Friday, October 20, 2017

A True Reality Show

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

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

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



* Politics, Book I, Pt. 2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Annoyance => Curiosity

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

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



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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Bless who? What?

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



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

Friday, September 29, 2017

My Dad Was A Protestor

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

Open signs


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

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



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Giving in to temptation

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


Friday, September 8, 2017

Thick Times

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

What would Robert do?

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

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



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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Choose wisely

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



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."



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.



* 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.


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.