Friday, December 19, 2014

Quiet, please!

      At the end of September our area was blasted by a VERY heavy hail-storm.  My wife was on her way to pick up the kids from school, and the hail was so bad she said that folks were stopping in the middle of the road.  She was able to pull into a parking lot and wait the storm out.  We're waiting to see whether or not our insurance will cover replacing most of the body panels on that car!  Our roof (old cedar shakes) was a mess, as were most of those in our neighborhood.  Roof replacement was in the cards!
      Last Saturday a small army of workers climbed ladders and started tearing off the shakes.  It did NOT make for a calm Saturday.  There was the noise of the shake-removal, the worker's radio (a VERY different station than I would have normally picked!), and the sound of debris hitting the truck.  When the sun finally went down, quiet was restored. What a relief! It remained quiet for several days, as we had snow on the roof.  But mid-week they were back, this time to put down the new shingles. BANG, BANG, BANG!  BANG, BANG, BANG! I'm hopeful that, today, when I get home, the roof is DONE!
      I am not really complaining, as I'm happy that we will have a new roof, providing better protection than its predecessor!  But I was struck by the contrast between the noise of the work and the silence.  I had grown slightly accustomed to the racket.  The silence, while a relief, was almost deafening.  I realized I was breathing differently.
      In a few days, like several other companies and institutions, the University of Denver will close for the last five business days of the year.  The noise, both literal and figurative, of our work will cease.  It's place, for many of us, will be taken by the hustle and bustle of holiday gatherings, noisy New Year's celebrations, intrusive holiday music in the stores, etc.  Quiet, please!
      Yet, at the same time, we will be surrounded by opportunities to find quiet and solitude.  Those of us who live in areas that are subject to snowfall all probably know how quiet even the busiest neighborhood becomes once it's blanketed by snow.  And heading into a park, or up into the mountains, just makes the quiet that much deeper.  I know I'll be heading out of the neighborhood to find that quiet, 
to be renewed, to take the opportunity to breathe differently.
      May we all find some of the quiet holiday blessings the season affords.



Friday, December 5, 2014

Wildly inaccurate

    "You are wildly inaccurate with your self-evaluation."  So begins Mary Hynes' interview with scholar/blogger/author David McRaney.*  Ms. Hynes was not accusing Mr. McRaney of anything, but, rather, summarizing some of his work . . . which, of course they discuss over the course of the interview.  The first part of the interview focuses on our common tendency to, and benefits of, self-delusion.  McRaney even argues that "People who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day-to-day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities."  
       I listened to this interview earlier this week.  And my listening to it was done in the midst of the news of the two grand jury decisions NOT to indict police officers in the deaths of two black men.  In addition I was also a member of a committee planning a division-wide workshop focusing on our implicit biases (the topic had been chosen prior to the Ferguson decision).  Questions, therefore, of bias, prejudice, self-awareness -- all of these have been swirling about me for several weeks.
      As part of the workshop, I (and the rest of the division) was asked to take Harvard's Implicit Association Test.  This survey examines our automatic (i.e., unconscious) reactions/attitudes about a whole range of subjects, from sex/gender to race to weight to Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings.  In the midst of all of the tension and protests following the Ferguson decision, I decided to take the "race" test.  The results were not what I'd hoped; my automatic reactions favored European Americans over African Americans.  I took little solace in learning that I'm not unusual in any sense -- that most Americans, 
regardless of race/ethnicity, who take the test show the same "automatic" response.  This isn't good news.
       Most of us, however, would not want to admit that these are our attitudes -- even if they are unconscious.  And, those who work on the Implicit Association Test generally point out that implicit bias (in terms of race) does not mean racism.  Yet, in general,
  we would confirm Mr. McRaney's conclusion:  we are wildly inaccurate with our self-evaluation.  And I think he would agree that this is one place where there are very few benefits to this self-delusion.  Our attitudes (unexamined or not) result in actions we may not wish to own.
       There does, however, seem to be some good news.  Later in the interview, McRaney addresses the question "Which comes first, attitude or behavior?".  After some discussion, he summarizes recent research:  changing one's behavior leads to changed attitudes.  That is, if one causes harm, hate will follow.  The opposite is also true -- good news for us -- if one acts compassionately, care will follow.   The imperative, as he quotes his father, "Act your way to right thinking."
        Our better natures, those commended to us by our various religious traditions, would have us exercise compassion, hospitality and justice to all people.  Perhaps, as we move through the tragic events of the last several weeks and months, and the protests and demonstrations that have followed, we can actively change our behaviors--our actions--and, thereby, change some of our attitudes so that "automatic" actions are just, caring and compassionate.  What a great holiday gift to give our culture.



* Mary Hynes hosts the Canadian Broadcasting System's show "Tapestry".  The interview mentioned here can be found in this episode:  The interview with Mr. McRaney begins about halfway through the show.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Teach your children/parents well

   Here at the University of Denver, the fall quarter is over (except for those poor faculty members who are still grading exams/papers!).  Yesterday was the last day of finals, and the campus was feeling pretty deserted.  Now we are on to Inter-term classes, workshops, trainings, holiday luncheons . . . six weeks (give or take) of a different pace.  But the last couple of weeks were tense, with students hurrying to get papers in, studying done, exams taken, and res hall rooms cleaned out (no food allowed over break!), etc.
     What those students are NOT doing is lining up outside of my office.  And this seems to surprise some folks, as I often am asked, at this time of year, "Well, I suppose this is your busy time??" And I can honestly answer that, in over twenty years of campus work, I've NEVER had a student come to me during the last couple of weeks of a term because of academic anxiety.  And I'm not alone in my experience, as conversations with colleagues confirm.  And that makes me wonder . . .
      It makes me wonder about the idea(s) of God/spirituality that are behind the question.  The same question is NEVER asked of me in the middle of a term . . . i.e., in a less "stressful" time.
  So, is there an underlying assumption that God/religion is just there to get you out of a fix?  Is that what the questioner was taught?  Perhaps, but it hasn't generated more foot traffic to my office.  Or, more generously, is there a belief that a chaplain or spiritual counselor would be able to lend a sympathetic ear during stressful times.  Of these two possibilities, I certainly prefer the latter, but the absence of a line outside chaplains' offices would suggest that that particular belief was not necessarily passed on to the last couple of generations.

     I would hope that today's students haven't being taught that religion/spirituality is a sort of "fire insurance", only to be cashed in when the going gets rough.  Perhaps, given the way "religion" plays out in the "culture wars", many may have been taught (or have learned) that it can useless (at the least) or pretty hurtful (at the most).   On the other hand, I fear that many haven't been taught that there is compassion and empathy to found in religiously-motivated listeners during the hard patches of life.
      I know many students (as well as their parents or other older adults) who don't believe those first two negative lessons about religion, and who DO believe the last positive lesson.  They've been taught well.  I think they know that their religious convictions ARE a support during the hard times, but not only then -- that those same convictions provide a context within which to understand the good times, as well as to provide motivation to support others.  They stop by my office from time to time.

      Clearly, there's still a lot of learning and unlearning to do, even when the academic quarters end . . . and we're all teachers all the time.  I can't help but close with the famous song of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Teach your children well":

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of the tender years, can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix,the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.*

Let's feed folks on our dreams!



*Written by Graham Nash, Lyrics from

Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembering gratefully

    This past Tuesday was Veteran's Day in the US.  As part of our observance at DU, I sponsored a book discussion on Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, about the difficulties a half-breed Native-American WWII veteran faced upon returning home.  It was a fascinating discussion, involving former GSSW professor Jim Moran (a Vietnam vet and Native-American) and Zachary Moon (a Navy Chaplain working on his PhD, studying how we reincorporate returning vets).*  Then, later in the afternoon, we had a Veteran's Day ceremony, including an ROTC Honor Guard, the playing of Taps, and with comments from one of our US Army Fellows (in residence at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies), our Chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, and me.  What follows is the text of my comments.
    This morning I changed my Facebook profile picture to that of a young man, 24-years-old, standing in a snow storm somewhere in Belgium.  While the photo itself was probably taken in December 1944, it seemed appropriate to use that photo of my dad on this snowy Veterans’ Day in Colorado, seventy years later.  And while many folks in Colorado will complain about the cold this week — and justifiably so — historians of World War II, as well as that dwindling number of veterans who were there, will talk about the bitter cold of the Ardennes forest during one of the decisive battles of that war, the Battle of the Bulge.
    I don’t know if that young man, when he joined the Army in 1942, envisioned that winter in Belgium.  Like many, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be sent to the European or Pacific theater.  What I do know is that he wanted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but he was sent to Europe before that dream was realized.  He did get to fly — but as a spotter for a Field Artillery Battalion.  
    I doubt that many others suspected that they’d be on beaches or jungles on previously-unknown islands in the Pacific.  Few suspected the horrors of those battles, specifically of that on Okinawa which my father-in-law experienced.
    I say all of this because I doubt that many of those men and women we honor with the title “Veteran” know what they’re getting into.  Even those who enlist during “peace-time” cannot be sure that they will not be thrust into battle, as political winds blow ill.  Yet, for whatever reasons, they DO choose to serve their country.  They take the oath.  They leave loved ones.  Those who return, do so changed — as did my dad and my father-in-law.
    On this Veteran’s Day — this “Remembrance Day” — we remember and honor all who’ve served, as well as those who have served by supporting them, their families and friends.  We are grateful for that commitment.

Chaplain Gary

* For an overview of the book, check the Spark Notes site, and for a recording of the discussion, go to the bottom of this page, and click on "Ceremony"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Hopeful burdens


     Last week, I was in Boston attending the annual gathering of the Association of College and 
University Religious Affairs ("ACURA").  This confab draws together Deans of Chapels and University Chaplains from around the country, meeting on different campuses, and highlights the realities of our work in those different contexts.  We're always treated to good entertainment and good food . . . as well as fascinating presentations and conversations.  Last week was no exception.  Music from Ladino Spain as well as Tufts' "Beelzebubs" (their men's a cappella group).  Tours of sacred spaces at both Tufts and Harvard, as well as a visit to Concord (birthplace of the American Revolution).
       One evening, we were treated to a marvelous presentation by Prof. Davíd Carrasco (Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard).  As part of his talk, he referred to some of the ancient Mesoamerican mythologies, and how they were depicted in inscriptions and scrolls.  He mentioned the "sacred bundles" of the Aztecs and (if I'm remembering correctly), that they were related to a sort of creation story -- that there was a dispersal of the people, but that, as they went out, the elders were all carrying "sacred bundles" that would help keep their traditions alive, and their people connected.
       I had seen pictures before like the one above, but I had always assumed that the figures were simply carrying "backpacks" or "burdens".  That is, either the essentials of day-to-day living or the fruits of their labors; I had not thought of them as anything "sacred".  In some respects I had thought of them as visual depictions of the saying "everyone you meet is carrying a great burden".*
      Later, however, as I was reflecting on Carrasco's talk of the sacred bundles (and listening to the 
Guy Mendilow Ensemble's wonderful, transformed and transformative, Ladino music), as well as trying to process all of the news of the day (electioneering, international conflicts, etc.), I started wondering whether the "burdens" we carry might also hold the promise of being transformed into "sacred bundles". So, "Are we carrying 'hopeful burdens"', I asked myself.
      Two of the foundational assumptions of the change theory "Appreciative Inquiry" are "People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known)" and that "If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past".**  My experience, however, is that I often find myself ruminating on the negative parts of the "burden" I'm carrying; that darkness obscures the possibility of light and hope.  It then takes another set of eyes to see what I cannot, and to draw my attention to the hopeful potential that my past experience affords.
     A two-fold challenge lies before us, then, it seems to me.  On the one hand, we need to seek out that extra pair of eyes to help us transform our burdens into sacred bundles.  And, when we see someone laboring under a "great burden", to offer our help in realizing hope.

Chaplain Gary

* This is often attributed to Plato or Philo, or some other ancient.  It would appear, however, that it is only about 120 years old, and can be traced to a man named John Watson.
** Hammond, Sue Annis. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (Bend, OR:  Thin Book Publishing Co, 1998), 21.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Know? No!?

      A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I taught an course that sought to provide historical context for some thorny contemporary issues. On the first day of class, I handed out a questionnaire that asked that the students locate themselves on continuum lines regarding some of those contemporary issues (e.g. abortion, capital punishment, legalized marijuana, etc.). I took those responses and prepared a chart of where they, as a class, "stood" on those issues. As might be expected, the class members extended both to the right and left from the mean. My purpose in conducting the exercise was two-fold. First, I wanted the class to recognize that not everyone enrolled was in agreement about certain issues, i.e., that not everyone was a "liberal" of "conservative". Second, I pointed out that where folks might place themselves would most likely depend on their personal experience with, or investment in, the issue. For example, Jean might philosophically be opposed to capital punishment, but when dear Aunt Sadie is the victim of a fatal mugging, Jean might say "Fry the murderer!" In other words, our heads and our hearts are not always in agreement.
      This seems to me to be pretty apparent in all of the hubbub about Ebola. President Obama and the Center for Disease Control stress that our response to the outbreak should be informed by science, not fear (i,.e., "head", not "heart"). On the other hand, once the general quarantine guidelines had been suggested, Nurse Kaci Hickox in Maine (who had returned home from treating Ebola patients), claimed that science asserts that she is not contagious until she shows symptoms, and shouldn't be subject to a quarantine (which, at the time of this writing, had just been imposed by a judge in her state). So, whose science are we to believe? Whose motives are we to question? Is "caution" the same as "fear"? Does knowledge "solve" the problem?
      Well, in some cases, I suppose, it might at least help. I heard an interview yesterday with Robert Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute. He was discussing the P.R. problems facing the Muslim community in the United States. He pointed out that a recent poll showed that only about 40% of Americans had a "positive" view of Islam/Muslims -- lower on the polling scale than atheists. But, he also pointed out that a large proportion of Americans knew very little about Islam, and only 38% say they know a Muslim. He thought that if folks knew MORE about Muslims and Islam, the favorability rating might go up. And, I believe, polls on other issues would support his conclusion.
       On the other hand, mere knowledge can just as easily be turned into a weapon. And, here I think of some of the "new atheists" who want to turn "science" into a means of ridiculing folks who don't place "facts" at the pinnacle of human experience. Yet their so-called "knowledge" seems frequently based on fear, insecurity, caricatures, or incomplete (if not completely incorrect) understanding of those they oppose. Their attitudes, I believe, are as much as product of their experience as their book-learnin'.
       I work at a university. I am a fervent believer in the pursuit of knowledge. I would hope that I have helped contribute TO knowledge. I stand reminded, however, of the ancient Delphic maxim "Know Thyself" (inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi). There is a humility suggested by rigorous self-knowledge which could lower the temperature of our heated debates. Arguing "facts" seems to get us no place. Comparing experiences and 'fessing up to our hopes and fears, the other hand, might help move us forward.
      So, is it all about what we "know"'? I would say, "No." But knowing that we don't (or can't) always know everything is a start. 

Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 24, 2014

Untied Nations

      Those readers who also "follow" me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I regularly post the various holidays of the world's religious traditions (along with a link to a website that describes the holiday).  Those same readers also know that, in addition to religious observances, I also will add in some national holidays as well as days that the United Nations have set aside for special observance.  Today (October 24) is no different!  Today, according to the United Nations is "World Development Information Day" as well as the beginning of "Disarmament Week".  The links will explain those days, of course.  But today is an even more significant day for the UN.  It was sixty-nine years ago today that the United Nations officially came into being.  (While the Charter was signed in June of 1945, it wasn't ratified by a majority of the signatories until that October).
      The United Nations has four main purposes (according to its 
  • To keep peace throughout the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.
I believe that the UN has tried to live up to those ideals.  We can certainly see some evidence of those efforts in their published statements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the more recent Millennium Development Goals.  That said, it is clear that it hasn't always been as successful in some arenas as in others.  And there are (at least in America) some folks who think that the UN is some kind of satanic cabal that will chain us all up and force us to eat cockroaches.  
       I believe that the UN was created with the best of intentions, emerging from the ashes of the failure of the League of Nations and the horrors of World War II.  And I am sure that its structure was developed as well as it could be given the competing agendae of the major powers at that time.   But, as time has gone on, it seems that the structure has required change -- and that has been realized, and acted upon (in some ways), by the UN itself.  Changes in the composition of the Security Council is one example.  But, when "permanent" members of the Security Council want to exercise their veto, things stall.  And/or, when the UN-as-a-whole leans in one direction, initial signatories can chose to withhold funding, the overall effectiveness is compromised.

       Let me be clear, I am NOT a International Studies student/major/expert; my knowledge of the UN is what any attentive person might have gained over the last decades.  And so I am NOT making sweeping policy critiques or suggestions!  I would like, however, to return to something I suggested above, i.e., that the structure of the UN was a compromise because of the competing agendae of the earliest designers.  Where the UN has succeeded, it is because the "competition" of the majority has taken a back seat to a compelling need.  Where it has often failed, it is often partly due to one country's self-interest running rough-shod over the good of the whole.  In different language, children don't always play with other children.
       Earlier this year, 
it was reported that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis, and suggested that the UN had out-lived its usefulness; an alternative might be a similar organization with religions coming together rather than nation states.  A good, but somewhat naive, idea, Minister Peres; it has been suggested before, by the former Episcopal Bishop of California, William Swing.*  He worked tirelessly to form a "United Religions" and learned a lot.  What developed out of his efforts was the United Religions Initiative, a wonderful organization that recognizes that acting from top down has major draw-backs -- self-interest of the "leaders" (assuming they can be identified) being primary.  Working from the grassroots, dealing with real problems on the ground, with people of good faith, is the way to go.  It may not be "flashy", but it has not run afoul of as much as has self-interest.
      "Self-interest".  I know the concept.  It is part of who we are, as individuals and nations.  We want to survive; we even want our children to survive.  But how far out do the ripples go?  Are "nations" the best way to define self-interest?  Are "religions"?
      What does tie us together?  In what are we "united"?  Over what are we "untied"?  I do believe that our religious traditions--at their best, or at their core--provide the best answers to those questions.

Chaplain Gary
* Full disclosure:  I have known Bp. Swing for over thirty years.  He confirmed me as an Episcopalian, and baptized my daughter.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Treatment is not healing

     I became acquainted with the phrase "Map is not territory" when reading a book by historian of religions scholar Jonathan Z Smith of that name.  The phrase itself predates Prof. Smith, coined in 1931 by Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski, who held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. We, of course, often look at maps, at dotted lines on paper suggesting "borders", and forget that many of them are quite arbitrary.  This realization was partly behind the formation of the United Religions Initiative -- an initial idea being that religious concerns transcend physical borders.  Clearly we are face-to-face with that reality as we try to comprehend the confusing sets of "cross-border" alliances in the Middle East, borders set not by the locals, but by foreign powers decades ago.
     Another distinction, "Training is not education" appeared in my inbox earlier this week (and reminded me of the "Map" quotation).  The author, Rachel Naomi Remen, writing out of a medical context, points out that "The goal of a training is competence and replicability. Uniqueness is often discouraged and may even be viewed as dangerous."  On the contrary, Remen writes, "The root word of education -- educare -- means to lead forth a hidden wholeness in another person. A genuine education fosters self-knowledge, self-trust, creativity and the full expression of one’s unique identity. It gives people the courage to be more."  That latter insight describes well what I hope students have experiences when they leave college/university.**
      A third distinction was also suggested to me by Dr. Remen's blog, and is, in some ways, just as appropriate to her field of work.  And that is:  "Treatment is not healing".  I think that most of us can recall receiving a band-aid for some scratch or scrape -- something that kept any blood from staining our clothes, as well as keeping the wound clean.  What was usually more healing than the band-aid treatment was the hug and/or kiss from mom or dad that accompanied it.
      All three of these distinctions point at the same phenomenon:  we are often VERY willing to seek simple solutions, or simple answers to questions that demand a whole lot more.  Many of the sound-bites about how to deal with Ebola ignore huge complexities, not only of the disease and its treatment/cure, but of how international travel occurs, the distances between the stricken areas and parts of the US, cultural health differences, etc.  And the airwaves become filled with fear-mongering, finger-pointing, and line-drawing . . . to hardly anyone's advantage.
       It is my hope that we can all go deeper with the difficult issues facing us:  to figure out the territory, to become educated, to engage in healing.  I was recently called to task for criticizing a popular entertainer/commentator.  Those who questioned me thought I didn't care for his ideas.  Wrong.  I don't care for how he simplifies and over-generalizes complex ideas and, in the course of doing that, limits the possibilities for true learning, dialogue, and progress in solving problems.  He may think he's "treating" an ill, but he's really only rallying his troops.  He is certainly not leading to any sort of healing.       That, to me, is our real task.  It is the task at the root of all religious traditions: seeking and employing wisdom, creativity, healing for the benefit of all, not just those on our "side of the line" on the "map".


Chaplain Gary

* The full blog post can be found here.
** Put another way, knowing how to do something doesn't necessarily get at the essence of why it happens.  I learned how to scramble eggs many years ago, but I didn't quite understand the physics/chemistry of what happened until much later; knowledge that then I was able to translate into other cooking arenas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not to worry

    My son recently needed to take some food to school for a sort of "cultural potluck"; he chose potstickers--which, of course, need to be cooked.  The morning of the event, he got up, came downstairs, and immediately asked whether the potstickers were ready to go.  His mom and I were in the process of making breakfast, and knew that the potstickers would get ready in time.  And, even though we tried to reassure him that things would be okay if breakfast occurred first, it was clear that, until those potstickers were packed and ready to go, he felt that there was cause for worry/concern.
        In reflecting on that morning's tableau, I concluded that what mom and I had was something he, at his age, lacked:  perspective.  In his thinking, things needed to happen quickly, concretely. There was little room for uncertainty or ambiguity; the consequences (either being late, or not having a contribution for the potluck) were too great.  And I understand!  I remember clearly feeling much the same way when I was his age.
       But wait. . . .
       I don't think that concern over uncertainty is something we outgrow. I know I can't claim that I have outgrown it, and my impatience with him that morning testified to that!  But also, the increase in diagnoses of anxiety disorders, or the prescription of anti-anxiety medications, would suggest that "worry" is not one of those things that has gone away with evolution.  Certainly, worrisome questions abound on a university campus:  "Can I afford tuition?"  "What if I don't get into THAT graduate program?"  "If I don't get that article submitted before the deadline, what will happen with my tenure application?"  "Will we meet our admissions goals?"  "One of our key players is out with an injury; how can we be competitive this tournament weekend?"  "What will I write for my Friday reflection?"
       Neither news, nor social, media help matters.  Whether the reports are of Ebola, the latest atrocities brought about by ISIS/ISIL, failing infra-strucure in the nation's roadways, unethical politicians, crime on the streets, or "shared" Facebook posts, the old journalism adage seems to reign true:  "If it bleeds, it leads."  And that cliché runs hand-in-hand with another (from marketing):  "Create a need, and then meet it."  The "causes" for worry are all around us.
       I certainly don't want to minimize any of those threats (well, maybe some of them deserve minimizing!)   I have to wonder, however, about the question of perspective, that is, what is the "need" that is being created, and then filled?  The uncertainties that we face are subject to manipulation by others for their purposes.  Comparing the reporting on almost any event by Fox News, CNN, Al Jazeera or the Huffington Post reveals clear differences  . . . . with associated (desired), different, responses from us.  The "void" created by the uncertainty can be filled by someone else's answer, probably addressing that person's fear/need. But should that be OUR response?
      An answer to that question seems be well-illustrated in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  A mugging victim is left by the side of the road.  Two passers-by leave him there, socially "conditioned" to worry that something "bad" may happen to them if they were to help.  An unlikely third potential helper steps beyond such social conditioning and gives aid.  Compassion compelled him to leave worry/threat/fear aside.  His perspective was different -- a fortunate difference for the mugged victim.
      Fortunately, for my son, Mom's immediate perspective was little different than mine. She had compassion, set aside concern for the "necessity" of breakfast, cooked the potstickers, and sent him on his way.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 3, 2014

To Tell the Truth

     Catherine McLeod is an investigative reporter for a major Denver newspaper in a relatively new mystery-novel series by Boulder author Margaret Coel.  In the opening scene of the first book, Blood Memory, Catherine is almost the victim of a serious crime, and witnesses the shooting of a friend.  After a harrowing night, she goes into her office the following day, to be met by applause from her co-workers.  Then she is summoned into the boss's office where, after some "comforting" words, she is given into the hands of another investigative reporter who proceeds to grill her about her experience.  I couldn't help but wonder whether or not Catherine would, subsequently, change the way she went about her job after being subject to the same kind of treatment she was accustomed to meting out.  (And I haven't read enough of the books to know!)
        A couple of clichés sprang to mind:  "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" and "The shoe's on the other foot, now!".  But what I also felt was some sympathy for Catherine; she was in a VERY difficult situation and wasn't being allowed to deal with it on her own terms.  What I saw was an age-old and constant phenomenon:  someone gets so entangled in the various webs of their life that they cease to see them, or even realize that they are entangled.  It may take a "knock upside the head" to get that person to wake up to their predicament.  Waking up is one thing, however, and acting on the realization is something different.
        "Wake up and do things differently" is a theme of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, which I've been reading the last few days.  As was the case with many of his prophetic colleagues, Hosea rails against the complacency of his compatriots.  He points out that they had adopted the conviction that certain rituals and practices were all that was really necessary to be faithful to God. He accuses them of ignoring the more central concerns of their religion:  justice, compassion, mercy, etc.  And he asserts (on behalf of God) that they will soon receive their just desserts.
         Hosea was not alone, as I've suggested.  Not only did his prophetic contemporaries make similar accusations, but many of the Hebrew prophets in centuries to follow also criticized this pattern.  Turning a sympathetic eye towards the "people", I can't imagine that they consciously decided to ignore the "weightier matters", but that habit, and a desire for doing the easy things, simply led them down an, ultimately, problematic path.  But correction didn't -- and doesn't -- come easy.  The prophets often suffered for telling the truth, and the people suffered for not listening.
       I don't believe that any of us willingly choose to adopt erroneous ideas, or choose to take the wrong road.  As fallible humans, however, we often find ourselves caught up in "wrong-thinking" without realizing it.  Sometimes it's habit; sometimes it's simply incomplete knowledge (that we assume is complete).  But what both Catherine McLeod (or Margaret Coel) and Hosea have reminded me is that sympathy is often a good thing to extend to the one in "error", as well as that listening to the correcting truth may be a life-giving action.
        What's that you say . . . . . ?

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 26, 2014

Co-option should be no option

      The news from the Jefferson County schools has gone far beyond the borders of that county.  It has been reported nationally, both on television and radio.  For those readers who have not heard, hundreds of high school students are walking out of classes to protest some proposed policies of the Jefferson County School Board.  One of the issues that they're protesting has to do with teacher compensation.  The one, however, that is gaining the most notoriety has to do with curriculum changes in teaching U.S. History (specifically Advanced Placement U.S. History).  Proponents of the changes want greater emphasis placed on the "positive aspects" of American history, and less on the "more regrettable" side of our past.  Increased "patriotism" is one of their objectives.
      The students, of course, believe that the definition of "patriotism" that the school board is asserting is NOT the only possible definition, and that the board is promoting a particular political agenda.  The students are adopting a form of civil disobedience that has been part of American history for some time, but that, according to the new curriculum, might receive little attention in future courses.  Their action, the students believe, is truly patriotic.  In short, the students are refusing to "buy in" to (a) the school board's agenda of "cleaning up" American history and/or (b) a particularly narrow definition of "patriotism".   They are doing us a favor, I believe, in reminding us of the temptation to give in to someone else's vision of how things should be.
      I've been thinking about this larger issue over the last few days -- not because of the protests in the next county over, but because of a meeting with a very different group of students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  This group of students is passionately committed to creating a better world/future by bringing folks together, despite any religious differences, to achieve common goals.  Whether by serving together, studying together, eating together -- their belief is that we're "Better Together".  And that belief flies in the face of a culture that seeks to divide us into ever smaller groups, all in competition over (supposedly) limited resources.
      The passion and the energy those students bring to this enterprise is amazing.  The meetings start at 60 mph and accelerate from there.  Ideas fly around like crazy.  "Should we send students to this conference or that one?"  "Who should we get to cater this event?" "I think we should visit that house of worship!" "We need to get signatures on the application now!"  "Let's partner with one of the Greek organizations to provide community service!"  "We should devote a part of each meeting to watching?learning something about another religion!"  And on it goes.  It's like a feeding frenzy; the hour-long meeting passes in seconds.  It's great.
      This "style", however, mirrors a wider cultural phenomenon of "busier, faster, louder".  And we're all subject to that allure; it's so much a part of the "air" that we breathe that we hardly notice it any more. And so I challenged us at the last meeting to consider what kind of change we are trying to effect.  If our meetings are as frenetic and un-reflective as the society around us, aren't we selling out to a system that, ultimately, will wear us down?  Do we get to know each other, appreciate each other, while we're so busy talking around each other.
      I suggested a "protest", an act of "holy disobedience":  let's start the meetings with a minute or two of silence so that we can bring our whole selves into a different "space" (to create a "holy space") for our time together.  As a partial result of more a more deliberate way of being in communion with one another, we might, ultimately, be able to offer a viable, even more attractive, alternative to those forces that would divide us one from another.  Not business-as-usual, but community-as-optimal.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence rejected . . . .

      This morning, as I was riding into work, I was listening to an interview with two scholars of the Muslim world (Reza Aslan and Graham Wood); the topic:  ISIS/ISIL and it's declaration of a "caliphate".  In the course of the interview, the question was raised as to whether some central learned "authority", such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, could have any influence over ISIS.  The answer was basically "No, ISIS is anti-clerical, anti-scholarly.  They are firm believers in an individual's ability to read and interpret the Quran for one's self."   In short, they act independent of any authority but their own; they want no connections they can't control.
      Earlier in the morning, I had learned that Scottish voters had voted not to separate from the United Kingdom; they rejected independence.  The reasons for a "no" vote were certainly varied.  Some folks thought that severing 
political ties would mean financial difficulties (e.g., what would happen to Scottish universities' research funding from London?).  Others saw potential European and/or global consequences if the United Kingdom dissolved.  And certainly others simply felt that emotional ties that bound Scotland and England were tight enough that severing them was undesirable (voting data showed, for example, that older voters opposed independence more than younger ones).  In short, they valued connections, even those over which they had only a little control.
      Questions of dependence, independence and inter-dependence have swirled around us for centuries -- probably from the dawn of any sort of human society.   There clearly is a tension there.  On the one hand, we celebrate the increasing "independence" of children as they grow older.  And we celebrate the independence of countries (such as our own) from tyrannical overlords.  On the other hand, we can hardly survive as entirely "independent" entities.  Humans depend on others for many necessities; countries depend on international trade.  As much as we might like to hold up autonomy or independence as an ideal, it is more of a useful fiction than reflective of reality.
       Interdependence is a constant theme in the writings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.  I particularly love his "Tangerine Meditation" in which we are invited to hold a tangerine, and meditate on its origins, on everything that it took to bring the fruit from the earth to our hand.  Sunlight, rain, nutrients in the soil, insects to pollinate, human hands to pick the fruit, package it.  Trucks, trains, planes to deliver it -- as well as people to pilot and maintain that machinery.  Civil engineers and construction workers to build the road-beds.  Shop-keepers to sell the fruit.  The list goes on.  As Nhat Hahn writes:  "You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine."*
       Interdependence is also a theme of some of John Donne's most famous lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."**

Donne's words have, for many years, had an impact on me.  And while he was writing from a 17th-century Christian perspective, it is easy to hear the resonance in the 20th-century Buddhist ideas of Nhat Hanh.  It is not difficult to find similar perspectives throughout the world's religious traditions.  We are connected--interdependent--in so many ways . . . and those connections can serve to temper our beliefs and actions, as well as increase our compassion . . . . even when we are dealing with those with whom we disagree.
       Amid strident calls for "independent action" -- personal or international, may we take a moment to peel a tangerine, or recall the tolling of a bell.

Chaplain Gary

Peace is Every Step:  The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1991), 22.
** Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII" (1624).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dawkins' logic

    A couple of weeks ago, at worship, I was seated behind a family, one member of which was a young woman in a wheelchair.  I'm no physician, so I can't assume to name her condition, but she was fairly contorted; she was almost supine in her chair.  She seemed a bit agitated as well; there were a couple of times a family member felt it necessary to take her out of the service.  It was abundantly clear, however, that her family members loved her, and were not "put out" by her condition or the potential disruption she might have caused.  I was very happy to see them there.
     Last week, at the same house of worship, I was sitting on the opposite side of the building, and behind another family.  This one was more "conventional" -- a mom and a dad and their baby boy, as well as a set of grandparents.  The boy slept in his carrier through most of the service, and, when awake, was the "perfect angel" (i.e., quiet, but alert).  
He was taken out of the service, too, but for a very different (diaper-related) reason.  Again, the family was clearly very loving and attentive to the boy.  I was equally happy to see them there.
     At both services, sitting behind both families, one of the main things that kept running through my mind was the recent firestorm created by Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist and noted "new atheist").  He responded to someone who was wondering about potentially being pregnant with a "kid with Down's Syndrome".  Dawkins' response was "
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
"*  As might be imagined, this tweet "went viral" and created a HUGE backlash against Dawkins, especially from the Down's Syndrome and the Right-to-Life communities.  Dawkins subsequently tried to justify his position by pointing out how many Down's Syndrome foetuses are aborted already.  And he questioned whether or not the foetuses could suffer.  And, then, finally, he published a more complete response, suggesting that if he weren't limited to the 140 characters of Twitter, he would have given a more nuanced, logical, rational, answer.  The gist of that more "complete" response was that aborting the foetus would be a mercy to the foetus, preventing it from experiencing future suffering.  He also states that the choice to bring to term a child with Down's Syndrome would "condemn" (his word!) the parent(s) "to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child".
      Now, I can take issue with Prof. Dawkins for any number of reasons.  Clearly, his position as one of the spokespeople for the "new atheists" puts him and me at odds over some fundamental theological issues.  The question of abortion in such a circumstance is certainly problematic on a number of fronts.  I am not choosing, here, to step into those troubled waters.  I have, however, two other thoughts stemming from Prof. Dawkins' assertions.
      First, I can't imagine that he could assert that a life without suffering is possible.  According to his Wikipedia biography, he is currently in his third marriage.  I don't know the circumstances, but if he had not experienced some level of suffering because of the dissolution of his first two marriages, I'd have to wonder about his humanity.  I bring that up only to suggest, as have many throughout history -- perhaps, most notably, the Buddha --  that the very fact of living includes some level of suffering.  If that is the case, then Dawkins' logic would compel us to abort every pregnancy.  Hmmmmm.
      Secondly, I'm not sure "caring" for someone is a "condemnation", unless one is driven by a totally selfish motivation (Dawkins DID, on the other hand, write the book, The Selfish Gene.  Just an observation.)  This question derives from my experiences over the last couple of weeks at worship, my own experience as a parent, indeed, my experience as a human being.  Suffering -- our own, and that of our children -- is basically inevitable (unless we've been able to achieve enlightenment as suggested by the Buddhist tradition).  
The circumstances or troubles we face may be visible or invisible to others.  They may have been the results of bad choices, or problematic genes, or freak accidents of weather.  The reasons matter not. The question of our response to that condition, it seems to me, is the critical issue.  What I saw in the faces of those family members of those two (VERY different) children was compassion.  Love.  It was not "logical" resignation to being condemned to care.
      It was, I think, an illogicalirrational choice of commitment to care in the face of real life.  Of course, those attitudes are what our religious traditions would commend.  Sign me up.

Chaplain Gary

*Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014