Friday, May 31, 2013

Endings & beginnings & endings & . . .

      Much of this week I spent either in Portland, Oregon, or on the road between there and Denver.  I was in Portland with my sister and one of her sons.  Our task?  Clean out Mom's house in preparation for it transitioning to new owners.  Mom will be moving into a small one-bedroom apartment out of, and away from, a three-bedroom house that had contained decades-worth of dishes, photos, napkins, gardening supplies, and momentos.   More so than was the case for my nephew, going through each room brought up memories of joys, frustrations and sadnesses.  Along with several major questions:  (1) "Who is taking that?"  (2) "Will I be able to pack all of this?" (3) "What things do we need to keep at-the-ready for when she moves into the new place?"
      Certainly there were many things that I recalled having around me from my childhood, but just as many that I didn't remember (e.g., I'd forgotten that I had a signed hockey stick from one of the Portland Buckaroos!).  There were gifts we had given Mom over the years that had seen regular use.  There were old school photos (which probably should never have seen the light of day since their taking!).  In short, there were plenty of things that I wanted to retain, and just as many that I'd just as soon forget.
      But, Tuesday morning came, and I hopped in the front of the rental truck and began the drive east on I-84.  It occurred to me that I hadn't seen much of the road I was going to see since the mid- 1970's.  And, as it turned out, I took some alternate routes than Google Maps suggested, so I saw scenery I had NEVER seen.  In fact, until I hit central Wyoming, I followed much of the route of the Oregon Trail.  It was, overall, a great drive . . . and it provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on all the stuff in boxes behind me.
      One of the images that wouldn't leave me was the exodus of the Israelites leaving Egypt. (And, no, I'm not comparing my situation with a liberation from bondage!  Or . . . maybe I am!)  The book of Exodus reports that, relatively soon after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites found themselves in want.  And they began to grumble.  Two-and-a-half months after their departure from Egypt, the "whole community" came before Moses and Aaron and said "Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!  But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!" (Ex 16.3).  In other words, they preferred bondage to the old ways than to freedom.  They could see little of real worth in their past, nor little promise in their future.
      The Jewish tradition has turned that perspective around, it seems to me.  Throughout Hebrew scriptures the heirs of that exodus community have been charged to recall being in bondage:  the refrain "Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt" occurs in various forms throughout scripture and tradition.  Why "remember"?  Remembering will provide a more expansive view of being a stranger in a strange land.  It will be a reminder of God's deliverance.  The slavery and subsequent deliverance become a defining point.  What those fleeing Egypt thought they should be leaving behind was part of the most important thing that they were carrying forward, a basis for much of their social ethic.
      And so, the boxes behind me were boxes of what I felt was the most important stuff from my past that I should carry into my future.  It wasn't so much the hockey stick or baseball bat.  It was the desk that I had helped my dad refinish.  It was the large binders of family history that my parents had assembled over decades.  It was the dishes that my mom had purchased when we were in certain places in Europe when I was a child.  Many of those things were a hassle to pack and unpack (I have bruises and cuts galore!), but they are central to who I am.
       The ending, then, of the "that's where home is" (i.e., a particular house in Portland) has become a new beginning.  And that, in its turn, becomes a new ending.  And the beat goes on.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 24, 2013

Think on these things

       Yesterday, A DU student posted to Facebook:  "My thesis defense is over, my thesis passed, and I received amazing insight into how to conduct research in the future from my awesome thesis committee! A year of my life has earned a stamp of approval, and now I can enjoy the last weeks of college!"  One of his friends posted a comment to the effect that this praise of a committee was somewhat unheard-of.  And this got me thinking about the gift of praise.
       I'm not referring here to "praise" of a deity, although in searching for picture to accompany this reflection, almost every image was linked to "praising God."  I'm thinking instead of the everyday praise we can give to others.  It may be praise for something great and singular, like finishing a thesis, or having a great thesis committee.  Or it may be something less momentous, like praising a child for emptying the garbage can.  Whatever the situation deserving of praise, my suspicion is that we all hear it too rarely.  And, if we hear it too rarely, we probably give it too rarely.
       I suppose it's not so unusual that that would be the case.  If we were to go through the newspaper looking for praise, we'd probably not find much.  There might be some in the sports section -- a coach praising a player.  And there may be some following a disaster, praising the first-responders.  But I wonder if we don't really live in a culture of criticism.  Look through the newspaper and one finds a bunch of that!  So, in some respects, praise is a counter-cultural act.  Groovy! (as suggested above).
       We spend a lot of time fault-finding.  And I certainly know that a well-timed, and well-worded, critique can go a long way to helping someone improve (or, at least, that's what I tell myself when I'm dealing with my kids!).  But, as it says in the biblical book of Proverbs, "Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up" (Prov. 12.25).  Don't we all need some cheering up -- especially at this time of our academic year, when there is an incredible amount of stress (getting papers done, studying for finals) and anxiety ("Will I get that job?"  "Will I pass?" "Will I get those papers graded in time?").  Well, to all of you wondering, anxious, stressed-out folks, you've done great!  Otherwise you wouldn't be where you are today!  Good for you!
       The apostle Paul, wrote to a young Christian congregation in the middle of the first century CE.  This congregation was clearly focused on all the wrong things -- as one commentator put it, they were marked by a crass individualism.  He challenged them to re-think their relationships with one another.  He challenged them to manifest humility to one another. And he concluded, partially, by writing "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4.8).  Although Paul doesn't come right out and say it, I imagine he would also assert that one should not only "think" about these things, but also talk about them!
       I'm wondering, too, about one of our American "sacred songs" -- "Home on the Range".  Well, those of us to the east of the Rocky Mountains do, pretty much, make our home on the range.  Maybe we can embody one of the lines of the song for our mutual benefit:  "where seldom is heard a discouraging word."
      Lavish praise and good will!  We'll all benefit!


Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 17, 2013

       This morning was the last "volunteer-visit" of the academic year to Metro CareRing.  When I first thought of taking folks to MCR in March 2011, I had no idea what would eventuate.  Somehow word got out to a class that I was taking volunteers to a food pantry, and, if students wanted to fulfill the community service requirement for that class, they should go!  Ummm.  No-one talked with me about that!  But we ended up with over a dozen volunteers!  In many respects it was more than MCR could handle at one time (without advance notice).  It was, however, a great morning . . . and an auspicious beginning.  
       Over the last couple of years, about 15 - 20 folks have joined me off-and-on in serving the less-fortunate of our community.  That number includes students (international students seem particularly interested!), staff, faculty and faculty spouses and children.  We have off-loaded trucks, sorted lemons, stocked shelves, and assisted participant/clients with their "shopping" needs (there is no charge for the food, but the participants are helped through the market where they pick their own food). We have seen the faces of hungry people, and we've learned that we could look in the mirror and see the same kinds of faces.  We've heard languages as diverse as Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and, of course, English.  
       The volunteers in general are as varied as the participant/clients.  Some are retired.  Others are folks serving out their mandatory "community service" hours.  Some are veterans.  Some are students.  Some speak English only haltingly, having just recently immigrated to the US.  Some are students:  middle school, high school and college.
       We have learned how much food is thrown away, but, also, how much food is donated to places like Metro CareRing (they get a wonderful variety from stores as varied as Whole Foods and Target).  But not only does food arrive at MCR from stores.  Much is delivered out of the trunks and back seats of car and SUVs (the small boxes in the lower center of the photo above came out of an individual's car this morning). Some comes from churches; some from the goodness of individual donors.  When we unload those vehicles, we always say "Thank you."  And, more often than not, the response is not "You're welcome," but rather, "No, THANK YOU!".
       And we all work hard -- not just physically (although that is the case); we work hard to ensure that the folks who come through the doors are treated with dignity and care.  For many of those folks, the strangers who are serving them (i.e., us) are the only ones who may treat them that way on that day, or during that week.  It is remarkable, however, that the kindness that we show often melts the icy, suspicious, reserve that accompanies the participants as they enter.  And their stories emerge . . . as well as their own inner kindness.
       When we leave, we know we have been blessed.  The kindness of strangers, I suppose, is reciprocal.  The truth found in the New Testament book of Hebrews becomes manifest: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb 13.2).  The angels are out there!
       I close here with a newsletter article that Metro CareRing has prepared for congregational bulletins and newsletters. 
Be a Hunger Relief Agent!

Metro CareRing has been blessed with a wonderful team of volunteers. Last year, more than 1200 people served at MCR, completing the equivalent hours of almost 16 full-time staff. Thank you to everyone who currently shares their time and passion with the families receiving assistance from Metro CareRing.  Your efforts allow us to address hunger issues and guide these families toward self-sufficiency. As the summer months approach, we need more dedicated volunteers, like you. Please encourage your family and friends to get involved.
Metro CareRing needs volunteers to serve in a variety of rewarding ways. Volunteers help to greet participants, complete intake and offer resources, shop with families in the Metro CareRing Market, and keep our pantry organized and stocked. Additionally, volunteers lead classes on nutrition, budgeting and gardening. Schedules are flexible and fall within the hours of 9am-4pm Monday through Friday and Tuesday evenings from 6pm-8pm. Especially needed, are persons with administrative, teaching, or counseling experience.  Visit us at or contact Ellie Agar at or 303-350-3699 to get started. 
My next visit to MCR will be on June 21st.  Let me know if you'd like to join me.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 10, 2013

By the rivers of Babylon . . .

     After taking Jerusalem in 597 BCE, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II deported much of the leadership of Judah to Babylon.  There were three deportations over a fifteen year period, and those Jews remained in exile for about sixty years. They were allowed to return to their homeland when Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians.
     Most of us can only barely imagine how traumatic this exile must have been.  Not only were the exiles taken from their land, their livelihood and (perhaps) their friends and family.  They were torn from their religious center as well.  The temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of their religion. Many rites and rituals were done primarily there.  How, in such circumstances, could they go on?  It is no wonder that a psalmist wrote:

   By the rivers of Babylon-
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there
we hung up our harps. 

   How could we sing the LORD'S song
in a foreign land?

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
(Ps 137.1-2, 4, 8)

       Yet, to those people, to that psalm-writer, God had a different message, delivered through the prophet Jeremiah.  A letter to the exiles read:  

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  (Jer 29.4-7)

Puzzling on many counts.  First, God sent the exiles to Babylon.  Second, there's a strong suggestion that the exiles had better prepare for a long stay.  And, third, they are to "seek the welfare of the city" where they had been sent.
       Into a new situation the people had been delivered.  And in that new situation they were to discover means, not only to survive, but to thrive.*  And, apparently they did, since biblical scholars will point to the Babylonian Captivity as a time of great creativity.
       I have spent the last few days at a clergy conference in Breckenridge.  The speaker referenced the Jeremiah passage at the beginning of his first talk, and I've been chewing on the implications ever since.  I constantly find myself in new, unsettling, circumstances and, like the psalmist, I often respond by digging my heels in, refusing to adapt, dreaming of retribution.  And that generally results in anger, frustration and lack of any real productivity.  I know I'm not alone in this, as I read about similar responses by individuals, groups, and countries all the time.
       The world, however, has an annoying habit of always being in flux; nothing stays constant.  Religious folks might attribute that change to the activity of God.  Certainly that's the implication in Jeremiah's letter to the exiles.  And, so, the question before me/us is whether we get with the "drift" of the rivers of Babylon, or, rather, throw in an anchor, fight the current and wear ourselves down.  This is, course, akin to the "watercourse way" of Taoism.  But it also reflective of the Buddhist teachings of being present NOW, not in the past, nor in the future.  Be aware of what is going on and live fully into that reality.  This isn't so much a question of acculturation as it is of recognizing new opportunities and capitalizing on them.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sometimes it rains.

      In the wonderful baseball movie, Bull Durham*, the airhead pitcher/phenom,  "Nuke" LaLoosh (played to great effect by Tim Robbins), in his first interview after reaching the big leagues, tells a reporter that, in baseball, "Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes it rains.  Think about it."  He learned the basics of this sentiment from his brought-into-the-program-to-groom-him mentor, "Crash" Davis (played by Kevin Costner).
      Well, "sometimes it rains".
      One of those strange confluences of air currents, pixie-dust, under-the-bed hobgoblins, and (I'm sure my mother would say) "Mercury being in retrograde" has caused a "rain" this week. This is not a meteorological, or terrestrial, catastrophe of baseball-ian proportions, BUT . . .
      A couple of things require publicizing that I didn't get to my very competent editor.  And there have been too many events/appointments/etc. that have prevented my from thinking deeply about world/national/local events or matters of heavily religious import.  
       So, there has been a rain-storm.
      And maybe that IS a proper reminder to me (a control freak) that I am NOT in control. (Harumph! Imagine that!)  And so, I'm going to let the "rain" say what it says:  the game will be played another day.
       So . . . here are the publicity items!
       FIRST:  May 14th at 7:00 pm:  Interfaith Conversation about Civil Unions.  Why is this important to you?  It's really all about listening!  Driscoll Gallery (and there WILL be dessert!).
       SECOND:  May 21st at noon:  Book Discussion on Anne Lamott's Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers.  Gottesfeld Reading Room, Anderson Academic Commons.  Prof. Sandy Dixon will join us for the conversation.  (C'mon you can read the book!  It's only 115 pages!)
     More substantive thoughts when the rain subsides!  If only I can find my mitt.


Chaplain Gary
*Note to no-one; but I was in Durham NC while that particular ball-park was still in use, and I've seen the bull and eaten wonderful burritos!  And, yes, I own the video (and often watch it on Opening Day!).