Saturday, April 29, 2006

Music in Search of Hope

Bruce Springsteen just released a new album entitled "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." It is his contemporary interpretation of the folk and protest music popularized by the likes of Pete Seeger in the 1950's and 1960's. It's a good listen, although apparently some Springsteen fans think it's too much of a departure from his foundation in rock music.

I'm certainly not one to comment with any authority on the musicology issues. But it has prompted in me some thoughts about the nature of protest. I enjoyed listening to his take on familiar tunes like O Mary Don't You Weep, Erie Canal, Pay Me My Money Down, and the haunting title song, We Shall Overcome. Springsteen's pounding rock style treats those songs with freshness even while honoring their folk roots.

But as I listened I was struck by a harsher more edgy tone than I had remembered from my college days in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Some of that comes from the musical interpretation, of course, but I think it goes deeper. The protest music of the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War carried with it a broader vision of a new world in the making. I'm not sure I see that in our society any more. As a result, the music seems to carry a more cynical, less hopeful tone. It sings about what is wrong without offering a clear vision of what can be.

Martin Luther King lifted his voice and proclaimed, "I have a dream." When he did so he painted with poetry and prose an image of a world that lived out the values of equality, justice, and peace. The often ridiculed "flower children" of Woodstock and the street protesters of Chicago carried a flawed but still empowering vision of a better world. It had its excesses, to be sure, but it marshalled tens of thousand of people to step out of the status quo and put their bodies on the line for changes that they could "imagine," in the beautiful lyrics of John Lennon.

We need a dream to replace the cynicism that is so prevalent today. We need political and spiritual leaders who can paint a vision of a world that values all persons, that honors our diversity, and that empowers us to sing of "peace on earth" with conviction and hope.

In Proverbs 29:18 we read, "Where there is no vision the people perish." That is just what is needed in the public square these days. I'm happy to see contemporary singers paying tribute to the culture-changing music of the 1960's. What we need now, however, is not nostalgia for another time. Instead we need politicians, preachers, poets, and singers who can paint a 21st century vision that renews hope in human hearts and compels passion for constructive and meaningful change.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sleep and Other Deprivations

I spent last night at a sleep lab with 22 wires stuck to my body and connected to a computer that monitored my every move. I felt like some creature from outer space juiced up and ready to conquer Planet Earth. One look at me and even Donald Rumsfeld would have surrendered.

This procedure was done at the urging of an overly cautious physician who wanted to see what might be causing my somewhat erratic sleep patterns. I didn't need to have my appendages hooked up to a computer to tell her the answer--"It's the blinking pills you've got me on, Doc!" But I played along, although not without muttering Robert Frost's line "miles to go before I sleep" to everyone within earshot.

I slept through the night and managed to avoid strangling on the cords when I shifted position. There's now a database somewhere that has recorded not only every turn of my pillow but the tonal qualities of my breathing. I hope they're paying that technician on the night shift good money.

We have funny ideas about sleep. Those who follow the adage "Early to bed and early to rise..." usually have an attitude of superiority toward those of us who are just warming up at 11pm. Never mind that they're toast before the evening news. There is apparently something virtuous about greeting the rising sun and sipping coffee on your porch when the newspaper skids across your driveway at 4am.

As I have got older I admit that I find the early morning more welcoming, even if I have only logged three or four hours of sleep. I figure that not being a pattern sleeper helps me cross time zones without severe jet lag and adapt without a hitch to daylight saving time. And late night television is a cultural experience everyone should have. The deals on Veg-A-Matics and Belly Busters are phenomenal.

Our cats have it figured out. If they get sleepy they just drop everything, plunk down wherever they are, and take a nap. People think that's "cute" in felines. But we humans have to suffer the scorn of others if we are caught dozing during a movie or showing signs of rapid eye movement during the preacher's most recent condemnation of everything that sounds interesting.

And so we go to sleep clinics to make sure some medical thing isn't preventing us from having a blissful night of rest. But usually it is not about that at all. Sometimes we sleep to avoid what we have to face when we're awake. And often that is no escape whatsoever because all those issues are waiting for us in the land of dreams where even the computer probes cannot go.

Sleep is kind of a personal thing. It's all a part of our complex system of mind, body, and spirit. I don't think the computers get it, but I'll listen politely to the results of my test. And I'll try not to doze off.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Laughter and the Perils of Life

Happy Niece
Originally uploaded by makelessnoise.
A number of years ago I spent a month alone in Denver taking a university course. One evening I found myself on Larimer Square, a trendy shopping and nightlife area. I bought a ticket to an "artsy" movie playing in a small theater. I had never heard of the film but the premise on the movie poster intrigued me. Harold and Maude, it said, is the story of a young man and an old woman who meet and fall in love at the funeral of someone neither of them knew. Okay, maybe that premise wouldn't appeal to you. My sense of humor is a bit quirky. I admit it.

Rarely have I laughed so hard. Jammed into a packed theater, alone in the crowd, I was caught up in the spirit of the time and place. I loved the movie and I loved even more the shared laughter with this community of strangers assembled for this one moment in time.

Several years later I saw that the film was playing on late-night television (no VCRs or DVDs in those days). I imposed upon my wife to stay up and watch this hilarious movie. She did so, up until a point about halfway through when she dozed off for the night. I wasn't far behind. The movie, still a classic comedy, was a very different experience in the quiet of a house following the evening news.

Over the years I have thought a lot about humor, which is something I use in public speaking and in some of my writing. It is a very complicated subject. What is funny to one person is not the least bit funny to another. Something that is funny in one time or place may be just the opposite in a different setting.

Part of it is undoubtedly in technique and circumstance. But I think there is a more significant factor and that is the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Witness the number of comedians who have taken their own lives or lived out self-destructive lifestyles. Comedians tip-toe up to the edge of life and balance precariously on a line of absurdity, cynicism, deception, guilt, and shame. Not theirs alone, but something shared by all humanity.

The President has a new press secretary. He will need a deeply developed sense of humor to deflect the harsh realities of the issues he has to talk about every day. We won't always laugh at his jokes. Sometimes life is just too raw. But we do need to understand that even in these dangerous times laughter is an effort to hold back the darkness and lay claim to the light.

Even so, we must toe the line carefully so as not to step over it. There is great pain in telling a joke and having no one laugh. In that frozen moment we come to fully understand that humor can both hurt and heal. It celebrates that which is at the heart of community even while exposing that which splits it apart.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Images of Peace

We The People
Originally uploaded by Sol Dust Love.
I recently searched some sites on the Internet for images of "peace." I found it very troubling to discover that the vast majority of photos returned were either pictures of natural tranquility or pictures of protest in our streets.

We readily see peace in nature. We marvel at the smooth surface of a lake reflecting the mirror image of a mountain or forest, or perhaps the beauty of a flower, delicate in its full bloom. In that sense peace is seen as having been birthed by creation and remains a defiant if fragile statement about its source. It affirms what is and always has been.

But when we search for images of people evoking peace most of them are in the streets with hand-lettered signs rejecting what is. Peace is depicted as a protest against the status quo and an indictment of public policy.

We are weary of wars built on false foundations. We are angry that this nation's leaders seem to condone torture and other behaviors that spite its founding principles. We have lost young men and women who in good faith followed those who lead us. It is shameful to now see that the cause for which they died is unworthy of their sacrifice. That is a hard sentence to write. If I was the parent of one of the fallen I could not bear to do so. But still it must be said. The dying must end.

I yearn for the day when I "Google" the word "peace" and it returns images of the White House, the Capitol, and of tranquility not just in nature but also in the streets of this nation and around the world.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sherlockian Life

Originally uploaded by mafleen.
When I was in eighth grade I came across a scary and riveting book about an English detective who was able to solve crimes by using his extraordinary powers of observation and deduction. When I had completed The Hound of the Baskervilles I hurried to the library in search of more. To my delight I discovered there were four novels and 56 wonderful short stories about Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson. I was hooked.

I continue to enjoy the stories, the pastiches, the literary studies, and the fact that this fictional detective has spawned scores of organizations and clubs around the world. Folks treat him as if he truly existed. They write biographies, cultural studies, and academic treatises about Sherlockian lore. They base their work on the original "canon" of Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But then the embellishment begins.

It seems to me that the enchantment with Holmes, and with classic mystery fiction, is driven by our innate wish that life's mysteries could be solved by sheer logic after assembling the pertinent information. We seek answers to perplexing questions. We want life to make sense, but often it fails to do so.

"Elementary, my dear Watson," says Holmes in one of his most famous lines. But we mere mortals rarely find it to be that simple. That is relegated to the pages of fiction.

Instead we must settle for something less assured. Holmes is also known for prodding Watson into action with the declaration that "The game is afoot." And off they go into the gaslit streets of London or the eerie moors of the English countryside.

I like that call to action. Perhaps being afoot in the game of life, chasing down clues and gaining small insights is the essence of what it means to be truly human. Whatever one's religious views, we surely agree that there is no earthly master detective available to lead us out into the world in search of life-defining clues. Nor is one needed. We have to go it alone, or with a small company of seekers who like us are looking for what endures and inspires. That's the only way.

We like you, Sherlock, but we don't need you. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Community Preserved

We are visiting our son in Lexington, Kentucky this weekend. Today we went for lunch at a nearby National Historic Landmark, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. It is the largest restoration of a 19th century Shaker village, preserving 34 original buildings on 2800 acres. The site is a beautiful, stark tribute to the simplicity for which Shakers are known, and their quaint greeting, "We make you kindly welcome," captures some of its charm.

An eighteenth century offshoot of English Quakers, they were eventually called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Under the leadership of a woman, Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers brought their unorthodox faith to American shores in 1774 in search of religious freedom.

Their movement, numbering perhaps 6000 adherents at its peak, lifted up perfectionism, belief in the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, simplicity, beauty, and charismatic worship styles (hence the name Shakers, a somewhat derisive reference to their practice of ecstatic movement in worship). Music was an essential component of Shaker life. They wrote over 20,000 hymns, including the popular tune, "Simple Gifts." Today just a handful of persons identify themselves as Shakers--belief in celibacy tends to limit the passage of the faith to the next generation. But the spirit of the people is preserved in places like this village. Many come to see.

I think the popularity of historic sites such as this is driven by our yearning for community. We view the closely-manicured lawns, the gleaming white fences, the stately brick buildings, and we wonder longingly what life might have been like.

The preserved images are incomplete, of course, and undoubtedly glossed over for the tourist trade. But what we respond to is a people who stood for something, lived their lives accordingly, celebrated their shared faith with music and dance, and who left a legacy for others to see. We do not have to embrace their millennial theology or their social philosophy to appreciate their commitment to community.

The Shakers left us some simple gifts that speak eloquently to our complex and divided world. It is good that the sites are preserved. It would be even better if we learned its lessons and embraced its visionary spirit. Posted by Picasa

Monday, April 10, 2006

On Teaching and Learning

On Friday I flew to Salt Lake City in response to an invitation from a University of Utah student group. They wanted me to come and sit with them for a few hours and engage in open-ended dialogue. I was intrigued by the chance to talk with a diverse group of students with intellectual curiosity about a wide range of matters--history, theology, politics, culture, faith.

As is usually the case when I have encounters like this, I find that the line between teaching and learning is pretty faint. An image like this ambigram by Scott Kim captures the relationship perfectly. Learning and teaching are reflections of each other. All good teachers are lifelong learners; all good students teach their instructors by way of their questioning and their searching. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle had it right, eh? Even 12-year-old Jesus and the rabbis in the temple had it right.

On Friday I found myself with students who I know think differently than me about many things. I think we all relished the opportunity to engage in a conversation that wasn't a debate but a search for shared understanding. There were a few times when the look on a student's face said to me that he was in disbelief I could think such a thing. I occasionally wondered the same about them. But the dialogue was nothing if not civil, the questions thoughtful and to the point, and my responses as candid and honest as I could make them. At the end of the day we were friends.

An ambigram is defined as "a graphical figure that spells out a word not only in its form as presented, but also in another direction or orientation." These days we often forget that there is a web of complexity to knowledge. We oversimplify for effect. The truth of things is not in its declaration, but rather from the questioning and exploration it compels.

We are all teachers. We are all learners. We are never one without being the other.

Blogger Guilt

I've only been at this a couple of weeks but I'm already being hassled for not posting for a few days. On the one hand it's nice to know someone cares, or even that they're checking for that matter.

I have excuses. I had an event to prepare for last week, was out of town on Friday, and had other priorities for the weekend. My conscience is clear. But now it seems I have to add blogging guilt to the list of other guilts I have for work in process or household tasks in need of attention.

This little blog is primarily for my own edification. I figure that the discipline of having to write something every day will challenge me and stimulate my creativity. It's even possible that now and then something will be fairly decent and it would have gone unrecorded without this blog staring me in the face. Humankind will not have been diminished had those thoughts, even the best of them, not been written down. But I would have been.

So pile on the guilt, friends. I know you're thinking only of my own best interests.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On Shaving Before Voting

Yesterday was election day in my town. We were choosing a mayor, two city councilors, three school board members, and deciding whether to tax ourselves for millions of dollars in improvements to our football and baseball stadiums. I went to the polls sweaty from my morning walk, unshaven, and altogether unkempt. It's been bothering me.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. At 7:30am each morning I drive to a friend's house and we do a two or three mile walk. The polling place is just a few blocks from there and it was easy to stop enroute, before going home to clean up for the day.

Wouldn't you know that as I approach the polling site I spot people I know--a former colleague, a candidate, and a long-time political activist. They're handing out campaign literature and greet me warmly, but surely with concern for my well-being. Used to seeing me with shirt and tie, now in sweats and sneakers, they must be thinking I have descended to the depths since moving into semi-retirement.

But my self-consciousness about running into people I know was worsened by a sense that being unshaven was somehow disrespectful to the electoral process. Silly, I know, but still, I couldn't escape the feeling. There was a balance of power on the city council in play, and I cared about the outcome. There was something unspoken simmering beneath a hotly contested school board race, with implications for kids in our town. And the stadium issue had heavy hitters in the community debating tax priorities, wealthy owners, economic development, and civic pride. And there I stand in the polling booth, sweat on my brow, undoubtedly a bit ripe in the body odor department, and with a scratchy day's growth on my chin. It just wasn't right.

I am grateful for a democracy that allows us all to vote, even if we look scruffy and smell badly. I know it doesn't make a tinker's toot of difference whether we're nattily attired and pleasingly cologned when deciding the fate of our community. But I know how I feel, and that's the thing I have to live with. Next election I promise not to reek, even if the candidates do.

By the way, the returns are in. The council elections had kind of mixed results. Educators sent a message to the school district. And the stadium renovations? Well, the tax increase passed. But it was a close shave.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Opening Day

Today is Opening Day in baseball. Virtually every metaphor has been employed by sportswriters as they craft their annual columns about the Rites of Spring. Every ballplayer has had a chance to be quoted saying, "We're all undefeated on Opening Day. Anything can happen." Hope springs eternal in the baseball fan's breast.

But it's a very unhealhy day. For one thing, a highly disproportionate number of workers call in sick on this day every year. Allergies, I guess. But even more serious are the mental health problems that crop up. People begin thinking crazy things. They start thinking, if you can believe it, that there's hope.

I'm a Kansas City Royals fan. Last year they lost 106 games--the worst in baseball. Over the last decade they've set new standards of ineptitude. The Yankees payroll is about five times higher than the small market Royals. Fans of the Royals have no reason to hope.

But then the mental illness sets in. Rationality fades in the spring breeze. Untested rookies become phenoms-in-waiting. Aging journeymen become wise clubhouse veterans. Managers with career losing records become master tacticians. And that paltry payroll? Well, you've heard of the loaves and fishes.

Oh, it's crazy thinking all right. But spare me the burden of sanity. It's Opening Day.

I think life needs an annual Opening Day. In life we have too few fresh starts. It's too difficult to wipe out that losing season or abysmal ERA. Life needs the crazed promise of spring with its goofy optimism, its undeserved absolution, and its blissful hope.

Life needs something akin to mustard and relish on an Opening Day ballpark hot dog. One bite and losing seasons are forgotten, broken spirits are healed, and discouraging thoughts are purged. It's time for the first pitch. Play ball!

p.s. Today my team, the Royals, played the Tigers, one of the other worst teams in baseball. We lost 3-1. But there were some hopeful signs. We'll get 'em on Wednesday. After all, it's only Opening Day.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Human Face of Business

flyingpigJack Hayhow, founder and "Chief Executive Servant" of Opus Communications, was gracious enough the other day to appreciatively cite a statement from here in his blog on leadership and business,

I'm not just returning the favor by mentioning him now because I had already planned to draw attention to his site and his intriguing little book, The Wisdom of the Flying Pig. I like the way Jack sees human relationships as the foundation of leadership and success in business.

He's even willing to talk about community (Gasp!) as an element of effective business leadership. It's one of my favorite concepts but I've been frequently warned to avoid it in business circles. However, note this quote from one of Jack's recent posts:

So, what is a community? One definition I've run across is: a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. It seems to me that if our associates do, in fact, have a feeling of fellowship with their co-workers as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals - extraordinary achievement is possible, maybe even predictable.

Our fragmented society is in need of leaders who understand that business has an obligation not just to profit margins but also to humanity. What if businesses were willing to sacrifice some of their financial bottom line in order to nurture community internally or stand for social justice externally? What if Fortune 500 top executives were willing to ratchet back their unconscionable compensation packages and plow those resources into health care or social services for their workers? What if employees looked deeply within their company and found a caring, corporate heart?

I think Jack Hayhow understands that and I'm sure many other business leaders do as well. Let's get their faces on the front pages instead of Kenneth Lay and Dennis Kozlowski. America needs to see the human face, not the greedy face, of business.

Religious Euphemisms

It is common these days to see new phrases used for religious terms that are deeply rooted in American culture. The tendency is to move away from specificity and to use generic references, often turning on the word "faith." This is a word with many meanings, some of them not religious at all, yet it abounds in the media when references are made to religious concepts. I wonder sometimes what this may portend.

Churches are now "faith groups." The government is trying to engage "faith-based organizations" (FBO's) in administering federal funds for social programs. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others are instead referred to as "people of faith." Alliances of churches are now "interfaith" councils.

I don't particularly object to this trend and use some of those terms myself. But I think there may be some serious issues underlying the practice.

Obviously, one of the reasons is the need for more inclusive terms that reflect the religious diversity of our culture. Christians particularly, having long focused on their own denominationalism, have finally awakened to the importance of other religious movements. New language is needed.

But for Christians I think there is a more troubling implication here as well. The disgraceful divisiveness within Christendom has caused more and more people to distance themselves from being referred to as Christians, even though they theologically qualify. The Religious Right, more often wrong than right, has tried to lay claim to the "Christian position" on various issues. Whenever I hear Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson talk about the "Christian" perspective I personally take a euphemism pill that transforms me from being a Christian to being a "person of faith." I hate to cede that ground to such forces, but it is too distasteful to be linked to their intolerance and bigotry. I don't think I'm alone.

The question is not whether one has faith. I have faith in many things--that the KC Royals will win the pennant, that the nachos supreme won't upset my stomach, and that when I turn on my shower warm water will cascade over me. Faith does not necessarily require religious content.

The real issue from a religious perspective has to do with where one's "faith" is centered. The risk to "people of faith" these days is that the cultural euphemisms will drain the soul of its very life and vitality.

We bloggers of faith must be wary of that euphemism demon.