Friday, November 21, 2014

Teach your children/parents well



   Here at the University of Denver, the fall quarter is over (except for those poor faculty members who are still grading exams/papers!).  Yesterday was the last day of finals, and the campus was feeling pretty deserted.  Now we are on to Inter-term classes, workshops, trainings, holiday luncheons . . . six weeks (give or take) of a different pace.  But the last couple of weeks were tense, with students hurrying to get papers in, studying done, exams taken, and res hall rooms cleaned out (no food allowed over break!), etc.
     What those students are NOT doing is lining up outside of my office.  And this seems to surprise some folks, as I often am asked, at this time of year, "Well, I suppose this is your busy time??" And I can honestly answer that, in over twenty years of campus work, I've NEVER had a student come to me during the last couple of weeks of a term because of academic anxiety.  And I'm not alone in my experience, as conversations with colleagues confirm.  And that makes me wonder . . .
      It makes me wonder about the idea(s) of God/spirituality that are behind the question.  The same question is NEVER asked of me in the middle of a term . . . i.e., in a less "stressful" time.
  So, is there an underlying assumption that God/religion is just there to get you out of a fix?  Is that what the questioner was taught?  Perhaps, but it hasn't generated more foot traffic to my office.  Or, more generously, is there a belief that a chaplain or spiritual counselor would be able to lend a sympathetic ear during stressful times.  Of these two possibilities, I certainly prefer the latter, but the absence of a line outside chaplains' offices would suggest that that particular belief was not necessarily passed on to the last couple of generations.

     I would hope that today's students haven't being taught that religion/spirituality is a sort of "fire insurance", only to be cashed in when the going gets rough.  Perhaps, given the way "religion" plays out in the "culture wars", many may have been taught (or have learned) that it can useless (at the least) or pretty hurtful (at the most).   On the other hand, I fear that many haven't been taught that there is compassion and empathy to found in religiously-motivated listeners during the hard patches of life.
      I know many students (as well as their parents or other older adults) who don't believe those first two negative lessons about religion, and who DO believe the last positive lesson.  They've been taught well.  I think they know that their religious convictions ARE a support during the hard times, but not only then -- that those same convictions provide a context within which to understand the good times, as well as to provide motivation to support others.  They stop by my office from time to time.

      Clearly, there's still a lot of learning and unlearning to do, even when the academic quarters end . . . and we're all teachers all the time.  I can't help but close with the famous song of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Teach your children well":

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of the tender years, can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix,the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.*


Let's feed folks on our dreams!

Blessings,

Gary

*Written by Graham Nash, Lyrics from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/crosbystillsnash/teachyourchildren.html.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembering gratefully


    This past Tuesday was Veteran's Day in the US.  As part of our observance at DU, I sponsored a book discussion on Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, about the difficulties a half-breed Native-American WWII veteran faced upon returning home.  It was a fascinating discussion, involving former GSSW professor Jim Moran (a Vietnam vet and Native-American) and Zachary Moon (a Navy Chaplain working on his PhD, studying how we reincorporate returning vets).*  Then, later in the afternoon, we had a Veteran's Day ceremony, including an ROTC Honor Guard, the playing of Taps, and with comments from one of our US Army Fellows (in residence at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies), our Chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, and me.  What follows is the text of my comments.
 
    This morning I changed my Facebook profile picture to that of a young man, 24-years-old, standing in a snow storm somewhere in Belgium.  While the photo itself was probably taken in December 1944, it seemed appropriate to use that photo of my dad on this snowy Veterans’ Day in Colorado, seventy years later.  And while many folks in Colorado will complain about the cold this week — and justifiably so — historians of World War II, as well as that dwindling number of veterans who were there, will talk about the bitter cold of the Ardennes forest during one of the decisive battles of that war, the Battle of the Bulge.
    I don’t know if that young man, when he joined the Army in 1942, envisioned that winter in Belgium.  Like many, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be sent to the European or Pacific theater.  What I do know is that he wanted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but he was sent to Europe before that dream was realized.  He did get to fly — but as a spotter for a Field Artillery Battalion.  
    I doubt that many others suspected that they’d be on beaches or jungles on previously-unknown islands in the Pacific.  Few suspected the horrors of those battles, specifically of that on Okinawa which my father-in-law experienced.
    I say all of this because I doubt that many of those men and women we honor with the title “Veteran” know what they’re getting into.  Even those who enlist during “peace-time” cannot be sure that they will not be thrust into battle, as political winds blow ill.  Yet, for whatever reasons, they DO choose to serve their country.  They take the oath.  They leave loved ones.  Those who return, do so changed — as did my dad and my father-in-law.
    On this Veteran’s Day — this “Remembrance Day” — we remember and honor all who’ve served, as well as those who have served by supporting them, their families and friends.  We are grateful for that commitment.
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

* For an overview of the book, check the Spark Notes site, and for a recording of the discussion, go to the bottom of this page, and click on "Ceremony"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Hopeful burdens

 

     Last week, I was in Boston attending the annual gathering of the Association of College and 
University Religious Affairs ("ACURA").  This confab draws together Deans of Chapels and University Chaplains from around the country, meeting on different campuses, and highlights the realities of our work in those different contexts.  We're always treated to good entertainment and good food . . . as well as fascinating presentations and conversations.  Last week was no exception.  Music from Ladino Spain as well as Tufts' "Beelzebubs" (their men's a cappella group).  Tours of sacred spaces at both Tufts and Harvard, as well as a visit to Concord (birthplace of the American Revolution).
       One evening, we were treated to a marvelous presentation by Prof. Davíd Carrasco (Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard).  As part of his talk, he referred to some of the ancient Mesoamerican mythologies, and how they were depicted in inscriptions and scrolls.  He mentioned the "sacred bundles" of the Aztecs and (if I'm remembering correctly), that they were related to a sort of creation story -- that there was a dispersal of the people, but that, as they went out, the elders were all carrying "sacred bundles" that would help keep their traditions alive, and their people connected.
       I had seen pictures before like the one above, but I had always assumed that the figures were simply carrying "backpacks" or "burdens".  That is, either the essentials of day-to-day living or the fruits of their labors; I had not thought of them as anything "sacred".  In some respects I had thought of them as visual depictions of the saying "everyone you meet is carrying a great burden".*
      Later, however, as I was reflecting on Carrasco's talk of the sacred bundles (and listening to the 
Guy Mendilow Ensemble's wonderful, transformed and transformative, Ladino music), as well as trying to process all of the news of the day (electioneering, international conflicts, etc.), I started wondering whether the "burdens" we carry might also hold the promise of being transformed into "sacred bundles". So, "Are we carrying 'hopeful burdens"', I asked myself.
      Two of the foundational assumptions of the change theory "Appreciative Inquiry" are "People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known)" and that "If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past".**  My experience, however, is that I often find myself ruminating on the negative parts of the "burden" I'm carrying; that darkness obscures the possibility of light and hope.  It then takes another set of eyes to see what I cannot, and to draw my attention to the hopeful potential that my past experience affords.
     A two-fold challenge lies before us, then, it seems to me.  On the one hand, we need to seek out that extra pair of eyes to help us transform our burdens into sacred bundles.  And, when we see someone laboring under a "great burden", to offer our help in realizing hope.
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

* This is often attributed to Plato or Philo, or some other ancient.  It would appear, however, that it is only about 120 years old, and can be traced to a man named John Watson.
** Hammond, Sue Annis. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (Bend, OR:  Thin Book Publishing Co, 1998), 21.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Know? No!?


      A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I taught an course that sought to provide historical context for some thorny contemporary issues. On the first day of class, I handed out a questionnaire that asked that the students locate themselves on continuum lines regarding some of those contemporary issues (e.g. abortion, capital punishment, legalized marijuana, etc.). I took those responses and prepared a chart of where they, as a class, "stood" on those issues. As might be expected, the class members extended both to the right and left from the mean. My purpose in conducting the exercise was two-fold. First, I wanted the class to recognize that not everyone enrolled was in agreement about certain issues, i.e., that not everyone was a "liberal" of "conservative". Second, I pointed out that where folks might place themselves would most likely depend on their personal experience with, or investment in, the issue. For example, Jean might philosophically be opposed to capital punishment, but when dear Aunt Sadie is the victim of a fatal mugging, Jean might say "Fry the murderer!" In other words, our heads and our hearts are not always in agreement.
      This seems to me to be pretty apparent in all of the hubbub about Ebola. President Obama and the Center for Disease Control stress that our response to the outbreak should be informed by science, not fear (i,.e., "head", not "heart"). On the other hand, once the general quarantine guidelines had been suggested, Nurse Kaci Hickox in Maine (who had returned home from treating Ebola patients), claimed that science asserts that she is not contagious until she shows symptoms, and shouldn't be subject to a quarantine (which, at the time of this writing, had just been imposed by a judge in her state). So, whose science are we to believe? Whose motives are we to question? Is "caution" the same as "fear"? Does knowledge "solve" the problem?
      Well, in some cases, I suppose, it might at least help. I heard an interview yesterday with Robert Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute. He was discussing the P.R. problems facing the Muslim community in the United States. He pointed out that a recent poll showed that only about 40% of Americans had a "positive" view of Islam/Muslims -- lower on the polling scale than atheists. But, he also pointed out that a large proportion of Americans knew very little about Islam, and only 38% say they know a Muslim. He thought that if folks knew MORE about Muslims and Islam, the favorability rating might go up. And, I believe, polls on other issues would support his conclusion.
       On the other hand, mere knowledge can just as easily be turned into a weapon. And, here I think of some of the "new atheists" who want to turn "science" into a means of ridiculing folks who don't place "facts" at the pinnacle of human experience. Yet their so-called "knowledge" seems frequently based on fear, insecurity, caricatures, or incomplete (if not completely incorrect) understanding of those they oppose. Their attitudes, I believe, are as much as product of their experience as their book-learnin'.
       I work at a university. I am a fervent believer in the pursuit of knowledge. I would hope that I have helped contribute TO knowledge. I stand reminded, however, of the ancient Delphic maxim "Know Thyself" (inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi). There is a humility suggested by rigorous self-knowledge which could lower the temperature of our heated debates. Arguing "facts" seems to get us no place. Comparing experiences and 'fessing up to our hopes and fears, the other hand, might help move us forward.
      So, is it all about what we "know"'? I would say, "No." But knowing that we don't (or can't) always know everything is a start. 
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 24, 2014

Untied Nations


      Those readers who also "follow" me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I regularly post the various holidays of the world's religious traditions (along with a link to a website that describes the holiday).  Those same readers also know that, in addition to religious observances, I also will add in some national holidays as well as days that the United Nations have set aside for special observance.  Today (October 24) is no different!  Today, according to the United Nations is "World Development Information Day" as well as the beginning of "Disarmament Week".  The links will explain those days, of course.  But today is an even more significant day for the UN.  It was sixty-nine years ago today that the United Nations officially came into being.  (While the Charter was signed in June of 1945, it wasn't ratified by a majority of the signatories until that October).
      The United Nations has four main purposes (according to its 
website):
  • To keep peace throughout the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.
I believe that the UN has tried to live up to those ideals.  We can certainly see some evidence of those efforts in their published statements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the more recent Millennium Development Goals.  That said, it is clear that it hasn't always been as successful in some arenas as in others.  And there are (at least in America) some folks who think that the UN is some kind of satanic cabal that will chain us all up and force us to eat cockroaches.  
       I believe that the UN was created with the best of intentions, emerging from the ashes of the failure of the League of Nations and the horrors of World War II.  And I am sure that its structure was developed as well as it could be given the competing agendae of the major powers at that time.   But, as time has gone on, it seems that the structure has required change -- and that has been realized, and acted upon (in some ways), by the UN itself.  Changes in the composition of the Security Council is one example.  But, when "permanent" members of the Security Council want to exercise their veto, things stall.  And/or, when the UN-as-a-whole leans in one direction, initial signatories can chose to withhold funding, the overall effectiveness is compromised.

       Let me be clear, I am NOT a International Studies student/major/expert; my knowledge of the UN is what any attentive person might have gained over the last decades.  And so I am NOT making sweeping policy critiques or suggestions!  I would like, however, to return to something I suggested above, i.e., that the structure of the UN was a compromise because of the competing agendae of the earliest designers.  Where the UN has succeeded, it is because the "competition" of the majority has taken a back seat to a compelling need.  Where it has often failed, it is often partly due to one country's self-interest running rough-shod over the good of the whole.  In different language, children don't always play with other children.
       Earlier this year, 
it was reported that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis, and suggested that the UN had out-lived its usefulness; an alternative might be a similar organization with religions coming together rather than nation states.  A good, but somewhat naive, idea, Minister Peres; it has been suggested before, by the former Episcopal Bishop of California, William Swing.*  He worked tirelessly to form a "United Religions" and learned a lot.  What developed out of his efforts was the United Religions Initiative, a wonderful organization that recognizes that acting from top down has major draw-backs -- self-interest of the "leaders" (assuming they can be identified) being primary.  Working from the grassroots, dealing with real problems on the ground, with people of good faith, is the way to go.  It may not be "flashy", but it has not run afoul of as much as has self-interest.
      "Self-interest".  I know the concept.  It is part of who we are, as individuals and nations.  We want to survive; we even want our children to survive.  But how far out do the ripples go?  Are "nations" the best way to define self-interest?  Are "religions"?
      What does tie us together?  In what are we "united"?  Over what are we "untied"?  I do believe that our religious traditions--at their best, or at their core--provide the best answers to those questions.
   
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary
* Full disclosure:  I have known Bp. Swing for over thirty years.  He confirmed me as an Episcopalian, and baptized my daughter.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Treatment is not healing


     I became acquainted with the phrase "Map is not territory" when reading a book by historian of religions scholar Jonathan Z Smith of that name.  The phrase itself predates Prof. Smith, coined in 1931 by Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski, who held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. We, of course, often look at maps, at dotted lines on paper suggesting "borders", and forget that many of them are quite arbitrary.  This realization was partly behind the formation of the United Religions Initiative -- an initial idea being that religious concerns transcend physical borders.  Clearly we are face-to-face with that reality as we try to comprehend the confusing sets of "cross-border" alliances in the Middle East, borders set not by the locals, but by foreign powers decades ago.
     Another distinction, "Training is not education" appeared in my inbox earlier this week (and reminded me of the "Map" quotation).  The author, Rachel Naomi Remen, writing out of a medical context, points out that "The goal of a training is competence and replicability. Uniqueness is often discouraged and may even be viewed as dangerous."  On the contrary, Remen writes, "The root word of education -- educare -- means to lead forth a hidden wholeness in another person. A genuine education fosters self-knowledge, self-trust, creativity and the full expression of one’s unique identity. It gives people the courage to be more."  That latter insight describes well what I hope students have experiences when they leave college/university.**
      A third distinction was also suggested to me by Dr. Remen's blog, and is, in some ways, just as appropriate to her field of work.  And that is:  "Treatment is not healing".  I think that most of us can recall receiving a band-aid for some scratch or scrape -- something that kept any blood from staining our clothes, as well as keeping the wound clean.  What was usually more healing than the band-aid treatment was the hug and/or kiss from mom or dad that accompanied it.
      All three of these distinctions point at the same phenomenon:  we are often VERY willing to seek simple solutions, or simple answers to questions that demand a whole lot more.  Many of the sound-bites about how to deal with Ebola ignore huge complexities, not only of the disease and its treatment/cure, but of how international travel occurs, the distances between the stricken areas and parts of the US, cultural health differences, etc.  And the airwaves become filled with fear-mongering, finger-pointing, and line-drawing . . . to hardly anyone's advantage.
       It is my hope that we can all go deeper with the difficult issues facing us:  to figure out the territory, to become educated, to engage in healing.  I was recently called to task for criticizing a popular entertainer/commentator.  Those who questioned me thought I didn't care for his ideas.  Wrong.  I don't care for how he simplifies and over-generalizes complex ideas and, in the course of doing that, limits the possibilities for true learning, dialogue, and progress in solving problems.  He may think he's "treating" an ill, but he's really only rallying his troops.  He is certainly not leading to any sort of healing.       That, to me, is our real task.  It is the task at the root of all religious traditions: seeking and employing wisdom, creativity, healing for the benefit of all, not just those on our "side of the line" on the "map".

Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

* The full blog post can be found here.
** Put another way, knowing how to do something doesn't necessarily get at the essence of why it happens.  I learned how to scramble eggs many years ago, but I didn't quite understand the physics/chemistry of what happened until much later; knowledge that then I was able to translate into other cooking arenas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not to worry

 
 
    My son recently needed to take some food to school for a sort of "cultural potluck"; he chose potstickers--which, of course, need to be cooked.  The morning of the event, he got up, came downstairs, and immediately asked whether the potstickers were ready to go.  His mom and I were in the process of making breakfast, and knew that the potstickers would get ready in time.  And, even though we tried to reassure him that things would be okay if breakfast occurred first, it was clear that, until those potstickers were packed and ready to go, he felt that there was cause for worry/concern.
        In reflecting on that morning's tableau, I concluded that what mom and I had was something he, at his age, lacked:  perspective.  In his thinking, things needed to happen quickly, concretely. There was little room for uncertainty or ambiguity; the consequences (either being late, or not having a contribution for the potluck) were too great.  And I understand!  I remember clearly feeling much the same way when I was his age.
       But wait. . . .
       I don't think that concern over uncertainty is something we outgrow. I know I can't claim that I have outgrown it, and my impatience with him that morning testified to that!  But also, the increase in diagnoses of anxiety disorders, or the prescription of anti-anxiety medications, would suggest that "worry" is not one of those things that has gone away with evolution.  Certainly, worrisome questions abound on a university campus:  "Can I afford tuition?"  "What if I don't get into THAT graduate program?"  "If I don't get that article submitted before the deadline, what will happen with my tenure application?"  "Will we meet our admissions goals?"  "One of our key players is out with an injury; how can we be competitive this tournament weekend?"  "What will I write for my Friday reflection?"
       Neither news, nor social, media help matters.  Whether the reports are of Ebola, the latest atrocities brought about by ISIS/ISIL, failing infra-strucure in the nation's roadways, unethical politicians, crime on the streets, or "shared" Facebook posts, the old journalism adage seems to reign true:  "If it bleeds, it leads."  And that cliché runs hand-in-hand with another (from marketing):  "Create a need, and then meet it."  The "causes" for worry are all around us.
       I certainly don't want to minimize any of those threats (well, maybe some of them deserve minimizing!)   I have to wonder, however, about the question of perspective, that is, what is the "need" that is being created, and then filled?  The uncertainties that we face are subject to manipulation by others for their purposes.  Comparing the reporting on almost any event by Fox News, CNN, Al Jazeera or the Huffington Post reveals clear differences  . . . . with associated (desired), different, responses from us.  The "void" created by the uncertainty can be filled by someone else's answer, probably addressing that person's fear/need. But should that be OUR response?
      An answer to that question seems be well-illustrated in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  A mugging victim is left by the side of the road.  Two passers-by leave him there, socially "conditioned" to worry that something "bad" may happen to them if they were to help.  An unlikely third potential helper steps beyond such social conditioning and gives aid.  Compassion compelled him to leave worry/threat/fear aside.  His perspective was different -- a fortunate difference for the mugged victim.
      Fortunately, for my son, Mom's immediate perspective was little different than mine. She had compassion, set aside concern for the "necessity" of breakfast, cooked the potstickers, and sent him on his way.

        
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary