Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Week and Easter…Again

Even if you are a Christian, I have concluded it depends on where you are---what is your context---how aware of Holy Week and the impending Easter you are.  If you are a Christian and work in a mainly secular environment, you may be relatively unaware of Holy Week.  For many it does not dawn on them until at least Thursday.  And of course, in the secular world there is absolutely nothing special about Thursday. 

But even in the secular world, Friday often assumes special connotations.  It might be a holiday---a day off.  It is at my University.  So I suppose it is the one day Jews, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians are thankful for their Christian brothers and sisters!  But for the Christian, Friday---Good Friday---is an interesting one. 

I suspect that for many Christians Friday is simply skipped.  They see Easter as very special and nothing else really matters.  The resurrection is key for them.  Why bother with anything less?  Let’s skip sadness and depression and go straight for the joy and jubilation! 

Even as a Christian, that quick move to Easter seems too easy.  That choice seems to me an option for a suffering-less Jesus, and by implication, a suffering-less world.  Ever since I began studying some of this Christian faith (instead of just going to church because of family expectations), it seemed clear to me that you can’t have Sunday without Friday.  In fact, the Romans and all the oppressors throughout the ages are all-to-real to be able to skip.  There simply has been and is too much suffering to ignore.

Whatever Christianity is, I believe it is not an “ignoring religion.”  In fact, none of the major religious traditions are “ignoring religions.”  I am very aware that my Jewish sisters and brothers have already this week entered the Passover season.  Passover is that annual remembering of the Jewish suffering in Egypt and God’s liberation of God’s people.  Of course, they were liberated straight into the desert!  But that is another story for another time.

But the Jewish Passover season may well hold the key to a proper understanding of the Christian Easter celebration.  Rightly understood, I think Easter is its own story of liberation.  In this case Christians would affirm the same liberating God chose a different way of doing it.  Instead of a trip through the Red Sea, God in Jesus walked the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) straight to the cross.

You can’t get to Sunday without living (and dying) on Friday.  Knowing this impacts me in a deep way.  Who among us would not want to skip Friday and go straight to Sunday?  But it does not work this way.  The story of Easter is always the story of hope.  But it must go through Friday.  The desire to skip Friday is an option for illusion.  

What is important for me this Holy Week and Easter---important again is how it grounds me in the deeper realities of my life.  Sometimes, I think I live most of my life as if I were in Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  I know my own Friday will come, but I put off thinking about it.  I get too involved in my own little secular world to think about death, meaning, and ultimate purpose.  I can even live my Wednesdays without much sense that Friday is looming.

Thankfully, these seasons of Passover and Holy Week are annual events.  If I ignore or mess up this one, I get another chance next year---assuming my own Good Friday does not come.

So I want to resolve to pay attention.  I want to pay attention to fact of oppression, the suffering in reality, and the story of love’s triumph.  And then let me resolve always to be on love’s side!

May all be blessed; a new inspiration appears on Monday

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Reality of Reality

We live in it at all times.  It surrounds us, penetrates us and yet is probably separate from us.  It is independent and dependent at the same time.  It is mysterious and, yet, completely transparent and knowable.  It’s reality.

Of course, there are different philosophical and theological perspectives on just what reality is.  I am sure there must be scientific versions, as well.  Psychologists might tell is reality is a matter of perspective.  I suppose some extremists are confident there is no such thing as reality.  Maybe I am in illusion, but it seems to me pretty clear there is such a thing a reality.  The good news is, I do not intend to explore its philosophical and scientific roots.  I am going to take reality for granted.  For me, it is.  Let’s think about the reality of reality.

What prompted these beginning thoughts was a random sentence in an article I was reading.  The article was not very good, but it did have a great sentence from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr.  It comes from his book, The Naked Now.  The sentence from Rohr that captured my attention tells us we need to “forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.”

My immediate response when I read this line was “yes, that’s true.”  I think it is true, but the truth it points to seems deeper and more complex than I grasped in the moment.  I also realized that I probably did not know as much as I thought I did.  But that’s probably true most of the time.  Sometimes I think I am pretty smart; other times I am sure I hardly know anything.  Again, reality does that to me.

When I read Rohr’s words, I was not particularly interested in the “forgiveness” part.  We may come back to that, but I did not want to begin with that idea.  What intrigued me more was the idea that reality is exactly what it is right now.  I am sure that is what propelled me to say, “yes.”  So what does that mean for me and for you?

I want to take it a couple different ways.  In the first place reality is a given.  For example, the physicality of much of our lives is reality.  Chronologically I am the age I am.  I am not a teenager.  Reality is I am living into my seventh decade.  I can’t change that.  Much of the world we inhabit is that kind of reality.  It is a world of beauty and charm.  It is also a world that at times is threatening and fearsome.  That reality is a given.

This is the first place Rohr’s words are instructive.  Sometimes we will have to forgive reality for being what it is right now.  If I am sick, that’s reality.  I can forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.  Maybe my sickness is something that I’ll get over and then reality will be different: I’ll be well.  But maybe my sickness is terminal and that’s reality.  Then I can still forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.

There is a second aspect of reality that is different.  This kind of reality is the reality I create for myself.  In some ways this is perceptual.  I think of the “glass half empty, glass half full.”  How I perceive it is my reality, but I have a choice about which reality I choose.

And this second kind of reality, I do have choices.  I think much philosophy, theology and spirituality deals with this second reality.  For example, the physical world is what it is: that’s reality.  But whether it points to a God who is Creator and creative is more a matter of perception---of belief.  Some choose to believe in this God; others find it absurd.  Not surprisingly, I choose to believe in that God.  That God is part of my reality.  In fact, God in Whom I believe creates and shapes much of the first kind of reality---the given reality of the physical world, etc.

This all may seem convoluted or fuzzy.  But for me, it is very real.  I live my life based on what is real and what I think is real.  I choose to be spiritual because I want to be as aware as I can of reality and the depth of my reality.  I want to pray and engage other spiritual disciplines to enable myself to live as deeply real as I can.  I am all too aware of how superficial life can be.  It is too easy to be alive, but not really live.

The spiritual life aims to be as grounded as possible in the reality of God’s love.  The goal of my spiritual life is to become as deeply and fully loving as my effort and the grace of God can muster.  The reality is that I am a work in progress.

Sometimes the reality is that I don’t do a very good job.  When that happens, I will need to forgive reality for being exactly as it is right now.  But that is not a condemnation forever. Often, I can change my reality and our reality. 

Love does just that.  It transforms reality.  Jesus and the other religious giants did just that: they were transformers of reality.  As followers, we are called to do likewise.  That’s the reality of reality.  That’s the spiritual reality of love.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Tea Party With Some Friends

The title of this inspirational reflection was the title of an email my daughter recently sent to me.  I noticed there was a photo attached.  I did not have a clue what the email subject line, a tea party with some friends, might mean.  I know some of my daughter’s friends, so it could be that she met with someone I know and who wanted to wish me well.  Her friends are thoughtful that way.  Of course, it could be about either of her own two kids, my own grandkids.  However, I had no clue what they knew about tea parties!           

The text of the email was short, but it set the context.  The text went something like, “things were a little quiet in the basement, so I popped down to find…”  Those words obviously were meant to lead me to the photo, which would connect to the subject line of the email.           

So I had to open the photo.  And there she was: my two-year old granddaughter.  She was in her pajamas, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, which led to the basement.  Right next to her was a good-sized Pooh Bear, her favorite.  She was holding another one of her stuffed animals, a guy named JZ.  I have not the faintest idea why the long, slinky animal is called JZ.  All she says is, “he’s a smiley guy!”  The rest of the bottom two stairs found countless more animals---all apparently gathered for a tea party!           

Instead of tea, I did notice her plastic cup of milk.  And there was a bowl that contained what looked like cereal.  I mused that “tea party” was simply a generic term to indicate she had gathered her pals for a time together.  She looked quite content.  I guess she figures, if you are surrounded by good friends, what else do you need?  Thinking about that, I realized I agree with her philosophy.            

I began to treasure the fact that this two-year old was beginning to teach this old guy with a Ph.D. a thing or two.  I never realized how young scholars could be!  So I stared at the picture for a while to ponder what she was trying to teach “an old dog.”  I don’t ever want to get so old that I can’t learn some “new tricks.”  So here are a few things my little one taught me through the photo.           

Of course, the most important one is the blessing of friends.  I know if I had to choose to be rich in money or friends, I instantly would choose friends.  That would guarantee that we could die loved instead of rich!  No one was ever born with friends.  We make friends, we keep friends; we can even screw up friendships.  But to have no friends?  That is an impoverished life, indeed.           

Secondly, she taught me to treat my friends well.  Clearly food and drink are important ingredients to friendship.  Just as surely are good conversations.  She may have favorite friends---the ones she holds more dearly.  But that does not mean the ones who are not quite as close to her are marginalized.  They matter, too.  They are cared for in significant ways.           

The best way to explain this is to resort to my knowledge of Greek.  In Greek the word for “friend” is one of the words for “love.”  So if you are speaking Greek, you talk about your friends with the language of “love.”  Put in this context helps us understand that friendships of any kind are love relationships.  My little granddaughter may, in fact, see Pooh Bear as her “best friend.”  But that does not mean Pooh Bear exhausts her love.  She still has enough to go around for the others on the step.          

Another reminder that she offers me is the need for regular time and attention needs to be spent with friends.  Friendship is a bit like food.  We can go for some time---a few days---without food.  But long-term fasting from food imperils our health.  And finally, without food ultimately spells our demise---that is, we die!  I think the same thing is true for friendship.           

We need friends for a healthy life.  We don’t have to have them in our lives every moment.  We can fast from certain friendships.  But ultimately, we need healthy, helpful friends in order to live well.  Most of the spiritual giants about whom I know counsel the importance of friends.  In fact, I know one of the most important designations Jesus offers to describe his disciples is “friendship.”  At one place in the gospels, he turns to the disciples and says, “I call you friends.”  The Greek word there is philos---a love word.           

“A tea party with some friends” said the subject line in the email.  A picture was, indeed, worth a thousand words.  I leaned back and begin to wonder.  If I were to invite my friends to a tea party, who would join me on the bottom steps of my basement?  Do I have a special, close friend---like Pooh Bear?  Do I care for my friends and make myself available?           

The good news is friendships can be cultivated and nourished.  If you have no one who would join you on the step, it is not too late.  Begin investing in relationships.  Take time to care.  Throw a tea party.  It is the spiritual way of eat, drink and be merry---it’s a good life.

Monday, April 14, 2014

God’s Doing a New Thing

For many people around the world this week is Holy Week.  I know enough Christian theology and I am liturgically aware enough to know what this means.  But to say that I know what it means is not to say I know what it means for any specific person.  For some it probably has been a deeply moving week, as we head into Good Friday.  For others likely it has been pretty superficial, at best.  

I ponder how it might continue to have possibilities of being a “holy week” for you and me.  One necessary ingredient I would be pretty sure is needed for it to be “holy” is that we take time.  This reminds me of the old hymn I heard so many times: “Take Time to be Holy.” I know as a kid when I sang it, I paid little attention to the words and probably even less to what the hymn meant.  Maybe now is to take some time and reflect…to be holy.

Another practical guide for learning the art of the holy is to “pay attention.”  Increasingly, it seems, we live in a world that pays little or no attention to the sacredness of our surroundings.  Even the season of spring is the miraculous coming to life again of God’s good, sacred world.

Green is the color of spring.  Green is the color of life springing back into the grass.  Take a drive and notice the vibrant green which is just emerging in the country fields in my geographical world.  Watch the trees spring back to life with budding leaves.  Easter is all around us, if we only pay attention.

Spirituality is the way to discover the life of Easter in what, otherwise, may be merely an experience in emptiness.  To pursue the theme of spring, we read these words from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul.  “Spirituality is seeded, germinates, sprouts and blossoms in the mundane.  It is to be found and nurtured in the smallest of daily activities.”

The discovery and nurture of the “spirituality of Easter” comes as we pay attention.  Paying attention means we are alert.  We are interested.  We want to be engaged.  We are willing to listen.  We are willing to learn---to be open, to risk, to move.

With our modern cars most of us drive around all insulated from the world with windows up.  Not only are we insulated, but also now we are talking on cell phones.  And it is not unusual to have the radio playing or occasionally a TV show on!  How can we pay attention to a meaningful conversation, drive, and enjoy God’s sacred world at once?  I can’t.

Maybe this driving scene symbolizes normal life, non-holy life.  Easter-living might mean getting out of our “cars of life,” hanging up on the unimportant conversations in life, and opening our eyes to the sacred which doubtlessly surrounds us.  But too often, we don’t know it and, therefore, cannot appreciate it.

In this season of Passover and Easter, the stories are that God did a new thing.  May we be open to that same God doing a new thing in our lives.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Suffering: Pain or Possibility?

Suffering is not the favorite choice for spirituality focus.  In fact, many more popular spiritualities forego any discussion of suffering.  If you were to read these spiritualities, you would not even think suffering ever happens.  To many of these superficial (in my estimation) spiritualities are chasing what spiritual-psychiatrist, Gerald May, calls the happiness mentality.  In effect, that spirituality contends that if you are spiritual, you ought to be happy.          

Let it be said, I am happy to be happy.  I don’t know anyone who prefers sadness to being happy.  Happiness is great; often it is fun.  But the happiness mentality always crashes on the rocks of suffering.  And so far as I know, there is always the good chance we all will have our share of suffering.  Even the Buddhist, who sets out on the spiritual pilgrimage to eliminate suffering, begins with suffering as seemingly a given in life.           

I don’t think suffering is a necessity in life.  However, I do think that most of us live long enough to have a little suffering come our way.  Since this is true, the question is not how we can avoid it.  The real question is what do we do with it when it happens to come to us?           

Seldom do I go to the New York Times for inspiration.  I read it on a regular basis, but it does not compare to the Bible!  However, a recent issue had a compelling article by David Brooks entitled, “What Suffering Does.”  I find Brooks a very thoughtful guy.  He clearly reads theology and philosophy.  He quotes people from my theological world that most folks would not know.  This article helped me think about the theme of suffering.           

Early in the article, Brooks offers a telling insight.  “When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness.  It is often the ordeals that seem most significant.  People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”  I find that last sentence profound: people are formed through suffering.  In effect, this means who we are at our core---our deepest self---often is crafted by suffering than by giddiness.  This implies that if we have not suffered a little, we likely are not very deep persons yet.  We have not fully developed.           

Brooks continues to help me understand the phenomenon by identifying a couple steps in the formation process through which suffering takes us.  He says that, “First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself.”  Notice that verb: drags!  This means that suffering is not usually willingly embraced and is not something that is careful of us.  Suffering exposes the superficialities in ourselves.  Perhaps this is why suffering has to drag us there.  On our own, it is quite difficult to dive beneath the routines and normalcies of our lives.           

Brooks’ second point builds on the first one.  He tells us that “suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control.”  This is especially bad news for those of us who spend most of life trying to control ourselves and, especially, control others.  We discover that we are not the puppeteers; instead, we feel more like the puppets of our suffering!  Someone or something else has control of our strings!           

It is at this point that Brooks offers a nice ray of hope.  He acknowledges that “People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence.”  In effect, Brooks is saying that when it gets tough, some of us may come to the awareness that there is an Other---God for some of us---who is in it with us.  In fact, the suffering may even lead to some spiritual growth in us and some good for the world.             

I am amazed to read further and hear Brooks say, “It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call.”  People who are called begin to find a way to respond to the suffering.  These people have to find a way to deal with the suffering and, ultimately, use it for some good.  I am blown away when Brooks says the “right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure.  It is holiness.”  I don’t think Brooks is saying we go into suffering as sinners and come out as saints!           

In my own words, I do think Brooks is saying that suffering can transform us.  It can drag us deeper into ourselves and, then, on to holy ground.  We don’t take off our shoes.  But we do shed our arrogance and egocentrism.  We become humble and available in a different way.           

I think the question whether suffering is a pain or a possibility is a false either/or.  Suffering can be a pain.  But suffering can offer amazing possibilities.  Don’t go looking for it.  But if it comes to you, allow it to do its soul work within you.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

When Life Gets Tough

Anybody who lives to adulthood knows that there are times when life gets tough.  I suppose Adam and Eve had it made in Paradise, but they blew it and found out even then that happiness was not guaranteed!  God had told them not to do one thing.  Of course, they could not resist!  So they grabbed the fruit, ate it, blamed the serpent and each other, and paid the price.  They were kicked out of Paradise. 

To quote the famous book title of John Steinbeck, East of Eden, that is precisely where they were condemned to live.  And all of us know we live “East of Eden.”  In that place---our place really---is the place of toil, pain, and often, unhappiness.  I could ask for a better deal, but it won’t matter.  We are no longer in Eden.  We are in Cleveland or New York or London or Moscow.  It does not matter where we are in the globe, because the whole globe is East of Eden.   

I am not sure Eden was ever a real, literal place.  Even if it were, it does not change my interpretation.  More specifically, I am convinced Eden was metaphorically a place.  That means I feel like Eden was more a particular kind of relationship than a literal place.  Adam and Even lived metaphorically in Eden when God created them in the beginning.  They were created good.  And the relationship with God and with each other was good.

Good relationships don’t cause toil.  When the relationship is good, it does not seem to take any work at all.  Just ask any pair of lovers.  Their relationship is great.  They can’t imagine being without the other.  Life is always fantastic.  There is no pain.  Happiness seems like a sure thing.  Many of us have known these kinds of relationships.  But all adults know it is not realistic for this to go on forever. 

The fracturing of the great relationship with God and with each other came when Adam and Eve “disobeyed.”  Every relationship has some limitations.  God had simply told them not to do one thing.  It is too easy to complain that God should have put no limits on them.  That way they could have remained perfect.  But that is unrealistic.  Human beings are free creatures.  And we have to learn how to live into that freedom and exercise it.  In that sense they had to “prove” their ability to maintain the relationship.  They could not do it. 

Likely no one else could do it.  I know I have not and probably cannot in the future.  Certainly all of us now living East of Eden are vulnerable to our own “fall.”  Inevitably we too will blow it.  Surely all of us will have to deal with those times when life gets tough.  It is difficult; it causes pain; it produces unhappiness.  Just writing these words makes me feel some sadness.  I could wish it were otherwise, but wishing usually does not produce results. 

Yesterday I spent an entire day with a number of people who were dealing with a situation in which life got tough.  I am sure all involved wished that we did not have to be there.  Everyone could desperately wish to walk right back into Eden and forget all the nonsense that had transpired.  Nobody was having any fun.  There was enough pain to satisfy any cynic.  There was not going to be a party at the end regardless of how things turned out. 

And that is precisely what some of life East of Eden looks like.  Invariably there will be occasions when life gets tough.  People hurt and get hurt.  One could be pessimistic and say it is only a matter of when, not if, one will get hurt when life gets tough.  So what’s one to do? 

There is no recipe for successfully dealing with those times when life gets tough.  But I do think there are some very general guidelines.  In the first place, when life gets tough, try not to make it worse than it already is.  Put positively, when life gets tough, at least we can exercise the most care we can muster.  It is time to be careful instead of careless. 

Secondly, when life gets tough, it is not unusual for things to be said or done that mess up the relationships.  This is even true if getting cancer precipitates my life getting tough.  That surely messes up my relationship with my body.  In any of these instances, forgiveness quite often will be necessary to prevent things from getting worse.  It might even help the healing process---of cancer and of relationships.

Finally, when life gets tough, I think there is always a role for love.  I know that is an easy word.  Clearly, love is easy to manage when life is great.  But love is decidedly needed East of Eden when life gets tough.  When God banished Adam and Even from Paradise, God did not cease loving them.  I would argue that is when God was challenged really to start loving them.  Why should it be different for us?

When life gets tough, be careful, be ready to forgive, and be loving.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Unfinished Creation

I love it when one task leads to a place we love to be, but never would have gone there on our own.  Let me explain.  Recently, I had agreed to do a little speech for a group that I enjoy.  When I agreed to do it, I did not really think much about what I actually would say when the time had come.  Well the time came!  And I had to come up with something. 

The focus was clearly going to be on a 20th century figure, who played a key role in the adoption of spirituality into the Protestant world.  In some exciting ways this Protestant discovery of spirituality (primarily within Catholicism) coincides with my own life.  It has significant roots in the 1960s.  It has something to do with Vatican II, which opened in 1962.  No doubt, there are elements of the Vietnam War and the whole Civil Rights movement wrapped up in this history.  For me personally, it is a trip down memory lane. 

So as I began to think about what I could do, it dawned on me that I could compare this luminary 20th century figure to a Quaker whom I know interacted with the luminary.  Most people would not know much, if anything, about the Quaker.  Everybody knows about the other guy.  This of course, drove me back into the writings of the Quaker, namely, Douglas Steere. 

Douglas lived throughout much of the 20th century.  He was born in 1901 and lived until 1995.  He was a philosophy professor at Haverford College, a Quaker college outside Philadelphia.  He had a rich life as professor and social activist.  He and his wife were very involved in the reconstruction work after WW II.  He was involved in the Civil Rights movement.  And the best part was the fact that I knew Douglas personally.  He and his wife had come a few times to the former college where I taught.  Both were amazing people. 

So for the first time in a very long time, I had an occasion to go back into some of the writings of Douglas Steere.  He was most unusual in that, as a non-Catholic, he had immersed himself in the world of spirituality.  His doctoral work was on a 19th century spiritual director.  He traveled to Europe in the 1930s and spent a month in a Benedictine monastery.  Clearly, he was a non-Catholic pioneer into the rich trove of spirituality. 

I turned to one of my favorite books of Steere, namely, Together in Solitude.  It is actually a gathering of essays he wrote on special occasions.  For example, one was written from Rome when he was an official observer at Vatican II.  How cool, I thought, to be non-Catholic and be in the Eternal City at the momentous occasion of Vatican II! 

So I began reading the first few pages in an essay entitled, “Common Frontiers in Catholic and Non-Catholic Spirituality.”  The beauty and insightfulness of his words came back to me again and again.  Steere suggests there are those common frontiers and similarities for the Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  For example, he says, both groups could agree “that as creatures, our loving back to God is spasmodic, inconstant, and anything but continuous, that we require infinite encouragement, and that there must be countless occasions of restoration to an awareness of the constant action of grace.”  I could not agree more. 

Certainly my “loving back” to God is haphazard.  I like the ways he puts it: spasmodic, inconstant, discontinuous.  These ring true to my experience.  On my good days, I do a decent job “loving back” to God.  Some days I make a good instrument for the Divine incarnation.  But other days---too many other days---I am hopeless!  That is why I was helped by more words from Steere. 

He continues by saying, “I believe we could also agree in assuming that conversion is continuous and, that, in spite of one’s intentions, there is no such thing as the total commitment of a person to grace.  Instead there are ever new areas in one’s life, and in the life of one’s time in which on is immersed, that call out for further grace.” 

If conversion is continuous, then I have hope.  If today I do not do very well, tomorrow is another chance.  And with some grace, I have an even better chance.  And that leads to the final words I want to share from Douglas Steere. 

Steere nails it when he acknowledges, “All of this means that we are unfinished creatures and nodes of unfinished creation even when we have been drenched with grace, and that we require all the skilled assistance that can be given us in the continuous process of increasing self-surrender and inward abandonment to the grace that the Christian life calls for.” 

That says it perfectly for me.  I am an unfinished creature.  Actually, I am relieved.  Life is the call to finish being a creature.  Spirituality is the promise that grace abounds and will help in this finishing process.  I’ll work on it today.  And since conversion is continuous, tomorrow I will have at it again.  I will “love back” all that I am capable of doing this day.