"Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend...." Exodus 33:11

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What Occupies My Heart

Laurie:  Thanks in part to my Los Angeles upbringing, my mother's determined stance against racism, the wonders of the internet age, and my Christian faith, I have had the pleasure of developing warm relationships with people of various races, nationalities, professions, education levels, socioeconomic levels, religions (or lack thereof), sexual orientations, lifestyles, and political persuasions. So I speak from my own experience when I say that there are challenges to be faced and rich benefits to be gained in maintaining relationships with lots of different kinds of people.... 

I wrote the paragraph above some weeks ago, with the intention of entering into a discussion with Paul about the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.  As it so often happens, Paul had his own take on it and was ready to publish long before I was able to gather my own thoughts.  I was initially reacting to a graphic posted by more than one of my politically conservative Christian friends on Facebook mocking the Occupy Wall Street protestors, pointing out the supposed irony of people crying out against corporations when these same people rely upon and make use of the products these corporations produce.

It had brought to mind immediately a graphic and article I'd seen some months before, posted by some of my more progressive leaning friends pointing out ironies they see in the complaints of protesting Tea Partiers, who rely upon and benefit from the very services of the government they don't want to pay taxes to.

Though I am decidedly more sympathetic to one of these movements than the other, I'm not involved in either, and as one standing on the outside  I see them as similar in many ways:  the Tea Party, simplistically speaking, is afraid America is falling apart because of various liberal government policies, and because a Democrat president was elected into office for the first time in eight years, leaving them with the terrifying feeling that the nation's liberals would now have free rein. Because of what they see as bad government, they are reacting by raging against government.  The Tea Party doesn't want government having control over their lives.

The Occupy movement, on the other hand, in so far as I've seen it represented, sees America falling apart as the result of the unfettered greed and political influence of many corporations, particularly banks and financial institutions, who have run roughshod over the economy and been given greater influence over elections via the recent Supreme Court ruling on election funding. These are concerns I can certainly sympathize with, especially after my husband lost his job weeks into the crash of '08 and could not find work for a full 19 months after.  I find it hard to be to hostile to my government when it's policies, namely unemployment insurance, were among the means God used to keep us in our home and out of foreclosure during those months.  We are truly thankful.  

Another Great Depression was averted, thanks in great measure to our admittedly imperfect government,  thanks to governmental safety nets put in place after the Great Depression: unemployment benefits to tide people over and keep them housed and fed while looking for new work, federal deposit insurance to prevent panicked runs on banks, social security helping the elderly and disabled stay afloat when other supports crumbled, to name the first that come to mind.  A lot of people lost a lot, to be sure.  Paul and I are still catching up from what we lost, and from the investments we would not have made had we known the housing market would crash.  But it was not another Great Depression.

As I said, I started this post weeks ago with an agenda I no longer feel is worth pursuing.  Since that time the Occupy Movement has expanded and finally gotten the attention of the mainstream news media.  As a result, I have had even more time to watch the reactions and read the rhetoric of both sides, frequently through the lens of my diverse group of friends on Facebook. Some people are frightened,  some frustrated, some angry, some even hateful.  So many people are struggling. Unfortunately, however, we have chosen not to be concerned for one another, to listen, to work together.  Instead we've taken adversarial positions of blame, finger-pointing, sarcasm, scorn, and mocking.  In my daydreams people pull together in the face of adversity, but the sad reality  is that these hard times are not uniting us but dividing us. 

The situation is deteriorating...America is disintegrating, and my points in the end, keep seeming pointless.

There are so many things I could say, but are they worth saying?  Will they make any difference?  Will they help even one person know what to do or how to survive times like these?  Will they add a single drop of peace into the ocean of turmoil America is becoming?

Paul, I meant to write this post on my own, a response of sorts to yours, but I'm at loose ends.  Perhaps you can help find my way to what matters most?

Paul:  I may be of some assistance here.  I shan't waste anymore time expressing my own feelings on the subject, although, possibly steering the conversation in the right direction, I find myself thinking of what Mr. Daniel Handler (under his well known nom de plume Lemony Snickett) recently observed about the unfolding, and I think all sides can agree on the employment of the adjective "unfortunate" events,

"Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending."
What, then, would be the wisdom I would give to an audience with the parties involved?  What would I wish to express to the angry person on the street, the corrupt capitalist, and the arguably even more corrupt politician who has systematically removed all fetters from the corrupt capitalist over the past 20ish years?

There is this wonderful recorded speech from antiquity, perhaps you've heard of it, called The Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus Christ got up before a group of people and gave them a fairly succinct outline on how one ought to live, a pragmatic philosophy for those who would follow His worldview.  It is full of phrases like "Give us this day our daily bread" and "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors" and "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" and "Look to the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them" and "whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."

la Liberté guidant le peuple - Delacroix, image via Wikipedia

I think that a shift in consciousness is occurring in this country, but I fear that it is not shifting in the direction that would be most beneficial to all.  I think that in order to achieve a world in which each give according to their abilities to meet each according to their needs, there must a shift toward focusing on service.  I fear that the bully will not give the people their lunch money back and la Liberté guidant le peuple will have the blood of the martyrs watering the flowers of Central Park.  The fat will grow fatter on the backs of the lean.  The great rigged game will continue.  The poor we will always have with us.  We seem to be in one such cycle where the rich get particularly greedy, the poor get particularly angry, the middle class get even angrier than anyone else because the rich getting particularly greedy has now made them among the poor, the rich make themselves scarce when the heads start rolling, and then the insurgents behave just as badly, if not worse, than the rulers they ousted.  Being a global community, it is happening all over the world right now.  The birds and lilies don't seem to notice.

If you would be perfect, sell what you possess and give to the poor.  Waste no time arguing what a good man should be, be one.

Laurie:  And I think you lead me exactly to my point.  How can any man, or any nation of men, be truly good? People have been trying since people have been people.  We've tried it through government and law, experimenting for as long as we've been in existence with various forms, with varying degrees of success for various periods of time. Yet none has stood the test of time, because not one has ultimately managed to govern the human heart. Human nature itself is the force that both drives and destroys human government.

Paul:  If I may interject again and reiterate something I said at lunch today.  History is full of the hairy- chinned manifesto author with a thousand faces who sit in a café and thinks about the problems of the modern world, where they come from, how to solve them.  They scribble on napkins and publish leaflets, manifestos, poems, songs.  People follow them, revolutions happen, then the people who replace the people in power are as bad as or worse than the people they deposed.

Aside from raging sociopaths, we all know what being good looks like.  The Neo-Atheist movement beats this drum all of the time.  They are good and moral.  They give blood, call their mothers, and donate liberally.  We know that good generally revolves around loving one another and focusing outward instead of focusing on one's self.  We all know that if there are six people in the room and six slices of cake, it's bad form to eat more than one slice.  But history will also back me up in the fact that we, humans, don't do what we ought to.

Laurie:  Oops....it never occurred to me to count the people in the room and compare it the the number of slices.  My apologies to everyone whose piece of cake I mindlessly devoured.  I will certainly try to pay attention to this in the future.

Interestingly, the two strongest idealistic threads I've seen running through conservative Christian politics recently happen to be diametrically opposed to one another.  The first is the belief that in order to save America we must subject her, as nearly as possible, to the Law of God as spelled out in the Old Testament. This notion is preached with all the confidence of people who are convinced that they will have no problem keeping this law.

As you know, Paul, last week, I ran into a former neighbor of ours who insisted that subjecting America to the Law of Moses would restore God's blessing to her.  This man, like the Jews, had missed the lesson of the Law entirely.  No man, apart from Jesus Christ, God's own Son, has ever obeyed the Law of Moses perfectly.  The point of the Law, and the necessity of the sacrifices it required day after day and year after year was to teach men that they are sinners and that sacrifice was necessary to atone for sin. (This was meant to point the way to the ultimate sacrifice, that of Jesus Christ Himself.) As the Apostle Paul put it:  "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:10)  God wanted the people to recognize and be honest with themselves about the condition of their hearts and to look to Him for the mercy that only His perfect sacrifice  could provide. What was never intended was for people to use His laws as ways to curry His favor, as if by their own efforts they could be good enough, or to promote a political agenda for the United States of America.

The second of these threads is exactly opposite.  It is the cry from which America was born, the cry for freedom.  Here we are, in the "Land of the Free", but it will never be free enough for some, and, for those being trampled by the freedoms of those more powerful than themselves it may feel far too free. In truth, our hearts cry for freedom, yet our hearts cannot be trusted with it, because our hearts are sinful.

In truth, we all want government, we just don't think we are the ones who need it.  Law is for the ones who do, the other guy.

Paul:  Funny you should mention that because you also ran into another bedlamite this past week who was trying to convince you of his own sinless perfection.  It's an aberrant doctrine which I've heard a few dozen times over the past few years which, like George MacDonald upon learning of predestination, almost makes me want to burst into tears.  Sin is the first thing that ever made sense to me in theology.  My own imperfection and the imperfection of everyone else was my ingress to Christianity.  It made sense of observable reality on micro (self) and macro (everyone else in the world) levels.  Try as I may, I've never been able to shake that essential truth.  And the only hope is of a benevolent and perfect God providing atonement for said sinfulness.  To me, the suggestion of sinless perfection in this lifetime is about as abhorrent a suggestion as a human can suggest.

I notice a common thread in the two awful ideologies presented to you over this past week.  Both are focused on self-righteousness.  Both are focused on you being, as I say, the King of Right Mountain.  It's a subtle shift which happens too often in ideology which leads down the road to brutality.  It's the shift from being focused on Truth to being focused on Being Right. 

 Laurie:  Yes. I think you are right (wink). We set up our camps;, we dig in our heels; we solidify our hearts against our rivals.  We forget the words of Christ when He said, "Love your neighbor as yourself,"and "Love your enemies. Do good to those who mistreat you," and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  

We forget what we Christians have no right to ever forget: no matter who we are talking to, no matter  their political party, no matter their race or religion, no matter their educational level, profession, or sexual orientation, the sinful human heart cannot be managed from the outside.  The hope God offers to mankind does not come through law or government, it comes through faith in Jesus Christ, in his teachings, in His sacrifice for sin, and in His victory over death. Only in and through Him are lasting peace, unity, freedom, and love to be found.

So my hope is that we Christians, both on the right and the left of the political spectrum (yes, I know of a certainty there true Christians on both sides) will turn our hope away from politics, that we will stop mocking and insulting those we see as our enemies and start doing them good. My prayer is that we will return our focus and energies to Christ and His gospel, to making disciples, to seeing people set free in the way that matters most: free from the death clutch sin has on their lives.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupational Hazards

Paul:  I did not mean to or intend to attend the Occupy Chico protests.  I was doing something I often do on days off, which is to walk out my front door, walk around, and take pictures of things that I find interesting, beautiful, or inspiring.  Today, by a totally capricious turn of the foot, I made my way toward the downtown city plaza which, as it turns out, is the transient home for the Occupy Chico protestors.

When I was in college and deeply into my Quaker path, I went to several preemptive protests of the two abiding wars that my country are still involved in.  I had a sign I would take to the protests which read "Another Quaker for Peace."  I remember one march in which a man who was loud and vocal in his disagreement with our protest came up the line in the opposite direction from our march.  He stopped at me, read my sign, and said, "Well, I'll say one thing about you Quakers.  At least you're consistent."

I became disillusioned with protest movements when what were the largest global anti-war protests in history made absolutely no difference whatsoever.   Instead I focused my attention towards beauty, peace, and truth in hopes of being one vote towards a world inclined more in that direction.

This morning, before my walk, I read a bit about the Occupy Boston protest which is already sounding like this generation's Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention.  Chico's manifestation bore little resemblance to those news stories, and let me say right off the bat that nothing I say is intended to mock anyone by any means.  I am simply speaking from my own point of view.

I walked by the plaza and there were people sitting beneath tents.  There were signs, but no one was holding them and the slogans were, I thought, a bit uninspired.  Phrases like "The banks took our bailout money.  We want it back."  As someone apt to take photographs, I was disappointed.  I didn't see anything that made me want to photograph it.

Now, I have to emphasize that it was 1:00 pm on a Tuesday.  This was not exactly the peak time.  However, there were only 13 people.  It looked like this.

The caution tape was not a result of any concern on the part of the police or the city over the protests, but rather because the Parks department is redoing the sod around the trees.

I sat by the fountain about 25 feet away from the tents and a man stood up and began yelling.  He held pieces of paper.  At first I thought he was angry at the protestors until I caught little pieces of what he was saying over the gentle gurglings of the fountain.  "And corporations (gurgle gurgle) EVERY SINGLE DAY (gurgle gurgle) But the Consititution (gurgle.)"  Actually, I don't know why I'm trying to describe the sensation of sitting there.  I filmed a piece of it.

Eventually I moved closer.  As soon as the man started listing off dates of laws changing in America, I lost interest and left.  He looked like this:

I felt like you could change the outfit and setting and it could be a union organizer in the 1930s or an Ancient Greek philosopher or Lenin or Ezra Pound or Tristan Tzara or one of those Age of Reason French revolutionaries.  He is holding a manifesto and pacing as he reads it loudly.

What I feel about this current protest movement is complex.  I've read some good points being made.  I felt in almost complete agreement with this assessment from The Motley Fool, especially the three points which seem entirely reasonable and workable to me.

This may be my inherent misthanthropy or anti-social streak speaking or possibly the vestigial remains of my regrettable Calvinistic period, but I do feel that history will back me up in asserting that the major stumbling block to any Utopian movement is human beings.  I was recently revisiting studies in the works of Karl Marx and found, once again, that aside from throwing the baby of religion out with the bathwater, I am inclined to agree with him.  However, there is that awful grim spectre of all previous applications of his ideals in roughly 1/2 of human civilization in the previous century.  It did not go well.  One could make a very strong argument that those movements were not pure Marxist in spite of their claims.  Be that as it may, the practical applications of Marxism have been fairly ugly.  I think there may be those present in the movement in question who would point out equal atrocities as a result of unfettered Capitalism.  In short, I feel that checks and balances, opposing sides having equal power, are some of the best forms of regulating a society.  I am a fervent believer in democracy (in all of its clunkiness) because of the compromise and slow decisions such a system demands.

Laurie and I were discussing this and she said, "We have a complex government with a simple populus."  However, a simple populus, historically speaking, tends more toward the fascist/dictator models. 

One of the major problems of this sort of nascent movement is its undetermined direction.  On the opposite corner from the tents, completely diagonal and out of the sight line of the camp, was a lone man with a sign which read "End the Fed", and when I approached him from behind in order to cross the street, I could read something on the other side about Ron Paul.  Something enthusiastic I gathered.  But I felt fairly confident that the frustrations voiced on the opposite side of the park were of a more progressive nature, frustrated at the lack of restrictions on the market, indeed, the lack of government regulation to prevent the current economic collapse.  While I can sympathize with that mindset in a lot of ways, I feel like there is a real danger of a movement like this becoming The Tea Party, just with the opposite point of view.   

So, I'm left wondering what's really going on.  I suppose the fount from which this baker's dozen has flowed chose their place of gathering because of what they assume Wall Street represents.  There seems to me to be some panic and desperation in that choice.  I recall my late friend New York Rob telling me once that he wished there was a building somewhere that was "The Establishment Building."  It is probably worth stressing that this was before the buildings fell.

I can get right into the part of my brain that is still 20 year old Paul.  20 year old Paul would have been hopelessly devoted to a movement like this.  He would probably accuse 34 year old Paul of compromise (with the connotation that that is a bad thing.)  I can hear him say, "First they came for the Jews..." and things like that.  Faced with 20 year old Paul, I feel a niggling need to defend myself.

I do feel as though human beings need to be governed and most likely governed heavily.  I think that a complex system is probably a very good thing and that opposing forces are healthy.  I think that protests are healthy as well.  I think that people ought to hold one another accountable, which probably puts me more toward the Left end of the spectrum, probably closer to the people in the 13 person side of the park than the Objectivist corner.  But I also feel that tides can be turned in more quiet, monastic, contemplative, and wise ways.  You can take the Quaker out of the Meeting house, but you can't take the Meeting house out of the Quaker.

When Allen Ginsberg would go to protests, he would find a little corner and read poetry, sing songs, but mainly lead meditations.  And there would be Abbie Hoffman on the stage yelling about offing pigs while over in the corner there would be Ginsberg chanting "Om."  Sometimes the police would come and club them and they would keep saying "Om."  He felt that one should be the kind of change one wants to see in the world.  In spite of our different chosen traditions, I feel very much the same.

I feel as if I should be more of a contemplative.  I am so often immersed in the cares of this world and so often lose focus on what is truly important.  I feel like if I were to focus my attention on the "real work" that a great deal of my other problems (gluttony, stress, despair over the state of humankind, inactivity) would melt away.  Almost as if I were to seek first the kingdom of God, all of these things would be added unto me.  I just said that to Laurie and she said, "You know that passage comes from the part where Christ teaches to be anxious for nothing, right?"

I feel as if I am surrounded with a lot of very anxious people and their anxiety is seeping into my own.  I think the lesson I take from today is to be the man I ought to be.  A man standing around yelling in a park, regardless of whether or not I agree with what he is yelling, is still a man standing in a park yelling.  Eight billion people living within their means, providing for one another each to their needs to each to their abilities (which I believe Marx stole outright from Acts of the Apostles), treating one another as equals, understanding and admitting to the extent of our own shortcomings, loving one another as they love themselves... see what I mean?

Friday, September 23, 2011


Paul: Midway upon the journey of life (give or take), a space appeared in my etherverse.  In that moment between dreams and waking, I have a strange little place where, being a visually minded person, I work out ideas that I am interacting with.  I would argue that this place seems to be more on the sleep side than waking because of the oddness of the atmosphere. However, I seem to work through complex ideas with the focus of waking life in this place.  For example:

It is a chemistry lab like one would find in a high school or college with bust-level counters with gas nozzles and so forth.  It is in a run down strip mall, around the back where trucks make deliveries and there are dumpsters and broken pallets laying about.  Next door to the abandoned chemistry lab is a Chinese restaurant, and the cooks bring food over every once in a while when there are left-overs.

I live in this chemistry lab and people come to visit me.  The people who come to visit me are usually the people I am reading at the time.  Sir Thomas Browne has been by, as has John Milton, Benjamin Franklin, and Dante.  We talk through ideas that I am thinking about from reading their work and that seems to be the bulk of the function of the place.  I work out ideas there.  But my most often recurring guest is Socrates.

Socrates talks to me more broadly about my life and issues that I am working through.  Over the past several months, I've been gripped with an almost maniacal hypochondria, manifesting in being constantly convinced that I am catching a raging head cold which will preclude my getting done the quotidian tasks required to keep our economic balloon in the air.

So, the other day I was talking to Socrates about this and asked him what I could do about it.  He said, "Your focus is all wrong.  The soul is of infinite more importance than the body.  All of this temporal nonsense is so fleeting and impermanent.  Focus on truth and on living a virutuous life."  I think in an odd twist he gave a paraphrase of Eleanor Roosevelt saying that great people think about ideas while small people thought about things.

I asked him, "So, I'm going to get sick then?"

He said, "Oh yes.  You're going to get rip-roaring sick just like everyone around you.  But focus on truth and virtue when you are well and when you are sick and none of that will matter."

And that mission statement is where I find myself at this crossroads in my life.  Laurie and I have decided to reboot this blog, which I think we've settled on "topical" as an "About" although in our household that may mean current events or it may mean something one of us has just read about the effects of tithing on medieval agrarian practices.  I had thought about writing a "testimony" to kick off my portion of the reboot, but I look back on what I just wrote and precisely where I am in my walk, and I rather think that's exactly what I've just done.

Laurie:  As it happens in life, so it goes here.  From the first time you told me about your dream laboratory, which, by the way, was only a few days ago and over four years into our marriage, I've been speechless regarding it.  My silence, however, is by no means an indicator of disinterest.  In fact it's the opposite.  I am profoundly stupefied.  I'm not frightened or shocked, as though this were somewhat out of character or revealing of something dangerous or unhealthy.  On the contrary, it makes stunning sense. Of course you have such a place. It explains a lot - your particular genius for instance. 

And then I'm annoyed.  I could really use such a place and visitations by masters.  But perhaps I should be looking at it differently.  In you, I have them all. And so I will talk with you, as I have for as long as I've known you.

Your friendship to me has transformed my life.  I value your intelligence of course, but it is not so much that as it is the genuine respect you've always shown me which has led me to respect you, and to be willing to hear you out in matters on which I would normally be inclined to disagree or shut you out entirely.  Because of this, I've come to believe that respect (and the love it springs from) must be the foundation of any healthy relationship.

I also believe that such mutual respect is the only real hope for growth and instruction in wisdom. We can be coerced, intimidated, or indoctrinated through various pressures to assent to just about any ideology. But a true change of heart is another matter entirely.

Jesus Christ, as case in point, did not enter into his ministry merely telling people all the ways in which they were wrong.  His teaching was accompanied by genuine care and compassion, concern for physical needs, and respect. Even though by virtue of his own Godhood he was deserving of all respect, he set about "earning" the respect and service that was His due by modeling it.  This is the kind of relationship that led a former prostitute to weep in helpless adoration and gratitude at his feet. This is the kind of love and teaching that brings about changed hearts.

Though not a great deal of weeping at feet goes on in our house, a whole lot of life-changing and peace-making discussion, respectful disagreement, teaching, cooperation, confession, adjustment, humor, and learning do.  This is what we are hoping to bring to this blog.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What are you reading?

Well, we haven't been here for a while....a very long while. The truth is, Paul and I have both been ridiculously busy with our respective jobs. We have not been too busy, however, for the occasional geeky tomfoolery. Here's a peek at a little project Paul is warming up to - interviewing people about what they've been reading. Most naturally, and conveniently, he's begun with me! 

Here we are in our natural habitat.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Peace or Politics (pick one)

"But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." James 3:17-18

Laurie: We're living in tough times. By "we" I mean "WE" as in "We are the world," "we" as in "we here in America," and "we" as in Paul and Laurie Mathers. We are all living our way through the Great Recession as we speak. Some of us are feeling it more than others. Some of us will be left with stories to tell our grandkids not unlike the ones my mom used to tell - but not really like them either. I'm not leaving my piano and silver on the side of the road on my way to California. I'm in California, in a house with food in the refrigerator in spite of the hard fact of my husband's unwelcome unemployment status. One of the best things to come from the Great Depression was the invention of safety nets. Unemployment benefits are one of those nets for which we are ever so thankful at the moment.

But I don't really want to talk about how much the government should or should not be involved in such things. What I have in mind is what ensues whenever someone does bring up that subject - the subject of government. In "These Tough Economic Times" it seems everyone is looking for someone to blame, which translates: it's the other political party's fault. Whichever party we are not a party to is to blame and we hate them for it. And on top of that we find that we are all part of a system which, if we are going to get any problem solved, requires us either to wait for the next election, or to work together with our political rivals in order to try and straighten things out now - which, if things are really bad, you would hope, for the sake of those who are hurting, we would be able to do. But, it's this last thing which we are very bad at. We are stubborn, independent-minded folks with heels calloused from the digging. We are perfectly capable of becoming so engaged in political tugs-of-war that we are blindly trampling the very people who are already being hurt the most.

Paul: Yes. Up to a few years ago I had a strict policy of avoiding the topic of politics altogether. As you may well imagine, this lead to years of peace, but there was a cost. So often I would find myself in the company of someone spouting opinions that I found completely objectionable and, even worse, by my silence they would assume I was in agreement. This is why it's necessary to talk about politics. First of all, we are civic creatures. Second, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning.  A person of integrity cannot give assent by being silent. However, if I understand the direction we'll be steering this topic, I believe one can have peace, integrity, and possibly be a force of influence for good in the world even in this sphere. I mean, you and I have total peace in our home over political matters.

Laurie: Well, yes, we do. And, as you know, I share your discomforts over political discussions. I, too, often find myself in disagreement with my friends over such matters, and because my friends are so precious to me I usually choose to remain silent in order to keep them. I've learned through painful experience that people are oft inclined to ditch friendships in favor of political alliances (or should I say, to confuse political alliance with friendship?) So, like you, I'm often torn by the love I have for my friends and that little matter of integrity which you bring up.

And so you do bring me back to my point. What I really want to talk about is getting along, for the sake of love, with those we don't agree with. We rarely discuss this publicly, but Paul and I are members of different political parties. In spite of this, we discuss politics quite regularly and, to my recollection, have never had a single argument over the subject. Why? Because I understand his viewpoints about as completely as I can without actually crawling up inside his skull. I understand why he holds them, what logic is behind them, and what a great and Christian heart it is which leads him to feel the way he does.Yet, I don't agree with him. Or, perhaps I should put it this way: I agree with him in theory, but don't think his ideals are practicable.

Paul:  Well, I'm under no illusions about the unlikelihood of a Utopia, but I am compelled by my integrity to hold my ideals nonetheless.

Laurie::  Yes, and I even envision your Utopia as you describe it, and admire it (regardless that I think it can never be), and respect your viewpoint as a result. And, in like manner, you respect my views, though when we disagree you are not shy to tell me so, and why. During the years of our marriage you have even managed to influence me somewhat to moderate some of my positions. I'm not sure I've ever gotten you to moderate any of yours though. But perhaps you are better qualified to comment on that.
Paul:  I think circumstance and our walk together has dictated some changes of course for both of us. As far as speaking to one another about the issues, I've found that it's not difficult to maintain peace while speaking about issues we have different views on. First, I think it's wise for anyone to come to the realization that they do not have all of the answers. I know from thirty-three years of experience two important points that I do well to keep in front of my eyes: 1) I am often wrong and 2) I often feel completely differently on issues five years in the future given experience, circumstances, and gaining a larger sphere of acquaintances.

So, I find conversations go better if I can maintain a level of humility and respect, remembering that another, fully equal human being is speaking to me. I can remove terms like "Clearly", "Everybody knows that..." or "Even a child could tell you." That sort of thing. Instead, I replace them with the more honest "So often I have found that..." "I've noticed that..." or the wonderful "In my opinion."  Another good one when disagreeing with what is being said is: "That may be the case when it's 'such and such,' but in this case I find that..."

Why do we want to do this? Well, as I said, so often I have found that I am not always right, so I don't want to presume upon it. Also, people can sometimes offer points of view I hadn't considered.  But more importantly, I would much rather have peace and fellowship than to be 'right' all the time.

Laurie: And peace begins at home.

If we could all learn to put people above politics we'd have gone a long way to solving all our problems. We'd then remember that we are all in this boat, sinking or floating, together. What we do to others we end up doing to ourselves. Our fates, like it or not, are intertwined with one another's and with the measure with which we measure it will be measured back again to us. Nowhere is this more quickly evidenced and quickly learned than in the home. And there is no better place to practice, because who you are at home is who you are.

"If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing well." James 2:8
There is no better way to measure the respect and love with which we treat others than by this "royal law". How do I like it when no one listens when I speak? How do I like it when no one even tries to understand where I'm coming from? How does it make me feel when someone listens only with a mind to proving me wrong, rather than to gain true understanding? How do I like getting pat answers for my painful and most probing questions? How do I like my very real problems dismissed by someone's high-minded platitudes, telling me to "be warmed and fed" while refusing me food and clothing? How do I like my very real pains dismissed as unimportant, or my opinions as having no value? How do I like it when I speak to someone condescendingly and try cover it with a smile? How do I like it when I'm treated like an idiot simply for not agreeing with someone?

I'll tell you how I like it: I hate it! And I've determined to make this my guide. Love doesn't treat people in ways it hates to be treated. Our marriage is a little microcosm of our world. We our in our little life raft together. We do well not to sink it and we do even better than that when we learn to row together and make forward progress.

Paul:  Even a child could tell you this saying of Jesus', "And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them."

You mentioned before that peace begins in the home, which I absolutely find to be true.  It put me in mind of something you often say about how you treat your loved ones in the privacy of your own home is who you are. Or words to that effect.

It reminds me also of that Dave Barry quote we both reposted this week "A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person."

Or, as Christ put it, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."  I don't want to be a mocker or one who disregards others, or arrogant, so it would behoove me to guard against falling into those dark places no matter where I find myself in my dialectical life.

Laurie: Paul, what you seem to do almost instinctually I've had to be taught, but it's been, in a certain sense, one of the most freeing things I've learned. In another sense it's been unsettling. Learning to listen and understand the viewpoints of others helps me care for them as humans, not just labels. It helps me remember they are who they are for lots of reasons and all of those reasons seem like really good ones to them. It teaches me respect for them. It frees me to love them for the imperfect struggling souls that they are. It shows me that they are more like me than I ever dreamed. But it's also unsettling in a number of levels. Sometimes what a person opens up when they explain themselves is a world of darkness, fear, and malevolence. Other times they reveal my own darkness, that I've been wrong, or, if not entirely wrong, unkind or insensitive. Sometimes I find things aren't as black and white as I liked to think and that the real situation is as uncomfortable as shade of grey as grey can be.

Paul:  All of which are true and, I would add, all of which are people and situations which we need to approach with love, respect, compassion, and with regard to them as our equals.

Laurie: Exactly.

And one last thing comes to mind. As the saying goes, "as iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens his friend." So when succeed in silencing our friends who disagree with us we may very well be removing the very friction needed to sharpen us into more useful instruments in this world.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lighten up!

Paul: This week we had a little discussion about avoiding a potential issue that may be associated with our blog should current trends continue entirely unimpeded, which is to say becoming a blog about things we don't like and the way we feel things ought to be. I have some old tapes which took a great deal of searching to acquire, of old radio broadcasts by Alexander Woollcott. One in particular sprung to mind in what seems like may have been a rushed effort for that week's broadcast's content during the period when Woollcott was in London during the Blitz in an effort to convince America to enter the war against Germany.

Laurie: Wow, that was a really long sentence.

Paul: But grammatically unimpeachable.

That particular week, Woollcott chose to simply talk about a few things he'd liked and recommended. If memory serves, it was along the lines of "a meal, a play, a book and a song" or something like that. I thought it might be fun to attempt something similar on this blog.  I think the idea was also partly inspired by Laurie's recent blog post recommending her findings on the best products for cleaning one's home.

So, I'll pick a few categories, I'll leave Laurie to pick a few categories, and then we'll each give either our favorites or at least our recommendations in that category.

I choose: a product or service, a film, a book, and a beverage.

Laurie: Okay, I'm supposed to think of something now? I'm really bad at this sort of thing. You're the idea man; how about you choose some categories for me, and I'll accept or reject them?

Paul: No, we're both going to do one another's categories. So you're going to do the four I mentioned and also both of us will do some you are to come up with.

Laurie: What you seem to be missing here is that I can't think of anything. Maybe all those pop-quasi-christian relationship books are right and I'm just a "responder". Maybe this is also why I'm no fun at parties - that and my stubborn refusal to get drunk...

Okay, fine....hmmm...I'll choose: a musical genre, an historical era, a dream career, and an architectural style.

Paul: Yes, this is acceptable.

So, a Product or Service: I choose iTunes U. No matter who you are, if you have a connection to the internet (clue: you do if you're reading this) and you don't have excessively repressive time limits (meaning one of the few situations I could think of that would make this impractical would be if you are on a public library computer) you can access this world of knowledge. Simply get iTunes if you don't already have it. In the left sidebar is a link called iTunes U. This gives you access to thousands of lectures from hundreds of major colleges and universities around the world. You can go through entire courses or listen to specific lectures. There are major universities, minor ones, seminaries, other public lecture sources like the 92 Street YMCA in New York, and even some grade school and high school courses for those of you who could use such things. Some schools have vast libraries of lectures by great minds from all spheres and disciplines. Some have music or film or audio book resources. It is a wonderful resource which I encourage everyone to use. Probably 3/4th of our iPod is filled with material from iTunes U (and most of the rest is This American Life and Radiolab.)

Laurie:  Well I'll avoid the obvious choices of my practical nature (indoor plumbing, electricity, and internet - all of which I'm extremely fond of), and since you're not specifically asking for my "favorite things ever", but merely things I like and would recommend, I'll go with NPR - National Public Radio. I recently heard someone refer to it disparagingly as National Pagan Radio, which really made me wonder where they get their news. Besides my ongoing minor beef with Terry Gross's insistence on repeatedly featuring Bart Ehrman on her show as a representative of "Biblical scholarship", her attraction to Christian apostates, and her respect for any spirituality which is not Christian (That aside, she's one of the best interviewers I've ever heard, and highly recommend her show Fresh Air.), I've found NPR to provide the most balanced views on most every subject, far less slanted than any other network news source I know of. No, it's not Christian, but neither are the others. Through NPR I've been exposed to stories and subjects I'd never have heard of otherwise. I've also learned, by example, how to calmly and respectfully discuss difficult subjects and with people whose opinions differ from my own. In the three years I've been listening, I can only recall two times when I've heard anyone, conservative or liberal, treated in a verbally abusive manner. One was a caller to Talk of the Nation - the subject of the show was bullying - the caller was a self-described bully and proceeded to bully the host and the guest. The other was radio host Michael Savage, who was on NPR as a phone guest and abused a caller to the show who had politely stated why he disapproved of Savage's manner. Nowadays, when I happen to catch a glimpse of network news programming (you name it, FOX, CNN, MSNBC...) I feel like I'm watching a side show, a tacky, abusive, sensational, vitriolic, and biased circus.

Paul: I was listening to both of those shows on the days when they first aired as well and I shared your shock. Part of it was the contrast. But I know that whenever I find myself, for some infernal reason, in earshot range of a non-Daily Show major news source broadcast, I have the same reaction. It's sort of a new normal and I see it creeping into people's behavior. The television has told them to be unconfined, raging, frothy mouthed knee-jerk reactionaries and they are following orders. NPR is one of the few places I can still go to hear global news reported with an indoor voice.

Laurie: Really, is there any good reason we should be so shocked at the bullying in our schools, when this is the sort of behavior in which adults engage in the public sphere? But I don't want to open a new can of rabbit trails here. Beyond their generally wonderful example of respectful civic behavior, NPR also employs an independent ombudsman, to represent the public to the station, accept complaints and kudos, and to evaluate them for fairness, etc. Okay then. I'll hand you back your soapbox, Paul.

Paul: Now, A film: I am sort of a film buff, so it's hard to narrow this down, but if I were recommending a film to people across the board, it would be The Third Man. It was directed by Carol Reed and stars Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. It is probably my favorite movie and without a doubt one of the best ever made. I don't want to give too much away, but it sweeps you into a gorgeous but fractured world of post World War II Vienna, smack in the middle of a mystery with ominous undertones. But it's also fun, romantic, beautiful. Really, you must see it if you haven't and see it again if you have.

Laurie: Wow, this is hard. There's no doubt you are aware that I have the memory of a gnat when it comes to films. Every time I see one a second time, it's almost as if it were the first. So, I'm limited from the outset to the small subset that I can remember. As with my last recommendation I will bypass the obvious favorites of a female of my age (Gone With the Wind, Grease, Overboard, West Side Story...) and suggest something off the beaten path and wonderful: Criterion's collection of Rossellini's History Films. Each one is a work of Renaissance art come to life, velvety enough to convince you the world was then painted in oils. The history is insightful, provocative. I own The Age of the Medici, Cartesius, Blaise Pascal, and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. It's hard for me to choose a favorite. Cartesius and Pascal made me long for a time when all the disciplines were still married, when mathematicians were philosophers, and science was not seen to be in conflict with faith. The Age of the Medici was a peek into a family whose name is woven like a long thread of intrigue throughout European history. And Louis XIV, well, I never realized the method behind the man I always pictured as the silly grandfather of Rococo. I was astonished at his genius in taking control of France, and current political parallels.

Paul:All of them are amazing and the former three come in a set by the Criterion Collection.

A book: I purposely gave myself one that I knew would be difficult for me and one that would probably change depending on my mood that day. Today I'm going to go with The Fever, by Wallace Shawn. Shawn is one of the more powerful working playwrights around today. His work grabs you by the collar and mercilessly shoves a mirror in your face. In a good way, in a way where you leave the work a different person than you were when you arrived, be it for better or worse. Don't let the word "play" daunt you. It's actually a one person narrative which revolves around someone traveling who suddenly becomes acutely aware of the economic, political, social and classist forces that dictate the world. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and you can read it in an afternoon. It explores our comfort and discomfort as well as the cost of our lifestyles.

Laurie: Sheesh, how do you pick? Should I choose fiction or non? Sacred or secular?

Paul: I picked by looking over at my bookcase and thinking "Yeah, why not? That's a good one." There are hundreds of books I would recommend given half the chance. In fact, that's mainly what I do on my blog. So, I would say just pick something.

Laurie: Hmmm? Well, the ones I've read the most are Gone With the Wind, East of Eden, and the Bible. I've lost count of how many times I've read them. No one should go through life without reading Crime and Punishment. But I want to highlight something off the beaten track.

Okay, you'll have to bear with two. The first is The Freedom of the Will, by Jonathan Edwards. It is a largely philosophical work addressing the largely philosophical problem of the nature of the human will. He was addressing a view of the will which was then prevailing and remains the predominant view of volition: libertarian free will. It is a fascinating discussion, once you've slogged through the necessary defining of terms that is, and really helped me shape a view of the human will which is more in line with both Scripture and reason.

My next choice is a 1995 work by health and science writer, Laurie Garrett: The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. This book comes extensively researched and heavy with footnotes, and as riveting as good fiction. It's a very good journalistic account of the emergence of new and deadly pathogens (AIDS, Toxic Shock Syndrome, Ebola, Lassa, etc) and the dangerous re-emergence of old ones (malaria, cholera, TB...), the causes, the responses of the epidemiological community, their various governments' successes and failures in addressing the crises. There are lessons to be learned from Garrett's work which we ignore at our own peril.

Paul: A beverage: Summer is coming and I have a recipe for a drink I make.  I discovered this by way of artist Jill Thompson and make it in the hot months. Walking is my preferred mode of transportation and for 5 months of the year this is a dehydrating mode of travel in Chico. So, you get a glass, put in the juice of 2 lemons, 1/3 cup water with some sugar (different people choose different amounts) microwaved together and thrown in the fridge to cool back down. Some ginger pressed in a garlic press (again, different people choose different amounts. I use an enormous amount of ginger.) Throw some ice in the glass, add the sugar water, and fill with club soda. Very refreshing!

Laurie: Wow, sounds interesting....But I'll stick with my ice-cold Diet Pepsi, if you don't mind.

Paul: A musical genre: You know, I was really close to saying Dark Cabaret, but I think I'll go ahead and be predictable and say Classical and Opera. Both are genres which tend to have the stigma of being only accessible to the affluent. False! Again, go to your library and, if you don't know what you're doing, go to the circulation desk and tell them that you want to see opera and listen to a lot of classical music. They can load you up with DVDs and CDs and inter-library loan anything you'd like to hear that they don't have on hand. It is an embarrassment of riches.Or, go here and download a bunch of great, public domain performances for free.
I can also tell you from having worked in theaters for years, if you want to attend a live performance, a good deal of theaters out there have what is called a "student rush." This is for 1) people with limited funds and 2) to try to keep the theater full. A half an hour before a performance, tickets will often sell for a nominal fee. Also, many theaters have what is known as a "pay what thou wilt" night where you can get in the door for $5 or less. All of which can get you into a symphony or opera. Although I am personally of Glenn Gould's camp in that I believe that the days of live performance are waning. The high quality of modern recording allows one to enjoy music of equal or superior sound quality to being in the music hall without the side effects of sitting next to someone with a high chest cold or chatty season ticket holders or older people who are compensating for their loss of sense of smell with increasingly liberal applications of perfumes.
The best advice I can give to one who is interested in Classical music is to jump in head first and listen to a lot of things. Find out what you like and what you don't. Listen to people you've heard of and people you haven't. Listen to ancient, early music chants and brand new compositions that sound like someone knocking a box of metal pipes down a stairwell, and everything in between. Look up information on them. Figure out what periods and composers you like.
Why? First of all, it's an expression of the highest aspirations of human kind, running the entire range of emotions and experience. The composition is structured with great care, art and skill. If you fill your head with greatness, the idea is that greatness is what will then come out. On top of that, you get to tap into a universal music type which transcends both age and geography. It speaks to everyone one of us as fellow humans.
And for our Christian readers of whom we seem to have many, this is where they keep the good Christian music. Conductor Robert Shaw once said, "Western art music was born in and nurtured by the Church." If you're anything like me (and I know I am!) you probably are underwhelmed by the praise music offerings on your local Christian pop music station. Well, throw on some Bach or Sibelius. For me, Gregorian Chant focuses up a room to the celestial way more effectively than any of last year's Dove Award winners.

Laurie: Well, here again we learn who is the real oaf in this relationship. I never go out of my way to listen to classical music, mainly because I need to hear it in a context to understand it or "feel" it. If I can watch the performance I can become engrossed, but that is not usually the case when it is playing in the background of my daily activities.

Paul: An unfortunate, gross misunderstanding and misapplication of some in contemporary times is the attempt to use Classical as background or "mood" music. It should be anything but. It should demand all of our attention and, indeed, our being.

Laurie:I agree, and admit I often lack the required attention. Which brings me back to my selection. My taste is very eclectic, but I don't listen to a lot of music these days. When I need a pick-me-up it's usually funk I turn to: Parliament/Funkadelic, Cameo, Ohio Players.... It makes me smile. And on a completely different note, for pure beauty, I recommend Loreena McKennitt's, The Mask and the Mirror album. I walked down the aisle to greet Paul to The Dark Night of the Soul. Hard to hold back the tears.

Paul: A song which will forever remind me of you on our wedding day.

An historical era: Oh dear, well, while I try not to romanticize periods, I think if I had my Tardis and was only allowed one trip, I would flip a coin and either go hang out with the Zürich era Dadaists or the art community of Fin de siècle France.

Laurie: Sorry to bust in here...but...well...I don't know what on earth you just said. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

Paul: Um, well, the Dadaists were a group of absurdist artists responding to the severe existential meltdown of the War to End All Wars: WWI.  Zürich was sort of the flashpoint when the major early players were all in the same place creating a movement. Fin de siècle France is around the turn of 1900, known also as the Belle Époque or Beautiful Era. Think Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Debussy, Degas was still kicking around I think as a venerable old artist at that point, Edvard Munch, Paul Signac, Félix Fénéon. One of those pieces of space-time where a group of artists hit a boiling point. In this case, with sort of a doomed, birth of the modern tone that appeals to my sensibilities.  Also a huge collection of people I would like to have met in the same time and place.

Laurie: So, what would you say to them, besides "Hey, you're not going to believe this, but I'm from the future!"?

Paul: Well, considering who and how they were, I imagine that's the sort of thing they heard and said all the time. Mainly I think I would be interested in listening, observing the processes.

Laurie:Anyway, I'm rather surprised you didn't choose Shakespeare's England.

Paul:  I thought about it, and while I would like to see an original staging of a Globe production, I think I'd prefer a time and place without bear-baiting and with the custom of hand washing before meals and after toilet.

Laurie: Well, I've thought of this often, since there are so many fascinating periods of history, but I always find that in order to enjoy those times I'd have to not only travel through time, but undergo a sex change and wealth enhancement. The truth is, history has been overwhelmingly brutal to women in every way, in matters both big and small.

At what time in history would I like to be uneducated chattel living without rights, without the advances of medicine, indoor plumbing or feminine hygiene products, and for whom every pregnancy ran a high risk of ending my life? Whenever I've tried this thought experiment I've invariable come away thinking Right Now is not so bad after all.

Paul: Hm. As opposed to this enlightened age when women enjoy peace, freedom from oppression and fear of bodily harm, and equality in station and pay throughout the world? Hopefully the written word doesn't betray my dripping sarcasm here. I'm beginning to wonder if we wouldn't do better to take the optimistic road and both go dramatically forward in history.

Laurie: Listen, I'm not going to knock progress. The value of women and children in western society has made advances I'd hate to lose. It's fun to look back to "brighter days"- to Harriet Nelson. Truth is, wives were being battered and children molested back then and had no recourse whatsoever. Mommies popped "nerve pills" to help them keep up those perfect images we so wish to emulate. Black folk had their own water fountains and rode in the back of the bus. But as for looking to the future, people being what they are, I have little reason to believe the future generation will be any more a golden age than it is now. For all our progress, we are still vulnerable to holocaust.

But now, I think I've trod all over your good intentions, which is to say, your sympathy for the ongoing inequality women suffer. You are right, the world is still not a very friendly place for women, and in much of the world is as hostile and oppressive as in ancient days.

So, having cast that dark cloud, let's see if I can't cheer things back up by imagining time-traveler-Laurie gets to be a male....hmmm. Pretty much every era has been a brutal time for men as well. I wouldn't want to be Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or Henry VIII even. There really never have been any good old days. Oh boy, the cloud is back. Sorry. I'll try and get back into the spirit of the thing...being a Southern Belle seems like it might have been nice, if you could live with your slave-holding conscience.

Paul: You do remember that this category was your idea, don't you?

Laurie: Sorry. It's a fantasy I always start off enjoying until the side of my brain that remembers the billions of folk too simple to warrant a mention in the history books kicks in. That said, being an educated man, a philosopher or an artist, during the Renaissance would have been a great time. But there is one figure above all that I would have liked to have met in the flesh - Jesus Christ. I want to see him smile and ask Him questions - know what made Him laugh, hear His tone when he spoke to women and children, study His mannerisms. I've not given up hope of meeting Him.

Paul: Well done! You brought it around to the only positive point of view I could imagine. So I'll move on to A dream career: I just had this conversation with Stefan (Gina is my step-daughter and Stefan is her boyfriend, for readers who don't know and even for readers who do know) at my birthday dinner the other night. If I had a sack of money fall on me, I think I would start a classical theater company, mainly focusing on Shakespearean productions, but doing a great array of works, here in Chico. I think this town would embrace such a thing and, I daresay, I think such a thing would do this town some good. I would place myself as the creative director, probably direct two productions a year of my own and solicit other directors to direct other pieces throughout the year, (possibly in which I would act) hopefully making us a year round classical live theater company. We could do shows or workshops for schools, work with the college, be a very positive force in this community. If you're a wealthy philanthropist in Chico, email me.

Laurie: Well, the more romantic choice would be epidemiology. It's kind of like being an archeologist, but the hunt is for disease and it's causes rather than artifacts and theirs. My weakness in math, however, would likely preclude me from advancing far enough in my scientific education to get there. So, a more realistic "fantasy" career would be as a writer, lecturer, and historian with an emphasis on church history. How's that for lofty?

Paul: An architectural style: Oh, you know me. I'm going to say Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic. I like it when a building bashes me over the head with how it is stunning.

Laurie: Again I find myself guilty of thinking too small! I like what you like, but I had homes in mind. It's a tight race for me between Victorian and Craftsman style homes. Gotta love those southern colonial mansions too, but I think I'll choose Victorian. We have a lot of both types here in Chico, and even one colonial that I can think of, down on Vallombrosa. I wish I could say our 1905 "charmer" fit into any of those categories, but I'm afraid I can't find one for it. It looks an awful lot like the house my mom grew up in in Maine. Anyone have a fancy name for our house of sticks?

Paul: Sort of a Bungalow which is a term for "no style, we just built a one-story house."