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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Can’t Be President

President Andrew Jackson
Today I ask your indulgence.  I want to talk about one of my lifelong desires—to be President of the United States.  Now, that said, I want to review several of the reasons why I could never be President.  I will start with my age, now 67 soon to be 68.  I have a history of mental problems beginning in 1980 (if not manifested earlier in more subtle ways).  I was first diagnosed as being paranoid schizophrenic and then as manic-depressive.  I currently take Prolixin, a drug to combat psychosis.  Practically speaking, this means that whatever proposal I should make as President buttressed by whatever facts, values, and need; it would be attacked as loony.  Added to this minor disqualifier is the fact that I have a few skeletons in my sexual closet.  And these negative considerations are just for starters.

It is always important that the President and armed forces respect one another and have a sense of rapport.  This represents another barrier for me.  In 1968 when the draft was still in force during the Vietnam War, I was drafted.  Since I thought the war unethical and unwise, I refused induction at the induction center.  I received a three year sentence, serving 18 months in prison.  This has instilled a subtle prejudice in my mind.  Even today when I see Vietnam Vets honored, I ask myself what about all those who out of patriotism refused induction and paid a price.  These people are truly unknown and forgotten.  This twinge of resentment would (even if unwillingly) unacceptably color my attitude and relationship with the military.  Furthermore, based on my prison experience, I would greatly favor diplomacy over military force.  My prison experience taught me that it is possible to stand up to bullies yet retain their respect and even reluctant goodwill.  In a situation ripe for physical conflict; courage, conviction, and earned respect pay off.  This experience would deeply affect my approach to foreign affairs.

But, undeniably, trenchant evil exists in the world.  Would I be willing if needed to put people in harm’s way or request that they harm (kill) others?  I look at Scripture and I cannot explain why a good God requests the Israelites destroy their enemies including women, children, and livestock.  In my own experience I had a dear righteous friend one day kill two of his step children and then commit suicide.  I can’t explain it. Not in a million years.  I only know that when President Truman ordered the atomic bombing attack on Nagasaki and Hiroshima killing tens of thousands of innocents, it’s possible to adjudge it a good decision.  My incomprehension of the proper place for atrocity could be a problem at the fast approach of some looming dead end. 

With all this, you would think I would lay down my dreams to be President.  But they stay unabated even yet.  Maybe what I ultimately dream of is a world where such dark mysteries could be averted or made irrelevant.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beyond Professionalism

Dr. Keith Brady
Dr. Keith Brady has been my doctor for many years.  The biggest challenge I have presented to him so far has been my chronic tendency to be overweight.  To confront this problem which is essentially a problem of the will, he has threatened me with early death and cajoled me with dietitians.  Today I had a wonderful visit with him despite his measuring my girth again, and shaking his head again.  In many ways the visit was atypical.  Perhaps, today there was not the usual pressure to move on to other waiting patients (my appointment was towards the end of the day).  He perused my thick file, and asked about the cancer scare I had in the spring of this year.  I was told that blood test results suggested I could have bone marrow cancer.  It took about a month after learning this before I received a clean bill of health.  I told Dr. Brady that after initially hearing of the findings, things looked different on my way home from the doctor’s office.  It was an entirely different perspective seeing the bustling preoccupation of life going on around me and realizing that I may soon be leaving the scene behind.  Today I shared with Dr. Brady my Christian faith and my view that I have lived a full life.  We talked about what I do at work and I mentioned my activities at home, including doing this blog.  He took out his phone and checked it out.  Today I feel like we made contact in a way that assures come that day when I succumb to final ill health, we have an understanding that over the years we developed more than an arm’s length professional relationship; we have developed a rapport based on trust and friendship.  Strange as it may seem, death will not be a catastrophic event for either of us. 

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Thinking Straight

Today I received a copy of Thinking Straight (1st ed.) by Monroe Beardsley.  I already had on the shelf a 2nd edition copy all marked up that I had used in undergraduate school.  It’s kind of spooky to see comments made in a book when I was not yet 20 (in the early 1960's).  Therefore, I thought it best to start over with a fresh copy.  As indicated the newly printed copy I received today from Amazon is an earlier edition than the one I used in college.  It’s a delight in this first edition to see Beardsley identify one reason for thinking straight—for weeding out numerous fallacies—as the pressing need to counter the vast volume of mass media; this when he wrote included newspapers, magazines, and radio—before TV and the Internet.  In any case, I look forward to a good read and hopefully find insights to share on this blog in the days ahead.  He writes that the main theme of the book is to help ascertain “whether the reason [given] is such that we ought to be convinced.”  One interesting side note—my undergraduate book cost $3.50.  The book that I received today cost $41.95.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Imagination Box

During the holiday season I typically get caught up in gift-giving and end up spending as much on myself as for others.  I guess I don’t want to feel left out or maybe I just play loose with the golden rule.  This year my self-indulgence was a high tech internet radio with an old-fashioned look.  I find the look downright compelling as it reminds me of when I was a kid and of Saturday nights listening to radio broadcasts of boxing matches (“the fights”) and of the suspense thriller The Shadow.  We would sit in a darkened bedroom gathered closely round a portable Zenith vacuum tube radio installed in a wooden cabinet.  Because it was tube it developed heat that emanated a smell of beeswax used to treat the dialing mechanism.  It had a light on the front that illuminated a trademark jagged Z and glowed yellow in the darkness when the radio was on.  One night The Shadow included gangsters who intimidated a shopkeeper.  He swore that he did not know the combination to the safe.  The gangsters—and they sounded in every way fitting for the part—began cutting the man’s fingers off one knuckle at a time with a meat clever.  Each thud of the cleaver was accompanied by deathly screams from the victim. My imagination painted a picture of this scene that no TV set could ever approach and that has simmered in my mind unabated for 60 years.  In the end, justice was not denied for “the Shadow knows…..”   Happy holidays!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pain’s Façade and Phony Happiness

Covering pain with a façade and engaging in phony happiness derive from several fundamental causes.  They derive from a lack of trust—in others, self, or God.  In others because we fear rejection, in self because we fear our own lack of capacity and in God for we focus on the short-term and neglect the eternal and the service of larger and higher purposes.  Hence, anxiety is created in which we strive to hide from ourselves and others.  Our angst is typified by a state of denial.  Manifestations of this anxiety and denial include substance abuse, focus on status, flights to escapism, indulgences in affectation, denial of our mortality, feigned indifference, insincerity, yielding to addictions and obsessions.  Happiness—true happiness—remains a fundamental indicator of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

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Implausible Contraptions

Today I watched a movie Wild Wild West that I first saw in 1999.  The evil genius in the film is Dr. Arliss Loveless who plans to accomplish his plot to disestablish the United States in 1869 through the use of bizarre inventions—the principal one is a huge stories high mechanical steam driven spider laden with weapons.  It’s a delight to watch this foreboding metallic monster belching soot lumbering about on steel hydraulic legs.  This implausible contraption of Dr. Loveless is a self-reflection since he is himself a legless force of venom ensconced in the seat of a powered wheelchair.  When stated in a summary manner, however, his madness is not that atypical in the world as we know it—commitment to the implausible is not an uncommon occurrence.  It can be experienced daily in the lives of individuals and societies.  It is frequently driven by the passions of greed, envy, revenge, or pride.  Reality only returns when we become overextended and the gravity of facts outweigh even our impassioned commitment to cherished illusions—if we accept it mentally even then.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

The Contrapuntal Nature of Prejudice and Experience

This Thanksgiving we were invited to the home of Kathy’s boss, Christopher, for Thanksgiving dinner.  In attendance were also Christopher’s domestic partner Chris; another volunteer from work; and Chris’ sister, her husband, and their boy who is in about the 5th grade of elementary school.  Too often, I’m afraid I buy into the stereotypical picture of people with same-sex preferences as flamboyant and promiscuous—outlandish fools who do not appreciate and typically defy and ridicule family values.  I seem to never see the other side—couples whose relationships have lasted over many years in a context of loyalty and familial love.  This was my experience today.  While Christopher put the finishing touches on a perfectly sumptuous traditional Thanksgiving feast complete with appetizers, homemade soup, a golden roasted 22 pound turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, old-fashioned mashed potatoes, dressing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and the most delicious pumpkin pie that Kathy or I had ever eaten; Chris kept us entertained with conversation and a tour of their peaceful backyard garden.  In other words, Chris and Christopher spared no effort or expense to make our Thanksgiving memorable.  On arriving home from the dinner, Kathy and I wrote the following thank you note: “Thank you for the great occasion of Thanksgiving 2011 celebrated at your lovely home.  It was more than a perfect 10 in every aspect of presentation and fellowship.  We were privileged and pleased to be included in the festivities and to meet members of your family and visit among friends.”   I consider their greatest gift to me this evening was a kind repast giving at least temporary relief from my enslavement to a prejudice steeped in tawdry and sensational stereotypes which I apparently need or enjoy.  I pledge to set as a steadfast memory today’s scene of friends and family seated around the generously laden Thanksgiving table with Christopher humbly saying grace to our Heavenly Father.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving – An Island of Stability

Life can be maddening in the flux and change presented to us—even the world’s climate that surrounds us is apparently undergoing significant change.  How can we gain stability and get a foothold?  A sense of home is in one sense a sense of place.  I especially remember this year those who have been uprooted from their homes and sent adrift in the world.  Thank goodness for Thanksgiving—a holiday filled with deep family and friendship ties set apart in steadfast images.  While we can be thankful for many things, this reliable tribute to warmth of feeling itself anchors us.  The quest for freedom and diversity ultimately rests upon this reliable resource of home and hearth.  Such humble, intimate domestic origins give rise to the loftiest cosmopolitan goals.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Smugness of Superior Knowledge

It happened on a typical day in the year 1956.  My close friends James Bell and Steve Martin and I were on a neighborhood adventure along the banks of the Manatee River in Ellenton, FL.  We may well have been looking for sharks teeth unearthed by dredging in the middle of the river and piped ashore along with sand as landfill (a practice common at the time before environmental concerns later prohibited it).  As youngsters on the threshold of adolescence, nothing could compare with this adventure (except maybe for the act of digging for lead bullets encased in brass from the embankments of an old fuller’s earth mining site now used by the military as an occasional rifle range).  In any case, today we were walking down the river bank and spied awash in the surf a used condom.  Immediately James exclaimed “What is this?”  Steve and I looked at each another knowingly and told James that we knew what it was, but we wouldn’t say.  Later that day at James’ home, he told his mother what we had seen painting a very good picture of it and said that Wayne and Steve knew what it was, but wouldn’t tell him.  Looking back on this river bank incident, I find the smugness appalling and a major moral failing and even an act of treachery.  It was a simple case where duty arising from friendship plainly called, but I in snobbery stood complacent and content in superior knowledge.

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Oviedo – Learning to Trust

I lived in Oviedo, FL from 1950-1954 during which I was between 6 & 9 years old.  It is almost inconceivable today, but then I had the run of the town.  There was virtually nowhere that I could not go alone or with friends.  One of my cherished memories is learning how to tell time leaning between the legs of a railroad engineer as he was seated on a bench in front of the drug store.  He taught me on a gold railroad watch.  He also would take me to see the inside of the train where he shoveled coal into the furnace beneath the boiler.  When he let me stand near the entrance to his work area, I felt privileged beyond belief.  This experience of trust included people acquainted with my family.  The Ulrey’s lived down the road, and had rabbits in cages in their back yard.  They also had TV.  A particular show one evening was a suspense thriller.  As the camera panned a darkened room, a phone in the room rang loudly.  I was startled and jumped.  This was my first introduction to the power of that media.  Saturdays were a special treat as on radio we tuned in Big Jon and Sparkie and westerns including the The Lone Ranger.  The years in Oviedo taught me to trust in people.  Now when I hold the view that most people operate to the best of their ability within their given lights, I credit much of this to my Oviedo experience.  It is also from this perspective that I can appreciate the unspeakable horror when the trust of a child is violated by extreme selfishness and abuse.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Reliability of Meaning

circa 1994
Today I heard referenced Charles Frankel (1917-1979) and his comments regarding value theory.  One thing he emphasized:  a person can endure most any “how” if they can only understand “why.”  That is, finding a purpose present can redeem situations making even difficult ones acceptable to the human psyche.  The other day Kathy and I visited Sue Hickman in the hospital.  She is in her late 80’s and is a remarkably kind, loving, and considerate person.  (I became acquainted with her at church some 35 years ago.)  It is clear that being what can be called a Christian witness has given purpose and direction to her life.  In the hospital she was returned on a gurney from a procedure.  We stood outside her room as a nurse and an attendant helped her get back into her bed.  We heard repeatedly remarks of “thank you” and supportive encouragement—from Sue.  She continues to find that her role as a Christian witness undergirds her life with meaning and purpose.  The secret to being spiritually victorious over any circumstance is to find a “why”—a larger purpose.  For people like Sue, Jesus provides reliable redemption even over desperate circumstances.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Contemporary Attribute of God

It is clear that man attributes to God his greatest needs:  God as Creator (answers the need to know where the universe came from); God as Designer (answers the question where the order of things come from); God the Defender (fills the basic human need for security); God the Healer (the one to call upon in ill-health); God the Controller (answers man’s need for a tie to a source of control); God the Eternal (answers man’s need for significance and  meaning); God the Savior (answers the need for redemption from missteps and error).  Man continues to need all these aspects of God.  But for the 21st century I would add another: God the Experimenter.  This answers the need to understand flux and change over time.  This attribute would seem at first glance to undermine God the all-knowing.  If God knew all the answers, he would not need to experiment—to undergo a process of discovery through sometimes trial and error.  However, we simply must confront the facts of universal change and (for life on earth) evolution.  The key concept in evolution is not survival of the fittest, but the necessity for trial and error in development of life on earth.  This does not rule out that man was made in God’s own image.  It simply means that getting there involved a process of iterations and change.  The capacity to perform beneficial experiments is one of the greatest attributes of man; but it is limited.  There is ample room left and need for the human mind to appreciate the Ultimate Experimenter who through iterations and change accomplishes his divine will over time. 

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Towards the Redesign of Mankind

The birth of imagination was the last great leap for mankind.  The ability to imagine and make provisions for the future and all other benefits of the imagination were a decisive advantage.  If one could conjecture the next big advance, what direction would that take?  It seems evident that the next great improvement would be to develop an imagination that was not plagued by delusion.  What a tremendous advantage such a species should have!  You would have all the benefits of the imagination without any of its liabilities.  It is, after all, the delusions of our current imagination that result in so much that is negative.  In religion, quite insightfully the devil has been called the master of deceit.  This link between evil and deceit and with it human delusion is strong.  Human addictions of all sorts including greed, lust for power, and yearnings for the unreality of never-never land are all examples.  Certainly in economics a society would be greatly favored that did not convert through mass delusion investment opportunities into the eventual stench of fetid burst bubbles.  Man’s nature without delusions would be fundamentally changed.  No longer would he be a sinful creature—for delusion and deceit are at the root of all sin.  Guilt, if it existed, would be (for example) the undeserved guilt of being the only survivor of a disaster.  In other words, it would be innocent guilt.  And many practical problems would be averted from a lack of delusion.  Planning and design would be based upon reality—not the flawed wishful thinking that is the cause of much tragedy.  While such a leap for mankind seems impossible to us, imagination itself was inconceivable to earlier hominids.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Limitations of Forgiveness

Loose lips sink ships—a wartime saying that once applied fiercely to me.  I was in a room one evening with a friend at church when I was about 15 (some 52 years ago).  I cracked an inappropriate joke about people with Down’s syndrome, though I had no clear understanding of the condition.  The friend gently remarked that his younger brother had Down’s syndrome.  The ship I sunk that night was my own arrogant, ignorant self.  This stands out as one of the most haunting regrets in my life.  It is a memory that afflicts me like few others.  There was and remains no excuse and forgiveness remains helpless against the eternal harm done.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
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The Ugly Duckling

The earliest childhood story I can remember my mother reading to me was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.  It was one of those little books with imaginative and fascinating hand-drawn pictures.  It showed the plight of the little bird as a misfit in a group of ducklings—not looking the same and thought ugly.  It was only with maturity that the true identity of the ugly duckling became apparent to others, but most especially to the ugly duckling himself.  He was not a malformed duck after all, but a swan—eventually with a beauty far surpassing his detractors.  As a child, I greatly empathized with the ugly duckling that was misunderstood and ridiculed simply for being himself.  The judgment heaped upon the assumed duckling turned out to be uninformed and unfair.  The “duckling” in the end was triumphantly vindicated.  Now I must ask myself, on what basis did I identify so strongly with the ugly duckling?  Did I actually see myself that misunderstood and unappreciated or did my feelings represent an admirable compassion for someone so victimized even though I myself felt far more fortunate?  That for me is an open question I cannot answer satisfactorily today—my childhood state of mind now being a remote mystery.  Perhaps at this stage I secretly long for the fresh, sensitive childhood ability to empathize with the unfortunate—a capacity that has been largely traded-in for the complacent and purblind prejudices of adulthood.  Is The Ugly Duckling primarily a story for children or for callous and jaded adults? 

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Caught Cheating

When I was the tenth or eleventh grade in Hardee County High School, I had a teacher who knew the most effective way to discipline me for cheating on a test.  It was in an algebra class and I had not done sufficient study to do well on the exam.  We students sat at tables and I succumbed to the temptation to copy several answers from my neighbor who sat across from me.  He was not a straight A student himself, so I risked not only getting the wrong answer anyway, but getting a wrong answer identical to my neighbor’s.  The next class period the instructor passed out the graded exams and remarked when finished that he was very surprised to find someone had copied answers and cheated on the exam.  He did not mention names or point anyone out, but I felt sure he was talking to me.  (I had the same teacher the previous year in a biology class, and worked hard in the class and did very well.  I developed a deep respect for the teacher, and I think the feeling was mutual.)  In any case, I presumed he was talking directly to me.  It had a tremendous impact upon me.  I swore then and there that I would never cheat on a test again.  I wonder in what other more dramatic, sensational ways the teacher could have handled the incident—for instance by sternly calling me out in front of the class and arranging a disciplinary conference with my parents in the principal’s office.  This would have branded me publically as a cheat and shamed me before my classmates and parents.  Would this approach have had a more positive impact on my future behavior than the teacher’s evidenced trust and gentle words produced?  This stands out in my mind as an example where considerate mercy and trust when gifted in quiet discretion can be decisively more effective than harsh judgment trumpeted in a grandstanding fashion.  As is often the case, the determining factor should be the ultimate end in view.  I honor this teacher for his concern, courage, and conviction leading him to broach a troubling subject in a loving and effective way.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Awesome Mark

Today I had one of those moments when one could say that I was buttering up my boss.  Even though I realize any compliment to your boss can look this way, I am one of those who think we should say good things about people to their face, and not just behind their back or at their funeral.  After all we are mortal, and if we don’t say what we have to say today, then tomorrow may never come for them, or as is more likely, for me.

My boss Mark made one of his suggestions this afternoon that once spoken made obvious sense and made me ask myself “Why didn’t I think of that?” That was when I gave him my first compliment today.  I told him that he has technical knowledge, but it is based upon a foundation of practical common sense.  Here, I am referring to lightning insight into problems that lays bare the most efficient and effective way to address them.  He seems to always know which tool is most appropriate, or put more abstractly which approach to an issue is most powerful and direct.  This is one of those traits that is hard to train to achieve.  It is really a talent, a natural gift that no doubt flows from deep within the configuration of the mind.

The second compliment followed my observing him address an issue—over what many would find intractable—with intense concentration and patience like I have observed him do so often in the past.  I told him that he is a good boss because he is most demanding of himself.  Who wouldn’t want to serve a boss like that—one who asks sacrifice and effort foremost of himself?  Such an approach reveals integrity at the core and solid ethical character.  I am indeed fortunate to be on Mark’s team.  And to top it all off, he has a great sense of humor, asking me after my second compliment “What do you want?” 

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Memories From Oviedo Grammar School

In Oviedo, Florida I attended grades 1-4.  Several memories from then include a mysterious swamp not far from school.  There was a secluded pond there with water hyacinths so thick a child my age could walk on them—and a few of my friends and I did, surely a thing which would have been considered dangerous by our parents.  On another occasion on the school grounds a man killed a rattle snake.  One afternoon I attended a movie in the school auditorium—of course not air conditioned.  The monochrome movie pictured a few men who survived after a plane crash on a small raft the middle of the ocean.  I got seasick watching the movie and in the hot, crowded auditorium projectile vomited at my seat.  Once during recreation, I found a gold watch on the ground.  I exclaimed, “Look what I found.”  That afternoon we were waiting outside on the sidewalk for final dismissal for the day.  Someone who had seen me find it exclaimed to the teacher that I had found a watch.  The teacher had me reluctantly produce it and turn it in to lost and found.  The owner of the watch was identified—a boy a few years older than me.  He gave me an undeserved reward—a sundae at the local drug store.  When we kids were just learning to spell, a teacher challenged us to come up with longer words.  I learned to spell “banana” and “bicycle” (practicing over breakfast at home) an accomplishment of which I was immensely proud.  I learned my first lesson that authority could be wrong in the first grade.  I wore that day a white dress shirt.  The class was a scene of bustling activity as we prepared for an outdoor May Day celebration.  The teacher was preparing a poster on which she applied light green colored chalk.  She accidently brushed the poster against my white shirt which immediately showed the transferred chalk.  In exasperation she blamed me.  On some evenings I saw adults go crazy at high school basketball games (all grades attended one school).  It made a lasting impression on me that adults could give over to passionate, boisterous enthusiasm.  These school memories constitute only a few of the lasting assets I obtained while living in Oviedo.   

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Being Left Out

From my study I can hear occasional boisterous events as they occur in downtown Saint Petersburg.  It can be the Honda Grand Prix race cars, fireworks on the waterfront, planes circling in an air show over Albert Whitted Airport, or bands playing at Progress Energy Park.  Nearly all such events are open to the public and I could attend if I so desired.  Therefore even though I seldom attend, none qualify as real “left out” events.  I am similarly content with my lack of travel.  While on a budget, I could still manage an occasional travel splurge going to far parts of the USA or even the world.  But here again, I have no burning desire to travel great distances.  I am content to occupy my little corner of the planet.  The essential ingredient to feeling left out is a sense of deprivation.  At age 67, a stunning fact is that I have never been deprived of a single meal.  Could it be possible that I have never felt deprived?  To answer that in the affirmative would not (considering all my advantages) be dependent upon worldly conditions, but upon spiritual conditions.  A feeling of deprivation on my part would of necessity derive from a sense of envy.  And on that score, I can in no way plead innocent.  I have many times felt myself in an envious state—whether it was yearning to be in honors at school, desiring a more powerful position at work, or most especially as a youth envying rock stars (or for that matter anyone who could play a guitar and thereby garner the attention of females).  I have been envious of talent, fame, and fortune.  The means to contentment in my life has not been the result of spiritual triumph so much as the onset of senility.  I am at the age where it becomes a little silly to envy the improbable—to envy things that are no way in the cards.  For example, for me to envy a NFL football player would be downright loony.  Even I have that much sense of propriety.  At this point, my compassion (rather than gnawing envy) goes out to the young and restless with many promises yet to keep.   

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Perfect Imperfections

Every loving parent is aware of the priceless value of perfect imperfections.  Refrigerator doors in many homes are decorated with childhood drawings of trees, people, houses, and other images drawn perfectly—not in the sense that they can compete in a literal sense with the exact representation presented by a camera photo, but that they represent the imagination and love of the households’ growing children.  I got on this train of thought because today Kathy decorated our house for the Christmas season.  The little green reusable Christmas tree she put up, she pointed out, did not stand up perfectly straight.  This brought back memories of the Christmas trees we had in Ellenton when I was a child.  For several years it was my good fortune to acquire the tree for our living room.  “Tree” in this case should be used loosely.  One year I cut several branches from a nearby Australian pine, and somehow arranged them in the shape of a tree in the Christmas tree stand.  Another year dad and I went down a country road eyeing growth near the ditch.  There was a bush (not a pine) growing that looked promising.  It was dark green, and about 3 or 4 feet tall.  I climbed the far side of the ditch and cut it down.  We had our Christmas tree.  These “trees” of course were no match for well-formed, regal pines.  I suppose, looking back, that my parents saw these as perfect trees in part because their son had fetched them.  I only know that I felt that I was making a real contribution to our Christmas celebration.  This stands as a lesson for me: lack of vision and love can sometimes mistakenly lead us not to see perfection in the imperfect.  What impact would it have had on me, I wonder, if my parents had ridiculed and rejected my gifts of trees—if they had preferred the conventional tree at whatever the relational cost?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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Faith Is: To dare to live again

To dare to live again:  the twelfth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter recognizes the courage, effort, and faith required to get up again after a fall.  There is a temptation to throw in the towel, to give up, to accommodate oneself to loss in destructive ways—to be complicit in utter resignation and defeat.  Rep.Gabrielle Gifford is a stellar example of the contray.  Shot in the head in January 2011, her efforts to surmount the burden of serious injury have been inspirational.  While health issues are often the occasion in which we are called upon to dare to live again, the need for renewal can follow any type of tragedy or loss.  Perhaps the biggest threat to revitalization is a romanticized fixation on the nonrecoverable.  We can end up worshiping yesterday rather than living today.  What must be understood is that we honor the past most assuredly by living today to the fullest.  For example, how can we best honor those dearest to us who have died?  Certainly not by closing ourselves up in a room of dusty memories, but by affirming the loving spirit of our lost ones in the lives we live today.  Essentially phony, self-endulgent denial of life does not show faith, but fundamental doubt in God, in ourselves.  Faith is evidenced most reliably in our dare to live again.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Faith Is: To unite the broken pieces of life

To unite the broken pieces of life:  the eleventh faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter recognizes that being broken our lives are far from perfect. Yet through faith even from this brokenness we find underlying unity and purpose.  Even the negative, wayward parts of our lives can be seen as contributing however dearly to current positive insight and growth.  In this way the negative is subsumed into the positive.  We can say in faith that our experiences have often (despite ourselves) contributed to God’s plan and purpose for our lives.  Our vision, our insight have been limited.  But even when we were willful and blind, God’s loving hand protected and guided us to redemption even while inescapable consequences of our misdeeds played themselves out.  In this way, faith is not an escape from reality and consequences, but it imbues life through acceptance with the strength to endure and overcome.  Faith, while not coddling, is a means leading to eventual acceptance of reality in all its parts including the reality of ourselves.  Unkindly one can say that this is redemption through rationalization.  But faith steadfastly insists otherwise.

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Faith Is: To shut all doors to despair

To shut all doors to despair:  the tenth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter indicates that faith and hopelessness are mutually exclusive.  Despair occurs in the desert places of dead-ends.  One cannot proceed forward with either emotional encouragement or spiritual inspiration.  Imagination shuts down and supplies no conjecture of better times.  Faith, on the other hand, is a vista upon imminent better days.  Sometimes this involves having one’s happiness depend upon dreams shifted from the impossible to the possible.  For example, while one’s youth may be gone forever, one’s ability to grow in other ways is not.  Success becomes redefined with realistic options.  This process depends upon appreciating the difference between an immature dead-end fanciful wish list upon whose reliance failure and unhappiness are assured and the alternative growth into fungible long-term spiritual development in which we are surrounded and supported by the eternal dreams and visions of hopeful humanity for untold generations. 

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Faith Is: To see treasures in each moment of being

To see treasures in each moment of being:  the ninth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter arises from a heart of gratitude and an understanding of the rare privilege of sentient existence.  A spirit of ingratitude is the foundation of a set determination to take all things (most especially life itself) for granted.  The alternative perspective is that the greatest wealth that any of us can have is the fundamental gift of life itself.  Gratitude comes with a sense of wonder and of obligation—of wonder at the vast array of life and of obligation to make each moment count.  There is an underlying conviction that to spurn the gift of life would be in some sense a sin against the Creator.  Viewing each moment as special heightens awareness and imagination and enhances creativity.  Life ceases to be a burden of boredom and becomes instead an opportunity for creative observation most especially in the midst of the familiar and everyday.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Faith Is: To flee not death

To flee not death:  the eighth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter is another way of stating “to face death victoriously.”  Christian’s belief in Christ’s resurrection and eternal life serves to explain how Christians can face death victoriously.  Death in the light of eternal life almost seems trivial.  A related concept is formulated from the belief that one can die serving the will of the Eternal.  There is a real sense in which Martin Luther King, Jr. died in victory for he died serving the eternal purposes of love.  It is clear that he understood well the constant jeopardy that his actions in this service placed his life.  But for him, death was no threat from which to flee or hide in terror.  In the face of eternal purposes and ultimate concerns, death had to take a subordinate place.  We can see this same willingness to put values above life in the example of witnesses serving with resolute generosity in our everyday walk.  Ordinary folk often are unwavering (and thereby when necessary seen as courageous) in their service to principles and values in their communities.  And, of course, we must not forget official first responders of all kinds who always stand ready to put service to others ahead of themselves—even to the point of death.  To flee not death in the light of mortality and fragility would seem to be impossible.  In fact we find that while no one wants to die, there is abundant evidence that under the right conditions and priorities people willingly do so.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Faith Is: To affirm life fully

To affirm life fully:  the seventh faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter can best be appreciated from focusing on human traits that are unique for mankind.  Faith appears to be one such uniquely human phenomenon.  While we can project faith upon an animal (such as we do with the pig in the movie Babe), or use it to describe an animal as when we refer to a faithful dog; the stark reality may well be that no other animal has faith as understood and experienced by the human mind—the human brain recently described in a forum as perhaps the most complex structure in the universe.  A closely allied characteristic to faith is the creative power of thought called imagination.  Faith and imagination go together.  While other animals can affirm life, none other than man has the capacity to affirm it fully.  For reality can only be understood and affirmed though the active engagement of the imagination.  Whether a physicist is conceiving nuclear structure, or a scientist the double helix, or an astronomer the black hole, or whether someone is devising a recipe for tonight’s supper; imagination is inherently involved in affirming life fully.  Faith without imagination would be impossible, as would imagination without faith.  Affirming life fully concerns not only the understanding of physical systems and phenomena, but of the intangible world as well.  These include the qualities that are represented in human relationships as well as the conditions that reside in ethical and spiritual systems.  Faith and imagination both require and are at home with abstraction.  Faith to affirm life fully requires imagination to help infer reality.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Faith Is: To accept unwanted loss

To accept unwanted loss:  the sixth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter serves to starkly contrasts the difference between faith and fear in the face of unwanted loss.  When one faces unwanted loss with fear of the future, fear of self, and fear of others one does not think rationally and creatively but seeks to avoid the very reality of loss by its denial.  The mind games played while in this state include self-delusion and self-justification.  On the other hand, facing unwanted loss with faith leads to acceptance and clarity of thought.  Realistic adjustments are made and reevaluation of the significance of loss is forthcoming often resulting in a conclusion that the change presented by loss can even have ultimate positive aspects.  Faith to accept unwanted loss is a coping mechanism that can bring about positive and solid results that bless oneself and others.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Faith Is: To endure as pain demands

To endure as pain demands:  the fifth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter requires a look at phraseology.  In what sense does pain demand?  Several examples may help clarify:  road hazards demand sturdy tires be installed on cars; long hours in the library demand student endurance; the pain of strenuous training demands endurance for athletes; the pain of combat exercises demand endurance of boot camp soldiers.  Rough situations including the experience of pain demand endurance.  This pain can be physical or emotional.  When someone faces the demands of pain, faith is their closest ally.  For faith implies an acceptance of reality and the conditions it presents followed closely by a fighting attitude to endure and in this important sense to prevail—for endurance by sheer spiritual strength is itself a great accomplishment.  “Why me” whines and a defeatist attitude of victimization are not the harvest of faith. Neither is envy or resentment of those more fortunate.  To endure as pain demands is in the end an awesome spiritual victory. 

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Faith Is: To envision the possibility of God

To envision the possibility of God:  the fourth faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter invites us to think of the time man first believed.  What individual or group first envisioned the possibility of God?  Perhaps that first envisioning designated and understood God as Creator, Designer, Defender, Healer, Controller, or Eternal.  Observing that man often prays in tight spots, the envisioning of God may have come as a response to the question: to whom am I praying?  In prayer there is the perception and belief that we are not merely talking to ourselves but addressing a higher power.  There is humility to prayer that recognizes one’s own limits and vulnerabilities.  There is an assumption that somewhere one cares for us.  At some point the essential understanding developed that God is love giving us a relationship with a higher power and a responsibility to love others as well.  Faith is to envision the possibility (not proof) of God.  The only proof we have to show of God is our core belief that he exists.  It is a certainty in belief that is called faith. 

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Faith Is: To keep the vision even in darkness

To keep the vision even in darkness:  the third faith characteristic listed in Alton’s letter is a juxtaposition of opposites.  The vision pulls us up and lifts our spirits while darkness represents a serious threat to this vision that would pull us down to humiliation and defeat.  Two examples come to mind.  A secular example is Steve Jobs who envisioned user friendly electronics.  Threats to that vision could include days of void when practical ideas to realize the vision did not seem to flow.  A religious example is Christ whose vision of holiness was under threat from the sins of the world.  I have written in an earlier blog of the holy structure of the Trinity amidst muddy rainy weather—the recurring state of worldly affairs.

Have you ever looked out your window to see a dog trotting down the street?  Unlike some dogs that meander about, this particular dog seemed to have an end in view, a definite place that he was resolute on reaching—a dog with a mission.  I have seen such a dog and admired his obvious determination.  In a similar way, we admire people who keep the vision even in darkness.  They display positive character traits including courage, determination, discipline, integrity, imagination, persistence, optimism, and a resolute faith.  They have the ability to focus amid distractions, pessimism, and the burden of foreboding futility and gloom.  We tend to view such persons as positive, transformative people who can lead us out of doldrums, fear, and stultifying ambivalence.  If anyone can redeem the situation, it is the person who can maintain a certain vision even in darkness.

The phrase “the vision” implies something worthy.  I can have a fixed ambition to be the drug lord of Saint Petersburg with minions of underlings, thugs, and hit men at my service.  Such a mental image can have similar psychological effects as visions.  A clear picture of what I want can energize and stimulate motivation and discipline.  But here, rather than arising from faithfulness and love the drive is seated in ruthlessness and hate.  Therefore, rather than being a redemptive vision it becomes a corrosive obsession.  To keep the vision even in darkness serves faithfully the forces of light.

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