Monthly Archives: December 2012

Giving and Receiving

Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive. I think I know what he meant. I think he was talking about being able to put oneself in the backseat, share, and meet the needs of others over the needs of self when called for. He was talking about the beauty of a selfless, generous spirit. More than talking though, he was encouraging and exampling that very thing.

Still, on this Christmas morning, I find myself wanting to argue with Jesus a bit. Don’t get me wrong. I was blessed greatly in the gifts I managed to give. My wife and son and daughter are all pleased with the thought and effort I put into their presents and the selections made. But frankly, I find the gifts received to be a greater blessing. A CD of my daughter singing and playing acoustic versions of some of my favorite songs.  An abstract painting from my son. A stack of books to entertain, challenge, and educate me from my wife (why is my wife always trying to educate me?).

So I sit here quietly thinking that while it can be more blessed to give than to receive, it can also be more blessed to receive than to give. In fact, often–even usually–we must receive first to have anything to give. Life, love, material blessings–whatever we seek to give, what have we not received of others first? You see what I really received from my family wasn’t things at all. It was a bit of themselves. It was the grace to share in their lives. It’s the receiving of that which gives me whatever power I possess to give some of it back, because truly one can never give that which one does not possess.

No doubt Jesus spoke truth in its context, but I see it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is that giving and receiving are partners in a dance of blessing. We need both the generosity of spirit to give ourselves away, and the generosity of spirit to receive others humbly and graciously as they give themselves away. Some days I am better at one than the other, and some days I am not especially good at either. Today though, I know the blessing  of both, so I suppose it doesn’t matter which one is greater. What matters is joining the dance while the music is playing.

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Merry Christmas!

Whether you celebrate the Mass of Christ or not, I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

I hope you celebrate love and kindness in the world, but even if you don’t, I wish you blessing and good cheer this day (and humbly suggest you will find a good deal more blessing and good cheer if you begin to celebrate love and kindness in the world).

If you are mourning and in pain, if you have recently suffered a tragedy of any sort, I wish you blessing and good cheer, and healing and hope.  If I can actively help bring that about, then please tell me how to do so.

If, like myself, you are a bit of a spiritual vagabond, unsure of exactly what to believe about this awesome and terrible world, I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

If you know exactly where you stand in all things of this world and others, I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

Whatever your nation or race or gender or sexual orientation or marital status or political or spiritual worldview, or whatever you think or are in terms of the many things that divide the human race–including fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide or supporters of Manchester City FC–I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

If you have hurt me or wronged me in some way, it is forgiven–I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

If I have hurt you or wronged you in some way, I am sorry. I wish you blessing and good cheer this day.

Merry Christmas–whoever, wherever, and whatever. Merry Christmas! I wish you blessing and good cheer this day, and all the other days you are gifted to receive.

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Crazy Pills

Sometimes, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. My brain takes me to some pretty absurd places and when someone else’s brain gets involved the resulting train of absurdity can be a bit breathtaking. Still, sometimes absurdity is the finest teacher, and the crazy pills bring us to the brink of sanity. Perhaps one day I will take the plunge and go over the edge of sanity, but right now the insanity is just too much fun.

I had such a period yesterday. A conversation grew out of yesterday’s blog entry and centered around the word “evil” and whether we should apply it to people as well as to actions. Generally, I find this to be an unhelpful practice, for reasons to be discussed shortly, but my opposite in the conversation (who also happens to be my brother in the flesh!) took my resistance to applying the term evil to it’s logical extreme and pulled some of the great villains of history out of the shadows and asked if they were evil. Well-played, brother!

If I had exercised wisdom, I would have kindly steered the conversation back into the present and the kinds of conversations and personal interactions I had in mind in the original post. If I had exercised wisdom. But what fun is wisdom when one’s argument is at stake? Especially if the argument is with one’s brother? So I saw his absurdity, raised it a tad, AND got to play defense attorney of a sort for some highly disreputable characters in the bargain! Hello crazy pills! You can witness the conversation on Facebook should you desire, but you will have to befriend one or the other of us first. If you do, bring your own bottle of crazy pills. I am stingy with mine.

Ok–that was yesterday. What of today? What if I am discussing something controversial and my opponent holds a position I deem immoral? Why not just call a spade a spade and tell him his position is “evil”? And, since he holds an evil position why not take the next step and tell him that since his position is evil he must be too?   First, because such an action is unlikely to have the desired result. Using a word like “evil” as a descriptor of the person personalizes the conflict and deepens it. Instead of jolting him out of his position it is more likely to harden him in it. It’s the nature of human ego. How many of us have clearly been wrong in a discussion with a friend or spouse but stayed entrenched in our position or course because our dander was up? So the practical effect of calling those who differ “evil” is not to lessen evil but to increase it. If we want more love and light and gentleness and kindness in the world it is best to practice it ourselves.

A second reason I find it unhelpful to call others evil even when I believe their positions or actions are is the effect that such wording tends to have in me. It’s just very hard not to inflate oneself slightly (or immensely) when we compare ourselves to others. Even when I admit my own misdeeds and failings, I will tend to diminish them just a bit in comparison to the misdeeds of others. The subconscious reasoning goes something like this–“I may not be as gentle as I need to be, but at least I don’t hit folks.” Or, if I do hit folks, at least I don’t kill them. Or maybe I have killed someone, but at least I haven’t killed ten, or a hundred, or a million. In other words, labeling other people as evil often leads toward a minimizing of my own evil, which is the only evil I can directly diminish. But when I minimize something in myself I am less likely to actively work on it. Thus, again, the practical effect of such labeling is not the lessening of evil but the increase of it.

Ok–but what about those great villains of history? Surely, looking at the fruit of their evil endeavors it’s fine to actually say “Hitler was evil” or “Stalin was evil”. Perhaps it is ok. Perhaps they were evil. All I know is this. We all seem to be wounded in this world, and most of us tend to act out of that wounding at times. When we act out of our wounds we in turn wound others and contribute to the greater suffering of the world. Some of us do so only a little. Some of us unleash almost untold suffering. Those horrific villains of history surely did. They were the agency of great evil and all the pain and misery that comes with it. But I know not what separates their great evil from my or your lesser evil. Somehow I doubt it is our perceived virtue. So I’ll leave the labeling to the One which is the source of all, since the One is the only one that can know.

I hope you enjoyed the crazy pills.

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Knowing and Believing

I have found myself pondering “knowing” and “believing” lately. Such a pondering is fraught with peril because there is so much wiggle-room in the definition of the words and because of the unconscious baggage they often carry . In the America of the Culture Wars many are quick to associate “knowing” with science and fact and the physical world and “belief” with faith and religion and perhaps even superstition. In such a scenario, the terms become pugilists, squaring off in the ring at every bell and seldom returning to their respective corners. I myself have been guilty of such association, and hope here to avoid that particular quicksand though I am sure I will likely fall into it or some other.

Instead, I would like to show that the terms are actually friends who complement each other quite nicely, like coffee and mornings or movies and popcorn. Each of our lives is actually a highly interwoven fabric of fact and faith. There are things we think we know absolutely but in fact we have placed our faith in someone else or their knowledge and experience, and if we seek deeply enough we may come to see that they themselves did not “know” either, but believed what someone else had to say on the matter.

So first we need to get a definition or two out of the way. What I mean by knowing is that which I have direct experience of via the five senses. What I mean by faith is the acceptance of the testimony of another. Already I am on a slippery slope, but please bear with me a bit. As an example, I know there is a place commonly called “Spruce Knob” which exists in my home state of West Virginia. I know this because I have been there. I know it is aptly named because it is covered with red spruce trees at its highest elevations. I have seen them and touched them and smelled their lovely spruciness (spell check does not like “spruciness”, but I am overruling its objection because I stand as the Supreme Court of this blog). I know that wild blueberries and huckleberries grow there, sometimes in great preponderance, because I have stuffed my belly with them.

Now, there here are some other things I “know” about Spruce Knob, but I do not know them by the direct experience of my own five senses. I know them through the testimony of others and I presume that their knowledge is based on their five senses or the accumulated knowledge of the five senses of others. For instance I know the elevation above sea level is 4,863 ft. I certainly haven’t measured it myself nor do I completely understand the mathematics involved in calculating such a figure. I also know that Spruce Knob is the highest land elevation in this state. But again, I know this not by experience but by the testimony of others. I have trudged my way atop many of the mountains in West Virginia but certainly not all of them, and I haven’t personally measured the elevation of those either. So I have a knowledge but it a faith-based knowledge, not an actual knowledge possessed or experienced via my own five senses.

When we look at life this way, we are all believers of a sort. And there is no way for it to be otherwise since we are all limited in space and time and intelligence. None of us can actually “know” it all. But an objection quickly arises–while it is true that no one person can go everywhere or know every thing to be known, actual, physical people do experience these things or know them via the five senses so it is at least theoretically possible for an individual person to know them. In other words, just because I have never been to Paris and likely never will go to Paris you could take me there if need be and I could experience it with my five senses. It is therefore simply a matter of fact that I have not personally experienced, and not really a matter of faith at all.

Well, yes and no. The “no” being that theoretical knowledge and actual knowledge are not one and the same and therefore until I do actually get to Paris I’m just gonna have to trust you that it’s there (and I do, by-the-way). In other words theory and practicality often never meet. In fact, the more we learn, the more we seem to realize how much we haven’t learned yet. It’s like climbing a mountain–the higher we go, the more we can see. But the more we can see, the more we realize there is even more out there we cannot yet see. And sometimes, as the view changes so does our perspective of things we could see already!

There is also one “place” that at least none of us can go–the past. I live about 45 minutes from a place called “Fort Necessity” where a young man by the name of George Washington began to make something of a name for himself. Or at least that is what I’m told. I wasn’t there when everything went down. I have never met George Washington. But I trust the testimony of others and the evidence in terms of artifacts and such. I draw a conclusion and believe it to be so. I know these things but don’t really know them at precisely the same time.

My whole point is really a simple one. In a world where people have all sorts of convictions and all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of belief and all these things get rolled into a mass and crystallize, it’s easy to draw lines and start conflicts or pile on in existing ones. It’s easy to subconsciously place our own knowledge and experience on a pedestal. But if we could on occasion just step back and breathe and see how fraught with peril all our knowledge is it might humble us just a tad. Perhaps we might not be so quick to lay out fuses or put matches to existing ones. It might just gentle us a bit and my how the world could use that.

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