Friday, February 16, 2018

A River Runs Through You

     Many years ago, my wife and I took up bird-watching (or "birding"). A close friend of ours had been a long-time birder, and offered to take us out, and we were at a point where we believed that some sort of joint outdoor hobby would be fun. So we got in the car, picked up John, and headed to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. John had a specific lake in mind and, once we parked and got out of the car, he told us not to look at anything until he pointed.  Walking across the street without "looking at anything" was a bit of a challenge, but when he told us to look, we were looking at . . . a duck. Well, that's what WE thought; it certainly looked like a duck. John told us, "I wanted you to have THIS bird as #1 on your life list. It's a Eurasian Wigeon." That was the first of about 50 birds we identified that day, driving all over the San Francisco Bay Area. And it was the beginning of a life-long hobby.
      We were so surprised by the variety of birds -- ducks, gulls, hawks, pigeons, songbirds. And the diversity of colors -- astonishing! We couldn't believe that we'd never really noticed before! But something else happened; I think we realized it a few weeks later walking through some meadows at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore (north of San Francisco). In our efforts to locate elusive birds, we started noticing other things:  butterflies, snakes and frogs, different kinds of grasses. In other words, once we started paying close attention to one "family" of wildlife, we started seeing a lot of other things . . . and, of course, the variety there was equally astonishing.

       Our experience was not unique, of course. While living in North Carolina, we learned that a lot of birders turned to butterflies during the summer when bird life was slow and "predictable". And, of course, it's helpful to know an aspen from a ponderosa pine when following someone else's directions in where to locate a bird. Then I learned earlier this week from a podcast from the American Birding Association that, given the portability of lots of field guides (i.e., on one's smartphone) many birders are branching out beyond avian life.
      The realization, however, that by carefully looking for one thing, one finds many others was a bit of a su
rprise. We've asked ourselves numerous times, "How could we have been so inattentive?" The easy answer, of course, is that we weren't trained to pay attention. 
       I've had a similar set of realizations as I've become more obsessed with fly-fishing. I'd seen "rivers" before; I grew up in Portland, OR where there are a LOT of rivers, big and small. But what I'd never noticed were all the various characteristics of the rivers:  pools, back-eddies, places where the current was faster than others, the slack water behind boulders, etc. All of those hold (or don't) fish. But it goes beyond that -- there's the whole question of the water's depth, and whether the fish are holding towards the bottom, or if they're taking food from the surface. AND, there's the question of what they're eating. One way of checking that is to seine the water with a fine mesh net. One finds twigs, insect larvae, perhaps a minnow. There is A LOT of stuff going on in the river that I never noticed . . . until I started paying attention.
       The other day, I started to think about this in the context of a "life", in particular, my own. I can look in the mirror and see . . . me. Yet if I start paying attention to what's going beyond the "big picture", I can see that there are "eddies", "swift currents", "twigs", "larvae" that are also significant in making me who I am. I'm going to have to take time to really pay attention to understand what all those things have contributed to who/what I am. I hadn't thought that there's a River Running Through Me.



Friday, February 9, 2018

Oooh, look! Shiny Stuff!

     My colleague, the university ombuds, always has a tray of very shiny wrapped candies at her table at resource fairs. She told me, at one of these events very soon after I arrived at DU, that studies have shown that people are drawn to shiny objects, and, since she wanted people to be aware of her office, if shiny candies got them to her table, she'd take advantage of our predilection! Of course, for humans, "shiny stuff" goes far beyond candy wrappers.      "Shiny stuff" (or some comparable phrase) came up in a podcast that I recommended in "Listen Up" (below) last week.  The suggestion in the podcast was that folks might want to consider, what David Cain (the interviewee) called, a "Depth Year." Instead of indulging in the acquisition of every new thing that "shines" (whether that's a hobby, a new car, or a new book, or something like that), Cain suggested revisiting all the unfinished things that are found in our lives.  In his case, it was a guitar gathering dust, unlearned French (despite the books) and dried-up water-colors. That interview struck a nerve with many people, as the following week's Tapestry show contained a lot of suggestions that listeners were going to try.
     "Stuff", whether "shiny" or not came up in another podcast (Common Knowledge*) I heard early this week.  But in this discussion, the context was quite different. The two hosts were discussing "identity", and one suggested that they share something that represented their "identities". I was expecting that they would bring an object, but one "brought" a blog that represented her "Hindu-American-Mommy" identity; the other mused on the phrase "thoughts and prayers". The "stuff-ness" of the conversation was really that there was something relatively "concrete" (even if only virtually so) to which they could point that said something about them.
      Virtual "stuff" then appeared in an article published (online) in Tricycle magazine: "Drooping Distraction" by Leo Babauta. Babauta observes how much we are distracted by the "stuff" (he doesn't use that word) that we use everyday, particularly with our technology.: multiple open browser tabs, constant email/newsfeed notifications, iPhone trivia games, social media, etc. And, the distractions that we find there often lead us to new ones ("In-app purchases" of another iPhone game!).       So, what is it about "shiny stuff"? As I thought about this over the last few days, the notion that stayed the longest was that, as suggested but the Common Knowledge podcast, "stuff" can tell us a lot about who we are. AND, that can be a good, or not-so-good thing. Identifying with by a "Hindu-American-Mommy" blog is one thing, but do we want to be identified by the "Tune Blast" iPhone game? A cherished family photo album can tell us a lot about who were are, and from where we came -- a good thing. But do we really want to be identified as "that person" who can't live without the newest thing?     Given all this, the idea of a "depth year" really has begun to make a lot of sense . . . in a couple of different ways. In the most material sense, for example, do I really NEED to buy new fly-tying materials for one fly pattern, OR should I spend more time creatively with the materials I have? But, in a more "spiritual" sense, should I simply go deeper to try to understand WHY I am so attracted to the "shiny stuff"?  They're not mutually exclusive, of course; perhaps even complimentary. That said, however, I don't think I'm quite ready for a depth year. On the other hand, like many western Christians, I'm staring at Lent beginning this-coming week. I might be able to commit to forty days . . . .


* Available on iTunes:  Podcast:  "Common Knowledge"; Episode from 2/1/18: "Identity: Moving Through the World . . ."

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sometimes a cigar . . .

      The other day I was driving my 9th-grader to school. As is often the case, we were driving in silence (he doesn't like having the radio on). But, as is also often the case, out of the blue, he said "I'm wondering . . . ." "Yes? You were wondering?" I prompted. He said, "I'm curious as to what it means if someone has the same dream over and over?" I said that I thought it probably meant that the person was trying to "work on something" in their subconscious, but that it wasn't getting resolved. And then I asked him, "Are you having the same dreams over and over." "When I was a kid, but not any more" he replied, "I was just wondering" (which he often does).
       "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar . . ." Sigmund Freud is reported to having said when asked about a cigar in a dream. (I didn't go into that whole thing on the way to school!) But the question of dream-interpretation has fascinated me (and others) for a long time.  I remember many years ago, when I was in seminary, that one of my psychology classes had a session or two on dream-work. I think THAT particular psychological "school" believed that the "important" message from a dream was found in when the "dreamer" exited the dream. That is, the point at which the dream ended held the meaning (i.e., the cigar gets lit). Then, there's a Jungian theory that the various people in a dream represent various parts of ourselves, and the interactions (and resolution) have something to say about what "we're working on" (i.e., the man smoking the cigar represents a certain part of me that is "smoky"). And, then, of course there's the theory that sometimes a cigar ISN'T a cigar.
       But there is an entirely different kind of dream interpretation, one that has a much longer history than those suggested above. And that, of course, relates to dreams being messages from outside the conscious (or subconscious) self, i.e., from a divinity. Ancient texts are full of these kinds of dreams. And usually they're "interpreted" as predictive or calls to action. In late antiquity, Plato and Aristotle discussed dreams; Artemidorus wrote a manual of dream interpretation, the OneirocriticaIn the Joseph account in Genesis, Joseph is given insight into the Pharaoh's dream -- predicting that there'd be years of good harvest, followed by famine (Genesis 41). Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod murderous intent (Matthew 2.13). 
      Dreams were so important that their absence was not a good thing, and indicative of wider problems than just those of the individual dreamer. This is so clearly illustrated in the 5th-century BCE prophet Joel. The situation to which the prophet speaks is one in which a locust plague has decimated the land (described as a day of darkness and of gloom). But, the prophet says that, after the destruction, God would restore the land and its animals. AND, after that God would "pour out [God's] spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions (Joel 3.1). The picture is one of hope for the future; the presence of God's spirit, dreams and visions presaged good.

       I continue to wonder about dreams. And I go back to my son's question about dreams in general, and, in particular, about multiple iterations of the same dream. What if they weren't just windows into the subconscious?  If we listened to them differently, might we a look through a window into a possible (good) future. In a culture filled with dystopic "bad dreams" filling our "big screens", how might some positive dreams presage a better future? Of course, we'd have to take action . .  .
        What are the dreams we dream?



Friday, January 26, 2018

O beautiful . . .

     When I first came to Denver after accepting the position of University Chaplain, a friend and her husband drove me around Denver, showing me the various neighborhoods (mostly south of Cherry Creek) that I might want to take in consideration when relocating.  Washington Park. University Park. Southmoor. They had all sorts of recommendations (for example, "Don't live south of C470 -- too far from DU"). But their final comment was the one that I the best:  "Wherever you decide to live, make sure you can see the mountains every day."* Fortunately, given where we ended up living, every day, I come down a hill looking straight across the S. Platte valley at the Front Range. And, this time of year, as the Rockies put on their white winter coat, the view is spectacular, and guaranteed to lift my spirit.
      This may be, partly, because I grew up in one of the 'burbs of Portland, OR. To the east was Oregon's tallest peak, Mt. Hood. Depending on where we were, we could see mountains on the north side of the Columbia River:  Mt. Adams and (pre-eruption) Mt. St. Helens. These peaks in the Cascade Range are not as high as those in the Rockies (the highest is Washington's Mt. Rainier, the only 14er in the range, I think). But, given that they "start" at sea level, an, as volcanos, are more isolated, they are equally dramatic as those I can see on my commute to DU.
       What is it about "place" that can be so central to who/what we are? My wife didn't like driving through North Carolina (at least the roads) when we lived there because the vegetation kept her from seeing the horizon (she grew up in the Central Valley of California -- no obstructions to the west and the Coast Range; no obstructions to the east and the Sierra Nevadas). On the other hand, I've heard of folks who come to Colorado from the big cities and suffer from a form of agoraphobia -- too much wide open space.
      The question/sense of "space" or "place" is an important feature in the miniseries Gods and Generals (about the beginnings of the Civil War). At one point in the film, Gen. Robert E. Lee tells one of his subordinates that the "Yankees" are only concerned about lines on a map; they have no idea of what the place (i.e., Virginia, for Lee) meant to those in the south. He refers to learning to walk, finding a sweetheart, raising children, cultivating crops, etc. Those everyday things imparted to him a deep appreciation for the land, the scenery, the geography. He spoke of it with reverence.
      Something in that echoed, for me, my friend's directive to "make sure you can the mountains every day." We spend so much time with screens and books. I doubt many of us find "reverence" and "awe" in them, or in much of how we spend our lives. What might be different if we did make certain that we connected with those (pretty much) intangible sacred spaces/places in our lives, whether they're mountains or prairies.?



I wish they'd told us one other IMPORTANT piece:  "Make sure your house faces south!"

Friday, January 19, 2018

Our of darkness . . .

      It was a dark and stormy . . . day.  I can't remember exactly what time of year it was, but given that it was Oregon, it could have been almost anytime! I do remember I was home, so it was either a weekend or a school break (I doubt it was summer). I was in the early years of elementary school when being at home on a rainy day was NO FUN! At some point, my mom, getting a bit tired of my restlessness and fidgeting, suggested I call Doug and see what he was doing. Doug's dad was the contractor who'd built every house in our neighborhood, so Doug had been a friend for as long as I could remember. "Great suggestion, mom! Why didn't I think of it?"
       I got on the phone and called him up. He said he was feeling just about as restless as I, and to come on up to his house "in ten minutes". Yes!  Ten minutes wasn't long. Or was it?  It WAS AN ETERNITY! Most of us can remember (or imagine) the drill:  look out the window at the rain, go check the clock, repeat . . . six cycles every minute, probably. But eventually the time did pass, and I was able to head up the hill to his house. I remember few details about the rest of the day, except that the wait was worth it (his mom's cookies were always good!).
     I recalled this experience  yesterday when our "Soul and Role" group spent an hour reflecting on the David Whyte poem "Sweet Darkness". We talked about literal darkness as well as metaphorical darkness. The poem suggests that there is learning to be found in darkness -- which we were able to find in both the literal and metaphorical. But what I also took away was that the darkness will end eventually. And, if one pays close enough attention, the new "light" is of a different quality than previously experienced.
     My childhood "dark and stormy day" was not any kind of profound "darkness". But for an impatient pre-adolsecent, it was DARK! And the "light" that followed wasn't profound, either. I did learn that ten minutes isn't an eternity! And that sometimes, waiting in the "darkness" is worth it.

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness

to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. 

~ David Whyte ~
(House of Belonging)



Friday, January 12, 2018

The Might of a Horse?

      The clichés are out there:  "Keeping up with the Jones's" or "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". The underlying message is a nagging sense of dis-satisfaction with one's current situation.  "The Jones's have just purchased a Lexus; we need one!" "This relationship isn't satisfying; maybe I should ask that person out." "Look how much better they're doing than we are; we should adopt their way of doing things." Certainly, discontent can be an impetus to change a bad situation. But that's not always the case, for we know that much advertising is built on the premise that a "need" needs to be created (or discontent needs to be created) so that the advertised product will be purchased . . . whether we REALLY need it or not.
       To be sure, there is a long history of acting on this desire for what the other has. I think of the early history of the Israelites. After their arrival in the Promised Land, they were "ruled" by a series of "judges", folks "chosen" by God to lead them. As the last great judge, Samuel, saw the end of his time draw near, he appointed his sons to be judges. They, however, were not just; rather than seeking Israel's best interests, they were more interested in lining their own pockets. As a result, the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king over Israel, just like the other nations (1 Samuel 8.5).  Despite Samuel's objections, God tells Samuel to do as they request; they are not rejecting Samuel, but God (8.7). And Samuel warns the people of all that a king will do:  levy taxes, draft sons as warriors, etc. But the people refused to listen to the warning: "There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead its in warfare and fight our battles" (8.19-20).*
       A corollary to the "I've got to have what THEY have" syndrome is the idolization of glamour/celebrity/charisma:  "Let's make sure our leader has panache!"  The continued story of Saul illustrates this as well.  Saul turned out to be disobedient to God, as well as a bit of a wacko. And God directed Samuel again to anoint a successor. Before starting the selection process, however, God warns Samuel, "Do not judge from his appearance for from his lofty stature . . .  Not as [a person] sees does God see, because [a person] sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart" (1 Samuel 16.7).  Samuel does NOT choose one of the good-looking big brothers, but rather David .     These stories came to mind this week, in the aftermath of the Golden Globe awards, and the acceptance speech given by Oprah Winfrey.  By almost all accounts it was a very powerful speech. She was clearly able to address a timely issue in a very moving and persuasive way. Almost immediately, on social media and in print, voices called for her to consider a run for the presidency in 2020. Now, I think Oprah is an amazing human being who has had an incredible career (or several careers!). But her celebrity and passion, in my mind, are not sufficient qualifications for the highest office in the US. I don't believe we should let our discontent with the current situation propel us past good sense. It may make us feel good in the moment, but the "moment" is only  . . . momentary. We need to take a longer, more sober, view, and select leaders based on their qualifications to lead the complex systems that are governments.       We are very prone to look for a quick fix. And we often look to "success" elsewhere as a potential model for our own, whether that "success" is couched in terms of "power" or "celebrity". The history of that is long, of course, as I've noted above. And I think about it every time I read the Psalms, where the Israelite "envy" of other's armies is put it in its place. The psalmist contrasts that selection criterion with a bit more lofty one.
There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
   a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
     for all its strength it cannot save.
Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,
     on those who wait upon his love . . . (Ps 33.16-18)**

God is not impressed by the might of a horse;
     God has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
But the Lord has please in those who fear him,
     in those who await his gracious favor. (Ps 147.11-12)



* Quotations from 1 Samuel are from the New American Bible.
**  Quotations from the Psalms are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Humbled by Hubble

        The other day I got involved in a "comment dispute" on Facebook (I know, I know . . .  I should be bigger than that). But I am particularly susceptible to folks who make sweeping generalizations about ANYTHING "religious". In this particular case, a friend had posted an article about the 100 largest megachurches in America and whether they are welcoming of LGBTQ folks. The first commenter wrote: "One reason more people are leaving the bigotry of religion behind." That blanket statement was like throwing a raw steak to a lion (hungry or not). Subsequent "conversations" in the Comments section clearly suggested that the commenter has "anger issues" with "religion" (Christianity in particular)!
      In my responses to the commenter, I tried to point out several things (among others). First, "religion" is bigger than even megachurches, let alone Christianity, and it's a logical fallacy to generalize from the specific. Second, every religion has, well, "traditionalists" who hold fast to the original text as it has been received (either in terms of literal words, or "traditional" teaching), but that not everyone within that religious stream follows the same line of thinking. And I suggested that the more we learn/know/understand/investigate, the more we're able to see nuance, and context, etc. [None of that made any difference to the commenter . . .   Sigh]
      Later that evening, I was lucky enough to watch the wonderful PBS Nova show "Invisible Universe Revealed", a look back at the twenty-five years of the Hubble Space Telescope. I will set aside the fact that I can remember all of those twenty-five years, and all of the controversy and drama associated with the launching, repair and maintenance of that amazing piece of engineering; that's a story in-and-of-itself. What struck me -- yet again -- were the amazing images Hubble was able to send back to earth of the astonishing beauty of the cosmos. The commentary accompanying the visuals pointed out how mind-blowing, how revolutionary, were these images, and the realities they represented.
      Given my Facebook-war, and my stress (in that conflict) on context, I had to wonder what our ancestors, regardless of their "religion", would have done with this Hubble-knowledge when they were trying to understand THEIR place in the universe -- when the best they could do was give "names" to configurations of stars. Would it have increased their "social awareness" about the mysteries of human development? Probably not. But, given the transformation that the Hubble images have made in our understanding of the universe, I have to hope that we can begin to see the limitations of OUR declarations of certainty -- whether religious, or anti-religious.

       We never know what the future may reveal. I would like to think that being humbled by Hubble would teach us something.