The unliberated Christmas tree

I attended Brandeis University in the early 70s. For my freshman year, there was some controversy about the mass acceptance of “townies” – those from the same town of Waltham, MA – into the school. I knew of no one who applied who did NOT get accepted. It was hypothesized that the school wanted to make some amends for recent political stirrings on campus. Anti-war sentiments were very high at the school, and among the offshoots of those leanings came a group of students who robbed a Boston bank and killed a police officer. They intended to use the stolen $26,000 they gained to overthrow the US government.

I am very grateful for the blessing of attending the school; it was a great experience. It was agreed that I should live on campus, at least originally, and so I moved into a dorm room in September 1971. My roommate was Oliver, a gay Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn. Getting to know him and both communities he represented was a very rich part of my time at Brandeis.

Among the Latinos I befriended were many who had not just liberal, but radical politics. Hailing from some of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere, many of them had family or friends wiped out by those regimes. They were also largely anti-American, at least anti-American government (in that they were in the right school). They were uniformly poor people by US standards. Yet intelligent and good students. Many had lived in NYC, though some came from Latino communities in the south. They were almost all on hefty scholarships, which I thought and still think was great.

I remember one instance when the older brother of one of my friends came to visit the school. A strong anti-government, anti-establishment discussion was brewing and I recall his objection, saying “No! I love my boss. I have a good job and it pays for my family to eat and someday my children will go to a school like this and I will pay for it!” He was regaled by most as a traitor to his people and culture, though his point was made nonetheless.

Most of all, I remember the love.  They would address each other and speak of another in the third person as ‘dito Lydia, ‘dito Edwin.  It was short for “bendito” – blessed.  The closest thing to it in English would be “dear” or “dearest” which was and is so foreign to common speech as to invite skepticism or even ridicule.  But it was completely authentic – they meant it.  From the heart.  And then they started to call me ‘dito John.  It was so beautiful it made me cry.   I had taken Spanish in high school, so I knew a little of it.  But I never heard “simpatico” used in a sentence.  Though it sounds like “sympathetic” it is much more than that.  It’s love that condescends without shaming or belittling.  Today I would say it’s Jesus coming to earth and dying for us.

Part of their culture, part of their group mindset, held that stealing was okay. They reasoned that since everything good in life was out of reach financially, they were themselves the victims of theft, so “liberating” (code for stealing) goods was perfectly ethical. And they would have actual examples of being targeted by agents of “the system” that were perfect descriptions of corrupt government and policing. So, they would sometimes show me clothing they had left on while in the changing rooms at clothing stores, sneaking it out under their outer clothing. And they had other methods.

Since I was a townie with occasional means of transportation, I would act as chauffeur to my friends, though they would humor my gringo presence well enough. We loved each other; let’s be plain about that. I don’t remember whose idea it was – certainly not mine – that my family car would serve as a getaway vehicle for the liberating of a Christmas tree, but it somehow blossomed into a plan without my having much say in it.  The dorm had a need, and no one had the money so ..

I believe it was a Sunday night that we were to do the deed, and we pulled up to the unguarded lot where the trees were. Suddenly I was unanimously nominated to do the actual stealing. It was a moment of truth for me – a true double bind. I wanted these people to be my friends but come on, I’m no thief. Part of the latter conviction came from the grace of getting caught 100% of the times I had tried to steal as I grew up. And I didn’t share the same mentality about theft.

Image result for christmas tree lot

The Christmas tree remained unliberated.  And I guess I let them down.

My parents later revoked my rights to using the family station wagon to drive anyone around, another grace.

Given today’s biggest qualification – back then it didn’t matter to anyone – I have no idea as to their legal immigrant status at the time. Many were Puerto Rican and were certainly allowed to live in the US.

But I will say this. I loved and still love these people. Stealing is wrong, not because you might get caught. And if your politics justifies it, you need to adjust your politics.

Proverbs 6:30-31 Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.   Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.

That is, though there exist reasons that people might resort to theft, it is wrong.  Period.

As a result of knowing my friends in school, I do understand that mentality. They weren’t making up their stories of poverty. Nor were they trying to establish their culture or Spanish language over English. They were just struggling for an identity as a people – without shame and without stigma.

Much later I would learn about a theological branch called Liberation Theology.  Even in that, I would learn, there is imbalance and a hardened, corporate victim mentality.  The balance is that God does move on the hearts of people to help the poor.

Though I have lost touch with them all (that actually happened by senior year), in my little way, I was glad to give my friends my love. And I was glad I chickened out with that Christmas tree, because that was a small gift to them as well.

Advertisements

Banjos and glass-blowing

“What do you do?”

It’s a question asked to find out one’s occupation. But if it was answered accurately it would walk the one asking through the litany of details of activity making up a day and a life. Of course that’s NOT what is being asked for. But really, it’s the question that’s inaccurate and the answerer is called upon to interpret and answer what is meant, not what is said. There is an even more inaccurate form of the question:

“What are you?”

.. which goes deeper than just making you name one thing you do, but name the one thing you ARE. And what you ARE is what you do in that context.

Now I would strongly posit that these questions are loaded with cultural and professional context. Implicit in their wording and answering is a categorization of human beings into a small set of roles, positions and specialties. Even the correctly worded “What do you do for work?” implies that livelihood is the central determinant for meaningful “work” which is inaccurate in itself.

As the pun goes “Farmers are outstanding in their fields.” I have long been in awe of those whose utter focus makes them masters in their endeavors. But outstanding (or is it “out standing”) farmers can also play banjo, paint and blow glass, say, at a world class level. And even if they don’t do those secondary things at such a high level, they can do them proficiently enough to bless or elevate or ennoble other people. I’ll even say that those other people are poorer for the farmers’ lack of pursuing those secondary things.

 

At this point my personal life, I am looking for something to do that will leave behind my story and the story of Christ as it eclipses mine and thus will make and inspire disciples. Yes I have agenda, as do most, but it’s actually very wide in scope.

I do find the discouragement and impediments to that pursuit to be so strong as to threaten to rot my soul lately. Yes I know all the platitudes blaming me for that, replete with regimens and hands-off, formulaic advice. This morning I delight in calling them all hollow, cited by people who “do” and “are” something other than what I “do” and “am”.

I also know the advice to go higher, to define vision and mission. That also sells books and I intend to do that, but this blog post is about life on the street where vision can be worked out even as a long slog and still be active.

Here are the parameters of the struggle I’m working through:

  • Livelihood is required if one wants to eat, own clothing and be housed, but in itself does not define a person. I have worked so hard at something that was never my life pursuit that it has become my life pursuit. I need to unwind that, slowly (or quickly) firing my bosses and disengaging with my colleagues, many of whom look up to me as an elite software engineer. Yes, I said it, I am elite at something I did not set out to even do. The hardest part of the people part is that I love these people; indeed it’s love that gets me to and keeps me at work every day.
  • There is a new phase coming for me. It’s called “retirement” but I will not likely define it as a time to simply cease working. I will sleep later in the morning but then work at something else. My income will decrease. But time and energy, my most valuable resources, will increase. It’s important that I plan how to invest them, because just as they are invested by others in my current occupation, retired life will have incumbent pressures as well.
  • Having little experience in a new field can not bar pursuing work in that field. Or even play in that field. Knowing well the faults of the masters in engineering from their personal glitches to thick tribal arrogance that embraces wrong things as often as right ones (proven by history), the masters of any new field must not be seen as intimidating but merely having experience.
  • Finding a team is hard but vital. People want to be alone and have their vision and pursuit be theirs alone. But one of the principles I bring to the table is that teams are much more than the sum of their parts. Said on the negative side – loneliness has absolutely been the worst part of this process. Still, finding – or forming – my team is something I cannot give up on.
  • I cannot listen to ageism. People in all professions disqualify others by any means available so as to advance their own standing – even though it accomplishes quite the opposite. Disqualifying based upon someone being “over the hill” has always been silly, and particularly if an older person is nimble and can be quick to learn. Personally, I am qualified for anything I pursue by virtue of accumulated wisdom and principles alone. I have gifting I don’t even know about that practice will reveal.
  • At the same time, there are things I will never do. Surrendering to this truth – where it applies – is hard and requires bona fide grieving processes. I need to discern where and when this is true because once again there are advice-givers who would deny dreams by citing destiny they have no power to even know.

Maybe this post applies only to me; I hope not. And I don’t mean to be selfish in any of this, only a tad introspective and brutally honest.

Writing is one definitely of those “other” pursuits I will go after in larger measures going forward.

And also, I do “get” that I need do nothing for God’s grace to be active in my life, or else it wouldn’t be grace. Ann Voskamp’s brilliant exposition of “cruciform” speaks and echoes deeply. Maybe rest is all I need truly, but love has my heart beating to do as well.

Healing points

Acts 3:6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

Image result for peter john healing cripple

The story of the crippled beggar in Acts 3 is as historical as any we have from the era. There are those who deny the miraculous – usually until they need a miracle. And there are those assign such accounts to some hopefuls stuck in the first stage of grief – denial.  In other words, to them, the need for belief in miracle is a sign that one hasn’t accepted the reality of one’s suffering.

But that’s hardly the context of the story. There was no doubt that the man involved was crippled. He wasn’t expecting a miracle or asking for one, but only for money.  In a day when there was no social welfare, his disability relegated him to being a professional beggar for his subsistence. It was a low calling, and beggars were among the lowest caste in society. The same is largely true today.

So, when Peter and John told the man to walk and as he stood to his feet he was healed, it was more than a physical transformation to healthy legs. (As H. David Edwards once mused “he was asking for alms but received legs”). It was a raising of social standing, a redemption of soul and restoration of dignity to a human being long denigrated to shame.

When we encounter the crippled – and I widen the scope to include emotionally and mentally crippled – knowledge of the nature of transformation to health is vital if we are to use what we have been given to help. I hold as a given that miraculous healing powers are given in a similarly wide array of talents and gifts. That is to say, you who read this likely have gifts that perhaps you have never used. But that’s getting off subject.

I am by no means an expert healer. I don’t even know what that means. But I have learned that to really help people in all the ways this man was helped, there are some guidelines. Forewarning – some of this may sound unloving and uncaring. That’s because the ultimate health of someone is a strategic goal and tactics may in fact be confrontational and challenging:

  • Don’t decide to cripple yourself. Identifying with someone who is suffering establishes a connection to a degree. But adopting the attitudes and pathos of unhealth drags you down and leaves the person you want to help in the same straits where you found him/her. This is not a statement of considering yourself superior. Indeed, you will likely need help yourself if you haven’t already. But you must be true the goal of healing, not merely empathy.
  • Listen before you speak. It is an impersonal insult to classify someone by his/her maladies, even if they are easily categorized and treatment standardized to an extent. You are working with a human being who needs to be heard and understood. It’s required to establish trust.
  • RSVP “no thank you” to pity parties. A crippled person can become so attached to his/her role as victim that it is demanded that you buy into the lies they have told themselves about how they got to their current state. This tempers the “listen before you speak” directive just above. When someone tells their story, it is vital at some point to confront and correct their negativity. This may even cause them to shut down but that is better than letting the recitation of the reasons they got into and must remain in the broken state to define their very identity. Truly, self-pity is uniformly a trap to keep people down.
  • Silver and gold won’t often do anything but enable. To only throw material wealth into a life that is so broken only enables brokenness. Am I saying to not provide for someone’s needs? No. Only that someone who has never learned to balance a checkbook or understand priorities of where money should go is not going to learn by simply having money.
  • The healed should become healers. If there is restoration in a life, it is best to use that to invest in the lives of others. There is no better testimony to the cripple than “I have been there, done that, and here’s how I found my health”.

So yeah, all that. Peter and John saw instantaneous result from their action. That’s great when it happens. But you shouldn’t give up even though it takes time, prayer and sacrifice. You will see healing if you persist, even in your own life

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

Leading in balance – Ruling by fear

I don’t like to work for or with people who scare others into doing things.

It bothers me; and I generally stay away from it when I am called upon to lead, as I am and have been for years.

Instead, I do my best to enunciate the goals of the organization/institution so that people sign up for those, and when they do, they sign up for what I ask them to do.  And it works a good deal of the time.

But there’s a chink in my armor, a hole in my thinking.  I knew about it a long time ago but it’s being trumpeted over my leadership style by an entire brass section lately.

There are those who won’t be ruled any other way than fear.

I’m reading through War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy as I do my daily time on the treadmill (43 minutes, count ’em).    It is such a long book with so many vignettes and scenes that I hope they don’t turn into one big mushy mess in my mind, but for now there is one I recall clearly:

[begin scene with commentary]

The French army has invaded Russia.  They are on the move.  The gentry – which is the class that Tolstoy writes about the whole book – is fleeing the countryside.  The serfs, at that time little more than lifelong indentured servants, sense the disorder to come and begin throwing off their bonds and start to drink and rebel.  Princess (meaning rich lady) Mary is stuck because of this; no one will drive her in a carriage away from her dead father’s estate in the country to safety in Moscow or Petersburg.  She despairs.

Into the scene comes riding Nicholas Rostov, one of Tolstoy’s main heroes in the book.  He is a Russian hussar (calvary soldier) and is dressed as such.  He finds Mary, whom he remembers as the sister of one who was engaged to HIS sister Natasha.  He is infuriated by the behavior of the peasants and goes out, two against 20 (?) and intimidates them back into serving the princess and her attendant.  She gets a ride away from danger and her heart is won by Nicholas (I haven’t seen how that will turn out yet; Tolstoy’s love plots are incredibly twisted).

[end scene with commentary]

Now I work with no Russian 19th century peasantry and I think I’m thankful for that.  Not thankful for having no contact with the poor, but for the dissolution of the institution of serfdom that kept the poor that way.

But there are those who, like those poor serfs in the story, will take advantage of any let up in authority, any sense of “getting away with it” or living for their own agenda, given a lack of strong consequences for doing so.

I have not dealt well with them and I’ve paid the price of latent and more severe consequences, which is no fun for anyone.  But I’ve learned and am getting better at it.

So there is a place and a time for ruling by fear, for some will be ruled no other way:

Romans 13:2-5 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

One of the problems I have (and we have) with this principle is the obvious abuse of authority.  We cite examples of that faster than almost any kind of relational phenomenon.  But abused authority doesn’t negate the need for it nor its proper and helpful use.  Can I read that part of the passage?  Can we?  Or do we only see the wrath and feel the spanking?

Now, this has to be tempered with the blessing of free choices – and they do exist in my life at least – we have in the 21st century.  If my job is oppressive, I can leave.  And not everyone will fit in every organization.  As I have said many times, if I am not someone you can work with in submission – and that’s not a dirty word – then 1) find someone who you can work with in that capacity or 2) start your own institution, organization or tribe.  I begrudge no one who moves on like that.

For sure, I will rule by fear over some.  Not oppressively but with resolution and applied force.  Because it’s the only way in which the organization will properly function.

Instructed by healthy compromise

It’s no surprise that I can have conflict in life; we all do.

As we age, if we’re perceptive and reflective in the least,  we acquire principles by which we navigate the tasks and work with the people at hand.  The principles work – that’s why they’re principles, but I have found that the people can have little or no respect for such notions as efficiency, priority and even agree on goals.

When that happens, I generally sink into moods and actions that are quite unbecoming of someone so .. principled.  Maybe I need a new layer of principles crafted for just that eventuality.  Ok, will work on that.  Well, I am working on that and have been working on that.

And it’s taken me to the area of negotiated compromise.  If a principle is held to so tenaciously it can make me completely unpractical and useless.  Not to mention destructive for all the wrong reasons.

So I compromise.  I wait my turn to say what I have to say.  And I remember in truth how these principles became established in my life – usually from being wrong.  (It’s never been about being right).

Relating to those to whom I report – I take orders and offer constructive commentary.  Now, fortunately those are both in my job description.  But even in the most regimented, unforgiving environments – let’s say the military – it is possible and important to ask permission to speak off the record.  And if one’s words are edifying, even if contrary and summarily ignored at first, one’s principles and cause will generally be advanced.

Dealing with peers, I state my position without yielding its learned driving tenets (I “stick to my guns”) and defend those for whom I am responsible (my “reports”), both in practical and personal terms.

Towards those who report to me, I persuade and listen, taking in alternative suggestions so as to incorporate the best we all have to offer.  No doubt there are those who have felt and still feel slighted by my not taking their approach or advice, but I’ve learned that’s part of leading.  Honestly, try it sometime.

Now, lacking this practice of pragmatism turns me turn into someone quite poisonous and distracting.  My principles, given too much power,  take me completely out of the game.  That’s not good.

This has be taken to the grand scale, because tribal and national relations are a very good area displaying the dynamics of conflict resolution and compromise as well.

America is a melting pot.  It’s not the only one by any means.  But there are wildly divergent opinions, things to advocate for or against and groups formed around the promotion of those ideas and policies.

The conflict can get nasty – more on that later – but we basically get along.  We vote people into and out of office and mostly we submit to the results of that voting process, even if we don’t like the results.

Some years ago I spoke to a Moroccan man and our conversation turned to the government of his country.  They have a king.  I asked him what happens when it’s time for a new king.  Now, I have no idea if he spoke for most Moroccans, maybe not, in what he said and particularly how he said it, but he announced, with unflinching matter-of-fact-ness “We shoot the king and another rises up to power” (paraphrase).

I will unabashedly say elections is a better way to transfer power and this is as extreme a difference in process as may exist, but it reveals what I call (and I’m trying to be redemptive, believe me) an immature approach to conflict resolution.

At this writing the people of Crimea are preparing to vote whether or not that part of today’s Ukraine will rejoin Russia.  Ethnic Russians comprise a majority in that state and the vote is likely to go their way, say the experts.  The aftermath will be interesting and possibly horribly tragic.

In America,we have ethnic people of every stripe yet we haven’t had secession and war since the 19th century Civil War which was really about slavery and the economics of the south (Lincoln said it was to preserve the union, but that was a union split by those factors).  We vote.  We live with the results.  Mostly.  Now and then a president is assassinated, but not like Moroccan kings, to establish a succession of power.  It’s not a coup d’etat.

But truth be told we also have conflict resolution issues even within our election-based system.    There’s always controversy, always disagreement.  And that’s good because we need each other’s principles, agree with them or like it or not.

Our current problem – and it’s always a problem – is civility, or the lack thereof.

Let me make a statement I made in isolation on Facebook today:

A key measure of the maturity of any party or movement is its civility – its raw treatment – of those who, breaking no law and in all good conscience, simply disagree and pursue the “competition”. The shaming mockery of those who differ from us does nothing to establish our superiority; instead it degrades and regresses our argument to that of a 12-year-old..

So, I think we need to chill and be instructed by pragmatism.  To humble ourselves and remember that we’re all just learning.  We know a lot less than we think we do.  And knowing that is extremely valuable.

Principles are vital – we worked hard for them after all – but we’re not done accumulating them – none of us.

And if truth be told – and it will be told no matter what we think – principles within us conflict and jostle for prominence.  Balance in all things, including balance.

I won’t go into the scriptures here .. those tenets and principles that I believe trump all others.  That belief would seem to establish an unfair advantage to a particular tribe and its ideas.

And I have many friends who would shriek at the idea of compromising on scripture.  But I’m not.  And I won’t.

That’s because the full counsel of scripture also has a very balanced approach to life.  Its principles temper one another.  Iron sharpens iron among people of faith.  It’s a whole different level.  And a whole different blog entry.