Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hope Allowed

The season of Lent is traditionally, for many people, a season of quitting; of giving up something as a way of finding something else. My problem with Lent is that If there is anything that I am bad at (and I am bad at many things) right at the top of the list is probably the process of quitting. I am simply not a quitter. I don't give up. In poker, I never fold; in relationship, I keep pushing on through the place where things are obviously over; in business, I can't let go despite the fact that I am going broke, nothing is working, and all hope was lost long ago. After Katrina, in New Orleans there was a sign on the wall of one of the businesses that was struggling to come back to life. I found a picture of that sign while I was living in exile away from New Orleans and I adopted it's theme as my personal clarion call.

My friend Zach is constantly reminding me of the John Cleese line from the movie Clockwise, when he exclaims, "It's not the despair, Lord, I can stand the despair... It's the hope!" This really does tend to be my problem. Even when I know I need to quit, when I know I should quit, when I know it's really important to get moving and get going. I am still paralyzed by the hope that something will happen, something will change, something good will come out of the current catastrophic situation.

Last night, on my way home from San Francisco, after a wonderful day of doing not much of anything in particular with my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, I listened to the Sondheim & Lapine show, Sunday In The Park With George for the first time in a very long time. At the heart of the musical stands the difficult problem of sticking with or leaving, hoping, or moving on; or perhaps, as it is explained in the penultimate number of the show, hoping and moving on at the same time.

I have always been plagued by George's frustration and struggle with coming up with a way of living and creating that is at the same time new and his own. One of the reasons this show so moved me 30 years ago, and continues to do so today, is that it reaches right down inside my soul and speaks directly to my biggest personal, life-long struggle, doing wonderful, original work, and living a life of heart and meaning and depth and soul.

I just don't know how to do both, but I want to so badly that there are times (like now) when I simply want to shriek in agony at the frustration of my ignorance and inability to figure out what to do and how to do it. Perhaps the best advice comes in Marie's comment at the beginning of this scene when she says, "You meant to tell me to be where I was, not some place in the past or the future. I worried too much about tomorrow. I thought the world could be perfect. I was wrong."

Right now, I am indeed seeking to be where I am, accepting the possibility of moving on despite an extreme lack of clarity, and hoping that in the process I can indeed discover what really is mine to be and do. I am also aware that this is really not enough. Life exists on a fulcrum between Be Here Now and Where Are You Going. Stay too long on one side or the other and all kinds of problems ensue. The true beauty of living can only be made manifest in that combination of elements that George recites at the beginning and end of the play, order, design, tension, balance, light... Harmony.

Somewhere between Never Give Up and Move On there's a place of Harmony and that is the place I'm hoping to find during this seasonal time of searching. It's a process of knowing when to stick and knowing when to quit. It's a place of living in the moment and dreaming of the future. It's a place of big dreams and daily realities.

As Bruce Cockburn sings... "It's hard to live."

For another take on all this, I've had Elton John and Leon Russel's song, Hey Ahab, on constant play in my head and on my iTunes for the past three months. Beyond the emotional connection that links both determination and wisdom with the real life struggles of Leon Russell in recent years, it really is just about the best rock and soul song to come down the pike in a very long time.

Deep in the belly of my own big fish these days, I keep looking for that sign that says "Hope Allowed!" I still want to hang onto that hope, but I also need to understand when it's time to "catch a ride outta here!" To move on to the next thing, while still honoring, and loving, and somehow being glad of what I have done and where I have been.

What do you think? Post a comment. Ask a question. Tell us something about you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What does it mean to have MAIG?

This is a question that I have lived with personally, and nearly every day, for over thirty years. It was first posed to me in a counseling class in seminary, by a quiet scholarly professor with a big mind and an even bigger heart.

MAIG was the concept that Dr. J. Lyn Elder proposed to us at the heart of his personal “Elderology.” A set of concepts that he introduced in his Pastoral Care classes at Golden Gate Southern Baptist Seminary, but which had no resemblance to anything that looks or sounds like what people, at least today, understand Baptist theology to be about.

The initials stand for Maximum And Increasing Gratification and the question of what is MAIG in any given situation is the heart of a modified Utilitarianism that Dr. Elder proposed as the way to approach theology, counseling, ministry, and life.

After living with this material for thirty years, struggling to understand its fundamentals more deeply and seeking to apply the outward principles in my life, I decided that one of the best ways to explore the concepts personally, and to pass them on for the benefit (the Maximum and Increasing Gratification) of others was to struggle through the process of putting them down in print.

Seeking Pleasure Instead of Pain

Incalculable numbers of times, I have mentioned the central concept of this book to people only to receive a look of consternation and a shaking of the head. The inevitable reaction being one in which people cannot imagine setting a criteria for life development or personal improvement, or spirituality of any kind, with the central focus being personal, and collective, gratification.

I find this amusing on the one hand, and depressing on the other. We seem to have no problem basing religious belief on the idea of suffering and annihilation - suicide and/or mass homicide. We - almost universally - worship the war hero who can conceive of sacrificing his or her life for comrades, and violently fighting unknown, unspecified and often unproven enemies, but we have a much harder time honoring the peace warrior who seeks a common ground with “enemies” and opponents. The religious underpinings of personal sacrifice, self-mortification and guilt are well documented and widely accepted, but the idea that there could be a religious underpinning to support the pursuit of delight (both personal and collective) is a concept as foreign to most people as the possibility of breathing water.

In the wider culture as a whole, the idea of immediate gratification is not only accepted, but often widely and enthusiastically practiced. However asking the part of the question, what leads to truly increasing gratification - an actual life-affirming growth in pleasure and goodness - seems far from most people’s thoughts.

Religiously, we seem to be willing to accept sacrifice and pain (or the avoidance of pain) as perfectly reasonable motivators in the development of personal principles and behaviours, but to, instead, consider pleasure, delight, gratification, and ecstasy as equivalent or even superior motivators... that proposal often meets with deaf ears and stoney faces.

When it comes to how we feel about others the same issues apply. How many people are willing to judge others and condemn them to lives of meaningless frustration on earth and an eternity of suffering damnation in hell, rather than accept the fact that we - all of us creatures - are not only entitled to live healthy, happy, holy lives, but that all of us are better off the more of us are experiencing life’s delight? And that is the key to it all. As Republicans (and no doubt a few Democrats) are fond of saying,  “ a rising tide lifts all boats.” The underlying principle of all things MAIG is that each of us individually benefits when all of us are approaching a critical mass of happiness. At the same time, all of us as a collective (within a single group, community, nation, or world) do better when any one of us is reaching for their top potential.

And that is what MAIG is about. In every aspect of life, in all representations of connection; in every way that each of us lives, and moves and has our being, we are all the better for every way we build up our (and other’s) lives. We need to have the best we can get and we need to help that best get better.

That is my hope and prayer for this book, it’s insights and exercises. I believe that the five questions to be dealt with in the next few pages and 10,000 words will provide you with a basis for reflecting on a way of living that not only provides the opportunity for great meaning, but also great joy. Maximum and increasing gratification.

Good is not enough when you dream of being Great!


This is the introduction to a book I am working on (and a series I am developing). There's more to come as I approach the first release within the next couple of weeks. Your questions, comments, and critiques are very much welcome. Please post!

You can also find this post at my other blog, Bleeding Daylight