When an Identity Includes Being Slapped Across the Face

Being authentic in New Zealand, 2010

The uniqueness of who I am* is a composition of what I inherited from my ancestors. Not just my parents, but also those who influenced them, and the culture they engaged in. On reflection, I concluded that I lost much of what was a feature of small Rajmund. I was not afraid to express myself freely, not fully grasping the meaning of what being confined to what was proper and correct may mean. So, grooming and influences of the whole environment and culture tampered with some authenticity of the early days.
   But not all was lost. External influences brought out a tapestry of values that became my own, including beliefs and traditions. My convictions took root. Rajmund was as authentic as my talents, walk-and-talk were synchronized.
   When going through my library recently, a book dedication by a truly special friend caught my attention and brought back a memory or two. In a copy of Authenticity, A Biblical Theology of Discernment by Thomas Dubay, S.M., which Pam Harris sent me, she wrote: Ray, you taught me more in a conversation about authenticity than I had learned in a lifetime ... Pam. Kindness and generosity of thought is what makes Pam a special friend.
   But now, Pam made me reflect on my own, personal pedigree that propels my quest for authenticity with "every breath you take," as Sting would have it. Should I conclude that taking stock of what makes me who I am synchronizes with what others seem to see in me as valuable? Yes, I am special to my mother. I am special to Grazyna, my wife. I am special, unique to my Maker. And so on.
   Thomas Dubay explains what authenticity is all about in a Christian life. He identifies authenticity as "reality without sham." We are "authentic to the extent that [we] live the truth." The human person "conforms his mind, words, actions to what is. His mind reflects reality, and his speech reflects his mind."   It's tough to live up to it all and be called authentic. And there is more. An authentic person "is patient when suffering rejection for he knows that those who live fully in conformity to Christ Jesus are sure to be persecuted."

   A story will illustrate my coming of age as a person and a believer. Barely 14, I recall an event within a couple of weeks of being successfully enrolled in Jan Zamoyski Liceum, a well-known and historic public high school at 30 Smolna Street in Warsaw, Poland. The school had nearly 900 students and was located just across from our home and the Seventh-day Adventist church in city center, where my father worked.
   On one September Monday morning I was called-out to stand in front of a class of 35, to be questioned about my absence in school on Saturdays. Answering respectfully, I repeated my convictions about Sabbath observance. The teacher called for Mr. Jan Gad, the school principal, to come and question me, too.
   Mr. Gad, who I later found out, lived in an apartment building next to where I lived, was a tall, stocky man, and his larger-than-life presence commanded respect. For us youngsters, it exuded fear. Later, a school chronicle would refer to him as an “excellent principal,” who said that a “school is like an orchestra. You need a good conductor, good team and a good music score. A melody will then sound beautifully.” On that Monday morning he exercised his conducting skills on me, and for the benefit of others, it appeared.
   Even today, I well recall being slapped across my face. The hot tears ran on my cheeks, a reaction to this sudden and public humiliation. I experienced – first-hand – an act of violence by someone in authority. That moment is etched firmly in my memory.
   Among high-pitched, angry shouting, I still recall something said about atheism and that my unpatriotic behavior would not be tolerated.
   My parents were summoned and I was expelled.
   Thus ended my enrollment in Warsaw’s premier high school. I was kicked out of school but for a good and – in my opinion – positive outcome. My parents negotiated a move to a different high school, just a few hundred yards further, and still within a walking distance. My new lease on student life began at the Jaroslaw Dabrowski high school on 1 Swietokrzyska Street. I enjoyed the fact that a Dabrowski would be going to a school named after another Dabrowski.

   In essence, the Jan Zamoyski Liceum event was my first lesson in human rights and nonconformity. My Seventh-day Adventist culture no doubt influenced my decision to make a stand that day. Though what could one do in such a circumstance? After all, I was just 14.  This early “here I stand” position was a reminder when my future choices, and decisions, required removal of shadows and manipulations in other tough moments in my life. My DNA, however, so rich with the building blocks of those who for generations before me chose not to conform – to be authentic at whatever the cost – became my own way of life.
   The moral of the experience is – speak the truth and do not be afraid to do so, even the unpopular truth.
   Such moments like the one when I said "no" to school’s conformity, continue to allow me to be assured that in authenticity, I am a "total lover of God," as Thomas Dubay would say.
   Besides, the admonition of Jesus Himself has taken root in my life: You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong. – Gospel of Matthew 5:36-37 [The Message]

*This commentary was first published by The1Project on March 14, 2015 as part of a series entitled Identity. It included a set of Recalibrate questions: 1. Is there a place for “political correctness” in the life of a Christian? 2. What shapes your identity? Is “God’s way” the only option that makes you a child of God? 3. Do you allow “gray areas” to shape your reactions to moral and behavioral issues of life? 4. Honesty, openness, frankness – is your contribution to church and social life driven by them?


Time for a Dose of Executive Merriment

I recall two experiences from a distant past that made me laugh. A taxi ride in Beijing offered a not-for-laughter scene with several dozen elderly citizens engaged in a serious routine of Tai Chi exercises. I have seen it before, but a drive-by a park scene of such a group made me chuckle. To me they all looked funny, standing on one leg and making weaves with their arms, though engaged in a serious healthy activity.

A second story comes from India. A few years later, a drive-by Mumbai offered a destined-for-laughter scene. For thirty minutes in the morning hundreds of Mumbai business people, teachers, housewives, even doctors could be seen in numerous city parks indulging in a feast of merriment. Reporting on the phenomenon, the India Times said, laughter gurgles through the gardens of Mumbai. Twenty-five of those parks have their own laughter clubs of 60+ citizens religiously meeting daily to immerse themselves in laughter.    
         They follow a “sacred” protocol. They stand in rows - men on one side, women on the other - and start with a warm-up chant: Ha-ha, ho-ho. Then, suddenly, they break into a cackle at the groups leaders signal. The laugher routines come in variations - Silent Laugh (internal), Executive Laugh (funny faces, polite giggles), and so on.
         When interviewed - they say, “I am renewed.” One of them was not overtly philosophical when saying, “Gradually laughter turns into a natural habit, they say. It becomes a way of life.” The whole laughter movement in India started twenty years ago with a certain doctor, who laughed, and then went public with it.
         If you care to notice, in our Western world, those who are most somber-looking are often found in a church pew.
         A Facebook comment by one of my friends made me pause. Referring to an endless struggle with womens ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he said that the upcoming San Antonio, Texas, world synod-like convocation would spend a full day debating and deciding what to do with the issue – permit more than mandate - that would stick globally. Then he said, “Maybe there will be time for a comedian or two to lighten things up a little.” 
         Actually, clergy ordination is not a funny matter. One could argue, however, that the diatribe surrounding a born-in Christianity issue had become somewhat crazy at times. There are individuals who are involved in officially addressing the issue who are passionately advocating that ministerial ordination is a game men play. Frankly, the length of research and debates on its gender-inclusive merits is centuries long and borders on farce. The recent stages of the decades long discussions paints a healthy smile on my face.
         Getting back to the “comedy” aspect raised in a Facebook comment, the funny thing is that religious communities in their serious business processes and policy creations are hardly known for any quality experience with comedy. Some religionists cannot stomach a notion that their Creator has a sense of humor.
         Though culturally diverse in form and style, comedy is nothing new anywhere. We laugh at the obvious. We look and what we see and that makes us laugh. We laugh at seriousness of life. Some of us even crave that our actions and choices are talked about, with someone having a laugh at our expense. Even at death, we acknowledge a will of the deceased to celebrate their life rather than sob and give-in to endless grief.
         As for comedy in a church setting, one can hope that it does not get lost though seriousness on someone’s conviction aims to erode freedom to respect each other’s right to differ, and to … hug each other at the same time. I wish the San Antonio convocation participants would consider hugging. Such an act makes people recognize each other’s humanity and offers a moment of comedy, which is often missed in life.
         The Millennials among us have a laugh at horse-like faces when pompous religious pronouncements are being made. Honestly, one should “never expect the Spanish Inquisition,” right? The Monty Pythons are not known to be Millennials, but they seriously inserted into our consciousness a need for healthy irreverence, sprinkled with a good laugh at human foibles and the chronic terminal seriousness that actually no one is asking for.
         Later this summer, when thousands of church synod delegates gather to give their expression to either a status quo or a vote for clergy equality, would at least some agree with an author of Psalm 126:2 (NIV) - "Our mouths were filled with laughter."
         Would there be laughter at the end of the vote – whichever way it will go – in San Antonio, Texas? Personally, I do not expect many tears of joy. But I have been mistaken before.


Reliving One's Gratitudes

It must have been sometime in the early part of August when a minister's sermon challenged me to live-out his sermon for a week. If confessions are serious, I can state that I go to church listen to a preacher, and wonder if in a week’s time the sermon will make any difference. That’s my honest admission. Perhaps similar experiences can be expressed by others, whether they worship in a church, synagogue or a mosque. 
Larger than life Japhet De Oliveira, who recently became a pastor in Boulder, Colorado, was sporting his signature pink socks and brown shoes, and that day he was in his element. Pastor Japhet was convincing in his discourse, bringing Jesus Christ alive to his congregants, as he does week after week.
In conclusion, as a point to reenact Jesus’ contemporary influence, he invited listeners to consider taking a moment each day for the following week, and express gratitudes in our personal life, in a similar fashion to those whose stories are recorded in the Gospels.
Take a moment each morning and state what you are grateful for that day, he recommended.
This was Grazyna’s and my new encounter with Colorado. It was an adventure in discovering a place we selected as our destination for our future. So, we drove from the East coast across several states, covering 1,700 miles. We set to begin something new and exceptionally different from our life thus far.
After twenty years living in America, now we created our own new frontier and pilgrimaged into a pretty much unknown space and time. We visited Colorado before, and the Colorado sun was inviting us in a relentless beckoning. The Rockies, capped with a residue of Summer snow, took our sights higher.
Today, I am reliving those challenged-out gratitudes. As I said earlier, I listened to De Oliveira. I caught myself saying: Why don't you do this. Live this sermon out.
This blog piece is an effect of that week’s serious, personal, but also public statement. It was Tweeted then. My August recollections are my new pushing-the-borders blog woken up from hibernation, a few musings adorned with photographs.

Day One: Today, I am truly thankful for Grazyna - her love, care and making each day healthy and bright!

Day Two: A life with Christian faith and hope, and being assured of better things ahead!

Day Three: A Colorado move means enjoying the community, nature, clear air, spring water, and no humidity!

Day Four: For a locally grown food, organic, and natural; this is health maintenance!

Day Five: My teacher and later a mentor once said – Try harder, Ray. I listened. My life has changed. Are we grateful for those who believe in us?*

Day Six: There is little to say when you have a son who is … wiser than you! Grateful for Michal and his life!

Day Seven: Recurring one in seven – when space gives itself into time. Rest!

Thus was and continues to recur a Week of Gratitude! It repeats itself 24/7. Together with generosity, which is a topic demanding my personal unpacking at some other time, gratitude is a building block of a life of quality.

* Dr. Jan Paulsen, was my teacher at Newbold College in England. 


One Eye Only, But "Rescued" Sees More


If you don't have one, get one! Mine is a great traveling companion. "Rescued" is my monkey's name. He was found on a heap of coke in a dilapidated, tarnished by World War II, and then state-confiscated* property I visited with my father in 1955 in Warsaw. 
            No. 1 Turecka Street is located just off the history-rich Royal Route, south of Belweder Palace and mid-way from the Royal Castle Square to Wilanรณw Castle. It was a prime location to house a church headquarters and provide homes for clergy. 
            Years later, I gathered, that very visit in 1955 was a nostalgic.  Perhaps it was the proximity to the Soviet Embassy that pushed the regime to confiscate religious facility, these being the early years of communist rule in Poland. The Turecka location was substituted for a different, and much more central, palatial, and valuable property at 8 Foksal Street. Finding "Rescued" became a saving-grace moment for me. Even today it reminds me of restoration and happy escapes. My stuffed monkey is a joyful companion-reminder of the present and the better things to come. 
            Like many of our small and large mementos, nostalgia oozes out of our special objects, animated or dustable alike. Call me weird or crazy, but no matter where we find ourselves, we talk to each other. He patiently listens to my blabber and interrupts me aptly making me to pause and reflect. 
            "Rescued" travels well. Often he is found on his head as I unpack him in my hotel room, but never jumps out of the suitcase or knapsack. He has manners. As you can imagine, he got that from me, right? 
            The monkey had his life-dramas over his 58 years of toy-life. First, someone abandoned him and in a dark, dusty and lightless basement, and on a heap of coke (koks), a popular heating fuel in a post-WWII Poland. Who was his first and young, I assume, owner? "Rescued" and I still exchange views about it today. 
            Undoubtedly, his next stage in life was in a much cleaner and friendly environ. 
            A little over 25 years later my monkey experienced his next traumatic moment. It came when our 3-year old son, Michal, gave him a shave and attempted a surgery, resulting in a severe chest cut, as well as a thorough chewed-up leg. When I saw what was happening, "Rescued" encountered his second rescue. 
            Then, the missing eye. This was - fortunately an effect of Michal's precision surgery before blinding the monkey totally. The operation was thus successfully interrupted but obviously my "Rescued" lost one eye. 
            Rescued recently returned from a trip to Dubai. It was an exhausting, yet culturally rich travel, including a ride on a camel at the Spice Souk market, and the excitement of crossing the Dubai Creek on an abra water taxi. But an experiment with trying a scoop of camel milk gelato was not what we thought it would be. It tastes the same as your regular milk ice cream. But, the saffron gelato was awesome. Upon seeing Rescued Dubai photos, Michals comment was: "Snip, snip!" Keep him safe when around me, was his reaction.

            No matter what's in store for my monkey and me, my 58 years of "belonging" is rich and certain. Even with one eye, my "Rescued" can still see more! His silent contentment tells me so. 
            Today, as he interacts with his cosmopolitan buddies, he leans proudly on a South African tiger, and winks, as if to indicate that joy is rich in giving yourself to others in friendship and in practicing quality listening skills. [He knows so much about me!]
            My convictions confirm our joint resolve to recognize happy escapes and restoration as being at the heart of our toy-human axis.

*In 1995, as part of the church-state agreement, the property was returned to the church.


Infectious authenticity

Coffee Pot Rock, Sedona, Arizona
With my first day of the year just under wraps, a nagging thought pushed me toward my computer. A voice in my head told me: You will do well if you plan something for the year to come. Knowing myself, it sounded like I needed to take charge of my attitudes, and turn them into a blessing.
         Every new year on January 1, most everyone creates a list of promises to work on. Admittedly, my promises are created to easily transform into feelings of guilt when the good intentions falter. My guilt, and not the fulfillment of promises, has an easier start and finish in my everydayness. So, January quickly turns into February, and so on, with acting on promises turns rusty.
         An experience from a few years ago come to mind.
         We had a dear friend who lived in Sedona, Arizona. She invited us frequently to enjoy “God’s country,” as she called it. Mary Schnack passed away in February last year, but apart from professional interests and collaborations, what remains in our memories are many a moment we spent trekking the red-rock trails of Sedona's God’s country.
         Mary lived just under the Coffee Pot Rock landmark, and a short distance from St. John Vianney Church. It was a chance visit, which provided a reflection as I observed an after Christmas service.
         What’s vivid in my memory is the sound of a nearly empty church, its silence broken by hard-hitting steps of a minister walking from the back of the church nave toward the altar. The sound meant he knew his destination.
         Soon my eyes were drawn to the space associated with the language of the steps, revealing a well-worn-out cowboy boots with a hint of jeans showing slightly below his vestments.
         It was not as much what I saw, but what a short, bearded man in his forties shared in his equally short homily. Later, I learned that many a Sedonian refers to him as J-C, and his presence is felt outside the walls of the church. Stories abound making him a fixture in the local lore.
         A memory of what I heard that morning jumped at me on this New Year’s morning. Father J-C told a story about a good-for-nothing seminary mate of his, who phoned him wondering if J-C lives by what he preaches.
         All of a sudden I was confronted by a lot of stuff, the preacher told the congregation.  
         “What pillow do you have under your head? It’s soft, isn’t it? And what’s your duvet like? Warm, right?”
         Whatever else was said next it was set against the importance of being rather than having, all seasoned with personal honesty.
         My nagging thought of this morning is this: Make yourself useful in the lives of those who will cross onto your path in 2013.
         Instead of waiting for someone else to be love I am inviting myself to make the world better by getting out of my shell in order to become more responsive to the disenfranchised and the needy.
         That’s a challenge I am throwing at myself for 2013.
         And if a wish is in order to all who are pushing the borders with me, may your authenticity become infectious!