Selected Essays 3

From the third section:  Currents


Essay Twenty-Four:  Ptolemy’s Ghost

Essay Twenty-Five:  Blowing Myself Up

Essay Thirty-One:  The Lemonade Well


Essay Twenty-Four:  Ptolemy’s Ghost

Center of the Universe

I was reading my little daily devotional last night (The Intellectual Devotional, Biographies) and after reading the awesomely awful story of Hypatia (she was one inspiring freethinker!), I got to another Alexandrian in Roman Egypt, Ptolemy.  This Greek astronomer who lived from about 100-170 scribbled down his observations in a manual titled Almagest, a name derived from the Arabic.  My nightly reading text caught my eye right from the beginning with the introduction:  “Ptolemy. . .may be best known to history for his greatest mistake.”  That’s too bad, yet telling and instructive.  As we all know (or maybe not) one of the greatest astronomers and geographers of Western Civilization claimed that the sun, the stars, the planets all revolved around the Earth.  It wasn’t until Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), about 1400 years later, that we had to alter our view that we were the center of the universe.

Good example of slow change!  Minds and worldviews move like molasses glaciers.  Perhaps the greatest blow to our “civilized” Ego, our Human Hubris, came from someone who looked a little harder, studied more, searched, asked questions, dared to question the prevailing and accepted “Truth” of things and made a reasoned discovery.  It changed everything.  But not so fast.  Change is indeed slow.

Today, we see Ptolemaic thinking all around.  It seems pervasive in Politics but especially in Religion.  The ghost of Ptolemy (rest his tortured soul) most haunts our “more enlightened” and technological agora in the popularized shotgun marriage of Religion and Politics, the “light on the hill” exceptionalism so obvious in the day of Gingrich, Palin, Santorum, Bachman, Beck and the WeakTeaBagParty.  The claim and the quest for a Christian Nation is all we need for example.  “We need to get back to God and get God back into classrooms, courts, congress. . .Everything Everywhere!”  America is proclaimed to be not only the center of the world but the universe.  Anything that questions, challenges or threatens that Number One position is The Enemy, a Terrorist, and certainly not a True Citizen or Patriot.

So the solar system turns.  And many would deny the Science, the rational investigation, the freethought and practice of wisdom that might, just might, call it all into question, put it all in historical context, universal understanding.  Look at the climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists on the Science and Technology committee in Congress.  Does anyone hear that alarm bell?

We could hope.  But hope isn’t going to do it.  Hope doesn’t move the orbits, the constellations of thinking (or lack of) that swirl some into a frenzy of fear and faith and forgetfulness.  Hope should not focus our attention completely on “what could be” but should transmogrify into clear vision, Copernican Vision, that sees what’s really there and what our place in “it” (the universe, or just the earthly) actually is.

The Ptolemists want to prevail.  They preach a good sermon, stir the masses and shout a good soundbyte loop.  But they must fail.  The Copernicans must “take back” the wider, greater vision that is in danger of being lost, buried under revisionist pseudo-history that would place us back at the center of all that is (notice how David Barton, dedicated darling of the Religious Right, has been discredited in sources such as Getting Jefferson Right). When America is always the “ground zero” for God and the Universe, strong voices need to rise to reason or shout if need be:   “We (America; White Americans; Christianity; Humanity; Earth; etc) are NOT the center of the universe.”

My “devotional” explains that Ptolemy’s other great contribution was his Geography—a world atlas and guide that listed 8000 locations in the ancient world, that left many areas open for people to (Wikipedia-like) fill in the blanks in our knowledge.  It was the first major use of longitude and latitude.  It was not based on “beliefs” about how the world is or how we wish it was.  It was based on evidence, experience and a free exchange of knowledge.  This is not hope—it is true “centering.”

Maybe Ptolemy’s ghost isn’t always haunting our contemporary secular/spiritual revolutions around the light of reason and progress. . .

We’ll see.

September, 2010

Essay Twenty-Five:  Blowing Myself Up

17, 36, 12, 89, 150. . .Lottery numbers?  Combination to the gym locker?  Password to the account with not much to count?  No.  The number of women, men and children I’ve taken with me when blowing myself up for God (and glory).  I don’t bother to add up collateral damage–hundreds of injuries; people losing their eyes and legs and hearing; children who no longer have parents and parents who have to pick up pieces of their children.  Not to mention the property damage or (this occasionally bothers me for a moment) the killed and wounded, maimed animals–the donkeys, camels, horses, dogs, birds. . . .  I know that when I explode, it’s messy, but it’s my mission.

You see, I believe in something and I’m willing to die for it.  It’s hard to live with these beliefs, so I choose to die for them, with them, and sometimes in spite of them.  I mean, there are the teachings of compassion and love, it’s true, mercy and forgiveness and all.  But I’ve been taught for a long time, since I was a child living in one small room with my parents and sisters and brothers and grandmother. . .there are “higher purposes” and a greater calling for people like me, and that’s to be a “martyr,” a sacrifice, willingly and completely surrendered to God.

Do I understand “God” or Faith, Religion or the full meaning of “The Cause”– of what I do?  Not really.  But does that really matter, in the end, when my life, your life, is over– when all life is (thankfully) over and we all have to add up the numbers and the good works before the Loving One, who will (justly) torture unbelievers forever.  I do not wish to be tortured.

I need to tell you, before I blow myself up (there’s that beautiful ticking sound again)– I don’t always kill people– that is, at least not their bodies.  Here’s a secret, and my time is short so I can tell you:  I have found a way to take pieces of people’s minds, little bits of their ideas, with me when I shatter into millions of bloody cells.  In fact, this is the most amazing part of my “job,” my holy work– In my act of violent love, I blow up reason and conscience, peace and liberty, and (forgive me if you can), the cause, and Yes, even God! (May He be praised!).

I can’t explain it all right now.  I have to go.  Fate and Faith call.  But I have to confess to you before I detonate.  There are some questions, images really, that seem to haunt me every time I live and die my faith.  You’ve heard of the 70 virgins in heaven– in the garden paradise above?  I know you smile, but I’m being honest here.  I dream some nights,  and sometimes just as I push the red button with my trembling, sweaty hand, I wonder, How will I face the garden (will I even have a face?) and can I enjoy the virgins right away, and is it right?  Sorry to be so worldly and dirty in my words and thoughts.  I just wonder how that all happens up there.  It troubles me, will I have to lift my burkha for the joyful celebration?  Is it right for me to have all those men to myself?!  It seems so shameful.

Well, now it is time.  Time to stop this sinful and sick fantasy.  That’s not even my Religion!  Oh God, help me, forgive me; Come to my aid in my hour of need, as I take more minds and bodies, dreams, hopes and ideas with me again.  Help me, Lord!  These people are not innocent, they teach “Human Rights” and freethinking and even Evolution to the children, but they won’t let us pray or worship You in the schools.  They won’t let us put Your teachings in courtrooms or Congress.  Their values are not our family’s values; and so many do not believe in You in the right way, in our way.  Yes, and they kill babies who never have the opportunity to be born into this world of faith and sacrifice, to be raised in Your Way, taught as I’ve been taught.  Yes, Lord, they deserve Your wrath!  And I am honored to give my body, my soul, my mind for Your holy work.  Take me, and take them too!

I’m squeezing the button now, Lord (You are Great!).  I feel momentary pain, hear faint screams, smell burning flesh, hot blood, and fire, it’s all fire!. . .I’m flying, drifting.  Now all is still.  It’s over. . .It’s done now.

I see You!  I see You, My God, O there You are!

It’s cloudy or foggy here.  I feel cold and it’s hard to focus my eyes, but there You are!  Sweet Lord, you welcome me with open arms.

But Lord, I see no gate, no city; no virgins, no garden; I hear no music, no choir, no dancing.

And Lord, My God!  There are tears and dirt on Your face!   And, Your hands!  Your hands are bloody; Your robe is ripped and hanging in shreds; Your hair is blown and burned; I can smell Your flesh!  Uh, What?  You can’t have flesh!

Lord, Lord, this is too strange for words!  You, look so different than I imagined.  I was never taught. . .Wait!  What?  Something’s not right here.  Something’s terribly wrong.  Where is My God?  This can’t be!  Where, where did YOU come from?  Why are YOU here?  I’ve seen pictures of you before.  You, You’re, You’re. . . Buddha!

July, 2009

Essay Thirty-One:  The Lemonade Well

My friend Lee said, “There’s a sign in the jungle that says, ‘This way to the lemonade well.'”  After I finished laughing he explained that he saw that in one of those old Bob Hope movies when they’re running through the jungle and very thirsty.  Then they come to the sign. How silly.  A lemonade well, in the jungle.  But it’s what they needed.  Probably a trick.  Maybe a trap.  But a great sign to see in the jungle.  Lee said he wants to live in the jungle.  I don’t think I would.

Lee’s “forest wisdom” always gets me thinking.  I laugh. Then I wonder.  I reflect.  What is he teaching me? On this subject, richness and poverty, he gets me smiling as I ask, What is the Jungle? and, when I’m really thirsty I ask, Where is the Lemonade Well?

The American economy is shaky.  Corporations are crumbling.  People are losing jobs and savings.  Makes many very nervous.  Politicians say it will be alright.  Just a slump.  Some even say we’re really fine.  Numbers can be played with.  All in all, the country is doing great.  After all, we all know, “We’re the greatest!”  Most of the conversation we hear about dollars comes from those who have something to lose–those with some wealth and assets.  But what about those who’ve already lost?  What about those whose well ran dry a long time ago?  Those who’ve lost jobs, houses and a little sanity?  Are we any shakier than we’ve ever been?

We’re all in this American Experiment “for better or worse.”  Perspectives depend on where we’re standing; whether that ground feels shaky or stable.  If we see it all as a jungle and we’re thirsty, or we see it as a game for winners the questions take on radically different meanings.  Who owns the well?  Who owns the lemonade?  Who runs the jungle?  Will I always be thirsty?

I read that a CEO has lost billions in the economic downturn.  He is left with a meager $20 billion or so.  Not his company.  He, as an individual.  Billions.  More bucks than many countries.  The Wall Street head who was forced to resign was making $200 million. The new “Acting” Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wears a watch–a watch–worth over $500,000.  In my chaplaincy work I am around people every day who have a few bucks in their pocket. . .if they have anything. . .if they have a pocket.  Most of us are somewhere in between the extremes.  Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to be either the one with billions stuffed in a dark bank vault or the one with a buck in a dusty pocket.  But I think my experience tells me there’s a common lesson in this jungle of wealth; a teaching about the value of poverty, or at least the value of finding one’s value.  Here’s one simple point:  While one can own the whole lemonade production company, control the well and decide who sees the signs directing us to the well, another may simply stand thirsty.  Yet, everyone has thirst.  Everyone needs lemonade.  Ultimately, the well belongs to everyone.  Our poverty is our need to quench and satisfy our thirst.  The richest person gets thirsty too.  And all have to find a way to that well.

Maybe this is a bit too obscure.  Here’s a personal example.  One man on the street angrily told me he hated rich people.  “They all drive expensive cars and don’t care about anyone but themselves.”  He complained about their reckless driving, the exhaust from their big jams of cars and their clear ignorance of pedestrians.  Being a proponent of the art of balance, I asked him if poor people are ever reckless and ignorant.  He didn’t like the question but had to admit, “Yeah, I guess so.”  Another person was clearer to the point:  “Rich folks need to learn some things about life.  I feel sorry for them.  They’re stuck in their pursuit of wealth and busy with business that means nothing.  I could teach them a few things.”  I agreed.  We all can learn from each other, poor or rich.  If we believe anymore in community, in a community well full of wisdom mixed with lemonade, then there’s hope.  I hear it, see it, feel it.  Yes, there’s hope.

Lee of the Lemonade kept us laughing and thinking harder (maybe that’s the best balance for our times).  About his age, 60-ish, he said, “I just don’t want to get wrinkley.”  About all our distracting conflicts and conversations he said, “Can we talk about solutions?”  After sweeping up the the outside steps he reached in his ragged pocket, pulled out a dollar and offered it to me.  “Hey, brother, if you need some money, I’ve got some.” I’d smile and politely thank him.  “You might need that for coffee, Lee.”  Notice how he did the work and offered me the money.  At times I wondered if this simple guy from the “lost well” of America was a burned-out executive or Howard Hughes-type, but decided he was better than that– he was our very own prophet of the pavement, our wise man of the wilds, who wasn’t ours at all. . .he was his own man, refreshing and cool as a lemonade in summer.

Another friend, who used to live outside in a very rich county, wrote a song entitled, “The World is Mine.”  For over a year he lived on the grounds of a church.  He checked the outside and the doors each night like a security guard.  Some in that church didn’t like it when they saw homeless people around and especially when they saw something left in the bushes.  They called the police.  They put up No Trespassing signs.  They got angry and, when I spoke up, they pressured me to “talk with them” and “do something about these people.”  My friend moved on, disgusted and a little frightened by the hostility he felt there.  Most in the church, I think, would feel more compassion.  But they didn’t speak up.  They went along with the “authorities” and chased the poor away, off “God’s property.”  That’s really the irony isn’t it?  The enforcers of the property forget so quickly (maybe they’ve never been taught) that:  If God has anything to do with the property then, by God, it belongs to any seeking sanctuary and safety.  Alas, sanctuaries are locked and protected.  Fear is the faith of the current times.  And while the congregations are slipping deep into irrelevancy, poor neighbors who may actually be very “special to God” (as lepers of old), are slipping away into the shadows, hiding from the laws of the Present Pharisees.  My friend, who wrote the song “The World Is Mine,” realized that some could try to shun him and shame him but his belief was strong and clear:  “I have seen the light of life and it told me what to do; It told me to love everyone, and if we all do.  It will be a better place to live.”

Lee of the urbanized suburbian jungle told me more than once that he had fears; he feared things in the night.  “I get scared sometimes, brother.  I suspect spaceships are watching me, so I sleep in caves or pipes.”  We would try to assure him he was well hidden and his paranoia would take a short breather, but apprehension was his daily bread, and who were we to take away the poor person’s invisibility cloak that probably kept him alive?  After all, we suspect he’s right to stay hidden.  He saw and spoke the truth, known by anyone with firsthand experience with life outside, and outside the “mainstream,” when he whispered, with a palpable lament, “It’s a dangerous world out there.”

Every time Lee would disappear on another of his journeys, I would be left to wonder if all we can do sometimes is open a brief, welcoming refuge, laugh a bit, think and learn a little more, and point to a lemonade well, that may or may not be out there.



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