Friday, January 25, 2013

Who anointed YOU?

     "It was almost sixty years ago that our family came to this new city.  It wasn't by choice, to be sure, but, after such a long time, it feels pretty much like home.  In fact, there's hardly anyone alive who remembers the old country.  Over the years, we've assimilated, I suppose. We've developed a new alphabet.  Most of us have become native speakers, our old tongue reserved for special occasions or worship.  Life isn't quite like what we heard it was in the old country, but it's not too bad here."
     "Now, however, we're getting word that our city's defense systems are weakening.  The current regime hasn't been able to maintain its superiority any more, and there's a threat on the horizon . . . literally!  We can see the dust of an approaching army. We've also heard that the army is led by a very capable general.  We don't want to see our way of life destroyed, our city taken, our warriors beaten.  For crying out loud, I was born here!  What can we do, but come to the aid of the city!"
      I was reading a portion of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah earlier this week and the above scenario occurred to me.  In chapters 40-45 of that book, an exiled people--the Jews in Babylon--are told through the prophet that they should take comfort (40.1) because they are about to be set free from their Babylonian captors and restored to their homeland.*  And Cyrus the Persian has been chosen as the instrument to accomplish this.  Indeed, in Isaiah 45, The prophet reports:  "Thus says the Lord to his anointed**, to Cyrus whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him . . . For the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. . . " (vss 1 & 4).
     And I had to wonder whether the people to whom Isaiah was speaking/writing would have heard it the same way that it has been read since.  I am NOT being skeptical of prophecy (well, maybe a bit), but in retrospect prophecy can be seen to be quite accurate, especially with the right spin.  But, in the moment??? And I got to wondering about our tendency to see threat as a negative.  I can only imagine that the Jews in Babylon weren't necessarily thrilled to see Cyrus' armies approaching, regardless of what some guy named Isaiah might be saying. How might they have seen Cyrus as God's "anointed"?  Could we have done so?
     Looking back over the last few weeks and months, through the bitter political struggle we've just endured, simply recall all of the hand-wringing engaged in by both sides:  "If so-and-so-wins, our way of life will be over!" (and both sides said essentially the same thing, although about different issues).  And now, with the acrimonious gun-control debate, the squabbling is just as intense.  But it's not just corporate or communal threats that we perceive negatively.  Who wants to see a bill-collector at the front door?  Or someone chasing us on the street with a clenched fist?
     Yet, according to the biblical witness, Cyrus' victory over Babylon did set the stage for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild.  What (I suspect) they feared, turned to their ultimate advantage.  And that is consistent with much of biblical message:  God surprises both friend and foe with unusual interventions, despite what "true believers" of any stripe might think.  The lesson from the bill collector may be the final teaching in achieving a more frugal, sensible, life style.  The clenched fist may contain some treasure we dropped.
     So I need to think long and hard before I blurt out, when faced by an adversary, "Who anointed YOU?!"  The answer I hear may not be one I want, but it may be one I most need to hear.  And, instead of acrimonious debate, maybe seeing the issue as a spark for a little civil conversation might be just the ticket to move us all to a new "Jerusalem".


*The captivity began under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and lasted, at least, until Cyrus' arrival in 538 BCE.
**"Anointed" = messiah (Hebrew) = christ (Greek).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Yellow no more.

   The news of the day is hardly news any more.  Cyclist and cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong finally "came clean" last night in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.  Over the course of ninety minutes (with another hour to come this evening), Armstrong admitted to what had been alleged for a long time -- many years, in fact:  he doped over multiple years in many different forms.  It has been big news, not only in the cycling community, but in the sports world as a whole, as well as in cancer-survivor circles.  (Indeed, in poking around for a visual for this reflection, I searched under "Confession", "I did it" and "Coming Clean", and all of those searches produces photos of Lance!)
     Opinion, however, as to the sincerity of the confession, its motivations, as well as ultimate effects, is mixed.  This morning, driving to work, I heard a cancer survivor say something to the effect that, despite the doping, what Lance had done for survivors was incredibly significant.  On the other hand, an editorial by Melinda Hennenberg in the Denver Postasserted that he had let survivors down, that he had betrayed them, that he had "played them for suckers".  Cyclists have been debating, of course, whether the doping scandals over the last several years have hurt the sport . . . . and, then, if Lance's confession will have an adverse effect.
     Earlier this week I tweeted that I was conflicted on this matter, and asked the question, "Should we forgive Lance?"  I know that some folks will.  Other's won't.  Some in the cycling industry heard Lance's interview, and thought it was incredibly sincere and heart-felt.  Others were more cynical and passed it off as good acting, forced contrition in order to get back into competition.
     I'm not going to take a position one way or another.  I do not have the ability to read minds or intentions, especially when mediated over the airwaves.  Indeed, even in hearing confessions, as I have had cause to do as an Episcopal priest, I can only assume that the penitent is truly contrite.  But Lance's public confession, as well as all of the others -- whether politicians or sports-figures -- gives me cause to recall a wonderful book I read many years ago:  Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James Pennebaker.*  
      Pennebaker is psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin (Lance, take note!).  He conducted numerous studies, from the classroom to the courtroom, on the effects of "coming clean", of confessing long-concealed secrets or sins.  Whether the confessor was a suspected criminal or a student with a past, once the truth was out, there were marked physiological changes in the subject.  Even if the revelation of the truth meant conviction of a crime, a criminal felt better, galvanic skin response changed, sleeping improved. 
     Pennebaker's point, suggested in the subtitle of his book, is that confession is not only good for the soul, but good for the body.  In short, it's simply good.  It marks a transition point.  It allows for true amendment of life, since hiding the truth takes so much effort and energy that can now be turned in a different direction.
     I've not followed the lives of other public penitents (whether dopers, or simply dopes) to see if their confession did lead to true change.  Certainly many have written books chronicling their downfall, hoping to make changes in the sport (cyclist, and admitted doper, Tyler Hamilton's recent book about the Tour de France, The Secret Race, is one example!).  Others have hoped that confession, and time out of the limelight, might bring new possibilities (South Carolina's former governor--and confessed adulterer, Mark Sanford, has announced that he will be seeking public office again).  As with the case of assessing true contrition, I will not judge the motives of these folks.
     I do believe, however, that any act of confession is fairly courageous act.  Consequences that might otherwise be avoided are faced and accepted.  Lance had been stripped of all his yellow jerseys and titles; he can wear yellow no more.  On the other hand, it may be that, by coming clean -- to whatever extent, he has left behind some level of hubris and cowardice, and he may be yellow no more.  If Pennebaker's right, he'll at least be a little healthier.  And maybe his future will be a bit brighter.
     If we were in a similar position, that's what we would hope for ourselves, right?



*The Guilford Press, 1997.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Getting hooked isn't enough!

     Last Saturday morning found me at Denver's hosting of The Fly Fishing Show.  Held at the Merchandise Mart, this extravaganza boasted lots of booths for fly-tiers, fly shops, guides, clothing and boat manufacturers, as well as a lot of experienced fly-fisherfolk demonstrating their skill (and helping others learn!).  I only spent several hours there, but, given the number of workshops and demonstrations, I can imagine that spending a lot more time wouldn't have been that hard.
      I need to back up a bit here.  Until last summer, I hadn't done ANY fishing since my late high school years, and then it was only spin-and/or-bait-and-bobber fishing.  Early last summer, however, my 9-yr-old son said "Dad, I want to go fishing."  Being the ever-compliant (and eager-to-please) dad, I took him to a local sporting goods shop and made a minor investment in just enough gear to get us started, in case his enthusiasm waned.  It didn't.  So, it was back to the sporting goods shop several more times.  Fishing expeditions just about every Saturday (as well as some weekday evenings at our local reservoir).  All with NO LUCK WHATSOEVER in catching a fish.  His interest never flagged.  And, in the process, I was re-"hooked" on the sport.  But, still in the "spin-and/or-bait-and-bobber" mode.
      Then, sometime in early fall, he and I camped near a couple of fly-fishermen and their kids.  The insidious seed was planted!  A few weeks later, we attended a "Trout-tastic Fishing Day" put on by a local fishing club.  It was intended to get kids interested in fishing (in a well-stocked pond), mostly with bait-and-bobber.  After lunch, however, they gave the kids (and their dads) an opportunity to try their luck with a fly rod.  All of us caught (and released) fish!  "Hooked" again.
     Being a researcher at heart, then, I began to read everything I could on fly-fishing.  I've "Liked" fly shop Facebook pages.  I've checked out videos from the library.  I've practiced trying knots.  I read (and re-watched) "A River Runs Through It". I figured that a thorough immersion in the theory (and gear) of the sport would fully prepare me to have a fly-rod in my hand!  So, when I learned that there would be fly-casting lessons (in addition to all the other stuff) at The Fly Fishing Show, I knew I had to go.
     Well, harrumph!  Knowing the "casting arc" and the "'D' loop" (see picture above) is one thing.  Translating the knowledge into practice was something else.  Occasionally the "loop size" was about right, and the line shot out straight.  More often the "loop" resembled a spiral and puddled at my feet.  I refused to get discouraged, and kept at it, realizing that (despite the growing pain in my shoulder and back) that this was going to take a while to "get the hang of".  IT WILL NOT DEFEAT ME!
      It occurred to me through this experience that there is a big difference between knowing about something and experiencing it, let alone becoming competent (at least in certain areas of endeavor -- like fishing, cooking, or auto-mechanics).  At this time of year when many of us "resolve" to make changes, we research the new behavior ("Hmmm, which diet holds the best possibility for success?"), try it for a couple of days ("Oh, but I'll relax the discipline for NFL playoff days and the Super Bowl"), don't immediately experience the results we desire ("What???  I haven't dropped 10 pounds since Jan 1???"), and drop it ("Maybe next year, when I'll pick a better diet plan!").
      The same, of course, is true of the spiritual life.  I remember taking a course in Divinity School about "The Theory of Spirituality", thinking it would make me more "spiritual".  It didn't.  This is truly a case of "practice makes perfect".  All religions recognize this:  the five daily prayers of Islam, the exhortation to Christians to "devote themselves continually" to prayer and gathering together, the Jewish practice of donning the phylacteries daily.  And certainly the language surrounding Buddhism; one "practices" the disciplines.  For all, perfection is nigh-impossible to achieve.  Yet, without the practice (as opposed to just "head-knowledge"), it is impossible.
      I know that, to be sure.  Getting hooked, and doing a lot of research, isn't enough.  Nor is making a simple resolution.  It takes more than that.  On the other hand, if you've got a good book on how to make the perfect "roll cast", let me know!



Friday, January 4, 2013

Verrry interesting . . .

     I took a course in graduate school on Greco-Roman papyri.  We were not reading bits of sacred texts, although we had opportunities to do so.  These were records of everyday bits of life:  tax records, receipts, etc.  Each of us in the class was given a specific papyrus to translate, read and share with the others in the class.  The course was taught by a very exacting, old-school professor, John Oates.  He wanted precision and careful scholarship; he wanted no stone left unturned.  It was a wonderful class and taught me a lot.
       But Prof. Oates' demand for precision could take some uncomfortable turns.  Pity the poor student who hadn't done enough research; he* was in for some brutal grilling.  One particular incident was burned into my memory (although happily I was simply an observer).  A student started into the results of his weekly research, and began a sentence with "It's interesting that . . .".  He got no further before Prof. Oates jumped in angrily:  "'It's interesting'????  Who thinks it's interesting?  I don't know if it's interesting or not! Did God make it interesting, and so it's self-evident?  A scholar doesn't say "it's interesting"; a scholar will provide facts and analysis that will pique the reader/listener's interest."  Targeted student melted.  The rest of us wished we were invisible.
       So, twenty-plus year later, I can't hear anyone say "It's interesting that . . ." or even "I find it interesting that . . ." without recalling that uncomfortable class and the lesson I learned about careful scholarship.  But it goes further than that.  Prof. Oates challenged us to ask deeper questions, to look within for the answer to the question:  "Why do I find it interesting?"  If I can articulate the answer to that question, then maybe I'll have a better chance of making my point to others.  But I may also derive some deeper insight into my own circumstances as well.
       I recalled this life-lesson earlier this week while listening to a recording of a Christmas sermon.  Twice, in short order, the preacher said "I find it interesting that . . ."  My hackles rose!  He never said WHY he thought it was interesting, but I could read (hear?) between the lines that he was raising a critique of a particular theological world-view.  And I could only think that if he had been clear to his congregation why he had been interested in what he had found, he might have led some of his listeners down a very productive line of reflection. 
       Turned inwards, this is a semi-scholarly version of the ancient greek aphorisms "Know thyself" (variously attributed) or "An unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates, in Plato's Apology).  And, so, it's not only a good reminder to this teacher/preacher at the beginning of a year/quarter when I'll be standing in front of groups of people to convey MY interest.  It's also a good reminder to spend some time in introspection about what it is that I DO truly find interesting, and why.

I hereby resolve,

Chaplain Gary