From the Dean: Autobiographies That Save Our Soul

Humans have an obsessive need for story-telling. We tell stories because they help us see patterns in human behavior and the world around us, and the patterns make life seem less random and chaotic. Stories position us in our history; they make us aware of a higher order, an organization, and a meaning to our experiences, especially the disrupting ones, than those experiences often feel. The world can spin in dysfunction and chaos around me, but my go-to stories help me keep my center. Contrary to the preferences of some of us who like charts, graphs, and data tables, stories are the most powerful way to change someone’s mind.

This reality seems to run against the grain of our data-driven Information Age. But, as science writer Jeremy Hsu notes, 65% of our conversations still deal with stories and gossip. We not only want to tell stories; we need to tell stories, all kinds of them, and one of the more powerful forms is the autobiography. Throughout history, autobiographies have inspired the dreams of readers, fueled their public awareness of issues, and shaped their values, virtues, ideals and social, political and religious commitments. One of the most remarkable moral conversion resources in U.S. history has been the autobiography. Personal stories have saved our national soul (and personal souls) more than once.

Some of the influential autobiographies impacting the thinking of people over the last 50 years have been Anne Frank’s, The Diary of a Young Girl; Mahatma Gandhi’s, My Experiment with Truth; Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Nelson Mandela’s, Long Walk to Freedom; Golda Meir’s, My Life; Malcolm X’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told by Alex Haley; Barack Obama’s, Dreams from My Father; and, Malala Yousafzai’s, I Am Malala. Because of these autobiographies, many of us think differently about adolescent development, social action in the world, the African-American experience in the U.S., the human cost involved in toppling an oppressive regime; and, the leadership challenges and opportunities faced by Jewish and Muslim women.

Last year, as part of its pilot of a new Search for Meaning Empowerment Series, the School of Theology and Ministry invited three people to talk about their autobiographies: former director of the FBI, James Comey; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and Gold Star father who lost his son, Captain Humayun Khan, to a 2004 car bombing in Iraq, and challenged Donald Trump in a speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention to borrow his (Kahn’s) copy of the U.S. Constitution and read it.

Autobiographies allow the reader to see the world from an entirely different perspective, and to begin to think and feel from another person’s perspective. Social psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock call this phenomenon “narrative transportation.” A reader’s belief system and judgments in the real world can change based on the “transport” experience of a story. The phenomenon works for fiction, too, but autobiographies offer a particular kind of influence. They are based on real stories and real people.

Many believe St. Augustine of Hippo’s, Confessions, published in 400 CE, was the first autobiography in Western culture. The text tells the story of the author’s self-indulgent and self-destructive search for happiness, ultimate meaning, and purpose in his youth, and his ultimate conversion to Christianity. As Augustine wrote in one of his book’s most quoted passages:

“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! … You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness: You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in a breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

O Beauty Ever Ancient by St. Louis Jesuits

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Augustine wrote his Confessions. Few scholars believe that he wrote it to convert others. But, his text has opened many readers through the centuries to a spiritual reality that they only accessed the first time through the narrative transportation they experienced in reading Confessions. In a similar way, the 1948 autobiography of the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, deeply impacted post-World War II readers, particularly those who had encountered the carnage of battle and technologically-enhanced destruction. They experienced the expansion of their search for meaning, purpose, and belief in something bigger than themselves by walking imaginatively through the experiences of Merton.

In a very real way, story-telling allows us to plant ideas and experiences into someone else’s brain through the empathetic connection the reader makes with the writer or characters in a story. A well-written autobiography puts us in someone else’s skin. It allows us to see the world from their perspective and can awaken us to the same kinds of intellectual, emotional and spiritual transformations described by the author.

Since we have just completed Black History Month, it is worth mentioning that one of the most influential autobiographies in U.S. history is The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Douglass was born into slavery and escaped to the north at the age of 20. While attending an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket in August of 1841, he felt the compulsion to address a mostly white crowd, and the famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, heard the impromptu speech. Afterward, Garrison convinced Douglass to write an autobiography and to become a storied symbol of the evil of American slavery.

Douglass’s book provides graphic descriptions of torture, the emotional and physical mistreatment of fellow slaves, and his own first awakenings of a desire for true freedom. But, the power of Douglass’s narrative is that it is mostly about the simple things experienced by a man living under the horrid situation of slavery. He explains the smells, sights, tastes and sounds of a slave in the antebellum south, and the feelings these sensations created inside him of fear, sorrow, loss, and anger, as well as the emerging dreams of adequate food and warmth and clothing, and a sense of safety and security that birthed a burning desire for freedom. The Douglass autobiography created an empathy bridge for its more than 30,000 readers prior to the Civil War. It became a powerful source of motivation for American abolitionists, opening their eyes to the urgency of the nation’s need to end the evils of slavery.

As the United States continues to debate the issue of immigration, another autobiography is now attempting to awaken the American conscience the same way Douglass did in pre-Civil War America. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant, wrote, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, in order to explain what it felt like to hide his undocumented status for 18 years while living in the United States, attending middle school, high school, college, and launching a journalism career. Vargas explains how he worked around educational and legal systems by relying on his own wits and the counsel of an assortment of mostly white Americans who cared for him and offered their assistance.

The author believes his book is not so much about the complexities of the American immigration system as it is about “homelessness” and the “unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in.” The stories in the book are about the need for many undocumented immigrants to build an identity and life on lies, and the toll this takes on immigrants, their families, and those who care for the women and men caught in the purgatory between legal and undocumented status.

In 2011, Vargas decided to expose his immigration status through an autobiographical article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

This article later led to his autobiography, which he dedicated to the world’s 258 million migrants. Three years after the publication of the book, while attending a vigil for Central American migrants in a border town in Texas, Vargas was arrested for lack of proper documentation and was placed in detention. His incarceration became an international news story. In his cell, he realized a disturbing truth about the way the U.S. treats its migrants.

“Inside the cell, I concluded that none of this was an accident … waving a ‘Keep Out!’ flag at the Mexican border while holding up a Help Wanted sign a hundred yards in (to the nation’s border) – is deliberate. Spending billions building fences and walls, locking people up like livestock, deporting people to keep the people we don’t want out, tearing families apart, breaking spirits – all of that serves a purpose.”

The American immigration system is designed, wittingly or unwittingly, to create misery in the lives of millions of innocent human beings, so that they can serve the employment needs of several industries relying on cheap labor. “Dear America,” Vargas concludes the book in the best of the autobiographical tradition, “is this really whom we want to be?

As humans, we have a million ways to hide the truth of our complicity in evil. We are busy. We don’t really know the details. We are victims of the system. Some of our greatest moral issues are also papered over in state-sanctioned inaccurate information, if not downright lies. There is no greater example of this than the immigration issue.

Vargas has used his newfound fame to highlight the role of the immigrant. After moving from an invisible to a visible story-teller in American society on the issue of immigration, he used his resources to found: Define American, a multi-media story-telling organization that attempts to redefine the way Americans think about the people who come to the U.S. for all kinds of reasons, but without the proper documentation. We will see if Vargas changes America’s attitudes about immigration, the way Frederick Douglass did about slavery.

But, regardless of the conclusion of the Vargas effort, autobiographies will continue to wield power. The kind of power to save our souls.

The Cruelty of Winning and Losing

October 31, 2018

In just a few days, the United States will receive the results of a highly charged mid-term election that has been awash in accusations, vitriol, and the hateful spin-doctoring of every fact. The outcome of the election is still uncertain. It might end up a blue wave or blue ripple. Or, perhaps a red tide or serious red low tide. Either way, we will have victory laps and pity parties on November 6, and analysts will spend weeks explaining why it happened the way it did and what it means for the future. But, I’m not sure thinking about this election in terms of winning and losing is going to help any of us. A win-loss mythology has gripped both parties, mixed with elements of cruelty, and we will make no substantive move forward as a nation and culture unless we figure out how to break the spell of this obsession.

In a 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama offered a noble sentiment: “When they go low, we go high.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder recently demonstrated the level of disintegration in our discourse at a Democratic rally in Georgia almost exactly two years later: “When they go low,” he corrected, “we kick them.” Holder, like many Democrats, learned in the past two years that politicians running on high-minded values, like civility and kindness, lose elections. Mainstream Republicans were taught the same lesson in the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump ignored the political tradition of balancing rhetoric with measured speech and thoughtfulness.

In the process, we became fixated on images and concepts related to winning. It is an inaccuracy to say that President Donald Trump only likes to win. It is one of his 20 most frequently used words:

  • “My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”
  • “Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!”
  • “Work hard, be smart and always remember, winning takes care of everything!”

Winning doesn’t take care of everything and it does get boring, in large part because it is a complicated concept.

The desire to win and avoid loss is woven deeply into our psyche. Developmental psychologist Susan Harter found that small children, especially boys, have a “fantasied self” that grossly overestimates their talents, abilities, and virtues. They often brag to prop up a fragile ego, while they learn one of life’s most difficult lessons: how to process failure, shame, and envy. A great project of growing up is learning how to win with humility and to lose with grace, and not interiorize either one. Of course, some of us never develop the resilience to happily accept a second-place ribbon, or God forbid, no ribbon at all.

If you are a politician, professional athlete, gambler, salesperson or trial lawyer, winning and losing is a common experience. But, many of the people most deeply impacting the healthy, daily operation of our world do not regularly think about life in the binaries of winning and losing. People dedicating themselves to humble professions that bind up the wounds of a broken humanity, specialize in providing hope and security to others, and commit themselves to on-going reform of the institutions that employ health care workers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, community developers, teachers, journalists, counselors, and ministers think in terms of caring, flourishing and meaning rather than winning and losing. Unfortunately, the hottest theories about creating a better world over the past two decades have come from people who bit the win-loss apple, and ironically their influence has, in part, inadvertently created many of our political problems.

According to Anand Giridharadas, the great “winners” in the 21st-century economy – technology gurus, masters of the start-up and the mobile app, and the venture capitalists that support them, as well as a handful of charities, universities, media personalities, activists, entertainers, nonprofit executives and specially formed thinktanks – have created a global subculture that mixes the mythology of winning with an unquestioning trust in free market capitalism. And, the mixture created a new philosophy on doing good and trying to create a better world.

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Giridharadas describes how wildly successful companies, such as Uber, Lyft, Even, Airbnb and many tech companies, have convinced a significant number of intelligent and influential humans that the secret to resolving issues like poverty, inadequate education, equal rights, and even malaria, is not found in the transformation of the governmental and private institutions that govern our common life and are charged to serve as agents of promoting and protecting social justice. Rather, the key to solving our biggest problems comes through the initiatives of socially responsible business. One of the appeals of this new creative force for finding solutions is its simplicity and grandiosity: solutions to humanity’s biggest problems will not occur one person or village at a time, but “to scale,” at a dramatic global level that will bend the arc of human history toward prosperity and peace.

“These (are) elites,” Giridharadas says, “(who) believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of systems that people share in common.” And, the message is attractive to some of the nation’s brightest young people, who are aggressively recruited by some of these companies at America’s most prestigious universities.

Giridharadas summarizes what he calls the MarketWorld belief system as faith in the power of the individual to crusade for justice, get super-rich, save the lives of the poor and innocent, and become culturally and politically powerful, and then using this influence to make further positive contributions to the world, as well. A corollary to this position, sometimes mentioned, often just implied, is that there is no longer a need to devote one’s life to education, social work, criminal justice, unions or ministry to change the political, social or economic systems that create so much of the world’s suffering. Many in MarketWorld believe that those institutional structures are part of the swamp, beyond regeneration, and in need of draining. So, when Uber and Lyft talk about their corporate mission, they speak of providing new freedom and participation in the economy by drivers and giving riders cheaper services than offered by the taxi “cartels.” (Note: they speak of cartels instead of taxi unions, which developed to protect worker salaries and rights.) Ironically, these large successful companies often portray themselves as the underdog and outsider, the rebel overturning older institutions that stifle creativity in order to usher in an era of prosperity and peace.

The MarketWorlders re-evangelize themselves through an unending chain of “tent revivals around the world.” Some of these conferences are known as the Davos World Economic ForumSun ValleyTechCrunch DisruptBilderberg, and the Summit at Sea, a cruise ship that is booked as a floating retreat for entrepreneurs wanting to change the world. One of the most impactful revivals for this gospel has occurred during UN Week at gatherings of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the charity Bill Clinton began with his wife after he left the White House. Questions about the CGI’s intersection of money, power, and influence created a major distraction in Hillary Clinton’s own bid for the presidency and contributed to her losing the election. If you hear people on conservative talk radio and television complaining about the globalists and out of touch elites, they are really talking about the true believers of MarketWorld.

Giridharadas suggests that the resurrection of the populism in the United States under Donald Trump is a reaction to these well-educated, uberwealthy, politically connected and technologically savvy “MarketWorlders” who have tried to change what it means to “do good in the world,” while “doing well for themselves.” It is more than a coincidence that Giridharadas’s book begins with an anecdote about an idealistic Georgetown student, Hilary Cohen, who wrestled with becoming a rabbi or buying into the promises of the MarketWorld “movement.” She decided not to go to seminary, but she remained haunted about whether she was actually changing the world in the right way, and whether MarketWorld faith could deliver on its promises.

We have had a massive abandonment of the very institutions that have knit our society together and the well-intentioned desire to improve and eliminate suffering in our world by the religion of MarketWorld helped to create the situation. To make it all more complicated, the push away from our institutional infrastructures has become mixed with the nation’s deep cultural strains of cruelty. During times of stress and change, Americans have always lowered their inhibitions for crass, boorish and even hateful behaviors, like most cultures. In the U.S., however, we have often celebrated such conduct, a product of our forces of racism and xenophobia. Umair Haque, one of the world’s most respected management thinkers, believes the U.S. has harbored these negative behaviors for so long that we have become a “uniquely cruel” society.

Why America is the World’s Most Uniquely Cruel Society 
Or, How Punching Down Became a Way of Life 

In our best times, we like to believe we are a welcoming nation, a haven for the poor, tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But, in reality, Haque maintains, xenophobic dog whistles like the caravan of refugees walking through Mexico or fear-baiting about immigrants who want to steal or destroy our way of life, has been a staple in American culture. Life for immigrants in this nation has been so harsh, says Haque, that former immigrants learn quickly to suspect new immigrants. Each wave of immigration to reach the shores of the U.S. has had to struggle against the dominance of the previous wave of immigrants, who have learned to “punch down,” diminish and marginalize the new “other.” America has practiced its exclusionary ways for so long that it has become a subterranean national characteristic, surfacing with greater fury at times of anxiety, uncertainty, and societal changes.

What can we do about this moment in our history? We can encourage the young seeking to do good in the world to look seriously at the traditional professions that have knit together our common life, and to do so with not only a desire to serve but also an intent to reform those institutions. If they choose to do so, we also need to pledge our support to them. Institutions are mixed blessings. They do great, important work in the world, but they also disappoint us. They lean toward inertia and complicate their structures so that it becomes difficult to do the work they exist to provide. At their worst, they break our hearts. Every generation has to reform them and that takes the dedication of not several months or years, but a lifetime. People working in these institutions of service and government have to make enormous sacrifices, including making a much smaller salary, a clear violation of a central dogma of the faith of MarketWorld. If you want to do good in the world, you will personally do less well. Most of us cannot have our cake and eat it, too. That’s just part of the gig.

Dealing with our cruelty is both easier and more complicated. While I believe we can and must address it through education and political change, American cruelty lives in our own families and neighborhoods, and eradicating it is first a family affair. In a few weeks, many Americans will bring the destructive attitudes and behaviors of our nation’s cruelty to the Thanksgiving table. Don’t gloat if your values won in the mid-term elections, or sulk if they lost. Commit yourself to serve as an example of someone who does not look to winning and losing as a meaning system.

Instead, try to listen deeply enough to hear the fear and confusion that lies beneath the pernicious and destructive thoughts and comments made by an obsessive uncle or a borderline paranoid cousin. Don’t challenge their public policy preferences. Challenge their humanity through the stories and traditions of the exemplars of your own family system and history. Surface the nobility, courage, sacrifices, and compassion that motivated ancestors in their day and time. In other words, create cognitive dissonance for them by using story to force fear and confusion of the “other” into dialogue with the real human faces they know.

The United States will not get beyond this dysfunctional time easily or quickly. But we can rise above this cruel period of thinking in the categories of winning and losing. Only then can we re-discover the unum in our national motto: e pluribus unum.

Does Religion Have a Future? Flip a Coin!

September 28, 2018

I have friends and family who have been predicting the demise of religion for a long time. One of them recently asked me what kinds of students could possibly have an interest in studying about religion in any form, given all the bad publicity about religious organizations. In our spirited conversation, I realized that my friend, who was hurt several times in his youth by religious leaders, is only able to see one side of the religious “coin” because of his experiences. He sees the scandals, hypocrisies, ignorance, and mean-spiritedness that is too often associated with religious believers and their organizations; and he has a homing device for catching the inconsistencies between the stated and lived religious values of many people professing a religious faith.

My friend believes he has history and current events on his side. He is quick to point out Christianity’s long history of complicity with violence, oppression, and misogyny and he has followed closely two recent controversies: the Catholic sex abuse cover-up and the revelation that four out of five Evangelicals are now voting for U.S. politicians with proven records of immorality and even documented illegal behaviors. In addition, he knows that this unholy mix of religion, bad acting and politics is not just an American phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has been linked with Russian efforts to destabilize the Balkans, particularly those nations seeking to join the NATO alliance, like Montenegro and Macedonia, and Judaism is criticized regularly for fomenting the diminishment or even dehumanization of Palestinians and Arabs in and around the Jewish state of Israel. Islam, of course, is the religious bogeyman, condemned for having members that embrace terrorism, and even followers of the peace-centered religious traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism are lampooned for the violent extremists in their own ranks, particularly in nations like Sri Lanka and India.

There is undeniable truth to this description of one side of the religion “coin.” But, there is another side to the coin that holds an equal truth that eludes my friend. Religion has been like gum stuck on the sole of the human shoe, because people of every generation find meaning, purpose, motivation, and direction in and through the rituals, traditions, and teachings of religious traditions. More importantly, the other side of the religion coin opens doorways to sets of relationships that collectively create the possibility of re-imagining one’s interpretation of creation and the human condition. It offers an “imaginary,” in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, that can become drenched in hope, kindness, solidarity, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the kind of love that makes room for the possibility of human connectivity that transcends all divisions.

For more than half a century, many professors teaching students about religion have been engaged in an on-going debate about the nature of religious belief and practice. The debate has criticized the so-called World Religions Paradigm, the most common way most educators have approached teaching religion. This paradigm believes that there are “great” historic religious traditions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and the way to teach people about them is to explain each religion’s doctrines and dogmas, rituals, and practices. If a student knows these, they have some sense of what makes people tick who follow those religious traditions.

In the 1960s, William Cantwell Smith, a Canadian professor of comparative religion, argued that thinking about religion as information to share with people misses the whole point. Religion has all these things, and they have a certain level of importance, but ultimately religion is about relationships, he insisted. Religion is about helping people to understand how to relate to God, a Higher Power, or maybe just a Higher Purpose. This understanding of religion is about human relationships with each other, the way we engage and accept one another as companions on the human journey, despite our many differences. A religion of relationships also emphasizes relating to the environment, to the earth and dust from which we come and return, and all of the animate and inanimate beings sharing space in the universe. Lastly, this idea of religion, particularly in its mystical forms, is all about learning to relate with compassion, acceptance, and discipline to the fragmented pieces of our own human spirit, and to know experientially that our deepest connection to each other is through our shared brokenness.

This is the other side of the religious coin, the clarifying, sensitizing and liberating form of religion, and every fall Seattle University’ School of Theology and Ministry welcomes a motivated, bright and idealistic group of students who want to explore this side of the coin.

I marvel at the pathways many of these students have walked, the hurdles they have climbed, and the disappointments and disillusionments they have endured before crossing through the doorway of our school. Some have already overcome obstacles that would have crushed the spirit of others, and have quietly made contributions to human flourishing that would dwarf the efforts of those receiving laurels. They are testimonials to generosity, humility and the indomitable spirit of the human mind and heart to live more fully aware and more fully alive because it is right, not because anyone notices.

Our students are motivated to study with us for an assortment of more immediate reasons. Some are preparing to lead congregations; others to become leaders in faith-based organizations, particularly in the social service and social justice sectors, working on issues like homelessness, immigration, prison reform, or restorative justice; still others want to serve as counselors, with a special sensitivity to spirituality and faith as a resource for mental health; and some seek to become chaplains in hospitals, the military, prisons, police departments or industry. Every year, we also have students who come back to school because they have discerned this is a step they must take in their life journey, even though they are uncertain about the next step. There is also an emerging group seeking education to bring a “ministerial consciousness” or “spiritually awakened” sensitivity to leadership in institutions of education, government, and industry.

This mélange of educational goals among our students is complemented by other important forms of diversity. For several years, the school has had an increasing level of pluralism in religious or spiritual backgrounds. Our wildly different students join an educational environment that swims against the tide of the polarized politics, religion, and culture wars that has been releasing poison into the lives of our organizations and societies for three or four decades. We have students coming from every imaginable Christian tradition – from Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal – as well as women and men with backgrounds in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, not to mention spiritual seekers, and even agnostics and atheists. The students also come from many different cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds, disparate educational backgrounds (from business and law to healthcare and liberal arts) and various socioeconomic backgrounds (from financially comfortable to living at or below the poverty line). Lastly, our students are an intergenerational group, with ages ranging from the early 20s to the mid-70s, bringing thousands of years of human experience into every academic year.

What could such different people with varying interests find in common? Although they might not readily recognize these common patterns in themselves, over the past few years I have noticed that our students share a hunger for something “more” in their life. They seem to intuit that exploring the ebb and flow of spirituality, faith-informed ethics, and the good side of the religious coin provides the gateway to a unique form of human wisdom: a wisdom designed to help people find something “bigger” than themselves. Our students seek a wisdom grounded in ideas, perspectives, and practices, but also the resources needed to develop the courage, strength, and skills to devote their lives to layers of relationships to which we must attend if we truly seek to leave a mark on our world. They want to heal the broken places in creation; they want to inspire others to live in an impregnable hope that can stand against even insurmountable odds; and, they are eager to set others on fire with a vision and passion for creating a more just and humane world.

Although they might talk about it differently, our students realize that they will come to this place of generous service and a more deeply rooted identity in the midst of a world of growing plurality precisely through their study of the other side of the religious “coin,” a process that will help them to not only understand the other side of the coin but to become it for others. They will learn the wisdom of a young, precocious teenage African-American poet, Frederick J.B. Moore II:  

To change the world 
your heart has to be into it 
you can’t half step what you do
or everything will fall apart …

to change the world 
you need a foundation behind you 
that will encourage you to keep pushing the world 
when you’re broken and exhausted 

to change the world 
your first step has to be yourself 
because you are the greatest catalyst for change 

This is the good side of the religious coin my friend just can’t see, but millions across the world hunger to encounter and always will, even when the forms of religious institutional structures change and come and go, even when a religious tradition gets swamped in a moral crisis that highlights the negative so much it renders the positive invisible. Ironically, an era of vast political ineptitude and disintegration makes the good side of the coin more attractive to people who are looking for something more enduring and transcendent.

Does religion have a future? Flip a coin. But, make sure you are looking at both sides.

Global Street Paper Summit Comes to Seattle University


On June 24-26, Seattle University hosted the Global Street Paper Summit. This annual conference put on by the International Network of Street Papers brings together hundreds of representatives from street papers all over the world to engage in networking, discussion, and education. Street papers are publications that serve two purposes: to spread awareness about poverty-related issues as well as provide employment for people experiencing homelessness. The conference serves as a way for people engaged in this important work to meet, share, and learn from one another. This was the first time the conference has ever been held in the US. The School of Theology and Ministry welcomed participants and facilitated workshops throughout the week. The workshops covered everything from programs developed to serve Seattle’s homeless population to low cost marketing strategies to utilizing social media.

Here are some remarks I shared with the attendees during the conference:

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 2.01.41 PMIt is a great honor to have you with us this week on the campus of Seattle University, for the first-ever INSP summit in the United States. I hope you are getting a chance to walk around our beautiful campus, spend a little time outside in the sun, and maybe explore the city or take a ride on a ferry. You may have heard that we get a little rain in Seattle sometimes. While that is a bit of a caricature, it doesn’t always look like this in Seattle at this time of the year, and when the sun comes out like this, Seattleites emerge from their homes and buildings like moles leaving their holes, squinting at the bright light in the sky.

In case you haven’t felt it, yet, you are meeting on the campus of a Jesuit university that is a kindred spirit with the visions and missions of your newspapers. Within Roman Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition has two distinctive qualities – a commitment to the intellectual life, and a dedication and passion for educating future leaders to work for peace and justice, whether the motivation of that work is from a faith-based perspective or not. From the university’s engagement with poorer neighborhoods around the university through the Seattle University Youth Initiative, to our equally creative engagement with coffee growers in Nicaragua and the Jesuit university located in Managua, to the countless student internships and immersion experiences that are occurring throughout the city, the state, the nation, and many countries in the world: we are a university that tries every day to live up to our mission to focus our intellectual resources on the promotion of activities that will lead to a more just and humane world.  

In the past few years we have had an exciting and dramatic university effort to respond to the realities of homelessness, especially family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. In the true Jesuit tradition of the Italian Renaissance, which promoted the fine art of rhetoric and persuasion: we want to persuade everyone we can that it is unacceptable to have fellow humans beings living lives of quiet desperation, particularly in a city with the educational and industrial achievements and unprecedented levels of wealth as this one.  As you heard this morning from Dean David Powers, our communications department in the College of Arts and Sciences has engaged the journalism profession directly on the issue of family homelessness. 

My own School of Theology and Ministry began a faith and family homelessness initiative four years ago, due to the generosity of the Gates Foundation. In the past few years we’ve had a team of people from the school logging hundreds of hours as they have worked across the region to assist religious congregations and organizations in the deepening of their faith communities’ commitment to alleviating homelessness. Our primary effort began by working intimately with 14 Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations, assisting their more than 18,000 congregants to organize their own community efforts to reduce the number of families living in shelters or on the streets.  In the process, we’ve also created a near educational cottage industry with a “poverty immersion workshop.” After getting featured in an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, this workshop, which allows people to have a life-like experiential encounter with the frustrations and burdens of poverty and homelessness in the United States, became our school’s most popular extra-curricular activity, with hundreds participating across the region. We’ve had some remarkable results in this effort, and have in some ways had an opportunity to change the conversation about the potential of faith communities to move society’s needle on this complicated social problem. If you are interested in this effort to “breathe” the importance of working to end family homelessness into the Seattle area’s religiously plural population, you can talk to Lisa Gustaveson, the program manager for our school’s efforts.

halfwyLastly, let me applaud you for the way you are spending your life as journalists of street newspapers. As a former journalist, with a degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, I think street papers are one of the most important evolutions in news reporting. When you look at journalism as a field, most people miss that the industry is not a dispassionate organization in search of the truth. It is a business, and often a complex one, requiring a substantial cash flow that requires all kinds of compromises between corporate and journalistic values. The larger media outlets have to dance to the tune of many pipers, and this can mute, if not extinguish, the deepest nobility in the profession of the Fourth Estate. Your newspapers stand squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table. 

I love the title of your conference: INSPired together. This is, indeed, the only way humanity will make a substantive change in the world’s plight of homelessness. We have to do it together. But, I’m sure most of you also know that etymologically “inspire” comes from a Latin root (inspirare) meaning to “breathe or blow into.” Originally, the word referred to the blow of a divine or supernatural being into someone, in the sense of “imparting a truth or idea.”  

By nature of your missions, you stand with the populations in your cities and nations that have no discernable voice in the fast-paced, competitive and chaotic world of the third decade of the 21st century. In doing so, you breathe into you societies a truth about an issue many contemporary people do not want to explore, let alone understand, let alone change.  You go beyond good journalistic ethics to pursue the truth: you live, and move and have your being in the unsavory truths of modern societies, where poverty and homeless and marginalization exist in the shadows of unprecedented human wealth and privilege. Many of you represent the best in the tradition of the Progressive Era’s muckrakers, and the best of the tradition of a Charles Dickens, who gave voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor of their era, or Rachel Carson, who convinced her generation to ban the pesticide DDT and create the Environmental Protection Agency, which made her one of the first people to capture the imagination of westerners around the issue of the environment. Carson gave voice and image and feeling to nature, to our Mother Earth. You, too, are giving voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor and homeless.

Keep up the good work. We are delighted to have you here and I hope and pray you find new ways to collaborate with each other on your “inspir-ed” mission and vocation.

Read more about the summit on the school’s website, here.

What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to

In a world with an avalanche of information and the potential for experiences coming at us at any given moment, it is important to learn to create filters and discernment processes for the kinds of things we are going in ingest into our souls. Throughout history, the printed word has served as a ferry for all kinds of conversion – intellectual, emotional, spiritual. All of the arts can have this effect as well, and this is an important dimension of all of our spiritualities.

When it comes to discerning what to read, watch or listen to in the precious time we have, it is always helpful to have the suggestions of people who read and experience new information as part of their living. Most of us have a stack of books at our bedside, while some of us have stacks near our reading chair, our cocktail table and any other horizontal surface capable of supporting weight. Most of us also have long lists of films we want to see or music groups we hope to experience. Below are some films, books, talks, and music that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months–I hope it serves as a good starting point as you decide what to read on your journey, especially as we move closer to the months of summer.

Because I often travel quite a bit, I sometimes make use of airplane time to catch up on films I had heard about, but never had time to view. Here are some films I’ve seen recently:

  • Raggamuffin is a 2014 movie about Rich Millins, the popular Christian contemporary musician in the 1980s and 1990s. The movie provides a penetrating exploration of an enormously gifted musician, who lived a tortured life with the scars of his childhood and adolescence, yet continued to write songs that touched the hearts of millions. Mullins became one of the most successful Christian pop stars and had his songs sung by the biggest Christian pop stars, such as Amy Grant and Michael W Smith.
    Despite internal turmoil, deep loneliness, and struggles with addictions and strained relationships, Mullins remained a strongly committed Christian who often spoke boldly and prophetically about the wrong-headedness of the “prosperity” and feel good Gospel message that was so rampant in Evangelical circles in the 80s and 90s. Mullins made millions, and yet, only accepted an annual salary that was determined to be the average salary of an American worker. The rest of the money went to charities and churches. After becoming hugely successful, he went back to school for a music education degree and worked as a music educator with children on a Native American reservation.
    The movie references Mullins relationship with Brennan Manning, a contemplative-activist who had his own life long struggle with alcoholism, which led to his writing of the Raggamuffin Gospel, a book published in 1990 that had the simple message that God’s grace is not dependent upon performance. The book brought God’s mercy to a central location in the Christian message, something that scandalized many people at the time, but proved a source of liberation to many others.
    Mullins was so inspired by Manning that he formed a new band – The Raggamuffin Band – that provided revival-type concerts centered on music dealing with the real interface between everyday human struggles and religion. Mullins’ constant message of religious authenticity, God’s mercy and unconditional love and forgiveness, and the Christian obligation to serve the poor, was an early example of the return of a “social gospel stream” in the evangelical movement that has emerged in the past two decades in modern Evangelicals, particularly the young.
  • Noëlle, is a 2007 movie that was released for the Christmas season. It explores in a fascinating way the role guilt manifests itself in human lives, and the challenge a person has in finding a path to redemption. In the film, a hard-hearted priest, Jonathan Keene arrives in a small fishing village in Cape Cod. His task is to decide whether the small church in the community should be closed due to its dwindling and aging attendance, and the young pastor who has a drinking problem that is on full view to the community. As Keane becomes involved in the lives of the people in the village, his guilt for a decision he made as a young man surfaces in an uncontrollable way. The guilt manifests itself in his recurring vision of a young girl, who appears to him with a look of sadness and longing. The movie moves slowly, but is a unique look at the role guilt plays in redemptive actions and choices, a topic rarely explored in modern film.
  • The 100-Foot Journey is a modern-day fable invites viewers into a meditation on the longest journey any of us ever take – crossing from our world into the world of others. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, there is a feel-good quality to the film that can overshadow the very complex issues underlying the narrative. The movie is based on the international best-selling fictional book by Richard Morais, which is based on the middle-aged reflections of an Indian immigrant cook who rose to the top of French haut cuisine, becoming one of the most celebrated chefs in France. The movie follows the book fairly closely: a noisy and close Indian family, running a popular restaurant in Mumbai, is driven from their home because of civil unrest and searches Europe for a place to settle and begin their lives anew. Based more on the father’s intuition (if not superstition) they buy an empty building in a rural area of France that just happens to be located across the street from a highly decorated French restaurant that is run by a haughty and somewhat bigoted Frenchwomen, Madame Mallory, played exquisitely by Helen Mirren. As the Indian family launches their own restaurant 100 feet from Madame Mallory’s famous restaurant, competition, misunderstanding, humor and personal transformation all occur in the collision of cultures, personalities, cuisines, ethnicities and values. The 100-foot journey is a metaphor for the ways in which globalization is forcing the human race to learn how to reach across the divisions that separate us – from the food we like to the way we envision the world.
  • Transcendence is a mind-bending film about the possible outcome of an artificial intelligence (AI) achieving human-like consciousness. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant AI researcher on the verge of death, has his “mind” uploaded into a program and supercomputer by his loving wife (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), resulting in the apparent creation of a human consciousness operating within a virtual world. Caster, (or is it just something resembling Caster?), has an unlimited ability to assimilate information and reason about it, and sets in motion the building of a new kind of society and world. The film surfaces a host of theological and philosophical issues, and is an excellent meditation on the issues associated with the interface of technology and transcendence. What constitutes the unique capacities that make us human? Could such capacities go digital, and if so, what would happen to our ability to make ethical decisions? Can a computer transcend its hardware and software and have a “soul,” as we have traditionally defined this unique dimension of the human person? Would such a computer supported “soul” exist in reality, which might support the thesis that our humanity is nothing more than electrical impulses and chemical reactions, or would such a computerized soul only create the illusion of its human counterpart? If a computerized soul did exist in reality, however, would this “soul” differ qualitatively from the primary descriptors of the core of our own humanness? Lastly, can love and idealism survive in such a digital environment, and if so, how might it manifest itself? If you give yourself over to the theological and philosophical implications of the narrative, this movie is a mind-bender.
  • St. Vincent is an unpredictable story of a crude, self-absorbed, gambling, boozy, and politically incorrect neighbor (Bill Murray) who agrees to babysit the son of a next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) who is going through a nasty divorce from her two-timing husband. McCarthy’s son is a precocious and almost annoyingly polite child, who is adjusting to a new home and a new school, and a growing awareness that his young life is not in neatly folded corners. Murray’s character, Vincent, is a decorated war hero with an institutionalized wife. He has an intimate relationship with an equally crude Russian stripper, prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts). Yet, he finds himself a role model for an impressionable young boy going through a difficult life transition. To a young boy in a religious elementary school, who has been given an assignment to tell the story of a modern day saint, the hideously flawed Vincent seems like something more than a slovenly, burn-out, degenerate. The story explores in very subtle ways the nature of love and caring, and the influences that shape a child’s understanding of a messy, imperfect world. A major message of the film is that human goodness and kindness, and the virtue of fidelity are sometimes found in the most unlikely people and places.
  • The Good Lie. I saw this movie on a long plane ride, a tale of four Sudanese refugee siblings trying to adjust to American culture after a hideously traumatic childhood and adolescence, which included the genocidal murder of their parents and a decade in a refugee camp. Great cross-cultural humor mixed with profound demonstrations of the way character and spiritual grounding can empower the human spirit to rise above virtually any challenge.

Here are some books I’ve read or re-read for both work and pleasure:

  • M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy
  • Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  • JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (My son-in-law is a Tolkien fanatic and a quarter of the time I miss or barely catch the meaning of his allusions in conversation. This is the first time I’ve read The Hobbit since I was in high school and I forgot what a captivating and multi-layered work it is.)
  • Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (This is one of the most popular required texts in jazz schools throughout the U.S. Nachmanovitch integrates many spiritual traditions into the neuroscience of play and practice and the spiritual traditions of east and west. A great text for anyone who would like to understand why jazz musicians–and other artists–often like to explain what they do as an exercise in “spirituality”)
  • Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (The conservative evangelical movement has had a remarkable sophistication with the use of technology, which is ironic since the movement often has been highly resistant to modernity and post-modernity. Hendershot gives a good, non-judgmental evaluation of the meaning systems this part of Christianity has created through its engagement of culture)
  • Gerald R. McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (One of the most famous and arguably impactful public theologians in the United States is Edwards. Despite the common error in reducing this important thinker to his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this text is a good companion to a much more detailed analysis of Edwards and his very nuanced thought found in George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

What I’ve been Listening to:

  • Pharoah Sanders, “Journey to the One.” These are some classic tracks from one of the most famous saxophone players in the world. Sanders mixes very mellow soft improvisation with grittier bebop sounds. While part of a theological education research consultation with Auburn Seminary, our group had the great opportunity to see 74-year-old Sanders perform at Dizzy’s Club at the Lincoln Jazz Center in New York City, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the U.S.
  • Jesse Cook: “The Blue Guitar Sessions.” A famous Canadian jazz/rock/pop guitarist with Latin influences. The album was a Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law, along with a print of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, The Old Guitarist, one of my favorite paintings. I also received an original copy of Wallace Stevens’, The Man with the Blue Guitar.
  • Two talks I found interesting on the most significant popes impacting the shape of 21st century Catholicism are Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church by Leonardo Boff, and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy by George Weigel.

Giving Women their Due, A Challenge Societies Still Don’t Have Right

Until the late 1960s, U.S. culture tended to ignore the profound contribution women played in American society, a grievous oversight shared by many other cultures of the world. Women have always played important roles in the lives of those around them. But, it is only relatively recently that historians have taken seriously what some feminists have referred to as “her-story,” a term coined by Robin Morgan in her 1970 book, Sisterhood is Powerful. Morgan and others challenged the assumptions made by most of the world’s “his-torians,” charging them with having masculine biased assumptions about the people, activities and events that have been worthy of memory for later generations. The concept of “her-story” has spawned books (like this one), writers’ workshops (example here), theater productions (like this), and even organizational networks (like this and more).

Bringing the role and impact of women from the past into full reflective view is not a matter of “revisionist” historiography. It is actually a corrective action in an almost universally flawed process of telling the story of our human roots and the individuals making special contributions to our families, communities, societies and cultures down through the centuries. And, the sin of historical omission is not just a female problem.

Gustavo GuiterrezAs the Peruvian liberation theologian, Gustavo Guiterrez noted in the early 1970s, history is written by and about the economically and politically dominant voices of any given time period. This perspective filters out many of the most important stories of a generation, distorting not only our understanding of the past, but skewing the way we make sense of the present. One of Guiterrez’s projects was to create a case for telling history from below, to write the human narrative from the perspective and the contributions of the poor and to develop the Christian tradition’s theological thinking about the role of liberation in this life, as well as the next. This gained him the title of the father of liberation theology in some quarters, but he was riding the wave of a more profound awareness of the enormous gaps in our remembering of what’s worth remembering from the past.

Many pioneering women were committed to same project as Guiterrez, but in relation to the role of the female. They tried to recover, re-discover and celebrate the women who have shaped our world. Historians like Mary Blewett and Joyce Oldham Appleby learned the trade of the historian and applied their skills to uncovering the tales left untold by the chroniclers of the past who over-emphasized men and largely ignored the role of women. Some, like Linda Nochlin, focused deficits in one particular cultural area. In a famous 1971 article she asked the world’s art historians an embarrassing question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Of course, there had been great female artists; it’s just that the art history establishment ignored them.

Old Elizabeth, bookWhile all women have been slighted by history, those from racial or ethnic minorities have been particularly invisible to historians. Fortunately, far-sighted individuals from the past did what they could to leave breadcrumbs for later generations. The Quakers, as an example, helped to save the memory of Old Elizabeth, an African-American woman who was born into slavery but became a traveling preacher and founder of a black orphanage. In 1863, with Quaker assistance, she published her life history at the age of 97: Memoir of Old Elizabeth: A Colored Woman. She is just one of thousands of women who left an indelible mark on the people around them, but never caught the attention of those writing about the past.

Once enlightened, one might think it a fairly easy task to surface the accomplishment of women through history. But, surfacing a more accurate and sustained reflection on the contributions of an entire gender seems amazingly difficult for many societies. In 1987 the U.S. Congress decided it was so difficult that American culture needed to declare the month of March as Women’s History Month, in the hopes of eliciting greater awareness of the female gender’s impact on society.

Some specific fields of study have felt a similar need to awaken awareness of the role of women shaping a particular area of the human condition. During the month of March in 2014, for instance, the Royal Society in London is conducting a “women’s history writing event.” Scientists will meet to collectively update Wikipedia’s entries on female scientists. Why? Because the women who have made major contributions to science usually have thinly written biographies, if they are mentioned at all. The Royal Society intends to remedy that deficiency, at least for the world’s largest open-access encyclopedia.

Deborah, Hebrew BibleIt seems odd that it has taken so long for women to get recognized for the significant roles they have played in human history. The Bible is filled with strong and effective female leaders. The Book of Judges tells the story of the tough female judge and prophetess, Deborah, and the even tougher Jael, who drove a tent peg through the temple of the tyrannical Sisera. (Jael was the kind of woman you could take on a date to a Blues club even in the toughest Chicago neighborhood). Jesus had strong, courageous women around him, and they funded much of his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Koran gives special reverence to Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Surah 3:43), and the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija Bint Khuwailid, was a smart and successful businesswoman when she met the Prophet. Many of the most powerful gods in the Hindu tradition are goddesses. The word for goddess, in fact, shakti, means power or energy.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot PonsardinWomen have also played strong roles in every society: from gutsy queens to the bold abbesses of medieval monasteries. The business world has had the likes of the young 17th century French widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who built a champagne empire through her family label, Maison Veuve Clicquot, which is still going strong. In more contemporary politics you have such commanding figures as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England; or the first woman elected to run a Muslim nation, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto; or the facto leader of the European Union, Germany’s indomitable Angela Merkel; or the former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After 45 years of working at a more accurate representation, the role of women in history has improved. But, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of the past, with nearly half of our history still missing. There are practical problems with this omission. If women seem less important to our past, they are less likely to take their rightful place in our present. Although more than one in two humans in this nation is female, only one in five women are members of the U.S. Senate, less than one in five are in the U.S. House of Representatives, and only one in three comprise the nation’s population of physicians and lawyers. We don’t even need to get into the differential in pay for equal work and the raft of other issues of inequality still borne by women of this nation and nearly all other societies on this planet.

It is also unbalanced in religious organizations. Although women are 20% to 25% more likely to worship on Sundays in the U.S., and most volunteers in religious organizations are women, females provide miniscule part of the leadership. The Faith Communities Today 2010 national survey took a multi-faith representative sample of all the religious congregations in the U.S. (11,000 in all) and discovered that only 12% of the communities had a woman as a senior or sole leader. In mainline Protestantism the figure more than doubles to 24%, although for Evangelical communities it drops to 9%. Although Catholic laywomen have run congregations for many years, particularly in rural areas, and Mormons serve in volunteer “lay” leadership, those positions are not even listed officially as senior leadership for their congregation.

There is a connecting line between how we remember the role of women in our past and the role they play – or are allowed to play – in the present. Until we fix our memories we are unlikely fix our present.

I remain hopeful for our future because I believe in women, their ability to rise above the limitation placed on them, and the amazing capacity to endure and persist. It has been often said that if men had to deal with the pain of birth the human race would have become extinct long ago. One day in the future, women will take their rightful place in the human collective memory of the past, and they will have access to positions of influence and leadership that is proportionate to their percentage of the human population.

In the meantime, let us hope that our species is not selective in what it remembers about the struggle women had to undergo to find respect and justice. As Karen Fowler notes in Memories For Sale, you can’t treat the past fairly if you pick and choose what you remember. “Ignore the turmoil, chaos and pain – and the truly great memories would not shine with such luster.”

Women will one day shine in our understanding of human history. But, their luster will be magnified because for so many years the chroniclers of the past tried to hide or extinguish their light. But, women, and the men who loved them, will not allow this to happen forever.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

Our Best Laid Plans

Plans1In the higher education calendar, August is a time of last minute planning for the academic year.  Of course, it does not take too many cycles of planning for a school year to realize that things often do not work out the way we painstakingly plan.  Indeed, one of life’s most difficult learnings is  that the future often ends up different than we planned.   One of the most poignant pieces of American literature wrestling with this human challenge is John Steinbeck’s 1927 novella: “Of Mice and Men”. The principal characters in Steinbeck’s story, you may  recall, are George and Lennie, two migrant field hands with a powerful dream of purchasing their own farm someday.  The book ends tragically, with the reader taken into the heart of the greyness of some moral situations, as well as the sadness and disorientation of witnessing  human plans getting crushed in the mortar and pestle   of life’s challenges and disappointments.

Plans2The title of Steinbeck’s book comes from a famous Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1786: To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The poem is written in the voice of a farmer who accidentally ploughs up a mouse nest and speaks to the mouse of his regret and his realization that the situation is a reflection on the tenuousness of the planning cycles of all mortal beings.  Says the farmer to the mouse:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

Garden Design Blueprint SketchingPerhaps the master of discernment (or “spiritual planning) in the Catholic tradition is the founder of the Jesuits – Ignatius of Loyola – who  developed discernment into a high art form, one that remains as psychologically astute in our own day as it was in the 16th century of his times. Ignatius discovered the art of spiritual discernment has as much to do with the events and circumstances in life as it does with our prayer, attentiveness to the subtle movements in our consciousness, and study.  Yet, despite his commitment to the careful planning of what he believed God called him to be and do, Ignatius rarely had his plans work out.

He wanted to take his Society of Jesus into the mission fields of Africa, but instead laid the foundation for the largest private educational system in the world.  He wanted to live out of a suitcase, responding to the special needs of the church of his day, but instead spent most of his ministerial life in Rome, embroiled in the details and politics of launching a new religious community.

PLans4Ignatius had so many plans dashed on the rocks of reality that a Jesuit friend of mine, Fr. Jerry Fagin, SJ, once wrote a journal article he originally named: Plan B (later published under another name*).   Jerry taught at Loyola Univeristy New Olreans in a ministry education program for mostly Catholic lay ministry students. An Ignatian scholar, Fr. Fagin noted in his article that Ignatius was dreamer and an optimist and always had a Plan A. Often, and certainly with some of the most significant decision-making times in his life, Ignatius had to move to Plan B.  (You’re welcome to read Jerry Fagin’s originalarticle here in a PDF.)

In moving often to Plan B, Ignatius came to realize that planning, preparation, implementing, and on-going discernment in response to changing circumstances are part of a continuum of discerning God’s dream for our lives.  In the implementation of a plan, the doors to the future open into a mystery of what comes next; and, as one steps into this mystery, new, unimagined opportunities open him or her. This interpretation thrwarted plans helped Ignatius to never see failed dreams as God willing or orchestrating obstacles. Rather, as Jerry Fagin notes, Ignatius came to believe that in each dashing of a plan “God used the circumstances to place a new path” under his feet, one leading to “great good for others and achievements far greater than Ignatius ever envisioned.”  Once more, unlike Robert Burns, who saw “grief ‘an pain,” rather than the “promised joy” of the original plan, Ignatius found profound meaning, purpose, and yes, joy, in following Plan B.

Plans5Sometimes we can only see a Divine hand in our life when we look through the rearview mirror.  But, the process itself often leads us to a place we could never have imagined unless we were first on the path to implementing different plan.

As we begin a new year filled with our “best made schemes,” perhaps we can remind each other that our plans wil point us down a path that may change direction into something unforeseen.  Should this happen, may we hold to our original plans gently enough to make room for a greater Plan that may break into our life.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly
   Seattle University, School of Theology and Ministry

*Rev. Gerald Fagin, S.J., “Surrendering to God’s Plan for Us,” Human Development. Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2005

Happy Holidays from Dean Mark M. Markuly, PhD

All of us at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry wish you a joyous, peaceful, and deeply meaningful celebration of this sacred time of the year.  May you experience a new depth in your relationship with God, those around you, and the natural world.  May you also gain greater access to the numinous depths of your own consciousness, that place of vision, dreams and the “something more” in life, the place of encounter with the grand Mystery vivifying reality.

As we move closer to the shortest day of the year, all of us at the school pray that you experience once again an immutable truth: the darkness surrounding us (whether in our interior life, our family, our job, our heatlh, our faith community, our society, or our so very troubled world) will eventually yield once again to the advancing power of light.  Regardless of our religious tradition, this mysterious, holy pattern is woven into the fabric of the universe and the spiritual realities supporting it.

For many of us, the Christmas season is a joyful time, wrapped in an assortment of customs celebrating family, friendship, and the power of love, kindness, and charity.   But, as Christian liturgists so frequently remind us, during the weeks prior to December 25 our churches are not in the Christmas season but Advent, a time of waiting (in the deepening darkness of approaching winter) for the promises of God to become fulfilled, for the world originally conceived by God to finally emerge in an unambiguous way.  Despite our differences in theology and culture, so many of our friends from the religious traditions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and others share this dream for the world with us.

Although Advent is a liturgical season with as murky an origin as Christmas, (surfacing in the 4th century along with the first real Christmas on December 25, 336), it may have emerged because early Christians realized gradually that the Reign of God on earth was not going to happen in a literal fashion any time soon.  At least in the short term, it appeared God was less interested in coming to earth to slay evil than to build up a people who are committed to their last breath to model, persuade, educate and inspire humans to choose a common path more befitting our stature as children of God.  And, oh, how we still wait and hope …

Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is filled with students, faculty and staff, and surrounded by a host of friends and supporters who long for justice, mercy, peace and love, and authenticity and truth. The cloud of witnesses, gathered in and around the school, seek this better world and pledge themselves to do what they can to make it more of a reality.

May this time of Advent and Christmas prepare us for another year of both waiting and struggling to bring about this noble vision.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Dean Mark S. Markuly, Ph.D.


Conversations: Grace Under Fire

As we end a deeply contentious presidential election cycle, the divisions among the American citizenry are as visible as always.  In the midst of this divisiveness, we need people who can lead from a soul-depth that inspires others, but also can sustain itself in a pressure cooker.

One of the finest measures of the human soul is the ability to maintain grace under fire.  Most people who have distinguished themselves in rising above the chaos, evil and fear swirling around them speak of having “received” inner strength from outside their own interior resources.   This strength allowed them to rise above the circumstances of a stressful situation, to think clearly, to respond compassionately, and to ultimately display the very best in human character.  It also gave them the capacity to lead the process of change needed to move the community to another place.

History is filled with examples of people receiving the gift to act with grace under fire.   A somewhat recent example comes from the so-called “kitchen epiphany” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the middle of the 20th century.    Charles Marsh gives as good of a rendition of this experience as you can find, in his book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. <Photo Credit: Lisa Singh, American Detours>

Dr. King had taken a position as pastor of a small congregation in Montgomery, Al., after completing his doctoral coursework at Boston University, but before writing his dissertation and completing the degree.  He was newly married and had his first child, Yolanda.  He took the job, against his father’s wishes, because he dreamed of one day becoming the president of a college, but wanted some pastoral experience prior to entering higher education.   The congregation in Montgomery was not his first choice, and a little smaller than he had hoped for in his first “church call.”  But, he accepted it thinking the size would allow him to finish his degree requirements.

After a little more than a year on the job, Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the “white section” of a bus and refusing to relinquish her seat.  At the time, Montgomery, like other cities in the south had Jim Crow laws that allowed communities to segregate African-Americans from schools, public eating establishments, stores, and even from sitting in the front of a bus.   Several days after Parks was arrested, local activists, hoping to challenge the Jim Crow laws, created a social action group they called the Montgomery Improvement Association.  Under duress, King accepted the position of president of the association. <Photo Credit: Denver Public Library>

The Montgomery Improvement Association, under King’s leadership, spearheaded an African-American boycott of the bus system.  Not yet a man willing to take unnecessary risks, King convinced the activists to demand only modest concessions, such as the bus drivers speaking with courtesy to African American riders, and blacks having the right to sit in the front of the bus, only if the back was already full.  The activists were unhappy with King’s timidity, but followed his lead.

Of course, the local white leaders condemned the boycott, and tension in the city intensified.  A month and a half into the social justice initiative, King was arrested for doing 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone, was handcuffed, put in a police cruiser and driven away from downtown and out into the darkened Alabama countryside.  As he sat alone in the back seat of the car in the dark, he panicked and prayed that God would give him the grace to endure whatever awaited him when the car stopped, which he assumed was his own torture or murder.

Fortunately, King was taken to the city jail and incarcerated with other people.  Bail was made and he was released, but the following day he had back-to-back meetings and activities and returned home late and exhausted, his wife and child already long asleep.  After checking on his wife and daughter, King received a telephone call filled with obscene words and a death threat.  He had such calls before, but this one rattled him.

He couldn’t get to sleep and sat alone in his kitchen, trying to figure out a way to get out of his leadership position without looking like a coward or disillusioning those trusting in the possibility of promoting change in their southern society.  In desperation, Kin called out to God, not from his academic preparation at Morehouse, Crozer and Boston Universities, but from the depths of the shared humanity he had experienced with the social justice activists, drifters, and alcoholics sharing his prison cell the previous night.  He also cried out from the heart of his formation in the black church.  He told God he was terrified for himself and his family.  He thought he was right in the cause of greater respect for African-Americans, but he felt incapable of bearing up under the pressures bearing down on him.

Suddenly, King said, he was filled with a Divine presence that made him feel ready for anything coming his way.  He felt God standing with him and the rightness of the movement.  Three days later, he convinced the Montgomery Improvement Association to not settle for modest changes in the laws and practices on city buses, but to challenge the legality and morality of the entire system of segregation law in Montgomery.  Four days later, while he was giving a talk, King’s house was bombed with his wife and child in the building.  He rushed home and found he city police and confused and scared white leaders in his house and an black crowd on his front lawn growing more and more angry.   Walking on to his shattered porch, King raised his hand to silence the crowd and gave an impromptu speech that launched the Civil Rights Movement.  King’s epiphany changed him from a would-be college president to one of most effective social reformers in American history, delivering a message and a methodology that has inspired people throughout the world.

Although far from a perfect human being, Martin Luther King became a person ready and eager to act with grace under fire.

At the Mic: Excerpts from a Talk, 9/23

The following are excerpts from a talk given at Plymouth United Church of Christ today– Sunday, September 23rd, 2012.

‘We the Purple’: Becoming Both-And Communities of Faith
in an Either-Or, Red and Blue Society

“Are Americans really as intractably divided into red and blue political positions as the pundits would have us believe?  According to Bill Bishop’s, The Big Sort, the nation is, indeed, fractured deeply.  The journalist Bishop tracks the ten-year relocation of 100 million Americans, and notes that many of them settled in neighborhoods, counties and states that are more likely populated by like-minded people.  From the segregated, freely-chosen “hives” in which we live, says Bishop, we have our most passionate ideas about politics, truth, justice and culture reinforced and rarely challenged.

As religious sociologist David Kinnaman has noted in his book, You Lost Me, young people 16-29 are leaving the church and re-thinking their understanding of faith, while those in the same age group looking at churches from the outside see faith communities as empty moral and spiritual shells, filled with congregants engaged in behavior that is either unchristian, or a mere pawn of the political divisions of the society.  The upshot: many historic traditions of faith are losing the next generation, in large part because red-blue polarities seem as rabid inside as outside communities of faith.

If red and blue is truly descriptive of a major part of our political reality, it is not the only force in society.  Over the past 20 years, the Independent movement has attempted to find a pathway between the polarities of red and blue politics.  Independents now comprise a significant number of the electorate (although the media often misunderstand who they are and what they believe).  While this movement has not yielded a third-party alternative as some had hoped originally, it has offered a new perspective on the handling of differences of principle and opinion among Americans, and a different kind of strategy for building a common life in the United States.  Can “we the people,” find a new way in our politics by striving to become ‘we the purple?’

I would assert that we can discover this space between the anger and broken hearts generated by our red-blue world, and that faith communities may offer the best hope for achieving sustainable oases of purple.  But, this will require us to trade in the “machine brains” of the 19th and 20th century, an inheritance of the Enlightenment that took the dynamics of democratic republicanism for granted, and adopt “garden brains,” which see democracy as something we have to weed, feed, and water.  This talk will ’till’ the terrain of creating purple garden space in congregational life.”