Friday, April 25, 2014

The rubble or our sins?

      Filling the airwaves over the last several months has been the song "Pompeii" by the British rock band B∆STILLE.  Not only have radio listeners (and YouTube viewers) found the song difficult to avoid, but it also featured in the trailer for the recent animated motion picture Mr Peabody and Sherman.  The music video makes clear an allegory to which the title points:  the destruction of a beloved "city".   The lyrics suggest that the destruction of the "city" is due to the citizens' being "left to [their] own devices . . . and lost in all of [their] vices".  One of the "hooks" in the song recognizes that the destruction is happening, and asks the question about the future:  "Oh where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?"
      On the one hand, there is a bit of hope suggested by the questions -- that is, the song seems to suggest that there will be survivors who need to re-create (or create anew) a new "city".  On the other hand, it seems to me, the vision is lacking.  What the song calls for is correction of the past, e.g.,  clearing the rubble, or perhaps re-using it, is one way of moving forward.  Another way might be some kind of corporate repentance.  Now I have nothing against those kinds of responses; they 
may represent some kind of way forward.  But they both seem to look back, with some kind of expectation that revisiting, and repairing, the past will turn, by virtue of the onward movement of time, into some kind of desirable future.
      Our Jewish neighbors have just finished celebrating the festival of Pesach/Passover, recalling the deliverance of Israel from its house of bondage in Egypt.  The story is familiar enough, with the dramatic passing through the Red Sea immortalized in several movies (and a theme park!).  the Israelites were free!  Free from bondage.  Yet, within a short while, that new-found freedom wasn't enough. God had promised a new homeland, and was providing the people with food (manna).  Yet they would rather return to their old land than follow the promise:  "If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this mann to look at" (Numbers 11.4-6).  In other words, a return to past circumstances was more desirable than a future with a promise       We are all, always, in the position of leaving something behind -- either willingly or unwillingly.  We are either delivered, or our "city" is destroyed.  In that situation is . . . possibility.  The song "Pompeii" wonders "How am I gonna be an optimist about this?"  I'm not sure that's the right question.  I wonder instead whether a different focus might be worth considering:  "What kinda new city might come from this?"  Our challenge is to find, and articulate, a compelling vision, one that is so strong that we're willing to leave Egypt behind, and trade cucumbers and garlic for milk and honey.  

Chaplain Gary

*The "Pompeii" video can be seen here.  A wonderful, less bleak a capella cover can be seen here.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thin ice and engine failure

     The other day I was listening to an interview with Canadian singer/songwriter/hymnwriter Veda Hille.  She sang a hymn that she had re-arranged, one associated with a small church somewhere up in the north of British Columbia.  It was a lovely tune, and the words were equally lovely, while being somewhat traditional.  And then she departed from the original version (as we learned later in the interview) and added these lines, after a petition for divine protection:

From sudden storm
Guns that jam
Late spring break up
Thin ice
Rogue bear
Engine failure, engine failure
Failure, failure*

She was writing, after all, about Inuit concerns.  Those folks do NOT want jammed guns when encountering a rogue bear, or engine failure during a sudden storm.  In other words, these were real concerns!  They struck me, and Mary Hynes (the interviewer), because they were so earthy, on the one hand, but also so out-of-context in a hymn.
       Yet they are so real!  Real concerns.
       I certainly know that we, as individuals, might often lift up such concerns to the Divine.  But how often do we corporately give voice -- especially with music -- to the immediate concerns of deliverance from alcohol or our equivalent of a "rogue bear".
        I remember, several years ago, attending a service in which a particular song/hymn had been edited so that the names of biblical plants and animals were replaced with the plants and animals of the Arizona desert.  The Prayer Book for the Anglican Church in New Zealand has done the same . . . so that we in North America, when reading that same song/hymn put in the language of the southern hemisphere, are struck by the inclusion of "kiwi" and "dolphin" and "avalanche" in a reading with origins in the Middle East.
       Yet, there is an immediacy in these kinds of changes.  A freshness to the language that causes me to sit up and take notice.  And I have to wonder what kind of spiritual exercise it might be for me to sit, reflect, and re-imagine how familiar words and phrases might be altered to provide fresh meaning and insight.  It is spring after all, let new life come forth!


Chaplain Gary

* The "Tuktoyaktuk Hymn".  You can hear it here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


    Several weeks ago, the Denver Post ran a feature on the Denver band "The Fray".  The occasion was the release of their most recent album (their fourth) entitled "Helios".  One of the things that made this so newsworthy was that the album was released on vinyl.  How old-school!  (There was, included with the album, a download code . . . I suppose for folks who no longer had turntables!).  The frontman of the band, Isaac Slade, said that the album was much different than its predecessors; it wasn't as dark, reflecting changes in the lives of the bands' members (a couple of them, with their wives, are expecting children).  The article's author, Matt Miller, wrote: "when their professional lives are going well, the only result could be a happy record, despite their reservations.
     The next paragraph is basically a quotation from Isaac Slade:  "'The definition of cool for the last 65 years has been to be aloof, like you don't care . . . The uncoolest thing in the world is to smile.  When you're honest and you open up to being in a bright place, it causes a lot of exposure and vulnerability.'"   And that got me thinking about how many photos we see of folks who are scowling.  I'd never really connected the glower with coolness.  But, I think Slade is right.  And I wonder why we want people to connect us with a photo that might more likely be found on a mug-shot?
     I spent this afternoon with thirteen students and six Alzheimer's sufferers -- yes we were ALL together.  And we were playing croquet.  The program, put on by an organization called Jiminy Wicket, aims at bridging the dementia-gap through a simple game, and, in the process, creating smiles.  All of us DU folks, at first, were a bit apprehensive (whether or not we would admit it) about who might arrive in the van from the senior center.  And, we learned a bit latter, many of the seniors were a bit nervous too; some, of course, not entirely sure where they were going.
      Within just a few minutes, however, things were VERY different.  After the first "whack" of the croquet ball, the first ball-through-the-wicket, the barriers were gone.  Young men were helping (much) older women.  Young women were teamed with men.  Competition, while fierce -- and, maybe in some sports, prone to be accompanied by scowling and chest-thumping -- was not such that opposing players weren't smiling and cheering when Bob, from his wheelchair, made an amazing shot.  Or when Lucy, stooped and wearing dark glasses, made a 20' shot through the wicket.  Whoops and smiles galore.
      I've gotta say, it was a cool afternoon.  No glowering necessary.  We were, as Slade put it, "in a bright place".  And, yes, there was exposure and vulnerability. . . .on all sides.  But it became a time-out-of-time when we, together, were united by smiles - - old and young, able- bodied and not, from different religious background, different countries.  We were anxious no more.  No longer afraid.
      Way cool.


Chaplain Gary

Note:  We will be repeating the Jiminy Wicket experience again in May.  If you're interested in being notified when the date is set, send me an email at:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Being Correct ≠ Being Right

      Earlier this week, I received the most recent issue of Trout magazine (the quarterly publication of Trout Unlimited).  It contained following editorial:

"The Future of Trout Fishing"
You know who you are.  You are the guide that unloaded on my son on a beautiful Montana river that day, while leading your client to an upstream spot.  Your inability to see what was right in front of you astounded me. As a guide, and protector of our sport and resources, you found it necessary to yell across the river and inform my 14-yr-old son that the was not handling a hooked cutthroat [trout] with the deftness he should.  You were correct . . . but very wrong.  What you didn't see right there in front of you was the future of everything you love.  This young man was not sitting in front of a computer waging mock war.  He was not sitting in front of a television watching mindless movies.  He was standing in the middle of a Montana river learning to fly fish.  You had a chance to blow gently on this glowing ember, but you snuffed it out.  You should have yelled, "Nice fish!" and given him a thumbs up.  He would have basked in that recognition forever.  Instead, you embarrassed him.  You changed the pride he felt into abject humiliation.  Shame on you.  Jus plain shame on you.  Don't worry though.  I think with careful attention, I can get the ember to glow again . . . in spite of you.
Steve Baker.*
The editorial hardly needs comment.  But, as a parent and teacher, I needed to take a step back and wonder how often my felt need to be "correct" was exactly the WRONG thing that was needed at that moment.
        And I wonder, too, how often the "righteous" do irreparable damage to their closely-held convictions and traditions by being unwilling to open their hearts to the cautious steps of someone learning to find their way.
       Read the editorial again.  'Nuff said for this week.


Chaplain Gary

*Trout, Spring 2014, Volume 56, Number 2, p. 12