Friday, December 28, 2012
As we wrap up another trip around the sun, news organizations are providing us with their retrospectives on the past year’s events and the passages of those of us they consider notables. A recent article observed that we all have our moments in time that define us. The article described some of these moments as the choices we make, the obstacles we surmount, the dreams we achieve or fall short of achieving, the people we love and in general how we respond to the challenges of life that we encounter. In essence, how we are remembered.
I noticed that even the most notable of folks didn’t merit much more than a short paragraph that succinctly summarized their time on the planet. The causes of death ranged from Larry Hagman with cancer and Andy Griffith with a heart attack; Vidal Sassoon died from natural causes and Tony Scott from suicide; Doc Watson succumbed to the complications of a fall while Steven Covey’s complications resulted from a bicycle accident. Rodney King whose beating resulted in the LA riots died unexpectedly from an accidental drowning while Ray Bradbury who was a prolific storyteller died after a long illness.
Rodney King will be remembered for asking “Can we all get along?” in the midst of the violence while Ray Bradbury wrote more than 600 short stories and 25 novels. Joe Paterno lived to 85 and had been credited as the winningest Division I coach in history, but most of his legacy was summed up as a pedophile enabler. Victoria Soto on the other hand was only 27 when she became the symbol of selfless heroism by losing her life shielding her young students. Whitney Houston had a meteoric rise to fame in the entertainment world while selling 13 million copies of her self-named CD. Yet her life and career spiraled down even faster in the wake of drug abuse, so that her final obit included the infamous quote “I make too much money to ever smoke crack…Crack is Wack”.
Most of us experience defining moments that are out of the bright lights and will never receive the national press of these celebrities, albeit just a paragraph. But those moments and our responses are of course nonetheless of great importance to our individual legacies. It could certainly be argued that there are equally important legacies of raising a child, assisting a student, mentoring a new employee, preparing a meal, caring for an aging parent, advocating for abused animals, modeling goodness, demonstrating love for others, etc. However, we shouldn’t obsess about the worthiness of our lives, but rather strive to be worthy in all we do, no matter how exalted or mundane in the eyes of men.
Fame and fortune are fleeting moments in time, but striving to walk in the Light on our life’s journey is the path to a timeless moment.
Death is certain but not life. Where is God when the uncertainties manifest themselves upon us? We read that the Light is omnipresent and that same Light is within us, so that God works in this broken world through us. So when we observe unspeakable tragedy, injustice and suffering in this world...where are we?
Monday, December 24, 2012
Family is gathered at my home this Christmas Eve including family members Grace and Rosemary. Grace and Rosemary are normally the sole proprietors of their respective realms, but on this Christmas Eve, they must share the role and live peaceably together. That doesn’t seem to come any easier for dogs than it does for humankind. Initially, they were romping around the house trying to establish their new roles which seemed to come naturally to them. That went on for quite a while until frankly they wore themselves out and proceeded to lie down beside one another, resigned to a mutual peace.
That image of Grace and Rosemary immediately called to mind the prophesy of Isaiah 11:6 that “the wolf will lie down with the lamb…and a little child will lead them”. Given that Rosemary was the one generally giving chase to Grace, There's also a quote by comedian Woody Allen that it's likely “the lamb won’t get much sleep” and neither has Grace! The first two chapters of Luke have the most relevant Christmas story for me at this time of the year. And I think the message the good doctor records in chapter 17 is even more relevant:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’, or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is within you (and among you).”
Once the Christ child grew to be thirty years old, he began a three year ministry to fulfill his mission on earth to teach us how to live meaningful lives together. He taught us one prayer that implored us to help establish a kingdom of light on earth as it is in heaven. There is always hope for a peaceable kingdom as long as there are human beings that take up the challenge to hold people in the Light who are tragically suffering tonight and by constantly working to achieve that kingdom of peace here on earth. Yes, let there be grace and peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Darkness cannot dispel darkness; only light can.
Hate cannot dispel hate; only love can.
Light is Love
"I am the Light of the World;
he who follows me will not walk in darkness"
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Christmas is the light of God’s response to the darkness in this broken world where all have the free will to choose hate or love.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Panhandling on the Street, Chicago, IL
It’s the holiday season once again and most folks are generally in a holiday mood. My adult Sunday class recently spent time ringing Salvation Army bells around one of those ubiquitous red kettles that sprout up all around the city at this time of the year. And it was a great way to start the holiday season to once again be part of an effort to facilitate the generous outpouring of my fellow citizens to give a helping hand to those less fortunate. It’s especially gratifying to watch proud parents stand aside while young children joyously place coins in the kettle.
The experience of our class members prompted a discussion last year about not being able to ignore the folks standing on street corners and medians with handmade signs asking for money as we drive by them. Some of them expressed feelings of guilt if they didn’t give the person something. And I suppose we all really have to quickly assess each circumstance to attempt a good decision because unfortunately, many street people are afflicted by addictions or mental illness. In many cases, giving money on the street only enables the person to continue their self-destructive behavior. This situation was amplified recently with the much publicized photo of the New York City police officer buying a pair of socks and boots for a barefoot man on the street. Reporters soon found that the man had a government subsidized apartment in the Bronx and spotted him soon afterwards back on the street walking barefoot and panhandling.
Sad to say, but it would seem that when we’re confronted with these situations, it might just be in the best interest of all to reconsider a direct donation to these people on the street. That “drive by compassion” may provide us with a short term feel good fix, but it doesn’t provide the recipient with any sort of long term quality of life. It just extends their life on the street for another day. Rather, when we’re confronted with this situation, a donation to a local shelter or a low overhead organization like the Salvation Army might be the best use of our hard earned money. These groups can assess situations and provide basic needs of food and shelter and even counseling for constructive change and hope for the future, rather than enabling a hopeless life on the streets which I don’t believe any of us would consciously finance. Loving our fellow man sometimes requires a form of tough love instead of a "drive by compassion" which doesn’t help anyone.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
A friend recently asked if I was comfortable living in “the south” after transferring here fifteen years ago. There is admittedly still a slight bit of tension between the natives and “northerners”. I suppose being from the Heartland of America and a “border state” during the War Between the States over 125 years ago gives me a free pass to walk the line. But quite frankly, I don’t waste much of my precious time on this planet obsessing about a difference of opinion between two factions of long dead folks that were on both sides of the fence. Most all of us have moved on.
But the question did give me pause to think about ever being too comfortable living anywhere. I’ve had the good fortune to travel over much of this expansive country and other parts of the world to know that I don’t really belong anywhere in particular. And I’ve read that perhaps we’re actually wired to understand that this planet and this mortal life is not our primary destiny. Rather, this life and this place are just a temporary environment to grow our spirits that transcend this existence. That nagging anxiety operating in the background has been instilled in us human beings to prompt us to seek out our final destiny while we muddle through the motions of this life. Have you ever noticed that anytime we seek out a comfortable niche in the world, life happens, and we’re jolted out of it before long? You can run from life but you can’t hide and it will seek you out and pull you screaming and kicking from your rabbit hole! Perhaps that’s why so many folks are in a state of constant disillusion because they’ve come to expect that comfort is their destiny rather than the challenges and pain that accompany growth and preparation for our ultimate home.
The Christmas holiday is a special time to seek out a warm and inviting home if you have one to go to. It’s a time of year when it’s good to have friends and family around. It’s a time for fireplaces, candle light, good food, warm wishes and fellowship. It’s a time for remembering Christmas’ past and those loved ones who gather near to us in spirit. It’s a time for celebrating the Christ child who never had a comfortable, permanent home, but prepared one for all of us. Nostalgic holiday music beckons us to come home for Christmas. And if our life circumstances do not allow us to go home for Christmas this year, we can always know that “I’ll be there, if only I stay in His presence”.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
The time was 1897, not all that long removed from the horrendous War Between the States. It was a time when hope and faith were waning in the country as men like Francis Church, the son of a Baptist minister who had covered the war as a correspondent, were still reassembling their lives and outlook. Church now worked the editorial desk at The New York Sun and found himself to be the dubious recipient of a short but direct letter from a young eight year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. When other children had challenged her belief in Santa Claus, her father had delicately sidestepped the subject by encouraging her to write to the last word in their household—The Sun. Church’s now famous editorial reply was titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” after Virginia’s closing question to the newspaper. But it was his opening sentence of the second paragraph of the now most memorable editorial in newspaper history that everyone remembers; “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding”.
A recent study found that if two groups of people were given a fixed amount of money and asked to either spend it on themselves or someone else, the ones who gave their money to others reported a significant uptick in mood compared to the other group. It came as no great surprise to find that there is a lasting joy to be had in giving to help others and that it’s a relative bargain compared to the money people spend on pursuing happiness. That spirit of giving, personified in a rotund bearded man in a red suit, is still alive and well and was the message that has resounded in the hearts of folks ever since the first edition of Church’s reply to Virginia was published over one hundred years ago around Christmas time. And that’s the true power of giving--when the gift is given with love, generosity and devotion it is returned tenfold in the form of blessings of lasting joy and an enriched life.
"Freely you have received, freely give".--Jesus, Matthew 10:8
MAY THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS ABIDE WITH YOU ALL THROUGH THE NEW YEAR!
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
I had just cleared the on ramp to the interstate highway and was at full speed to merge to the right as the road forked shortly afterward. A formless gray overcast sky was spitting cold rain drops on my windshield. The SUV ahead of me was scattering a fine mist from its rear wheels onto my car as well. As I was focused on the road ahead a rather large white pickup truck raced past my left side to barely make the merge to the right. As he passed my car and abruptly cut in front of me a small pebble was thrown into the mist and hit my glass windshield in the lower section of the passenger’s side.
A few weeks earlier, I had violated one of my present rules of life to never again purchase a new car. I’m quite alright letting someone else pay the depreciation penalty to drive one off the dealer’s lot. However, as I was bargaining for last year’s model, I had to complement the salesman on his finesse in playing one of the most artful games of “bait and switch” that I had ever personally participated in. And now I was experiencing that first ding in my new automobile.
Fortunately, I had recently finished a book on Zen and the Art of Happiness where the author revealed a similar circumstance. It occurred to me that I had two choices; either burst into an uncontrollable fit of road rage, run the offending pickup off the road, pull the driver outside, rip his heart out and spend the rest of my life in prison or I could apply a lesson I had learned from the book; “A situation only becomes favorable when one adapts to it”. I resolved to respond to the event not as a “bad event” but a “good event” which determined what it became in my life.
I’m no longer anxious or a bit stressed waiting on that first painful ding on my new possession. Now I can go somewhere without parking in the far corner of the mall lot and walking half a mile to pick up a new pair of socks. Now I don’t have to drop back thirty car lengths in heavy traffic to avoid getting my windshield inevitably dinged for the first time. Now I can actually use my new acquisition for its intended purpose with less stress in my life. I followed the author’s advice and wondered “what good could come from this”? We can’t unring a bell and we can’t unding a windshield, but we can always choose to respond positively to keep our life between the ditches.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Twilight Stillness, Grand Lake, OK
The founder of modern philosophy, Descartes, rendered a famous answer to the ageless question, “Is there anything I can know with absolute certainty”? He replied that “I think, therefore I am”. He was equating thinking with being, but he had actually defined our ego. The ego is constantly chattering about all the things that we need to be doing to maintain our survival and perceived identity. Three hundred years later Jean-Paul Sartre examined these words and concluded that the consciousness that understands “I am” is not the same as the ego that thinks. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be capable of knowing we are thinking. That discovery of awareness led to an emerging new dimension of consciousness.
Once we begin to exploit that voice in our head that seems to be constantly in the foreground, we can position our consciousness in the background and observe the voice. By waking the watcher, we are now beginning to comprehend our true consciousness apart from the ego that dominates much of our thoughts and thinking life. And we begin to free ourselves from our ego and its need for form and self importance. When we learn to listen to the voice we soon discover our own conscious presence apart from the mind. We are then on the true path of human beings, our essential identities as conscious beings.
It’s been said that stillness is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation. When we focus on being still and quieting the ego within, we can then become even more aware of our true conscious self beyond our ego. We cannot become aware of it through thinking, but silently observing. It truly becomes an “ah ha” moment when we are able to consciously observe the mind raising up another thought that competes for our attention. That’s the moment we comprehend the separation between our ego and our conscious self. When we are still, we become aware of the formless, eternal, consciousness we will be when our bodily form dissolves. The Psalmist knew this when he was inspired to write Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God”.