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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Ignorant Arrogance of the Christian Conservative Troll

I've been wandering around YouTube recently, looking at spiritual videos in particular. That's nothing new for me, but I have had a bit of a different focus in that I have been specifically looking
Rachel Held Evans
at the comments made on videos of moderate Christian speakers. By that term, I mean people like Rachel Held Evans, Donald Miller, Richard Rohr, and other similar types. It's an especially fruitful exploration if they identify as or in fact are someone who was at one time more conservative than they are now. Specifically, I looked at the comments that were critical of them or their ideas. What I found surprised me - and that doesn't happen very often.

To judge by the comments, Christian conservatives are incapable of addressing the arguments of their more moderate brothers and sisters. If the more moderate brother or sister in question is Roman Catholic, he or she is called by their conservative critics a heretic. In Roman Catholic circles, that's even worse than calling someone a smelly, cross-eyed, cognitively impaired, pus dripping, parasite infested whore. Not that there is anything wrong with being a smelly, cross-eyed, cognitively impaired, pus dripping, parasite infested whore, if that's what you're into. If the more moderate brother or sister in question happens to be Protestant, they are called some version of inexperienced, self-absorbed, dangerous, arrogant, foolish, attention-seeking, self-serving or, God forbid, a feminist. In fairness, men are seldom called feminists - probably because the limited definition of feminism in
Donald Miller 
conservative circles is, "women who don't do what men tell them to do." Notice that in none of these criticisms are the positions put forth by the person being criticized addressed. Not even the heresy charge addresses the positions of the alleged heretic, because the term "heretic" is brandished like a broad brush and seldom are the specific and allegedly heretical ideas even identified, much less addressed. It kind of reminds me of my childhood, an admittedly less enlightened time, when boys called each other "fag" without provocation or any reason to suspect anything about the sexual orientation of the accused. The label itself, repeated often enough, was sufficient to induce suspicion.

What underlies all of these behaviors is an extremely thinly veiled (and unearned)
The Flying Spaghetti Monster
 arrogance coupled with a startling lack of intellectual acumen. It would be one thing if these critics could, in a charitable (i.e., Christian) way enumerate their points of disagreement and propose alternative perspectives. That's not what happens, for the most part. Rather, a festival of name calling and character bashing ensues, that presumably in the mind of the "basher" being enough to convince any reasonable person not to listen to the position of the person they are criticizing. The problem, of course, is that no educated person falls for such techniques, having learned long ago that a personal attack is always fallacious. They may as well suggest that the arguments put forth are contradicted by the teachings of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is really happening is that the conservative critic feels that their belief system is being challenged by the assertions of the speaker - and, clearly, it may indeed be challenged by the ideas of those speakers. Since, however, the conservative has been conditioned to believe that there can only be one correct belief system this challenge throws the way they make sense of the world into question. This is turn generates an enormous amount of anxiety. Lacking the intellectual tools to refute the argument at hand (largely because they have been told to avoid thinking for themselves at all costs), the only weapon left in
Richard Rohr
their arsenal is the fallacious but easy ad hominem attack.

None of this would matter all that much if it weren't for the fact that most of these critics have a lot of time on their hands and have been convinced they are personally responsible for any bad ideas that may be floating around. This derives primarily from the misinterpretation of a passage in Ezekiel in which God made Ezekiel responsible for the beliefs and behaviors of the people of his time. One of the basic intellectual and interpretive mistakes of conservatives is the very selective ability to differentiate between specific instructions in the Bible that applied to one person(s) at a specific time in history and general instructions meant to apply to all people for all time. When it comes to things like a kosher diet, conservative Christians very correctly hold that Christians are not required to keep kosher. When it comes to believing they are responsible for the orthodoxy of others as Ezekiel was, they fail the test rather dramatically - or perhaps very conveniently, as someone obsessed with the behavior of others has very little time left to check their own behavior.

When this kind of distorted feeling of responsibility is coupled with having a lot of time on one's hands and a Internet connection, the result is the kind of publicity that drives just about every reasonable and even marginally intelligent person away from Christianity as
fast as someone wearing a gasoline suit runs from a house fire. The unattractiveness of this kind of behavior is blatantly obvious to everyone. The difference is that conservative Christians, having been convinced they are to engage in a culture war, find being obnoxious to be some sort of badge of honor. The question that remains for those of us who actually care about the teachings of the Christian tradition is whether the short but loud history of Christian anti-intellectualism and bigotry can be overcome. In short, we have an enormous image problem, and the impact of that problem is clearly reflected in the dramatic decline in participation in the Christian tradition over the last fifty years. Even though that decline has also reached the conservative side of Christianity, they are loud enough that they will continue to create a problem for more moderate to progressive folks for a long time to come.

In a world of limited energy, it seems to me that we need to make a decision about where that limited
energy might be most effectively expended. When we add to that limited energy that reality that we now live in a religiously pluralistic world, the divide between conservative and moderate to progressive Christians is only likely to grow wider. In that divide may rest the solution we seek. Our religiously pluralistic world exists because the Internet has exposed people to other traditions and belief systems. That genie isn't going back in the bottle, and it's a genie that threatens the very world view of conservatives of every religious tradition. They will no doubt prattle on endlessly about the rise of pluralism, and will finally have attached to the issue that will be their undoing - precisely because the genie isn't going back into the bottle. It's not unlike my tendency to complain about cold weather and snow in winter having no impact on the weather - if I decided to stand on the street corner and yell, "stop snow now, save your souls" not many reasonable people would be converted to the campaign! Perhaps, as conservatives have long suggested, the end is in fact near - only nothing like the end they have been expecting. All we need do is sit back and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Some Police Shootings Really are Justified

In my estimation, for whatever it might be worth, it's pretty clear that Darren Wilson should stand trial for the murder of Michael Brown. It's also clear that the NYPD officer who choked out Eric Garner should stand trial for his murder. However, it's equally clear that the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee last April acted justifiably and that no charges should be brought. How can I say such a thing? I say it because I read the report of the expert the Milwaukee District Attorney hired to consult on the case. The experts credentials are unquestionable, as are the stories of the witnesses to the event. Only six of the dozens of witnesses say that Hamilton was shot while on the ground, and three of those were working in surrounding office buildings. That means they would have looked out the window after they heard the shots, by which time Hamilton would indeed have been on the ground. The other three rolled up in a car while the incident was going down. The autopsy results confirm that none of the shots hit Hamilton while he was on the ground. Despite all of this, Jesse Jackson is on his way to Milwaukee today to demand justice for Hamilton.

Dontre Hamilton was schizophrenic, and had been kicked out of his parent's home because of his behaviors - but suddenly the family doesn't talk about that reality. Suddenly he was a model citizen who never caused anyone any problems. Hamilton managed to get the officer's baton from him and hit the officer in the neck, causing him both injury and to fear for his life. There were witnesses who confirmed this attack. The officer did fire fourteen shots, seven of which hit Hamilton in the arm and one which hit him in the low abdomen causing no significant injury. The truth is that police are trained to shoot until the threat is stopped. Eight of the shots had no effect, but more importantly the shooting was over in three to four seconds. I have been attacked on the street, and I can tell you there isn't time to take an action, wait to see if it works, and then take another. There is no "shooting to wound," and people who think there is such a thing have watched way too many spaghetti westerns. I have also worked with seriously mentally ill people. I can tell you that when a person with schizophrenia becomes violent there is no negotiating with them. The fight is on, and it won't be over until either you or they are down. That's reality, and it sometimes isn't pleasant - but that doesn't make it less than the truth.

Here's my biggest problem: the black community will continue to lack credibility until it is willing to admit that there are occasions when a black person is legitimately accosted by police, that there are black people who do actually commit crimes and deserve prosecution, and - sadly - there are black people who attack police officers and that those officers respond with justifiable force. Yet every time I watch the news and a black person is arrested, all I ever see are people claiming the invisible man did the crime and not the person detained. The statistics alone tell us this cannot be true, yet time after time the same nonsense occurs - and then leaders in the community are mystified as to why, when there are cases of police brutality, the public has a hard time believing the witnesses! It's a modern day twist on the boy who cried wolf story. You can't cry, "the police did wrong," over and over - even when the evidence is clear that is not the case, as with Dontre Hamilton - and expect to maintain any credibility. Calling in Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton doesn't change that, because in all honestly they are attention seeking media whores who care not one whit about what went down on the street as long as they can get some face time in front of the cameras. Building credibility requires telling the truth. That can be painful, but it can go a long way toward remedying many cultural and societal ills.

Sadly, Dontre Hamilton is a victim - but not of police misconduct. Rather he is a victim of a society that decided during the late 1980s and early 1990s to de-institutionalize the mentally ill. The result is that the patients who were in State hospitals were transferred to group homes and people who needed group home services were sent to the streets. That huge mistake is what needs to be addressed if we want to make sure there isn't another Dontre Hamilton, but fixing that situation will cost money. Our society values money more than lives, so it quite simply isn't going to happen. That's the real tragedy here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I'm Offended!

How many times have we heard that statement in response to everything from a television program,
to a movie, to a joke, to a song, to something we've done that is really quite innocuous, to a belief we hold - really to anything and everything? Most of the time, the thing that "offends" people is nothing more than a different perspective. I'm not talking about dirty jokes, vulgar language, revealing clothing, or running naked down Main Street. I'm talking about much more benign things that only become "offensive" because they don't fit in the the speaker's usually conservative beliefs and world view. You see, somewhere along the line "offensive" became a method of trying to control the thoughts and behavior of those with whom conservatives disagreed, and there is little more vile to me than thought and behavior control. It's also cowardly, because it attempts to shut down conversation If your actions offend me, you need to stop - and debate is unnecessary.

The truth is that the whole notion of being offended has become a powerful technique among the religious right. Pastors have been toppled from their positions after "offending" church members, and the church members accusing the Pastor don't really have to articulate what it is that offended them. Presumably, talking about the things that offend one is, in and of itself, also offensive. It is the neutron bomb of conservative Christianity. Remember the neutron bomb? It was developed during
the 1970s and was a weapon deemed so vile that President Carter banned its further development or use - which no doubt means that weapons developers went ahead and built it anyway and that there are scores of these things stockpiled somewhere. What made them so vile is that they killed people but left infrastructure intact by somehow not destroying anything but living beings. This is precisely what "I'm offended" does. It removes the person in question, the "offender" without any nasty collateral damage that arises from discussing feelings and belief in an open and healthy manner. Like an assassin's bullet fired from hundreds of yards away, there is a presumably "clean kill." Of course, no kill is ever clean, and this one is very vile because it creates a culture of fear. Because the things that "offend" are most often quite innocuous, virtually anything could get one knocked off. In other words, Christianity has produced a group of wimpy, back stabbing cowards who lack the stones to take responsibility for their actions and statements.

Enter Stephen Collins, who played the pastor-Dad on the saccharine sweet television show 7th Heaven. I should start by saying that I have always had a bias against Stephen Collins - at least ever since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when he clearly was trying to usurp Captain Kirk's position on the Enterprise, but I digress. 7th Heaven was repeatedly named the "least offensive" show on television by conservative Christian watchdogs because of its emphasis on the evils of premarital sex. As an aside, how ironic is it that after appearing on such shows many young female actors find it necessary to pose in magazines like Maxim in an attempt to try to get their careers back on track as normal young adults? Anyway, Eric Camden - played by Stephen Collins - the pastor Dad and family patriarch, upholding the sexual morality so important to single issue Christians, the icon of "good Daddy," now is cast in a new light. You see, Stephen Collins - now by his own admission - is a pedophile. That is something we all can get offended about, but so far the religious right has been virtually silent. How can this be?

It can be because "being offended" doesn't really have anything to do with being offended at all, and everything to do with advancing an agenda. I will submit that agenda is two fold. The first is to advance the conservative world view in the culture - and if they were honest about their intent, that would be fair enough. The second is more insidious and spiritually damning. The second is to ensure that followers never have to critically examine or defend their beliefs. Why would a movement not
want to have members critically examine their beliefs unless those beliefs were, shall we say, a bit shaky? Why, the very suggestion is surely offensive!

As for Collins, now 67 years old, he has admitted that he molested three girls - perhaps after checking the statute of limitations. Studies of pedophiles would suggest it's virtually impossible that he didn't molest many, many more girls. Very few, if any, pedophiles only molest a few victims. The drive to act out is very strong, and he may have only admitted to the crimes for which he cannot be prosecuted or in which the victim is likely to come forward. On the other hand, he has a shred more integrity than Bill Cosby - which is kind of like praising someone for spending three hours eating dinner at the all you can eat buffet but skipping dessert.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fiction and Reality are Different, Stupid!

I confess, I am mad as hell. Of all the stupid, muddle headed, nonsensical excuses for the American torture of prisoners, blaming television has to be the worst. Yes, friends, Jack Bauer is responsible for American torture. Shows like 24 are responsible for the desensitization of the American populace to torture. Apparently Superman also makes us think we can fly, Iron Man makes us think a special suit will give us special powers, Men in Black leads us to believe aliens from outer space live on this planet wreaking havoc, Spiderman has us climbing the walls of buildings, and Walker, Texas Ranger makes us believe Chuck Norris can act. The only problem is, NONE OF THEM ARE REAL!
Not even Chuck Norris, because every real person can blink their eyes.

The fact is that if you are too damn stupid to distinguish between fiction and reality, then you are too damn stupid to care about much of anything other than your addiction to escapist entertainment. You are so interested in removing yourself from reality there is very little hope you will actually engage it to oppose much of anything.

Could it be, I wonder, that what really desensitizes Americans to torture are very real things like war, violence in our streets, the militarization of our police departments, jackasses practicing "open carry" in the local Wal-Mart, the popularity of cage fighting and so-called MMA, the popularity of video games that make shooting another human being in the head something that can be undone by hitting the "reset" button, the fact that so many parents believe that little Janey and Johnny need to start the marital arts as young as possible, and dozens of other examples of socially acceptable violence practiced on a daily basis?

Please don't misunderstand - I know that violent forms of entertainment contribute to our willingness to commit violence ourselves. I will readily stipulate that watching back to back episodes of 24 will make me more willing to punch out the paperboy. What they
have never made me do is think it's a good idea to shove hummus up somebody's ass - though it would explain the taste of hummus.

We need to step up to the plate and stop making excuses for our moral and ethical failings - and we absolutely have to insist that our government do the same. Part of that is accepting responsibility for our actions and insisting our government do the same - including turning over everyone who violates either domestic or international law for prosecution. The idea that we should hide war criminals puts us on a par with the great despots of history. As someone who grew up on government propaganda about the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, a propaganda that never failed to point out every real or imagined human rights violation, and as a citizen of a country that presumes to chastise the Chinese government for its human rights violations, I object to this kind of grade school  morality that says something is only wrong if you get caught and condones any and every attempt to shift the blame for misdeeds to the other.

It's time to put our big boy and big girl panties on.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pablum and Profanity

Please don't let anyone convince you that you have to surrender your personality and proceed as if you have been lobotomized. Many will try, at least by their example. How many spiritual teachers have we seen who, trying to convince us how calm and peaceful they are because (presumably) they
are so unbelievably enlightened, seem unable to raise their voice loud enough to yell "look out!" should they see a truck about to run someone over as they cross the street? Could there be anything more suspect? Why would enlightenment or union with the Divine cause us to become cookie cutter lobotomized mumblers, our personalities banished to the outer reaches of the universe where they mingle with other abandoned practices like picking our noses in public (which also, by the way, has nothing to do with awakening in any but a social sense)?

One of the things I love about some Buddhist teachers is that they don't pretend they don't say "shit!" or even "fuck!" every now and again. Insight Meditation teacher Noah Levine is especially good at that, and the Zen tradition in particular seems full of stories depicting life as eating, sleeping, and shitting. Some people, conditioned as they are by American puritanism, recoil at such a suggestion. That in turn reflects that they have recoiled from life, preferring to live it at a presumably safe distance. Nonsense. You cannot live life at a distance, just as you cannot live it vicariously. No matter how well your child's soccer team does this year, the truth is you sucked at the game and would do well to let your kid off the hook and face reality.

What I want to know is this - when will we drop this absolutely asinine belief that spiritual people must, as a prerequisite to awakening, have never lived? I have worked in industry, in healthcare including psychiatric settings, in the Church and in the hood. I have hatched, matched, and
dispatched people* and in the process I have seen them at their best and at their worst. I have dealt with all of their secretions - physical and emotional. I have been, quite literally, elbow deep in adult feces, at which time the only word one can say with any authenticity is "shit," and fallen on my ass in puddles of urine, which does tend to piss one off. I have wrestled people to the ground and restrained them. I have watched people drink, smoke, and drug themselves to death at an early age, and watched other people excommunicated from the possibility of human touch by virtue [sic] of the misunderstanding and cowardice of family, friends, medical professionals, and clergy. We do have an untouchable class in America, and I have said "fuck this" and touched them anyway. These are the experiences upon which my spiritual life has been forged, and whatever minimal level of awakening I have achieved has not erased those memories from my consciousness nor made me someone other than who I am. It would be absolutely absurd for me to believe that anyone else has had a different experience.

Despite all of this, I hear from the pulpit and the Buddhist teacher's seat an unreal, lobotomized, wolf in saint's clothing presentation that implies these people neither fart nor burp. Sadly, I have been in sacristies and back rooms, and their odor gives them away. I have seen self-proclaimed and duly elected spiritual leaders rant and rave against sexual misconduct, all the while sleeping with more members of their flock than they have fingers on their hands. I have seen the fundamentalist preachers decry the LGBT community only to be revealed as having groomed underage boys to have sex with them when they come of age. We all have seen the cover ups, the lies, the scandal, the
denials, the  minimizing - but let one spiritual leader say "motherfucker" and all hell breaks loose. I'll let you decide which is worse.

I'm remembering a country song called "A Country Boy Can Survive" by Hank Williams, Jr. that has a line in the chorus that goes like this: "We say grace, and we say Ma'am, if you ain't into that we don't give a damn." Of course, Hank also said some ill advised things about the President that I don't support, but I'm not beyond stealing his ideas. I'm going to write a spiritual song to the same tune, and the chorus will go something like this: "We say shit, and we say piss, if you can't feel that truth there's something you missed."

Don't worry, if you don't like that there are plenty of pretend spiritual teachers. You can go sit at their feet right after you get done castigating your child for not bringing home the championship trophy. You have to be authentically you, too. Just please don't tell me how holy you are, or I will have to say some of those words you don't like.

*"hatch, match, and dispatch" refers to Baptism, Marriage, and Funerals

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Looking for an Edge to Catch

A wonderful psychiatric nurse named Joyce, whom I worked with years ago, taught me the concept that some people at some times just look for an edge to catch on. I suppose we all get that way from time to time, just off our game enough to be looking for a reason to get upset. In its milder forms, finding that edge to catch on just makes us irritable and bitchy. In its more severe forms, we easily
become violent. When I worked in inpatient mental health, we were pretty adept at not providing the edge people sought, but if they wanted one badly enough and couldn't fine one they would simply create their own - real or imagined. Over the years I discerned that whether people were likely to become irritable and bitchy, violent, or somewhere in between was determined by a complex formula including psychological factors, fatigue, pain, illness, stressors, and our beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, those people who believe that nothing is ever supposed to go wrong look for that edge much more frequently than those who believe that life is comprised of both the good and the bad, the sunshine and the rain, the ups and the downs we all encounter.

It has occurred to me that America is now a society of people looking for an edge to catch on. It started with feminism, I am pretty sure, when women started complaining if a man held a door for
them. (If you are angry now, can you see that I just provided an edge for you to catch on?) Of course it didn't start with feminism, but the example is a good one nonetheless. Suddenly, what had once been a socially reinforced behavior became a bit of a mine field depending on the attitudes of the person for whom we held the door. There are almost endless examples of the increase in a search for the edge. When I was much younger than I am now, I learned that it was polite to complement someone on their new hairstyle, new clothes, new glasses, and similar things. It built good feelings and strengthen relationships - even work relationships. Despite the fact that men don't notice these things as much as women do, I tried to keep track of who got their hair cut, or got new glasses, just to be a kind co-worker. Today, such a statement is a risky venture because it can perceived (correctly or incorrectly) to be sexual harassment. In my more cynical moments, I want to have business cards printed up that read:

DISCLAIMER: I do not find you attractive in any way, in fact I find you rather repulsive and wouldn't want to have sex with you if you were the last person on earth. Therefore, any complements I might pay you when in a forgetful state should not be interpreted as an advance of any kind, but rather a momentary lapse in which I inadvertently behaved with kindness. 

My plan would then be to distribute there cards to everyone in every room I enter. Sadly, such a strategy wouldn't work, because someone's edge would be that I didn't want to have sex with them and the drama that ensued wouldn't be worth the safety offered by my disclaimer. If you have ever encountered someone with a Borderline Personality Disorder, you will know what I mean right away.

Further evidence of the prevalence of seeking that edge to catch on is the prevalence of litigation in
our culture. It seems everybody wants to sue everybody else just about any time their little feelings get hurt - even when it's their own negligence that got them in whatever mess they find themselves in. Many people actually believe that life is supposed to be smooth and without bumps in the road. The result is that when life's natural bumps appear, they look for someone to blame and someone to pay for their discomfort. If something goes wrong, by God someone is going to pay, and it doesn't really matter to the offended party if the person who ends up paying is responsible for what happened or not. It's as if we believe that cash compensation makes all things better, but the truth is that once that money is spent we are right back where we started and the next unanticipated bump in the road is right around the corner.

The solution? To be honest, I don't have a fail proof solution. It does occur to me that we can spend our whole life trying to avoid providing the much sought after edge for others and as a result never actually live our own lives, and that doesn't seem a fair trade. I do feel that we can identify those people in our lives who are regularly looking for an edge, and seek either to avoid them or, if that's not possible, be very careful when interacting with them. On a more proactive note, we can work to surround ourselves with healthy people and, as we get to know one another better, trust that our motivations will be clear to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when someone does find their much sought after edge, we can choose to walk away and not get caught up in the drama. Misery loves company, but the company seldom loves the misery!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Secular Mindfulness, A Buddhist Blind Spot?

There is much rumbling and grumbling in Buddhist circles around the so-called secular use of mindfulness with Buddhist ethical principles stripped away for what some Buddhists perceive to be unethical ends. Clark Strand, in a recent article on, recalls that during the 1970s and 1980s Buddhists didn't object to Vipassana meditation being taught outside of official Buddhist circles. Now, however, mindfulness is being taught to employees to help them work more efficiently (sometimes for lower pay), to the the US military both to teach them to be more efficient killers and to treat PTSD upon their return, and somehow being used by the 1% to control the outcome of elections and thereby the 99% of us.

I have three questions: Is he right in his assessment that there is a problem? Perhaps more importantly, is this abnormal or should these complaining Buddhists have seen this coming? Finally, is this something that can be controlled? I will address those questions one at a time.

Is he right that there is a problem? Frankly, my answer to that question depends upon which specific example one is talking about. I feel it's important to point out that his assessment that mindfulness training makes soldiers more efficient killers is biased, clearly springing from prejudice against the military. While I am no fan of war, I would submit that mindfulness is equally likely to keep soldiers alive because they become more aware of their surroundings and the danger that lurks in those surroundings. If we are going to send young men and women to war, aren't we obligated to do everything we can to ensure their safe return? Regarding elections, I feel an honest examination would reveal that campaign finances and the misleading advertisements placed on radio and TV have a lot more to do with unfairly influencing election outcomes than corporate mindfulness training ever could. Television and radio simply reach more people.

In the case of corporate mindfulness training, it may well be true that the goal is to increase productivity without increasing pay. Wouldn't, however, a mindful employee also more easily discern what their corporate employer is attempting to do to them and so be better equipped to refuse? Also, I find the assumption that since the Buddhist moral teachings are not included with secular mindfulness training the result is that you have an employee devoid of moral and ethical training to be more than a bit of a leap. It's not as if these employees were raised in a vacuum, after all. Many of them have had moral or ethical instruction from other sources in their lives, whether formal or informal, from parents, religious training, and other educational and interpersonal sources. Corporations would be hard pressed to hire people who are tabula rosa regarding morality.

Is this abnormal or should Buddhists have seen this coming? How many people wear Christian jewelry while having no current involvement in Christian practice? How many people, if only in times of stress, pray for relief - and how many of those people haven't seen the inside of a Church for years? How many people attend classical music concerts in which sacred music is played and enjoyed, yet have to interest in stepping in a church? There should be no surprise that the Buddhist mindfulness teachings have found their way to secular America. In fact, I want to say that I find the distinction between sacred and secular to be a false distinction, and those Buddhists who insist such a distinction exists are either Buddhist fundamentalists or haven't understood the Buddha's teachings very well. How ironic is it that Buddhists, who follow the Buddha and who often point out with pride that Buddha was silent on the notion of a creator God (which is fine with me, by the way) should object to their teachings being used in a secular context?

Our final question is whether or not this can be controlled. I would first like to say that those people raising these concerns seem to display more than a little attachment to the outcomes of these teachings, and from my understanding of Buddhist teachings, that's problematic. I don't believe that the trend can be controlled as long as it has the desired results among those that promote the teachings. If we don't like the teachings being promoted in secular settings without ethical teachings accompanying them, it would be more effective to start teaching ethics in a secular setting than wasting our energy trying to stop the mindfulness teachings. We should direct our energies toward what is possible and what will change the outcomes rather than stand around wringing our hands like a Christian fundamentalist who has just discovered their child listening to Ozzy Osborne music. We can only take that kind of effective action, however, when we let go of our attachment to outcomes. Anything less is the most impotent kind of fundamentalism that exists.

What is really happening here is a normal consequence of a religion gaining popularity in contemporary culture. Some practices and principles cross into the secular arena. Whether or not that is desirable, it is in fact normal. Rather than try to stop the trend, Buddhists would be better advised to consider how to respond to the trend in a way that reduces whatever damage they believe had been done. A good place to start would be by clearly saying that mindfulness in a Buddhist context is quite a different thing than what is being taught in other contexts and then working to educate people about the differences. That has started in some places, and should replace the wringing of hands in others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Males - The Great Spiritual Exiles

I know this won't be popular, but it has to be said. First, though, some stipulations. It's true that most organized religions are patriarchal messes that have a long way to go to include people of all genders, people of all abilities, and people of color in leadership. That fact simply cannot be debated. However, I am not writing about leadership today, I am writing about belonging. When we look to the average member, participant, congregant, person in the pew, person facing east with their head on the floor and butt in the air, whatever they are called in your tradition, two things become clear. The first is that, by and large, men are missing. The second is that there is very little reason for them to show up because we have so concentrated on everybody but men that there is virtually no programming for men.

Oh, sure, Evangelicalism has men's groups where everybody sits around and talks about what positions they have sex in and how many times they masturbated this week. I'm sorry, but that's not a spiritual group, it's a sick exercise in boundaryless self-disclosure. There are also the occasional retreats for troubled young men, and they are a wonderful thing - but not the sort of thing that Joe Average would attend. Richard Rohr has done some great stuff in men's spirituality, but he's just one person and can only do so much. All in all, the men's movement of the 1980s had all the staying power of a popcorn fart, and since then there hasn't been much.

If you think I am off base here, just scan your social media feeds and Google Ad Words. There are retreats for women, for working women, for women with children, for women without children, for women of color, for Breast Cancer survivors, for women with endometriosis, for women who leak urine when they cough, for female Latvian Dwarfs, and on and on - except nothing for Joe Average. You will say to me that programs aren't offered because everyday, regular spiritual events are dominated by women. I will reply that simply doesn't logically follow since current offerings aren't really directed toward men.

In Christian terms, we aren't excited about cleaning the altarware, or joining the knitting circle, or making cookies for coffee hour. We don't want to shop for flowers for Sunday. Most of us are so unprepared to teach Sunday School it's laughable. About all we can do is be an usher, because we know how to show people to a seat. We can show up when it's time to clean the property in the fall, and we don't mind doing work around the physcial plant now and again, but that's about it. Gee, what aren't we just bum rushing the doors on Sunday morning? Why aren't we just knocking down the doors to sing songs that we can neither relate to nor sing? Let's all hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer, that would really make us happy!

Buddhist centers aren't much better. You want us to take off our shoes, and the truth is we aren't comfortable with that because if we are blue collar workers our feet are smelly and beat up. If we are wearing dress clothes we are probably wearing socks that we aren't comfortable in and that will cause our toes to freeze on contact with your arctic, hardwood flooring. Speaking of dress up, many of us don't like to dress up in our free time so that rules out Shambhala centers. Worse, you expect us to get down on that cushion that we will never get back up from, humiliating ourselves in the process? If we can't sit on a cushion, we can always sit in the back away from everybody else - just like we had to do in grade school when we were naughty. Then we might have a fancy tea ceremony or eat vegetarian food? Oh yes, sign us right up for that!

What's needed are men's retreats that don't presuppose men must then show up to the main event on Sunday - or whenever it's held in our tradition. Let us approach at our own pace. Allow us to come as we are and have discussions that are meaningful to our lives. Don't ask about what we do with our penises. Ask what we want to do with our lives, what scares us about the changes we are going through in our bodies and careers, why in the hell our hair seems to be disappearing from the top of our heads and reappearing in our noses and ears. Let somebody else take care of the physical plant and show people to their seats, and we will gladly give up the administrative tasks. Let the spiritual center or church become a place where we are actually nurtured. and we will show up.

I don't think it will happen. The people being served probably won't want to give up any of their time or attention to let other programming happen. There's a privilege is spiritual circles that comes with being oppressed. It's almost as if spirituality is God's great affirmative action center. It's not going away, and people aren't likely to surrender it. In fact, a lot of those groups spend a pretty significant amount of time identifying males as the problem - and then wondering why we don't show up. Like I said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Where's Your Messiah Now, See?

In one of my favorite Billy Crystal stand up bits, he takes off on the classic movie The Ten Commandments. In its day, it was a cinema masterpiece and a work of epic proportions. It still bears
watching, but you have to put aside your need for twenty-first century special effects and keep in mind this is a movie from 1956. It was a virtual who's who of casting, including even the likes of gangster movie phenom (and terrible actor) Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, when Charlton Heston's Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and not come down fest enough for the liking of the masses, demands of Moses' brother Aaron, "Where's your Messiah now?" Billy Crystal has endless fun with this line, adding Robinson's gangster character's tendency to put "see" at the end of what seemed like every sentence. It's from Crystal's work that I draw the question that is the title of this post - I really want to know, where IS your Messiah?

I'm sure you remember all of those promises from Sunday School, CCD, books, sermons, even the
Bible - the ones that said that Jesus would always be there for you, no matter what. Wherever two or three are gathered, just ask my Father for anything in my name and it will be given to you, send the creepy televangelist a big check and it will come back ten fold - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. If you are honest, you have to admit none of that stuff has ever happened to you or anyone you know. If you are a liar and want to convince me that these promises do come true, I am afraid you are going to have to send me video evidence along with the name, addresses, and phone numbers of the people you want me to believe have received these blessings. Even if we could scrounge up a couple hundred people throughout history who got two of their friends together and called on Jesus to appear like a genie popping out of a bottle, there are literally millions more whose call was not answered. They, and their friends and relatives, are mad as hell and they want to know what the deal is.

Of course, I have been trained to know all of the official answers and explanations. I am even willing to pass along the most reasonable one - that either the authors of the gospels of some later editor added these claims and they never sprang from the lips of Jesus. That would be all well and good if we weren't sitting here not quite two thousand years later waiting for a retraction. We would probably be willing to settle for a clarification or six, but they don't seem to be coming. While there is a shortage of explanations, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of clergy types hanging around mystified as to why there is a credibility problem in Christianity today. In truth, Christianity didn't need scandals to blow (pun intended) its credibility out of the water as long as it had its history of doctrine and dogma. It wouldn't be fair to only blame the institution, however, because for the last six hundred years we have been able to hold a copy of the Bible in our hands, though most of us have probably only been able to read it for the last hundred years or so. While it does have its share of fantastic claims that defy
understanding, it also pretty clearly says not to look outside of the here and now for your salvation. Whose fault is it that we preferred the easy, though imaginary, way out and kept looking to the sky?

I don't want to bore you with a Bible or Sutra study, but both the Buddha and Jesus were pretty clear that we are the agents of our own destiny. They used different language. Buddha talked about enlightenment and nirvana while Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, but they were both saying we had to do the heavy lifting ourselves. This propensity we have for grabbing onto isolated passages of scripture - whether Buddhist, Christian, or some other tradition - and insisting our favorite snippet means that somebody else has to rescue us isn't going to change either reality or truth. We can weep and gnash our teeth, or in contemporary terms piss and moan, all we want but it won't change the truth that your Messiah is within you. The reason you aren't very happy about that truth is that sometimes
life is pretty shitty.

For the vast majority of us, life doesn't work out precisely according to our dreams. By the time we hit fifty years old we can see that pretty clearly, and some of us engage in some pretty stupid exercises in futility to try to convince ourselves we can make it work out according to our dreams. All of the running around involved in midlife crises of one sort or another, all of the new objects of attachment purchased do absolutely nothing to change reality. In fact, they often create even a bigger mess than we had on our hands when we realized things weren't going according to Hoyle. The sad thing is that many of us just run from one "cure" for our dissatisfaction to another, never slowing down long enough to see that they aren't working - and that we are alienating just about everyone around us in the process.

The truth is that when we are in the midst of this hot mess called life, the only thing that will help us is to see things as they really are is spiritual practice. Buddhists talk of seeing through the ego to impermanence and emptiness while Christians talk of moving from the False Self to the True Self. It doesn't really matter which language appeals to you more, both systems will get us to the same place - and so will Judaism, Islam, and every other tradition. The thing is that you have do the work and you have to decide to start. There's no time to start like now, because every day you waste is another day of dissatisfaction. So, cancel your appointment for liposuction and hair plugs, penis extensions or labiaplasty, and get started with some serious spiritual practice already! If you don't know how, contact me. I can help.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

With Acceptance Comes Ordinariness

With the rather anti-climatic "coming out" of Apple CEO Tim Cook, we are yet again faced with a problem lurking around the corner. Cook's coming out, anti-climactic because he was accidentally outed on a television news program recently, was characterized as "brave" and "courageous."

Really? Bravery and courage require the possibility of loss, and Apple is one of the most gay-friendly companies in the world. There was little danger that Tim Cook would lose his job for coming out. Cook said he knew what it was to be persecuted, a comment that may or may not be true given his professional and financial success. I'd suggest persecution is in the eyes of the beholder, but a white male who rises to the top of one of the largest companies in the tech world has no idea of the level of persecution experienced by a person of color living in an urban neighborhood or even of a poor white person living in the hood. Add to it the fact that as more and more gay and lesbian people come out, coming out becomes less dangerous and less unusual, particularly for the wealthy.

Here's a shocking truth - as marginalized groups move closer and closer to achieving their goal of full acceptance in our society, they will have to surrender their special status. The day will come before too long that announcing you are gay will garner the same reaction that my announcing I am straight gets. That reaction is a big yawn and a request to move on.

Marginalized groups tend to gather around and celebrate the reason for their marginalization. It's a good and normal reaction to an unfair and evil situation. Once the marginalization ends, and I am not saying it's over yet in the gay and lesbian community but I do believe the day is very close, that reason for celebration and the claim of special status that go with it will be gone. With acceptance comes the perhaps unpleasant reality that you are part of the norm. I wonder how many people who make their living as gay and lesbian advocates are really prepared for that day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Spiritual Hoarders

Many people are what I call spiritual hoarders. They collect techniques, practices, initiations, prayers, mantra, teachings, retreat attendance, and a host of other spiritual events, experience, or methodologies. These end up in a kind of spiritual backpack that is carried along on the journey. As you might imagine, after a while that backpack gets bigger and bigger until it starts to weigh us down. At
that point you might think we'd just start cleaning out the backpack and lightening our load, but such a project isn't easy. After all, every item in the back pack was acquired through great effort or expense! Why, these are precious things, mementos of our journey!

I just finished reading an article about abandoned mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It seems there was a lot of mining going on there in the mid-1800s. As you might imagine, back in those days there wasn't a lot of record keeping. The result is that the existence of some of those mines remains unknown, despite the best efforts of authorities to locate and secure them. Among the many dangers facing those who foolishly enter these mine shafts is that the timbers used to support them may well have rotted and so they are waiting for the smallest vibration to collapse, trapping the amateur explorer inside. They also are very dark, literally pitch black, and even a flashlight doesn't provide enough light to avoid holes - some of which were intentionally made to drop debris down during active mining and others which were created by landslides and tunnel collapse. Other holes were covered by boards that have long since rotted and will not support the weight of someone walking on them. It's also quite possible that these holes have become filled with water and dust has accumulated on top of the water, making it appear to be solid ground. Once in the water filled hole, it is likely that there are no ledges upon which to hold or to rest. The same is true of quarries - they may have steep, nearly vertical sides. People dive in to swim and drown because there is no way back out. They may also strike abandoned mining equipment under the water or at the bottom of a vertical tunnel and be killed by the impact.

When I read about this abandoned equipment I wondered why miners would abandon equipment. Especially one hundred fifty years ago, that equipment must have been expensive and hard to get. Why would you leave it behind? Why wouldn't you just put it in your backpack and carry it out? It turns out there are a few answers to that question. One is that once some of the equipment was lowered deep into a mine it became extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous to extract it. The hours required to try to get it out didn't justify the expense of simply replacing the equipment. Other equipment broke during use, and there was no point in removing it. Still other mines became unstable and had to be abandoned quickly, leaving no time to retrieve equipment. Other times miners just gave up and chose a different career, and still other times I am sure either laziness or success prevailed.

Sounds a lot like a spiritual backpack to me! Some of that stuff needs to go, or the weight of it will
overcome us and we will be like the person who is lost in the maze of the mine shaft, exhausted and without food or water to make their way out. We don't necessarily need to throw it down a hole, we can put it in a nice, tidy drawer. We can hold on to some of it for a while, but the truth is that we will need to get rid of all of it to reach the end of the journey. I believe this is precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich person to get to heaven - and make no mistake about it, in the west we all are rich by the standards of the rest of the world.

We acquire these things along the spiritual path and we should plumb the depths of them. Wear those bad boys out! In doing so you will eventually come to the place where you need to let go of every last one of them. It won't be tomorrow, or next week, or even next year, but one day - perhaps one at a time - you will begin to see that you no longer need all of these things and, more importantly, that continuing to hold on to them loads you down and makes the eye of that needle look more and more narrow. Every practice, with the exception of sitting quietly and doing nothing, will run itself out and become less than useful to you - and that's normal. We need to guard against premature abandonment of these things, of course, and we must wring every drop of growth from them. The day will come, though, when going to Church on Sunday won't feed you anymore, when you don't need to carry the five different varieties of prayer beads everywhere you go, when you can leave that copy of the scriptures at home, when you can let a retreat opportunity pass you by - not because there is anything wrong with any of these things, but precisely because they have taken you as far as they can. You may still dust off that rosary once in a while or attend the odd retreat, but you will do so knowing that your spiritual tool bag really contains all that you need - and you will have transferred the things you need to progressively smaller bags many times. In the end, and hopefully long before you die, you will need to drop the bag entirely and enter into direct experience and engagement as the only thing that feeds you. At that point, you will have fully abandoned spiritual hoarding and entered into full communion with the goal of the path. What is that goal? It's better if I let you discover that for yourself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Failing to Control that Which Will Not Be Controlled, and other shades of Fatal Attraction

It seems I have a passion for dating myself with media and entertainment references lately, but I cannot help myself and so it continues.

Having recently reread Marcus Borg's definition of religion and spirituality, that "religion is [hu]man[ity]'s attempt to control God and spirituality is [hu]man[ity]'s attempt to make sense of its
world, I would like to propose a third category, or perhaps a different term and category altogether, that describes popular and (I suppose unavoidably small minded) spirituality. I'd like to call it "Denialality," and define it as the belief or attempt to control life and its outcomes. I wanted to call it "SmallMindedality," but I decided that wasn't kind - which is a whole different thing from saying it isn't accurate, of course.

You see, there is a large part of us, whether liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, that is simply too fearful and too lazy to engage life to its fullest. For this massive group of people, which includes a large number of permanent residents and all of us as temporary residents from time to time, it's just too much work to engage life in all its fullness, beauty, and horror. The result is that we design systems of belief, either overtly or covertly declare them infallible, and so excuse ourselves from participation in the fullness of life. If I am a conservative Christian, I simply declare that the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it, and all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of evolution, ignoring the missiles of science that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

Of course if I am highly educated, or imagine myself so, I would never believe in that kind of nonsense. My version of this is that my thoughts create my reality, and all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of things like poverty, starvation, and disease that are contrary to my best thoughts, ignoring the missiles of the seven billion other people on the planet who also have thoughts that may not line up with mine and so work against my attempts to create reality that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

Then there are the conspiracy theorists, who postulate that nothing bad ever happens but that anything that appears to be bad is really an intricately designed illusion put in place by the government to gain control of our minds. Apparently it hasn't occurred to these people that if the government really wanted to control us (more than they already do), all they would have to do is convince a significant number of people that there were plots to control us. This would cause them to spend much of their time seeking out these plots and so they would be far too busy to notice the actual control plan. To these folks, everything from vaccines to airplane exhaust is being used to try to control us, and they refuse to be controlled, and so all evidence to the contrary be damned, I simply pull my toupee down over my ears and proceed full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes of the truth that in refusing to be controlled I now spend virtually every free moment seeking out those who might be trying to control me and so get virtually nothing done, ignoring the missiles of evidence and science that strike my vessel, because I know how it works, Goddammit!

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is representative. Might there be a trend, here? I'd like to suggest there are several, not the least of which is a large amount of fear mixed with a large amount of denial. Life can be a frightening place, and so we are tempted to design systems of belief that create for us the illusion that we can control life or are exempt from its natural outcomes. This requires implementation of the second trend, the confusion of opinion with fact. I must believe that my opinion - informed or not, with any base in measurable reality or not - is more than opinion. My opinion must be fact. Whether we are talking about the Bible as literal truth, our thoughts controlling reality, or calling airplane contrails "chemtrails" that poison us, opinion becomes fact and evidence becomes unnecessary
because opinion now supersedes what most of us would call evidence. Of course, much of this is based on what I want to call "truth minus five degrees." by which I mean it starts with verifiable, objective truth and then just moves five degrees off point. The result is something that may seem very reasonable and even very familiar on the surface. but when it's played out to its logical conclusion becomes highly distorted, indeed. However, if I avoid with all my being playing it out, I can maintain a pretty solid defensive front of denial and never have to engage the truth of reality, until...

Until, for many of us, "the event" occurs. We or someone close to us gets the big diagnosis. Our lover leaves. We are fired. We or someone close to us is involved in a horrific accident and will never be the same. Humpty Dumpty has a great fall, and all of our carefully considered systems of denial don't put Humpty back together again. Now what? Now we kick into the grief process full time, I suspect mourning not only Humpty Dumpty but also the loss of our belief system that gave us certainty and denial in one neat package.

As an alternative, might I suggest a religion that engages reality on a full time basis? That is, after all, what every great founding spiritual teacher has taught. Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, and all the others were trying to get us to see past delusion to the reality that lives underneath it - and we somehow fell in love with the delusion rather than the reality! Does life suck? At times, yes! Can we avoid it? Not really! So let's engage it full on! Granted, we might have to start with little bits and pieces as we build our tolerance, but let's just go for it. Gradually, we will be able to tolerate more and more of it - joyfully, even - until we are fully engaged with life. That's what the vision has always been, but it's tough at times and easier to retreat behind the delusion than work through the reality. The problem is that's not really living, and we end up dying without having lived, and I don't believe that's a fair trade for any of us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: Healing Troubled Hearts by William Day

I had high hopes for this book. Part I was a riveting account of the author's personal and spiritual journey that began when he was designated by an Uncle who was a Priest as a future priest. His account of his childhood disconnection as a result of this designation and his struggle to find his vocation was at times heart rending and riveting. His eventual experience in a Pentecostal church, while not my particular perspective, was interesting to read, as were his early experiences in ministry.

With that in mind, his decision to turn the book into an apologetic against any perspective but his own, biblical literalist, Calvinist perspective was unfortunate. He rather predictably dismisses anything remotely connected to his own Roman Catholic upbringing with little apparent insight as to how that upbringing makes his dismissal predictable! For someone with Dr. Day's training, that failure represents a huge blind spot in both his own insight and the effectiveness of his own "healing." He also, perhaps predictably, lumps any Christian perspective other than his own into what he calls a "New Age" perspective, which is a rather tired and extremely inaccurate tactic of apologists for conservative Christianity. While he did occasionally accurately describe a healing intervention, he fails to see that the same interventions in a secular context also work. In other words, whether one sees that one is not in complete control of every detail of ones life because one believes that God is in control or whether one comes to the same conclusion because of their own failed attempts to be in control matters little in the outcome of their psychological issue - though it may matter greatly in choosing where that person does or doesn't go to church.

In short, if you share Dr. Day's rather narrow perspectives you will likely love this book. If not, you won't find it especially helpful.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Book Review: Love and the Mystery of Betrayal by Sandra Lee Dennis

An outstanding, in depth look at betrayal and it's impact in our lives. The author brings her extensive psychological and spiritual knowledge and experience to bear on her own response to being betrayed in love. Especially helpful to me was that our brain fails to distinguish between physical and emotional trauma, at least in terms of the impact of the trauma on our psyche and person.

While I do have a history of profound betrayal in childhood, I had (for me) an interesting insight into my current situation. Having struggled with significant and early onset (at age 45) physical limitations and increasing debility for the last eight years, this book got me in touch with a profound sense of being betrayed by my body - which seems to speak to the connection between physical and emotional trauma of which the author wrote. It's an interesting and powerful connection for me and, I suspect, others in similar circumstances.

More importantly, this book is outstanding for those struggling to cope with betrayal in love because it is honest about the struggle and the path of recovery. There are no easy answers here, no encouragement to use band-aid measures that mask the symptoms and in so doing leave an emotional time bomb rather than true healing in place. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book by the author in return for a fair, unbiased review.

The Curious Imprisonment of "Religious Freedom"

The case of some Orthodox Jewish men refusing to sit next to women on an airplane is but the latest volley on the part of so-called "religious freedom" proponents to in fact restrict the freedoms of others in the name of their religion. Similar cases have emerged across the country by folks from other traditions. What these cases share in common is a confusion (or maybe not) between the freedom to practice my religion and my desire to force you to abide by my religious beliefs as well. It's an important distinction, and I don't really believe the proponents of this kind of "freedom" are so foolish that they don't understand the difference.

The truth is that when we do business in the public marketplace or travel on public transportation, we give up the right to decide who we will do business with or who we are willing to sit next to precisely because we are in public. We are free to make those choices in our private homes or houses of worship as well as while we are on or in other private property that we own. When we venture out into public space, however, we surrender the right to decide with whom we will interact. That's the nature of public space.

In the case of the Orthodox men not wanting to sit next to a woman, the truth is that - with all due respect to their religious tradition - the broader culture has determined that women are equal to men. This makes their request to be moved no different from requesting to be moved because your seat mate is a person of color. The request not only need not be honored, it shouldn't be honored because the religious believers have voluntarily entered the public domain. It's really quite simple, and it has nothing to do with religious freedom. If you want to control who you are going to travel with, you need to drive your own private car or charter a plane - and pray to God that the pilot isn't a woman!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: Adoration: Mary of Bethany - the untold story

I so wanted to say something positive about this book, so here it is: It has a red cover, and red is my favorite color. It also has large print, which is easy on my eyes, and is written in sense lines which means that it's really about fifty pages of very redundant material stretched into one hundred thirty-five. On the other hand, it took less than an hour to read, so not much of my life was wasted.

From the title, I was expecting something very different, perhaps a book about adoration as a spiritual quality or practice. What I got was a rambling, at times tangential, at other times conflated book with heavy but poorly conceived hints of total depravity. That analogies were sometimes mind bending, as in trying to show that work is bad and surrender is good - a concept that runs in direct contradiction to the experience of Paul, to name but one - the author compares Martha to Moses and Mary to Joshua, claiming that Moses didn't get to the Promised Land because he was concerned with working while Joshua did because, presumably because he was concerned with surrender to God. The problem of course is that Joshua's leading people into the promised land doesn't compare well with Mary sitting at Jesus' feet, it's just as much work as Moses leading people around the desert was.

Then, somewhere along the way, the author has decided that Mary of Bethany is the same Mary who anointed Jesus' feet. She displays her ignorance of biblical culture in claiming that it was only this Mary and Jesus who washed feet when in fact it was the duty of any host to wash their guests feet as part of hospitality. The author devotes the last third of her book into her fantasy of the two Marys being one.

In short, if you are given to fictional flights of fancy based on shoddy biblical understandings, this book is for you. If not, I'd avoid it like the plague.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This article originally appeared in my newsletter in September of last year, but it is just as relevant today. You can subscribe to my free monthly newsletter by clicking here!



We live in a culture of violence. From entertainment to the streets, we alternately celebrate and decry the level of violence in our society and respond to it with an increased - and increasingly militarized - police presence.

Our family recently abandoned cable TV when Time Warner, the local cable company, decided to get into a dispute with the local NBC affiliate and stop carrying their signal until their dispute is resolved. We don't really know who is responsible for the dispute and very few people really care. The result was that cable TV stopped carrying the channel that broadcasts the Green Bay Packers' games just days before the first preseason game, forcing cable TV subscribers to watch the game on Telemundo and listen to the broadcast on the radio. You might think that wouldn't be a bad alternative. The problem is that radio runs on a five second delay, resulting in the play being over on the television before the play by play on radio even begins. If you aren't familiar with Wisconsin culture, interfering with our ability to watch the Packers is slightly less popular than cable TV in the Vatican deciding not to cover the Pope. We researched our options and found that we could buy an antenna, subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, have more options than we did on cable TV and still save $75 a month. Goodbye cable TV!

Fresh with excitement over the new and old movies and television series I could watch I saw that one of my childhood favorites, Adam-12, was available. I chose the first episode of the first year, and there it was! What I couldn't fail to notice was the lack of flack jackets and M-16 rifles. They were also carrying revolvers instead of semi-automatic pistols, but if memory serves that may have been because semi-autos were a later development. They spoke to citizens with dignity and respect, in the clipped minimalist phrases typical of a Jack Webb production. Watching the program, which in its day won awards for realistically portraying police life, was stepping into another time, a time when the idea of "to protect and serve" didn't mean "occupy like the Marines." Don't misunderstand, I believe that in today's climate every police officer should have all of the protection they can get, including bullet proof vests. What I cannot help but wonder is if our government's history of responding to violence with violence hasn't in large part contributed to the perceived need for increased militarization of the police.

As I write this President Obama is prepared to attack Syria because it has allegedly used chemical weapons on its own civilians. Those are serious accusations that seem to be true. The United Nations is doing what the United Nations does best - wringing their collective hands and asking for more time. Experts, as well as civilians living in Syria, report that the Syrian government has done what cowardly totalitarian regimes everywhere seem to do and placed government and military installations in residential areas in the belief that such a practice will cause decent people to think twice before attacking because of the certainty of collateral damage - and such practices should make decent people think twice and even three times before attacking. Apparently, our government is not comprised of decent people.

One of the five Buddhist lay precepts cautions against the heedless use of intoxicants. The other four caution against killing, lying, sexual misconduct, and stealing. It has been said that the precept about heedless use of intoxicants is there because intoxication increases the likelihood of violating the other four precepts. Is there anything more intoxicating than power, and can we see that our government's misuse of power inevitably leads to lying and killing? What's more, can we see that it is absolutely insane to attack another country while knowing with certainty that because of the placement of their installations such an attack will kill countless civilians in order to punish them for killing their own civilians? At this point the murder weapon becomes irrelevant, because whether we are talking about nerve gas or a cruise missile the truth is no civilian should ever encounter either!

This leads me to a question I have been pondering for some time, but which would not make a popular Facebook post. The question is, "Can a person who claims to be religious or spiritual join the military without abandoning their spiritual or religious values?" Of course it is a loaded question because our "all volunteer" military preys upon the economically disadvantaged, promising them vocational training they can use should they survive their enlistment both physically and psychologically intact - something that is far from guaranteed and that recruiters are loathe to mention. The truth is that many "volunteers" see no other choice but to "volunteer." What of those who do have a choice, the officers? I was shocked at Erin's Marquette University reunion to speak with a man who graduated Air Force ROTC from that fine, Jesuit institution and now does drone target selection for the Air Force. I have to say, and others may freely disagree with me, that I do not find his occupation worthy of product of a Christian institution.

As we cavort around the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations, back at home the violence we freely distribute abroad is alive and well in our cities - and not just on the streets, but in private homes in the suburbs. Domestic violence is pandemic, as are sexual assault, child abuse, children resolving problems on elementary school playground through physical violence, and just about every other form of violence you can imagine. Veterans return home from combat with PTSD, street gang members also have PTSD from the violence they have experienced and witnessed, and we seem to always have more than enough money to create more victims at home and abroad but never enough money to treat them. We have money to kill, but not to build up, feed, educate, or employ. We are a morally bankrupt nation.

We need to find a way to teach our children a new way. We can no longer rely on our education system, churches, or government to do the job. We need to teach them that violence is unacceptable, and that there are no exceptions to that rule. Adults need to pull the phones out of their ears, shut down the computer, turn off the television, and decide that their greatest responsibility is raising children who know they are loved and who are taught basic moral and ethical values. Those of us who are older need to help young adults do this, because the truth is that many of them were not raised knowing they were loved and many of them grew up in a culture of domestic violence and street violence. They will need our help to learn that they, too, are of value and bearers of divinity.

This will require spiritual institutions that don't hide inside four walls and only attend to those who venture inside. This will require spiritual institutions that are more concerned about people than money, which would represent a 180 degree shift for most of our churches. This will require spiritual institutions that are willing to step out, take risks, and see their primary mission not as one of evangelism but rather as one of healing. Many will fall short of the task and simply disappear into irrelevance. Others will take their place, and that is how it should be. There is for everything and everyone, a time to die. Others are born to replace them. This is the great social justice challenge of our time. Who will rise to meet it?



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Limits of the Cultural Card

Domestic violence is the issue of the day in the National Football League. The news media have been
Peterson's son's wounds
covering the Ray Rice situation extensively, though it took the entertainment site TMZ to get the NFL to finally look seriously at Rice knocking out his then fiance in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. Perhaps more disconcerting are the allegations that Minnesota Vikings' star running back Adrian Peterson beat two of his children, both four years old, with a switch. Picture have surfaced of one of the boys with open wounds on his body from the beating. Peterson has been indicted by a Texas grand jury in one of the cases, the other (from last year) was never prosecuted. It's certainly a horrifying situation, but it may be that the comments in social media are even more horrifying. It would seem that more than a few Americans are more than willing to see children as a piece of meat that can be beaten at will with no more justification than "that's what happened to me and I turned out alright." Of course, back when I was fetal, to coin a term, parents routinely smoked during pregnancy because the consequences of doing so weren't fully understood. Strangely enough, you don't hear too many people using the same kind of logic, that "I turned out alright," regarding mothers smoking while pregnant.
Trust your gut, Charles

Enter TNT basketball commentator and former NBA player Charles Barkley. Charles Barkley tells us that this sort of thing "is what parent's do in the south. It's cultural." The implication is that all cultural values are good values, and that nobody has the right to interfere with cultural values regardless of how they might impact their victims. By this logic, we shouldn't have prosecuted Warren Jeffs and the FLDS for their practice of forcing underage girls to marry much older men because it, too, was a cultural value. We shouldn't have given women the right to vote, because that was a cultural value and so was sacrosanct, the movement for equal rights is also wrong by virtue of challenging cultural values, we should still be throwing suspected witches in rivers because of cultural values, and - yes I will go there - slavery should never have ended because it, too, was a cultural value. The "cultural value" concept is a slippery slope when extended in an attempt to cover situations in which people are hurt and abused. Contrary to the opinion of Charles Barkley and (if he is to be believed) the American south, children are people - not property to be disposed of as one wishes. They are in fact human beings, and should have the same protection from physical violence that every other human being has. There is no legitimate cultural value that includes child abuse, and if you hit your child with an object that causes wounds I find your argument that such behavior doesn't constitute abuse to be vacuous.

In response to the Peterson indictment, the Minnesota Vikings did the right thing and deactivated him for last week's game. Then on Monday, after losing badly the day before, the Vikings reinstated Peterson. That's a hugely disappointing statement about where the priorities of the Minnesota Vikings reside. Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf has a shady past of his own, and despite being a billionaire recently held up the people of Minnesota for a new stadium for his Vikings to play in. He may be a lousy
football mind, but he can play the extortion game very well. A statement from Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high.

"Today's decision was made after significant thought, discussion, and consideration," the statement read. "As evidenced by our decision to deactivate Adrian from yesterday's game, this is clearly a very important issue. On Friday, we felt it was in the best interests of the organization to step back, evaluate the situation, and not rush to judgment given the seriousness of this matter. At that time, we made the decision that we felt was best for the Vikings and all parties involved.

"To be clear, we take very seriously any matter than involves the welfare of a child. At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action. This is a difficult path to navigate, and out focus is on doing the right thing. Currently we believe we are at a juncture where the most appropriate next step is to allow the judicial process to move forward.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely and support Adrian's fulfillment of his legal responsibilities throughout this process."

And if you believe that, I have some ocean front property in Nebraska I'd like to sell you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Muddle Headed Thinking and Jennifer Lawrence Nude Photos

This post is going to anger some of you. About half of you angry people will be angered for reasons that are good, and the other because you are so deep in the cult of celebrity that you can't see the forest for the trees any longer. Hopefully, whether you are angry or not, you take some time to pause and reflect on the content of this post and how you feel about it.

In case you have been living under a rock the last week or so, some hackers broke into either the cloud or the iPhone or email accounts of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and some other celebrities and stole some nude pictures that either they or someone known to them had taken with their permission. In two of the cases, the pictures posted were taken of now adult celebrities before they reached the age of eighteen. Those pictures have been removed by the host site, while the others remain. They then posted those pictures on the Internet, which should surprise absolutely nobody. Apple, wanting to maintain the appearance of security in the iCloud, would have you believe that each of these celebrities' email accounts were hacked. While that's certainly possible, the simplest and therefore most reasonable explanation is that the iCloud was hacked. This is especially true given that the celebrities in question have said the pictures were on their iPhones, which then uploaded them to the cloud. For the purposes of this blog post, we will assume they were on the cloud - but if these people were emailing their nude selfies all over the place my argument would remain the same.

The eruption on social media and from women's organizations has for the most part been profoundly stupid. This sort of thing happens to non-celebrities all the time, most often because an angry ex-partner posts pics or videos to the Internet attempting to get revenge for the breakup, and women's groups everywhere don't scream and yell. In fact, a quick search of Google for "ex-gf porn" revealed eighteen million results. Where are the outraged voices? Where are the demands those sites be taken down? Even allowing that ninety-five percent of those sites don't really contain material from ex-wives and ex-girlfriends without their consent, that still leaves nine hundred thousand results! Even a one percent rate leaves one hundred eighty thousand results! Where is the outrage?

The message is, "Don't you dare mess with our celebrities because they are our gods and we worship at the temple of the cult of celebrity." Just for fun, let's take the arguments apart.

1. Posting these photos was theft and an invasion of privacy. I absolutely agree with this one, and am sure these people feel violated to one degree or another depending on the content of the pictures and their personal history. As someone whose home has been physically burglarized, I can appreciate this feeling - though in this case nothing actually came up missing, and so I suspect they really can't appreciate the violation that comes from having your home burglarized. In fact, because of the cult of celebrity, these people will probably never experience burglary and live fairly secure and isolated lives with no idea of the vulnerability of the average person.

Could it be that is why they were dumb enough to place their nude photos on the Cloud? This isn't victim blaming, as many have asserted, but rather a question about reasonable precautions. If your home is ransacked and you left the front door open, the insurance company will do their best not to pay your claim. Putting your nudes in the Cloud is rather like leaving the back door open (you should pardon the expression under the circumstances) and then being surprised when someone breaks in. Again, it's still wrong to break in and steal things, but surprise isn't really a reasonable response. In fact, most average people wouldn't put their nude pictures on the Cloud or in an email, but rather would store them on a flash drive lest the kids open your computer and both of your smiles in all their glory!

2. Women's bodies are their own...(I agree)...and that makes this sex assault. WHAT? Are you kidding me? Do you really want to cheapen what sexual assault is by defining the theft of a picture of someones body as sexual assault? That means if I steal a picture of your car I am guilty of grand theft auto, if I steal a picture of your house I have stolen your house, and if I take a picture of your child I have kidnapped them! Nothing could be more absurd.

3. This is a sex crime. Again, see the above paragraph. This is not a sex crime, it's a crime against property.

4. This is a sex crime because some people who view the pictures will use them to achieve sexual gratification from them. Perhaps they will, but some people find leather to be sexually arousing and we don't outlaw pictures of cows. What if someone feels a naked body is a work of art? Certainly the naked human form has been the subject of art work throughout history. Would that mean that this is an art crime for those people? We need to remember that is was not these women themselves who were stolen, but images of them. I'm reminded of members of primitive religious traditions that refused to allow photos to be taken because they felt having a picture taken resulted in their souls being stolen. What's more, a crime is a crime because of the act of the criminal involved, not because of what they or some other party will do with the stolen property. If that weren't the case, your car wouldn't be stolen until someone other than the thief drove the car and your jewelry wouldn't be stolen until someone else wore it.

I could go on and on about some of the even more absurd responses to this incident, but by now you get the picture. In fact, all this fuss had guaranteed that many more people than otherwise might have went and viewed these pictures. One might even wonder, and again this is not blaming the victim, how upset someone like Sports Illustrated cover model Kate Upton might be because less than a square foot of fabric has been removed from her body. Of course, I haven't seen all the pictures, but if we are talking about someones nipples suddenly become visible what has happened is something that wouldn't even make people in Europe blink twice. These are not, as far as I am aware, pictures of people making love to their partners - and if they were, I would really have to ask who in the world saves such things in the cloud! Again, all the bad judgment in the world doesn't make a crime less than a crime, but we all need to exercise a reasonable amount of good judgment and personal responsibility or we lose the right to be surprised when we are caught with our pants down.

Perhaps the lesson was can come away from in this story is that the Internet is not secure. I would have thought we knew that, but apparently it is new information to some. If your computer is connected to the Internet then the contents of it may be compromised. We can do the best we can to protect ourselves, but the chance is there nonetheless that a hacker will get in. If the Cloud was secure we would all be storing our banking information on it - but I am pretty sure that nobody would recommend doing that! If our phone automatically backs up our pictures to the Cloud we had better either disable the automatic back up or be careful about what we use our phone to take pictures of, hadn't we? I realize it isn't particularly sexy to talk about personal responsibility, but the truth is the more personal responsibility we exercise the less likely it is that our private information will appear in a news story. That's just common sense.