POLITICAL POEM: Buy Partisan Ship

If you knot for me
You agin
Me
Oh my
They would halve US
Believe
In a New York minute
Weather 60 second ads
Or master debating in public
For ours
To won party
Or buy partisan ship
That teeming lode
When in realty
Wee are left harboring
To a T
Our weariness
In the wake
Of the dearth of trust
And in the daze
Long after
The election
Has Petered out
There are know
More mock promises
And crock tears
Until hour rejects
Sow board their ship
And bring about
See change

This poem is about partisanship and weather we should take any partisanship from anyone.  The is nothing like — nothing like — a presidential election campaign to stir up partisan emotions and partisan posturing.  As someone who is chronically politically active, and someone who has frequently experienced the short end of long partisan sticks, I have become increasingly aware of my deep distaste for partisanship.  In America, the conventional wisdom would have you believe that political activity and partisanship are the same thing.  This is not true, and the seemingly inescapable enmeshment of politics and partisanship is distinctly dysfunctional for humanity.  In my view, both the spiritual and political project of life is to ever expand our consciousness and participation in our collective life.  Our spiritual enlightenment is necessarily communal, and political freedom is only authentic when our participation in our collective life is shared equitably.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. so aptly observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere--Martin Luther King, Jr. BUTTONPartisan in-groups, that parcel out power based on membership in anything other than our shared humanity, is a barrier to our spiritual and political evolution.  This mine-blowing realty is the ground for radical politics as necessarily counter-cultural and, as a rule, marginalized by the status quo and powers that be.  Nobody likes to be marginalized, which is precisely the shared basis for such a radical politics!  A paradoxical corollary to this is that marginalization, by happenstance or design, is the engine for radical politics.  It is no accident that marginalized people are typically the leaders of radical political activity, just as it is no accident that inasmuch as anyone stands in solidarity with marginalized people, they too will be marginalized.  Working through our own marginalization is synchronous with working through all of humanity’s marginalization.  The consciousness of intersectionality, that all areas of marginalization and injustice are inescapably linked, forms the antithesis and antidote to partisanship.

There are many overlapping in-groups and out-groups jockeying for power.  This is interest-based politics, and often identity politics.  For better or worse, each of us is marginalized in one way or another.  Hopefully, this can serve as leverage to increasing consciousness to the marginalization of others, especially those currently in an out-group.  The tricky part is that empathizing with out-group members is decidedly more dangerous than making any variety of internal criticisms intended to make an in-group a better in-group.  Making better in-groups is the lifeblood of partisan politics, though the seemingly easier job of undercutting out-groups, often scapegoating or even demonizing them, is what truly makes politics a bloodsport.  Haters hating haters is cause for plenty of bloodshed.  Nevertheless, to add insult to injury, and injury to non-violence, love of enemy prompts much bloodshed as well, though it is the lovers who are crucified, their own blood spilled.  Transcending narrow self-interests and in-group privileges is a costly endeavor exceeded only by the pricelessness of justice for all.

Beyond Democratic and Republican partisanship, is a unifying in-groupism, that corrosive beast called nationalism.  Nationalism Infantile Disease Measles of Mankind--PEACE QUOTE BUTTONThat ever-popular divide between Team America and Team Non-America (or Un-American).  As a nation, we are blind to the hubris-ridden assertion that what’s good for America is good for the world.  On occasion we may see clearly, yet we are at least as likely to fall for similar hubris-ridden assertions that are in fact against even our narrow national interests, such as “what is good for General Motors is good for America.”  Such endemic blindness is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the blind leading the blind, caught in a bind of our lack of awareness or consciousness.  Only higher consciousness of our shared humanity can overcome such lower ordered thinking and partisan warring, which is doomed to eternal, unsolvable conflict between “competing” interests.

Partisans inevitably think that anyone not for them is against them.  This is not the secret of the spirit of unity.  Interestingly, welcoming as, with, and for the least (those marginalized) is the greatest — “For whoever is the least among all of you, he is the greatest.” and “for whoever is not against you is for you.” [Luke 9:48,50]Jesus: What Happened to Least of These - Christian POLITICAL BUTTON

May we be willing to pay the price for unity among all of God’s children, which is breaking free of being beholden to in-group power and privileges, and fervently welcoming all good things for the least among us.

POEM: To Not Mirrorly Be

The powers that be
Screw you
Then you screw me
I don’t blame you
Do you blame me?
Either weigh
We don’t have
To be that way
An open secret
For awe to see
And not mirrorly be
Everywhere I look
Far and near
Strange and dear
There’s power in me
There’s power in you
It’s up to you
It’s up to me
Much the same
The powers that be
A tempting
To possess awe
But a clue
Of sow sow much
That is
Really
Too due

Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” While in many situations this may be perfectly acceptable, the evolution of humanity and each human depends upon exercising a judgment that transcends the reactionary forces of an equal and opposite reaction for every action.  This judgment, or will, is by its very nature counter-cultural, that is transformative of any given set of cultural conditions, oft referred to as the powers that be.  Any set of rules present in any society are not inclusive of our fullest being.  It is this fullest being, or perhaps a glimpse or shadow of it, which haunts our highest hopes as part of humanity.  The notion of human rights is rooted in this vision.  This perpetual journey toward fulfilling our fullest being unites us as actors on the set (a shared reality) of a play defined partly by the powers that be.  The more space we carve out in our collective and individual lives for this fuller being the more we act freely, not simply having our lives written for us, and following a script handed to us.  Shakespeare’s take on this metaphor outlines the typical stages in which we act, albeit more morose than my own:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, spoken by the melancholy Jaques in Act II, Scene VII

May you find yourself acting freely amidst whatever stage you find yourself, and not mirrorly be made in the image of simply an amassment of whatever reactionary forces operate upon your life.

POEM: Seriously?!

The Zen master was nearly
Finished with his instruction
When he got to non-seriousness
I was greatly relieved
For I was taking nothing
He was saying
Seriously

This short poem gets at one of the great paradoxes of enlightened spirituality: serious playfulness.  Zen Buddhists have a rare reputation among spiritual-religious folks as having a sense of humor inherent in their spiritual practice.  They refer to this as nonseriousness.  Theologians and philosophers are poorly equipped to adequately describe humor in their systems of thought.  This is not an accident.  First of all, there is a seemingly built in seriousness and rigorousness in philosophy and theology that doesn’t play well with humor.  Trying to capture humor in a system of thought leads to our own imprisonment in humor-free zones.  This is analogous to the self-limiting trap of trying to capture spirituality through materialistic methods.  Materialism is literally no joke.  Taking things literally is the limit of science and the beginning of theft, stealing from ourselves as well as others.  Fundamentalism is a disease that routinely infects any ideological project, whether claiming a materialist or spiritual aim.  I have a great respect for the brevity and poetry of the Tao Te Ching as a sacred text. Taoists and Zen Buddhists have a lot in common.  First, the Tao Te Ching begins by stating its fundamental limit — and, in some sense, its blessed futility — by stating that any way which can be described is not the Way, the Tao.  Then, quite laughably, and with utter seriousness, gives its best shot at manifesting the Tao through words.  The Tao Te Ching’s singularly poetic approach to the sacred is unparalleled among major faith traditions.  Surely, other faith traditions have poetic elements, but poetry or obvious metaphor are often relegated to “mystic” subcultures within a dominant and domineering tradition.  The powerful drift toward fundamentalism or militant ideology makes a cruel joke of mystics.  Through the centuries, fundamentalists have taken the lives of mystics literally.

I view mysticism as the heart of spirituality.  Mysticism is simply a view of transcendence, seeing beyond what can be merely grasped by our hands or minds.  This is inherently dangerous to fundamentalism, and virtually any ideology.  That is, dangerous to anything which tries to put the human heart or God in a box and declare “I’ve got it!”  Humor and nonseriousness is perhaps the best way the deflate such puffed up claims.  Of course, humor is infinitely more useful than merely deflating another’s unrightful claims; humor is fun!  Fun is good in and of itself. I think it is safe to say that a life devoid of humor is a life far from fully lived. Humor is a fundamental spiritual experience, playing off the oft experienced reality that paradoxes, apparent contradictions, coexist in everyday human life.  We can wring our hands, rack our brains, and even cry at the vexing nature of this reality; or, we can laugh, recognizing that oneness underlies such fractious appearances.  This lightness of being is consonant with enlightenment and peace or wholeness of mind.  Seemingly paradoxical with such peace is its unmatched counter-cultural power.  The experience and recognition of oneness stirs into any given culture, with its myriad of rules and customs, something that it cannot fully take in.  This is mind-busting and heart expanding.  A sense of arbitrariness of any given culture’s rules can trigger a new-found freedom to exist both within and beyond those rules without being bound by those rules.  This nonseriousness about any given set of rules sets up any culture at any given moment as the “but” of a joke.  What such a transcendent attitude infuses into any human culture at any given time is nothing but life itself, the Tao if you will.

As a student of human culture, I see widespread contradictions and hypocrisy, even amidst our more sane enterprises.  I find an ability to laugh at such realities profoundly therapeutic, especially given that the leading alternative is crying.  In a tip of the hat to seriousness, crying can be a profound emotional manifestation of compassion in a broken world.  Yet, there are other ways.  Freedom is not trapped by seriousness.  Non-seriousness offers a form of salvation to both redeem our experience into something more whole, and to manifest this more whole being attained into the workings of the everyday world.

My poetry is driven by a passionate exploration of human contradictions and unfulfilled humanity.  While the veneer of my poems may seem strikingly cynical at moments, relentlessly pointing out weak spots in humanity, my intent is to juxtapose apparent hopelessness with authentic hopefulness.  To survive such an epic project, I try to remember that we are already won, a wholly laughable proposition!

POEM: We Won’t Be Food Again

I would rather
Be Job
Less than
Renounce
A living wager
And know place to lie
My head
My heart
Made homeless
In loo of
A fast fooled nation
For going
The beast
Wee
Can due
Hitched to number one
Number too
As on the line
For given debts
In place of
Solemn assemblies
And last riots
As wreck we him
For the masses
Left too
Starve
As a full groan man
Eschewing
A distended belly
And infantile grimace
Dis gorging
To which I object
A single finger
And vomiting
A sour second
Relative to the toil it evacuates
As vying a bowel inconsonance
And those who are but in
Fringe benefits over doo
Be rated by privilege takers
Of a hollowed hire power
Pro claim
There is no Black day for employment
The unanswered trump it
As if
Falling flat to some honky
Reveres discrimination
As dark daze per severe
The fecund material bound
Now a mushrooming clerical class
Beaten too
A bully pulp it    
Copious crumbs and the blest whines
Offering salivation
Like no me
Biblically
Throwing the book at me
Showing me the works
As if in some fooled court
Taking out
On me
Sum type
Of contract
Know labor
No food
Nor time travel to
’79 sense
For every dollared earn
Or as a payday loan
Cash here
Slipping through my fingers
Each day
For another till
My dreams standing still
Idoling money changers
On short order
Cooking the books
Serving as sum batterer
Or fry guy
Who is just
Greased
At the end of the day
Pain
You less
Than what
You learned
With respect to
Meat grate people
Seriously toying
“Be the happy meal”
As if
I whir
To halve a cow
And go to town
Drug by sum ferry tale
A bout
Worshipping some magic beings
Stalking skyward
As some giant rumble
To expose my hide
Wont to grind my bones
For their bred
My blood smelt
As iron away
From their golden cuffs
Razing my shackles once again
I will only ax once
As you know not jack
Weather the heavens fall
Either I am
Udderly fed up
Or my last words herd
Eat me
As I will only be
Food once
It’s just
Awe in a daze work

I wrote this poem today, all in a days work!  This poem was triggered by my experience last night at a community meeting, “Faith Conversations on Income Inequality.”  I was somewhat disappointed that of the two hours, less than 15 minutes was conversation.  The meeting was mostly didactic, with two detailed presentations, a short film well documenting the existence of actual poor working people in our very state of Ohio, and a short small group exercise (where some conversation occurred).

The kicker for the evening was after the meeting when conversing with a woman who I had never met proclaimed the disproportionately too-often cited and familiar, “If a person doesn’t work, then they don’t deserve to eat” (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10).  Of course, the key word and concept in this passage is an unwillingness to work.  I might add dignified and humane work.  Either way, it certainly doesn’t apply to people who can’t find work.  Further, in the previous verse, the apostles speaking about their own self-support when visiting the Thessalonians, say, “We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.  This seems to state that they did claim a right to such help (food), but were modeling an additional value of not being a burden on others.  If the apostles accepted help, when they were able to pay their own way, and this caused a burden to another, then they shouldn’t take such a necessary resource from another.  The higher way modeled by the apostles seems more apt as a critique of people unjustly benefiting from paying poverty wages, thus causing a burden to others, than as a critique of food as a human right.  Perhaps a less sophisticated yet more easily understood response to worrying about hungry people getting too much food is Uggghhh!

I had really hoped for an opportunity to share personal experiences and perspectives on faith and poverty, or income inequality.  For better or worse, I’ve thought about such things my whole life.  Still, I am actually eager to learn more, as I continue on my journey.  The story of dealing with poverty seems to me to be full of good news-bad news.  In my case, the bad news is that technically, I have lived in poverty most of the last decade — technically, meaning that my average income has been under the federal poverty guidelines.  The good news is that I am the wealthiest person I know — of course, I don’t get out much!  Such a conundrum has provided much experience and raw material upon which to meditate regarding what is true wealth.

One main point that I believe could help bring a more balanced perspective in our dealing with poverty is this: from a spiritual perspective, we must give equal time to spiritual poverty.  This is perhaps most succinctly captured by Mother Teresa, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”  I see Jesus as quite clearly spelling out the dividing line: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)  And, of course, serving God is inextricably linked with serving our neighbors: ” ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’  ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.  John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ ” (Luke 3:9-11)

A corollary of this spiritual view of poverty is that we must not stigmatize the poor, or dishonor God’s special relationship with them.  I half-jokingly put this under the moniker of: “You say poverty like it’s a bad thing!”  A couple of generations ago, Latin American theologians developed the concept of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  In part, this refers to the special relationship that the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized have with God.  Their vulnerability manifest by oppression in the world creates an openness to God’s way.  This openness fosters a greater intimacy, deeper understanding, and easier access to living in harmony with God’s laws (ultimate reality).  Of course, harmony with God’s laws is counter-cultural to the status quo and the powers that be.  Intriguingly though, the oppressed already stare down the brutal realities of the powers that be every day; so, being counter-cultural is much less of a leap “of faith” than those who benefit from the status quo.  This is perhaps the most simple reason why top down change rarely, if ever, benefits the poor more than the rich.  Thus, the poor are already primed to adopt God’s ways, as the world’s ways sure as hell aren’t working for them.  Jesus is a striking example of acting in accordance with this reality.  Jesus spent the vast majority of his time with the dispossessed, and “regular” folks, the 99% if you will.  In a stroke of spiritual genius, Jesus planted his message among people who were both most open to God’s message and had their material interests aligned to move in a direction parallel to God’s ways, including, of course, justice.  No doubt, Jesus played a prophetic role, in directly confronting the powers that be, whether religious, political, or economic elites.  Such confrontations were likely inevitable.  Even so, Jesus brought an unwavering dignity, intimacy, and authority (street cred) to such encounters.  Jesus did not shy from his fully humanizing ways, even in the face of dehumanizing forces.  This was a palpable measure of how Jesus loved his enemies.  This is God’s ways manifest.  The poor have fewer barriers to accessing such ways. Let’s learn from the poor!

I have lived among affluent people of faith most of my life.  For the affluent, the vast majority of us in the so-called developed world, I am convinced that voluntary poverty and simplicity is the most powerful tool to transform our world, God’s creation, into ways friendly to abundant life.  I have drawn this conclusion from my profound failure to convince rich westerners to truly care about the world’s poorest.  I am a formidable debater, both informed and with heart.  Still, the misery of my failure to convince others with words is exceeded only, and greatly, by the misery of the world’s poorest.  I cannot escape the weight of my experience that the affluence of westerners, including myself, and the material conflicts of interest we are embedded in, is the single most important factor preventing such a conversion.  Better aligning our material interests with the poor, through voluntary poverty and simplicity, can unleash a cascading journey where the soul’s force begins to flow more freely, as water invites gravity to do its work — and the most grave law unbroken, that of love.  This poem of mine alludes to the freedom gained by simple living:

Dining with Kings and Queens
Courtly balls
Knightly duels
And priestly indulgences
You can avoid it all
If only you are happy
Eating beans

Probably the greatest illusion humans face is seeing wealth (and its companions, status and power) as an answer to all of their problems.  Surely, people have material needs, and those needs going unmet is a tragedy.  However, once one’s basic material needs are met, wealth becomes a disability to the individual and a disease to society.  There is a great body of psychological and sociological evidence that increasing wealth makes us less compassionate and less generous.  In short, wealth serves as a wedge between people and God.  Science confirms the truth of not being able to serve two masters.  People can, and do, argue about the role of material scarcity in the problems of poverty — just witness political wranglings about budget-busting social programs in the richest nation the world has ever known.  Nonetheless, there is one pervasive and undeniable fact: there is, and has been for at least centuries, enough physical resources to more than meet the material needs of every human on the planet.  In this light, spiritual poverty is exposed.  We can solve material want; we choose not.  It is not a close call!

Poverty worldwide is endemic.  Billions of people live on $2 per day or less.  Those most likely to be the poorest are women and children — so much for family values.  People of color are also at much greater risk.  Those most likely to go hungry are those who grow food, our farmers.  The only way this can happen is to literally steal food from their hands.  The rich claim a hugely disproportional share of the world’s resources, including the productive labors of billions.  All the wile, pawning sham scarcity as an excuse for their hoarding and ravenous ways.  Gandhi captured it well when asked what he thought of Western civilization.  He responded, “I think it would be a great idea.”  I concur.

With untrammeled globalization, poverty can only be adequately viewed as a global problem.  The causes of poverty cannot be isolated within one country.  We, as a world, are in the same boat — though, undoubtedly, there is an increasing chasm between the accommodations of first and third class.  Debt, just as in biblical times, is used to enslave people.  We are told that the world is in great debt, accepting it as gospel truth.  Yet, to whom exactly are we are in debt?  Pay no attention to the money changers behind the curtain.  Exploitation and robbing of natural resources unjustly enriches the wealthier.  Such profitable cleverness is called business.  Meanwhile, non-prophet organizations stand by impotent to counter this unseemly necessity.  And governments suffer from electile dysfunction. The good news is that the cancerous idol of endless economic “growth” may not destroy creation, with such abundance and ingenuity.  Praise be to God!  If only, God forbid, the dream of a worldwide “middle class” can be averted.  Work.  Buy.  Consume.  Die.

Less poetically put, the “powers that be” work on a global scale.  This juggernaut of globalization reduces humans to economic beings in a consumer culture.  People become means to ends, not being of sacred worth and inherent dignity.  To enforce this state of affairs, wars are waged as “needed.”  These wars, unsurprisingly, do not serve the interests of the dispossessed.  This global reality is rooted in a distinct worldview: poverty is not the problem; poverty is the solution.  While a tsunami of rhetoric speaks of jobs, unemployment serves to lower wages, not just of the unfortunate unskilled, but of skilled labor too.  More unemployment is good for (someone else’s) business.  And if you missed that memo, perhaps the desperation of unemployment and wage slavery has you occupied.  Such desperation can serve as a distraction and thwart a healthy, functioning civil society (see electile dysfunction).

There is an African proverb which says: where there is no wealth there is no poverty.  This ancient wisdom emanates from the experience of humans over many generations and cultures that concentrated wealth creates poverty, that is, depends on poverty. There is a powerful illusion that wealth brings wisdom, that the rich must really know something that we don’t.  Well, if they do, it’s most likely occult or a cult.  I cite the incisive lyrics of “If I were a rich man” from the play, Fiddler on the Roof:

Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!
And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!

The truth is much simpler, and more stark: the rich need the poor; the poor don’t need the rich.  For those who might cite the droll biblical retort, “the poor will always be with us,” have you pondered this: if you think the poor are hard to get rid of, try the rich!

The diseased worldview of consumerism and capitalism has at least on Achilles’ heel.  This rests on the utter inability to answer a fundamental question in life: how much is enough?  Capitalism thrives on convincing you that you never have enough, you are perpetually lacking something (which we happen to be selling), and by extension: you are lacking.  This turns the Gospel’s worldview upside down.  The good news is that you are enough; God made you that way.  Return to this truth, and capitalism recedes to a perfunctory process describing the nominal exchange of goods — and the goods are actually good!

The meeting on faith conversations about income inequality focused on the United States.  While poverty extends far beyond, and is rooted in, the larger world, the U.S. can serve as an enlightening case study.  The U.S. just recently observed the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty” as declared in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson.  [For poetic versions of lessons learned from the “war on poverty,” see my poems, Hungering for Answers, and War on Poverty]  The “war on poverty” is about the same age as me.  During my lifetime, the U.S. has grown about three times wealthier in material wealth.  Nevertheless, more Americans work, and they work longer hours.  Some gains were made in reducing poverty in the early years.  However, the overall trend since the late 1970’s has been stagnating or declining wages, especially when compared to skyrocketing worker productivity.  Income inequality is higher now in America than in the last hundred years.

For those with biblical commitments, we are long overdue for a Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).  The year of Jubilee is a Sabbath of Sabbaths.  It prescribed forgiveness of debt every seven years.  In the fiftieth year — after seven cycles of seven years, not only was all debt forgiven, but all slaves were freed and all land returned to its original owners land.  This is the biblical prescription for preventing large concentrations of wealth and persons from being permanently dispossessed from their land and/or forced into servitude through debt.  Let’s make it so!

POEM: I Will Join The One, There is No Other

Alone
Where is God in that?
Does salvation lie in community?
Wherever two or more gather
In character
At present will be God
Therefore, I will join the one
One who was left behind
The one who’s going places no one else wants to
The one
There is no other

This poem attempts to address the tensions between the mystical loftiness of spirituality, characterized by the elusive “oneness” present in many great faith traditions, and the palpable, practical, everyday realities of a broken and divided world.  I find this tension ever-present in the inward-outward journey.  We cannot be saved alone, as one, and be true to the demands of much larger realities, including the world we live in!  Personal purity and piety become empty in larger contexts.  One answer to this tension was demonstrated by Buddha, when he attained enlightenment and instead of “blowing out” — a literal translation of nirvana — he chose to return to earthly existence to help others on the path.  Compassion for all living beings, at the center of Buddhist living, requires developing relationships or community with one another.   Buddhists call their intentional community sangha, which includes monks or nuns, and laypeople.  Compassion is the prime characteristic developed in a relationship with The One.  This “inward” compassion is then matched with “outward” compassion, becoming whole, compassion manifest fully.  Compassionate living is most fully manifest when it enters into relationship with the most broken and divided aspects of all living beings’ realities.  Joining those “left behind” or “going places no one else wants to” represents the highest level of compassionate living.  Perhaps paradoxically, even sticking only to one’s community is a falling short.  Active spirituality, rooted in compassionate living, is ever seeking to connect with out-groups.  Spirituality inevitable creates a tension with one’s own in-groups, ever-seeking to expand, transcend, make more whole.  This is why solidarity with outcasts is so essential to building authentic community.  This is the very process where wholeness is nurtured, for both the individual, community, and beyond.  This is why I see spirituality as fundamentally counter-cultural.  Culture is what defines a particular group at any given time, with its particular norms and practices.  Spirituality pushes both cultures and individuals to be more than they are.  This is why spiritual “growth” is almost a redundancy.  The vitality and dynamism that spirituality uncovers is the very nature of life.  There is no such thing as static living — though perhaps reactionary.    The status quo and the powers that be must perpetually be engaged and redeemed, made more whole.  Jesus captured this perhaps most powerfully in his command to love your enemies.  This command, which I consider the pinnacle of spiritual genius, literally instructs us to reconcile (apparent) opposites.  Such an epic task can only be dared by developing a deep and abiding relationship with The One.  Truly, we reap what we sew!

POEM: I Went AWOL

One day
I went
AWOL
A
Well
Ordered
Life
I’m not sure
If anyone noticed
If they did
Judging me
By my backside
I would be too
Looking forward
Mirrorly suggestive
Of one’s self
In what might
A peer
A site to behold
But not
Aiming for the moon
In lieu of stars

Walking away from the dominant and dominating culture is an informal way of going AWOL, that is, the military acronym for Absent WithOut Leave.  In this poem, the AWOL acronym stands for A Well Ordered Life.  When you find yourself facing away from the dominant culture, you can expect that others will judge you by your backside.  In traversing the road less traveled, the price the dominant culture extracts by any counter-cultural behaviors, is more than made up for by aligning oneself with the stars, rather than the moon, a lower site to set for brown-nosers and mere associates of all types.  Much of modern life in Western civilization is built around group identities rather than passionate pioneering.  We idolize celebrities.  We cozy up to those with status and power.  We our often possessed by our possessions, identifying more with what we own than with our own character.

The opposite of traversing down the road less traveled is living vicariously through the lives of others.  Perhaps one of the greatest illustrations of this is in the cinematic great Cool Hand Luke.  I find this movie one of the most way existential movies ever.  The main character, Luke, played by Paul Newman, quickly develops a reputation as a “cool handed” man hell-bent on finding his own way in his own way.  Here I am referring to the “stop feeding off of me” scene, where Luke, broken down, pleads with his fellow inmates to stop pinning all of their hopes and dreams on him; in essence, saying “get a life of your own!”  In this scene, Luke had escaped from the chain-gang for a second time, having been away for a while, stoking freely the fantasies of his fellow inmates left behind.  Here is the script containing that scene from Cool Hand Luke:

It is Saturday afternoon. Carr is distributing mail and
packages, the men clustered around; others lying on bunks,
making wallets, etc.

CARR
Magazines for you, Dragline!

ANGLE ON DRAGLINE

Dragline sits up from his bunk, astonished.

DRAGLINE
Magazines? Who’s sendin’ me magazines?

He looks at the package. Carr has tossed on his bunk.

DRAGLINE
From mah uncle? Ah never heard from
him in eight years and now he’s
sendin’ me magazines. He musta gone
crazy.

He has torn open the package, looks through the magazines,
which are movie fan books, lies back to flip the pages. In
background. Carr is continuing the mail call. Suddenly Dragline’s
eyes widen, his mouth opens, but he catches himself and closes
it before he has revealed himself.

INSERT THE PICTURE

It is taped to page in the magazine. It shows Luke in a suit
and tie, holding up four aces and a joker in one hand, arms
around two buxom over-made strippers. On the table in front
of them is a giant bottle of champagne and glasses. Scrawled
across it is something in Luke’s writing.

ANGLE DRAGLINE KOKO SOCIETY RED OTHERS

Seeing Dragline’s reaction, they have gathered around.

DRAGLINE
Looka that! Two of them. Oh my…

KOKO
I’m dyin’. I’m dyin’.

Dragline suddenly realizes the danger and closes the book so
Carr and the Wicker Man don’t catch on. The others reluctantly
move away. Dragline casually hands the magazine to Society
Red.

DRAGLINE
(whispering)
What’s the writing say?

SOCIETY RED
(opening to the picture, reading)
Dear Boys. Playing it cool. Wish you
were here. Love, Cool Hand Luke.

DRAGLINE
Oh my. Oh my… Give it back here!

Red surrenders the magazine. Dragline opens it again and a
look of pure bliss settles over his face.

KOKO
Lemme see it!

DRAGLINE
(violently)
Get away!

He looks over at Carr but Carr has moved away, is talking to
the Wicker Man, his back to the men. Koko, Loudmouth Steve,
Gambler and the others hurriedly cluster around Dragline.
Their voices are eager intense whispers.

KOKO
Lookit the brunette…

BLIND DICK
The blonde’s gotta better set.

GAMBLER
Some legs.

LOUDMOUTH STEVE
They must be six feet tall.

TATTOO
…And the champagne.

SOCIETY RED
(from his bunk)
Domestic.

TRAMP
Wonder how he got the dough.

ALIBI
He’s probably a salesman. You can
make pretty good money if you know
what your doing in selling.

GAMBLER
A salesman! Cool Hand Luke a salesman?

BLIND DICK
He’s probably a gigolo.

MECHANIC
Or a con artist.

LOUDMOUTH STEVE
The head of the rackets.

KOKO
(reverently)
Oh lookit that brunette.

DRAGLINE
Mah baby! We’re diggin’ and dyin’
but our boy Luke is lovin’ and flyin’.

They all gaze at the picture with loving, dreamy, painful
rapture.

OMITTED

INT. BARRACKS (NIGHT)

Blackass time, dull, sad, boring. Koko sits idly flicking
cards from the poker deck, men staring into space. The cards
sail by Society Red who is clipping his nails.

SOCIETY RED
Stop that.

KOKO
How about you tryin’ to make me?

SOCIETY RED
Oh for…

They slowly subside.

KOKO
Dragline, lemme look at the picture.

DRAGLINE
(feigned innocence)
What for?

LOUDMOUTH STEVE
Yeah, Drag. Get it out for a look.

DRAGLINE
You’re just a kid. Whatta you know
about it? You don’t wanna see that
dirty picture. Luke and those broads
an’ all that booze.

KOKO
Come on, Drag. Lemme take a look.

DRAGLINE
It’d go to your coconut head. You’d
start getting ideas. Maybe even pass
right out.

BLIND DICK
Dragline! Be a buddy!

DRAGLINE
How much you figure it’s worth, a
peek at this here picture? A quick
look, I’m not talkin’ about no
memorizin’ job.

KOKO
A cold drink.

DRAGLINE
A cold drink? You mean one cold drink?
To feast yore starvin’ fishy l’il
eyes on The Picture? A true vision
of Paradise itself? With two of the
angels right there in plain sight a-
friskin’ round with mah boy?

KOKO
A cold drink? Okay?

DRAGLINE
Well — okay. It’s a deal. One cold
drink, if’n you please. In advance.
One chilly bottle right here in mah
hot l’il hand… That goes for the
rest of you mullet-heads, too.

Activity as the men dig out coins to purchase drinks. Dragline
pulls out the magazine and the men all gather round, gazing
into it as though it were a crystal ball. Suddenly the wicker
door slams open and as the men look up…

THEIR P.O.V.

Luke is dumped to the floor, face down, unconscious, by Boss
Paul, Boss Kean, others. The Captain is standing there over
him. Luke wears a new prison uniform and two sets of chains.

CAPTAIN
(to Luke)
You run one time, you got yourself a
set of chains. You run twice, you
got two sets. You ain’t gonna need
no third set because you’re gonna
get your mind right… And I mean
right.

He looks at the men who are stunned by the juxtaposition of
their hero in The Picture and the reality of the unconscious
figure before them.

CAPTAIN
Take a good look at your Cool Hand
Luke.

With his foot he prods Luke over onto his back.

CLOSE ON LUKE

As he rolls over we can see he has been badly beaten.

OMITTED

NEW ANGLE THE MEN

As the Captain turns and walks out past the guards who follow,
and the wicket chute CLANGS shut, Dragline, Koko and others
move forward and gently lift Luke onto the poker table.

DRAGLINE
Oh mah poor baby. They done you real
good… I don’t know if you gonna
have them gals chasin’ after you for
a while…

CLOSE ON LUKE

lying, eyes closed.

SOCIETY RED’S VOICE
I’ve got some aspirin.

KOKO’S VOICE
They half killed him.

ALIBI’S VOICE
He should have a doctor.

DRAGLINE’S VOICE
Don’t you never learn nuthin’? They
ain’t gonna let no doctor see what
they dont to him…

ANGLE ON DRAGLINE, OTHERS

Dragline looks up at Carr who stands hovering above them.

DRAGLINE
Carr, kin we use your razor to clean
up where they cut his head?

Carr moves off to his canteen area.

CLOSE ON LUKE

as Blind Dick, Gambler, others move in…

GAMBLER
How you feelin’, buddy?

TRAMP
He don’t hear.

TATTOO
Somebody get him something to drink.

SOCIETY RED
Here.

Gently he tucks two aspirin tablets into Luke’s mouth, holds
a cup of water to Luke’s mouth. Luke’s eyes slowly open, he
drinks the water.

DRAGLINE
That’s my baby.

KOKO
He’s gonna be awright.

NEW ANGLE ON MEN

as Carr moves in with a razor, bandage, etc. The men clear
to give him room.

KOKO
Luke?… We got the picture! See?

He holds it up.

CLOSE ON LUKE

His eyes squint open, close.

BLIND DICK’S VOICE
A pair of beauties. Best I ever seen.

TATTOO’S VOICE
You really know how to pick ’em.

LOUDMOUTH STEVE’S VOICE
Tell us about ’em. What were they
like?

CLOSE ON LUKE

as his lips open. He speaks slowly, painfully.

LUKE
Picture’s a phoney… Cost me a week’s
pay.

NEW ANGLE THE MEN

KOKO
A phoney? Whatta you mean, a phoney?

GAMBLER
We saw the broads.

BLIND DICK
Yeah. Did you have them both at once
or —

LUKE
It’s a phoney. Made it up just for
you guys.

LOUDMOUTH STEVE
Aw, come on. We saw it all.

TATTOO
The champagne.

TRAMP
Some life.

FIXER
You really had it made.

LUKE
Nothin. I had nothin, made nothin.
Couple towns, couple bosses. Laughed
out loud one day and got turned in.

KOKO
(about to cry)
But — but —

LUKE
That’s all there was. Listen. Open
your eyes. Stop beatin’ it. And stop
feedin’ off me. Now get out of the
way. Give me some air.

Stunned, the men shrink back.

DRAGLINE
He ain’t himself. He’s all beat up.
Cain’t you see that? He don’t know
what he sayin’.

I would definitely recommend watching Cool Hand Luke — again if you’ve already seen it!  Great movie, and a way more entertaining way to get a lesson in existentialism than reading Sartre!

POEM: I am

The other day I got kicked out
Of an atheist’s club
Told in no uncertain terms
There is science
And no other!
And I am left
To wonder
Wow, where did that come from?!
I was raised
A Christian
A long story (some may say tall)
Which makes some short
Red chapters
Heavenly verse
To love
One, an other
To bless
Not curse
A Palestinian Jew
Named Jesus
We could do much worse!
I once heard a Muslim
Of five pillars he spoke
Coming down to One
And as a Muslim
I woke
Then along came Buddha
Who said: “Don’t follow me,
Experience it first!”
Which made me want to follow
This unslakable thirst
To find compassion and justice
A home
Here on this suffering Earth
A little man
Named Gandhi
To kingdoms united
He spoke
I am
A Hindu
A Christian
A Muslim
A Jew
And undoubtedly a Sikh he
So many will accuse
Well
Me too!

I have considered myself a theological mutt as long as I can remember.  While I have never found a home in atheism, I have a deep appreciation for those who have rejected theism when they experience theistic followers as extremely unwelcoming and exclusive.  Probably one of my most basic theological beliefs is that God is love, and that God’s love is unconditional.  I find it difficult to imagine such a “condition” that is any more inclusive!  This wreaks havoc on virtually every conventional way of thinking.  This is one of the major reasons why I consider spirituality as countercultural.  A healthy spirituality is constantly turning up statist views of reality and human conditions.  I see spirituality as basically a struggle of life over death.  How does one enliven, incarnate, the inanimate matter that is the object of science (there is no subject in science!)?  I don’t see differences of opinion around spirituality primarily as theists versus atheist, but rather as fundamentalists versus welcoming dynamicists.      In the myriad world of either/or propositions, the dynamicists welcome the answer of “YES!”, as opposed to “this, “that,” or “yes, but.”  Or, more simply put, does it enhance living?  Unfortunately, living in this both/and world can be quite disconcerting for those demanding hard endpoints or absolute certainty — which are dangerous to coming to healthy terms with the irreducible uncertainties of life.  In theological terms, this would probably be called process theology, where: “it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible.”  But enough theology, suffice it to say that I believe that fundamentalism is a death knell for healthy spirituality and a living religion.  Perhaps ironically, I don’t see that atheism has done any better of a job than theism of minimizing fundamentalism.  I don’t see much difference between militant atheists and fundamentalist religionists.

But, alas, such debate has being going on for millennia, and with much dissatisfaction; so I would propose that the dividing line can be summed up by the attitudes represented in one’s response to this statement by Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  Or, to frame it somewhat differently, when Einstein was asked what the most important question that a human being could ask is, he answered: “Is the universe friendly?”  I don’t know if this question is answerable in some ultimate, final sense, but I do know that I can vote for the universe being friendly, and make the universe a little more friendly, by practicing kindness.  And the gratitude manifest by seeing everything as a miracle helps empower me to behave kindly.  But, you be the judge…or not.

POEM: Feminists Know Something

As a man
One day I wondered
How come there are so few
Women politicians
Women economists
Women lawyers
Then it occurred to me
Maybe they know something we don’t

The quest to understand the difference between men and women has probably been around as long as there have been men and women.  This feminist poem seeks to stimulate reflection around the issue of self-selection of a career or vocation.  While there are certainly barriers to women entering, succeeding or advancing in certain male-dominated careers or vocations, there are definitely self-selection factors based on gender.  In this poem, I choose the specific fields of politics, economics, and law for reflection.  These fields are dominated by men.  However, I suspect that much of the reason women are not attracted, or dare I say engendered, to these fields is because of both the nature of these fields and the way these fields have been shaped (or distorted) by a male point of view.  As a man and a feminist, I try to understand and value women’s experiences, ways of being, and points of view.  Of course, men’s experiences, ways of being, and points of view, are transmitted more easily in our society due to men’s dominant role and control over many structures and processes in our society.  Given these realities, we should all be feminists, seeking to strike a more healthy balance between the genders.  This requires that we all pay more attention to what women know; and by knowing I mean much more than simply intellectual content but the whole range of experiences, ways of being, and points of view.  And by all means, I don’t relegate the field of “doing” to men, given the fact that women do most of the work in the world.  Simple curiosity demands that men especially seek insight into what women know that men may not.  Of course, being counter-cultural, this takes work, and for some reason women either seem more willing to take on work, or just experience ending up doing more of it..  Either way, we should all pay more attention to these differences.

POEM: Getting Your Ducks in a Row

I once put all my ducks in a row
Only then realizing
What am I doing with all these ducks?!

Getting one’s ducks in a row is an idiom or metaphor that most people are familiar with, meaning that we should get our business in order.  The twist in this poem is a reversal of the typical order that my poetry takes.  In this short poem, I take a common phrase that is not intended to be taken literally, and then take it literally.  Predictably, this leads to absurdity, and the ensuing absurd question of what am I doing with all of these ducks.  Of course, the absurd question is actually a question intended to jar one into a realization that getting one’s business in order is not always the most important thing in the world, though it often seems so.

Perhaps ironically, the pervasive idea of getting one’s ducks in a row, getting one’s business in order, can be a stagnant or deadening proposition that actually kills a higher order in our lives.  Life is messy.  Like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when we’re busy doing other things.”

The question here is not whether one is for order or against order.  The question here is one for a higher order or a lower order.  Increasingly, my experiences in life lead me to believe that one of the most fundamental issues is achieving some clarity about following a higher order over a lower order.  Again, this does not negate the value of lower order stuff, it simply puts it in its proper place, puts it in its proper perspective.  Given that lower order stuff is typically more clear, concrete, and easy to see, it is little surprise that we give an inordinate focus to such things – they capture our attention (and us).  After experiencing many dis-orders in my life, I have come to the realization that the best way to reorder my life around those things which are most important, those higher order things, is to practice simplicity.  What I mean by this is that I need to be aware of those relatively few things in life that are most important to me.  Combined with an actual commitment to these things, then I can use these few important things to better order the many lower things.  More simply put, the higher should lower the order, and a few more important things should order the many less important things.

Another major reason that I see lesser things getting a disproportionate amount of attention versus greater things, is a common confusion regarding what is urgent versus what is important.  Our culture value busyness.  Busyness is seen as an indicator of productivity.  Also, busyness is a way to avoid being seen as engaging in a cardinal sin of our culture, which is laziness.  I think this confusion leads to a systematic bias that often runs over truly important things in our lives.  Given the attachment to busyness, busyness actually becomes a surrogate for urgency.  Thus, the confusion between urgency and importance.

Now, actually, there are many things in life that are both urgent and important.  These are the most important things to which we should attend.  However, there are many, many things that seem urgent that are not really that important.  Likewise, there are many things that are very important but do not seem very urgent.  I believe it is in these very important things that do not seem very urgent that we get lost.  The Achilles heel here is that attention to these most important things that don’t seem very urgent, requires a more relaxed perspective, a broader perspective in relation to time.  Most great things in life require a substantial investment of time.  Also, most things worthwhile require some effort on our part.  But let me deal first with the time issue (the most important thing here).  This gets back to the laziness issue.  Our culture reinforces the notion that relaxing our views about urgency is somehow lazy.  If you are not dealing with the commonly accepted stuff that is seen is urgent, then you are viewed as lazy.  This is not necessarily true.  Now, while truly lazy people don’t deal with what’s in front of them, whether it is urgent or not, important or not, to deal with the important but not urgent things requires some way of being that is neither characterized by mere busyness nor laziness.  This is the difficult counter-cultural work of dealing with the most important and often most overlooked stuff in our lives.  It takes a great amount of discipline and work to slough off the avalanche of seemingly urgent stuff in our life in order to attend to the most important things.  In fact, it is this lack of developing such discipline and boundary setting that is the more important and urgent form of laziness to address.

Laziness is definitely an issue.  This gets back to the issue that most things worthwhile in our life require effort on our part.  Being fully human requires a lot of effort.  This reality requires that we overcome a certain lazy inertia in our lives.  The status quo, the way things are, has a certain stability, momentum and inertia to it.

If we keep going the direction we are headed in, we will probably end up where we are going.  However, equally true, the past is the best predictor of the future, but if you use the past to predict the future, you will always be wrong.  Or more eloquently put, by Yogi Berra, “Prediction is very hard, especially when about the future.”  This is because people are not billiard balls.  People are not simply determined being.  People possess freedom.  People are subjects, not objects.  Certainly, as long as people are involved, predicting the future with complete accuracy will be impossible (actually, this is true for so-called “things” as well; this involves a discussion of the inherent probabilities necessary to understand quantum physics, which I will gracefully save for another day).  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  This is not chaos; this is simply uncertainty.  This is the way the universe is ordered.  This is a higher order, not to be subjected to a lower order.  This takes us full circle, back to our zealous clinging to stuff that is more concrete, seemingly certain.  Our felt need to substitute certainty for uncertainty plays neatly into the hands of confusing the urgent and the important.  Life is uncertain.  If life were not uncertain, it would not be life.  If life were not uncertain, then life would simply be a quest of learning everything and then being ordered (notice the use of the passive voice, and the same language that we reject often from the bosses in our lives) by the ultimately determinable (that which can be reduced to certainty).  This would inescapably lead us to our endgame of being all-knowing and totally impotent (not free).  If this strikes you as a concept of God that is rejected by the vast majority of humanity on this planet, then you must be paying attention.  This so-called God that so many people legitimately reject, is not God, but the vain and enslaving-ourselves project of trying to be God ourselves.  Neither can God be reduced to simply “everything.”  God is more than “everything.”  This concept arises out of the paradox of subjectivity and objectivity, the difference between subject and object.  In this case, the difference between people and things, and between God and “everything.”  I hope that I’m not getting too far off course by getting straight to the heart of the matter.  If you want some additional commentary on these matters, and subjects, I would suggest browsing scientific reductionism.

So, now that I have put all of my ducks in order, I can get beyond the whole “duck” thing. In the end, for all this to work well, this means having our lives ordered in a way that is consistent with what we consider to be the most important, then we must actually know what is the most important stuff in our lives.  Do you know what the most important things in your life are?  If so, I would suggest that you make a list of such things, and while doing this may be of the utmost importance, I would recommend that you take your time to get it right.

Now, if you really want to blow your mind, and perhaps blow the lid off your heart, I recommend meditating upon this poem from the Sufi poet Rumi:

A good gauge of spiritual health is to write down
the three things you want most.
If they in any way differ
you are in trouble.