Strange Mercy

"... and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Location: Mid-Atlantic Sprawl, United States

I'm a former idealist turned 'defensive pessimist' who has concluded, after living on two coasts, two continents, and an island, that most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In The Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

~~~ Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

War Zone

I am blessed, and often cursed, with a highly retentive memory. While it is an extremely valuable asset in my work and my writing, it can be a source of great pain in other areas of life.

This pain, and the memories and events contributing to it, has held me back from posting to this blog as frequently as I would have liked. Not because I am ashamed of pain or unable to articulate it; after all, my most prolific blog, Gale Warnings, is all about pain. About learning to face it, to recognize its source, to sort out what is and is not our responsibility when dealing with it... learning that we do indeed live in a predatory society, but we can still find ways to avoid being either predator or prey.

Gale Warnings primarily addresses the psychosocial aspect of this pain, and seeks to find psychosocial solutions for it. But this pain also has a spiritual aspect - and that requires a spiritual solution.

This spiritual pain is the pain at the heart of "theodicy", the theological question of how we reconcile God's apparent goodness and mercy with the suffering at the heart of the world.

I have come to believe that theodicy is a question raised by experience, and sharpened by memory. Suffering brings it to our attention, and the more 'invested' we are in creation, the more suffering we recognize in our surroundings. Paradoxically, it seems, the more we learn to care beyond ourselves, the more we suffer as we come to truly see and feel the pain that others know.

I have been unable to take much, if any, comfort from the stock answers proffered to those who wrestle with this issue. Many of these answers ["It's God's will and that should settle the issue"; "We can't expect to understand it"; "God must really think a lot of you if he chooses you to carry such a burden" "Oh, you can always have another child" [yes. People actually say things like that and consider it "comfort"] are, to my thinking, pat evasions, intended to comfort the other person by shutting us up. [Here, stop thinking about that, you're upsetting the horses and I want to talk about the ball game.]

But we were made to think, and see, and care; and to tell us that the answer lies in refusing to do that which makes us human is no real answer at all.

I have also found small comfort in the Book of Job, which is the remedy offered to the overly thoughtful when all else fails. For years, I've looked at that Book with jaundiced eyes. At a time in my life when everyone I loved was dying all at once, my own life was threatened by a "benign" medical condition, and I was working in what can be charitably described as a rattlesnake pit, it was small comfort to consider that a blameless and forthright man once suffered worse things, thousands of years ago, 'just because'; it was even less comfort to see God Himself explaining that He had brought about those sufferings 'because I can'. I would close the book and think:

What about all Job's kids, what about his animals, his servants - didn't they count for ANYTHING? Are we really expected to consider them all as mere replaceable commodities? They were real, they felt, and before they died they were surely afraid and in pain. God, how COULD you???!!!! And this is still going on today. All over the world. Rwanda. Bosnia. Every 'inner city' in the country... in the world. And in my life as well on smaller scale. God, how CAN you DO this - how can you PERMIT this - and expect me to believe in your love????!!!!!
Not comforting, to say the least.

And then I read Jung: "Answer to Job". And realized that I was far from being the first or only person to wrestle with this. Jung, despite his somewhat unusual personal history, was a true lover of God; and he too faced this question and found it impossible to ignore or dismiss. His answer might seem like the standard catechism: Christ died for our sins, He came into the world as one of us to become a blameless sacrifice for all our sakes. But Jung goes beyond that.

In Christ, Jung says, do not forget that we have God incarnate. And therefore, in Christ, God himself has entered this world, made Himself vulnerable, given Himself over to suffer as we suffer, to die as we die, making Himself the equal of the smallest creature on the planet that finds itself suddenly imperiled and destroyed. It is not enough that God's eye is on the sparrow as it falls. In the Incarnation, for all intents and purposes, He became that falling sparrow. And that was the true, honest answer to the suffering of Job: not 'I did it because I can', but 'because you suffered, so shall I; because you must, I will.'

This helped, but still today the sparrows fall.

And innocent beasts are killed on the highways, and shining fish choke to death in the Dead Zone of the Chesapeake Bay, and little beautiful children scamper into minefields and never come out again. And hardworking, decent family men lose their jobs by the thousands; and their wives and mothers and daughters are laid off; and drug dealers and Ponzi schemers rub their palms together, and leer.

And for years I have grieved this, and expostulated to God about it. Never failing to believe in Him, and seeing His love and His "strange mercy" wherever I could truly find it; but never, never at peace with what is, when what is - is so completely with odds with what He claims He wants for us and all creation. Unable to understand the purpose of suffering piled upon suffering, so far beyond anything that is necessary to teach us compassion and caring that it becomes blasphemous to think that suffering has any real meaning at all. 'Because you can?' became my mantra. 'Why in Your name do you WANT to?!!!'

And yes, I understand free will; and yes, I understand the Fall.

It was the fallen sparrows, and C.S. Lewis, and the Book of Revelation that brought me through. Late and belatedly, a journey measured in decades; writers and works that I read and loved in my earliest youth, but never managed to put together into a coherent whole. Until, by God's grace, through the blessing of that retentive memory that also brings such pain, I could see them all together, Job, John, Lewis and Jung: and take at last a greater meaning.

I have reached an age where I am not only saddened by innocent animal highway deaths, but shocked and frightened at the implications - if, in my area alone, I encounter X dead bunnies, Y dead foxes, Z dead raccoons per day/week/month, what kind of carnage must be occurring nationwide? And one of my daily prayers became: please, please please, let the creatures live today, please, for their sakes first and foremost, but then too for mine and for the sake of all those who care and see and weep; please, dear God, spare us the sight of carnage this day, and spare the creatures this pointless sacrifice; I beg you, Lord, please.

Carnage. Yes, that is exactly what it is. And as I continued seeing these things as parts of one whole, I began to understand that indeed they are. Indeed they are.

I felt as though I was driving through a war zone every time I traveled on the highways, and the reason I felt that way was because it was true. What I was seeing and grieving were, and are, the casualties of war.

And when has war ever kept its bloodied, reeking paws off the innocent? The innocent are its prime fodder. In human wars, civilian casualties are not decried primarily because they are not officially counted, or when they are, they are counted as inaccurately as possible. How many died in the firebombing of Dresden, and how many of those bore arms? How many deployed military died in the WTC on 9/11? or in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And how frequently do we speak, or even think, of these things?

The whole world is a war zone. From birth to death, we live in No Man's Land - if we're lucky. The war began as a war of the spirit, but it could never stay there; and in our created world, we feel and see its depredations most keenly in the flesh. But it remains a war of the spirit. It is greed, indifference, and the desire for 'more', 'faster', that kills the creatures on the highway. It is a system built on these things that forces us to be on the highways in the first place. And forces our children to be in foreign lands, bearing arms. The flesh and spirit together suffer this terrible, terrible toll.

And yes; I believe in the hope of the Crucifixion. I believe in the truth of the Incarnation. But I also see that outwardly, the war goes on to this day.

The apostle John, in Revelation, brought me humility and hope in the midst of this battle; for there he describes multitudes, in lamentation at the very throne of God, crying out to Him: "How long, O Lord, how long?". And these are the innocent dead, begging their Lord to end the war, to spare the innocents yet to die. Note that they remonstrate with Him at the very throne of Heaven. Note even more that He has chosen not only to have them there, but to let them speak so to Him. And note further that this matters, to Him, so much, that He showed it to John - as a promise and comfort and strange, strange mercy to those of us who cry to Him here, on the battlefield, every day. We cry, and our cry does not fall on deaf or uncaring ears. We cry, and because we cry, our tears are transmuted into prayer, into blessing.

C.S. Lewis, in "Mere Christianity", reminded me - at last - that this battle is true, but it is not all. The decisive battle was fought and won at Calvary and in the now empty tomb of Joseph; this I know; this I have known all along. But the implications, somehow, never 'stuck' with me until now.

This is a war, and therefore, like all wars, it takes place in history, in time. There is a turning point, but in history, in time. Past that turning point, the smaller battles continue. And they will continue until the enemy finally admits defeat, and the victor finally declares victory. Lewis, standing as he did in World War II London, could see this with great clarity; thank God that he did.

Yes. These are still battles, and innocents still die in them. But those deaths are no longer purely loss. Every such death does, now, have meaning; as does every innocent death that went before -

- from the start to the end of time, so far does "the light that is more than light" reach from that Cross on the hill.

And so, despite the heat of battle, may God bless and keep every one of us. As indeed, truly, He does and will. By His grace, through His Strange Mercy, I can believe this now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

David Foster Wallace's "Last Lecture"

This is worth reading repeatedly.

Its author, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide in September 2008, a victim of unremitting depression. And this commencement speech, his "Last Lecture", [although of course he gave many more after it] is one of the bravest things I have ever read, even without that tragic afterword.

Most writing on depression, on cognitive therapy, on 're-framing' and 'choice' in that context, is purely speculative. Written, with nothing but the best intentions, by people who observe, and report their observations. Honestly, faithfully, but.

These are the words of someone who knows.

And knowing, chose, every day, to open his eyes; sit up; stand up; put one foot in front of the other.

And understood that each such choice and each such day was holy.

This address is, in a very real way, a sacrament. It was given three years before he made an ultimately fatal choice to stop taking the only antidepressant that had helped him, in hopes that he would find that he no longer needed it ...

... but found instead that the dark closed in, and the medication he had relinquished no longer had any power to bring back the light.

And nothing else that could was found in time.

Despair is deadly sin, we are taught. Yet from the Cross a stronger voice had something else to say:

Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?

This, too, is the Word of the Lord.

Hear, and be still.

We cannot judge; we must not judge. We cannot know enough to judge. Here, we can only observe.

And be still.

God grant his loved ones find him again, in the Place where all roads meet.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Please Donate To Australian Bushfire Relief

Please give your prayers and any amount you can spare... this tragic and horrifying situation continues...

Google Search for Australian Bushfire Relief Donation

Direct URLs: [Salvation Army Australia] [National Bank of Australia Bushfire Relief Fund]

Please use the Google Search for more options, as this will run a fresh search every time the link is clicked.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring Out, Wild Bells -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light:
    The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
    For those that here we see no more;
    Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
    And ancient forms of party strife;
    Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
    The faithless coldness of the times;
    Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
    The civic slander and the spite;
    Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
    Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
    Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
    The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
    Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For Friends Twice Bereaved At Christmastime

Not for you, this year, the easy laughter,
The feasting and teasing and drowsy smiles,
Wading through mountains of discarded wrapping paper
To find the child asleep in the box her treasure came in.

This year the cat will curl on your lap
And reach up his paw to touch your cheek,
Because he knows that wetness does not belong there;
This year the child, now grown, will rest her head
Against your knee, and weep, all gifts pushed away.

That song the angels sang
Will be a clashing, rending dissonance;
Not for you, this year, the hymns of hope and love.

Jesus wept
At the passing of Lazarus,
Wept though He knew his friend would soon live again,
Wept though He knew this new life would be His doing,
Wept though He knew as none other could
How truly all mourners shall be comforted.

It is too soon to think of comfort now.
Never be ashamed to weep.
He who has the right to scoff at Death and Time together
Wept for them both, long years ago.

Today, tears are the proper sacrament.
But as you weep, believe, as best you can:
There will be a tomorrow.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Saying Grace

Isn't it odd that we only say grace at meals?

For many years now I've tried to say grace, literally, at many other points throughout the day.

When I awaken in a warm home, and the light comes on when I press the switch -

When hot water comes out of the bathroom tap -

When my animals run to me to be held and cuddled and fed and loved and fuzzed and smooched and played with -

When I smell and taste that first unspeakably magnificent cup of COFFEE...

When I lift clean clothing from the hanger or the shelf, and marvel at the color and weave, the softness, the warmth [in winter] or the comfort [in summer] of the fabric.

Give thanks to God for the people who built the power plant, strung the wires or threaded the cable, tend the generators and power substations. Who climb the towers and hang the insulators and risk their lives in bucket trucks repairing pole transformers in thunderstorms...

Give praise for the people who invented the water heater and indoor plumbing... who build houses and wire and plumb them, who make the drywall and the pipes and fittings and wires...

Thank God for 'shapely, wholesome cats'... and warmth and fur and purring, and hands to pet with and ears to hear with...

Thank Him for coffee bushes and the people who tend them and pick the berries, and roast them and pack them and ship them... the people who pilot the freighters and trucks, who run the plants, who make the coffee cans[!]... and fill them and seal them and load them, and drive them away, and take them out again, and place them on the shelves, that we may take them home.

Praise Him for the pickers and shearers, and spinners and weavers, and dyers and cutters and seamstresses and tailors... and packers and shippers, again and again...

For the farmers and the farmed, for the gleaners and the gleaned. For carpenters and cabinetmakers and mattresses and light bulbs, for bottles of milk and cups of tea.

Praise and bless and cherish each and every part of these wonders. We live, unaware, amid a procession of miracles, and everything we touch and hold and eat and wear and prize and admire and love traces back and back, through time and space and innumerable human hands, to incredible beginnings in amazing places.

Blessed be He!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

For Those In Peril On The Sea: Ike and the Antalina

From the Houston Chronicle:

September 13, 2008

Wayward freighter makes it through storm OK

The adrift freighter Antalina, which had to weather Hurricane Ike offshore after the Coast Guard was unable to rescue the 22 crewmembers aboard, made it through the storm in good shape, the Coast Guard said.

The 584--foot bulk freighter will be towed back to port.
From the Coast Guard:

The Coast Guard confirmed at approximately 8:00 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, that the heaviest winds of Hurricane Ike had passed the vessel and all 22 crewmembers onboard were reported to be in good health. The vessel had drifted to a point approximately 170 miles southeast of Galveston.

The Rotterdam, a nearly 250-foot tug is reported to be enroute to the Antalina and is expected to rendevous with the Antalina at approximately 12:00 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, and begin towing the vessel back to port. A specific port of entry has not been determined at this time


"We're very pleased that the crew of the Antalina was able to ride out Hurricane Ike without injury," said Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry, assistant public affairs officer for the Eighth Coast Guard District. "The rescue of these 22 crewmembers was one of our highest priorities, but now that we know they are safe, we can dedicate all our aircraft and resources to people along the Texas coast who may need rescuing after Ike passes."
Bargaining with God is unsophisticated. It is unquestionably a primitive impulse. But it comes readily to mind when everything else around you is just as primitive.

Perhaps the word should be primal. Adrift at sea, tossed and shaken by hurricane force winds and waves, the crew of the Antalina were in the most primal peril, powerless, utterly at the mercy of the elements and their Maker.

God alone knows - and He does, indeed, know - how many prayers were raised, by how many people, for the Antalina and her crew. He definitely knows that among those prayers, possibly hundreds of thousands in number, one tiny petition included a specific vow. One small, insignificant, primitive soul pleaded a bargain for the lives of strangers, and promised to keep a modified fast, one day for each crew member, plus one for the ship's cat [or dog] if they and their ship were spared.

Tiny as that prayer was, lost as it must have been in the billows and surges of desperate faith and love poured out by others, it was a true vow. Not an attempt to control the omnipotent, not an attempt to persuade the omniscient. But an offering, freely made. This in exchange for that, please God, if this is at all, in any way, acceptable in exchange, along with all the other petitions and promises that have also been offered, of which You alone know.

A bargain, however tiny its source, however slight its impact, must be honored. I now have a small debt to pay. I am looking forward to it.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy Word,
Who walkèd on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoe'er we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
Amen, amen, and yet again, amen.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Divine Freedom

Katherine Gunn, at A Voice In The Desert, has posted some inspiring thoughts about spiritual arrogance... the attitude that "My God's better than your God!"

[Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s Ken-L-Ration commercial jingle knows exactly what I'm implying here].

In considering the issue of spiritual arrogance, there's a point that gets bypassed so routinely I could tear my hair out, and I'd like to focus on it here, for a little, as I did in commenting to Katherine on her blog. What follows here is largely taken from that comment.

When I read the Christian Scriptures, there is one theme that jumps off the page at me, over and over again; a theme that I find rarely, very rarely, in the organizations that claim to serve and love the Lord.


The whole point of the created universe is that something that is NOT God, something SEPARATE from God, is FREE TO CHOOSE to Love and serve God, and God Himself set things up that way.
That separate thing would be us... and rocks and trees and stars and seas, and lions and lambs, and cats and rats and elephants.

Very, very rarely will you hear a minister or a preacher talk about this incredible, paradoxical freedom. We have the right to say NO THANKS to God. And our YES is meaningless unless it is spoken from a free heart and a clear mind.

This is one reason Anabaptists tend to be unpopular... it's about choice, and meaningful choices can only be made when one is able to choose. PERMITTED to choose.

God Himself respected our freedom to choose; so much that He even died for it. And after thinking that through, I realized why coercive faith - and it's kissin' cousin, proselytization - has never felt authentic to me.

It's the absolute opposite of this divine freedom.

To choose is so completely different from being forced!

I hope I don't sound smug here; I certainly don't feel smug. Trying to live like this, to see the divine choice in every moment and every breath and every event, is like trying to surf on nothing but your bare feet. In a hurricane.

There was Someone, once, who was really good at that; but I'm never going to be anywhere near proficient at it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Life Means So Much -- Chris Rice

In memory of Kathy Krajco

Every day is a journal page,
Every man holds a quill and ink.
And there's plenty of room for writing in
All we do and believe and think...
So will you compose a curse,
Or will today bring a blessing?
Fill the page with rhyming verse,
Or just some random sketching?

Teach us to count the days,
Teach us to make the days count;
Lead us in better ways -
Somehow our souls forgot
Life means so much
Life means so much
Life means so much.

Every day is a bank account,
And time is our currency.
Nobody's rich, nobody's poor;
We get 24 hours each...
So how are you gonna spend?
Will you invest, or squander?
Try to get ahead,
Or help someone who's under?

Teach us to count the days,
Teach us to make the days count;
Lead us in better ways -
Somehow our souls forgot
Life means so much
Life means so much
Life means so much.

Has anybody ever lived who knew the value of a life?
And don't you think giving is all
That proves the worth of yours and mine?

Teach us to count the days
Teach us to make the days count
Lead us in better ways
That somehow our souls forgot
Life means so much...

Every day is a gift you've been given
Make the most of the time every minute you're living...
Every day is a gift you've been given...
Make the most of the time every minute you're living
Every day is a gift you've been given
Make the most of the time every minute you're living....
... if ever a writer lived by these principles, Kathy Krajco surely did. Although she rejected a God of Laws from her Catholic childhood, her life and work embodied a God of Honesty and Fearless Love, who surely took her works as worship and has just as surely welcomed her Home to Him.

The Latin Mass for the Dead includes a most fitting prayer for her...

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Friend, in the Desolate Time

~~Erik Johan Stagnelius
[Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle]
Friend, in the desolate time, when your soul is enshrouded in darkness
    When, in a deep abyss, memory and feeling die out,
Intellect timidly gropes among shadowy forms and illusions
    Heart can no longer sigh, eye is unable to weep;
When, from your night-clouded soul the wings of fire have fallen
    And you, to nothing, afraid, feel yourself sinking once more,
Say, who rescues you then?—Who is the comforting angel
    Brings to your innermost soul order and beauty again,
Building once more your fragmented world, restoring the fallen
    Altar, and when it is raised, lighting the sacred flame?-—
None but the powerful being who first from the limitless darkness
    Kissed to life seraphs and woke numberless suns to their dance.
None but the holy Word who called the worlds into existence
    And in whose power the worlds move on their paths to this day.
Therefore, rejoice, oh friend, and sing in the darkness of sorrow:
    Night is the mother of day, Chaos the neighbor of God.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

An Easter Carol

[Mk 16]

ad majoram Dei gloriam

A morning cold, a world gone gray;
Three shadows in the dawning day
Drew near his grave with one accord;
"We shall anoint our dear dead Lord."

We tell this tale and fail to see
The depth of love and bravery
That brought them to this bitter place,
Despite their fear and His disgrace.

Criminal nailed to a tree,
Hoisted aloft at Calvary,
Left there to die alone, in shame;
But still their Lord. To Him they came.

And there the growing light revealed
A mystery. The stone that sealed
The sepulchre was rolled away;
His grave stood open to the day.

Then, braver still, they ventured in,
More mystery to find within;
There sat a stranger, clothed in white
Who spoke to them: "Take thee no fright;

He, whom thou seekest, is not here;
Put off thy mourning, take good cheer.
Vacant the place where once He lay;
He lives again this Sabbath Day.

Tell His disciples they shall see
Their Lord once more in Galilee."
Trembling, they fled a truth so vast
They feared to speak of what had passed.

But then to each again He came;
With gentleness He called each name,
Until they knew with certainty
He who had died stood risen, free.

Two thousand years and more beside,
It is another Eastertide;
While darkness mocks, the quiet brave
Remember still that empty grave.

Through death He strode; for us He came.
He hath no need of gold or fame.
With naught but our own souls to bring,
We reverence the Risen King.

-- Stormchild, 23 March 2008

Friday, January 4, 2008

Light A Candle

Little sisters of the sun lit candles in the rain;
Fed the world on oats and raisins, candles in the rain.
Lit the fire in the soul who never knew his friends --
Meher Baba lives again, candles in the rain.
To be there is to remember, lay it down again;
Lay down, lay down, lay it down again.
Men can live as brothers... candles in the rain.
-- Melanie Safka.

Use this link to light a candle in the rain.

Light a candle for happiness, for hope, for peace, for freedom, to honor a loved one, for help in time of pain and need, for anything your heart and soul may need or desire.

There is also a link to the site, Light A Candle, just beneath the Blogger logo on the sidebar of this page.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The House of Christmas

~~ G. K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
In the ancient tradition, there are twelve days of Christmas, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi.

It is possible to celebrate a slower, saner Christ-mas, by observing the full Christmas Calendar; and the giving of gifts on Epiphany [rather than Christmas Day] actually follows the old dispensation. For Epiphany, liturgically, is when He was first presented to us, and the first gifts were presented to Him - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

A modern and wonderful gift of the Magi, linked here, will take you through the Twelve Days of Christmas with a beautiful historical and liturgical perspective.

The poem by Chesterton, above, is quoted from this linked site.
The site also provides a link to T.S. Eliot's recreation of Archbishop Thomas à Becket's Christmas sermon, from "Murder in the Cathedral". Anyone familiar with Eliot and Becket, who has also heard or read the final sermon of Martin Luther King, will find vast and humbling mystery here.

The Archbishop preaches in the Cathedral on Christmas Morning, 1170 --

'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth.  So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.

Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.

But think for a while on the meaning of this word 'peace.' Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children?

Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men. 

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is.

A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men.

Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.

The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last.

I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
'Only where He was homeless, are you and I at home'; and on the very day we celebrate His birth, we also celebrate His sacrifice, foreseen from the first shaping of the Universe, from the first utterance of the Word.

May we all, by His grace, stand wholehearted and whole-souled, rejoicing in our own births and without fear of our own necessary sacrifices, on this holy day. May we find our True Home in this sacred season, and dwell therein in His divine Peace.

"Christmas Time Is Here"

from "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

Christmas time is here,
Happiness and cheer;
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of year.

Snowflakes in the air,
Carols everywhere;
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share.

Sleigh bells in the air,
Beauty everywhere,
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there...

Christmas time is here,
We'll be drawing near;
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year...
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Woodstock -- Joni Mitchell

Well I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
This he told me:
I'm goin' down to Yasgur's farm
Gonna join in a rock 'n' roll band
Got to get back to the land
And get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
We are caught in the Devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel myself a cog in something turning --
Well maybe it's the time of year,
Or maybe it's the time of man
And I don't know who I am,
But life is for learning.

We are stardust
We are golden
We are caught in the Devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes
Riding shotgun in the sky
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
We are golden
We are caught in the Devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Village: A Parable of Faith and Safety

(hommage à Theodore Sturgeon)

Once upon a time, in a quaint little village where all the villagers believed they were safe and loved each other, there lived a little old lady whose eyes were sharp, whose wits were sharper, and whose tongue was sharper still.

One of her neighbors was a young man who talked a lot about what he believed, but didn't believe much of what he could see. He thought that this was because he believed much more in things that he couldn't see. He talked to the little old lady, and she talked to him. Sometimes he would chide her for her sharp tongue, and sometimes she would chide him for not believing what he could easily see right in front of him.

The little old lady could easily see that the villagers weren't as safe, and didn't love each other, as much as they liked to believe they were and did. She could also see, and more to the point her sharp little old wits could understand, that while the villagers were believing they were safe and loved each other, gangs were moving into their village. The gang members pretended to love the villagers, and the villagers went on believing they were safe.

Every now and then, one of the villagers had his or her house burned down by the gang, or was caught outside alone on gang turf and beaten, or simply said hello to a gang member in a tone that didn't meet official approval, and was beaten more harshly still. The villagers believed that these things happened because the villager who was beaten, or lost her house, had made the gang members angry. That meant they deserved to be beaten, which meant there was no need for change. And they believed that if everyone could just avoid making gang members angry, then everyone would be safe, because they all loved each other, even the gangs.

But houses kept being burned down, and beatings kept happening. So the villagers decided to believe that they weren't. Better to believe they were safe and loved each other. They ignored the beatings, they ignored the cries and screams outside in the night, and they kept telling each other how safe they were, and how much they loved each other, because, after all, everyone knows that we create our own reality.

The sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady talked to her neighbor about the gangs. She talked to the village about the gangs. She could easily see who the gang members were, and who the ringleaders were. And she didn't merely have sharp wits and a sharp tongue; she knew exactly how to use them.

Her neighbor, who liked to talk a lot about what he believed, didn't think the gangs were anything to worry about. He was sure that they really loved the villagers deep down inside, and he was also sure that the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady would be happy if she would just believe she was safe, like everybody else, and believe that everybody loved each other, and ignore the cries and screams outside in the night.

The villagers didn't know what to think. The little old lady, after all, had a sharp tongue; but the gang members always spoke sweetly, and always told the villagers how safe they were and how much they loved them.

Time went on. The sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady became, if anything, sharper and sharper. The gangs became, if anything, meaner and meaner. And the villagers became, if anything, more and more confused.

One day, the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady finally lost patience with her neighbor, who liked to talk a lot about what he believed. She insisted on talking to him a lot about what she could plainly see. And her neighbor decided that it would be better to hate the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady for making him uncomfortable, than to take any kind of stand against the gangs, because that would require him to admit that they were there, and after all, some of the gang members were really kind of cute.

One night, luck ran out for the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady. Two of the cutest gang members beat her and kicked her and left her lying in a mud puddle, with mud smeared on her clothes and face and hair. Her neighbor, the young man who liked to talk a lot about what he believed, found her there, and stood over her glowering, with his fists clenched. He was furious at the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady, because she told him who it was that beat her, and it was two of the cutest gang members. How dare she, he snarled, insult such cute girls like that? And how dare she ask him to give her a hand and help her stand up, call the police, take her to the hospital and help her file charges against the gang? NOBODY stood up and called the police. NOBODY charged the gang. Everybody was safe, and loved each other.

As her neighbor, who liked to talk a lot about what he believed, spat at her and turned away, another man stepped out of the shadows nearby. This man was very ordinary. He had no beauty that anyone would envy. He appeared to be a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief... he wore plain, decent clothing, clean but old blue jeans, a faded chambray shirt, work boots. His hair was long, his beard was full, his hands were muscled and calloused, and his arms strong from a lifetime of physical labor. Those hands were deeply scarred - as though he had been badly hurt, perhaps by a slipping chisel, once, long ago. At one moment he seemed to be no more than thirty-three, but the very next moment he seemed ageless, older than time itself, as if time somehow began and ended with Him.

This Man stepped over to the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady, who was still bogged in the mire, unable to stand. He looked at her with sorrow and love, bent down to her, and lifted her up. "The truth shall make you free," He said to her, "and your faith will make you whole. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who are you, to judge another? The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise them up; and if they have committed sins, these shall be forgiven them. Now go and sin no more; shake the dust off your feet when you go from this place, and let the dead bury their dead." And he kissed her on her forehead, and smoothed her muddied hair with one strong hand, and let her go.

And the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued old lady discovered that nothing hurt... her clothes were clean and no longer torn... and she no longer felt a need to try to save the villagers from the gang. She no longer felt a need for the village. It was no longer her home; her Home was now, and forever, in this Man's heart.

The man who liked to talk a lot about what he believed was still standing nearby, shocked that this Witness heard and saw him mock, revile, and spit upon the old lady, his neighbor. He had done it to impress the cute girls in the gang; he certainly hadn't wanted this Man to see. The Man stepped over to him, and looked him directly in the eyes. There was no anger in His gaze, and no fear. There was no judgment in His gaze. There was only complete clarity, and much sorrow.

"Why do you call me Lord? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," said the Man.

And then, in an instant, He was gone.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Profound Decency of Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin lives among us as An Anthropologist on Mars. An extremely intelligent, very highly functioning autistic woman, she used that term to describe herself in an interview with neurologist Oliver Sacks...

That was 1995. It is now 2007, one year since Dr. Grandin has updated a book that she published in the same year Dr. Sacks described her: Thinking in Pictures.

Yes; I said Dr. Grandin; she holds a Ph.D. in animal science. Her professional life has been dedicated to easing the suffering of America's food animals, and she has a gift for this, because she knows how animals think. Her thoughts and feelings are so similar to theirs that she has been able to design equipment for kosher sacrifice that keeps the animals calm and at ease to their very final breath; she has done the same for many non-kosher facilities as well.

In reading "Thinking in Pictures", I was struck, over and over, by the simplicity, the lack of pretentiousness, the inability to even fathom pretentiousness, the directness, the wise and knowing innocence of this remarkable woman. Her thoughts are so clear, so stimulating, and at times so moving that I am compelled to share some of them here. I hope that, if she ever sees this post, she will appreciate the tribute.


"I think with the primary sensory based subconscious areas of the brain. ... since I think with the subconscious, repression does not occur and denial is impossible. ... My memory is not automatic. ... However, I can search through old memories of really bad events, such as being fired from a job, with no emotion. At the time I was fired I cried for two days."

"When I was ten or eleven, it seemed totally illogical to me that a Protestant religion was better than the Jewish or Catholic religion.  ... I've met many autistic people who share my faith that all religions are valid and valuable. ... my favorite of Einstein's words on religion is: 'Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.'"

"I had visited an Arabian horse farm where great pains were taken to treat each horse as an individual.  ... The next day I was on a feedlot operating the chute while cattle were being branded and vaccinated. When I looked at each steer, it had the same look of individuality as the stallions. For me the big question was, how could I justify killing them?"

"... unless there is death, we could not appreciate life. Having first faced the paradox of power and responsibility, and coming to terms with my ambivalent feelings of controlling animals with devices such as cattle chutes, I now had to face the paradox of life and death."

"... When I read that the Olympic stadium and the main library in Sarajevo had been destroyed, I wept. ... I become very upset and emotional when I think about the loss of knowledge and culture, and I am unable to write about this without crying. ... I don't know what it is like to hate somebody so much that you would want to destroy their culture and civilization."

"... I believe that if souls exist in humans, they also exist in animals, because the basic structure of the brain is the same. ... However, there is one thing that completely separates humans from animals. ... it is long-term altruism. During a famine in Russia ... scientists guarded the seed bank of plant genetics so that future generations would have the benefits of genetic diversity in food crops. For the benefit of others, they allowed themselves to starve to death in a lab filled with grain. No animal would do this. Altruism exists in animals, but not to this degree."

"I do not believe that my profession is morally wrong. ... I do feel very strongly about treating animals humanely and with respect... the slaughter plant is much gentler than nature. Animals in the wild die from starvation, predators, or exposure.  ... Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of living and death. They do not realize that for one living thing to survive, another living thing must die."

"... People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break the ancient contract. We owe it to the animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death."

"... I realized there can be a conflict between feeling and doing. Zen meditators may be able to achieve the perfect state of oneness with the universe, but they do not bring about reform and change in the world around them."

"I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one."

"When I was in high school, I received a brochure from a cattle chute company that said, 'thoughts with no price tags.' "Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it." I never forgot that quote."

It seems to me that if anyone on this planet truly lives for their beliefs, this woman does. How lucky we are, how blessed, to have her voice among us. How fortunate and how blessed are the animals into whose lives and deaths she has brought gentleness and peace.

More links here.

[Edit in: I have a large personal debt of gratitude to Dr. Grandin, which motivates this post. Because of a congenital enzyme deficiency, I am unable to thrive on a vegan diet. I must eat meat, and this fact has tormented me for years.

Knowing that she has been working to give the animals a peaceful and truly humane end, knowing that she has redesigned approximately one third of all the facilities in the US to achieve this purpose, and knowing that this has been true for most of my adult life, allows me to say grace over my meals with the sense that there truly has been 'grace' present in the process.]

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Fitting Memorial

Taken from the Washington Post, published August 28, 2007:

Glenn A. Gotz
October 3, 1946 - August 25, 2006

Not just a visitor to this world,
But our great good friend.
Glenn loved good conversation,
Good food, and laughter
(especially that of children).
It is ironic that his heart failed him;
It never failed us.

Payne Street Neighbors and Friends

I never knew you, Mr. Gotz; but these good people did, and loved you greatly.

I am more than willing to believe them.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Love Is Conditional

Oh, yes it is.

Speak not to me of mothers bending with utmost tenderness over their gummy-smiled babes.

They will not bend so over a stranger's child - not for long. They love their child as they do because it is theirs - whether by birth or adoption, it is theirs.

Speak not to me of elderly couples toddling hand in hand into the sunset.

They may continue together because of habit and quiet custom, not because of undying love. They may have remained together because they are more afraid of being alone. And it is not our place to blame them, for so, in time, may we.

Speak not to me of man's love for his animals.

He does not love the wild ones he squashes on the highways. And when his tame ones cease to be tame, he quickly turns from loving them. The old, the infirm, the no longer housebroken... are they loved unconditionally?

Speak not to me of the love of a child for her parents.

If they abuse her, if they molest her, if they burn her with cigarette butts and feed her scraps and garbage... and if by some miracle she survives to adulthood and can live free of them... shall she love them blindly and be termed sane?

Love is conditional. Yes, even the love of God.

God loves us because we are His. He loves us because He called us into being, as He loves the whole of creation, as He loves His own tripartite nature.

Let us rejoice and give thanks that love is conditional.

Let us praise God that He loves us because we are His; that He loves us because we love Him; that he seeks and hopes and longs to be reunited with all of us, even with those of us who prefer to hate Him and all that He has made,

but that His love will not extend so far as to inflict that hating upon the rest of us for all eternity.

Here on earth, we spend our days in an unconditional world. The rain falls on the just and on the unjust; the good die young, while the bad die old and rich, and the innocent die beneath auto tires on the interstate every day.

We consider Job remarkable not merely because of the losses he endured, but because he lived an exemplary life - and still had so much to lose. We know, even if we do not like to admit, that goodness is not rewarded, evil is not punished, the things that should be evidence of love are not conditionally given -- here.

We consider Christ remarkable not merely because of His great sacrifice, but because He made that sacrifice knowing well that many would never truly wish to claim it.

[I do not speak here of those who do not know of it, nor do I speak of those who believe with all their hearts and souls and strength that they are serving God best by serving Him in other faith traditions. I speak of those who know Christ and His works, and pretend to follow Him while scorning all He stands for; those who sell Him like a commodity and display Him like a brand.]

Let us be grateful all the days of our lives that God loves conditionally, and that His Strange Mercy can therefore accept our imperfect and conditional love as adequate to His needs. For "... what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

And let us be grateful all the days of our lives that the final abode of Love, though open to both the perfect and the broken, to those who strove and failed as well as those who triumphed,

will not be, as our current abode so clearly is,

unconditionally open to Hate.

Monday, July 30, 2007

In Memoriam: Pat Tillman

With the recent news coverage regarding the actual circumstances of Pat Tillman's death - as opposed to the fictionalized public relations package that was developed from it in 2004 - I have found myself haunted by a song that I first heard in 1967, forty years ago, in another time, in another war.

Forty years later, I reverently place its lyrics here, in his memory, and in honor of his family's grief and loss.

Requiem for the Masses
(Terry Kirkman - The Association, 1967)

Requiem aeternam, requiem aeternam...
Mama, mama, forget your pies
Have faith they won't get cold
And turn your eyes to the bloodshot sky
Your flag is flying bold
At half mast,
for the matadors
Who turned their backs
to please the crowd
And all fell before the bull.

Red was the color of his blood flowing thin
Pallid white was the color of his lifeless skin
Blue was the color of the morning sky
He saw looking up
from the ground where he died
It was the last thing
ever seen
by him
Kyrie Eleison,
Kyrie Eleison...

Mama, mama, forget your pies
Have faith they won't get cold
And turn your eyes to the bloodshot sky
Your flag is flying bold
At half mast,
for the matadors
Who turned their backs
to please the crowd
And all
before the bull...

Black and white were the figures
that recorded him
Black and white was the newsprint
he was mentioned in
Black and white was the question
that so bothered him
He never asked
he was taught not to ask
What was on his lips
as they buried him...

Rex tremendae majestatis...
Requiem aeternam,
Kyrie Eleison...


Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

[Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.]

Monday, July 16, 2007

Isaiah Speaks

I came to you for comfort, and you despised me;
I came to you for kindness, and you turned your face away.
I came to you for shelter, and you closed your heart and mind;
I came to you for mercy, and you mocked my pain.

But in the garden of the Lord, the bonsai and sequoia
Grow side by side.

Blessed is the Lord, whose ways are not our ways.
Blessed is the Lord, whose thoughts are His own;
whose mercy we may share.
For He is found by those who never knew they sought Him,
And reaches out to those who do not even know His name.

And in the garden of the Lord, the perfect and the broken
Dwell side by side.

© 2001

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Random Act of Kindness

I was standing in line at the bookstore, loaded for bear. With three new books on psychology and three new murder mysteries [often even better psychology textbooks than the 'real McCoy', if the writers are good and you know how to read them], I was looking forward to some lovely lazy learning evenings.

Once I got out of this line.

The corollary of Murphy's Law that deals with waiting in line usually dictates that the speed with which you pass through any checkout process will vary inversely with the number of other things you need to accomplish, the urgency with which you need to accomplish them, and the intensity of your desire to begone.

Except for anything to be accomplished which requires a bathroom; in that case, it becomes an inverse-square law.

The line plodded forward one notch, and I recalculated my hydrostatic pressure tolerances. It plodded forward another notch. Two people remaining in front of me; if one person at the registers paid cash, I'd be escaping in just a few moments.

Then he showed up.

A quiet man, past middle age, with an academic slouch and a remarkably calm facial expression. Horn rimmed glasses. Pocket protector. Quiet young girl, likely his daughter, walking with him.

He joined the end of the line, then looked startled, then looked speculative, then started moving up alongside everyone.

People glared at him. Arranged their elbows to impede his progress. "Excuse me", he said softly, and brushed past them. Slowly, methodically moving to the front of the line, looking at each of us as he passed.

He reached me. "O Lord, again?" I thought. There is a sign on my back, and lo, it is also written on my forehead: Ask Reasonably, And I Will Probably Let You In Line In Front Of Me. Little old ladies with one roll of toilet paper, kids with Tootsie Pops, harried moms with birthday sheet cakes, harried dads with big bouquets of flowers. Yes, yes, yes. And you too, yes, and also you. Enter into the glory, go in peace.

But oh, I was feeling the ... pressure. "O Lord, does this have to happen now?"

He stopped. He smiled. Warm brown eyes looked into mine. His hand rose, holding a piece of paper. His other hand held a single volume.

"Excuse me... "

"Of course," I said and moved back half a step. I wouldn't die, I wouldn't disgrace myself, and it wasn't as though people cut in on me daily at the bookstore. I'd live, and I'd like myself better than if I snarled and refused this small decent act.

"We have two of these, and you have the most books of anyone in line here. It's 20% off. We can't use both of them... Enjoy!"

And he handed me the paper. And smiled. And stepped back, and smiled again, and returned to the end of the line, where his daughter held his place, also smiling... as I called my startled thanks to them, and the cashier called to me.

96% of human beings are capable of love. This evening, two human beings demonstrated that some are also capable of kindness... even to total strangers.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

True Love

I have said "I love you" to my good beasts every day of their lives with me.

I've said it to them as I fall asleep with their dear heads nestled in my palm or their soft paws wrapped around my wrist or their little warm bodies curled up in my hair [it's long, there's lots of it. Plenty of room.]

I've said it to them on the way across a continent, reaching behind my seat as I drive, to stroke their little noses through the front of their carriers. I've said it out loud in turbulence-tossed aircraft knowing they were in the cargo hold and couldn't hear it but hoping by the grace of God they could somehow feel it. And shouted it as they emerged in their carriers at the baggage claim, looking around frantically for me, homing in on my voice with relief in every line of their bodies.
I've said it to them on the way to the vet, during the shots, on the way home.

And I have said it to them over and over and over and over and over at the end of their lives as the first injection takes effect and they drift off into a painless sleep and then the second shot is given and they drift off into the deepest Sleep of all. The last words they will hear in the land of the living is my voice, their mother's voice, telling them I love them.

And they have said it to me with every breath, every look, with their backs arched under my hands, their soft sides vibrating, with their dear warm bodies nestled into my hair, with their soft paws wrapped around my wrists for dear life when I awaken, home for the first time in two weeks, and find them holding fast to me in their very sleep.


Is it God's will that we love our creatures? More than a decade ago, I asked this question, as I prepared for an international move and frantically juggled hotel and airline bookings to make a nonstop flight, so that my animals would be on my plane, and not risk being lost in transit. As I explained the situation to one bored clerk after another, I wondered if I might not be practicing a mild form of idolatry, or a severe form of codependence.

Frustrated and exhausted, I took the question to Him. For the first time in my entire spiritual life, I was immediately pointed to a Bible verse, which I read... and after reading, literally fell to my knees and then lay prostrate in awe and praise.

The verse was Proverbs 12:10. In the King James translation, it reads thus:

A righteous [man] regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked [are] cruel.

Indeed the creatures matter. We were meant for the Peaceable Kingdom, and we will be reunited with all our loved ones there.

Isaiah 11: 1 - 9:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;

And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:

But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Law of Love

The hightest spiritual law is the Law of Love.

This Law arises from a conviction that God's primary wish for us is that we be free, and then, out of that freedom, that we choose to devote ourselves to Him.

If we do this out of freedom, then we soon discover that love means something different than we might at first have thought, and freedom does as well.

Freedom is constrained by love.

If I love my neighbors, then I don't want to cut in front of them in the checkout line, or on the freeway.

If I love my animal, then I don't ignore its pain, and I structure my time so that I am available to express my love to my pet, and I welcome and rejoice in my pet expressing love to me.

If I love my superiors and coworkers, then I do my job to the best of my ability and with a whole heart, insofar as is possible; I don't undermine anyone, nor do I 'skive off'.

If I love my spouse, I don't cheat on him, but neither do I snipe at him, or kick him when he's down.

If I love my children, I care for them appropriately - I don't use them to compete with neighbors and family, I don't push them to be something I wanted to be that they may not, I don't martyr myself to them and guilt them over it for life - I see them as separate people, given to me to tend and nurture, and I do my daily best at that...

Thus I end up living a very much examined, moral and ethical life, not driven by rules, or by God as a Big Policeman In The Sky, but by God as Love, with love being a lot stronger and grittier than we often think.

And I am still entirely free.

It's the freedom of a grownup, rather than a child: freedom with awareness and perspective, and a sense of responsibility. Freedom not only to make a choice, but to understand and live with all of the ramifications of that choice, once made.

I'm nowhere near perfect at this, not even halfway reliable at it. But I do see it fairly clearly:

" Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second [is] like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Mat. 22:37-40]

This is Not Death

This is not death, this brittle season.
Warmth waits rekindling
Beneath the snow;
Under rimed branches
Sleep green leaves
And each seed holds
A blossomglow.

We do not know our time or reason,
The promises
We are to keep;
This is not death,
This brittle season.
It is but rest
And pause for sleep.

©2007 Stormchild Blogs

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Magical Thinking: The Gospel of Narcissism

There's been a lot of 'buzz' recently about a book - with a DVD, of course - that claims to teach people how to control the universe.

"The Secret" markets an amazingly transparent form of egocentrism: infantile magical thinking, which can be summed up as "I'm So Important, I Only Have To Think of Something To Make It So".

This is terribly immature. Magical, all-powerful thinking is the hallmark of the Terrible Twos, the age at which children expect the universe to serve and please them, and them alone. This is the province of tantrums, childish spite, infantile rage, and zero tolerance of frustration because we believe that We The Almighty Should Never Be Denied, But Always Get Whatever We Want, Whenever We Want It.

There are already people walking this earth in adult bodies who have never emerged from this stage; there is more than enough narcissism on the planet already to blight many human lives and all human societies quite sufficiently. We don't need more, and we certainly don't need this type of dysfunction marketed as a 'good'.

The We-Are-All-Omnipotent thesis is also obviously untrue. If we were each really omnipotent, wouldn't we all be (a) rich (b) beautiful (c) brilliant (d) successful (e) in perfect health (f) entirely free of all physical and emotional pain and (g) immune from the aging process? [Not to mention (h) able to recognize an obvious scam when we see one?]

A person has to be on the far side of sanity to be willing to believe, as the book's author apparently advocates, that the reason none of us have achieved this state is not that she's peddling a load of obvious codswallop, but that we all - every one of us - really want misery and heartbreak in our lives; we all actually crave and desire aging and death and pain and loss - after all, if our thoughts control the entire universe, then if we have these things in our lives, we must want them to be that way.

This is breathtakingly abusive. To imply that a shaken baby wants to be damaged and killed in infancy, that hit-and-run victims want to be struck down and abandoned, that child incest victims want to be raped by their parent, that people in places like Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, and Baghdad want their homes bombed out, civil war in their streets, and their loved ones dead in senseless violence - is cold, cruel, calculating evil.

Which leads beyond the psychological aspect, to the spiritual aspect. This way of thinking is blasphemous.

If magical thinking really worked, it would be possible at any time for a group of us to get together for fifteen seconds and visualize world peace, a stable global economy with everyone paid fairly for their work, and no abusive workplaces; not a psychopath or narcissist on the planet, no child molesters, no murderers, no violent crimes of any type, no pollution, no famine, no homelessness, no poverty, no disease. We could prevent, even undo, tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes. We could resurrect the dead.

We would be God.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Unilateral Forgiveness and "Cheap Grace"

The concept of forgiveness is difficult to understand and even more difficult to implement. This is especially true of unilateral forgiveness.

Christians in particular often seem pressured to extend unilateral forgiveness in situations where it may be premature to do so. This is done not for their own sake, and not for the sake of the individual being forgiven, but in order to avoid discomfiting others. [The unspoken message is: Hurry up and get it over with, already, so that everyone else can forget about it, avoid dealing with it, duck the ethical issues involved in considering whether or not wrong has been done, to whom, by whom, and what should be done about it, if so. ]

The exhortation to 'judge not' is often applied here, inappropriately, as is the exhortation to 'wifely submission'. There are also usually pronouncements regarding the holding of grudges and the unhealthiness of failing to forgive others.

There is some truth in this. A condemning, judgmental posture does not express the loving nature of God; people who are unable to move beyond resentment and anger are at greater risk of high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, even some forms of cancer. However, people who move into premature forgiveness and, as a result, live in denial, are also at risk: of ulcers, of cancer, of premature death. It is a fact that codependents often die years before their partners; the combined burdens of bearing the abuse and denying it are ultimately - and often fatally - exhausting.

There is nothing loving about expecting a beaten wife or raped child to ignore the harm done to them, physically and emotionally, for the sake of preserving a phony peace with their assailant. On the contrary: this demands that the injured party collude in injuring themselves further, set their own value as nothing, and the value of their abuser as infinite. There is nothing of God in that. It is a cruel travesty.

The difficulty is that not all instances of abuse and transgression are so extreme, so obvious. Many types of abuse are covert and exist as patterns of behavior over time - an ongoing refusal to treat the other party as an equal, with respect; a constant demand to have one's own way, without consideration for the others involved; a public posture of 'goodness and light' while in private, certain family members or associates are scapegoated, lied about, or otherwise treated savagely. The damage done by this type of abuse is extreme, has lasting effects, and is much more difficult to trace back to a single dramatic incident.

Pressure to forgive unilaterally, for the sake of peace at any price, comes not from a spiritually advanced position, but from a spiritually and psychologically lazy one. It involves a large degree of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed 'cheap grace', and there are no better words than his to describe it.

"Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack's wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices.  Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost!  And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.  Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.  What would grace be, if it were not cheap? ...

... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

We are often pressured not to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. The admonition to forgive seventy times seven is frequently distorted into pressure to enable, to set no boundaries, to not merely tolerate the intolerable, but to actively reward it. To take upon oneself all of the consequences of the other's behavior, while they remain free to abuse us - and others - without constraint.

If it is unhealthy to forgive in such circumstances, where does the concept of unilateral forgiveness fit into healthy spirituality, and how can it ever be practiced authentically?

Here is the key: in order to be able to forgive unilaterally, two things are necessary.

First, the person who is extending forgiveness must experience genuine healing. This can be sought and obtained unilaterally, regardless of whether the abuser ever admits to being abusive, or ever makes amends.

Healing is absolutely essential, if unilateral forgiveness is to be real. Nancy Richards, in her book "Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse", makes it clear that forgiveness is a process, not merely an event. It requires emotional and psychological healing, which in turn require validation [this injury is real], acceptance of the injured party's anger, and the opportunity to come to terms with the grief associated with any injury or loss. God is here for this; God is present in this; God's love is extended to us infinitely, in this.

Second, if at all possible, the person extending forgiveness must take reasonable steps to shield themselves from further abuse by the party being forgiven.

This protection is definitely necessary. To forgive unilaterally in the face of repeated, unrepented abuse is almost beyond human capability, and to demand this of any person is to condemn them to despair. Such situations may exist for wartime survivors, political prisoners [the Apostle Paul, Watchman Nee, Bonhoeffer himself, and Betsie and Corrie ten Boom come to mind] - these are people who are literally caged with and by their abusers. But in these situations there are generally abusive systems behind the abusive individuals involved. It is possible, then, to regard the system as the ultimate source of the abuse, and to forgive the individuals who implement it, in the sense that 'they know not what they do'.

For battered spouses or children, who are economically imprisoned, it is harder to see an abusive system standing behind the individual inflicting their pain. In such cases, premature unilateral forgiveness may have the effect of making the person more vulnerable to damage, even to death; battered women who leave and then return to their batterers are not infrequently killed by them, eventually. A refusal to forgive, a refusal to deny, may in such cases be the lifeline people need to escape their abusive situations.Once free, they may then begin the process of healing; once healed, they may reasonably be approached about forgiving those who harmed them and never made amends. Here again, the presence and power of God may be called upon, and found; both in developing a means of escape, and in the healing that must follow.

God, though loving, is neither an enabler nor a fool. He has communicated to us some fundamental standards of decent behavior, and He does expect us to make some effort to adhere to them if we claim to serve and worship Him; not only our spiritual health, but our emotional and physical health, depend on this.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In Honor of Liviu Librescu

From the Jerusalem Post:

"As Jews worldwide honored on Monday the memory of those who were murdered in the Holocaust, a 76-year-old survivor sacrificed his life to save his students in Monday's shooting at Virginia Tech College that left 33 dead and over two dozen wounded.

Professor Liviu Librescu, 76, threw himself in front of the shooter when the man attempted to enter his classroom. The Israeli mechanics and engineering lecturer was shot to death, "but all the students lived - because of him," Virginia Tech student Asael Arad - also an Israeli - told Army Radio.

Several of Librescu's other students sent e-mails to his wife, Marlena, telling of how he had blocked the gunman's way and saved their lives, said Librescu's son, Joe.

"My father blocked the doorway with his body and asked the students to flee," Joe Librescu said in a telephone interview from his home outside of Tel Aviv. "Students started opening windows and jumping out."

Librescu was respected in his field, his son said."

What words are worthy of such a man? Only the Word itself. From the Book of Ecclesiasticus [also called Sirach]: 44:1-10, 13-14:

Let us now praise famous men,
  And our fathers in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
  his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
  and were men renowned for their power,
giving counsel by their understanding,
  and proclaiming prophecies;
leaders of the people in their deliberations
  and in understanding of learning for the people,
  wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
  and set forth verses in writing;
rich men furnished with resources,
  living peaceably in their habitations --
all these were honored in their generations,
  and were the glory of their times.

There are some of them who have left a name,
  So that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no memorial,
  who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
  and so have their children after them.

But these were men of mercy,
  Whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.
Their posterity will continue for ever,
  and their glory will not be blotted out.
Their bodies were buried in peace,
  and their name lives to all generations.

May you know eternal peace, eternal light, eternal love, Professor Librescu; and may your name live to all generations.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rejoice, Ye Daughters

Consider the radical feminist nature of God and of Christ:

Christ was descended from - among other women - Ruth, a Moabite [Obed, her son by Boaz: Luke 3:32], and Rahab, a reformed prostitute [Joshua 2 and 6, Matthew 1:5 - note Rahab is the mother of Boaz, whom Ruth the Moabite married].

His first revelation of His Messianic nature was to a Samaritan woman, living 'in sin', in her sixth relationship [John 4:7-26].

There were women among His disciples [Luke 24:22 - 24, as one example].

The disciple who first discovered His empty tomb, after the Resurrection, was Mary Magdalene, yet another reformed prostitute [John 20:1 - 18; see also Luke 24:22 - 24];

and lest we forget... his mother was as yet unmarried when she conceived him.

We easily forget that small detail, so easily forget just how much really was asked of her. Give up your reputation, child; risk not merely the scorn and rejection of your fiance, the pity and condemnation of your family and friends, but even risk being put to death, to bear this Gift.

-- Mary said Yes to the angel.

-- Rahab said Yes on the walls of Jericho.

-- Ruth said Yes to Naomi, and Yes to Boaz.

-- the Samaritan woman said Yes to Christ.

-- Magdalene said Yes to God.

They all said Yes to God.

These were human women, women of flesh and blood, women who were, or were willing to be seen as, different; foreign; alien; other; "less than", to the eyes of the world.

They were not the choices of a fusty, dusty God, but of a Lord filled with love and light and wry laughter, glad to be eating and drinking with publicans and sinners [Matthew 9: 10 - 11, Matthew 11:19; Mark 2:15 - 16, Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1].

He holds out His hands to all of us, to every woman everywhere, mocking our pretensions as He teaches us that the greatest virtue is not Virtue, but a heart that is willing to follow where He leads, a mind and a strength sufficient to allow Him to turn us from dross into gold.

Rejoice, ye Daughters!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Saints Alive

You meet saints everywhere. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.

-- Kurt Vonnegut

It is warmer than usual here.
Alone in the stacks I pause to breathe,
Smell decades of musty journals
Dry, faint, like the breath of old men
Whose lives have here been gathered,
Trimmed, neatly bound, to be rifled
By the questing minds of strangers.

A woman in a light grey sweater
Leans intently over a page.
Her hair spills forward to frame her face
As she writes
Birthing ideas
Amid these dry relics of scholars innumerable.

Will my memento mori
Be lost on a library shelf,
Dust I am to dust returning
Until even the pages crumble?

© 1983