Hands On … November 24, 2012

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I can’t make up my  mind.

Yes, I can’t decide if I enjoy the warmth of the palms or the gentleness of the fingertips, one more than another. Hands are remarkable. Unless they close up and become a fist of rage,  transforming into a club to victimize, they are always more than welcome, at least in my world.

She came into my motel room. She was a stranger to me. She tagged along with a friend who had arrived for an annual visit during my stay in Music City for Thanksgiving. I knew nothing of her. During the introduction I discovered that she was a missionary from Nigeria, interested in music, and had come along with my old haunt to see if any of the nice things he pronounced about me actually had validity in the flesh.

I liked her. She was a bit cautious, being raised in a religious environment, with a danger of demons and deceivers being more advertised than the possibility of angels and truth bearers. I didn’t care. I stopped trying to impress people a long time ago, mainly because trying to figure out what would actually make their clock tick seemed a poor use of time. It was a lovely visit.

We didn’t agree on much. Coming from a theology where the Bible Belt is the only way to keep your pants up, she probably found some of my ideas a bit too progressive or inclusive. But here’s what I know. Disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable if our goal is to find reasons to love each other instead of paths to part the ways. I don’t care who I’m talking with–I can always find common ground, and from that earth I can discover a place to make a foothold and establish some things that are important to me without offending their turf too seriously.

We ate some chicken, sipped some Coke and shared some ideas. Once she realized that I was not intent on merely reciting a bunch of repetitious verses to establish my Godly profile, she relaxed and allowed herself the great blessing and courtesy of being present in the moment. As we neared the end of our visit, it because obvious to me that my friend had shared with her some of my ongoing plight with my legs, knees and immobility. She asked if she could pray for me. It was really quite beautiful. She began by serenading me with a soft, sweet lullaby and then moved towards me, kneeling next to me, placing her hands inside mine and began to pray, beckoning the heavens.

I stared down at her beautiful fingertips. They were the color of cocoa–or maybe like coffee that has just enough cream with a couple of Sweet and Lows.

Honestly, I didn’t listen to much of what she had to say–her words. Much of that was her religious training coming out in her vernacular, filled with ideas that are not foreign in my experience, but now ancient in my practice. I just kept looking at her hands.

I squeezed them occasionally to feel the warmth and tenderness. Combined with the sincerity and earnestness of her voice, they touched me in a place in my heart that did require reinforcement. Although not weary in well-doing in attempting to walk with unwilling legs, I was tired. Her hands on mine gave me the emotional energy to press on.

I know she probably wished for a miracle–maybe that I would rise up from my bed and walk. But life is not always as simplistic as the wishes of our childish hearts. Sometimes it’s just the heat, concern and immense energy derived from hands on hands. It doesn’t make things completely better, but it does make things better … completely.

She rose from her position of prayer and removed her hands, with tears in her eyes. I immediately missed her hands. I wish they could have stayed with me for another hour, day … or maybe a week.

But as I write this to you today, I can still feel them. We must never underestimate the power of becoming hands-on with the world around us. We just never know when God will use that touch to set in motion something truly beautiful.

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Texas Two-Step… September 28, 2012

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Everybody in America is religious.

If you don’t understand this, you will find yourself looking from the inside out or from the outside in–completely incapable of relating to your brothers and sisters in the red, white and blue. Even those who insist they are atheists or agnostics carry around the specter of religion from their upbringing, still haunting them with memories of ritual and practice.

Yet to gain true spirituality and the realization that you are fathered by God requires that you abandon most of what you revere and cling to what is real and authenticated. That’s not easy–especially when you’ve been raised in the great state of Texas.

I love Texas, but Texas is the biggest mish-mash of faith, fantasy, foolishness and fables that you will ever see compressed into one single land mass. Catholicism, Tex-Mex, Southern gospel, Bible-belt, cowboy, bigotry, enlightenment, culture–and rodeos all collide within the confines of one state, which though quite large, still seems to bulge with an over-activity in contradictions.

So you can imagine–when I arrived in Texas with my simple, little saying, “NoOne is better than anyone else,” the Lone Star folk were ready to debunk my gunk.

Two-Step One: Brother Jonathan, if no one’s better than anyone else, why does the Bible say there are ‘weaker brothers’ amongst us?”

I never quite know why holy words are misquoted, misunderstood and misrepresented, always for the purpose of establishing that one group is better than another. Honestly, the Bible does not consider the word “weaker” to be a negative. We are the ones with the jungle philosophy, insisting that sprouting any kind of lacking is detrimental.

The people of Texas believe that some individuals are unique by ability–just better because they do things better–they think better, they move better, they raise cattle better, they tap oil wells better and they play football better. Everyone else, who can’t do that or who doesn’t participate in those activities is often deemed “weaker.”

But you see, the beauty of true spirituality is that it creates a sensitivity in us towards people who have weaknesses in a particular arena, so that we have sympathy for ourselves when we also demonstrate a shortcoming.

Here’s the truth: we are all weaker brothers. All we have to do to prove that is be put in a vulnerable position, where our deficiency can be aptly demonstrated.

Let me give you an example. When I arrive at a church for a presentation, after all my years of travel and being sixty years of age, I am not able, physically, to carry in all of my equipment and tote my necessary belongings. I require assistance. Fortunately for me, I meet the most divinely inspired human beings walking the face of the earth, and they give this grace to me. I’m not sure–maybe some of them deem me very weak when they first meet me because I am not “muscling” my way into their lives. But later on, when I am able to do the things God has given me to do, demonstrating my abilities, and my strengths come to the forefront, there is a look of comprehension on their faces. They realize that just because I am weak in one area, it doesn’t mean I should be cast aside. And likewise, just because they may be weak where I am strong, I am not their superior.

Each one of us is given a weakness to make sure that we acquire fellowship. Without acknowledging the weakness, we tend to claim self-sufficiency, which obviously becomes destitute in its conclusion.

The reason the Bible tells us that there are “weaker brothers” is that we all take our turn, and if those stronger in that moment do not have an eye on their own rear-view mirrors of inadequacy, they will have a tendency to reject us instead of assist us.

Two-Step Two: “Brother Jonathan, if we don’t place ourselves in a position of ‘better’ by our deeds and excellence, how can we ever help others?”

In other words, “If I had a million dollars, I’d give half of it to the poor.”

Matter of fact, that exact thing happened to me one night after a performance. An extremely excited audience member came to my table and said, “Mr. Cring, if I had a million dollars, I’d give it to you.”

I said, “Well, I wouldn’t know what to do with a million dollars…but do you have twenty?”

He froze. He nervously giggled and walked away–as quickly as possible.

We have a nasty rendition of capitalism in this country, choosing to believe that some people have a unique prosperity. In other words, they were “born to be rich.” They have a knack for being rich–and they take great pride in giving a certain amount of their income to the less fortunate–of their acquaintance. You must understand, the “less fortunate that you know” as a wealthy person may not be less fortunate at all. Your circle of friends may not be the ones God wants you to help.

Jesus refers to the truly needy as “the least of these.” By his description, they are people who are terminally sick, running around naked because they likely are mentally ill, or in prison. It is rather doubtful that the average prosperous individual who gives a carefully selected percentage of his or her income to charity actually encounters this particular segment of society. So it doesn’t do any good to give more money to rich people when they have already decided that their form of donating is adequate to the need. Here’s the truth–any money above what is absolutely required to live and sustain oneself that ends up in the bank is a wasted opportunity to bless those who just might be a dollar short of their miracle.

This was the principle of Andrew Carnegie. He said that any wealthy man who dies with money in the bank is foolish. To have more than you need and tuck it away for a rainy day, when most rainy days are spent inside anyway, is to audaciously lack faith in your own abilities to make more and God’s promise to bless generosity.

There is no such thing as a unique prosperity.

If you have five dollars left at the end of the week and you don’t give something to someone out of your abundance, you would never give even if you had a million dollars. This is why  “NoOne is better than anyone else.” Because each one of us has to deem whatever we have to be our prosperity–and from that sum, joyfully relinquish a gift to the “least of these, my brethren.”

It doesn’t make us better. It puts us in line to be blessed by those who possess a little more than us–right above our financial heads. You see, the “trickle down” theory propagated by political pundits only works when we have accepted the axiom, “NoOne is better than anyone else.” If you believe your prosperity speaks for itself and grants you license for discretionary generosity, then you will certainly end up being tight-fisted and selfish.

So I’m sorry, Texas–we do not possess a unique ability. All of us, at one time or another, are weaker brothers and require strengthening in an hour of shortage.

And we are not unique in our prosperity because we have stumbled on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Rather, each one of us is required to give of our substance to the least of those around us, to confirm in our own minds that we are part of the human race and also a part of the human need.

I love Texas. But Texas has a tendency to reflect a silly pride that permeates our nation from time to time with a self-righteous cheer over our own excellence.

The purpose of prosperity is to give me a chance to lay up treasure in heaven, while securing for myself enough treasure on earth to keep the wolf from the door.

So I left Texas and headed off to the place of my birth–the state of Ohio. I was very curious how this native-born son would fair with his little motto in the Buckeye State.

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Alabama Allegations… September 26, 2012

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Alabama is not my “sweet home,” but I have always enjoyed my numerous visits to the state.

It is located on about the third notch of the Bible Belt (even though with me being blubbery, I prefer an elastic waist). As is often the case in many of the communities in our southern regions, people in Alabama go to church a lot, respecting God and country with tremendous personal fervor. So when I arrived with my proclamation that “NoOne is better than anyone else,” I found myself greeted with a small smile, only partially disguising a wince. My Alabamian brothers and sisters immediately offered two allegations to potentially contradict my theorem:

Allegation One: “Jonathan, isn’t the Jewish nation the chosen people? Doesn’t that make them better?”

I would like to introduce each and every one of you–and also re-acquaint myself–with the power of reading the Bible to discover a consensus. Facts are, it is easy to find a single verse in the Bible to back up almost any notion, perversion, lifestyle or inclination. But when you pursue further, you will discover that many other verses not only temper that particular assertion, but sometimes update or flat-out contradict it.

Since we are Christians and not followers of Moses, we have to go to the words of Jesus to find what he thought about this concept of the Children of Israel being “chosen.” Matter of fact, I will guarantee you on this fine morning that the main reason he hung between earth and sky, suspended by nails, was that they did not favor his opinion on their manifest destiny. He told the Jews bluntly that they took “great pride in being the children of Abraham” but that God had every capability of taking a common rock laying beside the road and turning it into a “child of Abraham.” You can imagine, considering the nationalistic pride frothing at the time, that this particular teaching was met with quite a bit of resistance.

We are also clearly informed that God is “no respecter of persons,” so even though there are those who would love to propagate the notion that Israel and the Jews are a chosen people, favored by God, and therefore they are unique by birthright, the general consensus of the Bible, which we call the Word, is that God has opened His door to include everyone equally.

So as not to get a bunch of emails from people suggesting that I am anti-Semitic, I will tell you that I believe that Israel has every right to exist, be respected and honored for her traditions. It’s just that since  the time that Jesus walked the earth, Jewish people are not preferred above Arabs or anyone else.

Allegation Two: “Jonathan, you certainly believe that Billy Graham is better than Charles Manson, right?”

You see, this is the idea that we are unique by salvation. I can always tell when people are desperate to win an argument. They either bring up their pet dog, Hitler or Charles Manson. They mention their pet dog because they want to create sympathy; Hitler, to prove how bad people are, and Charles Manson when they want to convince you that some people are beyond hope.

So let me tell you what I told these fine folks from Alabama. Actually, thief that I am, I borrowed the sentiment from Jesus. Talking one day to a group of gossiping Galileans, he asked them if they thought that the people who had recently been killed by Pilate were worse sinners than those who didn’t die. And after all, we do the same thing. If someone survives a hurricane, we insist that “God was with them,” which, whether we like it or not, connotes that the people who perished were at least secretly somewhat dastardly.

Jesus’ response to his own question about this “worse sinner” possibility was, “Except you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

You see, folks, it’s basically a PR situation–life comes along and the first thing you need to do is participate. It is true that there are greater benefits if you indulge in earthly activities by following the rules, but when you don’t, you get a second crack, which is called repentance. If you repent, you are blessed with a clean slate to participate again with a little bit more wisdom.

It doesn’t matter whether you are Billy Graham or Charles Manson–the same rules apply. Participate and repent. If you don’t choose to participate, don’t expect anything to happen. If you do participate, make a mistake and stubbornly refuse to repent, don’t expect to be able to participate anymore. It’s really that simple.

Many people were shocked when Charles Manson was the murderous propagator of so many slain, innocent people. I, too, was appalled, but I awaited the great miracle of repentance. It never came. So righteously, Charlie-boy doesn’t get to participate anymore.

But honestly, folks, if we found out something bad about Billy Graham tomorrow, most Christians would abandon him. I, instead, would wait for the repentance. And once my dear brother repented, I would welcome him back into the family of man, to participate.

Do I believe that Billy Graham is better than Charles Manson? Not by creation. He gains footing on earth’s soil because he repents–and if he didn’t repent, like Mr. Manson, he would find himself perishing one miserable day at a time, in a tiny jail cell.

So participate, and if you don’t, please understand that nothing will happen. After you participate, take note of the quality of your efforts and repent where stupidity has clearly been pointed out to you. It gives you license to participate again. There is no such thing as “worse sinners.” Just terrible repenters.

So this ended my little excursion into Alabama, where people tried to establish that we are unique by birthright, or, as in the case of Billy Graham, unique by salvation. But after I had a friendly conversation with these lovely folks, I made it clear to them that God is no respecter of persons, and that the key to human life is participating and repenting.

I moved on down the road and landed in Missouri, which they refer to as the “Show Me” State. I was certainly not going to escape their scrutiny with my new-fangled phrase.

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Them There Those … September 18, 2012

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A startling realization–yet quite simple, as flashes of truth often are.

I awoke this morning fully comprehending that I was still retaining pieces of cultural prejudice which had been infused into me, not only by my upbringing but also by a social pressure which has been cooking in our country for the past thirty years.

Yes–circa 1980, an organization called the Moral Majority came along attempting to restore dignity, spirituality and of course, morality, to our nation. In the process of pursuing this agenda, this “majority” infected our country with a separatism that has made us aliens to each other within the borders of a common nation.

They should have realized that naming their particular outreach the Moral Majority was in itself an affrontation to anyone who didn’t hold fast to their concepts. Please understand, I do not accuse them personally of being notorious or evil. It’s just that in the pursuit of what we consider to be righteousness, we need to be careful not to thrust ourselves to the forefront as the primal example as opposed to the principles themselves.

The by-product is what I refer to as the Them There Those campaign. We no longer perceive ourselves to be part of a common humanity, chasing a dream breathed into us at creation. Now we are like forts of settlers fighting off the renegades outside our walls who just might have a different opinion from our own and therefore might taint the flavor of our particular recipe.

Them there those:

  • Them Jews — over there in the Holy Land, thinking that those like them are chosen people.
  • Them Arabs, there in the desert, with those terrorists.
  • Them Republicans, there in their mansions, with those rich corporate fat-cats.
  • Them Democrats, there at their abortion clinics, with those welfare masses.
  • Them Yankees, up there in the north, with those factories and high-falutin’ ideas.
  • Them Rebels, down there in Dixie, marryin’ those cousins.
  • Them men, there watchin’ football, with those friends with their brains in their pants.
  • Them women, out there at the shopping mall, with those other gossiping women.
  • Them young people, there in the streets, with those drugs and rock and roll.
  • Them old folks, there in Florida and Arizona, with those social security checks.
  • Them liberals, there in the Ivy League schools, with those anti-God, anti-gun curriculums.
  • Them conservatives, there in the Bible Belt, with those ideas that the world was actually created in six days.

Them. There. Those.

It’s showing up this year in the election. Somehow or another we feel the need to address our personal differences instead of attacking our common problems. It seems prudent to a generation of leadership that should be wiser in the ways of the world than to conduct the weighty matters of government and business from a playground perspective: “Give me the ball or I’ll hit you!”

I realized this morning, and startling it was, that I still had bits and pieces of this virus coursing through my bloodstream. I still was looking for an enemy instead of a reason to love those around me. I still am suspicious of being rejected instead of preparing what I will do upon receiving acceptance. I have pre-conditioned myself to believe that a certain amount of warfare is necessary in order to achieve peace.

I am perplexed by my own insanity. I am bewildered by my own misconduct. I am truly repentant of an attitude that separates me from those fellow-travelers who have just as much right to the road as I do.

But I am not alone. Even though we continue to postulate about how open-minded, free-spirited and generous we are with each other, we have all fallen victim to a need to be in the majority of everything, in order to secure our sense of belonging.

The Moral Majority believed that AIDS was the gay plague. The Moral Majority thought that apartheid in South Africa was acceptable due to the fact that the locals did not know how to govern themselves. Here is a sure thing: anyone who pursues the philosophy of Them There and Those will,n in some way, shape or form, be proven wrong.

What can we do about the plague?

1. Identify it in ourselves. We don’t have to do it publicly, but privately we should purge ourselves of all notions of Them, There and Those.

2. Stop preaching and start reaching. Don’t take the information you have read here or discovered in your own heart and use it to try to convict others. Just cease to participate in the disintegration of our country into tinier and tinier pieces of false individuality.

3. Develop a new philosophy. We shall call it We Here Us:We are together, here in this place at this time, trying to make the best ‘us’ possible.”

This is the tagline that will push us forward instead of thrusting us into Neanderthal thinking, causing us to believe that we must kill our neighbor in the cave next to us to guarantee that our family has enough mastodon for supper.

We. Here. Us.

Will you join me in abandoning the foolishness of believing that any one of us is a majority? 99.76% of the people of this country will never know my name, never meet me, never agree with me and never even know that I lived. It doesn’t make them less. It doesn’t make me suspicious of them. It doesn’t make me wonder why they even live. It makes me realize that the tiny percentage that I will meet must understand that I love them, I am trying to learn their ways and that when I don’t agree, I will get out of the way and allow them to do their best before their own conscience and God.

My dear friends, we are human and here together for this season, trying to become our best “us.”  And please don’t forget, it is all propelled by the necessary notion and powerful precept:

NoOne is better than anyone else.

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