Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Casey and the Ball! (a Contemporary Parable of Second Chances!

It was a powerful, non-verbal symbol recognized by every player on the old New York Yankees baseball club, during their successful 1956 season. When Manager Casey Stengel wanted to signal the identity of the person he had chosen to pitch for the next game, he would get to the locker room early and place a game ball inside the player’s spikes. As soon as the team checked-in to the dressing room and began to prepare for the game, one pitcher would learn in this way that he had been selected.

Indeed, on October 8, 1956, in Game Five of the World Series, when the Yanks were playing my boyhood favorite, their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the hurler selected by Casey that night learned his fate in just that way. Not even Casey knew that Don Larsen, the fellow who found the ball in his shoes that day, would pitch the only perfect game ever in a World Series contest and 1 of only 20 such games in major league baseball history! Larson took that ball from his shoes, rubbed it in the dirt, spat on his hands, warmed up and proceeded to face only 27 batters. Not 1 of them made it to first base!

Somehow lost in the back story of Larson’s perfect game is the reality that on his first trip to the World Series mound, in Game Two, he had a terrible night. When he entered the game, the Yankees were ahead 6-0. But Larson lasted only 2 innings, giving up 4 walks and allowing 4 runs before Casey had to pull him. He went to the showers that night convinced that his chance of playing in the 1956 World Series had ended in disgrace. Thanks largely to his ineffective hurling, the Yanks eventually lost the game they had almost sewed up before Larsen came in! After such a disastrous and brief stint, no one in baseball expected to hear from Don Larsen again.

If baseball is anything, it is a sport filled with symbolism & metaphor. In a powerful and non-verbal way, one man, Casey Stengel, signaled his confidence in another man, Don Larson, despite his earlier failure, by giving him both the ball and a big second chance. Larson would later acknowledge that it was precisely Casey’s willingness to trust him, despite his previous poor performance, that motivated him on that fateful baseball night in October, 1956.

It has been a long time since I played baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers have long ago left town. Baseball is certainly a much different game, today. But, I’m convinced that our world, on and off the field of play, needs more people with discernment like Casey. We need those who can look beyond a fleeting fiasco to see permanent potential in the lives of others who, like all of us, occasionally botch up the game. In an ironic twist, it is usually true that second chances improve performance.

Do you know someone whose latent possibilities you can still see, despite the reality of their throwing a bad game?  What would it take for you to hang the game ball in their spikes?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

From My Veranda!

The soft rain slowly fell just beyond the edge of the balcony. Because of its larger size, the Greeks here refer to this blessed appendage which hangs out over the street, four stories below, as a veranda. How cool was my elevated seat at noon on this October day in Athens! How sweet the smell of gentle rain! How privileged was I to sit at leisure, eating hot ham sandwiches and chips and drinking from a tall glass of chilly milk, enhanced by a not stingy but just correct number of ice cubes! Life is good! My purposeful preoccupation with a computer keyboard and small screen was blessedly interrupted by this further evidence of what the French refer to as la vie, the life which is my privilege, these days.

And then …. And then, my relaxed concentration turned to those far less fortunate than I. And then, it occurred to me that the rain so welcomed by me on my veranda was not at all hailed by those in Athens who no longer have a proper home and sufficient shelter. Immigrants (historically the poor in Greece) and now an increasing number of Greeks are facing hunger and homelessness in ever-growing numbers. Those whom the current economic crisis has pushed closer to and beyond the edges of the normal human comfort zone must surely not be enjoying this petite shower as much as I am. Raindrops falling on their heads are neither refreshing nor are they the stuff of carefree song lyrics. For these, even a tiny bit of rain brings inconvenience at least and moves their precarious existence a step closer to personal and familial desperation.

That wonderfully hot ham sandwich repast, the aroma of which filled our apartment and spilled over on our veranda, would certainly seem a fantasy to those for whom any type of warm meal is now a distant and fading memory. When I poured that tall glass of milk from the container, I worried not that the carton was emptied, since my Alpha Beta (Άλφα-Βήτα) supermarket was just a few blocks away; on Friday, our weekly shopping day, I will surely purchase more milk. But, many of my fellow comrades on planet earth for whom the crisis has drained their savings will have no such opportunity to obtain this life sustaining liquid.

What must a man of privilege do in the face of such crying need and economic disparity? Must I curse the conscience that brings the poor to my mind when I am enjoying life? Am I to ignore the plight of those who, often through no fault of their own, are in distress? Shall I shut my ears to the pleas of poor children who long for bread to eat and milk to drink? Or, shall I repent of my wealth, sell all that I have, depart from my vaunted veranda and go to live among the homeless on the streets of Athens? I am, after all, in this city because I care for the less-fortunate!
To conclude my meal, I pray and solemnly will to redouble my efforts to be the presence of Christ among the needy. I promise to take the energy and nourishment provided by ham sandwiches and milk and head out to help to feed Athens’ growing hungry, regardless of race, religion or background. I commit never to take for granted a day’s meal and always to offer as much of me as possible to help the helpless. I choose to eat less, so that others may eat more and to give more of my resources, so that those who have less may have actually more.

Oh God, may I never lose the dry, nourishing veranda view! For the sake of those who are wet and undernourished, I pray!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lathos Intolerance!

One of the first phrases I learned in the study of the contemporary Greek language is lipame – Greek short-hand for I am sorry! As a stumbling practitioner of modern Greek, I learned this word rather quickly and easily, because I constantly make mistakes. Another, related word I learned the easy way (or the hard way, depending on your point of view) is the Greek word, lathos, meaning mistake. Because I often make grammatical and linguistic blunders and occasionally also make cultural errors in this Greek setting, I am often required to say, Lipame! Lathos mou! - I am sorry! My mistake!

While Greek friends are usually willing to overlook my poor pronunciation, improper word endings and inappropriate usage of tenses, internally, I have a low level of tolerance for these linguistic miscues. Somewhere along the line, I must have accepted, without giving it much consideration, the notion that my language fluency should be perfect. Unless I intentionally decide to give myself the benefit of the doubt, cut myself some slack and lighten-up, I can be harsh toward myself in this regard. I find it somewhat ironic that I give myself so much critical grief due to a notion of perfection which I have apparently uncritically accepted into my own internal mentality.
This idea surfaced again recently, when I was telling my advanced English language conversation students not to be so hard on themselves. Speaking to these adult language learners who come to class after a hard day of underpaid, manual labor, I suggested that their first goal should not be the development of perfect fluency, but, instead, to come to understand the English language well and to make themselves understood by others. Recently, I was counseling a new arrival in the United States who, despite the fact that he already speaks several languages, is anxious about his somewhat limited fluency in the English vernacular. I reminded him that, even with his struggles with this new tongue, he is already perfectly able to make himself understood, even though in a less than perfect manner.

While some may deem this a low diving board approach to adult language learning, my sense is that it is a reasonable approach to the imperfections which we all demonstrate – especially when it comes to language usage. But, every time I speak this way to aspiring language learners, I can see the eyes begin to roll. In language learning, we all seem to have what the Greeks might refer to as lathos intolerance!
But, intolerance of our incompleteness is not restricted to language learning. Most of us are similarly biased against our limitations in many other areas of life. After decades of dealing with struggling university students who may or may not have been making the dean’s list, I can report that I spent more time counseling the high achievers who missed the A+ by a few points than I did with underachievers who could not make a 2.0 GPA! Virtually every stunningly attractive coed with whom I engaged in meaningful conversation over the years always felt that she was, in some respects ugly, no matter how many beauty contests and class beauty awards she had won. I have known astoundingly successful professional people whose curriculum vitae would have made anybody envious, but who often express the sorrow that they have not achieved well. I know folks whose moral record is stellar, but who can never forget or forgive themselves for a mistake made years ago.

I have a suspicion that this lathos intolerance, if you will allow me a less-than-perfect usage of both the English and the Greek languages, has been driven into our psyches from our earliest experiences in education, sports, religion and even our families by our elders who struggle with their own incompleteness;  but, I could be wrong on that! Regardless of its origin, I wonder how much potential benefit and growth you and I have bypassed by our failure (if I may use the word) to claim the learnings associated with our failures! When our mistakes only cause us embarrassment and self-depreciation and cannot be owned, mined or harvested for our benefit, we are short-changing ourselves of potential added value!
I am not here to celebrate mediocrity and am certain that all of us could and should do better in many aspects of our lives; but sometimes I need to be reminded that only God is perfect and I am not – nor was I ever, since the fall of mankind, intended to be! Indeed, if the Bible teaches us anything at all, it is that we have all “fallen short,” (Romans 3:23), every one of us has “missed the mark” (sin, hamartia in Greek – 1 John 3:4). What is more, although our God is a holy and righteous God, it is his loving, gracious willingness to accept us, despite our mistakes, that is the basis for any salvation which we have any chance of receiving – in this world or the next.

If you happen to disagree with my words here, you should feel free to write this up as my mistake and accept in advance my words: Lathos mou! Lipame!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Do it for Dante!

Recently I learned that, due to the religious politics of the day, early in the fourteenth century, the Italian poet, Durante degli Alighieri, better known as Dante, was banished from Florence, Italy - the city of his birth. Dante and his “side” wanted Florence to be independent of the Vatican. Indeed, in the attempt to avoid conflict and craft a compromise with Rome, Dante travelled to the Vatican and was returning when the other “side” gained control back home in Florence. Just before reaching the city limits of Florence, Dante was informed that he was no longer welcome there. In fact, the new government of his favorite city announced that, if he should set foot in the city, he would be buried alive! With his wealth and his family held captive in the city of Florence, Dante was required to wander alone between cities in the north of Italy. He would never regain his property and would only reunite with his family briefly, months before his death, nearly twenty years later.

Banishment has been a powerful form of punishment for some time. Originating in Greek and Roman cultures, it has also been employed in countries such as China, Russia and England, as well as the United States. In past times, banishment was effective precisely because it separated a person from his settled community and means of maintaining a livelihood. The family of the banished was expected to join the authorities in the ban, bearing the shame and having no further contact with the banned person.  

In modern times, especially in religious or political disagreements, a less formal, but no less effective, form of banishment is utilized. Today, when we have personal disagreements, we tend to simply “write-off” those with whom we disagree. We feel uncomfortable around those who do not agree with us, so we downgrade their opinions in general, try to avoid all contact with or influence from them and choose to continue living our life as if the other person does not exist. If you have ever been active in a church or a social organization, you have probably been party to one of these informal banishments, or, at least, have witnessed one.

Short-term religious, theological or political disagreements often, sadly, have long-term consequences. Even after the original differences are forgotten, the distance, separation and emotional banishment may continue. Enmity between Christians, for example, over differences in theological persuasion or political outlook can be a death blow to a vibrant, affirming, continuing friendship. Sometimes, persons “freeze out” the other person, denying him/her normal social relationships without explaining or acknowledging the issue that caused the split. Many times, the “offended” and the “offender” can scarcely recall the nature of the offense, but just “know” that the other does not, in reality exist to them, any longer.
Interestingly, the banishment against Dante by the city of Florence was, at last, revoked in 2008 – nearly seven hundred years after the man died. I’m reasonably certain that few in modern Florence know and even fewer care why Dante was banished hundreds of years earlier. While we might be impressed that contemporary Florence has, at last, recanted its banishment of Dante, how much better would it have been if that decision could have come in Dante’s lifetime, when reparations and forgiveness could have been extended in a personal and relationally meaningful way.

If there is someone whom you have “frozen out,” someone about whom you would say, “he is dead to me,” someone who has been banished from the city limits of your soul, perhaps there is still time to remove the ban, restore the relationship and redeem the separation.  Maybe, at least, there is time to be caught trying! Do it, if not for Dante’s sake, for your own!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Simmering, Boiling and Tipping Points!

I am told that when Walt Whitman read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” he was highly influenced. When the young Whitman heard Emerson say that the United States needed a poet to capture, in a proper fashion, its national spirit and character, the ambitious and perhaps foolhardy writer decided that he was that poet! Whitman would later say, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil!” What followed, from the pen of Walt Whitman were such works as the ever-popular Leaves of Grass and other classics, revered today as great literature.

In December, 1996, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell published an article on the notion of a societal tipping point, that time when an emergent social trend crosses a threshold, begins to spread more widely across the culture and becomes a recognizable social movement. Gladwell later published a book on this notion and, today, the idea of the tipping point has passed a similar milestone of recognition, so that it now stands as a trustworthy description of social reality. As a sociologist who, decades before Gladwell’s insights, labored over a graduate thesis on social change, I recognize that he has described well a true social construct and our shared understanding has been enhanced by his keen observation.

Recently, I have been considering the relationship between Gladwell’s tipping point and Whitman’s “simmering, simmering, simmering” and being “brought to a boil.” Of course, all of us are influenced by tipping points and are “brought to a boil,” for one reason or another. Given the vitriol expressed often by so many on social networks these days, one might be justified in concluding that many are “simmering, simmering, simmering” and “brought to a boil” by the recognition that some tipping points have been crossed in our shared culture. But, while tipping points seem to be social in character and often are the result of macro cultural forces over which we seem to have little control, being “brought to a boil,” on the other hand, seems more personal. While both of these images describe forces seemingly largely beyond the power of the individual, the boiling point seems to evidence more personal decision and initiative.

It raises the question within me, “What do I perceive in my world that causes me to cross a line, to recognize that I and my fellow companions have crossed a line, that burns me up, or that motivates me to do something that previously had been lying dormant within me? While Gladwell’s  tipping point seems to be impersonal and reactive, the boiling point, at least for Whitman, was personal and proactive. It is actually quite refreshing to hear Whitman speak of making some personal decisions about who and what he wanted to become as a result of arriving at his own boiling point. While so many seem to be “steamed” about so much these days, and we often read their caustic remarks on social media, we more rarely hear of someone who determines to make necessary changes within herself/himself, as a result of arriving at a boiling point. That surely is because personal changes are more difficult, less appealing, more private and far less noticeable than incendiary rhetoric. Talk is cheap, but genuine, personal change requires far more than a few coins! Maybe it’s also because making significant alterations to one's life and lifestyle, especially when going against social trends, takes longer to make a social impact.

My own sense is that, public or not, immediate in impact or long-term in consequence, difficult to achieve or harder to pull off, our world today actually needs more of us whose simmering sense of moral outrage can be effectively channeled in a manner that actually motivates us toward greater transformation within ourselves! It looks to me like we’ve had enough of the “bitch/brag” or angry arguer syndromes. What we now need is deliberate, personal transformation. Perhaps, if more of us were willing to make internal personal changes, in a few years, we just might see some healthier tipping points in the social world at large.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Janice Bought a Whirligig for Our Front Veranda!

Janice bought a whirligig for our front veranda! With a multitude of bright, shiny colors, larger and smaller spinning wheels shaped like petals, it is truly a thing of beauty and a joy – at least until it breaks. The poor man’s stained glass object looked adorable while still in its clear plastic wrapping. Even this sometimes jaded, exceptionally frugal, old curmudgeon could justify the not-so-extravagant one Euro cost, purchased from the street vendor at the Laiki (people’s market) and regrettably, almost certainly, made in a sweatshop somewhere in an Asian country.

At home, this simple object-de-art was easily assembled and proudly planted, its plastic spike poking in the dirt in a pot, near the edge of our veranda. Almost before it left my hands, it commenced a rapid spinning motion, the small petals rotating furiously and the larger ones whirling recklessly and freely in the constant, ambient breeze of our sunshine bright, Athens front balcony. Solomon in all his glory could not have been more brilliant in color or hopeful in outlook! For moments, perhaps longer, I stood in rapture, watching the wondrous gyrations, marveling at the elementary engineering, revealing profound beauty that was already at hand, waiting for this simple device to channel it and deliver it to me, amid its brilliant revolutions.
At times, as I go about my too-cloistered and too-busy important life indoors, I catch a glimpse of the state of things on our front balcony. When no one else is looking, I peek beyond the sliding glass doors, to spy on our latest adult toy. Sometimes, many times, actually, it is turning and churning its little heart out, resplendent in all its temporary, multicolored glory. At other times, when all is still or when the sun has finally set, it proudly stands motionless, as if resting, less vibrant and less circling, but a no less viable, solitary and compelling work of art.

Methinks a parable of beauty is planted in that pot on my home’s front balcony. This simple artistic treasure, in ways powerful, spins and shines forth even larger and yet more colorful truths. Beauty is, indeed, all around us, ours for the beholding. But, this natural loveliness often awaits an elementary mechanism to catch our attention, as well as the wind’s cooling breeze and the sun’s brilliant rays. Curiosity and the craving to take notice are the simple means created by our Maker, at least potentially, in every one of us; these two are always essential for fuller and more blessed sightings in this dull gray universe of ours. When the Spirit moves or the wind blows, those who have eyes to see and are willing to risk the peril of looking can perceive the movement and the beauty. But, it is also true that even in the still and dark moments, the potential for beauty stands as near as my veranda.
Life’s spinning, glamorous wheels often go unnoticed by most of us, but they continue to spin anyway, showing us that beauty can never be halted or hated away. Oh, what cosmic and eternal waste we humans tolerate in our busyness and our lower-level preoccupations with less becoming things! At other times, when there is neither sun nor wind, the loveliness remains, powerfully present, like the intricate, well-placed panes of a stained glass window in the night's half-light or the petals of our little whirligig standing at silent rest,  just before dawn.

O God, thank you for creating light and movement. And, thank you, as well, for conceiving still and dark. Give me the grace, the grit and the gumption to discover the wind, uncover the light and enjoy life’s whirligig moments at their brightest and best, despite my pedestrian predispositions. But, O Mysterious maker of silence and stillness, may I also courageously learn how to cherish color and celebrate the wind of your spirit when it is still and dark!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Strawberry Fields

Before and during the Great depression, my grandfather, William Emmitt Newell, was a small truck farmer, living and growing his crops in the red dirt near Marion, Mississippi, just outside of the Queen City of Meridian. Grand-daddy raised turnips, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, gathered fresh eggs and sold chickens to city folks who missed the farm and its load of special treats.

Somewhere along the way, Grand-daddy, along with his brothers and some other small farmers in the area, decided to get into the strawberry business. With large families, the Newells always had plenty of help in planting, tending and harvesting this cash crop. Although sex-role designations of the day usually steered girls to indoor work, an exception was made in the matter of sweaty strawberry cultivation; my father and every one of his nine siblings had a hoe and a row and everyone was expected to hoe rows of strawberries!

When the juicy red berries, which my aunt named Marion Beauties, were ready for harvest, they would collect them, place them in those small, wooden crates, affix the prized Marion Beauty label for which the Newell boys (Grand-daddy and his brothers) were known, put them in the back of a Model T (which had been converted into a truck) and take them to the nearby railroad spur. Within a day, the strawberries were usually loaded on a large, un-air-conditioned railcar that waited at the spur and, later, connected to a train such as the M&O (Mobile & Ohio) which was headed off to market in St. Louis and elsewhere. On another occasion, I’ll tell you about the time the train didn’t show up on time and the Newell boys’ strawberries spoiled during the wait.
Although strawberry production is ancient, modern strawberry farms were introduced in Greece during the 1960s in the northern section of the country. Over the years, cultivation on a large scale has extended to the south, developing especially in the Peloponnese.  Today, in Greece, strawberries are grown on large farms and harvested by immigrant laborers from nearby Balkan countries, as well as countries in Southern Asia and Northern Africa.

Recently, in the strawberry producing area of Manolada in Greece, nearly thirty immigrant workers were beaten and two were killed when they stood up to their bosses and demanded to be paid. Strawberry growers allegedly opened fire on the unarmed protestors who asked for a paycheck after working without pay for six months. It is an open secret that, in exchange for the tiring job of strawberry cultivation, workers are forced to live in long, low, unventilated sheds, required to pay rent to their employers and rarely compensated for their labor. Since many of the workers are undocumented, the bosses expect that they can exploit them for profit with impunity. This is another form of human slavery practiced, often with government turning a blind eye, in this part of the world.

In November, 1966, the Beatles recorded a song written by John Lennon, entitled Strawberry Fields. Most Beatle-ologists now believe that John was recalling and reflecting on his personal sense of not fitting-in, from his childhood. Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army orphanage located on Beaconsfield Road in Woolton, Liverpool, England was the site of a much-loved annual fair, attended by John with his Aunt Mimi, following the untimely death of his mother. In the woods nearby, the shy little John often played alone, perhaps finding solace from the trauma and upsets of his timid, tiny world. If this song is featured prominently in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which seems to deal with a return to childhood, perhaps John was expressing his own sense of early estrangement from the ordinary world.

John seems to have discovered a desperate, personal coping mechanism for life’s confusions when he says, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” But, he also gives voice to his personal angst with the line, “it’s getting harder to be someone.” Acknowledging a potent sense of isolation and estrangement, he admits, “No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low.” Repeatedly, in denial and escapist lyrics, Lennon counsels that the struggles of Strawberry Fields are, “nothing to get up about,” because, “nothing is real,” suggesting that his only recourse was to cower inside himself, in this self-imposed pretense.

I wonder how my Grand-daddy, that uneducated, but supremely ethical and honest man and devoted follower of Jesus Christ, might feel about the treatment of strawberry workers in Greece? I wonder if my father, a one-time strawberry picker, sincere Christian and deacon in his Baptist church, would identify with strawberry workers and insist that they be paid for their labor. I wonder if, like the imaginative John Lennon, my Grand-daddy and my Pop would tell me to close my eyes and pretend that “nothing is real?” I wonder ….    

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Going to Church and Growing Older!

He was a friend of advanced age and faltering health. I was his Pastor, making what I thought was a routine home visit. Before his health had gone south, he had easily found other activities more inviting than church attendance. As he told me about his deteriorating strength and the recent word from his doctor that his time on this earth was short, I moved physically and emotionally closer to him; all of my training and my caring instincts signaled that he was about to tell me something that he felt was profoundly meaningful.

When I gave him freedom to express himself, he said, “Well, preacher, I guess I’ll need to get back to church. I’m even thinking about returning to that men’s Bible study class I used to attend.” “Why is that?” I responded, in my best client-centered counseling style. He looked at me as if this should have been evident to any man of the cloth and nearly shouted, “I’ll need someone to carry my casket when I die!”
Long ago, I was taught that religiosity persists when it provides either meaning or belonging or both. I recalled this anecdote recently when I heard the report of new research on the impact of loneliness and social isolation on human health ( Scholars at University College, London based their work on a substantial body of research which has long shown that both loneliness and infrequent human contact can shorten one’s life and actually make one sick. The scientists expected to find that, when combined, these two risk factors would be especially dangerous.

Researcher Andrew Steptoe reported a surprising conclusion to his study: “Both social isolation and loneliness appeared initially to be associated with a greater risk of dying. But, it was really the isolation which was more important.” While persons with greater levels of loneliness are apparently more likely to die, it is also true that they are more likely to have other risk factors, like being poor and having chronic health problems. When these factors are controlled, however, the added risk associated with being lonely disappears, according to Steptoe’s research.

On the other hand, people who invest less time with family or friends or at meaningful social events are significantly more likely to die, regardless of income or health status. While it is a fact that loneliness among the aged hurts, actual social isolation is much more likely to kill!

If every person defines loneliness differently, it is also true that individuals have varying tolerances for it. Self-definitions of loneliness may be changing in the Internet age. Social isolation, on the other hand, is a more stable and more easily defined social reality, less influenced by subjective definition, remaining far more powerful. The rise of social networking may tempt some to believe that they are connected with others; thus, they are less likely to report themselves as lonely. But the lack of actual, human-to-human social intercourse, no matter how temporarily obscured by electronic connectivity, remains a powerful detriment to human well-being. Lack of meaningful interaction with others seems to be a causative factor in increases in both mortality and morbidity.
Miraculous drugs promise longer lifespans and contemporary cyber capacity may impart a fleeting sense of community and connective relief from isolation and loneliness. It remains true, however, that nothing enhances life’s health like ongoing, actual and affirming interactions with human beings around significant shared world views. Obviously, interacting with real persons in a supportive atmosphere has practical benefits; it can provide assistance in such everyday aging concerns as monitoring health symptoms, securing attention by health professionals and finding meaningful pursuits that help one to focus on other than personal problems. But something else seems to be at work here. Actual social interaction appears to enhance overall health and to encourage the will to live.

So, in the final analysis, lining up potential pall bearers may not be the only reason to return to church in one’s golden years. Early in the Bible, we are told that “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18a, NIV) Beyond the comfort of beliefs about the hereafter, the reflection on life’s (and death’s) absolutes and the investment in meaningful causes and younger generations, seniors may actually receive many here-and-now blessings by regular social interaction through church worship attendance and even by returning to Sunday School!
See you at church next Sunday!


Friday, February 22, 2013

The King Under the Car Park!

Some British scholars have long suspicioned that one of their former kings was buried beneath a modern parking lot. After much research by the University of Leicester, it was recently confirmed that, indeed, the remains unearthed there were those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. About 100 miles north of London, a group known as the Richard III Society recently and proudly proclaimed that DNA records from a distant relative now confirm that an excavated skeleton once held the body and bluster of the former king from the fifteenth century.

Richard Three was mortally wounded in the Battle of Bosworth, the last great skirmish over the crown in the War of the Roses. The dead or dying Richard was flung naked across a horse and carried back to Leicester. Sometime after his death, his remains ended up buried in the local church. Not long thereafter, Henry the Eighth trashed the church and, in current time, that very sacred space has become a profane parking lot.

Modern-day archaeologists unearthed the skeleton in an earlier dig. Since Richard III had scoliosis and since the skeleton evidences a curved spine, secondary proof provides additional confirmation to the DNA verification. Apparently, poor Richard had his buttocks punctured and his head decapitated, likely due to the nasty and symbolic acts of his enemies in the immediate post-battle celebrations surrounding the death of the monarch. There is now a plan afoot to reinter the royal remains within the currently sacred space of Leicester Cathedral, an American football field’s length from the current car park.

This scenario got me to thinking about the fickleness of human fate, the transient nature of social geography and the limited potency of once-powerful earthly institutions. Kings and potentates, especially in conflict-ridden lands and times often conclude their lives in very un-royal circumstances. Remember the once imperial, egregiously powerful and fabulously wealthy Saddam Hussein, who ended up hiding, like a rat, in an underground Iraqi hole in the ground, with some unused jockey shorts as his only treasure? But, I have also seen similar things happen among the un-royal. As the one-time Pastor of a church located in the wealthiest zip-code in Houston, Texas, where dirt still sells for at least a $1 million an acre, I witnessed, up-close, the final state of some very rich and powerful people. I can attest to the reality that times change, power is fleeting, even lots of money is no guarantee of long-term dignity and, of course, death comes to all of us. A once-proud and powerful king buried beneath a common, utilitarian slab of asphalt or a once-sacred space that now is striped so that people can park their motorcars and “pay & display” – these are but parables of what happens to every one of us and much of the terra-firma that is hardly as firm as we would like to believe.
All of this got me to thinking, not so much about real estate gentrification or decline, but about what “permanent footprint” I and my cherished institutions should aim to leave on this planet. If the ecological people have alerted us, and rightly so, to the effects of our individual and corporate “carbon footprints” which we leave on the earth’s surface, I am wondering, today about the emotional, ethical, moral or historical “footprint” I and my family, my church, business or school should aim to leave behind. Knowing that, someday, like old Richard Three, most of what I have worked hard to build, as well as my time-worn and battle-scarred bones will be erased or entombed somewhere in a humble, dark and unrecognizable place, what evidence that I once lived do I want to remain?  What, indeed, do I wish to leave behind as a legacy?
As I reflect seriously on these existential and indeed extraterrestrial questions, I am convinced that most people actually care little about a fancy gravesite or an elaborate marker representing their lives or institutional efforts. Despite messianic visions and selfish needs to make an impact or to leave a “mark” on this old world, our powers are actually quite limited and our time is always shorter and less than we want to admit. How about you? What are you up to in the “here and now” that has a “snowball’s chance” of being significant, beyond the ravages of time? What message would you aspire to “shout out” from beneath the car park?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lucy, Hizzonor and Me!

“Back in the day,” when Lucy got into trouble, as she nearly always did, Desi would eventually come home from work, enter the apartment and you knew exactly just what he was going to say when he discovered one of his wife’s misadventures. With that heavy, Cuban-accented English, the handsome band-leader would look directly into the frightened eyes of his zany, red-headed, madcap wife and say: “Lucy! You’ve got some splainin’ to do!”

I thought about that classic, memorable phrase from fifties sit-com television recently. It popped into my head in the middle of a report on the death of controversial and outspoken former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch. In the retrospective on Koch’s political career and the review of some of his notable, acerbic, public comments, one of his infamous Koch-isms jumped out at me. The Mayor is reported to have often said to those opposed to one of his positions: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you!”

While I’m not ready to endorse all of the colorful lines of the former mayor, who often yelled out his limousine window to New Yorkers on the street the question, “How am I doing?”’ he actually was quite close to saying something absolutely profound about interpersonal communication. He almost artfully articulated two essential and practical components of healthy interpersonal interaction. With what some may perceive as naïve impertinence, I herein dare to tweak or redact hizzonor, guided by a sincere respect for the recently-deceased elected official, but also by a desire to advance the dialogue.
Yes, Mr. Mayor, it is indispensable for one to splain oneself. Desi and I would agree. And, you are also correct that, no matter how well-done the explanation, genuine and effective communication between persons doesn’t happen until or unless the other chooses to work hard to comprehend the message that is being sent. We should always ask those with whom we disagree “How am I doing?” on that. And (here I try to enhance the mayor’s line), healthy comprehension of another’s position must be done from the point of view of the message-sender. You are correct, Mr. Koch, that no one can comprehend for another. But genuine hearing of the message, especially on difficult subjects, only happens when both sides strive to comprehend, not only from their own point of view, but from the perspective of the other.

This is what I hear, these days, when folks refer to someone who may disagree with them as just not getting it. Perhaps that is what many moderns mean when they say, about a particular point of view, “I get that!” By the way; I am not focusing here on any one particular subject about which we might tend to disagree. Choose any of the many issues that increasingly have come to divide our world and have resulted in so much rancorous polarization in fields such as economics, politics, religion, child-rearing, the shape of the family, law-enforcement, fracking, climate-change or even the entertainment industry.
Run a little experiment. Check it out for yourself. Are those with whom you are in disagreement capable of splainin’ themselves? On the other hand, are you competent to splain your own contrarian views? Do you seek first to understand, then to be understood? And, most importantly, are you willing to crawl into the perspective of the other and comprehend it from behind the eyes, from his or her point of view?

I often see this process unsuccessfully struggling to work itself out in the ceaseless ranting that now routinely passes for communication on Face Book and other ostensibly high-tech methods of personal or political advocacy. Sadly, there is precious little splainin’ by those who vociferously promote a cherished position and seek to convert others to their personal side. Because so much vitriolic advocacy these days appeals subtly to our fears, I suspect that many are unable to explain their positions because they have been swept along by an emotional torrent that allows for little introspection and rational analysis. What results is a kind of knee-jerk reaction which further eschews serious consideration and drives directly to ever-more-simplistic conclusions, where the issue easily gets personalized and a spokesperson for the opposite view is depicted as evil incarnate. Likewise, anyone else who disagrees is also demonized. Because it is so easy to hit the “Like” button or to share someone else’s language, swept away in our Irrational fears, we are often enticed simply to borrow someone else’s rhetoric or to be carried along by the emotional undercurrent of a frightening but persuasive presentation.
In the end, like Lucy, I must take responsibility for splainin’ myself; and, with the Mayor, I must do the hard work of comprehending. But, also, in the audacity of this (humble-but-accurate) blog-writer, I must also take on the perspective of the other guy to the extent that, whether or not in the end, I agree, I get it. Sadly, too often I am afraid to risk examining my own hidden fears and unexamined motives for accepting or rejecting a particular position, I can neither splain my own stance well or get what the other person is advocating.

I’m trying hard to splain myself. Do you get it? How am I doing?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dona's Desire!

She honored her teacher and the others in her English-as-a-Foreign-Language class by working hard to prepare a verbal presentation. It was November 28, 2012, the day that we would celebrate a century of freedom for her native land, Albania. During the class break, when many at PORTA – the Albania House in Athens were celebrating with soft drinks, cookies, flag-raising and home-made treats, she told me that she would offer a presentation to her upper-level class after the break; I asked her not to do it until I could return from similar celebrations that were happening downstairs.

When I returned to her classroom, Andrew, her teacher, asked, “Dona, did you have something special that you wanted to present?” Her eyes darted about with some anxiety as she said, “Yes,” looking nervously at the notes she had written in pencil in her notebook. With an inner bravery that likely has conquered her fears on many occasions, she began to speak, looking directly at me; it was as if she wanted me, uniquely, to understand her story and as though this telling was intended as a special gift for me. With hard-earned English fluency, she struggled a bit, always teachably accepting the slight corrections to grammar, syntax or word choice offered by her teacher and her fellow English-language learners. She never lost the open, responsive spirit typical of a good language-learner, despite her powerful desire to tell her story.
She reminded me that she had taken this independent initiative to do this unassigned project following an exhausting day on the job, despite the reality of her weariness from work. All of our adult Albanian students are tired after their work - if they are fortunate enough to have a job. But Dona was determined to write-out and practice in English this special talk. The celebration of her motherland’s day of independence and its freedom from external domination is important to her. And she sincerely wanted to tell her treasured story in my native tongue.
Dona’s contribution was more than just a demonstration of a growing conversational English competency. It was more than an exhibit in cross-cultural communication. It was even more than an illustration of the powerful desire for human freedom for all peoples. Dona illustrated why we teach English-as-a-Foreign-Language to at least one hundred Albanians during every session at PORTA. We want Albanians to speak the English language, of course, to widen the world of opportunity for them. But, what is more, we want Albanians to be able to verbalize what is important to them, to articulate the deepest treasures of their hearts and their most prized values.
Thanks, Dona, for doing just that!