Friday, April 17, 2015

Caravan to Love

         Life intervenes sometimes in very unexpected ways.  That has been the case for my family this week.  And, so, instead of my usual Friday meditation, I'm going to offer a brief prayer/poem from the poet Rumi as a spur for meditation:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come. 



Friday, April 10, 2015

To tell the truth?

     I was in the fitness center this week, working out on an elliptical trainer.  As is the case in just about every gym I've visited, there is a bank of television sets tuned to a variety of channels - I suppose to keep our minds off of how exhausted we're getting. At that particular time of the day, there was a locally-produced "show" that is little more than info-mercials -- just with a Colorado slant.  Since I've been in the gym at that time before, I've seen "interviews" with doctors, dentists, cooks, home-repair folks, etc.  But this particular "episode" just about floored me.
      The segment was about (what looked like) a "fat-reducing machine".  The gizmo, as far as I could tell (since there was no sound), was placed on the belly of the patient and, somehow, through suction and heat, that awful belly-fat was made to disappear.  AND, they had before and after pictures to PROVE it!  And, golly, there were people in lab coats performing the procedure!  You just gotta trust 'em, right?  They have to be telling the truth!  All I could think of were the vibrating bands and little steam cabinets that were features of shows like "I Love Lucy", or even some of the early James Bond films -- and that have been thoroughly discredited.  Not to mention snake-oil salesmen of the 19-th century. 
But, folks will believe what they WANT to believe, especially if it's presented in a way that seems only slightly-more than half-way plausible.
       Yes, we're gullible.  But we're also AWARE that we're gullible, and we've even turned this trait into entertainment.  Whether its the party game (or committee ice-breaker), "Two Truths and a Lie"*, or the television show so popular ("To Tell the Truth"**) it was produced and then re-produced decades later (not counting syndication), or the traveling "The Liar Show"***, the joy of lying, or, maybe more positively, of trying to ferret out the truth seems to grip us all.  And, certainly, detective "whodunits" play to this same desire: we want to know the truth from amongst a pack of lies, false truths, and red-herrings.  And, it's fun!  I don't deny, or discount it.  I love mysteries!
      The problem, it seems to me, is that, sometimes, we begin to believe our own fabrications.  We begin to lose sight of that which is really the case. We begin to believe the alternative view that WE may have constructed, even when we know it's false.  Then we get caught up in that alternative world, not recognizing (or caring about) the harm that "living" there may cause others.  For some, certainly, this might be traced to a psychological disorder. Others may use the "distancing form reality" as a means of keeping them from dealing with their own "issues":  "If I don't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist!".  It's a sort of psychological/theological equivalent of children sticking their fingers in their ears, singing, "Lalalalalalala", to keep from hearing that throwing the vase at the cat was not a good thing.
        So . . . gullibility is one side of the equation.  Self-delusion or self-deception, another.  Neither is particularly healthy for us.  I recall the psalmist's observation:  "While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long . . . my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, 'I will confess my trasngressions to the Lord.' Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin" (Ps. 32.3-5).  the implication is that honesty/confession brings release and renewal.  The same assertion is found in the New Testament:  "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (I John 1.8).****  Similar teachings can be found in all the religious traditions:  Be honest in your dealings with others, but also be honest in your dealings with yourself.
        Telling the truth may be difficult, but, given the world in which we live, we are NOT living in a game.


*  In the off chance you've not played this, instructions are here.
**  More information here
***  More information here.
****  Commentator Ron Allen wrote concerning this verse:  "The community’s part is to confess sins, that is, to name and admit ways in which the members continue to live by the values of the world. To fail to do so is to lie, i.e. to perpetuate the values of the world in the community of Jesus. Indeed, to fail to confess is the same as treating God as if God is a liar."  [I would assert that the more general word "faith" could easily be substituted for "Jesus" in this context.]

Friday, April 3, 2015

Up the ante! Down with the anti-!

      Yesterday, we heard the horrifying news of the killing of 147 college students in Kenya.  Further reporting later in the day and this morning suggested that the majority of the students that the Al-Shabab militants singled out as hostages or for killing were Christians.  That is, their "crime" -- other than being Kenyan, since many Kenyan Muslim students were freed -- was their religious tradition.  The Somali Al-Shabab gunmen were, therefore, both anti-Kenyan and anti-Christian. We have recently heard similar stories coming out of other countries where religious extremism and political discontent have become potent allies in pressing a particular agenda.  The anti-[fill-in-the-blank] forces seem to be out in full.
      Sometime in the last couple of weeks I was listening to a radio discussion about whether anti-semitism was so on the rise in Europe that Jews would be better off, or safer, in some other country -- the U.S. and Israel were suggested as good examples  where their "safety" was better assured.  There was, of course, discussion as to the source of the anti-semitism:  was it related to increasing Muslim extremism in Europe?  Or was it related to a resurgence of Nazi-like thinking? 
The experiences of Jews in Europe has been seen to be negative, however, regardless of the source. 
      Reporting out of Burma/Myanmar, on the other hand, indicates that the Rohingya Muslim minority is being persecuted by the Buddhist majority, sometimes quite violently.  Many of us can recall the horrific Christian massacres of Muslims in the Balkans several decades ago. But lest we think this is all somewhere "over there", we read, often enough, of anti-Muslim incidents in the US. The killing of three Muslim young people in Chapel Hill, NC a few weeks ago is just one example.
      So, within the span of about a week, I heard stories of "anti-Muslim" actions, "anti-Christian" actions, and "anti-Semitic" actions.  If I plug the words "persecution" and the name of any religion into a search engine, I can be assured of multiple results.  The same would be true, of course, if I 
substituted the names of ethnic or racial minorities for religious groups. As much as any group is persecuted, so are no groups free of being the persecutor.  We, as a species, seem hell-bent (and I use that word purposely) on being opposed to folks who are different from us.  If we can't find something obvious, we will manufacture some feature/belief that we can use to divide us from the "un-washed". And, once we've established the dividing line, we're not too far from setting up mechanisms to eliminate the opposition.
       I am not so naive to believe that there aren't some folks who pretty much ARE wrong, and who need to be corralled.  I would see various terrorist groups -- foreign and domestic -- as examples.  Those groups take an "oppositional attitude" and run amok with it.  Yet most opposition does not need to result in violent conflict; it can, sometimes, result in productive discussion and learning . . . if we are willing to allow for the possibility that we have something TO learn.
       Refusal to be taught is refusal to grow, a refusal to proceed, a refusal to progress. It is a choice to live in an "anti-world".  The challenge to us who think more positively is to up the ante, to live in a "pro-world", to learn and to teach that a peaceful future can be seen in the eyes and hearts of those who look different, and differently, than us.


Friday, March 27, 2015

How Important is Matching the Hatch?

       Last Saturday, I was standing in the Cache de Poudre River, northwest of Ft. Collins, engaging in that wonderfully frustrating past-time, "Fishing".  [Note:  I did not say "Catching"!]  I had spent the week prior brushing up on what to expect: what the weather might be, the water temperature and flows, and what kinds of bugs might be prevalent (i.e., what the menu might be on the trout smorgasbord).  It was a glorious day, and I was set!  The fish, on the other hand, had other ideas.
       One of my fellow-anglers was not experiencing the same level of frustration as I. And, so, as fisher-folk often do, I asked "What are you using?"  In other words, did he have the secret formula for a fly that, were I to use it, might result in MY success.  HIs answer didn't offer much help, as I was already using much the same thing . . . and I didn't have available to me the exact pattern that he was using.
       And so, as I stood in the river, I began musing on the strange business of fly-fishing and fly-tying.  One of the biggest pieces of advice assumed by all fly-anglers is that one needs to "match the hatch."  That is, if fish are feeding on a certain species of mayfly (because they seem to be "hatching" at that time), then they will probably not pay much attention to your offering of something resembling a stonefly.  Or even more frustrating is that they  might be feeding readily on a reddish bug, but ignore a black bug of the same style and size.
       So we embark on the quest for the right match.  Famous fly-tyers from across the years, and around the country, develop new patterns and tweak old ones in the pursuit of 
precisely replicating the legs, antennae, wings and tails of teeny little bugs.  One extra wrap of this wire.  Precise proportions of wing height to body length.  It's a quest for a Holy Grail!  And the funny thing is that almost ALL of those patterns will catch fish (well, except when they're on the end of MY fly-line!).  The correspondence between the actual bug and its replica doesn't have to be exact.
        Most anglers know the names of the afore-mentioned "famous fly-tiers".  We attend seminars given by them, hoping to learn the tricks and techniques that will improve our art.  We recognize that some of their patterns will work better in some parts of the country than in others.  They've learned on different waters, with slightly different insect populations.  they may have affinity for different materials; "natural vs. synthetic" is one hot argument.
        As Saturday wore on, and the times I changed flies increased, I began to see the whole enterprise in theological, or religious, terms.  Or, perhaps, to turn it around, I began to think about our religious longings in the same light as the longing for the "perfect fly".  If we get the ritual right; if we say the right words; follow the right theologians; if we understand the Divine in the right way; if we do all of these things correctly, then maybe, just maybe, we'll have that life-altering encounter with our quarry.  And I suppose this makes some sense.
        On the other hand, there were many of us in the river last Saturday; the parking lot was FULL, and each vehicle usually carried more than one person.  We were all in the pursuit of the same goal.  And, I dare say, few of us had exactly the same flies at the ends of our lines.  But most were successful in the encounter.  And, almost to an angler, we rejoiced with their success, not spending time arguing that THEIR flies and technique (which actually worked) were the WRONG ones.
        I learn a lot from fishing.



Friday, March 6, 2015

If you build it, they will come!

     About this time of year, in 2005, I was training to ride my bike 585 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  I had signed up for the AIDS Lifecycle 4, pledging not only to ride my bike a bunch of miles, but also to raise a bunch of money -- all in support of AIDS research.  Fortunately, I was successful on both counts, thanks to the help to MANY people, before and during the ride.
      I didn't really have much of an idea of what I was getting into in some respects. I knew that there was going to be a lot of hard work; that was a given. I knew that we would be setting up and taking down tents every day and packing our gear into trucks. I knew that my main responsibility was getting from one campsite to the next, preferably without falling/crashing/"bonking" (basically running out of steam). But I had no way of knowing how the 1600 riders and 400 "roadies" would form an instant community.      We were of many ages. There was one girl I remember who missed her high school graduation because she was riding. I remember one man who was in his 70's.  We were from all over the United States and beyond. Ethnic diversity! Gay and straight. Very healthy folks as well as riders who were HIV positive (they rode with orange flags on their bikes -- the "Positive Pedalers"). Many experienced cyclists, and many who rode their first century (100 miles in one day) on the third day of the ride.      As we cycled, we talked with folks we'd never met prior to that encounter on the road. "On your left" (the shout letting riders know that someone was passing them) may be the only human voice we'd hear for a while. But, if someone had a flat or other mechanical malfunction, there would immediately be a group who'd stop and help get that rider going again.      It was an entire society created within and for the week. We were all committed to the same overall cause, as well as the immediate goal(s):  completing the ride, both for the day, and the week. We suspended many "normal" rules of interaction, rules of separation. Pretty much NOTHING was more important than all of us reaching Los Angeles and celebrating our common achievement.      We built that alternate society that week.  Certainly, since it was AIDS LIfeCycle 4there had been several prior events, and for many riders/roadies, the 2005 ride wasn't their first.  They had begun the building of that society and I had witnessed it in the late 90's while on vacation in Santa Barbara.  I knew then that I wanted to be part of that "world"; in 2005 it happened.
      We can build an alternative world to that in which we live.  I work with students who are committed to world where religious differences are real, but that are not divisive.  They embody that belief and attract others to their events.  I would like to think that many of us are tired, tired, tired, of all of the discord and ready to move forward.  Certainly these students are.  They are building; may we all.


PS:  For more information about the AIDS LifeCycle, surf on over to:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Divine selfies

    Both of the above portraits are of the same man, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).  Both were painted by the artist -- one of the most prolific self-portraitists ever, with over 40 self-drafted (drawn and painted) images of himself, and all between 1886 and 1889.  They are both similar -- they are the artist.  Yet the are also different. As the Wikipedia article on van Gogh states, "In all, the gaze of the painter is seldom directed at the viewer; even when it is a fixed gaze, he appears to look elsewhere. The paintings vary in intensity and color and some portray the artist with beard, some beardless, some with bandages – depicting the episode in which he severed a portion of his ear."*  Given the number of self-portraits, as well as the varying poses -- yet with almost all showing the artists head from the right side, one must wonder what drove him to such output in such a compressed period of time.      
      I began thinking of van Gogh's work on Tuesday evening at DU's "Bridges to the Future" lecture by Prof. Alice Marwick of Fordham University.  Prof. Marwick's address was entitled, "Privacy and Publicity in the Social Media Age", but she did not approach the topic so much from the standpoint of privacy "violations" or even privacy settings on Facebook (although she did touch on those).  Rather she chose to examine these concepts through the medium of the "selfie" -- the now-ubiquitous self-photograph-posted-to-social-media (her statistics on this were astonishing!).  She pointed out that the photos we choose to upload for public consumption (even if a small, selected, public) are chosen with two main criteria in mind:  context and audience.        
      Context and audience.  We "shoot" ourselves in certain places and times, in certain poses, or with certain backgrounds, and then accompany the photo with a caption or some lines of text that help provide the viewer with some idea WHY we chose that photo ("Look at me here in LOVELY Mazatlan on the beach with an umbrella in my drink!  Wish you were here (you unlucky sot, stuck in snow-bound New England!)"  And, then, of course, we know pretty much who will see the photo.  If we are a celebrity, it will be our fans.  It may be directed at our family and/or friends (depending on with whom we're connected in our social media world).  In other words, we're telling a story with the photo/caption to an audience we know will (or should) understand.  But every selfie will tell a different story, as the context (and perhaps the audience) will differ.
     And so I began to wonder about van Gogh. Some of the portraits have the "swirrly-line" background (like the one on the top).  Others help provide context, such as the in-home background in the one on the bottom.  Some chose to hide the fact that he had taken a knife to his ear (as on the top).  Very few show the bandage (on the bottom).  And very few depict the artist without his beard.  Yet they are all, unmistakably, Vincent van Gogh.  
       It didn't take long for me to take another "leap" in thinking, given my background in religion.  I'm certainly familiar with the somewhat standard "defense" of multiple religions:  "they are all different paths up the same mountain (i.e., "up" to God)."  I, myself, prefer a variation on that theme:  "different religions are different paths down the mountain (i.e., God reaching to us)".  Prof. Marwick's description of the selfie prompted a slight revision.      
       Those of us who have taken and posted "selfies" have done so, consciously or unconsciously (according to Marwick) recognizing the reasons why, and to whom, we're posting the photo.  We are careful (some of the time) NOT to post embarrassing photos, worrying that mom, Uncle Ralph, or a future employer might see them.  Or we intentionally post wonderful shots with some luminary/hero to show our association with greatness.  Both sets of selfies are US.      
        Being of a sociological-bent, I have long adopted a view of scripture as human attempts, given their particular socio-cultural-political situations, to make sense of divine actions (or inactions) in their individual or corporate lives.  But what if we see sacred writings as selfies, divine attempts to reach a particular audience in and from a particular context?  Folks have long noted that there are themes common to most religions, yet often debunk religions because of the differences.  Could the "divine selfie" theory help here?  God to us in ancient India.  God to us in ancient Israel.  God to us  . . .?  
       There are some challenging sidelights to the idea, but every theistic tradition has a notion of divine love/concern directed at the earth's inhabitants.  What's so strange about a compassionate God sending a self-portrait to each of us, in terms we would understand?  
       They might not be the same picture, the same pose, the same background -- but come from the same Source.
        I mean, which of the two portraits above is REALLY van Gogh?


Friday, February 20, 2015

Let's give it up . . .

       For many Christians, this past Wednesday (2/18) was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40+ day season known as Lent.  Many folks, Christian or not, have heard about the season, if in no other context than "What are you giving up for Lent?"  I don't want to go into a whole history of Lent and its observance; that information is freely available (Thanks, Google!).  I will just say that the season focuses on spiritual discipline.  That can include acts of service, other acts of prayer/devotion, fasting or self-denial.  It's those last two areas (fasting & self-denial) that stand behind the "What are you giving up . . .?" question.  The two answers I most often heard when growing up among my friends who observed Lent were: chocolate and the Sunday comics page.  Those two objects of "self-denial" were made the more sweet on Easter Sunday (the end of Lent), when both chocolate and the Sunday funnies were permitted and indulged in -- in abundance!
        One of the challenges faced by anyone--religious or otherwise--who "gives up" something for a season (a day, week, month or 40 days) is seeing that practice as practice, not just an end in itself.  That is, this is not practice, but rather an end: "I'm not drinking Starbucks Triple-shot Vanilla Lattes UNTIL . . .!  And THEN I get to drink them again as much as I want!"  Practice would be not to drink those lattes in order to wean oneself of drinking them in the future, and perhaps donating the money that would have been spent to some worthy cause.        In the 'giving up" vein, then (since there are other ways of self-discipline), I was intrigued and challenged, but some suggestions that appeared in my Facebook feed this week.*  They were, to be sure, contextualized by Lent, but many went far beyond a Christian framework.  I can't think of any religious tradition that wouldn't suggest giving up the following:
  • Fear of Failure
  • Feelings of Unworthiness
  • Overcommitment
  • Entitlement
  • Apathy
  • Hatred
  • Bitterness
  • Mediocrity
  • Busyness
  • Idolizing
  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Ungratefulness
      What struck me about so many of these was that they seem to be "virtues" or attitudes that are promoted in so much of our society.  And, I would imagine that very few of them make us happy, joyful or peaceful -- that is, they do little to give us what we really want, for ourselves, our loved ones, or the world.      So, regardless of tradition, let's give it up.  But not just for a time-certain, at which point we resume our pride, or unworthiness, or overcommitment.  Let's give it up for a time, on the road to some permanent, life-giving, changes.


* For those interested in the full list, it was forwarded to me from the website of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Old Bridge, NJ.