Friday, July 24, 2015

It's popular, but . . .

      A couple of weeks ago I heard a phrase that I really found thought-provoking.  The context was a sermon at St. John's Cathedral in Denver.  The preacher was Jadon Hartsuff, one of the clergy on staff.  The phrase was "spiritual but not rigorous".  NO, not "spiritual but not religious", but "spiritual but not rigorous". I must apologize to Jadon that I was so taken by the phrase that I remember little else about the sermon; I do, however, want to credit him!
      Two days before, I had written the reflection for this newsletter where I had discussed the "Nones" -- those who claim to have no religious affiliation.*  I had wondered whether or not, based on a piece by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, their dissatisfaction with religion might have had something to do with a superficial/shallow worship experience.  But I know, too, that many folks--especially the last couple of generations--are hungry to put their convictions to work.  In other words, religious traditions that demand little have shown marked declines in affiliation. And those that make demands seem to grow.  And the demands may, or may not, be to our individual likings; they may be demands to participate, for example, on opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum.  The underlying theme seems to be "walk the talk!"
      I had these thoughts rattling around in my head this morning as I went to Metro Caring, the hunger relief organization where I take volunteers every month.  This morning, aside from the usual Friday crowd, there were three young women -- probably middle-school age -- who were a part of the volunteer corps.  I observed them all morning.  They chipped in wherever they were needed, seemingly without a lot of direction.  They helped stock shelves; they helped with the folks who were coming through to get food; they were cheerful.  I didn't have a chance to ask them WHY they were there.  (I think one of their moms was along, and helping.)  But I couldn't help but think that they were learning, at a young age, both what it meant to be in need -- and how that condition can strike "all sorts and conditions" of people -- as well as how, concretely and immediately, to help address that need
      When I left Metro Caring, I turned on the radio.  One of the songs that played as I was returning to DU was singer/songwriter John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change."  It was released in 2006 and made its way to the top ranks of many of the music charts, spending some time at #1 on the US Billboard American Contemporary list. The 
lyrics catalog a lot of the ills of society and the world that face "our generation" (i.e., Mayer's generation).  It's a popular song, but . . . it's the refrain that has always stuck in my craw (to use an OLD phrase!):  "So we keep waiting, waiting on the world to change".  He sings that "One day our generation is going to rule the population".  I must say that a generation that simply "waits" for the world to change isn't one that I'd want to rule.
      I would hope that the three girls I saw this morning are not going to "wait for the world to change"; they seemed to be engaged in making some change.  I think that is what we need to be doing, both as spiritual and educational leaders: educating and preaching--demanding--some rigor.  My reading of the demographics is that Mayer's generation wants to do more than "wait" (despite his hubris in speaking for it).  It is up to all of us to ensure that there are plenty of concrete opportunities and compelling rationale to give them hope that there is valuable work to do . . . AND THAT THEY--AND WE-- CAN DO SOMETHING.  If we don't take up that challenge, we are simply like a penny, waiting for change.  We'll wait in vain. 

       And we don't have to.


* To (re-)read that last reflection, see "Lead to Gold".

Friday, July 10, 2015

Lead to Gold

     In this issue of the newsletter, I'm going to start with a long piece from Rabbi Rami Shapiro's column from the July/August issue of "Spirituality and Health" (p.17).  His column is generally a series of questions posed to him, and his answers:

I attend [my place of worship] every [week] and love my faith, but find the worship lacking.  Any idea what might be missing?

What's missing, I suspect is alchemy--transforming the lead of self into the gold of spirit. Too many houses of worship have replaced poetry with propaganda, spontaneous passion with scripted emotionality, and self-transcending ecstasy with self-conscious piety.  Religion has been robbed of its punch and purpose.  Myth and story are mistaken for science and history.  Teachings to wake you up are replaced by cliches that put you to sleep.  Music to melt the ego is exchanged for kitsch that reinforces it.  Chanting that uplifts the soul is reduced to responsive readings that flattens it.  And silence, the true leaven of the spirit, is banished almost completely.  If religion is to be more than an arm of commerce and politics it must reclaim and reimagine its ancient and timeless tools--myth, story, parable, music, chant and silence--and use them to challenge ignorance, injustice, barbarism, and uncritical thinking rather than promote these in the name of faith.

         There's much in what Rabbi Rami writes that resonates with my experience of, and research about, contemporary religion.  I suspect that the increase in the "Nones" (those people who identify as "None of the Above" on the faith-tradition checklist is a reflection of shallow, or substance-light, religious experiences.  But I also think that the questioner above is representative of all of us at some point or another.  We do face periods of stagnation or derailment   And it might be just those times when stepping away and re-evaluating what we're seeking and why might the ticket home again.  We may realize that the questions and answers of one period of our life may no longer be the same as those we face now.
         The sense of dis-ease may be the meditation bell that calls us back to ourselves.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Caitlyn, Coke, Charleston, & Courage

       The word that had been struggling to rise to the top of my thoughts the last few weeks was "fear".
        It finally broke through as I was listening to an podcast/discussion about an article in a recent New York Times Sunday Review by Elinor Burkett in which the author, a noted feminist, dismissed much of Caitlyn Jenner's "womanly feelings".  One of the callers-in suggested that what underlay Ms. Burkett's negative article was fear.  A fear that the work that her generation of feminists had done to dismantle gender stereotyping was being undone by Jenner and Annie Leibovitz's Vanity Fair cover.  Several other callers spoke more positively about another dismantling, that of ALL stereotyping (including Burkett's), that allowed for Caitlyn Jenner to own and express her feelings/opinions out of her own reality.
        And, then, I recalled the recent uproar over the 
experience of my friend Tahera Ahmad, who, on a flight from Chicago to Washington, had to endure a humiliating act of discrimination  . . . all 
because she, a Muslim woman (and a very progressive one at that) was wearing a hijab.  She was told that she could not be served an unopened can of Dit Coke because "it could be used as a weapon", at the same time a fellow passenger was served an unopened can of beer.  As if that weren't enough, another passenger shouted religiously-motivated slurs at Tahera.  The awful, negative, experience of Tahera, other Muslims, Sikhs -- indeed many religious groups -- speaks of fear.
        Then, last Wednesday evening, the Charleston shootings.  An act of hate, hate born out of some fear, a fear we may never know.  A fear-driven act in an environment of love; an exclusionary act in an environment of inclusion.
        And the aftermath.  The "discussions" over how to deal with the Confederate flag.  The discomfort some presidential hopefuls have evidenced when they realize that doing the right thing in supporting the removal of that flag from statehouses may have challenging 
political consequences -- i.e., fear that they'll lose electoral support.  And underneath those discussions, it seems to me, lies a fear that a way of life is slowly, but surely, eroding.
       I'm afraid, too.  Certainly not of the same things that are reflected above.  But I have my fears; we all do.  The challenge is to not give in to them, not to let them fester into cowardice, prejudice and hate.  None of our religious traditions, at their core, would counsel this.  They would all seek to push us to courage, to address our fears honestly so that, held in the Light of Divine Wisdom, we might overcome them.  And, in overcoming our own fears, we might better dismantle unjust structures born of the fears of others.       In the words of the New Testament book of I John, "In love there is no room for fear; indeed perfect love banishes fear" (4.18, Revised English Bible).  That is the ideal to which we all -- regardless of tradition -- are called.  Love is courageous.  We saw it reflected in the voices of those victims' families who spoke, courageously of forgiveness to Dylan Rooff.  May we be so bold!


Friday, June 12, 2015

Where do you plug in?

     Okay, there's one at my desk in my office. There's one at my desk at home. There's one next to my bed. There's one in my car.  And I'm trying to figure out how to rig something on my bike so I can have one there in case my bike ride goes longer than I expected.  All are indicators of my concern that my portable electronics might be under-charged when I need them.
      And my concern is not just my concern! The photo above would have been quite the novelty just a few years ago, but most of us who travel fairly often know that, as soon the plane arrives, or folks enter into the concourse, many make a beeline for the charging station. Get the laptop and smartphone charged before the next segment of the journey. Why? Because, as the sign suggests, we want to "Stay connected - keep in touch - never miss a beat!"
      On the other hand, it's not just a case of "staying connected" or "keeping in touch".  We depend on those little amazing glass, metal and plastic boxes for so much. So much so that, yesterday, as I was getting ready to leave my house for work on my bike, I was delayed as I tried to get my phone to recognize my heart rate monitor, the cadence detector on the bike, AND link up with my bluetooth headphone so I could listen to a podcast on my commute.  I finally gave up, and, rode to work with only the sound of the traffic, birds . . . and the constant in-my-head conversation to keep me busy.  Harrumph!
      So that little tool has, in fact, enslaved me. I am keeping it charged and recharged, in some respects to keep me from being recharged.  My personality may predispose me to this malady, but I suspect that, in a mostly-hard-charging-academic-environment, I'm not alone.  Of course it's not just academics; some might say this is a problematic inheritance from our "Protestant-work-ethic ancestors".  I mean, golly, if we miss that call, or tweet, our lives will fall apart.
      If we settle back a moment, we probably would realize how wrong that is. And, yesterday, as I was riding to work WITHOUT benefit of headphones, I had a lot of time to ponder my own descent into that perdition of productivity!
      Many of us will remember the novelty of MTV's experiment showcasing musicians "unplugged".  A pretty big hit.  So much so, that the idea of "unplugging" has entered the cultural mainstream.  And I think that's a great first step.  But what's next?  Simply re-plugging into the same source?  Or, perhaps, taking the opportunity to plug into an entirely different resource -- be it the Divine, or nature, a restorative soak in a hot spring, or a deep conversation with a loved one.  Recharging may not need a cord. This closing photo arrive in my Facebook feed (yes, I'm guilty!) as I was writing.  It seems a fine ending:


Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 29, 2015

OMG! Change the Conversation!


     The first class I (co-)taught at the University of Denver was an honors seminar, titled (assuming my memory hasn't failed me) "Science and Religion".   My "partner in crime" was a biology professor, and a leader in teaching science teachers in Denver.  After some thought, we realized it probably should have been called "Evolution and Creation", since we rarely ventured beyond questions of human origins.  We didn't, for example, consider issues of morality (some scholars, such as Marc Bekoff, are raising questions about whether or not non-human animals have a morality all their own).  Nor did we take up the conversations between string theorists/quantum physicists and theologians.  No, we stuck to the ongoing debate between biologists and those religious folks who assert that the first few chapters of Genesis contain irrefutable scientific information.  In other words, the conversation was about creators/creation.
        What a small conversation!  I was reminded of this last week while when I overheard someone remark that "Creator" was only one possible attribute of the Divine. This person mused that "Redeemer" was an equally valid, and potentially more powerful attribute of God.  And that got me thinking . . . .  Why are many of our of cultural conversations about God limited to the question of "creation"?  in various parts of the US, school curricula are being challenged/changed to include creationism and/or intelligent design.  And many of the so-called "New Atheists" delight in pooh-pooh-ing the "out-dated" views of fundamentalists -- to the delight of the media, sensing a juicy battle.
        But I wonder, what if we DID add some other attributes of God to the conversation? Let's, for example, take up just some of Islam's one-hundred "Names of God".  What would happen if we spent time considering:  "God the All-merciful"?**  What might that imply:  "Oh, you mean we need mercy?"  Why would we need mercy?  What does that say about human nature?  Does science answer that question?  Or, "God, the Provider"?  What IS the source of all that we consume, from the air we breathe and water we drink and love we cherish?  is there a scientific answer to that?  Or, equally problematic for the "other" side, do religious people have a responsibility to preserve that which God has provided?  What about "God, the Guide to the Right Path"?  Along what paths does science lead us?
       And, that's only three percent of the names!

       I am certainly NOT one to mount a critique of science. My co-instructor and I saw the underlying points of our class from pretty much the same position (which meant the class didn't get as "exciting" as we may have hoped).  And I am not necessarily denying 
that there may be scientific "answers" to some of the questions I raised above.  I am only suggesting that, by limiting our cultural conversations about God to questions of "creation" or other biological issues (e.g., bio-ethical debates or gender/sexual controversies), we are avoiding some, potentially, much more useful areas of our lives and times.
       I think it's time to change the conversation!  We 
should all benefit!



*  "OMG" = "Oh, my Glory!" (Sr. Joan Chittester)
**   Al-Rahim
***   Ar-Razzaq
****   Ar-Rashid

Friday, May 15, 2015

And, success means . . .?


      And let the hand-wringing continue!
      I admit, I've been around the block a time or two, so the recent news out of the Pew Research Center was not surprising.  If you've not seen it, the study, released on May 12, 2015, is entitled:  "America’s Changing Religious Landscape Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow".  According to the research, the Christian population in the US declined from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014.  At the same time, the unaffiliated portion of the population grew from 16.1% to 22.8%.  There was also a small percentage increase in non-Christian traditions.  In other words, MOST of those who "left" the Christian fold simply dis-affiliated.  A couple of commentators on this trend (although writing separately from the release of this study) calls these folks the "Dones" -- as in "done" with traditional religion, as semi-distinct from the "Nones", many of whom never affiliated.*
      Well, as historians of religion in America have noted for some time -- probably since the heyday of the post-WW II years, this trend is not new (or confined to Christianity), although the steep decline in less than a decade is a bit unusual.  And many of those historians, from diverse (or no) religious traditions, have tried to make sense of the decline.  For some, it is due to changing demographics -- with new ethnic/religious groups coming to the US, intermarriage has "diluted" religious homogeneity.  For others, it is the "culture wars", and certain traditions' hard-line stance against some social issues, that has "driven" people away.  For still others, the reason for the departure is some religions' focus on their own "stuff" (e.g., building buildings rather than feeding the poor, or padding the pastor's pocket).  Others would point to the battle between religion and science. And for still others, there is a dissatisfaction with a shallow presentation of the faith, i.e., "all glitzy show and no lasting substance".
       All of these reasons have their validity; the scholars who've reasoned them out have done so with good data.  And each of the reasons usually comes with a proposal to counter the decline.  Whether it's more involvement in social justice ministries, or more "new-age" worship, or more "traditional" worship, or "Religion & Science" lecture series -- the religious groups will not go "gentle into that dark night"**.
      I get it; I understand the concern.  And I am certainly not going to weigh in on one side or another. But sometimes I wonder -- at least for some religions, such as Christianity, that have socio-political change as part of their mission -- whether or not "success" has its own downside.  My pondering here stems from the take-over by the State of many, previously, religious institutions (such as hospitals or orphanages) by the state. In other words, the Church succeeded in implementing one of its major agenda items, that is, increasing social care for the sick and the orphans.  The problem was that the success was so great that the responsibility was taken from the Church and assumed by the greater population, a population that had adopted that concern.  The problem for the Church, then, was what to do when THAT reason-for-being was removed.  Another side to the interaction is equally problematic:  when a Religion and the State become so inter-twined, which rules the other, or, which co-opts the other?  We've certainly seen this played out in the history of the West, and we're in the middle of similar negotiations in the Middle East.  The results are rarely pretty.  And many well-meaning, faithful people run away screaming.
       So, many are wringing their theological hands, wondering how to draw the unaffiliated either in or back.  I understand; as I said above, I've been around the block a few times.  I just wonder whether it's time to declare a moratorium on trying new (or old) marketing techniques, and, rather, to go on an extended retreat to get a better handle on why our religious traditions are here in the first place.



*  Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith.
** Apologies to Dylan Thomas.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Get off the fence!

      My regular (car-)commute route to DU takes me past a church that routinely posts a quotation on one of their lawn-signs.  Early this week the quotation was from Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author Elie Wiesel:  "The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference."  (There is more to the original:  "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death."*)   I recalled seeing Elie Wiesel speak many years ago.  I was struck by his lack of indifference.  His many books are passion-filled; he argues effectively for the future of our species, even while experiencing one of our darkest periods.
       Also this week, I received a newsletter, the "Awakin Weekly". The lead article was by another well-known Jewish author and scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, entitled "
Radical Amazement".  He wrote:  "The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin (emphasis added)."  I was struck by the coincidence (or synchronicity) of finding both authors addressing "indifference" in the same week -- although in very different ways.
        Their concern, however, about "indifference" is something I've shared, and puzzled over, for some time.  I've long advocated for passionately pursuing a goal, not sitting on the sidelines.  My doctoral dissertation (on self-castration among some early Christian men . . . yes, that was the topic . . . and, yes, you may inquire further) focused on why someone would inflict irreversible injury on one's own body for religious reasons --- that is NOT the action of someone who was INDIFFERENT, but who REALLY believed in what he was doing.  It wasn't much of a stretch for me to wonder about kamikaze pilots as well -- not indifferent people at all.
        Individuals in these latter two groups are folks many of us would call "crazy".  We wonder, too, about the state-of-mind of those who would be seduced by rhetoric suggesting that suicide terrorist acts are praiseworthy.  But all of them display, it seems to me, a passion, a commitment, that, if it conformed to our belief-system, would be commended.  I've come to believe that we judge the act not by the commitment that lies behind it, but rather by the cause it reflects.
         I may open myself to criticism here (and it won't be the first time!), but I'd rather engage--peacefully, of course--with someone who was committed to their cause, whether I agreed or not, than with someone who couldn't care less.  And it seems to me that that is what a university should be all about:  fostering passion and commitment in the service of others . . . as well as civil discourse that can move us all forward.  What both Wiesel and Heschel point out is that doing otherwise, not paying attention, is setting oneself up to be caught on the fence, embarrassed, ineffective, 
immobile -- perhaps even sinful.        



*US News & World Report, October 27, 1986