Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Valley of the Shadow

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil -- Psalm 23

What’s all this animosity between people who live in the valleys and those who live in the mountains? What’s that all about?

I remember watching the movie Deliverance (Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds). Several friends went up into the mountains to enjoy a little canoeing and a little R&R. The Mountain Men in the hills were anything but hospitable; violence ensued.

Then there’s the old camp-song (One Tin Soldier) where it is valley people who are depicted as faithless, feckless wonders who cheat on spouses, steal from friends, storm the mountain to grab “the treasure buried there,” and turning over a stone discover: “’Peace on earth’ is all it said.”

There is a passage of scripture where the psalmist speaks of another valley, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” through which all of us will someday walk. What’s his response?

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow … I shall fear no evil.” (Why not?) “For thou art with me.”

I like the “thou”. Where “you” is modern Standard English, “thou” is intimate, thou is personal.

I also prefer to drop the phrase “of death” because I believe we face many shadows in life, not just the shadow of death. There is the shadow of our past that would keep most sane people from ever running for public office, even though we expect those who do run to be squeaky-clean. How’s that working for us, eh?

Many of us walk through the shadows of a past we’d like to shut the door on, or an economic uncertainty that terrifies us, or longevity of life where bodies fail and memories fade.

Life is certainly not for the timid. Walking through the valley of the shadow, it’s nice having a companion who promises to always be there “no matter what.”

I once saw a cartoon drawing of a great, hairy beast of a man, something like Mongo (Blazing Saddles) wearing a tattered, well-worn hat, a leather vest about two sizes too small for his mountainous torso, a massive spike-studded club, captioned: “I shall fear no evil, for I’m the meanest son of a gun in the valley.”

One of the things I’ve learned over the years, however, is that serenity does not require a tough hombre. Our comfort is not to be found in the iron we pack, nor the spikes in which we’ve wrapped our clubs. No, our comfort is found in walking the valley with someone else; we do not walk it alone, but with others.

We may not have all the tools we need at our disposal, but we have some, and our neighbors have some, and their neighbors have yet others. Walking the valley of the shadow together, we get to share our experience, strength, and hope with one another – and that gives us great comfort. Nothing’s forever new.

We find ourselves walking through a valley through which the prevailing winds are fear and greed. When we’re scared, we often look for people and situations to blame. When there is money to be made, we often forget all we learned in kindergarten and seek to “get ours” while the getting’s good.

God of the Bible, however, teaches us “a more excellent” way.

Walk with him, he says, and we shall not want. God knows where the grass is green and the waters are still. Just as we’re ready to take a break, God stops and says, “Here’s a good place to rest,” and then stands watch for lions and tigers and bears (oh my) so that we might lie down in peace and security.

No earthly power will give us that; no army that ever marched, no navy that ever sailed, no brokerage house that ever traded stocks and bonds will ever give us that. No house filled with guns and ammo will ever truly give us that.

There once was a Stone covered with the blood of all human violence and upon whom was written: Peace on Earth. He gives Peace, that we may know serenity. We’ll find his name written on the hearts of many here in this, our valley (and in the mountains, too). In the words of the Big Book, May you find him now.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Slippery Devils

No one minds that today the clouds are neither in the same position nor in the same shapes they were yesterday – John McWhorter

Words are slippery devils. That’s what I told my friend when he asked me why people often pray in Elizabethan English – you know, prayers filled with thees and thous and a vocabulary that would be more at home in a Shakespearian Inn than one of our local watering holes.

As far as I know, there is no reason for anyone to speak to God (or “of” God) using words from yesteryear. If we did, I think we’d need to go full tilt and pray in ancient Aramaic (the language of Jesus), or Hebrew (the language of Moses). But, like it or not, I think God is quite satisfied to sit a spell and hear us out as we offer our prayers of petition, adoration, confession, or thanksgiving in any way we find most helpful to the cause.

Getting back to words, though, they are always on the move. I notice that when we sing our hymns; lines often end with “word” and “lord” as if they’re supposed to sound the same. The fact is, when those hymns were written, that’s exactly what they did sound like. It was either word pronounced like ward, or Lord pronounced like Lerd (Linguists can tell us how those words have shifted).

I am sometimes called a grammar Nazi, and I suppose I am. Even when I text someone on my cellphone, I use proper spelling and punctuation, sentences complete with subjects and predicates, and with proper nouns capitalized just like they’re supposed to be. I don’t confuse there with their or they’re, nor we with wee. When a text message I send is wrong, it is because the auto-fill has decided it knows better than me what I intended (or is it “better than I what I intended”?). Ugh!

I like English, even when it confuses me. I appreciate rules, grammar and spelling. I enjoy word play, and although I may have fun with language and bristle when an editor removes my Oxford commas (because this is a newspaper and we’re not in Oxford), the fact remains I am not as annoyed as I might let others believe when they use abbreviations, textical shortcuts, or grammatical mistakes.

It is often those mistakes that lead us to recognize something is going on – that something doesn’t make sense; the mistake is often a person’s effort to fix a grammatical problem. For instance, baseball season is upon us. When a batter hits a fly ball to center, we don’t say the batter “flew” out to center, for he’s not a bird; we say he or she “flied” out to center. The normal past tense (flew) is replaced by the more reasonable (flied) because it also fits the pattern we have for cry. The past tense of cry is cried, not crew, so it doesn’t feel wrong for the past tense of fly to be flied, even if we know it is normally flew.

English is quite flexible that way. New words are routinely created for the purpose of conveying an idea in new ways. For instance, you won’t find the word “textical” in the dictionary, but I created it here and now to demonstrate how it is done. The “ical” suffix converts a noun (text) into an adjective (textical), just like it transforms rhetoric (a noun) into rhetorical (a word describing some kind of device in literature or speech).

That brings us back to prayer and matters of faith. Life changes. I gaze at clouds and see how quickly they come and go, their forms shifting under the influence of swirls and eddies of invisible currents.

Faith is like that; it, too, is a slippery devil. It comes and goes, bending with the times, shifting ‘round as needs and wants shift. It must change, or it will go stagnant and die, like ancient Latin or Olde English.

God’s Spirit (spirit means breath, by the way) blows into and over our lives, keeping us fresh, rosy-cheeked, and filled with vitality and love. God’s command to love never changes, but as with words, how it is shaped and defined constantly changes.

God’s love is a slippery devil; it’s always on the move in this, our valley.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sizing Up the Bully

Today I will give myself permission to set the limits I want and need to set in my life – Melody Beattie

In a few recent columns I have been talking about bullying and some of the steps a person can take to minimize the impact a bully might have on them. It occurs to me, though, that I haven’t taken time to address the question of what exactly bullying is; that is part of the problem in putting a stop to it.

What exactly is bullying? It is like the judge who said, in trying to describe pornography, “I can’t exactly define it, but I know it when I see it!”

Bullying is a slippery term, and unless we agree to what it means, we will probably struggle to address it in any meaningful way.

I am a simple soul, and I find it easier to address actions that are wrong or inappropriate than to put labels on them. For instance, if someone hits someone else, that’s an assault. It doesn’t matter if the assailant is bigger or smaller than their adversary; if you lay a hand on someone without their permission you have assaulted them.

The problem I have with a generalized label – bully – is that it conflates the person with the deed. Are you dealing with the bully, or with their behavior? I think it is helpful to separate the person from the activity they’re engaged in, and here is why.

Not all bullies are bullies.

People can easily be mis-labeled. An assertive person who expresses an opinion may intimidate the person they’re talking to, but that doesn’t make them a bully. Sometimes they’re not even aware they’re doing it. New Yorkers famously scream and shout their opinions at one another. They may be loud, they may be obnoxious (not all of them, of course; I’m sure some are very nice, quiet, pleasant persons), but they mean no harm; they simply express themselves loudly, and shouldn’t be accused of bullying, just because someone unfamiliar with their communication style is intimidated.

Some people are less innocent. They know what they want and may intimidate others to do their bidding. The world is full of manipulators. I suspect none of us are completely innocent of that. Fear and shame are primary tools in their tool box. FDR once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, so it might be helpful to learn how to overcome fear.

Learning anything takes time. Fear is one of God’s greatest gifts to the human race, but unreasonable fear is a killer. So we need to face what we fear and learn to adapt, overcome, and improvise (as Marines are taught). This is not to say it is a victim’s fault if they are being bullied, but an invitation for all of us to learn to grow where we need to because …

… the world does have another class of bully – the sociopath or psychopath – who cannot and will not be reasoned with. They will not admit they are ever wrong; they will put the blame on the victim (she can’t take a joke; I didn’t hit him that hard; we were just rough-housing); they will gaslight the world to the ends of the earth and back (I never said that; I never did that; they misunderstood).

When facing this sort of bully, the best approach seems to be skipping the label and dealing with their actions as they occur.

The problem with labeling someone a bully is that it’s an ontological term – it goes to their identity or the essence of who they are – their being.

“You’re a bully; that’s what you are.”

“No I’m not; you’re a bully for saying that!”

But if we address behaviors that are demonstrably wrong (lying, cheating, hitting, taunting, name-calling, fat-shaming, and the like), then we don’t need to concern ourselves with ontological questions and labels, but with items that are in and of themselves actionable.

Most faiths have some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If someone is behaving inappropriately, simply ask them, “Would you like to be treated that way? If not, then stop it (and stop with the excuses)!”

Then smile, walk away, and enjoy some well-earned serenity in this, our valley.