19 November 2008

the end

I have decided to shut off the faucet so as to finally use the firehose. Or, perhaps more appropriately, I am damming the stream so as to create a deeper body to swim in.

From now on, you can reasonably refer to this blog as "that dammed post-karmic stream". Enjoy that. I certainly will.

Hamba kahle...

12 November 2008

merry christmas and happy holidays

The holidays are upon us.

Hooray!! Huzzah!! (I have always wanted to type “Huzzah”)

Cue the Charlie Brown music and the jingling of sleigh-bells...

First, let me state for the record that I don’t dislike the holidays. They are nice; Artificial and manipulative, but nice.

I do, however, have a healthy dislike for the whole commercial aspect of our celebrations. Unlike many of you, I actually applaud stores that use “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. I mean, are we really that upset that a faceless, soulless corporation would refuse to identify their high-profit winter sales-drive with our God? Like, do you think God is sitting in the heavens crying over the fact that Wal-Mart won’t recognize his crucified Son’s role in establishing a materialistic feeding-frenzy on every rollback price in the store? Really? This is offensive to us?

If anything, we should be offended by the stores that use “Merry Christmas”. How dare they emotionally manipulate us by using the goodwill and positive feelings evoked by our sacred holiday to sell us things we don’t want so we can give them to people who don’t need them… Am I alone here? Why do I hear crickets?

Don’t get me started on “One Nation Under God”. God existed before America, will exist after America, and would probably rather not be married to a nation that was built on a foundation of free market economic principles (which are not necessarily evil) and land-grabbing genocide (probably evil). Um, and freedom of religion, too, right? I’ll recommend history books to all those who want them, but my point here is that I don’t really understand why Whataburger insists on putting “One Nation Under God” right next to “100% American Beef” in their restaurant windows. Seems like emotional manipulation and the hijacking of God to me…

I think we have failed to realize that we are allowing companies to sneak God into their brand identity or their sales-pitch in order to increase profits. It isn’t like we have to go out and protest the flippant use of His unpronounceable name (or do we?), but maybe we should see through the silliness of it and use our purchasing power based on need and merit. I don’t know. Maybe I am making too much of this. Still, I recall some tables being turned over in a temple. I recall a commandment about not using God’s name in vain. If using God’s name to sell Nintendo products and made-to-order hamburgers isn’t using it in vain…

I think I’m losing you. What I am trying to get to is that all of my ranting is nugatory if we don’t agree to make a change somewhere.

What if we turned that tradition on its head?

If you absolutely have to buy something for someone, consider the world’s least popular gift: a charitable donation to someone who really needs it. I give them to family and they still talk to me.

If the idea of offending your family and friends during this sacred, gift-swapping season is not your idea of fun, then consider giving gifts that were sourced in 3rd-world nations, that were bought using Fair Trade practices, and that will benefit the producer and have a ripple effect on the community he or she is from. You could buy a lovely silver bracelet at the mall. Or you could buy a handmade beaded bracelet from a family of beaders in Tanzania, with the knowledge that while your purchase didn’t boost the stock price of Tiffany and Co, it did help a remote impoverished village gain access to clean water.

Do you see where we’re going here?

I don’t want to completely demonize the tradition of gift-giving. There is a potential for tremendous blessing in the giving and receiving of gifts. Gifts can be producers of fullness, security, love, and grace, which are all good things. And there is joy in receiving gifts as well. Grace itself is a gift – the very wellspring of our lives.

Together, we can recognize the fleeting nature of this modern consumerist construction and the manipulative nature of those who push it on us. Remember Furby, Tickle-Me-Elmo, GameCube, or Cabbage Patch Dolls? Don’t get trapped by hype and hysteria. If you must buy, buy lasting items. Buy thoughtful moments of teaching. Buy deep relationship growth. Buy unexpected graceful statements. If at all possible, buy from the least of these.

We can change the way we do things. We can reject the vanity and replace it with generosity. We can give grace and life and truth. Surely we can make a difference. Surely we can change.

Merry Christmas. And Happy Holidays.

Gifts With Humanity
Global Exchange – Online Fair Trade Store
World Vision – Online Gift Catalog

plain, gray shirts: how the kindle stole my identity and dismantled my 8x6" billboards

Yesterday, I wrote about my pride-sale. I told you how I sold my library a few years ago for a hill of beans and how I found myself awash in freedom, out (for a fleeting moment) from under the strange “collection-itis” that plagues us all.

Well, related to that divestiture of ink-stained paper, I was thinking about the way in which we are all billboards. Most of us display our identities in multiple ways, some more subtle than others.

Just think about the t-shirts you have stocked away. I am promoting (or identifying myself with) Art Vandelay, Nike, AIDS Walk, etc… It is a slice of my identity for all to see.

As any reader of this blog will know, I was given the Amazon Kindle, a new e-book device. And the Kindle abruptly upended my broadcasted identity.

I am a public reader. I love to read around people. Coffee shops, sidewalks… There is something exciting to me about being lost in a book in the midst of swarming humanity.

And physical books present themselves as little billboards to the world. They are 8-inch by 6-inch pronouncements of beliefs and persuasions. I see a guy at Starbucks reading David Sedaris or Glenn Beck and I can make an immediate judgment on who he is or what he might believe based solely on his choice of author. I see a lady clutching a Dr. Phil book, a teen with an Anne Rice novel, a man holding a Richard Dawkins book, a woman cradling an Eckhart Tolle volume… Instant identification!! Instant association!! Instant judgment!! It’s terribly inaccurate but great fun.

I always appreciated my little stump in that way. I could tell the world something apparently significant about myself by holding my book up to where everyone would see my choice in literature. I could make them feel insecure by reading a hefty history or by holding a weighty theological text. I could inspire curiosity by reading a coy self-help book or I could develop a mystery around myself by showing off the brooding novel that struck my interest. How’s that for a slice of pride? I wonder how many of us would admit to pulling a Bible out of the ol’ backpack at Starbucks for no other reason than to show others how righteous we are…?

The Kindle has changed all of that. Of the 200,000 books available on the Kindle, none make the Kindle look any different. They all are contained on the screen, leaving the world to witness only an off-white electronic gadget with a gray back. A digital bible is the same size as a digital Harry Frankfurt book. A drug-store romance novel is as polished as Tolstoy. They are all shown off in the same uninspiring off-white tablet.

It was as if you replaced my colorful rainbow of quirky, unique t-shirts with a bunch of plain, gray shirts. The message is gone, unless the austerity is the message.

So the Kindle, an object of intellectual identity in itself, does effectively help kill my intellectual identity. What does that mean? I don’t have the slightest clue. What is the point of today’s blog? I am not sure I had one to begin with.

Today does open up an interesting psychological question for another day…

“Has the anonymity afforded me by the Kindle changed what I read?”

Or rather: If no one was watching, would we behave differently?

I have a friend with a PhD in psychology. Maybe he’ll send me a link to some interesting study and we can find out together...

11 November 2008

book review: the moon shines down by margaret wise brown

The Moon Shines Down is a children’s book from Margaret Wise Brown, the same author who brought muffin-eating moose and cookie-eating mice into our homes.

For being a decades-old book that was only recently found in a trunk, there is an element of today in the carefully crafted words.

The Moon Shines Down highlights the diversity of children. Gorgeous illustrations open up the imagination to what life might be like for children in other parts of the world. The common (and comforting) theme that runs throughout is that the same moon shines down on children in Holland, China, and Zimbabwe. That same moon is the one that is out the bedroom window of the American children reading this calming book in bed.

Especially in today’s world, simply opening up a dialogue with our children about diversity and differing circumstances is a priceless exercise. Our children are increasingly insulated from the conditions around them and, while this book is simple and sweet in its worldview (Zimbabwean children play around a fire while lions rest in a tree nearby), it does provide curious little minds with more fuel to add to the inquisitive fire.

Altogether, The Moon Shines Down is a lovely addition to a children’s library and a magical, soothing bedtime ride to the ends of the earth.

i sold my pride for $19.75

I sold my pride for $19.75. Let me explain.

I am not a big guy. I don’t work out. I don’t know my way around a gym. I don’t have firm lats. I probably can’t do any corn-cob chin-ups. I’m just not worried about all of that stuff. And I am happy.

I read. I write. My reputation, my identity, has much more to do with my vocabulary than my bench press. That’s just the way it is.

So, in 2007, I basically committed identity-suicide. In preparation for our move to Africa (and in recognition of the space limitations of packing our entire life away into 4 boxes), I began giving away all of my books. I methodically dismantled my library. And when I ran out of people to give things to, I walked into Half Price Books and sold a couple of tote-bags full of books for $19.75.

It was, at times, a difficult task. I gave books on spirituality and finance to friends that I knew would appreciate them. I donated all of my leftist tomes and Chomsky volumes to an underground book co-op in a downtown coffee shop. I gave African memoirs to potential missionaries. I gave leadership texts to people who had the slightest glimmer of future ability.

With every book that left my hands, a little piece of my misplaced identity was killed. I had shelves full of books. High literature and academic texts. Cheap fiction and deep histories. Roosevelt’s Secret War, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, The Andromeda Strain...all gone.

I had been collecting all that I read for years. And I read voraciously. The books were colorful and wonderful, marked up and dog-eared monuments to my learning journey. They were fantastic decorations, a rainbow of jackets that announced to the world that someone in that house was oh-so-intelligent.

I walked out of the used book store with less than $20 for all of the thousands of hours of time that I had put into that journey. More than that, I walked out of the used book store with a sense of freedom. I was no longer bound to those hunks of ink-stained paper lining the walls. I was free to seek out new journeys and to devote that now vacuous space to something greater.

Of course, the irony of selling your pride is that you are then proud of that sale.

That is why this is a journey, I suppose.

10 November 2008

a dispossessing message

Stef and I were out of town this weekend and missed church. Well, we went to a church but we missed our church. You get the point. Anyway, I listened to this Sunday's Grace Point sermon online and wanted to share it. I don't know what it was entitled, but I'll call it "A Dispossessing Message"...

07 November 2008

the post-karmic stream: of karma, grace, and the "era of interrupting love"

As the blog odometer recently rolled over 60,000, I thought it would be a good time to reflect a bit and reset.

Back when this blog was started, it was called “darkness into light” (explained here). It was an outlet for Stef and me to share Africa and the triumphs and tragedies of life. Slowly, organically, the blog began to change into more of my daily response to the life around us. It morphed from a narrative to a discussion, even if the discussion often took the form of internal dialogue. The blog was sometimes irreverent and often irrelevant, but somehow “the post-karmic stream” seemed to fit (and we’ll get to why later).

This has been a strange journey for me. To write is a life-giving pursuit for me. I find God in the margins of society and I tend to find myself in the margins of my writing. I often disagree with what I write, but I put it out there anyway. I like to see reactions, to test convictions, and to generally push for aggravation. Conflict creates clarity in my opinion and my wife, family, and friends (with the scars to prove it) can attest to my belief in that statement.

This space has been a source of inspiration for me, a place to throw things against a wall to see what sticks. I sometimes forget that others are reading along with me. I have run into bits of controversy, whether from my political leanings or my willingness to leave apparently decided-upon faith matters open to further interpretation. That generally comes from two sources: 1) my respect for those who don’t share my beliefs and 2) my admission that God cannot be tied down in a few neatly-worded statements.

I am, still, a follower of Jesus. It is that pursuit that shapes my every step and that pursuit that brings life and joy to me. It is also the mystery of the whole thing that inspires and awakens us to the newness that we encounter every day. “For who can know the mind of God…”

So, in that context, where did I get the name for the blog? What in the world is a “post-karmic-stream”? I’ll see if I can explain in typically verbose fashion.

In anticipating the arrival of my precious daughter, I have developed high hopes for the house she will grow up in. For instance, I have purposed it to be post-racial. I picked out a lovely African-American doll for her. I think she and Dora the Explorer will make great amigos. I want her to see no difference in Auntie Anna and Auntie Tiff. I want her to see herself in the pictures of children in Africa, Mexico, and Milwaukee. Well, maybe not Milwaukee.

You see, in purposing her existence to be post-racial, it isn’t as if we are refusing to acknowledge race. It exists. Fine. Now let’s rise above it together. Let’s move past it into a life where a greater identity exists.

With that idea in mind, let me share with you an excerpt from something I read. In it, Bono discusses his religious beliefs with interviewer Michka Assayas...

“I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace…You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that “As you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…

…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s**t. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”

And there it is. At once guttural and poetic.

We are post-karmic. We acknowledge the karmic aspects of the life we live. Fine. Now let’s rise above it together. Let’s move past it into a life where a greater identity, a Grace Identity, exists.

Maybe in this post-karmic world, we can learn to love for love’s own sake, rather than for a mystical (mythical?) reward on the other side of life. We can look at humanity and brokenness with honesty, recognizing ourselves in every aspect of the dying world around us. And we can serve that world freely and beautifully, as a way to honor the One who freed us from the “eye for an eye” era and launched us into the era of “interrupting love”.

Now you know. Thanks for joining me on the journey...

06 November 2008

book review: the truth about you by marcus buckingham

As has been mentioned in this space before, Marcus Buckingham is a gifted speaker and a charismatic presence. His books do not allow him that voice. Still, the content is stellar.

The Truth About You is a simple book. It is one of those "a-ha" books in that it opens you up to something you sort of already knew, but never had the words to describe.

Buckingham keeps this book short (115 pages) and sweet. It is broken up into easily digested parts:

1) Performance is always the point
2) Your strengths aren't what you're good at...
3) The "What" of your job is more important than the "why" and "who"
4) You'll never find the perfect job
5) You'll never turn your strengths into weaknesses

On some level, you know these things already. But how do you distinguish between "what you're good at" and "what your strengths are"?

How do you ask the right questions to know if a job is right for you?

If you'll never find the perfect job, how do you make the absolute best of the one you're in?

If you'll never turn your weaknesses into strengths, what in the world do you do with your weaknesses?

The book is valuable for two main reasons: It cuts the fluff, maintaining the brevity that makes it an easy read (I got it in the afternoon and finished it that night before bed). And it forces you, through actual interaction, to confront the aspects of your life that both strengthen and weaken you, leaving you no choice but to address them pro-actively.

With an open mind, anyone can benefit from Buckingham. Recommended.

Learn more here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m1MGOIYJ84CYF8

history is the home address

“History is the home address.”

Mongane Wally Serote, a South African writer and poet, released that wisdom on the world like one would drop a grain of sand into the ocean. And yet, even if I am the only one who heard him, the transcendence of that statement will not leave me.

History is our home address. In our history, we have a place that we can go back to, a place that is familiar and warm. It is a place where truth is malleable, where shared recollection and permissible embellishment have equal footing. We have a place where we have commonality and joint interest, where we exist beyond the fragile ethos of today.

Our history is an inexorable link to our future, at once a tool that teaches and a switch that scolds. It is a transferable unit, a currency that we share with those close to us. It is the home address of a black girl adopted into a white family. It is the home address of a white family embraced by a black nation. It is the stories of slaves merging with those of merchants. It is the legends of heroes colliding with the whispers of dissidents. It is the glory of creation intertwined with the beauty of evolution. It is the source of our tears and the genesis of our joy. It is the place in which we conquer all that is before us in the simple recognition of all that is behind us. It is a place to consider the beginning. It is the place we yearn to inhabit at our end. It is the strength and hope of a people. It is a birthright, an inheritance, and a legacy. It is our collective, individual identity.

It is our history.

And history is the home address.

05 November 2008


This day was long overdue.

Praise God...not for any political result, but for the acknowledgment of equality and the realization of the hopes of a people who have suffered for too long and are deserving of every moment of joy that stems from this historic season in our country. You have overcome. We have overcome.

04 November 2008

be the change

On a day when two candidates will decide which of them will have the chance to bring the "change" that they have promised, I wanted to offer a little something different...

This week at Grace Point, Pastor Jeff started a series called "Be the Change". His message was among the most personally moving I have heard.

Grab some perspective amongst the partisanship.

Listen through this link: http://media.gracepoint.org/audio_2008/110208.mp3

03 November 2008

i just kept driving: how one decision broke my heart and changed my life

(I had written something else for today. Instead, this confession - maybe it'll make more sense after tomorrow's post.)

There are these moments in all of our lives...

A few years ago, I was working in the banking industry. I felt like I was pretty good at it, too. I had been at it for about a year and my first African missionary stint was fading quickly into the rearview mirror.

Well, one day I was in training at the company headquarters on the affluent north side of San Antonio and we broke for lunch. I don't remember what I ate for lunch that day. frankly, I don't remember much about that day at all. I don't know what the training was about or what, if anything, I might have accomplished.

What I do remember about that day is this:

As I was headed back to the office that day after finishing lunch, I came upon the traffic light at Blanco & 1604. Usually a busy intersection that required a wait at the red light, it was green for me that day and I took pleasure in accelerating right through it. Only out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the most heartbreaking sights of my life. Despondent and holding a cardboard sign at the intersection I was now leaving was a guy I knew from high school. He had a slight physical handicap that made his identification unmistakable. It was him. And I was driving away.

Everything in my soul told me to stop - somehow. Help him. Take him into the diner at the corner. Give him a meal and some money and a ear to listen. Yet I found the car being propelled forward. Almost panicking, I tried to find a place to make a convenient stop and nothing seemed favorable.

The next thing I knew, I was on the freeway. I was speeding away from a man that I once called my friend. And I was quivering, weeping, knowing what my role was to be. How could I be driving away? I was there at that moment to help him. I was there to change his day, his week, his life. God dropped me there that one day for that purpose. And I knew it.

I exited the freeway and sat for just a moment. If I turned around, I would be late back to work. Training was not something that could be easily made up and I didn't anticipate my time with my old friend taking less than the entire afternoon. So I bit my lip and finished the drive back to work, aware that every minute that I spent at work was a complete abomination to my reason for being that day.

As soon as the training was over, I raced out to the car and headed right back to the spot where I saw my old friend begging. I pulled over and looked around. I didn't see him. I looked to the other side of the intersection, to the parking lots all around there. Nothing. He was gone. Vapor.

I got back in the car. Inconsolable. Of all of the unspeakable sins I had committed in my life, it was that failure for which it was most difficult to forgive myself. I knew it was my place to help him. Screw my job. And when the chips were down and the moment was there, I froze and just kept driving. His hunger was on me. His thirst was in my omission. His pain or depression or death (or whatever has become of him) was now blood on my hands.

It was one of the absolute lowest moments in my spiritual life.

I tell you this story to tell you that not many days go by where I don't think of that guy. I chose self over the least of these and it is still a painful, sorrowful memory. And yet it is a sorrow that spawns a repentance in me every time I see someone holding one of those pitiful cardboard signs.

I don't know how human beings get to that place. What I do know is that the guy who came to me on the street a few days ago smelling of tequila and calling me "campion" needed food. He is someone's brother, someone's son. I know that the guy who offers to clean my windshield at the Woodlawn exit is someone's husband. He needs dignity, grace, and mercy as much as I do. So he gets my money and my attention. The guy who sells newspapers at the corner is someone's Daddy. He needs acknowledgment of his humanity more than a 50-cent tip on a paper. So he gets a taco, a bottle of water, and a hug.

You see, I can't ever go back to help my old friend on the side of the road. I drove away from that chance a long time ago. What I can do is take notice of those like him a little more often. I hope I never have to learn that lesson again. I hope that his loss is somehow the world's gain. I hope...

02 November 2008

the redistribution of wealth and the legacy we claim

The "redistribution of wealth" has been getting a lot of bad press lately. I am going to pretend that most of us are against the idea because we already are giving beyond our means to those who are lacking while we sit in our abundance.

Why do I hear laughing?

Seriously, though, let's depoliticize the phrase "redistribution of wealth". Remove from it incendiary barbs about socialism or feigned patriotism that would be associated with increased taxes on the wealthy. This statement cannot be about whether we want the government to help us with giving away our money. Remove those associations and just take the phrase for what it is in all of it's simplicity...

Deep breath...slowly...read it again: "Redistribution of wealth"

For those of us who claim to follow Christ, the redistribution of wealth is our legacy.

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

For those of us who claim Christ, the redistribution of our lives in the service of those who lack is the highest calling we have.

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Stepping back from the politics of our day and returning to the groaning world around us, we can use today to retrain our focus on the sacrifice we are called to and the legacy we inherited when we were called children of God. The least of these are waiting...