11.26.14

ferguson

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:20 pm by Administrator

perhaps if there’s one idea i’ve come around to believing, it’s this: racism of some kind is an inescapable part of an individual’s perspective. the point of highlighting systematic racism is not to eliminate individual racism but rather to collectively and consciously compensate for its inevitable and persistent reality. in my mind, there is only one definitive way to end personal racism, and that’s a social program of miscegenation to eventually eliminate racial phenotypic differences. society can’t preserve cultural enclaves and celebrate diversity without also implying (in all the insidious ways) that race itself has categorical value.

in any case, this is why i feel that the question of whether or not racism affected the tragic interaction between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown is a misguided question. racism, conscious or unconscious, should be assumed to be a factor in most every social conflict between people of different ethnicities and races. the more important question i am wrestling with in this case is one that i consider more fundamental: what are the psychological factors that contributed to this altercation and to the eventual killing of one young man by another? racism might be one of those factors, but i question whether it’s fair to assume it was the central factor.

there have been innumerable incidents of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq involving armed American soldiers killing unarmed Afghani and Iraqi civilians in those countries. the incidents are often compared to Vietnam’s My Lai, and for good reason. there’s a psychological component to that kind of irrational and shocking violence against unarmed individuals and families. and it’s insufficient to attribute those atrocities to racism alone, even though some element of racism in these incidents can rightly be assumed. and in the hearings that follow these incidents, one begins to discern a more fundamental factor in motivating that explosive, indiscriminate violence: a psychological trauma, no less. in the case of soldiers at war, it’s not hard to speculate on the cause of this trauma, whether it lies in a soldier’s daily observations of death and warfare, or in the soldier’s constant anxiety and fear for his life, or in his or her experience of a deep and wounding personal loss.

in many communities in this country, the experience of our police officers is not so different from that of our troops overseas. they patrol communities that they perceive as hostile; they feel like they are at war. they engage in forceful work that is often profoundly unpleasant. wherever they are deployed, their presence is greeted with anxiety, suspicion, and even malice. and most often they are sent into situations where they must deal with people in the most desperate or chaotic of circumstances. day in and day out, officers of the law, just like our soldiers overseas, are put in bodily and imminent danger, and i think it is fair to say that they carry an emotional burden that most of their compatriots in other lines of work would never understand.

i draw this comparison not to justify officers of the law who injure civilians without good reason. i make this comparison to highlight this irony: while we are unwilling to settle upon racism as sufficient explanation for military atrocities overseas, we are more than willing to jump to the conclusion that racism alone can explain the killing of a young black man by a white police officer in this country. and while we are perhaps able to understand how the culture of war pressures and shapes the psychology of the soldier, we have been unwilling to face the fact that our society actively conditions police officers to react to violence with more violence. there is a war being fought every day on the streets of this country, even if our media would like to turn a blind eye to this fact. it’s a war declared by legislators against social realities that lawmakers cannot fix, mediated by young men and women armed with guns. and we expect our young and impressionable police officers to wage these battles with absolute composure at all times, even in the midst of a losing war on drugs, an utterly failed war on poverty, and an ever-increasing divide between those who can control their environment and those who are powerless within theirs.

for all the simpletons of America, Ferguson is about race. for me, it’s about the young men and women that we send to war every day. casualties, particularly bystander casualties, are the terrible consequences of war; but somehow those losses are never quite bad enough to make us call our troops home—and make peace

11.25.14

39

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:55 pm by Administrator

long before you were around
there was this guy, who had your eyes.
he had your thin lips, your look
of pleasure, or of surprise.

i imagine people saw him
the way they see you,
and he saw them
the way you so often do.

and though he never heard of you
and though you were never told of his name
don’t you think that if he saw you
he’d know you all the same?

not just the way you are aging
or the way that you appear
but rather the way you are changing
on the inside, where nothing is clear.

he’d have a word for it
that i think you might understand.
you and no one else
on this side of the broken land.

he’d look into you
and feel such relief
that the burden of being what he was
is now your grief

and your delight
and your great power
in the emptiness and fullness
of every passing hour.

he did not carry you,
nor will you keep him alive.
just know that this thing in you—
it will survive

39

11.20.14

restless

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:37 pm by Administrator

i am so different from day to day that i’ve found it easier to consider myself two men rather than one. one man is my mother’s son: stubborn, aggressive, anxious, and future-oriented. the other is my father’s shadow: conflicted, ruminative, untrusting, and nostalgic. i am never both men; i am either one or the other. and i can’t tell which man i will be, until i find myself to be that man on that particular morning.

i find them curiously opposed. one man will go forth to conquer, while the other man will see no battle worth fighting. each one invalidates the wisdom of the other, and thus no enduring conclusions emerge from their relentless conflict. i cannot decide what i really want; i am not entirely sure of who i am. i know only that i can change my mind about anything. i have seen both sides of most every serious question i’ve wrestled with in my life. and when i succeed at something, half of me says it is not true success. when i fail and experience humiliation, half of me delights in the pain i experience. it is not masochism. it is a genuine internal battle between two selves, neither of whom can win, and neither of whom will surrender. i exist in their tension. my life is a laughing at myself, and it is a tiring of myself, and it is a wish to be free of myself. i experience my greatest joy when i forget what i am—and when i forget these two troublesome souls within me.

today i am my father’s shadow, a man who looks back and sees what is missing. but yesterday, i was my mother’s son, a man who relentlessly searches for opportunity. yesterday, i thought it fitting that i worship God and serve people with my life, while saving money and making plans. today, i wonder why none of it is quite right. i don’t quite have the conversations i want to. i don’t quite worship the divine. i don’t quite experience community, or more specifically communal belonging, the way i could. there is an emotional or spiritual experience of the world that my rituals of living represent very approximately—but not precisely. there’s a kind of music and a kind of dancing, a kind of talking and a kind of listening, a kind of imbibing and a kind of intimacy, and i’m wanting those things, but the way i do them is just indelicate enough that the spirit of those things escapes realization. i am like a man grasping at sunlight. it’s never quite right.

once, just once, i want to arrive at a moment when both selves within me can agree that something perfect is transpiring. neither will concern himself with the other. rather, they’ll both be seized by something outside, something beyond themselves. they’ll be drawn out of their conflict with each other, and in their unity i’ll find myself, for once in my life, manifestly present. in a world of ideas and systems and threatening realities, i have never been permitted to be my whole self, entirely invested in just the one thing right in front of me. i believe that’s the thing that’s waiting for me after death. i look forward to that. though i’m afraid to disappear, i want that one moment before the end of me to be all of me. if i can ever have that, i think i’ll be able to say that it—life, death, and everything in between—was enough for me, and perhaps even good

11.13.14

the maverick

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:28 pm by Administrator

an old friend of mine recently encouraged me to frame some of my recent reflections about myself within the paradigm of the enneagram. the enneagram is a system of personality typology that defines 9 basic types according to a variety of factors including social persona, basic motivation, and dominant emotion. since learning about the system (and typing myself through it), i’ve really immersed myself in the system, and i’ve gained some interesting insights about myself and the enneagram—insights that may help me at this particular juncture of my life.

but first, a reflection about loss.

my wife’s uncle died two nights ago. the family knew that his death was imminent that evening, and nearly the whole family was assembled in his room within an hour of his moment of passing. there were eighteen of us there, each of us with a unique link to the man who was dying, each of us sharing a long history with him and with every other person in the room. after sharing that somber space with the other sixteen survivors, i was struck again by the rituals of passing, and specifically i was aware of each individual’s particular way of grieving. after all, we recently went through this with another family member who died a year ago. i couldn’t help but watch the other people in the room. each person, in his or her proximity to the dying man, in his posture, and in his interaction with others, was reflecting something unique about him or herself. i too was reacting to the situation in my own particular way; and this self-awareness oddly reminded me that there is never a proper way to grieve. there is only the fact of our grieving and its inherent mysteries.

in times of crisis, i have always felt a great pressure to match the energy of the friend or family member most affected by the crisis. on the one hand, i think that it reflects my inherent drive to demonstrate my personal worth through empathy and advocacy. but i’ve learned from my many experiences navigating crisis that i tend to suffer certain consequences as a result of my inclination to step up. i take on responsibilities that i did not ask for. i become a resource on things i have no expertise in. i burn out and have to find ways to extricate myself from the inner circle of crisis management. reflecting on this cycle of engagement has made me realize that there is perhaps another and less consciously recognized motivation for my willingness to engage people in crisis; i instinctively refuse to be outdone by others. if there is something that i believe i should care about as much as others, i aim to care more. if there is something that ought to grieve me as it grieves others, i grieve more deeply. it is a competitive instinct, as much as it is an empathetic instinct. i connect to others by carrying my weight in every situation of shared responsibility.

when i study that aspect of myself, i recognize that this is my ball and chain. for much of my early life, i sought liberty from this compulsion by picking and choosing my battles, resisting peer pressure, and asserting my individuality. my instinct for self-preservation often led me to hold myself apart from others, so that my natural proclivity for deep engagement and leadership did not result in burdensome entanglements.

what i just described is something that my enneagram predicts with great accuracy. i am an 8 with a strong 7 wing. recognizing how well i fit that typological description has enabled me to recognize another thing about myself: i refuse to be outdone by others because i am afraid that if i under-perform emotionally or relationally then i will be condemned, invalidated, or excluded. the enneagram, just like attachment theory, predicts that this central phobia—my fear of betrayal—will fuel me toward confrontation, leadership, and even heroism.

unlike most every other type, 8’s seek to intensify their responses to things because the intensity of their feelings is their demonstration of commitment and their best defense against accusations of apathy. it is also their achilles’ heel. it’s their intensity that makes them appear aggressive and uncompromising; it’s also that intensity that can fuel their dominant emotion (anger) and ultimately drive them toward disillusionment and social disengagement. 8’s, like the Yerkovich “vacillators”, have to find ways to manage their anger so as to stay engaged; disengagement puts them on a path to personal disintegration. they also need to find ways to modulate their own intensity for personal health and self-maintenance. 8’s like me with an underdeveloped 9 wing have to learn how to step outside of themselves, contextualize their feelings, study the reactions of others, and reengage with a broader perspective.

a year ago when my wife’s cousin passed away, i got a text late at night after i’d gone to bed, telling me that she’d died after her long battle with cancer. it was her young son, and he wanted me to drive out and be with him and the rest of the family in that terribly difficult time. but i was tired and in bed, facing a long day at work the next day, and when i read that text i reacted with great intensity. oddly, i felt angry. a flood of questions went through my mind in that moment. “how could he ask this of me at this hour?” “we’ve been expecting this for six months, so what’s the urgency?” i ended up not driving out to his home that night, but i had a fitful night of sleep and ended up feeling terrible the next day. it wasn’t just the lack of sleep; i felt a deep guilt and shame about the anger i’d felt toward a son who’d just lost his mom.

when i look back at that night, i realize now that there was another question underneath all of those other heated questions racing through my mind. it was perhaps the most telling question for me in that decisive moment: “how will the family look at me if i don’t go?” i was asking myself the quintessential question an 8 wrestles with—whether my moment of weakness would translate to my social marginalization or outright ostracization. it was a moment that should have been all about a family struggling with a terrible loss; but in the midst of the crisis and my stress about it, it was all about me.

8’s lead because they abhor being manipulated, misunderstood, or controlled. their weakness is the source of their strength. they are often accused (as i have been) of being selfish, self-absorbed, or hungry for power. their weaknesses may be attributed to arbitrary factors (”he’s an only child” or “she always got her way”), but the enneagram suggests that those traits are as innate as temperament itself. the enneagram confirms something that i’ve learned intuitively along the way: that i will never simply outgrow my need to confront authority, have my say, or assert myself in every situation. in this particular way, i’m inescapably a born leader. but the enneagram also suggests something i’ve wanted to believe: that i can experience the love of others without earning it through my performance. i don’t need to be the most passionate, the most understanding, and the most committed. regardless, i will feel; but i need not use my feelings to leverage myself.

i have previously written about how hard it is for me to be myself. in relation to this feeling, i’ve come to understand heaven as a place where i can be free of myself, in the experience of a collective identity. i’m realizing that there’s a real truth to this trajectory i’ve imagined for myself. i do want to belong deeply to God and to others, in line with the very mission statement of my church. but i’ve got to do that by being less than others, by putting my feelings and needs second to those of others. it’s not for the sake of humility or service; it’s so that i can get free of the burden i carry, having to be foremost so as not to be betrayed.

this is something that i considered, as i stood in the room where my wife’s uncle died two nights ago. i did not need to perform; and it was okay not to gravitate to the most outwardly emotional person in the room. it was okay for me to stand alone, in my own space. it was okay to just grieve in my own way, away from the crowd

11.11.14

whiplash!

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:09 pm by Administrator

it has been a long, long time since i’ve dropped a movie review. but “whiplash” demands a review, however succinct. because damien chazelle’s lovingly detailed, tautly directed, and unflinchingly brutal depiction of a young jazz drummer pushed to his limits by a crazed martinet of a genius musician is nothing less than a triumph of the transcendent variety. it is a movie i will watch again.

the obvious comparison that comes to mind is aronofsky’s “Black Swan”, but it’s an unfortunate comparison for several reasons. while “Black Swan” suffered badly for its theatrical excesses and its inexcusable lack of humor, “Whiplash” succeeds on account of its keen self-awareness. and while “Black Swan” drowned in its obsession with self-mutilation and tragic self-loss, “Whiplash” emerges from these elements with a wonderfully poignant commentary on self-realization. the movie, as unsettling and darkly energetic as it begins, seems to move in a predictable direction up until the point that it slaps you in the face, forces you into a complete different rhythm, and finishes you off with an ending sequence that it is the most striking clash of sounds and personalities that i’ve ever seen on the big screen. put simply, “Whiplash” is the movie about artistic obsession that is the envy of every film in its class.

obviously, i haven’t touched on the element of jazz music, which is an important feature of the movie but one that is difficult to place or describe. “Whiplash” could have been about the dance, or about classical music, or about woodworking. but there is that idiosyncratic feature of jazz—the way personality, improvisation, and even aggression are worked into its structure—that the story taps into with deftness and precision. it’s not by any means a deep exploration into the identity and culture of jazz music; but the jazz works as a touchstone and as a medium for interpersonal conflict and individual self-assertion.

j.k. simmons and miles teller are extraordinary. i’ve really enjoyed both guys in their former roles, but i’ve never seen either of them quite like this: locked in a constant, riveting struggle that maintains unceasing and relentless intensity all the way through, to the climactic finish. “compelling” is not sufficient to describe the experience; and neither is there a convenient moral to the story they tell. the sensation they leave us with is desperate, confounding, and liberating, all at the same time. it’s a sensation that makes me believe that good storytelling really can capture something new about the human spirit, every now and then

11.08.14

Left, but not Libertarian

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:27 pm by Administrator

i wrote an entry a while ago about how i thought i could identify as a “Gen X Libertarian”, based on my “fiscally conservative/socially liberal” leanings. but since the midterm results, i’ve been trying hard to align myself with potential candidates and to clarify my political positions, mostly as a personal exercise, and in the process of my readings, i’ve realized something very basic. i’m not a libertarian. and i’m not a fiscal conservative. and i’m not a liberal, if classical liberalism points to small government and free market economics. i’m on the Left with a capital L, and my disappointment with Obama’s neoconservatism has driven me to a reactionary anti-government stance—a “faux libertarianism”. and i’m going to go a step further and assert that i’m not alone in my generation. obama’s betrayal of the Left has created a phenomenon of “faux libertarianism” among disillusioned younger voters, who pointedly decided not to express themselves at the polls last week.

and i’m going to go a step further and declare what all the political analysts seem to be brushing over. the issue for me and for many of my kind has been war in the Middle East. for my generation, obamacare is theoretical, however much it has loomed in the Republican consciousness as the litmus issue of American politics. for us, the war in afghanistan, iraq, and syria is our crisis of conscience; it has become our Vietnam. just as war shattered the social compact between government and the youth in the 1970s, so has unending war broken the faith of a whole generation of left-leaning Millenials. the casualties may be smaller; the war may be quieter; and the effects may be more subtle. but we look at Bush and Obama now as two sides of the same coin. they are neoconservatives who have used the military-industrial complex to secure long-term financial interests overseas, at the expense of american lives and credibility, under the false pretense of fighting for liberty. and even if the older voters and Congress itself are behind obama on the war against ISIS, the rest of us—the younger, silent, and increasingly disillusioned rest of us—see it with cynicism, as a failure of a promise or, worse, as a conspiracy.

i thought to identify myself as a Libertarian because it was the clearest stance against government intervention and war, against the kinds of abuses repeatedly inflicted on the american people by the last two presidents. but Libertarians of the American variety are not simply isolationist; they are blithely laissez-faire in their approach to social structure, in a way that ignores the essential lessons of American history. after all, if there were one nation in the world that ought to be the perfect case example of Libertarianism, it should be the U.S., in its constitutional stance against governmental tyranny and in its overt protection of civil liberties and suffrage. but time and time again throughout their history, Americans have been forced to reckon with the threatening consequences of the unregulated marketplace, whether it lay in the enslavement of cotton pickers, the cruel treatment of industrial workers, the anti-competitive monopolization of industries, discrimination in workplace hiring practices, or hostility toward whistleblowers. the lesson of American history is that its government, an institution charged with the constitutional mission of protecting equality—equality of opportunity, equality of treatment under the law, equality of protection, equality of stature—has intervened repeatedly (even to the point of modifying its constitution and laws) so as to guard the average citizen from the necessarily threatening consequences of an amoral marketplace. Libertarianism is an ideal of a kind; but it is not the legacy of the Founding Fathers, nor is it a practical stance based on a fair reading of American history.

when i really consider where i stand in relation to the political spectrum, i realize that there isn’t a candidate who comes close to representing my beliefs. there is no authentic discourse between the Left and the Right in the United States, and perhaps there hasn’t been for forty years. the two parties that dominate the political forum are decidedly centrist relative to the greater non-political social discourse, and they’ve continually positioned themselves in the middle of the ever-shifting ideological spectrum so as to retain their bases while maximizing opportunities. realizing that my beliefs are not represented in the political forum doesn’t actually make me feel further defeated; it actually helps me to understand why i am constantly compelled to reevaluate my attitudes about the two dominant parties.

there are many things on my wish-list that i wish my political representatives would consider. price controls on big pharma. expanded, free public education at the college level. mandatory public service terms for young college graduates. total amnesty for “illegal” immigrants. longer terms for the president and for congressional representatives. a single-payer public option in healthcare. but first and foremost, i wish they would consider just one thing about me and my kind: we are tired of war. we are not asking our country to be isolationist. we simply don’t believe it’s possible to kill every possible terrorist in the world. stop throwing our tax monies and the lives of our young men and women away, in one futile effort after another. call our armies home, and let us heal

11.06.14

jeb: a case study

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:04 pm by Administrator

since the midterms, there’s been a lot of press about jeb bush and his potential as a GOP presidential candidate. when i first read some stories labeling him a possible frontrunner, i was both amused and a bit confounded. after all, up to this point i’ve only known two things about jeb bush: his goofy grin and his family ties to two dubious presidents of the same last name. so i started to read about jeb, and i began to realize why jeb is a serious candidate for the oval office, despite his goofiness and his relationship with the other Bush’s. put simply, and just like his momma has always said, jeb’s a natural leader.

people love jeb bush. they meet him and they want to be friends with him. they laugh at his jokes; they love hanging out with him. donors warm up to him the moment he shows up. no one’s in line to throw stones at him. he’s disarming; he’s cool; he’s approachable. one could read everything written about jeb and chalk up his appeal to charisma. he’s a tall guy with charisma and a great sense of humor.

but the more i think about it, the more i think jeb is a useful case study in one of the really special and utterly essential qualities of leadership—maybe the single most important quality of leadership. jeb bush, more than most leaders i’ve seen who’ve taken the national stage, inspires loyalty. to me, it’s really the only way to explain why (perhaps despite his pedigree) he’s had such an effortless rise through the political ranks, why he continues to be so well-liked despite being in the ruthless spotlight for over a decade, and why he’s been rushed to the front of the presidential nomination queue.

how does jeb bush create allies and loyal friends? i look at those goofy photos and the personal testimonials about him, and i see two closely related characteristics that explain how he’s able to inspire loyalty. first, he makes people around him feel valued. and second, he fosters interdependency with others.

i can’t prove these two observations; they’re just hunches. but what i see in jeb’s image is a guy who is fine with being the goofball and the butt of the joke. it’s not just for laughs. jeb uses it to good effect, to disarm his audience, but more importantly to make others feel valued. when you read what’s said about jeb, it’s obvious that people feel good hanging out with him. he makes them feel that they’re good at what they do; he makes them feel seen and important; he has a way of listening that actually lends them a voice. jeb isn’t simply the charismatic guy who dominates the party conversation and gets laughs at the expense of others. he’s a guy who naturally lowers himself and makes people feel smart, powerful, and good about themselves. that’s a natural quality to him.

but without that second quality—his talent for fostering interdependency—that ability to make others feel valued would just leave him on the invite lists for most of the parties in town. it’s his ability to build on that emotional capital and to create interdependence that separates him from other naturally gregarious people. jeb gets things done (and he’s gotten a lot of substantive things done in Florida) because he is able to create relationships in which people not only feel valued but also mutually influential. i’ll bet that jeb does that both consciously and unconsciously by continually seeking advice, guidance, and active help from the people around him. and in return, he enjoys repaying those favors. you could analyze him from afar and label him with all kinds of “competencies”: the ability to delegate, the ability to work through others, the ability to build up effective teams. but really, he’s just a guy who naturally asks for help and builds relationships through genuine interdependence.

from what i’ve observed of him, i could tell you what jeb is not. jeb is not a brainy, analytical guy. he’s not a careful introvert. he’s not someone who counts costs or draws boundaries. he’s not self-sufficient or self-involved. and he doesn’t have trust issues; he’s nobody’s victim. he’s a guy who’s fundamentally open to the ideas of others and willing to change. that’s a great strength among his other strengths. it’s an emergent quality that is powerful.

there is a natural parallel for jeb, in this particular quality he has. it’s moses—perhaps the greatest single example of leadership in the bible. more than even the historical character of Christ himself, moses proved his leadership mettle against all odds. he was thoroughly discredited in egypt before he ever began his ministry there, on account of a witnessed murder and a flight from justice. he wasn’t a good communicator, so he had to have someone else (aaron) speak for him. he was given the unenviable role of having to lead his people through a total wilderness without any obvious objective in mind. they were constantly on the brink of starvation and fatal thirst; they had no home or refuge. despite all of this, they never abandoned moses or defected from his leadership; he kept an entire people together and alive through all their years of hardship and struggle. and he became, in their records, one of the most cherished leaders in their tradition.

moses succeeded, despite a litany of personal failures and weaknesses, precisely because of his weaknesses. after all, how could his leadership team not have felt valued, when moses relied on them so heavily to communicate his convictions and purposes? how could his father-in-law Jethro have spoken truth into his life about sharing responsibility if Moses had not first made him feel valued and important as his counselor? and how could Moses have persisted through all those terrible years in the wilderness as a leader, had his people not felt his burden and chosen to share it with him? moses was, in his own words, “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth”. this was the very quality that sustained him and made him most effective, as a leader to a people in the most desperate of circumstances.

at this stage in my life, i’ve been able to recognize the value in a lot of the critical feedback i’ve received over the years. my girlfriend in college called me stubborn. one of my best friends in college called me “unreliable”. my friend David Park told me during my senior year that he didn’t know how he contributed to our relationship. and my fellowship preceptor, who was my enemy before she became my mentor and friend, accused me of being totally uninterested in her input. when those things happened to me, i felt misunderstood and unfairly accused. but i understand now what they were saying. they were talking about a quality and a belief about me that i learned at a very young age. trust no one, my mother said. peer pressure will kill you, said james dobson. be your own boss, said my dad. i had a stubborn streak to begin with; but i was taught to distrust others, and i was trained to be my own counsel. i’ve had many admirers over the years on account of my intellect and my capacity for vulnerability (no false modesty here), but what i haven’t experienced is the kind of loyal following that jeb bush enjoys so easily, and that’s because i have failed to make others feel valued, important, and meaningful in their relationships with me.

it comes down to two questions, perhaps, that i have to be willing to ask with deep interest and sincerity, constantly and in every place where i work and play. “how am i doing?” and “what can i do better?” when i was younger, i would have thought of this line of questioning as a weakness. who cares what others think? but that was an errant thought, just as my stubborn adherence to principle was a failed idea of leadership. it does not matter whether i am right or wrong, in any individual decision or debate. what matters is whether i’m asking these questions, and whether i’m growing. i’ve learned to ask these questions in my marriage relationship; and i’ve learned to ask these questions as a routine part of rounding in my workplace. it is not easy, and i so quickly fall out of the habit. but if there is one thing i’ve learned about leadership, it’s that a good leader must be the “slave to all”; and that means, among other things, that he must be willing to depend heavily on the trust and the talents of others

11.05.14

rise of the red tide

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:08 pm by Administrator

seeing the way that i have reacted to the forum of national politics over the years makes me wonder one thing this morning: how is it that there are americans who unfailingly vote along party lines, decade after decade? what is it about a political party that can inspire its adherents to move with it, change with it, donate to it, and vote for its candidates, predictably and without variation? it’s an aspect of american life that fascinates me. and it’s something that confounds me this morning, as i measure my own reactions to the GOP’s incredible wins at the midterm election.

and my reactions this morning are two-fold. first, i’m happy that the midterm elections signal change—a movement away from what obama’s administration has stood for. but then there is a second and perhaps more deeply felt reaction. it’s too bad. it’s too bad that it worked out this way. it’s too bad that the united states has handed back the Congress to a failed political party that continues to stand for nothing.

when i voted for obama in 2008, i was not participating in a referendum on George W. Bush and his failed presidency. i had a faith in barack obama, in the man and in his principles. i think it was perhaps the first time in my memory that my friends, my family, and i were voting with such heartfelt passion for a person we believed in.

when i think back to that now, i realize two things. the GOP lost so badly in 2008 because Bush’s administration exposed the failure of conservative ideals. the Democrats lost so badly yesterday not because of a failure of their ideals but rather because of a failure of leadership. in most every way, obama’s administration failed to adhere closely enough to its vision for the country. in health reform, they cut a deal with big pharma and took the public option off the table, leaving americans with a healthcare system that hurts a lot of people and clearly benefits only one cohort: americans with chronic conditions who cannot qualify for Medicaid. in the industry bail-outs, the administration lost a public relations battle for the hearts of homeowners and down-and-out americans—the very people the Democrats are supposed to represent. in his ongoing drone attack campaign and his proposed war against Syria, obama skirted the lines of the pacifist stance that he rode into the White House. and on immigration reform and gay rights, two of the hottest ideological issues of our day, obama simply hedged and refused to take a stand, when the stance of the Democratic party should have been obvious.

the fact is that the ideals of the Democratic party could have prevailed; they just required the slow and steady hand of a political operator who had the relationships and skills to properly advance their agendas. for all of his strengths and gifts, obama proved that he lacked these qualities. and now he has the colossal failure of his political party and a plethora of derailed careers to show for his failures.

i am aggrieved by obama’s presidency—enough to understand why the GOP had to win back the Congress. but i hope, amidst the disturbing changes that are happening, that the GOP will not be the party it was. i hope in a GOP that is less ideological on the ethical matters and more practical in its approach to leadership. the country needs to heal, to grow, and to see transparency and optimism in their political leaders. whatever party has the numbers, i hope that yesterday’s elections will give us pause, and a chance to reflect on what the anger of the american public really means

11.04.14

“christian culture”

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:58 pm by Administrator

here is my last reflection from my time in italy. it revolves around my realization that there can never be such a thing as “christian culture”.

i was amazed by my visit to the Galleria degli Uffizi, certainly the finest art museum i have ever visited in my life. it is not the largest collection i’ve seen, by any means. but every single work in the museum is so precious; and the curators of the museum have been beyond skillful in their ability to position and to describe the vital importance of each masterpiece in their collection. the museum, in its layout, its intricate details, and its beautifully conceived rooms, tells the story of a dynastic greatness; it declares in no uncertain terms that Florence of the Medicis was the birthplace and cultural center of the most important artistic movement of its time.

i walked away from the Uffizi impressed that the Medicis didn’t simply love art. they used patronage to establish their legacy; and they intended for their legacy to consist in a culture—a certain aesthetic, a specific way of life, a certain idea of themselves as the philosophical and artistic center of the modern world. and they succeeded! even six centuries later, we believe, as Giorgio Vasari contended, in the greatness of the “Great Masters”; we are devotees of “the modern style”; we trace the history of our civilization through the Italian Renaissance conceived and sustained by the Medicis.

i was struck by another thing too. that as much as the Medicis intended for their legacy to be immortalized in a culture, Christ intended for his legacy to be captured in something that transcended culture. while we so often look at Christ as a culture-creator, in the mold of Cosimo de Medici, Christ actually deconstructed a culture of religion, and in fact he extracted his significance from his cultural context, so that his legacy would never be captured in the lives and laws of a single tribe.

i think it’s basic human nature to build systems and laws out of the beliefs we wish to embrace. american evangelicals believe in a christian culture of heterosexual marriage, family values, Western supremacy, and democratic ideals. before them, and for many centuries, catholics believed in a christian culture of celibacy, the holy priesthood, global church conquest, and the rule of the pope. and even before the catholics, there were believers who held to Jewish cultures, Mediterranean cultures, mystical cultures, polygamist cultures, and slave cultures. in every generation, we as a church attempt to demonstrate the nature of God by proving the moral value of the cultures that we build upon a foundation of faith.

despite this, i am struck by the fact that Christ did not aim to define culture as his legacy. obviously, he operated within a culture (a 1st century Jewish culture under Roman occupation), and this culture was the context for the relationships he built with his disciples. but he pointedly interacted with marginalized members of his society and even outsiders. he used his interactions with them as a reference point in his profound critique of Jewish society and its leadership. and in the end, his legacy was a belief about God that transcended social boundaries and took root among Gentile peoples. those that attempted to realign Gentile Christianity with the culture and practices of the Jews were vigorously attacked by the apostle Paul, champion of the new faith. this was to be a religion in which a morality of lifestyle would no longer be prescribed but rather negotiated in relation to the cultures of the world. all would be permissible, and within their cultural contexts believers would seek out that which was most edifying, in the pursuit of declaring God to an unbelieving people.

we so often believe in the lie of “christian culture”, and on the basis of this lie we judge people based on the trappings that they don, whether it consists in the color of their skin, their literacy, their sexual preferences, or the manners in which they praise and worship. the one thing we ought to have in common as a people is our willingness to operate within cultures as people who examine them for opportunities to distinguish God in His character and His desires. where we are confident in our rhythms and in our ways of doing things, it’s there where Christ is most uncomfortable with what we say about Him. always in society, there are those that are marginalized or outsiders, and the way of Christ is to position ourselves where we can be among them, if not one of them

11.01.14

catholicism: its relics and its truths

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:01 pm by Administrator

when i was a child growing up in the church, i quickly learned a few differences between the catholicism i learned at school and the protestantism i practiced at church. first, catholics need a priest to gain God’s forgiveness, while protestants can seek out God directly in prayer. second, catholics are very formal in their worship, while protestants can be more emotional. third, catholics don’t speak in tongues, while protestants can be “baptized by the spirit”. all of this of course convinced me that catholicism was a hollowed-out tradition while protestant evangelicalism was, in contrast, quite relevant and alive.

while meandering in and out of some old and very beautiful shrines in the amalfi region, i found myself reflecting on some of my childhood misconceptions about catholicism. i think it was the effigies and icons that most triggered these memories. when i was a child, these things struck me as idols; but now in my adult years, i saw something different in these objects and symbols. i felt moved by them. i felt the desire of their sculptors and devotees, a desire to touch the living God, and to find in their churches a spiritual bastion against a devolving and corrupt world. in a tiny church on a hilltop in ravello, i felt a catholicism rooted in the longing for intimate communion with God.

my reconciliation with catholicism has been a long time in the making. i think it began during my medical school years, when i began dialoguing with a fellow evangelical who converted to catholicism. a major point of contention between us was the figure of mary; and i was struck by something he said about mary. “why isn’t it that we don’t honor more of the saints in the same way that we honor mary,” he asked me. “as representatives of Christ and as vessels of blessing to the church, should they not merit our great affection, being our very family in the faith?”

later, i came to identify my soteriological viewpoint within NT Wright’s new perspectives, in a manner that enabled me to understand the traditional catholic approach to salvation and sanctification. it was through this lens that i was able to grasp the root of a major personal struggle that had plagued me for years—my intuitive sense that there was something terribly simplistic if not self-defeating about the “confess and then you’re done” slam-dunk theology of the american evangelical movement.

and more recently, when i saw the emerging alignment between american evangelicals and the political positions associated with the christian right—on gay marriage and life support, for instance—my progressive theological distance from american evangelicalism developed into something of a visceral and broader philosophical opposition to their worldview. do Reformed theologians and pastors have to be so profoundly stubborn and unlikable? i began to examine my relationship with the whole church in general.

in any case, i did come around (mostly) and reestablish some personal linkage to the Reformed theological movement, but i’ll always consider myself on the periphery. this was never more evident than recently, when i found myself rejoicing at the leaked news regarding the pope’s thoughts about gays in the church. despite the partial retraction, i found myself wondering at the evolution of leadership and ideas in the catholic church, which has very much contrasted with the progressive entrenchment and belligerence of the american evangelical movement. “why not catholic?” is the question that has been coming to mind.

my concept of hell, which i’ve recently described, could be construed as purgatorial in some ways, though i think that redemption is not so much the substance or purpose of the “hellish” experience. but beyond this, in many ways i’m no longer finding much to distinguish myself ideologically from my catholic brethren. moreover, i find myself from time to time missing the catholic experience of worship that i had in my youth. like richard rodriguez describes in “The Hunger for Memory”, there is a beatific silence in the Mass that is totally missing in the evangelical approach to worship. the current CCM fad and all of its noise and fanfare might work for people who fall into one of several personality categories; but there is a deeply meditative experience of the Sabbath that seems totally incompatible with what we practice in our urban churches on sundays. i miss that. i miss the transubstantiated communion. i miss the dialogue with a priest. i miss the ordered recitations, the belief in the sanctifying effect of sacramental rituals, and the straightforward belief in the spiritual value of good works and service. i miss all of that, because the church i experience on sundays is not a bastion against the civilized and corrupted world. rather, the church i have experienced, for the last twenty years, has been the emotive and synergistic experience of collective self-revelation.

old world catholicism is certainly dead in many ways, and i experienced something of a sadness knowing that many of the convents and little churches of rural italy are now nothing more than historical relics. but i can see why these little places accrued the accoutrements that they did, and why even in their last relevant years there was such a culture of adornment and patronage that surrounded these places. put simply, too much time had gone by since the resurrection of christ. society was getting tired of waiting for the second coming. and the last few who believed, they poured themselves into these places, and they took hold of these icons, because they were afraid to lose their faith, and because, in a very simple and human way, they wanted to hang on