Friday, October 24, 2014

Untied Nations

      Those readers who also "follow" me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I regularly post the various holidays of the world's religious traditions (along with a link to a website that describes the holiday).  Those same readers also know that, in addition to religious observances, I also will add in some national holidays as well as days that the United Nations have set aside for special observance.  Today (October 24) is no different!  Today, according to the United Nations is "World Development Information Day" as well as the beginning of "Disarmament Week".  The links will explain those days, of course.  But today is an even more significant day for the UN.  It was sixty-nine years ago today that the United Nations officially came into being.  (While the Charter was signed in June of 1945, it wasn't ratified by a majority of the signatories until that October).
      The United Nations has four main purposes (according to its 
  • To keep peace throughout the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.
I believe that the UN has tried to live up to those ideals.  We can certainly see some evidence of those efforts in their published statements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the more recent Millennium Development Goals.  That said, it is clear that it hasn't always been as successful in some arenas as in others.  And there are (at least in America) some folks who think that the UN is some kind of satanic cabal that will chain us all up and force us to eat cockroaches.  
       I believe that the UN was created with the best of intentions, emerging from the ashes of the failure of the League of Nations and the horrors of World War II.  And I am sure that its structure was developed as well as it could be given the competing agendae of the major powers at that time.   But, as time has gone on, it seems that the structure has required change -- and that has been realized, and acted upon (in some ways), by the UN itself.  Changes in the composition of the Security Council is one example.  But, when "permanent" members of the Security Council want to exercise their veto, things stall.  And/or, when the UN-as-a-whole leans in one direction, initial signatories can chose to withhold funding, the overall effectiveness is compromised.

       Let me be clear, I am NOT a International Studies student/major/expert; my knowledge of the UN is what any attentive person might have gained over the last decades.  And so I am NOT making sweeping policy critiques or suggestions!  I would like, however, to return to something I suggested above, i.e., that the structure of the UN was a compromise because of the competing agendae of the earliest designers.  Where the UN has succeeded, it is because the "competition" of the majority has taken a back seat to a compelling need.  Where it has often failed, it is often partly due to one country's self-interest running rough-shod over the good of the whole.  In different language, children don't always play with other children.
       Earlier this year, 
it was reported that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis, and suggested that the UN had out-lived its usefulness; an alternative might be a similar organization with religions coming together rather than nation states.  A good, but somewhat naive, idea, Minister Peres; it has been suggested before, by the former Episcopal Bishop of California, William Swing.*  He worked tirelessly to form a "United Religions" and learned a lot.  What developed out of his efforts was the United Religions Initiative, a wonderful organization that recognizes that acting from top down has major draw-backs -- self-interest of the "leaders" (assuming they can be identified) being primary.  Working from the grassroots, dealing with real problems on the ground, with people of good faith, is the way to go.  It may not be "flashy", but it has not run afoul of as much as has self-interest.
      "Self-interest".  I know the concept.  It is part of who we are, as individuals and nations.  We want to survive; we even want our children to survive.  But how far out do the ripples go?  Are "nations" the best way to define self-interest?  Are "religions"?
      What does tie us together?  In what are we "united"?  Over what are we "untied"?  I do believe that our religious traditions--at their best, or at their core--provide the best answers to those questions.

Chaplain Gary
* Full disclosure:  I have known Bp. Swing for over thirty years.  He confirmed me as an Episcopalian, and baptized my daughter.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Treatment is not healing

     I became acquainted with the phrase "Map is not territory" when reading a book by historian of religions scholar Jonathan Z Smith of that name.  The phrase itself predates Prof. Smith, coined in 1931 by Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski, who held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. We, of course, often look at maps, at dotted lines on paper suggesting "borders", and forget that many of them are quite arbitrary.  This realization was partly behind the formation of the United Religions Initiative -- an initial idea being that religious concerns transcend physical borders.  Clearly we are face-to-face with that reality as we try to comprehend the confusing sets of "cross-border" alliances in the Middle East, borders set not by the locals, but by foreign powers decades ago.
     Another distinction, "Training is not education" appeared in my inbox earlier this week (and reminded me of the "Map" quotation).  The author, Rachel Naomi Remen, writing out of a medical context, points out that "The goal of a training is competence and replicability. Uniqueness is often discouraged and may even be viewed as dangerous."  On the contrary, Remen writes, "The root word of education -- educare -- means to lead forth a hidden wholeness in another person. A genuine education fosters self-knowledge, self-trust, creativity and the full expression of one’s unique identity. It gives people the courage to be more."  That latter insight describes well what I hope students have experiences when they leave college/university.**
      A third distinction was also suggested to me by Dr. Remen's blog, and is, in some ways, just as appropriate to her field of work.  And that is:  "Treatment is not healing".  I think that most of us can recall receiving a band-aid for some scratch or scrape -- something that kept any blood from staining our clothes, as well as keeping the wound clean.  What was usually more healing than the band-aid treatment was the hug and/or kiss from mom or dad that accompanied it.
      All three of these distinctions point at the same phenomenon:  we are often VERY willing to seek simple solutions, or simple answers to questions that demand a whole lot more.  Many of the sound-bites about how to deal with Ebola ignore huge complexities, not only of the disease and its treatment/cure, but of how international travel occurs, the distances between the stricken areas and parts of the US, cultural health differences, etc.  And the airwaves become filled with fear-mongering, finger-pointing, and line-drawing . . . to hardly anyone's advantage.
       It is my hope that we can all go deeper with the difficult issues facing us:  to figure out the territory, to become educated, to engage in healing.  I was recently called to task for criticizing a popular entertainer/commentator.  Those who questioned me thought I didn't care for his ideas.  Wrong.  I don't care for how he simplifies and over-generalizes complex ideas and, in the course of doing that, limits the possibilities for true learning, dialogue, and progress in solving problems.  He may think he's "treating" an ill, but he's really only rallying his troops.  He is certainly not leading to any sort of healing.       That, to me, is our real task.  It is the task at the root of all religious traditions: seeking and employing wisdom, creativity, healing for the benefit of all, not just those on our "side of the line" on the "map".


Chaplain Gary

* The full blog post can be found here.
** Put another way, knowing how to do something doesn't necessarily get at the essence of why it happens.  I learned how to scramble eggs many years ago, but I didn't quite understand the physics/chemistry of what happened until much later; knowledge that then I was able to translate into other cooking arenas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not to worry

    My son recently needed to take some food to school for a sort of "cultural potluck"; he chose potstickers--which, of course, need to be cooked.  The morning of the event, he got up, came downstairs, and immediately asked whether the potstickers were ready to go.  His mom and I were in the process of making breakfast, and knew that the potstickers would get ready in time.  And, even though we tried to reassure him that things would be okay if breakfast occurred first, it was clear that, until those potstickers were packed and ready to go, he felt that there was cause for worry/concern.
        In reflecting on that morning's tableau, I concluded that what mom and I had was something he, at his age, lacked:  perspective.  In his thinking, things needed to happen quickly, concretely. There was little room for uncertainty or ambiguity; the consequences (either being late, or not having a contribution for the potluck) were too great.  And I understand!  I remember clearly feeling much the same way when I was his age.
       But wait. . . .
       I don't think that concern over uncertainty is something we outgrow. I know I can't claim that I have outgrown it, and my impatience with him that morning testified to that!  But also, the increase in diagnoses of anxiety disorders, or the prescription of anti-anxiety medications, would suggest that "worry" is not one of those things that has gone away with evolution.  Certainly, worrisome questions abound on a university campus:  "Can I afford tuition?"  "What if I don't get into THAT graduate program?"  "If I don't get that article submitted before the deadline, what will happen with my tenure application?"  "Will we meet our admissions goals?"  "One of our key players is out with an injury; how can we be competitive this tournament weekend?"  "What will I write for my Friday reflection?"
       Neither news, nor social, media help matters.  Whether the reports are of Ebola, the latest atrocities brought about by ISIS/ISIL, failing infra-strucure in the nation's roadways, unethical politicians, crime on the streets, or "shared" Facebook posts, the old journalism adage seems to reign true:  "If it bleeds, it leads."  And that cliché runs hand-in-hand with another (from marketing):  "Create a need, and then meet it."  The "causes" for worry are all around us.
       I certainly don't want to minimize any of those threats (well, maybe some of them deserve minimizing!)   I have to wonder, however, about the question of perspective, that is, what is the "need" that is being created, and then filled?  The uncertainties that we face are subject to manipulation by others for their purposes.  Comparing the reporting on almost any event by Fox News, CNN, Al Jazeera or the Huffington Post reveals clear differences  . . . . with associated (desired), different, responses from us.  The "void" created by the uncertainty can be filled by someone else's answer, probably addressing that person's fear/need. But should that be OUR response?
      An answer to that question seems be well-illustrated in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  A mugging victim is left by the side of the road.  Two passers-by leave him there, socially "conditioned" to worry that something "bad" may happen to them if they were to help.  An unlikely third potential helper steps beyond such social conditioning and gives aid.  Compassion compelled him to leave worry/threat/fear aside.  His perspective was different -- a fortunate difference for the mugged victim.
      Fortunately, for my son, Mom's immediate perspective was little different than mine. She had compassion, set aside concern for the "necessity" of breakfast, cooked the potstickers, and sent him on his way.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 3, 2014

To Tell the Truth

     Catherine McLeod is an investigative reporter for a major Denver newspaper in a relatively new mystery-novel series by Boulder author Margaret Coel.  In the opening scene of the first book, Blood Memory, Catherine is almost the victim of a serious crime, and witnesses the shooting of a friend.  After a harrowing night, she goes into her office the following day, to be met by applause from her co-workers.  Then she is summoned into the boss's office where, after some "comforting" words, she is given into the hands of another investigative reporter who proceeds to grill her about her experience.  I couldn't help but wonder whether or not Catherine would, subsequently, change the way she went about her job after being subject to the same kind of treatment she was accustomed to meting out.  (And I haven't read enough of the books to know!)
        A couple of clichés sprang to mind:  "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" and "The shoe's on the other foot, now!".  But what I also felt was some sympathy for Catherine; she was in a VERY difficult situation and wasn't being allowed to deal with it on her own terms.  What I saw was an age-old and constant phenomenon:  someone gets so entangled in the various webs of their life that they cease to see them, or even realize that they are entangled.  It may take a "knock upside the head" to get that person to wake up to their predicament.  Waking up is one thing, however, and acting on the realization is something different.
        "Wake up and do things differently" is a theme of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, which I've been reading the last few days.  As was the case with many of his prophetic colleagues, Hosea rails against the complacency of his compatriots.  He points out that they had adopted the conviction that certain rituals and practices were all that was really necessary to be faithful to God. He accuses them of ignoring the more central concerns of their religion:  justice, compassion, mercy, etc.  And he asserts (on behalf of God) that they will soon receive their just desserts.
         Hosea was not alone, as I've suggested.  Not only did his prophetic contemporaries make similar accusations, but many of the Hebrew prophets in centuries to follow also criticized this pattern.  Turning a sympathetic eye towards the "people", I can't imagine that they consciously decided to ignore the "weightier matters", but that habit, and a desire for doing the easy things, simply led them down an, ultimately, problematic path.  But correction didn't -- and doesn't -- come easy.  The prophets often suffered for telling the truth, and the people suffered for not listening.
       I don't believe that any of us willingly choose to adopt erroneous ideas, or choose to take the wrong road.  As fallible humans, however, we often find ourselves caught up in "wrong-thinking" without realizing it.  Sometimes it's habit; sometimes it's simply incomplete knowledge (that we assume is complete).  But what both Catherine McLeod (or Margaret Coel) and Hosea have reminded me is that sympathy is often a good thing to extend to the one in "error", as well as that listening to the correcting truth may be a life-giving action.
        What's that you say . . . . . ?

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 26, 2014

Co-option should be no option

      The news from the Jefferson County schools has gone far beyond the borders of that county.  It has been reported nationally, both on television and radio.  For those readers who have not heard, hundreds of high school students are walking out of classes to protest some proposed policies of the Jefferson County School Board.  One of the issues that they're protesting has to do with teacher compensation.  The one, however, that is gaining the most notoriety has to do with curriculum changes in teaching U.S. History (specifically Advanced Placement U.S. History).  Proponents of the changes want greater emphasis placed on the "positive aspects" of American history, and less on the "more regrettable" side of our past.  Increased "patriotism" is one of their objectives.
      The students, of course, believe that the definition of "patriotism" that the school board is asserting is NOT the only possible definition, and that the board is promoting a particular political agenda.  The students are adopting a form of civil disobedience that has been part of American history for some time, but that, according to the new curriculum, might receive little attention in future courses.  Their action, the students believe, is truly patriotic.  In short, the students are refusing to "buy in" to (a) the school board's agenda of "cleaning up" American history and/or (b) a particularly narrow definition of "patriotism".   They are doing us a favor, I believe, in reminding us of the temptation to give in to someone else's vision of how things should be.
      I've been thinking about this larger issue over the last few days -- not because of the protests in the next county over, but because of a meeting with a very different group of students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  This group of students is passionately committed to creating a better world/future by bringing folks together, despite any religious differences, to achieve common goals.  Whether by serving together, studying together, eating together -- their belief is that we're "Better Together".  And that belief flies in the face of a culture that seeks to divide us into ever smaller groups, all in competition over (supposedly) limited resources.
      The passion and the energy those students bring to this enterprise is amazing.  The meetings start at 60 mph and accelerate from there.  Ideas fly around like crazy.  "Should we send students to this conference or that one?"  "Who should we get to cater this event?" "I think we should visit that house of worship!" "We need to get signatures on the application now!"  "Let's partner with one of the Greek organizations to provide community service!"  "We should devote a part of each meeting to watching?learning something about another religion!"  And on it goes.  It's like a feeding frenzy; the hour-long meeting passes in seconds.  It's great.
      This "style", however, mirrors a wider cultural phenomenon of "busier, faster, louder".  And we're all subject to that allure; it's so much a part of the "air" that we breathe that we hardly notice it any more. And so I challenged us at the last meeting to consider what kind of change we are trying to effect.  If our meetings are as frenetic and un-reflective as the society around us, aren't we selling out to a system that, ultimately, will wear us down?  Do we get to know each other, appreciate each other, while we're so busy talking around each other.
      I suggested a "protest", an act of "holy disobedience":  let's start the meetings with a minute or two of silence so that we can bring our whole selves into a different "space" (to create a "holy space") for our time together.  As a partial result of more a more deliberate way of being in communion with one another, we might, ultimately, be able to offer a viable, even more attractive, alternative to those forces that would divide us one from another.  Not business-as-usual, but community-as-optimal.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence rejected . . . .

      This morning, as I was riding into work, I was listening to an interview with two scholars of the Muslim world (Reza Aslan and Graham Wood); the topic:  ISIS/ISIL and it's declaration of a "caliphate".  In the course of the interview, the question was raised as to whether some central learned "authority", such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, could have any influence over ISIS.  The answer was basically "No, ISIS is anti-clerical, anti-scholarly.  They are firm believers in an individual's ability to read and interpret the Quran for one's self."   In short, they act independent of any authority but their own; they want no connections they can't control.
      Earlier in the morning, I had learned that Scottish voters had voted not to separate from the United Kingdom; they rejected independence.  The reasons for a "no" vote were certainly varied.  Some folks thought that severing 
political ties would mean financial difficulties (e.g., what would happen to Scottish universities' research funding from London?).  Others saw potential European and/or global consequences if the United Kingdom dissolved.  And certainly others simply felt that emotional ties that bound Scotland and England were tight enough that severing them was undesirable (voting data showed, for example, that older voters opposed independence more than younger ones).  In short, they valued connections, even those over which they had only a little control.
      Questions of dependence, independence and inter-dependence have swirled around us for centuries -- probably from the dawn of any sort of human society.   There clearly is a tension there.  On the one hand, we celebrate the increasing "independence" of children as they grow older.  And we celebrate the independence of countries (such as our own) from tyrannical overlords.  On the other hand, we can hardly survive as entirely "independent" entities.  Humans depend on others for many necessities; countries depend on international trade.  As much as we might like to hold up autonomy or independence as an ideal, it is more of a useful fiction than reflective of reality.
       Interdependence is a constant theme in the writings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.  I particularly love his "Tangerine Meditation" in which we are invited to hold a tangerine, and meditate on its origins, on everything that it took to bring the fruit from the earth to our hand.  Sunlight, rain, nutrients in the soil, insects to pollinate, human hands to pick the fruit, package it.  Trucks, trains, planes to deliver it -- as well as people to pilot and maintain that machinery.  Civil engineers and construction workers to build the road-beds.  Shop-keepers to sell the fruit.  The list goes on.  As Nhat Hahn writes:  "You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine."*
       Interdependence is also a theme of some of John Donne's most famous lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."**

Donne's words have, for many years, had an impact on me.  And while he was writing from a 17th-century Christian perspective, it is easy to hear the resonance in the 20th-century Buddhist ideas of Nhat Hanh.  It is not difficult to find similar perspectives throughout the world's religious traditions.  We are connected--interdependent--in so many ways . . . and those connections can serve to temper our beliefs and actions, as well as increase our compassion . . . . even when we are dealing with those with whom we disagree.
       Amid strident calls for "independent action" -- personal or international, may we take a moment to peel a tangerine, or recall the tolling of a bell.

Chaplain Gary

Peace is Every Step:  The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1991), 22.
** Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII" (1624).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dawkins' logic

    A couple of weeks ago, at worship, I was seated behind a family, one member of which was a young woman in a wheelchair.  I'm no physician, so I can't assume to name her condition, but she was fairly contorted; she was almost supine in her chair.  She seemed a bit agitated as well; there were a couple of times a family member felt it necessary to take her out of the service.  It was abundantly clear, however, that her family members loved her, and were not "put out" by her condition or the potential disruption she might have caused.  I was very happy to see them there.
     Last week, at the same house of worship, I was sitting on the opposite side of the building, and behind another family.  This one was more "conventional" -- a mom and a dad and their baby boy, as well as a set of grandparents.  The boy slept in his carrier through most of the service, and, when awake, was the "perfect angel" (i.e., quiet, but alert).  
He was taken out of the service, too, but for a very different (diaper-related) reason.  Again, the family was clearly very loving and attentive to the boy.  I was equally happy to see them there.
     At both services, sitting behind both families, one of the main things that kept running through my mind was the recent firestorm created by Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist and noted "new atheist").  He responded to someone who was wondering about potentially being pregnant with a "kid with Down's Syndrome".  Dawkins' response was "
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
"*  As might be imagined, this tweet "went viral" and created a HUGE backlash against Dawkins, especially from the Down's Syndrome and the Right-to-Life communities.  Dawkins subsequently tried to justify his position by pointing out how many Down's Syndrome foetuses are aborted already.  And he questioned whether or not the foetuses could suffer.  And, then, finally, he published a more complete response, suggesting that if he weren't limited to the 140 characters of Twitter, he would have given a more nuanced, logical, rational, answer.  The gist of that more "complete" response was that aborting the foetus would be a mercy to the foetus, preventing it from experiencing future suffering.  He also states that the choice to bring to term a child with Down's Syndrome would "condemn" (his word!) the parent(s) "to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child".
      Now, I can take issue with Prof. Dawkins for any number of reasons.  Clearly, his position as one of the spokespeople for the "new atheists" puts him and me at odds over some fundamental theological issues.  The question of abortion in such a circumstance is certainly problematic on a number of fronts.  I am not choosing, here, to step into those troubled waters.  I have, however, two other thoughts stemming from Prof. Dawkins' assertions.
      First, I can't imagine that he could assert that a life without suffering is possible.  According to his Wikipedia biography, he is currently in his third marriage.  I don't know the circumstances, but if he had not experienced some level of suffering because of the dissolution of his first two marriages, I'd have to wonder about his humanity.  I bring that up only to suggest, as have many throughout history -- perhaps, most notably, the Buddha --  that the very fact of living includes some level of suffering.  If that is the case, then Dawkins' logic would compel us to abort every pregnancy.  Hmmmmm.
      Secondly, I'm not sure "caring" for someone is a "condemnation", unless one is driven by a totally selfish motivation (Dawkins DID, on the other hand, write the book, The Selfish Gene.  Just an observation.)  This question derives from my experiences over the last couple of weeks at worship, my own experience as a parent, indeed, my experience as a human being.  Suffering -- our own, and that of our children -- is basically inevitable (unless we've been able to achieve enlightenment as suggested by the Buddhist tradition).  
The circumstances or troubles we face may be visible or invisible to others.  They may have been the results of bad choices, or problematic genes, or freak accidents of weather.  The reasons matter not. The question of our response to that condition, it seems to me, is the critical issue.  What I saw in the faces of those family members of those two (VERY different) children was compassion.  Love.  It was not "logical" resignation to being condemned to care.
      It was, I think, an illogicalirrational choice of commitment to care in the face of real life.  Of course, those attitudes are what our religious traditions would commend.  Sign me up.

Chaplain Gary

*Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014