Friday, May 25, 2012

Compelled forward

        I love this time of year at the University of Denver!  There's an almost tangible sense of finality and anticipation that pervades the campus.  Classes are winding down; the summer looms.  For some, not only are classes winding down, but so are collegiate, or graduate school, years.  Some will leave campus not to return except, perhaps, for homecoming or some other event.  Many have pretty firm plans about the summer and beyond.  Others are less certain.  The sense isn't limited to students!  Faculty have research plans that engage them.  Staff are anticipating some "down-time" to finally get to those big piles of files that seem to multiply every night.  Pretty much everyone is looking forward to some vacation.
       But it's not just university students that I see.  In my daily walk to and from the fitness center, I see scores of high school students in gowns with proud parents wildly snapping photos.  Magness Arena -- site of Pioneer hockey and basketball games -- also plays host to many high school commencements over a two week period.  Given that these students come from all over Denver, the diversity is quite amazing.  The sense of satisfaction, celebration and optimism that I feel on the main campus is just as palpable there.  It makes me happy to walk by them all (and I don't even mind them looking in the windows and watching me do strange bodily contortions called "exercises").
      What these students are doing, and what the DU graduates will be doing in a couple of weeks, is "commencing."  Certainly there is celebration of what has been learned and achieved, of hurdles overcome, of struggles vanquished.  But what is also a reality for many is that they are much closer to arriving at the tangible answer to that question that we've all been asked:  "What do you want to be when you grow up?" or "What do you want to do after you're done with your education?"  We've all had to answer that.  Whether or not we've ended up where we hoped or expected, the questions gave us a vision of what is possible, of where we might employ our talents and strengths in a meaningful way.  In short, as awkward as those questions might have made us feel, they prodded us to give voice to a vision.
       In the Hebrew Bible's book of Proverbs, the sage wrote "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (29.18, King James Version).  I know I'm taking this a bit out of context, but there is something here I believe is worth recalling.  My suspicion is that most of the graduates this spring are not going to spend as much time thinking about some test that didn't go as well as they'd hoped, or about the touchdown pass that they dropped, or about the blind date that was horrible.  They will more likely be focused on what they want to achieve now that this particular milestone is behind them:  "There's that new job awaiting me!"  "I can't believe graduate school starts in just a few weeks!"  In other words, the focus on the future is more compelling than a view of the past.
       Do we have compelling visions of our future?  Or are we simply trying to avoid the mistakes of the past . . .  or to recreate an idyllic past that probably never was?  Or, as Jackie Kelm writes:  "Focusing our attention on what we do want will create more of it, while focusing on what we don't want will create more of that as well.  If we focus on how we 'never have enough money,' what we create in our lives is 'not enough money.'"  A little later she writes, "It is important to ask about what we want more of, and not less."*  In other words, is our vision expansive enough to draw us--corporately or individually --beyond where we are now?  Expansive, and compelling enough, to sustain us as we move to the next level?
       Congratulations, graduates!  Vision boldly.  And commence!


* Kelm, Jacqueline Bascobert.  Appreciative Living:  The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life  (Wake Forest:  Venet Publishers, 2005), 41, 64.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sustaining the Spirit

       Yesterday I was part of a "Constructive Conversation" hosted by the Social Justice Living and Learning Community here at the University of Denver (and, yes, I'm writing again on a Saturday!  This won't become a habit!).   The question that was driving this particular conversation was (roughly), "How do we create a physically, socially, and spiritually sustainable community at the University?" I was struck, almost immediately, how quickly the conversation focused on the "spiritual" portion of the question.
       There were about 12-15 people sitting in the circle, not all of whom I knew.  And I certainly hadn't convened the conversation.  But there was clearly something about the topic that engaged folks.  Questions arose, from "How do religious student groups sustain/maintain themselves?" to "What kind of things are available for those who are seeking some sort of spiritual sustenance, but aren't really connected with one tradition or another?" to "What kinds of spaces are necessary to encourage connections -- not just between the individual and the divine, but also between individuals?"(suggesting that spiritual relationships also are maintained through person-to-person contact).
       I certainly came away with a lot of food for thought.  Some of that "food" translated into ideas for collaboration with various offices/departments around campus.  Some of it made me look at programming opportunities or options.  But much of what I've been mulling considering has been the question of "How DO we sustain our spirit?"  Some of the folks mentioned a sort of spiritual burn-out -- not the kind of burn-out that results from spiritual over-extension, but rather a burn-out from under-nourishment.  I can certainly equally be fatigued, when bike-riding, from too many hills as from too little food/fuel.
       And, so, I wonder -- both for myself and for those around me, and whom I serve.  "WHAT IS A SUSTAINABLE ENVIRONMENT FOR SPIRITUALITY?"  (And, yes, I know, I had the caps lock "on".)  I've been pondering, over the last 24 hours, what that means for me?
      And, although I know it's unusual, I have to wonder what that means for you, the readers of this reflection, the members of the University community.  And, although I've never really done this before, I invite you -- I ASK you -- to navigate over to my blogsite "On a bike and a prayer" (where you can comment on this reflection, relatively anonymously) with some answers to any of the following questions:
What does "spiritual sustainability" mean to you?
How do you sustain your spiritual life?
How might my office at the University of Denver help you, or provide resources to, sustain your spiritual life?
What resources would benefit you as you strive to maintain your connection to the divine, or that which is greater than you?
       We're all on a quest.  We may define, or nurture, it differently.  Many of the same resources, however, may be helpful.

Thank you, and blessings,


Do not judge?

       Big news this week!  Sure to be a political landscape shifter!  Or is it?
       President Obama went on national television to clear up any misconceptions about the evolution of his views on same-sex unions.  In short, he supports them.  Vice-President Biden, and Education Secretary Duncan do also -- and their comments probably precipitated the President's.
       In the wake of those announcements, the opinionators began to discuss what impact this announcement would have on the coming election.  Would it sway voters one way or the other?  More significantly, what would happen with those demographics that have supported Obama in the past (e.g., African-Americans and Latinos), but who have tended to be social conservatives?  The overall assumption, it seemed to me, was that everyone was going to base their voting decision on this one issue.  Then, on the other side, Mitt Romney has been trying to say, "It's the economy, stupid" -- suggesting that everyone might (or should) base their vote on THAT issue alone.
       I have no intention of discussing either gay unions OR the economy.  My concern continues to be the fracturing of our common life by such implications that there are only two ways to understand an issue, a political party, or a member of that party, or . . .  just about anything else.  And that was illustrated by an article in this morning's Denver Post (and, yes, I'm writing this on a Saturday!  Horrors, Brower's late!) that many black Americans will continue to support the President in spite of his support for same-sex marriage.  Golly, I guess it isn't that simple!  Maybe people aren't as black-or-white (pardon the pun) as we are being led to believe, assume, or accept!
      I was also reading this morning from the "Sermon on the Mount", a collection of exhortations and teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.  A couple of things stood out for me in the context of this week's news.  The first was Jesus' counsel:  "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged . . ." (Mt 7.1).  And the second was a few verses later (in the context of being wary of false prophets):  "every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit" (7.17-18).   
      In some respects, I might see these as contradictory:  how, for example, can one distinguish between good and bad trees/fruit without judging?  But I'm wondering if there might be another way to interpret both?  (And, I hasten to add, I'm not a big fan of folks who are clear about what Jesus, or any other writer means.  All texts--sacred or otherwise--are open to a lot of interpretation!).  
      In terms of the first saying about "judging others", I bristle when folks judge that, because I think "this way" about issue "A", I must think "that way" about issue "B".  I'm not that simple; I'm a mishmash/melange of beliefs, opinions, etc.  To think that I'm all one-way or the other is demeaning to me.  Am I to assume that it is any less demeaning to others if I make a similar judgment?
     In terms of the second saying about good/bad trees, I recall a wonderful song by the artist Sting, entitled "Russians" that contains the line:  I hope the Russians love their children too."  This song, written before the collapse of the Soviet Union (it came out in 1985), twitted those of us who would think that all of "them" were nothing but horned demons bent on destroying the world with their version of "Oppenheimer's deadly toy".  So, I wonder, even if "bad trees" bear "bad fruit", are they totally without merit?  I love trees that provide cooling shade, even though they drop sap on my car -- and they don't even bear ANY fruit.
     We are all more complex than any one thing that we think, or believe, or do.  The richness that is humanity (or even the voting public) deserves better from our news reporters, or opinionators, or preachers, or us than to teach that there is only ONE issue, ONE position, ONE belief, that should drive our dealings with our fellows--all of whom, many of us believe, were created in the image of God.



Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nones & Nuns: Confused?

      A recent survey of the college-aged "millennial" generation indicates that about 25% of that age cohort (18 - 24 years old) claim no religious affiliation.  It also indicates that that number has grown larger during as they've aged up.  That is, when these students were younger kids, only 11% of them professed being unaffiliated; over the course of ten years or so, that number more than doubled.**  A survey of University of Denver students (both undergraduate and graduate/professional) in the fall of 2011 produced somewhat similar results (although Denver students were even MORE unaffiliated).  Hmmmm. Why?
      The release of that report in the last couple of weeks coincided with my reading of (well, listening to) Robert Putnam and David Campbell's book, American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us.***  In that book, they also address the question of those who choose not to identify with any one religious tradition.  These folks are not necessarily "atheists" (i.e., those who believe there is no God) or even "agnostics" (those who aren't sure that there is a God).  They just do not find that a particular religious tradition fits with their understanding of the world, the cosmos, spirituality and how they all work together.  Putnam and Campbell (and, to be sure, others) refer to these folks as "Nones" (rhymes with "nuns"!).  As I was listening to the book, the constant reference to "Nones" and what they (dis-)believed was always a jarring experience, as I consistently that heard "Nuns" didn't believe this, or thought that . . . and none (pardon me) of that was consistent with what I thought/knew about nuns.  (Here's where reading the book would have been easier than listening to it!)
      Clearly (to borrow from Sherlock Holmes), there's something afoot!
      Putnam and Campbell suggest (and their argument is more complex and nuanced than I'm reflecting) that many younger people are rejecting the political associations of religion (primarily Christianity -- primarily conservative Christianity) with politics, as well as the disconnect between a scientific world-view and that of conservative religious teachings.  Those associations don't necessarily reflect THEIR understandings/beliefs.  In other words,  they say, "If religion means a certain world/political view, and it doesn't match mine, I reject religion!  But that doesn't mean I'm NOT a spiritual person!  I still pray and believe in God . . . but not THAT way of thinking about God."
      And, then, on top of this all, comes the recent pronouncement out of the Vatican that the Leadership Council of Women Religious (that is, those women in the Roman Catholic Church who lead communities of nuns . . . yes NUNS) needs to rethink many of its positions (or even non-positions) on moral/religious issues of the day (women's ordination, right-to-life issues, the role of homosexual people, etc.).  In short, the leaders of nuns need to acquiesce to a particular sort of authority, and how that authority is made present in the current world, and reflect that authority's teachings.  The nuns, on the other hand, assert that they are reflecting, and carrying out, Jesus' mandate to serve all of God's creation wherever (or, in whatever state) it might be found.
      So, it seems to me, we have the Nones and the Nuns both reflecting a conflict between conscience and authority.  Or, put another way, they are both reflecting a crisis of authority:  where is it found?  Is it found in the experience/conscience of the individual (or even a relatively small community of individuals)?  Or is it found in an historical, hierarchical (some might say, patriarchal) external authority (such as the papacy, or even a sacred text)?  The Roman Catholic Church puts a high value on an individual's conscience . . . but what happens when that comes into conflict with Church teachings?  On the other hand, what happens when an individual's beliefs and practices conflict with the external, religious, authorities to which that individual owes allegiance? 
      I've long believed that the individual is THE final authority. Imay submit to another authority, whether it is a political ideology, a religious theology, or some sort of selfish desire, but I need to know, and be able to articulate, WHY I'm doing so.  Do the Nones and the Nuns?  I don't mean to suggest that they do not!  But their presence and witness always challenges me to re-evaluate MY position!
      And . . . you?



*  Okay, I confess that there aren't "four nones".  But it was a great image . . . and there might be four!!

**  The survey was a joint effort between the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.  The complete report can be found at:

***Published by Simon and Schuster, 2010