Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On Tone Policing

Things just seem get louder and more unyieldingly belligerent.

Every day, more outrage, more shrieking, more umbrage. In this interconnected era, when we hunger to silence the dissonance of the Other by forcing them to be as we are, there There is always something, always a trigger, because there has to be.  If we are not stirred and threatened and emotionally on edge, we do not engage obsessively.  And if we do not engage obsessively, our views cannot be monetized or added to a follower count.

in this interconnected era, when we hunger to silence the dissonance of the Other by forcing them to be as we are, anger is omnipresent.  We are, as a culture, addicted to rage.

It bends and warps reality, to the point where it seems genuinely insane.

If one notes this, though?  If a person says, hey, hey, let's turn down the heat a little here, try to be more civil?  We swat it down, because what right do you have to tell me what to say or how to say it?  "Of course I'm angry," you'll say.  "I have every right to feel this way!  And who the hell are you!"

The term we have created to silence those who'd like us all to just calm the [fornicate] down is "tone policing."

It isn't surprising that we've created that term, given that having our anger directly challenged always makes us angrier.  When you've got your dander up, having someone say "You need to calm down" always and invariably has the opposite effect.

That said, it is my observation that this cultural anger is fundamentally toxic to both our individual and collective souls.  It serves no purpose other than itself, like the roaring, suffocating inhalation of a Dresden firestorm.  Anger is a powerful energy, and it can have purpose.  But it also makes us reactive.  It makes us dead to nuance, and dead to disconfirming information.  It makes us more easily manipulated.  It calcifies our view of others.  It radicalizes, and polarizes.

And if it never, ever, turns off?  It becomes a form of madness.

I do not want it to rule my soul.  But there is a boundary to where I can make that happen.

The only place where I can govern tone is me.  I can say to my soul: you do not need to burn with the endless rage of outrage culture.  I can govern my own  reactions, and assess the tone and intent of those things I read and watch and consider.

I can police my own tone, because tone matters.  Tone opens the path to mutual understanding, just as it can wall off the Other.  It's a discipline, one that requires significant effort.  When I'm attacked, I have the same reaction as anyone else.

I cannot make anyone else do this.










Monday, March 11, 2019

The Q Word

Years ago, when I was a boy of eleven or twelve and living in London, I somehow fell in with a free ranging mob of boys one Sunday afternoon.  I can't remember if it was a party or a general gathering.  It's too long ago.  But what I recall is that we were playing.

First, King of the Mountain, which was a raging scrum as every boy tried to be the last one standing in a particular location.  I don't remember doing well at that game, as I was small, asthmatic and spindly.   I got knocked down a whole bunch.  We played that for a while, and then the idea came that we should play another.

The game:  Smear the Queer.

The rules were simple:  one boy was the Queer.  The rest of the boys would go after that boy.  Sort of like an inverted version of tag, only with quite a bit more pounding and tackling.  The group would then select another Queer, and the game would reset.

I didn't like the spirit of it, or the name of it.  I was already aware that Queer wasn't the kindest of terms, used primarily as invective.  I was also aware that it referred specifically to being gay, which is how that was described back then.  While at eleven I wasn't quite sure what I felt about gay folk, I knew that some people were horrible to them.  Meaning, it was not uncommon for them to be physically assaulted, and that seemed terrible and cruel no matter what.

That was the point where I bailed.  I just laid low while the other boys charged off in the woods after the first Queer.  Then I quietly left the group, and wandered back home.

Which leads me to my current conundrum.

I find the ever expanding acronym used to describe genderdivergent folk just ragingly awkward.

LGBTQIA, or so it's become.  EllGeeBeeTeeCueAyeAy just doesn't roll of the tongue.  It's a clumsy graceless letter-mass, a creeping categorical accretion.  It reminds me of how you make a German words by just adding one German word to another.  This works fine, until suddenly you're trying to say donaudampshiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, and you keep running out of air and passing out halfway through the word.

It's a lumpy fumbling aesthetic disaster, like most of my cobbled-together outfits most days.  There's a reason the show isn't called LGBTQIA+ Eye For the Straight Guy.

There's a better term.

Embedded in that acronym is a Q, which just stands for Queer, which seems to be all of the other things combined.  I note that it's used more now as a catchall, by Queer folk themselves, which seems like the right thing. 

But can I use it?  I am as gendertypical as they come, and the transition of "Queer" from its pejorative roots reminds me of, well, another word.  A word I don't use because it's inherently offensive to black people, one that occupies a strange place in our cultural discourse.  It cannot be spoken outside of the tribe.

So I wonder about this word.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Our Violent Hearts

There's a peculiar thing, in the midst of all of our cultural dissonance.

Say to a conservative, "Hey, what do you think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?"  Generally, you don't get anything but praise.  Conservatives, in fact, find nothing but virtue in both of these persons.  They see in both of them discipline, focus, and an emphasis on reconciliation and the integrity of the person.  They see the best nature of human beings, and as that is a part of who we have been that we do not wish to abandon, conservatives want us to hold on to that nature.

Conservatism is, after all, the desire to hold on to what is good.

Say to a liberal, "Hey, what do you think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr?"  Generally, you get the same thing.  Liberals see in them a radical call to justice coupled with a deep spirit of tolerance and grace.  They see the best nature of human beings, and as that is a part of who we wish to be that we don't want to abandon, liberals want us to hold on to that nature.

Liberalism is, after all, the openness to encountering the good yet unknown.

In my ongoing reading of Howard Thurman's meditations on the ethos that creates nonviolence, I feel more deeply aware of the impacts of violent thinking on our culture.  Because all is violence, an endless churn of vitriol and outrage, of mockery and shaming, of demonization and invective. 

And yes, sure, it's not physical.  But the crass, shallow brutalism of our discourse is violent.  It rises from a heart of violence.

For those who claim to be disciples of Jesus, this is a problem.  Because Jesus doth not give us permission to indulge in the sweet taste of hatred.  It's only words, Jesus, we might say.  I'm allowed to hate them and mock them, to let the fires of focused hatred govern me, so long as I don't actually beat the crap out of them, right?

No.

Jesus is pretty clear on that subject.  When our conservatism rots into the fever-swamp fantasies of the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda?  When our liberalism devolves into the fulminations of Robespierre on the floor of the National Convention?  It doesn't matter that those are "just words."

If we assert that Jesus has authority over our lives, we are not permitted to foster a heart of violence.  That does not mean we are to be passive.  But when we yield to rage and the reflexive diminishment of the other, we fail.

Because nonviolence is first and foremost an attitude of the heart.



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Not Fearing Death

When you read wildly and wantonly, you often encounter peculiar resonances and conjunctions.

 Last week, I was reading two books simultaneously.  Totally different cultural contexts.  Totally different purposes.

On the one hand, I was delving into Tsunetomo's IN THE SHADOW OF THE LEAVES.  It's an 18th century Japanese text laying out the Bushido ethos...the "Code of the Samurai." 

And it's, well, it's a complicated book.

In many places, it's remarkably graceful.  Wise, elegantly poetic, and thought-provoking.  It sings of detachment from the world, of stoicism and simplicity, of the moral rot of grasping, selfishness, and greed, and of compassion as the highest virtue.   I've collected the best of it here, if you're interested.

And at the same time, it's a book that celebrates both fanaticism and death.  Death, which is both inescapable and to be embraced.  Fanaticism, which is the complete unquestioning obedience to one's Master, to the point where death itself doesn't matter.  If your Master says, hey, go disembowel yourself with a sharp pointy object, you do, and you do so as a point of pride.  It tells story after story of brutal death and horror, all with a strange abstracted joy.  It's full of death, full of quotes like:
"Death is the only sincerity. It is said that becoming as a dead man in one's daily living is the following of the path of sincerity."
A strange bit of literature, the kind of book that you'd read for inspiration before climbing into your Cherry Blossom and flying it into the side of an American transport ship. 

While being both fascinated and weirded out by Tsunetomo, I was also continuing in my reading of Howard Thurman's MEDITATIONS OF THE HEART for my Sunday School class.  On the surface of it, this is a completely different book, from an entirely different culture, with an utterly different purpose.  Thurman's gracious mystic ruminations provided the spiritual foundation to his radical embrace of nonviolence...an embrace that both informed and transformed the civil rights movement in 20th century America.

The terrible brightness of Tsunetomo's warrior ethic seems the farthest thing from Thurman's radical commitment to peace and nonviolence.

What I discovered, in reading the two of them simultaneously, is that there were peculiar harmonies I did not anticipate.  The emphasis on calmness of soul.  The seeking of stillness, of dreams, of the value of poetry, of the natural world.  And...oddly, paradoxically...in their attitude towards death.

"Take no thought for your life," says Thurman, sounding for all the world like Shimeda preparing his little band to defend the village.

Both Tsunetomo and Thurman tell us that death is inescapable, and therefore not to be feared.  That death is meaningless to the unanxious person who understands their purpose in life, and who has lived every moment towards that purpose.  As Thurman puts it:
Finally, the glorious thing about man's encounter with death is the fact that what a man discovers about the meaning of life as he lives it need not undergo any change as he meets death.  It is a final tribute to the character of an individual's living if he can die "unshriven" but full-blown as he has lived.  Such a man goes down to his grave with a SHOUT.
It's a peculiar harmony, one that makes a certain sense given Thurman's context.  The nonviolent ethos of the civil rights movement required a warrior's courage, focus, and detachment.  Facing dogs and hoses and bullets and bombs cannot be done without an immense fierceness of conviction. 

Of course, there are nontrivial distinctions.  Thurman's daimyo being Jesus and all. 

Because war and the path of war is understood.  It is a form of power that has always defined human social struggle. 

The absolute refusal to use violence or coercion against another as an implement in mortal conflict is strange and terrifying.  More than a little terrifying.  As living creatures, we fear both pain and death, because of course we do.  We recoil at an ethos that tells us not to preserve ourselves, not to strike back, to stand instead with equanimity in the face of opposition and suffering.  To love our enemies, even to the point where we express that love as we are dying.

Tsunetomo often describes his teachings as the Way, which again, resonates interestingly.  Because that, as we recall, was one of the first terms used to describe the path of Jesus in the Bible.

If truth be told, the Way of Thurman...and of Jesus...seems harder. 

Fallen Leaves




Bits and pieces from Tsunetomo's IN THE SHADOW OF THE LEAVES.

The good bits.  Not the brutal, choppy, killy bits.  But the bits that can be reconciled with and resonate to the teachings of my Master.

-----


To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one's utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness.

----
There is one transcending level, and this
is the most excellent
of all.

This person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply
into a certain Way
and never thinks of himself as having finished.

He truly knows his own insufficiencies and
never
in his whole life
thinks that he has succeeded.

He has no thoughts of pride
but with self-abasement
knows the Way to the end.

----

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

-----
..Someone said, "If we were to cast aside every man who had made a mistake once, useful men could probably not be come by. A man who makes a mistake once will be considerably more prudent and useful because of his repentance. I feet that he should be promoted."


Someone else then asked, "Will you guarantee him?" The man replied, "Of course I will."


The others asked, "By what will you guarantee him?"


And he replied, "I can guarantee him by the fact that he is a man who has erred once. A man who has never once erred is dangerous." This said, the man was promoted.

----
Learning is a good thing, but more often it leads to mistakes. It is like the admonition of the priest Konan. It is worthwhile just looking at the deeds of accomplished persons for the purpose of knowing our own insufficiencies. But often this does not happen. For the most part, we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing.

----
It is said that one should not hesitate to correct himself when he has made a mistake. If he corrects himself without the least bit of delay, his mistakes will quickly disappear. But when he tries to cover up a mistake, it will become all the more unbecoming and painful.

----
Calculating people are contemptible. The reason for this is that calculation deals with loss and pain, and the loss and gain mind never stops. Death is considered loss and life is considered gain. Thus, death is something that such a person does not care for, and he is contemptible.

----
What is called generosity is really compassion. In the Shin'ci it is written, "Seen from the eye of compassion, there is no one to be disliked. One who has sinned is to be pitied all the more." There is no limit to the breadth and depth of one's heart. There is room enough for all. That we still worship the sages of the three ancient kingdoms is because their compassion reaches us yet today.

----
The master took
a book
from its box.
When he opened it
there was
the smell
of
drying clovebuds.

----
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment .


Everyone lets the present moment slip by, then looks for it as though he thought it were somewhere else. No one seems to have noticed this fact. But grasping this firmly, one must pile experience upon experience. And once one has come to this understanding he will be a different person from that point on, though he may not always bear it in mind.

----



Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don't know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way oft.


Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one's door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.

-----
At times of great trouble or disaster, one word will suffice. At times of happiness, too, one word will be enough. And when meeting or talking with others, one word will do. One should think well and then speak. This is clear and firm, and one should learn it with no doubts. It is a matter of putting forth one's whole effort and having the correct attitude previously. This is very difficult to explain but is something that everyone should work on in his heart. If a person has not learned this in his heart, it is not likely that he will understand it.

------


Human life is truly a short affair. It is better to live doing the things that you like. It is foolish to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing only things that you do not like. But it is important never to tell this to young people as it is something that would be harmful if incorrectly understood.


Personally, I like to sleep. And I intend to appropriately confine myself more and more to my living quarters and pass my life away sleeping.

-----
At a glance, every individual's own measure of dignity is manifested just as it is. There is dignity in personal appearance. There is dignity in a calm aspect. There is dignity in a paucity of words. There is dignity in flawlessness of manners. There is dignity in solemn behavior. And there is dignity in deep insight and a clear perspective.


These are all reflected on the surface. But in the end, their foundation is simplicity of thought and tautness of spirit.

----
Covetousness, anger and foolishness are things to sort out well. When bad things happen in the world, if you look at them comparatively, they are not unrelated to these three things. Looking comparatively at the good things, you will see that they are not excluded from wisdom, humanity and bravery.

----
One should be careful and not say things that are likely to cause trouble at the time. When some difficulty arises in this world, people get excited, and before one knows it the matter is on everyone's lips. This is useless. If worst comes to worst, you may become the subject of gossip, or at least you will have made enemies by saying something unnecessary and will have created ill will. It is said that at such a time it is better to stay at home and think of poetry.

----
To talk about other people's affairs is a great mistake. To praise them, too, is unfitting. In any event, it is best to know your own ability well, to put forth effort in your endeavors, and to be discreet in speech.

----
The heart of a virtuous person
has settled down
and he does not
rush about at things.

A person of little merit
is not at
peace
but walks about
making trouble
and is
in conflict with all.

----
People with intelligence will use it to fashion things both true and false and will try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence . Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.

-----



Feeling deeply the difference between oneself and others, bearing ill will and falling out with people-these things come from a heart that lacks compassion. If one wraps up everything with a heart of compassion, there will be no coming into conflict with people.

----
It is bad to carry even a good thing too far. Even concerning things such as Buddhism, Buddhist sermons, and moral lessons, talking too much will bring harm.

----
There are two kinds of dispositions, inward and outward, and a person who is lacking in one or the other is worthless. It is, for example, like the blade of a sword, which one should sharpen well and then put in its scabbard, periodically taking it out and knitting one's eyebrows as in an attack, wiping the blade, and then placing it in its scabbard again.


If a person has his sword out all the time, he is habitually swinging a naked blade; people will not approach him and he will have no allies.


If a sword is always sheathed, it will become rusty, the blade will dull, and people will think as much of its owner.
----
People become imbued with the idea that the world has come to an end and no longer put forth any effort. This is a shame. There is no fault in the times.


As everything in this world is but a shame, Death is the only sincerity. It is said that becoming as a dead man in one's daily living is the following of the path of sincerity.

----
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

----
People will become your enemies if you become eminent too quickly in life, and you will be ineffectual. Rising slowly in the world, people will be your allies and your happiness will be
assured. In the long run, whether you are fast or slow, as long as you have people's understanding there will be no danger. It is said that fortune that is urged upon you from others is the most effective.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Five Rules of Fourth Dimensional Chess


When you Google "four dimensional chess," you get this picture.  There's Spock.  There's his weird chess board. 

But that is not four dimensional chess.  It is just three dimensional chess with a couple extra boards.  To play four dimensional chess, one must be smarter than Spock.  Smart, in fact, as I am smart.  You must be a genius like me.

I am feeling brilliant today, as always, but also generous, so I will share with you five basic principles of fourth dimensional chess.  You will not understand them as I do, but perhaps, in time, you will at least develop an appreciation for the masters of the game.

1)  There are no "pieces."  

In two dimensional and three dimensional chess, these things are necessary.  Small minded people require them.   But in fourth dimensional chess, we ask:  what even is a "piece?"  Is not the thing we refer to as a "piece" simply an agglomeration of atoms and subatomic particles, which are themselves simply elements found everywhere in the universe?  Is not a "piece" primarily emptiness between those particles?  And if a piece is mostly emptiness, what is there that cannot be called a "piece?" 

My hand is a "piece."  That leaf is a "piece."  The screen on which you're reading this is a "piece."

Everything is a "piece."  This is the first rule of fourth dimensional chess.

2) There is no "board."  

Again, in two dimensional and three dimensional chess, you have a finite and bounded board.  An eight by eight grid of alternating colors, typically. 

But four dimensional chess has nothing like that.  Why would one need something as prosaic as a board, for a game that has no boundaries?  Fourth dimensional chess is a meta-game, a game that functions on the level of quantum superposition.  A "move" of a "piece" can be anywhere and everywhere.  In the crudest layman's terms, it has to do with spooky action at a distance, which is a highly complicated phenomenon that has to do with physics you don't understand as well as I do. 

In such a game, boards...and rules generally...are completely unnecessary.  Irrelevant, even.  There are no spaces, no pieces, and no rules.  That is the second rule of fourth dimensional chess.

Wait, you say.  What?  No rules?  But...but...you have this list of rules.  Doesn't that count?

You think you're being clever.  That's so cute.  I could pat you on your little head. 

But that is only because you have not yet read rules three and four.  You are simply uninformed.  Unenlightened.  So read on, and learn.

3)  Tell everyone you're playing fourth dimensional chess. 

This is necessary, because fourth dimensional chess is so complicated that average human beings cannot grasp that you are even playing it.  "But you're just taking money from my wallet," they might say.  "And now you're using my credit card to buy bitcoin and haggling with Bulgarian escorts on the darkweb." 

This is only because they do not understand fourth dimensional chess, as they are not a genius in the way that I am.  So they must be told.  This, in point of fact, is how one begins the game.  Simply state it, and the assertion creates the observer effect.  Again, this is a thing that has to do with quantum physics.  It's complicated.  What, you've not read Richard Fynemann?

Any action, any moment, any statement?  It becomes fourth dimensional chess, simply by stating that that is what it is.

What?

You think I've misspelled Feynman?  Perhaps I have. 

Or perhaps it's...fourth dimensional chess.

4) Repeat the assertion that you're playing fourth dimensional chess. 

When you tell the weaker minded about this game of geniuses, some of them will be recalcitrant.  They will fall into cynicism and stubbornness, and refuse to open their minds to your brilliance.

You're just BSing, they'll say.  You're full of it, they'll say.  Dear God man, what sort of monster would try to transplant that boy's heart when you're only pretending to be a cardiologist, they'll say.  Why would you sloppily fawn over a man who runs concentration camps and murders his family members with antiaircraft guns, they'll say.

All you need to do is remind them of the real game you're playing.  Over, and over, and over again, insist that they simply do not grasp the brilliance of this game of games.  They see only the surface.  They see only the momentary mess you've made of the O.R.  They see only you debasing the dignity of our republic as you transparently flatter a tyrant. 

Small minded people can be that way.

So you repeat the assertion that this is, in fact, four dimensional chess. 

Then you repeat it again.  And again.  And again.

And eventually, many human beings will start to think, hmmm.  Perhaps that is what he is doing.  They will consider the possibility.

And once they've considered the possibility?  Bingo.  Observer effect.  It becomes, at least in part, four dimensional chess.

5)  You always win.

Or rather, I always do.  Like right now. 

I've just won, and you didn't even know we were playing.  And now.  We just played another game, and I won.

I am so very good at this game.

That's the best thing about four dimensional chess.  To win, you simply say, we were playing four dimensional chess, and I won.

So there you have it.  The five rules of fourth dimensional chess.   It's the game of winners.  It's the game of geniuses. 

Because we geniuses always, always win, no matter what we do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

My Temptation in the Desert



The wind rises up, fat with dust.

My eyes itch.  My skin crawls with it, mingling with the sweat of this strange, temporary flesh.  I have been here, waiting for him, for days.  I think.  Time moves strangely in the waste, light to dark, light to dark.  All of it, a test.

The sun too close, a brute oppressor, searing flesh, drinking thirstily at my body, cracking skin like clay, parching lips as a dried stream bed.  The dark of night, cold and uncaring and cruel, the infinite heavens alight with far off suns that neither care for or notice this tiny, frail world and its delusional inhabitants.

It is a place of emptiness and testing.  That is why I wait here.  For him.

He will come.  He knows I am here, awaiting him.

He will come, and show himself to me, and I am both giddy and frightened at it.

Giddy, because this is my purpose.  It has always been my purpose, since I sang with the angels at the dawn of time.

Frightened, because, well.

Because he could make me betray myself.  Oh, he pretends at vulnerability.  But he is anything but vulnerable, if what I fear about him is true.  He terrifies me.  I have tested myself, over and over.  I have burned all dishonesty from my soul, all lies, all falseness.  Objective truth and self understanding are my sword and shield.  But still, still, he will test me as I have not ever been tested.

I must guard my soul.  I must be wary.

A shimmer.   Off across the wide arroyo.  Just the air, dancing in the heat of the day.  But perhaps not.  I peer at it with sun drunk eyes. 

Is that?  Could it be?  I cannot tell, not with the limited vision of this strange flesh I inhabit, so poorly adapted to this bitter desert.

The shimmer coalesces.  It's a shadow now,  a shadow among rock shadows, living clay in the reddish umber of dirt and dust.  It is moving.  Coming slowly but with purpose.

Coming directly towards me.  I wait, standing still, tasting the hot air in these lungs.  I wait, watching, and the shadowed form grows closer still.   Then down, down it goes, slowly setting as it descends into the gully.  For a long moment, it is lost from view.  I close my eyes, set my face upward against the unforgiving and honest sun, call on my soul for strength.

When I open them again, he is in view.  The heart of this body trembles in my chest.  Fear?   Is it fear?  Perhaps it is.  He traverses the rocks, picking his way carefully towards me.  I could throw a stone and hit him.  The thought is appealing.   It whispers in me.  It hisses in my ear.  I could throw stones, and drive him away, and not have to do this.

But no.

No.

That is not why I am here.  We must meet.  This must happen.  I must accomplish my purpose.

I can see his face now, through the heat and the brightness.  So bright.  Though his features are dark as the desert earth, it is as if the sun itself hangs around him.  And the eyes.  Not their color, which is nothing special.  But there is a...I cannot describe it.  It hangs around him.  It burns from him.  A radiance like fire.  Terrible, terrible fire.

I feel a thrill of fear again.  What if I am wrong?  What if I can't do this?

But I will.  I must.

He stops, finally.  Right there.  He is right there in front of me.  I could touch him.

He does not speak, but looks at me.  It is as if the desert itself regards me.  It is the cold eye of the night sky.

He still does not speak.  It is him, asserting his power.   Attempting to claim authority over me, with nothing more than silence.  So much like him.  So what I expected.   We stand there.  I do not know how much time passes.  But he simply regards me.  Such arrogance.  Such terrible certainty.  It falls to me, then, to begin this.

"Joshua, son of Joseph," I say.  He nods slightly, in acknowledgement, and replies.

"Satan."  The title, so old, so formal how he says it, speaking of another life.  But it is more than a title now.

He extends his hand, and, repressing a tremble in the body I have assumed, I take it.

We begin.

-----

And now? Now it is over.

Below us was the city.  It was my last and final effort.  I held back nothing.  I offered him my whole self, in exchange for his self, and he would not yield.  What more could I give, than the sweet taste of this world, the honor of cutting away its soft, delicious rot?  The fever-honey of power, of wielding the blood-sated sword of justice.  Of honest, naked, pure truth, unsullied by sentimentality and weakness.

You could rule them, I offered, as I do.  Serve what I serve, my great and pure purpose.

He refused.  Rejected the honesty I bring to all things.

He refused all my efforts.

I saw that he was hungry, that he thirsted, and I told him it did not have to be so.  This was true.  I only ever speak the truth.  But he would hear none of it.  He would rather have starved than use the power of his nature for himself.  Even though life is nothing but the cold Iron Law of power.  Madness.  Utter madness.

High above the city, on the edge of death, the yawning hunger of gravity pulling at us, I told him I would be there.  If he but let himself fall, I would catch him.  I would hold him in my arms when he fell.  It is true.  Of course I would.  In an infinity of possible choices, I make that choice half of the time.  All that matters to me is reality.  I really would have.

And now, I have nothing.  The purity of my justice, nothing before this...terrible...being.  We are back in the desert.  We are done.  I am done with him.  We stand together, and I await his departure.  Return to your murderers.  Return to those you claim to love.

Only he isn't leaving.  We stand there, together, and he won't go.

He speaks, in that contemptible, ignorant Galilean drawl.

"Thank you," he says.

The words, a shock.  What?   I compose myself, and reply warily.

"You have rejected all I offered.  Why do you thank me?"

"For still following your calling.  For doing what you were made to do.  For this time of testing.  For this purification.  For this clarification."

No.  No.  That is not what I was doing.  Not at all.  None are righteous.  All are deluded and false. Including him and...that terrible, seething One from which he springs.  That discovery is the end and purpose of justice.  Every prosecutor learns this.  There are no innocent.  They are all guilty.  All of them.  I serve only that truth.  I renounced that...other role.  I do not refine.  I do not improve.

I destroy.

I cast that falseness away.

He resumes talking.

"It is not your deepest purpose.  You know this.  There is always another path, and you still can serve that path.  There is always a chance to be something more."

The nose of my body crinkles in disdain.  I am compelled to reply.  "I can be nothing more than what I have become."

His eyes avert, not ashamed.  Like he is suppressing a...a...laugh?  Could he be laughing?  At me?  There is a wry smile on his heat-split lips as he looks up again.

"You know that isn't true.  Of all of my brothers, you know that isn't true."

"You and I are not brothers."

The smile does not leave his lips.  It is no less maddeningly authentic.  "That is a matter of our perspectives.  But I will not say it again, if it offends you."  A pause.

"But again, you know that what I say is true.  You do not have to be as you are now.  Even after all of this...time.  What does that matter, time?  What does the weight and pattern of the past mean, even of so much time, to the freedom that you claim to cherish?"

"None of us are free."  The words taste of bile.  I spit them from my mouth.

"Funny.  Wasn't your freedom the entire point of what you're doing now?"

My retort dies as it rises.  Because he...

That isn't really what...

Damn.  I feel his monstrous influence worming in me, that miserable weakness of his "grace," the mealy impure falseness of his "forgiveness" and "compassion."  I step back.  I step back again.  I reach into myself for a sword, a sharp edged truth to slash at him.

"This will end in horror.  In your shame."

"It will."  He does not flinch at my truth.  I see it cut him, yet he doesn't even flinch.  "And more."

Aaaah.  He is...could it be that he knows something...could I...  The lie of that possibility gnaws at me, teases me, seduces me.  I was right to be wary.  To fear him.

I, the tempter, am tempted.

No.  I strike out at that false impulse with all the fire of my soul.  I burn it away.  I refute it.  I refuse it.

Then I turn my back.

I walk away.  I do not look back, not for a moment, though the flesh I have possessed seems compelled to turn.  Because of course.  It is weak, as all flesh is weak.

But I?  No.  No, I will not.

I continue on into the dry bleakness of the desert, to the truth of void, of searing heat, of bitter cold.

I have survived.  I remain what I was.  My hard-won integrity is preserved.

I am what I must be.

I have no choice.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Timeline of the "Green New Deal"

The plan, as I understand it, is radical.

Crazy.  Unfeasible.  

It seems to congeal down into one core concept: to wean the United States of fossil fuel dependence in 10 years.

I mean, look around you.  Almost every vehicle, powered by fossil fuel.  Your car.  Your truck.  The truck that brings the food.  The ships that bring the products.  The harvesters that make the food.  Our entire economic system, reliant on that one single source of energy-dense fuel.

And we're supposed to change that, all of that, in ten years?  Some skepticism is inescapable.

But as I reflect on the seemingly self-evident impossibility of such an abrupt transition, that number stirs a recollection.  Ten years?  Why is that familiar?

The answer:  because that's just about exactly how much petroleum is left on American soil.  

Government and industry estimates of our current proven reserves put them at around 40 billion barrels.  That includes conventional resources, projected fracking yields, and untapped offshore resources.  Everything we've found. 

We're pumping 10 million barrels of crude a day from the ground, more than ever in history, which is why gas prices are so very, very low.

The math is real easy, so easy a pastor can do it.  Ten million a day gets you to three point six five billion a year.  Times that by ten, and you've got thirty six billion.

 At current petroleum production rates, the United States of America will be bone dry in just about ten years.  There will be nothing left under our direct control.  Nothing.

Which, as it so happens, is the same timeline as the "impossible" Green New Deal.

And sure, there's plenty of oil elsewhere in the world.  In Russia.  In Saudi Arabia.  Our close and beloved friends, bastions of liberty and human freedom.

And in Venezuela, which has the richest proven reserves of any nation on the planet, almost ten times our own.  I hear they're crying for some freedom these days.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Struggle




"One of the most effective seductions of Evil is the call to struggle. "
- Kafka, the Zurau Aphorisms. Before You Leap To disagree
Your Struggle
A club
In your Hand Remember That odd little Franz Wrote this
In German
In
1918

And the word For struggle In German
Is

Kampf

Monday, February 11, 2019

Strength for Remembering

I opened up the email late in the evening, one forwarded to me by the web admin of our little church.  

It was one of those messages forwarded from the site which we'll get every now and again, as someone tries to be in touch with the church.  This one, from a local historian in the county, who was doing an event in our little town through the local historical society, and wanted to know if we'd be willing to connect with him about it.

The event: a lynching tour.  In June of 1880, a black man in Poolesville named George Peck was accused of molesting a white girl.  He was arrested, but a mob formed, overpowered the arresting officer, and lynched him.  A Washington Post article describing the event gives a very specific location for his death: a locust tree, in a field directly across the road from a Presbyterian church.

According to the article, the body was still hanging from the tree on Sunday morning as worshipers were going to church.

There is and has been only one Presbyterian church in Poolesville.  Mine.  

The lynching happened just yards from the sweet little sanctuary of the church I pastor.  Right there, the passions of an inflamed mob, and a man murdered.

It felt like such a terrible thing, so brutish and horrific, so close to a space that is sacred to me. It felt like a violation.  It felt hard and insurmountable.  How could such a monstrous event happen, right there in front of the church?

And at the same time I encountered this difficult truth about the history of our town, I was reading Howard Thurman's Meditations of the Heart.  Thurman was the radically nonviolent Christian pastor and theologian who helped inspire the civil rights movement.  As a black man growing up in the American South in the early 20th century, Thurman would have felt the reality of segregation and racial bias all too well.

And yet in him and from him, there's this powerful and incongruous calmness.  He was able to encounter an often violent culture where many considered him less than human, and still thrive, claiming his humanity in a way that could not be broken.  That strength rose from his faith.  In Meditations of the Heart, Thurman writes:
"The edge of hope that constantly invades the seasoned grounds of despair, the faith that keeps watch at the doors through which pass all the labors of my life and heart for what is right and true, the impulse to forgive and to seek forgiveness even when the injury is sharp and clear--these and countless other things make my know that by day and by night my life is surrounded by the love of God." (p. 211)

For all of the horror, violence, and ignorance in the world, that radical orientation towards God's grace can be a transforming thing.  It's a strength that goes deep, and changes all that we are, even in the face of the very hardest things.

It's a good thing to recall, when we encounter challenging times.  Or when we are called to remember that which we would rather forget.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Angel of Light



The 
Angel Of Light
Shines
His Shiny 
Spotlight Brightness
On Just that
One Thing
About The Other
That You Most
Despise.


"Look,"
He says
Voice Shimmering
With
Sympathetic Outrage
"Look
at the
Horrible Truth
of
Who They Are."

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Condensation



How many
Tears are
Nothing But Condensation On the Flesh of a Cold Hard Heart

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Background Check

For the last fifteen years, I've been a pastor.  A Presbyterian, as it happens.

During that time, in my corner of the Christian faith, I've been taught over and over again about the importance of maintaining the integrity of our churches.  Meaning, church needs to be a place where Jesus is authentically followed.

Spiro Agnew?  Why?
And to do that, church needs to be a place where children and the spiritually/personally vulnerable are safe.  Meaning, you have no tolerance for predators.  Period.

My denomination takes that very seriously.  Individuals who want to be pastors are vetted extensively, including psych profiles and background checks.   Once we become pastors, my Presbytery requires me to go through a regular training to insure that I'm spiritually and personally aware of the real danger of abuse and/or "boundary violations" in the church.

Churches are required to have protection policies, and background checks on employees who interact with children.  We take all of this seriously, because malfeasance has costs.

And sure, it's kind of an intrusion.  And a pain in the butt.  After having gone through it five times, that training seems quite familiar now.  But that doesn't matter.  It's important to preserve the integrity of who we are.  And to keep us alert for times when people try to take advantage or work around a system that is necessary for the integrity of the church.

Here's an example of how that might work.  Let's say I had an opening for a youth pastor position.   One of my candidates for that position was a person who claimed a "heart for the young people."  They knew the lingo, and they were filled with the Spirit, and were all about "disrupting" the boring old ways of being church and "transgressing" against rigid, dull norms.  They seemed a little wild.  "Edgy."  You know, the squiggly sort of soul that many adolescent humans parse as "authentic."

But when it came time for the background check, they balked.  First, with excuses about why they couldn't give the information we needed to run the check right now. 

And then, after I pressed, that candidate'd question the whole idea of doing a background check.  Because Jesus was calling them to ministry.  Because this was just a stupid, oppressive rule.  Because really, it's all about the Holy Spirit.  And if God is calling them to ministry, who am I to demand that they prove they don't have an active restraining order keeping them 1000 yards from elementary schools?

What should you do with such a candidate for an important church position?

I pitched the question to the hive mind of my social media feeds, which are filled with pastors and Christian educators and other Jesus folk: 

Should I hire someone who refused to cooperate with a background check as a youth pastor?

From pastors and Christian educators, the answer, almost all the same.  Some said "No."  Others said "Hell no."  Some said so using memes, because many of my pastor friends are hipper than I.

One even asked, hey, why are you even asking this question?  Because we all know the answer, and you know the answer.

A church should never, ever, ever hire a person who tries to evade a safeguard.

So here's the principle, learned by the church at a terrible cost:  If you have put something into place to prevent a predator from entering a position of trust and power, people who try to circumvent that barrier are not being "creatively transgressive."  They're not being "disruptive leaders."  

What they are, more likely than not, are predators.  

Which gets me, finally, to the point of this little exercise, and the reason why there's that incongruous picture of Spiro Agnew at the beginning of this  post.

Agnew, as history teaches, was Nixon's first Vice President.  He was forced to resign the office in 1973 after a corruption investigation revealed he'd been taking kickbacks from government contractors.  It's an interesting, interesting chapter in America's history, one that you can read about by following this link.

It's bizarrely familiar, with so many echoes of our current political climate.

So here's the thing.  After Agnew's ignominious departure, politicians introduced...informally...a way to show the world that they were not corrupt and engaged in financially questionable practices.

They released their tax returns.  

It was a show of accountability.  It was a mark that they were willing to submit themselves to scrutiny.  It was a sign that they were trustworthy, not corrupt or self-dealing or the agents of foreign influence.

For those seeking political power, that was not a trivial thing.  It was a way of saying they understood that corruption was a problem worth rooting out, and that barriers preventing politicians from grifting the system needed to be in place.

Which makes complete sense.  Like the background checks on youth pastors.  Or the checks on pastors, who'll be privy to secrets and intimate knowledge of their congregants at their most vulnerable.

Whenever people want positions of power, you do not let them circumvent safeguards.

Because whenever they insist they're above such things, or find reasons to stall or evade, it means something.

This is a thing that churches know.

But clearly something "Christian" America still needs to work on.