Friday, December 31, 2010
And, of course, we all KNOW that Calvin's perfect! It must only be Hobbes (the tiger, for those of you unacquainted with this class comic strip) who doubts it!
For the rest of us, however, this time of the year presents us with the opportunity (obligation?) consciously to look back, and then look forward. And we often take stock of short-comings from the past and resolve to correct them: "Next year, I'm going to give up [insert bad habit]!" "In 2011, I'm going to keep my desk cleaner!" "I resolve to spend less and get rid of that credit card debt!" In religious language, these kinds of statements could be considered acknowledgment of fault, (tacit) repentance, and amendment of life! And, as such, they represent something positive-- since, unlike Calvin, most of us aren't perfect, and could use some shaping-up!
Despite, however, Calvin's bold claim of perfection, there is, to my way of thinking, something almost right about his statement. And I said, "almost". It would be totally out-of-character for Calvin to say this, but he could just as easily have said, "Resolutions? ME?? Just what are you implying? That I CAN change? Well, buddy, as far as I'm concerned I'm too imperfect to change the way I am." He would be focused, in that statement, on what was wrong. I believe, in response to that, in the philosophical statement that "what we focus on becomes our reality." Focusing on our imperfections -- even if we wish to change them -- keeps our eyes on the booby-prize.
Coming, as I do, out of the western Christian tradition with its theological emphasis on original sin, this can be a real trap for me. A whole tradition focused on our "fallen nature", our innate sinfulness, suggests that I need spend my energy correcting faults, personal and otherwise. And, of course, there are enough of those to address! And this same tradition cried out loudly "Heresy!" when, almost 30 years ago, theologian Matthew Fox published his book Original Blessing* which took to task the assumptions and implications of the doctrine of "original sin".
What if, instead of fault-correction as a motivator for new year's resolutions, I chose to focus on strength-maximization! I believe there's just as much a history of this in much of our heritage-at least in the western traditions. I think of Moses, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah, and their push-back when God suggests that they become prophets. They hesitate, stating their shortcomings (e.g., Moses: "I'm no public speaker"; Jeremiah: "I'm too young!"; Isaiah: "I'm a man of unclean lips!"). God, on the other hand, focuses on their strength: the indwelling of God's power and what it might do. I think, too, of the lists of "gifts" that the apostle Paul outlines in several places in his letters, gifts of teaching, administration, healing, etc. Paul asserts that we are all given gifts, gifts we can use to build up our communities.
So, what if, in my musings about the coming year, I focused on what I do well -- on the gifts/talents/passions that God has given me -- and resolved to find ways to develop, maximize and employ those? I still wouldn't be starting from a point of perfection (sorry, Calvin), but I might be on a better, more sustainable, path to realizing my ideal, and doing some good for those around me as well.
Blessings for the New Year,
*Bear & Co., 1983.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
I stood out in the open cold
To see the essence of the eclipse
Which was its perfect darkness.
I stood in the cold on the porch
And could not think of anything so perfect
As man's hope of light in the face of darkness.
(Collected Poems, 1930-60)
Friday, December 17, 2010
On Christmas morning, like many other kids, I would rush downstairs to see what had appeared under the tree since going to bed. And, of course, whether my Christmas stocking contained coal. Fortunately, neither anthracite nor lignite were found in the toe of the stocking. What was always there, however, was an orange. Why an orange?
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, oranges were not available on trees in December (nor any other time of year!). They were always trucked in from exotic places like Orange County California, or far-off Florida (both about as remote as the North Pole). Certainly we could find them in the stores, but distribution costs were higher then. And, as the tradition of "oranges-in-the-stocking" stemmed from my parents' generation, the costs (and availability) in their experience were even higher still. In other words, oranges were a luxury in the Northwest.* And to find one in the toe of the stocking (along with some candy, of course) was a joy. And, oh, the aroma of ripping into that peel!
Now, of course, we can get raspberries in December in Colorado. They don't come from 'round here. We ship 'em in, along with all of those other fruits and vegetables that don't deal well with inches of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. What were once available primarily as luxuries are now just a quick trip to Safeway away. Indeed, not only can we get raspberries in December in Colorado, we can get ORGANIC raspberries.
In our convenience-oriented society, I begin to take for granted the availability of non-native, non-seasonal produce. Oranges in December. Corn in January. Raspberries in February. I've got two "Cuties" (clementines) in front of me right now, awaiting snack-time (with little stickers on them that say "Stocking Stuffer"!). All shipped in for my eating-pleasure. And I love 'em all!
I am reminded, however, of all that it takes to get that exotic fruit to my table now. Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh writes of a "Tangerine Meditation" in his book Peace is Every Step.** He gave children some tangerines and encouraged them to meditate on the fruit's origins. The children saw the tangerine, the tree where it grew. They began to see the other factors that contributed to its growth: the sun, the soil, the rain. They peeled, smelled and ate the fruit mindfully, savoring all of it. I've done this meditation before, and it's wonderful. I think, the next time I eat a citrus fruit in December - maybe beginning with those two Cuties on my desk - I'll do it again. But I'll add some contemplation on all of the other factors that brought them to my desk: the pickers, the packers, the shippers, the store clerks; those who built the trucks, who refined the petroleum; those who made the box and the little mesh bag. And maybe, then, I'll offer a word of thanks for all involved!
The world in a Cutie. What an amazing gift! I think it's time, too, for my kids to have oranges in their stockings!
* Here's a delightful, informative, article on oranges in stockings. Clearly it wasn't just MY family's tradition, or one confined to the North.
** Bantam Books, 1991, pg. 21.
Friday, December 10, 2010
When I was a kid, this time of year brought those most-magical books: The Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards Christmas Catalogs. My friends and I would lay on the family room floor, pass over the first bunch of pages devoted to dolls, and work on our Christmas lists. I'd refine that list over and over with each successive engagement with the catalogs. I'd compare prices (I wouldn't want "Santa" to be deterred by a few extra dollars!). I'd pore over the descriptions of the items I wanted, making certain that I specified the right option. Sometimes I would sort the list variously by price or by "desirability" (one year, I remember color-coding the items!). And I'd present that list (and its inevitable successors) to my parents: from their lips to Santa's ears! And then I'd wait.
More often than not, the wait would be rewarded with wrapped boxes which, when the paper was ripped off, would reveal the items I'd so coveted! Later on Christmas Day, and over the next several days, my friends and I would compare our gifts, celebrate our success in receiving the ones we'd wanted, and consoling each other over the heavily-desired-but-not-received gifts. (Santa must have known something we didn't!) We'd play the games, break (sometimes) the toys, and move on.
I suspect that this scenario has been borne out over and over again for most of us, whether holiday gift-giving is part of our heritage or not. My parents would ask me for my birthday list as well, even if there weren't catalogs devoted to THAT holiday! And I would more-than-happily comply. Indeed, I'm still asked by family members what I want for a gift (birthday, Christmas, Father's Day, etc.). And I know that the motive behind the asking is the desire to please. I ask the same thing of my loved ones!
Sometimes, however, the box that was unwrapped revealed something unexpected. I don't mean the right toy, wrong color, but rather a gift I never thought I wanted but couldn't believe how much I enjoyed! Someone thought "outside the box" and then put it IN a box!
And, now, as the wish-listing and gift-giving season is upon us again, I begin to wonder what might appear (not necessarily under the tree) that is unexpected and delightful. Or am I so caught up in the forced jolliness, and the need to shop-'til-I-drop, that I miss the more surprising gifts-both tangible and intangible.
Yesterday, while in the gym, I was "treated" on one of the suspended TVs to an episode of "Let's Make a Deal" -- a show that dates from those days on my family room floor, poring over Christmas catalogs. While Monty Hall is no longer the front man, the premise is much the same. "Will you trade the goat you have in door #1 for what might be behind door (or box) #2? What about "none of the above"?
I want to keep my eyes, and heart, open to a different option: what might be behind a door #5 that comes to me purely gratis and unexpectedly -- and that I can't believe someone thought to give me?
*For a very few years (1984-86), there WAS a Door #4 on the show. Most of us forgot that!
Friday, December 3, 2010
Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a "lurker" a lot. I belong to several mailing lists. On most of them I hardly EVER contribute to the ongoing conversation; maybe on a couple of lists do I rise to the status of "intermittent contributor". In fact, with one mailing list, I more often than not hit the "delete" key than read the posts. Oh, I'm interested in the topic, and the discussions are pretty interesting. It's just that I don't make the time to follow the threads, let alone throw in my two-cents' worth. And, yet, every so often, someone from the list will claim that the "community" is hundreds of members strong.
Friday, November 19, 2010
An Indian story is often told about several blind folks trying to describe an elephant to each other. One is feeling the elephant's leg, and says "the elephant is like a tree". Another is holding the elephant's tail and describing it as a rope. A third is touching the trunk, telling the others it is like a snake. And so on. I imagine that many have heard the story. And I have often heard it told in the context of the limitations any of us have grasping the Truth, or God. That is, God is so big, so vast, that any one of us will only ever comprehend a small portion of who/what is the divine.
I was reminded of this story the other day when I was listening to interview with religion scholar Stephen Prothero (author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter). In the course of the interview, he pointed out that whether we are faith-full people (i.e., believers), or people of no faith (i.e., atheists), we spend way too much time trying to convince the other of our position. He pointed out that both religious folks and atheists ought to agree on one thing: religions matter. And the question arose for me: "What if we simply granted that, and went forward?" Fire-and-brimstone preachers will not convince the (so-called) "New Atheists" to repent and attend church any more than the "New Atheists" will convince the preachers to give up their flocks and start dancing, drinking and playing cards on Sunday. So much hot air trying to convince the other of our view of the elephant!
So, to return to that elephant. As I mentioned, the story is often told to highlight our limited view of the divine. I'd like to turn it around a bit. Each of those folks touching the elephant had his or her own experience of the elephant. For example, the one who was holding the leg, thinking it a tree, may have found security; the one at the trunk/snake may have been frightened. How could one convince the other that their experience was definitive? I recall at this point, the factoid that clowns are often scary to some small children (despite Ronald McDonald's happy meals!). Although MY experience with clowns may be that they are funny and harmless, I cannot change a frightened child's experience through debate and argument. It would probably be much better for the child if I simply listened to his or her story.
Many of us, I suppose, have had the experience of trying to retell the story of a vacation. In the middle of my recounting what we could see from the hotel room, one of the others who were there would interrupt, with "No, that's not what was outside the window. It was a BIRD, not a mountain!" Or my sense of the Rocket Coaster ride may have been stomach-turning, while my friend's might have been exhilharation. Well, it may have been both, but we certainly experienced the situation differently. And, if we could cease arguing over who's experience was right, our listener might have a richer understanding of our vacation.
Golly, do I expend a lot of energy trying to convince others I'm right. The only thing about which I'm right is my experience-it's mine, and will probably never be anyone else's. There are other experiences out there that will never be mine, but I'd certainly like to hear about them. My world will certainly be richer.
The elephant is there. Let's talk about how we experience it. And learn-and celebrate-how complex our experiences might be.
Friday, November 12, 2010
In the spring of 1996, I traveled with a group of university students to Costa Rica on a "mission trip." As we were planning for the trip, we were informed by the folks in Costa Rica that they really didn't want us to come down there to DO anything. The impression we received was that they were a bit tired of northerners coming south to "fix" things. They had had enough of a sort of superior attitude. What they wanted was the opportunity to show US what they had accomplished, what they could do, what they were providing for us.
When we arrived, we were treated to an amazing week. We saw the national shrine in Cartago. We visited La Selva, a fascinating rain forest. We saw plantations that catered to the Home Depot tastes of Americans. In Puerto LImon (on the Caribbean coast), those who looked carefully got great views of 3-toed sloths. And all during the week we were the recipients of very gracious hospitality -- including an introduction to one of the great treats of Costa Rica: Lizano Salsa.
While we all enjoyed the week, the students were a little disappointed that they didn't get to DO anything. After all, a mission trip is about painting a hospital, or digging a well, or teaching kids. It is NOT about riding in a van, seeing amazing countryside, and being well-fed. THAT sounds more like a vacation. But as we continued interacting with our hosts, we found out that there is great value in being a recipient. We learned of the colonial history of Costa Rica. We learned of their history of peaceful coexistence in a very conflicted area of the world. We learned of their environmental concerns. And we learned that the Ticos (native Costa Ricans) simply loved giving. And we were having a difficult time simply receiving.
I understand that in many cultures of the world, reciprocity is expected. If I receive from you, I am culturally expected to give back. And in our competitive culture, there is almost an unspoken "what I give back should be bigger/greater than what I received." It seemed to me, however, that our hosts in Costa Rica simply wanted to know that their hospitality was appreciated. That was service enough. And the mission trip, although not as we expected, changed us nonetheless.
Gratitude is central to our religious lives. Regardless of tradition, we all recognize that much of what we have is beyond our ability to attain, or beyond our deserving. And we develop rituals of thanksgiving, many of which include "giving back."
But I wonder if our felt need to "return the favor" diminishes our own experience of a gift given us. That is, if we spend so much time deciding how to respond that we miss out on simply enjoying the gift, and the spirit of giving behind it. I wonder what it would look like simply to say "Thank you," to affirm the giver's intention, to validate their pleasure in making me happy. Perhaps not always, but sometimes.
The mission? No mission!
To all of you who've given so much to me . . . Thank you.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Shortly after my wife and I got married, we were at some event that included ballroom dancing. We both believed that we knew how to dance; we had both enjoyed it prior to our marriage. We soon discovered that while I (she) knew how to dance, she (I) didn't. We recognized that while we each knew we knew how to dance, we didn't know how to dance with each other. So, because we wanted to continue dancing, we decided that the only way to move forward was to allow a dis-interested third party TEACH us BOTH how to dance. After many classes, we became pretty good dancers (and NO, that's not me in the picture above-he has too much hair!)
Earlier this week, we started another class-the first in years. We needed one more step for our repertoire to keep us on the floor just that much longer. After that initial class, and after our in-the-car-on-the-way-home debrief, it occurred to me that one of the reasons I had had so much fun was that, once again, we were both blank slates upon which a new set of steps could be inscribed. Neither my wife nor I had the upper hand (or foot). We were learning together.
What a thought! To begin to address a common goal from a point of relative equality.
Last evening, several hundred folks heard, as the first of this year's Bridges to the Future speakers, Richard Clarke, one of President Bush's primary counter-terrorism advisers on 9/11. He was asked about our current troop presence in the Iraq/Afghanistan area. Part of his response was that both Republicans and Democrats want to reduce our presence to either a police action, or a war. His retort was that we need to be over there for both reasons, and many more. And then he added "leave politics out of it" (to much applause!). What I took away from that was the assertion that we will NOT solve any of the issues in the Middle East (or, by extension, anywhere), if all we're doing is trying to play a domestic game of one-up-manship using the problems themselves as pawns.
On the bookshelf behind me in my office sits a copy of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi's wonderful little book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The premise of the book is that true Zen mind (a mind on its way to clarity) of necessity is beginner's mind. "The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind that can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything."* How different that is from my certainty that MY way of dancing was the best (and universal). How different that is from the political debates that claim to solve a problem, while only advancing a position.
It is in my nature, I believe, to privilege my own position, my own opinion. It is also pretty prideful (of which I'm not necessarily proud). I know, however, that I'm not alone. I'm reminded of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who invited the thirsty to come to the waters. But to do so empty-handed, perhaps with a beginner's mind: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; . . . 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55.6, 8-9).
Dancing with the heavens -- thoughts not necessarily my thoughts, ways higher than my ways. Beginner's mind. Beginners' minds. Can we do that (and especially now in the wake of last Tuesday's election)? Can we begin together to address our future? And what must we set aside to do so? What are the higher ways?
*From the description of the audio version of the book on Peter Coyote's website.
Friday, October 29, 2010
A few weeks ago my 7-yr-old son was given a test in which he was asked to state the opposite of "friend". His answer: "bully". That, apparently, was not in the list of acceptable answers, and so he missed the question (this was not a tragedy!). But as his mother and I considered his answer, it was perfectly understandable, given all of the attention being paid in schools to the topic of "bully-ing". I would imagine that most of us would not count bullies as among our friends.
And the overall topic of bullying ascends to the highest levels for discussion. Yesterday, the first lady, Michelle Obama, brought up the topic on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show". She challenged adults to help solve the problem of bulllying by leading-by-example. If our kids see us behaving civilly in daily, and political, discourse, they'll learn how to behave appropriately. This, of course, is a simple extension of a lot of other research that shows that kids do learn from the adults around them. We adults can claim "Do as I say!" but if we do something else, as the old saying goes, our "actions speak louder than words."
In this vein, many of us in Colorado are being harangued by a (radio) political ad that asserts "Colorado can take a hit . . . . It's time to hit back". Wow! Now that's productive rhetoric. Our political process has become all about doing violence -- to the other candidate or point-of-view. It's not about debate. It's not about ideas. It's about force. No wonder our children think that they can bully their way into getting what they want. Forget about "speaking softly". It's all about who's carrying the biggest stick.
We live in a culture that seems to believe that success always comes at the expense of someone/something else. It's a zero-sum game. I can't win if you don't lose, and if I have to hurt you to win, I'll do so! That sensibility runs so counter to so many of our higher, religious, ideals. We must be bracketing our almost religiously-universal commitment to the Ethics of Reciprocity (i.e,.the "Golden Rule") when it comes to making our point: "Do to the other before the other does it to you!"
Some years ago a Christian organization encouraged folks to make a fast. It was not about giving up food or drink or sex or gambling. The challenge was to fast from violence. And that's a pretty major challenge. The challenge was not simply to DO no violence (as if that were easy), but also not to view or listen to violence. There go most movies, and a lot of popular music. Oh, and the news. And which sports do we watch, hoping for a fight???? Umm . . . video games?
I'm not suggesting that we give up going to hockey games (I'd probably lose my job if I did that! GO DU! Beat North Dakota!), but I do wonder if we recognize how enmeshed, and therefore, complicit, we are in this culture of violence. Can we say "no" to attack ads? Can we limit the amount of violence that we allow INTO our living rooms? Do we even recognize that certain cherished institutions, like the democratic process, are a bit violent? (Ask those who lose the elections next week if they feel "beat up"!) Can we instead restructure our conversations - both public and private - to seek understanding or consensus rather than victory? Most importantly, what will my son learn from how I conduct my relationships about friendship, or about bullying? That's where I have some ability to effect change!
*"A bully pulpit is a public office or other position of authority of sufficiently high rank that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter. . . . The term is not related to the noun bully, i.e. a harasser or someone who intimidates" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bully_pulpit). See, too, the article in Answers.Com.
Friday, October 22, 2010
On Sunday and Tuesday of this past week, I was fortunate to hear the Dalai Lama in person. The Sunday event was a small gathering of university chaplains (there were only about 25 of us--plus security personnel). At that gathering, His Holiness spoke of things of concern to us: compassion and harmony -- common enough topics for him. (His current book is entitled Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. In it he argues that compassion is part of all religions and that we can strive toward harmony through that understanding, without diluting any particular tradition.) Near the end of our time together, he turned to another common topic of Buddhism: attachment, or non-attachment. In the context of what he'd just been saying he cautioned us not to become attached to our own religious traditions. And then he turned the tables and pointed to himself, "I cannot become too attached to my Buddhism! And I'm a Buddhist leader!" And he began chuckling.
The Tuesday event was a conversation between the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere and Alice Walker, or the topic of Creativity and Spirituality. This was a "buy-a-ticket" event, and apparently some 1200 folks bought tickets. The conversation between the three was fascinating. And it was wonderful to hear them answer such questions as "is there a connection between compassion and art?" The Dalai Lama, "Yes. Next question?" More chuckling all around! And when that conversation was over, we were all encouraged by the event planners to visit the Tibet Shop on the 2nd floor. I was with a group that decided that leaving the auditorium was more to our interest than a crowded gift shop.
As we were walking back to our conference room, we ran into another of our fellow conferees. He had purchased a t-shirt commemorating the Dalai Lama's visit to Atlanta. And I began to wonder aloud about attachment and gift shops. As I spoke of my musings, another colleague pointed out that the gift shop was raising money for Tibet. I understood that. But what I found humorous was that we had just heard about non-attachment, and then we were encouraged to buy something to keep us attached (via t-shirt) to the experience we just had. (In the spirit of full disclosure, let me state that I have LOTS of t-shirts from sporting championships, concerts and bike rides that remind me of those events!) And I was reminded of the Dalai Lama's own self-caution about holding on too tightly to things that might keep us from moving forward.
I'm reminded, too, of the Israelites who, after their Exodus from Egypt -- believing in God's promise of a "land flowing with milk and honey" -- when things got a bit rough, forgot their future and began wishing for their past: "[O]n the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt, . . . [t]he whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Ex 16:1-3). Slavery preferable to freedom. Hmmmm.
And, of course, at this time of THIS year, I'm reminded of this attachment to the past with each television ad for a political candidate, or each dinner-interrupting phone call from US Chamber of Commerce funded tele-marketers. The disillusion of some voters who chanted the "change" mantra of just two years ago is a counter-melody: "Let's go back to when we believed in change. Far be it from any of us to actually do the hard slogging to realize change -- however long it takes. It hasn't happened in the last eleven months? Throw da bums out!"
The Dalai Lama tirelessly works for change (Richard Gere said that he couldn't keep up with the octagenarian leader!), and he has changed his attachments over the years. Alice Walker asserted that she has to find "joy in the struggle" -- THAT's a positive, look-to-the-future, attitude. No attachment to the past, or even a static present, there.
There is a future to which we can aspire, a future for which we must work if we are to create a better place for our children and grandchildren. Are there attachments to the things of our parents and grandparents that we must be willing to relinquish to realize that future? Certainly there are gifts from the past that empower us. May we build with them.
PS: If you'd like to know more about the Dalai Lama's recent visit to Emory University, there's some good information on the event in general here and on the conversation on creativity here.
Friday, October 15, 2010
When a house guest and I arrived at my home last Tuesday evening, the first of the Chilean miners had already come up to the surface. As we watched the second emerge from the capsule, our guest asked "Why are they wearing sunglasses? It's the middle of the night?" My wife, who had been watching, told us the reason: to protect their eyes after so many weeks underground. Their eyesight had adjusted to low levels of light. The brightness of even the artificial illumination surrounding the work site would be painful. And then, of course, there'd be the issue the next day of actual sunlight! (The front page of the Denver Post today carried a photo of the men still wearing sunglasses in the hospital!)
Friday, October 8, 2010
Friday, October 1, 2010
PS: The Peace Pole -- the subject of last week's "thought" is being put in the ground this very day!
Friday, September 24, 2010
I was flummoxed last week when folding origami cranes on the Driscoll Bridge. Our activity of crane-making was associated with this week's unveiling of the DU Class of 2010's gift to the university of a Peace Pole. We were providing an opportunity for members of the DU community to participate in the ceremony -- even if they were unable to be there -- by making cranes. At the end of the ceremony this last Tuesday, we distributed the cranes to those in attendance, asking them to pass them to their friends and loved ones -- expanding the circle of peace created at the gathering.
I hadn't wanted to reveal the precise purpose of the crane-making (a little mystery might encourage attendance at the ceremony!); the posters simply said "Fold a Crane for Peace". The accompanying handout had information on Peace Poles, as well as the association of origami cranes with peace. The flummoxing moment came, therefore, when a student stopped at the table and, when asked if she'd like to make a crane, responded with something to the effect of "No thanks, I don't believe in what you're doing." I did a double-take, and asked, "You don't believe in peace-making in the world?" "No,that's not it," she responded, "I just don't agree with how you're going about it." Flummoxation! It wasn't like we were selling drugs to finance a peace process (see the Seeds of Terror book discussion announcement below); we were simply folding squares of paper into bird-like shapes. I think I said something insightfully brilliant, like "Oh," and she walked on. Perhaps if I'd not been helping another student with the finer points of book-folds, I might have conjured up a better response.
Peace-making has been a big part of my life. I grew up as a member of a pacifist religious tradition. My father (part of that tradition), however, took up arms in WWII. When I asked him about that seeming contradiction, he responded, "Hitler was different." I never got the opportunity ask him, however, if he was fighting to create peace, or, rather, to rid the world of a an evil. Given the rest of his lived life, I would assume the latter. Peace-making, I believe, is much different, and much more difficult and nuanced, than achieving a cease-fire.
So, for almost a week now, I've been puzzling over that remark. What was behind it? There must have been some misunderstanding about what was going on . . . or was there? Was folding cranes not "engaged" enough? And, if not, what level of engagement in peace-making IS enough? Are symbolic acts (like folding origami cranes, or erecting peace poles) ineffective? I certainly hope (and think) not! Symbols (and words are symbols) are part of what we use to construct our reality. If we recognize symbols of peace for what they are, are we not constantly reminded of, and renewed in, our pursuit of of peace? Meditating on the word "peace' will produce a different result than meditating on the word "kill."
The simple act of folding cranes DID bring peace. The focus on the manipulation of paper calmed the minds of many who stopped at the table: an inner peace so necessary in our busy, conflict-ridden, lives. The camaraderie of those of who were folding brought some understanding of one another -- a major step towards peace. And, then, the eagerness with which the attendees at the ceremony took the cranes to share with others was infectious -- the opportunity to "pass the peace", to engage in conversation about what had transpired near Evans Chapel last Tuesday afternoon -- peace-making again.
I don't know. I'd love to talk more with the student. I'd like to think that we could at least understand what we both mean by peace-making (if you read this, contact me!). In the meantime, I'll fold cranes, and pass them along. And, after it's planted (I'll let you know!), I look forward to running my hands over the Pole's letters/characters of "May Peace Prevail on Earth" and then work and pray for peace in every other way I can imagine. I invite you to do the same.
Peace (English), shalom (Hewbrew), pax (Latin), salaam (Arabic), wolakota (Lakota), paix (French), shanti (Hindi), pace (Italian), ukuthula (Zulu), fred (Swedish), ednhtaiwain (Mongolian), layena (Zapotec), paco (Esparanto), roj (Klingon)!
*flum·mox |ˈfləməks| verb [ trans. ] (usu. be flummoxed): perplex (someone) greatly; bewilder : he was completely flummoxed by the question. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: probably of dialect origin; compare with dialect flummock [to make untidy, confuse.]
Friday, September 17, 2010
It is one of many holidays/holy-days that this September seems to offer. That fact has been very obvious to me as I've listed the upcoming days-of-observance in the side-bar below for the last several weeks. Just about every religious tradition has had at least one September holiday this year, and some traditions have had mutliple feasts/fasts/festivals. And I'm often asked how important some of them are. I don't always know -- not being a member of most of those traditions. But I suspect that, for those within the tradition, those holidays DO have importance --- although, over time, that importance might fade.
September 11th is not a national holiday in the United States. For the last eight years, however, it has become a sort of national holy-day. And clearly the debate over the "Ground Zero Mosque" has claimed that the site of the World Trade Center is now "hallowed ground." Something about that day, and that place, has acheived civil-religious status. And so I was a bit disturbed, in the week heading up to 9/11, to hear an advertisement for laser-surgery: "In honor of 9/11, we're going to give a 50% discount for laser eye surgery to first responders." Now I believe that first-responders should have really good eyesight! But this company's decision to capitalize on the horrific occurrences of that day seems . . . "insensitive" doesn't quite capture it for me! "Honor 9/11! Spend money!"
Maybe such crass commercialization is inevitable. How many of our other holidays/holy-days have become little more than opportunities for the market to prosper? Or, how many of our holidays/holy-days have become little more than another opportunity to take time off of work. Memorial Day? Labor Day? Veteran's Day? President's Day? All "big sales" days. The parades on some of those days are declining in participation and attendance. In another vein, a Facebook friend wondered why the Lifetime cable channel, on Labor Day, was running a movie marathon about women having children, rather than one about the triumphs of laborers/labor activists? Do we KNOW why we celebrate holidays any more? Do we want to know?
Religious leaders of almost every tradition bemoan the low attendance at regular services, while the "big days" have packed houses. Christianity, especially in the west, has lost control of Christmas: it's the biggest shopping season of the year, and a federal holiday. I remember reading last year about Ramadan in some middle-eastern countries: basically the day was reversed, and people would sleep while the sun was up, and party, party, party between sundown and sunrise. The effective meaning of the holy month was lost, as has been (for some) the effective meaning of Christmas.
I was listening to a podcast last week, and the speaker was talking about the importance of holidays. But the importance was NOT found in what we receive from the holiday (like time off, or more presents), but rather how we are FORMED by the holiday; what the holiday says about who we are as a people (whether nationally, or religiously, defined). The market's take-over of our holidays/holy-days, and our capitulation to that takeover, should raise questions about how we are now being formed. Do we like those answers?
Numerous religious and national holidays fall between now and the end of the academic quarter. I'm going to try to understand what they really mean . . . beyond another opportunity to visit Walmart. Interested in joining me?
Friday, September 10, 2010
. . . with a long "o"!
For the last several weeks I've been re-reading the biblical book of Job, and I've come to an understanding this time around that I'd missed before. You may remember that it is the story of a righteous man who suddenly loses almost all of his wealth and family, and finds himself sitting on a dungheap covered with sores. Several friends come to try to help him sort out his predicament. Job finds their help . . . wanting.
The friends all operate under the assumption that Job somehow brought his trials upon himself. He either overlooked some sin, or he hadn't fully confessed it. "No one suffers like this without having offended God," is their main point. The underlying theology is that God plays fair: do what God wants and prosper; mess up and suffer the consequences. Job protests, however, that he HASN'T messed up. Not only has he done everything minimally required, he has gone above and beyond the call of duty. And STILL he's on a dungheap covered in sores. "It's not FAIR!" he screams. (By the way, I don't read much "patience" in Job; he's pretty vocal about wanting things to change!)
So, while Job and his friends are deep in argument (they think he's deserving of his situation, he doesn't), they all operate under the same theological assumption: "The way the world works should be fair. The rules should be clear and apply to all." So, when God finally responds, the answer seems rather odd: "Job, where were YOU when everything came to be? Can you understand everything . . . or even ANYthing?" The implication is that the "fairness" doctrine that he and his friends adopted has no bearing in the divine way of thinking. In short, they all need some re-education. (Who, in the picture above, is the teacher and who is the student?)
Coincidentally, my re-reading of Job comes at a time when school is re-starting, i.e., education begins anew. This re-reading also coincides with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and the end of Islam's month of fasting, Ramadan. The High Holy Days are marked by a sense of renewal; not only is the year beginning anew, but old errors and offenses are put to right. How one behaves during this holy period helps determine how the coming year will be lived. Ramadan, similarly prepares the devout Muslim for the year ahead: "These [habits and behaviors of Ramadan] should all become habits that we continue to live. This month is simply launching us for the rest of the year."*
The "Classroom of Job" is all about re-education, re-formation. While we all may feel sometimes that our role in education is akin to sitting on a dungheap covered with sores, maybe it is not the facts that are problematic, but the assumptions. We face a new year, full of challenges, full of possibilities, full of opportunities to question assumptions--and lay them aside--that might keep us chained to our dungheaps.
Carpe diem! Seize the opportunities of new possibilities! Let the learning commence!
Shanah tova! and Eid mubarak!
*Madiha Zaidi, "A Spiritual Launch Pad" Islamic Insights 9/8/10
Friday, September 3, 2010
I had planned on attending a conference this past summer that took place in Atlanta, GA. One feature of this annual gathering is a banquet at which a number of us actually attire ourselves semi-formally (the less formally-attired folks often complain that they didn't get the memo). The conference being in the south held, for me, the attraction of being able to don white bucks and a seersucker suit! (of course I would have had to buy them, but that's a different story). Having spent a number of years in the south, I always appreciated the cool, crisp, look that this style presented. Unfortunately, however, a change in the dates of the conference precluded me from attending (and having to purchase a suit and shoes).
We who have spent time in the south know that white bucks and seersucker are appropriate SUMMER wear. Depending on your tradition, men start wearing these clothes as early as Easter, but should STOP wearing them on Labor Day. The fact that Labor Day, the traditional, yet informal, end of summer is upon us reminded me of my misfortune in not being able to, at least once, don those summer duds.
Yet, why was this a matter of concern for me? I haven't LIVED in the south since the mid-90's. I haven't even owned a seersucker suit since before high school! Some of y'all might suspect a bit of vanity on my part, but I could easily dress up without "going southern". As I've reflected on this for the last several days, what occurs to me is that, by dressing in a fashion that is not my normal one, I'm assuming a persona that is not my normal one. And then I began to muse on whether the person I project is the same as the person I am.
I recalled a story--probably from the tradition of the rabbis--about a man who was summoned by God to give an account of his life. The man confessed that he hadn't lived as righteously or faithfully as the heroes of his religion. He had striven to be like them, but had failed. God's response: "You wasted your life! I didn't want you to be like them, but to be fully yourself!"
We live in a culture that suggests that, whoever/whatever we are, we are not good enough as we are. Indeed the culture not only suggests it, our economy depends on that feeling of insufficiency! If we only use the right deodorant or mouthwash, if we only buy the celebrity-endorsed clothing, our self-worth will skyrocket--or our love-life will, at least, improve. And we find ourselves on an increasingly demanding treadmill, never arriving at our true destination: comfort with who we are.
This is not to suggest that I have no room to improve, to become gentler, more generous, more patient. But white bucks and seersucker are not the means to those qualities, or to a truer sense of self, but rather a projection of someone/something else. Perhaps less time in front of a mirror at the store, and more in reflection will bring me to my true self -- to that self God would have me be.
So, as Labor Day arrives, I see an opportunity to put away those (metaphorical, in my case) summer duds, and don the clothes that suit me best, for the life that I lead now.
Friday, August 27, 2010
. . . is a phenomenon we've all experienced. It's that unspoken "difficulty" that pretty much everyone knows is present, but that everyone tacitly agrees NOT to bring up. On the other hand, its presence affects the conversation mightily, often derailing discussions, or preventing resolution of problems.
Couples may dance delicately around issues of finances. Members of organizations may recognize morale problems, but never address them. Families may recognize that beloved Uncle Lodovich sees pink elephants, but no one wants to upset the apple cart by calling him on his drinking problem. The problem is, of course, as long as the elephant remains unrecognized, unnamed, "invisible", it cannot be corralled, tamed, disciplined, domesticated -- or even the source of learning. So the status quo is preserved, perhaps prevnting healing, perpetuating injustices, or creating disasters.
Those who were charged with discovering what happened in the horrendous explosions of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia discovered that there was a culture in NASA that effectively prevented "red flags" the engineers discovered prior to launch from ever making their way up the hierarchical management chain. What, at one time, was a proud history of achievement became dominated by a mantra of "faster, better, cheaper." Delays--those pesky "red flags"-- slowed things down, and ended up costing more . . . so keep them hidden! Many folks within NASA recognized this cultural shift, but were afraid to bring it to light. The effects: disastrous.
This whole issue arose for me earlier this week when I was reading a passage from the gospel of John in which the story is told of people in a crowd disagreeing over whether Jesus was a good man or a menace (John 7.10-13). And while they disagreed with one another, the story reports that no one spoke openly about it for fear of the authorities. For fear of the authorities?! Fear of shaking things up? Even discussing something on which there was no consensus. The only consensus was "don't talk about it publicly."
And then a few days later I was in a meeting where organizational health was in peril because of one rather difficult individual. Pretty much everyone knew that he was inhibiting progress but, since he'd been so influential for so long, no one wanted to call him on his behavior and tactics. The future of the organization was being inhibited for fear of stating the obvious.
Of course, we're all in these kinds of situations all the time. It may be at home, or work. I know that I have been guilty of ignoring the elephant in the room of my own self because naming it might mean that I'd have to make a change. Yet change is the one thing that almost all of us want. Who doesn't say "I wish I were better at . . . " And so we read lots of books ABOUT changing our fitness patterns, or diet, or time management practices. And so we substitute the reading for the doing-- partly because we're still not naming the real elephant. I know I often find external excuses for not dealing with internal issues -- the elephant isn't in MY room!
I understand from talking with my Muslim friends that Ramadan (the month of fasting -- its happening right now!) often brings to light issues that have lain hidden (or ignored) at other times of the year. Some other religious traditions have regular rituals for exposing these hidden, personal, "elephants" in order that they may be addressed (the rite of confession in the liturgical branches of Christianity is an example; the asking of forgiveness during the Jewish High Holy Days is another). Opportunities for growth.
Elephants are big. They take up a lot of room. They can be frightening. On the other hand, they can also be made to be allies in changing things. There's a reason why the Hindu god Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) is the "overcomer of obstacles".
I wonder . . . can we name our elephants, domesticate them, and make change for the better?
Friday, August 13, 2010
One morning last week, my son and I walked down to the beach at Lake Tahoe to do some crawdad fishing at the dock. As we were walking along the shoreline, he exclaimed, "My sand castle is gone!" I asked where it had been, and he pointed to a flat spot on the beach. "Right there!" he said, disappointedly. (If it looked like the one above [it didn't], I'd feel pretty bummed too!) I had to explain to him that, even at a lake, water rises and falls, and there are plenty of other little people's feet that lay waste to sand walls. In any case, castles on the shore are likely to disappear within a few hours. He didn't necessarily like that answer, but he eventually accepted it -- there were crawdads to catch after all!
And so we walked onto the dock, tied a bit of chicken skin to a rock and dropped it in the lake. Sure enough, within a few minutes, crawdads were grabbing, and holding on tight to, the bait. We would pull them up slowly until we could maneuver a basket underneath them and haul them up. The skin/bait would go back into the water, and we'd examine our catch. More often than not, the critter was pretty small (although the "kung fu crawdad" pose was menacing nonetheless) and we'd have to set it free. The act of freeing a crawdad to be caught some future day didn't seem to have the same sense of loss as did the vanished sand castle.
Maybe it was that the building of a sand castle is an act of creation, while crawdad fishing is simply taking advantage of what was there. Harder, I suppose, for all of us to relinquish something we've spent time fashioning than it is to let go of something that was never really ours to begin with. Whether its a sand-castle or an equally ephemeral snow-man -- or even something slightly more permanent like a thesis or book or stone castle -- nothing we fashion will last forever. Many things won't even outlast US! Nevertheless we cling to them as tenaciously as the crawdads gripped the chicken skin, even as they were being pulled away from the safety of their rocks.
School is starting up all around. Some of the public schools in the Denver area have already started; DU kicks in in a month. As much as I'd like to hold on to the sand-castle that is the summer, I know its on its way to being but a memory. And there is fresh sand to mold. I've learned from the process of building, of crawdad fishing, and I can take that with me into the fall. The new castle may not look the same; the crawdads may be bigger (or smaller). But I'm changed; I'm different -- as is the environment around me. And what's to come . . . ?
As the well-known proverb goes, "You can't step into the same river twice". Or, as our summer commencement speaker, Dean Rahmat Shoureshi, put it this morning, "Always have a 'Plan B' or a 'Plan C". We can enjoy the castles and crawdads as they come . . . and go, but then we need follow the spirit's leading into a new future.
Friday, July 30, 2010
. . . is not necessarily something I do well. Oh, I'm fairly good at calculating the right number of socks, shirts and shoes. I can get pretty much everything I need into one small suitcase. On the other hand, there are the ancillary things: cell phone & computer (and their requisite power cords), books, writing/journaling stuff, etc. So now it's TWO bags, and maybe that's still not so bad. (Traveling as part of a family -- with kids -- changes the equation substantially, but I'm focusing on MY travel!)
But my nature is to plan, plan, plan. I don't want to arrive in some town, after a long day's drive/flight, and find a "No Vacancy" sign. I want things well-arranged. I want to know that I have a comfortable bed. And, with kids, I want to know that there's a pool (preferably indoor), where cooped-up energy can be expended before bed. So I spend a lot of time on-line, researching hotels and their amenities. How FRUSTRATING to get to the arranged hotel and find the pool down for maintenance!
This is, of course, a metaphor for life. Tightly planned arrangements are subject to unexpected modifications. For some of us this is not a problem: unexpected modifications are opportunities! For others of us (um . . . me), these modifications are irksome. And, of course, lugging all of my baggage up and down stairs (when there's no elevator) simply reminds me of how much stuff complicates my travels.
I've been on vacation the last week. We've driven from Denver, CO to Davis, CA (hotels well-planned in advance!). Along the way we've been reminded of the Conestoga wagons and those early cross-country pioneers. Families of four or more, with ALL of their belongings, and hopes, in a conveyance not much larger than the back of my Subaru wagon. The unexpected was the norm for them. And most of them made it to a land of new possibilities. The world they'd left was only accessible by memory and very slow (if it worked at all) postal service.
I carry a lot of baggage, literal and metaphorical, when I travel--even on vacation. It's very hard for me to let it go; somehow my identity is bound up in what I have and what I do. What might happen if I let it go? What might I experience? Would I lose myself? Or might I gain something more significant? I'm reminded of Jesus' words: "For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" (Mark 8.36).
I look at the rugged landscape of Dinosaur National Monument, the vast expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats, or the deserted countryside of central Nevada -- empty, but not empty. Vacant, but not. Beautiful, absent my baggage.
I should travel less encumbered more often.