Friday, May 27, 2011

Eschew Complexification

When I was in college, I was part of a singing group that traveled the Pacific Northwest (with forays to California, Utah and Montana). The group was really a promotional arm for the college; we would visit churches who supported the school, participating in worship, or giving concerts-raising money for the college. It was a great experience for the two years I was involved! In the process of giving the concerts, each member of the octet would usually be asked to introduce one of the upcoming songs. Some of us were more long-winded than others in our introductions. And when the words began to multiply, kissing sounds could be heard from other members -- a reminder to "Keep it short/simple, stupid".

I've been musing on simplicity over the last several weeks for a number of reasons (which I won't go into, to "keep it short"). The context hasn't been "living with less", but rather the ways that complexify our lives. One example: As I was growing up, I had a "to-do list" that outlined my chores for the day. It was a simple list. This morning, on the other hand, I spent quite a while categorizing, color-coding and prioritizing my "to-do's" for the day. Will that level of complexity help me get the tasks accomplished any better? Complexification!

Most of our religious traditions end up complexifying things pretty quickly. Rituals, liturgies, restrictions on food, special clothing, hierarchies, etc. "Routinization of charisma" is what sociologists call that pattern in the wake of a religious founder's death. The Buddha, for example, reputedly told his followers not to set up shrines to him. It wasn't too long after the Buddha's, death, however, that the shrines began popping up! Jesus is reported to have said (in brief), "Love God and love your neighbor. This is ALL the law and prophets" (Matthew 22.37-40). Jesus' followers often haven't seen that as sufficient.

This morning a friend (Thanks, Diana!) posted the following poem ("There was a time") by Ibn Arabi to her Facebook status update:

There was a time I would reject those

who were not of my faith.

But now, my heart has grown capable

of taking on all forms.

It is a pasture for gazelles,

An abbey for monks.

A table for the Torah,

Kaaba for the pilgrim.

My religion is love.

Whichever the route love's caravan shall take,

That shall be the path of my faith

Complexification, I think, contributes to the attitude of "rejection" the poet recalls. Whether or not I can accept everything the poem implies, it does-in the light of my pondering of simplicity-give me pause to wonder how much my own need to erect structures of security prevents "love's caravan" from reaching its destination.

Maybe it's time to return to those old college days: KISS! (Well, you know what I mean!!)



Friday, May 20, 2011

They oughta be committed!

If you're reading this prior to Saturday, 5/21/11, you have TWO upcoming options for "checking out" early! Tomorrow (5/21/11) is the first, according to Oakland, CA-based, Harold Camping. Based on his mathematical calculations of biblical dates, 200 million believing Christians will be whisked into the air tomorrow at midnight (time zone by time zone); then the rest of the world comes crashing to an end six months later in October. If you're reading this on Sunday, 5/22/11, or later (and all your Christian friends are still around), Mr. Camping was wrong, and you'll have to wait for the Mayan calendar's cataclysm in December of 2012.

With regard to Mr Camping's predictions, many of us have read the stories of his fellow-believers, their divestment of all their worldly goods, and the splintering of families, with a sense of disbelief. Some view these folks as crackpots, or deluded -- yet one more indicator of the craziness that religion can engender. Some others, more gentle, have viewed these folks with some concern, even pity. I'm going to take a slightly different tack, but first . . . news from DU.

Some of you may know that DU's Hillel Center (the center for Jewish students) was to have been the target of a protest yesterday (Thursday, 5/19/11) by the folks who recently won a US Supreme Court decision that allows them to protest at funerals, including those of US soldiers. They hold up signs such as "God hates the US" and worse. They were coming to DU as part of a whirlwind protest tour through Denver that included a high school graduation (because a student had written an article critical of them), a mosque, and the Hillel center (the latter two because they haven't converted!). All of the targeted groups were prepared in their own ways -- but for naught. Severe weather in eastern Colorado/western Kansas kept them away.

Many Americans consider this group as wacky (although more disturbingly so) as the followers of Mr. Camping. DU's never-arrived protesters are a part of an extremely small group of believers who are willing to fight for, and proclaim, their beliefs--despite the fact that probably 99.9% of the American populace disagrees with them and wishes they'd disappear. The same determination can be said for Mr. Camping's followers. They are willing to give up all their worldly goods, sever family ties, and wander around a dis-believing public claiming that they know that within a few days, they'll be gone, and billions of people will be left on earth to suffer for six months.

Whether both groups are crazy or delusional is a diagnosis "above my pay grade". Whether they are pitiable is up to everyone else's "compassion quotient". What is clear, however, is that they are committed to what they believe. I've long been interested in the question of commitment and what it might demand. Giving up one's life for others' perceived benefit is either total commitment or craziness, depending on which side of the divide one stands. Such an act may, for example, yield the Congressional Medal of Honor; it may also be categorized as an act of terror.

So, in situations such as the beliefs/actions of these two groups -- beliefs/actions about which many (including me, to be sure) have serious reservations, I'm always a little bit in awe of the commitment level that is required to put one's life on the line in that way. Do I love my life too much? Do I love my family too much? Am I too much a coward? Am I too rational? To what am I committed to that level of (seemingly) irrational behavior?

Personally, I imagine (hope?) I'll continue working through the answers to these questions tomorrow, next month, through 2012, and into 2013.



Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's a Chariot of Fire

"You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?" is a common-enough phrase, often directed at folks who's actions seem a bit shy of the ideal that their speech suggests. I heard it most often when I from fans of a (winning) basketball team who felt that the "smack-talking" of their opponents didn't match their playing capabilities. I've heard it somewhat less-often directed at those pundits who demand that followers engage in some sacrificial act that they (the pundits) themselves won't do. The concept of deeds and motives being consistent with one another is something we expect; "hypocrisy" is the phrase we often use when we see the inconsistency.

I was challenged earlier this week to think about the reciprocal nature of deeds, or practices, and the spiritual life. I was attending a conference that had, as part of the agenda, a speaker who was encouraging the attendees to look at their spiritual practices. She correctly pointed out (at least to me) that most of equate "spiritual practices" with things like worship, prayer, daily rituals, silence, retreats, fasting, etc. And she pointed out that, in her experience, many people with whom she works don't feel that they "pray enough" or "worship enough" -- that is, that their spiritual lives are somehow deficient.

She then asked us to pair up and talk about those things in our lives that make us feel fully alive, or make us feel like we are close to the Divine. The answers that arose to that prompt were all over the map: "cooking", "gardening", "knitting", "cycling", "hiking", "listening", "bird-watching", "baking." And, of course, as we started sharing those favorite, life-giving, practices, it became clear that the speaker's agenda was to get us to consider that these endeavors themselves are spiritual practices. We simply need to change our perspective.

And I was reminded of the movie -- now 30 years old -- "Chariots of Fire". It is the story of two runners: one, Eric Liddell, a Christian who runs for the glory of God, and the other, Harold Abrams, a Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. In the course of the film Liddell tells his sister "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Running became "prayer" for Liddell, and he understood his passion in that light.

I've returned home from that conference with a new perspective on some of my passions, such as cooking and, of course, cycling. Are they solely about physical health, or to attain some endorphin-related sense of well-being? Or are they equally spiritual practices? I suspect the answer is "either or both". The key is my intentionality.

But when I get on my bike this weekend, it may become more than a two-wheeled conveyance, or means to anaerobic "bliss". Perhaps it will become a chariot of fire.



Friday, May 6, 2011

"God loves Jesse Helms . . .

. . . but he wouldn't vote for him" was a graffito I found carved into a bench in on a major shopping street in Durham, North Carolina back in 1990. Some remember may remember that Jesse Helms (1921-2008) was a conservative Republican Senator who had represented North Carolina for about a quarter-century. He was either reviled or lauded, depending on which side of the political divide you stood. The 1990 election between Helms and African-American candidate Harvey Gantt was particularly nasty and racially charged (Helms won that race by the way). And so, when I saw this carved message (and the difference in size of the letters between the first phrase and the second was equivalent to what I've shown here), I had to walk closer to see what the smaller print said. I was in North Carolina, after all, and such "religious endorsement" of candidates wasn't surprising.

The surprise, of course, was in the second phrase. It, too, had a political cast to it, but it served as a wake-up call that (according to Christian theology), God loves everyone, all the time. But that doesn't necessarily mean that God approves of everyone's actions . . . or politics. Parents (and sometimes wise children) get this distinction!

The memory of this encounter-with-a bench came roaring back to me this week as I saw pictures, and heard news reports, of the jubilant exultation over the death of Osama bin Laden—and the accompanying commentary. Assertions of bin Laden's "evilness" justified his being killed. "Justice was done" was claimed over and over again. I do not want to get into a debate/discussion over the "justice" issue, or his reputed "evilness". For the record, I appreciate the fact that the world does not have to deal with him any longer. I would hope that we've turned a page in our nation's history, and that we can move forward a bit lighter.

The voices, however, that have wondered (either to me privately or in print) about how appropriate it is to gloat jubilantly over the death of another human being have reminded me of the assertion that "God loved Jess Helms". And I was equally reminded of the verse from the Hebrew wisdom tradition: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble" (Proverbs 24.17). Even more pointed is the withering critique of the Hebrew prophet Hosea: "Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors" (9.1). Hosea's assertion is that few of us -- few nations, certainly -- have consistently clean hands.

What this episode in our national history most clearly points out to me is how broken we are as a species. Violence is seen as the only means to redress wrongs or grievances, and reciprocal violence then is seen as the appropriate response to that initial deed. We are all broken. The assassination of bin Laden is yet another reminder of that.

I'll save my jubilation for the day when we are free of our love of violence and hatred. In the meantime, I'll pray for the healing of our brokenness.

I wish I had taken a picture of that bench.