Saturday, July 21, 2007

I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.
Pink Floyd

I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places.
Irving Kahal (sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, et. al.)

I am taking a brief sabbatical from blogging, but will return soon.

See you later, alligator.
After while, crocodile.
Bill Haley and the Comets

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, July 16, 2007

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn ,burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, “Awww!” What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Blogs, web logs, are supposed to be a bit like diaries, or so it often seems. Yet I use mine often to explore ideas. That may not seem very personal, though there is a healthy limit to how personal one should probably get in this public forum. When I explore ideas or talk about music or books, that’s me. An important part of who I am is my engagement with books, music, authors, artists, and ideas. I hope another important part of who I am, the more important part, are my relationships with people. But my relationship with books and ideas is more than a head trip, it is a part of my soul.

When I was in junior high school, I had an intense Christian, born-again, religious experience. I became part of a Jesus people church. I handed out Christian newspapers on street corners (this was before such newspapers had much political opinion in them). Somewhere along the way, some of the ideas I was hearing from people in that circle of my life became troubling. I heard people telling other people not to read certain things. Looking back, I think it was pretty innocent, but it bothered me. I drifted, drifted, in part because there were some other ideas I needed to explore. I did not walk away from my faith, but I set it aside for a time. In those days of wild exploration (if you consider browsing the library or finding quirky used book stores wild) I remember encountering Abraham Maslow’s work in my high school psychology class. I still find his ideas – his ideas and not some of the watered down versions – intriguing. And I remember thinking that if I am going to make some kind of religious commitment it might make sense to actually know something about the other religious faiths of the world. In that process I discovered Alan Watts, and through finding out a little bit about him, I discovered the beat generation writers – Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in particular.

Fifty years ago, in 1957, a young New York writer, Jack Kerouac, published his second novel, On the Road. It turned him into a celebrity. In a New York Times review, the book was compared to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Just as that book was the “testament of the Lost Generation” so was Kerouac’s book to be the testament of the “Beat Generation.” That was 1957 and I was not yet born.

In the late 1970s, while I was in college, I took a course on contemporary American literature. We read some Beat poetry. The professor asked the class, before we read some Ginsberg, if anyone had read him before. Only a couple of hands went up – mine being one. He asked if anyone had read any Kerouac – again only a couple of hands, and mine was one. The professor mumbled something about these writers losing their appeal or something. A year or so later, I took a class on contemporary novels. We read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. It was the book the class liked least, in part because of all the Buddhist terminology in it.

So why was I different, and what did I like about Kerouac? I liked Kerouac’s poetic language and energy. I appreciated his sense of longing and searching and joy. I appreciated his sense of spirituality, that it is important, vital. I appreciated his humanity. So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. (Kerouac, On the Road). I have not re-read On the Road in recent years, and may, like Sven Birkerts, find myself disappointed (“It is probably a mistake to go back to the decisive book’s of one’s youth.” Readings, Sven Birketts, p. 246). Still, I fondly recall the wonder and curiosity reading it the first time inspired in me.

Now Kerouac was far from a perfect individual. He died from alcohol consumption at age 47 in 1969. His explicit political views could be quite at odds with some of his own literary energies. He fathered a child and did little to care for her. To make the man a tragic figure caught in social forces that led him to drink and evade responsibility goes too far for me. He made some lousy choices along the way. Nevertheless, his work, and at least some aspects of his life, were a meaningful response to a world that seemed to be losing its soul. And Kerouac wanted very much to keep the soul in American life. He described himself once as a “strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.” His friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, called Kerouac’s literary voice “his musical sound as American lonely Prose Trumpeter of drunken Buddha Sacred Heart.” In the late 1940s and 1950s when the economic engines of the post-War economy were working white hot and everyone was expected to find a spouse and a house with a white picket fence and become a factory worker or organization man, Kerouac sought to slow things down just a little and ask why and what for and where’s the soul. There is soul in the common life of most individuals, but it is also easily ignored, crushed, given short shrift or sold something. In the words of Robert Inchausti, “Kerouac set out to do nothing less than to narrate ‘soul’ perceptions to an increasingly soulless American middle class hungry for revelations of life’s everyday holy radiance” (Subversive Orthodoxy, 70). When I read him, I heard those “soul perceptions” and learned to pay a little more attention to them.

Inchausti goes on to write of Kerouac: The real question Kerouac’s work poses to us is “to what extent can life be experienced as a revelation of holy sympathy in the very midst of suffering? How far can we open the door to loving kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity? And at what point must we shut down, and defend ourselves against the pain love commands us to endure?” (Subversive Orthodoxy, 73)

Because in the work of Jack Kerouac I discovered possibilities in literature to explore more deeply the human condition, including the human relationship to the sacred, I have gone on to other writers – some with more adequate literary styles, some who push me even further to ask soul questions. But I will always be grateful for what Kerouac inspired in me. In some ways, growing in my spiritual journey as a Christian will always involve paying some attention to my “inner Kerouac,” even as I lead a pretty traditional life on the outside.

“Rest and be kind.” Jack Kerouac, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity

You, too, Jack.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. If you haven’t heard the new CD Instant Karma, I encourage you to buy a copy. Current artists have recorded John Lennon songs and all the proceeds go to support Amnesty Internation’s work on Darfur and other human rights crises worldwide. It is a good listen and a great cause.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Here is a brief addendum to my most recent post. Sometimes it is a challenge to know what to do with New Testament language that seems to challenge an empire that has long since passed into the dust bin of history. Barbara Rossing, a New Testament scholar and the author of The Rapture Exposed spoke at a recent Associated Church Press convention. In her presentation she made the case that the Book of Revelation was intended to show the bankruptcy of the Roman Empire and to encourage an alternative way of life. But how does that speak to us today? Rossing reportedly told the convention that readers need to avoid the temptation to look at the United States as "the empire." "That's way too simplistic. The empire is in all of us." (United Methodist Reporter, July 6, 2007) A good point to ponder.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

I have a Ph.D. I am not boasting (well – maybe a little – I worked hard for those three letters!) just stating a fact and providing some context. The title of my dissertation (which stretched to 426 pages including the bibliography) was “Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: an analysis of understandings of democracy in recent Christian political ethics.”

I am interested in politics. I cast my first vote for president in the 1980 election. My candidate did not win. There never was a president Barry Commoner (the 1980 Citizen’s Party candidate – Commoner was an environmentalist and economic populist whose concerns included developing a more just and sustainable economy – sounds relevant 27 years later). I have voted in every presidential election since, and in most other elections in which I am eligible to vote. I am interested in politics, but my interest is much more in politics broadly understood than in electoral politics. As a pastor, I think it is important that I keep my electoral politics to myself. I have ideas and opinions about candidates and policy votes, but I choose to keep those to myself so I can better work with people of faith whose convictions lead them in different directions in this kind of politics. However, there is an enormous overlap between politics, understood as the way we make decisions about how we live together in human community, ethics (thought and lived), and Christian spirituality. In the areas where politics overlaps with morals and with spirituality, I feel free to offer my thoughts. More than that, I am convinced that the Christian faith has profound implications for our life together in community, for politics. I am in good company. “The way of Jesus was both personal and political. It was about personal transformation. And it was political, a path of resistance to the domination system and an advocacy of an alternative vision of life together under God” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 226). As someone whose vocation is teaching and preaching the Christian faith, I have some responsibility for tracing the trajectory from gospel and Christian spirituality to the moral life to politics.

Whew! I am amazed at how quickly I move from biography to abstract thinking – I hope you are hanging on. That’s just me. Back to biography – which will no doubt lead to ideas and back again.

The way of Jesus is a way of personal and social transformation. I also have a long history of thinking about personal transformation (my college majors were psychology and philosophy). My recent conversations with Buddhism have been primarily focused on how it helps me think about the inner transformational psychology of Christian spirituality. When Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let you hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” – I want to know more about cultivating that peace within.

But I am also reading through the New Testament and keep bumping up against the fact that Jesus said and did things that were countercultural and anti-imperial. He encouraged care for the least, the down-an-out, the poor, the hungry, those on the margins, in a society where the powerful were feared and the well-off were considered blessed. He let people refer to him as “son of God” when that was an imperial title.

So I have some of these thoughts running through my mind, when the June issue of Harper’s arrives in the mail. The cover has a picture of the president and it indicates that inside there will be a whole section of articles on “undoing Bush.” O.k. that’s more than a little partisan. But what grabbed my attention most in this issue were the articles that were more nonpartisan, articles that offered more sweeping critiques of our political and cultural life. Earl Shorris begins his article on “The National Character” with this line. “The undoing of the American character has a long history.” This goes beyond partisan analysis. Shorris talks about “the wound of fear” that seems to characterize our national life, and he believes its effects are profound. “One can say with some certainty that a fearful person is unlikely to be temperate, prudent, or just. It is reasonable to think that as courage improves the moral character of a person or a government, fear worsens it.” Garret Keizer writes about global warming in another section of the magazine, one not devoted to “undoing Bush.” Keizer, who also happens to be a Christian clergyperson, is frustrated that discussion of global warming have not been tied to more far reaching discussions of politics, economics and life together on planet earth. “It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that the very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us.”

I have a deep appreciation for the United States and have benefited from the freedoms it offers and the prosperity that exists. In my dissertation I argued “that a morally legitimate state would be a democratic state” (p. 412), and the United States continues to be a wonderful (though not perfect) experiment in democratic governance. At the same time, there is truth in the words of Shorris and Keizer. Our politics and culture are infected in unhealthy ways by fear. This is easier to assert than to analyze. Are any discussions of things like Avian flu simply contributions to fearfulness? I don’t think so, though some certainly are. Global warming, as an issue, is in danger of becoming another addition to our culture and politics of fear. How we discuss difficult issues matters. Furthermore, beyond our fearfulness, some of our assumptions and practices may be unhealthy addictions contributing to our ill-being as a society.

My reading of the gospels and of Christian faith tells me that cultures and societies often overreach. They lose their way. We should not be surprised about this. While the United States remains a wonderful place in countless ways, in others we seem to be losing our way. A global economy based on unlimited consumption is probably a step in the wrong direction. My reading of the gospels and of Christian faith tells me that God’s work is one of on-going transformation – transformation of the human heart, transformation of human relationships, transformation of life together in community. The peace Jesus wanted to leave was not just inner peace, but peace with others and with the earth itself. And they all seem connected. Peace is an antidote to fear. Peace within allows us to face reality more fearlessly, and change more courageously. With peaceful minds and hearts we can look for shared solutions more creatively. Some of the change we may be called upon to make in the future in the interest of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world (a world more akin with God’s dream for it) will be difficult. We will need a strong sense of peace and courage to make such changes.

All this is to say that in our complex world, in a world filled with wonder and with wickedness, with beauty and brutality, with love and loneliness, with the overstuffed and the underfed, I hear the gospel speak, and in powerful ways. I hear it speak good news.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, July 1, 2007

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

June 1, 1967: The Beatles (George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) release their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1978, rock critics and disc jockeys rated the top 200 rock albums of all time and Sgt. Pepper’s was rated number one. Critic Joel Whitburn wrote, “Sgt. Pepper’s was then and still is one of the greatest listening experiences for the rock ear.”

June 18, 1967: Beatle Paul McCartney turned 25. One of the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s written by Lennon and McCartney poses the question, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”

June 24, 1967: I turned eight. O.k. this doesn’t rate with the other events listed here, but what can I say – I’m doing the writing.

I don’t recall when I first heard all of Sgt. Pepper’s. The first Beatles song I remember listening to, and one I still enjoy, is “I Saw Her Standing There.” I do remember from my younger days hearing the songs “A Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” I have always been fond of the rich musical texture of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” I know I bought Sgt. Pepper’s when I was in college, and the vinyl record sits on the computer desk in front of me as I write. I continue to listen to this record, though now more often on CD or on my Mp3 player. It still speaks to me, touches me, gives me joy. It is a feast of music and ideas. Sure some of the ideas are dated. Few see taking drugs as something that positively contributes to expanding consciousness. Yet I remain interested in the human mind, consciousness and trying to see things from unique angles. Sgt. Pepper’s celebrates that, and celebrates getting by with a little help from our friends.

June 2007: Former Beatle Paul McCartney releases his newest CD – Memory Almost Full. It is playing on my computer as I type.

June 18, 2007: Paul McCartney turns 65. Now that he’s past sixty-four, how much do we need him?

June 24, 2007: I turned forty-eight. No CDs forthcoming.

Memory Almost Full is no Sgt. Pepper’s. With the fracturing of the listening public into niche audiences, we will probably never have another group like The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s opened the door to incorporating a variety of styles and sounds into music that began with more simple rhythm and blues – and so much has been done creatively since, but you can only open a door like that once. Nevertheless, I am enjoying Paul McCartney’s new album. His gifts for composing memorable melodies remain in evidence, from simple ballads to all out rockers. While not all the songs are spectacular, many are very good. Some of his songs reflect on growing old in as meaningful a way as some of the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s reflected youthful optimism, curiosity and questioning in the 1960s.

“That Was Me” has Paul singing about being at Scout camp and in school plays. “The same me that stands her now/And when I think that all this stuff/Can make a life Its pretty hard to take it in/That was me.” How many of us past the age of forty think in such terms – how much life has brought our way, how quickly it has gone, marveling that all these moments make a life.

In a song (“End of the End”) that is pretty simple and a little sentimental, Paul looks forward to the time when his life will end. “At the end of the end/It’s the start of a journey/To a much better place.” Maybe not the most profound theology, but I would guess he reflects the thoughts of thousands if not millions of people. And when his life ends, on the day that he dies, he sings that he would like jokes to be told and stories of old; bells to be rung and songs to be sung. Not a bad thought.

Even at age 48, I sometimes think about what I hope people remember about me when the time for my own death arrives. I think sometimes about the mark I wish to make on the world. Now maybe 48 is a little early to be thinking such things. As a pastor, though, I deal with death on a regular basis, so it is not surprising that I should wonder a bit about my own. I am also aware of the early deaths of many whose lives and or work I have admired: trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke (28), saxophonist Charlie Parker (34), Martin Luther King, Jr. (39), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (39), John Lennon (40), saxophonist John Coltrane (40), writer Jack Kerouac (47). I hope I have and will continue to touch the world with love, hope, grace, gentleness and humor. There is more I want to do and to experience, more I want to read and watch and listen to, more I want to do to make the world a little better. But someday my listening and reading and watching and working will come to an end – and in the end of the end I hope some good stories are told and that laughter is shared.

I appreciate the openness of Paul McCartney’s new CD – his openness to looking back and his openness to the inevitability of the end of the end. He hopes people remember him for music that celebrates life and love. I don’t know Paul McCartney’s religious orientation, but his attitude reflects a deep faith of some kind. For me, my faith is defined as faith in the God of Jesus Christ, and I trust God to take what I can give to make the world more loving and just and build on that. And I trust my life to God when my work has come to an end.

If McCartney’s new CD sounds too serious – like a bit of a downer, let me assure you it has moments of sheer joy. The opening track, “Dance Tonight” sings out: “Everybody gonna dance tonight/Everybody gonna feel alright/Everybody gonna dance around tonight.” He also has a song on the CD called "Gratitude" – and the title says it all, gratitude for life’s good gifts.

Life will end. It can help to think about how we would like to have touched the world in whatever time we are given, because before we know it we are amazed that that was me. In the meantime, while contributing to make the world a better place, a little gratitude and little dancing go along way.

You may be past sixty-four, Paul, but I still need you and your music. You still raise a smile. Thanks.

With Faith and With Feathers,