Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Those Really Bad Sins," or "The Sin Rating Game."

In the popular arena, some sins are raised to a "higher status" than others. When it comes to branding somebody a "sinner," there's usually one or two favorites that are considered "really bad sins" (as opposed to . . . what? sins that aren't that bad, even though they're still wrong?) Usually, the sin or wrong being focused on is one that's either a political hot-button, or one that's out in the open and easily accessible to public knowledge.

How would any of us handle scrutiny of our lives, our thoughts, and how we behave when nobody is looking? The Bible makes it clear that if we violate ANY of God's commandments, we're guilty of violating the whole law. There's not a truly righteous person on the face of the Earth . . . it was because of this that Christ took the burden of the law on Himself, being truly righteous, as a sacrifice for all of us, putting us all on equal standing before God. Everything now comes down to a personal choice: to either accept the gift that Christ gave us, and to live according to the guidelines He laid down in His own life and words, or to reject it.

We all stand under the scrutiny of God, and there's nothing that escapes His attention. It sounds callous and unfeeling to equate something like murder with, say, being envious of your neighbor's new Lexus, but from God's standpoint, they're all violations of His law. It's easy to pinpoint a murderer, a rapist, a homosexual, a member of a hate-group or a cult . . . but less easy to scrutinize on a level that would reveal envy, greed, usury (that's charging ANY interest, not merely charging undue interest--and our entire economy is based on something that the Bible calls sin), or other sins deemed "less evil." Sorry, you don't get a pass on those, either. Just because you haven't murdered somebody, but have spent your whole life coming up with ways to profit on other people's misery, doesn't mean you can strut around as a "righteous" man.

The Bible also makes it clear how we are to deal with sin when we discover it within the body of Christ--the church--and how we are to counter it. Christ made it clear, telling us that we're to go to the person, one-on-one, in an attitude of loving reproof. If that doesn't suffice, take a couple of witnesses (by this, He meant not two of your cronies, but two impartial witnesses), and if THAT still doesn't suffice, bring it before the body of Christ as a whole . . . and if the individual's sin continues, and he refuses to accept the determination of the church--of which he is a part--then "let him be to you as a heathen or a tax collector," basically treating the person as an "outsider." Still, even in that extreme case, there's Christ's command that you are to forgive someone who commits a sin "seventy times seven" if they come to you and repent. That means that the Church must also stand ready to receive back an individual who repents of their sin. Paul continues to expound upon this doctrine of "loving reproof," an attitude that is sorely lacking in today's Church. Just because person X is a Baptist and person Y is a Methodist, you're still part of the conceptual whole of the body of Christ. Here's another: just because one member of your church is a Democrat and another is a Republican, they must put aside political differences when coming together as part of the body. But this kind of infighting between denominations or factions has become so commonplace that it's tolerated! "Loving reproof" just went out the window!

Scandal after scandal, within and without, daunts us all as Christians. The empty-headed masses are greedy for scandal, maybe because when it attaches to a person of "status," it pulls them down to the same level as the rest of us (nevermind the stupidity of elevating a person to a higher status just because they're actors or have a lot of money to throw around or have some standing in the political arena). Guess what? They're human, and the fact that they're in the public eye more often doesn't make their scandals any more sinful than those of anybody else. I'm not saying just to give them a free pass; when it comes to leaders, Paul makes it quite clear that those who lead are, in accepting leadership, putting on themselves a heavier burden, and are in effect setting a higher standard for their own behavior. What we need to do is quit keeping track of other people's "sin scorecards" and start focusing on our own! It's really easy to throw your weight around when you're a member of the body of Christ and the people you're dealing with are not . . . but that's an abuse of the name of Christ, in effect "taking the name of the Lord in vain." Do you expect the World to accept your pronouncements simply because you're of the body of Christ? Why would you? The world is set against us. We have to be in the world, but not of it . . . we have to live with these limitations, but not give up. There were a lot of people i hung out with in Union Square Park who did things that i wouldn't do, but they knew what i believed and what i represented, and i never felt like an "outcast" because of it (maybe because the world as a whole has also rejected so many of them . . . which is one reason why many of them are closer to Christ than the ones who look down on them; all it would take, in some cases, is a little nudge for those "park rats" to embrace Christ).

We live in a culture--a world--that makes having "things" something to aspire to. Making more money, having more possessions, being able to "consume" more; these are the values that the economy, politics, and wordly power make pre-eminent. There is public outcry against kids who engage in immoral sex, but the culture as a whole glorifies it, practically screams sexually charged messages from every billboard, mall, newspaper, and television show. Marijuana, of which there has never been a single recorded overdose or fatality attributed to, is still rated a Schedule 1 Drug, right up there with heroin; yet drugs with life-damaging and potentially lethal side-effects are freely marketed by pharmaceutical companies whose "cost-benefits analyses" make a few deaths acceptable losses when stacked up against making a profit. Homosexuals are subjected to hate, vilification, and rejection; yet bankers whose crimes often escape scrutiny cause more harm and misery with the stroke of a pen. Those of you who look to politics and political leaders to "make things better" are just whistling in the dark. When Christ was tempted by Satan, He was led to a high mountaintop, and shown all the nations of the world, their riches, and their glory. Satan said, in Luke 4:5-7, "I will give you their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours." Now, you know if Satan had been saying something that was untrue, Christ would have called him out on it. But He didn't. Instead, He refused to worship Satan, to give glory and worship to anyone but God. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? No, i don't think all world leaders are worshipping the Devil, but they are making some pretty shady deals with Mammon, and Christ said, "You can't serve God and Mammon." Mammon is an idiom representing material wealth and its attendant power. So one has to wonder, really, what our culture is coming from, what it's teaching, and who it most stands to benefit.

Sin is sin. There's no getting around it, and all of us are apt to stumble. If you're looking for a religion that allows you to put yourself on a high-horse and throw a parade for yourself while flinging mud at people who practice your personal hit-list of sins, then Christ isn't for you. We all have need of loving reproof. We all have need of a fellowship of believers who can understand our failings and build us up when we're fallen. And, most of all, we have the need of Christ's representation in Heaven, His salvation and perfect love, that are the only things that can stand us on our feet and make us ready to resist the temptations that the World constantly flings at us. You've got your own bed to make, your own house to clean. Until they're spotless--and they never will be on this side of Paradise--you can't go around grumbling about how bad other people's houses look.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Re-Creating the Language: A Poet's Responsibility

I have maintained, for some time now, that it is the responsibility of poets in particular to re-invent, re-invigorate, and re-charge language. Over the years, we watch television and "news" where not only the language, but the information in dumbed-down; reporting the news has become rife with suppression by news corporations whose CEO's don't want to criticize the government that they've bought and paid for, so instead we're offered trendy stories of whatever movie star or sports figure has screwed up--along with an endless string of talking heads and media whores babbling about it--mixed lightly with news of the world presented with the proper "spin." Information about corporate, police, military, or government blunders (or out-right crimes) is culled relentlessly. One might argue that this is not necessarily affecting language as a whole, but i beg to differ. Language is, first and foremost, a way of communicating. It's a way of presenting information, a way of speaking a message, a way of sharing concerns and showing love and concern. When language is relentlessly "spun" by various political factions to support their viewpoint, or agencies within the government who don't want the masses to have TOO MUCH information, you have a gradual dumbing-down process that eventually affects everyone. This is one of the "trickle-down" theories that actually works in practice . . . Orwell would have called it "doublespeak," and decried it as a death-knell of liberty. Often, when we think, we "hear" ourselves thinking in language . . . Orwell's view was that the "doublespeak" would eventually result in people incapable of thinking anything that was out of synch with the official, established norm. In America, in particular, we assume that we have Freedom of Speech. After all, it is written in the law of the land, and it means that people whose viewpoints may not be popular can say, and print, what they want to. There are reasonable limits to this . . . language that commands or urges violent and destructive actions can (and does) fall under legal scrutiny. However, i'd like to go back to that word "assume." Rights and liberties, like muscles, are only strong when regularly exercised. Without that regular exercise, that vigorous stimulation, they become weak and atrophied, and will (like muscles) fail when they are depended on.

This is where poets come in. Recently, on, i was derided for my use of the word "proclivity." My insistence that i was simply availing myself of a wider vocabulary in order to communicate more clearly provoked verbal retaliation, the responder apparently feeling that i was being arrogant, or trying to "prove something" by using that word. Realizing that my responses were the equivalent of beating my head against a brick wall, i stopped trying to defend myself and simply ignored any further communication on the subject. As a poet, i realize that i have to embrace the vernacular--that is, communicate in the common language, the "language of the streets,"--i also realize my responsibility not to have an incestuous relationship with it! I use both street-language and (for lack of a better word) intellectualized-language in my poetry. I've never heard anyone complain about my use of the latter, although i have received some complaints about my use of the former . . . my response in those cases was that people are more apt to understand and respond to something that speaks in a way they are familiar with. When i use the larger or more complex words, or using the language of the streets, in my poetry, i'm not consciously aware of one or the other so much as i am the context of the poem as a whole. I occasionally drop "invented" words like "enphoenixed" (my own) and "frankenpoem" (coined by Ian Cohen), which are generally understandable in the context of the poem in which they're presented. I don't assume that my listeners or readers are English majors pursuing their Masters or Doctorate; by the same token, i don't assume that my listeners or readers are stupid (the way television does). I frequently use odd juxtapositions, either for metaphorical purposes, or to get people's minds in the mode of non-linear thinking. I want to surprise them, or shock them, a little . . . but i don't shock simply for it's own sake; i use it to call attention to something.

All of these things are tactics that i've seen other poets, and better poets than i am or will ever be, use. It makes me feel good when i see other poets challenging themselves or their readers/auditors with interesting metaphors, complex language, street-talk, witty turns of phrase, or shocking juxtapositions . . . all combined with the poet's eye to impart a message. Poets, i think, above all, desire desperately to communicate, to expose themselves and the culture around them to a critical and, sometimes, uncomfortable examination. The fact that some people regard poetry as "uncomfortable" is proof that it's working. In the Old Testament, the prophets often spoke their messages in a poetic form . . . that much hasn't changed. There are warnings implicit in many poets' work, as well as an unflappable determination to improve things.

Don't ask me to dumb down my language. Don't ask me not to discuss things that make you uncomfortable. Don't come to me expecting a poem that completely and neatly falls into your preconcieved notions of what poetry, literature, or language should be. I write, ultimately, because i don't know any other way of dealing with both my own emotions and the complexities of the Universe. I'm not asking for you not to critique me . . . i'll always listen to constructive criticism, even if i don't necessarily immediately agree with it. I'm asking you to understand how important it is to me that i keep working with the language, keep it moving forward, and keep breaking it up and reassembling it in order to prevent the arid locks of "doublespeak" and political or social norms from killing it. There's not much left of me but poetry, and for some reason, God's made it such a part of my life that it seems inextricable from breathing itself, and from whatever it is i'm supposed to be doing on this planet. I don't have it all figured out yet. I'm not a know-it-all, and if you perceive me as "arrogant," that may be as much your own fault as it is mine. Don't insult my intelligence by insisting that i need to "dumb it down," and i won't insult yours by assuming that you're already dumb.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Upcoming Genesis Covenant:: Core Beliefs & Personal Convictions

It's been a while since i've done any serious entries in my blog. A number of my poems i've posted directly to Facebook (most of them already having been copyrighted via PostPoems).

In order to clarify a few things, i've decided to express a number of personal beliefs and opinions in this entry. First and foremost, i'm a Christian. This means that i am a follower of Christ. I do not conform to any particular "denomination," even though i was raised in a Southern Baptist church. I think a lot of denominations are divisions over points of dogma, sometimes insignificant. Jesus said of the Pharisees, "You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel!" I suppose a more familiar metaphor would be "You can't see the forest for the trees." What does being a follower of Christ entail? This was outlined in the Covenant that i have signed to join Genesis Community Church. Christ is the Son of God, who died for our sins, and rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God. I belive that the Bible is a necessary and sufficient guide to the Christian life . . . all the Scriptures we've been given as Christians have value that can be applied to daily living. I also believe that the Holy Spirit, which is likewise God, walks with us and guides us, and gives us insight into the Scriptures, and in effect provides a "direct hotline" to God through prayer. Of course, God doesn't always answer prayers in the way we expect, and certainly not on our schedule . . . which is why a lot of people seem to dismiss prayer. Prayer isn't handing God a wish-list; it's communication with God, actually CONVERSING with the Creator--that's pretty phenomenal in and of itself! As far as attempting to defend my Faith, i am not versed in apologetics, and not of a rational bent . . . i can only offer my own experiences, subjective though they might be, as personal testimony to my belief. I don't "beat people over the head" with the Bible, don't try to force God down people's throats, because--quite honestly--that's not how Jesus did it.

This is not to say i don't struggle with issues. Many of my close friends know the nature of my struggles, and i don't feel it necessary to detail that here--i've been warned before about "casting pearls before swine," and have learned that lesson the hard way--but suffice it to say that i understand that only God's grace and mercy could save me from disaster and, ultimately, doom. Part of the Convenant for Genesis involves, to quote from it, "righteous and loving discipline." This is both in giving and receiving. The Bible urges us to "lovingly correct" a fellow believer when they're out of line, and to accept such correction when it is given. This makes us interdependent, functioning as the body of Christ, much as a human body functions . . . if one part of the body hurts, the rest of the body is hurt by it. I certainly don't want any of my personal beliefs to become a stumbling block to fellow believers. There may be things that we do not agree on . . . but as a Christian i have to be willing to avoid becoming a hindrance to those who might be new in the Faith. I need to be held accountable, and to hold my fellow believers accountable. This is the only way a community can function effectively or healthily, Christian or otherwise.

My beliefs about poetry, spoken word, and such, are probably as self-evident as my Faith. They are deeply connected, because i feel that poetry is somehow my gift AND my calling. It is, along with the arts in general, one of the ways in which i feel the phrase "made in God's image" becomes evident. We have, within us, the desire and capability to create. When we do this to God's glory, God affirms our creations, and honors our using of the gifts He gave us. In addition, i feel that poetry and spoken word are particularly necessary, both as coping mechanisms and as communication. Paul told us to be "good citizens." In America, that's a particularly troublesome task, because if we hold to "the law of the land," those laws are represented in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This means that, in effect, we ARE the government, we ARE supposed to "watch the watchmen," and if we don't, we're falling down on the job. Freedom of Speech entails within it the possibility that some people might not like what's being said . . . but, we all need to remember that linked with that freedom is the Freedom of Religion, which as Christians we enjoy here in America to the extent that we often forget other nations or other times where this was not a guaranteed freedom. It is often through the spoken word, through poetry, that the alarm is sounded. I have a number of Christian performance poet comrades in New Jersey and NYC, and they are as adamant about this as i am, if not more so. The ability to work with words, to craft poetry, is also a heavy responsibility. When we are careless with our words, we can cause harm or confusion (not to mention looking pretty slipshod in the process). The status quo disregards poetry as a whole, dismisses it or downplays its significance, forgetting--perhaps--that when the Old Testament prophets spoke, they often phrased their prophecies in poetic form. (From what Pastor John Ault has told me, it's more evident--and more beautiful--if read in Hebrew). Psalms and Song of Solomon are, in addition to Scripture, timeless poetic works that have influenced hundreds of generations, religious and secular alike. The oldest evidence of written work we have is a Babylonian epic called Gilgamesh; there are examples throughout history of the impact of poetry on society, and this isn't even taking into account the fact that song lyrics are poetry, as well. It is important that we be aware of the erosion of the rights and liberties we enjoy, and decry the injustices in this country and abroad that are often falsely perpetuated "in God's name." Oppression, regardless of the target, benefits no-one. Racism, though not the only modality of oppression, is surely one of the most egregious and historically prominent examples. I'm going to take a flying leap here: Christianity and racism are mutually exclusive. Period. There's no way you can use the word of God to justify hatred and oppression. That is, in fact, taking the Lord's name in vain (i'll refrain from going into a rant about the fact that the words "In God We Trust" printed on our money is almost blasphemous, considering Christ's warning that "you cannot serve God and Mammon"). The spoken word, and the arts at large, are a powerful way of expressing these things, of airing grievances, of proclaiming truth, of openly communicating . . . and also of expressing joy, comraderie, love, and the whole span of emotions.

In my relationship with Genesis and this group of believers, i desire to be a useful and active part of the body of Christ. This means taking the talent i've been given and bearing fruit, of investing it wisely and to the glory of God. I realize that there will be those who will "politicize" some of my statements . . . i am willing to listen to them, and to explain my statements and the convictions that gave birth to them. Becoming a fucntioning and beneficial part of Genesis is something i have longed for ever since i split away from Grace Covenant before i moved to New Jersey; it was something i looked for in NJ and NYC, but never truly found. The sense of "coming home" to Genesis is powerful, and i sense the affirmation of the Holy Spirit that, yes, this is where i'm supposed to be now.

I've talked quite a bit about my feelings and beliefs about the Christian life, my thoughts about my part in Genesis, and about poetry and the spoken word as something that was God-given, and about the responsibilities all these entail. There are quite a few other things that i believe in or feel strongly about, but the ones i've discussed are in the forefront of my mind. It is Christ and the Cross that form the central point of everything; everything gets its meaning and is put in its proper perspective by focusing on Christ. I expect quite a few blog posts in the upcoming weeks to deal with some of my other tenets, and how they relate to the central point. I am fully aware of my limitations--my "thorn in the flesh," which may simply be a confluence of out-of-balance brain chemistry, keeps me intimately aware of them--and the periodic rages, depressions, flights of fancy, or racing thoughts, are things that i'm going to have to wade through and pray through, and having the support of a strong body of fellow believers as i do this will be a major blessing.