Trump | #Friday500

It has been a fascinating year, I must say.

Back in July of 2015 I was sitting on a sailboat off the shoreline of Chicago with a friend from out of town and another friend—the owner of the boat. It was a beautiful blue and breezy summer day, and we were drifting blissfully along overlooking the shimmering, sun-bathed skyline. I was playing tour guide.

“So that’s the Sears Tower—AKA the Willis Tower. That one over there is the John Hancock. The glassy one right in the middle? That one’s the Trump Tower.” I paused. Then added with a grin, “You know? Our next president.”

My visiting friend smiled back knowingly. “Well. You never know.”

I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Wayeell… some-times ya do.” And so we drifted along. I had no idea the strange saga I was about to watch our nation undergo.

Continue reading “Trump | #Friday500”

Sympathy | #Friday500

I was sitting at an American-style cafe in Hanoi having hamburgers with a few Vietnamese English-language students and a couple other Americans. We were part of a partnership program with a local foreign language university, in which native English speakers taught and tutored Vietnamese students. We often received social invitations for outings from our students, and this was one such occasion. During the course of the meal, one of the Vietnamese students made a joke that none of us Americans understood. This had happened quite a bit during our time there. Though we’d made some half-hearted efforts to grasp one-another’s humor, we tended to simply smile benevolently and move on. I determined then and there that this time would be different!

“Ok, Ok. Back up. I want to understand this joke; I need to. We’re gonna talk this out until we understand why that was funny,” I said emphatically.

And so we circled back. At each point of ambiguity, we clarified. We defined terms and gave background and returned again and again to the simple question: Why is that funny? This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually the group of Vietnamese students were all exchanging puzzled glances, as were my group of American companions. We all began laughing at our utter futility in achieving any shared understanding of the humor of this joke—despite our determined efforts!

We had failed my challenge spectacularly, and so resumed eating. Eventually someone brought up a new topic.

During my life I’ve been inculcated to value empathy over sympathy. To see it as superior. Sympathy, I’ve gathered, is some distant brand of pity, absent of real understanding. What we ought to practice is empathy; a personal involvedness of putting one’s self into the shoes of the other. I’m just not sure I agree with that anymore. I suspect sympathy is the more rare of the two, and certainly the more needed.

Continue reading “Sympathy | #Friday500”

MLK | Letter from a Birmingham Jail

The tune is not very timeless, but the lyrics still communicate. In James Taylor’s 1991 song Shed a Little Light, he wrote

Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us,
All men and women living on the Earth.
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist
There is a hunger in the center of the chest
There is a passage through the darkness and the mist
And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest

Shed a little light, oh Lord, so that we can see, just a little light, oh Lord.
Wanna stand it on up, stand it on up, oh Lord,
Wanna walk it on down, shed a little light, oh Lord.

I don’t know that a nation like ours with a history like ours or a present like ours can turn our thoughts often enough to the otherworldly, redemptive vision of Martin Luther King. Certainly of all the things you might trip into today, be you off work, on work, occupied or otherwise, wouldn’t it be important to spend 10 or 15 minutes swept into the sacredness of King’s vision for justice and equality, but, above all brotherhood and sisterhood? I think so. Don’t neglect to find such a moment during this day. For we forsake those things we forget, even, especially the proverbial first things.

I’m reprinting below the entire text of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I reflected on it during Friday’s post and gave a bit of its backstory.

I have a bit of a habit of using Monday’s post as a venue for reflecting on art. Can an open letter extolling the expounding upon the biblical and social urgency of racial justice be considered art? Can it be called beautiful, evocative, important, inspiring? In the case of this epistle, the answer is yes to all and so much more. It has its own animate power and presence, the same as any masterpiece. Like van Gogh or Bach, it can stop you in your tracks. If this is not art, than our definition of art must grow. The same could be said of the way this text belongs in many important categories. If you live in America and have never ventured into this text, you are poorer for it. If you are a Christian and have never annexed King’s vision for justice into your own, you have needlessly retarded your spiritual growth. If both are true of you, I would urge you to make this a matter of sacred responsibility—I mean that.

Canadian aboriginal leader George Erasmus noted,

Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community.

Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.

King’s letter offers us a needed path to common memory and, thus, a path to real community—within our society and within the church. How needed this is in these days!

It was King himself who grieved that the most segregated hour in America was 11 am on Sunday morning. How might the American church offer any prophetic energy or insight within our nation if this remains unchanged? It cannot.

And so, without further adieu, I am providing the full text of King’s letter below. May we walk upon its light. Continue reading “MLK | Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Justice | #Friday500

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. What then is the mother of necessity? What I mean is, how is it that we come to determine something necessary, imperative or indispensable? How do certain things find their way into that conceptual compartment?

More importantly, how does the right stuff find its way there? Because, if necessity is the mother of invention, then we will only ever apply the potency of our human inventiveness to those things we perceive to be truly necessary.

And is this where justice resides for us; for you; for me? If not, how might it be birthed into our domiciles of necessity?

Continue reading “Justice | #Friday500”

Imagination

Annie Dillard recounts a riveting—if unsettling—phenomenon of nature in her splendid work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In the pages of 19th century naturalist and entomologist J. Henri Fabre’s journals are found some peculiar habits of pine processionary caterpillars.

Dillard writes,

Pine processionaries are moth caterpillars with shiny black heads, who travel about at night in pine trees along a silken road of their own making. They straddle the road in a tight file, head to rear touching, and each caterpillar adds its thread to the original track first laid by the one who happens to lead the procession.

Fabre housed a group of pine processionaries in his conservatory for observation, where he initiated an experiment demonstrating, in Dillard’s words, their “blindered and blinkered enslavement to instinct.” By modifying the silk track in their glass enclosure, he created a closed circuit. Fabre wanted to determine how long they might travel its futile track. “To his horror,” Dillard reports, “they march not just an hour or so, but all day.” Day after day Fabre observes them slogging in their futile orbit of “imbecility”. A time or two they reorganize, yet, in tragic form, wander again onto their cruel circuit and resume their “dismal parade.” Fabre puts food and water alongside their path to no avail. Deprived of moisture and nutrients, the hapless column of insects processes to their collective demise.

Fabre notes with incredulity the lack of “any gleam of intelligence in their benighted minds.”

Dillard is more disquieted still,

It is the fixed that horrifies us, the fixed that assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness…

It is motion without direction, force without power, the aimless procession of caterpillars round the rim of a vase, and I hate it because at any moment I myself might step to that charmed and glistening thread.

Our world is thoroughly laced with such charmed, glistening yet altogether deadly threads, onto which all are prone to wander. Isn’t it? Maybe you suspect you are straddling one such thread presently. How does one find one’s way off, and, perchance, liberate others in the process? Continue reading “Imagination”

7 Guideposts for 2018

This piece is meant as a companion to my earlier Resolve posting, in which I borrowed an image from the eminent Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken that might serve us in our resolution-making; e.g., that we might see resolutions as broader than self-improvement tasks, and more as existential way-chosings.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

Frost’s traveler confronts his finitude of being but “one traveler” and is beset with angst over which path to take. In the end, he ventures down “the one less traveled by”—”Because it was grassy and wanted wear.” This, wrote Frost, “has made all the difference.”

In my previous piece, I recommended a varietal of resolution rooted in a collective, transformational and qualitative soil; resolutions rooted in our yearnings for what this world needs most and our own audacity to, in Gandhi’s phrasing,

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

Don’t we all pine for newness in 2018? Haven’t we been drawn onto some regrettable paths? I know I have.

Would you allow me to describe some comparative traits of paths diverging before us? And might I recommend one trait-set as preferable? (I’m going to do so regardless of what you’re thinking right now, but I thought it would be polite to ask.) Continue reading “7 Guideposts for 2018”

Top 5 of 2017

It was just under a year ago when I asked myself whether I was a writer or not. The only clear way to answer this was, “Do you write?” The answer to that point was a qualified, “yes.” I write for my job, I write as a part of life, I write little disjointed bits in my journal. But a friend challenged me to start writing about the things I was interested in; to insist on making space for this type of writing.

As it turned out, something was gnawing on me. It was the way people were talking about violence. So I brushed up this site a bit, sat down, and wrote a piece on violence (its below). It helped me crystalize my thoughts, and people seemed helped by it. (The initial publication on social media was an accident, but, after that, I thought, Why not?)

A little thought by Flannery O’Connor has served as a motto for me in this,

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

So it is that I’ve written now for an entire year: over 60 posts gaining nearly 3000 views. I’ve had times when it has come easily, and times when it’s come with difficulty. I’m happy with some pieces, less so with others. Some seemed to hit an unexpected nerve with readers, other unexpectedly didn’t. Either way, I’ve found myself very grateful to those who have read and affirmed the value of my writing!

Where will this take me? I’m not certain. But I do think I can answer the question, “Am I a writer?” in the affirmative. I do, after all, write!

I wanted to end this year by sharing excerpts of my 5 most read pieces from 2017. You can click on their headings to read the entire essay.

Enjoy! And thanks for reading! Continue reading “Top 5 of 2017”

Resolve | #Friday500

Over the course of my life I’ve determined that two types of people inhabit this earth: (1) those in whom resolutions imbue an energetic and aspirational focus with propelling effect, and (2) those in whom resolutions behave like a kind of masochistic minefield, with which they feel obliged to afflict themselves each year in order of appease the gods of social custom. I’d place myself in the latter category. [Sigh.]

This can probably be generalized to the goal-makers and non among us, and I’m certain that it has everything to do with the way each of us related to such idealized projections of our future-selves. All I know is how they make me squirm.

“Are you making a list of things to feel horrible and guild-ridden about this year?”

Do I sound jaded? I suppose I am.

And still, despite myself, I’m allured, as moth to flame, by the renovative possibilities represented in these Gregorian demarcations of time—carpe annum! (Or does the annum carpe me?) I’m a glutton for punishment.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I do want to offer up some musings on the hullabaloo of this New Year’s ritual, because I do strongly believe that if there’s one thing our whole freakin’ society needs right now it is a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Am I right? I think we can all agree that 2017 was weird, and not “good weird”. More like, “What in the Sam Hill is happening?” weird. And I bet 2017 showed you some of your own more, shall we say, interesting qualities? Yeah, let’s go with interesting. There aren’t enough memes.

Where to go from here?

Robert Frost wrote a satirical (yes, satirical) poem which—its familiarity notwithstanding—offers us an apt image for occasions like this:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The title of the poem is actually The Road Not Taken, which presents the reader with an interpretational conundrum. It was intended as derisive critique of vain agonizing over paths not taken. He wrote it as a good-natured barb toward an indecisive and wistful friend, the poet Edward Thomas, about the inevitabilities of remorse in life filled with choices. It was a joke, but no one laughed. It couched indecision and regret in language of cowardice and naiveté (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both”), nonetheless the barb inadvertently affixed itself to quivers of arrow and pierced many a heart; including its original recipient, who reported being staggered by it.

It disclosed a common human longing: to reflect on one’s life with joy and not sorrow. Thus Frost’s verse unmoored itself from it’s author’s winking intent, and has exerted its own scionic legacy.

Frost said of one path that it was “grassy and wanted wear”. As so many tread down the thoroughfares of oblivion in our own day, are there not some grassier, if more uneven, paths themselves wanting wear? I think so. I think we can find in these paths some better, if less popular, ways forward. Let’s!

In this post, I would like to offer three preliminary ideas on what might enhance our resolution-ing this time around; call it an assessment of the soil quality in which they might grow. My intent is to follow this up with another post profiling traits of paths we might seek out.

But here I offer three ideas on renewing our resolution-making for the year ahead.

Firstly, don’t our resolutions tend to be very self-focused instead of collective or communal? This betrays a troubling hint of narcissism; that competitive whiff of, “this year I’ll be better than a few more people!” Surely that isn’t what our world needs more of. How about situating our resolutions in a world of personal, important and lasting repercussions; not just the egoism of our age? Maybe invite others into your resolutions?

Am I my brother’s keeper? Hope to God more might answer yes!

Secondly, resolutions tend to value doing over being and becoming, don’t they? This relates to the previous point, but I just wonder if this isn’t a bit shallow. Jesus once called people fools for ostensibly forgetting that he (God) who made the outside of a person also made the inside—implying they were both equally real and important. He also once said what we put into ourselves isn’t the problem, but what comes out. Being and becoming are admittedly harder and resist tidy listing, but lets at least connect our doings to them this year. Travel to become more broad-minded and empathetic, exercise to gain more dominion over self in order to serve others, read to see the world through the eyes and imagination of another with warmth and appreciation.

Visualize the year ahead as an instrument for the shaping of your soul, and resolve to be a willing participant!

Thirdly, our resolutions trend toward quantitative instead of qualitative. That’s a problem, because, per my last item, these could nudge us toward valuing quantity over quality, or betray how expeditiousness too often comes at the expense of the quintessence.

Your life will leave a wake this year. Will it be restorative, beautiful, humane and enriching? By nature, the qualitative defies quantification, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be measured. It is often those around us who might enable us to apprehend our progress in qualitative resolutions—they may even help us frame them!

What I’m advocating is a resolution-outlook that asks more more fundamental questions. What is most needed in the world around me? Who is the version of me I might offer with gladness? How might the quality of my life be enriching in nature?

Lean into the collective, the transformational and the qualitative in 2018. Our world could use these types of resolutions. And I think our world is famished for those who will  forge better pathways, even through the thickets, to more humane destinations. This will require resolve in both its verbal and nounal form: a resolve toward where one will and won’t journey, and the resolve of accepting the assignment, however rugged or lonely.

I imagine, as did Frost, two diverging paths. The inevitability of choice is forgone; either stay the course or deviate, life offers us no passes.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Way does indeed lead to way, so we do well to chose well our ways when given the opportunity. May your New Year’s resolutions be a form a way-chosing which leaves you with even more splendid, albeit onerous, way-choices one year hence. And may we bring others with us on these grassy paths in want of wear.
Here’s to 2018!

Advent IV | Consolation

As a child I was often beset by vivid and frightening dreams; some of which I still clearly recollect. These would jar me into a terrified, partially-wakeful state—alone in the dark of my bedroom, trapped in suspension between real and unreal. Instinctively, I would take the sole escape route available to me: leaping to the floor and running for my life down the hall into my parents’ room.

“I had a bad dream!” I would cry in quivering desperation, and would be be welcomed to my dad’s side; tucked up under the covers of his bed, where I would shake with tremors for what seemed like hours until the inner storm of dread finally subsided.

Even now, upon awaking from upsetting dreams, I find it impossible to easily shed the images, emotions and impressions upheaved from the pits of my unconscious world. Despite their ridiculous incoherency, dreams still forcefully grip us and render our faculties of rationale all but powerless for a time. At least they do for me.

Not a few have suggested that dreams are transmissions from our subconscious; that inner aspect of self with keen awarenesses, into which we rarely tap during our harried conscious living. I suspect nightmares to be children’s latent alarms of a world of danger; a place where safety might prove very fragile. Something kids don’t know they know, until they’re jolted awake by it!

In this sense, bad dreams are actually true. Adulthood itself is filled with many such violent awakenings, leaving us immobilized and shaken. But where do we flee?

The God of Advent is in the business of consolation; hastening into our darkness! Continue reading “Advent IV | Consolation”

Advent III | Involvement

In the spring of 2006 I traveled with a group of volunteers south to New Orleans. Seven months earlier, Hurricane Katrina had ferociously ambushed the gulf coast, overwhelmed the decrepit levee infrastructure, and had submerged enormous swaths of this city; especially poor communities. Over 1000 people died. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes—many displaced indefinitely. We were caravanning south to offer what help we might.

We spent our first nights in a warehouse with 1000 other volunteers (and rafters full of pigeons doing pigeon things) in the devestated 9th Ward, before accepting an opportunity to trek further south to Plaquemines Parish, where levee embankments rose on either side as far as the eye could see, forming a massive basin of low-lying land pocked with homes and towns and refineries; veritable play-sets in a big bath tub.

After a few days of outdoor work, we headed back to the 9th Ward for our last couple nights and to prepare the volunteer center for the incoming groups. We’d finished our morning’s work when a man arrived at the facility. One of the coordinators talked briefly with him, then turned and yelled, “Any of you want to go help this guy gut his house?”

A group of us piled into two cars and followed him home. We stopped briefly to pick up supplies: shovels, trash bags and crow-bars, work gloves and safety goggles, a papery hazmat suit and filtered ventilation masks. We’d spent the previous few days working outside, and shrugged ambivalently when offered this outfitting.

We pulled up to this man’s home; an unassuming one-level in a working-class St Bernard Parish neighborhood. Apart from the FEMA trailer in the driveway, all seemed ordinary.

“Wanna come take a look around?” asked the owner in his thick, peculiar accent.

“Yeah, sure!” I piped, in a demonstrable show of eagerness. I faltered however fleetingly, wondering should I don my gear, but dispensed with this thought in an effort not to embarrass my new friend.

He and I ascended the stairs, and he led me across the threshold. Power hadn’t been restored, but natural light dimly lit the interior. It took my eyes a moment to adjust—at which point we were in his living room. Once they did, I was staggered. I was in the midst of dark cavern of mold—floor to ceiling! It was post-apocolyptic. Carpet and curtains and couches and clothing all situated as they’d been 7 months earlier, when storm waters filled the residence to brimming before gradually draining back out. It had remained at the mercy of a warm, subtropical climate since. Food rotted in the refrigerator and cupboards. Mildewed pictures and hangings adorned the walls. I fought for composure, but my mind raced with each breath and blink, What spores and bacteria were plummeting into my lungs; wafting into my eyes? I broke into a sweat. Held my breath.

Finally, I gasped, “Well, let’s get started!” and hurried out of the house. Once outside, I exhaled then inhaled deeply.

Someone asked, “We gonna need those suits?” My expression told all. Yeah, we’re gonna need those suits! Minutes later we looked like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film and ventured in.

Actual human involvement often resembles this—entrance into disturbing morass—despite outward appearances, the internal decay can be alarming. What am I doing here? Where is my hazmat suit?

The God of Advent is a God of startling involvement. Hallelujah! Continue reading “Advent III | Involvement”