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.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Keeper of the Torn Cloak

      Last Saturday, I staffed a table at the Pioneer Carnival, the main "resource fair" for incoming students at the University of Denver.  It is one of the last events of the orientation week, and provides an opportunity for student organizations, local businesses and various campus offices to talk with students, and to invite them to become involved.  It's always a noisy, organized-chaos, sort of event.  And it's a lot of fun.
      When students com up to my table, one of the questions they often ask, evenafter staring at the table cover and all the brochures, is "What's this club do?"  I explain that I'm the University Chaplain, and that I oversee religious life on the campus, and help students make connections with the religious groups of their choice/interest.  Sometimes, they'll mention a particular group, and I'll point the way.  Other times, I'll get a follow-up a question:  "What's a chaplain?"  And that's a question I often get, even away from resource fairs; I was asked it at a religious student group meeting this week!  And, so, since I get asked it often enough, I thought I'd take a few moments, at the beginning of this academic year to answer it.  But, to do it, I'll have to get all historical.
       In the 4th century of our era, the story goes, a Roman soldier named Martin (from the city of Tours) found himself face-to-face with a beggar outside the city gates of Amiens.  It was a cold day, and Martin noted that the beggar had little to keep himself warm.  Out of compassion, the soldier cut his own cloak in half, and gave half to the beggar.  That night Martin had a dream in which Jesus was wearing the cloak that Martin had given the beggar.
       That cloak -- in some version of the story, it had been made whole by the time Martin awoke from the dream -- became a sacred relic and was sometimes carried into battle by the Merovingian kings.  The priest who cared for the cloak (in Latin, cappa) was called the cappelanu.  Military priests then all became referred to as cappelani, or in French, chapelains . . . chaplains.  Similarly, the small churches built to house the relic were called cappela (or "little cloak").  Later, even after the churches no longer contained the cloak, they retained the name capella or "chapel".  The clergy person in charge of the "chapel" retained the title "chaplain."
       So, one could say that, since I have charge of the University's Evans Chapel, I have the title "Chaplain".  But I, and other chaplains, also fill other roles, and here will quote from a description found on the Hartford Seminary's website describing an Islamic chaplaincy

A chaplain is a professional who offers spiritual advice and care in a specific institutional context, such as a military unit or a college campus, hospital or prison. Although chaplains often provide religious services for members of their own faith communities, the main role of a chaplain is to facilitate or accommodate the religious needs of all individuals in the institution in which he or she is working. Chaplains often serve as experts on ethics to their colleagues and employers, providing insight to such diverse issues as organ transplantation, just-warfare, and public policy. Professional chaplains do not displace local religious leaders, but fill the special requirements involved in intense institutional environments.

That seems to be a pretty good description of much of what I do (although I'm not so sure I'd claim the distinction of being an "expert on ethics"!).  On the other hand, sometimes in answer to the question "What's a chaplain?", I often answer by saying, "Well, I something of a cross between Fr. Mulcahey on M.A.S.H and a medieval court jester*."  That often elicits a smile of understanding.
         What I would ultimately hope, however, is that I, and other chaplains, faithfully execute the care and hospitality represented by Martin's torn cloak.


Chaplain Gary

*A "jester", not so much as being a funny, foolish, figure, but as one given the right, or responsibility, of speaking truth to power.