Friday, August 29, 2014

Clutter or Grime?


       In a couple of days, over a thousand new students (and their parents) will descend upon the University of Denver for the first time (not counting campus visits).  They will unload trucks, trailers and cars and, with the help of numerous volunteers, cart the students' belongings to their new campus residence.  Most of them will meet their roommate(s) for the first time.  Perhaps they've communicated in advance ("I'll bring the TV; you bring the Wii!"  "Dude, let's decorate in green and purple polkadots!"), perhaps not.  They may have decided which side of the room each student will inhabit.  And I know that on many campuses, the roommate selection process requires a pretty sophisticated computer algorithm (I don't know if DU does that).  I have to wonder, however, if the students (or the computer) really gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter?
       I managed a student residence for eleven years (I may have mentioned this before). One of the things that became very clear to me as I listened to floor-mates complain about their neighbors was that there was a big difference between "clutter" people and "grime" people. Some folks believe a space is clean when it is clutter-free; all the surfaces are clear, and everything is in its place. Others don't care so much about the clutter as they do about the dustthat may be hidden behind books on a bookshelf, or the grime on the baseboard behind the oven.  In short, "clean" meant different things to different floor-mates and, when it came to common kitchens and bathrooms, these differences became LARGE.  
(This realization has informed a lot of my pre-marital counseling as well!)
       The flip-side, of course, is true as well.  What one person considers trash (or dirt) is anobjet d'art to someone else.  The matter, or item, under consideration is not the point; particle of dust are particles of dust.  What matters is the meaning, or import, attributed to them.  As the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out, "Dirt is matter out of place".*  She goes on to describe how/why certain "matter" is defined as "dirt" by various cultures.  I've always found it a fascinating analysis, and one, as I've suggested, that has usefulness in many different contexts.  Certainly one context is the potential disagreement (and perhaps fruitful late-night conversation) among room-mates about how THEY came to hold their particular views on what a "clean room" implies.
       But, as I read/hear the news from around the world, I see a different set of contexts where Douglas' insights might be applied.  Whether they're the various conflicts in the Middle East or, more nearby, race-related violence in the urban areas of our country, one of the root causes (it seems to me) is that we've been taught (WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT)! that there are fundamental and, thereby, worrisome differences between various groups of people -- whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.  We choose to perpetuate these distinctions despite the best evidence from multiple disciplines.  We have "stuff" invested in maintaining these artificial and dangerous categories, and then we resort to "any means necessary" to eliminate those we deem "dirt".  And people suffer.  And, I believe, God weeps.
       My prayer for these incoming students is that they learn from one another that a candy-wrapper on the floor is just a candy-wrapper.  They may differ in how they regard that candy wrapper -- and that difference should be a point-of-departure for some great conversations.  If they can internalize THAT, then maybe they can bring some greater level of hope and understanding to a hurting world dealing with much larger problems than a messy (?) dorm room.
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

*From her 1966 book, Purity and Danger.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Up on the roof . . .


     In the early 1960's,  the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King teamed up with "The Drifters" to release, what came to be a huge hit, "Up on the roof".  Many have heard those opening lines over the last fifty years:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face (Up on the roof)
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space (Up on the roof)

On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there, the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
That song, of course, represented a very urban reality, as later lines would make quite clear.  The idea, on the other hand, of finding a place of respite in a busy world is as real a concern in the suburbs or rural areas.  We all need a place where "all our cares just drift right into space."
       When we were in the process of moving to Denver several years ago, some Denver-based friends took me on a driving tour of the city to offer their advice about where we might want to find our next home.  One of the things they told me was "Make sure you find a place where you can see the mountains in the morning."  Fortunately, for those of us in Denver, that's not that hard.  And we were fortunate to end up in a neighborhood that allows me to see the mountains just about every time I leave the house.  I've seen the sun rise on them; I've seen them snow-covered; I've seen storm clouds develop behind them.  They are gorgeous.  There is a very good reason that their silhouette forms the backdrop for the Colorado license plates!
       This summer, however, I've probably spent more time experiencing the mountains than in the last few years.  I've hiked, I've fished, I've camped, I've bird-watched, I've breathed the thin clear air.  I've driven on the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. (Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park).  And I've come away each time from those experiences renewed, refreshed, and VERY anxious to return again, as soon as I can.
       Those experiences called to mind the fact that I grew up in the shadow of several mountains, most significantly Mt. Hood in Oregon (above), as well as Mt. St. Helen's (no longer as tall as it was in my youth!).  AS I grew up, we camped every summer on its slopes.  I back-packed a lot of the area in high school and early college.  The mountains and the accompanying forests became part of my environmental DNA.  I will admit, however, that once I moved away from Oregon and lived in other areas -- not as mountainous -- I forgot what rejuvenation those heights would provide.  It has only really come back to me in the last couple of years, and I'm grateful for its return.
       That recollection brought new meaning to a favorite psalm from the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 121, which begins (in the King James Version) "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."  For a number of years I've used that line as motivation as I ride my bike up a long and/or steep inclines, recognizing that the exertion it requires will, ultimately, strengthen me.  Now I see that there is a different kind of "
help" that those hills provide -- not necessarily help that comes from labored breathing, but rather relaxed breathing.  A breathing that allows for a very different kind of Presence to make itself known. 
       My friends were right; there IS something restorative about seeing those mountains everyday.  But Goffin/King/"The Drifters" were right, too, that "up on the roof . . . my cares drift right into space."  May we all (re-)discover such a place before the cares of the upcoming academic year begin to "get us down".  And, once we find such a place, may we visit it often!
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

Friday, August 1, 2014

Remeber when?


      Every day I receive a message in my email in-box from "Mile High on the Cheap."  It contains a little list of things to do, things to buy, or places to go in the Denver area that are either free or deeply discounted.  This morning's had two items that related to the fact that today is August 1st:  Colorado Day.  Colorado Day (for those of you who are non-Centennial State folks) marks the day that Colorado joined the United States in 1876.  So, Happy Birthday, Colorado!  You're looking good at 138!  Anyway, those two freebies for folks in Colorado are free entry on Monday, the 4th (?) into any of the Colorado State Parks (which, by the way, are marvelous!), as well as free entry (August 1 and 2) into the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver.  Both opportunities are great ways to celebrate Colorado!   Aside from marking Colorado's entry in the Union, however, August is also the month that holds my birthday (No, I'm not as old as Colorado!).  And that started me thinking about holidays of various sorts.
      Colorado Day gets promoted as a way to celebrate everything that is Colorado . . . and that's great!  The idea that folks might spend some time in the History Colorado Center (for FREE!) also suggests that Colorado Day is a day to recall Colorado's past.  And if any of you have been in History Colorado, you know that there's a lot to recall -- both positive and negative.  All of that history has shaped us as a state, and as a people.  Every so often, however, as I walk through the museum, I get a sense that there's more than simply the recounting, or re-depiction, of events.  There is a hint -- although I'd be hard-pressed to point directly at its source -- of what we might become.       I think most of our holidays contain that potential. Many, however, seem to have become little more than opportunities for sales at mattress and furniture stores.  ("Golly!  It's President's Day!  I need a new 'fridge!")  This isn't always the case, certainly.  And there are folks and institutions that regularly buck the trend away from remembering the "reason for the season."  I think particularly of the annual July 4th re-reading of the Declaration of Independence by the hosts and commentators on NPR.  But how often DO we spend a holiday considering what it may call us to BE?        I've recently been re-reading formative stories from the early books of the Hebrew Bible.  So many of them end with the setting up of some kind of memorial of stones in order that the people might remember who/what it was that led them to that point.  But there was more at stake than a simple "Recall what happened".  The implication was that the memorials would also serve to remind the people of their calling, their purpose.  The establishment of rituals and holy days in most religious traditions are meant to be re-formative, to pull us back to our roots, our origins.
       Returning to our origins or history, whether in Colorado or congregations, doesn't necessarily mean, however, that we are meant to "re-create the old days".  "Remember when?" doesn't imply "Let's return."  On my birthday, I may recall the day I got my driver's license, but it certainly doesn't mean I want to be sixteen again!  On the contrary, it signifies a new level of freedom I attained, but also a greater level of responsibility.  So, Coloradans, Happy Birthday!  What can we become based on where we've been?  So, too, Christians/Muslims/HIndus/Jews/Buddhists/Wiccans . . . what can we become based on where we've been?

Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the last thing . . .?


     Last weekend, I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was enjoying the park -- fishing, birdwatching, hiking, and trying to stay clear of the thunderstorms.  For the most part I was successful in my enjoyment (although the fish mocked me, and the rain/hail was indiscriminate).  One thing surprised me at the outset, and the surprise grew throughout the weekend.  There were a couple of birds that I expected to see, that are very common in mountainous areas like Rocky, that I did NOT see at all:  Clark's Nutcracker and Gray Jay.  Almost anyone who has picnicked or camped in the mountains has had one or both of these birds as dinner guests.  But they were completely absent!  And, as I was leaving the park, two of the employee/rangers agreed with me:  it was unusual that they were unseen!
      And, of course, I started speculating (as did the park folk) as to WHY these birds weren't around.  Was it because of the pine beetle?  That is, given the beetle-kill, were the number of nuts/seeds down so far as to affect the bird population?  Or was the heavy snow-fall, and, therefore, late snow-melt responsible for a relative lack of picnickers -- folks who provided the free-pickings for the birds?  But then I started thinking in a slightly less "natural" direction.  Setting aside for the moment any effect human-caused global warming might have on pine beetle infestations or heavy snowfalls, what if something that we humans are doing (or are not doing) is having a detrimental impact on these montane birds?
       This direction of my musings may have been partly because of an article in the Summer 2014 edition of the Oregon Quarterly.  The article asked the question about how/why the island of Rapa Nui (or "Easter Island") became devoid of the verdant palm forest that once covered it.  One, older, answer was that the inhabitants had simply chopped down all the trees, perhaps to move the large statues around (in addition to providing fuel and shelter).  A more recent answer is that the early inhabitants brought rats with them that consumed all of the nuts from the palm trees, leading to deforestation.  Some speculate that there probably was some combination of human/rat cooperation in the devastation.  Regardless of the singular, or joint, cause, 
Paul Bahn and John Flenley in their book Easter Island, Earth Island, assume that there could have been a human who cut down the last tree, and who could have known that it was the last tree.*  They write:  "The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree.  But he (or she) still felled it.  This is what is so worrying.  Humankind's covetousness is boundless".  How similar is that statement is to something Aldo Leopold wrote:  "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."**
       Leopold's assertion may be correct -- at least the last statement.  I'm not so sure, though, that his first sentence is quite right (although, according to Genesis 17.8, God DID promise some land to Abraham and his offspring after him).  Prior to the promise to Abraham, however, God placed the whole earth in the care of humans (Gen 1.26).  We were to be stewards of the earth, yet even the translation that suggests that we have "dominion" over the earth doesn't suggest that we destroy it to suit our purposes.
       And so, I wonder what that Rapa Nui-an must have thought/felt when he/she felled that last tree?  And the absence, even if only temporary, or Gray Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers, caused me to wonder how I'd feel if I knew that I had something to do with the demise of the very last one of them.  Could I justify my stewardship to the one who placed the care of the planet in my hands?


Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

* Quoted in the Oregon Quarterly article on p. 8.
** A Sand County Almanac (Oxford, 1949), viii.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The matter of perspective


     Numerous prompts over the last week . . .
     1)  Last Saturday, I stood with my back to Pike's Peak, looking at a young couple who were "plighting their troth" to use the old language.  Congrats to Casey and Megan on their marriage!  Prior to walking down the "aisle", Casey and I had a final little conversation about marriage.  I noted (and he remembered) that, within a week following their wedding, my wife and I would be celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary.  He nodded, and said that he'd taken that "perspective" to heart as he recalled our conversations prior to the wedding.  Yes, I thought, thirty-plus years doesprovide a certain level of perspective on sustaining a relationship that newlyweds don't quite have (but I hope they will!).
     2)  Earlier this week I was camping with my son at, what I believe, is THE . . . BEST . . . CAMPGROUND . . . EVER!  (and, no, I won't tell!).  We were joined in the campground by a family from Georgia (although the wife had grown up in Colorado Springs). The kids -- new to camping in CO -- were blown away and kept saying, "We NEED to move here!" From a Georgia perspective, we, in Colorado, might take things a bit for granted -- although they're pretty awesome!
     3)  The same family quickly hiked their way to a rock formation that overlooked the campground (pictured above, with CO Spgrs grandpa on the left).  My son and I hiked up there the following day, and the view of our campsite from that vantage point was quite different from camp-fire level.  Well, it's a matter of perspective.
     4)  As mentioned above, at the point of celebrating a thirty-two year long marriage, I are reminded of how different life looks at this point than it did when we walked downour aisle those many years ago . . . in a very different setting than Casey and Megan.  Joys.  Sorrows.  Challenges.  Successes.  Moves.  Job changes.  Deaths of parents.  Advent of children.  Wow!  Do I see things with a different perspective now (that my kids don't understand!)!
     5)  Last evening, on the 151st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, I was watching the mini-series about that important event.  At many points during the movie, the generals tried to find their way to the highest point possible (a school tower, or a promontory, or even a fence rail), in order to gain a better perspective on how the various engagements were faring.  They needed to see things that the foot-soldiers were not. 

     6)  Today, I am writing on the 238th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America.  And I read regularly about the conflicts in other countries around the world who are struggling to build their own futures.  I'm often struck by how commentators (or "opinionators") forget that we have a perspective born of that history that those still engaged in natal struggle do NOT have.  The talking heads seem so quick to condemn others for not being as "enlightened" as we.  We often forget our backs-and-forths, our struggles, our controversies, that have led us to where we find ourselves.  We would do well to remember.
      Finally, I'm reminded of the end of the biblical book of Job, after Job and his friends argue over WHY Job-the-righteous has had to suffer all the calamities he's experienced.  God speaks:  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  . . . Who determined its measurements--surely you know! . . . Have you commanded the morning since your days began? . . . Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?" (and there's more!  Job 39-41).  God forcefully reminds Job that his perspective isn't quite complete.
      The reminder that was this week is that perspective is crucial.  That doesn't mean that we should not use our experience -- our perspective -- as a launching pad for arguing our point in a marital conflict, OR seeking justice on a global scale.  It only suggests that a bit of humility might be a substantial aid in our efforts, a recollection that our perspective is not the only one.


Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

Friday, June 20, 2014

How long can you tread water?


      Many of us will remember Bill Cosby from the scads of wonderful television shows in which he appeared/starred (Oh, Cliff Huxtable's sweaters!).  Many of us will, likewise, remember all of the work has done in the field of education and parenting; he does, after all, have a doctorate in education from UMass. But my memories go WAY back to those 12' circles of vinyl we used to put on "record-players" at 33rpm.  There were so many classic comedy routines on some of those records that set the stage for some of Cosby's TV shows (think "Fat Albert").  But one of my favorites was the routine he did called "Noah."
      For those readers who've not heard (or seen) this routine, the context is a conversation between Noah and God about the building of the ark.*  Noah/Cosby doesn't quite understand WHO is addressing him.  He doesn't know what an ark is.  He's not sure about "cubits" (but, then, neither is God).  Part-way through the construction of the ark, as well as bringing on the animals, Noah questions God about who's supposed to clean the bottom deck (given what the animals do-do).  
 God had told Noah that he was going the destroy the world, and Noah had a role in ensuring that, despite that catastrophe, the world would be able to repopulate and continue.  So, make sure there are even two mosquitos!  Then, imagine what Noah's neighbors might be saying!  At one frustrating point, however, Noah tells God he's quitting the business.  To which God replies, "Noah, how long can you tread water?"
      It's NOT the current Russell Crowe film about Noah that brought the Cosby routine to mind.  It was another actor, Richard Gere, who occasioned the memory.  Several years ago, I was attending a conference, part of which coincided with a gathering of folks (including the Dalai Lama) discussing compassion. 
This week, I found my notes from that day.  During the main public event, I wrote that Gere said "We live in an illusion in the west that things are relatively okay.  But we're really drowning in mediocrity."  So I began to wonder if we ARE drowning, or are we simply treading water?
      I think Gere was on to something; I think we ARE surrounded by mediocrity in so many ways.  On the other hand, as I recall the students walking across the platform and receiving their diplomas several weeks ago, AND knowing what many of them are setting off to do, I am encouraged by their unwillingness to settle for (or drown in) mediocrity.  I am heartened by their eagerness to engage the issues we face.
     But I'm also reminded, on a daily basis -- whether it's in the pages of the newspaper, or the advertisements on television (or the internet), or in simple conversations with others, that the new graduates' excitement isn't necessarily shared by all.  There are times when I can't even think that we're settling for a happy "middle-way", but rather for something far less.  I am not disputing that they may be "out there", but are the visionaries that seek to change things for the 
better able to be heard amidst the clanging of the "mediocre bell"?   And are we willing to stop treading water in the "sea of mediocrity" and swim to shore to establish a new, enticing, exciting, way of being?  We ought all, always, be engaged in "commencement".
      One can only tread water so long.
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary
*The biblical story of Noah can be found in Genesis 6.5-9-17.  A recording of Cosby's version can be found here:  http://youtu.be/lMH_uVu2Acs

Friday, June 6, 2014

The important things


      I imagine that most readers of this newsletter have seen, at one time or another, the quotation (attributed to Anthony d'Angelo):  "The most important things in life aren't things."  And, I would imagine that, deep-down, we may all believe it.  Of course we live in a culture that preaches exactly the opposite.  Whether it's some product that will smooth our skin or change our hair color to the next generation of smart-gadget to this year's run-way fashion out of Italy to that one component that will make your bicycle 5 grams lighter, we are led to believe that our lives will be infinitely better if we shell out our hard-earned dollars to acquire something.
      Maybe it's not just some physical "object".  Perhaps we pursue a cushier, or more prestigious, job, or a position on a particular committee or board, or even another academic degree/honor.  Something "out there" either pushes, or draws, us to acquire, gain, or claim it.  It turns into another line our resumes, some thing about which to crow.
      I do not mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with any of these things (although I may have some questions about hair-color preparations, since the little I have left wouldn't really benefit from the expenditure).  The problems arise when the pursuit of these externalities overtakes, or overwhelms, us to the exclusion of just about anything else.  The classic observation in this regard is that nobody says, on their deathbed, "I wish I could have had more time for work", implying, of course, that "work" was not as important as many other things they could have pursued.
      Commencement season, to me, brings these considerations to the fore.  A new diploma is something to hang on the wall (I have enough of those, to be sure!).  What that diploma might mean is a cool new job!  Cool new job might mean better living quarters, more reliable automobile, better meals, a more attractive trophy spouse.  In other words, things begetting things begetting things.  And the beat goes on.
       It was surprising to me, then, to learn that a commencement address last year at Syracuse University went viral on the internet.  George Saunders, a creative writing professor at Syracuse, charged the graduates of 2013 to seek a simple goal:  To try to be kinder.  He spoke about all of the things he had done, and that he had regretted.  His biggest regrets were 
not failures of achievement or failures of acquisition, but failures of kindness.  Clearly his advice hit a nerve, as his speech was tweeted all around the world and it has become the basis for his latest book:  Congratulations, by the way:  Some Thoughts on Kindness (2014).
       For most of us, at the end of an academic year, there is some time to back down, to "vacate", to recoup, recuperate, re-create, before starting up again.  Might we revisit what are the important things in our lives and reconsider how to spend our time with them.  Maybe everything will change!
Blessings,

Chaplain Gary

Note:  Image/quote is from Story People.