April 30, 2011

What It Takes to Be Christian

Can you call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in the virgin birth?  What if you’re unable to accept the notion that Jesus was the literal son of God and that He died for our sins?  What if all you believe is that His gospel of love, service and forgiveness is the best way to live and will produce saints of us all?  Are you a Christian then?

I hope so, because I consider myself to be a Christian, but as you might have guessed from the opening paragraph, I don’t believe in what some refer to as the mystery of Christ’s birth or His mission to atone for our sins.  In this way, I might be a goat among the Shepherd’s flock, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the Shepherd and what He represents.  In fact my greatest desire is that we—all of us, together—learn to live His creed more fully. 

Some people will read this and conclude I lack faith and am destined for hell.  They’re welcome to their opinion, but I’m convinced that Christ would be happier if we lived His gospel, rather than simply believed in its mystical trappings.  As a father, I don’t care if my sons think I was the smartest investment banker who ever lived.   I only hope they’ve learned from my best deeds and intentions, and that they practice kindness and generosity in everything they do.  Faith might be a noun in the dictionary, but it must, of necessity, be a verb in the heart.  A kind-hearted Hindu is far better off than a hypocrite who claims to have been born again. 

In the same way, lip service means nothing to me.  In my mind, being a Christian has little to do with publically testifying of the Savior’s greatness and expressing love for Him.  Such pronouncements are the spiritual equivalent of muscle flexing on Venice Beach.  Rather, the gospel should be about putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.  Show me a person who emulates all that is good in Jesus and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t need to say he owes it all to God. 

April 28, 2011

Christ's Intended Gospel

Christians immediately after Christ's crucifiction were nothing short of saintly.  As described in Acts 4:32-35, many of them lived communally and shared all things in common. 

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the thing which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.  And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.  Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
Elaine Pagels, who is a Pulitzer-winning author and historian of the early church, describes a people who took in the indigent and homeless, particularly abandoned children.  They gave the outcasts of the world a place of welcome and belonging.  Christians were the few who refused to leave cities struck by plagues.  They remained behind, subjecting themselves to killing diseases, to practice literally their Savior's admonition to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and administer to the sick.  They did this while suffering all manner of persecution. 

It was due, in part, to a power-hungry orthodoxy and its institution of a watered-down version of Christ's intended gospel, that has left us believing we can enrichen ourselves without worrying about the plight of others.  Today's budget discussions, which illicited Rush Limbaugh's question, "what would Jesus take?" is a case in point.  Is it my imagination, or have Christian fundamentalists become the core of the Republican party that is driving the decision toward more bombs and less healthcare?  Do they really believe that corporate interests don't owe the country for the riches its educational system, infrastructure and civil protections create -- that it's okay for a company like GE to book $14 billion in profit and not pay a cent in taxes? 

The system the religious right seem to want is one that forces the widow to pay her mite so that the rich need not contribute. 

April 25, 2011

What Would Jesus Take?

Did you hear what Rush Limbaugh said today?  I suppose he was attempting to be appropriate to the occasion and spoke of Jesus on the day after Easter.  At one point he played a tape of Christiane Amanpour saying:

"As Christians around the world celebrate Easter, we ask some of America's most influential pastors.  In these turbulent times, has America lost its way?  Taxes and budget cuts.  What would Jesus do?":

Here is Limbaugh’s response:

"You know what the real question is, Ms. Amanpour and the rest of you who seek to co-opt Jesus Christ as simply another prop in your march toward the decline of America, the question is not what would Jesus do, the question is not what would Jesus cut, the question is what would Jesus take?  That's the question you never want to answer."

A little later he continues:

"Taxes and budget cuts, what would Jesus do?  Well, what would Jesus take?  That's the question people need to ask to put this in perspective.  Of course the answer is, nothing.  You want to start equating yourselves and your policies to Jesus Christ, you better first start asking, what did Jesus take, from whom, and how did he go about it?  What was his plan for redistribution?" 

Well, Mr. Limbaugh, you asked about Christ’s plan for redistribution.  Fortunately we don't have to speculate, because He answered the question during His sojourn in life and it’s written in Mark 10:21.  When a young man asked what he could do to gain eternal life, Christ’s answer was this:

Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

April 24, 2011

Creating Myths

I've mentioned this before, but I grew up in an idyllic place in SouthCentral Alaska, a place with a history rich in interesting anecdotes and colorful people. One of the town's more fasinating stories dates back to 1778 when the British sea captain, James Cook, discovered the bay at the mouth of the Kenai River.

When the Athabascan Indians who lived there saw Captain Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, they thought the vessels were whales of a breed they’d never seen before. So, a few of them approached in seal-skin canoes to investigate. When they got close, they were met by a stench that caused many of them to get sick. Shipbuilders at the time sealed the hulls of large ships with tar to protect the timbers. The Indians had never smelled anything like it, but a few brave souls ventured onto the ships and were immediately amazed by the things they saw.

In particular, two observations had a lasting influence on them. First, the Athabascans had never seen people smoke tobacco before and they found the habit fascinating. Second, they were amazed by the unusual clothing that Cook's men wore and they were especially impressed with the rows of brass buttons sewed onto the men's sleeves. Later that day, the natives returned to their village with an astonishing, but perfectly understandable, story. They had met a fire-eating and smoke-breathing breed of men, who had arms like octopi and lived on the dead and decaying carcasses whales.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point: It’s quite easy to create and perpetuate a myth, and that’s true for religious concepts, as well. You'll see below another excerpt from Autumn Run that illustrates the point. 

Jesse Toyonek’s life went topsy-turvy when his niece returned to the village.  She’d been away at school, getting her head filled with strange notions, and came back like a whirlwind of opinions.  It was her idea, for example, that Jesse get a job and make something of himself.  But from the day he left for the Aleutians—a letter in his pocket promising him work—his only wish was to return home to the Killborn River. 
If he’d been told he was on the moon, Jesse might have believed it.  There were no tundra-covered valleys spilling out of mountain passes, no stands of timber.  He saw only craggy hillsides, occasional tufts of grass, and the ocean surging around him.  The co-workers with whom he shared a barracks could have been from another world, too.  They were white kids on break from college, who talked of little else but sex and money.  To Jesse—a thirty-five year-old virgin with no bank account in his name—their chatter amounted to nonsense.  He’d never been among so many people, yet he’d never felt so lonely.
Then came a day worse than all the rest, a day bad enough to make him ache for the Dutch Harbor cannery where he butchered fish.  He was hauling gillnet to a beach site across the bay when a fog came up.  A few hours later he was still in the skiff, unsure of his location and out of gas.  Throughout the day and the next night he drifted about in the tide, the fog so thick it soaked his black hair and formed droplets that rolled down his glasses.  He rowed to stay headlong into the swells and bailed as water spilled over the bow. 
Jesse wished for the wisdom of the old ones.  In sealskin kayaks his people had once traveled the ocean and understood it in ways long since forgotten.  From changes in water color, crosscurrents, and whirlpools, they could tell the location of land and bad weather beyond their sight.  What would he give for that knowledge now?
He’d almost lost hope of ever seeing home again, when the fog turned to wisps and scattered in a rising wind.  With a view to the horizon, however, a sense came to him that he was alone in a world without end.  The water grew rough.  His body hurt from exertion and cold.  He almost wished for the fog’s return, until he glanced over his shoulder and saw land in the distance.  Jesse wondered how far it might be: one mile, or a hundred.
He stole another glimpse at the island and noticed spray rising off the shore, an indication that it was close.  Even better, the wind and tide combined to push him toward it.  In time he spotted a narrow beach pressed between steep bluffs.  He aimed for the haulout and heaved with all his might across the chop.  For an hour he worked the paddles, his back feeling like it might snap.  The closer he approached, the more violent the sea became.  White water threatened to swamp him, but he held his course. 
When the hull finally scraped bottom, Jesse leaped overboard and wrestled the skiff forward.  He came out of the water and fell, as limp as the seaweed surrounding him.  His cheek struck rock and gravel before exhaustion raised a wall between his thoughts and everything outside his head.  In seconds he was neither asleep nor fully conscious, but in a limbo between the two.


Time passed and Jesse became aware of movement, only to realize it was his own body shivering.  He wanted rest, but knew he needed a fire.  In agony he pushed himself to his knees, cleaned the salt off his glasses and scanned his surroundings.  The tide was ebbing and the skiff was nearly out of the water.  He stood to secure it and the effort to hoist the anchor overboard brought tears to his eyes. 
Jesse took a seat in the back of the boat, his legs thigh-deep in seawater, and released the drain plug.  As the water spilled, he checked a storage bin for anything useful and found a waterproof bag with blanket and a hatchet, matches and a flashlight inside.  For the first time in what had seemed like days he smiled.  Maybe I’ll see my village again, he thought. 
He compared the beauty of his home near Bristol Bay to the strange place upon which he’d landed.  Except for the beach, the island was composed of right angles and black cliffs that reached to the sky.  There were no trees, but Jesse saw a line of driftwood further up the haulout.  He stepped out of the boat, intending to gather fuel for a fire, when he was startled by the sight of smoke.  It rose from behind a steep hill to his right and he wondered if a cabin or campsite lay beyond it. 
Across a stretch of surf-flattened rocks he stumbled to the bluff and began to climb.  There was a ridge twenty feet up and he was halfway to it when he noticed something odd.  The smoke continued to rise, but it vanished quickly and didn’t leave a smell.  Not until he reached the summit did he understand.  What he’d thought was evidence of a fire was only steam hovering over a waterfall.  And the queerest aspect of the scene was this: The water was hot. 
It tumbled over a lip of rock and formed a shallow pool several steps down the summit.  In his cupped hands Jesse caught a portion of the falling water and lifted it to his mouth.  It was fresh and tea-flavored—hot, but not scalding.  He lowered himself into the stream and the water crashed over him, soothing his aching muscles and warming the chill in his gut.  Within minutes he was asleep.


Jesse awoke, dizzy with hunger, a share of his strength restored.  He stepped out of the pool and raised his eyes toward the cry of seabirds.  The thought of gull eggs made his mouth water and he looked to the cliff face for a way to the top.  His view went from outcropping to ledge—from crease to crevasse—but in the end he rubbed the stubble on his chin and whispered. 
“I could break a leg up there.”
He turned and picked his way to shore.  At the base of the bluff he found hairy crabs, snails, and seaweed.  He cracked open a sea urchin and sucked out its creamy innards.  Limpets and mussels clung to the rocks and he gorged on them.  As his hunger abated, he began to think of the island as a magical place, like the setting in a child’s fairy tale.  It had saved him—even given him warmth and food.  What other gifts might it provide?
He returned to the boat and dragged two driftwood logs together—enough fuel, he reckoned, to burn through the first few hours of twilight and signal his presence.  Evening came and he could barely keep his eyes open and his legs moving.  At the head of the beach, where the bluff began its straight-up rise, he found a cleft in the rock and dropped to his knees before it.
The opening seemed to lead into a warm and spacious cavern, but the interior was dark and smelled oddly like gunpowder.  He crawled inside, drawing his survival gear behind him.  With no other thought than the need for rest, he peeled off his wet clothes and wrapped himself in a blanket.  Before his head touched rock, he was already dreaming of home. 


The next morning the screeching of gulls startled Jesse awake.  In the dark he put on his clothes and emerged from the cave with the sun overhead.  He shaded his eyes to search the beach and saw a flock of seabirds fighting over a dead tomcod.  Jesse chased the gulls away and salvaged the fish.  He cooked it beside a newly kindled fire, when a mix of surprise and gratitude overwhelmed him. 
Except for a few minor aches and scrapes, he felt like a new man.  What’s more, the fish seemed to have come as another gift, like the fresh water and warm shelter he’d received the previous day.  He was happy to be alive, but his circumstances puzzled him.  Who’s doing this for me? he wondered.  And why?
Jesse ate his fill and gathered more driftwood.  He fed the fire to mark the beach and hoped to maintain the blaze by working and sleeping in shifts.  Satisfied with his progress, he returned to the cave to rest, but as he slipped inside, sounds of his entry echoed and caused him to wonder what was hidden in the darkness.  From his survival bag he fished out the flashlight and pointed it into the gloom. 
What appeared on the far wall made his mouth open in shock.  He saw drawings—dozens of them—like an ocean full of kayaks, whales, and other sea creatures.  He panned slowly across the rock face, thinking: That’s how it used to be—that’s how my people once lived.  He was lost in the glory of it, when the light fell upon a man sitting within a stone alcove.  Jesse screamed and dropped the flashlight.  He held his breath and listened for a response.
“Who are you?” he asked, but there was only silence. 
Jesse’s heart beat like a village drum and he wondered if his head had played tricks on him.  He retrieved the flashlight and trained its beam again.  The man was still there, sitting cross-legged and naked, not far from where Jesse had slept the night before.  His eyes looked empty and his face was deeply wrinkled.  Scattered about him were treasures: a kayak, ropes, spears, floats, and nets. 
“Are these yours?” Jesse asked, but the man remained silent and unmoving.  He didn’t even breathe.

Early the following afternoon a plane circled overhead as if looking for a place to land.  Jesse stood on the haulout and waved, but the plane left and was replaced by a Coast Guard cutter that appeared offshore the next morning.  The ship lowered a motorized inflatable boat that two rescuers piloted to shore. 
Jesse was almost sad to see them come.  He’d enjoyed the company of his wrinkled and unmoving host, a being he’d begun to think of as the god of the island.  At the time of the rescue Jesse was sitting outside the cave with the god and all his possessions spread out around them.  Amazed by the craftsmanship, Jesse studied a bone-tipped spear and committed its design to memory.  He looked up when one of the rescuers, a fellow with red hair and a thin moustache, drew near. 
“Mr. Toyonek?” the man said.
Jesse nodded.
“We’ve been looking for you.  Are you okay?  Any injuries?” 
“I’m good.”
“What do you have there?”  The rescuer knelt and pointed to the god of the island, whose head was resting in Jesse’s lap.
“He saved me.”
“Saved you?”  The man laughed and moved closer.  “It looks to be a mummy.”
Jesse was stunned.  How could the god of the island be a mommy, when he was clearly a man?  Too flustered to correct his rescuer, he asked, “Are you going to take me home now?”
“Sure, but I’m wondering what to do with your friend.”  He turned to his colleague, who arrived carrying a medical bag.  “Take a look at this.”
“I’ll be damned.”  The second man gazed at the items scattered before the cave mouth.  “It’s Aleut, isn’t it?”
“Seems likely, but how old?”
“There’s no metal in any of it.  Even the fishhooks are made of bone.  I’d say it predates the coming of the Russians.  We can’t leave it here, can we?”
“My thoughts, exactly.”
Half an hour later Jesse was on the ship.  The rescuers led him to the galley, where several uniformed people sat at a long table.  They gathered around him, offered him hot coffee and asked how he’d survived the bad weather and days alone.  Jesse tried to answer, but when the ship began to leave, he felt a pang of misgiving. 
“Why are you taking the god of the island?” he asked.  “This is his home.  I know that much.”
The galley quieted.  Jesse looked from one crew member to another and saw confusion on their faces.  A gray-haired man finally spoke.  “Are you talking about what you found?” he asked.  “Because it’s quite a discovery.  Folks at the university will want to study it.”
The man shrugged.  “It’s in our nature, isn’t it?  Don’t we all want to learn about our past?”
The words put new ideas in Jesse’s head.  Maybe, he decided, it wasn’t an accident that he’d landed upon the island.  The more he considered that possibility, the more it seemed right.  But for what purpose had he been saved?  Suddenly he imagined life as it once had been, the same life depicted on the walls of the cave where he’d slept.  It was a simple existence with a clear purpose.  Didn’t the gray-haired man speak the truth, as if the words had been put in his mouth? 
We must learn from our past. 

April 22, 2011

Why I Wrote Autumn Run

product coverThe compelling question that was on my mind when I wrote Autumn Run was this: What do we do when something we value stands in jeopardy's way and there is nothing we can do to prevent its ultimate loss?  This was especially important for me to investigate, because for most of my life I'd believed there was only one excuse in life: I didn't want it badly enough.  That was part and parcel of my faith.  If I wanted something badly enough--whether it was to earn a billion dollars or become president of the United States--I could accomplish it.  Then gradually I realized what people learn when they're diagnosed as terminally ill, or are subject to natural disasters, or work all their lives to see their retirement savings lost in a market crash.  I wield very little control over my life. 

Do we ever get comfortable with the uncertainty that accompanies our lack of control?  In a way, this question helped usher in my search for a new Christian ethic.

Here is the novel's prologue that establishes the premise. 

Patch ignored the squawk of his plane’s stall alarm and bucked a shifting crosswind.  The Cessna heaved and fishtailed as though fitted to a warped track across the sky.  Two dozen feet over an alpine lake and angled all but crabwise by the gale, he brought the nose up and felt the floats reach forward.  Seconds later he eased back on the throttle and the plane caught choppy water that left the windshield awash with spray.
He turned on the wipers and headed for a rocky beach at the foot of slate-colored mountains.  Near the base of a haulout his client was packing gear and taking down an orange tent.  Patch coasted to shore where ice shattered in his path and the floats scraped coarse gravel.  He opened the door and leaned outside, his body all gaunt lines and restless angles.  His long graying hair tossed about in the cold wind.
“Let’s be quick,” he hollered.  “Bad weather’s on its way.” 
What he didn’t say was the notion most on his mind—that he should have put his foot down and stuck with their original takeout plan.  They were pushing their luck to be in the air with a storm brewing.  The client stumbled over loose shale to the water’s edge.  His jeans and fleece jacket were grimy with campfire ash and dried blood.  He carried a full pack that he hoisted up to Patch. 
“Thanks for the extra dayshike,” he said.  “I got a nice bull—three brow tines, big rack.”
Patch nodded congratulations, but thought: A moose that size won’t be an easy haul.  He looked at the hunter’s sweat-stained face, his tired eyes and greasy hair, and guessed the man had missed more than his morning coffee.  “You don’t seem too excited,” he said.  “In fact, you look like hell.”
“Nothing that a hot shower and a meal won’t fix.”
Patch set the pack down and folded his arms.  “Even so, we’ll be traveling through rough weather.  Find a bag or a piece of tarp, anything, and stick close to it.  Okay?”
The man nodded.
They stowed the quartered moose and the remaining gear and Patch shoved the plane off.  He guessed at the distance to the opposite shore and considered the altitude needed to ferry into the pass.  He fed the engine and heard the moose rack and meat shift in the pod below.  With the float rudders down to hold direction, Patch squared off into the squall.  The wind moaned and tossed rivulets of water over the plane’s cowling and windshield.  He powered through the chop, breaking the water’s suction by raising first one float, then the other.  The shore loomed menacingly close, but he eked enough lift to rise and take to the sky.
“Damn,” he said, “we’re packing a load.”
They circled out of the narrow neck of the draw and into clouds that gathered between the mountains.  Wet snow fell at times, as did rain.  Patch took his bearings from the brief moments when the sky opened and he could see terrain.  He settled into a rhythm marked by the pitch and keel of flight and bad weather.
Halfway through the pass, the fog thinned and a river appeared flowing through a pastel carpet of tundra.  Patch saw a speck of color that he puzzled over until it disappeared behind a hummock of ground.  He tilted the yoke and the plane lurched and came about.  The stall warning droned briefly.
“What are you doing?” the client asked.
“I might have seen a tent down there.”
The plane held its circle, at various times propelled crosswise, abreast, and headfirst into the storm.  Each moment exposed them to a separate and distinct battering.  The client covered his face with wind-chapped hands and groaned.
“Got a bag?” Patch asked.
“I forgot.”
Patch scanned the cockpit and snatched a map from above his visor.  He snapped the paper open.  “Here,” he said before handing it over.
The man retched and coughed, then he retched some more.  Patch cracked open his window and searched the tundra again, his face as impassive as the boulders that littered each mountainside.  Suddenly he straightened in his seat.
“Oh, hell.  Somebody’s down there.”
The passenger strained to look out the pilot-side window.  “You’re not going to land, are you?  You said we were overweight.”
“Sure, but we can lose what’s in the cargo pod.  A man’s life takes precedence over a game carcass.”  Patch ignored the man’s look of concern and searched for water big enough to support a landing.  “The river looks shallow,” he whispered.
The plane reeled as if it had struck and broke through a wall.  Once again the client bent over the paper in his lap.  The stench of vomit filled the plane.  “What should I do with this?” he asked, holding out the sagging paper.
“Hang on.  I’m taking a closer look.”
The plane dipped again, this time without holding a circle.  The stall light and buzzer came on and didn’t shut off.  They plunged and bobbed and fell again.  The client dropped the soaked map at his feet and looked forward with wide, startled eyes. 
“Please, can’t you just call somebody?”
Patch pulled the plane out of its sharp descent and felt his stomach fall through the seat.  They were over the river now, tracking it.  “I’m not within radio distance,” he said.
“Maybe you can wait until we get home?”
“We’re in Alaska, Mister.  No one’s walking out of this storm.”  The clouds had darkened and snow swirled with dizzying effect.  Despite his earlier claim, Patch grasped the radio transmitter and spoke into it.  Only white noise came in reply.
“Maybe he plans to float out,” the client said.
Patch shook his head.  “Did you see a canoe or a raft?  And for your information Kaknu is nearly two-hundred miles away—one hell of a walk in muskeg and bad weather.  I doubt you’d want to hike it.” 
The river drew closer, until its rocky bottom came into view and the curved bank ahead surprised Patch with its proximity and steep rise.  Inches from touching down he knew the effort would ground them—maybe even do worse.  He pulled the throttle back, risking a stall.  The client gritted his teeth and closed his eyes just as the plane grazed the spruce tops along the far ridge. 
“You’re going to kill us,” he said.
No, Patch thought, but we might be leaving a man to die.  As he maneuvered the plane up and away, he stole anxious glances into the river valley from where they’d come.  He pleaded silently, don’t let this happen—please, not again—but it was too late.  At a height above the mountains Patch turned for a final look and saw an opaque wall of haze that reached from ground to sky.  Where the clouds passed, he knew, winter was claiming its territory and leaving the land desolate.

April 21, 2011

The Greatest Reward

The most unique of Mormon beliefs is probably the notion that God is an exalted man.  This was the gist of a eulogy Joseph Smith gave at the funeral of a friend, which was subsequently recorded and is now referred to as the King Follett Discourse.  While many people outside the LDS church take a dim view of the doctrine, its corollary—that human beings, in turn, are capable of becoming Gods—elicits an even stronger knee-jerk reaction.  Antagonists of the church say the idea of aspiring to be God’s equal is a sacrilege. 

I won’t argue one way or another whether it’s truly within the grasp of humans to evolve into Gods, but I will question why anyone would want to do so.  My astonishment is especially understandable in light of an experiment I’ve been known to conduct with members of the LDS faithful.  Here’s how the experiment goes. 

After sidling up to a church member, I ask: “If given the opportunity, would you want to become the world’s supreme leader?“

After a quizzical look, the respondent typically says, “I don’t think so—no.” 

“Really?  Would you consider serving as president of the United States?”

“Nope, not that either.” 

“How about governor of a large state—California, for example—would you accept that position?” 

“With its budget problems?  No way.”  

“What about CEO of a multinational company—let’s say, Exxon Mobile—would you accept that responsibility?”

Even here the answer is invariably, “No.”

“Then, in that case,” I reply, “why would you ever want to achieve exaltation?” 

Now, Mormons are not without answers.  Typically they say something to the effect that only in the highest degree of glory are people able to live together with God and their families.  The basis for that belief is the LDS doctrine that there are multiple levels of reward in heaven, with exaltation being the highest.  (But in that regard it has always seemed odd to me that God won’t allow family members to see each other when they’re relegated to lower kingdoms).  Yet that’s not the end to the benefits of exaltation.  Mormons believe that as Gods they’ll be capable of eternal increase, which is to say, they’ll be able to create new worlds without end and populate them with their own children.

What I’m about to say may sound crass, but I have to be honest and describe the reaction to this doctrine at play in my head.  I’m not sure if the appeal of exaltation is in the infinite number of children a God can have, or if it’s the conclusion one might reach that only exalted beings can engage in the process—I think you know what I mean—of making children.  Putting that question aside, however, let’s consider the implication of this so-called blessing. 

Let’s say you perform admirably in life and for your reward you’re offered the greatest of all gifts: Exaltation.  Excited, you begin to create worlds and populate them with children whom you love dearly.  Then hoping for the best, you watch your children from afar, unable to direct their affairs except through sacred texts that many will misunderstand and some will misinterpret for gain.  You try to talk to them in prayer, but they find that means of communication difficult.  In ways that horrify you, your children begin to brutalize each other.  Many who are in positions to render assistant, ignore—and even prey upon—their less fortunate siblings.  War and devastation result.  If you accept the precedent of our Old Testament Father as morally correct, you become so upset, you consider eliminating your race of children altogether. 

Even if things do work out in the end, how can you watch for a moment while these acts go on?  As for me, I’d turn down the chance.  Give me instead the opportunity to build a small cabin, grow a garden, make a few good friends and occasionally write a perfect and true sentence.  I’m not sure if there is an afterlife, or if what I’ve just described is possible, but if our souls are eternal, I’d hope to live it simply. 

April 17, 2011

The Myth of Damnation

I have three sons who are kind and intelligent, but one of them gave me fits when he was young.  He got into nearly every kind of trouble you can imagine and even spent three nights behind bars after doing something especially bone-headed.  My wife and I spent a significant portion of our free hours and sleepless nights wondering what to do about him, but never--not once--did we consider giving up on the kid. 

In fact, I was thinking of him when I wrote the following:

When I tell them, “Be careful,”
And my children nod in a way
That suggests more weighty thoughts
Are roaming through their heads,
Like: What’s for dinner?

A feeling emerges—
Spontaneous and irrepressible—
From the same place
Gratitude is born:

I loved them before they could walk,
And also before they could speak,
I can do no less now,
Though they seem deaf
To good advice.

Why do we believe a loving God would feel any differently?  To assume God damns His children is to believe He gives up on them.  I can't imagine what might have happened if we hadn't loved our son unconditionally and did everything in our power to effect a turnaround in his life.  As it now stands, he's working on a PhD in biology, specializing in the mechanisms that cause gene mutation.  He recently earned a National Science Foundation Honorable Mention.  I anticipate great things from him.

If being a father and grandfather has taught me anything, it's that children deserve our uncompromising love and devotion.  I refuse to believe in a God who doesn't feel the same way.  Play the video of my granddaughter below and tell me you disagree.

April 16, 2011

For Mormons Only (Update)

This is probably long overdue, as it's a sequel to a much earlier posting, which you can find at the following link.

It's no secret that I was against Proposition 8, the California voting measure that was meant to restrict the ability of gays to marry. I've tried to think of a way to say the following without seeming critical, but rather than mince words, let me simply relay what I believe to be factual developments regarding the initiative and my church.

In a way, the area where I live was a battle ground as it pertains to the LDS Church’s support of Prop 8.  My stake contains an extremely liberal and social-minded ward in Berkeley, where many of the members are university professors and other highly educated professionals.  However, the further inland one goes, the more conservative are the members.  The wards on the eastern border of my stake raised a lot of money to support Prop 8 and some of their youth groups were encouraged to go door-to-door to promote it.

My ward, Moraga, sits in the middle of the stake both geographically and politically.  After the election, our ward attempted to achieve a reconciliation among the divided membership.  Other wards tried to do the same.  Our stake president, seeing that there was a problem, went from congregation to congregation with a message that I found comforting (I had stopped going to church, but a number of people had told me that I should attend this special meeting).  Of his many comments, here are a few that stand out for me.  First, he said his remarks had been approved at the highest levels of the LDS church.  Second, he said that being gay was "unbidden," a term I like.  What he meant by it is that people don't invite same sex attraction into their lives.  In fact, he said it was obvious to him that no actively engaged member of the church would ever choose to be gay, given the difficulties such a decision engenders.  This is as close to an admission that homosexuality is not a choice that I've heard from an ecclesiastical leader.  Third, he said the church no longer recommends gay members to "just get married" with someone of the opposite sex.  That had been the policy in the past and it had led to incredibly sad stories of broken homes and lives.  Fourth, he said gay members who remain in the church deserve our compassion, if not our admiration.  If they're to live according to church dictates, they are destined to truly lonely lives devoid of physical intimacy.

I believe the issue continues to be divisive here as evidenced by something that happened several months ago.  The church leadership sent Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy to our stake conference and he held a by-invitation-only meeting that Sunday morning.  I was invited, but was unable to go.  Apparently, however, the meeting room was full of members who had been disappointed by the church's stance on Prop 8.  From what I understand, Elder Jensen said several things of interest.  First, he called himself an "administrator" with little influence in the church, but he was willing to deliver a message to its leadership regarding the feelings of its members.  This is an interesting admission, since as a general authority, he is deemed to speak for God.  Second, he admitted that the church had made mistakes in its handling of Prop 8 and he was sorry for the hurt that the actions had caused.  Then he let people stand and tell their stories.  Many of the speakers were parents of gay children, who felt that the church had abandoned them.  By the meeting's end, there were very few dry eyes in the room.  Elder Jensen appeared visibly moved and said he would relay the stories to Salt Lake.  I'm left with the impression that there is not only division among the members, but also among the leaders on this issue.  I hope the church soon adopts a more enlightened stance.

April 14, 2011

This World Has Potential

My son, Aaron, was recently named the Charles Mingus Composition Award winner at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  There he had the enviable opportunity to work with Maria Schneider, who is one of his musical inspirations.   

Here is a piece he recently wrote and performed at the JazzSchool in Berkeley, California.  It's part of a four movement jazz suite and this particular movement is entitled This World Has Potential.  It's a reminder to me that despite the many things we can criticize about our circumstances, the world remains a remarkable and wonder-filled place.

I hope you enjoy the music.

April 9, 2011

A Couple (More) Poems

My Compromise

For five years, or so,
These lips have touched no meat.
But on Thanksgiving Day
I load up on gravy
Made with the drippings
Of a sacrificial turkey.

By this, I tell myself,
I didn’t kill the bird,
But only performed
A kind of liposuction,
Which, in the final analysis,
Might have been exactly
What the creature had needed.

Time and Space

We are then weightless souls
Whisked away at light’s speed,
Finally seeing what had been there all along,
Hidden behind a fa├žade:
Time is but another location.

That’s when the pieces fit,
And we’re privy to past and future—
Including the narrow corridors of mortality—
Suddenly earning us full knowledge,
Rendering us unable to suppress the notion:

To that future self, I speak:
Don’t judge me as I do now,
With a disapproving eye that belabors each point,
Recollecting the infinite number
And irreconcilable costs of my shortcomings.

Let’s agree, instead:
Yes, I wield unrighteous dominion
And my faults are limitless,
But somewhere beyond time,
Against all odds and expectations,
I am you.

April 7, 2011

Mathew 5:17 and its Historical Importance (Part 5)

I'll finish this section with one last idea about the nature of God. 

People like Pat Robertson would have us believe in a deity that causes natural calamities in response to gay rights celebrations, but is that the act of a loving God?  Jesus says otherwise in the final verse of Matthew chapter 5, which reads:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

We often gloss over this scripture or read it without understanding its context.  Yet, it's a scripture that begs for context since it includes the word "therefore," which is invariably used to connect a premise to a conclusion, as in the relationship: A therefore B.  The premise alluded to is the description of perfection that precedes the final verse.  Esssentially Christ says that His gospel, which was summarized in the key passages I've cited in my earlier postings, is perfection.  But perhaps the more important point is what Christ says in the second half of the verse, which is as extraordinary as it is rarely noted.  He implies that His gospel circumscribes the kind of perfection God honors and practices.

As I've said before, I can’t imagine our Heavenly Father so angry that He would flood the earth and kill all, but eight, of His children.  That's inconsistent with the gospel, which Christ assures us is practiced by the Father.  Furthermore, to believe in a flood as judgement—and to concurrently assume that God is a perfect moral being—is to think such acts are acceptable.  In that way, a Judeo-Christian ethic that is premised upon a vengeful and jealous version of godliness is dangerous and can lead to thug-like acts of its believers.  It also, in my opinion, happens to be wrong.

April 1, 2011

Mathew 5:17 and its Historical Importance (Part 4)

Are we a Christian nation, as many suppose? I don’t think so. Sure, we give lip service to what Jesus taught, but we’ve bought into the fallacy that we don’t have to live His teachings, but don’t take my word for it. Examine Christ’s description of His moral philosophy—as described in Matthew Chapter 5—and compare it to our daily acts and belief, especially the political ambitions of the far right.

Key Teaching #1 (Matt 5:21-22): Do more than refrain from murder, rein in your anger and hurtful acts. I can’t understand how we got involved in a war in Iraq, when UN weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, were assuring the world that there was no evidence of WMDs in the country. Similarly, how does a Christian nation allow the torture of individuals and let its architects cloak the actions in camouflaged terms, like “aggressive interrogation.” By whatever name we choose to call it, the abuse has killed people.

What’s just as remarkable is that these are violations of the lesser law Jesus came to improve upon. He wants us to do better than just avoid lunatic wars—He wants us to refrain from anger, too. But where are we on the niceness scale today? The better question might be: Whatever happened to being nice? We’ve replaced gladiator combat with TV commentary filled with so much venom, there’s no way to hear, much less grasp, the issues. (Many years ago, one of my kids was watching CNN’s Crossfire, when he looked at me and said: “Why do they hate each other?”) In particular, conservative talking heads—Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck—claim moral superiority while impugning the intelligence and patriotism of those who have simple differences of opinion. While Jesus encourages peace, they are our biggest hawks. In the process they foment so much hatred and fear that I half expect armed revolts to arise.

As a high school debater one of the things I learned was the necessity of keeping emotions in check. When debaters scream, judges miss the logic. A yelling match can be great theater, but it’s shitty public discourse that never arrives at the truth or even changes a mind. In fact, it rarely does more than provide a confirmation to those who’d always wanted to believe the noise anyway. We must take to heart the implication of Christ’s teaching: Until we treat each other with dignity and grant each other the right to have opinions, we will never get along or achieve a lasting peace.

Key Teaching #2 (Matt 5:27-28): Do more than refrain from adultery, bridle your passions and appetites. Who has the bigger zipper problem—Christian conservatives, or their heathen counterparts? That’s probably an unfair question, but while people on the religious right excoriate their liberal counterparts who have broken vows of fidelity, a list of their own fallen can paper an average-sized living room. Their notion of Family Values reminds me of that line in Hamlet: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

More importantly, the religious right tends to focus on the act of sex, rather than Christ’s requirement to exact discipline over human passion and appetite. I’m baffled, for example, at how offended some people get by fleeting nudity in a movie, but will clap and cheer when Conan the Barbarian runs his spear through the evil wizard. How did we conclude that breasts were bad, but bloody fights to the death are wholesome entertainment?

When I was a kid, two movies came out that speak volumes about society’s strange preoccupation with physical intimacy. They were: 1) Love Story and 2) The Graduate. When it first appeared, Love Story was rated PG and teenagers flocked to it. There was no skin in the movie, but it was clear what the two attractive and intelligent protagonists were doing behind closed doors. I have little doubt that Ali McGraw’s twitching nose drove more than a few young viewers to Makeout Point to watch the submarine races after the show. The Graduate, on the other hand, was rated R—racy for its time due primarily to that view of Ann Bancroft’s naked leg lofted seductively in the air—but the storyline depicted her relationship with Dustin Hoffman as illicit and unromantic. Now, which movie had the worse impact on the morality of people? Again, that’s probably an unfair question and one that will probably never be answered. Yet, isn’t it clear by the comparison that our obsession with the physical gets in the way of understanding the heart of what matters? Though I can’t condone adultery, we should be far more fixated upon the difference between love and unbridled lust, and practicing the former while eschewing the latter.

That notion is embedded in the golden rule and is akin to an idea I heard M. Scott Peck once relate. As best as I can recollect, Peck, who is a psychiatrist as well as a moral philosopher, said he wasn’t against the idea of having sex with his patients, but he could think of no instance in which doing so would be helpful. Rather, any activity of the kind would result in unmitigated harm to the people to whom he had an obligation to heal. The point is this: Let’s make sure our motives are pure—if we can do that, chances are our hands will be clean, also.

Key Teaching #3 (Matt 5:33-34): Do more than honor contractual obligations, let your word be your bond. So much of what’s wrong with public discourse today is the blatant misrepresentation of facts. While Jesus demands honesty, our willingness to tell part-truths and to obfuscate through legal nitpicking is rampant. Remember when a U.S. president sat before a committee and said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”? That’s only one example of what Christ referred to as straining at gnats and swallowing camels. Recall that His most serious rebukes were reserved for those he called, “Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites!”

I will readily admit that when I was an investment banker I requested the writing of a mountain of legal opinions, each of which proposed ways in which I could do what the law intended I should not. What I did might have been legal, but it was certainly wasn’t right. I see the same thing happening today regarding conservative efforts to undermine green policies. Haven’t we contracted with God to “replenish the earth” since the time of Eden? Yet, Tea Party loyalists, backed by Christian Fundamentalists, refuse to acknowledge the truth about the destruction of our environment and back revisionist research to excuse it. Many of them do so thinking God will fix the problem. But that’s just kicking the ball into His court. It’s our job to do what’s best for our children. I’m sure Christ longs for the day when we can tell the whole truth, admit to our mistakes and fulfill the intentions of our promises.

Key Teaching #4 (Matt 5:38-39): Don’t worry about getting even, forgive unconditionally. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus tried to say the same thing and few seemed to hear. Ask the average America (and virtually all Christians) what justice means and the answer will invariably have something to do with punishment for crimes. But the true meaning of justice has nothing to do with punishment. Read Plato’s Republic and you’ll see the word justice printed on nearly every page. It is, in fact, a treatise on justice and yet there is very little in it about responses to crimes. Justice, at its most basic level, is all about DOING WHAT IS JUST, and that’s another way of saying doing what’s right.

As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, the notion that we must exact an eye for an eye was never meant as a requirement even in Moses’ day. It was a maximum penalty handed down after the children of Israel emerged from slavery believing that the capricious whips of their Egyptian masters was the measure of justice. To them at the time, the penalty for a stolen crust of bread might be the loss of a hand. Moses urged his people to be better than that. Yet Christ wants us to go beyond even the Mosaic standard and refrain from vengeance altogether. In His gospel, there is no balancing of cosmic debits or credits for sin. Jesus wants us to forgive and, if possible, restore what was lost when sin occurs. In that context, what is the best restitution? A rehabilitated heart. Seeking anything more is just getting even.

Key Teaching #5 (Matt 5:43-44): Do more than love those who love you, love everyone. Remember how the children of Israel were told not to kill or steal, and were later led into a promised land that happened to be populated by others? What were the Israelites told to do then? They were commanded, of course, to kill people and steal land. The resultant moral ambiguity led to considerable debate among Jews, which eventually resulted in a lawyer asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer knew that some faction of the crowd believed the Mosaic Law was a requirement to be followed only when dealing with other Jews—that in essence the definition of neighbor was restricted to kin. That’s when Jesus offered the Parable of the Good Samaritan. By His discourse we know we’re to love everyone.

But Christian fundamentalists, by their actions against gay rights, do not, in my opinion, fulfill the requirement. I know people who spent considerable time and resources in promoting Proposition 8 in California. Some of them did so reluctantly, doing only what they thought God had commanded. I’m sure many of them prayed for an end to the controversy. Others, however, took it on with a zeal that was an insidious extension of beating up queers on Friday night. That is not love. Neither is it love when a nation decides it needs all of its missiles and bombs and tanks and destroyers, but cannot afford to give its children the world-class education for which it was once the object of envy. Yes, that’s not love, but it’s also shortsighted.

In my next posting, I'll show how this is contrary to God's nature.