Just before bedtime I turned off all the lights and checked the front door. As I looked out onto the porch through the window I saw a new animal friend helping himself to a snack at the cat bowl. We have received all kinds of visitors – raccoons, dogs, cats, birds – but this was our first skunk. He was quite polite and mannerly, not nearly as raucous as some of the other guests.

Skunk FinalI of course did not draw his attention, tap on the window, or open the door. Best let him enjoy himself without distraction. But I wasn’t the only one watching.

Out on the sidewalk, no more than eight feet away, was Mary the cat. She was the picture of stillness, not flinching, not moving a muscle. She watched with attentive calm. She neither fled nor bristled. She waited. And when the skunk pushed away from the table he turned to see Mary. I wondered what would happen next.

Nothing exciting, that’s what. Instead of walking on toward Mary he turned right, dropped off the porch and headed along the house toward the woods. They had both respected the requisite distance necessary for both to feel safe and went their own ways without incident.

Every creature has ways to defend itself or elude threat. They all sense when danger is coming their way and prepare to fight or take flight. Some just freeze, immobilized. Most of the time, unless an animal is hunting as a predator, it responds aggressively when it feels threatened. If an animal has been hurt and anticipates more it becomes hyper-vigilant about any source of threat around it, lashing out quickly and without much warning. The most abused animals often become the most aggressive.

There are several alternatives to handling hyper-charged standoffs in which one or more of the parties feel threatened. One way is to use more force to subdue the real or perceived threat. Another is to flee and passively find other ways to survive. But another pathway is that of mutual respect, adequate resource and insuring a margin of safety.

It is possible that some day the two legged, big brained creatures will evolve to the level of the skunk and cat. They will insure that all are fed, that none feel afraid, and a margin of respect is maintained for all. This will not be easy for this species. In addition to being advanced in so many remarkable ways, including the ways they can care for one another, they remain a planetary menace. They still don’t know how to handle standoffs on the front porch. They don’t know how to avoid them in the first place. And it may be the end of them.

Those who have ears listen to the parable of the skunk and the cat.

 

The setting: the little river town of Rocheport, Missouri.
The occasion: Sunday morning worship on Father’s Day.
The uniqueness: motorcyclists from the congregation pulled up with engines revving.

The story from the Gospels was about blind men seeking sight from the healer, Jesus.
The story from life had to do with handling your bike in sharp curves.

Each of the two stories cast a new light on the other.

“Do You Believe I am able to do this?”  Mt 9:27-31
Timothy L. Carson                                  June 19, 2016

In the story before this morning in Matthew’s Gospel two blind men seek out Jesus and ask for healing. Like any one of us, they want more than anything to see, to feel normal again, to stop hurting, to find some kind of peace in their lives. They are like so many others in the Gospel stories who sought out healing and wholeness, relief for suffering, and the reassurance that they are loved and not alone. And they are more like us than unlike us.

Like us they witnessed great suffering and tragedy. Like us they witnessed tremendous injustice and the fruits of human evil. Like us they watched as love ones perished and were helpless to do anything about it.

One of the interesting things about the story is that Jesus turns the tables and asks them a question in return. He asks them if they think he can do it, which is a perfectly reasonable question. It is also a question that gets to the heart of the matter.

It is a remarkable question because it clarifies right off the bat whether their request of him was a serious one. Do you believe that such a request can be granted? If not, why are you asking me?

Still the skeptic in all of us wonders. We know of plenty of illnesses that are not cured. We know that we all go sooner or later. And we even have our doubts about spiritual healing, whether something as non-material as this has real influence on our actual health. Is this just a metaphorical story about opening eyes and spiritual sight? Or is it really about healing eyes that can’t see?

These are the questions moderns ask. We want scientific proof. We see through the lens of a materialistic world view; there is nothing real outside of what can be seen, measured and tested. No wonder we are skeptical when we hear such stories. No wonder we’re not sure how we would answer Jesus’ question. Do we believe he can do this? Not just then, but especially now.

One thing remains for certain: Unless our faith and resolve is there we will not be able to receive what is offered, no matter.

Kathy and I took off this week and headed out on a motorcycle tour. We chugged around southern Missouri and into northern Arkansas. Some of the best biking roads are in those places; there are wonderful hills and valleys, curves and turns and great scenery to boot. If you are a biker on a trip like this, a trip on two wheels through the winding roads of Missouri and Arkansas, you have to come to terms with taking the curves.

Of course, most of this is just simple physics. As you make a curve your velocity and the centripetal force casts you out away from the center you are circling. Depending on the severity of the curve, if you keep going the same speed you’ll be cast off the road into the ditch. As opposed to a car you feel this force on the two wheels of a motorcycle. It’s not enough to simply turn your handlebars in the direction you want to go; that won’t work. You have to exert and equal and opposite force toward the center. On a motor cycle you do this one way: you lean.

How much you lean depends on the curve and your velocity. If you go into the curve fast you have to lean far. If there are two of you aboard you both have to lean because all of the matter in the turn – the bike and two bodies – are affected equally.

Now back to the lean. As I said, unless you are willing to lean you will be cast off the road. In serious racing the bikers lean as much as 75 degrees – they can touch their elbows to the ground. That’s not me. But anyone easily leans 45 degrees.

Here’s the thing: it seems unnatural to lean that far over if you are standing still. You will just fall over. But not moving through a curve. You have to know, you have to believe, you have to act in spite of everything your former experience has taught you: Don’t lean like that, you’ll fall over! But that’s not true when you are moving around a tight curve at 50 miles an hour. You have to lean or else.

When you are a new rider people tell you that. You watch videos and see them doing it. And then it comes your turn to try it out for yourself. Low and behold that’s exactly what has to happen.

And then you experiment with the sharpness of the curve and your velocity, your speed. Your lean – the equal and opposite action to the centripetal force – is gauged accordingly.

Of course you have to have good rubber on your tires and a road surface that has good traction – not slippery, covered with water or oil. All that comes into play, too.

When you are a novice you find it hard to believe in the lean. You hold up and hold back. You second guess yourself. You panic. You freeze. You’re afraid to lean. You try to wrestle the bike rather than lean. You slow down or, even more deadly, you brake (which takes away the very velocity you need to plant the traction of wheel against pavement). You are afraid to give yourself to the lean.

But here is the natural miracle and wonder. There is a balance point right at the razor’s edge of the centripetal force that’s casting you outward and your lean toward the center. When you arrive at that balance point everything is effortless. You let go and let the bike take you around. You lean, find the balance point, surrender to it, let it go. And when you get to the end of the curve the bike sets back up vertical because you have rebalanced to move forward in a straight line.

When Jesus was asking the blind men if they believed he could do it, he was asking them if they were willing to lean into the curve. Because if you’re not willing to lean we might as well stop right there because things are only going to go badly for you. But if you are willing to lean – to lean into the force – you’ll find your balance point and all kinds of things become possible.

Leaning into the force is the prerequisite to finding your balance, your harmony, and your way out of the curve. It doesn’t make everything a straight line. But it does make the curves possible.

And isn’t that what we what, to make what seems impossible, possible?

Those men trusted Jesus enough to come to him without seeing, without knowing the outcome, calling on his mercy. And he, in turn, called on their willingness to lean into the curve. When both are in play all kinds of miracles take place.

Get ready, get set, lean……………………!

If you want a book that brings the fruit of vast experience in the geopolitical dimensions of the Middle East, this is it: And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster, 2016). The author is Richard Engel, long time chief foreign correspondent for NBC news. Engel brings a perspective built on decades covering the Middle East. He also brings a historic view of the region that includes centuries of development. This book is a salve against reductionists who offer simple explanations not anchored in actual history.

The twenty pages of introduction boil down long complex eras into understandable narratives that shed light on why Iraq has been divided into its several religious/ethnic sections since the Europeans carved up the Middle East following WW I. He elegantly clarifies just why Al Qaeda-become-ISIS did not move into Iraq in league with Saddam; quite to the contrary, secular dictator Saddam repulsed and repressed all religious  fundamentalist movements. No, they came and come to repel the American invasion and occupation, simple as that.

If there is one book with which you can educate yourself about this region through the past thousand years, this might be it. That is certainly the case for me. Only a voice of realism and experience can write:

“For twenty years I saw the big men at their prime, and chronicled their downfall and the mayhem that followed…I suspect a new generation of big men will return. No people can tolerate chaos forever. Dictators will offer a way out and many of the exhausted and brutalized people of the Middle East will accept them, and I suspect Washington will as well.”

 

Why is it that some creators flare out early like great shooting stars? And why do others grow continuously, often realizing their greatest powers later in life? Those questions are asked and researched in David Galenson’s quite amazing study, Old Masters and Young Geniuses (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Galenson straddles the discipline of artistic history and economics, the later being his own formal area of training. His book addresses the question of early and late creativity by quantitatively analyzing artists most prodigious eras of life; when were they referenced, purchased and recognized most? The conclusions are graphic and stunning. Regardless of the form of artistic expression – visual art, sculpture, poetry, novels, music – these artistic creators tend toward either early explosions or gradual maturing and later flowering. Why?

As Galenson identified who was who in terms of early and late he simultaneously probed their artistic methods. They fell more or less into two camps, the “conceptual” artists – those who developed their art with big ideas, model-shifting concepts and techniques, and the “experimental” artists – those who refined their technique over long periods of time, never considering their work finished, always striving for the next improvement.

Many conceptual artists peak early and, after expressing their unique ideas, have little left to say later. Examples of conceptuals would be Picasso, Warhol, Fitzgerald and Plath. They left their mark and left it early and they never matched their early fame later in life, if indeed they had a later life. In contrast to those, the experimentals matured and grew and often had their greatest and best-known contributions later. Examples of experimentals would be Haydn, Monet, O’Keeffe, and Frost.

Conceptuals often have an great idea and implement it. When they do they are done. Experimentals discover what they are creating in the act of creating it.

My favorite story of an experimental was Georgia O’Keeffe. It is said that she painted her own front door twenty times. She did this not because it was the most interesting subject or because her fame rested on some new technique. She did it because the next time she painted it she might get closer to perfection than the last.

Conceptuals tend to be boundary breakers; they achieve fame by challenging the boundaries and throwing it out there. Experimentals tend to be more cautious, never considering their work complete. They often rework their creations over and over. Whereas Melville created Moby Dick, a masterpiece, early and never exceeded that piece with anything else, Twain, Woolf and Dickens matured and continued to create their greatest works late. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in a flash as a young man, a remarkable achievement he would never exceed and Hemingway never wrote a great book after age forty. But Twain spent ten years writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and it wasn’t published until he was fifty. And he never considered it finished.

Of course, cinema was included. Conceptual directors often minimize plot and amplify technical innovations. So Orson Welles broke new ground with blockbuster Citizen Kane very early and accomplished little of note afterwards. On the other hand old master Alfred Hitchcock rose to fame late, self-describing directing expertise as something that develops slowly and naturally. He invariably honored the narrative line, image and the perceived impact on the audience. Psycho is the perfect example. Like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, other old masters, the story should be universal, compelling and grow in importance as time passes on.

As I reflected on this magisterial study I asked myself parallel questions about creating, writing, leading, preaching and growing in faith. In my experience some religious leaders are very much like the conceptuals; they tromp onto the scene and their fame lasts a few minutes. What they have to offer, say and do has a very brief shelf life. What they earlier said in some brilliance is frequently repeated in different forms the rest of their lives. The “old masters” of religious life tend to recreate themselves, refining and remaking their art and expression into later age, motivated by an internal sense of never having arrived. It is this self-knowledge of being on the unending journey, the inextinguishable fire of creativity, that keeps them fresh and offering their best until late in life.

It is now, after spending a year reading the works of Thomas Merton, that I realize he was an old master. He was an experimental, a mystic who was never done. It is so easy to try to box Merton in: Oh, he was a Catholic and stuck in that mythos; Oh, he contradicted himself; Oh, he talked about community but wanted to be a hermit; Oh, he used the pen in the service of social activism but wasn’t really out there in the fray. If Merton were a conceptual, a person who had his one or two or three great ideas you could critique accordingly. But he was not. He was an experimental who was never done, a man and mystic who continued to sharpen his pencil on a page and faith and practice that was never finished.

That’s the kind of person I want to be.

 

 

Sebastian Junger opens his taunt and muscular book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging with a story about an unemployed coal miner who gave him a sandwich while he was hitch-hiking. He gave him the sandwich for no other reason than the young man by the side of the road was a stranger who looked like he needed help. Much of Junger’s life has been spent asking why that man did that. This book goes a good distance in answering that question.

Junger is a journalist who has been in the thick of covering war zones. He has been embedded with troops in the nastiest of conflicts and survived and witnessed the horrible. This manifested itself in his own eruption of post traumatic stress after he returned home from one assignment. So his book is gritty and personal and experiential because of it.

The book, though, is not just a memoir of his experiences of war. It is a distillation of the problems facing returning American warriors placed alongside those of other cultures. The conclusions, it seems to me, are as troubling as they are water tight: Modern American culture fosters alienation and a lack of the kind of community that heals the soul of the warrior. We all suffer from this reality. It’s just that warriors are like the canary in the mine; they show us to ourselves.

As a part of this process Junger casts a light on false assumptions about what causes enduring duress following trauma. In short, human beings, tribal as we are, often function better in the face of catastrophe than we do at ease. We do remarkably well with trauma as long as we are surrounded by resilient community. Our recovery from trauma is often fairly quick and lasting, depending on the person we were before the trauma and the kind of support that surrounds us after.

This is a must read for any person who wants to dip beneath the assumed answers given to a baffling challenge.

Lion Killers

Posted: May 23, 2016 in Uncategorized
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It seemed like a scene out of bad cinema: A man jumps into the lions’ cage in a zoo and begins taunting them. The lions attack and do what they were made to do. In order to protect the now-mauled man, Zookeepers take down the lions.

Where does one begin?

First of all do lions really belong in captivity? The short answer is that no, they don’t, that living in an artificial habitat like most zoos provide drives them crazy, to despondency, to giving up their lionness. At the least lions and other wild animals should only be confined in large animal sanctuaries with lots of room to roam, feed and live as “natural” a life as possible.

Can you imagine what a treat it was, from the lion’s point of view, when an idiot jumped into their cage and drew their attention? Finally, a chance to get one of them who put us here. And he’s an idiot who shouts and waves his hands. That’s even better. Jump this dude. Show him his limits. He wants some lion? Then give him some.

But can you really imagine the deranged, half-witted motives of someone who would do that? Was he grandiose, thinking himself immune to lion prowess? Did he have to prove himself to, uh, his mommy, his big brother, his imaginary lover, himself? What could be worse and what I think is highly likely, is that this was suicide by lion. If he was rational, and we don’t know that he was, could he imagine any other consequence after jumping into the jaws of death?

And finally, the zookeepers. They got up in the morning and thought this was going to be an ordinary day in zoo paradise. It is their job to take care of and protect the animals. It is their job to protect patrons who come to look at them. They have protocols for handling life and death situations. It may mean protecting one of the humans from one of the non-humans.

But this was not a normal day at work. And if I was one of them instinct probably would have kicked in and I would be shooting whatever was going after one of my fellow homo sapiens. But should they have? It was fast and they had to act immediately. I’m in no place to judge but I wonder about distraction, drawing them away, tranquilizing them. All of these probably would have been too slow or ineffective to save the idiot human.

That leads to a larger question about humans and non-humans. Since humans created the zoo scenario in the first place and an idiot human chose to place himself in harm’s way, then why should lions be executed because of human foibles? The scales of justice are unbalanced from the beginning because we automatically favor the human over the non-human. Is there any question that under the circumstances the lions were innocent and the humans guilty?

Somewhere, sometime in a distant galaxy there is a zoo with humans in confinement. Curious creatures come and gawk and tap on the windows and make faces at them. The humans inside look sad and disinterested. Every so often the keepers slide some poorly prepared human food into their cells and expect them to be thankful. And then one day some ugly creature climbs over the barrier and drops in to visit the humans in their loneliness. The humans suddenly awaken. They look at one another and say, “Well, lookie here.” It didn’t take them a second to know what to do …

And then the zookeepers zapped the humans to death because they attacked the ugly thing that dropped into the cage where they had been imprisoned for their known lifetimes.

What fun! On the other side of the pond Lutterworth Press of Cambridge, England is releasing the 2nd edition of Liminal Reality and Transformational Power. As a part of the release they interviewed me for their blog. You may catch some spelling differences between British English and American English! To read the interview click here.

Liminal Reality Cover