Monthly Archives: July 2013

Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

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My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 2

For those of you a-religious, or nominally so, this blog’s content might seem like a world “far, far away, in a distant galaxy.” If not relevant to you, it might at least be entertaining.

In “Part 1” I reminisced about my 5th grade small-time smoking, and of my dad’s respectful manner of handling my “experiments with tobacco.”

In Part-2 I reflect upon the religious culture that, despite my wish at times to extricate myself from, is part-and-parcel of my identity as U.S. citizen and Texas resident.

I note the culture’s entrenched belief in mankind’s sinful nature, an ever-present, yet at times subdued consciousness of an End Time (return of Christ and punishment of the wicked), and a corresponding need to enlist fear and fire as proselytizing motivation when “love” alone fails to change a “sinner’s” heart.

My early developmental years are a narrative of exposure to overt and subliminal Christian messages of “Jesus loves me and the little children of the world, this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and “Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

Love and Fear, then, were, and continue to be frequently juxtaposed themes. And in my experience, Fear (and Fire) has dominated North American evangelical consciousness, and regrettably has been one of our chief exports to the world.

Regrettable, that is, in terms of how fear and a perceived imminence of the End Time or Last Days has influenced our treatment of people and cultures different – i.e., as a means to an end.

Former Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John Colenso, corroborated the presence of American religious fear mongers in his Ten Weeks in Natal journal –

“The profession of Christianity had been very much hindered by persons saying that the world will be burnt up—perhaps, very soon—and they will all be destroyed.  They [Zulus] are frightened, and would rather not hear about it, if that is the case.”

If you discount Colenso’s journal as a mere snapshot of 19th Century colonial and missionary history, then read When Time Shall Be No More, which details Americans’ obsessive preoccupation and speculation about prophecy and End Time.

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So . . .

Many of us grew up, and continue to live in a social, political and religious culture that has been heavily influenced by a Puritan / Protestant-evangelical tradition.

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A culture still analogous in many ways to a much earlier time in history, depicted by a story of an American missionary, Mr. Kirby, to Native Americans –

“Some wicked traders heard the Christian Indians singing a hymn, and they said to them, ‘What do poor creatures like you know about Jesus Christ?’ One of the Indians took up a worm, made a circle of dry moss round it, and set fire to the moss. The worm soon tried to escape, but could not, then the Indian lifted it out to a place of safety, and turning to the gazing traders, said, ‘that is what Jesus has done for me.’”

The Southern United States, in particular, the so-called Bible Belt, still evidences this overt evangelical consciousness.

Visit select Starbucks, particularly in a town such as Waco, Texas, for example, and regularly see people individually reading or in groups discussing the Bible, praying, and as I did on one occasion, see a young child of maybe 10 to 12 years, standing in the order queue, soliciting a middle-age adult behind him with, “Mr, If you died today, do you know where you would go?”

If You Died Today

Generally speaking, this culture views human nature as first and foremost sinful, deprived, void of any individual good, alienated from God, and destined for eternal separation from God (hell) unless repentance and atonement is sought after and found. (*See documentaries Virgin Tales and Jesus Camp.)

It seems that humanity is so void of good inclination, so morally deprived, that inciting fear (and shaming) are the singularly effective provocateurs to soliciting confessions of remorse/guilt, thereby paving the way for divine forgiveness.

As a so-called “born again Christian,” myself, I don’t agree with this lopsided view of human nature, since the Bible, in my opinion, speaks equally if not more to humanity’s creation “in the image of God,” and therefore humanity’s immense created potential for good as evidenced in socially transforming, larger-than-life personages.

Yes, this includes Jesus, a carpenter’s son, but also Muhammad, a merchant and trader (we could list any number of religious founders, from Sikhism to Baha’i), Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, lawyers, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr or Desmond Tutu as clergymen, Rosa Parks, NAACP secretary, Mother Teresa (of course), Anne Frank, and scores of other notable women and men.

Such a negative assessment of human nature also doesn’t substantiate my personal life of faith, which experientially benefited from a decidedly more feminine and maternal metaphor of God (see my blog Two Words); one that depicts an Ultimate Reality’s patience, kind-heartedness, and all-encompassing love, rather than the millennial’s old patriarchal, judicial and capricious view of God

Despite my unwillingness to embrace, or at least, fixate on mankind’s sinful nature, I do understand the mindset and appeal of conservative/fundamentalist faith (Christianity shares similarities with Islam at this point), particularly given the everywhere evidence of “the evil that men do” against fellow humanity, and the desire for a sense of inner security that a belief in absolutes falsely promises.

What good news and hope there is in the gospel message, then, is often overshadowed and contingent upon whether you’re fearfully contrite enough to say “I’m a sinner,” or “my bad” as Adam Sandler humorously expressed his own missteps.

A new, “born-again” life is said to occur when you . . .

-Hear through some means (usually through preaching/proselytizing) the gospel message offering forgiveness and a new life . . .

-Feel enough remorse (guilt) about your sinful nature and sinful deeds . . .

-That you acknowledge and confess your wretchedness . . .

-Plus, have faith to believe that Jesus is God’s only Son, who died in order to ransom you from the clutches of the evil one, who, incidentally, is the prime instigator behind all your bad thoughts, actions, and life’s misfortunes . . .

-Because God’s redemption can only be experienced singularly in and through Jesus . . .

-After all, “narrow is the gate” into heaven.

-If heaven’s gate is enlarged to include any different-from-Christian people, say, mere “lovers and doers of truth and goodness” (*the many kinds of individuals Jesus, himself, and the Bible commend for their faith and righteousness), then how will Christians know for absolute certain that they, themselves, have met the conditions for heaven?

-Therefore, Christians need “different” faith and cultural antagonists to mirror what is allegedly “non-biblical” in order to assure them by negation that Christianity is the only and true way . . .

-Furthermore, by obeying and following so-called prescribed and biblically mandated “salvation steps”  . . .

-Then, and only then, will a person have assurance that God’s righteous anger has been mitigated, and that eternity is a certainty.

Any notion of “biblical truth” (a favorite phrase for absolute truth among Bible Belt Christians) incidentally, is a misnomer, because all truth is interpretive, reflecting more one’s social, economic, educational, political and life experience, than so-called objective/absolute truth.

Like the apostle Paul acknowledged, himself, there is truth that is provisional, personal, and truthful, as in seeing in a mirror dimly, but you cannot legitimately claim it as singularly absolute because you are not God, nor can you even make that claim for the Bible because then you would be guilty yourself of bibliolatry – the worship of the Bible. Truth must play out in the market place of life, where you’re free, even encouraged to advocate for your understanding of truth, demonstrate through your life and actions its authenticity, and make emotional appeal from your personal experience.

In Part-3 I’ll attempt explaining how my understanding of “salvation” has changed from my 3rd grade pie-in-the-sky understanding. My current spirituality and sense of being “saved” is indebted to the many valued perspectives and life experiences I’ve shared over the past 15 years with the religious and cultural “different Others.” I’m grateful to have been forced through graduate studies to journey beyond my single Baptist perspective and tradition (single color rug) to a symphony of different perspectives and testimonials, each one, yet collectively, trying to express in language and symbol the ultimate meaning we’ve discovered about the inexplicable realities and meanings of life (mosaic colored rug).

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 1

People used to smoke (a lot) . . .

I grew up and traveled when international airlines had “Smoking” and “Non-Smoking” sections. At least once, my assigned seat was the row before the smoking section began. If you’re too young to remember that period, imagine how your eyes and nostrils might burn after a trans-Atlantic flight.

I used to smoke . . .

Cigarettes during my 5th grade year (okay, the occasional cigar as an adult, too, particularly on mens’ only, multi-day hikes, where we envisaged ourselves as wannabe-as-tough Bear Gryllses).

My first puffs occurred in the dense and protective cover of Limuru and Tigoni (Kenya) hedges and maize fields. My smoking accomplices (may they never be found out!) and I preferred local Sportsman cigarettes, because they inspired our budding masculinity, their slogan was catchy and cool – “Ni Sawa Hasa!,” and, not least in importance, they were about the cheapest on the market.

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I got caught smoking!

One day several Luo friends, my little brother of 3 or 4, and myself were hiding in a large and wild Lantana like bush (the exact name eludes me) situated in an undeveloped expansive area between our house and Lake Victoria. We liked the Lantana like bushes because not only were they secretive and fort-like, similar to corn fields, but you could chew on its minty leaves after smoking, effectively masking our smoking misdeeds.

Foolishly my friends and I decided to light up a single Sportsman. We were sharing it between us when my brother said he wanted to try it. Obviously I said, “no,” to which he smartly (he’s a lawyer now) blackmailed me with, “If you don’t let me I’ll tell dad and mom!”

I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Instead of letting him pull on our cigarette, I lit a match and quickly put it in his mouth. Unfortunately, instead of completely encasing the lit match with his mouth as he should have, effectively snuffing the flame out, and giving him smoke to coolly blow out his mouth and nose like we 5th grade sportsmen were doing, he left his mouth wide open, burning his lip.

He immediately bolted screaming from the bush in the direction of home, and upon arrival did . . . well, you know what! When I arrived home it wasn’t long before my mom informed me that my dad wanted to see me. He was in his wood shop with his protective eye glasses sitting atop his head, and a craftsman pencil wedged between his ear and side of head.

Surprise of surprises! Contrary to my fearful expectations, my dad didn’t verbally or physically launch or lurch at me. Instead he began personally confessing to his own prior smoking habits, and sweetened it by sharing that one or more of my siblings had similarly experimented with smoking. Instead of punishing me, he simply told me that he would not tolerate any more of my hiding and conniving. If I was intent on smoking, so be it, but he insisted I start smoking in public and among friends and family.

Well, wouldn’t you know it! He cured my 5th grade smoking habit! By de-criminalizing my activity, he de-incentivized me from wanting to smoke further.

Years later, and five children of my own, I’m grateful for this early (and wise) parenting lesson. It’s all too tempting as a parent, when your own life stress is near bowing you in half, and your child’s sudden discovered misdeed(s) adds extra strain to life and living, to reactively lash out punitively.

Sometimes that might be necessary and appropriate (the punitive part; not the lashing out). Many more times, however, it seems more productive to take a moment and share your own personal struggles and mistakes, thereby decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing your child’s mistakes.

As with my own smoking experiment, a calm and measured response just might provide your child with a new felt sense of self-worth and a nurturing seedbed for re-engaging life and its challenges, rather than a big, fat branded “L” on the forehead.

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It Seldom Is What It Seems

Meryl Streep “had a farm in Africa.”

In the third-grade, I had a friend in Africa.

I don’t remember much about him. And, it’s probably good we didn’t grow up together. For in that short span of a year, we got into enough mischief as it is. I remember a passing Kenyan motorist loudly knocking on my family’s front door one darkening evening, and speaking angrily with my dad because the two of us had “accidentally” thrown a rock at, and struck, his car.

I also remember us sitting on my bed playing the “I call dibs on” game, only instead of calling dibs on cars or motorbikes, as one might do during long car rides to pass the time away, my American expat friend and I called dibs on lingerie-clad only women in a Spiegel or Sears similar catalog. Ironically, as I googled the spelling and meaning of “dibs,” I discovered one definition is “a game played by young gentlemen, in which you call dibs on any young lady that takes your fancy.”

Anyway, after having kids of my own, and trying repeatedly over many, many occasions to instill in them a more critical assessment of the real lives of their school friends’ alleged lives (in contrast, for example, to what is stressing my child, but which they think will make them happy – aka, my kids’ claim that ALL their classmates have this-or-that latest and most fashionable item, seen the newest R-rated Blockbuster movie, eat at a restaurant daily), it’s in parenting moments, especially, that I remember this friend of mine in Africa.

The reason being?

He used to brag all the time about owning multiple this-and-that, and more than once promised he would share some of his “multiples” with me. What I hoped for most was one of his “multiple pellet guns” (he claimed to have 4+), because my siblings were all into guns and hunting at that stage in my upbringing. Need I mention that I never saw, let alone benefited from a single “multiple” of his?

For some reason, this young friend of mine felt the need to put on airs; to pretend to be a much better, more attractive version of himself than what really was; to be better than and superior to me; to convince me through imaginative boasting that his life was A-OK, even better than my own.

That was a preamble to the “IT” of my blog’s title. Let me define “it” by reference to a somewhat humorous story told to me yesterday by a just returning-from-vacation-in-Tahoe, weekly-book-discussion-group-friend, who, himself, is a successful professional.

I’ve never been to Tahoe, but based on a former high school Facebook friend’s photos from two weeks back, plus Tahoe’s own promotional website, it must be an almost 8th wonder of the world, especially during peak seasonal periods of the year.

What evidently struck my friend more than Tahoe’s natural scenery was the prolific plastic surgery scenery!

What made me chuckle when he recounted his time, was his re-enactment of the much more senior male companions to their much more younger and artificially sculpted women. He mimicked decrepit, hobbling about old men, who evidently were doing their darndest to deny and delay the inevitable.

The “IT“, then, is the false (or at least half-truths) projected reality that so many of us become proficient in living and acting out in life. So much so, that over time it becomes our accustomed and unconscious “real life.”

Sadly, even embarrassingly so, individuals more grounded in “actual” and “real” life readily discern our transparent dissemblances.

Obviously, and to some extent, our fakery is a coping mechanism; a way, life habit, mannerism, or even life style, that we’ve adapted in order to deal with the pain or incongruencies of our only too real and everyday (and past) lives.

Perhaps, it’s somewhat analogous to comedians. I wouldn’t presume to characterize all comedians, but among celebrity ones, such as Peter Sellers, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Sam Kinison, et cetera, their biographies are frequently painful reads, where humor became a lifeline; a coping mechanism adopted unconsciously, perhaps, in order to see the light and breath of another day.

In five weeks, my book club will discuss Stephen Covey’s dated, yet timeless “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.” I’m curious as to how “success” will be defined and communicated.

More importantly, perhaps – alluding to Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning – I wonder if individually and as a group, we’ll feel emotionally safe enough with one another to risk being vulnerable, candid and authentic by sharing with one another whether our lives to date reflect a contentedness with life and the meaning we’ve found in it, or a persona to deflect attention away from our vulnerabilities, struggles, addictions and inner emotional hurts and wounds.

What about you?

Are you more persona than person?

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My (white) Response to Trayvon & Family’s Experienced Indignities | An Appeal for Primal Empathy

Conflict resolution specialist, Donna Hicks, argues in Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, that it’s easier to name experiences and feelings of dignity and indignity, than it is to define the word itself. This, in part, because we are “feeling beings,” who live and experience life through our five senses.

Assuming she’s right . . . What about you?

Can you remember occasions when you felt your dignity was violated?

Can you recall occasions when you violated someone else’s dignity?

In response to the Trayvon Martin jury verdict and the nationwide emotional outcries it has and continues to provoke, President Obama shared two personal examples of his own dignity being violated. He recounted being followed on suspicion of theft (or anticipated theft) while shopping, and hearing car doors being locked in fear as he simply crossed the street in the direction of parked motorists.

If we define dignity, as Hicks does, as a birthright, accompanied by feelings of inherent value and worth. And, if we define indignity as feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, then we might agree that shaming is one of the most common, unthoughtful, and insensitive acts against our fellow humanity, and the taking of an innocent life as the most abhorrent, tragic and emotionally wrenching.

A personal experience of indignity . . .

When I was in the 4th grade I attended a government school in Kisumu, Kenya. I was one of only two white expat kids, in an otherwise all black and brown (Asian Indian) school. Of the two whites, I was the outgoing, athletic type, and my counterpart might today be pegged as a member of the Geek Squad, yet who has the last laugh because he owns a Fortune 5000 company.

Despite my father obtaining a Master’s in math, little of his genes or self-confidence in math were passed down to me. Math has always been associated with shame inducing memories, only one of which I share.

A shame-inducing experience that resulted in me leaving the Kisumu school came about because I was cheating. I don’t remember who I cheated from, but I do recall trading many dime-a-dozen, Paper Mate medium tip blue ballpoint disposable pens for homework help. One day my Kenya teacher found me out, not for cheating, but simply for having no competency in following his instructions for an in-class assignment.

Whether he was exercising his then sanctioned authority as teacher to administer corporal punishment, or more likely in my opinion, using this opportune moment to “get back at” a perceived white colonizer’s son (Kenya obtained its independence only 7 years prior), I’ll never know.

I only remember that he grabbed my left ear, violently wrenching/twisting and lifting me out of my seat by it, then slapped my face with his large, open-palm, turning my cheek a bright ruddy complexion, and then roughly escorted me – dragged is more like it – down to the front of the class, where he scolded me before my classmates, then leaned me over his desk and gave my young white derriere a number of heavy whacks with a ready-at-hand and seasoned non-willow-like stick.

Years later . . .

My freshman year at Baylor University, I participated in violating someone’s dignity simply because I didn’t have the courage to act on what I knew was the right and decent thing to do.

Although all on-campus cafeterias are co-ed, I usually ate at Penland Hall’s cafeteria, a guy’s dorm. Several of the cafeteria staff were mentally challenged, and on this particular occasion a young white woman was pushing a cart loaded down with dirty dishes. Suddenly, there was a deafening din of falling and breaking dishes just 10 feet from where I sat. My head shot up. Actually all heads shot up.

The prior loudness of student voices and laughter contrasted with the punctuated stillness of stares in the direction of this young and challenged woman, who immediately turned beet red and dropped to her knees in an attempt to gather up and salvage the many broken and scattered dishes and food remnants.  The silence lasted only for a moment before students began to snicker and laugh and whisper unkind and insensitive remarks.

I remember feeling emotionally torn. I didn’t have the self-worth and confidence to identify myself with the mess or the mentally challenged girl’s predicament, nor did I disparage her by unkind words or laughter either.

I simply disregarded her humanity through my inaction, saying and doing nothing. I sat there and watched as one Baylor student got down on his hands and knees beside this embarrassed and shamed young woman, and helped her clean the mess up, impervious to what anyone might think or say of his actions.

You see, my evolutionary and innate self-protective instincts were in full operation that noon meal. Fearing ridicule by association I fought the impulse to demonstrate kindness, and instead chose to isolate myself versus connect with this young woman.

Hicks observes that “We might have entered the world with strong self-protective instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the course of our own defense. Awareness requires self-understanding and acceptance. It requires work. . . .

Holding up the mirror and taking an honest look at what we have done requires more than instincts. We have to tap into the part of us that has the capacity to self-reflect. We already have inherent dignity. We just need to learn how to act like it.”

Desmond Tutu wrote something to the effect that “Only when we begin to care about each other’s dead and dying will we begin to act like and experience being a (global) family.”

Hicks similarly observes . . .

If we are to achieve greater worldwide peace and become in some shape or form a conciliatory community, nation, even global family, then it will require a “developmental shift in understanding”; from an egocentric to ‘other’ point of view; from a mere cognitive understanding to a “primal empathy” (aka, emotional identification), “a feeling of what happens to them.”

Charles M. Blow, in Barack and Trayvon, states, “Only when the burden of bias is shared —  only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.”

In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith observe that –

“The social categories we develop are more than convenient groupings of individuals that simplify the actual diversities among the people we observe and encounter.  They are also categories that can bias the way we process information, organize and store it in memory, and make judgments about members of those social categories. . . . The manner of, the language used, and the persistency of our customary portrayal of people results in a corresponding thought, speech and action toward the ‘Different Other.’

As a WASPM (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male), I do not write to disparage my/our own sense of “white identity,” yet appeal to millions of us – women, included – to risk a momentary vulnerability and feeling of self-loss, in order to connect emotionally with the millions, whose life histories and stories were by no choice or fault of their own unprivileged to be on history’s victor side of socio-economic and political power.

Resist allowing your innate reaction to perceived social threat to be a self-protective one of “fight,” “flee,” or isolate and alienate yourself from the kaleidoscope of racial, economic, religious and linguistic diversity in our country.

Rather, risk a moment to listen to and hear the other’s life stories. Story – such as one person’s introduction to her own story below – has the transformative capacity to disarm anger and resentment, and to engender empathy, understanding, and ultimately resolution of conflicts.

I want to tell you about me in a way that you can hear, so my story will pique your curiosity, if not your compassion, about me and what my life is like. I want you to see me as a human being with the same dignity that’s in you.

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Saying Hello To Life Begins By Saying Hello To Strangers

This blog’s heading is indebted to children’s singer and songwriter, Eddie Coker, and his song “Say Hello,” a line of which is, “And that’s how we say hello to life,  forever – together everybody now Say hello.

The simple gesture of saying “hello” . . . a daily, disciplined initiative of greeting the stranger or casual acquaintance in your life serves several important purposes.

First, the physical and deliberate effort required to greet someone we don’t know helps reorient our lives from an inward fixation on self and its concerns, to an outward focus on others and Us. This mustard seed initiative, is an important first-step in cracking the inertia of isolation/disconnection.

It requires risk and emotional vulnerability to share acts of kindness and initiate pleasantries with total strangers, because let’s face it, we’ve all experienced occasions when our kind gestures aren’t acknowledged, let alone appreciated.

For instance, frequently on late afternoon walks, I’ll pass fellow exercisers, many of whom I try to share a passing “hello” with. Some intentionally close out the world and exercise doldrums with ear buds and an MP3 player, and therefore simply don’t hear my greeting.  Many more, however, walk entombed within their own sound proof life and exercise bubble, uninterested in engaging life as it passes them by. Sometimes when I’m not feeling very self-confident, myself, my internal response to their non-reciprocity of my effort to be friendly is “To hell with you, too!”

Secondly, initiating pleasantries with strangers communicates to them that they have been seen and that their lives, however different they might be from your own, have meaning and significance to at least one person in the world – You!

In 1994 I attended an open house for parents at my son’s school in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Most children had a parent or grandparent in attendance, and once the children had completed a 1-page drawing assignment – which parents watched them complete – they were free to go outside and play. All the children had left the classroom, except one, a struggling-at-his-assignment Zulu boy. No family member was present for him. I walked up from behind, peered over his shoulder at his work, and placing my hand lightly on his shoulder remarked, “Very nice! I like your drawing!” Well . . . you’ve never seen a more ear-to-ear smile from an eager-to-please, craving-to-be-affirmed child!

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On my evening walks there is a two-story house that is occupied by elderly people. Occasionally a frail looking man is seated in a chair directly beneath the sliding garage door’s pathway, and as I round the house his eyes pierce me. Twice now I’ve turned my face toward him, simultaneously mouthed and waved hello.  His “critical stare” was merely my over-sensitive self-conscious awareness, because he smiles and quickly reciprocates my wave of the hand.

I’m indebted to two people for mentoring me on the importance and discipline of initiating pleasantries and kindnesses with strangers, casual acquaintances, or individuals you share no life history with.

First, my mother, who I kid you not, once she meets you will remember not only your name, but also your birthdate, your spouse, siblings and/or children’s names!

Secondly, my postgraduate, South African mentor, a legacy of whom, was his mostly endearing, sometimes embarrassing kindnesses (because of the effusive nature of his expressed care and attention), which he demonstratively shared with anyone who dared enter his personal space.

From waitresses, pedestrian passerby-ers, convenience or grocery store cashiers, grounds keepers, and janitorial staff to executive assistants, university students, academic/professorial and Rotary professional men and women, there were relatively few people who had not at one time or another experienced John.

Across Interstate-35 from Baylor University there was a popular Chinese restaurant that John frequented.  Staff faces lit up when John walked in, and before he even had to ask about the availability of hot and sour soup – his favorite – a bowl was placed before him. Just like in the movie The Last Holiday, where famous Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) makes a special table-side visit and fuss over “commoner” hotel guest and cookware salesperson Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah), the Chinese owners always made an appearance at our table, whereby John enquired about their individual well-being and family in China, and they his life.

John’s inestimable gift to people was his practiced and demonstrated expression of care to anyone who crossed his life’s path.

He recognized and acknowledged individuals, and in so doing affirmed them as having innate value and worth, irrespective of their education, vocational attainments, or inherited socio-economic and genetic status.

My kids laugh when they accompany me out and about to town, particularly places where we quite regularly frequent, say, a local Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, or Costco, a popular wholesale merchant. On those occasions it’s obvious I’m John’s understudy because I know the names of staff and they me.

It’s easy to memorize and recite our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of the many, one). It’s exceedingly arduous, time-consuming and a process of small steps to implement, however. The United States is no longer comprised of immigrants from merely European nations such as England, Scotland, Germany, Holland, France and Ireland. Our unity and future is being shaped by every nation recognized by the United Nations.

Relational and cultural-religious-linguistic bridge building (aka, national unity) can’t be politically achieved through a national mandate of English-only. Nor can or should civil unity (religion) be built on a foundation of collegiate and professional sports, or nationally observed holidays.

Our future unity as a nation will rely on the extent to which we individually and deliberately share gestures of kindness and dignity with those we’ve never before met, whether at our local grocer, places of worship, corporate offices, or building houses with Habitat for Humanity. It will require that the 1-percent recognize and affirm the humanity and significance of the 99-percent – listening to and hearing their life stories – and vice versa.

And so . . . this is a third reason to become a person, who intentionally and daily engages and shares pleasantries with the stranger . . . to sow the seeds of a national E Pluribus Unum at the local, micro level, and thereby, in turn, reinforce in your own conscious awareness, and the lives of your children and grandchildren, the essential truth that individually, and as the United States, we belong and have responsibility to a much larger and diverse family of humanity.

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A Tribute to Our Son “Matt Damon,” aka Jason Bourne

Many individuals not only aspire to act and become like so-and-so celebrities, but look like them, too. Recently in El Paso my girls and I watched a week’s worth of Family Feud, in which “celebrity” participants included Hillary Clinton, Bono, Martha Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Will Ferrell, Joan Rivers, and Jennifer Aniston.

My son’s look-alike, doppelgänger, is Matt Damon. After seeing a few comparison photos you might disagree. Seeing (in person) is believing, however.

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With my eldest daughter

I can’t recall a single day in which I went out and about to town with him that at least one person – usually more – didn’t either comment directly on his resemblance to Damon, or who took an initial furtive glance, then a second, more studied look at him.

For instance, when the Bourne movies debuted several years back, movie cinema ticket sales persons at Bedfordview Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa, came out from their ticket cubicles, asking if they could have their picture taken with him. Last week we ate at a Kirby Lane Restaurant, and afterwards browsed through an adjacent Amish furniture store. The store manager approached my son, noted his resemblance, and remarked how he could be Damon’s brother or son.

A month ago my son accompanied me to Client Rights at Austin State Hospital. After introducing my son to my work colleagues, he then left in search of coffee and internet connection. Two colleagues immediately and independently turned excitedly toward me, remarking on his uncanny resemblance to Damon, with one jokingly asking, “Can I get his autograph?!” At his university alma mater, and currently at Dell Children’s Hospital’s ER his nickname is “Bourne” or simply “Jason.”

Arguably, my own doppelgänger might be Bruce Willis, even Corbin Bernsen — particularly if you’ve had a few drinks too many, or you’re a partygoer at a November post-election celebration in Colorado, where cannabis just become decriminalized.

My family and I admit that it’s kind of fun having a “celebrity” in our home. We catch and absorb secondary attention!

In all seriousness, however, despite my genuine respect and admiration for the real actor and person, Matt Damon, I’m grateful my son takes his “celebrity status” in stride. In fact, he appears a degree or two sheepish with his unsolicited fame.

As firstborn, our son has developed well despite all our rookie, even veteran parenting missteps. For instance, we used to be pretty hard-nosed when it came to putting our newborn early to bed in the evening. If he was fed, bathed, had a clean change of diaper/outfit, and no evident ailment, we would allow him to cry himself to sleep if he was not happy to lie in his cot alone, cooing contentedly.

At the time we were living with my 85-year-old grandfather, Daddy D, who had begun dating a MUCH younger woman (59 years) – see Grandparents | Person and Place Specialness. One evening Daddy D’s girlfriend was there for dinner and our son had been crying for an interminable period. She offered my wife her own experienced motherly counsel, “When my son was 2-weeks old, he cried and wouldn’t sleep. You know what I did? I cooked mashed potatoes, green beans and fried chicken. I fed that boy! And he slept!

I could and will eventually write a tribute for each of our five children, but it’s more opportune for my son, given his transitional period of life and vocational aspiration.

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2012 – our family inc son-in-law

You see, despite him not having the life memoir and day-to-day hardships of, say, a Sudanese Boy Soldier, he’s proven his mettle through several life experiences. One being, that by 9-years of age he had undergone 13 ENT surgical procedures, ranging from adenoidectomy to tonsillectomy to mastoidectomy.

These experiences did not diminish his interest in medicine, nor his love for and ability with languages.  While his nearest-in-age sister might be more grammatically proficient, he is conversationally fluent in Spanish, and during his senior year of high school traveled alone to Berlin, Germany, where he took a 10-week German immersion language course. Unbelievably to me, by week eight, when we talked by phone, he engaged in German-only conversations with my wife.

Currently my son is seeking to gain admittance to medical school; a profession that well suits his character, temperament and life experience. It’s not been a quick or easy aspiration, yet he’s persevered day-by-day-by-month-by-year, developing his knowledge, skills and exposure to the world of medicine through medical internships and a challenging ER job at Dell Children’s Hospital.

I think it’s apropos that he’s working at a children’s hospital, particularly since he’s always had a sensitive and kind disposition toward children, especially many in South Africa.

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Especially apropos, though, is that he has been an older brother par excellence to his four younger sisters.

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“Mano,” as he’s affectionately referred to by them, has a number of endearing qualities, including: he’s long-suffering (allowing sisters to practice “hair” on him – see pic below), he’s funny (so says my youngest daughter), and he’s easy to talk to and adept at cheering you up (so says my 4th born).

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As parents, an attribute of his that we’ve come to appreciate and respect with each passing day is his willingness to risk vulnerability, to hear, listen and talk about and through ANY difficult subject matter.  It might be the risks of aspiring to own a motorcycle, or the personal discomfiture of dating, sex and marriage, or how much is too much drinking, or the struggle of finding one’s vocation and social place in the world, or whether religion and church attendance are of any value any more, et cetera.

And while I would be honored to have the real Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, as a friend, even relative, I’m glad Daniel is his own person and that he’s our son.

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