Friday, February 24, 2017

Lighting a Candle

     Last Sunday evening, I went with some students to Mile Hi Church here in the Denver area. Mile Hi is "New Thought" church, the largest of its denomination in the country. One of their occasional offerings is an Interfaith/Multicultural (I AM) Ministry where they highlight a different religious tradition (or sub-tradition). Last Sunday, the program was on "Kaballah and the Tree of Life", or Jewish mysticism. Having never been to Mile HI for a service of any kind, I was pretty interested in being there, not only for the mysticism program, but just to experience the congregation (about which I've heard a lot over the years I've been here). I was not disappointed in either.       One of the speakers during the service told an old Hasidic story about a man who was concerned about the darkness of his basement. He went to his rabbi and asked what to do. The wise rabbi suggested he might try sweeping out the darkness with a broom. That didn't work. "Try beating it out with this ruler." That didn't work."Try shouting the darkness out." That didn't work, either. Then the rabbi lit a candle and walked with the man down the stairs into the basement. It was no longer dark.  "We dispel darkness not by sweeping it away, or by violence, or by loud shouting, but by bringing light into the world." *
       The next day, I had cause to read a Surah from the Qu'ran,  Ash-Shu'arah ("The Poets"). Much of the surah stresses that there are many people who, regardless of the "evidence" or signs or persuasive texts they are given, will not end up believing. That, it seems to me to be suggested, is no fault of the one who would try to be persuasive; it is simply the nature of things. A refrain throughout the surah is, "Verily there is a sign in this, but many of them do not believe" (verses 8, 67, 103, 121, 139, 158, 174, 190).**        We seem to have come to a point in our society where sweeping, shouting or beating the "darkness" we are experiencing is having little success, except in tiring many of us out. In the words from the Qur'an we saw above, "there is a sign in this, but many of them do not believe". There certainly IS work to be done; I'm not suggesting otherwise. But I wonder if, instead of picking up a broom or a ruler, we quietly bring some light into the lives of those around us. The opportunities abound, if we only look. It may be as simple as what a friend on campus told me this morning: "I try to smile at everyone I see these days; we all need it."
        Work for justice, yes. But also smile. Light a candle.


* The whole service can be viewed at Mile Hi' Interfaith Multicultural (I AM) Ministry website.
** Translation by Ahmed Ali. Al-Qur'an:  A Contemporary Translation (Princeton University Press, 1993), 312-20.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Well, I declare!

     I recall re-entering the United States after our last trip to China. Several hours prior to landing, the flight attendants came by and handed us a little sheaf of papers -- our customs declaration forms. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows the drill:  wrack your brain to recall what you may have purchased and its value (as well as how much foreign currency you may still have). You also need to mention any food/drink items you still have. If you have more than the "legal" limit, you may be liable for duty tax (or confiscation). Like so many other laws, the rules are often inscrutable, and the process of filling out the form was, for me, anxiety-producing. I began to wonder WHY I had purchased ANYTHING!  I began to think the verse from the biblical book of Job was spot-on:  "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb; and naked shall I go back again" (1.21)! Acquire nothing!
      This memory came back to me yesterday during our monthly "Soul & Role"* discussion. We were discussing a poem - "Burlap Sack" by Janet Hirschfield:

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, "Hand me the sack,"
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

In our subsequent conversation about "leaving behind the heavy dowry", it occurred to me that, often, at the end of the day, I take the "heavy dowry" of the day's events home with me. My "burlap sack" becomes filled with the concerns of the day, as well as memories from the past, and expectations for the future -- many of which have little to do with my life outside of my work. Yet they go home with me sometime preventing me from fully attending to family concerns (as well as interrupting sleep!).
       I brought this up to the group, and began joking that, "Wouldn't it be great if there were some kind of "custom's agent" at the door when we left work, checking to see if there was anything we should leave behind? And maybe we should write up some kind of 'declaration' that we have to present to another 'agent' when we arrive home to see whether or not we could bring that 'baggage" into the house?"  While this question occasioned a goodly amount of laughter, that laughter (at least on my part) masked a dis-ease with how much one part of my life -- i.e., my work life -- can intrude on another -- more important -- part of my life:  family.
       So, now I'm wondering whether or not I should create a sort of "declaration form" that I fill out during the last 15 minutes of my work day. That way I can be clear about what I'm taking home, and what will still be waiting for me on my desk when I return. And maybe another such form for the last 15 minutes of the day...?
      Well, I declare! I think it would be GREAT to let my "thin-ribbed mule.... browse in tall grasses, its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs"!


*"Soul & Role" is a monthly conversation that aims at giving participants an opportunity to reflect on how their "role" at the university interacts with their soul. More information on the program can be found here.
** After: Poems. © Harper Perennial, 2007

Friday, February 10, 2017

It won't miss me

   Many folks know that I am pretty passionate about hats. Yes, I do, sometimes, wear "baseball caps" (but NEVER "truckers' caps" -- because the mesh backing doesn't work well for bald folks). Mostly, however, I want a hat with a real brim all the way 'round. And, to have a bit of fun with my hats, I often change them seasonally. So, when January rolls around, I trade in December's Santa-Hat for a cowboy hat in recognition of Denver's National Western Stock Show. And, this January, when I changed my Facebook profile photo, someone commented "Longmire!" And, then, several days later, an interview aired on Colorado Public Radio with Craig Johnson, the author of the Longmire series of mysteries (set in Wyoming-hence the cowboy hat). Those two unrelated occurrences prompted me to check the first of the series, The Cold Dish*, out of the library.
      I do like good mysteries, and this particular series now holds some interest for me! The characters are well-drawn (and quirky!). It's not that often, however, that, in reading popular mysteries, I run across lines in the dialogue that stop me short. In this case, it was a conversation between two Native Americans/Indians**; they were discussing whether one of them should go visit a mutual friend. In response to The Bear's question "Is [Lonnie] home today?", The Buffalo replied:  "He has no legs, so where would he go? He's home everyday; he watches television? He watches everything. It is as if he thinks the things on the television aren't happening if he's not there to watch?" (p. 146). It is as if he thinks the things on the television aren't happening if he's not there to watch.
 I immediately reached for a pencil. It being a library book, however, it wasn't to underline the sentence, but rather to write it down.
       There's almost a Zen koan-like quality to that sentence, like "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Certainly, of course, events do happen regardless of whether or not they make it to the news-feed. But the sentence started me thinking about how much we CREATE the hubbub which then makes us crazy.  In other words, if our Facebook or Twitter feeds (or TV/radion) are driving us to distraction, why do we not just STOP accessing them? I have gone on a "Facebook Fast" in the past, and I can say that I didn't find myself disconnected from what was going on --- there was always, of course, "water-cooler conversation" that kept me informed. On the other hand, the peace that came from not always hitting "refresh" so that I knew who was commenting on what outrageous thing some politician said . . . well, it was pretty wonderful.       Perhaps I was primed to react to the dialog-line because I had just read a blog post by John Metta (who writes for Medium and Al Jazeera). He titled the post:  "I'm Done Drinking the Draught of Despair." Metta writes that he can no longer keep taking in all of the media deluge: "Drinking this liquid is not helping me accomplish anything. It is certainly not helping me sustain myself for what will need to be a significant and sustained effort. More to the point: it is actively harming me." In the article, he outlines what he will do that is positive; he is not disengaging, but rather engaging in a different way.
        Too many people I with whom I talk are "fried" or "frazzled" . . . and they'll remark about how the "news" is getting them down, how every second "tweet" depresses them, how the "Comments" after Facebook posts are so negative. Yet, if I ask, "Why not shut it off?" they look at me like I just stepped off some planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.
        We don't have to be sucked in. There is always a choice. And it doesn't have to be a choice between opposites; it can be a choice between "A" or "Q", or an apple or banana. There is usually more than one way to say "Yes." After a month of saying "Yes" to my cowboy hat, it was time to say "Yes" again to my gray felt fedora. The cowboy hat will wait 'til next January; I doubt it will miss me.


* Penguin Books, 2004.** You'll have to read the book to understand why I used both terms!

Friday, February 3, 2017

It's a BIG village at DU!

      Last Tuesday, about 500 members of the DU community crowded into the Driscoll Ballroom for a (relatively quickly put-together) response to President Trump's "Refugee and Muslim Majority Country Ban". The event was launched into existence on Saturday afternoon by Prof. Andrea Stanton of the Religious Studies department, but quickly gained an incredible head of steam. Publicity didn't really start spreading until Sunday afternoon -- while the details were still in the works. But, by Tuesday afternoon, we had a slate of speakers from the University Counsel, a Political Scientist, an International Studies scholar, folks from Human Resources and the Office of Internationalization (as well the University Chaplain).        
       When we filed into the ballroom, there were probably chairs for about 150 (we had only seen about "60 attending" and "90 interested" on the Facebook event). But, as the clock edged towards noon (and reflecting that classes had just let out), more and more people streamed in. Chairs began being set up . . . and there were too few to seat everyone. I don't think anyone complained.         We started a bit late, since we were still setting up chairs, and, after an un-scheduled appearance (and address) by Chancellor Rebecca Chopp*, we turned to the speakers who did a wonderful job of laying out both the nature of the Executive Order, as well as how it was currently, and might be, affecting the DU campus. And, then, we opened the floor to questions and comments.
         Only a few of the questions were "procedural" (i.e., "What happens when  . . .?"). What was gratifying were the numbers of questions about "What can we do to help our affected population? How do we get involved? The answers:  "This group is doing something; contact me." 'We're arranging for immigration attorneys to come on campus regularly." What was humbling were the number of Muslim students (both graduate and undergraduate) who came forward to tell of their stories, and their great appreciation for the event and the level of support they felt. It was a remarkable event; both that afternoon, and in comments on Facebook, many said they had never been more proud of DU.

           I have been in two "official" meetings since Tuesday afternoon, one completely devoted to DU's response, and the other having a large portion of the discussion about the EO and DU. The meetings have involved people from all over campus -- from Health and Counseling to Engineering, Athletics & Recreation to "No Lost Generation" (a student group devoted to refugee work). There is a HUGE village of folks here in the 80208 zip code who are doing all they can to mitigate the impact of the Executive Order, and to provide hope to those affected. 
         Several offices have worked to compile an ever-updating and changing set of resources and events. Resources can be found here, and specific events can be found here.  Both pages will be updated as things change.
         There is a BIG village at DU. Yet, in my (almost) ten years here, I've never seen it so LARGE! That says a lot about who/what we are as a community. And it speaks volumes about what we can do.  


* The Chancellor's official statement in response to the Executive Order can be found here.

Friday, January 27, 2017


       One of my favorite Far Side comics is that found above. On the surface it's simply funny, especially when you note how small is the questioner's head; it wouldn't seem to take Mr. Osborne very much to fill it. Yet I think that we often do run into situations where our capacity to take things in is smaller than that amount being given. Or, to use a different, and more current, analogy, my suspicion is that many of us, these days, are feeling a bit like a boxer who has been in the ring several rounds too long. Whether its a matter of the political climate, racial or religious tensions, or, has been the case at DU over the last few weeks and days, deaths of community members -- regardless of the circumstances, we want to yell "I yield!" or "Enough is enough" or "My soul is full. May I be excused."
      And as I've tried to imagine what a good response might be to situations such as these, two things among the many suggestions for stress relief have stood out. The first seems very appropriate for Coloradans, and, I think I have mentioned it before:  Hiking!  Getting outdoors. I've added a video clip below on research from a couple of years ago from some Stanford scholars addressing the benefits of being out of doors. 
       A second, probably much less employed, response these days is the "lament". A "lament" is a prayer that arises out of grief or pain. About a third of the biblical psalms are laments. Indeed there is an entire book in the Hebrew Bible titled "Lamentations". And one of the features of the lament is that anger, pain, frustration are all directed to God. My experience, however, is that many people today are not ready to be angry at God, or at least to let that rage be expressed. The biblical writers had no such qualms. The big questions of "Why?" or "Where are you, God?" are often so much at the forefront of our feelings, but repressed out of some false sense of religiosity.            A practice I've tried in the past, and I think I'm ready to start again, is to take the opening verses of Psalm 22, and add to them my own lament. It has helped me get my feelings of frustration and anger out of my heart and onto the page. And once I can see them, their power over me diminishes a bit.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
     and are so far from my cry
     and from the words of my eistress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
     by night as well, but I find no rest.

Of course, if writing/journaling with these verses as a prompt doesn't work for you, option one above is a good fall-back. Taking a hike is always good medicine.
       Be well, good people.      



PS:  If you would like to comment on this reflection, please surf on over to my blog "On a Bike and a Prayer" at

Friday, January 20, 2017

What hath (i)Pod wrought?

       Last week, my wife's smartphone fell from grace . . . and cracked its face (significantly, but in a lovely star-shaped pattern!).  Given that it was four years old, and the battery life was shot, we decided to bite the bullet and replace the phone (rather than just the face). So, we made the appointment and headed off to "Cell-Phones R Us". A short while later we returned home, not only with a new phone, but a new learning curve (as we finally moved her from one platform to another). Embarking on that learning curve was important, however, because, as most of us believe, life without that smartphone might not be "smart".
       Coincidentally, earlier in the week an article appeared in the Denver Post observing that it was (just!) ten years ago that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. The title of the article was "Apple proved a phone can change the world in just 10 years." While that's a pretty heady title, the article did a pretty good job (pardon the pun) of making its case, through statistics, sales figures, derailment of competition (e.g., Blackberry), etc. Has it been only TEN YEARS since the world began to change???

        Has it been only TEN YEARS since we find ourselves reaching into our pockets or purses every 10-15 minutes to see if someone has emailed/texted/messaged us?  Has it been only in the last TEN YEARS that we have seen articles/advise arise about putting down the phone at least a half-hour before bed, since the "blue light" in the smartphones' display can disrupt sleep? Has it only been TEN YEARS since the old "flip phones" (that were SO cool, looking like Star Trek communicators) have almost gone the way of the dial phone---"Well, yes they WORK, but why bother?"?
       In another coincidence, in the last few days, I had reason to read a passage from the Qu'ran (al-A'raf 191-198) that echoes a very similar passage from Psalm 115.4-8:
Their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
nostrils, but cannot smell;
with their hands they cannot feel,
with their feet they cannot walk,
and no sound comes from their throats.
Their makers become like then,
and so do all who put their trust in them.

And I had to wonder how much "trust" we have started to put in our technology. Or maybe, it's not just a matter of trust in technology, it's a matter of where that trust might lead us. I doubt it's much of a surprise that the rise of "fake news" and all that THAT has meant is related to the technology we have created. Or that people are finding "community" on-line rather than in-person. We may have created "silver and gold" idols (just think of the color-choices of most smartphones) to which we are now bound, but which cannot satisfy us.
       I am no Luddite; I, too, rely on my smartphone -- with a self-programmed (created?) custom ring-tone, no less! But I have to wonder where our "creations" will, ultimately, take us? Is it to a more "human" place -- one inhabited by compassion or understanding? Or someplace out of a dystopian science fiction novel. Do we cease seeing, listening, smelling, feeling -- because we think our technology will do it for us? Ancient wisdom would suggest "No!"
       My question is no different than that of the first official message sent in Morse Code across the telegraph in May of 1844 -- beginning, in a way, our technological revolution: "What hath God wrought?"*


* A reference to Numbers 23.23

Friday, January 13, 2017

Danger! Do Not Enter!

       Last Friday, I acted as a sort of co-host for a group of church historians here, in Denver, for an annual conference. My part, as co-host, was to help put together a tour of some significant religious spaces in Denver. It was as fun project, and, even though I had been in some of the buildings before, it was instructive to hear the "tour guides" talk about the spaces. You'll always learn something: about the religious tradition, about symbolism, about local history, about architecture, about finances, about the environment's impact on buildings.
       One of the buildings we visited was surrounded by chainlink fencing, scaffolding and tarps. We had to go in via a side door, and just as we entered, I noticed a sign attached to the fence:  "DANGER  DO NOT ENTER". I commented to some of the guests, "Now, that's an interesting sign to have posted just outside a church!" Chuckles ensued. We entered anyway, and were treated to a lovely interior -- no scaffolding or tarp -- and gracious and informative tour guide.

       As the week has gone by, however, I found myself returning to that sign and its message: "Danger Do Not Enter". I thought of a couple of alternate (i.e., non-buildling-construction) interpretations.  The first might not be particularly flattering to some religious institutions.  Many religious bodies have seen dramatic declines in attendance because of particular positions they have staked-out on thorny social issues; depending on one's personal stance on those issues, entering that building might be "dangerous". Other people have fled "religion" because they have felt that they have had to "park their brains at the door" (or outside the "Danger" sign). Still others have found either the worship/preaching, or congregation, verging on "shallow"--a religious sort of "elevator music". In all cases, preserving one's integrity or sanity might have them in agreement with "Do Not Enter."
       I also considered a second, perhaps a "flip-side", interpretation. I don't want to reprise last week's reflection on  "A bit o' commitment" (although there are certainly resonances) but at their best, religious institutions often challenge people to reconsider some of their long-held beliefs or habits. That reconsideration might indeed be dangerous; making a decision to move in one direction can rule out other paths. As we have seen throughout history (including in our contemporary world), affiliation with a particular religion can mean ostracism from family, or even a death sentence, in a hostile-to-that-tradition country. Yet people often do find something compelling enough to make a "dangerous" change.
      And as I thought a bit more about the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign, I also began to contrast it with another sign more often found outside places of worship: "Visitors Welcome!". The cynical side of me wonders whether some of those places of worship might bend over backwards to make visitors feel good rather than challenging them to make a change. I certainly don't want to paint those worship-centers with that broad of a brush, but raising the question of whether a faith commitment is "dangerous" or "welcome" seems, to me, to be a conversation worth having. That is, what might be so compelling that someone might ignore the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign and enter anyway?