(These are Opinion-Editorial Articles written by David Carlson and published in the Daily Journal, the newspaper of record in Franklin, Indiana)
At This Critical and Frightening Time
January 6, 2021
At this critical and frightening moment in our nation's political history, we can learn a great deal from the world of sport. When the final buzzer sounds in a football, soccer, basketball, and hockey match, there remains a few moments when the game is put into perspective. Players of both teams line up to shake hands and sometimes embrace one another. Phrases such as "good game" or "nice play" are often expressed.
Up until the final buzzer, players clawed and scraped to defeat the opponent. Especially in a close contest, the emotions are at their highest pitch, whether it is on the ice, field, or court and in the stands. But after the buzzer, the mood changes.
From one perspective, those minutes might seem anticlimactic. The game is over, and if my favorite side lost, we can feel despair. But from another perspective, these moments that follow the game are the most important, even the most beautiful. In those moments, athletes and spectators remember and honor that love of the sport is greater and more important than love of one's team.
Democracy is like that. At its best, democracy is a love affair, not ultimately a love affair with a particular candidate or political party, but with the process of governing. The danger our nation faces now is the danger every nation has faced when love of a candidate, ideology, or party is stronger than love of the "game" itself-democracy, rule of the people, by the people, and for the people.
In the foreground these past months has been our Constitution. Thank God for the Constitution, for this document is what sets the rules of the game, rules that protect democracy from being destroyed by hero-worship and demagoguery.
Consider Russia. Russia claims to be a democratic country, but for democracy to exist, there has to be more than elections. The world is full of countries that allow elections, but elections that are rigged from the beginning. Putin doesn't win elections because the Russian people choose him over other candidates, but because Putin makes sure he is the only electable candidate. Others are jailed, poisoned, or assassinated.
Our Constitution is a lengthy document because our nation's founders realized that democracy will always be an endangered species. Democracy is a tricky balance, not just of three divisions-the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial-but of pages and pages of other checks and balances. Our nation's founders created something messy, certainly complex, but also beautiful.
Soccer fans around the world call their sport "the beautiful game." In 2021, as is true of every four years, our nation is invited to celebrate the beautiful game of democracy. In photos of past inaugurations, we see pictures of Johnson shaking hands with Nixon, of Carter shaking hands with Reagan, of George H. W. Bush shaking hands with Bill Clinton. We should appreciate this moment as we do the moment when highly competitive athletes shake each another's hands at the end of the game.
It bears repeating-democracy is a love affair. If we can only love our constitutional system when our candidate and party wins, we are more than bad sports. We have taken a dangerous step away from our Constitution and a step toward becoming another Russia-a democracy in name only.
January 6, 2021
I awoke from a nightmare recently and couldn't get the details of the dream out of my head. In the dream, I was walking around the courthouse in Franklin when a portly man with orange hair drove by in a Cadillac convertible, horn blaring. On the side of his car was a huge sign saying, "Notre Dame: National College Football Champs, 2020-21."
Having seen me studying his car and seeing my puzzled look, he stopped the car, got out, and tried to hand me a Notre Dame flag. Now, I like Notre Dame, but like everyone else, I know that Notre Dame lost to Alabama on January 1 by the score of 31-14.
"Friend," I said, "I think you're a bit confused. This wasn't Notre Dame's year."
"Oh, but it was," he said in all seriousness. "Notre Dame won the game with Alabama. It wasn't even close."
"No, it was the score that wasn't even close. Notre Dame lost by 17 points."
The orange-haired man shook his head. "All lies; all lies. Let me explain. All of us true believers who know in our hearts that Notre Dame, blessed by God, was destined to be national champs this year, know that the game was rigged."
"Rigged? Surely not," I protested.
"Yes, rigged in many ways, and our research proves it. First of all, consider the academic eligibility of the Alabama players."
"I'm sure the NCAA keeps a close eye on that," I said.
"Ah, but we're looking far beyond the posted grades of every Alabama player. We're looking into every test every player took and every paper written. And we're having all that re-graded by our own professional team. We're positive that a good number of Alabama's key players were not eligible to play that game. Take away their contribution, the touchdowns they contributed to, and Notre Dame will have won in a landslide."
Instead of sharing with the orange-haired fan that it hardly seemed fair to have his own team re-grade the academic work of Alabama players, I said instead, "You claimed the game was rigged in many ways. What else are you accusing Alabama of?"
"Ah, yes, there is far more. What about the referees?" he said.
"What about them?"
With a wild and excited look on his face, the fan said, "Our research has uncovered that the head referee's second cousin's third wife's grandmother's sister-in-law attended the University of Alabama in the 1950s. That's irrefutable proof of bias. Now, if we reverse the ruling of the head referee on just twelve plays, Notre Dame will have won-and won easily."
"That seems pretty far-fetched," I admitted.
Not to be doubted, the fan said "Then consider this. Did you think the Fighting Irish looked a bit flat at times?"
"Yes, I did. Surely, you're not accusing Notre Dame players of throwing the game."
"Heaven forbid. No, no, not that. But what about the food they were fed for breakfast and lunch that day? Huh, huh?"
"You are talking about the caterers who supplied the food for both teams, aren't you?" I asked.
"Of course, I am, but who said the two teams were fed the same food? Our lawyers are seeking an injunction. We want not just to analyze the leftovers of those meals, but demand that all players on both teams supply blood samples."
"I'm sorry to have to say this, but surely, the suggestion of poisoning is over-the-top paranoia."
"Not at all. Horses have been poisoned before races. Why not players?"
As often happens in dreams, my legs would work. I couldn't get away from the man. In a panic, I said, "What you're proposing will end football as a sport forever. No, if every game is contested like you're doing, that's the end of sport."
The orange-haired man grabbed me by both shoulders and stared into my eyes. "What does that matter," he said, "as long as we win?"
The Wound Cheating Leaves?
December 20, 2020
My heart went out to the faculty at West Point when I heard recently that an extensive cheating scandal had been uncovered at the military academy. The saddest day a teacher has occurs when she or he catches a student cheating on an assignment or exam. It is hard for a teacher not to take the student's decision to cheat as a personal insult and a betrayal of trust.
I doubt if any teacher looks forward to the one-on-one meeting that follows the offender being caught. In some of the meetings I was part of, students broke down in tears as they related the circumstances that led them to fall for the temptation. But in a few of those meetings, the student caught cheating compounded the infraction by looking at me with a steely stare and, despite evidence to the contrary, denied that they cheated. Those meetings were the saddest.
Several decades ago, a colleague and I reviewed the research on college cheating. Much of what we discovered surprised us, and all of what we discovered saddened us.
One of the saddest stories described how students at a state university cheated to give themselves an unfair advantage. In a course that prepared students to apply for med school, students took an exam in which they approached a microscope, studied a slide, and then returned to their seats to identify what they observed. Sadly, the university had to mandate that students clasp their hands behind their backs when they approached the microscope. Why? Because some students smudged what was on the slide so that students after them couldn't make an accurate identification.
Perhaps what most surprised me was discovering that only about 12 percent to 15 percent of the cheating that occurs in college and university is detected. I realized that if I knew those odds, so did my students, and that meant that if I wanted to talk with them about cheating, I couldn't threaten them with the assurance that they'd be caught.
Instead, in my sermon to students about cheating, I admitted that they might get away with cheating, but only in the short term. The real damage of cheating is the internal message such behavior leaves with the person. Whenever people choose to cheat, they imprint this message in their minds: "I'm cheating because I can't overcome this challenge any other way." Later in their adult lives, when these people face difficult challenges, they will hear that message again and, yes, be tempted to cheat again.
Conversely, whenever people resist the temptation to cheat and face the challenge, they internalize a far different message: "Somehow, I'll overcome this challenge." In the future, when these people face a difficult challenge, they will hear that internalized vote of confidence.
The point I was trying to make is that cheating and not cheating become habits one carries into adulthood. Consequently, when I read or hear of an adult caught cheating-an athletic coach or a CEO-I suspect that person cheated before and got away with it-until they didn't.
This is why I am saddened as Mr. Trump seeks to reverse the results of the election through baseless lawsuits. Why he would continue to attack our country's greatest achievement, our democratic process, seems best explained by a lifelong habit of cheating. I recalled the $750 that we discovered that Mr. Trump, as a multi-millionaire, paid in taxes. I remembered the prostitutes he paid to keep silent. I remembered his invitation to Russia to spread disinformation during the 2016 election. I remembered the stories of business partners he duped. And I remembered
Mr. Trump's record of firing those who wouldn't prove their loyalty by cheating for him. It seems that all that matters to him is winning, no matter the cost.
Our nation is having that same sad encounter I had with those students who were caught cheating but, despite all the evidence, admitted to nothing. Yes,
Mr. Trump is mature in age, which will make it hard for him to admit he lost fairly. But life is giving him the chance to drop his obsession to win every contest, fairly or unfairly, and I hope for his sake that he embraces that chance.
Give A Gift to Hospital Workers This Holiday Season
December 20, 2020
As human beings, we don't just live through an experience. We also "frame" it; that is, we assign some meaning to it. And how we frame an experience, such as the coronavirus pandemic, depends on our backgrounds, on our peer groups, and also on our livelihoods.
If I were an economist, I would likely focus on the coronavirus' effect on employment and the stock market. If I were a chemist, my focus would likely be on understanding the science behind the coronavirus and the race for effective vaccines. But as a professor of Biblical studies, I'm inclined to frame the pandemic, especially how the U.S. is responding to the challenge, through the lens of sacred scripture.
For me, the story in the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament that sheds the most light on our present experience is the very first story, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whether people treat the story as historical or as a parable or legend, the main point of the story remains the same. Humanity falls into difficulty whenever we misunderstand "freedom."
In the story, Adam and Eve are given almost unlimited freedom in paradise, but the key word is "almost." They are forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That is, it is not up to Adam and Eve, or to humanity, to decide what is the good and what is the evil in life. Humans are to leave that decision up to God. As the familiar story unfolds, Adam and Eve can't resist the temptation to "play God," and decide for themselves what they can and can't do in life.
How does this relate to the U.S. response to the coronavirus? For all of us modern Adams and Eves, the pandemic poses the question "How free should we be to decide what is good and what is bad?" Yes, I'm talking about wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and avoiding gatherings, especially during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
There is no mystery why nations as diverse as New Zealand and Senegal have controlled the virus while the U.S. sets records for new cases and deaths every day. New Zealand and Senegal have accepted that compassion for others trumps (no pun intended) the desire to do whatever I want. Early in November, U.S. health officials began warning that the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday could have dire consequences unless citizens put caring for others before their own traditions and pleasures.
Despite that warning, 50.6 million Americans traveled over the holiday to be with family and friends, and we are now reaping what we sowed. Thanksgiving 2020 will be remembered as a moment in U.S. history when many, like Adam and Eve in the Biblical story, said, "No one can tell me what's good or bad, wise or unwise." And now we have filled ICU beds and overcrowded morgues, just as the scientists warned.
Over the past week, I made two visits to a Southside hospital for tests. Knowing how vulnerable hospital workers are to the behavior of the rest of us in the pandemic, I made a point of asking every hospital worker I met how he or she was coping with the pandemic. The responses ranged from "we're trying our best" to "the virus has really hit our staff hard" to "we don't have a spare ICU bed" to my favorite: "we must be the dumbest species on the planet."
We know that frontline workers in hospitals are being traumatized daily as they treat and watch die those who insisted on having their traditional Thanksgiving. In the process, these workers are risking their own lives to treat others. We know that by the end of September of last year, 1,700 U.S. hospital workers had died from the coronavirus. Who knows how high that number will be by mid-January?
If you would like to give a gift this holiday season to our nation's health care workers, I have a simple suggestion. Skip the sweater or box of candy. Instead, follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and avoid ending up in the ICU. Hospital workers have experienced enough grief.
December 15, 2020
"This Christmas will be different" is a comment expressed repeatedly over the last few weeks. Yes, this Christmas will be different, but Christmases of the past could also be challenging. This year, I am thinking of my immigrant ancestors whose first Christmas in a new country must have been a bittersweet holiday.
Like many immigrants, my ancestors celebrated the season by baking and cooking traditional dishes and hanging decorations brought with them from the old country. For we who were their descendants, Christmastime more than any other holiday reminded us of where we came from.
Especially this year, I've been reflecting on why my ancestors came to this country. Some came for economic reasons, while others came for religious and political freedom. Whatever their motivation and wherever they came from, all immigrants had to learn what was in the U.S. Constitution and then swear allegiance to it if they wanted to become citizens.
We too have had a refresher course in "civics" this year, a course on why democracy-the rule of the people by the people-is worth holding on to. Our system of government has been challenged and is being challenged in 2020 as it hasn't been since the Civil War. Our tradition of a peaceful transition of power, which has been a shining example to the world of how democracy works at its best, is being threatened this year. But democracy will prevail despite all the fog in the air. Our ancestors would expect no less.
Lastly but most importantly this Christmas, I am remembering how this holiday provided a chance for my immigrant ancestors to deepen their religious faith. Whether my Scandinavian ancestors lived on the prairies of Kansas, in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, or in the Quad Cities of Illinois-Iowa, Christmas wasn't complete unless they attended a midnight service on Christmas Eve, or an early morning service on Christmas when they could sing carols and hear the ancient story of the faith in the "old" language.
How my ancestors would have loved the chance to use ZOOM or YouTube to magically return to their hometowns in Scandinavia for those church services. In their place and in honor of them, I plan to do that myself this Christmas. I might not understand every word of the services, but in this Christmas season of pandemic everywhere and dangerous political division here at home, it will be a blessing to know that people around the world are being comforted by the divine hope of Christmas: "Peace on earth; good will toward one another."
December 9, 2020
In previous columns, I've shared my fondness for the Netflix program "The Repair Shop." In each episode, people bring heirlooms that are in a state of brokenness to be repaired and restored by experts.
Watching the program has always left me with a sense of well-being. But more recently, I've felt a sense of the miraculous and the holy with "The Repair Shop."
To explain that, I need to share a memory from 42 years ago. When my wife was in graduate school in another state, she made a strong friendship with another student. I will refer to this person as Ann, though that is not her real name. Ann was very bright and engaging, but there was also a sadness about her.
One night toward the end of my wife's time in grad school, Ann came to our apartment for dinner. In the conversation, Ann shared something that puzzled her, that being that my wife and I attended church. Her puzzlement didn't surprise either my wife or me, as a majority of our friends at the time didn't attend religious services.
But it was a comment that Ann added that I will never forget. In a sorrowful voice, she said, "I would have to change so much of me before I could ever enter a church." Over the years, I've thought about Ann's comment many times, reflecting on how common it is, but also how wrong it is.
Ann is not alone in that feeling. It seems that many people drive past places of worship: Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches, Sikh gurdwaras, and Buddhist meditation centers and assume that they would have to fix what's broken in themselves before they could walk through those doors. That suggests that these folks also believe that those who do attend services of worship are whole, unbroken. Sadly, maybe we who frequent places of worship have given this impression.
The truth is that places of worship are all versions of "The Repair Shop." In the TV episodes, no one brings an heirloom to the shop in perfect condition. What is brought is always something of great personal value but in desperate need of restoration.
The same is true of those who attend religious services. We bring our lives, our joys, but also our brokenness and sorrows, in hopes that the restorers-God and others-can help heal us.
I know some people believe that those who attend religious services are hypocrites, dressing in their finest clothes to put on a show of piety. I'm sure there is some truth in that observation. But if people come to worship believing they aren't broken and have no need of repair, then they are to be pitied. They are wearing masks that hide the truth only from themselves.
After all these years, I still think of Ann and wonder if she's ever found a "Repair Shop."
Perhaps what Ann is waiting for is seeing a place of worship with this sign posted outside: "Only the broken can enter here."
The Benefits of Solitude
November 30, 2020
One of the surprises of this most surprising year has been the resurgence of older patterns and pastimes. As we have spent more time in our homes, sales of books have shot up. For those of us who love to read, this is a bit of good news in a year of little good news.
Different folks like different books, and I'm curious what bookstore managers, such as Tiffany Phillips of Wild Geese Bookshop in Franklin, will discover at the end of the year about what types of books sold well.
It would be logical for escapist literature, whether it be romances, mysteries, or historical fiction, to have been popular in these trying times. And I suspect that inspirational literature, whether poetry, biographies, and religious or self-help books, has had increased sales.
During this year of lockdowns, quarantines, and a surplus of alone time, I have found it helpful to read authors who have something unexpected to say. Thomas Merton, the most widely-read monastic writer of the twentieth century, has been a personal favorite. I have been especially drawn to the journals that he wrote toward the end of his life.
While Merton for decades had been a Trappist monk cut off in many ways from ordinary life, for much of that time he yearned for a life of even greater solitude. Despite the fact that Merton was an extrovert, he desired to be a hermit monk, experiencing God and nature in solitude.
You can probably spot the irony of reading Merton in a time of a pandemic. While people around the world are desperate for vaccines that will free them from the confines of their homes to return to packed sports stadiums, theaters, and places of worship where they can see and hug friends, here was someone who desired what most of us have had too much of in 2020-alone time.
Yet, reading authors such as Thomas Merton in a time of a pandemic might not be so counterintuitive after all. When we have too much of something that wears us down, such as alone time, we might find that's the perfect time to learn from those who mastered the experience, who knew the difference between loneliness and solitude.
Thomas Merton is not the only master of solitude. Quaker writers provide clear lessons on how to embrace silence, for they know that silence isn't the absence of noise but rather the presence of something else-something divine and potentially healing. One of the modern Quaker masters, Thomas Kelly, taught at nearby Earlham College in Richmond in the mid-twentieth century. His Testament of Devotion is a masterpiece on solitude and how to find it. Hint-Kelly believed that solitude is within all of us, waiting to be discovered.
There is also a host of contemporary Buddhist authors, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodran, who speak from the center of solitude and are trustworthy guides for those searching for that same center. In a bookstore, move over a few shelves from Buddhist literature and we'll find the immense wisdom of Native American authors on solitude waiting for us.
For those who don't find religious literature to their taste, David Thoreau's Walden Pond offers a timeless invitation to enter and experience solitude. John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Sigurd Olson might be considered the step-children of Thoreau, writers who also found in nature the solitude that healed their souls.
All of these authors found hidden treasure in solitude, something that we are tempted to disparage and dismiss in this pandemic.
Yes, it will be good to experience the joys of community when we are finally on the other side of the coronavirus. But we will have failed the test of these long days if we miss what solitude can teach us.
Losing Reveals Character
November 18, 2020
Losing is hard, but losing is also revealing. If that is true, so is its opposite. Winning is easy, but winning doesn't always reveal what lies in a person's heart.
There are a variety of responses to failure, especially public failure. Some choose denial-"I don't care what you say; I didn't lose." Others go into hiding. Still others double down on winning as soon as they can to get rid of the bitter taste of defeat.
But the ones who most impress me are the rare persons who learn and grow from failure. The best example of this for me is Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter didn't just lose to Ronald Reagan in 1980; he was annihilated. Reagan received 489 electoral votes, while Carter managed only 49. If ever there was a candidate tempted to slink away and lick his wounds, it was Jimmy Carter.
Instead of taking that route, Carter began a public life that has achieved as much good in the world as anything he accomplished as president. Only a year after leaving the White House, the Carter Center was founded in Atlanta. The Center's mission is to promote human rights, democracy around the world, and peaceful solutions to international conflicts. When nations want elections monitored for fraud, they call on the Carter Center.
I remember a moment early in Bill Clinton's first term where Carter made a significant contribution to world peace. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were escalating over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung, as is true of Kim Jung Il, could not afford to lose face, and neither could Bill Clinton. The situation deteriorated until Clinton agreed to let Jimmy Carter meet with the North Korean leader. Carter did so in 1994, and the tension deescalated quickly, almost magically.
Carter's secret? Instead of resorting to brinksmanship, seeing which of the two would blink first, Carter approached Kim Il Sung as one grandfather to another. The two discussed the issues from the perspective of what would be best for their grandchildren. I can't help but think that one of the advantages Carter had over Clinton was that Carter knew that there were worse things in life than a bruised ego.
Carter has taken the same perspective, that of the wise elder, in writing and speaking about the plight of the Palestinian people. His support for Palestinian human rights and property rights and his reasonable suggestions for resolving one of the world's most intransigent conflicts have so far been ignored by both Israeli and U.S. leaders. Having read Carter's book on the subject, I am convinced that any mutually-agreed upon settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issue will include Carter's suggestions.
Perhaps the area where Carter has best shown that losing doesn't have the last word is his work with Habitat for Humanity. Most Americans have seen a photo of Carter, in his nineties, measuring and hammering at a home building site. This is not a famous person showing up for a photo op, but a man in a hardhat, working side by side with others to give a deserving family an affordable home.
One can argue that the world has benefited more from Jimmy Carter losing in 1980 than if he'd won a second term. But this outcome wasn't by accident. Carter had the same choices any of us have with losing.
Instead of hiding from sight in 1980, Carter had the humility and faith to enter into failure and come out a better person on the other side. Jimmy Carter is an incredible example of an unexpected truth-failure can be freeing.
A Thanksgiving Like No Other
November 10, 2020
In 1863, in a time of a civil war and division that threatened the United States, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. How odd that the declaration must have seemed at the time. The country wasn't just coming apart; it had come apart. Most families had a relative, friend, or neighbor who'd died in battle. And no one knew when or if the Civil War would ever end.
Thanksgiving, 2020, as did that first official Thanksgiving, poses a serious question. In a time when the pandemic is again spreading like the wildfires in the West, what is there to be thankful for? Maybe we ought to cancel the holiday.
Yes, there is much that we will miss this Thanksgiving. There will be empty chairs for thousands of families who've lost parents, spouses, siblings, and children to the coronavirus.
Those who have compromised immune systems won't know the joy this year of going to the grocery store, picking up all the fixings for the Thanksgiving dinner, and greeting friends and neighbors. People in long-term care facilities, who could usually look forward to family visits on the holiday, will face that day alone.
Something I will miss is going to the airport on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, at least an hour before members of our family would land. I arrive early because I like to see the families who are waiting for that first glimpse of their loved ones as they come down the concourse. The embraces and tender words that follow remind me that love can heal the broken world-or broken nation. Yes, I will surely miss that scene.
Instead of focusing on what is missing this Thanksgiving, we might recall all we've learned through the pandemic-lessons that should leave us thankful. Many who pause to offer a prayer of thanks before they pass the turkey and dressing will include a prayer for the healthcare workers, who have showed up for their shifts day after day, despite their own fatigue and worry.
We should also pause to offer thanks for the scientists around the world who are producing vaccines and treatments for COVID, not just for citizens of their own countries, but for everyone in need. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are all in this together.
There is another group of people who deserve a prayer of thanks, and those are the politicians and civil servants who have withstood wilting criticism and even death threats to tell us the hard truth about the challenge that we still face.
Another group that has impressed me over the past nine months is the clergy and hospital chaplains who have stood by the sick and dying, who have comforted the grieving, who have conducted funerals, even if online, and who have found words every week to raise our spirits and rekindle hope.
And then there might be that one person who has done something that surprised and touched us. Maybe it was sending a card or calling us on the phone. For me, I'm thankful for Charlie who lives across the street and who week after week returns his neighbors' garbage containers to their houses on trash day.
Someone has described gratitude as a kind of muscle. The more we're thankful, the more we realize how much there is to be thankful for. Maybe Abraham Lincoln understood that. Thanks, Abe, for realizing that what we need in a time of sorrow and division is to pause and be grateful.
October 26, 2020
I admit it. Teachers are suckers for free books. The reason for that is the same reason committed rock hounds can't pass a gravel pit without stopping. Bookworms and rock hounds know that the next book or rock they pick up might be a hidden treasure.
Last late winter, I came across a book that I'd picked up at a library giveaway decades ago. The book was The Apostle by Sholem Asch. As the book was about St. Paul, I thought it might be good Lenten reading.
I was also attracted to the book because I knew that Sholem Asch was a prominent Jewish author of the early twentieth century. Why, I wondered, would a Jewish writer write about St. Paul?
Although St. Paul had been raised a faithful Jew and was even a rabbi, his conversion to the Christian faith and his preaching were the primary reasons for the split between Judaism and Christianity. I wondered if The Apostle was a hatchet job on St. Paul, or if Asch's goal was something different.
The Apostle is a long book, yet I found it hard to put it down. While remaining firmly Jewish, Asch wrote a book about St. Paul that treated the saint's life and work with fairness and great respect. His insights into St. Paul's mind, especially how the apostle's beliefs about God and Jesus developed over time, impressed me deeply.
When I came to the end of the book, I was astonished at Sholem Asch's conclusion. St. Paul, as Asch understood him, never truly abandoned his Jewish heritage when he became a Christian missionary.
Given that Asch was criticized by many for writing the book, I asked myself, Why had Sholem Asch bothered? What was his goal?
What I discovered after further research into Sholem Asch's life hit me like a jab to the heart. Were Asch still alive, I would make a trip, no matter what the cost, to thank him.
You see, Sholem Asch is an example of a heroic and beautiful failure. "Heroic" and "beautiful" might seem strange adjectives to use for failure, but that's because we tend to view failure as purely negative. But are there not failures, not just in history, but also in our own lives, that we wouldn't change even if we could?
What motivated Asch, a Jewish author, to write books about Jesus and St. Paul was what was happening in Germany and other European countries in the 1930s. Anti-Semitism had been a part of Christian culture in Europe since the fourth century, but in the thirties, Hitler began implementing the "final solution," his plan to eradicate Judaism-and Jews-forever.
Asch used the only weapons he had to fight Hitler-his written words. But instead of attacking Hitler directly, Asch believed that Hitler's hope of exterminating the Jews would be thwarted if Christians opposed him. His books about Jesus and St. Paul presented Judaism and Christianity not as enemies, but as faiths of the same family, Judaism the parent to the child Christianity.
Was Asch naïve to think he could defeat Hitler's anti-Semitism by writing books? Did he place too much hope in Christians worldwide whom he counted on, upon reading his books, to rise up and rescue Jews, their "relatives in faith," from annihilation?
Sadly, we know Asch's hope wasn't realized. Almost all branches of the Christian Church in Germany and in other Nazi-occupied countries cooperated with Hitler's campaign against the Jews. Elsewhere, Allied military leaders, even after they learned what was happening in Auschwitz in 1944, refused to bomb either the camp or the rail lines bringing Jews to the camp for extermination.
Yet I don't believe Sholem Asch's efforts, while failing to interrupt the Holocaust, were wasted. In fact, I question whether Sholem Asch failed at all. Do we blame a lifeboat if those drowning fail to swim to it? For a lifeboat is exactly what Asch offered the world.
In an age when success is celebrated and some will do anything-either legal or illegal-to achieve it, the world needs more heroes like Sholem Asch-people willing to risk everything, even if they fail, to confront discrimination and hatred.
October 15, 2020
Being surprised on a regular basis is one of the reasons I've enjoyed teaching religious studies for over forty years. Religions are like bottomless wells-there is always something more to learn.
Take, for example, the various religious beliefs about life after death. Not only do beliefs about the afterlife vary from religion to religion, but beliefs about the afterlife aren't all about the "after" life. They are about now.
Two descriptions of heaven and hell that I came across recently gave me an "ah-ha" moment. In the first example, hell is described as an existence in which occupants sit before a table loaded with delicious food. The problem is that everyone's arms are long; actually, they are extremely long. Each person's arms can reach all the food on the table, but the arms are too long to bring the food to one's own mouth. Hell is endless frustration.
Surprisingly, heaven is described as having the same set-up-there is a table full of delicious food. Another similarity is that occupants of heaven have the same extremely long arms with the same limitations. But in heaven, occupants realize that while their arms cannot feed themselves, they are the perfect length to feed others at the table. Others are doing the same, and everyone is fed.
The point of the story isn't really to offer a realistic description of heaven and hell. Instead, the story helps us consider how we're living now, in a world where the hungry and the homeless are within our reach to help. Hmm . . .
A second description of heaven and hell that offered me an "ah-ha" moment is found in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I've tried to finish this seven-hundred-plus page book several times before and have always given up. Reading Russian literature isn't something to do in front of the TV. But this past spring and summer, I finished the book. And in one of the last chapters, I read a description of the afterlife that was worth all the effort.
Dostoyevsky describes a scene in which a woman, very selfish throughout her life, is in hell. Her guardian angel approaches God and relates that while the woman was selfish in her life, she did one good deed. She gave an onion from her garden to a beggar. In the story, God tells the guardian angel that the angel can lower the onion to lift the woman from hell to heaven.
When the angel reaches down from heaven and holds the onion above the woman, she grabs ahold of it and is slowly raised out of hell toward heaven. Unfortunately, Dostoyevsky's story doesn't end on that bright note. As the woman is ascending, others in hell grab onto her coattails and slowly rise with her. When the woman sees this, she begins kicking and screams, "Let go, this is MY onion." At that moment, she falls back into hell. Hmm . . .
The wisdom of these stories comes through even if someone doesn't believe in heaven and hell. When self-centeredness rules our lives, we experience a lonely and frustrating existence. We get a taste of hell. Conversely, if we focus on the needs of others, we experience a life of connection and relationships. In that, we are given a taste of heaven.
Where are the doors to heaven and hell? As near as the neighbor in need.
Missing The Fans
October 8, 2020
One of the adjustments that the pandemic has forced us to accept is viewing participatory events on TV where no audience is present.
Consider the NBA finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat. I don't think I was the only viewer who felt I wasn't watching a real contest, but rather a pick-up game in a gym. There were still amazing plays, but without fans to celebrate them, the players' high-fives seemed hollow.
But then one of the sportscasters pointed out what I'd observed, that in some moments of the game, there was a clear lack of effort by some of the players. Was that simply a byproduct of athletes having too much time off, or was that lack of effort related to the physical absence of fans? Perhaps since middle school, every one of those athletes has heard the screams and cheers from fans. But with no fans present, maybe the silence made the contest seem surreal.
Watching the Stanley Cup finals with no fans present, I felt the same sense of unreality. There was still good hockey to watch, but also more sloppy play than I was used to seeing. And talk about anti-climax, when the Tampa Bay Islanders finally lifted the Cup, their championship celebration in an empty arena seemed like a person singing "Happy Birthday" to himself in an empty apartment.
But the strangest of all reminders of the crucial role fans play came in a recent Green Bay Packer home football game. It is a tradition in Green Bay for the player, when scoring a touchdown, to race toward the stands behind the end zone and launch himself into the waiting arms of fans.
The fans know what to do. They go crazy, screaming and slapping the athlete's back, and in that moment the distance between athlete and fan is erased. The athlete's gesture says to the fans, "I share this for you," and the fans' response is, "You've made my day."
How bizarre it was in a recent game in Green Bay to see a Packer score a touchdown and leap into empty stands. Without fans to catch the athlete and pummel him with praise, the athlete just teetered alone on the edge of the stands, like Humpty Dumpty on the wall.
I've had the same surreal feeling when "attending" Church services online. Before a limited number of parishioners was allowed to attend as long as they were masked or keeping physical distance, clergy performed the services and gave their sermons to camera lenses. The same is true of theater performances with empty seats and only cameras in attendance. Everything seems like a dress rehearsal, not the real deal.
A familiar common Zen koan is "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does the tree's falling make a sound?" The coronavirus equivalent of that riddle is "If an athlete, clergy, or actor performs before an empty room, is it a real performance?"
There is a lesson to be learned from this experience. We are more connected with one another at deep levels than we might realize. What athletes, clergy, and actors are missing during the pandemic is what we, as human beings, need to live wholly.
Just as we need food, water, and shelter, so every person needs validation and encouragement. Caring parents and teachers know that children need validation every day, as long as the validation is not false praise. All of us, even children, learn quickly to see through false praise. But all of us hunger to hear a thoughtful word of encouragement, whether we are in pre-school or in a retirement community.
Knowing this universal human need offers a daily challenge to every one of us. Words of validation and encouragement are not what just you and I need today, but what the next person we meet is hungry for as well.
And that is even more true of the negative, grousing person we know, the person we want to snap at rather than encourage. As I wrote, it's a challenge. Let's make an attempt to meet that challenge today.
The Ways of a Bully
September 29, 2020
I wear a mask. I keep physical distance when I'm away from home. I voted early by mail.
All this makes me the enemy of Donald Trump. And on this point I agree with Trump. He has good reason to fear people like me.
One of the main reasons for voting early by mail is concern, given the pandemic, about the health and safety of voting places. Many of us remember the Wisconsin primary, when voters were forced by a judge's ruling to vote in person, despite the pandemic.
This means that those of us who voted early by mail because of the pandemic aren't likely to show up, unmasked, at Trump rallies. When Trump hears reports of widespread early voting, he knows those voters aren't the ones worshipping him at his rallies.
No wonder Trump is desperate to convince his followers that voting by mail is tainted by fraud. This is despite all the evidence that voting by mail is safe and secure. But wait, Trump isn't saying voting by mail will be fraudulent in all states. No, it's safe in states that will vote for him. It's only unsafe in states where he's likely to lose or where the race will be close.
Remove mail boxes and mail sorters in states where Trump could lose? No problem. We'll just say such steps are routine efforts to increase postal efficiency. Make African Americans stand up to six hours in line to vote while making it easy to vote in white affluent suburbs? No problem. African Americans should just be thankful that White America allows them to vote at all.
Punish CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) scientists who have the nerve to say that there won't be a safe vaccine until sometime mid to late 2021? No problem. Trump is smarter than all the scientists in the world combined.
In Florida, deny the legal right to vote for those who've paid for their crimes and are back leading lawful lives in society? No problem. We can't have criminals deciding elections-unless we're talking about Roger Stone and his ilk.
Not admit what foreign governments are doing to affect the election? Not necessary. Why would anyone think Russia and Saudi Arabia would want Trump in the White House, weakening NATO, insulting European allies, punishing Iran, and ignoring the ongoing plight of Syria?
Threaten to remain in the White House if he loses? Not a problem. Elections will be better decided by a conservative Supreme Court, just like in 2000. Letting the people decide who should be president is too much of a gamble. Better to rig the game before it's even played. With a straight face, we'll still wave the flag and call it a victory for democracy.
Ask voters to forget climate change, an unfair judicial system, the need for police reform, the plight of immigrants, the loss of our nation's standing in the world, and the failure to respond effectively to the coronavirus? No problem. We'll continue repeating "Keep America Great" over and over again until people no longer question what "greatness" really looks like.
For someone who tries to tell the American public that he's the tough guy in this election, Trump seems opposed to all efforts to make the election a fair fight. But we all know his type. He's the bully in junior high who cheated in every game he was in.
What Makes You Unique?
September 22, 2020
What makes you unique? What makes the person next to you unique? We might think fingerprints or DNA make each of us unique.
Twenty years ago, I stumbled on something far more important about us as human beings than fingerprints or DNA. At the time, I was intrigued by a field of study called "faith development theory." While not a science, faith development theory studied the various ways faith changes over the stages of life.
I soon discovered that my students also found this topic keenly interesting. A number of graduates have shared with me, as they look back on their college years, that they continue to think about the topic because it helps them understand themselves, their families, and their friends.
Student interest in faith development led to a videotape project in which several students and I interviewed persons in their twenties, thirties, and even early forties who were willing to share their spiritual journeys after graduating from college.
Something happened through the videotape experience that changed my life. We never interviewed so-called "famous" people, people who were used to being asked about their life stories. We chose "ordinary people," people who, perhaps for the first time, were invited to speak about the major turning points that made them who they are.
What we discovered is that there is no "ordinary" person. Every seemingly ordinary life is a "one-off," a unique story in the history of the universe. The only word to describe what those of us on both sides of the interview felt was "awe." These interviews were sacred moments.
Because these were certainly some of the most powerful moments I've ever experienced, I became hooked on the power of interviews. After 9-11, when I offered a course on "religion and violence," students asked if there was any hope for solving this global problem. I turned again to interviews, this time with Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns from across the country, asking them what might help heal our country and world.
Someone might think that monks and nuns would offer the same advice. In my thirty-plus interviews, I heard only one comment repeated. In sharing what was in their hearts, monks and nuns revealed astonishingly different perspectives, many linked closely to their own life stories. I was struck again with the treasures hidden in "ordinary" people.
Six years later, I began another book project, this one focusing on spiritual friendships across religious lines being an antidote to religious intolerance and misunderstanding. Once again, I based the book on interviews, this time with "ordinary" Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And once again, these interviews were sacred moments, filled with surprises and awe.
I am now engaged in a third book project, again on interfaith understanding and again based on interviews. I look forward to the experience, knowing these conversations will, like the previous interviews, change my life.
It is sad to think how different our nation's history would be if we had grasped the awesome, sacred truth that every person is living a once-in-the-universe story. Slavery would have been impossible. Racial, religious, economic, and gender prejudice wouldn't exist. We wouldn't step around homeless people, wouldn't ignore those at our southern border wanting a better life for their children, and wouldn't throw away the key for those who've been incarcerated.
Closer to home, we might see the difficult colleague we work with, the person who is driving too slowly in front of us, and the person of a different political party in a different light. Each person is living out a unique story.
Unlike in TV, there are no reruns in real life. We are surrounded by never-before-lived stories that could enrich our own lives-if we only stopped to listen.
Should "Black Lives Matter" Movement Be Taught in Schools?
September 17, 2020
Recently, I came across a news report about a school system in northern Wisconsin where the principal and teachers planned to include the Black Lives Matter movement as a topic in fall history classes.
The small towns of Northern Wisconsin might seem distant from the protests that have occurred since George Floyd's death, but these towns are only a few hours away from Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. These towns are also not that far from Kenosha, a city in the southeastern part of Wisconsin where Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in August.
What made the news was the reaction of parents who objected to the topic being taught. By picketing outside the school, these parents put so much pressure on the school board that the high school was forced to withdraw the topic.
In my forty-one years teaching, I also experienced occasions when students, parents, and, in one case, a minister pressured me to stop teaching a particular topic or point of view. One friend and colleague at another university had it much worse. Some of his students tape-recorded his classes in order to turn the tapes over to parties who were trying to force the university to forbid the teaching of certain ideas.
What troubled me the most in these experiences was being accused of misusing my authority to coerce students into accepting my stance on certain sensitive topics. My response was that I agreed that I had no right to force students to think a certain way. I did have the right and responsibility, however, to make students aware of the different perspectives on an issue.
I wasn't surprised to hear the principal of the northern Wisconsin school try to make the same argument. History teachers in the high school weren't teaching one perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, but were helping students understand the complexity of this significant moment in our nation's history.
I found the parents' argument against including a unit on Black Lives Matter to be revealing. Their position was that a history class should teach students exclusively about the past, not the present. The present, in their view, is out of bounds. Names of presidents, dates of battles, and key figures in American and world history-that's what the parents want to be taught. But not present reality.
What is curious is that my own generation, the age of these students' grandparents, argued and protested in our day for the opposite position. Sensing that our courses avoided relevant "hot topics," such as racism and war, my generation rose up, with sit-ins and teach-ins, and demanded change. My generation would have demanded that classes treat current events such as Black Lives Matter as an example of history unfolding.
Certainly, issues of race and social inequality must be dealt with sensitively in the classroom. But teachers are trained to facilitate discussions of such topics objectively. Teachers are also best able to help students practice civility when encountering divergent viewpoints.
The pressure exerted on the high school in the small northern Wisconsin town was, in the end, a form of parental censorship. The parents involved want their high schoolers to live inside a bubble. Of course, inside that bubble, the students would have a point of view on Black Lives Matter-their parents' point of view. But these high schoolers would never be exposed to the various perspectives on the Black Lives Matter issue taught by competent teachers.
And that is the greatest tragedy in this story. Ignorance is not bliss. Willful ignorance is a form of poking out one's own eyes-or, in this case, poking out the eyes of students.
Are We a Nation Of Spoiled Children?
September 1st, 2020
One of the problems in hearing daily updates on the coronavirus in the United States is that numbers can be numbing. One reason is that it's easier to hear that our country has 180,000 deaths than it is to feel the grief of families who have lost just a one loved one because of the coronavirus. Another reason numbers are so numbing is that we usually hear those numbers out of context. The media rarely compares the death rates for the U.S. with the rates of other countries.
Here is what that data show. The United States has 4 percent of the world's population, but 22 percent of the world's deaths due to the coronavirus. No nation has a higher percentage. Dig down a bit into the numbers and the situation is more shocking. The population of India is 1.3 billion, four times the population of the US, but India has a third of the coronavirus deaths that our country has.
The population of Indonesia is almost the same as that of the US, but Indonesia has experienced 6,759 deaths. New York, California, and Florida each have more deaths than this less-developed nation.
In the future, historians and statisticians will have plenty of numbers to ponder. But numbers alone don't answer the "why" question. Why is the most advanced country in the world failing this test of character and national will so badly?
Researchers at Columbia University offer part of the answer. They estimate that the U.S. would have 54,000 fewer deaths if Trump had acted just two weeks earlier. That's a lot of deaths; that's a lot of grief; that's a lot of shame.
But I agree with the Republican pundit David Brooks of The New York Times, who points out that blame for our country's miserable response to the pandemic goes far beyond the failure of government. The President forced no one to flock to large gatherings. No one in the White House prevented people from wearing masks when in public. No governor invited university and college students to return to campus early to party.
No, those are all decisions that some of our community have made and are making. The world is watching us in horror, a nation setting an example of what not to do. Sacrifice for the common good was once part of our national DNA, but the "selfish gene" now seems to be gaining control.
So far, it's all bad news. But there is potential good news if we turn our attention to what other nations are doing to defeat the virus. Like us, no nation has a magic vaccine or pill, and no nation knows a secret that has eluded us.
What, then, is the big difference between other nations and us? Nations winning this battle have a unified response and a nationwide commitment to act for the good of the whole. Put simply, nations winning the battle against the coronavirus don't have half their population wearing masks and practicing physical distancing and the other half choosing to ignore the advice of public health experts.
Last week on most major TV networks, Dr. Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked directly into the camera and warned that this fall could bring the greatest health crisis in our nation's history. Think about that-we are on the verge of the greatest health crisis in our nation's history.
What would it take for us as a nation to prove him wrong?
The Importance Of The Word "NO" In a Democracy
September 1st, 2020
Dear Vice President Pence,
I am writing to you as one Hoosier to another, one who is alarmed at a development in the past weeks. When President Trump first stated in an interview on Fox News that he wouldn't pledge to leave the office of president if he is defeated in November, I tried to dismiss the remark as yet another "off the cuff" comment that he didn't mean.
However, when he repeated the same threat in his acceptance speech, my blood ran cold. Certainly, neither you nor I have ever heard such words from a president in our lifetimes. I think it possible that no U.S. president has ever made such a threat.
Perhaps you have heard Trump make this same threat in private. I ask you as someone who believes in democracy to take this statement not as an idle joke but seriously for what it is-an unconstitutional and immoral threat to the American way of life.
One of the characteristics of American democracy, sometimes referred to as a miracle, is the peaceful transfer of power. Without violence and bloodshed, outgoing presidents turn the keys to the government over to the incumbent. To threaten not to do so is the clearest proof of a person being unpatriotic. No amount of flags waving in the background can offset the magnitude and danger of such words.
Certainly, a part of you must cringe when you've heard Trump's repeated threat. Such a statement can only come from someone who was raised without hearing the word "no." We know that children who haven't heard and accepted the word "no" become unreliable and narcissistic adults.
But democracy is both a "yes" and "no" form of government. By definition, democracy is the rule of the people. The people decide between two candidates running for the office of president. The winner hears a "yes," and the loser hears a "no."
The President's threat uses words we'd expect to hear from Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, or Narendra Modi of India-all leaders that Trump claims to respect. But these men are hardly models of who we want to lead our country.
Both Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 did the honorable thing by accepting "no" even in elections that were hotly contested. They didn't accept that "no" because they thought their opponent was more suited for the office, but because they understood the importance of the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump might claim this threat is just a joke, but his most rabid followers won't likely take it that way. Because of that, his words threaten the peace of our country. The threat is planting the seeds of further division and violence.
I assume that you and other Trump supporters believe this threat-this joke-is moot if Trump is legitimately reelected in November. Perhaps you believe Trump only repeats this threat to increase support, but isn't it more likely that he is achieving the opposite? Aren't Americans realizing that Trump's threat proves he is more interested in himself than in democracy?
I ask you, Mr. Vice President, to walk into the Oval Office and say that all-important word in our democracy-"no." No, Mr. President, you will not remain in office if we lose in November. No, Mr. President, you are not above the law. No, Mr. President, I will not accept interference from foreign governments in our election process. No, Mr. President, I will not support weakening the postal service to deny the right of citizens, especially in this pandemic, to vote by mail.
And if the President does not accept your patriotic "no," Mr. Vice President, I ask you to utter one more "no." No, Mr. President, I will not be your running mate.
The Temptation Of Power
August 13th, 2020
Because I grew up in a family where there was no greater authority than the Bible and then did graduate work in Biblical studies, I am frequently reminded of passages of Scripture by current events.
This was the case when I heard that candidate Trump promised white evangelical Christians before the 2016 election that they'd have more power if he was president. Immediately, my mind went to the passage in the gospels where Jesus was in the wilderness and the tempter offered him a deal. If Jesus were to bow down to the tempter, he could have unlimited power.
There are other stories in the life of Jesus where people, even his own disciples, tempt him with power. Peter is linked to the forces of evil when he reprimands Jesus for saying he will suffer, not rule in power. The disciples James and John approach Jesus and ask for power, which leads Jesus to make his position crystal clear. Jesus explains that following him means serving, not dominating. Later, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he rejects the physical power that could save him.
Sadly, history shows how often Christians have fallen for the temptation of power. Soon after Constantine promoted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, Christian legislators passed laws that punished Jews. One law prohibited Jews from having servants, which meant that Jewish landowners couldn't work their land and had no choice but to move to cities. Other laws denied citizenship to Jews or forced them into ghettos.
Later, Christians in Europe used their power to create the Inquisition and forcibly baptize Jews and Muslims under their control. From the 18th to the mid-20th century, Christians willingly participated in colonizing Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, exploiting the riches of those regions for their own gain.
Of course, Christianity isn't the only religion that has misused power once it has tasted it. But Christianity is a religion whose founder rejected power and demanded that his followers do the same.
Blessedly, saints over the ages have remained loyal to Jesus' teaching. St. Francis of Assisi was offered worldly power by his father, but rejected it for a life of holy poverty. The rule he gave to his followers promoted a life in total opposition to worldly power. As if to underscore his point, he instructed his followers to live among the poorest as "lesser brothers."
A saint of our time, the Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also rejected power. Was he tempted as he looked out over the millions gathered for the March on Washington to unleash that collective power against racism, to fight that evil with physical force? We'll never know, but what is clear from his words that day is that he dreamt of a time in America's future when love, not power, would rule.
History would be far different if Christians had lived by Jesus' words-"Rulers want to lord it over others. Don't let this happen to you. Instead, you are to serve one another." But history isn't over. There is still time for those of us who call ourselves Christians to reject the temptation of power and live more like Jesus and the saints.
Learning From the Life of U.S. Congressman John Lewis
August 7th, 2020
Picture yourself in an argument, but instead of acting out of your angry self, you act out of your better, loving self. Who taught you how to do that?
Each of us is a combination of virtues and bad habits, all of which we learned from someone else.
I've been reminded of this over the past weeks when Congressman John Lewis' life has been so deservedly celebrated. John Lewis was an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life of service to humanity and to his country. It is rare when members of both political parties call anyone "The Conscience of the Congress" as they did in speeches after John Lewis' death. In John Lewis, an uncommon human being, a moral giant, has passed our way.
John Lewis was also one who humbly acknowledged those who shaped him, starting with his sharecropping parents in Alabama. Over the past weeks as I have listened to excerpts of John Lewis' speeches, however, I heard the unmistakable echo of his greatest teacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When John Lewis told his fellow Americans not to stand by but "do something about it" whenever they witnessed an injustice, he was expressing not only his own creed, but Martin Luther King's as well. And when John Lewis said that hate cannot defeat hate, only love can, that too could have been said by Dr. King.
By our actions, good or bad, we reveal what we have been taught. By our actions, we also teach others, especially the young who are looking for an example. That is a tremendous responsibility, but the good news is that we are always free to choose which teachers we will pattern our lives after and what example we will leave.
John Lewis continues to teach us in these challenging months, if we will listen. It isn't my place to offer advice to those who are protesting in the streets, especially those who have experienced racial injustice firsthand. But I would ask those protesting to let John Lewis, who nearly lost his life in a protest at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, guide them. Ask what John Lewis would do, and do that.
Yes, John Lewis would speak forcefully now as he did at the March on Washington in 1963 about the urgency of the present moment. This is not a time for gradualism, for going slow in confronting systemic racism. Protesting in an American right, and confronting the sin of racism is long, long overdue. And I have no doubt that John Lewis was encouraged that many Caucasian, Latino, and Asian Americans have joined in these protests.
Yet, if we let John Lewis be our teacher, we cannot forget this key lesson-his lesson and
Dr. King's-that hatred destroys rather than creates. I believe John Lewis would agree with this recent caution from an NAACP leader, who lamented that those joining the protests with hate in their hearts and a desire to strike back violently for violence's sake are only hurting the cause.
As we move forward as a nation through these challenging times, let's not forget these words of John Lewis: "I believe in non-violence as a way of life, as a way of living."
John Lewis, may you rest in peace, but may your life continue to teach us.
A MOVIE FOR PAINFUL TIMES
July 27th, 2020
With summer in full swing, we should get ready for the approach of some of the most painful months in American history.
One layer of pain is our nation's mismanaging the coronavirus, a failure with catastrophic results that is likely to linger well into the new year.
A second layer of pain is the ongoing quest for social justice and racial equality. Americans continue to take to the streets in protest, but unlike protests in the Civil Rights era, when federal troops were sent in to protect the protesters, federal troops this time have been sent in to confront them. These scenes will also likely remain in the headlines for months to come.
The third layer of pain will be the buildup to the election, as TV ads will increasingly assault us with accusations that portray the candidates as criminals, addle-brained, in the pocket of foreign governments, tyrannical, abusers of women, and more.
Except in wartime, I can't recall a time in American history where watching the daily news will cut deeper and deeper into our souls. But the purpose of this op-ed is not to remind us of these layers of pain but to recommend a film that offers some healing salve.
I have to thank my filmmaker son for recommending Driveways, a film available online that earned the nearly impossible score of 100% on the reviewing site, Rotten Tomatoes. My son promised his mom and me that once we started watching, we'd watch the film to the end. He was right.
So as not to give anything away, I will settle for describing the film's setup, a bit about the actors, and my wife's and my reactions to the film. The film could have been set anywhere in the U.S., the Driveways in the title being the space between the house of a recently-deceased hoarder from Vietnam and the next-door house of an aging Korean War veteran. That image might bring back memories of Grand Torino, but Driveways quickly heads off in a different direction.
We never meet the deceased Vietnamese woman. Instead, the film opens with the arrival of the woman's younger sister and nephew, who have come to clean out the house and sell it. I was not familiar with Hong Chau, who played the sister and mother, Lucas Jaye, who played her 10-year-old son, or Andrew Ahn, the writer and director. I was familiar with the brilliant Brian Dennehy, who, in one of his last roles, played Del, the Korean War veteran.
This is a film in which silences often speak louder and more profoundly than the dialogue. The faces of the three main actors are especially expressive as the three respond subtly to one another's small gestures.
"Small gestures." Yes, Driveways is definitely a film about that, but its genius lies in exploring the feelings and decisions made behind those gestures. If some films leave my wife and me feeling we need to take showers to wash off the grittiness, Driveways left us feeling we'd been washed clean. I know my wife and I also felt Driveways challenged us to be more aware of the power of small gestures, received and given, to heal the soul.
So, in the upcoming painful months when we need food for the soul, try Driveways for the main course, and, as I shared in an earlier op-ed, watch The Repair Shop for dessert. Bon Appetit!
Art and the Pandemic
July 22nd, 2020
There will come a day when vaccines and treatments will be available and we will wave goodbye to the coronavirus. That will be a day to celebrate, but that doesn't mean that these months of isolation, fear, and contagion won't have produced some significant and positive outcomes.
Certainly, the scientific community will once again prove the truth of the adage "Necessity is the mother of invention." Not only is our understanding of viruses expanding immensely, but so is our understanding of effective national health care-testing, treatment, and hospitalization.
Education is also innovating in the pandemic. Yes, some states are mandating that schools reopen as in the past, but it will only take a small outbreak of the virus-students or teachers-to empty every classroom in that school system.
Nevertheless, educating the next generation is essential. While the pandemic won't end learning, it will bring about major changes in how we deliver that education. We should expect more online academies, virtual classrooms that will offer learning modules that are more interactive-and more addictive-than anything seen by students and teachers in the past.
Another outcome of the pandemic might surprise us, and that is the amount of art that will appear once the pandemic is over. Why? Because artists respond to times of crisis and stress by being creative, by bringing something new into the world.
I have no doubt that there are poets, writers, sculptors, painters, composers, potters, screenwriters, inventors, gardeners, and chefs who are using these unusual months to practice and hone their gifts. For artists, these months are not "lost time" or even "downtime," but rather "precious-time," time to create.
This means that when we arrive at "p.c.," post-coronavirus, we are likely to find beauty in unexpected forms awaiting us.
This might seem like an overly-optimistic prediction, a pipedream even, but history suggests otherwise. The Black Plague ravaged 14th century Europe at a level to make our pandemic seem like a picnic in comparison. Yet, what followed soon afterwards? The Renaissance, the greatest explosion of creativity-paintings, sculpture, poetry, music, literature, and architecture-in European history.
The correlation of plague and creativity is an issue worth pondering. No doubt one reason for this correlation is that pandemics offer stark reminders of our mortality. Life becomes more precious when daily existence can't be taken for granted. Crises provoke a question in all of us-"What should I be doing with my time, with my life?"
The answer that artists give to this question offers wisdom that extends far beyond the artistic community. Many of us live with an inner voice that tells us we're not creative, that we should never think of ourselves as artists. Now is a time to ignore that voice because it is wrong.
Each of us is made in the image of the Creator, and that means every one of us can do something to bring beauty into this world. No, we're not talking about masterpieces. Think of the drawing a toddler proudly gives to a parent or grandparent. Every creative effort adds enjoyment not just to our own lives, but to the lives of others.
After the pandemic is over, a harvest of poems, stories, paintings, songs, architectural designs, recipes, and inventions will appear. Will one of those fragments of beauty have your name on it?
Wisdom in a Pandemic
July 13th, 2020
What separates a wise person from someone who is intelligent, smart, or clever? One difference is that the insights of a wise person continue to prove helpful over the decades and even centuries.
Until scientists find an effective vaccine for the coronavirus, the best medicine any society has is its cherished wisdom. In a sense, this pandemic is testing every society, exposing the decisions that society is making to be based either on wisdom or on false hopes and denial.
As many places in our society seem to be failing the test presented by the pandemic, I've returned more and more to the wisdom of two elders from the early to mid-twentieth century.
Sometime in the fifties or early sixties of the twentieth century, the monk Thomas Merton made an acute observation about American culture. From his unusual vantage point in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton observed that most Americans define happiness as having a good job and having a good time.
If that was somewhat accurate in the fifties and sixties, it seems even more accurate to describe the past six months in our country. When the world sees photos of Americans celebrating shoulder to shoulder on beaches, in theme parks, at political rallies and bars, the rest of the world sees a society that thinks, "By God, no matter what anyone says, I'm going to have a good time."
Merton's observation seems all too true and timely when we compare the U.S. response to the coronavirus with that of Europe. Our constitutionally-enshrined "pursuit of happiness" has become "the pursuit of my happiness, my right to pleasure," rather than "the pursuit of the community's happiness and health." No wonder the pandemic in the U.S. is reaching the point of being out of control. It's not the pandemic that's out of control, but us.
The other elder who speaks volumes to this time of pandemic is the early twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot. At the conclusion of his most famous poem The Wasteland, Eliot compares society members to someone in a sailboat. Through this image, Eliot asks what is the shore, the goal, that this person is trying to reach.
For the sailboat to reach the goal, the far shore, the last thing the person in the boat wants to do is lie back and relax, letting the sail and rudder be at the mercy of the wind. That boat is doomed; it will never find land but rather end up on the rocks. The only way the person in the boat will reach the distant shore is to be in control of the boat.
In a sense Merton and Eliot are articulating the same truth. "Freedom" is abused when it is defined as doing what I want, when I want, how I want, and with whom I want. To be truly free, a person, as well as a society, must accept that there is no true freedom without control of self-without "self-control."
Here's the thing about wisdom. We can either learn her lessons now or later, but eventually we will have to bow to it if we wish to survive.
Dr. Fauci's Worried Face
July 2nd, 2020
When historians look back on the first six months of 2020, what will they say about American society? I choose the word "society" instead of "country," because a country doesn't make decisions-people do.
I believe historians of the early twenty-first century will laud our society for finally owning up to what has been called America's original sin-racism. We are finally confronting a shameful past that for too long has continued to infect us. To dig down to the mucky bottom of racism will take decades, not months or years, but the days are over when someone can blithely say that racism is a thing of the past or proclaim with a straight face that members of white supremacist groups are "good people." Thank God, those ships have sailed.
Historians, however, will be far less gracious when they evaluate our society's response to the coronavirus. Instead of this pandemic becoming another experience like WWII where Americans came together in a common cause, the ugly political division in our country has infected the infection. The divide in our society has amped up the disease to a point where, to quote Dr. Fauci, the situation might be out of control.
The graphs are not difficult to read. Societies that were united in their response to the pandemic weathered the first spike and now see the virus losing its grip. For societies like the US and Brazil, where the pandemic began as a health issue but quickly morphed into a political one, the lines on the graphs are all pointing in the opposite direction. We aren't the most populous society in the world, but we will have the most cases and the most deaths. We're number one; we're number one!
If you don't believe that the situation is dire, try to buy a ticket to visit France, Spain, Italy or other countries in the EU. Canadians can visit Paris and Rome; we Americans can't. We are not wanted. And don't bother to try to visit Canada. They don't want us either.
It was once a source of pride to know that people around the world knew what was going on in our country. Put another way, the US was often in the news no matter where a person lived in the world.
The US is still in the news, but now as an example of how not to act as a society. On their news broadcasts every day, people elsewhere in the world can see something that simply doesn't make sense-Americans standing shoulder to shoulder in waterparks, on beaches, or at political rallies while nearby hospitals are running out of ICU beds.
In those same broadcasts, peoples of the world can only shake their heads when they hear that some American college students are hosting parties with a unique contest, the winner being the first partier to contract Covid 19.
People of the world know that Dr. Fauci's warnings can't be ignored, but that makes it all the more difficult for them to understand how our big theme parks are reopening in Florida-yes, the state that is being overrun by the virus.
Six months. Half a year. Not a long time, but long enough for the US to become the lepers of the world. I suppose there is good news for those who are tired of seeing Dr. Fauci's worried face. Recently, he told us that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Once that window is closed, we won't be able to hear him. Party on!
When the Lake Rolls Over
June 2nd, 2020
When the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks brought people around the world into the streets, I recalled something my father-in-law and favorite fishing buddy shared with me years ago.
He asked if I knew that lakes "turned over." When I admitted that I didn't, he described the summer conditions of a lake when the warm water is at the surface and the cold water lies deeper. As autumn advances and temperatures drop, the water at the surface slowly cools until it is cooler than the water lying deeper. That is when the deeper and now warmer water "turns over." What was at the bottom is now at the top, and what was at the top is now at the bottom.
A final comment my father-in-law made was that this turning of the lake is disorienting for the fish. In this Black Lives Matter moment, our nation and world are experiencing such a "turning over." Even as the surface water in a lake slowly cools until one day the lake turns over, so it is not just the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks that have brought on this global awareness and rejection of systemic racism. No, the waters down under have been stirring since 1619, when the first slave was brought to the colonies.
Over the past four hundred and one years, our country has seen heroes and martyrs, a civil war, movements and legislation bubble up from below the surface, but racism has shown a capacity to survive and adapt. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, the suppression of Black votes, unequal housing opportunities, and mass incarceration of Black males-all that happened after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and much continues to exist long after the Voting Rights Act.
In a real sense, the "lake" representing American society has managed to avoid rolling over. But in the last decade, the bubbles of frustration and heat below the surface have risen at a rate that can't be ignored. From Ferguson (Michael Brown) to Baltimore (Freddie Gray) to Texas (Sandra Bland) to Florida (Trayvon Martin) to New York City (Eric Garner) and, in the last weeks, to Minneapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta, the protests have been growing along with the recognition that something is seriously broken in our country.
Some who enjoy life at the surface are quick to note that past protests, given time, tend to fizzle out. Yet, there are some moments in history that are tipping points, and many Americans, Black, Brown, and White believe we are in the midst of one such moment.
It's fairly clear from past op eds that songwriters for me often function as modern-day prophets. So while I could end with these lyrics by Bob Dylan-"Your old road is rapidly agin'. Get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand"-I am drawn even more to this prayerful lament from Nina Simone: "I wish I knew how it would feel to be free."
June 18th, 2020
A year ago, I attended a three-day workshop on racism that changed my life. I thought I understood the systemic racism in this country, but through the workshop, I realized I didn't understand half of the problem.
In the closing moments of the last session, the facilitator said something that surprised me. Directing her comments to the white participants in the workshop, she said, "Do not leave these three days with a plan or program to help the African-American community. Your responsibility is different. Your task is to take what you've learned and concentrate on one thing: see our society and its problems differently."
That comment has come back to mind almost daily since the George Floyd story erupted. My immediate reaction was to do something or plan some program. I wanted to add my voice to the protests.
It is essential for white Americans to join their voices with people of color to say "enough is enough." But there is an even more important role white Americans can play, and that is to listen to what people of color have to tell us and teach us.
For survival, people of color have to listen carefully to what white Americans say. How carefully do white Americans, how carefully do I, listen to our African-American sisters and brothers? What might we learn if we closed our mouths and opened our ears?
With this question in mind, I emailed three African-American friends to say that I had no words to share, but I did have ears to hear. I asked the three, who happen to be members of the clergy, to share their thoughts at this critical time in our nation's history.
The following is a sample of what I heard. One: ". . . the last words of George Floyd, he was calling out for his Momma. A forty-six year old man calling out for his Momma. A mother who'd been dead for three years."
Two: "I just left a ministry ZOOM meeting and someone brought up as a matter for prayer 'This looting and rioting has to stop.' I heard a bunch of 'amens.' I then said the following: 'I'd like to take an unscientific survey. How many of us on this ZOOM call have had the police pull a gun on us?' After seconds of silence, I slowly raised my hand. I then shared with them my experience last year of being pulled over by the Indiana State Police for no reason other than I 'looked like a drug runner.'"
Three: "[White Americans must] speak up against injustices that are happening in our society. [They must] be willing to have the uncomfortable conversation with family, friends, colleagues, etc. . . . We as African Americans don't have the luxury of being comfortable."
Four: "When a grown man cries and moans for his Momma to the point of urinating on himself, he is -at that moment of anguish - desperately reaching out for that which his original essence inherently knows is his rights; namely, "that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights...life, liberty and the right to breath".
Five and perhaps most poignant: "I'm tired."
In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the author wrote that there is a time for everything, including "a time to speak" and "a time to keep silent." For some at this moment, it is a time to speak, to describe the pain of inequality and oppression. But those who have a right to speak need others to be silent and listen with open ears and hearts.
As Jesus said, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear."
MISSING THAT FAVORITE RESTAURANT
June 18th, 2020
There are some eating establishments in central Indiana that are beloved for more than the food. As you read those words, perhaps a restaurant or two comes to mind, restaurants that deserve the musical refrain "where everybody knows your name."
That is what many of us are missing during the pandemic, the experience of dining in places that seem to be extensions of home and family. And when economists speculate that many small businesses won't recover, we say, "Please, not my favorite place."
For over 115 years, Shapiro's Deli on the near south-side of Indianapolis has been a favorite eating establishment for many. The food is legendary, as is the greeting "What will you have, hon?" from those serving behind the counter.
On Wednesdays or Thursdays for the past twenty years, Shapiro's has become well known for another reason. The deli has, in fact, become known world-wide, for on a Wednesday or Thursday, a group of men and women from diverse religious backgrounds gather in friendship. The majority of those who attend are Muslims and Christians, but people of other faiths have joined the group over the years.
The "Shapiro Gang" is legendary wherever interfaith dialogue is occurring in the world. When popes have invited Muslims to the Vatican for interfaith meetings, they have often called upon members of Indianapolis's "Shapiro gang."
Most patrons who walk by the table where the Shapiro gang is seated don't know of the group's legendary status. There are no set topics for discussion; there is no leader, no public display of piety. The group sits in the main room, not hidden in the back. What is experienced at the table is quite simple though extraordinary-love for one another and mutual encouragement for each of us to do the will of God on a daily basis.
A senior member of the group tells the story of a man who passed their table one lunch hour and recognized one of them. "What's this all about?" he asked. When members of the group shared that they were a gathering of men and women from different religions who get together once a week, the man pulled up a chair and said "Let's get it on." When members asked him what he meant, he replied that he assumed the group was engaged in a debate. He seemed to be disappointed when he learned that the goal of the group was friendship, not argument.
The last Thursday before the pandemic shut businesses down, I was present at Shapiro's for another notable encounter. We were doing what we do every week, talking about whatever was on our minds, when a stranger stopped and interrupted our conversation. The words tumbled out of his mouth. "You being here gives me hope," he said. He might have been referring to the interracial nature of the group, but we explained that we're also a group of men and women from different faith traditions. "Incredible, just incredible," he said, repeating again that our group offered him hope in what he described as "the mess we're in."
The man was clearly overcome, at times making me wonder if he was on the verge of tears. As the man turned to leave, one of the members invited him to join us next Thursday for lunch. Because of the pandemic, there was no next week.
After a month of not meeting because of Covid-19, the Shapiro gang has begun meeting weekly, but online. The day I wrote this op ed, we had just met. It was wonderful to see each other, to once again be together as Muslims and Christians. At the close of our online meeting, the founding member of the group said, "I hope Shapiro's is doing okay. We need to get back there."
I imagine that thousands of restaurant owners have been praying that their businesses will survive. I wonder how many owners know that there are patrons who are praying for them and their businesses. For a favorite restaurant is more than a place where the food is excellent. A favorite restaurant can become a place where a bit of the world's brokenness is being healed.
Hiccup or Birth Pangs?
June 9th, 2020
We were a divided nation before the pandemic, and any hope that the coronavirus would break down divisions and promote a united response to the crisis quickly evaporated. From the very beginning, we have been divided on how seriously to treat the pandemic.
That division led to another debate on how we should respond-should we shelter in our homes, or could we gather socially? Should we wear masks or not? Should we open businesses, beaches, and schools while the confirmed cases and deaths are still rising or should we hold off on that? Should we support the WHO or withhold support? Should our country follow the guidance of scientists, or should we let people decide how much to risk? When we finally have a vaccine, should inoculation be required, or should we let people opt out?
No matter what side of the argument you are on, we can all agree that these divisions are having a profound effect on how many businesses will fail, how many people will contract the virus, and how many people will die.
There is another division that isn't getting as much attention, but will likely gain more in the future. One side of this disagreement views the coronavirus as a "hiccup." To view the coronavirus as a hiccup is to believe that this crisis will have no real lasting effect on our country and the world. Words and phrases favored by those who view the pandemic as a hiccup are "recovery," "reopen," and "back to normal."
The hiccup point of view has followers across the political spectrum. The society and world that will exist on the other side of the pandemic is imagined to be the same society and world that we had before. For those who adopt this perspective, the history books of the future will need only a few words to cover the coronavirus. The virus will be viewed as a spike event that came, was here, and was defeated, leaving intact what came before. The mantra for these folks is "business will be as usual."
The other side of this disagreement views the coronavirus not as a hiccup but as "birth pangs." To view the coronavirus as birth pangs is to believe that something new for our society and the world is being born out of this time of challenge. Past patterns, past values, and past attitudes will be replaced by new patterns, new values, and new attitudes.
An example currently cited for the birth pangs mentality is the issue of wages. In light of what we are living through, should health care workers and teachers be paid a pittance in comparison with professional athletes, Division One college coaches, and corporation CEOs? Throughout the pandemic, we have been able to live without professional and college sports, but our survival has depended on health care workers even as our children's future lives have depended on the adaptability of teachers.
Of course, to believe the society and world will change dramatically in the future doesn't guarantee that the future will be better. What is born out of this crisis will depend on what nations and cultures decide to change based on the lessons the coronavirus is bringing us. The mantra for these folks is "get ready for a new normal."
My own observation is that countries are already taking different sides in this debate. In listening to world leaders, I've noticed that some are already communicating to their citizens that the economy, education, health care, and spending will be vastly different in their nations' futures. Other world leaders are conveying the opposite message-that the world we knew before the coronavirus will return-and will return soon.
In terms of saying which viewpoint is correct, it is tempting to say "only time will tell." I would argue that the future isn't up to fate, but rather the future will grow out of what we decide now.
Countries that view the pandemic as a hiccup will put their energy and resources into restarting the engines that ran their systems before the pandemic. In contrast, countries that view the pandemic as birth pangs will put their energy and resources into designing new engines to run new systems.
The debate is over "same old world" vs. "brave new world." Which side are you on?
George Floyd and the Liberal Arts
June 9th, 2020
One of the major joys of my life has been to teach, not just at the college level, but also within a liberal arts institution such as Franklin College. This joy has come with a challenge-how to explain what we mean by the "liberal arts."
No, the purpose of liberal arts is not to produce politically liberal students. The purpose of a liberal arts education, one that goes back to medieval times, is to "liberate" a person from being enslaved by ignorance.
Those are noble words, but what does it mean to be "liberated from ignorance?" The answer to that is threefold and each aspect of the answer offers an insight into the death of George Floyd and its aftermath.
First of all, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from facing a challenge with only one tool in the toolbox, one pill in the medicine cabinet. A liberal arts graduate can analyze problems from multiple perspectives-the historical, psychological, economic, and sociological backgrounds, as well as a scientific, mathematical, religious, philosophical, and artistic perspectives.
Put another way, a liberal arts graduate will understand that the death of George Floyd is not a simple problem with just one possible response-be that confronting protesters with tear gas, setting curfews, or arresting and sentencing one police officer.
Secondly, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from the dangerous temptation of prejudice. By definition, prejudice is "pre-judging" a person or situation, and pre-judging means to think about that person or situation in the wrong order.
As thinking beings, we are allowed and expected to make judgments, but judging and evaluating must come after understanding that situation or person. For example, after 9/11, many people had a fear, and more than a few people had a hatred, of Muslims. This was despite the fact that those fearful people couldn't pass a basic quiz on the beliefs and practices of Islam. In other words, it became easy to equate Muslims with terrorists without knowing what Islam stands for as a religion of peace.
Closer to home, pre-judging black males as prone to crime or pre-judging police officers as bullies with a badge won't help us learn the lessons of George Floyd's death.
Thirdly, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from a knee-jerk fear of the "Other." The question posed to Jesus, "but who is my neighbor whom I am to love?" is still one of the most important questions each of us must answer. By defining "neighbor" as the person who is like me religiously, racially, or politically, we have at the same moment created the "Other," the person who shares none of my traits and who can become a person to fear or even hate.
It is a fact that we are different politically, racially, and religiously. The questions we must answer are "Should we view our differences as a problem or a gift?" and "Do these legitimate differences make our lives more difficult or more enriched?"
No one can deny that there is a widening gulf between the African-American community and the American police-judicial system. Each side looks across a chasm and sees the "Other." But bridges can be built. Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California, is one such bridge-builder. Under his administration, deadly shootings have decreased by forty percent. What is his secret? He has given the police a simple but challenging guideline-love the black males you encounter.
There is nothing that demands that America must remain this broken. God's words to Moses are as pertinent today as they were in ancient times. "I put before you today a choice: life or death. Choose life."
Time and the Pandemic
May 20th, 2020
Are these weeks dragging by? Do you sometimes ask yourself what day it is? If so, then the pandemic offers the perfect time to think about . . . time.
For all of us around the world who are affected by the coronavirus, these days and weeks are probably the strangest time we've ever experienced. Yet we are not the first to wonder why time seems so peculiar-in some circumstances moving at a snail's pace, but in other circumstances seeming to fly by.
The ancient Greeks had a philosophical interest in many of the big issues of life, among them fate, free will, peace, war, truth, and the nature of reality. When they turned to ponder "time," they realized the topic was too complicated to be covered by just one term.
One word the Greeks used for time was "chronos." Take a few seconds to look at a clock, whether that be a wristwatch or cell phone, and you will see what the ancient Greeks (who had neither wristwatches nor cell phones) observed. Chronos-time is time measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and so on. Chronos-time is predictable and regular.
An unwanted five-minute exchange with a telemarketer can feel ten times longer than a short phone call from a close friend, but actually the five minutes of each experience lasts the same amount of seconds-three hundred seconds to be exact.
But the ancient Greeks would say at this point, "Ah-ha. Now you see the problem. Time might move at a standard pace by the clock or sun overhead, but in our hearts and minds, time slows down or speeds up." That feeling led the Greeks to create a second word for time--kairos. Kairos-time is time that feels different because it is filled with something that delights us-meaning.
Kairos-time is time at its best. If you've ever gone whitewater rafting or skydived for the first time, you undoubtedly experienced kairos-time. You might have been scared, exhilarated, or both, but the one thing you weren't was bored.
We endure chronos-time, but if we have too much of it, life feels flat. This is when the yawns begin. In contrast, kairos-time isn't something we endure; we relish it. Kairos-time gives us energy, so we feel more alive.
What does all this have to do with this pandemic? In this time of staying in, are we condemned to living in chronos-time? Or do we have some choice in the matter? Can we experience kairos-time even now?
I was reminded of this recently when a dear friend who has struggled with several bouts of sickness shared how much, while sheltering in, she is enjoying the birds and other signs of nature this spring. Others have told me that the pandemic has brought other surprises--unhurried meals with family members, the joy of writing a letter to a friend in longhand, and lying in bed at night with a favorite book, the alarm clock turned off.
As human beings, we can't live in kairos-time every minute. That would be truly overwhelming. But during this pandemic, we don't have to surrender to boredom and frustration.
While it might not seem so now, the pandemic offers daily opportunities to ask ourselves an important question-what gives meaning to my life? Perhaps there's a cause you've felt called to join but until now lacked the time. Maybe there's an art project you've always wanted to begin or a friend from the past whom you've wanted to write or call. Or, consider that book that's been patiently waiting for you to pick up and read.
Along with the philosophical Greeks, we might also remember a bit of wisdom from the ancient Romans. "Carpe diem" doesn't mean "endure the day" but rather "seize the day."
Let's seize today.
THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PORCH
May 11th, 2020
My wife offered an important correction to something commonly said during the pandemic. She pointed out that what is called for is not "social distancing," but "physical distancing."
As so often happens, the change of just one word can offer a new perspective on what we are experiencing. In so many ways-through emails, phone calls, handwritten letters, and video conferencing-the pandemic has increased the connections we are making with one another.
I was reminded of this last week, when my wife and I sat on the steps of our front porch and had three friends stop in the street to chat. In terms of physical distancing, we were more than fifteen feet apart, and the conversations were mainly about everyday issues, but the time felt both wonderful and a bit out of time.
I say "out of time" because chatting with friends and neighbors from the front porch is something that I associate with my youth back in the 1950s. Porch-sitting on a warm evening and chatting to those who walked by were common until they suddenly became uncommon in the sixties.
A wise man whom I met at a party over twenty years ago explained what had brought about this abrupt change to American society. No, it wasn't a rise in crime and it wasn't the social and political divisions that resulted from the Vietnam War that spelled the end of porch socializing.
The loss of porch interaction, the wise man explained, came about when two innovations appeared. The first was air conditioning, which meant that the temperature inside our houses was something we could, for the first time, control. No longer would the heat of the summer, heat that had built up during the day in our homes, force us out to our porches in the evening for some relief. With air conditioning, it was possible to be cooler inside on warm evenings than outside.
The second innovation was television. Instead of conversations with neighbors and friends from our porches on those warm evenings, we were now inside, our eyes glued to our black-and-white sets. Instead of wondering who might pass by our houses, we wondered what we'd be missing if we didn't follow the dictates of the announcer when he commanded us to "stayed tuned."
As the wise man from the party twenty years ago pointed out, both air-conditioning and television lured us inside, away from the porch and away from our friends and neighbors. Not knowing our neighbors was something almost impossible before the sixties, but more than possible once we came home from work and school to sit in an air-conditioned room and watch "The Ed Sullivan Hour" or "Gunsmoke."
We now have air-conditioning and more options on our TVs and devices than we can manage, but what these innovations have brought us-the ability to stay inside-has, in this pandemic, lost much of its appeal. If on warm nights in the fifties, we were outside on our porches but longing to be inside, now, during this pandemic, we are inside longing to be outside. The pandemic has literally turned our everyday social world upside down.
When a vaccine for the coronavirus is found and our physical distancing is over, much of the present "upside-down" nature of our lives will end. We will rightly celebrate on that day.
When that day comes, however, one of the intriguing questions to ponder will be "what habits formed during the pandemic will we choose to retain?" I would like to think that the porch won't return to what it has been-a place to wipe our feet before we come inside-but remain that blessed place where we ask about each other's day and wish each other well.
Enjoy the Treat of a Book During this Pandemic
April 23rd, 2020
Perhaps you have made the same discovery I have during this time of sheltering in place. There are old friends in our homes that have been waiting silently and patiently for some attention. The old friends I'm referring to are the books on our shelves.
Over the past few decades, especially after the explosion of online entertainment options, authors and publishers have been fighting for survival. More and more people are staring at computer screens instead of opening books. Even libraries, those temples of books, have found in recent decades that much of their business involves checking out DVDs.
Certainly, cable stations and especially movie channels are popular during this pandemic, but many people are realizing, or realizing once again, that reading a book has pleasures found nowhere else.
Movies have their place, but there is one thing movies can't do well-they can't engage our imaginations to the degree that reading can. Take, for example, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the Sherlock Holmes novella written by Arthur Conon Doyle. What feeling do the moors in the story give us? What does the hound in the story sound like, especially as it bays at night or when it attacks and mauls someone foolish enough to be out on the moors at night?
If we watch the movie version of Hound of the Baskervilles, these questions are answered for us by the camera. We see what the director wants us to see. The director's imagination determines what is on the screen. All we have to do is take it in.
But if we read the Sherlock Holmes story, the sights and sounds have to be supplied by us, by our imaginations. What does a moor feel like on a foggy night? The reader decides. How frightening is the hound? As frightening as we can imagine. What does 221 B Baker Street, London, the abode of Holmes and his friend Watson, smell and sound like, as Holmes smokes his pipe of Turkish tobacco and plays his violin? You decide.
In this pandemic, it is natural for us to want to be outside, to experience a change in the scenery, to meet old and new friends, to leave the confines of our homes. We look out our windows and say to ourselves, "life is out there, waiting for me."
The truth may be otherwise. Through books, not only can we travel anywhere in the world but also can meet the most fascinating people, some from other centuries, cultures, or even galaxies. Some of the people we meet and places we go in books will change our lives forever.
In the future, someone might ask us, "Did you go anywhere during the pandemic back in 2020?" The saddest answer we could give is this: "I didn't go anywhere. I was stuck inside."
Wouldn't a better answer be "Where did I go? I went somewhere different every day, and let me tell you about the amazing people I met through books."
Here is the takeaway: What brain science tells us is that more of our gray matter is firing when we are reading than when we are watching.
Give your brain a treat today during the pandemic. Open a book.
The Gift Of A Single Banana
April 21st, 2020
As is true of many people our age, my wife and I are ordering groceries online and having them delivered to our porch. Almost all the aspects of this experience are new and demand an adjustment of expectations.
I miss driving to the grocery store, parking, and steering a cart through the aisles, all of them filled to capacity. I miss finding exactly what is on my list and being surprised by items not on my list. I miss passing in the aisles a neighbor or colleague from my teaching days. I miss chatting with check-out personnel about a wide assortment of topics, none of them as serious as this pandemic.
But I am also grateful for those who, in these odd weeks and maybe months, shop for us and deliver groceries to our homes. Like firefighters, EMTs, hospital staff, drug store personnel, garbage collectors, and postal workers, surrogate grocery shoppers are fighting on the frontlines of the coronavirus. I hope they are well protected and well compensated.
It took me a couple of days, however, to be grateful for what arrived in our last delivery. I requested bananas, and my wife requested lemons. What I requested was one bunch of bananas. What my wife requested was one bag of lemons. What we found when we inspected the bags was that we'd received one banana and one lemon.
Disappointed, I looked at the pitiful sight of one banana and thought, "what can I do with this?" For two days, I passed by the banana as it lay, lonely, in a bowl in the kitchen. I seemed paralyzed by two contrasting truths. One, if I didn't eat the banana soon, it would become overripe, and that isn't a taste I enjoy. But two, once I ate the banana, that would be it, the end of my enjoyment of eating bananas.
Finally, I picked up the banana and slowly peeled it. I don't know if I have ever studied a banana so thoroughly before. I wondered how far my one banana had traveled to arrive at my kitchen table. I took a knife and lovingly spread peanut butter on the banana. Looking at the whiteness of the banana now covered by the caramel-colored peanut butter, I took a small bite.
I paused. Something was happening in my mouth. The taste of the banana and the peanut butter exploded, and I thought of Plato's belief that for every thing existing in this world, there was a heavenly, perfect form of it. Had the grocery store somehow brought me not just a solitary banana, but the perfect, heavenly banana, the bananas of all bananas? Such are the strange thoughts of someone who taught in a philosophy and religion department for forty-one years.
The second bite did not disappoint, nor did the third, fourth, and fifth. To the last bit of it, the banana dominated my awareness. That was when I realized the banana tasted so amazing because it was the only one I received. Had I received a bunch of seven or eight bananas, not one of them would have tasted as delicious. They would have been normal bananas, regular bananas, run-of-the-mill bananas.
I want to publically thank whoever filled our grocery order for sending our way not one bunch of bananas, but just the one banana. I like to think that grocery store employee didn't misread our order, but thought, "I think the person I'm shopping for needs a lesson in how the extraordinary in life is hidden in the ordinary-if we just had eyes to see."
Wisdom in a Time of a Pandemic
April 13th, 2020
Wisdom is something few of us pondered just two months ago. We were looking forward to March Madness, getting ready to plant flowers in our gardens, and perhaps getting ready go away for Spring Vacation. We had a lot of fun things to think about, and wisdom might have seemed a pretty heavy concept, the kind of topic to kill a good party.
But that was two months ago, and how our lives have changed and are changing. It is likely that the human race has never experienced at the same time so much change in such a short period of time. There is no place in our entire world where we can go to get away from our fear and our grief. It seems crazy to admit it, but, at this moment, no one anywhere on our planet is having a terrific time.
Wisdom, the question of what makes for a good life, is now something we need to move from the category of "let's not worry about that now" to the category of "it's time to think about how best to live."
We are not bears who can hibernate through the winter of the coronavirus and wake up in a few months to life as normal. Life isn't something on the other side of the pandemic; life is what is happening right now.
The good news is that while the virus is new, the human quest for a meaningful life isn't. The religions and philosophies of the world are treasuries containing valuable lessons for tough times. Now is a perfect time to tap into these treasures.
In teaching religious studies for over forty years, I encountered students who'd ask if there is some common wisdom that all religions agree upon. My answer was twofold. First, I would emphasize that the differences between religions have to be respected. Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism all offer different understandings of what is broken in us as humans and what will fix us.
Only after explaining these differences would I acknowledge that yes, there are ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, that all religions promote.
One of these ways is to live in a state of gratitude. Most of us learned about gratitude as toddlers when our parents taught us to say "thank you" when someone gave us a present or compliment. To live in a state of gratitude is to offer a silent or expressed "thank you" for all that we receive from life, from God. To live in gratitude is to wake up from taking life for granted.
If we let it, the coronavirus can strengthen our sense of gratitude. Those collecting the garbage are still doing so. Thank you. Truck drivers continue to bring supplies to stores. Thank you. Those who work in hospitals-the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and staff are reporting for duty. Thank you. Scientists and laboratory researchers are working around the clock to produce a vaccine or treatment. Thank you. Teachers are offering their classes online. Thank you. Grocery store workers are continuing to stock shelves and even deliver groceries. Thank you. The staff of this newspaper is continuing to interview, write, and publish to keep us informed. Thank you.
Gratitude, then, is a state of mind, and once we begin to practice gratitude, we find that we have so much to be grateful for. What I find fascinating is that it seems impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time. Anxiety makes us fear what might happen; gratitude helps us acknowledge all that comes into our lives as a gift. Anxiety can paralyze the mind; gratitude opens the heart.
It is tempting to conclude, while we are sheltering in place, that our freedom has been taken away. The most important freedom we have as humans can never be taken away. That is the freedom to choose how we respond to what life gives us.
Let's choose gratitude.
THE POWER OF HOPE
April 1st, 2020
One of the constant refrains we are hearing during the coronavirus is "None of us have been through this before." This statement is both true and false. Yes, it is true that this particular virus is new, and it is also true that our country has not faced a pandemic in our lifetime.
It is not true, however, to say that human beings, some alive today, have not faced epidemics and this level of threat before. Many of our African brothers and sisters faced the Ebola epidemic over the past decade, and many others in Asia faced the SARS epidemic.
This particular crisis, however, has reminded me not only of these previous epidemics but of the work of the psychotherapist Victor Frankl (1905-1997). No, Frankl didn't live through an epidemic, but he did live through something far worse-the Nazi concentration camps.
What makes Frankl so timely for our present coronavirus epidemic is what he discovered from his time in the camps about survival. From his experiences in the camps, Frankl knew that survival couldn't be guaranteed. At any moment, a guard could, without threat of reprisal, shoot camp inmates.
Yet, Frankl also observed that those who survived the camps weren't simply the lucky ones. Those who survived had a certain mindset, and that mindset led them to act in certain ways in the camps.
The key to survival that Frankl discovered was the ability to tap into a future hope and to draw strength from that hope.
We might think that everyone has hope for the future, but Frankl is referring to a specific hope. It wasn't enough for concentration camp inmates to have a general hope, such as "I hope to survive this terrible experience." What was essential for survival was to have a future hope such as "I must survive the camp because my younger sister cannot face life alone," or "I must survive so that I can write an account of my experiences. Humanity must never allow the Holocaust to happen again."
The specific hopes for the future were as diverse as were the inmates. One future hope is not better than another, as long as people feel that only they can fulfill their specific dreams. Those who survived the camps felt that life demanded that they survive, for only through them could their future hope come to pass.
After the war and as a therapist, Frankl encountered many clients who felt that their lives lacked meaning. Frankl realized that what these men and women lacked was a sense of purpose or destiny that only they could fulfill. They weren't sure what they were living for. While Frankl couldn't tell these men and women what their purpose was, he could help them uncover and name their unique purpose for themselves.
All of this makes Victor Frankl's best-selling book Man's Search for Meaning a vitally important book at this time. Yes, we are caught in a dangerous pandemic, but how we respond is up to us. What future good, not just for yourself but for the world, has your name on it? What is your purpose or destiny?
Frankl offers a final thought. The future is not just what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. The future can be a source of strength that we can access now, even while we are hunkered down in our houses. Very likely, there is something we can do, perhaps online, via email, or over the phone to begin to make that future a reality. The future begins now.
The writer of the book of Proverbs in the Bible knew this millennia ago: "Without a vision, the people perish." Frankl suggests that the converse is also true: "With a vision, we have a chance to flourish."
The Repair Shop
March 1st, 2020
One of the companies that is doing brisk business during the coronavirus epidemic is Netflix. Apparently, some people enjoy watching films about pandemics, as a number of those have popped up in the last weeks, but my wife and I are not interested. Real life is dramatic enough.
A program that has had a healing effect on our spirits is The Repair Shop. This series from Great Britain might be best described as an unusual reality show. No, there is no competition between contestants and, in fact, there is nothing spicy at all about The Repair Shop. In each program, individuals bring family heirlooms and treasures, always in terrible condition, to a rustic barn where repairers and restorers patiently work their magic.
The more my wife and I have watched The Repair Shop, the more we've felt its soothing effect. This has been especially true since the coronavirus hit our country and forced us to stay in. Every episode in season one, and now as we have begun season two, has calmed our spirits, and we've become curious about how the program consistently achieves this.
On one level, The Repair Shop is a program built around challenging problems to solve. Individuals bring in old clocks that don't work, paintings that have been abused, wind-up toys from the early 1900s, and dolls falling apart, and leave these items to be fixed and restored.
As the head of The Repair Shop expresses it, "we live in a throwaway culture," but precious heirlooms can't be replaced. When individuals leave their treasures with The Repair Shop, the repairers and restorers say they'll do their best.
The rest of each program allows us the viewers to look over the shoulder of the repairers as they take apart, sand down, repaint, and replace. The process can't be rushed, so if you are looking for a fast-paced action drama, The Repair Shop isn't the program for you.
The Repair Shop is the program for you if you understand that love is the most powerful force in the world, a force stronger than anything-destruction, decay, and even death. Love is what brings individuals into The Repair Shop with their boxes of broken and rusty bits.
The repairers always ask the donors of the heirlooms to relate why the item is of value to the family. The answer is never what we might find on another show, Antiques Road Show. Not once has the value of the item brought to The Repair Shop been expressed in terms of money.
Those who donate heirlooms share memories of the treasures, many of those memories going back generations. The stories shared are always stories soaked in love. The clock is from a grandfather who was the beloved head of a family. This violin in pieces is from a Jewish relative who played it while being incarcerated in Auschwitz. This wind-up car that no longer winds up was a gift from a favorite uncle who recently died.
The donors leave their heirlooms to the repairers, not seeing what we are allowed to see-the loving way the heirlooms are treated by the restorers and repairers. These men and woman are true artists, but more than that, they are surgeons. It is clear very quickly in the series that these artists know they aren't simply working with broken glass, metal, wood, porcelain, canvas, and fabric. They know that they are holding in their hands beloved and irreplaceable memories.
What the artists in The Repair Shop return to the donors at each program's end is far more than a resurrected clock, painting, doll, musical instrument, or toy. Through the restored items, these artists bring back a loving relative, a favorite Christmas from an elderly person's youth, the moment when something cherished was passed down. I'd recommend having tissues nearby for the moment when the donors of the items retrieve their heirlooms.
The Repair Shop is the most therapeutic program on TV during the coronavirus pandemic. After the crisis is over, think how much of life in our communities, our country, and our world will need repair and restoration.
The Repair Shop might be viewed as an escape during the coronavirus pandemic, but I think the program is more important than that. The Repair Shop offers the best model of how best we can recover. What is broken can be healed, what has seemingly been lost can be recovered if we remember that love is the strongest glue.
•At This Critical and Frightening Time
•The Wound Cheating Leaves?
•Give A Gift to Hospital Workers This Holiday Season
•The Benefits of Solitude
•Losing Reveals Character
•The Ways of a Bully
•What Makes You Unique?
•Should "Black Lives Matter" Movement Be Taught in Schools?
•Are We a Nation Of Spoiled Children?
•The Importance Of The Word "NO" In a Democracy
•The Temptation Of Power
•Learning From the Life of U.S. Congressman John Lewis
•A MOVIE FOR PAINFUL TIMES
•Art in the Pandemic
•Wisdom in a Pandemic
•Dr. Fauci's Worried Face
•When the Lake Rolls Over
•MISSING THAT FAVORITE RESTAURANT
• Time and the Pandemic
• THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PORCH
• Enjoy the Treat of a Book During this Pandemic
• The Gift Of A Single Banana
• Wisdom in a Time of a Pandemic