Friday, August 29, 2014

Clutter or Grime?

       In a couple of days, over a thousand new students (and their parents) will descend upon the University of Denver for the first time (not counting campus visits).  They will unload trucks, trailers and cars and, with the help of numerous volunteers, cart the students' belongings to their new campus residence.  Most of them will meet their roommate(s) for the first time.  Perhaps they've communicated in advance ("I'll bring the TV; you bring the Wii!"  "Dude, let's decorate in green and purple polkadots!"), perhaps not.  They may have decided which side of the room each student will inhabit.  And I know that on many campuses, the roommate selection process requires a pretty sophisticated computer algorithm (I don't know if DU does that).  I have to wonder, however, if the students (or the computer) really gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter?
       I managed a student residence for eleven years (I may have mentioned this before). One of the things that became very clear to me as I listened to floor-mates complain about their neighbors was that there was a big difference between "clutter" people and "grime" people. Some folks believe a space is clean when it is clutter-free; all the surfaces are clear, and everything is in its place. Others don't care so much about the clutter as they do about the dustthat may be hidden behind books on a bookshelf, or the grime on the baseboard behind the oven.  In short, "clean" meant different things to different floor-mates and, when it came to common kitchens and bathrooms, these differences became LARGE.  
(This realization has informed a lot of my pre-marital counseling as well!)
       The flip-side, of course, is true as well.  What one person considers trash (or dirt) is anobjet d'art to someone else.  The matter, or item, under consideration is not the point; particle of dust are particles of dust.  What matters is the meaning, or import, attributed to them.  As the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out, "Dirt is matter out of place".*  She goes on to describe how/why certain "matter" is defined as "dirt" by various cultures.  I've always found it a fascinating analysis, and one, as I've suggested, that has usefulness in many different contexts.  Certainly one context is the potential disagreement (and perhaps fruitful late-night conversation) among room-mates about how THEY came to hold their particular views on what a "clean room" implies.
       But, as I read/hear the news from around the world, I see a different set of contexts where Douglas' insights might be applied.  Whether they're the various conflicts in the Middle East or, more nearby, race-related violence in the urban areas of our country, one of the root causes (it seems to me) is that we've been taught (WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT)! that there are fundamental and, thereby, worrisome differences between various groups of people -- whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.  We choose to perpetuate these distinctions despite the best evidence from multiple disciplines.  We have "stuff" invested in maintaining these artificial and dangerous categories, and then we resort to "any means necessary" to eliminate those we deem "dirt".  And people suffer.  And, I believe, God weeps.
       My prayer for these incoming students is that they learn from one another that a candy-wrapper on the floor is just a candy-wrapper.  They may differ in how they regard that candy wrapper -- and that difference should be a point-of-departure for some great conversations.  If they can internalize THAT, then maybe they can bring some greater level of hope and understanding to a hurting world dealing with much larger problems than a messy (?) dorm room.

Chaplain Gary

*From her 1966 book, Purity and Danger.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Up on the roof . . .

     In the early 1960's,  the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King teamed up with "The Drifters" to release, what came to be a huge hit, "Up on the roof".  Many have heard those opening lines over the last fifty years:
When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face (Up on the roof)
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space (Up on the roof)

On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there, the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now
That song, of course, represented a very urban reality, as later lines would make quite clear.  The idea, on the other hand, of finding a place of respite in a busy world is as real a concern in the suburbs or rural areas.  We all need a place where "all our cares just drift right into space."
       When we were in the process of moving to Denver several years ago, some Denver-based friends took me on a driving tour of the city to offer their advice about where we might want to find our next home.  One of the things they told me was "Make sure you find a place where you can see the mountains in the morning."  Fortunately, for those of us in Denver, that's not that hard.  And we were fortunate to end up in a neighborhood that allows me to see the mountains just about every time I leave the house.  I've seen the sun rise on them; I've seen them snow-covered; I've seen storm clouds develop behind them.  They are gorgeous.  There is a very good reason that their silhouette forms the backdrop for the Colorado license plates!
       This summer, however, I've probably spent more time experiencing the mountains than in the last few years.  I've hiked, I've fished, I've camped, I've bird-watched, I've breathed the thin clear air.  I've driven on the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. (Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park).  And I've come away each time from those experiences renewed, refreshed, and VERY anxious to return again, as soon as I can.
       Those experiences called to mind the fact that I grew up in the shadow of several mountains, most significantly Mt. Hood in Oregon (above), as well as Mt. St. Helen's (no longer as tall as it was in my youth!).  AS I grew up, we camped every summer on its slopes.  I back-packed a lot of the area in high school and early college.  The mountains and the accompanying forests became part of my environmental DNA.  I will admit, however, that once I moved away from Oregon and lived in other areas -- not as mountainous -- I forgot what rejuvenation those heights would provide.  It has only really come back to me in the last couple of years, and I'm grateful for its return.
       That recollection brought new meaning to a favorite psalm from the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 121, which begins (in the King James Version) "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."  For a number of years I've used that line as motivation as I ride my bike up a long and/or steep inclines, recognizing that the exertion it requires will, ultimately, strengthen me.  Now I see that there is a different kind of "
help" that those hills provide -- not necessarily help that comes from labored breathing, but rather relaxed breathing.  A breathing that allows for a very different kind of Presence to make itself known. 
       My friends were right; there IS something restorative about seeing those mountains everyday.  But Goffin/King/"The Drifters" were right, too, that "up on the roof . . . my cares drift right into space."  May we all (re-)discover such a place before the cares of the upcoming academic year begin to "get us down".  And, once we find such a place, may we visit it often!

Chaplain Gary

Friday, August 1, 2014

Remeber when?

      Every day I receive a message in my email in-box from "Mile High on the Cheap."  It contains a little list of things to do, things to buy, or places to go in the Denver area that are either free or deeply discounted.  This morning's had two items that related to the fact that today is August 1st:  Colorado Day.  Colorado Day (for those of you who are non-Centennial State folks) marks the day that Colorado joined the United States in 1876.  So, Happy Birthday, Colorado!  You're looking good at 138!  Anyway, those two freebies for folks in Colorado are free entry on Monday, the 4th (?) into any of the Colorado State Parks (which, by the way, are marvelous!), as well as free entry (August 1 and 2) into the History Colorado Center in downtown Denver.  Both opportunities are great ways to celebrate Colorado!   Aside from marking Colorado's entry in the Union, however, August is also the month that holds my birthday (No, I'm not as old as Colorado!).  And that started me thinking about holidays of various sorts.
      Colorado Day gets promoted as a way to celebrate everything that is Colorado . . . and that's great!  The idea that folks might spend some time in the History Colorado Center (for FREE!) also suggests that Colorado Day is a day to recall Colorado's past.  And if any of you have been in History Colorado, you know that there's a lot to recall -- both positive and negative.  All of that history has shaped us as a state, and as a people.  Every so often, however, as I walk through the museum, I get a sense that there's more than simply the recounting, or re-depiction, of events.  There is a hint -- although I'd be hard-pressed to point directly at its source -- of what we might become.       I think most of our holidays contain that potential. Many, however, seem to have become little more than opportunities for sales at mattress and furniture stores.  ("Golly!  It's President's Day!  I need a new 'fridge!")  This isn't always the case, certainly.  And there are folks and institutions that regularly buck the trend away from remembering the "reason for the season."  I think particularly of the annual July 4th re-reading of the Declaration of Independence by the hosts and commentators on NPR.  But how often DO we spend a holiday considering what it may call us to BE?        I've recently been re-reading formative stories from the early books of the Hebrew Bible.  So many of them end with the setting up of some kind of memorial of stones in order that the people might remember who/what it was that led them to that point.  But there was more at stake than a simple "Recall what happened".  The implication was that the memorials would also serve to remind the people of their calling, their purpose.  The establishment of rituals and holy days in most religious traditions are meant to be re-formative, to pull us back to our roots, our origins.
       Returning to our origins or history, whether in Colorado or congregations, doesn't necessarily mean, however, that we are meant to "re-create the old days".  "Remember when?" doesn't imply "Let's return."  On my birthday, I may recall the day I got my driver's license, but it certainly doesn't mean I want to be sixteen again!  On the contrary, it signifies a new level of freedom I attained, but also a greater level of responsibility.  So, Coloradans, Happy Birthday!  What can we become based on where we've been?  So, too, Christians/Muslims/HIndus/Jews/Buddhists/Wiccans . . . what can we become based on where we've been?


Chaplain Gary