Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.

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:

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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?

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.

 

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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?

Unlearning instead of Learning: Old School and New School

First half of life = learning

Second half of life = unlearning.

Funniest comment about that last week: “We don’t have to unlearn anything in the second half of life. We just forget”.

If only it were that easy.

Recently, Jacquie and I took a tour of the school we attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation. We were there for our 50th high school class reunion. The building had been remodeled and added onto many times since we left in our caps and gowns.

  • Hallways, that we once could have walked with our eyes closed, now have walls and branches that they did not have before.
  • The old study hall is the new technology lab.
  • The old big gym is now the little gym and the old little gym has been remodeled so that its upper reaches are new classrooms and its floor, the floor I stood on as my mother registered me for my first day of school, is now a storage room used only by custodians.

As we walked around bewildered by the new layout, we agreed that we would have a harder time learning to find our way around this building than someone who had never been in it before because we would have to unlearn the building that we remembered in order to learn the building that now is.

This feels like a metaphor for my life these days. I went to the old school to learn. My teachers poured knowledge into my empty head.

And that is precisely what I gained, knowledge. I not only learned that 2+2 makes 4, but I also learned how to find the square root of 224. I not only learned that George Washington was our first President, but how to use an encyclopedia and a library to learn more facts like these. I not only learned that I need both a subject and a predicate before I have a complete sentence, I also learned how to use a dictionary in order to find the nouns and verbs that I could use in that sentence.

In the New School of the Second Half of Life, unlearning is teaching me wisdom.

In the Old School, if the numbers didn’t add up, I checked my work to find the error. In the New School, I have to unlearn that in order to gain the wisdom I need when things don’t add up – and never will.

In the Old School, I learned facts and repeated them on the test. In the New School, I have to unlearn my “facts” in order to see  through different lenses.

By coincidence, after the 50 year reunion, we attended the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, less than 80 miles as the crow flies, from our hometown. I stopped in front of a historical marker honoring Butler’s Rangers, an irregular Loyalist militia that raided frontier communities in Western New York and Pennsylvania during the War of 1812.

“Wait a minute”, I thought, “these guys were terrorists”.

That was what the Old School had taught me. They had burned settlements and tortured and killed American patriots in order to stop American heroes like General Sullivan, who was marching through the same area burning settlements (including Niagara-on-the-Lake) and torturing and killing people loyal to George III.

Perhaps, I will approach the word “terrorist” and the word “patriot” with more wisdom from now on.

What are you unlearning these days?

 

The World Turned Upside Down

I preached my last sermon two months ago Two days later I walked across a stage, shook my bishop’s hand, and received a certificate stating that, after 45 years, I had entered the “retired relationship” as an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church.

Since then, these words of C. G. Jung keep running through my mind:

“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.

If the Law of Gravity suddenly changed and “up” became “down” and “down” was “up”, I could not be more confused about how to proceed with life. 

Here are some things that used to be important and what is important now: 

  •  It used to be important for me to be productive and now it is important to be present.   

  • It used to be important for me to improve and now it’s important for me to accept.

  • It used to be important to go fast and now it’s important to slow down.

  • It used to be important for me to learn and now it’s important to unlearn.

  • It used to be important to acquire and now it is important to let go.

  • It used to be important to work toward success and now it is important to come to terms with failure.  

  •  It used to be important to focus on quantity and now it is important to focus on quality.

  • It used to be important to keep up with news from the outside world and now it is important to listen to my soul.

  • It used to be important to acquire expertise and now it is important to bring a beginner’s mind to everything I do.  

I intend to write about these reversals – and more – in this blog.

I’m wondering what you experience? What is different now? What is upside down from the way things used to be?  Let me know, so we can share the wisdom that comes in the Second Half.