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. 

     
Blessings,

Gary

http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/953574/jewish/Hope.htm

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! 

   
Blessings,

Gary

* 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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Any day, any time . . .

      Most folks who know me at all know that I am an avid cyclist. I try to commute by bike as often as possible (and who cares if it's raining or 100 degrees?). I love long rides; I love difficult rides. I've worked with a personal trainer to tailor my weight-room exercises to maximize my ability to be on the bike.  When living in California, I sat on the side of the road to watch the the Amgen Tour of California whiz by. And, during July of every year, I tune in to the Tour de France.
       From the time I first started watching the Tour in the mid-to-late '80's, I've been amazed at what these athletes do. They are on the bike every day for over three weeks (including 2 "rest days" when they are STILL on the bike!).  They regularly ride distances of over 100 miles. They climb incredibly steep mountain passes. They "time-trial" despite the weather. And, while they may need to consume over 8,000 calories a day, on average, a rider will lose ten pounds during the race.  All of this is just during the race; nothing like this happens without a lot of training -- physical, mental and, I imagine, spiritual (of a sort).  Yet, knowing all of this, I was struck when, in an interview last week one of the riders said, "Any day, any time, I will gain time on the race."
       This rider, whose name I've forgotten (in my hurry to write down his words), captured the heart of someone who was not content to remain in the middle of the peloton (that big, constantly shifting, amoeba made up of the pack of cyclists). Not that being in the middle of the peloton is a bad thing; one learns, when watching the tour, that all of the riders on a team have specific roles to support the overall goal of the team. And often those roles relegate one to the middle of the pack. An additional advantage to being in the middle of the peloton is that one's energy-expenditure goes WAY down, as "drafting" becomes possible. On the other hand, if there's a crash up forth, many in the peloton can't help but also going WAY down, perhaps suffering race-ending injuries.  So, it may behoove a rider to be out front, to gain time.
        This rider's phrase, "Any day, any time, I will gain time on the race" has stuck with me over the last week, especially as I have watched with dismay, horror and sorrow at what has transpired in the United States.  Shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas and St. Joseph come on the heels of the tragedy in Orlando. Around the world, shootings and bombings are taking the lives of hundreds of innocent people. The motivations are various;  various forms of racism, homophobia, and religious sectarianism seem to predominate. All indicate, as I've noted many times, an undercurrent of fear and anxiety that seems to, almost naturally, find its outlet in violence.
         I write "almost naturally" with caution, because I do not believe that we, as a species, are born violent. Yet, from almost day one, we are surrounded by so much violence--real, virtual, and even athletic--that it becomes the culture of the "peloton" that is our daily life. And, in such a "race", when something goes down at the head of the pack, it's very difficult for those behind to do much else than to fall. Violence committed in one direction becomes turned in the other; rage begets rage.

         Many of us who don't feel directly connected to these events shake our heads in dismay. We become disheartened, hopeless. Yet I often forget that I am part of a larger peloton that is our society, our culture, even our human race. And, as I mentioned above, that peloton is rife with violence. As I coast along amongst the other riders, I become somewhat indifferent to what is going on around me, as long as I don't have to expend to much energy to keep going. Rather than win, rather than be a part of the break-away, I am content.
         The events of the last few weeks demand more of me, of us, than simply to be carried along by the winds of the crowds and the media. It is incumbent upon us to find an opening, an opportunity, to move beyond the pack, to become a leader. Each of us will, of necessity, need to do this as we can; we bring different skill sets to the "race". Some of us are better suited to direct action; others in coalition-boiling, still others publicity/marketing.  In the best of all possible worlds, we will find like-minded, like-hearted, companions to multiply our efforts.
        The now-clichéd phrase "Our thoughts and prayers are with . . . " needs to be retired. It must be replaced with "Pray as if it all depended on God, but act as if all depended on you." That is, despite our various spiritualities, we have to all make a common commitment to "any day, any time, gain time on the race".


Blessings,

Gary

Friday, July 1, 2016

How big is your home?


       I've been thinking a lot about "home" the last few weeks. The circumstances have been quite varied. Fairly constant in the back of mind, but occasionally coming to the fore, is the recognition that the city where I grew up (Portland, OR), has remained in some ways, my "home", even though I left forty-plus years ago. But with no immediate family there any more, my "home" isn't really there.  And so I have to wonder what/where IS my home; what defines my home? Is it family? Is it a building, a place?
      More recently and specifically, I have listened to a lot of the reporting about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Part of the back-story was about how these kinds of clubs have become a kind of "home" for people who have been exiled from the homes of their birth. Not feeling safe in their parents' house, many LGBT folks found security with others of similar backgrounds in the clubs. The attack on Pulse was an attack on their "home" — both literally for those in Orlando, and figuratively for the wider LGBT community.

      And, then, in the last few weeks, I've seen continued coverage of the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe. The numbers, as we all know, are staggering. Millions of refugees, rendered "home-less" by violence and persecution. Not only have they been robbed of their physical homes, they've been robbed of their homeland. And, many who have lost their identity papers -- now homeless and identity-less have become ghost-people.
      On another front, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom had notions of "home" running through it. Some of those who wanted the UK to leave the European Union did so because they wanted more "home"-first policies, more self-determination.  Others felt a threat to their "home" from immigrants and refugees because of the EU's open-borders policies. The vote was to "pull in", in some respects to make the notion of "home" smaller, i.e., "Our 'home'-identity is not 'European', but rather 'English'."
      So I've been wondering about how "big" is our home? And this "came home" to me the other day when I watched a short video, called "A World of Solutions".  The narration (done by Morgan Freeman) pointed out that our "world" may indeed be threatened because of pollution, over-population, etc. But what that REALLY meant was that WE (humans) were threatened; the world would heal itself and continue as it has for millions of years regardless of human habitation. The underlying call of the film was for us to see that if we--humanity--want our home to survive, we will have to work together to make that happen.
       How big IS our home? Do we really believe that re-arranging the furniture, or casting some away, or putting some keepsakes/antiques in a place of prominence, will keep the house from deteriorating?

       A more expansive vision of "home" is what we really need, not a more restrictive one.To quote former President Ronald Reagan, " . . . tear down that wall!"

Blessings,


Gary

Friday, June 17, 2016

Eating humble pie



     Last Sunday, it happened again. A lone gunman opened fire in a crowded nightclub and killed or injured almost one hundred people. Thousands of lives were changed because of that man's actions. Immediately the questions arose, such as: "Was it a terrorist action?" "Was it a hate crime?" "Is there a difference?" "Where did he get his guns?" Certainly, in the days since then, we've learned some of the answers to questions like those. Knowing those answers will not change what happened. And, as we've seen in the wake of similar events, knowing the answers probably won't result in any lasting change in public policies.      Just as immediately, and regardless of any answers to the questions, fingers began pointing. It's the easy thing to do; fix the blame elsewhere. This serves to re-establish certainty and normalcy, the notion that the world works in a particular way where "those kind of people" do "those kinds of things". And, of course, usually, "those people" are different from "us". The manner of difference varies widely, but we know who WE are by who we ARE NOT. There's nothing new about any of this. Sociologists have pointed out this phenomenon for a long time, and have observed it in the scriptures and writings of just about every religion and people.      The problem is that these "easy" solutions don't, ultimately, work. Oh, some quick fixes might achieve some short-term results. Most often they simply serve to help us become even more entrenched in our own position, within our own tribe. They arise out of a place of fear. And those who would "have their way" with us will appeal to that fear, and we, too often, will give in. It's just easier.
     But what if we operated out of a place of hope? What if, when encountering difference, or something we just don't understand, we saw it as an opportunity for growth, a chance for a better future? What if, instead of putting up our dukes, we pulled up some chairs, poured some tea/coffee, and shared our aspirations? My experience in those kinds of settings is that the tribalism begins to recede once we get to know the other. Of course, that's more difficult. Not only do we have to be open to hear and understand the "enemy", we have to be open to understand ourselves! And it takes a lot of humility to admit we don't have all the answers.      Such engagements will not prevent what happened last Sunday. Tragedies like that are, unfortunately, part of our human story. As we have advanced in technology (from the rock, to the arrow, to the gun, to the atomic bomb), we have simply made the toll more likely to be higher. But our response cannot be to throw up our hands in despair, and retreat to our dens of fear. We need to seek out those with whom we differ, set aside our individual agendas, and learn together what we would like to see as a future.
     So, along with that tea/coffee, how 'bout a serving of humble pie. 


Blessings,

Gary

Friday, June 3, 2016

Evolving compassion

     In this week's episode of OnBeing, Krista Tippet hosts a conversation with Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner; the discussion is titled: "Capitalism and Moral Evolution."  Haidt made his "mark' in the academic/philosophical world with his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006). I found that book very provocative, as I did his subsequent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013). So I was really anticipating enjoying this interview. And I did . . . up to a point. As I listened to the three-way back-and-forth between Haidt, Tippet and Konner (who I'd not heard before), I became increasingly uneasy about some of the conclusions. 
     One of the main points, asserted early on in the conversation, was that there is a great similarity between Darwin's theory of evolution and the economic theory of capitalism. Neither a biologist nor an economist, the easiest way I could understand it was in the phrase associated with Darwin, "the survival of the fittest":  members of the plant and animal kingdoms travel through a long process of adaptation to a particular environment, in a sense, by trial and error. The argument made by Haidt was that capitalism (or the workings of the market) functions in much the same way:  what works (i.e., makes money) survives; that which doesn't fades away (anyone remember "New Coke"?).
      One of Haidt's points is that capitalism -- one of the darling theories of the political right -- really functions to turn people into liberals. Not recalling his precise examples, he infers that capitalism may lead to exploitation of workers or the environment which then "fires up" a younger generation who take corrective action (usually championing more "liberal" causes:  worker rights, environmentalism, etc.). I must admit that I found that a fairly interesting hypothesis. The longer I listened, however, and the more I thought about both Darwinian evolutionary theory, as well as the economic theory of capitalism, I realized that something -- from my point of view -- was missing.
      Let me be clear, I am no foe of either theory; I see how both of them have functioned. The fundamental flaw (or, perhaps, "lack") in both, however, is similar. Both have, at their base, the sense of self-interest. The "survival of the fittest" assumes that the species "desires" to survive for its own sake, and will adapt itself to do so. The "market" will rule, because the investor will adapt the product in order to maximize return/profit (and that benefits the investor).
      I know that there are folks  who argue that there is only a material reason behind every human action, often making these from neuro-scientific evidence. Not being a scientist, I have little with which to rebut those claims. On the other hand, I do believe that humans can can rise above mere materiality. And in this conviction, I stand in concert with most religious traditions.
      In a 
documentary the other night on PBS, Steven Hawking was using the help of some young adults to show how evolution could have occurred simply through the mixture of water, salt and amino acids. BUT, it took several drops of a solution containing bacteria to get anything going (and of course, the existence of bacteria wasn't questioned). But once the bacteria was added to the amino acid soup, all creation broke loose. And, so, I wonder what it would be like to insert "compassion" (a non-material, non-self-centered, impulse) into the petri dish of evolution and/or capitalism?
      Might we evolve differently going forward? As we wind up this commencement season, that would be my prayer for those graduating, that they not be driven blindly by "evolutionary" selection, or the forces of the "market", but rather by a sense that everyone and everything is worthy of their care, that everyone and everything is worthy of being raised up. Simply because their hearts tell them that it is right and good so to do.


Blessings,

Gary

Friday, May 27, 2016

Beginning to commence to start . . .


     While not frequent, I've heard grumblings the last few days at DU:  "Parking is impossible to find. The roads are crazy full." But those grumblings are a bit predictable; they happen every year in late May. The reason? Graduation season! Magness Arena, home to DU's hockey and basketball teams, is a favorite venue for many of the Denver area's high schools to hold their commencement exercises. During these days, I derive a lot of enjoyment from walking to the gym, seeing the happy grads in multi-colored gowns, ecstatic (maybe harried) family members carrying balloons and flowers, stopping--and holding up foot-traffic--to take photos. It is a happy time (all grumbling aside).
     It is, indeed, commencement season. In a week's time Magness will be wrested back from the high schools, and DU's own graduation ceremonies will take place.* We will be fortunate to have
Susana Cordova, acting superintendent of Denver Public Schools, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as our featured speakers. But, at this time of the year, many eyes are on the schools that were able to convince the President of the United States that he needed another honorary doctorate. In the past few weeks, President Obama addressed the graduating classes of both Howard University and Rutgers University. Listening to the reporting on those speeches, particularly that at Rutgers, I was struck by one theme mentioned by many who were interviewed. The President exhorted his listeners to remember that things don't happen quickly, to "take the long view" -- but that the time things take does NOT mean one shouldn't be engaged
     The implication of being engaged is dual-edged. There is a sense of hope, a feeling that NOW we can go out and make a difference. That hope is accompanied, I've come to learn through speaking with many students, with a nagging fear that "I'm not ready! I don't want to leave the "cocoon" of school! I don't have all of the skills that are necessary to do the job I've accepted!" And I often find myself telling them, "You're right! But, you'll never be fully ready! That would imply that you know everything now, that you'll never be surprised, that you're done growing." 
       I wonder what a seed would say (assuming seeds had consciousness and were able to speak) as a farmer dropped it into a hole in the dirt? "What am I doing here? This dirt is cold . . . and dirty!  And, wait, what?  Now the farmer is covering me up with MORE dirt? And . . . is that water?  I can add "drowning" to the list of offenses! I wasn't prepared for this! Let me back into the seed packet; at least it was safe there!" And, yet the seed survives. The nutrients from the water and the soil combine with the potential in that seed. The seed begins to transform. Its skin breaks a bit and something unexpected emerges -- a sprout.  And that sprout grows and, soon, emerges from the soil. The nutrients and the water are joined, then, by sunlight, and whole new "thing" appears.       A seed planted in the ground differs immensely, of course, from a newly-minted diploma-holder. The seed, basically, is passive, its potential being influenced and transformed by outside elements. New "diploma-holders" have the opportunity and--I would assert--the responsibility to engage in the act of transformation, both of themselves and the world around them. It may take more time than expected; it may be more difficult than expected. But it is what we would hope, we who send the graduates out. In this, I am reminded of the parable attributed to Jesus:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field;  it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13.31-32)
       May all who begin to commence to start this spring (whether commencing from Magness Arena or elsewhere) become such "trees" that provide sustenance, rest, and shade for a weary and hungry world.

Blessings,


Gary

*Of course, the graduation ceremony for DU's Sturm College of Law was held last weekend, as the law school is on a different calendar.