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?