Self-impersonation

impersonation | imˌpərsəˈnāSH(ə)n |noun — an act of pretending to be another person for the purpose of entertainment or fraud

Hillary_Andrew_Wedding_Sberard-7790I 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.Hillary_Andrew_Wedding_Sberard-7822

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.My God-given Self - Merton

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!

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The People Who Walk in Darkness

The People Who Walk in Darkness
6th and San Pedro
Midnight Mission on the left. Central City Community Church of the Nazarene on the right.

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.

Aleppo, Rolex, BMW, & Light

Aleppo, Rolex, BMW, & Light

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The Fall of Aleppo (image from The Economist, Dec 17-23, 2016 issue)

The cover was pretty striking. The image to the right with the headline: “The Fall of Aleppo: Putin’s victory, the West’s failure”. I tried to imagine what it would be like to care for this child in such a place. Then, what was maybe the most disturbing point about this issue…I turned the page. 3 times.

 
  • First page: 2 page ad for “Rolex, The Cellini”: retail value $15,200. “It doesn’t just tell time. It tells history.”
  • Second page: 2 page ad for BMW 750Li xDrive: beginning MRSP $98,000. “Sheer Driving Pleasure”. Has a remote control key to park the car for you into tight spaces. So you don’t have to actually drive it yourself.
  • Third page: Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator: retail value $3500 (had interior cameras for “food management and direct grocery ordering). Comes with app for your phone so you might look in your refrigerator from your phone…rather than the annoying practice of opening the door.
 
The tragedy, and the irony printed in the first 6 pages of this magazine was a gut shot for me this morning. And it will haunt my Christmas. This isn’t a guilt trip post for the holidays. It’s not intended as a political statement per se. But, for me anyway, its my morning meditation on the closing of Advent 2016…the coming of the Christ…the hope and savior of the world. Where have we who call ourselves the “Christian West” gone wrong? How do we return to be the light the Christ showed us how to be to this hurting world? We are chosen by God not to be singled out and special. We are chosen to be witnesses to this light.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:5 (NRSV)

a little Thomas Merton to chew on…

It’s funny how Thomas Merton always challenges me at election time…

The aggressive and dominative view of reality places, at the center, the individual with its bodily form, its feelings and emotions, its appetites and needs, its loves and hates, its actions and reactions.  All these are seen as forming together a basic and indubitable reality to which everything else must be referred, so that all other things are also estimated in their individuality, their actions and reactions, and all the ways in which they impinge upon the interests of the individual self.  The world is then seen as a multiplicity of conflicting and limited beings, all enclosed in the limits of their own individuality, all therefore complete in a permanent and vulnerable incompleteness, all seeking to find a certain completeness by asserting themselves at the expense of others, dominating and using others.  The world becomes, then, an immense conflict in which the only peace is that which is accorded to the victory of the strong, and in order to taste the joy of this peace, the weak must submit to the strong and join them in their adventures so that they may share in their power.

— Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World

Peace!