Friday, October 2, 2015

Stealing the Future

       Yesterday . . . not the Beatles, but 10/1/15.
       Last night I was sitting in a room with a group of remarkable students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  Part of our time together was spent discussing the Syrian refugee crisis.  And one of the students in attendance was at DU partly because of that crisis.  His family had fled Syria because of the violence there.  In the course of the conversation, he commented that what was happening there for many young people was that those furthering the conflict were "stealing our future".  They young men and women growing up in Syria had a vision for their future and their country's future; what the conflict was doing was robbing them of those dreams.
       Last night we also talked about the news of the day:  the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR.*  Details of the shooting are still coming out, but last night we knew enough to know that a young man decided, for whatever reason, to start shooting folks based on their religion (the news this morning confirms that he was asking victims if they were Christian before shooting them).  The school year had just started at Umpqua; the shooter not only destroyed the future for his victims (and himself), but stole much of the future for the survivors.
       Earlier in the day, before I had heard about the shootings, and long before the evening's discussion, I was listening to a podcast of the Brian Lehrer show (out of WNYC in New York). The particular episode was from September 11, 2015 (yes, I'm behind), and featured an interview with Farah Pandith, the first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US Department of State.  She no longer works for the State Department but is researching the reasons WHY some young folks (in her case, Muslims) are so readily radicalized.  She asserted that for much of their lives (i.e., since September 11, 2001), the front pages (paper and virtual) have been filled with negative news about Islam/Muslims.  This has created, she claims, a crisis of identity for these folks.  And it is that crisis that leaves these young people searching for meaning -- and groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc. promise meaning.
        Front-page news about religion in general, It occured to me, is rarely good (some of the coverage of Pope Francis' recent US visit to the contrary) despite the good that most religious traditions do as a matter of course.  I look at the statistics of "millennials" fleeing their religious roots and claiming, when asked about their religious affiliation, to be either "spiritual but not religious" or "None of the above", and Ms. Pandith's conclusions seem to extend well-beyond radicalization-prone young Muslims.  We have, unfortunately, produced (by many of our religious actions, non-actions, and subsequent reportage) a generation that wants little to do with the institutions that sustained their parents and grand-parents.  Yet, many of those young people yearn for something that might provide meaning and identity.  And the substitutes that often arise don't produce.  In a way, their future has been stolen -- perhaps not intentionally, but they are bereft nonetheless.
      In response to yesterday's shootings, 
President Obama challenged Americans by saying "our thoughts and prayers are not enough".  The time for action has come.  The president suggested some concrete ideas.  But it seems that there are some other ones, not necessarily related to gun-control or mental health needs (as important as those issues are).  I believe that it is incumbent on all of us, people of good faith, to speak out about the moorings our convictions provide. We must give up attacking others--by word or deed--using religious rhetoric to justify or bolster our bigotry and ignorance. We, who know better, must speak out; we must band together to speak in common.  In fierce contradiction to those voices that would drive us apart, that would steal our future, we must declare:  "We are better together! And, together, we will build a better, and less violent, world for those who come after us."


*As a native Oregonian, and someone who's been in Roseburg numerous times, this is particularly sad for me.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Repent, y'all!!

      There was a LOT going on in the "religion world" this past week. (One might say, so much that it delayed the sending out of the newsletter!).  Pope Francis' visit dominated the front pages of newspapers (or the "trending lines" of social media).  At DU, we did a book discussion on the Pope's encyclical, Laudato Si. Our Jewish neighbors observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  And our Muslim neighbors were on pilgrimage to Mecca and/or celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Day of Sacrifice.  Additionally, as the fall equinox fell during the week, other religious traditions observed that annual event:  Mabon (for pagan/Wiccans in the northern hemisphere) and Shubun-no-hi (among Shintos).
       One theme linked several of these occurrences, although maybe not explicitly:  repentance.  And I'm not just referring to the clichéd religious prophet-holding-up-a-sign:  "REPENT, OR ELSE"!  I'm referring to something more basic, more universal.  And I think it came out most clearly in several of the speeches given by the Pope in various settings.  He demanded that we do some introspection about our way of life -- corporate, national AND individual.  The inference is that, if we really believe the things we say about ourselves (i.e., that we're good, caring, people), then our actions had better show it . . . and, currently, they often are NOT doing so.  That message comes across very potently in Laudato Si, for sure!  Yom Kippur is marked by fasting, prayer and repentance -- marking a new start.  And Eid al-Adha -- the feast of the sacrifice -- points to the need to put others ahead of oneself, i.e., a turning away from self-absorption. 
       That the theme of "repentance" is so enshrined in all religious traditions points to something basic about human nature:  we're fallible; we mess up.  And, yes, it is good to ask for forgiveness from those we've wronged, whether human or divine.  But, at root, repentance is about changing behavior going forward.  It is about "turning around" from the path that we've been traveling.  We see how difficult that can be just by watching our elected leaders' responses to the Pope's admonitions.  But none of us are any different.  We may just have other areas where our self-concern is focused -- so clearly seen in the various "shares" in our Facebook or Twitter feeds.  None of us are righteous all the time.
       Looking in the mirror might just be the best time to point and say "Repent".


Friday, September 18, 2015

Now, wait just a minute!

      It is only the end of the first week of classes at the University of Denver.  Yet, last night at a meeting with a group of students, I saw frazzled looks and heard whispers of time-related anxieties.  This morning, at a breakfast, a faculty person told me that he felt like it was Week Eight (of a Ten-week quarter).  And, I confess, when I'm asked by folks how the first week of the academic year has been, I usually answer "Hectic" or "Busy".  And I think that that's pretty normal -- I've been around schools/colleges/universities for the vast majority of my life .
       I have to wonder, however, how much of this is "manufactured" busy-ness -- and, whether or not it is, how helpful/harmful it might be.  Last Friday I wrote about students making their way from home to campus, and how that transition can be pretty traumatic or unsettling.  The next day, DU hosted "Pioneer Carnival" -- a massive resource fair for all of the (mostly) incoming students.  Student organizations and academic offices (including mine!) were plying their wares, hyping their programs, collecting names and email addresses, and encouraging students to attend their first gatherings.  The underlying anxiety (and I know it well) is that if you don't get the incoming students involved in the first two (at the most!) weeks of the session, you've probably lost them.  And that anxiety is transmitted to the new students:  "Golly, I've got to make a decision now, or I'll be adrift in vast of indecision!  And then what??????"  From separation-anxiety to affiliation-anxiety!
       I am certainly NOT immune to all of this.  I awaken in the middle of the night, fretting about things that "need immediate attention" (but about which I can do nothing at 3:30am).  I push others to get things done "Now!" -- not because they need to be done, but because I want them off my to-do list!  Every so often, however, I'm reminded of the old aphorism "Haste makes waste" -- and I know that's true as well.
      I am a bread-baker; I have been for years.  I've been able to ease, and speed up, the process slightly by using a Kitchen-Aid mixer (bread-hooks are marvelous things!)  But I've learned that I can't really speed up the leavening process.  Bread needs to rise, and it seems to take its own sweet time to do so (even fast-rising yeast isn't instantaneous!).  If I don't let it rise enough, the finished product just isn't "right".  I have to be patient if I want the right product, the right balance between density and fluffiness.

       I try to encourage folks (and, when I look in the mirror, myself) to slow down, to recognize that, in many areas of life, speed is NOT of the essence.  The "Hurry-up Offense" is only used for a portion of most football games (unless you're the Oregon Ducks!).  And, so, at this time of the year, I often find myself needing to re-read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's "Letter to a Young Man":

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability— 

and that it may take a very long time.*



*More of the letter/prayer/poem can be found here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Home is where . . .?

      New students moved into the University of Denver residence halls last weekend.  The students and many of their parents participated in all sorts of orientation events, lectures, meals, receptions, etc.  And then, on Tuesday, the parents were "invited" to leave so that their students could get on with their integration into their new world. One of those new students sent me an email on Wednesday afternoon. This student wanted to meet/talk with me. Later that day, we talked on the phone a bit. First-generation college student from a different state. No support system locally. Not making connections with other students as quickly as expected. Feeling very alone. Never been more than a hundred miles from home.
      That same Wednesday evening, I found myself (re-)watching the Civil War mini-series, "Gods and Generals" (prequel to "Gettysburg"). The title music was Mary Fahl's "Going Home".** Throughout the series (I've seen it many times), the issue of "home" rises over and 
over. Those from the southern states (at least those from Virginia) claim that Virginia IS their home. Their devotion to that home--and all that that "home" implies trumps devotion to any other, i.e., the United States. Those conflicting ideas about "home" are one of the many things that fascinates me about America's Civil War.
      So, home is where. . . ?
      "Home is where the heart is" goes the old saying.  And certainly, for the new DU student(s) who are away from family and familiar situations for the first time, "relocating" the heart can often be a challenge.  Similarly, for the soldiers in blue and gray, their "home" was where they knew who was who, what was what, where values and commitments were shared, or as General Robert E Lee in "Gods and Generals" suggests, where individuals found their sweethearts, raised families, and were buried.  He asserts that the "Yankees" will never understand that.  The "Yankees", of course, had a different vision of what "home" on this continent might imply. And the collision of those different visions, or "different dreams -- sad, so very sad" (from "Gettysburg") resulted in war.

        I have moved many times over my lifetime.  I have had to set up new "homes" in at four different states, and eleven different cities.  I have had to leave things behind, and that has often been difficult. Yet, I have enjoyed learning new things, experiencing different foods, encountering divergent religious and political views.  If I were to try to say where my "heart-home" would be found now, I'd have to say it's a little bit everywhere -- never diminished, always expanded.  And it is my hope that the student who contacted me earlier this week will experience the same, as will his fellow first-years.  It is that hope, I believe, that drives much of higher education.
       A related hope is represented in the tree in the photo above. It was planted four years ago today by a group of faculty, staff and students as part of DU's observance of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Prior to lowering the tree into the hole, and shoveling dirt over the root-ball, we all wrote on small slips of paper a prayer, a name of a victim, or a hope for the future. These bits of paper were then put into the hole, the tree was lowered, and the tree was planted. Those hopes, prayers and victim's names are now a part of that tree; their de-composition has become part of a new composition. I walk by that tree daily, and, today, I see it as an expression of a 
Greater Vision of "home", where many hopes, dreams and remembrances are brought together and encouraged to grow into something more expansive -- a mansion that can welcome all, and shelter all of our divergent and different dreams.
        All the best for the coming year and the creation of new homes.

**  The opening, along with the music can be found here:  The lyrics can be found here:

Friday, September 4, 2015

MY name is . . . !

     Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting a number of DU students who were part of our Excelling Leaders Institute, or ELI.  The program was described to me:

ELI is a four-year leadership development and community building program that focuses upon and accentuates the strengths of all participants, while providing mentorship and academic resources to ensure their success at DU and post-graduation. Through our mission of developing leaders that will engage within the university and larger communities in order to create community, endless leadership opportunities and ensure academic success, ELI seeks to create an open and inclusive campus environment for students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as they transition to DU.

I've met ELI students in prior years, and I've come to recognize the value of this program, and the amazing nature of the students who are part of it.
      As I often do when I meet incoming students, I asked one of them which program he was entering.  And he gave me the answer that I like hearing the most, something along the lines of:  "I'm going to try various things and see where I find the best fit."  He was SO excited to be here, so ready-to-be-engaged.  Given that the mission of ELI is to play to the students' strengths, this student's desire to "wait and see" seemed just perfect!  I can easily believe that, at the end of his time at DU, the "fit" will be right.
      I found myself contrasting what he told me with one of the major plot features in a book I've read several times over the years, but am reading right now again:  My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.  The story is of a young Hasidic boy, Asher Lev, who has an amazing gift in the visual arts:  he draws and paints.  Everyone who sees his "work" recognizes the extraordinary nature of his ability.  The problem is that it is NOT a gift that is particularly valued in his community, or by his parents (even though they will compliment his paintings). The community and his school fret that he's not paying attention to the "important" subjects, the subjects valuable to his standing in the Hasidic community -- studying Torah and Talmud. (I'll leave it here; no spoilers as to how the story evolves.)
      Asher's story is not necessarily an unusual one for those of us who work at colleges or universities.  Most of us have had interactions with students who come to school with high familial, or communal, expectations.  And, since the cost of this level of education is so high, most students feel bounden to acquiesce to those expectations.  Yet there are those who simply would rather be poets than physicists, or who would rather major in English than engineering.  And the challenge is set . . . and the students are torn.
      I wish we saw more students like the ELI student I mentioned above -- waiting to see how their strengths and the coming opportunities met, played together, and then played out.  I wish, too, that we had the resources to create such a learning, empowering, environment for all of our students -- not just at DU, but prior to, or parallel to it at other institutions.  At base, it's a question of helping these individuals come into their vocation, their calling . . . which may transition into a job or a career.  But let's empower them first to claim their own name, their individuality, based on their strengths and interests.  Their contribution to our common good will be that much greater.



Friday, August 21, 2015


      I suppose I should call it the new shackle.  Ever since I "won" my Fitbit in a drawing last spring, it has been difficult to know whether it served me, or I served it.  I have made sure it was fully charged.  I have "synced" it to the Fitbit Dashboard.  I have linked it to various other health-oriented applications and websites.  I've learned how to tap it just right so that it will measure how well I sleep (of course, I have to tap it just right in the morning, too, to tell it I'm awake).  I've given myself a high-five when I've felt it do a happy dance on my wrist as I pass the 10,000 step level (and stress over why the Fitbit and my step-counting iPhone don't agree).  And, I've found myself looking at others' wrists to see if they're part of the similarly-shackled club.
       The Fitbit, of course, is just the latest piece of exercise/fitness related technology to which I've succumbed (fortunately, at least, I didn't have to pay for it!).  It supplements my heart-rate monitor -- one that "talks" to my iPhone  via bluetooth, of course!.  The iPhone, too, uses GPS to help record my daily commutes (and I wonder why there might be a one one-hundredth of a mile difference between Tuesday and Wednesday morning's identical trips!).  And let's not forget the bluetooth cadence counter on my bike that tells me that my pedalling rate slows down when I go uphill 
(duh!). Now, I'm certain that all of this data could be useful to someone, but if I spend any time thinking about it at all, I have to wonder whether it's helpful to ME!  I suppose if I were to pay for a highly-qualified personal trainer, that person might correlate my heart rate, number of steps, average elevation gain and cadence to arrive at some spell-binding conclusion:  "For an old guy, you're not in too-bad of shape." But I'm a data guy. I love the numbers -- especially if I see the "right" ones go up, and the others go down.  And so I look at the results . . . for the results' sake.
       It's not just the constant looking down at my wrist that has caused my musing about this piece of rubber and circuitry.  I've recently read a blog-post and listened to an interview -- both of which have me re-evaluating my attitudes towards "fitness".  The blog-post suggest that we have "militarized" fitness; we are waging war on our bodies. We're supposed to "feel the burn!"  If we miss a workout, we're washed out!  On the other hand, the subject of the interview suggests that we ought spend less time "plugged in" while we're running/cycling/lifting, and more time just being in our environment.
      The question of "struggle" to prepare, or tame, one's body is just about as old as our recorded history.  Greek philosophy speaks of the agon, the struggle or contest -- often referring to a contest between two parties, but also as a metaphor for an internal struggle.  St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9.27 writes of "pummeling his body into submission". Many Muslims will point to an interpretation of jihad as implying a struggle against oneself.*  The Hindu classic Bhagavad Gita is ostensibly about a great battle, but is also read as a parable about the battle within one's own person.  
      So, I get it.  The imagery is potent; it is easy to understand. But, does it lead to an overall better state of health, or quality of life?  Do I miss the scenery (let alone an on-coming car) as I stare down as my iPhone cycles between heart-rate and speed?  If I'm busy listening to music, or a podcast (gotta multi-task, you know!), do I miss bird-song or the rush of the river next to which I'm riding?
      I mean, I DO want to be fit, but . . . .   As Jonathan Angelilli asks in the conclusion to his post referenced above: 

Are you willing to destroy your body to look super hot at age 30? Or are you willing to take a deeper look, explore the “less is more” philosophy, let go of your “no pain no gain” programming, and let your health, strength, and goals evolve in a natural way so that you're having new adventures and movement experiences well into your 90s?  All health and fitness goals require sustained motivation. It’s an adventure, not a destination, and you’ll enjoy the adventure way more if you make it your own instead of following the herd.

What is health, anyway?  I've always found it instructive to remember that the various roots behind the English word "salvation" have to do with health and wholeness.  Being shackled, therefore, to the health of only one facet of my being may not help me be whole.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

No debating

      I have to say that I have mixed feeling about missing the debate this week between the   ten (considered) front-runners for the Republican presidential candidacy. On the one hand, I would have been interested to see/hear how they answered the moderator's questions, as well as how they responded to one another. On the other hand, I had few expectations that I would learn anything useful, and feared that the spectacle would turn bizarre -- as it apparently did in some instances.
      The various reactions on social media were fairly predictable, given which of my "friends" were commenting on the debate. Most of my friends on the left side of the political spectrum bemoaned the negative overall tone of the evening. Those on the right didn't deny it, and seemed to revel in it. From the news reporting I saw or heard in papers and on broadcast media the following day, it would appear that my friends' assessment was fairly accurate. One of them distilled the debate into: "Anti-xxxxxx; No-yyyyyyy; Opposed to-zzzzzz." It would seem that the debate was simply following the now-normal pattern of political discourse: point out the bad, heighten anxieties, provoke fear, and lay it all at the feet of one's opponents (inside, or outside, one's political party).
      I couldn't help thinking about an article I read some months back about the language often employed those who wish to protect the environment. The article was entitled, "Saving the world should be based on promise not fear." In short, the author, George Monbiot, suggested, based on research, that focusing on real or perceived threats makes people anxious and likely to, mentally, put up their dukes or disengage: "It's an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. 'Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,' but 'these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue'. People respond to feelings of insecurity 'by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts'".
       The opposite, however, is equally true: "Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power. But those whose voices are loudest belong to a small minority with the opposite set of values. And often, idiotically, we have sought to appease them." Monbiot doesn't believe we should avoid talking about the threats; they're real. But, he concludes: "[W]e should embed both the awareness of these threats and their scientific description in a different framework: one that emphasises the joy and awe to be found in the marvels at risk; one that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-[crappy]-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been."
      I can only wonder how our political process would be different if those who hold (or seek) office would focus on how we might build a better, more just, economy/society instead of pointing fingers at each other and casting blame (and calling names). Or, in religious terms, fear of hell (or a bad reincarnation) may be a motivator for some to get "saved" or to "behave themselves", but does it increase compassion and openness and hope.
      I'd much rather see the latter as the desired outcome in all of our debates.