Libertarianism & Morality

This essay was originally posted in November 2004.
 
nebulaOn April 25th 1990, the long-awaited Hubble space telescope was launched. In the planning stages since 1967, delayed in deployment for 4 years by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, scientists were ecstatic at its potential to view deep space as never before from above the atmosphere’s distorting optical envelope. Within days their excitement turned to dismay, as pictures from Hubble returned out of focus.

The giant mirror, 94 inches in diameter, had a spherical aberration. When the mirror was being polished to its correct shape, the device used to test its curvature–called a null corrector–had been made to the wrong specifications. Thus, when the null corrector indicated that the mirror was perfect, it was in fact slightly aspherical. The extremely faint light of distant celestial objects could not therefore be sharply directed to the focal point, resulting in a halo effect and a fuzzy image. Upon investigation, the problem was found to be due to the interchange of metric and English measurements when engineering the testing device. Subsequent space shuttle repairs rendered the optics perfect again, giving rise to the spectacular photographs which the Hubble telescope has since obtained.

In the case of Hubble’s mirror, an inadvertent change of standards, resulting in an aberration 1/50th the diameter of a human hair, nearly doomed a multi-million dollar space project. Consider the likelihood of success if each of the engineers on the project had been allowed to use their own set of standards. Yet in the realm of human behavior and morality, an idea preposterous to a scientist is widely accepted as legitimate, even desirable.
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The Engine of Shame – Pt II

This essay, the second of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 
DRGWIn my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.

Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.

The power of shame is the secret; its antidote, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.
 
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Grace at Starbucks

This essay was originally posted in 2004.
 

Starbucks logoIt was late evening. I was headed for a meeting, at the end of a too-long day, and stopped into Starbucks for a fix. The store was empty except for a single barista. I ordered my coffee, and was stunned when told: “Your drink has been paid for by someone else.” I looked around: no “someone else” here.

The coffee was free, but better yet: I had received a free life lesson on grace.

I was raised with the conviction that one should expect nothing in life for free, and that hard work will ultimately be rewarded. Perhaps as a result, I have always been uncomfortable with complements or gifts received in unexpected contexts. Such awkwardness with gifts or complements seems common in others as well, a discomfort I suspect comes from a deep-seated sense of unworthiness or shame. There is a reflex need to reciprocate, to depreciate oneself, or even to decline the gift itself. I suspect I’m hardly alone with this awkwardness.

But here, at Starbucks, I was left without the opportunity to justify, minimize, rationalize, or refuse the offered grace. The perpetrator was long gone. I was busted.

As a Christian of many years, with hours of Bible study, books and sermons under my belt, I have long believed that I possessed a good intellectual grasp of grace. Grace was unmerited favor, best exemplified by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And of course, I understood that I was saved by grace and not by my own merit. Yet there is something deep within, at the level of instinct, which resists this notion with great ferocity. I believe I can bridge the gap between myself and God because I have minimized with wild abandon the vastness of this chasm. God saved me, and I pay Him back by living as moral and upright a life as possible. It’s only fair, you know, gratitude and all. It’s also utterly wrong.

A stranger left a few dollars at a Starbucks for someone he or she would never know nor meet, who could not thank them. There would be no reciprocal payback, no Thank Yous, no praise for their generosity or acknowledgment of their kindness of spirit. Pure giving, with only the joy at anticipating that some unknown person would be blessed.

God’s grace is given with His full knowledge of the unworthiness of its object. It is pure love: not intended to get something in return, but rather to change the very nature of the object of grace. The thief on the cross had nothing to give back to God, but his life was transformed moments before his death–and we are the recipients of the grace given to him. I do not serve God to pay Him back for His grace; I serve Him because His grace changes my very nature, into one who in some small measure is an instrument whereby He can pass His grace on to others.

The Law of Rules

This is a repost of an essay from 2004.
 

In contemporary political discourse, we often discuss the Rule of Law, especially in our postmodern culture where bad behavior is often justified (and excused) by situation, upbringing, or historical injustice. But no one ever talks about the Law of Rules.

Today in the office I reviewed one of Medicare’s bulletins, clarifying (at least in intent, if not in practice) their regulations in some arcane area of reimbursement for surgical procedures. Few outside of the health care field have any idea of the complexity of regulations governing medicine. When last I checked several years ago, Medicare had about 150,000 pages of regulations in the Federal Register, approximately 3 times of the volume of the IRS tax code. American medicine is more highly regulated than Soviet state industry ever was, and getting more so by the day.

Without launching into a diatribe on the evils of government-funded and regulated medicine (perhaps another time), it strikes me that the explosive growth of rules, laws, and regulations in society as a whole is a reflection of an underlying shift in our culture, values, and individual moral integrity.
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Thank You for Your Prayers


 
I’ve been under the weather with a sinus infection, so it may be a few days before I get back to my frequently infrequent posting schedule. But I did want to express my tremendous thanks and gratitude for your prayers and support. Last weekend with my daughter went far better than I had anticipated, although she and her husband still have some tough trials and days ahead of them. If you find a moment to pray for them, all of us would be most appreciative.

I realize that some, perhaps many, of my readers are skeptical about prayer and its effects on our lives. I am not here to attempt to prove these things to you, except to say that I have seen countless instances in my own life and those of many others where profound changes have occurred as a result of prayer, explainable in no other way.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Anchoress (or, as I prefer to call her, Anchor-Babe) had a post today on this very topic, asking for prayers for her husband in his travels. She says:

… when some emailers and cyberpals read that I \'m having a rough time physically, I can tell I \'m being prayed for … and it is so incredibly moving to me, to know that somewhere out there a perfect stranger is speaking a word of good for me. Nothing is more humbling than that.

Because I believe – no, I know – that prayer makes a difference in people \'s lives, I try to remember in my prayers some folks who I suspect have no one praying for them. Mostly that involves praying for public figures – some of their names might surprise you – and certain friends of my sons who have been raised without much exposure to church or faith.

Like her, I too can sense the support and strength which comes when others pray for me and mine–and I experienced its power last weekend, as did my wife and daughter. Thank you from the depths of my heart.

The Anchoress finishes by asking:

If you \'re inclined to prayer and you have room on your prayerlist for a stranger, I would be most humbled and grateful if you \'d remember my husband. Thanks.

Done deal, sister–may God be with you both.

The Breaking of Waves


 

There are times when the feebleness of prose fails; when clarity of language and reasoned arguments cannot do justice to the cries of the heart. In the depths of our souls there are emotions, experiences, pain, joy which defy the pathetic limitations of mere words; whose depths and complexities, whose heights and depths, defeat the poor tools of the spoken or written word. It is at such times, perhaps, that the poets take over; where language becomes a tool of another part of the soul, of the spirit. It is a time when the sound and the image of language — for language is the only tool our soul possesses to reach outward — comes to the fore, where images and emotions trump simple structure, where sentences fail but evocative words must bear the unspeakable pain or unsurpassable joy which the soul knows, but the mind cannot grasp.

It was at such a moment that I wrote a poem — where images formed and fleeting could not be expressed by any other means, where deep pain and lifelong experience, where emptiness and hope, joy and agony, swirled together in a violent whirlpool seeking voice which could be found no other way. Such was the purpose, I now understand, for ancient icons painted in gold and the faded red of blood spilled and eyes swollen by tears, of hope and heartache hand in hand, which line the ancient walls of Eastern churches and the fading art of ages past.

Someone very dear to me — my own flesh and blood — is going through a very dark valley. No words can express the joy and satisfaction which a child brings into your life. It is a deep thing of the heart — inexpressible through words, better expressed through the countless deeds of shepherding them through their early years; investing your life, often inadequately, often distracted by false priorities and our foul selfishness so profoundly shortsighted. There comes a time, after years of joy and agony, frustration and fear, when you finally set them free — like some young child learning to ride a bike, watching them swerve and struggle for balance, wandering left and right, falling and getting up again, fearing for their safety and flinching at their pain, knowing and praying that the balance will be found and their road thereby made straight.

Yet once on their road, a large part of your soul rides with them. Lost is the ability to easily check and correct their wrong turns — to even know if every turn which seems wrong may instead be a new road toward greater purpose and joy, or a downward path to pain and destruction. To lose such control over something so dear — a control we truly never have had, but which in our delusions of parental power we had believed — can be an unbearable agony, for it shows us the fragility of life and how foolish are our pretensions of manipulating our own journeys, much less those of another.

The veneer of life may be smooth or turbulent, rolling or roiled, and our eye sees only its very surface, placid or violent. Yet forces far vaster drive its movement, tides and tempests, currents and continents. The very violence of a hard wave breaking upon jagged rocks, transforming its placid swells into a fine and fleeting misting foam which arcs high and falls again to the sea, is but a the final act of a unimaginably complex play, whose actors and plots are unseen and unknown. Yet the culmination of these forces transform while they transfix: the wave is shaped by the rocks as the rocks are sculpted by the wave.

It is a small thing to speak of grace, of prayer, of transcendent power transformational, of wisdom and foolishness, in the words smooth and rhythmic belying the power of the forces thus described. It is in the violence of the wave crashing on the rocks that such deep forces rise to the surface, testing the mettle of the soul, bringing forth fear and apprehension from the depths of our being which belie and challenge the trust in something greater and higher than ourselves. We may at such times turn in many directions, as the surf and mist may fall slowly back to sea or lie stagnant in pools of desiccated brine. Such times demand wisdom which we do not possess; such times demand strength which we utterly lack; such times demand peace when only fear and confusion seem possible.

Such times are, for this poor fool, seasons of much prayer — as if every moment of our life should not be — but a merciful God still listens and touches the heart though his treasured child has wandered afar. It is at such times that one sees how frail is faith, how cheap are words, how empty are our souls though our lives be filled with hollow riches unimaginable.

If you are among those who pray, and are given a few moments’ grace to do so, your prayers will be cherished and valued beyond measure by myself and my family. I cannot say at this time how the events of the next few days will play out — as if we ever know such a thing — but I have come, through many years of foolishness and failure, to a point where trust trumps knowledge, for He whom I trust has never let me down — though my eyes have often seen Him but dimly.

When Waters Break

waves
 

When waters break, their power spent in fine mist on the breeze,
to thus retreat, and gather up and hurl again
against those jagged boulders yet unfazed;

What purpose, they, whose molten age in fiercest shapes did freeze,
their faces polished now by salt and sand,
igniting foaming fury upward raised?

And why the rolling wave from distant endless seas,
a trifling ripple swells in vast expanse,
to end its path in agony and praise?

And thus thrust skyward power breaks to knees,
in roar of prayer with lifted pleading hands,
now gently laid to rest on rugged place.

When waters break, He draws the fine mist high from troubled seas,
in glory does the breaking fury stand,
to shape the hardened heart which wounded lays.

Rewriting History


 

In a previous post, I discussed the nature of our current war against Islamic terror, and the importance of understanding the religious nature of this war. One of my commenters left a note expressing his dismay that I should have such a poor understanding of history, and asserted that Christianity and Islam were brothers, and had been so throughout their history. He subsequently left a link to a post expanding his thoughts on the matter at considerable length.

His comment and post provided an opportunity to address what I believe are common misconceptions about Islam, and which seem to have percolated through our culture. Whatever the source of my commenter’s opinions, he is far from alone in these conclusions–which have been widely promulgated in the cultural studies, media, and postmodern history so widespread in our higher education system.

The problem I have with such beliefs is not merely one of disagreement based on religious conviction or personal opinion–nor is my position motivated by some blind rage against the Islamic world. The problem is that such opinions rewrite history. In the years since September 11, I have made an effort to familiarize myself with the teachings of Islam, its history, and the historical events which have touched upon it, such as the Crusades. I make no claim to be an expert in such matters–but I have found a number of excellent sources which are both complementary and consistent, and which shatter quite effectively the illusions of Islam as a peaceful religion, happily coexisting for the most part with Christianity, with the exception of a few “excesses”–carried out equally by both sides, of course.
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