Friday, December 29, 2017

Be it resolved . . .

      At this turn of the year, I was pleased to be reminded of a meditation by my first professor in seminary, the philosopher/theologian/activist Howard Thurman: "The Growing Edge".

 “Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.

Such is the growing edge. It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men and women have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. Such is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge.”

Therefore, be it resolved . . .

Best wishes for 2018,

Friday, December 15, 2017

Do not go gentle . . .

      Dinosaurs seem to everywhere these days in Denver! Well, not wandering down Broadway or Colfax, of course. But when I open the newspaper or check my Facebook feed, I can be certain I will find an advertisement for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science exhibit "Ultimate Dinosaurs".   An article, "Remember Thornton’s triceratops, “Tiny?” Turns out he’s a another dinosaur entirely" appeared last week in the Denver Post. And just the week before, the Post printed another article about dinosaurs: "Denver Museum of Nature & Science just received its largest fossil donation of more than 6,000 bones".
      All this talk about those ancient lizard-y things seems to raise the on-going question of WHY dinosaurs went extinct?  While Gary Larson's famous cartoon (above) posits one theory, the most widely-accepted theory is that of my friend, UC-Berkeley geologist, Walter Alvarez. In his book "T. Rex and the Crater of Doom" (Princeton, 1997), Alvarez argued, based on the geological record, that a huge asteroid hit the Yucatan peninsula 65 million year ago, and the resulting dust cloud choked out almost all life on the planet. (Alvarez's theory came readily out of my son's mouth when he was in Middle School!) This "Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction" (or KT extinction) was the last of five mass extinctions the planet has suffered, according to geologists.
       Planet scientists and biologists assert that earth is now in the process of going through its Sixth Mass Extinction. The statistics are staggering:  "
Nearly half of the 177 mammal species surveyed lost more than 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015", according to the above-linked article in The Guardian. And that's just among the mammals! Taking into account birds, fish, reptiles and insects, we're losing a LOT these days. And, the more that one reads about it, the more hopeless the situation can seem . . . because we humans are also mammals on the earth, subject to the same pressures!       But is it hopeless? Certainly we cannot bring back all of the extinct species (well, not at least currently, despite what the "Jurassic Park" franchise might suggest). On the other hand, we have an advantage that the victims of the earlier extinctions did not have. Those earlier extinctions were all the result of "natural" causes -- either geological (i.e., volcanic and/or tectonic) or astronomical (as in the asteroid creating the "Crater of Doom") Whatever was alive at those points in our planetary history could do NOTHING to stop, or mitigate, the effects of the extinction.       And, that's where the difference lies. The Sixth Mass Extinction is clearly "our" fault. But, as cell-biologist Bruce Lipton argues, we can address the situation; we have agency. In this podcast, Lipton challenges his listeners to let go of the fear we experience when faced with such a looming catastrophe, because we are NOT powerless. We can bring to bear all of our collective wisdom and experience to make a change . . . if we have the will to do so.       I certainly believe that in the areas of climate change and pollution. But as I thought about it a bit more, the issue of bringing one's will to bear when faced with almost any adverse situation can bring a little hope into a dark space. Dylan Thomas' famous poem says it well:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at end of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I''m not sure it's only those of "old age" who should "rage". The message is appropriate to us all.



Friday, December 1, 2017

Fabricating a Case

       A man went to his lawyer and asked him, "My neighbor owes me $500 and he won’t pay up. What should I do?"
     "Do you have any proof he owes you the money?" asked the lawyer.
     "Nope," replied the man.
     "Okay, then write him a letter asking him for the $5,000 he owes you," said the lawyer.
     "But it's only $500," replied the man.
     "Precisely. That’s what he will reply and then you’ll have your proof!"

     This joke showed up in my inbox yesterday. It's funny (at least to me) on so many different levels.  But it also, to me, highlights a fairly human tendency: exaggerate in order either (a) to make a point, or (b) to get what one wants. Both of those "reasons" suggest that the "exaggerator" feels somewhat helpless in his/her situation.
     I've been thinking about that phenomenon--dealing with helplessness--over the last week. I had reason to re-read some ancient gnostic texts, and re-do some background checking. Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious movement that arose in late antiquity (and some would stay still exists today). it took on several different forms, on of the main tenets was that there was some kind of esoteric knowledge that, if one was initiated into the fold, would "save" the believer from a future/afterlife peril. When I looked back at the background of gnosticism, and who was most likely to be attracted to it, one of the answers (of course, scholars won't always agree!) was the folks who were already marginalized, mostly socio-economically. Finding refuge in "being in the know" gave them some comfort that their "betters" would not be better off in the age to come.
     The same phenomenon, although spelled out differently, is found in apocalyptic literature in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. "Apocalypticism" presupposes a set of "hidden" facts that are revealed (the root meaning of apocalyptic) to believers, especially about the end of the world. Anyone who has read the biblical books of Daniel or Revelations will recognize that the "underdog" (primarily a religious minority in a repressed situation) will come out the "winner" at the end of the age, and that the oppressors will get their just desserts (usually burning in hot lava forever). Again, believing this way provides some comfort for those found in trying situations.

     It seems to me that we're seeing the same phenomenon playing itself out again. Only this time rather than appeal to some special, or recently revealed, hidden knowledge, we're seeing exaggeration to make a point. And here I would point to conservative Christians in the U.S. who are claiming that they are the most persecuted group in the country. Alan Noble, in an article in The Atlantic, "The Evangelical Persecution Complex", points out many of the problems of this position. One of the "results" is that "Being a 'loser' in the world's eyes for Jesus [is], paradoxically, cool". They may believe that to be the case, but, as is/was the case with gnostic and apocalyptic beliefs, it does little to change realities. Or, as Valerie Tarico points out, "When we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, then we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see."*
       I've had all of these thoughts swirling through my mind this week as I've been teaching my interterm course "Angels in the Architecture", where I take a group of students to a dozen different places of worship, from Buddhist to Orthodox Christian, New Thought to Krishna Consciousness, Protestant Christian to Jewish. The students always come from a variety of backgrounds, but few have ever been into the kinds of buildings we visit, or talk with members of those congregations. As they do, barriers of misunderstanding are clearly broken down. My hope is that they, once the class is over, will not have to find refuge by fabricating a false truth, or a false hope, but that they'll seek out diverse points of view in order to find a common, better, solution to the problems that face us all.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Identifying the true beast within

     This past Tuesday I participated in two, seemingly unrelated, programs. The first was a book discussion on Blair Stonechild's The Knowledge Seeker*. Stonechild is a Cree-Saulteaux member of the Muscowpetung First Nation, and his book is an account of his life-long rediscovery of his native spiritual traditions, from his boyhood at the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan to his current position as Professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada. His description of indigenous spirituality begins with, what he calls, the "Great Principle":  "that we are really spirit beings who are on a physical journey as humans" (p 49). And, while humans need to experience what physicality implies, "deep inside, humans yearn to reconnect with their spirit origins" (pp 51-2).  
      The key is "re-connection", or in other words, re-gaining harmony --  harmony with Spirit, with others, and harmony within one's own self. The various mechanisms by which this is achieved are all of the rituals often associated with native traditions:  prayers, sweat lodges, vision quests, etc. Stonechild recounts how the arrival of the colonists interrupted (and, in many cases sought to destroy) this set of traditions by which so many generations of people had found meaning and connection.

      Later that day, I attended a program on Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. Professors Andrea Stanton (Religious Studies) and Sarah Pessin (Philosophy, and Center for Judaic Studies) both addressed the fear-based reactions of a religious-majority culture to (in this case) religious minorities. What distinguished their two accounts was the location of the threat. In the case of Islamophobia, Stanton argued, the threat was seen as coming from without:  immigration is allowing the "threat" (i.e., Muslims) into the country.  On the other hand, Pessin argued, in the case of anti-Semitism, the threat was seen as arising from within, from a people that appear to have assimilated, but will never really be "of" the majority.
       I was struck, as I went home that evening, how the two events raised issues of dis-ease/disease. To follow the medical analogy, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are based in the theory that there is some sort of "invader", whether from without or within, that is weakening the body (politic). In other words, it is "germ theory". Contrarily, disease in native traditions is a matter of being out-of-harmony. And, in this, there is great consonance with ancient Greco-Roman theories of health (i.e., the humours), as well as Chinese traditional medicine (i.e., restoring and balancing Qi).
      In the west, "modern" (i.e., western) medical theories are part of the "air" we breathe. As Stanton's and Pessin's lectures showed, they can even inform how we might interpret political and social realities. I wonder, however, whether our constant search for an "invader" prevents us from the kind of search for the disruption, and then restoration, of our internal harmony. Are we so encouraged to search for, and demonize, the alien that we are blinded to the beast within? Or are we simply too afraid to look within? And, without that introspection, are we the weaker for it?



* The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality (University of Regina Press, 2016).

Friday, November 10, 2017

Hear? See? Speak!

    Yesterday I was having lunch with a group of fellow clergy-folk, but from different traditions (Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian).  While the topic of conversation was NOT sermon-giving, during the course of the conversation the subject came up. We pretty much all agreed on two (dirty-little-clergy-secret) points:  (1) most clergy only have one or two sermons; we just work to repackage them for different occasions; and (2) most clergy preach to themselves, that is, telling themselves what they need to hear (and hoping the some in the congregation will identify).  Put those two points together, and it would appear that we need to tell ourselves the same thing over and over again.        And I was reminded of an old joke about a congregation that had called a new pastor. The first time the clergy-person preached, the sermon was well-received and compliments were bestowed. The following week there was a bit of consternation on the part of the congregation when they heard the same sermon! But many attributed it to the new pastor's being busy getting oriented, and not having time to prepare a new sermon. But, the following week, when they heard the same sermon for the third time, some of the congregation's leaders went to the preacher and said, "We've noticed that you've preached the same sermon three times in a row. That was not quite what we expected when we hired you. Can you explain?" The preacher responded, "Well, in the sermon I suggested that there might need to be some changes in y'all's behavior. I haven't noticed any improvement, so I had to assume that no one really listened, and I needed to repeat myself."
      It seems to me that, over the last weeks and months, we've been hearing the same stories over and over again. The two themes that have been most prevalent have been gun violence -- in particular mass shootings, and sexual predation/harrassment. I really cannot imagine any "normal" person would think that either of these two horrors is anything BUT horrible. But we hear about them over and over again, and little seems to change. Indeed, on some (high-profile) fronts, retrenchment and/or dismissal seem to be some of the most prevalent responses.      An only-slightly-les-problematic response is the now-cliched "Our thoughts and prayers are with . . . ". I can't help but see that response as a cop-out: "I don't really want to do anything, or take any responsibility, so I'll make it all God's issue." I have significant theological issues with that statement, since I don't believe in a thunder-bolt-throwing deity. On the contrary, the religious traditions I know suggest that humans have responsibility to right wrongs.         That means us, people! When we see evil, we must speak. When we hear evil, we must speak. Over and over and over, and loudly and loudly and loudly.  But we must do more . . . WE MUST ACT. And, if we don't, we're complicit. And we need to hear that sermon over and over.



Friday, November 3, 2017

I'm (not) certain; I'm reformed!

     This past week at the University of Denver, the Department of Religious Studies and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, along with many student group partners, mounted its first Religious Awareness Week. The theme, provided by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses for reform of the Roman Catholic Church, was "Reformations".  There were opportunities for worship, informal inter-faith conversations and learning, as well as more formal, academic, offerings.
      One of the first events was a lecture by Prof. Susan Schreiner from the University of Chicago:  "The Reformation and the Problem of Certainty". I'll admit that I had no idea what to expect. But what I remember most was, to me, an interesting difference of opinion between the Reformers and the Catholic Church on the role of "certainty."  I may not be representing Prof. Schreiner's point entirely correctly, but the Reformers stressed that the believers be certain that their salvation was entirely the product of grace, that they could do nothing to earn it. This was the point of "salvation by faith", i.e, certain trust in the workings of grace." For the Catholics, certainty rested in the teaching authority of the Church. What the Church taught was to be obeyed; through that obedience, one was certain of salvation.
       For either group — the Reformers or the Catholics — the emphasis on certainty left no real room for questioning or doubt; an individual could only place trust in one of the two options. This idea of "no-doubt" seems strange to many of us, and Prof. Schreiner pointed out that most of us often look at the Reformation through "Enlightenment eyes", eyes that are conditioned to look for nuances, rather than settle into strict dichotomies. Given that difference in perspective (Late Medieval/Reformation vs. Enlightenment), she encouraged us to see the disputes between the Roman Catholic Church and Reformers with a little more understanding and patience.        That said, most of us are (perhaps uncomfortable) children of the Enlightenment -- perhaps even the Post-Enlightenment. Popular songs and books/movies speak of "shades of gray" as representative of reality.  Of course, there is push-back. Be it in the form of competing truth-claims about religion, or whether or not something is "fake" news, there are still many folks who take the position "My way or the highway!" This latter, pre-Englightment but purely Reformation-era, kind of thinking is not, in my opinion, going to get us very far in the complex world we inhabit.        I, for one, will follow Luther in "doubting" almost any entrenched "certainty". On the other hand, I refuse to set up another "entrenched certainty" in its place. I have to trust a bit in the power of doubt. That, to me, is a powerful offspring of "reformation."


Friday, October 27, 2017

Green Eggs & Ham?

 "I do not like green eggs and ham, Sam-I-Am!" 
     This fall I began offering a program called "Beans in a Cup". Developed by a former chaplain (The Rev. Dr. Timothy Moore), it is an interactive program centered around religious diversity, both nationally and on campus, as well as students' experience with religion.  It is heavily data-informed, from multiple national and local polls/surveys. Questions range from "How many Americans pray regularly?" to "What's the percentage of students who claim [religion x] as their tradition?" Attendees then "vote" their answer by putting a bean in one of eleven cups ranging from 0% to 100%. Conversation commences with the prompt: "Why do you think that?" Often the answer to that question has to do with limited experience of "the other" (such as "My high school was very mono-cultural").
      In addition to the "percentage" questions, there are also a number of True/False questions. These tend to be less "tricky" (since many of the students reflect the answers). But one question I really love discussing is:  "In general, exploring your faith while, also, exploring and interacting with other faiths makes you less faithful to your own tradition."   The answer (I hope you know) is "False". Again, I always ask "Why do you think that?" when the answer is confirmed. The responses usually center around two main ideas. First, putting one's own tradition in conversation with another often reveals common themes, which can strengthen one's security in their own thinking. And, second, putting one's own tradition in conversation with another can evoke the realization that "Gee, I never thought about it that way!"

       Part of the reason I love asking that particular question is that I have heard, from more than one sector of the religious world (and truth be told, most often from parents), that if students are exposed to another tradition, they might flee "home" and convert. Clearly the data (i.e., the self-reported experience of university students) indicates otherwise! Asking the question, and the resultant discussion, also gives me the opportunity to encourage exploration!

Would you? Could you? In a car?
Eat them! Eat them! Here they are. 

        Today, I am also going to encourage exploration! This evening we begin our first Religious Awareness Week at DU. A dream of mine for some time, we're finally able to offer a wide variety of opportunities for folks to explore something new, religiously. You can worship with Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Bakhti and Muslim friends. You can hear varying perspectives on how different faith traditions have undergone, or are undergoing "reformation". You can recount what kind of personal "reformations" you've experience, religious or otherwise. You can even post your "thesis" for reform on a red door (and see what others think!). A full schedule of events can be found here; you're bound to find something you may like!

Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!
And I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat...
and I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see!
So I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox.
And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse.
And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!
I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!*


*From Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss (1960). Text retrieved from

Friday, October 20, 2017

A True Reality Show

     Sometime in the last week or so a Facebook post hit my "News Feed" that I wish I could relocate! The gist was that the individual had received a box (part of a monthly subscription service, I guess) containing a bunch of random objects . . . as well as a suggestion that the objects be used to create another "thing."  Imagine, for example, receiving a paper clip, a scrunchie, a pencil, a plastic spoon, a foot of braided cord, and a golf ball. The instructions:  "Replicate C3PO".  It reminded me of the reality cooking show -- "Chopped" -- where the guest chefs are given a number of ingredients and told to use them all in the creation of a three-course meal. The winner is the one who can imaginatively put together kit-lats, kale, kumquats, (k)lams, and kool-ade.
      One of the points, it seems to me, of both these exercises is that the "assembler" -- whether craft-er or cook-er -- has to suspend a bit of prejudicial logic and engage in a lot of creativity.  "Who would EVER pair a paper clip and a golf ball?" "Who would cook clams and kit-lats . . . together?"  Yet the assumption in both cases is that
it is possible.  And, sometimes, the outcome is quite amazing (well, at least in some of the menus). Who knew? E pluribus unum!
      As I ruminated on the "craft-of-the-month" and "Chopped", I saw them both as metaphors for our common life. Another, more immediate metaphor -- the human body -- has been used for centuries in this regard. Aristotle, for example, writing of the 'body politic" notes that all parts are critically important:  "since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand."* In the context of the expansion of early Christianity beyond its Jewish roots, the apostle Paul made great use of the metaphor in a letter to the church at Corinth (I Corinthians 12.14-20):

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

It is fairly easy to relate these teachings to our current national sets of debates. We have competing visions of how a "whole" should look, and have had them since . . . well, at least, Aristotle and Paul's time.
       It is easy to look to the larger stage. But I found myself also looking at my daily life. I encounter, over and over again, situations and people NOT of my choosing. My knee-jerk reaction is to discount those that do not conform to my predilections or preconceived notions of "appropriate" or "acceptable". But, if I expand my idea of what might be my "body", I open myself up to some potential growth.  Encounters of any kind, according to process philosophers, inevitably change us. The challenge is to point that change in a positive, fruitful, rich, direction. The challenge is not a box of ingredients that arrives once a month, or on stage in front of the cameras. It is with us all the time . . . a true reality show.



* Politics, Book I, Pt. 2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Annoyance => Curiosity

      October 5th was . . . wait for it . . . Rocky Mountain Oyster Day*! (Well, you may NOT be waiting for it! I'm still not sure if I'll be observing it next year . . .). I had no idea that that was the case until I read about it in the article linked above. And, it seems, there was a good reason. The day didn't become designated as such until THIS YEAR!
      The establishment of a day devoted to this Colorado delicacy was the labor-of-love (?) of Denver Post contributor Allyson Reedy. As a food-writer, she says she got annoyed by all of the "national food days" she was constantly being asked to cover. But, as she told interviewer Ryan Warner in a Colorado Matters segment, that annoyance turned into curiosity -- curiosity about how "national food days" were established. I will leave it to the "curious" reader/listener to learn that process! What really interested me in Ms. Reedy's interview was her transition from annoyance to curiosity.
      My immediate thought was that most of us experience some different sort of transition when faced with an annoying situation/person:  from annoyance to anger; from annoyance to belittlement; from annoyance to avoidance. For some reason, however, Ms. Reedy chose to "lean in to" her annoyance, and transform it. (Note: Ms. Reedy confesses in her interview that, prior to this year's Rocky Mountain Oyster Day, she had never HAD one of the "oysters". So her efforts were NOT based on her appreciation for the delicacy.) Her annoyance => curiosity led her to learn a lot about many things. It was not the same outcome as a dead-end annoyance =>avoidance.

       As often happens for me, listening to the podcast coincided with another encounter, this one with a text attributed to the fourth-century Syrian Christian St. Ephraem: "[Y]our word, Lord, has many shades of meaning just as those who study it have many different points of view."** As I considered Ephraem's words, I mused that the variety of interpretations of ANY word can be both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the negative side, multiple interpretations "mess with the truth" -- at least the "truth" as we understand it. Annoyance here begets, I suspect, belittlement and/or avoidance. I think of the old phrase "America: Love it or Leave it!" -- it all depends on how one understands "America".
       On the plus side, however, multiple interpretations can broaden our understanding. Anyone who has engaged in translating one language to another recognizes that most words in one language resist easy equivalency in another. Translators must make a choice (at least if they want their translation to flow), recognizing that that choice is probably inadequate. Readers may not like the choice and, as above, can (a) belittle, or (b) avoid. Or they can do a bit more digging (c) to find out more of the nuances of the translation; and/or (d) to understand more about the author's stance. Either of the possibilities "c" or "d" can lead to growth of understanding and, perhaps appreciation. Possibilities "a" or "b" will most likely lead to animosity.
        May we learn to translate annoyance into curiosity. (Gentle reader, you may solve the question of Rocky Mountain Oysters in the privacy of your own heart.)



* Yes, for those foodies in the know, it was also National Apple Betty Day -- but that doesn't make for such a good opening line!
** From The Tao of Jesus: A Book of Days for the Natural Year, edited by John Beverley Butcher (Harper Collins, 1984), 334.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Bless who? What?

     Many years ago, when I was in seminary (training to become an Episcopal priest), one of my professors bemoaned some of our culture's practices of "blessing". Certainly clergy are called upon (or empowered) to invoke God's blessing at various significant moments (such as at baptisms or weddings). But, in his opinion, that practice had gone a bit too far. Examples he raised were the "blessing of the fleet", or the "blessing of the hounds" (before a fox hunt) -- "We're blessing dogs to kill a fox?". The particular blessing that occasioned his harangue was that of a grave at a funeral. His comment: "Now they've got us blessing holes in the ground! We're blessing an absence of dirt!"
      Ever since then, I've wondered about the process/practice of blessing -- who is blessing who/what and why? For example, many of us, regardless of religious leanings, might say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes. Why? While the "HowStuffWorks" website provides a good historical background for this practice, the reason I'd always heard was that the respondent was wishing the sneezer well for "sneezing the devil/demon out". But an even more puzzling distinction, at least to me, is the distinction between blessing God for something (many Jewish prayers begin with a blessing of God) as opposed to asking God to bless something (such as the implied request in "God Bless America").
      This "pondering" on my part was occasioned anew recently when I heard that the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops* had its annual gathering in Alaska. While they gathered for a variety of reasons, one chief focus of their time together was to talk about environmental and racial justice. I, for one, am very glad that they were focusing on those issues! And part of what a portion of them did, while there, in line with that focus was to "bless" the land/water.
      Again, I'm very much in favor of their drawing attention to issues of environmental justice, especially in Alaska! (As an angler and environmentalist, I'm concerned about the potential development of the Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, and the impact that mine will have on an amazing salmon fishery.) But I found something a little odd with a bunch of folks "blessing" land/water that, in the words of Genesis, God had already decided was "good" (1.9-10). Yes, symbolic action is important (just consider how the symbolic action of "taking a knee" has taken over the national attention). And I can see that bishops blessing the land/water is a counterpart to other peoples' pollution and degradation of the land/water.
       But I can't help but think that we have the "blessing" thing backwards, especially when it comes to the earth (and I don't just mean Episcopalians or any other people of faith). At least the Abrahamic traditions assert that the earth was blessed by God in creation, and humans are the beneficiaries and stewards of that blessed earth. We continue to be blessed by the earth despite our misuse of it. Perhaps what we really need to do is develop a ceremony of (1) receiving that blessing, (2) repentance of our misappropriation of that blessing, and (3) commitment to honor that blessing. We are blessed by, not those who bless, the land and water.



* Bishops, in the Episcopal Church, are the chief clergy members in a diocese -- a geographical area. The "House of Bishops" is the aggregate of those bishops in the United States.

Friday, September 29, 2017

My Dad Was A Protestor

My dad was a protester. Probably not in the way you think, given the news of the last few weeks (or months). The story is a bit more complicated than that. My dad was a member of the Church of the Brethren. That (primarily German) denomination was part of the so-called “Radical Reformation”, which developed in response to the more mainstream Protestant Reformation of the16th century (other groups include the Mennonites and Amish). They were passionate about following the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Some of those teachings led them to practice “believer’s baptism”, which often implied re-baptism of those folks who had been baptized as infants. They also practiced baptism by full immersion, rather than the more common practice of “sprinkling” or “pouring”. (This practice also earned them the moniker, “Dunkards”.) 
One of their most significant beliefs, however, was that their members should NOT take up arms for any reason, in particular in service of a kingdom/country. This quickly made them personae non grata in the countries of Europe. And they were often given the choice: take up arms in support of the king . . . or die. And many of them chose the latter option. Others fled Europe, which is how my father’s family came to this country (well before the Revolutionary War). And, as I read through my family trees, I find no instance in which a member of that family took up arms on behalf of the United States.
That changed in the 1940’s. My father, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the knowledge of what was going on Europe, became a soldier in the US Army. He went on to serve in Europe in some of the most significant battles after the Normandy invasion. This service was a mystery to me. I had grown up in a church that preached pacifism, and yet my father — a deacon in that church — went off to war. Sometime in my teens, I asked him about his decision/action. His response: “Hitler was different.”
And, so, my dad, the heir of protestors — not just “protestant protesters”, but protestors of “Protestantism”, in effect, protested yet again. The cause was significant enough that he set aside conformity to the norms of his upbringing in order to help bring about some kind of peace and justice in a world that was wrought by war, bigotry and violence.
My dad’s decision is often front-and-center in my mind, but no more so than in these last few weeks. Not only are we again torn apart as a country between those who would protest against injustice/bigotry and those who stand for conformity to a status quo. But many of us, too, have been watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. What struck me over the course of many episodes is how some significant “conformers” (Including those who served in Vietnam by their own choice, as opposed to being drafted) finally became convinced that “something different” was happening, and chose to protest.

Whether it is standing in solidarity with immigrants and refugees (both of which, of course, describe my ancestors), or challenging societal structures that oppress minorities — religious or racial/ethnic, these are acts of “protest” that need be made. I would like to think that my dad would be on the right side of history once again. At the very least, he instilled in his children the belief that protest is a right, and is often, itself, right.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Open signs


    Many years ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, we were part of a couples' group. The group itself was quite mixed in terms of age; we, however, were clearly the youngest and had been married the shortest time, which often meant we had the most to learn from the experiences of others. Harley and Marilyn were one of the other couples. They were the epitome of gracious southerners, often inviting the group to their home for non-scheduled barbecues (I still have Harley's "rub" recipe) or out on their boat for an overnight cruise. But there was one thing I 
anticipated whenever we would get together, and that was their "Open signs" stories.
      Again, this was many years ago, before the ubiquity of the internet-as-distraction. On Saturdays,Harley and Marilyn would frequently just head out on the backroads of North Carolina. Sometimes they would have an "agenda", like "take every second left turn". But almost always, one of their rules was "Stop at every open sign". You can imagine driving the back roads, traveling through small towns (or just wide spots in the road), that the "Open" sign next to the roadside might beckon them into some interesting places:  antique/junk stores; craft shops; restaurants; produce stands (I've got to say, the boiled peanuts they'd bring back were AMAZING!). They would not only see some intriguing sights, but they would get to meet the proprietors--fascinating people. It was an adventure Harley and Marilyn loved taking, never knowing what they would see or who they would meet.
       I was reminded of this yesterday when, in a small group meeting, I was introduced to the poem "From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee. The first stanza reads:
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

In our discussion of the poem, one person in the group asked the question, "Where are the places on campus of invitation?" That "invitation" like the sign painted "Peaches".
        I immediately remembered Harley and Marilyn's practice, and began to wonder how often we take the opportunities afforded us to stop at "Open" signs. I know that I am usually SO busy, SO focused on what I'm doing, or where I'm going, that simply to take the opportunity to stop is VERY unnatural. I think of job duties that allow for little diversion. Or academic major requirements that are so regimented that a "frivolous" elective is unthinkable. Or that never-finished home "to-do" list. Or . . . .        Harley and Marilyn were always enriched by their stops at the "Open" signs. They sometimes likened the surprise of what they found/experienced to a "divine encounter". They were transported beyond their controlled and controllable world to something akin to enchantment.  Their stories taught us of the possibilities.        The "Open" signs are all around us:  open office doors; an engaging book cover by an author we've never read; the neighbor to which we've only ever said "hello" and nothing else; and, yes, a funky gift shop. All may be opportunities for enchantment, or grace. And isn't that something we need a lot more these days?



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Giving in to temptation

     I will admit it:  there are times when I need a pick-me-up. (And I'm not talking about coffee -- or any other beverage.) Life has a way of battering us down. Whether it's bad news (global or national), or simply a bad day, I will sometimes find myself in front of the computer screen, giving in to the temptation to follow YouTube links. There are several "go-to's" on which I can fall back when the energy level is REALLY low (and, of course, there are always cat videos). But most of those "go-to's (including cat videos) usually only seem to "pat me on the head", virtually saying "Oh, poor mama's baby".
      Occasionally, however, I'll follow the line of links. The one that caught my attention the other night was a segment from "America's Got Talent", titled "Anna Clendening: Nervous Singer Delivers Stunning "Hallelujah" Cover - America's Got Talent 2014". Anna (along with her parents) tells the story of her depression and anxiety disorder. But she also gave evidence, by performing on the show, that those conditions would not keep her down.  Her cover of "Hallelujah" brought praise from the judges, and certainly from the crowd.  What I saw, and heard, in her was some inner well of strength; she was able to tap into it and rise above the circumstances . . . and draw others with her.
       From there, I gave into temptation again, and followed the links . . .  and I ended up at a flash mob:  A Little Girl Gives Coins To A Street Musician And Gets The Best Surprise In Return. In a city square, somewhere in Spain, a little girl puts some change in a hat in front of man holding a double bass. He begins playing, and as happens with flash mobs, other musicians emerge from the crowd, or out of buildings. Soon there is an orchestra and choir; it is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". I will admit that I'd seen the video before, so I knew, when I clicked on the link, what to expect. But I saw something this last time that I'd not noticed before. Yes, there is a choir as part of the mob. But the music was familiar enough to the bystanders that, when the singing commenced, some of them joined in (not to mention the children who wanted to help conduct!). There was something very contagious in what the musicians were doing.
        After watching those videos, my mood had lifted a bit.  And I grew thoughtful in a different way. What both videos seemed to suggest was that, through the act of sharing -- in Anna's case, it was her mental health issues as well as her talent, and in the orchestra/choir's case, it was their gift of surprise and uplifting music -- people were drawn together. In Anna's case, it was those who (like Howie Mandel, one of the judges) had experienced -- either personally or through family members -- disabling mental illness, and who could see a bit of hope because of her story. With the flash mob, old memories (like the lyrics of "Ode to Joy") resurfaced when given the chance, and joy and wonder were kindled anew.
       Both videos suggested to me that there is great power in sharing, both in pain and in joy. In both cases, sharing brought support. Anna certainly felt it after her performance, and the orchestra/choir clearly derived more joy in a public square (where there was support) than in a recording studio. Perhaps I ought to give into temptation more often -- not to watch videos, but to share joys/sorrows.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Thick Times

   Harvey . . . Charlottesville . . . DACA . . . Irma . . . Western US Forest Fires* . . . SE Asia floods . . . earthquake/tsunami in Mexico . . . and more . . .
      The chaplain at my daughter's college characterizes this string of events as a "thick time". What an apt image! I think of how I feel while riding a bike on a hard surface and then finding myself in mud, mud sometimes so thick I have to dismount in order to not fall over. These last few days and weeks have that same sense about them. Just about the time I think I'm about ready to get on "pavement" again, something else happens, and forward momentum is arrested.
     Another image that arises for me is that of "exile", being uprooted from one's familiar, safe, surroundings and transplanted, against one's will, into a foreign land. And, when thinking of THAT image, Psalm 137 springs to mind:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of the land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How shall we sing the Lord's song
upon an alien soil?

I sometimes feel, these days, that I am "upon an alien soil" and cannot find any reason or energy  to sing ANY kind of song. And I know many others who feel the same way.
      It is at times like these that we very much need community. While an instinct might be to "go to my room and pull the covers over my head" or simply to lose myself in busy-ness, instead I really benefit from being around people (even as an introvert!). The community that experienced exile in Babylon clearly supported one another, and, as a community they emerged changed and stronger. I believe the same is true for those of us experiencing "exile" in our own time and place. (With apologies to The Beatles) "We'll get by with a little help from our friends."**


* The photo above is of the Columbia River Gorge; I grew up there. The fire is the Eagle Creek Fire; I hiked and camped there. I'm afraid to return, to see what's become of that beautiful place.

** An opportunity to gather with folks wishing to find and share hope with each other will be offered at DU on Sept 20. See the announcement on the Events page of Religious & Spiritual LIfe's website..

Friday, August 18, 2017

What would Robert do?

     Once again, the past weeks' newsfeeds have been filled with horrific images: images of angry people, defiant people, injured people, sobbing people. We've heard cries of outrage from clergy, politicians, activists, military leaders. Many of us have waited in vain for moral and compassionate leadership from the White House. We've heard, and perhaps engaged in, a lot of shouting (or posting in CAPITAL LETTERS). Most of us are hurt by what we've seen in our country, and around the world -- the bigotry, the belligerence, the bellicosity, the blame.
     What we've also seen in the aftermath of Charlottesville are glimmers of some folks' "true colors."  Many who've "toed a line" have been shaken out of their complacency (complicity?) and have stood up to hate. Many who've simply been quiet have found a voice. And, unfortunately, some who've claimed some sort of moral (?) high ground have been shown to be what they were all along: closeted Nazis, closeted anti-semites, closeted racists. Certainly it is time for them to be chastised, shunned, and, in some cases, removed from public office.  These people are not the leaders of this country, despite titles.
       In the course of all of the momentous events of this past week, I found myself having to do a very pedestrian chore:  iron shirts. (Yes, it's true, I iron my own shirts!)  I don't mind the task; it gives me an excuse to watch TV. Often the "show of choice" is some sporting event; equally often the choice is a favorite DVD. The latter was the case this week, and I turned on the mini-series "Gettysburg".* At the time, it had little, consciously, to do with the events of the week, but, in retrospect--especially in light of the statues of Confederate leaders being pulled down or otherwise removed--it seemed oddly appropriate.
       For those who've not seen the film, it is, as the title would suggest, about the Civil War battle waged at Gettysburg, PA. It is NOT about all of the engagements, but focuses on several, linked to significant figures in the battle. One of those figures, of course, is Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who, in the last few days has been the subject of MUCH debate in our current conversation about the ongoing legacy of the Civil War. I do not want to enter into that debate, but, rather to point to a scene in the film that, of course, may or may not have actually happened -- film-maker's license is always possible!**

        In the scene, General Lee is approached by one of his aides-de-camp on the morning of July 2, 1863. The major asks Lee if he would like breakfast, describing all the food that is available, "courtesy of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania". Lee declines, and asks how the local folks are dealing with the Confederate army's (temporary) occupation of their lands. The major tells Lee that there are some complaints about the army's taking of livestock and other provisions. Lee upbraids the army (through the major), charging that the army MUST behave itself. The major bristles a bit to reply that it would be easier "If the Yankees had behaved better in [a previous battle]". Lee reiterates his point, implying that, even in a battle, forces ought not adopt the bad behavior of the opposing force. He put the major, personally, in charge of making sure such things not happen.
        Again, I have no idea whether such an exchange ever occurred. But what struck me was the suggestion--whether Lee's or the film-maker's--that honor ought not be surrendered, regardless of circumstances. Circumstances today compel us; images and rhetoric have the capacity to incite us to action . . . and that's a good thing. We absolutely need to act! We absolutely need to address and correct the ills that have plagued this country for so long. We absolutely need to call out those who would divide us, to show them up for what they truly are. But we cannot let our  "killer angel" instincts overcome the "better angels" of our nature. There's too much at stake.



* Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara.
** I could not immediately find the movie's scene in the novel.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Choose wisely

     It is one of the most iconic moments in (semi-)recent sci-fi/adventure cinema! The antagonist finally sees the "payoff" at the end of his villainy. Donovan, Indiana Jones' long-time nemesis, has seemingly beat Jones to retrieve the Holy Grail -- reputedly the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. In the climactic scene of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", there are many cups from which to choose, and the lone knight left guarding the "treasure trove" warns Donovan to "Choose wisely". Donovan looks over the selection and picks a golden chalice, bedecked with jewels, reasoning that such a cup would have been worthy of Christ. Believing a legend that anyone who drinks from the Grail will live forever, Donovan dips the chalice in the water and drinks from it, and  . . . . [Spoiler alert, it doesn't turn out well for Donovan!] The knight responds to Donovan's action, somewhat drolly:  "He chose . . . poorly."
      Donovan was doubly tempted as he made his choice. He was tempted by the idea of immortality (ignoring millennia of evidence to the contrary). He was also tempted by an idea that the most alluring choice would be the correct choice (alluring both because of the possibility of immortality, as well as its flashy opulence and that opulence's "connection" with power). His choice, as the knight observed, wasn't very good; his reasoning poor. Those of us who've seen the film (whether once, or innumerable times) know that Jones uses a different kind of logic and makes the correct choice. And, unlike Donovan, he doesn't test the promise of immortality ostensibly found in the chalice. He does, however, test its healing powers  . . . [No spoiler alert here -- go see the movie!]
       I think of this film every time the topic of "choice" rears its head. I recall a sermon in which I used this scene relating to the Hebrew Bible account of Joshua's call to the Israelites to make a decision between serving the gods of the Egypt they had just fled, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joshua declared to those folks that, regardless of what they might choose, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24.14-15). I also recalled the scene again this week when I heard a great podcast with Humble the Poet on the "paradox of choice". The show was based on a book by Barry Schwartz with the same title. Recognizing that there are some reservations about Schwartz's premise, I could easily relate to his point that "too many choices can lead to paralysis". That is, we WANT to have many choices (just look at our supermarket aisles!), but we can spend a lot of time and mental energy making a choice . . . that may, ultimately, not be the best for us. (Donovan, you wanna chime in here?)
       I'm also in the position of thinking about "choice" as I have a daughter heading off to college this fall. She has to field the question: "What will be your major?" (a question of choice).  She does have an answer, but it's often qualified a bit (i.e., "Well, I might also be interested in . . .") . And, of course, I ask that question of students coming to DU. Aside from my own "asking-of-the-question" (and I try to do it in as non-directive a way as possible), I'm always pleased when the answer comes back, "I haven't chosen one yet." That answer
could imply a "paralysis of choice". I would hope, however, that it would better indicate a struggle between choosing the "flashy" (or high-status, or lucrative, or parent-pleasing) or the "fulfilling" (or service-oriented, or personal-passion-related).
        And then, of course, every time the topic of "choice" rears its head, and I recall Joshua and Indiana Jones, I'm thrown into my own challenge to evaluate what lies behind my choices. Do I "choose wisely"?