Friday, January 19, 2018

Our of darkness . . .

      It was a dark and stormy . . . day.  I can't remember exactly what time of year it was, but given that it was Oregon, it could have been almost anytime! I do remember I was home, so it was either a weekend or a school break (I doubt it was summer). I was in the early years of elementary school when being at home on a rainy day was NO FUN! At some point, my mom, getting a bit tired of my restlessness and fidgeting, suggested I call Doug and see what he was doing. Doug's dad was the contractor who'd built every house in our neighborhood, so Doug had been a friend for as long as I could remember. "Great suggestion, mom! Why didn't I think of it?"
       I got on the phone and called him up. He said he was feeling just about as restless as I, and to come on up to his house "in ten minutes". Yes!  Ten minutes wasn't long. Or was it?  It WAS AN ETERNITY! Most of us can remember (or imagine) the drill:  look out the window at the rain, go check the clock, repeat . . . six cycles every minute, probably. But eventually the time did pass, and I was able to head up the hill to his house. I remember few details about the rest of the day, except that the wait was worth it (his mom's cookies were always good!).
     I recalled this experience  yesterday when our "Soul and Role" group spent an hour reflecting on the David Whyte poem "Sweet Darkness". We talked about literal darkness as well as metaphorical darkness. The poem suggests that there is learning to be found in darkness -- which we were able to find in both the literal and metaphorical. But what I also took away was that the darkness will end eventually. And, if one pays close enough attention, the new "light" is of a different quality than previously experienced.
     My childhood "dark and stormy day" was not any kind of profound "darkness". But for an impatient pre-adolsecent, it was DARK! And the "light" that followed wasn't profound, either. I did learn that ten minutes isn't an eternity! And that sometimes, waiting in the "darkness" is worth it.

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness

to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. 

~ David Whyte ~
(House of Belonging)



Friday, January 12, 2018

The Might of a Horse?

      The clichés are out there:  "Keeping up with the Jones's" or "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". The underlying message is a nagging sense of dis-satisfaction with one's current situation.  "The Jones's have just purchased a Lexus; we need one!" "This relationship isn't satisfying; maybe I should ask that person out." "Look how much better they're doing than we are; we should adopt their way of doing things." Certainly, discontent can be an impetus to change a bad situation. But that's not always the case, for we know that much advertising is built on the premise that a "need" needs to be created (or discontent needs to be created) so that the advertised product will be purchased . . . whether we REALLY need it or not.
       To be sure, there is a long history of acting on this desire for what the other has. I think of the early history of the Israelites. After their arrival in the Promised Land, they were "ruled" by a series of "judges", folks "chosen" by God to lead them. As the last great judge, Samuel, saw the end of his time draw near, he appointed his sons to be judges. They, however, were not just; rather than seeking Israel's best interests, they were more interested in lining their own pockets. As a result, the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king over Israel, just like the other nations (1 Samuel 8.5).  Despite Samuel's objections, God tells Samuel to do as they request; they are not rejecting Samuel, but God (8.7). And Samuel warns the people of all that a king will do:  levy taxes, draft sons as warriors, etc. But the people refused to listen to the warning: "There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead its in warfare and fight our battles" (8.19-20).*
       A corollary to the "I've got to have what THEY have" syndrome is the idolization of glamour/celebrity/charisma:  "Let's make sure our leader has panache!"  The continued story of Saul illustrates this as well.  Saul turned out to be disobedient to God, as well as a bit of a wacko. And God directed Samuel again to anoint a successor. Before starting the selection process, however, God warns Samuel, "Do not judge from his appearance for from his lofty stature . . .  Not as [a person] sees does God see, because [a person] sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart" (1 Samuel 16.7).  Samuel does NOT choose one of the good-looking big brothers, but rather David .     These stories came to mind this week, in the aftermath of the Golden Globe awards, and the acceptance speech given by Oprah Winfrey.  By almost all accounts it was a very powerful speech. She was clearly able to address a timely issue in a very moving and persuasive way. Almost immediately, on social media and in print, voices called for her to consider a run for the presidency in 2020. Now, I think Oprah is an amazing human being who has had an incredible career (or several careers!). But her celebrity and passion, in my mind, are not sufficient qualifications for the highest office in the US. I don't believe we should let our discontent with the current situation propel us past good sense. It may make us feel good in the moment, but the "moment" is only  . . . momentary. We need to take a longer, more sober, view, and select leaders based on their qualifications to lead the complex systems that are governments.       We are very prone to look for a quick fix. And we often look to "success" elsewhere as a potential model for our own, whether that "success" is couched in terms of "power" or "celebrity". The history of that is long, of course, as I've noted above. And I think about it every time I read the Psalms, where the Israelite "envy" of other's armies is put it in its place. The psalmist contrasts that selection criterion with a bit more lofty one.
There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
   a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
     for all its strength it cannot save.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,
     on those who wait upon his love . . . (Ps 33.16-18)**

God is not impressed by the might of a horse;
     God has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
But the Lord has please in those who fear him,
     in those who await his gracious favor. (Ps 147.11-12)



* Quotations from 1 Samuel are from the New American Bible.
**  Quotations from the Psalms are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Humbled by Hubble

        The other day I got involved in a "comment dispute" on Facebook (I know, I know . . .  I should be bigger than that). But I am particularly susceptible to folks who make sweeping generalizations about ANYTHING "religious". In this particular case, a friend had posted an article about the 100 largest megachurches in America and whether they are welcoming of LGBTQ folks. The first commenter wrote: "One reason more people are leaving the bigotry of religion behind." That blanket statement was like throwing a raw steak to a lion (hungry or not). Subsequent "conversations" in the Comments section clearly suggested that the commenter has "anger issues" with "religion" (Christianity in particular)!
      In my responses to the commenter, I tried to point out several things (among others). First, "religion" is bigger than even megachurches, let alone Christianity, and it's a logical fallacy to generalize from the specific. Second, every religion has, well, "traditionalists" who hold fast to the original text as it has been received (either in terms of literal words, or "traditional" teaching), but that not everyone within that religious stream follows the same line of thinking. And I suggested that the more we learn/know/understand/investigate, the more we're able to see nuance, and context, etc. [None of that made any difference to the commenter . . .   Sigh]
      Later that evening, I was lucky enough to watch the wonderful PBS Nova show "Invisible Universe Revealed", a look back at the twenty-five years of the Hubble Space Telescope. I will set aside the fact that I can remember all of those twenty-five years, and all of the controversy and drama associated with the launching, repair and maintenance of that amazing piece of engineering; that's a story in-and-of-itself. What struck me -- yet again -- were the amazing images Hubble was able to send back to earth of the astonishing beauty of the cosmos. The commentary accompanying the visuals pointed out how mind-blowing, how revolutionary, were these images, and the realities they represented.
      Given my Facebook-war, and my stress (in that conflict) on context, I had to wonder what our ancestors, regardless of their "religion", would have done with this Hubble-knowledge when they were trying to understand THEIR place in the universe -- when the best they could do was give "names" to configurations of stars. Would it have increased their "social awareness" about the mysteries of human development? Probably not. But, given the transformation that the Hubble images have made in our understanding of the universe, I have to hope that we can begin to see the limitations of OUR declarations of certainty -- whether religious, or anti-religious.

       We never know what the future may reveal. I would like to think that being humbled by Hubble would teach us something.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Be it resolved . . .

      At this turn of the year, I was pleased to be reminded of a meditation by my first professor in seminary, the philosopher/theologian/activist Howard Thurman: "The Growing Edge".

 “Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.

Such is the growing edge. It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men and women have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. Such is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge.”

Therefore, be it resolved . . .

Best wishes for 2018,

Friday, December 15, 2017

Do not go gentle . . .

      Dinosaurs seem to everywhere these days in Denver! Well, not wandering down Broadway or Colfax, of course. But when I open the newspaper or check my Facebook feed, I can be certain I will find an advertisement for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science exhibit "Ultimate Dinosaurs".   An article, "Remember Thornton’s triceratops, “Tiny?” Turns out he’s a another dinosaur entirely" appeared last week in the Denver Post. And just the week before, the Post printed another article about dinosaurs: "Denver Museum of Nature & Science just received its largest fossil donation of more than 6,000 bones".
      All this talk about those ancient lizard-y things seems to raise the on-going question of WHY dinosaurs went extinct?  While Gary Larson's famous cartoon (above) posits one theory, the most widely-accepted theory is that of my friend, UC-Berkeley geologist, Walter Alvarez. In his book "T. Rex and the Crater of Doom" (Princeton, 1997), Alvarez argued, based on the geological record, that a huge asteroid hit the Yucatan peninsula 65 million year ago, and the resulting dust cloud choked out almost all life on the planet. (Alvarez's theory came readily out of my son's mouth when he was in Middle School!) This "Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction" (or KT extinction) was the last of five mass extinctions the planet has suffered, according to geologists.
       Planet scientists and biologists assert that earth is now in the process of going through its Sixth Mass Extinction. The statistics are staggering:  "
Nearly half of the 177 mammal species surveyed lost more than 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015", according to the above-linked article in The Guardian. And that's just among the mammals! Taking into account birds, fish, reptiles and insects, we're losing a LOT these days. And, the more that one reads about it, the more hopeless the situation can seem . . . because we humans are also mammals on the earth, subject to the same pressures!       But is it hopeless? Certainly we cannot bring back all of the extinct species (well, not at least currently, despite what the "Jurassic Park" franchise might suggest). On the other hand, we have an advantage that the victims of the earlier extinctions did not have. Those earlier extinctions were all the result of "natural" causes -- either geological (i.e., volcanic and/or tectonic) or astronomical (as in the asteroid creating the "Crater of Doom") Whatever was alive at those points in our planetary history could do NOTHING to stop, or mitigate, the effects of the extinction.       And, that's where the difference lies. The Sixth Mass Extinction is clearly "our" fault. But, as cell-biologist Bruce Lipton argues, we can address the situation; we have agency. In this podcast, Lipton challenges his listeners to let go of the fear we experience when faced with such a looming catastrophe, because we are NOT powerless. We can bring to bear all of our collective wisdom and experience to make a change . . . if we have the will to do so.       I certainly believe that in the areas of climate change and pollution. But as I thought about it a bit more, the issue of bringing one's will to bear when faced with almost any adverse situation can bring a little hope into a dark space. Dylan Thomas' famous poem says it well:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at end of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I''m not sure it's only those of "old age" who should "rage". The message is appropriate to us all.



Friday, December 1, 2017

Fabricating a Case

       A man went to his lawyer and asked him, "My neighbor owes me $500 and he won’t pay up. What should I do?"
     "Do you have any proof he owes you the money?" asked the lawyer.
     "Nope," replied the man.
     "Okay, then write him a letter asking him for the $5,000 he owes you," said the lawyer.
     "But it's only $500," replied the man.
     "Precisely. That’s what he will reply and then you’ll have your proof!"

     This joke showed up in my inbox yesterday. It's funny (at least to me) on so many different levels.  But it also, to me, highlights a fairly human tendency: exaggerate in order either (a) to make a point, or (b) to get what one wants. Both of those "reasons" suggest that the "exaggerator" feels somewhat helpless in his/her situation.
     I've been thinking about that phenomenon--dealing with helplessness--over the last week. I had reason to re-read some ancient gnostic texts, and re-do some background checking. Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious movement that arose in late antiquity (and some would stay still exists today). it took on several different forms, on of the main tenets was that there was some kind of esoteric knowledge that, if one was initiated into the fold, would "save" the believer from a future/afterlife peril. When I looked back at the background of gnosticism, and who was most likely to be attracted to it, one of the answers (of course, scholars won't always agree!) was the folks who were already marginalized, mostly socio-economically. Finding refuge in "being in the know" gave them some comfort that their "betters" would not be better off in the age to come.
     The same phenomenon, although spelled out differently, is found in apocalyptic literature in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. "Apocalypticism" presupposes a set of "hidden" facts that are revealed (the root meaning of apocalyptic) to believers, especially about the end of the world. Anyone who has read the biblical books of Daniel or Revelations will recognize that the "underdog" (primarily a religious minority in a repressed situation) will come out the "winner" at the end of the age, and that the oppressors will get their just desserts (usually burning in hot lava forever). Again, believing this way provides some comfort for those found in trying situations.

     It seems to me that we're seeing the same phenomenon playing itself out again. Only this time rather than appeal to some special, or recently revealed, hidden knowledge, we're seeing exaggeration to make a point. And here I would point to conservative Christians in the U.S. who are claiming that they are the most persecuted group in the country. Alan Noble, in an article in The Atlantic, "The Evangelical Persecution Complex", points out many of the problems of this position. One of the "results" is that "Being a 'loser' in the world's eyes for Jesus [is], paradoxically, cool". They may believe that to be the case, but, as is/was the case with gnostic and apocalyptic beliefs, it does little to change realities. Or, as Valerie Tarico points out, "When we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, then we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see."*
       I've had all of these thoughts swirling through my mind this week as I've been teaching my interterm course "Angels in the Architecture", where I take a group of students to a dozen different places of worship, from Buddhist to Orthodox Christian, New Thought to Krishna Consciousness, Protestant Christian to Jewish. The students always come from a variety of backgrounds, but few have ever been into the kinds of buildings we visit, or talk with members of those congregations. As they do, barriers of misunderstanding are clearly broken down. My hope is that they, once the class is over, will not have to find refuge by fabricating a false truth, or a false hope, but that they'll seek out diverse points of view in order to find a common, better, solution to the problems that face us all.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Identifying the true beast within

     This past Tuesday I participated in two, seemingly unrelated, programs. The first was a book discussion on Blair Stonechild's The Knowledge Seeker*. Stonechild is a Cree-Saulteaux member of the Muscowpetung First Nation, and his book is an account of his life-long rediscovery of his native spiritual traditions, from his boyhood at the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan to his current position as Professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada. His description of indigenous spirituality begins with, what he calls, the "Great Principle":  "that we are really spirit beings who are on a physical journey as humans" (p 49). And, while humans need to experience what physicality implies, "deep inside, humans yearn to reconnect with their spirit origins" (pp 51-2).  
      The key is "re-connection", or in other words, re-gaining harmony --  harmony with Spirit, with others, and harmony within one's own self. The various mechanisms by which this is achieved are all of the rituals often associated with native traditions:  prayers, sweat lodges, vision quests, etc. Stonechild recounts how the arrival of the colonists interrupted (and, in many cases sought to destroy) this set of traditions by which so many generations of people had found meaning and connection.

      Later that day, I attended a program on Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. Professors Andrea Stanton (Religious Studies) and Sarah Pessin (Philosophy, and Center for Judaic Studies) both addressed the fear-based reactions of a religious-majority culture to (in this case) religious minorities. What distinguished their two accounts was the location of the threat. In the case of Islamophobia, Stanton argued, the threat was seen as coming from without:  immigration is allowing the "threat" (i.e., Muslims) into the country.  On the other hand, Pessin argued, in the case of anti-Semitism, the threat was seen as arising from within, from a people that appear to have assimilated, but will never really be "of" the majority.
       I was struck, as I went home that evening, how the two events raised issues of dis-ease/disease. To follow the medical analogy, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are based in the theory that there is some sort of "invader", whether from without or within, that is weakening the body (politic). In other words, it is "germ theory". Contrarily, disease in native traditions is a matter of being out-of-harmony. And, in this, there is great consonance with ancient Greco-Roman theories of health (i.e., the humours), as well as Chinese traditional medicine (i.e., restoring and balancing Qi).
      In the west, "modern" (i.e., western) medical theories are part of the "air" we breathe. As Stanton's and Pessin's lectures showed, they can even inform how we might interpret political and social realities. I wonder, however, whether our constant search for an "invader" prevents us from the kind of search for the disruption, and then restoration, of our internal harmony. Are we so encouraged to search for, and demonize, the alien that we are blinded to the beast within? Or are we simply too afraid to look within? And, without that introspection, are we the weaker for it?



* The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality (University of Regina Press, 2016).