Friday, June 15, 2018

Their truest life to find

[What follows is an excerpt from my remarks at the Farewell Reception on June 1st.]

    I came to DU fully hoping that I’d be able to stretch myself beyond the bounds that I’d had the prior 17 years — as an Episcopal campus minister. In that role, I had a very focused community. In that role, I was always “across the street” from campus, both literally and figuratively. That is, I was employed by the Church, not by the campus. And that meant my access to the universities was somewhat constrained. At DU, the campus, from groundskeepers to Trustees, faculty, staff, and students — regardless of their religious/spiritual affiliation — all were my “flock”. And I loved moving among  those various constituencies. I learned so much!
    I learned, for example, to love lacrosse. Susan [my wife] said, after our first DU game, “They get to hit each other with sticks? And it’s legal? I LOVE this game!” And so do I! I now understand how the scoring in gymnastics works, and that “wins” in a match are much less important that the overall score.  
    I learned, through my association with Jimmy Wicket — a program that pairs volunteers (students, faculty or staff) with Alzheimer’s sufferers — not only about Alzheimers disease, but also croquet (not the backyard variety!). And I learned how much joy the volunteers gained through playing with the seniors — some of those senior citizens were DU grads!
    Speaking of croquet, I learned that hockey players weren’t as good making the transition to croquet with seniors citizens as was the women’s golf team.
    I learned that despite the Registrar’s reservations with the course title, honors program students LOVED taking my class on human-animal interaction: “Pets, Partners or Pot-roast”.
   I learned that Trustees, Vice-chancellors and Deans loved entering a pool at commencement on how long conferring the degrees would take, and was surprised that theythought it odd that the University Chaplain was the book-maker.
    On the more sombre side, I learned how to respond to tragedies, whether the death of a coach’s son, to student deaths as a result of car accidents, to faculty/staff deaths from natural causes. And I learned that marshaling the resources of the university to deal with national/global disasters helped provide ways, not only for people to be involved, but also to process the ways of the world with others. 
    And, of course, I learned an incredible amount about different religious traditions, their holidays, and how those traditions interacted with university life.  Negotiating religious obligations and accommodations, whether dietary restrictions or  the need to miss class for a holiday, gave me an insight into the collision between the “secular world” and the various “sacred worlds” that I might never have gotten otherwise.
    I’ve been asked what’s next. First, let me say that I am not retiring, although my logo at DU will be retired, and maybe I’ll leave my hat with Special Collections/Archives. In keeping with the logo, however, I will say that I am "changing hats”. Final details are still being worked out, but the high likelihood is that I will be taking charge of an Episcopal church in the area — because Colorado is INCREDIBLY awesome! Between my last day on campus (June 15) and the start of that next adventure, I’ll be able to spend some time cycling, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, camping, and, oh yes, Susan, putting on my “Tim Allen hat” for some home-improvements..
    I’d like to close in a semi-unusual fashion ( at least for these kinds of events); I’m going to resort to the intersection of my academic training with my ministerial training. Many of you know I have a Ph.D. (from another Methodist "DU" — Duke). You may not know that it is in Early Christian History. Before you ask, my dissertation was on “Eunuchs in Early Christianity” . . . and I’m not talking about a computer language. And, if you don’t know what a “eunuch” is, google it: “E-u-n-u-c-h”.
    In the middle of the 2nd century of the Common Era, a letter — an “epistle”— was penned by someone called “Mathetes” (which simply means “disciple”) to someone else called “Diognetus. The Epistle is a defense of Christianity against its accusers. Some 1800 years later, a portion of that Epistle was summarized/translated into a hymn by an Episcopal priest named F. Bland Tucker. From the time I learned that hymn until now, it has remained one of my favorites, not only for its poetry, but also for its underlying theology.
    It begins:

The great Creator of the worlds,
The sovereign God of heaven,
His holy and immortal truth
To all on earth hath given

Then follow four verses that describe the way that truth was made “flesh”. But it is the first two lines of the last verse that I want to leave with you. 

Not to oppress, but summon all
Their truest life to find,*

“To summon all” — not just some, not just one sub-population — to summon all their truest life to find. That has been my goal at DU for the last eleven years, and it is my wish for us all:  May we all go forward not only to find OUR truest lives, but, wherever we find ourselves, to summon . . . to help others, THEIR truest lives to find.
     So be it!  And, thank you.


* The full text of the hymn can be found here.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Joy of Frustration

    Last Christmas, my wife gave me the 7th Edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.  From all that I had heard, it was THE best field guide published recently. And when I looked at it I had to agree. The pictures, the range maps and the descriptions of the various birds were all FABULOUS!  It even had thumb-cuts to move quickly between different families of birds. It had, not surprisingly, one deficiency:  it didn’t have my notes of where I saw particular birds for the first time.  All of THAT information was in my 4th Edition!
    The 4th Edition had been my go-to field guide pretty much since I started birding in the late -1980’s. So, as much as I wanted to take the 7th Edition into the field with me, I couldn’t quite let go of the 4th . . . because of the historical data it contained.  Only one solution:  transfer the information from 4th to 7th!
    Do you know how long it takes to go, page-by-page, through two field guides to re-record almost 450 initial sightings of various bird species?  A LONG time!  I finally finished the day before yesterday (June 4).
    But . . . that undertaking took me down “memory lane”. I was surprised by how many of the sightings happened on my birthday, or wedding anniversary. I could remember little details about almost every sighting — weather, other observers, funny stories, etc. How many states were represented as the “first time” I saw a bird? More than I recalled! But I also thought, through the process of transferral from one book to another, that, “Golly, I’m a pretty accomplished birder!”        
    This week I returned to the East Coast for a training in Connecticut. It was a different part of the U.S. than I’d birded before (although there was some similarity with my time in North Carolina). So I thought I’d be able to add to my life-list. I did my research. I knew what birds I might hope to find. And, when the first opportunity afforded itself, I grabbed my binocs and bird book (the 7th Ed!), and went out.
    Absolute frustration! I’d forgotten bird calls. I’d forgotten field marks. I kept hearing Rocky Mountain (or West Coast) birds — which, of course, weren't there. I’d forgotten a lot . . . and IT . . . WAS . . . FRUSTRATING! The experience drove me back to the book. I needed to refresh myself with all of the details (and, of course, with the internet, I could check on bird-song). And, the next day, when I went out again, my time out was much more satisfying, even joyful.
    The whole experience reminded me that there is (or can be) a certain benefit of being frustrated in a “task”. When I’m fishing, or cycling, or birding, or . . . praying, I can either take frustration as a sign that I should set the activity aside, OR I can enter into it more fully. I can do more research; I can focus my attention differently. I cannot let the frustration be the last word. To do so would deprive me of the joy that might lie on the other side.
    The cliché is “No pain, no gain”. I’m not exactly pain-averse, but I might say “Work through the frustration; find the joy!”



Friday, June 1, 2018

Moving musings

      It begins today at DU (maybe some early birds started yesterday):  move out!. Today (June 1) is the last day of classes at DU. Those lucky few who don't have finals in the next few days are loading up their cars/SUVs/trailers/storage pods and are heading off to their summer adventure. And all of us know what that "moving" experience is like:  deciding what to take, what to leave behind (if that's an option), and what to discard.
      For the last several years, students at DU have had the option to "leave behind" items that they accumulated over the year. Whether clothing, office supplies, ski boots or ramen (unopened, of course), each residence hall has a "depository". The left-behind items are sorted with like items and are delivered to social service agencies, e.g., Goodwill, a homeless shelter, or a food bank. Many DU employees help with the sorting process, marveling at what's left behind -- often things look like they're brand new, or used only once.
       Such was the case with the shoes pictured above. I can't remember WHICH year these came into the "depository", but they were the subject of much conversation and merriment. So much so, that a couple of us decided that we should retain them and turn them into some kind of "sustainability award". Over the years since, they have graced my office window-sill; the "award" purpose having disappeared with the dissolution of the committee. Visitors to my office have just looked at them with a quizzical eye, which has given me a chance to tell their story.

       And, now, I'm in the process of moving out as I prepare to leave the University of Denver for something different (and, as yet, unknown). I'm faced with the question of what to take, what to leave behind, and what to discard. I recall a friend's system from many years ago when sorting through HIS library. Three piles:  (1) those books you can get at a library any time => discard (or donate); (2) those books you absolutely need on hand for professional reasons => keep; (3) those books that have sentimental value (or look good on the coffee table) => hard decision! Eleven years of computer files complicate everything:  Did I really revise that document seven times? How many of those revisions should go to Archives? Not to mention thousands of emails that should have been deleted years ago...
       All of these things -- books, pictures, emails, documents -- tell a story. And, as I've been packing up, I've gotten to relive many of those stories/memories. Some are good, some less so. Sure, there are some significant professional decisions to make, but I've decided NOT to use my friend Phil's categorization system. Instead, I'm going to rely much more on the fifth and sixth assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry*:  (5) People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known); (6) If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.

      We can certainly learn a lot from some of the "less good" memories/stories! And we"ll take that "education" with us; it has become part of who we are. But there is a lot of "baggage" that can be left behind. And there are a whole lot of treasures to take with us. Deciding which is which is a step towards wisdom.
      Now, if I could just figure out how a pair of 5-inch zebra-striped, sequined heels fits that system?




Appreciative Inquiry is both a worldview and a process for facilitating positive change in human systems  -- and is applicable in individual lives as well!

Friday, May 25, 2018

"I am" or "I have"?

      True confession (although probably not a surprise to anyone):  I have "Christianism". And, to complicate it, I suffer from an extreme form of it:  "Clergyism". Some folks might nod their heads -- either with humor, or disdain, and say, "Yup, you aredisordered!". Most others, however, would probably shake their head and say, "What is he talking about?" Most of us don't use those words unless in some semi-scholarly sense, and certainly notabout ourselves. Most ordained folks might say "I am a Christian clergy-person". It is part of what makes us who we are; I doubt few of us would think that either our religious identity or clerical identity was something that could be easily removed.
       I think a lot about identities. Certainly that topic is a matter of much conversation on college campuses. Students gather around their identities. Whether it's the Muslim Student Association or the South Asian Student Association or the Black Student Alliance, students in these groups celebrate their common identity with pride, and advocate for recognition and acceptance in the wider "culture". These groups are more than simple interest groups that bring together folks who share a hobby or professional goal. In my professional context, of course, I think most about religious identities -- "identities", not "conditions".
      Yet there are other identities that are often discussed in the manner of conditions; identities that become marginalizable as "-isms". I was reminded of this the other day when a video was shared on Facebook in which the subject was described as "having dwarfism". I understand that the word "dwarf" can have a lot of negative baggage associated with it -- although some wear it with pride, but it is not a condition (i.e., "dwarfism") that can be remedied. It is an identity, in his case, an easily seen identity.
      There are, of course, "invisible" identities that are treated as conditions. I think of people who are autistic or dyslexic. When we speak of them "having autism" or "having dyslexia", we make them "other", and potentially subject to different sets of "rules". We may seek to "cure" them, or, as was the case in 1940's Germany, to eradicate them, since they aren't "normal" -- as wemight define it.
      I can't deny anyone the right to "self-define", but I do believe that when we start classifying people who differ from us in any was as "disordered", we've crossed a line. My "Christianism" compels me to agree with Pope Francis who 
told a gay man earlier this week that “You have to be happy with who you are. God made you this way and loves you this way, and the pope loves you this way.” And, although he didn't say it, I would imagine he would agree with a saying I recall from several decades ago, "God don't make no junk." Or, to quote another figure from this week's news, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, "When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children." *



* From his 
sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Identity of a Book

      At the beginning of his novel, The Shadow of the Wind,Carlos Ruiz Zafón has Daniel and his father making Daniel's first visit to the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" in post-WWII Barcelona. As Daniel's father explains it:

This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.*

Zafón (or Daniel's father) doesn't say it, but I took this passage also to imply that the book becomes part of the soul of the reader. And, in my experience, the more folks I know who've read a certain book, who've shared their thoughts and feelings about it, my tie to the book "grows and strengthens". There arises a community "of the book".
       This put in my mind of part of Tim Crane's analysis of religion in The Meaning of Belief,**the subject of this month's book discussion. Crane takes to task the "New Atheists" (e.g., Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) for missing the point about religion. He argues (among other things) that these authors want to reduce religion to a antiquated cosmology so that they can more easily dismiss it. He points out that these authors don't quite understand why the "religious" don't fall under the weight of their critique, and renounce their delusion. And, then, Crane asserts that it's because the "religious" don't base their adherence to a religious system solely on its cosmology.
        Crane—an atheist himself—proposes that the religious world-view is a combination of (a) a sense of the transcendent, and (b) the role of identification with a community—past and present—that provides, through rituals, being together, and common understanding, ways of making meaning in one's own life, and of life in general. This goes far beyond any kind of cosmology. 

         Most religions, or course, arereligions "of the book" in one way or another. Attitudes towards sacred texts vary, but the transmission of the tradition relies in no small part on the presence of those texts in the lives of the community of the faithful. Those texts help "make us" who we are. But, if my supposition about Zafón's implication that books become part of the soul of the reader is correct, I have to wonder what we do to ourselves when we pull other volumes off of the shelf. And, here, of course, I include more than simply novels, but movies, social media, etc. -- any transmission of information.
         An old cliché has it that "You are what you eat". If it were modified a bit, would we be happy knowing that "We become what we read"? And, if not, what's our appropriate response?

*Translated by Lucia Graves (Penguin Books, 2004), 5-6.
** Subtitled Religion from an Atheist's Point of View(Harvard, 2017).

Friday, May 11, 2018

Look again!


    Over the last several months, I've been playing the game "Word Crossy" on my phone. The screen shot above probably says as much about how the game should be played as any narrative. But, basically, I need to string the letters together to fill the various rows/columns in the "cross-word" puzzle, without any clues.  Sometimes I can speed right through the game. Other times I can barely start. There aresome "helps" provided. Tapping the light bulb in the lower right will charge your "bank" 50 points (of the 278 in the lower left) and fill in one letter in the puzzle; often that's enough to spur thinking. Or, the little double-crossed arrows in the lower left corner will re-juggle the letters in the circle; the supposition is that seeing things differently will also spur thinking.
     There have been plenty of times when I've used up my points, and juggling the letters just doesn't work. So, in frustration (why doI keep playing this game!?), I leave the app and check my mail, or the weather, or Facebook. Or I just shut the phone down and go clean the bathroom. Then, more often than not, when I return to the game, I solve it within seconds. The letters hadn't changed; I simply quit staring at them for a while. Clearly, the same phenomenon is part of the fascination with some optical illusions. You can look at the patterns of colors or shapes and only see oneimage. Come back to the picture later, and, all of a sudden you can't believe you didn't see the otherone!
 I've found something similar in a "non-visual" arena. Starting last year (2017), I decided that I would read another tradition's sacred text over the course of the year. In 2017, it was the Quran; this year is the Bhagavad Gita. Some of this comes from my innate curiosity. I just want to know what the text reallysays (rather than relying on snippets, sound-bites or proof-texts); and, I want to read it appreciatively. When I find something I don't understand, I can easily turn to a knowledgable-in-that-tradition friend. But another reason I've been doing this is that I find places of convergence between the other tradition and my own. And, often enough, my understanding of my own tradition is deepened or altered in a way that wouldn't have happened had I spent all my time in my own texts. I've very much come to value this addition to my spiritual practice.
      There's something here that points, too, to one of our society's besetting problems these days. Whether its our choice of multiple broadcast news outlets or which online news sources we "follow", we have such a tendency to fall into tribalism. "Echo-chamber" is the phrase often bandied about. Getting out and hearing a different voice is becoming increasingly foreign. And, I believe, we are all the lesser for it.
      Yesterday, I led a workshop on Appreciative Inquiry for one of DU's divisions. Part of the workshop had the attendees pair up and interview each other on a series of questions. At the end, when I asked "How was the process for you?", one participant said that he had been paired with someone in a different unit within the division, someone he didn't know well. And then he commented on how valuable that was, as opposed to being with someone from his own unit whose answers he probably already knew.
      It's so often time to shut the app down, do something else, read something else, talk to someone else, and then come look again.



Friday, May 4, 2018

Living in a microbial world

     This past Wednesday evening, we happened upon an episode of NOVA on PBS (no, we're NOT one of thosefamilies!) on microbes: "What's Living In You?" Absolutely fascinating . . . and a bit frightening! The show featured some segments where researchers took "skin scrapes"  from peoples' faces (e.g., collecting the skin-cells/oil from next to the nose) and placing them under powerful microscopes. The images were astonishing. But what was even more mind-blowing (to this non-biologist) was the assertion (as described in the teaser on the RMPBS website):  "Microbes play a central role in your life. Trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi are so abundant in your body, they outnumber your human cells." "THEY OUTNUMBER YOUR HUMAN CELLS"!There are more things living ON me, than there is OF me!
      My word! What if they ganged up on me? I wouldn't have a chance!
      Well, of course, that can happen, in some ways. Some of the microbes are harmful and can cause disease. And then there are others that will attack the bad guys! But, most of the time, we leave at relative peace with one another, me and my millions of microbial guests. They need me, and, apparently, I need them. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago*, we are all interconnected in ways we rarely consider.
      As humans, we have a tendency to forget that we are part of something larger, or more complex. We have been steeped in this kind of thinking since the dawn of humanity: our "tribe" is the only "human" one, all others are barbarians; our world is the center of the universe; our universe is the coolest. Or, more pointedly, in the words of Paul Simon, "I am a rock; I am an island".** We see things from our perspective -- naturally, but not necessarily helpfully.
      Much the same point was made by physicist Carol Rovelli in an 
interview with OnBeing's Krista Tippett. Except he took exception (though not directly) to the fixed nature of Paul Simon's "rock": "
We live 100 years, but suppose we lived a billion years. A stone would be just a moment in which some sand gets together and then it disaggregates, so it's just a momentary getting-together of sand." His point throughout the interview is neatly summed up in the title to the episode: "All Reality is Interaction." And I remember being taught much the same "stuff" when, in college, I took a course in process philosophy. The agreement between the physicist and the philosophers is quite striking. First, according to process philosophy, everything "proceeds" towards its goal, although not at the same speed (i.e., a spark proceeds fast than humans, which proceed faster than stones). But second, every encounter between two "entities" changes both of them in some way, so, in Rovellis' words, "all reality is interaction."
       I can't really get over some of the implications of this. Yes, there is the "butterfly effect" -- one small action may have incredible consequences far away. But I have to wonder what would happen if we really started thinking about our (inter-)actions and the impacts they may have. We are so intertwined, from the microbes on the bridge of my nose to those who supply me with tangerines. Wouldn't it make a wonderful difference if we believed that, and acted in accordance with that belief, as opposed to our ancient, and increasingly prevalent, tribalized thinking?