Friday, June 22, 2012

Hold on Tight? On 2nd Thought!

     Earlier this week, I was with my 9-year-old son at Cub Scout Camp.  Hot.  Dusty.  No hot water the first day.  Food fit for . . . cub scouts (but not their parents).  And he had a great time -- which, of course, was the point!  And all the things boys like to do:  BB-guns, swimming, sling-shots, hiking, boating, archery, etc.  I loved doing almost all of those things, too, as I was growing up.  But archery was NOT something I'd really experienced.  And it was fascinating listening to the instructors describe the proper technique for getting the arrow situated on the bow, how to hold the bow itself, how to hold the arrow against the bowstring, etc.  One of the things that seemed to create the most difficulty for the kids was the instruction to hold the arrow against the string "loosely"; in other words, not to squeeze the string, arrow, or fingers too tightly.  The result was a poorly-shot arrow!  I can understand the kids' confusion; it seemed counterintuitive to me too!
      Then, on Thursday morning, I went to the doctor to have him check on my left elbow, where I was experiencing some pain when I would move my arm in certain ways.  I assumed, given some internet searches, that I had tendonitis.  But I wasn't sure I wanted to treat my own (poorly diagnosed) ailment.  Sure enough, the diagnosis was "tennis elbow tendonitis".  The strange thing was that I am not left-handed, so I don't swing a tennis racket with my left arm (actually, I don't swing a tennis racket at all!).  The doc told me that what was happening was that I was gripping things too tightly with that hand, leading to pain in the tendons that run from my fingers to my elbow.
       Hmmm.  Gripping the arrow/string too tightly leads to a poor shot.  Gripping things too tightly with my hand leads to tennis elbow.  Gripping things too tightly . . .
       It didn't take long for me to make the connections: this isn't just a physical issue!  I recalled that the singer Sting paid homage to author Richard Bach when he wrote the song, "If you love somebody, set them free."*  It also contains the line:  "You can't control an independent heart."  Control of another is just a corollary of holding it too tightly.
       But it is not just pop-culture that understands the hazards connected to tight-grasping.  Many of the world's religions understand this as a spiritual issue.  Attachment and/or non-attachment to anything is a central theme in Buddhism.  Jesus is recorded as saying that "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" (Matthew 16.25-26).
       I know that I have a tendency to grip things tightly.  I also know that I have a tendency to want to control.  I'd never quite put the two together.  But now, whenever I'm exercising and wearing that oh-so-lovely (and comfortable -- NOT!) elbow strap, I'll have a visual reminder of what this week taught me.


*For more on the song see the Wikipedia article with that title:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stuff and Goodsense

       Shoes.  Top Ramen.  Notebooks.  Cell phones.
       Over the last few days of this week, students were moving out of the residential halls at the University of Denver.  A couple of years ago, the Sustainability Action Team in Student Life decided that we would collect a lot of the "throw-aways" that are part of move-out, and team up with local charities to put these "discards" to good use.  The photo above is the collection after a few days in just one of the halls.
       Pillows.  Plates.  Textbooks.  Laundry detergent.
       The variety and sheer bulk was astonishing.  Big things, like bookcases. Unopened packages of AA batteries.  An incredible variety of garments that memorialize some memorable (albeit annual) event.  Greeting cards with "Love you always!   XOXOXO!  Bruno".  On the one hand, those of us who were sorting the stuff ("Clothes for Goodwill over here.  Toiletries, here.  Cleaning supplies, here.  Food, here.") were in awe of (what we saw) as "waste".  On the other, we were grateful that the students brought it all to the "donations" room, rather than taking it to the big blue dumpsters outside.
       Flash drives.  Hats.  Desk lamps.  An over-sized martini glass.
       But we were engaged in a good thing.   The shelter report was that we ended up collecting 2,000 pounds of food alone!  We don't have the final weight of all of the other things that went to Goodwill or various shelters.  And, of course, the charities were ecstatic to receive all of this stuff.  And the message came home clearly to me -- especially at this Commencement time -- "we who have received so much have so much to give".  A different message might be:  "We have too much stuff!"  And that is true.  But those of us who have . . .  well what DO we have?  Stuff?  Intelligence?  Training?  Skills?  The gift of encouragement?  Material means?  Excess sweaters or socks?  Those of us who have have the opportunity to use that abundance to better the world.  How much can WE give out of our abundance?
       Half-a-jar of peanut butter.  Unopened shampoo.  Bookshelves.
       A single snow-ski.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Faithful to what?

        Last Monday was Memorial Day, the day in which we remember those men and women who died in service of the United States.  As Abraham Lincoln -- prior to the establishment of the holiday -- put it in his "Gettysburg Address", they are those who "gave the last full measure of devotion."  They were (as most soldiers are still) faithful to their commitment to their cause.  Their comrades-at-arms counted on them.  Some died for the ultimate "winners"; others for those who didn't fare as well.  Some died unawares; others knew where they were headed.
        I've been thinking about faithfulness the last few days.  It isclearly a religious concept; early in the book of Genesis, for example, the patriarch Abraham was told by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars, even though, at that time, he had no heir (Gen 15.5).  The promise was so powerful that it did not even stop the patriarch--once he did have a son--from following another instruction from heaven:  go, sacrifice your son.  An angel stayed his hand, with the words, "now I know that you fear God" (22.12), but Abraham's faithfulness was clear.  Abraham's faithfulness became a model for later Christians.  Other religious traditions similarly place great value on steadfast commitment, despite the cost.
       This morning, I attended the Commencement ceremony for the Iliff School of Theology.*  Graduates pledged their commitment to their various callings.  The commencement speaker and members of the faculty urged them to remain true.  Yet the commencement speaker also hinted that (using the example of some Harvard graduates) there are some folks who might not live up to their commitments.  The theme of faithfulness was apparent.
       And then I think about our cultural movement away from "brand loyalty".  Pretty much gone are the days when subsequent generations in a family would only buy Fords or Chevrolets (both looking down on the other).  Similarly, pretty much gone are the days when many Protestant Christians will stand by the denomination of their birth; the same phenomenon is only slightly less true for members of other religious bodies.  The theme seems to be:  "My commitment to this or that is only as strong as my pocket book or  the preacher's adroitness at leading worship.  There are many other options out there that are just as good!"
       I am not suggesting that there may not be very good reasons for shifting "brands".  Certain manufacturers, for example, may engage in environmental questionable practices that might drive otherwise faithful consumers away.   Questions of faith may no longer be adequately answered by the religion of one's youth.  But I am always interested in the deeper questions of commitment.  Memorial Day (and Veterans' Day) and commencements and ordinations usually demand that I search deep within and try to answer the question "For what would I give the last full measure of devotion."