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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Who're ya for?

       "Who're ya for"? was one of the first questions my wife was asked when she started working in Durham, NC.  It was a question I was never asked.  As a graduate student at Duke, it was (theoretically) clear where my loyalties were found.  But the question to my wife stumped her.  She had no context for it, but quickly learned that there was really only one-of-four acceptable answers, and they all had to do with sports loyalties:  Duke, North Carolina, NC State, or Wake Forest.  All four major research universities are located within an hour-and-a-half of each other.  All have passionate fans . . . especially when it comes to basketball!  But the loyalties, or rivalries, run through all of the sports, since all four universities are part of the same athletic conference. And, as is the case in many sports-besotted towns, the support for one's OWN preference turns into vilification of the rival.  A frequently-seen bumper sticker in Durham read:  "My two favorite teams are Duke and whoever is playing Carolina".  Even when Duke would win (over any opponent), a common chant arose, "Go to [Heck], Carolina, Go to [Heck]!"!
       The news out of that state over the last week, however, silenced some of that fervent rhetoric.  And it raised, for me, a different evaluation of that question posed to my wife upon her starting work in the Tar Heel State.
       The first news was of the death of former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith at age 83.  Dean Smith was coaching at UNC when I was at Duke.  The rivalry between his teams and Coach K's was fierce.  The respect, however, of each coach for the other's work was immense.  And even the Dukies would have to admit that the "Dean-o" (as some called him) was a great coach, and fielded some amazing players, like Michael Jordan and James Worthy. In the wake of Smith's death, one former Duke mascot suggested a very "worthy" way of honoring Smith:  a Duke-blue t-shirt with the "Duke" on the front replace with "Dean."  Mike Krzyzewski, ("Coach K" of Duke) honored him by wearing Carolina blue to the funeral. Regardless of the personal and team rivalries, the clear sentiment was, in answer to the question "Who're ya for?":  integrity, great teaching/coaching (more than 95% of his athletes graduated), forward-thinking, passion.
       The second news was more tragic:  the death of three young people near the UNC campus. Yusor Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Barakat, and her sister Razan were brutally murdered, ostensibly over a parking lot and/or noise dispute.  Others assert that, since all were Muslim, and the accused was a self-described "atheist & gun-toter", that the crime was motivated by anti-Muslim (or anti-Arab) feelings.  Officials currently are investigating whether or not this shooting should be classified as a "hate crime".  Given, however, the heightened anxieties and tensions over terrorism and killings with religious motivations (e.g., the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the death of the Jordanian pilot at the hands of ISIS), it is difficult NOT to see the Chapel Hill tragedy as a horrific example of "Who're ya against?"
        Many have observed that our societies have become much more antagonistic.  It is common, for example, in our American political system, simply for politicians to oppose anything the other party suggests.  Why?  "Because it's THEM, and they're not US!  Some leaders, however, have pointed out that it would be better than simply saying "No!" to offer up something as an alternative . . .  in other words, to say "Yes!" to something.
        It is becoming too easy to fall into the "Who're ya against?" rhetoric, and then act accordingly.  We wring hands and say "It's awful" . . . . and, of course, it is.  But, as we take refuge there, we are stalemated.  We can't move.
         At universities -- but not limited to these halls -- we dedicate ourselves to what "we're for":  knowledge, innovation, betterment of our world, service, understanding -- in other words, movement forward.  We have to declare that we will not stand by and let others dictate the conversation in such negative ways.  We must bring all of our best to creating something better.  It is, I believe, our responsibility.  To do anything less would be to deny our humanity.  And, so I have to ask . . .
       Who am I for?  I'm for peace-makers of whatever religious (or non-religious) background.  I'm for those who would look for solutions to local or global problems that don't rely on exploitation of others.  I'm for those who teach our children that difference is an asset to be appreciated.  I'm for those who would sit down with their opponent over a cup of tea and share their wishes for their respective grandchildren.  I'm for those who would listen thrice before speaking once.  That's a short list, but a beginning.
       It's a beginning, but only that.  Because even if I am "for" something in spirit or intent, that's not enough.  There's an implicit call to action . . . not just to "be", but to "do".  Our religious traditions -- at their best -- compel us to act to make things better.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah informs his people that God expects them to be a "light to the nations".  Christians are commended to share good news.  Other traditions have similar injunctions.  I wonder how often have turned these around, thinking that our goal is to destroy those who disagree with us, rather than show them the benefits of what WE'VE found good  . . . what we're for.  So . . . 
       Who're -- or what're -- YOU for?  And what are you going to do about it?


Chaplain Gary

Friday, February 6, 2015

Say "No" to Bad News Bearers!

     Earlier this week, I went into the DU bookstore.  The two clerks behind the cash registers were looking up at one of the television screens and told me, "We're looking at the news.  There's been a plane crash, and someone caught it on their camera."  I first wondered if something had happened between the time I had left home, and the time I went into the store.  But, no, the footage was from the plane crash in Taiwan that had happened earlier in the day; I had seen that already.*  As we chatted a bit, one of the cashiers said, "I rarely watch the news, it just depresses me."  I must admit I had to agree.
      In that vein, yesterday, as I was driving home, NPR was reporting on the situation in Jordan/Syria/Iraq.  Of course, a lot of that had to do with the murder of the captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS, as well as the Jordanian military's response.  The commentator pointed out that the video of the pilot's death was difficult to watch  And he also warned us that, if we didn't want to listen to graphic details, we should turn off the radio for about four minutes.  I didn't turn off the news, although I probably should have.
       From a different context, I had a guest speaker, Prof. Sarah Bexell (of DU's 
Institute for Human-Animal Connection) in my Honor's seminar, "Pets, Partners or Pot-roast" (a course exploring human-animal interactions, but also, primarily about applied ethics).  One of the subjects she addressed was the diminishment of our bio-diversity.  She showed a couple of pictures -- one of a very smoggy day in a city, the other of a beautiful day in the mountains, similar to the photo above.  She asked the students how each photo made them feel. The smoggy city elicited comments like "Gross" and "Depressed".  The mountain scene brought out entirely different responses:  "Happy", "Peaceful", "Energized."  No great surprise!
        Fortunately, in Colorado, we are most often able to look at scenes of great beauty, regardless of season.  It is pretty rare that "smoggy city" describes our physical surroundings.  Yet, we are subjected (or we subject ourselves) on a daily basis to the news equivalent of that "smoggy city", either intentionally--by turning on the news, or passively--through social media feeds.  Inhabitants of smoggy cities develop a heightened "fight or flight" reaction because of their environment, according to Bexell.  That can't be good for ANYONE. I would suspect that the same can be demonstrated in those whose "diet" is a constant stream of bad news.
       We need, of course, to be aware of what's going on in the world around us.  "Bad news" can alert us to injustices that cry for correction, and disasters that require our humanitarian response. But, if our "fight or flight" mechanisms are so highly elevated, we may be unable to do anything constructive, regardless of the underlying conviction that we ought.  Our inner reserves are frayed and/or depleted.
         I wonder if we can set aside time -- twenty-four hours or more a week -- as a media-free zone in our lives?  The news that needs attention will not have gone away when we return.  But, if we can spend the time we would have been tuned-in to the news, in some other, beautiful, pursuit -- play, art, sleep, hiking, enjoying our beloved -- we might return to the needs of the world refreshed, renewed and able to respond.  

         For some (I think primarily of our Jewish neighbors) this is called "Sabbath".  Whatever we call it, I would simply call it "Saying 'No' to the Bad News Bearers" for a while.



*If you missed the news on this, you can see the BBC's reportage 
here.  BUT, before you click on the link, read the rest of the reflection above.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Power to the peaceful!

       One of the more powerful scenes in the film "Schindler's List" has the sadistic commandant of the Krakow-Plaskow concentration camp in conversation with Oscar Schindler.  The commandant, Amon Goeth, had a practice of using the internees for his personal target practice.  Picking up his rifle, he said to Schindler (something to the effect):  "I can do this because I have the power."  Schindler responds (to the effect) that "The best exercise of power is NOT to exercise it."  Goeth put his rifle down -- at least for that moment.
      I have been musing on power for the last week or so as I've been reading/watching the news about power struggles around the world -- especially in the Middle East and Africa.  Whether it is governments wishing to put down rebellions, or pseudo-states trying to expand territory, or one group seeking to subdue another in the name of religion, most are resorting to physical force as the "power" to exert their will.  It seems to me, however, that even if those "powerful" groups "win", they rarely do so with the admiration of the rest of us.
      The attack -- the use of violent power -- in Paris against the publication "Charlie Hebdo" was reportedly in retaliation for "insulting" cartoons of the prophet Muhammed.  Opinions differ on whether the prophet can be depicted in any form (even among Muslims).  Similarly, opinions differ on whether violent retaliation should be the appropriate response to such depictions; many contemporary commentators point to the prophet's own (non-)response when insulted.*  Clearly, some radicals felt they were defending the honor of the prophet.  The world's -- including much of the Muslim world's -- reaction to the attacks, however, chiefly was horror, revulsion and anger.  In the minds of most, the attach did little to advance the cause of Islam or to honor its founder.

        I am reminded, too, with regard to religious leaders, that Jesus, on the occasion of his arrest, rebuked one of his followers for responding violently to the arresting authorities: " Put back your sword . . . Those who use the sword are sooner or later destroyed by it.  Do you not suppose I can call on my Father to provide at a moment's notice more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26. 52-53, NAB).  According to the New Testament, he had the power, but refused to use it.  
       And the debate about, and/or use of, power lies at the center of the story told by the film "Selma".  Will the protestors resort to power/violence, or remain non-violent?  How will those "in power" in Selma (and Alabama) use that power to respond to the threat to their "way of life"?  How would the Johnson administration exercise its power?  What the film emphasized was that a particular use of power -- the power of peoples' presence and peaceful protest, not the power of violence or weapons -- ultimately succeeded in changing things.
       The world keeps turning, however, and struggles "won" are rarely concluded.  I, for one, however, have to believe that new and continued conflicts will be won ultimately through the powerful forces of love and peace, rather than simply force.



* One example of such opinions can be found here.

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"