Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanks! No, really!

       "What man is a man who does not make the world better?"  So Balian of Ibelin translates an inscription carved in one of the roof beams of his smithy towards the beginning of the film "Kingdom of Heaven".*  He refers to the sentiment later in the movie when he is congratulated for turning a very dry parcel of land into a productive estate.  He says something to the effect: "It is my land.  How can I not make it better?" In neither case was a desire for change absent.  But Balian wasn't searching for a better blacksmith's shop, or for a different parcel of land.  In both cases, the message seemed to be "Take what you have and make it better."
        How different that is from the messages with which we are bombarded constantly -- and especially at this time of the year:  "You don't have enough!  You need more, especially OUR product!  Then you'll be the top dog!  And you'll have six-pack abs!"  Or, as I've seen it put on Facebook:  "Black Friday is the day we go out and buy more stuff -- the day after we've stopped to give thanks for all that we have!"
        And so I wonder if we really are giving thanks for all we have?  Or are we going through the "Thanksgiving grace" motions as a "necessary" precursor to gorging ourselves silly?  If I spend any time thinking back on all of the pre-Thanksgiving-dinner prayers I've heard (or given), they fall into some predictable patterns:  "Thanks for the food.  Thanks for the hands that prepared it.  Thanks for the family and friends around the table."  And there may be some acknowledgement that there are folks out there whose table may NOT be defined as a "groaning board" because it is pretty meagerly furnished.  But, mostly I recall some sort of acknowledgement of how MUCH stuff I really have (or have to look forward to).
        The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, reportedly wrote:  "If the only prayer you say in your life is 'thank you,' that would suffice."  If we take Eckhart seriously, it seems to me, we need to go pretty deep in our thanksgiving.  Certainly we are rightfully thankful for friends/family and food.  Most of us -- but not all, however, have eyes with which to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets, not to mention the beautifully set table.  But do we just give thanks for the sunrise, or, additionally, the eyes that see it?  Are we thankful for the good grade (it IS the end of the quarter after all), or for the clear mind that could analyze the problem, for the teachers who provided the tools, for the parents who encouraged the exploration?  The interconnections and intersections are so complex that they are almost overwhelming, almost beyond consideration. That shouldn't, however, excuse us from recognizing them and appreciating their depth and beauty but, rather, almost blithely skipping to the outcome.
        Drawing a connection between Eckhart and his medieval colleague Balian, are we as set on giving thanks for what we have and then seeking ways to make that better? As a cyclist, I'm always amused by those who more set on spending a LOT of money to reduce the weight of their bicycle by a few ounces than they are to reduce their spending on food (which, of course, would reduce the road weight of them and their bikes!).  Are we more prone to think "out with the old, in with the new", or "I'm glad for what I have, but more is better"?  What if saying "Thanks, I'll work with the abundance I have right now" was sufficient?

Chaplain Gary

Nemo vir est qui mundum non red dat meliorem.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mapping God

 ". . . you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."*

      This wonderful suggestion relayed by Anne Lamott mirrors something I heard some months back about a group of religious college students trying to decide what Myers-Briggs profile best fit Jesus of Nazareth.  Without our needing to understand the complexities of the Myers-Briggs world, it turned out that the students' profiles of Jesus bore an uncanny resemblance to their own Myers-Briggs profile; e.g., introverts thought Jesus was introverted while extroverts found him to be extroverted.  In other words, the figure of Jesus became a sort of "divinity Rorschach Test", saying more about the observer than the observed object.
         Both the Lamott quotation and the psychology profile came to mind this week as I reflected on (1) the musical theater piece "Book of Mormon"; and (2) the book we discussed, David Webster's 
Dispirited:  How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy.**  I don't want to give away any of the plot twists and turns of "Book of Mormon", but those who have seen it will know that there are "liberties" taken throughout the production with both the received text of the Book of Mormon as well as with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  These "liberties" reflect a socio-cultural system very different than either that of the LDS church's founder, or that of the two missionaries. Dispirited demanded a bit less "analysis", as Webster disparagingly observes throughout the book that the "god" of many believers (regardless of the tradition) simply reflects their own predilections or desires, predilections or desires that have little to do with the "truth."
          Webster's critique is not new.  At the very least,  Anne Lamott's clergy friend, Tom, observed much the same thing twenty years before Webster wrote his book.  And there have been many other, similar, observations over the centuries.  Webster, of course, has an agenda to put forward, and he thinks this reflected "god" isn't a good thing.  As his full subtitle suggests, "Contemporary spirituality is destroying our ability to think, depoliticizing society and making us miserable".***  I'm not so sure.

          As I already noted, Webster's critique is not new.  Indeed, in some places his critique is no critique at all, but rather a simple statement of the way people relate to the divine.  Hinduism (especially the Smarti and Bhakti schools) presents a great example of this with its concept of ishta-devata or "chosen deity", or "the form of God which inspires [the practitioner] the most".****  This, it seems to me, is a generous recognition that each individual will understand the divine out of his/her own experience.  It is NOT a bad thing, it is simply a thing. And it is little different than the oft-quoted aphorism that "there are many paths to reach God."
         We could see this practice as nothing other than looking in the mirror and recording our reflection as being "divine."  On the other hand, we might turn the above aphorism around (as some have done) and assert that "God takes many paths to reach us."  Paths inspiring action; paths inspiring devotion; paths inspiring knowledge.  I wonder if it is less a matter of us "mapping God" than God knowing the territory and recognizing the value of hills, valleys, oceans, forests, mountains and brooks and mapping us.

Chaplain Gary

*  Attributed to her priest friend, Tom, by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor: 1995), 22.

**  Zero Books, 2012.

***  Title page.

**** Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1971), 122.  See too, the entry on ishta-devata in

Friday, November 8, 2013

Misty water-colored memories

      Earlier this week, I found myself pondering "memories".  I was listening to a recording of a recent Brian Lehrer show in which Brian was inviting listeners to call in with their memories of "what was better 'back in the day'".  The show, called "An Oral History of Nostalgia" successfully enticed listeners from age 19 to age 81 to call in. Many of the memories were clearly age-related (such as the octogenarian reminiscing about radio dramas).  Others were a bit more surprising, such as a twenty-something wistfully recalling doing homework before the advent of easy computer searches.
       All of the callers' memories prompted me to look back.  Certainly I could remember all sorts of great things: trips taken, gifts received (and given), time spent with loved ones, "life birds" (i.e., the first time a bird-watcher sees an individual member of a species is a "life bird"), great meals, or memorable bike rides.  In terms of this last category, I can recall almost every day and every mile of the 560+ miles I rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2005.  What a FABULOUS trip! The scenery, the companions, the food, those on the side of the road who cheered us on,* the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment arriving in Los Angeles.  But I can also remember numb hands from hours on the handlebars, VERY tight tendons in my shoulder and achilles, not to mention soreness in that place where my body met the bike's saddle.  Yet, the former memories so far outweigh the latter that, given the chance, I'd do it again in an instant!
        Memories, thus, are a mixed bag.  The same situation or person, when called to remembrance can bring smiles or frowns.  And, of course, there are many which evoke predominantly one emotion over the other.  In my conversations with folks, I frequently hear about the negative memories  . . . and how those are the formative recollections.  With a bit of encouragement/coaxing, I can often tease out more positive memories.  Sometimes, in the course of our conversation, I'll hear the other person reflect "I wonder why I'm intent on focusing on the negative, not the positive, memories?"  Yes, why indeed?
        Why is it that we shine such a strong light on so many negative memories from the past?  Yes, there are events that are primarily negative, instances of a crime, for example, and I'm not wondering about those.  I wonder about things that I recall that could "go either way", but I tend to travel down the negative road with them.   Can I spend some time with the most significant of those negative memories and coax them out of their "misty water-colored" nature?  Might I find, in so doing, some positive, redemptive core that won't necessarily change "the way I was", but might empower me to alter my future?
       Our great religious traditions "redeem" the events of the past, even the negative ones: defeat, loss, exile, death.  These religions celebrate the fact that, despite those awful events, the faithful have survived--because of their faith, their perspective on life.  
       Whatever happened, happened.  How I choose to remember it, and thus how I choose to let the events of the past affect me is within my control. I would choose to create life-giving memories.  L'chaim!


Chaplain Gary

*I was riding the AIDS Life Cycle, raising money for AIDS research in California.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Back to normal?

     Last evening, I repeatedly answered the door of my home, only to be greeted by children, variously garbed as monsters, skeletons, princesses, historical figures, and cartoon characters. Sometimes parents joined them at the door (also variously garbed -- mostly as pirates); other times, they remained on the sidewalk, supervising from afar, dressed more for the weather than the holiday. Yes, it was Halloween, and my job, answering the door, was to mollify the visitors with a treat (in our case it was glow-in-the-dark bags of crunchy cheetos). [On a side note, I DO wonder what would happen if I asked for a "trick"?]
      I actually enjoy answering the door this one evening of the year!  I enjoy seeing the elaborate, imaginative costumes.  And, I have to admit, I really love the littlest kids:  princesses or animals mostly.  But I do take comfort knowing that the evening will come to an end.  The kids will head home, ready to check out their "take" (while parents wonder how they'll get the kids asleep).  The candles in the jack-o-lanterns will eventually burn out of their own accord. Porch lights will be extinguished around the neighborhood, and November 1 will dawn with the world back to "normal".
      On Halloween, I also recall the other times (current and historical) when costume-donning is--or has been--practiced.  Mardi Gras springs to mind, especially in some cities, as a contemporary example.  In other places and times, the practice of costume-donning was related to the reversal of cultural/societal norms; for example, peasants assumed the role of lords/ladies/clergy/magistrates, and vice-versa.  One day a year, the exalted were humbled, and the humble exalted. And then, on the morrow, the status quo returned for another 364 days. A vacation into fantasyland. The practice was "officially" sanctioned, by those in charge, of course. THEY knew that they would return to their privileged positions.  What was "normal" would resume its "rightful" place.
      I'm not so sure that our contemporary cultural fascination with costumes has the same root, or rationale. There are a lot of other, perhaps commercial, interests at play.  But I have to wonder what it is we hope we will find as we "become" someone/something else for a few hours or a day. Do we harbor some deeper desire or hope than simply "escape-from-normalcy"? Do we long for a society where "difference" is less threatening?  Or, where "outrageous play" is a greater part of our work-oriented life? 
      I suppose I'm over-thinking this.  But I every so often I find myself wondering if "back to normal" is where we really want to be?  


Chaplain Gary