my place

Whitman said the moth and fish eggs are in their place
and I, too, am in mine–this earth, with all
God’s earthly things
Why should I not be? Why should no-place be
better than the place God placed me?
And if it was, how could I belong there?
I, being made of soil?
Am I not a son of Adam?

The seas and rivers are here! Doing their ordained work
as the creatures who live near or in them
They course and flow in their endless changing currents
moving and shaping the lands and beaches
slowly from here to there like
furniture in a colossal room
A home for numberless fish and mammals
crustaceans and birds:
the egret and lonely albatross
The mayim are terrestrial, corporeal, performing
their earthly function heavily
tugged by lunar sways and the forces
of heat and cold, light and dark
As they should be! I would have it no other way!

There are waters below and waters above
mayim and shamayim
Trading in a constant airy cycle their waters;
the mayim dissipate and become shamayim
Floating clouds, crowns to mountains thrust up
and crumbling in their time of ages and eons
home to eagles who fish the rivers
and bighorn sheep who live on the grasses
at home in their heavens
They turn and give themselves back to the mayim
pouring themselves onto the ground to
search for the ocean
That is their place! This is their vocation!

I heard a fool once, a know-nothing,
a man who didn’t read books
His whole system was predicated on
escaping all of this for some Platonic
disembodied existence
his heaven was always somewhere else
which is why he didn’t care about God’s will on earth
And on the Easter celebration of the risen body of the Lord
after eating the bread and wine,
all he could think to say was “I wanna go.”
Well, he can go, sooner than later. But I wanna stay.

When I die, bury me in it or
burn me up and scatter me to it
And if I have to leave,
I want to come back and put my feet in the waters
and breathe in the winds
I want to climb the mountains into the clouds
and walk barefoot
through the grasslands
I want to watch the kingfisher dive
and see the salmon leap over the rocks
Because this is my place
and I belong here!

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exposed

Jeremiah spoke his piece and
ended up in the stocks.
Lamenting God’s trickery, the
man just couldn’t help himself.

He was exposed; and that’s
what made it matter.

Mrs. Parks had no friends
on that city bus; the back of her head
bore those glares with lonely resolve.
St. Teresa loved the poorest orphans and
bore their poverty in her own body.

These had no security blanket, no
promise of tomorrow’s resolution. But
their suffering was hope for someone else.
They were just out there…exposed.
And that’s the point.

Mahatma wove his own clothes at
his own risk, calling his siblings to follow him.
Medgar applied to study law; he made it
through Normandy Beach to
die of a Mississippi bullet.

They looked hate and greed in the eyes,
empty handed because

there is no life of truth
safely hidden away,
only out in the open where
it can be heard and hated.

It’s got to be exposed
for everyone to see,
like a light on a hill
in the night.

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life in the crucible

the broken pieces, all
scraps and shards,
thrown together and
set in the furnace which
burns otherworldly white
in brilliant patches
behind the red black shadows
of the coals

the light rages with
a tangible intensity
and I stare into it expecting
to find Daniel’s friends
walking around within it

but my life is in this crucible
and I am the molten steel,
fragments and bits come together
glowing orange and blasting fire
as that which does not belong
disappears in smoke

soon I’ll be poured out
cast, hopefully, into something useful
cooled and fired and cooled again
until I am ready to race against
time’s rusty onslaught

whatever I become, whether nails or hammer,
this metal longs to build or cultivate
and not to kill, tear down, or destroy

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David Platt’s impotent prayer…

Having kids means watching kids’ movies, and as a father, I’ve watched my share.  One of the films I never minded watching over and over was “Night at the Museum,” the Ben Stiller movie in which a ne’er-do-well single dad takes a job at the Smithsonian only to find that all of the displays come alive at night.  In one scene, Stiller’s character meets a miniature, ostentatious, and confrontational cowboy named Jedediah (Owen Wilson) who lives in a wild west diorama. Stiller picks up Jedediah, who reaches for his six-guns to shoot Stiller.  The guns, of course, are miniatures and don’t work. And this is when Jedediah laments with anguished disappointment in his classic western drawl and third-person perspective the line that always made me laugh out loud, “Jedediah’s impotent rage…his guns don’t fire, take me away!”  

I think the reason this line always struck me as funny is because it is so relatable.  It’s common to act with bluster and confidence only to realize at some point that one is small, insignificant, and even powerless in the face of larger problems.  Jedediah’s predicament is his humanity, miniscule as it may be…his reflection that he is not as strong as he would like to be.

As peaceful Christians, however, we live a bit of a paradox about this.  On the one hand, our acknowledgement of God as all-powerful means that we accept and confess our own finitude and powerlessness.  Similarly, our acknowledgement of Jesus as King means that we understand that powerlessness (the way of the cross) is actually the proper way to live, meaning that a rejection of violence and the pursuit of power is central (think, here, the kind of power which wins both national and cultural wars).  We understand that following Jesus means living a life of self-sacrifice and service motivated by love rather than the pursuit of power, wealth, and security at the cost of doing violence to the other. In other words, rather than the useless guns of Jedediah, we have set aside our guns entirely–for words.

The paradox, however, is one of many in the Gospel that the apostle Paul understood so carefully: the greatest in the Kingdom is the servant, the last will be first in the Kingdom, and the list of beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the oppressed.”  The aforementioned apostle knew this well in his own life when, in 2 Co 12:9, he mentions his mysterious suffering as something he must continue to bear because “Christ’s strength is perfected in weakness.”

The paradox is that it is in our weakness, insignificance, and powerlessness that we are actually strong and powerful.  It is our willingness to die for the Gospel which really makes us live. It is when we become irrelevant to the world’s way of thinking that we truly have anything meaningful to add to its conversations.

Paul’s opening monologue in 1 Co 1 reveals this paradox most completely:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
   the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Of course, what Paul must prove to the Corinthians is that he is wise enough to be their source of correct teaching not because he has great status and power, but because he does not.  He is competing with messengers who look more impressive than he does. So Paul falls back on the paradox of power and powerlessness in the Gospel of the Kingdom.

“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” why is it so?  The Jews simply could not imagine how getting crucified would be an effective way to change their political and cultural situation.  They needed a king with an army, not a dead guy with a handful of disappointed followers. And the Gentiles were incredulous about it.  “Power is to be able to crucify people, not be crucified.  That’s stupid!”  But, Paul says, this foolishness or stupidity is God’s real power, because this life of self-sacrifice is exactly the kind of thing that is needed to truly change a world that has always been enamored with strength and power wielded with violence.

In other words, we Jesus followers, we few,  are a people who are strong because we have accepted the weakness of Christ into ourselves.  And we recognize that this Kingdom life is the only one with the power to really make a change in this world.

It is this power in peacefulness that is often most misunderstood, especially by those whose imaginations are held by violence.  People have a tendency to believe that a “pacifist” Christian must be, at all times, passive.  They tend to think that Christians must be nice, non-confrontational, and always amicable…especially when approaching the powers that be, people in authority, etc.  “You’ll never win them by driving them away, etc.”

This thinking forgets the great tradition of the prophets who ravaged their listeners’ ears with fiery messages: from priests and kings to nations of people whose hearts were hardened.  It forgets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Amos. It forgets John the Baptist shouting at Herod outside of the temple. It forgets Jesus confronting the Pharisees in his last week and forgets that he was crucified for offending the sensibilities of the corrupt leaders.  It forgets the suffering of the apostles in Acts, their unwillingness to give in when power attempted to shut them up. It forgets their martyrdom and that of the readers of Revelation, many of whom were killed because they refused to say what Caesar wanted them to say.

The great paradox of the power of the Gospel includes this: that while we may beat our swords into ploughshares, we still hold fast to the tradition of the prophets and follow the King whose image in Revelation is a warrior with a sword coming from his mouth, not in his hand.  The paradox is that we are not powerful by the world’s standards of power, but we have a greater power, that of our ability to speak the truth boldly…confrontationally…in some cases condemningly to the powers that be–and this is possible only because we have put down the sword to pick up the cross.  Our unwillingness to kill means that our deaths mean more and we speak all the more prophetically understanding this.

This weekend, mega-church minister and self-styled, semi-progressive Southern Baptist minister David Platt had just such an opportunity.  In response to Franklin Graham’s Twitter challenge of May 26 to pray for Donald Trump (in response to the constant “attacks” he is under), the President, seemingly at random, chose Platt’s church for a surprise visit, sending his people on ahead to say “The President wants you to pray for him.”  When Trump himself arrived at Platt’s church, Platt (who claims he was surprised by the event) not only agreed to let the President disrupt their communion service, barge in, and receive his prayer but he stood up and, putting his hands on Trump’s shoulder, prayed that Trump would know how much he is loved, that he would have wisdom, and included a vague reference to Trump making decisions that would be “good for justice, and good for righteousness, and good for equity, every good path.”  Words which were guaranteed to bounce off of their target.

Platt, who has been occasionally critical of Trump, had a unique opportunity to speak in a way that was unmistakable about the evils Trump has done.  If he was going to mention “justice” he might have mentioned God’s love for migrant children or shithole countries. If he was going to mention “equity” he might have mentioned the humanity of women and their status as being more than just walking “pussies” to “grab.”  If he was going to mention “peaceful lives” he might have mentioned the mass shooting in Virginia Beach. He prayed for “blessings” but left out convictions. He prayed for “justice” but was purposefully ambiguous about what that meant. There wasn’t anything in that prayer that challenged Trump in a way Trump would understand. If he had, he’d certainly have tweeted about it the next day. Nothing. Failure.

David Platt had an opportunity that John the Baptist literally gave his head for.  And he blew it. One would expect this of a higher-up in the SBC, desperately afraid of saying something that isn’t politic in a religion rife with hypocrisy on such issues.  One would assume that he has members of the “social justice” crowd who donate to his buildings as well as Trump supporters. So, of course, he needed to maintain a sense of social justice for the “SJ” crowd without bothering the “MAGA” folks.  In the end, he said nothing at all.

And nothing is a great thing to say, if you’re sure you don’t want to get crucified, stoned, or beaten up–or lose members.  It’s perfect if you’re hoping to impress everyone with your eloquence and grace under pressure. It’s the right way to make sure you say exactly what everyone wants to hear without actually saying anything at all.   If only John the Baptist had stood outside Herod’s temple and passively shouted, “Kings must do what is right!” It’s true and Herod, I’m sure, would have no problem with it, because isn’t Herod always doing what’s right?  If only Peter had said, “We must obey God…” and not included “and not men.” For, isn’t everyone basically interested in obeying God? They’d all probably have escaped the sword and club and cross. But, then again, they’d have denied the real power that the Gospel has: its truthfulness.

David Platt had a chance to speak the truth.  He had a chance to stand with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs and speak.  But he flaked out like a good mega-church preacher. And the saddest thing is, I think he knows his words were about as useless as Jedediah’s guns.

I picture him saying to himself, “David Platt’s impotent prayer…his words don’t fire.  Take me away.”

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My anger

My anger has been the prophets’ gift
and their quintessential curse.
It has raged in my heart like wildfire from
my earliest days, bequeathed upon me by genetics
and beaten into my soul by the hands and words of
cruelty and misfortune. It has been stoked to inferno
by injustices and hypocrisies, fanned until
perdition looked on with envy.

There has never been a time I haven’t felt
its searing heat in my heart, which is its bellows.
Its every beat has kept it aired and stirred,
moving me…moving me to seek…to learn…to grow…
to find its source and know my unknowing and
shed my heat’s light on the dark arrogant ignorance of my world.

My anger has had me growling and barking like a
flame-eyed demon dog at the Pharisee,
always certain in his righteous sins, and kept me
pissing fire on the smug Sadducee, confident
he’s outsmarted the ancient holy truths,

and on all the kings and princes of their
tiny stupid kingdoms, always seeking to make them bigger,
I breathe my fire there, too.

They have always hated my burns and
tried to dowse me, only to find their buckets were filled
with napalm and not water. And many cannot see

that this anger has taught me to love
and inspired me to learn peace
and made me long for justice until
I have shouted at the thinly veiled gates of hell
with such ferocity that I thought I might burn down
the abode of the dead itself, my throat hoarse and
parched from the dry, spark-flecked, roasting words
that I cannot hold inside for Jeremiah’s malediction.

They do not know that it is peace’s price to keep,
that the fool’s claim “your words do violence” are
the coward’s justification for complacency to evil.
They do not understand that when one puts down the sword,
words are what is left and that peacefulness
has nothing to do with niceness and everything to do with
the barest honesty.

Their idea of love is cruelty. And their passion is passivity.
And they sit by while their brother is killed, friends with his murderer,
telling themselves that their cowardice is forgiveness
so they might benefit from the murder themselves,
forgetting that forgiveness merits confession and repentance.
It is because they are apathetic to the flame and
their heart has never truly burned like mine.

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Being a peaceful Christian means letting go of “protecting life”

The irony of people referring to themselves as “Pro-life” on the issue of abortion but being clearly “pro-death” on issues like war and capital punishment has been frequently observed.  Many whose consciences are shredded by the thought of “the most vulnerable of us” (an unhelpful fuzz-phrase that a friend put to me in a recent conversation) being “torn from the womb of their mother and murdered” are simply unphased that born children are being torn from the arms of their mothers and caged at the border.  

Not all who are anti-abortion display such hypocrisy.  I know many people who, like me, have come to understand that being a Christian means recognizing Jesus’ call to peacemaking and have renounced violence in all its forms, the aforementioned friend being one of these.  These people understand that abortion is not the only violent act, but so is war and poverty, so they attempt to be anti-abortion and anti-other forms of violence.

However, even among these, I find a blindness to the tension inherent to the abortion issue.  I believe it has to do with the language trap that has been created around it. You simply can’t have a conversation about abortion that doesn’t rely on competing platitudes.  “You’re just trying to control women’s bodies. It’s a child, not a choice. Pro-Life / Pro-Choice…”. All of the language we use about the issue is designed to generate an ultimately unhelpful emotional response.  Everytime someone uses those platitudes, they’re digging in further and refusing to hear the other perspective. Every conversation, every turn-of-phrase, every meme is a doubling-down on one’s position and a stubborn refusal to understand the other.  And I believe even some of my peace-loving brothers and sisters are enslaved to that language and unable to see the issue clearly.

Again, the aforementioned friend had shared a quote on Facebook from Peter Kreeft.  It was, “Abortion is the Antichrist’s demonic parody of the Eucharist. That’s why it uses the same holy words, ‘This is my body,’ with the blasphemously opposite meaning.”

Wow…tripled down.  Now, a person who has an abortion is the Antichrist.  Now a person who says, “This is my body” (I suppose, in any context?) is blaspheming Jesus Christ.   

But here’s the problem I see: it’s not hypothetical at all to talk about a friend of ours whose beloved wife was in mortal danger during her pregnancy and, when it was not clear the child could even survive, turned in desperation to the doctors and said “Whatever you do, if you have to, I’ll choose my wife over the child.”

And it is not hypothetical to talk about tubal pregnancies, stillbirths, or situations where a fetus in the womb is brain-dead or dying and who, if left, threatens the life of the mother and the stability of a family.  To remove that fetus from the womb is an abortion.  But, according to Kreeft and my friend, that’s the Antichrist; it’s a demonic blasphemy.

My friend rebutted at one point: “And there can be no doubt (or, at least there shouldn’t be) that the Christian life should then, if nothing else, require us to at the very least relinquish our power to sacrifice the other — whether in war or in the womb — and to instead entrust ourselves — our bodies and the bodies of others — to the faithfulness of God.”

This is a good point.  Christians are not to “sacrifice the other.” We are, instead, called to pick up our cross and follow, carrying it for those around us–to the point of our own deaths.  This is a central tenet of a peaceful understanding of Christian theology. But what my friend misses is that Christ calls us to this.  He does not force us to this.  

The attempt to “make abortion illegal” (which was a stated desire from him in the conversation) is an attempt to force someone else to bear their cross.  In order to save what you take to be children in the womb, you are willing to put many mothers on crosses. You are, in fact, willing to sacrifice their bodies.

This is simply not how the Gospel works out in the New Testament.

My friend used the analogy of slavery.  “Thank God slavery was made illegal in this country,” forgetting, I suppose, that the attempt to make slavery illegal resulted in a four-year civil war.  And it could have happened no other way: because to participate in the powers with which to accomplish peace one must reject the cross (peace by self-sacrifice) in order to pick up the sword (peace through sacrifice of the other).  

My friend Paul Axton, in a recent conversation, made this point exactly.  The apostle Paul, in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, attempted to undermine the entire concept of slavery not with armed conflict, but with the love and self-sacrifice of the cross.  He did not make slavery illegal, but attempted to make slavery and the law obsolete with the self-sacrificing love of the cross.

And this is the irony of being a “Pro-Life Christian.”  There is no way around it: your attempt to make this decision for someone means you are putting someone on a cross to save another.  You’re not trying to bear that cross for them.  You’re putting them on it.

For myself…I would that all children could live and thrive.  I would that there was no war and no slavery. I would that there was no such thing as wealth so that there would be no such thing as debt and poverty.  I would that there were no borders and no one was afraid of the other.

However, I believe that me bearing a cross means I can’t control any of this, but must try to live as peacefully as I can in the face of it. This means I must acknowledge that I should not be the one standing outside of a hospital room deciding who lives and who dies for someone else.  Because, believe it or not, what you may passionately believe is a “child” is, in fact, inside that woman’s body.  And that is her body that God gave to her, controlled by the mind that God gave to her to make choices–and that is not blasphemy, that is the created order.  God himself does not attempt to take that choice from her. He may call her to her cross, but he leaves it up to her to decide whether she will bear it. Why can’t you?

Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for president for the 2020 election, made a fascinating statement in a town-hall interview recently when asked about laxed abortion regulation.  He said,

I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on ‘where you draw the line’ that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of ‘who gets to draw the line.’  And I trust women to draw the line when it’s their health.

When pressed on late-term abortions, he went on,

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation.  If it’s that late in the pregnancy that means, by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry to term.  We’re talking about women who have chosen a name or purchased a crib. Families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice.  And the bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is, they may seek spiritual guidance or medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better medically or morally because the government [think: you, Christian] is dictating how that decision is going to be made.

Think what you will about Pete, I take that answer to be a very peaceful answer and closer to the cross’s solution than any other I’ve heard yet.  It’s time for peaceful Christians to stop trying to control people…to stop standing on our pedestals making absolutist claims about situations we know nothing about…to acknowledge our ignorance and trust that the cross is the correct way and not the sword.

It’s time to let women have their bodies and not call them demonic for saying it.

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to be at peace

live simply
want no excess
enjoy creation
find beauty
appreciate difference
laugh thoughtfully
love learning
create something
work diligently
rest patiently
use your hands
be in place
share freely
trust carefully
read thoroughly
breathe deeply
study complexity
admit fault, but only when true
experience the other
try new things
show kindness to animals and
tenderness to plants
love neighbor and self
tell the truth and
speak no lie

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