Sunday, November 13, 2016

#BuildThatBridge: ... And I'm Talking, Too

This essay is a companion to my previous one entitled I’m Listening... I hope you’ll read that one first. That’s how I developed them and that’s how my thinking is moving.  

I want to listen first. I want to understand. I want to find the common ground that we can both share and protect and develop. I want to be your neighbor and your brother and your friend. But there are limits. There are principles I’m not willing to give up just so we can get along. Some we might share, some not. I want to respect you, even when we disagree. Especially then. Here’s what you are going to need to respect about me. 

I believe in a Creator who values love over fear, sacrifice over selfishness, compassion over pride, choice over coercion, dignity over shame, forgiveness over punishment, and giving over taking. I believe in a Redeemer who modeled a way of life that could bring about a more perfect world if we had the courage to imitate him. I believe in the counseling presence of a Spirit whose guidance and continuing revelation never abandons anyone, no matter how hopelessly lost they might feel or appear to be.

I believe in Human Rights that no government has the authority to take away. That people have the right to lives that are as rich and healthy as it is possible for anyone to be. That they ought to be free to choose their religion, their ideas, their profession, and their home without interference from anyone. That insofar as they do not harm to their neighbors, people are entitled to the opportunity to be happy. To choose who they love. Where they find entertainment and recreation. How they express themselves. Who their friends are. How they treat their own bodies. And I believe that when these rights are threatened by governments, corporations, public groups, or private individuals, people are entitled to defense and protection.

I believe we are stewards of this planet and everything on it. That the earth and its resources are not ours to destroy, but are our inheritance and our legacy. That every living thing has a role and a dignity that deserve our respect and if necessary, our protection. That abuse of the environment is an offense against our creator, our neighbors, and ourselves. 

I believe that everyone gets it wrong sometimes. That you life ought to reflect what you believe, but what you believe may not determine how I live my life. That everyone has something to teach us. That Truth is revealed in many ways to many different people. That we can always do better. 
We can disagree. We can split hairs. We can show off, hurt each other’s feelings, cut one another slack, and find ways to settle for less than we wish we could get. But these are the boundaries I’m not going to cross. 

Now let’s start building bridges.

#BuildThatBridge: I'm Listening...

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Losing hurts when the stakes are so high. Godwin’s law had been validated and surpassed months before. Evil people had elected a combination of Hitler, Mussolini, and Napoleon in a wave of hatred and bigotry than marked the end of the United States as a beacon of hope for the world. I ached when Ohio fell. I wept when Pennsylvania joined. I vented and raged on Facebook, grieving for crushed hopes of a better future.

What to do when your Republic has lost its mind? Move to the mountains, build a tiny shack, and become a hermit? Start sending resumes to YMCA’s in Canada? Buy a gun and prepare for blood in the streets? Stop going to work, empty my bank account, and drink till my liver exploded? 

Please don't think I’m being funny. I considered them all. Ultimately, I turned to my faith for help. In the excitement of anticipated victory I had forgotten my devotions for Tuesday. Psalm 121 popped up on my phone.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—   from where will my help come? 
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. 
He will not let your foot be moved;   he who keeps you will not slumber. 
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. 
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.

I started to pray. “OK God. So I’m supposed to trust you and not be afraid. Now what? What the hell am I supposed to do? The Tribulation is here. The Anti-christ has taken charge. Apocalypse.” Exhausted by emotion, I lay in the dark, staring up. waiting to hear  Four Horsemen thundering down North Broadway. Instead, in the silence, I got my answer.


And that’s what I’ve been doing this week. I have been listening to the people who chose Donald Trump, and to their reasons. Here’s what I’m hearing. They felt disrespected. They felt ignored. Their childhood heroes were vilified. Their religion ridiculed. Their concerns dismissed. Instead of enlarging the tent, Liberals had made room for the disadvantaged by evicting the people whose ancestors built it. Did their numbers include radicals and bigots? Yes. Were some of then influenced by lies and propaganda? Absolutely. But the vast majority of people I’m listening to believe that their voice was not being heard and they do not want to be left behind. They believed the bus was headed for the ditch.

So they pulled the emergency stop cord. They hit the brakes.

So far, that’s what I’m hearing. The good people who voted for Trump, they aren't radicals. They aren’t extremists. They don’t want to own the bus. They don’t even necessarily want to drive. They just don’t want to be left on the side of the road while the bus rolls on without them.

This post is the first of two. I hope you'll follow up by reading ... and I'm Talking, Too.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Meditation for Labor Day

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; 
only the one who has little business can become wise. 
How can one become wise who handles the plough,
   and who glories in the shaft of a goad,
who drives oxen and is occupied with their
   and whose talk is about bulls? 
He sets his heart on ploughing furrows,
   and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. 
So it is with every artisan and master artisan
   who labours by night as well as by day;
those who cut the signets of seals,
   each is diligent in making a great variety;
they set their heart on painting a lifelike image,
   and they are careful to finish their work. 
So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil,
   intent on his ironwork;
the breath of the fire melts his flesh,
   and he struggles with the heat of the furnace;
the sound of the hammer deafens his ears,
   and his eyes are on the pattern of the object.
He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork,
   and he is careful to complete its decoration. 
So it is with is the potter sitting at his work
   and turning the wheel with his feet;
he is always deeply concerned over his products,
   and he produces them in quantity. 
He moulds the clay with his arm
   and makes it pliable with his feet;
he sets his heart on finishing the glazing,
   and he takes care in firing the kiln. 

All these rely on their hands,
   and all are skilful in their own work. 
Without them no city can be inhabited,
   and wherever they live, they will not go hungry.
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, 
   nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.
They do not sit in the judge’s seat,
   nor do they understand the decisions of the courts;
they cannot expound discipline or judgement,
   and they are not found among the rulers. 
But they maintain the fabric of the world,
   and their concern is for the exercise of their trade
~ Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34

Though he was a craftsman and not an academic, my father was still a scholar. He was always reading. His example is the one I immitate by keeping a stack of books by my chair, picking up one, then another, their subjects ranging from history, to fiction, to health and wellness, to nature. He was a printer and proud of his trade, and he was also widely respected  in our community for his wisdom, his kindness, and his dedication to serving our neighbors. Had the wise preacher of Ecclesiasticus ever met my dad, he would have had a very different opinion of people who work with their hands and their backs.

While the writer may not have known much about working people, the message of this passage is clear. Artisans and craftspeople, the ones who make and build and produce; they are the threads that hold the "fabric of the world" together. Today, our country whose history of labor relations has far too often been an inglorious one, takes a moment to give thanks for the sacrifices and to honor the labor of everyone who helps to carry the burden of civilization.

As we honor the workers of our own age, we also remember those who came before. The ones who struggled and bled and died to win the dignity and respect of powerful people who were eager for profit, but reluctant to reward the laborers who made their profits possible.

On this Labor Day, may we remember that when we work, we honor ourselves and one another. Work connects us to our neighbors and to creation. Everyone deserves the chance to know that connection. And everyone who works deserves to be rewarded and respected.

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen ~ Collect for Labor Day, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 261

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Jury Duty

Fayette County Circuit Court, Lexington KY
August jurors, your service is now complete. The Fayette Circuit Court appreciates your time and effort. 
And with these words I am honorably discharged by the friendly lady on the recorded juror hotline. I know I'll miss her when 4:30 rolls around. We've kept our date every Sunday through Wednesday all month long.

I was't particularly enthusiastic about being summoned. Believe me, I had other stuff to do. There is no convenient time for jury duty. Like voting or serving in the military or stopping to see if you can help at an accident; there are just certain things an honorable person does when neighbors are in need. That's why it isn't a job. It's a duty.

In spite of my apprehension, it was not that much of a burden at all. I missed three days work in August.  I never was chosen to sit on a trial. Considering what little I heard, I was glad of that. Abused kids. Car crashes. Children testifying against their foster parents. Doctors testifying against one another. In many ways, it's a terrible reaponsibility. Others stayed for the trials, I was always thanked and dismissed. So while I didn't get to spend anytime in the jury box, or in the back room with 12 angry men and women, I did get to watch the system work just a little. And I learned a lot.

Lawyers are pretty remarkable people. Yes, there are corrupt lawyers and greedy lawyers and crooks and dirt bags, just like in any other profession. But when it comes down to it, a lawyer's job is to protect people. The commonwealth's attorney is protecting people who are hurt by criminals, making sure that they have a voice. Defense attorneys are protecting people whose freedom the government is trying to take away. Are their clients guilty? That's not the point. The point is that somebody has to make it very hard for the authorities to take away your liberty or your life. It shouldn't be easy to grind someone up between the slowly turning wheels of justice.

Civil lawyers are a different breed: tort lawyers, shysters, "ambulance chasers": the names are not always kind. For some reason, when your practice is about money instead of criminals, your motives are viewed a little more skeptically. But just like in the criminal courts, civil lawyers are making sure that the government can't just snatch up your property and give it to someone else. And they are also making sure that if someone causes you pain and suffering, you have a chance to be heard, even if the people who have caused you harm are rich and powerful and backed by corporations and teams of legal experts who are paid to make you go away.

I know it doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. And I know that good people lose much too often. Still, having professionals who make it their business to give citizens a fighting chance against powers far greater than themselves, comforts me. And it makes me feel kind of bad about all those lawyer jokes. The good attorneys, and there are some great ones, have earned my respect.

The Jury is an amazing institution. I grew up watching Perry Mason, so I never  really considered what a Jury meant the way I had to while I was explaining my absence to my friend from Africa. He didn't understand what I meant by "Jury Duty." "So do you stand guard? Do you just watch the judge like an audience?" he asked. "No. The judge is more like a referee. The judge is the one who makes sure everyone obeys the rules." Still, my friend was puzzled. "But what does the jury do while the judge is deciding who is guilty?" "No," I answered, "the judge doesn't decide that. The jury does." My friend was amazed. "Not the judge or the police? Just regular people?" He paused for a moment and looked out the window into the bright Kentucky afternoon. "That would be wonderful."

We didn't really talk much about how justice works where my friend comes from, but it did my cynical old liberal heart some good to see the idea of a trial by jury through his eyes. "Maybe," I thought, "America is a little more exceptional than I realized."

I don't think I'm being a Pollyanna about this. I know that there are innocent people in jail, and guilty people walking the streets and that far too often those things happen because somebody had the wrong colored skin or the right colored money. Everybody in the justice system isn't Perry Mason. some of them break the law, and I imagine a lot of them stretch it until just before it breaks. But having said all that, if I am ever accused of a crime, I hope there are good people willing to stand by me, hear my case, and judge me as fairly as they can.

Just a couple other things... There are way too many old white guys in the jury pool. I guess those are the people who register to vote and those are the people who have the time to serve, but if you are not an old white guy, you owe it to yourself and your community to make yourself available if you're called. It would help if more people registered to vote. It would also help if people realized how much their vote can count. I'm a Liberal in a state where many people think Jesus founded the Republican party. What I do in the booth isn't likely ever to help anyone be elected President. But on a jury, with an electorate of 12, my voice will always be heard.

Jurors could stand a little more education on the subject of decorum. I know that I'm sounding like Gramma Johnson here, but I think if there's a chance that you are going to be deciding to put someone in prison before the end of the day, you could at least put on something besides sweatpants in the morning. Dress clothes aren't always the most comfortable, but they are what we wear when there is something important going on. And being on a jury is important.

And finally, since I spent all those paragraphs praising their profession, may I just say that every lawyer I saw was a white man and a lot of them were - how do I say this? - not well put together. Most of them wore very nice suits. Many of them had weirdly chosen footwear. And a whole bunch of them had lousy haircuts. One was downright cartoonish. I'm not saying put on a show, but come on, guys, put on a little bit of a show, huh? Run a comb through that mop before you leave the house. Pick up a copy of GQ and figure out how you're supposed to knot that $80 silk around your neck. And as for your sense of humor? Well as a rule, we the jury find your jokes to be condescending and a little insulting, even if we are laughing to be polite.

The judges I saw were a much more diverse group: a white woman, an African American woman, and a white man. One wanted to be a stand-up  (sit-down) comedian. One projected a kind of cool, slightly goofy demeanor. One ran a tight ship with professionalism and an attitude that elicited trust from me from the moment the bailiff called "All rise for the honorable...". I was encouraged by the people I saw in charge of our courtrooms. Even the goofy one. They took the job of jury selection seriously, and treated us with respect.

Finally, the Bailiffs. I mean please. How can you not love the Bailiffs? They are the humble stage managers who open the doors, arrange the chairs, call the room to attention, distribute the parking passes, and add a gentle air of professionalism to the whole scene. Like "Pops" the stage door guard who works at every Broadway theatre, the Bailiff is the one who has "seen em come and seen em go," who keeps people in line and follows them out of the room to make sure they are alright if they have a coughing fit. Bailiffs are sweet and a little comical and you hardly notice until you look twice that every one of them is wearing body armor. They may act like mother hens, but I couldn't help thinking that if they had to, they would put themselves between a shooter and anybody else in the room. That bullet proof vest was a constant reminder to me that this is a place where very important things happen, a place where people protect one another. A place where people do their duty.

 Much as I'd have preferred to be in the swimming pool at the Y, it was an honor to be able to do my own duty for three days in August.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

The first half of Man's Search for Meaning, tells of Dr. Frankl's time in German concentration camps. It's easy for us to become numb to these stories; we've heard them so many times before. But Frankl is not telling them for the sake of horror, rather he is offering a unique lesson. Even in the most terrible situation imaginable, we can give meaning to our lives by finding a purpose, a reason to stay alive. For him, that purpose became service and honoring the inner dignity of every person he encountered. Yes, there is tragedy in every second of life in the camps, but Frankl offers inspiration as well. "After all," he reminds us, "Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auchwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Israel on his lips."

 The second half of the book is an essay entitled Logotherapy in a Nutshell in which Frankl introduces the psychological school of which he is founder. The name Logotherapy derives from the greek word for meaning. For Frankl, healing comes not from analysis of the past, but of creating a meaningful future. Freud built his theories around our desire for pleasure. Adler believed our prime motivation was power. But Frankl proposes that we are motivated by the search for meaningful living and a sense of purpose.

I will not try to describe the entire theory here, but this framework struck me most deeply. The first element is action: we find meaning by doing meaningful things, things that matter to us. The second is love: the active giving of our selves to others. And the third is suffering: or more specifically, responding to suffering, exercising our "uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement."

 I first learned about Victor Frankl years ago while reading Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey recommended this little book (154 pages) so highly that I put it on my personal "Must Read" list. Now that I've finally read Man's Search for Meaning, I wish I'd done so years ago. I echo Dr Covey's recommendation without reservation.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dreams Do Come True, and Some of Them...?

Yes, I am a Rich Man!
Stop me if you've heard this. When they told me I was probably dying, they said my only chance was to fight. So I had to decide what I wanted to fight for. I had to have a reason to live.

Why would I want to stay alive?

I had no career. My insurance company had, through a bit of pre-Obama legerdemain declared my cancer a pre-exiting condition. My life's savings was gone, my mortgage was on the brink of foreclosure, and I had lived 50 years with severe clinical depression that had led me to try to die more than once. So what did I have to live for?

I lived by holding on to three dreams.

The first was literally a dream. Shivering in my Percocet induced haze, I dreamed again and again that I was flying. Not just flying, but running in the air, high above the world. I never did fly, but I finally got to run, first one, then a second full marathon. 

The second dream was about love. I dreamed of growing old with my wife. She nursed me, fed me, held me, cleaned me, and loved me back to health and I thought that dream would also come true, but as so often happens after cancer, our lives drifted apart. The love that kept me alive was not enough to save our marriage so the second dream died instead.

The last dream was partly a memory and partly a hope. Five years before being diagnosed, I had played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on the big stage at the UK Arboretum. Thousands of people saw us play, and I never forgot the feeling of each of them trusting me to carry their hearts along through that beautiful story of love and redemption. "Please God, let me play again. One more time, let me act again." And of the three, my prayerful dream of acting was the one that God would most fully answer.

Shelly Levine, William Hastings, King Lear, Abner Dillon, Edna Turnbladt, Admiral Boom, Ludwig Van Beethoven and Frankenstein's beautiful, terrible Creature: How I loved them all, and how they blessed me. I have walked with giants and geniuses, and gotten the chance to play with people who have taught me so much about a craft I thought I had mastered. And at the end of the closing matinee of Mary Poppins, as an Opera House full of cheering children and teary parents opened their throats and our hearts I thought to myself, "If this is it, if this the last one you have for me Lord, it was worth it."

One quiet evening, a beautiful woman asked me why I acted. "I want to change the world. I want to help people to think; to laugh; to forget; to remember. I want the world to be a better place because I walked around in someone else's skin and told the truth for a few hours."

Dreams don't all come true, but some of them do. Did I change the world? The jury is still out, I suppose. But I'm not giving up yet. God's timetable has some surprising stops along the way. Which reminds me. Waaaay back, late in the middle of the last century, a high school senior glued on some fake sideburns, sprayed on some gray hair,  and spoke these words: they still ring in my mind's ear. Now that I think of it, they may have been the inspiration for this blog's title. Their echoes give me hope that no light, however dim, is ever really doused.

Keystone Oaks High School, 1978
with Anita Martin as Guenivere
"Who is that Arthur?"
"One of what we all are, Pelly. Less than a drop in the great, blue motion of the sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle, Pelly. Some of them do sparkle! Run, boy! Run, boy!"