Friday, January 23, 2015

Too heavenly minded?

     Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr? Jr?) reputedly said, "Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good."*  This quotation often seems to be trotted out by folks who disagree with religionists who seem to be more concerned about the next, or after-, life than they are with the material realities of THIS world -- whether those concerns be the environment, or hunger/poverty, or peace-related issues.  And in a certain sense, I would agree with that critique.
     That quotation came to mind, however, as I was reading a passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
“Seek me in chaos.”
I the LORD speak the truth,
I declare what is right. (45.19, NRSV)

Other translations replace the word "chaos" with "heavens" or "empty waste".  Regardless of translation, the implication is that finding God does NOT necessitate looking very far.
       Much of the book of Isaiah -- indeed, much of the Hebrew Bible -- rails against those who would find some natural phenomenon/creature (an animal or some heavenly body) and attribute to it the status of divinity.  "Idols" -- crafted by human hands to represent those non-human figures -- are constantly derided by the biblical writers.  And, while I think a lot of the biblical rhetoric about "idols" is a bit over-drawn, the message behind it is pretty clear:  "Focus on the matters at hand!  Tend to justice-making!  Defend the powerless!  Do not cheat your fellows! Do NOT think that by focusing on some astral body, you'll be honoring ME!"
       I have great respect for those scientists and theologians who work to reconcile "differences" between scientific and religious claims; I have several friends who engage in that endeavor. I also have great respect for those who spend their time thinking through thorny theological/philosophical issues; trying to make sense of the conundrums of our human existence and the ways we understand divinity is important work. We all want answers to these hard questions, and I am grateful to those who would seek to answer them.  But then I run into the words of Isaiah and other biblical writers who force us to return to our chief responsibility to tend to physical, human, needs right here and now.
       I am writing from the University of Denver, where, this week, we began by honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Many students joined the "Marade" in downtown Denver that marks the MLK Holiday.  Today, Friday the 23rd, DU holds its annual Diversity Summit, in recognition that we (as a university and a society) are better when we link hands, hearts and minds across all manners of difference -- but also that there is much to do to make that dream a reality. The movie "Selma" is a box-office success, reminding all of us of the passion of early Civil Rights leaders, but also pushing us to remember the multi-religious impulses and convictions that lay behind that march.  As a nation, we are gripped by discussions about what we need to do to prevent more tragedies such as those that occurred in Ferguson or Staten Island.
      This work -- this justice-seeking work -- is, as Isaiah preaches, the search for God.  But it also reflects God's own intentions for the world:  that it be a place where people respect one another, and care for those who are marginalized.  It is the making real of the phrase from the prayer Jesus taught his followers:  "You kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."


*I was able to find all sorts of attributions, but no direct citations.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Disappointing Dreams

    As I posted to Facebook earlier this week, last weekend was a tough one for folks in Denver.  With a good season behind them, and Peyton Manning at the helm (not to mention a strong desire to erase the memory of last year's Super Bowl debacle), Denver Broncos fans dreamt that they would be "United in Orange" on the field again this upcoming Sunday.  The first drive seemed to fuel that hope.  But things went awry, horribly so.
     And, then, on Monday, for Webfoot fans, the dream of a national collegiate football championship was strong.  A potent hurry-up offense fatigued opponents all year.  Duck defenders kept getting the ball back for Heisman Award (and all the other awards possible) winner, Marcus Mariota.  The University of Oregon seemed poised to walk away with the trophy.  But the Ducks ran into the Bucks, who had a running back like a Truck (Ezekiel Elliot)!  (This faithful alum as blocked the final score from his memory.)     To quote singer/song-writer Neil Diamond (or the Monkees, or Shrek's Donkey/Smash Mouth):  "Disappointment haunted all my dreams".
     I've been around long enough to have a lot of dreams disappointed, certainly not all related to sports!  But, given the double-whammy of these "significant" foiled dreams, I began to think about the nature of disappointment.  The feeling is certainly a universal feature of human experience, so you'd think we'd learn!  But, how many times do I remember hearing "Don't get your hopes up . . .  That way you won't be disappointed"!  And I just got an email about his experience from a student who was interviewing for graduate school, "I tend to not think I did well when I interview, so I can never really tell."      Some responses to disappointment try to put a 'happy face' on the experience: "Disappointments are just God's way of saying 'I've got something better.'"  Other responses seem to tend more toward the cynical:  "The best way to avoid disappointment is not to expect anything from anyone." or "Expecting is my favorite crime and disappointment is always my punishment."  Probably the most accurate (at least to me) are those that reflect the sentiment: “Disappointment is just the action of your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were" (Brad Warner).*      That cannot imply, however, that we should stop imagining things that are not the current reality.  All of our religious traditions recognize that the world in which we live is imperfect -- or put another way, the world in which we live is not the world we created to run by our rules.  Those traditions, however, all provide prescriptions for dealing with this reality.  The prescriptions differ, to be sure, but the end goal is the same:  to make things better.  Giving up is NOT a viable option in any of them.  Whether it's "healing the world" (Judaism) or working "so that all sentient beings are free from suffering" (Buddhism), we have to act for the benefit of all. 
      Next Monday we honor a man who refused to let disappointment derail his dreams, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On this subject he wrote:  "There can be no disappointment where there is no deep love."**  I would hope that we can honor that legacy, despite events that might lead us to despair and disengagement.  The "deep love" of which he speaks--depp love for our fellow humans, and for the planet -- needs to drive us ahead!
      [That said . . . . 


*Confession:  I found all of these quotations while looking for the cute little picture above!  that said, I've heard variations on ALL of them over the years!
** from the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Je suis . . ."

       The story, unfortunately, is becoming all too familiar.  Some young person or persons, usually male, decide to act on a set of beliefs that require (or at least give permission for) some heinous event. The Charlie Hebdo horror is just the latest in a long litany.  One of the things that differentiates this particular tragedy from others is that one of the terrorists, an 18-year-old named Mourad Hamyd, surrendered to authorities. Had he not, he probably would have suffered the same fate as his fellow-terrorists did this morning (Friday, 1/9) -- dying during an assault by French police on their hide-out.
       Over the last few days, as the global media has (rightfully) given major coverage to this story, I've not heard a lot about Hamyd.  Yesterday (or was it Wednesday?), however, an interview about him on National Public Radio could have been lifted from some previous stories about individual terrorists -- both domestic and foreign.  The interviewee (through an interpreter) couldn't understand what had happened to Hamyd.  "Yes, he was a kind of "lost soul" who had become captivated by a extremist preacher.  But to go to this length?  That wasn't like him."

       How many times have we heard about "loners", or those who "don't fit in", finding their sense of meaning, or belonging, in a group/community that stands outside the mainstream -- perhaps to the extreme?  One of the (almost) universal characteristics of all humans is that we want an identity -- a name. We want that identity confirmed by others. We want to be known. When those most regularly around us don't provide that, then we look to find other communities that will provide what we find missing . . . even if those "communities" may ultimately be harmful to us.
       I have no intention of "excusing the perpetrators" in these kinds of situations, or turning them into victims.  I only want to consider the issue of how much the rest of us do to include those who are not like us, or who have trouble "fitting in"?  When faced with other-abledness, or a different language, or different skin color, or different religious or political persuasion, or [fill in the blank], do we immediately "write them off" and consign them to their "fate" (which, of course, may not be a good for the body politic)? Or do we try to engage, to understand -- not necessarily in order to persuade -- but simply to give them the voice they deserve as another human being, to hear their frustrations and hopes, their longings, their humanity. Perhaps, then, we can help them find a place where they can stand, if not with us, at least not against us.
       We all want to say "Je suis . . ."  And we all want others to hear and affirm that, indeed, we are.  A little compassion can go a long way.



Saturday, January 3, 2015

Look both ways . . .

      The Roman god Janus (pictured above) is "the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby of gates, doors, doorways, passages and endings."*  Whether or not the month of January was actually named for him is less important than the suggestion that, at any major moment, there were precursors to the moment, and consequences following it. And, so, it is not surprising that, as one year winds down and another begins that pundits and commentators in a variety of disciplines look back at the year past.  We've seen lists of the most important news stories, the most popular films, the best cute cat videos, etc., of 2014.   A couple of the religious news podcasts I favor always address the most significant religious news stories or news-makers of the year; one seeks to identify the most under-reported stories.  And they look ahead to see what MIGHT be important in the year to come.  What I often find missing in ALL of these year-end stories--regardless of source--is some analysis of what we have learned from the reported-on events.
        I started thinking about this when, this past week, I finally watched the movie "The Monuments Men" -- about a team of art historian/soldiers who were tasked with the job of recovering as much as possible of the art stolen by the Nazis in their marches through Europe.  A scene early in the movie shows a discussion between some senior officers debating whether or not it is worth the cost and risk of sending men to find "art".  The suggestion was that such art was old, and/or irrelevant.  Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and Bill Murray, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett were sent on their way!  The "wiser heads" made it clear that there were lessons in the art -- there were lessons in the past -- that made it definitely worth preserving.
        Even more food for thought came from an 
article about a school in Oakland, CA, where a special education teacher started reclaiming "waste" land on the school property as a teaching tool for her students.  They pulled weeds, recognizing that they were uninvited guests -- the whole process eventually revitalizing the whole school (and neighborhood).  What struck me in the story was her statement: 
"When you remove something negative in your life, you need to replace it with something positive. I have some perennials and fruit trees we could put here."  The perennials and fruit trees were put in, as well as playground educational art!
       Art -- even what might be called "bad" art -- represents some part of human experience and longing that is worth saving and pondering.  Personally, for example, I don't "get" Rothko, but I can't stop thinking about those huge panels of color.  Or, when we look back at the year(s) past, what are the "weeds", the uninvited guests that we are better off removing or forgetting?  But, equally important, with what do we replace them?  I believe that every experience, every encounter, is an opportunity for bringing forth new life.  Observing is one thing; recognizing a teaching is another.  One simply looks back; the other looks both ways.
 May our new year be full of wonder and learning!



*  'Tis kind of fun to see all the various rites and rituals connected with Janus!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Quiet, please!

      At the end of September our area was blasted by a VERY heavy hail-storm.  My wife was on her way to pick up the kids from school, and the hail was so bad she said that folks were stopping in the middle of the road.  She was able to pull into a parking lot and wait the storm out.  We're waiting to see whether or not our insurance will cover replacing most of the body panels on that car!  Our roof (old cedar shakes) was a mess, as were most of those in our neighborhood.  Roof replacement was in the cards!
      Last Saturday a small army of workers climbed ladders and started tearing off the shakes.  It did NOT make for a calm Saturday.  There was the noise of the shake-removal, the worker's radio (a VERY different station than I would have normally picked!), and the sound of debris hitting the truck.  When the sun finally went down, quiet was restored. What a relief! It remained quiet for several days, as we had snow on the roof.  But mid-week they were back, this time to put down the new shingles. BANG, BANG, BANG!  BANG, BANG, BANG! I'm hopeful that, today, when I get home, the roof is DONE!
      I am not really complaining, as I'm happy that we will have a new roof, providing better protection than its predecessor!  But I was struck by the contrast between the noise of the work and the silence.  I had grown slightly accustomed to the racket.  The silence, while a relief, was almost deafening.  I realized I was breathing differently.
      In a few days, like several other companies and institutions, the University of Denver will close for the last five business days of the year.  The noise, both literal and figurative, of our work will cease.  It's place, for many of us, will be taken by the hustle and bustle of holiday gatherings, noisy New Year's celebrations, intrusive holiday music in the stores, etc.  Quiet, please!
      Yet, at the same time, we will be surrounded by opportunities to find quiet and solitude.  Those of us who live in areas that are subject to snowfall all probably know how quiet even the busiest neighborhood becomes once it's blanketed by snow.  And heading into a park, or up into the mountains, just makes the quiet that much deeper.  I know I'll be heading out of the neighborhood to find that quiet, 
to be renewed, to take the opportunity to breathe differently.
      May we all find some of the quiet holiday blessings the season affords.



Friday, December 5, 2014

Wildly inaccurate

    "You are wildly inaccurate with your self-evaluation."  So begins Mary Hynes' interview with scholar/blogger/author David McRaney.*  Ms. Hynes was not accusing Mr. McRaney of anything, but, rather, summarizing some of his work . . . which, of course they discuss over the course of the interview.  The first part of the interview focuses on our common tendency to, and benefits of, self-delusion.  McRaney even argues that "People who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day-to-day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities."  
       I listened to this interview earlier this week.  And my listening to it was done in the midst of the news of the two grand jury decisions NOT to indict police officers in the deaths of two black men.  In addition I was also a member of a committee planning a division-wide workshop focusing on our implicit biases (the topic had been chosen prior to the Ferguson decision).  Questions, therefore, of bias, prejudice, self-awareness -- all of these have been swirling about me for several weeks.
      As part of the workshop, I (and the rest of the division) was asked to take Harvard's Implicit Association Test.  This survey examines our automatic (i.e., unconscious) reactions/attitudes about a whole range of subjects, from sex/gender to race to weight to Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings.  In the midst of all of the tension and protests following the Ferguson decision, I decided to take the "race" test.  The results were not what I'd hoped; my automatic reactions favored European Americans over African Americans.  I took little solace in learning that I'm not unusual in any sense -- that most Americans, 
regardless of race/ethnicity, who take the test show the same "automatic" response.  This isn't good news.
       Most of us, however, would not want to admit that these are our attitudes -- even if they are unconscious.  And, those who work on the Implicit Association Test generally point out that implicit bias (in terms of race) does not mean racism.  Yet, in general,
  we would confirm Mr. McRaney's conclusion:  we are wildly inaccurate with our self-evaluation.  And I think he would agree that this is one place where there are very few benefits to this self-delusion.  Our attitudes (unexamined or not) result in actions we may not wish to own.
       There does, however, seem to be some good news.  Later in the interview, McRaney addresses the question "Which comes first, attitude or behavior?".  After some discussion, he summarizes recent research:  changing one's behavior leads to changed attitudes.  That is, if one causes harm, hate will follow.  The opposite is also true -- good news for us -- if one acts compassionately, care will follow.   The imperative, as he quotes his father, "Act your way to right thinking."
        Our better natures, those commended to us by our various religious traditions, would have us exercise compassion, hospitality and justice to all people.  Perhaps, as we move through the tragic events of the last several weeks and months, and the protests and demonstrations that have followed, we can actively change our behaviors--our actions--and, thereby, change some of our attitudes so that "automatic" actions are just, caring and compassionate.  What a great holiday gift to give our culture.



* Mary Hynes hosts the Canadian Broadcasting System's show "Tapestry".  The interview mentioned here can be found in this episode:  The interview with Mr. McRaney begins about halfway through the show.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Teach your children/parents well

   Here at the University of Denver, the fall quarter is over (except for those poor faculty members who are still grading exams/papers!).  Yesterday was the last day of finals, and the campus was feeling pretty deserted.  Now we are on to Inter-term classes, workshops, trainings, holiday luncheons . . . six weeks (give or take) of a different pace.  But the last couple of weeks were tense, with students hurrying to get papers in, studying done, exams taken, and res hall rooms cleaned out (no food allowed over break!), etc.
     What those students are NOT doing is lining up outside of my office.  And this seems to surprise some folks, as I often am asked, at this time of year, "Well, I suppose this is your busy time??" And I can honestly answer that, in over twenty years of campus work, I've NEVER had a student come to me during the last couple of weeks of a term because of academic anxiety.  And I'm not alone in my experience, as conversations with colleagues confirm.  And that makes me wonder . . .
      It makes me wonder about the idea(s) of God/spirituality that are behind the question.  The same question is NEVER asked of me in the middle of a term . . . i.e., in a less "stressful" time.
  So, is there an underlying assumption that God/religion is just there to get you out of a fix?  Is that what the questioner was taught?  Perhaps, but it hasn't generated more foot traffic to my office.  Or, more generously, is there a belief that a chaplain or spiritual counselor would be able to lend a sympathetic ear during stressful times.  Of these two possibilities, I certainly prefer the latter, but the absence of a line outside chaplains' offices would suggest that that particular belief was not necessarily passed on to the last couple of generations.

     I would hope that today's students haven't being taught that religion/spirituality is a sort of "fire insurance", only to be cashed in when the going gets rough.  Perhaps, given the way "religion" plays out in the "culture wars", many may have been taught (or have learned) that it can useless (at the least) or pretty hurtful (at the most).   On the other hand, I fear that many haven't been taught that there is compassion and empathy to found in religiously-motivated listeners during the hard patches of life.
      I know many students (as well as their parents or other older adults) who don't believe those first two negative lessons about religion, and who DO believe the last positive lesson.  They've been taught well.  I think they know that their religious convictions ARE a support during the hard times, but not only then -- that those same convictions provide a context within which to understand the good times, as well as to provide motivation to support others.  They stop by my office from time to time.

      Clearly, there's still a lot of learning and unlearning to do, even when the academic quarters end . . . and we're all teachers all the time.  I can't help but close with the famous song of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Teach your children well":

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of the tender years, can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix,the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.*

Let's feed folks on our dreams!



*Written by Graham Nash, Lyrics from