Friday, May 26, 2017

On being an unknowing recipient



Note from Chaplain Gary:  Danielle Xanthos, the author of the reflection below is a graduate student in professional psychology at DU. She has been working with me throughout the year on a number of different projects. She offered to write a reflection for the newsletter. I was happy to say "Yes!" As it turns out, her reflection is highly appropriate as we approach the last week of class and finals!

Fact: academic life can be rough.

Earlier this year (during that stage of the academic year when I had a bit more time in my schedule than reality would soon allow), I attended monthly meetings led by our friendly neighborhood (University) chaplain, Gary, alongside local faith leaders from an impressively diverse variety of traditions. During one of these meetings I realized something incredibly simple, yet equally profound: There are people from all different faiths praying for us students. It was one of those moments when my heart was full to the brim and I had a deep sense of gratitude for everyone in the room. Since that meeting a few months ago, I’ve wanted to share this fact with every student (faculty and staff, included) at the University of Denver – and every campus in the area.

In the prayers of the tradition I call home (Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy), we pray “for the peace of the whole world…and for the unity of all.”* I admit, as with a few other elements of my faith, it took more than a couple of decades for these words to sink into my mind, and they’re still flowing into my soul. Whether these prayers for our community are spontaneous – and gushing from our soul, written – and “ready made,” or unceasing – and serving as a walking stick throughout our day and our life,** they are happening all around us in all different homes of worship.

Remember when I said academic life can be rough? It can drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Whether we’re having a difficult time because we feel stressed, we feel lonely, we feel tired, we feel the weight of the world’s suffering on our hearts, or maybe we aren’t feeling any of those things and we’re at peace in this moment, please remember that there are people all around this city praying for us. People we’ve never met.

You are in someone’s prayers. They’re praying for your peace, for your safety, for your health, for our unity. You are in their prayers today, you were in their prayers yesterday, and you will be in their prayers tomorrow.

Praying for good strength on your life's adventure, 
With gratitude,
Danielle Xanthos 

*Full excerpt from the Litany of Peace, said during the Liturgy, evening (Vespers), morning (Orthros/Matins), and a few other services: For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.

** Three types of prayer, as explained by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in “Beginning to Pray.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interruptive Invitation



    Earlier this week I drove up to Vail for the annual clergy conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado.  I knew that there was a chance that the weather would not stay as benign as it seemed on Tuesday, but the predicted noontime snow Wednesday didn't appear . . . at least not until late in the evening. My intention had been to get up early on Thursday and head down the hill in time to chair a meeting at 9:30. I arose to a LOT of snow, but trudged through it to the car, and headed towards the freeway. I was dismayed to discover that Vail Pass had been closed.
     Clearly, there was little I could do but send out some emails letting people know that I wouldn't be in the office until much later, if at all! I returned to the hotel -- at least I was able to participate in the closing sessions of the conference (and get breakfast and lunch).  All morning, at every break, folks were on the web-site-du-jour:
cotrip.org.* The hotel offered, if we were to be stranded, another night at the group rate. The way things were going, that offer was looking pretty good.
      As the conference concluded, our bishop mentioned that a spiritual director told him, when there was an interruption in plan, to ask the question: "What is the invitation (that the interruption offers)?" I was probably not alone in pondering that question for the next little while. As someone who appreciates things going according to plan, I'm rarely in the mood, when interrupted, to be anything but annoyed. But there was little that ANYONE could have done to prevent THIS interruption; the circumstances were such that I really did sit back and ponder the "invitation".
      It IS a good question, I decided. I was "invited" to consider what I thought was truly important: was my schedule THAT important? Might it not be good to be reminded that I am NOT in control of everything?  Was there an opportunity to deepen relationships with other attendees who were similarly "stuck"?
      And, as I thought more about it, I realized that the question of finding an "invitation" in an interruption was similar to the assertion in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that, in every organization or group, something works." Practitioners of AI recognize that finding what is that "works" is sometimes a challenge, especially in a culture where we seem to be focused on what's "broken". They know that discipline and practice are required to find that "working" thing.

      I imagine it will take a similar discipline and practice to see the invitations in interruptions.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

* The photo above of the website shows the section of I-70 that was closed.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"It's a magic table!"

 

    This week the office of Religious & Spiritual Life offered students (and others passing by on the Driscoll Bridge) the opportunity to craft Mother's (and Father's) Day cards. We try to have as many materials available, the 4 "S's" -- stickers, stamps, stencils, and sharpies. Some students confess that they are "not artistic", and so REALLY appreciate the options. Others are VERY artistic and eschew all of the "helps" except the sharpies. We've been doing this for about eight years, and many students tell us that they look forward to the opportunity to stop thinking about Econ or Calculus and to re-engage their inner pre-schooler, with the hope that, when they return home, they'll see that hand-made card on the fridge.
      Staffing the table is sometimes a challenge for those of us who are more . . . well, "introverted". But my experience, as well as that of my fellow introverts, is that, once we get going, and folks start making cards, the conversation flows. We talk about majors, weekend/vacation plans, and post-graduation plans. I often ask where students call "home", and am frequently surprised to learn that I have (or can easily find) some connection with, at least, their home state. Once that connection is made, a lot of remaining barriers fall and we have a blast.
      Yesterday afternoon, I returned to do my "shift", and found a group of international students all making cards. "Staffing" the table was someone I had not met. A Chinese visiting scholar (I learned), he had taken over for the student who was at the table, but who needed to head to class.  As we started talking, he told me that one of the people he had met, while at the table, had connections with his sister in China. Another person he had met knew a friend of his in New Mexico. And then he discovered that he and I had another "DU" (that is, Duke University) in common. He said to me, "Three different connections, all realized at this table.  It's a magic table!"

       As I've reflected on that observation, I've come to realize that he's right! At that table, not only are introverts freed a bit from their "enclosure", but "magical creatures" may arrive to make cards (as in the photo above), and connections not necessarily apparent are discovered and celebrated. There is certainly something "magical" about being around a table--especially a table covered with things that might engage us, whether craft-materials or food. It's no surprise, then, that so many of our religious rituals are "table-based".
       Lesson learned:  approach all tables with the expectation that something transformative may happen . . . and it just might! "Magic" can happen!
  
Namasté, 

Gary

Note:  A HUGE shout-out of thanks to Danielle G, Danielle X, Marshall S, Ryan B, Hana A, Steve (from China), and any other impromptu table-staffers!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Put it in writing!



       When I was in high school, I was an AFS foreign exchange student to Australia. ("Oz" wasn't my first - or second, or even third - choice! I had wanted to learn another language. Mostly, in the linguistic arena, I learned a new set of slang--not to mention a cool accent!) For a year I lived out in farming country (not in the "Outback" *), learning to drive a tractor, tend sheep and arc-weld. Of course, I was a foreign exchange student, so I DID go to school as well, along with my host brother, Mark. We were quite different from one another in SO many ways, and what we could learn from each other was quite varied. One of the things I noticed when we started school was that he was writing with a fountain pen -- taking notes, writing papers, etc. I'd seen fountain pens before, of course, but I'd never seen a class-mate using one. Of course, I asked him about it, and he told me his teachers require it of him, because it slowed him down and made his writing legible.** I hadn't thought about that, and tried it with his pen, and, it was true! It did slow me down.       For reasons unrelated to legibility, my son has become enamored with using a quill pen. He tells me that the process of dipping the pen into ink, and then writing, is a whole lot different than using a ballpoint pen, or a pencil.  He semi-inspired me to pick up MY fountain pen again; it is a different process, a different mindset. And, I think I may have written about this before in a prior musing here, but when I write sermons, I do it with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil. Yes, I certainly could use a computer, but my experience has been that using a pencil slows down the process (especially when using a hand sharpener), making me think a little more carefully (and it's still correctable!).
      These memories and associations came to me while listening to the
story of two women who met in a spiritual writing workshop, and who started a multi-year process of writing letters to each other EVERY DAY. They chose to hand-write real letters, rather than just send emails, because they wanted the practice to have some gravity. As they wrote, they both realized it had become a sort of spiritual practice. It had become so ingrained that, when a tragic event occurred to one of them and they stopped sending the letters, they didn't stop writing them. It was only when they decided to collect their letters and publish them that they learned that they had both kept up the practice.       The two didn't say whether they used a pen (fountain or otherwise) or a pencil in their writing practice; in some ways, I suppose, it doesn't make a difference. But what DID make a difference to me was the suggestion of hand-writing as a spiritual practice. We have become so accustomed to typing ("keyboarding"?), or reducing even that to acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), or yet more recently to using emoji's (did you know there's an official emoji-approval agency?), that the process of putting a writing implement to paper is becoming increasingly rare (unless it's jotting down a quick phone number or last-minute shopping list). Similarly rare is slowing down for almost anything!       I am certainly not suggesting that it works for everyone, but the re-discovery of the slowed-down writing with a fountain pen (or a #2 pencil) has been a good practice for me in many spiritual, and non-spiritual, ways. It may be less efficient for mass-communication (like this newsletter), but more insightful for self-communication.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

*  And never once did I "throw a shrimp on the barby".
** An interesting discussion about this theory/practice can be found
here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The "Show Me" State



     Last Sunday, I, like many Christians, heard the story of "Doubting Thomas" (John 20.19-29). For those unfamiliar with the account, the setting is a locked room on the night of the Sunday when Jesus' followers discovered that he had been raised from the dead. On that first night, the story tells of Jesus' appearance to his disciples, and his showing to them the wounds of his crucifixion -- as a proof that he was who he said he was. One of the disciples, Thomas, wanot in attendance that evening. And, when his compatriots told him of their experience, he refused to believe them unless he saw the wounds himself. The following Sunday evening, Thomas was with the others, and the resurrected Jesus appeared again. This time, Thomas being there, Jesus invited him to examine the wounds. With that invitation, Thomas declared that he now believed. Jesus commended Thomas for believing as a result of visual evidence, but commends even more those who would "believe without having seen."
      Poor Thomas, it seems to me--dubbed "Doubting Thomas," and, among some wags, the status of patron saint of Missouri, the "Show Me State".* The attribution of "doubting Thomas" to this story, however, minimizes (or, even worse, denigrates) the value of doubt. We seem to have become a society obsessed with certainty. The "great unknown" is a scary thing, thought best to be avoided by any. Raise a seemingly innocent question in some circles and run the risk of banishment. Even a little question can be seen as the step onto a slippery slope, or the allowance of the camel's nose to edge under the tent.

      I don't think doubt is always a bad thing! Indeed, I have more problems with certainty. I think doubt can keep us on our toes, always searching for a better answer, or for more nuances. Doubt is an attitude of unrest, a dis-satisfaction with the status quo.  And, so, I think it to be a corollary of curiosity, that quality that drives us to new discoveries.
      With regard to the origin of the motto "Show Me State" for Missouri, according to "StateSymbolsUSA.org":

"The most widely known story gives credit to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver for coining the phrase in 1899. During a speech in Philadelphia, he said: "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."  The phrase is now used to describe the character of Missourians; not gullible, conservative, and unwilling to believe without adequate evidence.

"Unwilling to believe without adequate evidence." That is certainly one "definition" of "doubt". But, I think, there's another way of looking at. And, again, here I'll point to my experience last Sunday. In addition to hearing the "Doubting Thomas" story, some churches brought new members "into the fold" through baptism. And, in the Episcopal church, one of the prayers asks that the new members be given "joy and wonder" in all God's works.
        "Joy and wonder" drives one to curiosity. Can we not see "doubt" as yet another, though perhaps unusual, precursor to that same joy and wonder?
  
Namasté, 

Gary

* For various "histories" of the nickname, see the Wikipedia article on Missouri.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Order and/or Disorder



     A long time ago (and it seems "in a land far, far, away"), singer Peggy Lee made popular a song with the lines: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, the let's go dancing" ("Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee, 1969). While the song picked up a bit on the zeitgieist of the late '60's, I sometimes think that it could just as easily describe life in the 20-teens. On the "left", people long for the "orderly" days of the previous national administration(s). On the "right", the winning campaign cry was "Make America Great Again" (implying that there was some more "orderly" past to which we can return). The dichotomy of order vs. disorder seems to reign supreme in our national discourse.
       There is, however, a third option:  "re-order". Indeed, in an interview I heard earlier this week with author/theologian Fr. Richard Rohr, Rohr pointed out that he had discovered in his readings of many of the sacred and mythical stories a consistent theme: the protagonist moves through a process of "order-to-disorder-reorder". Consider the Exodus experience of the Hebrews:  an orderly life in Egypt to the disorder of the Wilderness experience to the re-order of a settled community in the Promised Land. (Yes, the slavery of Egypt was awful, but, compared with the dis-order of the wilderness, the cry went up to Moses, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt, where at least we had food?")  Or, more currently, the experience of Luke Skywalker leaving the "order" of Uncle Owen, to the disorder of all of the battles with the Republic, to the re-order of his realizing his identity as a Jedi.
        With that in mind, I was surprised to be reminded while reading No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education (Oxford, 2012)) that the educator William Perry postulated that college students go through a similar phased process. As the authors (Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen) of No Longer Invisible summarize his thought: 

When entering college most students are dualists; they see the world in simple binaries (good/bad, us/them, right/wrong). The second stage is one of moral and cognitive relativism, when students become aware of multiplicity. In the third stage, students transcend the confusion of pure relativism and take steps toward mature self-awareness and nuanced commitment. . . . moving from one sate to the next requires a personal crisis, a moment when it become apparent that one's existing beliefs of convictions are no longer adequate. (124)

Perry's personal crisis equals Rohr's "disorder". But both Perry and Rohr note that the students of today might have missed the "order" piece in general because of the fractured nature of our society (and education) since the time that Peggy Lee sang "Is that all there is?"
      That may be true, in the abstract (or general). But I think there's a greater truth that resides in both of their three-part scenarios: most of our lives go through that process over and over. Perhaps the stakes aren't as dramatic as Luke Skywalker's all the time, but we do face the situation in big and small ways. What we often forget (and Rohr and Perry would agree) in the throes of disorder is that reorder is different from a return to a prior "order". Things that are broken/dis-ordered CAN be re-assembled, but they will never be the same. There is grief in that realization, but also hope.

        In our lives, and in the broader world, that is what we really want: not the old order, but "A New Hope".
  
Namasté, 

Gary

Friday, April 14, 2017

Just ask the dodo . . .



         There are so many iconic moment in the cult-classic movie "Princess Bride" (and I can imagine that readers are now going through many of them in their own minds). One set that I hear probably more often than others is the (now-) classic use of "Inconceivable" by the Sicilian criminal Vizzini (played by Wallace Shawn). He uses it often in the film, right up to the moment (spoiler alert) he is . . . umm . . . incapacitated. But in the course of his (mis-) use of the word, Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patnikin -- "Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya . . .. ") says to Vizzini, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Montoya points out to Vizzini that just because he THINKS things should work in a certain way DOESN'T mean that, when they don't, it's "Inconceivable!" (Vizzini is probably of the "Alice in Wonderland" school where a word means what he wants it to mean.)
        Many of us who watch "Princess Bride" nod in agreement with Montoya's assessment of Vizzini's false "knowledge. Part of that "agreement" is, no doubt, due to the fact that the film is so over-the-top, and Vizzini is presented as such an self-impressed idiot. And, of course, he IS presented as a villain, so we're supposed to dislike him. But we are, at the same time, not immune to acting in quite the same way. That is, when we believe something (ought) to be a certain way, we stand fast in our delusion, and woe-betide those who would challenge us.
         I couldn't help thinking about this last week while attending a panel presentation on international student issues. The panel had originally been constituted several months ago to discuss the mental health needs of international students in general. And, then, just hours before the presentation, the Administration's first travel ban was issued. While the students valiantly tried to stay "on topic", it was clear that there were more significant issues that needed to be addressed, and, so, a second panel was arranged -- the one last week. The acute tension over the travel bans had moderated a bit, but it was still apparent. What was also apparent, however, was that the international students who were part of the panel (both graduate and undergraduate) didn't feel a part of the University community. They voiced a sense of exclusion at the most, or a sense of tokenism at the least. And it made little difference with which program they were involved, or what was their country-of-origin. What made me think of "Inconceivable" from "Princess Bride" was the sobering disconnect between the "reality" the  University understood, and how the international students experienced a different reality.
        This is not a situation limited to the University of Denver, or to the USA. I went home that evening, and, as my wife and I were channel-surfing, we landed on a German detective show (oh, the marvels of cable TV!). The plot (as well as I could follow it through sub-titles, looking up from my magazine) had to do a LOT with tensions between the German "natives" and those of Turkish descent (even if they had been born in Germany and spoke German more frequently than Turkish!). It was a detective show so, of course, the tensions turned murderous. But all I could think of was how the "majority" marginalizes (sometimes violently) the "minority" . . . . and all in the guise of maintaining "normalcy", or returning to "how things used to be".
         Well, I'm sorry, but that's "Inconceivable". Despite what people in power, or those of the "majority", may want us to believe, they cannot take us back to a mono-culture. The world has become a much "smaller" place, even within my lifetime. It may be uncomfortable for some, but it isn't inconceivable. And those who would claim that it is, are going to have to expand their vocabulary, their understanding, and their social circles, or they'll go the way of the--now extinct--dodo. And, just ask the dodo, THAT fate is not "inconceivable."

Namasté, 

Gary