Thursday, November 19, 2009

winter poem

silent wild fury
    descends from deep heights
quiet I stand
    made of secrets
    woven of desire fear music stories
    almost blind
    wonder at the grand firs
    pressed down with white
    so weary of the weight
at a slight wind
    powder cascades
        from some high branch
        in a silent explosion
    a salty tear
            born of cold
            born of wonder
            born of secret pain
            born of mystery like the stars
        washes its path down my whitened face

I move on through the thick deep silence


It was the awl
that blinded little Louis
that was used
to create the first braille.

It was the everyman
the destroyer of sons and daughters
the wounder and the wounded
the patient and the doctor
the blind leading the blind.

I am the blind one
I am the maker of ways
for all of us unhealed.
I tell rumors of light and color
and unseen beauties
I am the dreamer
the idealist
I believe in the unseen.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


“Then He said,
“Take now your son,
your only son Isaac,
whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah,
and offer him there as a burnt offering
on one of the mountains
of which I shall tell you.””
Genesis 22:2, NKJV.

Your son
your only son
whom you love:

Take him
tie him down
kill him
burn him

All at the behest
of GOD.


This is carefully designed to offend.

It stands against paternal love
It stands against hope
It stands against what is moral.

There is nothing good in this command
nothing could comply with it
except raw trust.

Our lives are filled
with impossible demands
situations in which every possible option
seems wrong
nothing is what we want
no clear moral option presents itself
all options stand in the way
of our once glorious potential

Yet here we stand
we are cornered
faced with evil choices only

Only absurdity faces us:
either the universe sprang into being
from nothing
a great intelligence
strange and silent
a writer of crazy stories
put us into this furnace
who can know.

All absurd
and yet
here we are.

Take your precious and limited life
your only life
which you love
and go
wash the dishes
do the laundry
pull the weeds
do your work
offer it there.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public discourse in a nation full of boneheads

Ossification occurs when soft tissue turns into bone. Sometimes this is good, as when an infant's soft cartilage transforms into healthy normal bone as the child grows. Sometimes this is bad, as when spots in breast tissue calcify and can indicate cancer. Malicious ossification is a perfect metaphor for the current state of our national political discourse. Places where we need flexible negotiation, respectful persuasion, and effectual compromise have become increasingly stiff, alarmist, disrespectful, and polarized. The rest of our national problems pale in comparison to this problem, because no solutions to the other problems can even be rationally discussed and no workable solutions can be arrived at in the current climate.

A statesman is listed in the Encarta® World English Dictionary as "a senior politician who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good." This idea of a statesman denotes a leader who is broad-minded, and can be trusted to reach satisfying solutions quite apart from temporary winds of political bias. The voice of the statesman is missing from our current public discourse. In particular, most people seem to insist on leaders who will "stand up" for their viewpoints. What "stand up" means is, they want leaders who are inflexible, thoughtlessly opinionated, unafraid to be rude, and completely uncompromising; such leaders are celebrated. Any form of compromise at all, any flexibility in negotiation, any incremental success, any slight bit of give towards the interests of those on the other side of the aisle, is seen as an unforgivable weakness. Anyone who would command respect from their core constituency must lead in this way or they will quickly lose their respect and support. Frankly, this is particularly a problem on the right, but the left is a culprit just as much in more subtle ways. There is little doubt that this has become the nature of political culture in this day and age.

Real power resides in the art of persuasion, not in the stubborn and harsh refusal to compromise. Persuasion happens when one side recognizes and respects the other side's interests with true empathy, and thus is able to make ones own interests seem to coincide in a desirable way where they once did not seem so. A statesman has the breadth of mind to reach a reasonable compromise which supports a good number of one's own interests while supporting a good number of the other side's interests as well. Another way of looking at this is, a statesman is able to lose well, to lose some battles while winning the more important ones. A statesman recognizes the interests of the opposing side as the mother lode of success, and is careful to treat these interests, though not his own, with tremendous gravity and respect.

However, in our general political discourse, virtually every issue is painted as an urgent life-threatening, do-or-die thing, and failure or even slight compromise spells the end of the United States of America as we know it. There is no middle ground, no negotiation; no compromise is possible at all. Statesmanship does not seem to be possible because the constituency demands otherwise.

Let's look at a few examples. (Remember, I am not looking at whether you or I agree with one side or the other on these issues, I am using them as examples of ossification in public discourse.) In economics, those on the right would like to see a fairly pure laissez faire free market system, with little or no government intervention. Most on the right seem unwilling to acknowledge that a lack of government intervention and oversight contributed to the market excesses that gave us the current economic crisis. We may be able to talk about this, but a conversation requires a willingness to listen to reasonable opposing viewpoints and includes the possibility of persuasion. I do not sense this possibility in many of my friends on the right. To them, anything besides pure free market economics is socialism
On the other hand, it is a legitimate concern when the federal government begins to take significant ownership in private companies such as GM. We are not a socialist state and such a move stirs true fears that the administration has no grasp of the implications of what it is doing. Again, it is difficult to raise such a point with my friends on the left, although the culture of the left has not yet ossified with as hard a resistance to questions about its economic ideologies and actions as the right. I believe this has little to do with statesmanship, and everything to do with a lack of clear thinking about the issue on the liberal side of the aisle.

On social issues, let's take the example of abortion. I have friends on the right who would not blink an eye to call Obama a "baby-killer", and if you challenge this at all you must be someone who supports baby-killing as well. It doesn't do to remind them that Obama has said he would like to see abortions reduced or eliminated; if he doesn't reverse Roe v. Wade then he is a baby killer. People on the left are equally clueless about the power and centrality of this issue to people on the right. Taking the perfectly reasonable assumption that an unborn child is a real human being, isn't it reasonable to assume that abortion is murder? If people on the left aren't even going to try to realize the power of this issue, how can they hope to speak persuasively to the interests of those on the right in a constructive way?

We are in a time when I think we can say that respect for our leaders has largely died. If you say, I respected Reagan, or, I respect Obama, then you are part of the problem. Respect is tested when an honorable man with somewhat different viewpoints than your own is in office; it is possible to respectfully disagree. There is an increasing pattern of disrespect and even hatred for leaders on the opposite side of one's aisle. President Bush was vilified to the point that he couldn't even speak or walk without being viciously ridiculed no matter what the message. President Obama can't even address students with an innocuous "do good in school" message without being compared to Hitler and Stalin and accused of brainwashing our youth. No leader is perfect, and we all have genuine disagreements with what they are doing and how they are going about it, but if we are going to have civil discourse then there has to be a level of civility. In my opinion this is entirely missing. There are certainly ways to persuasively and intelligently disagree with policies without this kind of puerile and hostile disrespect. What do we think we are going to accomplish this way? It is similar to Arab terrorists thinking they somehow advance their cause by flying planes into buildings; do they think the west is suddenly going to come to their senses and believe in Allah when they do this? Similarly, do we think that our hostility and blatant disrespect is going to influence the other side, or further our interests in any way?

The divisiveness in our current state of national dialog really has very little to do with our leaders, and has much more to do with our citizenry. Our citizenry has been educated almost exclusively on a vocational basis, and our schools and universities are much more focused on producing useful narrowly specialized workers who make enough money to shop than producing intelligent generally educated citizens. The universities are particularly at fault. We are paying for this now in a big way. Few people understand or desire statesmanship, few people understand what they are looking for in a leader or in the nuances of his policies.

The real way to influence is not to vilify leaders, but to approach an area of disagreement with the respect for opposing viewpoints that is genuinely merited, and to respectfully seek compromise solutions that respect the interests of both parties. There is genuine impetus for leaders to seek this, they are not well served by pushing for a selfish agenda by brute force tactics, and the leaders themselves know it well. Wise leaders are sensitive to the need for delicacy, and if they are not wise, they soon will be forced to become so. People on the other side of the ideological aisle can depend on the leader's need to accommodate them. This need to accommodate is a real force, and we should work in concert with that need to see things happen instead of resorting to extreme and untenable agendas and calling political leaders buffoons or Hitlers.

This complete lack of a willingness on either side to be respectfully aware of the other side's interests and viewpoints, the increasingly hostile form of discourse on virtually every issue, is revealing a society that is diseased and no longer able to productively dialog and peacefully resolve its own problems. When the dialog becomes more shrill and disrespectful, thoughts begin to turn to other means than words to accomplish one's ends. We are fools if we think this is not heading toward some form of violent conflict. It is high time for right thinking people to stand up to people in their own camp and call down the foolish and shrill name-calling, and to work from within to call for statesmanship and effectual negotiation.

So, what should president Obama do in this strange climate? The nation badly needs a 'come to Jesus' speech where he spells out the fears of the right, and how his views really do oppose theirs, but also, how his administration is served by coming to the table to compromise. Bring up some embarrassing quotes of people in his administration, and point out that as the leader, he has no tolerance for such things and how such statements really do hurt his cause. He really needs to make the case that this is more than political rhetoric or bluster. A few examples of how it really has hurt his cause would help make the point.

Abortion really needs to be frankly addressed. Most people on the left do not understand the power and centrality of this issue for a lot of people on the right. Point out that this is not a black and white issue, and we can work toward compromise solutions that really do reduce abortions, which is what everyone wants anyway. The president needs to ask for cooperation in a way that is realistic and doesn't obliterate the interests of the right or the left to come up with ways to reduce abortions going forward. I think this could have more impact on reducing abortions than all of the hard-line legislation and angry pro-life rallies in the world, and it would be coming from a democratic leader! It is a great opportunity for the president to prove himself a statesman in a very important context.

The most important thing the president could do would be to point out that if the nation cannot on the whole agree to a way to have a civil and respectful dialog, then we will continue to have a pattern where those who are temporarily in power have to push as hard as they can while they have power to trample the interests of the other side, because both sides realize there is no room for persuasion, no room for useful negotiation, no room for statesmanship, because there can be no statesmen as long as the people demand harsh stands. Implore everyone on both sides to cry out for intelligence, for statesmanship, for brilliant compromises, and to reject grandstanding fools who play well to the vocal core but are useless to the real problems and solutions at hand.

A far more important question is this: what should YOU AND I do? We need to seek a far more penetrating insight into the interests and desires of those we disagree with, and speak empathetically and persuasively in a civil and respectful dialog. We need to begin to cry out for statesmen, not hard-line opportunistic loud-mouths. We need to realize that civility and respect and awareness of the interests of those we disagree with is the only way we will ever see our own agendas achieved in a sustainable way. We all need to grow up. The cancerous ossification is not in Bush or Obama, it is in each of us. We need the humility to recognize that we are a nation of boneheads, and seek a grassroots transformation to living able thinking minds.

Monday, June 22, 2009

There is no hole in the gospel

There is a book apparently circulating around my church called "The Hole in our Gospel." The byline is "What does God expect of us?"

First, I want to make it clear that while the author, Richard Stearns, means well, I strongly stand against the message of this book. I will go as far as to say that I think this book is very damaging and its core message is evil.

Let's look at a quote from the book:

"Belief is not enough. Worship is not enough. Personal morality is not enough. And Christian community is not enough. God has always demanded more."

Silly apostle Paul and his crazy ideas about salvation by faith, and living by grace and by the Spirit. Mr. Stearns presents us with a caricature of belief in grace thusly:

"More and more, our view of the gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast..."

He likens belief in grace to a "bingo card" gospel. He says that the true gospel is like this:

"... it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world - to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and the marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. While our 'joining' in the coming kingdom of God may begin with a decision, a transaction, it requires so much more than that."

I want to remind you that he is saying that there is a HOLE in "our" GOSPEL. It is the title of the book. Essentially, we cannot really call ourselves Christians unless we go to Afica and serve starving orphans and AIDS patients. It is the condition which God requires. It is the GOSPEL. Simple belief in Christ is a fake gospel, the REAL gospel requires you to do some kind of drastic level of sacrifice, all the better if it involves Africa. Somehow all of this heaping guilt and responsibility for all of the world's problems on my shoulders is good news.

Why am I so hot about this? Anything we add to the gospel is evil. Either God saves us and loves us and redeems us by His own work through Christ and the cross only, or it is human work and effort only. It is Christ plus nothing which saves us and gives us the power to do good. The message of this book lays a terrible burden upon Christians that is not really there.

The reason we go to serve, our inner motivation, our belief system and the power which guides us, is all-important. If I go under compulsion that my very redemption, my salvation, my rightness with God, is predicated upon being there, that I am SACRIFICING myself to fulfill God's demands, what kind of person am I to those I propose to serve? I am a resentful selfish do-gooder that comes as an alien whose only real concern is to ease my guilty conscience before God. I do not come to them out of real compassion and concern for their needs, but for myself; it is desperate exercise in self-redemption. There is little joy in that, and if I talk to people who are not believers, is this the message of God to them? Not, I love you, I forgive, I welcome you, I have deep compassion for your hurts and shame, but rather, I need you to press you into terrible service which you cannot conceive of and do not want?

It is a bait and switch tactic isn't it? I utterly reject it. It starts with a fake promise of love and joy and freedom, but ends with burdens more terrible than any religion in history.

I think Paul's writings in the New Testament are clear that belief IS enough. It must be grace that motivates us to good deeds.

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Ro 8:1 Nowhere in Paul's seminal books do I see the kind of 'gospel' spelled out that this book implies. I see grace spelled out by Jesus over and over. It starts with ME being the starving miserable rotten sinner, loved and redeemed by Christ, I see a father who always runs to welcome me with tears of joy and quickly clothes me and restores my dignity. Until I am solid in my place as one who is loved unconditionally and truly by the living God, and am comfortable that all of my good deeds are of grace, and that grace is all and in all and every good breath and every secret thought is redeemed and colored by grace, I can do nothing real to serve anyone. Doesn't anyone take the book of Romans and all the parables of Jesus seriously at all? Doesn't anyone shake with fear at all the hard teachings of Jesus about being pure of heart and not even being angry with people? Doesn't anyone believe that the real release is grace and forgiveness and the empowerment of the Spirit?

Do I thus say that we should not serve the poor, that we should just sit in a room in deep inner contemplation of the mysteries of God? Of course not! I say, do NOT mix up the beautiful message of the love of God and redemption for ME with ANY OTHER REQUIREMENT. A little mold ruins the whole loaf.

Why don't Christians defend grace? It is the only thing we really have at all!! It is the only thing we need. It is our only hope of serving anyone. Where is the voice that cries out, there is no hole in the gospel. It is God who saves me, I no longer am required to live up to the standards of religion. By the Spirit we are led by grace and compassion, and the crying need for every person is grace and acceptance and love. I celebrate that I have left the little prison of having to do this or that, small things or great, to earn God's favor. I am loved, now, and forever, and because I am loved with an extraordinary love I am greatly forgiven. I and my beloved do not put conditions of service on our romance. I am beloved. I serve because I love, and I love because I was first loved by Him. There is no greater message. If He, in His wisdom and love, leads me here or there, it is not the spirit of shame and obligation which is going to help me, but I will bear compassion and truth because I have been greatly loved, so I can love greatly. We belittle grace at great peril, but we triumph over every situation when we walk in the Spirit as beloved children. Belief in grace is no bingo card checkmark, it is the warp and woof of the simple Christian life. We are worse than nothing if we try to change that message. We become weapons that beat people into sullen miserable submission if we do not determine to teach nothing but grace.

The gospel is whole, and simple belief is more than enough, it is a great abundance. I urge everyone reading this to step into the light of belief in a real God who really loves you no matter what happens. Stop taking hard verses out of context so that you can interpret them in a hard way against grace. Stop excluding the passages which imply grace out of the picture so you can believe in a difficult and burdensome Christian life. The whole message of Christ obviously centers in forgiveness and grace and love. It is not your service which defines you, it is His love for you which defines you. Don't put the cart before the horse. First, find your treasure, hidden in the field, and then from JOY OVER IT you can make your sacrifices. Don't think that this is all splitting hairs and semantics. The flavor of the pure milk of the word is kindness - drink that, and refuse every condemning voice. Then you will find true compassion and will be a useful vessel to go into the world.