Friday, April 29, 2016

Just say, "Me".

      Last evening (4/28), one of our PBS stations ran an episode of the series NOVA: "Rise of the Robots". One of the main themes of the feature had to do with making robots who could negotiate disaster sites, especially those that were rubble-strewn. Given how they are constructed, robots have a difficult time "walking" on radically uneven surfaces. Solving this problem could speed up rescue operations in dangerous environments -- sending in robots means that humans aren't put at risk. As the scientists and engineers were discussing all of the practical implications, one posed the question, "Well, if something goes wrong with (or because of) the robots, who will we blame?"

      Before I started watching the PBS show last night, I was at a discussion on the DU campus focused on Dialoguing about Race and Religion. At one point during the presentation, one panelist, Harold Fields, talked a bit about the "Circle of Human Concern" -- one of the ways we think about WHO we perceive ourselves as a group (nation, society, sub-group, religion, etc.).  The "circle" about which we're concerned defines who is in , and who is out.  OR, put another way, those inside the circle push others out -- expelling, or excluding them. Those outside then become invisible to those inside.
       Exclude.        These two incidents/stories came on the heels of a news story I heard earlier this week that referred to "scapegoats." That story had me thinking about the "tradition" of scapegoats, and their role in human history. One of the earliest mentions of the idea that some figure (early on, an animal -- yes, a goat) would be invested with the sins/faults of a people is found in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus (Chapter 16). On the Day of Atonement, two goats were selected for a ceremony. By lot, one was selected to be a sin-offering (and is sacrificed); the sins of the people would be "transferred" by the priest onto the head of the other goat. That goat, the "scapegoat", would be led into the desert--to Azazel, bearing (or removing) the sins of the people. (Interesting to note that the goat was randomly chosen -- by lot, AND that it was pure/innocent prior to the ceremony, i.e., it didn't have "undesirable" qualities).
        Since that time, the term "scapegoat" has come to be applied to anyone (or any group) that we want to "blame" or to "exclude": they don't look like us; they don't talk like us; they don't eat like us; they don't dress like us. That was certainly the context in which the word was used in the news story I heard. Whether the word is mentioned, we hear the idea scattered throughout our political debates these days: someone is to blame for our problems; someone must be expelled or excluded, taking our bad fortune with them!
         I suppose it is human nature to want to deflect culpability. And I know that there is great power in rituals that "cleanse". Whether it is sending a goat to Azazel, or going to private confession, or even burning a list of "sins", there can result a sense of a clean slate, a new beginning. Yet, the tendency becomes evil when we seek simply to place responsibility outside ourselves: "It's THEIR fault!" Here is a situation where a concept ("scapegoat") takes a dark turn. By blithely placing our "sins" on the heads of others, we don't have to look within. We don't have address our policies as a nation; we don't have to address our own individual greed, lust, sloth (or any of the other seven dealdlies). It's easier that way, I suppose.
       But it's no way to health. Why, when we ask the question, "Who will we blame?", is it so hard to just say "Me."  To take responsibility, make amends, and move forward.



Friday, April 22, 2016

Not the Shallow End of the Pool!?!

      When we first moved to Colorado, we lived in Highlands Ranch (a Denver suburb). One of the perks we enjoyed was the opportunity to visit the recreation centers there. With two elementary-school-or-younger kids, it was great . . . . especially during the winter months (and accompanying vacations). When playing in the snow lost its fascination (or it just got too cold), a trip to the rec center and the humidity of the swimming pool was a welcome respite. It was in those rec centers that I first encounter "zero-entry pools". Since I am NOT a swimmer by choice, I'd never had occasion to be in a place where the entry to the pool resembled a sandy beach, i.e., that the lapped onto the "shore" rather than into a recessed "return. For small kids, it was GREAT! Certainly the water increased in depth, various levels marked by float-lines, "preventing" those who weren't swim-qualified from getting in over their head. As an adult (who could swim, by the way), I did see others (both kids and adults) who never ventured beyond the limitations of those float-lines; they hadn't learned to swim. They were having fun, to be sure (or at least it appeared so!). But even I, who only swim on occasion, knew that there was a different level of satisfaction being out in the "over-my-head" water. I had some responsibility for my survival; I had to exercise in different ways just to stay afloat.     Not surprisingly, I see something analogous here to many other situations. People won't try new foods, staying with their favorites ("Mmmmmm, Mac-and-cheese from a box again! Why would I EVER want home-made!?"). I recall a student who, upon graduation from university, found himself headed to graduate school in another state on an opposite coast. . . . the first time he'd ever been any further away from his birthplace than a few counties.  It was frightening for him to contemplate. For many of us, it's simpler to stick with what we know, or to follow the stream of culture/society. The proverb (with some reference to "Whack-a-mole"" in some totalitarian countries is apt: "Don't stick your head up; it's more likely to be bopped!" In other words, "Conform!" Or, to review the metaphor from above, "Don't go beyond the 3-1/2'  line!"       Given that all-too-common human tendency to seek safety or familiarity, then, it seems striking to me that many of the major religious leaders throughout time have called their followers to go beyond the culturally familiar. It doesn't take a particularly close reading of the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus to realize that Moses' call to the Israelites as he physically led them away from Egypt (literally and figuratively a foreign-but-familiar culture. His--(or God's--instructions to the people were that they were NOT to (re-)adopt the practices of other peoples (including both the Egyptians that they had left, or the peoples of Canaan to which they were headed). The Israelites were to be a unique, peculiar, people in relationship to their God. Easier, to be sure, to "be like everyone else", but not what God called them to be.
        Similarly, it doesn't take a particularly close reading of the New Testament Gospels to see that Jesus was calling his followers to adopt a different way of being in the culture/world. His famous "beatitudes" overturn cultural norms (I like Luke's version, 6.20-26):  "Blessed are the poor: blessed are the hungry; blessed are those who weep". Those kinds of sentiments are certainly not in vogue now, nor were they 2000 years ago. Or, we recall the woman who came to the Buddha wanting to be relieved of her grief over the loss of her one-year-old son. The Buddha instructed her to bring him four or five mustard seeds from any family she could find who had not known suffering and death. Her task, of course as she discovered, was impossible. She became a follower of the Buddha, recognizing that the normal, human, desire of a comfortable, suffering-free, life was an illusion.* The prophet Muhammed (PBUH) called his followers to leave the cultural influences, practices and rivalries of the tribes of Arabia. the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, as well as the gurus of Sikhism, likewise summoned their followers to go beyond the "normal" order of things.
       This invitation, or demand, to transcend the fears and customs that beset and surround us seems to me to be as much a common factor among religions as the more-oft cited "compassion". (Compassion, of course, can be pretty counter-cultural!) The usual, the expected, is safe; it demands little. Our religious leaders, however, call us to something greater. They ask us to leave the shallow end of the pool, to get in over our heads, to exercise different muscles, to attain something greater.**



* A version of the story of the Kisa Gautami can be found here.
** This footnote aside, I had to struggle NOT to make any political comments above . . . . .   That would have been too easy, and I'm trying to transcend that impulse!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Take Another Look

       As I write this, we're anticipating at a major storm dumping inches of snow on Denver this-coming weekend (although it may be rain -- those weather-forecasters! By the time you read this, however, the form of precipitation may have been settled!). Lots of plans have been changed because of the weather . . .  At least one DU sporting event has changed venues (it's difficult to play tennis, for example, in rainy/snowy conditions). My son's Boy Scout campout has been postponed a week (as currently forecast, NEXT weekend should be in the '70's! -- it's Colorado!). "The best-laid plans . . ." So, is it a "disaster"?  It could be, to be sure, for some folks -- some things WERE only scheduled for this weekend. But maybe not! For some parents, the weekend is lost to gardening, and will be spent with kids indoors. While my son may not be learning outdoor skills, we will get some other scout-requirements out-of-the-way.
       This-coming weekend's severe weather cannot be evaluated from only one perspective. Indeed, most things can be viewed from a least a couple of vantage points (without saying "every cloud has a silver lining"). This came "home" to me last week as I was attending a meeting of one of DU's religious student groups. A member of the group had suffered a severe medical emergency a week or so earlier and remains in the hospital. At one point, the prospects for a recovery looked pretty dim.* The question was asked of the group how each individual made sense of, or found solace in, a situation like this. The answers were varied, as one might expect. But most focused either on the difficult nature of the tragedy, or on the inscrutable nature of God's will. I wondered (aloud) whether there were another way of looking at the entire situation. That is, that the tragedy had produced a major effort on the part of the community. People came together, supported room-mates, supported the student's family, prayed together. YES, the student's situation was dire -- we had to trust the medical professionals, the student's will-to-live, and the power of prayer -- other than that, there was little we could "do" for the student. But what was produced BY that concern was amazing. How we look at things is NOT limited to only one perspective.
       A similar "take-another-look" reminder came to me this morning in a blog-post by the Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. He tells of being invited to Salt Lake City to give a series of lectures, remarking that he had never had such an extended period of time to spend at the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (my words, not his!). He writes of how much he learned, not just in terms of "history" but of people's real lives. He learned how different, but how similar the Mormon experience was from the Muslim. And, of course, he came under criticism WHILE there. Yet he chose NOT to write of the critics, but of the hospitality and hope he found. The title of his blog-piece is "
Shine a Light on the Good and Beautiful".
       In all of my thinking about this, I have to admit that I'm very influenced by the theory/philosophy of managing change known as
Appreciative Inquiry. At its core, AI focuses on what is good, what works. It does not deny that there are problems, but chooses not to focus on fixing them, but rather accentuating the positive. One writer, Jackie Kelm (popularizing AI as "Appreciative Living"), uses the image of a movie screen, where many of us see life's film with only half the curtain opened -- leaving us with a negative impression of what's going on. She argues for opening the other half of the curtain where we can see a more complete picture, to also, to use Safi's words, to "shine a light on the good and beautiful"; the negative isn't gone, it's simply complemented by something more nuanced, more constructive. It's takes discipline to look at things this way, but (I've found) a very useful discipline.
       Another way to "look" at this is through the lens of optical illusions. Regardless of how we first see the picture above, after a while (even if we need to be shown), we'll probably see something more that we originally thought.  Is it simply a mountain range, or is it a person's face?  And, of course, for those of us in Colorado anticipating a lot of snow, we know that mountains bare of snow tell one story, but those with snow another -- yet they are the same mountains, only with a different look.



*They look MUCH better now, thankfully!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Transcending the "Banker's Heart"

      I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. Early on, I worked in San Francisco proper, mostly in the Fisherman's Wharf or Levi's Plaza area. Frequently, I traveled in an out of "The City" by public transportation -- either by BART (the subway) or bus. And I would sometimes walk by 555 California Street -- at the time the world headquarters of the Bank of America. For a couple of years, it was the tallest building in San Francisco, only to be outdone in overall height by the iconic Transamerica Tower.  In front of the buildings a 200-ton black Swedish granite sculpture called "Transcendence" (by sculptor Masayuki Nagare), but known by most San Franciscans as the "Banker's Heart" (a name bestowed on it by local columnist Herb Caen). Even when BofA merged with NationsBank, and the headquarters moved out-of-state, they left their "heart" in San Francisco.
      The notion that the "heart of a banker" was best-symbolized by a huge piece of cold black granite waxed and waned in popularity as the economic situation in the country changed. Beneath it all, however, was a sense that the financial industry, and those who worked in--and profited from--it had less-than-noble intentions. That characterization is a stereotype, as I certainly have known many folks throughout the years who have worked in banking and investments who have had the best interests of their customers/investors in mind. Yet there is something malleable about the "heart" of humans that is implied in Caen's nickname for "Transcendence".
        The "Banker's Heart" came to mind a couple of times this week. The first was in a lecture at DU by Devamrita Swami -- a lecture entitled "Spiritual Economics."  The talk was a critique of our human tendency (and advertisers' playing upon that tendency) to want, want, want.  Our desire to acquire, however, is never satisfied.  What is required, Devamrita Swami asserted, was a change of mind, of heart.  A monk of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (the "Hare Krishnas"), Devamrita Swami's point was that we needed to recognize that we were NOT, at essence, material beings . . . and, therefore, that we could never satisfy our TRUE selves through material means.  And I thought of the Banker's Heart, and the huge industry built around acquisition and hoarding of wealth.  Wealth that, as the old saying goes, "we can't take with us".

       The second reminder of the "Banker's Heart" came from an interview I heard with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain). The interview touched on a number of different topics, one of which was whether religion was the cause of violence. Rabbi Sacks passionately denied that assertion, calling it quite naive (he took to task many of the so-called "New Atheists" who might make that claim). In contradistinction, Rabbi Sacks said, "The biggest weapon of mass destruction is the human heart."  Unknowingly echoing Devamrita Swami (at least as I was listening), Rabbi Sacks called for a change of mind, of heart.
       A Jewish leader and a bhakti-yoga leader, speaking to different issues, both calling for a similar conversion.  Other religious traditions assert much the same.  All of those traditions can be mis-used, mis-appropriated, by those of an un-changed mind/heart.  Rabbi Sacks and Devamrita Swami would agree, I think, that the real "battles" that religions must wage are for the change of those minds/hearts, not for the acquisition of land/wealth or subjugation of people.
      Perhaps Hebrew prophet Ezekiel put it the best (while addressing the scattered peoples of Israel -- but applicable much beyond!):  "I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead" (36.26).
      Transforming the "Banker's Heart" to "



Friday, April 1, 2016

Lines in the sand

     When I was growing up, I had an aunt and uncle who operated a motel In Ocean Park, Washington.  They were only a couple of hours away from our home, so we spent many long weekends there.  Over a large dune from their house was a large sandy beach. Clam-digging was an early (often VERY EARLY!) morning chore; fresh home-made clam chowder in the afternoon was the reward!  We flew kites and built sand-castles. Typical beach fun! There was very little swimming, on the other hand, and the Pacific Ocean that far north was pretty cold!  It was at Auntie Florence and Uncle Eric's that I learned that lines I drew in the sand would not survive the next change of tides.      I remember, too, the old maps and atlases that were in their bookshelves in the attic room where I often slept.  Many of them pre-dated World War II, some by quite a bit. And the borders didn't always match those on the pull-down maps in my elementary school classrooms. There were even whole countries that were missing from my school maps, or had different names.  As I got older, of course, I saw such changes happening as a matter of course.  Many African and South American countries, for example, shed their colonial names for something more "indigenous".  Many newly-named Asian countries emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars.  The "lines in the sand" that are our maps are no more permanently fixed than were my drawings or writing on the beach.
       "A map is not the territory it represents," wrote scientist/philosopher Alfred Korzybski in the 1930's, "But, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness."*  "Similar structure" . . . and "useful". 
  But not precise; not "true". The map represents only. It occurs to me that the same can be asserted for many of our "truth claims", whether scientific, philosophical or religious.  They all "represent" some greater reality, but they are only pointers.  Where we often fail is in our tendency to confuse "map" with "territory", turning the pointers into the reality.
      This tendency is wonderfully illustrated in the map above.  It is SO different from the maps of the world that we often see! First, it is "upside down" (which begs the question of WHO decided which was "right-side up"?).  Second, it is a different "projection" (
the Gall-Peters projection) than the more usual Mercator depiction, a projection that may depict more accurately the relative sizes of land/sea masses.  Yet this map was controversial in the late 20th century because of its political implications. People did not want to give up their "lines in the sand" as depicted on the Mercator map.**
        There is a spiritual discipline implied here, I think. Every so often, it is good to sit back and re-evaluate our "maps."  Are we equating our "lines in the sand" with the reality they can only depict? Can they withstand a change of tides? The following poem by Jane Hirschfield pushes ME in this regard:

Even now,

decades after,

I wash my face with cold water—

not for discipline,

nor memory,

nor the icy, awakening slap,

but to practice


to make the unwanted wanted.
(from Given Sugar, Given Salt, HarperCollins, 2001)


*** Another, animated, critique of the Mercator projection floated through my Facebook feed earlier this week:  Maps That Prove You Don't Really Know Earth.  Equally fun, or challenging, are the 27 Pictures That Will Change The Way You Look At The World.

Friday, March 25, 2016

For us, it is dark . . .

[Note:  What follows is a version of my meditation at DU's Good Friday service today.]  
      For us, it is dark--here, now. We have put out the last candle as part of our reading of the Passion Story (John 18.1-19.42).  All that remains is a wisp of smoke and the scent of wax and wick. If we were here in the evening, it would be DARK.  And, according to the Gospel of Luke, it WAS completely dark during those last three hours of Jesus' life. And it was VERY dark for those early followers of Jesus who, unlike us, did not know "the rest of the story."
      For us it is dark-- not just here, now.  Yesterday we learned of the killings on the beach of the Cote d'Ivoire.  Earlier this week it was Brussels.  The litany stretches back:  Paris, Istanbul, Ankara, Mali, Beirut. Millions of people leaving fleeing the darkness of a war-torn Syria into the darkness of an unknown and, perhaps, perilous future.      The candles go out.  They keep going out.  They've gone out for millennia.  It just seems that it's happening more frequently.
      For us it is dark--not just here, now. Around this country lights are being snuffed out. We read of the deaths of black me. We hear of school shootings, almost every week. We learn of intolerance in the southern states of America, legislation in Alabama and Georgia discriminating against LGBT people. We hear intolerance and hate in the language of our presidential candidates, language that plays to our fear of darkness while imposing its own. 
      For us, it is dark--perhaps even here, now.  A few weeks ago, I officiated at a memorial service for a recent graduate. Less than a year out of school. A light snuffed out.  This afternoon, I'll officiate at another memorial -- this one for a student who hadn't even completed his first year of college. Lights snuffed out. Not just for these two young men, but for their families and friends. There are others around us in the dark as well -- the darkness of depression. The darkness of anxiety. The darkness of substance abuse.
      It was dark.  It is dark.  It will be dark again.
      So, where is the light? Where is the hope? Is it in greater gun control? Or more guns in schools? Is it building walls at borders? Is it stricter laws?  Is it better mental health care? Is it more education? Is it Bernie? Is it Hillary? Is it Donald?       Where is the light?
      Jesus was dead. Dead. Executed as a criminal. A harsh reality that WE didn't live through. But his early followers did. What happened next was beyond his, Jesus, control. One follower pled with the governor for his body, and buried him -- NOT as a criminal, but with respect. We're told that some of Jesus' female followers went to anoint and prepare his body as custom demanded. They did not think it was completely over.  His other followers quickly found each other, both for comfort, and perhaps, for hope. And it was in those gatherings that they came to understand that it was not over, that their leader, their Lord, was still among them, perhaps in an even greater, more powerful way.       So, where is the light? Where is the hope? It is in us; it is up to us. We live out the knowledge that there is, and will always be, darkness. But the wisp of smoke, and scent of wax remains, and entices us to leave our hiding places to go out and make a difference. Conversations one on one. Entering into the polling place. Serving at a soup kitchen. Holding the hand of a frightened child. Listening to a friend in despair.       Here, today, we see both death and darkness. For us it is dark . . . . but it will not stay that way. We have experienced some light that cannot be entirely snuffed out. We carry it with us.


Friday, March 18, 2016

The Temptation of Being Human

     Over sixty years ago, Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis published the provocative novel, The Last Temptation of Christ.  The Wikipedia summary says of it:

The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will without ever giving into the temptations of the flesh. The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to any such temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.

I remember reading the book LONG before Martin Scorsese's (even more) controversial film of the same name came out in 1988. I was impressed by the prose, and moved by the premise. On the other hand, the film DID make many of the issues in the book more vivid -- and highlighted some significant themes that were often missed by critics (mostly who hadn't seen the movie, let alone read the book) who wanted to focus on the more salacious dramatizations.*      One of the chief criticisms coming from the more conservative folks was that Jesus was depicted as TOO human -- as the Wikipedia comment says: he was "subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust". But those same critics rarely paid any notice to the end of the book -- that Jesus rose above those "human weaknesses." As was the case in the stories of Jesus' original temptations (recounted in Mark 1, Matthew 4 and Luke 4), Jesus, in Kazantzakis' story, withstood the temptations, including the LAST temptation. I have to wonder whether those critics, seeking to elevate Jesus above "mere humans", also serve to keep us "mere humans" away from any "rising above"?      I have thought about this a lot during this political season when so many of the presidential candidates are playing to "human weaknesses" -- primarily "fear, doubt," and, yes, "lust". We hear precious little about rising above our self-centeredness. There are few resounding sound-bites, let alone sustained conversations, appealing to our better natures.  We humans have been make "little less than the angels" according to the psalmist (8.5), but much of what we hear suggests that we've actually been made little better than dung-beetles.
       While I've been referring here to a story primarily based on a Christian narrative, I suspect that few of our religious traditions would have us adopt such a bleak outlook. Most would invite us to rise above our "earthly" natures, our selfish concerns, to locate ourselves in a universal narrative that provides hope for all. I think Kazantzakis' novel goes beyond telling an alternate story about Jesus, but is a parable inviting us all to avoid succumbing to the temptation of being merely human.



*  Don't get me started on the other problems I had with that film!