Friday, March 28, 2014

A word from the Dark Side

     Three things crossed my "desk" this week that all, while different, seemed to point in the same direction.  One was an interview with author/theologian Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  A second was a quotation from an article* by Mark C. Taylor (don't know if it's any relation!) about silence.  And the third was an article on boredom by Karen Maezen Miller.  The theme that linked these together in my mind is that I am (or maybe we are) often prone to view all three concepts (darkness, silence and boredom) with some suspicion.
      Certainly, I want it to be dark when I am trying to sleep.  And, after being in a very noisy room, some silence is very welcome.   On the other hand, darkness and silence -- unless desired -- are things I usually avoid.  And boredom?  Well, as the father of children, it's a word I don't want to hear!  But it's also something I rarely seek; I can't remember the last time I thought, "Gee, I wish I was bored!"
       But Barbara Brown Taylor, commenting on the opening lines of the book of Genesis, pointed out that, when God created light and declared it "good", it didn't mean that darkness was "bad" -- although we often make that assumption.  It is simply that out of darkness that light comes.  And, so, she urges us to embrace darkness.  And I began to relate that to "silence".
       Most musician know that the "rests", the points of silence between notes or chords, are what help give music shape.  I recall an incredible piece by composer Thomas Tallis -- Spem in allium. The composition is for a choir of forty individual voices.  And, throughout most of the piece, those voices wind in and around one another in one of most masterful pieces of polyphony imaginable.  Then, there is a rest; all of the singing of individual lines stops.  And, then . . . all forty voices come in at once; one huge chord.  Incredible what emerged from the silence!
       But boredom?  Miller points out in her article, that, when we're bored, we immediately "go looking for something new.  And, let's face it, we're nearly always looking for something new. . . . Fighting boredom is a full-time occupation."  She offers, as a solution to this unsatisfying pursuit:  "What if we could release the grasping mind that is always clawing after some precious new thing, even if it’s only a new fantasy? That would be excruciating, or so we fear. It’s the fear of letting go that afflicts us, but letting go is pain free."
      It is the fear, too, I suppose of entering into darkness, not knowing where the light-switch is to be found.  Or the fear of being found in silence, not knowing when the next voice might be heard.  But I wonder, if we remain in either state for a while, without flailing about for a solution, something more amazing might be revealed than we could imagine.
       Fiat lux!  Fiat crustula!**

Chaplain Gary

*The article "Hearing Silence" is on the "Tricycle" magazine website, but is only accessible to subscribers.  The quotation that came into my inbox was a "teaser".


Friday, March 21, 2014

Ripple Effect


     According to Wikipediaa "ripple effect is a situation where, like the ever expanding ripples across water when an object is dropped into it, an effect from an initial state can be followed outwards incrementally."  The examples used in the article come from economics, sociology, financial markets, AND charitable activities.  The example given for charitable activities is "where information can be disseminated and passed from community to community to broaden its impact."  That seems pretty reasonable, but I'm not precisely sure how it is "charitable".  And the example for economics is "an individual's reduction in spending reduces the incomes of others and their ability to spend."
      I've found myself thinking about the "ripple effect" this week, and wanted to see how it was described.  The cause for my "pondering" was the reportage of the one-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis.  Obviously, the current head of the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the top newsmakers of the year.  He was Time's "Person of the Year"; he garnered the same accolade from The Advocate, the leading LGBT magazine in the U.S.  Yet, according to a report/article generated by the Barna Group entitled "What Do Protestants Think of Pope Francis", "the Pope insists he is 'a normal person' and has no desire to be 'a superman or a star".
       I put that assertion into "conversation" with another event of the week, the awarding of Congressional Medals of Honor (many posthumously) to American military heroes who had previously been passed over because of their race or ethnicity.  In reading about the recipients, I was struck by how much those (who were able to comment), asserted in general, that they were just doing their job, or supporting their unit.  In short, they were "normal soldiers/Marines/sailors" who had no desire to be stars.
       Pope Francis, as well as the Medal of Honor recipients, 
regardless of how they see themselves, clearly have had "ripple effects".  And, contrary to the economics example above, where an individual's "reduction in spending reduces the income of others", the actions of those newsmakers of the week has the potential of increasing valor or compassion or understanding . . . . . without ever meeting the people who they influence.
       Influence, or the ripple effect, stands behind the famous statement attributed to Margaret Mead:  "
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." *  If we look back in history, we see this "truth" repeated over and over again -- and not necessarily by people who were out to "make a mark".  Many simply wanted to do the "right thing", and, in so doing, succeeded in doing much more.
        Barna Group president, David Kinnamon, commenting on the research that was behind the article, said, “The research shows the profound influence transformative leaders can have even beyond those directly under their leadership."  I would venture a guess that the same is true for most of us, even if we don't see ourselves as "transformative leaders". We all have, I believe, more power and influence than we imagine!

Chaplain Gary

* "Attributed" to Margaret Mead -- apparently that attribution is contested!  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Something healing this way comes . . .

      Not very far north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and just a few curvy miles off of Highway One lies an incredible stand of redwood trees.  President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed this magnificent area a National Monument in 1908, and it was named for conservationist John Muir, who responded:  "This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possible be found in all the forests of the world.  You have done me great honor, and I am proud of it."
       Park visitors walk in awe beneath trees that started growing well-before the United States declared its independence from Britain; 
indeed many trees predate Columbus' voyage to the "new world."  The trees reach 250 feet in height, and some are over fourteen feet wide.  Sunight filters greenly down through the needles and the leaves of deciduous trees, combining with the blues of Stellars Jays, the browns and grays of squirrels and the yellows of giant banana slugs to create a riot of color.  The sounds of the animals mix with the sound of the breeze in the foliage and the water in Redwood Creek.  Ferns line the paths, paths that feel the footsteps of thousands of visitors every year.   It is no wonder that one area of the Park is known as Cathedral Grove.
        It wasn't just the colors and sounds -- or the name "Cathedral Grove" -- that drew me many times to visit from across the San Francisco Bay.  Yes, as an "S" in the Myers-Briggs typology, I take in information through my senses, and Muir Woods could almost be described as "sensory overload."  Usually I made the drive not to "look" at the beauty of Muir Woods, but rather to "experience" it.  Maybe it was the sensory overload, but being in that beautiful place took me away from many of the concerns that were weighing me down, concerns and worries that, if left untended, might have developed into more serious, physical, health problems.
       Being in Muir Woods -- and now in the beauty of the Rockies -- was healing.  I couldn't really verbalize WHY; I just knew it was.  In reading Esther Sternberg's Healing Spaces:  The Science of Place and Well-Being* for this past week's book discussion, I gained, however, a different set of insights into what I was experiencing.  Sights, sounds, smells, and bodily activities all, in very mysterious (at least to to this non-scientist) neurological and biological ways can contribute to the body's healing processes.  A simple example is the increased incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder in parts of the northern hemisphere that experience prolonged periods of darkness (e.g., winter in Scandinavia), as opposed to those areas further south (e.g., Spain and Italy).  Intuitively, this made sense; the science behind it all had a different effect:  my desire to spend even MORE time in beautiful places.
       AT the University of Denver, we are beginning that break between quarters; we are on the verge of spring.  Next week brings the equinox that marks its "official" beginning.  Many of us are hankering for warmer weather.  I imagine that part of this longing is for more time out-of-doors, for the longer days in the sun (especially in Colorado), for the healing that that time will bring.  I hope to spend a good part of next Thursday out-of-doors, reveling in the healing qualities of all that my senses can absorb.

Chaplain Gary

* Harvard, 2009.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Who's the secret agent?

       One of the elementary schools in our neighborhood has, as its "mascot" the cougar.  And so, found throughout the school is the imperative "ROAR"!  As you can see from the image above, ROAR stands for:  Respect. Own it. Attitude. Responsibility.  And each morning, in conjunction with the Pledge of Allegiance, the kids recite the school's pledge.  I think it's a great practice and I hope that the kids actually incorporate what those words mean (both the Pledge of Allegiance and ROAR!).  As a parent (and remembering back to when I was an elementary school-aged kid), I know how difficult it can be to have a child "own up" to what he/she did.  "Something happened, Dad!  And it got broken!"  Right, the toy was just laying on the floor and "something magically happened", and it became broken.  "Owning it" suggests that a different response might be:  "I'm sorry.  I was using the toy to try to break this rock, and I broke the toy instead."
      The diversion of responsibility is something we "learn" at a very early age; it's VERY difficult to "own it" when we we've done something wrong.  And we translate that attitude into our language and our writing.  As I grade papers in my "Pets, Partners or Pot-Roast" class, I often find sentences written in the passive voice.  And the passive voice hides agency.  That is, sentences in the passive obscure who it was that performed the action.  Numerous examples abound!  "Laboratory animals are confined to incredibly mall cages."  Well, confined by whom?  The researchers or lab technicians are hidden from the action; no responsibility!  Or, in a different vein "We are given responsibility to care for animals."  We are?  By whom?
      I don't mean to be hyper-critical of the authors of these papers.  They only mirror what they find in newspapers, press-releases and political statements.  And most of them have been taught to avoid using the first-person in their writing.  I can understand that.  But, if we constantly hide agency by using the passive voice, we can find ourselves absolving ourselves of any responsibility in contributing to the horrible treatment of others.  For example, if consumers didn't demand certain products, animals might not be subject to testing.  So, if we were to trace the line of responsibility back, the animals' suffering might ultimately be our responsibility!  We can't have that! " Put it in the passive!"  Or, if we blithely say "We are given responsibility for . . ." without addressing who/what it was that gave us that responsibility, we may conveniently avoid addressing issues of (relatively) cosmic significance.
       This phenomenon, or habit, is nothing new!  Recently I read a passage from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.  Addressing the people -- chiding them, actually -- he asked: "Why do you keep repeating this proverb in the land of Israel: The parents have eaten unripe grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge?" (Ez 18.2)  The prophet's question was "Why do you keep diverting attention from your own responsibility, your own fault?  There is no passive voice here; there is no secret agency.  Own it!"
      Christians, right now, are beginning the season of Lent, in which they spend a number of weeks taking stock of their lives, their responsibility.  They are charged, in many ways, to leave the passive voice behind, and to accept the fact that they are fallible, prone to error. In short, that they are not God.  Just about every religious tradition has a similar time of introspection, encouraging their members to think carefully about their place in the larger scheme of things, their responsibility for others and the world.
      I wonder if we were to "own it" on a regular basis, from our writing habits to our relationships with others, if that honesty might make for a better, more just, world?


Chaplain Gary