The Problem with Politics and Religion

I had a thought today that I’ve been having recurrently in different forms for the past year or two: people care more about labels than they care about substance. They care more about words than they care about actions.

I watched the 3rd Democratic primary debate this evening, and I’m struck at how basically zero policy gets discussed. It appears to me that the candidates are basically either using buzzwords in an attempt to trigger strong emotions in people without ever substantively talking about their policies, or they sling mud and villainize other people again trying to stir up emotions against other people. It seemed like half of what people had to say is ‘Trump is a horrible person and we need to beat him at all costs’ (some candidates tried to stay above that sort of mud slinging than others). I’m not a fan of Trump, but it seems a bit juvenile to do what most of the democratic candidates seem to accuse Trump of doing… scapegoating.

(Sidenote: while we’re on the topic I’m rooting for Andrew Yang.)

Anyways, I’ve noticed the same thing in Christian circles as well. We put such an emphasis on words and beliefs that we forget about substance and action. We get so hung up on making sure that people ‘believe’ the correct doctrinal formulas. We get worried or upset when people don’t mentally assent to certain abstract ideas that we hold as true that it seems we often forget to look at reality: how are people living their lives and holding themselves in relation to the world and others?

This seems to be not a Christian problem but a human problem: the same thing happens in politics and society at large. We almost never get down to the important details and definitions and distinctions of things. We sling around buzzwords to which we attach so much loaded meaning, and when other people use certain words we get triggered by all of the associations we have with those words without trying to understand the motivations and actual substance of what other people believe. We automatically see the world dualistically — when I started writing this paragraph I wrote the second sentence as ‘they’. They almost never get down to the important details, they get worried or upset… I naturally think that they (whoever that is…) are wrong and I am right. I’m guilty of this dualistic us v.s. them mindset too.

I sometimes wonder what I can do in such a world where people are so entrenched and polarized. I guess the best I can do is be as good an example as I can of a listening ear. Try be a presence of peace and comfort and light to those who cross paths with me or enter my home. I need to try to not fall into the dichotomy game of judgement but I need to follow the path that Jesus laid: compassion. I need to not get angry at them for being so caught up in the wrong things. I need to softly, quietly live truthfully and compassionately, not wielding rhetorical swords against others but accepting them for who they are and what they believe. I need to pin up my beliefs with my actions, not my words.

A Toast to My Brother Sam

The toast I gave to my brother Sam at his wedding.

Sam is a troll. He very much enjoys the reactions that he evokes from people, sometimes maybe a little too much. Only just a little. Most people say provocative things just to get a reaction from other people, but I’m convinced that Sam’s main motivation for saying the bizarre and non sequitur things he does is different.

A story that took place when Sam was around 4 and I was 6 describes our personalities aptly. We had created a pirate ship drawing on a giant piece of paper and taped it in front of our dad’s pool table to make a pirate movie.

My dad, helped to narrate by asking us questions, and at some point asked us where the plastic swords we were wielding had come from. Sam started dancing around me, while I tried to remember where the swords came from. ‘From Mick-Donalds!’. The swords had not come from McDonald’s, which I informed Sam, as I continued to try to remember exactly where they had come from.

To which he responded…

‘It’s a toy sword from mick-donalds!’
‘No, they’re definitely not.’
‘They’re from mick-Donalds’
‘No, Sam, we didn’t get them from McDonalds’
‘We got them from mick-donalds!’

Sam wasn’t really paying attention to me as he danced around me quipping ‘it’s a toy sword from mick-donalds!’. Though I suspect he enjoyed my vexation, I’m also convinced that his main goal was not to rile me up. I don’t think Sam himself knows entirely what his motivations are for trolling sometimes. But this is one of his greatest gifts. More than perhaps anyone I know Sam lacks ego. He does things for the sake of things themselves; he dances purely for the sake of dancing; he loves people purely for themselves; he trolls people because he has an ego-less love of idiosyncrasy.

Sam has a contagious enthusiasm and a sharp rhetorical mind which he uses to sell the importance of Jesus following, to cast beautiful visions for what life could be like, to recast your vision of what life is actually like, and to throw precisely calculated wrenches into the cogs of your preconceived notions in order to shake you out of complacent ruts. It strikes me as almost paradoxical that he is such a charismatic and visionary leader, but at the same time holds high people’s dignity and their right and responsibility to make independent decisions.

Sam has no respect for persons. Which is mostly wonderful but has gotten him into trouble on a few occasions. I mean that in the way the apostle James talks about ‘respect for persons’, telling us not to treat people better because of their social position. Whether you are 5, 15, 50, or 100, whatever your race, orientation, beliefs, or choices, Sam will treat you with dignity and respect. Sam has an uncanny ability to hone in on the right priorities instantly: he has taught me to value people for their own sake. Sam freely, abundantly, without reservation gives away his time and love to people — a gift of far more value than his money which he is just as generous with. Most of us, when we give our time and money to other people, attach hidden strings to our gifts and we expect some sort of reciprocation. More than anyone I know, Sam gives with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation.

Even though I’m the oldest child in our family, as we’ve gotten older Sam has become a role model for me. I have probably spent more time with Sam than anyone else here, and I think that gives me particular weight when I say that I trust Sam more than almost anyone else I know to be deeply, deeply good. For that reason his thoughts and choices hold tremendous influence in my life, as I’m sure they do in many of your lives. Tessa, I don’t know you very well yet for myself, but I know that you are an amazing, good, beautiful person, because Sam chose you. I’m so happy to have you as my sister and look forward to knowing you better in the years to come.

To Sam and Tessa.

Starry Nights

The cool California evening was lit by stars, and slowly as I walked down the dark dirt road my eyes adjusted to the dark. I was looking for a good place to step off the road and get a good view of the stars, and I found myself in a brushy field after climbing a small embankment to this end. As I gazed up and around me my heart was cut by the sheer glittering beauty of the sky around me.

After feeling overwhelmed for a few moments I emptied my pockets and knelt to the ground. And after a few more moments of being overwhelmed still, I lay face down in the patch of dirt I was in and began talking out loud, not sure if I was praying, or talking to myself, or talking to no one, or perhaps all three.

I am dust. I am an insignificant particle in the fabric of an intensely giant universe. I am unworthy. Yet I am also worthy. This amazing, beautiful, chaotic, stunning creation was made for me. But why? I don’t deserve any of this. But it doesn’t matter if I deserve it or not, it is a gift to me. And I receive it as a gift. It doesn’t matter if I understand why, or if I deserve it. Everything is a gift. All that matters is how I receive the world, creation, my life, my body, my circumstances. My pain, my suffering, my joy, my hope, my love; it’s all a gift. I am a gift, a pitcher full of God’s grace and love to be poured out into the world as a gift to others. That’s why I have hands, they are a gift to play music for other people, to cook people wonderful food, to caress my love, to hold children with. Hard circumstances, difficult people, close friends, brothers and sisters, every one of them is a gift to me: to teach me, to strengthen me, to stretch me, to help me, to love me. Even the people who frustrate me are a gift. Even the pain and suffering are a gift.

At this point in my prayer I was pacing around my little dirt patch listing off everything and everyone I could think of and seeing them as gifts. I stopped and looked up at the sky again. Have you ever been in a place with so little light pollution that you can really see all the stars? I’ve talked about stars in the night sky many times before in poetry and songs, but I think that it has become a cliche to me, because when I gazed around me I felt a throbbing pang of awe run through me at the beauty. What an amazing gift this world is, this life is. I pray that my heart is always open enough to receive everything that is poured into it, and to receive it well and pour it back out again.

Poem – Second Hand Truths

One day back in February while I was in Moscow (Idaho) after my hermitage, my dear friend George Callihan and I were sitting out front of a coffee shop smoking and drinking coffee. The day was quite bleary, and rain would drizzle and then threaten a downpour every now and then. We decided it was the perfect time to co-write a poem. Anyone who knows either of us will quickly laugh at how well this captures the ethos of us both. We took turns writing the stanzas, though there was some sharing of ideas on certain stanzas. Perhaps you can decipher which voice is me and which is George. On second thought, they may be too similar for you to tell. 🙂

The cold and wind and rain was grey,
outside the coffee shop,
We sat upon our chairs and smoked,
And hoped the grey would stop.

We looked around for sight or sound
Or anything with breath,
But we saw none, so here we sat,
And here we toasted “death.”

The metal chairs were fitting,
Though they laughed at our vain boast,
For they matched the blackened lungs
We used to realize our toast.

My yellow hat, your duster coat,
My friend we’re quite a pair,
Though passers by were soaking wet
We didn’t have a care.

Ah yes, it’s true, we sat and smoked,
And smoked and sat with flair,
I think the girls could not resist
The joy of our despair.

For as they passed each one would turn
And look with some disdain,
Although we knew they only wished
That they could feel our pain.

For pain, both you and I know well,
Can oftentimes be sweet,
And in their hearts the girls know too
And wish to take a seat.

We’d offer them a cigarette
And though they would refuse,
We’d tell them it’s the only way
To cure their black and blues.

They’d laugh and call us cute
But still their words betray their game:
For happiness masks true despair,
True sorrow births great gain.

Intrigued yet unaware they left,
They didn’t understand:
The truths we freely offered them
Were only secondhand.

And so we watched and smiled,
At all that passed us by,
Our offerings of truth and smoke
Accepted by grey skies.

Poem — Walking Stick

One last poem from the mountains.

I stop pushing my way,
For a moment,
Through the near waist-deep snow
And gaze around at the trees.
My eyes come to rest
On the stick in my hand:
My walking stick.
There are a number of strange
And oddly beautiful
Carvings across my walking stick,
Chewed  out paths by termites
Which I found after peeling the bark off.
They somehow remind me
Of Native American mound structures,
Twisting into the outlines of
Creatures both familiar and foreign.
Time to push on through this blasted snow.


Blog Redesign and Reflections on its History

This blog has long been overdue for a facelift (well, more like a severe facial reconstruction surgery). I’ve updated the theme and fixed things up a bit today. I’m sure no one besides me cares, but it was too painful for me to look at any longer, so I sat down today and polished things up. Now you can read these posts on your phone! The joys of pervasive responsive design.

Guys, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Like over 10 years. The earliest post in the database is from late 2007 — but the first 62 posts are copy pasted from my original blogspot, which I started January 2007. And omagosh I just checked and that original blogspot is still there! Holy cow I posted a lot that first year. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see 14 year old very slightly mustachioed me… I used to be pretty good looking if you can ignore the mustache. Guess things have gone downhill since then. Ah well. At least I now have a fairly sizable beard to cover up my aging face.

As I’ve spent a day updating this blog I’ve re-read some of my old posts through the years and it has brought me to reflect on how I’ve changed and how I haven’t. It’s fascinating that the basics of how and what I think haven’t changed much, they’ve only become more nuanced and refined. It’s cool to have a record that goes back this far of my thought life, and I wondered a few times today what my kids (if I ever have them) will think if they ever read the archives of this blog.

Thanks to those readers who have subscribed and who have continued to slog through my unpolished postings on this blog.


I hope someone’s listening,
And Oh I know I can’t sing,
But it means the world to me
If you listen…
So I’m giving you all that’s left
Of me after all this mess
I’ve opened my heart I hope you see
A little bit of beauty.

Poem – With Everything

This was a response to the last poem. I decided I ought to try my hand at answering my question.

I stand solitary, yet not alone, on the ridge.
A great lake of deeply green pines
Covered in last nights pure white snow, sweeps below me,
Surrounded by ponderous, grave, purple mountains,
Drenched in the golden beams of the early morning sun,
Ascending from behind my ridge into the dancing blue sky
And exchanging familiar glances with the mountains,
Latent with something I cannot put my finger on.
All is quiet.
Perhaps if I had better ears I could hear the melody,
The hymn swirling from among the trees below
And echoing from atop the mountains afar.
And yet.
And yet…
Somehow, somewhere deep in my heart I feel the same song beat.
I stand together.
With everything.

Poem — Untitled

Another poem from my retreat into the mountains. You’ll see a progression in these poems as I get further into the quiet.

I’ve sung so often
Of love and heartbreak,
loneliness and sorrow,
Pain  and grief,
And the ecstasy of melancholy.
In fact, I think that’s
All I’ve ever sung of,
For so many years.
Why do I never write
Of peace?
Of light and life,
In a way that is not
Tinged with sadness?

Poem – Beauty

I figured I’d share the poems I wrote during my retreat into the mountains. I’ll post them in order.

It surrounds me.
I don’t want to escape it,
But sometimes,
Too often, I think,
I forget.
The numbing waves of worry and calculation
Cover my soul,
And I forget the sharp,
Blissful ache of beauty.
But occasionally
A lull in the waves
Brings my head above the water,
And I gasp in a breath,
A cutting breath of beauty.
And I remember
That I don’t ever want to forget,
And forget why I ever forgot,
And hope, probably in vain,
But hopefully not,
That I won’t forget again.

Ponderings from Solitude

I wrote a journal entry collecting a few of the thoughts I’ve pondered during my three weeks alone. I present it to anyone interested below straight from the notebook.

Coming into this hermitage experience I expected it would take a few days, maybe a week, perhaps even 2 weeks for me to internalize a little bit, just a little bit of quiet. It seems it took about 11 days for the quiet to settle in a little. On Wednesday the 1st I mapped out my activity-based (as opposed to time-based) schedule for the mornings, which seemed to work very well. On Thursday I hiked up the ridge for the first time, also while it was snowing, and was swept away by the beauty. That night, I lit candles, also for the first time, and sat in bed for maybe 30 minutes. No thoughts of past conversations and embarrassing moments, no thinking and struggling over future decisions about work and the sea, no machinations about how and if I can fulfill longings I have: just quiet. Nothing in particular, in fact nothing at all except the room I was in and the candlelight and the silently falling snow outside. Blessed rest of the heart. I was present, there in that moment and only in that moment. I realized this rather quickly and my heart jumped within me for joy. A smile spread across my face so big that it made my eyes squint, and it wouldn’t go away. I reminded myself not to get excited and jump out of the experience itself.

Here I meet two temptations I myself have to battle constantly. The first is to not be present in myself for an experience of great joy and light. As soon as I realize that I am experiencing something wonderful, which is usually very quickly, I have a very strong compulsion to step outside of myself and enjoy observing myself having a great experience. This removes me directly from the experience because I am trying to analyze the state that I am in meticulously. This is a great hindrance I face to being truly present in any moment.

This leads to the second struggle, and I think this is probably what causes the first. The reason I compulsively analyze myself and my states is because I am always (also compulsively) trying to recreate past moods that I’ve felt which I like. I try to get back to a particular feeling that I had in the past in order to feel complete, in order to feel OK, in order to be in a state of happiness or wholeness. Note that these moods I re-create are not necessarily “happy” in the more common modern sense of the word, that is feelings of lighthearted positivity, indeed, many times they can be dark or sad — I am quite fond of melancholy, as anyone who knows me well can attest. Because I am either stepping back and analyzing a feeling or mood and the things that surround the mood or feeling that could potentially be causing it, or else I’m trying to re-live or re-create some past thing, I’m never actually present.

I read in New Seeds of Contemplation the other day

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of the unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.”

This in conjunction with the two aforementioned compulsions I have just described (for the first time concretely to myself) leads me to an important truth. If I had the freedom, love, and spontaneity to see it, every moment is a unique gift from God. There is no need to grasp at experiences to try to save them, there is no need to try to get back what I “lost” to the past. Truly what I should be doing is cultivating good soil so that not a single seed of the present is lost.

I cannot believe how well these thoughts are flowing together, because this leads me to yet another thought I have been pondering in my solitude: seeds. I think this thought is inspired by elder Zosima in Brothers Karamazov, for he talks about seeds as well.

“Only a little tiny seed is needed: let him cast it into the soul of a simple man, and it will not die, it will live in his soul all his life, hiding there amidst the darkness, amidst the stench of his sins, as a bright point, a great reminder.”

And it is so true, just one word or one expression or one touch from another person can grow to be a mountain of good or of evil within my soul. It is amazing to me that when I look upon myself, the greatest vices (and I suppose virtues but virtues are harder for me to see and I don’t spend as much time deconstructing my virtues, not nearly as much as I do my vices) that I carry are always based on one little thought, always a very simple one. What mountains of evil do I found upon such tiny things is most wondrous. These little seed-lies that I believe are what distort my life, draw me away from God, and make up my ego-self. If I can do the hard work of uncovering these evil seeds and open my heart and make it fertile for all of God’s good seeds, truly I will move mountains inside of me. This ought to be a stern and fearful reminder to me, because I am constantly throwing my seeds into other people by my actions and words: are they seeds of God or seeds of Satan? As elder Zosima remarks in another place:

See, here you have passed by a small child, passed by in anger, with a foul word, with a wrathful soul; you perhaps did not notice the child, but he saw you, and your unsightly and impious image has remained in his defenseless heart. You did not know it, but you may thereby have planted a bad seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you did not restrain yourself before the child.

The things I do and the way I do them, even the expression on my face, is a seed that I plant in those around me.

In turn this leads me to another thought I have been contemplating: my guilt before all men. Elder Zosima’s older brother in his youth before he dies says

Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all

I am very much attracted to this statement, though it seems unreasonable and paradoxical. I feel it must be true somehow, though it makes no sense to my reason. If I am constantly every moment of my life sowing seeds in people, and even in creation around me, then how unspeakable is the mystery of my connection to all that is; to all men I meet, even to those I do not meet and all men on earth, then even to the whole earth and the universe and all creation and God. Think, if I plant a seed in every man I meet, then my seeds will quickly be carried to every man on earth, and from there to all the earth itself, and even to God. Again elder Zosima observes this truth:

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you if yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean I say to you.

Because I am so integrated into creation, that is why I can say that I am guilty of everything before everyone. It is a hard thing to understand, this guilt, a hard thing to know what to do with. I think that a vastly important truth and reality lies within this statement of guilt, something of enormous import which at the moment I do not see or comprehend. But I will dwell on it and perhaps in time God will illuminate it within my soul. Perhaps this seed of truth will grow into the foundational tree of my life. I hope and pray so.

How many of God’s good seeds have I let die and lost, because I am pre-occupied with some withered shrub of my youth: while God is throwing a multitude of beautiful maple and walnut and redwood tree seeds, beautiful flowers and grape vine seeds into my soul in the present, I am too busy tending a lone dandelion that I am attached to for some reason, and a number of patches of poison ivy. If I would only open my heart and let the past live it’s natural course, perhaps then my eyes would open to the seeds of destruction I cast into all of my brother’s fields, trying to share my dandelions and poison ivy, casting these weeds into their crops. If I would be still and present, if I could see and acknowledge my guilt before all, then perhaps would God’s good seed begin to take root in my soul, and of its own accord spread itself into the lives of those around me, into the whole world, and finally back even into the very heart of God. Let it be so Father.