Saturday, August 30, 2008

Historic Nomination

How do you describe this? The magnitude of it; the sheer audacity of its possibility. This is unimaginable. This is beyond words. I'm speechless, I'm astounded. My tears flow freely. My heart, oh my heart, is about to burst with pride. I've never been more proud to be a black man in America. 

I look at my children and I now can see a bright future for them in this land I call home. I see a future of limitless potentials and unrestricted opportunities. I see an America in which they climb the greatest of heights...wherever and whenever...they choose. I see for them an America that'll look at
 them and judge them not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I see an America that'll listen to their message and not hear their accent.

Thank God Almighty that I'm here to witness this day!!!! God bless America!!!!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Fading Light, A Hidden City

By Akin Ojumu

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14 KJV).

I was in Mexico City the other day, attending the annual meeting of the International AIDS Society (IAS), AIDS 2008. The meeting lasted 6 days and 6 nights, each filled with stuff that’ll make the skin crawl and many a righteous soul sick. It was 6 days of wanton display of the debasement of the human spirits and 6 nights of parade of sickened souls; men and women, in one accord, provoking to wrath the Almighty God.

And I was there, for 5 of those nights and 5 of those days, when evil descended upon the Hill of Mexico. I sat there and watched as the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and the spiritual wickedness in high places took over Mexico City. Crouched and crunched in a corner, I was bedazzled with mind numbing revelry and debauchery.

The AIDS 2008 was supposed to provide opportunities for the presentation of important new scientific research and for productive, structured dialogue on the major challenges facing the global response to AIDS. I was looking forward to attending a wide variety of session types that would enhance my understanding of the disease. Instead I was confronted with the basest of the ugliness of hearts of men who have gone berserk.

It’s over a week since I got back, yet the stench of the corruption still stings as I write this. It was such a putrefying sight. Word fails me in describing what I saw and heard in Mexico. But I’ll try and paint the picture for you to see.

The meeting was well underway by the time I got there. Like a blast of scalding steam blown into the face, I was welcomed to the meeting with a program booklet and a sachet of condoms. That was the first inkling that I was in for a ride of my life.

Why in the world would I need a sachet of condom at a scientific meeting? The answer would come soon enough.

You hear a lot about Harm Reduction in the field of HIV-AIDS these days. It is the prevalent thinking among most of the so-called experts. As a universal theme, it thread across the different talks and presentations given at the AIDS 2008 meeting.

In very recent past behavioral change was the gold-standard of HIV-AIDS Prevention efforts. It was packaged and pushed by all stakeholders. But now behavioral change has been jettisoned for reduction of harm.

The prostitutes – oops- sex workers for instance no longer want to be discouraged from selling their bodies for money. They instead are demanding full recognition of their “profession”. And they were given the platform at the meeting to spew their venomous ideas.

Take for instance the talk given by one Ms E.R., a prostitute from Argentina. Ms E.R., of the Argentina Association of Female Sex workers, issued a “stirring” call for the full recognition of sex workers’ rights and for the ability of sex worker organizations to develop and implement effective HIV/AIDS programs rooted in the realities of their lives. E.R. stated that evidence shows HIV prevalence has been lowered in regions such as South America, where sex work is actually recognized as “work”. According to her, critical to reducing HIV infections among sex workers is fighting stigma and discrimination by continued efforts to decriminalize sexual work, end police violence, and sensitize the media. She rejected programs that respond to these conditions by seeking to rehabilitate or retrain workers stating that there is no scientific evidence that they are effective in stopping HIV. Instead she called for freedom from repression as the best way to build an effective response to HIV among sex workers. She concluded her presentation with the following statements:

“We don’t want to cook. We don’t want to knit. We don’t want to bake. All we want to do is have sex!!!!”

I was dumbstruck to say the least. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. But they were not done with me yet. Another session was dedicated to men who have sex with men (MSM).

The speaker at that session is another one of those experts in the field. Here was how they introduced him - well “her” really.

“…..a man of principal (sic) and actions, Dr. J.S. is a physician and a public health specialist. Dr. J.S. founded the first ambulatory HIV clinic in Mexico, La Clinical Condessa, here in Mexico City, and for the past five years, he has been the head of the National HIV/AIDS program in Mexico, Sinsida. In this role, he launched Mexico's universal access to ARV policy, and has led government-wide anti-machismo and anti-homophobia programs, as well as appointed the first trans-gender woman to an official position with the Mexican government. For the past two years, Dr. J.S. has also served on the board of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria…”

Dr J.S. began his/her presentation this way:

“…….First let me start with a few definitions. MSM is a construct which tries to capture behavior in that tight entity. Sexual orientation includes homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual. MSM is a category that includes gay and non-gay identified men, bisexual situational sex between men, prisons, schools, militaries, male sex workers and some trans-gender persons. MSM includes a wide variety of traditional and local terms worldwide….”

From here the guy/gal went on and on and finally concluded with the following statements:

“……And, finally, yes, I am married, so I would like to thank my husband for his patience during all these weeks previous to the conference.”

The listening audience broke into wild applause. Yes they clapped for him and he seemed to love it. So he continued.

“Yes, I said husband. I did not make any language mistake. We got married where it is legal, almost four years ago. And of course, condoms and testing are part of our lives. Thank you very much.”

Now you know how that left me. Hollow and drained.

And then there was the global village. It was more like a global cesspool if you ask me. This was where participants from various countries and organizations displayed and showcased the activities and programs in which they are engaged. Like the leaves of the mustard tree where the birds of the air came and gathered, the global village was the focal point of evil. It was such a scary place. On display were the wares of MSMs, Transgenders, Drug Addicts, Pimps and Prostitutes.

They were all over the place with their haughty hearts. They walked with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes - walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet.

And what did I do about all of these? Nada…Nothing!!!

In Mexico I was a light, but I failed to shine. I was city on a hill, but I hid myself. My righteous indignation was diddly-squat in face of overwhelming evil. The forces of darkness danced circles around me. My face was cherry red with humiliation. I was beaten fair and square, tongue talking and all.

In my heart I asked,

“Where was the body of Christ when children of men sank into this perdition? Where was I? Where were you?”

At church, perhaps.

While we are busy with our countless church activities, the world slips further and further into damnation. In the midst of our arguments over the length of the beards of Aaron, hapless souls are heading straight to eternal damnation. While we are intellectually engaged in the deconstruction of the Holy Scriptures, the souls of men and women are bound for everlasting destruction.

Oh yes as we collect the tithes and offerings and build gorgeous edifices of worship, the edifices of salvation for the souls of men crumble all around us. As we obey our denominations’ bylaws and follow the meaningless sacraments, mindless ordinances, and man-made doctrines that our various parishes promote and practice, men, women, and children fall into Hades.

Alas brethren, we’ve got to stand up and fight the good fight of faith. It’s not enough to go to church, say our prayers, or read the scriptures. We’ve got to confront evil squarely.

We are light; we need to shine. We are a city on a hill; we’ve got to be seen. We are His voice; we must be heard.

People, we’ve got to,

“Plant the good seeds of righteousness, in order to harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12).


“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5 KJV).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Choosing Your Religion

By Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn

I try on religions the way other people try on jeans. I started young. In elementary school, I was always game when a sleepover ended with an invitation to tag along for morning services in a church or synagogue. While my friends squirmed, I sat absorbing every detail. I envied the way everyone seemed to know when to sit, stand, or kneel, as well as the tunes to all the psalms.

Sunday mornings during college, while most of the campus slept off a hangover, I sat in a pew with a Catholic or Baptist friend nursing mine with a Diet Coke and wishing I could take communion. Those wafers fascinated me (the communal wine glass, however, grossed me out). And I was always disappointed that I'd yet to see Baptists speak in tongues.

After college, I got more eclectic. I saw psychics. I consulted mediums. I went to Quaker meetings. I read up on Buddhism. I meditated. I did yoga. My parents, who aren't religious, wondered whether I was suffering from some childhood trauma--and at times I did feel a little off center. But the older I got, the more I realized I wasn't the only one. In my spiritual quest, I'd seen and met lots of people looking for...something. There was a 3-month waiting list for one of the mediums I consulted. The Quaker meetings were brimming with people from other faiths--curious about the less dogmatic approach of services sans priest or rabbi. (Quaker meetings have no leader; they're silent unless someone feels moved to speak.) And my yoga classes were always packed with people in search of something more than a workout.

Take it from Billy Graham and material-girl-turned-mystic Madonna: Many of us feel a need to believe in something larger than ourselves. And now researchers are beginning to uncover the biology behind this urge. Scientists say that some people may have a gene that makes them more spiritual, and they are discovering that religious feelings may come from specific areas of the brain.

To me, the news is as welcome as an unexpected invitation to Kwanzaa dinner or to a winter solstice bonfire. It means that I have no reason to be embarrassed by my try-anything approach to spirituality. In fact, there's a good chance it's something I was simply born with, like my double-jointed elbows and overly sensitive taste buds.

The God Gene

It turns out that spirituality seekers like myself probably carry--embedded in our DNA along with the gene that determines whether we can roll our tongues and all the others that make us not only human but unique individuals--a particular version of a gene called VMAT2. Genes come in different flavors, which is why all of us have colored irises but some are brown and others blue or green. The VMAT2 gene comes in two forms--one of which, it seems, makes people more likely to seek out transcendent experiences (Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia doesn't count). Some call it the "God gene."

The link between VMAT2 and spirituality is the discovery of Dean Hamer, Ph.D., a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who came upon the microscopic miracle worker quite unexpectedly. Hamer's job is to track down the links between behavior, personality, and the risk for diseases such as cancer and AIDS. One of his recent projects was to study the genetic basis of cigarette addiction. He gave some college students a personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory. Then he took blood samples from the students and analyzed their DNA. His conclusion: There may well be a gene that makes some people more prone to getting hooked on smoking.

Mission accomplished. But not long after Hamer finished that study, he ran into the psychiatrist who'd designed the personality test, Robert Cloninger, M.D., of Washington University in St. Louis. In casual conversation, Dr. Cloninger made a comment that caught Hamer's attention. "He said, 'More people pray every day than have sex,'" Hamer recalls. (It's true: Surveys show that 59 percent of Americans have a daily prayer habit, while only 5 percent can say the same for nooky.) Hamer was intrigued. The sex drive is our most bottom-line biological urge--without it, we wouldn't be here. So if people pray more than they get laid, does that mean that religion could be just as basic a human need?

Conveniently, the personality test he'd given the college students contained questions designed to measure "self transcendence"--that is, the ability to get lost in an experience and feel connected to something larger. Hamer looked again at the DNA samples and the questionnaires and found that the most spiritual people tended to have a particular version of VMAT2. Why? Hamer has a theory. VMAT2 controls feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, which keep us upbeat and motivated to seek out pleasure, like from coconut panna cotta and back rubs. Hamer thinks this same family of chemicals may also prime us for religious experiences--their levels fly off the charts when people take hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or Ecstasy. So, Hamer reasons, maybe people with the spiritual version of VMAT2 are feeling a natural form of that out-of-this-world high.

But many biologists say linking a character trait to a single gene is too simplistic. And Hamer himself acknowledges that the God gene isn't the end of the story. About 50 percent of us have it, he estimates, based on his study's findings, yet 91 percent of Americans believe in God or some universal spirit, according to a recent CBS News poll. Which goes to show that any number of things--from the midnight Masses your parents dragged you to as a child to the summer you spent trekking the Appalachian Trail--can influence your spiritual beliefs. Okay, so having the "religious version" of VMAT2 may not mean you're destined to sell all your worldly goods and head to Kathmandu. But Hamer claims you're a lot more likely to browse the religion aisle at Barnes & Noble than someone with the other version.

Zapped into Zen

But what does it mean to be spiritual, anyway? What exactly is going on in your head when you finger a rosary or chant om shanti in yoga class? Michael Persinger, Ph.D., coordinator of the behavioral neuroscience program at Laurentian University in Ontario has been studying just that.

Persinger believes that when we sense ourselves in the company of a divine presence, be it Jesus Christ, Yahweh, or Allah, a part of the brain called the right temporal lobe is firing on all cylinders. This brain area, located just above the right ear, is where we process noise--everything from the comforting hiss of a Starbucks espresso machine on Monday morning to the jarring screech of a siren coming up behind you on the highway. This is the brain area that helps us enjoy a Mozart symphony or the latest Strokes hit. It's also an area that's subject to seizures--experiences that can cause intense hallucinations. Is it coincidence, Persinger asked himself, that saints and visionaries tend to hear the voice of God--from Moses, who had that famous run-in with the Almighty at the burning bush, to Saint Paul, who converted to Christianity after Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus? He didn't think so. Persinger wondered whether the temporal lobe might be the brain area that's activated when we feel a holy being is nearby--and possibly even communicating with us.

To test his theory, Persinger designed a bizarre-looking cap studded with wire coils. Blindfolded volunteers don the headdress and enter a dark room. Then Persinger turns on the juice. The helmet creates a mild electromagnetic field that penetrates deep inside the wearer's right temporal lobe. This field interferes with the normal electrical impulses of local brain cells, coaxing them to fire instead in patterns that Persinger has specially calibrated to stimulate spiritual experiences. And within minutes, 80 percent of people sense a presence in the room with them, usually just over their left shoulder (the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa). Sounds creepy, but most people actually enjoy it--so much so that they ask to do it again. But Persinger won't let them. "I don't want it to become an entertainment machine," he says.

What does it all mean? Persinger thinks the brain chemicals controlled by Hamer's God gene are especially active in the right temporal lobe. In time, he expects the various strands of research--on genes, brain chemicals, and specific God-activated brain areas--collectively to confirm that spirituality is centered in the right half of the brain.

The Power of Prayer

So if there is a spiritual drive, and it's as strong as the ones that compel us to gorge on Taco Bell and flirt with handsome strangers, then what's it for? One possibility: Just as our instincts to eat and to have sex sustain our species (our genes' main task), perhaps those of us who have faith also have an advantage in the survival-of-the-fittest game.

Studies show that being religious may improve your health. For example, people who read the Bible or pray daily and who attend religious services at least weekly are 40 percent less likely to have a common type of high blood pressure, according to a 1998 study by Harold G. Koenig, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. People who worship more than once a week also have better- functioning immune systems, according to a 2004 study by Susan Lutgendorf, a psychologist at the University of Iowa. And a 1998 study of depressed elderly people found that those who had a strong internal faith recovered 70 percent faster.

If religion doesn't actually make you healthier, it might help steer you toward the straight and narrow, which will keep you safer. According to Dr. Koenig, a leading researcher in the field, people who belong to a church or other religious community are less likely to do risky things like smoke cigarettes. Meanwhile, social contacts--pancake breakfast in the church basement, anyone?--help people cope with stress. And perhaps most of all, faith encourages optimism, which has been shown time and again to help people live longer and better.

No Need For A Creed

But what if praying comes about as naturally to you as reciting the periodic table? No worries. It's not as if there's some particular creed or religion that leads to a healthier life. Meditation will do the trick just fine. The physical benefits of meditation are well known--like prayer, it bolsters the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and over time can improve stress-related conditions, including insomnia, arthritis, and heart disease. Nonbelievers, rejoice! And new research is turning up more and unexpected health benefits to meditation.

For one thing, it seems to make people smarter. A recent study showed that the brain area responsible for planning, decision making, and other high-level activities doesn't deteriorate with age in longtime meditators. And even newer research suggests that meditators may be getting the same mental and physical pick-me-up that we normally get from sleep. Bruce O'Hara, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, has discovered that meditation gives people a huge performance boost: 40 minutes in the lotus position is the equivalent of drinking 4 to 5 cups of coffee. In his latest research, which isn't yet published, he got a clue as to why. O'Hara recorded meditators' brain waves with an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine and found that their brain cells were firing in unison, much the way they do during deep slumber. "Meditation could be restorative in the same way as sleep," he says. So if you're bleary the morning after a boozy girls' night out, you might try some deep breathing before operating heavy machinery.

I find all this very reassuring. My theory about myself is this: I think I've got the God gene. (I can't know for sure; although testing for the gene is pretty straightforward, no one's doing it commercially right now.) But since I didn't grow up following a particular religion, I have no ready outlet for my spiritual drive. Which explains, I guess, the hodgepodge of alternatives I've dabbled in--the psychics, mediums, and all the rest. Still, through meditation, yoga, and guest appearances at Passover seders, Easter sermons, and Ramadan feasts, I satisfy my spiritual cravings--and likely stay mentally and physically balanced. It's a bit messy, a little unorthodox--but for me, it's religion. 

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Platitudinous Ponderosity

"In promulgating your esoteric cogitations or articulating your superficial sentimentalities and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity. Let your conversational communications demonstrate a clarified conciseness, a compact comprehensibleness, no coalescent conglomerations of precious garrulity, jejune bafflement and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous verbal evaporations and expatriations have lucidity, intelligibility and veracious vivacity without rodomontade or Thespian bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous propensity, psittaceous vacuity, ventriloquial verbosity and vaniloquent vapidity. Shun double-entendres, obnoxious jocosity and pestiferous profanity, observable or apparent."

I love words.

Beautifully crafted and eloquently uttered words get me all juiced up.

As a 10 year old, my older cousin, who was then in college, made me memorized the above quote. I would recite it to him, like a chant, over and over again. He was teaching me how to impress the ladies. According to him, the best way to win a girl's heart, especially if you have a dough devoid wallet, is to have your vocabulary wallet all packed with big sounding words.

Hearing some of us preach the message of salvation, I'm reminded of my cousin.......enticing the sinner with our empty rhetorics.

Our extemporaneous verbal evaporations and expatriations lack lucidity, intelligibility and veracious vivacity and is thick with rodomontade and is bombastically Thespian.

Here is Paul to the Corinthians:

"When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 2:1 and 4)

In this day and age of heavy commercialization and showbiz, the very essence of the Gospel is lost in the midst of banal, trite, and stale remarks which are oppressively and unpleasantly dull and lifeless......platitudinous ponderosity.....lacking nothing but the most important thing, the demonstration of the awesome power of God.

Lost in the shuffle is the real meaning of Christianity, which is, purely and simply, LOVE. The crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior is reduced to mere church membership, church programs, and the ceaseless gyrations of religious exercises.

When Nicodemus came that night, Jesus told him very simply:

"Verily, verily I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

How did Jesus heal the blind guy by the Pool at Siloam? He spat on the ground, made mud of the spittle, applied it to the guy's eyes and told him to, "Go wash yourself in the pool of Siloam."

The woman with the issue of blood simply touched the helm of His garment. And the man full of leprosy that asked him, "If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." He reached out His hand and touched him saying, "I will be thou clean." The leprosy left him immediately.

He gave no long sermons and had no need to "get the congregation in the spirit", with beautiful songs and slow playing piano, when He healed the man with palsy, let down through the rooftop. He saw their faith and told the man, "Man thy sins are forgiven thee."

And to dead Lazarus, He said, "Lazarus come forth."

No fanfare. No dramatization for full effects. No speaking of tongues, and no long prayers.

Lofty words and useless sacraments won't get us any closer to God. Love without dissimulation, is all He requires of us all.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Family Feuds and the Work of Forgiveness

By: Connie Saindon, MA

People forgive in a variety of ways, from efforts that seem like two steps forward and one step back or all at once. How do you salvage the family and restore trust when issues of wrong doing, abuse, kidnapping, alcoholism, and so on have occurred?

Fuels for family feuds occur when there has been a violation of justice or fairness. Fairness of the give-and-take balance in relationships develops trust between people. Trustworthiness builds assurances that ones' needs will be met without manipulation or threats of retaliation. Hurts in families can last for years and even be passed on down through generations cutting both wide and deep. Perhaps you too are familiar with the "I haven't talked to my sister since I left home at 18." "No one invites Uncle Joe after he ran Dad's business into the ground 23 years ago."

Murray Bowen, M.D. coined the term "multi-generational transmission process" to describe how families pass on legacies from one generation to another. This famous saying describes the same idea: "The sins of the father are visited upon his sons." (Of course we know legacies are passed on down to daughters and from mothers too.) Individuals and families have been wounded by past events that range from mild to severe. Family members lack trust and feel a destructive sense of entitlement ("You owe me!"). " Not until she apologizes will I consider forgiving her." "Not until he admits what he did will I be OK, again." Feelings of both guilt and blame are clues to the need for forgiveness work.

One can either Exonerate or Forgive:

Exonerating work doesn't require contact with the family member (s). Three aspects of exonerating are:

1. The damaged person seeks to lift the load off of the longterm pain.

2. To do this the person needs to first identify what they must do to protect themselves from further hurt by this person. Also, they need to expand their understanding of the circumstances of the victimizer (their limitations, intent, personal and family history). Deeper understanding and possibly empathy of what their life was like at the time of the offense will be gained.

3. Exonerating a victimizer enables the victim to stop the damage from continuing to affect their lives so much. This frees up the victim to deal with healing some of the accumulated guilt and shame. It does not require further involvement between the victim and victimizer.

Forgiveness work involves resolving a relationship after damage has occurred and restoring the mutual respect balance. This involves some risk as the person can be hurt again. Forgiveness work involves setting realistic goals and making plans to build and test trustworthiness. The overt act of forgiving involves the victim allowing the victimizer to directly address the past damage and hurt. They accomplish the work of forgiveness through:

  1. Agreement
  2. Acknowledgment
  3. Apology

Past hurts and old wounds can restrict one's life in numerous ways. Exonerating can help free family members up from unnecessary burdens of past baggage. Forgiveness work can help families get fresh starts building trust with a balance.

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