Monday, January 20, 2014

Angelic Troublemaker: The Quiet Legacy of Bayard Rustin


When I say I love [Sen. James] Eastland, it sounds preposterous – a man who brutalizes people. But you love him or you wouldn’t be here. You’re going to Mississippi to create social change – and you love Eastland in your desire to create conditions which will redeem his children. Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it – at which point they can become human too.” – Bayard Rustin
History, like memory, is elusive; what we choose to remember and document but a collage of selective images and stories. What seems important one day is lost on another, set aside in a vacant warehouse filled with old history books and dusty memoirs. As the years progress, we remember less and immortalize but a small sampling of men and women who over their lifetimes influenced the course of human events.

“Never doubt,” wrote Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The life and times of Bayard Rustin brings truth to that sentiment. A black man in a predominantly white society; a gay man in a homophobic society; a pacifist in a militaristic society; an activist in a passive and apathetic society, he was a man of courage, grace, and action. The history books have largely overlooked this quietly courageous and visionary man, but his life demands attention.

To examine the life of Bayard Rustin first requires mention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom we pay tribute on this day. King became the face of the civil rights movement in 1955, when as a 26 year-old preacher he was called upon to lead a boycott of the public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Employing the tactics of nonviolent protest similar to that utilized by Mahatma Gandhi in India twenty years before, King would go on to lead a movement aimed at ending segregation in the Jim Crow South. Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to yield her seat on a public bus to a white man, the Montgomery bus boycott awakened the American conscience to the injustices of racism and segregation. By the time King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington seven years later, he had become the leading voice in support of racial equality; the moral conscience of the United States in the fight for civil rights and social justice. 

I was not yet nine years old when King was assassinated in 1968. Too young to fully comprehend the historic impact of his loss, I knew even then that the United States would never be the same again. I mourn still for America.

Often overlooked in this history, however, is Bayard Rustin, who introduced King to the principles of Gandhian non-violence, helped instrumentally in the bus boycott, and almost single-handedly orchestrated the March on Washington. Positive change, said Rustin, often requires “social dislocation and creative trouble."

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, just 40 miles from my home in Jenkintown, and raised in the Quaker tradition by his grandmother, Rustin was a committed pacifist. Although he never finished college, he was a genuine intellectual, a life-long student of poetry, literature, history, and religion. As a high school football star, he recited poetry while helping opposing players to their feet. Brilliant and passionate, he became dedicated at a young age to challenging injustice. 

Rustin’s activism began in the 1930s when he joined the Young Communist League, a branch of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Not yet the bogeyman it would become after the Second World War, the CPUSA was then full of idealistic, committed Americans fighting racism, inequality, and injustice. This was before McCarthyism and the Cold War, when Communism provided an idealistic, if misguided “utopian” alternative to the perceived failures of capitalism during the Great Depression. As the only political party at that time advocating complete racial equality, the CPUSA attracted black intellectuals and artists, along with Jewish and other left-leaning activists who opposed Hitler and fascism in Europe. Although Rustin quit the party after a few years and was avowedly anti-Communist the remainder of his life, this past association would forever haunt him. 

In the early 1940s, Rustin was hired to do field work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a Christian pacifist organization co-founded by the Rev. A.J. Muste, Rustin’s life-long mentor. Muste taught Rustin that resistance to war was part of a larger Christian commitment to a life of love and nonviolence. He studied the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi in India and believed nonviolence a way of life that required one “to express love at every moment and in every relationship, to be channels of this quiet, unobtrusive, persistent force which is always there.” Rustin applied these principles to buses and lunch counters throughout the South, often at great peril to his physical safety and well-being. Repeatedly beaten and jailed, it was courageous and dangerous work that occurred out of the media spotlight and with little notice up North.

Following America’s entry into World War II, Rustin’s pacifism and Quaker beliefs counseled him to become a conscientious objector, an unpopular stance during a popular war for which he served 27 months in prison. “Americans wanted peace, but not pacifism,” wrote John D’Emilio in Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (University of Chicago Press, 2003).  Even in prison, Rustin was deemed a troublemaker for protesting segregated facilities and the unequal treatment of minorities. His incarceration was at times harsh and brutal.

Following his release, in 1947 Rustin participated in the first Freedom Rides in U.S. history. Fourteen years before the better known Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, the Journey of Reconciliation constituted sixteen brave souls from FOR, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In April, they began a two week journey to test a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in interstate bus travel. Many of the riders, including Rustin, were beaten and arrested in North Carolina and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang.

Members of the Journey of Reconciliation, 1947.
Rustin is in the middle, wearing a bow tie. 
                                        
Over the next several years, Rustin organized hundreds of nonviolent acts of civil disobedience throughout the South. “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” he said. Rustin’s courage in the face of physical violence was impenetrable. “Basic social change involves a vast deal of physical violence,” he wrote. “The pacifist is not a man who is afraid of violence nor in a sense opposed to it because often social change cannot be made except under situations where violence is to a degree inevitable. The pacifist is opposed to using violence, but he must be prepared to accept it as a part of social change.” 

An energetic and articulate speaker, Rustin led workshops on racism and nonviolent civil disobedience throughout the United States and around the world. Charismatic, funny, and engaging, he inspired and energized people. But because of his sexual orientation and the times in which he lived, he was an outsider, forced to spend much of his life in the shadows. When in 1953 he was arrested on a morals charge in Pasadena, California, the FOR fired him and much of the civil rights community shunned him.

But Rustin’s skills and experiences were too valuable to ignore. First introduced to King in February 1956, he soon became a valued advisor to the movement’s most important leader. King asked for Rustin’s behind-the-scenes help with the Montgomery bus boycott, teaching non-violent tactics and maintaining morale. King realized that Rustin brought with him not only years of experience with nonviolent protest, but also, as described in Lost Prophet, “years of serious meditation about how the philosophy, strategy, and tactics of nonviolence were of a piece and how together they might fashion a transformative revolutionary movement. . . . From the start, Rustin communicated to King not only the efficacy and moral value of nonviolence, but the special responsibility of leaders to model it fully.”

In the years to come, Rustin’s counsel helped King emerge as a national leader. Rustin introduced King to labor leaders and financial supporters; he drafted speeches and articles for King and edited King’s own writing. He linked King with other social justice organizations, such as CORE and the AFSC. He and King together formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And although King is rightly credited with putting nonviolent civil disobedience on the map, it was Rustin who helped mold King into a principled believer and proponent of the tactics employed by Gandhi.

In 1963, when the leaders of various civil rights organizations agreed to stage a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they turned to Rustin to put it all together. Although marches on Washington have since become fairly commonplace, carefully scripted events with few surprises, this was not so in 1963. Then the idea was untested and full of risk. In just eight short weeks, Rustin built the organization out of nothing. As described by D’Emilio in Lost Prophet:
He had to assemble a staff and shape them into a team able to perform under intense pressure. He had to craft a coalition that would hang together despite organizational competition, personal animosities, and often antagonistic politics. He had to maneuver through the mine field of an opposition that ranged from liberals who were counseling moderation to segregationists out to sabotage the event.
The Kennedy administration quietly pressured Rustin and others to cancel the march, fearing riots and embarrassment. Two weeks before the scheduled march, Senator Strom Thurmond, the staunchly conservative segregationist from South Carolina, from the Senate floor publicly labelled Rustin a Communist and a “sexual pervert” and entered the police file of Rustin’s 1953 morals charge into the Congressional Record, all in an attempt to discredit the march and the movement. 

In the end, the March on Washington was a peaceful, orderly day of speeches, songs, and demonstrations. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech stands as one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history, and the march influenced the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted.

Rustin’s influence on King remained fairly consistent over the years. Although there were periods of estrangement due to concerns over Rustin’s sexuality, Rustin encouraged King to think beyond the demise of Jim Crow toward a more expansive movement that linked justice for black Americans to economic and social justice for all Americans. By 1965, Rustin had embraced coalition building and the political process as the most effective means to advance the causes of economic justice and human rights. After all, what good are voting rights if you have no one to vote for? What good is your right to sit at an integrated lunch counter if you cannot afford to buy a meal?

In later years, Rustin’s pacifism would be challenged by a growing chorus of more militant blacks, who chanted “Black Power” and advocated racial separatism. But Rustin never wavered in his commitment to non-violence and integration. He stood his ground in public debates with Malcolm X in the early 1960s and later, Stokely Carmichael, when Carmichael disavowed nonviolence as an effective tool of social protest.

Rustin’s commitment to human rights was universal. Strongly allied with the Jewish community, he fought anti-Semitism with the same intensity as he fought racism. He was a strong advocate for Israel and the plight of Soviet Jewry. In his later years, he publicly advocated the rights of gays and lesbians. “[P]rejudice is of a single bit,” he said. “There are great numbers of people who will accept all kinds of people: blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, but who won’t accept [gays]. That is what makes the homosexual central to the whole political apparatus as to how far we can go in human rights.”

I was a 28 year-old lawyer when Bayard Rustin died in 1987. Looking back, I am saddened that I knew so little about Rustin during his lifetime. His is a uniquely American story that deserves a special mention in the history books. His life exemplifies Margaret Mead’s belief that committed and passionate human beings can indeed change the world.

Rustin’s legacy is quiet now, but not entirely forgotten. His spirit lives on whenever America progresses towards racial equality, economic justice, gay rights, and the quest for peace. During his lifetime, Rustin often said to those who would listen that God does not require us to “achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.” We could still use a little of Bayard Rustin’s energy and passion today. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bringing It All Back Home: Pope Francis and a Return to Compassion

It has been less than a year since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became the Bishop of Rome, but already Pope Francis has transformed the Catholic Church, embracing its mission as a church of service and healing to a troubled world. He leads by example, living simply and acting compassionately. By his words and deeds, he reminds us of the good religion can achieve when its focus is on justice, peace, and service to the poor. He has helped bring Catholicism back to the teachings of Jesus, a radical movement for economic and social justice, love, and understanding. It is an anti-materialistic, counter-cultural message that the global community desperately needs.

As a non-Catholic, I am impressed by this new Pope, a man of humble beginnings named after Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor. He is a pastor to the people who considers strict adherence to doctrine an unnecessary distraction from the true mission of the Church. “Who am I to judge?” as he replied when asked about gays in the priesthood, is a sign that this is a Pope who “gets it.” It remains to be seen whether he will reform the Catholic Church in areas of sexual ethics and inclusiveness, but in other areas of life and faith, by extending open arms to the broad brush of humanity, he has re-engaged the flock and reminded Catholics and non-Catholics alike of what is, or should be, the essence of the Christian faith. “I prefer a Church,” writes Francis, “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” He desires not just talk and prayer, but societal transformation.

There really is nothing new in the Pope’s emphasis on love and justice; it was the essence of my faith and teachings for as long as I can remember. But it is, unfortunately, a message that has far too often been overlooked or ignored by more rigid, misguided expressions of Christianity that have so dominated our culture for the past thirty years or more.

I was born in 1959, when liberal Protestantism still held some influence over many of our nation’s institutions. The son of a Lutheran minister, I was taught that the inner life of faith should reflect, not define, how one encounters the world. I came of age in the 1970’s, when my father was Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod and most of my friends were Catholics and Jews. I witnessed first-hand the struggle of the Lutheran Church, and of all the major religions, to stay relevant in a time of cultural and political upheaval amid the increasing secularization of American society. It was often in church or my teen youth group where I debated and discussed Vietnam, Watergate, the sexual revolution, civil rights, and women’s rights. How were we as Christians, as Lutherans, to address the many issues confronting a divided and torn world? The answers were not always clear, as a fast-changing standard of morality and ethics affected every institution in America, including the Lutheran Church.

As the decade progressed and I went off to college, I shared my father’s increasing concern over the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism, which combined biblical literalism with an aggressively conservative political activism. It was a form of Christianity greatly at odds with the more compassionate religion of my upbringing -- a theology publicly articulated by progressive theologians like Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and other liberal preachers who spoke prophetically against racism, injustice, and war. Unlike their conservative counterparts, these ministers believed that true faith was not confined to the inner life of the soul but required a commitment to justice on earth. “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man's social conditions,” said King. “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” Like King, I believed that churches and synagogues could remain relevant only if they opposed poverty, inequality, and injustice. But as the years went by, the country seemed less interested in the prophetic voices of my youth.

The religious right gained even more prominence in the 1980’s with the election of Ronald Reagan, who articulated a vision of America that emphasized individualism, self-interest, unfettered capitalism, and a narrow view of morality. As the decade progressed, the voices of religious compassion were outflanked and outshouted by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other conservative preachers who wanted a Christianity limited to their own notions of personal salvation, sexual morality, and a repentance from a sinful society. They seemed to want nothing to do with the iterant rabbi of two millennia ago, that Jesus of Nazareth fellow.

But then, in 1986, as a young attorney in Washington, D.C., my parents encouraged me to attend Luther Place Memorial Church, which was then led by the Reverend John Steinbruck, a charismatic and engaging preacher. Steinbruck had played handball with my father 25 years earlier when they were both young Lutheran ministers at neighboring churches near the borders of northeastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey. When Steinbruck moved to the nation's capital in 1970, he took the reins of a declining church at 14th and N Streets and turned it into an oasis of hospitality, serving the homeless, treating the sick and sheltering refugees. He quoted from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught that the  "task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God." From the pulpit of Luther Place, Steinbruck helped me to understand the essence of faith lived in the messy reality of life on earth:  
We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you're responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge.
Steinbruck believed Christian witness was most needed in urban churches, which reflected the suffering and afflictions of their surroundings -- poverty, crime, decaying neighborhoods. At Luther Place he emphasized the religious duty to welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, and care for the sick. With the help of others, the congregation began a collection of shelters and clinics, called the N Street Village, which continues to this day to serve the city’s poorest citizens. "You don't need five years of seminary,” Steinbruck later said, “to realize that, when someone knocks on the door, you should open it."

Steinbruck and my father, along with many of the clergy I have most admired over the years, have long since retired, or passed away. With the decline of liberal Protestantism, my faith often a mix of doubt and ambiguity, I have drifted away from orthodox Christianity for several years now. But watching the new Pope in action, I sense a man with a familiar sense of faith and justice, who believes the duty of Christians is to help mend and heal a broken world. To Francis, poverty is not merely about charity, but justice. “How can it be,” asks Pope Francis, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Francis wants the Church to look outward and bear witness to the larger world. He understands that “our culture has lost a sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world.” To be a person of faith, he says, is to “take a stand.” But the emphasis should be on love and compassion, understanding and the search for peace. Doctrinal certitude properly takes a backseat to these higher callings. His only “dogmatic certainty” is that “God is in every person’s life,” even lives destroyed by drugs and other vices. He recognizes that life is complex, and that it is not always irrational or irreverent to walk away from religion and the church. "Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open,” he said, “let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent."

Pope Francis has emphasized the dignity of the struggling servant and the moral dubiousness of the economic status quo. He has spoken critically of a profit-driven capitalism that renders human welfare an irrelevant annoyance. The continued belief in trickle-down economic theories, he says, “expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." The Church and society, he says, must together work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty.” The Pope is outspoken in his expressions of concern for the oppressed and marginalized. He is leading by example, a true pastor to the people, a stark reminder of the political and social dynamic of the early Christians. “If you want to find Jesus,” Steinbruck told me several years ago, “go to where the outcasts are -- the sick, the homeless, the poor." 

In many ways, Pope Francis is bringing it all back home for me, a long-needed reminder of what the Christian church can and should represent, but too often does not – a warm and accepting place of refuge for the stranger; an institution that embodies hope and provides a model for peace; and an oasis of love, understanding, and compassion, where all are welcome.  I like this new Pope. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Peacemaker: Nelson Mandela, 1918 - 2013


What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead. – Nelson Mandela
Rare is the person who can change the world. Politicians come and go. Leaders exist in all walks of life, from business and academia to the arts and sciences, but seldom are they transformational. Once in a great while the world is blessed with a leader who, at tremendous personal sacrifice, overcomes intractable barriers of prejudice, hatred and institutional resistance to reform a nation and transform the world. Nelson Mandela was one such leader, an uncommon man of noble and heroic achievements.

I was but a passive and distant witness to the end of apartheid. Only three years old when Mandela was imprisoned in 1962, I did not learn of Mandela’s story until nearly twenty years later as a first-year law student in Washington, D.C., where the Free Mandela movement had taken hold in the early 1980’s. Along with the rest of the world, I became increasingly aware of the evils of apartheid as daily vigils and protests were staged outside the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and as divestment and boycott efforts spread across America’s college campuses. I was a 30 year-old prosecutor when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, a 35 year-old father of two when Mandela was elected South Africa’s president in 1994. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the triumph of Camp David in 1978, I was blessed to have witnessed, if only from afar, such a special moment in history.

*    *    *    *
I grew up in a nation that celebrates the lives and birthdays of freedom fighters and revolutionaries – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, men who conspired to commit armed rebellion against a government they deemed oppressive to the natural rights of man. Although the moral clarity of Mandela’s cause to end apartheid in South Africa is now universally acknowledged, his resistance to racial oppression rendered him an outlaw for most of his adult life. Mandela was labeled a terrorist for trying, like Washington and Jefferson, to liberate his people from a system of oppression that every nation on earth now recognizes was unjust. 

Mandela was by nature non-violent, a life-long admirer of Gandhi; for years, he challenged apartheid and racism as a lawyer operating within the South African legal system. Only after South African police killed 69 innocent protestors during the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 did Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) resort to more radical measures, reluctantly concluding that non-violent resistance had proven ineffective against the entrenched system of racial oppression that was South Africa. I have my doubts that the ANC’s decision to support armed resistance was the right one. After all, history has proven time and again that non-violent resistance is, in the long run, far more effective in achieving the desired change. But Mandela was a reluctant warrior and would pay a heavy price for this change in tactics.

At his sentencing in 1964, Mandela freely acknowledged the intensity of his commitment to freedom and equality:
During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die for.
Banished to Robben Island, a brutally isolated prison in shark infested waters seven miles from the coast of Cape Town, for most of the next 27 years Mandela worked in labor camps and spent large blocks of time in solitary confinement. He was not allowed to communicate for many years with his family or the outside world. But through it all, he never lost sight of his vision for a better, more just world.

Even during his lowest moments, he recognized the humanity of his enemies.  “All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, “If their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing.” His life is a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the end, Mandela was a peacemaker, a gentle voice of reason at a time when the country could easily have disintegrated into bloody conflict and racial vengeance. “Whites are fellow South Africans,” Mandela said after his release from prison, “and we want them to feel safe and to know we appreciate the contribution that they have made toward the development of this country.” During his presidential campaign in 1994, Mandela emphasized the common interests of black and white South Africans. Despite their differences, he said, President F.W. de Klerk and he were “a shining example to the entire world of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty, a common love, to their common country.” On the day of his inauguration, Mandela declared South Africa a “rainbow nation,” his election “a common victory for justice, for peace, and for human dignity.”

Mandela understood that, while blacks and people of color were the most directly harmed by apartheid, all were victim of an unjust system of laws. Early in his presidency, he presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to balance justice with forgiveness and help the country come to terms with its history. “The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed,” he later wrote. “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” Despite everything that Mandela had been through, his message remained one of hope.
[N]o one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. . . . Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
Mandela’s role as national conciliator was famously demonstrated during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when he enlisted the Springboks, the country’s rugby team and a source of great pride for white South Africans, to help unify the country. The Springboks had only one black player (for many years it had been all-white) and the country’s black population was not emotionally invested in the team. But Mandela seized the opportunity to use sports as a means of healing the racial division in post-apartheid South Africa. Although some had wished to change the name and colors of the Springboks to something more reflective of black African identity, Mandela refused. “That is selfish thinking,” he said, “It does not serve the nation.” He believed it important to let white Afrikaners know that a black-led South Africa would not overturn all of the country’s cherished symbols. When Mandela donned a Springboks hat and jersey and joined the team on the field following their victory over New Zealand in the World Cup final, the stadium of 80,000 people, mostly Afrikaners, erupted in a spontaneous chant of “Nel-son! Nel-son!” Although merely symbolic, it was an important moment of unity and healing.


Like George Washington and other great leaders of history, Mandela understood that every action on his part would form a model for others to follow. Although he could have been President for life, he declined to seek a second term as South Africa’s president, an act of grace, wisdom, and foresight. He knew that, for South Africa to succeed as a free nation, it was important that the institution of democracy take precedence over any one man.

Mandela’s greatest and most lasting legacy will always be his role in dismantling the system of racial apartheid and transforming South Africa into a multiracial nation committed to the principle of one-person, one-vote. South Africa is not a perfect democracy and it continues to struggle with issues of poverty, crime, and inequality. But because of Mandela, South Africa became, with relatively little bloodshed or vengeance, an inclusive, market-based democracy and a nation of laws with an entrenched Bill of Rights which recognizes that all men and women are created equal.

For me, Mandela will forever remain a giant man of history, not because he was perfect, he was not, but because he advanced the cause of human freedom with dignity, grace, and love. Although his flame is extinguished, his goodness lives on.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Failed Sabbatical


 Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. -- Albert Einstein
My favorite sculpture in the world is the one pictured above. It is Albert Einstein at his most accessible. Situated in an elm and holly grove on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., it is a warm, inviting portrait of a complex man in a simple pose. Einstein is wearing sandals and seated casually, his arm resting on the steps, a paper with mathematical equations resting on his knee as he ponders great thoughts or, perhaps, merely glances at a child who has caught his whimsical eye. It is Einstein as I imagine him later in life, wrinkled, disheveled, kind and contemplative. The artwork invites interaction; children feel compelled to climb onto Einstein’s lap as family photographs are taken. The statue seems to express Einstein’s notion, voiced in his later years, that “the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”

I could have used Einstein’s wisdom this past year, when I was in need of inspiration. A year ago, as 2012 came to a close, I announced that I was taking a sabbatical from Ehlers on Everything. A year of contemplation, I hoped, would provide welcome relief from the demands of self-imposed deadlines, which had become more difficult to satisfy with the increasing demands of work and life.  Freed from the constraints of non-fiction, I anticipated an opportunity to write more creatively; a short story a month seemed like a reasonable and achievable goal. Writing fiction would free my imagination to expand into areas of untouched artistry, to explore the human experience on a deeper, more fundamental and psychological level. By year’s end, I would be refreshed, my writing renewed and energized. It was not to be.

I have plenty of excuses for having failed to write productively this past year. Andrea and I were married in October, followed by eight wonderful days in Italy. We attended a wedding in California in September; the Cardinals had an eventful year, reaching the World Series for the second time in three years. Work has kept me quite busy, and during the summer I published in book form my essays from the previous two years in Life Goes On: More Essays on Life, Baseball, and Things that Matter (Bookstand Publishing, 2013). I could invent other reasons and excuses for not authoring a single short story in 2013. But what I have concluded is that I am simply more comfortable writing essays of a personal, political, or religious nature. It is perhaps why I have yet to pen the great American novel.

Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” In this one small manner I am like Einstein (now that’s not something you can say every day). I, too, am passionately curious. About humankind’s quest for understanding; about people who have exemplified a life of courage and principle in the pursuit of justice and a better world; about life in its infinite variety and beauty, suffering and loss, striving and hope.

When I started this blog in the summer of 2009, self-imposed deadlines forced me to put my thoughts on paper and to stay engaged with the world of ideas, to search for answers to difficult questions, and to stay in the arena. To write about issues of political and social import, my love of baseball, reflective pieces on my life and children, questions about faith and our everlasting quest for understanding and meaning. It is the sort of writing I most like to do and the genre with which I am most at home. “Life is like riding a bicycle,” Einstein said.  “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” So, I am returning to this small space of the universe where I can ponder, think, and write. I cannot promise an ever steady stream of brilliant essays and reflections, but I will try my best to remain relevant and fresh.

I will explore issues and ideas that move me and write about people who inspire me. I will struggle out-loud with faith and religion and continue to question my own beliefs, explore the beliefs of others, and dispute the certainty with which many believers and non-believers alike express themselves. I will write about personal and family issues and reflect on the mystery of life. I will write about baseball, about the memories and disappointments of youth and unfulfilled dreams; about my hopes and passions as a lifelong lover of the game, its sights and sounds; and about my admittedly zany and irrational loyalty to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large -- I contain multitudes. -- Walt Whitman
I have come to recognize that writing, like reading, is how I pursue my continued education, my Ph.D. in life. This blog, along with my two books, Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart and Life Goes On, is my collective dissertation, a means to learn and grow, to challenge myself and my readers, to think, question, and when needed, advocate. Einstein said, "Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it." Nelson Mandela, who died this past month after 95 years of a life filled with purpose and meaning, said that "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I may not change the world, but I will use this space to continue my education; and to think and write about things that matter with a measure of idealism and hope.