Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Let there be light!

        Today, December 22, 2015, the days begin to get a little longer in the northern hemisphere, or, maybe, more accurately, the amount of daylight increases gradually. For six months, we've been descending into darkness. We've changed our clocks to manage that . . . . somehow. For folks who are depressed, or who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, this is a pretty challenging time of year. It's also equally challenging for many who've lost loved ones in the last year, or who have spouses/partners serving overseas in the military; they will be missed at holiday celebrations. And then there's the news, international and national. Whether it is terrorist attacks in Paris or Colorado Springs, a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, our incredibly contentious presidential campaign, or its accompanying deplorable religious/ethnic overtones, our media (including social media) does a great job of feeding us depressing news.
        The nice thing, however, that the winter solstice teaches us is that the longest night (last night!) is the longest night (well, at least for a year - then wecan learn the lesson over again).  The darkness will decrease. Or, put another way, the light will increase. And, at least here in Colorado (and the majority of the northern hemisphere), the light was never gone.  It's just that we seem to have a tendency to focus on the increasing darkness.
        I wonder if, as the light increases, we might make an exercise of recognizing all of those good things that surround us, but that we take for granted.  The Multifaith Calendar (print version)* that I use daily orients its art around a theme.  The theme for 2016 is "Gratitude".  In the introduction to the calendar, I find:

Most of us in the western world live in the land of plenty -- the land of milk and honey -- overflowing with resources, freedom, opportunities, and beauty.  it is a smorgasbord of delights. . . . On a daily basis, if we listen to constant talkes of woe and suffering (which are never ending in the media) we can lose sight of all we truly have to be grateful for in our lives.

But . . .

Ears to hear your favorite music, feet to dance, eyes to see the beauty of the sunset, hands to hold, people to cry and light with, a roof over your head, work to make us think, freedom to believe what you want. These are just some of the great graitutdes we all share.

 Winter Solstice resolution time? New Year's resolution time? How about:  "Reject those who would play upon your fears that the darkness will continue; that we live lives of scarcity; that we need live in fear of the other." Instead, "Hold to the good in all. Accept and promote the hope of increasing light. Say "thank you" to someone or Someone multiple times daily."
       Let there be light!


Friday, December 11, 2015

What you read may be hazardous . . .

   One of the responses to the recent tragedy in San Bernadino, California, was a now-almost-expected backlash against Muslims/Islam.  The most bloviated, bigoted, ignorant, abhorrent version has come out of the mouth of one of the presidential candidates (email me if you want to know how I really feel).  But there have been less publicized, although no less horrible examples.  That acknowledged, there has been at least one rather clever response to the claims that Islam is, at root, a violent religion. Reported on social media, and then picked up, and reported on, by the Washington Post was the experiment in Holland where folks on the street were read violent, disturbing, sexist or "outmoded" passages of a "scripture."  The experiment showed that the vast majority of those queried attributed the selections to the Quran.  The underlying problem, of course, is that the passages were from the Bible.  The Post reflected that "The point made in the video is that our personal biases and surface judgements can cloud how we understand something we are unfamiliar with".
       Unrelated, at least at root, another national publication, Christianity Today, recently published the results of a survey on what might happen if people read the Bible frequently, and unmediated by an outside "authority".  Their findings, and the title of the article, was "Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal".*  For readers of this newsletter who are unfamiliar with Christianity Today, it does NOT have the reputation of being a "liberal" Christian publication.  I suspect that there were some within the organization who were leery of publishing the results!
       I am not, at all, trumpeting the results of CT's survey; despite THEIR title, not all of the results of "frequent Bible reading" led to "liberal" results (or results with which I might agree).  But the results do show a couple of things about which we, at an academic institution, might take note.  First is the emphasis that many of us (especially in the humanities) place on the reading of primary texts.  That is, it is much more important to read Dante's Inferno, or Pride and Prejudice (without the Vampires), or the Bible than it is to read secondary literature on those books.  But second -- for better or worse, depending on your point of view -- is that interpretive voices, like FOX News/MSNBC, or televangelists, OR popular faculty, can obscure (at the most), or tilt (at the most generous), how those texts are read today.
      As an Episcopal priest, one whose theology is based on a "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, I clearly support the value of bringing historical analysis as well as current thinking to the reading of Scripture.  But the base is the "reading of Scripture".  We all need to know our sacred texts; we need to know what they say.  We cannot simply not read selected, limited, texts, nor excise bits with which we disagree (a tendency, for example, of both liberal AND conservative Christians). We cannot ban books because they are problematic to our current sensibilities.  We have to be aware of what they say, or what they might have said to their original audiences. And we have to grapple with them in our current context (that's the "Reason" part of the afore-mentioned "three-legged stool").
       Only then, I would assert, with a sound grounding in our sacred texts, can we start to speak about "liberal", "outdated", "conservative", or other convenient labels that might dismiss a dissenter.  Our task as educators, and/or as people of deep faith, is to equip others with all of the tools necessary to make meaning in this complex world. Maybe then we can do a little bit to decrease the amount of time prime-time news or Facebook spend on religiously-attributed violence, or those who would use tragedies for financial/political advantage.



*The full text of the Christianity Today article is available here, BUT one needs a subscription to read it all.  An analysis by another "publication", with pointers to other articles/surveys can be found here.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

It's more than a really ODD tree!

      This morning, I was reading the book of the Hebrew prophet Amos, specifically verses 18 - 27 of chapter 5.  In this section God (through the prophet) is excoriating the ancient people of Israel for the careful attention they pay to all of the externals of their religious tradition (pilgrim-feasts, sacred ceremonies, grain-offerings, animal sacrifices, etc.) while neglecting the ethical commands of that same tradition. The famous verse from this passage reads:  "Let justice flow on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing torrent" (5.24, Revised English Bible).  I found it slightly ironic that I was reading this passage after spending a week traveling around Denver and Colorado Springs looking at religious buildings (i.e., some of the "externals").
      I was teaching a one-week class called "Angels in the Architecture".  My students and I, over five days, visited twelve different locations.  In addition to the visits, we read websites and/or listened to podcasts that introduced the religious tradition the sites represented.  Our goal was to learn how the building reflected the tradition and its community, as well as how it formed the community in the tradition.  We visited:
Mile Hi Church (Religious Science)
Denver Baha'i Center
Hindu Temple of Colorado
Masjid Abu Bakr (the "Parker Rd Mosque")
Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church
Temple Sinai
University Park United Methodist Church
Mountain View Friends Meeting
New Life Church (Colorado Springs)
US Air Force Cadet Chapel (Colorado Springs)*

The various structures all did a pretty good job of "telegraphing" (to those who understood their various "codes") what the traditions believed:  the mosque was oriented so that the attendees would face Mecca while praying; in the Episcopal church the Books of Common Prayer-a distinctive marker of Episcopalians-were readily accessible to all; the Hindu Temple was filled with multi-colored gods; the Quaker meeting house was almost bare of decoration (only two plants and a sign "Welcome Friends").  So, indeed, we found that there were "angels" in the architecture.
       But almost without fail, our presenters (all members of the traditions) quickly moved from what the buildings showed, to what the congregations did or valued.  Mile Hi's openness to people of all traditions (shown in the art within their worship space) was reflected in the kinds of service they did in the community.  Holy Ghost's beautifully appointed building was always open for private devotion, even though its neighborhood might be considered "rough".  The Academy and its Chapel were constructed in such a way that the academic enterprise was humbled by the Chapel, which in turn was humbled by the majestic mountains to its west.
       In some respects this "movement" from sacred space to committed action was most apparent at New Life Church. On the back walls of the huge worship center were hung the flags of the nations.  One visual cue was that the congregation was to remember the world, pray for its inhabitants, and to serve them all.  There was a conscious decision on their part to orient the cross on the top of their building towards Colorado Springs, as a symbol/reminder where their main work should be focused.  And their ministries and missions to the people of Colorado Springs were impressive -- the funeral of slain UC-Colorado Springs officer Garrett Swasey would take place there just an hour after we left.  But it wasn't just sacred symbols or sacred spaces where the architectural "angels" were active.  The funky tree in the photo was erected in the stairwell leading to the elementary childrens' area.  The care the congregation put into the decorations of that area telegraphed to the children that THEY were important--that as much, if not more, care was directed at them as their parents.
       The "take-away" for me this week was that the externals -- the "angels in the architecture" -- were indeed VERY important.  They spoke volumes, both in support of the tradition, and against it.**  But what was even more encouraging was that the folks who walked by those angels every week or so were challenged NOT to leave their piety there, but to take it out in service to the wider community.  The "better angels" of each tradition accompanied the people out as they worked to "let justice flow on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing torrent".



* For those readers who've not been to the Academy Chapel, it was built to house three worshipping traditions:  Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.  Since its completion, a Buddhist Chapel has been built/furnished, and a Muslim space is under construction. In addition, there is an "Earth-based traditions" site, up a hill to the west of the Chapel (which we also visited).
** The contentious congregational discussions about whether or not the American flag should be displayed in some of the worship spaces was just one example!