Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nit-Picking

The first zoo I ever visited was the one in Memphis, Tennessee. I was maybe eight years old and my parents were visiting their friends Ed and Melba Baldwin. They had stuff in Memphis that we didn’t have in Barnesville and so we went to see some of it—the gates of Graceland (Elvis was still living there then), the Lakeland amusement park, and the Memphis Zoo.

I’m sure that we saw lots of interesting and exotic animals at the zoo. But the picture that I have carried around in my head for fifty years now is of the monkey exhibit—I think they called it Monkey Mountain. There were goats—mountain goats, maybe—that were in there with the monkeys. And the monkeys were sitting on the goats’ backs, leisurely picking things off of them and eating whatever they were picking. I stood for the longest time, fascinated by those nit-picking monkeys, wondering what they were picking and eating.

Lice. They were picking and eating lice. And lice eggs. And fleas and ticks. And probably some dead skin and other stuff.

It’s called allogrooming when animals groom one another and autogrooming when an animal grooms itself. Research indicates that the practice of allogrooming serves both a hygienic and a social purpose; animals help each other stay clean and they establish a relationship through the practice of picking nits. From a hygienic standpoint, the practice is helpful because there are some places an animal just can’t get to on its own. From a social standpoint, the practice obviously requires closeness.

We humans are well-served by sticking mainly to grooming ourselves, especially when it comes to our moral and ethical practices. After all, my primary task when it comes to self-maintenance is tending to my own spirit to be sure that I am constantly growing into the person that I am meant to be—and no one can see my spirit but God and me. Well, only God can see it fully, but I can see mine a whole lot better than you can—and you can see yours a whole lot better than I can.

Still, we all have blind spots; we all have places in our perspectives, in our assumptions, in our motivations, and in our actions that we just can’t see and that we just can’t reach. If those places are going to be dealt with, we’re going to need someone to deal with them for us. We need people in our lives who can pick our nits that we can’t pick ourselves.

There is great difficulty in such living, though, because our egos get in the way. The person needing a nit picked may not want to admit it and may feel that the person offering to help has no standing to do so. On the other hand, a person wanting to pick someone’s nit may come at the task from a feeling of superiority and self-righteousness.

We find these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” -–Matthew 7:1-5

It’s interesting that Jesus did not say that we were not to take the speck (the nit!) out of our neighbor’s eye; he said that we are to do so only after dealing with the log in our own eye. That is, we should take care of our own problems—problems that should be obvious to us but to which we are often willfully blind—before trying to help someone else with theirs. I also find it intriguing that Jesus did not say that we had to deal with a speck in our own eye—with our own nit—before helping someone else with theirs. Perhaps that’s a tacit admission that we all have them and that if we wait until they’re gone to help each other we’ll never help each other. The truth is that we’re all nit-bearers trying to help bear one another’s nits.

There’s an art to such living that is fueled by love and grace that come to us only by the Spirit of God. Such living requires a dedication to mutuality, to vulnerability, to humility, and, most of all, to love. We won’t always get it right because our ability to receive gentle correction and to offer gentle correction will sometimes be limited by our pride.

But we owe it to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ to be as helpful to one another as we can be. Insofar as we are able, let’s pick our own nits. But insofar as we need it, let’s be open to the loving nit-picking of our sisters and brothers …

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fear Itself

I’m afraid that fear is going to be our downfall because when our decisions and actions are motivated by fear we end up with more of which to be afraid and then we make more decisions and take more actions that are motivated by fear that result in our having more of which to be afraid—and so on and so on ...

So, for example, we fear crime and criminals and therefore we incarcerate more and more people.

When one examines the statistics, it is hard to escape the conclusion that our primary motivation in imprisoning so many people is a desire to lock them safely away from us. In an April 3, 2014 article at Mic.com, Laura Dimon shared some very troubling statistics. For instance, while the United States has 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Also, there are 2.4 million incarcerated persons in the U.S.; that’s a 500% increase over the last thirty years. Furthermore, one in every 108 American adults was in jail or prison in 2012 and one in every 28 American children has an incarcerated parent. Moreover, according to Statista.com, as of June 2014, the U.S. ranked behind only the Seychelles (which has a total population of only around 90,000) in having the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 population; our rate of 707 prisoners per 100,000 populations puts us far ahead of Cuba (510), Russia (471), and El Salvador (424).

Why do we have so many prisoners? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Also, we fear terror and terrorists and so we engage in continuous wars.

We have been at war in South Asia and/or the Middle East ever since Al Qaeda’s attacks on our country in 2001; now, just when it seemed that we were close to extricating most of our forces from that area, we find ourselves ramping up our efforts again. Those who believe that we should not have gone into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks are few and far between since the Taliban had given aid and comfort to Al Qaeda; our subsequent efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan have been, to say the least, problematic, and likely will remain so. Whether we should have gone into Iraq is more up for debate; I will always be troubled by the fact that we went in under false pretenses.

Regardless, it is what it is and we are where we are and it is clear that the destabilization of Iraq, the events of the Arab Spring (especially in the ongoing impact of those events in Syria), and the bloodthirsty fervor of the ISIS militants have combined to create a terribly volatile and dangerous situation. Perhaps we and our allies have little choice but to intervene. Still, does anyone else feel like we’re starting to live in the perpetual state of war imagined by George Orwell in 1984? And does anyone doubt that if our primary response to the threat of terrorism continues to be a military one then we will likely be at war for generations?

Why are we always at war? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Finally, we fear each other and so we arm ourselves.

According to the Brady Campaign,

--On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
--Every day on average, 51 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 45 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.
--The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.
--A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.


The last statistic is most pertinent to my point. Writing in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine in 2011, Dr. David Hemenway concluded that

for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes, and it appears that a gun in the home may more likely be used to threaten intimates than to protect against intruders. On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.

Why do so many of us arm ourselves? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Ironically, our fearful reactions give us more to fear and our efforts to feel safe make us less safe. Our incarceration of such a high percentage of our citizenry makes it more likely that those imprisoned will become hardened criminals and makes it more likely that the criminalization of a large segment of our population will continue in generations to come. Our perpetual waging of war makes is more likely that the conditions that lead to war will continue and worsen and thus lead to more war. Our arming of ourselves to protect ourselves against others actually makes it more likely that we or someone else in our home will be killed or wounded by our own guns.

It seems clear that the main thing we have to fear is fear itself; it seems clear that we need to rein in our fear so that we will stop taking actions based on fear that serve only to give us more to fear.

Apparently, such fear leads to insanity, if insanity is indeed, as is so often said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we are going to stop the insanity, we need to stop the fear …

(Please note: a future post will propose an alternative mindset and some alternative actions.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home

My Good Wife Debra was born in 1957 in the town of Colquitt in Miller County, Georgia (for the uninitiated, it’s located in deep southwest Georgia not too far north of Florida and not too far east of Alabama); she was the last of the six children born to her parents. When she was two her family moved to the nearby county of Calhoun and it was there that she spent the remainder of her growing up years; when she and I met (thank God!) in 1976 as students at Mercer University her parents lived in the country about half-way between the cities of Leary and Morgan, Georgia. When her father retired, they moved back to Colquitt and it was there that they were residing when they passed away five months apart in 1996.

Debra’s oldest sister Jean (Debra’s mother was pregnant with Debra when Jean got married so there is a nineteen year difference in age between Jean and Debra) married a man from Colquitt named Robert Tully and they lived together there until he died a few years ago and she continued to live there until her death last Saturday. She was the only one of Debra’s siblings that lived in Colquitt and so she was the last reason that my wife had for returning to her hometown. And you pretty much have to mean to go to Colquitt.

Debra has never thought of Colquitt as her hometown; Leary carries that honor for her--but we never go there, either—it’s hardly on the road regularly travelled and even the house where she lived is long gone. I share this reality with her since I am the only child of parents who died long, long ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away—and no, I don’t have a long-lost sister who was taken away to keep her safe from the evil empire (although that would be cool).

In a very real sense, then, we can’t go home again. And that matters. It matters because those places and especially the people in those places helped to form and shape us into the people that we are. It matters because we will always carry with us those places and those people to whom we cannot return.

But in an even more real sense, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, in the words of the philosopher Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And my Good Wife and I have made our home wherever we have happened to be at the time because no matter where we are, so long as we are together and the Lord is with us, we are home.

“Home is where the heart is,” they say. Yes, but home is also where the commitment is, where the sense of mutual calling is, and where the shared purpose is. Home is where sorrows are halved and joys are doubled. Home is where burdens are shared and blessings are celebrated.

Yes, home is where we come from but home is also where we are—and home is where we are headed. Home is where we have been but home is also where we live now—and where we will be one day. There is room in our lives to look back at where we came from and there is room in our lives to look ahead to where we are going. Such looking back and looking forward can give us a helpful perspective on life. But we live right here and right now and it is right here and right now that we need to be at home. We should beware lest our looking back or our looking ahead stop being incentive for living and become distractions from living.

In the classic 1978 made for television movie “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” the seven castaways are finally—well, rescued from the island after many years of being stranded. Their long hoped for return to civilization does not go well since nothing is as it was when they left. While the castaways are taking a reunion cruise, the new S.S. Minnow is caught in another storm and the passengers and crew are again shipwrecked. Gilligan finds a piece of the original Minnow and announces, “We’re home!”

We can use up our time and energy trying to go back home or trying to go on home. We are better served to live in light of the fact that we are home.

I have this scene running through my head in which I get to heaven and with great relief say, “I’m home!” And the good Lord replies, “And when were you not?”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Brothers and Sisters

One of the first quality records (if not the first one) I purchased was Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band which was released in August of 1973, a month before I turned fifteen. I bought it because I loved the single “Ramblin’ Man” but I quickly became enamored of the entire album. “Wasted Words.” “Jelly Jelly.” “Southbound.” “Pony Boy.” “Jessica.” “Come and Go Blues.” What’s not to love?

I also quickly became captivated by the picture on the inside of the album cover. (As an aside, let me say that we really lost something when with the advent of the 8-track tape, the cassette, the compact disc, and digital music we lost the great artwork and photography that came with a vinyl record album.) When you opened up the album cover, spread before you was a photograph of the band members with their extended family—wives, girlfriends, children, crew members, and a couple of dogs. They were all sitting or standing on the porch of the house at the Allman Brothers’ farm in Juliette, Georgia, which wasn’t far from my hometown of Barnesville, although, as I have whined about elsewhere, I never went there.

I confess to having had some adolescent wonderings about what it would be like to be part of such a collective. What I didn’t know then but know very well now is that a couple of very significant individuals were missing from that picture. Duane Allman, one of the two brothers whose name the band wore, had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon in 1971. Bass player Berry Oakley had died under eerily similar circumstances in 1972. Brothers and Sisters was the first complete album the Allmans had made since Duane’s death (some of 1972’s Eat a Peach had been recorded before Duane died) and Oakley played on just the first three tracks of the new album before he died.

When I look at that photograph now, I am reminded of what happens in and to families (while in no way asserting that the Allman Brothers Band family was “typical”). People live; people die. People come; people go. When they go, they leave a space that cannot be filled while also creating a space where others can come and grow and develop. All of life is about change and about adapting to change; it is about mourning our losses while celebrating life and moving with hope and trust into the future.

Duane was the heart and soul of the Allman Brothers Band; there is no way they should have survived without him. And yet here in 2014, forty-five years after they started, the band is still going; they will play the last concerts of what has been billed as their final tour next month at the Beacon Theatre (where they have played, amazingly, around 300 shows in their career) in New York City. The band has been through a lot, much of it admittedly self-inflicted, but they have hung in there. Not all the relationships survived; I doubt that, except for Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell (who have been married for 41 years), any of the couples pictured in that photograph are still together and some band members have departed while others have been added. But they are still the Allman Brothers Band.

I’m writing these words on the eve of my 56th birthday; during this life I’ve had a lot of people come and go but the only sibling I ever had—the brother I almost had—died before I met him and when I was too young to know that he had even existed. Right now my Good Wife, who was blessed with three older brothers (one of whom died a few years ago) and two older sisters, is with her family in Dothan, Alabama where her oldest sister is hospitalized with a serious illness. Having no personal experience with sibling relationships, I am grateful for the ways in which they love and relate to one another. In recent weeks I have participated in the funerals of two of my childhood friends. On the other hand, a month from now we will be celebrating our only daughter’s marriage. People go; people come. People leave; people stay. People cry; people laugh. People mourn; people celebrate. It is the way of the world.

We are most blessed, I think, by those who, given the choice, hang in there with us for the long haul and we are most a blessing to those with whom we hang in there for the long haul. That’s the case whether we are talking about our family, about our family of friends, about our community family, or about our family of faith.

Gregg Allman has a song in which he affirms, “I’m no angel.” He sure isn’t (I’ve read his book). But neither are you. Neither am I.

But when you’ve fought and tried and failed and succeeded and won and lost and helped and hurt and struggled and survived and the smoke clears and the blood dries and you pull yourself up to take a look around, those who are still there with you are your true brothers and sisters.

Even if you only see one or two, be grateful. Be very grateful …

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stop Making Sense

When I was a child, little made sense to me.

I did not understand the purpose of life. I did not understand the meaning of my life. I did not understand the power and fragility of intimacy. I did not understand the value of vocation. I did not understand the cruelty of disease. I did not understand the experience of death. I did not understand the varieties of cultures. I did not understand the uniqueness of individuals. I did not understand hate and cruelty. I did not understand love and compassion. I did not understand God.

Sometimes I would ask a grown-up person to explain something to me and those I asked generally obliged. Their explanations made no sense to me but they seemed to make sense to them.

I looked forward to becoming an adult so I could understand and so I could explain things to children who did not understand.

As I grew, things seemed to start making more sense to me. I began to figure out how life went and how things worked. I set about diligently constructing systems that helped me to organize my reality. I determined what belonged where and put everything in its place. Before I knew it I had it all figured out.

I was grown. I understood. And it was good.

I’m not sure how many days that situation lasted but it wasn’t many. What happened? Life happened. I had to live a real life in the real world confronted with real people and with real problems. I had to live in a world in which chaos existed alongside order, suffering existed alongside ecstasy, provision existed alongside neglect, plenty existed alongside poverty, and hope existed alongside despair.

As I have grown older (I’ll soon turn 56) and as I have hopefully grown more mature, I have come more and more to understand that life doesn’t make sense and that it is childish to think that it ever will. I have arrived at the provisional conclusion that it isn’t supposed to make sense and that to insist that it should and to try to make it do so is to be childish in my approach to life and to rob myself of much of the wonder and joy that life in fact (as opposed to in fantasy) offers.

Our systems bracket out too much of the reality of life. Our conclusions close us off from the wide range of possibilities. Our security shields us from the thrill of risk-taking. Our tunnel vision blinds us to the wonders lurking in the periphery. Our compartments inhibit the free flow of experience and understanding. Our categories fuel our prejudices and inhibit our acceptance of other people.

When I was a child, I looked forward to things making sense.

Now that I am an adult, I accept that things don’t make sense.

What does God have to do with this? Only everything. While I have stopped expecting things to make sense to me, I assume that they make sense to God. God can be certain and maintain God’s integrity; I can only maintain my integrity by affirming my uncertainty. But that’s all right because I am meant to live life with faith, not with certainty.

So I have abandoned my childish dream of having life make sense and have adopted a new, more adult goal of living gratefully, faithfully, hopefully, boldly, and even a little recklessly this life that does not make sense precisely because it is not meant to do so.

Thanks be to God!

Now bring it on …

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Broad Life in a Big World

I have been thinking a lot lately about the beginning of life, the end of life, and the life that is lived in between the beginning and the end.

Before we are born we spend several months safe and secure in our mother’s womb; it is a small space that provides very little room to move (although all mothers can testify to how hard we try). Then, when the time has come, we squeeze through the even narrower confines of the birth canal. It takes a while but all of a sudden we emerge into the wide open spaces of the big, big world. We take our first breath, we cry our first cry, and we’re off.

For the rest of our lives we fight the temptation to try to return to the womb rather than to live fully in the world. While we can’t literally return to the womb, we do try to find a place where we can feel a sense of safety and security; we seek a place where we can stay put and stay protected from everything in the world.

Here’s the thing, though: while we know that we were safe when we were in the womb, we don’t remember being safe; we were in fact completely unaware. It may be that the only way to feel completely safe is to be utterly unaware—but what kind of life would that be?

And yet too many of us too often seek a safe place where we can be as unaware as possible—or at least where we are aware only of that of which we want to be aware and remain unaware of that which would challenge or stretch us. So we settle into a particular community, into a particular group, into a particular region, into a particular mindset, into a particular worldview, or into a particular culture and never make forays into the wider world where our thinking can be challenged and our understanding enlarged. While there is nothing wrong and much right about having a community to which we belong and where we feel at home, there is much wrong and not much right about turning our community into a fortress of solitude in which we try to close ourselves off from the wider world and from which we lob rocks at members of other communities and at ideas and ways of life that we have never encountered and thus cannot understand.

We live life best when we continue to live it in the way that we started it; at the beginning we emerged from the womb into the wide world and we should keep moving out into that wide world. The more we move into it the wider it becomes. The more places we go, the more books we read, the more areas we study, the more ideas we consider, the more people we meet, the more cultures we encounter, and the more worldviews we engage the broader our lives will become. In such a wide, wide world there is no excuse for not living a broad, broad life.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Many people die at twenty five and aren't buried until they are seventy five.” It should not be that way for us. We must not let it be that way for us. We must keep on going, keep on learning, keep on growing, keep on thinking, keep on changing, and keep on evolving.

One of these days we’ll close our eyes and our life on Earth will come to an end. When we open our eyes again, we will have the entire universe, all of reality, and all of heaven spread out before us and we will have all of eternity to explore it. What a broad, broad life will be ours to enjoy in the wide, wide heavens.

So at the beginning we emerge from the confines of the womb into the wide world and at the end we emerge from the confines of physical life into the vast heavens.

What sense does it make, then, for us to spend our time on Earth trying to stay in some confined place in the misplaced effort to find a kind of security that we are not meant to have and that drains our lives of wonder and adventure? How much better our lives are if we live them for all they’re worth with the constant goal of living a broad, broad life in this wide, wide world …

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Deals

The other day my Good Wife and I were in a department store that was having a clearance sale. She bought three tops and I bought four shirts; all of our purchases were on clearance. Her purchase came to $22; as the cashier handed her receipt to her she said, “You saved $113!” My total was $27 (hey, I bought one more item than she did!); as the cashier gave me my receipt she said, “You saved $118!” and so I said, “I win!” Of course, as some wise person once pointed out, “You save 100% of the money you don’t spend.”

The good thing is that, by a broad definition of “need,” we needed the items that we bought. In my case, I’ve been wearing some of my polo shirts for years and they “needed” to be replaced, especially when I could get such nice shirts at such a good price. My old shirts are still good enough for someone to wear, though, so they’ll end up at a thrift store; like I said, we’re going with a broad definition of “need” here.

I’m wearing one of my new shirts today. Out of curiosity, I checked the label to see where it was made and found that it was manufactured in Lesotho, which I confess I had to look up. Lesotho is a small mountainous nation that is completely surrounded by the country of South Africa. According to an article I read, Lesotho is making an effort to insure better working conditions for its garment workers than those that are found in nations where unsafe conditions, child labor, and forced labor are far too prevalent. But that same article told me that Lesotho has a long way to go in consistently providing safe working conditions.

I hope no one suffered in order to make my new shirt. Regardless, chances are excellent that the needs of the textile workers in Lesotho and other places are much more real than my “needs.”

It would be good, I believe, if we thought about the meaning--and even the appropriateness--of the words we use. Sure, I “saved” a good bit of money on my purchase; but there are people making such items who are trying to save their lives and the lives of their families. Sure, I “need” some new clothes every now and then, but there are lots of people out there who just need some clothes, not to mention some decent shelter and enough food.

Maybe if we start paying more attention to our words we’ll also start paying more attention to our motivations and our thoughts and if we start paying more attention to our motivations and our thoughts maybe—just maybe—we’ll start paying more attention to our actions and to our choices.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take advantage of a good deal.

I’m just saying that as Christians—not to mention as decent human beings—we should be more concerned about those who are getting a raw deal.