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: Colloquial He

1. He lived
2. In a particular time
3. In a particular place
And one
Of his many editors
Proferred the generic claim
Putting fourth
That he rote
Colloquially
And to this brand of righting
He gave his highest, a word
Possible
And thank you awe
For such an empyreal suggestion
And complimentary red pen

This poem harkens back to a comment I had from an editor of my college newspaper, of which I was a columnist.  She noted that “I wrote colloquially.”  I think that this was meant as a negative critique.  I noted that I like to write colloquially.  How quaint.

One thing I find funny about this exchange is that to in order say that I wrote using regional language or the expressions of a particular time and place, she had to use, what in the vernacular might be said to be a “two-dollar word,” a word like “colloquial.”  I use two-dollar words frequently, and even fashion new priceless words as I seize fits.  Though, for awe of these two-dollar words and priceless locution locution locution, like Forrest Gump observed, I haven’t seen any of that money.

Another thing funny about this exchange was that she made this comment from across the great inland sea known as Lake Michigan, she studying in an off-campus internship in Chicago, and I in Holland, Michigan, on the Hope College campus.  To many of us hackneyed Midwesterners, we can drum up little reverence for the cosmopolitan weighs of metropolitan elites, of which she may have come under their sway.  We inherently trust real people and are casually suspicious of wannabes, who more often than not are going no place better, but much faster.

As a recovering abstract intellectual, I can relate to the quest for universality.  Nonetheless, I have found that this often degrades beautiful local realities and majestically loco characters.  Wherever we live, we live in local circumstances.  Live and Let Live SPIRITUAL BUTTONI seek to live into my singular circumstances without any particular imperial ambitions.  I will not insist that you misunderstand me in a certain way.  Still, I am open to empyreal suggestions…

POEM: The Curator

I am
The curator
Of your infinite beauty
Privy to collections timeless
And in real time
Streaming glorious tributaries
To the art of who you are

This is a poem about the glorious privilege in close relationships of having unique access to the beauty of another, particularly a lover.  Inspired by my muse and sweetheart, such beauty is an unending — as in head over heels — source of teeming enthrallment.  Joy is Most Infallible Sign Presence of God--PEACE QUOTE BUTTONI genuflect at the mass of wondrous moments and shared memories.  Mere reminiscence of our first kiss is lost in the wake of our most recent kiss.  Every new kiss shatters the inadequacy of my imagination with the surpassing reality of beauty ever anew.  In the face of such beauty, my poetry pales.  The irresistible invitation to shut up and kiss me blissfully wins the day, holy inseparable.  Only when apart is my poetry birthed, orphaned of such beauty, hankering for those unrivaled tears of joy.

This poem, while a testament to the beauty of human love, offers a parallel connection to an even more holy love. As so aptly stated by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  To love another person is to see the face of God. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables quote SPIRITUAL BUTTONThis should surprise no one who sees God as love.  God revels in your infinite beauty, even if others may not witness it.  You are an ongoing work of art only adequately appreciated when one subject experiences another subject, not merely for what they do or look like, but who they are, both a work and source of ineffable art and artistry.

In my poems, I frequently use “I am” in a single line.  This is meant to allude to God, “I AM.”  In Exodus 3:14, Moses is instructed to tell his fellow Israelites from whom he is sent: “I AM.”  The long version, “I AM WHO I AM,” speaks to the sovereign character of God.  To the less discerning this may simply appear akin to Popeye declaring “I am what I am,” or Forrest Gump simply affirming, “Stupid is as stupid does.”  However, in the pedagogy of God, such tautologies are unhelpful.  Whatever Popeye is, is what he is.  On the face of it, what stupid is, is what stupid does.  Still, whatever I might do, or however I may appear to you, does not fully define who I am.  Your unduplicated set of personal thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires, experiences and perspectives, confound explication and formulation.  And, as for you, as for God (or vice versa).  You, as an authentic subject, are not fully experienced if only related to as a thing that looks a certain way and behaves in a certain way. The sacredness of being beloved is not the same as merely being witnessed or even appreciated for what one is or how one behaves.  The sacredness of being beloved encompasses a reverence for our ongoing artistry, the chosen project of our unreplicable life, what ever that may be.  This reflects the love a parent has for a child, regardless of what they happen to be at any given moment, or how they behave.  This reflects the love one has for their beloved, seeking their beloved’s best, even when it may be in parent conflict with what is best for them.  Similarly, God, as an authentic subject, is not fully experienced simply by examining, however closely, creation, and what the universe looks like or how it behaves.  Such data sets, however extensive, and formulations, however complete, cannot capture the living God; just as you are not defined only by how you look to others and how your behaviors are perceived.  Two subjects meeting, experiencing one another: this is the stuff of gods and goddesses, where new worlds are created.  Theologians, philosophers, and even scientists, talk about God, but this has little resemblance to experience looking God in the I.  And if this peers inaccessible, find a good lover, have a child, maybe both.  You assuredly will be surprised!

POEM: A Brother Lying

Prey fore the dead
In the name of Jesus
In resurrection of those soully asleep
Getting a phallus rise
Out of Christianity
That is, US
More sow then radical Islam
In violate fundamental lists
Dissembling faith, hope, and love
As our trinity project
Our won God triumph a writ
With a Cain due attitude
Over awe that is Abel
To spill the good word
Buy blood crying out
Too me
From the ground
A brother lying
Knot knowing
The hollowed meaning
Of I am
One’s keeper

I often write about stuff triggered when I hear the news.  I listen faithfully to Democracy Now on weekdays.  It’s not unusual to stop in the middle of a show, or even a news story, to write a poem about something that touched me: a phrase worthy of seeding a poem, an issue baffling human kind, or simply a heartfelt emotion.

The literal life and death issues of war and peace, militarism and pacifism, have been close to my heart my whole adult life.  The latest flavor of this is the unending war on terrorism, which easily commiserates with virulent patriotism, nasty nationalism, presumptive racism, and irreconcilable religious bigotries.  Our unconscious privilege, convenient distance, and well-earned ignorance of world affairs is complicit with any easy alliance of violence as a lazy alternative to costly self-sacrifice as the true weigh of incarnating justice for all.  Nominal Christianity and its state-sponsored sheep, hawk a cheap grace bound only by an unequaled military budget and unquestioned reverence for a mercenary class.

I have a more generous perception of a frightened citizenry in deed resorting to violence in an increasingly secular, postmodern worldview.  Violence seems inevitable, certainly unendurable, without a resilient weigh to measure the sacred worth of an other, a brother human, who peers threatening.  I have a less generous view of normalizing violence by those aspiring to be religious, deeply commuted to any of the major faith-based worldviews represented by the world’s religions.  In the case of the U.S., the purported rock of our moral lives is Christianity.  I assert that an honest appraisal of American Christianity regarding its world military domination is that it is ruggedly cross.  War and Peace - What Would Jesus Do? FUNNY PEACE BUTTONAmerican Christians quiet reliably in efface of violence, instead of bearing the rugged cross, demand the blood sacrifice of “others” as their savior.  To this I can only say, “Jesus Christ!”  Whose image due we bear?!  What about state violence has to do with the heart, life and death of Jesus — other than the fact that it was state violence that executed Jesus.

To add insult to injury, the budget-sized war we christen as terrorism, we blame on Muslims, or worse yet, on the sacred tenets of Islam.  The real competition may be about who has the shallowest understanding of their religion: nominal Muslim terrorists or nominal Christian war apologists.  I strongly suspect that the farces of Christianity have killed more people than the farces of Islam.  Regardless, the age-old story of Cain and Abel, shared in the sacred texts of both Christianity and Islam, plays out over and over: brother kills brother and denies the essential nature of their kin relationship and how family should care for one another.  May people of faith lead the way in ending violence between all peoples.  This goes triple for “People of The Book” (Jews, Christians, and Muslims).

Browse anti-terrorism designs.

Is Killing In The Name Of The Prophet Worse Than Killing In The Name Of Profit? ANTI-WAR BUTTONTerrorism War of Poor War Terrorism of Rich--ANTI-WAR QUOTE BUTTONWar Is Terrorism With A Bigger Budget ANTI-WAR BUTTON

 

POEM: Zombie Apocalypse — Carry On

In habiting
That thin lyin’
Between living and undead
Pray and prey
Plodding for survival so chaste
Eerie reverence
For awe virtually unmoving
They’ve got
You’re numb-er
Too many to re-pulse
To take account of
De-sending from cubicles and proto-calls
Contracting art and sole
As-certain
As a ballad to ahead
Or souled heart for a song
Forging for a meal ticket
Having mist
The notice
Of the zombie apocalypse
Having all ready past buy
As things sow sterilized
And humanity’s fate sown up
In arms and sordid extremities
Have eaten
Half alive
Only too whither the storm
The moot in one’s eye
Of learned haplessness
And ever abating brains
Until getting the best of you
As present itself
As in genius solution
The just
Walk away
Hope realized as traveling light
And renouncing
Carrion

If a zombie apocalypse poem is particularly relevant for you on a Monday, then you may be suffering the blurring of your existence as living or undead.  The popularity of zombies in current culture strikes me as an apropos metaphor for the deep and abiding alienation present in much of everyday life.  Alienation is endemic in multiple spheres: alienation from our own humanity by being submersed in artificial and virtual realities; alienation from others by having life mediated by impersonal institutions and technologies; and alienation from nature and the natural world by working in cubicles, living in self-contained boxes, and traveling in mobile cages of steel, plastic, and rubber over rivers of petroleum byproducts.  Zombies seem to be the incarnation of our collective ennui and existential angst over our preternatural penchant for mistaking motion for progress and our banal disability in distinguishing between any vital life force and inanimate matter.  The titillating trepidation of slow, barely animated monsters overtaking us in our hurried existence gives freakish flesh to our fears.  The undead have some surreal power to overtake the caffeinated, if not sublimely discerning, protagonist humans slash food.  Their sheer number or inexplicable relentless hunger — fed by their will to unlive? — overwhelms any resort to our keen or ken.  We fatally mistake our presents as mere fuel or fodder saying chow to our humanity.   This helpless and hapless existence is, in fact, the fantasy, a projection of our fears, that inanimate forces haplessly set in motion are the ultimate arbiters of the human sphere.  Without resort to stale arguments about free will, human freedom and the like, I will only say that if the posers of zombie powers that be come to my door, I intend to say “Eat me!”

Carry on.

POEM: Fore Awe That Can Be Souled

He lived buy
The law of the jungle
Except for that whole jungle thing
And law
Fore that madder
Welcome too
Living bye
A-morality
A-weigh of living
A-lien from nature
As not giving
One ascent
Fore awe that can be
Souled

The so-called law of the jungle is largely disrespectful of nature and law.  The presumed law of the jungle is typically a rationalization for amoral behavior.  Buying such low living is not becoming to humanity.  Greedy, fear-filled, and violent people swear by the notion of a “dog eat dog” world, even if they have never seen a dog eat a dog.  And if one has witnessed firsthand a dog eat a dog, it is a near certainty that this resulted from the instigation and/or training by a human.  Contrary to popular mythology, the overwhelming majority (95+%) of living beings on this planet live and die without being eaten.  Live and Let Live SPIRITUAL BUTTONLive and let live is a far better characterization of the nature of nature than some arena of death thrust upon us to bedevil us to our untimely end.  So, this poem is about respecting the higher harmonies of nature, including human nature — the nature of the soul, if you will — as we experience the gift of life.  Such higher harmonies lean into the predominant reality of life as a gift rather than a curse.  It is a destructive lie to characterize nature, or our nature, as a taker rather than a giver.  The jungle is a wild and beautiful place, but the awe and wander of its presents inspires its true companions to revel in reverence rather than dreadful competition or wanton violence.  A Savage Is Not The One Who Lives In The Forest, But The One Who Destroys It POLITICAL BUTTONMay you find that the wild places in your life bring you life-affirming inspiration and render you a lousy accomplice to greedy and guarded weighs.

POEM: Wee Lives

Wee live
In a whirled
Determined
To be
Or not to be
Making head weigh
At an impassable gait
In effable hustle
A jeer of our peers
That hurry can knock us down
Or give momentary flights
Holding out that portentous raze
And awe that can be done
As one
Sounds off
Within
The I of the storm
Effacing hail from above
Heavin’ from bellow
It’s awe too big
Wee
Can’t hold it
In feudal urgency
To pee or not to pee
Is not the quest in
Prefiguring some wiz in the sky
Or spitting into the tempest of all
Expect or rating too much
As how many angles can you fit in a pinhead
And still idol minds alike
Sow ponderous
As wee plot a long
Master-full ark
Buoying our grave undertakings
Measured in feat (customarily half-dozin’)
Oar how many pee-wee leagues under the see
As wee under go
The vicious cycle a loan
And presumed raging above
Wile all else
Holy beneath me
Hour lonely consolation prize
An unending stream
Of I cons and effigies
From mobile chimeras
Re-cording virtually everything
Still life un-more
As colored in millions of weighs
Marooned, blue, and doggedly yellow
Leaking buckets of stout meanings
Full only of those flipping angry birds
As we pass on
And piss off
As a gust in this fare whirled
In league with one an other
In choir
How won might
Myth the point
A mist being
Sprayed and neutered
Engendering duplicity
And obscure human rites
From witch
Sow many
Must ultimately depart
A reluctant re-treat
In urgently having to go
And having flailed
In countering a wind wind situation
Must still
Go
Won on won
With our spitting image
Convinced that in what is wasted
Is a 95% solution
Worthy of imbibing
And mirrorly a tad yellow
Satisfied in its reigning from above

This poem juxtaposes many common yet seemingly incongruous themes.  This poem may be prototypical in melding daily life with divine ponderings and cheap jokes related to urination.  I delight in the interplay between such themes, ultimately pointing to the paradoxical reverence of irreverence.  I have little interest in a God distant from everyday life.  I have more interest in the plight of creatures vainly trying to escape their wee lot in life. I root for creatures to find their truest roots.  For me, I find this as a decidedly spiritual project tempered by kicking the buckets of piss and vinegar I find so abundantly.  Go deep or go home…but I repeat myself.

POEM: You’re Ass It’s Monetized

Monetize
You’re ass
It’s
What
Civilized
People
Due

This is a good Monday poem, as millions return to jobs where their value as human beings takes a back seat to their value as moneymaking machines.  In our capitalistic culture, when monetization meets humanity, monetization wins far too often.  Apologists for capitalism, with scarce irony, claim that such monetization fuels civilization.  Well, if valuing capital over workers, money over people, is the foundation of civilization, then I oppose civilization.  I recognize that most capitalists don’t object to humanity, it definitely softens some of the harsh social consequences of profiteering.  Of course, when profiteering collides with humanity, which it inevitably will, the moral and humane choice or priority is to preserve and advance humanity, not profit.  The workings of money, often referred to with reverence as the “economy,” poses as that which all worthwhile seems to depend upon.  This is a lie.  This is inhumane at best, idolatry at worst.  Money is a tool.  People should not be tools.

POEM: Needling a Haystack

The stockpiles of human knowledge grow exponentially
And wisdom, like needling a haystack
Says, “What the hay?!”
Finding better questions is where it’s at
Not how fast you can shovel it
Nor how big your pitchfork is
Rather what thread follows
And sew what

This short poem is a tribute to questioning with a purpose.  Unfettered skepticism produces cynicism.  Wisdom recognizes that some questions are better than others.  In fact, what questions you ask determines what answers you get.  This poem cuts through the exponential amassing of knowledge by honing our attention to that which mends our reality together into a meaningful whole.  Without meaning full questions to guide our inquiries, greater access to knowledge simply leads to greater confusion.  The attraction and distraction of a tsunami of available answers to questions, i.e., knowledge, can actually hamper wisdom.  Now, this isn’t some anti-intellectual argument.  This simply recognizes that intellect lacking wisdom is much less fruitful, even dangerous.  The quests for scientific knowledge and wisdom are consonant.  Both seek to integrate knowledge into an ever greater whole.  Knowledge that serves the whole, as opposed to just some part of reality, is a better quality of knowledge.  Knowledge isn’t just about bits and pieces, mere facts; true knowledge is about a deeper understanding of the relationship of these parts to each other, and most importantly, the whole.  Wisdom has a deep respect for the whole, and an even deeper reverence for the fact that the ever greater whole can only be tentatively and incompletely described.  Thus, wisdom is characterized by both humility and curiosity.  Wisdom opposes militant ideologies and apathy.  In fact, militant ideologies are simply ideologies that have lost humility and curiosity and stopped seeking out the ever-elusive, ever-greater whole, which is at least partially represented by those outside a militant ideology.  This fact escapes many trapped in militant ideologies because they mistake totality for unity.  Wisdom is an inoculation against militancy, fascism, and fundamentalism.  This is because the humility and curiosity of wisdom breeds a generous attitude in seeking a harmonious relationship with the whole.  The openness of wisdom is not merely a corollary of the tentativeness of empirical skepticism and scientific reductionism; it is is rooted in the positive appreciation for the value of the “other” which comprise the yet-undiscovered aspects of reality and ineluctable mystery.  This may be your enemy.  This may be God.  It may be both.  A generosity transcending mere openness is made possible by a trust or faith in the whole being more valuable than the parts, even the sum of the parts.  This faith is as essential to healthy scientific investigation as it is to loving human relationships.  This simply assumes, or prefers, science that serves the whole rather than some special interest.  This simply assumes, or prefers, human relationships that don’t reduce humans to things to be manipulated, but beings to be appreciated.  The generosity of wisdom is the mother to its only true child: kindness.  In humility, stripped of arrogance and egocentricity, and equipped with an overpowering curiosity and a transcendent appreciation of the “other,” only kindness remains.  And all good will follow.

POEM: The Game of Life

One day
I realized
The game of life
And going back
In the box
Only to find
The rules had been lost
Long a go
And still
The game goes on

This short poem plays with the notion that life is a game.  Of course, there are many different types of games, each with their own set of rules.  Even if there is one monolithic set of rules that defines reality, it appears that there are countless games that can be played within that set of rules.  A wise person realizes that each of these sets of rules, for whatever game chosen (or implied in one’s actions), possesses a certain arbitrariness.  Such arbitrariness lacks a full claim in ultimate reality.  Any such partial claim, when lifted to sacred status, deserves and invites mocking.  Such playfulness and mocking delves into the wondrous paradox that irreverence can be the highest form of reverence in a given situation.  Irreverence playfully invites us to a fuller and more sacred view of reality.  And such playful invitations can harness the awesome character of pointing out high truths without the downer of overzealously demanding obedience.  Such playful invitations abide by a sacred respect for higher truths as demanding obedience in and of themselves, without contrivance or brute force.  In the games of life, there is often a negative connotation with playing in the sense of “games people play” — when we treat other players as objects in the game, not an equal or full players.  I prefer a more positive connotation, as elucidated by Zen Buddhism’s nonseriousness, apparent foolishness under-girded by wisdom:

“There is a certain quality of foolishness in a real wise man. Why? Because a real wise man contains the opposite. He is both together. He is more comprehensive. A wise man who has no foolishness in him will be dry, dead. His juice will not be flowing. He will not be green. He will not be able to laugh; he will be serious; he will be a long face. A wise man who is just wise and in whose being the fool has not been integrated will be very heavy. It will be difficult to live with such a wise man. He will be very boring. He will be boring to you and he will be boring to himself. He will not have any fun; his life will not know any joy. He will be completely unacquainted with laughter. And when laughter is missed, much is missed.

And one can never know God without laughter. One can never know God without joy. One can never know reality just by being wise.

The fool has something to contribute too — the laughter, the joy, the nonseriousness, the quality of fun, delight. The fool can dance, and the fool can dance for any reason whatsoever — any excuse will do. The fool can laugh. And the fool can laugh not only at others, he can laugh at himself.

When the wise man and the fool meet together in a consciousness, then something of tremendous value happens. There are foolish people and there are wise people. The fool is shallow; the wise man is serious. The fool does not know what truth is, and the wise man does not know what joy is. And a truth without joy is worse than a lie. And a joy without truth is not reliable. A joy without truth is momentary, cannot be of the eternal.”

Nonseriousness and humorlessness are linked to fundamentalist religious faith and militancy.  Militancy — including militarism — and violence are anathema to good humor:

The overarching difference is between the mental rigidity of religious faith and the mental flexibility of humor.

1. The first contrast is between the respect for authority in religious faith, and the questioning of authority in humor. In faith-based religions, people believe what they are told, and do they do what they are told, by a leader, typically a patriarchal leader. God himself is pictured as the ultimate patriarchal authority, the Lord, the King of the Universe.

The psychology of humor, by contrast, involves questioning authority. The humorist’s role, from the court jesters of ancient China to today’s standup comedians, has been to think critically about people’s language, about their reasoning, about their actions, and about the relations between all three. From the days of ancient Greek comedy, the creators of humor have looked for discrepancies between what political and religious leaders say and what they do. Aristophanes poked fun not only at political leaders but at intellectual leaders like Socrates, and even at the gods.

2. The second contrast is between the simple, often dualistic, conceptual schemes of religious faith and the more complex conceptual schemes of humor. Faith-based religions offer believers simple concepts with which they can classify everything they experience. Master categories include “good and evil,” and “us and them.” Osama bin Laden’s speeches and George W. Bush’s speeches are full of name-calling based on such simple dualistic categories. As Bush has admitted, he “doesn’t do nuance.”

Comic thinking, on the other hand, is more complex and messy. The world doesn’t separate neatly into a few categories. In comedy, there aren’t any all-good people, nor any all-bad people. Even the best person involved in the best kind of action is likely to be tainted by some selfishness, foolishness, and maybe even hypocrisy. When characters appear in comedy promoting simple conceptual schemes, they are often satirized as fanatics or fools.

3. The third contrast is between the militarism of religious faith and the pacifism of humor. Religions based on faith tend to feel threatened by other world views and so tend to want to eliminate the proponents of those views. And so they often justify violence against “the heathen” or “the infidel,” as General Boykin and Osama bin Laden do.

From the beginning, however, comedy has been suspicious of calls to eliminate those who think differently, and has been suspicious of violence as a way to solve problems. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata satirized the insanity of the constant fighting between the Greek city states. In modern times, the futility of war has been the theme of dozens of comedies, which have lampooned the willingness to kill or die on command. Comic heroes are usually good at talking their way out of conflicts, and when that fails, they are not ashamed to run away. The comic attitude here is captured in the old Irish saying “You’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life.”

4. The fourth contrast is between the single-mindedness of religious faith and the willingness to change one’s mind in humor. The person of faith treats alternative viewpoints as possible sources of doubt, and so something to be suppressed. Once they make a divinely sanctioned choice of action—as in George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, they “stay the course” no matter what happens. They do not look for mistakes they might have made, they do not try to think of how they might proceed differently, and they tend to be defensive when they are challenged. Faith-based religions tout what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls “warrior virtues”: courage, loyalty, duty, honor, indomitable will, unquestioning obedience, stubborn determination, and uncompromising dedication.

In comedy, by contrast, the person who has an idée fixe is portrayed as foolish. Comic heroes do set courses of action, but they are adaptable after that. As situations change, they can too. Their plans are not set in stone but are contingent and reversible. Often, the comic hero has not even determined in advance what will count as success or failure.

5. The fifth contrast is between the idealism of religious faith and the pragmatism of humor. The rhetoric of faith-based religions is full of abstractions like Truth, Faith, and Freedom. On the enemy side are those who love Evil.

Comedy, on the other hand, is based not on abstractions but on concrete things, people, and situations. Comic heroes are concerned not about Truth and Freedom but about their next meal, and getting the one they love to love them in return. Not longing for some utopia, they are at home in the world as it is.

6. The sixth contrast is between the convergent thinking of faith-based religions and the divergent thinking of humor. Convergent thinking aims at reaching the correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct answer, but dozens, maybe hundreds of possible good answers. A standard exercise in divergent thinking is to think of thirty uses for a building brick.

With their simple conceptual schemes and their emphasis on thinking in traditional ways, faith-based religions do not encourage creativity or cleverness. A good example is George W. Bush and his wife Laura. On a TV interview program, Laura Bush was asked if she and the President had pet names for each other. She said, “Oh Yes.” “What is your pet name for him?” the interviewer asked. “Bushie,” she answered. “What is his pet name for you?” “Bushie,” she said again.

Unlike such unimaginative plodders, people with a rich sense of humor are creative. The master skill of the comedian is to look at something familiar in a new way.

7. The seventh contrast is between seriousness and playfulness. Faith-based religious visions of life are paradigms of seriousness, and humor is a paradigm of nonseriousness. It is persons, I take it, who are serious in the basic sense of the word. Issues and problems are called “serious” because they require persons to be serious about them. For us to be serious is to be solemn and given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. It is also for us to be sincere in what we say and do. We say only what we believe, and act only according to our real intentions.

Seriousness is contrasted with playfulness. When we are playful, we are not solemn and are not given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. We are not bound to sincerity in what we say and do. We may say something outlandishly false for the mental jolt it gives us and others. We may impersonate someone, or feign some emotion, just for the fun of it.”

I suspect that an accurate reading of reality would call out for more Irreverends than Reverends.  Religion, institutionalized spirituality, must perpetually wrest with its own laughableness.  For any institution branding itself with any given set of “authoritative” creeds, must be able to laugh at itself, and accept mocking in good humor, to even hope for greater authority — an authority forever lying outside any gaming.  Yet, the show must go on!

POEM: If I Were King

If I were king of the world
My first official act
Would be to resign as king

It is a common fantasy to be a powerful ruler so that you could enact your will over others.  This short poem is a simple, straightforward, and absolute condemnation of such “Lording over” others.  This is a variant on the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The temptation to use such great power is strong, even if for just a little while, to get a few very important things done.  The essential problem is that any monarchical will over others cannot escape the larger reality that a mass veto of the masses’ will is inherently anti-democratic, even if done with perfect motives.  Surely a beneficent king is better than a cruel and selfish king.  Nonetheless, monarchical power is inherently illegitimate; that is if you ascribe to democracy and power of the people.  The point is not to have monarchical rule!

I suspect that I will never have to deal directly with the temptation of being king.  Still, the sin of “Lording over” others exists at both large and small scales, and we all confront such temptations.  For Christians, even the “Lord” Jesus didn’t “Lord over” others.  Instead, Jesus was a servant leader, leading by example as a servant.  Though this seems to be a lesson oft forgotten by many Christians.

Jesus incarnated God’s nature as a host ever-inviting others into fuller and more mature relationships, which are dynamic and respectful (reverent).  God’s edicts, as contained in the rules of creation, are a framework within which to experience these relationships, and these rules are “subjects” to God’s will and character.  Legalisms, which make easy prey of any ideological system, are not the end of “good governance.”  Whether mistaking the sum total of reality as the laws of nature discernible through science, or the legalisms of political or religious elites, we should not make the mistake of worshiping the created over the creator.  Reducing God to a set of rules is deeply pathetic, imprisoning the Creator in a box and pinning ourselves to design specs falling far short of our full capabilities.  God is more, and so are we.  May you experience the “moreness” of God and yourself, in an ever-deeper and maturing way.

POEM: A Lousy Take on Lao-Tse

A Lousy Take on Lao-Tse (Tao Te Ching 38)

When Tao is lost
There is virtue
When virtue is lost
There is morality
When morality is lost
There is propriety
Yet oddly
Even when
Awe is lost
Tao remains
The eternal rest
Giving rise to awe

The Tao Te Ching is the ancient Chinese sacred text of Taoism.  The authorship is attributed to Lao-Tse, which may have been an individual or a group.  There are many English translations of the Tao Te Ching, which seem to differ greatly.  The above poem is my take on chapter 38, which seems to have stuck in my mind.  I was struck by the truth of the progression, or deterioration, from the ineffable unity of Tao to virtue, then morality, then propriety, which is the beginning of chaos, with propriety being the shallowest foundation for life.  While the Tao Te Ching is necessarily perplexing, “the Tao that can be described is not the Tao,” this foundation which escapes our grasp is the very foundation which secures our hope.  No machinations, cruelty, nor any power on earth can overturn it or control it.  This irreducible hope persists as an untouchable in a world bent on holding and controlling way more than called for.  This irreducible hope gives rise to awe!

The Tao Te Ching is more of a comprehensive series of hints than a textbook.  I view it as an essential companion for any mystic. Of course, I see mysticism as the heart of any true religion.  The Tao Te Ching is very short read, especially when compared to the Christian Bible, the Muslim Qur’an, or especially the Hindu Vedas!  Plus, unlike perhaps most other religions and their sacred texts, a devoted Taoist would probably suggest burning your sacred text at some point!  This speaks of a truer reverence than the all-too-familiar Bibliolatry of Western civilization.  As a child of Western civilization, I would heartily recommend the Tao Te Ching as an antidote for many of the imbalances acutely present in modern society.  Western civilization’s addiction to scientific reductionism makes us hellbent on focusing on one thing in isolation, pressuring us to ever narrower contexts and ever greater specialization.  Central in the practice of Taoists is complimentariness, Yin and Yang, that the myriad of things that comprise our world, though arising from the unity of Tao, can only be comprehended by their opposites.  Perhaps the greatest formulation of this in Christianity is Jesus’ command to love our enemies.  Only by reconciliation with our enemies can we become whole.  Any demonization of the other necessarily degrades our own humanity.  We are defined by our enemies.  If our enemies don’t define us, then we are free, and in accord with Tao.  May it be so…because it is so…

POEM: I Could Have Swore

I Could Have Swore

Backs against the wall
And faceless
No name to call
Wandering
If anyone
Ever
Will get their drift
Homie-less
At the center
A cross person
Surrounded by thieves
And gawkers
In a sea of blindness
In heaving this very day
Like a bunch of drunken sellers
With a king dumb struck
At hand
Suffering
A body politic
Right
And left
A loan
In perpetual lent
Wanting us to be saved
A dollar store
Perhaps
Inescapable worries
Of exactly how spent
Just
Give me
Those goddamned crackers
And a little whine
On my breath
My broken body
And bypassed heart
Giving
For you
Not me
I am
A men!
All of life taxing
Except perhaps one percent
Forgetting the rest
Waging undomesticated lives
Unmanageable
Where people have to sell themselves
To survive
And giving it away
They are down with that
That lame walk away
I could have swore
I was in church
Universal
Unconditional
Love
Going off like a balm
Proclaiming release
To those dammed feelings
In unfamiliar tongues
Wheel gather together
In a circle unspoken
Everyone faced
Crying only
Jesus
We need a man
Who knows what it’s like
To be
Unfucked
And when we see him
Will wee
No it

This poem was inspired by an open mic session held at a church where several people made comments throughout the evening about how they were editing their work and/or trying not to swear.  I’ve long felt this was a somewhat odd thing, given my understanding of God.  If God is the Lord of all and omnipresent, why are we so concerned about doing something wrong or inappropriate in a church building.  Frankly, I am much more perturbed by religious folks who are all pious and reverent on Sunday and offer offense freely to God throughout the week.  Swearing as an offense is technically “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”  Of course, the Lord’s name is not a series of letters spoken.  “Name” here refers to God’s character.  To speak or act as if God’s character is powerless or meaningless — “vain” — is the offense.  It seems to me that God is way more concerned with our actions than our words, and whether our actions are consistent with God’s character.  Having said that, I can recognize that irreverence and humor can actually be a very effective tool to deflate the pious and self-righteous.  In this case, irreverence is reverence to God’s character.  I definitely can swear that God’s character is mysterious.

Obama Bookends State of Union Address With Militarism

Obama Bookends State of Union Address With Militarism

President Barack Obama said a lot of nice things in his State of the Union address last night.  While these days I don’t pay much attention to what politicians say, I thought it was interesting to note that Mr. Obama bookended his State of the Union address with two rather long militaristic segments.  While Mr. Obama may have a slightly different take on US world domination than some of his predecessors, when it comes down to it he flatly said that the US must be THE world power.  Nationalism and militarism is a disease that has inflicted our great nation for many generations.  Perhaps more importantly, the disease of US militarism has plagued the rest of the world for as many generations.  It almost goes without saying that in US politics our overwhelming military might is preeminent, both as a practical matter for running the rest of the world, and at the center of our national religion.  I can’t think of a single thing that receives more reverence in this country than the military and military service.  It is very dangerous and considered blasphemous to speak against US military. I believe that standing against militarism is our only hope in this country and the world to save our planet and its inhabitants.  If militarism is not defeated, then the violence necessary to sustain the status quo and its injustice will defeat this, that is, at least, kill us.

Please feel free to join me in any nonviolent revolutionary action that you can find and/or create.  Might I suggest getting involved in the occupy movement.