Friday, December 20, 2013

Sing! Sing a song!

    At this time of the year "songs" are in the air.  One of the radio stations I like, that usually might feature instrumental music, has 
choral pieces sprinkled through its playlist.  When I walk downtown, or through shopping malls, in addition to the frequent buskers, I also hear groups -- both small and large -- singing.  The songs may be sacred or secular; they may focus on a "silent night" or a "jolly old soul" or an evergreen tree.  Most are familiar (although I do like many of the new compositions).  Many I know well enough that I can join in.
       Yesterday, on campus, I sponsored the 5th annual "Singing in the Season", a time when folks from around DU could gather together and sing "wintry" songs, songs of snow, dreydls and angels.  The enjoyment of singing--and hearing--voices making a joyful noise was palpable.  More than one attendee has, in the last 24 hours, remarked what a great time was that hour spent.
        I think often about singing.  Part of it, I know, is because I am a musician, both an instrumentalist and vocalist.  I've sung in choirs and community choruses for as long as I can remember.  I've been a choral conductor too, so I've helped collections of singers come together in common cause.  When you think about it, however, singing isn't something that many of us do all that often any more.  The 7th-inning-stretch in baseball games still features "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", and many spectators DO sing that.  But, as I attend other sporting events, there are fewer, if any, associated musical traditions, and even the National Anthem is usually a solo event.
        There is, indeed, something special about putting emotions and ideas together in musical form, and then "letting it out".  Some of the folks who gathered in Evans Chapel yesterday mentioned that they rarely get to sing with others often remarking that "well, my voice just isn't that good."  Well, I certainly have met many folks who can't carry the proverbial "tune" in the proverbial "bucket".   But my experience has been that, like those in the Chapel yesterday, even many of the "tune-less" enjoy singing, if only in the shower.         We're not all candidates for "The Voice" or "America's Got Talent".  I understand that.  But most, if not all, of us would benefit from a bit more singing.  It's fun.  It's a release.  And, it's good for our psychological health!  So, perhaps it's a ripe idea for a New Year's Resolution:  "I will not let someone else sing MY song!  I will do it myself and enjoy it!"  Maybe the Carpenters (showing my age!) were right:
Sing a song. 
Sing out loud, sing out strong. 
Sing of good things, not bad. 
Sing of happy, not sad. 
Sing a song. 
Make it simple to last your whole life long. 
Don´t worry that it´s not good enough for anyone else to hear. 
Just sing. 
Sing a song. 
La La La La La La 
La La La La La La 

La La La La La La 
Sing. Sing a song. 
Let the world. 
Sing out loud. 
Sing of love there, could be. 
Sing for you and for me. 
Sing a song. 
Make it simple to last your whole life long. 
Don´t worry that it´s not good enough for anyone else to hear. 
Just sing, sing a song.*


Chaplain Gary

Friday, December 13, 2013

A time for giving

        A commercial playing on the radio these days pitches greeting cards with the following "sentiment" something like:  "Dear sister, you remind me of blinking lights on a Christmas tree, really charming, but also a bit annoying."  Hallmark (yes, it is a Hallmark commercial) thinks that this card would show your sister how much you cared . . . with humor.  Well, I'm not amused, and I doubt my sister would save the card.
        That commercial has been playing in the background of my other musings about this gift-giving season.  For the last few weeks, as I have done for years, I've been working on a "Wish List" that I can share with family members who wonder what I'd "like".  And I've been hounding various family members for their lists.  Certainly, I want to make those members of my family happy, and, I suspect, that they would like to make me happy.  But lately I've begun to wonder whether satisfying another person's "desires" is a gift.  Given the definition of a "gift" -- that it is something freely given to another without expectation of reciprocation, I suppose that most items given from a "wish list" fulfill the definition.  But I still wonder.
        I recall, several years back, that my sister and her husband agreed with one another that they would only give each other gifts that would "delight" the recipient.  I've always thought that that was a fabulous idea.  But then, my practical side says, "But if I get the collapsible saw I want, then I won't have to buy it myself!"  But while the collapsible saw may be useful, is it delightful?
        Giving a gift that "delights" the recipient would demand from me a good bit of thought.  It suggests that I know my family member, or friend, well enough to know what delights them.  It suggests that I spend time with them, listening to them, paying close attention to what I'm seeing and hearing.  It would demand a lot of work.  But I suspect that many recipients would treasure that kind of gift more than they might the well-advertised Chia pet or the latest X-Box game.
         Hallmark's slogan for almost the last seventy years has been "When you care enough to send the very best . . .".  Somehow a card that calls the recipient "annoying" doesn't seem like "the very best".  Nor, in my mind, does it be-speak a great amount of "care".  I may be wrong, or old-school, but this year, I'll avoid the Hallmark store,  and focus more on spending time with my loved ones, hopefully a more thoughtful, "care-full" and delightful, gift. 


Chaplain Gary

Friday, December 6, 2013

Don't know much about . . .

       "What man is a man who does not make the world better?"  So, with that quote from the film "Kingdom of Heaven", I began my meditation a couple of weeks ago.  But, as I was starting to write today, I couldn't think of a better lead in (although I had tried!) for reflecting on Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at age 95.
         I freely admit that I don't know a lot about Nelson Mandela, although, over the last eighteen hours, I've learned a lot more!  But I have "been around the block" a number of times and I do remember some things.  For example, I remember a newspaper interview I gave MANY years ago with a high-school classmate.  I had spent the previous year as a foreign-exchange student in Australia; he had spent the same year in South Africa.  I remember the photo from that paper; I was wearing an Aussie "digger"-style hat (with one side clipped up -- yes my hats go back a LONG ways!), and he was holding an ostrich egg.  And I remember him answering a question about apartheid, saying something like, "Oh, it's not as bad as it's made out to be."  Mr. Mandela hadn't become quite a global celebrity at that time, but he had already been in prison for a third of his twenty-seven years as an opponent of apartheid.  So, yes, maybe it WAS that bad.
         I remember being on college campuses during the "divestment from South Africa" protests, and the ultimate difference that movement made.  I remember Mandela's refusal of a presidential pardon unless it was linked to the dismantling of apartheid.  I remember his release from prison in 1990.  I remember him and South African president P.W. de Klerk sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I remember him becoming a one-term president--by choice--of South Africa; he chose not to hold on to power.  I remember many of the things he said and stood for, chief among them, not responding to hate with hate.
        Of course, Nelson Mandela, like ALL of us, was not one-dimensional; he wasn't a perfect human being.  He made mistakes.  Not everything he did benefited every single person in South Africa.  And some commentators now are more focused on those errors, or slip-ups, than they are on the great achievements that are Mandela's legacy.  I'm sure those commentators are reflecting more of THEIR "issues" than Mandela's.  So, despite those nay-sayers' beliefs, we have seen the passing of a man who did seek to make the world better and who, for many, succeeded.
        Now we look to the future, to that dreamed-of better world. And, next week, the current world's leaders will gather to pay homage to a man who sought to leave hate behind in his prison cell, rather than to be imprisoned forever by that hate.  I would pray that those leaders who travel to South Africa might, in the words of a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" all of Nelson Mandela's life story and teachings, that they would put aside their hate, their mistrust, their anger, their own failings and commit, with one another--in Mandela's honor, if nothing else--to make the world better.
        Honor his legacy, please!
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, thank you, and requiescat in pace.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanks! No, really!

       "What man is a man who does not make the world better?"  So Balian of Ibelin translates an inscription carved in one of the roof beams of his smithy towards the beginning of the film "Kingdom of Heaven".*  He refers to the sentiment later in the movie when he is congratulated for turning a very dry parcel of land into a productive estate.  He says something to the effect: "It is my land.  How can I not make it better?" In neither case was a desire for change absent.  But Balian wasn't searching for a better blacksmith's shop, or for a different parcel of land.  In both cases, the message seemed to be "Take what you have and make it better."
        How different that is from the messages with which we are bombarded constantly -- and especially at this time of the year:  "You don't have enough!  You need more, especially OUR product!  Then you'll be the top dog!  And you'll have six-pack abs!"  Or, as I've seen it put on Facebook:  "Black Friday is the day we go out and buy more stuff -- the day after we've stopped to give thanks for all that we have!"
        And so I wonder if we really are giving thanks for all we have?  Or are we going through the "Thanksgiving grace" motions as a "necessary" precursor to gorging ourselves silly?  If I spend any time thinking back on all of the pre-Thanksgiving-dinner prayers I've heard (or given), they fall into some predictable patterns:  "Thanks for the food.  Thanks for the hands that prepared it.  Thanks for the family and friends around the table."  And there may be some acknowledgement that there are folks out there whose table may NOT be defined as a "groaning board" because it is pretty meagerly furnished.  But, mostly I recall some sort of acknowledgement of how MUCH stuff I really have (or have to look forward to).
        The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, reportedly wrote:  "If the only prayer you say in your life is 'thank you,' that would suffice."  If we take Eckhart seriously, it seems to me, we need to go pretty deep in our thanksgiving.  Certainly we are rightfully thankful for friends/family and food.  Most of us -- but not all, however, have eyes with which to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets, not to mention the beautifully set table.  But do we just give thanks for the sunrise, or, additionally, the eyes that see it?  Are we thankful for the good grade (it IS the end of the quarter after all), or for the clear mind that could analyze the problem, for the teachers who provided the tools, for the parents who encouraged the exploration?  The interconnections and intersections are so complex that they are almost overwhelming, almost beyond consideration. That shouldn't, however, excuse us from recognizing them and appreciating their depth and beauty but, rather, almost blithely skipping to the outcome.
        Drawing a connection between Eckhart and his medieval colleague Balian, are we as set on giving thanks for what we have and then seeking ways to make that better? As a cyclist, I'm always amused by those who more set on spending a LOT of money to reduce the weight of their bicycle by a few ounces than they are to reduce their spending on food (which, of course, would reduce the road weight of them and their bikes!).  Are we more prone to think "out with the old, in with the new", or "I'm glad for what I have, but more is better"?  What if saying "Thanks, I'll work with the abundance I have right now" was sufficient?

Chaplain Gary

Nemo vir est qui mundum non red dat meliorem.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mapping God

 ". . . you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."*

      This wonderful suggestion relayed by Anne Lamott mirrors something I heard some months back about a group of religious college students trying to decide what Myers-Briggs profile best fit Jesus of Nazareth.  Without our needing to understand the complexities of the Myers-Briggs world, it turned out that the students' profiles of Jesus bore an uncanny resemblance to their own Myers-Briggs profile; e.g., introverts thought Jesus was introverted while extroverts found him to be extroverted.  In other words, the figure of Jesus became a sort of "divinity Rorschach Test", saying more about the observer than the observed object.
         Both the Lamott quotation and the psychology profile came to mind this week as I reflected on (1) the musical theater piece "Book of Mormon"; and (2) the book we discussed, David Webster's 
Dispirited:  How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy.**  I don't want to give away any of the plot twists and turns of "Book of Mormon", but those who have seen it will know that there are "liberties" taken throughout the production with both the received text of the Book of Mormon as well as with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  These "liberties" reflect a socio-cultural system very different than either that of the LDS church's founder, or that of the two missionaries. Dispirited demanded a bit less "analysis", as Webster disparagingly observes throughout the book that the "god" of many believers (regardless of the tradition) simply reflects their own predilections or desires, predilections or desires that have little to do with the "truth."
          Webster's critique is not new.  At the very least,  Anne Lamott's clergy friend, Tom, observed much the same thing twenty years before Webster wrote his book.  And there have been many other, similar, observations over the centuries.  Webster, of course, has an agenda to put forward, and he thinks this reflected "god" isn't a good thing.  As his full subtitle suggests, "Contemporary spirituality is destroying our ability to think, depoliticizing society and making us miserable".***  I'm not so sure.

          As I already noted, Webster's critique is not new.  Indeed, in some places his critique is no critique at all, but rather a simple statement of the way people relate to the divine.  Hinduism (especially the Smarti and Bhakti schools) presents a great example of this with its concept of ishta-devata or "chosen deity", or "the form of God which inspires [the practitioner] the most".****  This, it seems to me, is a generous recognition that each individual will understand the divine out of his/her own experience.  It is NOT a bad thing, it is simply a thing. And it is little different than the oft-quoted aphorism that "there are many paths to reach God."
         We could see this practice as nothing other than looking in the mirror and recording our reflection as being "divine."  On the other hand, we might turn the above aphorism around (as some have done) and assert that "God takes many paths to reach us."  Paths inspiring action; paths inspiring devotion; paths inspiring knowledge.  I wonder if it is less a matter of us "mapping God" than God knowing the territory and recognizing the value of hills, valleys, oceans, forests, mountains and brooks and mapping us.

Chaplain Gary

*  Attributed to her priest friend, Tom, by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor: 1995), 22.

**  Zero Books, 2012.

***  Title page.

**** Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1971), 122.  See too, the entry on ishta-devata in

Friday, November 8, 2013

Misty water-colored memories

      Earlier this week, I found myself pondering "memories".  I was listening to a recording of a recent Brian Lehrer show in which Brian was inviting listeners to call in with their memories of "what was better 'back in the day'".  The show, called "An Oral History of Nostalgia" successfully enticed listeners from age 19 to age 81 to call in. Many of the memories were clearly age-related (such as the octogenarian reminiscing about radio dramas).  Others were a bit more surprising, such as a twenty-something wistfully recalling doing homework before the advent of easy computer searches.
       All of the callers' memories prompted me to look back.  Certainly I could remember all sorts of great things: trips taken, gifts received (and given), time spent with loved ones, "life birds" (i.e., the first time a bird-watcher sees an individual member of a species is a "life bird"), great meals, or memorable bike rides.  In terms of this last category, I can recall almost every day and every mile of the 560+ miles I rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2005.  What a FABULOUS trip! The scenery, the companions, the food, those on the side of the road who cheered us on,* the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment arriving in Los Angeles.  But I can also remember numb hands from hours on the handlebars, VERY tight tendons in my shoulder and achilles, not to mention soreness in that place where my body met the bike's saddle.  Yet, the former memories so far outweigh the latter that, given the chance, I'd do it again in an instant!
        Memories, thus, are a mixed bag.  The same situation or person, when called to remembrance can bring smiles or frowns.  And, of course, there are many which evoke predominantly one emotion over the other.  In my conversations with folks, I frequently hear about the negative memories  . . . and how those are the formative recollections.  With a bit of encouragement/coaxing, I can often tease out more positive memories.  Sometimes, in the course of our conversation, I'll hear the other person reflect "I wonder why I'm intent on focusing on the negative, not the positive, memories?"  Yes, why indeed?
        Why is it that we shine such a strong light on so many negative memories from the past?  Yes, there are events that are primarily negative, instances of a crime, for example, and I'm not wondering about those.  I wonder about things that I recall that could "go either way", but I tend to travel down the negative road with them.   Can I spend some time with the most significant of those negative memories and coax them out of their "misty water-colored" nature?  Might I find, in so doing, some positive, redemptive core that won't necessarily change "the way I was", but might empower me to alter my future?
       Our great religious traditions "redeem" the events of the past, even the negative ones: defeat, loss, exile, death.  These religions celebrate the fact that, despite those awful events, the faithful have survived--because of their faith, their perspective on life.  
       Whatever happened, happened.  How I choose to remember it, and thus how I choose to let the events of the past affect me is within my control. I would choose to create life-giving memories.  L'chaim!


Chaplain Gary

*I was riding the AIDS Life Cycle, raising money for AIDS research in California.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Back to normal?

     Last evening, I repeatedly answered the door of my home, only to be greeted by children, variously garbed as monsters, skeletons, princesses, historical figures, and cartoon characters. Sometimes parents joined them at the door (also variously garbed -- mostly as pirates); other times, they remained on the sidewalk, supervising from afar, dressed more for the weather than the holiday. Yes, it was Halloween, and my job, answering the door, was to mollify the visitors with a treat (in our case it was glow-in-the-dark bags of crunchy cheetos). [On a side note, I DO wonder what would happen if I asked for a "trick"?]
      I actually enjoy answering the door this one evening of the year!  I enjoy seeing the elaborate, imaginative costumes.  And, I have to admit, I really love the littlest kids:  princesses or animals mostly.  But I do take comfort knowing that the evening will come to an end.  The kids will head home, ready to check out their "take" (while parents wonder how they'll get the kids asleep).  The candles in the jack-o-lanterns will eventually burn out of their own accord. Porch lights will be extinguished around the neighborhood, and November 1 will dawn with the world back to "normal".
      On Halloween, I also recall the other times (current and historical) when costume-donning is--or has been--practiced.  Mardi Gras springs to mind, especially in some cities, as a contemporary example.  In other places and times, the practice of costume-donning was related to the reversal of cultural/societal norms; for example, peasants assumed the role of lords/ladies/clergy/magistrates, and vice-versa.  One day a year, the exalted were humbled, and the humble exalted. And then, on the morrow, the status quo returned for another 364 days. A vacation into fantasyland. The practice was "officially" sanctioned, by those in charge, of course. THEY knew that they would return to their privileged positions.  What was "normal" would resume its "rightful" place.
      I'm not so sure that our contemporary cultural fascination with costumes has the same root, or rationale. There are a lot of other, perhaps commercial, interests at play.  But I have to wonder what it is we hope we will find as we "become" someone/something else for a few hours or a day. Do we harbor some deeper desire or hope than simply "escape-from-normalcy"? Do we long for a society where "difference" is less threatening?  Or, where "outrageous play" is a greater part of our work-oriented life? 
      I suppose I'm over-thinking this.  But I every so often I find myself wondering if "back to normal" is where we really want to be?  


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 25, 2013

Darned bodhisattvas!

      I had a friend in Berkeley who was a "sensei" (a "teacher" or "pastor") at a local Buddhist congregation.  We'd get together every so often for lunch.  I'd learn from him, and he from me.  One day he recounted the following story:  He was riding in the car with his daughter -- she was driving.  They were on a particular street in Berkeley that was heavily travelled (ironically, for those of us in Denver, Santa Fe Blvd!).  As is often the case on such thoroughfares, not all drivers were paying close attention to their main task, and she (the driver) was being cut off.  She became increasingly frustrated and started "talking" back at the other cars.  Her dad said, "Calm down, dear, they are bodhisattvas* helping you on your way to enlightenment.  You needn't be attached to arriving at your destination."  As one might imagine, however, this explanation did not completely mollify the daughter/driver.
       Several days later, the driver/passenger roles in the car were reversed, and my friend was behind the wheel.  They found themselves on the same street, and my friend began experiencing the same rude drivers that his daughter encountered.  Like his daughter, my friend became increasingly agitated, using colorful language to express his disdain of those cars.  His daughter gently reminded him that those drivers were simply "bodhisattvas helping you on your way to enlightenment".  His response?  "Darned bodhisattvas!"
       I remember too, a story from a book he loaned me about religious education from a Buddhist perspective.  The author of a particular chapter -- a "Sunday School" teacher in a Buddhist congregation -- bemoaned to another teacher the fact that her own children kept interrupting her daily practice; they were keeping her from focusing on her meditation.  Her friend reminded her that, as long as she had children her children were her practice.  They forced her to reconsider her "attachments" to her practice itself, and to refocus on the present realities:  the needs of those kids.
      "Love your enemies", Jesus is reported to have said (Matthew 5:44, paralleled in Luke 6:27 and 6:35).  I heard this passage quoted in a gathering the other night.  I know the context of the original quotation well (the original had to do with treatment of others--friend or foe), but, for some reason, the stories from my Buddhist friend sprang to mind.   I began to wonder if "loving" my enemies, or those other crazier-than-me drivers, or other distractions (such as MY children) was instructional as to what I might learn from those with whom I differ, or exclude, or demonize, or those who simply annoy me?
       My usual response, when challenged, is to set up my defensive perimeter, and then to prepare my counter-offensive (I suspect I am not alone in this!).  In so doing, I marshall all of my normal opinions, beliefs, and sets-of-statistics.  And, often, after the encounter has passed, I cling to my original position, maybe with some subtle rationalizations as to why I still hold that position -- but stubborn to the last.  I have to wonder what I miss, what opportunities for growth or compassion I've pushed aside.
       Darned bodhisattvas!  Keeping me off-balance like that!  Or, if I let them, are they really re-centering me?


Chaplain Gary

* A "bodhisattva", for some Buddhists, is an enlightened being who understands his/her role to delay entry into Nirvana in order, selflessly, to help others attain enlightenment.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cats and Meerkats

      Yesterday, I attended a stimulating lecture by Rami Khouri, 
Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.  The talk was entitled:  "Has the Arab Spring Failed?  The Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East".* Khouri addressed many of the things that we've heard in the news about the troubles that Middle Eastern countries have faced as they have tried to establish democratic governments since the events of almost three years ago:  religion-state relationships, the role of women in government, national vs. regional authority, the role of the military, etc.
      What struck me most, however, was the "should-be-obvious-but-hasn't-been" point that these Arab nations (he mentioned Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya specifically) are trying to accomplish in a very short time what western democracies (such as the United States) took decades, or centuries, to do—and are being criticized for not succeeding.   The U.S., for example, fought for Independence in 1776, developed its Constitution over the next thirteen years, fought over slavery eighty years later, gave women the vote in 1920, and while granting African American males the vote in 1870, was still dealing with minority voting into the 1960's (let alone in the last few years!).  In short, Khouri intimated (to me, at least), we in the West cannot judge these recent efforts towards democracy from our current state of affairs:  we had to struggle, so we should not be surprised, or impatient, that others who do not have our history should have to struggle as well.
       This led me to (re-)consider the whole question of self-definition.  Defining who/what I am, or we are, always has some aspect of opposition to it.  In other words, "I am me, because I am not you!"  The Hebrew scriptures are full of efforts at self-definition. The Hebrews are exhorted over and over again not to be like the nations surrounding them; their notion of "chosen-ness" underlines that.  The same was true as early Christians had to define themselves, not only over against their Jewish forebears, but over against their Greco-Roman neighbors. Islamic laws forbad things within the Dar al-Islam (that is, within Islamic societies) that were permissible in other cultures.  All of these served their respective cultures, affirming their own self-identity over against their neighbors.
       Again, I believe this is to be a normal developmental process, whether among human individuals, or human cultures.  Where Khouri's talk hit me, however, was a realization that we often, in differentiating ourselves from others, tend to make the "other" somewhat lesser in stature; we have to build ourselves up by knocking others down a notch (or more).  Those who are not us are "barbarians" (and you know how they are!).  They may be indulged a bit, something like children who haven't reached the age of accountability, but they are really only deserving of a sidelong glance, not to be taken seriously.
       Something seems very wrong with that picture, I think.  It bespeaks a triumph of parochialism over hospitality -- hospitality being something at the root of most religious, and cultural, systems.  And, if that is so, we still have a lot to learn.  "One of these things might not be like the other", but is it any less worthy of our care or consideration?  Do not all of our traditions call us to something greater than the status quo in our thinking?  MIght we not learn to judge cats and meerkats on their own, respective, merits?


Chaplain Gary

*The lecture was hosted by DU's Center for Middle East Studies, located in the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Letting go

   I suspect that pretty much everyone has heard the story of the "monkey trap". Depending on where you look, it can be attributed to experiences in Africa or Asia. And, who knows, maybe folks on each continent simultaneously observed that, if one puts a bit of attractive-to-monkey food in a constrained space (such as a jar, or closely-barred cage), a monkey would reach in and grasp the treat.  Of course, once the fist is formed around the treat, it can no longer be withdrawn from the trap.  The monkey's desire for the food is greater than its desire for freedom.  And the trapper can easily capture the critter.
      Earlier this week I was listening to a couple of interviews on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's show "Tapestry with Mary Hynes".  The two guests on the show both related stories of "letting go".  One was a pastor in the United Church of Canada who, in spite of the risk of losing her job, "let go" of her belief in God; she now considers herself an atheist.  And, remarkably, she hadn't lost her job, and still leads a congregation in Toronto.  In her telling othe story, her life now is more honest and fulfilling than it was before -- because she let go.
      The other guest was an author of graphic novels, born in Hungary, but living now in the US.  She, because of her experiences with the Nazis during WWII had a deep, abiding, suspicion of Germans -- especially older German adults.  So, when her son decided to move to Berlin, and re-claim his Hungarian citizenship, she faced a major dilemma:  could she let go of her past mistrust and support her son's choice, or not?
      I must say that, once I heard those two stories about "letting go," my first thoughts turned to the deadlock in Washington DC.  Intransigence on center stage!  The monkeys with their hands in separate jars grasping for treats that the others couldn't understand.  Unwilling to let go -- but willing to let the country go under -- because their "treats" were so wonderful (in their eyes). It seems that many of the legislators understand the risks they're taking, but, oh, the "treat", or prize, is SOOOO worth it.
      It is easy to point to the Washington circus, or to "like" various Facebook "status updates" that support our own point-of-view.*  But the stories of the two interviewees on the "Tapestry" show are clear examples that we only need to look in the mirror to see our own hands in the trap.  We all hold so tightly to possessions, habits, beliefs, etc., that we often are kept from living life fully, joyfully, lovingly.  And, for some reason, we are dead-set on trying to make everyone else agree with us!
      "Human nature", I suppose. We want security; we want certainty. But one thing that seems to be found throughout our religious traditions is a call to transcend that human nature, to be better than a creature that only seeks its own self-interest.  From Jesus' assertion that "to save one's life one must lose it", to the Buddha's advice, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him" we are counseled to examine those things that would limit us, that would entrap us. We are counseled, encouraged, exhorted, to let go.  The "treat" we receive may far exceed that which we're grasping.


Chaplain Gary

*By the way, how often DOES someone really update their status anymore, rather than share a video/news release opinion?

Friday, October 4, 2013

A long time ago . . .

       . . . in a univers(ity)* far, far away, there came a time of [reckoning].  I was serving on a committee at UC-Berkeley that was meeting to plan a student leadership conference.  It was our first meeting, and so it seemed appropriate to the student co-chairs that we do an ice-breaker.  Their choice:  "Mild or Spicy".  If you are new to the collegiate ice-breaker scene, this meant that each person chose "mild", "medium", or "spicy" (i.e., like salsa) -- in other words, the other members of the group got to ask questions of the subject that adhered to those categories.  So, if a person chose "mild," they might be asked, "What's your favorite color?" or "Where did you grow up?"  The "spicy" questions?  Well, you can imagine what might be asked in such a crowd.  The "medium" questions were somewhere in between.
       The chairs had allotted around 30 minutes for this exercise.  There were about fifteen of us, so that allowed two minutes apiece to be grilled.  As it turned out, I was the last in the rotation, sitting just to the left of the co-chair who started.  So, when it came to me, there remained only about 30 seconds to answer. I chose "spicy" -- just to put the students off-kilter (I was one of the only non-students there, and certainly the only one in a clerical collar).  After my declaration of "spicy", there was a deafening silence.  Finally a student, with whom I'd served before on a different committee, asked, "So why ARE you in the religion biz, anyway?"  We all laughed, and I said "In 30 seconds or less????"  Then, after a moment's thought, I responded, "It's the best way I've found of making meaning of life."  The questioner nodded like, "Okay, I'll accept that.", and the meeting continued.
       I tell this story relatively often; I may have even recounted in one of these meditation/reflections some years ago.  But I tell it because it helps open conversations about the other stories we know (either about us, or that appeal to us) that help us make sense of the world.  But more than simply make sense of the world -- they are stories that help us find meaning and purpose.
       The great religious stories of our traditions have "worked" for centuries because they function that way, that is, they help us find/make meaning.  They are true, yet they transcend "fact" (although many people might want to reduce them to that level -- either to "prove" or "dis-prove" their relevance in our "Just the facts, ma'am" world).  Of course, different traditions tell different stories to answer equivalent questions -- and the answers may not coincide.  In my opinion, that's okay.  They've stood the test of time, and so, have clearly provided answers, meaning, and hope to generations.
       We are a people who tell stories.  Clearly some are meant to be little more than entertainment.  Some are speculative, giving us a vision of a different world.  Some are meant to provide context or perspective.  Some are morality tales, hopefully to guide, or correct, behavior.  But, then, there are the stories that are told, and retold, to situate us in a much larger narrative.  They help us find our place in the grand sweep of things.  In my words to the committee, they help us make meaning of life.
       I find myself bombarded by many "stories" these days.  Whether they are of international events, congressional squabbles, scientific discoveries or weather events, I've had to remind myself that these "stories" don't make meaning; they cry out for meaning-making.  And, generally, that requires us to dig deep into our storehouse (story-house?) for those wise stories that have helped make sense to various and varied peoples for generations.
       What are the stories that help yo make meaning these days?  Share those the next 


Chaplain Gary

*  Yes, I know it's supposed to be "galaxy"!  Let me have a bit of poetic license!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Outside in

     Whenever a new interest grips me, I jump into it fully . . . or at least "fully" as that makes sense to me.  And many of you know that I recently took up fly-fishing as another hobby, so the pattern has repeated itself. Certainly I've taken a class here and there.  And I've gone out on the water with some knowledgable folks, as well as by myself.  What I've done most of, however, is research.  That's pretty normal, I suppose, for someone like me - a scholar.  But . . . books, magazines, videos, internet forums.  Consuming!  But, one of the things to which all of those resources point is something I'm not doing as much of:  Practice!
      Practice, as in "Practice tying knots so you won't fumble around in the cold while fishing."  Practice, as in "Practice your casting so you won't make a fool of yourself, or frustrate a guide."  In other words, the resources are telling me to quit reading/watching, and go DO it!  "But", I ask myself, "doesn't the research mean something?" Well, yes, but maybe not what I expect.
       Several weeks back I was listening to an interview with a filmmaker named Vikram Ghandi.  A few years ago, he made a documentary called "Kumaré" in which he "became" an Indian guru by that name, and gathered around him a devoted group of followers in Arizona.  It was clear to him that these devotees were attracted to him because he looked like, and sounded like, a genuine guru from India.  He was, of course, a fraud.  Yet he became fascinated by how much faith these followers placed in him, how much positive change they had undergone.  And that created a dilemma in him: should he "come clean" and disappoint them or derail their growth?
       Well, he eventually did.  And some of those who followed him became angry and disillusioned.  Others, however, did not.  Some of the latter mentioned that they had been looking for something, and, in Kumaré's teachings and encouragement, they had found it.  What I heard was that they had been looking in from the outside for some answers to their seeking, their yearnings, and Kumaré invited them in to learn for themselves.  What they gained nothing could take away, even learning that the teacher was a fraud.
       This resonated with me in so many ways.  Certainly I can identify with the desire to know something -- like the art of fly-fishing -- and the hope that some guru (instructor/guide/video/author) will magically impart that knowledge, as well as the satisfaction of successfully mastering the art.  But I also look at the "Religion/Spirituality" aisles in Barnes & Noble or Tattered Cover, and see how authors around the world are responding to the needs/desires of millions of people who seem to think that if they finally find the right books/advice on prayer or meditation (for example), they'll have a deeper spiritual life.  The authors aren't necessarily encouraging that almost voyeuristic approach; most give practical advice (that some readers, of course, don't want to actually implement!).
          So, clearly, I'm not alone in my desire to know because it may be simpler than getting out and doing.  Nor do I think that most of us, however, are truly content with being on the outside and looking in.  I suppose it's time to stop looking through the resource at the reality, to put the "book-learnin'" to the test.
          Put the book down. Get out the fly-pole. Find the prayer cushion. And begin the real adventure.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 20, 2013

Writing in the Sand

     I grew up in Oregon, about an 1-1/2 hours from the coast.  And I had an aunt and uncle who lived right on the Washington coastline, about a couple of hours away.  Their place was our "default" long weekend away.  In other words, I spent a lot of time at the beach.  But this was the Pacific Northwest!  We spent a lot of time at the beach (i.e., not in the water!).  Being at the beach meant clam-digging, shell-hunting, and sand-writing.  Like most kids who have spent time at the beach, there was always a race to finish the sand-writing, or sand-drawing, or sand-castle-building before the tide came in and washed it all away.  Yet it was inevitable.  The waves would slowly move higher on the beach; nothing could "save" my artwork (few parents would waste their Kodachrome on such things -- not so with with digital cameras!).
      I've thought a lot this week about my time on the beach, drawing, hunting, watching my footprints wash away.  The reason?  The book group I host on a monthly basis this month read Izzeldin Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hope:  A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity*.  In the opening chapter of the book, Dr. Abueliash tells of an outing to the beach in Palestine with his children.  It was only several weeks after his wife and their mother had died of cancer.  He felt that such an outing would do the family good.  Abuelaish wrote:

That day they all sat for photos besider their names in the sand.  Even Aya and Mayar smiled into the camera.  When the tide came in and washed their names away, they wrote them again, farther up the beach.  To me, this action was highly symbolic of their tenacious, determined nature, one that I recognized in myself.  They had the ability to look for alternatives when situations seemed impossible; they were claiming this tiny piece of land as the own--because they believed that they belonged here and did not want to be erased.**

In a few weeks, Aya, Mayar, their older sister Bassan, and a cousin, would be killed during a tank shelling of their home.  The book is an account of what enabled their father not to react out of hatred and vengeance in a land where that was the norm.
      Abuelaish was faced with an incredible loss.  Something, however, in his life and faith would not let him be overwhelmed.  Throughout the book he writes of "turning bad into good" . . . and he had ample opportunities to practice that maxim.  It is an amazing story.  (If you search for his name in YouTube, you will find many hits.  I recommend the TEDxWaterloo video.)
      The story of turning bad into good is a story I've heard several times this week as well, as other people have faced incredible losses.  The airwaves and print media are full of accounts of folks who've lost their homes in the Colorado floods.  Many are dejected, as could easily be expected.  Others, however, are more forward thinking (as have been folks who have experienced our fires in the last couple of years):  "We'll rebuild.  It'll take a while, but we'll rebuild.  This is our home."
      And last Sunday night, at the memorial service for two fraternity brothers tragically killed in a house fire in Connecticut a month ago, the mood, while somber, aimed at the positive.  One of the boys' parents, in a letter to the gathering, wrote:  "Keep [these boys] in your hearts and live your lives in the moment--with great enthusiasm and love, love, love."  The other boy's mother wrote:  "It is the wonderful memories that we need to hold close to our hearts now.  [He] would want no tears or heartache.  [He] would want celebration and togetherness--laughter, love and joy."   Another letter urged the attendees to "use their tragic deaths . . . as a reason to be the best person and leader you were born to be and encourage those around you to do the same." ***
      Our lives are full of "writing in the sand" moments; indeed one might say WE are writings in the sand.  Something inevitably will wash over us:  a broken relationship, a unexpectedly poor grade, a death.  The challenge is whether we will be "overwhelmed", or whether we will move "farther up the beach", looking "for alternatives when situations [seem] impossible".  I am so encouraged by those who've suffered such great losses -- Abuelaish, the flood victims, and the parents of the young men -- how they, in the midst of their pain, can see a way forward, and encourage others to do the same.
      May I honor their charge, and never stop writing in the sand even when I know it will be washed away.

Chaplain Gary

* (Walker & Company, 2010, 2011).
** p. 14.
*** An article about the memorial service was published in this week's Clarion, DU's student paper.  It can be accessed on-line here.