Friday, April 21, 2017

Order and/or Disorder

     A long time ago (and it seems "in a land far, far, away"), singer Peggy Lee made popular a song with the lines: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, the let's go dancing" ("Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee, 1969). While the song picked up a bit on the zeitgieist of the late '60's, I sometimes think that it could just as easily describe life in the 20-teens. On the "left", people long for the "orderly" days of the previous national administration(s). On the "right", the winning campaign cry was "Make America Great Again" (implying that there was some more "orderly" past to which we can return). The dichotomy of order vs. disorder seems to reign supreme in our national discourse.
       There is, however, a third option:  "re-order". Indeed, in an interview I heard earlier this week with author/theologian Fr. Richard Rohr, Rohr pointed out that he had discovered in his readings of many of the sacred and mythical stories a consistent theme: the protagonist moves through a process of "order-to-disorder-reorder". Consider the Exodus experience of the Hebrews:  an orderly life in Egypt to the disorder of the Wilderness experience to the re-order of a settled community in the Promised Land. (Yes, the slavery of Egypt was awful, but, compared with the dis-order of the wilderness, the cry went up to Moses, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt, where at least we had food?")  Or, more currently, the experience of Luke Skywalker leaving the "order" of Uncle Owen, to the disorder of all of the battles with the Republic, to the re-order of his realizing his identity as a Jedi.
        With that in mind, I was surprised to be reminded while reading No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education (Oxford, 2012)) that the educator William Perry postulated that college students go through a similar phased process. As the authors (Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen) of No Longer Invisible summarize his thought: 

When entering college most students are dualists; they see the world in simple binaries (good/bad, us/them, right/wrong). The second stage is one of moral and cognitive relativism, when students become aware of multiplicity. In the third stage, students transcend the confusion of pure relativism and take steps toward mature self-awareness and nuanced commitment. . . . moving from one sate to the next requires a personal crisis, a moment when it become apparent that one's existing beliefs of convictions are no longer adequate. (124)

Perry's personal crisis equals Rohr's "disorder". But both Perry and Rohr note that the students of today might have missed the "order" piece in general because of the fractured nature of our society (and education) since the time that Peggy Lee sang "Is that all there is?"
      That may be true, in the abstract (or general). But I think there's a greater truth that resides in both of their three-part scenarios: most of our lives go through that process over and over. Perhaps the stakes aren't as dramatic as Luke Skywalker's all the time, but we do face the situation in big and small ways. What we often forget (and Rohr and Perry would agree) in the throes of disorder is that reorder is different from a return to a prior "order". Things that are broken/dis-ordered CAN be re-assembled, but they will never be the same. There is grief in that realization, but also hope.

        In our lives, and in the broader world, that is what we really want: not the old order, but "A New Hope".


Friday, April 14, 2017

Just ask the dodo . . .

         There are so many iconic moment in the cult-classic movie "Princess Bride" (and I can imagine that readers are now going through many of them in their own minds). One set that I hear probably more often than others is the (now-) classic use of "Inconceivable" by the Sicilian criminal Vizzini (played by Wallace Shawn). He uses it often in the film, right up to the moment (spoiler alert) he is . . . umm . . . incapacitated. But in the course of his (mis-) use of the word, Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patnikin -- "Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya . . .. ") says to Vizzini, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Montoya points out to Vizzini that just because he THINKS things should work in a certain way DOESN'T mean that, when they don't, it's "Inconceivable!" (Vizzini is probably of the "Alice in Wonderland" school where a word means what he wants it to mean.)
        Many of us who watch "Princess Bride" nod in agreement with Montoya's assessment of Vizzini's false "knowledge. Part of that "agreement" is, no doubt, due to the fact that the film is so over-the-top, and Vizzini is presented as such an self-impressed idiot. And, of course, he IS presented as a villain, so we're supposed to dislike him. But we are, at the same time, not immune to acting in quite the same way. That is, when we believe something (ought) to be a certain way, we stand fast in our delusion, and woe-betide those who would challenge us.
         I couldn't help thinking about this last week while attending a panel presentation on international student issues. The panel had originally been constituted several months ago to discuss the mental health needs of international students in general. And, then, just hours before the presentation, the Administration's first travel ban was issued. While the students valiantly tried to stay "on topic", it was clear that there were more significant issues that needed to be addressed, and, so, a second panel was arranged -- the one last week. The acute tension over the travel bans had moderated a bit, but it was still apparent. What was also apparent, however, was that the international students who were part of the panel (both graduate and undergraduate) didn't feel a part of the University community. They voiced a sense of exclusion at the most, or a sense of tokenism at the least. And it made little difference with which program they were involved, or what was their country-of-origin. What made me think of "Inconceivable" from "Princess Bride" was the sobering disconnect between the "reality" the  University understood, and how the international students experienced a different reality.
        This is not a situation limited to the University of Denver, or to the USA. I went home that evening, and, as my wife and I were channel-surfing, we landed on a German detective show (oh, the marvels of cable TV!). The plot (as well as I could follow it through sub-titles, looking up from my magazine) had to do a LOT with tensions between the German "natives" and those of Turkish descent (even if they had been born in Germany and spoke German more frequently than Turkish!). It was a detective show so, of course, the tensions turned murderous. But all I could think of was how the "majority" marginalizes (sometimes violently) the "minority" . . . . and all in the guise of maintaining "normalcy", or returning to "how things used to be".
         Well, I'm sorry, but that's "Inconceivable". Despite what people in power, or those of the "majority", may want us to believe, they cannot take us back to a mono-culture. The world has become a much "smaller" place, even within my lifetime. It may be uncomfortable for some, but it isn't inconceivable. And those who would claim that it is, are going to have to expand their vocabulary, their understanding, and their social circles, or they'll go the way of the--now extinct--dodo. And, just ask the dodo, THAT fate is not "inconceivable."



Friday, April 7, 2017

Encouraging words

      A couple of weeks ago, my "reflection" in this space was all about offering encouragement. I invited readers to submit either encouraging words or acts. Several folks did!  And here's what they said:

Andrea C:  In times of uncertainty in my life, I invariably turn to the Harry Potter series. The overwhelming message for me is one of peace and friendship. What's special about these books is that this peace is not achieved through absence of conflict, but through the wholeness of the magical community and the protagonists' efforts to defend it.

Randy A:  As of late, what I find myself watching several times is the
Ted Talk given by Monica Lewinsky.  Every time I watch, I admire her strength and courage to confront head on her life during the Clinton Presidency when the world first learned of her.  Watching and listening to her talk, I find her very intelligent, articulate and well spoken. I always am uplifted in some way knowing whatever issues confronting me pale in comparison to what Monica has had to endure and live with since her time working at the White House.  

Javid J:  Here's an example of a short beautiful Baha'i prayer which always encourages me:  "O God!  Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord." (‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

What I found interesting in these submissions was how different they were!  And what that has helped me understand is that there are many ways I can give encouragement. We'll all get by a little bit better with a little help from our friends!



PS:  If you' would like to add to the storehouse of encouragement:
1)  To what stories do YOU turn when you need encouragement?
Click here, and you can send a message on that subject.
2)  How do YOU encourage others when they are facing challenges or hardship?
Click here, and you can send a message on that subject.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Looking . . . do we see?

      The other day I was listening to an interview between the Rev. Welton Gaddy and Kim Lawton, formerly of the "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS. Lawton had been the managing editor for the show for its entire almost-20-year run. Gaddy asked about the entanglement of religion and politics, especially in news reporting, and Lawton replied to the effect that, indeed, a lot off reporting on religion was being done through the lens of politics. She admitted that there was a "political" aspect to reporting on religion, but that that was not all that religion was about. She went on talk about the kinds of things she LIKED to report: all of the good, encouraging, news that had little to do with politics, but, rather, with the humanitarian impulses that lay within the world's great religious traditions.       Then, last night, I went to a dress rehearsal for Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Disgraced" (see the announcement below for the book discussion coming up on Tuesday). In a discussion about her art (and Islamic art in general) with a friend/art impresario, Emily (the wife of the main character) says:  "We've all gotten way too wrapped up in the optics. The way we talk about things. We've forgotten to look at things for what they really are." *        I am certainly guilty, too often, of being "wrapped up in the optics". The Harvard Implicit Bias project, at least that portion devoted to social attitudes,would suggest that we all are, given that the test is based on viewing photographs. Most of us who have taken the test are at least a bit disturbed to find out that we are not as "neutral" as we think. Yet most commentators on the results of the project point out that, knowing that we are not "color-blind" can go a long way to help us begin to look a bit more carefully. **         I don't have a copy of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning (!) book about the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels, near me. Looking . . . do we see? I do recall a scene/conversation in the book where one of the main characters, Col. Joshua (Lawrence) Chamberlain, was musing about the difference between the races. He says something to the effect that "When I look at another man, I try not to see the color, but rather that there is a divine spark in him.' Whether or not the real Chamberlain*** ever said (or thought) that, his sentiment reflects the ancient Sanskrit greeting "Namasté" -- variously translated as "I bow to the god within you" or "The divine in me greets the divine in you".
        That ancient wisdom seems to evade most of us these days. Our various tribalisms (whether religious or political)--especially now--distort our ability to "look at things [or people] for what they really are". At times such as these, it would be prudent to recall Abraham Lincoln's words in his first inaugural address, as he faced a divided nation:
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ****



* Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 31.
** For more on implicit bias, listen to this recent interview conducted by Mary Hynes:
"If you have a brain, you have a bias".
*** Later President of Bowdoin College, and then Governor of Maine.
****  "First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln". The Avalon Project.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Oft might be heard an encouraging word?

      Those familiar with the history of Islam will know that the Prophet Mohammed's message was not well-received early-on in Mecca. Indeed, he and his band of followers were ridiculed and persecuted. They finally were forced to flee and found a home 250 miles away, in what became know as Medinah. Many of the surahs revealed during those troubled times recount stories of the biblical figures who met resistance during their times (e.g., Noah and Moses), as well as other, non-biblical messengers who, similarly, faced opposition. The surah "Hud" contains the reason for these repeated story-tellings:  "The histories of the apostles that We [God] reveal to you [Mohammed] are meant to strengthen your heart" (120).* In other words, Mohammed's experience was not unique among those who sought to bring about just change; he should take heart, being in good company.
        Reading that made me wonder: (1) to what stories do WE turn when we need encouragement? and (2) how do we encourage others when they are facing hardship?  With regard to the first question, The Lord of the Rings' author JRR Tolkein seemed too like fairy tales:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous "turn" (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist," nor "fugitive." In its fairy-tale -- or otherworld -- setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” **

In partial regard to the second question, I think of a wonderful essay/letter by Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "We were made for these times". The whole piece can be found here, but she concludes by writing:

In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

       But I continue to wonder, and I thought I'd turn to "crowd-sourcing" to find some answers. I'll collect the responses and post them in a future newsletter. So, the outcome is up to you, dear readers!
1)  To what stories do YOU turn when you need encouragement?
here, and you can send a message on that subject.


2)  How do YOU encourage others when they are facing challenges or hardship?
here, and you can send a message on that subject.

Thanks, and blessings,


* Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur'an:  A Contemporary Translation (Princeton, 1993), 199.
** Tolkein on  Fairy Stories (

Friday, March 17, 2017

Waiter, there's a . . .

        . . .rock in my river!
       When I was first re-aquainting myself with fishing several years ago (to satisfy my son's initial interest in the sport), I fell back on what I had known and done in my high-school days: either "bait-and-a-bobber" or spinner fishing. The hope (and sometimes success) was that some roaming bass (or crappie or bluegill) would either be fooled, or enticed, to swallow the lure or bait. An incredible fight would ensue, and, triumphantly, I would bring the victim to the net (and then home, to be breaded and fried). Those early fishing experiences were generally on a small lake or some other impoundment -- in other words, on still-water.  I could usually see any hazards, like downed trees, rusted-out car-bodies, etc.  And, seeing them, I would avoid them, as I didn't want to lose that worm!  I was not a particularly sophisticated fisherman, simply one who cast the hook into the water and hoped for the best (and certainly NOT to get snagged).
        As I indicated, when I re-joined the angling ranks, I went back to ponds with my (and my son's) spinning rods. Shortly thereafter, however, I was introduced to the addiction of fly-fishing.  And, lo and behold, I learned you could fly-fish on ponds! My success rate didn't improve much. My companions (well, my teachers), of course, saw stillwater fishing as only a part (and, truth be told, in Colorado, a lesser part) of fly-fishing. The "true" sport was on the rivers of the Front Range and Western Slope. Wishing to "be in the know" (or part of the fraternity), I began to accompany experienced anglers on their weekend outings. I quickly discovered that there were some major differences between stillwater- and stream-fishing (aside from the obvious that the water is FLOWING).

       One of those many differences was that the obstacles that I tried so assiduously to avoid were no longer obstacles, they were now "structure", and the fish were less prone to cruise about, but to hang around the structure waiting for the current to bring the food to them. So, beneath downed trees, or along under-cut banks -- those were great places to find fish. There was, of course, always the threat of losing the flies at the end of the line to the angler-foiling tree! But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. (Frequently touted "wisdom" is that if you're not losing a lot of flies, you're not doing it right.)
       There are other obstacles of course (fortunately, not as many rusted-out car-bodies). They could certainly snag my line or capture my hook. They are:  rocks.  Sometimes they are large and protrude above the surface of the water; other times they are submerged, and the only evidence of them might be some swirls on the surface. And, so, relying on my old memories, I was very wary of those rocks. But, as the picture above shows of "Prime Lies in Red", a very likely location for the trout are behind those wily hook-catchers. (There are other bits of prime trout real-estate with respect to rocks as well). The reason for all of them being significant is that the current flowing into, around, and behind the rocks concentrates the floating bug-life into a nice feed-bag.
        I've learned, therefore, that avoiding obstacles (or, in other non-fishing circumstances, trying to remove or destroy them) can decrease my possibility of gaining something I want (i.e., a large trout!). The "learning" is to focus less on the obstacle and more on its surroundings. The marginal areas are the often the most productive.*
        This "strategy" translates into other arenas, I believe, as well. I just think how much effort we spend on trying to convince the "other side" -- politically or theologically -- of our position (i.e., destroy or remove the rock). Social science has shown that that is NOT productive. But there are many on the margins who are willing to "take the bait", i.e., engage in a meaningful encounter. I recall that, in the late 1990s, I commented to a campus minister colleague that the sign hung on the front of his building that claimed "Dropping bombs is a sin!" was not going to bring in "questioners" to talk with him, but was, in effect, creating a barrier to conversation, and thus to change-of-mind. He was trying to destroy the obstacle rather than engage the questioning margins.
        I still don't like losing my flies to rocks in a river. But I'd much prefer to be in a place where I can encounter another being.



*  The same is often true in birdwatching -- the area where a forest gives way to a field, or a field to a river, generally produces a larger variety of bird species. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Be here now

     I remember hearing Iliff School of Theology''s  late Professor Vincent Harding say something to the effect that "I live in a country that does not yet exist".  Harding was a important figure in the fight for Civil Rights "back in the day". He was a friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He wrote much of King's famous anti-Vietnam speech, "A Time to Break Silence". In short, he was passionate about working to make the "country that doesn't not yet exist" into a reality. In other words, Harding lived HERE; he was realistic about the current situation, but hungered for something better.
      What a difference from those who would look (or live) THERE, with "there" defined as being either in the future or the past. Living in the past "there" means trying to replicate patterns or institutions that may have been good once, but are not about HERE. Living in a past "there", one cherry picks the good memories, without recalling the bad ones.  Likewise, living solely in a future "there" means discounting the realities of HERE that need to be addressed now to ensure that that future "there" can be possible.  
        “Wherever you are is called Here" writes poet David Wagoner, "And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”* I heard this in a interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama, and it struck home, especially given our propensity not to live in the present -- the present moment or the present place. For if we are HERE we must live with the powerful strangers that we encounter.  So much easier to go THERE, either in time or in (virtual) space, than to deal with the realities before us.
        Of course, however, the "powerful strangers" that we may seek to avoid just might be our allies (even if in ways they don't realize) rather than our adversaries. I have learned that lesson too often to keep count, but not often enough that I consistently live it.
         Who knew HERE could be so complicated!? But it may make for a much better THERE.