Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tragedy and the Sanctity of Life--even a Tiny Shrimp

Well, it's been quite a news cycle this week, hasn't it?  From the downed airline over the Ukraine, to the terrible fighting in Gaza, to the horrific stories of gang violence in Honduras and the masses of children seeking refuge in the United States--every day just seemed to bring worse news.  

It's hard to know what to say in these situations:  there is simply so much evil in the world, so much human sinfulness.  And even thought I am part of a religious tradition that looks that evil and sin right in the eye and doesn't blink, and even still dares to proclaim both hope in the future and trust in God's love and mercy in the here and now, sometimes that hope seems so desperately fragile.

I'm reminded here of Emily Dickinson's poem: 

                   "Hope" is the thing with feathers -
                   That perches in the soul -
                    And sings the tune without the words -
                   And never stops - at all.....

And, frankly, it's not even about numbers, is it?  The news media cares about numbers, of course--300 is a bigger story than 30--but when it's your child, your spouse, your city, one is enough to bring you to your knees, and you don't need a mounting body count to despair.

So, in trying to imagine what clinging to hope might look like in the face of all this, I was quite heartened to come across this little story in The New York Times about Buddhists rescuing shrimp.  Yes, you read that right--shrimp:  read the story here--The Sanctity of Life.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you know it is characterized by a strong tradition of reverence for life--all life, not just human life.  Some of this comes out of the belief in rebirth, in which you or someone you love could end up in the next life as a cat or a donkey, or even a shrimp.  But some of it also relates to a belief in the deep, deep interconnectedness of all life, and the way in which the health and flourishing of every part of creation is related to every other part:  all sentient beings for sure, and even plants and non-sentient life.  This idea, Christians should be able to understand--even if the stuff about rebirth doesn't quite make sense in a Christian framework.

So, somehow in the face of all this loss and destruction I was quite moved at the thought of individuals spending their day painstakingly digging through the mud with tweezers to rescue stranded shrimp to set them free in the local river.  You may say this is foolish:  why waste time with shrimp when there are people in need that should be helped instead?  I get that, but I also disagree with it in some measure:  behind that kind of reasoning is a false argument that implies first that shrimp and people are not connected; and second, that there is some kind of limit on love and compassion--that only some can be helped but not all, and only certain kinds of altruistic acts have real value.  Instead, I think it is more accurate to see that cultivating love and care for all life creates a climate in which people directly benefit, and might even mitigate against the violence that too often is the first response in situations of fear or anger.  We all know how cruelty to animals too often leads to cruelty to people; why can't we imagine that the reverse is true:  kindness to animals can lead to greater kindness and compassion to people, too?

This practice of "life liberation" or "mercy release" is not without its detractors and its problems.  But it is also a gloriously defiant act:  taking the time and effort to save a few precious creatures, even knowing that many, maybe even most, will not be saved is both illogical and breathtaking.  It strikes me as a welcome challenge to pragmatic cynicism, and a loud flap of hope's wings.  Maybe shrimp aren't much in the grand scheme of things, but they are something; and just as importantly, so is the attitude of love and compassion behind their rescue. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

George Saunders on Kindness

As I'm sure some of you know, the author George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University this year.  You can find the full text of it here:

Anyway, it proved to be so popular, it actually was printed as a book, which I bought and read today.  It was really quite delightful:  short [which personally, I think is the most important characteristic of a good graduation speech], poignant, funny and actually spot on in terms of what a fresh-face graduate with the world at her feet actually needs to hear.   The point of the speech:  be kind--that's what matters.  It's hard to disagree with that.

Here are my favorite bits of the address.

Best opening sentence of a graduation speech ever:
"Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:  Some old fart, his best years behind him, who over the course of his life has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people with all their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition."

When it comes to regrets, he says, "What I regret most in my life are failures if kindness.  Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded....sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly." [I'd put it this way:  There's nothing worse than mild chagrin in the face of injustice.]

" a goal in life, you could do worse than:  Try to be kinder."

" heartfelt wish for you:  As you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE."   
As I read this sentence in particular, I was thinking what an important idea this is in both Buddhism and Christianity.  Christians have both a name for this process (sanctification) and the means of attaining it (spiritual disciplines). Buddhists do, too: in some ways, you could argue that, in a nutshell, this is the process of enlightenment, and the means by which one attains it is the eightfold path.  Speaking of Buddhism, by the way, it was quite interesting to me that Saunders actually talks about selfishness as a sickness in us, and kindness (read:  selflessness, or, stretching a bit, no-self) as the "cure."  You can't get much more Buddhist than that!

Finally, and in some ways most importantly:

"...accomplishment is unreliable...Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving:  Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now. "

Good advice for all of us, right?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The World Cup, Diversity & our Life Together

I had planned to write a blog on the World Cup yesterday, but the hours got away from me:  it's not easy being dean [cue music & Kermit's voice...].  Anyway, I'm so glad I waited, because this morning, I read this fabulous piece in The New York Times:

Seriously, even if you stop reading the blog right now, read this article!  [Nutshell:  it talks about how life is more like soccer than baseball; that is, it's not about a bunch of individuals playing their best, but rather a situation that depends on a network of individuals functioning well together.  The point is, in soccer, a highly synchronized team of mediocre players will beat a team comprised of the best individual players in the world, if those players can't play well together.]  I'll come back to the article shortly.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I have loved, loved, loved the World Cup, and that's not only because I love, love, love futebol, which I do, but also because it has been so wonderful to feel in a very visceral way part of the world community:  cheering along with people in Argentina, the Netherlands [that semi-final was rough for me], Mexico, Nigeria, etc., etc., etc., and learning something about their countries and histories with names and faces attached.  Oh, I know--I'm supposed to live like this all the time, and, to some small degree, I do:  I pay attention to what is going on in Germany, where my beloved goddaughter and her family live, and where I spent a fabulous year of my life; in Sweden, where my all my dear cousins live; in Japan, a country I fell in love with when I visited two years ago; in India, a country that has a deep hold on me culturally and religiously; in Papua New Guinea, where I spent a summer teaching with my first theological mentor--you get the idea.  I have a decent list of places like this, places where I have a personal connection and a vested interest, but it is by no means exhaustive.  There are plenty of countries around the world about which I know nothing, and which, if I'm honest, I'd even be hard pressed to locate on a map [Benin, anyone?].

But, for three glorious weeks [my long-suffering husband aside, I still say glorious!], I have lived in a truly global world--right here in Gettysburg.  I have cheered and sighed with people many time-zones away, in real time, and I have fallen in love with their heroes, like the Mexican goalie Ochoa, and learned something about their character and their backstories--the individuals, the teams, and the countries--and it's been amazing.  I'll be sorry when it ends on Sunday.

All of this reminds me why diversity is so important.  I live much of my life in academic and ecclesiastical circles where much of time--or at least, some of the time--"diversity" can feel like a dirty word.  In hiring new faculty, for example, or accepting new students [or even seeking new congregational members], some people balk at the idea that diversity should be a priority:  you know, because what we need are the "best" candidates/people, and that has nothing to do with skin color or country of origin.  I find this argument specious, because it seems to be predicated on the idea that what we're really looking for is a brain, and brains are all the same regardless of the kind of head that houses them.  It's ridiculous, isn't it?  We're not just brains--or "souls" or "hearts"--whatever that would mean [and I could go off on a great tangent here about Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy, which I have been re-reading lately, but I'll spare you]:  every aspect of who we are is enfleshed, and therefore every aspect of how we think, how we view others, what we read, and whose voices have authority are deeply rooted in where we were born, how we were raised, and the cultural milieu that surrounds us.

And, here's the important part:  when we come together as a community, we enrich the whole with our differences; and each of us as individuals become more than we were before with these different engagements and friendships.  Here is the paragraph from the Times piece that I especially liked.  

"There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited."

I think this is a true observation for more than just close friends:  I think this happens for us in many relationships we have over time in our lives.  Thinking about it that way, I realize that I want to be the kind of person that has all kinds of "versions"--facets that have been brought out by friendships with lots of different people; and I want that not only in my personal life, but in my professional life as well--and in my church life, for that matter.  Differences are important--they matter--and just like in soccer, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and I'm challenged and changed in ways I could never have imagined without someone inviting me into a new perspective, a new picture, a new corner of the globe.

Come Sunday, I'll be rooting for Germany, no doubt; but I have to confess, I've really come to love Messi over the course of these weeks, and if Argentina wins, I'll be happy for him.  And either way, I'll celebrate the beautiful game, and the way it brings together the whole world, even for just a short time, making us feel just a little more connected.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Religious Freedom? Freedom for what?

In case you missed the news from the Supreme Court yesterday, religious freedom is back in the news:; and, as a Christian, I can't say I'm happy about it.  Don't get me wrong--I'm all for religious freedom, but it seems like every time "religious freedom" is at the heart of a public debate, it quickly morphs into something that I don't quite recognize--like when my brother dressed up as Edward Scissorhands one year for Halloween [it was epic, believe me!].  For me, the problem is that the way I understand religious freedom--that is, the purpose and meaning of the whole idea--is as "freedom for" [and here my Lutheran roots are showing, right?].  That is, "freedom" in a religious context is not best understood as a right one claims for self-protection and self-validation, but as a welcome green-light for service to God and the neighbor. This means that true Christian freedom is about being liberated from concerns of wealth, status, and self-preservation such that one is able to dedicate one's life to the care and welfare of all God has made and loves:  friends and enemies, animals and trees, neighbors near and far.  All that is needful for us God provides, enabling us to be about the business of providing for others--radically, joyfully, and abundantly. This is Christian freedom at its best.

But, I'm afraid that this isn't what most people--especially those outside the church--think of when they hear the term "Christian freedom."  Instead, I'm afraid that what comes to mind is, "Oh, there go those Christians again, trying to make everyone else believe what they believe, and punishing those who don't."  [And, I could write an entirely separate post about how those who get punished somehow always seem to be women whose ethical [read:  sexual] choices are at odds with conservative "Christian values."]  Where are the Christian executives who exercise their religious freedom by paying their workers more than minimum wage, to help lift them out of poverty?  Where are the Christian businesses who exercise their religious freedom by refusing to deal in weapons manufacture and trade?  Where are the Christian companies who exercise their religious freedom by choosing to buy meat only from farms where the animals are treated humanely?  Sure, these "freedoms" may be costly, but that's part of the point--religious freedom isn't cheap, and it isn't meant to shore up either the wealth or the morality of Christians themselves.  Christian freedom is a gift meant to be spent on others, not a treasure to be horded for one's own sake.

I'm all for Christian freedom--but only insofar as it works love and justice in the world, only insofar as it builds bridges, not walls between Christians and the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Does God Love Introverts? Reflections on "Quiet," by Susan Cain

I just finished reading Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.  It was a good, interesting book--even if, frankly, the core argument could have been made in a long New Yorker article!  Her point, as you might imagine, is that we live in a world where extroverts are privileged, and we all suffer when introverts are not given space to thrive, and when we as a society don't value the unique gifts and skills they offer.  We love the dynamic, the energetic, the decisive, and the commanding; and we overlook or even criticize the quiet, the thoughtful, the solitary and the gentle.  Cain writes, "But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly.  Some of our greatest ideas, art and invention--from the theory of evolution to van Gogh's sunflowers to the personal computer--came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there" [5].

She traces the beginning of the "Extrovert Ideal" back to the early 20th Century and Dale Carnegie--and his book Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business.  What I thought was particularly interesting in this chapter was her description of what happened as this ideal became dominant:  we shifted from a "Culture of Character," where the ideal self is "serious, disciplined and honorable, to a "Culture of Personality," where the ideal self is a bold and entertaining performer. In the former culture, attributes that are valued are duty, honor, reputation, citizenship and integrity; and in the latter, the prized attributes are magnetic, attractive, dominant and forceful.  It's quite a shift, isn't it?

If you are in the church, you know that this "Culture of Personality" is alive and well there:  pastors who can "perform"--captivating congregations with a hearty sense of humor, loud, dramatic preaching, and relentlessly energetic enthusiasm--are highly desired and passionately followed.  Unfortunately, this is also what leads to religious cults--both literal and more figurative:  the congregation that follows a charismatic pastor out of a denomination to form their own "church" somewhere else.  It's ministry as popularity contest, beauty pageant, or talent show.

Incidentally, Cain doesn't talk about religion much in her book, but she does visit Rick Warren's Saddleback Church complex--described under the heading "Does God Love Introverts?" [p. 64ff].  There, in addition to noting the extroverted character of evangelical worship in general, she learns about the pressures--particularly on evangelical pastors--to be extroverts, talking with one pastor who described the "evangelical culture" where the emphasis is on community and meeting ever-more people with whom one can share one's faith.  Her conclusion after her conversation with him? "Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme...If you don't love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love.  It's not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly."

Now, to be clear, I'm a firm believer that all pastors do need to be "functional extroverts"--that's the term we use around Gettysburg Seminary, anyway.  On Sunday mornings, at least, people need to feel that you are happy to be there, eager to see them and welcome them, and enthusiastically engaging them with genuine warmth.  [My husband, who is a strong introvert, does this as well as anyone, but it means he is wiped out for the rest of the day.]  However, it is also clear to me that this cannot be the only paradigm in which individuals--and even the church--are allowed to function.  A church service needs space for quiet prayer and reflection; and individuals need space for observation, one-on-one conversations, and deeper connection.  These activities need to be nurtured and celebrated in the church.  But sometimes it feels to me like we have lost those values in and among our fears about declining congregations and increased marginalization in society.  We want the bold face, the loud voice, the strong handshake and the compelling personality--surely, that will turn things around for the church!  Obviously, I'm not so sure.  I've got nothing at all against extroverts, I just don't think they should get to set the rules of the game for all of us, all by themselves.  We need each other, we balance each other, and we can learn from each other.

The final part of the book offers some concrete advice for couples and parents--it isn't always easy for introverts and extroverts to be "family" together, because the expectations for time together and healthy relationships often are so different.  If you are in that situation, I'd recommend those chapters.  Let me close with an extended quote from her conclusion--I like what she says here, because it's about being yourself and celebrating who you are, but attending to others' needs, too:

"Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest.  Work with colleagues you like and respect...Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.  The secret to life is to put yourself [and others, I would say!] in the right lighting.  For some it's a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.  Use your natural powers--of persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity--to do work you love and work that matters.  Solve problems, make art, think deeply."

And, what she said directly to me is this:  "If you're a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students.  But don't forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms...They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow."  I'd say that's true for pastors, too, relating to those in their congregations.  I need to think about how to do that better in my own teaching.

And finally:  "there are many different kinds of powers in this world...The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you've been granted."  That's great advice for extroverts and introverts alike!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Creating Your Own "Rat Park"

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had read something in "O" magazine that I wanted to talk about, but then I got distracted by something else.  Well, on this beautiful sunny summer's day--when what I really want to do is get outside--I'm going back to that article & just write a quick post about it.  It's from the February 2014 issue, and the article is by Martha Beck.  [And good luck finding it online--I just checked & I find the website a little daunting, but I haven't been on it before, so maybe it's just me].

Anyway, the point of the article is that sometimes the behaviors we beat ourselves up over--and call "self-sabotage"--happen because of a larger situation we are in that is making us miserable; and our bodies [that is, us in our fullness--more than just our rationale minds] are desperately trying to find succor.  The title of the article [which I've lost now but has something to do with rats]--and the title of this post--comes from research that a Canadian psychologist/professor did with rats [his name is Bruce Alexander].  He was examining the many studies that show how addictive heroin and other opiates are, studies proven by the behavior of lab rats, who, when given the chance, consistently dope themselves to oblivion.

He wondered if part of the reason for the rats' behavior had something to do with the fact that all the rats [intelligent and social animals] in the study were being kept isolated in cages.  Beck says, "And then he had a radical thought:  Maybe (follow the logic closely) rats don't like being alone in a cage.  Maybe they dislike it so much that when locked inside, they'll desperately distract themselves with whatever is available.  Hello, heroin!"  So, Alexander tried a different kind of experiment:  he and his colleagues built a "veritable spa" for rodents:  "a large, clean, wood chip-strewn enclosure they called Rat Park."  At this point, you might imagine what happened:  when Alexander took the rats out of their lonely cages and put them together in the Rat Park, and then gave them a choice of plain water or sugar water laced with morphine, the rats most often chose plain water.

You see where Beck is going with this:  in a similar situations, humans respond uncannily like rats.  When we are miserable--trapped in various kinds of "cages," we, too, engage in behavior that allows us to escape to "oblivion."  She argues that our "computer" selves follow reason and logic, and insist on certain types of action that make "sense."  That's all well and good, but our "animal" selves want comfort, love, joy and peace; and when we are denied that, we act out--finding it in whatever escapes are available to us.  She writes, "The computer self builds a sort of cage of obligations and beliefs.  Bad habits are your animal self's attempt to ease its distress while living in that cage."

Now, I'm not completely sold on the whole "animal/computer" dichotomy, but what I found compelling about her argument is first, the recognition that we are whole beings--not just minds--and all of who we are matters in how we live.  We can't endlessly suppress our emotions, our sexuality, and the needs of our bodies to move, dance, and rest without consequence.  And second, therefore, in the long run, for us to thrive, we need to create an environment in which we can live in safety, harmony, and contentment.  When we do that, there is a good chance that the behaviors we categorize as "self-sabotaging" cease to have as much power over us.

Everyone is different, of course, and there are situations always in our lives that we wish we could change, but we have to live with--at least for awhile.  But I always find it empowering to remind myself of the changes I can make--none of us are entirely without agency in our own lives; and then I can either make them, or choose not to--but when I do that, I remind myself I have made that choice:  it makes me feel less trapped.  No animal likes to be "trapped"--and we're animals, after all.

So, now I'm going out in the sun!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Re-thinking Buechner's "deep gladness"

Many of the Lutherans I hang out with on a regular basis really like Frederick Buechner--even though he isn't Lutheran, I think many of us would like to claim him!  Anyway, one of Buechner's quotes that I hear all the time, and people seem to really appreciate, is this one, from Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC:  "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  Now, I have nothing against this idea--although to be honest, I'm a little suspicious that many Christians have latched onto it primarily for the "deep gladness" part, which facilitates our assumption that God wants for me the same things I want for myself; and if I'm happy, God's happy.  [That's for you, Patrick--inside joke with my students....]  Even when you don't lose sight of the "deep hunger" piece, there is a chance that you can take it so broadly and metaphorically that anything you do can "count" as meeting some "hunger" in the world.  [I'm thinking now of that new commercial for the iPad air--you know the one:  "the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse." Watch it here:]  I do think the world needs all of our diverse gifts and skills, and I do believe in art, beauty and love for their own sake; however, I'm not sure we're always the best judge of our "contribution"--or that the "verse" we want to share is the one that the the poem at large really needs.

And, at the same time, I find myself thinking of all the millions and millions of people who don't have the luxury of vocational options or writing poetry, those who make their choices not based on their own "deep gladness" but on the hope of some possible future gladness for their children, or their children's children.  Or who have forgotten what "gladness" even feels like, and make their choices simply to survive from one day to the next.  What of them? 

All of these thoughts were prompted by this article I read a few days ago:

As you can tell from the title, the author is challenging the mantra of "do what you love" when it comes to big-picture thinking about one's life.  Instead, he says, there are more dimensions of life that should be considered besides one's own personal enjoyment and gratification.  This is the quote in the article that I liked the best:  

"Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something 'higher' was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires."

Maybe this is exactly what Buechner was trying to get at, but, for me, this image of three dimensions of life and our responsibility to all of them--and the recognition that sometimes one of them ends up with disproportionate influence over us--resonates more strongly.  Sometimes gladness and hunger just don't come together, and we have to choose: and when we do, we have to remember that thinking that we always should be able to find "deep gladness" in the work God calls us to do at various points in our lives is delusional, and we will be gravely disappointed as we hop from one place to other seeking that "gladness" [again, especially if one's operating synonym for gladness is "happiness."]  

Please let me be clear here:  I am not saying that if you are in a miserable situation God intends you to stay there, period.  [There's lots I don't know about God, but I'm quite certain God has zero sadistic tendencies and does not intend us to die a slow spiritual death].  I have no special insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in your life and I am not trying to give anyone any specific advice in any specific situation.  What I am saying is that our vocation in the world is relational, complicated, and ever-changing:  we always are discerning the Spirit's call in our lives at any given point, thinking not only about ourselves but about the lives of all those with whom we are in relationship.  I just think it's important to say that sometimes it's not that we need to form our lives around our desires, but as the author said, it's our very desires that need to be re-formed.  Basically, that's the sentiment with which the article ends:
"Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can."
I guess I just think that's true--not for a lifetime, God willing, or even for a long time--but sometimes hunger simply trumps gladness, and there's no way around it, you just have to go through it.  However, because I'm an optimist, I will dare to say more: I do think it's possible [though it doesn't always happen] that we can find our gladness in the world's hunger, even though when we started, we were sure that wasn't going to be the case.  God does work in mysterious ways, after all.