Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

I'm a bit out-of-sorts this Christmas Eve. Can't put my finger on it exactly--but it has something to do with the ghosts of Christmases past. Two college age kids are wandering the house at all hours, tucking me in at night and generally sleeping all day, and causing me to feel like the child in this Christmas of 2008.

In Christmases past, I was the one who stayed up past midnight (for obvious reasons), tiptoeing around the house and trying not to awaken "the children . . . all nestled and snug in their beds." Now I'd have to stay up until at least 3 a.m. to catch them snoozing--an absolutely impossible task at my age. Much more likely that I'll simply rise at dawn--and sit by the tree reminiscing about ghosts of Christmases past--the pitter-patter of little feet that once went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke me up bright and early and begged to head down the hall to see what Santa Claus might have deposited in the night.

I remember other ghosts from the Christmases of my own childhood, spent about six degrees off the equator in the Philippines. Obviously, no one had a chimney--so we made do. We had a fake chimney made out of plywood painted to look like bricks. Christmas Eve was generally marked by a constant progression of carolers, generally children, who sang for the gift of a few coins, rather like trick-or-treaters at Halloween in the US troll for candy. We'd stand on the porch and listen to group after group--"Maligayang pasko," they sang. It literally translates to something like "Merry Christmas" and is sung to the tune "Happy Birthday." "Maligayang pasko. Maligayang pasko. Maligayang, maligayang, maligayang pasko." It's so much part of me that I can't sing "Happy birthday" without thinking of Christmases replete with banana trees and rice paddies and beautiful Christmas stars hanging from nipa huts. I still hear childrens' voices every Christmas Eve, despite the years that separate me from them. Their ghosts sing on and on and on.

No--there won't be children singing at my gate this Christmas Eve or running down my hall on Christmas Day, at least not in the flesh. But they will be with me in spirit. They will always be with me in spirit.

I'm cheered by the thought that the ghosts of Christmas present have not yet come, though they lurk just around the corner. I should enjoy them while they are here in the flesh and not yet ghosts at all. One day in the not too distant future I will yearn for them--two college kids who might finally "nestle all snug in their beds" at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Someday they'll be married or well into their own careers. They'll stop by for a day or two at most--not for the two or three weeks that they spend with us now.

Suddenly I'm not out-of-sorts at all. The ghosts have gone away. Tonight these two will stop by my bed and kiss me and tuck me in before heading out for the evening. The kiss and the tuck will be very real indeed--as will their voices and, if I'm lucky, I'll hear them exclaim 'ere they drive out of sight,

"Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, and to all a good night."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mumbai Musings

I know--you're wondering where I've been--perhaps both literally and figuratively. Literally--I've been hanging around places like Atlanta, Rome, Memphis, Prague, Dallas, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and other places large and small. I put a couple of kids in college in August, had an auto accident or two, and tried to stick more closely to home.

Figuratively, I've been tending to the pressing matters of the past seven months--keeping all the balls as high up in the air as I can get them. I've not been here (on this blog) much at all. The truth of the matter is that I really haven't had much reason to be in this place. Too much was going on around me--and too little was going on inside me.

Then I went to India.

Here is a picture of Guyeth and me--sitting in a swing in Mumbai. It's a beautiful little swing--sort of a traditional Indian swing with a beautiful Indian painting behind it. It sits just off the swimming pool in a gorgeous 5-star hotel near downtown Mumbai. We didn't stay there--we just visited.

It's one of those historic British hotels that dot the former British empire. I generally avoid these hotels. They are a bit too "high profile." You have to go through security just to get to the check-in desk in the lobby. And I follow the general rule of never staying in a hotel where I have to send my suitcases through an X-ray machine before I check in.

This one is called the Taj Hotel. I guess you've heard of it. This picture was taken just off the lobby of the hotel about ten days before gunmen seized the place and several other prominent sites in the city and killed some 170 people. We were there on a gorgeous early afternoon. We stood in front of the Gate of India and snapped some photos and then we headed into the hotel just to see the place. It is grand and beautiful--with an historic old section and a gleaming new tower. We strolled about the place--and then moved on.

I suppose the experience has caused me to reflect upon where I've been lately. It matters where we "are"--both literally and figuratively. It matters that I was literally at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India in mid-November and not on November 26. It matters that other people were there on November 26 and that their lives were destroyed or devastated as a result.

And it matters whether or not I am figuratively at the Taj now--reflecting on it. Trying to figure out what it means. Trying to understand what it was that brought terrorists and tourists and businessfolks all to that place at that time. Not to be there . . . is to truly be absent.

So wherever I've been . . . I'm back.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Way Things Are

The Way Things Once Were:

1. World's Tallest Building--in the U.S.
2. World's Richest Person--in the U.S.
3. World's Largest Publicly Traded Corporation--in the U.S.
4. World's Biggest Airplane--built in the U.S.
5. World's Largest Factories--in the U.S.
6. World's Biggest Ferris Wheel--in the U.S.
7. World's #1 Casino--in the U.S.
8. World's Biggest Gambling Revenue--the U.S.
9. World's Biggest Movie Industry--Hollywood in the U.S.
10. World's Biggest Mall--in the U.S.

The Way Things Are Now:

1. World's Tallest Building--Taipei and soon Dubai
2. World's Richest Person--Mexican
3. World's Largest Publicly Traded Corporation--Chinese
4. World's Biggest Airplane--built in Russia/Ukraine
5. World's Largest Factories--China
6. World's Biggest Ferris Wheel--Singapore
7. World's #1 Casino--Macau
8. World's Biggest Gambling Revenue--Macau
9. World's Biggest Movie Industry--Bollywood in India
10. World's Biggest Mall--Beijing

This according to Fareed Zakaria in his newest book, The Post American World, published by W. W. Norton and Co., New York (see pp. 2-3). If you don't recognize the name, Zakaria has been editor of Newsweek International and a news analyst for ABC.

He issues a warning--that "just as the world is opening up, America is closing down" (48). He postulates that future historians might say that the US globalized the world in the 21st century, but "along the way . . . it forgot to globalize itself" (214). He insists the real test for the US is a political test--can it stop cowering in fear and move toward the kind of engagement and openness that is its greatest strength?

The jury is still out on this one.

All I can tell you is that most Americans I know eat Chinese food with a fork.

Oh, such a small thing, you say.

Okay, why don't the Chinese eat a hamburger with chopsticks?

We're in trouble.

Read the book.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Garbage in, Garbage out!

It's a good day when you win an argument with the guy who picks up your garbage.

The doorbell rings. I open the door.

Sanitation worker: "Now why'd you go and do a fool thing like that?"

Me: "Fool thing like what?"

SW: "Call my boss and tell 'em I didn't pick up your garbage yesterday."

Me: "Well, first of all, I didn't call your boss and, second of all, you didn't pick up my garbage yesterday."

SW: "Well, your cans weren't out there!"

Me: "Yes they were--I rolled 'em out on Wednesday night."

SW: "I swear to God, they weren't there."

Me: "Man, I promise you they were!"

(At this point, I'm expecting fisticuffs!)

SW: "What's your last name, buddy?"

Me: "Nash."

SW: "It ain't Johnson!"

Me: "Nope."

SW: "Sorry, man!"

Me: "No problem."

I pumped both fists in the air.

Right after I closed the door.

Those guys build some muscle lifting that stuff.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Disastrous Week

One of my favorite morning rituals is the walk to the front of the driveway with my dog Nemo to pick up the newspapers.

Not any more.

I even have to steel myself when the alarm clock goes off because I know that the good folks at NPR will be sharing the latest news from Myanmar, where some 100,000 people or more have died in a cyclone, and in China, where the death toll is rapidly climbing into the 10s of thousands. We've had volcanoes erupting in Chile and tornadoes tearing across Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and other states . . . again.

In the midst of all of this, I've found myself reflecting some about my own response to disasters here in the US and on the other side of the world.

I'm not alone.

A friend sent me a blog from the New York Times. You might find it interesting.

I'm not surprised that we gave much more to Hurricane Katrina relief than we did to tsunami relief in Southeast Asia. What surprises me is the author's argument that we often let the media dictate how we respond to the sufferings of people all over the world and that we tend to ignore the disasters that the US media chooses to ignore!

I want to confess my own complicity in this. Mea culpa! I'm certainly not above it. We tend to read what our local newspaper wants us to read and we tend to listen to what our radio stations want us to listen to. And we tend to ignore whatever it is that they want us to ignore.

While this may be the reality, it certainly doesn't absolve us from the need to keep up with more than just the stuff that is force-fed to us each day.

Yes, there is a nomination fight going on in the United States--and an election will take place in November. And these realities will force the disasters off the front page of the paper and toward the end of the hourly news reports.

But this doesn't change the reality. The danger here is that disasters will become so routine in the world that we will cease to "connect" with the suffering and the pain and the grief. The danger here is that we will let others (the media especially) tell us what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear.

And that morning radio report and the trip down the driveway for the newspaper will become once again the soothing rituals that make life so nice and calm and that lull me into thinking that all is right in the rest of the world.

Newsflash--it's not!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Divine Twenty-Somethings

New York Times columnist David Brooks, a self-described progressive-conservative, addressed the Rome, Georgia intelligentsia last night at a lecture hall on a local college campus. Briefly stated, he described politicians as ego-maniacs, admitted his bias for John McCain, declared Hillary's campaign over, and indicated that he believed Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States.

Oh--and he pretty much deified twenty-somethings as the saviors of the world who might just manage to leave the globe better off than they found it.

I have to say that I agree with him.

I don't have a lot to go on, though I was glad to hear Brooks list his reasons.

My reasons are much more unscientific and are based upon absolutely no polling, no books, and no interviews with people who know.

I just find twenty-somethings to be genuinely nice people who are much more interested in relationships and in making a difference in the world than they are in getting a leg up on somebody else.

Like the young German guy who sat by me this week on a flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Atlanta. I'm sure we presented quite a comical sight, particularly as the two of us, seated in tight proximity (on an emergency exit row, thank God!) watched the movie, Enchanted. You know, the one about Giselle and Prince Charming winding up in New York City and the evil stepmother chasing them around town. We giggled at just the same moments and looked at each other as if to say, "That was a great line" or "What a cute little chimpmunk!"

It's really a sweet movie! My own wife couldn't get me to go see it--and there I was with a perfect (and male) stranger sitting closer than she and I would have sat if we'd gone to the local cinema. The flight attendant found it quite amusing and shook her head as she wandered by.

Afterward, my seatmate made his way to the back of the plane for a potty break. When he returned, he had two bags of trail mix--one for him and one for me. I hardly knew how to act! I've been traveling the world for years in close proximity to strangers--and no one ever bothered to bring me anything. I've never gotten water, peanuts, orange juice, or even those little fishy snacks they give you on Asian airlines. Nothing!

And then this twenty-something German guy hands me a bag of trail mix!

I know what you're thinking--and so I want to make it clear that I don't base my conclusions simply on this one little isolated experience. I find this younger generation to generally be about the task of making the world a better place. I know of a young woman in Ghana who has spent a considerable amount of time and energy engaged in HIV/Aids education among young girls and who spends some time in the markets doing domestic violence surveys. I've seen this generation hard at work in Chile and China, rural Alabama and rural Thailand. I've seen them digging wells and endorsing Millennium Development Goals and writing grants for Katrina recovery in New Orleans, and passing out mosquito netting in Kenya.

I like them! They know how to think about the other guy--to put themselves in other womens' shoes.

And they know how to pause just long enough in the flight galley to wonder if the guy seated next to them might be a little hungry.

So . . . maybe Brooks overstated it a bit and they aren't exactly saviors in the classic sense of the word--but I'm bending my knee a bit in their direction just in case.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Ancient Athens and the Grand Scheme of Things

I wasn't prepared for the thoughts that gripped me, probably because I was much more focused on the meetings I had in Greece than I was upon the fact that I was standing on the Acropolis in Athens. For several hours this past weekend, I meandered around that ancient hill exploring the ruins, surprised to discover that the Parthenon had been temple, church, and mosque in its long and storied history, sitting as it does at the crossroads of east and west. Reflection didn't come easy--but I somehow managed to get there.

For about a half hour, I sat on the Areopagus Rock and considered this unique place of ancient Athens--its cosmopolitan character, its contributions to the way a significant portion of humanity understands and perceives its reality. My thoughts went to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and others among the philosophers and to their ability to think outside the box to such an extent that they essentially created the box for some of the rest of us as they struggled with the most basic question of reality: How do we know that a thing is real?

I was surprised to find myself thinking more about them than even about the Apostle Paul. It was into their world that he came when he stood at the Areopagus and presented a few audacious ideas about a tiny little cult out of Palestine. It was their ideas that he and others among the early Christians were up against. I found myself admiring the guts of a man who brazenly preached his new faith in such a context, finding in a statue to the unknown God some point of intersection between his little cult and the Athenian worldview.

But I am also quite aware that it was the Hellenistic world to which he and others among the early apologists had to appeal as they sought to communicate the Christian reality amid such a dominating perspective on reality. Jesus was risen indeed--but that resurrection needed a bit of interpretation in ways that conformed to the prevailing perspective on what was real and what was not real. After all, if the people who were hearing it couldn't receive it in ways that conformed to their understanding of reality, then what was the point really?

Isn't this the challenge for any faith that hopes to offer meaning and hope in whatever context it finds itself? It's not so much that a thing is true. It is much more essential that it resonates with the heart, mind and spirit of those with whom it is shared to the extent that it is made real for them. To put it another way, the only faith worth its salt is a faith that can be embraced fully by those to whom it is proclaimed because it speaks to them, to their reality, and in their language.

There, on that ancient hill, it came to me. I still live very much in the world of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. They continue to frame the boundaries of my reality. I read the world through their lenses. Paul speaks to me in their language, due in large measure to the fact that, for centuries, theologians and philosophers have interpreted him for me in the context of my worldview.

But the vast majority of the world just doesn't wear those glasses. There are other ancient voices that shape their realities--philosophers of brilliance and stature, powerful storytellers, prophets and priests. They have their own hills and mountains, marketplaces and temples. Their sense of what makes something real and true is far different from my sense of what makes it real and true. And any faith to which they give their attention will be a faith that resonates with their reality and that doesn't have to pass the test of my philosophers and theologians in order to make some sense in their grand scheme of things.