Freedom

Leave It Where You Found It

“In racing…your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”[1] 

         That is how Denny, the race car driver, explained the race in the splendid novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. In other words, keep your eyes focused on the road ahead. If you look at the wall, you will hit the wall.

Let It Go

The introspective impulse of our age insists that we focus on the wall. It tells us to walk backward, always focused on the past. Appreciating the past is healthy; fixating on it can be deadly.  

         It really all comes down to a question: How important is your future?

         All the time and energy spent excavating the past, reacting to others, or getting angry represent an enormous waste. Could that drive could be better utilized in moving us forward in our own life’s purpose?

         Kimi Gray was a lifelong tenant of Washington, DC’s public housing. But she had an idea; what if tenants managed, even owned, their units? Could they begin to build equity? Would that translate into greater care for the property?

         As a lifelong Democrat, she pitched the idea to everyone she knew in her camp. When her passion failed to ignite anyone there, she dared to reach out to “the enemy.”

         President Reagan’s HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp, listened. After they talked, he introduced her to his boss. To make a long story short, Reagan signed a bill allowing tenant ownership of public housing. He then handed Kimi the keys to her own public housing unit. Her resident management corporation would administer the transfer of units to residents.

         A few days after that ceremony, I spent an afternoon with her. After talking of many things, I asked Kimi how she had been able to navigate all the personalities and polarities of “Washington” and do it so successfully for so long.

         Her voice, spoken from the language of her street, carried wisdom for everyone: “I always leave shit where I find it.”

         “What do you mean?”

         “Some folks gotta analyze it, play with it, or throw it on others. Not me; I see it, I keep walking. Leave it where you found it.”

         So simple, so intelligent. Keep walking. Leave it where you found it.

         Later, she told me about her encounter with a famous Washington power broker soon after the White House ceremony. After deriding the whole idea of resident empowerment, he said, “Kimi, don’t you know the Republicans are using you?”

         She replied, “But, I got the keys!” Her answer perfectly modeled her motto.

Ignore the Wall

We don’t have to engage, explain, or react to everything. We have no obligation to make sure everyone is happy. Our economy invests great energy and dollars to pushing people to do something. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, bargains, and other provocations we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when, where, how, and why to click, buy, be afraid, exhibit outrage, etc.

         But, to do that keeps your eye on the wall, not the track. We don’t have to live like that. Your life does not belong to marketers, politicians, news media, or any other power center. You can ignore the wall and keep your eyes on the prize.

         Just walk away. Leave it where you found it.


[1] Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

Boundaries

After firing too many personal questions at me, the hospital’s admitting rep barked, “Do you have an Advanced Medical Directive?” When I nodded, she snapped, “We’re gonna need that.”

Having lived my life in God’s loving embrace, I believe I will, when the time comes, walk through the doorway to the other side of life with confidence and peace. I’m also confident that Joanne and our children can make any decisions necessary for my care or my body.

The medical industry loves them because of convenience and efficiency, but no one is required to execute an “AD.” I only have one for my family; they can use it however they wish in the totality of what seems right at that time. I will never give it to the industry.

Rough Answers

The core truth of that episode for me was that a large organization, literally holding the power of life and death, appeared oblivious of my personal space and boundaries. Every day they handle human life. But, in my case, they didn’t show the restraint, respect, or care matching their role and power.

Perhaps my case was unusual. But I felt like I was in an auto body shop; people who did not know or care about me banged, slammed, jerked, and hammered my heart into conformity with their preferences and needs.

Since that day, seventeen months ago, I’ve been increasingly sensitized to a societal disregard or ignorance of boundaries. Our ethos seems to be inching closer to if I see it and need it, I can take it. That leads to the social condition described by an ancient proverb, “The poor man utters supplications, but the rich man answers roughly.”[1]

Too many people live on the receiving end of harsh hands and rough answers.

Do we really not know that the landscape of health, wealth, mortality, property, income, and identity is very personal real estate? If I – regardless of my legal authority or job description – were to ask someone for his or her salary, social security number, credit score, urine sample, or Advanced Directive, I’d do so very gently, carefully, and contritely.

And I would fully understand if they told me to go to Phoenix.

The Restraining Force of Law

Although they were not all Christians, America’s founding fathers accepted the Christian idea of “the depravity of man,” meaning that every human is born with a serious defect, a corruption of thinking and behavior. Because of that, we humans are prone to living a self-centered life, a life that is naturally all about me.

A primary evidence of that “me-ness” is our failure to recognize and respect boundaries. For example, infidelity is far more than a sensual search; it’s also a rejection of boundary lines. How many people, on a sexual quest, pause long enough to consider the terrain of the other person’s health, character, reputation, income, family, or future?

Laws exist because of human depravity; they restrain the rush of anarchy. Today, as so many voices despise and reject law enforcement, I often think of Thomas More’s words to William Roper in A Man For All Seasons: “This country’s planted thick with laws, from coast to coast…And if you cut them down… d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”[2]

We should all pray that the rampant and increasing lawlessness in our society does not become a hurricane of social chaos. And we should all do what we can to stop the removal of the boundary lines that protect people, property, ideas, and traditions.

What If?

Every religion on earth proclaims a version of The Golden Rule – usually rendered “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is the most perfect law ever conceived.

So, what if we all…

  • Do to others what we would like done to us?
  • Live slower, more thoughtfully, and more respectfully?
  • Ask ourselves in every situation, “How would I want to be treated right here, right now?”
  • Teach our children to, first, see and then to respect boundary lines?
  • Wait to be invited across a boundary rather than invading it?
  • Stop wearing steel spikes as we walk across territories of the heart?

 

And finally, what if we all extend kind hands and speak gentle answers?

[1] Proverbs 18:23 taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. www.Lockman.org

[2] Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990). P 66

Do Elections Matter?

I am so grateful for the quiet and gentle rhythms of my life; marriage, family, friends, Middle Tennessee, good books, good food, and the pulsating possibility of touching eternity in life’s peaceful moments and places.

But, for some reason, in presidential election years I often turn away from all of that and indulge things that are accusative, hopeless, and deceptive. I seem to step into some kind of vertigo. Why is that?

Maybe it springs from our yearning for moral order. We need for life to make sense. But that desire for clarity and justice can so often and quickly lead to a moralistic view of the world that is ironically immoral. I think that is the birthing room for politics.

Of course, politics can be fine and noble. At best, it’s the way civilizations turn conflict into compromise; it’s how honest differences, even hostilities, get zippered into some kind of consensus, policy, and forward movement.

But at it’s worst politics becomes religion; a snarling, irrational, primitive, unforgiving and brutal battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s when conversation stops, friendships fade, everyone runs to their own bunkers, and firing commences.

Why do we all get caught up in that? When Americans move into the final weeks of a Presidential campaign, that polarization rises to flood stage. We all begin to see other ideas, agendas, movements, and leaders as incarnations of evil.

Arthur Miller famously said, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.”[1] Sadly, it seems that our political bankruptcy has become a yardstick for our era’s exhaustion. Everyone faces the choice of going down with the dying era or simply walking away into a new future.

A Radical Life

Here’s the truth, Sweetheart: Life on earth always cycles. Today is no better and no worse than it has ever been. The “current situation”—whatever and wherever and whenever and with whomever it is—always breaks down (regardless of who wins elections). The old is always here, and passing away. And the new is always here, and arriving.

Jesus said, “I make all things new.” When the illusions and and ruins of the age are fully and hideously exposed, the Kingdom of God’s brand new order, that newness of life, will just keep unfurling.

When Daniel’s “current situation” in Jerusalem fell apart and he ended up in Babylonian captivity, God’s Kingdom just kept coming. History is full of those stories.

That is where I choose to stand.

And, because it defies the “normalcy” of a bankrupt and futile era, to live that way is oddly countercultural.

A radical life carries no deep affection for, or alarm about, what is passing away. Rather, it continually brings the “all things new” into the present. To live radically is to see and live now according to the new that is arriving. A radical life sees the things we fear and the things we hope (the bases of elections) as mere sand pebbles rolled back and forth by the tides of the old and the new.

I’m glad we live in a democracy; I know that voting is a great freedom and responsibility. And I know that some elections are important. But they are never as important as they claim to be.

Every one of the perceived victories this year—that wall, strong military, civil rights for LGBTQ, higher minimum wage—or losses (same list) are microscopic compared to the global and historic magnificence of the now-and-still-coming Kingdom of God.

So, yes, vote. Volunteer. Donate. But keep politics in perspective. Radical living does not allow politics to trade illusions for real life and it does not give politics any authority over personal relationships.

And radicals, like Daniel, never get confused about the relative power of tides and sand pebbles.

[1] Arthur Miller, “The Year it Came Apart”New York Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1 (30 December 1974 – 6 January 1975), p. 30

 

Paul and the Mountain

Several years ago, knowing I would probably never hunt again, I decided to give my shotguns to my sons. So on Christmas morning, with all our family opening gifts in our living room, I went downstairs and gathered my .410, 20-gauge, and 12-gauge. When our son Paul saw me coming up the stairs he announced, “This is either going to be a very warm family moment or a profoundly tragic one.”

That line was classic Paul. His perspectives always bumped the scenes of life just slightly askew. Paul is the most asymmetrical person I’ve ever known. Built like a refrigerator, his large frame encased the delicate and curious heart of a child. Some people couldn’t get past the fridge. Paul knew that; you could see it in his eyes. But then his tilted humor, his gift for absurdity, went to work, pushing attention away from himself.

As laughter warmed the room, the real Paul would emerge. His voice had a magical and musical pitch; even at 43, you could hear a child’s excitement in his phrasing and intonations. Words just tumbled out of his mouth. As the velocity increased, his words began to dance with laughter, spinning faster and faster. Then it all became a waterfall… words and full laughter and sometimes tears cascading down over everything and everyone.

Paul loved Chinn people, places, stories, and legacies. So it was almost predictable that Paul and his sweet Libby chose the Chinn farm in Kansas for their 07-07-07 wedding. From the time they rode away, they seemed like a long and happily married couple. Like most couples, they had that private language of looks and sighs and shrugs. But theirs was very eloquent.

Paul just filled all his familial and friendship roles, especially as Libby’s husband, our son, and Eddie and Amy’s brother. But “uncle” is one of the most enduring images of his life. I will always see him fishing with Nathan or playing parlor games with his nieces. To hear the shrieks of laughter from that table would make anyone feel better about everything…from terrorism to termites.

Many years ago Paul taught us much about communicating with God. When Joanne or I stood over his crib, gazing at our beautiful baby, his face would light up and he would search our eyes and jabber…long “messages” and excited laughter with clapping hands. Then he would move into serious, seemingly very sober, babbling. I often wondered what mysteries that little boy spoke to his mom and dad. I don’t know, but I know he helped us to see that we didn’t need to pray in formal or religious language. Bubbling heartsounds are just fine.

Paul didn’t like religion, politics, bees, or cabbage. He loved reading, writing, the Denver Broncos (after the Redskins broke his heart one too many times), fantasy football, fishing, parlor games, gaming and movies. His knowledge of movies was encyclopedic and he was a fine (and prominently published) film critic.

To Paul, films were frequent channels of prayer. He loved and often read the Bible, but he also heard whispers from the other side in movies.

His favorite film was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Paul was five when it came out. From his first viewing, and throughout his life, he was gripped with the story of Roy Neary, a good man captured by the image of a mountain.

As Roy followed the image inscribed on his heart, he met others who bore the same image. They were all drawn together around their search for the mountain. In the end, they all stood together on that mountain. And there, Roy stepped aboard the craft that would take him away from his wife and family and all that was familiar on his journey to another world.

Early in the morning of October 11, 2015, Paul Chinn also stepped beyond a familiar and loving society of family and friends, into the eternal care of His Creator.

His death, from a heart attack, is deeply painful to all those left behind. But his departure also reminded us that he belonged to God before we ever knew him. And he now continues his life just beyond our senses and somewhere on that mountain that he saw and searched for. Paul Chinn now belongs fully and only to the One Who gave him life.

And he would not return to us if he could.

Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

In August of 1996, 10-year-old Taylor Touchstone went swimming with his family in a Florida panhandle creek. Minutes later the mildly autistic boy, known for having no sense of fear, vanished. His family members reacted immediately; they knew that the creek emptied into a vast and dangerous swamp.

A massive search quickly came together. Boats and helicopters with high-tech tracking systems, and more than 200 volunteers, covered the area. Everyone felt they were in a race with death. The swamp was home for alligators, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins. One year earlier four Army Rangers had died while training in the same swamp.

After covering a 36-square-mile area over three days, the search effort came to a sorrowful end. The boy was presumed dead.

But early in the morning of the fourth day, 14 miles away from where Taylor was last seen, a fisherman saw a child calmly bobbing in the water. He knew immediately who the boy was, pulled him into his boat, and full-throttled to the dock. The boy was naked, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, and had some minor cuts and bites. Beyond that he was fine.

Taylor has never provided details of his incredible journey; no one knows how he survived – or travelled 14 miles. But photos of alligators made him very excited and happy.

Albert Einstein once asked a crucial question: “Is the universe a friendly place?” The only possible answers, “yes” or “no,” are both true. In a mysterious and eternal reciprocity, the one who replies receives the full cargo of his or her answer.

The structure of the universe tends to give us what we ask. We eat what we speak. In other words, we are all farmers. We plant the seeds, and then live by the crop that comes up out of the soil. Plant a yes; reap a yes. Is the universe a friendly place? Answer wisely; you’ll live by your response.

Taylor Touchstone had no sense of fear; he trusted his environment. And apparently his environment gave him full support. That is so like children. Bright eyes, quick smiles, and eager to go. Except for those who live in dark and dangerous places, most children instinctively know the universe – at least their part of it – is safe and pleasant.

Several years ago my second cousin moved to Los Angeles. Jennifer, so young and excited, wanted to break into the entertainment industry. But, in an old story, she found the road more difficult than expected. At one point she ran out of money. She told me, “I literally had no money in my account and no gas in my car to make it to work.”

Her desperate need drove her to call her mom. When Dorothy heard her daughter’s voice, she said, “Oh, Jenn, I was just about to call you. Have you checked your bank account today?” She had not. So Dorothy told her that Jennifer’s grandmother awakened after a troubling dream. Concerned about Jennifer’s welfare, she began praying for her granddaughter. When morning came, she arranged for a cash gift to be deposited in Jennifer’s bank account.

Jennifer had been walking past ATMs every day; her cash was that near. When she told me that story, I wondered how often I walk on, by, or around strong support from the God of the universe – support that is just a few steps away.

Yes, I know that people die in swamps and some lose everything and end up living on the street. But I also know that joy, faith, and vulnerability help young people to greet the universe with joyful expectancy. And so often the universe responds with strong support.

When author and professor Dallas Willard was diagnosed with cancer, he said something quite profound, “I think that when I die it might be some time until I know it.” In other words, the membrane between this life and the next one is very thin. We are all moving through a much larger and friendlier terrain than we ever imagined – the vast universe of the Creator’s design and generosity.

The universe is friendly. You can enjoy the journey, especially if you travel through it like a child.

Mother Antonia’s Great Adventure

Grandma Chinn probably had Alzheimer’s. But we didn’t have a name for it in those days. Her mental and behavioral quirks were just…Grandma. We knew her, not a disease. After a visit with her we said things like, “Bless her heart, she’s a little confused today.”

By the time my father became afflicted with Alzheimer’s, we knew a whole lot about it. In fact, I grew to despise my knowledge of that disease. I found it too easy to relate to Alzheimer’s, not to Dad.

The Bible says that knowledge “puffs up.” Sure does. Knowledge is like vodka; a little of it gives me the swagger and bluster to announce judgments about things far above me, things that are simply none of my business and not within my capacity.

That must be what gives us the arrogance to believe that we can classify human lives as “tragic, good, cut short, blessed, cursed, troubled,” etc. Those are very audacious pronouncements. And our “helping professions” are worse. They use terribly insulting language in their catalogs…defects, deformities, disfigurement, malformed, etc. Malformed? Disfigured? According to whom?

Surely I am not the only one who hears the phrase “vegetative state” as grossly dehumanizing. How did civilized people ever allow an old school yard slur – “Vegetable!” – to enter the lexicon of medical language?

Sounds like knowledge might puff up.

A better perspective comes from David, the Psalmist. He wrote of God, “Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee.” (Psalm 139:12)

Maybe a life is a life. Maybe lives of one hour or those lived with severe spinal injuries are as beautiful and blessed as ones lived in great health, luxury, and longevity. Is it possible that God sees them alike and grants the grace to live there? Perhaps life needs to be lived straight ahead, without comparison to others and without the imposition of human designs or alterations.

Mary Clarke grew up in the wealth and splendor of Beverly Hills. She was a socialite and had closets of fine clothes. Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Dinah Shore were her neighbors. Mary lived a typical Southern California life; she was a member of the Beverly Hills Country Club and she married and divorced twice.

When she was 50, she gave away all her possessions, became a Roman Catholic nun and moved into – into, not near – a notorious Tijuana prison. As Mother Antonia, she lived in the same conditions as the prisoners; her home was a 10’ by 10’ cell (which she painted pink) and she ate what they ate. She lived in that cell for the last 36 years of her life (she died in October 2013).

In 1994, when a full-scale riot broke out, the 5-foot-2 Mother Antonia walked through a blizzard of bullets, her face aglow. Eyewitnesses said she never stopped smiling. Armed only with love, she saw the riot come to a peaceful end. Prison was to her what a basketball court was to Michael Jordan. The zone.

She once said, “Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years.” Incredibly, this woman moved into the darkness and found that it became as bright as the day.

Do you think that Mother Antonia’s great sense of adventure could turn Alzheimer’s or quadriplegia or even death into a brightly lit ballroom?

If God sees darkness and light the same, maybe we can too. I know many people who have lived “a hard life.” And I know it’s not easy. But I’ve also seen them put that life on, like a new tuxedo or evening gown, trusting God to bless it, fill it up, and turn it into a grand ballroom waltz.

Living on the Roulette Wheel

I went to visit an old friend in his new home a few days ago. I found “Fred” sitting in a semi-circle of 12 other people gazing at a TV. The others drooped, drooled, gaped or groaned in various depths of indignity.

But Fred, true to his nature, sat tall and regal, ignoring the TV and silently pumping hand weights; at 77 he still resists the inevitable trajectory of aging. He continues to fly above the lowlands.

Some would say that Fred lives “in community.” But he really doesn’t; he lives in a warehouse with other unique characters who all happen to fit into a box called “Alzheimer’s.” I understand; the system does not have time to get to know everyone. Of necessity, it looks past the person and focuses on the category.

Over recent decades the pace of American life seems to have become a centrifuge, spinning all of us away from a quiet, local and personal life. Like a roulette wheel, the centrifugal force throws us into the outer rim pockets of group identities – liberal, conservative, Muslim, paraplegic, gay, Gen-X, African-American, etc.

That force squeezes individuality, creativity, privacy and freedom as our larger institutions – government, business, media, religion, health care, etc. – press us into conformity with “higher” objectives. One result of that dynamic is that we are losing sight of the people right in front of our eyes. We all tend to see group labels.

When and why did that happen?

It seems to me that once upon a time, and when the pace and cadences of life were slower, our shared community values assumed that the universe was created. We didn’t “believe;” we knew that people and animals and plants and seasons and orbits did not just happen. It was self-evident; it required no proof or reasoning.

We also knew that every human bears the signature of God. And we granted respect to people because of the God Who created them. However subtle and silent, that respect recognized that the person beside you was created, and is loved, by God. The wise heart sought to find the true value and beauty of God’s design and love in that very distinctive person.

I think the loss of that assumption is a large part of why we no longer take the time to get to know people as individuals. We’ve all moved from the organic to the organizational, from relationship to productivity. Things move so fast that we have to make snap judgments; you know, for the common good. So we just identify them according to their group pocket on the roulette wheel.

Systems seem to say to us, “Yes, we know that your mother is a very distinguished lady and has a beautiful story. But we just can’t take the time to get to know everyone like we wish we could. Please understand; it’s just more efficient this way.”

David wrote an opus of our origins in a few simple lines.

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place… (Psalm 139:13-15 NIV)

Everyone should soak in that Psalm. Those words will help us to take time to really consider the beauty of God’s intimate and elegant creation of people. I think it also helps to turn it outward. “God knit you in your mother’s womb…you are fearfully and wonderfully made…your frame was not hidden when God made you in the secret place.

Think about those verses the next time you look at your spouse, children, parents or siblings.

Meditate its meaning as you spend time with your neighbors, friends, associates, or the police officer writing you a speeding ticket. Remember it when you see the President or Sarah Palin on TV.

Get off the roulette wheel; take time to get to know people as individuals. Ignore his or her politics, race, religion, age, illness or other labels. Interview her; find her story.

From that place you just might find the road back to the high ground of human respect.

One Man

Stephen Talty’s book, Agent Garbo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), tells a spectacular story of one man’s enormous contribution to the Allied victory in World War 2. Viewed through the lens of today, this story is unbelievable.

Here’s the short version.

In 1941 Juan Pujol Garcia was a 28-year-old chicken farmer in Barcelona. Unalterably opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, he walked into the British embassy in Madrid and asked for a job as a spy. Of course they rejected him. So he went to the Americans. They were not impressed with him either.

Then Pujol asked the enemy for a spy job!

After hearing his emotional and bombastic profession of love for Hitler, the Germans accepted him…if he would relocate to England. Instead, he moved to Portugal and convinced the Germans that he was writing reports from England. When they told him to hire some agents, he created a fictitious network of 27 spies.

At that time, British Intelligence was an oxymoron (they were seriously considering staging the Second Coming of Christ as a means of defeating the Germans). But they soon had enough intelligence to realize that a very proficient Nazi spy was undermining the Allies. Finally, Pujol had gained the respect of British Intelligence!

When he went back to them, they accepted him as a double agent and code-named him “Garbo,” for he was surely the best actor in the world. He was theatrical, emotional, daring, and brilliant. And maybe nuts.

Agent Garbo’s greatest role was his support of D-Day. To create the illusion of an Allied strike 200 miles from the real one, he contrived a completely fabricated million-man army, led by General Patton. Under Pujol’s direction, the British built thousands of wood or inflatable decoys of tanks, boats, airplanes, hospitals, and other wartime necessities. Patton, like an actor, even made a speech in his fictional role.

The Germans bought it. Furthermore, Pujol had the audacity to convince the Germans that the real D-Day invasion was a scam. Even after D-Day! Although they assigned an army to Normandy, they kept a far larger force at the fake site. Clearly, without Pujol’s masterful deceit, D-Day would have cost thousands more lives than it did.

It is one of the most astonishing stories I’ve ever read.

How was it even possible that a man who had no training as a spy and failed at everything else in life became an essential voice to, both, Hitler and Churchill? He, a double agent, is the only spy to be honored by both Germany and England.

So many contributed to the success of D-Day. But Juan Pujol Garcia probably achieved more than any other individual.

Beyond my high recommendation of the book, Agent Garbo really challenged me. Could one person achieve such bold and sweeping things today? I don’t know. But it’s an important question.

It seems that today we live inside a screaming wind tunnel that blows everything into conformity with acceptable patterns. As a result, the distinctives of individuals are contoured into the most “aerodynamic” uniformity possible.

Progress seems to take as much as it gives. I love living in this age; I would not want to live in any other time or place. But it does seem that we’ve lost our view, and our honor of, grand individuals. We all seem to identify with our group.

That is why Agent Garbo is such a mesmerizing artifact. It gives the reader a clear view of a time when individuals sure seemed to matter more than they do today.

Perhaps the leveling of structures in our time will release individuals to achieve great things again.

Confidence

We all ride a ball that is 8 thousand miles in diameter and moves 67,000 miles an hour in its perfect orbit around the sun. Our whole solar system is traveling about 45,000 miles per hour through our galaxy, a galaxy that is 100,000 light years wide and contains about 200 billion stars. And all those stars move in their own orbits. And never bump.

How was or is it ever considered wise (or cool) for humans to swagger around our planet, insisting that the vast and synchronous universe, darnedest thing, just came blowing in one day? Just as a great martini doesn’t just happen, most people know they and the universe didn’t either. They are instinctively confident about a creator. Of course, individuals have the right to deny it, but how could belief in creation ever be viewed as stupid or scandalous?

Let’s look at another issue, sex. Consider that people are born male or female. The mosaic of sensuality, desire, love, compatibility, lineage, and the transmission of values and identity through family is obvious and sweeping. That some may dispute sexual design or choose to live in same sex relationships does not invalidate male and female sex as pivotal in civilization.

Come on, folks; it is not ignorant to assume a Creator of the universe or the familial pattern of society. It is fine for individuals to dispute or deconstruct such ideas. But for a whole culture to do so is like losing confidence in gravity or osmosis.

This is not a free expression issue. And I don’t have a problem with the contrarians. My real question is, “how does a society lose confidence in reality?” For example, gender is no longer assumed. People in academia, psychotherapy, sociology, and other professional areas know they can lose everything by writing or speaking in “male” and “female” terms. How does that happen?

To answer that, we have to first look at the basic units of a society – human beings.

Humans have wondrous capacities – moral, ethical, spiritual, physical, intellectual, computational, etc. A mature person is one who keeps them all in some kind of balance and perspective; after all, they are gifts, not sources of identity. They are adjectives, not nouns. We would never call a person “an ethical” or “a spiritual.” Uh-oh. It seems that one of those, intellectual, did somehow become a noun.

And “intellectual” does have a weird effect on those who take it on as an identity, similar to the grotesque human sculptures of extreme bodybuilding. To overemphasize anything creates an aberration.

Now, I know people who handle their intellectual gift with grace and humility. But they are like a stripper at a family reunion; they keep it on a chain. That gathering is just not the appropriate arena for showing their stuff.

Family reunions and other micro-societies should reveal and reflect the Apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV). Too many intellectuals do not seem to know that. They and other elites (like journalists, politicians, and entertainers) pretend to possess “secret knowledge.” So they grab the microphones and presume to become our guides into their esoteric wisdom.

But, wait a minute. Life’s big question is “Who am I?” It is not “How do I display dazzling logic?”

Stephen Covey wrote, “People cannot live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key…to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you value.” Restoring cultural confidence requires that we first know who we are. That solid foundation is essential to navigating change.

Change comes through many voices, even those we call intellectuals. Yes, of course, Rachel Carson changed the way cultures and nations view the environment. We will always need those voices, but those voices also need to think, write, and argue within cultural confidence. That is a “keel.” It keeps our vessel from capsizing in strong winds.

Joanne once had a doctor who assumed that his area of expertise gave him the right to intrude on our territory. When he grew visibly irritated that we didn’t properly react to his dire assessment, we corrected and bounced him back to the small “box” of his value. In complying, he became a valuable voice. He even admitted later that he was wrong; he saw an illusion.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed a parade of illusions (in all disciplines and across a wide spectrum of philosophical and political views). All were championed by elite voices that should have been tested first. Perhaps a renaissance of recalling our foundations would equip us to better manage the voices.

Remember.

Circles of Life

I grew up in the middle of Kansas, in the middle of America, in the middle of the 20th century. Naturally the racial attitudes in our home reflected our time and place.

But over time I came into personal friendship with several African-Americans. I didn’t seek them; they didn’t seek me. It just happened. And as the atoms of their life slowly seeped into mine, the molecules of my identity began to mutate.

I changed, not because of anything intellectual or political, but because I grew to love Lee, Bill, Ken and Gail, Don and Hildred, John, Morris, Lorraine, Roland and other African-American friends. And love taught me to look at life through their eyes.

That may be why I’ve never been able to connect with political or cultural approaches to race. The polemics of a movement seemed cold and loveless. The voices always sounded more angry than empathetic, and the action more symbolic than functional.

Twenty-five years ago author Stephen Covey described life’s “Circle of Concern” and “Circle of Influence.”[1] I think that perspective is valuable today.

The circle of concern contains things like aging, weather, alien invasions, and a wide range of national and global issues – things we can do nothing about. That circle is fairly new in human history; it was made possible by mass media and it tends to be where experts hang out.

The other circle, influence, holds our family, friends, property, health, work and other nearby arenas. It is the circle wherein our influence can and does make a difference. For most of history, it was the only circle. Home, school, church, courthouse, barbershop; these marked the borders of life and “concerns.”

In recent decades the electromagnet of our contemporary culture (media, politics, religion, entertainment) has pulled us away from the circle of our real-life influence, the place where we actually do unto others, out into the amorphous arena of “concern.”

I have friends who live and work in that circle; I know they live out of true compassion. I don’t disparage them or their efforts. But I also know that concern can be a bully as it converts normal and noble human concern into funding bases. I know from my own years of working in social arenas that experts tend to design solutions and then parachute them into neighborhoods, without any real engagement with those who actually live with the problems. That’s because the visible objects of the programs are not the real clients; the funders are.

Using the conditions of some to leverage power or funding from others is a cruel hoax. And it happens every day.

A long-time and highly-respected Washington journalist once told me that Washington had become, within his years there, a city obsessed by issues rather than one focused on solving problems. Issues raise money and build careers. That’s why that system can never solve anything.

An “issue” orientation to race only seems to produce voices in a chorus chant, “Treyvon Martin! Paula Deen! Donald Sterling!” It’s an endless loop.

It seems to me that too many of us abandoned our circle of influence; we lost eye contact with those around us, believing that the circle of concern was the proper arena for “progress.” Maybe its now time for us to walk away from “concern” and return to the arena of hard work.

What if, instead of considering racism as an “issue,” and the property of experts, we considered it for what it really is – a problem? Seeing it that way might release us to work on it with practical and relational tactics. Perhaps we could bring it back to our circle of influence where it could be a focus of networking, collaboration, strategic thinking, seeking favor, rewarding goodwill, and, yes, love.

I believe that there, in that circle, away from the experts, the most perfect social law of all time – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – would operate more freely and be infinitely more effective.

What people do to others is what matters.

 

[1] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon and Schuster, 1989) pages 81-86.

 

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