Monday, January 31, 2011

EGYPT TODAY AND TOMORROW

NY Times photo
For three days now, I have been following on Twitter--and whatever mainstream news media coverage that has been available--the public protests and calls for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.  This is a breathtaking, gut-wrenching and fascinating development.  Taking cues from the civilian uprising in Tunisia that brought down that corrupt government, Egyptian civilians have engaged in a mostly nonviolent protest in their nation's capital, Cairo.  Their call for a million-citizen march in Cairo on Tuesday may mark a pivotal point in their call for Mubarak's resignation and the beginning of a more free and, possibly, democratic government.

It's worth noting that this effort is, in comparison to citizen or group militias, a nonviolent protest of citizens crying out for change after 30 years of living with police brutality and corruption.  Here is one more example of the power of people who assemble and act nonviolently (though there has been some violence and will be even in nonviolent struggles because not all are highly disciplined and sometimes respond violently to violence inflicted).

It is lamentable, to me, that the USA leadership has long supported Mubarak's regime as it has.  Mubarak is but one of many leaders whose regimes who make no pretense of legitimate democracy and engage in routine abuses.  It is encouraging to me that President Obama has finally called for (too late?) for Mubarak's government to no longer disrupt these protests and to restore communications and to make necessary changes that people are calling for.

This is but one of a number of Middle Eastern nation whose people are ready to take to the streets to call for reforms and regime change.  The next weeks and months will be interesting to observe.  One would hope that it is freedom and dignity for all that protesters are calling for and will achieve.

Monday, January 24, 2011

BACKWARD AND FORWARD

Behind this poem is a theology of holiness that persists with me 

Is life a series of concessions
played out against a backdrop of
some lost original intent,
a series of dramatic attempts at
second best?

Do we work backward through
mistaken assumptions,
misguided notions,
and moral falterings
to a design or plan or ideal
in which we had
no say?

To some extent it is.
To some extent we do.
Even when we think we have
done it all right and righteously,
Fallenness came before us and
still pervades.

Yet there is an original beauty,
a residual sacredness which
brokenness and sin have
not been able to overcome or
completely eclipse.

Perhaps grace is the love-in-action that
draws us, nearly blind and unwittingly,
both backward and forward,
toward a recovery of the very
holiness in and for which we
were created.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME...

A list I compiled in 2003 and reaffirmed in 2008 still reflects my spirit and intentions

Taking a break during our 650-mile bike ride in Vietnam
WHAT I HOPE I REFLECT.  I put this list together in January 2003.  I can't remember what might have prompted the thought flow at that time.  To whom was it primarily addressed?  I don't recall, if anyone.  I visited it again in 2008 and made only a few updates.  I think the statements still reflect my heart, my mission, and my intentions.  I hope they are reflected in most of my actions and life direction.

You can count on me to take you seriously…as seriously as you dare to take yourself.

You can count on me to be faithful to a friendship and covenant relationship…across time and space.

You can count on me being what I am…no pretenses or pretending or layers to cut through.

You can count on me to try to make things accessible…so much in our world is based on feigned exclusivity, dishonest rarity and fabricated difficulty.

You can count on me to hold a confidence.

You can count on me to not answer my cell phone when we are talking face to face…I try to practice a few such basic interpersonal courtesies.

You can count on me to grieve when I become aware that a vulnerable person or group is being taken advantage of or misrepresented…and to try to intervene.

You can count on me to defend my children and spouse when their feelings are hurt or when they are mistreated, disregarded, or undervalued by family, friends, or others.

You can count on me to be disgusted with you when you lie to me, withhold critical information from me, or try to manipulate me.

You can count on me to recognize wrong…and not accept it being excused and rationalized, but acknowledged, addressed, forgiven, and, whenever possible, restituted.

You can count on me to try to be forgiving…I know what it means to be forgiven.

You can count on me to look for grace in the mundane…and to point it out like a child finding a four-leaf clover.

You can count on me to look for the best in you…and to affirm it.

You can count on me to make mistakes, errors in judgment, and occasional off-target emotionally-based assertions...I have limited knowledge, understanding and am more fragile than I'd like to admit.

You can count on me to recognize addiction and codependency…and not play into it.

You can count on me to seek truth and reconciliation…the two are inseparable.

You can count on me to be wary of large institutions…I want to know how they regard those who have, apparently, nothing to offer to their bottom line.

You can count on me to look beyond the surface of things…there is usually history, depth, dimension and paradoxical complexity to most appearances, whether pleasing or troubling.

You can count on me to talk about faith and politics (not to be confused with partisanship) in the same breath…though they are separate they are also inseparable.

You can count on me to love the church too much to let it easily remain a reflection of the status quo, a sanctifier of prevailing ideologies, or a throwback to nostalgic self-promoting traditions.

You can count on me to seek out and celebrate pockets and expressions of authentic community amid prevailing isolation, pseudo-community, and faux feelings of neighboring.

You can count on me to live in hope…believing that what we believe to be true about the future has more power to shape our lives than anything that has happened in the past or occurring in the present.

Friday, January 21, 2011

THREATENED WITH INCLUSION

Jesus was trying to create not an in-group but a come-on-in group that welcomes everyone


I think Brian McLaren's chapter on "Why I Am Incarnational" in A Generous Orthodoxy should be required reading for all self-identifying evangelicals. He challenges the fear-based isolation and labeling that has come to define evangelicalism at the turn of the 21st century.  Here are a few excerpts.  Notice how McLaren follows Jesus in his focus and emphasis:

MOVE TOWARD PEOPLE. “Because we follow Jesus, because we believe Jesus is true, and because Jesus moves toward all people in love and kindness and grace, we do the same.  Our Christian identity must not make us afraid of, superior to, isolated from, defensive or aggressive toward, or otherwise hostile to people of other religions.  Rather, the reverse.”

A COME-ON-IN GROUP. “Jesus didn’t want to create an in-group that would banish others to an out-group; Jesus wanted to create a come-on-in group, one that sought and welcomed everyone.  Such a group came not to conquer, not to badger, not to vanquish, not to eradicate other groups, but to save them, redeem them, bless them, respect them, befriend them, and embrace them.”

THREATENED WITH INCLUSION.  “Jesus threatened people with inclusion; if they were to be excluded, it would be because they refused to accept their acceptance.  If people rejected his acceptance, he did not retaliate against them, but submitted himself to humiliation, mistreatment, even crucifixion by them.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

GORY AMID THE GLORY

Amid the glory is the gory and this is worth examining for the truth on which it sheds light

ON THE HAPPY SIDE. Wouldn't it be nice to read and write only of pleasant things, of ideals realized, of harmony among friends and peace as an absence of differences? Wouldn't it be nice to write only of what is positive, what inspires? Wouldn't it be nice to speak only of uplifting examples and avoid or eclipse by sheer dint of will all that is hurtful, false, and foreboding?

GRACE BETWEEN THE LINES. Yeah, me too. This I attempt on this blog and elsewhere in my writing, in my reading, in my preaching, teaching and conversations. And, looking for this, I often find and try to articulate not only what is obviously good, ideal, and inspiring, but the more subtle "grace between the lines" amid the warp and woof of so-called non-spiritual matters and situations.

GORY AMID THE GLORY. At the same time, amid the glory is the gory. Amid pleasantries are poverties. Just beyond the walls of the Taj Mahal are ramshackle huts. Truth-seeking often takes place in a spiritual minefield. Fallenness is embedded in ideologies, images, and institutions. Behind some best-foot-forward facades are pathological contradictions that twist, hurt, and destroy without apparent awareness or overt intention. In the name of holiness, self-deception and ego-protection are sometimes at work. Beware the lauded leader who hedges the truth and sacrifices a friend for the sake of appearances and preservation of position. To not speak or write of this other side and fuller picture would be a denial of the truth.

BEYOND THE TAJ MAHAL. It's not that I cannot simply enjoy what I see or accept what is given. It is that I see more in context and see through--perceive at more than one level at the same time. At one level, I enjoyed being at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It is magnificent. I explored it fully with as complete an appreciation as possible. At another level, I read of the forced labor that built it, of the many lives it cost, of the at-the-expense-of-the-poor resources it required, and of the pretensions it upheld (upholds). I am aware of both the groveling servitude and privileged absolute power it reinforced. I notice the poverty and pathology that today surrounds the walls of this "wonder of the world." Here, take a picture of us!

SEEING MULTI-DIMENSIONALLY. I am aware that I see paradox and contradiction in situations which many people blithely accept. I know that I readily see justice denied when others wouldn't notice anything out of the ordinary. I wrestle with my truth receptors that acknowledge complexity in would-be pat answers, that cannot reduce virtue to sound-byte religion, that perceive ultimate trajectories and potentially life-denying or life-giving outcomes in in-the-moment activities. What's more, I recognize my participation and complicity--direct or indirect, for good or ill--in this complex of decisions, relationships, and patterns. Others see a good thing; I often see a good thing that sacrifices a readily accessible better or best.

GRACE IS GREATER. I suppose this is the burden of both critical thinking and contemplative prayer. It is the weight of reading between the lines, of asking not-so-welcome questions, of not settling to accept appearances only. This necessarily complicates what might otherwise be taken as simple. But whatever burden this might be, it is transcended in the reality that grace remains at work in even in the downsides, that there is an intended wholeness and restoration still to be realized, that there is a sustaining presence and depth beneath the shallows in which we paddle, and that "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WHAT I OBSERVED IN VIETNAM

A few reflections on this fascinating nation after a 650-mile bicycle ride through it


In addition to blogging each day, I journaled sporadically during a two-week, 650-mile bicycle ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang from which I just returned.  I’m not sure I expressed anything profound in those brief reflections; mostly, they were just short recollections after full days pedaling 100 km through tough, hilly terrain.  Once we were in the international terminal at the Ho Chi Minh City airport waiting for our flight to Seoul and on to LAX and Chicago O’Hare, I figured that was a good time to recollect some impressions.  Here they are:

POVERTY.  Once again, poverty is the prevailing reality that emerges on a cycling excursion in a developing nation.  This was the constant subtext of my 2007 ride through India.  While Vietnam, like India, is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, its level of poverty—more starkly evident in rural areas than urban centers—stands in sharp contrast to norms and living standards in the USA.  Few drive vehicles; most—including entire families—ride motor bikes.  Why?  It’s what they can afford (and afford to fuel).  While there are notable exceptions and evidence of emerging wealth in this free-market economy (that’s right, it’s less controlled than France), the average annual income and purchasing power is a fraction of what citizens in Western nations enjoy.  Vietnam’s economic progress in the past 35 years is laudable, but the vast majority of its citizens continue to live in relative poverty.

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE.  While poverty is the prevailing norm, it is clear that the growing economy is lifting almost all boats.  We observed people in every village, town and city busy at work.  We saw markets bustling, even in the remotest locales.  We saw people shopping for motor bikes and vehicles.  The American-style shopping malls, which included a Wal-Mart-knock-off discount store (what I dubbed Big Lots on steroids), were packed with aggressive shoppers.  People all along the economic span are getting in on some of the action in some way.  They are apparently tired of barely getting along and feel that their ship has come in.  Construction is booming, roads are expanding and improving, and there is a general sense of economic promise from Ho Chi Minh City up through the Central Highlands to Da Nang.  Even as I observe this, I also observe that corporate control, amalgamation and ownership of large properties and industries is simultaneously occurring.  Lots of interesting paradoxes in a Communist Party-led country that has embraced free-market practices.

YOUTH.  Vietnam is a young nation.  At one point I commented to our cycling team that it seems like the country is being run by 15 year olds.  70% of the population has been born since 1975.  We saw children, teenagers and young adults everywhere and in large numbers.  At stores, hotels, restaurants, construction sites, etc., we observed young adults serving and managing--and managing well.  Schools are burgeoning with children.  I am not sure of the average age in Vietnam, but I would not be surprised if it is 36.

MEANING, SPIRITUALITY, VALUES.  The demographics of this youth movement would be interesting to study.  I surmise one would discover that they value education, have bought into a technology-based future, are economically upwardly mobile, and are less religious and more materialistically-minded and motivated than previous generations.  Generally, I saw little evidence of the impact of active formal religion of any sort among this youth group.  Whatever it is, it appears to tangential at the moment to the real values that are impacting and shaping the soul of this young nation.  Prosperity via technology is the biggest carrot this generation is chasing.  Everything else seems to be endured or justified or made to serve this commonly accepted goal.

CHALLENGE FOR PROTESTANT CHRISTIANITY.  While Roman Catholic Christianity is established and mainstream in Vietnam (we saw churches packed with worshipers), the Protestant branches of Christianity, perhaps because of their historic associations with Americans and Western ideologies, apparently have greater challenges.  I wonder if Vietnamese officials see in some Protestant groups some kind of lingering threat of an ideologically Western democratic movement.  Protestant churches find it difficult to officially register with the government, but I hope they will continue to try to do so.  Freedom of religion--like freedom of speech, freedom from want and freedom from fear--brings positive impact to any people anywhere.

RESILIENCE AMID DRAMATIC CULTURAL TRANSITION.  Like India, what will become of traditional values of family, thrift, and simplicity in the next 10-20 years in Vietnam is unknown.  The nation is in a transition like they have never before experienced.  The core culture cannot emerge unchanged.  But Vietnam has already proven its resilience, fortitude, and ability to fight and find a way forward amid chaos.  The fact that it has survived to begin to thrive after its infrastructure was all but destroyed by US bombs and 3,000,000 of its citizens from both south and north were casualties of the “American War” (as the Vietnamese call it) is a signal to the world and to themselves that incredible things are possible.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

GANDHI & KING: COMMON GROUND?

On the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I reflect on the common ground he and Gandhi shared

COMMON GROUND. Over the holidays, I again viewed the movie “Gandhi.”  The movie made a significant impact on me when I first saw it, but I’d forgotten several critical points in his story. For instance, Gandhi’s upbringing assumed the compatibility of diverse religious and ethnic groups with the belief that they all ultimately served the same God. This childhood vision and local reality served Gandhi well in his later years when tensions between Hindu and Muslim factions erupted into violence, nearly turning the dream of independence into a nightmare of chaos. 

COMMON PURPOSE. While much could be said of their differences, in this regard Martin Luther King, Jr. had a similar upbringing as Mohandas K. Gandhi. In contrast to the chaotic background of Malcolm X, King was able to articulate his dream against the backdrop of a childhood in which he was taught that there was one God who willed diverse people to overcome their oppression, prejudices, and sins. King, like Gandhi, believed in such a transcendent and self-evident common ground. As an emerging leader, King appealed to all--oppressed and oppressor alike--to move resolutely and non-violently toward the common ground revealed in one God. Like Gandhi, King held to this vision, formed in childhood, when violence and factions in the civil rights movement threatened to undermine it. 

COMMON GOD? Apparently, neither grass-roots leader succumbed to the “principalities and powers” represented in the authorities and institutions that they so boldly challenged. Instead, they were both killed by out-of-focus people who not only did not share a belief in one God but who were, on the contrary, convinced that the very idea of a common dream in which all shared a part was at the heart of the social problem. It is instructive by association, I think, to consider the backdrop against which our current national and international conflicts are being waged. To the point: do we believe that there is common ground to be found in a Source whom we all, ultimately, believe is One and who wills us to move toward peace?

MISSING LEADERS. One of the critically missing pieces in human rights struggles, so-called “culture wars,” and international conflicts today is the conviction that, behind all the specific names and attributions and aspirations of diverse religious expression, is the one God who wills peace for all and among all.  It's hard to find a religious or political leader these days who believes--and acts in the conviction--that, ultimately, we are all calling upon the same God and that this same God wills us to find and live on the common ground that lies beneath our specifically-defined domains, claims, assertions, suspicions, notions, and/or “rights.”

BELIEVING IS SEEING. Whether or not this common God can be proven or this proposition embraced by any particular religion or political influence group acting the name of a particular religion is not the point. The point is that great progress toward justice and peace in specific culturally-divided, politically-explosive settings was made under Gandhi’s and King’s influence. And at least these two spiritual and social leaders believed that common ground was possible because a common God existed and willed it. By and large, today’s leaders cannot lead toward common ground because they do not believe it exists and they do not believe it exists because they cannot believe or see beyond their own conceptions of God.

DRYING UP TERRORISM. I find it interesting that conceptions of God are closely intertwined with civil, cultural, political, and international conflicts. Denial or ignorance of this is, I am convinced, critical to America's war on terrorism. Since 9/11, American leadership--across the board--has mis-framed the sources and motivations of Islamic terrorism and they have taken an approach to fighting terrorism that continues to fan its flames. I contend that intentional and unintentional religious offenses by the West are fueling resentment and hatred. The West has failed to take Islamic fundamentalism seriously, or refused to accept its claims on its terms (we’re too modern for that!). As we continue to make a secular assessment and take a non-religious approach to address terrorism, we foment it. Today’s most significant conflicts are religiously-based. When American leadership comes to deeply understand, truly respect, and act with high regard for the religion of Islam, Islamic fundamentalist-sourced terrorism will begin to be dried up. Gandhi and King, I believe, would have articulated this.

A CALL TO COMMON GROUND. Please note: I am not unitarian. I am not universalist. I am, in fact, a Christian standing squarely within the Arminian, Wesleyan, and American Holiness traditions. And from this very specific faith, theological orientation, and somewhat paradoxical perspective, I reach out in hope to challenge people of all beliefs and backgrounds to search your hearts deeply to find the common ground upon which we all stand and where we can all meet and dwell as diverse and respectful neighbors upon this fragile earth.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

WHO WILL STAND UP?


The 5th anniversary of Hugh Thompson, Jr.'s death and my tour of Vietnam renew this reflection

Memorial to 500+ Vietnamese massacred
SANITY IN THE FACE OF INSANITY.  The helicopter pilot who stopped U. S. troops from continuing to slaughter innocent people in the Vietnam village of My Lai in 1968 died five years ago this week at the age of 62.  Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew happened onto the massacre in process, set his helicopter down, pointed the airship’s guns at American troops and announced that he would shoot anyone who further harmed a Vietnamese civilian.  Thompson and his crew then evacuated many for medical help.  U. S. Troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, had massacred at least 500 civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968.  Thompson's intervention and later testimony about this evil is, to me, an example of high courage and moral composure in the midst of the insanity of war.

"NOTICE, NOTICE, NOTICE!"  One online source (search for “Heroes of My Lai”), quotes Chief My Lai prosecutor William Eckhardt as he described how Thompson responded to what he found when he put his helicopter down: "[Thompson] put his guns on Americans, said he would shoot them if they shot another Vietnamese, had his people wade in the ditch in gore to their knees, to their hips, took out children, took them to the hospital...flew back [to headquarters], standing in front of people, tears rolling down his cheeks, pounding on the table saying, 'Notice, notice, notice'...then had the courage to testify time after time after time."

EXPOSING THE LIE. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck reflects on the My Lai tragedy and Thompson's response in his book about the nature of evil, People of the Lie.  Peck discusses it as an example of group evil, a special kind of mob action.  Peck points not only to the act itself as being evil, but the actions of the troops and the various echelons of the military to deny, minimize, and cover-up the incident as evil.  He calls it a “gigantic group lie.”  Peck goes on: “Lying is simultaneously one of the symptoms and one of the causes of evil, one of the blossoms and one of the roots.”

Hugh Thompson, Jr. stopped the massacre
 ECHOES AT ABU GRAIHB.  Thompson has spoken to military academy cadets and ensigns repeatedly since 1968 about what happened at My Lai.  He has been in demand as a military instructor on war ethics.  Before his death, he commented on the numerous and repeated acts of torture at the hands of U.S. troops and intelligence officers that occurred at Abu Graihb prison on Iraqi and other Arab detainees.  While Thompson said he was certain the actions at Abu Graihb and other locations was the work of “thugs who happen to wear green” uniforms, he wanted to know who up the chain of command might have given implicit permission for such actions.

WHO WILL STAND UP?  The laws have changed since Thompson challenged Lieutenant Calley and his men.  Then it was against the law for a soldier to disobey his officer if he thought the command was morally wrong.  Today the law permits a soldier to refuse to obey the orders of a commanding officer that he or she believes to be morally wrong.  But I wonder if such laws would be changed, or how many more civilians slaughtered, if courageous people like Hugh Thompson did not—do not—stand up and put their own lives and reputations on the line for the sake of what is right?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I am Cycling Vietnam



Just a note that I am riding a bicycle through Vietnam, January 1 to 16.  I will begin posting again to Indy Bikehiker when I return.  Until then, I am posting reflections and photos daily at http://bikevietnam2011.blogspot.com.  I hope you will check in with our 600-mile journey through Vietnam's Central Highlands (an area rarely seen by Westerners) when you can. I'm also Twittering the trek @ www.twitter.com/bikevietnam2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

WHAT WE ACCEPT AT THE BEGINNING MATTERS

Examine closely the underpinnings of what you accept as reality and good

UNDERPINNINGS.  It's where you begin, what you accept as a valid beginning point that matters greatly.  But we rarely look there.  We hardly ever question back to the beginning.  We simply do not take the time to discover the possibly tenuous underpinnings of what we accept as normative, as truth, as good policy, as life-sustaining value, as world-saving action.

WHAT GERMAN CITIZENS ACCEPTED.  My sense is that most of the proud German people living in the beginning days of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (a conservative, moral-values based political party) did not examine the roots of their angst or challenge the underpinnings of the solutions to their national woes that the Nazi party proposed.

UNTRUTH BECAME NORMATIVE.  They went along.  They accepted.  They allowed.  They didn't pay attention to their subtle doubts.  And what they allowed and accepted became normative for their children.  It had the ring of truth and strength in numbers.  They were led to believe and thought themselves to be on a heroic journey of national restoration and attempted to bring what they believed to be a liberating governance to weaker countries stalled in economic and moral malaise.

SIXTY-FIVE YEARS LATER.  Sixty-five years later, Auschwitz death camp stands as a reminder that such unquestioning acceptance sent more than 1,100,000 Jews, gypsies, gays, and other stereotyped prisoners to gas chambers and crematoriums that ran day and night.  Today’s world leaders solemnly vow "never again" and at the same time do not examine the norms they accept or the perilous underpinnings or trajectories of the actions they take.

CRY OUT NOW.  Examine everything.  Question authority.  Trace down every assertion.  Look behind every notion.  Check the news media--left, right and center.  Exegete perspectives.  Do not just go along.  Do not just accept what is said.  Speak what you discover.  Repent if it is called for.  Expose untruth if it be so.  Cry out now, or many may weep for our silence.