Friday, August 31, 2012

What if we prayed?

When there is a calamity on the news, we are almost never there, but so often the horror of it strikes so deep in us, that we feel that we are. When talking heads are arguing over hot button issues, we inwardly argue with or right along with them, even though if we were honest, much of our lives would not be different no matter what the outcome is.

It strikes me that most Christians are more interested in issues than Jesus. They seem more in a hurry to prove a point than to allow Christ to reign. Too many Christians have become issues evangelists and have forgotten the very basics of Christian life, the most significant of which is prayer.

I wasn't ten minutes into watching news coverage of the horrible mass shooting in Aurora, when I knew what I would see as I logged into Facebook. People on all sides of gun issues were posting their thoughts about how things would play out if there were more guns or less guns or if laws allowed this or that. Most of the posts, on both sides, were downright illogical and silly. Then of course came the mocked up pictures and "ecards" with supposedly pithy witticisms that were really the same tired bumper sticker cliches that are really, to use another cliche, preaching to the choir.

And that cliche is apt, at least from what I could see, because most of these posts, vitriolic and vicious, came from Christians.

The urge was strong that day to respond in kind, as so many others did, with my own "reasoning" and explanations of facts. And had I done so, I would likely have spent the day engaged in a number of conversations that would have gone ultimately nowhere and done no more than alientate me from those I care about, make it hard for me to sleep and distract me from the work I had to do.

I chose, instead, to call on my Christian brothers and sisters to pray instead of posting their opinions. I tried to spend time in prayer specifically about this situation and everyone (yes, everyone) involved and affected. I do not write this to say I am an exemplary Christian. I am well aware of Our Lord's mandate to avoid praying in public or publicizing my spiritual life.And I certainly don't want to offer up some sort of formula or panacea for world peace. But I offer the question that perhaps most of us should ask about the controversies and chaos in the world: What if, instead, we prayed?


What if, instead of knee jerk reactions to the terrible things that happen and the horrendous people who have perpetrated and/or allowed them to happen, we took a few minutes to pray for the victims and their families. What if, instead of crying "Monster" toward person who had done something evil, we prayed for those who have become our enemies (don't pretend Jesus didn't tell us to do this), and for the families and friends who must live with the tragedy in a way we could never understand. What if, instead of placing and proclaiming blame to a politician or group or idea, for the hurt and pain that has come into our lives, we prayed for healing and wisdom and strength. What if we prayed for our leaders (another command of Christ) instead of emptying our brains with rhetoric? What if we asked for God's will to be done and for us to be at peace with it, no matter what it is?

What if, instead of reacting to the posts and proclamations on Facebook, we turned the computer off and prayed, for those we want to "correct," and for those whose opinions we agree with and feel compelled to add our own take to?

What if we looked to and relied on the Holy Spirit we say we believe in instead of (or at least before) we went searching the internet or our Bibles for something that backs up our position? Perhaps we need not only to get the mote out of our eyes, but the cross in our hearts before we let loose words we know in our hearts come from anger and fear as much as conviction.


I am not saying these opinions are not deeply felt or even wrong. I do not, in any way, want to minimize the importance of the issues we hold dear. But the truth is, if we are really honest with ourselves, most Christians do not put prayer first and foremost in their lives and when they do it is the perfunctory morning/bedtime prayers that are essentially the same unless we feel a personal attack or something is going wrong in our personal lives. And that is a good reason to take these matters to God in conversation. If they are personal enough to spread our opinions, they should be personal enough to talk to God about. And to shut up long enough to listen. If Christianity is to have the impact in the world we think it should, then shouldn't we want God's perspective and not our own?

Once, when I was trying to teach a class about research, I had a student who proclaimed, "I don't need to do research. I already know what I think." Sadly, more and more Christians take that approach to life. They already think they are right (and well may be), but forget that "being right" isn't enough. All the rhetoric in the world is useless if we are not centered on Jesus and willing to be silent sometimes and let God do the talking.

What did praying do for me? One of the first things it did was put me in a place of calm, where my emotions were not ruling me. One effect was that I did not attack the people who were posting things I not only disagreed with, but felt were harmful and sometimes hateful. I realized after a while that they didn't need correction as much as they needed Christ at the center. I found it easier, a couple of days later, to find more rational conversations and took part in those. 

And guess what, the fact that I did not participate in those conversations right away did not change anything. The dead still were dead. The criminal was still a criminal. The issue of gun control was not, as if it could be, resolved. But I was in a better place to listen to those I disagreed with and to express my thoughts. Or to just let things go.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Caliban's Senryu

The Collected Poems: 1945-1975The Collected Poems: 1945-1975 by Robert Creeley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted so much to love this book, because I have read several Creeley poems here and there and enjoy so much his collaboration with Steve Swallow (Home). But I could only like some of this massive collection. Much of it left me baffled.

I suppose what troubles me is that some of what I enjoyed in reading this book might well be said of poems I could not find much to get excited about. I love the haiku-like quality of several of the poems, and it is the short, compact pieces that got to me. However, several of the short poems just seemed to sit there. No image. No idea. Just words.

Despite the musicality of Creeley's work, several poems seemed to jumble syntax for its own sake and repeat words for no particular reason. Maybe I just missed it. But a few of the poems made me feel that E.E. Cummings and Williams Carlos Williams had created a kind of Caliban, at times tender, but often mumbling semi-coherently.

I did find some beautiful love/erotic poems. And despite my harsh reaction to my first reading, I do think I will need to return to this book and certainly to other Creeley collections. I haven't given up that I'll find more jewels.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not a World of Men

Glengarry Glen RossGlengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"it's not a world of's not a world of men,'s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders"

Glengarry Glen Ross is, on the surface, about men trying to sell real estate. But it is really about more about the lies upon which businesses are made and conducted, lies which layer upon each other and compete with each other until no one has a moral compass, and all are guided the simple idea of "getting what's mine."

The story is also about fairness. The system here rewards the successful with a Cadillac, but punishes the less successful (or unlucky) with the loss of job. But it is also a system where only a few are given the best opportunity to cash in on that success. While the play is set in a particular world, this theme is universal.

While it was sometimes difficult to follow the plot because some details of the setting are not familiar (and Mamet provides next to nothing to help), I managed to keep up and get the hang of the story. Glengarry Glen Ross is a sad, riveting tale, one that needs to be read.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That Eighth Step's a Doozy

A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After dozens and dozens of novels, sixteen of which feature Matt Scudder, one might think Block could mail a few in. But A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a tight, well-crafted story that should delight the fan and those who are new to Block's work (where have you been?).

The novel is told as a flashback, set just before the first anniversary of the protagonist's sobriety. He briefly reconnects with a childhood friend, Jack Ellery, who is killed not long after. Scudder, still an unlicensed detective, is hired by the friend's AA sponsor to look into Ellery's death via his Eighth Step list. (This is a list of people a recovering alcoholic believes she/he has hurt or wronged with the goal of making amends when possible and prudent.)

Scudder is also trying to understand his relationship with Jan and facing new stress about his anniversary, and these weigh heavily on him as he travels New York City (often cited as a character in the Scudder novels) talking to people from Ellery's past and trying to figure out who and why someone would kill him.

I was very intrigued by Scudder's own psychological struggles. I have read novels where he was still drinking and some where he had long been sober, but here readers get a glimpse at the unique circumstance of a psychological middle ground, not new to the changed life, but far from being in the position where he could sponsor others. But none of this information bogs down the novel. It is still a fine page turner, with typically crisp dialogue and intriguing characters.

I had a ball reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff, so much so, I'm ready to go back through the whole series.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Parables, Good Soil, and Vision

Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

As a teacher, I cannot help but find this verse telling. Jesus asks this of his disciples after quoting from Isaiah and sort of explaining why he uses parables to teach. The others are to "see but not perceive...hear but not understand." But those following Christ are "given the secret of the kingdom of God." Some secret, the disciples, seem to say, if we don't know what the heck you are talking about.

I teach literature every year to students who mostly do not want to read stories and poetry and have so long been conditioned to hate literature that they are actively resistant to it. And thus the joy and wonder and thrill I have in reading is lost on most of them. I try to help them along, and a few do manage, I believe, to get something out of the course. Lots of them say, "Why can't these writers just say what they mean?" I want to answer, "They do." and "Why don't any of us say what we mean?" The problem isn't really with poetry, but with communication. We can do our best to communicate what we think is important, and still not get our message across.

My students often blame the poets. But at what point should we blame the reader? At what point can we admit that we didn't listen well, or at least didn't put ourselves in a position to listen well. Jesus said, "those that were sown on good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit." How do we make ourselves "good soil," so we can hear and read well?

One of my goals as a teacher is to help my students to read well, not only the literal words in front of them, but the world around them. Because poetry is everywhere, not only in words and verses, but in our cars, our math, and in our computers and the rain and sun and the animals we love. We must take in this poetry and learn to interpret our world before reacting to it. We have to hear the parables and cultivate good soil if we ever want abundant life within.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Meditation XXII -- Doctor

Painting by Sieger Koder
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

How many times have I read the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark and thought about the power and wisdom of God to put those smug, judgmental scribes and Pharisees in their place. And certainly Jesus does this. At the same time he recognizes the humanity of the "sinner" and emphasizes God's love for that sinner.

And how easily we relate to that sinner, saying "God loves me. God calls me. God cares for me." And how quickly we can become smug and judgmental of those worthless scribes and Pharisees.

The truth is we are not always the "sinners" eating dinner with Jesus, but Pharisees complaining about His relationship with the crippled, unclean and unlovable. Search your heart with God's help and you will see.

I am struck when Jesus says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," because the Pharisees and scribes should have been the doctors who brought about healing. Yet their "cure" was to create distance, to confuse the sick person with the disease itself! Yet Christ came to heal them (and us) too.

Lord Christ, we are all sick and in need of healing. Let us come to You as Levi did. You called him; he came. Simple as that. May we also open ourselves and our homes to You, and receive healing. So be it.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Movie Notes -- Courageous

In general, I do not like "message" movies. In fact, to say I do not like them is an understatement. I LOATHE them. Most moviegoers don't seem to understand that a good or important message alone cannot make a movie worth the trouble and expense of watching (let alone the trouble and expense of making). That Courageous is brought to us by the same group who gave us the horrendous Facing the Giants did give me room to pause.But I found myself really enjoying this interesting little film.

There are five main characters in Courageous: four policemen and an honest, hard working day laborer. The main character of the story is Adam Mitchell, played by director and co-writer Alex Kendrick. He seems to be the mentor and unofficial leader of the group, someone who wears his faith on his sleeve, but is likable even in his crusty mannerism (or because of them perhaps). When his daughter is killed, he doesn't so much question his faith (as the promo material says), as much as whether he has been and is the father he should have been, saying that "good enough" is not good enough. He eventually decides to make a resolution that he asks his friends to help him stay accountable to, and his friends decide to sign it as well. 

There is more, much more, to the story than this, but that is the gist of the message and the plot, which I'm sure will put off some. But this isn't just about being a good father or a better father or even a biblical father, but about the importance of fatherhood. That also may put off some, but because this story is written  and acted pretty well, and isn't so preachy, I think most people will enjoy the movie, even if they don't buy its basic premise.

I haven't decided if there is too much story or not. On one hand, there is a lot to follow, as each of the other male characters have their own issues to deal with. I loved (and related best with) the character of Javier, and felt that, David,  the one unmarried man in the group (played by Ben Davies) could have had a whole movie about his story. On the other hand, these stories ask a lot of an audience in terms of emotional investment. I can say that the film, for the most part, pulls off all these narratives without leaving gaping holes or confusing the audience. And it is much more honest and gritty a movie than most in its rather narrow genre.

Yes, the movie is hokey in places. Yes, it is heavy-handed with its message in places. But overall, the experience of watching Courageous is quite satisfying and well worth your time.