Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the last thing . . .?

     Last weekend, I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was enjoying the park -- fishing, birdwatching, hiking, and trying to stay clear of the thunderstorms.  For the most part I was successful in my enjoyment (although the fish mocked me, and the rain/hail was indiscriminate).  One thing surprised me at the outset, and the surprise grew throughout the weekend.  There were a couple of birds that I expected to see, that are very common in mountainous areas like Rocky, that I did NOT see at all:  Clark's Nutcracker and Gray Jay.  Almost anyone who has picnicked or camped in the mountains has had one or both of these birds as dinner guests.  But they were completely absent!  And, as I was leaving the park, two of the employee/rangers agreed with me:  it was unusual that they were unseen!
      And, of course, I started speculating (as did the park folk) as to WHY these birds weren't around.  Was it because of the pine beetle?  That is, given the beetle-kill, were the number of nuts/seeds down so far as to affect the bird population?  Or was the heavy snow-fall, and, therefore, late snow-melt responsible for a relative lack of picnickers -- folks who provided the free-pickings for the birds?  But then I started thinking in a slightly less "natural" direction.  Setting aside for the moment any effect human-caused global warming might have on pine beetle infestations or heavy snowfalls, what if something that we humans are doing (or are not doing) is having a detrimental impact on these montane birds?
       This direction of my musings may have been partly because of an article in the Summer 2014 edition of the Oregon Quarterly.  The article asked the question about how/why the island of Rapa Nui (or "Easter Island") became devoid of the verdant palm forest that once covered it.  One, older, answer was that the inhabitants had simply chopped down all the trees, perhaps to move the large statues around (in addition to providing fuel and shelter).  A more recent answer is that the early inhabitants brought rats with them that consumed all of the nuts from the palm trees, leading to deforestation.  Some speculate that there probably was some combination of human/rat cooperation in the devastation.  Regardless of the singular, or joint, cause, 
Paul Bahn and John Flenley in their book Easter Island, Earth Island, assume that there could have been a human who cut down the last tree, and who could have known that it was the last tree.*  They write:  "The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree.  But he (or she) still felled it.  This is what is so worrying.  Humankind's covetousness is boundless".  How similar is that statement is to something Aldo Leopold wrote:  "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."**
       Leopold's assertion may be correct -- at least the last statement.  I'm not so sure, though, that his first sentence is quite right (although, according to Genesis 17.8, God DID promise some land to Abraham and his offspring after him).  Prior to the promise to Abraham, however, God placed the whole earth in the care of humans (Gen 1.26).  We were to be stewards of the earth, yet even the translation that suggests that we have "dominion" over the earth doesn't suggest that we destroy it to suit our purposes.
       And so, I wonder what that Rapa Nui-an must have thought/felt when he/she felled that last tree?  And the absence, even if only temporary, or Gray Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers, caused me to wonder how I'd feel if I knew that I had something to do with the demise of the very last one of them.  Could I justify my stewardship to the one who placed the care of the planet in my hands?


Chaplain Gary

* Quoted in the Oregon Quarterly article on p. 8.
** A Sand County Almanac (Oxford, 1949), viii.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The matter of perspective

     Numerous prompts over the last week . . .
     1)  Last Saturday, I stood with my back to Pike's Peak, looking at a young couple who were "plighting their troth" to use the old language.  Congrats to Casey and Megan on their marriage!  Prior to walking down the "aisle", Casey and I had a final little conversation about marriage.  I noted (and he remembered) that, within a week following their wedding, my wife and I would be celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary.  He nodded, and said that he'd taken that "perspective" to heart as he recalled our conversations prior to the wedding.  Yes, I thought, thirty-plus years doesprovide a certain level of perspective on sustaining a relationship that newlyweds don't quite have (but I hope they will!).
     2)  Earlier this week I was camping with my son at, what I believe, is THE . . . BEST . . . CAMPGROUND . . . EVER!  (and, no, I won't tell!).  We were joined in the campground by a family from Georgia (although the wife had grown up in Colorado Springs). The kids -- new to camping in CO -- were blown away and kept saying, "We NEED to move here!" From a Georgia perspective, we, in Colorado, might take things a bit for granted -- although they're pretty awesome!
     3)  The same family quickly hiked their way to a rock formation that overlooked the campground (pictured above, with CO Spgrs grandpa on the left).  My son and I hiked up there the following day, and the view of our campsite from that vantage point was quite different from camp-fire level.  Well, it's a matter of perspective.
     4)  As mentioned above, at the point of celebrating a thirty-two year long marriage, I are reminded of how different life looks at this point than it did when we walked downour aisle those many years ago . . . in a very different setting than Casey and Megan.  Joys.  Sorrows.  Challenges.  Successes.  Moves.  Job changes.  Deaths of parents.  Advent of children.  Wow!  Do I see things with a different perspective now (that my kids don't understand!)!
     5)  Last evening, on the 151st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, I was watching the mini-series about that important event.  At many points during the movie, the generals tried to find their way to the highest point possible (a school tower, or a promontory, or even a fence rail), in order to gain a better perspective on how the various engagements were faring.  They needed to see things that the foot-soldiers were not. 

     6)  Today, I am writing on the 238th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America.  And I read regularly about the conflicts in other countries around the world who are struggling to build their own futures.  I'm often struck by how commentators (or "opinionators") forget that we have a perspective born of that history that those still engaged in natal struggle do NOT have.  The talking heads seem so quick to condemn others for not being as "enlightened" as we.  We often forget our backs-and-forths, our struggles, our controversies, that have led us to where we find ourselves.  We would do well to remember.
      Finally, I'm reminded of the end of the biblical book of Job, after Job and his friends argue over WHY Job-the-righteous has had to suffer all the calamities he's experienced.  God speaks:  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  . . . Who determined its measurements--surely you know! . . . Have you commanded the morning since your days began? . . . Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?" (and there's more!  Job 39-41).  God forcefully reminds Job that his perspective isn't quite complete.
      The reminder that was this week is that perspective is crucial.  That doesn't mean that we should not use our experience -- our perspective -- as a launching pad for arguing our point in a marital conflict, OR seeking justice on a global scale.  It only suggests that a bit of humility might be a substantial aid in our efforts, a recollection that our perspective is not the only one.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, June 20, 2014

How long can you tread water?

      Many of us will remember Bill Cosby from the scads of wonderful television shows in which he appeared/starred (Oh, Cliff Huxtable's sweaters!).  Many of us will, likewise, remember all of the work has done in the field of education and parenting; he does, after all, have a doctorate in education from UMass. But my memories go WAY back to those 12' circles of vinyl we used to put on "record-players" at 33rpm.  There were so many classic comedy routines on some of those records that set the stage for some of Cosby's TV shows (think "Fat Albert").  But one of my favorites was the routine he did called "Noah."
      For those readers who've not heard (or seen) this routine, the context is a conversation between Noah and God about the building of the ark.*  Noah/Cosby doesn't quite understand WHO is addressing him.  He doesn't know what an ark is.  He's not sure about "cubits" (but, then, neither is God).  Part-way through the construction of the ark, as well as bringing on the animals, Noah questions God about who's supposed to clean the bottom deck (given what the animals do-do).  
 God had told Noah that he was going the destroy the world, and Noah had a role in ensuring that, despite that catastrophe, the world would be able to repopulate and continue.  So, make sure there are even two mosquitos!  Then, imagine what Noah's neighbors might be saying!  At one frustrating point, however, Noah tells God he's quitting the business.  To which God replies, "Noah, how long can you tread water?"
      It's NOT the current Russell Crowe film about Noah that brought the Cosby routine to mind.  It was another actor, Richard Gere, who occasioned the memory.  Several years ago, I was attending a conference, part of which coincided with a gathering of folks (including the Dalai Lama) discussing compassion. 
This week, I found my notes from that day.  During the main public event, I wrote that Gere said "We live in an illusion in the west that things are relatively okay.  But we're really drowning in mediocrity."  So I began to wonder if we ARE drowning, or are we simply treading water?
      I think Gere was on to something; I think we ARE surrounded by mediocrity in so many ways.  On the other hand, as I recall the students walking across the platform and receiving their diplomas several weeks ago, AND knowing what many of them are setting off to do, I am encouraged by their unwillingness to settle for (or drown in) mediocrity.  I am heartened by their eagerness to engage the issues we face.
     But I'm also reminded, on a daily basis -- whether it's in the pages of the newspaper, or the advertisements on television (or the internet), or in simple conversations with others, that the new graduates' excitement isn't necessarily shared by all.  There are times when I can't even think that we're settling for a happy "middle-way", but rather for something far less.  I am not disputing that they may be "out there", but are the visionaries that seek to change things for the 
better able to be heard amidst the clanging of the "mediocre bell"?   And are we willing to stop treading water in the "sea of mediocrity" and swim to shore to establish a new, enticing, exciting, way of being?  We ought all, always, be engaged in "commencement".
      One can only tread water so long.

Chaplain Gary
*The biblical story of Noah can be found in Genesis 6.5-9-17.  A recording of Cosby's version can be found here:

Friday, June 6, 2014

The important things

      I imagine that most readers of this newsletter have seen, at one time or another, the quotation (attributed to Anthony d'Angelo):  "The most important things in life aren't things."  And, I would imagine that, deep-down, we may all believe it.  Of course we live in a culture that preaches exactly the opposite.  Whether it's some product that will smooth our skin or change our hair color to the next generation of smart-gadget to this year's run-way fashion out of Italy to that one component that will make your bicycle 5 grams lighter, we are led to believe that our lives will be infinitely better if we shell out our hard-earned dollars to acquire something.
      Maybe it's not just some physical "object".  Perhaps we pursue a cushier, or more prestigious, job, or a position on a particular committee or board, or even another academic degree/honor.  Something "out there" either pushes, or draws, us to acquire, gain, or claim it.  It turns into another line our resumes, some thing about which to crow.
      I do not mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with any of these things (although I may have some questions about hair-color preparations, since the little I have left wouldn't really benefit from the expenditure).  The problems arise when the pursuit of these externalities overtakes, or overwhelms, us to the exclusion of just about anything else.  The classic observation in this regard is that nobody says, on their deathbed, "I wish I could have had more time for work", implying, of course, that "work" was not as important as many other things they could have pursued.
      Commencement season, to me, brings these considerations to the fore.  A new diploma is something to hang on the wall (I have enough of those, to be sure!).  What that diploma might mean is a cool new job!  Cool new job might mean better living quarters, more reliable automobile, better meals, a more attractive trophy spouse.  In other words, things begetting things begetting things.  And the beat goes on.
       It was surprising to me, then, to learn that a commencement address last year at Syracuse University went viral on the internet.  George Saunders, a creative writing professor at Syracuse, charged the graduates of 2013 to seek a simple goal:  To try to be kinder.  He spoke about all of the things he had done, and that he had regretted.  His biggest regrets were 
not failures of achievement or failures of acquisition, but failures of kindness.  Clearly his advice hit a nerve, as his speech was tweeted all around the world and it has become the basis for his latest book:  Congratulations, by the way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (2014).
       For most of us, at the end of an academic year, there is some time to back down, to "vacate", to recoup, recuperate, re-create, before starting up again.  Might we revisit what are the important things in our lives and reconsider how to spend our time with them.  Maybe everything will change!

Chaplain Gary

Note:  Image/quote is from Story People.

Friday, May 30, 2014

At all times?!

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.*
       "At all times"?  Really?
       This being the end of another academic year, those of us on either side of the teacher's desk are often found "evaluating" an experience in a classroom (be it physical or virtual).  We may find ourselves making comments like "It was better than I expected" (or it's opposite!), "I learned so much", "I couldn't understand the essays", or...  I had a student this quarter who noted that he had had a "different dream" for what a certain class would hold.  I must say that I had a slightly different dream for that class as well.
        Disappointment might to be too strong a word to apply in these kinds of situations, but there is often a sense of let-down (at the least) when things don't go as we expected.  Parents know this feeling well as dreams for their children hit insurmountable road-blocks.  Those whose chosen careers don't work out as planned know it.  Students express frustration when, feeling well-prepared for an exam, find that where THEY focused their studies was not where the instructor focused.  So how, in these circumstances, can we "bless the Lord at all times"?
        It's an exhortation found through Hebrew and Christian scriptures (at least).  And there is certainly a long history of encouragement to be grateful (another way of "blessing").  But I think that there is also a sense among many people that the only things for which it is worth being grateful are good things:  "I'm grateful for good weather."  "I'm grateful for an "A" on the final."  "I'm grateful for an understanding partner."  There's also a sense, often, of being grateful that something bad didn't happen:  "I'm grateful that the floods didn't affect MY house."  And NONE of these are bad or wrong.
       But, can we be grateful in adversity?  I think that's where it really gets tough for most of us -- at least it does for me.  And this goes further than the "there's a silver lining to every cloud" philosophy.  It is an assertion, a hope, that there is something in each event, each encounter, that mediates the Divine to us.  In my case, that message, in moments of disappointment, can be boiled down to:  "You realize you're not the center of the universe, don't you?"  And that, if I pay attention, can lead to a renewed sense of humility and understanding of others.
       To follow upon the image that heads this column, our perception of what "fills" the glass is generally limited to the liquid.  There is, of course, more if we take a moment to consider.
        Bless the Lord.


Chaplain Gary
*Psalm 34.1

Friday, May 23, 2014

Them's fighting' words!

     Earlier this week, we held a book discussion on Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini's Soul Repair:  Recovering from Moral Injury after War.*  My two co-facilitators represented two very different experiences of  the military; one was a former Army brigade commander, the other a Marine Chaplain.  Both recognized the circumstances reflected in the book:  soldiers often find themselves doing things in battle that are at odds with their inner compass, and they have varying degrees of difficulty coming to grips with that disconnect.  They also had, however, different ways of using words that addressed some of the issues in the book.  And those differences got me thinking.
      The chaplain (as well as others with whom he works) shy away from the phrase "soul repair".  The word "soul" conjures up all sorts of associations for folks, and raises the issue of whether or not it can be "broken".  So, it seems that "inner conflict" is preferred.  Again, the circumstances/effects are not under debate, only the description.  The brigade commander avoided adding the "D" to PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress [Disorder]), suggesting that it is no longer considered a "disorder", but something else.  Again, the circumstances/effects were not under debate, only the words used to describe them.  The chaplain suggested a question that got at the heart of what I was hearing:  "How does our language (i.e., concerning diagnosis) affect -- or counter-effect -- people seeking treatment?"  That is, if someone doesn't consider themselves "injured", then they might not seek help.  Or, who really wants to consider themselves "disordered"?
       I then recalled a conversation with Barb, the student from Iliff School of Theology who's been working with me this year. She was preparing a sermon for a service here at DU, and asked me whether or not she could talk about "sin".  I said, "Of course!  Entirely appropriate for that service!"  She responded that some other folks had counseled her against it, saying that that language wasn't going to work these days.  I encouraged her to stand her ground.
       Now I concede that "sin" language is a bit out-of-fashion.  No one wants to be told they're a "sinner" (I suppose the truth hurts too much); such language smacks, I suppose, of old-time revival meetings and groveling before an angry deity.  But when I put that reaction to "sin" next to the reactions to the language of "injury" or "disorder", I have to wonder whether we've lost our connection with the full human condition!?  I am not necessarily a big fan of the classical western Christian concept of "original sin", but I think that most religious traditions recognize that we are NOT perfect beings.  We all fall short of some higher expectation.  We mess up.  We are hurt by so many things.  We are broken.  Yet it seems that we are loathe to admit it.
       We are loathe to admit it . . . but most of us recognize our circumstances and want to be whole.  It's a dilemma, indeed.  Yet it's a problem we need to address, given the number of folks who are hurt so badly, but never seek help until it's almost too late.  I'm not saying we need to continue to use "sin", "injury" or "disorder", but we need to come up with new, compassionate, ways of addressing our ills that (a) don't sidestep the realities we face, but (b) extend an invitation to wholeness regardless of the depth of our pain.  Any ideas?


Chaplain Gary
*(Beacon, 2012).  A recording of the discussion can be found under "Recordings of Past Discussions" at this page.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gratitude's response

      A number of years ago, I accompanied a group of students to Costa Rica as part of a cultural exchange.  My role was primarily as "chaperone" (ha!), van-driver, and keeper-of-the-funds.  The students were doing most of the interacting, which was good, because they were much more likely to know Spanish than me!  My education in Español, sadly, was limited to Junior High level . . . and that was a while back!  But I did remember enough of the basics to say "Please", "Thank You" and something akin to 'We've got to get going now!"  And I was not too old to learn new phrases, like "Check, please?"
      I was surprised, however, the first few times I tried "Muchas gracias".  I knew enough to pronounce it correctly, and use it in the right context.  But the response I got back from the "Ticos" (Costa Ricans) wasn't quite what I expected (which was "De nada" -- the phrase we learned in 7th grade!).  Instead, the response was "Mucho gusto".  Once I figured out what I was hearing (and translated it), I became quite taken by the Tico answer.  Instead of hearing "It's nothing", I was told that whatever the service (carrying my luggage, serving my meal, opening the door) occasioned my appreciation came with "Much joy!".  Hmm!   Pretty often, then, I am invited to recall this bit of education . . . and challenge.  Even yesterday, I heard (in an interview) the host effusively thank her guest. His response was, "No, thank you!".
      So, I've been thinking about how we respond to "Thank you."  In the U.S., there is no clear-cut winner.  The responses range from "You're welcome" to "No problem" to "It was nothing" (de nada) to "Don't mention it" to . . . ?  Similarly, there are no clear "winners" in other languages.  Common in French is "de rien" ("it's nothing").  But, in the south of France, "avec plaisir" (i.e., "with pleasure") is more common.  Swedish?  "Varsågod"!  "Be so good"?  Chinese:  "bú kè qi", or, literally, "Don't be nice".  And, so I've begun to wonder, too, about what the response says about the personal or cultural values behind thatservice to others that prompts a "thank you".
      "It's nothing", or De nada suggests (to me) that the server felt imposed upon, but, perhaps, not unnecessarily or unexcessively so.  Avec plaisir or Mucho gusto suggest that the act service itself was a joy, or pleasurable.  "Be so good" may suggest that the recipient return the favor.  But, "You're welcome"?
      At a conference/retreat I attended last week, the speaker challenged us to respond to "thank you" with an enthusiastic "YOU'RE WELCOME!".  Not "You're welcome", but "
YOU'RE WELCOME!"  And I began to toy with that.
      "Welcoming" is an act of hospitality.  It is an invitation to encounter and engagement.  It is drawing of the other into one's own circle.  It is making a place for that other at one's own table.
      Ponderable.  You have done an act of service for someone; you have stepped aside from your life's demands to attend to their needs.  You have opened your door to them.  They recognize that and express appreciation.  "YOU'RE WELCOME", you reply as you invite them into your life, with the implication that they may anticipate your continued hospitality.   "Hospitality" -- a virtue that lies at the core of every religious tradition I know.  And, by extension, I suppose, at the heart of God.
      How many times a day do we have the opportunity, in such an easy way, to reflect the heart of God?  It's not nothing.  It can be an act of much joy!


Chaplain Gary