Friday, July 20, 2012

Not expecting the unthinkable

      This morning, before I turned on the computer, I was pretty certain what I would be writing today.  It had to do with living on the boundaries (inspired by a radio show on Autism and the Divine).  But, once the computer was on, my inbox was full of "Breaking News Updates" about the shooting early this morning at a nearby theater.  As of this writing, 71 people were either killed or wounded.  I immediately thought of two earlier situations when, having a Sunday morning sermon already written, I awoke to tragedies that demanded something else (an airplane crash in Charlotte, and Lady Diana's death).  So, boundaries and autism will have to wait.  Or, at least, autism.
       Because, it seems to me, we are always on boundaries, existing on a very thin edge.  As a road cyclist, I'm very aware of the fact that a couple of skinny tires, and my ability to balance in an emergency, are all that keep me from serious injury -- and I certainly know what happens when something affects traction that even my balance-skills can't correct!  The folks who attended last night's midnight showing of the latest Batman movie probably had no idea of the thin boundary they were walking -- nor should it have been on their minds.  None of us can live effective, productive lives if we're constantly looking for monsters under the bed.
       Tragedies like last night, however, do remind us that the unthinkable happens.  And, once it does, we begin to try to connect the dots that might help us explain it.  As I've said many times before, in many different circumstances (including the two tragedies to which I alluded above), the answer to the "why" question is ultimately unsatisfying.  Blaming violent movies, or too-lax gun laws (if indeed, they are), will not, in the end, explain the actions of folks who are in a psychological/mental state that would lead them to commit such crimes.
       For those reasons I can't ask "Why?" or "Why would God allow . . .?"  I cannot, with all good conscience say "God must have had a good reason for this."  That would not be a God I would want to worship, or serve, or devote my life's work.  I believe in a God who challenges me to ask "Given the tragedy, what's next?"  Mourn, grieve, certainly; there is loss!  But there's more!
       Certainly there are some socio-cultural institutions or practices that probably ought be challenged; that's one next step -- a possible next step that will probably be a very steep uphill climb.  Another, more manageable, next step would be simply to realize how thin are the boundaries that separate us and our loved ones from some unthinkable tragedy.  And to remember that our time together is extremely precious.  And to take action in that regard.
       There is a vigil scheduled tonight in Aurora for those who wish to join in solidarity.  I was asked by an editor of a national blog-site whether I was going to be there, and, if so, would I sent some reports?  Recognizing how it might sound, I responded that, "No, as one who has not been directly affected, I'm not going.  I'm going to be with my family, and hug my wife and kids extra hard."  The editor, also a friend/colleague, understood completely.
        I think that rather than living life looking for monsters under the bed, or in airplanes, or in movie theaters, or asking questions to which there is no satisfactory answer, I'd rather we live life appreciating and celebrating the fleeting beauty that is our life together.  That is one of my best answers to the "What next?" question.
        Because we never expect the unthinkable.  
        My prayers are with all of those affected by this horrible tragedy:  those who've died, those who were injured in body, those who've been injured in mind and spirit, the shooter, and all of their families.  My thanks go out to all of the first responders:  police, fire-fighters, ambulance crews, doctors and nurses . . . as well as those who will continue the care for all affected:  medical personnel, counselors, clergy, friends and family members.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, July 6, 2012

(Re-building the Intangible

As I mentioned in the last newsletter, I recently spent a week in New Haven, CT at the Global Conference of Chaplains in Higher Education.  Held every four years, this conference brings together Chaplains, Deans of Chapels, Campus Ministers, etc. from around the world.  I ate with Swedes, Germans, Australians, Muslims, Jews and Catholics.  We heard from amazing speakers-all from the US, and we had the opportunity to attend some great workshops and roundtables (all of the ones I attended were led by non-Americans!).
      One of the keynote speakers was the Rev. Gail Bowman, who just last month left her position as Chaplain at Dillard University (in New Orleans) to assume a similar role at Berea College (in Kentucky).  Gail was at Dillard when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast almost seven years ago.  The photo above is of the campus after the storm and broken dikes.  The campus, of course, was evacuated, and the school was closed for quite some months.  When it did reopen, it was in the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel.
      She told us stories of the evacuation and relocations of students, and showed slide after slide of the rebuilding process.  Several of the things she said have stuck with me (and I may return to some of the other of those quotes in weeks to come); one in particular haunted me:  "When buildings get destroyed, attention goes to the buildings, because they're tangible."*  As I recall, this was in the context of the trauma the students had experienced, but how little attention (comparatively) was paid to "rebuilding" them--those who, too, had lost so much.  It made me wonder about the University of Denver's Emergency Management Plan: what provisions are there in that document for caring for the people at the University in the wake of a major disaster interrupting the "business of higher education" here in Denver.  (There may, indeed, be provisions, but, to satisfy my curiosity, I plan on taking a look!)
      Coincidentally, a TED talk appeared in my iTunes queue prior to my return to Denver; I watched it on my smartphone on the plane.  It was titled "Measuring What Counts" with Chip Conley (who runs a numbers of hotels in San Francisco).**  Conley, too, was talking about tangibles and intangibles.  He pointed out that we most often understand success by measuring only the tangibles, the things that hit the bottom line.  Yet the backstory to his talk was that the success of one of his hotels was due to an intangible: the personal care one employee took to ensure that all of the guests were made to feel at home.
      Conley challenged his audience to develop a new metric, a new way of counting what really counts (he pointed to Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness" index).  That seemed, to me, be a very similar challenge implied by Gail Bowman:  to place at least as much emphasis on (re-)building the intangibles-the members of the Dillard community-as the buildings that house them.  And the request that Conley left with his audience mirrors the implicit request of Gail Bowman's:

So what the world needs now, in my opinion, is business leaders and political leaders who know what to count. We count numbers. We count on people. What really counts is when we actually use our numbers to truly take into account our people. I learned that from a maid in a motel and a king of a country. What can you start counting today? What one thing can you start counting today that actually would be meaningful in your life, whether it's your work life or your business life?***

Good question!


*That may not be a precise quote, as I was scribbling madly.  A video of the whole speech can be found at

**That talk can be found here:

***See the last paragraph of the transcript, found at the link above.