There is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men. — Thomas Merton

Monday, December 24, 2012

More Than You Can Think Of

It's been so long since I've posted, it seems like I don't even know how to string words together anymore. I've been sitting on a phrase for quite a while now, probably well over a year, that I scribbled down on a yellow sticky note. I knew it was profound enough that I'd have to post it one day.

My youngest daughter, who will be ten in a few months, has a little world hidden inside of her. It's a thoughtful little world, a quite special little world really, and perhaps it is most special because—I'm having that problem with stringing words together—because it is so effectively hidden from all the rest of us, day to day, moment to moment. She fusses a lot. She'd stubborn as all get-out. She likes to get her way. You'd think the whole world revolves around her. At least, you could think that, if you didn't know the hidden things. The poignancy of it is simply this: I think she's very much different on the inside, than she is on the outside, and she doesn't know how to let the inside live on the outside. I think the paradox troubles her. I think it frustrates her. I love her for that struggle. It's the struggles of being human, you know, that I find so compellingly beautiful about being human.

She must think a great deal for such a young little person, rolling things to and fro within her few years of experience. She ties things together of which you'd think, just from parenting her each day, she had no concept. But get her alone, in the right setting, in the right mood, at the right time, and this complete world pours forth, full of a myriad of "I don't think this is good because…" and "I think so-and-so must be the way it is because if you think about it…" and the hyperactive child who can't seem to sit still for ninety seconds during any day of the week, will sit for an hour and elaborate upon how all these people and things and ideas and happenings fit together in her life. And when she is done, you just sit there and think, "Holy cow."

So that's the little girl I do my best to see, to admire and to love in the midst of day-to-day things that can leave a daddy to pray for patience. I pause, and I think of a special world that is teeming just below the surface, just waiting, for the right setting, mood and time.

Oh and about that yellow sticky note. Some time ago, she was spending the night at a friend's house and it was her first night away from home. She has fears; lots of them. She has anxieties; plenty of them. It must have been difficult for her to stay that night; to be strong and brave. To lay awake for who knows how long, in a strange house full of strange shapes and sounds and shadows, after everyone else had fallen soundly asleep. Sometime after midnight I received a text on my phone; I guess she must've borrowed a phone from her friend's mother. It said simply this:

I love you daddy more than you can think of.

I texted her back and told her the same thing. And then I sat up a long while myself, thinking about those words. From within the hidden world within my daughter, who was seven or eight at the time, had arisen the proof that when we are alone, in the right setting, in the right mood, at the right time, we know—we know—the profundity of real love. Even when we are children, we know. We know that the mystery of true love is that we can feel it and know it exists, but in truth it is always more than we can think of. If it were not, it would be something less than love.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

When I Make Wishes…

Well I have to go a-travelling again. As I've noted before, I really don't like travelling without my family—and I am terrified of flying. So every time I have to jump on a plain and go somewhere far away, I get pretty emotional and philosophical. I was thinking today that it's a perfect time to re-post one of my favorite things I've written. I think it pretty much sums up the most noble of the deeply spiritual wishes within me…

TO BE made in the image of God is to be created with the capacity for a boundless and limitless Love whose power is immeasurable. It is the Love that gave birth to the human heart, but it is also the Love that rightly judges, hushes, and stills even that heart.

It is a Love that abolishes all boundaries of society and culture and person. It is a Love that demonstrates victory over all perceived defeats. It is a Love that opposes all my personal selfishness and condemns it as the weakness in the world. It is a Love that convicts me and makes me know I am the source of hatred in the world. It is a Love that can cure my hatred and therefore can cure the hatred of the world. It is a Love that demonstrates itself in the universal equalizers of human joy, suffering, birth and death. It is a Love whose presence explains all of life's glories and whose absence explains all of life's horrors. It is the ultimate indicator of true failure and success, for when I live by Love I have succeeded and when I do not live by this Love I have failed. The measure of my success or failure in life is directly proportional to the purity or impurity of my Love.

My sin is the enemy of Love in my life. It does not want to look at Love and it does everything it can to keep me from looking. When I desire to be correct for the sake of my own ego, my own pride, and my own emotional satisfaction, I have chosen to look away from Love. When I have taken my eyes off of what Love can do, will do, is doing, I have rejected the reality of Love. When I reject the enormity and completeness of Love, when I believe it is not big enough, not willing enough, or not capable enough, I have declared it a lie—and since I am made in its image I have declared myself a lie.

IF I want to know God, if I want to understand fully the message of Jesus, if I want to fulfill my purpose, if I want to live according to my true nature, if I want to live according to what I have in common with all men, if I want to be a positive force in the lives of those around me, if I want to see the world a better place because my footsteps once stepped upon its face, I must be willing to become this Love. I must be willing to become a Love that will still burn brightly and bravely when I have long since left this earth. I must be willing to become a Love that will still believe in itself, still be active, and still love in return, when even the people most dear to me hurl insults at me and turn away to leave me standing alone. I must be willing to become a Love so large, so boundless and strong and brave, that I am willing to die completely alone and hated among men if Love requests it of me. I must be willing to become a Love that knows no discriminator, casts no judgment, and sees not the sins of others. I must be willing to become a love that leaves no trace of pride, no tinge of ego, and no hint of selfishness within me. I must be willing to become a Love that does not and cannot recognize the false person the world has made me, nor the false people the world tries to show me. I must be willing to become a Love that sees with God's eyes, touches with God's hands, cradles with God's arms, and loves with God's heart. This is the Love that will kill me, and this is the Love that will give me life.

This is the Love that grows without limit within me and as it grows I see life more clearly and as I see life more clearly I realize that I see it as though in a mirror dimly. The more my insight and understanding grow in the light of this Love the more I know my understanding is feeble and minuscule and dark and I have barely dipped the fingers of my soul into the surface of an infinite ocean. This is the ocean of God's Love that calls to me and beckons that I submerge myself into its depths and drown within it and dissolve until my atoms are indistinguishable from its atoms and until my spirit is indistinguishable from the one true spirit of God that cries out to all men.

I must become a Love that speaks when it needs to speak, is silent when it needs to be silent, is strong when it needs to be strong, and is weak when it needs to be weak. I must become a Love that others call heroic when my false humility hates being called heroic. I must become a Love that others call cowardice when my pride and ego hate being called a coward. I must become a Love that will stand and fight, and I must become a Love that will turn and walk away. I must become a Love that laughs in joy and cries in sorrow and knows no difference between the two. I must become a Love that separates me from every man, and a Love that joins me to every man, and knows there is no difference between the two. I must become a Love that lives for its own sake, and dies for its own sake, and knows there is no difference between the two. I must cease to exist, and live only as a Love that embraces mankind like the common air we breathe.

I must be willing to possess a Love that has the restraint to remain silent when others call it fanatical, criminal, apathetic, lazy, aloof, cowardly, or uncaring. I must be willing to possess a Love that has the courage to believe they are mistaken, and the humility to suspect they may be right. I must be willing to possess a Love that has no will of its own except the will that is its own, which is to do nothing but to continue loving no matter what. I must be willing to possess a Love that has the courage to stand steadfast in a place my mind would rather not be, and the courage to walk away from the one place my heart most desires. I must be willing to possess a Love that kindly stares into my soul with unmoving resolve and says that if I want to know God, I must die.

When I become this love, I will finally know who and what I am.

Love you to the moon and back, wife and girls. I'll miss you while I'm away.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Three Months of Pieces

I must have started six or eight posts since I graduated this past December, and I haven't been able to finish a single one. I keep thinking of a quote I read years ago, by Louie Armstrong, that goes something like this: "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don't practice for three days, the public knows it." Put simply, my writing stinks these days; at least, I know it does.

I've missed being in school. I've missed the brilliance and optimism and intellectual exchanges with all my friends who know what it means to say that something is socially constructed, and that there is nothing beyond the text—that so few things are definite, if any.

Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit with the dean of Bible studies from a Christian university. I had hoped for a different exchange, but had to remind myself there is a difference between theology and scripture. I witnessed a woman ask him how he goes about explaining to a young person of today that things aren't relative, that they're black and white. He said you have to focus on a particular issue, but eventually it comes down to the question of one's views of Biblical authority. And so I asked him how long it takes to explain to somebody that things aren't black and white, that they are relative, and that the Bible has plenty of places that point this out. I don't think he liked my question, but he was gracious and kind.

Later at dinner he said something that touched me as tremendously profound, though I know he couldn't have known why I found it as such. The conversation around the table was about contemporary American culture and lifestyle, and in the end he concluded the thread with something to the effect of, "What it comes down to in the end is whether we are going to form Man to God's image, or form God to Man's image." What I wanted to say, but out of respect for others present did not, is that the grand irony is that this is exactly what many liberal Christians in contemporary America are saying. The point that a conservative Christian needs to understand is that the point liberal Christianity is trying to make is that overtly conservative Christianity is itself a forming of God to Man's image. In retrospect, I should've said it.

The new job I started last year is teaching me things about myself and about others. I started a couple of posts about authority as power, and the question of whether power is always in some way violent. I think there are people who relish the idea of being able to tell other people what to do, but I'm not one of them. Maybe if I thought things were black and white all of the time, even most of the time, I would feel differently. But the truth is, I'm glad I don't. Better to be uncomfortable, I think, than self-assured in the face of one's ignorance. My friends from school would understand. I guess I mentioned already that I miss them.

The closest I got to a complete a post was a little thing called "Because I Am Human." It was about how once in a while, hiking around the Southwest, I'll find a little alter built atop a hill or mountain. The other day I came up to one and there were some candles burning in front of a little crucifix. I sat down my walking stick and bottle of water and bowed my head for a few moments, feeling a welcome connection to some person or persons whom I have never met. It occurred to me that the cynic would claim it's childish of Man to still believe a few thousand feet of altitude can somehow lessen the reach to infinity. But in fact it makes perfect sense that God must be sought and acknowledged in the "other" places of Man's world—on a mountain top, in a closet, or on a solitary walk at lunch time. The human knows with an intuition unshakable that there is a world of Man, and a world of God. The deeply felt yet unknowable reach between the two is what gives rise to Man's religions—His languages he creates to speak of the unnamable. I get that. I am religious because I am human, and I do not regret it. In fact, I welcome it.

A while back I found out that something I wrote a year or two ago was passed around a few states and helped some people suffering the loss of loved ones. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that it was probably some part of the following that was being referenced:

I remind myself daily that what truly matters is simply having each day of life to learn, to laugh and to love with the people around us. Through sickness and accidents we've lost or nearly lost several family members and friends this year, some of them with children who are friends of our children. I know that it is the nature of life that in the end we cannot always save the things we love the most; that indeed this is what makes loving all the more valuable—and all the more costly. In the final analysis of life, it is love that makes life beautiful, but it is also love that hurts the most. This is life's greatest and final paradox—that the most beautiful thing of all is also the most painful thing of all. It is hard to let go, and my heart is breaking for those who had to do so this year. I guess maybe I am finally growing up, and slowly learning to live my life outwardly. I am learning that the heart I have spent a lifetime selfishly protecting in a little box is not my own; it belongs to God, and because it belongs to God, it belongs also to every man, woman and child on Earth. This holiday season, I pray for parents and for children. I pray for those who have lost, that they may come to know firsthand that love never really dies. And I pray for those who have not lost, that they may know the miracle of today. Love is all there is. It is the only thing that is real. Close your eyes today, know how much you are loved, and know that in that love, you have everything.

I mention the quote because I was speaking a little public gig the other day, and afterword a woman from the audience thanked me because it helped her in a certain way, and I reflected back upon the same sentiment as above. To this day I remain convinced that love is indeed life's greatest paradox, that "In the final analysis of life, it is love that makes life beautiful, but it is also love that hurts the most. This is life's greatest and final paradox—that the most beautiful thing of all is also the most painful thing of all."

What occurred to me over this past week, for the first time in my life—at least in this articulation—is that the "death to self" that one must undergo in the spiritual journey is this: To give oneself completely to the knowledge that in order to love fully and without limit, I must be willing to suffer loss without limit. In a word, this is what compassion is—to open oneself fully to the grand paradox of love and loss, and accept it without limit. In the best times of my life, I've recognized this deep in my soul. I need to recommit myself to this idea. I am becoming convinced it is the heart of all theology, and it is the only True thing a human can know.

I'm so very grateful for remembering that. I've been a bit adrift as of late.

...::: shalom ::...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I can see the light...

I just finished the final revisions to my Master's portfolio, and my Orals are set for November 28. After that, just one more major paper and I walk the line.

There's light at the end of the tunnel, and I don't think it's a train. :)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Gaming the System

This is a post that been brewing since the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and recent events plus a conversation I had during vacation brought it back to the forefront of my thinking.

After Katrina, I read a news article about some folks who were none too happy that some of the displaced victims who received cash cards from the government were buying things like beer, booze and tattoos with the taxpayer-funded handout. I recall that at the time I found this rather intriguing, because it's a bit interesting if you think about it. It's not like the non-victims would see much wrong if the victims were buying booze and tattoos with their own money, and it's not like the non-victims see anything wrong with buying booze or tattoos for themselves. And, it's not like the non-victims would complain about the victims buying food with the handout. I'm not saying this is here nor there, right nor wrong, but what the non-victims were saying in essence is, "If you're using my (that is, taxpayer) money, I want to approve of what you're using it for."

So the first thought I had was, how many of these non-victims work jobs that are taxpayer funded? How would they react to somebody telling them they shouldn't be buying booze or getting tattoos with their civil service paycheck? It seems that the argument would be that they "earned" their money, so they can spend it anyway they want.

When the economy went to the crapper in 2008, I was talking to a guy whom I admire and respect quite a lot yet who has significantly different social views than I. He was very upset over the economy, his pension, and his 401K. For all he knew, he might just lose it all, and what would that do to his decades-old plan for retirement? "It isn't fair," he said. "I've worked hard, I've played by the rules, and this is what I get? That's not right."

I empathized with the guy, but I walked away from the conversation puzzled, perhaps because I've worked hard, I've played by pretty much the same rules as he, and yet I have never thought that doing so implies that I should or will get a particular payback in the end. So I wondered, if there were rules he and I had been following, then what was the game we'd been playing? And, if it was a game we'd been playing, what was its object, and who is to say that it should be the privileged game, the game that gets to say what is right and fair?

Of course we each and all tend to think that our game is the privileged, correct one. We don't like, therefore, to see other people benefitting from a game that is other than our own. And since we tend to judge all other sets of rules against our own, we reject the differing rules of others as violations, and therefore we judge their game as illegitimate. We call such people, via various names, cheaters. Another aspect to this is we tend to believe that anybody on earth could ascend to our (correct) set of rules if they wanted to, but many of them don't. They choose not to play our game. They are therefore not only cheaters, but are also lazy and/or immoral. Both aspects' judgments trace of course to the easiest, most common and most exasperating human failure in reasoning: Even though I've never honestly and thoughtfully questioned my beliefs, I am convinced they are right; therefore if you disagree with me, you are wrong.

And so I started thinking once in a while about games those few years ago and, round and round, what I started thinking about over the past few months and over vacation is that the purpose or object of the game has to do with gaining the most possible benefit for ourselves, with the least possible effort and discomfort, from the American System of socio-economics. The game we play is defined by the rules we play by, which are the methods we utilize to leverage things to our advantage and are sanctioned by the particular socio-economic discourse we've grown to inhabit. The System (in a very large and non-trivial sense) is the same for all of us because we all live in the same country. The object is the same for all of us because of our natural human, creaturely, Darwinian if you will, tendencies to thrive and persist with the least possible exertion. But the game we use to accomplish this object, the way we game the system in order to win, varies significantly between and based upon numerous legitimizing (and typically incompatible) discourses. Again, who is to say which game is to be privileged above others and which, therefore, has a legitimate claim to being the "right" game by which all others are judged? Who gets to say, really, what is fair and what is not?

Is it fair that by the time I itemize my deductions each April, my effective tax rate is lower than that of many other people simply because at some point in my life I chose to be materialistic enough to buy myself a house? Is it fair that just because I work hard for thirty years, I should get to live comfortably for the rest of my life without having a job? If I'm an entrepreneur and at the age of twenty-four make a hundred million dollars, and then live the rest of my life doing nothing but living in excess, is that fair? Is either of these much different from the man on the street who decides he doesn't want to work anymore, either? If the legitimizing aspects of a game are all about earning my money via hard work and a decent day's effort, is it fair that I work in a climate-controlled office solving engineering problems and make an order of magnitude more money than the guy who spends eighty hours a week in the stifling heat or freezing cold working his muscles to their limits and his fingers to the bone? There are many arguments used to justify a "yes" answer to all of these, but the truth is, the "yes" answers only make sense because I have been told they do, and as long as I have never seriously and honestly examined the value of a "no" answer.

After all, a "no" answer is extremely difficult to ascertain by the person who already and always benefits from "yes." Why after all would I question the game by and in which I am always a winner? I've gathered a lot of benefit for myself, and not with all that much effort. Since that is the goal, after all, and since this game has worked, doesn't this imply that it is the right game? It's not possible that I could be winning while playing the wrong game, is it? Doesn't this prove beyond any doubt that my set of beliefs is the correct set? And doesn't it prove that those who disagree with me are mistaken; that they are lazy cheats? That whatever benefit they have happened to conjure up for themselves is ill-gotten and reprehensible? And, by God, since my game is the correct, proper and moral game, hasn't something unfair obviously happened on the day I don't win? Of course, and whose fault is it? Those who don't play by the same rules I do, obviously!


This concept is not limited to socio-economics, and involves any system where personal gain is at stake. Managers in places of employment have a different rule set than the people they manage. Parents have a different rule set than their children. Politicians have a different rule set than the citizenry. Prison guards have a different rule set than prisoners. Police officers have a different rule set that the people within their jurisdiction. The list is a long one, but what all of the juxtapositions have in common is they represent a striving for power; the power to obtain benefits for oneself with the least possible effort or consequence. In this sense we are all alike, all striving for the same basic things and using whatever means we can get away with in order to accomplish our goals.

I have a friend who once went to a historical area and did some metal detecting with a congressman he knows. It was a successful trip; the congressman found a few tiny antiquities buried in the earth, which he promptly pocketed to take home. Now, given that this was done in a designated historical site, where such acquisition is illegal, it seems a contradiction that a man who makes his living making laws, finds it so easy to break a law—a law of any kind no matter how "trivial" the law might be. But then again, power comes into play. Like the congressman who spoke at the little church I mentioned in a recent post, this congressman was gaming the system: using the power afforded to him to allow him to ignore certain laws for the sake of personal gain.

Back to my vacation, I spent some time in a small farming community up around the Kansas-Nebraska border. Sometimes I think I want to move to a small town like the one I was visiting; I know an English Lit instructor there who owns a beautiful little home that cost a fraction of my own, and he teaches at a high school that is less than a five-minute walk away. He's spent most of his life farming in the summers, and he says he loves farming and knows a lot of farmers he loves and respects. Interestingly enough, though, he said the farmers there don't much like public school teachers. The reason? The farmers say that teachers don't do real work for a living, and they live off of the taxes paid by honest, hard-working people. "To them, we're glorified welfare recipients," he said. I looked at him, and I was puzzled. "How much money will one of the big farms around here make this season?" I asked. He started talking about return per bushel, bushel per acre, acres per circle, and the number of circles. "That's… that's millions," I said. He smiled. "But when they have a bad year, they get…" He interrupted and nodded with a grin; not cruelly, but as if he was simply and quietly amused. Then he talked to me about subsidies and taxes, and explained why the big farms are one of the most heavily government-subsidized, least-taxed endeavors in the American economic system. "I've got kids at high school driving brand new fifty-thousand dollar pickups to school every day, and they were bought with cash, without sales tax and they're a tax write-off because they're a farm vehicle." He laughed and went on to tell me more about how some of the big-time farmers there are opposed to just about every form of taxation, yet they pay less taxes than almost anyone else, and they benefit more than just about anybody from the taxes that everybody else pays. I walked away, and this present post sort of formulated in my mind, because he had shared such a terrific example of the self-referential gaming principle in action. Pretty interesting, to see it from the outside for a change.

I've talked about a lot people here. I've talked about myself. I've noted that it's incredibly difficult to lay one's own game alongside others, and to be objective about what's what. It's pretty tough, almost impossible, to admit the truth: we are all lazy and we are all cheats. We all game the system, by use of our uniquely (and selfishly) effective game. Very few of us are able to see or willing to admit that this is true. Simply, the reason is this: we like to win. We like to take all we can, and we have little regard for who loses. The games are the lies that make our greed seem justified and normal, seem right and proper, and seem—God help us—moral.


Could it be that as I have benefitted myself while others have not, could it be that by winning the game so handily, that instead of learning the meaning of compassion I have instead gained the pride necessary to complacently legitimize both my own comfort and suffering of others? If so, is this what I want to go on record as claiming to be fair? Is this what I'm willing to say to the world is right?

No, it isn't. I am not willing to say so, but there are many, many people who are. And to be honest, this summer has led me to simply say that I find it deeply disturbing that some of these people spend their lives promoting the idea that Christianity is the very Thing that legitimizes their game (i.e., the game). I'm tired of seeing rich, powerful, good looking people standing in front of an American flag and a Bible as if wealth, power, good looks, a particular political agenda and Christianity are all inseparable. It's disturbing that Christianity has long been, and continues to be, used to legitimize a particular way of gaming the system, while the teaching of Jesus was not about legitimate ways to game the system. The teaching of Jesus was that his followers were to live outside of the system, and outside of the human creature's tendency to take what is easy for him to take. The teaching of Jesus was to stop striving, to put one's self last, to renounce power in all of its myriad forms, to be just, and to be equitable.

Instead, we use his teachings to justify our greed. My God. We weave webs so tangled, we call them truth, forgetting we have spun them from nothing but our own selfishness.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Come on, people. Really?

After the congressman in church, I wasn't in the most receptive mood a few does later when I was handed a copy of a speech by Texas Governor Rick Perry. An excerpt of the speech that left me perplexed and a little torqued off (but, sadly, completely unsurprised) is this:

On Aug the 6th of this year, 2011, we are going to have a day of prayer and fasting.
And it's going to be the real deal. It's not going to be some program where we line up a dozen political figures to come in and talk.
It's going to be people standing on that stage, projecting and proclaiming Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas .
Let me tell you, that's a big stadium and there will be a lot of people. But it's going to send a powerful message across this country!
Our country's broke.
Well, actually, Washington's broke; our country's going to be just fine. But we've got to have men and women who are willing to stand up to proclaim the values that this country was based upon.
In 1774, at the Continental Congress when they got together and penned that first document, they talked about "life" and "liberty." Interestingly, the third thing they talked about was "property." A couple of years later, when they actually wrote the Declaration, they changed that "property" to "the pursuit of happiness." I just signed a piece of legislation today, the immanent domain legislation.
I tell people, that "personal property" and the ownership of that personal property is crucial to our way of life. Our founding fathers understood that it was a very important part of the pursuit of happiness. Being able to own things that are your own is one of the things that makes America unique. But I happen to think that it's in jeopardy.
It's in jeopardy because of taxes; it's in jeopardy because of regulation; it's in jeopardy because of a legal system that's run amuck. And I think it's time for us to just hand it over to God and say, "God, You're going to have to fix this." (I think it was Herman Cain who stood up the other day and said, "How's that "Hope and Change" thing working out for you?")
I think it's time for us to use our wisdom and our influence and really put it in God's hands.
That's what I'm going to do, and I hope you'll join me. I hope you'll join us in Houston on the 6th day of August and really start a revival across this country.
Here's what I want to leave you with. I know from time to time, people will say something like, "There goes Perry. He wants to secede."
But I love this country.
We're a special place. We were created by God-fearing individuals who understood those biblical values and how powerful they could be and would be in the future.
In response to this, there's a part of me that wants to comment upon how interesting it is that politicians are so completely unabashed in shaping their words to utilize the fear of the day — today's fear being not so much that we're all being turned into socialists, but that somebody is going to take away all of our toys.

There's a part of me that wants to quote something from Thomas Merton, off the top of my head something like:

[People] imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all. They can only conceive of… cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. […] I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something. And I am all the more something because you are nothing.
But, I think the simplest thing I want to do is just ask a question about "those biblical values." Question is, just where is it that Jesus says owning property is a very important part of my happiness?

Do me a favor and email me the reference when you find it, because I'm at a loss here.
Standing Beside a Bed

To make a brief aside from my vacation posts, I was looking through some notes tonight, and found some unfinished thoughts from last December, shortly after my friend Ryan passed away. Looks like I was thinking of a follow up to my Flyin' Ryan post, but never finished it…

The "hard ontological questions" that surround death have to do with the who, the what, and the where of a life. I face this every time there is a death that somehow touches me, and right off the top of my head I can say that part of the questioning has to do with the who, the what and the where a particular life was in relationship to my own.

In Ryan's case, the questions came about because I was standing beside his body in the hospital and he had been declared brain dead, but was on life support. His heart was beating fine, and so, in that moment, what was I to think about the situation? His body was alive, he looked fine, but the doctors said he was brain dead. I must admit, I was at a complete and utter loss as to know what to think. Who, what, and where was Ryan? Had he gone away, or not? Either way you answer that question, then what do you declare to be the relationship between the mind, the body and, if you will, spirit or soul? Which define(s) the person? Which define(s) being?

I have plenty of thoughts, but there is no way that I can come to conclusions. I turned it over and over in my head that night until I didn't want to anymore. I think that being human, we understand humanity, but we can't define it.

The mystics know that God is known through the experience of unknowability, and anyone who has had this deep experience of God knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is True beyond what Man commonly calls true. I tend to think that there is a parallel here to humanity. For those of us who think, experience and feel deeply about humanity, about our own and that of others and that of humankind, what we know absolutely about being human is that our humanity—and humanity in general—is something fully unfathomable. We know the mystery is here within us; we are penetrated through and through by it in such a way that it flows through us so vividly that we can feel it as real. We know it's here. But, we don't what it is. What we know is that which we do not know.

But, we try to define it and place it into categories anyway. We think if we can do that, if we can assign enough labels to it, then we have made it real. In the buzzwords of academia, we believe that signifiers reify.

Academic or not, we fool ourselves.

Am I only human as long as my body is alive? Am I something else after, and perhaps before? If so, then isn't that something else the real me? And if it is, did I really live inside this body at all, ever?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Blogging with an iPad

I apologize to those of you who feed this blog and received multiple copies of the previous post. It's taking me a while to get back into the blogging swing, and I decided to make several versions of edits for content in order to make sure I didn't let my frustration appear misdirected.

So, blogging on the iPad, for the simple things I do, is completely acceptable in terms of functionality and ease. I was concerned about whether this would work out okay, but it does. For those of you who might be considering the same thing, I am running the Blogger+ app and using a Logitech/ZAGG bluetooth keyboard case (the aluminum one that runs about $100). It works very well once you get used to the keyboard size and figure out the app. Both happen quickly; fifteen or twenty minutes and you're ready to go.

I just have to say that with the probable exception of the HP41C calculator I purchased way back in my high school days, the iPad is probably the sweetest piece of technology I've ever owned for personal use. It really is a cool device, and the more I use it, the cooler it becomes.

A Congressman Walks Into a Church…

I was at a church and after the sermon was done and things were winding down, a guy got up and said that there was a special guest speaker there to speak for three minutes about his (the speaker's) faith; a sort of personal testimony. The guy doing the introduction noted that the guest was a U.S. Congressman, but of course he would not be making a political speech because the church doesn't support a particular political view. (For those who aren't in the know, I'll note that it's illegal for a nonprofit organization like a church to promote a particular political view.)

I knew right away this could be nothing but problematic. It seemed obvious to me that a politician asking to speak at a church he doesn't normally attend, to speak about faith, as we near the time for candidates to throw their hats in the ring, could be nothing but political. It seemed obvious enough, in fact, that the immediate response in my head to the idea was something along the lines of, You gotta be kidding me...

And so, sure enough, the guy got up and talked for about ten minutes, speaking about how much we need God and prayer to inspire us to make the "right" decisions about laws, and about how he goes to room whatever-it-is to pray regularly with others in congress. He made sure he noted how we could search the internet for the names of those who join him in that room, and made sure he explicitly dropped the name of one of them: a person who happens to be a front-runner for the upcoming presidential primaries. He also made sure that he called that person "a good strong Christian," as if this was the main point he'd make about that candidate no matter what venue he might be speaking in.

Just to cover the most obvious problems with this, for one thing this guy who stood up to talk about the all-importance of God couldn't talk about God without making God subservient to a political end. He cheapened his view of God and faith, thereby undermining his own message. Number two, this guy talked about God and law and country as being of utmost importance, but apparently he doesn't value the law enough to obey it for three minutes. Or, number three, this guy who talked about the all-importance of God wasn't afraid to risk the loss of a hosting church's legal standing; as long as he bought a couple of votes for himself or his party in the process. Is this a guy you want making laws? Is this the guy you want defending your church? Is this a guy who really cares about God and church above himself or a party or an ideology? I understand that I perceive and analyze things differently than your average conservative church attendee, but as far as I could tell the message of the speech was, What I care about is votes for me and my party, and if I can take advantage of God, a church, your personal faith or your own lack of sophistication in order to do so, then thanks for the opportunity to do that here today.

I'd like to say I was appalled, and I suppose I was, but mostly what I felt wasn't even emotional. What I felt was more like a breaking of the last strand of thread within me that wanted to believe politicians could rise above themselves, for even just three minutes, in a house of worship. Apparently, they can't.

I'll guarantee you two things. Given a chance, I wouldn't vote for this guy. And, given a chance, I won't vote for the candidate whose name he inappropriately dropped in church the other day.

I've reached my limit for being insulted by people who make their living winning votes. And I'll have a bit more on this in an upcoming post.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Attacking a Few Pent-up Posts. With a new toy.

It's been kind of tough for me to find the focus and energy to post lately, but nonetheless there have been posts running through my head. It's a Friday night and school is going to start up in a couple of weeks, so I should probably try to get a few things said.

And besides, I need to try out blogging from my new, and first, iPad. What a cool piece of equipment.

As some background, I noted that last semester was especially trying because I started a new job, and the job is still an adjustment. I've been surprised at just how challenging it is to try to lead a group of people toward a set of fairly demanding goals. Makes me tired, for sure.

A week ago, though, my family and I went on a much-anticipated vacation to spend five days at a rental home in the mountains of South Dakota. We had a terrific time being together, spent two nights and a day in Kansas, and drove through parts of Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. The next couple or few short posts will be about things that crossed my mind during the vacation and since.

Excuse me for a moment while I check out the format of this post after it's published...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I think my brain has successfully rebooted

Wow. In terms of workload and time resources, this year has proven to be a bit challenging. I've very much missed the act of composing posts, but in a rarity for me, I've simply been too tired to sit and write anything beyond work and school.

In order to be able to (hopefully!) graduate this coming December, I decided to take two courses this past semester. And, as the end of the semester was approaching, I was forced to change jobs; now I work for a different employer in a slightly different position than I've been working up until the change. I think that during the month of April and the first part of May, I slept 2-4 hours per night. It's taken me until just recently to recover from that streak, and I don't in any way think it was wise of me. I still have trouble remembering even the simplest of things throughout the day. The job transition has been a challenge; I've worked up to 50% more per week than before, with days up to 15-18 hours long. Again, not wise. But, I'm working on making a conscious effort to do what needs to be done, and say what needs to be said, in order to get some sanity back into my schedule. Most of all, I owe my wife and kids a whole lot of time and energy that they haven't had from me in a while.

The good part of school was that one of the courses forced me to do some work on, and although the work got interrupted and is not yet completed, I'm reasonably happy with the outcome. At least, it's a little bit of a step up. Now to just find the time to fill in the gaps and gets things a bit smoothed out. We'll see how it progresses.

Thanks for hanging with me. I always get a kick when I learn that people actually follow this blog.

Blessings to you and yours…

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Please excuse the mess...
In case you haven't noticed, is undergoing a major reconstruction. Thanks for your patience as I fit all of the pieces together; it may take me a while.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Flyin’ Ryan
I MET RYAN about five or six years ago. His family lives just down the street from me, and his girls go to school with my girls. His wife and mine became good friends, so between the kids and the wives and the schools, I got to visit with Ryan here and there. I'd be lying if I said we were best buddies, but we saw each other once in a while, we helped watch one another's kids, and we swapped favors with one another when needs arose. I liked Ryan. He was my friend. He was fifty-three years old. And he was buried on Monday.

I guess I just need to take a few minutes to say that a good man has gone away, and that I'm going to miss him.

I'm not sure how to adequately describe Ryan. He was uncomplicated, he was giving, and he was humble. He coached soccer for little kids. He always made a point to be at school functions with his children. He had a good job with good benefits and, as was his way, never said much about it except to say with a gentle smile that he'd done alright for a guy who never went to college and pretty much just knew how to turn wrenches. Ryan didn't brag about things, but he wasn't shy. He was the kind of guy who just couldn't resist the practical benefits of a hospital gown; he was mooning people in the hospital a day or two before things went so horribly wrong. And Ryan was the kind of guy who not long ago got his pay docked for racing a truck down a dirt road and "rubbing" the back of another truck, while both were on the job. He sheepishly related the incident to me in his typical way; a sort-of talking, sort-of mumbling, gaze diverted down, half-smiling way of communicating. He told me he didn't know why he chased down the truck in front of him and gave it a bump. With a shrug of his shoulders and a bit of a grin, he said it had just seemed like the thing to do at the time. "Kind of a stupid and immature thing to do," he admitted with a chuckle. But I think I know why he did it; he loved to fly low in the desert. It was in his blood and bones.

RYAN ONCE TOLD me that he had this sort of "hobby" of riding motorcycles "a little." He said motorcycles were "kind of my thing in life I guess." The way he said it, I never thought much of it; I just saw him as a guy who was a husband and father, hung out with his family, and liked tinkering with dirt bikes in his garage. I was mistaken, and what I didn't know until after Ryan died is that he was, for his age, one of the best desert motorcycle racers around. No, let me say that differently: Ryan was a world class desert motorcycle racer. You can't place second in your class in the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000 without being so. And yet he never said a single thing to give me such an impression, ever, at all.

I was visiting with his widow last night, and I told her I wanted her to know something that I've been feeling. I talked about what I'd recently learned of Ryan's accomplishments in racing, about how completely humble he was about all of it, and that I have been deeply moved by the beauty of his humility. I started to tell her that I looked on the internet to learn about him, but she interrupted me. "Ohhh yeah… I know…" she rolled her eyes dramatically Heavenward and raised her hands and nodded crazily. "He's like a big rock star or something," she said with a hearty laugh that seemed to imply she loved Ryan dearly, but maybe not so much the motorcycle scene. Then she went on to tell me all sorts of things; about his finishes in the Baja, about how his special skill was night racing, about how there are young racers who idolize him, about how people from all over call on the phone to get Ryan's advice on tuning motorcycles and riding a race. She told me about how he's done this all of his life, and that he never mentioned it to her until long after they met. "He never got all proud or tried to brag and tell me, 'Oh I've done this and I've done that and I'm so awesome'." She laughed again as she said those words, but her eyes only thinly veiled a loss and sadness still forming within her.

ONE DAY a year or two ago, I drove up to Ryan's house and he was out back in the garage, with a bike engine opened up. He was doing something to it that I didn't understand; something about perfecting a piston and how he built it up earlier in the day but had an idea about something that nobody else would care about, something that just wasn't as completely right as it could be, and so he tore it all apart and re-did it all that same day. I remember that it seemed odd to me that after working all day on a motorcycle, nowhere was there any dirt, grease, or grime; not on the bike, not on the floor, not on the tools, not even on Ryan's hands. And I thought of that day as last night his wife told me about what a perfectionist Ryan was about his bikes. She said that if he was putting a graphic on a bike and it got a tiny little wrinkle or crease in it, he'd work for what seemed like forever with a heat gun trying to get it perfect. If he couldn't (and then she made a wide sweeping motion with her hand), he'd rip it off and start all over with a new one. I got the impression his patience and an almost pathological attention to detail could nearly drive her crazy. And she said he'd race his bikes all over the place, but they always ended up looking brand new after he'd gone over them in his garage.

Her words reminded me of something I read many years ago. Aldo Leopold once wrote about the importance of having a hobby. Among other things, he said it should be so engrossing that its practice removes a person from all the cares of the world, and it should be uniquely the property of the one who practices it. For Leopold, the fewer the number of people who knew about one's hobby, the better, and a hobby was a person's private little world that need not—and ideally should not—make sense to anyone else. I think Ryan knew this intuitively. He didn't race to be seen, but rather he raced because he loved racing. Nobody else cared about a blemish on a bike that was about to get trashed in a race, but Ryan did. And so not only was Ryan uncomplicated, giving and humble; he had a deeply personal purity of mind and purpose that resided in a private little world, and I admire that. Perhaps that private world is what made it possible for him to be so uncomplicated, so giving and so humble. Perhaps it's a consideration that I should take to heart.

THIS WEEK I read some comments on the internet about Ryan being an "exceptional" human being, about him stopping to help a crashed racer get a bike up and going again, and about how he gave of himself just by the way he made everybody around him laugh. I sat and recalled a semester during which I had helped one of his kids with a math class. Ryan called me up and said he had heard that I needed new brakes on one of my vehicles. I told him I did, because I didn't know what I was doing and ruined them driving in the mountains. "Bring it over to my house and I'll fix them for you, no charge. You helped my daughter, and it just seems fair, you know, to pay you back in a way I know how." Ryan was like that. And the beautiful thing was, he had a way of making giving sound like it wasn't. I admire that, too. Unfortunately, as is often the way life and relationships go, I never realized until recently the many things Ryan could teach me about being human.

When Ryan was on life support, as I and others prayed over him in the hospital, I thanked God for the life we had known as Flyin' Ryan. I noted that every human life is beautiful and special, because it is born of the Divine and because it is a unique gift to the world. I noted that Ryan saw, experienced, felt, and loved in a unique combination of external and internal events and moments that no other human ever has, nor ever will. Of course I cried; life is a beautiful thing, and the mystery of it—the awesome mystery of all of it from birth to death—is the kicker. Confronting the mystery head-on, and having no choice but to let go, is painfully difficult. But as many of Ryan's friends would say, you have to ride on. I know that's what Ryan would do—he'd ride on. And so,

Ryan, I want to say that I am thankful for your life, and that knowing you made me a better person. I'm going to miss you, and we'll do our best to help watch over your girls. Vaya con Dios, amigo. I'll see you on the other side.

ON MONDAY morning Ryan's coffin sat in the sun-lit foyer of a cathedral, his body resting peacefully, dressed in desert racing gear with a Rosary held in his gloves. Beside him stood his favorite racing bike, tall and lean, as if it were a trusted steed waiting in silent patience beside its fallen master. It was impeccably adorned with graphics. And it looked brand new.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thirteen Days
Thirteen days ago, life was different.

A family of four who are friends of ours were in a serious automobile accident on Thanksgiving weekend. I sat with them in the hospital. I saw young women pray and an old man weep. A friend bought Starbucks. The father is still in a coma. I pray for them every day.

A friend down the street, not much older than I, checked into the hospital with a mild stroke and things went horribly wrong. I prayed over him as the ventilator hissed and clicked by his side. He looked peaceful, like he was sleeping on the couch after watching a game. He looked like a husband. He looked like a daddy. The next morning they turned off the machine, and he died. I was sad and I was angry and I remembered that I've never answered for myself the hard ontological questions concerning where, and in what structure, the life to which we assign a name and come to know and love truly dwells.

At the school by our house is a beautiful little girl who is sick. She is six years old. She has cancer. It is in her brain. It is inoperable. It seems a tragedy beyond words that "two weeks until Christmas" should be a race against time.

I preached for the inaugural service of a local church. I said that to fail in the gospel of Christ is not to fail from a lack of correct doctrinal knowledge, but to fail from a lack of love. I said I hoped the new church would look outward toward the community, not inward toward itself. I preached on the necessity of compassion. I wanted to speak well. It was important to me. In the end, I don't know if I was the right person for the job.

This week was finals week; I finished coursework on Wednesday evening. Last night I was awarded Search and Rescue Member of the Year at the annual dinner. I know others deserved it more than I. My wife looked gorgeous in red. We went home, put the kids to bed, and fell asleep together.

Love is the only thing that lasts. It is the only thing that is real. Today is all we have.

Thirteen days ago, life was different.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Go Prepared

I can't figure out a catchy title to this one, but here's the quick thing on my mind at the moment.

First, if you're a person who likes to go hiking in, say, tennis shoes, shorts and a t-shirt, with maybe a bottle of water and a cell phone and nothing else—please don't. Please. Please don't go hiking unprepared. I have no idea how many people our search and rescue team gets called to find who just went for a "short little hike" and ended up almost dead. Seriously. Don't do this. By all means, hike and enjoy nature… but take my word for it: go prepared.

So anyway, I was on a mission this week and I went through this mental gyration I often face. I love to help find and rescue people, I totally do. But I have three little kids who need a daddy, and so sometimes I start doing mental math. One of the hard equations in the middle of a dark and unforgiving night is, "I'm out here risking my life for some adult who was unwise and brought this on himself. Does this make sense?"

So I was talking to my friend who was my team leader this week, and I was saying, "Ya know, if it's some little kid, I don't mind. If it's somebody who was prepared but faced bad fortune or an honest mistake, I don't mind. But if they're just foolish…" and he stopped me there. "You can't think that way," he said. "Some missions are more rewarding than others, but you just gotta tell yourself you're in this to help people and leave it at that. You cant' pick and choose." I got the impression that he must have done this math in his head several years and many missions ago, and that the unfinished statement was, "…or else you'll go crazy."

I've been thinking about that a lot today. I'm too tired to get into much of a discussion about it here, but the concept is centered about the idea of not categorizing or judging people. I suppose I could reduce it to, "I'm here to try to help save lives; not judge which ones are worth saving."

That seems exactly right and correct. But it's a much bigger concept, and much less academic and theoretical, once you've actually had to lay it on the line. There's probably a wider application I need to make here, in my mind and in my heart.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Singing a Song of Refusal

I had been thinking for a year or two about putting together a post with some of my favorite song lyrics, and got a start on it the other night. But, as things tend to go (or not) with my plans, it didn't work out so well.

It's impossible to separate performance from lyrics. Even the same lyrics by the same artist come across differently from performance to performance, so just to throw some words into a post doesn't really do justice to the cause. I happen to think that Joan Baez's later performances of her "Diamonds and Rust," and certain performances of Pearl Jam's "Black," are examples of tremendous lyrics made clear by particular performance, but even these songs lose their impact when only the words are presented. Other lyrics/performances on my list were Meat Loaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," Patti Smith's and Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night," and Jewel Kilcher's "Foolish Games." But, after watching various performances of these five works for an hour or two, and as is often the case with me, I got distracted by tangential thoughts.

I started thinking about the times of intense passion, devotion, ecstasy, heartache, futility, exasperation, love and loss between the partners in romantic relationships. I think that's why I like this group of songs; they do a better than average job of capturing some of the more potent emotional aspects of human relationships. So then I started thinking about how a great deal of what it means to be human becomes the exigency for songs like these. And then I thought of the need to expand our thinking from the idea of romantic relationship, and to think of things like disease, hunger, ignorance, economic struggle and all forms of poverty that involve the deepest, rawest aspects of our humanity. Then, I thought about the need to think beyond these and to the issues of basic, individual human identity—the struggle for the most basic apprehension, understanding, and expression of who and what we are as creatures and creations.

For the sake of brevity, I'll mention the rest of my thoughts like this: These issues are manifestations of the dirty issues of being human. I don't mean morally dirty; I mean they are dirty in the sense that they aren't simple and tidy and easy to define and constrain. If you want to look at them, recognize them, acknowledge them and talk about them, you have to be willing to get dirty yourself; you have to let go of absolutes and preconceived judgments and wander in a less certain moral, ethical and spiritual landscape. Metaphorically, you have to be willing to step off of a nice pristine sidewalk in the middle of an affluent and fashionable neighborhood. You have to be willing to go into the inner city, hang out on the street at night, and be exposed and vulnerable. You have to be willing to hear things, to witness things, to be confronted by things, find yourself in the middle of things and contemplate things that you'd rather pretend don't exist. You have to be willing to leave the sanitized, wax-museum world inside your privileged mind and be slapped with the cold realization that human life isn't the make-believe story you think it is. You have to be willing to admit that your fiction of perfection will never become reality. You have to somehow come to realize that no matter how much you want your fiction to be true, it never will be, because it can't. You have to be willing to take your lament that says most of the people in the world don't fit your paradigm of what people should be, and honestly ask yourself if maybe your paradigm is questionable.

And my final thought was, fundamental religion is completely unwilling to do any of these things.

So here I am a few days later, wondering what that means in practicality. It seems to me that if you refuse to acknowledge and deeply contemplate the dirty aspects of being human and of the human condition, you are in all practicality refusing the reality of what we might call The Human. If the only thing you are willing to consider and accept as Human is a pristine, sanitized, stylized view — this is, your own sanitized paradigm— of what it means to be individually and collectively Human, then you are refusing The Human altogether.

And here's the kicker: if true religion is about the relationship of the Human to God—and most fundamental monotheistic religions claim that it is—then to refuse the Human is to refuse the possibility of an authentic Human/God relationship (as if there were any other kind).

The conclusion I come to is simply this: fundamental religion rejects and refuses the Human, and in so doing it at once rejects true religion, and refuses God.


I feel the need for a Part 2…

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Ruff! Ruff-ruff!

I had a lot of blog post ideas over the weekend, but didn't make time to solidify any one of them into a standalone post. There were a couple of impossible-to-miss news items that each in its own way left me feeling clueless. Dr. Stephen Hawking, et al, has a new book in which the idea of multiple universes reduces the "large anthropic" problem to another case of the "small anthropic" problem. Don't get me wrong; I respect Hawking and at the consumer level I get the large/small idea and the Mtheory idea and so forth. But the whole part about spontaneous creation of something from nothing I don't get, and I seriously doubt I will ever be able to comprehend the idea of nothingness; let alone the idea of nothingness spontaneously giving way to something-ness. It is at this point that I start thinking about the grand narrative of Science and the grand narrative of Religion and figure a person could flip a coin, but for me the latter narrative works better.

At least to a point…

Also in the news is the Dove World Outreach in Gainesville that wants to burn a stack of Qurans. I tend to think that this news "event" is a comparative slide from the sublime to the ridiculous, but at any rate, I am left clueless. How anyone could decide that burning a stack of Qurans (or Bibles, etc.) has a point—let alone a positive one—is beyond me. The thing is, after I read an article about something like that, I end up feeling a little queasy and ashamed and… soiled. Both Science and Religion can and do manifest themselves in shameful ways. Whenever there is fundamentalism of any form, it is willing to destroy much in its name. While I certainly believe that a person should be willing to die for his or her faith (be it in religion or science or some combination of the two), I also believe there is a deep flaw in any faith that concludes those who don't agree with it are by definition expendable.

Such a view seems to miss the most important thing of all…

I love the moments in my life when I am in the presence of my daughters and for perhaps five or ten seconds I am completely overcome, as if by a gentle wave of the sea, with their perfection and their beauty and their grace. In such moments I consider life perfect and complete and I know there is nothing else I need. I am grateful for the simplest and most priceless of things—their health, my health, the smiles on their faces, and for the miracle that they and I exist, here, in this place, together, for a moment. I am overcome with the ontological perfection of humanity, and spontaneously I grin and thank God that I am, and that they are. The perfection of living and loving is such that it can be felt and known deeply and profoundly in a single moment in time, and this to me is a glorious mystery. It is poetic, but it is true, that love's glory cannot be broken into or measured by time. Five seconds of perfected love is just as perfect as ten years of it. Love, like gold, is elemental.

Other things are less unadulterated…

I am a religious and spiritual mongrel, I suppose. While it is true that I call myself Christian because—as Marcus Borg would say—I view Jesus as the decisive revelation of God, the influences upon my own faith have been and continue to be numerous. I am not a complete stranger to Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism or Islam. I am not completely uninfluenced by non-religious yet gifted insights into the nature of man and the world. I've read enough philosophy to last me for a while. And certainly within the Christian realm I am informed by the variety of views espoused and argued over the past two millennia. I spend a lot of time pondering the idea of God and Man and the great Questions unanswerable; of faith and grace, of truth and falsehood, of probabilities and odds, of what is best and worst in Man and me, and of luck and providence. Most of my moments are spent consciously aware of all of these things; of the paradox of their gravity vis-à-vis their ultimate message that the burden is supposed to be light. Most of all, I believe in the Kingdom of Heaven; an ontological state wherein God's rule and reign is shared by all—a metaphorical "place" that, in truth, is all around us in this very moment. And the struggle is no more and no less than this: part of me longs to enter the Kingdom gates more than I want to be alive, more than I want to breathe. I've seen inside the city: It is glorious beyond all articulation. And yet the rest of me is too base and selfish and petty to let the other part of me go. We battle all the time, the many of us inside this shell that others see; wrestling at the city gate.

Such is the nature of being human, and that's the way it is…

But I know a dog named Daisy. I really, really like Daisy. And whenever we go to the house where Daisy lives, she waddles her tired old body over to me with her tail wagging, wanting some loving from me. "Daisy loves daddy" my wife always says to my kids. And she does; in the devoted, humble, soul-ish way that some dogs are capable of loving, Daisy loves me. And so I will sit on the floor, and Daisy will come and sit by me. I'll pet her head, and slowly rub her face and her ears, and after a minute she will stare at me with a request deep in her dark round eyes, and slowly lay down, rolling to her back and curling her front paws just so, and I will slowly rub her belly. After a while her eyes will half-close as she luxuriates in the touch of my hand. And in those long minutes that the two of us are partaking in this loving give and take of dog-kind and human-kind together, I think of relationships small and large, and I hope that Daisy is to me, as I am to God. For me this is a deeper consideration than one might at first believe—the ideas of what a creature gives to and what a creature takes from its god, what its motivations are, what makes it a "good" creature, what of its personality and its nature and its genes and its environment, of what its particular being demands of it; is it culpable for anything at all, and if so, what? Then reverse all this and try to figure out why I value in this creature the things I do; what to me defines a "good" dog, and what is it in my personality and nature and genes and environment that leads me to establish this particular set of criteria? Ultimately, the questions lead a person to ask him or herself about the criteria for being human and for being God, who and what is good, and who is created in whose image after all? Place these latter questions, perhaps, on the list of Questions unanswerable. But dogs do not ask such questions. They know nothing of Mtheory, or of religion and holy books. Neither are they plagued by the austere clouds of existential wandering; they do not try to understand themselves or the mind of a god they cannot begin to fathom. For them there is only a never ending moment, best spent beside their god to feel the warm and gentle presence of its hand. For dogs like Daisy, being is basking in this love as if there is nothing else. Perhaps it takes a mongrel to know this, and if so, then as my Questions fall still and silent, I smile and say softly to myself: Ruff! ruff-ruff!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Honesty and Memoir

I've been re-reading Merton's Conjectures this week. I never cease to be at once laid low and yet set free when I read Merton. What amazing clarity of thought concerning the nature and relationship of Man to God.

Two weeks ago I read Philip Caputo's 1977 A Rumor of War, the memoir of a Vietnam-era Marine 2nd Lieutenant. I really like it; it is well written, it makes the reader think, and—I have to conclude—it's unflinchingly honest. For me, the meta-experience of reading the book, beyond the undeniable impression of hell as the absence of reason, beyond the unsettling clarity of what Caputo notes "men do in war and war does to men," is the deep power of honesty.

And so today I'm thinking about honesty in one's communication of self, and about how honesty is no doubt related to truth but is not explicitly tied to truth in the ways we want it to be. I'm thinking about the power and correctness of truthfully relating one's self to another, regardless of whether one's self is in line with truth or not. I'm thinking about being honest about being wrong or right. More to the point, I'm thinking about being honest without an inordinate concern for being right or wrong in terms of logic or facts or even "morality"—that honesty is a deeper correctness, a deeper truth, than the things we attempt to advertise or conceal with the fictions of self we are so willing to share with (and sell to) others.

Maybe that is the catharsis of memoir for men like Caputo; not that a final honesty undoes the evil one has done, not that honesty somehow turns falsehoods into truths—but rather that honesty offers a different, more basic compensation for unavoidably living according to the nature of Man.

I think we each need to pen such a memoir. And yet I wonder—how many of us could write an honest one?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Philip Caputo on Writing

No writer ever truly succeeds. The disparity between the work conceived and the work completed is always too great, and the writer merely achieves an acceptable level of failure.

A Rumor of War

Monday, August 09, 2010


My cousin Tommy passed away recently, after a long, long battle with Multiple Sclerosis. God, what a guy of faith and courage. He was one of the good guys.

"And that's all I've got to say about that."

IROH, brother. I'll see you on the flip side.
One Implies the Other

I've been wondering if I'm growing up, or if I'm just going through a bit a mid-life crisis. On summer vacation this past month, I followed my home town news over the internet, and when I noticed we'd received heavy rains and almost daily flood warnings, I had a desire to be back home so that if our search and rescue team was called out, I'd be there. It was an odd feeling for me, but for the first time in my life, I felt truly devoted to the lives of my community. I think this is growing up.

At the university and at church are plenty of attractive young women, and the other day when one approached me with tears in her eyes and wanting help with her relationships, I felt only as though she was a daughter to me. My mind didn't wander. My gaze didn't divert. I felt, considered and treated her, like she was my own kid in need of support. I think this is growing up.

A few years back I was co-leading a summer program for kids, and one of the kids struck me as a magical young person; full of life and wanting to make something of his own life. (I guess is helps the story to mention that his father is in prison and his mom takes food from dumpsters to make ends meet). He said he liked to write, so at the end of the summer I gave him a journal and wrote him a letter in which I told him he was a special kid, and he could be anything he wanted to be in life. I ran into him the other day and gave him a ride home, down south to a little apartment on a dirt street; a dwelling he doesn't want me to enter. I gave him my phone number and told him he was a good young man, and if he needed anything, give me a call. Since then he's called four or five times, and last night I took him school supplies and a pair of shoes. A big part of me knows he can make it as far as he wants in life. He has the brain and he has the personality for it. But a big part of me knows he first has to beat poverty, stay out of gangs, and keep saying no to drugs. In four years he'll be a senior in high school. All of those big parts of me want to send him to college. I think this is growing up.

If I could retire from my current career next month, it wouldn't be soon enough. The world is full of people who are in the middle of some of privation; some sort of hunger and danger and sorrow and they need another human being to be willing to be there and love them. And I am in a job where money and politics and bureaucracy believe the most important things in the world revolve around little triangles and diamonds on a project schedule. I spend most of my waking life in a world driven by ego and the almighty dollar. I want out. I want to go to bed at night and know a life is better because of me; that somebody will hurt and suffer less tomorrow because of what I did today. And yet, I'm stuck in the wealth of the life I've created for myself and my family, and the fear that we'd go under in a heartbeat without the paycheck. It unsettles me to know full well that maybe this is the point; to put one's money where his or her mouth is—to decide beyond all doubt if I really believe what I think I believe. I think this is a crisis.

But the crisis is potential growth, and the growth is about crisis. To risk one's life for others involves crisis; theirs and mine. To recognize that twenty-something year old women see me as uninteresting except for fatherly advice, and too that I see them as daughters in need of paternal love and encouragement, is a bit of a crisis at the male ego level. To know that I may not or cannot ensure a decent future for young people—even my own children—is a crisis. To desire to do something more substantial, more real and more personal with my life is about growing as a person. So to ask which comes first, crisis or growth, is to know that one implies the other. Crisis invites growth. Growth creates crisis. To grow is to come to love the world more deeply, more profoundly, more truly. And yet, ironically, love always involves some kind of crisis at the personal level; sooner or later. That's the way it is; nothing worth anything comes without a cost.

I'm growing. And I'm in crisis. I'm in crisis. And I'm growing. And you know what? It's a pretty wonderful thing to know that I am.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Can I Borrow the Car?

The following is extracted from some of my comments I posted a few years ago on a Christian forum; I found it in my notes and decided to post it here in slightly modified form:

When a child commits a wrong, and feels guilt, Christians often say that this is an example of God's law written onto the hearts of Man. Purposely avoiding any discussion as to the validity of that claim, I would note that when those same children are quick to accept other people just the way they are, the same Christians might say that this is evidence that children are ignorant of the wages of sin, the need for justice, etc. Given that we have a tendency to view things this way, it seems to me that we tend to view God as having more to do with guilt than grace. And I end up wondering if this view causes us to confuse radical mercy and grace with ignorance or, worse yet, moral bankruptcy.

More to the point, might it be that much of what we see in the world and judge as moral decay is in fact manifestation of God's grace, albeit unnamed, in the lives of the secular? Must we consider a "liberal" stand on an issue as a lack of morality, or might we instead be able to view it as an abundance of Christ's compassion, in a form we have yet to grasp ourselves?

Some (e.g., Thomas Merton) have written extensively about the "hidden Christ" and his action in the lives of all people. I favor the idea that God is presenting himself to each and every person every day, in mysterious ways, striving to touch them and reach them. Sometimes, this presentation becomes real enough to move a person to understanding, compassion and mercy. In this sense, such people have already experienced God and been moved by God. They just have no words, symbols, nor doctrine to attach to their experience. It becomes our role, therefore, to reach those people in that place; to offer a name and reasoned understanding to what they have experienced, so that they may cling to that experience and seek it more fully. I have heard time and time again that evangelism is about planting a seed, but I tend to think it is more about believing in and recognizing that seed, already planted by God, in others.

If this is at all correct, then while we help these people put a name to their experience, we can also, if we are free from judgment and being offended, learn from their unique experience of God. The secular world can teach us about the mystery of Christ in positive ways and not just negative, because he is positively presenting himself to the entire world.

It helps me, at least, to look upon and enter a situation/issue centered in this trust that it is Christ striving to work in the lives of individuals that is always happening and is always paramount. Relatively speaking, proving a philosophical, political or doctrinal point has very little to do with anything, and the manifest presence of Christ has very much to do with everything. I have to devote myself to people, to the nurturing of their unique experience of God through Christ, above and beyond everything else. I think we as Christians often want to change the world. I know as well as anybody that it is an easy thing to want to make a big impact with our actions and words. But it is much more likely that the change we are able to make is at this individual level. Mother Teresa, whatever one may say about her, had a wonderful view of this. She was once asked by a journalist (if I recall the story correctly) how she ever expected to be successful in Calcutta, when it was so big and there were so many poor, and she was only one person with a handful of helpers. Her reply was simply, "God does not call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful."

Roughly speaking, it seems to me that arguing issues often has more to do with the first part, and compassionately loving people falls into the second part.

I think it's a sad thing that when people come into Christian community, knowingly or unknowingly seeking to tie their very real experience of God into a group of believers and into some sort of "religion" they can claim, we brush their experience aside and tell them that what they really need is to accept our particular religious teaching before they'll ever know anything about God. In brutal practicality, what we are telling them is that what they experienced couldn't have been God, because they aren't good enough (i.e., enough like us) for God to use them for his purposes; as if God can't work in anybody's life unless and until we sanction it. This is the height of arrogance; to think we are the keepers and controllers of God and all his ways, as if he were something akin to a set of car keys. Shame on us.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Emptiness and Equality

You and I will never see one another as equals until we are both made empty.

A more direct and personal way to say this is that I will never see you as my equal until I empty myself of all the distinctions that I claim make you different from me.

A more honest way of saying this is that I admit I create and cherish these distinctions in myself, and that while some of them may be real, most of them are fictions.

The direct and personal, honest and pragmatic way of saying this is that I sin against you all of the time by judging you, because I think you are different from me and, of course, that I think I am better than you.

The spiritual truth I need to face is that I must willingly place myself onto a path that teaches me all such distinctions are meaningless, that they are meaningless regardless of whether they are real or fiction, and that since they are all meaningless, they are all ultimately fictions.

Black. White. Brown. Red. Olive. Yellow. Rich. Poor. Democrat. Republican. Young. Old. Liberal. Conservative. Healthy. Sick. Sane. Crazy. Man. Woman. In-between. Tall. Short. Fat. Skinny. Christian. Muslim. Jew. Beautiful. Ugly. Attractive. Repugnant. Left. Right. Wrong. Easterner. Westerner. Northerner. Southerner. Straight. Gay. Bi. Confused. Phobic. Deserving. Undeserving. Educated. Ignorant. Pro. Anti. Innocent. Guilty. None of the above. Us. Them. You. Me.

If I want to walk a spiritual path, I must come to understand that life in God is not about what separates us from other people, but rather it is about what joins us with other people.

And what is it, in a phrase? That we are all frail, and broken, and longing to be made whole.

Thinking about Truth

I like to think that the idea of truth is one that I carry around with me each moment of my life, and I suppose it is. I like to think that the truth guides my life, and I suppose it does. But sometimes I think about it more than I do at other times.

The truth is a strange thing, and I suppose that before I get started talking about it I should mention that the simple little word "truth" can be mean a thousand different things, and although sometimes we can say "Truth" with a capital letter to help delineate what we're talking about, there are still a thousand ways to think of it. But the truth I'm thinking about, the truth on my mind, is a strange thing. I decided some years ago, and haven't changed my mind since, that Truth always presents a paradox to the human mind. At least, a Truth that comes imposing itself from outside of one's normal perceptions and habits seems to do so. And certainly this is nothing new. Buddhists have taught by way of paradox for ages. Jesus taught in paradoxes. And it isn't so much that a paradox is truly a paradox in an absolute sense; it's just that at the moment we hear it, we don't have the tools to decode its seemingly opposing pieces in a way that they will fit together along with our other tools and ideas.

A few years ago I wrote that I believe in a truth that cannot be spoken. I still do, and at the moment I'm thinking that I'd like to channel Meister Eckert's thoughts about God and say that Truth must remain this way; it must remain mysterious and unspeakable. If it ceased to be a mystery and if we could measure it and point to it, it would become just another fact or figure that Man calls his own. And for me, it would lose what makes it Real in any meaningful sense.

But anyway the Truth I'm thinking about is the Truth that is way, way down deep—somewhere in the vicinity of the questions about what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, about purpose and fulfillment and being and doing. It's certainly not a truth of mathematics or simple historical facts, and neither is it a Truth discussed in the field of epistemology—although that's closer to it. And I have to admit, with an idea that to many people I know seems like blasphemy, it isn't even the Truth of theology or Man's religions—although those are closest yet. No, it's beyond those things. It's way out there in a place where metaphorically I push my mind till it can go no further, and so then I push my heart until it confesses it can see no longer, and then I push it a bit more. I am talking about the Truth that is still beyond me when, with all that I am, I have done my best to leave everything I believe to be true—all the little truths I've learned to accept—and opened myself to Truth. And oh my God, it is a profoundly beautiful place where only silent and slowly forming tears attempt to give it voice. I love that place. With all that I am, I love that place.

And it is in that place that Paradox presents itself in full force, for Truth surrounds everything—and who are we, we who scarcely know how to form a thought unless it is one of division and categorization, to do with such a Unity? How do we understand that Truth is surrounding the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the ugly, the joyous and the sufferable, the laughing and the weeping, the living and the dying, the cruel and the merciful, the full and the empty, the light and the dark, and every other supposed duality that we have defined? How are we to grasp that? I don't think we can; not well enough to intellectualize it and then speak of it.

But we can feel it—in a certain sense, anyway. We can be exposed to it or experience it as one who stands at an open gate and peers awestruck into an endless field of glory. And our minds can process that feeling; recognize that it is somehow present, and store it away and remember that on that day, in that moment, I experienced something—something beyond all things, and of which I know not how to speak.

It's that something that helps me to know there is a God.

To Change the World

I feel badly for not having kept up with this blog. This past year has got to be one of my most disorganized, and I can't believe how quickly this summer is passing. Some days, I can't even distinguish whether I'm getting important things done or if I'm only treading water. But, I have tried to make a concerted effort to spend extra time with my wife and kids, and there's no way that's a bad thing…

Our oldest kid just got back from a 7th-12th grade church camp. One of the college-aged kids who spends his summers working at that camp makes DVDs that cover some of the highlights of each camp session. He shoots video, edits it and sets it to music to produce a fifteen or twenty minute keepsake that the campers can take home with them. I was very moved watching the video this year, to the point of my eyes welling up, as I witnessed a camp full of young people enjoying life and God in community. Anyone who has all but given up on the youth of today should take some time to watch videos like the one I watched this past week. I know that it is easy to look at youth today and to think they are spiritually bereft, and certainly I worry about the challenges, temptations and risks that my three children face, but in many ways I am completely filled with optimism about the future that rests in the hands of our next generation. I need only look at the good will, joy, hope and innocence thriving in the youth of today to find my hope renewed. Faith is still alive. Good will is still alive. Selflessness is still alive. Generosity is still alive. Love in its eternal beauty and unstoppable force is still alive. And really, should we ever doubt this? The Love of God will never be stilled. It can never be overcome nor nullified. It lives for forever and ever more.

This past semester when I got a few chances to talk to teens, I told them they can change the world, and that I believe this with all of my heart. It's true, I do. The world is not that big of a place, and all it takes is a tiny bit of goodness to change it for the better. For you and I as adults, the solemn task before us is to enable our young people to make this possibility a reality. The kid whose heart and mind we touch may be the next MLK, or may go on to touch the kid who will be. The child we hug and convince of his or her immeasurable worth may go on to save a village in the Third World. More practically, through our support we may break a debilitating cycle of violence, abuse, addiction or apathy—changing the path of a family for future generations. A single person can change the destiny of the world, and any child we encounter could be that person. It is true, therefore, that you and I can change the world. At the age of forty-five, in all my years and experience, I am no less convinced of this than I was at seventeen, when I had all the naïve optimism and hope that only youth can afford. Yet and in truth, I am far more deeply and fully convinced of it today, than I ever have been.

My thought for the day? Let's be open to the enormous possibilities that lay before us. Let's keep our eyes, our minds, and our hearts open. Let's invest in youth. Let's encourage them, show them they are worthy of being loved, tell them how great they are, teach them that they can change the world, and share with them whatever portion of God's Love we can. You and I have the chance to change the world by something so simple as a few hours of devoted, loving kindness given to a child. We won't find a much better deal than this, nor a better use of our time. May God bless us, and the chain of lives God touches through us.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What’s in Your Garage?

Here's a quick one…

I was reading on the internet that GM may be coming out with a Z28 in 2011. Cool. I had a 1968 Camaro when I was a kid, so I'm thinking it would be a kick to go and test drive a new Z28. But, alas, I am such a troubled soul—here's where the thought soon took me:

There are a few basic places a person can fall in the Ford/Chevy debate, and the first one is this: There are people who have never owned a Ford (or Chevy), and have never driven one, and who swear it's because Ford (or Chevy) is a far inferior product. There is no real reason for this belief, other than the person has been taught that it is absolutely true— quite likely from somebody else who has never owned the brand, either.

So I've made up the following theoretical dialog, based upon conversations I've heard, to help make a point. (And by the way, I have no idea about the actual performance of the new Camaro and the new Mustang. I'm making this up, so don't comment and call me an idiot because of what I say about a couple of cars. Please. This is just a metaphor, okay?)

The fictive dialog starts like this:

Ford Lover: "Chevy's totally suck."

"Really? Why?"

"Because, man; they suck."

"Yeah but, why? Why do you say that?"

"Because, man. They totally suck! Fords ROCK!"

Now consider the following continuation of the dialog:

Ford Lover: "…My neighbor is a total idiot. I'm not even inviting him to come watch the game on my new big screen."

"Really? What he'd say? What'd he do?"

"Nothing, man. I haven't even met him. He doesn't have to say anything. Dude. Come on. He drives a Chevy. It's there in his driveway."

"I don't understand. That's why he's an idiot?"

"Absolutely. Only an idiot would own a Chevy."

"Oh. Wait, why does that make them an idiot?"

"Because, man. Don't you get it? Because Chevy's suck. Chevy's suck, he drives a Chevy, therefore, he's an idiot."

"But, he's driving a 2011 Z28. That's a pretty cool car. And the reviews say it's pretty impressive."

"No that's a bunch of crap. GM pays those people to say that. No way it's as good as my 'stang."

"You mean yours is faster?"

"Yeah. Way, dude. Mustangs have always been better than Camaros. Camaros suck."

"Yeah but the reviews say it outruns your model of Mustang in the quarter mile by…"

"Doesn't matter. A quarter is nothing. I'm talkin' on the street, man. That's what matters. Quarter doesn't matter at all. I'm talking cornering, braking, mileage, all that stuff. Full package ride. No comparison."

"Yeah but the reviews say the Camaro beats your model of Mustang in all those categories, and gets similar MPG, too, so..."

"Yeah right if you want to pay TWICE AS MUCH for a stupid Camaro, man. That's jacked. Only an idiot would pay that for a Chevy."

"But if you want a performance car and you want to spend under 40k, then, it seems like the Camaro might make sense…"

"No, man, you're not getting it, okay? No amount of money for any performance is worth it if it's a Chevy. It doesn't matter how it performs. It doesn't matter what mileage it gets. It doesn't matter how good it looks on paper, how good the fake reviews are, or that a bunch of idiot Chevy lovers say it's awesome. It's a Chevy. It sucks. Anybody who really knows anything about cars knows that. My neighbor's an idiot. The ride in his driveway proves it."

"Okay, but, I read articles in Car and Driver and in Road and Track, and out of twelve test drivers, eleven said they'd take the Z28 hands-down over the Mustang, and so it seems to me your neighbor…"

"Aw geezus. You're not listening to what I'm saying. Those car magazines get paid off, okay? You can't trust a car magazine to tell you what's best, okay? You have to ask people who know, you know? The people who have the facts."

"People who know? Like, you and your friends you mean?"

"Yeah, like me and my friends, folks who have driven the cars, you know? People who know that the Mustang is awesome, and that the Camaro sucks. It's so obvious, man. You have to be blind not to see it."

"So you've driven the Z28, too?"

"No, no way! I wouldn't be caught dead in that piece of crap. Are you kidding? I mean, people who've driven Mustangs, man. Like, all their life. They know."

"But, so, the people who've driven a Camaro, like your neighbor, he doesn't know? I can't ask him?"

"No of course you can't ask him to tell you. He doesn't know his butt from a hole in the ground. All he's ever driven is a stupid Camaro, so how could he know about Mustangs?"

"Wait. So, I don't get it. If you've never driven a Chevy, then how can you… how do you know…"

"Awww you know what, man? You're starting to piss me off. Are you a Chevy man? 'Cuz you're sure starting to sound like one. Naw you know what man? Just forget it. You're one of those people who's, like, blind to the way things are and you don't want to see the truth. You know what? Just leave, okay? 'Cuz I'm done talking to you. You can go hang with your fellow idiot over there next door."

This discussion is not very far from reality, and indeed, you may have heard a similar one for automobiles, sports teams, brands of computers, musical groups, or almost anything else you can think of. Now, imagine how much more out of hand, how much more ridiculous, how much more sad, and how much more pointless the above conversation would be if the individual asking the questions was exactly like the Mustang owner in terms of his myopic perspective, his logic and his knowledge, but was a Camaro fanatic?

This resultant conversation would be a representative analog of the vast majority of the political and religious discourse I've witnessed.

So what's in your garage, and why is it sitting there? Just something to think about the next time you look at another person and call him an idiot.