Comment Concert

Comment and Concert

Easter 48-49

 

This series on mindfulness has been an interesting one for me and I hope for you as well.  The comments have also been interesting, especially those in the last few days.  “Okay so I did some mindfulness exercise; my life still stinks.”  “I lived in the moment, experiencing each second and it did not change a thing.”  There have been several others but most follow along the lines of these two.

 

The purpose of mindfulness exercises is not to suddenly change the tides of time or the course of the world.  They do help us define the moment.  Rather like variations on a theme.  This evening I attended a lovely choral concert.  Throughout the program they sang three different variations of the same poem which was actually a hymn text dating back to 1784.  Sometimes our life is just like that.

 

“The tree of life my soul hath seen. Laden with fruit and always green. …For happiness I long have sought. And pleasure dearly I have bought.”  The words of the text might well describe our living.  Each day out own tree of life blossoms and grows and yes, some aspects do wither and die.  When we utilize mindfulness in our living, we bear the fruit of the moment.  With being mindful of each moment, we can then partake of the moment.  “This fruit doth make my soul to thrive.  It keeps my dying faith alive.”

 

Life sometimes requires us to take a detour and that is the subject of our next series during the season of Pentecost.  We will discuss the detours of life by using some of the world’s most ancient lyrical texts and our own updated versions, how being mindful can help us to improve our living.  Francis Bacon, Sr. once said:  “Begin what you want to do now.  We are not living in eternity.  We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake.”

Get Busy

 

Get Busy

 

Easter 20

 

 

 

I adore books.  Whether it is at a tag sale, a consignment shop, a library or a bookstore, books just seem to call out to me.  On occasion, I apparently call out to them as well.  You see, it is not unusual for a book to simply and quite literally fall at my feet.  When that happens, I usually find that within the books are little tokens of wisdom at a time when I most needed it.  So now, whenever a book seems to fly off a shelf or table, I go on a literary surprise hunt and get busy learning.

 

 

 

“The Unmistakable Touch of Grace” by Cheryl Richardson is one of those books that literally dropped into my life via the top of my head.  I was sitting in the coffee shop of a local bookstore when an employee rolled a cart passed our table with stacks of books on it.  The top book dropped onto our table after bouncing on my head.  The paperback didn’t hurt,; it just startled me.  Then we all laughed at the irony of the ungracefulness of a book about grace.  The book looked interesting and I ended up taking it home.

 

 

 

At home, my book about grace slipped of my bed, this time due to the antics of a very large dog.  It landed on the floor open to this passage:  “As painful as they may be, some of our most difficult relationships hold the promise of our greatest healing.  When you learn to see your relationships in this way, you might discover that the friend who constantly took advantage of you, did so (on a spiritual level) to challenge you to stick up for yourself.”

 

 

 

Mindfulness and this passage have a great deal in common.  Tikun-olam is a Hebrew concept which means “Improve the world”.  Mindfulness encourages us to do that very same thing and the above passage lets us know we can do that even in the midst of our darkest time.

 

 

 

Mindfulness teaches us to never take our living for granted.  Each minute not only counts, it is a lesson for us.  It is very easy to savor the good times but unless we get busy and learn to savor the negative experiences, we are prone to repeat them time and time again. 

 

 

 

Recently I was taken advantage of and it hurt, especially since I had just given this person an expensive gift.  About a minute into my own little pity party, I suddenly remembered to be mindful of the big picture. I realize that I was more proud of my actions and generosity than I was hurt.  After all, I cannot and should not want to control others.  I can only dictate my own actions.  By practicing mindfulness, I realized an inner peace and calming of the soul. 

 

 

 

When you find yourself in those dark hours or hearing that negative voice, take a moment and get bust being mindful of the complete moment, what preceded it and then realize what will make the future better.  When we get busy with savoring life our life, we will realize the beauty of its being.

 

Herd Mentality

Herd Mentality

Lent 35-36

 

Fear is a part of life.  After all, life is messy.  What we can take from the eight beatitudes is that fear can motivate; fear can inspire; fear can teach.  Benjamin Franklin once said “tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involves me and I learn.”  The Beatitudes say the same thing.  We fail to learn when we let fear become our compass.

 

Bertrand Russell believed “neither a man not a crowd not a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”  Russell was the winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature for “recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he campoins humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”

 

When we allow fear to guide us, then we fall into what is known as herd mentality.  Quoting Russell again – “collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

 

Men and women are pack animals.  We live in social groups and this are conditioned to accept the direction of the herd as absolute and right.  If we fail to really think for ourselves and let fear push us, then we have given up a big part of our living and the direction it will take.

 

There is a lesson to be learned in all aspects of our life.  The Beatitudes offer the promise of this.  They encourage us to consider what we ourselves know to be true and not to follow the herd.  We must strive to avoid pack mentality as well.  The tendency for people to act together without a planned direction detracts from individual responsibility.  In time this restricts needed social change.

 

Life has many features.  Some of life’s aspects include grief, discord, insecurity, and accusation.  Others reflect truth, peace, fulfillment, and mercy.  So how do we learn from the positive and resist fearing the negative?  How do we let the Beatitudes teach us and dissuade us from herd mentality?  How do we take life’s varied events, both good and bad, and not give in to the resulting and natural fear that arises? 

 

The mega hit “I Was Born This Way”, written by Stefani Germanotta who also sings this track and is better known as Lady Gaga, along with Jeppe Laursen, Fernando Garibay, and Paul Blair, offers us some sage advice in answering these question.  “Give yourself prudence and love your friends.  In the religion of the insecure, … [You] must be  [yourself], respect [your] youth.  Don’t hide yourself in regret.  Just love yourself and you’re set.”

And then … What?

And then…What?

Lent 22

 

It is almost impossible to name a fairy tale that does not start with “Once upon a time…”.  There are certain things that come with predisposed bits of language.  Parents usually begin a lecture with “When I was your age…” and most board meetings with “Thank you for coming.”  This not only are commonplace, they give us comfort because we know something will follow.

 

Most of us will take a breath right about now and, hopefully, that breath will be followed by another.  Millions of people have been given comfort when, having been diagnosed with sleep apnea, they are given a CPAP machine which blows air into the nasal passages to facilitate respiration.  The mechanized blowing in is followed by an automatic human exhaling which then triggers another breath in…and out… and in… and out, etc.  The process gives the equipment its name – Continuous Positive Airway Pressure.

 

Life offers us its own continuous process.  The dilemma is that we seldom recognize the lessons contained therein.  The beatitudes are a series of such continuous processes.  If we love and value something, we will miss it when it is gone.  If we stand up for what we believe, others will try to dissuade us and criticize us.  When we try to do goodness, we will be more able to recognize goodness in others and the world.

 

So yesterday is history.  Today is the present and tomorrow…well, tomorrow’s page has yet to be written.  The words that will be on it, though, the future, will be based upon what we learned from yesterday and today.  If we handled ourselves with grace and compassion towards others, we will be identified as benevolent people, most likely followers of a benevolent belief system.  If we remain calm and work towards peace, we will encourage others to do the same.

 

Many do not think that the Beatitudes do not offer comfort but to me, they promise another day.  The beatitudes are about the future and the fact that our actions today will write our future tomorrow.  Suzy Kassem wrote a poem about this, entitled “The Four Heavenly Fountains”    It goes like this:

Laugh, I tell you

And you will turn back

The hands of time.

 

Smile, I tell you

And you will reflect

The face of the divine.

 

Sing, I tell you

And all the angels will sing with you!

 

Cry, I tell you

And the reflections found in your pool of tears –

Will remind you of the lessons of today and yesterday

To guide you through the fears of tomorrow.”

Our hopes and dreams should be sought today but we need to take faith in the tomorrow that they often bring.  Even when we seem to fail, we really are succeeding by gaining knowledge.  We need to embrace today and be open to the lessons that will promise us a better tomorrow.  The real blessings are found in living.

 

 

 

Embrace

Embrace

Epiphany 47

 

The University of Alabama, a major university whose football team once again competed recently for the national number one slot in collegiate football, is only forty-nine minutes away.  The bustling metropolis of Birmingham is only one hundred miles away.  Yet, for the children of Hale County, Alabama, they might as well live on the other side of the country.  They live in one of the most rural and impoverished areas of Alabama in what is known as the Blackbelt region of the state. Residents of this are at an economic disadvantage with very limited resources. The high school graduation rate is only 34% with 74% of households earning less than $30,000 per year. Almost 200 families live without plumbing and healthcare is nonexistent for most.

 

According to the United Way of West Alabama, one out of every  four Alabamians is functionally illiterate, unable to read, write, or use basic math skills and technology in everyday life.   According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60% of K-12 school children read below the level needed to proficiently process the written materials used in their grade levels.  Children who have not already developed basic literacy practices when they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out of school.

 

According to the 2014 Alabama Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 26% of Alabama children are living in poverty; 9.7% of Alabama teens are not in school and not employed; 25.8% of Alabama children are food insecure; 40.1% of Alabama fourth graders are not proficient in reading; 20% of Alabama’s students do not graduate from high school.

 

The Sawyerville Work Project is, on paper, a day camp and because of that, recently changed its name to Sawyerville Day Camp.  It is an outreach project sponsored by the Youth Department of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama & local community volunteers.  It takes place in the summer for just a few weeks, and for that camp session, the children that attend the camp are not framed in the light of the region’s poverty.  They are simply kids, having fun, in a place created solely for them.

 

The Sawyerville Day Camp’s location originated at the Head Start Center in the small town of Sawyerville, hence the name. Within a few years of hosting the camp, the Center could no longer accommodate the increased numbers of campers and staff volunteers. The elementary school in nearby Greensboro welcomed this project and the partnership has continued for a successful thirteen years.

Sawyerville Day Camp ministry began in 1993.  The Blackbelt Convocation knew they needed to embrace the residents of the area, not just those in their church pews and the Diocese of Alabama Youth Department needed an outreach program for senior high students.  The answer to both problems became the Sawyerville Work Project, now known as the Sawyerville Day Camp.  It is supported by many people.

 

People serve as prayer partners, staff members, organize book drives, gather paper products, provide meals and make financial gifts.  The Episcopal Diocese has committed substantial funds to this ministry.  The generous people of the Black Belt have opened up their homes and churches for staff housing and meals.  Volunteers from within and outside of the Episcopal circle lend time and talent.  High school, college, and adult staff come from all over the state to serve as counselors.  The Hale County School Board permits use of school facilities and buses.  This project is woven together by hundreds of different supporters, all working together to form the Sawyerville experience.

 

The mission of the Yellowhammer Literacy Project, born out of the Sawyerville Day Camp, is to help close the achievement gap and prevent summer learning loss in Greensboro, Alabama. The YLP works toward this mission by hosting a multi-week summer academic program in which students will participate in reading intervention, engage in creative writing, and strengthen their literacy skills. Additionally, the YLP is invested in helping students grow as scholars and citizens through participation in academic field trips, community engagement, and other enrichment opportunities.

 

Summer 2015 was a huge success for the Yellowhammer Literacy Project! When we first assessed the students in April, 58% were performing below grade level. By the end of this program, 88% of students grew by at least one reading level. Of that 88%, 66% grew by at least two levels. Nine students saw growth by three to five levels in a mere three weeks!  The Summer of 2016 yielded even better outcomes.  Not only did these students grow academically, but what cannot be tested or shown through the results is that these kids were encouraged to enjoy reading, were praised for their efforts, and became more confident in their own abilities by the end of the program. One child said it best in his final reflection, “I really am smart.”

 

The humanitarian efforts of the Sawyerville Day Camp are led by two coordinators although the success is due to the project being embraced by many.  All successes of this camp include the help of hundreds, both volunteer staff and interns as well as the volunteers who fed, donate, and serve as prayer partners.  Each child receives a swimsuit, towel, and book as well as a backpack.  For many this is the first time they have owned any of these items which serve as outward, visible signs of the larger community of caring that supports them and embraces them.

 

Now over twenty years old, this day camp has counselors who were once campers.  They believed in the promise shown by the Sawyerville Day Camp of a brighter future and by those who embraced them and they have succeeded.  Kids who once had never heard of a college are now college graduates, having learned to believe in themselves to make a better world for themselves.  People of all ages, races, and stages of life create the humanitarian efforts that result in Sawyerville Day Camp.  They come together and embrace each other.  When we embrace each other and ourselves, we make the world a better place.  Sawyerville Day Camp is but one example.  For more information, they can be reached at www.sawyervilledaycamp.org.

 

 

Find

Find

Epiphany 39

 

It is a popular childhood game called hidden pictures.  I myself belong to a coloring page on Facebook and once or twice a month the page administrator will post a picture with things hidden within it.  Could you spot a fork hidden in the handle of a broom or a comb hidden in a picture of a cob of corn?  Better yet, could you spot the virtuoso playing in a subway station?

 

According to Snopes.com, the go-to site for all unearthing the truth hiding amongst Internet pages, no one did – either ten years ago or in 1930.  “Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting? These were questions tackled by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 when he enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

 

Snopes continued:  “On 12 January 2007, about a thousand morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million). Weingarten described the crux of the experiment: “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”

 

Weingarten ended up winning for the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize for his category, the award being given in part for the originality of the ruse.  However, it was not that original.  Seventy-seven years earlier another periodical named the Post, The Chicago Evening Post had done something quite similar.  In fact, several aspects of this story, the hiding in plain sight of a concert violinist were eerily similar.  In May 1930 Milton Fairman wrote a story titled “Famous Fiddler in Disguise Gets $5.61 in Curb Concerts.”   Violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, a onetime child prodigy, performed for spare change on his priceless Stradivarius, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Most people hurried past, unheeding. The violinist made a few measly bucks and change. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity.  Fairman’s story began: “A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbstone concert yesterday noon on windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears …”

 

Both Jacques Gordon and Joshua Bell played Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thais” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Of the hundreds of people who walked by Gordon, only one recognized him for whom he was. Of the hundreds of people who walked by Bell, only one recognized him for whom he was.  Gordon died twenty years before Bell was born but the younger man had heard of him.  In fact, for ten years Bell played the same Strad that Gordon had once owned, the same one Gordon had played on the Chicago streets that day in 1930. By the way, Gordon earned $5.61 that day – the equivalent of $59.73 in today’s economy.  Bell earned $32.17 which would be worth $32.35 today.  AS the nation was recovering from the Great Depression, Gordon had earned more playing than Bell did playing in one of the more heavily traveled subway systems in the country.

 

How many hidden gems do we pass each and every day without noticing them?  It may not be a concert violinist you hear but that young child singing while waiting for the school bus might someday become an opera star or pop sensation.  I assure you that in your daily commute you pass by someone in need as well as someone helping others.  The beauty of life is all around us.  We just need to really open our living, take a moment and find it.

 

Stop, Look, and Listen

Stop, Look, Listen

Epiphany 35-36-37

 

From a childhood road safety game to the Stylistics and Elvis Presley to current communication techniques, the advice continues – stop, look, and listen.  Occasionally this daily blog will group a series of posts together because of their content.  Today (and Thurs and Fri preceding) is one such post.

 

Several years ago Mark McIntyre had the same idea I had about using street and railroad crossing safety as a means of better communication.  “Stop – stop the self-focused mental process so that I can hear and understand what the other person is saying. Decide to really hear.  Look – Look at the other person. Make eye contact. Observe his body language. Take in all the clues to communication.  Listen – By stopping and looking, I am now in a position to listen.”

 

Stop, Look and Listen is the also the name of a short comedic film made by Oliver Norvell Hardy in the early 1920’s shortly before he teamed up with comedy partner Stan Laurel.  Another film by the same name was made in the 1960’s which was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Subject, Live Action category.  This movie was also a comedy and contrasted the safe and dangerous styles of two drivers.  The drivers were shown sitting in the street and seeming to move their bodies as though they were automobiles. 

 

I mention these two films because they were, in their own way, forms of communication.  Also communicating this phrase were two songs.  The first was written by Joy Byers and recorded by Elvis Presley in the 1960’s.  “You’d better stop real still, look both ways.   Listen or you’ll get in trouble when you see her go struttin’ by giving you that evil eye and she’s got a kind of dreamy look.  You’d better stop real still, look both ways; listen or you’ll get in trouble.”  A decade later the Stylistics sand a song by the same title, written by Jeremy Noel, William Abbott, Thomas Bell, Grant Black, Linda Creed, And Craig David.  Their chorus was “Stop, look, listen to your heart, hear what it’s saying.  Stop, look, listen to your heart, hear what it’s saying – Love, love, love.”

 

Very few people actually enter into a conversation with intentions of creating hate.  Most simply want to get a point across or express their opinion.  It all goes awry when we fail to stop our own self-focused mental process so that we can hear and understand what the other person is saying.   I am not talking about giving polite non-focused attentive looks at the other person.  I mean when you really decide to not just hear their voice but listen to their words.  We do this by first looking at the other person and making eye contact. Then we are able to observe their body language.  Communication is much more than just words being uttered.  We need to take in all the clues to communication.  By stopping and looking, we are now in a position to listen.  Now communication, real communication, can occur.

 

Think about over the past week.  When did you give someone your undivided attention?  I realize you lead a very busy life and that there are many things pressing for your attention.  Did you really make that other person a priority or was your crossword puzzle or TV show or book more important?  Someone recently told me they knew what I was trying to say because they were looking at the back of my head.  Interesting, since  I did not realize I had a caption scroll that played on the back of my head.  Of course, I do not and the person had no way of knowing what my facial expressions were. 

 

We need to stop making excuses, look at how we are communicating and then listen to each other.  We also need to seek out ways to really stop our busy lives, look at the beauty of life around us and listen to what is going on.  For example, The Menil Collection, an art museum in Houston, TX, features Stop, Look, and Listen concerts.  These are free chamber and jazz concerts open to the public at the museum which are designed to feature unconventional, interactive concert formats and fun, adventurous musical selections. Often designed to celebrate specific artwork on display in the museum, these concerts encourage us all to stop, look, and listen while we enjoy life.

 

Your local probably has similar offerings and if it doesn’t, why not help create some?  Aspiring sidewalk artists are a great way to stop, look, and listen as are subway musicians.  Once we develop the habit of slowing down enough to stop, then we are able to see the beauty that often passes us by and listen to the vibrancy of life.