Sunday, July 31, 2016

Our Place in Time

I’m in a quandary.  At almost 62 years old, that is not the most comfortable place to be.  I’ve recently finished a biography of Paul Newman.  I was really interested in, however, the story of his son, Scott, who died of a drug overdose after years of trying to live up unsuccessfully to his role as the only son of Paul Newman.  Who could, really?  Everyone expected him to have the same looks, the same acting ability, the same charm.  But Scott was a different person, of course.  Even Paul’s daughters felt the burden of their dad’s fame.  They said it was hard finding a boyfriend who was not intimidated by their father, and even their female friends found themselves flirting with the handsome Mr. Newman, even as he got older and older.  It’s hard to be born into fame and fortune.

My sister Joy and I were not born into fame or fortune.  We were born into a middle-class family in Tennessee.  Our parents were not politicians or actors or people whose names you would read in the gossip column of the newspaper.  However, our father made his mark on the world by writing letters during the Civil Rights movement to encourage those on the front lines championing justice who were the recipients of so much hate and animosity, and sometimes penning letters to businesses to every so kindly encourage them to change policies (as in, it’s time to let go of the separate white/Negro drinking fountains).   Letter by letter, he wrote his words of love and tolerance, and letter by letter those recipients were warmed, inspired, and sometimes challenged by his witness as a white Christian Southern man who had ideals and wanted to make the world a better place.  Dad saved most of these letters, and Joy recently wrote a play called “Letter Man” which brought everything together; the play was staged in Memphis this summer.  

As she was working on compiling these letters into a play, Joy and I held many conversations over the phone on the impact these letters were having on us.  Both of us are way past the age where our dad started his ministry of public service as a lone agent speaking in the wilderness for love and tolerance and social change.  Re-reading the letters inevitably made us question ourselves as to what we have done with our own lives.  When you grow up with a parent whose life embodied Jesus in so many ways, how do you deal with that?  How can you live up to that legacy?  Everything we have done seems so inadequate in the shadow of his accomplishments and sacrifices.  

I recently read an excerpt from a book by David Brooks titled “The Road to Character.”  Here is what he says:  “In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, ‘At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?’” 

This is the quandary.  Dad served his life’s purpose during a great upheaval in this country.  He felt in his soul he knew exactly what he was called to do.  Indeed, he considered it his calling.  No question about that.  

But each generation has to respond to its own times.  I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln started out with the famous “Fourscore and seven years ago,” recalling the birth of the nation, then goes on to say “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  In just a couple of sentences, he takes the listeners all the way up the road from the founding of the nation, from which by this time they were so removed, to their current situation.  He was saying, yes, we can remember the past, we MUST remember the past, but we are called to act in the present.

So, using a phrase which used to be popular, “What would Jesus do?” - Joy and I ask, “What would our dad Ensley do?”  Indeed - he lived in a different era.  He typed his letters out on a typewriter, key by key, folded them up, inserted them into envelopes, addressed them, stamped them, and sent them on their way.  He wrote on a one-to-one, from sender to recipient.  The world has changed now.  How would he have handled Facebook, where his passionate pleas may have been met with volatile response from friends and even strangers?  What would have been his responses to the endless social media posts which would have saddened his heart?  Would he have been overwhelmed with the job at hand?  We know he would have responded with love, as that is the only way he could, but exactly how?  As he was called to answer to his time in history, so are we called to answer to our time.  We feel the urgency to bring attention and energy to injustice in the many ways our dad did.  Racial tensions have escalated and his vision of a world of racial equality still has not materialized.  And for our generation, there are additional battles to fight on other lines of social change as well.  But how?  When news goes around the world faster than lightning, and opinions are more numerous than stars in the heavens, when just watching the news makes your heart break, when the senseless killings just don’t seem to stop and violence and hate and fear seems to crown the days - what are we called to do?  What are we called to say?  How are we called to act?  What is our “calling”?  

It’s a world of questions waiting for answers.  When you examine life in your 60s, the hourglass has lots more sand on the bottom than on the top.  The urgency is clear.  Time seems short.  I am just one person.  It all seems so overwhelming.  Sometimes I call my friends because, instead of being an encourager, I seem to need the encouragement myself.  Joy and I have said many times recently how we wished Dad were here to guide us, to show us the way that we can spread love and be active fighters for justice and tolerance in the here and now.  

No, we didn’t have a famous father who was listed in Forbes or People magazine.  But he was certainly a man hard to live up to.  May we all find our “calling” in this life - and be faithful to it.  So help us God.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


When my husband, Ed, was in seminary, he came home one day with something funny to relate.  In his counseling class, the professor stressed the importance of listening.  He instructed them in the art of listening to the clients, paying careful attention, then repeating back to the clients in their own words what had been discussed.  It’s an empathy lesson, a session in careful listening as the counselor tries to discern what the client is really feeling, then in turn the counselor makes the client aware that everything they said had been accurately heard.  The professor said one of his students came back to class one day and told him how it went.  Here was the student’s story:  My elderly patient was saying, “I can’t stand it anymore, I am in daily pain.”  I responded, “What I hear you saying is you can’t stand it anymore, you are in daily pain.”  The patient looked at me for a moment, then said, “I am in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.”  I responded, “What I hear you saying is you are in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.”  At this point the patient said, “Is there a damn echo in here?!”  

As humorous as that story is, the point about listening and being heard is valid and so applicable to what is going on in our society.  I just took a break from Facebook because the negativity and hate was wearing me down.  We can’t stand still enough to listen to our brothers and sisters when they tell us how they feel.  The Black Lives Matter folks are trying to tell us how scared they are around police officers, from their person experiences or seeing what it is happening to others.  They say so often they are treated in a demeaning manner from society at large. The police officers are trying to tell us what it’s like to have their lives on the line every day, and how scary it is to stop a total stranger, who one day might be an old man who accidentally ran a red light to a wanted murderer who has nothing to lose when confronted and the officer may only have a few seconds to react to a threat.  The white folks are telling us they are scared at the way society has changed, it’s too fast for them, and besides, they think since slavery has been fixed, and everything is integrated, and we have blacks in places of power, so what’s the big deal?  They hear “Black Lives Matter” and add the words “more than other lives” and are offended, and the blacks hear the exact same phrase and add the words “just as much as other lives.”  Everyone assumes if your pro-cop, you’re anti-black; if you’re pro-black, you’re anti-cop.  The conversation deteriorates from there.  Everyone talks, few really listen.

What are we supposed to hear?  That the “other side” hurts, they have feelings, they are frustrated, they are scared.  It is human nature to want to have a voice.  We want somebody to hear us.  Even kids.  I’ve just read a book about the old TV show where Andy Griffith and Ron Howard played a sheriff and his son.  One day on the set, little Ron, who played Opie, took the director aside and said, “I don’t believe a little kid would say those words just that way.”  The director responded by saying, “Well, how would a kid say that, then?”  Ron gave the sentence as he thought it should be played, and the director gave him the green light to change the script.  Ron got a huge smile on his face and right before the scene was taped, Andy Griffith asked Ron what he was smiling about.  He told him the director had LISTENED TO HIM and was taking his advice!  Andy asked him why that was so great and Ron said that he had many times asked the director to change something and he never had…up until now.  Andy replied that it was probably because this was the first idea he had that was any good!  

I’ve read enough psychology to understand that if someone comes to you, whether friend or family member or whoever, and says, “I feel….,” you should never EVER respond by saying:  “You shouldn’t feel that way.”  “It’s your own fault.”  “You don’t really feel like that.”  “What do you expect me to do about it?” - or anything similar.  Feelings are valid!  If I feel hurt in a situation, it doesn’t matter if the hurt was intended or not, the very fact I feel hurt should be acknowledged.  

Society is hurting.  Society is scared.  It’s not time to fan the flames of insults and demeaning, demoralizing arguments.  It’s time to listen.  Hear the pain from everyone.  Hear the anguish, the frustration, and after we listen, REALLY listen, with an open mind, human to human, we can go from there.  

One of the lasts posts I shared on Facebook before my “sabbatical” said that the phrases that matter most in the English language that we don’t say enough are “I love you.”  I’m sorry.” “Please forgive me.” Thank you.”  I will add one more to that….”I hear you.”