Things I Believe; Things I Wish For..

(from the 2006 firstmorning newsletter)

Things I believe..(you can quote me!):

  1. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance. It only becomes bad if you build a fort around it to defend it against new information.

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1938 Book Burning in Germany

  1. If we didn’t know we were going to die, there would be no reasons to paint pictures or compose music.

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Cave drawing-France, Mexican String Art, Painting by Toulouse LaTrec

  1. The worst moment in Christian history was the day, in 325, that the Emperor Constantine marched his army through a river, pronounced the men baptized, and declared the Roman Empire to heretofore be the Holy Roman Empire. On that day, Christianity ceased being a movement and became an institution.

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  1. The Bible is not a god. It is a collection of documents inspired by human interactions with God. It is the best place to learn about God, but not the only place. Wherever there are birds and wildflowers- those are excellent places for doing that, too.

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  1. Anything that is done to intentionally hurt a child is evil.

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abandoned- Honduras; propagandized- Libya; overfed- United States

Things I wish:

  1. I wish Bill Watterson was still doing “Calvin and Hobbes.”

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  1. I wish Oxfam America, Doctors Without Borders, and Kairos Prison Ministry could have the money that is flushed down the toilet every time a check is written to a televangelist.

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www.oxfamamerica.org www.doctorswithoutborders.org http://www.kairosprisonministry.org

  1. I wish the world wasn’t being homogenized into the image of an American suburb.

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Krakow, Poland London, England Kyoto, Japan

  1. I wish there was a really good home for every single dog.

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  1. I wish Europe and the United States were willing to clean up the three centuries worth of mess they made in Africa.

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Refugees in Darfur, Sudan..the world is too busy elsewhere..

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God, Sex, Goliath, and Other Scary Things..

What’s wrong? Here’s the answer:

(These thoughts are complicatedly interrelated as most of the thoughts in all of our minds are. I admire deeply, though, those persons that are able to simplify in ways that I can’t. Bear with me. I promise some new ideas here that will affect the way some of you see the world from this point on. Really!)

Families, Bands, and Tribes

Our species evolved and spent most its communal history in bands of families and tribes of bands. Families bonded together for security and diversification of the gene pool, and crossed the difficult barriers of geography and suspicion to become bands. The people who lived on that side of the mountain needed to get at animals on the other side of the mountain and- “oh, by the way, while we’re over there hunting can we procreate with your people?”

(Trying my best to simplify- I trust you understand. This is cultural anthropology in the smallest nutshell it’s ever been crammed into.)

The bands became tribes. Not overnight and not automatically, but as populations increased and as climate changes (like ice melt), geographical episodes (like volcanoes), and animal migrations or extinctions occurred, the advantages of cooperation over competition were hard to ignore! Now, Americans, think Ojibway, Dakotah, Chipppewa, or Apache. Those are tribes– they lived in districts, many lived in smaller bands, they spread out over a geography, and sometimes at peace and sometimes at struggle with adjacent tribes. What united them was the geography, the resources they learned to share (Apaches and the earliest horses, for instance), language, and shared DNA. A member of a tribe knew they could move from valley to valley without harm, because that was tribal land. They also knew they might have problems on the other side of the valley, over the mountain, because that was the land of another tribe.

Stories

Stories evolve among any group of people over time and every tribe on earth was abundant with them. Stories informed those who heard them how to think, how to act, and what the tribe determined was important to know. The shared knowledge of tribes through the telling of stories is why we as humans are still vital (too vital from other species’ viewpoints!). The Dakotah had stories about the Cold and Buffalo, the Aleutians had stories about shifting ice and Walruses (is more than one Walrus, Walri?), the Aztec had stories Warm Seas and Fish, etc, etc, etc.

These stories were how children learned. They weren’t “made up” stories. They were truths that had been observed, or thought about; conclusions about the world around them were made, and those thoughts and conclusions were made memorable and interesting through stories. The stories contained the most current truths available.

Now, here’s the part that has everything to do with today: One way to make sure children in a tribe knew their place, understood their role, and knew to never go over that mountain was through fear. Fear works. Has, does, and will. It’s no accident that the purveyor of bad tidings in the Garden of Eden was a Serpent (hissss!) rather than a cow or a chicken (yum!). Nor, continuing with the familiar stories of the Hebrew tribe, was it surprising that the awful, horrible, sneaky Philistines had a secret weapon (Goliath) or that the loose-living, oft-married Samaritans were trash. Both were good reasons to keep the kids who were feeling their wild oats blooming, at home, where having no other gods before YHWH was much more manageable.

More To Come

OK, I’m going to continue with this tomorrow, and I will deal with these two ideas:

1. Humans lived in tribes a long, long, long time- longer than any of us have the ability to imagine. Ideas and concepts are as deeply a part of us as our physical structure or repertoire of emotions are, and as our abilities to stand erect and run evolved, so did our need for stories and the structure with which they were told. Stories are in us. We need them.

2. We live in a time, however, when we do not need to be afraid, out of ignorance, of the people who live on the other side of the mountain. Our tribe is global now. The separations no longer keep us alive by insuring our safety. The separations now, exacerbated by fools, are going to kill us. Our stories must be re-written.

Was Blind, But Now I See..Part I

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. (Blindness, Jose Saramago, pg. 326)

Luke 4:16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

I once was lost, but now am found..was blind, but now I see.. (“Amazing Grace,” John Newton)

I’m not anticipating with any glee whatsoever, what I am about to begin writing. Most of what I write (or think, or preach, or eat, or do) is motivated by Want– I want to write about nature; I want to eat mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy; I want to go to South Padre Island next week. And I will do, because I want to, all of those things.

But, kind of like the occasional serving of greens peas that I eat at a dinner party so I do not appear to be rude, there also those things which I, or any of us, must do. These personal essays about being blind are, therefore, motivated by Must, rather than Want.

(There are few things I find more repulsive to eat than green peas. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know why. You’ve got an illogical, indefinable revulsion about some food, too- I know you do. So I know you know something of the feeling I’m talking about. I put the peas in my mouth, try to keep my tongue from touching them, dare not chew [!], then swallow quickly, and hope I don’t obviously gag.)

After reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness several weeks ago, enough of a new vocabulary permeated the boundaries of my thinking, that previously unformed groups of thoughts, ideas, and even dreads began to coalesce into what has become, for me, a new coherence. Vague feelings of confusion and concern which have a way, when they are inexpressible, of descending (personally, anyway) into anger or depression, seem to be backlit now; I have been able to begin to think about them in new ways, shadowy as they might still be.

I was emerging, with a language, from a very real blindness which had been caused in large measure, by an inadequacy of words with which to communicate, to myself or anyone else. But it was not a good feeling: it was flat-out alarming! I had gotten used to living with a mild, unfocussed alarm over “what it is I do not know specifically.” But vague shapes and washed-out colors have now begun to gel and brighten; I can see them well enough to feel the need (I apologize ahead of time) to shout them.

This entry serves as a warning then: future entries will begin with this same title but be followed by a specific word. You will see words like Life, Death, Religion, Time, Science, Technology, Politics, and Evil following “Was blind, but now I see..” My point in telling you this is that you may not want to see, or you may be highly interested in the particular word of the day, but not want to read about what I am seeing. So be it. Skip that day’s essay, or all of them. My personal therapy is to write, and plant seeds of curiosity and thought in doing so. Some of those seeds will blow away, some will be eaten by birds, some will be washed downstream, but some might take root and grow.

And I think some of them, all of them eventually, must. And soon. We have lived under a veil- luckily, some of us- for so very long that it feels comfortable in the darkness. The air might be stuffy, we may rarely be able to discern real Light, but having gotten used to such things, we don’t even notice we are breathing harder and struggling to see with less and less success.

I think we’ve been blind; I know I have been blind, much of my life, to much of what I have only begun to see, to look at critically, and then to observe contemplatively. While we’ve been blind, others have been dying and suffering en masse because of the majority’s inability to see.

I know I’m not alone in my “shouting.” I am simply one more in a long long line of known and unknown men and women throughout the ages who could not stop seeing, once they had begun. I also hope there are many millions more that will transcend my voice and vision with greater eloquence, insight, and urgency.

Tomorrow’s word: Hope

Can We Survive this Century?

Well, I know I won’t. I’m 58, it’s 2008, you do the math. But this is a larger, vital, and very (very!) important question which concerns us humans, and untold other species of plants and animals that have arisen through time from the starstuff of earth:

Can we survive this century? Will the year 2100 be noted, observed, or recorded by anyone?

The question will be the subject of an ABC special this coming September- Earth 2100. Scientists from various disciplines will gather together to discuss what might happen, and when, if current population growth and resource consumption continues unabated.

Last summer, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman was published. Weisman interviewed biologists, engineers, geologists, and meteorologists about changes that would occur if, for whatever reason, humans were no longer part of the planetary equation. The result is both fascinating and disturbing- if you’re a human, of course. For most other species*, the possibility of our sudden absence would (if any of them noticed) be the greatest day in the last 1.7 million years!

The deterioration of buildings and infrastructure would begin within days. A Scientific American video- The Earth Without Us, based on Weisman’s book- is an interesting introduction to the phenomena of urbanscapes turning into landscapes. Intriguingly, one of the last recognizable humanly concocted “structures” to exist would be Mount Rushmore.** Four million years from now, barring any direct asteroid hits, George, Abe, Tom, and Teddy will still be staring out through granite eyes, into the Black Hills surrounding them. (Where there once lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon, somewhere there.)

The immediate disappearance of all humans is almost impossible, outside of a cataclysmic planetary event, like a massive asteroid, or a physics experiment gone terribly wrong. But there are numerous possibilities for the gradual but total absence of humans. Chief among them would be a virus, or a new strain of bacteria. Other possibilities- very real ones- would be nuclear fallout after a large scale war, meteorological changes, a series of smaller asteroid hits, or a depletion of resources a la Easter Island, on a global scale. And if anyone thinks that humans are not stupid enough to let the latter happen, keep driving your SUV, or allowing agri-businesses to patent the world’s food supplies, or burning anything we can put a match to.

What will be lost, if humans are? The ability to record what is happening in the world and the universe, great art (paintings will turn to mold), and the inability to warn other species that may evolve into beings that “need” styrofoam about our short-sighted and continuous mistakes.

What would be gained? Consider the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air..

*Animals that are dependent on humans, of course, would not find such an event very fortunate.Most pets would soon die of starvation, as would all zoo animals which were unable to escape. Cattle, most breeds of which have had all speed and most wildness bred out of them, would be the victims of canines- wolves, coyotes, dingoes, and dogs- which would flourish, and some felines, which would make a gradual comeback as well. Pigs, if they could escape their confines, do fairly well, fairly quickly in the wild. Interestingly, roaches living outside of their native tropical environs, would disappear after a year or two of no heated buildings. Mice and rats in former urban areas would also disappear as food supplies dwindled and as raptors- hawks, eagles, and others- began making high rise buildings into dream aviaries.

**Also interestingly, the last artificially lighted city on earth, because of the nearness and automated systems of Hoover Dam’s electrical production, would be..ta-da!..Las Vegas!

The Earth Without Us

Creationism- Stupiding Down the Bible

“Fossils are rather boring, because they’re piles of dead things.” (tour guide, BC Tours, leading a group of children through the Denver Natural History Museum.)

“BC,” in this case, as the children on the tour are forced to acknowledge- twice- stands for “Biblically Correct.” Working from a 6000 year old model of the earth’s age, these tour guides must cram scientifically verifiable facts about the earth’s formation and the evolution of life on the planet, into a space the size of their own brains. They ignore, for instance, a whole exhibit which explains the procedures and accuracy of radiometric carbon-dating, in favor of telling the children that the crafted depictions of dinosaurs and other animals which existed more than 6000 years ago are mere “artwork.” (Kind of like those pictures in their “Children’s Illustrated Bibles?”)

They drill the students to respond to evolutionist’s explanations of biology with the question “How do you know?” They do so in a mocking way, hoping- I guess- that those of whom the question is asked will be as stupid as they are about the “facts” they are presenting. I’m not using the adjective “stupid” loosely in connection with them, either. Watch their response to the interviewer’s questions about how many generations of humans with 800 year old life spans could fit into a 6000 year model. Ok..it may not be stupidity. I apologize for that. It could be flat-out lying.

It is beyond me why Creationists must make God fit into their own imaginations. And it is far, far beyond me why parents would hand their children over to adults who must take a jackhammer and cutting torch to God’s Creation in order to make sense of it. To me, it is like dynamiting the Sistine Chapel because it is impossible to take in all of Michelangelo’s masterpieces there at once. Or believing that France is not on the other side of the Atlantic ocean because you can’t see it from any shore in North America! (“How do you know?”)

The biblical account of Creation is not invalid; it is the best explanation available and understandable to persons of the Bronze Age about the origins of the universe. Telescopes, microscopes, the language of mathematics, and radiometric carbon-dating technologies have led to more elaborate and precise descriptions of those origins. In 4000 more years, there will be even more precise and calibrated methods of measurement available, too (if we don’t blow our own existence here away by continuing to believe God created the earth as a bottomless well of goodies for humans to luxuriate in).

Those, or any, new explanatory elaborations of geology, biology, physics, and astronomy will not invalidate today’s best observations. They will have been built upon them, exactly as the things we know today were built upon the ancient observations of genuinely curious and capable persons asking “why?” and “how?” Einstein will always have a revered place in the study of physics in general, and gravity in particular, just as the cave artists of Lascoux, France- 30,000 years ago- left behind a record of their observations which is still a valid part of present day biological studies.

To fear science because it might lead someone away from God is a genuine concern if one believes God must be able to be explained and understood by human minds. Personally, my understanding and appreciation and fascination with God expands with every snapshot taken from the Hubble telescope. Every time I bend over to pick up a 100 million year old ammonite fossil (of which there are millions in this area of Texas), I am struck again by the magnificence of, and my own ignorance of, God’s continuing, creating methodologies.

The Bible should be regarded as wonderful and intriguing words about God. When we turn it into literal dogma, as interpreted by tour guides who choose to ignore what they can’t understand, then we are insulting both God and future generations of curious children.

Death.. A Finch Takes Flight

When I went out front to get the paper and watch the sunrise this morning, I discovered this:

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It’s a golden finch, frozen in lifelessness on the back of a lawn chair. Sometime yesterday afternoon or evening, it landed there, and died. It was not frozen to the back of the chair; it could have, had it chosen or been able to, gone elsewhere. But here, looking toward a live oak tree and a pile of firewood underneath, is where it landed, went to sleep, and died.

Yesterday, an unusual snowy day in this part of North Texas, was a feeding frenzy for finches in the front and back yards. I spread almost 25 lb. of sunflower seeds out during the day and all of it is gone this morning. The finches were joined by several cardinals in their hunger and inability to get at their usual fares of wild grass and thistle seeds, and the occasional mockingbird stopped by, too, though they prefer their meals warm and wiggly.

This is the first time I’ve seen a finch, or any bird, die this way. Had it been warmer, it may have landed, died, but then fallen to the ground in the grasp of gravity. But here, frozen in place, this one remains, eyes still open, stiff and posed in the posture of sleep.

I’m thinking, as I looked closely at it this morning: “What a great way to go!” I have no idea about the consciousness of death which a bird, or any animal, might have. I think we humans make the mistake of assuming that all animals besides ourselves go through their lives in a dull litany of pre-programmed instinctual behaviors that they have no control over, on their way to a death of which they are utterly unaware. Those assumptions, of course, are born in the prevailing human attitude that the universe, from microbes to galaxies, is a mechanistic, unthinking set of interrelated parts, adding up to a whole for the benefit of humans. Our own instinctual behaviors, in that worldview, are “negligible” in light of our “superior” abilities to evaluate, rationalize, and choose.

But I think, without a shred of scientific or spiritual data to back me up, that finches know a lot more about what they’re doing than we may have the calibrated instruments or divine revelations to even begin to understand. They certainly do not process, share, or make as many choices within that finch knowledge as our brains enable us to make. But their brains, like ours, have adequately developed for their needs now, in this particular epoch of relational life on earth. After all, this is the fourth spring in a row where some finches- not all of them!- have chosen to stop for awhile on their way north from Mexico, in this backyard, in this little town, on this little acre among the kabillion others in North Texas. Grandma and Grandpa finch must have had some information which they somehow passed along!?

And while finches may not have the ability to reflect on their own consciousness, they probably don’t spend an ink dot of time reflecting on the finitude of their lives either. Certainly, they do not live their lives in the obsessive dread of death that many of us do. Still, though, this finch chose to stay perched, on this chair, and wait in a way that it had never waited before. Without a single step to the left or right, it landed, sat still, slept, and died.

What did the finch know and when did it know?

What finch memories began to fade as the hours (or minutes) passed?

Is there a place within its flock that today is noticed by its absence?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I will come back to them for days. Join me in that speculation, if you’d like. Take a look once more at the pictures of that finch. In very real ways, I believe, it has taken flight once more.

And is flying around us all, right now.

Why I Think Religion Is A Bad Bad Thing..

Two news items today form an envelope around the many, many reasons why religion should be scoffed at, run from, and seen for the parasitic phenomenon that is:

Priests brawl at Bethlehem. Read it; Armenian and Greek Orthodox were swinging mop handles and fists at each other yesterday, over whose ladder was resting on whose part of the Bethlehem stable floor.

When my brother and I were kids, in the back seat of Dad’s ’53 Chevy, we would fight over exactly the same thing: Space. We’d draw imaginary lines down the middle of the seat then we’d each push on that imaginary line by leaning toward it, edging comic books to the edge of it, or intentionally putting a knuckle’s-worth of finger on the other side of it.

“Mommy, Denny’s not staying on his side!”

“Daddy, make Dave stop!”

Later on, at some point in the post-toddler, pre-pubescent years, we stopped that particular type of spatial competition. Apparently, there are priests who have never been out of the back seat. They like it there so much, in fact, that they won’t even give up their seats to Jesus.

Benizir Bhutto killed in attack. Even Allah is not allowed to be powerful enough to fight Islamic factionalism. Muhammed (blessed be his name, as I spit on the ego-driven doctrines of some of his so-called followers) unified the various warring tribes of Arabia. But then, just as happened with the Jesus movement, the institutionalists moved in and a religion developed to protect, preserve, and defend the rules and regulations that his early followers devised to protect, preserve, and defend their positions of power.

Now, one of the symbolic personages of Muhammed’s original intentions of unification has been killed by one who was more comfortable following human egos in the name of his religion, than he was in following Allah or the prophet.

There are many more such stories in the naked city of rotten religious relics: like this, this, and this.

As a follower of Jesus, and as one who respects the genuine unifying motivations of Muhammed, the Buddha, and other spiritual leaders, I’m not left with much choice: I must do what I can to eradicate forever the imaginary lines drawn by self-centered children riding in the back seat of the Planet.

If we’re not successful doing that- you and me, and soon- then we are bound for a stupefying crash.