbia University professor of behavioral medicine, said in the Times report.
In short, God is not a spiritual primate who will do tricks for a pellet. Intercessory prayer has worked since the beginning of time, ever since God promised Cain in the Book of Genesis that no one would harm him, and all the Harvard studies in the world won’t change that. Does intercessory prayer work all the time? Hell, no! We often ask for the wrong things, like a Red Sox World Series championship in less than 86 years. We regularly quench our thirst on the salt water of the earth—making us even thirstier and discarding the free and inestimable supply of the Living Waters of redemption and the Holy Spirit.
Weighing in on the prayer study, Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the spirituality center at Duke University Medical Center, notes that within the Judeo-Christian tradition, God would be expected to be more concerned about a person’s eternal salvation, not whether one survives a triple bypass, states an Associated Press report.
Something to chew on next time you go to prayer!
I know a 17-year-old driver, a good kid but typical of his age, who was clocked three months ago coming home from Nauset Regional High school in North Eastham at 82-miles-an hour. Two weeks later on a Saturday night, he was rounding a blind corner at about10 pm in a secluded neighborhood—radio at ear-piercing tilt—and sideswiped a parked car, demolishing the right front end of his Toyota.
I know him because he’s my son.
When I first learned of the accident, the questions raced through my mind at warp speed: Was alcohol involved? Was anyone hurt? The answer to both, this time, was no. But I don’t want there to be second time.
Rear-ended by an alarming and often tragic rash of traffic accidents involving teenage drivers, state lawmakers have pledged to radically revise state driving statutes that apply to teenagers, raising the legal driving age a full year to 17 years and six months. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi told the Boston Globe last week he hoped to have the legislation on the governor’s desk by mid summer. If approved, the rewrite would be among the most restrictive in the nation.
Although it won’t have an immediate effect on my son (his general grounding and loss of wheels has), such legislation is essential, and should be enthusiastically embraced on Beacon Hill, considered on both sides of the aisle as one of the most critical bills before the House and Senate. Critics of the proposal insist that raising the driving age will not address the problem, opting instead for stricter enforcement of existing laws. But the sad statistics of poor teenage driving screech out like brakes jammed on a highway.
According to highway safety associations, teenage drivers account for only seven percent of all drivers, and yet are involved in more than 14 percent of all fatal crashes—the primary cause of death and injury to teenagers 15 to 19. The carnage is measured in the thousands; close to 6,000 teenagers a year in this country die in fatal crashes, most of them occurring between 9 pm and midnight.
Contributing factors include: lack of driving experience, poor driving skills, distractions, risk taking, bad judgment, driving at excessive speeds and, the most disquieting of all, alcohol and drug use.
Young, immature drivers often assume they are indestructible, and drive as they do in the fantasy video games of their obsession. Encouraging a 16-year-old to draw the line between the real and imagined is like getting an infant to take its first step. They wobble and fall until they get it right.
All the more reason to extend the age for teenage driving. What do we lose by it? Well, parents may have to shuttle their kids around for another year. What do we gain. Maybe a score of lives!
It’s a savings that can hit close to home.
Like children who just cracked the code to their parent’s home equity account, Congress last week drilled deeper into your pockets, raising the limit on federal government borrowing by $781 billion. Tapping into more debt and giddy with the cash reserve, lawmakers—both Republicans and Democrats, many of whom are facing reelection in the fall—then spent more than $100 billion (much of it on the war in Iraq and hurricane relief) without any offsetting budget cuts.
“On vote after vote in the House and Senate, lawmakers demonstrated the growing gap between their political promises to rein in spending and their need to respond to emergencies and to protect politically popular programs,” the Washington Post reported.
Goofy, gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman must be amused: what me worry? Hey, amigos, we got plenty of scratch, as the saying goes; it’s just tied up in debt. And the hemp is getting tighter and tighter, but no one seems to be noticing that we’re all gasping in shades of red and blue.
Remember the good old days of the Grand Old Party? As the Bush bus rolled into Washington amid a ticker-tape parade of tax cuts, we actually had a surplus in the bank. The statutory debt limit has now risen by more than $3 trillion—no chump change for a party that preaches fiscal restraint. “The problem we have had on the budget all along is a lack of adult supervision,” economist Bruce Bartlett told The New York Times, suggesting Congress can’t be blamed for looking after its parochial interests. “It’s the president’s responsibility to look out for the national interest, and I think that responsibility has been largely abandoned over the last five years.”
Not quite. Letting Congress off the hook for our current budget crisis is like allowing your teenage son out on a Saturday night after a Friday night bender. But Bartlett—who served in the Reagan administration in the Office of Policy Development and in George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Department as deputy assistant secretary for economic policy—makes a strong case in a new book critical of Bush’s grim economic record. Financing two wars, responding to domestic disasters and bucking up homeland security, all while granting tax cuts, has left us as a nation many days late and millions of dollars short in fulfilling a collective mission.
Sorely lacking in preparedness in critical health issues, our government is now giving us the bird. Renowned avian flu expert Robert Webster warned ABC News last week that there were “about even odds at this time for the (H5N1) virus to learn how to transmit human to human.” He cautioned, “Society just can’t accept the idea that 50 percent of the population could die.”
Sky-is-falling-rhetoric for some, but we are about as prepared today to confront a flu pandemic, as we are to tackle trillions in debt. Head Boy Scout Bush seems to have forgotten the motto. Anyone got a spare handbook?
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
At 300 miles wide—the distance from Boston to Philadelphia—Enceladus, a snowball of a moon circling Saturn, appears to be a “hot spot” for life. NASA’s orbiting Cassini probe has detected what scientists speculate are water geysers on the moon’s icy surface, suggesting this celestial chunk of ice might be an incubator for life, intelligent or otherwise.
High-resolution images indicating geyser-like eruptions of ice crystals and water vapor could be proof positive of underground reservoirs of water close to the surface—a fundamental ingredient for life.
“We have the smoking gun,” declared Carolyn Porco, a Cassini imaging scientist, noting Enceladus should be put on a short list of remote places in the universe that might support extraterrestrial life, along with Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Just a day after these findings were reported in Journal Science, NASA announced Friday that the well-traveled Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had downshifted into an orbit above the red planet to begin a two-year search for life.
Imagine the possibilities: if life is found on Enceladus, Europa or Mars, how might have it progressed elsewhere?
Ever since Galileo Galilei squinted into his telescope, we’ve been agog over the possibilities of finding life, perhaps intelligent, in the universe—spending billions of dollars in the hunt, and fueling speculation that such discovery might shake our faith in the Almighty at its primal roots. But nothing could be further from the truth. God never promised us a rose garden, nor did the Lord say we were the only ones here. The prospect, however far-fetched, of an intelligent existence beyond our borders is intriguing, life altering (as we know it), and should be pursued with old-fashioned common sense.
That said we ought to fix our eyes on our own planet in the search for intelligent life, a black hole of a place for thoughtful dialogue and behavior. We have a country today driven by hateful, polarizing partisan politics and a world amuck with radicals seeking to blow the place up. Our vision, while expanding in the universe, is constricting at home, threatening an implosion of more violence, anarchy and worldwide starvation.
Are we prepared, scientists inquire, to meet long distance cousins in the universe? Hell, no! We’re not even prepared to meet our own fundamental needs on earth—whether it’s plucking abandoned blacks off a highway bridge in storm ravaged New Orleans, responding to the threats of an avian flu pandemic, patching the world’s porous security networks to prevent further acts of terrorism, or bottling the nuclear genie that could render this planet less habitable than the moons of Uranus.
Until we collectively understand that working together means basic problem solving, not just processing partisan political or cultural points of view, we will continue as a species to lack vision.
Let’s face it, intelligent life elsewhere or not, we’re all we got here!
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
A political pachyderm of a man, the willowy Christy Mihos (seated with family at the right), Big whistle-blower and millionaire scion of the Christy convenience store chain, stood Republicans on their floppy ears last week with his announcement that he’s lumbering out of the party to run for governor as an independent—taking with him others in the herd, party officials fear.
In a ungainly, elephant-like performance last Wednesday during an appearance with other gubernatorial candidates at a forum sponsored by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Mihos demonstrated he may be more adept at making money and calling attention to government waste, than he is on the stump. In a not-ready-for-prime-time moment, Mihos drew uneasy attention to his wife and manly prowess—pledging, as reported in the Globe, to be brief in his forum comments, “My wife says I’m awful fast, so I’ll try to stick to that.”
But as any neophyte knows, this gubernatorial campaign—while it may unpleasant at times, even dreadful—will be anything but fast, as the field maneuvers in serpentine adjustments to the various campaign promises and proclamations. If anything, the populist and long-shot Mihos may cause Republicans and Democrats to circle the wagons in more inclusive loops, given the fact that a majority of Massachusetts voters have no party affiliation and now have an alternative in a political grazing land where no one stands out.
And that’s good for the campaign. Thinking out of the box, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, contravening her Republican boss, said last Thursday she would oppose an initiative that would permit Catholic bishops to prevent lesbians and gays from adopting children from Catholic agencies. Mihos, a life-long Republican and former board member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority who dented heads with former acting Gov. Jane Swift over toll hikes and Big Dig cost overruns, has stated that he favors adoptions by same-sex couples, gay marriage and abortion rights, in addition to tax and toll cuts.
It is clear that the private and enigmatic Healey is more vulnerable to a Mihos run, in terms of siphoned votes and fund raising, but the Yarmouth political chameleon could also press Democratic hopefuls, Attorney General Thomas Reilly and former Clinton administration civil rights lawyer Deval Patrick, more to the middle. While this doesn’t threaten the two-party system that Mihos apparently scorns, it may give insiders cause to reassess the fringe elements of both parties, which are clearly out of step with the electorate. The National Journal, for example, ranks the Massachusetts Congressional delegation last year among the most liberal in the country, with eight of ten Bay State congressmen (all males if you haven’t noticed) with a voting record more liberal than 88 percent of the House membership. Massachusetts may be more progressive than most states, but the enlightenment here is far more restrained than many of our public servants.
Perhaps Mihos may have shot himself in the foot with his sophomoric family allusions last week, but his candidacy is a bullet across the bow of Massachusetts politics.
By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press
Let’s say we dumb down the Dubai deal, Mr. Bush. The Democrats are all over you like a polyester suit, the pundits are waxing intellectual, spraying pellets of opinions that would make even Harry Whittington duck, and many Republicans facing re-election fear you just gave away the company store and duplicate keys to those who would ransack it.
The average Joe is nervous as hell, and doesn’t give a camel’s derrière about offending anyone in the Middle East over this.
With apologies to some of history’s most eloquent observers of the world scene (Churchill, Chamberlain and Roosevelt, among them), the slothful “Bluto” Blutarsky of Animal House said it best when he boldly spoke of the ravenous resolve of those who seek to disrupt: “Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is!”
Nothing in the Middle East, Mr. President, is over until the terrorists—you know, those whackos who grew up a coconut’s toss from the biblical Garden of Eden and stood this country on its stars and stripes Sept. 11, 2001—say it’s over! And for us working stiffs that gets right to the heart of the Dubai deal, a political handshake to permit a company owned by the Dubai royal family in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to operate six American ports with responsibility for hiring security guards, protecting areas under their control and working closely with U.S. Customs and Homeland Security officials.
It’s a gut issue, Mr. President. You don’t have to be a Kennedy School of Government graduate to get it. A little common sense due diligence would help: the Middle East is signing up suicide bombers like we recruited officer training candidates after Pearl Harbor; the inhabitants of this stewpot generally hate our guts—anything goes in this part of the world at home and abroad; and the UAE, however “trustworthy,” has given financial support to al-Queda, was a way station for nuclear material to Libya and Iran, and was one of the few countries to sanction Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Now tell me again, Mr. President, why the Dubai deal flies?
Oh, yeah, you’re “trying to conduct foreign policy by saying to people of the world, ‘We’ll treat you fairly.’”
Don’t mean to get personal, Mr. President, but tell that to the families of 911 victims. They may not get it, either.
I see in the papers that you have arranged for a cooling off period perhaps bringing the surface temperature on this down to midday range on the planet Mercury. For the sake of us average Joes, let’s just write this one off, Mr. President. I’m reminded of the mantra of another celebrated observer of life, Dragnet’s Joe Friday who often intoned, “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”
With all due respect, Mr. President, the facts in this case say it’s a dumbhead idea!
A Congressional subcommittee on national security last week began taking up “things that matter” in the testimony of five self-proclaimed whistle-blowers who detailed retaliations for their revelations. “It’s absolutely essential that we have a system that allows people to speak out about abuses, especially in the national security realm,” Rep. Christopher Shays told The New York Times. The Connecticut Republican is one of the leading defenders of whistle-blowers who have spoken out against illegal federal wiretapping, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other purported government misfeasance.
While the Bush Administration is busy caulking leaks of classified information, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are advocating for stronger protections for federal whistle-blowers—government employees who refuse to be silent about things that matter. At a press conference last week, Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, spoke of military officers “whose lives were ruined, who were threatened and intimidated because they simply wanted to tell the truth.”
Both government and corporate employees have long been threatened and intimidated for detailing the sins of superiors or in the workforce. Perhaps the most celebrated case is the late Karen Silkwood, a Kerr-McGee Plutonium Plant employee in the early 1970s who drew national attention when she exposed numerous violations of health regulations at the Oklahoma plant. Among them: contamination exposure to workers; plutonium samples stored in desk drawers; and plutonium samples taken to local schools for “show and tell.” Silkwood, the subject of two Hollywood movies, was killed in 1974 in a car crash still under question.
More recently, Time Magazine termed 2002 “The Year of the Whistleblower,” honoring three women as Persons of the Year: Coleen Rowley, the FBI staff attorney who sent a blunt memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller on how the bureau mishandled strong recommendations from her Minneapolis field office to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, later indicted as a Sept. 11 co-conspirator; Cynthia Cooper, the WorldCom bean counter who exposed the cover up of $3.8 billion in phony company loses; and Sherron Watkins the Enron vice president who cautioned then company chairman Kenneth Lay in 2001 of improper accounting practices.
If we, as a society, are to continue outing abuses in the federal and corporate domains, more safeguards and a change in government and business cultures will be needed. At present, protections are lacking. Next time you consider taking the helm of the community ship, don’t forget to bring along a raincoat.
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
In a born again “Boston Miracle,” many of the city’s impassioned ministers are trying the wake up the dead after years of backsliding. And not a minute too soon! The stench of youth violence, drugs and alcohol abuse today is numbing.
Responding to a troubling increase in teen violence, black ministers in Boston have initiated an ambitious crusade to enlist, train and engage 1,000 volunteers to labor in the prickly fields of Boston’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods to stem a rising crime wave that threatens to swamp these communities. The homicide rate in December climbed to a ten-year high.
The neighborhood outreach will be the largest of its type since the 1990s when Boston became a national model for combating youth violence and President Clinton implemented a National Anti-gang and Youth Violence Strategy, mirrored after the city’s approach. The new initiative will endeavor to enhance the ministers' street-level role in reducing violence and “revive the community-police partnership that was a key factor in the drastic reduction in the city's homicide rate from 1996 until last year,” the Globe reported last week, noting that police will assist in training volunteers for the Boston TenPoint Coalition program.
“There is a realization that we’ve been asleep at the wheel,” the Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown of Dorchester, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, told the Globe, referring to the success of earlier efforts by church leaders, community organizations and the police.
While there appears to be some disagreement over whether the TenPoint Coalition—an ecumenical alliance of Christian clergy and lay leaders—deserves the lion share of share of credit for reducing youth violence a decade ago, today’s crisis cannot be addressed without the active participation and mentoring of the clergy. But this assumes strong, adequately funded participation from police, public officials and community leaders. And that presupposes a lot.
The challenge is that troubled teens in these grim days of municipal budget cuts are not a constituency that attracts political investment, but yet one that screams loudly throughout parts of New England for help, from Maine to Cape Cod, from New Bedford to Bridgeport. The youth dilemma is not limited to the inner city; it is a serious and growing problem fueled by a variety of variables, among them: an increase in street gangs or gang-type behavior; the cultural impact of a foul entertainment media; a rise in drug and alcohol abuse; and a suffusing hopelessness and teen depression—a malaise brought on by unrelenting feelings of sadness and despair that inhibit a youth’s ability to function.
To ignore this crisis is to light a fuse on our young. But this is one problem, as ministers well know, that cannot be solved in strictly human terms. Tapping into the source of all hope, the Almighty, is vital. Psalm 40 is clear about it: “He brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay. He set my feet on a rock, and gave me a firm place to stand.”
Not a bad place for the ministers to start in Boston, the Berkshires, Cape Cod and elsewhere.
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
God has spoken! Or at least those who presume to speak for God, and in Massachusetts, that’s the difference between what’s real and imagined.
In a throwback to 1075 when Pope Gregory VII (on right, no relation) dominated church and state—raising armies, levying taxes, deposing kings and condemning souls—the Archdiocese of Boston and its splinter sects (a.k.a. Council of Churches) intensely lobbied the State Legislature in recent weeks in a holy cow, come-to-Jesus spin campaign that bore the good fruit of a one-sided 147 to 3 margin last week in the House on a bill that would have mandated religious organizations to file annual financial reports with the state.
The resurrected strength of the Catholic Church in Boston
A sure sign of the resurrected strength of the Catholic Church in Boston, the vote was more about power, politics and a twinge of old fashioned Irish guilt, fear and distortion than it was about separation of church and state, as opponents of the measure had attested in letters, sermons and sub rosa calls to lawmakers who finally did the math: churches equal loyal parishioners, who show up in the thousands on reelection day. No political upside here on a “yea” vote that would have placed needed checks and balances on an institution that collectively has operated behind closed doors, often at the peril of the faithful. Even Gov. Mitt Romney, a devoted Mormon, had vowed to veto it, noting the bill’s “onerous reporting requirements, oversight and intrusion in religious practice.”
Onerous intrusion, ironically, was the reason Martin Luther in the 1500s pressed the concept of separation of church and state on grounds of financial accountability, objecting to the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences—spiritual get-out-of-jail cards. Citing scripture, Luther drew a sharp distinction between the “laws of creation” and the “natural laws” the government has charge to enforce. Ask any accountant today and he or she will tell you that bean counting—an annual reporting of finances and real estate holdings—is as “natural” as it gets.
A New Joan of Arc
The Joan of Arc in all this is Senate Assistant Majority Leader Marian Walsh (on right), vilified by church authorities for her role as chief sponsor of the disclosure bill.
Throughout her political life, Walsh has always endeavored to do the right thing, regardless of the political consequence. Raised in Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury, a lawyer, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an outspoken advocate for the disenfranchised, Walsh was the first public official in the state in 2002 to call for Bernard Cardinal Law’s resignation and possible prosecution over the church’s sex abuse scandal. Months later, she proposed landmark and initially controversial legislation—The Reckless Endangerment Act (ultimately approved in the House and Senate)—making it a crime for anyone directly or indirectly to put children in physical or emotional risk.
“They told us (in church) to spread the Good News and stand up for the little guy,” she said in a recent interview in the Boston Irish Reporter.
It’s time now for the legislature to stand up for the little guy, and take another look at the disclosure issue.
By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
And you thought Cape Cod was a black hole for the retired!
You can find the real old guys in the Book of Genesis. Chapter Five is filled with them. To note a few: Methuselah, the granddaddy of the human race, lived for 969 years, scripture tells us, with no indication of how the ancient calendar worked. Adam, the first male, died at 800, Noah’s father Lamech lived to be 777, and Noah himself, Chapter 5:32 notes, was a youthful 500 when he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Adam’s distant relative Enosh lived 905 years, and Enosh’s son Kenan lived to be 910. On the short side of life, Abraham, the father of all nations, lived to be 175, and his young bride Sarah died at 125. And finally, Moses passed on prematurely at 120. Must have been all those years wandering around the desert in the hot sun.
New medical discoveries are slowly returning us to the good old days, as we now live longer than a generation ago for a variety of reasons: less wear and tear, better health, improved medicine, artificial body parts, and now face transplants. Who knows what’s next, or what science will clone for us? From the moment of birth, it seems, we prolong death; probably for most of us, it’s a fear of the unknown. But often the essential ingredient—the quality of life—is missing, a component that hasn’t caught up with today’s medical advances.
As Baby Boomers enter retirement age and the X-Generation ponders the best 401K plans, we all face the prospects of living, or being forced to live, beyond our means. Unless you reside in Oregon.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, has mercifully blocked the Bush Administration’s efforts to discipline physicians who help terminally ill patients die, sanctioning Oregon’s first-in-the-nation assisted suicide law. The court ruled that the Bush Administration had inappropriately attempted to use a federal drug law to pursue Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of prescription medicines, the Associated Press noted in its report. The ruling is expected to encourage other states to follow suit, presaging a life-and-death struggle in Congress over doctor-assisted suicides in cases involving patients with incurable diseases and a functioning mind. In Oregon, the law has been exercised to end the lives of more than 200 terminally ill individuals.
Expect the Bush Administration and its appendages to weigh in passionately against such laws on the hallowed ground of right to life, terra firma that I, too, embrace. Any delusion of this, the Bush Administration dreads, puts at risk legal strategies in the anti-abortion issue.
But doctor-assisted suicide is not about the sanctity of life. It’s about the sanctity and dignity of death, and our moral right not to prolong it through unnatural means.
Methuselah may have lived the equivalent of ten generations or more, and Noah found love at 500, but for most of us the light at the end of the tunnel is dim until we approach it on the other side.