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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

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This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

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Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

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Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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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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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?”

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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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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.

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)Daniel5

Damon4

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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.

2012 - our family inc son-in-law

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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Why Learn A Foreign Language?

Want to see millions of North Americans experience apoplexy (incapacity or speechlessness caused by extreme anger)?

Insist they become fully conversant in a foreign language!

This is ironical because wherever you go in the United States, at least, from airports and train stations, to Wal-Mart, Costco and Barnes & Noble – even virtual behemoths like Amazon – you’ll see displays of, if not solicited to buy, language learning books and software.

Merely search “Spanish software” on Amazon and 190-pages appear, including Instant Immersion, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Learn To Speak, Language Trek, eLanguage, Visual Link, JumpStart, Berlitz, SmartPolyglot, Hooked On, The Learning Company, and, well . . . you get the picture.

If there is such an evident commercial, even educational, push to learn another language, why are we as a nation still so monolingual?

Partly because it’s still too common that required school language courses are taught by non-native or non-fully conversant speakers, who teach grammar and vocabulary but do not insist on full language immersion from day one. This is true for my three girls currently enrolled at elementary, intermediate, and high school.

Partly because as a nation we have been for more than a century, and remain-to-this-day, a “superpower.” Power and privilege generally imply that “the others” have to accommodate themselves to you. NO, I’m not even slightly suggesting this is the way it should be! Power should imply responsibility versus privilege.

I propose that the millions of North Americans, who annually go on mission trips, studies abroad, frequent bucket list vacations, or who start non-profits to eradicate hunger or water shortages in such-and-such African countries, should seriously, as a precondition for going or doing, set a goal of attaining a minimum of Level 2 or 3 (out of 5) proficiency (Limited to Professional) in the language of destination prior to departure.

Why this is important . . .

I could justifiably say “for world peace,” and in the long-term and grand scale of things this is true.

Practically speaking, learning the other’s language minimizes you or your group’s potential (or propensity) to misrepresent the people, culture and country you visit or “help” when you return back home.

The annals of adventure travelogues and missionary correspondence overflow with false witness and disparaging stereotype, which as we know (yet few of us WASPS have experienced), once spoken or visually projected has the insidious power to become the persistent manner by which the world speaks about and views “the other.”

For example, for the past 300 years, portrayal of blacks as savages and heathens, corresponded to a like-treatment of them. According to Winthrop Jordan, former National Book Award-winning historian who wrote several influential works on American slavery and race relations, “Negroes were from the very first encounters with Europeans likened to beasts.”

Why? Because in Africa there resided a beast that was like a man. That is, whites encountered blacks at almost precisely the same time as they encountered apes.  Unfortunately for blacks, this led to rabid European speculations, which incorporated centuries-old traditions with the coincidence of simultaneous ape/African contact.  It resulted in the inevitable correlation of similarities between the “man-like beasts and the beast-like men of Africa.”

Expending the time and many embarrassed frustrations of learning a foreign language also conveys the message(s): “I see you! We are on this life journey together. I value your perspective and way of life equally with my own. Neither of our ways of life or worldview is without fault, yet through sharing and listening to our respective personal and cultural narratives we will respect and honor each other. In respecting each other’s dignity, we will each, then, be open to hearing the candid criticisms we each might need to hear.”

This raises a critical question . . .

What should be the principle reason or motivation to learn a foreign language?

I realize this likely will be met with some derision, yet from my bi-cultural, American and African life experience, I believe most of my fellow Americans might be inclined to learn a foreign language primarily to speak, to tell, or to ask – so as to navigate in and around a foreign country and culture. As a 19th century American missionary to southeast Africa voiced his motivation to learn isiZulu, “I trust however that I shall understand enough of the language to explain to the people the way of salvation.”

I believe the principle reason to study a language should be TO LISTEN. And in listening, TO HEAR. And in hearing, TO UNDERSTAND.

LanguageBlog

A 19th century English clergyman to southeast Africa, John W. Colenso, expressed these thoughts about itinerant travelers and fellow missionaries, “I doubt if they have been able—or willing if able—to sit down, hour by hour, in closest friendly intercourse with natives of all classes, and in the spirit of earnest, patient, research, with a full command of the native language, have sought to enter, as it were, within the [native’s] heart.”

Long before there was language software or language schools, Colenso became fluent in isiZulu through no special skills except diligence, hard work, and a willingness to work and live in near proximity to those people, whose language he wanted to learn.

Of this experience he stated, “I have no special gift for languages, but what is shared by most educated men of fair ability.  What I have done, I have done by hard work—by sitting day after day, from early morn to sunset, till they, as well as myself, were fairly exhausted—conversing with them as well as I could, and listening to them conversing,—writing down what I could of their talk from their own lips, and, when they were gone, still turning round again to my desk, to copy out the results of the day.”

Now . . . in case you’ve been thinking “Scott must be a linguist also,” let me dispel that thought! Unlike my wife who is fluent in Spanish, German, English, and conversant in Zulu, Venda and Swahili, languages do not come easily to me. This is largely due to my having bi-lateral high frequency hearing loss, which practically means that in noisy environments initial word consonants are indiscernible due to them being high-frequency. In short, in noisy contexts it’s often like trying to decipher meaning by hearing only vowels and a consonant or two – imagine Wheel of Fortune contestants!

BUT . . . given my own state and nation’s current and rapidly changing demographics, I’m enrolled in a Spanish course at a local community college, and I do possess Level 3 proficiency in Swahili and Venda.

Would you join me in committing to learn another/foreign language? 

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Sweets By Any Other Name Would Be As Sweet

We have all experienced this.

You’re standing curbside at your high school or university alma mater’s homecoming parade. Marching bands and elaborately decorated floats crawl past.

Sweets/candy by the handful are tossed to excited and eager children bystanders. They run, dive and vie for the choicest of sweets – bite-size chocolate bars, Tootsie Rolls and Pops, Jolly Ranchers, and Sweet-Tarts. Pockets already overflowing with candy, and mouths full with giant Jaw Breaker gum, exultant hands and arms intermittently raise high and shouts express, “YES! I beat you to it! I’ve got more than you!”

Imagine now an entirely different setting, with children who have no experience with, let alone any notion of what a parade is.

They’re walking back at the height of a Tropic of Capricorn day. It’s hot. They’re weighted down by the heavy-in-proportion-to-their-body loads, tired, hungry and thirsty from having wandered far from their family in search of firewood and water.

Given the absence of any motorized warning, only the rubbing of foot and skin against coarse small pebbles and the golden dry grass of the Kalahari Desert, the Khoisan children round a misplaced hillock and come face-to-face with a white adult male – a geologist, perhaps? A government health worker on an inoculation tour? Maybe a missionary? Whichever or neither; it doesn’t really matter.

They stop almost by command and greet one another. The European is taken by the children’s kindness and respect shown to this white stranger, and before bidding them adieu reaches in and draws out the inner lining of his pant pocket, because prior to leaving home that morning he had placed in it a handful of sweets to suck on and keep his mouth moist during the long hours of trekking in the African sun. Immediately he’s embarrassed by his attempted act of kindness because he realizes that only one sweet remains in the pocket.

Too late, though. The children see the sweet. Putting it back without offering it would be even more rude. He extends his hand to the eldest of the five children. She shyly yet eagerly takes the lone sweet. He thinks to himself, “Now I’ve done it! What next? Fighting? Arguing?”

Neither and nothing of the kind! What she did will forever remain with him. She carefully unwrapped the sweet, placed it in her mouth, and sucked on it. After a brief moment, she took it out of her mouth and handed it to another child, who similarly sucked on it for a moment in time before passing it along to the next girl, and so forth and so on until the sweet was no more.

I read the above autobiographical narrative from a book when I was conducting research for my dissertation.

A decade and a half earlier . . .

I experienced a similar act of sharing from African children, but this time at the base of the Aberdare Mountains near the Equator.

The occasion was Interim, a weeklong cultural-study excursion my Kenya boarding school of Rift Valley Academy allowed junior and senior students to participate in once each year. There were a number of “interims” one could choose from, including piki safari (pikipiki = motorbike in Swahili), Malindi (Indian Ocean), Tsavo (game reserve), and mine – hiking in the Aberdares. I like camping and hiking, but in honesty, I chose this interim more to save my parents money than anything.

As you can imagine given the option of hiking and tent versus vehicle and safari lodge, we were a small group led by a “Mr. S,” a tall, wiry RVA staff member. The first night we were to stay in an old spartan brick building near the Aberdare Reserve main entrance. Two rugby friends and I, Francis A and Wilson M, went exploring soon after arrival. We came upon a nearby flowing stream, serene, with lush green grass; a perfect bivouac.

With everything so green (wet) the first task was getting a fire going, both to cook with and sit and sleep around. A few small children wandered down to water’s edge to fill their family’s water containers, before hauling them back up the winding footpath and over the steep ridge, all the while balancing them on top of their heads. Given our anomaly, they lingered with their daily task, during which they repetitively glanced our way, wandering I’m sure, at what brings one white and two Kenyan teenage boys to their neck of the woods.

As best I can recall the sequence of events . . .

Since it was almost dinner time, Wilson asked the boys if they would ask their mother if we could buy a head of cabbage from them.  We wanted to cook it alongside our ugali (a thick, almost bread/porridge staple made from cornmeal) and in place of Kenyans’ traditional ugali accompaniment, “sukuma wiki” (a collard green, which literally means “to push the week” – a reference for a cheaper food that supplements and makes more expensive food, like meat, last longer).

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

One boy set off back home and returned shortly informing us that their mother was not in a position to sell us a head of cabbage (no reason given, although it was likely due to their poverty and leanness of food supply).

Obviously this response did not set well with three boarding school young men, who lived on the edge of starvation, anyway, due to the “culinary reputation” of RVA’s kitchen at the time (I recall several of us once eating an entire bottle of French’s mustard in the dorm one evening, because we were so hungry!:). Nonetheless, we thanked the boys before they set off back home, and in an effort to be hospitable, shared a few sweets with them.

With about 30 minutes to spare before darkness set in, one of the boys returned with not one, but three heads of cabbage! We tried to pay his family for the gifts, but he had been instructed by his mother not to accept payment. We could only suppose it was a gift to thank us for sharing a few paltry sweets. We feasted that night, leaving 2 uneaten cabbages with park rangers, but not before we ourselves climbed the ridge, making slits in the stumps/stalks of several harvested cabbage plants, and inserting into each slit several shillings – more than enough to cover the cost at a local market.

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