Try, try, try again.

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, but extremely gratifying. I’ve had a long list of speeches I saved to watch when I had a minute, and one of those was Brené Brown’s recent sermon at National Cathedral.

It’s a 17 minute sermon, and I’ve linked it at the bottom. But there are some highlights I want to bullet point, in case you don’t have time to watch the full video:

  1. Brown argues that we are neurobiologically wired to take care of one another, and inextricably connected to one another — connected across all socioeconomic, geographic, and ideological barriers. This connection, she says, cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten. 
  2. When connectedness is forgotten, loneliness — which is the greatest predictor of early death, beyond even obesity and alcoholism — sets in. I’ve written about the Harvard study on longevity and connectivity; read about it here: What Makes a Good Life?
  3. We are increasingly sorted by ideology into bunkers, and the more sorted we are, the lonelier we are.
  4. The opposite of community is dehumanization. Dehumanization, when we fail to appreciate the human qualities — like thoughts and feelings — of others, begins with language. Brown makes a great point: the fight against dehumanization should cross all boundaries. In simple terms, if it’s not okay to call Hillary Clinton names, it’s also not okay to call Ann Coulter names. (Despite what you might have heard, both are human.) 
  5. We are called not to separate ourselves from one another, but to find the face of God in everyone we meet.

As I watched Brown’s sermon, I thought of a passage from the book I’ve been working on. In it, a priest is writing a letter to a friend, urging her to forgive herself for her mistakes, as well as forgive someone who’s hurt her deeply. He writes,

When I think about how difficult the going can be between two people, even two people who love one another, a lyric from the libretto of Les Miserables comes to mind – have you seen it? I caught it in Vienna when I was visiting friends from my days at University there, so I know the text in German, meaning this will be a translation of a translation of a translation (much like the Bible!). 

The snippet I’m referring to is at the end, a rather poignant scene between Valjean, who is dying, and Eponine and Fantine.  The last line is this: “Und vergeßt nicht, die Wahrheit steht geschrieben, Zu lieben einen Menschen heißt: das Antlitz Gottes sehen.” 

Can you dredge up enough college German to appreciate the beauty of those lines?

“But don’t forget the truth that has been written: to love another person is to see the face of God.” 

Only in loving others do we experience the revelation of God in our lives. Of course, sometimes the people closest to us make loving them downright difficult…but still, we are called to try, and try, and try again.

When the wires of connectivity come loose, repair them. And if they loosen yet again, never give up working to repair them. Try, try, try again.

Brené Brown at National Cathedral

From nothing, something.

As I mentioned in Often Lost, Forever Found, there are some sermons that send me scurrying for a pen and scrap of paper. This past Sunday was one of those, and immediately after church, I asked permission to use what I heard as a springboard for what I’m sharing with you now. 

First, though, I should tell you that I was in a beautiful cathedral in a state I’ve been to only once before. (I was there for an amazing organization, which you can learn about in The Grace Card). The cathedral didn’t feel ‘foreign’ to me, however, because one of my dearest friends was preaching, and I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with one of my besties. There’s something about that presence of much-loved friends that can make anywhere feel like home. 

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This is a photo of me and my first friend. He looks thrilled to know me, no?

This was the message of the sermon: The first creation account in the book of Genesis tells us that In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2, KJV)

From these 39 words, we have a compelling story, particularly if you know that “the deep” was, in ancient times, an idea that encompassed fear, chaos, and the threat of the unknown. In fact, in the Babylonian myths that inform the Genesis text, Tiamat, the goddess of primordial chaos, has to be slayed in order to make room for the creation of the world.

There is a long tradition, then, of ‘the deep’ representing everything we fear: loss of control, disorder, a world gone mad.

In 1968, as my friend pointed out, America seemed to be sliding into the deep. The VietNam War was raging and American men were being sent off to fight and die in a country they couldn’t find on a map. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been gunned down, only a month after delivering a speech in which he said, prophetically, that upon his death, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity.” Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The USSR had invaded Czechoslovakia. Student protests in France and in Mexico, at different times and for different reasons, had turned deadly.

The world of 1968 must have seemed as close to sliding back into the primordial ooze as ever before. Chaos played out on the nightly news, and if there was anyone in control, you certainly couldn’t tell. If there was ever a time for questioning the existence of God, much less asking whether God had given up on us once and for all, 1968 was that year.

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But on Christmas Eve of 1968, something extraordinary took place, 118 miles above the Earth. Transmitting from space, Frank Borman, the Commander, William Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot, and James Lovell Jr., the Command Module Pilot, opened up the Bible.

Looking down on the Earth far below, where virtually every corner of the globe was experiencing some form of chaos and violence and hopelessness, and where the disquiet of the unknown encroached on all sides, the Apollo 8 astronauts read the first ten verses of Genesis, and reminded the world that we had experienced chaos before. 

And they reminded us that from the chaotic nothing, God had created something wonderful.

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Earth rising, as seen from Apollo 8. Thanks, NASA.

I wasn’t alive in 1968, and I didn’t know this story. If you were, and you heard this broadcast, I hope you will share your memory with me and with the other people who read this post.

And whether you were alive then or not, I hope you’ll carry this story forward with you, as a reminder that God has the power to subdue the chaos both within and without, and from the nothing you may be experiencing now, create something wonderful.

Listen here to the broadcast: Apollo 8 Reading.

Often Lost, Forever Found

 

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One of my New Year’s resolutions was to live bravely, including sharing some of my work, and asking you to share it, as well, if you’re so inclined. Thinking about living bravely, I was pondering my character’s struggle to move beyond feeling lost, and thought I’d start by sharing this excerpt:

**

     The organ music began, and I noticed that while I’d been lost in the past, the pews in front of me had filled up and the choir was lined up in the back of the church, ready to process. I stood with the rest of the congregation and when I caught David’s eye as he walked past, I couldn’t help but grin. 

     The sermon was about King David in the Bible, and how as king of Israel, David had done some pretty shifty stuff, like send Bathsheba’s husband off to the front lines of battle to get killed so he could have Bathsheba for himself. As flawed as the biblical David was, though, God raised him up to be a great leader. The point being, Father David said, that even when we feel furthest from God, too damaged to be repaired, too far gone to be retrieved, God has us in sight.

     “The grace of God extends beyond forgiveness to restoration,” David said. “The story of King David reminds us that while our flaws are known to God, so are our hearts. So is our potential. So are our possibilities. We may feel lost to ourselves, but in God, we are forever found.” He bowed his head for a second. When he raised it, across the sea of heads between us, his eyes met mine. “May this hope of restoration live within you and me, now and forever more. Amen.”

     We went to a bistro on the outskirts of Chapel Hill after David said goodbye to all the people who lined up to talk to him on their way out, and returned his vestments to the closet next to his office. As soon as we ordered, David handed our menus to the waiter, turned to me, and smiled.
“How are you, kiddo? I have to say, you look good for someone who never made it home last night.”
“Thanks,” I said, and laughed. “Hopefully that wasn’t obvious to everyone in the church. I feel surprisingly good. I was with Porter, by the way. Not that way – nothing salacious!” I said, in response to David’s raised eyebrows.
I didn’t know what to say that might explain the conversations I’d had with Porter the night before, or how I now felt about him. I alternated between thinking I loved him and wanted to grow old with him and wishing I’d never met him in the first place, sometimes ricocheting from one stance to the other within the span of a single minute. So while I was feeling good about Porter that morning, I didn’t want to go on record. Instead I said, “I liked your sermon. I felt like you were talking directly to me.”
“I was,” David said, nodding. “And to myself, and to everyone in there. Feeling unsalvageable is a universal plight. I think everyone goes through it at one point or another.”
I thought about this for a second. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something, David. Do you believe in fate? Or that there’s some larger meaning or scheme behind what happens to us?”
“If you’re asking whether I think there’s an unseen force that guides our lives to a pre-ordained destiny, the answer is no, not at all.” He shook his head. “But I do believe that God works in our lives, in ways we often don’t recognize and can’t fathom.”
I waited for the waiter to put my iced tea and David’s coffee down before asking what he meant.
“I think God wants the best for us, and often intervenes to put us back on track. Think about how many times you’ve met just the right person at the right time, or had a premonition that kept you safe? The hand of God is all around us, and I believe our lives unfold with intention and purpose, regardless of whether we can see or understand that purpose as things happen.” He gestured towards the small stainless steel pot of cream and I passed it to him.
“Maybe,” I said. “But the weird thing is how often life turns on a decision that seems so small and inconsequential. Good decisions, like if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have met this person, who ended up changing my life.” I used my spoon to push a lemon wedge down into my glass. “But bad stuff, too. Like if I hadn’t felt hungry and seen a McDonalds, I wouldn’t have turned left and gotten hit by a train. Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“That’s what life is,” David said. “A series of small decisions. Small moments that add up to big things. Precisely why we all need to be more intentional about putting truth and kindness and joy out in the world.” He took a sip of his coffee. “You don’t know how the words and actions you choose lightly might affect someone – and affect them profoundly.”
 I nodded, thinking of all the times I’d been carelessly, sometimes unintentionally, cruel. For far too long, my life had been an endless attempt to feint and parry and posture and finesse my way out of being vulnerable, and I knew I’d left scars on people I truly loved. 
“So how’s the forgiveness going?” David asked. He flipped the lid on the pitcher of cream and peered inside.
“You’d be proud of me, David. I honestly have forgiven Porter. It was stupid, and we were young.”
“Funny, isn’t it,” he said, “how easy it can be to forgive someone else, and how difficult it is to forgive ourselves?”
“What do you mean?”
“Other people disappoint us,” David said, “and we cut them some slack, and grant them another chance. But make that left turn to McDonalds and get hit by a train? You can beat yourself up forever over that, huh?”
“If you’re still alive to do it, yeh, I guess so.”
“Wouldn’t it be smarter to simply rejoice that you survived?” 

(The Shallows, 2018.)

**

As you might guess from the excerpt above, there are some Sundays when the sermon sparks an idea, and I scribble notes on the Visitor card. One sermon that got me scribbling was based on readings from Jeremiah and Luke.

Jeremiah, you’ll remember, is a ‘major’ prophet (a qualification based on quantity) from the late 600s-early 500s BCE. God was unhappy with the Israelites, because they wouldn’t stay faithful (they kept veering off to worship the Baals), and charged Jeremiah with prophesying their destruction.

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For Yahweh’s sake, people, we’ve been over this! You gotta stop messing with the Baals!

But in the midst of Jeremiah’s message, there’s a surprising opening, a possibility: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. (Jer 4:27)  Even in the face of all of the wanton idolatry and misbehavior, God wouldn’t make a ‘full end,’ allowing those who wanted to return to the covenant to do so.

The Gospel reading was from Luke 15:1-10, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

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From a lesser-known text entitled “Mister Woollington takes a seriously wrong turn on the road to Bethlehem.”

The shepherd, you remember, leaves the 99 other sheep in order to recover the lost one; the woman who has 9 other silver coins lights a lamp and sweeps her home to find the one coin she has lost. In both stories, what is lost must be found.

Speaking of the shepherd, my priest said, “Now, a good business plan would allow for the loss of one sheep out of one hundred. And morally, we could argue that one could be sacrificed for the safety of the majority. But for God, neither scenario is acceptable….The shepherd searches until the lost sheep is found, and the woman searches until the lost coin is recovered. The story is never over until what is lost has been found.”

I started thinking about how easy it is to believe, when we’re young and shiny and new and full of promise, that we are worth being sought, worth being searched for, worth being recovered. And how very easy it is to believe, when we’re not quite so shiny and new, that we’ve depreciated over time, that our sins have compounded, and that the investment God made in us at the moment of our birth has paid back a really crappy return.

But from everything Scripture tells us, God won’t stop searching until we have been found. And if you think about that — that whatever we’ve done in the past and whatever we are doing now and whatever we will do in the future, God still thinks we are worth time and consideration — you can barely take it in. That’s unconditional love! That’s chesed — the amazing, relentless loyal love that God had for the Israelites, and has for us.

Every single day, God believes we are worthy of being recovered, returned, and restored. Can we make it a goal for 2018 to start believing the same of ourselves, and of each other?

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A Christmas Wish.

How’s the Advent stillness going? 

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I have to say, it’s been going surprisingly well on my end.

I’ve tried my best to embrace the spirit of Advent, the brooding and the quiet anticipation, and now, with the 4th Sunday of Advent upon us, the anticipation is almost over and the grand event — the celebration of Jesus’ birth — is upon us. Hooray!

[This is an unusual overlap, the 4th Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve. The Episcopal News Service did a story this week on how churches are handling the scheduling conflict, trying to meet everyone’s Advent and Christmas Eve needs without working the clergy to the point of irreversible exhaustion. The article yielded this wonderful quote: “It’s the Episcopal Church. Everything we do leads to debate,” said the Rev. Keith Voets, a New York City priest who helps moderate a Facebook discussion group on Episcopal liturgy.” Nicely said, Fr. Voets. It’s what makes us great.]

 

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“Point of order? I’d like to yield my remaining minutes to my pet dragon, who will explain why clergy who fail to celebrate Advent and Christmas Eve fully, on the same day, without compromise, should be eaten.”

Having made it almost all the way through a peaceful, reflective Advent, I’ve started thinking about Christmas, and what it is, exactly, that we’re celebrating on Christmas Day.

Obviously we’re celebrating divine love made human when we celebrate the baby in the manger. We’re all celebrating what’s to come — the ministries and teachings and healings in the life of the adult Jesus, as well as the sacrifice that Jesus would eventually make on our behalf.

But that’s a lot to express, and of course, what would eventually happen in the life and death of Jesus wasn’t known to anyone but God at the moment of Jesus’ birth.

And so I began to wonder, in the wee hours of last night, (thank you, insomnia!), what the common denominator might be between all those things — the divine love made human, the life and teachings, the sacrifice —  that would allow us to distill the Christmas celebration down to one word or sentiment?

What is it we’re really worshipping, and singing about, and celebrating? What is it that the baby Jesus represents, that keeps millions of people around the world celebrating, year after year? 

I kept circling back to one thought: We’re celebrating the arrival, and renewal, of HOPE. images-1.jpgI’ve written a lot about the importance of hope, as well as the difference between optimism and hope, which are often, mistakenly, used interchangeably.

I think Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of The Anatomy of Hope, summed up the difference very well in an interview with NPR. He said, 

An optimist says everything is going to turn out just fine… But in fact we know that things often don’t turn out just fine.

Hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed, it has no illusions. It sees all the difficulties, all the problems, in a very realistic way…and then, through those troubles, through those problems, it sees a possible path to a better future.”

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Jerome Groopman. Brilliant, bearded, bespectacled, adorable.

Bishop Desmond Tutu also draws a distinction between optimism and hope. In 2009, he was interviewed by a man named Laurence Shorter, who was writing a book called The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life.

Shorter was certain that Bishop Tutu would share his outlook and worldview, but when he introduced himself to Tutu as an optimist, the Bishop’s response was this: “I’m not an optimist. I am hopeful. Optimism can turn far too quickly into pessimism if conditions don’t go well. Hope… is different!”

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Look at that smile! Would you really argue with Bishop Tutu? No, you would not.

Hope is different.  It is what allows us to be able to put disappointment behind us, and to believe – to really believe — in the promise of a new beginning. Hope is the certainty that things will not always be as they are now.  Hope is the knowledge that, despite the darkness we may find ourselves in currently, the light is always out there, shimmering on the horizon.

The arrival of Jesus into the world was hope made flesh. It was a possible path to a better future in the guise of a baby; a baby born under less-than-ideal circumstances, in a world that seemed, at times, very dark indeed.

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And so, all these years later, we’re still waiting, still pushing forward, still searching out the possible path to a better future.

As we celebrate Christmas, and the arrival of God’s love for us in the form of a human baby, we also, and perhaps most importantly, celebrate a renewal of hope. Hope that allows us to once again believe that lux in tenebris lucent — that somewhere out there, a light shines in the darkness.

 

So my wish for everyone is that hope takes up residence in your life this year, allowing you to see a possible path to a better future in every instance of darkness you encounter.  May you never lose sight of the light.

Thanks for reading, and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Listen to Dr. Jerome Groopman on NPR here:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1638913

Read the Episcopal News Service article here: Advent & Christmas Eve – ENS

Read about the importance of hope in medicine here: Et lux in tenebris lucent

Advent Brooding

Advent came late this year. It started at the last possible minute, this past Sunday, which means we had a little extra time for post-Thanksgiving activities, like digesting entire green bean casseroles and writing people out of our wills, than in years prior.

Now, though, it’s time to get our collective acts together, and get ready for Christmas. Not by frantically shopping, baking, and shrieking (the traditional “Christmas in America” formula), but by settling in for some quiet reflection.

If you’ve been playing along at home, you know I traditionally stink at Advent. What is meant to be a period of watchful waiting has always been a time of intense, panic-filled, often smoke-filled,* weeks. Our culture makes it extremely difficult to find the quiet required by Advent, seeing as how the holidays arrive in stores on the heels of the 4th of July, and by this point in December, we could construct new dwellings from the flyers and catalogues that have been clogging up the mailbox since October. And don’t even get me started on that manic episode set to music that seems to be playing everywhere, Carol of the Bells…

(*Yes, I do realize that ovens have timers, thanks.) 

But this year, I have vowed to do Advent differently, and began by making the trek to a beautiful service of Lessons and Carols in the company of a dear friend. The choir was amazing, which is no doubt what inspired us to sing 80s music at the top of our lungs all the way home. (My extended remix of Adam Lay Ybounden wasn’t available, obviously).

Then, in the spirit of Advent peace, I chose not to respond to my friend’s text about his NFL team of choice beating my team of choice with the same level of snark that I would usually deploy. Proud of myself, I did feel the need to make sure he knew that I was sparing him the snark in honor of Jesus’ imminent arrival, just in case he failed to note my uncharacteristic restraint… but still, it was an Advent win.

images.jpgThe church teaches us that during Advent, we’re waiting for two things: the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the return of God to this world. Here’s a little something that my friend David wrote some years ago that explains the dual nature of Advent nicely:

This holy season is all about two “comings,” or two advents.

The first advent took place at the birth of Jesus — that great event that we will celebrate in a few weeks. The other advent is the second coming of Jesus into this world. When that will be, only God knows.

Thus, Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate the first coming, but are also waiting for something else that has not yet come. The first coming, the birth of Jesus, was a message to all humanity that God had entered this world through Jesus Christ , who, because he died on a cross and rose from the dead, will come again. Jesus’ victory over death is what Archbishop Cranmer refers to as “the life immortal,” and what Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, describes as “eternal encouragement and good hope.” Because God loves you and me, God came into the world in the form of a human being. Because God loves you and me, God is going to come again.

And so we wait…. But because of Jesus Christ, we can wait with a great sense of hope and expectation.images-7.jpgIn the creation story of Genesis 1, we’re told that God creates the world by breathing God’s ruach, or spirit, over the formless void of the universe. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (KJV Gen. 1:1-2)

There’s a particular sense of anticipation that exists in the darkness and the deep, the world without form. My Old Testament professor described it as a still, suspended state, the way a bird broods, sitting on the nest in quiet anticipation of the start of something new.

And while we are talking about particularly New Testament events when we talk about the birth of Jesus and the coming kingdom, that same sense of brooding, that quiet and still anticipation, that we find in Genesis 1 is present in our observation of Advent, when, as David wrote, we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also the arrival of something new, something anticipated, something not yet arrived.221776-Henri-J-M-Nouwen-Quote-The-Lord-is-coming-always-coming-When-youSo my wish for you, for me, for everyone we know, is that we find it in ourselves this year to celebrate a peaceful, quiet, brooding Advent.

And that we retain that sense of wonder, of expectation, of anticipation, of certainty, that something new and wonderful lies waiting on the horizon, long after the season of Advent has passed.

(In case you haven’t heard it in awhile, here’s Adam Lay Ybounden.)

On the Radio!

Today’s the day!

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Whether you’re cleaning up the mess your holiday houseguests left, lounging on the couch in a stuffing-induced coma, or putting up your Christmas tree, please tune in TODAY at 4:00 pm for a LIVE three hour show about THE RELIGION OF ROCK ‘N ROLL!

The show will be a look at what rock ‘n roll, that secular devil music, as it’s been called, has to say about the Bible. It will be a fun, interesting look at the Old & New Testaments, with music from The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton…and many more!

Here’s what you need to know to tune in to any of the shows, which are listed in Eastern US time:

  1. Simply go to wwndfm.com 
  2. Click on the red Listen Live! button
  3. Click on the Play/Forward button inside the gray Web Audio Player box.
  4. Sit back and enjoy!

If you like what you hear, you can visit WWNDFM 103.9 on Facebook and leave a comment!

 

You’re Baader-Meinhofing Me.

You’ve experienced Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s that odd occurrence when you hear some obscure factoid — say, for instance, that the bark of the redwood tree is fireproof — and then, bizarrely, find yourself encountering this information again and again.

Everywhere you turn, for no discernable reason, people are talking about redwood trees! Your neighbor casually mentions taking a trip to California to see the forests. Your dentist follows up his reminder to floss with a non-sequitur about tree bark. Your latest copy of National Geographic arrives and it’s all about how the  bark of the majestic redwood tree helps it resist wildfires!

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Here are some redwood trees, resisting fire. Cool, huh? Want to know why they’re fire resistant? Google that sh*t, kids.

You start to think, what the heck am I supposed to do with this information? Why, all of a sudden, is my entire life centered on redwood trees and their fire-resistant bark? I’m just trying to live my life here in inner-city Detroit, and there are no redwood trees here, fireproof or otherwise!

Scientists, as you’d expect, have an answer for us about why this happens.  

The key to Baader-Meinhof, they say, is that our brains seek out patterns in the world. In doing so, they de-emphasize things that don’t uphold those patterns, and overemphasize the occurrences that do. 

Fun fact: According to scientists, an unromantic bunch if there ever was one, this also explains why people in love repeatedly encounter the name of their beloved, or something they associate exclusively with him or her.  (Pffffttttt, science! We all know that happens because our beloved puts those reminders in our path!)

 

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Scientists. Smugly sucking the fun out of phenomena since always.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many scientists prefer the term “frequency illusion” to “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.” I think we can all agree that this is an example of a time when we should ignore scientists, because Baader-Meinhof sounds much, much cooler.  

Another neat fact is that the term “Baader Meinhof” comes from the surnames of two founding members of a West German domestic terrorism group. As the story goes, one of the scientists originally researching this phenomenon heard someone mention the Baader-Meinhof Group twice in a short period of time, and applied the name of the group to the syndrome. Tuck that little nugget away until you can use it in Trivial Pursuit.

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What’s got me thinking about Baader-Meinhof, though, isn’t redwood trees, or fireproof bark, or even scientists and how they keep injecting facts into everything and ruining our cockamamie theories that are much more fun. 

It’s this:

DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE.

Why? Because I’ve had numerous conversations lately, with people older and wiser than I am, that all riff on this theme. Even the Wall Street Journal got into the act: the front page of the Off-Duty section this past weekend was “101 Things to Do Before You Die.”

As different as all these conversations were, they had some important themes in common. Like what, you ask? Well, that… 

Life is short.

The unexpected happens.

You shouldn’t put off …

making the change,

making the effort,

making the connection,

making the choice

….that you’ve slated for another day, because

tomorrow

simply isn’t guaranteed.

And, furthermore, even if you’re lucky enough to get the tomorrow you’re counting on, it may not look at all like you’ve imagined.

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Buddha. Thinking deep thoughts since the 6th century BCE.

If you’ve had the experience of losing a beloved friend or relative far too early, you already know that nothing — NOTHING — in life is guaranteed.

But what are you going to do with this knowledge? If you know that tomorrow isn’t a given, and your time here is short, and there are no do-overs…what are you going to do about it?

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You might seek a new pasture, even if getting there is tough.
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You might decide to be the driver of your life, not the passenger.
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You might attempt to reach new heights, even though doing so is risky.

This isn’t about advocating change just for change’s sake, or disrupting your life simply to disrupt it, or chasing money or fame or any other meaningless marker of “success.” It’s not about being perpetually discontented.

What it is about is being happy with where you are and what you’ve got, and counting your blessings on a daily basis, but also realizing that sometimes life brings it to your attention that you’ve gotten comfortable with something that isn’t quite right. 

Sometimes, the universe pushes you to the edge of a cliff, or shows you a different way, and says, “Okay, now what are you going to do? Will you retreat in fear, or leap and soar?”

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Look at you, soaring! It’s what you were created to do.

Weighing the opportunity cost of making a life change should begin with the potential upside, not the possible downsides.  

And when the potential upsides are great, the downsides diminish, and so does the fear that too often keeps us in a rut.

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Fear at the wheel: “I took a wrong turn somewhere, but I guess I’ll stay here. I’m used to it….”

The truth is, if you keep putting off going for the things that matter to you, chances are really good that you’re going to miss out.

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James: full of truth, but a bit of a downer as a dinner guest.

We all have areas of our life that need our attention, things we need to change. We all need to the occasional reminder that the “safety” of the known isn’t really safety at all, but rather the deceptively comfortable place where we slowly fade away. 

In the historical perspective of the universe, we’re only given a very short window of time to make our mark, to live well, to love one another, to be what we were meant to be.

That’s my Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of late.

A brain seeking patterns? Maybe.

Or maybe something more. 

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In Search of Stillness

Good grief, it’s hard to be still these days, isn’t it? 

The incessant torrent of bad news makes it hard to find the good in the world, much less focus on it, and with the outside world at Defcon 2 Agitation, it’s incredibly hard to be still.

But as we head into Thanksgiving, the challenge for each of us is to find a way to be still, and in that stillness, remember that there is a tremendous amount to be thankful for — an abundance of good, and plentiful evidence of God, in the world. 

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Could you slide over, Hestia? Persephone just got here.

When I was an undergrad, I had a professor who was passionate about Greek mythology.  In her opinion, there was a goddess for everyone! You could pick a deity from a mythological Greek buffet where goddesses waited patiently, wedged in between the souvlaki and octopus and moussaka, and model your life after her.

Be like Athena!” the professor would cry, coils of hair liberating themselves from her messy bun. “Strive for justice and fairness and wisdom! Be like Aphrodite, and own your sexuality!” 

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Nobody puts Aphrodite in the corner.

It was an exhausting class, not because of the requirements, but because of the sheer energy the professor expended at the front of the classroom.  Trying to keep up with her as she hopscotched from topic to topic, whirling and waving like Tigger in a cloud of wasps, was utterly draining.  

I was always hugely relieved to move on to my next class, taught by an esteemed professor of Literature who hadn’t actually moved in 32 years.

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Yeh…if you could dial back the bounce, that’d be great.

I can’t imagine that the Goddess Lover could ever be still, but even for those of us whose energy levels fall within social norms, it can be incredibly challenging to quiet our bodies and minds. 

You often see Psalm 46, verse 10 on plaques and signs:  “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

The psalms, of course, are lyric poetry meant to be sung: poems of praise, thanks,  lament, and celebration. Psalm 46 thanks God for giving Israel a victory, and verse 10 appears to be a directive from God, instructing the Israelites to put aside their weapons and relax into the security that the Lord has provided.

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“Take five, guys. I got this.” — Yahweh

Ah, if only it were that easy!  Even if we can get physically still, turning off the brain requires disconnecting from the constant flow of bad news coming at us from all sides. 

Disconnecting is a challenge, but it’s also critical, because Defcon 2 Agitation is not only extremely bad for our mental and physical health, it also has a snowball effect out in the world: you’re aggravated by something you can’t control, your interaction with John Q. Public is brittle and edgy, JQP is now aggravated and turns around and takes it out on the next person he encounters, and so on and so on.

 

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So the first step is to give ourselves an intentional break – or at least set limits on – the amount of bad news we let into our lives, not because we want to be ignorant, but because (1) it’s possible to be aware of events without wallowing in them, (2) we have very little control over 99% of things happening in the world, (3) we recognize that smut sells and the media profits from it, and (4) we realize that our calling in this world isn’t to be pigs at the trough of unsavory, sensationalized, excessive stories masquerading as factual news, nor is it to take potshots at one another based on these same toxic treats, dished out by a society that feeds on trash .

Then what?

The seconds step is to remember that, even though our world seems to have gone mad, we are not the first people to feel that things are way, way off track.

The Old Testament, for instance, is full of times when the Israelites faced crippling doubts, disease, famine, captivity, defeat, occupation, drought and destruction. Distrusting Yahweh, they turned to other gods — more often than not, Ba’al, the god of their neighbors.

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Bow down and worship my flowing beard, and I will make your crops grow! #Ba’altweets

While most of us don’t veer off to Ba’al, we definitely wrestle with doubt, and want reassurance that in the midst of this madness, God is actually paying attention to our lives. 

But what if the proof of God’s attention is right under our noses, in all of the things we take for granted? What if we’ve grown so accustomed to the presence of the divine, we’ve forgotten to acknowledge it?

Forgotten to acknowledge the divinity of the human body, for instance, capable of strength and agility and beauty that boggles the mind… the natural world, whose grandeur pales only in comparison to its ability to provide for us….the ability to love, selflessly and grandly and generously, which causes us to risk our own well-being in the service of strangers… the capacity for reason and imagination that sets us apart from every other species and allows us to problem-solve and advance the common good…

Are these not evidence that God is fully invested in us?

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Whenever I need to be reassured of good in the world, I think — of course — of Robert Duvall. But that’s just me.

You might also think of people like Nicholas Winton, a London stockbroker who, in 1938, went to Prague shortly after Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  

Hundreds of Jewish families were living in refugee camps, with no programs or plans in place for the children. Recognizing the danger these children were in, Winton created, through bribes and secrecy and forgeries, a pipeline to get Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and into safe homes in the UK.  

He organized and funded eight trains to carry the children to the foster parents he had selected. Seven of the trains made it, bringing 669 children to safety.

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Nicholas Winton, with a refugee child

Winton never spoke of his efforts, which had, of course, put him squarely in the sights of the Nazis. His wife only learned of them when she found a dusty record book in their attic in 1988.  Her husband urged her to throw the book and the paperwork it contained away, but she didn’t.  

The BBC did a story on Winton after his wife contacted a reporter.

When you are feeling bad about the world, and about humankind, take the minute and a half required to watch this short clip, and remember that it took 50 years for Winton’s work to come to light: Sir Nicholas Winton, BBC

With all due respect to my former professor, we don’t need goddesses to emulate.

And we don’t need more proof that God is with us, because if you look around, we already have it in the irrefutable truth that we have been granted this journey through life in the company of people like Nicholas Winton,  whose spark of the divine was a beacon to so many.

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Nicholas Winton died at the age of 106. I hope to have the honor of meeting him in heaven.

So when your mind is at Defcon 2 Agitation, and your thoughts are tied in knots, and your faith is as weak as thin ice, think of Nicholas Winton.

And know that in him, and in you, and in the world we’ve been given, God was and is and will forever be among us.

And then, resting in that knowledge, be still!

 

The Assbadger speaks!

Here at What’s Left Undone, I give my brother, the Snarky Assbadger, a whole lot of grief. I tell stories about him stealing my Halloween candy, loading my baby self into a wagon and pulling me down the street to leave me for good, running out of gas in the middle of eight lanes of Atlanta traffic, blowing up my Barbies, and throwing Snoopy onto the pool drain. 

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In this pic, I was tired of his shenanigans and thought he needed to get off my sidewalk.

But the truth is, he’s been making me laugh so hard I can’t breathe my whole life, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. He has also patiently gone over the instructions for how to start the weedwhacker /tractor/Jeep/mixer/belt sander/boat/Suburban/riding mower at least 100 times. In fact, I call him so often with “How do I…” questions that he no longer says “Hello,” but rather, “Whaaaaaaaattttt?” like Archie Bunker.

Today he sent me a birthday letter and told me I could use it on my “little blog.” So without further ado — except to mention that I’m older than he thinks I am, it’s not my birthday today (he likes to plan a few days out), and Lily Dale is community of mediums in NY State, from which I was recently ejected for not going along with the vaguely suggestive and leading questions posed by two of the mediums — Ladies and Gentlemen, The Snarky Assbadger speaks!

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It’s about damn time.

If I subtracted you from my life, if you had never existed, then my life might have been bittersweet as an only child, such as I was rightfully destined to be until one fateful ‘oops,’ when an erroneous conception changed history. 

For without you I would have reached maturity as a spoiled, limelighted wonder-kid.  Lavished with ancestral praise, certainly the preeminent main character of that droopy-eyed slocum village into which we were cast, carrying through with all the might of our paternal forebears, fulfilling my charter with all the grand ambitions of the hum-ho adorning any typical Pleasantville.

I do believe that you changed all that.

In our deductive search for That Which My Sister has Wrought Upon Me, let us gaze into that Lily Dalian crystal ball and see where I might not have gone a-wanderin’.  See the people I would not have come across, the true friends I would not have made.  The lovers I might never have had, left in scorched earth. The creations left uncreated, the laughs left unchuckled, the wounds never really healing.  Subtract these ingredients and you’d find a man without Reason, Wit, and Charm. 

I can be funny- which as it may sound boastful, is really more an acute acknowledgement of character (flaws) that I identify as having come from a life in the company of my dear Sister.  No one has shaped my wit more than you. This capacity to turn any thing- no matter the seriousness of the thing- into a belly laugh has sometimes saved our skins.  Sometimes it has gotten us deep in the shit, and sometimes carried us through tragedy but it is a shared wit, understood on a subliminal level and perhaps enjoyed by those around us (although do we always care?), sometimes not. But undeniable is the entertainment factor of making you laugh, from the time you were a snotty nosed baby.  It has been excellent training. It has served me well, and cost me a half-finger too.

Maybe the charm has gotten out of hand, and I’ve paid the price of your scorn in those instances.  But you have wonderful lady friends and I’ve honed my skills flirting with most (ok, all) of them.  I knew where the line was drawn and seldom stepped a toe across it.  That charm led to my beautiful wife, who was ready to marry me on our third date, blissful venture it has been ever since.

What is left, Reason?  I don’t even know how to properly tell this one.  So entrenched is my ability to think straight with what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and how we’ve looked back and pondered what the fuck just happened.  Suffice to say there would be a lot less head scratching and a lot more ass scratching if not for you.

I know at 46 or whatever you are, you feel older than a white dog turd but 46 is the new 42, so you have that going for you, right?  Just as long as you know you are very much adored by me, your OLDER brother.  Who appreciates the fact that life as I know it is infinitely better because of you.

Happy birthday, Bitch!

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This sums up our relationship perfectly.

*If you’ve got an Assbadger in your life — someone who will compare you to dog excrement, throw dirty socks at your head, Rollerblade through Central Park, and take your 3 a.m. “So I’m installing shelves and think I may have drilled into a water line?” calls — tell them how much you appreciate them today! Almost as much as I appreciate my very own Snarky Assbadger.

 

 

Hallowmania!!

This is the first year that I can ignore Halloween, and that makes me both sad and giddy.

Like weddings, funerals, Christmas and Sweet Sixteens, Americans have taken Halloween over the top. What used to be a fun evening — where you slapped on whatever dance recital costume still fit, or borrowed your dad’s flannel shirt to be a lumberjack — is now a festival of excess with preparations that rival an attempt to summit Everest.

 

 

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Oxygen? Check. Water? Check. Ice axe? Check. Costco bag of two thousand bite-sized Kit-Kats? Uh oh….Dammit, Bob! We’ll never make it, now!

Halloween candy has been available in the States since early July, when, promptly at midnight on the 4th, all yard flags and bunting were replaced with candy corn and fake blood by SWAT teams of Oompa Loompas.

And costumes have been available for months — even in stores that have no apparent connection to children, holidays, or dressing up.

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Look, Bob! I went in to buy Gam-Gam a replacement basket for her scooter, and got this adorable Grim Reaper costume for Bob, Junior!

I used to love Halloween, as a young kid. The Snarky Assbadger and I would dress up (as hobos. Every year.) and trek around the neighborhood.

As a 70s kid, you could count on certain things:

  1. That one weird, patchouli-smelling house where the Mom, who was “finding herself” and would soon run off to Vermont with her best friend Dorothy to live in a commune and throw pots, answered the door in a clay-splattered painting smock and gave out miniature boxes of raisins,
  2. The neighborhood Dudley Do Right who had decided to collect pennies for UNICEF instead of candy, and who acted all smugly superior about it until the neighborhood teenagers cornered him and stole his pennies to buy smokes, leaving him crying on the corner, staring miserably as his empty blue can,
  3. The neighborhood Dad who got hammered, put on an Evel Knievel jacket, and drove the family golf cart into a drainage ditch at top speed, only to be hauled out by the very same teenagers, who were indebted to him because he turned a blind eye to the fact that they routinely stole twelve-packs from his garage refrigerator.

Some folks gave out oranges, which was a bit of a let-down, given that our neighborhood abutted a citrus grove and we could have as many oranges as we wanted, all day any day, but mostly we got candy.

The old couple across the street, though, made doughnuts and apple cider for the kids every Halloween. But if you wanted some of that delicious cider and those sugary, warm doughnuts, you had to brave their snapping Chihuahua (the ironically-named “Sweetie,” a four-legged terrorist if there ever was one), and go into their living room to explain your costume. 

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“What are you this year, dear?”

This posed a creative challenge, because your mind wasn’t really on public speaking at the moment, and you’d forgotten to prepare any talking points, but you sure as heck didn’t want to miss out on the doughnuts.  So you did your best extemporaneous remarks:

“Well, I’m a hobo again, but this year, I’m a hobo who lives in a van down by the river, eating government cheese. Last year I was a hobo, too, but one that lived in an abandoned railroad boxcar and mainly subsisted on squirrels cooked over an open fire when the yard boss wasn’t looking. See the difference?”

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“Can I have some doughnuts now?”

After the candy-gathering was through, the Snarky Assbadger and I returned home to dump the spoils of our pillage into two enormous mountains on the living room carpet. Thus commenced what the Assbadger termed “Swap Shop,” but what I like to call, “A Grossly Unfair Advantage-Taking of A Younger Sibling Who Possessed Only a Murky Understanding of Economics.”

Typical trading went like this:

Assbadger: “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to take this full-size Hershey Bar of yours, and give you these two Circus Peanuts. I don’t want to do this, because you’re getting two things and I’m only getting one, but I will.”

Me: “But I hate Circus Peanuts.”

Assbadger: “No, you hate Hershey bars. You said so last Halloween.”

Me: “No, I don’t! I love them.”

Assbadger: “Look, it’s almost your bedtime. You’re tired and not thinking straight. Let’s do this trade, and then move on to the Sweet Tarts before you get in trouble for staying up late. Mom said you couldn’t have Sweet Tarts, so what I’ll do is, I’ll take them from you so you don’t get yelled at.”

Me: “Wait – when did Mom say I couldn’t have Sweet Tarts?”

Assbadger: “I don’t know, it was part of some larger conversation about you not being her real kid. Whoa, look – wax teeth! You can have those and I’ll just add the M&Ms and Caramels to the Sweet Tarts I’m taking to make it fair. Here, give your bag to me and I’ll keep your candy safe while you go to bed. You’re welcome.”

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Circus peanuts! Now with colors not found in nature, and a texture that will make you question the existence of God!

When my own children were small, we lived on the Greatest Street Ever. Every house was occupied by families we loved, and on Halloween, we had a neighborhood supper, which — given the madness that ensued — was like NFL players eating before the Super Bowl: Carb-loading for endurance.

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Hurry up and pass the pasta, I hear kids.

To say that we “celebrated Halloween” on that street is a wild understatement. The amount of candy we gave out could have filled a Mack truck. Every yard was decorated to the nines, and packs of feral children roamed the neighborhood well past dark-thirty, as did their cocktail-toting parents. I loved Halloween then, even thought it was exhausting.

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A typical scene in an American home, post-Halloween madness.

I suppose, like so many things, my Halloween phase of life has passed. I’ll console myself by settling into my chair to watch It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, complete with surround sound and the bottle of wine I can afford to buy now that I’m not buying Halloween candy….

Some day, maybe I’ll muster the energy to be that old lady with the homemade doughnuts, demanding a back-story and a character arc from every kid in the neighborhood, but in the meantime, 

Happy Halloween, to all the parents out there!