Friday, November 20, 2015

Resistance is NOT futile!

        Fans of the Star Trek franchise know the line "Resistance is futile" as representing the "Borg", an alien race (ranked by TV Guide in 2013 as the 4th nastiest villain of all time).  According to the Wikipedia entry on the Borg"[They] are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective, or the hive. The Borg use a process called assimilation to force other species into the Collective by violent injection of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg's ultimate goal is 'achieving perfection'.  Part of the ongoing thematic presence of the Borg is related to their inability to "assimilate" a captain of the starship Enterprise:  Jean Luc Picard.  Despite their claim that "resistance is futile", Captain Picard was ultimately able to resist  While he was not left "undamaged", his time associated with the collective provided him knowledge on how to battle the collective.
        The episodes featuring the Borg came to mind this morning as I was reading the book of First Maccabees.  This book, found in the Greek Septuagint (translated from a Hebrew original written in the 2nd century BCE) is considered as sacred scripture in some Christian denominations, but not all.  It tells the story of a revolt in Judea by a group known as the Maccabees against their Greek rulers (175-134 BCE).  The first few chapters relate how these Greek overlords had sought to stamp out everything, everywhere, of the local culture and religion.  In Judea, they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbad the practice of Judaism (including circumcision, or even possessing Jewish scriptures).  Many of the inhabitants chose to assimilate rather than face the the consequences, i.e., death.  They believed that resistance was futile.

        The family of Mattathias -- especially his sons Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus and Simon Thassi -- did NOT believe resistance was futile.  Their energy, their faith, was such that many from Judea rallied to them.  Despite overwhelming odds, they were able to defeat the Greeks.  They cleaned up the Temple, got rid of the desecrated altar, and dedicated the Temple with an eight-day feast.  Jews today will commemorate that astonishing, miraculous, event in a few weeks as they observe Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication.
         Given the events of the last few weeks/months, from the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis to the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Mali to the immigration debate to the incredibly hateful language coming out of the mouths of presidential candidates and governors of states, it would almost seem that the Borg, or Antiochus Epiphanes, has arrived in America.  Resistance to their rhetoric seems to be futile as politician after politician seem to fall over themselves to be more extreme, gaining an ever-growing popular following.
           Yet we have also seen instances where resistance has toppled "empires" -- most notably at the University of Missouri. We have seen resistance rock the foundations at other institutions, such as Yale.  We know from history that, over and over, resistance moves us forward, perhaps not without cost -- Capt. Picard remained throughout his career a "walking wounded" voyager and there were casualties among the Maccabean revolutionaries.           Our many faith traditions encourage us to resist the status quo, to resist the imposition of unjust laws, and in some respects to resist our own self-interests on behalf of the marginalized, the dispossessed, "orphans and widows", and the stranger.  We must band in common cause against "the Borg" that is threatening to overtake our national soul, perhaps our individual souls.  We are bigger than that; I believe it.
           The photo above is of juvenile Borg. We who are part of the academic enterprise must give our all to prevent that "fiction" from becoming a reality. We must, in the language of 1 Maccabees 
(1:54 & 4:43), topple the "abomination of desolation" that so many in power are attempting to maintain.  It is our sacred duty to prove that "resistance is NOT futile" but is absolutely necessary.  



Friday, November 13, 2015

The eraser's mark.


     In his book, Let Your Life Speak, the Quaker author Parker Palmer tells the story of his seeking guidance at a critical point in his professional life.  Many of the counselors around him suggested that he wait, pray, be in silence, and eventually "way will open".  He follows their advice, but, after several months, finds that nothing has happened.  He takes this concern to a wise Quaker woman, Ruth, who told him, "[I]n sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me."  Palmer goes on to write, "Then she spoke again, this time with a grin.  'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'"*
       That story had a profound impact on me when I first read it about fifteen years ago.   I, too, was in a place of professional discernment and what the story allowed me to do was to look behind me and see what doors had closed behind me.  Some of those doors were closed for me; others I closed, either intentionally or unintentionally.  But, when I recognized that they were closed, a great wave of relief rolled over me.  I didn't HAVE to keep trying to go back through those doors, or keep them open.  I could allow them to be shut, and use my energy to move forward.  I have gone back to that story again and again at juncture points in my life, as well as suggesting the wisdom to others who were discerning which way to go.      I recalled it once again when I heard an interview this week with Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, in which HE reflects how his father had rejected the "explicit Judaism that he had inherited." He goes on to say "Our Jewishness was visible on us through the marks of the eraser, which were stronger than the writing — act of writing itself."  Visible...through the marks of the eraser...stronger than the act of writing.        And I began to consider what I have "erased" twists and turns, ups and downs, of my life.  Like doors closing, some of the things that have been "erased" have been unintentional. (For example, I didn't consciously CHOOSE to stop playing tennis; it just happened after I left high school.)  Other things, perhaps more significant things, I have deliberately chosen to erase:  some ideas about God; certain notions of exclusivity; superiority of one way of "knowing" over another. As I look back at the "ways" that have closed behind me, or the marks of the eraser that I've wielded, I rejoice in the possibilities that have been afforded by those means of liberation. The way that opened before me is NOTHING that I could have expected.       But I wonder if we also need to take that eraser to things that might tie us to a particular vision of the future. I think of the stories in the New Testament gospels about Jesus warning his disciples against telling anyone he is the Messiah** (the "Messianic Secret", as biblical scholars characterize it). Interpretive wisdom has it that Jesus wanted to keep people from imposing their ideas of "messiah-hood" on him; by so doing, they could inhibit his mission.
      Maybe the eraser's mark behind us frees us from bondage to the past.  Maybe, too, the eraser's mark in front of us can open us to very new ways of being.



* Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), 38.
** See, for example, Matthew 16.13-20.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Living in an Alternate Universe

       In the summer of 2005, I took part in the fourth AIDS/LifeCycle, a 560-mile, 7-day, bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (I think I've written about this a couple of times over the years.)  It was (and still is) a very well-supported charity ride, the proceeds (over $66 million over the last 10 years) benefitting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  The route travels roughly along the western edge of California, not always along the coast, sometimes venturing inland.  The fact that the route DOES travel from the coast to some inland valleys means that there are portions of the California Coast Range that need to be ascended (and, of course, more enjoyably descended).
       One particular hill is known as "Quadbuster", a grueling climb on the third day between King City and Paso Robles.  It is one of several climbs that causes some riders to dismount and walk their bike to the top.
  I recall very vividly riding up Quadbuster (I made it to the top!).  I passed some riders, and was passed by others as I ascended.  It was hard.  And I was surprised (well, maybe not), to see some of the stronger riders close alongside struggling cyclists, a hand on their back(side), pushing them up the hill. Even more surprising (truly!) was watching a cyclist DESCEND the hill after summiting, to go back and help/encourage another one to the top.  I learned that evening that there were some who had gone back down (and then up again) five or six times.
        Even by that time of the ride (only three days in), I had come to recognize that the company of riders and roadies--the support folks--(some 1500 in all) represented just about every stripe of humanity you could imagine.  We were different in our ages, our religions, our politics, our gender, our sexual-orientation, our health-status (one sub-group was the "Positive Pedalers" -- those who had HIV and were riding), our race/ethnicity.  But despite those differences, once we were in spandex, no-one was queried about those identities while trying to make it up the hills.  Help was offered; help was accepted.  Having everyone finish was the goal.  One primary motto for the event was "It's a ride, not a race."* (
A secondary, but equally important, motto was "Hydrate and pee!") I've commented numerous times since June of 2005 that I had been a part--if only for a week--of an alternate universe.  I went into a blue-funk for about a while afterwards as I grieved the loss of that community.        Memories of that June 2005 come flooding back oh-so-often.  More recently, earlier this week, I listened to an interview on "Colorado Matters" with Denver Filmmaker Michael De Yoanna concerning a documentary he had just finished called "Recovering".  The film tells the stories of veterans--wounded both physically and psychologically--who have found a measure of healing through cycling.  Some of the cyclists are unable to ride "normal" upright two-wheelers.  No matter, bikes can be found to fit ANY cyclist.  BUT, making it up hills is a challenge for anyone on a recumbent (regardless of strength/ability).  And so many of the recumbents in this film are fitted with push-bars so that a stronger cyclist can help his/her buddy up the hill (pictured above).  These cyclists were linked by their experiences in war and their desire to come out the other side with a will-to-live.  They wanted to finish their ride (a 911 mile ride for September 11th), as a way of finding some healing -- and, perhaps, through their example, providing some healing for others. Another alternate universe that re-fires my longing.
        And, then again, as I was coming into work this morning. I heard a snippet of an 
interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  Reflecting on conversations between religious leaders, scientists and social scientists, he responded to Krista Tippet's question, "And different kinds of religious leaders, right, across traditions, as well?":

Totally. I mean, the thing that really, for me, changed my life, it was standing at ground zero, a couple of months afterwards. In January — well, it was January 2002 — together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and religious leaders throughout the world. And we were looking at this wreckage, this sheer harm that hate can do. And yet, at the same time, here we all were in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer. And I just saw how clearly that is — those are the terms of the equation. Do we go that way, or we go this?
Do we go that way, or we go this?
           Rabbi Sacks didn't use the language of an "alternate universe", but he was clearly pointing to evidence that one may exist.  "Do we go that way, or we go this?" Do we put our hands on the backs of those struggling up the hill, regardless of our differences?  Do we dream of an alternate universe, or do we act as if we're living in it already?


Friday, October 30, 2015

Tell me about yourself.

      DU's Housing and Residential Education department has been running a photo campaign in the days leading up to Halloween called "My Culture is Not a Costume".  The hope is to raise awareness that dressing up as an individual from a culture not one's own does nothing to promote a culture of inclusivity.  Indeed, it can reduce a rich cultural heritage (i.e., that from which the "costume" is drawn) to a caricature.  And, once caricatured, such a group can easily be dismissed as less important.  The campaign has generated a lot of comment, both verbal and on-line . . . and well it should, I would think.  That said, I would hope the conversations have been positive and productive, but, from what I hear, they are not, always.       As I was thinking about the campaign and the comments, an article came into my inbox titled "What you are really asking when you ask 'Where are you from?'"  The author, Tanvi Misra, notes that the question may indeed be innocuous when people first meet, especially if it is in the context of group introductions.  But in a different context, the person being asked, especially if from a minority group, often finds that they are not being questioned out of genuine interest, but in order to be put into some kind of "box" in the questioner's mind.  In other words, as with the costume, caricatured, and, thus, made "worthy" to be dismissed.  (And, as with the conversations about the "My Culture" campaign, the comments on the article are not always positive or productive).        I may not have responded to the campaign or the article in quite the same knee-jerk fashion as many of the people who have commented on-line -- or at least I trust I would not have reacted the same way.  That said, both the campaign and the article caused me to step back and consider what I REALLY want to know about someone when I meet them.  And "Where are you from?" can often be an easy opening to a conversation; I'm generally fishing for a point of common-ground (I wonder, for example, if I've been there).  What I usually want to know, however, is WHO is this person with whom I'm talking? What makes them tick?  What are their hopes and dreams? What kind of family/families do they have? Are they a dog person, or a cat person (okay, stereotypes . . .)?  In short, I like knowing the complexities of the whole person, not just one aspect -- since none of us can be reduced to only one facet of who we are.       We are whole, complex, contradictory individuals.  I can't think of any creation narrative, regardless of religion or culture, that has human beings emerge as a horde of clones -- nothing to differentiate one from the other.  It is part of our make-up, reflected in those stories, that we ARE different, and that there is glory in that.  We cannot be reduced to a costume, or an ethnicity, or to geography, or a religious group.        I've been convinced.  It's not out of "political correctness" (as some of the nay-saying commentators on the campaign/article above claim), but rather a sincere desire to know the other person that I think I'll ask a new acquaintance: "Tell me about yourself!"  Where they choose to start the answer is up to them.  and where the conversation might lead is more hope-full.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

We ALL Matter!

      Last week, as many of you know, I was in Salt Lake City, attending the Parliament of the World's Religions.  It was an AMAZING experience (more on that in a bit)!  Prior to the beginning of the Parliament, however, I also attended the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA).  This is the yearly gathering of my "peeps" -- those folks around the country who are University Chaplains or Deans of Chapels or Religious Life.  I'm always enriched by this gathering; it's so nice to be surrounded by folks who "get" what it is we all do, and who are willing to share questions/concerns/suggestions.
      A usual feature of our time together is a conversation about what has been going on at our respective institutions -- what are the hot-button issues.  As it happened, in my sub-group of 20 or so folks, the answers to the question began my left and continued in a clockwise direction.  In other words, I was the LAST person to be able to respond.  That not only gave me a lot of time to hear others' voices, but also to consider whether or not I would simply say "Ditto".  While I might have been tempted to do just that, since most of the attendees were from campuses east side of the Mississippi, their concerns were slightly different than mine.
       Given all that has gone on this last year that has made national news, a couple of the most frequently mentioned issues that galvanized campuses were (1) the Israel/Palestine conflict (and divestment debates), and (2) the "Black Lives Matter" movement.  I heard those numerous times as the answers were given around the circle. When it finally came to me, however, I had to say that, while these issues WERE present and discussed at DU, there were a couple of others that I'd seen/heard more often: the debate over our Mascot (or lack thereof) as well as our historical ties to the Sand Creek Massacre.
       As I thought about that discussion in the days following, and especially as I roamed around the Parliament with ALL of its diversity (racial, ethnic, religious, political), it became clear both (1) how intertwined are so many of our debates with our discomfort with difference, as well as (2) how singly we can be focused in one area that we miss how our concern THERE is not reflected elsewhere.  Yes, the "Black Lives Matter" movement was/is present at the University of Denver.  Yes, there IS concern about the Israel/Palestine conflict.  But I find it troubling that some folks who are concerned about the marginalized in those two current issues often do not extend that concern to more immediate parts of OUR history.  For example, some folks who might call for the removal of the Confederate Flag (in the context of "Black Lives Matter") miss the symbolism that clings to DU's former mascot.
        As I attended the various programs and events of the Parliament, I was overwhelmed by the goodness of all that I met.  Whether it was in the program on the "Three Forms of Prayer in Islam", or the one on how to support returning veterans, or the early morning Sikh service, or the exuberant singing and dancing of the devotees of Krishna, I became keenly aware that these people -- similar to, or different from, me -- had the same root qualities:  a desire for peace and fulfillment, an inherent goodness, a commitment to hospitality, and many more.  And I was humbled as I realized that I can easily see the goodness in one group, while missing it in another about which I know less.
        Leaving both ACURA and the Parliament was difficult.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to learn more about all of those groups, all of those people, especially those with whom I had the least in common.  Our ignorance -- my ignorance -- does little but harm us all.  We ALL matter, and we need to live with that as a grounding principle.


PS   The photo above is of people at the Parliament standing in line to eat lunch at the "Langar", provided by the Sikhs. All who came were fed, no charge. Everyone covered their head out of humility. Everyone sat on the floor in parallel rows. Everyone was served by someone else. Everyone mattered.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parliamentary Proceedings

          I have been in Salt Lake City since Wednesday of this week, attending the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religions Affairs, and the Parliament of the World's Religions.
         The ACURA meeting was great, seeing colleagues from around the country.  And it was fun to see Roberts Rules of Order employed (and mis-employed); I do love parliamentary procedure!
         The Parliament of the World's Religions:  amazing so far!  And all that I have seen (and heard) have been the the entry ways, and the Opening Plenary.  And, who knew?  The very first person with whom I spoke at the Parliament was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lives at a monastery in Morrison, CO!   When the peoples of the world, and the religions of the world, come together, wonderful encounters can happen.

        I will not offer a formal reflection/meditation this week, as there simply hasn't been time with all the conferencing (and I'm a bit overwhelmed with ideas/thoughts)!  But I am sending out frequent photos/updates.  You can find them either on Facebook or Twitter (@ChapGary).
        There is also a lifestream available of the Parliament, in case you would like to get a taste of what's going on:


Friday, October 9, 2015

Who are your avatars?

      Just about every time I sign up on-line for a discussion board, I have to create a "profile" -- my name, email address, maybe city/state, interests, type of equipment I use, and, oh, my "username"--that moniker that will be attached to whatever posting I put up on the board. Depending on how much I want to self-disclose, I may use some variant of my real name, or I may choose something quite disconnected from my name, but related to my interests (e.g., I've used "fishoutawatta" in several places).  And, in addition to the "username", there is often an option to add in some little picture that can help signal my posts (as if others can't associate me with my name), i.e., my "avatar."   Like the usernames, I've had several I've used. Multiple discussion boards; multiple identities.       Of course, it's not just on discussion boards that this split-identity phenomenon occurs.  I have two Facebook pages/sites that I maintain -- with a mixture of personal/professional information that goes out on both.  AND I have a Twitter feed.  (And -- shameless self-promotion -- you can link to FB to the right!).  Often I find myself in the predicament of trying to remember WHICH avenue of social media I'm utilizing, which audience I'm targeting.  Or, put another way, which "Gary" I am assuming?  Do I speak as "Chaplain Gary" (icon at the top of this blog-post!), or "Boy Scout Dad", or "Fisher Dude", or "Road Cyclist"?  
      The flip-side, of course, of this multi-faceted self-presentation is that those who read my posts/status updates/tweets only see a portion of who I am.  And they may form their own "avatar" that they associate with me . . . an avatar that may bear little resemblance to my real, whole, self.  Any response some of them might make, therefore, is not to me
 but to a limited version of me.  And I am certain that I do the same!      I recall being part of an on-line bulletin board many years ago (WAY before avatars....I was using a 2400 baud dial-up modem!). It was a pretty active discussion group; we were all involved in religion and the academy in various ways.  Many of us were going to attend a national meeting in Washington DC, and we agreed to meet for dinner.  Despite how well we thought we knew each other from our on-line interactions, seeing each other face-to-face was a wonderful experience.  The added nuances of body language and facial expression simply increased the depth of our conversations.  We began to know each other as real people, not just as characters at the end of a bulletin-board post.       Real conversation, not that mediated by technology, is the subject of a book by Sherry Turkle (at MIT):  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. She argues that real, face-to-face conversations increase empathy and understanding. They also demand that we engage in some deeper self-reflection. Those qualities seem to be in increasingly short supply these days. Yet they are increasingly necessary in our segmented and polarized society.  It's probably time to put down the screens, and the images they project -- usually half-truths both about us and our "friends/followers", or the "other side".  And it's time to take up the hard work of real conversation, as challenging as it may be.        Contact a friend/acquaintance/colleague.  Pick a place.  Converse/connect...without electronics on the table. No avatars. Repeat.