On Community

On a recent vacation, I was driving in Denver and saw out of the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down at a busy intersection. My friend Bob rolls down the window and has a bill crumpled in his hand. He yells out at a gritty, ragged homeless man who is seated but now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a crumpled bill at the man’s feet. Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I told Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”

Bob meets homeless folks on vacation while I take a more vocational tack. My laptop is nearby, the cell phone rings continuously, and texts chime like streaming points in a Bally pinball game. Even within the slower cadence of vacation, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue is being trampled beneath the virtuous feet of vocation.

According to David Brooks writing for the New York Times in an article titled, The Great Affluence Fallacy, “Antisthenes, a Greek cynic philosopher, is cited as one of the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue. He coined the original workaholic paradigm. Antisthenes,

  • Had no feeling for celebration.
  • Was a-musical.
  • Felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”)

Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Leisure does not mean what it once meant. The word leisure came from a Greek word translated into Latin as the word we now use for school. We have lost the meaning of leisure in our rush to perfect our work.”

What’s replaced our traditional idea of leisure is vocation. Our vacations are mild repetitions of our vocations.

Flying back from Denver to Tulsa I glanced over and noticed that Karen was reading a historical book of Summit county Colorado which includes Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and Frisco. Karen is practicing the way of classical leisure, slowing down long enough to learn about the places that we visit.

My daughter and her husband live in the Lohi section of Denver. They are house sitting for a young lady who is spending several months in India training in yoga. They maintain the row style shotgun duplex with a backyard a bit larger than a ping-pong table, in return for lodging and they are also surrogate parents to a couple of rescue dogs, Sunny, a small wispy female, and Trout, a spunky young male. Twice a day, the dogs are walked, and when the leash is in hand and the door knob turns, they growl and turn on each other in a flurry of fur as they engage in a little WWF dog fighting.

Lohi (lower highlands) is an eclectic neighborhood with top shelf restaurants like Root Down, Spuntino, Linger, and the Gallop Cafe. Around the corner is the American Cultures Kombucha Taproom where we enjoyed a sampler of teas with names like Happy Leaf and Rowdy Mermaid. There is a sense here of what John Denver sang about nearly 50 years ago, the Rocky Mountain high of friends sitting around a campfire looking at the Perseid meteor showers on a moonless, cloudless night.

There are churches next to funky bistros and many used bookstores in this lovely old neighborhood with a history going back to the Arapahoe, Shoshones, and Utes, living along the banks of the Platte River hundreds of years ago. Living in the Highlands today is like living atop an archaeological tel, the geography is littered with events and names and people and places.

After the Arapahoe and Shoshone and Utes, the Italians and German and Latinos came. The old churches, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Patrick’s, are beautiful and have absolutely no parking. You park on the street, as best you can. I became adept at parallel parking a Chevy Suburban in this neighborhood which should qualify me for a CDL. There are layers upon layers of history here, new layers added each generation. Now, this neighborhood is experiencing gentrification and is a mixture of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with a splash of Sixties tie dye and Nineties grunge.

David Brooks writes about the challenges facing young adults like my daughter and son-in-law. He says, “A few years ago, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came out with a song called “Can’t Hold Us,” which contained the couplet: “We came here to live life like nobody was watching/I got my city right behind me, if I fall, they got me.” In the first line they want complete autonomy; in the second, complete community. But, of course, you can’t really have both in pure form. This is transformational, but not new. I am unique and yet like everyone else. I am free and yet I still belong. Young folks today are heading, it seems, in the direction of community and neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world.”

Mr. Brooks quotes Sebastian Junger’s book, “Tribe”, which raises the possibility that our culture is built on a fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled. Junger writes about the American Indian and about how they were more communal. “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.” Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “Our institutions can offer only service — not care — for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another…Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, perhaps people are actually about to change and immerse themselves in local communities.”

 

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There is No Middle Ground

I’m sitting in skybox 306 in the BOK center and the Broken Arrow band is playing Pomp and Circumstance as 1,137 Broken Arrow Seniors stream down eight aisles like ants who have discovered a donut on the sidewalk.

This isn’t anything like my graduation except it was also in a gymnasium, where I sat by Howard who leaned over and said, “Tata bud, I’ve gotta pee like a race horse,” while Lt. Governor George Nigh talked about Pink Floyd as if he knew a thing or two about popular music and social upheaval.

No, this graduation is different. There are more goosebumps and technology, a huge video screen, nosebleed seats and more ushers here than graduates at most high school commencements, along with an audience of 10,000.

I ask our sky box usher about the carafe on the counter behind us. “Is the coffee fresh?” She replies, “It’s cold.” I press her. “What day?”  “Don’t know.” “Well, I’m having a cup anyway. My nephew Jacob is speaking because he is whatever they call 1 of 1,137 these days…Valedictorian or something like that.” She smiles and says that’s wonderful and I sit down next to Karen and Ray.

Ray was stationed in Hawaii with the Marine Corp before he got married. He says that he kept Wakiki beach safe the whole time he was there.

He is 83 now and he stands up when the band plays the Marine Hymn during the “Salute to the Armed Forces,” and Karen gets misty like she doesn’t even do watching Hallmark movies. 

Ray sits down and I tell him his grandson Jacob is walking to the stage and Ray leans over and says folks back home in Texas don’t believe him when he tells them Jacob got his academic chops from his pops who went to college on the G.I. bill.

Eric and Johna ring the old Broken Arrow High School bell for the 109th time…tradition.

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The choir sings, “I’ll Always Remember You,” and I think of an email I read this morning soliciting names for my 40th high school reunion and I can only remember half of the names from the list of 1977 classmates. I’m sure at one time I knew them all. A song from Seals and Crofts dances in my brain:

Dreams, so they say, are for the fools, And they let ’em drift away, Peace, like the silent dove, Should be flyin’, but it’s only just begun…We may never pass this way again.

Noah Osborne, class president has a velvet singing voice and he speaks, eloquently, but he finishes simply singing…Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound, and he stops before the line, I once was lost…and a choir of 10,000 sings…was blind but now I see.  

Jacob approaches the lectern, and he steals this moment like his Biblical namesake whose name in Hebrew means supplanter, the one who takes the birthright. His words are hopeful, and my goosebumps are filled with pride as I watch Jacob who looks a lot like his Father on the big screen, and sounds like his Mother, full of passion and grace.

Jacob tells this to 10,000…

Choose.

Be a hero or a villain.

There is no middle ground.

There are moments when you realize that we may never pass this way again, and that it’s okay, the world doesn’t depend on you, and our children are becoming the heroes and the villains, their dreams on the clouds of hope, silent doves taking flight.

God, make us wind underneath their wings and give us the good sense to get out of their way.

His Folger’s Can is Empty

The man with the shepherd crook disguised as a dust mop has died. There is a melancholy in the closet where the mops lean against the wall and the Folger’s can is empty, no longer filled with Brach’s candy. Rusty gave it all away.

General Douglass MacArthur said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” except for one soldier in my youth who will never fade. Albert “Rusty” Matthews was a war hero, unbeknownst to me. I knew him as the custodian, the guy with candy who knew my name and treated me as if I was worthy of a grown up conversation although I was only ten years old. His office was a supply closet scented with pine cleaner. He was a guidance counselor in janitor clothing, counseling the shy and socially disconnected in a school hallway with a dust mop and pockets filled with hard candy waiting for an orphaned moment of childhood insecurity.
Rusty the Janitor
So many children loved Rusty. We knew so little about Mr. Matthews, except he loved us and watched out for the lost children, the quiet ones, the cast aways, the unpopular. He didn’t have an MBA, but he was a police officer, a lumber man, a janitor, a decorated war hero. My daughter recently asked about furthering her education and I told her a few things about getting an MBA degree, but I wish I had told her this.

Be like Rusty. Live your life with a sense of wonder, a gleam in your eye, and candy in your pocket. Love the gentle, the shy, the broken, the hurting. Do the menial, the necessary, the dutiful, and when you are able, the heroic. But mostly polish floors and sweep away dirt and shine your life with gems of friendship, hard work, and a reputation beyond reproach. And then people will judge you for who you are, not by what hangs framed on your wall. Get a long handle dust mop to guide lost sheep while you work, a generous pocket of candy, and speak with those who don’t know how to talk yet…those things are hard to frame and hang on a wall…but immeasurably more valuable than any degree.

Rusty, we’ll miss you old soldier, sweeper of floors, watcher over children. You will never fade away.

Digging Resumes in the Dirt

Garden romaineWhile playing golf yesterday, someone asked if I was playing my little homemade golf course. I said, “No, I just take care of it, mow it, water it, kind of like a garden, a hobby. Just like my wife Karen, who works in her garden beside the 8th tee box. We work together at different passions but they both involve sweat and lots of looking at the ground, into the dirt, at it’s soul, it’s barrenness, it’s fertility.

Brae Burn 10th looking towards back to tee

What is it inside our nature to get our hands dirty, to dig in the dirt, to look down like stubborn mules on a plow team?

Is it the same urge that causes our necks to swivel toward the stars?

We look up for inspiration, we look down at aspiration. We look at the night sky in wonder and we look down in the dirt with sweat-dripping determination.

According to David Brooks in his book, “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job mar­ket and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strate­gies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”

This swiveling of our necks up and down is the struggle between our résumé nature that wants to plant and grow wonderful things in the earth, and our eulogy nature that seeks to plant and grow transcendence, a reaching upward beyond our known world to a world of hope and possibility.

So much of what we see looking down with sweat on our brow is grace and truth, the garden in the tilled soil. What we look for in the dirt nourishes us, vegetables and flowers, grace and peace, a crop of hope.

Hubble Eagle Nebula Pillars of Creation
Picture from the Hubble telescope: “Eagle Nebula-Pillars of Creation”

What we gaze up at in the still of the evening is that which is very close to God, planted in toil in the garden. In an amazing reversal, we look down through our garden Hubble telescope and find the organic growing of our hearts which tells us what God is like, a master gardener growing people closer to His invisible wonder, which gives us pause and moments of upward gazing at what we might one day be.

John 1:17 The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. But God the only Son is very close to the Father, and he has shown us what God is like.