Disrespecting President Sign of Bigger Problems

President Donald Trump visited our town last week for a rally. I had only seen a president in person once before, going to Denver’s old Stapleton Airport to see Ronald Reagan during his second term. (In copies of photos I sent to friends, I joked that the small speck in several pictures was indeed the president.)

Although I momentarily contemplated going to Trump’s appearance for the sake of personal historical significance, several things held me back.

The first was the mob scene generated by a presidential visit. The city started closing streets around the civic arena at noon, and the parking garage nearest to the facility shut down three hours prior to the rally.

In addition, officials advised arriving early to get a good seat, which meant showing up several hours early—an unrealistic prospect on a working day.

However, what cinched my decision to forego the rally originated with the fact I had a prior commitment that evening, and I decided honoring it came first.

(Ironically, so many streets were blocked because of the president’s motorcade I wound up being an hour late to the meeting. Fortunately, everyone else was late too.)

Crossing Lines

Prior to the rally, we prayed that no violence would erupt and no incidents occur that would put a blemish on our city during its time in the national spotlight.

That concern was heightened by a threat—deemed not credible—by a Trump supporter to take revenge on the coterie of protesters who gathered nearby to air their grievances against the president.

Free speech is a guaranteed by the First Amendment, and as a free speech advocate, I have always supported unfettered expression of ideas, opinions and open dialogue.

And yet, in the maelstrom of public criticism that has raged against President Trump since last November, I fear that our society has crossed the line of rational thought and whipped itself into an irrational frenzy.

It is the kind of frenzy that led to June’s mass shooting of Republican congressional representatives at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., and could result in something worse.

Indeed, had anything serious happened to Trump here, I can imagine half the country would have been raising hearty cheers and dancing in the streets.

Praying for Leaders

I am quite aware of the intense criticism aimed at our president. My purpose is not to defend him or debate his policies, temperament, or fitness for office.

It’s to point out that the refusal to accept election results and constant carping against whoever is elected president has gone on for more than 35 years and is tiresome.

The reason this is such a problem is its reflection of a growing lack of awareness of biblical guidance and wisdom. Take such verses as:

  • Romans 13:1 and 7 (MEV): “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God.

. . . Render to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, respect to whom respect is due, fear to whom fear is due, and honor to whom honor is due.”

  • Psalm 84:9: “Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of Your anointed.” I wrote in a previous blog (http://kenwalkerwriter.com/shooting-lays-bare-need-pray-leaders/) about our need to pray for our rulers and respect those God places in office.
  • Exodus 22:28: “You shall not curse God or curse the ruler of your people.”

Disrespecting Authority

Exchange “Trump” for “Obama,” “Bush” or “Clinton” and it’s the same: vitriol, hatred and disrespect on a national scale for the person serving in the nation’s highest office.

Underlying this is a spirit of contentiousness, disregard for authority, and a lack of appreciation for God establishing government and installing leaders, whether good or bad.

This raises the question of how we can expect God’s blessing on our nation when we as a nation spend so much time carping about those He installs as our leaders, be that at city hall, the statehouse, or the White House.

Pulitzer Prize Uncovered Shocking Pill Pushing

We West Virginians can be excused for puffing out our chests a little bit over the recent news that Eric Eyre, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer Prize recently for investigative reporting.

Especially since such awards routinely go to staffers from the New York Times, Washington Post and other major newspapers with larger staffs and more prolific resources.

However, my point is not to brag about a small state newspaper winning a Pulitzer. Rather, I want to call attention to the outrageous reality of what Eyre documented: drug wholesalers shipping 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to the state from 2007 through 2012.

Mind Boggling Figures

Pulitzer Prize Uncovered Shocking Pill Pushing | Ken Walker WriterWith less than 1.9 million men, women and children, that works out to roughly 430 of the little buggers for every person living in the state.

While I’m glad that a few dozen hydrocones were available when I was recovering from open heart surgery in 2008, these figures are mind-boggling to an extreme.

So extreme that it gives credence to old-fashioned conspiracy theories. I remember when I first heard that crack cocaine was a plot by the CIA to destroy inner cities, and scoffing at the idea.

Sure, it wound up a discredited theory, but to imagine that powerful people have never taken advantage of the powerless is to engage in flights of fancy.

So what did pharmaceutical companies and their reps think they were doing shipping enough painkillers into the state to anesthetize everyone here 10 times over—and all the cows, pigs and sheep to boot? That we all had bad backs?

Seeing Dollar Signs

More likely all they saw were dollar signs, and the heck with the collateral damage it caused along the way.

This isn’t some wild-eyed theory. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones spells out the role of the Big Pharma marketing machine in his excellent book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

When I heard him speak at Marshall University in the fall of 2015, Quinones laid out the story of how companies pushed the idea that people were in too much pain, and that the pills they had invented to address the problem weren’t addictive.

Yeah, right. And now we pay the price. Like the man in our area who lost his wife and only daughter to a drug-addled driver who was constantly prescribed pain killers by a doctor.

That particular physician lost her license. But I wonder if the pharmaceutical companies who encouraged doctors to prescribe all these opioids—and pharmacies to stock them like candy bars—will ever be held to account.

Trail of Devastation

Now, it’s not like we’re alone in our misery. Take the lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Seattle suburb of Everett, Washington, against the maker of OxyContin.

The suit came after the LA Times revealed in an investigation last year that the company allegedly had extensive evidence pointing to illegal trafficking across the nation, but often didn’t share that with law enforcement or cut the flow of pills.

The company has been sued hundreds of times over its marketing of OxyContin to doctors and the drug’s risk of addiction to patients, the Times reported. However, “Everett’s suit is the first to focus narrowly on what the company knew about criminal distribution of the painkiller.”

The company will get its day in court, if the case even makes it that far. In the meantime, we can only hope that more reporters will uncover the abuses that have left such a trail of devastation in their wake.

A Hillbilly Death Knell—or Hope

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. VanceAfter seeing a couple positive reviews last summer of Hillbilly Elegy, I made plans to read it. As so often happens when it comes to getting to sit down with a book, it takes a while to follow through with good intentions.

I’m married to a woman from West Virginia. After twice leaving for other places, we live here again. With the state’s entire population often branded as “hillbillies,” I had more than a passing interest in author J.D. Vance’s musings.

Despite the mood swings I encountered while reading, I can see why it has generated nearly 4,400 Amazon reviews. (That’s about 100 times as many as a book I co-authored several years ago attracted).

During the first half, I got upset over a picture painted of a culture mired in alcohol, drug addiction, and self-defeating behavior. Neither my wife, nor many of the people I know and love lead such chaotic lives.

Story of Overcoming  

However, as I continued through Vance’s account of his climb out of dysfunctional childhood circumstances, I found myself rooting for the Marine veteran and law school graduate, and admiring how he overcame.

Vance is brutally honest about the insanity of his early life, which alternated between southwestern Ohio (two hours south of where I grew up) and his grandmother’s eastern Kentucky environs.

That includes a heaping of crude language, which will likely exclude it from many Christians’ reading lists. But this is the kind of book that church folks should read, as well as the well-intentioned political leaders who tend to make things worse with their misguided efforts.

Taking Realistic Appraisals

The church should take time to review Vance’s story, since many it professes to want to reach are mired in a sea of hopelessness that religious rituals are powerless to change. Only by getting involved in hillbillies’ lives and showing them authentic love instead of pious platitudes will Christians be able to help reverse the tide.

As for government leaders, two examples in Hillbilly Elegy of their incompetence are payday loan companies and federally-subsidized Section 8 housing.

As for government leaders, two examples in Hillbilly Elegy of their incompetence are payday loan companies and federally-subsidized Section 8 housing.Vance talks about the lack of understanding politicians have when it comes to the usefulness of payday loan operations, since poverty-level users often rely on those admittedly overpriced services to make it to next week. For him, such loans were a lifeline during his past life of poor credit ratings and no credit cards.

Then there is the grouping of Section 8 housing recipients into low-income ghettos, where neighbors’ bad habits and abusive lifestyles reinforce those of the people living around them.

The latter reminded me of a comment by author Malcolm Gladwell in one of his books. Gladwell talked about a leading hope for lower-class students being exposure to people from better backgrounds, since the more affluent could show them a different way to live.

Finding Hope

If there’s one thing this book accomplishes, it’s to demonstrate that the hope for hillbilly culture doesn’t lie in Uncle Sam swooping in to alleviate poverty. After all, that hasn’t worked for the past 50 years.

As Vance says, hillbillies are among the toughest people on earth, and while able to fiercely defend their family’s honor, must now must dig deeper.

“But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help (kids)?” he asks. “Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”

Hopefully, we Appalachians will treat those questions as a wake-up call.

Cheering for a New Governor

Cheering for a New Governor | Jim JusticeIn just over a week (the same day that the nation observes Martin Luther King Day), Jim Justice will be sworn in as West Virginia’s newest governor. There is no telling how successful he will be; we’ll have to check back in four years and see what developed during the interim.

Yet, I have to cheer on our incoming governor for no other reason than—at an age when far too many Americans are searching for an armchair or the nearest golf course—the 65-year-old Justice is embarking on the toughest challenge of his career.

Non-Payment of Bills

I almost didn’t vote for Justice. Last August, while having lunch with an old friend, he proceeded to relate a story about his brother-in-law and how he had tried to sell some mining equipment to one of Justice’s companies. The Justice employee supposedly said, “I’ll be glad to buy all the equipment you want to sell me, but you won’t get paid.”

That disturbed me, particularly since a few months earlier I had read a story online about lawsuits filed against Justice for non-payment of bills to several companies. When I related the story to another friend who had traveled extensively during his business career, he replied, “That’s true. That’s the way he operates.”

There was even a website devoted to ripping Justice for his shady business practices and political favors. If all this weren’t bad enough, NPR aired a report the month before the election about him owing $15 million in back taxes and fines in six states.

Tipping the Scales

What started tipping my vote in Justice’s favor originated with an interview I did for a story I wrote about Samaritan Purse’s flood relief work in Louisiana.

I talked with a traveling chaplain with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, (about the ministry’s efforts in Louisiana. During our conversation, he mentioned how he had been at the famous Greenbrier luxury resort after last June’s flooding in West Virginia.

After I mentioned living just three hours north of there, the chaplain talked about how Justice had housed numerous area residents at the resort after the floods canceled this year’s Greenbrier Classic, a stop on the PGA Tour.

In addition to free housing, Justice fed them and gave each one a $500 Walmart card when they departed.

thegreenbrier“I never heard that on the news,” I remarked about the gift cards.

“Well, it was an act of Christian charity, so you wouldn’t,” the chaplain replied.

That gave me pause and caused me to re-evaluate my decision.

Soon after, a story appeared about noted pro golfer Phil Mickelson being named a “tour ambassador” for the Greenbrier.

“You know,” I thought. “With all the problems West Virginia is having, we need someone who’s a big thinker. And I think Justice is that kind of person.”

Inexperienced Leader

If you believe that—as Romans 13:1-2 says—God installs leaders in office for His purposes, it’s quite interesting that Justice won by a 49-42 percent margin. That despite opponent Bill Cole trying to ride the coattails of President-elect Donald Trump, who captured 69 percent of the state’s vote on Nov. 8.

Whether Justice is designed as a blessing remains to be seen. But, ironically, I had lunch a month after the election with the friend whose story caused me to frown on Justice as a candidate. He told me had voted for Justice too. His reason: “Because he didn’t have any political experience.”

It will be interesting to see if that proves to be a plus.

Finding Perspective in a Flood

There is nothing like a thousand-year flood to give you a more balanced perspective. Right before monsoon-like rains struck West Virginia last month, I was in the midst of a pinch caused by a hefty, long-overdue invoice.

While I was confident I would get paid eventually, it still feels a tad irritating when you know that if everyone who owed you would pay their bills on time, I wouldn’t have been facing a cash crunch.

Minor Nuisance

Finding Perspective in a FloodThen the rains came, which short-circuited our electricity and forced me to use my mobile office (a nearby public library branch). Fortunately, the outage only lasted for about 90 minutes, but it was raining so hard I delayed my return a while to avoid getting further drenched.

The next morning, I lamented the possibility that the Greenbrier Classic might get called off. With the state’s economic woes, it’s not like we can afford to forego the economic bonus of a PGA golf tournament—or the attendant positive national publicity.

Then as the day wore on and the bad news piled up, I discovered two things: 1) the cancellation of a professional golf tourney was the least of our troubles, 2) my temporary cash-flow crisis fit into the category of “minor nuisance.”

Learning What’s Important

Because I live in one of the 11 counties that wasn’t classified a disaster area, at first I didn’t realize the extent of the cost to life and property. The death toll the day after the rains after hit 14, and would reach nearly two dozen.

Particularly gut-wrenching were two stories I saw on a TV newscast that weekend. A four-year-old boy who was standing next to his grandfather got swept away by a creek that turned deadly. An eight-year-old walking by a river and next to his mother slipped into the water and drowned.

One woman whose whole town got swamped by a flooded river talked of how she had learned what was really important.

All those trinkets and personal possessions that she used to think were “treasures” weren’t, she told a reporter. Getting out of her flooded home with her grandson is what really mattered.

Dealing with Disaster

2016 West Virginia Floods | Finding Perspective in a FloodAfter watching that woman share her experiences, and others talking about how they had lost everything, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Because this was the kind of flood that is only expected every millennium, and because some homeowners didn’t even live in a flood plain, there are residents who literally have no home—nor flood insurance to help them rebuild.

Of course, the same thing happened in the California wildfires that destroyed more than 150 homes the same weekend West Virginia’s flooding received national TV and Internet coverage.

This bad news prompted me to spend some time reflecting on how I would handle that kind of crisis. Since I work out of our home, being displaced there would also mean being unable to work.

Treasures in Heaven

Of course, the answer is: I don’t know what I would do. With laptops and online back-up, returning to business is much easier than in the past. But I’m not sure how I would traverse the gut-wrenching emotions and interruption to daily life.

However, at times like these, Christ’s words in Matthew 6:19 are more relevant than ever: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.”

Whether in a flood, a fire, or simply one’s own death, everything in this world is passing away.

The Misery Index

According to the researchers who check the pulse of America, I live in the most miserable state in the nation.

West Virginia recently topped the ratings for the sixth consecutive year, dragged down by such factors as poor well-being, motivation, finances, safety, and health. Kentucky and Ohio, the two states bordering the area where I live, also ranked in the top (or bottom) five.

About now I can hear echoes of the late Paul Harvey, saying, “And now, for the rest of the story…”

Another View

winningExhibit A in the “why I’m not miserable” addendum comes from a dietary consultant from Connecticut. He came to Huntington several years ago to help area school cafeteria personnel revamp their menus.

The visit partially stemmed from Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution mini-series, which sparked a healthy eating renaissance. It continues despite setbacks in the obesity battle.

I interviewed the consultant while working on Winning the Food Fight, the book that emerged from Steve Willis’ appearance on a pair of episodes of Oliver’s show.

The consultant reminisced about the numerous pleasant conversations he enjoyed traveling around the area. His favorite experience came the evening he drove through the country south of the city. Suddenly he skidded off the road in his rental car.

While the vehicle didn’t incur any damage, it sat far enough off the road and down a slight incline that driving back onto the highway appeared to be the impossible dream.

Help is on the Way

Friendly West VirginiaSuddenly an old guy driving a pick-up truck appeared with a sturdy rope, tied it to the car’s bumper and unceremoniously pulled the stranded visitor back to level ground. Then, without asking for a dime, he smiled, “Have a good day” and drove down the road.

“I miss that,” the consultant said with a sigh before he repeated, “I miss that.”

I know how he feels. Though it’s been years ago, I had a problem with apparent overheating on my car one day as I stopped at a country grocery store.

Raising the hood, I watched as the steam from anti-freeze wafted skyward, having no idea what was wrong or how to fix it (my skill being in writing, not mechanics).

As I silently bemoaned this interruption in life, a man walked over. After looking at the cloud, he said, “It’s your hose.” Pulling out a knife as he removed the clamp, he cut away the damaged portion and reattached the now-workable hose.

He too said, “Have a nice day” and walked away without asking for anything.

Down-to-Earth Folks

photo credit:  SonjaSuch stories only begin to explain the down-to-earth, friendly demeanor of so many people in the area where West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio meet.

Another example comes from a member of our weekly men’s group.

One time, he talked about coping with his wife’s death from cancer a couple years ago. He described gaining considerable strength from various friends and church members who supported him in the months after her death.

Recalling how two of his sons asked him why he didn’t move to a larger, more cosmopolitan area, he said with a smile, “I think I’ve got it pretty good here.”

Too often we fail to appreciate the intangibles—the qualities and joys of every-day life that people from other areas would pay dearly to know. So while others call us miserable, I will continue feeling otherwise.