Friday, August 22, 2014

How I Write

I am a reluctant public speaker, but I enjoy telling stories through the printed page; and have published three novels, plus non-fiction biography and memoirs. I write for enjoyment, both mine and the reader's (I hope.) If there is such a genre as "faith-based fiction founded on fact", that describes what I try to do. My target audience is not "religious" people, but the reader who has minimal or no interest in religion because he/she has never thought about it much. Some people term the genre "inspirational".

My writing falls into a gap between "Christian" publishers (for not being evangelistic enough) and many mainstream publishers (for even suggesting that God might be relevant to ethics or human behavior.)

Another Idaho author, Carrie Stuart Parks ("A Cry from the Dust") reports that publishers have strict boundaries on Christian writing: "No profanity, no sex, but you may kill as many people as you like." I hadn't crystallized it so concisely myself, but realized that's exactly the kind of block I have met in my own writing. Secular publishers reject my work for not being lurid enough to hold the reader; Christian publishers red-pencil some of my best lines. I respect God's name; I even omit the thoughtless abbreviation of surprise, OMG. But when ordinary people are insulted, assaulted, or otherwise given cause to express anger or distress, they often employ language that might not be appropriate in Sunday school, and it is unrealistic to portray them otherwise.

When searching for like-minded writers, there is, of course C. S. Lewis, whose "Out of the Silent Planet" trilogy, his "Screwtape Letters", and "The Great Divorce", among others, are classics far beyond my amateur talents. There is also Kimberla Lawson Roby, whose well-written novels about an immoral clergyman, she describes as faith based, but which I found overly explicit (in the one I read.)

I have tried to solve this conundrum by writing the way I hear the English language being used. If the result has social or ethical merit I will still offer my work to Christian bookstores, successfully in some cases. But I may loan a review copy for them to read first. ("But if you spill coffee on it, you've bought it.") I respect the manager who doesn't think it will be accepted by her clients, but some will see the story as a worthwhile contribution to understanding the world's conflicts.
There are other values besides financial.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Medicine and Faith

Every now and then, the newspapers report a child with some dire disease―leukemia or diabetes perhaps―whose parents refuse medical treatment, saying they will depend on God alone to heal the child.

If these same parents were caught with their child in the middle of a raging flood, or some other natural disaster, I think that in most cases they would not hesitate to accept rescue by boat or helicopter, acknowledging that God sometimes sends help by way of such things in this world. It puzzles me why they might think that medicine is less a part of God's created world than a helicopter is. Maybe it's the way they perceive the offer, perhaps with a requirement for cash in advance, or offered with arrogance; or because someone they heard of died anyway. Be that as it may, there is a need for both faith and medicine in medical crises.

To take diabetes as an example, one feature of this disease is a lack of insulin, a natural body product, which the body needs to regulate the way it uses food for energy. Damage to the insulin-producing cells in the body results in diabetes, and if not treated can cause death. Giving daily doses of insulin allows the person to continue to live. It’s not wise to treat a child’s diabetes with prayer alone, when she urgently needs insulin to survive.

Many cases of diabetes in adults, however, are caused by an unhealthy life style which “wears out” the insulin-producing cells. In early cases, simply modifying one's food intake and life style can restore health. But the person may find it very difficult to change life-long habits. Even though he understands what he must do, he finds he hasn’t enough willpower to maintain the change. I have seen prayer and faith make that change possible in some cases.

Faith in what or whom? Some advise self-reliance— “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Others depend upon another person, a spouse perhaps, or a work partner, or a doctor or counselor. Some trust in following the rules set down by their particular religious group. Some others hope to be lucky.

This is a touchy subject. In matters of faith, those who claim to have all the answers often feel threatened and insecure if anyone argues against their particular interpretation. Many other people, more secure in their own faith, may suspect the person with “all the answers” has not yet addressed all the questions.

As Benjamin Franklin put it: “[Most suppose themselves] in possession of all truth, and those who differ are so far in the wrong. Like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and the people in the fields on each side. But near him all appears clear, tho’ in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them.”

I freely admit being a follower of Jesus, even though an imperfect one. I believe in a Creator God who takes benevolent interest in each of us and who has a plan for our lives if we, in our freedom of choice, choose to trust God. That’s my basic life view.

Some people reject this, blaming God for making the world the way it is and causing so much suffering. But before we cast blame, it makes sense to do everything possible to correct the wrongs we ourselves (or others) have caused or could have prevented. Among these causes that might be remedied I see infection, injury, ignorance, greed, demand for vengeance, and misguided desires or life-styles, to name a few.

There are some events, such as volcanic eruption, or earthquakes, over which we have little control. Perhaps God allows such misfortunes as a test of our faith, or to teach us how to help each other, or to teach nations how to get their priorities straight. That’s only a perhaps. I don't claim to know the answer.

Whether dealing with disease or disaster, it makes sense to use the facts of science as far as they can be applied. But there is a point beyond which intellect alone is not enough to fight mass murder or indifference, once we cease to acknowledge God.

If God exists and created the world, as Christians suppose, God is not a genie in a bottle. We do not bargain with God, or order God around. If this world is God’s creation, we can choose to accept it and seek to learn how best to live in it, or we can choose to be angry about it and raise our blood pressure to unhealthy levels. Rather than complain or panic when confronted with crisis, I often find it useful to ask for God’s help.

Some quite intelligent people believe that what I call answers to prayer are no more than coincidence. Perhaps so. My father used to remark that when people pray, coincidences happen more often. I tend to agree with him. I have seen many separate instances where something was accomplished by several people happening to be in “the right place at the right time.” To always ascribe such results to blind chance appears unlikely, considering the odds. There is a lot we don’t comprehend about God and the universe. But to state that the world depends on random chance is merely another way of saying that we don’t yet completely understand how order comes out of chaos.

How then is faith relevant? To me, it's the infrastructure of life. It is the fiber, the substance of what we call integrity, dependability, honesty, character. Without it, life and direction begin to wobble, become indecisive, or even collapse.

It is not faith’s function to abolish all trouble, but to deal with it effectively, whether by prayer or the scientific methods God provides through his servants.

“There is no narrowing so deadly as the narrowing of a man’s hunger for spiritual things. No worse evil could befall him in his course on earth than to lose sight of Heaven. And it is not civilization that can prevent this; it is not civilization that can compensate for it. No widening of science, no possession of abstract truths can indemnify for an enfeebled hold on the highest and central truths of humanity.

“What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

(Inscribed at Stanford University Chapel, Palo Alto, California)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pacifism and War

I was a registered conscientious objector during the Korean war, just finishing my medical residency. I sincerely believed that all war is wrong. Since then, I have spent a lot of my life dealing with the human wreckage the insurgents and armies have left behind.

I worked as a doctor during the Shan rebellion in 1961-62, when the Burma army controlled the countryside in the daytime, and the insurgents did at night. I learned that the insurgents had confiscated all the villagers' guns, and even their dogs, until people were defenseless. Insurgents came for a neighbor in the night time, and told him that if he came quietly, they would not kill his family, and then they slit his throat.

My wife and I were medical first responders in Thailand in 1979, when half a million Cambodian refugees poured across the border to escape the advancing Vietnamese army. In Sa Kaew camp alone, we were part of a 1,000-bed hospital for some thirty thousand people, and that was only one of several such camps. Many died before reaching the camps. All because one communist government was fighting another communist government over doctrinal disputes.

In the early 2000s we saw Burmese refugees fleeing into Thailand, to escape persecution by their own army.

There are wars in Libya, in Nigeria, Congo,Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and now a Muslim radical sect intent on killing all who won't convert to their viewpoint. Hard to understand. Harder, even, than understanding greed for oil profits, or for cocaine, or for increasing weapons exports. But how do you stop indiscriminate violence, without becoming violent too? Sometimes it appears that war is the lesser of two evils. But what ever became of common sense?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ten-Year flashback in Flame Tree

They had been visiting on the Burma border, a half-day's trek from their hospital. A birthday party for the village headman's daughter, the invitation had said. Actually, it was a dedication ceremony for a new refugee village, but the Thai Border Police could not have looked the other way for that. George had been out walking with a village guide in the early morning when the top general of the whole Karen Insurgent army, Bo Mya, had appeared on the path ahead.

The supreme commander was a man about his own age of fifty-seven, heavily built, mustache curving down around his mouth. He wore a brown leather jacket and appeared out for a stroll except for the hunting rifle under his arm. His only companion wore forest camouflage, carried an automatic weapon and a backpack sprouting a radio antenna. When George glanced back at the village, he saw armed men poised silently at several points where no one had been moments before.

He had thought at first that the war in Burma was spilling over into Thailand, but as it turned out, the general had received an invitation to the village ceremony too.

At the feast in the village hall later that day, the general's adjutant had sat down at George and Vienna's table. "The general regrets that he does not speak English or Thai," the officer explained. "He wishes me to tell you that his rear guard will arrive soon, escorting a group of Burmese refugee students seeking asylum in Thailand." He looked out at the door where two soldiers stood at ease, rifles slung over right shoulder. "Some need medical attention, and he asks if you would have a look at them. The village clinic will be at your disposal, of course."

George poured more strong tea from the battered pot on the table. He looked up again. "Students. From Rangoon?"

"Exactly. The Burmese arrested them in the student uprisings and have been using them to carry army supplies." The officer cleared his throat modestly. "We, ah, distracted the Burmese unit in a skirmish last week, long enough for them to escape. Our intelligence staff has debriefed them and they appear to be genuine refugees."

"Of course I'll give them any medical treatment I can, Major, for as long as I'm here." George thought it good to raise a point of diplomacy. "To be frank. I'm not really certain what my relationship to the Karen army should be. I used to work in Burma a long time ago. But as a guest in Thailand, I should stay neutral if possible."

"I'm sure we have no problem with that, Doctor," the major said, "although I think you may discover the Burmese government different from what you remember, even hostile to outsiders now. Our people have been happy to have you nearby this few months. Colonel Bridgestone's wife was especially pleased with her gall bladder surgery"

George had only removed one gall bladder during his time in Thailand, and the patient had appeared to be a hill farmer's wife. Apparently nothing could be taken at face value out here. But it might explain the invitation to the birthday party.

As the major rose to return to his own table, George saw a stir at the door where two small grubby boys were shouting something to friends inside. An eager exodus of children and a few adults went to watch more soldiers passing by. The village headman leaned over from the next table. "This is the rear guard arriving," he said. I will show you to the dispensary." George and Vienna retrieved their sandals from the clutter of footwear outside the meeting hall and followed the headman to the dirt road that served as village main street.

The small boys from the meeting hall were strutting alongside a military drum corps passing down the street, bamboo fifes piping, drummers beating a tattoo on homemade drums of horse-hide.

Lagging behind the marching troops, a small procession had turned aside to limp up the path to the village clinic. Their gaunt exhaustion and ragged clothing contrasted with the clnic's small garden. Eight refugees in all, two of them carried piggyback by soldiers, another on crutches. Two soldiers carried yet another in a hammock litter slung on a stout bamboo pole. George surveyed the four sickest, laid on the treatment room floor.

One of the refugees identified herself as a senior medical student from Mandalay University, Ma Pyone Hla. She was a small slender Burman woman of twenty something. A scar creased her right cheek; Her English came out of a textbook, but the village midwife helped translate.

"What about the unconscious one?"

"He became sick two days ago with fever and headache, Doctor. I think, perhaps, malaria?"

"Any cough or diarrhea?" George knelt and checked the man's neck for stiffness.


He looked in the man's eyes and throat, listened to his chest. He probed the abdomen. Skin hot, spleen enlarged; probably the student's diagnosis was right. The little clinic had no lab equipment to confirm it, but malaria was common in these hills. "Let's get an intravenous line in, with a quinine drip." He looked up from the comatose man's side. "If it's cerebral malaria, he'll need I.V. glucose too. Vienna, see what's in the supply room, please."

Now what about these other three?" He indicated the next one in the row. "What's wrong?"

"He says his legs have no strength," the medical student answered.

"What did the Burmese feed you people?" He checked the man's emaciated legs.

"Rice, doctor. Sometimes with a few pieces of gourd sliced into it. They didn't have much food themselves, especially when their platoon was on the move." She lowered her head. "There were twelve of us at the beginning," she said in a small voice. "Two were beaten and left by the side of the trail to die when they couldn't carry their loads. Another died from an infected foot. And one was killed when he stepped on a land mine. My friend with crutches was hurt in the explosion."

"Doesn't the Burma army have minesweepers?" George's voice was soft.

"They used us as minesweepers. They made us walk in front of them."

"Well, let's look at them." He squatted by the young man with the crutches, whose pain was obvious. "Behma natheleh?" (Where do you hurt?) Obligingly, the student bared his right hip. A large swollen red area surrounded a small wound. George felt it carefully, noting the signs of an abscess under the skin. "Has he had any antibiotics?"

"The Karens gave him two sulfa tablets three days ago."

Not nearly enough, George thought, but maybe that's all they had. "Explain to him, please, that I must let the pus out so that the wound can heal." The young man took this information stoically, watching George do the minor surgery with local anesthesia and a scalpel blade, releasing greenish pus to flow into a small basin. He winced only once as George packed the wound open to drain and applied a bandage.

The major looked in at the door. "I think these other two have beriberi," George told him. "Starving people haven't enough vitamin B, and their muscles get weaker when they are fed." He stood up. "The clinic has medicine they can use."

"I think they probably did set us up that day," George said now, as he poured more coffee, but I'm glad we were there. I remember that young medical student from Mandalay, Pyone Hla. She looked completely worn out when she entered the village, but somewhere she had found a flower to put in her hair."

"She said there were twelve of them," Vienna said, "Four had died, and Pyone Hla didn't even want to remember how many times she had been raped. I wonder what's become of them."

"So, what do you think/" George asked. "If we go teach village health in Burma, we can leave all this hassle behind for a month or two. But will that just strengthen the dictatorship in Burma - Myanmar as they call it now - or will we be helping the hill tribes reach peace?'

"It used to be such a beautiful, prosperous country. If we can help it bloom again, let's go."

"Or I could go, and leave you with the grandchildren in Seattle, George said, "Burma may be opening to tourists but I don't like to take you where things could turn dangerous."

"I'll see the grandchildren and Burma, thank you. And before we come home we can stop off and work at the mission hospital in Mae Hong Son again. That way, we can give Jerry and Wilma Judson a month off, and I'll get to shop in Thailand."

"Got it all figured out, have you" George tipped his chair backward, balancing.

"I always have it figured out," Vienna purred.