Faded Glory

Posted in: Current Events,history,Popular Culture by bill-o on September 26, 2010

The musician and entertainer Liberace (1919-1987), a.k.a “Mr. Showmanship”, was the highest paid entertainer in the United States from 1950 to 1980. Known for his lavish, over-the-top costumes, candelabras on his piano, and bubbly personality, the Milwaukee-native, Polish-American rose to stardom both through musical talent and by personality.

Known in his later years primarily for his Las Vegas acts, Liberace opened the museum that bears his name in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1979, as the place where his costumes, pianos, candelabras, jewelry, and even his cars could be displayed for the public to see. The museum was one of Las Vegas’s most popular tourist attraction through the 1990s, as it served as the place where Liberace’s fans could come to celebrate his memory after his death in 1987.

After the year 2000, the Liberace Museum began to decrease in popularity as his older fans began to die and younger adults did not know about him any longer. (Even the young children who might have remembered seeing Liberace on the “Muppet Show” television program are now in their 40s, by the way.) Finally, a few days ago, the museum announced that it was being forced to close its doors to the public on October 17, 2010, because of bad investments by its underlying foundation and because of poor attendance. The man who was once a superstar in the United States is now largely forgotten.

Faded glory.

You can read more about the closing of the Liberace Museum at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/18/us/18liberace.html

Come As A Child

Posted in: Current Events,Spirituality by bill-o on February 20, 2010

The famous American author of the book The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, died on January 27 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, USA. Despite the resounding success that he had found as a young author in New York, Mr. Salinger withdrew into seclusion in his adopted Connecticut River valley town about 55 years ago after negative experiences with an overeager public.

A recent New York Times article about Salinger’s life in Cornish notes how bossy strangers would ride into town demanding to see Salinger. The people of Cornish would always oblige their reclusive neighbor by sending these strangers in the wrong direction.

What the article points out is that Salinger was not entirely reclusive. He was generous to food servers at church suppers and friendly to his neighbors. One neighbor told the Times how Salinger always graciously allowed his children to sled down the hill in Salinger’s property and was concerned about the children’s welfare.

What example can we take from this story? Well, it’s simple: On our spiritual journeys, come as a child. J.D. Salinger rightly saw the children in his neighborhood as no threat to him, his family, or his privacy. Rude adults came from other places to disturb his peace and quiet just so that they could say, with pride, that they had met him. The nearby children didn’t care about any of that. They only saw Mr. Salinger as a kind neighbor and not as an object to be manhandled. Perhaps this is a lesson for us all in how we treat our neighbors.

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An Evening with Greg Mortenson

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on December 05, 2009

Shadows and Symbols had the privilege of seeing Greg Mortenson, co-author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, and author of Stones into Schools, speak in Washington, D.C., USA, on December 3, 2009. Mr. Mortenson, who is the founder and leader of the Central Asian Institute (CAI), has been instrumental in building dozens of schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. These secular schools especially promote education for girls in very poor rural areas where educational opportunities are usually non-existent. For his humanitarian efforts, Greg Mortenson is the recipient of the Star of Pakistan and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Mortenson was introduced by New York Times reporter Tom Friedman. Mr. Friedman’s gracious introduction described how he had recently flown by military helicopter into a remote area of Afghanistan with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of the U.S. military, Admiral Michael Mullen, in order to be present at the dedication of one of CAI’s new schools. Tom Friedman then described how one of the most powerful men in the world, Adm. Mullen, proceeded to distribute the notebooks that the admiral’s wife and other military wives had given to him for each of the girls on their first day of school.

Greg Mortenson, who is suffering from a weakening heart virus which he had contracted while on his latest trip to Afghanistan, then took to the podium and began to describe his very unique life-story, most of which is chronicled in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. The presentation included a short video clip of Mr. Mortenson’s daughter interviewing retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw at his Montana ranch. Mr. Brokaw is now somewhat famously known as the only well-known celebrity to send any support money to Greg Mortenson when he was beginning his work in Pakistan back in the mid-90s. (Mr. Mortenson did confess during his talk that his daughter had recently figured out that Mr. Brokaw’s $100 check did not cover the postage cost for her father’s earliest efforts to raise money.)

After the video interview, Mr. Mortenson then explained the societal situation in Afghanistan, and how he works to address that. With a video slide presentation produced by his son shown on a screen behind him, Mr. Mortenson described how various outside forces have broken down traditional relationships between the elders, the spiritual leaders, and the youth in Afghanistan. Rather than working to destroy traditional relationships, Mr. Mortenson specifically seeks to build relationships with local village leaders and show respect and deference towards them.

Mr. Mortenson did not only highlight his own work during his time with us. He specifically praised other charities, particularly ones run by children or young adults. He clearly likes charities like his own that are organic, independent of outside influences, and decentralized in their approach to fundraising and care.

Education is most definitely Greg Mortenson’s focus, and the education of girls is his primary concern. He mentioned an African proverb that says that if you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community. Mr. Mortenson stated how he believes that education is the only long-term answer to terrorism and poverty in the world. It is, in his view, more important than other humanitarian projects in the developing world such as paving roads. He even simplified his efforts towards education in one simple fundraising pitch: one penny buys one pencil.

Mr. Mortenson may be the best combination of gentleness and determination that you will ever meet. His style of speaking was definitely unpolished and even a bit folksy. Yet he also showed the fierce determination that he needs in his work in the one part of the presentation where he specifically addressed his critics: People who dislike his friendship with high-ranking members of the U.S. military. (Mr. Mortenson’s presentation included a three-point summary of the main points of Three Cups of Tea by USCENTCOM commander General David Petraeus.) Yet no matter how you view his relationship with the military, it seems as though Mr. Mortenson is having a lot more influence on them than they may be having with him.

Greg Mortenson’s did not mention his own political views or spiritual beliefs during his presentation. Are they the quiet, motivating force behind his extraordinary charitable acts? That will remain a mystery for the time being. Yet as Mr. Mortenson said during his presentation in the U.S. national capital city on December 3, if anyone can rightly claim that God is own their side, then they need to display acts of kindness and love towards orphans and widows and others in need. And this is a viewpoint that is very hard for anyone to argue with.

Neil Howe, co-author of the books The Fourth Turning and Generations, recently sat down for an interview to talk about the fourth turning. You can hear this interview here:


Time flows in one direction from past to present to future. Is eternity, on the other hand, essentially non-linear? Or is eternity simply time itself as we know it: linear, but with an infinite past and an infinite future?

Growing up in a Protestant, evangelical tradition, it was implied to me (though,  to be fair, never stated) that eternity is linear. With this view, eternity is simply the straight-line projection of time from infinity past to infinity future.

Yet, does not the Bible say that God created all things? Would this not include time? And if time is present from infinity to infinity, could it not be said that time contains God rather than God contains time? And if time contains God, can God really be said to be God?

As time has progressed, I’ve been introduced to other views about eternity. Views that are implied by biblical books such as Ecclesiastes. With non-linear views of “eternal time”, normal rules about cause and effect don’t necessarily apply. Time can ebb and flow and even loop back on itself again. With this, God could simultaneously touch two different circumstances on earth 1,000 years apart at the same time for him. Such a non-linear view of eternity might radically reshape views of predestination and prophecy. For example, the biblical picture of the Lamb of God being slain before the foundation of the world yet also being crucified on the cross at Calvary here on the earth about 2,000 years ago would only make sense with a non-linear view of eternal time, if that event was one and the same.

A recent movie that explores the possibilities of non-linear time is “The Time Traveler’s Wife”. In this film, a man is born with a genetic defect that makes him involuntarily travel through time. (Viewers of the film will have some issues with determining how old the time-traveler is at any given point in the film, by the way.) When he time-travels, usually to the past though sometimes to the future, he arrives naked without clothing (as per the Terminator movies and television series). So when he arrives, he has to resort to stealing clothes and then waiting for the next moment when he will travel through time again.

I see this as symbolizing the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. This time-traveler, like all of humanity, is forced again and again back to this terrible point in time: To the point where our progenitors recognized their own nakedness. Adam and Eve then felt compelled to make clothes for themselves (fig leaves). At that point, we feel compelled to resort to stealing and hurting others to provide for ourselves, rather than simply trusting in our heavenly Father for his constant provision, which was his original plan for all of us.

It is the daughter of Henry the time-traveler, Alba (which is a very rare name in the English-speaking world that means “sunrise” or “white”), who learns to control her time-traveling abilities by singing. After trying to sing, too, Henry gives up by saying tersely, “I can’t sing”. Yet, we know from the very beginning of the movie that he can sing, as he had sung with his mother, an excellent singer, when he was a young boy right before she died. Yet, like many of us, Henry (a common name that means “home ruler”) had lost the simplicity and innocence of childhood when he became an adult. After all, everything that can be spoken can also be sung. Yet to sing something requires reaching deeper into ourselves to something more emotional and primal. Singing speaks of love, joy, faith, and hope. And Henry’s and his mother’s deaths both come on Christmas Days, the day of the choir of angels in Bethlehem. So, the coming of Alba, who seems to be the only completely content character in the film, represents a new beginning for humanity (a new sunrise) where people can control their own destinies rather than be controlled by them.

An Overlooked Generation?

Posted in: Current Events,history by bill-o on July 03, 2009

Recently, shadows and symbols happened to notice a trend at his local workplace in the United States. All of a sudden, as I walk the halls of my office building, everyone seems to be either about 25 years old or, conversely, 55 years old. The large number of young new-hires seem to be gathering around the offices of the senior leaders (the 55-60 year olds) in order to receive inspiration and directions. Additionally, my workplace is organizing a special meeting that is focussed on addressing the concerns of both the younger-adult, twenty-something generation *and* the more senior, 55-65 generation. Another interesting trend is that rising stars in the younger generation seem to be on the fast-track to promotions.

In the midst of this trend, however, there is a problem: There is a generation in between, and as a member of that generation, I’m feeling a little overlooked these days.

Referencing Strauss and Howe’s work on generations in the U.S., which I surveyed in a shadows and symbols post a few months ago (http://www.shadowsandsymbols.org/?p=44), there are now primarily three generations in the American workplace:

1. The oldest is the Boomer generation. According to Strauss and Howe, this idealist generation was born between the years of 1943 and 1960. They are now, as of 2009, between the ages of 49 and 66. They are known as “boomers” because they were born during the great post-World War II “baby boom” in the United States. Their current ages now put them firmly in control of most business management positions, with the very noticeable exception of the White House.

2. The youngest is the Millenial generation. According to Strauss and Howe, this civic-minded generation was born between the years 1982 and 2000. They are known as “millenials” because they were born right before the start of a new millenium. They are now between the ages of 9 and 27, with their older members now filling the junior ranks of American workplaces.

3. The in-between generation is sometimes known as Generation X. According to Strauss and Howe, this “nomadic” or reactive generation was born between the years of 1961 and 1981. They are now between the ages of 28 and 48. Sometimes called the “baby bust” generation, this generation is about 40% smaller than the Boomer generation.

So, is this just an errant Generation X perspective of the workplace that I think that my generation is being overlooked? Perhaps my generation is just too small in size to have an impact. Or perhaps this is just a natural part of the approaching Fourth Turning time of crisis that Strauss and Howe talk about in their books. In such a time of crisis, the civic-minded younger generation is supposed to look to the older idealist generation for wisdom, guidance, and inspiration.

So, I’m inviting comments here. If you think that I’m being too sensitive or complaining, please leave a comment here. If, on the other hand, you’re a member of the so-called Generation X and you agree with me, please leave a comment here, too.

Gauging the Mood

Posted in: Current Events,Popular Culture by bill-o on February 21, 2009

Sometimes what lies beneath the surface rises up above the ground. This happens when a person or group of people says what many in a larger society are thinking or feeling, yet, for whatever reason, this point-of-view had not been communicated to the society as a whole. Many would agree that just such an event occurred on one of the American financial news channels this past week.

For those of you who have not seen the instantly famous “rant” by CNBC financial news reporter Rick Santelli on 19 Feb 2009, please see:

Rick Santelli in Chicago on CNBC

(For those of you outside of the United States who may not know what CNBC is, CNBC is one of two U.S. cable/satellite television channels devoted to business and financial news.)

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Santelli (and I would venture to say that many in the U.S. agree and disagree with him), I think that his view and tone reflects the mood of many people in the U.S.

In the United States and in many other nations today, people are scared and upset on all sides of political aisles because of the recent financial crises. Many are losing their homes, jobs, or much of their life savings. Some cry out for more government assistance while others protest such ideas.

Shadows and Symbols does not normally endorse political views, but I do believe that ideas about economics and politics that are expressed in the overall “marketplace of ideas” are important to observe and consider. Ideas precede actions after all. Politics and even economics are a reflection of deeper moral values and understandings of individuals and societies, and those on spiritual journeys need to be sensitive to the world around them, both of the good and of the bad.

Yet an observation of difficult financial times need not lead to fear, but rather is an opportunity for faith. No, we don’t know how or when these worldwide financial problems will conclude nor can we wish away “angry” arguments from different political and economic view points, but we can use this eventful time to  reach with our hearts to what lies beyond what our five senses can perceive.

“For we walk by faith and not by sight.”

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Hinge Point

Posted in: Current Events,Spirituality by bill-o on January 24, 2009

The use of the term “hinge point of history” by Pastor Rick Warren during his Inauguration Prayer for President Barack Obama on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, has received some interesting discussion.

For example, please see:


Evidently, an exact definition of the term “hinge point” is not known. The phrase seems to bring us to images of how a door swings on its hinges, thus allowing a door to close or to open.

Regardless of the “official” definition, I think, though, that Pastor Warren’s intent was to say that history, with the inauguration of the Mr. Obama, is now making a clear turn from one era to another.

Whether Mr. Obama’s ascent to the highest office in the United States represents a new era (the Age of Obama, perhaps), I’ll leave it for others to decide. As is usually the case with such things, time will tell. As a history professor once told me, it really takes at least 25 years of time to pass before past events can be put in the proper historical perspective. It’s at that point that politics begin to pass into history.

What I can say here is that, for the spiritual seeker, the true quest in life is to find the door, the “hinge point”, between time and eternity. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, we are each born with “eternity in our hearts”. Yet, at the same time, we have been placed in a world where the eternal is somehow restricted. The desire to press through from this present world to the mysteries of the everlasting can never be completely pushed away. For this is the journey for which are spirits yearn for, cry out for. It is the spiritual call which gnaws at us and drives us forward, yet it is also the search from which we are sometimes so easily distracted.

As you consider the term “hinge point”, please consider not just politics or doors, but the spiritual journey. For it is this eternal hinge point that matters most.

Helen Suzman, Remembered

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on January 14, 2009

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Shadows and Symbols does not normally comment on political issues or politicians. However, I think that the recent death of a remarkable anti-apartheid leader in South Africa is clearly deserving of an exception to that rule.

For about 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was the only opposition member in South Africa’s parliament. Known as the conscience of white South Africans, she was tenacious in publicly questioning the apartheid policies of her country, even during a time when doing so was unusual for white South Africans.

Please follow the following links to read more about Helen Suzman:


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Not Quite Pardoned

Posted in: Current Events,Spirituality by bill-o on December 25, 2008

The power of the president in the United States to pardon criminals of their crimes is absolute and cannot be reviewed by any other part of the government (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 1). The original intent of this power was evidently two-fold: (1) it allowed a president to bring peace and order back to the nation after a period of rebellion or unrest (this occurred after the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s and after the Civil War in 1865) and (2) it provided for a ad-hoc appeals process in a time before the appellate court system was fully established in the U.S. In spite of this original plan, the pardon power as specified in the U.S. Constitution is absolute and has no strings attached to a president’s authority to use this power.

The pardon power may be applied to people currently serving sentences in prison. In this case, an inmate may have his or her sentence reduced or may be set free immediately. However, usually, the pardon power is used to restore the rights of citizenship to people who have already completed their prison terms.

By custom, presidents use their power to pardon on Christmas Eve (December 24) or during their final days in office. This past Christmas Eve (2008), President Bush evidently pardoned one man by mistake. The exact reason why a mistaken pardon was signed by the president is not clear, nor is it clear that such an event has ever occurred in the entire history of the nation.

However, because the official pardon papers had not yet been delivered by hand to the recipient of the presidential act of forgiveness, the pardon was not yet legal and so the president could legally withdraw and cancel out the pardon.

And so it is in the spiritual life. The intent to give and the matching intent to receive a gift is not enough for a gift to be legitimate. A gift must actually be exchanged from the donor to the recipient for it to be real.

An opportunity from heaven should be assumed to be a limited-time offer. God may want to give something to you and you may want to receive it, but until you actually take hold of it, then that divine gift is not actually yours. Like the man who told Jesus to allow him to go bury his father first before fully committing himself to follow Jesus, there was a clear invitation from Jesus and a desire for that man to follow after him. Yet this man apparently allowed this special limited chance to expire.

And so each of us might do the same on our spiritual journeys if we are not careful. Unlike the president’s mistaken pardon, God does not make mistakes. But God does insist that we take hold of the gifts that he assigns to us while the time is right for us to receive them.

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