Friday, May 30, 2014

At all times?!

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.*
       "At all times"?  Really?
       This being the end of another academic year, those of us on either side of the teacher's desk are often found "evaluating" an experience in a classroom (be it physical or virtual).  We may find ourselves making comments like "It was better than I expected" (or it's opposite!), "I learned so much", "I couldn't understand the essays", or...  I had a student this quarter who noted that he had had a "different dream" for what a certain class would hold.  I must say that I had a slightly different dream for that class as well.
        Disappointment might to be too strong a word to apply in these kinds of situations, but there is often a sense of let-down (at the least) when things don't go as we expected.  Parents know this feeling well as dreams for their children hit insurmountable road-blocks.  Those whose chosen careers don't work out as planned know it.  Students express frustration when, feeling well-prepared for an exam, find that where THEY focused their studies was not where the instructor focused.  So how, in these circumstances, can we "bless the Lord at all times"?
        It's an exhortation found through Hebrew and Christian scriptures (at least).  And there is certainly a long history of encouragement to be grateful (another way of "blessing").  But I think that there is also a sense among many people that the only things for which it is worth being grateful are good things:  "I'm grateful for good weather."  "I'm grateful for an "A" on the final."  "I'm grateful for an understanding partner."  There's also a sense, often, of being grateful that something bad didn't happen:  "I'm grateful that the floods didn't affect MY house."  And NONE of these are bad or wrong.
       But, can we be grateful in adversity?  I think that's where it really gets tough for most of us -- at least it does for me.  And this goes further than the "there's a silver lining to every cloud" philosophy.  It is an assertion, a hope, that there is something in each event, each encounter, that mediates the Divine to us.  In my case, that message, in moments of disappointment, can be boiled down to:  "You realize you're not the center of the universe, don't you?"  And that, if I pay attention, can lead to a renewed sense of humility and understanding of others.
       To follow upon the image that heads this column, our perception of what "fills" the glass is generally limited to the liquid.  There is, of course, more if we take a moment to consider.
        Bless the Lord.


Chaplain Gary
*Psalm 34.1

Friday, May 23, 2014

Them's fighting' words!

     Earlier this week, we held a book discussion on Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini's Soul Repair:  Recovering from Moral Injury after War.*  My two co-facilitators represented two very different experiences of  the military; one was a former Army brigade commander, the other a Marine Chaplain.  Both recognized the circumstances reflected in the book:  soldiers often find themselves doing things in battle that are at odds with their inner compass, and they have varying degrees of difficulty coming to grips with that disconnect.  They also had, however, different ways of using words that addressed some of the issues in the book.  And those differences got me thinking.
      The chaplain (as well as others with whom he works) shy away from the phrase "soul repair".  The word "soul" conjures up all sorts of associations for folks, and raises the issue of whether or not it can be "broken".  So, it seems that "inner conflict" is preferred.  Again, the circumstances/effects are not under debate, only the description.  The brigade commander avoided adding the "D" to PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress [Disorder]), suggesting that it is no longer considered a "disorder", but something else.  Again, the circumstances/effects were not under debate, only the words used to describe them.  The chaplain suggested a question that got at the heart of what I was hearing:  "How does our language (i.e., concerning diagnosis) affect -- or counter-effect -- people seeking treatment?"  That is, if someone doesn't consider themselves "injured", then they might not seek help.  Or, who really wants to consider themselves "disordered"?
       I then recalled a conversation with Barb, the student from Iliff School of Theology who's been working with me this year. She was preparing a sermon for a service here at DU, and asked me whether or not she could talk about "sin".  I said, "Of course!  Entirely appropriate for that service!"  She responded that some other folks had counseled her against it, saying that that language wasn't going to work these days.  I encouraged her to stand her ground.
       Now I concede that "sin" language is a bit out-of-fashion.  No one wants to be told they're a "sinner" (I suppose the truth hurts too much); such language smacks, I suppose, of old-time revival meetings and groveling before an angry deity.  But when I put that reaction to "sin" next to the reactions to the language of "injury" or "disorder", I have to wonder whether we've lost our connection with the full human condition!?  I am not necessarily a big fan of the classical western Christian concept of "original sin", but I think that most religious traditions recognize that we are NOT perfect beings.  We all fall short of some higher expectation.  We mess up.  We are hurt by so many things.  We are broken.  Yet it seems that we are loathe to admit it.
       We are loathe to admit it . . . but most of us recognize our circumstances and want to be whole.  It's a dilemma, indeed.  Yet it's a problem we need to address, given the number of folks who are hurt so badly, but never seek help until it's almost too late.  I'm not saying we need to continue to use "sin", "injury" or "disorder", but we need to come up with new, compassionate, ways of addressing our ills that (a) don't sidestep the realities we face, but (b) extend an invitation to wholeness regardless of the depth of our pain.  Any ideas?


Chaplain Gary
*(Beacon, 2012).  A recording of the discussion can be found under "Recordings of Past Discussions" at this page.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gratitude's response

      A number of years ago, I accompanied a group of students to Costa Rica as part of a cultural exchange.  My role was primarily as "chaperone" (ha!), van-driver, and keeper-of-the-funds.  The students were doing most of the interacting, which was good, because they were much more likely to know Spanish than me!  My education in Español, sadly, was limited to Junior High level . . . and that was a while back!  But I did remember enough of the basics to say "Please", "Thank You" and something akin to 'We've got to get going now!"  And I was not too old to learn new phrases, like "Check, please?"
      I was surprised, however, the first few times I tried "Muchas gracias".  I knew enough to pronounce it correctly, and use it in the right context.  But the response I got back from the "Ticos" (Costa Ricans) wasn't quite what I expected (which was "De nada" -- the phrase we learned in 7th grade!).  Instead, the response was "Mucho gusto".  Once I figured out what I was hearing (and translated it), I became quite taken by the Tico answer.  Instead of hearing "It's nothing", I was told that whatever the service (carrying my luggage, serving my meal, opening the door) occasioned my appreciation came with "Much joy!".  Hmm!   Pretty often, then, I am invited to recall this bit of education . . . and challenge.  Even yesterday, I heard (in an interview) the host effusively thank her guest. His response was, "No, thank you!".
      So, I've been thinking about how we respond to "Thank you."  In the U.S., there is no clear-cut winner.  The responses range from "You're welcome" to "No problem" to "It was nothing" (de nada) to "Don't mention it" to . . . ?  Similarly, there are no clear "winners" in other languages.  Common in French is "de rien" ("it's nothing").  But, in the south of France, "avec plaisir" (i.e., "with pleasure") is more common.  Swedish?  "Varsågod"!  "Be so good"?  Chinese:  "bú kè qi", or, literally, "Don't be nice".  And, so I've begun to wonder, too, about what the response says about the personal or cultural values behind thatservice to others that prompts a "thank you".
      "It's nothing", or De nada suggests (to me) that the server felt imposed upon, but, perhaps, not unnecessarily or unexcessively so.  Avec plaisir or Mucho gusto suggest that the act service itself was a joy, or pleasurable.  "Be so good" may suggest that the recipient return the favor.  But, "You're welcome"?
      At a conference/retreat I attended last week, the speaker challenged us to respond to "thank you" with an enthusiastic "YOU'RE WELCOME!".  Not "You're welcome", but "
YOU'RE WELCOME!"  And I began to toy with that.
      "Welcoming" is an act of hospitality.  It is an invitation to encounter and engagement.  It is drawing of the other into one's own circle.  It is making a place for that other at one's own table.
      Ponderable.  You have done an act of service for someone; you have stepped aside from your life's demands to attend to their needs.  You have opened your door to them.  They recognize that and express appreciation.  "YOU'RE WELCOME", you reply as you invite them into your life, with the implication that they may anticipate your continued hospitality.   "Hospitality" -- a virtue that lies at the core of every religious tradition I know.  And, by extension, I suppose, at the heart of God.
      How many times a day do we have the opportunity, in such an easy way, to reflect the heart of God?  It's not nothing.  It can be an act of much joy!


Chaplain Gary

Friday, May 9, 2014

Elevator Talk: You are here

      I spent much of this week at a conference/retreat in Breckenridge.  Every time I needed to go to my hotel room, I was confronted with the sign above (I never DID find the stairwell!).  And the more I stared at the sign while waiting for the elevator, the more I realized that it was a relatively apt visual metaphor for much of the focus of (at least one session of) the conference.
     Our conference speaker was a Christian monk, and his addresses ranged far and wide -- but with one over-riding theme (poorly paraphrased):  "God made you.  Appreciate the gift that you are."  And, so, one of the underlying questions was how to do that.  Certainly he had a lot of very good suggestions; I'll ponder them for a while.
     In one session, however, he read the following quotation:

We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit, and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible. 

As our retreat speaker pointed out, this was written in 1948.  He went on to enumerate all of the technologies and distractions that were NOT around in 1948, everything from iPads to television to supermarkets (his list was MUCH longer).  And he observed that if the above represented a situation sixty-five years ago, how much more it represents today.   The downside to all of that "excitement" is that we have less and less opportunity or impetus to stop and figure out "where we are" (my terms, not his!).
      It didn't take a lot of deep reflection on my part to realize how much I rely on technological distraction or entertainment or . . .   Most days I spend a few minutes loading my smartphone with the podcasts I'll hear as I commute.  In the office, I often find an internet radio station (often soundtracks, if you're interested).  The idea of silence, or, at least, of non-technological noise is almost unthinkable.  I've almost come to the point where, if music isn't playing in the background, I feel like something's wrong.
      "Like something's wrong" could be another way of saying that I'm not sure where I am.  If I mask every moment with some artificial distraction, will I see where I am, really?  Do the "screens" of sound, activity, or computers help me know myself, or do they keep me from knowing myself?  Do they keep me from being present with my friends, my family?  Given the options of "exits" to either side, or elevators before me, can I know where I am, or where to focus my attention?
       I don't know that I want someone else to print a red dot telling me "You are here".  That sounds like a rather dangerous proposition.  Our speaker suggested attending to silence -- something I don't do enough.  Doing that, he implied, allows a different Voice to speak, One more authentic.  One that might affirm the gift of myself that I've been given, One that might give me a better picture of where I am.

Chaplain Gary

*Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948).

Friday, May 2, 2014

Cliven Bundy and Cute Cat Videos

     When I was in college (and one of my undergraduate schools was a Christian college), I had a fellow student come up to me one day and ask the (rhetorical, to him) question: "What's the last word of the book of Malachi (the last book of the Old Testament)?"  "Cursed," he answered, when I shrugged.  "And, what's the first word of Jesus' "Beatitudes" (Matthew 5:3)?"  "Blessed", I answered, pleased that I knew that!  "Right!" he said.  My friend was trying to emphasize the superiority (in his mind) of the New (Christian) Testament to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures).  But . . . "What an absurd set of questions, a bogus kind of reasoning!" I told him.  "Using that logic, you can say/prove almost anything!" I said.  He looked a bit stunned, and then, a bit reluctantly, agreed.
      That encounter comes back to me with unfortunate frequency when I read the news, listen to preachers, watch sporting events (how many goal-line signs reading "John 3:16" have you seen?), or, given our current social media culture, scan my Facebook feed.  I know that, with great regularity, many of my Facebook "friends" will "share" something that came into their feed that extracts a sound-bite from a longer story.  The implication is that I should feel the same sense of outrage, or self-righteousness, that motivated them to "share" the post.  (My experience with Facebook--and my "friends"--has been sufficient that I've learned to screen such posts through the lens of suspicion.)
      So, it was with great surprise this last week that I ran across a shared post, from someone whose opinion I generally respect, asserting that Nevada Republican Cliven Bundy's (reportedly) racist remarks were taken out of context.  My "friend" was not supporting Mr. Bundy, but simply pointing out that what the media has been reporting might not be whole story.  Really????  The media has an "angle"?
      One of the realities of our new media culture is that EVERY outlet has "an angle".  And each of us can choose the outlets that we like -- usually those that align with our views.  Advertisers know this, the media moguls know this, politicians know this.  I suppose even WE know this.  But we continue to subscribe to some kind of fantasy that THE correct view of the world is mediated by the media we choose.  Just like my college friend (and he became a good friend!) who selectively chose Bible verses to make a very strange (and, certainly, contestable) point.
       Context IS everything, I believe.  That is NOT to assert that everything might be excusable 
because of context.  It is simply a recognition that, without learning and knowing the context of an event or quotation, we are subject to someone else's (self-motivated) interpretation.  Whether we choose to let others guide us in that way--for better or worse--is up to us. It does take a bit of effort, I know, to do the research . . . but, I think, it's worth it.
       So, when reading Facebook, I've taken to having another tab of my browser devoted to cute cat videos.  Why?  There's so little context demanded to understand them . . . except that they also serve as a reminder that the videographer CREATED the video.  I have had cats for decades; they don't try to be cute.

Chaplain Gary