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.