Friday, December 30, 2011

Political Awareness; A Moment in Time

We were on the deck, taking a break from summer camp staff training, when we heard the news. Pouring over the newspaper, my friend made the announcement, and everyone who was there got angry or sad or frustrated or all of those combined. I, however, stood there dumbstruck, not understanding how the 1989 events at Tiananmen Square had any impact on my life.

I still don't understand very well the politics leading up to this incident, and I certainly didn't at the time. What I do remember is being rather startled that people my age were so concerned about what was happening on the other side of the world ~ and my confusion was exacerbated by the fact that we'd just spent a week or more at staff training, almost completely isolated what was happening in the world around us.

Today I follow as closely as possible to what's happening in Washington, the Occupy movement, Tahrir Square and across the middle east, the Mexican border ~ but that day, on the deck, was the first time I began to realize that I should pay attention to what's going on in the world. It's the first time that I internalized the importance of having an opinion, and that my opinion be deeply rooted in my faith. Thanks, fellow summer camp staff, for sharing that piece of your selves.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Money in the Church

Every congregation I've ever been part of has struggled with finances. Contrary to the popular opinion that the church is swimming in extra money (though the Roman Catholic church may well be, I'd venture a guess that individual RC congregations struggle to make ends meet), many congregations aren't able to bring in enough funds to do the ministry to which they feel called.

My own congregation has wrestled with this issue over the past couple years, and is doing so again as we anticipate the upcoming fiscal year ~ which has got me thinking about how we decide what to pay for and what to cut when there's not enough money to do everything we feel called to.

For instance, we may well say that youth ministry is important; we may well say that evangelism is important, that expanding our presence in the community is important; we may say that adding to the church staff is important, that providing a free vacation bible school is important, or that hosting a huge party/bar-b-q/carnival for the neighborhood is important.

We can say out loud that these things are important. I learned long ago, though, that if we want to know what's actually important to a congregation (or a household, or a government), look at where the money gets spent. *Now, bear in mind, I'm not talking about those households who have to make choices about whether to pay for food or rent ~ when I mention households, it's those who have discretionary funds available.*

For some households, what's important is having a boat; for some, they spend their money on cruises and other travel; some spend a lot on home improvement. The list is potentially endless. But where the money goes, I believe, indicates what that household views as important.

Also, consider our nation (USAmerica). If we were to assume that what's most important is that which we spend the most on, we'd probably conclude that conducting war is the most important thing to our nation, and that bolstering healthcare or poor communities or school districts is pretty far down the list (but that's a post for another time).

I'm not thinking about those things right now ~ I'm thinking about congregational budgets. If a person were to look at the budgets of many congregations (especially many ELCA and other mainline congregations), we'd have to conclude that the most important thing to the congregation is the building. This is particularly true if we add to the mortgage the heat and light bills, the insurance, the lawn and building maintenance, and all the rest of the upkeep on the physical property.

We can say all we want that evangelism or youth ministry or outreach is important. The trouble is that our budget sheets tell a different story. Even if we really and truly believe that buildings are not important, we're stuck with them. Congregational leadership is stuck with decisions that were made before they entered the decision-making process. Other people made the decision to build a building on credit, and to saddle the future of the church with that debt. Sure, most of those decisions were made at a time when the neighborhood was booming. Thirty years ago, the neighborhood where the congregation I serve is situated was the new part of town, the growing edge where people with means went to live. Now, people with means live farther out, and the neighborhood is substantially poorer … but we're stuck with the debt incurred by previous leadership.

So I'm stuck lamenting. We can't stop paying the heat and light and mortgage. But if push comes to shove, and the budget has to be cut, it's not the heat and light and mortgage lines that will get reduced. We have to reduce the lines that go to ministry. We have to reduce our vacation bible school budget; we have to reduce our youth ministry budget; we have to reduce our outreach budget, and all the other non-essentials. The trouble is, if we're only making loan and utility payments, how are we different from a social club?

It's getting to the point where I wonder, What's essential to being the church? What one thing is it about church that, if it were gone, we would no longer be the church?


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent Solstice Reflection

solstice, the darkest day
     when despair seems, perhaps,
     to be most immanent
when hopelessness, maybe
     is most fully incarnate

yet, we gather ourselves into the
     warmth of home, the
     warmth of sanctuary, the
     warmth of community, the
     warmth of fire, the
     warmth of the Word of God

and when we gather,
     we tell surprising stories
         stories of who we are –
     but we don’t tell stories of
         despair, of hopelessness

Hope, and Light, and Love pervade
     times of darkness and despair

see, we have seen Christ born,
     God entering vulnerable into our life
we have heard words incarnate
     as the things we speak, good or ill
         become truth
we have tasted bread and wine
     sweeter and richer and subtler and deeper
         than any narthex cookies could be
and we know we will again

     in the face of despair
Gospel is light,
     breaking into our darkness
Light is Gospel
     pushing darkness to the edges,
     the outskirts,
     the margins

Then, we can’t help but to look into the darkness
         where, perhaps,
     far from the place we huddle around
         light and warmth and community
     we see Christ banishing darkness
         even where we cannot even see light

which, according to some, is hope –
     trusting what we believe to be true
         despite all the evidence

despite all the evidence,
     darkness in so many forms surrounding us
we proclaim light
     Word of God
         continually coming into the world

and, as we begin again, every day, to
         believe and hope,
     we might humbly echo Mary
         ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’
allowing our being to reflect,
         into darkness
Divine Light

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scattered thoughts on feasting

Feasting. We're in the middle of the season for feasting. Between the parties, the special dinners, the cookies and candies that seem to be everywhere, and the snacking in the kitchen while preparing to feed others, it seems like we can't get away from feasting. It starts, sort of, at Halloween (when I'm sure I'm not alone in raiding my childrens' candy stash). Then the patriotic Thanksgiving feast lasts a few days; then, as soon as the turkey's gone, we're going to parties and baking for Christmas. Even many people who don't celebrate Christmas probably get wrapped up in the holiday feasting.

I have to say, I love feasting. I love getting together with family and friends for a beautiful and substantial meal. I love celebrating some special event, whether it's personal or communal or societal. I think, though, that we've lost an understanding of what it means to feast. No, that's wrong. We still know how to feast; we just don't know how to not feast any more.

There was a time in human history when most of our meals were simple; when we ate essentially the same thing every day, and meals were relatively simple to prepare. Every so often, a few times a year, the community would gather together to celebrate something ~ a religious observance, a changing of seasons, or maybe the harvest. The food at feasts was more substantial, more abundant, and probably of greater variety. The food at feasts was often richer, more fatty and therefore more flavorful. The extravagance of feasts marked something special.

We still mark special events with feasting. Truth be told, though, we could feast every day if we wanted to. We in the western so-called first-world have access to tremendous variety of food every day. We have access to tremendous amounts of food every day. We have the ability to eat on a whim, and so I think that feasting has probably lost some of its significance.

Plus, since we have easy and cheap access to processed, chemical-and-fat-laden, 'food' ~ which fills our belly without actually promoting health or wellness (all while what grows naturally out of the ground has become comparatively expensive ~ prohibitively so, for those who live in poverty), there is very little distinction between (what used to be) the plainness of regular eating and the richness of feasting.

It's gotten to the point that we're often no longer to differentiate between regular eating and feasting. And most of us are so removed from any awareness that this pattern is (physically and emotionally and spiritually) unhealthy.

Of course, I'm pointing out what I see as a problem in our society without promoting any feasible ways of working toward a solution. The trouble is, I don't think there is a 'fix' short of re-vamping our entire economic system by removing the ridiculous profit from the food industry (is it really ok to trademark seeds?), and by advocating for better patterns of eating across society.

But that's probably a bigger project than what I can tackle today.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent In the Wilderness

up against the desperation of the
     holiday season
we set spiritual desperation, as we
are found in the wilderness, where a
     voice is crying;

a voice cries amid the wilderness of
     shopping malls,
the wilderness of holiday parties,
     of credit card debt
of the loneliness of the dark, and the
     darkness of the lonely

a voice cries, cutting through, though
     still and small
with good news: the Word of life is
     among us, bringing
comfort, comfort, even into this
     holiday wilderness

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent New Year

new year begins swathed in a
surprising quiet of blue, as if
I am suspended, neither buoyant
nor leaden, but simply still still
still.  I feel no need to breathe,
nor even twitch; everything I know,
in this moment, is trust.  And I
come to see that, perhaps, this
Advent suspension reveals the
blue waters of baptism in which
I am constantly suspended,
enwrapped in unmitigated
Grace, needing to neither breathe
nor even twitch, but simply Trust.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


On my facebook wall tonight I saw two photos, one after the other.  I'd seen both already, since folks have been posting them all day ~ but the fact that they happened to be juxtaposed like they were made me pause for a moment. 

The first was soldiers holding a sign that read "Occupy Bagram: Quit your Bitchin' and get back to Work". 

The next reads, "If they enforced bank regulation like they do park rules, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place". 

It seems to me like a person would fall into one of these camps or the other.  In fact, it seems to be true that our entire political system is set up so that you have to take one side or the other every time there's a conversation about anything.  It seems like, in this case, if you agree with the soldiers then you're against the protesters.  And if you agree with the protesters, then you're against the soldiers.  Perhaps that's too stark of a dichotomy, but that's the way it ends up playing out on facebook and in the news. 

Of course, some could argue that they two opinions ought to go hand in glove.  If the OWS protesters could get a job in this economy, they would probably have already followed the advice of the soldiers.  And perhaps if the authorities had enforced bank regulations, there would arguably be more jobs available. 

Then again, at the same time, others could argue that the protesters are spoiled, and their complains are about nothing substantial; that other people are getting by just fine, thank you very much, on hard work and sacrifice. 

Personally, though, I'd prefer to live in a world where war is not necessary because we recognize the value of each individual and community enough to not kill each other.  I'd prefer to live in a world where protest is not necessary because we recognize the value of each individual and community enough to not let anyone go without being able to do meaningful work and make a contribution to society.  I'd prefer to live in a world where bank regulation is not necessary because we recognize the value of each individual and community enough to not greedily gain for ourselves at the expense of our neighbor.  I'd prefer to live in a world where park regulation is not necessary because we recognize the value of each individual and community enough to respect, use wisely, and not pillage or degrade our natural resources. 

I suppose it sounds like I'd prefer to live in the Kingdom of G-d ... and perhaps I would, because (at the danger of creating G-d in my image), that's what I imagine the Kingdom of G-d looks like.  What I wonder is, why aren't we working harder together to make it reality?  Is it just greed and selfishness, or is there something more that keeps us from that work?


Full Moon in the Morning

light colors the sky
brightening the morning
darkness, adding depth
to my perception as I walk
out the door, preoccupied
with the work day

as I walk out the door, any
preoccupation vanishes,
replaced by wonder at an
almost-full moon, hanging
(suspended as a lamp from a
rafter) though, as the sun rises
the moon begins to seem
out of place, surprising
in its superfluoucity 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Three Rs

Reading and wRiting and aRithmetic help us to make our way through the world.  Take, for example, the simple act of grocery shopping.  Knowing the Three Rs would allow a person to WRITE a grocery list, to READ the ingredients list on food packaging, and to use ARITHMETIC to comparison shop for the best prices.  The Three Rs are absolutely important to our functioning as a society; if we don't teach these things to children, I have to believe that the future looks pretty bleak.

I'm sure there was a time in the history of western society when learning the Three Rs was an adequate education.  Of course at that time there were no televisions or computers, there was no air conditioning, there were no automatic weapons in the hands of normal citizens, and junk food laden with corn syrup and hydrogenated oils were much less prevalent.  All of these things conspire to keep children inside and imaginatively stunted. 

There was a time (when Three Rs education was adequate) that children's entertainment involved running around the neighborhoods or the fields and pastures.  There was a time (before music became professionalized) that people would play music together in the living room or on the front porch. 

I believe the schools were wise, as our home lives moved more and more predictably inside, to make sure that music and art and physical movement were part of the curriculum.  We as a society saw the value in educating the whole person, instead of just the Three-Rs-basics of the intellect.  At one time, the Three Rs were enough, because we received the rest from the rest of our lives.

These days, though, we seem to be making the mistake of assuming that if the Three Rs were enough then, they're enough now as well.  We make the mistake of ignoring the changes that have taken place in our world.  We make the mistake of removing art and music and physical education from our schools to balance the budget. 

We make these mistakes because we make the mistake of not wanting to pay taxes because we believe that having money in today's bank account is better than investing that money in our children and the future of our society. 

Now, we could climb up onto our high-horse-pedestal and say schools shouldn't need to teach art and music and physical education because families ought to be making their kids get outside, that families ought to be exposing their children to music, that families ought to be turning off the television and the computer.  We could say that ~ but we also must recognize that as much as we might say it, it isn't going to happen.

So we have a choice, as a society.  We could say that the Three Rs are enough, and that we're willing to surrender our children to the trappings of poor health, cultural ignorance, and the power of advertisement, thereby allowing our children to become little more than passive beings with atrophied muscles and atrophied minds.  In this case, we can continue to pay teachers barely a living wage, seeing them as unskilled laborers and treating them worse (as if the degrees they've earned and the hours they spend dedicated to teaching our children are meaningless and insignificant). 

Or we could choose to raise taxes and fund schools the way they should be funded, paying teachers the professional salary they deserve as professionals. 

Because I dream of a more just and compassionate and beautiful society for the future, I choose the latter.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

At the DMV

I spent three hours at the DMV the other day.  I know, I'm not the only one.  It seems like if anyone wants to complain about inefficiencies in government, or about long lines, or if anyone wants to just generally complain, the DMV seems to be a perfect target.

For this reason, every time I've gone into the DMV, I've done my best to be cordial and polite, and tried to recognize that the people who work there probably receive complaints all day.  Plus, I'm sure they hear 'jokes' and other comments even when they're not at work.  So I do everything I can to treat these people well when I find myself at the DMV. 

However, I found my patience wearing thin in my most recent DMV endeavors.  Here's what happened ... my sob story, if you will:

We bought a new car.  Well, we bought a used car, new to us.  I found the car at a smaller dealer up in Boulder.  And just to be financially safe and responsible, we took out a loan to pay for the car.  Now, I'll admit that I haven't bought many cars before, so I was unfamiliar with the paperwork that goes along with buying a car, and trusted the dealer and the credit union to guide me through.
Now, I was trying to be responsible.  So, a couple weeks after I bought the car, I went in to the DMV to get it registered.  After waiting for an hour, I got to the counter where I discovered that it takes weeks for the paperwork to arrive and be processed.  That hour was my fault.
So I returned a couple days before the temporary tag expired.  After waiting for over an hour, I discovered from the polite woman at the counter that DMV had received the paperwork, but hadn't had time to process it yet (but that the would over the weekend).  They issued me another permit, my hour having been wasted. 
So I returned the next week, and again waited for an hour.  When I got to the counter, the worker there informed me that the paperwork had been returned to the loan agency because it was incomplete.  It should be noted here that I had a copy of the missing form with the papers in my possession.  At this point, either the loan company had lost this piece of paper, or the DMV worker had missed it in the packet.  At this point, I needed a new temporary permit ~ but this time I had to pay for it. 
Two weeks later, the paperwork had not been received by the loan company.  However, I needed another temporary permit, so had to return to the DMV again.  This time, the wait was three hours.  When I got to the counter and explained the situation, I was informed that I'd need to pay for another temporary permit.  
Finally, after over two weeks, the paperwork made it to the credit union, where they discovered that the DMV had simply missed the form in the packet.  But since I had paid off the loan during the three months I'd been dealing with this, I was able to hand carry the paperwork to the DMV.  So I took it to the office, waited my required hour, and got up to the counter where the worker had trouble sorting through the different forms, since the loan paperwork was no longer pertinent.  But I came away, after five trips to DMV, four of them necessary, I came away with plates for the car.

I know this is a first world problem, and that many people in the world deal with much bigger issues than mine.  But most of my waiting could have been alleviated.  During my three-hour stint on the one day, someone standing near me asked, perhaps rhetorically, why it was taking so long.  Perhaps to his surprise, I offered an actual answer.  I believe the waits were so long, and the process was so slow, because the DMV is understaffed.  And I believe the DMV is understaffed because people don't want to pay taxes.  When I said this, my new friend asked if I didn't think we were paying a lot of taxes already (between income and sales and gasoline and all the rest).  

After pointing out that taxes are lower than they've been in decades, I told him that I'm paying anyway.  I'm paying for my lower tax rate by waiting for hours at the DMV.  I'm paying for my lower tax rate in repairs to my car when it's damaged on roads that aren't maintained.  I'm paying for my lower tax rate when my insurance and medical expenses rise.  And we're all paying for a lower tax rate (especially a lower tax rate on the wealthiest among us) as we struggle through a recession brought on by a housing crisis a banking crisis greed and politics.  

We're also making our children pay for our lower taxes today, because the education we're providing them is substandard ... because we're unwilling to pay more in taxes.  But that's for the next blog post. 


Monday, November 14, 2011

November at the Concert Hall

outside, rain turns to
snow as autumn's grasp
weakens, succumbing slowly
to winter's impatience;

winter disappears inside
the warmth of wood
vibrating sympathetically
with metal pulled taut;

as snow still falls, sound
fills the room, bouncing
off the walls and into our
souls, warming us from within

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saint's Sunday

children's playing
intrudes upon and mixes with the
first Sunday in November litany
as it brings to mind and heart
saints of all times and places

are those, the littlest making noise,
raindrops from such a
great cloud of witnesses?

Friday, November 4, 2011

brief ode to the cello

toned and tuned from the lowest to the
upper range of the human voice

and played with the whole body,
sound emanating from the
heart of the player's being

the cello may very well be

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taxes and Education

I was talking with someone on Tuesday about taxes.  We were talking about taxes because Tuesday was voting day (which took me by surprise, having learned in school that voting day is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November ... did we change that without my awareness?), and because there was a proposal to raise taxes on the Colorado ballot.   

The revenue from this tax increase would have gone to pay for schools.  As it turns out (the votes having been counted), the proposal failed miserably.  Of course, as you can see from the previous blog post, I voted in favor of this increase.  It makes me sick that this measure failed ~ it makes me sick from my perspective as a citizen, and it makes me sick from my perspective as a Christian.

As a citizen, I find it to be tremendously short-sighted that we prefer individual comfort in the short term to societal well-being in the long term.  Sure, each household may end up with a little more money in our bank account next year; but having chosen to continue to underfund our schools, we are dooming the long term well-being of our society. 

It seems to me that one question we haven't resolved, a question we might not have even adequately asked, is the question, 'What is the goal of public education in this state/country?'  If our goal is that students graduate knowing how to read, how to write, and how to do basic and essential math, we could do that job with much less money than we spend now.  If, however, we choose to value educational goals that are not as easily measurable (skill in and appreciation of art and music and literature, long-term physical fitness, critical thinking skills, etc.), then we must fund schools so that we can teach these things to our future, because most of those items are being (or have been) written out of school budgets.  

If we choose the former, we will end up with individual graduates who can read and write and do basic math.  If we choose the latter, we will end up with a generation who can build a healthy, sustainable, and life-giving society.  I choose the latter, and for this reason will always vote in favor of tax increases that will benefit schools.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I find it unconscionable that any Christian would vote against this sort of measure.  Sure, the educational issues mentioned above may have a role to play in our decision; but ignore those completely for a moment.  For Christian adults to vote against increasing taxes which would benefit schools teaches Christian children that looking out for the self is more important than looking out for the other.  In a word, it teaches greed.  Whether you have children in your household or not, is this what we want our Christian witness to be?  We can say all we want about loving other people, but children pay more attention to what we do than to what we say; and if our actions don't follow our words, then our words are meaningless.

I wonder whether the fact that so many people think that our nation is a Christian nation causes problems for our faith.  It seems to me that if we see our nation as a Christian nation, we will assume that our national values are Christian values ... and, often, they most certainly are not.  But that's a topic for another blog post.  

For now, I'll simply hope that other measures end up on future ballots, and that we come to our senses.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Tax Increase: Schools

I was asked recently whether I'll vote in favor of or against Colorado Proposition 103.  Colorado Proposition 103, if passed, will increase both sales tax and income tax in the state of Colorado for the next five years, with the additional revenue going to fund schools.  

I almost always vote in favor of tax increases, especially those that will benefit schools ~ and I'll probably vote yes on this one, too. 

As I understand it, though, there's disagreement about whether the proposition is well-constructed, though.  Part of the trouble may be that the tax increases might impact poor people the hardest.  Poor people won't be affected by the increase in state income tax (since they don't have enough income to have to pay that tax), but they will be hit harder by the increase in sales tax than richer people. 

We're talking about two different issues, though.  There is certainly a question as to which income bracket ought to bear the greatest brunt of the tax increase.   But before that, the question is whether schools have adequate funding. 

There are certainly some who say that increased funding has never produced better results.  Obviously more money does not necessarily equal better schools.  However, it seems to me that better results are much more difficult without increased funding.  One is not a direct result of the other, but the one is impossible without the other.  If it were true that lowered funding had no effect on performance, we could run schools for free ... which is (I hope) obviously absurd. 

Now, some people also say that the schools don't need increased revenue ~ we just need to get rid of teachers unions.  The extension seems to be that if we get rid of unions, we could balance the schools' budgets by lowering teachers' salaries (or firing teachers who are too expensive).  I have to take issue, though, with the opinion that an average salary of less than $50,000 is too expensive. 

(Of course, any time anyone mentions labor unions, there's bound to be strong differences of opinion about the efficacy of those groups.  Obviously they aren't the favorite entities of business owners, since they have a tendency to cut into profits.  At the same time, unions are certainly necessary, since without the power of collective bargaining, many business owners would succumb to the pull of greed at the expense of workers.  Plus, just like any institution, both unions and business owners have the potential to become corrupt.) 

At the end of the day, it comes down to a question of values ... particularly, what do we value?  Do we value more highly our ability to increase our bank accounts?  Do we value more highly our ability to buy things right now?  Do we value more highly ourselves and our present circumstance? 

Or are we willing to be a couple percentage points less well-off right now in order to invest in schools; in order to invest in our future? Because I'm afraid that if we're not willing to invest in schools now, we're condemning the future to tremendous desperation and hardship, which our national ancestors did their best not inflict on us.  And that, I believe, is ridiculous and wrong.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Financial Collapse

Europe's leaders are meeting to further discuss the Euro-zone debt crisis.  In USAmerica, we still have not worked our way out of our own economic woes.  Sure, they tell us the market is rebounding, but that seems to be only in the market ~ regular people are still struggling to find work, while the purchasing power of their paycheck continues to diminish.  Governmental leaders aren't actually doing anything other than yelling at each other about the best way forward, while bankers' and CEOs' paychecks are through the roof and corporations rake in record profits. 

A couple years ago, the government (read: taxpayers) bailed out the banks that were on the verge of implosion, because (the way I understand it in my feeble mind) if they were to fail, the whole financial system would collapse.

So, it seems to me that this is where we stand:  banks took big risks with money that belonged to regular people; the risks didn't pay off; the banks, who took the risk, are punished by being given loans so they can stay afloat; the bailed-out-risk-takers, as a result of their punishment, are now making more money than they were before the crisis.  At the same time, those of us who didn't take huge risks (those of us who actually funded the bail-out) are rewarded with stagnated wages, a poor job market, and huge concerns about an economic future that doesn't seem to be improving for anyone besides the tremendously wealthy. 

More than a couple times in recent weeks, I've heard the maxim 'greater risk results in greater rewards'.  What I haven't heard is anyone reminding us of the flip side, which is that with the potential for greater reward comes the danger of greater loss.  Maybe it's because if we believe that financial institutions are too big to fail, they don't actually take on any risk of loss.  If we continue to be willing to cover their losses, they will continue to manufacture bigger and bigger risk.  But it's our risk for their reward.  They're not a danger of loss ~ it's the taxpayers and regular people on whom they put that risk. 

The thing is, if I've made an investment, I don't mind taking a loss (it doesn't make me happy, but I understood the risk when I made the investment).  What I don't like is when I have to take a loss because someone else made a bad investment. 

What I continue to wonder is what would actually happen if those banks had been allowed to fail?  I hear that our financial system would collapse.  OK, this would probably result in a period of panic and chaos. 

But it wouldn't last forever ~ so, then what?  We'd start over, with something new.  And maybe, at least for a while, it wouldn't be so disproportionately unjust. 

Meanwhile, in the wake of banks' collapse and financial distress in Iceland, the people have kicked the government to the curb ~ real democracy seems to have momentarily reared its head.  


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

diner conversation

alone in a diner
surrounded by conversations ~
new lovers behind me; and
at that business meeting
over there,
a ceo's quiet confidence
belies middle school taunts
which surface every time she
smells chalk - but it doesn't
stop her from closing the deal
while the waiter ignores the
lovers, who never notice him
sneak into the kitchen to
pour black coffee over
his hangover ~
but they're not my conversations ...
I've been talking with eggs and
tortillas; but they're gone, their
interest having waned long ago.
now I'm left to wander, still alone,
out into the continued
anonymity of the city street.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sappy Seasonal Poem ~ Autumn

autumn infuses everything,
assaulting all my senses
like retail christmas ~
starting in september, but
unnoticed after a couple months

autumn's colors, though, appear
both more brilliant and more muted
than the red and green of fake holly

the wind blows leaves to crunch
underfoot, as well as the
warmth from my ears

soon enough the ground will be
covered with fallen frozen flakes

for now, though, the lightest frost
burning off at the first hint of sunlight
is enough to take us
gently toward winter

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stop Light

It was after I got a bike ~ a real bike, that would travel quickly down the road a long distance, not just a kid-riding-around-bike ~ that I saw something notable as I was riding as a passenger in a car. 

The first bike I had was a single speed, bmx-style, coaster brake equipped bike that I loved riding around the gravel and dirt where I grew up.  But eventually I began to covet other bikes ~ 10-speed bikes, with more than one gear, and brakes on the handlebars.  One year I got one, which was very exciting.  Before long, I was watching Connie Carpenter and the 7-Eleven cycling team on tv.  And I wanted to start cycling.

I upgraded from the department store special to a real road bike ~ lighter and sleeker, with a phenomenally understated paint job.  I got cycling gloves and cycling shorts, a cycling jersey and a campagnolo cycling hat; and I started spending time on the two-lane country road at the end of our quarter-mile gravel driveway.

Of course, once I started riding, I started noticing other cyclists on the roads.  One day, as I was observing cyclists, I saw in front of us in the left-turn lane, a notable guy on a bike.  The light was red, traffic was stopped, and so was he.  But his feet were still on the pedals ~ and knowing what I had recently learned about toe clips, I could see upon closer inspection that he hadn't even bothered to loosen the straps.  His feet were tightly affixed to the pedals as he stood still, balancing behind one car and ahead of the one I rode in.

When the light moved to green, off he went, leaving us behind, stuck in traffic. 

That was 25 years ago; but I hope that guy is still riding through Austin traffic, trackstanding his way into some other teenager's imagination.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bishop Election ~ some initial and scattered thoughts

My synod is entering a process of preparing to elect a new bishop.

* pause *

I'm not sure how many of my seven readers are familiar with the intricacies of the polity of the church I'm part of, so I want to briefly explain.  I'm a pastor in the denomination known as the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).  Our denomination is divided up into geographical areas known as synods.  (This use of the word 'synod' may cause confusion, because there are two other Lutheran denominations in this country that are known as synods.  In those cases, 'synod' is used to refer to the entire denomination.)

There is a bishop in each of the 65 synods of the ELCA.  The role of bishop is filled by a pastor who, upon election takes on the title 'Bishop'; and who, upon vacating the office of bishop (literally and ecclesiastically), takes again the title 'Pastor'. 

The only requirement to be elected bishop is that a person should be a pastor in good standing in the ELCA.


The process of electing a new bishop is, appropriately, bringing up the question, 'What kind of pastor should we elect to be bishop?' ~ which leads to, 'What role should the bishop serve?', or 'What does a bishop do?', and then, 'What functions should the office of the bishop prioritize?'

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that if ten Lutherans got together in a room to respond to those questions, they would probably come up with a dozen different answers.  What most of us naturally will do is to look at previous bishops we've known, consider how they functioned compared with how they could have functioned better with regard to congregational life, and look for someone to serve as bishop who would fill the roles the previous bishop did not.

I wonder, though, if it helps to look back without also looking forward.  What if, instead of finding a bishop who will be what the previous bishop was not, we look for the best bishop for the future (instead of a bishop who would have been good in the past)? 

What's going on in the world that our election of a bishop ought to take into consideration?  Among other things, the world we move through is much less hierarchical, and much more interconnected, than it was when our denominational structure was established. We seem to be suited to make this denominational shift, since our polity never allowed for a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure ~ bishops, in our tradition, really have very little 'power over' congregations.  But will we embrace a newer worldview, or will it smack us in the ecclesiastical face as we try to hold on to an old model that doesn't work practically in the midst of a newer worldview?

Then, to consider function.  I have to say that I don't believe much actual ministry happens through the synod office.  This is certainly not a critique ~ rather, it is a statement of fact, and a recognition of reality.  Synod offices ought not be trying everything they can to do ministry ~ that is best left to congregations.  The synod office would better serve the Gospel, I believe, by actively equipping congregations in their role of living the Gospel in the particular communities where they find themselves. 

What would it be like for the bishop and the office of the bishop to actually act like most of the significant ministry in our synod is happening in congregations?  What would it be like for the (office of the) bishop to function as a clearinghouse for stories of good news, a place for congregations to search for resources, and a conduit for connecting people and congregations with one another?  

In short, what if the (office of the) bishop would become a real-life, ecclesiastical combination of Google and Facebook and Twitter? 

Some initial thoughts ~ I'm sure there will be more as the election nears.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Public Theology

I was first captivated by the academic pursuit of religion in a course I took my first year of college. The course was Religion, Literature, and Film. I was astounded to learn that religion could break out of the church building in ways that didn't involve mission or conversion. Further, it was eye-opening to learn that religion could critique society, and that the arts could critique religion. (Yes, I know this seems naïve ~ I guess I was somewhat sheltered in small town Texas.) Beyond that, we got to read novels and watch movies in class.

I've come to appreciate the discipline of noticing the intersection of religion and art. Digging into this conversation between religion and art strengthens my faith, especially when the artist is obviously communicating a criticism of my own tradition.

But maybe more than looking for the obvious, I like to decipher theological and religious themes in artwork even when the artist is not (obviously) working those into their work. For this reason, I've always been excited when I've had the opportunity to participate in Theater and Theology. Theater and Theology is a monthly event which brings people from different local Lutheran congregations to the theater (along with whoever else bought tickets for the show that night) to see a play. That's the theater part. The theology part is after the play, when the audience is invited to stay in the theater and the cast invited back onto the stage for a theological talkback.

This seems like a prime opportunity for someone who is relatively fluent in theological language to lead a conversation where moral and ethical and sociological and theological themes in the production ~ especially those themes that many people might not have noticed, or might not have language to understand or articulate ~ can be highlighted and investigated. Unfortunately, though (and this may be because people are interested in the logistics of the production more than the theology), this kind of deeper theological conversation has never happened at the Theater and Theology events I've participated in.

Recently I went to see the Theater and Theology production of To Kill A Mockingbird. The play was fantastic. Unfortunately, though, in the talkback we got caught up in talking about racism and bullying; about the differences between the book and the play; about how much school the child actors were missing. These are great topics for conversation, but they none of them were taken into theological depths, or articulated within a theological framework, which was disappointing for me.

In particular, I would have loved to hear the actors respond to questions of how justice in the face of hatred (which are obvious in the play) might be related to original sin. See, injustice pervades all of our society, all of our lives ~ is this way, it is the same as original sin. How would the actors respond to the question, 'Are we stuck with it?' or “Are our attempts to right societal wrongs futile, because we all sin and fall short of the glory of G-d?” I would have loved to hear the actors, especially those who played Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, reflect on the difference between their character and themselves as actors, particularly as related to our Lutheran Christian articulation of simil justus et peccator (at the same time sinner and saint).

I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm something of a theological geek, and I stipulate that not everyone gravitates toward this kind of conversation like I do. At the same time, though, it seems to me like people are longing for theological conversation, for ways to make religious sense of the world outside the church building ~ and this kind of event seems like a prime opportunity to explore those topics as a community.

Which, I believe, is part of the job of pastors ~ to publicly make theological and religious sense of the world. And if we who are part of mainline and progressive threads of Christianity don't do this more obviously, we relinquish the public voice of Christianity to the evangelical fundamentalists.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

everything disappears

in the high country
everything disappears
except the route ahead,
dirt or rock underfoot
and the contour of
the next ridge

laundry at home is
still in piles
waiting alongside the
office inbox

yardwork and meetings
will wait; though
the phone in my pack
may buzz, picking up
a tower down the valley
let it buzz ~ i only
brought it accidentally

so unless it's
on the next cairn
it's disappeared

Friday, October 14, 2011

eyes in the face of death

life, sometimes, feels like
punctuated by moments of
and, for the lucky,
under-girded by
deep satisfaction

for some, though
satisfaction is elusive;
then, joy is nothing more
than fleeting happiness

we see it when
faced with death
our own, imminent,
or briefly glimpsed
reveals quickly
what's underneath:
terror, or contentment;
regret, or deep satisfaction

in our own experience
and in the eyes of one
who sees,
(as if having read
the last pages of a mystery)
the way their life will end

in their eyes,
desperation is desolate
while satisfaction
is nothing but
beautifully hopeful

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Microwave, Part Two

Here's the thing about making assumptions and presumptions about the Body of Christ ... the Church ~ I'm almost always and inevitably proved wrong.  Yes, the microwave had a sign on it for a couple weeks.  Yes, in the corporate world, a CEO or other manager would have directed an underling to take the broken appliance out right away ... or would have praised and promoted a mid-level manager who took the initiative to take care of that issue without any instruction.  And yes, I could have directed someone to take care of it, putting myself in the role of congregational CEO.

But church is not (or, maybe, ought not be) corporate.  It may take a little longer, but in a healthy church system, those who are called to a particular responsibility will take on their job at the appropriate and proper time. At the end of the day, the microwave was disposed of by the team who had, long ago, accepted the responsibility of maintaining the congregational facilities. 

Sometimes, obviously, corporate life is more efficient than life in the church.  But I prefer the (ideally) egalitarian, though much slower and messier, life that the Church (Body of Christ) models and embodies.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Smoking Man on Skates

a shirtless guy
just went by;
I saw him beside the
edge of my eyes;

I turned to see
what seemed to be
a man on skates,
and in this scene

he cupped his hands
around his face ~
then all that remains
in the place

he left behind
as he flew by
the cafe window
where I pass time

is (disappearing more
slowly than his
skates roll)
cigarette smoke

Monday, October 3, 2011

Health Care Rant

I have to say, I'm baffled by the health care conversation in our country (USAmerica) these days.  It looks like the Supreme Court will eventually take up the issue of whether the government can mandate that everyone have health insurance. 

I think we're asking the wrong question.  The essential question, the essential divide in this country that I don't hear many people talking about (and I recognize that I might not be listening in the right places) is the question of whether each person deserves to receive health care as a basic right. 

If we say 'no' ~ if we say that health care is a privilege, and not a basic right ~ then the government has no business being in the health care management business.  The extension of this position is that hospitals should not be required to provide emergency room care to individuals who are not able to pay.  The extension of this argument is that we should require everyone to pay for their care, either out of pocket or through insurance. 

In this case, everyone who is not able to afford (or chooses not to obtain) health insurance, and gets sick, will either lose all their money and be forced to the street, or will chose not to get treated and possibly die of a treatable disease. 

On the other hand, if we say 'yes' ~ if we agree that health care is a right, and that everyone deserves access to medical treatment ~ then it is incumbent on us as a society to provide medical care for everyone in a manner which does not force a choice between food and medicine, or between treatment and housing.

In this case, some will be treated unfairly.  Those of us who are healthy will end up paying more in order that those who are more unhealthy do not become worse-off because of an overwhelming financial burden.  

I, as a Christian, am forced to take the latter position.  It is immoral, and more importantly it is sinful, that we are more concerned about paying less in taxes in order to pad our own bank accounts than we are about our neighbor. 

But even from a purely capitalistic and conservative perspective, corporations providing health insurance (and care) makes no sense.  Right now, I pay for health insurance.  I also pay taxes that eventually go to care for sick and injured and homeless persons who do not have health insurance.  My taxes pay for police officers and fire departments, for social workers and hospitals who care for those without insurance. 

Right now, I'm paying for my own health care and for the health care of those who can't afford it.  But I'm making payments in two different directions ~ one, to the government for taxes; and the other, to insurance and drug companies which seem to report record profits each year. 

So, if we say that health care is not a basic right, then we as a society are saying that the wealthier are more important than the poorer ... we are saying that all people are not created equal.  

If on the other hand, we say that everyone deserves equal access to health care as a right, then the government should be in the business of providing everyone health care.  Sure, it may cost each of us a little more in taxes.  At the same time, we'll no longer need to pay for private insurance.  Plus, when society has access to health care, we end up with a healthier society ~ and that's good for everyone. 


rambling post about a non-functional microwave

A church kitchen that I'm familiar with has, among other things, a microwave oven.  Obviously this, in itself, is unremarkable.  However, the reason I'm remarking is because, apparently, this particular microwave oven isn't working.  I make this assumption because it has a sign on the door which says something like, "Do Not Use: Microwave Smokes when in Use"

Now, church buildings have, by and large, been non-smoking for many years, so that's not the unusual part.  What grabs my attention is the fact that the microwave oven has been sitting there, on the kitchen counter, with the same sign on its door, for probably a couple weeks. 

The closest I really ever got to working in the corporate was as a temporary factory worker a long time ago; so I can only imagine that, in the corporate world, a broken microwave oven would probably be gone pretty quickly. 

I do, however, work in the church; and in the church, it seems to me that it's extremely difficult to ever get rid of anything.  Every congregation I've ever been a part of has this same issue.  If I were to take a walk around most church buildings, I imagine I'd find storage rooms and closets and file cabinets and bookshelves filled with items that haven't been used for years and that really aren't worth anything to anyone. 

Why is it that we, the church, are so reluctant to get rid of anything? 

Is it because we find value in what's old?  Maybe ~ we certainly do turn regularly to the old writings of scripture, and we often participate in rites that have been in use for many decades, if not centuries. 

Is it because we shy away from conflict?  Perhaps we're concerned that if one person gets rid of something, they'll discover later that the thing they got rid of was highly valued by someone else in the congregation. 

I think, though, that there's more going on.  It may not have always been true (and I don't know if, 150 years ago, most church buildings were as cluttered as they are now), but I think members of congregations are reluctant to throw stuff out because we don't like to take responsibility ~ which again, like most things, boils down to money.  

Here's the thing.  Our society has become so very consumer-oriented, that I think we don't even know how to talk about anything other than a contractual exchange.  What I mean is that, when I go to the movie, a semi-contractual exchange takes place. I pay my money, and the theater provides me with entertainment.  When I go to a restaurant, I exchange money for food. 

In church, though, we enter into a covenental relationship with one another.  We agree to participate in a faith life together, within a community.  There may be money involved, but money given should be as a response to the action of the divine ~ G-d's grace ~ rather than as a payment for whatever a person feels they've received. 

The trouble is that there are so few covenental relationships extant in our society.  We don't know how to talk, or think, about these other than as contractual ~ I pay money to the church, and the church provides me a religious service. 

I believe that we are so steeped in contractual capitalism that we don't know how to think differently about the covenental relationship necessary in a faith community.  And this, at least to some degree, is why there's still a non-functional microwave in the kitchen ~ because many people, deep within the depths of their being (and without realizing it) think that since they've paid, someone else should do the work of deciding and throwing away. 

I'm probably wrong, but that's what I think today.


Monday, September 26, 2011

unmistakable aroma

sweet smell punctuated by
chemical overtones;
it's an aroma that permeates
the whole parking lot,
the entire courtyard,
and especially
the elementary school

all it takes is
one little plastic packet
red sauce oozing out of
that white, one-ounce
red-tomato-decorated tube
proclaiming 'ketchup'
(or, perhaps, 'catsup')
for the whole world to see

but if it's been spilled,
even a little bit,
and left to dry, un-cleaned-up
a skin forming as it seems to
shrink in size overnight
we don't need the word on the label
the aroma gives it away

Friday, September 23, 2011

Personal Relationships and Government

I heard something disturbing yesterday on a radio talk show.  In an interview, I heard Representative Paul Ryan (R - WI) say something that bothers me a great deal, and that I believe is illustrative of, and contributes to, many of the problems we have in government. 

One of the closing remarks Rep. Ryan made was with regard to a question about how much he has talked with President Obama over the past couple years.  Rep. Ryan responded that he is a policy-maker, and is not interested in personal relationships. 

Here's the thing.  If people don't know each other, if we haven't spent time together socially, then we're much more able to demonize each other.  If, however, we are interested in personal relationships, it's much more difficult to yell nasty things at each other.  If we have had the opportunity to see that the person with whom we disagree is actually a real person (and not simply a set of bad ideas), we will treat them more civilly, and will be able to have an actual conversation instead of a shouting match.

Right now, in our government (and on the internet ... but that's a whole different issue), there are a lot of shouting matches.  If Rep. Ryan was willing to have dinner with President Obama (and vice-versa), maybe they'd figure out that each of them wants what's best for the country.  Maybe they'd figure out a way to actually talk with each other, to work together, and to actually get something productive done in Washington.  Maybe better personal relationships would increase the likelihood that productive policy-making could happen. 

Of course this issue isn't restricted to those two individuals ~ we're all guilty of the same thing. 


Monday, September 19, 2011

Rambling post, again, on taxes

I saw, in my son's packet of stuff he brought home from school, a surprising number of fund-raiser requests and solicitations.  These, to my eye, aren't for extra trips, or for events that are additional to the normal school routine.  They are for items like library supplies and computers and , which seem more essential than superfluous to me.

We seem to see ourselves, in USAmerica, as the best at everything ~ a beacon on the hill, and a model for other nations.  And in some ways we probably are.  However, we cannot, and will not, be the best at anything unless we invest in ourselves and in our children.  Investments of time and energy are certainly important; but in our society, investments are almost always financial.  We cannot build a great society if we constantly and consistently refuse to pay taxes.  This is our investment.

Sure, it's inevitable that those who spend money will do so badly.  But we are still a society ~ people working together for the good of all.  And as such, it's better to do something for the benefit of everyone badly than it is to do nothing for others, and remain selfish and self-centered.  Of course, it's obviously better to do something well than to do something badly ~ but even if we work together badly, it's better than remaining individualistically selfish and isolationist. 

Unless we work together for the good of all, we will inevitably be left with much less than good for each one.

I'm constantly baffled by people who are reluctant to pay taxes.  Yes, you'll have a little bit less today ~ but your taxes, collected with everyone else's and invested in (for instance) schools, sustainable energy and infrastructure, and good relationships with foreign governments, will surely yield a much greater return over the long term than keeping a couple extra dollars today to spend (depending on your income bracket) on gourmet coffee or personal airplanes. Plus, if we invest together, perhaps we will live up to our self-proclaimed status as global example. 


divine mystery

So far in my life, I have been present for the death of one person.  I don't remember exactly how far she was into her nineties at the time, but she had lived a full life.

I got a call from her kids, both in their sixties or seventies at the time, and went down to the nursing home where I had visited her a number of times over the years I'd been one of her pastors.  As we stood around her bed that day, we talked about the funeral for a minute or two.  Then, we made small talk as we watched their mom's breathing get slower and slower.  As the pauses between breaths lengthened, and we watched more closely, it seemed that time itself paused in the space between our breaths.

That day, in a perfectly ordinary room in a perfectly ordinary nursing home, I experienced the presence of the divine in a more powerful and palpable way than I do most days.

I was surprised to be reminded of this as I sat in an interfaith prayer service on the tenth anniversary of the destruction we saw on September 11, 2001.  In that cathedral, as Christians and Jews and Muslims each shared a glimpse at their own scripture and tradition, I couldn't help but think that we Protestant Christians have lost the sense of encountering the divine in mystery.

It was most obvious when the Christian leader read from the Gospel.  It was a fine reading, well read and well chosen ... but in contrast to the beauty of the chanted Qur'an passage, and in contrast with the beauty of the chanted Torah section, I felt that the reading of the Gospel that night (compared to the reading of the other sacred passages) fell short. 

We can never truly and completely understand how the ancient sacred stories work in our soul, or even in our mind.  But, for some reason, we continue to come back to hear these stories ... I think because we know, somewhere deep, that we need them to shape who we are. No, we don't need to chant them in their original language to experience the depth of their mystery, but I don't think it hurts to allow the text to work on us in more ways than one.

It seems to me that we sometimes try to manage the mysterious, to control those things which perhaps we ought to simply experience. I love my tradition as Lutheran Christian.  I love our practices, our history, our theology, and sometimes our culture.  But I also find it beneficial to glimpse the way other people experience communion with the divine, and with divine community.

I'm not interested in cultural appropriation.  Especially from my position of sociological privilege (straight, white, male), I'm not interested in taking the 'cool' parts other people's religious practice and pretending that they "mean so much to me". 

But I can't help but to think that my life of faith, and more importantly that our society, will benefit by each of us being willing to entertain the possibility that G-d might just be bigger than any one of our religious boxes can contain. 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

What do you believe?, part two

Our western, postmodern culture, seems to have decided that there are two options for expressing belief.

On the one hand, a person can be adamant and forthright in their belief.  Of course, it seems that if a person takes a firm stand professing a particular belief, that person must also deny all others as flawed, and therefore unacceptable.  To accept one faith system negates the validity of all others. 

On the other hand, a person can profess a willingness to listen to other people with an open mind.  It seems, though, that if a person takes the position that they are willing to genuinely listen to their neighbor, they will not be able to make their own statement of faith.  To accept the possibility of other faith systems precludes professing any one.  

These seem to be the two positions taken by many people in our culture; it's either "there's only one that's right", or "there's no single one that's right".  In my estimation, both are positions of immaturity.  A person with a more mature faith does not need to denigrate others; neither do they need to accept everything and never make their own statement of faith.  Rather, that person can stand confidently and express articulately their own belief without feeling attacked when a person of a different faith expresses something different.

For instance, I am Christian.  I am not ashamed to articulate my Christian faith; neither do I feel the need to criticize those who are Jewish, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Buddhist, or anything else.  While I believe that I'm right, I accept the possibility ... no, the truth ... that G-d is bigger than I can understand, and that maybe the person who believes something different than I do might also have a valid angle on the truth.  To fervently believe that I'm right does not necessarily mean that everyone else is wrong. 

Now, I have no particular claim to special maturity in faith.  But it seems to me that maybe that's the problem with spirituality and faith in our culture ~ immaturity.

If we only see truth in our own tradition, we miss the richness of the diversity of G-d's creation.   It's pretty self-centered to only see truth in ourselves; plus, it's an act of replacing divine with human sovereignty ~ and that's never a good idea.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

What do you believe?

It seems to me that our western culture is plagued by an overwhelming lack of belief.  Or, maybe not by a lack of belief, but by a lack of belief-backbone.  We seem to be plagued either by the credo 'whatever you want to believe is fine', or by the oppression of 'my way is the only way'. 

Now don't misunderstand ~ I have no need for everyone in the world to believe the same thing as I do. In fact, it seems to me that the tremendous diversity of beliefs and belief systems adds to the beauty of our world.  Furthermore, don't misunderstand me ~ I think it's absolutely necessary that there be a time in people's lives when it's important to not know, yet, what they believe. 

What I have an issue with, though, is that people who know what they believe either, 1) feel like they need to convince you that their way is the only acceptable way, and there's no room for anything else; or 2) are so interested in others figuring things out on their own that they refuse to state their own beliefs for fear of contaminating someone else's faith-journey. 

There has to be something other than these, something that's more healthy.  I, personally, have no need to dictate what anyone believes.  But I also don't need to apologize for what I believe.  Further, if I am able to state my position with confidence, and if I am able to do everything I can to reflect my beliefs in my daily life ~ in short, if I am more confident ~ then those who are figuring things out have an actual, real-life, tangible something to point to. 

It seems to me that if more people lived their beliefs with confidence, while still accepting people who believe something different with grace instead of animosity, we wouldn't have so much made-up, mamby-pamby, doesn't-make-sense, nonsense that passes for faith these days.


Monday, September 5, 2011

Diesel in the morning

Walking through the parking lot this morning, I heard that distinctive rumble and I was reminded that nothing smells like a diesel engine. I'm sure there are probably lots of people around who think they're loud and stinky; I'm sure there are lots of people who associate diesel engines with pollution, interstate truck stops, and loading docks. But whenever I hear, and especially when I smell, a diesel engine, I'm immediately a teenager again.

When I was in high school, I spent my summers driving around in circles on a tractor. Many times, we'd leave the equipment in the field where we stopped working at night, and my boss would drop me off in the morning to start where I'd left off.

Now before we fired up the tractor, there was always preventative maintenance to take care of. The equipment had to be tended to, and it took a few minutes. During those few minutes there might have been a little dew on the grass. During those few minutes I sometimes heard birds or coyotes. During those few minutes, as I went about my tasks, I felt the serenity of anticipating hard work; and it was good.

Before long, I was done getting things ready. I'd look around, climb onto the tractor, and hesitate for a moment, recognizing that as soon as I started the engine, everything would change. The calm would be gone, and the work would be started. I would always hesitate, savoring that small moment before I'd begin again to spiral toward the center of the field.

This morning in the parking lot, I was back where diesel engines always take me. Not to the central Texas heat; not to the flies that swarmed down in the bottom where the breeze didn't move; not to the fire ants that you hoped you didn't park on when the equipment broke down. I was back for a moment in the calm, cool stillness of a summer morning in a half-cut hay pasture.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I bought a car last week, and my interaction with the used car dealer left me a little off balance. He wasn't the stereo-typical used car dealer. He owns an auto repair shop, and sells cars off that lot. I don't think he was trying to trick me, or to take unfair advantage of me, so that's not what threw me.

It was the conversations we had about money. We had secured a loan, for which I had a reference number in an e-mail on my phone. As soon as I told him that, he seemed to waffle a little bit until he told me point-blank that he doesn't trust e-mails. So we started off the money conversation on the wrong foot. Plus, his business isn't affiliated with the credit union where I got the loan, so there was a good deal more paperwork than if we'd gone to a different dealership.

I figured out what had me off balance, though, as soon as we had the loan secured (paperwork in his hands). See, I had a sizable down payment to give him, but (since I choose not to walk around with thousands of dollars of cash in my pocket) I had to go to the bank. I told him I'd go around the corner to the bank so I could get a cashier's check for the deposit. Before I left, he asked me to write a personal check for the down payment amount (which I would get back when I returned with the bank check).

I had told him I wanted the car; I had spent an hour on the phone tracking down loan paperwork; I had written him a personal check. I had done all that, and still he was worried that I wouldn't come back with the final payment information. Bear in mind, I wasn't driving off with his car. I don't know what had happened to him in the past, but he absolutely didn't trust me.

The trouble, though, is that I think he really wanted to trust me. I think that through his actions and words he was really trying to convince me, and to convince himself, that he trusted me. But he let phrases slip that indicated otherwise:
* Upon receiving my personal check, "That's a good sign you'll come back."
* And when I turned over the bank check, "That pretty much seals the deal."

No, I think we sealed the deal when I gave him my personal check. It's not a good sign, or a 'pretty-much done deal'. In fact, to my mind we sealed the deal when I said I wanted to buy the car. He was selling, I was buying, and we'd settled on a price.

I was off-balance, I think because he didn't trust me. It seemed like he was watching me really closely to see how I'd be trying to cheat him.

Which brings me to my (probably un-answerable) question: why is it that we mistrust one another so completely?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cycling Shoes

I have a pair of cycling shoes in my garage. They're made of thin leather attached to a stiff sole. Screwed onto the sole, there's a cleat that makes walking difficult by raising my toe above the level of my heel. But the cleat made it much easier to ride a bicycle. See, there's a slot in cleat that fit perfectly into part of a quill pedal before the whole foot is cinched onto the pedal with a leather strap.

These were my first pair of cycling shoes, which I acquired not too long before clipless pedals became quite so ubiquitous. I remember specifically (though my memory may be faulty) that my parents questioned the wisdom of me buying these shoes. They were kind of expensive for something so specialized, or for something that I'd only be able to use for one very specific activity. They asked whether I intended to continue cycling, or whether it would be something I moved on from before long.

It was a valid question, which I dangerously answered 'yes' ... how could I really know what I'd be doing in the future?

The last time I wore those shoes was for the first triathlon I ever did. It was a winter race, and the stages were started individually, which meant that there was plenty of time to change clothes between swim and bike, and between bike and run. I cinched my shoes onto my pedals at the start of the bike leg while everyone else simply clipped in.

But that day was the renewal of my love of cycling. I'd spent a couple years away from riding much at all, but that day I felt again the thrill of working hard to go fast. That day I also understood the need (need?) to purchase new cycling shoes that fit new clipless pedals.

Were those leather shoes a good purchase? I'm happy to say that my dangerous 'yes' was accurate. I now have others that work much better; but I still keep those original shoes hanging in my garage ... just for me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The First Time I Ate Jalapeños

It was lunchtime at the Junior High school, and I chose nachos. Of course I chose nachos, 'cause why wouldn't I? Crispy rounds of ground corn covered with a creamy orange cheese-like sauce. Obviously it wasn't the best choice, but you can't blame middle school students for exploring eating independence.

I don't remember exactly ~ maybe he was in the lunch line with me, or maybe the challenge came before I stepped into the line ~ but one of the older students dared me to eat jalapeños on my nachos. It doesn't sound like a big deal now, but at the time my culinary experience went from bland to potatoes. Cocktail sauce on my shrimp and yellow mustard on my sandwich was about as adventurous as I got.

I have to admit that I had been curious before that day. I'd wondered what the fuss was. I knew they were spicy, but had no reference for what spicy tasted like on the tongue. Was it something that would cause me to suffer? Would the jalapeños stick around on my palate for hours, their spiciness a day-long reminder of a bad choice at lunchtime? Sure, other people ate them, but what about me?

And then my challenger, the older student who dared me to eat jalapeños on my nachos, put three slices of that pickled pepper in his mouth without even a chip. He chomped them down alone, with nothing to temper the spiciness. That did it. If he could eat them by themselves, I would surely survive the common gustatory experience of chip and cheese with pepper on top.

I waited 'til he'd gone. I waited 'til I was by myself so that my reaction, good or bad, would be mine alone. And they were delicious. The flavor infused my mouth; surprising spicy, but also sweet and tangy.

My recollection, many years later, is that lunch that day was a more expansive encounter with flavor than I had experienced before. It's dangerous to read too much into what happened long ago, but today I relish the opportunity to expand my gustatory horizons.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taxes and the Common Good

The other day, the first day of school for my son, he asked me why he had to take a different bus to school. He asked me why the bus didn't pick him up and drop him off where it had for the previous three years. I responded, immediately, "Taxes". Then I explained my position to him. See, people want to keep the money that's in their bank account. People want to be able to hold on to the money that they receive in their paycheck. And since taxes necessarily take money out of people's bank accounts and/or paychecks, the electorate often votes against tax increases and elects politicians who promise to lower taxes.

Now that all sounds fine ~ it's good (in a capitalist economy) for a person to have more money in their bank account. They can purchase more, and (since we tend to equate value with financial wealth in this country) people with more money are worth more.

But we tend to forget the other side of the equation. We tend to forget that when tax revenue goes down, our access to services goes down as well. We tend to forget that when we pay less in taxes, the slack has to get taken up somewhere else.

To my simple brain, it works like this: if I paid a little more in taxes, my son could still take the same bus he took last year. But I get to save some in taxes, so I have money in my bank account so that I can pay for the gas it costs for me to drive him to his new bus stop. Of course, he still walks or rides his bike to the bus stop right now, so it's not a factor. At least, it's not a factor until it gets cold. I'm more likely to make him walk two blocks in twenty degree weather than I am to make him walk ten. So this winter, when pollution is a bigger problem here in Denver, more people will be starting cold car engines to drive kids to school. So, since we don't want to pay more taxes, we find ourselves paying for more for gas, and paying more (in the future) for healthcare.

Obviously this is simplistic. Obviously there are other factors to consider. Obviously it's no big deal for my kids to go .75 miles to the bus stop instead of .25 miles. But it's also obviously true (at least to me) that we're scared of even thinking about paying more taxes in this country; and to me, that's an unreasonable fear, since if we don't pay taxes for services, we'll end up paying for those services some other way.

Some people may say it's better that individuals have control over their money. I say, though, what about the common good. When, in this country, did it become better, or more noble, to take care of self to the exclusion of the other.

And it seems like many people who advocate so strongly for lower taxes also call themselves Christian. When did Christians become so publicly selfish? When did we stop advocating for the 'least of these' so that we ourselves could stay rich?

I'm no tax expert, but it seems to me that our selfishness is sinful. I will almost always vote for tax increases, and then work to make sure the government is using our common funds for the common good.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

backyard garden haiku

I recall, yearly ~
storebought fruit can't compare to
homegrown tomatoes

Friday, August 12, 2011

Observations from a gathering place

ten, eleven, twelve
they know
at such a young age
(mimicking their parents,
like most of us do),
rattling off with
their regular
starbucks order

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the tent on a rainy night

nighttime crushes in on
my eyes - I double-check
to be certain they're open.
I know, tonight, at 11,000
feet, under continual rain
and blanketing cloud cover,
that no light will intrude on
my tent. Tomorrow, rain may
pour from overwhelmed skies;
with or without rain, though
the sun will rise, bringing light
and new vision - so I lay still
in the dark, and trust

Probably not epic, but it felt like it

A day off, planned since the week before. We were four, having just met weeks earlier, who decided on a day off hike over a pass. We checked in with the rangers, found our route, and looked forward to a quick day-off trip through the national park; respite from the tourons we constantly served at the concessionaire where we all worked for that summer.

A couple tents, food, clothes, and we were set to go. Six easy miles in, we camped around a gentle fire. Up over the pass and down to the shuttle car was the plan for the next day as we ate dinner and got comfortable for the night. Next morning, breakfast, and we're on our way.

We made our way down the wide trail, gradually gaining a little elevation as we approached the approach to the pass. Before long, we crossed the creek marking the end of the day hikers' typical reach; and thus the end of wide, easy hiking.

After crossing the high water in the creek, the trail began to drag us up toward the pass. Naturally, as the trail went up, the temperature went down. We stopped, adding what layers of cotton and knit wool we'd thrown into our hastily-loaded packs the day before.

It got colder and colder, but not unbearable. As we moved upward, every turn brought hope of seeing the start downhill from the pass.

Then, treeline.

No longer was there anything to block the wind that had spent the day whistling above our heads the whole way up. And with the wind came snow. We couldn't tell if it was blowing up from the ground or falling from the sky ~ but that didn't matter to our body temperature that plummeted with every snowflake that penetrated our inadequate layers. One shell and a windbreaker made a valiant but failing effort to stave off approaching hypothermia. Crouching behind a boulder, three of us found the shelter to decide that the pass may or may not be close enough - without a map, who's to know? - and that it was time to bail.

So, shivering, we turned again toward the seven miles we'd just covered instead of the three to the car, and headed back toward last night's camp where we planned to restart a small fire to warm up our almost dangerously cold bodies.

We made good time once we slipped again into the trees; then, across the creek, we flew over flat ground toward shelter until we happen to glance up at the rear end of a large bear lumbering the same direction on the same wide trail we're using. So we bide our time, holding back, waiting 'til our ursine friend allows us access to dinner and a little rest before the 5:15 alarm rings calling us to the next day's breakfast shift.

But before the breakfast shift, a dinner stop. The warm vinyl booth around pizza and beer became a welcome sanctuary from which to reflect on our 27-instead-of-10-mile day.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

rush hour

parkway on a busy day
hurry from the gym,
off to work,
any siren barely heard
over my radio and my thoughts

everyone wonders,
"did i leave early enough?"
and thinks
"if i make this light, i won't be late"

but, what catches my eye
amid the bustle of normal
is butterfly wings
carrying a transformed
on a crooked journey
across rush hour;

she didn't cause this
parkway hurricane
she just showed me,
for a moment,
the eye of the storm

Idealism and Realism

We need college students. College students are important to our society. Sure, we need them because in future years, they will be taking on the role of leading and managing our society. But we need them now, before they take on as significant role in leadership, social infrastructure, and the economy as they will in the future.

Here's why we need them now. We need their (I know it's cliché) youthful idealism. Society needs their extreme opinions, their firmly-held positions on the so-called right and on the so-called left. We need them to be isolated, to some degree, in the university. We need them to be financially isolated, socially isolated, and philosophically isolated. See, when they're isolated, they're able to view and talk about the world idealistically (instead of realistically). They're able to push the boundaries, to call themselves and others to radical stances and radical actions.

We need these calls from the edges, opinions from the margins. They keep the rest of us honest; they remind the rest of us that what we've come to expect, and what we experience as normal, might not be right.

We do, of course, experience personal and systemic shock whenever the idealistic meets the realistic. It's a shock when idealistic vegetarianism discovered in college meets grandma's thanksgiving dinner. It's a shock when idealistic religious expression discovered in seminary meets a real parish full of real people. It's a shock when idealistic political position meets the real world necessity for compromise, or at least civility.

In this shock, though, is where society has the opportunity to grow. The trouble though, enters in when those who are more grounded in the status quo do not listen to the idealists. If it weren't for some who were willing to listen to wisdom from the fringes, we'd still have institutionalized slavery based on skin color, and women's second-class status would be legal (to name two of the most obvious examples). And if it weren't for those on the fringes being willing to listen to wisdom from the center of society, we'd either all be vegetarian, or there would be oil wells drilled on every other square mile across the country.

The middle needs the fringes (especially those fringes we don't agree with) pushing us to be better. And the fringes need the middle, keeping us sane and civil, and reminding us that we're all in this together.

In my estimation, this is what's missing in our national political conversation these days ~ the fringes aren't willing to listen to wisdom from the center, and the center isn't willing to stand up for what's actually helpful.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Story and Music

I've been spending some time recently listening to two recordings, both of which are recent acquisitions for me. One I picked up for $1.07, plus a lot of sifting through records at Goodwill. It's a National Geographic Society recording of Music From the Ozarks, Copyright 1972. The musicianship isn't "studio quality" ~ it's better. Not technically better, but the music sounds like it comes from the center of life, and that it's interwoven through every part of the musicians' existence. I imagine the fiddles and banjos being passed down from generation to generation. And most of the dulcimers and guitars are homemade. A wooden box, railroad lumber, and some metal hardware may not be as expensive, and may not sound as 'perfect', as a guitar worth thousands of dollars, but it makes music, and that's enough.

The other I received as a gift. It's a new album called "Storydwelling". The idea behind this record, as I interpret it, is that music is a phenomenal way for each of us to share with our community a piece of our own story. The idea, I as I understand it, is not that everyone must become a songwriter and musician in order to tell their story through song. Rather, it is to create a space and a place where people (in whatever way makes sense) can share a piece of their own story.

It seems to me that our contemporary western society has lost most of our predilection for telling stories. We still, as human people, are fed by stories. In fact, television functions almost exclusively as a storytelling device. But these aren't our stories ~ they're fantasies that lead us to false hope and unwarranted unhealthy expectations.

The stories we tell ourselves tell us who we are. Do we want hollywood to take on that role, or do we want to tell ourselves true stories of who we are, and who we will be becoming? What would it be like if we turned off the televisions (and other electronic media) so that we could sing songs and tell stories together?