Monthly Archives: May 2008

Les Misérables and the Weekend…

I finished Les Misérables this morning.  It was a beautiful book, showing the lightest and darkest parts of humanity, both horrific and hopeful, filled with longing, and at its depth: bright.  Even this morning I was pulled from the heights of Jean Valjean saving Marius at the barricade to the shallows when Jean Valjean admits he is a convict and Marius patiently and consistently drives Valjean from his life and Cosette’s.  If you have not seen the play or movie (I imagine most have) you must; if you have seen either but not read the book, you must.  

This afternoon I mowed the lawn.  Actually, I weed-whacked the lawn.  Our lawn is not big enough to demand a mower and we don’t have one.  I bought an extension cord and cut the lawn.  Now, I’m in the guestroom/office and our cat, Daly, is asleep on the bed.  The curtains are down and the room is dark, light only comes in at the edges and I can make out a few leaves from the tree outside our upstairs window.

This weekend will be a rush.  We have friends coming out for the week on Monday — which will be tremendous fun — but Brooke and I will be cleaning and finishing odd jobs around the house in anticipation.  We need to paint the stairwell and get a carpet cleaner and get rid of our futon and wash the sheets on the guest-bed and go grocery shopping and clean out the car and I’m sure I’m forgetting something else.  Honestly, Brooke will probably do more of it than I, but we both sense the busyness that is coming.  

So I sit this afternoon.  Thoughts of Jean Valjean dawdle in my brain.  It does not matter whether he is fictional or real: a fictional man is real somewhere else.  But I think of his devotion, his devotion to the orphan Cosette, his ability to sacrifice himself — again and again — in order to bring her happiness.  His life is something to be used, not saved.  He thinks of himself only briefly in the story: at the beginning before he is redeemed by the bishop, and once more when he feels Cosette’s heart changing its devotion to Marius.  The rest, of course, is time to live for Cosette, the orphan child that he brings up.

And before the rush of the weekend, between ‘mowing’ the lawn and getting other work done, I am reminded of this.  The heroes are the ones who live for others, who use their own lives rather than save them.  The best stories are about such heroes risking all they have for the sake of another: these are the stories that move us, the stories that we want to live, the stories that tap into the deep reality of the universe.

May I live out such a story, even in the rush of the weekend.


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Compassion Fatigue

An article I posted on last week:

An article on tells about the fatigue that many people are feeling over the past few weeks.  On this site this fatigue has been called ‘compassion fatigue’; Time calls it ‘disaster fatigue’.  The sources for this fatigue are often seen to stem from two places: overexposure by the media and over-solicitation by charitable organizations.  It’s also a term referring to overworked physicians or caretakers, and to oversimplify the situation, the sources are the same: the saturation of suffering that we vicariously experience (either through direct care or media), and the over-solicitation of help that we face.  

The result of compassion fatigue is fairly obvious: we don’t want to hear about the suffering of others; we feel an apathy and cynicism that our efforts make any difference.  

Additionally, I think we can agree: we don’t want to experience compassion fatigue.  Being desensitized to the sufferings of others, feeling indifferent or even helpless are places where we don’t want to go.  The desensitization, the indifference makes us less human, even: we lose our connection with other people, we lose belief in our ability to change circumstances.  We lose our compassion.  But we are left with the question: how do we battle compassion fatigue?

To begin, we examine the causes.  With the information revolution that has changed the world over the past ten years, we see how overexposure is a unique problem.  For the sake of argument, let’s rewind 100 years.  A man or woman 100 years ago feels compassion to those around him or her: relatives — who often live quite close — and neighbors.  In communities 100 years ago, people were more reliant on each other: if someone had to move there was no moving company to call, if the father or a family died there were generally not life-insurance policies; rather, the community gathered around the suffering family.  Even in my own family, when my great-grandfather broke his leg in the 1940’s, a local man came around to care for the crops.  Exposure to greater suffering came through radio and newspaper.  Images of others suffering outside of the community were rare.

Fast forward to today.  The communal commitment to others’ well being is not as present: insurance and workers comp and welfare and a host of other structures have deemed most of that unnecessary.  If a man or woman hurts him- or herself on the job, insurance helps that person, not someone from down the street.  Additionally, images of suffering are daily flashed to us: Burma, China, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evening news that focuses on suffering in our local communities.  It is almost as if there is a ‘compassion quotient’ that determines how much compassion we can offer.  The images trigger empathy, and then are replaced with images of suffering in another locale, and then replaced by images from another locale, until we have no more empathy, no more compassion to offer.

The images, also, are followed by solicitation: we have familiar solicitations from friends and relatives that people have fulfilled for thousands of years.  But we also have solicitations from organizations bombarding us: World Vision, the Red Cross, the One Campaign, even American Idol has a night devoted to soliciting help.  Obviously, these are great organizations; my wife and I support organizations like these financially.  I am interested, though, in how the bombardment of information and solicitation affects us — both positively and negatively.

I’ll stop here for today, and I’d love to hear thoughts from people.  More to come in upcoming days and weeks, as we think about what it means to show compassion specifically now while inundated with images that, surprisingly, separate us rather than connect us due to their quantity.  How do we step through these images and find places to show compassion?  How do we react to images of suffering — and we want to act — but we simply cannot?

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Les Misérables and Peanut Butter

Ahhh … Saturday morning.  I have a cup of coffee next to me, and nothing but acres of time to slowly cross.

I’ve been slowly working through Les Misérables — or I’ve been trying to move through it at a leisurely pace.  I have a break in school right now, and I picked up Les Mis as a summer read, since even the abridged edition is huge (the original edition was 10 volumes) and I wanted something to chew on for awhile.  Unfortunately, I picked the wrong book.  After a week I’m about halfway through, thus on pace to finish absurdly early.  Perhaps I should have read the full version.  (Side note: I thought I was getting the full version at Barnes and Noble; I was with my brother this past Christmas and he was in a hurry, so I grabbed the book and didn’t give it a good look.  Alas.)  The book, however, is rich and beautiful.  The plot is obviously familiar to most of us, but Hugo’s language and the experience of reading it — offering much more detail than stage or screen versions — is a deeply satisfying experience.  It’s one of those classics that really stands up in the modern world, on par with Anna Karenina as a book that both reveals human nature but also makes you want to be a better person.  

(Another note: if you want Les Misérables, or any old or out-of-print book, go to — it’s the best, cheapest site for classics or obscure books.)

In other news, yesterday I ran to work, since I wanted a little more exercise than the normal bike ride.  I packed a pair of clothes, a couple books, and my lunch.  Lunch was peanut butter and jelly yesterday.  

I put my sandwich in a ziploc and threw it in my hip bag.  My bag conveniently has a hip belt and shoulder strap so it’s easy to run with, even though it probably makes me look like a huge dork.  But, I ran to church and felt extra good about myself.  Upon reaching my office I opened my bag to get everything out.  

I discovered that the ziploc was not impervious to the constant pounding that a run brings: it had broken.  And, worse than a broken ziploc was the fact that peanut butter was all over my bag.  The main loser in all this, besides me, was my cell phone.  It was directly next to the sandwich, and covered with the sludge of peanut butter.  I did my best to clean it off, which is especially difficult when you really can’t use water, but I managed to reduce the sludge to a thin film of butter over most of my phone.  

So now my bag will smell like peanut butter, but even worse, my phone will.  I think every time I talk on it I’ll probably get hungry.  But, what can you do?  It’s the little inconveniences that make up much of life; it’s our response to them that makes us who we are.

As for me, I’m going to finish my coffee and enjoy my Saturday.


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Language and the Bible…

So, I’m continuing on the cliché and spirituality theme, but I would like to offer a comment: clichés in reference to how we express ourselves aren’t necessarily bad, it is simply that we generally don’t think about them.  Clichés take away our power to see and communicate.  Yet, if clichés are thought about and examined, especially in reference to spirituality, they are fine to use from a personal standpoint.  My issue is that most people — myself included — don’t think about them, and in public they also lose value unless properly defined.

What I’m writing about today, however, is what to do with phrases found in the Bible that have subsequently either lost meaning or had their meaning altered.  For example: born again.  This is found in John 3, as Jesus talks to the rabbi Nicodemus, he uses this phrase.  It has different meanings in different traditions, but roughly means being reconciled to God and made new.  Some traditions would define this primarily as baptism, some as an intense experience, some as assenting or believing in the claims of Jesus in the gospels (obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, but different traditions stress different facets of faith).  The words born again gained recognition in popular culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as the movement Jesus People used the term often.  Born again went along with intense conversion experiences, and increasingly, devout Christians.  Chuck Colson wrote a book entitled Born Again in 1976, also subtly tying the phrase with conservative politics, whether intentional or not (Colson was chief counsel for President Nixon).  

Thus, born again to the follower of Jesus means being reconciled to God, re-created by the Spirit, and living an entirely different life and identity than before.  In popular culture, however, born again means conservative, dogmatic, narrow-minded.  What are we to do?

I argue that we need new language.  If we are Jesus followers, we are living out a new covenant as outlined in the New Testament.  The two biggest figures in the New Testament — Jesus and Paul — constantly redefined and invented language.  Jesus defined being reconciled to God in myriad ways, he defined the Kingdom of Heaven through use of story after story after story.  Paul, too, used a blend of Roman and Hebrew influences as he wrote letters to young churches, constantly using words and forms in new and dynamic ways.  

We need to hold to the ideas and language of the Bible while subverting and playing with language of our own.  Born again doesn’t work?  How about re-created?  Have you heard ‘salt of the earth’ too many times?  How about color in the world?  These are fairly simply and inane examples, but the important part is that we recapture the dynamic language of the Bible and re-stress the radical and revolutionary belief in a God of the Universe who is personal and loving and sacrificial.  

The important part is that we accurately communicate to the world who we are and what we believe, and that we understand and think about who we are.  If we are thinking about this, new language will come, or old language will re-establish itself.  Paul, who wrote many letters now in the New Testament, uses different terms as he addresses different communities.  He uses many of the same terms, but also writes his letters with language that directly refers to his audience.  Why don’t we do the same?  

We have a holy writ that serves as a starting point, and we must draw from that — again and again — as we use, refine, adjust, and develop language.  We must see how writers of the Bible thought and spoke, how they defined revolutionary ideas.  We figure out how those ideas relate to us today — not adding to the ideas, but not letting our language reduce the ideas, either. Because the language in culture is constantly evolving, we must take the permission that these writers have given us, as Spirit-led people, to develop language constantly relevant and evolving, too. 

That’s how this blog got its name.


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Cliché and Spirituality

Since I am one of the biggest offenders — someone who often uses clichés as he expresses himself spiritually, a letter of critique to myself:


I’d like to address, today, the use of clichés within spirituality — particularly Christian Spirituality (since you are in such a community and tradition).  If clichés make us less human, what about clichés within Christian Spirituality?  How do they rob us of understanding and relationship?  And you know, Gabe, quite well how clichés fill your spiritual world and language.

When you pray, why do you ask God do just do something?  He is the God of the universe, and you want Him to “just” do something?  Why do you ask God to be with people — He is present everywhere, and the final promise of Jesus in Matthew is that God is with people.  Is that the best the God of the universe can do — just be with somebody?  

What do you mean when you want God to bless someone?  To make them happy?  To make them content?  To give them scads of money?  Why don’t you ask for that, rather than a word that you never really think about.  What does bless mean?  And really, most of your friends are quite blessed: they have cars — which 90% of the world doesn’t — and good homes and jobs and you as a friend (who could beat that?).  

How about the Lord’s will?  Can’t you argue that, in some way, everything that has ever happened is the will of God?  When you say, “your will, Lord” is that an out, an escape if things don’t happen the way you want?  Can things happen against God’s will?  

Or calling — what is a calling?  A passion lived out?  Desire?  Your passions worked out in prayer and relationship with others?  Doesn’t a calling end up being whatever you happen to be doing?  

Beyond these words are other words that, really, have become so loaded in society that it is misinforming to use them: born again (conservative, southern), the lost (people who don’t belong), saved (see appropriately titled movie), conversion (that’s the best you can do for radically re-orienting your life?), even Christian (*shudder*).  

You see, Gabe, these words don’t adequately communicate what you want to communicate.  Words like “be with us” fail to capture the actual profound God-of-the-Universe-in-relationship-with-you reality that happens during prayer (and, not during prayer).  Words like “bless” generally don’t communicate what you actually mean, and are sort of watered-down happy-feelings that you want to send to someone else.  Can’t God do a lot more than send happy feelings?  And words that are loaded simply divide and push away people who need God’s love the most, because they have rarely felt it.  Would you tell a friend he is lost?  Then why do it behind his back?

Gabe, you don’t really pray all that much (despite the fact Paul said you should pray unceasingly … but that’s another issue).  When you talk to a God bigger than you can imagine, stronger and more loving than your mind can grasp, is this the best you can do?  You drop into a certain lingo of happy feelings and temporary hopefulness?  Or, do you want God to re-orient your life and the lives’ of those around you, radically offering love in profound ways, grace in scandalous ways, and help from a Helper Spirit, not a simply a happy spirit?  By falling into clichés, you lessen your expectations of God — and thus your understanding of God — and paint yourself as a caricature, unable to express yourself uniquely to The God.

I’ll stop there.  May this be the beginning of breaking through your language, not trapping yourself or other people or your expectations of God in clichéd and trite language.  Rather, may you unblushingly approach God in prayer and lovingly re-define Christian Spirituality to those unreconciled to God and turned off by the insider language of the church.


Your Soul

P.S.  C.S. Lewis wrote, in his essay Weight of Glory, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”  Sometimes your language — the way you express yourself — weakens your desires.

Tomorrow: Wait!  Isn’t some of that language in the Bible?



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Language and Humanity…

I have a friend who says that “cliché is the enemy of our humanity.”  At first, when I heard this I sort of wondered at it; I didn’t really understand what she meant.  I’ve continued to wonder, though, and I may still not understand it fully but I see the statement as true.  Cliché is the enemy of humanity in that it robs us of our humanity.  It robs us of being able to see uniquely for ourselves and limits our self-expression.

Let me give you an example.  A few years back I was in the Lake District in northern England; this is the area where the poet Wordsworth lived, a wild area of hills and lakes broken by stone walls that used to corral sheep.  It is a fantastic place, and if you ever go to England you must find the wilder places, away from the cultivated gardens and high teas that rightly make up much of the country.  In the Lake District, the village we stayed in was at the end of a lake; untamed hills shadowed us from the morning and evening sun.  Bats came out in the evening and flew lopsided circles at the lake’s edge.  If you climbed one of the surrounding hills and looked down at the village, you would see the dull-colored slate roofs and painted stone buildings: mostly white, with the occasional odd colors of red or yellow — painted by eccentric homeowners or advertising shopkeepers.  A stream ran down the center of the village with a dun-colored stone wall next to it, and out of the village the oblong lake literally sprung: it grew wider the further you could follow it from the village.  The whole, of course, was surrounded by verdant hills.  Green sheep fields clung along the slope, breaking into trees nearer the top.

The preceding is an effort to both see and express what I actually saw.  The clichés that I had to continually remind myself not to use: quaint and nestled.  The quaint village was nestled among the hills.  Words like “quaint” and “nestled” are clichés because they hold certain images already in our minds.  If I said that I went to the Lake District and quaint villages were nestled in the hills, I really fail to communicate both what actually was there (bats!) and fail to see in my own mind what actually was there.

When we speak in clichés we fail to see the actual thing in our mind; rather, we see the representation of the thing.  This unique village that I had the opportunity to stay in was much more than quaint — it was quirky and interesting, yet comfortable and inviting.  Part of being human means seeing things for ourselves, it means not seeing a stone house and simply seeing it as we’ve been told to see, but seeing in our own, individual way.  That is, a word as overused as “quaint” simply lets us point out what every other person sees rather than seeing the thing for ourselves.  Additionally, communicating in clichés does not allow us to express ourselves as individuals.  Even if I saw the stone house differently, if I communicate the vision in a cliché I have failed to capture it differently, I have followed the crowd.  Being human means having an awful lot in common with everyone else; we must not allow ourselves to see and express ourselves in the same way, too.

I use clichés a lot; we all do.  Yet, the goal for a writer is to see things differently, to see differences between villages and houses, between people and locales and … everything.  The same goal falls upon everyone: the need to see and express ourselves uniquely.  Failing to see and express ourselves uniquely does rob us of our humanity, cliché forces us to follow the crowd, to think and see as we are told to see.  May we be people who see for ourselves, who express specifically and individually, who bring life to our words and to ourselves.

Tomorrow: Cliché and Spirituality…


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A Story in Two…

I’m interested in story: how we tell stories that happen everyday.  This is an attempt to tell the same story twice, with dramatically different effects.  It’s my yesterday afternoon.

Part I:

Yesterday afternoon, I decided that it was time to assert my manhood over the lawn.  A good lawn, of course, is one of the truer tests of a husband’s manhood: if you can spring healthy, soft green grass from the ground it shows that you are obviously a solid provider for your family, and more importantly, a man.  The lawn-converted-from-patio behind our townhouse, roughly the size of a VW Beetle, has about 3 patches of healthly-looking grass.  The rest is either: A) sickly-looking, pale green impish grass, or B) bare patches of dirt.

I went into our back storage space and found: an electric trimmer, a spade, potting soil, a hand-rake, grass seed, and a rusty, old pair of scissors.  I add the rusty scissors because, unfortunately, I did not find a necessary EXTENSION CORD that would make the electric trimmer have any use whatsoever.  Thus, I found myself standing, rusty scissors in hand, in the backyard while debating how long a trip to Lowe’s would take.  

Lowe’s is about a 1/2 mile from our house.

After cutting a blade of grass with the scissors, though, I realized that immediate gratification was better than driving to Lowe’s.  My wife agreed with me on this, as I could tell from her laughter when she saw me squatting down, cutting clumps of grass with an old pair of scissors.  Yet, I managed to triumph over the grass due to my determination and commitment.  Also helpful was the fact that only three clumps of grass were actually over 3/4 of an inch high.  

Having successfully ‘mowed’ our backyard, I then raked the bare patches and put potting soil on them.  This seemed like such a good idea, I decided to spread potting soil over all the impish grass everywhere else.  Soil is good for plants, right?  So isn’t more soil better?  

I then started to water the soil.  Of course, it makes more sense to water AFTER you’ve put the grass seed down, but I wanted to give the grass seed a nice bed.  A water bed, if you will.

Very carefully after watering the dirt, since everything was quite muddy, I threw grass seed down.  By this point, I had somehow managed to get dirt all over my arms and somehow large amounts of grass seed in my hair.  Undeterred, however, I watered once again, this time WITH grass seed down.  

I walked back into the house covered in dirt and grass seed, blister on my finger from cutting so much grass with rusty scissors, triumphant.  As Brooke pointed out different places that had dirt or seed on them (how’d you get all that in your hair?!) I knew deep down she was thinking what a great provider I am.  Her laughter told me all I needed to know.

Part II:

Late yesterday afternoon, I walked outside into a hot, mid-May sun.  The tiny lawn behind our townhouse was sad: a few healthy clumps of grass were surrounded by limp, yellow-green grass, which was patched with bare dirt.  I looked into the back storage closet.  We had an electric trimmer, potting soil, grass seed, and a couple small gardening tools: a spade, a hand-rake the size of my fist.  

There was no extension cord for our trimmer.  

My wife Brooke was upstairs and she didn’t know where the extension cord was.  I thought of driving to the store to get one; we would need one soon enough.  Yet, we are re-doing our guestroom and have spent enough money in the past few days.  In the storage closest next to the hand-rake was an old pair of rusty scissors.  I stood on the lawn for a few moments, deliberating.  I cut a blade of grass with the scissors.  Then another.  This was the better way, I decided.  Besides, we only have a few clumps of grass that are healthy.  The rest wasn’t even high enough to cut.

Brooke came down and laughed when she saw me, stooped over and cutting, alone in the sun of the backyard.  My finger quickly blistered from the friction of the scissors, and the grass was still uneven.  I wonder why I make the decisions I do.

After cutting, I raked the bare patches and spread potting soil on them.  I spread extra soil over the pale grass as well; since I wanted to thicken the sad grass with extra grass seed, it made sense to spread a little soil there, too.  I watered it all, so that the grass seed would take better.  Then, I spread the grass seed.  I had to do it by hand and the lawn was wet.  The wind blew it into my hair and my feet grew muddy.  

I showered after my work, alone with the heat and steam, washing the lawn and dirt and seed off myself.  I hope the seed takes.

There it is, the story experiment.  Don’t worry, my attitude was along the lines of the first one; I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon.  Yet, this discipline is meant to remind myself both of the stories inherent in everyday, quotidian activities and the importance of language as we tell them.  I tried to stay away from emotion-language — actually telling emotions I felt — yet the two stories have very different emotions in them.  I’ll do more like this in the future, as it’s helpful to develop my understanding of words and word-choice.  

Tomorrow: more thoughts on language, without any boring stories…


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