Thursday, July 28, 2011


Whenever I get one of those ice-breaker questions asking what occupation I would choose if I weren’t a preacher, my answers vacillate among “football player,” “auto parts man,” and “poet.”

I haven’t played football since a flag-football game with friends in Como park about thirty years ago. And I’m not that much of a fan. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen one too many Fred MacMurray campus movies about the B-stringer saving the day as the seconds count down.

Auto parts? Don’t ask.

I do try my hand every once in a while at what I call poetry. I like sonnets. I like to read them (“a work of art you can carry in your pocket”) and I enjoy the combination of artistry and wordsmanship of writing them. Somehow, in my messy life, I’m attracted to that feature of the sonnet in which everything is in its place and there’s a place for everything. Like an auto parts store.

Here are two sonnets. In the first, I gave myself the assignment of teaching fifth graders the “rules” for how to write a sonnet in the sonnet. I was only partially successful. The second is a reflection of meeting a friend at a small diner.

How To Write A Sonnet Like Shakespeare

In fourteen lines you tell what’s on your mind.
The first two state the case you want to prove.
Your subject can be almost any kind
(Though Shakespeare almost always wrote of love!).
A sonnet’s like a puzzle or a game:
You always use this rhythm and this rhyme.
So, to the ear, each line will sound the same:
Ten syllables all marching on in time.
But poetry is more than rhyming rules,
And rhythm’s like the beating of a heart:
Your feelings and your words must be the tools
That turn the sonnet’s canvas into art.
Now, prove that you can do it, from the top.
(And with two lines – a couplet – make it stop.)

Breakfast at the World Café

This table, with my friend, is the whole world
squeezed, for a time, into this small café.
The universe itself, in fact, is swirled
in creamy coffee spirals; and a day
takes shape – created out of words and light.
And laughter – our own “music of the spheres,”
our morning song that sings away the night –
ascends beyond the gravity of years.
So waitress, please, let’s have another cup,
and let the clinking spoon out-tick the clock.
And maybe, if we keep from looking up,
we’ll stop the time – a cosmic mental block!
No… it ticks on; our world comes to an end,
and you and I must go to work, my friend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"WHAT THE F---?!"

Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Jesus, in Matthew 5:37
I heard my Dad swear (curse) just once. It was the classic hitting-his-thumb-with-a-hammer, “Dammit!” I was about ten years old. The fact that the oath came readily to him, and that he was a WWII vet, causes me, upon reflection, to realize that this was probably not the only incidence of swearing in his life. But it’s the only time I heard him. And I don’t mean that, instead, I heard him come close and veer off with a “Dam… er, darn it.” He just didn’t swear. That one isolated memory only solidifies this bedrock truth of my childhood.

Although I exhibited my share of youthful commandment-based piety, I am convinced that the main reason that I am not a swearing guy is the influence of my Dad. A second important influence, at the impressionable age of about 15, was my confirmation pastor, Howard Bomhoff (another vet, wounded in Italy), who taught us, “Swearing just shows what a poor vocabulary you have.” I think he said it once, and it stuck. I later entered professions (first a college English major, then teaching, then a call to ministry) in which words are of prime importance. Like my Dad with the hammer, I’d better use the salty ones sparingly, and for good effect, if at all.

I like to shock my confirmation students by telling them that although there are good reasons to avoid using “shit” and “fuck” (see “vocabulary,” above), the worst possible swear word, according to the Bible, is the one we hear used most frequently: “Oh, my God!” –  based on the fact that God enjoys having his name mocked about as much as you or I do. One day, when I was in college, a friend took me aside and said, “You know, Dick, you’re saying ‘Oh, my God’ a lot lately.” This seems like a surreal memory in the recalling of it, but I know it happened (although I can’t remember who my pious friend was). I have, essentially, never used the phrase since.

My glib use of it above notwithstanding, I have always been offended by the “F” word (this is not my piety kicking in; I’m actually offended by the word, and will use “F” for most of the remainder of this essay). At the risk of sounding a bit righteous, I’m offended on behalf of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. My understanding is that “F” is a word of sexual violence. The reason that “rape” is not a swear word is that we have “F.” It is not a clever reference to intercourse, but a verbal expression of forced sex.

In an ironic round-about, recent generations are using the F-word more frequently because it is depicted more frequently in popular culture which is supposedly reflecting the reality of kids these days. I think kids are using it more – it’s so easy to fall into that F-in’ rhythm (especially if it fills a vocabulary-deprived void) – but they don’t know what it means. They don’t intend to be insulting their mommas.

In the service of art and truth, the F-word does indeed have a place on the stage or on the page. But the irony is often missed by those who hear it as a primer for the hippest language. Television’s “The Pacific” was a gripping, harrowing series with F-peppered dialogue that apparently added to the veracity of its combat milieu. I don’t doubt the artistic truthfulness implied, but my Pacific-stationed uncle never used the word, and my Army Air Corps Dad could only muster one weak “dammit” in all the years I knew the guy.

Timothy Oliphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO's
"Deadwood." A comparatively straight-talker in an
atmosphere ubiquitous with the F word.
HBO’s “Deadwood,” I have to say, is Shakespeare with the “F” word. Caryl and I love the series. (Even though, as our daughters would say, "Mom would have to spell that word," Caryl is the one who commented on the Shakespearean feel of the dialogue.) The artful intent of the gritty speech works in a dramatically authentic way, but we are glad to leave the word behind in the muddy streets. It hasn’t rubbed off. (Caryl has not used the F-bomb against me even once; she hasn't even spelled it at me!)

My college English prof taught us that the Bard himself has Hamlet speak to Ophelia of “cunt-ry matters” (nudge, nudge; wink, wink) – word-based sexual taunting that didn’t work out well for dear Ophelia. I am not suggesting that the poet’s palette ought to be devoid of such ideas -- or words that offend.

But words can, indeed, wound or heal, tear down or build up. From the first books we read to our children to the vocabulary they hear us utter in all kinds of circumstances, we are introducing them to the power and magic of words. And it just may be an act of life-changing kindness if we approach a young friend and say, “You know, you’ve been saying ‘fuck’ a lot lately.”

Friday, July 15, 2011


They asked Jesus, "Teacher, it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor’s." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." ~Luke 20
One of the most cryptic mysteries in the scriptures is the question of what, exactly, Jesus meant by his answer to the tax question (see above). It is certainly open to a variety of interpretations, but I am persuaded by this one: “Jesus flips the coin back into the crowd, shrugs, and says, ‘If you use Caesar’s roads, then pay Caesar’s taxes.’” An interpretation, yes (as is all reading of scripture), but one that seems to follow logically from Jesus’ observation about whose face is on the coin.

Taxes, for a Christian in a representative democracy, are tied to the idea of stewardship in two ways: 1) They are an expression of the Christian-ethics idea of devoting one’s life beyond oneself – to the greater good, and 2) they are the social equivalent of tossing a coin into the poor-box at the back of the church. (If your response is, “I already do that in church,” I say, OK, but let me see the verification of your 10% tithe. If you are one of the average 1.8% givers, I won’t buy it; you’re barely keeping your own church lights on.)

And if we worship at the altar of Adam Smith (the “father of capitalism”), we are reminded (by Smith) that “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” None of this (Christian stewardship or Adam Smith), makes any sense if the driving principle is simply selfishness. Both a capitalist economy and a representative government will decay at the roots with the drought of selfishness.

The conservative commentator George Will makes this observation: “The government we have did not come about overnight, or by accident, or by conspiracy. Middle-class Americans who are the articulate complainers about it are the principle benefiters from it. They have no intention of dismantling it, so they had better pipe down and pay up.”

Former South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings says much the same thing in this oft-quoted reflection:
A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill; bought his house with an FHA loan; saw his kids born in a VA hospital; started a business with an SBA loan; got electricity from the TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents retired to a farm on Social Security, got electricity from the REA and soil testing from USDA. When the father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and his father’s life was saved with a drug developed through the NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went through college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington, D.C., to apply for disaster relief, and, while there, spent some time visiting the Smithsonian museums. Then one day, he wrote his congressman an angry letter asking the government to get off his back and complaining about paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people.
If I want to start dismantling the programs described in the paragraph above can I do so without regard to my own self-interest? And if I am wealthy enough that I don't need these programs, then Saint Adam Smith reminds me that It is up to me to provide them for others. (Jesus goes farther, of course: My entire wealth is to be given to the poor. Another post for another time.)

I acknowledge that well-meaning Christians can arrive at a variety of positions on many issues, including tax policy. It seems, however, that we should be able to agree on this as a starting point: that it is a matter of stewardship and not selfishness.


I will be honored and surprised if anyone notices that this is a revision of an earlier post, offered here as a part of our nation's current political discussion.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I just wanted to stand up close,
shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart
with this, my friend. ~Gerhard Frost

Caryl and I recently spent a week with my sisters and their husbands at the  remote mountain cabin we share – our annual work week and “partnership meeting.” Although it is more common for us to use the cabin separately, we get along well and enjoy these times together. At one point during our week my sister Barb made an observation to the effect that “everyone seems to be on some kind of screen.” And she was right: one of us was doing a crossword on an iPhone, another was on the deck trying to get a cell signal, another was reading a book on Kindle, two others playing Scrabble on an iPad. All of this in spite of the fact that, by mutual agreement and technological limitation, we don’t have internet or wi-fi (or TV or radio) at the cabin.

My first response (a bit defensive) was to point out that we were doing the same things we’ve always done when relaxing at the cabin: working crosswords, reading books, playing board games. But upon further reflection, I had to wonder if there wasn’t in fact a kind of qualitative difference. Is it possible that one is more “absorbed” and isolated from others when reading a book on Kindle than when – sitting in the exact same easy chair – reading a bound book? Or is it that the electronic device erects a more off-putting shield than does a tattered-corner paperback book of New York Times Crossword Puzzles? I don’t know; thus my suggestion of an “interim report.”

Electronic screen time may be one of those areas in which we think of ourselves as the exception. Even the most hard-bitten cell phone libertarian who doesn’t want anyone to pry the phone out of his steering wheel-clutching hands tenses up just a bit when he notices another driver approaching with a cell phone to her ear. I think the reason for this is that we all know that when we’re on the cell phone we’re sort of “out of it” – we’re in that phone-zone. But we excuse ourselves, thinking we can handle it, even though we keep a wary eye on anyone else using the phone in the car. Likewise, when Caryl clicks to yet another round of solitaire Scrabble on her iPad, I may mutter internally, “What, another game of Scrabble?!” while I turn back to the neat new Crostics app on my iPhone.

There are historical reports of post-Gutenberg parents complaining that their children were spending too much time with these new-fangled “books,” and fearing the effect it would have on their brains. (The development of book-reading has, in fact, had an evolutionary effect on brain wiring.) Similarly, I take pride in how adroit my three-and-a-half-year-old grandson is with “Angry Birds” (not just his game performance, but the smarts to figure out how the whole thing works),* then I wonder just how long it is “good for him” to play the game in one stretch.  Some sociologists and brain scientists are publishing opinions that decry the effect of computer games, others that herald the technology as brain-enhancing. Interim.

A few weeks ago I joined some friends at a pub where another friend was performing on the small stage. We were never more than a handful of patrons, and at one point there were just two of us in the room when, in a coincidence of timing, my friend was texting his kids – checking in with them for some good parental purpose – and I was glancing at a text that had just vibrated to my attention. Something made me observe this scene from the viewpoint of our friend, the singer: looking out at the bare room, in mid song, he sees two of his friends, both with heads cranked strangely down toward their knees – certainly not looking at him. Having a personal policy against the use of cell-phones in these kinds of situations, we were both making exceptions for ourselves.

And we’ve all witnessed the disturbing scene of an otherwise caring parent bent intently over her device as her two- and three-year-olds scramble over her shoulders, vainly seeking mom’s attention.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions us against that habit of listening “with half an ear,” while we’re actually preparing what we want to say.** (Listening with a switched-on device in our hand cuts that down to about a quarter of an ear – and pretty much wipes out eye contact.)

So I guess I’m musing over two issues here. One is the so-far ill-defined effect that this new technology has on our brains and our society, the other is the old-fashioned question of etiquette. Can we any longer have face-time conversations with our loved ones without our eyes drifting toward the enticing glow emanating from our cupped hand?

Who knows how this will all work out. In the interim, let’s keep talking, eye to eye and heart to heart.

It occurs to me that the game “Angry Birds” -- launching cartoon birds at goofy monkeys -- just may be an effective and harmless (?) way for a three-year-old to work out all of that “shooting” that he seems to want to do.

** Bonhoeffer makes this observation in "Life Together," his engaging small treatise on Christian community.