Friday, September 23, 2016

Curse you, cursive!

      When I am visiting local congregations -- as a preacher -- there are times when someone will come up and ask if I could send them a copy of my sermon. As ego-stroking as that is, I have to tell them that I don't have a "computer-ready" version. The reason is that I hand-write 90% of my sermons (most of the rest are simply bullet-points). After the shock wears off, they say "YOU DO???  STILL????" And I go on to say that I use a #2 Ticonderoga pencil, kept sharp with a small hand-pencil-sharpener. I have found that composing on a computer (at least given my sermon-writing process) leads to multiple, un-necessary, edits, as well as loss-of-train-of-thought.
       Imagine my surprise when I heard an conversation earlier this week that seemed to confirm my own experience.  Brian Lehrer, a talk-show host with WNYC, was interviewing
 Tamara Plakins Thorton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History  (Yale University Press, 1998), and Cheryl Lundy-Swift, National Workshop leader for Handwriting Without Tears.  Both reported on the frequency with which they heard critiques of teaching cursive, and the various reasons that schools were eliminating that skill in favor or either "keyboarding" or "printing". Yet they also presented research that suggested that the act of writing was both quicker and more efficient than the other options, as well as aiding creativity and thought-production! It was this last point that had me patting myself on the back!        So, my personal experience confirmed, I turned my attention back to the interview. What I heard was that three states, two from the deep South as well as California, have passed laws requiring cursive to be taught in the public schools --- in defiance of the move away from that requirement in the Common Core. And the discussion turned to an analysis of WHY those states would take such action. Prof. Thornton's analysis was that the emphasis on teaching cursive (and there have been more than one period where this has been the case) coincides with some deeper social unrest.  In other words, a "return" to cursive is a attempt to re-create a time when things were more cohesive, or simple, or orderly.  Or, the states are using one methodology to deal with a quite un-related problem (at least according to Thornton).        This is certainly not an unusual phenomenon. Over and over again we hear of politicians (on either side of the aisle) who will bury a fairly significant amendment in a piece of legislation. The hope is that the necessary votes will carry the bill -- because it's "important" or popular, and that the amendment will slide along the same track (even though, on its own, it mightn't stand a chance). In a slightly similar vein, historians of the Roman Catholic Church have pointed out that the two "infallible" dogmatic pronouncements made about the Virgin Mary (her Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption)  -- both pronouncements made since the mid-19th century -- coincide with social upheavals in the wider world (the rise of modernism in the first case, and the threat of communism in the second). These historians would argue that a more "conservative" devotion to Mary might counter some of the more "radical" notions pressing on the Church.         Given the significant problems we face in the country/world today, it seems to me that this kind of "smoke and mirrors" way of dealing with problems is quite counter-productive. Not only does it leave the real issue out-of-the-picture; it hides the motivations of those proposing the "solutions."  And, it suggests we don't have the social capital to have honest conversations about matters of significance -- and that may indeed be the case.  If it is, we have much more significant things to address, as citizens and/or people of faith, than the merits of cursive handwriting (despite its positive impact on my sermon-writing). And we must sharpen our pencils to sketch out, collaboratively, creative solutions to those larger problems.        Pencils at the ready!  Go!


Friday, September 16, 2016

Undoing excommunication . . . .

      Over the last couple of weeks, one of my favorite interfaith podcasts, "Interfaith Voices", has run a series of segments focusing on people who have left their religious "homes".*  Their reasons are as varied as the religious groups (e.g., Chasidic Judaism, Fundamentalist Mormonism, Westboro Baptist Church, etc.). One thing, however, was somewhat common (although not entirely so): once they left "the nest", they were shunned, or disowned.  In the case of one of the individuals, he was, in many respects, cast entirely adrift; he had no skills, no money, no connections.  The stories of many folks (whether profiled in the series or that I've heard elsewhere), speak of the sense of loss they experienced, even as they reveled in the freedom they had found.
       This got me thinking about the power of community, or, on the flip-side, the powerful threat of exclusion from community. "Excommunication", often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, has its counterparts in almost every religious tradition -- see the
Wikipedia article! And, of course, it's not solely a religious phenomenon; think "political exile". The reasons for "casting out" differ widely -- some are moral/ethical, others are doctrinal (political). Regardless of the reason, there seems to be an underlying assumption that individuals are more likely to conform than to risk the "punishment" of exclusion. To lose the structure, the fellowship, the support of the community is, for some, a proverbial "fate worse than death." (Indeed, in some traditions, exile/excommunication implies not being able to be buried in "hallowed ground" -- the exile is eternal.)
       So, where are we on this "community" thing? Questions have been raised for quite a few years about the breakdown of communal bonds. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001) is just one example of the critical eye that has been trained on the seeming dissolving of our community bonds. More recently, numerous articles** have chronicled the increase in loneliness, despite an increase in the ways we are connected (i.e., through social media). We see reports of people making plans to spend time together -- and then that translates into them sitting at the same table, each working furiously on his/her own phone, one on Snapchat, the other on Twitter.
       I do not stand outside of this phenomenon! I, too, spend (probably way too much) time on my electronic devices. And there are times when I sense a greater sense of understanding and connection with folks on particular Facebook groups than I do with other organizations where I have face-to-face interactions. I suspect that a reason is that the FB interactions are more "frequent" than a once-a-month club meeting. Yet the regular interactions with folks around the state/country/world don't necessarily translate into support when the going gets rough.
    Research, however, clearly points to the need for re-connection. And it's not just to re-create, or re-inforce, a social fabric that implies that we need to rebuild community. As the books/articles point out, there is an incredible increase in the phenomenon of loneliness. And loneliness translates into a host of other problems, from mental health issues to physical health issues.
        The fracturing of community must be reversed! The Jewish mandate of tikkun olam -- the repair of the world -- is incumbent upon all of us, but not just in terms of environmental or justice work. We must do all we can to repair and restore community, to seek out and build strong relationships with one another that will provide support doing those rough patches. We know the power of community. May that knowledge translate into the will to build and maintain those bonds.



* Last week's episode is here; this week's, here.
**  See for example, this Independent article from last year.

Friday, September 9, 2016

      Father Cassian Folsom leads the monastic community at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia/Nursia, Italy.  While Norcia was the birthplace of St. Benedict, the founder of western Christian monasticism, until a few years ago, there hadn't been a monastery in his home town since the early 1800's. Fr. Cassian was picked to re-establish the presence. In this interview, Fr. Cassian talks about how the townspeople have welcomed them back, trust them, and enjoy the beer that the monastery produces.  He also talks about how those who've been diagnosed with cancer have come to confide in him, as he, too, has had that experience.
       The interviewer, Judy Valente, asked Fr. Cassian, "You’ve dedicated your entire life to seeking God, to service to others and to God. Did you ever feel, 'Gee, I deserve a little better than two diagnoses of cancer, a serious cancer?'” To which he answers, "It’s just a part of life, that’s all. I would say this: we can look at death as a thief or a messenger. A thief comes and steals what is most valuable to us, and so we’re afraid. A messenger who comes to tell us that our beloved is at the door, we respond much differently, don’t we? So that’s the kind of choice we have to make. Is it a thief or a messenger?"  And he observes, "As anybody who is diagnosed with cancer, it changes your life. I think it has given me greater patience, greater tolerance, looking at things from a 'not everything matters as much as you might think it does'.”
        Later on the same day that I heard that interview, Tim McGraw's song, "Live Like You Were Dying", came onto the radio.  I was surprised to hear it, since I'd never heard a "country" song on the station to which I was listening. So I guess I listened a little more closely, and the lyrics so much seemed to echo Fr. Cassian:

 I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talkin' 'bout the options
And talkin' 'bout sweet time"
I asked him
"When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How's it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what'd you do?"

He said
"I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying"
And he said
"Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying"*

        This meditation is not meant to be a sort of "downer" at the beginning of a new academic year.  Nor was it occasioned by anything other than the coincidence of hearing these two things on the same day.  Quite the contrary!  At the start of any endeavor, such as a school year or a career, I try to hold in mind one of Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People":  Habit 2 "Being with the end in mind".  That maxim often helps me stay on track, to avoid "mission creep" as I develop my agenda, or work on a paper/sermon. But, at the beginning of a school year, especially in light of Fr. Cassian's and Tim McGraw's "meditations", I think it's important to keep in mind that our focus on one "end" (i.e., finishing a paper or finishing school or getting the "perfect" job) can keep us from another, maybe more important:  making beer, or "Rocky Mountain climbing", or loving deeply.
        All the best for the coming months!



* Taken from  The official music video can be found here.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The marker marks what?

      I heard a "Colorado Matters"* segment yesterday with the intriguing title "A Pickle Jar In The Basement Is No Place For Someone's Ashes To Spend Eternity". Coloradans may remember when the story broke about year ago of a funeral director buying an active funeral home in Montrose, only to discover 175 sets of cremains in the basement -- some dating back to 1947. When the new owner found these cremains, he set about to have them properly interred. That meant, in many cases, dealing with the next-of-kin. For some, however, there was no one to claim the remains.  And the owner simply buried (or scattered) the ashes as dignifiedly as possible (those with a military background were given full military honors). From all indications, the new owner did everything right and good.
      One interaction the funeral director mentioned, however, caught my mind. When he found the cremains originally, he went public with the names of the deceased (he published them in the local paper). That meant that many of the living were horrified and disbelieving. As the funeral director put it, "In a lot of those cases, there was already a grave marker out there, with a year and death on it and everything. So the family had been coming to these graves for years thinking that their loved one was buried there, when in fact they were in the basement here."
     That's what got me started thinking. Those folks who went to an empty, although marked, grave -- were they any less consoled because the remains were NOT there? Or was the grave-marker with the name and dates (perhaps with some inscription) enough to bring back the "presence" of Uncle Harry or Grandma? In other words, can the marker "stand in" for the reality? And, if so, what happens when the "reality" is gone?
       This story was provocative enough on its own. But, put in the context of our national "debate" over standing for the national anthem (or putting one's hand over one's heart to honor the flag), it took on a special cast, especially in light of a thoughtful article on that subject by Benjamin Zeller, "
Why Kaepernick's refusal to stand isn an act of religious dissent". Zeller relates the incident to the theory of "totems" put forward by sociologist Emile Durkheim.  As Zeller writes:
Rightly or wrongly, Durkheim centered his model of religion on the concept of the totem, “the material representation of the clan,” which over time becomes a sacred object and center of a tribal religion.
Within this model of religion, the totem serves as the preeminent symbol of the group. “Thus the god of the clan […] can be none other than the clan itself, but the clan transfigured and imagined in the form of the plant or animal that serves as totem.” What plants or animals did for ancient societies, flags do today. The totemic symbol of America, the American flag, represents the nation state as a sacred entity—it serves as symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship.
To threaten the totem, particularly in front of large groups (such as on national television!), is to call into question the foundations of society. “When a belief is shared unanimously by a people, to touch it—that is, to deny or question it—is forbidden,” Durkheim wrote. People kill or die for their symbols.     
      One of the key phrases in this quotation from the article (in my opinion) is "the material representation. . . which over time becomes a sacred object . . ."  That is, an "object" stands in for the reality -- perhaps an absent reality (such as Uncle Harry or Granda), or mis-remembered reality, or entirely fabricated reality. But it is the object that acquires importance. That has become very apparent in the debate over Kaepernick's protest.
      It is not my intent here to take a stand (pardon the pun) on Kaepernick's (non-)action. Nor is it to play loose with the experience of those families who learned that the grave had been empty. It is only to consider our propensity to infuse material objects with meaning, sometimes incredibly powerful meaning. After all, a gravestone is a rock, and a flag bits of fabric.
      The First (or Second, depending on the way one counts) Commandment may offer helpful counsel beyond its original purpose:  
"You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20.4-5a). There may be unfortunate consequences. Vigilance might be warranted!



* "Colorado Matters" is Colorado Public Radio show that features stories arising within or affecting Colorado. They may be about business, human interest, government, education, etc.

Note: the photo above is of an abandoned Soviet-era monument in Yugoslavia.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Incapable of knowing . . .

     In his book, The Habit of Rivers: Reflections on Trout Streams and Fly Fishing*, Oregon State University professor Ted Leeson tells of an Oregon river he considers his "home waters" -- the Deschutes (pictured above).  ("Home waters" are those that anglers like to think they know best, to which they return regularly. We have our favorite "holes" in those rivers, places we like to believe we can call the fish by name.)  Leeson writes of the river:

The size and depth, the forbidding velocity of the current, the sheer volume of water, all exceed the proportions of comfortable imagining, and much of what is there seems beyond reach or rapport. You can become familiar with the river, but it defies the intimacy of my ideal. Yet the place is magnetic for precisely this reason: It confronts you with your incapacity to know (p. 91).
    "It confronts you with your own incapacity to know."  I've been considering that phrase for the last few days. A place we know well serving up surprises over and over again, confounding us. I certainly do know the experience of standing in the river getting more and more frustrated because the fish that were there last time seem to take delight in mocking me. The proverb attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus springs to mind, "You cannot step in the same river twice"**. A similar experience confronts many campus ministers: "what worked last quarter may not work this quarter."
     Standing on the verge of another academic year, this reminder of our limited ability to "know" seems appropriate. At schools of all sorts, where we (hopefully) impart knowledge, humility ought to be the flip-side to our endeavor. I remember hearing another analogy -- perhaps attributable to another Greek philosopher -- that learning is like increasing the wattage of a light bulb.  More watts means more light; one can see further.  Yet, the circumference of the area that is illumined by the bulb increases as the wattage does. And that means that the boundary where light and darkness meet is greater.  In other words, the more we know, the more we know we don't know!
     I am reminded of the psalmist's realization:
         Out of the mouths of babes and infants
         you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
         to silence the enemy and the avenger.
         When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
         the moon and the stars that you have established;
         what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
         mortals that you care for them?
         Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
         and crowned them with glory and honor. (Ps 8. 3-6)

We have been "made . . . a little lower than God, crowned . . . with glory and honor". We did not make ourselves, although we are quick to crown ourselves. Yet the river will always confound us. A healthy humility would serve us all well these days. 


 *  New York: Lyons & Burford, 1994.**  As quoted in Plato, Cratylus, 402a

Friday, August 12, 2016

Disaster relief . . .

    Beginning tomorrow evening (August 13, 2016), our Jewish neighbors will begin their observance of Tisha b'Av (the ninth of the month of Av).  According to one of the sections of the Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic teachings, compiled in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE),
Five misfortunes befell our fathers ... on the ninth of Av. ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6)

In other words, the observance of Tisha b'Av is a day of remembrance and mourning for these tragedies that had happened to the Jewish people.  As the centuries proceeded, other disastrous events become associated with Tisha b'Av (such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492). The mourning fast is observed in much the same way as the solemn day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); it is significant.      As negative as those experiences were --- and certainly the destruction and sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (depicted in the Arch of Titus above) was devastating --- Jews have also seen the tragedy as presaging hope.  As found in another ancient Jewish text, the Jerusalem Talmud (compiled towards the beginning of the 5th century CE), the following is recorded (regarding the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans):

"On the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, a Jew was plowing his field when his cow suddenly called out. An Arab was passing by and heard the low of the cow. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Unyoke your cow, free the stake of your plow, for your Holy Temple has now been destroyed.' The cow then lowed a second time. Said the Arab: 'Jew, Jew! Yoke your cow, reset the stake of your plow, for the Redeemer has now been born...'" (Berachot 2:4)

An un-named commentator on the above passage noted:  "The redeemer, and with him the potential for redemption, was born the moment after the destruction."*        "The potential for redemption was born the moment after the destruction." The Hebrew prophets had railed against their compatriots for leaving aside justice, for over-attention to ritual action, to complacency born of their belief, perhaps, that, as God's chosen people, no calamity could befall them. And the warnings of the prophets came to pass -- either as a divine punishment or as the "natural" result of their self-indulgence. The Temple was destroyed -- not just once, but twice.  Yet the Jewish people and Judaism survived. The horrors were not the end of the story, and, because of a steadfast faith and commitment, some found enough seeds of redemption in the rubble to rebuild.       I have found myself thinking about these themes for quite some weeks/months.  Whether it has been racially-motivated violence on the streets of the United States, or terrorist attacks here and abroad, or the de-evolution of our political system, it often seems that things we claimed (or at least hoped) were "good" are being destroyed. And our standard reaction has been shock, mourning and, on the part of some, stubborn retrenchment. Yet I cannot allow myself to get caught up in that downward spiral of negativity; I refuse to go down that dark road.
        The Talmudic story related above provides a different possibility. How can we see the seeds of redemption in these current tragedies? The observance of Tisha b'Av is one of mourning. But it is also one of hope. It is turning away from the rubble and towards the future. There is an expectation of something better.
       While I do not doubt that other religious traditions hold similar visions of a hopeful future, the two with which I'm most familiar are in dramatic agreement that the old must make way for a better future. From the New Testament book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Revelation 21.1). And, of course, that passage is nearly a quotation of another passage from hundreds of years earlier: "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (Isaiah 65.17).
       We clearly cannot re-create the past.  But we can recognize that there is relief from the "disasters" in a confident hope for a better future . . . a future we can help create. 



Friday, July 29, 2016

For whom is dis-ease, disease?

      The last couple of weeks have been quite a whirlwind, at least in the world of American politics.  The storm showed itself first in Cleveland, with the Republican National Convention.  Delegations walking out. Shouting on the floor. Apparent plagiarism from the podium. Dark, fear-filled speeches. All amid complaints that the party's nominee wasn't really representative of the party! The winds then blew east to Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention, beginning with a squall raised by leaked emails and the resignation of a party official, leading into another set of walk-outs, "boo's" aimed at venerable speakers, and complaints (1) that the system was "rigged", but also (2) one of the candidates wasn't really representative of the party. The end result of both conventions was that many who had identified with each party, come November, were going to cast their votes for a third-party candidate. They claim that the institutions that had held their voting loyalty were broken and corrupt.
        Then, last week, I received in my email inbox a pointer to an article entitled "Sit Down and Shut Up: Pulling Mindfulness Up By Its (Buddhist) Roots" by Max Zahn.  While the first part of the title may have been something many of the above-mentioned conventioneers might have been shouting, the article itself points in an entirely different direction. It relays a critique of the current "fad" of corporations encouraging their employees to engage in "mindfulness training", ostensibly to help them deal with workplace stress. Cynics (both in the article and elsewhere) point out that the employers might be less concerned about the employees' stress, than in investing in helping them be more productive. i.e., keeps the cogs in the machine well-oiled. Regardless, there are many who take the training and testify to its overall benefits, benefits beyond the workplace. But the article also raises concerns among some Buddhists that detaching mindfulness from its Buddhist roots is detrimental to both mindfulness itself AND Buddhism.  I've heard this same complaint leveled by Hindus (and some Buddhists) about the detachment of yoga from its religious roots.*  Several years ago, there was a "fad" among many celebrities adopting forms of mystical Judaism, without (according to their critics) being truly engaged with Judaism at all.
      I am not interested in claiming that one political party is less "rigged" or "corrupt" than the other. I am also not interested, really, in whether or not removing a practice from its religious roots is "cultural appropriation". What I do see, in both instances, is a dis-ease with institutional affiliation, or an assertion that the institutions are diseased. That dis-ease is apparent, too, in the flight of many younger people from traditional religions; the numbers of "spiritual but not religious", or "Nones" is rapidly rising. Most of these folks are NOT rejecting things spiritual. They ARE rejecting institutions that seem self-absorbed and/or out-of-touch with current realities.**
      The institutional response is often a sort of hand-wringing: "How do we get those disaffected voters back among the party faithful?" "Yoga isn't really yoga unless it retains its ties to our cosmology!" "Grazing at a religious smorgasbord is no substitute for genuine faith!" Yet the wise ones in all of these arenas are beginning to recognize that the critiques they are facing might, indeed, point to areas that need attention. They recognize that institutions, as sociologists assert, inevitably serve to dull passion -- the term of art is "routinization of charisma". Those who flee the institution, or disassociate the institution's "beneficial" practices from the institution's constraints, are, it seems to me, raising a challenge to reform.
       The one who expresses dis-ease simply may be pointing to another's disease. Paraphrasing Jesus, let's hope that those who have eyes to see may be able to see that and respond appropriately--bravely and without fear! 



* Oddly enough, at the same time,there are places in the US where yoga is being offered in public schools. It is ostensibly separated from its religious roots, yet is criticized by some parents as being "creeping Hinduism".
** Polling data indicates that many millennial, for example, have fled organized Christianity because of a perceived entanglement with conservative political agendae.