I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

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Hypocrisy

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Sunday’s readings at church spoke of those who are hypocrites in their judging of others. It admonished each of us to first consider our own shortcomings before pointing out those of the people around us. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning actor. In other words hypocrisy involves pretense, an attempt to show ourselves to be better than we actually are. In today’s world hypocrisy abounds, particularly in the political world. There’s more self-righteousness and judging in society at large than happens inside a county courthouse. Indignation abounds and most of those who participate in such behavior seem to believe that they have the answers to every problem and that those who disagree with them are evil doers who must be stopped. It’s enough to drive one a bit crazy.

While there are times when we must come to a consensus regarding someone’s guilt or innocence most of the time the conclusions that we draw about others are faulty estimates of petty grievances at best. We form instantaneous opinions about all sorts of situations, and don’t spend much time attempting to find the truth or concentrate on excising our own flaws. We see a photo of a teenager looking ominous in a hoodie and wonder what mischief lurks inside his soul. We catch a glimpse of a boy wearing a MAGA cap and what appears to be a smirk and instantly decide that he must be cold hearted and racist.

I remember meeting a man who had a shaved head, very pale skin and a kind of grimace on his face. Without knowing one iota about him I began imagining that he looked very much like a white supremacist. I felt uncomfortable around him and wanted to leave before getting past the introductions. Once I got to know him  I realized that nothing could have been farther from the truth than my initial observations. He was bald because he lost his hair at a early age, he just happened to have a very light complexion, and on the day that I met him he was in great pain because of an injury. Once I talked and worked with him I realized that he was kind and understanding and a staunch defender of the rights of all people. He was a truly wonderful man, and I felt embarrassed that I had been so quick to use a number of stereotypical signals to size him up.

I’ve sadly seen conclusions being drawn about individuals again and again, but even worse is when I see instances of people turning on former friends or even family members simply because they do not share the same beliefs about how to solve the problems that plague us. Often the two sides actually desire the same outcome, but have conflicting ideas about how to accomplish the goals. Examples of abound of such instances whether speaking of income inequality or immigration. The trouble with our present state is that we judge and judge again.

One the the things that most angers me is a kind of two headed monster. On the one hand there are devout Christians who spout hateful rhetoric, and on the other hand there are people pretending to be compassionate champions of justice who slam and poke fun Christian beliefs. Both parties are so busy being holier than thou that nobody appears to notice the contradictions in their arguments. They simply babble on hurling accusation after accusation all the while posing as defenders of righteousness. 

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian world. It’s the beginning of Lent and for the next forty days people will try to atone for their bad behavior. Many will pray or make sacrifices by giving up Facebook, or television or sugar. Few will consider engaging in self reflection and asking themselves whether or not they have been too quick to judge others. They will neglect to do the things necessary to first change themselves. The real challenge that we all face is to help even those who seem to be lacking in the characteristics that we most admire. The only way to do that is to first be honest about our own behavior.

Instead of casting stones we should be making stone soup, a savory brew made from the lovely variety of the people in our world. If we want to truly show that we are good we will be slow to anger and hypocrisy. We don’t need to beat ourselves up or wear hair shirts, but we can certainly learn to forgo our opinions until we have truly attempted to understand.

In anticipation of Lent I went to a Mardi Gras party hosted by my dear friends Dickie and
Tim in Galveston. We feasted on Dickie’s famous gumbo and imbibed in wine and hurricanes. We talked and laughed and then gathered on the street in front of the house to watch a parade with bands and floats and hundreds of people from every walk of life. There were smiles abounding and everyone loved everyone else in that moment with no thought of appraising appearance or behavior. It was just a nice celebration that made us all feel warm and happy. In many ways it was a reminder of how we should try to be all of the time, just enjoying the delight of life and taking those images to heart for when we need to refresh ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday let’s do our best to look first in the mirror and then make a plan to spend the next forty days embracing the people that we encounter. Let’s try to wipe out our own hypocrisy and see if it helps others to work on theirs.

Finding the Love

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I am a believer. I am certain that there is a God, even when He doesn’t appear to be near. I have felt His presence in my heart on many occasions, and sometimes He has required me to be strong and muddle through really difficult problems seemingly without any sign of Him. I also believe in angels and saints. I think they do much of the day to day work of watching over us mortals, and often they are people that we have known who have earned a heavenly reward. I don’t really understand how it all works, but I have faith that it does. I pray knowing that some of my requests will honored in very different ways than I expected. Always I get the sense that I am never alone, even in my darkest hours, even in those times when what is happening seems cruel and unfair.

I get subtle messages during daily routines that ease my anxieties and allow me to carry on amidst the harsh realities of living. I may recall my mother’s smiling face and be filled once again with the boundless love that she always gave to me and my brothers. I may recall a bit of wisdom that I heard in a homily at church. I may look into the sky and realize the grandeur of the universe that tells me that somehow there is something more to the orderliness than the mathematical formulas of physics.

My brother was a fire fighter. He saw things that were tragic and difficult to process. Much like a military man he was affected by what he witnessed, particularly when it involved death. His work led him to God because, as he tells it, he saw many whose lives ended in the course of his efforts to help them. For some the last breaths were agony, but others looked heavenward with a confidence and even joy that radiated total peace. My brother wanted what those people had and found that it was faith in God that had comforted them as they drew their last breaths. It didn’t seem to matter what religion they had as much as their willingness to surrender to belief in something quite mysterious.

I was a teacher and I found over and over again that children being raised with some form of faith in some form of God tended to be more confident and resilient. It didn’t matter as much whether or not they were rich or poor as how deeply they were anchored by a belief in something bigger than themselves. They navigated through troubled times with heavy hearts just as we all do, but they believed that they were never alone and that feeling made their journeys just a bit easier.

I know many individuals whose faith is imprinted on their faces. They do not proselytize or advertise but instead they demonstrate the kind of inner calm that comes from believing with every fiber of their being. They are special souls whose faith is so deep that they radiate joy. They answer all of life’s problems by counseling with their Lord and then doing what they think to be His bidding. They proceed with an unquestioned knowledge that everything is unfolding just as it is supposed to be. I envy them the glory that they have found because I admittedly become far to impatient with the pace of existence. I want to know why bad things happen to good people.

In the western world of today there are fewer and fewer believers. We have become a secular society relying mostly on ourselves to overcome difficulties. There are both subtle and not so subtle criticisms of religion all around us. Well educated and powerful people almost laugh at the ridiculousness of thinking that there is a higher power or a life after death. They see churches and prayers as a waste of time. They suggest that we use our common sense and lean more on science and the manmade laws of justice to solve our problems. There are moments when they make sense, but then I get one of those messages in my heart that tell me that they are wrong. A little whisper helps me realize that there are mysteries that even science can’t unravel.

I see those who believe making it through terrible times intact while those who scoff at such ideas floundering when life becomes overwhelming. I want the nonbelievers to know and feel what I do, I am reluctant to sound like a preacher. I see their eye rolls if I suggest God or prayer. It seems that all that I can do is pray for them just as St. Monica pleaded for her fallen son. It frustrates me that they do not know the kind of joy that believing continuously brings me and I want to share. I know that they will only find what I have when they are ready. I long for the day when they too might embrace the knowledge that they have never been alone. I want them to find the love that I feel so deeply.

This morning I was worried about people that I see struggling. They are souls lost in a storm at sea. They battle the waves mightily but find themselves being pulled under the water where they choke and feel on the verge of losing hope. I see them fighting for their lives without the benefit of knowing that God is indeed watching over them. They do not sense His comfort. They are angry and hurt. I prayed for them and even that they might one day find the kind of peace that courses through my body and my mind. I needed a sign that my words were being heard, and then I began to see things that set my heart at ease.

There was a message on Facebook from one of the most faith-filled persons that I know. He was calling his many friends to prayer and his pleas included a photo of himself sitting in an empty church waiting for us to join him. Yet another post featured an image of a sunrise over Virginia. As I gazed at the magnificent horizon I found myself thinking of my grandfather and wondering if he had seen such sights as a young boy growing up in that part of the world. I remembered his long and optimistic life and once again recalled his wisdom and how comforting it had always been to me. Somehow I felt as though he was an angel sending me the message that things will ultimately work out and reminding me to be faithful and patient just as he always was.

I am a believer. I so wish that the gift of faith that I received first from my mother might comfort those who feel so lost and alone. There is a God. There are angels and saints. We are all part of a glorious plan that does not assure us that we will never suffer, but does guarantee that we will find the strength that we need to face our earthly challenges and find the love that will sustain us. 

Shout For Joy!

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Christmas is my favorite day of the year. For me it is a time to pause from the hurry of life and to contemplate my many blessings while in the company of the family and friends that mean so much to me. As a Catholic it is also a reminder of the birth of our Savior, a humble beginning of an incredible story that resonates with millions and millions of believers and even non-believers across the world. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable on a cold winter’s night and would grow to become one of the most influential voices ever heard on this earth. Even without the religious overtones of His preaching, the kind of life He advocated is beautiful in its simplicity and its immense love. It is so fitting that we still acknowledge His impact on the world over two thousand years after He walked and talked among the people of His time.

I’m not one to proselytize. I think that each of us has a right to whatever beliefs suit us, but I am eternally gratefully that my parents, and particularly my mother, taught me about Jesus and encouraged me to accept His teachings. I was baptized at All Saints Catholic Church by Father John Perusina. My godparents were my Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack. I was an infant then and recall nothing of that moment, but I do know that my godparents took their vow to guide me in my religion very seriously. I understood that I would be able to count on them to be like two guardian angels quietly watching over me. They and my mother and father modeled the essence of being good people, the kind that Jesus said that we all should be. Following His word and their example has brought much happiness to me and taken me through the most difficult of times. I truly cannot imagine my life without my faith to sustain me.

I understand that the world is comprised of a vast diversity of beliefs. I try to honor the opinions and ways of thinking of others. I value their right to view the world through their own unique lenses. At Christmas time I know that my Jewish friends are just as sincere in their religious philosophies as I am in mine. So too it is with the Muslims that I know, the Christians of other sects, and even those who choose not to believe in a higher power. Still I would argue that Jesus was a good guy with very brilliant thoughts that if followed even in a secular sense would make for a glorious world. After all, what can possibly be wrong with following His mandate to love one another? I suppose that is what Christmas means to me.

At this time of year I am reminded to stop long enough to share my own bounty and joy with others. I know that mine has been a wonderful life, mostly because of people who have followed the ways of Jesus, even when they did not adhere to Christianity. I have mostly encountered and been surrounded by individuals who did their best to be kind and generous, honest and loyal. In that regard I suppose that I may count myself as rich. In the end not a single one of my possessions is even remotely equal to the value of the family, friends and acquaintances that I have met in the journey that has lead to my seventy first Christmas. The gifts that I give and receive are but symbols of the love that surrounds me. In this regard I have been truly saved.

At the center of all of our Christmas revelry is a man who was willing to give his life so that we might all be saved. Even if we do not believe that he was not anymore godlike than the rest of us, he left us the treasure of his way, truth and life. Surely everyone must admit that it was a glorious gift that has indeed saved millions of us throughout the ages. I know that it has been my hope and salvation.

So on this Christmas Day I shout for joy! The Lord has come and He has been my Guide and my Savior.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! May each of you find the words and the teachings that will anchor you to happiness throughout the days of your lives.

Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.