Friday, May 27, 2016

Beginning to commence to start . . .

     While not frequent, I've heard grumblings the last few days at DU:  "Parking is impossible to find. The roads are crazy full." But those grumblings are a bit predictable; they happen every year in late May. The reason? Graduation season! Magness Arena, home to DU's hockey and basketball teams, is a favorite venue for many of the Denver area's high schools to hold their commencement exercises. During these days, I derive a lot of enjoyment from walking to the gym, seeing the happy grads in multi-colored gowns, ecstatic (maybe harried) family members carrying balloons and flowers, stopping--and holding up foot-traffic--to take photos. It is a happy time (all grumbling aside).
     It is, indeed, commencement season. In a week's time Magness will be wrested back from the high schools, and DU's own graduation ceremonies will take place.* We will be fortunate to have
Susana Cordova, acting superintendent of Denver Public Schools, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as our featured speakers. But, at this time of the year, many eyes are on the schools that were able to convince the President of the United States that he needed another honorary doctorate. In the past few weeks, President Obama addressed the graduating classes of both Howard University and Rutgers University. Listening to the reporting on those speeches, particularly that at Rutgers, I was struck by one theme mentioned by many who were interviewed. The President exhorted his listeners to remember that things don't happen quickly, to "take the long view" -- but that the time things take does NOT mean one shouldn't be engaged
     The implication of being engaged is dual-edged. There is a sense of hope, a feeling that NOW we can go out and make a difference. That hope is accompanied, I've come to learn through speaking with many students, with a nagging fear that "I'm not ready! I don't want to leave the "cocoon" of school! I don't have all of the skills that are necessary to do the job I've accepted!" And I often find myself telling them, "You're right! But, you'll never be fully ready! That would imply that you know everything now, that you'll never be surprised, that you're done growing." 
       I wonder what a seed would say (assuming seeds had consciousness and were able to speak) as a farmer dropped it into a hole in the dirt? "What am I doing here? This dirt is cold . . . and dirty!  And, wait, what?  Now the farmer is covering me up with MORE dirt? And . . . is that water?  I can add "drowning" to the list of offenses! I wasn't prepared for this! Let me back into the seed packet; at least it was safe there!" And, yet the seed survives. The nutrients from the water and the soil combine with the potential in that seed. The seed begins to transform. Its skin breaks a bit and something unexpected emerges -- a sprout.  And that sprout grows and, soon, emerges from the soil. The nutrients and the water are joined, then, by sunlight, and whole new "thing" appears.       A seed planted in the ground differs immensely, of course, from a newly-minted diploma-holder. The seed, basically, is passive, its potential being influenced and transformed by outside elements. New "diploma-holders" have the opportunity and--I would assert--the responsibility to engage in the act of transformation, both of themselves and the world around them. It may take more time than expected; it may be more difficult than expected. But it is what we would hope, we who send the graduates out. In this, I am reminded of the parable attributed to Jesus:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field;  it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13.31-32)
       May all who begin to commence to start this spring (whether commencing from Magness Arena or elsewhere) become such "trees" that provide sustenance, rest, and shade for a weary and hungry world.



*Of course, the graduation ceremony for DU's Sturm College of Law was held last weekend, as the law school is on a different calendar.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Acting or Transforming?

      At its origin, the word "hypocrite" referred to a stage actor in ancient Greece. An actor/actress "put on" an alternate identity in order, adequately and convincingly, to play the role demanded of them. In such a context, being a "hypocrite" was not a bad thing! But, then, as now, for a non-actor, especially a public figure, to attempt to deceive by being/believing something else is NOT a neutral thing, let alone a good thing. "Hypocrisy", as Wikipedia describes it, is "is the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, esp. with respect to religious and moral beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretense, sham." Harsh, negative, descriptors!
       "Hypocritical" is used -- today as before -- as a (frequently well-deserved) critique of religions and religious leaders. "How can a religion preach love and act so un-lovingly?" "How can your tradition value charity while spending so much money on its own buildings?" "How can you prioritize certain scriptural texts while ignoring others (even in the same book)?" In other words, "Y'all are a bunch of hypocrites!" Those who are thusly criticized often have "answers" (and some of them are good and reasonable). But even the appearance of hypocrisy is usually enough to create a barrier to any further conversation or understanding. It is this real, or perceived, hypocrisy that, according to polls, is driving an entire generation (the "millennials") away from organized religion. (While this has been the case with young people for a long time, it is increasingly the case in the last few decades.)
       What many of these un-, or dis-affiliated people often imply in word and deed is that the traditions that were supposed to provide meaning (at the least) or transformation (ideally) shoot themselves in the foot in their public actions and pronouncements. These folks then find, or create, alternate structures to meet those needs (affiliation, community service, etc.) that are not as susceptible to organizational "posing". Their hunger is great. This problem is recognized by our institutions; few are very apt at correcting it.
       I suppose that's not too surprising, as the "hypocritical" institutions are filled with "hypocritical" individuals. Very few of us reflect our stated values accurately. We look in the mirror and see ourselves as something other than who we are . . . and we hope that others will see our "reflection" rather than our reality. "What matters most is how you see yourself" is a caption often accompanying the picture above. The "captioned" version is generally employed in a positive or motivational manner: "If you see yourself in some ideal way, you'll be able to aim towards that ideal." I understand that. But there is a big difference between recognizing the journey to the ideal and posing as something other than we presently are.
       Religious/spiritual traditions, at their best, must aid the "cat" in becoming something greater. Likewise, we, as people of commitment must be mature enough to set aside our pretense, our own hypocrisy, as we deal with those who seek to grow. We need to challenge false images, inadequate beliefs, harmful actions. We cannot "leave well enough alone". We must not equate mere acting with a commitment to transformation into a new creation.



Friday, May 13, 2016

Care-full conversations



      This last Tuesday, I had occasion to visit the
Radha Krishna Temple here in Denver. It is the home of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISCKON)  -- or the "Hare Krishnas" -- in Denver. I was meeting with one of the resident monks, an anglo who had joined the ISKCON movement during his college years. As we talked, he described the "congregation" that gathers every Sunday evening. It was, he said, incredibly diverse, both ethnically/racially and socio-economically. Different kinds of people, all finding answers to their deepest questions there.  Earlier that day I had gone to lunch at our International House, sitting with students from Vietnam, Nepal and Brazil. They were finding "answers" to another deep need - hunger! - but the casual conversation across nationalities was rich and enlightening.
       Yesterday, Thursday, I was in another "religious building" -- a church fellowship hall -- with a gathering of folks from various religious traditions.  The gathering itself was wonderful, because of the religious diversity (as well as a some racial/ethnic diversity). But, as the meeting was winding down, one of the Muslim members commented that over thirty-five different nationalities are represented at the Colorado Muslim Society (the Abu Bakr mosque on Parker). What an amazing diversity! What an amazing opportunity for people with a common bond (their Muslim faith) to learn from one another.
       Also, this week, I listened to an interesting interview with Sister Jenna, one of the initiators of "Meditate the Vote." The project itself is pretty interesting, but it was Sr. Jenna's description of the genesis of the idea that caught me. She said that she was on a mountain in India with thousands of other people from around the world, and what an awesome/inspiring thing it was to be surrounded by so many different people from different faiths and nationalities.  That called to mind MY experience last fall at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City. It was an "alternate universe" with 10,000 people from around the world, from every possible religious tradition, all committed to one thing:  peace, and religions' role in promoting it.
       I am struck by how often we say we value diversity, but how little many of us actually engage in conversations that cross ethnic/racial/linguistic/religious boundaries. I know that I often need a reason to go outside my bubble; certainly the churches I most often attend are pretty mono-cultural. I confess a fear, or at least uncertainty, that I'll ask/say the wrong thing, or that I'll be put in some other kind of uncomfortable position. That fear is almost always unfounded. Indeed, the opposite is generally the case: I am made to feel quite comfortable. And I come away blessed.*       Fear of the "other" besets us all. And there are many who would play upon that fear, as anyone who reads/hears the news from around the world can observe. But how debilitating is that fear! It prevents us from moving forward -- as individuals, as a nation, as a common humanity. We avoid, or silence, voices unlike ours to our peril. What I heard, or experienced, this week in numerous ways was the value of a gentle interaction between "others", care-full conversations that engendered hope in a world that seems hungry to depart from despair.


* I know that I'm often concerned that I won't know the right questions to ask, that the conversation will go nowhere. I've, fortunately, found a list of GREAT QUESTIONS that are easily malleable to any unusual situation!  They can be found at the StoryCorps website.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Suspicious Minds?

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds*

       When I was preparing for my doctoral exams, I put together a "summary sheet" for each of the books/articles I had to read. It had all the "normal" things one might record when reading:  title, date of publication, summary, strength of argument, etc. I had come to learn, however, that there was another question that needed to be asked, and it often required a bit more thought:  "Whose voice is not represented?" Certainly every author is trying to make a point, and there can be limits imposed by editors as to how much can be written. But it is often helpful to know whether there are counter-arguments. What is left un-said can be as telling as what is said.        I was recalling that experience earlier this week in two, unrelated, contexts. The first was while listening to an interview with Stanford professor Robert Proctor, a co-editor of the book Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance.** Proctor argues that there is often a willful construction of doubt on the part of advertisers, corporations or politicians. He gives examples of the tobacco industry or the climate-change deniers -- those who would create doubt that the negative effects of tobacco or fossil fuels were "real." The implications of this promulgation of misleading or inaccurate information are pretty frightening -- even as we see them employed all around us.       The second situation that brought my doctoral preparations to mind was the monthly book discussion I host. Last Wednesday we read chapters from Robert Gregg's Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.***  We focused on the stories from the book of Genesis about Sarah and Hagar. Gregg's task in these chapters was to tell how the three religious traditions re-told the stories (both in words and in figurative art), re-tellings that served the purposes of those traditions, while omitting or altering portions of the story that may have been "problematic".  
       I had to wonder whether or not Proctor would read Gregg and conclude that agnotology has been around a LONG time! I suspect he would see some similarities, of course, but he might argue that the telling of stories within a group serves to strengthen that group's inner cohesion. That process is a different task than deliberately fiddling with, or omitting, facts to keep outsiders ignorant and, thereby, to influence their behavior in one direction or another.
       Proctor's overall argument was one I found quite compelling, and, as I noted above, frightening. We already are surrounded by "story-tellers" on all sides of the religious and political spectrums. They, of course, are framing arguments that will serve their purposes or strengthen their communities. But in a world where we can often get away with listening only to our own 
group-speak -- whether it's from our "friends" on Facebook, or the cable news channels that suit our political tastes -- we run the serious risk of heading into a future woefully unprepared for what we might face.        It may be heresy to argue with "The King", but I think that if we really want to "go on together," to "build our dreams", we have to have "suspicious minds."


* Elvis Presley, "Suspicious Minds"
** with Londa Schiebinger, Stanford University Press, 2008*** Oxford University Press, 2015.