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.


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.


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!



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!


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.



*Minotaur Books, 2016.
Definition #2 from

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:* 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.


* 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!


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.


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

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 "":

"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?


* 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".


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."



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!



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.
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." ****



* 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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Oft might be heard an encouraging word?

      Those familiar with the history of Islam will know that the Prophet Mohammed's message was not well-received early-on in Mecca. Indeed, he and his band of followers were ridiculed and persecuted. They finally were forced to flee and found a home 250 miles away, in what became know as Medinah. Many of the surahs revealed during those troubled times recount stories of the biblical figures who met resistance during their times (e.g., Noah and Moses), as well as other, non-biblical messengers who, similarly, faced opposition. The surah "Hud" contains the reason for these repeated story-tellings:  "The histories of the apostles that We [God] reveal to you [Mohammed] are meant to strengthen your heart" (120).* In other words, Mohammed's experience was not unique among those who sought to bring about just change; he should take heart, being in good company.
        Reading that made me wonder: (1) to what stories do WE turn when we need encouragement? and (2) how do we encourage others when they are facing hardship?  With regard to the first question, The Lord of the Rings' author JRR Tolkein seemed too like fairy tales:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous "turn" (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist," nor "fugitive." In its fairy-tale -- or otherworld -- setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” **

In partial regard to the second question, I think of a wonderful essay/letter by Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "We were made for these times". The whole piece can be found here, but she concludes by writing:

In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

       But I continue to wonder, and I thought I'd turn to "crowd-sourcing" to find some answers. I'll collect the responses and post them in a future newsletter. So, the outcome is up to you, dear readers!
1)  To what stories do YOU turn when you need encouragement?
here, and you can send a message on that subject.


2)  How do YOU encourage others when they are facing challenges or hardship?
here, and you can send a message on that subject.

Thanks, and blessings,


* Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur'an:  A Contemporary Translation (Princeton, 1993), 199.
** Tolkein on  Fairy Stories (

Friday, March 17, 2017

Waiter, there's a . . .

        . . .rock in my river!
       When I was first re-aquainting myself with fishing several years ago (to satisfy my son's initial interest in the sport), I fell back on what I had known and done in my high-school days: either "bait-and-a-bobber" or spinner fishing. The hope (and sometimes success) was that some roaming bass (or crappie or bluegill) would either be fooled, or enticed, to swallow the lure or bait. An incredible fight would ensue, and, triumphantly, I would bring the victim to the net (and then home, to be breaded and fried). Those early fishing experiences were generally on a small lake or some other impoundment -- in other words, on still-water.  I could usually see any hazards, like downed trees, rusted-out car-bodies, etc.  And, seeing them, I would avoid them, as I didn't want to lose that worm!  I was not a particularly sophisticated fisherman, simply one who cast the hook into the water and hoped for the best (and certainly NOT to get snagged).
        As I indicated, when I re-joined the angling ranks, I went back to ponds with my (and my son's) spinning rods. Shortly thereafter, however, I was introduced to the addiction of fly-fishing.  And, lo and behold, I learned you could fly-fish on ponds! My success rate didn't improve much. My companions (well, my teachers), of course, saw stillwater fishing as only a part (and, truth be told, in Colorado, a lesser part) of fly-fishing. The "true" sport was on the rivers of the Front Range and Western Slope. Wishing to "be in the know" (or part of the fraternity), I began to accompany experienced anglers on their weekend outings. I quickly discovered that there were some major differences between stillwater- and stream-fishing (aside from the obvious that the water is FLOWING).

       One of those many differences was that the obstacles that I tried so assiduously to avoid were no longer obstacles, they were now "structure", and the fish were less prone to cruise about, but to hang around the structure waiting for the current to bring the food to them. So, beneath downed trees, or along under-cut banks -- those were great places to find fish. There was, of course, always the threat of losing the flies at the end of the line to the angler-foiling tree! But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. (Frequently touted "wisdom" is that if you're not losing a lot of flies, you're not doing it right.)
       There are other obstacles of course (fortunately, not as many rusted-out car-bodies). They could certainly snag my line or capture my hook. They are:  rocks.  Sometimes they are large and protrude above the surface of the water; other times they are submerged, and the only evidence of them might be some swirls on the surface. And, so, relying on my old memories, I was very wary of those rocks. But, as the picture above shows of "Prime Lies in Red", a very likely location for the trout are behind those wily hook-catchers. (There are other bits of prime trout real-estate with respect to rocks as well). The reason for all of them being significant is that the current flowing into, around, and behind the rocks concentrates the floating bug-life into a nice feed-bag.
        I've learned, therefore, that avoiding obstacles (or, in other non-fishing circumstances, trying to remove or destroy them) can decrease my possibility of gaining something I want (i.e., a large trout!). The "learning" is to focus less on the obstacle and more on its surroundings. The marginal areas are the often the most productive.*
        This "strategy" translates into other arenas, I believe, as well. I just think how much effort we spend on trying to convince the "other side" -- politically or theologically -- of our position (i.e., destroy or remove the rock). Social science has shown that that is NOT productive. But there are many on the margins who are willing to "take the bait", i.e., engage in a meaningful encounter. I recall that, in the late 1990s, I commented to a campus minister colleague that the sign hung on the front of his building that claimed "Dropping bombs is a sin!" was not going to bring in "questioners" to talk with him, but was, in effect, creating a barrier to conversation, and thus to change-of-mind. He was trying to destroy the obstacle rather than engage the questioning margins.
        I still don't like losing my flies to rocks in a river. But I'd much prefer to be in a place where I can encounter another being.



*  The same is often true in birdwatching -- the area where a forest gives way to a field, or a field to a river, generally produces a larger variety of bird species. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Be here now

     I remember hearing Iliff School of Theology''s  late Professor Vincent Harding say something to the effect that "I live in a country that does not yet exist".  Harding was a important figure in the fight for Civil Rights "back in the day". He was a friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He wrote much of King's famous anti-Vietnam speech, "A Time to Break Silence". In short, he was passionate about working to make the "country that doesn't not yet exist" into a reality. In other words, Harding lived HERE; he was realistic about the current situation, but hungered for something better.
      What a difference from those who would look (or live) THERE, with "there" defined as being either in the future or the past. Living in the past "there" means trying to replicate patterns or institutions that may have been good once, but are not about HERE. Living in a past "there", one cherry picks the good memories, without recalling the bad ones.  Likewise, living solely in a future "there" means discounting the realities of HERE that need to be addressed now to ensure that that future "there" can be possible.  
        “Wherever you are is called Here" writes poet David Wagoner, "And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.”* I heard this in a interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama, and it struck home, especially given our propensity not to live in the present -- the present moment or the present place. For if we are HERE we must live with the powerful strangers that we encounter.  So much easier to go THERE, either in time or in (virtual) space, than to deal with the realities before us.
        Of course, however, the "powerful strangers" that we may seek to avoid just might be our allies (even if in ways they don't realize) rather than our adversaries. I have learned that lesson too often to keep count, but not often enough that I consistently live it.
         Who knew HERE could be so complicated!? But it may make for a much better THERE.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Not so . . . fast

      In the spring of 1996, I took a group of students to Costa Rica for a “mission trip”. At the time, I was Episcopal Campus Minister at UNC-Charlotte, and the trip was with other Episcopalian students from around North Carolina. Our judicatory had just established a “companion” relationship with a similar judicatory in that country, and we were going to be one of the first sets of “ambassadors”. As we started recruiting students, there was a LOT of excitement. Not only were the students jazzed about going to Costa Rica, they were also looking forward to “doing something meaningful” (which meant something like painting a school, or building something — i.e., “doing something “tangible”).
      As the conversations between North Carolina and Costa Rica continued, however, it became more and more clear that the folks in Costa Rica were (a) very interested in having us come, but (b) were not interested in having us come to "do something".  Their rationale was along the lines of “we’ve had enough of gringo coming down here to fix us.” What they proposed instead was more of a “learning trip”. They would host us and show us why/how the Episcopal Church was established in Costa Rica, and what it was doing now. And, along the way, we’d visit some significant sites (a rain forest, the national shrine, etc.). That change in rationale for the trip disappointed some of the students, but I think it was for the best; I think we all learned a lot more -- especiallylabout privilege.
       I recalled this experience from more than twenty years ago as I prepared my homily/sermon for Ash Wednesday this week. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of penitence, reflection, and fasting leading up to Easter.  The reflection is often focused on one’s mortality, marked in a physical way by a smudge of ashes on the forehead, accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. And, coincidentally, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on the same day as the beginning of the Baha’i 19-day fast leading up to their New Year. In other words, “fasting” was on my mind.
       Thinking about Ash Wednesday and fasting brought Charles Dickens’ great novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities.  One of the minor players in that drama is simply described as a “mender of roads.”  His only child is run down and killed by an aristocrat who thought nothing other than how inconvenient it was that the peasants couldn’t keep their children off the street and out of the way of his horses—”they (i.e., the horses) weren’t hurt were they?”   The road-mender eventually took revenge on the aristocrat and killed him—an individual example of many of the events leading to the storming of the Bastille.  Subsequent to that event, however, the mender of roads was still going “forth daily to hammer out of the stones on the highway such morsels of bread as might serve for patches to hold his poor ignorant soul and his poor reduced body together.”  And, as Dickens wrote, he “worked, solitary, in the dust, not often troubling to reflect that dust he was and to dust he himself must return, being for the most part too much occupied in thinking how little he had for supper and how much more he would eat if he had it.”
      In other words, the mender of roads didn’t have the privilege of reflecting on his mortal nature — so much was he involved in providing the bare necessities.
      I was struck by the realization:  the privilege of humility.  From my old office window in Berkeley, or driving down Colfax in Denver, I could look out on those who walked up and down the street looking for a morsel.  I sit in my warm home and office, rarely thinking of those outside who are bundled up against the chill.  And I have the audacity to think that “humbling” myself by smudging ashes on my forehead might please God.  That “giving up” sugar, or television, or wine for 40 days—or even “taking on” some work of charity or devotional reading—is some great spiritual exercise.  I—no, we—stand convicted by the words of Isaiah, “Look, you served your own interest on your fast day” (58.3).  Even a non-dramatic “in secret” fasting has been suggested by Dickens to be a privilege.
      Ashes, self-denial and humbling—even fasting —can only be initial response.  Considering how to respond to the fast God chooses, that is, in the words of Isaiah “ to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke. to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes.  Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe them?”(58.6-7)—in other words how to provide everyone with the “privilege” of humbling themselves is the real discipline before me.  Indeed, it we take the biblical witness seriously, it is the discipline before us all.