Friday, November 18, 2011


       Every month I spend a Friday morning at Metro CareRing, a large food pantry (and more) in downtown Denver.  I began going last March, along with a BUNCH of DU students.  I decided that day that I would continue going monthly, whether I was joined by any students or not.  It has turned out to be one of the things I most anticipate every month.  Even more so in the last couple of months.
      When I first started going, my main role was to fill orders from the clients in the pantry.  I would be given a shopping list and I would fill it -- given the available items and my creativity ("Hmm, would they rather have spaghetti noodles or macaroni as 'pasta'?").  In mid-October, however, Metro CareRing went to a "client choice" set-up.  Now my role is as a "personal shopper;" I accompany the clients through the pantry, helping them negotiate the aisles, letting them know how many of certain items they may take, picking up heavy items, and so on.  The difference between this latter system and the former is amazing.  I actually get to interact with the clients, and they with me.
       Today was my monthly opportunity to be a "personal shopper."  As I anticipated, many of the clients were looking forward to Thanksgiving.  And they were all overjoyed to receive a turkey in addition to everything else.  I don't think I've ever heard the words "Thanks" or "Thank you so much" that many times in a few hours.  And I heard it not only from the clients, but from the staff -- both TO the clients, and to each other and the volunteers.
There was no sense of entitlement anywhere apparent.  All that was clear was gratitude.  Smiles and laughter were abundant.  The sense that "all is a gift" overwhelmed me.
      I began wondering, even before my time at Metro CareRing today, whether the "Thanks" on Thanksgiving are due only to God (and the cooks), or whether we might take the day a bit further.  Last week my office gave folks crossing the "Bridge" at DU the opportunity to write a Thank-You to ANYONE, and we'd deliver it.  Cards went to faculty and family, staff-members and sorority-sisters.  The avenues of grace are all around!
      So, next Thursday, somewhere between the hors d'oeuvres, the football games, the pumpkin pie (and inevitable subsequent naps), in addition to the thanks we render to the Giver of all gifts, maybe we can make some time to say "thanks" to the people who surround us, near and far, and who give us the everyday gifts that bring smiles and laughter to our lives.  That word can be a gift that never spoils or wears out.

Happy Thanksgiving,


Friday, November 11, 2011

You can't trust the box!

       When I was growing up, there was a saying in our house that "You can't trust the box".   Whether it was at birthdays or the holidays, the caution came out.  A box that might have held copier paper might hold a pair of cufflinks.  Or a shoebox might hold instructions telling the recipient to look in the garage at a new drill press.  That pattern has stayed with me, and my children are learning not to trust the box!
       I remembered this last Sunday when I hear the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts-Shori (the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States) answer questions after presiding at the morning worship at St. John's Cathedral.  In her answer to one question, she made a comment something to the effect of "don't confuse the gift with the package."  The context (if I recall) had to do with traditional religious expressions in a contemporary context.  The general point was that God has given the world multiple gifts.  We end up putting them in boxes.  And, voila, the gift and the box become, for all intents and purposes, one and the same.
      A similar phenomenon was characterized by Max Weber in his classic studies  of the sociology of religion as the "routinization of charisma".   A leader/reformer arises whose (usually anti-traditional) message, as well as his/her passionate, effective presentation of that message, attracts a LOT of attention and followers.   When the leader dies (or even during his/her lifetime), the initial momentum invariably wanes, and a structure is created to keep the movement viable.  Over the course of time, the initial message becomes a bit lost in the doctrines and practices that arise with the structure.  In short, the "charisma" becomes "routinized"; the extraordinary becomes ordinary, routine, perhaps mundane.  It indeed may happen that the evolved structure becomes almost antithetical to the original, captivating, vision of the founder.
     Weber argues that this process is practically inevitable.  Just as is our tendency to confuse the contents of the box with the box itself.  Reformers of all stripes realize this, agitate for change . . . and the process begins again!
      I took Bishop Katherine's challenge to us to be:  "Look closely at your sets of fondly-held beliefs."  Do we hold more tightly to the gift or the box?  Can we distinguish between the two?  Even if we hold tightly to the container, is it the ONLY container that can hold the contents?  Or might new containers -- larger, or smaller, or differently shaped -- cradle the gift equally well?
      And I thought, "You can't trust the box!"


Friday, November 4, 2011

Generously overturning the pot

Just as a filled pot, which is overturned, pours out all of its water, leaving nothing back, even and exactly so should one give to those in need.  Whether low, middle or high, like the overturned pot, holding nothing back . . . .!  (Jataka Nidana 128-29)*

       A student recently recounted to me an interaction she'd had with a fellow student in her Latin class.  She noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the heavy-metal band "Bullets For My Valentine".  She remarked to the young man that she liked the group's music.  His response:  "Wow, you don't fit the stereotype" (i.e., of the people who like their music).  The implication, of course, that one has to "look a certain way" to appreciate various kinds of music.  (Let's not even get into the issue of heavy-metal devotees taking Latin!)
      It was a coincidence, to be sure, that, yesterday, as I was driving to a conference I'm attending, that the drive-time morning show folks were talking about stereotypes that were "problematic".  They had callers phone in who didn't fit (let alone appreciate) certain stereotypes associated with their professions.  Those who called in included:  a petite, well-dressed, female long-haul truck driver; a CPA with a sense of humor; a nurse who didn't wear high heels or show her cleavage.  Whether or not any of us accept these as stereotypes, the callers certainly had experienced them that way - - and didn't like them!
     And it was certainly another coincidence that, at my conference, I found myself paired with a woman who works for large agency within the federal government who, herself, didn't think she could ever be a "government worker" because they were all like . . . . "that" (fill in the "that" with YOUR stereotype of government workers).  She found, to her amazement, that she was an in "an amazing work environment" with people who were incredibly dedicated to making a difference.  In the course of her and my conversations, MY stereotypes of "government workers" (probably mirroring her initial suspicions) were destroyed.
      The key to the change, of course, was personal experience and conversation.  In our case, over the last few days, those of us at the conference have been given the opportunity to be pretty open with each other (and the rest of the conference attendees).  We've had the chance to talk about our strengths and fears, successes and failures.  In short, to "overturn our own pots", leaving nothing back.  The outcome and effect, of course, was deeper understanding and acceptance.  Those things that might have artificially divided us -- and stereotypes, in my mind, are artificial constructs that divide us -- were obliterated.
      We all want to be understood.   Our world demands that we strive to understand one another (almost all media messages to the contrary).  Yet we acquiesce to stereotypes; we perpetuate them.  So it's an incredibly generous gift to another person to engage them, to walk together past the stereotypes, to find understanding.
      Overturning our pot is the necessity of our time.  In doing so, we might find that we can complement each other to make our world better.
       Hold nothing back!



*The "Jataka tales" are accounts and stories of the prior incarnations of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha.  They are part of the sacred Buddhist scriptures.