Friday, April 20, 2018

The World in a Tangerine

      For several years I've taught an Honors Seminar at DU called "Pets, Partners or Pot-roast". It was an examination of the various ways humans interact with non-human animals. We began by looking at how various disciplines (science, philosophy and religion) draw the distinction between "us" and "them" (everything from genetics, to reasoning capacity, to clean/unclean). Then, the remainder of the course was devoted to the arenas of interaction:  environment, service animals, research animals, livestock, pets, and food. That is, what the students had to do was decide how they distinguished between "us" and "them", and then decide what difference that might make when considering whether to use animals for cosmetic research, or what happens when Fluffy runs afoul of a coyote in our suburban neighborhoods, or what conditions are "humane" when raising/slaughtering livestock. At the end of the first year I taught it, I realized it was a class in applied ethics; decision-making isn't easy!
     An exercise I had the students "do" when we got to the "Environment" week was an variation of Thich Nhat Han's "Tangerine Meditation."  I give each student a "Cutie" (okay, they're not tangerines, but in February, they're plentiful and inexpensive!), and ask them to look deeply at the fruit, smell it, peel it (and notice the difference in aroma), and finally taste it. And then we talk about all of the factors that were necessary to produce that fruit and get it into their hands. Everything from soil nutrients, rain, fertilizer, the folks who make the trucks, who pave the roads, who make the little mesh bags in which the Cuties arrive, those who pick the fruit, who stock the store-shelves -- all of these things are found in the single Cutie. And, of course, the point of doing this exercise on "Environment" day was to highlight the various ways that both big and little, human-caused, things can have an effect on the non-human animal life that populates our skies, forests and waterways.
      While I didn't teach that course this year, I recalled the exercise while reading about a waterway in Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen.* The book was the focus of April's "Chaplain's Book Discussion" -- partly in observance of Earth Day. Owen follows the Colorado River from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to its terminus in the sands of northern Mexico. Along the way he observes the multiple sources (i.e., tributaries) of the river, as well as the various places the "water goes". And he talks with folks whose lives and/or livelihoods are dependent on the river. I was floored by what I learned.  For example, micro-irrigation may SAVE water in one way, but prevents the "overflow" from doing good in other places. Or, we "export" water in the produce and meat that we send overseas (the effect being that the water is NOT returned to the Colorado River watershed). And then, of course, there's the matter of all that water that is diverted from the west side of the Continental Divide through a series of tunnels to satisfy the thirst of Colorado's Front Range (on the eastern side of the Divide, for you non-Coloradans). Like looking at a tangerine, when thinking about the Colorado River, it is clear that there are SO many factors that have an impact ON the river, as well as so many ways the river's water (or lack thereof) has an impact on the environment and people both along its banks, as well as within reach of miles of diversion tunnels and canals.
 As we approach Earth Day 2018, I invite folks to consider the many, many, ways we experience "Interbeing" (to use Thich Nhat Han's word).** How are we intertwined with people near and far, from farmers to corporate executives to politicians -- all who have an impact on our environment? What happens to insect life when we refuse to recycle? And what about that hamburger? This is the only planet we have; just about every religious tradition suggests that we have a responsibility to take care of it.
       Look to your right, and pick up any item that is handy.  Spend just a few minutes considering all that it took to get to that place next to you. Be it a sharpie, or a cell-phone, or a Cutie . . . It is your teacher.



Riverhead Books, 2017.  A "Colorado Matters" podcast with the author can be found here.
** A very full description of the concept can be found here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

YOU are a Canada Goose!

[Caveat lector:  If the reader is unfamiliar with the Harry Potter series,
some of what follows may be a bit hard to follow.]

     This last Wednesday evening, while exercising my TV-remote skills, I happened onto a broadcast special: "Harry Potter: A History of Magic". As described in the Seattle Times,it was  "A look at the British Library’s upcoming 20th-anniversary exhibition; author J.K. Rowling reveals the real-life counterparts to her fantastical world, Elizabethan invisibility spells, the real search for the Philosopher’s Stone, magical places including wizarding wandmakers in the English forest and witchcraft of Boscastle, Cornwall, with readings by actors from the Harry Potter films." Being a Harry Potter fan (indeed our whole family is -- dear daughter requesting a boxed hard-cover set of the books for her 21st birthday), this was exactly what the doctor ordered for Wednesday evening viewing.  One of the things that struck me was how Rowling mixed good historical, geographical and linguistic research with her own fanciful imagination. That really came home when she described how she came up with the "spells": some very much relate to Latin descriptions ("Accio" or "Crucio" spring to mind); others, she admitted, were simply products of her creativity.
       Thinking about the Latin background of a lot of the spells reminded me of the Boy Scout campout I helped "chaperone" last month. At one point, we went on a little hike that took us past a semi-frozen pond.  Sitting on some of the ice were a pair of Canada Geese. One of the younger boys asked "What are those?" Another, older, scout said (in true Boy Scout fashion), "Birds." Now, I'm an avid bird-watcher and am also a "certified counselor" for the Bird Study merit badge. I'd heard that one of the attending scouts was working on that badge (news to me!), and I said to him, "D., here's something for your merit badge knowledge. Those are 
branta canadensis, the scientific name for Canada Geese." And, then it occurred to me, "Branta Canadensis" sounded just like a Harry Potter spell! You can imagine, given the correct wand motion and the proper Hermione Granger intonation, "Branta Canadensis" might be just the thing to temporarily turn someone into a goose! Since then, I've had some fun imagining other spells derived from bird names:
 "Coccyzus americanus" (Yellow-billed Cuckoo - most of us have met someone like that), or "Molothrus ater" (Brown-headed Cowbird -- a bird that lays its eggs in another bird's nest to relieve itself of the responsibility of child-rearing). I've even tried "casting such spells" while driving (instead of engaging in other manners of road rage); it certainly defuses the situation for me.
       The idea of "casting a spell" that turns a tense situation into a humorous one lies behind a scene in one of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry's class is learning the use of the "Riddikulus" spell (yes, derived from Latin!) when confronted by a "boggart":"a shape-shifting creature that will assume the form of whatever most frightens the person who encounters it."* "Riddikulus" turns the boggart into the most humorous thing the spell-caster can imagine. Part of the less-physical point of the lesson is that, knowing how to defuse a fear through humor is a useful skill, whether for a wizard or muggle! I was given much the same advice by my spiritual director about what to do when my "shadow-side" (my inner boggart) starts to attack me. His counsel?  Don't give in, but, instead, just say to myself "There you go again" and start laughing.
        The old saying isthat "Laughter is the best medicine." I fear that it's medicine many of us have forgotten how to take. On the contrary, when a boggart appears, our first reaction seems to be to try to summon a bigger one (a "biggert"?). Escalation ensues; solutions flee in terror. And, often, in the end, the "foes" come off looking like petulant children. We have to develop a better way of dealing with things. A broader sense of perspective is one way. A over-arching concern for justice is another. A sense of humor at absurdity is yet another.
        I really do like the way "Branta canadensis" rolls off the tongue; it just feels right (and, if the image used above is what accompanies the spell, there is truly something "riddikulus" about it). But sometimes it feels more satisfying to cast a spell on someone who's all "puffed up" with the Latin name of that common spring-time bird, the American Robin (since this is a family-oriented newsletter, I'll leave it to the "lector" to look it up . . . . Caveat!). I recognize that, as a muggle, my ability at casting spells is non-existent. That said, simply "casting a spell" is usually a better idea than "casting a stone". Especially if it creates a smile at my own expense.


Gary"Boggart" by the way, is not from the Latin, but from Old English or Welsh -- related to "bogey-man".

Friday, April 6, 2018

Unexpected service

Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.*

      The third chapter of the biblical book of Daniel tells the story of three young men - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego**. These Hebrew youths refused to bow down to an image set up by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, the punishment for which was to be thrown into a fiery furnace. The youths declare that their faithfulness to their God would preserve them. And, indeed, according to the account, they were unharmed by their experience in the white-hot furnace. Their joy and thanksgiving is recounted in the "Song of the Three Young Men".***
      This long hymn expands on the first line (above) -- the "all you works" portion, with continual repetition of the second line. Based on a theology that attributes everything to the activity of God, that whole creation is summoned to give glory:

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers off the Lord,
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth . .
 . . . O springs of water, seas, and streams,
O whales and all that move in the waters,
All birds of the air . . .
 . . . all you flocks and herds

O men and women everywhere . . .

And, lest one think that the inhabitants of "creation" were set in stone, a New Zealand version of the hymn adds creatures the biblical author might never have imagined (or included, as they might have been considered "unlean"):
Dolphins and kahawai, sealion and crab,
coral, anemone, pipi and shrimp:

Rabbits and cattle, moths and dogs
kiwi and sparrow and tui and hawk . . .****

And, a version I recall seeing  a number of years ago in Arizona included the javelina!
     Certainly the point of the original, and of the more localized versions, is that there is nothing that exists that does not, or cannot "praise . . . and highly exalt [God] for ever". And I get that. But I was challenged a bit recently when reading another tradition's sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, where I ran across the assertion that all living entities were servantsof God (6.29 - emphasis added)*****. That passage reminded me of the "Song" above. Yes, for many traditions, "praise" is itself an act of service, so that wasn't what challenged me. What revved up my mental engine was the idea that ALL living entities were servants of the Divine. Really? All? Even mosquitos? Norway rats? Even thoseelected officials? They are "living entities . . . so they'reall servants?      Well, mosquitos DO feed birds and bats -- creatures I like!  So I can see them as "servants". And, thinking that way turned the equation a bit in other areas. Perhaps the "service" provided by thoseelected officials is to prod the rest of us to make necessary changes in the direction of justice or conservation or equality or . . . ?  Maybe I simply need to expand, or deepen, my idea of service. Even in the few days I've been thinking about this, I have noticed a bit of an increase in compassion for those unexpected servants. I trust that's a good thing.       (I'm still working on Norway rats . . . .)


"A Song of Creation" (the Song of the Three Young Men), 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 88.
** The Babylonian names given to the Hebrew youths Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria.
*** This hymn is not found in any Hebrew versions of Daniel, but is part of other early texts, including Greek, Syriac and Latin. Because it was not in any Hebrew texts, it was excluded from most Protestant versions of the Bible, although it is in Roman Catholic and Orthodox versions.
**** Benedicite Aotearoa
***** Bhagavad Gita As It Is. 2nd Ed. (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 282).

Friday, March 30, 2018

Living Our Stories

     I think I may've related this "story" before, but, many years ago, when I was Episcopal Campus Minister at UC-Berkeley, I was serving on a committee that was planning a campus-wide student leadership conference. At the first planning meeting, we did the obligatory "ice-breaker". This particular one was called something like "Mild, Medium, or Spicy". The individual on the "hot-seat" could declare which category s/he chose, and then the rest of the folks could ask questions appropriately.  "Mild" questions were about "favorite colors" or "pets' names", etc. Medium questions were a bit more "challenging" ("Tell us about the first time you failed an exam, and why."). I'll leave it to your imagination about "spicy" questions in a collegiate setting.
      As it turned out, I was the last person to be queried. And, that meant that, while everyone else had about 5 minutes (yeah, right), to answer questions, when it came to me, I had 30 seconds. And, to show how "cool" I was, I chose "Spicy"! The response from the room? Crickets. (The looks on some students' faces said "How can we ask a "spicy" question of a clergyman?") Finally one student, with whom I'd worked before, asked, "So why ARE you in this religion 'biz', anyway?" It certainly wasn't the kind of "spicy" question I expected, and with 30 seconds, I didn't have much time to ponder. After a pause  I simply replied, "It's the best way I know of making meaning in my life." He nodded, as if to say, "Not bad . . ." And the meeting ended.
      Today (as I write this), in the Western Christian calendar, is Good Friday. For many, it is a pivotal part of the Christian story, a story of self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity, the culmination of which is located several days hence, with the resurrection of Jesus. That story, again, for many Christians, is foundational in how they "make meaning". The specific direction each individual takes in interpreting it may vary. But, in the end, most would say that there is a strong suggestion of "light at the end of the tunnel", or, ultimately, hope in the midst of uncertainty. 
      As the letter below suggests, I am now in a somewhat uncertain position. I have announced that I will be leaving DU at the end of June. But, at this point, I am not absolutely sure where I will land. For a marginal "control-freak" like me, that is terra incognito! That said, my foundational story -- the one which helps me "make meaning" -- tells me not to worry. It will all be good.
      That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!
       What's YOUR story?




An announcement made to the University community on March 29, 2017.

Dear friends and colleagues,

    In the summer of 2007, I was honored to join the University of Denver with the responsibility of re-creating the position of University Chaplain. Over the last eleven years, I’ve advocated for the integration of religious, spiritual and ethical voices and values at DU. And, in doing so I’ve engaged many partners on-, and off- campus; I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues, and, most importantly, our bright and committed students.
    Now it is time to turn over what I have put in place, and to move to the next phase of my career. After having spent more than 25 years in ministry in higher education, I hope to translate all that I’ve learned in that arena into parochial ministry within the Episcopal Church. I have several irons in the fire, but none are finalized at this point.
    While I will be a DU employee through the end of June, I am making this announcement now in order to give both the university and myself the opportunity to move forward transparently in order to facilitate the transition.
    In addition to a Community Celebration at the end of the quarter, I know there will be opportunities for “farewells”! And I wish you all the best!

The Rev. Gary R Brower, PhD
University Chaplain

[Note: The official announcement, sent out over the Chancellor's signature, was an edited version of this communique.]

Friday, March 23, 2018

Held in trust

     One of the facets of becoming a "grownup" that I enjoyed was the experience of moving out of a rental house into one that my wife and I purchased. No longer did we have to deal with landlords (regardless of how good they were!). We didn't have to see whether or not they'd allow our cat(s). We didn't have to put up with all of the walls being white or beige. We could change the shrubbery/garden plants to suit our tastes. Ownership was good! We could do ANYTHING with our house (well, almost, especially if there was a Homeowners' Association involved).
      Of course, few of us actually own our houses. Most of us are in the position of having a bank/lender own the building/property; we are simply hoping that we'll get to the point where we can get to the point where we've bought it from them. In the meantime, the lender is trusting that we'll keep their asset in good enough shape that, in case we were to default on the loan, they could recoup their investment. It's a trust issue.
      For a number of reasons, I started to think about this "trust issue" beyond the scope of home-"ownership". I was recently in a workshop where I heard quoted the Christian theologian Douglas John Hall: "We own nothing; we are entrusted with everything." This was in the context of a discussion about the concept of "dominion" -- as in Genesis 1.26 where, after God creates humans, they are given "dominion" over the earth and its creatures. Does that mean that humans OWN the earth/creatures and are able to anything they want with what they "own"? Certainly some people seem to think so. Or, does it mean, as Hall puts it, that humans are entrusted with everything? The latter idea, of course, implies that at the "end", the earth and its creatures are returned "as good as new" or improved!
       I recalled, too, that a somewhat similar notion is found in the Bhagavad Gita. Especially spelled out in Chapter 5 is the idea that all of creation is part of the Divine, that it reflects the Divine. If that is the case, then any action taken with regard to any creature is an action directed at the Divine, This implies both any positive action (such as community service) or any negative action (such as harm). The implication is that we are beings entrusted -- all of us -- with the welfare of all others.  
      And then, of course, I recalled the oft-quoted Native American proverb: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Beyond that proverb, there are numerous other quotations from past tribal sages about the "folly" of western beliefs about land "ownership". The notion contained within them all is still, holding the earth in trust.
       But what if we expanded the notion beyond holding the external environment -- water, air, birds, fish, mammals, amphibians, etc -- in trust. What if we held our relationships with one another as "trust" relationships rather than utilitarian? Certainly not all of our relationships are transactional, but what if, for example, in negotiating, we were as concerned that the other party leave enriched and empowered as we were for our own success? Ponder the possibilities.



Friday, March 16, 2018


     If one drives (or even takes the train) from Denver to Sacramento/San Francisco, the most direct route will take you through the town of Lovelock, NV. Since I have family and friends in Northern California, I've made that trip often enough! The town was founded in 1849 by a gent named George Lovelock, and was a stopping point for folks headed to California (a lot of them, probably, in search of gold!). Within a few years, there was a train depot, and the town became quite a hub for mining activity, as mines were established in the area. More recently, it has attracted a lot of tourists, primarily because of the association of its name with a particular February holiday, as sweethearts will head to Lovers Lock Plaza, and attach a lock to symbolize their love. (And, of course, it being Nevada, it's easy to seal that love with a trip to the local court house.)
     I didn't know that there was a Lovers Lock Plaza until doing a bit of research for this post. I DID know that Valentine's Day was BIG there, because signs on the freeway touted the celebration. (I assumed that the town was banking on its name, much as does Loveland, CO!) But, every time I went by the town, I recalled my family's trip to China in December of 2003. As part of our "tourist-time", we visited the Great Wall of China where . . . there was a practice of lovers coming to the wall, attaching a lock, and throwing away the key! And it was the practice in China that inspired the Lovers Lock Plaza in Lovelock, NV! The implication of the action, whether on the Great Wall or in northern Nevada, is that the love being declared is eternal/everlasting.       After a little bit more poking around, I learned that there are numerous places where this ritual is practiced. Another is Budapest. Within the city, one can go to Erzsébet Square, or to the Szechenyi Chain Bridge over the Danube. And, while some lovers chose a "hardware store" lock, others go "all out", and have them engraved and decorated. The advantage, of course, of the Chain Bridge is that the key can be thrown into the river -- dramatic, and un-retrievable! While some would argue that the practice of love-locking around the world is a Chinese "export", almost all agree that it's a pretty lovely sentiment.
       In thinking about this a bit more, the cynic in me (and, yes, there is a bit of that!) began to wonder what happens to the locks if the couple decided they would part ways. Does someone go back to the bridge/Wall with a big pair of bolt cutters -- somewhat akin to someone having a tattoo of a former lover removed? There is something, I think, in the imagery that suggests that the couple's feelings for one another -- at that moment -- will be static throughout their relationship. They "lock" themselves in a moment in time.
       Extending this line of thought to a different kind of "love affair", I started wondering about how we can often "lock" our thinking in place.  "I took a class on that subject a few decades ago; I know what I'm talking about." "What do you mean research suggests that I need to change my  behavior? My mother smoked three packs a day and lived to be 90!" Or, more currently, "The framers of the Constitution guaranteed . . . ." Thinking like that can't bear the idea of breaking out the bolt-cutters, and the results can be tragic.
       I certainly can understand the symbolism of snapping the lock shut and throwing away the key. But what might it symbolize to use a combination lock instead, which might allow for some growth? Imagine returning to the Great Wall or the Chain Bridge or Lovelock NV, more experienced and wiser, and gently taking down that first lock, and replacing it with something that reflects a new reality. 



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Do-be-do-be-do-be . . . .

      Dear daughter is now three-quarters the way through her first year of college (out-of-state). Dear son is three-quarters the way through his first year of high school. They are both "doing" what they're supposed to be doing, what I as a parent would want them to "do." They're exploring new vistas, new possibilities. And, for the most part (if the reports are true), they're enjoying the experience and doing well. Again, I'm glad.
       I've been surprised, however, by some of the side-effects. For a couple of decades now, dear spouse and I have been "doing" for the kids: taking them to and from school and/or doctor's appointments, making sure they have all the right (sized) clothes, acting as computer tech-support (especially when a paper's deadline looms in 10 minutes!), serving as a cheering section at ballet or tae-kwon-do events. But, with one less kid in the house, and the other increasingly self-reliant, I've found myself with time on my hands.
      Now, you might think this would be a good thing (and I suppose it is, in the sense of training for the "empty nest syndrome"). But, according to my StrengthsFinder, my second-strongest strength is "Achiever". In other words, I live to get things done! But, with about 60% what I formerly needed to "do" no longer necessary, I'm casting about for other things to "achieve". Our financial records are now meticulously organized. I've culled old clothes and cellphones. I've re-arranged all of the stuff in the garage. Given that we're still coming out of winter, I've not been able to devote much energy to the yard, but . . .  just wait! Oh, I can take the lawn-mower to get it tuned up! That's not only doing something, but making it possible to do something better when I can mow!
       Another facet of this, though, has been that I have had the (almost enforced) opportunity to
not do. While I might protest the lack of do-ables, I have found that the additional time has allowed me to peer around corners in my own life that I've ignored while pounding straight ahead in pursuit of a "product". In other words, I've had to question my role as a "human doing" and consider a role as a "human being". Some of the insights have been surprising.
        It is in this new reality that I found the following quotation from Joseph Campbell provocative:

We must be willing to get rid of
the life we've planned, so as to
have the life that is waiting for us.*


* The quotation is used as the epigraph in Dan Brown's latest novel, Origin (Doubleday, 2017).