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.