Friday, April 22, 2011

Getting Back on the Bus: "Who Do You Say that I Am?"

Christ's death on a day with the most post-modern name I know of -- "Good Friday" -- is the summation of tragedy, the sucking of meaning from the world. After he is dead, the rest of us move on. But can we move on? How have we been affected? His death as well as his life speak to our own guilt. Open your eyes and look upon Him you -- you and I -- have pierced with our transgressions. His miracles, his Presence, His Love, His washing of our feet -- none of it was enough. We did as He knew we would do and demanded, then obtained, His Death. What came next had not yet happened, and for some of us has not yet happened now. Still, we seek to crucify Him.

John Chapter 19 (New Revised Standard Version)

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.
3 They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face.

4 Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him." 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" 6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him."

The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."
8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer.

10 Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" 11 Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.

14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" 15 They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor."

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

So they took Jesus;
17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, "The King of the Jews,' but, "This man said, I am King of the Jews.' " 22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.
24 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." 25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27 Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." 37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced."

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.
39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Songs for Lent #19: Andy McCarroll & Moral Support's "How the Kids Are Feelin'"

One of the premier Christian punk bands of the early 80s, Moral Support offered a Clashesque sound and highly articulate lyrics. This song reminds me that I must not get lost in my own sense of mortality, but should rather focus on "How the Kids Are Feelin'." Which reminds me that this hunger for reality, for meaning, starts very early. Lord, help me be ready to offer You, the Bread of Life, to the young (and their parents).

Songs for Lent #17 and #18: Mind Garage (1967) "Processional" and "Our Father" from "Electric Liturgy"

My love of psychedelic rock is fully met in this wonderful early, early example of faith meets amplification by the Mind Garage. The first song is a prayer...

And for perhaps *the* prayer, there's always "Our Father":

Songs for Lent #16: Soundtrack for Godspell's "By My Side"

In contrast to the "interested agnosticism" of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell borrowed heavily from Anglican hymnody for its message. Ambiguous at points, sure... but faithful. "By My Side" is to me the most haunting of Godspell's songs, and upon relistening to it I sense its heavy message of community -- we walk together through a life of light and shadows. In the movie, Judas' betrayal is announced during this song, and that makes the community message all the more poignant. "By My Side" is, in the end, a song of adventure... and a song of discipleship.

Dear Jesus, thank You for my sisters and brothers, who share my sorrows, failures, joys, and successes, giving my walk with You additional meaning. I am blessed to have them... in You.

Godspell - "By My Side"

Where are you going?
Where are you going?
Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold
And needs warmth
Where are you going?

Far beyond where the horizon lies
Where the horizon lies
And the land sinks into mellow blueness
Oh please, take me with you

Let me skip the road with you
I can dare myself
I can dare myself
I'll put a pebble in my shoe
And watch me walk (watch me walk)
I can walk and walk!
(I can walk!)

I shall call the pebble Dare
I shall call the pebble Dare
We will talk, we will talk together
We will talk (chorus) about walking
Dare shall be carried
And when we both have had enough
I will take him from my shoe, singing:
"Meet your new road!"
Then I'll take your hand
Finally glad
Finally glad
That you are here
By my side

By my side
By my side
By my side

Songs for Lent #15: Soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar's "Superstar"

Jesus Christ Superstar (the LP) was for me as a young man a weapon to use against my Christian friend. I played it whenever he came over. It seemed to me an overtly agnostic, angry take on the Gospel Story. Over the years, however, as I've moved deeper in my own acceptance of the New Testament's narrative, Jesus Christ Superstar seems to me one of the most honest (and also contemporary, therefore immediate) tellings of that story.

Lord, help me not to be afraid to face my own doubts and fears about my faith in you. Help me to remember the agnosticism -- and also the anguish -- with which I initially faced You. Help me never to make of the Gospel Story a Hallmark Cardish, "Precious Moments" sort of narrative. Help me to know your humanity and your suffering every bit as much as I trust in and rely on your Godhood. Help me to remember what it is like to yearn to love you, yet be blocked from you by my own doubts, to indeed be asking "Who are you what have you sacrificed?" Give me compassion for others who likewise struggle in that way. Thank you for faith. Thank you for doubt, especially doubt when it is asking the right and most vitally central questions.

Voice of Judas
Every time I look at you
I don't understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You'd have managed better
If you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong, now
Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong, now
Don't you get me wrong

Only want to know
Only want to know
Only want to know, now
Only want to know
Only want to know
Only want to know
Only want to know, now
Only want to know

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think
About your friends at the top
Now who d'you think besides yourself
Was the pick of the crop?
Buddah was he where it's at?
Is he where you are?
Could Muhammmed move a mountain
Or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?

Don't you get me wrong Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong, now Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong Don't you get me wrong
Don't you get me wrong, now Don't you get me wrong

Only want to know Only want to know
Only want to know, now Only want to know
Only want to know Only want to know
Only want to know, now I only want to know

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Songs for Lent #14: Jamie Owens-Collins "I've Never Had to Go This Far Before"

Jamie Owens Collins is far off my musical radar (I don't normally "do" ccm), but deeply touched my wife long ago at a moment when the ministry Carol was part of unexpectedly fell apart. Carol would sit with headphones on listening to Jamie's "Growing Pains" LP, and the music helped her slowly rise out of her depression. "I've Never Had to Go This Far Before" is a prayer for those struggling with unexpected downturns in their lives.

Songs for Lent #13: Gavin Bryars and unnamed hobo's "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet"

This strange song came about, legend says, when a short recording of a hobo's singing accidentally got "looped" by musician Gavin Bryars -- who then realized he'd stumbled onto something lovely. Various recordings of this, including one with Tom Waits dueting with the hobo's vocal, have been done.

Prayer: Let me love you, Lord, as the very poor and homeless love you.

Gavin Bryars and unnamed hobo:
Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Jesus' blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus' blood never failed me yet
There's one thing I know
For he loves me so

Jesus' blood never failed me
Never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
One thing I know
For he loves me so

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Songs for Lent #12: Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit"

Billie Holliday sings a crucifixion song. Prayer: silence.

Billie Holliday: Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Songs for Lent #10 and #11: Paul Robeson and Odetta "Motherless Child"

This song has, since the first time I heard it (Paul Robeson singing), haunted me. Rooted of course in the black slave experience, it speaks universally to human suffering and sadness and loss. Lord, help me to cling to you in those moments I realize there is an end to myself, an inability for me to travel on from the place I'm at. Help me to rely on your strength, and the strength of those you've given me to love me, and to abide in you at the moments of absolute weariness.

Paul Robeson:

Odetta (w/ interesting European Jesus movie clips):

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Despair's End

Another lyrical outing...

Despair's End

Jesus you are my floor
You are my walls
And you are my door
You are my windows
And you are my room
You are my stairway
You are my house
And the rock it sits on
Don't matter, boy... let the tears run out and down
I've nowhere else I need to be hide your head against me
Let the sorrows you feel be our shared companion
I'd gently remind you that there's nowhere I'd rather be
Jesus you are my eyes
You are my ears
And you are my sighs
You are my screams
And you are my words
Past this despairing
You are my dry lips
And you are my everything
Don't matter, boy... let the tears run out and down
I've nowhere else I need to be hide your head against me
Let the sorrows you feel be our shared companion
I'd gently remind you that there's nowhere I'd rather be
Jesus you are my sorrow
You hold my despair
And you are my Savior
I'm in your tender care
You are my Beloved
My faithful wounding friend
You hold my broken soul
Here at despair's end

(c) 2011 Jon Trott

Friday, April 15, 2011

Songs for Lent #9: Staples Singers' "Why Am I Treated So Bad?"

This song might seem like a self-pitying whine... but I don't think so. Sometimes a Christian really does feel beat down by his/her fellow believers... and sometimes he/she feels beat down by non-believing relatives or acquaintances. For sure, getting beat down does seem to be part of the Christian's job description. As the old preacher says, if you don't encounter resistance in your walk with Jesus, you probably aren't walking with Jesus!

Lord, help me to keep my eyes on you not on me. Help me to know the difference between whining and real persecution. And help me respond in Christ-like love no matter what. And Lord, help me answer the question "Why Am I Treated So Bad?" with the response, "Because you were... and I'm just trying to follow in your foot steps!"

By the way... aren't the Staples Singers just amazing?

Staples Singers - "Why Am I Treated So Bad"

Why, am I treated so bad?
Why, am I treated so bad?
You know I'm all alone as I sing this song,
Hear my call, I've done nobody wrong
But I'm treated so bad

I'm gonna walk out in the Master's name
Things I do, they seem to be in vain
You may be blind, you may be lame,
walk on out in the Master's name
Though you treaed so bad

Ooh ooh ooh ooooooh
Ooh ooh ooh oooooooh
oooh ooh ooh oooooh ooh ooh oohhh
you may be blind, you may be lame
walk on out in the Master's name
Though you treated so bad

Songs for Lent #8: Thompson Community Singers' "It's Gonna Rain"

The first time our own now-disbanded gospel choir, Grace & Glory, did this song I got absolute goosebumps. My wife and I, in a move that might have seemed odd to some, had G & G members do the song for our wedding. Strange to hear a joyful song about impending judgement, but there it is. And I don't think the emotions are misplaced. Lord, help me to "get on in this house" -- among your people -- so that I am not as vulnerable to my own stormy inner world or to the fiery rain of temptations which face me from outside directions. Help me find you among yours so I can tell those not yet yours about you... and find shelter.

Thompson Community Singers (Milton Brunson) - "It's Gonna Rain"

Can't you see the clouds gathering?

Don't let it be said too late.

There's a brand new feeling in the air.

Better run to the ark, before the rain starts.

(You better come on in this house),
(it's gonna rain), it's gonna rain.

(Rain down fire),
(it's gonna rain), come on in this house.

(Come on in this house),
(it's gonna rain), it's gonna rain.

(Rain down fire),
(it's gonna rain), come on in this house.

(Doors have been) opened wide open,
just call His name, don't wait too late
because it's gonna rain.

Come on follow me,
it's gonna rain.

(Doors have been) opened wide open,
just call His name, don't wait too late
because it's gonna rain.

Terry Jones Demands Retribution for U.N. Deaths... that His Actions Triggered

Floridian Terry Jones calls himself a Christian pastor, but his actions in "trying" by jury (a jury made up of his own fundie congregation) and then burning a Qu'ran this March 20th in Gainesville were certainly satanic and had satanic results. Twelve people at a U.N. compound in Afghanistan died when a mob rioted over news of Jones' actions.

Now Jones demands retribution against Islamic countries for what happened to these twelve people.

Sorry, buddy. There's blood on your hands. Nothing will get it off. You grossly misrepresent Jesus Christ -- in fact, you do not represent Jesus Christ. You represent your own false gawd. "By their fruits you shall know them." We now know you.

Terry Jones Demands Retribution for U.N. Deaths -

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Is Cornerstone Community Outreach?

This ten minute introduction to Cornerstone Community Outreach offers an encouraging response to homelessness in Chicago... CCO is always looking for partners in empowering and equipping those who are on the margins of society. I'm a member of the intentional community (Jesus People USA) responsible for CCO's existence and outreach.

cco - cornerstone community outreach

For more on CCO's Outreaches, including ways you can help, see:

Strive4More: A Long-Distance Runner Ultra-marathons for CCO Shelters

Patrick “Paddy” McCormack is running 240 miles in 8 days. Why? There are over 80,000 homeless in Chicago. Half of those are families, and over 28,000 are homeless children. His goal is to increase awareness about the needs of the homeless, and to raise support on behalf of Cornerstone Community Outreach.

strive 4 more

For more info on Cornerstone Community Outreach and their work with homeless kids and families in Uptown Chicago, see:

Appeal for Help Improving Homeless Kids' Playground at CCO Shelter

Hey, here's something we can actually DO rather than just be bummed about... Cornerstone Community Outreach needs help improving the rooftop playground for the homeless kids CCO serves. Want to help?

For more on CCO's overall outreach, see:

Songs for Lent #7: Bjork's "All Is Full of Love"

I'm a sucker for Bjork. And for an old metal head, that's something. "All Is Full of Love" may seem too ambiguous, too "easy" as far as theological truth goes. I'm not saying such a critique is totally off-mark. But for me, that ambiguity is something to not be afraid of. Love is larger than we imagine. God's love exalts us, breaks our hearts, seems hidden from us more often than not. Or maybe we're -- at least I'm -- blind to it? "You just ain't receiving." Lord, let me see your love shining through others, through this creation, through... myself. Let me allow it to do so.

By the way, I hate the high-production techno-robot themed video done for this song, which seems to me to nearly completely undermine the song's message. This live version, which quite appropriately takes place in a church, is far nicer.

Bjork - "All Is Full of Love"

You'll be given love
You'll be taken care of
You'll be given love
You have to trust it

Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at

Trust your head around
It's all around you
All is full of love
All around you

All is full of love
You just ain't receiving
All is full of love
Your phone is off the hook
All is full of love
Your doors are all shut
All is full of love!

All is full of love
All is full of love
All is full of love
All is full of love
All is full of love

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Songs for Lent #6: Adam Again's "I Mean Every Word I Say"

"I Mean Every Word I Say" is raw truth, as we used to say in the old days of Cornerstone magazine. This clip is from the other Cornerstone -- Cornerstone Festival back in 1992. I think the song is its own sermon and prayer rolled into one. "If you tell me you love me / It had better be the truth." Who's saying that... Jesus? An unbeliever? A fellow believer who's in deep trouble and desperate for some compassionate honesty and comfort?

[To hear the studio version with better sound, here.]

Everybody is talking, many words are spoken
And they're telling me things they think I wanna hear
Enough is enough it's time to get serious
If you tell me you love me
Well it better be the truth

I mean every word I say

Well I know that the things that we say are sometimes automatic
We just follow a script like a character reading his lines
Enough is enough it's time to get serious
And if you talk about love
Know the meaning of the word

I mean every word I say

From my heart to my head
From my head to my mouth
Can the words cross the air between us
Oh, and be true?

I mean every word I say

Barack Obama's Federal Deficit Speech: One More Reason I Appreciate this President

At risk of being flamed by many of my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters, I thought President Obama's speech on government budget reductions was yet another of his wonderful "teaching moments." I also appreciated his balanced approach regarding the deep subtext in American politics -- what he views as two basic visions re the role of government. He does not dismiss either wholly, but it is apparent that he (as do I) lean toward the idea of governance as expressing our social contract with one another.

Thus the name of his speech -- "The Country We Believe In: Improving America's Fiscal Future." No matter what one's politics, this is another speech with content worth hearing and discussing at home, work, and play. Or here, if folks would like!

Both video and text of "The Country We Believe In" below:

The Country We Believe In
The George Washington University
Washington, DC
April 13, 2011

As Prepared for Delivery—

Good afternoon. It’s great to be back at GW. I want you to know that one of the reasons I kept the government open was so I could be here today with all of you. I wanted to make sure you had one more excuse to skip class. You’re welcome.

Of course, what we’ve been debating here in Washington for the last few weeks will affect your lives in ways that are potentially profound. This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending. It’s about the kind of future we want. It’s about the kind of country we believe in. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

For much of the last century, our nation found a way to afford these investments and priorities with the taxes paid by its citizens. As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally born a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate. This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well – we rightly celebrate their success. Rather, it is a basic reflection of our belief that those who have benefitted most from our way of life can afford to give a bit more back. Moreover, this belief has not hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale, who continue to do better and better with each passing year.

Now, at certain times – particularly during periods of war or recession – our nation has had to borrow money to pay for some of our priorities. And as most families understand, a little credit card debt isn’t going to hurt if it’s temporary.

But as far back as the 1980s, America started amassing debt at more alarming levels, and our leaders began to realize that a larger challenge was on the horizon. They knew that eventually, the Baby Boom generation would retire, which meant a much bigger portion of our citizens would be relying on programs like Medicare, Social Security, and possibly Medicaid. Like parents with young children who know they have to start saving for the college years, America had to start borrowing less and saving more to prepare for the retirement of an entire generation.

To meet this challenge, our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation’s deficit. They forged historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush and President Clinton; by Democratic Congresses and a Republican Congress. All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, but they largely protected the middle class, our commitments to seniors, and key investments in our future.

As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers.

But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our national checkbook, consider this: in the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.

Of course, that’s not what happened. And so, by the time I took office, we once again found ourselves deeply in debt and unprepared for a Baby Boom retirement that is now starting to take place. When I took office, our projected deficit was more than $1 trillion. On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more. In this case, we took a series of emergency steps that saved millions of jobs, kept credit flowing, and provided working families extra money in their pockets. It was the right thing to do, but these steps were expensive, and added to our deficits in the short term.

So that’s how our fiscal challenge was created. This is how we got here. And now that our economic recovery is gaining strength, Democrats and Republicans must come together and restore the fiscal responsibility that served us so well in the 1990s. We have to live within our means, reduce our deficit, and get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt. And we have to do it in a way that protects the recovery, and protects the investments we need to grow, create jobs, and win the future.

Now, before I get into how we can achieve this goal, some of you might be wondering, “Why is this so important? Why does this matter to me?”

Here’s why. Even after our economy recovers, our government will still be on track to spend more money than it takes in throughout this decade and beyond. That means we’ll have to keep borrowing more from countries like China. And that means more of your tax dollars will go toward paying off the interest on all the loans we keep taking out. By the end of this decade, the interest we owe on our debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion. Just the interest payments.

Then, as the Baby Boomers start to retire and health care costs continue to rise, the situation will get even worse. By 2025, the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs, Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt. That’s it. Every other national priority – education, transportation, even national security – will have to be paid for with borrowed money.

Ultimately, all this rising debt will cost us jobs and damage our economy. It will prevent us from making the investments we need to win the future. We won’t be able to afford good schools, new research, or the repair of roads and bridges – all the things that will create new jobs and businesses here in America. Businesses will be less likely to invest and open up shop in a country that seems unwilling or unable to balance its books. And if our creditors start worrying that we may be unable to pay back our debts, it could drive up interest rates for everyone who borrows money – making it harder for businesses to expand and hire, or families to take out a mortgage.

The good news is, this doesn’t have to be our future. This doesn’t have to be the country we leave to our children. We can solve this problem. We came together as Democrats and Republicans to meet this challenge before, and we can do it again.

But that starts by being honest about what’s causing our deficit. You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but they like the stuff it buys. Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare. And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political skills tell me that almost no one believes they should be paying higher taxes.

Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse –that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices. Or they suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about 1% of our entire budget.

So here’s the truth. Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20%. What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean.

Up until now, the cuts proposed by a lot of folks in Washington have focused almost exclusively on that 12%. But cuts to that 12% alone won’t solve the problem. So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget. A serious plan doesn’t require us to balance our budget overnight – in fact, economists think that with the economy just starting to grow again, we will need a phased-in approach – but it does require tough decisions and support from leaders in both parties. And above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five and ten and twenty years down the road.

One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.

Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.

A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s what they’re proposing. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.

It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America – the greatest nation on Earth – can’t afford any of this.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.

The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism. We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share. We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives.

This is who we are. This is the America I know. We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.

Today, I’m proposing a more balanced approach to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over twelve years. It’s an approach that borrows from the recommendations of the bipartisan Fiscal Commission I appointed last year, and builds on the roughly $1 trillion in deficit reduction I already proposed in my 2012 budget. It’s an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle-class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future.

The first step in our approach is to keep annual domestic spending low by building on the savings that both parties agreed to last week – a step that will save us about $750 billion over twelve years. We will make the tough cuts necessary to achieve these savings, including in programs I care about, but I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs. We’ll invest in medical research and clean energy technology. We’ll invest in new roads and airports and broadband access. We will invest in education and job training. We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.

The second step in our approach is to find additional savings in our defense budget. As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than protecting our national security, and I will never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world. But as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said, the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt.

Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense. Over the last two years, Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again. We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it’s complete.

The third step in our approach is to further reduce health care spending in our budget. Here, the difference with the House Republican plan could not be clearer: their plan lowers the government’s health care bills by asking seniors and poor families to pay them instead. Our approach lowers the government’s health care bills by reducing the cost of health care itself.

Already, the reforms we passed in the health care law will reduce our deficit by $1 trillion. My approach would build on these reforms. We will reduce wasteful subsidies and erroneous payments. We will cut spending on prescription drugs by using Medicare’s purchasing power to drive greater efficiency and speed generic brands of medicine onto the market. We will work with governors of both parties to demand more efficiency and accountability from Medicaid. We will change the way we pay for health care – not by procedure or the number of days spent in a hospital, but with new incentives for doctors and hospitals to prevent injuries and improve results. And we will slow the growth of Medicare costs by strengthening an independent commission of doctors, nurses, medical experts and consumers who will look at all the evidence and recommend the best ways to reduce unnecessary spending while protecting access to the services seniors need.

Now, we believe the reforms we’ve proposed to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid will enable us to keep these commitments to our citizens while saving us $500 billion by 2023, and an additional one trillion dollars in the decade after that. And if we’re wrong, and Medicare costs rise faster than we expect, this approach will give the independent commission the authority to make additional savings by further improving Medicare.

But let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security. While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older. As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations. But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code. In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions. And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, like homeownership or charitable giving, we cannot ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 while doing nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize.

My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans – a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over ten years. But to reduce the deficit, I believe we should go further. That’s why I’m calling on Congress to reform our individual tax code so that it is fair and simple – so that the amount of taxes you pay isn’t determined by what kind of accountant you can afford. I believe reform should protect the middle class, promote economic growth, and build on the Fiscal Commission’s model of reducing tax expenditures so that there is enough savings to both lower rates and lower the deficit. And as I called for in the State of the Union, we should reform our corporate tax code as well, to make our businesses and our economy more competitive.

This is my approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next twelve years. It’s an approach that achieves about $2 trillion in spending cuts across the budget. It will lower our interest payments on the debt by $1 trillion. It calls for tax reform to cut about $1 trillion in spending from the tax code. And it achieves these goals while protecting the middle class, our commitment to seniors, and our investments in the future.

In the coming years, if the recovery speeds up and our economy grows faster than our current projections, we can make even greater progress than I have pledged here. But just to hold Washington – and me – accountable and make sure that the debt burden continues to decline, my plan includes a debt failsafe. If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy – or if Congress has failed to act – my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code. That should be an incentive for us to act boldly now, instead of kicking our problems further down the road.

So this is our vision for America – a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and rising opportunity for our children.

Of course, there will be those who disagree with my approach. Some will argue we shouldn’t even consider raising taxes, even if only on the wealthiest Americans. It’s just an article of faith for them. I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more. I don’t need another tax cut. Warren Buffett doesn’t need another tax cut. Not if we have to pay for it by making seniors pay more for Medicare. Or by cutting kids from Head Start. Or by taking away college scholarships that I wouldn’t be here without. That some of you wouldn’t be here without. And I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me. They want to give back to the country that’s done so much for them. Washington just hasn’t asked them to.

Others will say that we shouldn’t even talk about cutting spending until the economy is fully recovered. I’m sympathetic to this view, which is one of the reasons I supported the payroll tax cuts we passed in December. It’s also why we have to use a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit – so that we can keep making the investments that create jobs. But doing nothing on the deficit is just not an option. Our debt has grown so large that we could do real damage to the economy if we don’t begin a process now to get our fiscal house in order.

Finally, there are those who believe we shouldn’t make any reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security out of a fear that any talk of change to these programs will usher in the sort of radical steps that House Republicans have proposed. I understand these fears. But I guarantee that if we don’t make any changes at all, we won’t be able to keep our commitments to a retiring generation that will live longer and face higher health care costs than those who came before.

Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have the obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works – by making government smarter, leaner and more effective.

Of course, there are those who will simply say that there’s no way we can come together and agree on a solution to this challenge. They’ll say the politics of this city are just too broken; that the choices are just too hard; that the parties are just too far apart. And after a few years in this job, I certainly have some sympathy for this view.

But I also know that we’ve come together and met big challenges before. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill came together to save Social Security for future generations. The first President Bush and a Democratic Congress came together to reduce the deficit. President Clinton and a Republican Congress battled each other ferociously and still found a way to balance the budget. In the last few months, both parties have come together to pass historic tax relief and spending cuts. And I know there are Republicans and Democrats in Congress who want to see a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

I believe we can and must come together again. This morning, I met with Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the approach I laid out today. And in early May, the Vice President will begin regular meetings with leaders in both parties with the aim of reaching a final agreement on a plan to reduce the deficit by the end of June.

I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today. I’m eager to hear other ideas from all ends of the political spectrum. And though I’m sure the criticism of what I’ve said here today will be fierce in some quarters, and my critique of the House Republican approach has been strong, Americans deserve and will demand that we all bridge our differences, and find common ground.

This larger debate we’re having, about the size and role of government, has been with us since our founding days. And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one we’re living through now, the debate gets sharper and more vigorous. That’s a good thing. As a country that prizes both our individual freedom and our obligations to one another, this is one of the most important debates we can have.

But no matter what we argue or where we stand, we’ve always held certain beliefs as Americans. We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made those liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what’s required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

This sense of responsibility – to each other and to our country – this isn’t a partisan feeling. It isn’t a Democratic or Republican idea. It’s patriotism.

The other day I received a letter from a man in Florida. He started off by telling me he didn’t vote for me and he hasn’t always agreed with me. But even though he’s worried about our economy and the state of our politics, he said,

“I still believe. I believe in that great country that my grandfather told me about. I believe that somewhere lost in this quagmire of petty bickering on every news station, the ‘American Dream’ is still alive…

We need to use our dollars here rebuilding, refurbishing and restoring all that our ancestors struggled to create and maintain…We as a people must do this together, no matter the color of the state one comes from or the side of the aisle one might sit on.”

I still believe as well. And I know that if we can come together, and uphold our responsibilities to one another and to this larger enterprise that is America, we will keep the dream of our founding alive in our time, and pass on to our children the country we believe in. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Songs for Lent #5: Rez Band's "Someone Sleeps Tonight"

For a band living in an intentional Evangelical community called Jesus People USA, this song is peculiarly non-Evangelical, even non-American in its political outlook. As a lyricist, I was honored to be part of the team that wrote this. Today, its final lines are the ones I cannot forget. Lord, please... help us as believers not to unwittingly become party to the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful.

Someone Sleeps Tonight - REZ Band

Yellow moon rise
And the shadows are so long
Comes as no surprise
I hear another night song
And the echoes
In those hills
A random rhythm
The silence fills

And someone deals in pain
And someone deals in power
And someone sleeps tonight (forever)

Ragged children left to play
Fear, then hear the sound
Run, run, oh run away
Stumbling feet on dusty clay
In the rockets glaring red
A weeping mother hangs her head
'Cause someone sleeps tonight, forever

And someone deals in pain
And someone deals in power
And someone sleeps tonight (forever)

And in the flames' inferno
Consuming human flesh and soul
Innocence becomes a stranger
Despair a burning coal
An old man's eyes are vacant
His callused hand is open, still
Children wander in the ruins
Where grief roams, never filled

Sometimes at night they hear
The wind of a past they cannot change
And in the morning silence
Tell me what goodness will remain?
The bitter cup is filled once more
A bloody history paints this land
They try to seal a tomb that's empty
While they build the cross again

And someone deals in pain
And someone deals in power
And someone sleeps tonight (forever)
And someone deals in pain
And someone deals in power
And someone sleeps tonight (forever)
Forever.... Forever... Forever... Forever...

My Father's Passing (A Poem)

James E. Trott, myself, Lucile H. Trott in Fort Benton, Montana,
Feb '09, near my Dad's 90th Birthday

Yesterday... wrote this.

My Father's Passing

Can't come up from under grief's blue-green
the tears unshed, wet-eyed from those that have been
Sky too bright, sharp light, my heart over-borne
The sea of me filled yet sorrow's torrents coming

I sat there alone with my father busy dying
My hand upon his thin grey hair, sweat clinging
to my fingers upon it and I couldn't stop touching
the one so near yet going so far away past reaching

His face not his face, where is the man I knew in this
Emptied suffering stranger, eyes as blue as harsh sky
Opening to see me / not see me, opaque with mystery
Touching his lips with wet sponge as long ago was done

Suffering, he me we, in our own twinned mystery
What history halves the solitude of dying
Between the suffering going and the one who waits
for the suffering of the other, and his own as well to pass?

I sang hymns, random, softly to not ungentle his struggle
to breath; none were with us in those small dark hours
as I emptied the red-covered Methodist pages, almost hoarse,
and my unyoung voice was that of an orphan-in-waiting

Praying to God yet unable to feel anything but the sorrow,
the loss of him, oh, the loss loss loss, sorrow, sorrow,
in waves upon this sudden barren shoreline of myself,
Understanding all at once -- with terrible clarity -- why Jesus wept.

My Father's Death and Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"

The Dylan Thomas poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," has always deeply affected me. So, this past February in the moments before my father died with his wife and children there beside him, I spontaneously quoted the title of the poem and its refrain: "rage, rage, against the dying of the light." My brother Drew, who ironically is more the Agnostic in contrast to me the Christian, said "No, no, that's not appropriate." And he began to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." We all joined in, and as we sang our father's breathing stopped and the death pallor fixed his features.

My brother captured the sacred moment, and I was glad he had done so. Yet within me I still felt the other lines.

[Here is Dylan Thomas himself reading "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night":]

Why do I -- and for that matter Dylan Thomas, who was a Christian as well -- find the refrain "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" so compelling? Is that not a cry of futile despair rather than one of muscular faith? Where was my trust in God's heaven?

Jesus wept. He stood, looking at a grave with a man he knew he would raise from the dead, yet he wept. Why? All the sorrow of this life seems to me rooted in the knowledge we understand immortality, at least dimly, yet experience our mortality. On the face of it, to cling to life so fiercely seems the act of a pagan; shouldn't we welcome death's embrace as the entryway to everlasting life? Yes... but. Jesus not only wept at the grave of Lazarus. In Gethsemane He sweated blood and pled His Father would deliver Him from the trials he faced. "Not my will, but Thine be done."

Thomas' poem was specifically about his own father, something I'd forgotten until after my own dad's death -- and my spontaneous quoting of the poem's title -- I had to go back and revisit it. To me, the outcry against death is the response of a whole person, a deeply Christian person who nonetheless understands how outrageously wrong death is. Yes, it is "the good night" for the believer... but it is not what we were meant originally to experience. Death is not an everlasting night, morning will come. But death itself is only good because it has been defeated by Christ's perfect obedience, which suffered death in order to break death's bonds. Raging against death is in a deep way an affirmation of sanity, and of goodness, and of a faithful despair not unknown to the Biblical writers.

There is one more layer, I think, to this poem that I'd not have known before experiencing my own father's death. The raging against death is something for the survivors of the one dying as well as -- and perhaps moreso than -- the one doing the dying. Thomas urges his father to resist death, and why? Because he does not want his father to leave him, and there is a terrible surrendering to death that those left behind may have to watch occurring. The irrational but wholly sane response of the lovers to the beloved is "No. Do not go. Please, stop this." It is rage, but an impotent resigned rage.

Dylan Thomas - "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night"

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Richard Burton reads Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Leaden Echo" and "The Golden Echo"

Highly interesting, but to me only, set of disconnected circumstances led to my discovery of this Gerard Manley Hopkins poem read by Richard Burton. It seems to me almost a perfect response to the Tennessee Williams poem (in a movie clip from "Night of the Iguana) I just posted. Burton is in that movie... and I found tonight that Burton's old sweetheart, Elizabeth Taylor, asked this very poem be read at her funeral. Hopkins was a Christian, and one who knew how to ask the right questions, as this poem's first part -- "Leaden Echo" -- proves. "Golden Echo" offers his response. For me, it is what I believe.

The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo
(Maiden's song from St. Winefred's Well)

The Leaden Echo

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.

The Golden Echo

Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—
Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Without a cry, without a prayer": Tennessee Williams' poem from "Night of the Iguana"

This poem, by Tennessee Williams, comes from his "Night of the Iguana," made into what I believe is the best movie adaptation of anything he wrote. (Yes, better than "Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" -- even them!) Take one weak and lustful scandal-chased minister of the gospel, mix in various women, a couple beach boys and an aging poet. Add a dash of despair-laced faith (or maybe faith-laced despair) and a hot Mexican night... a great story. The poem? It stands on its own.

How Calmly Does the Olive Branch (Nonno's Poem)

How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever
And from thence
A second history will commence

A chronicle no longer gold
A bargaining with mist and mold
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth, and then

An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth's obscene corrupting love

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Oh courage! Could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?

[Apparently, the written version of this poem in the original play used an "Orange Branch" rather than the "Olive Branch" included in the movie version. Thus the poem in the play's title was "How Calmly Does the Orange Branch."]

Songs for Lent #4: Robbie Robertson's "Fallen Angel"

Robbie Robertson's "Fallen Angel" was a song I first encountered only a few weeks after my first wife left me. It was literally too painful for me to hear -- the song's mourning over the lost friendship of another was not to be endured -- I gave away the entire album it was on.

Today, it still cuts right to the heart of things. (I'm not in love with the video story, which though beautiful doesn't match the song's message in my opinion).

My prayer: "Lord, you know sorrow. I feel sometimes too weak to endure it. I am tired of tears. I am tired of being tired. Please, meet me here. Help me. Please help me not give in to despair."

Robbie Robertson - Fallen Angel

Are you out there
Can you hear me
Can you see me in the dark

I don't believe it's all for nothing
It's not just written in the sand
Sometimes I thought you felt too much
And you crossed into the shadowland

And the river was overflowing
And the sky was fiery red
You gotta play the hand that's dealt ya
That's what the old man always said

Fallen Angel
Casts a shadow up against the sun
If my eyes could see
The spirit of the chosen one

In my dream the pipes were playing
In my dream I lost a friend
Come down Gabriel and blow your horn
'Cause some day we will meet again

Fallen Angel
Casts a shadow up against the sun
If my eyes could see
The spirit of the chosen one

All the tears
All the rage
All the blues in the night
If my eyes could see
You kneeling in the silver light

Fallin', fallin', fallin' down
Fallin', fallin' down
Fallin', fallin', fallin' down
Fallin', fallin' down

Fallen Angel
Casts a shadow up against the sun
If my eyes could see
The spirit of the chosen one

All the tears
All the rage
All the blues in the night
If my eyes could see
You kneeling in the silver light

If you're out there can you touch me
Can you see me I don't know
If you're out there can you reach me
Lay a flower in the snow

Songs for Lent #3: Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line"

Nothing quite as devotional as a love song. Here's one of the absolute best. Prayer: "Lord, I know I am yours... but You are also mine. Help me apprehend just a little what it means to have You, Lord of all, to in an absolutely real sense belong to me, be my Beloved."

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine,
I walk the line

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I'll admit I'm a fool for you
Because you're mine,
I walk the line

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine,
I walk the line

You've got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can't hide
For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide
Because you're mine,
I walk the line

Songs for Lent #2: Midnight Oil's "Outbreak of Love"

Midnight Oil's "Outbreak of Love" is a sort of minimalist praise music. Struggles not ignored... "this is the end of the beginning of the outbreak of love." Prayer inspired... "Lord, help me to endure the sharks and not want to just get out of the water and walk away."

"Outbreak of Love": Midnight Oil

The world is crashing down on me tonight
The walls are closing in on me tonight

Cos I know this is the end of the beginning of the outbreak of love

The stars come falling down on me tonight

Sharks are coming up to feed
I believe it's time to move
Diver's coming up to breathe
But I'm not in the mood
No I'm not in the mood

Songs for Lent #1: Bruce Cockburn's "Postcards from Cambodia"

I am a lover of lyrics. For lent, keeping my own commentary to absolute minimum, I am going to post selections from various artists who speak to me of my faith's struggles. Bruce Cockburn is without equal lyrically. This song is dark... as others I post here are likely to be. I meditate on these things because I must. I am called by Jesus to do so.... I think. Or is it just my own melancholy? Sometimes that line is blurred, which is another thing for me to pray about.

Postcards from Cambodia
Bruce Cockburn (1999)

Abe Lincoln once turned to somebody and said,
"Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead?"

There are three tiny deaths heads carved out of mammoth tusk
on the ledge in my bathroom
They grin at me in the morning when I'm taking a leak,
but they say very little.

Outside Phnom Penh there's a tower, glass paneled,
maybe ten meters high
filled with skulls from the killing fields
Most of them lack the lower jaw
so they don't exactly grin
but they whisper, as if from a great distance,
of pain, and of pain left far behind

Eighteen thousand empty eyeholes peering out at the four directions

Electric fly buzz, green moist breeze
Bone-colored Brahma bull grazes wet-eyed,
hobbled in hollow of mass grave
In the neighboring field a small herd
of young boys plays soccer,
their laughter swallowed in expanding silence

This is too big for anger,
it’s too big for blame.
We stumble through history so
humanly lame
So I bow down my head
Say a prayer for us all
That we don’t fear the spirit
when it comes to call

The sun will soon slide down into the far end of the ancient reservoir.
Orange ball merging with its water-borne twin
below air-brushed edges of cloud.
But first, it spreads itself,

a golden scrim behind fractal sweep of swooping fly catchers.
Silhouetted dark green trees,
blue horizon

The rains are late this year.
The sky has no more tears to shed.
But from the air Cambodia remains
a disc of wet green, bordered by bright haze.
Water-filled bomb craters, sun streaked gleam
stitched in strings across patchwork land and
march west toward the far hills of Thailand.
Macro analog of Ankor Wat’s temple walls
intricate bas-relief of thousand-year-old battles
pitted with AK rounds

And under the sign of the seven headed cobra
the naga who sees in all directions
seven million landmines lie in terraced grass, in paddy, in bush
(Call it a minescape now)

Sally holds the beggar's hand and cries
at his scarred up face and absent eyes
and right leg gone from above the knee

Tears spot the dust on the worn stone causeway
whose sculpted guardians row on row
Half frown, half smile, mysterious, mute.

And this is too big for anger.
It’s too big for blame
We stumble through history so
humanly lame.
So I bow down my head,
say a prayer for us all.
That we don’t fear the spirit when it comes to call.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Poll Results: Most say "No Hidden Human Conspiracy"

My poll question was:

Do you believe there is a hidden human conspiracy responsible for much of the evil in the world?

Results were lopsidedly on the side of rational folks (in my opinion, anyway!). Of 40 people who voted, 29 were liberals and 11 conservatives. 33 folks (24 liberals, 9 conservatives) said "Nope, no hidden human conspiracy." 7 people (5 liberals, 2 conservatives) said they believed there was a hidden human conspiracy. Percentage-wise, that means virtually the same number of conservatives and liberals were skeptics. And that makes me happy. Of course the accuracy of this in any larger statistical way would likely be completely bogus. But one can hope.

New poll coming soon...

Jim Wallis: Ten Reasons I am fasting for a better budget

1. Because I am an evangelical Christian and the root of the word "evangelical" is found in the opening statement of Jesus in Luke 4, where Christ says he has come to bring "good news (the 'evangel') to the poor." So to be an evangelical Christian is to try and bring good news to poor people.

2. Because some very bad news is happening to the poorest and most vulnerable people in Washington's battle over the budget -- both those at home and around the world.

3. Because budgets are moral documents -- they reveal our priorities, who and what is important, and who and what are not. To address excessive deficits is also a moral issue -- preventing our children and grandchildren from having crushing debt. But how you reduce a deficit is also a moral issue. We should reduce the deficit, but not at the expense of our poorest people.

[Go to Huffington Post to read the rest.]

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Results are IN: James Cappleman Elected Alderman with Heavy Majority

Bluechristian was for Molly. Well too bad, Trott! Eat it and like it! With 100% of precincts reporting, the results say it:

MARY ANNE ''MOLLY'' PHELAN4,42244.56 %

James Cappleman is the new Alderman of the 46th Ward. Period.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Lesson I learned on April 4, 1968

This has become a bit of an annual event for me on April 4... to remember what that tragic day in 1968 did to an-almost-eleven year old Montana boy...

Read about it here.

Patsy Moore's "Blood" from "Expatriates" tells a familiar story in a powerful, painful way

Patsy Moore's ambitious 2011 concept album, "Expatriates," comes from a woman whose creativity has never quite allowed her to comfortably exist within any musical subculture. She appeared at our Cornerstone Festival years back as a young poet / musician, even then outside any pre-fabricated "contemporary Christian" music designation. Severely challenged by cancer and other disease-related issues, Patsy's art reflects her journey. "Expatriate" indeed, and perhaps a voice for others of us who feel the same way.

(Below: Patsy Moore, "Blood," from Expatriates [2011]; Purchase online here.)

Friday, April 01, 2011

Helen Shiller Announces Change of Heart, Is Running as Write-In Candidate!

Photo (c) 2011 Tom Wray

elen Shiller, current Alderwoman of Chicago's 46th Ward, announced today that she is not retiring after all. "I made a mistake." Asked if it was a bit late to get into the race, she responded, "I can't disappoint my fans on Uptown Update, can I?"

She is asking people to write her name in. Curious, as well as eager to show off my knowledge of arcane political facts, I asked her how people could write her in on a run-off ballot. "You mean because write ins on a run-off ballot aren't allowed?" I nodded.

"I hadn't thought of that," she said, reflecting for a moment.

Trying to be helpful, I paused, then said: "Perhaps they could print it instead?"

April Fool's! ;-)