Tag Archives: Christian America

10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.

Transliterated–

“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart

The Context:

Five years ago I upset a sweet, old lady; the grandmotherly type, who hugs and kisses on little children irrespective of whether they have been good or bad, and who would whip up a meal from scratch if you showed up unexpectedly at her doorstep.

My crime? I dared share and sympathize with a gray-area story in an adult Sunday School class. It’s a story that muddles the clear moral boundaries, and traditional-conservative understanding and teaching on sex and marriage fidelity, by sharing many non-white South Africans’ historically disadvantaged economic and life realities.

Evidently I was touching a nerve, similar to Pope Francis’s recent admonition of the church for its singular obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control

In 2008, as national director of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) memory work training project, I attended a global development conference in South Africa. Typical of most conferences there were any number of presentations running concurrently. I chose one in which the results of a U.S.-funded, HIV/AIDS research project among South African miners was being reported on. My ears perked up at one research finding on “secondary fidelity / faithfulness” — a term I had never heard.

Apparently, among South Africa’s mostly male mining community, both in present day democratic as well as past apartheid South Africa, the economic obligations and strains of relocating far from traditional families and rural homes to the congested, concrete and competitive urban jungles, such as the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg is located, induced such acute loneliness and physical / emotional need among the mostly black miners, that relationship/marriage fidelity, as defined in so-called civilized and Western societies, was most surely desired, yet experienced as impractical and impossible given the miners’ prevailing life hardships.

Under duress of physical, emotional, geographic and long-term separation from wife and family, many miners opted for “secondary fidelity.” That is, they engaged in sexual and emotional urban trysts, yet when the very rare, perhaps only once-a-year opportunity occurred to return to their “real” and rural home, family and community, they feigned fidelity so as not to embitter and cause undue emotional pain on their wives.

Similar, perhaps, are the tragic stories of “real” or de facto slaves, who, themselves, surely desired, and many times enjoyed monogamous, long-term committed relationships, yet who were forcibly separated and abused by the greed of human traffickers and the cruelty of newfound owners, such as the African-American experience recently depicted in the movies Django, The Help, and The Butler.

Given my bi-cultural heritage and middle age bearing, I have discovered that many economic and politically privileged people, particularly, perhaps, in the Bible-Belt (southern), aka Ted Cruz-ian swaths of the United States, lack a depth of understanding and empathy for the billions of the world’s struggling-to-survive humanity.

This inability to understand, identify — however you may define it — is evident in negligible or token lifestyle changes when confronted by widening socio-economic inequities, or perhaps in asinine statements made about HIV-positive people. Millions of HIV-infected and affected individuals are viewed and stereotyped in one American’s incredulous, yet not uncommon statement to me, “I don’t understand why they (Africans) can’t just use condoms?” She might as well have said, “I don’t understand why they are so stupid as to have unprotected sex! They deserve what they get.”

The Present:

A reality of the current and protracted global/US recession is the number of spouses or partners, who, of economic/job-related necessity, live distant and separate lives for extended, even indefinite periods of time. If in 2006 3.6M married Americans lived apart, imagine what those numbers are today — not merely among Americans, but spread across the globe?

It’s all too easy to be patronizing, condescending, contemptuous of others’ “immoral” lives and lifestyles when one’s own life is cocooned, cushioned, comfortable or “Christian.” Take that away for any extended measure of time, however, and I assure you the reality and hardships of life will reshape one’s perspective of most things and relationships previously thought inviolate. Experience is the great equalizer and sympathizer; the inquisitor of faith and “truth” as people know and too glibly pronounce it.

My family relocated from South Africa back to the United States and Austin in mid-2010. I voluntarily opted out of full-time work for the past three years so as to manage home and kids while my wife enrolled in and completed a 3-year MSN degree at UT-Austin.  Upon her recent graduation and my ensuing search for full-time work the prospect of living apart from my wife and kids is assuming a newfound reality.

Obviously, it’s not a reality my wife and I wish for, nor is it a problem with a simplistic solution, such as many people advocate for AIDS.

Fortunately my wife and I have developed trust and a willingness to risk vulnerability over 28 years of marriage by talking about, and hopefully beyond most any subject matter, including my blunt admission that living apart for any prolonged period of time –as I am now entertaining the thought of doing–will possibly to likely result in either or all of these realities: infidelity, separation or divorce, a charade of keeping the marriage together “for the sake of the kids,” or adoption of a “secondary fidelity” mindset for the occasional family get-together times, so as to shelter my wife from the painful knowledge that my physical and emotional needs are being met, or at least supplemented, in my distant-from-family residence and place of work.

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Conclusion:

Like the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Prisoners, which my wife and I watched this week, this blog is a narrative without a clearly defined, neat and as of today happy ending. For the many people privileged to live in daily and close fellowship with spouse, children, family and friends, there are many others, who in striving to provide for life’s daily bread and a more hopeful future for themselves and their families, all-too-frequently experience the near-overwhelming darkness of despaired struggle and loneliness.

In case you misread this blog, let me clarify:

NO, I’m not advocating for secondary fidelity.

But, YES, I am appealing for kinder thoughts, kinder attitudes, greater effort to understand, more dignified responses toward the many millions, whose “immoral” or “sinful” lives one might be tempted to write-off with a nonchalant, “They’re getting what they deserve,” or “They’re reaping what they sow.” After all – hopefully not – it could be me and it could be you one day.

Prisoners

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Ride A Hound, Discover E-Cigarettes & Connect With The (real) World

North America, even the entire world might be a kinder, more equitable and empathetic place if elected officials were required to ride public transport on a semi-frequent basis. It wouldn’t do the rest of us any harm, either. I say this because few places on earth can match public transportation and its connecting hubs for encounters with the “real” world and its “real” people. 

Instead of whizzing here, there, and everywhere in protective cavalcades or luxuriated personal SUV’s and Mercedes Benzes, which cocoon the moderately to excessively wealthy from the sounds, smells, and sometimes snail’s pace of public life and transport, I encourage us to ditch our wheels once or twice a blue moon and risk riding on the likes of Greyhound, as I did a few weeks ago when I rode from Austin to Waco. 

greyhound

We Americans have become so co-dependent on rubberized four-wheeled transportation that at a Geneva conference I attended, a red-headed Scottish woman’s takeaway impression of the United States was American mall shoppers parking and entering one store, then exited the store and driving around to the other side of the mall to shop in another.

My recent 100-mile bus ride was my second ever Greyhound bus experience; the first being decades ago when I traveled alone as an eight-year-old from Dallas to Shreveport, Louisiana, to visit an uncle and aunt for what I had hoped would be a weekend of bass fishing, but which got rained out. This time I rode up so that I could drive back with a new-used Honda Accord I purchased.

I knew my Waco trip was going to be an adventure of sorts the minute I tried calling Greyhound to make changes to my reservation. Repeated calls to an 800-number, plus to the Austin Greyhound station went unanswered. The two times I succeeded in getting through to the internet sales support division, a Latina answered, yet her voice sounded distant, as if I’d been routed to a Latin American call center, and each time I could hear her voice but she couldn’t hear mine.

At the Austin station my bus eventually arrived. Like livestock nervously lined up for a tick and flea dip we all lined up at the boarding door hoping to secure preferred seating. In front of me was a group of three, one of whom, a young lady in her 20’s, sat next to me on the ride north, and for most of the trip used her Droid cell phone to either listen to music with her popular Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, or talk to a friend about her car, which evidently was in a questionable mechanical state.

I discovered that her two standing-in-line male companions were merely waiting until boarding time with her. One of them inadvertently introduced me to the popular phenomenon of e-cigarettes, a questionably disturbing popular trend, particularly with middle and high schoolers.

If you, like I was, are oblivious to what e-cigarettes are, they are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine in an aerosol mist, and come in a variety of flavors. Her companion in his early 30’s, periodically blew out of his mouth what at first appearance looked like smoke, yet I couldn’t account for why it quickly dissipated and didn’t have a lingering smoky tobacco smell.

Given that he had the cheek “to smoke” inside a non-smoking area, at first I wanted to report him, yet was hesitant since the evidence of his crime (smoke) vanished as quickly as it was blown. It wasn’t until a few weeks passed and I was reading an article entitled “Rise Is Seen In Students Who Use E-Cigarettes,” that I put two-and-two together and realized what this young man had been “smoking.”

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My 1.5-hour trip was uneventful. I, like the young woman seated next to me, slipped my ear buds in and listened to music and a TED clip most of the way, while I simultaneously took bored pleasure in looking down into passing motorists’ cars.

While I’m grateful to have the means and privilege to own a vehicle, I told those who picked me up that this brief two-hour excursion outside my familiar and personal comfort zone was healthy – not only for my personal life perspective, but also for the heightened consciousness it provided me of others’ day-to-day life realities.

Given that such “others” are a sizable national percentage, and a majority percentage of the global population, I encourage all individuals – particularly of economic and policy means (especially politicians) – to periodically at least disconnect yourselves from your insulated power and yea-sayer bases, and by yourself (i.e., vulnerably and independent from cronies or friends, who facilitate perpetuation of hardened negative opinions and stereotypes) connect yourself with those whose lives you have responsibility toward, either by your elected position and its power of policy, or by inheritance or fortuitous life circumstances. Such first-hand experiences might better equip you to make wise and empathetic policy decisions, which help alleviate negative societal symptoms and address malfunctioning systems.

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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

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If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

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During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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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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