Friday, July 26, 2013

Road trip!

       Just about twenty-five years ago this week, I was busy packing a truck, getting ready to move from Los Angeles, CA to Durham, NC.  I was preparing to start graduate school at Duke University, and I was excited to get there, and to begin my program. All that stood between me and that new life was 2500 miles of road in the front of a rental truck.  Fortunately, I wasn't going to make the trip alone; my dad was going to share the driving.  
       We had it mapped out -- relatively efficiently.  We were, after all, limited somewhat in the amount of time we might take by the rental contract.  And, since my sister lived in Houston, Texas, we wanted to spend some time with her (and getout of the cab of the truck for more than a few hours).  That said, however, we wanted to push the envelope on the driving side.   So, on day one we left LA at about 6 am, and drove to El Paso, TX -- 700 miles; day two was El Paso to Houston -- 700 miles (dang! Texas is BIG!).  After several days in Houston, it was back on the road, to Birmingham, AL -- 600 miles.  The last day was the short one, Birmingham to Durham, NC -- 500 miles.  We got into Durham in time to drop the towed car, stow some things in the apartment, and head off to a fabulous Bed & Breakfast for an easy, and enjoyable, arrival evening.
        The next day, of course, was all about unpacking the truck.  Two grown men and a hand truck!  All the boxes and furniture, of course,  But also . . . . a washer and dryer to the basement (down a stair way that wasn't designed for modern appliances!).  A piano (!) up the front steps -- about six of 'em if I remember correctly.  "If I remember correctly" is key. Yes, it was twenty-five years ago.  But mostly, those kinds of arriving-at-the-destination-related memories fade in the face of BEING THERE!  I was in Durham!  In a couple of days, I would begin my graduate program at Duke!  I'd arrived!
        Looking back, however, the real memories of that week are not related to the stairwell to the new basement, or trying to find the local grocery store.  The real memory--the real value--of that week of travel was a chance to get to know my traveling companion in a way that would have probably never happened otherwise  The real memories include:  crossing the Continental Divide in Arizona (there's a sign that says so -- but my dad missed the moment, changing a cassette tape in the player);  the huge thunderstorm in eastern New Mexico where we had to pull over to let the hail pass; the late night swim at the hotel in El Paso; the beautiful streams and scenery of west Texas, and stopping to put our feet in cool water; learning that "don't back up while towing a car" is actually good advice!  And, there are parts of the early evening at the B&B in Durham that are indelibly imprinted on my memory -- such as the circumstances of meeting the Chair of Duke's Religion Department for the first time -- that I'll keep to myself!
      Travel was the centerpiece of an early part of conversation of which I was a part the other day.  The discussion was about the places people had been already this summer, and where they might yet be going.  Stories of Europe and Asia drew "oohs" and "ahs".  Some of the rest of us half-heartedly chimed in "New England" or "Kansas".  And, of course, I could have talked about my solo drive in the front of a rental truck from Portland to Denver a few weeks ago.  But I realized that some of the other trips were also "solo" trips, and how different those and mine were -- enjoyable as they may have been -- than a trip with a companion.
     And, yes, there is a "spiritual" lesson here.  But I doubt I need to belabor the point.  I'll simply quote a Colorado author whose writings I've come to enjoy.  John Gierach is writing about going on fishing trips with a good friend, the well-known (in fly-fishing circles), A.K. Best:

It's not that A.K. is a snob exactly, it's more that he just knows what he likes, and I appreciate that.  My tastes are a little more eclectic than his but I guess that's why most of us end up with more than one friend.  (I have friends who've been known to shoot carp through thin ice with shotguns, so there's lots of leeway there.)  And anyway, in the long run, a trip is more about who you're traveling with than where you go or what you're after.*

Thanks, dad, for being my traveling companion!  It was an unforgettable road-trip.  And I'm equally grateful for all of the companions I've had on my spiritual journey as well!  Solo spirituality doesn't hold a candle to community!

Chaplain Gary 

*"Where to Fish", Standing in a River Waving a Stick (Simon & Schuster, 1999) pp. 188-89.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Shock? and Awe!

        Many years ago, I took part in a CPE program.  "CPE" stands for "Clinical Pastoral Education", and is generally required now for  people who are interested in entering into the ordained ministry in many Christian and Jewish denominations.  As the title implies, those who are part of the program are placed in a clinical setting (it could be a hospital, a prison, a retirement facility, etc.) and use the encounters in their day-to-day work as grist for reflection with a supervisor and in a small group.  Another model of CPE is known as "parish-based" -- that is, the participants use their current work-place as the "clinic" from which they draw the vignettes for reflection.  My program was such a "parish-based" program.
        One of my fellow participants was already pastoring a couple of small churches in southern Virginia, and was going through CPE to equip him for future placements.  One week, he came to the group meeting very visibly shaken up.  This was pretty out of character, since he was usually very confident, almost to the point of being cocky.  As our group conversation progressed, it emerged that he had been wrongly accused of some misbehavior, but that the word had travelled around quickly through his various church-related circles.  His reputation was tarnished and his confidence shot.  As we in the group discussed this with him, he said something to the effect, "I just can't believe that this is happening in a church!  We're supposed to be about loving each other, and caring for each other!"  His worldview came crashing in all about him; he wasn't sure how to, or if he could, go on.
        The rules on which he relied no longer reflected reality.  Certainty, confidence -- things of the past.
        My colleague's experience -- and dismay -- is pretty common.  I certainly want certainty, especially moral certainty.  I find that predictability helps me negotiate all of the stuff I need to manage every day.  And most of us also want fairness, and what is predictable is usually predicated on some notion of fairness.  And many of us often "find" an external source, or ground, for that fairness or predictability we desire.  And, of course, our religious traditions have tried to "help" us with that:  "Do good (as God would want), and you'll prosper!"  But, as the biblical book of Job (as well as other writers) points out, it doesn't always work that way!  Job, the just man, suffers immeasurably for no apparent reason.  That story line can't have appeared out of thin air; it reflects our common frustration with the lack of "fairness".  In other words, the world as we wish it, is "out of order."  The resolution (whether satisfying or not) to Job's situation is that he'd never fully understand; there are things far beyond his, or anyone's, ability to comprehend.  And Job had to sit back in awe.
        I've been struck recently, in my reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, of this tension:  there seems to be a predictability to the moral universe (or there are those who think it should be), but it doesn't always play out.   And often the way of dealing with that dilemma is to place the resolution in the far distant future.  In other words, our notions of fairness are not necessarily out-of-whack, it's our time frame!  The same tension/solution I see in science as well.  What physicists were certain was the case -- in terms of Newtonian physics, for example -- has become thrown into question by quantum physics and chaos theory.  Yet, as I read the scientific materials, the hope is still held out that, somewhere in the future, we'll understand it all.
        I don't know.  I want certainty; we want certainty . . . but there doesn't seem to be certainty.  I want the world to work logically and justly, as I imagine most of us do . . . but it doesn't seem to work that way.  It's a shock to my system that myway of perceiving the world, given my tools, and my understanding, doesn't work the way I want it to.   And pushing things off to some future afterlife isn't very satisfying for dealing with real-world problems right now
        Awe, I suppose, is what's left.  A lesson in humility in the face of that which is larger than me.  But that shouldn't keep me from seeking to create some order out of the chaos -- social, legal, cultural, ethical, political -- in which I find myself.  Of that I am certain.

Chaplain Gary