Friday, October 20, 2017

A True Reality Show

     Sometime in the last week or so a Facebook post hit my "News Feed" that I wish I could relocate! The gist was that the individual had received a box (part of a monthly subscription service, I guess) containing a bunch of random objects . . . as well as a suggestion that the objects be used to create another "thing."  Imagine, for example, receiving a paper clip, a scrunchie, a pencil, a plastic spoon, a foot of braided cord, and a golf ball. The instructions:  "Replicate C3PO".  It reminded me of the reality cooking show -- "Chopped" -- where the guest chefs are given a number of ingredients and told to use them all in the creation of a three-course meal. The winner is the one who can imaginatively put together kit-lats, kale, kumquats, (k)lams, and kool-ade.
      One of the points, it seems to me, of both these exercises is that the "assembler" -- whether craft-er or cook-er -- has to suspend a bit of prejudicial logic and engage in a lot of creativity.  "Who would EVER pair a paper clip and a golf ball?" "Who would cook clams and kit-lats . . . together?"  Yet the assumption in both cases is that
it is possible.  And, sometimes, the outcome is quite amazing (well, at least in some of the menus). Who knew? E pluribus unum!
      As I ruminated on the "craft-of-the-month" and "Chopped", I saw them both as metaphors for our common life. Another, more immediate metaphor -- the human body -- has been used for centuries in this regard. Aristotle, for example, writing of the 'body politic" notes that all parts are critically important:  "since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand."* In the context of the expansion of early Christianity beyond its Jewish roots, the apostle Paul made great use of the metaphor in a letter to the church at Corinth (I Corinthians 12.14-20):

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

It is fairly easy to relate these teachings to our current national sets of debates. We have competing visions of how a "whole" should look, and have had them since . . . well, at least, Aristotle and Paul's time.
       It is easy to look to the larger stage. But I found myself also looking at my daily life. I encounter, over and over again, situations and people NOT of my choosing. My knee-jerk reaction is to discount those that do not conform to my predilections or preconceived notions of "appropriate" or "acceptable". But, if I expand my idea of what might be my "body", I open myself up to some potential growth.  Encounters of any kind, according to process philosophers, inevitably change us. The challenge is to point that change in a positive, fruitful, rich, direction. The challenge is not a box of ingredients that arrives once a month, or on stage in front of the cameras. It is with us all the time . . . a true reality show.



* Politics, Book I, Pt. 2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Annoyance => Curiosity

      October 5th was . . . wait for it . . . Rocky Mountain Oyster Day*! (Well, you may NOT be waiting for it! I'm still not sure if I'll be observing it next year . . .). I had no idea that that was the case until I read about it in the article linked above. And, it seems, there was a good reason. The day didn't become designated as such until THIS YEAR!
      The establishment of a day devoted to this Colorado delicacy was the labor-of-love (?) of Denver Post contributor Allyson Reedy. As a food-writer, she says she got annoyed by all of the "national food days" she was constantly being asked to cover. But, as she told interviewer Ryan Warner in a Colorado Matters segment, that annoyance turned into curiosity -- curiosity about how "national food days" were established. I will leave it to the "curious" reader/listener to learn that process! What really interested me in Ms. Reedy's interview was her transition from annoyance to curiosity.
      My immediate thought was that most of us experience some different sort of transition when faced with an annoying situation/person:  from annoyance to anger; from annoyance to belittlement; from annoyance to avoidance. For some reason, however, Ms. Reedy chose to "lean in to" her annoyance, and transform it. (Note: Ms. Reedy confesses in her interview that, prior to this year's Rocky Mountain Oyster Day, she had never HAD one of the "oysters". So her efforts were NOT based on her appreciation for the delicacy.) Her annoyance => curiosity led her to learn a lot about many things. It was not the same outcome as a dead-end annoyance =>avoidance.

       As often happens for me, listening to the podcast coincided with another encounter, this one with a text attributed to the fourth-century Syrian Christian St. Ephraem: "[Y]our word, Lord, has many shades of meaning just as those who study it have many different points of view."** As I considered Ephraem's words, I mused that the variety of interpretations of ANY word can be both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the negative side, multiple interpretations "mess with the truth" -- at least the "truth" as we understand it. Annoyance here begets, I suspect, belittlement and/or avoidance. I think of the old phrase "America: Love it or Leave it!" -- it all depends on how one understands "America".
       On the plus side, however, multiple interpretations can broaden our understanding. Anyone who has engaged in translating one language to another recognizes that most words in one language resist easy equivalency in another. Translators must make a choice (at least if they want their translation to flow), recognizing that that choice is probably inadequate. Readers may not like the choice and, as above, can (a) belittle, or (b) avoid. Or they can do a bit more digging (c) to find out more of the nuances of the translation; and/or (d) to understand more about the author's stance. Either of the possibilities "c" or "d" can lead to growth of understanding and, perhaps appreciation. Possibilities "a" or "b" will most likely lead to animosity.
        May we learn to translate annoyance into curiosity. (Gentle reader, you may solve the question of Rocky Mountain Oysters in the privacy of your own heart.)



* Yes, for those foodies in the know, it was also National Apple Betty Day -- but that doesn't make for such a good opening line!
** From The Tao of Jesus: A Book of Days for the Natural Year, edited by John Beverley Butcher (Harper Collins, 1984), 334.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Bless who? What?

     Many years ago, when I was in seminary (training to become an Episcopal priest), one of my professors bemoaned some of our culture's practices of "blessing". Certainly clergy are called upon (or empowered) to invoke God's blessing at various significant moments (such as at baptisms or weddings). But, in his opinion, that practice had gone a bit too far. Examples he raised were the "blessing of the fleet", or the "blessing of the hounds" (before a fox hunt) -- "We're blessing dogs to kill a fox?". The particular blessing that occasioned his harangue was that of a grave at a funeral. His comment: "Now they've got us blessing holes in the ground! We're blessing an absence of dirt!"
      Ever since then, I've wondered about the process/practice of blessing -- who is blessing who/what and why? For example, many of us, regardless of religious leanings, might say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes. Why? While the "HowStuffWorks" website provides a good historical background for this practice, the reason I'd always heard was that the respondent was wishing the sneezer well for "sneezing the devil/demon out". But an even more puzzling distinction, at least to me, is the distinction between blessing God for something (many Jewish prayers begin with a blessing of God) as opposed to asking God to bless something (such as the implied request in "God Bless America").
      This "pondering" on my part was occasioned anew recently when I heard that the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops* had its annual gathering in Alaska. While they gathered for a variety of reasons, one chief focus of their time together was to talk about environmental and racial justice. I, for one, am very glad that they were focusing on those issues! And part of what a portion of them did, while there, in line with that focus was to "bless" the land/water.
      Again, I'm very much in favor of their drawing attention to issues of environmental justice, especially in Alaska! (As an angler and environmentalist, I'm concerned about the potential development of the Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, and the impact that mine will have on an amazing salmon fishery.) But I found something a little odd with a bunch of folks "blessing" land/water that, in the words of Genesis, God had already decided was "good" (1.9-10). Yes, symbolic action is important (just consider how the symbolic action of "taking a knee" has taken over the national attention). And I can see that bishops blessing the land/water is a counterpart to other peoples' pollution and degradation of the land/water.
       But I can't help but think that we have the "blessing" thing backwards, especially when it comes to the earth (and I don't just mean Episcopalians or any other people of faith). At least the Abrahamic traditions assert that the earth was blessed by God in creation, and humans are the beneficiaries and stewards of that blessed earth. We continue to be blessed by the earth despite our misuse of it. Perhaps what we really need to do is develop a ceremony of (1) receiving that blessing, (2) repentance of our misappropriation of that blessing, and (3) commitment to honor that blessing. We are blessed by, not those who bless, the land and water.



* Bishops, in the Episcopal Church, are the chief clergy members in a diocese -- a geographical area. The "House of Bishops" is the aggregate of those bishops in the United States.

Friday, September 29, 2017

My Dad Was A Protestor

My dad was a protester. Probably not in the way you think, given the news of the last few weeks (or months). The story is a bit more complicated than that. My dad was a member of the Church of the Brethren. That (primarily German) denomination was part of the so-called “Radical Reformation”, which developed in response to the more mainstream Protestant Reformation of the16th century (other groups include the Mennonites and Amish). They were passionate about following the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Some of those teachings led them to practice “believer’s baptism”, which often implied re-baptism of those folks who had been baptized as infants. They also practiced baptism by full immersion, rather than the more common practice of “sprinkling” or “pouring”. (This practice also earned them the moniker, “Dunkards”.) 
One of their most significant beliefs, however, was that their members should NOT take up arms for any reason, in particular in service of a kingdom/country. This quickly made them personae non grata in the countries of Europe. And they were often given the choice: take up arms in support of the king . . . or die. And many of them chose the latter option. Others fled Europe, which is how my father’s family came to this country (well before the Revolutionary War). And, as I read through my family trees, I find no instance in which a member of that family took up arms on behalf of the United States.
That changed in the 1940’s. My father, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the knowledge of what was going on Europe, became a soldier in the US Army. He went on to serve in Europe in some of the most significant battles after the Normandy invasion. This service was a mystery to me. I had grown up in a church that preached pacifism, and yet my father — a deacon in that church — went off to war. Sometime in my teens, I asked him about his decision/action. His response: “Hitler was different.”
And, so, my dad, the heir of protestors — not just “protestant protesters”, but protestors of “Protestantism”, in effect, protested yet again. The cause was significant enough that he set aside conformity to the norms of his upbringing in order to help bring about some kind of peace and justice in a world that was wrought by war, bigotry and violence.
My dad’s decision is often front-and-center in my mind, but no more so than in these last few weeks. Not only are we again torn apart as a country between those who would protest against injustice/bigotry and those who stand for conformity to a status quo. But many of us, too, have been watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. What struck me over the course of many episodes is how some significant “conformers” (Including those who served in Vietnam by their own choice, as opposed to being drafted) finally became convinced that “something different” was happening, and chose to protest.

Whether it is standing in solidarity with immigrants and refugees (both of which, of course, describe my ancestors), or challenging societal structures that oppress minorities — religious or racial/ethnic, these are acts of “protest” that need be made. I would like to think that my dad would be on the right side of history once again. At the very least, he instilled in his children the belief that protest is a right, and is often, itself, right.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Open signs


    Many years ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, we were part of a couples' group. The group itself was quite mixed in terms of age; we, however, were clearly the youngest and had been married the shortest time, which often meant we had the most to learn from the experiences of others. Harley and Marilyn were one of the other couples. They were the epitome of gracious southerners, often inviting the group to their home for non-scheduled barbecues (I still have Harley's "rub" recipe) or out on their boat for an overnight cruise. But there was one thing I 
anticipated whenever we would get together, and that was their "Open signs" stories.
      Again, this was many years ago, before the ubiquity of the internet-as-distraction. On Saturdays,Harley and Marilyn would frequently just head out on the backroads of North Carolina. Sometimes they would have an "agenda", like "take every second left turn". But almost always, one of their rules was "Stop at every open sign". You can imagine driving the back roads, traveling through small towns (or just wide spots in the road), that the "Open" sign next to the roadside might beckon them into some interesting places:  antique/junk stores; craft shops; restaurants; produce stands (I've got to say, the boiled peanuts they'd bring back were AMAZING!). They would not only see some intriguing sights, but they would get to meet the proprietors--fascinating people. It was an adventure Harley and Marilyn loved taking, never knowing what they would see or who they would meet.
       I was reminded of this yesterday when, in a small group meeting, I was introduced to the poem "From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee. The first stanza reads:
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

In our discussion of the poem, one person in the group asked the question, "Where are the places on campus of invitation?" That "invitation" like the sign painted "Peaches".
        I immediately remembered Harley and Marilyn's practice, and began to wonder how often we take the opportunities afforded us to stop at "Open" signs. I know that I am usually SO busy, SO focused on what I'm doing, or where I'm going, that simply to take the opportunity to stop is VERY unnatural. I think of job duties that allow for little diversion. Or academic major requirements that are so regimented that a "frivolous" elective is unthinkable. Or that never-finished home "to-do" list. Or . . . .        Harley and Marilyn were always enriched by their stops at the "Open" signs. They sometimes likened the surprise of what they found/experienced to a "divine encounter". They were transported beyond their controlled and controllable world to something akin to enchantment.  Their stories taught us of the possibilities.        The "Open" signs are all around us:  open office doors; an engaging book cover by an author we've never read; the neighbor to which we've only ever said "hello" and nothing else; and, yes, a funky gift shop. All may be opportunities for enchantment, or grace. And isn't that something we need a lot more these days?



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Giving in to temptation

     I will admit it:  there are times when I need a pick-me-up. (And I'm not talking about coffee -- or any other beverage.) Life has a way of battering us down. Whether it's bad news (global or national), or simply a bad day, I will sometimes find myself in front of the computer screen, giving in to the temptation to follow YouTube links. There are several "go-to's" on which I can fall back when the energy level is REALLY low (and, of course, there are always cat videos). But most of those "go-to's (including cat videos) usually only seem to "pat me on the head", virtually saying "Oh, poor mama's baby".
      Occasionally, however, I'll follow the line of links. The one that caught my attention the other night was a segment from "America's Got Talent", titled "Anna Clendening: Nervous Singer Delivers Stunning "Hallelujah" Cover - America's Got Talent 2014". Anna (along with her parents) tells the story of her depression and anxiety disorder. But she also gave evidence, by performing on the show, that those conditions would not keep her down.  Her cover of "Hallelujah" brought praise from the judges, and certainly from the crowd.  What I saw, and heard, in her was some inner well of strength; she was able to tap into it and rise above the circumstances . . . and draw others with her.
       From there, I gave into temptation again, and followed the links . . .  and I ended up at a flash mob:  A Little Girl Gives Coins To A Street Musician And Gets The Best Surprise In Return. In a city square, somewhere in Spain, a little girl puts some change in a hat in front of man holding a double bass. He begins playing, and as happens with flash mobs, other musicians emerge from the crowd, or out of buildings. Soon there is an orchestra and choir; it is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". I will admit that I'd seen the video before, so I knew, when I clicked on the link, what to expect. But I saw something this last time that I'd not noticed before. Yes, there is a choir as part of the mob. But the music was familiar enough to the bystanders that, when the singing commenced, some of them joined in (not to mention the children who wanted to help conduct!). There was something very contagious in what the musicians were doing.
        After watching those videos, my mood had lifted a bit.  And I grew thoughtful in a different way. What both videos seemed to suggest was that, through the act of sharing -- in Anna's case, it was her mental health issues as well as her talent, and in the orchestra/choir's case, it was their gift of surprise and uplifting music -- people were drawn together. In Anna's case, it was those who (like Howie Mandel, one of the judges) had experienced -- either personally or through family members -- disabling mental illness, and who could see a bit of hope because of her story. With the flash mob, old memories (like the lyrics of "Ode to Joy") resurfaced when given the chance, and joy and wonder were kindled anew.
       Both videos suggested to me that there is great power in sharing, both in pain and in joy. In both cases, sharing brought support. Anna certainly felt it after her performance, and the orchestra/choir clearly derived more joy in a public square (where there was support) than in a recording studio. Perhaps I ought to give into temptation more often -- not to watch videos, but to share joys/sorrows.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Thick Times

   Harvey . . . Charlottesville . . . DACA . . . Irma . . . Western US Forest Fires* . . . SE Asia floods . . . earthquake/tsunami in Mexico . . . and more . . .
      The chaplain at my daughter's college characterizes this string of events as a "thick time". What an apt image! I think of how I feel while riding a bike on a hard surface and then finding myself in mud, mud sometimes so thick I have to dismount in order to not fall over. These last few days and weeks have that same sense about them. Just about the time I think I'm about ready to get on "pavement" again, something else happens, and forward momentum is arrested.
     Another image that arises for me is that of "exile", being uprooted from one's familiar, safe, surroundings and transplanted, against one's will, into a foreign land. And, when thinking of THAT image, Psalm 137 springs to mind:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of the land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How shall we sing the Lord's song
upon an alien soil?

I sometimes feel, these days, that I am "upon an alien soil" and cannot find any reason or energy  to sing ANY kind of song. And I know many others who feel the same way.
      It is at times like these that we very much need community. While an instinct might be to "go to my room and pull the covers over my head" or simply to lose myself in busy-ness, instead I really benefit from being around people (even as an introvert!). The community that experienced exile in Babylon clearly supported one another, and, as a community they emerged changed and stronger. I believe the same is true for those of us experiencing "exile" in our own time and place. (With apologies to The Beatles) "We'll get by with a little help from our friends."**


* The photo above is of the Columbia River Gorge; I grew up there. The fire is the Eagle Creek Fire; I hiked and camped there. I'm afraid to return, to see what's become of that beautiful place.

** An opportunity to gather with folks wishing to find and share hope with each other will be offered at DU on Sept 20. See the announcement on the Events page of Religious & Spiritual LIfe's website..