Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: June 2010

The Beautiful People of Charleston

I met Lanis at Charleston's Candy Kitchen.

After spending a few days on the beach, our whole family boarded three cars and all 14 of us caravanned from Myrtle Beach to Charleston. Might as well get a little culture (Southern style) while on vacation. A two-hour drive for my family is still a bit long, so we took a pit stop about 40 minutes away from Charleston for restroom “rest” and snacks. We stopped at a large gas station/general store (sorry no pix).

Visiting the Men’s Room
One by one, the men headed back to “our” room, which was at the back of the store. As we stepped through the door of the men’s room, we stepped onto a loading dock at the back of the store. My first response was to assume I entered the wrong door and turn around. Nope. I was right. The men’s room door opens onto a loading dock. Immediately, I wonder if the men are expected to find some outhouse out back.As it turns out, the men’s room was behind another door on the dock. If you’re ever 40 minutes outside of Charleston, this is good fun watching the puzzled faces of men as they step onto a loading dock in search of the restroom.

A 14 person pit stop takes about 45 minutes of stopping, snacking and looking for stragglers. I think we waited about 10 minutes for Andy (my brother-in-law) to come out of the store who happened to be in his car waiting on us. Once we discovered that we were all really present (as present as possible), we shifted into drive en route to the “Holy City.”

Fort Sumter
As we rolled into the city, a sign pointed left to Ft Sumter, so we obeyed. When I walk through a museum, I try to read all the words on the signs. It’s my form of penance for years spent reading comic books instead of my history books. I’m hoping to learn all I missed before I forget it.

As I meandered through the exhibits, I was stuck by beauty of these people. The families of Charleston play a fundamental role in the formation of these United States of America (even though we often fail to recognize all the ways they contributed to the forming of the fledgling nation). In so many ways, these were beautiful people with beautiful stories and beautiful dreams. And yet…

the stain of slavery bleeds onto every page of this multi-layered tapestry. As a Southerner myself, I wonder how could so many devoutly religious people defend a system that dehumanized an entire race of people. How could they be so blind? But even as the words stumble out, I am struck with a deeper, darker question, “What is our blindspot?” This generation so easily looks back in judgment on the cruelties of early ages, but are we to assume a race of people has finally been born without blindspots? I doubt it.

Before this turns into a game of political finger-pointing at what group is blind and immoral, let me clarify to say that I am so very blind. If anything, Ft Sumter reminds me that I have the same capacity to dehumanize and fail to see the beauty in the people (and world) around me.

Lord have mercy.

Soon our stomachs won over our minds, and the whole Floyd clan scrambled away from Sumter and toward sandwiches.

Floyd Clan Dining at Tommy Condon's Irish Pub

Rackshaw
After a delicious meal at Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub, we boarded “rackshaws” (pronounced pedi-cab) and quickly learned the difference between a taxi and a tour. Thinking we were getting a carriage drawn tour of Chareston for the low, low price of $4.50 a person, we lined up outside of the restaurant awaiting our “prince charming” so to speak. After about ten minutes, we noticed several rackshaw drivers sitting across the street waving at us. Turns out our carriage turned into a pumpkin before we even boarded.

They convinced us to take a chance and “ride the rackshaw.” So we did. Admittedly, we had a nice ride circling the block. In fact, I really like Larry (the guy who drive Kelly and I). He even told us a few interesting points of interest about Charleston. As it turns out, most drivers were silent. As licensed “taxi” drivers they were not licensed to give tours. If you want a fun little “green” taxi drive in Charleston, these guys fit the bill. If you want a tour of the historic city, look elsewhere.

The Candy Girl
By the time we finished our taxi, the snacks from the morning and the lunch from 15 minutes ago, were already starting to fade. With out “active pace,” we needed refueling. There’s nothing like sugar to strengthen a weary soul, so we ambled over to Charleston’s Candy Kitchen. From the moment we walked in the door, we were treated to candy corn, pralines, glazed pecans and gelato samples. This has to be one of the friendliest stores I’ve ever visited. It goes to show that sugar really does make you sweeter.

The young lady who greeted us upon arrival and departure was named Lanis (see picture at top of page). She wins the award for “friendliest of the friendliest.” In fact, her hospitality reminded me of the warm welcome I received several years earlier from “Uncle Ben.” A legless, faith-filled kind seller of incense who welcomed us to Charleston in 2006 with outstretched arms and a heart of love.

Lanis revealed that same joy-filled sparkle in her smile, her demeanor and her words. She told me that she was studying women and gender in college with hopes of eventually serving women and children in Latin America. As I talked with Lanis and listened to her passion for mission and service, I kept thinking about my walk through the Ft Sumter museum. She’s one of the beautiful people of Charleston.

This grand old city has known prestige and grandeur as well as struggle and pain. The conflicted story of slavery stains its past, and yet the beauty still shines around every corner. As I think of Charleston, I am reminded of a world that is filled with real and awful suffering. But as a person of faith in Christ, I do not believe suffering and human cruelty has the last word. Rather, I behold the God who pour himself into the brokeneness of human life and healed it from the inside out. He restores beauty into His good and wondrous creation.

So Lanis reminds me of beauty and love and kindness and self-giving. In her, I see a glimmer of His making all things new. Once again, I am reminded that wherever I turn and whomever I meet, has been created in His image. Oh that the blindness of prejudice and envy and jealousy might be healed so that I can see in and through the light of His glory, beholding the beauty of His handiwork throughout all of His good and glorious creation.

Greg, our tale-teller and tour guide

The Fabled Carriage Ride
After this exhausting day of eating and riding, we finally took respite in a nice leisurely stroll through the streets of Charleston aboard a horse-drawn carriage. Greg, our part historian/tour guide and part PT Barnum, led us through the city with tales of the glory of this city and tales of his life. Ever the showman, Greg recounted stories of Charleston’s yesteryear, Charleston’s shipping community, Charleston’s role in the Revolution, and Charleston’s dedication to libation.

Along the way, he also recounted his own rich Southern heritage and his successful bet to live in Charleston for a year without electricity. By the end of the ride, our eyes were dancing with dreams of days gone by and a sense that magic still happens in along these lanes. if you ever visit Charleston be sure to take a carriage ride with Greg and ask him to tell you the story of Eli Whitney.

As the day came to a close, we feasted on Bubba Gump’s shrimp, then boarded our motorized carriages for an evening drive back to Myrtle Beach, to our awaiting beach house, and to dishes of ice cream for all.

Charleston Skyline by Night

Charleston Skyline by Night

Family Vacation

Floyd Family Vacation 2010

Last week I shared a house with the 14 people in my family. Parents, siblings, nieces and nephews ate together, played together, fought together and lived together in close quarters for seven days. It’s been well over 20 years since I went on family vacation, and back then only five of us packed up the Bonneville and travelled to the beach.

I was delighted to play with my nieces and nephews, and I was enriched by the simplicity of just spending time with family. The simple act of “spending time” together is pure gift. Oh that we might see the real gifts instead of the false ones.

Six years ago, I dedicated a blog to my beach vacation. This year, I’ll simply record a few moments from the week on this blog.

The Night Will Never Stay

Night Trees with Stars (photo by jpstanley via Creative Commons)

As I’ve stated before, poetry softens my heart to listen. So I often start my time of reading and reflection with a poem. Currently, I am soaking in the penetrating words of Michael O’Siadhail. Today’s poem was such a treat that I wanted to share it with you. In this poem, O’Siadhail alludes to a poem by Eleanor Farjeon,

The Night Will Never Stay.

The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky,
though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.

With her poem in the back of your mind, listen to the words, phrases and images of O’Siadhail as he explores the turning of seasons, of night to day, of dark to light.

Springnight

Framed by our window, trunks and branches
of chestnut trees are handbook illustrations
of arteries, veins charcoaled on a frosty sky.

Unnoticed tee-shaped shoots fuzz the outline.
After a winter’s wait an increment is sprung
in slow motion, growth catching us unawares.

Night is falling. The foreground darkens.
A trial of mauve clouds along the skyline
tones into the murk. A change of scene.

I gaze. You, my love, are tucked in sleep.
On edge, I begin loneness of a night;
all eyes and ears I’m keeping this watch.

Starlight throws a window oblong on our wall,
a screen where homing cars project the trees–
slowly, then rushing back in previews of dawn.

The night will never stay. A half-refrain
from the primary reader unreels in my mind
like a mantra. Will a bird come on cue?.

A distant lemon streak. The trees blush.
In my vigil a world is disclosing its meaning:
wonderful terror, terrifying wonder of waiting.

Meeting in a Time of Tweets

Frederik de Klerk & Nelson Mandela (92) (photo by World Economic Forum va Creative Commons)

The other day I commented on Nicholas Carr’s article “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” I mentioned a positive opportunity and a negative challenge inherent in emerging forms like the wired world of the web. One breathtaking aspect of this emergence is the possibility for connection people from all races, languages and countries.

Over the years, I’ve been blessed to form and sustain many lasting friendships across the web. My life has been enriched and challenged and expanded through conversations with people around the world. Some of whom I’ve never seen face to face.

While I see negatives in this webbed world, like the dark side of tribalism (with little patience to learn the language of other tribes) and the tendency to reduce real rhetoric and argumentation to the sloganeering of bumper stickers (which really helps no one), I also see great potential for learning how to talk, how to listen and how to connect across our “boundaries” in space and time.

In a time when we can shoot off pithy answers before thinking about the human recipient, I thought it might help to consider some folks who thought, spoke and modeled much about how humans should and could relate.

Some of the writers who deeply challenged me to think about conversation and dialogue and thinking and action are Martin Buber, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, TF Torrance and Eugen Rosenstock Huessy. While there are distinctions and disagreements in their thought, I see correspondences that might be helpful for us as we think about relationships or about moving through space and time in love.

I am going to summarize a few ideas from each man thought I recognize anything I write in such limited space is woefully incomplete. Today, I want to highlight a few thoughts from Hans Von Balthasar who focused on three essential properties of being: truth, goodness and beauty.

For now I am going to bypass his overall argument and simply focus on these three transcendentals in relationships. I confess that I am adapting his use of these in relation to God, and for now, I want to use them in relation to humans. Von Balthasar focuses on the types of knowledge I gain from truth, goodness and beauty in relation.

Truth – In one sense, truth is focused upon the credible and accurate witness. Truth focuses on both the observable and the logical. On a basic level, I meet another person and based on their appearance, I make instant decisions as to their gender, age range, possibly their status, and their race. I observe them speaking, acting, living before me.

So the knowledge I gain from truth is observable and thus objective. Other people should be able to make similar observations with similar conclusions. While this may not seem especially significant in relationship, it is deeply significant. For sadly, we break and lose relationships often on the basis of knowledge that is not credible from witnesses that cannot be trusted.

When I encounter another person, I listen, watch, observe. I must be cautious about information given me about another person. I might ask myself, “Do I trust this person as a credible witness?” “Is this person in fact the direct witness or are they relaying third hand information?” “Does this person have vested interest in my opinion the person in question?”

While I may not be able to answer these questions completely, it might help me to pause over indirect observations. Also, I might questions my own observations. When I have made a judgment about a word or action, I might ask myself self, “What did I actually observe?” “Is is possible there are multiple causes for the action I’ve observed?” These type of questions might help me to realize that even my own deductions can be suspect at times.

The danger of “truth” is that knowledge can be reduced to mere facts, categories, ideas, laws. Without the balance of “goodness” and “beauty,” truth flattens relations into mere formalism.

Goodness – In relationships, Von Balthasar understands “bonum” as the interior light I experience. In relation to God, he speaks of hearing the proclaimed/historical witness (truth) and then the inward response of faith (goodness). Whereas truth focuses upon outward sign (the observable person), goodness focuses upon the signified (the value of the person).

I hear about Jesus Christ (outward, physical life), and I believe he is my redeemer (inward response). I meet John and instantly I feel there is a connection. I believe this inward, subjective response is how Von Balthasar is using goodness. When I meet other people, I not only observe them outwardly, I make inward judgments: good, bad, nice, friend, foe, and many other much more subtle inferences.

This is why I am attracted to Kelly over Jane. This is why I make friends with Bill instead of Harry. This is why I instantly trust the words of Tim, but pause over the words of Robert. This intuitive knowledge is real knowledge that shapes my actions, but it is inward, subjective knowledge. This type of “Goodness” is present in all relationships. My value assessments may be wrong and later have to be corrected, but act of making those assessments is part of the processing in forming relationships.

The danger of goodness is that it can become utilitarian and hedonistic. Outside the balance of “truth” and “beauty,” “goodness” can become pure narcissism as all relationships exist only to further my own goals and desires.

Beauty – The knowledge I gain from beauty is distinctly different from truth and goodness. I cannot grasp or take hold of this knowledge. Beauty is the mystery of unity between form and content. Content is not behind form but within it.

Let me put it this way. I mentioned this idea of “interior light” in goodness. Beauty is the interior light within the person in front of me. It is the realization of their depths as a person. Let me give a few examples.

At one-year-old, my niece already exhibited a will. I’ve watched her choose to allow my mom to pick her up while rejecting the advances of someone else. Of course, they could still pick her up, but they couldn’t change her will by physical force. Something unique and deeply mysterious about her cannot be controlled no matter how little she is.

Each person has an external, definable form. We can ask them a series of questions and might attach certain personality characteristics to them. And yet, there is untold mystery in every human being that cannot be forced out, seized, examined under a microscope or fully controlled.

As a person turns toward me and chooses to reveal themselves, suddenly a turn of the head, a look in the eyes, a handshake, a hug, a word, or simply a silence can reveal something about that person that simply cannot be seized or captured in a test tube. This something. This mystery. This uniqueness. This is beauty. In this revelation, there is a beauty that is independent of my desires, independent of my facts and figures, there is a beauty, wonder, a glory that simply is.

I cannot even seize the moment with a picture. It simply breaks forth in the very form of the person. And in this encounter, I step outside myself. I encounter someone who changes me in the encounter.

Von Balthasar writes that the beautiful makes the demand upon me to “be allowed to be what it is.” I let go of attempts to control and use. I simply rest in the presence of the beautiful other. Von Balthasar quotes Schiller, “Beauty is freedom in its appearing.”

This freedom is a freedom to enter into relation. It is the freedom of God to become man and reveal Himself in the particularity of Jesus Christ. I cannot force His revelation, but he can freely choose to reveal Himself to and in me.

In all my human relations, there is the possibly for a beautiful encounter. I’ll return to this idea of the beautiful encounter, as I reflect upon Martin Buber, TF Torrance and Eugen Rosenstock Huessy in future posts.

Living in the World of the Wide Web

Photo by dhammza (via Creative Commons)

My brother Jeremy paused momentarily from twittering, facebooking, ipadding, and conference calling to send me a link via Google chat to Nicholas Carr’s article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” In a manner most apropos, Carr published the piece in Wired. After reading his article, I wonder if we might should called it ReWired instead.

As you probably guessed from reading the title of his article, Carr writes about how the web is changing the way we think (and I don’t just mean our opinions). His key idea is that the brain moves between “working memory” and “long term memory.” Web surfing operates in working memory but do to the overwhelming influx of data disruption, our brain keeps reorienting between competing streams of data. Thus we experience “cognitive overload” (think of the dread spinning wheel on your computer).

This cognitive overload means that we transfer less information to long term memory and gradually lose or weaken our ability to process ideas deeply. Or to put it in the words of Patricia Greenfield, we weaken our capacity for “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

The impact stretches into our non-surfing time because our brains actually begin processing differently. Drawing from Michael Merzenich’s pioneering work in the field of neuroplasticity, Carr suggests that “our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.”

This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and Michael LeGault’s reply, “Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of An Eye.” There is a real tension between the instant message multi-tasking, hyper-frenzied world and the analytic, thoughtful processing that takes time.

As I read Carr’s excellent article, I wondered how people negotiated changing mental processing during dramatic shifts in history. The pre-Socratic world negotiated a dramatic shift from story to abstract reasoning. The Reformation world negotiated a dramatic shift from a memory-based oral culture to a book-based written culture. If the brain is plastic, then these shifts surely had disruptive impacts as well. I would suggest that good and bad probably came out of each shift.

Some things were discarded that may need to be rediscovered. Yet at the same time, other things were introduced that served to catalyze many positive developments.

In many ways (exceeding even the Internet), we are in the midst of an epochal shift that will most likely continue throughout our lifetimes. When it comes to the Web, how might we learn to negotiate the threat of cognitive overload and then possibility of losing our capacity for analytic thought. Can we cultivate both deep diving as well and surface snorkeling?

As I read Carr’s article, I thought about Wallas’ four stages of creativity thinking: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification. Preparation is the process of gathering information. In some sense, it does carry this idea of overwhelming data. And the data is not necessarily all interrelated. Information may seem to have no connection at all. And yet, in a process that some have called “bisociation” the mind forces disparate ideas together. The result may be unexpected, surprising, and even enlightening.

This stage of creativity seems to correspond closely to Carr’s description of web use. And in that sense, the web is an excellent place for “surface snorkeling” massive amount of data. This can lead to surprising, new and often dramatic new ideas and shifts that might be associated with the “Illumination” or “Eureka!” stage of creative thinking.

But per Carr’s piece, the web may actually contend with the “Incubation” stage. This is the opposite of collection. In the mystic sense, it is the time of purgation, of luminous darkness. It is the great waiting. It is the pregnant pause. In a world of constant data overload, how might we craft “pregnant pauses” in our lives?

We may take a page from Chang Tzu and learn the mystery of the useless tree. There is a time (and a desperate need) to stop, turn off the computer, turn off the ipod, turn off the television and simply breathe. The restorative power of cultivating times of silence and deep breathing can nourish our brains and our bodies.

We might also read long articles…out loud. Or pause over a poem. Living in a culture that seems to despise poetry, we could the value of waiting over words, reading and rereading words until they come into focus.

We might write a long article or write a poem. The process of write can help us to slow down and organize our thoughts. We might try thinking again. Of course, we are always thinking. But cultivating times of intentional thought. My professors used to suggest two hours of thought for every one hour of reading. When I’ve followed their advice, I read much less but oddly enough, I learned much more.

Like an egg resting beneath the hen, the incubation period seems like wasted time. But then the shell breaks open revealing a tiny chick. Many of the great ideas that changed the course of the world, broke into this world suddenly and surprisingly.

We might also intentionally look backwards to the Pre-Socratic world or the pre-Reformation world and try to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and feel through their hands. We cannot fully do this, but we can at least try. For instance, I think all of us might benefit from spending time learning about and practicing ancient mnemonics. Our deep memory capacity seems greatly diminished compared to our classical and medieval counterparts.

By looking backwards (at these earlier cultures) and looking forwards (into the possibilities of our connected web world), we might begin learning how to act. We might get ideas on how to negotiate this challenge and blessing of a web of information that circles and encircles and continues encircling our world.

Then we might realize (more often) the final stage of creativity: verification. This is the realization of the idea. The movement from abstraction to action. It is the idea embodied. In Christian theology, this is the Word made Flesh. We might not simply be able to reference all the cool sites and techniques on gardening. We might actually plant a real garden.

Praying Our Father

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis (via Creative Commons)

I’d like to offer a series of reflections/prayers in and through the Lord’s prayer. While I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing, how this will turn out, or even if it will make sense, I press ahead in my own foolish exuberance, hoping that something will connect and stir our hearts together.

In writing these simple meditations, I would hope that I might encourage you to write/pray your own reflections in and through the Lord’s prayer. For me, this is a way of soaking and waiting and listening.

This is not simply method or technique I am suggesting, but rather a position before the Lord. We humble ourselves before the Word of God. We pray God’s Word back to Him. For our words fall before His Word. In our helplessness, in our weakness, in our failures, we wait, listen and trust in the faithfulness of our Father who speaks to us through the Son by His Spirit. So come. Let us wait before the Lord of the Word.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
(wording from Book of Common Prayer)

Our Father, who art in heaven
When teaching us to pray, Jesus does not offer secrets to penetrating the mysteries of heaven. He does not lay out a method for gaining favor with God. He reminds us that the Father knows what we need before we even ask, and then he offers a simple prayer.

He begins by addressing God as “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Blessed be the Lord Creator of Heaven and Earth. Amen. In these words, sweet Lord Jesus teaches us to pray “in communion.” He invites us into the direct and glorious intimacy he shares with the Father. Our Father.

Thanks be to God. Thank Lord for welcoming us into your household. Thank you that when we pray, we do not pray alone. You’ve not left us to pray out of our own miserable weakness. In the mystery of your love, you’ve welcomed us into the sweet communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even as the words, “Our Father,” rise up from our mouths, we’re joining the prayer of Jesus by the gift of His Spirit. We do not stand alone, but we come before your throne in and through the love of Jesus Christ.

All praises to the goodness of your grace. Who are we to be welcomed into the loving community of your love? Yet in the depths of your love, you’ve not simply raised us up, you’ve raised us together with all the people of God. For as we pray “Our Father,” we join in the chorus of voices arising across time and space from the mouths of your great and glorious communion of saints. We join in the prayers of men like Polycarp who suffered and died at the hands of those who sought to silence the good news of your love. We join in the prayers of farmers, housewives, scholars, and children. We join a great throng of people, stretching across the ages, calling upon you, echoing the simple cry of the Bride and Spirit, “Come!”

Even as your Spirit gives us the breath to say, “Our,” he gives us the grace to say “Father.” We are not orphans. We’ve not been forsaken. We’ve been grasped, loved enclosed in the outstretched arms of “Our Father who art in heaven.” Blessed be your name O great and glorious Father. Amen.

In your immeasurable goodness, you O Father spoke this world into existence. You called us forth from our mother’s womb. In your glorious and wondrous grace, you gave us life. And in your great mercy, you called us into life again by redeeming us from the death of ungodliness. We live in the sweet life of your lips. Blessed be the Holy One forever. Amen.

We’ve known the corruption of this world all to well. We’ve known the weariness of earthly sorrows and fleeting joys. We’ve known the anguish of doubt, the pain of loss, the regret of anger. We’ve lost friends to the manifold distractions of time. We’ve lived in the pain of our own human failures.

Yet You O Father dwell beyond the corrupting corruption of this world. You O Glorious Lord dwell in unapproachable light. You dwell in love uninterrupted; you dwell in fullness; you dwell in perfect joy; you dwell in Eternal Communion. Blessed be your name forever. Amen.

Thank you O gracious Father that you’ve not abandoned us in to die in the corrupting corruption on this fading life. But you have healed us in Christ. Truly healed. Fully healed. Even now we glimpse the light of your unfading heavenly communion shining into the frailty of our own earthly hearts.

We praise you. We come to O Lord. We bow. We cry out to you in your unending mercy, “Our Father Who Are in Heaven.”

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