Riding a Bicycle in Circles

Here are a couple of questions for you:

  • Are we fundamentally BAD people?
  • Are we fundamentally GOOD people ?

 This bicycle has been raising those questions for me recently and I wonder what you think?

Read on for some context:

priority-bicycle

Imagine a 9-year-old girl riding her bicycle around and around a circular driveway in front of her school every day instead of going to class. 

According to A. S. Neill, that happened at the unique private school he started called Summerhill. Unlike other schools, Summerhill doesn’t have rules that say you have to be in class at a certain time or that you have to study the alphabet in first grade and biology in 10th grade. You could follow your passions and the students there are surprisingly successful in life. 

The girl on the bike had come from a more traditional school with strict, top-down rules.  She had heard that Summerhill was different so, on the first day of school, she got on her bike and rode it instead of going to class. She did that day after day for a couple of months and then one day, she didn’t get on her bike. She went to class instead.

I read Neill’s book many years ago. I had a hard time imagining a school like that.  I went to a school where the principal and the teachers made the rules and the kids obeyed them. We operated on a strict schedule controlled by the clock and bells. If it was 10:15, I was to be sitting in my seat in Mrs. Barber’s Geometry class or else.

I carried this discipline to college and graduate school and into my adult life. It was useful and it made me useful. It also oriented me. I always knew when it was Tuesday morning because I had a  meeting every Monday night.

One of the things that terrified me about retirement was that it has no structure and no rules. I feared that if I didn’t have some kind of discipline imposed by external obligations, I would start drinking Jack Daniels for breakfast, become addicted to “Days of Our Lives”, and play solitaire ’til dawn with a deck of 51.

So, shortly after I retired, I started a blog called “The Second Half”. It got its name from this quotation from Carl Jung:

“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life. . . . we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

Apparently, I did not read my own blog.

We bought bicycles a few weeks ago, and I admit that I’ve been riding my bicycle instead of writing a blog; feeling guilty at first, and then  . . .not so much.

Oddly, I’ve gone back to writing in the past few days. Not sure how often I will be publishing  posts to The Second Half, but I’m knocking out a lot of words for some other projects.

The purpose of this is not to fill you in on  exciting developments in my glamorous lifestyle. It’s to raise deeper questions about human nature.

Do you need disciplines imposed from the outside so that your inner urges and impulses don’t make you run amuck? 

Do you have an inner compass that points toward “true north” that  gets knocked off course by the magnetic attraction of trying to please others or when those more powerful than you are take the wheel of your life? 

What is your experience?

The Path to Enlightenment: The Election as Spiritual Practice, Part 2

Quickly! List 3 things that you really hate about the Presidential candidate you are voting against:

1.

2.

3.

That wasn’t too hard, was it?

I made two assumptions in asking you to do that:

  1. Although you may or may not be voting enthusiastically for a particular candidate this year, you are almost certainly voting against someone.
  2.  I am betting that all three things you listed are personal qualities and not policy positions.

Certainly the candidates in this year’s election have policy differences — and skill set differences  — but my personal polling indicates that we are making our choices largely on personal qualities like honesty or the lack thereof, to name the one that seems to come up most often for both the major party candidates.

OK, writing down those personal qualities you dislike the most in the candidate you dislike the most was step one — pretty easy.

Step 2: Write down one quality in your most-disliked candidate that is deplorable, but you could live with if that was his or her only fault.

1.

That may have been a little harder, but I’ll bet you managed to come up with one.

Step 3:  Ask yourself how those first three qualities reside in you.

I know.

I know.

There is NO WAY any of those three qualities have ANY place in your life. YOU have NEVER said or done ANYTHING remotely like the PERFECTLY AWFUL things that despicable excuse for a human being has said and done!

Take a deep breath, and ask yourself why you get so worked up about those first three things, but you could live with the fourth thing.

Most people will just hit “delete” right now.

That’s because most people (including me) don’t really want to put into practice one of the deepest spiritual disciplines — one that would bring us all closer to what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Matthew 7:1-3.

This portion of the Sermon on the Mount is not telling us to abandon our moral principles. Immorality, lying, arrogance, and whatever else you wrote down will still be bad things. Jesus is  asking us to focus our moral laser vision on ourselves rather than someone else. 

I’m asking you to ask yourself:

What  is there about those three things that gets to me?

How are they different from the one thing I could live with?

I admit that I found this incredibly hard to do. I did not want to find those qualities in myself. But they really are there and I work really hard to cover them up — at least from myself.

You will note that I am not about to share publicly what they are, less because I am ashamed of them than because I don’t want to see in the comments section: “Oh yeah, we knew that about you all along.” 

However, I was astounded at the release of spiritual power that I felt when I faced them. We put a lot of energy into fear and loathing that could be used for improving ourselves and the world around us. 

I was heartened by the fact that the fourth quality — the one I could live with — really is kind of despicable, but it doesn’t bother me because I really don’t have that fault. Such a rare thing — a fault that I don’t have. 

Pro tip: Treat this as a game. Be playful about it. Buy a post-Halloween-discount Hillary mask or Donald mask and mentally wear it for a few minutes and imagine yourself acting out those despicable qualities.

Imagine the mask you wear every day that covers up those qualities in you. How much work do you have to do to keep people from seeing those things in you?

The work we do to remove the beam of wood from our own eyes will go a lot further toward making the world a better place than another Facebook posting about how terrible candidate _____ is.

Try it.  It will change your life and, no matter who wins on Tuesday, your transformed self will be making the world around you a better place — in fact, you will be making it the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Guest Blogger: Responding to that Chair

By Duane R. Miller*

This began as a good friend’s response to the series I just completed about finding our true selves using the metaphor of removing the paint (social roles, learned behavior, etc.) that covers up the “true grain” of our personal characters. What if you reverse the metaphor?  Does this come closer to your experience?

Thanks, Duane, for letting me use this. 

I’ve been reading your [Second Half] blog using the metaphor of a chair that has been painted many times and what it means to strip the layers of paint and find out what is really underneath it all.

The idea seems to be that if you scrape away all the layers of stuff that have been put on you throughout your professional life, you will discover again who you really are.

While your writing is always enjoyable and insightful, there is something about using this image that didn’t sit quite right with me.

I think I have discovered why.

In your image, all your experiences, the layers of paint, are covering up who you really are. Why can’t your experiences and the way you deal with them add new dimensions to whom you are meant to become?
I am going to risk suggesting the metaphor of seeing your life as doing/making a painting.
I’d call the painting: “The Expression of The Spirit through My Life.”

I suggest that each set of experiences might be like

adding a color to the painting.

When you are faced with different experiences and you have to find a way to respond, see that as adding a new color. Any time in our lives can be a good time to look at the overall painting. Maybe you added too much of one color or not enough of another and so you might go back to add some more of one color or cover up some of another.

But you never totally eliminate a color because all of them are needed to express how The Spirit is leading you through your life.

The primary question should always be,

“What should be the next color

that would complement

and bring out the meaning

of all the colors that are already there?”

When I’m quietly listening to that small but insistent voice from within that is also somehow coming from beyond – listening for where it is now leading or directing me. What color can I now add that would make the painting more coherent, meaningful and beautiful?

How do I take what I have learned from painful as well as fulfilling experiences and add thoughts and experiences that help reveal where God/Spirit now wants to lead me?
If I understand the creation of paintings, the painter may have a notion of what the painting is going to look like but, at each stage, each addition of a color, artists discover something  that they couldn’t have anticipated ahead of time. So the addition of each new color is a creative discovery of something you didn’t know was possible before you got to that point in your painting or your life.
Retirement provides a great time to review your life but also to meditate on how God/Spirit wants/encourages you to put it all together so you can rejoice in the abundance of what your life has provided and will continue to give.

*Dr. Duane Miller served as a college chaplain and seminary administrator. He also pastored churches in upstate New York and founded a non-profit community service organization. He is the author of The Memes of My Life: How Integral Thought Illuminated Personal Experiences. 

The Election as Spiritual Practice

Are you suffering from ESD?

Apparently, Election Stress Disorder is a real thing. About half of Americans report feeling significant stress — stress that affects their sleep, their relationships, and their lives.

The media, ever ready to solve problems they have helped create, is publishing advice about how to avoid ESD.

1. Turn off the 24 hour cable channels (says the newspaper).

2. Don’t spend so much time on Facebook (say the cable channels.)

3. Respectfully change the subject when co-workers and friends start to talk about politics (say the advice columnists).

Well, Duh!

Except, in my experience, just avoiding hard stuff leads to spiritual stagnation and broken relationships (and I have had a LOT of experience avoiding hard subjects). When we turn around and face the things that cause us stress, we grow.

The alternative to avoidance

These next few weeks are a fantastic opportunity to try to practice loving our enemies. Note that Jesus does not tell us to avoid our enemies, or to run away from them. On the other hand, Jesus is very clear that we don’t hit them back.

Given the campaign rhetoric, I don’t think the word “enemy” is too extreme. We use words like “attack ad”, “battleground State”, and “adversaries”. According to the attack ads I have seen, my well-being depends entirely on my candidate getting elected. It’s almost too awful to contemplate what will happen if my candidate’s adversary gets elected. It follows that if you are so benighted as to support that other candidate, then you are a threat to my very existence. You are, by definition, “my enemy”.

Our polarized political debates lead us into a spiritual Chinese finger trap.

The more we try to resist the “evil” of the other side’s candidates, and their values  and ideas, the more trapped we become. I don’t know about you, but I often wake up thinking up good arguments about why people should vote for my candidate and should not vote for the other one.  I can obsess about these things, especially when a friend, a relative or a high school classmate posts something completely idiotic on Facebook. Then I am as stuck on arguing with them in my head as someone straining to pull their fingers out of  Chinese handcuffs.

We all know that the only way to pull our fingers out of the trap is to bring them together — the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do.

So, Jesus teaches us a way of breaking out of the spiritual prison that polarization creates by teaching us to do things that are the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do.

Here are some counter-intuitive practices for these last couple of weeks before the election.

Pray for the candidate you would never, ever, in a million years vote for.

I told you this is the opposite of what your instincts say. But what does Jesus say?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

I know, it feels almost immoral.

I just want to pray for America.

I just want to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

But Jesus says:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

 Make it a daily practice between now and election day to hold that scum-of-the earth lying traitor in your heart and pray for her or him – for all those crazy people who are going to vote for that person.  Or, if you don’t pray, at least wish that person well, and see what happens to your heart and mind and soul.

No, it’s not easy. Oddly, it brings us into contact with unexpected parts of ourselves — I will write more about that next time. As hard as it is, I’ve discovered that it sets me free to, among other things . . .

Treat the people who disagree with you as well as you treat the ones who agree with you.

This is tough, too, but It is practical. The day after the election, we still need to work with people who voted the other way. We have to have Thanksgiving dinner with people who voted the other way. Can we put those relationships first and our political principles, no matter how deeply held they are, second?

God does it, of course. I don’t know why the sun continues to shine on people who belong to the other party. I don’t know why the rain that waters my lawn waters the garden of the guy down the street who has that awful sign in his front yard. But that’s the way God is. For centuries God has been doing this to us: Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics, Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists – even atheists. It would be so much better if it only rained on Democrats or the sun only shone on Republicans. Then we would know who was right and who was wrong.

I’m always surprised that, when I put relationship  before being right, it always feels more right than when I put being right first.

Next Practice: Looking at why the other side ticks you off so much and what genuine conviction looks like. 

 

 

 

 

 

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Bible Prophecy

Did you know that Jesus predicted this week’s events in the 12th chapter of Luke?

He actually prophesied Wikileaks’ dump of thousands of emails from the Democratic campaign AND the exposure of Donald Trump’s “Hot mic” description of how he treats women.

Before you toss me in the same wastebasket where you throw Pat Robertson, read these words for yourself:

What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.

(Luke 12:3 New International Revised Version)

So, what do you think? Spot on or what?

 Jesus was warning his disciples against hypocrisy. Here is a more extended version in a popular paraphrase of the New Testament:

By this time the crowd, unwieldy and stepping on each other’s toes, numbered into the thousands. But Jesus’ primary concern was his disciples. He said to them, “Watch yourselves carefully so you don’t get contaminated with Hypocrite yeast, Hypocrite phoniness. You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town. (Luke 12:3 The Message)

I’ve made one change in this passage, substituting the word “hypocrite” for the word “Pharisee”. That’s partly because some of my best friends – and readers of this blog – are Pharisees. Most of today’s Jews trace their lineage back to the Pharisee branch of Judaism that coexisted in Jesus’ time with Sadducees, Zealots, the people who brought us the Dead Sea Scrolls and other groups. I suspect Jesus would have counted himself among the Pharisees, too. That’s probably why he was so often in conflict with them.

That’s not the only problem with using the word “Pharisee” in our translations of the New Testament. When we use the word “Pharisee”,  we Christians think Jesus is talking about someone else. The word “Hypocrite” hits  closer to home.

I thought I had completed my series about Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint, but when this week’s events lined up with these words of Jesus: What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops, I realized that there are darker consequences to being painted than I wrote about earlier.

Taking on the coloring of “parent”, “professional”, or “responsible adult” may have gotten in the way of the full expression of our real selves, but that is latex paint — relatively easy to wash out.

Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is the lead paint that poisons the soul.

What Jesus says to his disciples not only applies to Donald and Hillary, but to you and me as well. My guess is that neither presidential candidate will read this blog, but YOU are reading it. So here are a some takeaways:

The Universe does not love secrets

OK, some readers of this blog don’t believe in God. So, let’s just go with a phenomenon that we see over and over again – stuff we thought was hidden keeps coming out. That goes for the bodies of political enemies buried by South American dictators and the cigarettes that you told your kids you had quit smoking.

Tell me it hasn’t happened to you.

Secrets often come out ironically.

Often the virtues we brag about the most or the sins we most condemn in others are ironically the things that are undermined when the things we say in secret are shouted from the rooftops.

Again, tell me this hasn’t happened to you.

There are psychological reasons why this happens. We often condemn in others those things we most dislike in ourselves – especially when we dislike those things so much that we pretend we aren’t guilty of them.

A famous Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr made a persuasive case that the Bible’s view of human history is essentially ironic.   Our pride in American history often blinds us to the racism, greed, injustice and even genocide that is also a part of that history.

If that offends you, let me point to Hillary Clinton’s most obvious personal fault. She is so convinced that she does good things for people that she cannot see how close to the ethical edge she and her husband have always played in their fund-raising relationships. Donald Trump is so convinced of he is a “winner” that he can’t believe his words and behavior make him the biggest loser most of us have ever seen. 

Whether we are talking about nations or individuals, it’s the same thing. The self-righteous are often blind to the ways they violate their own values in ironic ways — until the contradictions are shouted from the rooftops. 

The way to protect ourselves from exposure is to get honest with ourselves and others

Let’s use another politician as an example.

Harold Hughes was governor and later a Senator from Iowa. He was also a recovering alcoholic. His struggle with alcohol led him, at the age of 30, to climb into a bathtub with a shotgun. Just before he pulled the trigger, he called out to God for help. The result was a major change in his life. Hughes later ran for governor. In a debate, his opponent revealed that 2 years after Hughes’ life-changing experience and joining AA, Hughes relapsed into drinking for a time. That proved, said the opponent, that Hughes was a man without integrity.

Hughes responded by saying, “I am an alcoholic and will be until the day I die… But with God’s help I’ll never touch a drop of alcohol again. Now, can we talk about the issues of this campaign?”

According to the Des Moines Register, “The reaction of the crowd was immediate and nearly unanimous.” Later, the Register editorialized: “In our opinion, any man or woman who wins that battle and successfully puts the pieces of his or her life back together again deserves commendation, not censure.” Hughes won by a landslide. 

Getting Honest With Ourselves is a Task for the Second Half of Life

“Imagine,” Bishop Wayne Clymer once said, “that you open the Sunday paper and  you see in print and photographs every word you have ever said and everything you have ever done. That’s what the Last Judgment is like.”

You may or may not believe in a literal Last Judgment before the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11-15), but sooner or later all of us have to review the lives we have lived or develop a spiritual dementia that will be worse than anything we keep buried.

In fact, bringing these things up to the light may be liberating. When describing the 4th of the 12 Steps, the authors of AA’s Big Book used a business metaphor — taking inventory. We need to look at our lives in order to figure out what is still valuable and what is worthless. Who have I helped? What contribution have I made? Who have I hurt? And how?

We don’t have to publish everything we ever said and did in the newspaper or on the Internet. The most important thing is to come to terms with our secrets. We may need to tell someone — a confessor, ordained or not. We may need to make amends. Above all, we will need to be honest. Not being honest with ourselves is where the lead paint really destroys our souls.

My Dad used to write sayings that struck him as important on the white wash of our dairy barn, one of them was:

“When you lie to yourself, you are down to the last person.”

But when you are honest with yourself, you can handle even the exposure of your worst secrets.

 

Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint 4 – When the Paint Dissolves

Is there anything under the paint?

“What am I doing up here?”

This was running through the head of an actor in the middle of a Broadway musical. He was a soft-she dancer — good enough to make a living in the highly competitive world of New York theater. The producers of a Broadway musical had hired him because they had planned on a big moment that would feature his dance. During the rehearsals and early tryouts,  it became clear that his soft shoe “signature” dance — the one that always got ovations from the crowd — would have to be cut, but, to the dancer’s surprise, the director and producers did not cut him from their play.

 When the musical opened, he felt awkward and out-of-place on stage. What would he do if he couldn’t dance? Then he delivered his lines and got a roar of laughter out of the crowd. 

He discovered something in himself that he didn’t know he had. Underneath the paint of “dancer” he found a comedian.

The surprise of discovery

My mother, who loved refinishing chairs, used to marvel at what she found underneath the paint She said it was always a surprise – a surprise that clearly delighted her.

The chair in the photo used to be covered in red tractor paint. You can see what it looks like now. To find the character of that more-than-a-100 year old chair, we had to brush a harsh liquid onto the paint, let it work and then wipe the softened paint off with rags. 

I’ve been using that chair as a metaphor for finding our true selves in the second half of life — the grain of our lives —  after we have spent a lifetime getting painted with the roles we have played in our families, our jobs and our communities.

We can remember who we were before we were painted. We can trace the grain under the paint. Or we can see, as in the case of this chair, what we look like when the paint that has constituted our identity for so long is dissolved.

The actor thought he was a dancer, but when the dancer-paint was dissolved, he discovered a comedian underneath.

The pain of paint removal

If you remember who you were before you were painted or you can trace the grain of your life under the paint, removing the paint may be liberating.  But if you think of yourself as a red chair, then watching the red paint dissolve  may feel like a devastating loss.

I was a pretty successful pastor for most of my ministry. I always left congregations with more people (and more money) than they had when I arrived — until the last five years of my career.

The world changed around 2010.The things I knew how to do didn’t work anymore. I used to joke that I felt like a highly trained typewriter repairman trying to fix a PC.  The things that seemed to be working for other pastors were not only things I didn’t know how to do but, to be honest, I didn’t want to learn how to do. For the first time in my life, I began to experience the congregational decline that the vast majority of my colleagues had been experiencing for a generation.

I was well aware of the dangers of pastor-paint. As a young man, I had run across the French epitaph: “Born a man – died a grocer”, and I had seen too many of my colleagues snap a clerical collar around their necks and never take it off again.

For that reason I worked to maintain a distance between my self and the very seductive role of clergy. I resisted titles like “Reverend” and “Pastor”. If I called you by your first name, you should be able to call me by my first name.

What I didn’t realize is that, while I refused to identify with the role of pastor, I had embraced the identity of “success”.  When the successful pastor-paint dissolved around me, I was disoriented – and disheartened. I survived the last half-decade of church leadership by discovering strengths that I did not know I had – resilience being one of them.

Finding true character

I have been using the grain in the wood of that refinished chair as a metaphor for character – and to some extent I have equated character with “passion” or “calling”.  But sometimes, when the paint dissolves, we find something even more important than our vocation. We discover that we, in fact, have character.

My maternal grandfather was a kind of small-town Donald Trump. He invested in real estate and, to hear him tell it, he was a huge success although, for some reason, he never had much to show for his efforts. He was also pretty self-centered. Toward the end of his life, he battled with several different forms of cancer, and during the last two years of his life, he lived in a lot of pain from bone cancer. Oddly, that experience brought out of him unsuspected (by his family and friends) reserves of courage, compassion and self-awareness. He became an admirable person while lying in bed suffering and watching his very life dissolve.

I never had an in-depth conversation with my mother about what it was like for her to help  her mother care for my grandfather as he was dying. I wonder if, as his true character emerged from a lifetime of bluster, she felt the same surprise and wonder and delight that she said she always felt when she dissolved the paint on a chair.

Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint 4 – When the Paint Dissolves

Is there anything under the paint?

The producers of a Broadway musical hired a soft shoe dancer — not a big name, but someone who had the kind of competence that world class theater relies on. During the rehearsals and early tryouts,  it became clear that his soft shoe “signature” dance — the one that always got ovations from the crowd — would have to be cut, but, to the dancer’s surprise, the director and producers did not cut him from their play.

 When the musical opened, he felt awkward and out-of-place on stage. What would he do if he couldn’t dance? Then he delivered his lines and got a roar of laughter out of the crowd. 

He discovered something in himself that he didn’t know he had. Underneath the paint of “dancer” he found a comedian.

The surprise of discovery

My mother, who loved refinishing chairs, used to marvel at what she found underneath the paint She said it was always a surprise – a surprise that clearly delighted her.

The chair in the photo used to be covered in red tractor paint. You can see what it looks like now. To find the character of that more-than-a-100 year old chair, we had to brush a harsh liquid onto the paint, let it work and then wipe the softened paint off with rags. 

I’ve been using that chair as a metaphor for finding our true selves in the second half of life — the grain of our lives —  after we have spent a lifetime getting painted with the roles we have played in our families, our jobs and our communities.

We can remember who we were before we were painted. We can trace the grain under the paint. Or we can see, as in the case of this chair, what we look like when the paint that has constituted our identity for so long is dissolved.

The actor thought he was a dancer, but when the dancer-paint was dissolved, he discovered a comedian underneath.

The pain of paint removal

If you remember who you were before you were painted or you can trace the grain of your life under the paint, removing the paint may be liberating.  But if you think of yourself as a red chair, then watching the red paint dissolve  may feel like a devastating loss.

I was a pretty successful pastor for most of my ministry. I always left congregations with more people (and more money) than they had when I arrived — until the last five years of my career.

The world changed around 2010.The things I knew how to do didn’t work anymore. I used to joke that I felt like a highly trained typewriter repairman trying to fix a PC.  The things that seemed to be working for other pastors were not only things I didn’t know how to do but, to be honest, I didn’t want to learn how to do. For the first time in my life, I began to experience the congregational decline that the vast majority of my colleagues had been experiencing for a generation.

I was well aware of the dangers of pastor-paint. As a young man, I had run across the French epitaph: “Born a man – died a grocer”, and I had seen too many of my colleagues snap a clerical collar around their necks and never take it off again.

For that reason I worked to maintain a distance between my self and the very seductive role of clergy. I resisted titles like “Reverend” and “Pastor”. If I called you by your first name, you should be able to call me by my first name.

What I didn’t realize is that, while I refused to identify with the role of pastor, I had embraced the identity of “success”.  When the successful pastor-paint dissolved around me, I was disoriented – and disheartened. I survived the last half-decade of church leadership by discovering strengths that I did not know I had – resilience being one of them.

Finding true character

I have been using the grain in the wood of that refinished chair as a metaphor for character – and to some extent I have equated character with “passion” or “calling”.  But sometimes, when the paint dissolves, we find something even more important than our vocation. We discover that we, in fact, have character.

My maternal grandfather was a kind of small-town Donald Trump. He invested in real estate and, to hear him tell it, he was a huge success although, for some reason, he never had much to show for his efforts. He was also pretty self-centered. Toward the end of his life, he battled with several different forms of cancer, and during the last two years of his life, he lived in a lot of pain from bone cancer. Oddly, that experience brought out of him unsuspected (by his family and friends) reserves of courage, compassion and self-awareness. He became an admirable person while lying in bed suffering and watching his very life dissolve.

I never had an in-depth conversation with my mother about what it was like for her to help  her mother care for my grandfather as he was dying. I wonder if, as his true character emerged from a lifetime of bluster, she felt the same surprise and wonder and delight that she said she always felt when she dissolved the paint on a chair.

Finding the Grain beneath the Paint 3: Feeling for the Grain

 

As I said in the first blog in this series, finding out who we really are is a lot like the process of finding the natural grain of this chair that was hidden underneath red tractor paint. And in the second post, I suggested that you remember who you were and what your dreams were before you were painted over.

There is a second way.

Get a feel for the grain under the paint.

A couple of years ago, we attended the Key West Literary Seminar. For some reason, the organizers are able to attract big name writers to Key West in January to speak to other people, many of them writers themselves, who also are willing to pay well to come to Key West in January. I just don’t know how they do it.

One way to make small talk between sessions is to ask the person next to you, “Are you a writer?”

Someone asked me that the first day and I said, “no”.

The second day, I said, “Well, I write a lot for my work, but I’m not a ‘Writer’”.

The third day, I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

The first day, I was just looking at the paint – in my case, clergy paint. I wasn’t a writer, I was a Protestant minister.

The second day, I noticed a pattern underneath the paint. I DID do a lot of writing in my job: fifty-plus sermons a year are equal to a 250-page book and that wasn’t all the writing that I was doing.

The third day, I realized that I was willing to put up with parts of my job that I never exactly loved (going to meetings, for example), in order to get paid to write every week. I also used writing to raise money, do pastoral care, organize programs – things more extroverted  pastors would do through personal contacts. I realized that, underneath the identity of “minister” was my deeper identity as a writer.

What persists through life’s changes?

 

Moses, you may remember, had been herding sheep and/or goats for about 40 years before the LORD called him to free the Hebrew slaves. It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies to see that Moses went from herding sheep to herding people. As someone who herded cows before I herded congregations, I can tell you that the tasks are very similar. You have to get the leaders going in the right direction and you also have to be sure that no one is left behind. You have to be prepared to deal with those who head the wrong way — or just stop. You also have to know where your destination is and how to get there while constantly removing the obstacles that are in the way right now. Herding cud chewers or people requires patience, perseverance and perspicacity.   *

To be honest, I didn’t  like herding cows and herding people was only bearable because I got to use writing in order to do it. Come to think of it, most of the time when I was herding cows, I was thinking of things I’d like to say or write someday.

But maybe Moses DID like herding sheep and people. He certainly spent a lot of time doing it. Maybe, in the end, he felt that he was born to do it – that it was the hidden grain of his life. He certainly believed that he had been chosen to do it.

 

The same is true in our work.

For example, all pastors write sermons, visit the sick and shut-ins, go to meetings,counsel people who are troubled, and plan events – like Christmas Eve services. Like me, they may find all of this work meaningful and become competent at it. But over and over again, I see clergy coming to the end of their working days and choosing, as one pastor said, “to only do the things I like doing.”

Some hire themselves out to big churches to do pastoral care or they volunteer for a hospice. A retired rabbi friend teaches a course at his local Jewish Community Center. I know one retired pastor who raises money – for fun, I guess. Or at least because he believes teaching people generosity is meaningful and satisfying.

I knew dairy farmers who were good at animal husbandry, carpentry, or fixing tractors and equipment who continued to pursue some of those passions even after they sold their farms and retired to town.

Sometimes we are not aware that we have  passions that come out of our fundamental character – the grain of our lives – because they are integrated into our life and work. A couple of friends – women – commented on my previous posts that they had spent much of their lives taking care of others – both in traditional roles as daughters, mothers, and wives and in professions often dominated by women, like nursing. Now, when retirement, an empty nest — even widowhood — have relieved them of the necessity  of taking care of people, they volunteer to help others because it is meaningful. Well, why shouldn’t it be?

The trick is finding that thing that makes your heart sing underneath and within your current work and life. Then you can sand away at the paint that covers it – and do more of what you love.

What in your life and work makes your heart sing?

Where is the grain of your life hidden in your everyday routine?

Next post: What do you find when the paint dissolves?

* Had to choose between alliteration or clarity here. I chose alliteration because I can’t help myself.

 

 

Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint 2- Before Your True Character was Painted Over

Remember the chair in my last post that had been covered with red tractor paint? Here it is again:

2016-08-22-18-25-30

Just as it took a lot of work to remove the paint to discover the beautiful grain underneath, so it often takes us a lot of work to get down to our true characters that have been covered over with the paint of social conventions, family expectations, and professional roles.

This, however, is the work many people undertake in the second half of life.

But how do you do that? This is the first of four blogs on this subject, because there are at least three ways to find the grain – the character of a chair that has been painted over. Here is one of the most obvious:

Remember who you were before you were painted.

When he was a kid, my father always wanted to be a physician, but he could see no path to medical school. He took over his father’s dairy farm and later worked for the local electric utility.  Away from the farm and living in town, he joined the volunteer fire department. He took their Emergency Medical Technician training and eventually became an instructor. It was a long ambulance ride from my rural hometown to the nearest hospital. For many years, my Dad rode those ambulances and kept people from bleeding to death or dying from heart attacks. He even delivered babies! He loved it. He was good at it. It was what he felt he was meant to do.  He found the grain of his life by regaining his dream.

What were your dreams when you were young?

Some people are lucky enough to follow them. A very accomplished church organist said that when he was a young boy, his aunt took him to an organ concert. She was afraid that he would be bored, but instead, he said, “I was transfixed.” He found his dream and followed it.

Others, like my Dad, never had the opportunity, or missed the opportunity because of the need to raise a family, satisfy someone else’s expectations, or they just chose the “sensible” path.

Can you go back to who you were when you were 24 or 14 or even 4 and remember your dreams back then? Who did you want to be when you grew up?

It’s a scary question – especially late in life. We may have buried the answer like a stillborn child that we have tried to forget because we can’t stand the heartache. It may involve unlearning what we think we are and are meant to be.

As a young man, Moses killed an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. Perhaps even then he was dreaming of becoming a liberator. Instead he became a fugitive and a shepherd. According to tradition, he was 80 when he talked to a burning bush, and became a very different kind of liberator.

Moses’ dialogue with that Burning Bush in Exodus 3 can be a model for reclaiming an old dream.

  • It appears that Moses had to take time out from his routine – to “turn aside” – in order for God to speak to him (Exodus 3:3-4).  Can you interrupt your routine long enough to listen to what God may be saying through your dream?
  • The first thing God does after introducing Himself to Moses is  show Moses what his people need. (Exodus 3:7-9).
  • The next thing God does is give Moses a vision for what he can do to solve this problem (Exodus 3:10).
  • Moses responds by doubting that he is suited to this task. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11).  He will have to unlearn what he thinks of himself and his limitations (Exodus 4:1-17)
  • Note that every time that Moses brings up an objection, God doesn’t magically make it go away, but rather finds a way around it.

Do you have any tales you can tell about finding a path back to your original dreams – your character – the grain of your life that got painted over by necessity or fear?

  • What or who did you want to be when you grew up?
  • How have you had to unlearn what you thought of yourself and your possibilities
  • How have you gotten around obstacles?

The next post will be about finding the grain beneath the paint.

Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint – The Search for our True Character Part 1

I was lying in a hospital bed awaiting surgery one day when a hospital chaplain came in to visit my roommate who was also awaiting surgery.

The chaplain introduced himself and as they chatted, the chaplain said, “are you retired?”

My roommate said he was, but that he was a sculptor.

The chaplain, as if he hadn’t heard, said, “What did you do before you retired?”

My roommate said, “I was an accountant, but now I’m a sculptor.”

I don’t think the chaplain heard the exasperation in my roommate’s voice because he went on to inquire about where my roommate had been an accountant and what sort of accounting he did.

My roommate politely answered those questions but his voice was flat and uninterested.

After the chaplain was out of the room, I told my roommate that I couldn’t help overhearing and asked about his sculpting.

My roommate enthusiastically told me how he welded metal objects together to create abstract forms.

At that time in my life, I had never met a sculptor – much less one who used a tool that my Dad used to fix broken wagon hitches.

This happened 30 years ago, but I never forgot it. I remember because:

  • I learned about art.
  • I learned even more about how not to make a hospital call.
  • And now I remember it because I missed an opportunity. I wish I had asked my roommate, “How did you know that, underneath that accountant, there was a sculptor wielding a welding torch?”

 

I didn’t ask that question because I was still in the first half of life. Like the chaplain, who probably was my age at the time, I was more comfortable with categories than with character.

In his book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman says that the soul’s code is our unique character.

The word “character” is derived from the Greek word for the stamping tool used to engrave a figure on a coin.  Your character, your soul’s code, is as deep and as hard to change as Lincoln’s head on a penny or the grain of the wood in this chair.

 

2016-08-22-18-25-30

Jacquie’s mother gave this chair to us when we set up our first household, but it was covered with red tractor paint.  The paint may have helped preserve it through the six generations before us that sat on it and slid it back and forth so many thousands of times that the legs have been worn too short to fit under our table.

The paint may have made the chairs look more alike and brightened Jacquie’s grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen, but when Jacquie stripped the paint away, she found the grain of the wood out of which the chair was made. Then she refinished it in a way that brought out its character.

Most of us have covered our characters with red tractor paint. We did it when we learned to  imitate the people who taught us how to walk, talk, write, add and subtract, make pies, change tires, paint houses or portraits, balance a checkbook, and all the complex things we have done to earn a living, raise a family, and take part in human society.

Like the paint on the chair, this imitation is useful and protective – even decorative – it helps us fit into our family of origin, high school cliques, adult social circles and organizational cultures. Many of us put a lot of energy into painting over our uniqueness in the first half of life.

But our real beauty lies in our characters – underneath the paint of imitation. As we age, we can strip off the paint, and bring out the grain of our lives.

How do we do that?

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to publish three short blogs about how we can find our characters underneath the categories – the red tractor paint of imitation, social convention and professional identity that cover up our real selves.

In the meantime, how is your personal search for who you are underneath the red tractor paint going? What have you found? What are you afraid to find? Has the search — or what you found — changed anything in your life?