Friday, December 31, 2010

I hereby resolve . . .

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

Solstice, Eclipse, Darkness, Light

The Eclipse

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.

Richard Eberhart
(Collected Poems, 1930-60)



Friday, December 17, 2010

The world in a Cutie

Another memory from childhood . . . Must be the season that brings them on!

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

I'll take door #5!

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

Who's [sic] Community?

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.

I've been in several situations recently where the concept, or ideal, of community has been raised -- usually in the context of "we need more of it!". That always gets me thinking. Over the years I've been associated with four different theological seminaries (well, three -- but with one of them I had two different levels/time-periods of association). These are institutions of like-intended, spiritually-involved, folks -- most of whom were, upon graduation, heading out to foster community in one way or another. And at every one of the seminaries, I would hear students crying for "more community!" I even preached my senior sermon on the topic when I was in seminary!

The sub-text to this plea often has seemed to me to be: "I want community! And it's someone else's responsibility to create, foster, and sustain it. I simply want the benefit." Or in American political parlance, "They're the problem!" (pick the "they") "So somebody else should fix it! I reserve the right to complain from the sidelines regardless!" (sarcasm mode off!).

Clearly at the heart of the plea is some un-met need for connection, some respite from the competitive nature of any academic pursuit-we all want the top grades, we're after the same jobs, etc. And who supports us? Who comforts us when we fall short of the ideals? And, now, many of us are looking at those very intimate communities of which we're a part: families at the holiday season. Many of which are drama-filled, tense, splintered in numerous ways. (Of course there are also numerous healthy, nurturing, families!) The desire of a lot of us, at this time of the year, is for connection and reconnection, for rich community with those we love.

The other day I heard an interview on the topic of happiness with Rabbi Johnathan Sacks of Great Britain. While it wasn't directed at the issue of "community", his words struck a chord: "One very great Hasidic teacher once said, "Somebody else's material needs are my spiritual duties."In other words, my friend's, or my colleague's, real appeal for "community" (or connection) suggests that I might have something to offer - indeed, that I have an obligation to address that need.

And how many opportunities we miss-even little ones! I was in a meeting the other day with DU colleagues, some of whom I knew "by face", others I was sure I'd spoken to on the phone (or by email), but hadn't met in person. It might have taken a few minutes to go around the room with brief introductions, but the community-formation might have been richer.

So, who's community? And, yes, whose community? The difference between the two is important. The latter suggests the answer "mine", or "ours." The former demands, I believe, the answer "I". To claim to want community, but not to be engaged in the creation of it, suggests that I simply want to be a "lurker". That may be okay for me on some email lists, but I need to take my own initiative to create the kinds of community and connections I desire. In the tense and challenging situations in which we will no doubt find ourselves, what a gift that would be!