Friday, October 26, 2012
Friday, October 19, 2012
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!
PS: "Back it down to 5." "Boo-yah!" (Those who have ears, let them hear!)
Saturday, October 13, 2012
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!
Friday, October 5, 2012
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?
*Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey, "The Contested Color of Christ" in The Chronicle Review (Sept 21, 2012), B6-9.