14 April 2012


Non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia,
tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia,
esse derelictum.

William (Bill) "Buck" Milton Brigman

Kingdom Come

My grandfather stepped into eternity at 12:15 Tuesday morning. So, eternity is where (or when) I will start. In a room full of family and friends last night, I started to have an odd realization. I looked around a room full of old friends, blood relatives and in-laws. Talking music, eating, telling stories; my uncle impersonating (very well) the classic Bill Brigman laugh. In that moment I felt more clearly than almost ever the intermingling of Heavenly and earthly reality. Pop was the epicenter of every single relationship in that room. Today's closest of friends for decades, brought together through mutual acquaintance with Bill. Husbands and wives along with their offspring and the life shared between them, given existence out of the gift of his life with my grandmother. It was honestly very hard to feel the lack of Pop's presence in that moment. Our Lord teaches us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come," because the nature of our universe is such that the co-mingling of the Kingdom and this present world are constant. We often hear the clichéd statement of a passed-on loved one being always present in spirit, but I believe that now more than ever. Eternity is all-encompassing and infinite. It envelopes and embraces our being in-time. Therefore, in a very real way, in this overlapping, we were all of us uniquely in the presence of our grandfather, our friend (and Brother), our father, our husband and lover. I do not doubt that Pop was more aware of this fact than we were. But, I couldn't help but sense that the spirit in that room, the bond of companionship and love we shared, was identical to the spirit of my grandfather who, in the story of his life, bound and wrote us all together.

Life of Questions

This week (as I have been almost every week of my college and post-college life by some person or another) I was asked by a friend of Pop's what kind of market a major in Philosophy puts me in. I tend to think the answer is the marketplace of questions. Few subjects that I know of trade in volumes of questions outnumbering that of Death. Chief export among them being: "Why?" Why was this person taken from us and why now? Today during the funeral, however, I started asking myself different questions. Why did my grandmother's father pass away when she was a child, leaving my great-grandmother to raise 4 kids on her own in a tin-roofed, hand-built house with no indoor plumbing or electricity? Why did Miss Tessie have to become such a strong matriarch? Why did my grandmother watch her and learn how to be a strong woman who loves fearlessly? Why was my grandmother a strong enough woman to reign in a wild Buck of a sailor like my grandfather? Why did my grandfather grow up with a strong mother whose husband left their family behind and learn to appreciate strong women? Why did my grandmother already have apprentice's experience to raise 4 kids on her own and hold the family together while my grandfather was away serving two tours in Vietnam? Why wasn't Pop physically able to pack his bag for one specific shore-leave and get on the helicopter that ended up crashing into the sea? Why did an officer who out-ranked him force him to give up the seat he always sat in on river patrol the very day its occupant would be hit directly by a rocket in an ambush? Why has the fabric of reality spanning generations, continents, and families been stitched together to lead us to this moment in this church, surrounded by a palpable and tangible spirit of Love lynch-pinned by the marriage of my grandparents?


The opening Latin lines of this entry are from a 15th century prayer. They read: "Never was it known that anyone who fled to Thy protection, implored Thy help or sought Thine intercession, was left unaided." Those words beautifully describe the lasting lesson I will take from my grandfather, and I think every person privileged enough to know him would say the same. My uncle spent a lot of time putting together a collage of photos and images from Pop's life. He made the comment to me that in studying my grandfather's life through these pictures you can watch him change profoundly through the years. Rather than growing sad and cynical through the years like so many, the opposite was true in him; joy took root in such a profound way that one can see a man who found happiness. Where did he find it? What about his life caused his happiness to be continually compounded? My grandfather's greatest joy and most profound happiness was found in the giving of himself to the people he loved. The more people the more family the more friends, the more he was able to give. This is the part of his legacy I hope we all can remember. Happiness is directly proportional to the giving of oneself.

One of Pop's all-time favorite songs. One of the enduring lessons he taught me is that any 60s compilation lacking this song is not worth your time.

17 January 2012

Incline My Heart and I Shall Desire

The people above have been waiting hours upon hours upon hours, braving the elements, anxiously awaiting the moment when the Apple store will open its doors and graciously allow them the privilege of dishing $500+ for the iPad2. This year I chuckled and shook my head as I saw families camping outside the doors of Best Buy...on Thanksgiving morning. Sacrificing time. Sacrificing family. Sacrificing dignity. Longing for the advent of Black Friday.

Whether it is the thrill of the deal, an insatiable desire to consume, or the fruits of a wider capitalist zeitgeist, one thing seems clear: people will do whatever it takes to spend their money on newer, better, bigger, sexier, totally-awesomer stuff. We love our stuff. Our stuff--having our stuff--pleases us. So, it is perfectly reasonable for us to go to whatever lengths necessary in order to acquire more, experience more acquiring.

We will wait as long as is required to experience again that which we find most fulfilling.

I can't help but visualize the weekly procession of church-goers slowly filing forward to receive the Blessed Sacrament of communion. I wonder how long we would be willing to wait in this line; fifteen minutes? Half an hour? Two hours? All morning? Would we pitch our tents like pilgrims on the mount? What would we be willing to give up in exchange for the Blood of Christ: the Cup of Salvation?

The Psalmist writes, "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, / but you have given me an open ear. / Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required" (Ps. 40:6). "He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: / 'Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!' / Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, / and pay your vows to the Most High" (Ps. 50:5, 14).

I cannot even attempt to fathom the public response if the Apple corporation made the following announcement: "Tomorrow, Apple will be giving iPad2s to every individual who comes to Apple stores and asks for one. The sole condition is that any individual receiving an iPad2 express sincere gratitude. Our supply is unlimited, and all stores will remain open until every person seeking this gift has received it." Pandemonium I think would be accurate. Utter, joyous chaos.

Why, then, is it so easy for us to approach the Eucharist with such morose indifference, or if we're generous with ourselves, gracious entitlement? I suppose that it's human nature in a way. We grow accustomed; even to miracles. I can't remember ever in my life praying, "God of creation, thank you for hydrogen." Without hydrogen, the universe as we know it would not exist. The very fabric of space and time would be utterly unrecognizable from the reality we find ourselves in. Without the fusion of hydrogen a few minutes after the big bang, the most basic building blocks of matter itself never would have come to be; our fate sealed billions of years before our most distant of ancestors even had a solid piece of rock to take a single step on. While I'm thinking about it...Dear God, seriously, thank you for hydrogen. Amen.

This, however is the beauty, the mystery, the reality of what is taking place before us on the altar every time we participate in the Eucharist, or in English, the Thanksgiving. The fabric of our existence, the building block, the cornerstone of our reality, the Divine Logos by which all that is (seen and unseen) came to be, makes Himself present for us to hear, to love, to eat. Eternal fulfillment.

A prayer of St. John Chrysostom:

O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that you should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and you have no fitting place in me to lay your head. But as you humbled yourself from the heights of your glory, so now bear me in my humility; as you did deign to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body. As you did not refrain from entering into the house of Simon the leper, or shrink from eating there with sinners, so also vouchsafe to enter the house of my poor soul, all leprous and full of sin. You did not reject the sinful woman who ventured to draw near to touch you, so also have pity on me, a sinner, approaching to touch you. And grant that I may partake of your All-holy Body and Precious Blood for the sanctification, enlightenment and strengthening of my weak soul and body; for the relief from the burden of my many sins; for my preservation against all the snares of the devil; for victory over all my sinful and evil habits; for the mortification of my passions; for obedience to your Commandments; for growth in your divine Grace and for the inheritance of your Kingdom.

This red blotch is the most distant object ever viewed in the universe. To reach this compact galaxy of very hot, very massive, young stars, just jump in your car and drive non-stop at 700 million miles per hour. It will take you 13.2 billion years to get there.

14 October 2011

With Fear and Trembling

I have always been intrigued by a device featured in Søren Kierkegaard's pseudonymous work, Fear and Trembling, which re-frames the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. I share his fascination with the story itself and sense that the theme of faith as illustrated in the Torah is much more rich and complicated than the way it is traditionally told lets on. So, mimicking his project, I have layed out two aspects of the story that have haunted me of late. Kierkegaard's intention in his retelling of Scripture (and mine here) is not sacrilegious, but worshipful. My hope is that these alternate stories invoke contemplation on an often neglected aspect of faith which Kierkegaard sought to bring to light: The faith of Abraham is unique in that it allowed him to believe as true and act upon not only logical impossibilities, but seemingly oppositional commands, contradictory voices. He walked so closely with God that he was able to discern that the same voice which commanded him to love commanded him to sacrifice; the same God who told him to sacrifice was the same God who told him to spare. And in all this, Abraham's faith held fast. He was not shaken or disheartened or confused, and I believe all these things should trouble us to our core as we examine the role of faith in our own lives. 

Abraham, the old man, was awoken from a deep sleep by a familiar voice. The voice was יהוה‎ (YHWH) calling to him, "Abraham!" In the night, יהוה delivered unto him a stern command. Our father Abraham lay perfectly still, eyes fixed, awake until the early hours of the morning. Gathering two young men and his beloved son of promise, Isaac, he set out for the land of Moriah. As the days passed, Abraham rode on in silence, unable to move his lips to confess to his companions his purposes in leading them across the desert. During this time his face grew ever darker, eyes deep and empty. On the third day, he looked up and saw the mount in the distance, cursing it from the depths of his heart. "יהוה, You have brought into existence everything that is; nothing is beyond the depths of Your knowledge or the breadth of Your power. You do not forsake your people, yet you ask this thing of me. From the dust I beg you, that it may not be so." When father and son came to the place God had shown Abraham, he built an altar to the Lord. Clutching the knife at his side, his arm shook violently. As Isaac gazed at his father, his heart trembled, "The fire and the wood are here, but we have brought with us no lamb for a burnt offering." Abraham was unable to reply. "Father?" Isaac cried. Abraham answered him, "And yet this is what our Lord has required."As Abraham took the weapon, reaching out his hand to slaughter his son, an angel of the Lord called from Heaven, "Do not lay your hand on the boy. I know now that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son." Abraham fell to the ground, gnashing his teeth with a loud moan. "You have counted my faith towards You as righteousness, and yet You see fit to test me and destroy my heart!" As they returned down the high mountain, Isaac saw a ram caught by the horns in a thicket. Gently, he placed his hand on the animal's head and set it free. From that day Abraham called his God אהיה אשר אהיה (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh), for the Lord stayed hidden behind Himself. 


At night, the clouds hid the light of the moon as Abraham slept. A voice crept to his ear and spoke, "Abraham." The elderly man heard this as the voice of the Lord and, casting a protective arm across his wife, replied, "Here I am." And again God spoke. "Fetch your only son, Isaac, the one you love. Bring him to the land of Moriah, to a mountain that I will show you. There you will sacrifice him as a burnt offering to your God." In fury Abraham rose from his bed shouting, "Adversary, you are not the Lord, but הַשָׂטָן (ha-satan), come to oppose me! Has יהוה brought me out of Ur of the Chaldeans that I might curse my duty as a father and slay my child as the pagans do? Get behind me, accuser, for I will not allow you to obstruct the covenant the Lord has made with me for the blessing of all!" 

04 August 2011

Raise High the Debt Ceiling, Carpenters

It pains me not in the slightest to open up this little discussion by entirely neglecting the point. I wish in the first place to apologize for its title. I suppose the apology should be squared directly at two people, really. First, J. D. Salinger himself. Mr. Salinger, I trust you will forgive the profaning of one of your perfectly good stories, as well as my voice, which, the more I write, seems more lifted from them all (although it really is a matter of debate whether I first heard myself through your writing, or if the writing taught me how to be heard). Courtesies aside, you are in fact dead, and if you were not, would certainly consider the benefits of being so if you found out anyone was blogging a word about you. Second, Mr. J. D. Weichhand. Josh, I'm going to be honest: I just really want you to read everything I write and give me your approval. You are the Seymour to my Buddy Glass. Having said that, I'm thinking about it more and it's remarkable how true that is in so many ways. Just don't kill yourself.

There is no political subject matter which consistently enthuses me less than finance. I think part of this is related to the fact that most financial issues deemed political, to me, should be more accurately classified as moral questions. Case-in-point perhaps being the classic: Is it okay for some hard-working people to be outrageously rich while others who work just as hard are in poverty? Does anyone have the right to tell the rich they are too rich? If this is a simple political question, then one's answer places him or her somewhere on a scale between Bleeding Socialist and Heartless Capitalist Banker. St. Paul perhaps urges us to expand the conversation. 

The other reason it is so hard to care about the debt ceiling, inflation, or the stock market is because the whole thing is so artificial to me. Wall Street invents money out of thin air by betting on a company's failure, literally getting paid for doing nothing. Meanwhile, the government is fighting a multi-trillion dollar war, and all that's needed for both absurdities to continue is the printing of more money. So why shouldn't the economic elite who know the game be able to amass personal fortunes like a slight-of-hand magician with an ace up his sleeve, when our entire monetary system is just as deceptive and slanted?

Let us also remember that this entire 'debate' is an ideological sideshow. The government spending in question has already been approved by the same phonies standing up on the Hill telling the other side to cut back. Having this debate now only determines whether or not the country will pay those bills. The only purpose of this whole charade of the Right's is to rub the bellies of their tea party supporters. Regarding these, a few words may be appropriate. In its current embodiment, the tea party movement is the worst thing to happen to American politics in my lifetime. It's not that I disagree with every single thing they stand for (which I do). It's not that people who tote guns, dislike foreigners, and hate the idea of everyone being able to go to the doctor scare me (which they do). It's not even that many of them lap up every word of a bona fide crazy person like Glenn Beck (which they do). (Dear reader, this is all starting to sound mean-spirited, but please remember that it's not mean if it's true.) (I apologize for the recent mean-spirited parenthetical disclaimer.)

What frightens me about the tea party is that they have successfully taken the entire Republican party by the throat. Any of us who follow Conservative politics for five minutes will know that the current modus operandi is: Raise taxes, you're gone. Spend money on any program but warfare, you're gone. I think to some extent all these Republicans are trying to do here is keep their jobs. What the tea party has created is a political system entirely contrary to what their dear founding fathers intended; a political system in which compromise is out of the question and one is tricked into believing that every choice is a choice between two ideological extremes. Remember when Mitch McConnell proposed a perfectly sane compromise deal at the beginning of this whole debacle? The man was practically crucified in the conservative media. Trying to see where the other side is coming from, give-and-take are tantamount to treason. A few weeks ago Glenn Beck flat out said that what our nation is facing is a choice between fascist Communism and Libertarian freedom. In other words, there is no middle ground. Wouldn't you rather be a tea-partier than a Communist??

I remember a while back, after the recent health-care bill passed (typically referred to as 'Obamacare'), I was really disappointed in Dennis Kucinich for voting for it. Kucinich is a man I have a deep respect for and one of the only people in Washington I trust. How could he sell out like this? He promised to fight for single-payer, but now has voted for a bill that effectively hands over thousands of new customers to the insurance companies! I was impressed when he sent out a letter to his supporters explaining his vote. The short of it comes down to the fact that he saw a 'yes' vote on that less-than-stellar bill as at least a tiny baby step away from the current system. After speaking with the president at length the day before the vote, he realized that a 'no' vote would be much more damaging in that it would halt the debate altogether and no one knew at that point how long it would be before they would have the majority votes necessary to pass any kind of reform again. So he compromised. He looked at the bigger picture and said, "This is too important to take an ideological stand and cast a meaningless vote." As I look back, I don't think Dennis sold out at all. His ideological stand was the countless hours he spent educating people on socialized care, working the House floor, and never arguing for anything less than what he knew to be the best thing for America.

This is exactly where the Republicans are a complete and utter failure right now. The American people aren't hearing arguments for why tea party policies are the best thing for the country. We are simply being scared into believing that the country is on the verge of apocalypse unless the tea party has its way (and I say that with complete seriousness). We are being told that compromise is out of the question because one side and one side alone has access to the divine revelation of what the United States is and how to save it. No deviation from the straight and narrow can be afforded.

If we all walk away from this glorified Lebron-announcement with anything, it should be a recognition that the only way we are going to stop our country from walking down an extremely scary path is to refuse the hand we are dealt.

19 July 2011

The Divine Life of Animals [Part 1]

To my long-lost readers, I offer my deepest and most shameless apologies. We are rapidly approaching the one year anniversary of my last posting. In an attempt (yet again) to eradicate what--to anyone who has sought after any semi-regular writing regimen--seems to be an unyielding tendency towards silence and failure, I have decided to undertake a book review of sorts. My ultimate goal however is not critical, but conversational. After a period of digestion (or gestation, as the case may be), I will simply dump my thoughts into the void you and I, dear reader, currently occupy. Onward:

The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On


Disregarding its title, my purposes in reading this book have nothing to do with the kind of New Age, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Hollywood Hinduism it seems to imply. I picked up this book because it has long been my conviction that something is missing from the standard way of talking about animals and the created world we share with them. Even as I say that, it strikes me that in typical contemporary discourse on any topic related to nature, the idea that we actually share anything with animals is a foreign one. By this I mean more than the human choice to share one's household with an animal, or tossing seeds and breadcrumbs at a few of the wild ones, or even our moral obligation to protect their natural habitat. What I am interested in exploring is the spiritual identity of all created things; an identity we share in communion with as co-participants in the self-revelation of God. This book may or may not go into these things, but I hope at least it will be a springboard.

In this opening chapter, Tompkins brings up two interesting points of discussion. The first is a very brief exploration of the word nephesh as it appears in the Hebrew scriptures. This word is a rich, multi-faceted word which, when translated into English, is flattened out as the fairly generic word soul. He illustrates that, for the ancients, one's nephesh was not an etherial thing or essential meta-self which goes away to Heaven when we die. "Indeed, our nephesh is what makes each of us who we are" (9). In Genesis, God breathes nephesh into the nose of Adam, creating the first human. Tompkins is fairly successful here in helping break down our cultural resistance to an idea such as the animal soul. I also think this enriched conceptualization of what soul is can be helpful in our own self-understanding as image-bearers. Scripture is very clear that God is not simply interested in 'soul-winning' or taking us away from our bodies. Our physical bodies are to be redeemed, as they themselves are essential to our identity. Nephesh, the soul, is not a removed spirit that eventually flees elsewhere; it is the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, and our eternal identity as living things. That being said, I think more discussion is needed in regards to whether or not there is a distinction between our identity as created (living) things, and personhood.

The second point brought up in the introduction I found noteworthy addresses the transition between the child's innocent emotional/spiritual connection to and sense of wonderment towards creation--particularly animals--and the removed, informed coldness of adulthood toward the same. "'Children often identify with animals in ways that amuse and frustrate us...spending emotion with an abandon that adults, with their thrifty investments and prudent decisions, cannot afford'" (11). Tompkins gives several examples of ways in which children, who know about death, and see it in various forms in media frequently, are often struck by the horror of death seemingly for the first time when it is related to animals. As a child, the author was moved by an experience attempting to feed a starving dog in Mexico and being met with reproach by his mother who saw his actions as wasteful. He had surely seen hungry people before, but I think most of us would agree children have a unique relationship with animals and seem to have an intuitive inclination towards sharing life with them in a way that is lost with age. I resonated with this discussion myself. I don't recall the name of the movie or much of what it was about, but the important point is that the story revolved around a real, not cartoon otter. As I remember it, the otter is accidentally killed in a creek by a human digging with a shovel. For months afterward, maybe even years (my parents would know better), my bed-time prayers included, "Help me forget the otter movie." There's no doubt in my mind I had encountered death before in movies or playing cowboys and Indians, but there was something about an emotional connection I made with that animal that made the reality of death hit me for the first time: Things die. When they die, they're not here anymore. When I, with my child's mind tried to see where they would be after that, all I saw was a blank space. The idea of nothingness scared me more than any monster or nightmare.

Potable Quotable: 
"We patronize [animals] for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth" (12). -Henry Beston