Monday, June 29, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure

This American Life was about "Fall Guys" this week, and one of the stories was about Lynndie England, the woman who was in the most publicized of the photos that came out of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The interview of Lynndie England was taken from material gathered for the movie "Standard Operating Procedure", a documentary that came out last year.

I always tried to avoid thinking about Abu Ghraib too much. The photos repulsed and enraged me, and made me ashamed to be an American. After hearing the interview with Ms. England, I decided to watch the film, get a little more perspective and understanding. I suppose I got both, but I also ended up with a lot more questions.

The filmmakers interviewed most of the people who appear in the photos, as well as a civilian contractor who was in the prison at times and a few other people.

It's gut-wrenching to hear these people, some of whom it's easy to have sympathy for, describing what happened in each photo. They can all justify what happened, especially as they were "just following orders". They saw the detainees as criminals and terrorists at best, and sub-human at worst. They saw themselves as defending our freedoms as Americans, as watching the backs of their "battle buddies", as protecting their own lives in a war zone.

I wish I could just write them off as psychotic villians or hapless victims, but they're neither. If I put myself in their shoes, can I reasonably say I would have protested? I can say with confidence that I would not have participated, but to hear them explain "I was just taking the picture" or "they just told me to jump in the photo" or "I didn't really know what they were doing, so I didn't say anything"...can I really say that I would be stronger or braver than that?

When I see injustice around me on a less dramatic scale, am I strong and brave enough? Or, as Derek Webb sings, "I don't know the sufferings of people outside my front door, and I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore. I'm trading comfort for human life, and that's not just murder, it's suicide, and this too shall be made right."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Redoing it

Sometimes on Facebook, people will write things on my wall, or comment elsewhere after me, and then delete the post. It disappears, but the funny thing is that I still get an email telling me what they wrote.

I empathize with those people. I've long wished for the ability to take mulligans in life--I did as a two-year-old when I dropped my water pistol off the front deck just to watch it fall, then later when my brother and I were kings of the Tandy Color Computer, and getting it right in a game often entailed multiple restarts, and later again in college as I tried to figure out how to run a good cross-country race. And yes, most of the time in between, I had the same wish. But the problem with reality is, even if you ignore it, it doesn't go away; and the reality is,
whatever happens can't be taken back. It's just history. Granted, I like history, but this principle of irrevocable linear reality still frustrates me.

The crazy thing is that God forgets my sins, thanks to Jesus' death and resurrection. God forgetting sins hardly seems possible, much less probable, in the context of our lives and given that He's omniscient and holy and all that good stuff. But it's true. "'This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.' Then he adds: 'Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.'"

There, mind-blowingly, is my mulligan. I aim to make the best of it.

p.s. No, I will not reveal the contents of deleted Facebook posts.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Forks, Flies, and Not Having Vertigo

I had a rough time in the kitchen yesterday. It was going to be a very late lunch, this salad I was preparing. Then a large fly charged in, all buzzy and full of going nowhere, raging against the glass with vim and vigor until I opened the window and shooed him out. I cast secret aspersions after his hairy insect rear into the yard; you see, it's the same fly every time, I know it, he finds his way in somehow and comes into the kitchen like this just to, well, bug me (but then again, they all look the same to me).

Moments later, I set my fork down for a second, and it catapulted out and onto the floor, cascading salad in its wake. Faugh! More aspersions; this particular type of flatware has been designed with disproportionately heavy handles. Switching to a decidedly better fork, I pondered balance.

Good balance isn't about everything being equal--I think we know that, most of us anyway, but sometimes we like to say otherwise when it's funny or convenient or appealing--no, balance is about the impact of things, the forces they exude. So eating equal amounts of spinach leaves and Funfetti cupcakes doesn't constitute a well-balanced diet (sure, you could say that this is due to an inequality of "things," i.e. nutrients; but we don't need the same amount of every nutrient, either, because they work differently in our bodies, which is my point); and having psychotic thoughts half the time and happy thoughts the other half doesn't give you a well-balanced personality.

What about personal balance, anyway? It seems like so much of the time, I have this superficial "balance," but really that just means I'm all over the map (once again, diversity isn't always ideal; but that's an essay of its own). Part of the problem is that not everything is meant for equilibrium--things grow, they progress, and too much or the wrong kind of balance can hinder, stagnate, preclude forward motion.

So, ironically, if I want to be well-balanced I actually need to pursue some things constantly, recklessly even, and abandon others altogether. (Not the easiest task for people like me, who always want it both ways) Or perhaps it's the other way around: stability is required for all that pursuit and prioritization. I think it's both (see, there I go again), but rather than trying to formulize stability, I want to emphasize the importance of equanimity, specifically, to point out that it's hard to get anywhere without a composing force. An anchor, if you will. A Rock. When you're running circles around yourself, you pretty much stay in the same place, and getting upset over flying forks and flies is just wasting energy.

Speaking of going in circles, I need to put an end to this. So here are some verses:

Philippians 4
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Disturb us, Lord...

Sir Frances Drake, the first Englishman to navigate the globe spoke these words in prayer:

Disturb us, Lord, when

We are too well pleased with ourselves

When our dreams have come true

Because we dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land

We shall find stars.

We ask you to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push us in the future

In strength, courage, hope and love.

Sir Francis Drake, December 1577

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Really, I'd rather you judge me

There is a question I hear periodically, dealing with our interpersonal relations--we say, "who am I to judge that person?" This is rhetorical, of course, usually indicating an effort to not be judgmental (yes, I realize it is Biblically based, but I do have issues with the way this question is applied). Considering this phrase, it occurred to me recently that I never hear people ask who they are to judge God, though this question seems to be, dare I say, even more solidly founded in scripture, and much weightier, too.

What I do hear is a great deal of concern from people considering Christianity, or monotheism generally, over the rampant and haphazard presence of evil in the world. They find evil to be, well, bad, and reasonably so. But I'm struck by the frequency with which I hear questions like, "why did that happen to them?" or "why is this happening to me?" and the way that people assume these questions are a natural response. They aren't, I take it, rhetorical, but they do carry implications. Specifically, they often suggest that God simply shouldn't allow such things to
occur, i.e., "Why would God let this happen to me; that is wrong." What? Who? Oh, you mean God, the one who spoke the universe into existence, molded the intricacies of your body and the depths of your soul, sustains you with the breath of life and gives you every other good thing you ever had? Yes, how terrible of Him to do something that you neither approve of nor understand.

Now, I'm not trying to be heartless and hopelessly calloused; I just think that it's terribly out of perspective to say that other people can do whatever they bloody well please, but God needs to preclude all unhappy incidents in the lives of "good" people. Someone could say, well, people are people, but if God is perfect and powerful, etc., then we hold Him to a higher standard. This is poor reasoning; in fact it's because of who we are and who he is that talk of us holding him to any standard is nonsense. Sure, there are plenty of practical issues to be taken care of on the ground, but for starters, at least, if you're going to take God seriously, please. take. God. seriously.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Shameless plea for help

The Africa organization I work for, Lahash International, is having an epic cleaning event this weekend to begin to prepare a house that has been offered for our use as an office and hospitality house. It's in wretched shape, and needs a lot of help, so we're calling on all of our friends to come help us "muck it out" and clean.

I'm in charge of this specatular event, which means that my entire weekend will consist of wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves. Won't you come be so stylish alongside me?

The house is at 4850 N Vancouver Ave, Portland, and we'll be starting at 9am on Saturday. Another shift starts at 1pm, or we'll be working again Sunday afternoon starting around 2pm.

Thanks, friends.