Thursday, October 8, 2009

If the Parrots Can Make It, So Can I

This morning, as I sat drinking my breakfast tea and looking out the big windows that overlook the courtyard at the back of my apartment, I heard again the screeching sound I’d heard several times in the last week. But this time, I also saw the source of the noise – a small flock of green parrots. Not exactly what you’d expect to see in Chicago, Illinois.

I moved here to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood a little over a week ago to get ready to begin my graduate studies at the Lutheran School of Theology. It wasn’t an easy move, what with me, my dog and three cats to carry 600 miles. Thankfully, my mother agreed to fly up from Florida to ride with us. She also stayed a week and faithfully helped unpack all the boxes (of way too much stuff) to get my new home organized so that it actually began to resemble a house and not a warehouse.

In the days since, I’ve enjoyed meeting other dog owners and their pets in nearby Nichols Park, admiring the older homes, finding a wonderful little produce market (not to mention a great source of fried chicken) and just trying to get a sense of my new digs. And as I don’t yet have the window air conditioner installed, I’ve been thankful for the balmy weather we’ve been having.

It’s probably a good thing that I arrived in the summer, so that I could get connected to the place and make some friends before the famously brutal Chicago winter sets in. I’m not completely unfamiliar with winter weather, having spent my youth in New Jersey and my undergraduate college days at Purdue University. Visiting my parents in Florida for Christmas break was a welcome break from the cold. I will never forget the experience of leaving the Tampa area one year in early January where it was 70 degrees and arriving 21 hours later in W. Lafayette, Indiana where the wind chill factor was 70 degrees below zero.

But I’ve been a Georgia girl for over 25 years, and I know I’m not used to all that coldness. Luckily, I do own a down coat and some sweaters, but I’m sure I’ll have to make an investment in thermal underwear. That kind of material investment will be critical, but there are other investments I’ll need to make to survive the winters here. As I investigated the presence of South American parrots in Chicago, it seems that once again I can take a cue from nature on adapting to an unnatural environment and climate.

These small Quaker parrots moved in to my neighborhood in Chicago back in the early 1980s – right around the time I left Indiana and settled in Georgia. And now that I’m here preparing to immerse myself in the study of theology I find it ironic that these hardy little birds are also known as monk parakeets. And like their namesakes who are known for clustering in communities, monk parakeets are able to withstand the cold weather here because they nest together in groups to keep themselves warm. According to the website, “these highly intelligent little parrots have adapted to the urban environment and cold Midwestern winters by building communities.”

In my visits in the last year to various seminaries and divinity schools, it became important to me to get a sense of what the community in each place was like. Did people connect to each other in common purpose, or was there more of a cut-throat attitude of nearly voting people “off the island” like they do on television’s “Survivor”? My sense was that this Lutheran school had the best of both worlds – a small institution with a family kind of feeling that was connected to the amazing academic resources of the University of Chicago and all the other seminaries in Hyde Park. And it was the only place where I felt that deep gut instinct that said “this is where I want to be.”

Theologian Howard Thurman once said “The moving finger of God in human history points ever in the same direction. There must be community.” I’m new here and just beginning to make friends, but I’m hopeful that I will thrive in this environment, that I will feel I have found my flock.

Monday, April 20, 2009

We Will Know It When We See It

For the last seven months, I have been immersed in a journey toward graduate school. Ever since the cloudiness cleared and this step emerged as the next one for me to take, I’ve been spending a lot of my time visiting schools, preparing applications, writing essays and searching for scholarship funding.

The task often seemed overwhelming, and there were moments when I thought I’d drown in the sea of possibilities – so many schools, so little time. Sometimes I wondered if I’d ever be able to figure out where I should study.

So the road trips began. I visited Duke Divinity School, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Columbia Seminary, an almost-next-door neighbor to Emory in Decatur. The mail brought catalogs from other institutions in the Northeast, New England and even California. Each one carried a mixture of tantalizing courses and traumatizing tuition costs. Yet I kept remembering the people who assured me that there was money out there to help pay for seminary education.

It had been clear to me from the beginning that this path would not ultimately lead to ordination into the ministry but would more likely lead to a career teaching religion or theology. For that reason, I did not feel limited to the schools in the Lutheran tradition, my religious heritage.

One’s faith heritage is an interesting thing. I was baptized in the Lutheran church, and spent much of my life there. Since moving to Habersham county, I’ve been worshiping in a wonderful Presbyterian church where I have been nurtured well. Yet when I returned to my Marietta church for a long-time member’s memorial service, I realized how much I’d missed that Lutheran liturgy. It’s funny how seeds planted so young in life grow trees with strong roots that keep one planted in a particular place even into adulthood.

I applied to a seminary where I’d discovered there was a Jungian psychoanalyst on faculty (an area of study that I’ve enjoyed on my own over the years) at a moment of panic when I worried that limiting my applications to schools in the southeast might have been a mistake. When that school accepted me but offered no merit scholarships, a dear friend suggested I give the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago a closer look, as they might be able to offer more funds.

A little over a week ago, I got on a plane to Chicago, planning to visit two seminaries there. Prior to this trip to the Midwest, I’d not yet had a strong sense of pull to any one school. I’d connected very strongly with a professor at Vanderbilt and recognized that I could get an excellent education there or at Candler, both places to which I’d been accepted. But I found it curious that I’d not yet come away from any school with the feeling that it was the place I should go. But as soon as I walked into the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I had this sense of coming home.

In his poem “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Yes, this school was a place I knew – I knew this way of worshiping, I knew these friendly people, I knew that this light coming in the big windows was glorious and I knew the feeling of community here was something I would treasure.

Though nothing is yet written in stone, I have a strong feeling that I will be moving to Chicago this summer. It looks like it’s time for the country mouse to become a city mouse once again.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What is Good for the Common Good?

Imagine that we lived in a medieval kingdom where most of us were serf farmers, growing grain with the labor of our backs. Imagine that the king declared that one-fifth of our harvest would be taken for the kingdom. Now imagine if this choice were given: “The fifth of your harvest can be sold and invested in seed and fields and the animals needed so that our land will always produce food and your children and your children’s children will never go hungry. Or your harvest can be sold and the money handed to the rich lords and ladies of the kingdom so that they may rest in leisure and surround themselves with jewels and fine horses.” Given those options, which would you choose?

This doesn’t seem to be too difficult a decision. Yet when I see Republican leaders shake their fists at the President’s stimulus plan crying out in protest over “the deficit!” and labeling the Democrats as “tax and spend liberals!” it makes me laugh, only because the only alternative is to cry.

I want to ask those leaders if they were asleep for the past eight years when our “kingdom” was led by “borrow and spend” conservatives who borrowed huge debt against our children’s future to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest in our land. Did that “investment” lead us to prosperity?

My friend James and I were talking about economics and about Joseph, the son of Jacob who’s remembered by many as the man with the “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat.” After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream that warned of seven years of abundance being followed by seven years of famine, Joseph is put in charge, taking one-fifth of all the produce of the land during the good years and storing it. Later, it’s that stored grain that feeds not only Egypt, but most of its surrounding neighbors during the lean years.

James pointed out that “If Joseph were running for office today, he'd be criticized for ‘raising taxes’” and explained that the concept behind things like unemployment insurance is that one willingly gives up a portion of one’s wages when working so that, should the job be lost, there is income available in the lean years. But rather than putting our tax money aside in our good years after 2000 when we had a surplus, we gave that money to those who were already rich. Our failure to take a bit off the top of these recent peak years to smooth out the valleys means we are left without any “stored grain” in the lean years we are now experiencing. In James’ opinion, “this is like voters cutting unemployment insurance tax to $0 in good times and suddenly demanding huge benefits in bad times—that is effectively what the Republican policy has been over the past 28 years.”

So can we afford to spend more money that we don’t have? We must in order to ensure that future years are more abundant than lean. According to James, “We can't keep living on the generosity of the previous generations who were willing to pay taxes to build the highways and bridges we now take for granted. It's not only selfish, it's really rather foolish to assume the country we love somehow came out of nowhere without sacrifice. Every park we visit, highway we travel, all the electricity we get in a rural area (subsidized by the government), every GPS signal we get for free from a government satellite, and every bit of our internet surfing came about because some taxpayer in the past was willing to contribute a small part of their personal spending to help the common good.”

We spent eight years living under a tax policy that increased prosperity for a small portion of our population. It’s time to invest again in the common good that will help us all prosper.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We Humans Could Learn a Lot from Animals

Developing a kind of communion with animals has always been a source of joy for me, maybe stemming from how much I loved the movie "Dr. Doolittle" (the original with Rex Harrison). When he sang "If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it," I too imagined the wonder of that possibility.

I enjoy gaining more insight into the minds and emotions of animals and so a program on the National Geographic channel the other night about the development of dogs in the womb caught my attention. The program explored the ways that dogs were domesticated from wolves and how their characteristics differ as they develop during the pregnancy.

The program showed puppies growing in the wombs of a Golden Retriever, a Mastiff and a Chihuahua. I learned that though there are 400 canine breeds, they have all been traced back through their maternal DNA to only three wolves in Asia. Dogs are the most diverse species on the planet and it’s amazing to imagine that a Mastiff who can weigh almost 200 pounds has the same ancestors as that little palm-sized Chihuahua!

What also interests me is that no matter the external differences of any two dogs, they can easily become friends. When my dog Cotton approaches another dog, unless that animal is aggressive or unfriendly, he’s just as thrilled to greet one breed as another. He doesn’t let height or weight or length of ears or the lack of a curly tail cause him to keep his distance. He wants to romp and play with any kind of breed of dog that there is.

Yet look at the track record of us humans. We see just a few surface differences in skin tone or shape of the eye and we can be immediately distrustful. Or we might even go so far as to claim that person to be our enemy before we've had one conversation to get to know their temperament or their hopes and dreams.

I’ve heard Cesar Millan, better known as "The Dog Whisperer," discuss how dogs always live in the present, and, unless severely abused, will not hold a grudge. If only that were true in the human race! At any given time in our world, there are typically about 40 wars being waged and most of those are driven by racial or religious differences.

Thomas Merton, an author and Cistercian monk, once had an epiphany standing on a street corner in Louisville, KY where he looked around and saw that the people around him were "shining like the sun." He wrote, "Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed."

I saw a news clip online the other day about an elephant in a sanctuary who has become best friends with a dog there. The two are inseparable, and the female elephant even stood vigil outside the sanctuary office when the dog was recuperating inside after surgery.

On the day this column will be published, we'll be inaugurating our first President with dark skin, a man who won the election by a surprising majority, partly due to his stated desire to build friendships between the "elephants" and "donkeys" who are typically on opposite sides of the aisle of American politics. When I’m watching that ceremony with friends, I know my heart will swell. And if I had a tail, I bet it would be wagging.

(c) 2009 Sheri D. Kling