About Me

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lunch With a Friend

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend. That is not breathtaking news. There was no special occasion. There was no news that we were dying to tell each other. When the lunch was finished, I was not profoundly moved, had no penetrating insight, or strong resolve to go out and save the world. It was just a lunch. I had soup, not sushi.

The lunch was perfectly ordinary, just like the soup. There were no sushi qualities to it. I associate sushi with something extraordinary---something special and unusual. I like sushi, but it is not an ordinary lunch fare for me. Most of the time, I am just a soup kind of guy. And so is my friend. And so was our lunch.

Economically it was a loss. I bought both lunches! It would have been cheaper to go to lunch by myself. I smile as I type this because I know when we go to lunch again (when, not if), he will pay for the lunch. And I know that day it will feel like a gift that he gave me---a free lunch! He probably felt that way yesterday; I gave him a gift.

If someone were to watch this whole hour-long event, it would be easy to conclude the lunch was entirely ordinary with almost no interesting exchange. God was barely mentioned. Spiritual stuff was woefully lacking in most of the conversation. We talked about his kids and my kids and on and on. At the end, we shook hands and vowed to stay in touch and have lunch again. And of course, I will have at least one more so he can pay! And then we drove away.

So why did we do it? And why am I bothering to talk about something so apparently banal (I love using that word!)? I know that on one level, there was nothing very significant about that lunch and about our conversation. However on another level, I know exactly why I had that lunch and that conversation. I did it because we are friends. And I am sure that is why he did it. We are friends. And that is deeply significant to me. And that is profoundly spiritual for me.

So it was not the soup or the small talk. The soup was so-so and the conversation ho-hum. But it was a great hour. And I came away one more time grateful for the friendship. Real friendship is great and gratifying. Like soup and small talk, so much of real friendship is characterized by the ordinary. For sure, there will be times friends go to a sushi-type lunch and the conversation will soar to dizzying heights. When those times happen, it will feel more like a trip to the altar than to lunch!

So I had lunch with a friend just because I wanted to. There was simple desire. That desire was not complicated by any agenda. I was not wanting anything. It was not a networking opportunity. There were no “angles.” Authentic friendship is one of the clearest, cleanest relationships possible. And that is the key to why we had lunch. Friendship is relationship.

In my mind the moment we begin to talk about relationship, we implicate the spiritual dimension. That is because most of spirituality, as I understand it, is more like soup and less like sushi. Yet, it seems many people see spirituality as more like sushi. Perhaps some even see it like caviar! In fact, most of us ordinary mortals are not quite sure we even know what caviar is. If you peak at a dictionary, you can read that caviar is the “processed salted roe of large fish (as sturgeon).” There is another definition I like. Caviar is “something considered too delicate or lofty for mass appreciation.”

The point is spirituality, like friendship, is much more like soup. It is what two or more humans do in relationship in ordinary ways to make life sustaining and nurturing (using the food metaphor). In fact, that is why meals are such a spiritual staple. Two or more people get together to eat, to share, to care, to listen, to counsel, and to celebrate. It is so simple, but it is so deeply significant. I understand perfectly why Jesus told those gathered disciples in John’s Gospel, “I call you friends.”

And I like knowing Greek, so that I can tell you the Greek word for friend, philos, is one of the Greek words for “love.” So friendship---authentic friendship---is always an act of love. That is why it is spiritual and significant. Yesterday I had lunch with a friend: it was a love feast! Soup, friendship, love, the Spirit! No wonder I felt like I had been to a banquet.

It would be easy for a bystander to say there was nothing very special about that lunch. But to me, it was amazing. How many times can you get quadruple hit in life: soup, friendship, love and the Spirit? It cost me money and I felt like a rich guy. It took an hour and I got a clip of eternity.

I really do think this is the small, secret, spiritual stuff of life that Jesus, the Buddha, and so many other spiritual giants knew, lived and preached. And to most of us, it seems so ordinary that we set off on quests for sushi. But it is more simple than that.

Just have lunch with a friend. I did and I will again.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Visit to the Buddhist Temple

One of the very best things that happened to me when I went to college decades ago was the fact I began to broaden my experience.  When you grow up on a farm in rural Indiana, as I did, your world is pretty small.  Of course, at the time I did not realize how provincial I was.  I assumed the entire world was just like my little world!
   
In that world there were a lot of Quakers around the place.  And in that tiny world there were many Quakers.  What I did not realize was that particular place in Indiana was where Quakers migrated to before the Civil War in order to avoid the slavery issues.  Fortunately, Quakers were ahead of their times on that issue.  But in college I began to get the sense Quakers were a pretty small group.  This was true.  Compared to Baptists, Catholics and a host of other Christian traditions, we were pretty small fish.
   
In college I began to get a taste of the religious world beyond Christians.  This was totally new for me.  Having Jewish friends was the first step into religious diversity.  This was good for me, although it had its theological challenges.  I was facing theological questions that were totally new to me.  I did not know how to think about the bigger picture.  But with help from other, wiser souls, I made progress and expanded my worldview and found ways to be inclusive.
   
Through graduate school and, now, decades of teaching I have continued to broaden my world.  Clearly, the world has always been very broad---diversity sometimes feeling rampant.  But I grew into the bigger world.  In graduate school I became friends with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.  I now knew the five major religious traditions in the world.  And then my world became much more complex and interesting.  I welcomed that diversity, even though I often did not know how to cope with it.  But I learned and I appreciated.  I still do.
   
And now as a professor, I try to offer this same gift to students.  Many of my students come from fairly limited perspectives.  Certainly their worlds are usually not as narrow as mine was, but they still have not experienced too much.  And they normally have not thought much about the complex, diverse world in which they live.  They don’t make friends in broad enough ways.  They often have chosen to be provincial.  I want to help them grow.
   
And so, often I pack up the van and go to a “strange” context for many of them.  Recently, we headed to the Buddhist Temple.  It is only about a ten-minute drive from campus, but almost none of the students know about its existence.  The same thing is true for two stunningly other places within the same range of my university: an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple.  Even students who live in the area are surprised these places of religious worship are in their backyards and they did not know it!
   
The Buddhist Temple where we go is not very impressive on the outside.  But students are amazed as soon as they walk through the doors and glimpse what’s inside.  It is pretty clear we step into a different world---really, a different culture---when we are inside the Temple.  The pictures on the wall are dominated by Asian faces.  The statues portray the familiar figure of the Buddha, but there are other statues are students don’t not recognize.  Often the inscriptions and other writing on the wall are in a foreign language.  Students usually do not know about Sanskrit, Pali and the contemporary languages of Buddhism. 
   
When it comes time to meditate, students normally feel the beginner’s awkwardness.  The mat on the floor and the small pillow that is your “chair” for the duration are not much solace.  Getting comfortable in the meditating position is a big challenge for all of us not used to this position.  Not too long into the meditation, legs become uncomfortable, backs begin to ache and any meditative focus evaporates.  But students hang in there. 
   
No one becomes an expert in ten minutes.  Ten minutes seem like an hour when you first start this meditating process.  Even with instruction it is nearly impossible not to notice the crazy thoughts that go zinging through your brain.  “Breath and breath out; push your nave forward and on and on,” drones the soothing voice of the leader.  Focus comes and goes for most of us.  It is difficult not to wonder when this will end!
   
When it does end, students have an experience that I hope begins to broaden their thinking and enlarge their worlds.  In my estimation I have given them a gift.  In most cases I will never know what difference the gift of growing up, becoming more understanding and inclusive, etc. will actually mean for them.  I often tell folks it is my ministry of peacemaking.
   
If I can help folks be understanding, inclusive and loving, then maybe I have helped people be less likely to hate, be prejudiced, etc.  The world and our country needs these kinds of people.  The world needs people with a mission and a message of peace.  I remember one of the slogans from the 60s: “make love, not war.”  I think that still is a message for our day.
   
I would like to think a little visit to the Buddhist Temple was an act of “making love.”  If we can make friends of strangers, there is less likelihood they will become enemies.  Giving an evening of my life to this cause is a small price to pay for a world we all would hope someday to see: a world where everyone belongs.   

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Desire for Peace

That phrase, “desire for peace,” resonated with me as I was reading the first sentence of an article about peace. It appeared in a new journal series I am reading to figure out whether it would be a useful addition to some of my teaching. By and large, I have not found the articles very helpful, so I admit that I may not have been reading some new stuff with much expectation of good results. And I recognize that may not be a very good approach to new reading material or, perhaps, to life.

Not only was the phrase a good one, but also the entire first sentence was arresting. The sentence reads, “The desire for peace is a holy longing.” I realized I had stopped after reading that sentence and re-read it. That was my clue that something had resonated. Usually I read along fairly quickly. I am confident we can read, take in information and not be affected by what we are learning. Reading the phrase inside this sentence was different.

I read it, but I am not sure I took in information. When one takes in information, there is an implicit, “Oh, that’s good to know,” and move on to the next idea. If we think of a beginning class, we could imagine reading the first chapter and learning that mixing hydrogen and oxygen will give us water. Again, we say something like, “Oh, that’s interesting to know,” and we move on. Knowing that hydrogen and oxygen constitute water does not significantly change our lives---even though we are dependent on water for life!

That sentence resonated with me not because I took something in, but because I realized there was something to take in. And I also realized that I don’t think I have taken “it” in yet. In fact, I was not sure what “it” would be that I could take in. This was the arresting effect the sentence had on me. There was something to learn, but I felt like I did not know what “it” was that I was to learn. And if I did not know “it,” I could not possibly have learned yet.

The sentence was an impression, but not yet information. I needed to spend some time with the sentence. I needed to let my soul soak in it. I knew whatever “it” would be was going to take me deeper into my soul than mere information usually goes. I sensed the “it” was going to be a deeper truth---a spiritual truth. It would not be a mere informational fact. It would a formative truth that demand to be lived out.

I returned to ponder the sentence: “The desire for peace is a holy longing.” I like grammar. It reveals things to me and to anyone who pays attention. The sentence was what my old English teacher said was an intransitive sentence. The verb, “is,” connects two equal parts. The parts are “desire for peace” and “holy longing.” In effect, the verb “is” says they are equal or the same thing. Because this is true, you can say it either way. The desire for peace is a holy longing or a holy longing is a desire for peace.

I am sure some of my attraction to this sentence was the words, “desire” and “longing.” Both of those words are profoundly spiritual for me. In fact, I know one way I would define spirituality is to describe it as human desire. It is human desire for meaning and for purpose. Longing adds to the pulse of spirituality. Both of these words are insisting and urging words. But they are not commandments or compulsions. One can choose to ignore desire and pay no attention to longing. Just so, we can ignore our spirituality and choose to live some other kind of life besides the spiritual.

I also find the language of desire and longing to be the language of the heart. It is heart language for me, not head language. As such, the desire for peace and the holy longing are not ideas. They are much more than ideas. They are callings. They are the Spirit’s call to us and on us to live a particular kind of life, namely a life of peace.

Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Pax in Latin) is more than simple absence of conflict. Peace is more than a feeling. Shalom is a life rooted and grounded in the very Presence of the Holy One. It is life lived in tune with the Spirit’s desire for us. Pax is that pacific calling to live as deep in the Living Water as we can possibly live.

Peace is deeply spiritual. Although I am not Roman Catholic, I like going to Mass. And one of my favorite spots in the Mass is right before Holy Communion when the congregation passes the peace. It has immense symbolic power for me. I get to turn to my neighbor and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” And the neighbor then says, “And with your spirit.” That is the peace of friendship, of community and of the kingdom.

When we can muster this desire for peace, then we truly are praying that “thy kingdom come.’ The desire for peace is a longing to become a peace-maker---the hope of the world.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Agonized Uncertainty

I find interesting and, often, good news in a variety of places.  I am a regular reader of newspapers and magazines.  Recently, I ran across an intriguing editorial in one of this nation’s premier newspapers.  The article was entitled, “After Great Pain, Where is God?”  You can probably see why I was immediately drawn to read this short piece.  It was authored by Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center.
   
I was not aware of Wehner, but guessed that this Center was some kind of Washington think tank.  Indeed, it is.  The website basically tells me it is a conservative religiously and politically think tank devoted as the website says to “applying Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”  This fit the tone and direction of Wehner’s thought, which I very much appreciated.  It gave me some nice ways to think about classical problems and I share this here.
   
The title I chose for this inspirational reflection steals a couple words from one of Wehner’s sentences buried deep in the essay.  Wehner’s reflection focuses on the suffering that is present in our world.  Specifically, he shares a number of vignettes about friends who are suffering.  Of course, as a person of faith, that causes him to wonder about God and Jesus, whom he follows as a disciple.  His thoughts were very helpful to me.
   
Wehner asks what are we to think and to say when we or our loved ones face suffering.  Of course he recognizes that Jesus, too, faced his own moment of suffering.  I like Wehner’s response.  “Jesus’ question, like ours, was not answered in the moment.  Even he was forced to confront doubt.”  I appreciate this stance.  I also think Jesus must have harbored doubts---momentarily dubious about God’s presence in that whole adventure to and through the suffering and cross. 
   
But as Wehner points out, doubt is not the same thing as loss of faith.  He says this of Jesus: “But his agonized uncertainty was not evidence of faithlessness; it was a sign of his humanity.”  There are the two words of my title: agonized uncertainty.  Suffering clearly is agony.  No sane person wants to suffer.  Jesus was sane.  But he also was thrown into the uncertainty of those last days leading up to Jerusalem. 
   
I like how Wehner develops the theme.  He says, “Like Job, we have to admit to the limitations of human knowledge when it comes to making sense of suffering.”  He continues noting soberly, “So, too, is any assurance that the causes of our suffering, the thorns in our flesh, will be removed.  So what, then, does Christianity have to offer in the midst of hardships and heartache?”  I take no solace in the fact that suffering may not be removed.  This is hard to bear.
   
Wehner asks the poignant question: so what does Christianity have to offer?  He answers his own question in a way that I love.  Part of the answer anyway is community.  Enjoy this sentence from Wehner as much as I appreciate it.  “The answer, I think, is consolation, including the consolation that comes from being part of a Christian community — people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help.”
   
That is a great sentence.  Community is consolation.  Consolation is not eradication of suffering.  But if we have to suffer, at least let that be done in a spiritual community.  I value how he details the nature of this gift of community.  The first thing Wehner notes is community provides people who walk alongside of us.  We have companions in our journey of grief.  This is the definition of compassion---people willing to “suffer with.” 
   
Notice how Wehner describes the gifts of compassionate ministry.  These fellow pilgrims offer tenderness and grace.  I appreciate how he contrasts these two gifts with pieties.  Pieties are an answer to suffering, but it is a lousy answer!  Tenderness is a real gift.  You can feel it and it makes a difference.  It does not eradicate suffering, but it does make it possible to sustain life through the suffering process.  And the same goes with grace. 
   
Fellow pilgrims also offer encouragement and empathy.  With these gifts we know we are not alone in the suffering we endure.  And that’s not all.  Wehner counsels fellow pilgrims to give practical help where possible.  This is very welcome.  Certainly nurses and other aides offer this kind of practical help.  But we can be given the practical help of our community members, which means a great deal.  This can make all the difference.  
   
Wehner finishes his thoughts in a way I welcome.  He acknowledges his faith.  He says, “For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering… And from suffering, compassion can emerge, meaning to suffer with another — that disposition, in turn, often leads to acts of mercy.”  In these words, Wehner has identified the polarities of faith: suffering and mercy.  One begs for the other.  Where there is suffering, may there be mercy.  God says yes and God’s disciples embody the mercy.
   
Wehner has the last word.  He admits, “I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Mystery of Truth

The phrase, mystery of truth, is found in the last line of a recent article by David Brooks, one of my favorite commentators on the life and times of our world.  While I don’t always find myself in agreement with Brooks, I find him to be a trenchant observer of human nature and behavior.  He writes clearly and with tremendous insight.  Often he frames things in a way that gives us a new, clear way to think about a problem and come up with plausible solutions.  I think about him as an intellectual helpmate.         

His recent article is entitled, “The Benedict Option.”  The article was replete with an image of St. Benedict, a picture I immediately recognized and to which I was drawn.  I know a fair amount about this founding father of Benedictine monasticism.  Benedict was an Italian Catholic living in sixth century post-Roman Empire Europe.  When I was in school, this was referred to as the “Dark Ages.”  Although this is not a very useful description today, it does convey the times were different than the “good ole days” of the Roman Empire at its zenith.  Seeing Benedict’s life in this period helps explain why he withdrew and began to live the Christian life in common with other folks.  From this the monastic movement, as we know it, was birthed and continues to this day.         

So whatever Brooks was up to implicated St. Benedict.  Half way through the article Brooks references a new book by Rod Dreher which carries the title, The Benedict Option, which Brook calls the most important book of the decade---high praise indeed.  As it turns out, Dreher despairs of our times and culture in America and calls for folks, like St. Benedict, to opt out so they can live faithfully.  Brooks argues for another response.         

Brooks offers an interesting dual way of looking at our world.  His first line reveals these two options: “Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist.”  Quickly, I knew where he was going.  Brooks gives us a clear sense of both options.  He tells us, “Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole.  All questions point ultimately to a single answer.  If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.”  In effect, this is the Benedict option.         

Brooks describes the other option, the ironist, in these words.  “The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one…For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.  There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.”  This option probably makes sense to many of us, because that is likely the way we are dealing with our times and culture.         

Brooks develops his own version of this ironist option.  As usual, he puts it forth with a clarity and creativity, we are able to think about it and make up our own mind.  Brooks says, “The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism.  It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal.”  I like his descriptor, Orthodox Pluralism.  A pluralist perspective notes the diversity of our culture and tries to come to terms with it, rather than dismiss it.  I find that attractive, but certainly not easy.         

I know enough Christian history to know both options---purist and ironist---has been tried.  My own Quaker tradition historically has been the ironist.  The Amish are good examples of the purist---enacting the Benedict Option without becoming monks.  They simply withdrew and farmed or were carpenters making furniture!  One could argue they are na├»ve.  And of course, the purist could say the other option if foolhardy!         

To put the options very simply, the purist basically gives up on the world.  The ironist opts to stay in the world, but to work to transform it.  It would be easy to dismiss the ironist as idealistic.  Brooks counters this charge.  He notes, “it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path.”  I agree with him; it is difficult, but not impossible.  I would argue it is to align ourselves with a way of love that ultimately can lead to peacemaking.  Not easy, but possible.  In my lifetime?  Probably not.        

I like the method Brooks outlines.  He says this transforming work is “to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”  Friendship is a form of love---probably the most frequent form of love.  I suggest we see the call is to learn to love.  Make friends.  To make friends is to make peace.         

I like the way Brooks ends his article.  To involve ourselves in this loving peace work, we will need to “humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  For sure, it is a work of humility.  How can you be arrogant enough to know for sure you can bring peace?  Just as importantly, it means accepting the “mystery of truth.”  This is something a purist cannot do.  Oddly, this is a bet on who God is and how God works.  I do believe God deals in truth, but it is a truth that can be mysterious.  I need to be careful about being sure I know this truth.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Penny Wise

Recently I was writing a blog with a couple of my friends.  The blog had more to do with business than spirituality.  I am always amused by how much work I do within a business context, but then remember that business is nothing more than people.  In fact, I am in the “people business,” so any context is a possibility for my involvement.  The basic point of our work was not to be stupid.  That seems simple enough!
   
I was editing some of what my co-author had written.  Suddenly, I knew the perfect saying to edit into the text.  But in the moment, I could not cite the phrase.  I stepped out to ask my secretary, but she could not come up with the phrase.  She is quite a bit younger than I am, which made me wonder whether younger generations use the phrase?  We all know languages evolve, which means some terms and phrases drop out of daily usage and new things creep into daily language. 
   
For some reason, the word “flesh” was floating in my mind as part of the slogan.  It turns out this was not correct, which means it misled us.  We floundered for a while chasing dead ends down the computer search.  Of course, it is amazing the things that do come up.  It is easy to get distracted and stay busy looking up things, but making no progress.  At some point, I felt guilty about wasting her time, so I suggested calling off the search.  But she is tenacious.  She finally nailed it.
   
“Penny wise, pound foolish,” she asked.  Indeed!  That’s it.  It was as if we won the lottery, but no money was involved---ironically even though the phrase was about money!  But it really was not about money.  It is really about prudence or wisdom.  And I know prudence is one of the classical virtues, so in that sense, it is about spirituality.  I would argue spirituality---like religion---is always about being virtuous. 
   
I was intrigued by the phrase, which I heard so often while growing up on that Indiana farm.  A little research yields interesting results.  The phrase means people can be careful about smaller things that don’t really matter (penny) and overlook, underestimate or waste things that are of significant value (pound).  It was obvious to me British money was the context for the saying.  This meant it either originated somewhere in the British Isles or in this country in the early days when British money would have been the currency.  It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but there is little evidence this was his creation.
   
In saying the word, pound, refers to the basic British currency, which is much like our word, dollar.  In contemporary British money there are 100 pence (pennies) in one pound.  So the saying is clear.  Don’t pay undue attention to one penny and ignore 100!  That is why it is about prudence---being wise.  In other words, don’t be stupid!
   
It is spiritual for me because I am confident our culture---particularly our commercial culture---entices us to pay attention to thing we don’t need.  If we watch any television or commercials online, we are lured into buying cars, beer, clothes, rings---you name it.  We are lured into looking different than we look, say different things than we say and act in different ways than we act.  Thomas Merton, my favorite monk, says this is an invitation to become a false self.  I think he was on to something.
   
Our culture is enticing us to pay attention to the pennies.  We are tempted to become penny wise.  In the process we forget about being pound foolish.  It is similar to paying attention only to today and forgetting we need to be ready for tomorrow.  This reminds me of the classical fable of the ant and grasshopper.  As you remember, the grasshopper squandered his time and when push came to shove, was forced to ask the ant for some food.  The ant was the prudent one.  Often prudence is as simple as preparing oneself.  I think this is core to the spiritual life.
   
One of the ways I like to talk about spirituality is that it offers a way of making meaning in life.  Meaning is usually tied up with purpose.  If I am spiritually penny wise, I am chasing short-term, flashy kinds of experiences.  I may think getting rich will bring meaning and offer me a chance to have a purpose.  But study after study suggest this simply is not true.  There is no good correlation between money and happiness.
   
Monks who take a vow of poverty are often happy characters.  It is because they have chosen a life that delivers for them real meaning.  They become clear about their purpose in life.  They are working to become their true self and avoiding, insofar as they can, being a false self.  The key is, of course, figuring out what the “pound” in your life is.  Preparation and discipline come into play as we labor for that which is worth something. 
   
We all know we sometimes work for things that turn out to be worthless.  Ask the grasshopper!  His frivolous summer days gave way to more dangerous times ahead.  He wasted time on pennies and blew his chance to have pounds.  The teaching is clear to us: don’t be penny wise, pound foolish.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Defining Religion

Often I am the one pushing students to define things.  Defining something is necessary to learn and understand it.  When I think about how I expanded my vocabulary through high school and college, as well as through graduate studies, it mostly was learning how to define words.  Regardless of which major folks choose to do in college, typically there is a specific vocabulary that goes with it.  In physics and religion and all the other majors, you have to learn certain basic words.  In my case it was even helpful to learn Greek and Latin because they helped me sharpen my vocabulary.
   
I realized how important this was as I moved from the church context to the university context.  As I grew up in the church, hearing religious words was normal.  However, seldom did anyone asked me to define something.  My learning was quite passive.  Of course, I usually had some kind of vague notion of what a word or concept meant, but if you had asked me to define it, nothing clear would have come out of my mouth.
   
As I moved through school, I knew I had a curiosity to learn words and ideas.  It was not always easy.  I remember my early college days when it seemed like I was looking up every third word in the dictionary because I could not understand what I was learning if I did not know the meaning of the words.  Slowly it was if my reservoir of known words became bigger and deeper.  I began to realize I had learned so much, I was not always looking up new words.  Of course, the process never is finished, but I do have a pretty significant reservoir to feed my understanding of new things I read.
   
I also find I enjoy reading something that challenges my normal way of understanding.  I may already feel like I can define something clearly and, yet, I read something that offers a different way of looking at that same thing.  If I stay open, I can learn.  This happened to be recently when I was working my way through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  This is a marvelous book full of things I already knew and with challenges to my ignorance.
   
In her chapter on “Faith,” Tippett talks with Pico Iyer about spirituality and religion.  The question usually raised about these two things is whether they are the same?  Iyer says they are not the same.  Since we don’t have space to work with both of them, I will choose the definition Iyer offers for religion.  He says, “And religion is the community, the framework, the tradition, all the other people into which we bring what we find in solitude.”  I like this because it is short, incisive and offers me a little different way to understand religion.  And it seems to me, this definition can even offer an intriguing way to understand religion when they otherwise are dismissive of religion---often preferring to say “I am spiritual, but not religious.”
   
Iyer defines religion with four aspects.  The first aspect is community.  That is very interesting, because many people begin defining religion by doctrine---how to believe in God, Jesus Christ, etc.  Instead, Iyer begins with the folks who have a particular faith and strive to live together in community.  It would take a book to detail what community means.  Suffice it here to say community is different than a group or a bunch of people who might go to the same church.  True community provides folks with a sense of belonging.
   
The second aspect of religion is the framework.  I cannot be sure I know what Iyer means by this, but I can guess.  The framework is the structure of the faith.  It may have to do with what some people dismiss as “the institutional structure,” which they do not find attractive.  I prefer to think about the framework as the rituals and routines that define the community.  The framework is the culture of the community.  If you were part of a Roman Catholic community, the framework is different than the Quaker community in which I grew up. 
   
The third aspect of religion is the tradition.  Again, we could write a book about this aspect.  But tradition simply is how the community has lived out its faith over time.  It can include doctrine, but it is more.  Think more about the stories of the people of faith that are told over time---sometimes generations and even centuries.  When I think about the Catholic Church, I do think about doctrine---like the Trinity.  But I also think about Mother (Saint) Teresa, St. Francis, Dorothy Day and all the rest.  Tradition is a very broad umbrella under which we find wide diversity.
   
The final aspect of religion is a very broad one---namely, people.  But Iyer talks about a specific kind of people.  I might talk about this people as our crucibles or, perhaps, our dialogue partners.  It is with these special people we abide in order to share what we are thinking and feeling in our solitude.  They are the special ones who help us sort out what is happening to us.  They put us on our path to God and to purpose.  Or they may put us back on our path when we have lost our way or, simply, become too tired to walk on with our faith journey.
   
When I think about religion this way, I am tempted to modify my own definition.  I really like how Iyer has defined it.  It makes sense to me and helps me to make sense of my own religious journey.  I have been helped by reading, thinking and deepening my understanding.