Friday, June 23, 2017

Things That Matter


     Many folks associated with the University of Denver (and beyond) were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of DU's Sturm College of Law professor Federico "Fred" Cheever last weekend. Fred suffered a massive heart attack while on a rafting trip with his family. Fred was well-known at DU, especially in the areas of environmental law and the University's efforts at becoming more sustainable. He was a guiding force in the establishment of DU's Sustainability Council.
     His death creates a huge hole for so many, near and far. Indeed, before I even arrived at DU ten years ago, a lawyer friend in Berkeley told me I should look Fred up, and made an email introduction for us. I served for a while on the Sustainability Council, and saw him lead it with grace and skill. But I most often saw him in the fitness center on weekends, usually on an elliptical machine, with ruffled hair and baggy sweats. He always greeted me; he was that kind of a man.
      Just a couple of days after news of his death flew around campus, I joined with a group of law school faculty and staff to share remembrances. A profound experience. And then, yesterday morning, I attended the regularly-scheduled meeting of the Sustainability Council. We learned of the DU Board of Trustees' recent affirmation of many sustainability initiatives -- many of which bore Fred's "stamp". Then, the meeting turned to reminiscences. Again, a profound experience -- sad, and healing, as many such gatherings are.
      As part of his comments, Dr. Chad King, the Director of our Sustainability Center and a good friend of Fred's, read a poem (or two) that had been on Fred's door for some time.

THINGS THAT DO NOT MATTER

The logo on someone else's T-shirt. Toenail polish or not. Irony. Which vodka. The relative positions of knives and spoons on a set table. How long it takes someone to move forward after the light turns green. How anybody takes their coffee. Having or not having heard of a band. Five or ten bucks either way. Whether the waitress is a little slow today, and any number of things, which—if we can't bring ourselves to ignore them—become little quotidian obstacles to the sublime.

THINGS THAT MATTER

Physics. Whether or not you can see. Salt. The sublime. By what means people suffer themselves to be governed. The extinction of primrose or milkvetch or desert tortoise or lynx. Phosphorous. Promises. Insulin. Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter. How you love.


     - Rebecca Lindenberg (from her collection The Logan Notebooks, 2014)


      At times like these, given all of my petty worries and concerns (e.g., fighting with Microsoft over an Xbox matter, or fretting over weeds in a garden plot), "Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter" matters.
      Thank you, Fred, for helping us keep our eyes on what matters. Ride on!


Namasté,

Gary

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Commencing with joy!


[Note: It has been a crazy week leading up to commencement this year. Because of that, and the fact that I'm often asked for a copy of it, I am reprinting here the text of my invocation for the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony today at DU. Of course, it was "under embargo" until after the ceremony, which accounts for the "day-late" newsletter.  ;-) ]

Please join with me in prayer.

Holy One, known by many names, as we begin our celebration today, bind us together in a spirit of healing and peace, as we pay respect to the original Arapaho and Cheyenne owners - both past and present - of the land on which the University of Denver stands.

Holy Wisdom, you have given the gifts of grace and skill in teaching to professors and colleagues.  Thank you for all that they have been to those who receive their diplomas this day.

Compassionate One, you have provided these students with communities of support and care throughout their educational journeys.  For families of origin and choice; for the friends of playgrounds to those made in the classroom and dorms, we are grateful. 

Divine Servant, administration and“behind-the-scenes” work are gifts from you we often overlook.  For the trustees, administrators and staff who guide and fund this university, who keep track of requirements and grades, and who ensure the internet works . . . mostly; for counselors and medical personnel; and all those-groundskeepers and housekeepers-who provide such a wonderful physical atmosphere for learning, thank you. 

Lover of Justice, the education these students have received here equips them to make a difference in the world in which they live.  Amidst news of tornados and school-shootings; ethnic and religious conflict; struggling nation states; and political systems where shouting and sound-bites sideline civility and substance; imbue these graduates with a sense of hope for the future and a passion to right the wrongs they encounter.

Overcomer of Obstacles, we bid your special presence in the hearts of these graduates.  They have excelled in the classroom, been champions in sports; and studied and served around the world.   Faced with great challenges, losses and disappointments, they have prevailed—they have succeeded.  Let them now, in the midst of happy celebration, hear your clear, encouraging voice saying, “Well done.  But wait, there’s more!”  May they, looking back at their years at DU, sense your call forward into a lifetime full of adventure and purpose, and know that you, and we, will be cheering them on!

Dancing Lord, be our partner as we celebrate with joy today!


Amen.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The bastion of Robo-butt


      In the fall of 2009, on the first day of classes no less, I experienced a relatively serious bike accident. I slipped on a muddy section of sidewalk, went down heavily on my right side, and suffered several micro-fractures in my pelvis. I was on crutches for six weeks. And, as some readers may recall, I reflected on that experience in this space (those posts can be found in the Archives section of our website; the entries are in the range 9/18/2009-10/9/2009). I learned an incredible amount during those weeks, such as:  how level our campus is (NOT!); but, also, how the ADA rules and regulations make SO much sense; or how generous people can be with time and energy; and what its like to go through airport security when you can't walk. I had the opportunity to "live" in a different world for six weeks.       Those memories came flooding back the other night as I was reading one of my favorite mystery author's latest books. Nevada Barr situates all of her tales in National Parks. Boar Island* is set in Acadia National Park in Maine and features some characters from earlier books in the series. One of those characters is Heath, a woman who, as the result of a fall at Keystone, was confined to a wheel-chair -- a chair she named "Robo-butt".  The passage that got me going was:
     Before the fall from Keystone, Heath had been brash and ballsy. After, she had been angry and self-destructive. When she finally realized that, though she couldn't walk, she was still a whole person, she found she'd changed. From the bastion of Robo-butt, the world was different, more layered and complex. Heath learned patience. She learned to watch people, to really listen, to genuinely see them. Something she'd not done much of when she was superwoman climbing tall mountains. Another skill she'd picked up was canniness, an ability to manipulate situations to her advantage, to manipulate people when she had to. Cunning wasn't a strength much lauded in literature or the media, but it was a strength all the same, and Heath respected it. (pg 52)

      Certainly, Heath had much more experience in her chair than I did on my crutches. I didn't have to make any major changes in my outlook; I knew that there was a point coming soon (although it never seemed soon enough) that I would be "back to normal". That said, the experience of being dislodged, if only for a while, changed my perspective permanently.  And, in that way, the experience was a blessing. It appears, similarly, that Heath's change-in-status brought about a change-in-outlook, an appreciation for other skills and strengths than those she had formerly valued.       I was reminded the other night, and in recollecting the "Fall of '09", that many of the things we might consider "negative" are often just "different". And those differences can provide opportunities for growth and/or improvement in other areas of our lives.  I believe that all of us have qualities -- some hidden, some quite visible -- that may place us in our own versions of Robo-butt. The challenge that Heath poses is whether we can learn to see that place as a "bastion", a "fortified place"**, a place of strength.

Namasté,

Gary

*Minotaur Books, 2016.
**
Definition #2 from Dictionary.com

Friday, May 26, 2017

On being an unknowing recipient



Note from Chaplain Gary:  Danielle Xanthos, the author of the reflection below is a graduate student in professional psychology at DU. She has been working with me throughout the year on a number of different projects. She offered to write a reflection for the newsletter. I was happy to say "Yes!" As it turns out, her reflection is highly appropriate as we approach the last week of class and finals!

Fact: academic life can be rough.

Earlier this year (during that stage of the academic year when I had a bit more time in my schedule than reality would soon allow), I attended monthly meetings led by our friendly neighborhood (University) chaplain, Gary, alongside local faith leaders from an impressively diverse variety of traditions. During one of these meetings I realized something incredibly simple, yet equally profound: There are people from all different faiths praying for us students. It was one of those moments when my heart was full to the brim and I had a deep sense of gratitude for everyone in the room. Since that meeting a few months ago, I’ve wanted to share this fact with every student (faculty and staff, included) at the University of Denver – and every campus in the area.

In the prayers of the tradition I call home (Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy), we pray “for the peace of the whole world…and for the unity of all.”* I admit, as with a few other elements of my faith, it took more than a couple of decades for these words to sink into my mind, and they’re still flowing into my soul. Whether these prayers for our community are spontaneous – and gushing from our soul, written – and “ready made,” or unceasing – and serving as a walking stick throughout our day and our life,** they are happening all around us in all different homes of worship.

Remember when I said academic life can be rough? It can drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Whether we’re having a difficult time because we feel stressed, we feel lonely, we feel tired, we feel the weight of the world’s suffering on our hearts, or maybe we aren’t feeling any of those things and we’re at peace in this moment, please remember that there are people all around this city praying for us. People we’ve never met.

You are in someone’s prayers. They’re praying for your peace, for your safety, for your health, for our unity. You are in their prayers today, you were in their prayers yesterday, and you will be in their prayers tomorrow.

Praying for good strength on your life's adventure, 
With gratitude,
Danielle Xanthos 

*Full excerpt from the Litany of Peace, said during the Liturgy, evening (Vespers), morning (Orthros/Matins), and a few other services: For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.

** Three types of prayer, as explained by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in “Beginning to Pray.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interruptive Invitation



    Earlier this week I drove up to Vail for the annual clergy conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado.  I knew that there was a chance that the weather would not stay as benign as it seemed on Tuesday, but the predicted noontime snow Wednesday didn't appear . . . at least not until late in the evening. My intention had been to get up early on Thursday and head down the hill in time to chair a meeting at 9:30. I arose to a LOT of snow, but trudged through it to the car, and headed towards the freeway. I was dismayed to discover that Vail Pass had been closed.
     Clearly, there was little I could do but send out some emails letting people know that I wouldn't be in the office until much later, if at all! I returned to the hotel -- at least I was able to participate in the closing sessions of the conference (and get breakfast and lunch).  All morning, at every break, folks were on the web-site-du-jour:
cotrip.org.* The hotel offered, if we were to be stranded, another night at the group rate. The way things were going, that offer was looking pretty good.
      As the conference concluded, our bishop mentioned that a spiritual director told him, when there was an interruption in plan, to ask the question: "What is the invitation (that the interruption offers)?" I was probably not alone in pondering that question for the next little while. As someone who appreciates things going according to plan, I'm rarely in the mood, when interrupted, to be anything but annoyed. But there was little that ANYONE could have done to prevent THIS interruption; the circumstances were such that I really did sit back and ponder the "invitation".
      It IS a good question, I decided. I was "invited" to consider what I thought was truly important: was my schedule THAT important? Might it not be good to be reminded that I am NOT in control of everything?  Was there an opportunity to deepen relationships with other attendees who were similarly "stuck"?
      And, as I thought more about it, I realized that the question of finding an "invitation" in an interruption was similar to the assertion in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that, in every organization or group, something works." Practitioners of AI recognize that finding what is that "works" is sometimes a challenge, especially in a culture where we seem to be focused on what's "broken". They know that discipline and practice are required to find that "working" thing.

      I imagine it will take a similar discipline and practice to see the invitations in interruptions.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

* The photo above of the website shows the section of I-70 that was closed.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"It's a magic table!"

 

    This week the office of Religious & Spiritual Life offered students (and others passing by on the Driscoll Bridge) the opportunity to craft Mother's (and Father's) Day cards. We try to have as many materials available, the 4 "S's" -- stickers, stamps, stencils, and sharpies. Some students confess that they are "not artistic", and so REALLY appreciate the options. Others are VERY artistic and eschew all of the "helps" except the sharpies. We've been doing this for about eight years, and many students tell us that they look forward to the opportunity to stop thinking about Econ or Calculus and to re-engage their inner pre-schooler, with the hope that, when they return home, they'll see that hand-made card on the fridge.
      Staffing the table is sometimes a challenge for those of us who are more . . . well, "introverted". But my experience, as well as that of my fellow introverts, is that, once we get going, and folks start making cards, the conversation flows. We talk about majors, weekend/vacation plans, and post-graduation plans. I often ask where students call "home", and am frequently surprised to learn that I have (or can easily find) some connection with, at least, their home state. Once that connection is made, a lot of remaining barriers fall and we have a blast.
      Yesterday afternoon, I returned to do my "shift", and found a group of international students all making cards. "Staffing" the table was someone I had not met. A Chinese visiting scholar (I learned), he had taken over for the student who was at the table, but who needed to head to class.  As we started talking, he told me that one of the people he had met, while at the table, had connections with his sister in China. Another person he had met knew a friend of his in New Mexico. And then he discovered that he and I had another "DU" (that is, Duke University) in common. He said to me, "Three different connections, all realized at this table.  It's a magic table!"

       As I've reflected on that observation, I've come to realize that he's right! At that table, not only are introverts freed a bit from their "enclosure", but "magical creatures" may arrive to make cards (as in the photo above), and connections not necessarily apparent are discovered and celebrated. There is certainly something "magical" about being around a table--especially a table covered with things that might engage us, whether craft-materials or food. It's no surprise, then, that so many of our religious rituals are "table-based".
       Lesson learned:  approach all tables with the expectation that something transformative may happen . . . and it just might! "Magic" can happen!
  
Namasté, 

Gary

Note:  A HUGE shout-out of thanks to Danielle G, Danielle X, Marshall S, Ryan B, Hana A, Steve (from China), and any other impromptu table-staffers!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Put it in writing!



       When I was in high school, I was an AFS foreign exchange student to Australia. ("Oz" wasn't my first - or second, or even third - choice! I had wanted to learn another language. Mostly, in the linguistic arena, I learned a new set of slang--not to mention a cool accent!) For a year I lived out in farming country (not in the "Outback" *), learning to drive a tractor, tend sheep and arc-weld. Of course, I was a foreign exchange student, so I DID go to school as well, along with my host brother, Mark. We were quite different from one another in SO many ways, and what we could learn from each other was quite varied. One of the things I noticed when we started school was that he was writing with a fountain pen -- taking notes, writing papers, etc. I'd seen fountain pens before, of course, but I'd never seen a class-mate using one. Of course, I asked him about it, and he told me his teachers require it of him, because it slowed him down and made his writing legible.** I hadn't thought about that, and tried it with his pen, and, it was true! It did slow me down.       For reasons unrelated to legibility, my son has become enamored with using a quill pen. He tells me that the process of dipping the pen into ink, and then writing, is a whole lot different than using a ballpoint pen, or a pencil.  He semi-inspired me to pick up MY fountain pen again; it is a different process, a different mindset. And, I think I may have written about this before in a prior musing here, but when I write sermons, I do it with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil. Yes, I certainly could use a computer, but my experience has been that using a pencil slows down the process (especially when using a hand sharpener), making me think a little more carefully (and it's still correctable!).
      These memories and associations came to me while listening to the
story of two women who met in a spiritual writing workshop, and who started a multi-year process of writing letters to each other EVERY DAY. They chose to hand-write real letters, rather than just send emails, because they wanted the practice to have some gravity. As they wrote, they both realized it had become a sort of spiritual practice. It had become so ingrained that, when a tragic event occurred to one of them and they stopped sending the letters, they didn't stop writing them. It was only when they decided to collect their letters and publish them that they learned that they had both kept up the practice.       The two didn't say whether they used a pen (fountain or otherwise) or a pencil in their writing practice; in some ways, I suppose, it doesn't make a difference. But what DID make a difference to me was the suggestion of hand-writing as a spiritual practice. We have become so accustomed to typing ("keyboarding"?), or reducing even that to acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), or yet more recently to using emoji's (did you know there's an official emoji-approval agency?), that the process of putting a writing implement to paper is becoming increasingly rare (unless it's jotting down a quick phone number or last-minute shopping list). Similarly rare is slowing down for almost anything!       I am certainly not suggesting that it works for everyone, but the re-discovery of the slowed-down writing with a fountain pen (or a #2 pencil) has been a good practice for me in many spiritual, and non-spiritual, ways. It may be less efficient for mass-communication (like this newsletter), but more insightful for self-communication.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

*  And never once did I "throw a shrimp on the barby".
** An interesting discussion about this theory/practice can be found
here.