The Tree of Life is a 2011 American art film written and directed by Terrence Malick. The film is extended reflection on life, death, the nature of existence, suffering, love, loss, memory, family, parenting styles, gender roles, trauma, notions of God, piety, the tension between nature-based faith and traditions of redemption, the will to power, and how little lives are set against billions of years and infinite space.

At the least it is an extended reflection on Job 38, which is cited at the beginning of the film.

The cinematography is unparalleled. The character development is stunning.

Though you have to want this film to stay with it, the all-star cast helps.

Go ahead. Stream it.

Great persons of vision and leadership often deserve commemoration; we place them on national calendars with their own days, design educational events around them, record their words and restate them at important moments. Some get their faces on currency. Or a bridge named after them. So it is for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, whose national day we celebrate today.

King is often remembered for the I Have a Dream speech which was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. His words recalled Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. The dream he described was for an America which transcended the sin of racism and marched toward a brighter day. It is that speech we most often hear recited on this day we remember him and the ideals for which he stood.

It is also a day in which his message is turned upside down by those who oppose everything he stood for. This day is notorious for cherry picking; selectively choosing the words that espouse unity while avoiding the call to justice and equality. Though his speech included invectives against racism, segregation, discrimination, voter repression, and police brutality, and insisted that justice should be made a reality for all God’s children, those ideas are often avoided. What are quoted instead are these: “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

White folks, by and large, like to tame King. They like the non-violent, Gandhi-inspired change agent, which he was. But they do not like the prophet of Biblical proportions. One, but not the other.

This day, of all days, is given to the whitewashing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We will not hear his words from the Birmingham jail, asking where the white preachers are, reminding us that the silence of our friends is the most damning sort of abandonment. We will not hear that he opposed the Vietnam war, or pressured LBJ on every piece civil rights legislation, including voting rights. We will not hear that the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of convenience and comfort, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy. Will will not hear that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We will not hear these things.

What we will hear is that we should be nice, that, gosh darn it, we should just get along, that we’ve made lots of progress so that should make us pretty happy. It’s the anti-King message, the taming and whitewashing of King.

All around the country today those who oppose King and his message will be quoting him in order to appear as though they are great fans. They do the same with John Lewis of blessed memory. We were buddies, look, here is a photo of us smiling together on the House floor.

But then they continue to undermine voting rights for all citizens, strategically making it harder for people of color to vote. They do this institutionally, to create an illusion of voting integrity. Or, what’s worse, the silence of so-called friends takes the day, as leaders state that, yes, of course, they support voting rights, but will not take the steps necessary to secure them.

In this present day of pushback against everything that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, this moment in which racism and white victimhood has become fashionable and sells, a whitewashed King cannot help. In fact, that milk toast version of King hurts more than it helps. Because when the prophets are tamed in order to make them more palatable, when they are sculpted to protect white culture from feeling too uncomfortable, the battle is lost. The lion has been tamed. And nothing is left but to parade him out when the circus comes to town, make him roar at the crack of the whip, and entertain an audience that never feels the slightest bit conflicted.

Martin Luther King, Jr., never made it to his 40th birthday. That is because white supremacism killed him for being a prophet. Today, the prophets will also be punished, if not killed, for doing the same. It is ever the peril of speaking the truth to power. In this time, the ghosts of the roaring beasts King addressed are once again roaming the land. And, like the portrait of the mild-mannered Jesus, the mild-mannered King will not help us. The whitewashed and tamed version can only hurt. It is up to us to resurrect the prophet that has been conveniently domesticated. Before it is too late.

The Liminal Loop goes live!

Posted: January 14, 2022 in Uncategorized
The Liminal Loop: Astonishing Stories of Discovery and Hope

The new anthology of liminality, The Liminal Loop: Astonishing Stories of Discovery and Hope, has now gone live for pre-order through all main booksellers, including Amazon. You may pre-order your copy by clicking here and I ask that you consider sharing it through your networks and social media platforms.

Enjoy this quote in the book from Dr. Elizabeth Coombes, music therapist and professor from Wales:

Liminal spaces present a variety of opportunities for therapeutic work. It is the stepping into another way of being, in this case “musicking,” the act of making music, that brings the encounter and experience alive and permits the creation of a potential space where many possibilities co-exist.

The Liminal Loop is about to launch!

I am pleased to announce that after two years of development, the anthology of liminality, The Liminal Loop: Astonishing Stories of Discovery and Hope, is ready to launch! Eighteen international authors wrestle with the in-between states of existence by way of their own expertise, contexts and experience. Together, they create an unforgettable description of the vast transitional states we cross as well as the ways we can foster resilience and strong liminal leadership.

I am honored to have served as the editor of this project published by The Lutterworth Press, the second anthology of its kind I have edited for Lutterworth. The Foreword is written by singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. We have chapters on the theory of liminality, ritual, personal transformation, developing resilience in liminal space, social movements and issues, the liminal dimensions of pandemics, the ecological crisis, education abroad, therapeutic practices and liminality, and liminality and the arts.

Though the book will soon be “live” through all the main book distributors, but you may pre-order your own copy now by clicking here.

If there was ever a time to gather tools around us for understanding vast and confusing times of transition, that would be now!

The Liminal Loop is about to lift off! This new anthology of eighteen international authors includes many voices of those addressing liminaity from their own experience, contexts and disciplines. The combined result is stunning. You may preorder your copy now by clicking here.

“As we enter this wilderness, this domain of the desert, we find it full of fearsome landscapes, wild beasts, and unanticipated peril. What previously seemed normal no longer works or has become irrelevant. Old tools become useless in the face of new challenges. Former ways of perceiving and understanding dissolve within a dream time that is replete with the most unusual and confounding cast of characters. Perplexing and paradoxical questions arise. Time and our sense of its passage become fluid. And yet, we also discover a realm of deep mystery, filled with its own consolations, strange beauty, sudden epiphanies and enchanted traveling companions.”

– Timothy Carson and Suzan Franck in The Liminal Loop

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.