Friday, April 26, 2013

Pursuit IS the prize!

     The Book of Wisdom (also known simply as Wisdom or The Wisdom of Solomon) is a collection of teachings similar in content and nature to other "wisdom" books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job.  Probably written in the 2nd or 1st century before the Common Era, it was apparently accepted as scripture by many Jews and Christians in the early centuries of the Common Era.  It was not, however, composed in Hebrew, but rather in Greek, and partly for that reason, did not remain in the official list of scriptural books among Jews and most Protestant Christians.  Its absence from those collections, however, doesn't diminish its capacity for teaching!
      I was reading Wisdom this morning, specifically this passage:

Wisdom is brilliant, she never fades. By those who love her, she is readily seen, by those who seek her, she is readily found.  She anticipates those who desire her by making herself known first.  Whoever gets up early to seek her will have no trouble but will find her sitting at the door.  For she herself searches everywhere for those who are worthy of her, benevolently appearing to them on their ways, anticipating their every thought.  (6.12-14, 16)

I was struck by the notion that, in short, Wisdom is found wherever we are, wherever we look, whenever we desire it.  But I also got the impression that wisdom is NOT something that is ever completely captured.
      In my pursuit of learning to fly-fish, I have read (and heard), over and over again, that one never stops learning, or never becomes completely proficient.  Even the best fisherfolk get "skunked" some days; the fish will not take their fly, or they forget a basic tenet of casting.  The flow of streams is constantly changing, presenting new challenges to the one who stalks the wily trout. What works on the water one day doesn't work the next!  The teaching of Buddhist Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki applies here to fishing:  "The goal of [Zen] practice is always to keep our beginner's mind."*
      I heard echoes of similar teaching last evening at DU's annual Men's Basketball banquet. Head Coach, Joe Scott, in his "State of the Program" address at the close of the evening, spoke about one of the main hallmarks, or foci, of the program:  Humility.  I must admit I was a bit surprised by that, not because I witnessed arrogance from the team--quite the opposite, they're a great group of young men.   But "humility" was not something I immediately associated with a highly competitive basketball team.  Coach Scott continued on to say that humility leads to "thirst for knowledge".  And then it made sense:  if one is humble, one realizes that there is always more to learn; one has never achieved it all.
      And, so I thought this morning, "It is the pursuit of the prize that is itself the prize."  It is an endeavor born out of humility.  Or, as Suzuki echoes the Hellenistic-era sage, "It is wisdom which is seeking for wisdom".**


Chaplain Gary

*Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Weatherhill, 1996), 21.
**Ibid., 19.

Friday, April 19, 2013

NOT a quiet week.

      This has NOT been a quiet week.  Beginning with the tragic death of DU student Wilson King, followed several days later by the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, and then the terrible explosion in West, Texas -- this has been a week of shock, anger, tears, and terror.   And, then, this morning, when I turned on my computer, I learned of the death of a campus police officer at MIT in Boston, the death of one of the bombing suspects, and the lock-down of multiple suburbs as the manhunt for the second bombing suspect continues.  And I know, because it is always the case, that there are innumerable individual, unexpected, losses.  In all of these situations, the natural questions that arise are all some variation of "Why?".
       In the aftermath of the bombing in Boston, many people posted, or re-posted, links on Facebook to speeches or essays that had been meaningful to them in past, similar, situations.  I went back to see how I had responded to the Aurora shootings last summer.  I don't think I can add anything to that;  it still represents my theology.  So, I repost it here, today.  I invite you to make the appropriate adjustments in circumstances.

-------------  From July 20, 2012

       This morning, before I turned on the computer, I was pretty certain what I would be writing today.  It had to do with living on the boundaries (inspired by a radio show on Autism and the Divine).  But, once the computer was on, my inbox was full of "Breaking News Updates" about the shooting early this morning at a nearby theater.  As of this writing, 71 people were either killed or wounded.  I immediately thought of two earlier situations when, having a Sunday morning sermon already written, I awoke to tragedies that demanded something else (an airplane crash in Charlotte, and Lady Diana's death).  So, boundaries and autism will have to wait.  Or, at least, autism.
       Because, it seems to me, we are always on boundaries, existing on a very thin edge.  As a road cyclist, I'm very aware of the fact that a couple of skinny tires, and my ability to balance in an emergency, are all that keep me from serious injury -- and I certainly know what happens when something affects traction that even my balance-skills can't correct!  The folks who attended last night's midnight showing of the latest Batman movie probably had no idea of the thin boundary they were walking -- nor should it have been on their minds.  None of us can live effective, productive lives if we're constantly looking for monsters under the bed.
       Tragedies like last night, however, do remind us that the unthinkable happens.  And, once it does, we begin to try to connect the dots that might help us explain it.  As I've said many times before, in many different circumstances (including the two tragedies to which I alluded above), the answer to the "why" question is ultimately unsatisfying.  Blaming violent movies, or too-lax gun laws (if indeed, they are), will not, in the end, explain the actions of folks who are in a psychological/mental state that would lead them to commit such crimes.
       For those reasons I can't ask "Why?" or "Why would God allow . . .?"  I cannot, with all good conscience say "God must have had a good reason for this."  That would not be a God I would want to worship, or serve, or devote my life's work.  I believe in a God who challenges me to ask "Given the tragedy, what's next?"  Mourn, grieve, certainly; there is loss!  But there's more!
       Certainly there are some socio-cultural institutions or practices that probably ought be challenged; that's one next step -- a possible next step that will probably be a very steep uphill climb.  Another, more manageable, next step would be simply to realize how thin are the boundaries that separate us and our loved ones from some unthinkable tragedy.  And to remember that our time together is extremely precious.  And to take action in that regard.
       There is a vigil scheduled tonight in Aurora for those who wish to join in solidarity.  I was asked by an editor of a national blog-site whether I was going to be there, and, if so, would I sent some reports?  Recognizing how it might sound, I responded that, "No, as one who has not been directly affected, I'm not going.  I'm going to be with my family, and hug my wife and kids extra hard."  The editor, also a friend/colleague, understood completely.
        I think that rather than living life looking for monsters under the bed, or in airplanes, or in movie theaters, or asking questions to which there is no satisfactory answer, I'd rather we live life appreciating and celebrating the fleeting beauty that is our life together.  That is one of my best answers to the "What next?" question.
        Because we never expect the unthinkable.  
        My prayers are with all of those affected by this horrible traged[ies]:  those who've died, those who were injured in body, those who've been injured in mind and spirit, the [bombers], and all of their families.  My thanks go out to all of the first responders:  police, fire-fighters, ambulance crews, doctors and nurses . . . as well as those who will continue the care for all affected:  medical personnel, counselors, clergy, friends and family members.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hot sausage and mustard!

     Those who have been reading my "reflections" for any length of time will know that I am an inveterate podcast-listener.  Whether on Light-Rail, elliptical trainer or while cycle-commuting, I'm listening to something! Yesterday was no different.  Two very different interviews, however, had a common theme:  food!  Food. YUM!  I love to eat good food.  I love to look at pictures of good food.  Even a plain, raw, eggplant is one ofthe most gorgeous things!  And, in a good parmigiana, it is a thing of gastronomic excellence.
      The interviews, however, were not waxing eloquent over the beauties of prepared, or raw, food.  One had to do with music that brought coffee farmers in Uganda together -- coffee farmers from different religious backgrounds -- Muslim and Christian (and the ethno-musicologist was a rabbi!).  The other interview was with a couple of authors who had written a book about the connections between food and family and learning.  The interviewer wanted to know of what kinds of foods his listeners had great memories:  were there long-treasured recipes, or family traditions centered around food.  But it was the first story -- about those Ugandan coffee-farmers -- that really hit me.  The music that they sang/produced was fine, to be sure.  And it was the discussion about the two farmers that reminded me of the line from the song in the musical "Oliver": "Food, glorious food!  Hot sausage and mustard."
       Food, glorious food!
       How often does food appear in religious contexts!  We've just passed by a couple major "food" festivals: Passover, for our Jewish neighbors, has SO many food associations; Easter, for Christians (whether practicing or not) conjures up memories/practices of "Easter dinner".  Indeed, the whole practice of sacrifice is central to so many religions.  And, of course, it's not just about killing an animal; it's REALLY about the meal that includes that animal.  A meal that may bring the community together, a meal that may help reconcile parties in conflict.
       Even the absence, or renunciation, of food draws people together.  The Muslim fast of Ramadan unites the faithful in a common experience; their bond grows stronger.  But the breaking of that fast, the iftar, becomes an entirely different bonding experience.  Not only do the faithful joyfully eat that first date, but the meal becomes an opportunity for great hospitality -- an invitation to non-Muslim neighbors to share in the joy, to share in conversation, to increase understanding.
      The interview/conversation with the Ugandan coffee-growers struck me because, as the interviewer discovered, there was NO meal together before they labored together, before they knew one another.  There seems to me to have been an inherent reciprocal relationship:  "we know one another; we can eat together", OR "we eat together, and now we can know one another."
      The act of taking in nourishment connects us with everything that lives; to survive demands that we all eat. But really to live demands more than simply feeding.  Sharing a meal, delving into what binds us together  as well as what might separate us from one another, is an activity we take for granted.  We hurry through our eating, availing ourselves of "fast food" so we can get to the next appointment.  We so often miss opportunities to savor:  to savor the flavors, to savor the company, to savor the chance to learn and grow.
      Food, glorious food!  How often have I learned more about another over lunch.  How often have I mended fences over a dinner.  How often has "the other" become my friend.
      I indeed DO love "hot sausage and mustard".  But it tastes so much better when I'm sharing it with others.



Friday, April 5, 2013

Is it JUST a box?

      Many of us have had, no doubt, the experience (as a child, or a parent) of discovering that a box -- a simple cardboard box -- has potential that its original developers never imagined.  It's a bit different these days when many boxes have been replaced by packaging that clearly displays the contents, to be sure.   The big appliance boxes had incredible uses past protecting a new washing machine.  But I certainly also recall that little candy boxes (like those that would hold "Dots" or  "Whoppers") could be turned into noisemakers -- filling the local theaters or sports arenas with loud "honks"!  Most of those candies, now, sadly are packaged in paper/plastic containers.  Where's the sport in that???
      These meanderings down memory lane were sparked as I was listening the other morning to an interview with Alexandra Horowitz, author of the new book On Looking:  Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes.* Horowitz, because of her daily walks with her dog, began to wonder how the things she sees every day might appear to other people who had different interests.  So she walks with an artist, a geologist, an urban sociologist -- even a blind person -- to experience her surroundings in a new way.  The comments on the Amazon page for the book say (not surprisingly) "Eye Opening"!
       The same morning I heard this interview, the radio personalities on one of the stations programmed into my car radio were speaking about the subtle changes taking place in our city.  The grass has become increasingly green over the last few days.  Buds are appearing on trees.  On the bird-watchers' listserv, observers are chronicling the arrival of spring migrants.  With regard to birds, the VERY LOUD "chirr-up" of the American Robin is making the alarm clock superfluous.
       So, I've been recalling that there is more to a "box" than meets the eye.  Our surroundings, as familiar as they may be, are in a constant state of flux.  Who notices?  It's just the front yard, after all!  I've lived here for years!
       I've found a useful counter to this semi-obliviousness in the writings of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who, a number of years ago, popularized a form of mindfulness known as "walking meditation".  In his book Peace Is Every Step, he wrote:

Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking -- walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk.  The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step. . . .    Although we walk all the time, our walking is usually more like running. . . .  Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. . . .   From time to time, when we see something beautiful, we may want to stop and look at it -- a tree, a flower, some children playing.**

In other words, through being mindful, through paying attention, that which is ordinary might become something quite extraordinary.  And, WE might, in the process, become extra-ordinary ourselves.
       The extraordinary, the miraculous, surrounds us.  Potentiality inheres in plants, in boxes, even in ourselves.  Nothing is as it seems, for it may be something else -- something amazingly fun and stupendous!  Perhaps a different set of eyes will help us see that!  Or, perhaps a different sort of attentive looking.
        For it is rarely just a box!



*Scribner, 2013.  [Don't be surprised to see this as one of the Chaplain's Book Discussion books in the fall!]
** Peace Is Every Step:  The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam Books, 1991), 27-29.