Sunday, October 2, 2016

Strange Staten Island Dream

So apparently a combination of sardines in a tin can and a jar of herring in wine sauce for dinner last night (my Anglo-German side clearly coming out), and a night of very much interrupted sleep, leads to some pretty epically strange dreams (which I'm wont to have anyway).

This dream occurred, appropriately enough, on Staten Island, the home of the brave and very strange. It started out in my old teenage West Brighton/Silver Lake neighborhood across the street from the gorgeous synagogue on Forest Avenue I lived across from. I spent a good part of my teenage years living there with my mom and my grandparents.

But in the dream I had last night I was on a wooden moving cart from GCTS and was rolling down the sidewalk past the synagogue across the street and then turned left behind the synagogue through their parking lot (I'm still a member through their FB page in real life) past Liz's house (the owner of the Book Nook, our favorite bookstore in the neighborhood on Forest Avenue), and then stopped at the cross road while chatting with several neighborhood friends of mine as traffic passed by, until a vehicle stopped, which allowed us all to pass over to the telephone building where I was able to gain a bit of speed and roll down the hill.

Eventually I rolled down the Forest Avenue sidewalk towards West Brighton into Port Richmond and finally close to Mariner's Harbor where I stopped at a park to rest. I was late in the day and it was unoccupied, so I thought it would be a safe place to rest.

It wasn't. A very attractive young woman who had blonde hair and was rather petite approached me and started asking me about terms I didn't understand. I was just sitting there wanted to rest from a long walk on the Island. She eventually explained to me that she was talking about drugs, especially marijuana (I think she was also a prostitute), and that she thought that I was interested in buying them at that park.

I was just tired and wanted to rest and enjoy the late afternoon. But a few other folks decided to join us, both family friendly folks and a few gang bangers, who decided to sit right next to me on the other side of this young woman. They sat on my right and immediately started to act against my interests, both physically and sexually, invading my space in both cases.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

West Virginia Hillbilly

I've been very impressed with JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, on the various talk shows he's appeared on lately. He speaks for a demographic which has been historically overlooked by both major parties. Since my own family background on my mother's side is straight up West Virginia Hillbilly, he speaks to my own kith and kin going back centuries. The good folks of Gassaway, West Virginia, a beautiful little town nestled in the hills of central WV, still have many of my relatives living there. My mom was born there, but my grandparents decided to leave town for NYC during the Great Depression so that they could start a new life and have opportunities that simply didn't exist in a small town hit hard by economic woes.

But it wasn't just economic issues which drove them to the big city. It was also cultural and very personal. They eloped because neither of their parents approved of their marriage (I have no idea why). West Virginians are very tight knit, but this also shows itself in splits and feuds which can last a very long time. And no, as far as I know, I don't have any Hatfield's or McCoy's in my family history! But I do have a distant cousin who was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, John William Davis, who lost in an historic landslide. But the economy for the vast majority of West Virginians in the 1930's was grinding poverty, and sadly it's not a whole lot better even now all these decades later.

Back in the Spring of 2004 I drove from Holland, Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina to consider attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary at their Charlotte campus. On the way back to Michigan that Monday I decided, last minute, to take a detour and drive up to Gassaway, West Virginia to visit my mom's home town. As I drove along the highway and stopped just before the appropriate exit, my lights shorted out, so I knew I'd have to stop at a repair shop in order to drive the rest of the way home to Michigan. So I drove into town and noticed along the side of the road election signs to my left and right with local candidates running for various offices and I also couldn't help but notice that many of the names on the signs were old family names that my mom and grandmother had told me about many times over. There were Bosley's, there were Lee's, there were Davis's, there were Dennison's, all names that I had been told about by my family, so I knew that I was driving into and through family, even though I'd never been there before.

When I finally got into town it looked like it hadn't changed in at least fifty years. I stopped at a little food mart and asked the young woman if they had a repair shop in town and she told me that they did and it was the only one. Thankfully it was a Pontiac repair shop and dealer, since that's what I was driving back then. So I dropped my car off and asked if the town had a library, and the receptionist, in her thick Hillbilly twang, told me that it was just down the road a bit, maybe a five minute walk. And so that's what I did during lunch when my car was being worked on. I visited the town library and did research on my family history going back to the Civil War. It turns out that family members fought on both sides of the Civil War. In fact, several family members were drafted by the Union Army at the beginning of the war but deserted and fought for the Confederacy. Bad move. There's a reason why the only hotel (long since closed and abandoned) in town is called the Lincoln Hotel and not the Davis Hotel.

In Gassaway, West Virginia, there's not many career options available for the people living there. At least back in my grandparent's day you could either be a coal miner, a lumberjack (two of my great grandfathers died doing that), a railroad man (my beloved grandfather Harry Goff Bosley was one), or a moonshiner (I'm sure some of my kin did that too!). And no matter which of these you did, you were damned proud of it. That's part of the Hillbilly way too. Pride in your heritage is part and parcel of what it means to be a "Red Neck" or a Hillbilly. My grandmother Ruth was Scotch-Irish through and through. But she was also a woman of the modern world who worked independently as a seamstress and dress maker while my grandpa worked for the NYC subway system.

But back to my car problems. I finished researching my family history in the town library and walked back to the repair shop wondering how much they were gonna get me for. I mean, I'm a Yankee from NYC after all in the middle of hillbilly country! I won't lie. I have my deep seated prejudices too. I could see, in my minds eye, some blind kid playing a banjo as I drove into town. But when I walked back into the shop and started chatting with the receptionist about my family ties with Gassaway, the owner of the shop walked in and asked me about my family. And when I started mentioned the names, he immediately said that many of those folks still lived in Gassaway. But when I mentioned the family name of Dennison, he looked at me in shock and said: "You're a Dennison?" I affirmed that yes, through my grandmother, that I am indeed a Dennison. He then laughed and said that the guy who repaired my car was a Dennison! He's a cousin of mine! I didn't even pay for the labor, only the fuse that was needed to get my lights working again.

I was kin!

Obviously I love telling this story to any and all friends of mine, since it shows how small our world can be if we dig deep enough. But my West Virginia Hillbilly heritage has its dark side too. Addiction is a major, multi-generational, problem throughout Appalachia. My family isn't exempt from that curse. I won't go into too many personal details here simply out of respect to many of my family members who have struggled with addiction and other mental health issues. But suffice it to say that these issues have run replete throughout my family going back many generations.

Monday, May 30, 2016

My last name is Brandkamp.

On this Memorial Day I can't help but wonder about the etymology of my ancestral surname. My father and I used to joke about what our family name meant, jesting that it might have meant that our long lost ancestors were pirates on the North Sea (our ancestors were indeed sailors along the coast of northwest Germany for many generations), even to the point of me saying that my last name meant "the pillagers of the villagers" since the first part of our name is "Brand" and could mean either a burning torch or a sword, and the last part "Kamp" which could mean either a military encampment or, more notoriously, a struggle.

Now maybe all this surname guessing is all nonsense. I admit that's a real possibility. But I do know enough about the German side of my family history to know about our religious history, and that's where it gets interesting. My grandmother's maiden name was Noormann and she was from Lehr, Germany in Ost Friesland (East Friesland in English) just next to the Dutch border. She could walk to the Netherlands in a few minutes from her B&B house where she grew up. She apparently fell in love or maybe lust with a boy my great grandparents didn't approve of, so they sent her off to America in the late 1800's to makes sure she didn't get into a relationship with him. She always bragged that she didn't arrive in America at Ellis Island like the rest of the "immigrants". She arrived on Long Island and simply overstayed her tourist visa! She was such a proud woman!

Sadly, my only memories of her are from my earliest childhood and were of her dark home in Old Town, Staten Island and how she wasn't a very nice person. My mom only half jokingly said that she always knew when it was time to leave grandma Brandkamp's house when she'd start talking about pure Aryan blood. It's still heartbreaking to me that she bought into the Nazi ideology of her earlier years. She did have a very cool lava lamp though that I always thought was super cool! Talk about a strange juxtaposition!

My German grandfather, on the other hand, died several decades before my birth. I own his Plymouth Brethren hymnal which my father, Herbert, gave me many years ago. It has his signature in it. He had the most perfect penmanship and his first name was Fred, the short American version of his German first name of Friedrich. I also have a picture of him sitting on a stoop somewhere in New Jersey (I believe at an aunt's house). He has a short stogie cigar in his hand and has the most beautifully gentle eyes and definitely had the typical Brandkamp furrowed brow. I wish I could have known him in person. My father had only good things to say about him. He was a very godly man who even preached on occasion. Strangely enough, I'm glad he died before Hitler's rise saw its awful fruit come to its deadly genocidal conclusion. I'm grateful he was spared that awful spectacle.

My German grandfather Fred was also born in the same part of Germany as my German grandmother Marie, in a similar sounding town nearby, but they only met years later in NYC at a German Lutheran church in Brooklyn, NY. after his first wife had died. I don't know anything about his first wife, or much about my aunt from that wife, except that she was much older than my father and his other siblings. But I believe they all got on quite well. My father joked about how my grandfather carried his Scofield Study Bible tightly and thought that Scofield's notes were only "slightly" less inspired than the original text! Bless his heart (if you're Southern, you'll see what I just did there)!

Anyway, he was a good man from everything I know of him. What I find especially interesting about his past in coming to America is that he came over as a child and was raised by German Mennonites in Kansas (I have no idea which port he came in through) and only later came to NYC and fell in love with the big city and the bright lights (most likely gas lamps back then!). Here was this German country boy, mostly familiar with farm life both in Germany and Kansas, speaking Plattdeutsch/Low German and halting English in NYC!

In fact, my favorite story from my father is of him meeting a West African man, skin black as coal, who emigrated from a German owned part of Africa, who he happened to meet in the Lower West Side of Manhattan. He asked my grandfather for directions in his language, and my grandfather understood everything he said! They had a wonderful conversation as two expats in a truly strange and wonderful land! Their common Plattdeutsch dialect united them!

But I digress...

I meant to speak about Memorial Day.

It seems my last name is strange. Brandkamp is a strangely militaristic name, bespeaking a familial history of military exploits. And yet my grandfather's family was thoroughly Mennonite and Anabaptist, thoroughly pacifist traditions. How could a name so associated with such a militaristic history be pacifist? I do know that my great grandfather and his elders all signed the "nonconformist papers" in Lutheran Germany in the 19th century. This allowed them to avoid paying the state tax for the Lutheran church, but it also barred them from any public service. This had real world consequences for these signers. They were shunned and seen as enemies of the state and state church. I'm not sure, but I think a long distant relative had a "come to Jesus" moment a few centuries ago and decided to leave his life of warfare for the state and decided to engage in warfare of a more spiritual sort with different kinds of swords.

This is the part of my spiritual heritage I'm most interested in investigating.

Soldier on friends, soldier on.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Razor Wire Smile

I can't take my razor wire smile
as it cuts me to the quick
the border patrol mile after mile
of my mind makes me sick.

Xenophobic sensibilities
evacuate my soul
hating other ethnicities
ultimately takes its toll.

Ethnic cities sound a lot like
a cacophonous parader
of raucous performances unlike
a monolingual nadir.

Open my eyes that I might see
someone else not quite like us
so that these differences won't be
negatives but a plus.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


I loved you.
You loved me.
We loved each other.
We both dreamed.
We both dreamed of love.
We both dreamed of loving into the future.
We talked about children.
We talked about coming off of medication so that children could be safely born.
We talked about being with each other several times.
We were, but not ultimately or intimately.
Sometimes life falls apart.
Sometimes dreams don't come true.
But for that far too short season
You had me and I had you.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ferguson Through Two Lenses: How Your Cultural Background Shapes How You See Race and Crime in America

Over the last few months since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, I've read innumerable essays from black writers, white writers, Asian writers, Latino writers, conservative writers, liberal writers, radical writers, and so on, about this incident. One of the things that has begun to become clear to me, even if the facts of this particular case are anything but clear, is that different communities are literally seeing completely different realities when it comes to what happened this summer in Ferguson, Missouri. And it's becoming clearer than ever that this isn't an isolated incident. Your demographic background deeply shapes, and more often than not, distorts your perception of reality when it comes to these two issues of race and crime.

In my title to this essay I use the image of two lenses to describe how folks might view the events of this summer in Ferguson. These two lenses I'm talking about are this: micro-cosmically and macro-cosmically, or to put it another way, individualistically or corporately/systemically. And what's fascinating to me as a concerned bystander is how these two perspectives play out demographically. We see it played out to a very large degree ethnically in that white folks tend, on average, to view these kinds of events individualistically, whereas black folks tend, on average, to see these kinds of events corporately/systemically. But it's also complicated by the factor of what ideological and religious background a person has. For instance, if you're religious background is that of a conservative white evangelical, then you're much more likely to view these events through an individualistic lens, often neglecting the larger narrative of systemic racism throughout American history. But if your religious background is shaped by the black church experience here in America, then you're much more likely to view these events corporately/systemically.

Why is that?

One major reason is that many black Americans, at least those descended from slaves, see themselves through the biblical lens of Moses and the Exodus from Egyptian slavery into the land of freedom. There's a reason why so many black churches include the name Zion in their church names! Zion is synonymous with freedom! In this sense then African American Christians are very "Jewish" in their thinking and self identity, whereas White American Christians are very "Greek" in their thinking and self identity. I'm deeply indebted to the seminal work of Marvin Wilson in his essential book Our Father Abraham, where he makes the very important point about how Greek thinking is very abstract and tends towards individualism and Jewish thinking is more concrete and is also deeply corporate/communal. So, in that light, most American blacks are very Jewish in their self conception and most American whites are very Greek in their self conception.

Consider if you will popular evangelical pietist and revivalist Christianity. The salvation narrative is inherently individualistic, focusing on one person's "spiritual" salvation from this doomed and damned world of sin so that they can die safely in the arms of Jesus, swept away from this world of corruption into the sweet by and by. By the way, this vision of salvation is also a deeply gnostic vision of the world, but that's another debate which would only serve to distract from my focus today, though it does have an impact on the issues we're talking about here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Abolition of Man

I'm rereading C.S. Lewis's amazing but little known book The Abolition of Man once again this evening (I can't count how many times I've read it over the years) and I'm once again reminded of how incredibly insightful and downright prophetic this little book was when he wrote it so many years ago. And in reading it aloud to myself I'm struck by the utter brilliance of his eloquence and literary acumen.

There's a reason why it continues to occupy my permanent top ten list of essential books to read. I highly recommend it to everyone I know. But be warned, it's not an easy read at first glance. It's helpful if not essential to understand the cultural milieu in which he lived before you open to the first page. Otherwise it very quickly descends into a morass of incomprehensible verbiage so foreign to our post-modern language that you'll possibly be tempted to toss it into the trash bin halfway through the first chapter.

In fact, that's how I came to own my copy of The Abolition of Man. My old boss at Hope College had tried reading it, and it was so saturated with terminology and cultural references which were so foreign to him, that he literally tossed it into the trash bin, disgusted with the book. And this isn't because my boss was some nitwit. He was incredibly smart and we had many spirited conversations about almost everything under the sun. But his area of knowledge and expertise was scientific and mechanical, not literary and educational.

In any case though, it's a book that can easily be read in a sitting. But you'll want to read through it slowly, because, like a fine meal of exquisite cuisine, you'll want to digest the richness slowly, enjoying the delightful morsels of wisdom interspersed throughout this marvelous tome.

Revisioning the norm which norms every other norm. AKA, gender, sexuality, disability and race revisited.

Wow. This list is amazing and eye opening. And it reminds me that I could easily substitute gender with race, abilism (contra the term disability), or sexuality as far as the "norm" is concerned.

As a white male fully abled (by some standards) heterosexual, I KNOW that the deck is inherently stacked in my favor from the get go.

My life experience has taught me that I get to be the "chameleon" in social settings just by my status. In other words, I can "fit in" in other social settings simply because of my station in life.

But if we're to live out the true Christian witness, which is self sacrificial, yet at the same time acknowledging our inherent self worth as divine image bearers, we MUST own "otherness" as our own identity, precisely because God, through Christ Jesus, entered into our VERY "other" reality in the incarnation.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

My First Kiss

I remember the moment well. He ran up to me in the hall of IS 61, Morris Intermediate School. This was a very good school in the West Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, where I lived at the time. He ran up to me and kissed me on the lips in the hallway, my first official "lip" kiss as a teen. Then he ran away, ashamed of what he did. Needless to say I was a bit astonished. But I wasn't offended. I was just surprised. At the time I saw it as a one time "one off" experience. I already KNEW where my sexual loyalties laid back then, and even to this day. I AM, after all, a FLAMING heterosexual! I've known from Day One which team I'm gonna play with!

But this boy was attracted to me, and he felt the deep need to express that personally. I remember the moment well. I was in the hall of IS 61, between classes. I just wanted to get to my next class. But the fact that he then ran away upon kissing me tells me quite a bit a bit about him and our common cultural context. His "running away" told me about the common culture we both inhabited, a culture which said same sex attraction was inherently bad and a result of the fall.

I "used" to belong to that culture. I no longer do. I "used" to believe that. I no longer do.

And yet I STILL hold to traditional church teachings... Go figure...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Freeing Ourselves From Our Educational Captivity

It was good just now to chat with my close brother from Myanmar/Burma about education in general and Christian education in particular and how we need to move forward towards a more sustainable way of educating our future daughters and sons. The current system of education is well suited for a post WWII period but completely inadequate and even positively harmful for this generation and the generations to come.

We MUST find a new educational paradigm for our youth and adults in the church or else we're consigning ourselves to the dustbin of history. Telling our youth that they must be educated (a good thing), but then forcing them to become enslaved by debt for the rest of their working lives, in order to get that education, so that they can never truly serve their calling, isn't just nonsensical, it's unjust and wicked. And besides, it ends up perpetuating a system of injustice instead of confronting it at its source.

The Western church has become captive to a paradigm of education which is hyper hierarchical, completely pragmatic, consumeristic beyond belief, and totally dependent upon an economic model which is unsustainable and ultimately enslaving, not just financially, but also intellectually, and spiritually.

Think outside the industrial schoolroom box with its ringing bells telling you when to think and when to eat and when to get back to the factory. We've allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by the culture which surrounds us. But remember friends, we are culture too, and we can think and do differently if only we dare.

Let the kingdom of God liberate us from our Egyptian bondage.

Monday, March 4, 2013





The parishioners filed into the church, slowly, with only a few showing up at first. Some walked up front to be near the altar. One of them was motivated by a desire to get a good seat to be able to hear the sermon clearly. A few others thought that being closer to the altar would bestow upon them some greater holiness than those further away. And finally, there are those who sit up front for recognition and adulation because of their place. Some who wandered in would divert either to the left or the right and sit far in the back corners. Usually they were the ones you saw with their heads bent down in fervent prayer.
The rest of the congregants would direct themselves to their favorite seats so as to be able to sit near friends or relatives. Comfort and familiar surroundings were of paramount importance to these “believers.”
The church slowly filled to about two thirds capacity, maybe a little more. Most of the parishioners sat towards the middle of the church pews, filling their usual spots. As the clock approached ten in the morning the sun was already bright and hot. The openings at the bottom of the stained glass windows, which reached up to the roof, were opened to let in as much air as possible. Air conditioning was a luxury the church couldn’t afford.
Filters of light beamed through the front door shining directly on the pulpit, leading to the odd juxtaposition of shadowy figures pacing back and forth, whispering mouths talking into straining ears. Monstrous differences in size were noticeable in the figures parading around in the doorway of the church. Shadows of some loomed huge as though the church were being invaded by some spectral figure breaking into God’s own domain. It was only a few members of the church huddled together in deep conversation. The air that morning was cool upon waking, but had grown stagnant by mid morning, the heat already bearing down with temperatures hovering at or above eighty.
The sky was clear but minds were clouded by buzzing thoughts occupying empty heads. How to budget this week’s paycheck, making sure of course that the tithe doesn’t cut too much into any favorite activity. “How come I keep getting these damn hangnails, I’ve got to find the clipper when I get home or I’ll end up getting another bloody finger because I’ll get frustrated and pull it out with my fingernails.” “Why is she sitting all the way over there? If she got to know me, she’d like me, I know it.”
Occasionally, the air would move a little, prompted by the two fans on opposing sides of the two rows of pews. The timeless, placeless daydreaming would be broken by the light breeze tapping you on the face, bringing you back to reality for a moment. Most of the congregants were having difficulty in keeping their attention on holy thoughts. During the week at work, or even at home, it’s not that difficult to focus on a task being done. Even activities being enjoyed can be engaged in with blissful single-mindedness. That new Steven King, I remember not being able to put it down until I was finished. The project at work was near deadline and I knew that if I could get it done early my chances for promotion would improve. No problem. Easy to explain why my mind was so set. Everybody needs to escape once in a while.
While the church was quiet, with little whispers of conversation or shifting bottoms breaking the silence, the church building itself seemed quiet. But the occasional creak would give away the weight being withstood by the church; the groaning planks bearing down under the weight of ten thousand souls treading them under foot.
As the sun slowly rose in the morning sky, the people (the body of Christ?) sat motionless, but impatiently waiting for the sermon to begin. Somewhere in the back there was a noise. It seemed to come from where the pews began or where the doorways leading into the church ended. It wasn’t a loud noise at first, it was hardly distinguishable from the creaks and groans heard any other time emanating from within the church walls. A few heads turned out of curiosity, half expecting a late parishioner tip toeing in, hoping not to be noticed. But no one was there. A few planks of wood from the floorboards had peeled back from being nailed down and were bent slightly upward.
The first few thoughts were that the humidity had been high lately and maybe the wood hadn’t been treated correctly. The financial officer’s first thought was how this was going to be a whole new expense for him to worry about. Fixing this would probably cost a bundle. The next sounds came from adjoining planks peeling back from the floor and curling upwards so that they were practically standing upright.
At this point the congregation was, as a whole, spellbound. What happened next was anything except what they could ever expect would be possible. The planks of wood bent across each other and twisted and turned until they formed the figure of a wooden man standing upright.
The impatience was gone, it was now replaced by fear.
The voices mumbling earlier had stopped, no voice daring to speak in the face of such supernatural force. Finally the wooden planks, having fashioned themselves into one unified figure, disgorged itself from the floor completely. The figure proceeded to walk up the center aisle towards the altar, people on either side scurrying backwards in their seats, reacting in terror. After a few seconds of clumsily, then steadily walking towards the altar, it climbed the steps to behind the lectern. The congregants couldn’t help but sit with their mouths gaping open at this wonder.
Here before them was an assemblage of inanimate splinters, staring at them all from behind the altar. Animated though is what this wood now was, and with perdition breathing down the necks of these people, they were in no position to ignore the forthcoming sermon.



On a random day in heaven a motley crew of famous and infamous personages has gathered for a few favorite drinks and friendly fellowship. The direction of the conversation has, as the various characters have loosened up with a few refills of their favorite beverages, turned to the relationship of the individual to authority and vice versa.
The cast of characters includes Martin Luther, Maximilien Robespierre, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The first to speak was the venerable Frenchman Robespierre. "My dear friends, as you all are perfectly aware, I, as the most principled of those in my fair land so long ago, would feel it only right to begin these informal deliberations with my own wise counsel."

While the others around the table were a little put off by his arrogance, they nonetheless allowed him, out of grace, to begin the conversation. Robespierre asked for a refill of some fine French (of course!) red (it reminded him of blood) wine before he began. At first he was extolling the virtues of French wine over any other beverages when Martin Luther told him to either shut up, let someone else talk or get to the point. As there was hearty applause to his words and general laughter at the insult, Robespierre, offended, but not to the extent of giving up his time to talk, took a gulp of his wine and proceeded to say what he thought the proper state of human affairs should be.

"If it were my say on how things ought to be run in daily human affairs, then I would of course have the public involved in the process of governance. I am, after all, a firm believer in democracy." At this point, Mary Shelley piped in with a comment on how he must have been enamored by the bloody red color of his wine, since he is able to speak in such civil, genteel terms about things that are so barbaric. She said, "Monsieur, I certainly respect your public administrative experience, yet your results were far from effective to your end of having a peacable and orderly public state." "Au contraire, my dear sweet child, I did bring about the greatest of public goods by my administration of France. After all, if I had not done so, I would have left the country in the bungling hands of a corrupt regent, and foul priesthood, and a mutinous assembly. My only regret was having allowed that short little man to attain to the rank of general at such an early age. But I digress. My ideal for the public good is that old hierarchies must be completely eliminated by any means necessary. In other words, I believe in, libertaire, egalitaire, fraternitaire. There you have it in a nutshell. What do you all think? Refute me if you dare!

At this, Shelley retorted, "I look to my own life; a life of loss, of despair, of looking deeply to the depths that exist within our own hearts and I cannot help but be plunged like a raft over a violent rock infested river that plunges headlong to the abyss. My dear sir, that is all I see when I contemplate your world of "democracy". If that is what your political system decrees, then I would say that anarchy or monarchy is more tenable than that."

At this, Nietzsche came into the conversation. "You foolish woman! Your stupid romanticism has blinded you to the reality of the world. My friend Robespierre is quite right. The only way to effectively rule is to rule with an iron fist. Any appeal to the base instincts of "love" or "tenderness" is to be already defeated by your enemies before you have even begun the fight. And do not get me wrong, it is always a fight. Either you are a slave or you are a master. There is no other way around it. Robespierre's only weakness was that he still tentatively held to the old morality by holding to such stupid claims as liberty, equality, and fraternity. There is no such thing. They are the inventions of those who have hoodwinked us into becoming slaves of their morality. If it weren't for the Jews and then the Christians after them, this world would have run just the way it should; as a well-oiled machine, serving to produce the most efficient, lean, and finely honed ubermenschen that could possibly be brought to bear. Now get me another schnapps!"
With Nietzsche's diatribe over, Martin Luther could keep silent no longer. He bellowed, "I have never heard such bullshit since I had to deal with the Diet of Worms! None of you so far have any idea of what you are talking about. Considering Messieur Robespierre's rationalizing of his bloody rampage, or Herr Nietzsche's atheistic animalism, or Miss Shelley's naivete and morose despondency, I would have thought that I had mistakenly slipped in the back door of hell's deepest dungeon. But thankfully I can look around me and see that we are filled with light and fine beverages. Speaking of which, I would very much like another dark lager. Does anyone else feel up to another refill?" At this, they all nodded their heads in agreement, except for Mary Shelley, who soberly drank only water flavored by a lemon slice. Luther chimed back in, "You know, the only real drink is a good German beer! It helps keep a man in touch with the people."

At this, several of his cafe mates asked Luther what his thoughts were concerning the role of a person to authority. He took a long sip of his beer, settled back into his chair and proceeded to say, "I have seen the abuses that can come from secular princes. I have also seen that this evil is present in every human heart. So with this in mind, I hold that the best form of relationship between an individual and his sovereign is for both to be ruled by the law of God. Both should be ruled this way in their personal lives, so that they become convicted of their sin unto salvation, and in the political arena, so that evil conduct is restrained by a common code of unchanging morality. We are corrupt, and we must be constrained by the law to bring us to our knees. But this applies to every man and woman, no matter what their station in life. There is no prince or pauper that is exempt from this incontrovertible law of God. We have all fallen from His perfect standard."

At this, several of the patrons started to squirm in their seats from the discomfiting words emanating from Luther's mouth. Nietzsche said that he wasn't a sinner, since it was a concept that was abhorrent to him in the first place, since it was just a tactic of fear invented by an ancient priestly caste to control and enslave weak-minded people. Shelley said that she didn't like the idea that she wasn't in control, after all, she wanted to highlight the issue of personal responsibility in her novel "Frankenstein", and Luther's ideas seem to negate that idea. Luther responded that the fact that people are sinners in no way absolves them of responsibility, it just means that they cannot effect their own salvation. Shelley allowed for that nuance of meaning, but Nietzsche and Robespierre continued to show contempt to the idea of religion, and of Christianity in particular.

Lastly, Jonathan Swift jumped into the fray. He had been sitting back, just listening to the various viewpoints and finally waited until everyone had spoken their peace. He started, "My friends, I could do this forever. O wait, we are doing this forever! My mistake. As I was saying, this is such good fun. I have been made privy to the deep considerations of some of history's great minds with regards to politics in Messieur Robespierre, to literature in Madame Shelly, to philosophy in Herr Nietzsche. And yet in all of this, I have yet to hear any of your thoughts of what to do for the benefit of those who are in dire straits in a corrupt system of governance, such as those poor souls of whom I wrote about in my "Modest Proposal". What of them? We can talk all day about the ideal system, but if it doesn't take into account the cost in individual human terms, it doesn't mean anything except that you've all gotten to hear yourselves pontificate. Yes, even you Luther! And I know you don't want to be accused of that!" At this, Luther just smirked at Swift and said, "Touche". To be perfectly honest, I don't pretend to know the answer of how we should bring about a proper balance to the governed and those doing the governing. All I knonw is that the poorest tend to get left out, and I would rather see a poorer country that enriches the folks at the bottom then a rich country that impoverishes those same people. But if nothing else, at least I've been given a lot of new material for my next satire. And for that I'm eternally (irony intended) grateful."

At this, Luther and Shelley nodded their heads in approval, but Nietzsche and Robespierre just huffed and took their drinks and decided heaven was too irritable for them and they returned to hell, feeling more at home in the lively discussions that were held there each second Tuesday at three. There they could always offer their final solutions to all of life's problems. Besides, they served better drinks there. The flaming drinks were really hot.

An Old Post of Mine Called Prison


Sitting in a room, there's no window. Which would be better, to have the comforts of home, a chair, a bed, a sink to wash up, a bookshelf with the greats, or a stone cold floor, damp and moldy? I don't know. It's probably better to know the prison you're in. To see it, to know that's what it is. The other is insidious. It makes for illusions. It makes you think that, well, maybe you can get by, you can...survive. Or at least you'll be able to occupy your mind, relax in a confortable chair, get lazy if you want. It wouldn't be so hard.

It would be a hell of a lot worse though.

I'd rather be in a stone cold cell. Then because of the very bareness of the surroundings, it would fortify me. It would give me the anger that I would need to hold up against it. To be able to say no. To be able to clearly identify that which I was in. Can you open the door, and leave that room? Can someone else lock you in? Or are you...are you the guard outside the door, making sure you can't leave? But who knows what's out there? It could be worse. It could be dangerous. It's uncertain.
I mean, there's a way of looking at it that says that you're better off with the hell you know than with the hell you don't know. But if you do that then you've already guaranteed your fate. You've already written your fate. You've already written "the end" without the story ever having begun. And that's not a very nice story. It's not gonna make the charts, not in heaven or hell.
It's a scary thing to make a break, to break out, to go out there and to see what's on the other side of that door. Not knowing, but hoping that maybe it won't overwhelm you; that you'll somehow rise to the occasion. Alway, always the invisible fear... of failure, ridicule? And then that little, bad voice inside you saying, "Ha, see, never should have. I told you. I knew you'd make a fool of yourself."
Yeah, that...that's where the comfortable chair is. That's where he lives. All those great books of great intellectual expression.'s not an easy choice to make. The risks are great either way. The risk of staying in is the very fact that you know you've resigned, given up. Uh...that's...that's's like a dull thud. You see him lying there, then there's no hope. So that in itself is a risk.
The other risk is that you'll fail; that you'll be beaten; that you won't succeed in your aspirations and the goals that you've set for yourself. Whatever kind they are, they could be anything.
Walking out the door. Taking that step. Opening the door...even thinking about opening that door can be a goal. To have that thought; the idea of it. There's something there that you haven't seen, haven't heard, haven't smelled, tasted, touched, or... and yet, and yet you know it's there. Well, we've got to take that risk to make that goal come true. I...I have to take that risk. I have to open that door, not knowing what's on the other side. Hoping... This hope then giving me the strength to do, to at least try. The effort alone is worth the risk because of that, regardless of the outcome, you've already succeeded, already proven your... worth.
You're reconciled. Reconciled with what tough? The conflict? The dichotomy that exists within you? There's definitely two sides of people. There's always that fight; that battle. And there's a side of us that... that is the side of us that is the uncontrollable urge. That side will never give up. It's not gonna lie down and say, "Uh, OK, you won, I've been defeated and I'll crawl away now and never raise my head again." And you're safe. No, no, that's not likely. I mean at least I've never seen that happen yet.
The other side is what? Our self, our higher conscience, our desire to be more. To do right, to be consistent in our actions and thoughts. You know, I don't think this is just an attempt to conform to the social norms, because this motivation exists for people in all worlds, in all frames of reference. No matter what the social norm is, that impulse is there. I don't think it's just cultural pressure on us to try to be consistent; to be more than what we are, which in my view, accurate or not, is base. We're rather slimy creatures at heart. But I'd rather recognize the prison walls as being prison walls than to be lulled into a comfortable coma. That's really what can kill ya, can murder you, and still leave you breathing. That possibility tightens my gut. It twists my insides just enough to give me the impetus to try to do otherwise.
So for me, I sit on the floor. I open the door. I walk to the store. I work. I learn to be responsible. I learn diversity. I learn those all important social skills of interaction. I learn pain. And it's a better pain than the one inside of me. It's a pain that comes from experience which teaches you a lot better than those deep, personal pains; that when focused on exclusively, can only cause more pain instead of healing. Those pains of experience, from diverstiy, from interaction, from those all important social skills, and the haphazard way we tend to learn them give us the opportunity to try again and maybe this time it'll come out a little better. And in comparison to that void; that empty space that is inside of that room... that experience, that diverstiy is already infinitely better and can give you the freedom that your soul cries for.
I wrote this many years ago. Originally it was a recording that I transcribed from a tape recording I made. I wrote it out as I heard it. That's why it has that stream of consciousness feel to it. While it definitely reflected my place in my thinking at that time, I still believe it reflects where I'm at in my view of the human condition. Let me know what y'all think.

Irenicum (introspective me that I am)

Saturday, February 23, 2013


April 7, 1986

I awoke that morning ready to be at work, hoping that my attendance would forestall the inevitable. The electricity had been off for some time. Thankfully the wind-up alarm clock was able to work that morning. It was cold. All the utilities had been turned off. I wasn't able to get clean. Honestly, I don't recall whether the alarm rang that morning. All I know is that I was keyed up to be at work. It wasn't as if I had to have the alarm clock working anyway. The night was cold. It was dark. I awoke knowing I had to provide. I walked to the donut shop for the early morning crowd knowing that it might be my last day. I arrived just before five AM. I washed the dishes, I cleaned the toilets, I swepted the floors. By late morning the inevitable happened. My boss, who was disheartened by what he had to say to me, told me that I was fired. I couldn't do the job. He was stuck. He needed someone who could be responsible, who could do what he needed in the time allotted. He gave me my salary for what I was supposed to do. He was generous. As strange as it may seem, I felt sad for him. He wanted to help me out. He hired me initially, I think, in a desire to help me out. I remember that day explicitly. My mother and I were arguing intensely; and I decided to leave her side and walk over to the donut shop that was hiring. Amazingly enough, I was hired by the owner (maybe it was my emotional adrenaline). I worked there two whole weeks, my first real job. But he couldn't keep me on as a charity case. He ran a business. Eventually he needed to let me go. It was that morning. That morning of April 7th, 1986; that morning that we were evicted. It was the same morning that I was to be fired from my first job. It was the morning that I was to develop bronchitis. It was the morning that I was to experience homelessness. It's amazing how God can work in the midst of several different circumstances at once.
At the time, I was struck by the desperation of our situation. We called relatives in several states. Nothing prevailed. We had burned the bridges that had previously existed in our family situations. This was the end. We were left to our own ends. That Monday morning will always be inscribed in my mind. The early morning written by actions of putting a stuffed animal in my brown leather jacket (Tim, whom I still have, thankfully), a consideration of a few key items that my mother had set aside in a shopping cart that became quickly our only claim to worldly possessions. Those first few hours consisted of considering the possibility of desperate phone calls answering our most immediate needs.
The next three days consisted of realizing that we had exhausted our resources, especially those of my mother's family.

In the days to come, we were to realize that the family we were seeking (or who actually sought after us) consisted of those who acted in concert with Christ's commandments, and not with those that merely consisted with our immediate conceptions. That Thursday will always be foundational to my life. That group, which will always be known as the "gang of four", showed up in my life on that Thursday.

It's late and I'll write the next chapter next...

Some Myths Are True

I've been reading a lot lately about myths of various sorts. Mostly they have been about our self identity as Americans, and in particular, Christian Americans. Last month I read Greg Boyd's, "The Myth of a Christian Nation", put out by Zondervan (there's something deeply ironic about that). Reading Boyd's book led me to another, even better, book, called "Myths Americans Live By", by Richard Hughes. What I like about Hughes' book is its fair appraisal of both the promises and the perils of the various American myths. He considers the myths of America as: the Christian Nation, the Millenial Nation, Nature's Nation, and its expression through Manifest Destiny, and the mythic qualities of American Capitalism. In each of these, he allows that they have a core that can be expressed and enacted in noble ways, yet acknowledges that each of them, especially expressed through Manifest Destiny and the Gilded Age of early capitalism, saw great misery and awful crimes committed, all in the name of "progress". The only myth he sees no redeeming quality existing in, is the one he (and others) called the myth of the Innocent Nation. This myth is inherently destructive, since it is borne out of a self delusional self conception that inevitably sees the world in starkly black and white, us versus them, we wear the white hats and anyone against us of course wears the black hats. Aside from an overly confident belief in the American Creed (boiled down to "We hold these truths..."), Hughes' analysis is quite good.

It also has sparked an interest on my part in understanding better what it is about myth that so shapes our understanding of ourselves, others, our past, and even our future. It seems we cannot live without some sort of myth. Of course in using the term myth, I'm using it not in the sense of an untrue story, such as we understand when we describe something as an "urban myth". Instead, I mean the term in its more basic sense, which is that of being a story that gives meaning to the world, both in how it began, what it's end/purpose is, and what best describes our interaction with it. In that sense then, some myth is more true than other myth. As Tolkien told CS Lewis late one Sunday evening in 1931 when Lewis held on to the notion that myth automatically meant untrue, and therefore he could not accept the idea of a resurrecting God, since it was seen in so many other religions, Tolkien said, "Some myths are true. They describe reality." That's what I'm after. Good myths then are healthy, since they afford us a better picture of the world we live in, and allow us to more accurately interact with that world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Take Up Your AK47 and Follow Me: Jesus Versus the Politics of Violence

Earlier this evening I posted on Facebook an article about a stupid politician who argued that owning a gun was essential to his Christian life. Aside from the fact that he seems to have confused the second amendment with the second commandment he has in fact broken the second commandment against idolatry by elevating the second amendment to the place of scripture and even to be worshiped as a god.

But what does scripture say about weapons? Obviously in the ancient near east the weaponry at hand was rudimentary at best compared to what we have nowadays. Bows and arrows, spears, swords, stones, and at the most advanced level horses and chariots. Now, of course, we have weaponry that was completely unimaginable to the ancients; guns, tanks, bombs, missiles, energy weapons, and more even exotic to us moderns and post-moderns.

But aside from these technological differences which seem so wide, so incredibly divorced from each other, there is a deeper similarity of purpose, a similarity of intent. And the many writers of scripture seem to have gotten that point. Whether we're witnessing the primordial murder of brother against brother at the earliest stages of human history in the bronze age or the massed troops of a Pharoah's army or the besieging troops of Babylon descending upon Jerusalem, we see God commanding his people not to rely upon the arms of men. In fact we're constantly reminded of how fruitless it is to rely on the "arm" or "horn" (symbols of military might) of any people in contrast to relying upon God as their strength in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

And finally we see the epitome of this in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preaching rabbi from the outskirts of a vast empire built on weaponry and violence which brought about the so-called Pax Romana. But Jesus spoke of a peace which was not built from any physical sword, but a sword which cut much deeper than any flesh and bone. He certainly spoke of violence, but it was a violence of the spirit, a violence which would divide family member from family member. It was the violence of a tongue which spoke truth into lies, cutting asunder flesh and spirit so that the deepest parts of a person would be exposed to the light of day.