Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Voting and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Okay, I’ll admit it.  Voting in the primary of the opposite party (a possibility denied me in my home state of West Virginia but available in Virginia where I now live) has a certain appeal.  The chance to vote for the candidate least likely to defeat my candidate in the general election invites a feeling of Machiavellian anticipation and glee.

And even though ethics and love of God should stop me even thinking such things, the real choke hold that stays my hand (if not my conscience) is the question, “what if he wins?”  What if the one I like the least as a political leader would actually be victorious because of our collective efforts to manipulate elections in such a way?

The law of unintended consequences is, in my view, one of the most under-recognized truths when it comes to dealing with the affairs of state.

We cannot know everything now, let alone anticipate everything in the then of our futures.

A corollary to the calculus which disregards the problems of the present in favor of the possibility of a favorable outcome in the future is the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number.

As a Christian, that idea should have been put to final rest with the words of Caiphas in John 11.50, speaking of Jesus, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  (NIV)

While Christians have taken that claim and made it uniquely their own, our interpretation is not at all what Caiphas had in mind.  Rather, Caiphas believed that killing Jesus would somehow protect his people from oppression by the Romans.  It did not.  And when it comes to the dynamics of oppression, it never does.

In the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, remarking on the duty to protect land and animals from exploitation and annihilation, brings the two ideas together:
Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.  – A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open, 1916
“The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction.”

Thus, whether we are casting our votes in a single election or making decisions as ‘we the people’, it would be well to consider the generations and not merely our own singular perceived self-interest of the moment.

And make no mistake, the generations will learn not only from the outcomes of our actions, but also from how we attained those outcomes.  If we lie in the ballot box, we teach our children that desirable outcomes make it permissible, even desirable, to lie.

Our integrity is not simply something we owe to ourselves: we owe it to all those within the womb of time.

And lest we disregard this duty and get too proud about our ability to manipulate events to our liking, recall the law of unintended consequences.  Things seldom happen the way we foresee; our vision is simply too limited.  So even if Merton and King should prove wrong (I don’t think so, but I can’t know everything) about the coherence of means and outcomes, isn’t it simply the better course to act with integrity in each moment?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It is Enough*

Did you ever notice
that in every story about Jesus
it seems that he was always coming from somewhere
and just about to head out somewhere else?
Especially in Mark
in Mark, Jesus is a man on the move
a man on a mission
with not much time to get it done
This Jesus, this Markan man
never stands still
let alone sits down
for a cup of tea

We get it now
we can see the hurrying
rushing reason  of it all. . . 
right there before him it stands
the cross
just waiting. . . 
But what must it have been like back in the day?
Did they think he was rude?
Or just wonder what the young man was 
always rushing off to?

And now, here he comes and here he goes 
Coming from Nazareth
to the Jordan river
where John and his pals hang out
Was he coming to see John?
Or did he go in order to
jump into the Jordan
for a quick baptismal bath
before rushing off to the next thing?
John . . . check
baptism . . . check
wilderness . . . check
I don’t think so
at least not that last part

There he was
coming up out of the Jordan
fresh and refreshed
when comes the secret telegraph message
from God for his ears alone
at least in Mark
where it is Jesus who hears
and others who must wonder
Jesus who sees
and others who must scratch their heads
heavens rending
dove descending
God-voice proclaiming
all for Jesus . . . all for Jesus

But he hardly gets out of the water
scarcely has time to towel himself dry
when the Spirit dove
turns into the divine cracked-whip
Driving Jesus into . . . 
W - I - L - D - E - R - N - E - S - S
The wild place
where the wild things are
where rules are left behind
and knowing what comes next isn’t even possible
Where savage and scary and unsafe live
the land of monsters
the place where it all begins
The land called chaos

Wilderness travel
is a going back
back into the primordial ooze
from whence it all began
The place of the ashes and dust of all things . . . 

Jesus is chased back
back to beginnings
back to first things
back . . . back . . . back . . . 
There is no going forward
for him
for us
until he has first gone back
It’s dangerous
this chaos-place
where rules haven’t yet been made
and those without wings
are dared to fly
those without bread
challenged to eat rocks
those without power
mocked to don their king robes and claim it all
back into that nothingness. . . 
Jesus must go
driven there by God’s own fury
that it should be so
to the wilderness
doth Jesus go

What must it have been like
to survive all that
only to find
on his return
that John was arrested
sure to die
in the hands of such a one as Herod
unfit, surely, for even the sandals of John?

He doesn’t miss a beat
this wilderness-surviving Jesus
it’s like Messiah boot camp. . . 
when you come out of that
you’re stronger
and you stand just a little bit taller
able to see what others cannot
able to see the wilderness
that lives inside
of you
able to see the face of that and live

When you survive the place where the wild things are
you just know
that whatever you do next
is enough

This is my Son
the Beloved
in him I was
I am
I will be


*Continuing from yesterday's post, this is the 2nd Sermon Reflection from the 1st Sunday in Lent, reflecting upon Mark 1.9-15 (Jesus' baptism, time in the wilderness and beginning ministry after the arrest of John).

Monday, February 27, 2012

God's Unilateral Disarmament

It Would Have Been Enough*

A warning that the storm is coming
instructions on how to build a boat
strong enough. . . big enough
to withstand the storming waters

In looking to God’s providing,
That would have been enough
Storm waves that rolled but didn’t roll us over
food sufficient for the ride
the dove returning, olive branch in hand. . . or mouth
would have been enough
Standing on dry land
family all safe
livestock and wild things secure
mission accomplished

Survival . . . 
For us, for all creation
for plankton and pumas and platypus’ . . . 
amoebas and armadillos and aracnids
bacteria and bulls and bugs
viruses and velociraptors and venus fly trays

Our survival would have been enough
But God took it not just one step
but one very gigantic God-leap forward:
“Never again”
The God-promise
while we were still content
to have survived at all
the rainbow-as-a-sign-between-me-and-you-all-of-you
God hanging up for good . . . retiring
the divine weapons of war and mass destruction. . . 
turning bows and arrows
into rainbows and raindrops of ‘never again’
Now that was . . . now that is
more . . . oh, so much, much, more
than enough

*The title is taken from the Jewish prayer/litany response to the rehearsal of Israel’s history with God’s providing; the response:  Dayenu literally means ‘it would have been enough’.  This reflection is Part 1of the sermon reflections preached Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, focusing on God's rainbow covenant with all creation as recounted in Genesis 9.8ff.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hearing the Wind You Cannot See

Thursday the airwaves around these parts
were full of dire predictions
freezing rain
and wind
such wind

You learn to take these things with
more than a pinch of salt
while still looking skyward
ever seeking to read the 
signs of the times

And so it was
Thursday evening
that I stood outside
gazing up
into the dark clouds
feeling the cold of
plummeting temperatures
skating along my skin

No freezing rain
no snow
no tornadoes
only stillness
not a leaf rustling 
not a breeze stirring

But the sound
so loud
I turned all around
seeking its origins

I think I’ll never grow accustomed
in these mountain valleys
to the harbinger of wind
the sound of the locomotive
crashing all around
while everything,
is stillness

Hearing it 
before you see it
even in the high trees

Wind so fierce 
it makes the still air
below it carry the harmony
to its perpetual melody

The only visible clue
the racing of the clouds
across the skyline

Not the calm before the storm
nor even the calm amidst the storm
(eye of the hurricane sort of thing)
but the calm in spite of the storm

The weather here is positively biblical

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lent Devotion: Star Dust

Skin was earth; it was soil. I could see, even on my own skin . . . 
the dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit the morning 
he made Adam from dirt. Now, all these generations later, we people 
could still see on our skin the inherited prints of the dust specks 
of Eden. I loved this thought . . . Someday I would count [them], 
with the aid of a mirror, and learn precisely how many dust specks Adam comprised – one single handful God wetted, shaped, 
blew into, and set firmly into motion and left to wander about 
in the fabulous garden bewildered.          
                                                                    –Annie Dillard

I have walked the Pleiades                                                      
     and followed their courses
I have been bound by the Kimah chains
Spitzer image of the Pleiades ininfrared,
showing the associated dust (
Merope Nebula).
     loosened by the hand of God
I was shaken loose from                    Thuraya’s whirlings
          only to settle here
I am the God-breathed dust
          only to be scattered again
And it is good.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Grief . . .
      the wall
           of the ocean
                that is always
                     behind you
and you know
      you always know
           it’s coming
                it’s coming
                     it’s coming

Flickr Commons

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bucket List (UK)

Well, I’m cheating, really.  I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ about the UK, per se, but I do have a list of things I’d like to do next time I’m there.  Having already explored a lot of the main tourist attractions and historical sites, I’m on the hunt for the local, the interesting, and the uncrowded.

If I were to truly design a bucket list for the UK, it would simply include the list of Scottish friends I would visit, for they are what draw me back again and again.

That said, there are a few things, new and old (to me) that I’ve simply got to explore my next visit.

On the must see list are:

1. Dickens World in Chatham.  It’s the 200th anniversary of Dicken’s birth; I ask you, how can I not go to Dickens World?
2. Hay-on-Wye for the book festival.  If you’ve never been and you love books, it’s a must.
3. Fast Castle/Dowlaw Farm, a place, if not the place, where I have been stilled and known God was God.
4. Guernsy- locale of the book The Guernsy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Some of the best places I’ve been I’ve learned about in books.
5. Eating my way through Inverclyde: the best filled roll in the world at the West Station in Greenock, the haggis appetizer and banoffee pie at the Inverkip Hotel and the Ceylonese Curry (so, so spicy good) at Taj Mahal in Gourock, to name but a few.

Things in Scotland that call out for more exploration:

1. Puppet Animation Festival in Banff
2. Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh
3. Gilmerton Cove, Drum Street, Edinburgh
4. Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, Edinburgh
5. Anything, any time, anywhere, with music, preferably involving a fiddle and dancing

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Running Away/Running Toward

Me about the same age when I decided to run away,
hunting Easter eggs at Grandma's house

I ran away once.  It was at my Grandma’s house.  I don’t even remember why, but I was really mad at my parents - they probably told me no about something.  All I remember is that I walked out Grandma’s front door with all the righteous indignation a 7-year-old can manage – off the porch I went and across Grandma’s front yard and I started down the driveway, which meant I could no longer see the house.

My anger and my thoughts – they’ll see – I bet they’ll miss me when I’m gone – I’ll show them – all those thoughts carried me over the rise and down the beginning of the driveway.

Then I looked back and realized I couldn’t see the house.  And I ran as fast as my little legs would carry me, back into the safety of Grandma’s house.

The funny part was that no one even knew I was gone.  They would have if I’d stayed gone, but I didn’t.  I came back, because I was afraid, but also because the safety of the arms of those who loved me was behind me, not ahead of me – it was in the direction we were all going together, not the direction I set out for myself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ashes & Dust - Ash Wednesday Musings

Ashes and dust . . .
A metaphor . . .
God’s way of reminding us . . .
You may be temporary
But I am not. . .
It is not cause for mourning. . .
This ‘being dust’ . . .
Rather, it is cause for reflection . . .
Reflection on the reality of things. . .
And the reality . . .
The enormity. . .
Of God.
As large as our lives loom before us. . .
As big as all the parts of the earth
and its entirety are. .
As vast as is space and the expanding universe . . .
Even all of that
cannot contain . . .
Define. . .
Or refine. . .
It is said that we gather at this time
to especially remember . . .
to remember in this Lenten, this ‘lengthening’ time
how very short we are . . .
Rising up
And falling short . . . every day . . .
And to remember that we humans
are finite
set upon the lap of the Limitless,
We are limited. . .
And to remember that the Limitless God stands in relation to us as Creator
Caressing Potter
Chiseling Sculptor
Careful Painter
Consummate Artist
that we may bask in the glory not of our own special-ness
but in the reflected glory of such an Artisan as This
that we may behold
And be glad

A Feast of Kept Promises

Spread for me a banquet of praise, 
serve High God a feast of kept promises. . . 
                                      –Psalm 50 (The Message)

When I was about 7 years old, my Dad promised me that I could take ballet lessons if I got straight A’s on my report card.  And I did, so off to years of ballet I went.

But what I didn’t know at the time and only learned much later from my Mom was that they really couldn’t afford those lessons and my Dad had made the promise never believing that I could or would make the straight A’s.

When I proudly brought my report card home, Mom asked Dad, “So what are you going to do now?”

Well, my Dad kept that promise, a promise he could ill afford.

To me, kept promises look like ballet slippers and ballet slippers look like sacrifice.

God’s feast of kept promises is a wonderful table beautifully spread, only this time, rather than being served by God, it is we who are the host and God the guest.

I wonder what your own feast of kept promises looks like?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Being Grateful

Isn’t it so true?  And I have no idea why.  I have some guesses, but that’s all they are: guesses.  I am guessing that gratitude does in fact turn what we have into enough because being grateful is full-time work – it doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

But even more, gratitude is a state of being that is turned outward rather than inward.  It considers the other more than the self.  When I am thankful for what you have done for me or allowed of me, there isn’t much, if any, room for me to be anything but thankful.

It’s a reorientation of sorts, isn’t it?  A way of looking that sees the 360̊, gratitude allows us to apprehend the before and after of things and to appreciate the contrast which has worked to our favor.

Gratitude recognizes that much of what we have and who we are is the result of the kindness and efforts of others . . . God . . .family . . . friends . . . strangers . . . and even enemies.

I am grateful for the shining sun I did nothing to bring into being . . .

I am grateful for the mind that I have that was gifted to me by the generations . . .

I am grateful for the job I was given by people who were strangers when they decided to trust me. . .

I am grateful for children who are who they are in spite of as much as because of me . . .

I am grateful . . . and I have enough.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Booing the Golden Rule -- Really?

Some time ago during one of the many presidential debates, candidate Ron Paul suggested that the foreign policy of the United States would do well to follow the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The response of a significant portion of the audience in the hall, most of them, I would hazard to guess, Christians, was to boo.

It is shocking to hear the Golden Rule booed in any context.

My own belief that the crisis of our time and place is not a lack of faith in Jesus, but rather a lack of belief that Jesus is ‘up to the job’ – I think, without meaning to, we have somehow rewritten our understanding of just who Jesus is and what Jesus does and can do.  And so we believe we have to act in the ways we do, because Jesus just isn’t up to the job.

An example: on the eve of the Iraq war, I coincidentally happened to attend a church meeting as a student observer.  The minister asked his Session to reflect on what Jesus would do when it came to the decision whether to go to war or not.

The folks had many and varied answers; they were all thinking seriously on it; they were all taking their faith and their understanding of God and God’s word into account, including one gentleman who just couldn’t contain himself; the words literally burst from him: If you’re asking me if Jesus would ride into Baghdad on top of a tank, well, of course he wouldn’t.  But Jesus would be wrong!  

The silence that followed his outburst was, as you might imagine, stunned.  I don’t know how he and his church family dealt with that in the days, weeks, months and years after I left.  But his statement has never left me.

What was going on in his heart, I cannot know.  But I can tell you what I thought then and what I think now: I think the man is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, but that somehow, over time, he has stopped believing that Jesus really is the Savior, the Messiah, the Rescuer.  Somehow, he has come to believe that Jesus just doesn’t understand what we face; that somehow, Jesus isn’t up to the job.

I don’t know what else to call that except a crisis of faith.  So it’s my own guess that too many in the debate hall the night Ron Paul invoked the Golden Rule may suffer the same problem: believing that Jesus is a nice enough guy, that Jesus is a good model to follow for our kids; but when it comes to the world of grown-ups, when it comes to the serious ‘business’ of the work of nations, Jesus is just too darned naive to be considered, let alone believed or followed.

If I am right; if this is so, more’s the pity.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Far Humbler God

“[In the contryside, I grew up] listening to the counsel of a far humbler God than He who guided the untroubled conscience of the British ruling class.”  –John LeCarre, in his 1989 Introduction to his 1962 novel, A Murder of Quality.

Yesterday’s weekly meeting of ministers preparing, praying, and pontificating (yes, we do that even amongst ourselves), focused on Jesus’ time in the wilderness as told in the Gospel of Mark.

During our discussion phase, dear friend and wise man Bill Cox raised the question: did Jesus know who he was before he was baptized and sent into the wilderness?  Or was Jesus’ own identity revealed to him over time?

And if Jesus was not self-aware that he was and is God, does that mean that he was somehow separated from the Trinity?  Or, perhaps even more radical, did the very Trinity itself become so self-emptied that She/He/They/It (have you ever noticed there’s no good pronoun for the Trinity?) lost or stepped away from identity in those moments in historical time we Christians think of as the life of Jesus?

In other words, what does the wilderness, the place where God is, or at the least, seems, absent, look like when God’s very self goes there?  Can God be absent from God?

It’s a frightening proposition: that God’s entry into time and space was so radical that God’s very self is affected somehow, fragmented even.  We speak of the cost of the cross to God, but seldom think on the cost of being human to God.

Greeks saw the gods in time and space as cavorting sportsters, having fun usually at human expense.  Bill’s question, however, suggests a far graver idea: that perhaps God lost God’s own self in coming to save my and your self.

It is a vision unsettling, this idea of a far humbler God.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Five Reasons to Have Jon Stewart to Dinner

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ShareAlike 2.0 License

There are so many reasons to have Jon Stewart at your dinner table, but here are my top 5 (in ascending order of importance - yes, I’m that kind of gal):

1. Perhaps the greatest facial expressions of disbelief of all time;

2. My favorite newscaster – and unlike Tucker Carlson, I actually know that it’s the pretend news, but I stand by my assessment;

3. A wonderful combination of humor and pathos in the same person is pretty rare in my experience - qualities to be treasured;

4. An ability to fill in conversational lags, a definite plus in a dinner guest;

5. But right now, topping my reasons-to-have-Jon-to-dinner is that he might choose to bring A. J. Jacobs with him.  I just finished reading The Know-It-All and had read some time ago Jacobs’ tome on living the Bible literally for a year.  And I’m hopeful that A. J. would bring Julie, his wife (St. Julie, as she’s known in these parts) along.  You see, it’s really Julie I want to meet -- if you've read his books, you'll understand.  And maybe, just maybe, if I suck up enough to Jon Stewart, I can get to meet her – Stewart did, after all, write the blurb on the cover of Jacob’s soft back edition of The Know-It-All.  I’m guessing he’s got some pull, even if indirect and tenuous, with St. Julie.

So what do you say, Jon?  Is Saturday good for you guys?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Grace Looks Like

When living in Scotland, I was invited to attend the retirement party of a woman named Ruth.  Ruth attended the church where I was interning, but I hadn’t met her other than brief handshakes.  My friend Liz, who would be playing the fiddle, invited me as her guest.

But it was Ruth who as the hostess showed me what lived grace looks like to a stranger in a strange land.

This was Ruth’s night, but she took me literally by the hand and told the stories of her work life as a midwife to me.  When she referred to people, well-known to everyone else in the room, she had them stand up so I could know who they were.

In every way, Ruth reached out to me and drew me into the circle of friendship and love surrounding her on her night.  It was about her, but she managed to include me.

That’s grace: including.

God includes us just like Ruth included me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Favorite Day

"What day is it?" asked Pooh.
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.

It’s Monday.

The sun shines.

The birds sit in the naked bush outside the window.

The cat lays snuggled at my back.

The laundry is done.

It’s Monday.

My favorite day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dance Into The Light

Do you see the sun?  It’s a brand new day
O the world’s in your hands - now use it . . .
Come on and dance into the light
Everybody dance into the light

These words from Phil Collins’ song Dance Into The Light are what I think of when I hear Psalm 30 . . .

There’s a recognition in his words of a painful past . . . what’s past is past – don’t turn around . . . brush away the cobwebs of freedom . . . the idea that there will always be a cost to living life into its fullness, but to not be captive to that past . . . that cost . . .

It is the idea the psalmist expresses in telling of lament and trouble, of the sense of abandonment and hopelessness being washed away in the simple act of worship and praise . . .

Having a great day?  Feeling the love?

Dance into the light.

Having the worst day of your life?

Dance into the light.

Loving everyone you see and meet?

Dance into the light.

Just not seeing it today?

Dance into the light.

Praise . . . the joy-worship of God . . . is itself an act of faith . . . sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t . . .

Either way . . . Dance into the light . . . Dance into the light. . . Dance into God . . .

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No More Sweeping Under the Rug

This isn’t science.  It’s probably not even logic.  It’s simply feeling.

I am hugely in favor of environmental protection.  I am a product of a successful education campaign when I was young, which imprinted on my young brain the importance of preserving the earth and all that dwells within it.

So I am a logical suspect to peg as being against wind mills on mountaintops . . . against mountaintop removal . . . against off-shore oil exploration . . . against pipelines running through a primary aquifer . . .

And it’s true to a certain extent: my impulse is to be against all of these things.

But, and it is a significant but . . . I have spent time in Iraq (with CPT, a faith-based violence reduction organization) and that time changed something about me that I didn’t expect.

My time in Iraq changed how I see environmental issues.

On top of war and the ruinous devastations of war, I have also witnessed in Iraq the disastrous impact of unchecked exploitation of resources such as oil and unregulated industries such as cement factories on the people of Iraq.

I actually asked a physician once if Palestinians were more prone to asthma than other groups since the Iraqi Palestinian children we accompanied to the Syrian and Jordanian borders all suffered from acute asthma.  The doctor was a kind soul, so he didn’t make fun of me for the stupid question.  Instead, he reminded me of what I had already seen and experienced: the pervasive pollution in Iraq, which is killing its population.

Many days, the skies in the south are black from oil burning and the massive use of gasoline generators to provide in-home electricity.  Many days, when I blew my nose, the tissue would be black.

It wasn’t the childrens’ Palestinian ancestry that attacked their lungs; it was the Iraqi air.

In the north, the pollution from the cement factories covers the land with white smog clouds.

I understand the complexities of a war fought in large measure about our import of oil.  I did not understand that we are exporting our pollution as much as we are importing their oil.

And that is what has changed my mind.
Creative Commons Image by Ferdi Rizkiyanto

If I am going to drive my car; if I am going to use electricity; if I am going to be a disproportionate consumer of the resources of the world (which, as a United States citizen, I am), it only seems fair to me that the results of that consumption be something I must look at up and close and personal, in my own back yard.

We in these United States have proven thus far that our consumption will not be reduced by attempts to price us out of the market.  We have proven that we will go to any lengths, economically, diplomatically, militarily, to preserve our perceived ‘right’ to consume at an unchecked pace.

And I am as guilty as the next person, perhaps even more so.

But maybe, just maybe, if the windmills sit atop my mountains . . . if the tops of my mountains are removed . . . if the oil derricks sit where I must look upon them every day . . . if I can no longer sweep the real harm my consuming ways does to this planet under the rug of my feigned ignorance . . . maybe then I’ll change my ways.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Am I a Safe Space?

The phrase ‘safe space’ in our time often refers to literal safety, comparable to the older aphorism, A man’s home is his castle, the belief that where we live should be free from all unwanted intrusion.  It can refer to domestic violence shelters for battered women, protective orders for the victims of stalking, and child protective actions to keep predators of the young at bay.

But ‘safe space’ has also come to signify whether a group of people offer psychological and spiritual safety to each other . . . or not, as in whether it is ‘safe’ to offer another point of view within a particular context.

Like any good idea, the notion of safe space can become meaningless when it over reaches, as in the felt need to have no disagreement expressed with one’s own views, as disagreement is too often equated with threat or danger.

From Flickr Commons
We are allowed to disagree with each other.  But in the United States, my own belief is that we don’t know how to disagree or how to be disagreed with very well.

Disagreement can be healthy and can lead to new learnings, new ways of being, for all of us.  If I listen, truly listen, to you, I can learn about a point of view I knew nothing of before.  My point of view can bring the same eye-opening opportunity to you.

As someone with definite opinions (which means nothing more than that I know my own mind really well), I have often been accused, directly and indirectly, of threatening the safe space of others.

Usually, I am left puzzled after such conversations.  What did I do or say that made the other person feel threatened?  Is all disagreement threatening?  Or is there something about the way I express myself, the certainty with which I speak, that leaves the other person feeling excluded or attacked?

Surely there is middle ground between the extremes of social and political discourse in our time of either (a) not discussing areas of disagreement at all (as in mother’s admonition to never discuss sex, religion or politics with others) or (b) name-calling, shouting vilification.

Which brings me right back to the question: how can I be a better safe space for those with whom I disagree the most?

I can speak more quietly.  I can speak less and listen more.  I can take off my ear muffs when it comes to the things I don't want to hear.  I can try to do better.

But here’s what I’d like from you in return: please do not assume because we disagree, that I am bad or mean or not listening.  I may hear you very well, but simply see things differently.

And let’s agree to this: when we post stuff on FB or in our blogs or anywhere into the technological ether, let’s pay attention, special attention, to truth.  When I get it wrong, tell me.  Insist that I retract the lies.  And allow me to do the same with you.

Let’s be more gracious, especially to those with whom we disagree.  They aren’t monsters.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Good Conversation

I stopped along my travels down a winding country road today just to pop in and say hello to two congregants.  I love sitting in their home, surrounded by glass windows opening into the vista of their ‘back 40'.  I love the fire place crackling with the warmth peculiar to wood.  I love their deep Southern voices washing over me like a warm bath.  I love their company.

We always have good conversations during these visits, with topics ranging far and wide.  From politics and politicians we wander into local affairs then to war and rumors of war then to a grandson deployed in Afghanistan then to the ecology and how to make a difference in protecting our beloved planet earth.

There is no agenda, no set plan, no particular destination in mind when we set out on these conversational journeys.  When we begin, I never know where we’ll go.

I love being surprised this way.  I especially love the surprise of my own preconceptions being unbalanced, unhinged, unwarranted.  Whatever I may assume that ‘Southern’ or ‘Northern’ means . . .whatever I may assume that young or old, healthy or sick, married, divorced or single, white, black or brown, or any of the myriad of other categories into which we place each other . . . whatever I assume, even, and perhaps especially, when I don’t think I’m assuming anything at all, my assumptions are, in a word, wrong.

I love being surprised by the people I love.

That is a good conversation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012



Just now it seems
I mostly know peace
by its absence
rather than its presence

Inner peace
makes about as much
Inner peas
to me
just now

I still want to idealize
as the absence of all

as if peace
were a place
of calm detachment
you can go to
for a visit
every now and again

of the striving
the working
the sheer effort
of making

To self
to others

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In the Bible
miracles are the bona fides
of the miracle worker
the resume
the business card
the job reference
all saying
yep, he’s the guy you need

But is that all they are?

So some would have it
that the time of miracles
has gone away
disappeared like sand castles
the sand is still there
but the shape of them erased
no longer visible

Some say
there are no miracles
because they haven’t seen one
which seems a bit silly to me

I haven’t seen lots of things
that I’m pretty sure exist
Atoms - never seen them -
Black holes - me & everybody else in the dark on that one
A soul - can’t describe what one looks like to save mine
Met any Angels? - nope - can’t say as I have

Others say there are no more miracles
because Jesus was the miracle
and after Jesus
we just didn’t need
any other miracles
they just wouldn’t stand
the comparison
to the miracle

but don’t we need a refresher course from time to time?
I know I do

So here’s where I land on miracles . . .

they happen

the inexplicable

the surprising

right in the middle of the ordinary

they come when they’re needed

and not a moment sooner

sometimes God heals by a touch
sometimes with a CT scan & surgeon’s scalpel

sometimes we understand them later
sometimes we never do

sometimes you get your miracle
and that’s great
but I’m left wondering
where my miracle is

sometimes there’s healing
sometimes there’s rescuing
it’s always dramatic, this miracle business

sometimes they come from the untrustworthy looking guy
who’s dressed funny and smells even funnier
sometimes they come with the gentle touch of a friend

sometimes it’s like a Hallmark card from God saying simply good job
sometimes the meaning and even the miracle are obscure

whenever a miracle comes to town
the thing that happens before – right before
is the tearing open of heaven
like a rainbow pointing up instead of down
like an arrow pointing, shouting
Look this way!  Here!  Up here!  Now do you see?

Now do you see?
The miracle isn’t in knowing Jesus
even demons know Jesus
the miracle is in the following
the living
the loving
the doing

did it ever occur to the ones
who say that miracles are no more
 that we are Jesus’ miracle

Miracles are a kind of spring cleaning
when things not needed
things that clutter
things that get in the way
things like demons
are simply thrown away

Miracle work is always unfinished
there are always more miracles in the making
to be performed
more need
more desire
more hunger
to be met
when the miracle worker is off to the next town
Does he leave the ones unhealed behind?
Or does he invite them to follow him
to seek out their miracles?

And have you noticed?
A miracle is never the end of the story
it’s always, always the beginning of the beginning
Miracles are the once-upon-a-time in the life of the follower
they set the stage
but they aren’t the story
the life lived after the miracle
is the story

Simon’s mother is healed
and then
and then she got up off her sickbed and served lunch
so what was the miracle?  The healing?  Or lunch?

In the grammar of life, miracles are the conjunctions
and . . . then . . . so that . . . because . . . since . . . in order to . . .
linking events
tying one thing to another and then another
in the life of the one
who got his miracle

It is as if all of heaven is watching. . . waiting. . . asking

now you are free - what will you do with it?
Now you are healed - how will you live it?
Now your eyes are opened - what will you see?
Now your tongue is untied - what will you speak?
Now you can hear - what will you believe?
Now your legs are mended - where will you go?

All of heaven holds its breath for the answer -
told in the life of the one who got their miracle
now you’ve got it, what will you do with it?

The ones who say the age of miracles
is past aren’t entirely wrong
We did get our miracle -
all of us . . . got. . . our . . . miracle
Jesus is our miracle
what will we do with it?
What will we do with him?
Inquiring minds are asking
God wants to know

Monday, February 6, 2012


76. Fog

THE fog comes  
on little cat feet.  
It sits looking  
over harbor and city  
on silent haunches         
and then moves on

From Shenandoah Mountain
I have always loved Carl Sandburg’s poem about fog, I suppose because I have always loved the fog.

I find quiet mystery in the fog, whether it’s driving in and out of the soupy mists in these mountains or walking the quad at Princeton Seminary late at night imagining the long-coated stranger of pulp fiction emerging from the shrouded backbrop of its density or seeing a tendril of chimney smoke, thick enough to stand out against the fog at the magical dusk hour in these high hills I now call home.

Somehow I cling to the awe of the child who sees not danger but wonder in what she cannot see behind.

The fog slows and stills me and even slow-moving cars become friends rather than obstacles, as their welcome red tail lights show the way home.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Ways of Peace

The ways of peace are largely untried, but successful more often than we think.

I can almost remember the moment (I was in my late 40's) when I learned that the Cuban Missile Crisis was settled not by President Kennedy’s public showdown behavior, but rather was settled with a behind-the-scenes peaceful negotiation.

I was always taught that the Crisis ended because Mr. Kennedy wouldn’t back down.  I was shocked to learn that the United States actually negotiated a settlement whereby we would withdraw our missiles from Turkey and the then USSR would withdraw its missiles from Cuba.

I felt so betrayed because what I had been taught was a lie and it is a costly lie.  That lie led me and lots of others to believe that the only way to deal with world enemies was with force and the threat of force, when, in fact, the situation was resolved not by force, but by peaceful negotiation, by talking to our enemy, by making concessions and compromises.

We live in a time when the word ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word, where everything is tinged with the language of righteousness.  And the rightness of our cause, whatever it may be, becomes the justification for force.

Thus this president, along with every president I can remember, whatever party they belong to, speaks openly about protecting not only Americans and American land, but also American interests around the world.  A public Pentagon document planning through 2020 I once read refers to military readiness to protect American ‘interests’ around the world.

And now, we’re talking about military action, directly or by proxy, against Iran -- not around the nuclear threat, but against their stated intention to blockade the Strait of Hormuz (where much of our oil flows through Iran’s territory).

Thus I am, as a citizen, literally required to ask, “How many people am I willing to kill in order to drive my car?”  I know it’s not that simple, but the idea of self-defense has been expanded to mean not merely the protection of my life, but also of my way of life.

I don’t like or excuse Iran’s behavior.  But their bad behavior does not justify mine.  That, I think, lies at the heart of the Golden Rule.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I Am Needing

I am needing
I will need
I have needed

match-struck lightening
sleeping bag embracing
computer calculating
arithmetic perfect
food nourishing
picture memory keeping
perfume wafting
capital L


Thursday, February 2, 2012

It's All Pie!

I spent the day gathering data from last year, preparing for next week’s congregational meeting.

It’s tedious work, but there’s something in me that likes to measure things.  Somehow, it makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something.  I’m that way with lists too – there’s nothing quite so satisfying as checking some chore off the to-do list.  And today, I made a pie chart! (I really need to get out more!)

Today’s data focused on how I spent my time as pastor in 2011.  The results are interesting to us, perhaps, but hardly surprising: most of my time was spent in (1) worshiping and preparing for worship; (2) pastoral care – things like visiting the sick; (3) Bible studies (well, we are a church after all);  (4) young people ministries; and (5) outreach.

Young people coming in #4 may not sound all that impressive to you, but when you consider that we only have 5 young folk under the age of 18 who regularly attend our country church, and that the average age of the congregation is surely above 60 (some Sundays, at 56, I’m the youngest one in the room), I think that’s actually pretty good.

The thing that I really don’t like is that I spend more time in meetings than in  missions.  But that’s a bit deceptive, not as to my time, but as to the church’s.  I am not spending much time dedicated to mission work; but the church is.

Close to 20% of our giving goes to one form of mission or another.  Some members of the church could truthfully be said to literally be living-in-situ missionaries.  We collect shoes sent to Kenya, food for the local Food Pantry, serve as a drop-off point for the recycling of used batteries, organize Thanksgiving baskets of food for local needy families, organize dinners to raise money to meet medical expenses for a local family, Angel Tree Christmas families, and join with other local churches to meet emergency needs as they arise.

But I keep going back to #1 - worship.  And I wonder: is worship only when we gather on Sundays and the preparation associated with that gathering?

Do we not also worship God when we feed the hungry and clothe the homeless?  Is God not glorified when we open our doors to welcome the stranger?  Does heaven hear our praise when we gather in yes, one more meeting, to wrestle over the issues of the day and try to come to good, wise and godly decisions?

Maybe I’ll redo the pie.

Maybe it’s all worship.

I hope so.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

It’d Be Funny If It Weren't


The absolute funniest Candid Camera episode I ever saw was The One Millionth Customer.  The lady was set up at a supermarket to be the millionth customer.  As customer 998 won an all-expenses paid trip throughout the United States and #999 won a world tour, the woman set up to be the millionth customer was ecstatic . . . until she was told her prize – wait for it – a walking tour of the sister store in Newark, New Jersey!

Boy, was she mad.  She said a lot of bleeped words – the only one you were allowed to hear as a home viewer was “unfair”, followed by a lot more bleeping.

Then, of course, affable Alan Funt came out to tell her she was on Candid Camera.  But the reveal didn’t stop her even for a nanosecond.  Even when she found out it was a joke, she was still mad!

She was the millionth customer!  (even though there was no millionth customer)

She should have received the best prize, not the other two (who weren’t receiving anything at all, since it was all a joke).

She was cheated!

It just wasn’t fair!

The sense of disappointed entitlement was so staggeringly ridiculous that it became funny - funnier even than the original joke.  The thing that still gets me is that the woman wasn’t mad that she was the butt of the joke; she was mad because it was unfair.

It occurs to me that in these United States, too often we act like the sham millionth customer, disappointed in the outcome of a contest that doesn’t exist . . . demanding our fair share of a pie that isn’t there . . . treating our expectations as reality and crying like children when they’re not met.

I would have more respect for Democrats if they stopped promising me the moon.

I would have more respect for Republicans if they stopped telling me who took the moon away from me.

I would have more respect for us as a nation if we voted for the candidate who promised to give the most to someone else – someone that needed the ‘it’ more than we do.

I would have more respect for myself if I didn’t act like that woman at the supermarket every time someone disappointed my expectations. . . if I didn’t scream, if only in my mind, It just isn’t fair! . . . if I thought more about what’s in it for you and less about what’s in it for me.

Really, I would.

What Will I Miss When I Die?

A question posed as a writing exercise: what will you miss when you die? is one I consider literally at first.  What will I miss?  I suspect from my faith perspective, the literal answer is nothing, since I believe that with death, there is perfect union with God.  In such a state of completeness, there is no absence, hence nothing to miss.

But, if the ‘me’ of now is the ‘me’ of then, if the ‘me’ of then feels the separation from this life, the me-of-then will miss . . .

The people I love . . .
     and the chance to make things better between us . . .

All of my grandson Rowen’s firsts yet to come . . .

Sunsets . . . snow falling . . . the quiet of a winter’s day . . . rain storms . . .

I will miss weather . . .

Smells . . . of clover and cinnamon rolls baking . . .

Girls in Easter dresses . . . children laughing . . . and the night sky . . .

Smoking cigarettes in the dark talking with a friend . . .

The missed chances and missed choices . . .

Laughing . . . and crying . . .

Sentimental movies . . . and popcorn – with lots of butter and salt . . .

Snuggling under a warm blanket on a cold night . . .

Seeing a new place for the first time . . .

The faces of the old . . .

Hands to hold and be held by . . .

Sitting by a bonfire on a summer’s night . . . walking the Scottish highlands . . . sled riding . . . having another dog . . .

Eating food . . . Indian food spicy enough to make me cry with the heat of it . . .

Tasting strawberries on my tongue . . . sun-warmed tomatoes with salt . . . corn fresh from the garden . . .

Waking up to sunshine . . .

Seeing a rainbow . . .

Who my children will become . . .