TBT: So . . . Was I Right about Iraq?

I’m often slow on the uptake. Facebook friends keep posting photographs with the comment “TBT.” What the hey? Since my policy is not to put much thought into cryptic messages, ignorance has enjoyed its long day. I finally broke the code, but can’t remember how. If ever a brain needed a laxative, it’s mine. A cheap Cabernet may have cleared enough obstructions for the obvious to snap into focus, the way the Eiffel Tower or Sebastian Cabot appear in 3D glory after you zone out looking at one of those dizzying posters that used to populate restaurant waiting areas. (Mr. French may be available only through special order.)

Throwback Thursday! Of course. UrbanDictionary.com updates my revelation by noting that TBT may also indicate Throwback To . . . . So every day of the week we can gorge ourselves with impunity on grainy images of our unfortunate 1980s hairstyles. I love it.

Since I got my hair cut roughly the same way today as I did thirty years ago, I don’t have much to add to TBT in the way of embarrassing photographs. In the process of junk sorting, however, I found an opinion piece I wrote for the Erie Times-News between 9/11/2001 and the U.S. attack on Iraq on 3/19/2003.

This particular TBT is short on humor, but it is interesting to revisit old convictions.

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Sad when your throwback photograph from a dozen years ago makes people say, “Geez, he’s let himself go.”

What would Jesus say about Iraq? (This title and the paragraphing are not mine.)

For the United States, September 11, 2001, was a series of unimaginable sucker punches. In a few hours, terrorists placed on our country’s hearthrug a new reality: the “gentleman’s agreement” as to the rules of war had been altered.

The “enemy” isn’t necessarily a specific country anymore, and rather than sticking their chins out for a retaliatory punch, attackers blow themselves up.

The question is, how should we respond to this new set of rules—or lack thereof? Or more to the point for me, what is a faithful way of responding to terrorism within our borders?

President Bush isn’t hiding his take on the matter. He thinks that the United States, either alone or in cooperation with other nations, should bomb Iraq with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t heard any of television’s talking heads dispute the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq supports terrorism, so I guess if we’re going to wage war on terrorism, Iraq is as good a place to start as any.

My concern isn’t where the bombing should begin, but when it will (or won’t) end.

I don’t pretend to know what course of action will best protect our national interests or rid the world of the fanatical inclination to fly jets into skyscrapers.

Even as a pastor, I don’t know that I could win a theological argument for peace. Many intelligent, scripturally literate people believe that the time for seeking peace with terrorists has passed.

But I do feel increasingly sure about the voice of my own conscience, and the word I’ve been hearing lately is enough.

As I write this, my kids are close by. One is tying up the phone lines by gabbing on AOL, and the other is wearing a pair of goggles and pretending to swim across my study floor. My wife is at a class on home repair. I love these three.

Here’s the deal. If we start down the wrenching, potentially endless path of incinerating the world’s sucker punchers, people every bit as dear as my beloved three would also burn because they happen to be in the way.

Enough! Enough lives lost. Enough grieving. Enough violence.

Like I said, these are only the words of my own conscience. I’m probably wrong and simplistic, but I try to imagine Jesus standing beside me. What would he say? I can’t hear “bomb ‘em” or “acceptable collateral damage” coming from his lips.

What I hear is more like “figure out something else.”

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Grizzled and pudgy, I imagine my beloved grandson under the bomb. I guess I’m parked in the same spot I was years ago.

I Found the Holy Ghost in Asheville

Were I to subscribe to omens, the family drive from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Candler, North Carolina, last week would have put me in a black mood. I’m not sure what formula Google Maps uses to estimate travel time, but I doubt it includes weather, bodily functions, and babies, all of which can add decades. My spunky iPhone 6 (not Plus!) predicted 9 hours and 49 minutes, or some such crap. When wife Kathy, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, grandson Cole, and I rolled up my sister Cindy’s long driveway, our constitutions were too battered for math. We squinted at each other and said, “Huh? Yeah, maybe like 17 hours?” Blowing snow, freezing rain, and West Virginia mountains occasionally had us down to 30 mph. Good thing I sit still and pray-meditate a lot. When I was younger, such a drive would have set my bowels into angry, claustrophobic spasms. Are we there yet?

The presumed reason for renting a Town and Country van and heading south was my sister-in-law Betsy Ann’s 80th birthday party. I should have known better. The actual purpose of travel, across town or to another hemisphere, doesn’t reveal itself unless I leave my soul’s door ajar and pay attention. Somewhere in the midst of eating spaghetti or getting lost in a Louis Armstrong song or walking into a coffee shop, I think, “Ah, so this is why I came here.” Tears are often involved.

As soon as Kathy and I put our bags in Cindy and her spouse Linda’s guest room, I began to suspect the days ahead would be about love or life or wonder–something wide-eyed. On the dresser was a photograph of Kathy and me from close to thirty years ago in a frame that said, “Welcome, Kathy and John.”

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A pathetic attempt at a photograph of a photograph. Ah well. Blurriness and flecks don’t diminish my young Kathy’s beauty one bit, nor do they provide cover for those ridiculously large glasses of the mid 1980s.

Thoughtful, this gesture. Along with the photograph went a bag of on-the-road stuff, like toothpaste, shampoo, and travel guides. That’s Cindy for you. Goodness pours out of the woman. She made our mother’s spaghetti sauce for dinner the first evening because she knows it was one of my favorites. But that’s a small detail. Cindy and Linda’s whole household hums with joyful, affectionate chaos. Pets are always making a ruckus, and their grandson Liam’s toys constantly chirp out music.

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Destined to be paesanos from the start: Cole and Liam, the latter the son of Tina and Rebecca.

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Friendly old Harriet, named after my spirited grandmother. Notice the bent left foreleg? When she was a pup, Harriet’s, owner smacked her with a two-by-four, resulting in a permanent . . . well . . . dogleg. She was supposed to be beyond hope, but not so with Cindy and Linda, who took the girl in and loved her into gentleness.

As if the blessings I’ve mentioned weren’t enough, we energetic travelers got to sample Asheville. A couple of moments there tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Soul, awake!” Asheville! Man, what a town! What I saw moved me, softened me up, cleared my vision. Behold Asheville:

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“Can I take your picture?” I said. He smiled and raised his left thumb to the sky. The Holy Ghost is all about conserving energy.

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Pippa and Brody greeting admirers. I chatted with owner Mary Ann as if we were old buddies.

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The Flat Pennies busking. Old Appalachian music. Great stuff.

Ah, to wander from beauty to beauty as a fiddle and banjo converse. The buoyant music made me buzz with gladness, and I wasn’t alone. Was I seeing the Holy Ghost in eyes of strangers, somehow no longer strangers? That’s how I felt.

But the moment, my harmonic convergence, arrived at Betsy Ann’s party. Taking advantage of free flowing pinot noir, I watched a photographic loop of the birthday girl’s life. One shot was an epiphany. I don’t consult omens, but do welcome a wave of inspiration, the sight, sound, or word that bestows an ah of recognition, a truth received.

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My sister Cathy with her arm around Betsy Ann. Two pilgrims in love, come to a place of grace and peace.

As you can tell, both of my sisters are lesbians joined in marriage. For decades I’ve been fine with homosexuality–as if what I think matters anyway. But when I saw this photograph, all I knew was joy. Oh that everyone who wants to join hands and hearts with another could do so. The human race is doubled over by body blows. Venom is the new norm. And don’t even mention manners.

But look! An 80-year-old woman puts her head on my sister’s 66-year-old shoulder–my sister Cathy, one of the most kind and decent souls in circulation. Don’t most of us want to rest in the arms of a beloved? To lean into another, share the view of a bright land, and think, “I’m home, yes. My home is here, yes. With this one person, yes“?

I’m all about love: guilty as charged. Sentimental, too, I guess. We all have to be about something. I pick this: it’s a wish. If only we could all find love in the measure we need and have the inner freedom to make our way there without fear or shame, however we find ourselves bidden. For some folks, days are weary, desperate, lonely. Love can turn the walk into a jig. If only we could all reach old age and sing to our beloved, as Betsy Ann did.

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“I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'” Betsy Ann looked at Cathy. I wiped away tears and hid my sniffles by sipping wine. And I knew why I had made the trip to North Carolina.

Turns out the Holy Ghost wasn’t only in Asheville. She was also in Candler, at a birthday party, and in every other place of tenderness and care. What is the Holy Ghost, after all, if not love?

 

Reconsidering 2014

“You humans. When’re you gonna learn that size doesn’t matter? Just ’cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small” (Frank the Pug in the movie Men in Black).

Merry Christmas, 2014! Happy New Year, 2015! For months I’ve been stuck in sleep. The last time I felt this way was Christmas of 1998, six months after my mother died. I had no idea that my soul had been smothering until my lungs snapped full in late December, and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what grief is.” Mom had passed, but she would have asked me to keep living. And now, I’m granted an epiphany, something probably obvious to everybody else, but hidden from me.

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Grandson Cole: my expression for way too much of 2014. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

After a tough year, the Christmas story has awakened me, but not because it can be historically proven. Haggling over facts makes me want to take a nap. It’s the truth of a story that has roused me from sleep. If you’re not a Christian, please listen anyway. Play along. The Creator of All visits humanity as an infant, absolutely defenseless, not as a warrior and not majestic. “And so it was, that, while [Mary and Joseph] were [in Bethlehem], the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” These familiar details from the Gospel of Luke are small, so very, very small that they’re heartbreaking–a baby wrapped in rags and laid in a feed box. No room for him, except with the animals.

But Frank the Pug’s gravelly voice grabs the scruff of my neck and carries me away from sadness. “When’re you humans going to learn that size doesn’t matter?” (Yes, yes, go ahead and chuckle.) Size not only doesn’t matter, but it can be deceiving. Example: ants weigh as much as humans do. I can’t recall when I first learned this, but son Micah verified it for me: “When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” And so, wake up, John! Sure, lousy, big, heavy stories have lots of us making Cole’s crying face, but when you place all the flecks of grace and good spirits on the scales, the world doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it shines.

Thank you, Infant Lowly, for restoring my hope, putting a little steam back in my stride, and updating the prescription for my spiritual glasses. Rubbing the bad news out of my waking eyes, I see beauty and fun clearly now.

Dear loved ones, please accept these holy, lowly flecks from my 2014. May they help you and me receive 2015’s ants of grace and good spirits.

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Wife Kathy and neighbor Patrick–a wise, Down’s boy who said, without even lifting his head, “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

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My late mother’s Christmas cactus now blooms in early November, so I figured it would be bare come December 25th. Not so. A couple of flowers opened late, but they’re no less lovely for that.

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This one is probably an over-share: Over twenty years ago dentist friend Tom built a tooth for me out of filling material. Money was scarce at the time, so Tom worked his magic, which lasted until Advent of 2014. When I was in seminary, a dentist in Columbus said, “This one was made by a master.” Thanks for two decades of good service.

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In downtown Erie, an old gas street lamp still burns in front of Gannon University’s Gitnik Manse on West 6th Street. I have no idea why this gave me a sip of joy, but it did.

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My book came out in 2014 as an indie publication. People seem to find out about it a person at a time–kind of like A Napper’s Companion. No thousands of readers, but a kindred spirit here and there.

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Oddball that I am, I sent a copy of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” to the President and First Lady. What the hell? They sent a thank you note, though I’m sure the book itself was ground into a fine powder to be sure it wasn’t laced with anthrax.

I call myself a writer, yet my vocabulary is embarrassingly slim. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I look it up. In 2014, I read carbuncle, which I knew is a precious stone from reading Sherlock Holmes stories, but the context told me there must be another meaning. A carbuncle, it turns out, “is [also] a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin.” Why, thank you for that update. I also stumbled on sycophant, who is a “servile self-seeking flatterer.” The synonyms tickle my teenage sense of humor: “apple-polisher, bootlicker, brownnoser, fawner, flunky, lickspittle, suckup, toady.” Lickspittle! I can’t wait to toss that one out in a conversation. I love words and consider them a blessing, though I don’t retain them very well.

I also love quotations, in part because I compiled 365 of them for a collection of daily meditations, Questions from Your Cosmic Dance, which came out in 1997. I jotted down one of my favorites from the past year on a scrap of paper and still have it. It voices wisdom I need to hear and follow.

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This quote comes courtesy of Belief.net’s “Jewish Wisdom,” which lands in my email-box each day. The older I get, the more I choose not to say. Thank you, Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

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Words are flecks of goodness, as are quotations. Laughter also places weight on the scale to counter despair. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt gave me a Jesus Pan for Christmas. Little do they know they’ll be eating Jesus French toast someday soon.

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No other small gift from 2014 comes close to my grandson Cole, shown here in his Wagnerian knit cap. He helps me to understand the Christmas story. Why would the Great Mystery visit humanity as a child? Behold! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

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What does 2015 hold for you, me, and planet Earth? Cole looks at the horizon with wonder as do we all. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

One thing I know about the months ahead: unless I get lost completely, don’t expect me to repeat the tired grief of 2014. Sure, I’ll get sad and discouraged, but nothing can change the fact that ants weigh as much as humans. You have to look closely for very, very small flecks of grace and good spirits, but once your eyes learn to spot them, the size of the bad news doesn’t matter so much anymore.

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May this fortune be so for you in 2015, my loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John

Humility Needed as the New Millennium Clears Its Throat

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It’s chili. You eat it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”

This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.

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Ahhh. In the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.

In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.

The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:

In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.

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Beloved wife Kathy is still in touch with the power of play. This is our front yard on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters were slack-jawed with wonder.

I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.

One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.

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Micah in, what, kindergarten? His first grade teacher didn’t have much use for him, with his silly heart.

It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.

I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.

We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.

I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)

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How sad: a “really inhumane” recipe. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .

a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building. 

Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.

Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.

I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.

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A painting by the late, self-educated Milton Sontheimer, whose work helps me to center myself

As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.

We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.

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Our opulent enemy? Why? (Credit: Saberhagen on Wikimedia Commons)

We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:

His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”

My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.

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A three-hour nap in a monastery guest room–a remarkable blessing

Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.

Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.

Coming to Myself from a Distant Country

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (Credit: Wikipedia)

Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”

I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.

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The Prodigal Son Living with Harlots by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (1712-1761) (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.

Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.

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If I looked this good anxious, I might not complain. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.

The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.

Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.

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Ah, still waters! Might be Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Vesuvius underneath, but as long as there aren’t any whitecaps, we’re solid. (Credit: Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)

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Sometimes ivy takes over so it seems like there’s more plant than stone. (Credit: Psyberartist on Wikimedia Commons)

So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.

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Mmm! An overripe, dehydrated banana? A used, sunbaked . . . ? Oh, never mind? Carob pods. (Credit: Roger Culos on Wikimedia Commons)

A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?

Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.

Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”

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Son Micah working on a two-pound Rice Crispy Treat after a hard day of painting. Laughter comes more easily after I find myself

I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.

In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.

This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.

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My soul’s arms hold Cole when I come to myself

A Study of Justice

I have to clean my room,

I’m saying, “Not fair!”

Even though I make the mess,

That’s neither here not there,

Because I’m talking about justice,

I’m going to make you aware,

When you’re five years old,

Well, it’s just not fair!

(“Not Fair” by Joe Scruggs from the CD Ants)

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“Just not fair”: sometimes imagined, sometimes real. (Credit: Reji Jacob on Wikimedia Commons)

Wife Kathy’s been downsizing lately. Children’s books and CDs from when our own kids, Elena and Micah, were young are migrating toward grandson Cole, nine months old and already getting ears-full of songs and stories. He’s heard over and over “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” including the “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” part, “Nessun Dorma,” and another tenor aria I can never remember. Pavarotti calms him down in the car. Soon he’ll be ready for the lessons and play of Rafi and Joe Scruggs, whose music Micah was singing (poor “Joshua Giraffe,” “stuck in a zoo with buffalo poo”) on Saturday as he helped his mother put in a new basement window and I considered justice.

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A little guy like Joshua. Micah’s singing about him was a blessing. (Credit: Chrumps on Wikimedia Commons)

The Gospel yesterday from Matthew was Jesus’ “Parable of the Householder Who Hired the Laborers.” Summary: the householder pays those who worked only one hour the same as those who toiled in the sun all day. As the children’s song repeats, “Not fair, not fair, not fair.” If I had busted my hump all day, the householder’s lapels would have been wrinkled and torn. I would have yanked his beard right out of his loving, generous, foolish, unfair head.

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Some beard on Benedict of Nursia. If the houseowner had such a beard and paid me the same as people who worked an hour, he might have come out of the tussle with a Fu Manchu and not much else. (Credit: photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS, on Wikipedia)

In the parable, the householder obviously represents God, and the teaching is that God isn’t fair. God is loving. But I don’t intend to talk about God. The world is so full of beauty that I get verklempt occasionally, but its blood-ugliness has the same effect on me, too. God for me is above all Mystery. I have neither the nerve nor desire to explain or even speculate much about how God dwells in the here and now. God is first-string in my heart, but I’m letting God ride the bench for a thousand words or so today. All I want to do is think about justice (or as Joe Scruggs puts it, fairness).

I got in a fender-bender this morning. (Nobody hurt, both vehicles just fine. Thanks for asking.) I was merging into traffic, checked to be sure the coast was clear, and hit the accelerator. Sadly, the woman in front of me was carefully assessing the traffic—waiting for her embossed invitation to arrive—so I gave her a stout “good morning.” It took her a long time to pull to the berm, and when I looked in her window, she was crying, face in hands. She rolled down the back window, got her bearings, then rolled down the front. No, she didn’t hit her head. No, I hadn’t given her whiplash. She may change her mind about that tomorrow.

After we exchanged information, I numbly drove to Starbucks, where I’m licking this immediate wound, speculating on the rise in my premium, and tending a couple of other bumps and bruises. I really couldn’t see any damage to my truck, but her bumper, made of that wonderfully durable plastic that ripples if somebody in the backseat farts, sports a horizontal crack down the middle.

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Ah, a dimple on the chrome to the left. A 1998 with over 200,000 miles on it. Think I’ll pass on repairs.

The morning’s gravity is pulling toward the blues. Poor John! Actually, poor driver in her seventies with an Eastern Bloc name sorely in need of a vowel or two and an unfair jolt of adrenaline to work off. I’ve got no worthy complaints against fairness. Although I’ve been something of a mess lately, that’s my own problem. I like to say that I’ve got a great life, but sometimes I suck at it.

Where fairness is concerned, I’m the defendant, not the plaintiff. The evidence against me is damning:

1.) I have four weeks of vacation each year, and I’m taking one day today. Two Xanax will soon have my jittery soul calmed down. I’m on my third free refill of deliciously bitter iced decaf. Nobody’s got a knife to my throat. I don’t live, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “under the bomb.”

2.) When I head home, I’ll have to decide what not to have for lunch. The house is dry and warm or cool as necessary. Bills paid.

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Too much clutter at 322 Shenley Drive, but never too many flowers.

3.) The perils I face are mostly my own doing. Too much debt. Health risks to be brought under control. All this, so far as I know, is on me.

4.) My family has come through tough times I’ve already chronicled to death. Saying more about the past here would be tiresome, but last evening is worth a comment. Kathy, Micah, and I took family dinner to Elena and Matt’s: sauerkraut and pork and cream of cucumber and avocado soup with pearl onions. We sat in their postage stamp back yard and talked as Micah pushed grandson Cole around in his play car. The soup was savory, garnished with cherry tomatoes, raw cucumber, and avocado. Nobody but Matt had any, but down to my last culinary bone, I didn’t care. I tasted the hint of cheyenne and cilantro, sipped red wine, and received the cool air and love around me. When rain blew in, I didn’t give a thousandth of a solitary damn. I stood where it was sheltered and breathed, by now shoveling in kraut and mashed potatoes. Soon, Cole needed a bath, which he entered joyfully and immediately gave his business a tug. Atta boy, just don’t be too much of an overachiever here. Dinner, holding grandson, rain, peace, and laughter. Mercy within mercy within mercy.

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Cole playing Grrrrrr with Gramps. What did I do to deserve this love? Not fair.

5.) At 5:30 this morning, Kathy said, “You’re snoring.” I rolled this way and that for ten minutes, trying to comply, but finally was informed, “Your snoring is incessant!” It takes brains to say incessant before 6:00 a.m. What to do? I wanted to stay in bed with my wife and feel the healing breezes through the screens, but the rattling of my glottis was messing with her last hour of life. So I decided to remain and let myself get only to the edge of sleep. I don’t remember ever doing this before, but it’s what I wanted. This isn’t about me, but about Kathy. She deserves such love. Until just before 7:00, then, we lay together, me keeping vigil over myself and rising to consciousness at the first sound of sleep and wet head-flesh’s gargly duet. Just before she got up, I issued a last, faint caw. She touched my cheek and said, “I’ve got to get up.” She wasn’t mad. Where’s the justice?

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Lovely Kathy’s approach to life: don’t hold a grudge; let’s get on board and get going!

6.) I emailed Kathy at work about my accident this morning. Her response landed an hour later: “Oh John Coleman, what am I gonna do with you? I might have to ground you from Starbucks. Glad you are ok. Bet little old lady gonna be sore tomorrow. Love you.” No annoyance, even though she has warned me about that stupid merge many times before. When the insurance premium goes up, Kathy will frown, shrug her shoulders, and kiss me.

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My Starbucks? No, anything but my Starbucks!

There’s more, but the prosecution has gone on long enough. Fairness has a litany of complaints against me. My only statement is this: Justice or the world or the universe owes me nothing, so I’ll try to receive indulgent love and all family dinners in the rain with a humble and grateful heart.

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Not fair that I live in such a house, but I’ll take it.

“Talking to God about Jim Foley and the World” on YouTube

Hello, Friends:

Here’s another installment on my very slowly developing vlog (video blog). It’s kind of a bummer, so pass on this if you want to focus on sunny thoughts today. And faithful blogging friends, chances are you’ve already read this, so don’t feel obligated.

Peace and love,

John

 

Mindfulness: A Christian’s Understanding

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Not as blissful as woman on the cover of Time, but definitely in the zone. (Credit: Ernst Mutchnick / Funk Zone Studios / Corbis)

I should be grateful. The cover of a recent edition of Time Magazine carries the photograph of a lovely woman with closed eyes and a Zen half smile along with this title starting below her throat: “The Mindful Revolution: the science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.” Author Kate Pickert offers an engaging account of Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction (MSBR) and its slow progression into the mental health field’s go-to arsenal of methods for getting or staying sane. MIT-educated scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR in 1979, and today, Pickert writes, “There are nearly 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including meditation), and they are in nearly every state and more than 30 countries.”

Mindfulness is even “gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation—Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more.” Fantastic! Some wealthy and powerful people are in favor of stopping, dwelling in the present moment, paying attention, and reflecting. This is a good thing. But my soul is uncomfortable—my skeptical soul. Why?

Pickert’s take on our society’s need for mindfulness is insightful and accurate. She admits her own struggle: “I am hyper-connected. I have a personal iPhone and a BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home. It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen.” I’m writing from Starbucks on a Monday morning, and seven of the fifteen patrons are screen-fixed. A couple are simultaneously conversing and texting. The Time author is on the right track.

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Multitasking (Credit: Arman Zhenikeyev / Corbis)

Imagine Jeopardy, “Modern Words for $1000″: “Attempting to perform two or three or eight tasks at the same time.” Beep. “What is multitasking?” Attempting is the key word. As Pickert points out, “Researchers have found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity.” Elders have known this for years and have been shaking their heads.

So mindful folks everywhere should Buddha-laugh and embrace MBSR, mindfulness, or any practice that helps us to slow down and be where we are. There’s evidence as well that “meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression.” So much promise!

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Private First Class Russell R. Widdifield in Vietnam, 1969. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As I thought my way through this fair and balanced Time article, I bickered in my head. I had questions and suspicions. Finally, Pickert’s explanation of a particular use of mindfulness training forced me to confront my bias. Elizabeth Stanley, an associate professor at Georgetown, collaborated with Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, to launch “a pilot study with private funding that investigated whether a mindfulness program could make Marines more resilient in stressful combat situations.” Stanley went on to develop an MBSR-based curriculum called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training.”

When those words punched my face, I put words to my discomfort. An hour ago I asked Zen-dude Alan the question: “Is it possible to kill another human being mindfully?” He didn’t think long before answering, “Yes.” I wasn’t talking about euthanasia or any other taking of life motivated by compassion, and I think he knew that. He brought up other good qualifications. Somebody’s going to shoot you; you shoot first. For Alan, mindfulness is simply being fully present to what you are and what you are doing and accepting the consequences. Shooting in self-defense, he admits, means killing part of himself. Alan is a good, thoughtful guy, but I want to push him on the nature of mindfulness. Next time he bows to me at Starbucks I might ask him if he thinks you could mindfully strangle a healthy black lab puppy for no reason. He’d probably draw the line there.

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Statue of Christ of the Abyss. Loving the world, longing for the Creator?  (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

I draw the line somewhere else. For good or ill, my understanding of mindfulness is informed by Christianity. Any of my friends will tell you I’m about the weirdest, most open-minded Jesus follower on the block, but some actions strike me as so troubling and hurtful that I regard them as morally insane; that is to say, the opposite of mindful.

Mindless? Mindful? Any distinctions are riddled with semantics, but I’m fond of mindfulness and object to the word being deployed to certain theaters. Here’s where I imagine I’ll get myself into trouble:

  • Pickert mentions “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more” embracing mindfulness. A mindful titan? Sounds like an oxymoron. I don’t believe you can mindfully enjoy extravagant wealth, be content with earning 400 times the wage of anybody who works for you, or profit from the exploitation of fellow human beings.
  • Now my skepticism appears. Given the way the financial world operates, I don’t believe corporations provide mindfulness training and/or MBSR to ease anybody’s stress. The motivation is profit, with healthier, saner employees being a glad byproduct. If businesses didn’t see a return on nurturing a peaceful, happy workforce, they wouldn’t spend the money. Are there numerous exceptions? Sure.
  • One Sunday afternoon before a nap, I lay in bed head-wrestling with the idea of a mindful military. Son Micah came up to kibitz as he sometimes does. I explained Pickert’s article and asked what mindfulness would tell him if he had another man in his crosshairs. “Don’t shoot that guy,” he answered. Even though Micah is an atheist, he’s been contaminated by his Jesus-loving father. He perfectly summarizes my conclusion about mindfulness and war. Mindfulness as I try to practice it can’t be applied to any action not grounded in compassion.

Some distinctions are important here. I’m not arguing that military force is immoral; that’s a separate discussion. I’m not saying that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be a land of focused, driven world-beaters who lick the multitasking addiction. And I’m not against using mindful strategies to help soldiers endure combat and heal when they come back home. I vote for all these.

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What would mindfulness have me do? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What I confess to is a highly subjective understanding of mindfulness. It’s not a method, but a way that leads to kindness, mercy, and justice. In the end my point is embarrassingly minor: if you’re using mindfulness to increase profits or take life without reckoning the personal soul-strangling consequences, then you’re not grasping mindfulness. You don’t use mindfulness; mindfulness helps you to discover how to use yourself.

As far as I’m concerned objectivity doesn’t exist, so I feel free to paint mindfulness with Jesus colors. Nobody owns exclusive rights to a word. Still, I can speak my truth: mindfulness leads nowhere other than love.

Smoke in the Shape of Open Arms

Thursday, August 1st, 4:43 – 5:13 a.m.:  prayer propped up in bed next to sleeping Kathy. While I did my usual Zen-Christian thing—trying to let the thought-monkeys swing around my mind-tree without paying attention to them—rain breathed against the boulevard leaves as thunder made its ironically comforting groan somewhere miles away. Ah, the wind through the open windows on my chest and knees. George Harrison sat on a branch and sang “My Sweet Lord” until I surrendered and let his mantra take over. “Really want to know you, Lord. Really want to see you.”

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Okay, not technically a monkey, but a mandril. This is what my mind monkeys look like–striking, sometimes menacing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t go online and read what people say about this trippy oldie. Such moronic fuss! I’m fine with the blending of hallelujah and Hare Krishna and accept Harrison’s explanation that the two mean “quite the same thing.” For that matter, people should wear ponytails and dance if that’s what centers them. Who am I to criticize? Anyway, by the time Harrison goes off on his Gurur Brahmā, gurur Viṣṇur deal, I’m on my own, wanting to know my sweet Lord. Eventually, words are immaterial.

After a couple decades of practicing silence, I’ve arrived at a liberating heresy, at least where Christianity is concerned: I don’t care what others believe. I’ll rephrase that: I couldn’t care less what others believe. As a spiritual person, I’m more than I can manage. I’m in no position to insist that you come at the Great Mystery the same way I do. Two caveats: I vote against worshipping evil whatever and carving insignias on human flesh and get keyed up when folks who call themselves Christian pretend it’s okay to smack children around, belittle their spouses, or let poor innocents go hungry in this country of unconscionable plenty. Beyond such glaring sludge, I’m flexible.

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This work for you? I say, “Have a go.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some would say too flexible—but I’m not finished yet. I’ve listened to plenty of atheists who embrace George Harrison’s mantra in their own way. Most of them reject any God language or imagery and say, “I don’t believe in anything. No creator. No conscious force. Nothing!” As they’ve spoken, I’ve tried to be completely present to them, letting go of any personal agenda. And you know what? Most atheists I know are beautiful, authentic and brave in their search for what’s real. They wouldn’t sing, “Really want to know you, Lord,” but they might sing, “Really want to know what’s real” or “My sweet truth, hmm my truth.” I know, these don’t have the same lilt; they’re genuine anyway.

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No, this isn’t Jesus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My point: as long as “really want to know you, (state your name)” is the prayer or song or mantra, I embrace it as sacred. Well, a caveat again: I’m not down with the name being Beelzebub or Nosferatu.

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Max Schreck as Nosferatu. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why am I dangerously loosey-goosey? A couple of reasons:

  • My son Micah is an atheist. At least I think he is. Today. He’s my only begotten son, and he’s put himself through a lot in twenty-one years. For the first time in his life I can say, “He’s doing well.” He is beloved of all that is, worthy of grace and mercy. If I’m wrong, if the punishment paradigm reigns, then I pick the eternal snuff-me-out option. (No, of course I’m not referring to suicide.)
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Micah, my favorite heathen.

  • My beliefs and behaviors slam into each other so often that I’ve no worthy, autonomous ground to stand on. All I have is the conviction that my God understands that this life is damned difficult—my twist on M. Scott Peck’s simple observation—and that reckless love is the cosmic modus operandi. And, no, I can’t defend this belief . . . at all . . . and certainly not scripturally.
  • I recently held the hand of a person who had to decide whether to die sooner rather than later, never mind the details. When to jump? This person looked straight ahead as if trying to see open arms on the horizon. If the arms of eternity won’t welcome us or at least let us sleep in peace, then I simply can’t reconcile myself to this life. This is a selfish, fearful belief, but it’s honest.
  • I’m going to be bummed if Stephen Crane is right. He wrote a poem called “A Man Said to the Universe,” which I take to be his existential confession. I’m not in favor of the following: “A man said to the universe, / ‘Sir, I exist!’ / ‘However,’ the universe replied, / ‘The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation.'”
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Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage–the face of man who believed the universe is a Gloomy Gus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  • Often when I pray, I’m given laughter. There’s no other way to say it. I’ll be praying my own business, sitting still and breathing, and a laugh rises from inside. The skin beside my eyes wrinkles. When I’m in public, I have to shush myself or be identified as the weirdo I really am. I receive these prayer-laughs as communion with God, as God-Buddha belly-joy laughs at the Great Mystery’s outrageous love for everything from people to Irish wolfhounds (I want one someday) to the Coleman family’s compost pile. (Yes, I realize this phenomenon might be physiological, like a twitch in my bowels. I’m hopeful, not stupid.)
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My Buddha belly too if the present trend continues. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you crushed everything I’ve said here into incense, it would burn with longing—my sweet Lord! It would smell like the 4:43-in-the-morning breeze that touches my chest. It would sound like a gentle old song, accompanied by rain against leaves. And the smoke would rise and take the shape of open arms.

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