Friday, December 29, 2006

When Life Intervenes

In my previous blog, written on Christmas day, I waxed eloquent about how our family had made our traditional Christmas brunch the still point in our changing world. I wrote about how our sons want the menu to be precisely the same as it has always been, and that though we were spending Christmas in a new locale nothing would change our brunch. I ventured to say that there was something virtuous and meaningful about all of this. I declared that some things never change. And I inserted a resounding "Hallelujah!"

Enter life!

The details are not necessary to make the point, but something happened that morning that caused all of us to recognize how life reshapes assumptions and priorities. The monkey bread was raising in the pan, and spilling beyond it. The casserole wasn't in the oven, the table wasn't set. Yet suddenly none of that mattered. Arriving like a sudden storm, the circumstances of life transformed our sense of what was truly important. And it wasn't a casserole, tasty though it may be.

The brunch was eventually served on Christmas day, but it became supper. The monkey bread raised to the point of overtaking the kitchen. We almost called out the National Guard. The bread burned, the casserole wasn't quite done, and not everyone was able to be at the table. It was the ruination of our Christmas tradition.

Or was it? I think not. That day we were reminded that the meaning of the season isn't in menus, rituals or traditions. It took the interruption of ritual, the postponement of tradition, for us to understand why they were so meaningful to us in the first place. The love and support of family, being there for each other in good times and bad, is the ingredient that makes this brunch significant, and perhaps even sacramental.

The burned, puffed-up monkey bread couldn't have been tastier. It was infused with love.

Some things have to change. Hallelujah!

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Brunch Redux

Despite this image of our cats at full holiday alert, today is a time for our family to do again what we have always done. Perhaps more than any other occasion Christmas is when repetition is not only accepted, it is seemingly required. The "reason for the season" is certainly nested in joy, hope, love, and peace--the quartet of Advent themes we revisit each year in scripture, carols, and homilies.

But these redemptive principles can be easily lost in the McMurray household if they are not accompanied by a Christmas morning regimen that includes a traditional family brunch. The menu is composed of a special casserole fixed on no other day but this one, a cup of eggnog, something we call monkey bread, and a glass of sparkling grape juice. Our sons insist that the menu must be unchanged. Did I mention they're 32 and 28?

This year our immediate family is spending the holiday in Lexington, Kentucky, where our oldest son, Jeff, now lives. We are accompanied by our other son, Brian, and his wife, Lyda. Everything is different about this Christmas. For years our extended family has met at our house for a Christmas Eve dinner. This year we had to move it back a week because of our Kentucky sojourn. As the family begins to birth a new generation it is becoming obvious that flexibility must be the rule.

But some things will remain unchanged. The Christmas brunch, its menu unaltered, will make its Kentucky debut in Lexington today. My wife Joyce sometimes feels the burden of having to prepare the brunch, beginning with the night before, especially when Christmas Eve has been busy with dinner, clean up, and last minute wrapping of presents. But I also know she quietly cherishes the importance our family places on a tradition she initiated many years ago.

We've had our ups and downs as a family. Like so many, we've struggled through some difficult and demanding times, particularly in recent years. It is remarkable, perhaps even miraculous, that the promised blessings of joy, hope, love, and peace arrive persistently for us in the form of a Christmas casserole served around a common table.

Some things never change. Hallelujah!

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Face Lifts

Blogger, the program that hosts sites such as this, and saves many of us from the mind-numbing grief of HTML code, has just gone public with a new version. Seems only right that we should commemorate the occasion by tweaking the look of this page a bit.

It's all cosmetic. Nothing has really changed. Your humble blogger is just as erratic in his publishing frequency as before. His pet peeves continue to annoy him. His hardened opinions seem just as stubbornly compelling to him as always. His sense of humor sometimes arrives unbidden when it should instead be forbidden.

But life allows us to remake ourselves now and then, or at least it affords us the opportunity to create the illusion. It can get serious--some folks, for example, engage an expensive plastic surgeon in the quest to hold back aging, or rather the visible effects of aging. It's important for some, I guess, to look young in their coffin.

I'm not too worried about any of that. What will be will be.

But a little change in color, a different font, a rearrangement of the pieces? Maybe a minor freshening of the appearance here and there will spawn some fresh ideas worthy of our time and effort.

And if not, some of you who pass through here from time to time will at least be able to say, "Doesn't he look good? It's almost like he's just sleeping."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Blogging the Road Ahead

As some of you have pointed out, both online and offline, it's been a while since I've posted on the blog. I keep resisting a feeling of obligation when it comes to this tiny corner of the blogosphere, but still it comes, relentlessly at times. So, here are a few of the things rattling around in my mind these days--blog topics for the road ahead.

* The political upheaval after the November elections has been fascinating to watch. If you've read much of what I've written in this space you will know that I feel generally quite positive about the message sent to our government on November 7. Now we will have to see whether there will be a measured response to issues of war and peace, power and privilege, ethics and corruption.

* My current hero is Michael J. Fox. I'm going to write in future days about stem cell research, which is kind of personal for me. Watching Fox, his body twitching and jerking involuntarily, standing up to the idiocy of Rush Limbaugh was profoundly inspiring.

* The intersection of faith, culture, and public policy, a favorite topic of mine, is taking some fascinating turns. A Muslim congressman wanting to be sworn in with his hand on the Koran. The Democrats inviting Jim Wallis, an evangelical and social activist, to give their party's weekly radio address. The rising fortunes of Barack Hussein Obama as a viable presidential candidate. The stumbling of the religious right and the emergence of a new religious coalition on the American political scene. It's kind of exhilarating.

* My sons encouraged me to go see the film, Borat. Now that was an experience worth some pondering.

* Thanksgiving flows into Christmas. It's that season when grim realities often get turned upside down, when despair is sometimes transformed into hope, and when new beginnings, whether religious or secular, are birthed in a manger, whether literal or metaphorical. Joy, hope, love, and peace--not a bad agenda, eh?

Lots to talk about in the months ahead. Any other ideas you who share this space would like to pursue on the road ahead?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An Eye for an Eye Blinds Us All

Execution block
Originally uploaded by Andy Hay
This morning a fellow with whom I attended Sunday School as a teenager was executed by lethal injection in the state of Ohio. I've been pondering this today, recognizing that my opposition to the death penalty now has a personal face.

His is a sordid story of religious zealotry gone grievously awry. He was the leader of a small fanatical cult with familial and historic connections to the denomination we once shared. Sixteen years ago he murdered a family of five people, including three children, claiming God had commanded him to do so.

At that time I was on the staff of the denomination and was thereby involved in media relations around this crime, which had widespread national coverage. As a result his story intersects with mine at two points--as young teenagers in the blissful innocence of church campfires and Sunday School, and then later as adults when he was descending into the darkness of his psychological delusions.

There is plenty to be said about the cultural and theological underpinnings of a case like this. It has been examined in books and essays that attribute it to such things as twisted religious teachings, an abusive childhood, or criminal manipulation of weak people for personal gratification. Whatever the cause, Jeffrey Lundgren's crimes lead understandably to the position that if anyone deserves the death penalty he does.

I can't argue with that, which is the problem all of us who oppose capital punishment face. It is one thing to rally to the cause of someone believed to be innocent. It is quite another to generate energy on behalf of those who have butchered children or killed police officers, who have no remorse for what they have done, and who leave grieving families with a lifetime of pain and loss.

But this is an issue where one must keep an eye on the principle and not dwell on the particular. In the United States the death penalty is undeniably applied disproportionately to the poor and to people of color. Despite popular assumptions, it is far more costly to execute someone than to place them in prison for life. It is capricious and arbitrary in its implementation, there is absolutely no evidence that it is a deterrent, and there is no question that innocent people have been executed. Many useful facts can be found on the website of the Death Penalty Information Center.

All of those are compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty, but there is one more that trumps them all for me. When a state takes the life of a human being, whatever the reason, the result is to brutalize the state and by extension to brutalize each of us as individuals. I do not think we can overestimate the blot that places on the soul of our society. Revenge does not heal.

Jeffrey Lundgren was not a friend, but he and I walked in the same orbit of influence when we were young. I do not know what took him down the dark path that ended today at 10:26 a.m. His deluded mind led him to an incomprehensible and brutal act.

Now, in response, we have done the same. I feel no peace.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

On the Other Side of Perfection

Joe Posnanski is one of the best sports columnists I know. He has the ability to approach things from a new angle and then write about it in elegant style. You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy his writing--the context is sports, but the real subject is life. We who live in Kansas City are privileged to read him several times a week. He can also be found at the Kansas City Star website.

This weekend his column was about one of the great moments in sports. Fifty years ago on October 8, 1956, New York Yankee Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-0. That means no one reached base by any method--27 batters up, 27 batters down. A remarkable achievement.

What brought all this to my mind, however, was the fact that I watched this game on a small black and white television set at my grandmother's house in Toronto. I was nine years old. I don't remember who all was there, but I know it included my often missing father and a collection of aunts and uncles and cousins. I have an image of it burned into my brain.

But there is another feeling about that day that is visceral rather than visual. I remember being the only person in the room cheering for the Dodgers over the Yankees. In other words, I was rooting against perfection. And my team lost.

I wasn't really a baseball fan at that young age. I certainly had not yet come to understand that the Yankees were the personification of evil. Maybe I was just for the underdog. Maybe something was going on deep inside me--in those days my father's alcoholism was a major family issue. I don't know my reason for choosing teams. But here I was, taking a little family heat, and holding on to my opposition to perfection. I did so even when Don Larsen lept into Yogi Berra's arms to celebrate that very thing.

Well, fifty years have passed and a lot of experiences have ensued. I've looked around at life and culture. I've traveled wide and far. I've examined intentions, good and ill. I've done a lot of living and I'm sticking to my guns. Nobody's perfect!

Especially the Yankees.

Note: Photo credit for the image of Don Larsen and Yogi Berra is Academy of Achievement.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Forgiveness, Amish Style

Amish buggy
Originally uploaded by Wm Jas.
There was a remarkable story on the CBS Evening News tonight. It is only two days since a deeply troubled man walked into a small schoolhouse and killed five children, wounding others, before taking his own life. The CBS report noted what one might assume to occur in the midst of such a terrible tragedy:
"In just about any other community, a deadly school shooting would have brought demands from civic leaders for tighter gun laws and better security, and the victims' loved ones would have lashed out at the gunman's family or threatened to sue. But that's not the Amish way."

With unbearable pain surely affecting everyone for miles around this peace-loving, simple people put their faith into action. You can hear them choking back their grief, and undoubtedly their anger, to proclaim their belief in forgiveness. I cannot understand their horse-drawn carriages or their taste in fashion. But I deeply respect their commitment to peace and reconciliation.

I don't have a lot to say about it, to be honest. What can one say in the face of a witness like that?

Thank you for reminding us that faith requires unconditional love, and that peace is birthed not by retribution but by reconciliation.

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On Walking Alone

Originally uploaded by plasticrevolver.
Every morning around 7am a friend and I walk a vigorous three miles. We've been doing this for almost two years, holding each other accountable for maintaining the discipline of a daily exercise regimen.

Having not worked out with any regularity during the years when my daily schedule was less flexible, I now tend to approach this with a measure of self-righteousness. However, I generally choose not to reveal that my walking partner is eighteen years my senior and has had hip replacement surgery. On occasion he has walked our route with the help of a cane. Admitting this tends to diminish the image of manly fitness my hubris demands.

The friendship with my walking partner spans over 35 years and includes personal, family, church, and professional relationships. The hour we walk each day includes conversation about our fairly compatible political views, the state of our families, the miscues of our local sports teams, and sometimes some deeply personal issues. His sense of humor spawns stories that would evoke groans in any audience. I'm sufficiently used to it that I respond with the shake of my head and a brief prayer petitioning deliverance. Once or twice a week we develop strategies for saving the earth, creating world peace, or getting the Royals to the World Series.

Sometimes, like this week, he is out of town and I have to walk alone. I do so at a nearby public exercise track, replacing my friend with a strap-on radio/CD player. I know it's not much, but at least it hasn't had a hip replacement. Usually I listen to NPR's morning show, unless there is some burning issue being discussed by one of the city's two 24 hour sports stations.

I can't deny that an hour of NPR has a higher intellectual and cultural content than an hour of Dick and me. That might even be true of the sports talk show, except listening to it tends to make me want to scratch my crotch and spit. That is generally not well-received by the senior citizens who constitute most of the walkers on that track at that time of morning.

But here's the problem. I keep wanting to interrupt the NPR hosts and guests so as to correct or comment upon things they say. My radio/CD player is not interactive. No matter how loudly I speak they just move forward without benefit of my viewpoint. This severely diminishes the marketplace of ideas. With Dick there is an audience of one, at least as long as I'm walking on the side of his good ear.

One other thing I've noticed is that the hour seems longer when walking alone. The give and take of conversation causes the familiar surroundings to pass by more quickly. Sharing that slice of each day with a treasured friend is a gift. It's not the topic of discussion but the bond of friendship that transforms a workout into a sacrament.

So hurry home, Dick. See you Saturday morning at 7am or thereabouts.

And you know that one about the three walruses who went into a bar? I've heard it.

Seven times!

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baseball History and the Nation's Soul

Today opens the Major League Baseball playoffs, a sporting event that is under-appreciated by those of us who pass through life as Kansas City Royals fans. Our team accomplished another 100 loss season and was out of contention somewhere around Easter. We did have an impact on the playoffs, however. By sweeping the last three games of the season with Detroit we knocked the Tigers out of first place, relegating them to wild card status, with its attendant loss of home field advantage and other perks. Hey, at least we got noticed for something other than having fly balls bounce off the forehead of our outfielder.

So how do the baseball gremlins show their gratitude for our contribution? Those wins mean that our 100 losses were not the worst in baseball this year, an honor we had been working hard to achieve. But darned if Tampa Bay didn't go out and lose 101 and for that accomplishment they get the number one draft choice--likely to be a stud catcher who is seen as a "can't miss" prospect. So by winning we still lose, and now the Royals have to settle for contributing to a slice of baseball history. At least that's something to be puffed up about.

However, I had barely been given the opportunity to smirk about all of that before hearing a story on NPR this morning that took a little of the luster off historical smuggery. The story was a fine piece about what some call the greatest game ever played. It was the first nationally televised sporting event, occurring on October 3, 1951, exactly 45 years ago today. Many celebrities were in attendance and had a big emotional investment in the game, which ended when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants belted a dramatic walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4, thereby winning the National League Pennant. The story became one of the most treasured in baseball lore. Pundits called it "the shot heard round the world."

Now comes NPR with its balloon popping story. Here's the link, well-worth a listen, but the gist of it is that the Giants were apparently stealing signs by placing a guy with a telescope out behind the center field fence so as to see what pitch is being called. He then transmitted that via a set of signals to the bench and ultimately to the batter.

The bottom line is that Bobby Thomson knew what pitch was coming when he hit "the shot heard round the world." Apparently some rumors of this have been around for years. But no one wanted to report it. No one wanted to diminish the story, which had become such an icon of baseball folklore. Thomson kept quiet about it, the opposing pitcher likewise. It is said the deception took its toll on the participants, who paid an emotional price for having to embrace the story, dishonesty and all.

It seems we need our mythic tales to remind us that life has its serendipitous magical moments. In general, I tend to feel that cultures need strong foundations of truth on which to build. When we suspend disbelief we risk losing perspective and making grievous errors that undermine and threaten the national soul. Witness the Iraq war as the most compelling example in our time.

But sometimes perhaps we can allow ourselves a wink and a nod and just go on as if the stories woven into our culture had no revisionists out there to besmirch them with the unwelcome truth. Bobby Thomson still had to hit the pitch he knew was coming, didn't he?

And the Royals? Well, we only need this small historical achievement for a few months. Once spring training starts all of our myths will be in the future, not the past.

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Photograph of Bobby Thomson home run is used in accordance with fair use standards. Copyright information can be found here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

On Mowing a Straight Line

Mow, mow, mow your lawn...
Originally uploaded by bcostin.
I mowed my lawn this weekend. I've mowed this yard hundreds of times over almost 20 years. I know the contours of the lawn, where the tree roots push up into the grass, where some rock outcroppings lay just below the surface, and where the run-offs from hard rains have trenched ruts into the soil. I have a mowing pattern that I always use, cross-cutting in certain places and otherwise following the familiar path that seems most efficient. It's all mapped out in my head. I do it the way I always do it.

It gets pretty hot in Missouri during the summer and in July and August you have to decide whether to water extensively or let the grass go dormant. I compromised, keeping the front yard fairly green and letting the back yard go. It's a pretty sad sight out there--splotchy brown spots everywhere, grass shoots spindly and sickly, and some areas that may never bounce back without seeding.

All of that is bad enough, but what really gets me is what happens to my mowing pattern. In these conditions there are a lot of places that don't need mowing at all. It is silly to follow the pattern because you would be pushing the mower over dead grass. But then it gets to be a jumble. In some places the grass is so frail that you easily lose track of the line you cut on the previous pass. As a result you find yourself zig-zagging all over the place, then back-tracking when it looks like you missed some spots.

The mower ran out of gas. I started with a full tank and it never runs out. But this time the tank was empty before I finished, which means that I covered more ground cutting less grass. And at these gas prices no less. (Thankfully there is an election in a few weeks so the prices are dropping a bit so as to elect more Republicans. I can't imagine how disgusted I would have been had this happened when the prices were at full oil company gouging rates like they were a few weeks ago.)

All I know is this. I had a path that I always follow and when the state of the lawn did not allow me to follow it I wandered as if in the wilderness, unable to mow a straight and efficient line, doubling back on myself without realizing it, and even leaving myself unsure that I had got it all.

I thought of a story I had heard about a white missionary who found himself lost in an African jungle. He finally stumbled into a village, explained his plight, and asked for help getting where he needed to go. A tribesman agreed and led him into the jungle, using his machete to hack away at the thick brush. After a while the missionary, unable to discern where they were heading, began to quiz his guide. "Where are we going; where is the path?," he demanded to know. The guide responded, "Bwana, in this jungle there is no path. I am the path."

Sometimes life doesn't conform to the paths and maps with which we try to chart our way. The straight line may not always be the best way to journey between two points, or even if it is the best way it may not be feasible. Sometimes we have to look around and seek navigational help from places we never would have imagined. Sometimes that is deep within ourselves.

Staying on the straight and narrow is good advice I guess, even for mowing. But when scorching Missouri summers do in my yard my familiar Briggs and Stratton mower and I need to travel a different route. It makes me restless, feels aimless, doesn't seem right somehow. But maybe a little wandering in the wilderness is okay now and then. Keeps us humble, and hopefully nimble. There will be times when we discover that the paths we've come to count on may not always be there.

But the lawn still has to be mowed.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Barry Goldwater and the "Good Old Days" of Political Discourse

I was never a fan of Barry Goldwater, although I found his blunt way of talking rather refreshing. He was the virtual embodiment of conservatism in the middle years of the 20th century. His book, The Conscience of a Conservative, was the bible of conservative thought in the 1960's.

Lyndon Johnson, elevated to office by the assassination of President Kennedy, trounced Goldwater in the 1964 campaign for the Presidency. I was a high school student at the time and mostly remember Goldwater as the guy who was going to lead us into nuclear war because of his "extremism." I remember the famous quote in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention:

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

He took a huge amount of heat for that one, although I have to admit that the quote actually makes a valid point. Goldwater generated a lot of fears at a time when people were building fallout shelters in their backyards. I remember the short-lived television commercial depicting a little girl innocently pulling petals off a flower as a mushroom cloud explodes in the background.

Now comes an interesting HBO documentary, Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater. Produced by his granddaughter, it is a sympathetic depiction of the man, but it also has some important insights into politics then and now. Let me mention two.

The first is the capacity of politicians 40 years ago to mightily disagree with one another in Congressional deliberations and then to go out together, have a drink or dinner, and talk about life and family. There are many examples of this--Hubert Humphrey, Tip O'Neill, Lyndon Johnson. Barry Goldwater was another.

According to the documentary, Goldwater was a good friend of John F. Kennedy. It became apparent at some point that the two of them might very well be running for office on their party tickets. They talked about how they would campaign and apparently agreed to travel the country on the same plane, disembarking to discuss their vast differences on public policy issues, then climbing aboard together as friends enroute to their next stop.

Such a thing would never happen today, and we are the poorer for it. The politics of personal attacks, dirty tricks, and polarization are what we have in place of the spirited but respectful dialogue of another time. Oh them good old days!

The other thing learned from the film is that labels don't fit. Many of Goldwater's positions would be comfortably embraced by today's social liberalism. He had a gay grandson who he supported without qualification. He was appalled by those who tried to insert religious agendas into public policy.

The film is well worth a look. It helps us put perspective on today's political machinations and demagoguery. How we long for a climate where men and women of goodwill are allowed to speak their minds and unburden their hearts without fear that their lives will be stripped bare in the tabloids. The politics of personal destruction distorts and mutes the political discourse this nation needs.

I'm glad Barry Goldwater did not become president. But I am also glad that he brought his ideas into public life and participated in the vigorous but respectful dialogue that our world has a right to expect from those who would lead us.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

God and Politics: An Unholy Alliance?

There is hope these days for those of us who have been dismayed by the efforts of conservative Christians to inject their theological and cultural agenda into party platforms and political campaigns. The bumper sticker sentiment that "God is neither Republican nor Democrat" has seemingly been lost within the fundamentalist/evangelical churches. The tendency is to demonize Christians who do not share their social agenda. The constitutional separation of church and state is increasingly ignored by right wing ideologues who see those churches as providing foot soldiers for partisan conservative causes. The horror stories are endless.

The problem is exacerbated by Democrats and other liberals who seem tone deaf when it comes to understanding the language and perspectives of people of faith who do not embrace the conservative social agenda. John Kerry was like a deer staring into headlights when asked questions about his Catholic faith. Candidate after candidate just chose to cede the religious ground, apparently feeling that progressive politics could not be found in the pew. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

They took a thrashing in 2004, failing to defeat a vulnerable president and electing weak congressional candidates who should have been booted out of Congress so they had more time to pack for the Rapture. But the licking they took had some positive outcomes. Finally, at long last, some liberals got religion. It was a new kind of deathbed repentence.

They realized that they needed to find authentic voices of faith who could help frame the political agenda in a way that spoke to the hearts and souls of church folks. They had forgotten that civil rights, support for the poor, economic justice, and a vast array of social reforms had been birthed in the churches. Now it seemed that the only "Christian voice" came from the right--people who had unbending positions on abortion, homosexuality, and school prayer, with nothing to be said for poverty, equality, and peace. The progressive Christian voice needed a microphone, and someone who could speak sensibly into it.

One who emerged was Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian with social justice burned into his bones. Jim is the founder of Sojourners, an important journal of faith and justice, and of Call to Renewal, an interfaith effort to end poverty in the United States. I have been privileged to work with him in several different arenas over the past few years. I rejoice in seeing how his eloquent voice is now being heard across the land. His book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, has become a best seller. It is essential reading for Christians with a social conscience.

Now comes word this week that a blog has been created as a way of extending this important dialogue. Bookmark this site (God's Politics: A Blog by Jim Wallis and Friends) and join in the conversation.

I have written previously about how I awoke after election day 2004 with a seething anger over the role played by churches in that election. Where were the prophetic voices? Where was the demand for justice?

I'm beginning to hear the voices, still muted and often overcome by the strident rhetoric of the right. But I am hearing the whisper of hope. Listen for it, point to the places where you hear it. Add your whisper. Let it become a mighty rushing wind.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

No Cheating on the Vision Test

I had an eye exam today and got to wondering about those eye charts. It used to be that the letters were printed on paper and hung on an easel; now they're projected on the wall and manipulated electronically.

I became curious as to whether the lines of letters were always the same, theoretically allowing one to memorize the letters and to thereby cheat on the eye exam. You may think there isn't likely to be a high interest in that, but you might be surprised. For example, I could see people using that method as a way to avoid restrictions on driver's licenses or to escape that dreaded "over the hill" verdict when bifocals are prescribed to those more concerned about vanity than clarity.

I asked the ophthalmologist about this and he demonstrated how the letters can be randomized or changed by the click of a remote control. He did acknowledge that he rarely used that feature. So I can only assume that our society has a sprinkling of people improperly credentialed as having 20/20 vision, all because they memorized the bottom line on the eye chart. Knowing that if there is no vision the people will perish, I will be watching for these near-sighted offenders and will do my part to bring them to justice.

This got me to thinking about what a previous President Bush once called the "vision thing," referring not to an ophthalmological issue but to the need for people who can take the long view and see possibilities that most others overlook. Visionary leadership occurs when one can read the changing lines of type, never believing that memorizing yesterday's chart will be sufficient today or tomorrow.

There's an old saying that "hindsight is 20/20." Perhaps that is so. The visionary will not avoid looking back, but will also understand that the world beyond the farthest hill is what must be known, if imperfectly. There can be no cheating on this vision test, but there will certainly be new ways of seeing.

Can you read the bottom line?: C E P A E

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Prairie at Sea

I reported a while back that my wife and I had gone on an Alaskan cruise in July, a first time experience for both of us. We had a great time traveling for a week from Seattle to Juneau and other ports, looking out upon the glacial beauty of the Inside Passage. It was good for us in ways we had not imagined and it gave us time to talk about many things, some personal, some global.

We had long wanted to take a cruise but had not actively pursued it. Then one day back in January we were listening to A Prairie Home Companion, a favorite radio show we tune in each week on NPR. An eclectic mix of music and comedy, the show stars Garrison Keillor, a funky philosopher/writer/musician who stirs his homespun tales into a tasty stew of cultural commentary, political satire, and poignant slices of life. The music is in many ways the heart of it and it comes from many directions--country, jazz, pop, folk, even classical at times.

Listening that day we discovered that Keillor and his show had chartered a ship and were taking a cruise with 1500 or so listeners of the program. The convergence of a Holland America cruise line and A Prairie Home Companion theme was something we couldn't resist. We signed up.

It isn't often that one can experience the wisdom of the prairie in the vast open waters of the sea. But people from diverse backgrounds formed community, became friends, talked about shared values and sometimes about conflicting ones. On this huge ship with its grand dining room and spacious lounges we found ourselves thinking at times about the simple, yet important things. In the lavish comfort of a luxury cruise line there was still opportunity to ponder the deeper human questions.

Even so, we could not fully escape the world's realities. As we walked the deck or sat comfortably in chairs looking out to the sea, the frightening sounds of air raid sirens and incoming missiles played hauntingly through television speakers as CNN broadcast continual coverage of the war in Lebanon and Israel.

But through it all it was the music that provided the zestful foundation of what happened that week, pulling us from our inbred rationality and luring us to dance. The lyrics were sprinkled liberally into the stew, some of them words that might suck desperately for life if spoken, but miraculously gave life when sung.

I know there are moral complexities here. It's easy for people who can afford a cruise to talk about a needy world while eating an elegant five course dinner. The irony is not lost on me, nor has it been in the past when I have had to balance what one sees during many trips into the developing world with the fact that I wanted my own kids to go to college and have a good life, something impossible in many cultures.

But still... I continue to believe that something redemptive does happen when one takes a slice of the prairie to the glacial beauty of the sea. Nothing gets resolved, to be sure. But Powder Milk Biscuits and Lutheran guilt and news from Lake Wobegon (all concepts very familiar to APHC listeners) have something to contribute to the dialogue that must occur in this broken, yet beautiful world.

If the prairie can come to the sea just imagine what else is possible. The city to the farm? The rich to the poor? The gay to the straight? The pit bull to the cocker spaniel? The Muslim to the Christian?

It makes one want to climb aboard the ship of human hope, sprinkle in some music, break bread at a common table, tell some stories, and talk about where we've each come from, what we've each seen and heard. Maybe then we can come to know something of each other. In that way, through our shared stories, the prairie truly could talk to the sea, and likewise the sea to the prairie. What a world that would be!

All aboard?

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Moderated Comments

When I started this blog it was primarily for my own amusement, and that remains my central purpose. However, a number of you have invested time in making thoughtful observations about the various topics, and that has been a rewarding and somewhat unexpected bonus.

Early on I noticed some "anonymous" comments that were generic compliments about the site. That appealed nicely to my hubris, until I realized that they were repititious both in content and spelling errors. They also encouraged people to click on embedded links to other sites. Clearly some mischief was afoot.

My philosophy is always one of open dialogue and free speech. However, these postings come not from human beings interested in ideas, but from automated bots trolling for unsuspecting victims. Whether they are advertising links or malicious spyware, I cannot allow the blog to be used in this way.

Therefore, I will be moderating comments on the blog so as to weed out these troublesome bots. I have also gone back and deleted all that I could find on previous postings. This means only that there will be a short delay from the time a comment is posted until it appears on the blog. I will certainly not use this to censor content (unless it is obscene or libelous), but only to protect users of the blog from being victimized by those who seem to have nothing better to do than prey on the goodwill of others.

I'm sorry for the need to do this, but I prefer to head off any potential difficulty for those of you gracious enough to read these musings from time to time.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Two Portholes in Our Stateroom

It's been a month or so since I posted on this blog, something neither planned nor easily explained. At first I thought of it as caused by a temporary numbing of the creative hemisphere in my brain. I think, however, a more accurate admission would attribute it to sloth. I can live with that, having suffered from that malady on other occasions.

A few of you have made gentle inquiries, hoping I wasn't giving up the blog. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, and no I haven't given it up. Apart from that concern, however, it does not appear that a dearth of my postings has caused any sustainable damage to Western civilization. Politicians, diplomats, and generals seem to have been filling the global destruction vacuum anyway.

However, the past two weeks of non-postings are more defensible than those preceding them. Over that time my wife and I went on our first cruise, sailing from Seattle up the Inside Passage to Alaska. I did not access the Internet at all during that time--something I found more tolerable than I thought would be the case. We've now returned, and there are fresh thoughts bouncing around in my head.

The cruise generated a lot of things to ponder, and I will probably do so here in the next few days. But today I want to lift up one image that plagued me throughout the week on the ship.

If you have ever cruised you know that the accommodations are fairly compact. Our "stateroom" was fine, located on the starboard side of the ship, with a fairly large porthole opening out to the sea. It was a room with a view.

But there was another porthole in our room, opening a different window to the world. That was a 20 inch flatscreen television that could be tuned to CNN, which provided 24 hour coverage of the war in the Middle East.

That created a jarring mixed message in a very graphic way. On the one hand, we looked through our porthole on a crisp northern morning and saw the massive glaciers that depict something of the longevity of our planet, its immense crust and its geological complexity. At the same time, the other "window" brought frightening images of the fragility of our world, its dependence on natural resources in a war-torn land, and the stunning speed with which hostilities can wrench us from our complacency and our illusions of peace.

I am not sure if the conflicting images left me hopeful or despairing. In one sense the glaciers have withstood the ravages of time and of human foolishness, giving reasons to hope. But in another way, the ferocity of weapons now available to our warring planet is frightening to behold, signaling that the earth's delicate balance is very much at a tipping point.

As I reflected on these disparate images I noticed one other thing. I was unable to open either window, thereby relegating me to observer status. I couldn't touch the world on the other side of the two portholes. I was left to either watch or close the drapes and/or turn off the television. Kind of a helpless feeling.

I'm off the boat now. Maybe I can do something on behalf of the Alaskan glacier, preferring as I do its majestic hope to the despairing wail of the air raid sirens in Lebanon and Israel.

Take a cruise sometime. It generates strange musings, but the food is great. And it's energizing for slothful bloggers.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ringtones and the Survival of the Species

NPR : Teens Turn 'Repeller' into Adult-Proof Ringtone

This week brought news that there is now a high-pitch frequency ringtone that can be heard by most teenagers, but not by adults. Tagged with names like "Teen Buzz," it is touted as a way for kids to communicate with each other without parents knowing. It appears that this new tech breakthrough could signal the further decline and ultimate end of Western Civilization.

Those of us who have been parents are not overly concerned. We have long known that there were sound levels that teens couldn't hear--like whatever frequency transmitted the words "clean your room." These words were seldom heard by teens, along with other phrases having to do with things like curfews and vegetables. So it is logically consistent to assume that there were also things we adults couldn't hear as well. It figures that these frequencies would show up on cellphones, gadgets that serve as lifelines for youth around the world.

I have to tell you that the idea of ringtones I can't hear did not send me to the depths of despair. I have sat in theaters and heard cellphones that ring by playing Beethoven's Unfinished Symphony. The ringing went on and on while someone tore through their purse trying to find their phone. Thank God Beethoven didn't finish the darn thing.

But I think there may be a deeper issue to ponder here, one well beyond whether a 14-year-old can furtively buzz a friend and send a text message from places where cellphones are supposed to be turned off, whether by legal or parental decree

It has to do with communication, both its quantity and its quality. It has to do with noise and understanding. It has to do with linking what is being said to what is being heard. I believe we have a crisis in our culture that is driven by problems in communication.

In the movie Cool Hand Luke, the character played by Paul Newman utters the memorable words, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." In the context of the film it's a hilarious line. Today it's a serious call to all of us who care about global community.

While I earlier made light-hearted comment about adult/teen communication, in truth I know how meaningful it can be when significant understandings are achieved across generations. Kids and parents do think differently, do draw upon unique experiences, and do express themselves in distinct ways. Some of my most memorable conversations have been with our kids, including a long time before they became adults. When those built-in barriers are overcome the result is powerful and redemptive.

The same principle applies to all kinds of human diversities--racial, gender, sexual orientation, economic, geographic, language. On and on it goes.

Communication boils down to listening for the purpose of understanding. First we hear, then we reflect, then we speak.

Let's all download that high frequency ringtone and see if we can train our ears to hear it. After all, we wouldn't want to miss a call, would we?

I'm getting tired of the William Tell Overture ringing on my phone anyway.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Ignoring Ann Coulter

"Deadly Intent: Ann Coulter, Word Warrior" - New York Times
I refuse to be an accessory to Ann Coulter's book-selling game, as detailed by this excellent column in the New York Times.

This post is to declare that I am wise to her tricks and way too smart to post anything on my blog that might sell her hate-mongering book or draw attention to her leggy interviews on the cable news channels. Let Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson take her on. That's good enough for me.

I hereby offer this advice to the teeming masses of people who read this blog and look to me for appropriate responses to cultural affairs. Ignore Ann Coulter. Resist the temptation to discuss her during lunchtime conversations. Do not refer to her outrageous comments. Rise above her vitriolic sound bites and prove to her that we will not succumb to her marketing plan. Do not look at her legs.

And above all, do NOT call her names. To do so is to demean ourselves and to ennoble her. We will not be Ann Coulter enablers.

Taking this principled stand has cleansed my soul. Thank you, Ann Coulter (rhymes with "rich").

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Apocalypse Diverted

apocalypse now / then
Originally uploaded by joshc.
"On 6/6/6, the Possibilities Are Endless" - New York Times

It's still a few hours until midnight on the day we've all been dreading, but it looks like the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of this millennium is going to pass without ushering in the apocalypse. The end-of-the-world prognosticators will now have to go back to the Bible and see where they blew it.

This was a biggy though. For centuries prophetic numerologists have combed the Bible for clues that explain contemporary tribulations and pestilence and thereby foreshadow the end of the world. But 6/6/6 is special, and ready made for doomsayers. Snipped from the Book of Revelation, it is seen as the "mark of the beast," usually understood as the Antichrist. So ducking this bullet is no small thing.

As for me, I tried to take on my day in the same manner as St. Francis of Assisi, the beloved 12th century mystic. It is said he was once approached while hoeing his garden and asked what he would be doing if he knew that today was the last day of his life. "I would be hoeing my garden," he said.

In that spirit I moved through my day in routine fashion, mindlessly whistling away any underlying uncertainties. On a couple of occasions I turned on the cable news channels, watched the headlines, and thought, "Oh my God, it's here!" But then I realized I had inadvertently tuned in the FOX network. It wasn't the apocalypse, just some reporters warming up for it.

I did take occasion to log on to, an evangelical site that tells all you need to know about the end of time. They have breaking news updates on Armageddon, a Prophecy Gopher that makes learning about burning in Hell fun for kids, and tips on how to pack for the Rapture. I would never have come across this treasure trove had I not been hedging my bets on 6/6/6.

I'm glad our world has been given an extension. For one thing, I'm a Royals fan and that's about as close to the apocalypse as one can get. Beyond that, however, is my hope that all this silly hysteria will cause each of us to think about this earth for which we have responsibility. There are starving people around the world whose tribulations are all too painfully real. I daresay there are many Iraqi families who have experienced their own Armageddon. The horrors of crime, abuse, and domestic violence devalue life and defy hope.

On 6/7/6 let's give up this Biblical scrabble game and work on behalf of peace, justice, and love. Wouldn't that be rapturous?

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Homosexuality at the Altar (of Political Expediency)

President Bush's renewed declaration of support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage ("Bush Revives Gay Marriage Ban" - Washington Post) points to the vacuum of moral leadership at the highest levels of our government. It's an election year, the president's popularity is at historic lows, and his supporters are afraid they will lose control of the Congress. What shall be done?

Well, let's dust off an idea that has not a wit of a chance of being approved, but will stir the juices of the conservative base. Never mind that it will drive another huge wedge through the heart of the country and stir angry controversy in a time that can ill afford it. Never mind that it plays with the hearts and souls of many people who yearn for an open and searching dialogue about this delicate issue. A leader with depth and true compassion would refuse to allow something this important to be kicked around as a political football. But instead we get this nonsense, an attempt to redirect the political debate away from war and peace, massive deficits, and a broken health care system. The cynicism of those who offer that kind of leadership is shameful.

This post is not about taking a position on gay marriage--that's for another time. Instead it is simply a call for leaders who understand the issue and who create a process that is worthy of the moral complexities and personal sensitivities at stake. But no, all that is put at risk so political hacks can keep their cushy jobs and avoid accountability for their failures.

The problem is worsened by the evidence that Mr. Bush seems not to be personally invested in this agenda. He has not made it a priority except when it needs to be lifted up as a political club. His vice-president also is reluctant to get into the issue, no doubt in part because it has a human face in his own family. But like good soldiers they lay aside their own ambivalence and become shills of partisan demagoguery.

It would be wonderful if Mr. Bush would use his remaining two plus years to try to heal the festering wounds that his war-making and budget-breaking presidency has inflicted on our nation. But the evidence is that he will go out the way he came in--a decider who decides wrongly, a unifier who divides, and a "compassionate conservative" who is compassionate toward a few but seems not to give a damn for the most vulnerable of people in our land.

If I sound angry it's because I am. We deserve more from our leaders. We should demand that those whose voices speak to the world on our behalf are bold voices of wisdom and courage, not small-minded, pandering voices of fear and division.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Discarded Books

Book Set 1
Originally uploaded by BDegan.
My wife is a library- media specialist in a middle school. One of the things that has to be done in a library is weeding older books to make way for new ones. I consider this a crime against nature.

A few nights ago I went out to her school during the evening to help her with some end of the year culling of the collection. My job was to stamp "Discard" on the covers, the title page, various interior pages, and on page 25. Apparently knowing about page 25 is kind of like a Masonic handshake. It's a secret code among librarians; they know that there are certain pages in a book whereby one stamps it into obscurity. It can be a perfectly wonderful book, even a Newberry Award winner. All it takes is one "Discard" stamp on page 25 and it is no longer in the catalogue that gives it life. Instead, it is cast off, despised, put on a book cart, and made available to anyone who will take it. If no one redeems it the book is then euthanized. I confess to being an accessory after the fact. I cannot bear the guilt. The ink is on my hands.

I cannot throw away books. My attic is a painful testament to that. We have in our house a room with two walls of floor to ceiling bookshelves. We have not read all those books. Not even close. But the thought of throwing them away is just too painful to imagine.

I once had a seminary professor who went blind. He could no longer read the books that had changed his life. He gave lectures on philosophical theology from memory, occasionally reading quotes from large type printouts with the help of a magnifying class. He got to the point of deciding to sell his library because he could no longer use it. I was involved in making the purchase on behalf of an institution for which I worked. He said that he had planned to price out the books individually. He would pick up a book and look at it, knowing that it was a "corner turner" in his own intellectual development. But he also knew it might mean nothing to anyone else. He told me, "It finally became too damn painful." So he slapped one price tag on the library that had shaped his life. The price he was paid was not even remotely commensurate with its value to this one man's intellectual soul.

Books aren't about paper and ink. They are the stuff of one's meaningful existence. To execute them is cruel and unusual punishment. Surely the Constitution protects them and all of us against that? I oppose the death penalty, but perhaps life in prison without books would be a fair punishment? I'm fond of library-media specialists, but someone has to take a stand.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ignorant Wisdom Explained (kind of)

NPR : The Wrong Guy, Take Two

As Todd pointed out in his comment about Tuesday's post regarding the BBC interviewing the wrong guy, there's more to the story than was initially explained. The above link to an NPR piece today also connects to a video from the BBC in which the two "Guys" tell their side of the tale while the anchors walk the thin line between professional embarrassment and off-putting humor.

As is usually the case, explanations tend to drain a story of all its fun. I hate to lose the taxi driver image, but oh well. Guy Goma remains a wonderful unsuspecting character who just bulls ahead, come what may. Just think, if he gets the tech job with the BBC he might suddenly qualify as the expert they mistakenly thought him to be. Boy, would that ever torpedo the dickens out of the cultural significance I tried to wring out of this fiasco.

Whatever the details, it is still a great story that has some truths, both humorous and serious, nested within it. Maybe the truth is personal to me, having sometimes been questioned where my "expertise" was assumed by the interviewer, even though way down inside I knew better. I'm sure I've reacted just like Guy Goma when he displayed that great look of shock and then immediately repressed it. I persuade myself that I've kept the look off my face and let it be written secretly on my innards, but who knows.

In the meantime I shall offer a hearty toast to the silent and forgotten "experts" the world around who never get three minutes on network television to express their opinion on things they know nothing about.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Ignorant Wisdom Still Wisdom?

Revealed: The identity of the BBC's latest star | the Daily Mail

We're all used to the talking heads that impart their wisdom on the cable news shows every night. Somebody with specialized knowledge responds to questions about the hot stories of the day. Sometimes we mutter to ourselves about these so-called experts who tend to pontificate ad nauseam, knowing that millions of people are watching.

That's why it was so delightful to watch the mess that the BBC got in this week when they interviewed the wrong "Guy" in a story on Internet legal issues. Instead of Guy Kewney, an information technology specialist, the BBC asked questions of taxi driver Guy Goma, thinking it was Kewney. Apparently there was a mix-up in the waiting rooms and Goma, who was there applying for a job, got ushered into the studio for a live interview. Take a look at the video feed--the expression on Goma's face when they introduce him is absolutely priceless.

But the wonderful part of it is that Goma seizes the day and proceeds to answer the questions as if he knew what he was talking about. The comely anchor pressed on, perhaps thinking her guest too deep for her to fully comprehend his meanings on such technical matters. It isn't known if anyone made adjustments to their technology stock portfolios based on Goma's views.

So the question is this. How do we know that the opinions of a taxi driver on music downloads are less worthy of note than those expressed by someone's idea of an expert? Experts make bonehead statements at times. Sometimes they're flat out wrong. Once someone gets labeled an "expert" their views take on an implied stature that may be overblown and perhaps dangerously mistaken.

You could see Mr. Goma suck air when he heard himself being introduced as an expert on Internet technology. But he warmed to the task. What the heck! A guy learns a lot driving people around in a taxi. Might as well share some of that wisdom. Nice of the BBC to ask.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Standing up to "Christianism" My Problem with Christianism by Andrew Sullivan Please read this fine piece by Andrew Sullivan in Time. He is right to the point of several things I've been saying in this Blog. He just says it more eloquently and creatively.

I'm intrigued with his coining of the word "Christianism," distinguishing a political ideology from a faith (Christianity). He has put his finger on why I was so angry with churches and church leaders on the day after the 2004 election. It was not the result of the election that angered me, although I confess to plenty of distress about that too.

But my real problem was the way in which organized religion and its leaders (I was one of those at the time) contributed to the divisiveness and polarization of our society. Instead of being voices of reason, reconciliation, and hope many so-called Christians were in the forefront of demagoguery and name-calling. Christian values of love and respect for the worth of persons were skewered by preachers with a political agenda that equated Christianity with one political party and confused inauguration with ordination.

I know it is unfair to paint all religious leaders with one brush. Many work tirelessly on behalf of peace and justice without embroiling themselves in partisan politics. Those are the ones who are targeted by the Religious Right and marginalized in their own communities. Since when is support for carrying handguns under one's jacket considered a mark of theological faithfulness? Since when does favoring tax cuts for the most wealthy of our citizens demonstrate one's fidelity to Christian values? Since when does opposition to war become heretical and incongruent with religious principles? Sometimes I feel like we're reading different Bibles.

It's time to take back the ground that has been lost. This country is in a tangled mess militarily, economically, and morally. The disparate voices of people of faith need to be heard, not as oracles of heaven but as purveyors of reason. Let those voices be joined by the richly diverse perspectives that are needed if we are to build a national consensus with the wisdom to govern.

The Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a "wall of separation" between church and state. That was not just to protect religion from the state, it was also to protect the state from religion. With the rise of Christianism we now see how insightful our founders were.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Political Vision and Faith Communities

Optimistic, Democrats Debate the Party's Vision - New York Times: "With Democrats increasingly optimistic about this year's midterm elections and the landscape for 2008, intellectuals in the center and on the left are debating how to sharpen the party's identity and present a clear alternative to the conservatism that has dominated political thought for a generation."

Ever since the 2004 election we've been reading quotes like this one in today's New York Times. It was abundantly clear by then that a central reason we had to endure another four years of the Bush administration was because the alternative party had no clear sense of direction. They were deficient in the "vision thing."

That was particularly true for "people of faith" who were looking for a voice that didn't sound like that of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. There was a hunger in the electorate for someone who understood that the faith community is far more diverse than the Religious Right would have us believe. All that was needed was a candidate who demonstrated a comfort with the language and perspectives of religious folk. Unfortunately, whenever John Kerry tried to address those issues it felt like he was scratching his fingernails across a blackboard.

Progressive people of faith want candidates who demonstrate an awareness of moral/ethical issues without suggesting that they are divinely commissioned to govern. They believe that a "culture of life" isn't limited to abortion or stem cells, but includes capital punishment and deadly wars, not to mention a "quality of life" for those who live in poverty. They believe that a budget is a moral document that speaks to the deepest values of the nation.

Some Democrats belatedly show an awareness of the problem and we now see efforts underway to create an identity and vision for the party. I suppose that's a good thing, but it's disconcerting to have politicos trying to whomp up a vision. That should be written into the bone marrow of those who would aspire to lead us. It's not the vision that should be debated, it's the implementation of that vision in policies and platforms that need vigorous discussion. Instead, we have a national political party in search of its own identity. How sad!

Faith and politics make awkward but needed bedfellows. Let us hope that the search for vision will be sufficiently matured by 2008 that the country will be able to dialogue meaningfully about the complex foundational issues we face. Those await clarity and passion from candidates who finally get it. We deserve at least that much.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dealing With What Comes

Photo originally uploaded by Malingering.
This morning I did my daily three mile walk and was passed by a man in a wheelchair.

Okay, it was admittedly a battery-powered wheelchair, but it gave me pause nonetheless. I thought I was moving at a brisk pace and now this guy leaves me in his dust.

At the very same time I was listening to NPR on a radio strapped around my waist. They were doing a remarkable interview on autism. Suddenly I felt like some force in the universe was ganging up on me. Here I was feeling a little self-righteous about doing a regular exercise routine. I thought about how much self-talk it sometimes takes me to do my daily regimen, especially when my walking partner isn't available to offer the accountability (read "guilt") we provide each other.

Then unexpectedly I'm confronted with the faces and voices of people who really have been dealt a lousy hand, who really do arise each day to challenges I can only imagine. I looked at how they've managed and it shamed me.

Hopefully it also empowered me. I've always been fairly adaptable to new situations, but that is usually in the form of coping with culture shock while traveling, eating different kinds of cuisine, or dealing with road construction detours without denouncing everyone from the guy on the bulldozer to the governor. (I usually just start with the goveror and let the other guys off the hook.)

But sometmes I wonder if I have what it takes if it comes to the truly life-changing disabilites and tragedies that so many people have to deal with. Perhaps we never know until it happens. It seems like it's worth pondering now and then, however.

This morning after the guy in the wheelchair passed me I walked an extra lap and stepped up the pace a bit. Just seemed like the thing to do.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

High Stakes

Badminton Horse Trials 2006
Originally uploaded by paulwoolrich.
As I write this the Kentucky Derby is just an hour or so from post time. I'm not a horse racing fan, but I've long been fascinated by the incredibly high stakes that are decided by a two minute race. The investment in a thoroughbred horse with the potential to win the Triple Crown is tremendous. The breeding, the training, the physical conditioning all build up to one brief burst of energy in a tiny slice of time. So many things can go wrong in that two minute race, and often do.

One wonders what the horse knows. The winner gets a pretty good lifetime gig at the breeding ranch. Seems to me that's an even better deal than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. I'll bet that fourth place finisher wishes it had laid off that extra bag of oats over Easter.

This reflection was prompted by the horse race, but it isn't really about the Derby or even about horses. It is about how everything can change in a flash. A single decision or unexpected event can have lifelong implications.

It's true in our personal lives. Sometimes we make choices that result in either dire conequences or extremely positive ones. We bemoan the choices that don't work out and wonder how life would be different had we zigged instead of zagged. What if we had gone another road?

There are some high stakes playing out in our nation right now. We're enmeshed in a deadly conflict in Iraq. It was a choice made with inadequate information and the consequences have been horrific. Now the saber is rattling again and Iran is in view. We have a political party in power that has lost the confidence of the people, and an opposing political party that seems to have no message and no viable messenger. But the issues are evident and everything comes down to a moment of decision--one sliver of time when somebody decides go or no go. Once that starting gate is open the race is on and it's two minutes and done.

With horse racing it's only money plus a little ego and reputation at risk. With Iran or Iraq or North Korea it's about life and death, with a generous portion of economic ruin and global disdain mixed in.

Oddsmakers don't "make book" on war--at least I hope not. But these enormous stakes are breathtaking and terrifying. The announcer at the Derby declares, "And they're off and running..." Oh if only the announcer in Washington could proclaim, "And they're off and run...wait a minute--it looks like they're still talking, still thinking, still negotiating. This is unbelievable! Ladies and gentleman, please return to your seats. The stakes are high. This may take a while."

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Music in Search of Hope

Bruce Springsteen just released a new album entitled "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." It is his contemporary interpretation of the folk and protest music popularized by the likes of Pete Seeger in the 1950's and 1960's. It's a good listen, although apparently some Springsteen fans think it's too much of a departure from his foundation in rock music.

I'm certainly not one to comment with any authority on the musicology issues. But it has prompted in me some thoughts about the nature of protest. I enjoyed listening to his take on familiar tunes like O Mary Don't You Weep, Erie Canal, Pay Me My Money Down, and the haunting title song, We Shall Overcome. Springsteen's pounding rock style treats those songs with freshness even while honoring their folk roots.

But as I listened I was struck by a harsher more edgy tone than I had remembered from my college days in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Some of that comes from the musical interpretation, of course, but I think it goes deeper. The protest music of the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War carried with it a broader vision of a new world in the making. I'm not sure I see that in our society any more. As a result, the music seems to carry a more cynical, less hopeful tone. It sings about what is wrong without offering a clear vision of what can be.

Martin Luther King lifted his voice and proclaimed, "I have a dream." When he did so he painted with poetry and prose an image of a world that lived out the values of equality, justice, and peace. The often ridiculed "flower children" of Woodstock and the street protesters of Chicago carried a flawed but still empowering vision of a better world. It had its excesses, to be sure, but it marshalled tens of thousand of people to step out of the status quo and put their bodies on the line for changes that they could "imagine," in the beautiful lyrics of John Lennon.

We need a dream to replace the cynicism that is so prevalent today. We need political and spiritual leaders who can paint a vision of a world that values all persons, that honors our diversity, and that empowers us to sing of "peace on earth" with conviction and hope.

In Proverbs 29:18 we read, "Where there is no vision the people perish." That is just what is needed in the public square these days. I'm happy to see contemporary singers paying tribute to the culture-changing music of the 1960's. What we need now, however, is not nostalgia for another time. Instead we need politicians, preachers, poets, and singers who can paint a 21st century vision that renews hope in human hearts and compels passion for constructive and meaningful change.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sleep and Other Deprivations

I spent last night at a sleep lab with 22 wires stuck to my body and connected to a computer that monitored my every move. I felt like some creature from outer space juiced up and ready to conquer Planet Earth. One look at me and even Donald Rumsfeld would have surrendered.

This procedure was done at the urging of an overly cautious physician who wanted to see what might be causing my somewhat erratic sleep patterns. I didn't need to have my appendages hooked up to a computer to tell her the answer--"It's the blinking pills you've got me on, Doc!" But I played along, although not without muttering Robert Frost's line "miles to go before I sleep" to everyone within earshot.

I slept through the night and managed to avoid strangling on the cords when I shifted position. There's now a database somewhere that has recorded not only every turn of my pillow but the tonal qualities of my breathing. I hope they're paying that technician on the night shift good money.

We have funny ideas about sleep. Those who follow the adage "Early to bed and early to rise..." usually have an attitude of superiority toward those of us who are just warming up at 11pm. Never mind that they're toast before the evening news. There is apparently something virtuous about greeting the rising sun and sipping coffee on your porch when the newspaper skids across your driveway at 4am.

As I have got older I admit that I find the early morning more welcoming, even if I have only logged three or four hours of sleep. I figure that not being a pattern sleeper helps me cross time zones without severe jet lag and adapt without a hitch to daylight saving time. And late night television is a cultural experience everyone should have. The deals on Veg-A-Matics and Belly Busters are phenomenal.

Our cats have it figured out. If they get sleepy they just drop everything, plunk down wherever they are, and take a nap. People think that's "cute" in felines. But we humans have to suffer the scorn of others if we are caught dozing during a movie or showing signs of rapid eye movement during the preacher's most recent condemnation of everything that sounds interesting.

And so we go to sleep clinics to make sure some medical thing isn't preventing us from having a blissful night of rest. But usually it is not about that at all. Sometimes we sleep to avoid what we have to face when we're awake. And often that is no escape whatsoever because all those issues are waiting for us in the land of dreams where even the computer probes cannot go.

Sleep is kind of a personal thing. It's all a part of our complex system of mind, body, and spirit. I don't think the computers get it, but I'll listen politely to the results of my test. And I'll try not to doze off.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Laughter and the Perils of Life

Happy Niece
Originally uploaded by makelessnoise.
A number of years ago I spent a month alone in Denver taking a university course. One evening I found myself on Larimer Square, a trendy shopping and nightlife area. I bought a ticket to an "artsy" movie playing in a small theater. I had never heard of the film but the premise on the movie poster intrigued me. Harold and Maude, it said, is the story of a young man and an old woman who meet and fall in love at the funeral of someone neither of them knew. Okay, maybe that premise wouldn't appeal to you. My sense of humor is a bit quirky. I admit it.

Rarely have I laughed so hard. Jammed into a packed theater, alone in the crowd, I was caught up in the spirit of the time and place. I loved the movie and I loved even more the shared laughter with this community of strangers assembled for this one moment in time.

Several years later I saw that the film was playing on late-night television (no VCRs or DVDs in those days). I imposed upon my wife to stay up and watch this hilarious movie. She did so, up until a point about halfway through when she dozed off for the night. I wasn't far behind. The movie, still a classic comedy, was a very different experience in the quiet of a house following the evening news.

Over the years I have thought a lot about humor, which is something I use in public speaking and in some of my writing. It is a very complicated subject. What is funny to one person is not the least bit funny to another. Something that is funny in one time or place may be just the opposite in a different setting.

Part of it is undoubtedly in technique and circumstance. But I think there is a more significant factor and that is the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Witness the number of comedians who have taken their own lives or lived out self-destructive lifestyles. Comedians tip-toe up to the edge of life and balance precariously on a line of absurdity, cynicism, deception, guilt, and shame. Not theirs alone, but something shared by all humanity.

The President has a new press secretary. He will need a deeply developed sense of humor to deflect the harsh realities of the issues he has to talk about every day. We won't always laugh at his jokes. Sometimes life is just too raw. But we do need to understand that even in these dangerous times laughter is an effort to hold back the darkness and lay claim to the light.

Even so, we must toe the line carefully so as not to step over it. There is great pain in telling a joke and having no one laugh. In that frozen moment we come to fully understand that humor can both hurt and heal. It celebrates that which is at the heart of community even while exposing that which splits it apart.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Images of Peace

We The People
Originally uploaded by Sol Dust Love.
I recently searched some sites on the Internet for images of "peace." I found it very troubling to discover that the vast majority of photos returned were either pictures of natural tranquility or pictures of protest in our streets.

We readily see peace in nature. We marvel at the smooth surface of a lake reflecting the mirror image of a mountain or forest, or perhaps the beauty of a flower, delicate in its full bloom. In that sense peace is seen as having been birthed by creation and remains a defiant if fragile statement about its source. It affirms what is and always has been.

But when we search for images of people evoking peace most of them are in the streets with hand-lettered signs rejecting what is. Peace is depicted as a protest against the status quo and an indictment of public policy.

We are weary of wars built on false foundations. We are angry that this nation's leaders seem to condone torture and other behaviors that spite its founding principles. We have lost young men and women who in good faith followed those who lead us. It is shameful to now see that the cause for which they died is unworthy of their sacrifice. That is a hard sentence to write. If I was the parent of one of the fallen I could not bear to do so. But still it must be said. The dying must end.

I yearn for the day when I "Google" the word "peace" and it returns images of the White House, the Capitol, and of tranquility not just in nature but also in the streets of this nation and around the world.

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