Sunday, May 27, 2012

Purple Songs Can Fly

I was working on a poem last week, gradually developing the words of an almost-poem that erupted in my mind one day. The poem is about the stories that reside in each of our hearts, stories that narrate our lives.

On Thursday morning, I received an email from my friend Anita Kruse, founder and executive director of Purple Songs Can Fly: 

Purple Songs Can Fly is devoted to children being treated for cancer and blood disorders at Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers. In this program, which is the first of its kind, Anita and other professional composers help children to write and record their own songs. Each child receives a professional CD recording of the original composition.

Anita’s email contained a Bus 52 video describing the profound mission Purple Songs Can Fly. In the video, Tony “Jesus” Alvarez, a young patient at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center, describes his experience writing and recording his own songs. He says, I recorded some songs, and now I’m just recording basically my life.

Jesus’ words intermingled with the poem I was writing. Here is the result:

Behind every brow
Is a never-ending story
Weaving tales of
Within every heart
Are Trail-worn stories
Seeking a place that is

I recorded some songs
Said the smiling child
Whose purple songs
Now fly.
I recorded some songs,
And now I’m just recording
My life.

Stories wander home
To dwell in the hearts
That lived them
Where they
Narrate plots of life
Where they
Grieve or celebrate
The everyday pathos
Of meaning

Stories wander home
To be sung
To be formed
In musical ecstasy
So they can express
Joy and sorrow
So the life story
Will fly,
Will soar in purple hues,
The colorful rainbow
Of song.

Tell me your story, I said,
In the innocence of
A child at bedtime.
And the tale that
Emerged on the lips
Of the suffering
Told the story
That created the world

Monday, May 21, 2012

Re-membering to Breathe

According to some faith traditions, the essential human problem is forgetfulness. We forget who we are. We forget Whose we are. Healing and wholeness come through remembering or, more literally, re-membering. All the broken pieces of life, all the members, are brought back together. They are remembered or recollected.

Interestingly, remembering is a present experience, not past nostalgia. Allowing the anxious mind to rest by focusing on the breath is one route to remembering. We remember now or not at all. Re-membering is a non-dual awakening to the wholeness and fullness of life. The following poem arose within me through an experience of remembering:

Re-membering to Breathe

Sometimes I forget
That life is beautiful
That red flowers blossom in spring
And the diaper clad child
Plays joyfully after naptime

Sometimes I forget
About rivers flowing effortlessly
So I push the river in fear that it will not flow
Sometimes I forget

Sometimes I forget
That love brought us into being,
That we live and move and have our being
In a love that
Will not let go

Sometimes I forget
To breathe
But breathing continues
Even in the forgetfulness
Of my broken heart

Sometimes I forget
To breathe
Until reminded by a friend
One breath at a time
To re-member life, to re-member wholeness

Now I remember
I remember to re-collect
The colored broken glass
So that joyous light, shining through,
May awaken my memory of beauty, so

I remember
That life is beautiful
That red flowers blossom in spring
And the diaper clad child
Plays joyfully after naptime

I remember that rivers
Flow effortlessly
Without needing my push
To make them flow
I remember

I remember because
Sometimes I forget
And in the beauty that is life
Forgetting allows gracious friends
To remind me to re-member

*The idea of not needing "to push the river" is from Father Richard Rohr.

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Rose Colored Glasses: A Fresh Look at Millennials

Millennials, in my experience, frequently rise above the critiques they are receiving in the media and in pessimistic interpretations of their values (see, for example, Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults). They are often viewed as morally relativistic, unwilling to make commitments, and socially disconnected. While these critiques have some validity, they represent a one dimensional stereotype that needs to be examined further. These young people, born between 1980 and 1999,* have much to teach older generations. What can they teach us? My response to this question is admittedly limited. This is a blog, not a dissertation. I offer the following reflections on this question out of my experience working with college students and as an observer of the contemporary religious landscape. Let’s look at two broad areas, moral relativism and social engagement.

Moral Relativism
Eric Hoffer was a longshoreman with little formal education who became one of the great American philosophers of the 20th century. In his most famous book, The True Believer (1951), he argued that the basic distinction between genuine commitment and fanaticism is uncertainty. Fanatics are certain. They know all the right answers. Certainty is dangerous.

Millennials, generally speaking, seem to be reacting against the dangerous certainty of previous generations, especially in religion and politics. For example, in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell note that young people are increasingly rejecting religious affiliation BECAUSE of the perception that being Christian means identifying with the Republican party. Some are now claiming that the religious right won the battle and lost a generation. This generation’s rejection of religion is not a rejection of God or spirituality. Overall, they are spiritual (i.e. in surveys they are willing to describe themselves as “spiritual” and affirm belief in God, but shy away from the term “religious”). But, they reject the dogma of connecting religion with specific political issues, or any dogmatic certainty for that matter. They tend, for instance,  to be “conservative” on abortion and “liberal” on sexual orientation. They recognize the importance of discernment and reject easy answers.

Their questioning and discerning process may appear to be moral relativism due to an unwillingness to give quick answers to complex questions combined, in some cases, with not-yet-developed critical thinking skills. My observation is that this stance is not pure relativism; rather, it is an authentic developmental process of seeking honest answers rather than parroting a previous generation’s certainties. This “thoughtful relativism” tends to mature over time and eventually includes some absolute values such as love, justice, and a divine grounding for life.

What can my generation learn? We can understand that an unwillingness to parrot certainty is not the same as moral relativism and is often morally preferable. Face it, the moral certainty of the 1950’s, combined with soaring church attendance, often included racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and manifest-destiny-nationalism among the people packing the pews. Pew-packing and Christ-following are not necessarily equivalent.

If an older generation wants young people to express their spirituality in the context of institutional religion, then we are going to have to let go of dogma, easy answers, and political polarization while embracing diversity, discernment, dialogue, and uncertainty. Discerning and following the Spirit’s leadership will have to trump institutional maintenance. Millennials, I believe, can support strong, growing congregations, but they will do so for the sake of mission, not institutional maintenance. If our focus is institutional maintenance, then we will lose the very institutions we want to maintain.

Social Engagement
In a helpful article entitled, “Millennials are the New Evangelicals,” Duke Divinity School student Erin Lane writes,

If institutional leaders are waiting for us to grow-up, have children and offer our static allegiance, they will miss out on the feverish energy we’re offering now to those who will take us seriously.

The takeaway here is if you give us your attention -- which requires that you really listen to, learn from and lead us -- then we will give you our commitment.

Lane’s perspective reminds me of Diana Butler Bass’s insight that the paradigm of church membership has shifted from “believing, behaving, belonging” to “belonging, behaving, believing.” She describes this reversal in her most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. I can’t do justice to her book in one paragraph, but here is an essential insight. The old paradigm for religious affiliation was to believe the “right” things, behave in the “right” way, and then belong. Of course we know, sociologically, that believing and behaving are largely constructed in a social context, in belonging. One could argue that believing, behaving, and belonging are really circular rather than linear. Nevertheless, her point is well taken. The old-school institutional expectation follows the believe, behave, belong pattern.

This approach completely misses Millennials. Bass’s argument, consistent with Lane’s quote mentioned above, is that engaging this generation begins with community, with belonging. Then, in community, we can engage Christian tradition along with the contemporary situation to form, reform, and revise beliefs and behaviors. (In fairness to Bass, note that the emphasis on revisionist theology is mine, not necessarily hers.)

What can my generation learn? The problem is not that Millennials are unwilling to be engaged socially, politically, or religiously. The problem is that our institutions are set up with a believe, behave, belong expectation that is ill-equipped to reach young people whose essential approach to life is the reverse, belong, behave, believe. We have to invite Millennials first to belong, to be part of community, to have a role in creating community and becoming stake-holders in beliefs and behaviors.  This approach is in contrast to expecting them to accept beliefs and behaviors because we said so, the tired line of tired parents who know nothing better to say.  

This post is long enough. I’m interested in your feedback. I’m going to work with a colleague to develop a more academic, research grounded version of some of the ideas here. I do not claim to have covered all the bases, just offered some ideas for dialogue. Please share your thoughts.

*The parameters of the Millennial generation vary in the literature. Generally, Millennials are those born between 1980 and 1999.