Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Do Men Fight?

“I’ve seen some bad fights break out during weather like this”
                                          ~ Louisiana farmer, circa 1976

I don’t mean to be gender exclusive on this one, but it’s just that I’m a guy thinking again today about why guys behave the way they do. It all started with a little rain. I had the day off and a couple of outdoor projects planned for the day. A thunder storm put those projects on hold and I sat on the front porch watching the rain come down.

While sitting there watching the rain, I remembered a brief conversation I had with a farmer one summer when I was working in Louisiana. There had been over a week of steady rains. “I’ve seen some bad fights break out during weather like this,” he said. “Farmers ain’t got nothin’ to do. One time they was some guys in a card game in the back of Jake’s General Store – weather just like we’re havin’ now – and two fellas got into an argument over who made the best combine. Before you know’d it they was beatin' each other up. Folks just get frustrated when there’s nothin’ to do. It don’t make no sense.”

I can understand the frustration. Even though a farmer wants rain, when it goes too long, they can’t be out doing what needs to be done in the field. Then there is the danger of loss of crops with ground that is too wet. People become acutely aware that things happen that are beyond their control. Add to that the fact that they probably won’t be getting much of a pay check for the week if they are hired hands. That can lead to highly irritable people. Many who are in such situations will find healthier ways to let off steam, but there are others who will simply give in to aggressive impulses.

Most people I know today are not farmers, but most still find themselves in situations that are beyond their control, especially in today’s economy. We hear about fights and scuffles almost every day. Fans get into fights at sporting events, violence occurs in housing projects. When I think about this impulse to fight, I also am distressed over my own country’s seemingly constant war activity.

After Viet Nam, I thought that we would see less military action, but that has not been the case.  I was opposed to the first Gulf War, and have been opposed to our subsequent military actions. After 9/11, we were shocked and didn’t really know what to do. We did have guns and tanks, so we responded by going to war. Except you need another country to go to when you wage war, and terrorism is not a country. Iraq was a country, and they were in that general vicinity (and they had oil reserves to boot), so off we went.

I was encouraged that many protested that action, crowds marched in the streets chanting “No blood for oil!” The Quakers had a campaign called “War is not the answer,” and I saw many of those signs in people’s yards. In spite of those voices, we as a nation went to war yet again. That was ten year ago. We are still fighting.

I am sure that two guys fighting in a back room in Louisiana over who makes the best combine resulted in some collateral damage, perhaps some clean up and repair expense, but when a nation goes to war, the collateral damage is exponential. Why are we so willing to spend billions of dollars we don’t have on war when we are so unwilling to spare any tax money on schools, healthcare, and infrastructure here at home?  

There is no simple solution, or else we would have found it by now. Nevertheless, I think that if we can give people meaningful work to do (rather than leaving them idle with no prospects) that will lead to a decrease in violence. If we as a country can imagine a national ideal other than fear of the enemy, perhaps we can curb the military action.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “There was never a good war or a bad peace.” Destructive fighting on a personal level or on a national level is not in anyone’s best interest. Maybe we should all just stop and ask ourselves why we are fighting. Backing away to allow some perspective, we just might say, along with that farmer I met down in Louisiana, “It don’t make no sense.”

 *  *  *  *

You may be interested in checing out the Friends Committee on National Legislation at http://fcnl.org and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2212023534&v=info

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Happy Grass ~ First Draft

I was out cutting grass this morning, noticing how quickly it had shot up this week. After an unusually hot and dry May and June, we finally got a little reprieve with some afternoon rains this past week. I said to myself, “This looks like happy grass!” Right away I thought that would be a good title for a jazz instrumental. “If I were a musician,” I continued with my inner dialogue, “I would sit down and write a jazz number and call it Happy Grass. By the time I was finished mowing the lawn, I decided that even though I’m not a writer of music, I am a writer of words. Why not write a poem about it? So here it is – this is the first draft, so you know it will change.

Happy Grass

It was a tentative but tenacious hold
That she had on that dry, dusty piece of earth.
Her blades low upon the ground
Growth had slowed – all but stopped –
Conserving her life and energy.

Does she speak to her sisters
During the dry time?
Or is the mere presence of the other
All the assurance one needs?

After a season of drought,
Weeks of endurance,
 A few days of afternoon thunderstorms
Refreshed the land.

Without hesitation
She stood up and danced.
Blades, stalks and seeds shot upward.
So quickly a grace of green joined hands
And swayed in the wind.

She and her sisters
Were ever ready to rejoice
While always willing to endure.

After I cut the grass, I went out later to use the weed eater to trim the places where the mower can’t reach. The weed-eater wasn’t working properly because the little blade wasn’t trimming the line the way it should as the line was released. I said to myself, “Ah, my blade’s too dull.” Right away I thought that would be a great title for a jazz instrumental…


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on Trinity Sunday

The visiting priest said he accepted the invitation to give the homily weeks in advance, without realizing it would be Trinity Sunday. “Tradition among clergy is that on Trinity Sunday,” he told us, “you ask either the youngest or the most gullible priest to give the homily.” Nevertheless, he did a decent job in his remarks. He emphasized that the early Christians were finding that the old language was not sufficient to describe their new experience; hence they eventually came up with the concept of trinity to describe one God whom they had experienced in three personas of Father God, Jesus their Lord, and the Holy Spirit whom they encountered on Pentecost and also in daily life on earth since that time. He also made a point that attempts to explain the Trinity have never really been intellectually clear of particularly satisfying – leaving us to live with the mystery.

I have heard other theologians explain that the primary need for a doctrine of the Trinity is the belief in the divinity of Christ. If Jesus was the divine Son of God, and if there is one God, then we are led to the need for Trinity. I have an idea about why Christian culture has latched onto the concept of Trinity.  The key affirmation in declaring that Jesus the human was also divine lies at the heart of the idea that should be truly good news. The good news that came into consciousness is that humanity shares in the very nature of God. The good news is not just that “God became man (human).” The flip side is that in the person of Jesus we were able to realize that there is something divine about humanity.

I realize that these are heretical-sounding words. Meister Eckhart was declared a heretic because of his views on the union of humanity with the godhead. Church authority relied very much on the sin of human nature creating a chasm between us and God, allowing for adequate political control over the masses. Eckhart, however, saw that the good news of Christ really was good news, not condemnation.

So even though we as a people have never been able to say it out loud, when the Church created the doctrine of the Trinity, the people were acknowledging on some level that there is something truly divine about being human. We could say it about one human, Jesus, but we have some trepidation about saying that the very being of God lies within us as well. This is in spite of the fact that Jesus himself pointed to that reality of God-within-us. George Fox spoke of the light within – that spark of God that exists in everyone. Some radicals followed his lead in the Quaker movement but most saw that concept as too much beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

I would suggest that today, just as some 2000 years ago, we are finding that the old language is no longer adequate to describe our experience of life, or our encounter with the divine. I believe we can take that light that dwells within and find new ways to express the wonder that we see. It would be foolish to think that even a new language could do that experience justice, just as “Trinity” never quite described what people of faith have actually encountered. But that is why, as I have stated before, I prefer the wet fertility of poetry over the dry futility of doctrine.

By Charles Kinnaird

Being half man and half god
You showed us something about ourselves.
The earthy and the divine in us
So mix and dance within
That we can see the joys of our mundane community,
The terror of madness,
And on occasion we can know
That we are able to fulfill impossible labors.

Being very god
And very man
You once (if only briefly)
Held the world on your shoulders.
Haven't we all?


Thursday, June 16, 2011

The National Sacred Harp Singing Convention

I have heard of Sacred Harp, or “fasola” singing for most of my life. I knew something about the shaped-note tradition of musical training used in days gone by, and I once saw a documentary on Sacred Harp on PBS. I had never experienced sacred harp in person until today. The 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention opened in Birmingham today, convening at the First Christian Church. It is a three-day event with all day singing and “dinner on the grounds.”

Growing up in Tallapoosa County, I had been to a few Gospel Singings where Stamps-Baxter and Southern Gospel quartets reigned. But those were nothing to compare to what I heard today. The sound that filled that space was full-throttled and soul-awakening. As the opening session began, a man stood up in front of the crowd and announced the page number for the opening song. A “fa-sol-la” interval was intoned. The entire gathering then burst forth with “fasolas” sounding out the music of the hymn.

I was captivated, stirred on the inside, tears threatening to well up – and no words had been sung yet. It was that bracing harmony of pure notes filling the sunlit space. The sound reminded me of the Bulgarian women’s folk singing that has attracted many listeners  since the 1990 recording, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. There was a similar directness and exuberance, a hearty primitive and uplifting – even startling – vocal effect. Yet these were regular folks, local people from Alabama and others traveling from points near and far who were producing that fantastic harmony. The visceral effect was also similar to being in the presence of bagpipes as they are played. It grabs your attention and stirs you on the inside.

I saw two friends at the gathering. Tim Cook is a member of the Sacred Harp Convention. He grew up in Michigan and told me that when he and his wife moved to Alabama in 1995, he looked for a singing group because of his life-long interest in singing. He found Sacred Harp and has been involved ever since. I asked Tim why it was that the singers used “fa-sol-la” in their music but not the entire do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do that I associated with the names of the notes. He explained that the older English music used a six-note interval, therefore those notes were represented by fa-so-la which was then repeated for the upper notes as well.  The seven-note musical scale was a concept developed later by the Italians who added the other names for the notes.

My other friend, Tommie Willis, said he grew up Primitive Baptist and heard Sacred Harp all his life.  “My mother was a leader in Sacred Harp singing,” he told me, “but none of it rubbed off on me.” He was there to listen to that sound that had been familiar in his childhood.

Sacred Harp came to this country by way of the early English settlers. It was first established in New England before the American Revolution, but gradually died out in that part of the country. For years it was kept alive in the hills of Appalachia, particularly among the Primitive Baptists. Nowadays it continues to be preserved by Sacred Harp gatherings and conventions.


To read an account of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention in The Birmingham News, go to  http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2011/06/national_sacred_harp_singing_c.html . If you view their photo gallery, you'll see a picture of my friend Tim Cook leading a hymn. Below you will find a video of some Sacred Harp singers. It will give you a flavor of the music, but there is nothing like experiencing it live and in person. 


Alabama's New Immigration Bill

I was appalled last year by Arizona's new immigration bill, now I am both appalled and distressed by my own state's harsh immigration bill. One of my problems with these bills is that if it did not benefit our society to have undocumented immigrants working here, they would not be here. Increasingly over the past 2 or 3 decades, we have willingly paid these immigrant people to mow our lawns, do our housework, clean our hotels, dig our ditches, work on our construction crews, and do any number of dangerous jobs in the meat-packing industry and other types of unskilled labor. We have used them for our advantage (or I should say, our society has). Now we are getting a little uneasy and anxious, so we are using drastic legal tactics. It is as though we are shocked and outraged that all of these aliens whom we have employed at low wages (and without reporting said payments) are somehow in our midst.

There are scriptures that advocate that we respect the alien in our midst; that we not mistreat or take advantage of them. Instead, we first took advantage of them, and now we aim to mistreat them, and our governor who likes to make a big deal about his faith just smiles and signs the bill. Leviticus admonished the Hebrew people to “remember that you were once aliens.” All of us white Americans in the U.S. should likewise remember that we were once immigrants.

Roger Lovette, who has actually read the entire bill, has written an important piece on his blog Head and Heart. The title of his piece is "Wondering about Immigration - Sunset in Alabama?" He uses a beautiful poem by Langston Hughes as the backdrop for his comments. I highly recommend it for you reading. You can find the essay here.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

True Grit and the Everlasting Arms

...and bright, clear notes from a piano

The eternal God is thy dwelling-place, And underneath are the everlasting arms...
                                                               ~ Deuteronomy 33:27

I'm not usually the first to see a movie. Just this week I saw the remake of True Grit. I had seen the original with John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby when I was a teen, and then only when it was broadcast on television. When I saw the DVD of the new version, I was struck from he very beginning as I heard the musical score. There was some background orchestration and then coming through to the musical foreground I heard the piano carrying that motif from an old gospel song, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." It was true to that clear, pristine 19th  century quality of the old hymn. Later in the movie I heard that motif come through again and again, becoming especially clear as Rooster Cogburn was racing on horseback in a desperate attempt to get young Mattie Ross to safety after being snake bit. Then as the movie ended, the effect was heightened when we heard the voice of Iris DeMent singing that old hymn. I thought it was a beautiful touch throughout the movie, brought forcefully home by the vocal at the end.

It reminded me that there is something wonderful about a piano. Maybe it is because I grew up hearing the piano played in a small rural Baptist Church. We sang those old hymns that grew out of a 19th century experience and a 19th century spirituality. There was something pure and clear about those cords struck on a simple piano in a plain wooden-floored sanctuary. There was something reassuring in hearing the strains of those songs sung by the simple and ordinary people who worked the mills and farmed the land. How quickly the keys of a piano can take one back to a simpler, clearer time.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Spirit Work, Soul Work

"All politics is local"
~ Tip O'Neil

I would like to paraphrase Tip O'Neil's famous quote to say that all spirituality happens under the roof where you live. Everything else is either preparation or an interesting exercise. There are many systems for spirituality and many opportunities for spiritual retreat. Some of those systems capitalize upon people's desire for a meaningful life beyond the mundane day-to-day existence that they are experiencing. No doubt, many who are reading this can recall "mountain top experiences" which fade and dwindle upon return to everyday life. Sometimes we say things like, "I just need to work harder at it, to be more consistent," "Maybe I need a change of venue," "Perhaps I should enter the ministry so I can occupy myself with spiritual things." Some have even decided they need to change partners. Others may abandon the idea of spirituality altogether. Still others may chalk up their disappointment to the fact that they live in a fallen world, or that people around them just have no desire to seek a higher plane.

Maybe our problem is that in our minds we dichotomize our world. We have a desire to hold onto the things that are sweet and lovely, and to exclude the dark and dangerous. Jon Kabat-Zin, Buddhist writer and practitioner, distinguishes between soul work and spirit. He sees spirit as pleasant, uplifting, having a quality of moving toward the light. Soul work, on the other hand, involves a willingness to connect with the dark, moist, deep places that may involve pain and distress. I think that he is on to something. The Hebrew notion of the soul suggests the totality of one's being.

The ancient Greeks viewed the soul as that pure, spiritual, nobler aspect that is apart from the physical world. That view seems to dominate much of our thinking today. On the other hand, the Hebrew concept of soul embraces all that one is. There is no separating of body, mind, and spirit.

There are times when I know sweetness and light. There are also times when I cause hurt, anger and disappointment. Furthermore, there are times when I am hurt, angry and disappointed. If I am to be honest with myself and honest with life, I must acknowledge all of those negative, hurtful incidents as part of the mix. If I am to truly evaluate myself and my spirituality, I must examine how it all plays out at home.

True spirituality integrates and connects. In order for spiritual practice to be more than just an opiate or a distraction, it must take into account the whole of life. Work place, family, hobbies and social life each represent opportunities for the implementation of spirituality. Every religious tradition offers methods for spiritual practice, the goal being to eliminate distractions and to pay attention.

My own spiritual practice includes watching my breath, praying the rosary, and saying the Jesus prayer. I have also found yard work and gardening to be effective in leading to a meditative state. Any spirituality, however, must have some influence on daily life. If I don't greet my wife with a hug and a kiss, if I don't speak words of encouragement to my daughter, or if I forget to put down fresh water for the dogs – these things tell me something about my own level of compassion and awareness. Those day-to-day details let me know if my spirituality is itself a distraction or if it is helping to integrate my life. Paying attention to those simple acts is every bit as important as any method of spiritual practice.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Potluck Sunday at the Weaker Brethren Community Church

“Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
                                                     ~ I Corinthians 8:9 (RSV)

I like to consider myself a “progressive” Christian. (Actually, I’m one who still likes the word “liberal”, even though that wonderful word has become tainted and misconstrued by decades polarizing debate. Using the “L” word nowadays is like raising a battle flag, making thoughtful discourse all but impossible.) It was a heart-felt religion that launched my faith journey. Continuing along the path, with the help of many fine thinkers and writers, I came to understand the importance of intellectual honesty and social justice. Many a time during my student days I was frustrated by some of my more conservative friends and colleagues. These were people who could quickly get their panties in a wad over some theological issue. One of my good friends at the time, sensing my irritation, said to me, “You know, Charlie, in many ways our fundamentalist friends are like the weaker brethren that the Apostle Paul talked about.” He was right – it seemed that the faith of many of my fundamentalist friends was easily threatened.

Living in a Pluralistic Society

St. Paul begins that “weaker brethren” passage in I Corinthians 8 with an impressive argument for liberty in faith. He talks about the problem some people had in his day, living in a pluralistic Greco-Roman society, about eating meat from the marketplace that had been offered to idols. Paul essentially says that for thinking people of faith, this is not a problem. If idols have no basis in reality, eating meat that was offered up in religious ceremonies is not going to have any negative effect on the Christian consumer. Sounds like a good way to get along in a pluralistic Greco-Roman society. Then the apostle frames the whole situation in a way that creates a problem for me. He says that even though he has no problem with eating meat from the Pagan Meat Packing and Processing Company, he will refrain from the practice if it causes someone who is weaker in the faith to stumble.

Here is my difficulty: if my fundamentalist friends are the weaker brethren, why should I have to refrain from offending them? How long should I be expected to coddle these spiritual babes instead of challenging them to a more authentic faith? Then I ask of St. Paul, was he being pastoral in the nurturing of souls, or was this just some sort of early Christian cop-out, saying, “I really know better than this, I am a sophisticated thinker. However, for the sake of the organization, I’m not going to rock the boat if people are going to get upset over the issue.” So am I to cave in to the loudest and weakest of my comrades, or am I to take a stand for a better way, a nobler path?

There is another problem I have. I tipped my hand earlier when I said I like the word “liberal.” When one admits to being a liberal, there is an element of having one’s mind made up. I need to realize that I can get my liberal panties in a wad just as quickly as my fundamentalist friends can get their conservative briefs askew. The term “progressive” is probably a better concept. “Progressive” implies a journey. It seems to say, “I haven’t arrived, but I’m moving forward.”

The Compassionate Response

When it comes to dealing with the “weaker brethren,” I have to remind myself of the words of a wise old friend of mine. He pointed out that sometimes conservative ideas are in ascendancy while at other times more liberal views hold sway. “I have no control over the politics of the masses.” he told me, “but I do have some control over my response to things.” He said that he tries to observe without attachment, and then he tries to let compassion guide his response to things.

Be compassionate? That puts the onus back on me. It also gives me a new perspective. This is not an easy path, the one that St. Paul advocates and that my compassionate friend speaks of. On the other hand, I have to remember that I know people with much more rigid views than mine who will do whatever they can to help someone in need.

Putting people ahead of opinions is one way to stay grounded. Putting forth progressive viewpoints is one way to move ahead. Putting it all together requires some diligence, diplomacy and compassion. It calls for all of us to do a “gut check” before we meet on that potluck Sunday at the Weaker Brethren Community Church.

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