Sunday, February 6, 2011

UPDATE - January 2011

10 Reasons You Know You’re Serving the Homeless in the United States

10. When serving a plate of food, a homeless man says to you “Would YOU eat that?”

9. When offering food to a homeless, hungry man he says to you “Is it cold? I don’t eat cold food.”

8. When offering salad to a homeless woman, she says “No crunchy pieces. Only salad with no croutons.”

7. When offering salad to a homeless person, he says “I don’t eat salad.”

6. A homeless man looks at the food I’m offering him and says, “Hey, even homeless people have standards! You know what I mean?”

5. A homeless man sees you without a phone and offers you one of his two cell phones.

4. A homeless woman in a soup kitchen turns down your Moroccan chicken soup saying, “No, thanks. I’m a vegetarian.”

3. A homeless person offers you a job.

2. A homeless man pats his tummy and says to you “I’ve decided I need to lose a few pounds.”

1. A homeless man complains about rising prices and backs it up by showing you his energy bills.


All those top ten stories are real by the way. No joke.

Hi, everyone. I’m back. I took a break because I didn’t like some of the responses I received back and needed to take a break from writing. It’s really hard to write about yourself all the time (especially once a week); sometimes you need a break from it. But I’m back.

The biggest item at the moment is next year. I’m in job searching mode as my fellowship will end in August next year (2011). It is possible that I could be hired on, but since that is unknown, I need to go ahead and start looking. I’m not very motivated to do so at the moment.

Last night I had a progressive dinner; they are one of my favorite things. We had a 6-course meal where each course was hosted at a different person’s house. I was the organizers and I offered my house for one host whose house was too far out of the way. I had to plan the route so that you didn’t walk too many blocks between houses. We hosted the progressive dinner for 20 people, and even though people canceled their RSVP they day of the event and new people asked to come the day of the event, even though some left early and some started the route late, it was a good night. I enjoyed meeting all the people I did and hopefully developed some old relationships. I’m working on developing new ones as well.

I haven’t written in 4 months, so I wanted to share that this fall we had an acorn epidemic. I walk a lot in DC, for fun sometimes, too. And I will be walking outside; all of a sudden, I hear a large thud that sounds like someone threw a rock at a car or a squirrel fell. But when I look I don’t see anything. Slowly after seeing this a number of times, I’ve realized it’s acorns, falling acorns. We have the largest acorns I have seen in my life. They are like small boulders. When one falls on you, you wake up the next day. They damage cars. Squirrels consider this part of the country paradise. Rodents play pirates treasure with them. And the candy corn industry booms at Halloween time.

But my favorite part of my day in my daily walks is a walk through a certain part of my neighborhood that has a mix of White and Black and some Latino peoples and Asian dry cleaners whom I love but who fail to get stains out of clothes (I really believe cleaning was supposed to involve water). In this part of my neighborhood there is one house I love. This particular house has a garden in the front and the back. And most times during the day. Though you can’t see the back of the house, you can see in the front that they are growing various vegetables and roots and perhaps herbs and spices. What makes this place lovely is not the actual house itself; it needs help. But the people there are always out and they are always ready to talk with anyone who wants to stop and talk or “shoot the breeze.” It reminds me of what I call the “porch culture.” I love porches (communities with porches) because they foster and cultivate a culture of neighborliness and community in your neighborhood if you let it. People sit on the porches in the cool of the evening or dawn and they talk to their neighbors. And that’s what happens at this house. The man who lives there is a big man, who walks slowly, and has a hole in his trachea from an operation. But his heart is big.

I still haven’t told you why I like this house. What is amazing is that this man takes the vegetables he grows and puts them in boxes on tables at the edge of his yard/garden near the sidewalk. And anyone may take some home! I love this. Few people in my side of the neighborhood understand this, but it’s what I understand about how to live. He sows alone but allows others to reap where they have not sown with no obligations or strings attached or expectations. Take and eat freely. It’s a gift (a true gift is one that you don’t endeavor to pay back). And I love it. It’s also practical; a lot of what he grows would go to waste if he didn’t give it away. And do you know many of the conversations had in his yard outside his house start from people rummaging through the vegetables and food left for people to take--kale, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, etc.

But let me finish. It’s my favorite part of my day (I doesn’t take much, huh? Ha!) even when no one is there talking, even when no food is there to share. It’s my favorite part of my day because in his yard is a toilet. I’m tearing a bit because of the symbolism of it. When facing the yard in front of the house, the toilet is against the right border of his yard, up against a wooden fence, 3 feet high. The toilet base of the toilet is almost hidden in dirt. You can only see the very top part of the base as it reaches and curves toward the site and tank. But not only is there dirt packed around the rooted toilet but inside the toilet there is dirt. The seat is open and spring up from the depths of the toilet bowl are flowers growing in the dirt and soil and muck of the toilet. They are strong flowers, sprightly and eager, reaching to the sun as they reflect its rays in their yellow and orange “carnations.” Their stems are as green as goodness and they grow with no regard for their home or where they started or their environment. But that’s not all. There is also dirt in the tank. It’s lid is missing and out of the tank, more flowers spring forth and grow. For some reason I have hope when I pass it. It doesn’t mean any of my situations will necessarily change. It doesn’t mean that everything I’ve lost recently will be reclaimed right now. But it means there are people that are in the business of reclaiming, redeeming, reusing, and reinventing. And that is the kind of work that inspires and lights. I see these types of moments of lucid clarity and bright illumination all around. And the movement is growing.

It’s art but it’s art of a different kind; it’s living art. It reminds me of the ancient Jewish prophet who prophetically (and I still wait to this day) spoke of a day when we would “beat swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks,.” It reminds me that I’ve got muck in my life and some mistakes whose effects I still feel, but it can be made recreated. The toilet doesn’t go away, but it’s reinvented and new life can be born. This life is different than I imagined, but it’s new. It’s new, and it’s life.


There was a man, Rafael Schaëchter, who knew about life and reinventions. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp in Terezin (Thereseinstadt) in the Czech Republic. He was a composer, choral conductor and vocal coach, and he smuggled one copy of Verdi’s Requiem into the camp. Using this one copy and a broken piano in the camp, he decided to recruit singers from among the prisoners to perform this piece.

Schaëchter recruited 150 singers to perform this very difficult piece of music. The piece is hard enough to perform with healthy, well-food, well-rested vocalists who each have their own copy of the music and are able to read music. But this group of prisoners learned the piece after a long day of being overworked through manual labor, underfed, and malnourished. Some could read music and some could not, but it didn’t matter because there was only one copy of the music, and so they had to learn the entire requiem by rote.

This group of prisoners learned the entire requiem and performed it 16 times from 1943 to 1944 including one performance for the Red Cross. Schaëchter continued to recruit new prisoners to replace those who were deported to new camps.

The amazing part of the story is that the prisoners were tired at the end of the day, at the end of 14-hour days. And Schaëchter was a perfectionist. And yet, during the few hours of rehearsal at night, the prisoners forgot about the fact that they were hungry, sick, hurting. They forgot about the fact that they were overworked and underfed, confused, and uncertain about their future. They forgot about the fact that they lost family and were without hope because. . . .for a few hours each rehearsal they were hope. . .ful. They were hopeful.

The seeming contradictory tension is astounding. Here was a group of Jewish prisoners singing a Catholic mass. If that doesn’t make you think and learn to find God in unexpected places, imagine this: a requiem is a mass for the dead. And yet, these prisoners were using a requiem, a mass for the dead, to inspire life. In those moments during rehearsal and performances, even in front of an international Red Cross delegation that were being shown a camp to falsely “prove” that the camps were not death camps that abused the Jews, even in that situation, they sang this Catholic mass for the dead, this requiem, as an act of defiance. It was as if they were saying, “You can take my health and age my body. You can hurt me and beat me, but you can never, will never take my spirit, my attitude, my hope. That belongs to me.” Think of some of the parts of this Catholic mass in Latin: Dies Irae - day of wrath. Appropriated in the hearts and minds of the Jews it perhaps referred to the day of wrath awaiting the Nazi perpetrators and captors in judgment for their atrocities. Or the imagine the final part of the requiem: Libera me - Release me! Liberate me!!! In the hearts of these singers, they were not asking for their souls to be liberated to heaven from their earthly frames, but they were asking to be liberated from these camps back to life as normal, or liberated by death from these concentration camps. The whole event was too staggering to comprehend and required a fully immersive experience.

The conductor, Murry Sidlin, was a professor at Catholic University and he founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation that puts on these concerts of the Verdi Requiem around the world. What is special about how the concerts are done is that we didn’t just sing the requiem. Through the different movements/parts of the requiem, we had bits of film, interviews with actual prisoners, and readings to help paint the picture. Actual prisoners from the actual camp, actual survivors, actual surviving choir members attended the performance and were there. Two sons of a choir member prisoner joined us in singing in the choir. And we performed this all in the Kennedy Center. It as a powerful performance.

What is amazing about Murry is that he’s a conductor that actually makes music. Music is both an art and a craft. But most of the time people work on the craft part--simply learning the piece, learning the notes, playing them with the best intonation, technique, fingering, mouthing, blowing, plucking, etc. Murry inverts it. Work on the notes and learn the piece outside. With him you will work almost exclusively on the musicality--the phrasing, the dynamics, the nuance, the subtext (for vocals), the sub music, breathing, speaking through the music. It was both easy since the context for the performance of this piece was provided by the story, but it was harder because we wanted to do justice to the prisoners and honor them and their courage and defiance. Murry made us FEEL the story and sing from that place of darkness, of crying out to God, of not understanding why things are happening the way they are and not knowing what to do. We sang from the point of not having any hope and yet hoping with what we have left, where we struggle with the events happening and yet cling to the God who defies understanding. We cried out through the music; it was powerful, powerful, powerful. It was impacting, it was earth-shattering. I kid you not. There was such movement in the music with the orchestra and choir, I was amazed. I have never felt that intensity in a performance ever. And he pulled it out of us, inspired it from his inspiration, encouraged us to put ourselves in their shoes (with utmost respect), and came alongside us in this journey. And in the end, the surviving choir members who were there were pleased and thankful.

I don’t know what it is they went through, but I thank them for allowing me to participate in the remembrance of their experience.

Requiem Concert
Kennedy Center Promotion


I had a homework assignment for a book study group. The task for me was to ask people what the believe I want in life. I received a number of answers. Some I didn’t like; I disliked them enough to ponder on them and take a break from updates. But now I’m back. I wanted to share some of them but I know people will say it’s a bit unfair to only share negative ones. So I’ll share some positive ones. Here are a few.

I think you really want to be an artist (actor/singer) and activist. Like an activist who helps kids---those in true need.
I think what you want in life is to learn, to love, and to express your thoughts about both of the previous. Actually, those 3 are sort of wrapped up in each other, you do one to do the others. On the most basic and obvious level, the learning is done through reading and such. The loving is done through helping people and being a friend to others. And the expression is done through the arts such as singing and writing. But that is just the obvious level. In reality, those three things are intertwined, and you do all three when you do any one (usually. I suppose there are times when only 1 or 2 happen at a time for you as well). That’s all I have to say about that.
What do I think that you want? I think you want recognition. Not in the sense of prideful fame, but in the sense of the establishment encouraging and accepting all of the contributions that your talents can produce.
Hi Victor....a stream of comments on my impressions of who you are. The paths available are many and the path you choose will lead to another path...and on and on... each will build on another - even those that were not your favorites.

Your heart lies in the global humanitarian fields.....true humanitarian work....not a vacation humanitarian who counts hours of service.

You are a Christian.....not the kind that follows systems and rules but the true kind that walks in the steps of Christ following the principles that he taught...not a weekend Christian. The true humanitarians quietly broke the rules....made Christ did. Doing what is right is not always popular. Padre Pio, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Mark and Louise Zwick (Casa Juan Diego), the 12 apostles and the list goes on. Interestingly the 12 He chose as His support were not what you would have thought of as stellar Christian examples.

You have a true missionary spirit.....not the kind that prosthelitizes.(sp) ..but teaching by living the example.

Learned a new term yesterday Human Geographer - seems to fit you.
Regarding your homework assignment, I think of you living your life as a quest for knowledge and understanding, and for making a positive impact via your loving, generous spirit.
I think you want to do it all.
What do you want in life? Hmmm...I find this hard to answer for you. I
see you as someone who has all the answers. I see you as someone who
if selfless. If there is anything you want, most of it will be
something for others. But enough rambling like a want
Love in your life. I don't need to know if that is what you want. I
have no need to be right. But I want you to have Love in your life...
I think you want the following out of life:
to make an impact on the world around you
to be loved

You know, basic stuff. But I think whoever assigned this assignment was kind of presumptuous. I mean who the heck knows what anyone else wants in life? Anyway, miss you much! Hugs to you!
I think you want very little. I think you enjoy what you have and what life brings you. I also think you like responding to life rather than designing a life. Your heart seems to be in music and performing. I think you like living and acting what is written. You understand roles very well. I don't think you enjoy writing them as much. Your writing is not in story telling style. It is not audience oriented. It is more like listing facts and observations. I think you want to take in everything to the fullest and some day build something with it to share with others.

There seems to be invisible forces in your life that keeps you thorn between engineering and art. Perhaps that conflict is a motivator, I can't tell. Looks like you are caught between right and wrong. Something, someone or some experience has convinced you that the right thing to do is want what you studied instead of following your heart. You may be thinking the only reasonable way to follow your heart is if it is for serving God which could make it acceptable to forgo doing the right thing that your mind pesters you about.

My guess is that you may be exploring what you want in life not because you don't know it, but to discover a way to "allow" yourself to want what you want. We are all going through similar questioning in various phases. My thought is that what we want is not as relevant as how much we want something. It is the degree of wanting that puts us in motion. When we are equally divided in are wants we are stalled.

Oh, I just realized you asked the question because of a book! Oh well...


You have non-Christian friends, but I think there are like points (or trophies)to your Christian friends. Don’t worry, though; all Christians do this.

I think you want to help people but more than that, you really want to please other people. You want everyone to be happy with you, but you need to stop because you’re ruining your life. You need to be able to shut some people completely out of your life like I have done.

Also I have been an atheist for 13 years and it’s the happiest I’ve been in my life.

PS Please don’t try to pray to God to convert me. I’m fine.

A lot of people said I want to help others or I want very little. Some said I want impact lives. A number of people said I want knowledge and want to learn. Some people said I want either to love or to be loved.

A few took a while to process. I had to process the recognition comment because I would have thought (about myself) that I want impact, not recognition. In other words I would take impact without recognition but am not interested in recognition without impact. But my friend said he didn’t mean recognition like I normally meant it.

Another (the penultimate) said I was feeling tugged between engineering and the arts. There is truth there or, let me say, I know why she said it. I do feel currently in my life I do feel passionate about international development and using engineering skills to passionately help people help themselves in developing their communities and pulling themselves out of poverty. That friend misunderstood and wrote it from the misconception that I was struggling with what I want; she didn’t realize I was doing it for a homework assignment. I don’t know if she would have written something different.

The last one is interesting. It made me stop and ask why I could get some messages that seemed partly contradictory to other comments. I realized that I had to consider what everyone said (I am never in a position where I immediately dismiss criticism). What I realized is that different people knew me different amounts, some people judged me from updates (as opposed to a relationship outside of group email), some didn’t know me as well as others, and people are different places in their own lives dealing with different problems of which I may not know. Or I could actually be quite contradictory or perhaps showing different parts of myself to different people or having multiple personalities. So I must factor that all in.

But these comments (and others; I couldn’t include them all) made me think about myself. I’m a flawed person. Some think I’m crazy; I had two people call me autistic a few weeks ago (I don’t get it). I’m a simple guy, somewhat of a loner but always working on community as I learn to live relationally with people in all I do (with my money, food, etc.). I’m not prone to pornography or stealing (though I can be tempted by anything if presented in the right time and place), but I am given to pride and work on my pride indirectly (not by trying not to be prideful but by realization of who am I, my place in the world and universe, the impact of so many people in my life, etc..). I’m also given to lying; this might confuse people who know me to be very big on the truth and being true to my word. But I only say lying because that’s what it is; I don’t care so much about people understanding any particular truth or fact about me and will many times remain silent instead of correcting people when they have a misconception about me. I may sometimes make statements that can be taken multiple ways but I don’t worry about clarifying it. Especially when I’m in situations when I feel too many people know me, I like to guard my anonymity or mystery (people say).

As much as I try to continue on a path of elevation and enlightenment, as much as I continue to get offended less and embarrassed less, it still happens. I was meeting the head of my agency/department a week ago and we went around the circle to introduce ourselves and my heart was beating before I spoke. This bothered me. I was able to control it better when we had the same meeting with an Undersecretary/Assistant Administrator type. Ha ha!

So that’s me. But I should continue. In the last excerpt from a good friend, my friend said non-Christians were points for me. That’s actually not true if I know myself. There are people in my family who love being in and out of Christian communities. I’ve always been quite comfortable and happy with people different from myself. In fact, this point in my life is the period in my life in which I’ve known the fewest Christians and the most non-Christians. I know more non-Christians than Christians in my life today in DC. And I’ve always enjoyed having with my people outside the church. So I don’t think that was true.

Continuing with my faults, many of you know that in the past I was engaged. That ended, and I take full blame and responsibility for that. I believe that is what the person was referring to in the response about being disappointed in me and needing to cut people out of my life. You see, our relationship was a bit different in that we not only informally counseled people but people looked at our relationship as an example. It wasn’t that the she was an amazing woman (she is) and it wasn’t that people liked me, but it was specifically something extra and beyond that, something about our actual union that blessed people. We both had many girl friends (and a few male friends) who had never known what it is like to be loved by a man, really, truly loved. So they will take men who don’t love them, or they will take what they can get. So people looked at us and saw that true loving relationships were possible. Some people looked at us and thought “Oh, this is what it’s supposed to look like.” So people were disappointed.

It makes me laugh to think about it: in counseling we’re not supposed to cry more than the client who is going through the crisis or trauma. But when people would find out that the relationship was over, I’ve had people cry while in conversation with me, cry more than me. Or I’ve had people very, very angry at me. I’ve had some people very disappointed in me. Most people blame me either explicitly or implicitly. I believe that’s why this response is critical. So I don’t wish to talk about it, but I’ll address it.

Most people haven’t spoken to me about it, so I actually believe that what many people believe happened may not be true. I could be misguided but I believe I did everything in my power to salvage the relationship and to keep it going. I did. And I take full responsibility for the relationship ending (but not why many people believe). I’ve heard when you’re with someone you’re supposed to make that person feel like the most important person in the world. I didn’t do that; I failed. And for that, I deal with the consequences every day. My good friend Maeve tells me not to self-reject.. I hope I’m not; I think I’m just giving facts. :-)

One thing for which I’m grateful is the ability to comfort others who are going through something similar. There’s a woman in my program whose engagement was called off. Another guy in the program was engaged before. Two friends are getting a divorce, and my boss is in a custody battle with her husband for her children. Her situation really kills me; her two children are simply beautiful and she treats me so well; my heart goes out to her because sometimes you can catch her at a wrong moment when perhaps the situation is affecting her. A really good friend (bountifully full of beauty and life) just had her international relationship of 1 year end abruptly and suddenly as she was preparing to move to Africa to be with him. She is still shocked to this day. I just saw Christmas Carol on Sunday (Sunday before Thanksgiving) and poor Ebenezer Scrooge had actually been engaged when he was younger; I had forgotten but the Ghost of Christmas Past helped me remember, and I knew what he went through though he’s a figment of Dickens’ imagination. But the actor had to feel it right? Ha! The ability to understand, come alongside, and just be there to understand is a flower from a toilet.

In all the responses I received, some were different enough that it was important to use judgment and ask others for input on the differences. There were various reasons. I didn’t think my friend (with the last response) knew me that well because I had no urgent unction to get on my knees and start praying for her because she called herself atheist. Partly it just didn’t occur to me, but it’s partly due to the fact that atheism and the Judeo-Christian tradition are closer than we realize, sometimes.


The Agnostic Who Became An Atheist

by Peter Rollins

There was once a world-renowned philosopher who, from an early age, set himself the task of proving once and for all the nonexistence of God. Of course, such a task was immense, for the various arguments for and against the existence of God had done battle over the ages without either being able to claim victory.

He was, however, a genius without equal, and he possessed a singular vision that drove him to work each day and long into every night in order to understand the intricacies of every debate, every discussion, and ever significant work on the subject.

The philosopher’s project began to earn him respect among his fellow professors when, as a young man, he published the first volume of what would turn out to be a finely honed, painstakingly researched, encyclopedic masterpiece on the subject of God. The first volume of this work argued persuasively that the various ideas of God that had been expressed throughout antiquity were philosophically incoherent and logically flawed. As each new volume appeared, he offered, time and again, devastating critiques of the theological ideas that had been propagated through different periods of history. In his early forties, he completed the last volume, which brought him up to the present day.

However the completion of this work did not satisfy him. He still had not found a convincing argument that would demonstrate once and for all the nonexistence of God. For all he had shown was that all the notions of God up to that time had been problematic.

So he spent another sixteen years researching arguments and interrogating them with a highly nuanced, logical analysis. But by now he was in his late fifties and had slowly begun to despair of ever completing his life project.

Then, late one evening while he was locked away in his study, bent wearily over his old oak desk, surrounded by a vast sea of books, he felt a deep stillness descend upon the room. As he sat there motionless, everything around him seemed to radiate an inexpressible light and warmth. Then, Deep in his heart he heard the voice of God address him:

“Dear friend, the task you have set yourself is a futile one. I have watched all these years as you poured your being into this endless task. Yet, you fail to understand that your project can be brought to completion only with my help. Your dedication and single-mindedness have not gone unnoticed, and they have won my respect. As a result, I will tell you a sacred secret meant only for a few. . . .Dear friend, I do not exist.”

Then, all of a sudden, everything appeared as it was before, and the philosopher was left sitting at his desk with a deep smile breaking across his face. He put his pen away and left his study, never to return. Instead, in gratitude to God for helping him complete his lifelong project, he dedicated his remaining years to serving the poor.

Think of it like this. When someone says “I believe in God,” the next question or a good question to ask is “Which god do you believe in?” As Rollins would say and as we all know, theism refers to a belief in God and atheism is a rejection of this belief. But just as you can ask the theist “What God do you believe in?” you can also ask the atheist “What God do you not believe in?” This is because traditional atheism is specific; it is limited to attacks of specific notions and conceptions of God.

Therefore one form of atheism may attack a specific understanding of God but have nothing to say about another concept of God. Traditional atheism, in such concrete forms, isn’t just limited because there are so many varied concepts of God, today, but also because there are an infinite number of possible conceptions of God yet to be dreamed.

The philosopher in this short story sets out, then, to achieve an infinitely large task--to establish once and for all the non-existence of God. But to do this he must reject every known and possible concept of God. It is not until God steps in, that the philosopher is able to achieve a true universal atheism, one that can reject every possible description of God . . .in advance. Why? God transcends every possible concept and cannot be approached as an object or a thing at all.

But who is the one who points this out? It is God who says God doesn’t exist. This type of universal atheism runs strongly through the Judeo-Christian tradition (whether or not you have seen it in the mainstream forms, on TV, and other visible forms) especially in Biblical form. Approaching God as an object that can be grasped and known runs contrary to the Biblical God (or the growing understanding of God found through the arc of the Bible). This is because that God is above all names, above all labels, above all concepts. He is “received but never conceived.” Instead of understanding God like an object, a possible analogy is found in light. Light is not what we “see” directly in some sense. Light is what enables us to see transforming our experience allowing us the experience of sight. God is similar; God is not directly experienced (yikes people might get upset with me) but the name we give to the transformation of experience, to a whole new way of experience. You don’t experience birth; rather, birth opens you up to a whole new world of experiences. That is how God is.

So what my atheist friends and I were never told is that every description of God falls short, even descriptions we find in good books. With every description falling so inadequately short of God, we are led to a universal atheism. We only do justice to the reality of God by laying claim to the fact that no concept of God does justice.

Therefore religious believers can affirm a radical form of atheism in a true sense while still holding on to the reality of God. Are we questioning the importance of good forms of theism? No, rather we are saying that we never let these incomplete, provisional concepts of God stand as absolute authority (we often do this with incomplete expressions of God in the Bible, even if good expressions). A true understanding of the reality of God welcomes the rejection of incomplete descriptions of God and continues searching for less partial, less incomplete descriptions of God, never giving these newer, better incomplete descriptions of God final or absolute authority. You see this through the Bible and Torah as people’s understanding of God is improved and torn down and recreated through the Bible as we move closer to the person of Christ two thousand years ago.

So in the last answer to my “What do I want” questions, when my friend pitted atheism against theism, I want make sure that we understand that a universal atheism runs strongly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We’re not just a tradition of priests (people serving under God) but prophets (people who speak out against God). You see this in Jeremiah, Amos, even Jesus, himself. . .

My good friend says she’s an atheist, and I think that means we have a lot in common especially if she’s rejecting the visible forms of religion she sees in the world today. I’m constantly in the minority in D.C. in my sub-circles when my policy and science policy friends find out I’m a Christian. The people they make fun of are often conservatives, people who depreciate science, and Christians--Christians who protest at funerals of victims of homosexual hate crimes, Christians who fight against the teaching of evolution in school, Christians who blame the people of Haiti for the earthquake that befell them (because God is mad), Christians who value life when it deals to abortion but do not fight for life as strongly when it relates to poverty or the global burden of disease or the application of the death penalty. Trust me, some Christians are atheist, too. There is more to say about atheism and what it means within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but perhaps I can talk more about it if you ask me to in a future update.

What I’m reminded of is the decline of the Christian church in North America. I’ll spare you the statistics, but it’s been noticed by priests, lay-people, youth pastors, even missionaries. In fact, I almost expect people who grew up in the church to leave it when the go off to college (university) or later. I expect people who grew up without God to stay as far away from him as possible. I’m often surprised at people like myself who grew up with God and yet, somehow, stayed with God. Why? Because both non-Christians and Christians have become increasingly disturbed by what they have seen embraced by prominent mainstream visible Christianity in North America--wars of choice, being anti-big government as if big is bad but being ok with big military and big business, embrace of growth over environmental conservation and preservation, focus on criminalization of abortion (without working on issues that decrease the need for abortion) but not working to fight for life in issues of the death penalty or poverty or disease especially when it disproportionately targets the poor, etc.

Brian McLaren talks about a great awakening, he calls it a new revolution in Christian understanding, thought, and action that is occurring today. I don’t think it’s as monumental as he describes; when I go to the book store the Christian books still mostly comprise books by authors who are not in this emerging understanding of God. Still, McLaren is right. It’s growing, almost like a mustard plant. There are many names of people and churches and groups around the world who are trying to search for something new, embrace something bigger than the concepts we’ve formerly understood and mystically dance with the divine in a new way. There are more authors and more people coming out to say “I’ve always had these questions” or “I’ve always thought that, but I could never find anyone to talk to or with whom to discuss.”

Brian has a new book called “A New Kind of Christianity.” I like this book because Christianity (what does that mean exactly?) is less about doctrines than it is about questions to me. So when I find a group of people or a faith community that embrace people and allow them to ask questions, even questions that remain unanswered still, I’m excited. I’m energized. I need questions. I need to continually strip down and reclothe myself in better understanding. I’m thankful to those around me who have helped me to do that, who allow me to be angry with God, and who show me that God is bigger than my questions and is not offended by them even though religious people around me are (I’m one of them).

Here are the 10 questions

1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
The usual answer to this involves the story that man of us Christians were taught to recount when talking to a non-Christian about Christianity. It involves Adam and Eve and the Fall. Over the years there have been minor tweaks here and there to this narrative but nothing major. But there have been parts of it that have been hard to understand and explain (for many this is ok because they want to worship a God they don’t understand). McLaren talks a bit about how some of the difficult concepts might be from men than directly the Bible or even the understanding of Jesus.

2. How should the Bible be understood?
This deals with the question of how the Bible is viewed. Is it a constitution providing an unquestioning legal framework of how to live. Is it a guidebook telling how we live our lives? I had a friend say this to me last Sunday at church. I reacted and said it’s so much more. I said the Bible was a story a history of a story of a people and how, through time, they have learned and unlearned, struggled and fought with God, questioned and loved God, turned away and hated God. Yes, through it we can learn things about our story and lives, but it is not a rule book and if you reduce it to that you’ve missed the main point of it. Regardless the answer to how you view the Bible depends on your answer to the previous question. This is very important because people often interpret and use the Bible for backup of their position. How do you properly interpret it? Is the Old Testament more important, less, or equally important than the New Testament?

3. Is God violent?
This is related to the narrative question. In the traditional narrative God is viewed as a either justice-seeking or vengeful or punishing or angry or hateful, etc. And this is seen in many Biblical stories. Are we viewing this correctly or is God different? How does this fit with Jesus? The answers to these questions depend on the previous two questions.

4. Who is Jesus and why is He important?
This is very important. Was he God or was he not? Beyond that, was he here to provide salvation to go to Heaven, or is it something more? What did Jesus say himself?

5. What is the Gospel?
What is the gospel? And what does it mean? What is the good news? Is the gospel related to salvation in the future, promising a spot in Heaven or something more? When people in the New Testament heard words like “saved” did it mean the same thing it means to Western Christians today?

6. What do we do about the Church?
How was the church understood when it started? Is it understood the same way? What is its purpose and function in the world? Is it there to help its members or non-members? Is its job to convert people to a new belief?

7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Our sexuality is a mess. We have a problem not only with a battle between many churches and homosexuals but also with teaching children to deal with sexuality healthily. Teenage pregnancies (and even abortions) are rampant. Is there a way to deal with human sexuality that is closer to the heart of God than how we’ve done it? Are we missing something? Is this all of what the Bible and Christianity has to offer?

8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
Is the normal linear view of time and the future correct? Are we waiting and awaiting something in the future which dictates that the world will continue to worsen and de-motivates and discourages us? What exactly is supposed to happen in the future? And why isn’t Jesus here, now?

9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
This is a tough one. People of other religions (or no religion) have traditionally had a tough time with Christians because of its claims of exclusivity and the fact of a belief that everyone except Christians is going to Hell. Of course this relates to previous questions. But the real question here is how do we interact and treat and deal with people of other faiths. It hasn’t always gone well in the history of Christianity and we want to do it better.

10. What do we do now? (How do we translate our quest into action?)


(Thoughts sparked by Peter Rollins)

I said that I currently don’t think the Way Jesus lived and about which he spoke is based on belief. I do not mean belief is absent. I’m just saying it’s not fundamental, the way we use it to divide ourselves in North American society. I was reminded this the other day when I was thinking about a baby.

A baby is born into a family. And instantly it is accepted. It is welcomed. It is loved. It is given a first name and immediately has a last name. It belongs to the family. It belongs.

Later, the baby grows up and begins to take part in the life of the family. The baby becomes a child and shares in regular practices or rituals with the family. They eat together, they play together, they shop together. They may go to church together, sing songs together, pray together, dance together, and watch movies together. This child now shares in communal behavior. She behaves a certain way.

Later, still, the child begins to question some of the beliefs she was taught. This self-examination period could last an uncertain amount of time. But the child, now a teenager, begins to reaffirm some of the beliefs of her parents and dissents with other beliefs of her parents. Some become her own and others are rejected and let go.

What is amazing about this is not that she believes some things her parents do or that she does things her parents do or that she belongs to her family. The amazing beauty is the order. She first belongs regardless of beliefs. She then hangs out and shares in common practices and rituals regardless of beliefs. Finally she learns to believe certain things (many will be shaped by that experience).

Why is that novel? Well, in the church we have done the opposite. We have said you cannot be a part of us (you’re not one of us) unless you believe, until you believe. Even more, you cannot participate in our common practices and rituals until you believe, without belief. So we have been taught, learned, and continue the practice of exclusion based on belief. It is many arenas---democrat versus republican, left versus right, etc. I see it all the time in D.C. and it makes my stomach churn. Why does it matter? Jesus, the person on whom Christianity is supposed to based, did the opposite.

He first accepted unconditionally 12 guys, mostly from the lower class of society. He didn’t ask them what they believed, he didn’t ask them to believe anything. He just said, “Come and follow me.” They were welcomed and loved, without doing or believing a thing. In fact Jesus did this with a lot of people. As I write in another section, he didn’t hang out with ex-tax collectors and ex-prostitutes, he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors among others. He loved people unconditionally before any change in belief or action.

Once in his circle (and there more than just the inner circle of 12), people joined him in communal practices and rituals. They broke bread and ate together. They sat and listened to stories and parables together. They hung out with the poor and children together. They fed people. They healed people together. They spent time with those with no friends, no family. They loved people. They befriended the unfriendly; they loved enemies. They spoke with the occupiers. They healed the lame, the blind, the lepers (those with skin diseases). All this was done without a single plea or appeal to change their belief of God or who hey thought Jesus was.

In fact, it wasn’t until after joining Jesus and after already participating in shared practices that Jesus asked them who people thought Jesus was. They gave him answers like “Some say Elijah” and “Others say John the Baptist.” Jesus then asked them who they believed (key word) he was. Peter spoke up and for the first recorded time, we find that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the awaited one spoken of in the scriptures of the Jewish community. Belief came last. Belief came last. Not only did it come last, it wasn’t fundamental but a natural outworking of belonging to this community of Jesus and learning to do the things that Jesus did.

I believe in the power of change by behavior especially behavior of service. It’s the guiding principle I accidentally “discovered” and used while teaching and still use to this day especially in my own life. I never saw Jesus exclude people on the basis of belief. And I love churches and places where people are accepted even if they disagree with what is said, where people are allowed to ask questions when they don’t understand including questions without answers, where people are loved, forgiven, and welcomed unconditionally into a community that practices the Way.


One of the reasons I know I’m doing ok at community is that I’m still hurting people. I know it’s a strange comment and a strange metric or gauge, but it’s true. Now it is true that we as people can learn and grow to be embarrassed less, less self-focused, less pride-intensive, less offended, but we are all at different points in our lives. And usually with proximity and vulnerability comes the ability to hurt and offend. To this day, like my friend Shane Claiborne says, I have never been able to live in community without offending and hurting people. I have yet to outgrow that.

And so I have had new people lately angry or upset or offended with me. One friend, a beautiful geneticist, was upset that I was telling her that I like people more than they like me (including her) and always end up bothering them more than they want to do things. :-) I told her about all the times she wasn’t able to do things that we planned to do, or at least we hadn’t been able to do it yet. This bothered her, but before we could ever talk about it, she forgave me (and I apologized first--though unconditional forgiveness can pave the way for the conditions “required” for the gift of “conditional” forgiveness in the first place [figure that one out!]).

I had another friend with whom I was car pooling get upset with me because I was in an emotional hurry to meet up with family members. But my friend wasn’t comfortable traveling without stopping for directions. In an effort to calm her, I said “That’s fine. We’ll do what feels good for you. You decide. Yes we can stop for a map.” But I think she wanted more reassurance or more words because she got upset when after the 2nd stop we didn’t find a map, and I thought that meant we would go to the airport. I wanted to drive on to the airport to see my family. She said these words, “I feel like sometimes you don’t hear me. . .” What was strange about her being offended that I wanted to try to get to the airport, even though I was willing to wait and stop for a map twice and stop again for a map after not finding it twice, is this: my friend has never said I don’t hear her ever before. To my knowledge it was the first time that she has felt this way, and yet she said “sometimes.” This is either true and I offender her a lot, or she used the wrong words. I’m not sure which as we’re not around each other that much. I wasn’t able to get to my family in time more so due to leaving late, but I think offending a friend would be a small price to pay to see family from Nigeria whom you’ve never met before they fly back to Nigeria.

There are other stories, but I won't bore you with details. I will tell you that in one interesting situation my friend John said that money could be used on charity not on friends or people who were ok (I was using it on friends at the time). I thought the comment (though not his ultimate motivation) was well-intentioned and heading in the right direction. We do want to help those without. What the statement highlighted was the misguided way in which we give. It’s the usual recipe. The rich give to the poor through a website or a program or an organization and the rich go home feeling good about themselves for having given, and the poor go away feeing good because they received what they wanted or needed. This is not true giving. There’s no face to it. There’s no sacrifice of time, and there’s no relationship. Relational giving is the highest form of giving. Well, if not the highest, it’s the most natural. Time wouldn’t be so expensive if people didn’t value it so, but they do. It’s easier to give money then to give time. It takes time to build a relationship, time to rebuild trust, time to create trust in the first place, time to hope, time to love, time to make peace (as opposed to keeping peace). You could never say to a family member or spouse, “I don’t have time to be with you but here’s money to handle all your needs.” One reason is that food, shelter, clothing, and housing are not are only needs. People say sex is a need, but it’s not really. Love is. Relationship is. The way we were created we will seek it out wherever we can get it or find it, whether from a family, from a baby (at whatever age), from a dangerous gang, from a teacher, from an abusive spouse, wherever. There’s something about experiences that is not complete until the enjoyment of the experience is expressed to someone.

It’s like the Rollins story of the guy who ended up shipwrecked on a deserted island with Beyonce (you can insert any highly attractive famous person to any cultural group). Day after day, as they realized there was no one that would ever rescue them, the man began to nag Beyonce trying to convince her to be with him romantically. Beyonce always resisted his advances; she just wasn’t interested. But he kept bugging and bothering and pleading. One day when Beyonce realized that they would never be rescued she said “All right. I’ll give you one night.” So they spent the night together. In the morning, he was so excited and elated that he told Beyonce “Do you mean putting on this hat and t-shirt and mustache?” Beyonce said “What?” “Yes, will just put on this hat and t-shirt and moustache, please? It won’t be long. I just need to run down to the beach and I’ll be back.” It didn’t make sense to her, but she figured “Ok, whatever, I’ll do what he says.” So she put it on. The moment she put it on, he ran down to the beach’s shore and, as if he had just exited a boat, started running to Beyonce whom he recognized. When he reached her he said “Hey, Charles! It’s so good to see you. You will NEVER believe who I spent the night with last night?. . . .”

In all of the rambling and in all of my living, I’ve realized the really poor people are not those without money but those without relationships. When counseling the homeless (we all need it) I’ve realized that if I were in the situation, I wouldn’t be poor because I had relationships in which I would be taken care. I would quickly have a place to live, even if at least temporary. I would quickly get food in my tummy. And I would soon enough get a job again, even if part-time through a friend. In other words, poverty is not the lack of things such as food, shelter/housing, clothing, employment, water, etc. Poverty is the lack or relationships through which those things are naturally given and covered. Poverty is the lack of friendships. Check out this video which I’ve shown before from a Brazilian brother who seems to have come to this same conclusion that I saw in my work in South Africa.

Definition of Poverty

So the redistribution of wealth is something that we naturally experience in relationship and family. I don’t think we were meant to provide for physical provision without nourishing and nurturing the soul and spirit in relationship. I realize there are many types of families, so I’m speaking from a Christ-exemplified model. In a family, a person buys food and anyone eats; you go and buy provisions for the household and you do not ask for money back from those around you. But these people are not your family? I hear this often. Actually one thing I love about Jesus is that he expanded the definition of neighbor and brother. Everyone is your brother even your enemy, the person you would least expect it.

I don’t want to push the topic too much, but the best place to give is in relationship and in a way that costs you something. So though my friend is right that we should give to charity (I’m assuming this means people who are without provisions), this should be done by developing relationships with the poor. And in the same way that I give to my family and friends in relationship both with time and money, I give to my family and friends who are poor in relationship. And in families, no one keeps count, no record is kept. We live in love.
That’s community.


But if I never outgrow the incidences of offense, one thing community needs is forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is probably a better measure of how I am doing at creating community. I can definitely create community, offend people, and not practice forgiveness thereby destroying community. Forgiveness is an integral part. Here’s a story; it’s not a true story, but a fictional one based on a Biblical fictional story. Confusing, I know.

The Unrepentant Son

by Peter Rollins

There was once an elderly man who had raised two sons and had worked diligently his whole life. Now, the younger of the two sons was impetuous by nature and said to his father, “I do not want to wait for my inheritance. Give me my share now.”

His father reluctantly complied. A few days later, the younger son packed his bags and departed from the home. For the next few years, he squandered the money that he had been given, leading a life of worldly pleasure. However, his money soon ran out, and the young son found himself without friends, food, or shelter. He eventually found a job feeding pigs and was so poor that he had to supplement his diet with the scraps used to feed the animals.

This was no life for the young man, so he thought to himself, I have had a good time in the last few years, but perhaps I should now return to my father’s home. For there it is warm, and while he will be angry, he may take pity on me and let me work as a hired hand. And so he began the return journey.

But, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him. Overcome with joy, he ran to his lost son and embraced him. The father then said to his servants, “Bring the best robe that I own, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, but now has been found.” That evening there was a great celebration.

Later that night, after the party, while he was alone, the younger son wept with sorrow and repented for the life he had led.

This story (from Orthodox Heretic) is a great example of what true forgiveness is. It’s so rare, today, in my experience, that I must usually qualify it and describe it as unconditional forgiveness.

Most of our forgiveness today is conditional. Whether talking of personal debt forgiveness or national debt forgiveness, political pardons or business forgiveness, interpersonal forgiveness or church forgiveness, all of our examples are conditional. They are based on the person, group, organization, or country doing something or meeting certain standards that then allow forgiveness to be bestowed or given. So what we see is forgiveness following repentance or forgiveness on the condition of repentance.

But did Jesus (I always go back to him) have a more radical message? What if he did? What if he practiced and preached an unconditional forgiveness which was unheard of in his day? I think so. Forgiveness was common and church leaders often pardoned people, but Jesus forgave people before any condition was met. He hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and drunks as opposed to ex-drunkards and ex-prostitutes.

This story is very close to the original. A few items are excluded and a few features changed to more clearly elucidate the message of forgiveness. Here it’s possible to see that true forgiveness (unconditional forgiveness) houses within it the power to evoke repentance. It contains the power to bring about the condition pre-required for conditional forgiveness. What if this is true? What if repentance isn’t the necessary condition for forgiveness but the natural and freely-given response to unconditional forgiveness?

In the story, the son goes home not because he’s repentant but because it’s warm and he may be able to get some work. Yet, the father has no concern for whether his son is repentant or not, not at all. His only concern is that his son is back, having no idea what his son is thinking, and no thought of whether or not his son is penitent or contrite. It’s just unconditional love. And yet it is the unconditional forgiveness born of this unconditional love that leads the son to repentance.

I received some thoughts and criticism from the last update in which I was told that there are a huge group of people (some label them liberal Christians, hippie Christians, emergent Christians, etc.) who lean too much to the side of grace (or love) and not enough to the side of truth. As a counselor, my job was to speak the truth in love, but even that truth could never be given until a deep strong relationship had first been established. And that took time. In my life experience, usually the word “truth” is used to mean “telling a person that she is wrong or doing something wrong.” And in my life experience, this usually does not work. When I’ve seen it work, usually the effects are superficial and fleeting. The only thing I’ve seen work or turn a heart is unconditional love and acceptance, not the manipulative kind that gives it as a trade to get something back, but the unconditional kind that loves and accepts because that is the best way to live and because love is what we do. Being a person who has grown up rule-bound and morally affluent (ha!), it’s hard to say this but it’s quite true. I see this every day, even now as I write. There are people in my life who want other people in my life to change but are unable to create this change through nagging, criticizing, or even truth-telling. I don’t mind truth-telling at all (I love the truth), but the biggest truth is love and love is the foundation for anything. Isn’t that the amazingly transformative power we see at work with Jesus and the Zacchaeus, a rich and wealthy tax collector who had few if any friends. Jesus befriended Zacchaeus and invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house. There was not one word of condemnation or criticism or “truth-telling.” There was truth but it was in the form of love and presence. Zacchaeus immediately gave half of all he possessed to the poor and decided to pay back any victim four times what he cheated them. That’s the power of unconditional forgiveness.


Donald Miller once described forgiveness in a book (Father Fiction) as not holding another person accountability for the burden you carry. I liked that description. It doesn’t mean you won’t carry a weight or that your situation has not changed due to what happened, but it means you don’t hold someone accountable for it. Here’s another story.

The Empty Exchange
by Peter Rollins

Samuel and Luka had been lifelong friends. Their relationship stretched back to when they were both children and continued through adolescence into their adult years. But their friendship really deepened when, during the war, they fought side by side in the trenches.

Yet, when they returned from the war, they both fell in love with the same woman. Although she finally married Luka, Samuel continued to harbor his own deep feelings for her.

As time went on, Samuel’s parents were tragically killed, and he inherited his family’s estate. Although now a wealthy man, he found it hard to accept the death of his parents and sought emotional support from the one woman he had always loved.

Amidst the intensity of the circumstances, a brief affair ensued between Samuel and Luka’s wife. Unable to live with the secrecy of their actions, Samuel ended the affair and confessed all. Luka, devastated by the news, looked Samuel in the eyes and said, “Before God and all the heavenly hosts, I sweat to you now that I will never accept your apology.”

These words haunted Samuel for many years, for he felt awful about what he had done and yearned to be reconciled once more with his friend. Yet he understood the pain and heartache he had caused and knew that his friend was a man of his word. Samuel knew that his friend would remain true to his vow and would never accept Samuel’s offer of repentance, even if Luka now wanted to.

Yet after years of wrestling, he decided that it did not matter whether his apology was accepted or not. What mattered was that he approach his friend and express his sorrow. So, early one evening Samuel gathered his courage and went to Luka’s house. Upon seeing Luka, Samuel fell to the ground and cried out, “Old friend, I know that you cannot accept my apology because you made a solemn oath all those years ago. But I must tell you that there has not been a day when I have not been brought low by my actions. I have never been able to free myself from this pain, and I am truly sorry for what I did.”

Luka smiled with compassion, for over the years he had come to understand that those had been dark days for everyone, and that Samuel had been suffering from great depression. So he addressed his repentant friend saying, “I made a vow never to accept your apology, and I intend to keep my word. But seeing you like this makes such an apology superfluous. Indeed, if I were to accept your apology, then this would mean that I considered you to have intentionally hurt me--something that I know is not the case. So I reject your apology as unnecessary and thus keep my vow intact, not because I wish to continue our estrangement, but so that we can truly be reconciled as brothers once more.”

After this Samuel and Luka were reunited and went on to grow old together as friends and companions once more.

This story looks at reconciliation instead of forgiveness. Whereas forgiveness was a prerequisite for repentance in “The Unrepentant Son,” here, reconciliation involves the offering of repentance as a prerequisite. In other words, Luka needed to hear the apology to know that Samuel was sorry, but Luka’s rejection of the apology meant that he understood what Samuel was going through and the circumstances surrounding the actions. In rejecting the offered gift, their friendship is restored.

Now, I’ve experienced this personally. I have a friend who felt I treated her badly. I don’t actually agree that I did anything wrong, but I was truly sorry for my offenses and had I known the actions which I deemed harmless would offend I would never have done them. I was truly penitent. What did she do? She accepted my apology in full recognition that I was a bad person. She will still bring it up today though she has accepted my apology.

Contrastingly, when someone apologies for something that I completely understand and with whom I empathize I say “No apology needed,” or “Please, it’s fine,” or “You don’t need to apologize,” or “Really, it’s ok,” or “I’m the one who should apologize to you,” or many times “I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be mad or upset. Forget it, man.” I actually find myself rejecting the apology and our communion restored.

Forgiveness is hard. Reconciliation is harder.

Starting in 2003, the government of Rwanda released tens of thousands of genocide perpetrators who confessed to what they did. There was overcrowding of prisons and a backup of court cases, so this definitely was a factor in the decision to do this, but can you imagine a government doing such a massive release of prisoners? And prisoners of genocide? Yet they did. And these perpetrators went back to their home towns. . .

This one act created an intense situation in which forgiveness was forced on the table as an option between perpetrators and families of victims. Laura Waters Hinson, a DC filmmaker, produced a film while a graduate student. It’s called “As We Forgive.” In 2008, she won the Gold Prize in the Student Academy Awards for Best Documentary for “As We Forgive.” It chronicles the life of two women who are on two different journeys of reconciliation in the aftermath of the genocide.

Laura is a beautiful woman who was able to find stories of beauty in Africa, for which I’m grateful. Through the film and her own story, she’s taught me about forgiveness and reconciliation. Check out her clip. Listen to the entire clip especially the end when forgiveness becomes personal for her.
As We Forgive Interview


We had an outbreak of bed bugs in my government building. So my entire department/agency received an email about bed bugs and bed bug etiquette (don’t ask me what this is). Apparently, the bed bugs were tracked down to two cubicles on a particular floor. It wasn‘t my floor, thank goodness, but I was freaked out because the email explained that bed bugs can travel up and down floors. I started screaming in my cubicle and scratching immediately. The email told us that though they located the source, it was important for us all to know that it doesn’t matter if they eradicate the source in the building because they could be coming from somewhere. It went on to explain that the people who brought the bedbugs into their cubicle have a responsibility to eradicate it at their residence; if they don’t, they could always bring it back and the problem starts again.

Poor people. The story got out among all the different government agencies and departments. Then it showed up on National Public Radio and all my friends heard about it. My agency sent an email telling the brief history of bed bugs, how they grow and breed, and how they are killed. It freaked me out. I mean, did you know bed bugs can live up to a year without feeding? Yes! Not only that, but some people have no reaction to their blood-sucking while others get marks!! I mean I felt itchy just reading these emails about it. And the jokes! The poor people whose cubicle in which they were found! I kept wondering about everyone joking about them. What if the person was single and was dating a new boy. Why does she have to be a woman? Fine. What if the person was single and was dating a new woman? That poor guy. Would she even want to date him anymore? Would she want to touch him? If I were him, I would tell her I just have a rare skin disease but the new clinical trial I was in looks promising (though rare side effects can include heart failure, blindness, and sometimes death). Or I would tell her it goes away after I get special chemicals and steam cleaners after submitting my body to science.

Then there is the thing called scabies which I think is just gross because it sounds like a combination between scabs and rabies. And that’s the worse combination you can get. Apparently with scabies, as you scratch the bug that is scabbing rabies on your arm, they climb into your fingernails and then you spread it around to other places.

No joke. I was having lunch with a woman who had latched on to me for the day (her words). And we were talking about dating boys. She mentioned that she had scabies in her place and had to tell a visiting ex-boyfriend to watch out. After I finished wiping some of my drink that came out of my mouth, I suppressed the urge to quietly slip away without her noticing because she was looking right at me and she would probably notice. Then, later she says, “I think you and I should date.” No joke. She said that. But for some reason I couldn’t hear those words. She was saying “I think you and I should date,” and I kept hearing “I think you shouldn’t shake my hand.” I just nodded my head agreeing that we shouldn’t shake hands.


That last homework assignment was a tough, but good one. It’s always scary to hear what story you seem to be playing for those around you or observers. My next assignment is to ask you what you want?

What do you believe you want in life? What are your goals? Are you a list maker or do you not have goals? If you do know what you want in life, is there anyway I can help you achieve some of that? If so, invite me in to partner with you in your story. What do you want in life?

Out of the six of you on this list, looking forward to hearing some of your responses. :-)

I’m currently reading “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” and like Rob Bell’s review reflected, this book is reading me more than I am reading it. It’s a bit haunting in a way that inspires you to reflect and examine your life. Am I living a good story? Am I living the best story possible?

I was thinking about this recently as I was sharing with my reading group a lot of recent failures. I sure do a lot of things -- I mean a lot of things that do not work out. Some of them were huge parts of my life. Some of them are huge projects that fail. The interesting thing about it all is that it’s not the achievement of a great goal that makes it a good story; it’s the attempt to reach it that makes a good story.

Did you see that movie “Friday Night Lights?” It follows the story of a football team through their season and all the setbacks and problems as they rise and make it all the way to the state championship game. In the final scenes, though a well-fought match, they lost. And some people might viscerally find that anticlimactic, but most people still felt it a great movie. The interesting part about the loss at the end of the movie is that this is a true story of a team who actually won the state championship the very next year. The filmmaker was asked why he didn’t make a film chronicling the winning season. He said, at first he wanted to do just that. But when he looked at that season, he realized there was no good story there. The previous season when they lost the championship had an amazing story even in the loss.

I’m always reminded of that. It’s not the achieving of the goal, but it’s all the things you do, how you change your life, the discipline and desire and inspiration and encouragement used as you reach for your goal. And no matter if you’ve reached it or not, you lived a better story trying to reach. You’ve lived a better story trying.


There’s a group of four guys trying to live a better story. . . sometimes. They make me laugh. I’ve only seen two episodes, but they’re funny. These four young men decided they would make a list of everything that they ever wanted to do -- whether asinine or inspirational -- and write it down. Then they set out to do every single item on their list. They filmed their journey and story as they did it. MTV heard about them and turned their story into an MTV TV series. It’s called “The Buried Life.” Have you heard of it?

What I love about this group of guys is that each episode, as they try to achieve an item on the list, they also make sure to ask people along the way “What do you want to do before you die?“ And they make sure to help one person they meet achieve one of her goals. So you follow this group of guys having a good time, doing silly stuff, and shooting for their goal while, at the same time, using their resources and energy to help someone achieve his goal. I love this part of the TV show.

The other great part about the show is that they don’t always achieve every item on their list. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. These four gentlemen also taught me that it’s not whether you achieve the goal, but it’s the fact that you tried that matters. One episode I watched showed them trying to play basketball with the President of the United States of America. If you have time, watch them on MTV or on you tube.
I would put a link here, but I’ll let the people who really want to watch them, find them. Ok, I changed my mind. Here’s a link to a trailer, but you’ll have to find an entire episode to watch on one of those episode internet stations.

“The Buried Life” Trailer

There are few more people who are doing work that reminds me of the toilet sprouting flowers in the communal yard, people who have taken it on themselves to be the change they seek, to be the answer to the problem they see.

I work in international development and there are tons of problems with giving money from one government to another (Official Development Assistance - ODA). And it has never been conclusively proven that the 60 years of international aid has been transformative (some countries have transformed but many believe this was not due to aid but other reasons). Given this, I’m always encouraged by people who are not discouraged but engage in work that is actually effective, efficacious, and effectual, though, it’s on a small scale, in one community, or in one life. Will you do me a favor? Will you read this article that illuminates what I’m saying through real examples. Here are people that inspire me, not because they’re superhuman but because they’re human. The author of this article calls it Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid. I like these people and what they have done. If you don’t have a free NYTimes e-account, get one so you can access it.

The NY Times article

There are examples of such life-giving and creative work all around the world. Here are a few of the people and groups of whom I’ve been learning, studying, and supporting. One of my favorites is the teacher who writes birthday cards.

Gift Card Giver

StoryCorps - Connecting people to share powerful and life-changing stories

Nuru International - Ending extreme poverty

Benched - Building a bench at a busy Atlanta Bus Stop

The Redemption of General Butt Naked - Story of a warlord turned Christian preacher and the question of Justice

A teacher making people feel special one letter at a time

Love 146 - Child Sex Slavery (Scroll down to see the video)

Story - Find your passion and shout it from the rooftops

Tell Your Story - Texas A&M Leadership Forum

Invisible Children -
Invisible Children Video
Another Invisible Children Video

Charity Water Video URL


(from The Secret History of the American Empire)
Continuing our study of Western involvement in different continents through economic hitmen and jackals, we arrive in Africa. Perkins calls Africa the least understood continent, and the phrase has merit. The problems plaguing Africa sometimes overshadow the rays of hope that do exist there today. Though this hope is not my topic today, rest assured that there is hope and there are rays.

The problems facing many of the countries of Africa (many of them being part of the “Bottom Billion” coined by Paul Collier) date back to the times of colonialism but need not still be here with us. There have been other forces derelict that could have crafted a new route for some of the countries in spite of the colonial pasts but instead we’ve had new forces that have helped to sustain a path (for some, not all African countries) of stagnancy or plummeting health conditions, conflict conditions, and poverty. One of those forces deals with this concept of corporatocracy and effect of western businesses and business-supporting governments in the affairs of African countries.

The US had a role in the assassination of Lumumba in the DRC and supported malevolent dictators or leaders like Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Mobutu Sese Seko in the DRC, Laurent Kabila in the DRC, General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Olesegun Obasanjo in Nigeria, Samuel Doe in Liberia, etc.

Sometimes forces for good unintentionally cause bad. In Uganda, peace talks began in 2006 (Joseph Kony is still free and roaming around) but one contribution to the late start of such talks is the presence of NGOs that provide wells, educational facilities, and food relief. Western governments and the Ugandan government shrank their responsibility for ending the fighting because of the gap being filled by NGOs. In other words, sometimes NGO work allows Western governments to show that the Western governments are doing something in a certain situation, when what we really need is for these Western governments to systematically address the root causes of the situation. So NGO work can substitute for diplomatic or political engagement (I’m not suggesting that elections solve anything; elections themselves do not represent democracy and many leaders have been forced to have elections to show they embrace democracy but can easily ensure the results that keep themselves in power).

Sadly a lot of Western business benefits monetarily from instability in Africa -- arms sales; exploitation of mineral resources, cheap labor, and agricultural products. In a stable, peaceful truly democratic (meaning there are checks and balances and accountability not just elections) DRC, it would be much harder to exploit mineral resources. We make money from natural disasters and man-made disasters such as war.

I remember when a large company named Shell had trouble with a Nigerian environmental activist. Because the government (oligarchy or plutocracy) colluded unofficially or official with Shell and mixed with corruption benefited an elite few, it was advantageous that Ken Saro-Wiwa stop organizing protests against Shell. He was arrested and tried by the government of General Abacha (a pro-western company dictator), and in November of 1995, he was executed by hanging along with 8 other environmentalists. I retrospectively remember this especially because Mandela considered it one of the dark spots in his time as president since he fought for the release of Saro-Wiwa.

During the Cold War, Africa became a battleground between what was labeled the communist threat and the capitalist threat depending on your perspective. When Lisbon decided to free her colonies, Washington went into heated internal debate about how to respond. The closure of the Suez Canal and the new supertankers made the case for a location or base to protect shipping lanes from Middle Eastern ports through the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Arabian Sea, into the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the west coast of Africa off into the Atlantic. A decision was made to put this fortress on Aldabra Island, off the east coast of Africa. This would add to Simon’s Town, a South African naval base that the US used to refit nuclear submarines before going back out to patrol.

The government planners discovered that Aldabra was a breeding ground for a rare species of giant tortoises and not wanting to face the backlash or bad publicity from ecologically-minded groups, they changed their choice to Diego Garcia, a large British territory and island in the Chagos chain, part of Mauritius. There was only one problem: people inhabited the island--1800 descendants of African slaves.

According to Perkins, EHMs and US and British intelligence agents, brokered a deal in 1970 where London secretly forced the inhabitants off the island. It was done secretly to maintain the pretense that the island was uninhabited. Many were sent to nearby Seychelles. Then England sold an uninhabited Diego Garcia to the US and received an $11 million subsidy on Polaris submarine technology. If you want to how much each life was valued at, do the math.

The Pentagon built the military base which housed B-52s and Stealth bombers it played a key role for the US, though relatively unknown. But a problem arose when James Mancham was elected the Seychelles’ first president after independence was declared on June 29, 1976. Mancham communicated with the US through South Africa and made it known that he supported the Diego Garcia deal. He offered to quietly take in the displaced Garcians and he enjoyed benefits from it according to Perkins. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you consider the Seychelles citizens.

They had a huge sense of national pride after independence and had a backlash against Mancham, the deference paid to the US and UK, and the policies causing Garcians to come to the Seychelles (especially since the influx of people created competition for their jobs). While Mancham was visiting London in 1977, Prime Minister France-Albert Rene led a bloodless coup and overthrew the president. Rene said he would give a greater share of the country’s wealth to the country’s poor and opposed the US military base saying the Garcians should be allowed to return back to their homeland. According to Perkins, EHMs were working this situation, but were pulled off the case in 1981 and jackals were called in.

The plan was for forty top jackals to assemble in Swaziland, fly to Victoria (capital city of Mahe), and meet up with an advance team (including a few women hired to get information out higher-ups). There were local cops ready to help and the only opposition would come from several hundred Tanzanian soldiers (Tanzoons) brought in by Rene near the airport. They were to creep into the barracks of the Tanzoons and shoot them in the night which would signal the uprising as they took the radio stations and the presidential palace.

However, the plan failed. Though the weapons were stored on the island, for some reason the plans changed at the last minute calling for some weapons to be brought with them. One jackal had an assault rifle that was poorly wrapped and was caught at the airport. A gun battle followed. The jackals captured more weapons and ammo from troops they ambushed on their way to the barracks. Other jackals tried to attack the Tanzoon barracks but failed. The fighting went on through the night. An Air India jetliner requested permission to land wondering why the lights were out. One of the jackals turned on the lights and granted permission to land. The jackals and Seychelles authorities talked on the phone and agreed to a cease-fire if the jackals would board the plane and leave the island. Some decided to stay behind but the remainder decided to take the plane to Durban, South Africa. At this point there was one dead, seven missing, captured or taken prisoner including one of the women accomplices.

The Seychelles government arrested the seven, eventually dropped the charges against the woman, sentenced four of the men to death and the other two to 10-20 year prison terms. After negotiations with Pretoria, South Africa eventually paid $3 million for the release of the 6. In the subsequent media coverage, the US and UK managed to avoid notoriety while South Africa took much of the blame. After that President Rene became more moderate and tempered his policies towards Diego Garcia.

The list of stories goes on and on. From agricultural subsidies that adversely affect the global poor (corn, cotton, etc.) to Western government agencies working with a company like Monsanto to rewrite Malian legislation to allow the introduction, sale, and patenting rights of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) crops. Sometimes the way such aid and development is structured, it causes farming communities in developing countries in Africa to become dependent on fertilizers, pesticides, newer plows, herbicides, and GMO seeds. Sometimes this is purchased on credit which sends some farmers in deeper debt (I don’t have statistics to give you percentages).

The strongest picture in my head of corporate interests in Africa deals with the very instrument on which I’m typing -- laptops. Laptops and cell phones. They both have tantalum, also known as coltan. And the Democratic Republic of Congo has it in abundance along with gold, diamonds, and copper. Remember that DRC has been embroiled in conflict for the past 15. After it’s independence from Belgium in 1960, Prime Minister Lumumba was assassinated by Belgian and U.S. backed opponents due to ties to the Soviet Union, according to TIME magazine’s 2006 cover story as reported by Perkins. General Mobutu Sese Seko took over after Lumumba. Mobutu’s rule was corrupt, though he was a “favored” by the US. But his rule disturbed the DRC’s neighbors and in 1996 and 1997 Uganda and Rwanda invaded and overthrew Mobutu installing Laurent Kabila as the new president. But even with Kabila the socioeconomic state deteriorated and Uganda and Rwanda invaded again in 1998 along with six other countries sparking Africa’s first World War.

Now when wars occur and countries invade the DRC, militias from Uganda and Rwanda earn millions--no--billions of dollars from the sale of tantalum that they collect and smuggle across the border. This is the same tantalum whose shortage caused a shortage of Sony Play Stations 2’s during the 2000 Christmas season. Now if you read the section “It’s Not About You” above, you know there is a Do-It-Yourself foreign aid woman who has been working to change the situation of tantalum which fuels wars in places in Africa. More still needs to be done. But this bright young woman (read the article) shows that there is hope and change does come.

Billions are made selling arms to both sides in conflicts. War enables corporations to sidestep tariffs, taxes, and human rights-based and environmental regulations. Again, corporations due profit when there is conflict.

I leave you with the words of U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) during a hearing she chaired April 16, 2001.

“Much of what you will hear today has not been widely reported in the public media. Powerful forces have fought to suppress these stories from entering the public domain.

“The investigations into the activities of Western governments and Western businessmen in post-colonial Africa provide clear evidence of the West’s long-standing propensity for cruelty, avarice, and treachery. The misconduct of Western nations in Africa is not due to momentary lapses, individual defects, or errors of common human frailty. Instead, they form part of a long-term policy designed to access and plunder Africa’s wealth at the expense of its people.

“. . .at the heart of Africa’s suffering is the West’s, and most notably the United States’, desire to access Africa’s diamonds, oil, natural gas, and other precious resources. . .the West, and most notably the United States, has set in motion a policy of oppression, destabilization and tempered, not by moral principle, but by a ruthless desire to enrich itself on Africa’s fabulous wealth. . . Western countries have incited rebellion against stable African governments. . . Have even actively participated in the assassination of duly elected and legitimate African Heads of State and replaced them with corrupted and malleable officials.”


Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole was the son of a washerwoman and tailor. He quit school at age 16 in 1957 in South Africa. He pretended to be an orphan and was able to convince authorities to reclassify him as colored or mixed-race, no doubt helped by his fluency in Afrikaans. This mobility (as a colored person in South Africa compared to a black South African) aided his interest and work in photography. By age 20, his family home and township were bulldozed down, considered a “black spot” by the authorities.

Ernest was inspired to write Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “People of Moscow” Ernest was inspired to create a photographic portrait of Black life in South Africa. Taking his camera into intimate spaces of work and public life, he took pictures to create a frightening pictorial record of life in South Africa at the time. He went into exile in 1966 and the next year his work, “House of Bondage” was released in the United States, though it was not allowed in his home country.
In the 70’s and 80’s he was destitute in New York City and died in 1990 just after Mandela became president. His work “House of Bondage” survives today, thank goodness, and you can view some of the photos below.


Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid Slide Show

Why We Fight (a new book on America’s history of war-making)
Amazon review

Haiti Photojournalism
Haiti One Year Later