Monday, August 25, 2014

To Grow In Knowledge or Harden in Ignorance? Learning=Life!

“The world is a university and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure when you wake up in the morning, you go to school.”
 – Bishop T.D. Jakes

I always get a bit envious this time of year as I watch the young people in my life go back to, or start, school.  I get wistful when I’m in Boston and drive by the moving vans that clog the narrow streets of the Hub, as college kids reoccupy the city.  I get nostalgic at the excitement of Matthew, a little boy in my church, who on Sunday literally jumped for joy as he told me that this year he gets to go to all day kindergarten! I may even get teary when I have coffee with a young woman named Anna, before she begins her studies this week at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts.  Was it really thirty five years ago that I was in her place, when my Dad dropped me off at UMass, with an overstuffed steamer trunk and a head full of dreams? Even the familiar smell of a brand new notebook or a freshly sharpened pencil or a bright pink eraser can set me off, take me back to the twenty years I spent sitting in classrooms.

I want to go back to school!  I want education as my sole life objective.  I want to sit with fellow students and passionately debate ideas.  I want a backpack full of books waiting to be read. I want to learn.

But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to formally matriculate or register or enroll in a school to do this.  To learn.  To arise each day and be curious about the life we live and place we inhabit.  To see the next twenty four hours as an opportunity to gain a new skill, learn new information or understand a differing viewpoint.  To view the world, the whole world, as a classroom, filled with people and experiences and ideas which, when encountered with an open heart and an open mind, absolutely have something to teach us. 

To learn. To be a student. Not just in life, but of life. Not only in a building or lecture hall but on the streets too.  To see this quest as life changing and world changing.  To embrace the beautiful gift of curiosity our Creator gave us and then to use it wisely and well in our life’s journey.

To learn, for the mind and the heart are like muscles.  Use them often and vigorously and they will flourish and strengthen.  Use them sparingly and stingily and they will atrophy and harden.  I’ve got a 100 year old grandfather who still lives on his own, who has outlived almost all of his peers. I imagine it would be easy for him to just give up and say, “I’ve learned enough.” Yet whenever I visit him, he’s always reading a new book or watching “Jeopardy” on TV.  He asks me about my life: what I’m doing, where I’m traveling.  I’m convinced his longevity and lucidity are the direct result of his willingness to learn something new every day.   

Learning is not about age. It is about attitude. You can be 99 and fully alive to knowledge or 19 and completely hardened in your ideas.  The best life is always about constant learning, constant curiosity and a constant commitment to grow: in heart, mind and soul.

Imagine what our world be like if more and more people lived with learning as their goal. Our collective hearts have broken in these waning weeks of summer at how much our world still has to learn. Israel/Palestine bombs Hamas in Gaza and Hamas bombs Israel/Palestine. An unarmed black teenager is gunned down on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. A bright and wonderful young woman is caught in a hail of bullets in Dorchester and dies. A brave American journalist is beheaded by so called “religious” soldiers who revel in the brutality and violence of their warped ideology.

Many factors led to these tragedies but I think plain old ignorance is what most fuels the human sins of such cruelty, stupidity and callousness. People of “faith” who blindly follow a narrow theology and refuse to respect or learn about the God walk of others.  All they care about is their twisted view of the Divine. People in nations that claim a right to “defend” themselves, human rights be damned.  So what if innocent civilians die in war?  People of different races and classes who lack the emotional intelligence to imagine what life is like for “the other”, the one who looks back at them over the barrel of a drawn gun.  If only we took the time to learn more about our “enemies”, the ones we deem “different”: the world would certainly be a much better place.

It is time to go back to school.  For our world. For ourselves.  Be curious. Many lessons await. The school of life is now in session.







Monday, August 18, 2014

Robin Williams and The Inner Battle of Being A Human Being

"This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past....It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with let him understand that we are also fighting a battle."  --Reverend John Watson, 1898

I never knew. 

That's a very common human response to that most uncommon and shocking of news: a fellow human being has taken her own life and committed suicide.  By his own hand a loved one or neighbor or stranger or celebrity has killed himself. 

I never knew.

That she was in so much pain.  That he was an addict who struggled for years to tame his inner demons.  That she suffered from a mental illness which pushed her over the edge: depression, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder. That he was so wounded by life.  That she hurt inside so badly.

I never knew. 

Finally we humans do not know, cannot ever fully know, what inner battles a fellow human being is fighting. What psychic battlefields that person next to you on the subway or the street or in the pew at church is walking through. We can't know.  We don't know.

It's been fascinating and frustrating to witness our culture's response to the recent suicide of comedian and Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams. Social media in particular has been filled with weird, wonderful, wacky and wild ideas about Williams' death.  Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Williams' suicide somehow had something to do with his liberal politics.  Complete strangers who never knew Williams, never met him, posted intimate and teary tributes. Kind of touching, I suppose.  Kind of strange too, so reflective of our fame obsessed world. Some used his death to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide.  That's a positive.  Some news outlets, like voyeuristic vultures, reveled in the gory details of Williams' death.   

In the rush to fill the eerie silence following so swift and shocking a death as Williams', the temptation in this age of media immediacy is to always instantaneously respond, act as if we know. And then opine, declare, conclude, pontificate. Yet most of these often self serving lamentations shed little or no light upon the private and unknown personal psychic battles Williams fought and apparently, eventually, succumbed to.

Suicide is awful for so many reasons.  It leaves those left behind with the ragged and ultimately unanswerable question of "Why?" It cuts short whatever gifts a person might have brought to the rest of their one life and the world.  It can haunt a family for generations to come.  It tears at the fragile cloth of what it means to be a human being and leaves in its wake bittersweet mystery.     

For me the one clear spiritual truth I take from Williams' so sad death is this. Since we can't ever know fully what private battle he was fighting in his heart, what any human finally faces in her dark night of the soul, all we can do, must do, is to treat others, treat ourselves, with tender care.  With soulful compassion.  With God inspired love. With gentle and patient understanding, because all of us, at one time or another: we fight the battle within.   

We wonder if we are really worth it.  We lie awake at three o'clock in the morning and stare at the ceiling, overcome by anxiety.  We are confronted by the uncontrolled appetites of addiction and try our best to stay clean and sober. We worry about our loved ones. Are they safe?  Will their lives turn out well? We pray to our God and sometimes hear a response and sometimes wonder if there is really anything or anyone out there listening. 

We are human: beautiful and broken, happy and haunted, serene and striving, every last one of us.  None of us is exempt.  So I pray that we can all remember this shared reality as we travel along together in the journey of life. 

Thank you Robin Williams. May you rest in peace. Peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lost In Thought: Making Time to "Just" Think

"Never be afraid to sit awhile and think."       
 --Lorraine Hansberry, "A Raisin in the Sun"

It was the kind of news item that can easily get lost in the torrent of information we wade through these days, but one which demands a second look.  In the July 4th issue of the journal Science , researchers reported on eleven studies in which participants were given a seemingly straightforward and simple task.  To sit in a room, all by themselves, for six to fifteen minutes and just think, with no external stimuli. No phone, no computer, no reading material, no writing implements, nothing, save their own company. 

Here's where it gets a interesting and then a bit weird.  A majority of the folks did not like being alone in thought or daydreaming, not at all.  As University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reported, this discomfort with solitude was widespread, from the old to the young, from college students to retirees. "Those of us who enjoy some down time to just think likely find the results of this study surprising – I certainly do – but our study participants consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time."

Now the odd part. Wilson and his colleagues decided to give some participants the option of administering mild electric shocks to themselves for stimulation while alone, to presumably take away their boredom and discomfort with solitude. Hmmm...sit still and ponder, let the mind wander, or zap one's self?  Twelve of fifteen men and six of twenty-four women chose this self-inflicted pain!  One man even shocked himself 190 times!

Concluded Wilson, "The mind is designed to engage with the world....without training in meditation or thought-control techniques...most people would prefer to engage in external activities."  I kind of get that and self-reflection, keeping one's own company, just sitting and thinking sometimes, really all that bad?  That hard?  So difficult that some of us would even choose to experience pain over being alone?

We do live in a time when external stimuli is more available than ever before in human history.  I've become much more aware lately of how cocked and ready so many folks are with their cell phones, in hand or in pocket.  When the conversation lulls or the movie ends or there is some space to just be, so many of us now reach right for our device and then look, swipe, type, and lose ourselves in that screen.  At home we flip on the radio or turn on the boob tube or crack open the computer without thinking.  At work the "ding" of constant emails interrupts any chance to wonder and wander in thought. 

The price for such unconscious addiction to stimulation?  No time for careful thought.  No space for creative impulses, an "A ha!" moment.  No chance to give our brains a rest from constant activity.  To think freely, to journey within, to slow down and just be still.  To hear the sound of our own breathing.  To face into the relationship we have with ourselves. To pray to and know and be known by our God.  To be a human being and not just a human doing.

I'm lucky. I get paid to think, as a pastor and preacher and writer.  The truth is our world expects most of us to be constantly on the go, on the run and forever engaged with the external.  The next shoe to tie or dinner to make or soccer game to rush to as a parent.  The next project to tackle at work.  The next TV show to "showverdose" on, as Netflix beckons to us.

But to be still? Really thoughtful? Even, especially in 2014, we need this "activity" too.  Need to find spaces and places for reflection.  Church.  A screened in back porch.  A hammock.  A favorite well worn path in the woods or on the beach.  A comfy chair in the corner.

It's all about balance.  Thought then action.  Prayer then wisdom.  Daydreaming then direction. Wonder then work. 

To sit. To think.  Can we do it?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

EXTRA! EXTRA! Read All About It! Good News For a Change!

“The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news... and it's not entirely the media's fault: bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news.”
       --Peter McWilliams

Flesh-Eating Bacteria Kills 10
Seasickness on Stranded Whale-Watch Boat
Faulty Tanning Bed Sends Three to ER
            --top headlines,, 7/30/14

It’s been a miserable few weeks for our world, at least according to all the downbeat, doomsday and depressing news erupting in the media.  War in Israel/Palestine.  War in the Ukraine.  Planes shot out of the sky.  Immigrant kids face rage filled protesters who tell those innocent children to just go back home.  That’s just globally.  Locally, if is to be believed, flesh eating bacteria is on our shores, whale watching is a potentially vomit marked disaster, and even tanning beds can hurt you, though we already knew that. 

Read the news, hear the news, face the news and it’s almost impossible not to be pessimistic about our chances as a species and planet, yet here’s a truth which will never make page one.  There is actually good new about the world but it doesn’t sell newspapers. Doesn’t drive folks to news websites. Doesn’t fill up the Twitter-sphere with millions of re-tweets.  Bad news is very, very big business.  As the journalistic cliché proclaims, “If it bleeds, it leads.” 

But the good news is…there is good news.  Try this.  According to the latest statistics from the United States Department of Justice, violent crime in our country has been cut in half during the last 20 years, from 747.1 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in 1994 to only 366.1 crimes per 100,000 last year.  A fifty percent drop.  Where are the banner headlines? 

Or how about this news from a 2013 report on global poverty by the United Nations? "The world is witnessing an epochal 'global rebalancing' with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new 'global middle class'. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."  I haven’t heard that lead trumpeted on any news broadcasts—have you?  Where’s the celebration about this world changing event?

Warfare: compared to other times in human history, the world right now is actually the least violent it has ever been.  The least warring.  The good old days?  One hundred years ago World War I raged, a conflagration which resulted in the deaths of 37 million people.  World War II, just a generation later, killed 60 million people, 2.5 percent of the world’s population.  A conflict today would have to produce 176,150,000 deaths to compare in scope.  Wars are always bad, always, but statistically speaking war is not now what it once was. Not even close.

Global health is improving too, especially for kids.  The number of children under five years old who die from diseases like malaria, malnutrition, polio and measles has been halved, halved in the last twenty years, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.  Or how about human freedom?  A generation ago millions of citizens lived under autocratic communist rule throughout Eastern Europe in places like Poland, East Germany, Romania, and Hungary.  Today the Cold War is a footnote in history and all those folks are now free, in still emerging democracies, not perfect, but certainly much better than in 1985.  How soon we forget.

Heck, last weekend I was one of 5,500 bicycle riders who rode the length of Massachusetts in the Pan Mass Challenge and raised more than $40 million dollars for cancer care and research.  It garnered no headlines on but good news rarely does.  Like stories about folks of faith who faithfully feed the hungry day in and day out.  Kind hearted souls who shelter the homeless.  Good neighbors who care for one another.  That’s not the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes but we need to hear this news too. 

I’m not ready to say these are the best of times.  Old problems go away and new ones inevitably arise: global warming, terrorism, violent religious fundamentalism, government dysfunction.  Yet is our world really as bad as the media makes it out to be?  Or is instead the news we consume about the world perpetually slanted to the awful, the sensational, the bloody and the bad, and all for boffo ratings and plentiful profits?

I choose to be hopeful about the days ahead, in spite of the daily deluge of bad news, because this is never the whole story.  I choose to believe that within humanity there is always the possibility of renewal, redemption and even peace. My faith in God inspires this, but so too does faith in my fellow human beings.   

So here’s to the good news about our world.  It is out there. Find some good news to read today, or better yet, with your one life, make some good news for others.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Film at 11!