Collaboration and the Art of Giving Up Credit

Candid Together van Gogh quote

“I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” Joshua 24:13

A creative masterpiece is the result of a succession of little strokes, tiny marks, a single idea and then another. For it to hold any meaning the work depends on a variety of colors or hues or shades; the inspiration dependent on the community of the artist – all who participate in giving and receiving form. The finished work resembles nothing of its initial spark and is complete only when the artist ceases from adjusting, contouring. And even then, the creator is compelled to create – to start on another inspiration with a mark here, a brush stroke there.

The people under Joshua’s care came into a land though a succession of acts over decades (and more) by the hand of God. They landed in a space that was already cultivated, rich in the necessities and in luxuries. All the people participated in the effort (for ill or for good) and the result was still the same: the provision God promised became reality. The only thing God asked of them was to acknowledge God, glory in God, the Creator-Provider.

Nothing I accomplish is entirely my doing. Everything that our country is today (for good or for ill) is a result of all who went before us and all who surround us. If there be meaning in the masterpiece of humankind, all the colors and hues and shades that comprise it – and shape it – must be visible. And the fullness of its beauty, then, is perceived more vibrantly, appreciated in the richest wisdom when standing in the presence (glory) of the Creator-Provider. To focus on anything else detracts from its beauty, and in the scriptures is called “idolatry.”

I, for one, am grateful for the remarkable people in my life brought together by the More Than, and over a succession of little things accompany me to become, to accomplish something great – masterful.

Who surrounds you today, brought together with you to become more of you?

Breathe deeply as you consider each one.

Be grateful.

For a cogent, forthright assessment of the US’s idolatry, read Miguel de la Torre’s brilliant, “Keeping the White House White.”

yūgen and the art of grace

yūgen art of grace

Mindfulness practices are prevalent and pervasive, and their effects are well documented and understood. At the same time, their techniques devoid of the context from which they were derived (for example, relationship with God) limit the potential and capacity these practices hold for greater wellbeing and wholeness. An article I recently read by, Lomas, et. al., discuss this problem as pertains Buddhism.[1] It is easy to see how well it can be applied to Christian spiritual practices.

The Zen branch of Buddhism is Japan’s iteration that incorporates the spiritual philosophy into the everyday experience. In particular, it is a spiritual sensibility that does not require words, as the Holy Spirit in the Christian experience understands with a sense “too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). It made its way to Japan through China who shaped its expression through the lens of Taoism. The Tao, then, refers to an all-encompassing being without form and is omnipresent. To encounter this being one must rest into the free-flowing action, relinquishing control “and aligning oneself with the Tao.”[2] It is hard not to call to mind an omnipresent Creator-God and the words of Jesus beckoning those who hear to rest, be still, come and be, stay a while.

It seems to me that by not seeing God in the practices of other cultures, Christians limit the capacity for the Spirit of God to make things right internally and in the community and beyond. These are not so different from many of the ancient practices of the so-called Desert Fathers and early spiritual writers. But, they are relegated to antiquity because very few are willing to go spend the balance of their lives living in a hut in the desert. Yet, practices found in Zen Buddhism, for instance, evoke similar results but are deemed not-God since the reference is to the Buddha, not Christ.

In Acts 17:23, even Paul recognizes the opportunity to see God in the practices of the Greeks when he recognizes the alter to an unknown god. And just as mindfulness practice extracted from Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle is stripped of its transforming potential, so too Christian prayer and Bible-teaching is limited when there is no whole-self surrender to the natural movement of a pervasive Creator-God.

In Zen, art is especially conducive to evoke meditation and a sense of awe and wonder. These are included in practices such as painting, swordsmanship, and, chadō, the tea ceremony. Chadō, also found in art forms such as archery and poetry, is described as having four key elements:

Kei, or reverence, refers to mutual deference and respect from the participants, and concomitant control of the ego. Wa, or harmony, reflects the experience of nonduality, in which the self does not stand apart from the other, but participates in a union of ‘interbeing.’ Sei, or purity, signifies that the heart-mind is free from the turbulent emotions which usually tend to disturb its equanimity. Finally, jaku, or tranquility, refers to the nature of the resulting untroubled mind.[3]

It is easy to notice that mindfulness spiritual practice is typically separate from daily activity, a way of being. But I can begin to engage by allowing myself to be moved with awe. My favorite Zen principle is yūgen, or profound grace. Profound grace! It is beyond expression, each part and gen translated as “cloudy impenetrability,” offers a sense of knowing the unkown, intuiting the intangible – mystery. It is a way of being that understands there is darkness, but does not despair because beyond the intellect is the Spirit who bears witness to my spirit that I am God’s own. It is a beauty that each person expresses – but does so much better when it is allowed to reverberate, seep through the yuck of each day.

And it is a beauty that is evident in the lovely human being in the picture above. Thank you, Bethany, for practicing yūgen and patiently allowing me the pleasure of capturing the essence of it on my phone!

[1] T. Lomas et al., “Zen and the Art of Living Mindfully: The Health-Enhancing Potential of Zen Aesthetics,” Journal of Religion and Health (2017/07/17 2017): 4.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 8.

Use Your Brain

Be transformative

As I delve into research and writing today, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s admonition is a beautiful reminder to consider why I do this work in the first place. Am I more concerned with merely gathering facts and data for my own self-worth or promotion? Do I only wish to explore – or even do mission – just for the experience?

Ramón y Cajal has put me in check. Because while I do want to make sure I represent my arguments fairly and with accuracy, my greatest desire really is to be that conduit for the spirit of God to transform what is “known” into greater clarity of this vast Unknown – if even just a little. And to be transformed in the process. And sure, I do enjoy the experience of a new culture or relationship, more information, new data. Far better that my experience becomes, that it is new material for building up, not a tool to tear down.

How can I be transformative today? How might I be who I am, what I know, to construct, make a difference, build someone up?

We “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2Cor3:18

“But love builds up.” 1Cor8:1

Being Still at Camp

be still on a train

Thank you, John Smoke for teaching my son to be still—together.

This past week was summer camp for the children of Downers Grove First UMC. It is the fourth time Howie and my boys participated since Howie joined the staff. Going to camp that first time three years ago was a grace for our family as my sons, immediately welcomed, genuinely became and felt a part of the community.

On Thursday, I finally visited Wesley Woods camp for the day. It was a holy experience to witness not only the beauty of the campground nestled along the lake, but also be present to the movement of camp. You see, the camp is designed to enrich and train and build community, be a space outside of time and away from routines and worries, technology and expectations.

And everyone is involved: the young campers are placed in groups that cabin with and are led by a Counselor-In-Training (8th and 9th graders), senior high Counselor or other adult. So, when I came to visit, I first observed Howie leading a group of kids in singing songs that physically move them and songs that speak from the Bible. Next I ran into Lysander who is now a Counselor caring for the younger kids—and how beautiful to witness his compassion for these little ones, and how they love his long, unruly hair and attention on them! Next, I found Clark doing crafts, encouraged by an adult volunteer, the parent of a CIT.

And John, coordinating it all—after a storm ripped through the night before that terrified the kids and kept the counselors up until the wee hours of the night. Still, John tells me how he breaks out the Tibetan singing bowl each morning and each night to guide the whole camp community into stillness, into awareness of God’s presence, together. And I could see it in every person – the young and not-so-young – all had such joy and peace about them. How lovely to be in their presence.

I am grateful to these parents and pastors and teenagers and camp staff—all who conspire to make time and space for this holy moment this week. My family will always carry the experience of camp week, and I pray they have the privilege of taking part in that sacred moment for many years to come!

Why Wait for Peace?

for peace, forgive

Great wisdom from The Doctor: “The only way that anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.”

Someone needs to be first. And there are no guarantees that forgiveness will be reciprocal. But if I do not forgive, I can guarantee that I will not know peace.

So, is it worth the risk? Absolutely.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you . . . do not be afraid.” John 14:27

btw, for those of you who are DrWho fans, the quote comes from the brilliant two-part episodes 907-908.

An Authentic Life: Keep It Simple

lbs walt whitman poem short

With Parker Palmer, I don’t really like being told what to do. I am so glad, in this instance, that he overcame his issues with authority and shared these instructions from Walt Whitman on how to live an authentic life:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any [person] or number of [people] — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

— Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass

Today, as I examine my own soul, will you do the same? And then, perhaps, might you share with me the ways in which you live out your great poetry in your world?

What’s In a Name? Part Two: Protector of Children

eirenic greer

The Latin, Diana, is of unknown origin and thought to mean “godly” or “divine.” In Roman mythology, Diana is the goddess of the hunt or wilderness and is the twin sister of Apollo. Her Greek counterpart is Artemis. She is the fierce protector of children, and as such is also associated with life-giving fertility and childbirth. While at first it may seem that such a god would be perhaps weaker than say, a god of war, it would befit the reader to consider the mother bear, or lion, or any mother whose child is vulnerable.

In the interview mentioned in my previous post, Major Mary Jennings Hegar responds to the question about whether motherhood has changed her warrior self. She says, “I think of myself as a bit of a mother bear, and if anybody poses a threat to my kids they’ll see both my mother’s heart and my warrior spirit. I think that they’re compatible.” Indeed, mid-interview, her husband brought their infant in so that Jennings Hegar could breast feed the baby. She did not miss a beat and continued sharing her systematic cogent case for including anyone who is qualified to protect peace and promote justice in the military – regardless of gender.

I continue to write about these things because individuals are still barred from occupations or living out their strengths and gifts because of societal norms that ascribe arbitrary characteristics to people based on equally indiscriminate indices. Change in perspective necessitates a paradigm shift on the scale of society. And societal shifts are not easy to accomplish. It takes individuals who able to allow a perspectival change, to actually see an issue from a different angle, and to speak from that vantage. The way in which we use language is enormously important, and this includes the jokes we tell.

The other day, our family saw the Wonder Woman movie. The hero’s given name is Diana, and the zeal that fuels her actions is worthy of that name. In the story, she is freed to entirely be herself in full strength because a man (Steve Trevor) permitted himself to shift his perspective of a woman’s role so he could see Diana as she is. He had to veer farther and farther around the facets that comprise her, but he chose to do so – and led others to do the same. They made room for her, supported her when she needed it, and accepted her as part of the team (likely understanding that it is Diana who makes the team what it is).

In the movie’s telling, Diana learned from Steve, too. Her quest is just and righteous, and she is absolutely qualified to fulfill the mission, but she did not have all of the information. And she lacked a motivation that is paramount to the protection of peace and promotion of justice in the context of a community: Love. This is the work of God: that you believe; this is the object of belief: that God so loved (Jn6:29;3:16). Steve showed Diana that in order to aim at peace, promote peace, one must first believe Love. Not a fleeting romantic love, but one of substance that is derived from commitment and sacrifice – lasting, stalwart love.

So, perhaps this is where we begin. We help to shift society’s perspective, perception, to view from a different facet and see that love is not a weakness. It is not a changeable feeling directed by an amalgamation of hormones and fantasies. Love is work. And this, the work of God. And to believe – and to love – only happens in the context of community. Will you believe with me?

What’s In a Name? Part One: Victorious People

success is another breathes easier

The name Nicole is of Greek origin and means “victorious people.” It evolved into a French feminine of the masculine, Nicolas. The surname Nicole originates in Netherlands where it was notable for its various branches, and associated status or influence. It seems it was derived from the goddess Nike who, in Greek mythology personifies victory, her Roman counterpart, Victoria. In the story of Zeus’ fight against the Titans, Nike and her sister, Bia (personification of force and raw power), were first to answer his call to assist, and Zeus’ side often sees her.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar, author of Shoot Like a Girl, in an NPR interview, talks about her book. In it, she describes how, wounded and hanging onto her helicopter, fought off Taliban to save her team and injured soldiers. She also explains her interest in supporting admission of women into combat status (they are already in this role, but had not been given credit – and attendant promotion – due to a general ban against it). Jennings Hegar clarifies, some people “assume that I have taken some kind of anti-military or anti-establishment stance, and it couldn’t be further from the truth . . . it was never about fighting the military – it was about this is the right thing to do for the military.”

The name Mary (a form of the Hebrew, Miryam) is of unknown origin and means “rebellious.” Though Jennings Hegar makes clear she is not actively working against the rule of the land, she will act to promote what is right and just, and to save lives. It seems the name Mary is, in reality, ironic. It is paradoxical since for a woman to act in an aggressive or forceful manner, she is automatically viewed as rebellious, somehow against something, even when she is fervently acting for something or someone.

Female warriors are not new, nor are they historically as infrequent as I was led to believe in my early education. Boudicca and the Spartans are examples, not to mention the rising number recognized in archeology. They did not engage in battle to make a point or promote a gender-based agenda. They engaged in battle because they were able, and were needed as much as anyone in the community. Currently, eight other nations (including Canada) welcome women to combat roles. The ban in the US was finally lifted (provisionally) in 2013, even though since the Revolutionary War women such as Molly Pitcher – who took over firing her husband’s canon after he died in the field – have actually served in such positions.

I am not a proponent of war. I hate guns and would like to see a blanket ban on personal guns (though I have no illusions this will ever happen). But I do promote freedom and maintaining peace, and as long as some are not free and others work to dismantle peace, force is sometimes necessary. But this is not really my point, either.

My parents gave me the name, Nicole, because my mother always liked the name. Giving a name is also a blessing, often prophetic. And while my mom might be exasperated by my strong will and determination, I know she also appreciates that strength. I love that though the name Nike is associated with an individual, Nicole is “victorious people,” suggesting leadership that ushers a community to that end. The community is victorious. The work of Jesus was to accomplish exactly this, and my task has always been to “work out” that salvation (Phil 2:12). It is frustrating to be misunderstood because of societal norms that ascribe arbitrary characteristics to people based on equally indiscriminate indices. But Jesus was always misunderstood, and I suspect all of us experience being misread from time to time.

So, here’s to victoriously living out the blessing of a name. And even if I have helped one life gain victory – breathe easier – because I exist, I know that I’ve succeeded.

Open Minded Possibilities (aka, eyes to see)

open minds open roads

Photography by, Greer Snyder

One clue my body supplied that I was turning on the 50 mark was my eyes’ seemingly belligerent refusal to make sense of the printed words in my hand. I have worn glasses for reading since about my mid-twenties, but if I concentrated enough, I could still read. But when it became dangerous to look down at my Waze app while driving, and even the street signs took a bit longer to resolve, I knew it was time for bifocals. And I acknowledged I was firmly situated in middle-age. With the expert flip of the phoropter’s trial lenses my ophthalmologist determined the optimal curve and thickness to make reading near and far a cinch.

A recent paper in the Journal of Research in Personality rather compellingly established that the personality trait of openness is related to the very physical sense of visual perception. That is, “openness is linked to differences in low-level visual perceptual experience.” Those who scored high on a measure for Openness to Experience could hold two images simultaneously in the brain. Whereas, as once thought to be a universal operation, those with a lower score alternately flip back and forth between two images, the brain suppressing one image than the other.

The research design and type of results indicate it is unlikely there is a personality type response bias. They also found that priming test subjects with an imagination task coupled with music increased the mixed percept experience, especially for the high Openness scorers. And with the mindfulness research that show how mindfulness spiritual practices increase openness to the environment in general, it seems in the realm of possibility that low scorers can train their brains to hold two images as one.

This is important because it affects the way we interact with the world. For instance, though it has always been possible to mix red and yellow and see that together they make orange, if the media were not available, some brains could conceive it. How much more might I miss if my mind remained fixed on seeing that your imaginative genius is true about you and reading is difficult for you, but not see that together those qualities make you a remarkably creative computer programmer? Indeed, instead of encouraging you to learn and develop those skills, as a parent I might force you to labor over those essays and quench your spirit. And the world would lose; I would lose.

I love this kind of research that shows how brains work, and how much our behavior and personalities and circumstances affect its operation. Sometimes just by knowing something, understanding a process, it becomes easier to nurture that mechanism or change a behavior in order to encourage a new process. I am not a robot. I am not consigned to one way of thinking—thank God! But it is much easier to hold to one particular perspective. It takes energy and courage to admit that my perspective is monocular. But once I allow the trial lenses to flip, bring into focus two perspectives, the thrill of expansive perception is thrilling. It is spiritual. It is Love.

In what ways might I allow God to switch up my lenses and understand the movement of the Spirit in a more expansive way today?

 

You can find more on mindfulness practices in my book, here.

To Remember is to Be Human

grandpaAremember

Memory is a funny thing. We remember certain details of an event over others. The memory of a thing will change over time, or at a retelling, or at hearing the perspective of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes we remember someone else’s experience as our own. Sometimes it is a choice – I rehearse an event by retelling, dwelling, journaling about it. Other times there is a trigger – a whiff of curry, a Steely Dan song, the angle of the sun’s rays on freshly mown grass just after a rain (oh yes, that house on Cornell from my childhood).

Then, there’s forgetting. I can’t remember where I set my phone. I suppress the memory of an embarrassing encounter at school. Or, perhaps some traumatic episode forced my brain to shut off an entire segment of life from memory. And likely one of our biggest fears, the threat of cognitive decline in one form or another as we age.

Today is, for U.S. citizens, a day of remembering. Instituted in 1868, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died while serving our country. There is record before this time of memorializing with flowers the gravesites of soldiers, but it was the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that initiated its institution. But, as with any 1st world experience, a holiday is gladly accepted yet actually recalling that which secured freedom and relative ease is lost in barbecue and beer.

The Hebrew Bible is really a perpetual account of God’s relationship with Israel and instructions for how to remember God’s action therein. This account includes all the ways Israel forgot, and is an exquisite example of how all of humankind forget – forget the struggle, forget the rescue, the redemption, forget the reason for the struggle to begin with . . . and we forget that we’ve forgotten.

My daughter recalled today a phenomenon she has observed far too often – when a person experiences a negative interaction with one who is different, and then applies that negative appraisal onto all who share that difference. Memories that surround an especially emotional scene, in fact, include fewer details and less factual information than more benign settings. When I feel strongly about something as a result of a highly charged encounter, my memory of it cannot be trusted. This is exactly how prejudice is provoked and perpetuated.

Entire communities, nations even, will harbor the imprint of an explosive memory—usually as a result of invasion or war. And these wars continue while each “side” remembers only the offense perpetrated by the other, forgetting the atrocities executed by their own hands.

First remove the log from your own eye, then attend the speck in your neighbor’s. (Mt7:5)

My memory is imperfect. In fact, I have great difficulty remembering color. I have a very trained eye to distinguish nuance and subtle difference in the shade and hue of specific colors, but I regularly will remember something that is actually purple as green, or grey as blue. It is strange, but a good (less emotionally charged) reminder to hold my memory of an event provisionally. It also reminds me to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of color (and all that surrounds me just now) in this moment, as it is, and be thankful.

So today, I remember my grandfathers, Raymond Frederick Oliver, who served in WWI, and James David Albright, who served in WWII. I also take notice that the sky is absolutely clear (not a given in Chicagoland!) and the sun brightly shining. There is a breeze that keeps the heat at bay and my children are currently enthralled with Running Wild with Bear Grylls. This particular episode features Julia Roberts who enlisted Bear to help her bring life-saving vaccines to children in Kenya. I am grateful to live in a country that insists on freedom for everyone, and I pray that I remember rightly the cost of such liberty—and the errors our ancestors made in the process. And I hope – because hope is human, too – that as U.S. citizens we expand in capacity to hold lightly evocative encounters and treasure the gifts of what is right in front of us.

No one has

Greater love

than this:

to lay down one’s life

for one’s friends.         John 15:13