A Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote the below spiritual autobiography a dozen years ago as part of a servant leadership study group.  While it definitely needs updating, it serves well as a brief overview of my spiritual history and development over much of my life, particularly my early years.  Fortuitously, my humor remains righteously irreverent and my faith grows.

RUTTS
by Alex Haley
(that’s just my pun name)

The year was 1961. Preceded by John, a child was conceived, fathered by a closeted gay man, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love. In my mother’s womb, I was transported to Haiti, where my parents, as doctor and nurse, were beginning their service as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee. A dozen (and a half) generations ago my ancestors had fled religious persecution and military conscription in Germany to settle in America. For a new beginning, they were gifted with land from William Penn. This land was some of the most fertile in the world; so fertile, in fact, that even gay men father children there! Though now in Haiti, they were soon to be counted again among the privileged of the world. I was born. And on this journey, Joseph followed. Continuing my heritage as a sojourner in a foreign land, I was born a true child of the 60s.

I have no specific memories of those first couple of years in Haiti. However, only in recent years have I realized my ideal vision of serenity as sleeping without a care late in the morning in a mountain cabin while the rain pounds on the tin roof likely came from memories as a baby (now, if only I can figure out why I have a pleasant association with the smell of skunk!). Also, I am told that I was scared of most white people. Strangely, I am still haunted by white people on occasion.

After a brief stint in Detroit, perhaps explaining my love of urban life, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. The town was Mennonite-free, so I was raised a United Methodist. My childhood was strikingly trauma-free (only striking in retrospect). I knew safety. I knew predictability and caring. Our family always ate meals together, beginning with a prayer too short not to recount here: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” A lot more theology in that prayer than I usually give credit. Our family participated in worship and church functions regularly. Worship was generally boring. One of my few memories was a teenager with a guitar, singing “Blowing in the wind.” I guess that would have been contemporary music, huh? And that was before Bob Dylan was a Christian. I attended Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and youth group. I only vaguely remember confirmation. I remember good times. Except for a desperately poor matching of gifts by placing me in a children’s choir – my first, and really only, experience with “playing hooky.” I loved summer camp. First there were church camps, then Boy Scout camps. My younger brother and I earned Eagle Scout ranking (the highest in Boy Scouts) in record time. Our scoutmaster was easygoing and playful. Perhaps paradoxically, it was easy to achieve in that environment. If “achievement” had been required of me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. When we later moved and joined another scout troop, which was probably better organized and certainly more rigid, we dropped out after a while.

My understanding of diversity was child-like. I knew that Catholic families were the ones with five or six kids. Good families to play with. My best friend’s dad was Cuban. He also had two older half-siblings. In retrospect, this was the only somewhat non-traditional family I recall; though I don’t recall giving it much thought.

I was baptized at age eleven. Apparently, I was out of the country at the time such events usually occur. Fortunately, my understanding of baptism was still pretty much that of an infant, so it worked out well. I was confirmed a year later. About this same time, I was in little league baseball. In an attempt to deal with performance anxiety, I kept a pocket-sized New Testament in my back pocket. This crude attempt at spiritual osmosis was discovered by my brothers who with little affection labeled me “Bible boy.” I didn’t like this. I remember that my parent rebuked them.

When we moved to Dearborn, Michigan, before my ninth grade, my parents looked for a church nearby, but had little success – “too suburban” I think. Not surprising, considering we lived in a nice home with a pool, only 100 feet from a golf course. They decided to return to their church from earlier years, Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, 20 minutes away. Central is the oldest Protest-ant church in Michigan, and has been called “the conscience of the city.” Always a leader in social justice, their most widely known pastor preached pacifism before, during and after World War II. I was soon to be raised on 45+ minute sermons, truly epic sermons. A turning point happened to me sometime during my high school years when my mom took me to a peace conference at church. My eyes were opened and my heart would soon follow.

I went to Hope College, a small, private, liberal arts school. It was a Christian College, as were most of its staff and students, mostly Reformed and Christian Reformed. However, it was unlikely that I would ever be Reformed; conservatively speaking that is. My college years began with my father lightly warning me of these Calvinists. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first roommate and I, who were boyhood friends, unknowingly were matched because we were both Methodists – apparently, a rare breed thereabouts. Early on, I must have been an easy target for an overabundance of evangelism. A friend invited me to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to what turned out to be a practically diversity-free zone; even ALL of the other persons in my small group were named “Kathy” (though probably a diversity of spellings). Later, when I saw out my dorm room window the friend who invited me, I said, “hello.” She asked me what I thought of the meeting. I shouted from the second floor window something to the effect that it was “too religious.” I did like church, and I went willingly. I even went to chapel services three times a week – religiously. I was also on part-time staff of the campus ministry. Though a biology major, I was frequently mistaken for a political science or philosophy major. Apparently, I was succeeding at the liberal arts (or at least the art of being liberal).

I very soon got involved with a small group of students known as the World Hunger Committee. Being a United Methodist, I must have known that there would be a committee for that! This formally launched my work in social justice, and my personal interest in stewardship, vegetarianism and nutrition. That first year, God brought together this son of a Mennonite with a Hope graduate who was a Mennonite (perhaps the only one). I told him that I was concerned about President Carter re-instituting draft registration. He said, “Why don’t you start a peace group?” I said, “Yes.” Fortunately, I didn’t now what I was doing. So, I helped found “Hope for Peace.”

For my own concerns, I hooked up with a Viet Nam war-era draft counselor. To make a long story short, when President Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration, I was identified in the Detroit News as a non-registrant. Being the only publicly-identified non-registrant in Michigan, I garnered much media attention. Eventually, the Reagan ‘get the government off your back’ regime and his Attorney General, Edwin ‘people are only hungry by choice’ Meese III, saw that out of millions of non-registrants, I was number 13 to be prosecuted. In the end, six years later, after heroically losing half a dozen pre-trial motions (with the help of a volunteer team of legal experts), my older brother dying, graduating from college, getting married, having a son, graduating from graduate school, and getting a job, I defended myself before a jury of my peers (though none of them were subject to the law I was defending myself from). I lost. But what did I win? (that is, beside three months room and board at the taxpayers’ expense) I learned to live in good conscience. I learned to refine my beliefs, even amidst great public scrutiny. I learned about civil disobedience, or as A.J. Muste, a great American pacifist and Hope College graduate would have said, “holy obedience” (in my write mind I say, “wholly obedience). I learned that the U.S. government has the absolute authority to draft any citizen regardless of conscientious objection. Any exception to this is due only to “legislative grace.” I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my government. Actually, I presented my case at the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with a resolution to support young men’s consciences who were subject to draft registration laws, whether their conscience led them to register or not. The resolution failed. So, I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my denomination.

During college, after guest preaching at my home church in Detroit, someone came up afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that you were in seminary.” Nonetheless, I consider myself a theological mutt. I have drawn from many Christian traditions. I have studied Asian religions, and I am drawn to Buddhism. I am an amateur philosopher (that is, until someone pays me) and I am intrigued by the angst of existentialism. I have experienced a spiritual re-awakening in Alanon, which has given me things that my church could not. I believe that “religionism” may be the ultimate “-ism,” preventing us from experiencing the oneness of God. I may be a leading candidate to be voted, “most likely to be heretical,” by the powers that be. This is my orthodoxy. I believe that paradox lives in the neighbor of truth; and we should love our neighbors. In true Zen-like fashion, I find that irreverence is often the highest form of reverence. Among my heresies is my unabashed appreciation of “The Simpsons” (but, as the Hindus would say, “Don’t have a cow.”).

After an intense summer working for Bread for the World as an organizer, and days before my senior year began, my brother John was killed in an avalanche in Western Canada; but only after dropping out of college while on foreign study, wandering, rock-climbing and working (pretty much in that order) for a couple of years in Africa and the Western U.S. His death has given me a much greater sense of mortality and the preciousness of life each day. I actually find funerals as fruitful opportunities for reflection and renewing my sense of “living in the moment.” I have undervalued such opportunities. One of the few regrets in my life was missing three of four funerals of my grandparents.

My paternal grandparents were particularly religious. Only upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary (and doing the math) did I realize that my father was a near-bastard child to a teen mom. Years later, when my sister was pregnant and out-of-wedlock at age 19, my grandfather said, “The sins of the grandfather are being visited upon the granddaughter.” My thought: get over it! Well, at least, I can now understand why my gay father was closeted until his parents were either dead or demented. While I didn’t see healing in my grandparents, I saw that having an understanding of God under construction is a good thing, and sometimes demolition work is required.

That brings me to my marriage. To make a long, and usually happy, story short, my marriage of 11+ years ended 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we were blessed with two wonderful children, Joshua and Kathryn. I love being a parent. It may be the closest I’ve been able to experience what God must feel in His/Her unconditional love for us. Kate’s life is an ongoing miracle since she was born with multiple heart defects. She underwent two heart surgeries, and at one point with surgical complications, a doctor, trying to be optimistic, said, she has at least a 50/50 chance of living. A brush with death. There’s that mortality thing again. Not unlike death, I thought I had no problem with divorce – as long as it was happening to other people. Accepting our divorce was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with.

Being out of a “relationship” for a number of years helped my re-develop my relationship with myself and with God. This came more through Alanon than church. Now, being in a relationship for eight years with a wise and beautiful woman has taught me to appreciate life as it comes, one day at a time – with both of us half single, half single parent; no longer with in-laws but ex’s. I’ve learned that God makes all things new, and often faster than I want. God never gives me what I want; God always gives me something better!

My career. God brought me to a career in public health, as I savored its roots in social justice. God brought me out of public health, re-naming me “Top Pun,” and appointing me as a jester for peace, where the pun is mightier than the sword, and justice is no yoke. My canvasses are buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the World Wide Web. My business, by definition, is good – that is, maximizing prophets. My business is exactly on schedule; though I don’t know what the schedule is.

God brought me to Central’s neighborhood, and a few hours later, to Central. Centralites were my kind of people. Some happened to be Christians who were gay. Through my social justice work, not my public health work, God brought me to work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This opened further opportunities to work with persons who happened to be gay. My dad “came out.” My parents divorced. God had prepared me.

I have issues with money. I aspire to live simply, gracefully facilitated by my recent poverty-level earnings. Living with less financial security has inspired me to give today because I may not be able to give later. Whatever old car I’m driving facilitates my prayer life (of course, no “auto”-biography would be complete without a mention of my car).

I am a mystic at heart, journeying as a gifted rationalist, Caucasian, male, father, lover, businessman, American, etc., etc., yada, yada, yada. While embracing the enigmatic, I hope these few words will offer you a clue as to who I am. Hopefully, these few words will offer you a clue as to who we are. One of my favorite poems is from Muhammad Ali: “Me. We.”

In all, God has never left me; except for an instant in 1981, but that’s another story…

POEM: Owed To Chet Chambers

His exacting integrity
Was seeded only by generosity of heart
He loved
Awe of God’s children
As well
As he kin
He planted seeds
That others would harvest
He worked side by side
Under God’s reign
And the radiance of a singular Son
Today the earth is a little less salty
Yet let our tears renew
Our taste for justice
And peace unearth

Chester “Chet” Chambers died October 4, 2016, at the age of 87.  Chet was a good man; though, like Jesus, Chet may very well have responded to such an assertion with: “Why do you call me good? “No one is good — except God alone.” [Mark 10:18]  His good works were cloaked in humility, yet any person of good will would testify to his deep and abiding faith in God and humanity, God’s precious children.

Chet was a friend, neighbor, fellow activist, and life-long United Methodist.  His life touched so many other lives.  All of our lives are better because of Chet; the fortunate are aware of this.  He will be missed by many.  His life, ministry, and example will echo into eternity.

Here is the obituary for Chester Chambers, as published in The Toledo Blade on Oct. 6, 2016:

Chester Chambers, born December 2, 1928, passed October 4, 2016. He grew up in Luckey, Ohio, where the Methodist church was the central activity of his family. He graduated from Ohio Northern University, where he took a pre-chemical engineering course of study. He was involved with the Ohio Methodist Student Movement, and following his junior year decided on ministry.

He went to Garrett Theological seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in 1949, where he gained a deep understanding of John Wesley’s theology and experience of grace. Following up on ideas and contacts gained through OMSM in undergrad, he became involved in the civil rights movement in the Chicago area.

While working as a student charge at Weston Church in the summer of 1951, he met Donna Fast, then a nurse in the Bowling Green hospital. They married a year later. He served at Mt. Blanchard five years before moving to Toledo in 1962 to pastor two inner-city parishes in the old north end.

In 1969 he was appointed Coordinator of Urban Ministries for the Toledo District of the United Methodist Church (“UMC”). In succeeding years he helped develop an “alphabet soup” of over forty local organizations from the local ACLU to Welfare Task Force, with Fair Housing Center and Personal Rights Organization among the many in between. The Levite asked, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' The Good Samaritan asked, 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?' MLK QUOTE BUTTONHe had particular passions for racial justice, affordable housing, and acceptance of the LGBT community. As a minister and happily married father of five, he lent great credibility to the cause of same-sex oriented persons, at a time when societal attitudes and practices were far more negative and hostile and few spoke out to change that.

Chet made many fact-finding trips in later years. The poverty he witnessed on his first, to Nicaragua in 1989, was life-altering. He would return there, as well as go to Cuba, Brazil, Mexico (maquiladoras) and Venezuela.

He retired at least twice: after serving six years as Superintendent of the Findlay District (UMC) in 1996, and again in 2003 after serving as Associate Pastor of Monroe Street UMC in Toledo. He remained active in many groups and causes long after the “retirements,” including many annual protest trips to the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA. He was arrested at least three times over the years, in various locales, for civil disobedience over causes he championed.

Chet was a master card player, and avid camper with his family. He played piano, sang, and rarely missed a Toledo Symphony concert. He was a mentor and role model for many; inclusive, empowering, grass-roots. His biblical and theological knowledge was immense, and undergirded most everything he did and said. He never stopped believing in God and humanity’s capacity for good.

He was preceded in death by his parents, Fred and Audrey Chambers, and is survived by his wife, Donna; children, Mark (Susan), Nathan (Clara), Brian (Debra), Kevin (Susan), Jocelyn (John) Blaufuss, and 12 grandchildren.

A celebration of Chet’s life will take place October 15, 11 a.m. at Monroe St. United Methodist Church.

Contributions may be made to Monroe St. Neighborhood Center, Methodist Federation for Social Action, or any organization helping the most vulnerable or working for social justice.

Rest in peace, friend to all and faithful servant.

POEM: God’s Perish

I under stood
God’s might
And might not
And in awe probability
New
That I
Will only
Fooly see
Phase to phase
Until awe of creation
Come prized my parish

This poem is about dying to see the face of God.  This takes two forms: dying when unable to see the face of God and dying if a mere mortal human were to see the face of God.  The first form is the traditional form preached about and at others to point out their deficiencies and need for God.  I find this form fraught with peril as pedantic and fixated on the lack of God’s presence, the very thing it seeks to dispel!  As if God could successfully hide; fortunately, on this account, God is a total loser.  God bursts forth from creation, if not well reflected in humans, then from nature.  Still, God is a total loser because God cannot reveal God’s full face to humans without literally blowing out our mind and being as humans.  There is a protective veil necessary to preserve and maintain human existence.  I am far more intrigued with this second form of dying to see the face of God, the Oneness of awe, worthy of my worship.  My deep faith is roughly matched with deep skepticism for authority.  I want peace and reconciliation in this matter — perhaps even to the point of my matter exploding.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition of dying if one were to see the face of God originates in Exodus 12-23, when Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the ten commandments from “I am,” the name God chose to reveal to Moses.  This is how the conversation is retold (NIV translation):

Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’  If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

In a conversation with one of my former pastors related to seeing the backside of God, I noted that this made perfect sense, that is, a carpenter son would have a plumber for a father.  His irrepressible grin and laugh reflected the joy that is the infallible presence of God.

For as much as God does, God may seem to do little to nail down God’s intentions at the crossroads of our lives — humans seem much more intent on that!  In surpassing logic, God proffers a taught a logical lessen: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”  Grate! So God expects me to lead my life based on mercy and compassion coming out literally from God knows where?!  Of course, there is also that whole ten commandments thing, written in stone no less!  In the coarse of life, the Jews expanded this to 613 laws, establishing a firm foundation for eternal arguments.  My whole point is this: it is never enough.  As my one-line poem matriculates: I often find myself stuck in that awkward time between birth and death.  This built in yearning to understand God and God’s creation drives both spiritual enterprises and scientific endeavors.  Learning to live into this fundamental yearning, whether experienced as the mystical union with God or a unified scientific understanding, comprises much of wisdom: Until awe of creation / Come prized my parish.

Awe of this wrests in the shadow of an unwholly dissatisfaction.  I am deeply intrigued by the profound dissatisfaction with spiritual enterprises, most commonly cited as religion, that live in this shadow.  Ironically, in such a critique of religion, this perfectionism and idealism to which religion falls woefully short is precisely that which under-girds religion: the quest for a coherent whole which can bring with it the peace of heart and mind.  This common quest is shattered by fundamentalism, weather buy religious legalists or militant atheists.  I view such fundamentalism as the grate divide in life, not simply the speak easy surrounding theism.

I am fascinated by the contention often put forward by atheists, that God is a projection of human minds.  There is much truth in this.  Psychologically speaking, projection is superimposing the ego’s shadow, or incomplete understanding, onto that outside the ego, thereby purporting or inferring a distorted truth.  We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are. Anais Nin quote SPIRITUAL BUTTONMore simply put: “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”  Of course, this is neither proof nor reproof in the master debate over theism.  This is true whether God’s perish or God’s parish.  Nonetheless, projection is a powerful force and critical diagnosis each of us should make to move toward a more robust and healthy relationship with reality.  The diagnosis of projection is a necessary but not sufficient condition, the hallmark of never-ending scientific discovery.

The deeper quest in is how do we best move through inevitable projection and, even more boldly, firmly center our self (ego) in a ground of being that will most reliably guide us to an expanding humanity and more accurate under standing of the deepest realities.  I contend that the spiritual master Jesus best articulated this in the spiritual practice and commandment (a should) by instructing us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  The face of the enemy frightens me only when I see how much it resembles mine. Stanislaw J. Lec quote PEACE BUTTONI am unaware of any more powerful and reliable guide to an expanding humanity and more accurate under standing of the deepest realities, whether from a religious or an atheistic perspective.  I cite my own experience and the experience of millions of others in testing out this hypothesis with scientific rigor and skin in the game much greater than most of the most articulate purveyors of scientific discovery.  Most simply put, if you want to put the God hypothesis to the test and dare experience a glimpse of the awe mighty, this may very well be the closest we can get:  “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”  This existential treat ease rests on authority emanating from scientific rigor applied to our whole life and God deeply roots for us to experience this phase to phase in hour life.  In the face of a whirled of hurt, may your life reflect the mercy and compassion that comes from God knows wear.

POEM: Jumping From The Ledger

Rejoin the rat race
And all that chasten
Daring to make
A rodent in the machine
Which is all the rage
The bounty on your ahead
A golden hamster wheel
Retard after 50 years
Left dumb
Lips pursed
For so many years
Metering out your daily pillage
From shallow pools
Having waded for your due appointments
Not with standing
That grim reaper having
Sacrificed so much
For what
Spoils
As prophet in titles
Epitaphs
Ridden in stone
Forcing loved ones loanly
To visit what you once were
Suckling on memories
Dreams stoned
Starving
To full
Fill awe that is hollowed
Having
Lived once
Now never more knew
Daze passed
And by what means recaptured
How sew frayed
Of day’s passion
And once with
In is capable rejoinder
To finish this sentience
And not mirror animation
A resounding echo
No longer revere berating
In empty chambers
Wanton listless solutions
Having dropped the bawl
Bored stiff of what lame meant
Drawling on passed experience
Yakking on a bout
Scaling steep mountains
Out of mole hills
Trying
To get your goat and make you want to yacht
And in the end unmoved
Buy the blubbering of beached wails
Strewn by brown shirts and matching knows
Muted lives
Sullen everything
You can possibly think
Trading marks
And in proprietary secrets
May clinch some laconic inc.
Be rift of checks and balances
And should you withdraw
The hush of money
Prepare for it getting even
Silencer
Yet before your time
Sing
Like just
Another grammy
Inexplicably quite
Never herd again
A spoke in word
Unburden some
To pronounce
In that speakeasy of freedom
Drunk with poise in abating
From a salutary utter
After which you could hear a heart murmur
That could with stand a beating:
You can have your bigger cages
And longer chains
Be damned the shareholder value
of Cages and Chains, Inc.
I will jump from the ledger
Even if you won’t
Searching for the perfect pitch
Surpassing everlusting sirens
Till a gentler rock
Finding my voice
In a free Fall
Fallowing a summer
Fueled by that eternal spring
Hoping for more than allege
And giving know pause
To winters and losers
Sharing the good news
Freely
Never put out
To pastor

This poem is a reflection on the rat race of state-of-the-art employment, where even winning the rat race probably signifies that you are just a rat more than anything else.  Even though the productivity evangelists tout great success, the more than tripling of material wealth during my lifespan, has done little net good (mostly trapped people in nets) for workers.  With the wealth of experience and history, it doesn’t take a prophet to understand that ever-growing profits spells a cancerous existence in America.

Fortunately, since I quit my “regular” or “real” job, almost a decade ago, I’ve been able to live on less than what the average American would make with unemployment benefits (though I didn’t receive unemployment benefits because I quit).  I haven’t received food stamps or other government “welfare” assistance.  I have not been a very successful taker, with my frugal leanings and pride in autonomy.  Though Republicans have tried hard in Ohio, under Obamacare, I may not be able to keep my uninsurance, ending a decade without health insurance.

At best, it seems that this increased material wealth has little to do with increased happiness.  In fact, Americans work more hours and are no more happy.  Even having to point out that working more hours doesn’t make you happier is perhaps the best illustration that the productivity police can quite effectively rely on self-enforcement!  Our minds have been so effectively colonized that other options seem barely even thinkable.  The notion that your life can actually be profoundly better living with less is heretical in capitalistic America — if such a crazy notion were even given the time of day!

It seems that Western civilization has reached a point in its existence, where workers are functionally illiterate in life, meaning that they cannot adequately articulate and effectively navigate life outside of money/wealth as their measure of value.  Newsflash potential illiterates: money isn’t everything!  As the saying goes: you can’t buy love.  And, if you can’t tell the difference between love and a comfortable home with a trophy wife, then you might be an illiterate!  Worse yet, most workplaces are better characterized as places where we sell ourselves than places where we come together for our mutual betterment.  And if you can’t tell the difference between love and selling ourselves, then you are definitely an illiterate!

In the great exchange debate of values, circulates the notion that time is money.  Capitalists have effectively dominated this debate, demanding perpetual focus on the centrality of money.  Now, you may be able to exchange your time for money.  However, money can’t really buy time, otherwise the rich would live forever!  More to the point, money can’t buy life.  Money may be able to carve out more “leisure” time — that time when you are not selling yourself — or even buy some edge of health compared to others, and perhaps increasing your lifespan.  However, no matter how effectively we manipulate our material environment, through the proxy of money, this, at best, only offers the opportunity to live, not life itself.  Our time represents this opportunity for living.  While money has an interplay with how we experience our time, the very quality of our life, it is subordinate to time.  In youthful, or just plain oblivious, denial of our limited time, i.e., eventual death, we may convince ourselves that we have more time than money.  This perception influences our judgments about the time-money exchange rate.  I suspect that the best way to reflect on this is to ask yourself which is better: to have more money than time? or, to have more time than money?  In the end, ultimately, time will win this debate.  Nonetheless, many, if not most people waste a lot of time before realizing this, that time is more important than money.

Of course, living with a lot of money or very little money may confound this realization that time is more important than money; the rich thinking that their time is founded on money because they have it, and the poor thinking that their time is dependent on money because they have very little.  This is one aspect of the destructive reality of huge income inequalities, of greed and poverty.  This confounding of reality serves well neither the rich or the poor.  Wealth and poverty are conjoined twins, seemingly destined to believe that their life is best served by the machinations of material existence, to the deficit of a more full and complete life.  Both excess and lack, especially when conjoined, can lead to fearful and alienating lives.  The rich can become disconnected, unempathetic with lack, even paranoid of losing their excess (sic).  The poor can become discouraged and desperate, lacking in the face of plenty.

The apostle John offered the simplest, though apparently quite difficult, solution to the conjoined twin fates of excess and lack, by proclaiming: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11).  This would put a lot of liberal think tanks out of business.  This would put a lot of conservative think tanks out of business.  In the end, thinking about such things, particularly if you are the well-clothed one with a full belly, does little to address our lack, our common fate: poverty.  Of course, this is America, so there is more than one brand of poverty: material or spiritual.  For the particularly unfortunate, you can have both brands.  Fortunately, God has the preferential option for the poor, the central tenet of liberation theology, founded by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez:

 “The preferential option for the poor is much more than a way of showing our concern about poverty and the establishment of justice. At its very heart, it contains a spiritual, mystical element, an experience of gratuitousness that gives it depth and fruitfulness. This is not to deny the social concern expressed in this solidarity, the rejection of injustice and oppression that it implies, but to see that in the last resort it is anchored in our faith in the God of Jesus Christ. It is therefore not surprising that this option has been adorned by the martyr’s witness of so many, as it has by the daily generous self-sacrifice of so many more who by coming close to the poor set foot on the path to holiness.”

The preferential option for the poor is a perspective God’s grace giving special favor to the poor.  The way that God has created reality actually favors the poor more than the rich.  This doesn’t glorify material poverty, but it recognizes that the experiences of poverty more directly connect us and open us up to the deep importance of mutual aid and genuine, caring relationships.  The poor’s very survival depends on it.  The rich are insulated from this palpable, ever-present reality of the poor.  The rich can “afford” to make the mistake of buying their way out of this deeper and more difficult (yet rewarding) way of being.  The rich are more easily fooled into thinking that they don’t need others.  The injustice maintained by the rich is that as conjoined twins, the rich twin foolishly acts as if they can do whatever they want without the other, even when faced with the heart-wrenching realities of material poverty wracking his world.  Such heartlessness is a failure at intimacy with other human beings and reality writ large.  Perhaps a better formulation of a universal constant of metaphysics for the betterment of humankind would be the directly inversely proportional relationship of material and spiritual poverty.  Of course, this would turn capitalism, and its reliance on endless greed and profit, upside down, or more aptly, right side up!  Skeptics might ask if it is possible for the rich to spiritually prosper.  This is an ancient question:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Matthew 19: 23-24)

I love the common interpretation of this passage as a reference to a gate into Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that was opened a night after the main gate was closed, and this gate was so small that the camel (the rich) would have to unload all of their baggage and crawl through on their knees.  Yep, Jesus was one of the greatest poets I ever metaphor!

May you live into the reality that spiritual wealth is more directly accessed with less rather than more material wealth.

 

 

POEM: Fringe Benefits

Living on the fringe
Has benefits

I thought that this short poem would have been the seed for a larger poem, but the more I thought about it, I didn’t want to mess with the simple elegance of it.

Since I quit my “regular” job to run my own business full-time, I have learned that time is way more valuable than money.  This has been confirmed along my journey with much less money and much more time.  Research confirms that once we have enough money to meet our basic needs, additional money offers little increase in happiness.  Apparently, the proverb, “you can’t buy happiness” is largely true.  On the other hand, having additional free time, to do what we really want to do, does not seem to be limited by the principle of diminishing returns as money is, that is, after meeting our basic needs.  I would say that trading money for time would be a good deal for most Americans.  Of course, my approach is not to purchase time through vacations or hiring help, but rather to free up time by not selling myself pay any more than I have to.  Living simply and frugally is part of my vocation.  Such a vocation allows my life to better resemble a vacation.  Every dollar I don’t spend is a dollar I don’t have to earn in the not-so-free market.  If you are fortunate to have significant assets available to you, I would highly recommend transitioning to a much simpler life, by ransoming your life with whatever assets you have available.

A transition to a simpler life requires letting go of certain things.  For instance, I am living on the fringe, in the fact that I have been without health insurance for almost a decade.  Though I might add, our health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system, and now is as good of a time as any to be on the fringe of this non-system.  Fortunately, I am healthier than most of my peers.  I eat nutritiously.  I get plenty of rest.  I have much, much less stress than most.  I get a decent amount of physical activity.  I have something that the finest doctors in the world are unable to give their patients.

So, what are some other benefits of living on the fringe?  In recent months, I have written a poem a day, and a blog commentary to boot!  Just yesterday, I broke my record for length of a blog commentary.  I can’t remember the last time I set my alarm to get up in the morning — this is something that the richest and most powerful people in the world cannot claim!  One of my greatest hopes is for people to have morning without mourning!

I recently spent a couple of hours most days for a couple of months with a friend dying in hospice care.

I have spent most of my life on a quest for simple living.  I contemplated and calculated quite thoroughly the costs and “affordability” of quitting my regular job.  Perhaps the greatest single epiphany in my life has been how grossly I underestimated the benefits of working for myself, relaxing my security reflex, and living fully into the serendipitous benefits of simple living.  I feel like I have won the lottery!  Only without the money…

Like a former pastor of mine says, “If you aren’t living on the fringe, then you are taking up to much room.”  May you find the space and time in your life to discover fringe benefits beyond your dreams!

Driveby Conversation: No War in Iran

Every Sunday in Toledo Ohio, the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition has a demonstration at a major intersection to protest current wars and potential future wars.  The Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition has been doing this every Sunday since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

This Sunday we were at the intersection of Talmadge and Sylvania roads near the mall.  I was holding up my sign, “NO WAR in Iran,” amidst about a dozen other peace and anti-war demonstrators holding up various signs for passing traffic to witness.  It is common for passing motorists to beep their horns in support of our peace and anti-war messages.  Occasionally, we get an angry rebuke, epitaph, or middle finger.  On more rare occasions, someone will roll down their window, stop for a minute and have a quick conversation.  Usually these conversations are supportive and encouraging, though certainly not always.

I had a drive-by conversations with a passing motorist, a middle-aged white man, in which respect he was probably not too unlike me.  It went something like this:

Motorist: (sarcastically) I know what we should do.  We should all become Muslims.

Me: You mean Islam, the religion of peace?

Motorist:  That’s a lie!

Me:  Do you mean religion or peace?

Motorist:  I follow Jesus Christ.

Me:  My understanding is that Jesus was a pacifist.

Motorist:  Jesus was on the edge.

Me:  Yes, and his way was nonviolent.

Motorist:  [stumbling for words, shakes his head, and drives off]

Given the very short time-frames of these drive-by conversations, there is usually very little chance for resolution.  While there certainly wasn’t closure in this particular conversation, I’m not sure the point or purpose is for people to necessarily come to some hard endpoint.  I was satisfied that a self-declared follower of Jesus Christ who seemed to be advocating going to war against a predominantly Islamic nation, found himself perplexed and unable to respond, at least in a knee-jerk fashion, to the proposition that Jesus was nonviolent.  Hopefully, he gave this some greater reflection later.

I am struck by the initial framing of the conversation by the motorist, in that not going to war with Iran, or Islam, somehow implies that we would eventually all be Muslims.  The assumption that different religions have to war with one another is a lie that has been perpetuated for centuries.  At the heart of every great religion, at least every religion large enough to potentially start a war, there is compassion, grace, and peace.  It seems to me that hijacking religion for violent purposes is the bastardization of any true religion.  I don’t know if the passing motorists caught my reference to Islam, which in Arabic literally means “peace.”  There are many layers of irony here.

I like the line of thinking that the motorist posited, that Jesus was on the edge.  Like a former pastor of mine likes to say, “If you’re not on the edge, you are taking up too much room.”  I strongly suspect that Jesus’ being on the edge had way more to do with peacemaking than warmongering.  I follow Jesus, but I don’t think it’s Jesus that’s leading us into war.  Praise be to Allah!  By the way, Allah is simply the Arabic word for “God.”  I hope that people are open-minded enough to not insist that the world be English only.  Of course, for good Christians this might present a problem, not knowing Aramaic, since this was the language Jesus spoke.  Hmm…maybe that explains a few things that are apparently lost in translation…