No, this is not the story of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was just acquitted of all charges of crossing state lines and gunning down black men at a protest in Wisconsin last year. The predominantly white jury found him innocent on all counts.

Emmett Till

This is rather the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black youth who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. The all-white jury found the two white assailants not guilty on all counts. They walked free. If this sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it is. This is a repeating American story. In short, white people may shoot, lynch and murder black people without accountability. Black people are killed, convicted, sentenced and executed with regularity, especially if they have offended a white person. White juries and judges have been complicit in a pact of white protecting white from the founding of our country. The illusion that justifies such outcomes is the myth of impartiality, which is just that, an illusion. After the rituals of the legal process have bee completed, forgone conclusions assume their disingenuous places, decorated by the symbols of justice.

There is not liberty and justice for all, regardless of how often we have recited those very words in the Pledge of Allegiance. There is liberty for some, and no justice for all. Rather, white power structures insure outcomes satisfactory for a white majority. With a few exceptions.

Emmett Till was neither the first example of this nor would he be the last. His case was not rare. For altogether different reasons Kyle Rittenhouse was also neither the first nor the last and also not rare.

But now, with Rittenhouse’s not guilty verdict, contemporary iterations of earlier white-hooded vigilantes will be emboldened, planting their burning crosses with impunity, brandishing arms, shooting down anyone they define as the enemy of the white race or a threat to their person, all the while hiding behind the Second Amendment.

We have just entered a sinister zone. Or perhaps never left one.

Finally the long overdue bill to rebuild the infrastructure of the nation and refit it for a dynamic future is here. The bi-partisan bill is now law and authorizes federal expenditures to not only undergird the real time needs our country has neglected while other nations have surged ahead, but also generates solid, well-paying jobs and a new era of economic growth.

For Missouri, this translates into very concrete projects over the next five years:

Repair and rebuild our roads and bridges. In Missouri there are 2,190 bridges and over 7,576 miles of highway in poor condition. Missouri will receive $6.5 billion for roads and $484 million for bridge replacement and repair.

Improve sustainable public transportation. Missouri will receive $674 million.

Build a network of EV chargers across the state to facilitate travel with electric vehicles. Missouri will receive $99 million.

Connect every Missourian with reliable high-speed internet. 330,000 Missourians currently lack it. Missouri will receive $100 million.

Prepare our infrastructure for the impacts of climate change, cyber attacks and extreme weather events. Missouri will receive $21 million for wildfires and $19 million for cyberattacks.

Deliver clean drinking water and eliminate toxic lead pipes for all communities. Missouri will receive $866 million.

Improve our airports to bring them up to the highest standards. Missouri will receive $246 million.

Along with other members of my Rotary Club, I volunteer as a “walker,” steadying various riders atop their trusty mounts. The Sunny Oaks Equine program specializes in reaching out to people with a host of disabilities, many of them children and youth. These challenges span a spectrum of ability and age. What they have in common, however, is the healing power of horses. And what a power it is.

I was surprised by my assignment when I arrived at the corral this evening. She was a woman my age, striving to balance herself in the saddle, helmet in place, listing from side to side as she sought out the center point. Her grown daughter intercepted me as I headed in to take my place beside her. She encouraged me to do whatever it took to keep her upright. “You see,” she said in a matter of fact way, “seven months ago mom had a cerebral aneurism that slayed her body and mind. It’s been a long road and she still can’t retrieve even a rudimentary level of the language, the thoughts, and the movement that she used to have. It was all taken from her in a moment.” This was the woman I walked beside, steadying her as she straddled a creature that was easily five times her size and strength.

Several times she mentioned horses from earlier in life, and when I asked her about riding she said that it was something she had enjoyed from the beginning. And so here she was, returning, the same and very much not the same. At one point she had us steer toward the corral fence where her daughter and husband sat on the outside. “Show the picture,” she implored, and the daughter stepped forward with a framed photo taken years ago. It was of her prized horse, an Arabian, one that was a gift from her husband. And there she was, a younger, stronger, whole version of herself, riding, sitting tall and proud in the saddle, a look of total confidence in her face.

She wanted us to see, to know who she was, who she had been, who she felt like even if we could not see it, not the diminished version before us who was afraid of dismounting because she might fall.

There was another rider in the ring, a little girl, probably seven or eight, blonde curls falling out of her riding helmet. She was altogether happy with her four-legged friend. My older charge saw her across the corral and her eyes locked on her, words sputtering out how pretty, how dear, how well she rode. And when it came time for end of season ceremonial awards to be presented to riders, my rider said, “That little girl, she should have, the ribbon. She needs to get the ribbon.”

Somewhere in the depth of memory, the proud rider of Arabians saw herself in this little girl, there across the ring, riding, riding, riding the circle, laughing, smiling, moving, reaching across the ring, across the span of time, body, ability, loss, beauty, and age, until in the end all that was left was the clomp of hooves, many hooves, in the rhythm of life, the repeating rhythm, that no one makes, but hears, receives in riding, traveling far, again and again, loving, longing, and remembering with whatever reins we hold in our hands until our turn is over.

I recently sent out a link to the Kindle version of a new collection of poems, A Baker’s Dozen. For some time people have suggested that I gather up some of my poetry for distribution. This I have done, 12 + 1 of them. Most of them are recent, though a couple were written several years ago. I hope you enjoy them. Please feel free to share. I am not charging for them because I simply want to share them. If you do reprint one or a portion of one I hope you will attribute it. Today I am providing the Pdf version, one you can read, download, print or share.

When I was a little boy I noticed that my father would play with poetry. These were not only love poems, though I later found that love poems were indeed part of his canon of poetry. They were mostly playful little poems used for games or clues in some quest. They always rhymed, often following some tried and true pattern like Roses are Red, Violets are Blue. His poems were not meant to be classics. And though he was not a man of letters, I do remember him reciting Hamlet’s Soliloquy by memory, no doubt some remnant of Highschool Literature. I’m guessing Dad would be some perplexed by my verse, especially as it is not meant to rhyme and the meter is often irregular. But I also guess he would intuitively understand the metaphors, similes and allusions to things seen and unseen.

If you click the link below you can download the whole little project. Poetry is meant to be contemplated, both in its writing and reading, and often out loud. For me, poetry essentializes meaning, distills and concentrates in carefully chosen words and images that which gets to the heart of a matter. Tied to music it often creates an indelible trace in memory. Good prose does that too, of course, but poetry even more so. Like any good Baker, I’ve given you a dozen with an extra one thrown in for good measure. You get to choose which one you taste first.

It was from Janis Joplin and her Me and Bobby McGee that I first heard them, the words that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I always pondered those evocative lyrics, not exactly knowing what they meant. But in this historical moment, they make more sense than ever.

The word freedom is used in the Me and Bobby McGee sense in many quarters today. For those who truly have nothing left to lose it has become a sort of battle cry. It is combined with echoes of patriotic sentiment, as in, don’t tread on me, don’t overreach, because this snake strikes. It is also cynical, representing a giving up on anything that means anything beyond the individual. But most of all it appeals to a most natural inclination among humans, selfishness. I wish I could say that this is the selfishness endemic to the irreligious, because that would be a tempting leap. If only, the sanctified might say, these irreligious souls would just come on over to the religious household then they would get all altruistic and such. If that were only the case. We’ll return to that in a minute.

But first, on the purely political level, a goodly number of Americans have reduced the core tenants of democracy to a kind unfettered freedom of the self, that I can do anything I want, anytime, for any reason. Just so I get what I want. And nobody tells me what to do. You could say this is extreme libertarianism, but it is much more than that. It has reduced the lofty vision of E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) to Out of the Many, only One Matters. Every right is about me, very selectively chosen without reference to the rights of lack of rights of others.

You find this in current political speech relating to the pandemic and the balance between individual rights and the common good. At town halls and city council meetings, in the midst of deliberating on how to best secure the most good for the most people you hear a voice crying the wilderness of the back of the room: “Freedom!” What that town crier of the council meeting is referring to, we surmise, is that each person should have freedom to choose for him or herself. If we should have seat belts, traffic signals, litter laws, hours the park is open, warnings on cigarette packages – all those that represent overreach, Big Brother laying the heavy hand of imposition on the poor citizen, even it it is in the citizen’s best interest. If we are free, truly free, we should be able to choose from a menu of options – yes this one, no, not that one. If masks have been shown to contain spread of the virus, it is not the good of the many that is important, but rather whether I think it is an inconvenience I don’t want to bear. Or worse, that government is ramming this down my nostrils. Even if the vaccine and the vaccination of a sufficient number of citizens will contain the virus and in the end overcome it, I don’t want to if it violates my freedom to choose, even if it is ultimately in my own interest and the interest of my family members.

This cult of unbalanced freedom is egged on by politicos who have something to gain from the rage of the masses. Ironically, it is most often people running for government office who help populist movements piss on the intentions or performance of the government, whatever level of government that happens to be. In the end, our freedom becomes more important than any other thing, including matters of life and death.

Of course, these are the same persons, the same freedom-at-any-cost people, who squawk the loudest about closing the society down for protection. They shout and scream and spit because they can’t eat without a mask at a restaurant. Ironically, these are the same ones who most often refuse to be vaccinated, the one thing that would keep the economy open, what they want the most.

In this cult of absolutist freedom, the good of the many is irrelevant and my comfort or preferences or unimpeded movement is the most important thing at any given moment.

Lest some are tempted to self-righteousness too quickly, many in religious communities are not much better. They have stolen and then mangled the original meaning of spiritual freedom and liberation from bondage from the scriptures and tradition. It has been turned into a kind of libertine endorsement of selfishness: “If Christ has made us free, we are free indeed!” And that is taken to mean that the servanthood of Christ is not really about loving neighbor as self, but rather claiming a kind of position of privilege. Gee, I’m so special that I deserve just exactly what I want. In these circles you never hear that the most faithful thing, the way I can love my neighbor the best, is to get vaccinated and make sure we all get vaccinated. Instead of that ethical response, we generally hear yet another rhetorical volley about freedom.

I remember the very first time, preceding the 2016 election, that I heard the cry of “Freedom!” from the back of a church board meeting. I can hardly remember what the actual issue at hand was, but the misguided soul just couldn’t contain himself and shouted out the affirmation like he was reciting lines from Braveheart. All he got was glances from people who had no idea what his acclamation was about, including the stare of his most embarrassed wife.

It is sufficient to say that that a broad selfishness has overtaken many quarters of the church and twisted it away from anything that resembles a Christian thought or Christian way. Basically, the freedom claimed is a freedom in which we are supposedly free to abuse anyone for any reason because we are free to do so. Just as long as we say Jesus saved me from my sins. One could only hope.

The thing about a virus of selfishness is that it leaves people absolutely convinced in the moral veracity of their cause. Freedom in and of itself becomes the ultimate cause, not freedom to do or be something holy, good, or loving. Just free to be free. Which is almost the opposite of any definition of the Christian life from Jesus right through to the Apostle Paul, who famously counseled Christians to use their freedom not for vice, but for good.

The next time you hear someone spouting off about freedom in either the political or religious realms, ask yourself what kind of freedom they are describing. Whatever they say, the fact remains that Abe Lincoln wouldn’t say that people were free to hold slaves just because it advantaged them; it’s not moral to affirm my freedom when it takes someone else’s freedom away. And spiritual luminaries from Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Howard Thurman would never have said that the essence of spiritual life is being free to do anything one wants just because. No, that is a pitiful, anemic, pathetic view of something that should be profound.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the hope that we would all be free at last, free at last, it was a freedom for every person who was shackled by the bonds of hatred and shackled by the bonds they used to shackle others. His life, the lives of many, have not been poured out on the altar of freedom with no cost to themselves. The ultimate price is often paid for the common good, a reality that requires a robust notion of freedom that is much more than the reduced form to which it has shrunk.

The meaning of freedom must become much more than nothing left to lose. Rising above cynicism and selfishness is the first and hardest transformation to make. Then lifting our conversation and preoccupations to a higher level will require much more than political tinkering or religious glittering generalities. It will require moral language, something sturdy and reflective, a way of speaking that begins with one courageous voice but doesn’t end there, because the sound of the real freedom of justice, love and peace is contagious, spreading among souls who know it when they hear it, souls who have become increasingly discontented with the impoverished language of freedom that has masqueraded as the real thing for far too long.

For some time people have encouraged me to gather up some of my poems into one collection and make them available. I have finally gotten around to that. I have selected A Baker’s Dozen of poems, twelve plus one extra. I hope you will find them enjoyable and evocative.

The first iteration of the collection is an electronic one which can be accessed on Kindle. Click here and then read away. A Word format will be soon to follow, one that may be accessed, forwarded and printed in booklet form.

In the meantime, I hope you find yourself savoring an image here, an idea there, and some story that turns you to the dearest thoughts stored in your big bank of memory. Let me know how you like them.

After

Posted: June 8, 2021 in Uncategorized

After I stopped running from the things that seemed to run after me, and

After, the funeral was over, the grief delayed, the schedule obliterated, and

After my notions of god fell out of my pocket, my oh so small pocket, and

After I grew indifferent to the assessments of me by others, and

After I put down the vocation that occupied me for decades, and

After I stopped carving up humanity into us and them, and

After I ceased pretending that my needs were less important than others, and

After I gave up on a universal view of reality that everyone would necessarily share, and

After I began listening to the whispers of my own soul, and

After I placed humanity on par with every other species, and

After I didn’t apologize, not once, for being who I thought best, and

After I enquired after the one, golden, unparalleled thing,

Then I walked out my door into the vast expanse of air, saw what was in front of me, bounded or staggered or fell on my own feet down the pathway as gravity would lead, and gave myself up to gratitude, unpopular opinion, unfiltered love, unplanned compassion, and hidden destinies.

Such intoxication, this. Late in coming. Arriving at just the right time. Worth the wait.

After.

Tombs, Wombs and Passageways

Posted: April 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

The most in-between day of the Christian liturgical year is Holy Saturday, sandwiched as it is between the stories of crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter morning. This is the day in which Jesus lays in state in a borrowed tomb with borrowed time. All those around him are stunned with grief and mired in confusion. They wait, but for what? 

The way present-day Christians view Holy Saturday provides a clue as to the meaning of its place in the larger story: We don’t know what to do with it. Other than dying the Easter eggs or shopping for Easter dinner, what does one do between snuffing out the last Tenebrae candle and singing Christ the Lord is Risen Today?

There is a liturgy of Holy Saturday, of course, and catechumens preparing for baptism have held vigil with it throughout the centuries. Some of our earliest records tell of baptismal preparation, how following the night’s vigil, baptismal candidates rose early Easter morning, donned white robes and waded into the water of life. Holy Saturday was something, not just biding time. 

But for the disciples contemporary with Jesus it was most surely a grief-stricken and disorienting time in which nothing made any sense. We, on the other hand, do not experience that terror and shattering sadness, and are generally baffled with the extra time on our hands; what to do between this and that?

On the deepest symbolic and mythic level, however, the locale of tomb is absolutely necessary to the story of transformation. Passage must be made from one state of being to another. A womb is required. A tunnel between here and there. A holding chamber, chrysalis, or container. The seed pod underground: The tomb is not only for the disposal of a body; it is a birth canal.

The tomb is the liminal space that prepares for the next thing. As physicists have reminded us, space is not empty. Something is happening. 

Whether we view Holy Saturday as a necessary in-between pause in the narrative or the in-between space necessary for every transformation, this most ambiguous of days in the Christian calendar, this overlooked and fumbled time, remains the deepest and most silent. It holds such bright sadness. And like the prayers unladen with words and explanations, the prayers alive with waiting and watching, the tomb of Holy Saturday remains an eternal clue for the spiritual transformation of every person who dares to die in order to be born.

There was a time when Christianity was a movement, an enthusiast sect within Judaism that turned to a peasant prophet named Jesus as spiritual guide and master. So enduring was his legacy, they said, that he lived on, even beyond the cruelty of Roman crucifixion. His message and martyr’s death so spoke to some Jews and many Gentiles that a movement took root not only in Palestine but in the larger Greco-Roman world. Because the movement was small in number it was usually ignored. But other times, not unlike Jews, they were targeted for persecution.

During the reign of Constantine (CE 306-337) Christianity became the religion of the realm. Before we jump to any glorified conclusions, Constantine did not pursue this so much out of deep piety as for the sake of unifying his empire. He needed one religious center, much like the position occupied by the Roman gods of the past. In addition, he convened the Council of Nicaea (CE 325) to arrive at some uniformity for the church – setting the Biblical Canon, dates for holy days, devising a creed that articulated a common Christology, and the beginnings of canon law. Again, it was not his ecumenical passion that inspired Constantine to call the council. The church had to be on the same page so that the religion of the realm would be on the same page.

Some describe this turning point in history with blaring trumpets that announce the beginning of the Christian era. The truth, I think, is much more sobering. The announcement that Christianity was to be the religion of the realm most likely marked the ending of the real Jesus movement. What took its place was something else, a theocracy, a merger of empire with religion.

And what is the problem with that?

A theocracy requires at least two ingredients. First, an autocratic government that exerts absolute power. Second, an authoritarian religion that subscribes to and is willing to enforce its version of absolute truth.

That means an empire uses religion to legitimize its position and actions. And a religion benefits from the endorsement of the empire. The empire has everything to gain, of course. But what of the religious dimension?

For anyone who isn’t part of the empire-religion duo, theocracies are always bad news. In the case of Constantine and church every other religion suffered and would suffer through the centuries. The theocracy authorized persecution of minority religious voices. The theocracy provided social privilege to Christians and discrimination to non-Christians. It is bad in almost every regard and has been through all times and places, regardless of the empire or the religion involved.

But the theocracy shared by Constantine and Christians wasn’t only harmful to non-Christians. It also gutted the essence of the Christian movement. Yes, Roman citizens may have scampered toward Christianity for the sake of the social benefits that could be enjoyed. But that did not strengthen the faith. Rather, it weakened it. It weakened it even as greater numbers and power were realized.

And this was the genesis of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the centuries following Constantine who fled from Christian civilization to seek the hard way to God, a way that had been lost. As some have said, they fled from the church like rats swimming away from a sinking ship.

Whereas Constantine needed a uniform religion to unify his empire, Christians became seduced by the power. Their seduction led to corruption and an abandonment of real Christian values. All was rationalized, the end justifying the means.

This is one of the reasons that the founders of the US Constitution took such care in making sure that the state neither endorsed one religion as the religion of the realm nor abridged the freedom of any religious tradition. But just because those are prohibited, that does not mean that they do not arise. They have and do. Again, whenever the formula is approximated theocracy may manifest again: autocratic government and authoritarian religion.

In our own time just such a theocracy has arisen. The government was that of the autocratic regime of Donald Trump and his enablers. The religion was white evangelical Christianity.

Donald Trump, like Constantine, had little use for religion, in particular white evangelical Christianity, except as it provided more votes and more power. Christian faith is incidental to Donald Trump, if not absent. He gives empty lip service to it. Conveniently for him, white evangelical Christianity came pre-packaged with a legacy of white supremacist and racist underpinnings. That was a happy coincidence, as his entire life showed evidence of a thoroughgoing white supremacy and racism, no secret now to anyone. That is how he courted the extreme white supremacist fringes with impunity. Since the former President is amoral, he could simply add that racist contingent to his layered base of supporters. White supremacist movements often appeal to some distortion of Christianity to justify their dark designs.

The most cynical among us will say, well, what did he have to lose? Not much, in the short term. He could use all those wedge issue factions to his advantage.

But the white evangelical church is another matter. It has lots to lose. By coveting the levers of power as it did it mortgaged its soul in the process. It so compromised anything resembling Christian values and so overlooked the immorality and corruption of the regime to which it had become united, that it lost whatever remained of an authentic faith. The younger generations have already registered their verdict in their distancing from churches that look anything like this. They, too, are swimming away from the sinking ship. And for those who were never aboard in the first place, they will not be inclined to book their cruises on the good ship Christianity soon if at all.

If the white evangelical church so sold its birthright for a bowl of porridge, this judgement is appropriate. The remaining question is whether they can repent for their sins of idolatry and blasphemy, charting an altogether new course, one that does not rely on theocracy, white supremacy or bigotry. If they can, if they can return to the faith of the founder of their movement rather than clinging to some projection of Republican politics onto the god of their own making, there might be a chance for them. Since they have been sailing on the wrong side of history, that verdict is yet to be seen.

You Courted the Unhinged Fringe

Posted: January 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

You courted the unhinged fringe as a way to scour up more votes, build a crowd, intimidate all who would oppose you, and you got them.

But now they’ve got you.

The moral stench of their racism and violence wafted across the borders that divide the monarchy from the pawns and suddenly it occurred to you: I can’t simply manipulate and use this unholy coalition; we have created one another in each other’s image.

You had succeeded in keeping their eyes off the primary project, the cause of enriching yourself and others like you. You did this by occupying them with a seething bucket of rage-filled lies, over and over.

It worked a long time.

Until, that is, the rot crept into your own house and the windows that broke were yours.

On that day, the bill came due and the credit card maxed out. When the collector came, he told you just what he wanted you to say.

And you politely obliged.

A few of the broken-legged team that had clung to you and the unhinged fringe wandered out of the smoke and debris, dazed and muttering, “How did it go this far?”

But you were not available for comment.

Because you were using all your energy appearing like a nice victim, scolding the fringe and ordering them to be unlike themselves.

                            ***

Since you left, the cleanup has been monumental, like the aftermath of a hurricane, littered with pieces, fragments, and tattered flags.

The fringe is still here, being what it always has been. The weak, gullible and deluded are still here, always swayed by words of the next terrifying world.

But you, their cheerleader and advocate, enabler and high chieftain of social corruption, are gone. That’s not everything, of course, but it is something, if only a cautionary tale for a future we have yet to write.