Friday, November 21, 2014

Teach your children/parents well

   Here at the University of Denver, the fall quarter is over (except for those poor faculty members who are still grading exams/papers!).  Yesterday was the last day of finals, and the campus was feeling pretty deserted.  Now we are on to Inter-term classes, workshops, trainings, holiday luncheons . . . six weeks (give or take) of a different pace.  But the last couple of weeks were tense, with students hurrying to get papers in, studying done, exams taken, and res hall rooms cleaned out (no food allowed over break!), etc.
     What those students are NOT doing is lining up outside of my office.  And this seems to surprise some folks, as I often am asked, at this time of year, "Well, I suppose this is your busy time??" And I can honestly answer that, in over twenty years of campus work, I've NEVER had a student come to me during the last couple of weeks of a term because of academic anxiety.  And I'm not alone in my experience, as conversations with colleagues confirm.  And that makes me wonder . . .
      It makes me wonder about the idea(s) of God/spirituality that are behind the question.  The same question is NEVER asked of me in the middle of a term . . . i.e., in a less "stressful" time.
  So, is there an underlying assumption that God/religion is just there to get you out of a fix?  Is that what the questioner was taught?  Perhaps, but it hasn't generated more foot traffic to my office.  Or, more generously, is there a belief that a chaplain or spiritual counselor would be able to lend a sympathetic ear during stressful times.  Of these two possibilities, I certainly prefer the latter, but the absence of a line outside chaplains' offices would suggest that that particular belief was not necessarily passed on to the last couple of generations.

     I would hope that today's students haven't being taught that religion/spirituality is a sort of "fire insurance", only to be cashed in when the going gets rough.  Perhaps, given the way "religion" plays out in the "culture wars", many may have been taught (or have learned) that it can useless (at the least) or pretty hurtful (at the most).   On the other hand, I fear that many haven't been taught that there is compassion and empathy to found in religiously-motivated listeners during the hard patches of life.
      I know many students (as well as their parents or other older adults) who don't believe those first two negative lessons about religion, and who DO believe the last positive lesson.  They've been taught well.  I think they know that their religious convictions ARE a support during the hard times, but not only then -- that those same convictions provide a context within which to understand the good times, as well as to provide motivation to support others.  They stop by my office from time to time.

      Clearly, there's still a lot of learning and unlearning to do, even when the academic quarters end . . . and we're all teachers all the time.  I can't help but close with the famous song of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Teach your children well":

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of the tender years, can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix,the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.*

Let's feed folks on our dreams!



*Written by Graham Nash, Lyrics from

Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembering gratefully

    This past Tuesday was Veteran's Day in the US.  As part of our observance at DU, I sponsored a book discussion on Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, about the difficulties a half-breed Native-American WWII veteran faced upon returning home.  It was a fascinating discussion, involving former GSSW professor Jim Moran (a Vietnam vet and Native-American) and Zachary Moon (a Navy Chaplain working on his PhD, studying how we reincorporate returning vets).*  Then, later in the afternoon, we had a Veteran's Day ceremony, including an ROTC Honor Guard, the playing of Taps, and with comments from one of our US Army Fellows (in residence at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies), our Chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, and me.  What follows is the text of my comments.
    This morning I changed my Facebook profile picture to that of a young man, 24-years-old, standing in a snow storm somewhere in Belgium.  While the photo itself was probably taken in December 1944, it seemed appropriate to use that photo of my dad on this snowy Veterans’ Day in Colorado, seventy years later.  And while many folks in Colorado will complain about the cold this week — and justifiably so — historians of World War II, as well as that dwindling number of veterans who were there, will talk about the bitter cold of the Ardennes forest during one of the decisive battles of that war, the Battle of the Bulge.
    I don’t know if that young man, when he joined the Army in 1942, envisioned that winter in Belgium.  Like many, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be sent to the European or Pacific theater.  What I do know is that he wanted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but he was sent to Europe before that dream was realized.  He did get to fly — but as a spotter for a Field Artillery Battalion.  
    I doubt that many others suspected that they’d be on beaches or jungles on previously-unknown islands in the Pacific.  Few suspected the horrors of those battles, specifically of that on Okinawa which my father-in-law experienced.
    I say all of this because I doubt that many of those men and women we honor with the title “Veteran” know what they’re getting into.  Even those who enlist during “peace-time” cannot be sure that they will not be thrust into battle, as political winds blow ill.  Yet, for whatever reasons, they DO choose to serve their country.  They take the oath.  They leave loved ones.  Those who return, do so changed — as did my dad and my father-in-law.
    On this Veteran’s Day — this “Remembrance Day” — we remember and honor all who’ve served, as well as those who have served by supporting them, their families and friends.  We are grateful for that commitment.

Chaplain Gary

* For an overview of the book, check the Spark Notes site, and for a recording of the discussion, go to the bottom of this page, and click on "Ceremony"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Hopeful burdens


     Last week, I was in Boston attending the annual gathering of the Association of College and 
University Religious Affairs ("ACURA").  This confab draws together Deans of Chapels and University Chaplains from around the country, meeting on different campuses, and highlights the realities of our work in those different contexts.  We're always treated to good entertainment and good food . . . as well as fascinating presentations and conversations.  Last week was no exception.  Music from Ladino Spain as well as Tufts' "Beelzebubs" (their men's a cappella group).  Tours of sacred spaces at both Tufts and Harvard, as well as a visit to Concord (birthplace of the American Revolution).
       One evening, we were treated to a marvelous presentation by Prof. Davíd Carrasco (Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at Harvard).  As part of his talk, he referred to some of the ancient Mesoamerican mythologies, and how they were depicted in inscriptions and scrolls.  He mentioned the "sacred bundles" of the Aztecs and (if I'm remembering correctly), that they were related to a sort of creation story -- that there was a dispersal of the people, but that, as they went out, the elders were all carrying "sacred bundles" that would help keep their traditions alive, and their people connected.
       I had seen pictures before like the one above, but I had always assumed that the figures were simply carrying "backpacks" or "burdens".  That is, either the essentials of day-to-day living or the fruits of their labors; I had not thought of them as anything "sacred".  In some respects I had thought of them as visual depictions of the saying "everyone you meet is carrying a great burden".*
      Later, however, as I was reflecting on Carrasco's talk of the sacred bundles (and listening to the 
Guy Mendilow Ensemble's wonderful, transformed and transformative, Ladino music), as well as trying to process all of the news of the day (electioneering, international conflicts, etc.), I started wondering whether the "burdens" we carry might also hold the promise of being transformed into "sacred bundles". So, "Are we carrying 'hopeful burdens"', I asked myself.
      Two of the foundational assumptions of the change theory "Appreciative Inquiry" are "People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known)" and that "If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past".**  My experience, however, is that I often find myself ruminating on the negative parts of the "burden" I'm carrying; that darkness obscures the possibility of light and hope.  It then takes another set of eyes to see what I cannot, and to draw my attention to the hopeful potential that my past experience affords.
     A two-fold challenge lies before us, then, it seems to me.  On the one hand, we need to seek out that extra pair of eyes to help us transform our burdens into sacred bundles.  And, when we see someone laboring under a "great burden", to offer our help in realizing hope.

Chaplain Gary

* This is often attributed to Plato or Philo, or some other ancient.  It would appear, however, that it is only about 120 years old, and can be traced to a man named John Watson.
** Hammond, Sue Annis. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (Bend, OR:  Thin Book Publishing Co, 1998), 21.