Friday, October 21, 2016

Well, what do we expect?

    In a wonderful interview* with Krista Tippett of "OnBeing", New York Times columnist and NPR commentator David Brooks tells of an encounter with a group of corporate Chief Financial Officers. His address to them followed his work on (if not publication of) his last book, The Road to Character (Random House, 2015). One of the chapters focuses on Dorothy Day, the social activist and Catholic convert. That chapter was apparently on his mind as he stepped in front of the gathering of (as he describes them) grey-haired white men who had just been discussing all things financial. He reflected (in the interview) that he wondered WHAT IN THE WORLD he would have to say to this group of hard-cored businessmen. Much to his surprise, as he began talking, the room grew profoundly quiet. He discerned that these people were hungry for something that went much deeper than dollar signs, debits and credits. Despite their "success", there seemed to be something missing in their lives that a "holy woman" (in many people's minds) possessed, something that couldn't be bought.
     Brooks' expectations were blown.
     As I listened, my mind was drawn back to several churches I attended when I used to live in California (although I KNOW the situation is not unique to that part of the country). All of these churches were attended, primarily, by very well-to-do people. Indeed, the parking lot of one of them was crowded on Sunday mornings with Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz's, and perhaps a Bentley or two.  CEO's and CFO's, engineers and bankers, filled the pews (much like Brooks' audience). I initially had the sense that this congregation was a place "to see and be seen". And it might have been that.
      It might have been that. And, perhaps, for some it was. But this congregation had chosen, in the mid-1980's, to continue using a particular worship style that employed traditional language -- when most of the rest of the (national) church had gone to a more contemporary style. Certainly one could argue that these were "conservative" people, equating their politics with their liturgical preferences. And, again, for some that may have been the case. But the traditional language that they preferred also characterized the congregation as quite needy and sinful.** That is, as the congregation prayed, they "acknowledged and bewailed" their "manifold sins and wickedness" that they had "grievously committed by thought, word and deed" (The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 331). I would have thought that such a congregation would want to run and hide from such admissions.
       My' expectations were blown.
       Brooks' experience, as well as my own, called to mind that not everything we see (or assume) about people is ALL that there is. Indeed, there is often a public persona that obscures (whether intentionally or not) a private set of desires, needs or fears. In the case of these folks, there seemed to a yearning for something that might provide interior meaning in an externally-focussed, and driven, world. Many of these folks were asking, "How do we deal with success, especially as we're not sure we 'earned' it?" Or, "We've succeeded! But why do we feel so empty?" Or, "We've been given such a responsibility to steward these resources! What if we blow it?" Hard questions, and even raising them may make the individual questioner seem "weak", not knowing "all".       At their best, our religious traditions help answer those questions, and, certainly, earlier generations seemed to understand that. The same understanding, research data seems to suggest, isn't shared by many folks today. But, Brooks, early in the interview, comments that, in his experience, a certain level of dissatisfaction with religion among younger people is countered by an interest in things interior. Affirmation, or building up, too, is sought, in a world that seems to devalue folks. "Affirmation" in connection with an admission of "sinfulness" might be seen as strange bed-fellows. But I think not. We are neither wholly wonderful nor wholly awful. But we do want to be accepted as whole. My suspicion is that the businessmen that Brooks encountered, as well as the church-goers with whom I shared a pew, were looking for a place to find that inner wholeness. And, apparently, it wasn't in a ledger, but a different Book.


* The section in which Brooks relates this encounter is in the "unedited interview" found at the OnBeing website. By the way, the interview is both with him and fellow NPR commentator E.J. Dionne.
** "Sin", while not a particularly popular word these days, figures pretty prominently in the Brooks/Dionne interview!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Those who make them . . .

  The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
        the work of human hands.
    They have mouths, but they do not speak;
        they have eyes, but they do not see;
    they have ears, but they do not hear,
        and there is no breath in their mouths.
    Those who make them
        and all who trust them
        shall become like them.

      These phrases, from Psalm 135 (vs. 15-18), always seem to strike a chord. The critique in the psalm, of course, is directed at Israel's/Judah's neighbors, but also to those within their own communities who might be tempted to follow the lead of those "nations". That temptation stemmed from uncertainty or uneasiness with the way things were going, and no visible, competent, leadership to provide direction or hope. As the saying goes, "Nature abhors a vacuum", and so the tendency was to fill that empty space with something.
       It is easy, in our "advanced" twenty-first century, to look back on ancient peoples with a "pat-on-the-head" semi-condescension. Indeed, for several decades in the mid-to-late twentieth century, there was a belief among many sociologists (in the west) that modernism/secularism would supplant religion entirely. Many of those same scholars are now beating a retreat from that position, perhaps recognizing that the modern/secular positions don't address all of the significant questions people pose about the world and their place in it. On the other hand, we certainly have seen an exodus from organized religion over the last few years.
      That exodus has been analyzed and explained in many different ways -- dissatisfaction with a linkage between some religious groups and conservative politics; horror at a seeming focus on retrenchment in the face of justified criticism (e.g., the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church); disgust in seeing a passion, on the part of some, for raising obscene amounts of money that do little to alleviate significant social problems; and, yes, an acceptance of "scientific" answers to the questions of human origins that come into conflict with scriptural answers. Yet many of those who depart "organized religion" still claim to "believe"; the common phrase "spiritual but not religious" does define many.  And we see them searching for some kind of answers to their longings.
        Many, of course, DO find answers in a secular/humanist world-view, and it is not my intent to criticize them. But I do think that the verses above apply to them as much as they do to people of faith. When we build answers to questions relying only on our own limited resources/knowledge, the answers rarely stretch us to the best of our capacities. The answers of our sacred texts often both inspire and confuse me. The inspiration isn't hard to explain. But WHY would people preserve texts that were critical of themselves . . . unless those texts supplied answers that weren't self-evident.  And those answers rarely looked like the people as they were, but called them to be more.



Friday, September 30, 2016

Lake Wobegon, be gone?

       Long-time listeners of the popular public radio show "The Prairie Home Companion" know that, this fall, there will be a new host. Originator Garrison Keillor bid adieu to the show last July. And it has been announced that his replacement as host will be mandolin-playing Chris Thile. Earlier this week, I heard an interview on Colorado Matters with Thile (the Colorado "connection" is that Thile has appeared multiple times at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival). Thile's taking of the reins of PHC has caused a lot of speculation.  Will he be able to woo millennials to the show? Will faithful listeners (or radio stations) continue to be faithful (apparently some stations are giving the Thile-PHC a one-year tryout). The question raised in the interview that most captivated me, however, was whether or not Thile would retain some of the sketches made famous by Keillor (e.g., "Guy Noir, Private Eye" or "It's been a quiet week at Lake Wobegon, my home town")?       Thile's answer was, "Yes, and no". Certain of the "sponsors" would be retained, such as "Powdermilk Biscuits" (probably because they're so expeditious!). But some of the features have been so much identified with Keillor (or his voice) that they will be left in the archives. Thile's task, along with that of the producers of the show, is to walk the fine line between preserving a hallowed past (PHC is over four decades old!) and a changing listener-base.  In other words, they have to decide whether to curate or create . . . or something in between.
      This artistic dilemma was also pointed out by Guy Mendilow a week ago at his on-campus lecture "Myths, Lies and Truths:  Romanticizing Traditional Culture". Mendilow works with Ladino songs -- songs of the Sephardic Jews, who trace their background to those who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and who made their way across North Africa and through the Middle East to settle in the Balkans. . . . before being largely exterminated in the Holocaust. Some of the songs exist only as texts; others as scratchy field recordings. Most were originally womens' songs. None were accompanied by instruments. Yet Guy and the Guy Mendilow Ensemble perform them with female and male singers, as well as with amazing instrumentation. And Guy raised the dilemma about curation vs. creation: "Do we simply hold tight to, and repeat, the performances of the past? Or do we take their lead into a new future?" The Guy Mendilow Ensemble clearly believes that carrying the past into the future is the best way to honor the past itself.        This dilemma is only a small part of a very much larger debate in our world. Whether it is in the world of religion ("always be literally faithful to the literal sacred text" vs. "be faithful to the spirit of the text in the current situation") or our current political debates (boiled down to the question of whether or not there was some golden age in our history to which we need return), we are torn between holding on to our past while recognizing that our future demands a different response. This response is, what I believe, lies at the root of our university enterprise. Even in (religious) history, or museum-curation, courses, we honor the past by situating the products of those times within those times, while leveraging the messages contained therein to a much different world. This is, I believe, a process of co-creation, and the mission to which I believe we are truly called.
       (By the way, I'll be interested to hear how Chris Thile accomplishes this mission!)



PS:  In preparing to write this, I've learned that the dilemma between creation and curation is being pointed slightly in the other direction (i.e., towards curation, albeit with a twist) in the social media world!  See for example, this article.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Curse you, cursive!

      When I am visiting local congregations -- as a preacher -- there are times when someone will come up and ask if I could send them a copy of my sermon. As ego-stroking as that is, I have to tell them that I don't have a "computer-ready" version. The reason is that I hand-write 90% of my sermons (most of the rest are simply bullet-points). After the shock wears off, they say "YOU DO???  STILL????" And I go on to say that I use a #2 Ticonderoga pencil, kept sharp with a small hand-pencil-sharpener. I have found that composing on a computer (at least given my sermon-writing process) leads to multiple, un-necessary, edits, as well as loss-of-train-of-thought.
       Imagine my surprise when I heard an conversation earlier this week that seemed to confirm my own experience.  Brian Lehrer, a talk-show host with WNYC, was interviewing
 Tamara Plakins Thorton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History  (Yale University Press, 1998), and Cheryl Lundy-Swift, National Workshop leader for Handwriting Without Tears.  Both reported on the frequency with which they heard critiques of teaching cursive, and the various reasons that schools were eliminating that skill in favor or either "keyboarding" or "printing". Yet they also presented research that suggested that the act of writing was both quicker and more efficient than the other options, as well as aiding creativity and thought-production! It was this last point that had me patting myself on the back!        So, my personal experience confirmed, I turned my attention back to the interview. What I heard was that three states, two from the deep South as well as California, have passed laws requiring cursive to be taught in the public schools --- in defiance of the move away from that requirement in the Common Core. And the discussion turned to an analysis of WHY those states would take such action. Prof. Thornton's analysis was that the emphasis on teaching cursive (and there have been more than one period where this has been the case) coincides with some deeper social unrest.  In other words, a "return" to cursive is a attempt to re-create a time when things were more cohesive, or simple, or orderly.  Or, the states are using one methodology to deal with a quite un-related problem (at least according to Thornton).        This is certainly not an unusual phenomenon. Over and over again we hear of politicians (on either side of the aisle) who will bury a fairly significant amendment in a piece of legislation. The hope is that the necessary votes will carry the bill -- because it's "important" or popular, and that the amendment will slide along the same track (even though, on its own, it mightn't stand a chance). In a slightly similar vein, historians of the Roman Catholic Church have pointed out that the two "infallible" dogmatic pronouncements made about the Virgin Mary (her Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption)  -- both pronouncements made since the mid-19th century -- coincide with social upheavals in the wider world (the rise of modernism in the first case, and the threat of communism in the second). These historians would argue that a more "conservative" devotion to Mary might counter some of the more "radical" notions pressing on the Church.         Given the significant problems we face in the country/world today, it seems to me that this kind of "smoke and mirrors" way of dealing with problems is quite counter-productive. Not only does it leave the real issue out-of-the-picture; it hides the motivations of those proposing the "solutions."  And, it suggests we don't have the social capital to have honest conversations about matters of significance -- and that may indeed be the case.  If it is, we have much more significant things to address, as citizens and/or people of faith, than the merits of cursive handwriting (despite its positive impact on my sermon-writing). And we must sharpen our pencils to sketch out, collaboratively, creative solutions to those larger problems.        Pencils at the ready!  Go!


Friday, September 16, 2016

Undoing excommunication . . . .

      Over the last couple of weeks, one of my favorite interfaith podcasts, "Interfaith Voices", has run a series of segments focusing on people who have left their religious "homes".*  Their reasons are as varied as the religious groups (e.g., Chasidic Judaism, Fundamentalist Mormonism, Westboro Baptist Church, etc.). One thing, however, was somewhat common (although not entirely so): once they left "the nest", they were shunned, or disowned.  In the case of one of the individuals, he was, in many respects, cast entirely adrift; he had no skills, no money, no connections.  The stories of many folks (whether profiled in the series or that I've heard elsewhere), speak of the sense of loss they experienced, even as they reveled in the freedom they had found.
       This got me thinking about the power of community, or, on the flip-side, the powerful threat of exclusion from community. "Excommunication", often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, has its counterparts in almost every religious tradition -- see the
Wikipedia article! And, of course, it's not solely a religious phenomenon; think "political exile". The reasons for "casting out" differ widely -- some are moral/ethical, others are doctrinal (political). Regardless of the reason, there seems to be an underlying assumption that individuals are more likely to conform than to risk the "punishment" of exclusion. To lose the structure, the fellowship, the support of the community is, for some, a proverbial "fate worse than death." (Indeed, in some traditions, exile/excommunication implies not being able to be buried in "hallowed ground" -- the exile is eternal.)
       So, where are we on this "community" thing? Questions have been raised for quite a few years about the breakdown of communal bonds. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001) is just one example of the critical eye that has been trained on the seeming dissolving of our community bonds. More recently, numerous articles** have chronicled the increase in loneliness, despite an increase in the ways we are connected (i.e., through social media). We see reports of people making plans to spend time together -- and then that translates into them sitting at the same table, each working furiously on his/her own phone, one on Snapchat, the other on Twitter.
       I do not stand outside of this phenomenon! I, too, spend (probably way too much) time on my electronic devices. And there are times when I sense a greater sense of understanding and connection with folks on particular Facebook groups than I do with other organizations where I have face-to-face interactions. I suspect that a reason is that the FB interactions are more "frequent" than a once-a-month club meeting. Yet the regular interactions with folks around the state/country/world don't necessarily translate into support when the going gets rough.
    Research, however, clearly points to the need for re-connection. And it's not just to re-create, or re-inforce, a social fabric that implies that we need to rebuild community. As the books/articles point out, there is an incredible increase in the phenomenon of loneliness. And loneliness translates into a host of other problems, from mental health issues to physical health issues.
        The fracturing of community must be reversed! The Jewish mandate of tikkun olam -- the repair of the world -- is incumbent upon all of us, but not just in terms of environmental or justice work. We must do all we can to repair and restore community, to seek out and build strong relationships with one another that will provide support doing those rough patches. We know the power of community. May that knowledge translate into the will to build and maintain those bonds.



* Last week's episode is here; this week's, here.
**  See for example, this Independent article from last year.

Friday, September 9, 2016

      Father Cassian Folsom leads the monastic community at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia/Nursia, Italy.  While Norcia was the birthplace of St. Benedict, the founder of western Christian monasticism, until a few years ago, there hadn't been a monastery in his home town since the early 1800's. Fr. Cassian was picked to re-establish the presence. In this interview, Fr. Cassian talks about how the townspeople have welcomed them back, trust them, and enjoy the beer that the monastery produces.  He also talks about how those who've been diagnosed with cancer have come to confide in him, as he, too, has had that experience.
       The interviewer, Judy Valente, asked Fr. Cassian, "You’ve dedicated your entire life to seeking God, to service to others and to God. Did you ever feel, 'Gee, I deserve a little better than two diagnoses of cancer, a serious cancer?'” To which he answers, "It’s just a part of life, that’s all. I would say this: we can look at death as a thief or a messenger. A thief comes and steals what is most valuable to us, and so we’re afraid. A messenger who comes to tell us that our beloved is at the door, we respond much differently, don’t we? So that’s the kind of choice we have to make. Is it a thief or a messenger?"  And he observes, "As anybody who is diagnosed with cancer, it changes your life. I think it has given me greater patience, greater tolerance, looking at things from a 'not everything matters as much as you might think it does'.”
        Later on the same day that I heard that interview, Tim McGraw's song, "Live Like You Were Dying", came onto the radio.  I was surprised to hear it, since I'd never heard a "country" song on the station to which I was listening. So I guess I listened a little more closely, and the lyrics so much seemed to echo Fr. Cassian:

 I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talkin' 'bout the options
And talkin' 'bout sweet time"
I asked him
"When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How's it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what'd you do?"

He said
"I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying"
And he said
"Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying"*

        This meditation is not meant to be a sort of "downer" at the beginning of a new academic year.  Nor was it occasioned by anything other than the coincidence of hearing these two things on the same day.  Quite the contrary!  At the start of any endeavor, such as a school year or a career, I try to hold in mind one of Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People":  Habit 2 "Being with the end in mind".  That maxim often helps me stay on track, to avoid "mission creep" as I develop my agenda, or work on a paper/sermon. But, at the beginning of a school year, especially in light of Fr. Cassian's and Tim McGraw's "meditations", I think it's important to keep in mind that our focus on one "end" (i.e., finishing a paper or finishing school or getting the "perfect" job) can keep us from another, maybe more important:  making beer, or "Rocky Mountain climbing", or loving deeply.
        All the best for the coming months!



* Taken from  The official music video can be found here.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The marker marks what?

      I heard a "Colorado Matters"* segment yesterday with the intriguing title "A Pickle Jar In The Basement Is No Place For Someone's Ashes To Spend Eternity". Coloradans may remember when the story broke about year ago of a funeral director buying an active funeral home in Montrose, only to discover 175 sets of cremains in the basement -- some dating back to 1947. When the new owner found these cremains, he set about to have them properly interred. That meant, in many cases, dealing with the next-of-kin. For some, however, there was no one to claim the remains.  And the owner simply buried (or scattered) the ashes as dignifiedly as possible (those with a military background were given full military honors). From all indications, the new owner did everything right and good.
      One interaction the funeral director mentioned, however, caught my mind. When he found the cremains originally, he went public with the names of the deceased (he published them in the local paper). That meant that many of the living were horrified and disbelieving. As the funeral director put it, "In a lot of those cases, there was already a grave marker out there, with a year and death on it and everything. So the family had been coming to these graves for years thinking that their loved one was buried there, when in fact they were in the basement here."
     That's what got me started thinking. Those folks who went to an empty, although marked, grave -- were they any less consoled because the remains were NOT there? Or was the grave-marker with the name and dates (perhaps with some inscription) enough to bring back the "presence" of Uncle Harry or Grandma? In other words, can the marker "stand in" for the reality? And, if so, what happens when the "reality" is gone?
       This story was provocative enough on its own. But, put in the context of our national "debate" over standing for the national anthem (or putting one's hand over one's heart to honor the flag), it took on a special cast, especially in light of a thoughtful article on that subject by Benjamin Zeller, "
Why Kaepernick's refusal to stand isn an act of religious dissent". Zeller relates the incident to the theory of "totems" put forward by sociologist Emile Durkheim.  As Zeller writes:
Rightly or wrongly, Durkheim centered his model of religion on the concept of the totem, “the material representation of the clan,” which over time becomes a sacred object and center of a tribal religion.
Within this model of religion, the totem serves as the preeminent symbol of the group. “Thus the god of the clan […] can be none other than the clan itself, but the clan transfigured and imagined in the form of the plant or animal that serves as totem.” What plants or animals did for ancient societies, flags do today. The totemic symbol of America, the American flag, represents the nation state as a sacred entity—it serves as symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship.
To threaten the totem, particularly in front of large groups (such as on national television!), is to call into question the foundations of society. “When a belief is shared unanimously by a people, to touch it—that is, to deny or question it—is forbidden,” Durkheim wrote. People kill or die for their symbols.     
      One of the key phrases in this quotation from the article (in my opinion) is "the material representation. . . which over time becomes a sacred object . . ."  That is, an "object" stands in for the reality -- perhaps an absent reality (such as Uncle Harry or Granda), or mis-remembered reality, or entirely fabricated reality. But it is the object that acquires importance. That has become very apparent in the debate over Kaepernick's protest.
      It is not my intent here to take a stand (pardon the pun) on Kaepernick's (non-)action. Nor is it to play loose with the experience of those families who learned that the grave had been empty. It is only to consider our propensity to infuse material objects with meaning, sometimes incredibly powerful meaning. After all, a gravestone is a rock, and a flag bits of fabric.
      The First (or Second, depending on the way one counts) Commandment may offer helpful counsel beyond its original purpose:  
"You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20.4-5a). There may be unfortunate consequences. Vigilance might be warranted!



* "Colorado Matters" is Colorado Public Radio show that features stories arising within or affecting Colorado. They may be about business, human interest, government, education, etc.

Note: the photo above is of an abandoned Soviet-era monument in Yugoslavia.