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.