Opportunity Awaits

Opportunity Awaits

January 5, 2018

 

For many people, today will be the actual last day of the Christmas season.  Today is the twelfth day after December 25th.   Many will have already taken down their holiday festive decorations while others will spend the weekend putting away Christmas.  The true meaning of the holiday should never be put away and the joy and charity of the Christmas season is, I fervently hope, just beginning.

 

Irony sometimes seems like it is my middle name.  Without getting into the age-old discussion, often loved by English instructors, about the difference between irony and sarcasm or any other of a number of words, let me clarify which definition to which I am referring:  “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”.  On the day that I planned to write about Bill Gates and his work in making technology available to the masses, my technological connections seemed to revolt.  Someday this week will make a really humorous anecdote. 

 

I first became aware of the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation when working at a public library.  I had prior computer experience and was picked to write training manuals for the staff.  The Gates Foundation had gifted the library a computer lab so that inner city children could have access to computers and the Internet.  Only three people on a staff of thirty had a personal computer so I ended up mentoring and teaching computer usage as well as drafting manuals.

 

The local library had, as most do, a foundation that provided monetary support.  At an unveiling of the new lab several days before it opened to the public, members of the foundation were invited to a reception and the computers were on display for the foundation members to try and appreciate.  I had been paired with the oldest member of the foundation, a 96-year-old architect who was not overly impressed.  He saw no need for computer educational support when we had three stories of books and were part of a national and international book exchange program.  Computer screens to him were blank nonsense that would not inspire nor provide opportunity or anyone.  In fact, he was certain they “would suck all opportunity from the children who sat in front of them”.

 

I walked over to the front desk and retrieved a blank piece of paper.  I then gave him a pencil and asked him to draw a simple outline of a three-story building or, for that matter, any object he saw on the paper.  He gave me back my pencil and proceeded to make a building using the ancient Japanese art of origami.  It took him about two minutes and we were all fascinated.

 

I then took his old, gnarled hands obviously showing signs of rheumatoid arthritis, in mine and said:  “I gave you nothing and you created wonderment.  With the resources available to a child on the Internet, just imagine what he or she could create.”  This stately, elderly gentle man then smiled and said: “Oh, you should then call the computer what it is – a box full of opportunity and potential.”  He served as a volunteer in the computer lab for two years until his passing, and then we learned of his bequeath to the computer lab which provided support for the computers long after the original grant had expired.

 

We all can create opportunity for another person.  The Gates Foundation has moved on to things beyond computers.  In 2016 they have made three resolutions or promises to serve as goals.  The first involves their continued efforts regarding vaccines for some of the world’s most deadly diseases, especially in underdeveloped countries in Africa and the Far East. 

 

They also have women and girls in their “hearts of our endeavors”.  They plan to invest time, funding, and efforts towards empowering women.  Better healthcare and wellbeing for girls and women means a better world.  Third, they plan to invest in innovation.  The future is all about science and technology and that includes drug therapies for such things as elephantiasis which alone affects over one hundred and twenty million people.

 

The world today is a world with poverty and the future will be dim until we all take steps to do our part.  We can do better.  “You never know how far reaching something you may think say or do today will affect the lives of millions tomorrow.”  B. J. Palmer’s words are very true and they are speaking directly to each of us.  We need to make poverty an opportunity for success by taking action.  This planet is our home and everyone living here needs you and me in order for us all to live a bountiful life.

Faith Lived

Faith Lived

Advent 15

Year in Review 2017

 

During Epiphany 2017 we discussed ways people lived their life’s credo.  The season of Epiphany follows Christmas and while most people Christmas celebrate Christmas as the birth of a “king”, it is actually the season of Epiphany that celebrates the revelation that a small child born in a stable would become the king of a new religion.  This year during Epiphany we discussed people whose lives reflected their beliefs.

 

So what do a Harvard medical graduate, a social activist, a television actress, a movie actress, and an actor in music videos have in common?  First, the verb in that question is incorrect.  It should read “what does” because all those professions refer to just one person…a woman from Pakistan.  Seemi Raheel has a diversified acting portfolio playing everything from a devoted mother to a vamp and has won numerous awards for her acting.

 

What really interested me about Seemi Raheel, besides her views on being a mother, was her work in gender training.  She is, if one asks, an actress but she is also very proud of her heritage.  You might think, knowing she is from the sixth largest country in the world which is Pakistan, that she leans towards very traditional roles for women.  I did wonder when I first saw the term “gender training” if that was what it meant – the teaching of females to be only the historical roles they have been relegated to in ancient times.  Still, she did attend Harvard.  Hmmm….

 

Seemi Raheel does not do fluff roles.  Her acting roles as a mother are described as “energetic and dramatic”.  Her first film was about a woman abducted, forced into marriage and sexually molested and also addressed changes in Pakistan’s political scene as well as the US government’s role in Pakistani affairs.

 

Her social activism also benefits from her passionate approach to life.  Not only does Seemi Raheel boast an impressive resume, she really is a mother in real life.  Her daughter, Mehreen Raheel, studied in London and was a supermodel before she also turned to acting.  Both women are a part of their family’s production company but still find time to do humanitarian work.

 

Gender training, by the way, is teaching people of both genders to communicate better.  It may seem like nothing significant but just think of how many of the world’s problems are really from a lack of proper, respectful communication.  Mehreen Raheel has worked diligently for children not only in her native Pakistan but also in Thailand, a country where children are exploited at an alarming rate.

 

Today’s word is faith, I mentioned during Epiphany 2017, and I believed both of these women, this mother-daughter duo, were and are great examples of living their faith and having it propel them forward to live the best they can, not only for themselves but for others.

 

Seemi Raheel firmly believes in her role as a mother and is proud of it. “My daughter is a realization of a dream, a continuation of myself. I feel the best gift a mother can give to her daughter is independence – instead of mollycoddling and protecting her from the world, she must give her the freedom to discover who she is and be her own person.”

 

For me, faith gives us independence and if practiced as intended, can and should motivate us to discover who we are and what we have to offer the world.  Faith for me is synonymous with courage.  All of the practices of faith, attendance at worship, prayers, studies, etc., all are designed to make us better people and more productive neighbors.

 

The Latin “fidere” is the root of the word faith and it really has nothing to do with deities or religions.  It translates as “trust”.  Do we really live as if we trust our beliefs?  Do we really trust ourselves and our potential?

 

We cannot help others until we first help ourselves and that can be really difficult at times.  It means doing what we know we should and not just what we want to do.  I am as guilty of failing in that as most people.  Faith is not simple nor is it easy.  Neither is living.  What makes it easier is when we do it, practice it, live it. 

 

The Persian writer known as Hafez once said: ““And still, after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.”  Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”  J. R. R. Tolkien described it this way:  “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” 

 

Bring the optimist I am, of course, I will not leave you with the negative approach.  I like C. S. Lewis’ description of living faith: “I believe in [my faith] as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  Faith allows us to grow into who we are, into the potential we can achieve by showing us how to live as neighbors, activists, and caring individuals.  It is where humanitarianism begins. 

 

Evil and Grace

Evil and Grace

Detours in Life

Pentecost 158-163

Mega Post 13

 

Recently I have been silent on my blog out of respect for those who lost their lives in natural and manmade disasters.  A Middle Eastern earthquake was unavoidable, although loss of life might have been prevented with better housing and warning systems instead of monies spent of war.  Then in the United State of America there was yet another instance of a mentally ill white male obtaining too much firepower for his fragile mental state, resulting in injury and death to innocent people.  If we treated the threat from active shooters like we do from pesticides … well, suffice it to say that we have less threat from dying from DDT than we do at the hands of an angry gun owner.

 

Evil is a nebulous term and we have a better chance of defining a black hole than a definitive answer to what evil is.  Over the weekend it was announced that convicted criminal Charles Manson had died.  The response to this news did not speak well for the faith community.  Many see Manson as an evil man, the very definition of what a devil would be living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Their faith that bespeaks of all mankind being children of God seemingly flew out the window, much like those politicians who want rules for everyone except themselves.

 

The world can be a tumultuous place at times.  How we respond determines what we really believe. Maintaining grace in all times is not easy but very necessary.  While others are ranting and raving, someone needs to carry on the good fight, do the good works.  A good person is not the one with the loudest voice.  A good person is the one that does the most good.

 

Sometimes people are just good people.  In 2015 the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award was awarded to John and Tashia Morgridge.  John became a part of Cisco Systems as president and chief executive officer in 1998 and quickly led the company into becoming a publicly traded company that was known as a technological powerhouse.  Tashia had studied at the University of Wisconsin and was a special education teacher.  As a couple, they became known for their charitable giving.

 

Quoting from The Tech.org website which announced this award, given each year by the Tech Museum of Innovation, the Morgridge’s philanthropically have sought to improve education worldwide, “and they have done much of that giving through the TOSA Foundation, named after the high school where they met. The Morgridges have supported the University of Wisconsin’s research facilities, special education programs and scholarships, founding the Morgridge Center for Public Service and establishing the Morgridge Institute for Research, a biomedical institute. They are also generous supporters of literacy programs in East Palo Alto, Calif.; Tashia has long devoted herself to improving educational opportunities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Internationally they donate principally through CARE, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty, and The Nature Conservancy.”

 

Other people need a wake-up call.  Jon Huntsman, Sr. is well known as the founder of a global chemical manufacturing company.  What might not be as well known is that he gives away a great deal of his income.  He became a serious humanitarian in 1992 after a diagnosis of prostate cancer.  En route to the hospital, he wrote a one million dollar check to a homeless shelter, another to a local soup kitchen feeding the homeless and poor, and half a million dollars to the clinic that first diagnosed and discovered his tumor.  He later began his own cancer foundation at a cost of over one billion dollars.

 

This humanitarian has long been giving away his money, which totals well into the billion dollar range. Founder of a global chemical manufacturer, his serious giving days began in 1992 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. On his way to the hospital, he gave a one million dollar check to a homeless shelter, another million to a soup kitchen, and $500,000 to the clinic that first found the malignancy. Huntsman would go on to found his own cancer foundation, which cost him more than one billion dollars alone. His donations have even gone so far as to knock him of the Forbes list of wealthiest individuals.

 

We have already discussed ways to help with local educational projects on this blog in the past three years.  Volunteering to be a mentor or, if you do not feel academically capable, volunteering to help behind the scenes at such locations, is a perfect start to living your beliefs and helping your local community.  Baking or providing cookies is an easy first step.  Being a Big Brother or Big Sister is another and these programs have training sessions to help you get started.

 

If making hats or weaving plastic bags into water proof mats is more your style, your local homeless shelter would be happy for donations of your handiwork.  One of the easiest ways to make a blanket is to purchase a yard of flannel and then fringe each end.  That is done by cutting slits five inches long on either end.  The strips become fringe and the blankets is an easy yet warm addition to any homeless person’s bedroll, lightweight yet a good layering insulator for cold nights.

 

Our faith and spirituality is really put to the test when someone like Charles Manson dies.  Do we simply say we are glad he is no longer a drain on the coffers and our psyche or do we respond with the faith we profess to have?  Where was the resounding “May the Lord have mercy on his soul” that one cannot argue he desperately needed?   Evil done by others should not be our compass.   We all have the ability to help another and when we live grace, we receive grace.  Life is really just that simple and we all should exercise the grace to do whatever good we can.

Intention and Disconnect

Intention and Disconnect

Detours of Life

Pentecost 20

 

One of the most common detours with which we are faced are often those of our own making, those times in which what we intended did not quite happen.  In spite of the most careful planning and fervent effort, things go awry.  Life happens and sometimes, perhaps often, it simply does not go as planned.  We end up on a detour, an unexpected and usually undesired detour.  Do we respond with this detour with good humor and grace or do we get angry over the inevitabilities of life?

 

One cannot approach the concept of grace either objectively or subjectively without including the religious community.  Indeed, many do not even attempt to define the concept of grace outside of a religious and theological construct.  I am asking you to consider it a form of living but today I will not discuss it as an inevitable part of one’s spirit of living but as it relates to organized religion and its followers.  This is important because often the religions of the world have become stumbling blocks to grace, especially when seen through a subjective lens. 

 

Beyond Intractability was developed and is still maintained by the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. The missions of the Consortium and, more specifically, the Beyond Intractability project reflect the convergence of two long-standing streams of work. The first is an exploitation of the unique abilities of Web-based information systems to speed the flow of conflict-related information among those working in the field and the general public. The second is an investigation of strategies for more constructively addressing intractable conflict problems — those difficult situations which lie at the frontier of the field.

 

We will begin our discussion with a quote from the Beyond Intractability website:  “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a casual glance at world affairs would suggest that religion is at the core of much of the strife around the globe.  Often, religion is a contentious issue. Where eternal salvation is at stake, compromise can be difficult at or even sinful. Religion is also important because, as a central part of many individuals’ identity, any threat to one’s beliefs is a threat to one’s very being. This is a primary motivation for ethno-religious nationalists.  … However, the relationship between religion and conflict is, in fact, a complex one. Religiously-motivated peace builders have played important roles in addressing many conflicts around the world.

 

“Although not necessarily so, there are some aspects of religion that make it susceptible to being a latent source of conflict. All religions have their accepted dogma, or articles of belief, that followers must accept without question. This can lead to inflexibility and intolerance in the face of other beliefs. After all, if it is the word of God, how can one compromise it? At the same time, scripture and dogma are often vague and open to interpretation. Therefore, conflict can arise over whose interpretation is the correct one, a conflict that ultimately cannot be solved because there is no arbiter. The winner generally is the interpretation that attracts the most followers. However, those followers must also be motivated to action. Although, almost invariably, the majority of any faith hold moderate views, they are often more complacent, whereas extremists are motivated to bring their interpretation of God’s will to fruition.  Religious extremists can contribute to conflict escalation. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfilling God’s wishes. Fundamentalists of any religion tend to take a Manichean view of the world. If the world is a struggle between good and evil, it is hard to justify compromising with the devil. Any sign of moderation can be decried as selling out, more importantly, of abandoning God’s will.”

 

Manichean may be a word unfamiliar to you but its meaning is how many people view the world and try to live their lives.  Manichean comes from the word Mani, which is the name of an apostle who lived in Mesopotamia in the time frame of 240 ACE, who taught a universal religion based on what we now call dualism. If you believe in the Manichean idea of dualism, you tend to look at things as having two sides that are opposed. To Manicheans, life can be divided neatly between good or evil, light or dark, or love and hate.

 

In other words, in an attempt to live their doctrines of peace and love, people tend to think with a narrow field and view the world as either black or white.  Human beings are complex creatures and no one is one-dimensional.  In other words, no one person is all anything.  In our intention to live a doctrine of love and peace, we allow our subjective narrowness to trip us up.

 

To be certain, some things are either right or wrong.  You cannot murder someone halfway.  A person is either killed or alive.  However, the quality of life then comes into question and such is often what leads people to commit suicide.  Rather than offer grace, their expectations, based upon their belief system, suffocates any grace they might find.

 

So should we assume religion is the problem and not the answer?  Absolutely not!  Religions tend to connect us and remind us of that which we are deep inside.  They are, I believe, most necessary to life.  Religions offer us ways to show, recognize, and live grace.  Life is hard but grace makes it not only possible but worthwhile. 

 

Quoting David Smock, the Beyond Intractability website offers one solution to consider in finding grace amid all this conflict and discord.  “Religion is inherently conflictual, but this is not necessarily so. Therefore, in part, the solution is to promote a heightened awareness of the positive peace building and reconciliatory role religion has played in many conflict situations. More generally, fighting ignorance can go a long way. Interfaith dialogue would be beneficial at all levels of religious hierarchies and across all segments of religious communities. Where silence and misunderstanding are all too common, learning about other religions would be a powerful step forward. Being educated about other religions does not mean conversion but may facilitate understanding and respect for other faiths.”

 

We all have intentions and the faith-based communities of the world are no different.  However, when need to give closer attention to our efforts and revitalize them every day.  Grace might very well be the key to world peace and it certainly makes each of our lives better.  Rather than being the problem, grace is the answer.  When navigating the detours that life will certainly give us, grace is the best compass one can employ.  Grace should be the connection between us and the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

Letting Others In

Letting Others In

Pentecost 126

 

Sometimes we need help.  There is nothing shameful in this fact.  And yet, we are often so hesitant to ask for it.  It is a fact that at some point in our lives, we all will need help.  Being able to ask for it is not only a gift, it is a blessing. 

 

One Saturday night over a decade ago  I was driving along a detour on an interstate (or so I thought) on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.  About the time I realized the oddity of being the only car on the roadway in the 8th largest city in the United States of America, the road stopped.  There was simply no more asphalt, no markers, no barricades.  Looking through the windshield of my car as the dusk approached after the setting sun, I could see only about a foot of dirt and then grass.  The grass echoed the empty fields all around me, along the stretch of highway.  The median was dirt but I had learned to drive on turn-rows in cotton fields so I just drove across the dirt median to the opposite side of road and began driving back the other direction, the direction from which I had just come.  I saw an exit and lights of a fast food restaurant and, convinced that a glass of iced tea can solve everything, I took the exit and stopped at the eatery. 

 

There was a man in his late 30’s who was hanging around the counter waiting.  It quickly became apparent he was waiting for his hot apple pie.  Hispanic, he apologized first in Spanish and then in English and stepped aside so I could order.  Ordering my unsweetened ice tea, I then asked, apologizing for how crazy my question was going to sound and assuring them I was not crazy, where I was.  The counter help laughed and then replied with a name I had never heard.  “Am I still in Texas?” I asked.  Both the girl behind the counter and the man laughed and assured me I was.  The girl asked if they could help.  I explained I was in the area due to my son graduating from a training and thought I was on a bypass of San Antonio in an attempt to return to my hotel.  The cook came through a door from the grill area with a tray of hot apple pies and explained I had somehow gotten on a highway still under construction.

 

The Hispanic man said he was on his way downtown and offered to let me follow him.  The girl and the cook assured me I could trust him so we got in our respective vehicles, him in his pickup truck and me in my rental sedan.  Fifteen minutes later we parted ways in San Antonio and I quickly made my way to my hotel, grateful that I had returned.  I realize how this could have ended and I am certainly not encouraging people to follow a stranger into the darkness of unknown territory.  The entire trip back to San Antonio I was on the phone (hands free and safe) with my family on the other side of the country.  I also had complete control of my vehicle and we stayed on major thoroughfares with were very well lit and heavily traveled. 

 

When I think of the God of my life, I think of these three strangers, these three people at a well-known fast food restaurant in a small town in the middle of the largest state in the continental United States.  I had once in college held a similar job so I had something in common with the cook and the girl behind the counter.  I also had something in common with the Hispanic man since we were both out on a Saturday night and returning home in our cars.  We were strangers and yet shared many things in common.

 

The extraordinary in this story is not that I got lost.  People get lost figuratively and literally every day.  The extraordinary is not about my trusting them.  It might seem extraordinary to some that these three people were willing to help me but I think most people are willing to help.  If I am honest, I happily admit this was not the first time I got lost.  That is a bit ordinary in my life.

 

I think what makes this story have value is that first, I was willing to admit I needed help and asked for it.  Secondly, there is their kindness in helping me.  These three could have verbally given me directions and then, after I left, had a good laugh.  They could have even given me wrong directions.  Instead, one let me follow him, trusting me as I trusted him.  The others were sensitive to my hesitancy and told me he was a building contractor who worked in the area and frequently stopped by to take apple pies home to his family.  He was, they explained, someone they trusted and that I could trust.  They did not know me but knew my worries.

 

Too often we try to live our lives all by ourselves.  We hesitate to let others in and by doing that, we limit our own potential.  None of us can be all things at all times.  We need help.  We need to let others in.  Being able to ask for help and being honest about needing that help is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of being human.  We are not alone in our living and learning to share that living means a better life for all.

 

It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

Pentecost 124

 

It is an old African folk tale set to music. The father is out in the field and the mother is at the well. The grandmother is at the market hoping not only to purchase but also to sell. A neighbor is watching the children who are playing out in the yard. An old man comes by and stops to tell them a story because he likes to make them laugh. His story has a moral, though, and that is when they are down by the river, they need to look out for the crocodiles. The moral of the song is the unity with which everyone comes together for the children. In Africa, there is an old saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

 

Two years ago the town of Ocean City, Maryland celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its Play-It-Safe Ocean City program. Designed for graduating high school seniors, the three week-long program involves area merchants, local volunteers, state and county agencies and volunteers to assist with the free events for the young people. Seniors can come for one week and are given a booklet with free coupons for food and a schedule of events, all designed to help seniors celebrate their high school graduation in a drug-free environment. Free bus passes are included to help those participating navigate the city. Free events available to the seniors include free roller coaster rides, tye-dye t-shirt events, pizza eating contest, dance party, tennis tourney, laser tag mini golf, regular mini golf, dodge ball, Splash Mountain, 3-on-3 basketball tourney, beach volleyball, wind surfing, kayak relays, moonlight bowling, and karaoke.

 

In a world where many feel afraid of their neighbors, Ocean City, Maryland had adopted the African slogan and made it a celebration. Celebrating in 2014 their twenty-fifth year, seniors from sixteen states and the District of Columbia arrived to attend this event. Sixty thousand brochures advertising the program were sent out and twenty thousand Passport to Fun Booklets distributed. There were over forty-eight planned drug-free and alcohol-free events for the eighty-three hundred-plus attendees at no charge. This was made possible by the over three hundred businesses, organizations, and individuals who contributed services, money, and prizes. Over three hundred and fifty volunteers, private citizens, assisted as well as the employees of state, county, and municipal agencies.

 

Over two thousand hours, half by volunteers, make this village-sponsored event a reality.  The residents of the area saw a need for healthy fun events for graduating seniors along the east coast and worked together to make an ordinary summer extraordinary.  They not only identified a need, they took action to make the solution to that need possible.

 

Out of all the holidays we celebrate, the holiday of Kwanzaa celebrates family, both the family we are biologically known to have but also the family of community.  During Kwanza, seven candles are lit, the first being the black candle. The remaining candles, three red and three green flank the black candle. The red candles represent the principles of self-determination, cooperative economics and creativity and are placed to the left of the center black candle. To the right are the green candles which represent collective work and responsibility, purpose, and faith. This is to show that people come first, and then the struggle and finally, the hope that comes from the struggle.

 

The program in Ocean City, Maryland, is not simple. I can assure you that there are struggles. Weather delays are just one of the many surprises that life sometimes offers. However, year after year, the people and the agencies of the area continue to do this for students from outside their neighborhood. All this comes from a town of less than twelve thousand year-round residents striving to provide high school seniors a safe yet fun way to celebrate their high school graduation.

 

The world with all the modern technology has gotten smaller and now it is as easy to travel half way around the world as it was for our parents to travel one hundred miles to a cousin’s house. The celebration of Kwanza is not just for those of African descent but for us all. We all need to remember that we had help getting to where we are and that we need to help others. Television has many so-called reality shows about people who want to live “off the grid” and yet, they are so popular because these people end up needing someone.

 

It is a fact that we need each other.  None of us are born alone.  Life is a team sport and perhaps, as we take part in the festivities of the season we will remember that we also take part in a greater celebration about the family of man called life. It really does take a village, not only to raise a child but to help an adult in their living as well.  We each play a vital role and not only need but are needed.  You have value.  You can make a difference.

 

 

 

 

Listen as Others Share

Listen as others Share

Pentecost 122

 

You can ask Google just about anything.  Ask it how to make your life more extraordinary and you will find page after page with lists of ways to “live better”.  On many of these lists is an admonition to listen and share.  Listen to the stories of others and then share in the living we all share on this planet.

“Hey there.  I’m Brandon.  I get really passionate about things.  At some time in my life, I’ve been obsessed or borderline-obsessed with saltwater aquariums, the baritone euphonium, reading, piano, filming, financial markets, New York City, and photography.  I studied History at the University of Georgia.  During my senior year of college, I took out $3,000 in student loans and bet it on Barack Obama to win the presidency.  A friend heard about this bet and got me a job trading bonds on the Chicago Board of Trade.  I traded for three years.  It went really well for awhile.  But then it went really bad. Whoops. After I lost my trading job, I decided to move to New York City and take portraits of strangers on the street. Mom wasn’t too happy about that decision, but so far it’s gone pretty well. I’ve taken nearly 5,000 portraits and written 50 stories. And I’ve met some amazing people along the way.”

 

This paragraph is on the home page of the website for Humans of New York.  Now a best-selling published book and the subject of a highly successful blog, Brandon Stanton’s intro doesn’t really tell the whole story.  In 2010 he had a goal to take ten thousand New Yorkers’ pictures and plot them on a map.  I have often had the same thought regarding pictures of my family.  The amazing thing about Brandon’s photography, though, is the story that each picture tells.  The Georgia native began taking pictures as a hobby while living in Chicago.  He has since traveled under the auspices of the United Nations, taking part in a fifty-day trip through ten nations.  One year he did the same in Pakistan and Iran and crowd funded a project to help end bonded labor in Pakistan.

 

Stanton’s photographs are not technically perfect.  After all, he was a history major in college.  What they do, however, is bring the human condition into focus.  They capture a moment in time that is an entire book.  Not all of the minute portraits are completely candid shots. There are the critics as well.  Recently, Robert John Boyle published an article at salon.com regarding the sugarcoating of Brandon’s subjects and the presentation that Boyle called “sentimentality”.

 

Over the most recent December holiday season Brandon Stanton raised over half a million dollars to help Syrian refugees.  Boyle considers the “dumbing down” of the political aspect outweighs any good the money might accomplish.  It is a common debate in the world of humanitarian efforts.

 

The visual content of the pictures found within Humans of New York make us listen, not only to the subject of the photograph but to the world around us.  When all we hear is our own ego, we are unable to hear reality and the needs the world is calling us to repair.

 

“When my husband was dying, I said: Moe, how am I supposed to live without you? He told me: take the love you have for me and spread it around.”  This anecdote from Stanton’s blog and book is just one example of the truths found accompanying each picture.  One of my favorites is the young child Stanton saw.  Wanting to take her picture he started asking nearby adults “Does she belong to you?”  Suddenly the little girl responded “I belong to myself!”

 

What if we listened to the world as belonging to each of us?  Observe a group of mothers and you will learn that each seems to know her own baby’s cry and what that cry means.  When I was single I laughed at the thought of understanding a baby’s cry… and then I became a mother.  I soon became one of “those mothers’.  Most of us dog owners can recognize our own dog’s bark and usually what it means.  (My cats also speak to me but we all know that cats merely do that to get our attention.  After all, no human is smart enough to understand cat-speak!)

 

When we listen – not just hear but really listen – great things can happen.  Stephen Covey knew how often we fail to really listen: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  I wonder what would happen if we would just listen, really listen, to what the world is telling us, to what our neighbors are saying.  I think Leo Buscaglia, another best-selling author,  penned it succinctly:  “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

 

Our living is not just about us.  A friend told me how she ran into an acquaintance last week.  “Are you mad at me?” was the first thing out of the acquaintance’s mouth, not “Hello!” or “How are you?”  My friend realized that the woman had no interest in the acquaintance’s story; her world revolved around her.  Other people have much to teach us and often that is found in their story.  We can make our own existence so much better when we listen and learn.

 

Believing in Good

Believing in Good

Pentecost 121

 

“The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out,” the blue-eyed man told the reporter.

 

Two women were sitting at a coffee shop sharing some quiet time as they watched the hustle and bustle of humanity swirl around them.  “One of my biggest regrets,” the first said, “is that I simply lived, worked for a paycheck that just paid for the essentials in life.  I always wanted to do more, to start a foundation or charity to help others.”  Her friend put down her cup and explained how she made her living count.  “I helped children with cancer have a safe and enjoyable summer camp experience.  I helped fund a college scholarship program.  I gave to a center that helped people with substance abuse issues and I supported a program that united corporations with community partners to expand corporate giving and create stronger communities.”

 

The first woman looked at her friend in amazement.  “Goodness gracious!  We both worked the same job and I know you had to have been paid a similar salary to my own.  How did you ever manage that?”  Her friend took another sip of coffee and smiled.  “I made my living count,” she replied.  “I bought salad dressing and dog food.”  She bought products from companies that give back to their communities which made her, as their customer, someone who gave back. 

 

We all should be farmers in our living… putting something back as we use the world’s resources to support our own life.  As the woman in the above anecdote explained to her friend, she did so by simply living, but she made her living count.  We all need to purchase things and many of us purchase our food instead of growing it or making it.  It really does not take more effort to know the track record of the companies from whom we purchase those things.

 

The actor Paul Newman, whose quote opened this blog post, led what was to many a very charmed life.  He found success in his acting and was able to enjoy expensive hobbies like race cars.  However, Paul Newman was not only a man with famous blue eyes.  He was a man with a conscious.  “I wanted to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, who might not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.”  Paul Newman had a little-known hobby of cooking.  He parlayed that hobby into a food company called Newman’s Own.  They began with Newman’s own recipes for spaghetti sauce and branched out into other items like salad dressing.  There is a line of pet foods as well.  The proceeds from this line of culinary items go directly into various charities Paul Newman established.

 

One of those charities is the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, the name taken from the famous film Newman starred in about the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang camps offer a summer respite for children suffering from cancer.  Proceeds also have help fund a substance abuse treatment facility named after Newman’s son who died from a drug overdose.  Personally Paul Newman and his actress wife Joanne Woodward donated over a quarter of a million dollars to help refugees from Kosovo when theirs was the country under warfare.

 

Sometimes helping another is as simple as selecting which brand to purchase at the grocery store.  My laundry detergent goes into nature ravaged areas and offers free clothes washing to victims.  My dish detergent goes to areas with oil slicks and cleans affected waterfowl.  My snack food company donates proceeds to local food banks and national child hunger prevention programs.  Every time I go to the store, I can be a humanitarian.

 

We all purchase items.  Few of us make or grow everything we consume or use.  Start buying smart by making those purchases count.  It really can be done, even on a tight budget.  Education is a big thing for ma and Paul Newman used some of the proceeds from his personal and company holdings to fund a ten million dollar scholarship endowment at his alma mater.  In 2008 he contributed over twenty million dollars to charities and was named the Most Generous Celebrity of 2008.  Paul Newman’s philanthropy did not die upon his death in 2008.  His daughters have picked up the gauntlet and are doing their parents proud.  Nell Newman has her own foundation, which began as an organic subsidiary of her father’s food empire, which is funding cooperative food networks and hunger and poverty initiatives all over the globe.

 

I like knowing I helped with a wee little bit of that charitable giving.  When faced with the chance to purchase one of the Newman’s Own brands, I gladly do so, knowing that I am like a farmer, putting something into the world as I take something out.  I like knowing I am helping to cultivate a better future as I live the present.  What will you eat today?  Could it possible help someone else have something to eat?  If you purchase a product from Newman’s Own brand, it will.  It is just that simple to be a humanitarian.  Life is much more than just living.  Life is about doing positive things that give back to society.  Sometimes that is as easy as a trip to the grocery store.  Sometimes going shopping can create something extraordinary for someone else.

 

Fear and Change

Fear and Change

Pentecost 119

 

There are events that are designed to make us fearful.  “I think, therefore I am; I think, therefore I fear.  I think, so ….I’m gonna go to sleep!”  The fear calls out to us and envelopes us.  It makes us change our daily habits.  Change is not something many of us easily accept.  Whether it is a big change or small, the body perceives it as a threat and reacts accordingly.  Perhaps our reaction and the emotion we experience which we call fear is due to its etymology.  It is most interesting.

 

The noun form of the word “fear” comes from several Middle English words such as feer, fere, and fer, which meant danger, as well as the Old English faer which meant danger.  It is also related to the German” fera”, defined as danger but also the Proto-Indo-European word “per”.  Unlike the modern English usage of the word “per” which is used to single out, this earlier “per” translated as an attempt, to try or research, to risk.

 

Our modern usage of the word “fear” is three-fold.  It can refer to the uncomfortable emotion of fear; ir can be a phobia which is usually defined as an irrational amount of fear.  Fear can also refer to how one worships or holds a belief or deity in reverence.  Psychologists such as John Watson, Robert Plutchik, and Paul Ekman consider man and woman to have only a few innate or natural emotions.  Fear is one of them.  Many believe fear to be the backbone of evolution and the fear responses the reason mankind has survived.

 

I am particularly interested in the connection between the definitions of fear.  When we hold something in great esteem or reverence, it can be said we “fear” it.  Does that threaten us?  After all, fear we fear something when we perceive it to be a threat or to pose a danger to us.  Fear is not the same as anxiety and that is an often overlooked fact.  Anxiety is our reaction to threats that are uncontrolled or unavoidable.

 

We have discussed the fight or flight response to fear in past articles.  The body perceives a threat and it does what it thinks best to protect itself.  It varies based upon personalities, cultures, and genus/species, but it really is something all animals have in common.  Fear exists to protect us.  Anxiety, however, is another matter.

 

Anxiety is all about our perception.  Some anxiety can be useful.  It can remind us to check and double check situations, making sure we have all our bases covered, so to speak.  Often, though, anxiety is very limiting.  What we call a fear of change is actually an anxiety of change, even though change is one of the constants in life.  The following quote is sometimes attributed to nelson Mandela but was originally said by Marianna Williamson: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?”

 

Could that possible be true?  Do we fear or become anxious about change because we worry about being successful?  What could we accomplish if we embraced change?  What could be the repercussions if we embraced change and it…gulp… failed?  Is that even possible?  Is change merely evolution?  Many believe civilization is on the brink of its greatest change since the ACE began.  Maeterlinck said: “At every crossroad on the way that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.”

 

Those believing in this great change feel that the world is going to be divided into thinkers, who will lead, and non-thinkers who will follow.  Bertrand Russell believed “Men fear THOUGHT, as they fear nothing else on earth.”  I disagree.  I don’t think people really fear thinking as much as they fear the results of our thinking.  That might require us to change.

 

Most of us have had a great idea – that one thing that will make everyone’s life easier. Few of us take it to the next level.  Why? We are afraid of failing.  Nothing has ever been invented on the first try and had instant success.  Even if the first generation of a device is successful, the inventor(s) were not newborn babies.  They used their gained knowledge from their life as their teaching tool and their thinking which led to the invention was predicated upon that living.

 

Tony Robbins is often quoted:  “Change is inevitable.  Progress is optional.”  There are many justified instance where we will feel fear.  It might save your life.  There are also many instances that will bring about anxiety.  These can either be opportunities to check and recheck to make sure we are doing things correctly or they can be crippling, life-stopping events. 

 

When we realize that anxiety is simply a yield sign and not a stop sign, then we can grow and learn and yes, even think.  Change is the hallmark of being alive.  As we live, we evolve and evolution is simply change due to living.  What we most want in our lives is peace and that is a result of overcoming fear and having the courage to change.   Peace comes when we embrace our living and hang on for the ride of our life!

 

Living the Ordinary

Living the Ordinary

Pentecost 117

 

All this series we have discussed Pentecost, the “ordinary time” as it is known in liturgical circles.  A great many people have asked if I was trying to sneak in some theology into what they felt was a spiritually-based blog.  This blog does discuss spirituality and no, I am not trying to put forth some hidden agenda which targets one specific religion.  I would describe this blog as more a philosophical discussion but let’s talk about all three of these and how they relate to our everyday, ordinary existence.

 

A recent trend has been to pit religion against spirituality.  There is good reason for this but one might ask: “Is it all a matter of semantics?”  The millennials of today and Generation “Y” live and breathe in part according to meme theory.  Many theologians blame it for the decline in their effectiveness.  What is “meme theory” and from where did it originate?  According to Wikipedia, a go-to reference for all millennials, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”  The word is an abbreviation of the word memetic, a theory of mental evolution based upon the work of Charles Darwin, coined by British evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins.  Opposing the religious culture, which most assuredly could be said to be based upon a meme, the term has become the battle cry of atheists who ironically, in their attempt to be different, have formed their own communion. 

 

The battle between philosophy and religion is not new.  After all, they both seek to answer questions about the world and mankind.  Religion attempts to do this through beliefs, faith, and revelation that is said to come from deities or one supreme deity/spirit.  Philosophy seeks to discover answers by way of reason and argument.  In the medieval time, some religious leaders often saw philosophers as threats and branded them heretics.  Eastern philosophy, however, developed alongside the philosophers of the time and Islam integrated philosophy with its theology.

 

Spiritual Healer Nancy Kern explains it this way: “Spirituality is a direct experience of God, by whatever name: Source, Spirit, the Light, All That Is, Allah, Shiva, Jesus. Religion is learned, passed on through families and cultural institutions, including churches. Religion is built around form, characterized by dogma, ritual and social interaction. Religious organizations are built around spiritual values, and also encompass politics, fund-raising and identity built on beliefs and practices. 

 

“Spirituality involves a direct experience of grace through a bodily knowing; no intermediary is required, no particular beliefs are necessary.  The ego cannot manage spiritual experiences or make them happen. Spiritual experiences range from beautiful to frightening, and may contradict religious and scientific beliefs.  Both religion and spirituality can involve prayer, contemplation and/or meditation. Both can be positive forces of healing from emotional and physical distress.  Spirituality can be encouraged through sensitivity to nature and the cultivation of awareness, gratitude and loving kindness. Religion can encourage and foster spirituality, but does not necessarily do so.”

 

The Native American culture believed that everything had a spirit, a soul that was to be respected.  AS such, everything had a life force.  Based upon the Asian continent from which these people originated more than thirty thousand years ago, their manner of living was based upon metaphysical questions answered by their spiritual and religious beliefs.  Eastern traditions were much more focused on concepts of virtue and how life was to be lived rather than stories of one or more deities. 

 

Philosophy seeks to rationalize reason for our actions.  Spirituality would ask if fulfillment could be achieved by the harming and enslavement of another and religion would quote love for one’s neighbor rather than plotting murder and mayhem.  In many of the instances of young people leaving a country of freedoms and opportunity, their reason is the same:  They felt disenfranchised. 

 

If we continue to make enemies of spirituality and religion, then we are looking at the future with very poor vision.  Today’s young adults live passionately and want a passionate faith.  Religion should be a living entity that embraces and uses their spirituality.  We must let each other breathe, embracing that which emboldens our spirit to live.

 

Confucius and Buddha faced life with philosophical leanings that have become spiritual bases for living for many.  Most major religions could also do the same.  We need to stop looking at things from an “either-or” perspective and start thinking how we can make a healthy salad of life – combining various and often different things together to work for the betterment of all living things. 

 

Judith Kelman once said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  Many people think they know how the world is supposed to revolve.  As we enter the political seasons in countries all over the world, we are promised answers and new life.  Location is now the magic key nor is a change in leadership.  The answer lies with each of us.  It cannot be bought on a store shelf, found in a bigger house, snazzier vehicle, or even by hiding behind the walls of a religious entity. 

 

“Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it. . . . What frustrates us and robs our lives of joy is this absence of meaning. . . . Does our being alive matter?”  Harold Kushner asked this in his book “When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t enough”. 

 

What makes our living and our thinking matter is us.  What gives life meaning is what we do with it.  The problem is not with our thinking, it is with our actions… or lack of actions.  The person who says he/she believes must be able to show evidence of it in his/her actions.  Life is not lived in a state of constant meditation or even reflection, though both have great value.  Life is lived in the daily grind.  Life is successfully lived when we embrace it and all that is living.  Life is ours for the living.  We just need to live it in a way that respects all and in such a way that encourages new life for everything and everyone.  When we do that, our existence will no longer simply be ordinary.  We will be living with intention in an extraordinary way that provides a better future for us all.