Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Who is my mother and who are my brothers?

Yesterday morning, I was reading from the 12th chapter of the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible. (Matthew was a tax collector who became one of the Lord Jesus’ first disciples). According to Matthew, Jesus was speaking to a crowd when someone told him, “your mother and brothers are waiting outside.” The passage continues:

“He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

My ‘Life Application Study Bible’ explains that “Jesus was not denying his responsibility to is earthy family [but only] pointing out that spiritual relationships are as binding as physical ones.” I have long pondered this passage, and I am not convinced.

Wives and children, mothers and fathers play ambivalent roles in the lives of great religious teachers. We hear little about Jesus’ relationship with his mother, father and brothers in the Holy Bible, though his mother is venerated by Roman Catholics. The Lord Buddha abandoned his wife and young son in his late twenties, to seek enlightenment. Gandhi took a vow of celibacy at about the same age. He remained married but his mission clearly took priority over wife and children. The wife of the Quaker scholar and organizer Rufus Jones died while Jones was traveling, lecturing and organizing. The founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, married Margaret Fell who, herself, became a great Quaker leader, but there is little evidence that they spent much time together. The rules of monastic orders and the Roman Catholic Priesthood are predicated on the belief that the highest form of religious life can not include a wife and children. I need to devote more time to studying the family life of the Prophet Mohammed, in whose life wives and children do seem to have played more major role.

“Who is my father?”
“Who is my mother?”
“Who are my sisters and brothers?”
“Who are my children and grandchildren.”
“What are my obligations to them, especially when those obligations conflict with other life callings and obligations?”

For one seeking to live a committed life these are questions to ponder. The answers do not seem simple, or easy.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunday dinner in Anderson Hall: “work” or “play?”

Last night I hosted our fourth dinner of the semester in Anderson Hall. The meal included lamb curry made with yoghurt - a new dish for me. There was a red vegetable curry with turnips, tomatoes and mushrooms. There was that staple of many South Asian Meals, dhal - a dish typically made with lentils. Finally there was fried eggplant (brinjol). There were various pickles, chutney and, a favorite of mine, freshly made coconut sambol.

Sunday dinners are a production. This week, preparations began on Saturday when I prepared the menu and checked out my supplies. I was running out of spices, so I planned a trip to a block of South Asian - Halal markets on Lee Highway, on my way to the country. The block is reminiscent of Sri Lanka. When I am in one of the stores, I can imagine I am there. Stores are small and I often have to visit several before crossing all the items off my list. I bought curry powder, ground cardamom, paprika, cinnamon sticks, chopped coconut, mango chutney, mango pickle and garlic pickle. One store’s proprietor was from India, the other from Bangladesh. In the latter, a DVD played passages from the Holy Koran, first in Arabic and then in English. I must get a copy of that DVD.

On Sunday, I left the country early to complete my shopping at the local Giant store near American University. I bought lamb, turnips, fresh strawberries, onions and a green pepper for sambol. I replenished my supply of Klondike bars and sugar free popsicles. I stocked up on some sale items that would be useful in future dinners - salad dressing and anchovies for the chef’s salads I sometimes feature.

Dinner preparations began about four and continued, with rising intensity, right up to the last minute. Though it was parents weekend - always a slow night because students have spent time, and possibly dinner, with their parents - there were thirteen guests, plus a first visit from American University’s first faculty couple in residence, living in refurbished Nebraska Hall, on the other side of campus. One couple had just returned from a twenty-seven mile bike marathon to Mount Vernon.

Conversation at Sunday night dinners is rarely profound. The biking couple spoke of their trip. The new faculty couple recounted experiences of their first weeks in residence. A young woman spoke of problems with her car and getting it repaired. Her father had spilled ice tea and shorted out the seat belt interlock - and not told her about it. We commiserated about problems of getting good customer service, in auto-repair shops, from IT help desks and elsewhere. By 9:20 - dinner began at eight - we had said our last good byes and cleanup began.

The young woman who helps me with dinners, “Emily,” is the fifth to have played that role. She is attractive, energetic and unfailingly cheerful. These are qualities I appreciate and recruit for. Politically, she describes herself as a conservative, but we rarely talk about politics. Last night, she selected a Beach Boys album from my ipod. We both knew all the songs and sang along while we cleaned up. She told me the Beach Boys performed at the first concert she ever attended. We discussed different styles in music. She likes hip-hop and country and is enjoying a classical music course. Beethoven’s “ode to joy,” the finale to his Ninth symphony, is one of her favorites. Shortly before eleven, we were done and Emily departed with a care package of lamb curry for her roommate.

From shopping list preparation to cleaning up, the entire production had occupied about eleven hours, of which the dinner, itself was only ninety minutes. After completing a dinner, I have a better appreciation of why catering costs for the many CTE events at which we serve food are so high. AU’s catering department provides great service and personal attention. This takes staff time, resources and good management.

Driving home from the country, I was listening to a “Speaking of Faith” interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, founding Director of the National Institute for Play. Brown was discussing the importance of play in a healthy life. The interview lead me to reflect on whether Sunday night dinners are “work” or “play.” “Both” is the answer I came to. I think the best sort work life is one in which “work” and “play” are so intermingled it is hard to tell them apart. Much of my vocation as a faculty member and at American University has that quality. It is something to be thankful for.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living and working in community: a “Letter from SI”

When university students recall their undergraduate years with nostalgia, the experience of living in a community often stands out in those happy recollections. In later years we may find community in our workplace, in a religious congregation, in an activist group or in an avocational interest group focused on horseback riding, tennis, automobile racing, quilting, or sailing. But the foundational social institution in America is the nuclear family, thinly connected to an extended family of relatives, often geographically separate, or not connected at all. If, as some believe, community is a fundamental human need, America’s social order is not fulfilling that need, for the most part.

Members of the Cobb Hill intentional community, located in Hartland Vermont, are experimenting with a radically different social order. Sustainable living, in community, is Cobb Hill’s organizing concept. Cobb Hill coexists with and overlaps with the Sustainability Institute, whose mission is research, public activism and public education on sustainabile-living issues. Sustainability Institute staff members who also live at Cobb Hill have the unique opportunity to pursue work, family life, and community life in an environment where each reinforces and affirms the other.

This experiment is also unique in that it, and its precursor, “Foundation Farm” have been chronicled for more than 25 years. Dana Meadows, familiar to Dormgrandpop readers, began writing “Dear Folks” letters in the late 1970s or early 1980s. When Dana died in 2001, Susie Sweitzer, a Cobb Hill resident and Sustainability Institute staff member continued them. Now the letters have morphed into to “Letter from SI,” which combines Institute and Cobb Hill news, viewed through the eyes of those living and working there.

This month’s newsletter, the second in the new format, described how the Cobb Hill community is seeking to recycle waste from its composting toilets, on site. One Cobb Hill couple described a three month trip they are planning - to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines Thailand and South Africa. They will be “interviewing people with experience and insight in social change. Another reported on a road trip to the Northwest with their children, duly recording the miles traveled and CO2 produced each day. Their chronicle included a humorous account of their successful trip from the San Francisco suburbs to the San Francisco Zoo, by public transport, despite the absence of any directions to guide them.

Neither Cobb Hill nor the Sustainability Institute are paradise, but the community members are seeking to achieve a lifestyle that many Americans yearn for at some deep level, but see no hope of achieving. They may get back in touch with what it was like to live in community at college reunions and it is a bitter-sweet experience.

Check out the Sustainability Institute website at www.sustainer.org.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

When should “the rules" be followed? When should they be broken?

The skeleton of complex organizations and societies comprises laws, rules and regulations. There are rules for the creation of rules - in political life we call them constitutions. American University’s new President, Neil Kerwin’s scholarly career has focused, in part, on the study of rule-making. Rules are human artifacts, but they often assume a life of their own, somehow independent of human creation.

In post World War II Japan, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff faced the daunting challenge of creating an entirely new system of rule making and rules to replace a discredited one. Political leaders in the nations of Post Cold-War Europe faced similar challenges. So did leaders of post colonial “new nations.”

University students, too, face the challenge of choosing when to follow rules and when to break them. Grappling with this challenge, they learn, is one of life’s dilemmas. The functioning of institutions, including universities themselves, requires that most human beings follow most of the rules, most of the time. But rule breakers are sources of energy, creativity and change. Founding fathers of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and their colleagues were rule breakers. The U.S. Declaration of Independence offers a compelling discussion of when it is appropriate to follow the rules and when to break them.

These reflections have been motivated by readings and reflection during my morning quiet time, over the last two or three days. My reading has been the middle chapters of the Book of Matthew in my Life Study Bible, a gift from my daughter in law. The chapters describe, in part, debates between Jesus and Jewish religious leaders about how religious laws should be applied to daily life.

The religious leaders seem to be giving priority to a literal interpretation of the laws. Jesus, too, views religious laws as important. But he seems to be saying that it is also important to keep in mind the purposes of those religious laws, manifesting God’s intentions in human’s lives, societies, institutions and nations. Thus Jesus, like America’s founding fathers, is saying that choosing when rules are to be followed and when they are to be broken is part of what it means to be human.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

AU's President's Cirtcle Dinner

Last evening I attended American University’s “President’s Circle Dinner.” This annual event acknowledges individuals who have contributed more than $1,000 to American University in the preceding year and encourages them to give more. It is a rite of celebration and intensification, held at Washington DC’s Ritz Carlton Hotel.

This was third dinner at which AU’s newly designated President, Neil Kerwin officiated and the first at which he could claim the Presidential mantle, without qualification. In contrast to his predecessor, Benjamin Ladner, Kerwin’s style is low key. His humor is self deprecating. His affiliation with AU began when he matriculated as a first year student and, apart from graduate school, He has spent his entire professional life working at AU.

His talk celebrated AU’s achievements and spoke of “moving to the next level,” though he did not describe what that might look like. The audience didn’t care. This was a cadre of AU’s most loyal supporters and contributers. Many are graduates. They have stood with the University in bad times as well was good.

One speaker, recipient of the “President’s Award” for major contributions to the institution, reminded the audience that “the most important alumni are the next ones.” This Friday, Saturday and Sunday is both parents weekend and alumni weekend, an interesting juxtaposition. As the event-filled weekend unfolds, the speaker’s words should remind those of us who serve AU of our mission and what is fundamentally important about a university.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Speaking of Faith"

“Surviving the Religion of Mao” - A memoir of growing up in China by Anchee Min

“Obedience and Action” - A Benedictine nun for over 50 years, Joan Chichester discusses the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church and the satisfactions of the religious life

“Americas Changing Religious Landscape” - A conversation with public theologian and historian, Martin Marty

“Being Autistic, Being Human” - Author Paul Collins and his wife, Jennifer use the experience of raising their autistic son as a context for discussing autism and autistic people in history

“The Buddha in the World” - Indian Journalist Pankaj Mishra speaks of the Lord Buddha’s role, not as a religious figure but as a critical social thinker.

These are five titles, from a remarkable public radio program, Speaking of Faith, hosted by Journalist and Yale Divinity School Graduate Krista Tippett. On a fifteen hour round trip drive to Cleveland, I listened to a number of Krista’s "conversations," while enjoying gorgeous fall foliage. It was a grounding and mind expanding experience.

Check out the Speaking of Faith website at

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Where have I been?

Where have I been?
The last time I took time to write was on October 4th - 20 days ago. This is the longest time that I have put this project aside - and the putting aside was unintended. Many days I promised I would write and I didn’t. I left it to the end of the day and was thyen too tired or distracted.

Time management is a problem that students grapple with when the first come to university and the problem is especially challenging for AU students. Unlike those in more bucolic higher education settings, they are drawn to Washington, as much as to the academic life. They have internships, community service commitments, political activist commitments, social commitments, well as relationship commitments, physical well being commitments.

As my co-authors and I wrote in “Groping in the Dark: The first Decade of Global Modeling,” all of us must ‘decide what is most important and what is less so and live for what is most important.” For me, the challenge of doing this has not diminished with age. I struggle with it every day.

I have decided that writing this Blog is important, which means I must make it a priority at the beginning of the day, not the end. But what will I decide not to do?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Like a gathering of old friends

Last night I attended a small dinner party for Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Hon. Rohitha Bogollagama, who is visiting Washington. The event was the first to be given in the refurbished residence of the Ambassador, marking completion of a five year construction project. It typified one of many reasons why my long relationship with Sri Lanka, culminating in publication of my recent book: ‘Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars’ has been so rewarding.

I knew more than half the guests personally, many had been friends or acquaintances for many years. Among them were my doctoral student, Ravinatha Aryasinha, also a friend of 20 years. There were two former US ambassadors to Sri Lanka, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior woman diplomats, a prominent Sri Lankan attorney, now living in the US, and his wife. And others.

I still remember the dinner party, while I was living in Sri Lanka, when I learned one way socializing in the island nation differs from socializing in Washington D.C. In Washington, the average length of a conversation at social events, especially official ones, is rarely more than five minutes. In Sri Lanka, about 30 minutes is the norm. You rarely end a conversation before learning about your conversation partner, or catching up with him or her, in considerable depth. I still remember when I first began to understand this. It was a party at an an outdoor pavilion, dimly illuminated by strings of ‘christmas tree lights’ on a warm Colombo summer evening. My conversation partners were a Sri Lankan newspaper publisher and his wife. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes. Neither of the couple seemed to feel the need to move on to another conversation. It was one of those epiphany moments when you begin to appreciate some nuance of a new culture that has seemed strange.

Last evening, like many other Sri Lanka parties I have attended over the years, had that quality of relaxed intimacy. Such events do not end early. I arrived ad the Ambassador’s residence about 7:45, a few minutes late, but one of the first arrivals. The Minister arrived much later. We did not begin dining until about 9:15 and the typically extended ‘good bye’ conversations did not conclude until after 11:00. This was late for a weeknight in Washington, where my day typically begins about 6 AM, but i didn’t mind. It was more like a gathering of old friends than an official function.