POEM: Somewhat Religious

Priscilla was born into a very religious home
She was conceived in a somewhat less religious car

This very short, funny little poem gets at several aspects of religiosity.  First, sometimes people who are “ex” anything are the most harsh and self-righteous — whether it be ex-smokers, ex-drinkers, ex-sinners, or what have you.  Of course, ex-sinners often specialize in recovery (or penance) from a particular sin or type of sin.  Unfortunately, a zealous focus on one area of shortcoming can foster a blindness to other areas of shortcoming.  This imbalance or hypocrisy is often much more obvious to others than the person experiencing it.  One interesting saying regarding the difference between religion and spirituality is this: religious people want to avoid hell; spiritual people have been to hell and don’t want to go back.  This poem points to another aspect, that is, religiosity can become particularly dangerous when it’s zeal to help others avoid a hell that they have already experienced overshadows their own growth and compassion concerning their own shortcomings in other areas.  This blindness and lack of compassion to another’s current experience, even though it’s part of one’s past experience, typically doesn’t play well to someone currently experiencing what may or may not be perceived as a problem.

This poem specifically addresses a parent-child relationship.  Parents often paint a prettier picture of their own past behavior to their children.  This poem directly addresses this thorny issue.  I suspect that fostering a certain confidence in a child’s positive view of their parents is commendable.  Nonetheless, at some point in a child’s development, they need to see that their parents sometimes dealt with issues in less than ideal ways and still turned out OK, or perhaps have to deal with enduring harm.   Keeping it real, or authenticity, is an important characteristic to model for children (and others).  While there may be developmental issues that warrant avoiding too much information, kids are rather adept at detecting phoniness.  What child has traversed through adolescence without having to seriously confront the hypocrisy of adults, parents included?

Hopefully, our pasts, with all of their shortcomings, provide valuable raw material to practice compassion with ourselves and others.

POEM: It’s About Time

One day
I had a dream
God came to me and said
Meet me tomorrow at 4:32 pm
On the bench
In the small park
At the corner of Ashland and Collingwood
Near your home
You have something I want
My first reaction was
Doesn’t God consider all of the riches of the world
As but a penny?!
Doesn’t God consider a thousand years
As but a second?!
What could God possibly
Want from me?!
My second reaction was
Isn’t that time and place
Awefully specific?
I closed shop a little early that next day
And I sat there
In the park
Lots of traffic
But not a soul
It seemed somewhat foolish
Know one there
Accept the neighborhood homeless guy
And, of course, me
So with perpetually bad timing
The homeless man blurts out
Yes, all of the riches of the world are as but a penny!
Yes, a thousand years is as but a second!
So be aware!
Now
A well dressed passerby
Shakes his head
Without breaking his gait
I was stunned
Buy the time
I could
Muster a thought
He was walking away
So I
Blurted out
So, if all of the riches of the world are as but a penny
And a thousand years is as but a second
Can you spare a dime!?
Without turning
He lightly raised his hand
Giving a somewhat dismissive gesture
Just
Saying
Sure
In a sec

This short poem is an elaboration of a joke I once heard.  I liked the juxtaposition of the sense of wealth and time from a divine and a human perspective.  The “better off” human(s) in this poem find themselves ironically betwixt the divine and “worse off” humans.  The joke exposes the gap between God and humans, as well as the gap between “better off” and “worse off” humans.  To someone with an immediate need, like the homeless, putting them off temporarily is essentially putting their need off essentially forever.  If not now, when?  The sad rationale that “better off” persons use regularly is that “the poor will always be with us” (to bastardize Jesus’ words), so we can help them occasionally when it is convenient for us — thanks homeless people for presenting that ongoing opportunity!  Unfortunately, this typically falls far short of meeting the need of many persons at any given time.

It is no accident that I wrote and published this poem during the Christmas season.  Jesus was a homeless man without worldly riches.  If we were to look to Jesus as a model manifestation of humanity and divinity, then celebrating Christmas would look little like modern Christmas, with its commercialization and focus on getting and consumption.  For at least centuries, humans have had the resources to meet every basic human need.  Yet, a painfully huge proportion of “present day” humans go without basic needs.  This fact of abundance stands as an indictment on the scarce and barren worldview that carries the day for most of us much of the time.  This is a worthy reality to reflect upon this “present day.”

POEM: An Answer to the Problem of Evil

An Answer to the Problem of Evil

One morning God woke up
Before there was such a thing as morning
God was well pleased with God’s self
“I know that I am all that!”
In fact, the only thing better
Than knowing I’m all that
Is to not know I’m all that and then find out I’m all that!
So God got lost
And it’s been mourning since
Good morning

The epic title of this poem is somewhat ambitious, since this poem, no matter how optimistic or hopeful, obviously doesn’t bring an end to the problem of evil.  Of course, the title begs some humility in suggesting “an” answer, not “the” answer.  What I hope this title and poem offer is a positive perspective on the intractable problem of evil.  This poem addresses one of the deepest and thorniest philosophical and theological issues that exists: how can evil exist alongside a powerful, loving God?  Nonetheless, my hope is that this poem’s playful tone elucidates something about the nature of God in the face of such a mournful human problem.

My understanding of salvation is deeply rooted in a transcendent perspective which ever moves me toward that which is larger, more all-encompassing, and more whole — some would call this spiritual perspective as seeking a higher power or God.  I see this process of salvation or enlightenment as a continual trading up to something better.  In the process of trading up, one must give up the current or old to make room for the new and better.  This is a mournful process.  Losing things of value is difficult  This is especially true when things of value are taken away from us without any choice on our part.  These events and processes of loss seem to capture our attention quite effectively.  Somewhat ironically, the process of gaining things of value, especially when due to no choice or action of our own, generally receives little complaint, and often scant attention.  Exhibit A: the gift of life, your very existence.  Unearned gains, the stuff of grace, is the companion of the problem of evil: the problem of good.  Of course, few people demand a solution to the problem of good, not seeing a need to address it as a problem.  Still the philosophical and theological issues are exactly parallel.  To be fair and balanced, these issues should be addressed as the problem of good/evil.  No doubt, some have aspired to amorality as a deeply ironic and banal way of “transcending” such a problem.  If we can’t do any better than this, then we certainly can’t do any worse!  Such a desperate, nihilistic approach seems to me like destroying the question to avoid having to answer the question.  But back to the question at hand!  The process of mourning loss (and celebrating gain) are inextricably linked.  My definition of sacrifice is this: giving up something of value for something of greater value — “trading up.”  When loss is put in perspective of gain, then loss can “gain” positive meaning.  This is certainly no justification for evil, but it opens the process of redemption.  My favorite example of this is getting hit in the face with a two-by-four.  It is possible to learn/gain wisdom from such a situation, whether it was at the hands of another’s cruel intent or an “accident.”  However, just because it is possible to learn/gain from such a situation, does not mean that it is good to hit people in the face with two-by-fours.  It means that such bad situations can be redeemed, placed in a larger, “transcendent” perspective, where wisdom can be gained.  No doubt there are better and worse ways to learn/gain wisdom, but every situation offers raw material for learning.  So, let’s redeem those worthless coupons of loss, whose face value is meaningless, into something greater, something with meaning and value.

This poem sets up this process as God getting lost to us, so the even cooler prospect of discovering God is opened up.  The implied calculus of this deal is that the pain and loss of not knowing God is worth the coolness of (re-)discovering God. The playful tone of this poem emphasizes the creative and playful aspect of God.  Hopefully, this lighthearted aspect of God can be manifest in us enough to make up for the heavy-heartedness of all the pain, loss, and grief that we experience.  So, let’s carry on with the longing and groaning of such discovery.

POEM: Of Cucumbers and Fences

The punk was going to take
My cucumber
From my fence
So I clutched
My trusty shotgun
And I fired a shot
Way over his head
He scattered like so much buckshot
Having triggered his nerves
Like a fresh kill
Whose life would only ebb
A lessen all-too-familiar to mortals
Missing his heart
By a million miles
Would win me no award
As marksmen
Or neighbor
But sure enough
Would secure
My pride and property
For another day
My generosity unknown
For had he asked
A cucumber I’d have given
In unspeakable modesty
I am the grower of cucumbers
As well as
The builder of fences
And if I can’t have your respect
I’ll settle for your fear
Only growing
Outside my fences

This freshly grown poem sprung from a conversation I had yesterday with a new acquaintance in a coffee shop, perhaps appropriately with a poetry reading occurring across the room.  This poem is based on a story told to me by a self-described spawn of an old hillbilly, now serving as a leader of Libertarians.  Early in the conversation, I was threatened to be taken out back and beaten to a pulp, minus some snot.  This is not the first time I have experienced such a first shot over the bow in a conversation with a new Libertarian acquaintance.  As it was a public place and each of us apparently had some modest respect for the law, we could not compare manhoods directly.  He did confess that his threatening manhood was in fact a joke.  I suspect that there was a small truth to this.

While this poem is written in the first person, much like Adam or Cain and Abel, the story is of his proud hillbilly father.  Those who know me would expect that it wasn’t my own story, except inasmuch as it is all of our’s story.  I find the juxtaposition of a prideful swagger all-too-familiar with violence and a genuine down-home generosity as intriguing as it is commonplace.  The true conflict is between pride and generosity — one of which can be defended with violence.  Both the pride of the gardener, with his fence and shotgun, and the punk who dares steal from another’s labor, begs for something more, a deeper generosity.  Sometimes a punk’s taking is innocent, as from a garden meant for all, that garden of eatin’ of which we have all experienced.  Many times a punk’s taking is a lazy pride asserting that all is theirs for the taking, without regard to their neighbors.  Of course, the gardener’s pride can lead him to mistake himself for the Gardener, the giver of all, who possesses a generosity overwhelming any value-added we may contribute by our labor.  The fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, curses us with a fruit of awareness that competes with an all-encompassing awareness of the Gardener.  That competing awareness is the builder of fences, which both cuts ourselves off from the one garden and cuts others off with our fences.  The birth of private property possesses us.  Scarcity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet our profits remain strangely unfulfilling.  We look to grow fears outside our fences faster than thay grow within.  We learn to plunder with ease, not work, generous abundance.  And plucked from the vine such fruit dies.  Many a firstborn son has been planted at the hands of fearful gardeners a tempting to secure puny labors.  Such Abel-bodied young men stand as a testament, a very old testament, to the Cain-do attitude of private profits.  The first fruit is offering your best to God and neighbor.  The only sin: hoarding your first for yourself, and offering only your excess to God and neighbor.  What is it that would steal our hearts?  All fruits, and gardeners for that matter, die; only first fruits are born again and again, turning death into life — an offering Abel to banish fear, and transcend scarcity.  The fence between life and death is only the fence we truly know and fear.  And everyone knows: it takes a thief to know a good fence.  If you should cross a thief, or perhaps two, generously invite them in, or scarce join them.  May there be one fate shared: good for all.

POEM: A Farcical Foundation

A Farcical Foundation

An abundance
Of people
Build
Bank accounts
And resumes
In lieu of a better world
In the face of scarcity
Hoarding ourselves
Leaving our shares as chump change
Our resumes bankrupt
In grate sell deception
Talked into ahead in arrears
Left behind as good as a rite
A pauper wresting place
For a loan and a fraud dwelling
Only in habiting the largesse heart
As a lust resort
Fabricated upon a farcical foundation
Unable to settle what has been billed
Dropping all in loo
Of a better world
Too mulch
To imagine
For those with
The lyin’s share
Only as per jury
Of one’s peers

This poem gets to the heart of the matter.  The great divide in life is between wholehearted living and heartless living, which, of course, is not really living art all.  Choose life, not lifelessness!  As Jesus aptly put it, “You can’t serve both God and money.”  The love of God is the beginning of wisdom.  The love of money is the height of foolishness.  Of course, you only need to worry about this when God and money compete for your allegiance, say, most of the time you are awake! In modern monetized existence, a rather full assessment of what one values can be ascertained by how one spends their money (or not spends as the case may be).  Unfortunately, such an assessment process happens to be accurate precisely because of the great poverty in our lives which focuses on money (not God). A better accounting might include looking at how we spend our time.  Not surprisingly, in a culture which seems only to serve money as its highest value, Western civilization has managed to bastardize the typified 1950’s quest for leisure time by increasing work hours (and decreasing leisure time), even though productivity has grown by multiples.  There is way more money and “stuff” in the world than a few generations ago.  Still, the quality of life for the majority of the world’s population languishes.  As has been true for centuries, if not longer, there has been enough “stuff” to live good lives, except for the stubborn fact that humans have not learned to share well.  When will we accept the sociological and spiritual reality that beyond meeting our basic needs, money contributes little to happiness.  Perhaps more aptly put, if we hoard money for our own use beyond our basic physical needs, we will pay a social, political, and spiritual price for it, which will negate the perceived benefits of hoarding or consuming more.  In choosing disciplined simplicity for ourselves and generosity toward others, we can build more than bank accounts and resumes, and experience the most valuable stuff in life, the stuff that money can’t buy.

POEM: Getting It Together

I see tragedy in the world
Not as the enemy
To be retreated from
Nor as an accident
Captivating my perverse stares
Rather a musing
These puzzling pieces
Of my heart
Shuttered into a million pieces
In chanting invitations
Entranced overtures
Moving beyond words
As a gait way
To the presents
Of an unbroken whole

This is yet another poem about hope, a familiar theme of mine.  With all of the tragedy in the world, it can be difficult to have a light heart.  I often muse that I have to laugh to keep from crying.  This seems to me to be a basic choice of perspective to bring to life.  How should I orient my attitude in life?  Staring at tragedy can become a perverse rubber-necking, like seeing a wreck that you can’t seem to take your eyes off.  My personality is built in such a way that I easily see the falling short of any given situation compared to some more perfect ideal, or even the being aware of multiple perspectives or choices that are equally inane, in some banal equivalency.  The former is a perspective of idealism.  The latter tempts infinite forms of nihilism, all leading the same place: nowhere.  Perhaps needless to say, I identify much more strongly with idealism.  I deal with -isms all the time!  For me, the decisive factor in choosing between idealism and nihilism is a devotion to a positive outlook.  Great minds have pondered the tally between good and evil, and it seems that it may be a close call.  Some try to escape the question by believing that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all the same.  Of course, it does matter what we believe.  Some times believing is seeing.  I’m betting my life that good is stronger than evil, or simply that I am going to try really hard to be on the side of good.  I see a major developmental task in life as sorting out my relationship with the One, which some may call God, perhaps Tao, or even hope.  This always takes place in context of the myriad of things, the many, the stuff of our everyday life.  This poem alludes to our hearts being shattered and shuttered into a million pieces.  The poem ends with the epic allure of an unbroken whole, or perhaps, within human capabilities, healing and reconciliation of broken and estranged people.  The transition, the path, the opening between, mere musings and such a desired positive state, is filled with invitations/overtures, most of which will go unanswered/unfulfilled, and movement beyond words to action.  This requires taking the lead.  This requires inviting people to be better when being worse seems much more plausible or practical.  This requires my own volition of acting better when being worse seems much more plausible or practical.  My best, most simple definition of leadership is this: bringing out the best in others.  I have hope because it brings the best out in me.  May our highest hopes incarnate hope for one another.  Make it so…

Martin Luther King Day history and reflection

Martin Luther King Day is coming up on January 20, 2014.  MLK Day is celebrated in the U.S. on the third Monday of every January.  The first official celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as a federal holiday in the U.S., was 1986. This upcoming MLK Day will be the 29th annual celebration.  Many younger folk will not remember a time without a MLK Day holiday.  However, much like Dr. King’s long-haul struggles, getting an official King holiday met with strong resistance for a long time.

As told here:

“Congressman John Conyers, an African-American Democrat from Michigan, spearheaded the movement to establish a MLK day. Representative Conyers worked in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and was elected to Congress in 1964, where he championed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Four days after King’s assassination in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would make January 15 a federal holiday in King’s honor. But Congress was unmoved by Conyers’ entreaties, and though he kept reviving the bill, it kept failing in Congress.

In 1970, Conyers convinced New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor to commemorate King’s birthday, a move that the city of St. Louis emulated in 1971. Other localities followed, but it was not until the 1980s that Congress acted on Conyers’ bill. By this time, the congressman had enlisted the help of popular singer Stevie Wonder, who released the song “Happy Birthday” for King in 1981, and Conyers had organized marches in support of the holiday-in 1982 and 1983, respectively.

Conyers was finally successful when he reintroduced the bill in 1983. But even in 1983 support was not unanimous. In the House of Representatives, William Dannemeyer, a Republican from California, led the opposition to the bill, arguing that it was too expensive to create a federal holiday and estimating that it would cost the federal government $225 million annually in lost productivity. Reagan’s administration concurred with Dannemeyer’s arguments, but the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 for and 90 against.

When the bill reached the Senate, the arguments opposing the bill were less grounded in economics and more reliant on outright racism. Senator Jesse Helms, a Democrat from North Carolina, held a filibuster against the bill and demanded the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) make public its files on King, asserting that King was a Communist who did not deserve the honor of a holiday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had investigated King throughout the late 1950s and 1960s at the behest of its chief, J. Edgar Hoover, and had even tried intimidation tactics against King, sending the civil rights leader a note in 1965 that suggested he kill himself to avoid embarrassing personal revelations hitting the media.

King, of course, was not a Communist and had broken no federal laws, but by challenging the status quo, King and the Civil Rights Movement discomfited the Washington establishment. Charges of Communism were a popular way to discredit people who dared speak truth to power during the 50s and 60s, and King’s opponents made liberal use of that tactic.

When Helms tried to revive that tactic, Reagan defended him. A reporter asked Reagan about the charge of Communist against King, and Reagan said that Americans would find out in around 35 years, referring to the length of time before any material the FBI gathers on a subject could be released. Reagan later apologized, and a federal judge blocked the release of King’s FBI files.

Conservatives in the Senate tried to change the name of the bill to “National Civil Rights Day” as well, but they failed to do so. The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 78 for and 22 against. Reagan capitulated, signing the bill into law.”

It wasn’t until November 2, 1983, that President Reagan signed the bill that made Martin Luther King Day an official federal holiday, to be first celebrated on January 20, 1986.

I have a tradition of attending our local community-wide annual MLK celebration.  In Toledo this event is called a “unity” celebration.  I find the theme of unity somewhat incongruous with the divisive issues that Dr. King boldly and controversially confronted and persistently pursued.  These celebrations seem much closer to “have a nice day” than “get jailed for justice.”  While I consider it a victory to have won official recognition of Dr. King’s life and life’s work in the form of a governmental and nationwide celebration, the institutionalization of Dr. King’s institution-challenging message and life’s work is problematic.  Of course, hard-fought victories can never be permanently institutionalized, but must be fought and re-fought by spirited and compassionate folks across generations.  Institutions tend to be guardians of the past and the status quo.  Fully alive people need to secure the day and the future.  Like they say: activism is the rent you must pay for living on this planet.  Otherwise our lives will face foreclosure.

Of course, MLK Day cannot expect to be immune from the inane, monetizing, unjust powers that be — just like every other holiday (formerly holy day).  You can expect way more people to get excited about businesses selling discounted merchandise of MLK Day, or most any other holiday, than righteous and indignant people overturning the moneychangers’ stranglehold of debt on working people or their insistence to monetize every ideal or spiritual venture.  Every celebration is met with a tsunami of merchandising.  Buy your sweetie something expensive, commensurate with your love — which can’t be bought, but may be sold.  Celebrate dead presidents by spending dead presidents.  Buy some munitions for Independence Day.  Honor veterans by living out the consumers’ creed: Live, Work, Buy, Die.  Thanksgiving has been overrun by the commercialization of Christmas.  Perhaps this is not surprising, since the Christmas season now reaches before Halloween.  Martin Luther King, Jr., quite aptly, is in good company with Jesus.  Yet the eternal question remains: Is MLK Day just a day off?