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.

Namasté

Gary


* 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"?

Namasté,

Gary

Friday, July 21, 2017

A different "Golden Rule"



      Some of you know that my office has a window facing into a hallway. That allows me to put up posters that can be read by passers-by. For several years, I've had two posters mounted.  One is "The Green Rule"; as explained on its website:  "Selected from many of the world’s great religious texts and spiritual teachings, the Green Rules were chosen to demonstrate that each religion and spiritual philosophy has a long-standing tradition of ecological stewardship."  The other is "The Golden Rule", a poster showing the symbols of most of the world's major religious traditions, along with their version of "The Golden Rule" -- all some variation of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6.31 // Matthew 7.12).
       The "Golden Rule", at least as stated above, is a restatement by Jesus and his followers of a verse in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus (19.18):  'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord".  Indeed, Jesus is recorded as pairing this verse with a portion of the Shema, a major Jewish "confession of faith" (Deuteronomy 6.4-9), when asked by one of his interlocutors, "Which is the greatest commandment?":  “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these" (Mark 12.29-31 // Matthew 22.37-39).
       But, the apparent universality of this "rule" speaks, certainly, to some underlying -- either learned, or innate -- moral conviction. And, I imagine, many of us were raised (religiously or not) on its underlying assumption:  that another person's well-being is to be considered equally as valuable as our own. The fact that most of us find it difficult to live up to the ideal does not lessen its importance or validity; it is a goal, after all.  Something towards which to strive!
       I was surprised, then, the other day, to be shaken out of my complacency about this "golden rule"  . . . or maybe just forced to reconsider its (at least for Christians) roots. I was listening to an interview (and at this point, I can't remember, or find, exactly with whom) that made reference to the verse from Leviticus ("love your neighbor as yourself"). The interviewee pointed out that an alternate rabbinic reading to the oft-assumed "love your neighbor [in the same way] as you [might] love yourself" was to see your neighbor as yourself. Or to love your neighbor as if s/he was yourself.
      This may be playing with words, and it may only be ME that finds the thought provocative. But the idea that I consider my neighbor's ideas/concerns/values as part of who I am has caused me no end of puzzlement. That neighbor with whom I disagree -- SHE's part of who I am? How do HER "bizarre" set of values intersect with MINE? The kid down the street with the VERY NOISY car -- HE's part of who I am? How does HIS insensitivity reflect (or resemble) MINE?
        To take the other person -- the neighbor -- into the center of who I am. That's a bigger challenge than a "simple" moral injunction. But it certainly suggests a deeper grounding for "loving thy neighbor."


Namasté,

Gary

Friday, July 7, 2017

The whites of their eyes



      It was at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775 that the famous order "Don't fire until you see the whites (or color) of their eyes" entered the American phrase-book. It is unclear who first gave the order; most attribute it to either (or both) Col. William Prescott or Israel Putnam. Some accounts append to the order another directive:  "And aim low!" It is also unclear as to WHY the order was given. Some suggest it was to save ammunition; others assert it was simply to increase accuracy or effectiveness. Regardless of who uttered the phrase, or WHY, one thing is apparent. Warfare, even in the 18th century, was primarily a face-to-face matter (although the introduction of artillery was beginning to change that). Battling from a distance is a more modern "innovation".
      This "'collision" of different philosophies of engagement in war is brought to the fore in the current block-buster movie:  "Wonder Woman." As the title character begins her quest to save humanity, she finds herself amongst a collection of "interesting" companions, one who is (ostensibly) a sniper, able to take down an enemy combatant from a long distance.* Wonder Woman asks, incredulously, " You can't see their face?" The implication is that there is no honor in such a killing.

      One of the philosophies of warfare, of course, is to cause the most damage to the enemy with the least damage to one's own forces. The use of snipers, or any sort of long-range weaponry, helps meet that goal. And we've clearly seen that in play over the last century's battles/wars, whether it is carpet bombing, napalm or nuclear weapons. In some ways, it seems to me, this has become almost the "norm" in waging war. But, it comes at a price.
      That "price" came to light for me the other evening as I was watching the 2015 drama "Eye in the Sky" starring Helen Mirren (and featuring Alan Rickman -- "Severus Snape" in the Harry Potter series -- in his last role before his death).  IMDb describes the film:  "Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare." Part of the "dispute" has to do with at the common ethical dilemma of whether it is better for one innocent person to die if it will prevent many more from dying. But the point related to the "price" to which I referred above has to do with the effects of drone warfare -- especially precision-strike drone warfare.
      Hopefully without spoiling the film, the two "pilots" of a drone are put in the position of seeing the direct effect of their following of orders . . . even though they are piloting the drone from thousands of miles away. No longer was it simply killing-from-a-distance (which, of course it was), but the technology allowed them to almost "see the whites of [the victims'] eyes", and they were traumatized by what happened. What that suggests to me is that we may have become incredibly de-sensitized to the realities of taking lives -- whether in battle or on the "mean streets" of the US. And, when we are brought face-to-face with that, we are ill-equipped to deal with the psychological/spiritual effects.
       We cannot go backwards in the practice of war; we cannot return to swords and bows-and-arrows. But, perhaps, when we look in the mirror and see the whites/colors of OUR eyes, we can recognize that the price of war -- for whatever reason -- means that the eyes of others, often innocent others, are closed forever. Closing our eyes to that reality puts our souls at risk.

Namasté,

Gary


* I was surprised to see an article in the Denver Post recently about a Canadian sniper who hit his target from a distance of over 2 miles!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Things That Matter


     Many folks associated with the University of Denver (and beyond) were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of DU's Sturm College of Law professor Federico "Fred" Cheever last weekend. Fred suffered a massive heart attack while on a rafting trip with his family. Fred was well-known at DU, especially in the areas of environmental law and the University's efforts at becoming more sustainable. He was a guiding force in the establishment of DU's Sustainability Council.
     His death creates a huge hole for so many, near and far. Indeed, before I even arrived at DU ten years ago, a lawyer friend in Berkeley told me I should look Fred up, and made an email introduction for us. I served for a while on the Sustainability Council, and saw him lead it with grace and skill. But I most often saw him in the fitness center on weekends, usually on an elliptical machine, with ruffled hair and baggy sweats. He always greeted me; he was that kind of a man.
      Just a couple of days after news of his death flew around campus, I joined with a group of law school faculty and staff to share remembrances. A profound experience. And then, yesterday morning, I attended the regularly-scheduled meeting of the Sustainability Council. We learned of the DU Board of Trustees' recent affirmation of many sustainability initiatives -- many of which bore Fred's "stamp". Then, the meeting turned to reminiscences. Again, a profound experience -- sad, and healing, as many such gatherings are.
      As part of his comments, Dr. Chad King, the Director of our Sustainability Center and a good friend of Fred's, read a poem (or two) that had been on Fred's door for some time.

THINGS THAT DO NOT MATTER

The logo on someone else's T-shirt. Toenail polish or not. Irony. Which vodka. The relative positions of knives and spoons on a set table. How long it takes someone to move forward after the light turns green. How anybody takes their coffee. Having or not having heard of a band. Five or ten bucks either way. Whether the waitress is a little slow today, and any number of things, which—if we can't bring ourselves to ignore them—become little quotidian obstacles to the sublime.

THINGS THAT MATTER

Physics. Whether or not you can see. Salt. The sublime. By what means people suffer themselves to be governed. The extinction of primrose or milkvetch or desert tortoise or lynx. Phosphorous. Promises. Insulin. Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter. How you love.


     - Rebecca Lindenberg (from her collection The Logan Notebooks, 2014)


      At times like these, given all of my petty worries and concerns (e.g., fighting with Microsoft over an Xbox matter, or fretting over weeds in a garden plot), "Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter" matters.
      Thank you, Fred, for helping us keep our eyes on what matters. Ride on!


Namasté,

Gary

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Commencing with joy!


[Note: It has been a crazy week leading up to commencement this year. Because of that, and the fact that I'm often asked for a copy of it, I am reprinting here the text of my invocation for the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony today at DU. Of course, it was "under embargo" until after the ceremony, which accounts for the "day-late" newsletter.  ;-) ]

Please join with me in prayer.

Holy One, known by many names, as we begin our celebration today, bind us together in a spirit of healing and peace, as we pay respect to the original Arapaho and Cheyenne owners - both past and present - of the land on which the University of Denver stands.

Holy Wisdom, you have given the gifts of grace and skill in teaching to professors and colleagues.  Thank you for all that they have been to those who receive their diplomas this day.

Compassionate One, you have provided these students with communities of support and care throughout their educational journeys.  For families of origin and choice; for the friends of playgrounds to those made in the classroom and dorms, we are grateful. 

Divine Servant, administration and“behind-the-scenes” work are gifts from you we often overlook.  For the trustees, administrators and staff who guide and fund this university, who keep track of requirements and grades, and who ensure the internet works . . . mostly; for counselors and medical personnel; and all those-groundskeepers and housekeepers-who provide such a wonderful physical atmosphere for learning, thank you. 

Lover of Justice, the education these students have received here equips them to make a difference in the world in which they live.  Amidst news of tornados and school-shootings; ethnic and religious conflict; struggling nation states; and political systems where shouting and sound-bites sideline civility and substance; imbue these graduates with a sense of hope for the future and a passion to right the wrongs they encounter.

Overcomer of Obstacles, we bid your special presence in the hearts of these graduates.  They have excelled in the classroom, been champions in sports; and studied and served around the world.   Faced with great challenges, losses and disappointments, they have prevailed—they have succeeded.  Let them now, in the midst of happy celebration, hear your clear, encouraging voice saying, “Well done.  But wait, there’s more!”  May they, looking back at their years at DU, sense your call forward into a lifetime full of adventure and purpose, and know that you, and we, will be cheering them on!

Dancing Lord, be our partner as we celebrate with joy today!


Amen.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The bastion of Robo-butt


      In the fall of 2009, on the first day of classes no less, I experienced a relatively serious bike accident. I slipped on a muddy section of sidewalk, went down heavily on my right side, and suffered several micro-fractures in my pelvis. I was on crutches for six weeks. And, as some readers may recall, I reflected on that experience in this space (those posts can be found in the Archives section of our website; the entries are in the range 9/18/2009-10/9/2009). I learned an incredible amount during those weeks, such as:  how level our campus is (NOT!); but, also, how the ADA rules and regulations make SO much sense; or how generous people can be with time and energy; and what its like to go through airport security when you can't walk. I had the opportunity to "live" in a different world for six weeks.       Those memories came flooding back the other night as I was reading one of my favorite mystery author's latest books. Nevada Barr situates all of her tales in National Parks. Boar Island* is set in Acadia National Park in Maine and features some characters from earlier books in the series. One of those characters is Heath, a woman who, as the result of a fall at Keystone, was confined to a wheel-chair -- a chair she named "Robo-butt".  The passage that got me going was:
     Before the fall from Keystone, Heath had been brash and ballsy. After, she had been angry and self-destructive. When she finally realized that, though she couldn't walk, she was still a whole person, she found she'd changed. From the bastion of Robo-butt, the world was different, more layered and complex. Heath learned patience. She learned to watch people, to really listen, to genuinely see them. Something she'd not done much of when she was superwoman climbing tall mountains. Another skill she'd picked up was canniness, an ability to manipulate situations to her advantage, to manipulate people when she had to. Cunning wasn't a strength much lauded in literature or the media, but it was a strength all the same, and Heath respected it. (pg 52)

      Certainly, Heath had much more experience in her chair than I did on my crutches. I didn't have to make any major changes in my outlook; I knew that there was a point coming soon (although it never seemed soon enough) that I would be "back to normal". That said, the experience of being dislodged, if only for a while, changed my perspective permanently.  And, in that way, the experience was a blessing. It appears, similarly, that Heath's change-in-status brought about a change-in-outlook, an appreciation for other skills and strengths than those she had formerly valued.       I was reminded the other night, and in recollecting the "Fall of '09", that many of the things we might consider "negative" are often just "different". And those differences can provide opportunities for growth and/or improvement in other areas of our lives.  I believe that all of us have qualities -- some hidden, some quite visible -- that may place us in our own versions of Robo-butt. The challenge that Heath poses is whether we can learn to see that place as a "bastion", a "fortified place"**, a place of strength.

Namasté,

Gary

*Minotaur Books, 2016.
**
Definition #2 from Dictionary.com

Friday, May 26, 2017

On being an unknowing recipient



Note from Chaplain Gary:  Danielle Xanthos, the author of the reflection below is a graduate student in professional psychology at DU. She has been working with me throughout the year on a number of different projects. She offered to write a reflection for the newsletter. I was happy to say "Yes!" As it turns out, her reflection is highly appropriate as we approach the last week of class and finals!

Fact: academic life can be rough.

Earlier this year (during that stage of the academic year when I had a bit more time in my schedule than reality would soon allow), I attended monthly meetings led by our friendly neighborhood (University) chaplain, Gary, alongside local faith leaders from an impressively diverse variety of traditions. During one of these meetings I realized something incredibly simple, yet equally profound: There are people from all different faiths praying for us students. It was one of those moments when my heart was full to the brim and I had a deep sense of gratitude for everyone in the room. Since that meeting a few months ago, I’ve wanted to share this fact with every student (faculty and staff, included) at the University of Denver – and every campus in the area.

In the prayers of the tradition I call home (Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy), we pray “for the peace of the whole world…and for the unity of all.”* I admit, as with a few other elements of my faith, it took more than a couple of decades for these words to sink into my mind, and they’re still flowing into my soul. Whether these prayers for our community are spontaneous – and gushing from our soul, written – and “ready made,” or unceasing – and serving as a walking stick throughout our day and our life,** they are happening all around us in all different homes of worship.

Remember when I said academic life can be rough? It can drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Whether we’re having a difficult time because we feel stressed, we feel lonely, we feel tired, we feel the weight of the world’s suffering on our hearts, or maybe we aren’t feeling any of those things and we’re at peace in this moment, please remember that there are people all around this city praying for us. People we’ve never met.

You are in someone’s prayers. They’re praying for your peace, for your safety, for your health, for our unity. You are in their prayers today, you were in their prayers yesterday, and you will be in their prayers tomorrow.

Praying for good strength on your life's adventure, 
With gratitude,
Danielle Xanthos 

*Full excerpt from the Litany of Peace, said during the Liturgy, evening (Vespers), morning (Orthros/Matins), and a few other services: For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.

** Three types of prayer, as explained by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in “Beginning to Pray.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interruptive Invitation



    Earlier this week I drove up to Vail for the annual clergy conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado.  I knew that there was a chance that the weather would not stay as benign as it seemed on Tuesday, but the predicted noontime snow Wednesday didn't appear . . . at least not until late in the evening. My intention had been to get up early on Thursday and head down the hill in time to chair a meeting at 9:30. I arose to a LOT of snow, but trudged through it to the car, and headed towards the freeway. I was dismayed to discover that Vail Pass had been closed.
     Clearly, there was little I could do but send out some emails letting people know that I wouldn't be in the office until much later, if at all! I returned to the hotel -- at least I was able to participate in the closing sessions of the conference (and get breakfast and lunch).  All morning, at every break, folks were on the web-site-du-jour:
cotrip.org.* The hotel offered, if we were to be stranded, another night at the group rate. The way things were going, that offer was looking pretty good.
      As the conference concluded, our bishop mentioned that a spiritual director told him, when there was an interruption in plan, to ask the question: "What is the invitation (that the interruption offers)?" I was probably not alone in pondering that question for the next little while. As someone who appreciates things going according to plan, I'm rarely in the mood, when interrupted, to be anything but annoyed. But there was little that ANYONE could have done to prevent THIS interruption; the circumstances were such that I really did sit back and ponder the "invitation".
      It IS a good question, I decided. I was "invited" to consider what I thought was truly important: was my schedule THAT important? Might it not be good to be reminded that I am NOT in control of everything?  Was there an opportunity to deepen relationships with other attendees who were similarly "stuck"?
      And, as I thought more about it, I realized that the question of finding an "invitation" in an interruption was similar to the assertion in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that, in every organization or group, something works." Practitioners of AI recognize that finding what is that "works" is sometimes a challenge, especially in a culture where we seem to be focused on what's "broken". They know that discipline and practice are required to find that "working" thing.

      I imagine it will take a similar discipline and practice to see the invitations in interruptions.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

* The photo above of the website shows the section of I-70 that was closed.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"It's a magic table!"

 

    This week the office of Religious & Spiritual Life offered students (and others passing by on the Driscoll Bridge) the opportunity to craft Mother's (and Father's) Day cards. We try to have as many materials available, the 4 "S's" -- stickers, stamps, stencils, and sharpies. Some students confess that they are "not artistic", and so REALLY appreciate the options. Others are VERY artistic and eschew all of the "helps" except the sharpies. We've been doing this for about eight years, and many students tell us that they look forward to the opportunity to stop thinking about Econ or Calculus and to re-engage their inner pre-schooler, with the hope that, when they return home, they'll see that hand-made card on the fridge.
      Staffing the table is sometimes a challenge for those of us who are more . . . well, "introverted". But my experience, as well as that of my fellow introverts, is that, once we get going, and folks start making cards, the conversation flows. We talk about majors, weekend/vacation plans, and post-graduation plans. I often ask where students call "home", and am frequently surprised to learn that I have (or can easily find) some connection with, at least, their home state. Once that connection is made, a lot of remaining barriers fall and we have a blast.
      Yesterday afternoon, I returned to do my "shift", and found a group of international students all making cards. "Staffing" the table was someone I had not met. A Chinese visiting scholar (I learned), he had taken over for the student who was at the table, but who needed to head to class.  As we started talking, he told me that one of the people he had met, while at the table, had connections with his sister in China. Another person he had met knew a friend of his in New Mexico. And then he discovered that he and I had another "DU" (that is, Duke University) in common. He said to me, "Three different connections, all realized at this table.  It's a magic table!"

       As I've reflected on that observation, I've come to realize that he's right! At that table, not only are introverts freed a bit from their "enclosure", but "magical creatures" may arrive to make cards (as in the photo above), and connections not necessarily apparent are discovered and celebrated. There is certainly something "magical" about being around a table--especially a table covered with things that might engage us, whether craft-materials or food. It's no surprise, then, that so many of our religious rituals are "table-based".
       Lesson learned:  approach all tables with the expectation that something transformative may happen . . . and it just might! "Magic" can happen!
  
Namasté, 

Gary

Note:  A HUGE shout-out of thanks to Danielle G, Danielle X, Marshall S, Ryan B, Hana A, Steve (from China), and any other impromptu table-staffers!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Put it in writing!



       When I was in high school, I was an AFS foreign exchange student to Australia. ("Oz" wasn't my first - or second, or even third - choice! I had wanted to learn another language. Mostly, in the linguistic arena, I learned a new set of slang--not to mention a cool accent!) For a year I lived out in farming country (not in the "Outback" *), learning to drive a tractor, tend sheep and arc-weld. Of course, I was a foreign exchange student, so I DID go to school as well, along with my host brother, Mark. We were quite different from one another in SO many ways, and what we could learn from each other was quite varied. One of the things I noticed when we started school was that he was writing with a fountain pen -- taking notes, writing papers, etc. I'd seen fountain pens before, of course, but I'd never seen a class-mate using one. Of course, I asked him about it, and he told me his teachers require it of him, because it slowed him down and made his writing legible.** I hadn't thought about that, and tried it with his pen, and, it was true! It did slow me down.       For reasons unrelated to legibility, my son has become enamored with using a quill pen. He tells me that the process of dipping the pen into ink, and then writing, is a whole lot different than using a ballpoint pen, or a pencil.  He semi-inspired me to pick up MY fountain pen again; it is a different process, a different mindset. And, I think I may have written about this before in a prior musing here, but when I write sermons, I do it with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil. Yes, I certainly could use a computer, but my experience has been that using a pencil slows down the process (especially when using a hand sharpener), making me think a little more carefully (and it's still correctable!).
      These memories and associations came to me while listening to the
story of two women who met in a spiritual writing workshop, and who started a multi-year process of writing letters to each other EVERY DAY. They chose to hand-write real letters, rather than just send emails, because they wanted the practice to have some gravity. As they wrote, they both realized it had become a sort of spiritual practice. It had become so ingrained that, when a tragic event occurred to one of them and they stopped sending the letters, they didn't stop writing them. It was only when they decided to collect their letters and publish them that they learned that they had both kept up the practice.       The two didn't say whether they used a pen (fountain or otherwise) or a pencil in their writing practice; in some ways, I suppose, it doesn't make a difference. But what DID make a difference to me was the suggestion of hand-writing as a spiritual practice. We have become so accustomed to typing ("keyboarding"?), or reducing even that to acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), or yet more recently to using emoji's (did you know there's an official emoji-approval agency?), that the process of putting a writing implement to paper is becoming increasingly rare (unless it's jotting down a quick phone number or last-minute shopping list). Similarly rare is slowing down for almost anything!       I am certainly not suggesting that it works for everyone, but the re-discovery of the slowed-down writing with a fountain pen (or a #2 pencil) has been a good practice for me in many spiritual, and non-spiritual, ways. It may be less efficient for mass-communication (like this newsletter), but more insightful for self-communication.
  
Namasté, 

Gary

*  And never once did I "throw a shrimp on the barby".
** An interesting discussion about this theory/practice can be found
here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The "Show Me" State



     Last Sunday, I, like many Christians, heard the story of "Doubting Thomas" (John 20.19-29). For those unfamiliar with the account, the setting is a locked room on the night of the Sunday when Jesus' followers discovered that he had been raised from the dead. On that first night, the story tells of Jesus' appearance to his disciples, and his showing to them the wounds of his crucifixion -- as a proof that he was who he said he was. One of the disciples, Thomas, wanot in attendance that evening. And, when his compatriots told him of their experience, he refused to believe them unless he saw the wounds himself. The following Sunday evening, Thomas was with the others, and the resurrected Jesus appeared again. This time, Thomas being there, Jesus invited him to examine the wounds. With that invitation, Thomas declared that he now believed. Jesus commended Thomas for believing as a result of visual evidence, but commends even more those who would "believe without having seen."
      Poor Thomas, it seems to me--dubbed "Doubting Thomas," and, among some wags, the status of patron saint of Missouri, the "Show Me State".* The attribution of "doubting Thomas" to this story, however, minimizes (or, even worse, denigrates) the value of doubt. We seem to have become a society obsessed with certainty. The "great unknown" is a scary thing, thought best to be avoided by any. Raise a seemingly innocent question in some circles and run the risk of banishment. Even a little question can be seen as the step onto a slippery slope, or the allowance of the camel's nose to edge under the tent.

      I don't think doubt is always a bad thing! Indeed, I have more problems with certainty. I think doubt can keep us on our toes, always searching for a better answer, or for more nuances. Doubt is an attitude of unrest, a dis-satisfaction with the status quo.  And, so, I think it to be a corollary of curiosity, that quality that drives us to new discoveries.
      With regard to the origin of the motto "Show Me State" for Missouri, according to "StateSymbolsUSA.org":

"The most widely known story gives credit to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver for coining the phrase in 1899. During a speech in Philadelphia, he said: "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."  The phrase is now used to describe the character of Missourians; not gullible, conservative, and unwilling to believe without adequate evidence.

"Unwilling to believe without adequate evidence." That is certainly one "definition" of "doubt". But, I think, there's another way of looking at. And, again, here I'll point to my experience last Sunday. In addition to hearing the "Doubting Thomas" story, some churches brought new members "into the fold" through baptism. And, in the Episcopal church, one of the prayers asks that the new members be given "joy and wonder" in all God's works.
        "Joy and wonder" drives one to curiosity. Can we not see "doubt" as yet another, though perhaps unusual, precursor to that same joy and wonder?
  
Namasté, 

Gary

* For various "histories" of the nickname, see the Wikipedia article on Missouri.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Order and/or Disorder



     A long time ago (and it seems "in a land far, far, away"), singer Peggy Lee made popular a song with the lines: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, the let's go dancing" ("Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee, 1969). While the song picked up a bit on the zeitgieist of the late '60's, I sometimes think that it could just as easily describe life in the 20-teens. On the "left", people long for the "orderly" days of the previous national administration(s). On the "right", the winning campaign cry was "Make America Great Again" (implying that there was some more "orderly" past to which we can return). The dichotomy of order vs. disorder seems to reign supreme in our national discourse.
       There is, however, a third option:  "re-order". Indeed, in an interview I heard earlier this week with author/theologian Fr. Richard Rohr, Rohr pointed out that he had discovered in his readings of many of the sacred and mythical stories a consistent theme: the protagonist moves through a process of "order-to-disorder-reorder". Consider the Exodus experience of the Hebrews:  an orderly life in Egypt to the disorder of the Wilderness experience to the re-order of a settled community in the Promised Land. (Yes, the slavery of Egypt was awful, but, compared with the dis-order of the wilderness, the cry went up to Moses, "Why have you brought us out of Egypt, where at least we had food?")  Or, more currently, the experience of Luke Skywalker leaving the "order" of Uncle Owen, to the disorder of all of the battles with the Republic, to the re-order of his realizing his identity as a Jedi.
        With that in mind, I was surprised to be reminded while reading No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education (Oxford, 2012)) that the educator William Perry postulated that college students go through a similar phased process. As the authors (Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen) of No Longer Invisible summarize his thought: 

When entering college most students are dualists; they see the world in simple binaries (good/bad, us/them, right/wrong). The second stage is one of moral and cognitive relativism, when students become aware of multiplicity. In the third stage, students transcend the confusion of pure relativism and take steps toward mature self-awareness and nuanced commitment. . . . moving from one sate to the next requires a personal crisis, a moment when it become apparent that one's existing beliefs of convictions are no longer adequate. (124)

Perry's personal crisis equals Rohr's "disorder". But both Perry and Rohr note that the students of today might have missed the "order" piece in general because of the fractured nature of our society (and education) since the time that Peggy Lee sang "Is that all there is?"
      That may be true, in the abstract (or general). But I think there's a greater truth that resides in both of their three-part scenarios: most of our lives go through that process over and over. Perhaps the stakes aren't as dramatic as Luke Skywalker's all the time, but we do face the situation in big and small ways. What we often forget (and Rohr and Perry would agree) in the throes of disorder is that reorder is different from a return to a prior "order". Things that are broken/dis-ordered CAN be re-assembled, but they will never be the same. There is grief in that realization, but also hope.

        In our lives, and in the broader world, that is what we really want: not the old order, but "A New Hope".
  
Namasté, 

Gary

Friday, April 14, 2017

Just ask the dodo . . .



         There are so many iconic moment in the cult-classic movie "Princess Bride" (and I can imagine that readers are now going through many of them in their own minds). One set that I hear probably more often than others is the (now-) classic use of "Inconceivable" by the Sicilian criminal Vizzini (played by Wallace Shawn). He uses it often in the film, right up to the moment (spoiler alert) he is . . . umm . . . incapacitated. But in the course of his (mis-) use of the word, Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patnikin -- "Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya . . .. ") says to Vizzini, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Montoya points out to Vizzini that just because he THINKS things should work in a certain way DOESN'T mean that, when they don't, it's "Inconceivable!" (Vizzini is probably of the "Alice in Wonderland" school where a word means what he wants it to mean.)
        Many of us who watch "Princess Bride" nod in agreement with Montoya's assessment of Vizzini's false "knowledge. Part of that "agreement" is, no doubt, due to the fact that the film is so over-the-top, and Vizzini is presented as such an self-impressed idiot. And, of course, he IS presented as a villain, so we're supposed to dislike him. But we are, at the same time, not immune to acting in quite the same way. That is, when we believe something (ought) to be a certain way, we stand fast in our delusion, and woe-betide those who would challenge us.
         I couldn't help thinking about this last week while attending a panel presentation on international student issues. The panel had originally been constituted several months ago to discuss the mental health needs of international students in general. And, then, just hours before the presentation, the Administration's first travel ban was issued. While the students valiantly tried to stay "on topic", it was clear that there were more significant issues that needed to be addressed, and, so, a second panel was arranged -- the one last week. The acute tension over the travel bans had moderated a bit, but it was still apparent. What was also apparent, however, was that the international students who were part of the panel (both graduate and undergraduate) didn't feel a part of the University community. They voiced a sense of exclusion at the most, or a sense of tokenism at the least. And it made little difference with which program they were involved, or what was their country-of-origin. What made me think of "Inconceivable" from "Princess Bride" was the sobering disconnect between the "reality" the  University understood, and how the international students experienced a different reality.
        This is not a situation limited to the University of Denver, or to the USA. I went home that evening, and, as my wife and I were channel-surfing, we landed on a German detective show (oh, the marvels of cable TV!). The plot (as well as I could follow it through sub-titles, looking up from my magazine) had to do a LOT with tensions between the German "natives" and those of Turkish descent (even if they had been born in Germany and spoke German more frequently than Turkish!). It was a detective show so, of course, the tensions turned murderous. But all I could think of was how the "majority" marginalizes (sometimes violently) the "minority" . . . . and all in the guise of maintaining "normalcy", or returning to "how things used to be".
         Well, I'm sorry, but that's "Inconceivable". Despite what people in power, or those of the "majority", may want us to believe, they cannot take us back to a mono-culture. The world has become a much "smaller" place, even within my lifetime. It may be uncomfortable for some, but it isn't inconceivable. And those who would claim that it is, are going to have to expand their vocabulary, their understanding, and their social circles, or they'll go the way of the--now extinct--dodo. And, just ask the dodo, THAT fate is not "inconceivable."

Namasté, 

Gary

Friday, April 7, 2017

Encouraging words



      A couple of weeks ago, my "reflection" in this space was all about offering encouragement. I invited readers to submit either encouraging words or acts. Several folks did!  And here's what they said:

Andrea C:  In times of uncertainty in my life, I invariably turn to the Harry Potter series. The overwhelming message for me is one of peace and friendship. What's special about these books is that this peace is not achieved through absence of conflict, but through the wholeness of the magical community and the protagonists' efforts to defend it.

Randy A:  As of late, what I find myself watching several times is the
Ted Talk given by Monica Lewinsky.  Every time I watch, I admire her strength and courage to confront head on her life during the Clinton Presidency when the world first learned of her.  Watching and listening to her talk, I find her very intelligent, articulate and well spoken. I always am uplifted in some way knowing whatever issues confronting me pale in comparison to what Monica has had to endure and live with since her time working at the White House.  

Javid J:  Here's an example of a short beautiful Baha'i prayer which always encourages me:  "O God!  Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord." (‘Abdu’l-Bahá)


What I found interesting in these submissions was how different they were!  And what that has helped me understand is that there are many ways I can give encouragement. We'll all get by a little bit better with a little help from our friends!

Namasté, 


Gary

PS:  If you' would like to add to the storehouse of encouragement:
1)  To what stories do YOU turn when you need encouragement?
Click here, and you can send a message on that subject.
and/or
2)  How do YOU encourage others when they are facing challenges or hardship?
Click here, and you can send a message on that subject.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Looking . . . do we see?


      The other day I was listening to an interview between the Rev. Welton Gaddy and Kim Lawton, formerly of the "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS. Lawton had been the managing editor for the show for its entire almost-20-year run. Gaddy asked about the entanglement of religion and politics, especially in news reporting, and Lawton replied to the effect that, indeed, a lot off reporting on religion was being done through the lens of politics. She admitted that there was a "political" aspect to reporting on religion, but that that was not all that religion was about. She went on talk about the kinds of things she LIKED to report: all of the good, encouraging, news that had little to do with politics, but, rather, with the humanitarian impulses that lay within the world's great religious traditions.       Then, last night, I went to a dress rehearsal for Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Disgraced" (see the announcement below for the book discussion coming up on Tuesday). In a discussion about her art (and Islamic art in general) with a friend/art impresario, Emily (the wife of the main character) says:  "We've all gotten way too wrapped up in the optics. The way we talk about things. We've forgotten to look at things for what they really are." *        I am certainly guilty, too often, of being "wrapped up in the optics". The Harvard Implicit Bias project, at least that portion devoted to social attitudes,would suggest that we all are, given that the test is based on viewing photographs. Most of us who have taken the test are at least a bit disturbed to find out that we are not as "neutral" as we think. Yet most commentators on the results of the project point out that, knowing that we are not "color-blind" can go a long way to help us begin to look a bit more carefully. **         I don't have a copy of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning (!) book about the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels, near me. Looking . . . do we see? I do recall a scene/conversation in the book where one of the main characters, Col. Joshua (Lawrence) Chamberlain, was musing about the difference between the races. He says something to the effect that "When I look at another man, I try not to see the color, but rather that there is a divine spark in him.' Whether or not the real Chamberlain*** ever said (or thought) that, his sentiment reflects the ancient Sanskrit greeting "Namasté" -- variously translated as "I bow to the god within you" or "The divine in me greets the divine in you".
        That ancient wisdom seems to evade most of us these days. Our various tribalisms (whether religious or political)--especially now--distort our ability to "look at things [or people] for what they really are". At times such as these, it would be prudent to recall Abraham Lincoln's words in his first inaugural address, as he faced a divided nation:
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ****


Namasté, 

Gary

* Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 31.
** For more on implicit bias, listen to this recent interview conducted by Mary Hynes:
"If you have a brain, you have a bias".
*** Later President of Bowdoin College, and then Governor of Maine.
****  "First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln". The Avalon Project.