Saturday, April 12, 2014


    Several weeks ago, the Denver Post ran a feature on the Denver band "The Fray".  The occasion was the release of their most recent album (their fourth) entitled "Helios".  One of the things that made this so newsworthy was that the album was released on vinyl.  How old-school!  (There was, included with the album, a download code . . . I suppose for folks who no longer had turntables!).  The frontman of the band, Isaac Slade, said that the album was much different than its predecessors; it wasn't as dark, reflecting changes in the lives of the bands' members (a couple of them, with their wives, are expecting children).  The article's author, Matt Miller, wrote: "when their professional lives are going well, the only result could be a happy record, despite their reservations.
     The next paragraph is basically a quotation from Isaac Slade:  "'The definition of cool for the last 65 years has been to be aloof, like you don't care . . . The uncoolest thing in the world is to smile.  When you're honest and you open up to being in a bright place, it causes a lot of exposure and vulnerability.'"   And that got me thinking about how many photos we see of folks who are scowling.  I'd never really connected the glower with coolness.  But, I think Slade is right.  And I wonder why we want people to connect us with a photo that might more likely be found on a mug-shot?
     I spent this afternoon with thirteen students and six Alzheimer's sufferers -- yes we were ALL together.  And we were playing croquet.  The program, put on by an organization called Jiminy Wicket, aims at bridging the dementia-gap through a simple game, and, in the process, creating smiles.  All of us DU folks, at first, were a bit apprehensive (whether or not we would admit it) about who might arrive in the van from the senior center.  And, we learned a bit latter, many of the seniors were a bit nervous too; some, of course, not entirely sure where they were going.
      Within just a few minutes, however, things were VERY different.  After the first "whack" of the croquet ball, the first ball-through-the-wicket, the barriers were gone.  Young men were helping (much) older women.  Young women were teamed with men.  Competition, while fierce -- and, maybe in some sports, prone to be accompanied by scowling and chest-thumping -- was not such that opposing players weren't smiling and cheering when Bob, from his wheelchair, made an amazing shot.  Or when Lucy, stooped and wearing dark glasses, made a 20' shot through the wicket.  Whoops and smiles galore.
      I've gotta say, it was a cool afternoon.  No glowering necessary.  We were, as Slade put it, "in a bright place".  And, yes, there was exposure and vulnerability. . . .on all sides.  But it became a time-out-of-time when we, together, were united by smiles - - old and young, able- bodied and not, from different religious background, different countries.  We were anxious no more.  No longer afraid.
      Way cool.


Chaplain Gary

Note:  We will be repeating the Jiminy Wicket experience again in May.  If you're interested in being notified when the date is set, send me an email at:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Being Correct ≠ Being Right

      Earlier this week, I received the most recent issue of Trout magazine (the quarterly publication of Trout Unlimited).  It contained following editorial:

"The Future of Trout Fishing"
You know who you are.  You are the guide that unloaded on my son on a beautiful Montana river that day, while leading your client to an upstream spot.  Your inability to see what was right in front of you astounded me. As a guide, and protector of our sport and resources, you found it necessary to yell across the river and inform my 14-yr-old son that the was not handling a hooked cutthroat [trout] with the deftness he should.  You were correct . . . but very wrong.  What you didn't see right there in front of you was the future of everything you love.  This young man was not sitting in front of a computer waging mock war.  He was not sitting in front of a television watching mindless movies.  He was standing in the middle of a Montana river learning to fly fish.  You had a chance to blow gently on this glowing ember, but you snuffed it out.  You should have yelled, "Nice fish!" and given him a thumbs up.  He would have basked in that recognition forever.  Instead, you embarrassed him.  You changed the pride he felt into abject humiliation.  Shame on you.  Jus plain shame on you.  Don't worry though.  I think with careful attention, I can get the ember to glow again . . . in spite of you.
Steve Baker.*
The editorial hardly needs comment.  But, as a parent and teacher, I needed to take a step back and wonder how often my felt need to be "correct" was exactly the WRONG thing that was needed at that moment.
        And I wonder, too, how often the "righteous" do irreparable damage to their closely-held convictions and traditions by being unwilling to open their hearts to the cautious steps of someone learning to find their way.
       Read the editorial again.  'Nuff said for this week.


Chaplain Gary

*Trout, Spring 2014, Volume 56, Number 2, p. 12

Friday, March 28, 2014

A word from the Dark Side

     Three things crossed my "desk" this week that all, while different, seemed to point in the same direction.  One was an interview with author/theologian Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  A second was a quotation from an article* by Mark C. Taylor (don't know if it's any relation!) about silence.  And the third was an article on boredom by Karen Maezen Miller.  The theme that linked these together in my mind is that I am (or maybe we are) often prone to view all three concepts (darkness, silence and boredom) with some suspicion.
      Certainly, I want it to be dark when I am trying to sleep.  And, after being in a very noisy room, some silence is very welcome.   On the other hand, darkness and silence -- unless desired -- are things I usually avoid.  And boredom?  Well, as the father of children, it's a word I don't want to hear!  But it's also something I rarely seek; I can't remember the last time I thought, "Gee, I wish I was bored!"
       But Barbara Brown Taylor, commenting on the opening lines of the book of Genesis, pointed out that, when God created light and declared it "good", it didn't mean that darkness was "bad" -- although we often make that assumption.  It is simply that out of darkness that light comes.  And, so, she urges us to embrace darkness.  And I began to relate that to "silence".
       Most musician know that the "rests", the points of silence between notes or chords, are what help give music shape.  I recall an incredible piece by composer Thomas Tallis -- Spem in allium. The composition is for a choir of forty individual voices.  And, throughout most of the piece, those voices wind in and around one another in one of most masterful pieces of polyphony imaginable.  Then, there is a rest; all of the singing of individual lines stops.  And, then . . . all forty voices come in at once; one huge chord.  Incredible what emerged from the silence!
       But boredom?  Miller points out in her article, that, when we're bored, we immediately "go looking for something new.  And, let's face it, we're nearly always looking for something new. . . . Fighting boredom is a full-time occupation."  She offers, as a solution to this unsatisfying pursuit:  "What if we could release the grasping mind that is always clawing after some precious new thing, even if it’s only a new fantasy? That would be excruciating, or so we fear. It’s the fear of letting go that afflicts us, but letting go is pain free."
      It is the fear, too, I suppose of entering into darkness, not knowing where the light-switch is to be found.  Or the fear of being found in silence, not knowing when the next voice might be heard.  But I wonder, if we remain in either state for a while, without flailing about for a solution, something more amazing might be revealed than we could imagine.
       Fiat lux!  Fiat crustula!**

Chaplain Gary

*The article "Hearing Silence" is on the "Tricycle" magazine website, but is only accessible to subscribers.  The quotation that came into my inbox was a "teaser".


Friday, March 21, 2014

Ripple Effect


     According to Wikipediaa "ripple effect is a situation where, like the ever expanding ripples across water when an object is dropped into it, an effect from an initial state can be followed outwards incrementally."  The examples used in the article come from economics, sociology, financial markets, AND charitable activities.  The example given for charitable activities is "where information can be disseminated and passed from community to community to broaden its impact."  That seems pretty reasonable, but I'm not precisely sure how it is "charitable".  And the example for economics is "an individual's reduction in spending reduces the incomes of others and their ability to spend."
      I've found myself thinking about the "ripple effect" this week, and wanted to see how it was described.  The cause for my "pondering" was the reportage of the one-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis.  Obviously, the current head of the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the top newsmakers of the year.  He was Time's "Person of the Year"; he garnered the same accolade from The Advocate, the leading LGBT magazine in the U.S.  Yet, according to a report/article generated by the Barna Group entitled "What Do Protestants Think of Pope Francis", "the Pope insists he is 'a normal person' and has no desire to be 'a superman or a star".
       I put that assertion into "conversation" with another event of the week, the awarding of Congressional Medals of Honor (many posthumously) to American military heroes who had previously been passed over because of their race or ethnicity.  In reading about the recipients, I was struck by how much those (who were able to comment), asserted in general, that they were just doing their job, or supporting their unit.  In short, they were "normal soldiers/Marines/sailors" who had no desire to be stars.
       Pope Francis, as well as the Medal of Honor recipients, 
regardless of how they see themselves, clearly have had "ripple effects".  And, contrary to the economics example above, where an individual's "reduction in spending reduces the income of others", the actions of those newsmakers of the week has the potential of increasing valor or compassion or understanding . . . . . without ever meeting the people who they influence.
       Influence, or the ripple effect, stands behind the famous statement attributed to Margaret Mead:  "
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." *  If we look back in history, we see this "truth" repeated over and over again -- and not necessarily by people who were out to "make a mark".  Many simply wanted to do the "right thing", and, in so doing, succeeded in doing much more.
        Barna Group president, David Kinnamon, commenting on the research that was behind the article, said, “The research shows the profound influence transformative leaders can have even beyond those directly under their leadership."  I would venture a guess that the same is true for most of us, even if we don't see ourselves as "transformative leaders". We all have, I believe, more power and influence than we imagine!

Chaplain Gary

* "Attributed" to Margaret Mead -- apparently that attribution is contested!  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Something healing this way comes . . .

      Not very far north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and just a few curvy miles off of Highway One lies an incredible stand of redwood trees.  President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed this magnificent area a National Monument in 1908, and it was named for conservationist John Muir, who responded:  "This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possible be found in all the forests of the world.  You have done me great honor, and I am proud of it."
       Park visitors walk in awe beneath trees that started growing well-before the United States declared its independence from Britain; 
indeed many trees predate Columbus' voyage to the "new world."  The trees reach 250 feet in height, and some are over fourteen feet wide.  Sunight filters greenly down through the needles and the leaves of deciduous trees, combining with the blues of Stellars Jays, the browns and grays of squirrels and the yellows of giant banana slugs to create a riot of color.  The sounds of the animals mix with the sound of the breeze in the foliage and the water in Redwood Creek.  Ferns line the paths, paths that feel the footsteps of thousands of visitors every year.   It is no wonder that one area of the Park is known as Cathedral Grove.
        It wasn't just the colors and sounds -- or the name "Cathedral Grove" -- that drew me many times to visit from across the San Francisco Bay.  Yes, as an "S" in the Myers-Briggs typology, I take in information through my senses, and Muir Woods could almost be described as "sensory overload."  Usually I made the drive not to "look" at the beauty of Muir Woods, but rather to "experience" it.  Maybe it was the sensory overload, but being in that beautiful place took me away from many of the concerns that were weighing me down, concerns and worries that, if left untended, might have developed into more serious, physical, health problems.
       Being in Muir Woods -- and now in the beauty of the Rockies -- was healing.  I couldn't really verbalize WHY; I just knew it was.  In reading Esther Sternberg's Healing Spaces:  The Science of Place and Well-Being* for this past week's book discussion, I gained, however, a different set of insights into what I was experiencing.  Sights, sounds, smells, and bodily activities all, in very mysterious (at least to to this non-scientist) neurological and biological ways can contribute to the body's healing processes.  A simple example is the increased incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder in parts of the northern hemisphere that experience prolonged periods of darkness (e.g., winter in Scandinavia), as opposed to those areas further south (e.g., Spain and Italy).  Intuitively, this made sense; the science behind it all had a different effect:  my desire to spend even MORE time in beautiful places.
       AT the University of Denver, we are beginning that break between quarters; we are on the verge of spring.  Next week brings the equinox that marks its "official" beginning.  Many of us are hankering for warmer weather.  I imagine that part of this longing is for more time out-of-doors, for the longer days in the sun (especially in Colorado), for the healing that that time will bring.  I hope to spend a good part of next Thursday out-of-doors, reveling in the healing qualities of all that my senses can absorb.

Chaplain Gary

* Harvard, 2009.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Who's the secret agent?

       One of the elementary schools in our neighborhood has, as its "mascot" the cougar.  And so, found throughout the school is the imperative "ROAR"!  As you can see from the image above, ROAR stands for:  Respect. Own it. Attitude. Responsibility.  And each morning, in conjunction with the Pledge of Allegiance, the kids recite the school's pledge.  I think it's a great practice and I hope that the kids actually incorporate what those words mean (both the Pledge of Allegiance and ROAR!).  As a parent (and remembering back to when I was an elementary school-aged kid), I know how difficult it can be to have a child "own up" to what he/she did.  "Something happened, Dad!  And it got broken!"  Right, the toy was just laying on the floor and "something magically happened", and it became broken.  "Owning it" suggests that a different response might be:  "I'm sorry.  I was using the toy to try to break this rock, and I broke the toy instead."
      The diversion of responsibility is something we "learn" at a very early age; it's VERY difficult to "own it" when we we've done something wrong.  And we translate that attitude into our language and our writing.  As I grade papers in my "Pets, Partners or Pot-Roast" class, I often find sentences written in the passive voice.  And the passive voice hides agency.  That is, sentences in the passive obscure who it was that performed the action.  Numerous examples abound!  "Laboratory animals are confined to incredibly mall cages."  Well, confined by whom?  The researchers or lab technicians are hidden from the action; no responsibility!  Or, in a different vein "We are given responsibility to care for animals."  We are?  By whom?
      I don't mean to be hyper-critical of the authors of these papers.  They only mirror what they find in newspapers, press-releases and political statements.  And most of them have been taught to avoid using the first-person in their writing.  I can understand that.  But, if we constantly hide agency by using the passive voice, we can find ourselves absolving ourselves of any responsibility in contributing to the horrible treatment of others.  For example, if consumers didn't demand certain products, animals might not be subject to testing.  So, if we were to trace the line of responsibility back, the animals' suffering might ultimately be our responsibility!  We can't have that! " Put it in the passive!"  Or, if we blithely say "We are given responsibility for . . ." without addressing who/what it was that gave us that responsibility, we may conveniently avoid addressing issues of (relatively) cosmic significance.
       This phenomenon, or habit, is nothing new!  Recently I read a passage from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.  Addressing the people -- chiding them, actually -- he asked: "Why do you keep repeating this proverb in the land of Israel: The parents have eaten unripe grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge?" (Ez 18.2)  The prophet's question was "Why do you keep diverting attention from your own responsibility, your own fault?  There is no passive voice here; there is no secret agency.  Own it!"
      Christians, right now, are beginning the season of Lent, in which they spend a number of weeks taking stock of their lives, their responsibility.  They are charged, in many ways, to leave the passive voice behind, and to accept the fact that they are fallible, prone to error. In short, that they are not God.  Just about every religious tradition has a similar time of introspection, encouraging their members to think carefully about their place in the larger scheme of things, their responsibility for others and the world.
      I wonder if we were to "own it" on a regular basis, from our writing habits to our relationships with others, if that honesty might make for a better, more just, world?


Chaplain Gary

Friday, February 28, 2014

Pirate's Code, or . . .?

     Many of us who've watched the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have enjoyed the references to the "Pirate's Code".  It appears early on in the first movie when heroine Elizabeth Swann tells her pirate captors that she demands the "Right of Parlay", invoking the Code of the Pirate Brethren; she demands to speak with the captain - Captain Barbossa it turns out.  Barbossa's men honor the Code's demands, and Barbossa speaks with Miss Swan.  Later on in the movie, however, when again he confronts Miss Swann but is "disinclined to acquiesce to her request" that the pirates leave the vicinity, he subsequently circumvents the Code, pointing out, "the Code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules".  Miss Swann "gets it", when in a later movie, she tells the pirates "Hang the Code and hang the rules!  They're more like guidelines anyway!"     That phrase has weaseled its way into a lot of everyday language over the last ten years.  And it has been applied to all sorts of rules, including religious rules that seem a bit inconvenient or outdated.  In this I'm reminded of the phrase used any number of years ago, "They're the Ten Commandments!  Not the Ten Suggestions!"  And it sprang to mind last week when reader-of-this-newsletter "R" sent in a suggestion for a column/reflection:  "I shake my head in disgust whenever I read or hear about so-called religious leaders who practice cafeteria religion by picking and choosing bible verses to support their narrow views."  I'm not precisely sure to which "religious leaders" "R" is referring, but in my experience, it could be folks on either the left or the right!  And such "cafeteria religion" is not confined to those who would choose "bible verses"; I've heard plenty of Muslim leaders complain about others who treat the Q'uran in the same way.        My suspicion is that this is a problem endemic in any religious tradition that holds an (ancient) sacred text to be authoritative.  Most of us, I think, engage in such "cafeteria" behavior depending on our cultures, or hopes and fears.  The situation may be one in which we disregard one text in favor of another -- I can think of divine commands in the Hebrew Bible to observe certain feasts (Exodus 12.14, 17), which are then countermanded through the 8th-century prophet Amos:  "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (Amos 5.21).  Certainly context is to be considered!  But, either verse can be extracted as "divine will".  A different situation might be simply ignoring a command.  For example, opponents of homosexual behavior often point to two passages in Leviticus (18.22 and 20.13).  I've rarely seen, however, critiques against shaving or tattooes made with the same virulence, if at all (Lev. 19.27, 28).  Many Christians bristle at the idea of "Christian communism" as suggested in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (2.43-45).  Similarly, many believers (and I suppose not of just Christianity), soften the impact of some commands by interpreting them as metaphors (I wrote my dissertation on that phenomenon!).         And it goes on.  Biblical permission, or assumption, of polygamy is "hushed" up in our current social setting.  The same can be said for the institution of slavery.  Both polygamy and slavery are generally seen as out-dated institutions at the least, and barbaric and unthinkable -- even ungodly -- at the most.  Yet the stories of the biblical patriarchs -- those whom God chose and instructed -- are suffused with both institutions.  So are the stories "rules"?  "Guidelines"?  Or something else?       As I suggested above, I think this is a phenomenon of which we're all guilty in one way or another.  Most of us struggle to make sense of what "being in relationship with the divine" might entail.  Some of us want concrete certainty, precise rules at all times and in all places.  Others of us are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Some of us believe that "Truth" was discovered or revealed once, recorded, and is to be followed eternally without wavering.  Others believe there is no such thing as "Truth".  And still others of us believe that we are constantly on the prowl for the nuances of "Truth", if such might be found at all.      So I'm not sure I'd "shake my head in disgust" at such cafeteria religion; I'd have to shake my head with disgust every time I look in the mirror.  I can't do that, or I'd never leave the bathroom.  All I can do is approach my neighbors humbly, trusting that they are searching in good faith for the same kind of meaning in life as I.  I may be wrong about that assessment, but I don't want to think so.


Chaplain Gary