Friday, September 24, 2010

Flummoxed are the cranemakers

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

But . . . what does it MEAN?

This morning I went out to the front of my house and put up my American flag. Why? Today (September 17) is a relatively new, and little-known national holiday: Constitution Day (established in 2004). It commemorates the ratification of the US Constitution on this day in 1787 and is, therefore, one of the dozen or so days to display the flag. Constitution Day is supposed to be observed by educational institutions that receive any federal funding - the observation to heighten awareness, and understanding, of one of our country's foundational documents.

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

The Classroom of Job . . .

. . . 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

White bucks and seersucker

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.