Christ Knew There Was More to the Story

The mercy of the Father is infinite. We know this. But WHY is it infinite? Why does it exist at all?

No, I do not claim to know the mind of God. But I do know that people have reasons for doing things. People may reasonably disagree about those reasons, but it seems that all action is undertaken because of . . . something. That thing can range from fending off starvation to seeking shelter from something harmful to wanting something to happen. The cause could also be nothing more than a desire to be entertained, occupied, or otherwise distracted from a present circumstance.

God knows this, and so should you. When the Roman soldiers arrested Jesus in the Garden, he forgave them. When Peter cut off the ear of one of the aggressors, Jesus forgave Peter. Jesus forgives. He understood that the soldiers did what they believed they should have done, and he understood that Peter did what he felt he had to do. The Lord instructed us to turn the other cheek not out of masochism, but out of understanding. Understand the other, see things as they do. Do not retaliate. Perhaps the thing has been done out of pure cruelty, perhaps not. It is even quite possible that the person does not want forgiveness at all, believing that either he or she has done nothing wrong, or that the wrong was somehow justified. We will most likely never understand the full, true motivation of an action, but we can make an effort to do so.

God, on the other hand, does in fact know the whole story. He knows what we have been through, and he understands why we do the things we choose to do. Jesus went so far as to ask his Father to forgive people who did not even ask for it, people who "knew not what they did." Think about that! It is a hard, hard thing to do. In my own life, I am about the furthest from being persecuted as a person could be, as far as I am aware. And yet . . . I struggle with harboring ill will towards a perceived slight. I know I should not, I know people did things they felt they had to do. I know that I am largely at fault for what led to the thing, by not trying harder to either handle or escape a difficult set of circumstances.

Do I focus on mea culpa though? Or do I instead choose to look at what they could have or should have done differently? Most of the time, it's the former, but occasionally the latter creeps in. The fact is, everyone should have acted differently than we did, and it is up to me to make my peace and forgive, even though no one is asking for it. Easier said than done, this business of forgiving; Jesus is indeed an impossible act to follow.

The main takeaway, for me, is that of all the reasons to do something to another person, the fact that they first did something to you is not acceptable. Do not strike someone simply because they struck you. Do not help someone simply because they helped you. Do not hate someone, or even love someone, simply because they first hated or loved you. Hate no one, love everyone. I believe the purpose of this instruction is to instill personal responsibility for one's actions, rather than making them dependent upon the actions of another. It leads us, as does so much of what God teaches and provides, on an expansive path to empowerment and freedom. If we can actually do it, then we can break the chains of limiting, self-destructive tendencies like revenge and retaliation. It is daunting when we are down here in the weeds, rather than in Heaven with our Father. But Christ was down here with us, and his trust in God that there is more to this story than being tortured and murdered is what enabled him to live that brief earthly existence walking among us. He understood that, yes, he himself would suffer. But the gift he gave us through that suffering and ensuing forgiveness would save billions of people, which is the REAL story.

Doing Something New This Year

Reflecting on 2018 was a tale of two selves for me. The husband/father, and the rest, i.e. the self. From the perspectives of my “kids” (I place the term in quotes because one just wrapped up her first semester of college and the other is one semester away from following her out the door of our home), it was an amazing year. And, not to brag or boast, but I am proud of the role I played in their years. My son confidently proclaimed it his “most productive year ever,” and I cannot argue with that assessment. The things they did, and my wife as well, would fill pages, and I could not be more proud!

I, on the other hand, cannot claim the same level of accomplishment. I did all that I could to support the three of them, and I do share in their achievements. I have no doubt that they would have done much or all of what they did with or without me, but there is great joy in making the paths of others a little smoother, a little clearer. Plenty of attaboys, attagirls, emotional support, encouragement that frequently dipped well into more philosophical waters, keeping the lows from getting too low and the highs from getting too high. Getting them to think about things from different perspectives, more broadly or more granular, varying the time horizons of the implications of their choices and decisions, realizing that their losses are sometimes others’ wins and reminding them that it can feel really good to be happy for others, that sort of thing. But as for me personally, while listening to John Lennon ask “so this is Christmas, what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun,” I found myself wanting. Indeed, what HAD I done? Not much. Being there for others is essential, make no mistake. But one cannot live solely for others any more than he can live solely for himself. Not for any sustainable length of time, anyway.

To be sure, I had plenty of things that I did FOR myself. No one would ever accuse me of not taking enough time for myself, far from it! But I just did not make the most of all that self time. I read a lot, watched a lot, listened to a lot. I suppose I learned a lot, but only in the sense of knowing more stuff. The problem is that I did not do much with what I learned, and I don’t feel like I learned a new “thing,” a new skill. I wrote some, got into some entertaining Twitter fights back in the spring and summer before unfollowing the political content and miraculously finding myself a gentler, less angry human. So the “unfollow” capability is definitely a new arrow in my self-preservation quiver, now that I think about it. And, all rage and frustration aside, the realization of how pointless the whole political process and ensuing media coverage from both sides are was truly eye-opening, and I could not have gotten to it without the full immersion I employed from around February through, say, August.

A new camera, microphone, software, and LOTS of Youtube (again, something I had not previously explored, beyond looking up a specific viral video every now and then) led to attempts at photo and video editing. I did not stick with it long enough to consider video production a learned or even a developing skill, but it is too early to declare that I will never acquire those talents. Photo, video, and audio are areas that have always held my interest, and I will continue to attempt to produce works that I would actually share with strangers with an expectation that someone may actually enjoy them or find them useful in some way. But that’s a long way off, and not something I’m focused on as I sit here at the beginning of 2019.

What, then, is there? There is this: a banjo. I returned a gadget I had asked for and received (a Google Home Hub, if you must know), and ordered an inexpensive starter model of banjo in its stead. This required more reading, watching, and listening, but now, there was an actual purpose: the learning of the types of banjo and the styles of playing, and the gaining of sufficient knowledge to make a reasonably informed decision on which banjo, as well as the right finger and thumb picks, to buy. Just the act of choosing to return yet another device for consumption in exchange for a thing to learn how to play is a major victory; in fact, I will go so far as to proclaim the year 2019 off to a rousing start, especially when coupled with the annual swearing off of added sugar in favor of more plants in my diet.

Two days (ok, a day and a half) into THAT effort, I already feel shockingly good compared to my normal state. That is likely the main reason I took the time to sit down and produce the words for this post. I know what to expect regarding my embrace of green and forsaking of sugar, because this isn’t my first rodeo: after the initial euphoria, in which my body is living off of plenty of stored badness while the formerly impenetrable fog of mind and body begins to clear, I will experience some exceedingly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. And I will get through them with nothing more than a Tylenol or two, as they will be short-lived. Then, after rapid weight loss for a few more days and continuing overall well-being, I will come to a crossroads. Perhaps next week, maybe later. It will seem too easy, the progress will slow, and I will grow bored. It will be tempting to conclude, once again, that yes, the plant-based thing really does work, but what’s the harm in having that pancake with 100% maple syrup (or cookie, or ice cream, or burger, or Italian anything) on this special occasion (whatever that occasion may be)? But THIS time, I will grab my banjo, fire up a “how to play such and such on the banjo” video for one of my favorite songs, push through the doldrums and continue on to still greener pastures (as I continue my 2019 plant-based, banjo-infused diet while not being inhumane to any sentient animal for purposes of yummier-tasting food when so many amazing plant options are available with just a bit more effort and cost), because I stuck with it once before and want that feeling again. 2018 left me somewhat empty and unfulfilled, but 2019 is going to be something special. It already is!

The Latin Emperor Who Wrote His Masterpiece in Greek

The student becomes the teacher, and the teacher the student. It is so utterly rewarding to plant a seed, then enjoy the fruits of it years down the road!

Five and half years ago, a family decision was unanimously agreed upon regarding the education of our son. He would leave the public school system, where his older sister happily remained, and enter a Catholic all boys school for seventh grade. Then, if all went as hoped, he would continue on through his high school graduation. There were a number of good reasons for this, one of which was the attainment of a more classical education that delved deeply into the foundations of Western Civilization. In order to better understand where we are, it is terrifically useful to know where we started, and what transpired in between. It is not enough to learn that “Texas” began with the Alamo and 180 brave Americans, or that America commenced in July 1776. There is more to the story. Much more.

Over the next few years, he would become steeped in Latin and religion, along with the standard school subjects. All students followed the same rigorous curriculum. After some years of Latin, they would choose to concentrate on either Spanish or French, and he chose French, just like his old man before him. But for his junior year elective, a precious commodity that each student is allowed one per semester, he chose yet again to study a language, and this time it was Ancient Greek. For both semesters. The language instructors at the school are truly amazing, and the Cistercian monk who taught the Ancient Greek elective to my son and one other brave soul was no exception.

With all of this as the backdrop, fast forward to a conversation between my son and me a few days ago. One of us had brought up the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, noted Roman emperor from around 160 to 180AD. I believe I made some reference to it, wondering if they had gone over any of it back in the days of studying Latin during his first few years at the school, or if he had merely discovered the great Stoic for himself as I eventually had (although my discovery did not occur until my mid-late 30’s, and I never took Latin). The boy, or should I say young man, respectfully corrected me. If one can even consider it as such; looking back, it was more of a pointing out of something I obviously had not known, rather than a correction. There is a subtle difference, and he has mastered the art of informing without requiring the other party to feel that they were “wrong” in a way that most teens and far too few adults can pull off. Sometimes, one simply does not know a thing, has not learned it, and has formed an assumption based on what he or she actually does know. And that assumption is thus not fully informed, subject to further enlightenment through additional information.

The thing I did not know is that Marcus Aurelius, one of the more magnificent emperors of Rome and a follower of the Stoic path (there were already plenty of Christians in the empire, but Marcus did not count himself as one), wrote not in Latin but in Greek. As, it turns out, the highly educated people of the empire did at that time. As one who has always prided himself on an above-average knowledge of classical and medieval history, that is a fact that had escaped me. I knew the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and eventually translated into Latin. But I had not carried that knowledge over to the composition of the Meditations, and assumed that Roman Emperor = Latin writer. Wrong. Countless books and articles, hundreds and hundreds of hours spent on my own extracurricular education, and here before me stood my 17-year old son pointing out something that I had never known. This is a different sensation than, say, calculus or chemistry, where a thing may have been once learned but then eventually forgotten due to lack of further pursuit or interest. This was a thing that I was passionate about, a passion that had been passed on to my son, for which I had considered it important enough to alter his very educational path to do something different than almost everyone does. Now, at age 48.9, I myself was the benefactor of a tiny sliver of that education. The takeaway from this experience is simply to keep planting those seeds, no matter how old or young one is.

In planning the writing of this piece, I went back and perused some of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in English, as my bedside copy is). Every time I do so, I am dumbfounded by the universality of his thoughts. Here are a few:

Book 5, 16    Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Book 4, 36    Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.

Book 8, 36    Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee:  but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess.

A Great Storyteller Telling A Great Story: Pope Saint John Paul II & His Pal, George Weigel

Pope Saint John Paul II lived an incredible life of faith, hope, and love. We all know how beloved he was, and many of us know he was Polish. A great number also realize the absolutely critical role he played in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, although there were others who received more credit than the Pope. The fact is, it likely would not have happened at all, were it not for John Paul II; if it did, it certainly would not have done so as suddenly as it did. Ironic indeed, as the Soviets themselves were almost certainly behind the assassination attempt on the Pope early in his papacy. They obviously realized the grave threat posed by the unarmed leader with no military at his command. All he had was his unwavering faith in God, his love for all people, and an unyielding hope that history would play out as intended. A hope that, taken at face value, seems almost as absurd today looking back as it did at the time, before the events unfolded.

In my mind, there is none greater at telling this fascinating tale than papal biographer George Weigel. He has written a number of books on Karol Wojtyla, the Pope's given name, and I have read them all (audiobooks, but that still counts - in fact, I contend that the audio versions have a distinct advantage for non-Polish speakers, as the narrators of these books pronounce the names of the people and places in Polish, and one would never guess how those names actually sound merely by looking at letters on a page). I am so familiar with the Polish pronunciations after listening to the works of Weigel that I instinctively hear "Krakov" every time I see "Krakow" in print or on a screen, and I wonder if I were to say it aloud, should I use the "American" or the "Polish" pronunciation? No matter. I am here today to simply extoll the wonder of a beautiful life story as told by a master storyteller who is clearly as in awe of and in love with his subject as one could be. So am I, thanks to Weigel.

The first two treatments of Pope Saint John Paul II by George Weigel were Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. The third, which I am just finishing, is Lessons In Hope, a finely detailed recounting of the process behind the production of the other works. Weigel has gone back through his decades-old copious notes and shares them with us, everything from people and places and dates to the thinking behind why he spoke to specific individuals. Some were helpful, while others tried their best not to be; in the end, all were seen for what they were, even if nothing more than being generous with their time. But insights can be gleaned even by attempts to thwart progress, and Weigel seems to have successfully turned many or most such attempts towards the ultimate goal of producing as deep an understanding of his subject as possible.

The shorter days and colder, darker nights of winter still lay stretched out before us. Times like these, calling into question the values of our leaders and fellow citizens, are when the soul longs for something personal, though it may not be sure exactly what. Perhaps it is the simple wondering of "what can I DO?" Jesus of Nazareth, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is the answer to every question. Sometimes that may not be the answer we would like to have, partially because of how obvious and straightforward it is. Though simple, it is by no means easy, and Jesus came to personally show us that the Way can be unpleasant in human terms. But that is the point. There is more to our existence than just the self-centric side of the equation. If making things more difficult for ourselves leads to making them better for someone else, as Jesus did, we are probably on the right track. Pope Saint John Paul II was an inspiring, compelling, extraordinary embodiment of that kind of selfless, "others first" existence, and there is simply no better guide for a journey through that life than George Weigel.

Altering the Course of History

"Overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice in the world."
       - Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
It doesn't have to be new.  Or better.  Just different.  An interesting retelling of something useful, to an audience that maybe hasn't heard it before.
Maybe they have heard it before, but not in a way that reached them.  I'd like to take a stab at overthrowing the order of ignorance surrounding Bishops of Rome (known to the world as "Popes") and what they did before they became Pope.  I'll pick one for starters, the one about whom I've read the most. 
Pope John Paul II saw the worst of humanity, the fascist Nazis and the Communist Soviets, clamping down on his homeland, his beloved Poland.  Poland has a tremendous Catholic history.  It is one of the most concentrated Catholic nations on earth, while being sandwiched between Protestant Germany and Russia (mostly Russian Orthodox and atheist).
He had an interesting early life, he was athletic, charismatic, loved the stage, very intelligent.  He had options that he could pursue (although the Nazi occupation forced him into hard labor for a few years even though he was never imprisoned).  Being very devout like his widower father who raised him, he spent a lot of time in prayer at home.  Then God chose him for the priesthood, and he accepted.  That's all there was to it.  And the next 60 years, as they say, was history.  THAT is what can happen when you allow God to lead you, when you ask and listen, when you follow the path he lays out, when you accept his invitation.
What did the young Pole leave behind, what did he leave on the table?  Nothing, because those lives, those existences did not, do not, exist.  All that exists is reality, the road taken, NOT the roads left unexplored.
If God told you to do something, you would like to believe that you would oblige his request.  The problem is that we don't know if or what God tells us to do.  There is only one way to know, and that is through prayer.  That is where we could all use some help, with knowing how to pray, then doing it.
Did Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) pray? What about St. Francis?  Mother Teresa?  How about Jesus himself?  These are all people (along with many many others) who, seemingly, were personally instructed by God on the life they were to lead, the path they were to follow.  But it wasn't as simple as that.  They had to pray to be shown the way, then had to recognize and accept the answer.  Theirs were not lives of comfort, of ease, of carefree joy.  Theirs were lives of hardship, suffering, and daily struggle.  But each of them knew what was the thing that they needed to be doing, on direct orders from God.  And none could have ever imagined a life not completely dedicated to the mission that they were given.  So, actually, maybe it WAS as simple as that.

Two "New to Me" Sites to Assist Your Quest for Self-Knowledge and have been popping up more frequently in online meanderings over the past couple of weeks.  Quora is basically a question and answer site, but not in the sense of querying Google or Wolfram Alpha.  It's not a search bar that spits out answers; Quora is to Google is as an essay test is to multiple choice.  The answers returned are ostensibly from "experts," but anyone can pose a question or answer.  Just try to know what you're talking about if you submit an answer, for the sake of the other users.

Goodreads is a place to discuss works you have read, or are reading.  It's got the requisite user-populated bookshelf, where you can add the titles that you have read, are reading, or would like to read.  Like Quora, users can pose a question, or "explore" works, among a group of other readers.  You may be "friends" with someone on the basis of their having read the same book that you are reading, or you may choose not to be friends with anyone.  In any case, the book explorations/discussions can quickly shoot off onto tangents expected or otherwise, with hours or days passing between contributions by others.  It's great!

What struck me about each of these (I believe I stumbled upon from a Quora question somehow, but I'm not entirely certain of that) is the quality of the communities.  There don't seem to be a large number of users yet, although Quora is gaining traction, but those who participate do so with thoughtful effort.  These discussions encourage thought and introspection, which can only advance the attempt to know thyself.

Reaching For Hands That Are Not There

Better never to have met you in my dream than to wake and reach
for hands that are not there.

- Otomo No Yakamochi


Mother Teresa actually conversed with Jesus, according to her.  Not surprising, considering her universally acclaimed saint-like existence.  The problem was, it happened almost 50 years before she died.  She spent the rest of her life after that communication in a desperate, fruitless attempt to be in communion with him again.  Excerpts from her letters convey such utter despair and spiritual emptiness, that one must come away from reading them with the impression that surely she must have ultimately turned her back on the Church, if not on God himself.

She did not, however.  Her unanswered prayers simply led to her searching, grasping, ever more intensely, which made the deafening silence all the more unbearable.  Still, she persevered and carried out the request that was made to her by the voice of Jesus all those decades earlier, a request to take care of the wretchedly poor and sick of Calcutta, which she did until she died.

Where is the happy ending for the saint?  It was not to be found here on earth during her bodily existence.  Like Jesus, her heartfelt questioning of why her father had forsaken her had no effect on her plight.  All she, all they, wanted, was to simply know that their father was with them, that it wasn't all a dream, that the hands were indeed there.  But that was not to be.  Not yet.  And still, their faith endured.


Getting Started With What Matters

How long is "long enough?"

If you were born to do something that you only got to actually "do" for 3 years of your life, would it be worth it?  How about if you were offered the chance to do it for 20 years instead - would that be more worthwhile?

It depends on what that certain something is, obviously, but there are many, many people aged 35-45 who really feel called to do something different with their lives and are always defeated by the thought that it's somehow too late.  It may be something that takes a year or more to prepare for and transition to, and in their well-meaning, pragmatic minds, it simply doesn't make sense to start all over again since they're already 40 years into their lives' journeys and have bills to pay and mouths to feed and future college tuition looming.

Why bother, they may ask, if they only have another 20 years left to travel down that new path?  What could they possibly accomplish in such a fleeting blink of an eye?

I don't know what could be accomplished by a specific called and dedicated human being in a mere 20 years.  But I know that a fireman can save a life in a matter of minutes - don't you think the person that he saved, as well as that person's family and friends, would consider that fireman a success in his career, even if that was the only day he ever worked?  I know that Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the lives of all Americans in less than 20 years.  And I know that Jesus of Nazareth changed the entire world in just 3 years of doing what he was born to do.

20 years is a mighty long time to make a mark on the world and its inhabitants, even if that world is the size of an elementary classroom and the population is 25 9-year olds, and 40 years old is way too young to give up on a dream.




The Problem with Writing

Writing is entirely too dependent on the reader.  You can be the most talented, inspiring, grammatically perfect writer the world has ever produced, but the ability of your written words to convey what you intend to convey is completely subject to the limitations of the reader.  The skills of reading, the gift of empathy, a technical or literary or subject matter-specific vocabulary, the chance that the reader reads the language in which the message has been composed, are all determining factors in whether or not the recipient of the message will fully grasp the words on the page (or the screen, or the slab, or whatever the medium may be) in the intended manner.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus apparently left no writing from his own hand to be handed down through the ages, so that all may know his words directly?  Among the many possibilities:

  • he could not write - ridiculous to even contemplate, but we'll do it anyway
  • he did write, but none of his writings survived - also not worth consideration, in my opinion; anything he would have written down with his own hand for his disciples would have been protected, or at least copied, even if after the fact; instead, we are only left with "Jesus said..." or "Jesus did..." and nothing about "Jesus wrote"
  • he could write, but knew of the limitless limitations of disseminating his word through writing, and chose instead to deliver the message via actions and the spoken word

Unlike writing, speaking is a two-way conduit.  If anything needs clarification, it can be handled on the spot.  And we all know of the importance of the way the words are spoken, the emphasis on certain phrases, the emotions involved, the facial and bodily expressions, and all of the other nuances that are lost when words are left to the hand-guided stylus alone.

Eventually, the teachings and witness of Jesus were written down to the best of certain people's abilities, for preservation as well as efficiency of delivery to as wide an audience as quickly as possible.

That, however, is not how he originally delivered his message to his disciples.  Perhaps he charged them with orally delivering his teachings as he himself delivered them; perhaps not.  And maybe each of them told others as they may have instructed to do, and those others told still others, which could have eventually resulted in a message every bit as confusing and unintended as the presently evolved written word and tradition can seem to be.

When God wants to communicate with us, he does it in a direct way, leaving out the middle man, leaving out the written word, speaking directly to our hearts and any other part of us that is capable of hearing, or showing us exactly what we need to see in order to be able to fully comprehend whatever it is that he needs us to understand.  For many, perhaps the Bible and/or going to church is all that is necessary for sending and guiding us along a perfectly acceptable path, a "good enough" life, an earthly existence which needs no redirection from God as long as the basic rules and regs are observed (especially the one about embracing Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life).  For others, something more, or at least different, would be appreciated.

What might an example of that "something more or different" be?  I have no idea.  As always, I'm all ears.

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident...But Why?

A respected professional acquaintance also happens to be an atheist.  Not of the agnostic persuasion, but of the "religious beliefs are ridiculous superstition" sort.  We see eye to eye on most topics besides this one, and each of us realizes that the other is entitled to his own beliefs.

I stumped him though.  Just once, but it stuck with me.  You see, he is a very rational man, as was Thomas Paine.  Thomas Paine was a "deist," a believer that there was a creator of the universe of some kind (which is more than I can elicit from my acquaintance), but not in God per se, and certainly not in any organized religious belief system.  Paine's greatest work was Rights of Man, which was, among other things, an extremely well-reasoned attack on religion (particularly "revealed" religion:  in a nutshell, though something may well be revealed to someone, anyone else to whom it is not directly revealed is merely subscribing to the revelation in a secondhand, word of mouth exercise that is entirely dependent upon the credibility of the source to which the thing was revealed; we are, in essence, believing in that source, more so than what that source alleged was revealed to him or her).

The deist movement had a great influence on some of the Founding Fathers; hence, although the United States of America was clearly founded as a nation of Christians rather than a Christian nation, it is still somewhat notable (at least to myself) that for all of the references to God in the Declaration of Independence, there is no mention of Jesus Christ.  Which brings me to the point.

One simple question to my friend and to all non-believers who are firmly and patriotically rooted in the tenets of our nation's founding documents and ethos:  if all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who exactly endowed them with such?  And if the clear and correct answer of "their Creator" is rejected by these non-believers, then it should therefore follow (in their minds, not mine) that all men are not, in fact, endowed with these rights.

That is a terrible thought, one which could tear down the entire belief and value system of America and democracies everywhere.  If that is the case, if all men are not endowed by their Creator with something that makes us different from the rest of creation, then we must in fact be no different than the rest of creation, and therefore subject to the same "survival of the fittest" rules and procedures as the rest of the universe (take what you can get, enslave others, enrich yourself - in other words, the same thing that our current exercise of "Extreme Capitalism" is producing).  Clearly, there is something within many of us that rejects that possibility, the possibility that we are no higher than the animals in the scheme of things.  That "something" can be traced back to the Greeks of 400 BC and beyond, as well as to other cultures and eras in human history.  And if that "something" is not God-given, from where does it emanate?

And if you were wondering about the spoils of that great philosophical victory over my atheist friend:  nothing less than the utterance of his heartfelt "good point."

Did You Live, Or Die, in 2009?

1. Did you help someone that really needed it, or get such help from someone else, in a way that each of you will always remember?

2. Did you read a book in 2009?

How many:  1 or 2, 5 or 6?  Fiction or non?  Did you learn anything via the written word?

3. Did you visit a city you've never visited before?

For how many days?  Did you do something or see something new to you while you were there?

4. Did you start work in a different job, or at a different company or location, or take some new classes in 2009?  Did you spend your days with a different group of people than you did in 2008?

5. Did your relationship with anyone living with you noticeably improve?  Or worsen?

6. Did you try or experience something new?  Did you learn anything in a hands-on way?

Was it something you always wanted to try or know?  And even if it wasn't, did you still make the most of it?

In short, did you spend 2009 living, or dying?

Have Your Faith and Rip It Too

"Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood."

- Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., excerpted from a sermon in Atlanta, 1962 (courtesy of

Nice Thing About Sam

"Your blog is refreshing because you're not afraid to just write what you think.  A lot of people might think that some of the stuff you write is kind of...controversial."  That's what Sam told me.

And since he did, I might infer that Sam doesn't agree with all of my viewpoints.  Yet he, somehow, can appreciate the fact that a person has viewpoints, even if he doesn't always agree with them.  That someone is for something, rather than against everything, which Republicans seem to be nowadays.  I think it just illustrates that the out of favor political party always realizes that this is a never-ending struggle between two centers of power, and even when you lose, you can just bide your time until you are once again in power.  And only when in power can a party actually try to ram through whatever it thinks it has the best shot at getting gone.

When out of power, the best a party can do is keep the other party from accomplishing anything.  ANYTHING.  If it's disastrous for the country, then obviously it would be opposed.  And if it's great for the country, then it would be opposed - why would one party do anything to help the other party get re-elected next time around?

Anyway, that was a digression.  The point is, Sam could be a musician, a scientist, a man of God, or whatever he wants to be.  But rather than choose just one to the exclusion of all others, he has chosen all of them at one time or another.  And rather than cling to his personal views or beliefs or values as the only truly valid ones, he recognizes that there are others out there; but then, he goes beyond the point where most would venture:  he actively seeks out the differing perspectives and tries to make sense of them, or at least to understand from where the other idea originates.

I think the best part of conversing with him is that, when you say something he obviously doesn't, or couldn't, agree with, he doesn't argue or debate.  He pauses, then says something like, "that's interesting," and then an actual discussion can ensue, which is so much more enjoyable than debates or arguments!

That's what I call refreshing.

Charity, or Love, in Truth

Pope Benedict authored an encyclical that was published last July and received a lot of attention due to its economic focus.  Encyclicals are issued infrequently; usually 1-2 years apart, sometimes more, sometimes less.

This one calls for a better economic existence for the people of the world.  It does so from a different perspective though:  the view of a Pope, who sees people not as economic units or Catholics or Muslims or Americans or Yemenis or Capitalists or Communists, but as God's creations, all of whom are to be charitably and truthfully loved and treated as equal parts of one whole.

Presently, humanity is a competitive lot.  Many would argue that that competitiveness has been the very thing that has driven us to our current state of development and wealth.  But what about cooperation?  Wouldn't that be an even more productive force?  If we draw a series of concentric circles around us, with ourselves at the center, then our immediate family, best friends, good friends, friendly acquaintances, people we don't know, people in other countries, people with other beliefs or customs, etc. in larger and larger circles that extend further and further outward, we would find that we would go to any lengths to assist those nearest us, and then to lesser and lesser lengths to help those away from us.  Why do this?  Well, in a selfish way, it does help us to have those nearest us in a state of well-being.  But we don't even get to that realization, because we don't think about it.  We just help our spouse, or our child, or our parents, if they need it and if we are able.  Or even if we are pretty much unable.

We don't economize the decision, because they ARE us.  And we are each better off for it.  But where should that stop?  Is the innermost circle the boundary, or is it the next circle out?  Or the next?  Who decides?  We do cut it off at some point, because it is after all a competitive world, and at some point, we would be taken advantage of.  But if the competition were to end, we would have no need for our defensive posture, and would be free to help whomever we could, regardless of how far their circles radiated out from us.

The ultimate reason that we cut it off, however, is because at some point, we stop seeing people in those outer circles as ourselves, as part of one whole, as members of our family, and instead see them as others, competing with us on some level.  It is within our power to choose to see ourselves and our self-interests as secondary to a higher purpose and authority.  We choose not to do this.  And even if we did make that unlikely choice and live our lives accordingly, we would most likely "lose" by all conventional methods of score keeping in this life.  Almost every single one of us is not ok with the prospect of that outcome.  I know I'm not, even though I wish I was.

It tells me something about myself that is hard to come to grips with:  that, given the choice between this world and the next, the demands of this world win out in almost every single case.  And unfortunately, there are probably over 6 billion separate individuals just like me in that regard, instead of a single One with 6 billion parts.

Oh, The Humanities!

If ever a title of a post could make people move along without pausing to read so much as the first sentence, this post's title would be up to the task.  Which is exactly the subject of a lengthy, yet lovingly drawn out essay by Leon R. Kass found in the new quarterly publication, National Affairs.

"Looking for an Honest Man" explores the author's search for truth and meaning (my words, not his; he prefers the term "human being," or better still, "mentsch") through his own exploration of the humanities:  philosophy, religion, and other stuff of the intellectually elite.  But it resonates for a reason, and that reason is that he tried and succeeded at "real life" first.  He went to Harvard, was a molecular biologist, worked for civil rights in Mississippi in 1965, and woke up to the realization that the life well-lived need not include Harvard nor advanced degrees nor the mental snobbery of Boston.  In fact, as Kass would discover, those very things can and do work against real happiness, real living, real life:

"In summer 1966, my closest friend had me read Rousseau's explosive Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, for which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. On the contrary, it necessarily produces luxury, augments inequality, debases tastes, softens character, corrupts morals, and weakens ­patriotism, leading ultimately not to human emancipation but to human servitude."

Rousseau's work is near the top of my list, but I've first got to finish Thomas Paine's Rights of Man while barely having waded into Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (which Kass admirably expounds upon for a few meaty paragraphs, serving to whet my appetite further).  The author drives home the shortcomings of a society's (our society's) humanities-less education and worldview, which will only drift further afield as it advances along the math and science-based continuum ad infinitum (how's that for mixing advanced mathematics and classical Latin in a single phrase?) as he compares the sagacity of ancient thinkers to the present-day average American mindset:

"We focus on condemning and avoiding misconduct by, or on correcting and preventing injustice to, other people, not on elevating or improving ourselves. How liberating and encouraging, then, to encounter an ethics focused on the question, 'How to live?'...How eye-opening are arguments that suggest that happiness is not a state of passive feeling but a life of fulfilling activity, and especially of the unimpeded and excellent activity of our specifically human powers — of acting and making, of thinking and learning, of loving and befriending."

A long-form quarterly publication launching in this environment may not have a great chance at making it.  Honestly, there may not be a thousand people in America with the attention span to get through an entire issue.  But I will savor it while it's here, and hopefully some of you can find - no, make - the time to do the same.

Faith vs. Belief

This is a tough one.  They are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

When something that you believe is disproved, you no longer believe it.  Simple enough.  Not so with faith; faith is "shattered" or "lost."  On the other hand, faith cannot be proved or disproved.  You have it or you don't, but it can be shown to be neither valid nor unjustified.  That is why, when testing my own beliefs and my own faith, I can find my beliefs to rest on shaky ground, while my faith remains strong.  There is a growing gulf, now a chasm, between the two for me.  CLEARLY, I cannot continue to believe what I have always told myself I believed.  But just as clearly, I know God created and set things in motion.

Did I ever believe it?  Doctrine, along with the process of indoctrination, is both a blessing and a curse.  They are employed for good and for evil.  Humans are uniquely susceptible to, and exploitable by, such forces.  They require you to say "I believe" until you reach the point that you actually do, or at least convince yourself that you do, because really, you should believe, shouldn't you?

Hopefully people can be honest enough with themselves, after enough soul-searching, to know that if they really don't believe something, then merely reciting the words does not fool God.  Creeds don't leave wiggle room; they don't allow for individuals to customize exactly what they really do feel.  Everyone needs to believe the exact same thing, because those who know best - well, they know best.  But when one doesn't even know exactly what every word means in the native tongue, how could he or she possibly know what the original words and expressions in Ancient Greek conveyed?  The Early Fathers of the Church, from Alexandria and Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and Byzantium and Lyon, may have known exactly what they believed, but it's profoundly unlikely that their exact intentions in their varied languages have been completely passed to me in English.

So do I continue to recite the creeds, to set an example for my kids?  I may be wrong, after all, in my faltering belief in Orthodoxy.  Yes, I do continue.  And I raise them to explore, to search, to know themselves, so that one day, they will be spiritually and mentally strong enough to believe what they know and know what they believe.  And I'll leave it up to God to instill them with the faith that no creed or religion can instill, no matter how many years of ritual and devoted practice they go through.

More "Truth, not truth"

An account from a contemporary of the writers of the four Gospels illustrates the problem of accepting the testimony of others as "revelatory" to you personally, as we Christians do with the Bible.  This problem was addressed in a post last week.

Tacitus was a Roman historian who was born roughly 20 years after Christ was crucified, and died roughly 80 years after the crucifixion.  During that span, scholars believe the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were composed.  Tacitus even mentions Christ being crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate in Judea in one of his books.

Tacitus also recounts the life of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who, sometime before 70 A.D., traveled to Alexandria, Egypt.  While in Alexandria, he was approached, and we'll let the words of Cornelius Tacitus in one of his great works entitled The Histories pick up the story there:

"In the course of the months which Vespasian spent at Alexandria, waiting for the regular season of summer winds when the sea could be relied upon, (1) many miracles occurred. These seemed to be indications that Vespasian enjoyed heaven's blessing and that the gods showed a certain leaning towards him. Among the lower classes at Alexandria was a blind man whom everybody knew as such. One day this fellow threw himself at Vespasian's feet, imploring him with groans to heal his blindness. He had been told to make this request by Serapis, the favourite god of a nation much addicted to strange beliefs. He asked that it might please the emperor to anoint his cheeks and eyeballs with the water of his mouth. A second petitioner, who suffered from a withered hand, pleaded his case too, also on the advice of Serapis: would Caesar tread upon him with the imperial foot? At first Vespasian laughed at them and refused. When the two insisted, he hesitated. At one moment he was alarmed by the thought that he would be accused of vanity if he failed. At the next, the urgent appeals of the two victims and the flatteries of his entourage made him sanguine of success. Finally he asked the doctors for an opinion whether blindness and atrophy of this sort were curable by human means. The doctors were eloquent on the various possibilities. The blind man's vision was not completely destroyed, and if certain impediments were removed his sight would return. The other victim's limb had been dislocated, but could be put right by correct treatment. Perhaps this was the will of the gods, they added; perhaps the emperor had been chosen to perform a miracle. Anyhow, if a cure were effected, the credit would go to the ruler; if it failed, the poor wretches would have to bear the ridicule. So Vespasian felt that his destiny gave him the key to every door and that nothing now defied belief. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying."

Two things:  first, should I believe this account, the exact same account given by some of Christ's followers about similar healing powers, because I am told that "these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses" and that "there is now nothing to be gained by lying?"  And secondly, should the fact that there is ALSO a pagan account of this miracle attributed to a different a healer, a different God, in a different land, necessarily negate, or even lessen, the chance that Christ did in fact perform a similar miracle?

The answers to both questions, for me, is no.  I don't believe that the spit of a Roman Emperor cured a blind man and a crippled man.  And I don't believe that the recounting of Vespasian's miracle should dictate what I do or do not believe about God.  They are mutually exclusive.  Too many scholars make the argument that, because similar stories exist in the pagan world, accounts of the followers of Jesus must necessarily be rejected.  Christians will say, "hey, they stole that story from the word of mouth going around from early Christians," while non-Christians will say "hey, Christians assimilated pagan beliefs and stories into their own mythology."  Maybe the Gospel accounts happened as recounted, maybe they didn't, but it cannot be established definitively either way.  So it is left to what we "believe," and hopefully "know," somewhere in the cores of our being, in our hearts, regardless of the persuasiveness of written words presented to us as "revelations" which "are still vouched for by eye-witnesses."

Truth, Not "truth"

A thing happened, or it didn't.  It was experienced, or it was not.  We know it, or we merely believe it.

Regardless of the occurrence or fact and whether or not it actually transpired, however, the story does not end there.  The "story," in fact, can only now begin.  And that is the difference between the two truths that we search for.  One truth is an account of something that has happened, is now happening, or may in the future happen.  It is only as true as the recollection, or the imagination, of the one telling the story.

The other truth is Truth with a capital "T" and does not depend on a storyteller.  It is, or it isn't.  And it is very specific.  When the number 3 is pushed on my calculator, then the + key is pushed, then the number 3 is pushed again, then the = key is pushed, the display will have a 6 on it.  That is a Truth.  But me telling my friend that I pushed a 3 then a + then a 3 then an = and then saw a 6 on the screen is the truth [small "t"] as recounted by me to the friend.  Did it actually happen?  There's no way to know.  Was it likely to have happened, if in fact I pressed the keys that I said I pushed?  Or, less certainly, could it conceivably have happened the way I said it did, even though it may not have been likely?

Questions such as these are important.  They illustrate not only what we know, but also what we can know.  Then, that "knowledge" can be compared to a "belief."  But the belief does not require the knowledge in order for it to be held as a belief; nor does the knowledge require a belief in order that it be true.  They are mutually independent of each other.  Knowledge and belief can reinforce each other, but do not depend upon one another.

This will sound strange to those who know me or my writing, because it will sound like I'm questioning my faith.  I am not.  What I am questioning is something else, though I'm not sure what.  I suppose I'm questioning the truth of the Truth, or the story that has been handed down as the explanation for it all:  I am saying that I cannot accept that what the Bible says is all true.  In fact, I cannot accept that any specific part of it is true, although the Truth has somehow inspired men to attempt to convey orally and in writing the sentiments that they had intensely experienced so that others may come to know what they knew through direct revelation.  I cannot accept that God said "Thou shalt not kill" to Moses, because I cannot accept that God spoke or wrote in English or any other spoken or written language developed by man.  I CAN accept that it was conveyed directly to us, somehow, that killing other people is wrong.  That it was conveyed to each of us directly in a way that transcends spoken or written language; in a way that we simply "know," in a way that is revealed to us as the Truth.  That is the definition of a revelation in the spiritual sense.  Accepting the word of another person, however, is not a revelation; that is merely trust in the other person.  Thomas Paine clarifies what I'm trying to convey in the early chapters of The Rights of Man.

Is it possible to have faith while questioning the human sources which corroborate that faith?  It is if it has been instilled in us directly, which should be the only way that it can be instilled.  Why would God do it any other way?  Why would God have our eternal salvation be left to individuals choosing whether or not to believe the stories of people who lived thousands of years ago that were subsequently handed down and translated into other human languages that didn't have the same meanings and sentiments as the language of the first person to record the story?  I don't believe He would do that.  I believe He would instill faith in our hearts through direct, unspoken, unwritten revelation, and leave our beliefs or non-beliefs in Biblical accounts out of the equation.  Either we have faith, or we don't.  It's not evidence-based, and it shouldn't be determined by whether or not I believe the infinitely mangled accounts of what did or did not happen, nor by how or when or to whom they happened.  If I need to know something, He will see to it that I know it.

And that's the Truth.

Try, Do

"Do, or do not.
There is no try."
    - Yoda

Establishing Christianity throughout the Empire, then the world.  Ending slavery in America.  So many deaths and years in the pursuits of these objectives before they were eventually accomplished.  What would the Jedi Master have ruled?  Didn't they merely "try," rather than "do?"  And consequently, wouldn't he have been disappointed and unimpressed?  No, and no.  Doing, as opposed to trying, is committing to something completely, with the mindset of "failure is not an option."  Doing is more than taking a shot, seeing what happens, keeping your fingers crossed; it is taking the field knowing that victory is assured, even if your own death occurs before that ultimate victory is realized.  It is saying that this thing is larger than I am; I am doing my part in the pursuit of the larger goal.
Lincoln and freedom DID win, even though people did die; Jesus won, though countless martyrs perished and continue to perish along with Him.  These people did, they did not try.
Searching for and finding Truth, regardless of belief, is something that I believe all people are here to do.  Helping people do this is very important to me, though I haven't made much progress.  When I die, if there is still great hostility and war based on religious as well as non-religious beliefs (I'll grudgingly concede that possibility...), will God look at my life as a failure?  Will He say, "Tom, you tried but did not"?  Or will He say "you did"?  I'm doing and will continue to do the things in this life that will hopefully leave Him no choice other than the acknowledgment of my doing, starting with myself and sharing as much as I can with others.  Even if it's still not completely done.

Religious Writing - Apparently, I've Got It All Wrong

From the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill's website for their Religious Studies program:

     "Writing for religious studies takes place within a secular, academic environment, rather than a faith-oriented community. For this reason, the goal of any paper in religious studies should not be to demonstrate or refute provocative religious concepts, such as the existence of God, the idea of reincarnation, or the possibility of burning in hell. By nature, such issues are supernatural and/or metaphysical and thus not open to rational inquiry."

And here I was, thinking that I'd been studiously writing about religion, when all I was doing was expounding on the "supernatural" that is "not open to rational inquiry."

My apologies to all of you and your rationally inquiring minds.  I'll do my best to keep my religious studies confined to matters that do not "demonstrate or refute provocative religious concepts, such as the existence of God," etc.