It seems to me that the more we have divided ourselves up into smaller and smaller ideological groups, the more anxiety and conflict we have experienced. Ultimately, there is always a smaller box to draw and defend. Eventually, this practice merely leaves us alone in a little box of our own making.
One thing that is becoming evident during our social distancing experience is our coming to share something that crosses so many of the lines we’ve drawn of late. There are still attempts to describe this crisis along some of those old, tired, and disruptive lines. I’ve heard Republican responses and Democratic ones. There have been racist attempts to explain this circumstance. Others are claiming moral superiority. I’ve observed every narrow and highly defended box we have constructed in our efforts to define ourselves of late contorted in attempts to bring some meaning to all of this anxiety and disruption.
But, without fail, the best responses—the ones that have resonated with me; the ones that have moved me—have been human beings responding to other human beings. I’ve watched home learning live feeds that have evoked a huge, lingering smile on my face. I’ve seen celebrities open up their homes via Instagram. I’ve seen people taking care of people. Those responses have been wonderful. The more we step back and broaden our boundaries of who’s in and who’s out, the better the stories become. Even at a “social distance,” expressing and recognizing our shared humanity, without fail, becomes life-giving and light-giving.
Be an excellent human today. You can do this from your COVID-19 bunker. Make a phone call. Check on an elderly friend by phone. Write some letters. Send some texts. Use Facetime. Post human stories rather than political ones. Post helpful information that keeps us all safe and dispels the misinformation and divisions. I came across a beautiful little meme from the amazing Brené Brown this morning:
“This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid, our default is self-protection. We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave, and kind.”
THAT sounds very human in the best sense of the word. We can do this! Hell, we canceled the NBA, March Madness, Spring Training, and the NHL! Zero riots! Come together (at a safe social distance). We got this!
I’ve been involved in a renovation project over the past several months. Demolition stage was challenging and required some trust that the outcome would be worth the effort. Some of the demo was merely cosmetic. However, there were some loadbearing walls involved as well. These walls were substantial, and I’ve had some pushback from some who thought I went too far. But to this point of the project, I’ve not regretted any of those decisions. These were the changes that really opened up the space to be something I could never have imagined otherwise. Now that the demo stage is pretty much complete, and I’ve begun to add some framework to the foundations that were exposed. The intent is a very open space conducive to hospitality, conversation, and growing relationships. As the construction continues, I hope to be open to suggestions and input growing out of those conversations and relationships. I’m beginning to recognize that this project will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. I’m anticipating taking out and replacing some of the features added recently. Probably not rising to the level of a full demo, but being open to the likelihood of redecorating as the need arises. It’s very gratifying to know that the work that has been completed to this point has really produced the desired results! I’m loving this space! (Even as it’s still under construction and probably always will be.)
impersonation | imˌpərsəˈnāSH(ə)n |noun — an act of pretending to be another person for the purpose of entertainment or fraud
I don’t regularly post pictures of myself. My take on just about every photograph of me is usually, “A face for radio!” However, this particular image is my favorite. My daughter and I are dancing at her wedding reception to Landslide by Stevie Nicks. I had just performed the ceremony, and here we are during the much anticipated “Daddy/Daughter Dance,” and my face says it all. I’ll even own up to the fact that I get a bit misty just thinking about that moment and looking at that picture. The very first people Hillary and I saw when we finished our dance were my wife and sons. The image that captures their reactions immediately following our dance leaves me even more emotional.
There are many reasons I treasure these photographs. One of those reasons is that I recognize in these images our true God-given selves. There is no pretending or posturing. It’s us. Really us. I was unaware of any other people in the room. Most profoundly, I was completely oblivious to the character I play in my everyday life. I was utterly un-selfconscious animated only by the person God created me to be.
Our ego creates and maintains a character that we impersonate as we move through our lives. The culture of career and image encourages us to only present to the outside world a self that feeds into this charade. So we move through our lives playing roles that are guarded and rarely resemble the human beings we were born to be. We’re afraid if we show our true, vulnerable selves—our God-created beautiful humanity—we will be shunned; that the other egos and self-impersonators with whom we share our days will take advantage of that vulnerable self.
But, what if we all actually showed up? Everyday? I know how idealistic and naive that question sounds. Completely unrealistic. But, what if? One thing I know without any doubt is that the self that shows up in the photogaphs above was utterly joyful and present. I’m not sure why THAT person needs to be put away only to be brought out of the closet for special occasions and only then at an unguarded moment.
I believe that the mess we find ourselves witnessing daily in our world is a direct result of the characters we self-impersonate each and every day. And these characters go thrashing around through life scaring the skittish wild human beings we were created to be back into hiding. And we are all the more impoverished because of that. It is precisely those skittish wild humans whom the world so desperately needs to show up.
Not every moment can be a beautiful father/daughter moment. I get that. But I also know that every moment in which I’ve dared to be vulneable and show up fully has the potential to be beautiful and life giving. More often than not, in my experience, those moments become cherished and sustaining memories. I hope you show up today. No impersonation. Just you. I also hope you create the space around you that coaxes those other selves around you to show up as well. Go get ‘um!
I began several times intending to write about God.Finding traction was difficult. There was the distraction of Rosie the Labrador.At 5:30, she came bursting from her night of quiet, eager to taste and smell and run and roll in her world.And she so wants me, you, everyone to experience it.She licks my leg, urging me out of my chair, bounding forward through the screen—through the screen—that could never be a barrier.
“Silly dog! You broke the screen! Ran right through!”
But who is the silly one?Rosie the Labrador challenges every supposed barrier.Runs through some, paws at others but tests them all.Not for any grand purpose other than to live the life of a Labrador with which she was blessed and has blessed us.
She bounds back up the stairs, tail beating a rhythm on my metal chair.She paws my legs inviting them to move.She sniffs my arm, tongue tasting my knee, eyes alert to all movement, nose to all smells-those I’ll never know.
She wins.We went on a walk.I left the phone and ear-buds at home.And I heard some things I would have otherwise missed.
Maybe we have our sights set too low.Maybe we’ve settled for merely “correct” as we have come to understand it rather than recognizing we might actually be capable of entertaining the profound. There is often enough logic to justify our small notions of correctness. But when we look further toward the mystery and the ambiguity, we lose the safety and security of our certitude. We might have to accept the existence of someone or something we don’t fully understand. We will probably lose the perception of control that we’ve always mistakenly assumed. Correct is fine for what it is. But the profound is a journey worthy of your soul.
I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.
The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.
“The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)
Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.
Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.
Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.
What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.
I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we must confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.
On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.
Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.
I treated myself to an “Artist Date” last Saturday. Please know that every manly fiber in my being protested that first sentence. It has a very Oprah ring to it. (It wasn’t Oprah…it’s Julia Cameron’s fault.) That first sentence tromps all over so many norms I’ve allowed to grow up around my life and work.
From very early on in our childhood, all of us have submitted something we have created to the harsh lights of the public. A stick figure drawing shown to a friend. A color book sheet submitted to the refrigerator exhibit in the kitchen of your childhood home. Homework or exams turned in to the teacher seated in the front of the room.
Some of those creations from our childhood days of naive confidence were received with encouragement and affirmation. Some were ignored. Some were ridiculed and pronounced as “dumb” or “you traced that!” or “what is that?” Some were judged based on the harsh scale of a grading system.
And so, more and more we decided not to submit our “art” to the public. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk. But, what tends to happen is that much like a plant that is stored in a closet, the impulses begin to wither and die. We assume that creative impulse is for someone else. Very early on, we begin to reserve the term “artist” for those other people who can draw better than us or write better than us or sing better than us or play an instrument better than us. And there is always someone better.
So, why an “Artist Date”? A couple of personal reasons. I rediscovered the first 5 words of my copy of the Old Testament the other day: “In the beginning, God created…” —Genesis 1:1. And when I got on down to vs. 26, I read, “Let us create humankind in our own image…”. It really seemed pretty obvious that if I’m created in the creator’s image I might just be creative too. Simple to the point of simplistic, but it was a good place for me to start.
The next reason was I heard yet another “artist” I highly respect refer to some practices they discovered in a book that I’ve heard mentioned dozens of times by other artists I respect. Through the magic of my Kindle and my purchase impulse, I downloaded “The Artist’s Way” immediately. The first two practices introduced very early in the book are Daily Pages and Artist Date.
The Daily pages are 3 hand written pages of stream of consciousness thoughts for no ones else’s consumption. Technically, not even my own. Its sort of a written form of meditation. I’m about 30 pages into that practice and it is challenging but very rewarding. The Artist’s Date is something I haven’t fully wrapped my head around yet. It’s a block of time set aside each week to nurture one’s “inner artist”. (The Oprah gag reflex is rising up again…but I’m holding it together!)
So one Saturday, a week into my reading of this book, I packed up my journal and my camera, got on my motorcycle and rode up to Sewanee via Roark’s Cove road for my first Artist date. I took photos of the cars on the way up. I stopped at the Blue Chair Cafe for a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, and then continued to the Sewanee Natural Bridge with a stop by the cemetery and a short visit to Mr. Garner’s grave.
I humbly present some of my photographs from that day as well as these reflections to the harsh judgement of the internet. But I also am indirectly submitting the creativity of those who informed my little artist date: the artist who installed our small version of the “Cadillac Ranch” on Roark’s Cove Road; the graffiti artists who did their thing on those cars; the creativity of the Blue Chair Cafe offering up great food and atmosphere for all who enter; Mr. Garner who someone recognized as “the best damn moonshiner who ever lived” and all the creativity involved to earn such a title; the stone carver who created the monument commemorating Mr. Garner’s art; the person who created the cherub perched on top of the neighboring marker; and finally the great Creator who provided the Sewanee Natural bridge and the trail I was able to hike and contemplate the other natural art on display.
I would also like to challenge all of you to nurture your own inner artists. Creativity is what moves us forward in the world. It provides fresh perspectives on everyday things we tend to take for granted. Exercising those impulses strengthens muscles that we need in our everyday lives. And having the courage to share your creativity boosts all of our courage to do the same.
Create something strictly for your eyes only. Or, How are you going to reach that kid that isn’t interested in school? How can you increase the efficiency of this jet engine your team has been tasked to design? What’s made your lawn mower difficult to start? How could you make that birthday cake reflect that little girl’s personality? What’s the win/win solution to the conflict you are having with your friend/spouse/coworker/democrat/republican? Etc.
All of these questions are answered through creativity. And all of the human beings involved have been made creative by their Creator. Go get ‘um.