Friday, January 31, 2014

Hurry! Hurry!


     I remember a college professor telling our class about a well-meaning American agency that was trying to help 
improve poor crop production in some North African country.  The agency reps went into the countryside and observed how the locals were farming the land.  They were astonished to see that, in the 20th century, these folks were barely scratching the surface of the ground with a sharpened stick.  Yes, eventually, the crops grew, but with an incredibly low yield.  Their solution?  Use some American aid money and bring in tractors and cultivators to do some real plowing and planting.  And so they did.  And when the scirocco winds came up, all of the plowed-up topsoil blew away, leaving the landscape barren.  In their haste to solve a problem, they created a much larger one.
       A number of years ago, James Gleick, author of such bestsellers as Genius and Chaos, turned his attention to our society's ever-increasing fascination with speed.  The book, Faster:  A Acceleration of Just About Everything*, certainly hit home with me.  I doubt I am alone in getting increasingly frustrated when it takes the computer more than a few seconds to provide a result.  Indeed, in doing a word search on "haste" for this reflection, Google politely informed me that it only took 0.25 seconds to return 9.6 million results!  Boy, am I glad it didn't take 1 second!  Google must know I'm under a deadline??!!  And I know I'm not alone in pressing the elevator button multiple times wishing it would move FASTER!
       And, of course, speed seems to translate into money.  And I don't just mean the speed of a running-back in football, or a slalom-skier at the Olympics.  On the one hand we want quick service at a restaurant; we patronize "fast food" chains like crazy (word chosen intentionally!).  On the other hand, how frustrated we become when we can tell that the wait-staff at a nice restaurant is trying to "hurry" us along!  Well, they only want to turn over the table more quickly -- meaning more customers, meaning more revenue.  So we seem to have a love-hate relationship with how we spend time.  As one proverb put it, "
There is nothing more precious than time and nothing more prodigally wasted."**        Some sports provide yet another set of illustrations about time and its use.  Many games -- let's say football, for example -- are played within a specific time frame.  And, generally, the aim is to score as many points as possible during that time frame, while limiting the opponent to as few.  This all calls for judicious use of time.  On the one hand, there is the "hurry-up" offense.  On the other, there is the "run-out-the-clock" offense.  Problems arise, of course, when not everyone is paying close attention:  the notorious "False Start" penalty that can derail momentum even during one of those "hurry up" phases.  Clearly haste CAN make waste!
        Our cultural infatuation with speed (how many movies, for example, have been made with a reference to speed?) can often dull us to the value of deliberation.  We hurry from place to place, task to task, only to leave us so tired that we cannot enjoy many of the things that would enrich our lives.  Gleick points out that eating, sex, and time with families all fall victim to our "need for speed".  
         "Hurry! Hurry!"?  Well, maybe not always.  As those of us in Denver see the signs and shirts proclaiming that cry, perhaps we can make a mental note to go to our calendars and set aside some time to "Slow down! Slow down!"  And, as some time spent practicing "slowing" gives way to spring, we might even get to the point where we can "STOP and smell the roses".
         Oh, by the way, 
GO BRONCOS!  Make haste!  (slowly!)

Chaplain Gary

* Vintage Press, 2000.
** Strauss, Emanuel (1994). Dictionary of European proverbs
 (Volume 2 ed.). Routledge. pp. 2200.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Speaking my language

       A number of years ago, I was, as part of my job, responsible for a student residential facility.  We housed eighteen students on three residential floors.  It was a sort of co-op, but with a programmatic component.  We wanted a mix of students on each floor -- gender, race, religion, etc.  We wanted the students to learn from one another both in structured ways (programs, service projects, etc.) AND as they negotiated the various responsibilities for keeping their living areas usable for all the members of their floor.
       One of the questions I had on the application was "Describe how you would go about cleaning the kitchen.  What supplies would you need, etc.?"  My intention in asking that question was to find out of the applicant was a "Clutter" or "Grime" person -- those being two distinct ways of approaching a messy space.  As you might expect a "Clutter" person wants the surfaces cleared off, maybe a swept floor, and all of the appliances/pots/pans in their place.  A "Grime" person pulls out the toothpicks to clean the numbers on the dials on the stove.  De-cluttering doesn't take long; de-grime-ing does.  A Grime person doesn't feel that a de-cluttered room is "clean".  A Clutter person gets tired of waiting for the Grime person to find enough time to get to the task!  Having, therefore, a good mix of Clutter/Grime people on a residential floor is beneficial!  Having conversations ABOUT those differences in speaking the "Cleaning Language" helped defuse a number of tense situations.
       Similarly, when I work with couples who want to be married, I encourage them to discover their "Love Language".  If you've not heard of this, the theory (developed by anthropologist and pastor Gary Chapman) is that, regardless of culture, each individual has one of five primary ways of expressing and receiving love:*
  • Words of Affirmation ("I know you love me because you tell me")
  • Acts of Service ("I know you love me because you do things for me/us")
  • Receiving Gifts ("I know you love me because you give me things")
  • Quality Time ("I know you love me because you make time for me")
  • Physical Touch ("I know you love me because you hug me")
Future spouses knowing their own Love Language and that of their intended makes for much better overall communication.  As an example, for me (an "Acts of Service" guy) to express affection for my wife (a "Quality Time" gal) means that while I might do the dishes a lot, thinking that it will express undying affection, what she REALLY wants is for me to put down the dishrag and TALK with her!  (And, of course, the opposite is true.)
      It seems to me that, often, we (as individuals, groups, nations, etc.) speak our "languages" expecting the other to understand completely.  Members of one religion may assume that members of another understand what "salvation" or "prayer" or "God" means -- and be entirely off-base.  Conversely, members of modern democratic states may misunderstand the rights and responsibilities of members of ancient feudal societies (e.g., those that produced many sacred texts) and draw entirely incorrect conclusions.  The caution, of course, is that communication is a difficult challenge and requires not only our best efforts, but also a great amount of humility.  But isn't that what good relationships are all about?  


Chaplain Gary

*  Coincidentally, it was one of the students in that above-mentioned residential facility who introduced me to the Five Love Languages.  If you want to know more about them, and take a quiz to discover yours along with a bunch of suggestions as to how to express them, visit:

Friday, January 17, 2014

E pluribus unum

     Hawa. Pat. Sophath. Claudia. Wes. Yumino. Rahim. Paolo. Juan. Yvonne. Martha. Gary (not me!).  All names of regular volunteers at Metro CareRing; most were there this morning.  Muslim. Methodist. Mormon. Episcopalian. Buddhist. Catholic. Atheist. Jewish.  Non-denominational. All represented in the volunteer corps.  Vietnam veteran. College-aged intern. Recent immigrant. Gun rights activist. High school student. Gun control advocate. Retired. Between jobs.  All working together to ensure that Denver's hungry left with bags full of healthy food.
     I was especially attuned to notice this collection of folks this morning after spending much of the week reflecting on Eboo Patel's visit to Denver this week.  Eboo, an Indian-born Muslim Oxford-trained sociologist with kids in Catholic schools in Chicago, is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit that seeks to "build a movement of people from all faiths and traditions who are working together to change the world".  He spent all day meeting with students, faculty, staff and community members speaking about the various ways this possibility might be made real.  In an address to the university community at noon on Tuesday*, one thing he said really stuck with me:  "Diversity is a fact.  Pluralism is an achievement."
     In a meeting yesterday (Thursday) morning, I found myself in the unusual position of digging in my pockets to find some US currency.  In response to a question from someone about "What is pluralism?" I thought that the ideal embodied in the slogan on our paper money and coinage would help illustrate the concept: "Out of many, one".  While we are, in this country, engaged in a national debate about what that "one" might look like, given the "many", Eboo's assertion that "pluralism is an achievement" rings especially loudly.  Creating the "one" demands effort.
     And, then, this morning I was at Metro CareRing, looking around the table at the beginning of the day.  And, as the day went along, I noticed the folks coming through the door, accessing the services.  The FACT of Metro CareRing IS diversity!  Staff, volunteers, guests -- all represent the amazing palate that is the population of Denver.  But, together, we ACHIEVE something at Metro CareRing; it IS pluralistic.  And it is so, because we all are engaged in common cause -- alleviating the problem of hunger in Denver -- and in our common engagement, we learn from, and about, one another.  The cause is enough, and shared by all, that our diversity is not a reason for division, but rather a strength in our service to the community.
      Diversity IS a fact.  Our religious traditions recognize that and struggle to explain it.  One account is found in the Q'uran:  God has made us "into nations and tribes, that [we] might get to know one another" (49.13).  The Genesis account of the Tower of Babel is another, less positive, attempt (Genesis 11.1-9).   That story, however, finds hopeful resolution in many passages in Hebrew scriptures about all nations coming together.  And the New Testament story of Pentecost is a hope-full account of the overcoming of division (Acts 2.1-11).  Buddhists teach that each individual is a manifestation of ultimate truth.  No one has privilege over another; all are enriched by each other.  And it goes on . . . .
      In my conversations with folks who heard Eboo, one sense was shared:  inspiration.  We were inspired to move beyond a simple recognition of diversity, to move beyond mere tolerance, to something more profound, more holy:  to achieve pluralism.


Chaplain Gary

* He also gave a public address on Tuesday evening at St. Andrew's Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch.  That address can be seen here:

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Timely Grammar Lesson

     First off, THANKS for reading this far, after seeing the "title'!
     Anyone who knows me, or who's read any of these "reflections" or "meditations" of mine, would agree that I am a bit "old school" in some respects.   For crying out loud, I started wearing a fedora before Indiana Jones re-popularized them!  Argyle NEVER went of style in my sock drawer!  I write my sermons with a standard #2 lead pencil (that I sharpen with a "manual" sharpener)!  So it should come as little surprise that the Facebook feed from "Grammarly" would delight me.  While arguments about the "Oxford comma" can get a little arcane (although I'm all for it), there certainly IS a difference between "We're going to learn to cut and paste kids!" and "We're going to learn to cut and paste, kids!"  Grammar matters, even in the days of "tweets".
     This truth is nowhere more evident to anyone than when learning a new language -- or even a new dialect.  The rules of sentence structure can cause one to take a step back.  The old example of a "Pennsylvania Dutch" instruction -- "Throw momma from the train a kiss" -- is just one easy example.  And who, studying German, hasn't been frustrated by wading (and waiting) through a very long sentence to get to the verb . . . at the very end; English is structured very differently.  Examples abound!
      These differences, however, can be more than either amusing or frustrating.   A native English reader/speaker, for example, who is limited to English translations of a sacred text can miss many nuances of the original.  Pronouns for the Deity in the original language don't necessarily "map" well into English.  For example, how comfortable are we calling God an "It".  And, certainly, we English speakers (except those who make regular use of the contraction "y'all") miss the distinction made in many other languages between the plural and singular use of the pronoun "you".
      I was struck, however, the other day by something a little different.  English verbs, for the most part, only "exist" in three tenses:  present, past and future.  Certainly, with modifiers, they can become more precise, more descriptive about when certain things might (have) happen(ed).  Other languages, however, force a more precise choice when conjugating the verb.  And where this came home to me most powerfully was with ancient Greek (it MAY be true in modern Greek as well, but I know ancient Greek!).  Ancient Greek has seven tenses:
  • Present: describes an action which is happening at the time of speaking or regularly:  A man is sacrificing an ox.
  • Imperfect: describes an action which used to happen in the past:  A man used to sacrifice an ox.
  • Future: describes an action which will happen in the future:  A man will sacrifice an ox.
  • Aorist: describes an action "pure and simple."  A man sacrificed an ox.
  • Perfect: describes a present state resulting from a finished action:  A man has sacrificed an ox.
  • Pluperfect: describes a past state resulting from a (farther in the past) finished action:  A man had sacrificed an ox.
  • Future Perfect: describes a future state that will result from a finished action:  A man will have sacrificed an ox.
What I noticed, and re-appreciated was the distinction between the "Perfect" and the "Pluperfect".
         The "Perfect" differs from the "Pluperfect" in the effect of the past action.  In the first case, the effect remains into the present.  In the second, the effect is done and over.  And I began to wonder how much we confuse those two in our thinking.  How often do we wake up in the middle of the night stewing over things that are done and passed, wishing we could have a "do-over"?  Yes, there are things from our past that still affect our current selves and relationships.  But re-playing old events can't change anything that has happened.  Yet we often find ourselves frustrated, regretful, sad, even incapacitated because we can't let go; we hold many of these things in -- to our detriment.
        In this regard, there is something very therapeutic about the practice of verbal confession, whether to a mentor, a psychologist, a spiritual guide, or a trusted friend.  Speaking the past can serve to exorcise some of its effects.  James Pennebaker's 1990 book, Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions*, makes this very point with some wonderful examples of "confessions" made to police officers, and even in private journals.  I loved that book when it came out.  Moments of insight from the rules/forms of ancient grammar reminded me of the truths it asserted.
       How much of what I carry as "perfect" is really "pluperfect" and need wield no more power over me?


Chaplain Gary

*Guilford Press, 1990, re-issued in 1997.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Sex, Politics, Religion! Oh, My!


    Over the last several weeks I've been struck by a theme (no pun intended) that has been a part of several popular songs.  And, as I began to reflect more about that theme, I recognized that it's not just a 2013 "thing".  Indeed it's pretty ancient.  But its placement in popular music is what really got me thinking.
      Several months ago, a duo known as "Great Big World" released a relatively short song called "Say Something".  A video more recently came out featuring pop sensation Christina Aguilera.  That video propelled "Say Something" to the top of the iTunes download list.  The "chorus" of the song is:

Say something, I'm giving up on you.
I'll be the one, if you want me to.
Anywhere, I would've followed you.

Say something, I'm giving up on you.

What I hear in those words is a longing--on the part of one person--for honest, open, communication, and the inability (or reluctance)--on the part of the other--to provide that.
       Another current hit, by singer Sarah Bareilles, titled "Brave" seems to hold a similar desire (although the contexts of the songs are very different).  Over and over, the lines repeat: 

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

Apparently, the idea of speaking what is really on one's mind demands courage.  But the desire to hear that set ideas, opinions or truths is strong.
      And then, a few years ago, artist John Mayer released "Say What You Need to Say".  The opening lines, and the first line of the refrain:
Walkin' like a one man army
Fightin' with the shadows in your head
Livin' up the same old moment
Knowin' you'd be better off instead
If you could only
Say what you need to say
How much we hold in!  Even if we KNOW it might be in our best interests to tell the truth, we keep it in.  It may be painful in the moment, but like surgery, it may be our best hope.
       And, to round out this voyage through popular music (although heading back twenty-five years), piano-man Billy Joel released "Honesty" in 1978, with the lines:
I can always find someone
To say they sympathize
If I wear my heart out on my sleeve
But I don't want some pretty face
To tell me pretty lies
All I want is someone to believe

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you
       As I said at the outset, this is no modern phenomenon; dissembling and deceit has a long history.  The sacred texts of every religious tradition bear witness that our tendency to disguise or bend the truth is pretty universal, but not beneficial.  I wonder, however, if part of our hiding of our thoughts, our opinions, our fears is based partly in our desire not to alienate those for whom we most long.  That seems, at least, to partly be behind the lyrics of the songs above.  I suspect, too, that a lot of the bellicosity of our public discourse--whether on gun-control, tracking, immigration, or whatever--is simply a disguise of the true fears that most of us harbor.
       When I was growing up, I heard the warning echoed in the image at the top*:  "Don't talk about sex, politics or religion in public".  Well, while those topics are front-and-center in prime-time media, I'm not sure we're really talking about them. We're certainly not talking about deep issues that underlie them.  To do that might have us run the risk of revealing more than we want, something that might make us vulnerable.  Something that might make us more desirable as well as, ultimately, less lonely.
       Potential New Year's resolution?

Chaplain Gary
*The quotation is attributed to Canadian author Douglas Coupland, but I was unable to track down the precise citation.