Saturday, December 27, 2008

Change I can believe in

I wonder if any of you can remember your life in politics before 2000? Before we were loaded with one outrage after another to the point that it became difficult to keep up?

I remember Monica and impeachment (ha-ha) and the "vast right-wing-conspiracy." But things get more fuzzy when I try to think about what issues were on the table, or which ones were off the table and we were trying to get them on.

The reason I'm going down this memory lane is that I'm doing my best to try to imagine a world without Bushco. And its hard to get there. I feel like I've been fighting them with almost everything I've got for so long that I can't imagine a world where that isn't a centering theme. But its about to happen.

I don't mean to say that there won't be political battles to fight. That has never been the case and I doubt very much that it ever will be. But I also don't want to dismiss the magnitude of the change that is about to happen.

I can hear it all now though. Those of you who want to say that Obama's policies are not THAT different. That's not my point - even if I disagree. What I'm thinking about is how I've ordered my political life around the outrage I feel at people like Bush, Cheney, et al. And they are about to disappear from the stage of power. We got a bit of that when folks like Rumsfeld and Gonzales resigned. Where are they now and what are they doing? Who knows and who cares? That's about to happen to Bush and Cheney.

So its a starting over...almost from scratch when it comes to the Executive Branch of our government. Oh, and while we're at it, lets take a look at one of the Legislative branches, the Senate. Over 1/4 of them are new to the body since 2006.

1. Sen. Barrasso, John (R-WY)
2. Sen. Begich, Mark (D-AK)*
3. Sen. Brown, Sherrod (D-OH)
4. Sen. Cardin, Benjamin (D-MD)
5. Sen. Casey, Robert (D-PA)
6. Sen. Corker, Bob (R-TN)
7. Sen. Hagan, Kay (D-NC)*
8. Sen. Johanns, Mike (R-NE)*
9. Sen. Kaufman, Ed (D-DE)*
10. Sen. Klobuchar, Amy (D-MN)
11. Sen. McCaskill, Claire (D-MO)
12. Sen. Menendez, Robert (D-NJ)
13. Sen. Merkley, Jeff (D-OR)*
14. Sen. Risch, Jim (R-ID)*
15. Sen. Sanders, Bernard (I-VT)
16. Sen. Shaheen, Jeanne (D-NH)*
17. Sen. Tester, Jon (D-MT)
18. Sen. Udall, Mark (D-CO)*
19. Sen. Udall, Tom (D-NM)*
20. Sen. Warner, Mark (D-VA)
21. Sen. Webb, James (D-VA)
22. Sen. Whitehouse, Sheldon (D-RI)
23. Sen. Wicker, Roger (R-MS)
24. ILLINOIS*
25. NEW YORK*
26. COLORADO*
27. Sen. Franken, Al (D-MN)???*

(* indicates new in January 2009)

No matter whether you believed Obama would bring change or not, we're going to have heaps of it rolling out over the next few months. The specter of these kinds of changes to two of the three branches of government (and the Supreme Court is very likely to change too as several retire) is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Of course, you add to all that the fact that we now have Democratic control of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since the advent of the netroots as well as the incredible grassroots movement that Obama built during the campaign. I'd say that all bets are off for predicting how things will play out based on what has happened historically.

Of course, I would be remiss if I were to neglect mentioning that with all this change in personnel, we are also facing some of the greatest challenges we have ever seen as a nation. Those include the crisis in the economy, climate change, two wars, and eight years of everything from incompetence to war crimes to clean up.

I am NOT predicting some progressive sweep of our national politics. What I'm saying is that the deck has been shuffled - big time. That is just as likely to scare people into retreat as it is to invigorate them to move forward. All I know is that there might not ever have been a more momentous time to be engaged in the process.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Revolutionary Soul

This week some of us will have a few days off from work and many will also gather with family for times rich in history and tradition. While the days that I celebrated all this as a christian are long gone, I usually like to take a few minutes around this time of year to reflect on the life of Jesus.

I have come to the conclusion that, while he was not god, Jesus was a truly revolutionary soul. As humans are want to do, we have for the most part, corrupted what he had to say. The christian fundamentalists have done this by focusing almost exclusively on his birth and death...completely ignoring what he had to say while he was alive. Perhaps that's because his words call us to a place that is difficult for many of us to go.

One of the most powerful messages he gave was the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Beautiful words, aren't they? But what about the promises Jesus made? Do we have to wait for some kind of heavenly kingdom to see them? Not according to Tod Lindberg.

Jesus describes those who are truly fortunate, the lucky ones of their day. But it is not emperors, conquerors, priests, and the wealthy who enjoy this favor. Rather, it is the common people, those whom earthly success has largely passed by: the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemakers. How can this be? Because though they may have been denied worldly success, what cannot be taken away from them is their potential to live rightly by one another. It is all too easy for those who enjoy the pleasures of this world to try to float above such obligations. Jesus goes on to say that so long as ordinary people stand for the right things and do not retreat in their rightness before those who seem to have more power, what ’s right will prevail. It’s their kingdom — a kingdom organized not from the top down, but from the bottom up.


Jesus often chose to tell stories in order to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one where he answers the question "Who is my neighbor?"

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."


Notice that the "expert in the law" couldn't even say the word "Samaritan" in his reply. That's because there was so much hatred at the time between Jews and Samaritans. And yet Jesus was holding up a person from among those who were most reviled as an example of one who demonstrated what it means to be a neighbor.

But the passage that has meant the most to me is a bit more obscure. As many sermons as I heard growing up, I don't recall ever hearing one about this.

And it came to pass that he went through the grain fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of grain.

And the Pharisees said unto him, "Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?"

And he said unto them, "Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him; how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar, the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them who were with him?"

And he said unto them, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath."


What I hear in this story is Jesus saying that the rules (i.e. dogma) are negotiable. What's not negotiable is the dignity of every human being. And that ultimately trumps all.

At this time of year, I usually go back and read an amazing diary written by Kid Oakland about four years ago titled a christmas message. Here's just a taste.

Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

Their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.

And they loved him. Because he touched them. He looked them in the eye and believed in them. Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death. And they saw in him, a love that promised to love them as they were, who they were...fully, without judgment or flinching glance, or hypocritical accommodation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moonlight Musings

Sometimes when it comes time to write, I'm in more of a contemplative mode, yearning to listen instead of speak. Today is one of those times. So I hope you can follow me on a bit of journey through some of the poetry and music that's speaking to me today.

I'm still thinking about darkness and light, as all kinds of seasons are shifting around us. Here are some words from James Baldwin that continue that journey.

One discovers the light in darkness. That is what darkness is for. But everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith...I know we often lose...and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is. The light. The light. One will perish without the light...For nothing is fixed, forever, and forever, and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have...The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. And the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.


Baldwin's words about faith reminded me of a David Whyte poem that speaks to the tenuous nature of our faith in the darkness.

I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.




There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.


Today I had a spiritual experience listening to Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Little did I know that the song is based on a poem with the same title by Paul Verlaine. Translated from French by Norman R. Shapiro, here's "Moonlight."

Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life's largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming--
Slender jet-fountains--sob their ecstasies.


I hope you'll take a few minutes and listen to the musical version. It speaks to places words can't go. As a special treat, I'm posting a version played by Lydia Kavina on the theremin. But if you prefer something more traditional, check it out on piano or violin.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Dark

The hard part about winter for me is not necessarily the cold...its the darkness. I don't know what its like where you are, but around these parts I figure we spend about 1/3 of any 24 hour period in the light and the rest of the time darkness rules. So its the dark that's on my mind today.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with darkness. Its a great excuse for the lazy among us to hibernate. And it seems that there are some who prefer the dark for prowling. But overall, we seem to want to avoid it.



On the other hand, we all know that a certain kind of darkness we've been living with is about to end. I find a mixture of disgust and curiosity as I watch George W. reflect on his tenure in office while trying to avoid the dark. As you know, he's in the process of giving interviews these days, perhaps thinking that he can shed some light on his "legacy."

It has been clear for a long time now that W. has no capacity to reflect on himself and his actions. That's why he will always lack the ability to grow and learn. And while none of us are as incapacitated as he is, its hard for us too. Looking at the darkness that resides within us is perhaps one of the most difficult things we are asked to do.

I am reminded of a scene in Arthur Miller's play After the Fall. The main character Quentin (who is Jewish) is asking a German woman how she lives with herself after the Holocaust. Here's what she says.

I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self. One day the house smells of fresh bread, the next of smoke and blood. One day you faint because the gardener cuts his finger off, within a week you're climbing over corpses of children bombed in a subway. What hope can there be if that is so?

I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.


Whenever I shrink at the thought of looking at my own darkness, I try to think of this baby clutching my clothes and imagine taking her up in my arms. Too often though, I get defensive and don't take the time to realize that if I could honestly look at myself and embrace what I see - warts and all - I'd perhaps have the strength to find the only real hope that is available to me when it looks like the world is falling apart...myself.

When I have been able to face my own darkness, I find fear, guilt, shame, anger...its tough. But more often than not, the experience leaves me with what David Whyte has called "Sweet Darkness."

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.