Friday, January 13, 2017

Danger! Do Not Enter!

       Last Friday, I acted as a sort of co-host for a group of church historians here, in Denver, for an annual conference. My part, as co-host, was to help put together a tour of some significant religious spaces in Denver. It was as fun project, and, even though I had been in some of the buildings before, it was instructive to hear the "tour guides" talk about the spaces. You'll always learn something: about the religious tradition, about symbolism, about local history, about architecture, about finances, about the environment's impact on buildings.
       One of the buildings we visited was surrounded by chainlink fencing, scaffolding and tarps. We had to go in via a side door, and just as we entered, I noticed a sign attached to the fence:  "DANGER  DO NOT ENTER". I commented to some of the guests, "Now, that's an interesting sign to have posted just outside a church!" Chuckles ensued. We entered anyway, and were treated to a lovely interior -- no scaffolding or tarp -- and gracious and informative tour guide.

       As the week has gone by, however, I found myself returning to that sign and its message: "Danger Do Not Enter". I thought of a couple of alternate (i.e., non-buildling-construction) interpretations.  The first might not be particularly flattering to some religious institutions.  Many religious bodies have seen dramatic declines in attendance because of particular positions they have staked-out on thorny social issues; depending on one's personal stance on those issues, entering that building might be "dangerous". Other people have fled "religion" because they have felt that they have had to "park their brains at the door" (or outside the "Danger" sign). Still others have found either the worship/preaching, or congregation, verging on "shallow"--a religious sort of "elevator music". In all cases, preserving one's integrity or sanity might have them in agreement with "Do Not Enter."
       I also considered a second, perhaps a "flip-side", interpretation. I don't want to reprise last week's reflection on  "A bit o' commitment" (although there are certainly resonances) but at their best, religious institutions often challenge people to reconsider some of their long-held beliefs or habits. That reconsideration might indeed be dangerous; making a decision to move in one direction can rule out other paths. As we have seen throughout history (including in our contemporary world), affiliation with a particular religion can mean ostracism from family, or even a death sentence, in a hostile-to-that-tradition country. Yet people often do find something compelling enough to make a "dangerous" change.
      And as I thought a bit more about the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign, I also began to contrast it with another sign more often found outside places of worship: "Visitors Welcome!". The cynical side of me wonders whether some of those places of worship might bend over backwards to make visitors feel good rather than challenging them to make a change. I certainly don't want to paint those worship-centers with that broad of a brush, but raising the question of whether a faith commitment is "dangerous" or "welcome" seems, to me, to be a conversation worth having. That is, what might be so compelling that someone might ignore the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign and enter anyway?


Friday, January 6, 2017

A bit o' commitment

     I am preparing to teach an adult class at St. John's Cathedral in Denver this coming Sunday.* It is the kick-off to a short series on baptism, the Christian rite of initiation. I was asked to provide some historical background. "Happy to do so," I replied. So, I began to dig into the material (I have a LOT of material on this subject!). Quickly I became a bit overwhelmed by how MUCH I wanted to cover, and how little time was available.
      It has been fun, however, to go back through pages of photocopies from graduate school, as well as class notes. I was reminded how preparations for entry in the Christian fold were much more elaborate and time-consuming than I find in most places today (at least in the US). Some of the early writings mention a three-year period of study and prayer BEFORE being baptized. And, of course, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century, being baptized and becoming a Christian had some danger associated with it. So, I guess the three years allowed for plenty of time to back out.
      Later on, in Christian history—in the 16th and 17th centuries, controversies over baptism arose again, this time among Christians. For centuries prior, baptism was normally administered to infants (lots of reasons for that). But, after the Reformation, a group of "radicals" asserted that only adults should be baptized, that is, only people who could make an adult decision—AND, they should be fully immersed. These Radical Reformers (also known as "Anabaptists" because of their practice of baptizing again those who had been baptized as infants) ran afoul of the religio-secular authorities and were persecuted for their commitment. One punishment was death-by-drowning; "If they want to be immersed, we'll accommodate that" seemed to be the logic.
       I wonder a lot about issues of commitment, whether religious or any other kind. It has been noted for many years that Americans' "brand-loyalty" is fading. Despite ongoing Ford vs. Chevy truck "wars", few people are committed to Tide as opposed to All, or Colgate vs. Crest. And scholars have noted that this lack of "brand loyalty" extends to religion. Many people seem to change houses of worship depending on who's in charge (as in the pastor/priest/rabbi); they "vote" with their attendance. And, of course, if they don't find anyone that aligns with their predilections, they just don't go at all.
       Are we in a post-commitment age? Or, are we simply in a post-commitment-to-anything-larger-than-ourselves age? I'd like to think not. But clearly we in a time when life-altering options seem no longer to have the allure as the "next new thing". This is a challenge to those of us who want to make a significant difference. Finding allies is a bit more daunting, but no less important.


* 10:15 am, if you're interested! (1350 Washington St., 80203)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Remembrances of Things Past

      Over the last few days, I've been in Portland, Oregon cleaning out my mother's storage unit. It was not a solitary task; I was joined by my wife, a nephew and his two grown kids. Going through boxes and boxes of kitchen items, medical records, old trays of slides and clothes was "a task".  Some of the things I hadn't seen for decades (I had hair in high school!). But as we decided what to keep and what needed to go to charity, we found plenty of things that had stories behind them. And it wasn't even "things" that had stories. My grand-niece asked of us all, "Does anyone else think that the whole storage facility smells like Mor-mor?"* So whether aromas, old snapshots or holiday-related kitchen utensils, we had cause to remember a LOT.
        Sure, the memories weren't always the best, or most flattering. While, as a son, I could recall wonderful family vacations, I could also recall those times when I needed, well, "correction". And although road-trips to the Oregon Coast or Mt. Hood were usually enjoyable, the rather odd "tradition" of having our picnic on the hood of the car--whether windy or rainy (almost the norm in Oregon)--has become somewhat of a family joke.  But those experiences, and the memories of them--especially as evoked by physical objects, have had a role in making me and my companions this week the people we are. And those shared experiences bind us together.
       As I thought about the stuff in the back of the truck as I drove to the charity, I realized how much of our religious traditions are rooted in memory. As I write this, we are in the middle of Hanukah, a celebration recalling a miracle that happened over 2000 years ago. So many of the surahs in the Quran that from the time that the Prophet was in Mecca stress memory (i.e., "remember what happened to these people") as a foundational necessity. In the Christian traditions surrounding the Holy Communion/Eucharist/Mass, the phrase "remember me" (i.e., Jesus) occurs frequently.
       I am often struck by the fact that our sacred texts often recall our ancestors' "falls from grace". That is, they contain accounts of when our forbearers-in-the-faith were not quite so "faith-full". Certainly, those stories may be re-told as "correctional tales". But they also highlight that, at any point of the human journey, even the the best of folk fall short of expectations. Even remembering that can provide some hope.

        Memories, good and bad, enjoyable or disastrous, recent or ancient, help form and re-form us as individuals or groups. At our best, we learn from them and move forward. As we stand on the cusp of a new year, we have an opportunity to take stock of many memories of what has brought us to this point, and to imagine how we might use THOSE memories to fashion a brighter future


* "Mor-mor" is the Swedish term (since my mother was Swedish) for "mother's mother" - in THIS case, for my niece's grandmother's, mother!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Awake My Soul

Awake My Soul-Mumford & Sons from Scott Wright on Vimeo.

       Two weeks ago, I finished teaching my Fall Interterm course "Angels in the Architecture" at DU. This is a one-week "Intro-to-world-religions-through-their-buildings-in-Denver" course. Over the five days, we visited thirteen different worship sites, from Buddhist to Greek Orthodox, Hare Krishna to Quaker. As had been the case last year, when I taught it the first time, it was a whirlwind, but also such a rich week of conversations with the presenters at each site, as well as with the students.*
       At the beginning of this week, I finished those "conversations" with the students -- that is, I finished reading/grading their final papers. Since the course is only partially about content, but more about how they experience the context through the buildings, assigning grades is difficult. It is made even harder because the experiences are so varied and the papers so personal. Many of the students, when asked by the presenters, were pretty vague about their religious affiliation. Some said they were just curious, others that they were "spiritual but not religious." That said, only one (out of eight) was brought up with no religious background. In other words, about 60% of the class had moved (some more forcefully than others) from the religious traditions of their birth . . . but yet took the class!
      What surprised me, then, as I was reading their final papers (which demanded quite a bit of personal reflection and interaction with the places/traditions we had visited) was how much at least ONE of the traditions appealed to the students. It wasn't the same tradition, and it certainly didn't suggest any kind of "conversion" on their part. But they were taken be either (or both) the buildings/practices or beliefs of at least one religious body . . . and in many cases it was quite different from how they'd been brought up.
       Certainly there can be many reasons for this. Some may have come from very rigid belief systems. Others from overly demanding religious officials/clergy. But I think there was something different, and that idea was sparked when I ran across the video linked above. I was searching for something quite unrelated, but this came up in the Google Search list, and I thought, "Hmmm.  Mumford & Sons on "Awake My Soul"! So, a click on the link, and I was taken to Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
        The video linkage between the lyrics and the photos was, to me, quite profound. Scott Wright, who put it together, seemed to capture a longing for a connection with something quite a bit larger than could be reduced to "truth" or "lies". That same "longing" came through in subtle ways in many of the papers I read earlier this week. And I think it is true for most of us. We are searching for something that will awaken our souls. This image may hold certain currency this month for Christians anticipating Christmas, or Jews marveling at the miracle behind the Hanukah lights, but it is not limited to those traditions, or this season.
        In whatever darkness, or uncertainty, we find ourselves, we long for our souls to awaken.
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker 

*Here is a
link to last year's refection on the week.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"It's not you!"

     It was Thanksgiving Day morning, just a couple of weeks ago. We were hosting another family -- actually the parents were the first couple at whose wedding I officiated. They live in Boulder, and we've seen them off and on over the years we've been in Colorado. As is often the case when guests are expected for a holiday meal, there are many last-minute details that need attention, some small, some less so. Some aren't absolutely necessary, but desirable.  Of course, "desirable" to me implied "necessary". And, so I got serious, and donned my "get-it-done" hat.
      Putting on THAT particular hat, however, has its downside. I become so focused on the tasks at hand that my mood, my demeanor, changes. At root, of course, is my desire is to extend gracious hospitality. It is up to me to make my guests' experience top-notch. But I find that, instead of gladly anticipating guests, I begin to resent anything that might stand in my way of accomplishing my chores. And what seemed to "stand in my way" were often family members.  Harumph!  How dare they!
      Fortunately (although I wouldn't have characterized it that way at the time), my wife called me on my mood. She confronted me and demanded to know what was wrong . . . and she made it clear that I needed to calm down and shape up.  It was the "slap upside the head" I needed. And while my attitude didn't immediately change, I moderated my external focus long enough to turn the gaze inward.  By the time the homemade ice -cream was done, the bathrooms cleaned, and I was just about finished washing the windows, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I began to relax. When our friends arrived, I was ready to put on my "host' hat, and we had a lovely Thanksgiving.
      The events of that morning returned to my mind the other day as I heard Fr. James Martin, S.J., in an interview, recount a piece of advice that had been given him:  "I have good news, and I have better news.  The good news is that there is a messiah.  The better news is that it's not YOU." I certainly hope I don't have a "messiah complex", but there are times when I can feel that if I don't "do it", "it" won't get done, and that would be "bad".
       We are coming into that time of year when many of us find ourselves in a similar place. We need to buy the "perfect gift". We need to provide the "most wonderful meal". We have to make up for Uncle Horace's inappropriate behavior. We have to apologize for Cousin Ethel's strange muumuu and bathroom slippers at the neighborhood New Year's Eve party.  But WHY do we need to do that? Who, really does that help?
       Maybe it would be better to recall that any gift is "perfect"; any meal served to another is "most wonderful". Maybe it's simply good to be glad that Uncle Horace and Cousin Ethel are still at the table. Maybe it's good enough just to do what I can, with a glad and gracious heart, recognizing that I'm not the messiah.


Friday, November 25, 2016

       Most of us grew up, I imagine, hearing some variation of the proverb, "You'll never understand another person until you've walked a mile in their [footgear]". One of the implications, of course is that we are pretty much conditioned to look at the world through one set of lens -- our own. When we encounter someone doing something we don't like, an almost automatic response is "I'd NEVER do that! How stupid/rude/clueless/etc.!" Of course that other person might look at us and say (to themselves), "Why don't THEY do what I just did?? They'd get ahead/be more successful/be better looking/etc.!" So the proverb, quoted to many of us by our parents (or other authority figures) was generally intended to hep us broaden our perspective, and, perhaps, to increase our compassion.
       I heard a slightly different version of this proverb in a "Tapestry" 
interview between Mary Hynes and Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa was a one-time Tibetan Buddhist monk who has acted for a long time as the Dalai Lama's chief English-language translator. In the course of the interview, Jinpa mentioned that he wished someone would start a "Just like me" campaign. When pressed to explain, he said that if more people, when encountering another, would say to themselves, "Just like me, she wants three meals a day." or "Just like me, he wants to be loved." The suggestion, of course, is that by speculating that another's motivations, at base, are not much different than our own would create a bit more empathy.
       I must admit that, as I listened to the interview and thought about a "Just like me" campaign in the context of the times in which we are living, I was initially pretty skeptical: "Those politicians are "NOTHING like me!" But, then, my childhood training re-asserted itself, and I recognized that I had NOT walked a mile in their Tevas/Crocs/Bostonians . . . nor had THEY walked a mile in my Topsiders/New Balances/cycling shoes. And, then, I recalled a realization from my graduate study days, while taking a class on "Heresy". It occurred to me, while reading the writings of the so-called "heretics", that none of them got up one day and said to themselves (or anyone else in ear-shot), "Today, regardless of consequences, I'm going to be wrong!" On the contrary, I'll bet they got up that fateful day thinking, "I have a better solution to a knotty problem than those other folks." [It just happened that the "other folks" often had more "power' in their corner -- either by dint of numbers or imperial support, etc.] The point being that both the orthodox and the heretic were struggling to answer the same problem/issue/question; something in their make-up and/or past led them to walk down divergent paths.      Jinpa, I think, is on the right track. He said he was waiting for someone to start such a "Just like me" campaign. I don't think, however, we need wait.  We can, in the words of another, footwear-related, campaign: "Just do it" ourselves. Now.


*He left the monastic life some time back and is now married with children, living in Canada.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thanks . . . giving; thanks . . . taking

      Next Thursday is "Turkey (or Turducken, or Tofurky) Day". Depending on whether or not you stretch the season to include (or begin with) Halloween, Thanksgiving is the traditional start of "Holiday Season". For many, that season begins with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a lot of football, and, or course, a LOT of food.  On that day, the music on certain radio stations will switch from "Top 40's" to seasonal music . . . for which some people give thanks (and others change the button in their car radios 'til after the first of the year).
      Of course, Thanksgiving is that day when we are counseled to take the time to reflect on how much we have been blessed. We recall with gratitude family, friends, successes, and good-fortune. Some of us will attend special services of worship. Others will translate that sense of "blessing" into service for those less fortunate by serving at a soup kitchen or something similar.
       Then comes "Black Friday", the beginning of the shopping season. (It has been pointed out that there is a certain irony about spending one day being grateful for how much we have, and then, the next day, heading out to acquire more). Black Friday is followed by "Small Business Saturday", and then (giving Sunday a rest), "Cyber Monday." How quickly "thanksgiving" becomes "stuff-wanting" and "things-buying"!  I must say I'm grateful to those companies -- starting with the example of that set by R.E.I. -- who will keep their doors locked on Friday, and encourage their employees to TAKE a break from the freneticism of the "season", spending an additional day with friends and families, and (in the case of R.E.I) being outdoors.
       That suggestion, or example, it seems to me, is especially warranted this year. It has been a rough bunch of months in so many ways; to add finals to that seems to pile insult on top of injury. And, while some might subscribe to the notion "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping," I like to think that taking a break from ALL that is "usual" might be a better response.  There is much to be said for the concept of "sabbath" regardless of one's religious tradition.
      Above is an image with fifty suggested ways to "Take a Break".  For the last several years, I have posted this several places around the DU campus when breaks in the academic calendar occur. I almost always receive a note of appreciation. And so I thought I'd add it this particular newsletter at this particular time, with the hope that some/many of the ideas may resonate and provide some means of respite over the next several weeks.       Give thanks . . . and take a break! The world will be waiting for our return. But perhaps, we'll return renewed.