About Me

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Goodbye Friend

A good friend of mine has recently died.  He happens to be English, so I have not seen him for some time.  He moved back to England.  Distance does not diminish friendship; it just makes it more difficult to spend one-on-one time in person.  We’ll call my friend, John.  I have known John for nearly four decades.  He was a fellow Quaker.  We had some things like that in common.  And there was much about him that was quite different than me.
   
I learned that John was an avid sports fan.  As a former athlete and sports fan, this appealed to me.  Very early in my time in England, John posed a question.  “Do you want to go with me to a football match?”  Affirmatively, I replied.  And so it was that I saw my first English Premier League soccer match.  It was at Aston Villa, one of the three Birmingham “major league” teams, as we would call them.
   
And so began my soccer----football education---in English.  I learned that the game was played on the pitch, not the field.  My education happened not only at the game, but soon thereafter.  My profound memory of that football match happened as we were leaving the stadium.  We emerged into a huge football hooligan brawl.  There must have been five-hundred younger fans from both sides engaged in a pitched battle.  Bottles, bricks and the like were flying like missiles.  We crouched next to a brick wall just beyond the melee.  I was scared, but John reassured that we would survive.  Suddenly, I realized he was not only a friend; he was also becoming a kind of mentor.
   
Because both of us were involved in higher education around the broad theme of religion, discussions were also breaking out about various issues of spirituality.  Because Quakers always begin their spiritual story with experience, rather than doctrine, I was intrigued to learn about John’s own pilgrimage.  Our personal stories are always revelatory.  His story did not disappoint me.
   
And so the real person, John, came to be a friend.  He was a bright, insightful Quaker scholar.  He was the Oxford-educated intellectual.  But he was a sports guy with interests as pedestrian as mine---a guy who grew up on an Indiana farm.  John was fun and funny.  He could be serious and, yet, he always had a twinkle in his eye and was ready for a laugh.  I found him to be both extraordinary and ordinary.
   
A pivotal point in John’s life was his experience of his father’s death.  John told me the night his father died, “I had to take a long look at myself.  I had to ask what I believed.”  To ask yourself what you believe is a profound moment.  John focused some on the fact that he was educated at Oxford University.  This is like being at Harvard---or even better!  John had to contend with whether he was “fully Oxford” or whether this was just part of his development?  His story became even more intriguing to me.  John’s story became a story of transformation.
   
Listen to his fairly long narrative.  Thinking about what trying to be “fully Oxford” demanded of him, he made a decision.  “The consequence of all this is that I parted company with my pedestal.  I saw through the system that had selected me and schooled me and given me its values and standards.  I prized my education highly, but came to reject what it had been for.  I discovered the joy of being ordinary.”  I loved this end-point: a joy in discovery he was ordinary.  As a farm boy from Indiana, I could relate. 
   
But his story did not end there.  He continues in a very spiritual fashion.  “These changes were set in motion the night I got back from the hospital…That night I came to know that as Christ was resurrected, so should my father live.  For the very first time, I had life in me.”  I find this very touching.  Even if I had no faith at all, I don’t think I could doubt the validity of his experience and even interpretation.  He had life in him and he knew why.  All this was behind John by the time I met him.  But it was also still in front of him, because he was still living out the consequences of the life he had in himself.
   
And now my friend has died.  So I can amend his earlier quotation about his father.  I expect that as Christ was resurrected, so should John now live.  I can affirm this in faith.  Clearly, I cannot prove it.  I hope it is true---for John’s sake and mine.  I am sure that John would have agreed with me that some form of life after death is not necessary to live a spiritual life here on earth. 
   
In death, as in life, John is a friend and mentor.  I can laugh at the fact we also were soccer buddies and baseball buddies.  To be spiritual should make us more human, not less.  That was one of my key learnings from John.  When people are popular, like he was, too often people try to imitate him and his life.  We were different enough, that I know imitating him was not an option.  Besides the spiritual key is to become all that God wants us to be.  That is our life’s work.
   
His life’s work is finished---at least, on this planet.  But his influence still is present---befriending and mentoring.  For that I am grateful.  And I can say, goodbye friend.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Agnosticism in Our Hearts

Titles intrigue and, sometimes, inspire me.  Maybe it is because I have written some books and numerous articles and had to come up with titles for all of them.  Some titles are merely descriptive; they tell you what the contents are.  Other titles go for more of a marketing angle.  They are designed to encourage you to buy the book or read the article.  While this kind of title may be catchy and intriguing, you may not be altogether sure what the contents will be. 

So it was that I landed on a title of a little article in an online publication I routinely read.  The title reads: “Friends from seminary days gather at Redemptorist center to bury friend’s ashes.”  I was immediately hooked; I had to begin reading it.  Maybe some of it is because of my age.  I have done countless funerals and have buried some of my own family members and friends.  I have my own stories and wanted to know this story.  I wonder whether in my younger, just-beginning-days whether I would have been intrigued and read the article?
The story was a good one.  It talked about the gathering of a bunch of guys who had studied in a Redemptorist seminary back in the 1950s and 60s.  In those days all of them would have planned on becoming priests.  Who they are now is the story of a number of individual lives and, really, the story of the life of the Catholic Church in America.  Some of them did continue and become ordained.  Some were still priests to this day.  Others were ordained but have since left the priesthood.  Some got married; some left their studies before they even finished.  I suspect it is not that different for Protestant seminarians from those days.  
The article was a touching story of the gathering of guys (and a couple wives) to bury their friend, Richard Koeppen.  Of course, I never heard of him, but that did not lessen my intrigue.  Richard was one of the dropouts from the seminary.  Richard was described briefly in their article.  We are told “had made a small fortune as a business executive then spent it all caring for the homeless.”  That is a great line describing a neat guy whom I’ll never know.  The story becomes tinged with sadness when we additionally are informed Richard suffered from dementia and died penniless.  But he still had friends.
That is one of my learnings from reading this.  Richard had life plans.  Those life plans changed, but he made the most of it.  He made some money and spent it on really good a really good cause---helping fellow human beings who had much less.  Actually, that is not a bad form of ministry.  It may not be the priesthood, but it is ministry nevertheless.  And he still had friends.  There is probably a book in that idea, but I won’t write it now.
Instead I want to share another piece from the article that also intrigued me.  Buried in the middle of the article is a quick story of one of Richard’s friends, a guy only called Mev.  Mev is one of those who finished seminary, was ordained and is still a priest.  We only know this about Mev until we hear some perspective from him.  We are told Mev “reminds us early in discussions that there's at least a little agnosticism in all our hearts.”  I love this coming from a priest.  Stereotypically, we might think a priest has it all together.  They have been taught, trained and now are tight with God.  My experience suggests this is almost never the case.

I agree with Mev: there is a little agnosticism in all our hearts.  Of course, it is important that I distinguish between agnosticism and atheism.  I was delighted when I learned the distinction.  It made life easier.  Atheism contends there is no God---it denies God’s existence.  Agnosticism, on the other hand, says, “I don’t know.”  Or maybe, the agnostic says, “I’m not sure.”  
That certainly resonates with faith, as I understand it.  Faith is different than certainty.  I certainly do have faith in God---that God exists and loves, etc.  But I cannot prove it.  I can even doubt it.  In that sense I have a little agnosticism in my heart.  Mev puts it well when he says, the agnostic “doesn't have certainty of either the self-proclaimed believer or the self-proclaimed atheist" about what may — or may not — happen in the great hereafter. The aspiring believer must then couple a quest for faith with that natural agnosticism.”
I like the idea of “natural agnosticism.”  It allows for faith---sometimes very deep and confident faith.  But it is faith.  It is faith that is also humble.  A little agnosticism in our hearts is a good pill of humility to take.  It prevents the arrogance of the kind of faith most of us probably don’t really like.  Faith without humility can create a religious bully.  No one wants to deal with this kind of character.
I do not think admitting that we all have a little agnosticism in our hearts makes us weak or second-class believers.  After all, faith is not a contest that determines winners and losers.  Faith is a journey of discovering and deepening in God’s Presence.  It is a relationship---a relationship of love.  It requires trust and discipline.  Faith is not the same thing as control.  
I appreciate Mev’s insight.  I am touched by Richard’s friends’ willingness to gather and bury his ashes.  There may be a little agnosticism in their hearts, but there is even more love and care for a friend.  That’s powerful.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Waiting

A theme that is part of the Quaker vocabulary, with which I grew up, is the idea of waiting.  I am sure to most people, the idea of waiting for anything seems pretty boring.  Of course, we do have to wait for things in life, but generally we don’t like it.  I wonder if American culture has not been a race to get faster?  There are many examples that suggest this is true.
  
So much of the world I inhabit seems to be on a quest to get faster.  The evolution of the internet is a great example.  I was aware of computers coming to be a factor in our world, but did not personally get involved in computers till the mid-1980s.  Of course, that was before the internet had been invented.  In those days all my mail came through the mail!  I finally made my peace with computers and, of course, now can’t imagine not having one.
  
Then the internet was invented---in the 90s, I think---and at some point my mail started coming through electronically---appropriately labeled, “email.”  Now if I get a real, interesting letter in the mailbox, I celebrate like an old friend pulled off a miracle!  And with the advent of cell phones now, most of us get our “letters” on a phone in our pocket.  Instead of going to the mailbox, we simply pull out the phone and read our emails.  And the email might be from half-way around the world and it is still instanteous.  No one wants to wait one second longer than necessary.
  
And that brings me back to the Quaker theme of waiting.  Quakers happened upon this term because our theology says we cannot program God to operate on our own sense of timing or whim.  We cannot demand that God show up on our command and do exactly what we want to do.  In effect, we are resigned to the fact that God is still God and we are still human.  Of course, an atheist denies God’s existence, so doesn’t worry about interacting with God.  But I still have a sense there is God and so am intent on interacting with my God.
  
I am intrigued with what God might want to say to me and what God might want me and others to do.  If I can’t email God, then I have to wait.  I recognize my timing is not necessarily God’s timing, so I have to wait.  Even if I am in a hurry, that does not means God is in a hurry.  So I have to wait.  And that’s the issue.
  
The theme of waiting came to be prominent for Quakers in their gatherings to worship.  Theoretically, Quakers see worship as a time when the people come together physically in order that they might be gathered into the Presence of God.  It is fair to say the hope is to experience some sense of unity coming out of our diversity.  It does not happen every time Quakers come together.  After all, God is not programmed by a group any more than by an individual.  I do think God promises to show up.  But God will show up in God’s own sense of timing.
  
And so Quakers gather.  It is appropriate that we gather expectantly.  It is appropriate because God does promise to be present.  But God does not promise to be present whenever and however we demand it.  And so we gather.  In effect we ready ourselves and come to be ready to be gathered into the Presence of God.  That is our part---to become ready.
  
The Quaker language I learned is we gather “to wait upon the Lord.”  I know this is a line that occurs frequently in the Journal of George Fox, that seventeenth century early Quaker.  To wait upon the Lord was his way of expressing the “readying process” that made Quakers aware and available to the God who would come.  While the waiting might not seem very exciting, it does not have to be boring.  Let me use an analogy.
  
Perhaps it is not a good analogy, but the place where expectant language is regularly used is with women expecting a child.  Typically, we say “she is expecting.”  In effect, she is waiting.  It is not boring.  It is not a question of whether, only when.  Analogously, this is how it is with God.  Ironically, waiting is the active part we humans can do.  Waiting is indeed active waiting.  That’s the trick, if there is a trick.  Most Americans probably seen waiting as both boring and passive.  There seems nothing to do when one is waiting.  But that is not true with active waiting.
  
The more I work with various layers of spirituality, I wonder if active waiting on the Lord is not an exercise in awareness and attention?  I suspect it is.  I am also convinced it is a form of spiritual discipline.  This is a good way contemporarily to talk about the process of coming to meet and be present with God.  That is still the basic question.
  
I assume that most people who believe in God and want to interact somehow with the Divine One do not think God is some kind of “cosmic bell hop,” as one friend put it.  We do think there is always a timing issue with God.  Theologically, God may always be present, but it takes a certain amount of awareness and attention on our part to know it.  And God may be sitting around always waiting for us to show up, but generally it takes some discipline on our part to learn to show up.
  
So in that little phrase, “waiting upon the Lord,” Quakers nicely have captured a succinct way to talk about coming to be in the Presence---to meet and mingle with God.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Quiet Soul

The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter.  Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time.  I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.
   
As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm.  The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…”  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…”  In this case I prefer the first option.  It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things. 
   
It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!”  Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention.  If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements.  Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride.  I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.
   
The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.”  I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one.  That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”  That seems very clear to me.  It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.
   
Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up.  I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!”  When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant.  As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient.  It means that we should not get overly excited.  If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline.  Keep your journey simple.  Being spiritual is a life-long journey. 
   
The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts.  Why bother seeking to walk among the great.  Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture.  In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them.  In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture.  That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ.  Certainly this is what the monks seek to do.  And in my own way, I try to follow suit.
   
By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me.  Stay simple.  There is no need to call attention to myself.  Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift.  I just need to remember that I did not create my own life.  And I cannot prevent my own death.  I have choices, but they are choices on the way.  And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.
   
I like the next line in Psalm 131.  The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…”  The NRSV is nearly identical.  It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…”  Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition.  To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.
   
I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert?  Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts.  I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.
   
We all know the demands on us.  Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent.  I do think we live in a noisy culture.  And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head!  In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain.  Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!
   
A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language.  Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.”  Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul.  To be in the Center is to be with God.  It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Celebration of Reformation

Writing a headline that calls for celebration of Reformation might cause some consternation.  This might especially be true if I capitalize “Reformation,” as I just did.  If I left the word, reformation, in lower case, it might appear I wanted merely to describe a process.  But Reformation suggests Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the other reformers---some of who were radical.  In fact, my own Quaker tradition has its origins in the Radical Reformation, as my mentor, George Williams, helped me learn.

I capitalized the word, Reformation, because we have entered a season where this movement will be much discussed.  I have already been solicited to write an article for a British Jesuit journal, which plans on dealing with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing the famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  As I ponder this, I am aware of what feels like a thousand ways to approach the story.
Many folks are tempted to read that historical period with a win-loss mentality.  If one happens to grow up on the Protestant side of the equation, it can well feel like a win.  Smugly, Protestants can tell a story of Catholic degradation, abuse and the like that left the poor Old Testament professor at Wittenberg no alternative except to begin a Reformation.  However, if you grow up Catholic, it is fairly easy to admit things were not perfect with the sixteenth century Catholic Church, but people like Luther went too far and was rightly excommunicated.  And so much of the half-millennium story since has been told.  
I had my own version (inarticulate, to be sure) of the story growing up in pre-Vatican II Indiana.  I knew where the Catholic Church was, but it never occurred to me to visit it.  When Vatican II happened (1962-65), I don’t even remember being aware of it.  Little did I know how profoundly it would affect my life.  It is too much to tell the Vatican II story, but I will say how grateful I am that Pope John XXIII had the vision and courage to move ahead with it.  I celebrate him and, now, I celebrate the Reformation.
When I say I am celebrating the Reformation, I am not cheering the victory of Luther, Calvin and the rest.  I am cheering the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.  In this sense I am on the side of every person and institution that is open to and co-operates with the work of the Spirit.  I caution this does not mean I think the Spirit was at work in the Reformers alone.  I don’t suggest for a minute that the Catholic Church was devoid of the Spirit and its own sense of needing to be reformed.  One only has to look at a figure like Erasmus to know this would not be true.  
I will make one theological claim.  While I certainly hold that the Spirit can work in all people and, indeed, in all institutions, I don’t think any person or institution can alone claim to possess the Spirit.  The Spirit is God’s Presence and that is not possessed.  It might possess, but it is never possessed---as in captured.
A characteristic feature of the Spirit, as I understand it, is the Spirit moves and causes movement.  The Spirit always brings life; it is not static.  And so where there is decay and death, the Spirit has gone.  A second characteristic of the Spirit is its movement causes evolution.  This is what the Spirit was doing in the sixteenth century and, I believe, is still doing in our own twenty-first century.  Because the Spirit is causing evolution, there should always be cause for celebration.  Another way of saying it, is to recognize the work of the Spirit is always renewing.  It brings new life.
This is the angle I prefer to look from when I hear about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation period.  Looking at it this way, prevents a win-loss reading of that history.  And more to the point, it helps us see our own time and where we can be led---if we are open to and heed the evolving, reforming work of the Spirit.  This is the exciting potential of remembering.  To remember reading history in order to learn from history in order to make a more meaningful history.
I want to read sixteenth century history---Protestant, Catholic and all others---from the perspective of the Spirit’s work.  I am convinced the Spirit is present and at work in all times and in all places.  But not all of us are attentive and open to this work.  And certainly, not all institutions are attentive and at work.  
What worries me about celebrating the Reformation is the temptation to read it as history alone.  It will be easy to make fun of the win-loss perspective and miss that we are in the same throes as those sixteenth century religious folks.  I am convinced the same Spirit is in our midst reforming and asking us to evolve.  To miss this is surely to opt for decay and, just as surely, death.  Our story may be so unremarkable no one will remember it.  
That’s why I want to celebrate Reformation and reformation.  My life and our times are at stake.  

 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Encountering Heschel Again

I read a number of things daily online.  One of those is the New York Times.  I am not so careful that I read everything every day.  But I try to be consistent in following things.  Although there is the usual spate of daily news that is depressing, there are other occasions when I run across something that helps me get a grip on the depressing things.  I ran into on such article by George Yancy, philosopher professor at Emory University in Atlanta.  I have read some of his stuff before in a posting he calls “The Stone.”
The article that caught my eye this time, Yancy entitles, “Is Your God Dead?”  I am old enough to remember the “God is Dead” movement in the 60s and wondered if that theological movement were being revived.  The answer is a flat “no.”  Instead, Yancey wonders if we---you and me---have lost our real God and only serve some idol of our own making?  It is a provocative question that I feel obligated to face.

Yancy is not talking about sophisticated theology, but practical theology.  He wonders whether we are looking “in the face of your neighbor on the street.”  He does not mean the rich neighbor across the way, but the poor one across town.  He presses on with more ornery questions.  And then he made a move that I deeply appreciated.  He began to refer to various words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late twentieth century Jewish theologian---one of my favorites.  Heschel was born in Poland, was overrun by the Nazis and harassed till he left for England and then the US.  He labored for peace, was a close friend of Martin Luther King and more.   

Herschel had a sense of his own need to stay engaged with all sorts of people and make his faith count.  He has provoked me before and provided solace, so I want to use some of his words here that Yancy quotes.  We can let Heschel instruct us in the faith---his faith and ours and everyone’s faith.  And we have to include even those who have no faith---at least, religious kind of faith.
Yancy’s first Heschel quotation portrays him concerned whether we “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.”  This is a challenge right away!  Following on this, Heschel is concerned about “an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.”  I am sure I have been and, likely, still am guilty of this.  I can do better.  

Decades ago Heschel charged, “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.”  I suspect that charge still fits most of us.  As I think about myself, I realize I am knowledgeable about things and yet do not move on to action.  I can do better.  My faith tradition calls for me to do better.  I do not need to berate myself and, certainly, not others.  Living one’s faith tradition is voluntary.  We are not conscripts.  But when we pray, “Thy will be done,” we should actually mean it.

Most of the problems of our lives and our world did not just happen.  Heschel could use his experience of the Holocaust to make this point.  Listen to him when he describes the Holocaust.  “It was in the making for several generations. It had its origin in a lie: that the Jew was responsible for all social ills, for all personal frustrations. Decimate the Jews and all problems would be solved.”  What are our own personal and social “holocausts” today?  They doubtlessly are not as horrific as the Holocaust Heschel experienced, but they still need to be dealt with.

There are a couple other quotations from Heschel I would like to include before concluding.  Heschel was a savvy dealer with words, especially when you consider English was not his first or second language.  Listen to him challenge people of all faiths.  Heschel notes, “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”  This is a wonderful, simple definition of an idol.  Most contemporary idols are not like the old idol gods found in Christian scripture.  Instead our current idols are very common-place.  But contemporary idols, like those of old, still control our lives and misdirect us from the true God.

One final quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel may be the most provocative of all.  He observes, “one may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”  That one nails me, for sure.  And it probably describes many of the kind of people with whom I hang out.  Pious and sinful; that is probably very accurate.  Of course, many of our sins are socially acceptable; after all, most people are doing them!  And this is exactly what Yancey is trying to convey and he uses Heschel to strengthen the narrative.

I appreciate encountering Heschel again.  I have always loved reading him, even if it usually does turn out to challenge me and bring me up short.  While most of the quotations here do not bring comfort, that is what Heschel also offers.  He’s been there and knows what he is talking about.  

Heschel always invite me to live into my better self. 




Monday, June 19, 2017

Gift as Expression of Hospitality

I have recently returned from a conference.  That is not surprising to know an academic goes to a conference.  College professors go to conferences all the time.  I have done my fair share, but generally don’t go anymore.  It is not that I think conferences are unimportant.  But I do have the sense that in my own field of religion, conferences that are academic are not where I spend most of my time now.  The papers presented at such conferences tend to be too arcane to be of much use to me.  

Most of my time these days is spent in what I would call ministry within the academic community.  That does not mean I go around praying for people all the time.  I am not preaching sermons.  I am not trying to get students to become Christian or anything else.  I am trying to help them think about life---their own life and others.  I want to help them figure out how they will make sense of their lives.  Of course, many of us make sense of life through our own religious tradition or via spirituality. 
I use a variety of people---historical and contemporary---to help students think about life.  One such person, whom I often cite and admire, is the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Even though Merton died tragically in 1968, his writings and teachings still have an amazing relevance to our world and making sense of our world.  And that was the point of this conference, which focused on Merton’s writings and legacy.  This was a conference that “spoke to my condition,” as Quakers would say.  But my story is not really about Merton.  He simply provided the context.
And so it was at this conference I met a young, engaging college senior.  I never saw her in my life, but I do know her mentor.  And it was her mentor who wanted to connect us.  And connect we did.  As we talked, she described her love of studying religion and business, especially accounting.  Of course, this is not the normal combination for college students.  It was easy to guess why the mentor wanted us to connect.  I, too, harbor interests in both religion and business.  In fact, I have written books in both arenas.  I guess that makes me strange, too.
I encouraged her not to feel like she has to choose between them.  My advice was not really advice.  People her age should feel no pressure to focus too quickly and exclude things that could be difference-makers later in life.  “Follow your spirit,” was my suggestion.  Of course, that is hardly specific.  In some ways I am not even sure I know what I am telling her.  But I do trust she has a spirit and that spirit connects with the Spirit of God.  What I suggested to her is precisely what I am still trying to do in my own life.
After spending a considerable amount of time talking with her and getting to know her, I became confident she will find a way forward.  I doubt that she (or anyone else) can plan this course of life.  Even at my ripe age, I don’t think I can plan my life.  Of course, we can all make plans and chart courses of action.  At some point I may leave my house and live in a retirement community.  She can choose graduate schools, etc.  But none of these choices dictate what life will come to be for her.
As we left each other that first meeting, I told her I would touch base the next day.  I already knew what I planned to do for her.  I would give her one of my books that deals with business and some spirituality.  The book’s content would not give her a game plan.  I meant it more as a form of encouragement.  And so the next day I looked for her to give her my gift.  I succeeded; she has my book.
As I ponder this action, I realize what I actually offered her was a form of hospitality.  The initial aspect of hospitality was to meet with her.  The hospitality deepened when I sat with her and intently listened to her story and receive her questions.  That could have been the end of the story.  But I wanted to offer more.  Encouragement can be a good word for someone.  But to offer an action is more powerful than a word.  And so I gave her a book.  The book may or may not be important.  What I hope is the lasting bit of importance is the giving of the gift---the gift of hospitality.
This provokes me to ponder the nature of hospitality.  As I think about it, hospitality is always a gift.  It has to be a gift.  You cannot require hospitality.  You cannot coerce it.  Of course, you can make someone do something.  But that is not hospitality.  That is a power play.  Hospitality is never a power play.
As I think about it further, hospitality is discerned by the gift that expresses it.  Hospitality may be a room in your house that you offer.  It might be a listening ear.  There is a myriad of possible gifts that can be expressions of hospitality.  Many of these gifts are free; they cost you only a little time and effort.  But they can be profound gifts---often better than money itself.
I am glad I did what I did.  I don’t know that I will ever see or hear from this gal again.  But that does not matter.  When you offer a gift expressing hospitality, it has no strings attached.  The gift does its own work thereafter.