One way to measure the various stages we travel through from birth to advanced age is the use of “biological markers.” The expression is a convenient way to determine what is expected biologically from one stage of life to another. The “markers” for the elderly of our society paint a not-so-rosy picture. The “golden years” are not always glittering. The various losses we experience in our aging process are many. The losses include health, financial security, purpose, friends, and even identity.

How can the aged among us survive these losses, even the loss of who we are?

Our discussion in this episode explores ways in which we and our aged loved ones might find some stability and focus, even purpose, as we swim against the current of our “marker.”

Download or listen to Aging Mindfully, episode 2: Do “biological markers” make us lose our identity?

Posted by: fostermccurley | April 19, 2013

Aging Mindfully

Welcome to Aging Mindfully. These podcasts present an interdisciplinary dialogue between George Simms and Foster McCurley on opportunities and challenges connected with aging.

George Simms has a special interest in the moral dimensions of medical decision making and the integration of the biological, psychological and spiritual aspects of aging. George has prepared himself well for this integration. He has a medical degree, a Ph.D. in human behavior, and a master’s degree in theology.

Foster McCurley has two master degrees in theology and a Ph.D. in Assyriology. For the first half of Foster’s professional career, he served as a faculty member at a theological seminary. The latter half moved him to the theological challenges of social justice issues and to social ministry organizations of the Lutheran church, including seven years as a member of the Lutheran Disaster Response team.

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Download or listen to the introductory episode of Aging Mindfully here.

Posted by: fostermccurley | September 8, 2009

Deciding to go to hell

The choice for hell has echoed for almost a century and a half through Huckleberry Finn’s penetrating words. Huck’s life in his aunt’s home, her strict mentoring of morals and manners, and the daily life in church and society–all led to his dilemma. In his own attempt to run away from home, he discovered that Miss Watson’s slave Jim was running also. The two teamed up for many adventures and misadventures throughout Mark Twain’s story. The two refugees came to know each other, to share their hopes and dreams, and to take a variety of risks to rescue the other from harm’s way.

Early in their common adventure, Huck was certain about his own right to run, but aiding and abetting a runaway slave meant swimming against the religious and cultural tides. “Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [Penguin Books, 1985], 104). Much time and many escapades later, Huck’s mind returned to the question of his responsibility. In a note he wrote to Miss Watson, Huck informed her where Jim was located and how she might reacquire him. He was so relieved of his decision that he admitted feeling cleansed of sin and ready to pray again. Minutes later, however, he read his letter with trembling hands. “‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up” (228).

Rachel Carson had spent decades combining her expertise in marine biology with her talent for writing. After years of researching the effects of DDT on plant, animal, and human life, Ms. Carson sought better-known writers, even the likes of E. B. White, to write a book based on her research. She was committed to educate the public about the dangers of this chemical. Ultimately, she wrote the book herself. Silent Spring was published in 1962. Letters and articles declared her one of the most dangerous people in America, a lunatic the public should ignore. The sources for many of those accusations were—not surprisingly—the chemical and food-producing industries. Clearly, she was bad for business. She expected the outrage, but apparently decided to join Huckleberry Finn in hell. A decade after the publication of her book, however, the United States issued a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. Jimmy Carter awarded her posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Greg Mortenson has dedicated decades of his life to building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book Three Cups of Tea—co-authored by David Oliver Relin—describes his arduous and precarious life in seeking funds for constructing the schools and in working with the local people in the villages to honor their hopes. The moving story about his commitment to education attests to a powerful alternative to war in fighting terrorism in the world. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time.” Shortly after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, Mortenson received letters that wished him a painful death for helping Muslims. One promised that the Lord would make him pay dearly for being a traitor. (Does that mean a life of eternal hell?) With his family encouragement and support, he has continued his commitment to the benefit of us all.

I am not certain that I have the courage to make the decisions that Huckleberry Finn, Rachel Carson, and Greg Mortenson have made. Maybe I am too afraid to risk my own personal securities for the sake of the common good. My own health care insurance works rather well. I regret that about 50 million people in the United States do not share that satisfaction and that so many others have been refused treatment. But what can I do about it? Why should I take the risk of making myself unpopular when highly successful people counsel against any change? And why would I support a different health care system when some who espouse religious virtues consider proposed changes to be “evil”?

I could write one more article or deliver one more speech about leaving things as they are, I suppose, to become as virtuous as some of my friends and fellow church members. That would enable me to feel more secure. To prepare such a virtuous stance I would, of course, look to the Bible to prove my point religiously.

What would I find there?

I could not escape the scriptural evidence that in Jesus’ day it was religious purists who condemned Jesus for taking the side of the most vulnerable people in the land—the poor, the widows, the children, the outcasts, and the sick. The ultra-virtuous Pharisees watched to see if Jesus would heal the man with the withered hand on the sabbath, and when he did, they conspired “to destroy him” (Mark 3:1-6). When Jesus healed and forgave the sins of the paralyzed man, the religious “scribes” accused him of blaspheming (Matthew 9:1-8), surely the road to hell.

At his trial Jesus stood before Caiaphas, the high priest, and other leading religious leaders in Jerusalem. This group was not devoid of economic concerns. In fact, the Temple was a major factor in the entire economy of Jerusalem, even a major employer in the city. The home of Caiaphas was probably the most extravagant in the city. These religio-economic leaders focused on the trumped-up charges that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple and that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus’ somewhat ambiguous responses to their questions lead to the verdict of “blasphemy” and the sentence of death (Matthew 26:57-68). They had just consigned him to hell. To assure their sentence would be executed, the religious powers structure “persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20).

Like Huck Finn, I would probably tear up the note (or article or speech) I was preparing. Deciding to go to hell in order to love our neighbors near and far might just be the way of Christ, even if it is not religious or virtuous. “He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven…”

Posted by: fostermccurley | August 10, 2009

Building Foundations: Fair Trade at Work

Yousaf Chaman talks about Oriental rugs and fair trade.

Yousaf Chaman talks about handknotted Oriental rugs, how they are made, and the importance of fair trade to the Pakistani artisans.

Download or listen to Whose We Are, episode 4: Building Foundations.

My guest for this podcast is Yousaf Chaman, the director of the Oriental Rug Program at Ten Thousand Villages, the largest fair trade organization in North America. A native of Lahore, Pakistan, Yousaf has spent many years learning first-hand from skilled artisans about the ancient art of Oriental rugs. In those years, he has seen the difference that fair trade makes in the lives of artisans.

A business and economics graduate of Punjab University in Lahore, Yousaf blends his passion about Oriental rugs and social justice. When he walks onto the sales floor at Ten Thousand Villages, he brings that passion with him as he talks about how fair trade empowers the artisans (women and men) in the villages of Pakistan. Yousaf, who is fluent in Urdu, English, Punjabi and sign language, gives frequent seminars on how fair trade  impacts global relations and lays the building blocks for peace. He is an articulate speaker, passionate about his work, and delights crowds with his knowledge of Oriental rugs and the people and culture of Pakistan.

Yousaf talks about the origins of the artisan group called Bunyaad (the Urdu word meaning “foundation”), and he discusses how the group became connected with Ten Thousand Villages. He speaks of how the artisans benefit from working through a fair trade organization and the expectations for high quality products. Of particular importance is Yousaf’s discussion of the benefits to the communities where the rug artisans live. Like Greg Mortenson who is cultivating peace through schools he builds in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so is Bunyaad providing dignity through fair trade and economic development to the more than 850 families who are part of the artisan group.

In Pakistan, in August 2004, we met Khalida who ties beautiful oriental rugs.

Khalida, who makes handknotted Oriental carpets, greets us in her home in Pakistan. 

Hear Yousaf in his own words talk about:

  • The artisan group and how it started
  • The changes that artisans experienced as a result of Bunyaad
  • How families are making rugs
  • How the rug artisan group became connected with Ten Thousand Villages
  • Visitors to Pakistan who want to learn how rugs are made
  • What life is like for a typical rug-making family in Pakistan
  • The difference fair trade principles make in the lives of the rug artisans
  • How an artisan becomes a member of Bunyaad
  • The hopes and dreams for the future of the rug program
Posted by: fostermccurley | May 27, 2009

Spirituality with Melanie Taormina

Melanie Taormina discusses spirituality

Melanie Taormina

Listen to or download Whose We Are, episode 3: Taize Spirituality with Melanie Taormina.

It is a delight to have as my guest for this interview on spirituality, Melanie Taormina. Melanie lives, works, and worships in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She is training to be a certified spiritual director in the contemplative tradition. While living in Pittsburgh, she served as an Authorized Lay Worship Leader in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Melanie is a member of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Williamsport, the congregation in which she was baptized and raised. She is also a published poet and holds degrees in writing from Lycoming College and the University of Pittsburgh. Melanie works for Lycoming College as Director of Alumni Relations. She lives with Dan, her husband of 13 years, and their beloved cat.

Melanie talks about the development of her quest for spirituality, particularly for spiritual direction and training. She attributes her motivation for this training to her experiences at the Taize community in France. The continuing development of her spirituality led her to a training program with Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development.

Posted by: fostermccurley | April 23, 2009

A Parent’s Legacy

Mom at Petrified Forest in 1998

Mom at Petrified Forest in 1998

In the early hours of April 22, the not unexpected phone call informed me of my mother’s death. She was just a couple of months short of her ninety-fourth birthday. The four days prior to her dying and since yesterday morning provided much opportunity for conversation and reflection with family members, staff at Luther Acres Manor where she resided, and with friends.

At this point, only a day after her passing, my heart and mind are focused on two of her many contributions to me. The first is her love of words. When I was a child, we lived in a small duplex home that was without central heat. The only way to keep warm on those cold winter evenings in northeastern Pennsylvania was to sit at the dining room table beside the coal “heater.” There we played pinochle. There we worked on crossword puzzles and on jigsaw puzzles. Especially important to me now in my moments of reflection, it was at that table where my mother and I maintained tablets for words. We had pages of synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. Mom had finished only eight years of school before she went to work in a shirt factory, but her excitement over this project we shared instilled in me a fascination for language.

Her second contribution that I cherish is one she shared with many others. It was her passion to put her words and thoughts and memories together to tell stories. The tales she related around that dining room table focused on her early years, growing up in the second and third decades of the last century. She was born the third of nine children, and their life together was a constant struggle for survival. Yet she rose above the hardships to talk about her own mother’s sitting at the piano and singing Welsh hymns with her gentle soprano voice. She told of how her parents and siblings picked coal for their kitchen stove, how they picked berries in season, and how they went to the circus when it came to town each summer. Her stories were so fascinating that my own children were always eager to sit at her table, recording her stories for their future enlightenment and entertainment.

Ever since she entered the campus of Luther Acres in Lititz (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), Mom found willing audiences for her stories. Their content now expanded to include tales about her own children. Happily the caring staff of the assisted living and skilled nursing programs report that she said only good things about us. In recent years, her dementia seemed to confuse her autobiographical accounts with characters from Louis L’Amour, her favorite author. As a result, distinguishing between truth and fiction became quite challenging for all of us. Her ability to distinguish past from present also gave her stories some interesting twists. Unaware of those complexities, however, she never stopped telling them-until five days ago.

Her legacy to me includes those words and stories. I confess that I inherited something else from her. Her roommate at the manor told Jannine and me the day before Mom died that she hopes there is a room reserved in heaven for Gertrude that is full of chocolate.

In the presence of God and all her listeners, I am sure her stories will continue — no matter what language is spoken around the Table.

Posted by: fostermccurley | April 21, 2009

Lots of Love and Locks

Locks of Love

Download or listen to Whose We Are, episode 2: Lots of Love and Locks.

Corinne with long hair

Corinne with long hair

In March, 2009, our nine-year-old granddaughter, Corinne, surrendered 10 inches of her blond hair to Locks of Love. I interviewed her to give her the opportunity to speak about the organization and what it does for people. She knows children who have lost their hair through cancer treatment and because of alopecia. She also knows other young girls who have made such donations to Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids. Listen to the podcast to hear from Corinne herself how she regards the gift of her hair as an act of caring for others.

Corinne gets her locks cut

Corinne gets her locks cut

Short hair and a long "pony"

Short hair and a long "pony"

Posted by: fostermccurley | April 1, 2009

Work: Divine and Human

Listen to or download Whose We Are, episode 1: Work: Divine and Human

God reaches out to us with unconditional love and sends us into the world to love our neighbors. In the world, we have more than six billion neighbors. The form that neighbor love takes in such a world is justice. According to the Bible, justice is what God loves. Justice is the harmony and wholeness that pulls all the pieces of God’s will together to make meaningful community out of the conflict and oppression that we manage to accomplish on our own. Fair and meaningful labor, especially as it is experienced through the principles of fair trade, is a key ingredient in the pursuit of justice, in the welfare of families, in the education of children, and in the potential for peace among us.

On Saturday, March 28, the Global Mission Committee of the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA sponsored a conference called “Faith and Fair Trade: What is God Doing in the Marketplace?”

The committee had invited me to deliver the keynote address called “Work: Divine and Human.” As I was preparing my lecture for that occasion, an article appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a fair trade moment my wife Jannine and I experienced in Pakistan almost five years ago. Eight months prior to our trip, we had purchased a rug from Ten Thousand Villages (the largest fair trade organization in North America and member of the World Fair Trade Organization) which distributes the hand-knotted rugs from an artisan group called Bunyaad (formerly JAKCISS). Bunyaad is an Urdu word meaning foundation. While we were visiting some villages in Pakistan in 2004, we were privileged to meet the woman who had tied the rug that lies on our foyer floor. A photo of Khalida in front of her loom rests on the table beside her rug. We celebrate that she has been paid fairly for the months of work she devoted to the intricate design: the tree of life. Buying through a fair trade organization brought us face to face with the artisan we would never have known. Human connectedness paves the road to peace.

“Work: Divine and Human”

“Like Breathing Out and Breathing In”
Receiving the message about God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ nourishes us just as the air we inhale sustains us. Breathing in that message soon forces us to exhale. What we breathe out is the same love that we have taken in.

Loving the Neighbor
According to the Apostle Paul, our breathing out takes the form of loving of our neighbors (Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14). Our neighbors are the persons we meet daily—family members, friends, checkout persons at the grocery store, and, of course, the people that live next door. Our neighbors are also the more than six billion people living in the world—people we do not see, people whose names we do not know—but people made in God’s image just as much as we are.

The Clothing that Love Wears in Public
In the world of six billion neighbors, love appears as justice. Justice in the Bible is an intimate relationship. God is a “lover of justice” (Ps. 99:4). Justice, along with righteousness, is the way God rules the whole creation (Ps. 97:2). Justice, along with kindness and humility, is what God requires for the wellbeing of human community (Mic. 6:8). Justice is what brings various pieces of human community together.

Health and Wholeness
The first two chapters of the Book of Genesis describe what God wills for the humanity community: living space, food, companionship with other humans and with the non-human world, reason and wisdom, and fruitful labor. The work, according to Genesis 1, is dominion, not domination, of the other creatures—responsible management, even stewardship. In Genesis 2, God assigned the first human to work and protect the garden. When God made each phenomenon throughout the first story, God evaluated it and declared it was “good.” When God finished the entire project, God saw that all the pieces worked together and declared it was “very good.” We could describe the integration as shalom, that is, wholeness, or as “justice.”

The sinfulness of humans caused the pieces to fall apart. Among the many ramifications is that labor became “toil.” The Hebrew word actually means anxiety, frustration, stress, anguish (2 Sam. 19:3; Prov. 15:13; Isa. 14:3; 54:6).

Work, Trade, and the Poor
In the Book of Proverbs, the wisdom teachers instructed their pupils that laziness takes food off the table, and only a fool would take that road (Prov. 10:5; 19:15). But they also taught that the poverty is often the result of injustice (Prov. 13:23). The prophet Amos also condemned the people of Israel for their injustice to the poor on the market place (Amos 2:6; 8:5-6), and Isaiah pointed to the oppression in courts of law (Isa. 3:9-15). (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel, identifies a major source of poverty as the latitude in which people lived for the last eleven millennia.) In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul teaches that work Paul urged work provides contact with the world. In the world, work can be a service to God and to needy neighbors while waiting for the day of the Lord. (Acts 20:34-35;1 Thess. 4:9-12; Eph. 4:28).

When the Pieces Fit Together
Stories from Thomas Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded demonstrate that when people can find meaningful and fair labor, many opportunities can result. Where fair trade and its principles come into play, people can provide homes for their families, put food on the table, educate their children, and protect the environment for their own sakes and for the world’s benefit. My own experiences in Pakistan also show that when people have jobs that honor them and pay them fairly, families have appropriate living spaces, sufficient food and health care, education, and can live in peace.

Posted by: fostermccurley | March 25, 2009

A Legacy

The memorial service last weekend was a particularly sad one. Barbara had celebrated her forty-sixth birthday only two weeks before she died. One of the many “remembrances” that people offered to the gathered grievers was presented by a young man who spoke of a particular gift Barbara had left him. He explained that he himself had been quite ill, and during the time of his hospitalization and rehab, he had received many notes from people offering their prayers and support for his recovery. Three months after his critical period, he said, a note came from Barbara. She told him that she had written the note earlier but waited to send it until the other cards and notes had ceased. The man told us that she sent it precisely when he needed it most, when everyone else simply assumed he was back to normal. Her thoughtfulness, he said, set a new pattern for him. He now makes a habit of sending additional messages of support and comfort three months after his friends go through their crises.

 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which ourselves have been consoled by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Posted by: fostermccurley | March 12, 2009

Some like it cold: Tundra swans and Snow geese

Snow geese: gray phase, intergrade, and white

Snow geese: gray phase, intergrade, and white

Earlier this week my wife, Jannine, and I made our fourth trip of the season to see the Tundra swans and the Snow geese stop for a rest and some nutrition at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Kleinfeltersville, PA. One of the reasons we look forward to March is to witness this annual stopover of geese and swans as they make their way from their wintering grounds along the Mid-Atlantic coast back to their summer mating grounds in the northern reaches of Canada.

Watching the geese descend in groups of five to hundreds sends shivers up our spines as the waterfowl present themselves in all their graceful glory. Their landings make them look like experienced parachuters, picking their spots on an already white-painted hill.

The Tundra swans make quite a beautiful racket as they float weightlessly on the lake. Their long necks serve them well as their heads disappear into the icy water.

And God said, “… and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky” (Genesis 1:20). We cannot count on the authors of Genesis 1 to tell us how these birds evolved over millions of years to be what they are today—the long necks, the strong wings, the white color. The biblical story does a better job at helping us see the value of things and the purpose for each phenomenon of nature.

Yet there is the rub. The creation story reports God’s stated function for each day’s product. God made the light to separate day and night, seasons, years, and to give light. God made the ground to provide a nursery for plants. God made the heavens (a hammered-out piece called the dome) to separate the waters above from the waters below. But when the story comes to the animals on the land, the fish in the water, and the birds of the air, not a word is said about their function.

Apparently, they are just to be appreciated.

We will make several more trips to Middle Creek before the week is out and join hundreds of other people who appreciate the birds in all their awesome beauty. And we’ll be grateful once again that the Snow geese and Tundra swans have paused in their travels long enough for us to marvel at their beauty and admire them “just for so.”

Snow geese at rest

Snow geese at rest

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