Babylon America

And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”
— From the Revelation of St. John (or the Apocalypse)
Fallen to the seduction of greed, have we created our own self-destruction
In an introduction to deconstruction of everything we’ve pretended to be?
Alas Lady Liberty! What stain of blood on hands and for what sordid gain?
And do you hear all the children cry and say ‘goodbye’ as they lay and die?
Do you see the crimson river flowing and feel the wind blowing the turmoil
That you alone have created in order to be sated in demonstrated avarice?
Do you wonder at your own short-sighted blunder cutting nations asunder?
Ah! But the time is now here when God shall strike fear into your very soul,
And who shall save you from falling from your height, O Babylon of might?
Night has come upon you and there is no flight, but only heaven’s blight!


What I Used To Be, What I Am

I used to be an evangelical, Protestant Christian.  Now, though I can still say with complete integrity that I am “saved by grace through faith in Christ,” there is nevertheless much more to “salvation” than juridical pardon in the eternal courtroom of heaven.  This is one important reason Eastern Orthodoxy appealed to me nearly 20 years ago.

As I studied the life and work of John Wesley, the mothers and fathers of the Church, as well as Medieval saints and mystics, it dawned on me then that the modern/post-modern, conservative, evangelical expression(s) of the Christian faith is spiritually and intellectually distorted and woefully inadequate in practical, day-to-day value… And so began my journey.

I used to be an unashamed, unapologetic, political conservative. Now, however, I am moderately progressive. Yes, I still believe in business and the right to profit. No, I have no desire to trample on free enterprise and economics. But, yes, I have come to believe that society as a whole has an obligation to its poorest, disenfranchised members.

As I met people from different parts of our country and the world, listened to them and became acquainted with their personal narratives; as I saw with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and to an extent personally experienced the plight of the masses of people struggling day-to-day and week-to-week, the reality of unjust inequities became impossible to ignore.

I used to be a man who wanted to be “the man.”  Now, though, I am someone who is thankful to be the unique person God created, with unique gifts and abilities and perspectives, and my own special contribution to make in this life in this world. I am not ashamed to say I’m not “the man;” rather, I am a whole person – mind, body and soul – and worthy of love and respect.

As I struggled with loneliness following my divorce, and sometimes painful efforts to cultivate new relationships, it became increasingly apparent that for most of my life I’ve waged a war on who and what I am, fighting to fit into what might appropriately be called the contemporary, Hollywood-American stereotype of masculinity. I am not this man. I cannot be this man.

I used to be overly concerned with the opinions of others and, consequently, hyper-sensitive. I desperately needed the approbation of others, and allowed my own self-worth to hinge upon some perceived notion of acceptance and approval. Now I am free to love people and value their opinions without falling apart just because I don’t happen to have their admiration.

As I began to see with eyes wide open just how imperfect and so often confused and insecure most people really are, I began to understand that others need my love, encouragement and support as much as I need theirs. This important fact alone puts me on equal footing with every other flesh-and-blood human being.

I used to be dogmatic about almost everything, it seems. Now, however, I hold my opinions and beliefs openhandedly, realizing that, after all, I may be wrong and that if I am, it’s far easier to let go when I’m not tenaciously clinging to what has been proven to be erroneous as if it’s some sort of life-preserver saving me from drowning.

As I learned more about various valid approaches to understanding life and the world, it also became ever more evident that the dogmatist may be the most fearful, self-doubting person of all; that dogmatism may be little more than an attempt to make mystery sensible and give seemingly certain answers to often very frightening and ultimately unanswerable questions.

I have changed. I am changing. What I used to be is very much part of who I am today, but who I am today is quite different in significant ways from who I used to be. And this can be alarming and, yes, it scares me sometimes… But life really is a journey – a journey marked by pivotal moments and transformations – so I think I’ll continue the trek and pray, hope and believe for the best; after all, I used to believe the best is yet to come… I still do!

The Art of Appreciation

It was part of the core curriculum, so I had to take the course, but not something to which I really looked forward. However, not half-way through the semester I found myself anticipating each Music Appreciation class in joyful expectation of learning something new and, as I then realized, truly beneficial. Point in fact, my professor was bequeathing cultural and artistic treasure to anyone willing to receive that boon… Not everyone was willing, though, and really succeeded in turning the blessing into little more than “pearls for swine.”

Learning about polyphony, Gregorian chants, instrumental experimentation during the Baroque period (and, by the way, “baroque” comes from the Italian word “barocco” which means bizarre), sonatas and so much more certainly did not make me an accomplished musician ~ and, in fact, a musician I am not ~ but it did stretch my mind and broaden my horizons intellectually and aesthetically, as well as spiritually. More broadly, the experience also served to teach me something about appreciation or, if you will, appreciating appreciation.

I am, perhaps, loathe to quote Voltaire, but he expressed my sentiments precisely when he said, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” Another slightly different version of the same statement is that “by appreciation, we make excellence in others our own property.” Too true; too true! And precisely why the art of appreciation is so fundamentally important and why, conversely, the absence of genuine, qualitative appreciation is so detrimental, both individually and corporately.

Of course, appreciation means “thankfulness” and “gratitude,” but the kind of appreciation with which we are here concerned means, “recognition of the worth, quality or importance of something,” perhaps most specifically in the “awareness or artistic values” with attendant “understanding and enjoyment.” Consequently, those who lack appreciation in this sense are often called “boors, louts, boobs, vulgarians,” and rightly so one should think. Creatures such as this are ill-mannered and insensitive, lacking a “discerning palate” in every sense of the term.

Now one might ask, “Who’s to say what constitutes beautiful art, majestic music, awe-inspiring scenery, well-written and inspiring literature” and so on and so forth? My reply to this would be to simply point out the fact that we cannot even really discuss the question, at least reasonably and with any hope of getting anywhere, completely apart from what I am calling the art of appreciation. In other words, how could we even hope to answer the question if there is simply no “recognition of worth and quality with understanding?” We cannot. Period.

More than this, however, apart from the cultivated art of appreciation we cannot really hope to apprehend the sacred beauty and value of the world around us, from the powerful celestial scenes painted across the canvas of night to the wondrous worlds we can see only with the aid of microscopes. We cannot discern the worth and importance of truly great men and women, as opposed to boobs and louts, and so can never make “what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” And this, tragically, is an impoverished life, to be sure!

For my part as a father, cultivating the art of appreciation in my children is fundamentally important. I want them to truly “see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep … the perfection of beauty and the wondrous works of God.” I want them to stand in awe of the genuinely divine creativity of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, of Tolstoy and Andrei Rublev, of Mozart and Beethoven … and I could go on and on: Sun Tzu and Confucius, Plato and Aristotle, the Great Wall and the Pyramids, Herodotus and Tacitus and the Mona Lisa.

I want my children to appreciate the fact that, while we may enjoy watching The Lord of the Rings movies, it is far better to read the triology; that while there is nothing inherently wrong with an artificial Christmas tree, there is nevertheless an uncaptured beauty you find only in the living creation of the evergreen; that even though some-such “happy thoughts of God” may serve quite well for a pick-me-up, it takes some spiritual depth to write something really worth taking to heart and remembering.

 “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be held in awe above all gods… who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number.” And you can only apprehend those great and marvelous wonders in and throughout creation, including humanity, when you have learned the art of appreciation. Too, it is only when you have so cultivated the art of appreciation that you really live a life worth appreciating … in both senses of the word!