John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | January

Come and sit by my side if you love me

[To read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary click here.]

Dateline: January 23, 2011

“Come and sit by my side      if you love me”

 From the familiar cowboy love song of unknown origin, The Red River Valley

For the last two weeks, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly has sat at the bedside of his critically wounded spouse, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, holding her hand, as she has drifted in and out of consciousness.  Recently, she has recovered sufficiently to be able to return his gesture with a faint smile and familiar pat on his cheek.

The space cowboy and the love of his life have shown us, once again, that when our length of our days have been reduced to moments of uncertainty, wavering between life and death, sometimes the only thing left to do is sit close, hang tight, and abide.

Abiding certain members of our human family is not that easy to do sometimes.  Who could abide the actions of alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner?  Consequently, he currently spends twenty three hours each day alone in a federal prison cell in Phoenix, which inmates have dubbed “the Hole.” He takes his meals through a slot in his cell door, has no contact with other prisoners, and is allowed out for only an hour a day to shower and exercise in an isolated pen with a wall around it.

For now, the only visitors permitted to visit him are his defense team and the prison chaplain, if he chooses.  Neither Loughner’s parents, nor anyone else have apparently tried to visit him, sources have said.

Abiding one another is not that easy to do sometimes.  I should know.  There are those whose words and actions I can hardly stand sometimes.  Sometimes I can’t abide those who don’t think the way I do.  Why, I wonder sometimes, can’t they be as tolerant, or as enlightened as I?

Then I remind myself, there are folks in my life who not only wonder the very same thing; but with whom I couldn’t disagree more on almost any topic, as well.  And yet, I still count them among my friends.

I’ve received a number of reader’s comments to last week’s commentary, “Unhinged.”  Many responses might be considered favorable, concurring with some of my observations and assertions.  Several had their own additional thoughts to contribute to the dialogue.  And at least one reader’s comments expressed vehement disagreement with just about everything I had to say.

I like preaching to the choir.  The harmonies blend well, and together we can appreciate what for us is an authentic voice.  But I also know there are other tunes out there, and that reality suggests a broader repertoire.

So, I genuinely appreciated everyone’s comments this week; but probably most of all my sharpest critic.  Somehow our differences do not prevent us from still sitting down together.  I love the man.  We can still abide each other.

I spent many years in a pulpit, preaching more than fifty times every year to more than just the choir.  While I took the responsibility and the privilege seriously, I never hesitated to express my own thoughts and opinions; as they were shaped by both a sincere journey in my own faith tradition, and my interpretation of our scriptures.  I rejected outright the argument one should not mix and meddle religion with politics.

There were those who could not abide the message I had to offer sometimes.  But then there were others who would listen, hang their heads in their hands, then shake my hand at the end of the hour together, share with me their disagreements, and return the next week.

Their willingness to abide with me taught me an invaluable lesson; that mere conviction and certitude, to my way of thinking — let alone some cold, disdainful tolerance — were no match for mutual respect and genuine affection.  Life and death moments that would periodically and unpredictably arise over the years, kept our differences in proper perspective, our pride humbled and our hearts soft.

Their willingness to abide with me taught me an invaluable lesson; that mere conviction and certitude  — let alone some cold, disdainful tolerance — were no match for mutual respect and genuine affection.

 

Five months ago, during Obama’s health care reform speech to a joint session of congress, a relatively unknown member of Congress, flanked by his stunned colleagues, made a name for himself, by interrupting the President’s remarks, shouting out in the House chamber, “You lie!”

On Wednesday, the Columbia Free Times reported that a South Carolina gun company, which had been selling parts for an AR-15 assault rifle engraved with the words “You lie” as a tribute to 2nd District Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, pulled the product from its shelves at Wilson’s request.  Still, it was also reported, the Palmetto State Armory’s website still urged buyers to hurry, as there were only 999 copies of this item left.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, perhaps one important lesson we might all re-learn is how we might redouble our efforts to abide one another.  So what do I do with the words and actions of those I can’t abide?

In a bookstore yesterday I saw a poster pasted near the front door.  Beside two graphics depicting some pebbles and twigs were the accompanying words, “No Sticks, No Stones.”  The sub-heading was an announcement for something I’d never heard of before.

On its website, “No Name-Calling Week” explains it’s “an annual observance of educational activities aimed at ending name-calling of all kinds and providing schools with the tools and inspiration to launch an on-going dialogue about ways to eliminate bullying in their communities.”  This year the week’s observance starts this Monday and runs through Friday.

My first thought was I’d always considered a week to be seven days, not five.

Then I wondered why it had to only be one short week out of a year in our lives that our children have to be the ones to teach us all to refrain from name calling.

Then I thought to myself, well what a happy coincidence No Name-Calling Week will be underway when the President delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

But wait, there’s more!   Whereas the pomp and ceremony of the State of the Union address typically sets the stage for political theatrics, with ideological opponents sitting on opposite sides of the House chamber, half applauding while the others sit on their hands, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, have invited one another to “come and sit by my side.”

I do not know the level of affection each man holds for the other, nor do I know if biting one’s tongue before speaking, or rearranging the seating chart in Washington for one evening, will help change the current course of our troubled times.

On the other hand, I am more inclined to believe that in the absence of a change of heart and such a simple gesture of good intent for our common good, a continuation of the ongoing rancor and destructive consequences of both words and actions to date have little chance of gradually and eventually changing.  So I signed a petition, urging my own representatives to follow the two senator’s lead, and see if they could abide sitting on the other side of the aisle for an hour.

Fifty years ago last Friday, at the height of the Cold War, John Kennedy delivered his famous inaugural address.  The black and white film footage of statesmen in top hats from a half century ago seemed as if it portrayed another time; in an era in which two super powers were engaged in the massive stockpiling of nuclear armament with a policy of deterrence that had reached its own height of lunacy, in a effort to save us all from mutual annihilation.

Then I listened to these words again, uttered by this voice from the past.  Words that could have been written today, and aptly included by another President in an address to our nation this week.

So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.  Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.  … And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.  All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

The cynic that sometimes finds its voice in me might simply conclude, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The idealist in me might be subjected to my critic’s charge of naiveté sometimes.

And the pragmatist — not just the optimist — in me still opts for hope as the preferable alternative; knowing when our days are reduced to such moments of uncertainty, the heart of the matter might remind us the only (and best) thing left to do sometimes is sit close, hang tight, and abide one another.

“And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  1 Peter 5:5

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

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Unhinged

Unhinged

[A copy of this commentary to print and/or read can be found here.]

Dateline: January 15, 2011

For many years I was privileged to lead a modest-sized faith community of good-hearted folks.  Being handy resourceful types, we were constantly repairing and enhancing the buildings and property.

On the long list for on-going maintenance were the wooden sanctuary doors.  They were large and heavy, and with frequent use the hinges would loosen, the doors would jam, and people couldn’t get in or out.  That was a problem.

Replacing the hinge screws with longer and longer ones worked for a while, until the threads stripped the wooden jamb once again.  Eventually, it was clear the problem wasn’t the door, the hinges or the screws, but the building itself.  Until we fixed the framework, our most important passageway wouldn’t work, and we weren’t going anywhere.  In a word, we’d become unhinged.

Until we fixed the framework, our most important passageway wouldn’t work, and we weren’t going anywhere.  In a word, we’d become unhinged.

 

A week has past since the unfolding events of yet one more violent moment in this nation and its aftermath, this time in Tucson.  Amidst all the searching for the inexplicable ‘whys,’ the inadequate ‘what’ of what might have been done to prevent it from happening (or ever happening again), and the squabbling over who might be blamed, one thing was clearly felt.  Whatever else has happened, we have once again collectively found ourselves unhinged.

On Wednesday, the President remarked, “… when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.”

But he also simply and astutely observed, “We’re shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward.”

My hunch is that, while the ensuing “thorough investigations” and careful examination of lots of evidence and data might provide a lot of potentially useful information, deeper, broader and more far-reaching introspection could prove more illuminating and helpful in the end.

Consequently, my further hunch is legislation merely limiting the number of rounds in a Glock’s magazine clip, or reviewing and revising school policies to better address student mental health may always prove to be too little, too late, in a social order that is itself in crisis and hanging off its hinges.  There’s something more at stake here.  And more than a little introspection would help serve the common good.

Whereas I would normally have had an immediate comment or two (or more) to make, in response to the perpetual 24-hour news cycle, I’ve surprised myself this last week; feeling more compelled to listen to others, ponder and reflect.

Quite some time ago I realized there’s always a back-story to every story; where something more profound may often be found.  That’s probably why I’ve spent so many years foraging around the language of myth and the plotlines of parables; moving from storyline, to interpretation, to meaningful application of arcane tales that still have the capacity to move us and tell our story too.  And, in this high-profile story of tragedy and violence for perpetrator and victims alike, I believe there’s a back-story; which may lead us to the very framework by which we collectively try to set our house aright again.

We have been both stirred and shaken.  There is something more deeply seated, more culturally endemic that has unfolded to create this American story; and it has something to do not only with the manner in which we think and act, but the words we use to tell our stories, about the ways we order our lives.

Looking at the back-story, we should not underestimate the power of language.  And public forums filled with talking heads that challenge each other to reevaluate the rules by which we engage in civil discourse and political rhetoric, with a general reminder that we all ought to just behave ourselves and treat others as we would like to be treated, is only a starting point.

Call it coincidence or not, it doesn’t matter: Gabby was absolutely right.  Words have consequences.  And her words should haunt us.  When one employs the language of lock and load, and crosshairs over targets that have a name and face behind them, it builds upon the framework in which one deliberately chooses to tell their story.  It becomes s part of the common language, the cultural parlance and folklore with which a society tells its story.

Call it coincidence or not, it doesn’t matter: Gabby was absolutely right.  Words have consequences.  And her words should haunt us.

 

When we tell our stories using metaphorical imagery, it’s never, ever just a metaphor.  Unless one is completely ignorant of the words that come out of one’s mouth, stories are told with certain imagery precisely for the power invoked in such an image.  The words chosen may be inspirational, insightful, or incite-full.  Once let loose, it should not utterly surprise us when the words used to tell our stories become part of real live human events.

It has been objectively argued the sole action of one more deranged gunman, who easily passed an instant background check and exercised his second amendment right to purchase a weapon capable of such inordinate violence, was not a political act; despite the fact this high-profile mayhem seems to have struck a deeper nerve in our national psyche precisely because a member of Congress was not only one of the hapless victims, but the target.

Regardless of the confused logic to such an argument – which is altogether useless anyway — it leaves me asking a far bigger question.

Why is itthat  political assassinations and the routine acts of armed violence amongst the citizenry are typically the stuff of across-the-border drug cartels, war-torn nations in which we’re engaged halfway around the world, and impoverished third-world countries in total social chaos; with the only seeming exception being our own magnificent country, the last so-called superpower and leader of the free world?

What is it in our collective make-up, our constitution and character? What is it in the way we create the stories we tell that makes a Tucson supermarket on a Saturday morning the latest crime scene; but not, I fear, the last such story to be told?

Misfortunate events happen all the time, and are typically labeled as being tragedies.  Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a terrible misfortune when tragedy strikes.  What is truly tragic, however, is when terrible misfortune happens when one has the wisdom and capacity to do otherwise.  We can do better.

What is truly tragic, however, is when terrible misfortune happens when one has the wisdom and capacity to do otherwise.  We can do better.

 

In the aftermath of such stories, it is often asked why bullets need to fly and we become unhinged once again, before we are starkly reminded of both the capacity for good, often heroic acts of human kindness and sacrifice, in the face of utter human cruelty on the other.  Like it or not, they are both a part of our common story.

In the face of this still greater tragedy that continues to unfold – of which this event is only the latest chapter – I am persuaded it yet remains within our capacity to deliberately choose to tell another story; if only we have the wisdom, courage and compassion to do so.

 

 

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

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Spit It Out


Spit It Out: What you say, and How you say it

A Reflection for Twelfth Night

 

Then Herod secretly called in the Magi astrologers and learned from them the exact time of the star’s appearance, and he sent them to Beit Lehem, saying, “Go and inquire precisely about the child.  When you find him, bring me word so that I too may worship him.”
   After hearing the king they set out, and look, the star, which they had seen in the east, went before them until it stood above the place where the child lay.  When they saw the star, they were marvelously glad.  And they went into the house and saw the child with Miryam his mother, and fell to the ground and worshiped him.  Opening their treasure boxes, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. 
   Then having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned by another road to their own country.  [Mattityahu 2:7-12]
From Willis Barnstone’s translation,
The Restored New Testament (2009)

 

 Dateline: January 6, 2011

By now (since the video went viral a whole two days ago), most everyone has seen and heard all about Ted Williams, the down-and-out homeless prodigal from Columbus, Ohio, who’s been dubbed “the man with the golden voice,” and this week’s media sensation.

On Monday, a mildly amused local reporter rolled down his car window to challenge the panhandler holding the ragged cardboard sign, which read, “”I have a God-given gift of a voice.”  The rest is history.

The deep resonant tone of a professional broadcasters voice spit out a quick one-line announcement with such ease and emphasis that one easily would have thought the sound booming from the car radio had been transplanted into the throat of the lanky, disheveled drifter with the ready smile and crooked teeth.

Except for his instant fame, his personal story seemed all too familiar: drugs and alcohol, a broken marriage and numerous offspring, the unknown whereabouts of his family, a former budding career now a distant memory, and a decade later just another nowhere man with nothing left to lose because he’d lost it all.  Well, almost everything, with the exception of his rich voice that somehow remained intact, and something else less apparent, but perhaps of greater importance

On this morning’s broadcast of The Today Show, the nervous knee-jerk behavior of a recovering addict attempting to assimilate his meteoric rise to instant stardom was clearly evident. Aside from the series of scripted questions, the interviewer observed Ted’s humble demeanor and his polite deference, so common among street persons when required to bow and grovel for spare change.

Williams responded by recalling how his mother always taught him to treat others as he himself would like to be treated, with dignity and respect.  In that moment, he took on the role of self-appointed spokesperson for the countless millions of those often dismissed and despised, whose personal stories one can never presume to know.

All the well-known catch phrases sprang to mind.  “Don’t judge a book …” “There, but for fortune, or by the Grace of God …”  That kind of thing.  But there was even more to be found in this little human-interest story, and the message.

This former-nobody who was scarcely a shell of his former self was sitting on a comfortable couch alongside these famous co-anchors in NBC’s Studio 1A, in Rockefeller Plaza.  And, seated there upon just such a throne of deference, delivering his speech with such eloquent elocution to a mass audience, I realized how much greater was the gift of his regal message, than merely the voice which delivered it.

… seated there upon just such a throne of deference, delivering his speech with such eloquent elocution to a mass audience, I realized how much greater was the gift of his regal message, than merely the voice which delivered it.

In The King’s Speech, the little gem of a movie currently making the rounds, King George VI has just the opposite dilemma as Ted Williams.  The British historical drama tells the story of an earthly king who is afflicted with a stutter that all but incapacitates him in the execution of his obligatory duties.

Upon his father’s death and his older brother, Edward VIII’s abdication in order to marry his heart’s desire and a despised woman judged to be utterly unacceptable by social convention, Bertie – as only his royal family is allowed to call him – is thrust upon the throne.  It’s 1939, and Britain is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. His loyal subjects around the globe are waiting with bated breath to hear much-needed words of inspiration and encouragement from their new king.

None of the king’s men, including properly knighted doctors, professional speech therapists or even the smug and insufferable Anglican clergy leadership, are of any use.  In desperation, the tongue-tied monarch seeks out Lionel Logue, a very unconventional Australian speech therapist of modest means with no formal credentials; except the real-life experience of having helped soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the last Great War learn to emotionally walk again.  Though worlds apart, it is the king who must come begging at the door of one who lives in a part of town where no royals would normally stoop to venture.

The king’s initial haughty resistance gradually gives way, as he is brought low by his affliction and utter neediness; only to be lifted up by the simple, wise and compassionate commoner, who not only helps his king rally the people for a great shared ordeal to be endured and overcome; but creates a lasting life-long friendship between king and pauper.  In this little tale, the greater message to be conveyed transcends even the paramount message of the king’s speech to his subjects, delivered with loosened tongue.

In this little tale, the greater message to be conveyed transcends even the paramount message of the king’s speech to his subjects, delivered with loosened tongue.

 

Today is Twelfth Night, marking the end of Christmastide with the observance of The Epiphany in the Christian faith tradition.  Followers mark the occasion by retelling the gospel tale of intrigue between a jealous and fearful King Herod, and the alien “magi” who seek the one before whom they should genuflect in praise and adoration.

As told, the Epiphany story has traditionally been meant to convey the story of the Jewish mashiah’s manifestation (epi-phanos, “light all around”) to (and for) all the peoples of the earth, kings and paupers alike.

But more so, I’ve always liked to think of Matthew’s little story as a belated Christmas gift exchange.  As some of us reminisce the way we sang the old hymn, those “three kings of Orient are, who travel so far” bend the knee before the manger and offer the newborn Light of the World extravagant and utterly useless gifts.

And in exchange, they presumably receive a simple message in the form of a dream, which “enlightens” them that there is another, better way to return to their former lives in a much richer and abundant way.   It’s the message, not the means, which is the richer gift.

And in exchange, they presumably receive a simple message in the form of a dream, which “enlightens” them that there is another … much richer and abundant way.   It’s the message, not the means, which is the richer gift.

 

Since it was first coined nearly a half century ago by the early prophet of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan, we live in a time in which purportedly “the Medium is the Message.”  The result has been an exponential explosion of all the means with which to say whatever one has to say; even when one has nothing worthwhile to say.  The result?  So much would-be development of content and character has been usurped by special effects and banal drivel.  Paddling against such mainstream convention, I would contend how you say it isn’t nearly as important as what you say.

Accustomed as I should be to public speaking by now, I’m one who has been known to mumble and stumble with my words.  Consequently, my preference is to chew on them and use the written word as my medium of choice.  And, while I know enough to ask neither the kings of this world, nor princes of the Church, where the light of the world is to be found, that “other way home” remains the gift to be sought and shared above all other allegiances.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say is a wise maxim.  Remaining true to one’s word is a mark of integrity that is a priceless gift even spiritual vagabonds can afford.  So, to Ted and Bertie, you and I, it would seem the message is the same.  Ultimately it’s not the voice, but the one behind the voice that is the gift.

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

 

 

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