About Me

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

To Change the Mind

One of the lucky aspects of my job is the leisure to read.  Admittedly, there are times I do not perceive it to be a leisure.  It may well be a tendency to think that if something is part of the job, then it has to be “work.”  And if it is “work,” it must be done.

This reminds me of one of Tom Sawyer’s one-liners in Mark Twain’s book.  Tom had just talked some of his buddies into “volunteering” to whitewash the fence.  However, it took some real attitude-changing for Tom to pull off this switch of perspective in his buddies.  As the story opened, it was a lovely Saturday morning on a fine spring day.  Tom had plans; his elders had other plans.  They won; he was condemned to whitewashing this fence.

Soon his buddies came by the “workplace.”  They laughed at poor Tom as they announced plans to go off and have fun.  The cruelty of the world bit Tom very deeply!  But he was stuck.  There was no alternative to whitewashing. 

He may have been stuck, but he was not helpless.  He had faith that there might be an alternative he could create.  Perhaps, that is a key.  Too often, we assume any alternative available to us has to be already “there.”  Some of us assume we will be stuck if we cannot find the alternative, which is already “there.”  We do not realize that many times we can create alternatives.

This is exactly what Tom did.  He created an alternative.  The clever thing in his alternative is the simplicity of his creation.  He simply changed the way his buddies thought about whitewashing.  The alternative was only in the mind.  Whitewashing is whitewashing.  But how you feel about it depends on how you see it.

Tom figured out how to change work into play.  Tom began to counter his buddies’ jabs at him by “suggesting” to them that he would not share his whitewashing duties for anything.  This planted seeds of doubt in their mind.  They assumed it would be a lousy Saturday duty…and he was claiming somehow it was not only a privilege but, even fun.

This created a curiosity and lure.  One by one Tom hooked every one of his buddies.  They began “paying” him for the privilege of whitewashing.  Tom had re-shaped their thinking and pretty soon they were joyfully doing that which they jeered only minutes before.  Tom not only had the last laugh; he had their loot, to boot!

Let me suggest this is a good parable to understand how God works and what the role of spirituality might be in our lives.  It would be easy to see the embrace of a spiritual journey as something like being condemned to whitewash the fence.  Who would want to work like that?  I would rather have fun doing what I want to do! 

I won’t go so far as to suggest Tom Sawyer is a symbol of Jesus, but I do think Jesus often worked paradoxically like Tom.  Jesus was a mind-changer.  He re-shaped peoples’ attitudes.  He changed the way they looked at the world and what we should do in our world.

Jesus had some crazy ideas.  If you want to be first, then agree to be last.  If you want to be great, then choose a servant role.  What all this crazy teaching does to me is cause me to be less sure I know exactly how things work.  It causes me to pause and wonder.  It gracefully opens me up to looking at things differently.

And there precisely, is the opening to the transformation.  Maybe with a new view there are new possibilities. Work can become play.  Duty can become privilege.  I have a sneaking suspicion this is a little like the kingdom which is a mustard seed.  Something big could happen here!

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Golden Rule

When people think about religions, perhaps the most well known facet of religion is the Golden Rule.  In its biblical form, the Golden Rule simply says, “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.” This rule is found in a couple of the New Testament gospels.  But the neat thing about the Golden Rule is it occurs in some form in all major religious traditions.  It is certainly not a Christian thing alone.
           
Sometimes, the Golden Rule is described as the law of reciprocity.  It is similar, but I would argue it is not the same.  The law of reciprocity simply says, “I do something for you, so that you will do something for me.”  In this law there is the expectation that you will do something for me.  In fact, that is why I do something for you.  It locks you in, so to speak, to do something for me.
           
The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is simply a gift.  You are going to treat someone else like you would like to be treated.  There is no expectation that you will do something for me.  The Golden Rule puts no one under obligation.  In that sense it is grace---a free gift.  Clearly, if people abided by this Rule, life and our communities would be much saner and safer.
           
I bumped into the Golden Rule again when I was doing some research for a presentation that I soon will make.  I have a presentation to do about Martin Luther King Jr.  It has been fun to remember the Civil Rights leader.  I am old enough to recall much of what he did.  It is easy to claim two things.  On the one hand, he had a lasting effect on our American society.  A good bit of legislation was passed to solidify the gains he and many others labored to bring.  On the other hand, it is a little depressing that racism still exists in our midst.  In retrospect we know that simply passing legislation outlawing discrimination is not sufficient. 
           
Part of what I read in preparation for my presentation on King was Pope Francis’ recent address to the US Congress.  The Pope was making his initial visit to our country and had the awesome opportunity to speak to both houses of Congress.  What he shared about King led him to the Golden Rule.  Having cited the Golden Rule, the Pope developed the themes of that Rule in three ways, which I would like to share and offer some comments.
           
The first thing the Pope asks of all is straightforward.  Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.”  This is an interesting beginning point.  It assumes we would like to be the object of other folks’ passion and compassion.  I interpret that to mean we all want others to care for us.  I know that is my hope.  If everyone cared for me, I would have no worries about any other human being.  I would never fear anyone and I would expect the best from all. 
           
And if I every get in trouble, everyone would offer me compassion.  That is about as good as it gets.  Compassion means that everyone would do everything possible to make sure I had what I needed, that I had their understanding if I made some mistake and that I would have everything they could offer if I were to suffer.  This would almost be like having God in my corner.  But maybe that is what the Pope is after.  Perhaps the Pope knows that most of the time, God deals indirectly with us through other people.  Those who are passionate and compassionate for us are truly God-like in their behavior on our behalf.  Thank God!
           
The second theme the Pope lifts out of the Golden Rule is wonderful.  He asks,  “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”  If everyone around me were working to create more possibilities for me, I would be flooded with good possibilities in many directions.  This would open up amazing futures for all of us.  Think how it would eradicate frustration, hate and war.  Peace would be the fruitful product of such action.
           
The final theme the Pope extracts from the Golden Rule, as he reflected on Martin Luther King Jr, is again quite simple.  “Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.”  I find it fascinating that the Pope is intrigued by how we help each other grow.  The Pope knows if the world continues with business as usual, things will not be good.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew the same thing, as he pondered the plight of African Americans.  Often the status quo is not a good thing.
           
This is where the Golden Rule does not feel like the same thing to all of us.  Some of us---like me---have been much more fortunate in life. Much of the way I have been fortunate has nothing to do with my own accomplishments.  As such, the Golden Rule might feel more challenging to someone like me.  It might feel like I have more to lose.  But maybe that is the point.
           
Each of us has to personalize what the Pope asks.  We are asked to be compassionate, to create possibilities for others and to help others grow.  I am sure this is what Jesus wants.  And if I get serious about my spiritual journey, this is my agenda, too---follow the Golden Rule.

Friday, September 23, 2016

To the Mountaintop

One of the delightful results of agreeing to do things is the preparation I have to do in order to make a presentation.  One such fruit of my labor is the reading I am doing for an upcoming presentation on Martin Luther King Jr.  I have welcomed this chance to work more closely than I ever have with King’s speeches, sermons and other material.  I am old enough to remember King’s presence and impact on American society.  It is fun to delve back into that memory and to enrich it.
           
I am certain King’s most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, DC.  I remember watching that one on television and listening to news folks talk for many days afterward about its implications.  It is one of those events I wish I had attended, but alas I have no idea what I did that day!  Every time I see a video clip of that speech, chills creep back into my body. 

But I don’t want to focus on that speech.  Instead I would look at a sermon King delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated.  On April 3, 1968 King preached at the Mason Temple in Memphis.  Mason Temple was the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal denomination.  The title of the sermon that night was “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.”  Reading that sermon is a little eerie, because King would not know he would be killed the following day.

King begins the sermon by imagining that he stood with God at the beginning of time.  King was asked what period of time he wanted to live in.  Not surprisingly, King chose that time of his life.  King allowed that momentous issues demanded to be dealt with at that period.  Otherwise, he prophesied, “The whole world is doomed.”  King continued to describe the times and the non-violent change he and others were bringing so that the world would not be doomed.

King knew there were threats.  He addresses these possibilities at the end of the sermon.  And then comes the very moving conclusion of the sermon. King says, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now.”  The clarity and the courage of those words are very moving.  All of us have experienced difficult days.  But I and most of us can’t say that it doesn’t matter to us.  His ease with his situation in life is both a challenge and a reassurance.

His next sentence reveals, I think, why he is ok with whatever happened.  King says he is not worried “because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”  It’s that simple and it’s that profound.  It’s simple.  He had been to the mountaintop.  For anyone who knows the Christian Bible, being at the top of the mountain is loaded with symbolism.  In effect, King claims he has been the to the place where he met and was with God.  He has been to the place of Presence and Promise.  It gives him confidence and contentment. 

Now King can affirm, “I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.”  Those words are so powerful.  King knew he wanted to live a long life---just like most of us.  But deeper than this he knew his only real concern was that he be doing God’s will.  I understand those words and intellectually want to say the same thing.  But I’m still not sure what my heart will say.  Is my faith that deep?

King continued to end that sermon with rich Biblical imagery.  He acknowledges that God “allowed me to go up to the mountain.”  I love where King then goes.  “And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”  Clearly this is a reference to the Israelites in the wilderness.  King is a Moses-like figure.  Moses got the people to the edge of the promise land, but Moses never got to cross over.  Somehow King knew, like Moses, that it was not necessary for him personally to get to the promised land.

It is easy for me to wonder why he does not want to live long enough to make it?  He has his answer.  “And I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.”  Wow, the confidence in faith and the contentment that he is somehow safe in the Presence and Power of God.  How, I wonder?  And then the last sentence of the sermon is couched in the words of a familiar hymn.  King says he is not worried because “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

For the person of faith that is sufficient.  In faith we can be ok, even if everything around us is not ok.  In faith we too can be taken to the mountaintop.  It is not some literal mountain somewhere in the world.  It is not a magical mountain.  The mountaintop is the place faith takes us by grace into the Presence of the One who will protect us, regardless of what comes out way.

Reading this tells me so much about Martin Luther King Jr and tells me about the possibility and potentiality for each one of us.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sincere Love

Every day I usually do quite a bit of reading.  Most of it is fairly interesting.  At one level, it could be said this is what I do for my job and that would be true.  In an odd way what I do for my job is not unlike what someone who works in a factory does for his or her job.  Reading is the routine of my job.  It is just different than what others do as routine for their jobs.

Certainly not everything I read is of equal value (to me, at least).  And not everything I read is equally engaging to me.  I do feel lucky, however, in the sense that most of what I read probably has something to do with life (at least, as I want to try to live it).  For an atheist most of what I read might be pretty silly.  I am ok with that.  I know most of what I believe theologically cannot be proved.  It really could be an illusion…and I am ok with that gamble. 

But I am convinced there is a difference between life and a meaningful life.  I want to opt for the meaningful life.  And I am sure for myself, a meaningful life cannot be merely in the moment.  Real meaning has to be meaningful today and tomorrow.  It cannot be whimsical, momentary, or even episodic.  It needs to be enduring.

Occasionally, I read something that jars me.  It makes me double back on some of the things I may have felt like I already knew.  Thomas Merton, my favorite dead monk, routinely does this to me.  Only yesterday I encountered one of those simple statements from Merton that made me go, “Whoa…I have to think about this.”

In one of my favorite books of Merton, No Man Is an Island, he says, “Our ability to be sincere with ourselves, with God, and with other men is really proportionate to our capacity for sincere love.”  This is one of those sentences which has me saying, “I understand all the words, but I am not sure I understand its meaning.”  Sincere love is a weighty concept.

Actually, the idea of love is a weighty concept.  And then add the idea of “sincere” to love and my head swims.  I think the thing that unnerves me to begin with is the idea that there must also be “insincere love.”  When I know both options, sincere and insincere love, I wonder which one of the two I most often am offering?  Do I go around insincerely loving and simply calling it “love?”

What is my “capacity for sincere love?”  Whew, talk about a weighty question!  I think I have a sizeable capacity, but maybe that is because I am usually in a safe, easy environment.  When you do not have many enemies or when your enemies are fairly benign, love seems pretty easy.  That reminds me of Jesus saying something about how easy it is to love friends.

Can I increase my capacity for sincere love?  I think so and I am sure Merton thought so.  We increase our capacity by practicing loving.  I am not sure I practice enough.  It is easy to do when loving is easy.  But I think I need to practice it when it is not so easy.  In this sense, it is a bit like running or any other discipline.  You need to do it regularly; do it when you don’t want to do it; sometimes do it when it hurts.  And then slowly you begin to realize you are growing in your capacity.

You become capable of things you once could not do.  I can imagine that I and you can increase the capacity for sincere love to the extent that we actually are able to

So I think I will begin today.  I will increase my capacity for sincere love.  I am sure there will be countless opportunities.  It will be easy with my friends.  But then, there are the ding-a-lings and they won’t be so easy.  I will not be smug, however, because for someone I probably am the ding-a-ling!  And I will give them a chance to practice!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Finding Peace

One of the things I am convinced is true about spirituality is that it is not always about sunshine, laughter, and good times.  Anyone who has lived knows that life is not just sunshine, laughter, and good times.  I suppose many of us might wish that were true.  But it is not and there is no use in hoping for something that is not realistic.

Maybe the one place where the illusion that life is sunshine, laughter, and good times always seems true is in the first blushes of a romantic relationship.  When you meet “that one” who becomes the sole center of attention, then life does seem to be sunshine, laughter, and good times.  For a short while, this may well be true.  In fact, it often seems too good to be true.  And it is!

I don’t know how many times I have heard people tell someone who has experienced death in a family or some other tragedy that “time heals.”  Of course, that usually is true…but it does take time for the healing to take place.  And in the beginning it seems unbelievable.  Often that person does not want to heal; they would rather re-wind the clock and have things just like they were before the death or tragedy.  To know that time heals means they will adjust and be ok…and that in itself can be scary!

But I don’t know that I ever heard anyone say that “time wounds.”  And yet I think it is just as true.  If we live long enough, if we care enough, if we get invested enough, sooner or later we will be wounded.  I like the Latin word for wound, vulnerabilis.  To live is to be vulnerable.  I knew this was true for myself when I learned that being in control, being defensive, or any other coping mechanism would not ultimately suffice.  I was still vulnerable.  To be human is to be vulnerable.

I never forget the first account in the Christian Bible is the story of God bringing creation out of chaos.  It was only later that the Church Fathers began to talk about creation out of nothing.  In Genesis it is creation out of chaos.  And actually, that sounds more like real life.  If God had to do it that way, why shouldn’t I?

In some ways that is not much solace.  That means to me that chaos is the given.  And maybe that is the way to understand vulnerability.  Being vulnerable, as we all are, means we always are walking and living on the borders of chaos.  It is easy to get lost, diverted, or thrown into chaos.  We can do it to ourselves.  And others certainly do it to us!  In the moment it feels like chaos wins.  It may feel like this is our eternal fate.

But there is good news.  That is what spirituality ultimately brings to us: good news.  The good news is that peace can be found.  So how does one find peace?  I think there are three places where peace is found.  It is not magic, but it usually works.

The first place is in nature.  Our contemporary, sedentary (that is sitting eternally on our rear ends!) culture does not embrace and experience nature.  But it can be majestic.  It offers silence, solace, and serenity.  Nature invites us to come to her and just be….just breathe…just center.  Don’t be in a hurry. Like God, you are there to see creation come out of chaos.  It is a miracle, not magic.

Secondly, peace is found in another person.  The other person has to be someone who is centered and already knows deep peace.  Typically, it is a person who is seasoned in the Spirit.  It is someone who has time to be attentive to you.  Probably it is not words, but presence that the person offers.  Just as God spoke creation into being, so this other person can “speak” peace into your being.

Finally, peace is found in community.  For me, community is a group doing the same thing I just said another person can offer.  But it usually is more powerful. An authentic spiritual community is centered in the power of the Presence of the Spirit and inevitably draws you into this Presence. This is the true counter-weight to our individual vulnerabilities.

Be at peace.  And if you are not, may you find peace this day. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Pet Lamb

Sometimes I am surprised at what shows up in my mind!  And I suspect you have the same thing happen to you.  I am not surprised that occasionally I dream strange and odd things.  Most normal people I know tell me things like, “last night I had the strangest dream!”  I think dreams are our arena for surprises, weirdness, and other abnormal things.  But then, we wake up and discover we are normal and begin the day.

But it is those daytime experiences when something odd appears inside my head that make my laugh…laugh at myself.  I think I just experienced this.  For some reason my pet lamb showed up.  His name was Jimmy (I know, this is not very original, but I was only six!).  I loved Jimmy…or whatever could pass as love for a six year old farm boy and a lamb.

We did not have very many sheep on our farm.  In fact, we did not have them very long; so all my “sheep memories” are young.  Jimmy became my pet lamb because his mom---an unnamed ewe---died while giving birth to Jimmy.  Now that in itself is a pretty awesome life-learning experience for a little kid.  So Jimmy had no mom.  And the rams were never to be found when it came to raising the little ones (again a bit like real life in some kids’ lives!).  I can smile now that I think I was Jimmy’s parent!

Dutifully, I would go to the barn twice a day when my dad was milking the cows, fill up a Coke bottle with warm milk, stick on a nipple and go feed Jimmy.  It took a while to teach this lamb that the Coke bottle would have to suffice for mom!  But he learned…and it really was his only option!

He grew and became one of those “cute lambs.”  He was so tame that he just stayed in the back yard with the dogs and cats.  Every time I left the house, there was Jimmy…always ready to follow along.  He became a great pet.  He always wanted to play; he was always happy; he was totally devoted.  What more could you want from a friend?

But Jimmy was growing in ways I had not calculated---insofar as six year olds can calculate.  He sprouted horns.  And then, retrospectively I can now say, he experienced hormonal development.  My pet lamb fairly quickly grew into a ram!  And my little friend became meaner.  The one who had docilely followed me now was as likely to butt me as to nuzzle me.  Instead of loving him, I became leery of him!

And this is where what shows up in my mind becomes relevant for today.  When we were young, we all probably were a great deal like my pet lamb.  Who does not love the little ones?  They are all cute, cuddly, and beyond cool.  But they grow up and sometimes we forget to account for that.  After all, we grew up, too.  We grow horns (metaphorically, of course). When we become adults, many of us are more likely to butt than to bless.  Certainly no one of us is perfect; God knows and so do most of my friends, I am not perfect.  Some days I am just a “butter.”  And on given days, nearly every one I know can butt me.  Sometimes I see it coming; sometimes I am surprised.  However, I am never surprised that every person I know might butt me at some point.

So how is this spiritual?  In deep ways I believe it is spiritual.  In a sneaky way I have just re-told the first three chapters of Genesis---but from the angle of sheep.  In the beginning all was good.  There were Jimmy and me, just like there were Adam and God.  The relationship was pure and the love unsullied.  But this is not guaranteed.  Time sows seeds of potential change.  For Jimmy it was normal sheep development; for Adam it was exercising a bad choice.  Jimmy became mean; Adam became miserable.  In both cases, Paradise was lost.

As John Steinbeck wrote, we are all now living east of Eden.  Every one of us is capable of blessing and butting.  I wish that were not true of me.  And I really wish that were not true of you!  But that’s reality.

So we need to make sure there is space for grace…for understanding…for forgiveness...for trying to be better.  We humans can manage that with each other.  Mean rams?  That’s a different story!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pope Picks Lincoln

In September, 2015 Pope Francis addressed the US Congress as part of his visit to our country.  Since one in four Americans is a Roman Catholic, interest was quite high and the curiosity was lively speculating on what the newly minted Pope would tell Congress and the American people.  I was equally intrigued by what the Argentinian Jesuit, archbishop and now Pope would say.
           
The fact that the Pope chose the name, Francis, demonstrates he is not afraid to go new places.  No Pope before had chosen that name.  Especially as St. Francis in the thirteenth century did what he did and became such a model of spiritual depth and service, no Pope felt up to the challenge of being compared to that apostolic witness.  But we now have our own Pope Francis I. 
           
When the Pope spoke to that Congressional audience, he talked about four Americans as models of faith, which is my term of description.  I found the choice of these four Americans both interesting and revealing of the papal perspective.  The first of the four named by the Pope is Abraham Lincoln.  In many ways Lincoln is the most obvious.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was the second American named and that also does not surprise.  The other two chosen by the Pope were Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  While these may have been less obvious, they make sense as we begin to get to know what Pope Francis expects from faithful women and men. 
           
The Pope picks Lincoln.  That is no surprise and, yet, in many ways Lincoln is certainly not the model Christian or religious person if you use traditional standards.  This in and of itself says a great deal about the Pope.  For example in the race for the Illinois Congressional seat, Lincoln had been accused of not being a Christian.  His response is interesting.  He says, “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true; but I have never denied the truth of Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”  Lincoln never joined a church.  So the real question is whether he was religious?
           
There is no doubt the Pope thinks Lincoln passes muster.  To use our contemporary language, I actually think Lincoln might be the “spiritual, not religious” kind of person.  Membership, traditional church doctrine and creeds were not important in his life.  I don’t think he would belittle someone for which this was meaningful, but for Lincoln they were not. 

In fact, Lincoln could be funny.  At one point he notes, “The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish.  I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible.”  Lincoln was the kind of person for whom nature spoke of a God who was creative.  The Catholic Church calls this natural theology and that made sense to Lincoln.  Careful consideration of Lincoln’s life and development as a human being reveals a person who grows and changes and whose way of looking at religion evolves.

Given everything Lincoln experiences in his life would make it surprising if he were not affected by history.  The period of the Civil War was about as awful as it could get for the United States.  Being the nation’s leader at this time must have exacted an incredible toll on this native of Kentucky, youth of Indiana and young adult of Illinois.  Nothing would have prepared him for what he faced.  And yet he grew into his role as nation’s leader.

Part of that growth was seeing the role of God in the process.  There is no question that by the 1850s and 1860s God was a reality in Lincoln’s life.  Lincoln certainly did not think God chose sides in the Civil War.  In spite of his early Baptist exposure by virtue of his parents, Lincoln did not believe in predestination.  Instead he affirmed a God who acted providentially.  Providence was God’s activity in the world.

Lincoln felt like God would act in the world to bring everything that happens to a good or, even, better end.  Humans might not know in the minute what that meant, but God was at work in any event.  Lincoln would have been clear that God’s Providence would work to good, loving and just ends.  It would be in the context that slavery was seen.  God’s providential action in the world would not justify keeping some people enslaved. 

Freedom and liberty were part of the Divine design.  Lincoln undoubtedly felt called to be instrumental in helping Providence work out its destiny.  To a group of Quakers Lincoln allowed that “he might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work and he certainly was not unwilling to be.”  I think this is why Pope Francis calls Lincoln “a guardian of liberty.”

With the Pope’s choice of this guardian of liberty, I believe the Pope is hoping and suggesting all Americans follow this model and work to free people of all sorts of slavery---bondage of poverty, exclusion, racism, sexism, etc.  We are called to be instruments of Providence, too.