Friday, November 27, 2015

Step Outside!

     As we step into one of the busiest seasons of the year, and are surrounded by news that interrupts our sleep, I find Mary Oliver's poem* quite timely.   Take some time to step outside and see the hope that nature affords.


* The poem is from her collection Evidence.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Resistance is NOT futile!

        Fans of the Star Trek franchise know the line "Resistance is futile" as representing the "Borg", an alien race (ranked by TV Guide in 2013 as the 4th nastiest villain of all time).  According to the Wikipedia entry on the Borg"[They] are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective, or the hive. The Borg use a process called assimilation to force other species into the Collective by violent injection of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg's ultimate goal is 'achieving perfection'.  Part of the ongoing thematic presence of the Borg is related to their inability to "assimilate" a captain of the starship Enterprise:  Jean Luc Picard.  Despite their claim that "resistance is futile", Captain Picard was ultimately able to resist  While he was not left "undamaged", his time associated with the collective provided him knowledge on how to battle the collective.
        The episodes featuring the Borg came to mind this morning as I was reading the book of First Maccabees.  This book, found in the Greek Septuagint (translated from a Hebrew original written in the 2nd century BCE) is considered as sacred scripture in some Christian denominations, but not all.  It tells the story of a revolt in Judea by a group known as the Maccabees against their Greek rulers (175-134 BCE).  The first few chapters relate how these Greek overlords had sought to stamp out everything, everywhere, of the local culture and religion.  In Judea, they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbad the practice of Judaism (including circumcision, or even possessing Jewish scriptures).  Many of the inhabitants chose to assimilate rather than face the the consequences, i.e., death.  They believed that resistance was futile.

        The family of Mattathias -- especially his sons Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus and Simon Thassi -- did NOT believe resistance was futile.  Their energy, their faith, was such that many from Judea rallied to them.  Despite overwhelming odds, they were able to defeat the Greeks.  They cleaned up the Temple, got rid of the desecrated altar, and dedicated the Temple with an eight-day feast.  Jews today will commemorate that astonishing, miraculous, event in a few weeks as they observe Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication.
         Given the events of the last few weeks/months, from the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis to the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Mali to the immigration debate to the incredibly hateful language coming out of the mouths of presidential candidates and governors of states, it would almost seem that the Borg, or Antiochus Epiphanes, has arrived in America.  Resistance to their rhetoric seems to be futile as politician after politician seem to fall over themselves to be more extreme, gaining an ever-growing popular following.
           Yet we have also seen instances where resistance has toppled "empires" -- most notably at the University of Missouri. We have seen resistance rock the foundations at other institutions, such as Yale.  We know from history that, over and over, resistance moves us forward, perhaps not without cost -- Capt. Picard remained throughout his career a "walking wounded" voyager and there were casualties among the Maccabean revolutionaries.           Our many faith traditions encourage us to resist the status quo, to resist the imposition of unjust laws, and in some respects to resist our own self-interests on behalf of the marginalized, the dispossessed, "orphans and widows", and the stranger.  We must band in common cause against "the Borg" that is threatening to overtake our national soul, perhaps our individual souls.  We are bigger than that; I believe it.
           The photo above is of juvenile Borg. We who are part of the academic enterprise must give our all to prevent that "fiction" from becoming a reality. We must, in the language of 1 Maccabees 
(1:54 & 4:43), topple the "abomination of desolation" that so many in power are attempting to maintain.  It is our sacred duty to prove that "resistance is NOT futile" but is absolutely necessary.  



Friday, November 13, 2015

The eraser's mark.


     In his book, Let Your Life Speak, the Quaker author Parker Palmer tells the story of his seeking guidance at a critical point in his professional life.  Many of the counselors around him suggested that he wait, pray, be in silence, and eventually "way will open".  He follows their advice, but, after several months, finds that nothing has happened.  He takes this concern to a wise Quaker woman, Ruth, who told him, "[I]n sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me."  Palmer goes on to write, "Then she spoke again, this time with a grin.  'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'"*
       That story had a profound impact on me when I first read it about fifteen years ago.   I, too, was in a place of professional discernment and what the story allowed me to do was to look behind me and see what doors had closed behind me.  Some of those doors were closed for me; others I closed, either intentionally or unintentionally.  But, when I recognized that they were closed, a great wave of relief rolled over me.  I didn't HAVE to keep trying to go back through those doors, or keep them open.  I could allow them to be shut, and use my energy to move forward.  I have gone back to that story again and again at juncture points in my life, as well as suggesting the wisdom to others who were discerning which way to go.      I recalled it once again when I heard an interview this week with Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, in which HE reflects how his father had rejected the "explicit Judaism that he had inherited." He goes on to say "Our Jewishness was visible on us through the marks of the eraser, which were stronger than the writing — act of writing itself."  Visible...through the marks of the eraser...stronger than the act of writing.        And I began to consider what I have "erased" twists and turns, ups and downs, of my life.  Like doors closing, some of the things that have been "erased" have been unintentional. (For example, I didn't consciously CHOOSE to stop playing tennis; it just happened after I left high school.)  Other things, perhaps more significant things, I have deliberately chosen to erase:  some ideas about God; certain notions of exclusivity; superiority of one way of "knowing" over another. As I look back at the "ways" that have closed behind me, or the marks of the eraser that I've wielded, I rejoice in the possibilities that have been afforded by those means of liberation. The way that opened before me is NOTHING that I could have expected.       But I wonder if we also need to take that eraser to things that might tie us to a particular vision of the future. I think of the stories in the New Testament gospels about Jesus warning his disciples against telling anyone he is the Messiah** (the "Messianic Secret", as biblical scholars characterize it). Interpretive wisdom has it that Jesus wanted to keep people from imposing their ideas of "messiah-hood" on him; by so doing, they could inhibit his mission.
      Maybe the eraser's mark behind us frees us from bondage to the past.  Maybe, too, the eraser's mark in front of us can open us to very new ways of being.



* Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), 38.
** See, for example, Matthew 16.13-20.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Living in an Alternate Universe

       In the summer of 2005, I took part in the fourth AIDS/LifeCycle, a 560-mile, 7-day, bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (I think I've written about this a couple of times over the years.)  It was (and still is) a very well-supported charity ride, the proceeds (over $66 million over the last 10 years) benefitting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.  The route travels roughly along the western edge of California, not always along the coast, sometimes venturing inland.  The fact that the route DOES travel from the coast to some inland valleys means that there are portions of the California Coast Range that need to be ascended (and, of course, more enjoyably descended).
       One particular hill is known as "Quadbuster", a grueling climb on the third day between King City and Paso Robles.  It is one of several climbs that causes some riders to dismount and walk their bike to the top.
  I recall very vividly riding up Quadbuster (I made it to the top!).  I passed some riders, and was passed by others as I ascended.  It was hard.  And I was surprised (well, maybe not), to see some of the stronger riders close alongside struggling cyclists, a hand on their back(side), pushing them up the hill. Even more surprising (truly!) was watching a cyclist DESCEND the hill after summiting, to go back and help/encourage another one to the top.  I learned that evening that there were some who had gone back down (and then up again) five or six times.
        Even by that time of the ride (only three days in), I had come to recognize that the company of riders and roadies--the support folks--(some 1500 in all) represented just about every stripe of humanity you could imagine.  We were different in our ages, our religions, our politics, our gender, our sexual-orientation, our health-status (one sub-group was the "Positive Pedalers" -- those who had HIV and were riding), our race/ethnicity.  But despite those differences, once we were in spandex, no-one was queried about those identities while trying to make it up the hills.  Help was offered; help was accepted.  Having everyone finish was the goal.  One primary motto for the event was "It's a ride, not a race."* (
A secondary, but equally important, motto was "Hydrate and pee!") I've commented numerous times since June of 2005 that I had been a part--if only for a week--of an alternate universe.  I went into a blue-funk for about a while afterwards as I grieved the loss of that community.        Memories of that June 2005 come flooding back oh-so-often.  More recently, earlier this week, I listened to an interview on "Colorado Matters" with Denver Filmmaker Michael De Yoanna concerning a documentary he had just finished called "Recovering".  The film tells the stories of veterans--wounded both physically and psychologically--who have found a measure of healing through cycling.  Some of the cyclists are unable to ride "normal" upright two-wheelers.  No matter, bikes can be found to fit ANY cyclist.  BUT, making it up hills is a challenge for anyone on a recumbent (regardless of strength/ability).  And so many of the recumbents in this film are fitted with push-bars so that a stronger cyclist can help his/her buddy up the hill (pictured above).  These cyclists were linked by their experiences in war and their desire to come out the other side with a will-to-live.  They wanted to finish their ride (a 911 mile ride for September 11th), as a way of finding some healing -- and, perhaps, through their example, providing some healing for others. Another alternate universe that re-fires my longing.
        And, then again, as I was coming into work this morning. I heard a snippet of an 
interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  Reflecting on conversations between religious leaders, scientists and social scientists, he responded to Krista Tippet's question, "And different kinds of religious leaders, right, across traditions, as well?":

Totally. I mean, the thing that really, for me, changed my life, it was standing at ground zero, a couple of months afterwards. In January — well, it was January 2002 — together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and religious leaders throughout the world. And we were looking at this wreckage, this sheer harm that hate can do. And yet, at the same time, here we all were in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer. And I just saw how clearly that is — those are the terms of the equation. Do we go that way, or we go this?
Do we go that way, or we go this?
           Rabbi Sacks didn't use the language of an "alternate universe", but he was clearly pointing to evidence that one may exist.  "Do we go that way, or we go this?" Do we put our hands on the backs of those struggling up the hill, regardless of our differences?  Do we dream of an alternate universe, or do we act as if we're living in it already?