Saturday, January 28, 2012

I've Gotten Most of My Education Since Leaving School

Maybe I just wasn’t listening, but in spite of all my many good teachers, much of my education for life has come the hard way. Here are some lessons I’m still learning in the age-old school of experience:

1. Becoming a full-fledged grownup takes time and work. I was in my forties when I realized how much I still thought of myself as the novice-come-lately, an inexperienced newcomer who had to accomplish twice as much in order to be seen as a competent and worthy adult. Not that I advocate being arrogant with others, just comfortably equal. I wish I had claimed that "just equal" status much earlier.

2. An ounce of prudence can prevent a ton of regret. I know mistakes are normal, and we can learn something from each of them, but I’ve also learned from experience that I don’t want to learn everything by experience. I’ve seen too many people desperately wishing they could go back in time and undo an impulsive decision they made in the past. I know I’ve made my full share of equally dumb moves, which only adds to my conviction that prevention is a lot wiser and better than cure.

3. Becoming a good human being is better than just being a great human doing. I’m glad for some of the good work ethic my parents drilled into me early on, but for too long I’ve tried to burn the candle at both ends, and have sometimes become over-involved in too many good things. In my old age I’m learning that spending quality time in spiritual reflection and with my friends and family is just as important as getting more stuff done.

4. Establishing lasting influence is better than exercising temporary control. I’m slowly learning that pressuring people with lots of intense arguments is a huge waste of time. People are more open to hear our points of view when we do more reflective listening and less reactive and defensive talking.

5. Maintaining good support networks is the best social security we can have. Since economies can fail, stock markets crash, and even whole nations collapse, our best long-term insurance is having communities and congregations of people so committed to each other that no one is in need unless everyone is. To the extent that we care for and nurture such communities, they will care for and nurture us.

Now if I could only earn some kind of degree for all that learning.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Have You Heard "The Sermon on the Mall"?


In spite of how many of us profess to be followers of Jesus, few take his actual life and words seriously, and too many of us live our lives in direct contradiction to his teachings.

As you see by the list of "popular posts" on Harvspot, the one entitled "Rand, Ryan and the Rich Young Ruler" has received the largest number of page visits, 250 so far. The post describes how many of the politicians and other supporters representing the Tea Party Right (many of whom consider themselves conservative Christians) have been influenced by the blatantly anti-religious and anti-Christian writings of Ayan Rand, author of the best-selling "Atlas Shrugged."

I was heartened recently by becoming aware of how much Chuck Colson, a highly respected religious conservative, has spoken out against her influence. And today I viewed a powerful YouTube piece showing how the message of Jesus would sound if he were preaching the Tea Party/Ayn Rand gospel.

Take time to listen to this "Reversed version" of Jesus' words, entitled "Tea Party Jesus: The Sermon on the Mall," produced by The American Values Network, followed by a brief but provocative synopsis of some important things Jesus did actually say.

Note: As always, your comments are welcome. If you can't post your a comment because you don't having a Google account that allows you to do so, feel free to just send me an email, and I can post it if you wish.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Can't We Just Let Children Have Fun?

Tom Farrey, ESPN correspondent and author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children,” spoke at Bridgewater College last fall on some of the consequences of increased emphasis on competitiveness in children’s sports.

He is concerned about parents becoming too pushy about winning games, and about children becoming too stressed and anxious as a result. He believes today's focus on performance and on playing sports other than just for fun and enjoyment has led to more youth being left out, which in turn results in more obesity and inactivity on their part. And because of all the costs associated with organized sports for children--involving lots of money for uniforms and endless trips to practices and games--children from low-income or single-parent homes are especially likely to be excluded.

Some of the emphasis on early competitive sports, he believes, is the insanely high salaries paid to major league players, and the false hope on the part of some parents that their child will grow up to be a star athlete. But of the more than 7,600 children that have played in the Little League World Series, he says, only 34 have ever made it to the major leagues. Early success in a sport rarely leads to a successful career in that sport, he notes.

Meanwhile, what are our children missing by not having the opportunitues to organize more of their own games and enjoying more of their own creative fun, rather than being pushed into sports activities that are geared more to the aspirations of parents than those of their offspring?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thank God We’re All People of Color

A January 16, 2012, editorial in our local Daily News-Record cited Pat Buchanan’s recent book, “Suicide of a Superpower,” as questioning whether “the demographic change of the United States from a predominantly white, culturally European country to one in which whites are a minority, and multiculturalism rules, is a good idea.”

I find our paper’s unapologetic inclusion of “white” in this summary of Buchanan’s views to be disturbing, especially in light of this appearing on Martin Luther King Day. Buchanan appears to believe that our survival as a "superpower" is dependent on our remaining largely members of a superior (?) Aryan race and culture. The example of Nazi Germany should have taught us the hard lesson of where that kind of thinking can lead.

Or Buchanan may believe nations should preserve their own distinct cultures and color, and that we should regard each as “separate but equal.” Growing up in the segregated south, I know all about what that really means--that some people are to be regarded as more equal than others.

Do we really want to be a democracy that would exclude non-western Nobel laureates like Leymah Gbowee, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Tutu, or the Dalai Lama just because of their skin color and/or ethnic background? Or that would not have welcomed "wise men from the east" or a brown skinned Palestinian Jew like Jesus?

Personally, I’m glad that God made us all shades of color--from tan and pinkish to dark brown and ebony--and that inside, we are really all the same.

And we "Caucasians" can be especially grateful that we’re not actually “white,” God forbid, as in the color-of-this-page white, or kitchen appliance white. To be bleached of all skin color would be ghastly indeed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jail is no Place for the Mentally Ill

According to a 2008 Virginia state mental health commission report, an estimated 15 percent of inmates in our prisons and jails are suffering from some form of mental illness. Since the number of patient beds in state mental institutions like Western State Hospital has been drastically reduced through the deinstitutionalization initiated in Virginia several decades ago, available space for mentally ill adults in such facilities has dropped from over 10,000 to fewer than 2000.

Unfortunately, far too many of these citizens have ended up in prison as a result of their inappropriate behaviors or threats of harm to themselves or others. Our jails and prisons are ill-equipped to handle such cases.

For example, in dealing with inmates who are suicidally depressed, our local jail has seen itself having only one of two options, the restraint chair or the padded isolation cell.

The restraint chair is one in which an inmate is strapped and kept in an upright position for hours on end, without access to mental health treatment or any kind of normal human interaction.

The padded isolation room, unlike a regular solitary confinement cell, has no cot or mattress and no sink or commode, only a hole in the floor to be used as a toilet.  Before being placed in the cell, the person is stripped and given only a paper gown to wear. No reading or writing material is provided, and human contact is limited to jail personnel bringing in food (with no utensils, for safety reasons) and some strips of toilet paper when requested.

From the perspective of jail personnel, they feel they have no other options. They don’t have the staff, training or budget to provide mental health treatment. Someone from the Community Services Board may be called in for an assessment, but actual counseling help is normally not available.

Understandably, the jail’s primary responsible is to ensure inmate safety and security. But a caring community as rich in resources as ours can do better than that, given the fact that, for an emotionally ill person, this kind of restraint and isolation can only serve to worsen their mental condition.

I have no easy solution to offer, but I am pleased to say that in a meeting I had yesterday with our new sheriff, Mr Hutcheson, he has agreed to be a part of a community forum at the Mssanutten Library Tuesday, March 6, from 12-1:30 to explore constructive options.

For starters, I suggest they might include the following:

1) Whenever possible, confine suicidal persons to regular segregation cells, with trained community volunteers (through our Community Services Board?) present for designated shifts around the clock to assure safety and provide for human interaction. These could include people like graduate level counselor interns and retired mental health professionals or clergy.

2) Provide appropriate reading and writing material.

3) Offer professional therapy on a regular basis through the CSB or with trained interns from JMU’s or EMU’s Masters in Counseling programs, always looking for practicum sites.

These are only some beginning suggestions, and any long term solutions must include having more bed space at institutions like Western State Hospital.

Meanwhile, if we work together, we can find humane solutions for mentally ill prisoners that will neither overburden the jail’s budget nor its personnel.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Much Real Estate Does God Need?

These properties are all exempt from paying real estate taxes.
I well remember a sign I saw once along along Highway 33 east of town that announced, “God is about to do something wonderful here.”

Turns out God was apparently planning to turn some irreplaceable farm land into a large asphalt parking lot with a multi-million dollar brick and concrete structure built in the middle of it.

As open land in our Valley becomes more and more scarce, I’ve long been concerned about our preserving as much of our remaining unspoiled wooded and agricultural land as possible.

This calls for help even from congregations.

In theory I am on the side of people of whatever faith being able to buy and build wherever they choose. Having said that, I would also expect believers to be especially careful about how much of God’s good earth they gouge out and pave over.

As alternatives, congregations could cooperate in better using their existing buildings. Most church auditoriums are occupied for only a few hours a week, and have plenty of spare pew space. It’s true that some congregations offer day care and other services that use some part of their property more efficiently, but that still represents only a small portion of their total space.

I believe we would honor God more by having numerous services in our existing structures, since it is nowhere written that we need to "assemble ourselves together" on Sunday mornings. The Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisonburg,  for example, with a parish of over 1500 households, holds four separate services each weekend. When the church added a larger auditorium in 1995, they built on downtown property they already owned.

And there are other options. Numerous local congregations rent “secular” spaces for their services, such as schools, store fronts and town halls.

Why not? Early Christians met for worship and weekly meals together in their homes, and at various times of the day. In parts of the world where Christianity is spreading most rapidly (in China, for example) home-based churches are often the norm. These believers hold that any space becomes sacred when two or more are together in God’s name. They also give witness to the idea that believers themselves, not the edifices they build, are God’s real “temples.”

In the May 2005 issue of Christianity Today, Asbury Seminary historian Howard Snyder notes that “church history shows an inverse ratio between dynamic church multiplication and preoccupation with buildings.” Certainly this has proven to be true in Europe, which has the world’s most beautiful cathedrals but a decreasing number of practicing Christians.

I am not against the use of modest structures set aside for purposes of worship. And I actually favor Christians meeting even more often than just an hour or two on a Sunday morning. But in a world with so much need, what kind of message could we send if we dramatically reduced the money invested in real estate and instead invested in more affordable housing, nutrition and health care for the poor?

That could honor the Creator in a way even an agnostic could understand.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

They've Turned the World Upside Down?

Sheldon C. Good, web editor of the Mennonite Weekly Review, recently posted the following on the MWR blog site "Our World Together," and gave me permission to use it here (Incidentally, there is no logical reason that the "Northern Hemisphere" should appear on top of a world map!):

There are more Christians in China than the United Kingdom, and the population of Russia is nearly as Christian as the United States, a new study on global Christianity has found.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study shows Christians make up nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion, and in a historic shift, no single continent or region is the indisputable center of global Christianity. From the study’s executive summary:

A century ago, this was not the case. In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26 percent). A plurality — more than a third — now are in the Americas (37 percent). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13 percent).

In short, the study shows that Christianity today, unlike a century ago, is truly a global faith.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 Election Reflection

We’ve heard a lot about how all-important the US presidential race is this year, as though the very survival of civilization rested on the outcome of our next election.

I agree that the choices offered this year are important, and that how or whether to exercise the one vote each of us has deserves careful thought. The following, however, is an attempt to put things in a larger perspective, to look at the bigger historical picture and not just that of our own small corner of the globe.

     First, the United States is only one of 230 nations in the world, and represents a mere 5% of the world's people--even though it currently controls the majority of the world's wealth and military might. From a Biblical perspective, all nations are of minor consequence in comparison to God’s worldwide, eternal kingdom. As world citizens, we need to think less of governments simply ruling us and more about urging all of them to act in more just and in less violent ways.

     Second, we need to remind ourselves that a US president is the chief presider and leader of only one of three branches of a federal government, and that the judicial and legislative branches are equally deserving of attention and concern. This three-part federal system, in turn, must share power with 50 states and commonwealths, each made up of county and municipal governments, and each responsible to the people being governed.

In other words, we are electing a presider of one branch of one part of a democracy made up of citizens, and not choosing a monarch or dictator over a kingdom of mere subjects. Besides, each president's four-year term is less than 2% of this nation's relatively brief 235-year history, and that brief history represents only 5% of the total span of civilization as we know it.

     Finally, we (US Americans) are not a “chosen people” whose culture and way of life is superior to everyone else’s. Take our national language, for example. Our one official tongue is English, mostly the language of white Caucasians. While English is popular worldwide as a second language, it is still only one of nearly 7000 spoken around the world. There is no superior race, language or nationality.

     So for perspective’s sake, how about a more humble opinion of our importance, while respecting others' ways of thinking and living elsewhere on the globe?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

365 Thank Yous

After Superior Court Judge John Kralik’s second marriage ended in divorce in 2007 he spent his next New Year’s Day hiking a trail that led him to the top of Echo Mountain in the Angeles National Forest above Pasadena.

Kralik had planned to do that hike with his wife Grace before she broke up with him, leaving him in a state of shock and feeling terribly depressed. He asked her to go with him anyway, but when she declined, he decided to go alone, hoping it would help him get himself together and determine some direction for his future.

All day he seemed to be hearing an inner voice saying he was a loser and a loner, and that at 52 his life was over. One positive childhood memories that came to him, though, was how his grandfather once gave him a silver dollar and said that if he wrote him a thank you note for his gift, that he would give him an additional one.

This got him to thinking that maybe he needed to refocus, invest more time and energy in expressing gratitude for what he did have rather than just obsessing over the grief he felt for his losses. So he resolved to write a thank you note to a different person each day throughout 2008. The results were compiled in a book that became a bestseller, “365 Thank Yous, The Story of How a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life.”

Beginning with writing thanks for material things, he began to reflect on the many relationships that were priceless to him, everyone from old friends to current employees, and to realize how important, generous, and wonderful these people were, and how often he'd neglected to let them know.

Changing his focus and writing the notes truly changed his life. As a bonus, the book became a bestseller, with the paperback second edition entitled, “A Simple Act of Gratitude.”

This sounds like a great lesson for each of us for the New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Visualizations

 " is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not (yet) see."                                                               Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

One of the key factors in experiencing personal growth and change is to “begin with the end in mind,” to first be able to picture the outcome we want, i.e., the new and whole self that with God’s help we see ourselves becoming.   

A good way to start is write a detailed description of that self, one done in the present tense, as though it were already true.

For example, “I am someone who looks for good qualities in others, and avoids speaking ill of others behind their backs.” Or, “I am able to avoid junk foods, stick to having at least five salad meals a week, and follow a plan of hearty exercise at least every other day," etc.

This is not to imagine ourselves being some super man or woman, or even a saint, but simply a healthy, whole person, the kind of person we would want our own son or daughter to become. Having this kind description in view is a little like when we are putting a jigsaw puzzle together and keeping the picture on the puzzle box in front of us as we work at fitting all the pieces together.

Then the second part of achieving change involves repeated practice, as in engaging in the kinds of  behaviors that are congruent with that picture, that description of our improved self.     

Practice needs to be of two kinds, the first involving a lot of mental rehearsals in which we prayerfully see ourselves responding more positively to challenging situations in our lives. In doing this, we help retrain our brains to successfully live out these new behaviors.

The second kind of practice, of course, is to actually engage in these behaviors in the real life situations we are in every day, realizing that insight alone will not bring about any automatic or lasting changes in old habits. But repeated practice will enable us to replace old habits and patterns with new ones.

Whenever I hear myself or others say they can’t accomplish some desirable goal, I want to suggest substituting that “can’t” statement with something like, “I find this really hard, and I haven’t found a way yet.”

That way, very simple but anything but easy, is to picture a new and more healthy, whole self, then engage in the hard work it takes to practice that new self’s positive behaviors until they become more and more natural to us. 

To accomplish this, it always helps to surround ourselves with lots of  supportive encouragers and allies.

Have a blessed New Year!

Note: You might also be interested in this blog.