Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading Response – Of Change

Normally, I reserve my "Reading Responses" for articles I've come across and my "Bookmarks" for books I want to review/comment on. But as 2011 comes to a close (good riddance, I say), I will reverse that for the moment.kafka
Last night I finished re-reading Franz Kafka 's novella The Metamorphosis. This has been one of my favorite stories for some time, largely because I find something new about it each time. The first couple times I read it, I took the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a bug quite literally. By the way, depending on the translation, Gregor becomes a "bug," a "cockroach," or "vermin."  I have no idea which word is most accurate. I prefer, at this writing, the latter, because of the reading I am now discussing and it's broad application. Anyway, as a story of fantasy or science-fiction (pardon my ignorance of such genres), the idea of one turning into a vermin works and makes for a fascinating study on how the world reacts to those who are different.kafka1
But as I read the story yesterday, informed by Jason Baker's introduction, I could not help but look at the story differently. Well, a little differently. The literal reading makes me angry at the family, lazy and inept, who turn on their son and brother after all the work he has done for them, and all the sacrifices he had made for them. Now, it is difficult for me to not also see the transformation from hard working human to burdensome vermin as a metaphor for a the nervous breakdown. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, I did notice that Kafka's own life, particularly his relationship with his father, bears this reading out somewhat.
What many think of a nervous  breakdown is when someone is so overwhelmed by life or stressed by unusual emotional circumstances that one acts in an irrational manner. But often that "act" is really to stop acting altogether. We have seen those who just, for no clear reason, stop moving, appearing to stare straight ahead, no longer reacting to those who are around them. The person many seem to be in a catatonic state, appearing to be awake, but not responding to anything or anyone around them. Without going into details, and noting I am no expert on psychology, I know more of this condition than I care to. The person may well be aware of what is happening around him, but feels paralyzed, unable to move. The person may sometimes think she is moving, is reacting or speaking, but that no one around her understands what she is saying or doing.
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis-720368Gregor Samsa has worked tirelessly, sometimes cheerfully, on behalf of his family for years, and one can say his body colluded with his mind while he was asleep, during the only rest and happiness he ever had, to just say no to the world upon waking. No to demanding bosses. No to ungrateful parents and sister. No to conventions that require one person to labor without reward as others grow more and more rooted to the couch.
At this time of year, people make many resolutions, but do they really want change? I don't think so. They want to be changed. Sure, many of work to change ourselves (lose weight, quit smoking, etc.), and many of those changes fail for a variety of reasons. But given the opportunity, we would rather have the change come upon us, as if we could wake up one day and be different in ways we desire, with none of the attendant complications.
We also forget, and The Metamorphosis reminds us, that change does not affect only us, but also those around us. Ironically, when Gregor suddenly cannot work, we not only see the selfish sides of his family and the heartlessness of the rest of the world, we see his family forced to get out of the house, to work, to be something. Previously, they were just, for lack of a better way to say it, slugs. The tragedy is that Gregor does not get to choose his life and when his body/mind changes for him he does not reap any of the benefits.
A pastor once told me that in difficult times, the body and mind may conspire not against us, but for us to momentarily bring us a needed mental vacation. Perhaps the difficulty lie in recognizing this need and learning how to care for (not about) ourselves before we are paralyzed or transformed into something we have less control over than the people in our own lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bookmarks -- The Universal Monk

Those who know me, know that I once considered becoming a monk. I have always been interested in finding how to incorporate as much of monastic spirituality into modern life as possible, while living in a world that is, for now, where my calling lies. John Michael Talbot's The Universal Monk is not so much a how-to as it is what-is. This book serves as an excellent primer for what has been called "the new monasticism." In addition to the rich and interesting history, Talbot's book provides insight into the elements of spirituality monastics primarily focus on and how they (and we, one senses) work toward the selfless, self-emptying life that Jesus lived.

The Universal Monk includes warnings and reflections on why monastic life is not for everyone and where monasticism fails for some individuals and why some communities fail or struggle to achieve their goals. Talbot reminds us that Americans often find it hard to live in monasteries because it "requires a voluntary relinquishment of one's self-will and self-determination under a rule and leadership that simply runs counter to the American ethos." I am of the opinion that much of that ethos is what may well be hurting the country, and that much in monastic spirituality could easily restore our country without us losing what is good and unique about American life.

What American Christians, in particular, can learn from this book is the need to seek God and find renewal in our relationship with Him before setting out in ministry and work. So much is hampered and unhappy in our lives because so much is about the hurried (and harried) need to get this or that done, and that includes ministries and "expressions" of our faith. We worry too much about what we are to the world, and too little on what we are to ourselves and to God. Before we can address anything wrong with our world, we must do even more than get the planks out of our lives. We must get in real touch with the God we want our world to be changed by. We need this renewal, not just once but every moment. As Talbot writes, "our real person is often very different than our personality. Our personality is often the persona we have learned to put on in order to hide from the often difficult and even violent outer world. The sad thing is that we often get confused and think that our personality is our person. We lose touch with ourselves and with everything around us. We end up living an illusion because we do not really even know who we are anymore. Jesus comes to restore us to ourselves" (emphasis mine).

Though just over 200 pages, The Universal Monk is expansive, and I think I'll need to re-read it. But even on my first read, I was awestruck at the simple and profound life that is drawn here. I say life, because this isn't a book of mere ideas. It is about what the author calls "conversion of life." And wherever we are, such conversion is needed and can be most powerful, not only to the individual, but the larger communities where we dwell.

Excerpts of the Talbot's book can be read here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Meditation IX -- Requirements

He has told you, O man, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

It occurred to me today that rarely in Scripture does God ever say to someone, "Do this one specific thing" or "Avoid doing this one specific thing." Even when Jesus told the rich young man to give everything he had to the poor and follow Him, Christ did not say "Give 20 percent of your stuff to these people" or "Make sure this poor person has been living a righteous life before giving money to him."

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, the church is told "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." A little further on, he writes, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you" and proceeds to list, not specific wrong acts, but the qualities and characteristics that bring us to wrong acts. For even the evil manage to avoid many wrong acts. But getting rid of (or putting to death) the characteristics that lead us to do bad things is much harder. It takes time and grace and a willingness to put on a "new self."

Paul does not leave us with bad to avoid, but also more characteristics to "put on," as one does clothing: "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." These are not good acts that replace bad ones, though it may look that way to us and to outsiders. Paul calls the church he is writing to "holy and beloved," and that is not just what we are, but what we are to be. We are to be separate in characteristics from the world and to live as people who are loved dearly by our creator.

And so we do not perform just acts: we do justice. Justice is our action. We do not perform kind acts: we love kindness. Kindness is what we spread and act as God's agents to create. And we do not act humble: we walk humbly, the loving Lord of the Universe beside us and within us. We step deliberately, getting to know the one whose power and light become the hallmark of all our movement.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Music Notes -- A Dreamer's Christmas

For some reason when I have tried listening to John Zorn, I've run into his more (for me) avant-garde recordings, which have been interesting and energetic, but not work I could listen to more than a couple of times at a sitting. But just in time for what is likely to be a crappy holiday is A Dreamer's Christmas, a real treasure that has me feeling good each time I listen to it.

There are a couple Zorn originals here, and they are really fine, but mostly we have some fascinating, lively, and accessible interpretations of Christmas favorites, from the opening keyboard and vibe driven "Winter Wonderland" to the closing "The Christmas Song" (with Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton), this is an album that has me smiling throughout. And to be honest, I can only say that about a dozen of the hundreds of Christmas albums I've heard in my life.

There are some terrific improvisations on A Dreamer's Christmas, which is good because most "jazz" Christmas recordings are dull, I'm sorry to say. But what makes the project a bit unique may be the instrumentation. Marc Ribot is excellent on guitar, and Kenny Wolleson's vibe playing is delicious. The rest of the band is good as well, but these two stand out for me. Some of the arrangements are also really fun, quirky at times without getting nuts. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" gets a treatment that made me actually like the song again.

Perhaps the best tune on the CD is the Vince Guaraldi favorite, "Christmas Time Is Here." As NPR's Tom Cole wrote, "It perfectly captures no only Charlie Brown's holiday angst, but also the mixed feelings a lot of us have around this time of year." But then the album takes a more upbeat turn with "Santa's Workshop," a tune that seems to reflect the frentic running around of the season. It goes well with the sped up, wonderfully wild parts of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

The songs here do focus on the more secular side of Christmas, but I don't think that should put off more spiritually minded listeners. These are secular not in the sense of crass commercialism. In fact, I get a sense that parts of A Dreamer's Christmas pokes a bit of fun at that element of the season. But the album seems to highlight the wonder and dreaminess of Christmas, something most of us, if we could watch with the eyes of a child, can easily understand.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading Response -- Of Wilful Ignorance

Some people, for a variety of reasons, struggle to get a good education. Some people choose stupidity as a way of life. Such is the case of Professor Paul Derengowski.

Derengowski resigned, he says, under pressure when two of his students filed complaints about his teaching practices. Most specifically, the World Religions instructor told his class that Islam is a cult.

Now before you go screaming about the First Amendment and all that, note that the problem was not Derengowski's opinion (or his goofy understanding of what a cult is), but that he had done much more. He handpicked the most inflammatory statements from the Qur'an, deliberately offended the Muslim students in his class, and claimed ex post facto to be opening a dialogue. He calls the complaints against him "jihadist actions."

First of all, whatever you think of Islam as a religion, one must note that Derengowski's definition of cult comes from little reliable theology. It is an actually cobbled together to fit pretty much anyone who isn't his brand of Christian. Second, he avowed states he is "against Islam." He has no interest in communicating the rich and varied expression of Muslim belief systems (yes, I meant that plural). In fact, his only goal is to incite anger and violence.

I find it ironic that he is worried about two students who went through the proper channels to complain about an instructor who devalued them and did not allow anyone to fairly challenge his misinformation. He published the two names on his website in an attempt of his own to harm those who dare to question him.

Paul Derengowski claims that what he teaches in his class is in defense of Christianity and that he has a Christian perspective. "Christians," he stated in a Chanel 11 interview, "are not supposed to stand by and let that go." Let what go? Well, Mr. Derengowski, this Christian is not going to stand by and let you pretend to represent my faith with your bile and baiting bullshit.

This alleged teacher claims that he set up his blog to defend his faith. But there are a couple of problems with this. First, he is defending himself (not Christianity) against attacks, that by and large do not exist. Second, he has a right to spew his misguided message on his blog. He does not need to defend Christianity in his classroom. He is to teach. Clearly he does not know what teaching is. Being a Christian does not at all mean his perspective or point of view is Christian. And what he has done is not Christian in any sense of the word.

Mr. Derengowski has a right to his opinion, and even his twisted interpretation of the facts. He has a right to proclaim what he believes, even if he is wrong. But he has willfully chosen ignorance, and that is something that must be stood up to. Teachers and Christians need to cry out against his kind, especially in a climate where education and true religion (see James 1:27) has been demeaned and demonized.

The truth is there are Muslims who are so radical in their beliefs, so intolerant of anyone who isn't like them, that they believe they have a god-given duty to kill Christians, Americans, and other Muslims for that matter. But this is not the majority. They are the ones on television (and I keep hearing of some "liberal" bias in the media), and the ones Faux News points out. Derengowski says that a picture of a Muslim kid with a gun is "history." Not really. It is the sort of vile manipulation of images that turns on the fence Muslims against us. It does nothing to education or represent the majority of Muslims in this country.

I am honestly shocked Derengowski has not been sued for posting the names of the two students who complained against him on his website. Hasn't this joker ever heard of FERPA? This doesn't take into account the slander of said students who did not (by all reports so far) threaten him, but whom he called "terrorists." He has put them in danger, not the other way around.

And what the hell is going on with a school that allows such a person to teach in its classroom? He's been there over three years and hasn't been shown for what he is, a fraud? Tarrant County Community College should be ashamed that they either 1)did not do their due diligence in researching this man's credentials and teaching or 2) knew about him and were too weak to get rid of him until a student complained. This is a man who was put in a position of power and has attempted to use that power to push his agenda.

I have little patience with students who choose ignorance over education. These are the ones who will do no critical thinking, will read almost nothing (even about the ideas they themselves have) and will call a professor a bad teacher when they hear something they don't like (such as, "You plagiarizing your essay means you have earned a zero for the assignment." or "You have not done the assignment correctly." or "Please do some research about this topic before you make bold pronouncements of your authority on such matters.") These are the students who say things like "I don't need to do research, because I already know what I think" and "My professor is getting big kickbacks from the publisher of his textbook" and "I got a bad grade because he doesn't agree with my views." I have endure such students with difficulty because instead of coming to school with an open heart and a desire for learning, they wish to be rewarded for their candid stupidity.

And "Professor" Derengowski is just such a teacher. What he tries to do is a blight on the profession of teaching. It is no wonder that so many politicians and pundits decry advanced education and try to strip it of any power to build a stronger nation.

People like Paul Derengowski do more harm to Christianity than a hundred Madelyn Murray O'Hares and a thousand Christopher Hitchenses. To the profession of teaching, people like him do harm that too often cannot be repaired because his most ardent students eventually become twice the children of Hell he is (Matthew 23:15).

Meditation VIII -- Storms

"And the men marveled, saying, 'What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?'"

These men might have asked themselves, "What sort of man is this that sleeps through storms?" or they might have asked "What sort of teacher rebukes his disciples for a lack of faith they didn't even know they were supposed to have?" But the disciples, still in awe at the miracle of their salvation, could only wonder at the one they had not yet learned to see as the Son of God.

Had not Jesus recently taught them "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" and "your Father knows what you need before you ask him"? Yes, but the disciples had not been made ready to put the words of the lesson to the actions of life. They were not thinking of "tomorrow" at all, and it had not occurred to them that "tomorrow" might mean any moment in the future, even the few minutes from now in which they might perish. They could only think of that moment, the few minutes before their possible deaths. And they could muster in their minds only two certainties: they would die and Jesus could save them.

God, we are told by the psalmist, "never slumbers nor sleeps." However, the disciples had not yet seen the God that Jesus is. All they knew was the powerful man, the one who not only told the elements what to do, but also spoke words of comfort and encouragement to a people poor and oppressed, who expected of them both more and less than their other teachers had. He had the peace that passes understanding so that he could sleep in storms and could know how to handle such a "little" thing as a tossed about boat.

Christ continues to baffles us. This was the one who would choose, after all his miracles, to not save himself. This was the one who would defeat even the final reality, death. And only when that happened, did the whole of his teaching begin to make sense to the disciples. They began to remember what he had told Him about living, and started to proclaim His Life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Music Notes -- 3 singles by Richard Souther

Richard Souther calls his nearly 50 minute, one track project The Burn "soaking music," which allows the "setting aside of oneself to focus and meditate on God for renewal of strength and peace." I've been listening to it for the past few days, and at least for me, it well achieves its goal.

Souther improvises at the piano over an electronic soundscape, and the result is beautiful and calming. It is like a suite for the soul. Souther knows well how to use the space he has created, playing just at the right time, and certainly the right notes. It is nothing short of inspired.

Souther is making some of his best music these days with The Burn and his Prayer Closet series (Volume 3 of which is yet to come). At $2.99, this is an easy addition to one's quiet time library.

"Jacob's Ladder" is an electronica piece designed as a soundtrack for Joaquin Montalvan's short film "Prayer of the Mantis" which can be seen here. The music is a fine piece of electronica, but combined with the movie is rather stunning.
Prayer of the Mantis from Joaquin Montalvan on Vimeo.

Souther is donating the proceeds from the sale of his recording "Barbara Allen" to Friends of Animals Utah, and a beautiful song this is for them. Souther writes he "became aware of this 17th century Scottish ballad through the 1951 version of Charles Dickens' Scrooge." This version is a good companion to Souther's2008 release, Reminisce.

Richard Souther also has a number of fine holiday recordings available, and I recommend each of them. But give yourself a gift this Christmas, and get one or more of these tunes. The price is more than right.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Meditation VII -- Light

"on them a light has dawned."

Mathew notes that John the Baptist had been arrested when Jesus began his preaching ministry. In a time when the powerful may seem to have quashed the voice of God, another voice seems to arise, one that says, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."

But that voice was always there. It is always here. It will not be silenced, no matter what powers think themselves rulers of the air.

"The people dwelling in darkness," Isaiah said, "have seen a great light." And today I wonder at others, and at myself, who stay in that darkness having caught a glimpse of the Lord.

But why wonder? The darkness is comfortable, warm, easy. Christ's light reveals us for who we are, and who wants that? That light exposes us as the failures and self-centered people we really are, the "good enough" people we want to believe ourselves to be.

Christ's light is not always, however, a mere candle, showing us step by fearful step, out of a dank and cold cave. It has dawned, like a sun, sometimes obscuring what we might not need to see, but always providing the heat and energy and life we need to live in Him. It brings us, after every sleepless, awful night, nothing less than hope.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Reading Response: Of Fox and the Drug War

In a recent WFAA story, Vincente Fox, former president of Mexico, was quoted as saying that the drug problem in the United States is all the fault of the United States. He said, "If you don't consume drugs, our problem is solved. We're doing our part. We're paying with 50,000 dead."

What Fox means by you is the entire United States. What he means by we is the entire country of Mexico.

So of course, he's wrong. Well, mostly wrong.

First of all, not all of us are using drugs. Get that shit straight, Mr. Fox. Second, bad policies, exploitation of the poor, and corruption in Mexico dating back decades, are as much to blame as demand from the United States for below the border supply. Third, don't throw around a number like 50,000
as if Americans have not lost many lives on this front.

One might as well state that the United States has a problem with illegal immigrants because our country is more desirable and safer to live in than almost any other country in the world.

Now it is true that many Americans want the illegal drugs that come from and through Mexico. Even in a rough economy, many find the resources to pay for the poison that brings death not only to addicts, but to their families, friends and to hundreds of law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Adding to the problem is the fact that the medical profession, in general, has fostered a culture ever more dependent on medication, substances that most really do not need. So many problems seem to be "fixed" by taking drugs.

And if we keep up the demand, we are likely to continue to have a supply, and all the headaches that comes with it.

However, for Fox to make such blanket generalizations and assumptions at the same time he ignores the causes that come from his own country is unconscionable and counterproductive. But what do we expect from
...a politician?