Sunday, December 11, 2022

“Give Up All the Other Worlds” (Learning to Hope)

        How you feel about hope likely depends on your own experiences and circumstances. It’s been portrayed as both salvation and delusion, and many things in between. An important criticism is that passive hope may give us the excuse to just stand idly by, waiting for others to do something. Meanwhile, we can get lost in an imaginary future, postponing our personal and collective wellbeing to some other time. We can even use hope as an excuse to avoid confronting difficulties, from places in ourselves that need healing to unhealthy situations that need to be addressed. This “pie in the sky” kind of hope can too easily just become a practice of accommodating injustice and oppression. As Joe Hill observed, it also makes you an easy mark for religious hucksters looking to get your money and your labor. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Reflections on the UN Convention on The Rights of the Child

I didn’t learn about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child until I was living in Cambodia, where it was an important framework for helping us address family violence, human trafficking, and community development. Maybe this isn’t too surprising, since the Convention is still young. It was adopted on this day (November 20) in 1989 by the UN General Assembly and became effective on September 2, 1990, after it was ratified by the required number of members. It is a very basic commitment to honoring and protecting the dignity and humanity of children, and 196 nations, including every member of the United Nations except one, has made that commitment. The one UN member that is still holding out, three decades later, is the USA. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

“Even Where We Mean to Mend Her”: Transforming Culture in an Age of Catastrophic Climate Change

In 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated a row of trees and grieved that they had been cut down. His grief expanded from those trees to the hubris of humanity, elegantly and painfully describing how quickly we alter the living world of which we are a part – often to its (and our own) devastation. The result was "Binsey Poplars": 

 My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
            Not spared, not one
            That dandled a sandalled
            Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

From Coercion to Connection

Several times in the last months, I have been unexpectedly called upon to discuss my commitment to nonviolence. This used to be a regular occurrence, but it hadn’t happened in some time. Still, I wasn’t exactly caught off guard; it turns out that sharing my experiences and aspirations regarding nonviolence and non-harming are a bit like remembering how to ride a bike. What did surprise me was the realization of how I had become accustomed to not talking about nonviolence. A few weeks ago, I sat in a park with a good friend, someone who has shared similar convictions and experiences, and we reflected together on how our own relationship with nonviolence has grown and changed over the years, and what the role of nonviolence might be now, in a world that is both the same and different from the one we grew up embracing nonviolence. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Creating a Culture of Care

One of the great gifts my parents gave to me was a commitment to caring for one another. I watched them, and grew up helping out, as they would mow lawns, pick up groceries, provide transportation, babysit, and otherwise provide a helping hand to both family and friends. This was especially the case as people faced sickness and grew close to death. It was an expression of generosity and love, and (most of the time!) it was given without complaint. So, it wasn’t a surprise that, within months of the day I moved away to attend university, my childhood bedroom was converted into what became my grandmother’s hospice room. I would travel home on weekends to visit her and my family, often spending hours sitting on what used to be my bedroom floor, playing guitar and sharing stories with my grandma, and sleeping on the couch, before heading back for class. After her death, that room became the temporary residence of a series of other loved ones, who needed a combination of care, supervision, or just some extra help dealing with the ups and downs of life. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Guns, Race, and Public Health

As a native Missourian, I have been around gun culture most of my life. We never had guns in my home, but I still took the hunter education gun safety course and learned to shoot. That seemed to be the bare minimum, and many of my friends and family hunted, shot for sport, had a rifle rack in their pickup truck, or carried a pistol in the glove compartment of their car. Eventually, both concealed and open carry became increasingly popular and common. You probably know the stats: in the 2018 Small Arms Survey, the US outpaced the world in the “estimated number of firearms per 100 residents,” with 120.5 civilian-owned guns for every 100 people. For comparison, Yemen had 52.8 and Canada 34.7 guns per 100 people. (“America's gun culture - in seven charts”)

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Facing Conspiracies & Reimagining Community

My Personal Roots

       I grew up in the 1980s in a Southern Baptist church, home, and community, but I was not exposed to creationism until my sophomore year of high school. And it was not at church. It was in my AP Biology 2 class at a public school. Our teacher had announced that, to avoid arguments about evolution, we would just be skipping that topic – you know, a topic essential to understanding biology. However, a few students saw an opportunity and brought creationist literature from home. They talked about them during breaks, loaned them out, and encouraged us to go to events and book studies at their churches.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Making Peace In the Moment We Are Alive

        It is a custom to offer reflections of gratitude for a Buddhist teacher on the 100 day commemoration of their death. May 1 marked this continuation for the Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (teacher), and this is my belated offering of gratitude. 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

A Spectrum of Trust

        For years now, we’ve been discussing different aspects how to manage broken relationships, especially relationships strained by the increasing polarization of American society. More and more people speak with me about feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even before the pandemic, more than 40% of Americans reported feeling that their relationships weren’t meaningful, and 20% said that they “rarely or never feel close to people”. ( )

Sunday, May 1, 2022

May Day, Unions, and Economic Justice

I grew up in a working class family, with a father who worked in a factory my whole life. Most of those years, he worked second shift, which was great in the summer. We were able to go to the school lot and play some version of baseball several times a week. It was a pick-up game if enough people were available, using ghost runners if we were short. And if only a few of us were there, it would be fly-knocker or hot-box. Other days, we were out in the community, maybe mowing grass together for folks who couldn't manage their lawns or picking up groceries. During the school year, I mainly saw him on the weekends, except for those nights I managed to stay up late, and we'd catch the late news or reruns of M*A*S*H*. 

In our home, there was never a question of the dignity and importance of manual labor. My dad considered other careers, but the factory had better pay and benefits than the options available to him after university, so he stayed at the factory. I grew up understanding that his work wasn’t less important than the work he might have done if he had chosen a different career path. There was also never a question about the importance of labor rights and union organizing. Even though my dad worked at a non-union factory, he always emphasized that the benefits he enjoyed were also because of the power of unions. 

        At the heart of all of this were some very basic principles. I couldn’t put them into words as a child, but I could give a short list now: 

  •  a healthy economy cannot be separated from equity and equality; 
  • everyone should have access to a safe, stable, and healthy economic and social life; 
  • discrimination and disparities are signs of social sickness; 
  • the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain should always be protected and prioritized;
  • all work and workers should be treated with dignity and gratitude.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Part of the Difference

 “We’re With You”

In the late 1990s, Holly and I taught English classes during the summer semesters at a small university outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. One year, a professor joined our classes, to brush up on conversational English. Over those weeks, made longer by the famous White Nights, we had the delight of getting to know Vladimir a little more. We traded stories, and he shared books with us by his wife, who translated Russian poetry into English, and vice versa. We went mushroom hunting with his family in the grand forests north of the city, where I learned there are mosquitos that can bite through denim. But the most memorable time we spent with Vladimir was during a visit in March 2000 when he took us on a guided tour of St. Petersburg and shared stories of his youth during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Hinduism & the Possibility of Pluralism

I gave these reflections as part of a lecture series on demythologizing religion, with an emphasis on learning to live together in healthy, compassionate, wise, and joyful ways. 

    When I spoke about Buddhism last week, I could speak from the perspective of someone who has personally benefitted from Buddhist teachings and practices and is an active member of a Buddhist community. In other words, I have a lived context for what I was sharing and accountability for mistakes and misunderstandings. It’s important to me to acknowledge that this is not the case when it comes to speaking about Hindu traditions. I have not formally studied Hinduism for a couple of decades and I don’t currently have any personal connections with Hindu communities or practitioners. When it comes to these reflections, I want to be a courteous guest. 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Buddhism & Nonattachment to Views

I gave these reflections as part of a lecture series on demythologizing religion, with an emphasis on learning to live together in healthy, compassionate, wise, and joyful ways. My particular interest has been in how many (mis)use a faith tradition in order to protect abusive and oppressive systems of thinking and acting. As I’ve noted before, “If an institution can’t survive without tolerating or protecting abuse, then it should not survive.” 


    Buddhism has long enjoyed a reputation, at least in the West, for being one of the more flexible and tolerant religions. There are good reasons for that, and my focus today is on one of those strengths. But it is also important to point out that Buddhism has been subject to the same limitations as any other cultural or religious system, including fundamentalist violence. Buddhist societies have struggled with war, economic injustice, patriarchal and gender violence, racism, and genocide. 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Less About, More Through: Reflections on Black History Month

    I don’t remember the exact words he used, but something I learned from my father was the link between history and current events. If you want to understand the world, to be able to read current events with insight, take the time to understand the history. This sounds so obvious, but it is a necessary reminder in a society that has struggled to learn how to remember and tell its history in a meaningful, truthful, and transformative way. No where is this more obvious in the US experience then in its observance of Black History Month.

"The Present is the Mother of the Future": Reflections on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Since Thursday, I’ve kept a tab open in a web browser for updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The main feeling I had, and still have, is grief accompanied by powerlessness. Perhaps you have felt it, too. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Where a Wonderful Life is Not Exceptional

A topic of conversation that comes up more and more in my circles is that of grief, especially complicated and collective grief. In particular, most of us have not had much of a break to recognize and grieve the loss we’ve experienced over the last several years. The litany is long. The pandemic brought us into contact with loss both intimate, with experiences unique to each of us, and unfathomably global, with at least six million deaths ( ), a number that is already likely much greater ( ). We also need to take into account all the other losses we’ve experienced along the way, from a deterioration of democratic ideals; to the terrible strain on our education, health, and caregiving systems; to the shocking and deadly ignorance and disregard of public health; and more. 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Growing into a Vision: Reflections on Restorative and Transformative Justice

    I have been quite critical of my religious upbringing in other talks, and all of that is quite true. Of utmost significance to me was that, rather than having access to quality mental health and medical care, I had to rely on religious books and ideas to help me cope with and try to recover from the abuse I experienced as a child. So I want to be clear that I am not erasing any of those criticisms when I say that it is also true that I don’t know if I would have survived adolescence without the powerful vision of peace and justice that I found in the lives and teachings of Jesus and the prophets. 

    I was probably around 12 years old when I first began reading and studying the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures. I encountered plenty of confusing stuff, but there was also this persistent, insistent plea for us to make things right, to create a world where we could live without exploitation, injustice, or oppression. And it felt realistic to me; these values were often aspirations, a vision of how things could be. Only false prophets lied and said everything was okay when it wasn’t okay. I appreciated that honesty, because the world I grew up in was certainly not safe, just, or particularly kind – but I wanted it to be, and these readings helped me hold on to the vision that this was possible. One of these passages that happens to be the lectionary text for this Sunday, when Jesus goes to a synagogue in Nazareth and reads from a scroll from the prophet Isaiah: 

Friday, January 14, 2022

"Until Everyone Is Safe": Reimagining Social and Community Well-Being through the Lens of Vaccine Equity

“650 Million Doses Short”

Like many people whose community work involved being in close contact with vulnerable populations, I can’t adequately describe the relief, gratitude, and hope I felt when I received my first injection of a covid-19 vaccine in February 2021. In fact, not a day goes by that I don’t feel grateful, and with good reason. Natalie Musumeci reported this week on a recent research letter in JAMA Network Open that revealed, from December 2020 through June 2021, these vaccinations “prevented more than 14 million” covid cases and saved approximately 241,000 lives in the USA alone, cutting hospitalizations and deaths “by nearly half”.  ( ) The vaccines have been both life-saving and life-changing. As a fully vaccinated and boosted person, I don’t have to live with the stress of life before the vaccines and I can’t imagine facing the Omicron variant without it. Tragically, I am one of the lucky ones with this option. While the main obstacles to an adequate vaccination rate we face in the Ozarks have been related to vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories, many places in the world have not had that luxury.