Ignorant Bliss or Blind Ignorance

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Genesis3:7 (NIV)

The adage, “What you don’t know can hurt you” has spawned countless public service announcements that promote various causes. School fire prevention and safety assemblies are examples. Children learn about the dangers of fire and smoke inhalation. They also learn strategies for surviving a fire. Because of fire safety education, nearly every American kindergartener recites and acts out the mantra, “stop, drop, and roll.”

Likewise, others develop campaigns for sharing information with children about avoiding “stranger danger.”   Children participate in interactive lessons that show them different ways to recognize danger and to reduce the chances of getting kidnapped.  Similarly, supporters of sex education believe such classes reduce both unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (opponents disagree).  Black History Month advocates, myself included, believe one way to dispel racial stereotypes about Blacks is to highlight the inventions and other contributions Black Americans have made to the betterment of society.

But, there are those who believe too much information is unhealthy and does more harm than good. They argue that sex education robs children of their innocence and encourages them to become sexually active. They also believe sex education gives children a false sense of security, thus increasing the chances of children beginning at an early age to engage in risky sexual behaviors. Others even assert that teaching very young children about fire prevention only serves as a catalyst for some children to experiment with fire to see if what they have been told is true.

The following true story coupled with the passage from Genesis 3:7 illustrate the power of both sides of the argument for and against the saying, “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

For nearly three years during my late twenties and early thirties I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in Hoensbroek, Holland.  On Saturday afternoons I frequently rode my bicycle to Heerlen where I parked it and took a train to Maastricht where I shopped and relaxed.  I reveled in the culture of Maastricht. There I observed and absorbed an aspect of Dutch culture that differed from the serenity of Hoensbroek, where I lived

One of my favorite things to do was to sit on a bench near the train station and read, meditate, and write poetry. On a nice day I might sit there for a few hours. Because I frequented the area often, I came to recognize some of the people who, like me, hung around the station on Saturday afternoons. (We developed the kind of informal acquaintances similar to those I have with people I regularly encounter at the supermarket, Laundromat, or drug store.)  We exchanged greetings and on occasion we engaged in brief conversations. Unfortunately, I knew very little Dutch and was extremely uncomfortable about speaking the little Dutch that I knew. Therefore, our conversations were limited.

I prefer travelling alone, so I usually I went to Maastricht by myself. However, one Saturday I went with an American friend-Delores, from Newark, New Jersey. I’m not sure which of us suggested she accompany me. What I do recall is that her husband, Wayne, and son, Eric, were out of the country and Delores had said she was bored. So she made the trip to Maastricht with me.  I looked forward to sharing a shopping experience with her.

The train ride was uneventful. As we headed out of the Maastricht train station I gleefully showed Delores where I usually sat and meditated.  I also proudly identified some of the people around the train station with whom I had become acquainted.

As was our usual custom, my acquaintances and I exchanged friendly greetings. It was during one of those exchanges that Delores grabbed my arm and said, “Oh my God, Allegra these people are a bunch of drug addicts and prostitutes.”   I was stunned, perplexed, and hurt by her characterization. Those people had always been polite and respectful towards me. I had not witnessed any evidence of unsavory behavior on their part.  When I said that to Delores, she began pointing out things that I had seen hundreds of times, but had not really noticed.

At some point, she said, “Look Allegra, those women are prostitutes.”  “Watch them.”  For the first time it was obvious to me that they were selling sex. A group of women stood near the curb. A car would pull up and a woman would get in and return later. I don’t know why I had not noticed before.  Delores also pointed out the unmistakable characteristics of a heroin addict-the nodding off whether sitting or standing was obvious. Somehow I had missed the signs of addiction that later struck fear in me.

I don’t know why I was petrified of the addicts at the train station. Prior to that day I had known heroin addicts. I liked them and had enjoyed socializing with them. Never once did I feel threatened when in their presence-although, perhaps I should have.

For months we had comfortably shared the benches in the square, exchanged greetings, and demonstrated respect towards each other.  I don’t know whether ignorant bliss had sheltered me, or blind ignorance had prevented me from seeing what was going on around the Maastricht train station. But, once I became aware my perspective of and attitude about the place changed.  It was no longer a place where I felt safe. The few times I went back I walked quickly and purposefully to and from the station.  I avoided making eye contact with others. When our eyes met accidently I smiled and hurried away. I had become afraid of them.  I don’t know why because their actions towards me did not change. They were still gracious and accepting.  But the information that I had been given caused me to no longer trust them.

I had become uncomfortable with being in the presence of the same young women who for months had greeted me warmly and respectfully; who had not insulted, ridiculed, or attempted to exclude me. They hadn’t changed, I had.  I had become aware of something about them, although that something was evident from our first encounter.

The uneasiness that Adam and Eve must have felt after discovering their nakedness caused them to conceal the parts of their bodies that were different. Similarly, I was unnerved by the discovery that for months I had unknowingly dallied regularly in the midst of drug addicts and prostitutes. Like Adam and Eve, I wanted to avoid looking at my acquaintances. They frightened me and made me uncomfortable.

My Maastricht train station awakening illustrates perfectly the ambiguity of the arguments for and against giving information.  On the one hand, learning about the activities that were taking place around me may have saved me from harm. On the other hand, the information absolutely changed my perceptions, for the worse, about a place I once enjoyed and the people with whom I had once felt perfectly comfortable.

I don’t know whether it was ignorant bliss or blind ignorance that kept me from seeing what was taking place around me. I just know that the knowledge of it erased the ease and joy I had once felt about relaxing at the Maastricht train station.

 

 

Driving While Doing No Harm

For the past two weeks I have consciously practiced honing the three spiritual disciplines, do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God, that Rueben P. Job outlines in his book: Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.  The “do no harm” discipline is the most difficult for me to master because it has more to do with thinking than acting. The work for this discipline begins in the heart and mind and is reflected by attitude and in actions.

According to Job, just the idea of thinking evil about another person is a form of harm. That concept is almost mind-boggling. Yet it is perfectly in line with Jesus’ own words as record in the Gospel of Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”   Of course the gist of Job’s position and of the Gospel message is that actions are a manifestation of what is taking, or has already taken, place in the mind. Do no harm speaks to the heart of authentic godly living.  Do no harm goes beyond abstaining from causing physical harm. It asserts that to do no harm means not to even think negative thoughts about others.

It is that way of thinking that has presented the greatest challenge to me during my quest to live according to the three simple rules Job discusses in his book. First and foremost, when driving I find myself easily frustrated with other drivers. That frustration causes me to think bad thoughts about them. I say inappropriate things (in my head or the privacy of my car) like, “Hurry up slow poke,” or “move over stupid.” I’ve even found myself saying t, “Just get off the road stupid” or “Please move out of my way. Pull over!”  There are times when I am so frustrated with other drivers that I throw up my hands while driving. I am shocked at the number of times in a day that I call other drivers stupid or dumb or wish to hurry them out of my way.

Until I started practicing doing no harm my behavior towards other drivers was shameful and without remorse.  However, since I began conscientiously thinking about not doing harm, when I catch myself becoming frustrated with other drivers I redirect  my thoughts each time I linger on a negative thought about another driver. Then I recite Philippians 4:8, “…think about whatever is true, think about whatever is noble, think about whatever is right, think about whatever pure, think about whatever is lovely, think about whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about it.”

I’m changing my strategy a little. Instead of simply citing the Scripture, I will try saying things like: “Thank you God for the slow driving person in front of me. By driving below the speed limit the driver in front of me is obeying the law and he or she may actually save lives.

At the end of thirty days perhaps I will do no harm while driving because I will think only positive thoughts about other drivers.

 

Ten Inspirational Books

Recently I began reading, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, by Rueben P. Job. The engaging, inspirational, small book of 77 pages posits three concepts for changing the world for good-by living a god-centered life. Those concepts are: Do No Harm; Do Good, and Love God. The Do No Harm spiritual discipline encapsulates the essence of the following Scriptures: Matthew 5:28; Philippians 4:8; Romans 12: 1-2, and I Corinthians 13: 4-7. It also inspires me to work on further developing my spiritual nature.

My initial reaction to the book was to read it through during a single sitting. However, about halfway through the first section I decided to spend time honing the Do No Harm discipline before reading the rest of the book. It has not been an easy task. When someone cuts me off in traffic, litters, doesn’t curb their dog, behaves rudely, or makes a mistake, etc.; I must consciously reject the negative thoughts about the person that come to my mind and resist the urge to say something mean about him/her. I do this by redirecting my thoughts to either I Corinthians 13:4-7 or Philippians 4:8. Since embarking upon the spiritual quest of doing no harm I cannot count the number of times in a day that I have had to redirect my thoughts. Consequently, my spiritual nature is developing.

As is often the case with me, reading an inspirational book prompts thoughts about many aspects of life. That is exactly what happened to me during the reading of  Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.   I started thinking about other books, aside from Scripture, that have profoundly impacted me. After prayer and meditation, I decided to compile a list of those books to share with others. Such a list could consist of hundreds of books from multiple genres. But a long list would not be useful. Therefore, I have narrowed my list to ten the books that have most profoundly impacted my ethical, moral, and spiritual development.

Most of the books highlight two simple truths. One, Christians are to proclaim the good news of the Gospel of Christ in accordance with Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever will shall be saved.” John 3:16   The second truth is, the way Christians think about and interact with others illustrates the veracity  of  their witness. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7 & 8

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book illustrates the universality of suffering and it addresses the question that many ask, why do bad things happen to “good” people?

     Titles                                                                                                        Authors

  • My Utmost for His Highest                                             Oswald Chambers
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People                 Rabbi Harold Kushner
  • The Cross and the Switchblade                                     David Wilkerson and others
  • Please Make Me Cry                                                        Cookie Rodriguez
  • In His Steps                                                                       Charles Sheldon
  • The Hiding Place                                                              Corrie ten Boom
  • The Cost of Discipleship                                                 Dietrich Bonhoffer
  • The Desert Fathers
  • The 30-Day Experiment
  • Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living       Rueben Phillip Job
  • (One of the books I am currently reading.)

 

A Mother’s Day Tribute

Swannie Missouri McKinley-Ma (1898-1990)

Ma was my maternal grandmother. At the time of her death she was 92-years-old and had lived through the conclusion of America’s involvement in five major wars: the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

She and my grandfather-Daniel McKinley- married in North Carolina and migrated to Pennsylvania where Ma remained after my grandfather’s untimely death in a railroad accident.  My grandparents had six children:  Buddy, Geneva, Cora Elizabeth, Willie, Donnie, and Ozzie (my mother).  Neither Buddy nor Geneva lived to adulthood. During my early childhood my grandmother often expressed grief to me over the fact that Geneva had not been baptized in a church prior to her death. However, sometime during one of our conversations when I was older, I recall Ma saying that she had found comfort in the belief that Geneva’s profuse sweating during her illness was God’s way of baptizing her; therefore Geneva could have entered heaven without having been  baptized in a church.  In addition to her birth children, Ma raised two of her grandchildren, my sister Mary and my older cousin Robert (Bucky) Daniel McKinley.

My grandmother was a very complex person. She was a devout Christian; but she was also extremely superstitious. She read the King James Version of the Bible from cover to cover and understood it as well as anybody I know; yet she had very little formal education.  She was intensely private and family oriented. She loved her siblings and tried to maintain relationships with them even though they lived in North Carolina. During my early childhood Ma made several trips to North Carolina to visit her sister Babe. She often spoke fondly of her siblings and their shared childhood experiences. The Bible, her children, watching wrestling (Don Eagle was her favorite wrestler) and westerns on television were the things that gave Ma the most joy. She dipped Snuff, used a spittoon, and on occasion she enjoyed sipping a cold glass or bottle of Iron City Beer.

Ma, the Bible, and Me

Ma was an avid Bible reader and the New Testament Book of Revelations was one of her favorite texts. She often cited from it. Her Revelations recitations terrified me because they seemed to focus on hell, damnation, punishment, and things that were strange to me.  Not only did she quote Revelations; when I was at her house she often required me to sit silently and read parts of  Revelations.  Some might question why if I was afraid of Revelations I didn’t just pretend to read. The answer is very simple even though it may sound illogical, I was afraid to disobey my grandmother and afraid to lie about reading Scripture-although I easily lied about other things. (In my youth I had a great and vivid imagination. Praise God for salvation and deliverance.)  The other reason I read what Ma told me to read was, me simply stating that I had read something did not satisfy either my mother or grandmother. I had to prove that I understood and had thought about the assigned reading.

After reading an assignment I was expected to recite and explain what I had read. If I failed to accurately recite the text (Ma knew the Bible inside and out) or did not give a reasonable, by her standards, interpretation I had to reread and recite…. So, I tried to get it right the first time. Reading through a passage of Revelations one time a day was terrifying. (What I read became a mind-movie. Imagine the vivid imagination of a teen reading about flying wild creatures, locust plagues, and seven-headed beasts and all of those things being connected to the reader’s life and relationship with the only one, true, and wise living God!) The thought of having to read the same passage more than once in a day was more than I wanted to chew off. So, I learned early to read closely and thoughtfully.

Three Life lessons from Ma

  • It is better to be an old man’s lover than a young man’s slave.
  • Be careful how you treat people going up the ladder; you may meet and need those same people on the way down.
  • Never say what you won’t do. Always say what you hope you don’t do.

Ma’s Epithet

Ma led a long and ordinary life. Her faith in God was not based largely upon Sunday-go-to-meeting religion. She was deeply committed to knowing God through the Bible and to living a life that pleased God. If I were to write her epithet it would read:

“…Well done,[Swannie Missouri McKinley-] thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21

 

Help the Children

The use of social media to coalesce with likeminded people on behalf of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls represents an emotional response, by people from all walks of life, that calls upon world leaders to help the girls.  Our heartfelt grief for those girls and their loved ones prevents us from doing nothing. For many of us the internet is the only immediate resource available to: vent our concerns and to speak as a group demanding world leaders get involved in the efforts to rescue the girls.

We are tired of politicians following their own agendas but claiming to speak for us; the internet stops that practice. It provides average people like me the opportunity to speak swiftly; to join forces with likeminded people, and the freedom to openly express our opinions. Hopefully more often than not, we are using the internet for the common good and not for selfish ambition.  

It is criminal for the world not to cry out for justice on behalf of the kidnapped Nigerian children. In the immediate, our individual cries for governments to intervene in the Nigerian kidnapping crises may seem futile. But, perhaps overtime tyrants will come to realize that because of and through technology they are no longer free to terrorize without severe consequences. Similarly, world leaders will learn that their constituents can and will call upon their leaders to use economic and political influences to exercise justice on and in behalf of oppressed people.  

God, us all!

Living Optimistically

In times of  bereavement and great despair I find encouragement, reassurance, and solace from reciting and meditating upon the following passage of Scripture. “For we know that all things work together to the good of those who love the Lord, those called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28

The preceding passage acknowledges suffering, the world’s great problems, and the trials and tribulations that all living creatures experience. But    it also affirms God’s great love for creation and Gods omnipotence. It encourages and reassures believers that by the grace of God all things will work out to God’s glory and to the believer’s good. The passage reminds believers to remain hopeful in every situation knowing that God turns every tragedy into triumph and every victim into a victor.