Friday, December 30, 2016

Remembrances of Things Past

      Over the last few days, I've been in Portland, Oregon cleaning out my mother's storage unit. It was not a solitary task; I was joined by my wife, a nephew and his two grown kids. Going through boxes and boxes of kitchen items, medical records, old trays of slides and clothes was "a task".  Some of the things I hadn't seen for decades (I had hair in high school!). But as we decided what to keep and what needed to go to charity, we found plenty of things that had stories behind them. And it wasn't even "things" that had stories. My grand-niece asked of us all, "Does anyone else think that the whole storage facility smells like Mor-mor?"* So whether aromas, old snapshots or holiday-related kitchen utensils, we had cause to remember a LOT.
        Sure, the memories weren't always the best, or most flattering. While, as a son, I could recall wonderful family vacations, I could also recall those times when I needed, well, "correction". And although road-trips to the Oregon Coast or Mt. Hood were usually enjoyable, the rather odd "tradition" of having our picnic on the hood of the car--whether windy or rainy (almost the norm in Oregon)--has become somewhat of a family joke.  But those experiences, and the memories of them--especially as evoked by physical objects, have had a role in making me and my companions this week the people we are. And those shared experiences bind us together.
       As I thought about the stuff in the back of the truck as I drove to the charity, I realized how much of our religious traditions are rooted in memory. As I write this, we are in the middle of Hanukah, a celebration recalling a miracle that happened over 2000 years ago. So many of the surahs in the Quran that from the time that the Prophet was in Mecca stress memory (i.e., "remember what happened to these people") as a foundational necessity. In the Christian traditions surrounding the Holy Communion/Eucharist/Mass, the phrase "remember me" (i.e., Jesus) occurs frequently.
       I am often struck by the fact that our sacred texts often recall our ancestors' "falls from grace". That is, they contain accounts of when our forbearers-in-the-faith were not quite so "faith-full". Certainly, those stories may be re-told as "correctional tales". But they also highlight that, at any point of the human journey, even the the best of folk fall short of expectations. Even remembering that can provide some hope.

        Memories, good and bad, enjoyable or disastrous, recent or ancient, help form and re-form us as individuals or groups. At our best, we learn from them and move forward. As we stand on the cusp of a new year, we have an opportunity to take stock of many memories of what has brought us to this point, and to imagine how we might use THOSE memories to fashion a brighter future


* "Mor-mor" is the Swedish term (since my mother was Swedish) for "mother's mother" - in THIS case, for my niece's grandmother's, mother!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Awake My Soul

Awake My Soul-Mumford & Sons from Scott Wright on Vimeo.

       Two weeks ago, I finished teaching my Fall Interterm course "Angels in the Architecture" at DU. This is a one-week "Intro-to-world-religions-through-their-buildings-in-Denver" course. Over the five days, we visited thirteen different worship sites, from Buddhist to Greek Orthodox, Hare Krishna to Quaker. As had been the case last year, when I taught it the first time, it was a whirlwind, but also such a rich week of conversations with the presenters at each site, as well as with the students.*
       At the beginning of this week, I finished those "conversations" with the students -- that is, I finished reading/grading their final papers. Since the course is only partially about content, but more about how they experience the context through the buildings, assigning grades is difficult. It is made even harder because the experiences are so varied and the papers so personal. Many of the students, when asked by the presenters, were pretty vague about their religious affiliation. Some said they were just curious, others that they were "spiritual but not religious." That said, only one (out of eight) was brought up with no religious background. In other words, about 60% of the class had moved (some more forcefully than others) from the religious traditions of their birth . . . but yet took the class!
      What surprised me, then, as I was reading their final papers (which demanded quite a bit of personal reflection and interaction with the places/traditions we had visited) was how much at least ONE of the traditions appealed to the students. It wasn't the same tradition, and it certainly didn't suggest any kind of "conversion" on their part. But they were taken be either (or both) the buildings/practices or beliefs of at least one religious body . . . and in many cases it was quite different from how they'd been brought up.
       Certainly there can be many reasons for this. Some may have come from very rigid belief systems. Others from overly demanding religious officials/clergy. But I think there was something different, and that idea was sparked when I ran across the video linked above. I was searching for something quite unrelated, but this came up in the Google Search list, and I thought, "Hmmm.  Mumford & Sons on "Awake My Soul"! So, a click on the link, and I was taken to Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
        The video linkage between the lyrics and the photos was, to me, quite profound. Scott Wright, who put it together, seemed to capture a longing for a connection with something quite a bit larger than could be reduced to "truth" or "lies". That same "longing" came through in subtle ways in many of the papers I read earlier this week. And I think it is true for most of us. We are searching for something that will awaken our souls. This image may hold certain currency this month for Christians anticipating Christmas, or Jews marveling at the miracle behind the Hanukah lights, but it is not limited to those traditions, or this season.
        In whatever darkness, or uncertainty, we find ourselves, we long for our souls to awaken.
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker 

*Here is a
link to last year's refection on the week.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"It's not you!"

     It was Thanksgiving Day morning, just a couple of weeks ago. We were hosting another family -- actually the parents were the first couple at whose wedding I officiated. They live in Boulder, and we've seen them off and on over the years we've been in Colorado. As is often the case when guests are expected for a holiday meal, there are many last-minute details that need attention, some small, some less so. Some aren't absolutely necessary, but desirable.  Of course, "desirable" to me implied "necessary". And, so I got serious, and donned my "get-it-done" hat.
      Putting on THAT particular hat, however, has its downside. I become so focused on the tasks at hand that my mood, my demeanor, changes. At root, of course, is my desire is to extend gracious hospitality. It is up to me to make my guests' experience top-notch. But I find that, instead of gladly anticipating guests, I begin to resent anything that might stand in my way of accomplishing my chores. And what seemed to "stand in my way" were often family members.  Harumph!  How dare they!
      Fortunately (although I wouldn't have characterized it that way at the time), my wife called me on my mood. She confronted me and demanded to know what was wrong . . . and she made it clear that I needed to calm down and shape up.  It was the "slap upside the head" I needed. And while my attitude didn't immediately change, I moderated my external focus long enough to turn the gaze inward.  By the time the homemade ice -cream was done, the bathrooms cleaned, and I was just about finished washing the windows, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I began to relax. When our friends arrived, I was ready to put on my "host' hat, and we had a lovely Thanksgiving.
      The events of that morning returned to my mind the other day as I heard Fr. James Martin, S.J., in an interview, recount a piece of advice that had been given him:  "I have good news, and I have better news.  The good news is that there is a messiah.  The better news is that it's not YOU." I certainly hope I don't have a "messiah complex", but there are times when I can feel that if I don't "do it", "it" won't get done, and that would be "bad".
       We are coming into that time of year when many of us find ourselves in a similar place. We need to buy the "perfect gift". We need to provide the "most wonderful meal". We have to make up for Uncle Horace's inappropriate behavior. We have to apologize for Cousin Ethel's strange muumuu and bathroom slippers at the neighborhood New Year's Eve party.  But WHY do we need to do that? Who, really does that help?
       Maybe it would be better to recall that any gift is "perfect"; any meal served to another is "most wonderful". Maybe it's simply good to be glad that Uncle Horace and Cousin Ethel are still at the table. Maybe it's good enough just to do what I can, with a glad and gracious heart, recognizing that I'm not the messiah.


Friday, November 25, 2016

       Most of us grew up, I imagine, hearing some variation of the proverb, "You'll never understand another person until you've walked a mile in their [footgear]". One of the implications, of course is that we are pretty much conditioned to look at the world through one set of lens -- our own. When we encounter someone doing something we don't like, an almost automatic response is "I'd NEVER do that! How stupid/rude/clueless/etc.!" Of course that other person might look at us and say (to themselves), "Why don't THEY do what I just did?? They'd get ahead/be more successful/be better looking/etc.!" So the proverb, quoted to many of us by our parents (or other authority figures) was generally intended to hep us broaden our perspective, and, perhaps, to increase our compassion.
       I heard a slightly different version of this proverb in a "Tapestry" 
interview between Mary Hynes and Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa was a one-time Tibetan Buddhist monk who has acted for a long time as the Dalai Lama's chief English-language translator. In the course of the interview, Jinpa mentioned that he wished someone would start a "Just like me" campaign. When pressed to explain, he said that if more people, when encountering another, would say to themselves, "Just like me, she wants three meals a day." or "Just like me, he wants to be loved." The suggestion, of course, is that by speculating that another's motivations, at base, are not much different than our own would create a bit more empathy.
       I must admit that, as I listened to the interview and thought about a "Just like me" campaign in the context of the times in which we are living, I was initially pretty skeptical: "Those politicians are "NOTHING like me!" But, then, my childhood training re-asserted itself, and I recognized that I had NOT walked a mile in their Tevas/Crocs/Bostonians . . . nor had THEY walked a mile in my Topsiders/New Balances/cycling shoes. And, then, I recalled a realization from my graduate study days, while taking a class on "Heresy". It occurred to me, while reading the writings of the so-called "heretics", that none of them got up one day and said to themselves (or anyone else in ear-shot), "Today, regardless of consequences, I'm going to be wrong!" On the contrary, I'll bet they got up that fateful day thinking, "I have a better solution to a knotty problem than those other folks." [It just happened that the "other folks" often had more "power' in their corner -- either by dint of numbers or imperial support, etc.] The point being that both the orthodox and the heretic were struggling to answer the same problem/issue/question; something in their make-up and/or past led them to walk down divergent paths.      Jinpa, I think, is on the right track. He said he was waiting for someone to start such a "Just like me" campaign. I don't think, however, we need wait.  We can, in the words of another, footwear-related, campaign: "Just do it" ourselves. Now.


*He left the monastic life some time back and is now married with children, living in Canada.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thanks . . . giving; thanks . . . taking

      Next Thursday is "Turkey (or Turducken, or Tofurky) Day". Depending on whether or not you stretch the season to include (or begin with) Halloween, Thanksgiving is the traditional start of "Holiday Season". For many, that season begins with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a lot of football, and, or course, a LOT of food.  On that day, the music on certain radio stations will switch from "Top 40's" to seasonal music . . . for which some people give thanks (and others change the button in their car radios 'til after the first of the year).
      Of course, Thanksgiving is that day when we are counseled to take the time to reflect on how much we have been blessed. We recall with gratitude family, friends, successes, and good-fortune. Some of us will attend special services of worship. Others will translate that sense of "blessing" into service for those less fortunate by serving at a soup kitchen or something similar.
       Then comes "Black Friday", the beginning of the shopping season. (It has been pointed out that there is a certain irony about spending one day being grateful for how much we have, and then, the next day, heading out to acquire more). Black Friday is followed by "Small Business Saturday", and then (giving Sunday a rest), "Cyber Monday." How quickly "thanksgiving" becomes "stuff-wanting" and "things-buying"!  I must say I'm grateful to those companies -- starting with the example of that set by R.E.I. -- who will keep their doors locked on Friday, and encourage their employees to TAKE a break from the freneticism of the "season", spending an additional day with friends and families, and (in the case of R.E.I) being outdoors.
       That suggestion, or example, it seems to me, is especially warranted this year. It has been a rough bunch of months in so many ways; to add finals to that seems to pile insult on top of injury. And, while some might subscribe to the notion "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping," I like to think that taking a break from ALL that is "usual" might be a better response.  There is much to be said for the concept of "sabbath" regardless of one's religious tradition.
      Above is an image with fifty suggested ways to "Take a Break".  For the last several years, I have posted this several places around the DU campus when breaks in the academic calendar occur. I almost always receive a note of appreciation. And so I thought I'd add it this particular newsletter at this particular time, with the hope that some/many of the ideas may resonate and provide some means of respite over the next several weeks.       Give thanks . . . and take a break! The world will be waiting for our return. But perhaps, we'll return renewed.


Friday, November 11, 2016

For everything, there is a season

     Twenty-five years and three weeks ago, my wife and I watched the television with horror from North Carolina as the hills to the north and east of Oakland, California burned.  We had lived within a mile of some of the scorched earth only five years earlier. We knew people who were evacuated. In the end, "the fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (620 ha) destroyed, included 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion."* My wife and I returned within several months to the Bay Area for a visit.  The devastation was clear. Chimneys were the only remnants of nice homes. The air still smelled of burnt wood and grass. It was heart-breaking.
       Five years after the fire, we returned again, this time (semi-)permanently, as I took a job working with the university community at UC-Berkeley.  We ended up living less than a mile from our previous home. So, once again, we were constantly traveling through the area that had been burned-over. As one might imagine, it was quite different. It was clear that the environment worked to repair itself. "Wild" parcels of land gave evidence of new growth; wildflowers bloomed. In addition, replanted vegetation had that "fresh" look, and was quite smaller! New homes looked little like their predecessors (mostly they were larger!). What was most significant, however, was that, both with the new construction and with those homes that had survived the fire-storm, there was a wide swath of cleared land surrounding each building. As is the case with many Colorado homes in forested areas now, the trees and brush were removed to help create a "fire-free zone". From the disaster that was the fire, the residents of the Oakland hills learned both how to work WITH the environment, as well as what might be done to prevent a future conflagration on the same scale.
         Almost every year at this time, I recall that fire and its aftermath. This year, the memory coincided with my reading of the Hebrew prophet Joel. The short book tells of a locust plague and its aftermath. The account is of complete devastation:

For a nation [i.e., the locusts] has invaded my country, mighty and innumerable, with teeth like a lion’s teeth, with the fangs of a lioness. It has reduced my vines to a desolation and my fig trees to splinters, stripped them and broken them down, leaving their branches white. . . .  Has not the food disappeared before our very eyes? Have not joy and gladness vanished from the Temple of our God? The seeds shrivel under their clods; the granaries are deserted, the barns are in ruins, because the harvest has dried out. Loudly the cattle groan! The herds of oxen are bewildered because they have no pasture. The flocks of sheep bear the punishment too (Joel 1.6-7, 16-18).

Certainly, in the mind of the prophet, this plague was due in pat to a lack of faithfulness on the part of the people of Judah. The prophet calls them to proclaim a fast and to repent.
Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; you elders, summon everybody in the country . . . Cry out to God. . . . Tear your hearts and not your clothes, and come back to your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and he relents about inflicting disaster. (1.14; 2.13).
The demand to return is directed to ALL of the people, not just some. And, on behalf of God, if they do so, Joel assures the people that things would get better:  

Land, do not be afraid; be glad, rejoice, for God has done great things. Wild animals, do not be afraid; the desert pastures are green again, the trees bear fruit, vine and fig tree yield their richness. Sons of Zion, be glad, rejoice in Yahweh your God; for he has given you autumn rain as justice demands, and he will send the rains down for you, the autumn and spring rain as of old. The threshing-floors will be full of grain, the vats overflow with wine and oil. I will make up to you for the years devoured by grown locust and hopper, by shearer and young locust, my great army which I sent to invade you (2.22-25).
Reading that, I recalled the aftermath of the firestorm in Oakland. The fire eventually burned out, and nature took over (in some cases with human help). The change of seasons (i.e., "autumn rain") move inexorably; the locusts WILL die and the fire be extinguished, and the land will restore itself.
      And, THIS year, the reading of Joel and the recollection of the Oakland fire coincided with the election. It was not difficult to speculate that some, like me, reading Joel and thinking of the fire, might equate the campaign season and election to a locust-like plague, or firestorm, leaving nothing but destruction and despair. And certainly, there is despair and worry, especially for some. Hopes that a glass ceiling might be broken were dashed. There has been talk that our political system has been destroyed (or at least seriously damaged). Some of us have found it difficult to breathe, or get out of bed. People around campus have appeared stunned.       We wonder what the future holds. I can't answer that; I'm not sure anyone can. But I will say that the days AFTER the election were when I read those verses from chapter 2 of Joel. And I was reminded that there is a seasonality to life, to nature. As much as autumn follows summer and is, in its turn, followed by winter and then spring, there is also a predictable "seasonality" to our political system. Regardless of our political leanings, we can learn from what brought about THIS election (much as Oaklanders learned what contributed to the nature of their firestorm) in order to make some corrections prior to the next. And, some of that learning, I believe, will demand of ALL of us the humility suggested in Joel's call-to-repentance. 



Friday, November 4, 2016

A New Ash Fallout

      It is no secret that we are in the midst of some pretty historic happenings (and I'm not just talking about the Cubbies!). Commentators on the right and left are all recognizing that the level of divisiveness in the United States is at a level not seen in generations. The two main political parties are threatened both from within and without (and I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing). Small differences in opinion are magnified to a point where families are divided. We've never seen an election where both major candidates are more disliked than liked. Issues aren't being much discussed. In short, it's pretty ugly.
      It's ugly.  And most of us, I suppose, think that Election Day can't come soon enough. We can't wait for our Facebook feeds to calm down and to return to re-posts of comic strips or cat videos or what someone had for dinner. But, as many commentators are wondering, will Election Day bring closure? Or will it just be a semi-colon in a longer sentence that continues the divisiveness?
      Members of groups that have been targeted either by hateful rhetoric or actual violence experience this in ways that many others don't feel. But the overall atmosphere is painful to all of us.  It's somewhat like being down-wind from a volcano: the lava affects those closest, while the ash-fall can stretch much, much, further. 
In the midst of all of this, the question arises (and is sometimes actually asked):  "How are YOU doing?"

       It was in my experience of this "ash fallout" that a wonderful link showed up in my email inbox. It was to an article entitled "Two words that change a life."  The article tells of the author's experience of handing out "You Matter" cards to people she knows, and, in the first instance, to someone she doesn't know.  In that first instance the recipient was someone in the middle of an incredibly difficult time. The small gesture of receiving a card with those two words on it prompted her tearfully to respond: "You have no idea how much this means to me." The author thought about this and started her own campaign, the You Matter Marathon.
       The article hasn't quite moved me to "run" the marathon (yet). On the other hand, in this "ash-fallout", it did make me wonder if there were little ways we could recognize others' distress -- perhaps even those with whom we might disagree? Because, it seems to me, that despite the fact that so many people around us claim to be members of religious communities, one of the fundamental teachings of almost ALL religions seems to be missing-in-action. Few of us are actually treating "the other" as we would want to be treated. In many cases, we're treating them as we think they deserve to be treated . . .  which, of course, is rarely how WE would like to be treated.
      I confess, I'm not immune to this attitude. It's so easy to get caught up in it. And then, I receive "Two words that change a life", and I'm reminded of my better self (or "higher angel" as we sometimes hear these days). And the words from a song made popular by Michael Jackson start running through my mind:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change*

So, if I ask "How are you doing?", I really want to know. I don't necessarily want to know what you're THINKING about the election cycle, but how you're weathering it, and how I can help. Because "You Matter: more than the election. And maybe I can effect a new ash fallout.


* "Man in the Mirror" by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garret.  Complete lyrics can be found here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

OED ≠ Optimal Explosive Device

      In a conversation I heard this week between Krista Tippett, Eboo Patel (founder of the Interfaith Youth Core) and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Patel spoke eloquently about his upbringing, especially his own experience as a college student. He talked about the passion he developed around racial issues and how avidly he promoted his causes. He confessed to being caught up in binary thinking -- right/wrong -- clear distinctions. He made it clear, however, that he no longer adhered to that way of thinking. He related a much more nuanced way of thinking, using "justice" as an example:

 Justice is another term that we assume everybody has the same definition of. My new line to 20-year-olds who look very chastised when I say this on campuses is, “If everybody in the room that you’re in has the same definition of ‘justice’ that you do — I don’t care how many colors, or genders, or sexual preferences, or religions are in that room — it’s not a diverse room.” Part of the definition of “diversity” is the recognition there are diverse understandings of justice.

       Tippet then shifted the focus to Tretheway, asking her opinion.  And she replied: "I was thinking that what Eboo was saying was exactly right. But for a moment, I longed to be standing in front of my OED with my little magnifying glass so that I could look up that word “justice” again." Whether Tretheway meant it this way, what I immediately thought (after running "OED" past the filter of "IED" --"Improvised Explosive Device") was that recourse to the OED could be seen as a turn to a single authoritative definition of "justice". And, following on that would be the assumption that the correct definition of "justice" could then be used as a bludgeon to use with those who disagreed.
        I'm not very much interested in the conversation about whether or not there is an objective "truth" (or an objective "justice"); competing truth claims rarely get us anywhere. And, so, the appeal to an authority like the Oxford English Dictionary can only be an appeal to ONE definition (or, more appropriately in the case of the OED, an appeal to the history leading to the current definition). We need MORE than that kind of an approach in this fractious time. 
The conversation between Tippett, Patel and Tretheway, it should be noted, did not trend towards a "single definition" -- exactly the opposite in fact. They all pushed for MORE dialog, greater understanding of the diverse opinions.
       Later in the same day that I heard that conversation, I led a workshop at DU on
Appreciative Inquiry. As I went over the "Eight Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry", I could not help but recognize the overlap. Assumption #3 is "Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities"; assumption #7 is "It is important to value differences."
       Appreciative Inquiry is a system, or methodology, for managing change. We know change is difficult (we're certainly experiencing both the change, and the difficulty!). Change, however, is inevitable. And we need to muster all of our resources to negotiate. To move to something new requires all of our voices. But it also requires all of our ears; we need to listen to other experiences, other beliefs, other hopes. We can't afford to let ONE definition blow another one out of the water. 
We must be better, we must be wiser than that.



Friday, October 21, 2016

Well, what do we expect?

    In a wonderful interview* with Krista Tippett of "OnBeing", New York Times columnist and NPR commentator David Brooks tells of an encounter with a group of corporate Chief Financial Officers. His address to them followed his work on (if not publication of) his last book, The Road to Character (Random House, 2015). One of the chapters focuses on Dorothy Day, the social activist and Catholic convert. That chapter was apparently on his mind as he stepped in front of the gathering of (as he describes them) grey-haired white men who had just been discussing all things financial. He reflected (in the interview) that he wondered WHAT IN THE WORLD he would have to say to this group of hard-cored businessmen. Much to his surprise, as he began talking, the room grew profoundly quiet. He discerned that these people were hungry for something that went much deeper than dollar signs, debits and credits. Despite their "success", there seemed to be something missing in their lives that a "holy woman" (in many people's minds) possessed, something that couldn't be bought.
     Brooks' expectations were blown.
     As I listened, my mind was drawn back to several churches I attended when I used to live in California (although I KNOW the situation is not unique to that part of the country). All of these churches were attended, primarily, by very well-to-do people. Indeed, the parking lot of one of them was crowded on Sunday mornings with Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz's, and perhaps a Bentley or two.  CEO's and CFO's, engineers and bankers, filled the pews (much like Brooks' audience). I initially had the sense that this congregation was a place "to see and be seen". And it might have been that.
      It might have been that. And, perhaps, for some it was. But this congregation had chosen, in the mid-1980's, to continue using a particular worship style that employed traditional language -- when most of the rest of the (national) church had gone to a more contemporary style. Certainly one could argue that these were "conservative" people, equating their politics with their liturgical preferences. And, again, for some that may have been the case. But the traditional language that they preferred also characterized the congregation as quite needy and sinful.** That is, as the congregation prayed, they "acknowledged and bewailed" their "manifold sins and wickedness" that they had "grievously committed by thought, word and deed" (The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 331). I would have thought that such a congregation would want to run and hide from such admissions.
       My' expectations were blown.
       Brooks' experience, as well as my own, called to mind that not everything we see (or assume) about people is ALL that there is. Indeed, there is often a public persona that obscures (whether intentionally or not) a private set of desires, needs or fears. In the case of these folks, there seemed to a yearning for something that might provide interior meaning in an externally-focussed, and driven, world. Many of these folks were asking, "How do we deal with success, especially as we're not sure we 'earned' it?" Or, "We've succeeded! But why do we feel so empty?" Or, "We've been given such a responsibility to steward these resources! What if we blow it?" Hard questions, and even raising them may make the individual questioner seem "weak", not knowing "all".       At their best, our religious traditions help answer those questions, and, certainly, earlier generations seemed to understand that. The same understanding, research data seems to suggest, isn't shared by many folks today. But, Brooks, early in the interview, comments that, in his experience, a certain level of dissatisfaction with religion among younger people is countered by an interest in things interior. Affirmation, or building up, too, is sought, in a world that seems to devalue folks. "Affirmation" in connection with an admission of "sinfulness" might be seen as strange bed-fellows. But I think not. We are neither wholly wonderful nor wholly awful. But we do want to be accepted as whole. My suspicion is that the businessmen that Brooks encountered, as well as the church-goers with whom I shared a pew, were looking for a place to find that inner wholeness. And, apparently, it wasn't in a ledger, but a different Book.


* The section in which Brooks relates this encounter is in the "unedited interview" found at the OnBeing website. By the way, the interview is both with him and fellow NPR commentator E.J. Dionne.
** "Sin", while not a particularly popular word these days, figures pretty prominently in the Brooks/Dionne interview!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Those who make them . . .

  The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
        the work of human hands.
    They have mouths, but they do not speak;
        they have eyes, but they do not see;
    they have ears, but they do not hear,
        and there is no breath in their mouths.
    Those who make them
        and all who trust them
        shall become like them.

      These phrases, from Psalm 135 (vs. 15-18), always seem to strike a chord. The critique in the psalm, of course, is directed at Israel's/Judah's neighbors, but also to those within their own communities who might be tempted to follow the lead of those "nations". That temptation stemmed from uncertainty or uneasiness with the way things were going, and no visible, competent, leadership to provide direction or hope. As the saying goes, "Nature abhors a vacuum", and so the tendency was to fill that empty space with something.
       It is easy, in our "advanced" twenty-first century, to look back on ancient peoples with a "pat-on-the-head" semi-condescension. Indeed, for several decades in the mid-to-late twentieth century, there was a belief among many sociologists (in the west) that modernism/secularism would supplant religion entirely. Many of those same scholars are now beating a retreat from that position, perhaps recognizing that the modern/secular positions don't address all of the significant questions people pose about the world and their place in it. On the other hand, we certainly have seen an exodus from organized religion over the last few years.
      That exodus has been analyzed and explained in many different ways -- dissatisfaction with a linkage between some religious groups and conservative politics; horror at a seeming focus on retrenchment in the face of justified criticism (e.g., the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church); disgust in seeing a passion, on the part of some, for raising obscene amounts of money that do little to alleviate significant social problems; and, yes, an acceptance of "scientific" answers to the questions of human origins that come into conflict with scriptural answers. Yet many of those who depart "organized religion" still claim to "believe"; the common phrase "spiritual but not religious" does define many.  And we see them searching for some kind of answers to their longings.
        Many, of course, DO find answers in a secular/humanist world-view, and it is not my intent to criticize them. But I do think that the verses above apply to them as much as they do to people of faith. When we build answers to questions relying only on our own limited resources/knowledge, the answers rarely stretch us to the best of our capacities. The answers of our sacred texts often both inspire and confuse me. The inspiration isn't hard to explain. But WHY would people preserve texts that were critical of themselves . . . unless those texts supplied answers that weren't self-evident.  And those answers rarely looked like the people as they were, but called them to be more.



Friday, September 30, 2016

Lake Wobegon, be gone?

       Long-time listeners of the popular public radio show "The Prairie Home Companion" know that, this fall, there will be a new host. Originator Garrison Keillor bid adieu to the show last July. And it has been announced that his replacement as host will be mandolin-playing Chris Thile. Earlier this week, I heard an interview on Colorado Matters with Thile (the Colorado "connection" is that Thile has appeared multiple times at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival). Thile's taking of the reins of PHC has caused a lot of speculation.  Will he be able to woo millennials to the show? Will faithful listeners (or radio stations) continue to be faithful (apparently some stations are giving the Thile-PHC a one-year tryout). The question raised in the interview that most captivated me, however, was whether or not Thile would retain some of the sketches made famous by Keillor (e.g., "Guy Noir, Private Eye" or "It's been a quiet week at Lake Wobegon, my home town")?       Thile's answer was, "Yes, and no". Certain of the "sponsors" would be retained, such as "Powdermilk Biscuits" (probably because they're so expeditious!). But some of the features have been so much identified with Keillor (or his voice) that they will be left in the archives. Thile's task, along with that of the producers of the show, is to walk the fine line between preserving a hallowed past (PHC is over four decades old!) and a changing listener-base.  In other words, they have to decide whether to curate or create . . . or something in between.
      This artistic dilemma was also pointed out by Guy Mendilow a week ago at his on-campus lecture "Myths, Lies and Truths:  Romanticizing Traditional Culture". Mendilow works with Ladino songs -- songs of the Sephardic Jews, who trace their background to those who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and who made their way across North Africa and through the Middle East to settle in the Balkans. . . . before being largely exterminated in the Holocaust. Some of the songs exist only as texts; others as scratchy field recordings. Most were originally womens' songs. None were accompanied by instruments. Yet Guy and the Guy Mendilow Ensemble perform them with female and male singers, as well as with amazing instrumentation. And Guy raised the dilemma about curation vs. creation: "Do we simply hold tight to, and repeat, the performances of the past? Or do we take their lead into a new future?" The Guy Mendilow Ensemble clearly believes that carrying the past into the future is the best way to honor the past itself.        This dilemma is only a small part of a very much larger debate in our world. Whether it is in the world of religion ("always be literally faithful to the literal sacred text" vs. "be faithful to the spirit of the text in the current situation") or our current political debates (boiled down to the question of whether or not there was some golden age in our history to which we need return), we are torn between holding on to our past while recognizing that our future demands a different response. This response is, what I believe, lies at the root of our university enterprise. Even in (religious) history, or museum-curation, courses, we honor the past by situating the products of those times within those times, while leveraging the messages contained therein to a much different world. This is, I believe, a process of co-creation, and the mission to which I believe we are truly called.
       (By the way, I'll be interested to hear how Chris Thile accomplishes this mission!)



PS:  In preparing to write this, I've learned that the dilemma between creation and curation is being pointed slightly in the other direction (i.e., towards curation, albeit with a twist) in the social media world!  See for example, this article.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Curse you, cursive!

      When I am visiting local congregations -- as a preacher -- there are times when someone will come up and ask if I could send them a copy of my sermon. As ego-stroking as that is, I have to tell them that I don't have a "computer-ready" version. The reason is that I hand-write 90% of my sermons (most of the rest are simply bullet-points). After the shock wears off, they say "YOU DO???  STILL????" And I go on to say that I use a #2 Ticonderoga pencil, kept sharp with a small hand-pencil-sharpener. I have found that composing on a computer (at least given my sermon-writing process) leads to multiple, un-necessary, edits, as well as loss-of-train-of-thought.
       Imagine my surprise when I heard an conversation earlier this week that seemed to confirm my own experience.  Brian Lehrer, a talk-show host with WNYC, was interviewing
 Tamara Plakins Thorton, author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History  (Yale University Press, 1998), and Cheryl Lundy-Swift, National Workshop leader for Handwriting Without Tears.  Both reported on the frequency with which they heard critiques of teaching cursive, and the various reasons that schools were eliminating that skill in favor or either "keyboarding" or "printing". Yet they also presented research that suggested that the act of writing was both quicker and more efficient than the other options, as well as aiding creativity and thought-production! It was this last point that had me patting myself on the back!        So, my personal experience confirmed, I turned my attention back to the interview. What I heard was that three states, two from the deep South as well as California, have passed laws requiring cursive to be taught in the public schools --- in defiance of the move away from that requirement in the Common Core. And the discussion turned to an analysis of WHY those states would take such action. Prof. Thornton's analysis was that the emphasis on teaching cursive (and there have been more than one period where this has been the case) coincides with some deeper social unrest.  In other words, a "return" to cursive is a attempt to re-create a time when things were more cohesive, or simple, or orderly.  Or, the states are using one methodology to deal with a quite un-related problem (at least according to Thornton).        This is certainly not an unusual phenomenon. Over and over again we hear of politicians (on either side of the aisle) who will bury a fairly significant amendment in a piece of legislation. The hope is that the necessary votes will carry the bill -- because it's "important" or popular, and that the amendment will slide along the same track (even though, on its own, it mightn't stand a chance). In a slightly similar vein, historians of the Roman Catholic Church have pointed out that the two "infallible" dogmatic pronouncements made about the Virgin Mary (her Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption)  -- both pronouncements made since the mid-19th century -- coincide with social upheavals in the wider world (the rise of modernism in the first case, and the threat of communism in the second). These historians would argue that a more "conservative" devotion to Mary might counter some of the more "radical" notions pressing on the Church.         Given the significant problems we face in the country/world today, it seems to me that this kind of "smoke and mirrors" way of dealing with problems is quite counter-productive. Not only does it leave the real issue out-of-the-picture; it hides the motivations of those proposing the "solutions."  And, it suggests we don't have the social capital to have honest conversations about matters of significance -- and that may indeed be the case.  If it is, we have much more significant things to address, as citizens and/or people of faith, than the merits of cursive handwriting (despite its positive impact on my sermon-writing). And we must sharpen our pencils to sketch out, collaboratively, creative solutions to those larger problems.        Pencils at the ready!  Go!


Friday, September 16, 2016

Undoing excommunication . . . .

      Over the last couple of weeks, one of my favorite interfaith podcasts, "Interfaith Voices", has run a series of segments focusing on people who have left their religious "homes".*  Their reasons are as varied as the religious groups (e.g., Chasidic Judaism, Fundamentalist Mormonism, Westboro Baptist Church, etc.). One thing, however, was somewhat common (although not entirely so): once they left "the nest", they were shunned, or disowned.  In the case of one of the individuals, he was, in many respects, cast entirely adrift; he had no skills, no money, no connections.  The stories of many folks (whether profiled in the series or that I've heard elsewhere), speak of the sense of loss they experienced, even as they reveled in the freedom they had found.
       This got me thinking about the power of community, or, on the flip-side, the powerful threat of exclusion from community. "Excommunication", often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, has its counterparts in almost every religious tradition -- see the
Wikipedia article! And, of course, it's not solely a religious phenomenon; think "political exile". The reasons for "casting out" differ widely -- some are moral/ethical, others are doctrinal (political). Regardless of the reason, there seems to be an underlying assumption that individuals are more likely to conform than to risk the "punishment" of exclusion. To lose the structure, the fellowship, the support of the community is, for some, a proverbial "fate worse than death." (Indeed, in some traditions, exile/excommunication implies not being able to be buried in "hallowed ground" -- the exile is eternal.)
       So, where are we on this "community" thing? Questions have been raised for quite a few years about the breakdown of communal bonds. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001) is just one example of the critical eye that has been trained on the seeming dissolving of our community bonds. More recently, numerous articles** have chronicled the increase in loneliness, despite an increase in the ways we are connected (i.e., through social media). We see reports of people making plans to spend time together -- and then that translates into them sitting at the same table, each working furiously on his/her own phone, one on Snapchat, the other on Twitter.
       I do not stand outside of this phenomenon! I, too, spend (probably way too much) time on my electronic devices. And there are times when I sense a greater sense of understanding and connection with folks on particular Facebook groups than I do with other organizations where I have face-to-face interactions. I suspect that a reason is that the FB interactions are more "frequent" than a once-a-month club meeting. Yet the regular interactions with folks around the state/country/world don't necessarily translate into support when the going gets rough.
    Research, however, clearly points to the need for re-connection. And it's not just to re-create, or re-inforce, a social fabric that implies that we need to rebuild community. As the books/articles point out, there is an incredible increase in the phenomenon of loneliness. And loneliness translates into a host of other problems, from mental health issues to physical health issues.
        The fracturing of community must be reversed! The Jewish mandate of tikkun olam -- the repair of the world -- is incumbent upon all of us, but not just in terms of environmental or justice work. We must do all we can to repair and restore community, to seek out and build strong relationships with one another that will provide support doing those rough patches. We know the power of community. May that knowledge translate into the will to build and maintain those bonds.



* Last week's episode is here; this week's, here.
**  See for example, this Independent article from last year.

Friday, September 9, 2016

      Father Cassian Folsom leads the monastic community at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia/Nursia, Italy.  While Norcia was the birthplace of St. Benedict, the founder of western Christian monasticism, until a few years ago, there hadn't been a monastery in his home town since the early 1800's. Fr. Cassian was picked to re-establish the presence. In this interview, Fr. Cassian talks about how the townspeople have welcomed them back, trust them, and enjoy the beer that the monastery produces.  He also talks about how those who've been diagnosed with cancer have come to confide in him, as he, too, has had that experience.
       The interviewer, Judy Valente, asked Fr. Cassian, "You’ve dedicated your entire life to seeking God, to service to others and to God. Did you ever feel, 'Gee, I deserve a little better than two diagnoses of cancer, a serious cancer?'” To which he answers, "It’s just a part of life, that’s all. I would say this: we can look at death as a thief or a messenger. A thief comes and steals what is most valuable to us, and so we’re afraid. A messenger who comes to tell us that our beloved is at the door, we respond much differently, don’t we? So that’s the kind of choice we have to make. Is it a thief or a messenger?"  And he observes, "As anybody who is diagnosed with cancer, it changes your life. I think it has given me greater patience, greater tolerance, looking at things from a 'not everything matters as much as you might think it does'.”
        Later on the same day that I heard that interview, Tim McGraw's song, "Live Like You Were Dying", came onto the radio.  I was surprised to hear it, since I'd never heard a "country" song on the station to which I was listening. So I guess I listened a little more closely, and the lyrics so much seemed to echo Fr. Cassian:

 I spent most of the next days
Looking at the x-rays
Talkin' 'bout the options
And talkin' 'bout sweet time"
I asked him
"When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How's it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what'd you do?"

He said
"I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denying"
And he said
"Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying"*

        This meditation is not meant to be a sort of "downer" at the beginning of a new academic year.  Nor was it occasioned by anything other than the coincidence of hearing these two things on the same day.  Quite the contrary!  At the start of any endeavor, such as a school year or a career, I try to hold in mind one of Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People":  Habit 2 "Being with the end in mind".  That maxim often helps me stay on track, to avoid "mission creep" as I develop my agenda, or work on a paper/sermon. But, at the beginning of a school year, especially in light of Fr. Cassian's and Tim McGraw's "meditations", I think it's important to keep in mind that our focus on one "end" (i.e., finishing a paper or finishing school or getting the "perfect" job) can keep us from another, maybe more important:  making beer, or "Rocky Mountain climbing", or loving deeply.
        All the best for the coming months!



* Taken from  The official music video can be found here.