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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stop! (Part 2)

What does it take to stop you in your tracks?  Are you more likely to pause for something beautiful, disturbing or humorous?  
You may have heard about the experiment conducted by the Washington Post a few years ago. It is worth reading the whole story.  They placed the world renowned violinist Joshua Bell in a Washington DC Metro stop where he played some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written.  During that time approximately one thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Almost no one stopped to listen. In many instances children wanted to pause, but in every case their parents forced them to move along.  After 45 minutes, people had tossed about $20 into his violin case.  (Two days before Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats cost  $100.  He was playing on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.)

If I imagine myself at that metro stop on a typical weekday, I probably wouldn’t have stopped either.  I would have noticed that the violinist was better than most street musicians, but it wouldn’t have stopped me in my tracks.  The bigger issue would have been time, work and parenting:  If I was trying to drop my child off at daycare and get to work on time, listening to music would be a luxury I couldn’t afford.

The Post got it right when they identified some of the questions going through people’s minds as they walked through the station:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

There are many interesting angles and questions to this experiment.  How important is place and context to our ability to perceive beauty?  Why do children seem more able to live in the moment? What does it take to “stop us in our tracks?”

And here are two observations this experiment evoked in me:

1. There is more beauty around us than we realize.  It may not take the form of world class music, but every day there is an abundant banquet laid out before us.  The gifts are sensory, relational, artistic, colorful and subtle. Sometimes the gifts are even painful. Our willingness to pause will in large measure impact our ability to receive these gifts.
2. There is grace in remembering.  Back for a moment to those busy parents, dragging their children along so they can get to work.  For people like them (and me), there is grace.  There is the potential to reflect back and remember what we missed in the moment.  Will it be as powerful as if stopped when it happened?  Probably not.  But later in the day, or the next morning, the gift is still there for the receiving. Sometimes it is the best we can do.

Doug Wysockey-Johnson
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Friday, April 23, 2010


Here is my newest strategy for making the world a better place.  My one and only job will be to encourage people to stop before agreeing to do anything.   I’ll set up a phone in my office, a kind of discernment hotline.  When it rings (it will probably be red and flash like in the old Batman show), I’ll pick it up and shout, “STOP!!! Don’t say yes.  Don’t say no either.  Give it some time.  Pause and ponder."   I haven’t figured out how much I am going to charge for this service, but I think it is worth a lot.

I know there is a need. In the past 24 hours, four different people have said to me some version of “Why did I agree so quickly to do this project/task/committee/commitment?  At the time I was asked, it seemed like such a good idea.”

“Yes” may or may not ultimately be the right response to any of these commitments. Many things worth doing are challenging.  I don’t pretend to know. (Though I do have at least 10 Ideas for what to do while seeking clarity.) I do know the value of stopping, pausing, reflecting before agreeing to take something new on.  Our world moves at such a rapid pace.  Bringing that pace into our inner life, where good decisions are born, creates a kind of east-meets-west, oil and vinegar experience.

Sure it is possible to over think a decision.  I even believe it is possible to over pray a decision.  There are times when it is right to act, even though the path ahead is still very foggy.  But in today’s world, where busyness is an epidemic, it is worth giving any decision some time. The right "yes" is usually the result of a few "no's".

Doug Wysockey-Johnson
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Did you Hear the One About the Gastroenterologist?

Rachel Remen tells of visiting a historic graveyard in Canada, where she came across a headstone with this inscription:

“Here lies George Brown, born a man, died a gastroenterologist”
                   Kitchen Table Wisdom, p. 42

I know, I know.  Like yours, my first thoughts were, “How pathetic that this guy ultimately defined himself by what he did for work.  And if that was all there was to him, then yes, it is sad.  

But maybe this as well.  Maybe George Brown was a gastroenterologist who cared deeply for his vocation and the people he served in that vocation.  Maybe there were hundreds and hundreds of people that experienced relief from painful digestive disorders because of George Brown.  I have experienced enough of my own to be grateful for the George Browns of this world.

I would want to speak to the headstone editor, if there was such a thing in Canada back then.  The problem is how the inscription reads, as if George began as a man and then shed that humanity to be a gastroenterologist.

It is when we are able to bring our full selves to work that it becomes a vocation.

Reflection Question:
What do you want inscribed on your headstone?

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson
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Friday, April 2, 2010

Could Holy Week Survive Without the Church?

What would happen if churches closed their doors during Holy Week and Easter?  No Maundy Thursday services, no Good Friday liturgies, no lilly packed altars on Sunday morning.  This is a ridiculous thought, not unlike a shopping mall choosing to close their doors during their busiest week. (Which is usually and ironically the week before the celebration of the birth of Jesus.)  If ever a religious community should gather, it is to mark the events of Holy Week right?  I wonder….

Before going any further with this heresy, let me say that I find great meaning in the services of Holy Week.  I will be there Sunday morning singing “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today” as loudly as my children will allow.  I believe in the power of gathering to tell the story, to recount the events, to reflect on what it all means today.

What it all means today….that is what sometimes gets lost amongst the palms and the lilly’s and the choruses of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  What does all this matter for the world we live in today?

Earlier this week Inward/Outward  sent out this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be human--not a type of human, but the human that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

When our Holy Week services become just religious acts, we miss the point and we miss God.  When the story is integrated into what is going on around us, we have a better chance of, as Bonhoeffer says, participating in the sufferings of God.

One of the best experiences I ever had during Holy Week was participating in a liturgy using the Stations of the Cross.  These stations of the cross were not artwork nailed to a church wall. Rather we walked around a poverty wracked neighborhood in Chicago.  We read and prayed in front of homeless shelters, crack houses and children playing around broken glass.  The sufferings of Jesus never felt more real.

So back to my original question:  What would happen if the churches shut their doors this week?  How would those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus mark the events of Holy Week?

Just one idea:  Walk around your neighborhood (or apartment or condo or office or any "secular" place) and look for signs of Jesus' suffering and resurrection.

by Doug Wysockey-Johnson
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