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

Friday, September 7, 2012

No quick fix, so . . . buckle down

            A few weeks ago, my 9-year-old son asked me why babies cried as soon as they were born.  We were in the car going somewhere, and this question came out of the blue; it must have had something to do with some TV show he'd been watching.  Happy that I didn't have to address the "other" question about babies, I did my best to talk about the shock of the move from womb to cold air, as well as the upside down spank that helps clear the air passages.  And then he said, "It would be great if there were a pill for that."
       Not too long after that conversation, I heard an advertisement on the radio for some new weight-loss pill.  "No harsh diet regimen!  No exercise required!" the ad claimed.  In short, all of the benefit, trouble-free!  Just buy the pill!
       On top of these "quick-fix pill" incidents, I read (and heard news reports on) former Pres. Clinton's statement at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday that "no president, not even me" could, in only four years, solve the problems the country faced in 2008. Yet we, as an electorate, seem to want immediate change in a system that, almost by design, resists such change.  And, of course, we want the change to be painless for us; someone else can make the sacrifice.
      And then I also heard a news report on some experiments about learning (from an audio source) while we sleep--no work required!  As we anticipate the start of another academic year at the University of Denver, I'm sure that there are some on campus who wish that the research behind this study would translate into hard reality . . . NOW.  Learning made easy; few demands!
       I suppose it's not just "we as an electorate".  It's part of our natural make-up that we avoid pain/suffering.  But most of us know, too, that becoming better at something requires practice, some exercise, maybe some long hours devoted to a task.  Losing weight via a pill is not the same as becoming healthy, which that awful "diet regimen and exercise" might help achieve.  We've bought into a story that "looking good" is the same as achieving health.
      The same phenomenon may be true in religion/spirituality.  Some folk are highly conscious of following all the rules of a particular tradition (i.e. they appear "religious"), but have no depth of compassion.  Others might want to "feel good" spiritually themselves, but find no compulsion to change unjust systems.  Most historical traditions, however, recognize a variation on the old exercise adage:  "No pain, no gain."  The real benefits -- both for the individual and for others -- are found in practice, self-discipline, and service.  How counter-cultural!
      If we truly want change -- political, social, spiritual, emotional -- we're going to have to leave aside the wishes for a quick fix, for a magic pill, for a feel-good moment, and dedicate ourselves to do what it takes for the long haul.
      All the best for a great academic year!


Chaplain Gary

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Billboard's Top 100?

     Two weeks ago, my wife and I were in Los Angeles for a wedding reception, mini-vacation, and belated anniversary celebration.  Since we were traveling alone, we decided that any entertainment/activities we might choose would be things that we would NOT do if we had our children with us.  So, on Friday afternoon, we rented a tandem bike and rode up and down the Santa Monica strand/bike path.  And, in the evening we went to the Hollywood Bowl.
      In advance of our trip, dear spouse imaginatively suggested we visit that icon of entertainment.  She told me that the concert would be the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra with the Colombian guitarist and singer, Juanes.  It's not as if we had much choice; we figured it would be fun -- even if we knew nothing about Juanes (I thought "Classical guitar -- great!").  The morning of the concert, there was an article in the LA Times about the evening's performer.  I came to learn that Juanes is one of the most successful Latin popular music artists over the last decade or so.
      We arrived at the Hollywood Bowl, carrying our Trader Joes' dinner (as were many other concert-goers!).  When the lights went down and Juanes took the stage with his ensemble, I quickly realized that my expectations were going to be blown sky-high.  Most of the concert was in Spanish.  The concert-goers ran the gamut from (as one reviewer put it) "elderly couples with a wine and cheese picnic basket, Asian young adults enjoying sushi, Colombians waving their flags, and plenty of seductively dressed young Latinas".  There was lots of squealing and dancing in the aisles (and seats).  And there was FABULOUS music.
       Who knew?  Well, it turns out, a lot of people -- those who, unlike me, don't limit their radio stations to a certain genre.  Dear spouse and I were blown away.  And I was reminded of a realization I had some years ago:  "I bet folks in Rome, or Tangiers, or Singapore, or Kampala don't pay much attention to theNew York Times bestseller list.  I certainly don't know what's "hot" on Le Monde's bestseller list orPravda's.
       Billboard magazine keeps track of the top 100 songs in many different categories/genres:  classical, pop, country, urban; Japanese pop, French songs, etc.  Most of us -- if we're music-listeners -- only listen to a few.  Similarly, unless we read a foreign language, or a book has been translated and deemed "hot", we rarely care about books not by American authors (at least those we might read for pleasure).  We often have a tendency to limit the scope of our experience to that which is most familiar.  We often do that religiously/spiritually as well . . . and, I suspect we're equally impoverished by that.
       Over the last three days, I have stood in front of several gatherings of incoming international students at the University of Denver.  When I told them that I believe that they enrich our university community immensely, I did so with a new appreciation of what I was saying.  An evening with  Juanes at the Hollywood Bowl can do that to you.  The final number "Odio por amor"*, has the refrain (sung in English), "It's Time to Change"**.  Amen.


Chaplain Gary

*  The lyrics (in English) can be found here:

**  If you're interested in the finale of the concert (mentioned and depicted above), take a look at this YouTube video (