Thursday, February 14, 2008

god is love

deus caritas est
“god is love, and he who abides in love abides in god, and god abides in him.” (1 john 4:16)

on my facebook profile, i say that my religion is love; more specifically that 'god is love'. this is something i've always believed; and that is why i have rejected a lot of what doesn't fit into that conception of god. recently, someone expressed some confusion about that; which made me wonder...

what is love? most of us think about romance and drama when we hear the word love, and of all of the human emotions that go along with it: passion, jealousy, obsession, desire, and joy; to name a few. that conception of love is limited. it often is based in fear: fear of losing face, losing the other person, even losing our minds. we place conditions on love. we withhold our affection out of expectation. we tie it in with sexual attraction and how others make us feel. we make it whimsical and transient and foolish when we look at it through our narrow human perspective. is it any wonder that so many relationships and marriages fall apart?

well, what other choice do we have? if we are to take the traditional teachings of judaism, christianity, and islam into account; then god is vengeful and jealous and ready to throw us into eternal fire of damnation for not knowing his name. yowch. it sure don't feel like love to me.

these depictions of god are as murky to me as any mythology. they have given me great discomfort since i can remember. i have, in fact, felt very wounded by these terrible tales of fire and brimstone served up with condemnation and fear.

i have had to decide whether i want to be a victim or an overcomer of my fundamentalist upbringing. this has involved a lot of searching of my soul and of various traditions of spiritual and intellectual inquiry. i still cannot shake the sense of love in the universe; and while no one tradition seems to encapsulate everything, they all contribute to a larger picture.

i don't believe in a 'watered-down' version of god. i seek a conception of god devoid of human projections. but how can i squeeze the infinite expansion of deity into my finite perspective? how can we help but anthropomorphize something so much larger than us?

of course, the certainty with which folks from various traditions cling to the written word of their particular religious text is a bit misplaced. certainly, they are the words of imperfect men that are open to interpretation (and misinterpretation) and cannot possibly encompass the totality of god. while they all possess valuable wisdom and insight into the nature of god, they are depictions through a glass darkly.

the danger is when we substitute someone else's judgement for our own. if we downplay our own powers of observation, discernment, and understanding; we lose ourselves. is proof even possible? each of us experience our own truth from our individual experience and perspective. who can deny another's truth? we all have to find out for ourselves.

i experience god as love. there is a conviction of spirit that can come from love. when we are not lined up with the will of god (love), then we feel out of sorts. whatever is not love is a cry for love. "god's love is golden light within. it is not countable. the countable world is illusion."

i do see a bit of truth in the archtypal story of the fall of man. the original sin came about when we saw fit to look beyond the love of god. was the knowledge of good and evil a trap? it was a choice, the result of free will. we saw fit to be judges for ourselves and took on the illusion of separation. separation from god and from each other. we believe we can tell what is good and what is evil, as if they were mutually exclusive.

the shame of it all came with the realization of animal lust. eros is the perversion of love. it is dissipation and distraction. it is the reason we are so confused about the nature of love. too often our sexuality gets in the way of our spirituality. it can poison the well of any relationship and can scar people for their entire lives. at best, sex is a physical expression of the sense of separation we feel from each other, and it can be an expression of love; but it is not the same as love. it is based on limited perspective. romance is superficial. love is deeper. sometimes all we need is a hug.

sin literally means "missing the mark" and that is what we do when we lose touch with the love of god. the buddah determined the cause of suffering to be desire. i think this is more than attachment to things or experiences; it has to do with a sense of lack. when we think that there is something missing, then we fall into the trap.

the knowledge that we always have exactly what we need (love) is hard to convey or even realize in our clunky material world. the idea that the universe brings us exactly what we ask for seems ridiculous at first. how could it be so? why are there so many people that are suffering for want of food or shelter or even love?

the individual reasons are beyond our comprehension. i believe a universal law of attraction draws to us the things on which we focus our time and energy and attention. i think that the "wrath of god" is another way of describing karma. our collective unconscious is the sewer of our sense of lovelessness. we have met the enemy and he is us; and yet, the call (love) is coming from inside the house. the cause and effect of our thoughts, words, and actions leads us into a shame spiral when we disregard the truth about the power of love inside all of us. it is a hell that we create for ourselves and out of which love can lift us. we need to take the first step of belief and that opens the door for god to come into our lives and work miracles.

i believe that god speaks to all of us in any manner of ways and through whatever means suit his purpose. we can see god everywhere, if we are open to it. the parallels among the divergent faiths suggests that they stem from the same source deep in our psyche. even so, each of us has a personal theosophy, which stems from our own relationship and understanding of the divine (love).

it's true that we need a well developed ego in order to make our own choices. it takes a degree of strength and self-confidence to stand on our own apart from the influence of others. ironically, it is when we reach this peak of self actualization that we are ready to break down the ego and reconnect with the higher truths and work toward an absence of separate self. we need to determine for ourselves what serves us and what makes us suffer.

self centeredness and pride provide the need for redemption or resolution. love is selfless and humble and giving and understanding and open. as we become more mindful of the interconnectedness of everything we recognize the universal value of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have done to you. whatever we do, we do it to ourselves.

within this wider scope of understanding, every act becomes a sacrifice. as spiritual beings incarnated into this clunky material world, we are born into a fallen state; and yet, each of us is a priest with our own divine spark connecting us with the totality of existance. each of us can turn our thinking around to make the profane sacred. each of us is able to have a personal relationship with god (love).

we choose in every moment heaven or hell, love or fear, connection or separation, truth or illusion, somnambulism or awakening, light or darkness, helping or hurting, grace or condemnation.
a miracle is that change of mind that makes it possible for the love of god to be somehow expressed in the world.

we cannot hope to control or change other people. we can choose only for ourselves. darkened minds and hardened hearts may resist out of sheer willfullness or there may be walls that block the light. these are the fortifications we construct to protect ourselves from each other. i have been in the place where i refused anything that had to do with religion, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

the sensory reality of our material existance is difficult to get beyond. the lightness has a call that's hard to hear. we need to actively pursue it. it must be our choice. the alternative is bondage; albeit a cosy prison of our own construction. we often get too comfortable in our delirium. "in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

redemption is the release of the things to which we cling: our habits, our culture, our expectations, our need to be right. too often we are too busy trying to convince (or convert) the other person that we don't really listen to them. there is something valuable in every experience and every perspective. together they form a greater, more complete picture that is as diverse and mysterious as the world itself.

that said, there are conflicting viewpoints out there about everything. how do we reconcile the atheist with the deist or reconcile evil with an omnipowerful god of love:"did he who made the lamb make thee?" there are beliefs and perspectives that are hurtful, sometimes deliberately so. they come from a place of fear and pain. while we cannot invalidate someone else's experience, we don't have to take it upon ourselves. we don't have to engage in the warfare of separation. we can rise above it. we can give it to god. "maybe love is letting people be just who they want to be; the door always must be left unlocked."

sacrifice is said to be the utmost expression of human love, and indeed, we tend to lose ourselves in love; but, rather than wandering in the wilderness of confusion that is our limited and conditional conception of love, we might recognise that we find ourselves in the love of god. there is no sacrifice when divine love gives everything. "greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends."

the life and death of jesus is considered the ultimate expression of sacrifice. i believe that his willingness to submit to the physical torture of the crucifixion illustrates the ridiculousness of the blood sacrifices. it was the first action in a non-violent revolution of love that turned the old order on its head. in the old testament the same god that commands "thou shalt not kill" asks abraham to sacrifice his son. then, at the last second, the sacrifice is halted. i've often thought that it seemed cruel; and yet, it was a forshadowing of what was to come.

"for god so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. for god did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (john 3:16)

this is where the old testament depiction of god becomes clearer. all of the commandments and punishments were really warnings of the principle of universal justice. we get what we give. and yet, god loves the world warts and all. we may not seem or feel worthy; but god loves us nonetheless. he doesn't want us to be lost.

the divine love of god is unconditional.

it is humble and hopeful and patient and kind. it is beyond reason or feeling. it is there for us regardless of how we act or think. at any time we can tap into it and get in line with the power of god (love). the more we concentrate on that source, the more we find ourselves renewed.

i think there is too much focus on the crucifixion. i do believe his sacrifice balances the scales of divine justice in way that no mere mortal could. for me, the power lies not in the blood or the cruelty, but in the attitude of forgiveness that jesus demonstrated. forgiveness is what frees us from the suffering of guilt. it is the way that christ came to show us.

even if you don't accept the divinity of christ, you can appreciate the power of his (still) revolutionary message of love. he said to love god ("with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind") and your neighbor ("as yourself"). what does it mean to love a god that is love itself? i believe it means to connect with that source of love and find in it a sense of peace and belonging and understanding. love holds no grievences.

we cannot make it alone and we are not alone. we fall short of the greatness of god (love); still, we are embraced and encouraged by the grace of god. we are covetous and lascivious and limited in our understanding; and yet, we can detect something more than our senses can explain. we are walking contradictions that can glimpse the divine and still look for something else.

wherever we turn, we can find god. even in the abominable places that we bring ourselves. sometimes it takes the most terrible calamity to reach the most cynical heart. the times that try men's souls and shake us to our very core are the moments when the walls of illusion are breached by the light. if we refuse god (love), then we are lost. and yet, we can be found. we need to actively pursue the way of love; or else face the alternative. "i don't know about you; but i won't stay in a world without love."

love is not the easy road; however. love is a battlefield where the boundries are drawn in our hearts as much as between us. often we need to take the road less travelled or cut a path of our own. it can cause us to be ostracized and brutalized and victimized; and yet, god (love) can transform abomination into something beautiful. ours is not to judge; but to accept the grace of god. we don't always understand how or why things happen; but we can see the results in our own lives when we walk in faith with god.

the divine spark inside us all drives us to create and share and love. we want to be just like god; but we are only children of god. and we are all hurting. we cannot save each other. only god (love) can do that. if we will let him. we can be of service to the miracle. we need only look to the light of love and believe and follow the prompting of god in our hearts.

love is what is lacking

love lifts us up where we belong

love is stronger than death

love is connection

love is transcendence

love is the answer

love is all you need

1 corinthians 13
" though i speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, i have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. and though i have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though i have all faith, so that i could remove mountains, but have not love, i am nothing. and though i bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though i give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. love never fails. but whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. for we know in part and we prophesy in part. but when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. when i was a child, i spoke as a child, i understood as a child, i thought as a child; but when i became a man, i put away childish things. for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. now i know in part, but then i shall know just as i also am known. and now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Saturday, December 22, 2007


i love the holiday season because there's something for everybody. all of the different traditions seem to blend together. it helps that the transition from paganism to christianity was facilitated by using the celebrations already in place. it may dismay some folks to learn that we don't really know when jesus was born; though winter solstice seems as good a time as any to reflect on the miracle of jesus. the birth of the son of god and the rebirth of the sun seem to reflect each other. the days begin to get longer (apoli-ogies to the folks in the southern hemisphere) as the light of the world is increased. the light of love and forgiveness is what jesus taught; and does it really matter exactly when he was born?

there are convincing cosmological reasons why it might matter, and why it might have been february 18, 5 bc.

in any case, solstice has been recognized and celebrated all over the world since long before jesus was born; and there seem to be many divergent traditions surrounding ye ol' yule tide.

apparently, solstice is not secular enough for some folks; and so you've got things like humanlight which celebrates a humanist vision of a good future. agnostics and atheists can be merry without worrying about actually paying credence to any "supernatural humbugs".

willing the well-being of the world is also a part of kwanzaa. this celebration of family, community and culture takes place over seven days. each day is spent reflecting on one of the seven principles of nguzo saba: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. the idea that revolutionary change can occur when we go back to our cultural roots is a powerful one. we draw from the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons of history to carry us forward. we cannot understand ourselves if we deny our cultural traditions.

bodhi day commemorates the day of enlightenment for the buddha. certainly, this is another expression of the light of the world. in any case, a good excuse for intensive meditation and reflection to get ready for new resolutions. peace on earth starts with peace of mind; and that can only come from within as we awaken to the possibilities.

perhaps you get excited about democracy or talking politics during the holidays. if so, the commemorating the signature of the constitution of taiwan is another reason to celebrate. of course, the reason that politics is often a taboo subject is because the discussions often get more heated than folks find comfortable. remember: tidings of comfort and joy.

this year eid ul-adha falls within the holiday season because the lunar calendar lined up. it is a four day holiday commemorating the prophet ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, ishmael. though jews and christians believe it was his other son isaac, the event is significant for all of them. this festival of sacrifice follows the annual pilgrimage to mecca and is a joyous occasion for all muslims with traditional feasts, visiting of relatives, and exchanging of gifts.

hanukkah celebrates the victory over the greeks and the rededication of the temple of jerusalem. the miracle of a one-day-supply of oil lasting eight days is commemorated over eight days according to the jewish calendar. although a hebrew holiday, the lighting of the menorah in the festival of lights mirrors the solstice candle ceremonies held around the world.

and then there's saint nicholas. his penchant for giving gifts in secret to spare embarrassment for the needy recipients and to keep the spotlight off of himself is a real testiment to the spirit of christmas. for some folks santa claus is seen as a threat to the sanctity of their particular holiday. the fact that santa and satan are anagrams doesn't help. his similarity to the tradition of a yule goat might also raise eyebrows. if nothing else, this provides a reason for satanists to celebrate as well. the twist is that the yuletide celebrations that were coopted by christians to ease conversion of pagans are the same traditions that "distract" from the meaning of christmas.

christmas is just one part of the winterval, a term that aptly describes the onslaught of holidays that come from november through february. some folks get a little depressed in january when all of the hooplah dies down for most of us. one possible solution might be to recognize all of the holidays.

if you like to celebrate a lot, there's a lot to celebrate. you've got the 12 days of christmas and the 12 day high. doing the winter holiday circuit provides for excess of all kinds. whether it's epiphany or diwali, toftirus or auld lang syne, samhain or groundhog's day; you can find ample opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry. you could translate yule as "wheel of feasts", and you could find yourself with a spare tire when it's all said and done. depending on where you're from you might celebrate one of various festivals of lights or renewal including saturnalia, chumash, yalda, dong zhi, mondranact, or midwinter.

if not; then, of course, there's "a festivus for the rest of us." this is where you can air your grievances and perform feats of strength. if you don't particularly like to celebrate, then this is the one for you. it's not really a celebration, but more of an outlet for frustrations and disappointments. this is fitting for some of the darkest days of the year.

there really is something for everyone; but that makes for a long winterval. when nearly every day is some kind of holiday it can get exhausting. after all of the food and drink, you might not feel all that festive when you hear about another holiday get-together.

in the midst of the holiday season, like everyone else i imagine, i get ambivilent about the joys and the pressures. it's a challenge to maintain a peaceful disposition with the frenzied traffic and longer lines and increased expectations. i find myself using the energy that comes with frustration to power through and get more done; but with that often comes an attitude that is the exact opposite of joy and peace.

the irony is richer than any dessert. i've translated my own protestant work ethic into a conditioned crankiness. it's as if i can't call it work if i enjoy it, and i can't respect myself if i don't get any work done. i need to redefine my terms. if i want to be happy, that is.

there's a little ditty that muses "if every day could be just like christmas, what a wonderful world this would be." and that's very true. it would be nice to see the active expression of "good will toward men" practiced on a daily basis. of course, that might mean we would have to get away from excessive materialist commercialism and focus on love and peace and the spirit of giving. the giving can feel a little gratuitous sometimes. often we scramble to get "something for so-and-so" and in the process snarl and growl at our neighbor in line. perhaps we should give our neighbor his due.

i've always fancied myself an inclusivist. that is, i like it when everyone is brought together despite their differences. perhaps that's a result of the large family gatherings i saw as a child. i know that folks don't always get along; but i also know that we're all human. if we can see past the differences to our common humanity, we might begin to acknowledge the value of diversity. i don't think it's a healthy practice to try and force people to believe what you believe. certainly, we all have a lot to learn from each other. that requires respect and cooperation. can't we all just get along?

the spirit of christmas is all about coming together and putting conflict aside. it's about forgiveness. it's about understanding that we are all children of god. these are "good tidings of great joy" for "all people." perhaps it's naivety to believe that the nativity can save the world; but that is the kind of faith that is required. i believe that jesus was open and accepting of all types of people, especially those who were outcasts. his judgement was reserved for the judgemental. his message of love is revolutionary even today. even if you don't believe in his divinity, you must concede the staying power of his message.

celebrating the cycles of nature can help us better understand the world around us. darkness isn't evil; but it isn't healthy either. that's why folks get seasonal affective disorder during the winter months with little sunlight. the solstice symbolizes the victory of the light over the darkness when the wheel of the year is at its low point. the light is our salvation. it illuminates the ignorance and fear. if we can look to what is good and universal among us all, then we can appreciate how we can each contribute to a better world for all of us. let's together bring our light into the darkness.

drawing found here:

photo of bumper sticker

Thursday, November 22, 2007

an attitude of gratitude

thanksgiving left me with a valuable lesson last year: moderation. it's not a new lesson; but it becomes clearer every time i learn it. for a long time i've been the one to go for seconds and thirds, a mixture of competition and compliment that has garnished me respect among my fellow feasters and gratitude from cooks. i have often eaten more than i should to satisfy those perceived sources of approval. as i've licked plates clean i've heard such comments as "i really enjoy watching you eat" and "your mother must love you" and "where do you put it all?" all of which only encouraged such displays of gastronomic prowess.

with all of this history of gluttony, i thought that the second plate wouldn't be a problem. truth be told i needed it to soak up the vodka and wine in which i had indulged. my tolerance isn't what it used to be. i don't know if it was too much alcohol or too much salt; but somehow the contents of my stomach were combustible. i could feel them expanding and the pain was much too much. as i lay on the couch groaning, i decided that enough was enough.

i think i've always wanted too much. since i was very young i've obsessed over matchboxes, action figures, comic books, music, girls, drugs, and alcohol. all of these have brought pleasure and pain in varying degrees. there is always more to whet the appetite, and there is a measure of guilt that comes with the discontent.

gluttony and greed and covetousness and desire are all part and parcel of the same thing: a scarcity consciousness. it comes from fear that we won't have enough or from the belief that things will make us happy. we want the things we don't have and then we're disappointed when we get them. buyer's remorse is part of a larger dissatisfaction.

this is the suffering of which gautama spoke. hanging our happiness on the transience of the material world will lead to a sense of inadequacy. nothing lives up to our expectations...and how could anything in an imperfect world?

coming to grips with the pervasive pain and sorrow in the world can be pretty bleak. what meaning can be gleaned from suffering?

i have found a solution in my own life to be simple gratitude. my intestinal disquiet led me (once again) to this realization. thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it describes a beautiful idea: that we can come together despite our differences and appreciate the bountiful harvest of life.

of course, there are those who will condemn it for one reason or another: vegetarians and animal rights advocates take up for the turkeys; there are people all over the world literally starving to death; and the celebration of that first thanksgiving can seem like propaganda whitewashing the genocide (so much for gratitude) of native americans that came afterward.

this all makes for stimulating dinner conversation, to say the least. if we sit quietly and eat together, then we may miss out on some of that excitement...or suffering. it's all about perspective. and it comes down to the way you react to your glass at the half way point. one man's meat is another man's poison; and who can speak to the meaning in someone else's suffering? each of us has to work it out for ourselves.

here is some useful information to fire the imagination: an attitude of gratitude is its own reward. "please" and "thank you" are not just good manners, they are keys to happiness. if we cannot appreciate what we have, we will never be satisfied. moderation will be my meat today. i'm limiting myself to one plate. and i will slowly savor every bite. pass the gravy, please.

painting borrowed from:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


six years and how's the healing coming along? for me, whenever it comes to mind all of the sinister connections come with it. i guess that's my bait. any minor annoyance like being cut off in traffic or stubbing my toe can bring on dark moods; but the deeply layered implications, the gordian knot of historical complications, and the whole drama of the underdog against the bully really push my buttons. for a long time i defined myself as a fighter for truth and justice, if not the american way. i ranted against the establishment and bemoaned the folly of retaliation. it was a lot of bark with no bite. the trap is to get all wrapped up in the conflict and let it take my time, drain my energy, and eclipse my days. certainly, there is a process that transforms the toxic goo of everything that i don't want and yet cannot stuff down. it's like heartburn. i can take a tums to fix it or i can stop eating spicy food.

i was numb when the bizzarro movie madness happened six years ago. all of the violent hollywood images i'd seen could not have prepared me for that reality tv. my own feelings were so muddled, i could understand the diversity of reactions. i have to say that despite my shock and horror, i was not all that suprised. the targets of the pentagon and the world trade center are so powerful because they are so symbolic. not only were the twin towers of world banking leveled to the ground; the home of army intelligence was crushed. none of this really affected the ability of the u.s. government to carry on as before; yet the ideas are inescapable.

this was perhaps the worst single day in our country's history, and certainly for those who lost loved ones; but it's not much compared to the suffering of other cultures and people that have been caused by americans. was it just a coincidence that exactly 28 years before, the CIA helped to overthrow the democratic government of chile? i've seen film footage of the planes bombing the capital city and it was even more disturbing than the continuous loop of the twin towers coming down. the bombing of hiroshima and nagasaki completely destroyed those civilian populations. and the massacre of the native people of the americas since 1492 is just mindboggling. i guess that i'm saying we don't know how good we have it and we don't seem to understand our history.

and yet, as the song goes, "your history acts as your gravity". it brings us down. we can learn from it; but it can hamstring us as well. at some point we need to get rid of the albatross and save ourselves from going under. according to a native american parable, there is a battle within each of us between two wolves. one represents our positive and creative impulses and the other our self destructive and negative urges. whichever wolf we feed is the one that will prosper. whatever spirit we fan will ignite. wherever we focus our energy is where we will find ourselves when we are depleted.

i have found that the heavy hearted swamp that is fed by my dark thoughts and self righteous indignation at the state of the world can only be drained with an a conscious decision to think differently. i need to fill the space up with something else or the morass will creep back. it's a daily struggle. i have come to the point where i cannot watch the news any more. i can't take all of that dark matter on me and still be the father and husband i need to be.

when the shooting incident took place at virginia tech, i was unable to avoid the impact. since it happened in our backyard, there was no escape. it was really wild to see the national news folks all flocking to blacksburg. there seemed to be a major difference between national and local news coverage. the tendency was for the national outlets to try and find someone to blame while the local news was focused on healing.

it was just like the aftermath of hurricane katrina and every other major tragedy. we (i) tend to feed the dark angry beast and let the hope and positivity starve. the circus bread will not nourish us (me). sweeping it under the rug with soma will not heal. like ouroboros, we (i) eat a soylant green that is bringing on a silent spring. the toxic shame feeds on itself and the result is a barren wasteland.

yet all is not lost. the soil that results from volcanic eruptions is some of the richest in the world. out of the ashes of such fiery destruction comes a fertile phoenix that sustains all manner of life. of course, it doesn't happen instantaneously. everything has to cool down. after the shock and horror, the questioning, the blaming, and the tears comes the sure realization that life goes on. it is one of the great mysteries of life: out of heartbreak and tragedy can grow some of the strongest and most beautiful expressions of love and courage. it's all just a matter of patience and persistance. with ourselves and each other. forgiveness isn't for the other person; it's for us. when we let go, we set ourselves free.

photo from:
painting from:

Saturday, September 08, 2007

don't fence me in

i am of two minds when it comes to fences; and that ambivalence had me wringing my hands over the decision to put a fence in our backyard. hesitation and procrastination kept me from making any decision at all; until it was effectively made for me.

my objections consisted of the utopian sense of the land as a common treasury for all too share. certainly, a fence mars the natural beauty of any landscape with its obnoxious obviousness. as the old song goes, what gives anyone the right to keep people out or to keep mother nature in? there is something within us all that doesn't love a wall.

on the other side, there have been stray dogs that have ventured through our block and one neighbor saw a bear; so the idea of keeping strange animals out was a major factor. being able to let our little girl shuggie and our dog moosey brown run free in the back yard was another. i was fatigued with following shuggie around and keeping her from venturing into one of the yards next door. moosey brown had to be tied up to a tree and would bark constantly if she didn't see us. we had a fence at the place we had lived before, and there was no such poochie paranoia; so we knew it would be better for her to roam with relative freedom within a fenced yard. walking the dog two or three times a day was a real hassle as well with baby in tow.

i was sitting on the fence about getting a fence; all the while trying to balance my needs for security and freedom. as someone who enjoys shortcuts, scenic routes, and roads less travelled; i've done my share of jumping fences in my travels, and have had enough bruises, ripped jackets, and tear gas for my taste. a world without fences seemed like a better one to me; and i couldn't help thinking we would be spoiling the scenery for the sake of convenience.

the whole process was a bit surreal. of the four fence companies in our area, only one appealed to us. to be honest, he reminded me of my dad who used to run his own business; and he was very responsive to our concerns. another came out and measured the yard and sent us a several estimates for types of fence that we did not want and not one for the type we did. one company didn't do chain link. and still another salesmen was too busy to even come and give us an estimate.

we talked about sending a note to all of our neighbors (we have six contiguous neighbors though only five are affected directly) to give them a heads up; but the fence folks came two weeks early. then we had to double check the property line when the crew went closer than we had agreed. it would have been a ridiculous waste of time to have to pull up the cemented fence poles and move them a foot over.

drawing boundries taps into a primal place. of course, a fence is all about control; whether it's in my back yard, berlin, or the northern chinese border. and yet, the security that comes from such measures is intertwined with fear. this kind of territoriality is reflected in the way moosey brown will chase squirrels out of the yard.

still, that doesn't mean a low fence can't be amiable. "good fences" can "make good neighbors" by making sure we don't transgress that invisible line in the grass. there is a comfort in the structure of it.

now that it's complete, i'm still not sure how our new chain link will affect the already awkward conversations that often comprise neigborhood relations. it has certainly made my homelife much easier. moosey brown gets a lot more exercise as she chases squirrels, cats, and bunnies around the yard; and so does shuggie as she chases the dog. moosey and buddy (the big black dog next door) have been sniffing and socializing through the fence like star crossed lovers. now when shuggie decides to take off high stepping across the yard, i don't have to jump up and go running after her. the only trouble is that we have to keep the gates locked; because both dog and daughter have figured out how to open them. i guess that the sense of security is temporary indeed.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

speak for yourself

i have followed the discussions on 'the church of liberalism' on with great interest. after reading a lot of hyperbole and assumptions and circular arguments, i have to point out that there is no way that anyone can possibly speak for all liberals (or all christians or all conservatives or all scientists). there is simply too much diversity of opinion within these categories.

these labels are useful in comparing different social types; but they are fluid macrocosmic ideas that cannot possibly account for individual choices and preferences. in some ways, they only serve to divide us. whenever we talk about 'some other group of people' in a generalized way, we run the risk of alienating them and creating animosity. it hurts dialogue to make things personal and negative; we need constructive criticism.

no one can say what "all liberals believe" because they disagree on a great many things. by definition, they all value liberty in a generalized sense (for the individual that is. limitations on the power of government and religion are typically a big part of liberalism); but there is a wide spectrum of issues and positions that can be labelled "liberal" while at the same time differing from other, mutually exclusive, "liberal" views. for example, someone can be liberal in regards to economics (favoring freedom from government involvement and free markets, also called neoliberalism) while at the same time being socially conservative. in my experience, even within social liberalism individuals often differ over their particular 'pet issues'; such as animal rights, fair trade, environmentalism, decentralization of power, social justice, non-violence, sustainability, and gender equality. the face of liberalism is a fractured one with people focused on one particular issue to the exclusion of the others. to say that someone is not "really" a liberal (or a radical) if they don't hold to a certain standard of belief (although this is very commonly stated) is only a matter of opinion.

similarly, within the framework of christianity there are dozens of denominations that look down upon one another on the basis of some technicality of dogma. more concerned with their own interpretation of scripture and their need to be right, differing christian faiths have formed over the past two thousand years, fractioning the faithful and pitting believer against believer. in my pentecostal upbringing, other 'factions' and their beliefs (for example, the catholic trinity) were condemned to hell for not subscribing to the "oneness" doctrine. pentecostals considered themselves "the true church" and anyone who didn't acknowledge that Jesus was the physical embodiment of God was doomed. even peter and paul differed on how the message should be spread; so how can we expect individual christians within their own churches to agree on everything?

conservatism is a slippery term as well. it means different things to different people. generally, it values law and tradition over change; yet there are religious, economic, and social forms of conservativism that differ greatly. i myself value conservation in respect to the environment and fiscal spending; but that seems incompatible with current trends in our 'conservative' governmental structure. when public lands are being sold off at bargain rates for logging, mining, and oil interests and our deficit is ballooning out of control, it seems like some principles of conservatism (like conservation) are less important than others (like tradition).

even science has diverse perspectives. even with scientific method there are lots of ways to interpret data. a hypothesis can be biased and so can an analysis. some research is done with specific results in mind. margins of error can be overlooked or explained away; and often are to serve political agendas. scientists are people with their own prejudices and preconceptions; and the way a person looks at the world will color everything they see.

my point is, that in the parlance of our times, these terms (liberal, christian, conservative, scientist) are losing their meaning. we throw the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' around like they mean something, when in fact it is more accurate to use the terms "us" and "them". 'left' and 'right' will change depending on which way you're facing.

there is a website ( which describes how incomplete these terms are, and suggests a means to make them more understandable. essentially, it describes the traditional left-right (as adopted from the french national assembly in 1789) cagegories as simply economic and adds another axis of the social which runs from libertarian to authoritarian. this brings another dimension to the discussion; and there are many more categories (like christian and scientist) that could further clarify the differences between individuals in the political spectrum.

describing liberalism as a religion is just as reasonable as describing patriotism or nihilism as such; and there is some value in looking at them that way. this does not make it a fact, however. and the american civil liberties union does not speak for everyone who considers themself a liberal any more than jerry fallwell speaks for all conservatives.

there is a tendency to try and remove any reference to the doctrines or beliefs of an established church (like, say, the ten commandments) within the public forum. on the one hand, i think that this is to try to be fair to other faiths that are woefully under-represented. there are muslims, hindus, pagans, buddhists, confucianists, jainists, shintos, sikhs, taoists, baha'i, and even followers of voodoo. shouldn't they all get equal representation? you might say that the majority of americans are from a judeo-christian tradition and that the majority should dictate what we see. i believe there are valuable spiritual truths that are common to all religious practices; and that it would only improve the richness of our culture to embrace (or at least consider) these various ideas.

that brings me to the other hand. the idea of a separation of church and state was written into our constitution to prevent the type of ruthlessness ("no one expects the spanish inquisition!")that deviant groups were subjected to by 'the church' in europe; and which we continue to see in theocracies around the world. this was to be fair to the people who (for their own reasons, some of which undoubtedly include the motives described by coulter and sheckler) don't want to be associated with any religion or subjected to religious persecution. these people are the ones who react so strongly to be being described in religious terms. they don't want anything to do with religion and don't want to even hear about it.

i understand the impulse. i've been there. the harshness of my christian upbringing turned me off of the whole idea of religion for a long time. i don't know if i would call myself a christian simply because of what has been done in the name of Jesus by christians. for a long time i equated the bible with mythology out of a reactionary rebelliousness. i've swung both ways and now i can see both sides. at this point i would certainly recommend all of the red words in your standard bible; and regard them as some of the most profound and inspiring words around.

we can get so entrenched in our own ideas about the nature of man, where life begins, the intersection of law and ethics, or even right and wrong; that we lose sight of the fact that we all have to co-exist.

yet, where can there be common ground between people who differ over issues like abortion? the simple fact is that we cannot make other people's choices for them. each of us has to learn for ourselves the lessons of life. all over the world there are women who are forced to have children they don't want. throughout history women have died in childbirth; and despite medical advances, this continues to happen. the most miraculous gift of life is tied up with pain and suffering and risk; and i believe that every woman should be able to choose whether or not she will undertake that pain for herself. people have been willing to fight and kill for freedom; and (though it may seem to go against nature or the will of God) these woman must believe that they're bodies are such a battleground. what is more important: the right of an unborn child to live or the right of a woman to be free (and perhaps even live)?

certainly, there is a tendency in our society to avoid discomfort that gets taken to extremes. patrick henry's "give me liberty or give me death" becomes twisted into jello biafra's "give me convenience or give me death" as our freedoms can be measured in crass commercialism of instant gratification. perhaps it is too easy to get an abortion; but how can you regulate capriciousness? sex without love has a consequence, as does every kind of carelessness. those who do not believe this have a hard lesson to learn.

personal responsibility is another confusing idea with our individual perspectives of vague social forces playing a major part in how we understand our obligations. often we do not comprehend the various factors that influence our decisions. like my reactionary rebelliousness, we sometimes make choices unconsciously or at least without thinking through all of the ramifications. sometimes we shut out the very thing that we need to hear.

a principle that informs a lot of my personal growth is simply this: you spot it you got it. it means that the things that infuriate and challenge me are the very things that i need to work on in myself. when i get angry at the actions or words of another person, it invariably means that there is something very similar in myself that i do not want to look at or admit. we often project our shameful traits onto those around us as if to distract ourselves from taking a hard look at ourselves. it takes a good deal of humility to turn the accusatory finger back at oneself and see one's own shortcomings; but i believe that it is necessary if we are to find common ground. when we ignore the beam in our own eye and try to help our brother with the speck in his, we are bordering on hypocracy. we all need to do some soul searching. and sharing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

let freedom ring

as often happens this time of year, i have been reflecting on freedom. do i feel free? where does freedom come from? what would i do to keep it? do i take it for granted? what does it cost?

i think about the declaration of independance and the revolutionary war; and how a rag-tag band of ordinary people put everything on the line to defend their freedom. i think of how the french came to our aid when we were on the ropes against the superior forces of the british.

somehow, the fight for freedom didn't end there; it only began. since then there have been numerous occasions when people did not feel free. oppression has continued in myriad forms, from the bosses to the bullies to the bureaucrats. every generation has to contend with how it will exercise the rights and responsibilities handed down from the constitution and the bill of rights. sometimes freedom requires us to take a stand.

taking a stand can be very difficult, especially when there is no clear answer. it makes me wonder about the war in iraq and the struggle for freedom going on there. in some ways, it seems like our responsibility to help these people in need; that we should use our strength to bring them up. in other ways, it feels like we're trying to shove democracy down their throats; when they need to seize it for themselves.

personally, the times i haven't felt free have been because of my own attitude. i once sat in jail awaiting bail and sang the entire time. other times i've been delayed or inconvenienced, at stop lights or in line at the supermarket, and felt oppressed. i am learning that in any situation, i can make the most of things and take back my freedom. i don't think that necessarily means taking it from someone else or that we have to take up arms. i think that it is a mindset that frees us.

i believe that we are always free to choose. our choices might be limited; but we always have them. i also believe our actions carry consequences that cannot be escaped. we can squander our freedom on riotous living and then live with poor health, if we live at all. we can do everything according to the rules and wonder if it was all worth it. we can hide ourselves away when times get rough and hope that we'll make it through; or we can take to the streets and try and change things. we have more choices than we sometimes even see.

each of us gets to choose. if we follow the crowd against our better judgement, that is a choice; just as if we listen to that better judgement and face the wind.

so often i think freedom gets convoluted with ideas of offense. when we fight for freedom, it's always a struggle against something; as if our freedom depended on some other person and what they do. when we get caught up in the 'eye-for-an-eye', 'fight fire with fire' mentality, we are not free. we need to free our minds.

i think that freedom is best demonstrated in the clash of ideas. a healthy discussion can only occur when people are free to say what they think. we are, of course, always free to say what we want; and there are disrespectful and ugly words that get thrown around all the time. i don't think that type of discourse is healthy or really free. when we browbeat and sling mud and get personal, it seems like the ideas are not strong enough to stand on their own. when our thinking is weak, our tactics get lower.

too often we take offense, when we really need to take a step back. when we can agree to disagree, we rise above our petty differences and experience real freedom. sometimes it seems like we need to sacrifice a little freedom in order to get along and feel safe; when holding back is really an exercise of our freedom. we have the right to remain silent.

it takes a lot of work to come to a consensus. it's a lot easier to drop a bomb. when we get to the point where 'might makes right', haven't we lost all sense of dignity? haven't we regressed back to the way of the beasts? haven't we lost our way?

freedom is not exclusive; it is an opportunity. we don't just have freedom from something we don't want, we have the freedom to move toward our dreams.

my wife jokes that the fourth of july is "smoky explosion day". we set off fireworks to commemorate the bomb blasts that took place centuries ago to establish this nation; and there are several ways to look at that. the most common is to take pride in the freedoms we enjoy and celebrate the magical colors of the lights bursting in air. another is to think about the fact that we are celebrating violence as a means to an end; and see that we still have a long way to go. another still, is to focus on the pollution that occurs every time we set off a firecracker. on the other hand, we can think about how the annual fireworks display brings communities together. unfortunately in every community there are always individuals that exercise their freedom to put on their own backyard display, endangering themselves and those around them. despite this, we can appreciate the fourth of july as an opportunity to reflect on how fortunate we are.

there is truth in all of these realities about this holiday; but i like to be positive. sometimes it takes a conscious effort to overcome darker thoughts.

i am grateful that i live in a country where i can ask these questions. i am hopeful that we can make the most of our blessings and continue to foster postive change. i have faith in the principles on which this country was founded. i think that we have cause to celebrate that two hundred and thirty years ago we embarked on a great experiment in democracy; and that it is still happening. every year, every day, every conversation is part of that experiment. we are all ingredients in the great american melting pot. i think that's what i love the most about this country: the idea that we all have a part to play in this unfolding drama. listen to that sound: can you hear freedom ringing?