eyestrain

IMG_3125A new ache here. Another pain there. I woke up ruefully reminded of aging. My aging. (Somewhere near 50, I gave up the idea of immortality; though, on occasion, I still fantasize about living forever!) Of all the changes, the most disconcerting has to do with my eyes. Despite my vanity trifocals (without the telltale lines), sometimes I squint to see clearly.

Concerning my sight, the advance of years crosses a symbolic line from physical matter to spiritual concern. It’s the vision thing! With fewer years before me than behind, I hunger to behold a life of fulfillment. Perhaps because I have lived long enough to have seen enough (too many!) dreams deferred or denied – in history, in the lives of others, in my life – I see less and, at times, believe less.

For my morning’s meditation, I turned to Ecclesiasticus, aka the Book of Ben Sira, a Jewish teacher in Jerusalem around 200 BCE. In a turbulent time, Ben Sira, witnessing the excesses of imperialistic nations, spoke of the pride that originates in “forsaking the Lord; the heart withdrawing from its Maker.”

It struck me that when one, whether nation or person, aspires to no greater good, whether God or a virtuous common ideal, and rather, to paraphrase the prayer, “follows the devices and desires of one’s own heart”, then pride erupts and corrupts.

Ben Sira described the judgment on human pride: “The overthrow of rulers and enthronement of the lowly; plucking up the roots of proud nations and planting the humble.” Immediately, I turned to the Magnificat, the song of Mary, when an angel announced that she would become Christokos, Christ-bearer: “My soul magnifies the Lord who scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly.”

A remarkable vision, whether understood as divine intervention in human history or as symbolic expression of the triumph of human goodness. But where do I see it? Reading human history, its pages indelibly stained with innocent blood, and looking at the world today, the proud prosper, the humble suffer. Still. And, in my aging, more and more I strain to see the vision.

Yes, there have been moments when there was a glimmer of love and justice made real. The end of American slavery and the overthrow of apartheid swiftly come to mind. But I do not forget the countless who died. An old phrase, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”, suggests that the sacrifice of human life can bring great good. Still I grieve for those who never saw the realization of the vision for which they long prayed. So, for them, going forward, in my age and in my aging, with the world still fraught with the prospering of the proud and the suffering of the humble, I strain to see a vision.

Yet I have hope, energized by the lives of some remarkable young people (old enough to be my children and grandchildren) who daily in private conversation and public action embody love and justice. One confronts and challenges anti-Semitism whenever it arises. Another advocates for  the liberation of Palestinian peoples. Another addresses imbalances and abuses of power in corporate boardrooms and church councils. Another labors to protect and sustain the environment. These and more, whatever their fields of endeavor, verily their callings, bring to life the vision already alit in their minds and hearts with a depth of passion, a breadth of wisdom, and a height of compassion. Because of them, I have hope. Because of them, I can see.

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a recommended routine for raging recalcitrants

Our world, again, is at war. Globally in that land we call “holy”, in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and places, sadly, too numerous to name. Regionally, in Ferguson, Missouri, with protesters, following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, crying for justice into the ears of seemingly heedless, clueless local law enforcement. Nationally in Washington, DC, where our executive, judicial, and legislative branches are mired in a dance of dysfunction, and I, with wearily shaking head, watch what I call “governance as combat”. It seems, feels to me that so many of us have mislaid the grace of civil conversation aimed at achieving consensus (or at least compromise) for the common good.

What underlies this unwillingness to engage in open communication (in which all participants arrive with clearly articulated agendas and equally expressed capacities to listen, portending the possibility of change of mind) is a shared lack of trust in mutual regard and respect.

dialogue4I believe in the power of dialogue (dia, through + logos, word) to open doors and build bridges (or whatever the operable metaphor for making meaningful connections among competing perspectives).

I also am opinionated. I relish the rigor of my own thought processes and patterns. As such (and I can’t recall when I first heard and began to practice this “stretching” exercise, perhaps it was during my high school debating days), when confronted by another point of view, I listen intently so to learn the ins-and-outs of that “other” outlook until I can articulate (argue) that alternate position with as much vigor and truth as my own. Seeing life through another’s worldview deepens my comprehension of and compassion for the greater humanity of which we always are a part.

in 2 words…what if?

My mother, Lolita, was an elementary school teacher, her sister, my aunt Evelyn, a college English professor, and their mother, my grandmother Audia, an instructor in the Baptist Church educational system in St. Louis. They, each in her own way, taught my brother Wayne and me the value of words and our care in their employ. (My grandmother ceaselessly advised us of the “efficiency” of the English language, enabling one who mastered its vast vocabulary to communicate with depth and nuance. In that, she admonished that Wayne and I not use the same word twice, particularly nouns and verbs, in the same sentence or in the same paragraph. She summoned us to practice our skills by writing her letters, which she dutifully soon returned with red pencil-marked corrections! It stung at the time, but I learned to devour dictionaries.) The three of them also repeatedly called us, oft in the mid-breath of speech, to define our terms.

From these three vitally generative women I learned that words, as symbols, alway point beyond themselves to larger realities, that an indelible difference resides between what is said and what is meant, and that no two people, no matter the similarity in terminology and usage (or, indeed, in life’s circumstances and perspective), generally, perhaps ever mean the same thing. (The complications awash in this last insight are all the more manifest when translating betwixt and among languages.)

As I awaken each day to greet, if not welcome the news updates of the latest clashes in a worldwide summer-surfeit of violence and suffering (or what may seem the lesser, but, for me, still depressingly debilitating infighting among our national branches of government), the early 20th century words of Frank Mason Neale come to mind: Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan; above the noise of selfish strife…

Though Neale, in the closing line of that first stanza (…we hear thy voice, O Son of man), prayed that we listen to Jesus, the divine and loving word of help, hope, and healing, I, on this day, wonder…

What if we, humans, all of us, around the world, and at every level of our relational living – local, regional, national, international, and personal – called and observed a cease-fire in our warring of words (as well as in the launching of our…any weaponry)? What if, even for an hour, we refrained from all vituperative verbiage that vilifies another (any other), all diatribal dialogue that denounces as demonic the intentions of another (any other)?

Words -LIFEAnd, at the cease-fire’s end, what if we defined our terms, speaking only of ourselves, our hopes and dreams, our intentions (what we deem to be and to become) and our expectations (how we desire to see our purposes come to light and to life) and all in a way that neither demeans any other nor demands another’s loss? Such self-centered speaking, perhaps paradoxically, might be a step toward safer, even more, mutually respectful living.

Empathy Matters

Empathy Matters - joined hands picture

Globally, tragic events, among them, warring and plane crashes, nature-created and human-caused, multiply and in a concentrated a period of time. (Why does it feel that summer is a season riper than others for the explosive, literally, propagation of violence and suffering?)

As I grieve, I perceive at the heart of much sorrow, especially that generated by human will, is a lack of regard, an active disregard for the dignity of our common humankindness.

Some years ago, I embarked on a half-year, round-the-world sabbatical. The theme. Conversation, Not Conversion. The idea. I, as a Christian, immersed in an increasingly and incontrovertibly pluralistic world of manifold philosophical/theological and ethical systems, yearned to engage others, “the other” in dialogue for purposes of mutual understanding and peace.

As a fruit of my experiences, I wrote a short piece entitled, Principles of Engagement of “The Other.” Presuming no authority as a behavioral guide (this was no Washington policy white paper!), I sought to share values or attitudes that I believed essential in any encounter with anyone who differs from me in any way.

Empathy was the first of nine. (Again, not professing any über-knowledgeable status, I deliberately fell short of that sacred biblical number of ten!) I defined empathy as my feeling in (not my sympathy or feeling with) another. To empathize was to seek to be in another’s reality, to see and hear, think and feel what another experiences. To empathize rather than to sympathize allowed me to identify with another even though I may not or could not agree with another.

Over time, I’ve rethought what I think I believe. In the light or the shadow of ongoing clashes between and among races and clans, ideologies and sects, national armies and factional militias, accompanied by equal and mutual invective by which persons and parties vilify, demonize their enemies, I wonder if empathy is possible.

In one sense, given that I believe that we comprehend reality through the lenses of our, though human, always individual living, empathy, as I describe it, is impossible. I can know my pain (and joy), but not yours, at least not fully. In the face of your tears (or laughter) I truthfully could say at most, “I have known sadness (or happiness).” (Though it would be kind of me not to say that, for to do so, perhaps unintentionally, would infer that your sharing your experience gave me occasion to focus on me.)

Still, in a world where suffering and sorrow are constant companions, where bodies, especially those of children, are battered and blown apart by bombs, I pray that the next incident – despite our varying skin hues, our different cultures and beliefs, our diverse ancestries and histories, especially those given to the nurturance of memories of past offenses and the thirst for vengeance – in which we behold the common color red of blood spilled may shock us into a new empathetic awareness of the blessedness of our humankindness.

the “yes” I hear in “no”

Children of Central America and Mexico, many sent by parents afraid of the death-dealing violence in their homelands, arrive at the borders of America seeking refuge, provoking new rounds of debate, and frequently ad hominem diatribe, in our national legislative citadel and between that and our executive branch about immigration reform.  A Malaysian commercial flight, with more than 300 aboard, is downed by a surface to air missile, according to intelligence and news reports, fired by pro-Russian rebels, over contested territory in east Ukraine, leading to accusations and recriminations of international scale of possible Russian complicity. Renewed and intensified Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza pours fresh upon the ground the blood of soldiers and fighters and, always, that of innocent citizenry, including children, whilst factions quarrel over the details of a potential cease-fire.

These are but three of the highlights or rather low notes of a current litany of worldly woe; verses of a recital of our all too demonstrable, historically repeatable human propensity to do harm.

I yearn for resolution to our immigration impasse, one that most closely matches the sentiment of the oft-recited words, engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, of the sonnet, The New Colossus, of Emma Lazarus, herself a descendent of Sephardic Jews who were late 18th century immigrants to this land: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Yet, as tempers continue to flare on Capitol Hill, this is not likely.

I long for worldwide peace, a new age of international comity, with a common regard for borders and, even more, a collective respect for peoples. Yet, as national and intercontinental geopolitical machinations run their courses, this is not likely.

I wish Malaysian Airlines flight 17 never had been shot down and that all who boarded in Amsterdam arrived on schedule and safely at their chosen destinations. This, as with any action in time and space, once done, is impossible to undo.

I pray for an honorable, verifiable peace, at least restraint and, at most, reconciliation in that land called “holy”. Yet, even with a halt to the fighting, given the freshness of the combatants’ reciprocal rage, the latest layer of a centuries-old shared fury, this is not likely.

I am a person of compassion. I embrace (recognize and accept), indeed, I embody (inhabit) my own pain. In this, I am able and willing not only to stand with, but to be in the place of others, vicariously identifying (feeling in my body, aching in my bones) with their suffering. I also feel powerless, unable to fulfill my yearning, my longing, my wishing, and my praying.

Ordinarily, despite my theology of expectation, given my psychology, the way I am wired, embedded in too many grave life’s disappointments, I might fall beyond the bounds of depression into despair – a state of being, one of the meaninglessness of all things, that I well know. Still, I have hope, the root of which I perceive in a perhaps odd, even paradoxical place: the shared outrage of countless folk.

People throughout the global community, an unbounded throng, from every socio-economic sphere, from the worldly powerful to the marginal cry out, saying, “No” to the suffering of children in their native lands and the agony of their treks to borders of promise, “No” to warring across national frontiers, “No” to so-called collateral casualties of innocent civilians, “No” to occupation and subjugation of peoples. As heartbreakingly relentless is our human partiality to do harm one to another, so, too, soul-stirringly resilient is our human proclivity to say “No”.

As I observe this to be true, though all of what I yearn and long and pray I think to be unlikely and, yea, that for which I wish, impossible, I hear the “yes” of hope.