The filters in our mind


Ancient Egyptian carvings and writings spoke of a mythical creature, half-zebra, half-giraffe. Nineteenth century British traders described the beast as the “African unicorn,” a fantasy creature and a biological impossibility.
Even with testimony of native tribes in the Congo, British explorers knew such a creature would be ridiculous! Giraffes simply did not mate with zebras, and certainly did not produce offspring. (Zebras might think giraffes have great personalities, but for whatever reason, they just don’t find them attractive. I’m guessing.)

Unsurprisingly, biologists–for decades–scoffed at the ignorance and superstition.   In 1901, Sir Harry Johnston intervened on behalf of a tribe of pygmy natives, kidnapped by a German explorer. In gratitude for their freedom, the natives gave Sir Johnston pelts and skulls from the “African unicorn.” Predictably, when he brought the pelts back to Europe, he was ridiculed. Why? Because everyone knows, no unicorn literally exists. It’s ridiculous!

In 1918, a live Okapi–indeed, a cross between the giraffe and zebra–was captured in the wild and showcased in Europe. Today, the mythical Okapis–which apparently aren’t so mythical after all–are quite common in zoos around the world.

There is some kind of filter in our minds–or spirits–that decides…   
What is ridiculous and what is not. 
What is possible and what is not. 
What is imaginable and what is not.  
What is dreamable and what is not.  

This much is certain: It is not easy to change our paradigm. It means to give up our blinders, our blind spots, our prejudice. For whatever reason, we’ve tethered our identity (our worth and our value) to them. As a result, we live with Scotoma, or selective blindness. We see only what we want to see. Why? Lord only knows… Only that we shut down any willingness to be surprised and spend our energy finding some kind of box (or is it a cage?) to put our disquiet in. (And not just surprised, but replenished with gifts of wonder and hope.)

Cages to imprison our best ideas and fondest hopes. 
Isn’t it true? The cage of couldn’t 
and can’t, wouldn’t be proper, 
hasn’t been done, shouldn’t be dreamed. 
Those preconceptions… Tom Pruiksma

The Okapi story is about one very, very odd looking animal. Beyond that, it’s about the possibility of paradigm shift. And begs the question: In a world we don’t see or believe or wish or hope for…
Can we choose to change?
Can we remove our blinders?
Can we choose to make a difference?
Can we choose to be instruments for what is possible?
Can we be springs of mercy and tenderheartedness?
Where there is darkness, can we sow light?
Here’s the deal: The answer is yes.   

In his book Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey talks about a South African woman named Joanna, who began a prison ministry that radically transformed one of her country’s most violent prisons. When Yancey asked her how she did it, she said: “Well, of course, Philip, God was already present in the prison. I just had to make Him visible.”   

The answer is yes. 

At the base of a volcano in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, there is an orphanage. Although Third World orphanages aren’t normally festive places, on this day, at this time, there is reason to celebrate: the arrival of a young man named Ben Schumaker. Schumaker comes from a faraway place called Wisconsin, and he comes bearing gifts. “Ideally these would be something that the kids could hold onto for their whole lives,” Ben says.
Schumaker carries a suitcase with 62 pounds of portraits–portraits of the kids, a painting for each and every one of them, never meant for anyone’s eyes, except the children in them.
“They share everything, so they don’t have much they can call their very own,” says Jayden Kirn, a director at the orphanage. “I think it will touch them profoundly once they get down and get a private moment to sit and look at that picture.”
These kids didn’t have parents snapping baby pictures. Most don’t even have a single photo, let alone a precious painting.

Schumaker calls this The Memory Project. The idea is to establish a sense of personal heritage. He started it in college out of a bedroom at his parents’ house in Madison, Wisconsin. So far, he’s given out more than 80,000 portraits to orphans around the world. Of course, Schumaker doesn’t paint them all. Instead, he gets someone to take photos of the kids, and then sends those photos to high school art teachers across the United States; the teachers assign the portraits to their students.

This is where the idea goes from good to genius. The American kids who paint these portraits spend hours staring into the faces of their orphan subjects. Schumaker says that after working on them for so long–after painting their eyes especially–there’s a real connection. “Every day they come into the art classroom and, bam–there it is–looking right into the eyes,” he says. “To be totally honest, that’s the main reason why I do this work.”
Schumaker says for every portrait he gives out, there’s a student back home who is now a little more aware of a world that needs light. That’s why he eventually says he’d like to make his Memory Project part of every high school art class in the country. “And if it can raise the net level of compassion in the world by that much, I’ll be happy,” Ben says.

Raising the net level of compassion?
That’s ridiculous… Or… maybe not so ridiculous after all…

Am in Chicago tonight, the end of my mid-west circuit–putting 1200 miles on a rental car–this final weekend with a group at Victory Noll Center in Huntington, IN. We talked about Sanctuary and Mercy, and enjoyed 75-degree weather. This past week I was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with my father, and spent Wednesday snowmobiling in 18 inches of snow. Go figure. Back at home on Vashon, the tulips are in bloom, and I miss their effervescent spirit. So I’m eager to be home. Beginning this week, I’ll be going through the lessons in the new e-course, which are about paradigm change… the permission to slow down; to be grounded, unhurried and replenished. And maybe to be surprised with the possibility that the filters in our minds and spirit don’t need to be cages.


I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.
John O’Donohue 

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
Mary Oliver

Days pass and the years vanish 
and we walk sightless among miracles.
Lord, fill our eyes with seeing
and our minds with knowing.
Let there be moments when your Presence,
like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze,
that the bush burns, unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God,
will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder,
“How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”
Jewish Prayer  


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