Friday, December 28, 2012

The Mayan's name is "Cliff"

      Today (Dec. 28), in the western Christian calendar, is known as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It commemorates a horrific incident recounted in the gospel of Matthew (2.1-18). Shortly after the birth of Jesus, magi (or astrologers or wise men) came from "the East" to Jerusalem.  They inquired of King Herod where the "child who has been born king of the Jews" might be found.  They had seen "his star" and wanted to come pay him homage.  This was news to Herod, and, Matthew records, "he was frightened".  He found out from his visitors the exact time of the star's appearance, and discerned where and when this "newborn king" had arrived on the scene.  Ultimately, Herod felt that this child-king was so threatening that he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all of the children two years old or younger, hoping, thereby, to take care of the upstart.  (It didn't happen.)
       The gospel-writer Matthew is clearly referencing another massacre of the innocents:  those Israelites in Egypt who were put to the sword by Pharaoh, who was worried ("frightened" perhaps?) by the increasing number of Israelite males in his land (Exodus 1.8-16).  So, his instructions to the Israelite midwives:  "kill all the boys; let the girls live". Matthew also quotes the prophet Jeremiah (31.15) who claims that Rachel is "weeping for her children . . . because they are no more".  While this is not necessarily a reference to the massacre of innocents (rather to the destruction of the northern tribes of Israel), it is clearly a reference to a violent end for those whom God would have preferred by spared. A violent end brought about by those (Pharaoh or the Assyrians) who wielded power over the weaker (Israel).
      The difference between the assault by the Assyrians and that by both Pharaoh and Herod is that the Assyrians were looking to expand their control, while Pharaoh and Herod were looking to maintain theirs.  The latter, in other words, were afraid that their grip on what they perceived as "reality" was being threatened.*  And that threat needed to be exterminated (or perhaps minimized).  Extermination or minimization required violent means.
      It is not hard for us, in these last few months, to recall violence inflicted on the innocent. Whether theater-goers in Aurora, Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin, or kindergartners in Connecticut, none of those victims deserved the fate that became theirs.  Despite what wacko preachers might say, those deaths were NOT what God would have wanted, regardless of their (the preachers') claim of the so-called moral laxity of America.  And, I doubt that it is sufficient to attribute all of those shooters' actions to "mental illness".  Whether "moral laxity" or "mental illness" -- both serve to distance the shooters' action from the rest of us:  "WE are moral!  WE are mentally sound!  There's something wrong with THEM!"
      No, we are all broken in some ways.  We are all afraid of something -- like Pharaoh and Herod.  We are all trying to maintain, and/or expand, our power (thank, Nietzsche!).  The problem (as I see it) is that some of us have not progressed any further than Pharaoh, Shalmaneser or Herod in thinking that violence is the way to resolve the so-called "problem".  Whether it's political power or perceived impotence in dealing with personal problems, we've been taught that violence -- physical violence -- is the only solution.  Or that more weapons will solve the problem.
      Those who "taught" and (apparently) believed that the world was coming to an end based on the Mayan calendar had bought into this belief.  And, I would maintain, that those who are hyping the catastrophe of the "fiscal cliff" are doing the same.  The violence perpetrated by the latter certainly isn't as graphic or destructive, but it plays on the fears of the American public.  And, in so doing, it tries to motivate an electorate in one direction or the other -- probably with the hoped-for end result of returning one (or the other) prognosticator of doom to office.
      I would hope (call me a "cock-eyed optimist)" that in 2013, given all we've seen and experienced in the last year, we might have a different vision for the future.  A vision in which those who purvey violent/vengeful movies or video games might lose their audience (can't Tanantino make a point without a lot of blood?).  A vision in which fear is trumped by hope and justice.
      A vision in which the so-called"fiscal cliff" is seen as being a manipulative, and power-grabbing and fear-baiting, as the Mayan apocalypse.
      I believe in hope.  Join me in protecting the innocents.

Hopeful for the New Year,

Chaplain Gary

*This may be true for the Assyrians as well, but the point isn't as clear.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End Is . . . . . Hmmmm?

      I was never sure when, on 12/21/12, the world was supposed to end.  So, I thought I'd better hedge my bets and send this out anyway so that folks who've come to expect something on Friday afternoons weren't disappointed.  Of course, if you're reading this on Saturday the 22nd or later, then the expected (by some) cataclysm passed you by.  Given all of the worry (hype?) about the Mayan calendar over the last many months, the cynical among us might think that there was a commercial tie-in.  All I could find, however, in searches on "Mayan Calendar" and "economics" was that the calendar predicted our economic collapse (many doomsday sites!).  That, and that canned goods have been flying off the shelves in Russia, making Russian grocers happy.  But assuming we're all still here, the only possible explanation is that someone was wrong about the Mayan calendar/prediction.
      I, for one, don't think the Mayans were wrong; they simply weren't predicting the end of the world.  The best analysis I've heard about their calendar is that the Mayans understood history or the cosmos functioning in a cyclical manner.  And, that all that was going to happen today, is that one cycle would end, and another begin.  Kind of like our current sense of whatever happens every year at midnight December 31/January 1, or when the odometer in a car starts over at 00000000.  Or, as I've experienced at milestone birthdays:  the next day I still put on my pants one leg at a time.  So . . . who was wrong?  I trust I don't have to answer that!
      This has, however, given me reason to think again about our fascination with end-of-the-world, apocalyptic predictions.  We can easily recall Mr. Harold Camping's prediction that everything would come crashing to a close on May 21st (and then October 21st), 2011. Thousands of folks believed him and sold everything in advance of their being spirited (raptured) away from the earth just in time to avoid a global catastrophe.  He backed away from his predictions after they failed to happen, saying that he'd miscalculated.  In other words, he was wrong.  And he was wrong, I would say, because he probably wanted to believe he was right!
     And so it has ever been.  For whatever reasons (and I'm sure there are good psychological reasons), we want to believe we are right, and we will often bend whatever evidence we have to support our position.  One of the main themes that runs through the biblical material -- both in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament -- is that there seems to be a constant battle between "false prophets" and those God actually appoints.  (This website will give you ALL the examples you'd want to see, as well as the "motives" of the false prophets).  Those false prophets were "successful" in that they told people what they wanted to hear; they confirmed their listeners desire to be "right".
      But, not only do we want to be right (I mean, who wakes up in the morning saying to themselves, "It's my goal to be wrong today!"), we also want things to be better than they, perhaps, are.  It's not surprising then, that many of the folks who want a cataclysmic end believe that they'll be rewarded for their endurance of hardships, while their (earthly) oppressors will get their just desserts.  In other words, they want their own "darkness" to turn to light.  And so the false prophets find a ready audience for their pronouncements.
      Don't we all want our darkness to turn to light? And, as this day of (so-called) Mayan doom occurs on the Winter Solstice, there must be something more than a coincidence.  Just as there must be more than a coincidence that so many religious traditions have some sort of "light" oriented holiday at this time of year (Yule, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yalda).   It is the time (at least in the northern hemisphere) where we need some affirmation that the days will get longer and warmer.  We need affirmation that the world will re-awaken and continue to feed and sustain us.  In short, we want hope.
      Unfortunately, the "hope" I see in the purveyors both of doom, and of easy (passive, otherworldly) success, is a hope of disengagement with reality.  It isn't a hope that seeks to create a better future.  All past predictions of cataclysmic endings have proven false; I would assume that all future ones will as well.  Our hope, then, in this "darkness" (however defined or experienced) is to enter into reality, and apply ourselves to the task of increasing light, warmth, joy, justice and peace to those around us.
Blessings of the season,

Chaplain Gary

Friday, December 14, 2012


     I am a sucker for hints at organizing, or simplifying, my life and surroundings.  My Myers-Briggs profile (yes, I'm a "J") and my astrological sign (Virgo) confirm it!  So, earlier this week, when I walked past a table upon which was a copy of the (April 2012) Real Simple magazine that promised an article entitled "The Organized Home Office", I simply had to pick it up!  I quickly flipped to page 100, and found a picture of delightfully neat-and-tidy workspace.  So I started reading, and learned, that to have a "really simple organized home office", I needed:
  • Bedford small desk ($468 from Pottery Barn)
  • Logan Pharmacy table lamp ($210 from
  • Modular flip-out bins ($14 from the Container Store)
  • Drafting chair ($288 from schoolhouse
  • Fabric for the bulletin board ($196/yard from
Figuring that the bulletin board would need a couple of yards of fabric, my nifty, simple, organized office would run $1,372!  And that's just for the desk, chair and bulletin board. Another $650 (plus upholstery fabric at $200/yd) would get a vintage, reupholstered, side chair!  Now the office is complete!
      In an interview sometime back, I heard these kinds of magazines described as "house porn".  I had an idea I knew what the interviewer meant, but, now that I've seen it, I know what it is.  This little office space barely took up one-half of one wall.  I haven't had the time (nor energy) to compare Real Simple's home office with something similar from Ikea or Target, but I would imagine that something just as serviceable could be had for less than one-third that price (or even less, with a trip to a Thrift Store, a little elbow grease and creativity) . My cinder-block and board bookshelves from my college days did just fine holding my books (and I could organize them any way I wanted!), and were dirt cheap.    So I got to wondering about how we equate simplifying with spending more money?
       When I was in college, I was part of a traveling singing group that would help raise money for the school.  In concerts, the nine of us would pass around the responsibility for introducing upcoming songs, and, if one of us would start "waxing eloquent", someone else would start making "kissing" noises, the meaning of which was "wrap it up NOW!"  The kissing noises were reminders of our mantra:  "KISS:  Keep it short, stupid."  (Another interpretation, equally apt, was "Keep it simple, stupid.")
       The underlying message is that more -- whether words or stuff -- is not necessarily better.  Or, addressing the message of Real Simple's article, spending more money won't necessarily make you more organized!  In this season where "conspicuous consumption" is everywhere encouraged ("You wouldn't want your loved ones to think you didn't care would you?  So remember us 'when you care to send the very best.'") . . . . in this season, I guess taking a step back might be the better way to simplify.  And I'll have to stop indulging my belief (hope?) that others have a quick, simple, fix to my issues!
       Oh, any comment on the picture above would be . . . too much.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, December 7, 2012

Uncommon Sense

     I remember an conversation with one of my professors early in my graduate school tenure. I don't remember the context at all, just his statement "I don't believe in 'common sense'." Such a statement may not raise eyebrows among academics now (or perhaps even then), but, almost twenty-five years ago, I was a little taken aback.  He went on to point out that there are all sorts of assumptions in the word "common", e.g., who is it makes up the "commons". For example, what may be "common sense" for Australian aboriginal males may be seen as absolute rubbish for Japanese females, and vice-versa.  This doesn't deny that one group might not be able to understand the other, but their "common" experiences may not always overlap. Over time, his argument took hold in me, and now I'm pretty suspicious of the use of that phrase, or others like it.
     So, yesterday, as I was biking home, I was listening to an interview with the two incoming leaders of Colorado's House of Representatives.  Given that the control of the government in Colorado is now in the hands of a single party, there was all sorts of talk about the direction of legislation in the coming session.  One item struck me:  Colorado has several amendments to its constitution regarding the state's finances.  And these all seem to work at cross-purposes, creating a Gordian Knot we're having difficulty untying.
     What is clear to most, however, is that more money needs to come into Colorado's coffers; the question is the source.  The Democratic (presumptive) Speaker of the House kept referring to the money that would come in as "revenues".  The Republican Minority Leader chimed in, "Let's call these what they are:  'taxes'".  And I began to muse on the power of those two words, and why each leader would use them.  My suspicion is that they were both trying to appeal to a "common" sense that would help them advance their own particular agenda:  "revenue" doesn't sound as scary as "taxes"!
     Two different views of what we might hold as "common".  Perspectives that result from all sorts of other motives, beliefs and experiences.  And the language used will continue to heighten division.  Maybe that's the way it has been, and ever will be.  "Common Sense" can be used to motivate folks to action; Thomas Paine certainly thought so!
      On the other hand, I'm constantly amazed at how the great religions, at their core, provideuncommon sense.  In a polytheistic world, Islam's insistence on one God was absolutely uncommon.  In a world that worshipped power, Christianity's suffering savior was pretty uncommon.  To a world that wants to avoid suffering, the Buddha's assertion that recognizing that all life is suffering to be the first step to peace is highly uncommon.  Yet these religions have survived, and thrived, in spite of their uncommon assertions, probably because we all, at some point, recognize their truth.  And we find some hope in their uncommon nature when surrounded by a very common world.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, November 30, 2012


      David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at Florida State, recently published an editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "End the Charade:  Let Athletes Major in Sports."  He argues that many collegiate athletes really want to BE an athlete, just as many other students want to BE a doctor or accountant or diplomat. The difference is that our academic system doesn't necessarily allow that option for volleyball or basketball players.  When they are introduced before a game, their name is usually followed by "majoring in business, or english, or chemistry".  Pargman sees this as a charade, dismissive, and unsupportive of students, many of whom, will play sports professionally.  Professionally.  
      He suggests a curriculum in "Sports Performance", the major classes being clustered in the junior and senior years (the first two years being spent on the core curricula common to all students:  sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc).  Some of the classes these students would take would be related to physiology; others to public speaking (!); business law. Overall, it sounds, to me, like an idea that deserves pretty serious consideration.  And I suspect that graduates of such a program would serve our sports industry well.
       But I'm not writing simply to give a "thumbs-up" to Pargman's idea.  On a deeper level, he seems to suggest that we treat student athletes as being of a somewhat different(read "lesser") category than other students.  And I often hear hints of that, both in the media and among my friends (both faculty/staff and students) in the Academy, so I don't think he's far off base.
       And that reminded me of a light bulb that went off in my head some years back (and I may have mused on this a while ago).  I heard a sportscaster (either British or Australian) describe a particular athlete's play in a game as "brilliant".  I immediately bristled at the idea; "brilliance" was something of the mind, a desirable intellectual quality.   (Indeed, in my computer's resident dictionary (the Oxford America Dictionaries), the secondary meaning of "brilliant" is: "exceptionally clever or talented: a brilliant young mathematician | a brilliant idea.• outstanding; impressive: his brilliant career at Harvard.")  The primary meaning is:  "(of light or color) very bright and radiant."
       Then I recalled that "brilliant", for many non-American-English speakers is not so limited in scope.  And I began to wonder about my prioritization of skills/abilities/trainings.  Of course, I'm at a university, where an active "life of the mind" is prized.  On the other hand, I am having a plumber do some extensive work on my house this weekend; I can't do it.  And I was struck by what a police officer must know, and be capable of, as I drove past a parked patrol car this morning.  And I marvel at what our student athletes can do -- both on and off the court.
       Most of our religious traditions contain some sense of "vocation" -- that sense of an individual living into what he or she believes they are called to be.  None of those traditions would suggest that everyone is called to be the same thing.  The Christian apostle Paul writes, for example, about the need for many different offices/functions within the Church (Romans 12.6-8; 1 Corinthians 12.7-11); he also writes of the body's need for all of its parts in order to function effectively (1 Corinthians 12.14-26).  He questions his readers:  "Are all to be one thing or another?" "No."
      Whether Mr Pargman's ideas take root at the University of Denver, or anywhere else, remains to be seen.  On the other hand, I'm happy to begin to regard a aspiring scientist, philosopher, entrepreneur, or gymnast as equally "bright or radiant" -- simply in different fields.  And I'm happy to help them all achieve their dreams, to fulfill their vocations. Brilliant!


Chaplain Gary

Friday, November 16, 2012

A fair perspective.

    Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, and author of the recent book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, states that, if you want to know why different people hold different positions on issues, you should "follow the sacred".  That is, what different people hold as sacred (it could be a place, a text, an ideal, or so forth) is what will drive their arguments.  And, as the title of his book suggests, these arguments can be over both politics and religion.  He (and his colleague) identify six ideas fundamental to moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.
     I was struck by one of those, and his discussion surrounding it:  fairness.  Haidt (in an interview) observed that all of us believe in fairness, it's just that Republicans and Democrats, by and large, view fairness through a different sacred lens.  For Republicans, fairness equates to proportionality; for Democrats, it equates to equality.  So, why someone from either group mights claim "It's not FAIR", a member of the other group might, in their minds, rightly claim, "Yes it is!" I've been playing with that distinction in my mind for several days now, having found myself in various contexts (and recalling the arguments about various election issues) that have related to fairness.
     Fairness, of course, is pretty religious issue.  Many of the stories of the patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures have questions of fairness at their base (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc.).  And certainly a number of Jesus' more well-known parables challenged his listeners' (and our) concept of fairness.  A chief example is know as "The Laborers in the Vineyard" (Matthew 20.1-16) in which a vineyard owner hires a number of day-laborers over the course of a day . . .  and pays them all the same.  Those who had worked all day didn't think it fair that those who worked an hour received the same wage.  Most of us would agree.
      Another of Jesus' well-known parables, that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32) also plays with the theology of fairness.  The young son takes his half of the inheritance and squanders it, returning home, only with the hope that he'll at least get a meal.  The older son, seeing the party their father threw for the young degenerate is furious!  "It isn't fair!" he cries.  "I've slaved for you, dad, and you've not thrown me a party.  But for the brat?  You've killed the fatted calf!!"  Again, many of us would side with the thinking of the older son:  "Work hard, and you'll be rewarded; party hearty and you'll pay the price.  It's only fair."
     What strikes me about both of these parables, and, indeed, a lot of our thinking about fairness, is that we have a particular perspective from which we evaluate the story.  Probably none of the laborers in the vineyard felt the way the payment was awarded to be "fair". The long-working folks felt they were getting ripped off; the others felt lucky.  The same could probably be said of the two sons.  Both sets of characters believed and operated within a system that didn't seem to play right for any of them.
      But there are yet other perspectives to consider:  that of the vineyard owner or that of the father.  For them, it didn't seem like "fairness" was the issue at all.  Both of the parables are about generosity and/or mercy.  And I've often thought that we really don't want a God who is fair.  Because how many of us really want what we deserve?  We more often want a God who is on our side of the fairness issue -- giving to the others their just desserts.  And we're happy that we seem to be on the mercy-receiving end most of the time.
      Much of the biblical witness, however, de-emphasizes fairness in favor of mercy.  In Islam, a primary quality of Allah is mercy.  One of the most popular figures in Buddhism in Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.  We all want and need mercy.
      So I wonder, what might it mean, in our religious and political debates, if we asked, not about whether or not something was "fair", but whether it was "merciful"?
     I suppose it still would be something akin to looking at an Escher drawing.  Are figures walking up?  Down?  Across?  Each of them would probably have a different perspective on the other; they might consider their place in the drawing as "sacred".  But from above? Different entirely.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, November 9, 2012

Unplug for more energy!

     Several weeks ago, I wrote about a wonderful concert my wife and I attended at the Hollywood Bowl.  In an LA Times interview prior to the show, the artist, Latin pop sensation Juanes, spoke about his mid-life career burnout.  The Times reported:

     He was burned out with touring and recording, and his young children were always crying, "When is papi coming home?"
     "I was bored, I wasn't feeling good about things," acknowledges the artist. . . . "It was a crisis. I felt lost. So in this moment of transition I thought, 'What do I do now?'"

The answer was provided by the Spanish-language MTV channel, Tr3s:  "Do an unplugged show."  The result was a CD, a DVD, a #1 album and multiple Latin Grammy nominations. Working without all the synthesizers and electronic backup, Juanes found himself re-energized.  His fans were enthralled.
      Many of us have seen "unplugged" concerts (if only on television)  The venue is more intimate.  The audience is seated closer to the performers.  Pyrotechnics are generally absent. And familiar songs, made almost uninteresting by constant repetition on the airwaves, take on a very different feel.  Unfettered somewhat by the expectations of the audience (i.e., that the music sounds just like that on the album), the artist can put a bit more of him or herself into the music -- especially true if they are a singer-songwriter.
      This image of "unplugged concerts" was suggested to me by something I heard earlier this week.  There was a slight difference; the reference was not so much to music, but to stories.  Stories that we read or hear over and over.  They may represent different versions on the same basic narrative (the four Christian gospels are an example).  Or they may be the same narrator telling the same story in different contexts.  But many of us find ourselves, when confronted by a different version, saying, "Wait a minute!  I've heard this before, and the version you're telling now isn't right, or it isn't what you've told us before!"
     Well, of course, story-tellers (singer-songwriters) have every right to make the story their own at any time they tell it.  The problem is ours, as we come to expect a certain outcome based on prior experiences.  And our attachment to that expected outcome may limit our ability to hear the story/song in its different form, missing the nuances or multiple layers. This is point number one:  we need to be attentive to the nuances between stories, for contained within them is a deeper story -- the individual's own story, not just that which is told in the words of the song/tale.
     Point number two is a little different.  We often get trapped in the surface-level stories we create about ourselves that we lose sight of our own deeper realities, our hopes, fears, insecurities, strengths, etc.  And our being constantly "plugged in" to music, the cyber-world, work, sports, food, election coverage, or whatever, helps shield us from that deeper self.  So, maybe, for some of us the weeks between Thanksgiving and the resumption of school in January may provide time for us to unplug from the usual distractions and return to our core stories.  Maybe we can return mirroring the description of Juanes:

"He has realized a new ambition for what his music can be, of the many things that his music can take in,". . . "He's growing as a musician, he's playing better than ever. It's a new stage for him. I believe the best is yet to come for Juanes." 


Chaplain Gary

Friday, November 2, 2012

Your compass points where?

     I've just come from a very provocative lecture/discussion on Religion and Violence.  The main speaker, Prof. Hector Avalos of Iowa State University, argued that religion almost necessarily produces violence.*  He believes that religion creates one of several "scarce resources" (e.g., access to sacred space or salvation), and that, then, believers control access to those resources. This controlled access to a desirable resource results in conflict and, ultimately, in violence.  He had numerous examples from texts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as contemporary issues, that he felt supported his claims.  It was a compelling argument, although the two respondents (one from Iliff School of Theology and the other from Denver Seminary) took issue with several of his claims.  I, too, found much with which to agree, as well as much with which to argue.
     What he had to say, however, shed a bit of light on some things that I've been mulling this week.  Many of us have Facebook "friends" who post things to their page that (possibly) give intriguing insights into their personality/beliefs.  And, so I've been struck, as this election cycle reaches it zenith (or nadir) by the kinds of political stuff that is passed on via the "Share" button.  Two of my "friends" have shared posts originally appearing on the Facebook pages "Christians Against Barack Obama" and "Americans Against the Tea Party" (my friends do not compose a monolithic bloc!).
      All I want to infer about my friends is that they found something in the original posts that resonated.  On the other hand, what struck me were the respective names of the Facebook pages they shared:  "So-and-so AGAINST such-and-such."  The page-names set up opposition; they set up conflict.  Ultimately, I suppose, they could set up violence.  The first case ("Christians against . . .), suggests at least a couple of scarce resources:  (1) who/what is a "Christian"; and (2) that there is an assumed "real" Christian candidate (which, of course, does not include the current incumbent).  In the second case, a similar assumption is made over the ownership of the title "American" and its agenda.  In both cases, you're either in or out, and "spoilin' for a brawl".
     But what also bothers me is that both of these groups argue about what they are "against". And lots of Facebook posts do so as well, without the reference to such antagonist Facebook pages.  And the same is true in most of our political ads this cycle; the last statistic I heard was that over 70% of political advertisements were negative.  "Don't vote for THAT Bozo!  We'll go to hell in a hand-basket if you do!"  How rare it is to see/hear an ad that says "Vote for this candidate, because she will do . . ."
     Also, this week, I was listening to a couple of conversations hosted by Krista Tippet of the radio program "OnBeing."  These were part of a series called "The Civil Conversations Project".  One of the conversations was on the institution of marriage, the other on political bridge-builders.  In both cases the conversation partners were those who "sat across the aisle" from the other on the issue at hand.  Yet, in both, they were able to identify core issues over which they agreed.  It was the centrality of the issue that united them in solving the problem, NOT the centrality of their position on the issue, nor their certainty that they were right and the other wrong.
      In one of the discussions, one of the folks spoke about the need for following a moral compass.  And I began to relate that back to the Facebook issue.  The pages to which I refer are NOT talking about following a compass toward a destination, but rather about turning away from a different direction.  Turning away from "west" does NOT mean one will turn "east"; heading "south" or "north" may not solve the problem.  My assumption (naive it may be) is that these Facebook folks ultimately want much of the same thing (less debt, adequate security, etc).  But the rhetoric they employ sets up "scarce resources" leading ton conflict and violence.
      So I have to wonder about which direction our compasses are pointing?  Are they simply pointing away from a problem, or toward a solution?  Prof. Avalos ended his talk this afternoon with some of the things that might resolve the "religion creates scarce resources creates violence"trajectory.  One of those was to expand the resource base; end the scarcity. The language we use is one way of doing that.  Checking to see if our compass works is another.


Chaplain Gary

*  To be fair, Avalos doesn't say that only religion produces violence, or that all religions always produce violence.

PS:  Vote this coming Tuesday (if you haven't already).  But vote for something/someone, not against the alternative!

Friday, October 26, 2012

What's beyond you?

      A number of years ago, my wife and I attended a concert where two very popular musicians were playing together (Billy Joel and Elton John).  I had gone to a ticket outlet on the first day of sales, and was rewarded with fifth-row center tickets in a stadium that would seat 50,000.  I can't imagine ever repeating that feat!  The concert was pretty much everything we expected . . . and more.  There was something about being THAT close to the stage, and not just because we were able to see the performers without binoculars.  No, there was something about being so close to the focal point of all the collective energy of the crowd.  I had a sense of being drawn out of myself, and into something larger.  It was very different than wearing headphones and listening to the same performers do the same music (even if the recording was of a live concert).
      Earlier this week, Hindus celebrated the victory of good over evil in the festival of Dussehra (those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will have been reminded of this!).  As I was doing a bit of research on the festival, I ran across a number of photos/images of how it was celebrated; one is found above.  And I was reminded of my fascination with the art associated with Hinduism.  Multi-armed gods and goddesses. Vibrant colors -- not just of clothing but also of human/animal features.  All very fantastical.  And very few of them depicting natural realities.  To enter into the world of Hinduism is, in some ways, to allow oneself to be drawn into some larger reality.
      And, it happened this week that I was listening to an interview (aren't I always??) with Alain de Botton.  He is an avowed, life-long, atheist who has started "The School of Life" in London, and whose most recent book is entitled Religion for Atheists.  He is not associated with the so-called "New Atheists", such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens; indeed, he finds them relatively unhelpful.  De Botton, on the contrary, sees much value in religions although he, himself, does not choose to affiliate.  Some of the value he finds is in their ability to draw individuals out of their own limited perspectives.  So, at "The School of Life," sessions/meetings may often contain majestic music--think "hymns".  He admits to being captivated by the power and grandeur of cathedrals . . . because they draw the eyes and heart upward and beyond.  Yet he remains firmly grounded in his this-worldly atheism.
      What all of these have in common, of course, is the experience of being drawn out of oneself, being "taken to another place."  In some respects, they contrast with the impulse found in almost all religious traditions, as well as in some "secular" pursuits, of "going inward."  Meditation or mindfulness seek to put us in touch with our inner being, to help us listen to a "still small voice."  And I think that is a great good!  I love solitude and reflection.  But I suspect that few of us can survive on a diet of solitude.  Even the most introverted need, or can be fed by, an experience of utter transcendence and awe.  Yet I find that, with the exception of large music concerts, most of us have few opportunities to be drawn out, up, beyond.
       Going inward; going beyond.  Two sides of the same coin?  Or, to dip into another religious tradition, "yin" the other's "yang"?  I would say so.  Both seem necessary.  But in this American culture, our opportunities for going beyond seem fewer and further apart. Which may suggest that we simply must look more diligently for the experience . . . and, possibly, be richer for it.
       So, what's your beyond?  Or, what's beyond YOU?


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bring it!

     It happens about weekly, sometimes more than once a week.  I and a bunch of other folks are sweating and breathing with some difficulty from our exertion in studio-cycling class. The instructor has us laboring up a virtual hill.  He tells us that the top of the "hill" is in sight. And he shouts "BRING IT"!  My immediate fatigue-produced responses (sometimes verbalized) range from "What should I do with IT now that I've brought IT?" to "I left IT in my office!"
     Fatigue-produced responses indeed.  For I certainly know what he means; it's just fun to toy with him.  He wants us to bring maximum effort to our workout.  Despite those who say "No Pain, No Gain" or "Feel the burn!" no longer hold sway, there are many of us who feel that if we haven't pooped ourselves out, the workout was somewhat in vain.
      We hear it often enough:  "We want your best effort!"  "Leave nothing in the tank!"  Or Yoda's words to Luke Skywalker, "There is no try, only do."  The implication is, it often seems to me, that anything less than total commitment/expenditure is hardly worth anything. The shadow-side of that, however, is that we may often feel that we have nothing to contribute, let alone give our all.  And so we can sit back and wonder, "Why even try?"
      I'm reminded of an old story I heard somewhere in my youth.  An elderly man, who had been so active early in life, had succumbed to severe physical limitations due to age.  A sense of uselessness descended upon him.  "What good am I now?" he asked his pastor.  The wise counselor responded, "You can pray for all of these people on this list."  Now there are a lot of recent studies on the power of prayer, and I'm not going to go there!  But the pastor pointed out something quite profound:  even when we think we are unable to bring anything to a situation, we've still, most likely, got something left.
      We live in such a competitive environment.  Whether it's athletics, business or education, we feel that we are only worth all of the big "stuff" we bring to a situation (strength!  speed!  number-crunching acumen! clever advertising slogans!  multiple advanced degrees, patents or publications!).  But often, what is needed is something much different.  Perhaps it's a simple phone call.  A kind, or consoling, word in the hall. Maybe a touch on the arm. Maybe it's simply something we all can do:  share an understanding silence.
       Of course, we do have special skills, talents, and gifts that we can also employ.  But the "IT" we all can tap is the deep well of our common humanity.   And given the troubles we face in our world, from fractious political contests to those experiencing financial ruin to those who've just done poorly on an exam, a gentle expression of humanity is probably what is the most needed.
       So, Bring IT!


Chaplain Gary

PS:   "Back it down to 5."  "Boo-yah!"  (Those who have ears, let them hear!)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

There be dragons!

     A number of years ago, when I was Episcopal Campus Minister at UC-Berkeley, as part of my job, I "managed" a student residence (in a building over a hundred years old!).  Three floors, eighteen students.  Men and women.  Different races/ethnicities.  Different religious backgrounds.  Both graduate and undergraduate (although mostly the latter).  Part of the "management" meant addressing clogged drains, the internet not working, dealing with various "pests", taking the change out of the laundry machines, painting vacant rooms, etc.  All of that meant that I was often walking through the building on a relatively regular basis.
     Walking through a residence hall, one often hears snippets of conversations; my experience at Berkeley was no different.  Most often I'd hear one half of a phone conversation, or some discussion of the menu for the evening.  But every so often I'd hear a piece of a "religious" conversation, frequently a question.  These were not my conversations, and I was rarely invited to participate--and I didn't eavesdrop--so I wouldn't hear the whole thing.  Plenty of times, of course, I wanted to interject something, especially when I heard an incorrect fact in an answer. Again, however, these were not my conversations, so I'd wander off about my business, speculating about what brought on the discussion and how it played out.
      Late-night residence hall conversations are central to the university experience.  Those dark hours lower some defenses, but also seem to evoke the need to address mystery.   So, during the wee hours, questions about "What do you believe?" or "If there's a god, what's he (or she) like?" arise like mushrooms.  And, as I remember from my collegiate days, those discussions were formative; I changed my mind over and over again.   I developed a much more expansive world view.
     All of this came to mind after hearing something earlier this week about how, in much of what passes as conversation (or debate) these days, questions are often given short shrift in light of authoritative answers.  An answer is given, but follow-up questions are increasingly rare in our age of sound-bites.  So now we hear a cry for "fact-checkers", as if "facts" will answer the deeper questions.  Would my desire to correct the answers given by the Berkeley residents, for example, really address the deeper longings that stood behind the initial question?
     We need reinvigorate the art of question-asking, continual question-asking!  Ancient maps would sometimes show the known world, the world of facts, the world that could be ascertained.  Beyond that was the realm of dragons.  Venture there, and you were in danger.  Thankfully many explorers took the risk of going into those "dragon-infested" waters.  As a result our knowledge was enriched, our experiences were deepened.  The values of the explorers were challenged, to be sure, especially as exploration turned to colonization.  But, then, for many, so was their capacity for wonder and compassion.
     "Here there be dragons" didn't stop the explorers.  Indeed, the dragons seemed to be lures for growth.  A little further from sight of land, a little further from safety.  More hope for something new, something valuable.
     Bring on the dragons!  Bring on the questions!  And let's go deep and far together!


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 5, 2012

Don't eat the menu!

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, 
made by human hands. 
These have mouths but say nothing, 
have eyes but see nothing, 
have ears but hear nothing, 
and they have no breath in their mouths. 
Their makers will end up like them, 
everyone who relies on them.  

      This selection from the Hebrew Bible's Psalm 135:15-18 is a relatively common trope in that collection of scriptures (an almost identical list is found in Ps. 115:4-8). Indeed, the commandment "You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth" (Ex 20:4) was understood to be one of the main distinguishing features between the Israelites and their neighbors. The Israelites were to recognize that the divine--"I am Who I am" or "I will be Who I will be" was well beyond their competence to understand, let alone depict.
      This teaching is not confined to Judaism. The Tao Te Ching begins: "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name." In the early centuries of Christianity, there was a fierce debate over whether or not images, or icons, of Jesus and the saints could be made -- a debate that had resonances centuries later when the Puritans disfigured or destroyed statues and paintings in the churches of English Roman Catholics. And the recent uproar over the anti-Muslim film made here in the U.S. traces some of its intensity to an understood religious prohibition of visual representations of the Prophet Mohammed.
       Attributed to 9th-century Buddhist teacher Lin Chi is the statement, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Sam Harris, one of the so-called "New Atheists", in an online article in the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun suggests that "Kill the Buddha" should be replaced by "Kill Buddhism".  His argument is certainly not that Buddhists should be killed, but rather that Buddhism has begun to obscure the teachings of the Buddha (he extends that claim -- that the 'ism' has replaced the heart of the teaching -- to all other religions as well). He thus stands in a long line of iconoclasts, stretching back to the Hebrew poets and prophets!
      I sort of doubt that Israel's early neighbors were as clueless as they were painted, i.e., that they actually thought that the manufactured representations WERE the deities themselves.  Who knows?  They may have had internal critics pointing out the very same temptation?  But what is it about us that we need to reduce an ideal to something controllable, something lesser, something more in our image?  Certainly one of the dangers is that we can exclude others who don't agree with our depiction (a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the "color" of images of Jesus*).  This is as true in politics as in religion, by the way!
      Another danger, however, is that we can become so enamored with our representation that we begin to believe it.  And, since the representations are generally pretty hollow, our own spirits become depleted, our compassion dimmed.  In a recent interview, Rabbi Rami Shapiro said, "Theology is like going into a restaurant and eating the menu.  I'd rather have the food."  
      Wouldn't we all?  Then why are we so satisfied with the menu?  And what might happen if we actually bypassed a predictable menu to what an unpredictable Chef might prepare for us?

Chaplain Gary

*Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey, "The Contested Color of Christ" in The Chronicle Review (Sept 21, 2012), B6-9.

Friday, September 28, 2012

From the inside, out.

     There has been a "strange nexus in the Force" this week, as many things I've been reading, and hearing, have pointed in (primarily) the same direction. The first was aninterview with two leaders among, what are called, the "New Evangelicals". One was Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family; the other was Gabe Lyons a younger man who is the founder of a sort of TED-like group called "Q: Ideas for the Common Good". Daly was picked to follow upon Focus's founder, James Dobson. Lyons was brought up in Lynchburg, VA, the home of Jerry Falwell's church and college (Liberty University) -- and he was a product of all that Lynchburg offered.
      In the interview, both men realized that the presentation of Christianity that they had inherited was increasingly viewed with suspicion (especially among the younger generation), and was not necessarily what THEY understood the Christian message truly to be about. Daly pointed out that his organization had been "gentle to those inside" and "harsh to those outside" the faith-boundaries. And, he observed, Jesus' behavior was exactly the opposite: calling to task the "religious" folks, and welcoming those from without the fold. He suggested that members of religious traditions (in his, case, certainly, Christians) should spend more time calling their own to faithfulness instead of lambasting the culture for not living up to the standards the faithful themselves couldn't achieve.
      I have also been reading the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. This is a story of the early expansion of the Christian movement in the first few decades after the death of Jesus. In a couple of places, the apostle Paul (and his message) comes into contact with significant centers of Greco-Roman culture: Athens and Ephesus. Athens, of course, was a center of learning and philosophy; Ephesus a great trade center, as well as cultic center for the goddess Artemis. In Athens, Paul observes (with some disappointment) how many "idols" dotted the city (Acts 17.22-32). Yet, in his speech to the citizens, he doesn't criticize the Athenians, but rather starts with their propensity to religiosity. That approach generates some dialogue. In Ephesus, the story was a bit different (Acts 19.23-41). After spending several years there, the early Christian community had been successful enough that, for some reason, some of the business folks felt threatened enough to stir up a mob. There is no indication in Acts that the Christians were being critical of the Artemis cult; they were apparently just keeping to themselves, but living a lifestyle that, itself, was perceived as a threat, perhaps because it was more attractive than the civic religion.
        The third part of the nexus is simply all the political advertising to which we've been subjected these last few weeks (and which will only intensify over the next few). Both sides are spending vast amounts of money criticizing the other. Significantly fewer ads trumpet successes. The theory seems to be "Create fear of the other! And then we'll have a large group of fearful people who will vote the same way, although they may agree on little else!"
       What are our own (individual and collective) strengths and weaknesses? Maybe focusing there might be a good idea. Who knows, if our own house were more attractive, we might get more visitors? Or, put another way, perhaps if we tend to our inner workings, we may get to the point where we can fly? 

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cultivating joy!

       Last evening my wife and I went to a DU volleyball game; it was the team's first real home game of the year. We had learned to really enjoy volleyball last year, and had been looking forward to the fall for some time. We were not disappointed. It was an exciting match, and DU's ultimate victory (3-0) was the icing on the cake.
       As Coach Mahoney said in a post-game tweet, the atmosphere was fun. And a lot of what made it fun was the presence of several of the other teams. Last year the men's swim team became de-facto cheerleaders (with a twist -- you'll have to attend a game to see what that is!). This year, the swim team was joined by the men's basketball who did their level best to distract the opposition. Given the fact that they were all dressed like refugees from a Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons aerobics video, that the other team was able to focus at all was a testimony to their training and focus. And then the gymnastics team, on the opposite side of the floor from us, was cheering loudly and doing cartwheels in the bleachers when we scored. Members of the Athletics administration, most of the fans, and we were smiling broadly throughout the match. It was fun; it was joyful.
       After we got home, I was reflecting on the mood of the evening. The smiles. The laughter. The excitement. The joy. Joy. An emotion, or feeling, that we probably don't feel enough these days. The economy, armed conflicts abroad, a combative election season-all often serve to keep our mood, individual and collective, subdued.
       I wonder what would happen, if we were to seek out, or work to create, more experiences of joy for ourselves and others. I know that I slept better last night than in many days. I awoke more refreshed, and with a better outlook for the day to come. So, I wonder if that infusion of joy could be compounded. That is, if there were more experiences, more often, my inner compass would re-orient slightly.
       A ponderable.  Can we cultivate joy?
       One thing's for certain! Many more volleyball games this fall! 

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 14, 2012

Connection. So important!

       Folks who have been around the University of Denver for the last six months will know that we have had four students (including a June 2012 graduate) die -- all of different causes.  In addition, we've had a member of the housekeeping staff, as well as a not-quite-as-recent alumna.  In short, it's been a difficult several months.  In all of those cases, I've been privileged to be a part of the care teams that have helped those affected, from family to co-workers to fellow students.  And, this afternoon was the most recent, a visit with a grieving family and friends.
      Indeed, over the five years I have been at DU, I've been a part of numerous funerals/memorials.  It is always a humbling honor, to be invited into such a raw situation.  One thing, however, profoundly has struck me over the last couple of weeks:  I have wished I had known all of those folks better. A pretty common feature of memorial services in this day of PowerPoint or iPhoto slideshows is a video montage, drawing together moments of the individual's life.  Added to that are all of the memories, professional and personal, that friends, family and colleagues bring to the ceremony.  We often hear the favorite songs or poems.  Themes arise.  From housekeepers to administrators, students to professors, children to parents . . . every person has a story.  A unique, funny, wrenching, gripping, everyday story.   Memorials provide an opportunity to hear them, to share them, to marvel at the beauty of lives lived.
      I often don't know the person being memorialized very well; sometimes I don't know them at all.  But I often leave the service feeling like I've missed something by not knowing them.  I know I can't know everyone, so that's not the point.  It is rare enough to be invited into that inner circle for a moment . . . and I cherish it.
      No, I can't know everyone.  But I come into contact with folks every day; we all do.  And for many reasons we often shrug off the opportunities to enter into the other person's story.  We miss their richness because we're too busy, too pre-occupied.  Or we may be too shy, too reticent, to share our lives.   And I believe, given the experience of these last few months, we are poorer for it.  Television.  Internet.  Fences.  Distractions.  All keep us apart, or provide excuses for making the connections we all crave.
      We miss one another, in more ways than one.
      I, for one, want to hear your stories now.  So, interrupt me.  Remind me of this.  And hold me, and each other, accountable.

Chaplain Gary