Friday, May 27, 2011

Congrats to our Grads!

Consider it a pure joy, my friends, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance (James 1:2-3).

As we approach the end of yet another school year, I can’t help but imagine how much joy and sorrow the Class of 2011 must be experiencing. On the one hand, they are approaching their final exams, and that is always quite stressful – a do or die time; and then there is the question for many of what to do this summer and for the rest of their lives.

I look back over the decades that separate me from the academic and vocational graduations I have gone through and I know there is no way I could have imagined or predicted the path my life would have taken, the places I would have seen, the people I would have met, the things I would have accomplished, and the areas in which I would have been a dismal failure.

It would be easy to get caught up in the misery of those failures, those places where we’ve hurt others by things done and left undone, said and left unsaid; it would be equally easy to ignore those painful memories, to gloss over them as matters we can do nothing about, so “move on.”

Neither option is good, however. It does no good to get bogged down by things we cannot change; but neither does it behoove us to bury them, for a burial does not lay to rest as much as it plants a mine. We never know when someone will step on it (or in it) and the damage that will be done when it explodes.

As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He was on trial for teaching that people should challenge the accepted beliefs and ideas of the age. He was not promoting anarchy, but rather was advocating for the careful, methodical, and thoughtful examination of evidence – testing one’s beliefs, as it were.

His advice for society is also good for the individual: Put life to the test, not to break it, but to prove it. That is the purpose of testing, you know; not to break things, but to prove them. Students and pupils are given tests to help determine whether or not they have mastered the material they’ve been given.

It isn’t the material that is important (we’ve always got Wikipedia to fall back on, don’t we?). There is no shortage of material. What is important is learning what to do with the material we have.

When we fail, it is more important than ever to face it honestly and ask ourselves what happened so that we can figure out what we might need to do differently in order to prevent repeating that lack of success. We don’t need to hide our shame, for there is nothing shameful about falling down. The shame is found in doing the same thing over and expecting different results (a colloquial definition of insanity).

Tests are simply challenges we face which help us determine where in life we need to grow, change, or improve.

If I was to offer this year’s graduating class any advice (and admittedly, they’ve not asked) I would simply suggest that they not take themselves so seriously that they fail to enjoy the life they’ve got.

Work hard, but don’t be obsessive about it. Figure out what you’re doing right, and stick with it. Figure out what’s not working for you, and let it go. Listen to your friends, but listen to yourself as well; go with your gut. On those rare occasions when your gut’s wrong, admit the mistake, fix the damage, make amends, and move on.

If and when you feel trapped by life or life’s circumstances, pray for freedom – by which I mean freedom from fear. Experiment carefully, experience freely, and look for the dream that might well be eluding you. It is there; maybe you need to listen for it, more than look for it, but that’s OK. Use all of the senses God gave you – including Common Sense.

Life is full of tests, but there’s nothing to fear, for God is with us every step of the way in this, our world. Congratulations Class of 2011; test your footing, and Go in Peace!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Neighbors, Neighborhoods, and the Sun

“My role in society … is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.” John Lennon

For the first time in what seems like years, the sun has continued to shine in our neck of the woods for a string of days, and I can tell it is making a difference in my life. The influx of Vitamin D has done this body good (although I dare say (ahem) you probably couldn’t tell that by looking).

In any case, we had gone for so long with only the odd day of sunshine here and there that I was beginning to despair of ever seeing that golden orb ever again.

That’s a silly notion, of course, as the sun does make her inevitable return faithfully, and the local citizenry greets her with a mixture of joy and awe (and some confusion: what’s that thing called, again?).

When I look around at the locals in their giddiness, I can’t help but make note of what amnesiacs we all are. Up there in that space between our ears, we know full well how the seasons work, how the jet stream affects the weather, and how the sun bobs and weaves her way through this universe of ours, and yet in our hearts, aren’t we just a little bit forgetful? Don’t we start to wonder if warm and sunny days will ever return (or conversely, whether we’ll ever see the rain again when faced with a long, hot, dry spell)?

Yes, we wonder; and yes, we sometimes do forget; but with the change of seasons, we are reminded of things we have otherwise forgotten. God does not forget us. That’s a fact. The trees have been leafing out and blooming for months now – if you don’t believe me, just ask your allergist! The birds have been singing their songs and making their nests, and foraging squirrels have forgotten how hazardous long ribbons of concrete can be!

But that’s life, isn’t it? Singing songs; making babies; foraging for what we need (and doing so somewhat carelessly at times); and all of that for no better reason than that’s what we’re here to do – and we do it as best we can without causing too much of a flap with the neighbors.

That’s the other thing I noticed about the sun’s return: neighbors. We who’ve been holed up for months in our windowed boxes have stepped outside to see what chores winter’s effect has left for us in the wake of her passing.

Like squirrels on the prowl, neighbors step into the street to discuss matters as mundane as the spring crop of dandelions, drooping gutters, the detritus of fallen limbs and broken branches, and the state of the economy. The warmth of the sun’s rays are matched by the radiant warmth of neighbors re-connecting, catching up, and once again exchanging news, notes, and other confections of life – of that which we call “community.”

We forget just how much it means to belong to something larger than ourselves. I suppose that’s one reason we continue to live in cities, even though the need for walls and mutual protection from roving vandals is mostly a thing of the past (although modern gangs, thugs, and hooligans makes evident our continuing need for good locks); the fact remains that even if we think we can get along just fine alone and on our own, we still need one another.

But even if we didn’t need one another, one other fact remains – that life is simply more fun when it is spent in the company of others.

As nice as it is to have the convenience of a refrigerator in the kitchen and a bathroom down the hall, people have more fun when attending games at the ballpark; as nice as it is to research DIY tips and order goods online, people have more fun finding solutions for their projects as they discuss their dreams and challenges with others at the shops and stores in town.

In short, the approach of summer invites us to get out, look around, and cheer up in this, our community. The view outside is so much better when we’re there to share it together. Enjoy!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rigorous Honesty

Life is all about progress … Life is just far too short to waste a minute of it. Marie Rayner

What do you do with your trash? Unless you are a hoarder, you face it, bag it, toss it, then forget it.

That seems like a no-brainer, and yet it is hard to toss away those experiences of life that have caused us pain and grief. We are haunted by our negative experiences, and yet we don’t have to be afraid of them; we don’t need to be ashamed of them.

They are part of the fabric of our lives, but they aren’t the sum total of who we are. They add to us shape, color, and texture, but we don’t have to be weighed down by them.

While painful experiences are regrettable, we can become stronger for them. It is often the awful things that happen that can inspire us to work harder or to work smarter to overcome them.

I believe God would have us be happy, joyous, and free, and since we cannot deny what we have done or what has been done to us, we need to learn how to move past those events so that we don’t get stuck there. There is no easy solution, but there is hope.

As I mentioned last week, the key is in a little thing called “rigorous honesty.”

Too much of what we do in life is done on auto-pilot. We don’t think things through. Paraphrasing Julius Caesar, we look in the rearview mirror and say, “Veni, Vedi, Vudu” (I came, I saw, I did what!?).

Leaving aside the matter of the world’s few true psychopaths and sociopaths, most of us go through life knowing right and wrong. Many of the ills we visit on others are done primarily out of ignorance or carelessness, but sometimes there’s malice.

When we take advantage of someone, we generally know it, even if we try to rationalize away our actions (I shouldn’t have hit her, but she made me angry; or I thought when she loaned me money that she meant it to be a gift; etc.)

What we’re doing is sanitizing matters and protecting our ego. That’s no good. Even though it is the other person who is wounded by our words and deeds, we are also wounded, for wounds always cut in both directions.

Mature people know how to make amends – to make things right. We do that by facing what we have done, doing what we can to fix things, then handing it over to God, our heavenly trash compactor. We aren’t responsible for what others have done, but for what we can do ourselves.

That’s an important distinction. It is our job to take care of our side of the street because that is the only way we can attain true peace of mind.

Too often we want to wait for the other person to make the first move, or we want to see evidence that they are going to change, but that presumes we are completely innocent, and we generally aren’t.

Even when we do something good, it can have consequences we didn’t anticipate, but which hurt, and so we need to be ready to accept responsibility for making things right, not because we are at fault, but because a human being who is mature accepts responsibility and faces issues head on, and takes care of them, and does what is necessary to prevent misunderstandings or problems in the future.

In the song Shame, Fernando Ortega sings, “I am small and self-conscious / every mirror reflects this grain / Judge my essence by my kinships / remember me … not my shame.”

Each of us is human; we know there will be misunderstandings and acts that estrange us from one another. What prevents us from moving forward, however, is our shame; our inability to acknowledge our faults, to make lasting corrections, and to move on.

If a person wants to be happy, joyous, and free, he/she need only deal with their trash: Face it, Bag it, Toss it, and then Forget about it. If a ghostly memory rises up to haunt you, tell it, “Be gone, for I’ve given you to God.” Then let go of it, for now it is God’s problem in this, our world. Go in Peace.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Life on Life's Terms

"Don't fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions . . . could have, might have and should have." Unknown

There are many things that conspire to freeze us in our tracks. Fear of failure is one such conspirator.

Everyone experiences failings and losses over the years.

Friends grow up, move across town or across the country, and a time comes when ties which bound that friendship you once thought were “stronger than blood” simply cease to be. Warmth and affection give way to fond memories, and those eventually fade to black – rubbing elbows with the knick knacks and bric-a-brac of life’s experiences, stuck in a vault of the mind where they’re all wishfully secured.

I say “wishfully” because some of our memories aren’t so wonderful; it is those that often manage to find their way out of the vault, sneaking up or down a creaky staircase to make life miserable for its owner at the worst possible moment. It would be nice if only the pleasant memories would make a trip to the landing to visit, but it seems that only the stinky ones bother to make the journey in the first place.

I presume that is because they represent the “unfinished business” of life. Rather than dealing with such unpleasantries, we stuff them deep into loosely tied haversacks, hoping against hope that that’ll finish them off. We’re never that lucky, of course. Nature abhors a vacuum, and unfinished business is just that.

The human mind seeks – indeed, demands – closure. Try to stop singing a song three notes short of the end; or tell me what happens to you when you’re riveted to an episode of your favorite television show, it reaches a dramatic turning point, and then, “To be continued” hits the screen. Your jaw drops, you say, “Oh no” (or variant), and you make every effort to remember to watch the next episode, because a cliff-hanger leaves you uncomfortably dangling.

I think there is a lot of unfinished business in our world. We have gotten far too good at not dealing with problems and issues that confront us daily at home, work, or school. We procrastinate and put things off, and soon it becomes more than a convenience; it becomes a way of life.

We cannot experience full, complete, and happy lives if we are not willing and able to confront life head-on; to deal with “life on life’s terms” (as a colloquial expression goes).

One of the things that prevents us from dealing with life on life’s terms is our tendency to white-wash our lives; to delude ourselves with wishful thinking, or to believe we are better than we are.

That’s not to say we don’t have sterling qualities; after all, no one is all bad (which includes politicians, bankers, brokers, and lawyers); but sometimes we are a bit delusional in our thinking. That is why it is important to have people with whom we can be open and honest – close friends and confidants, and – equally important, people who can (and will) provide us with honest feedback.

I’m reminded of King David who, at one point in his life, felt he was quite good and noble: “Don’t let me suffer the fate of sinners … I am not like that; I do what is right, so in your mercy (Lord), save me” (Psalm 26).

Later, Samuel (his good friend and spiritual advisor) confronted David with some ugly truths: You’re a liar, cheat, and thief; you stole a man’s wife, lied to him to save your skin, and when that didn’t work you conspired to murder him in battle with treachery.”

That drove David to his knees: “I was born a sinner – yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. You desire honesty, but …” (Psalm 51).

Most of us don’t have baggage quite that heavy, but we do have baggage stored away in the deep, dark recesses of our hearts and minds. Each bag has a tag, and inscribed on each tag are three simple words: To be continued. Until we open those bags and deal with their contents, they’ll stop and freeze us in place with fear.

Spiritual health demands rigorous honesty. We’ll talk about that next time in this, our world … to be continued.