Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Work a Miracle

I was listening fairly closely as the priest was working his way through the liturgy.  It may seem odd that a Quaker participates so gladly in a much more liturgical worship than a silent form of worship which would be my normal fare.  Sometimes I joke and say I am spiritually ambidextrous!  That is not a bad comparison.  To be able to shoot a basketball with either hand was an asset when I played ball.  And to be able to participate and appreciate a highly structured worship approach or one rooted unstructured in silence feels enriching to me. 

The good news for me is I feel comfortable in either setting.  I have participated in liturgical worship situations fairly frequently, so I know what’s going on.  I can play my role as a participant in the group.  I like the fact that I will not be chosen to be up front and leading.  I like the music, the prayers and the sacrament.  But I also like those places in the liturgy where I won’t be able to guess what the priest might say or do.

There are the predictable unstructured places, even in the liturgy.  The homily or sermon is one such place.  There are other places where good priests have some liberty in what they will say or do.  I especially like to be attentive at those places.

It was just in one of these open spaces that I heard the phrase that I knew was going to stick in my brain and become the focus of some reflection.  I have no idea what the context of the phrase was.  It was near the end of the worship experience.  The priest said that “in some way to work a miracle.”  It was an innocent little phrase.  It was not intoned any differently that the sentence before or after it.  In fact, I wonder how many people actually “heard” it in the sense that they could have shared it with another person?  I am not even sure why it registered so clearly in my brain.  But it was my take-away of the day!

I am sure that what grabbed my attention was that part of the phrase which says we should “work a miracle.”  I wanted to say, “Yes,” to yell “Amen.”  I am for working a miracle, but then I realized I am not sure what that means.  This is where I need to reflect on the matter.

Doubtlessly, the issue is the meaning of the word, miracle.  Work a miracle?  Sure, but what does a miracle look like?  At one level, I don’t like the word, miracle.  It is used too loosely in our culture.  There are miracles on baseballs fields and sundry other places.  Sometimes it can mean as little as something special.  I am not against special things, but I don’t categorize them as miracles.

At the other extreme is the assumption that a miracle is any kind of divine intervention.  Again I have no problem thinking that God might intervene in some ways---although it is difficult to be specific.  And it clearly raises some troubling questions why God would not intervene in other cases, i.e. seriously sick people? 

I turned to the classical language and, as usual, found them helpful.  I know the Latin and Greek words for “miracle” can also be translated “wonder” or “marvel.”  This is helpful, but it is not conclusive.  But I am not really sure you can be conclusive when it comes to miracles.  That either disappoints us, or it might make us relieved.  I am one of those that are relieved that we can’t be conclusive about miracles. 

That means I might see or do a miracle that not every person would agree to be miraculous.  That is ok with me.  Let’s stay with the classical definition of miracle, i.e. a wonder or marvel.  If I can do something marvelous, I am willing to say that is miraculous.  It did not require God’s immediate intervention, although I am sure God would be happy with the miracle.  And if someone else does not interpret that marvelous deed as miraculous, that’s ok; it’s still marvelous!  The deed is what is important, not what we call it.

I think this is what hit me so positively about the priest’s phrase.  In some way this day I want to work a miracle.  Maybe I can manage a couple or three!  And maybe you can, too?  It does not mean we have to turn water into wine! 

I do think we have all sorts of chances and situations in our normal day to be miraculous.  They are not prescribed, but they can be performed in some way.  Your way probably will be different than my way.  Perhaps the way we all can look at it---as miracle workers---is to ask where in this day can I do wondrous and marvelous things?  And maybe it is not always a matter of doing.  Perhaps it can be as simple as being marvelous and wondrous.

If we all did this today, that would be a miracle!  I am going to try. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On the Road Again

Yesterday I spent a good part of the day on the road.  Periodically, I take trips to see people.  If it is a distant trip, that means a plane ticket and flight.  But if it is less than five hundred miles, I prefer to drive.  Flying used to be fun, but that is not the word I use to describe it any more.  Driving may not be fun either, but is does seem more sane to me.  At least, I am in control of my schedule and I feel more free.           

I am not na├»ve that taking a car trip is profound.  At one level, there certainly is nothing spiritual about it.  The intent was to hop in the car and travel from one point to the other.  The trip can be measured in miles or in time.  Sometimes we say, “the trip was about four hundred miles.”  Other times we will say something like, “the trip took six hours.”  Finally, all that really matters is that we make the trip and arrive at our destination.          

My trip yesterday was not spectacular in any way.  Fortunately, it was uneventful.  There were no mishaps---no near wrecks.  Sometimes, I am amazed at how far I can drive and apparently not be too observant.  There was nothing especially noteworthy about the scenery.  Often I can be a little disappointed in myself that I notice less of what is “there,” than I am sure is “there.”  Perhaps that is because I just want to finish the trip and arrive at my destination.             

I think it was this last dawning realization that set me to thinking.  I began to think about trips.  I immediately went in two directions with my mind.  The first direction sent me into my memory bank and the famous song by Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again.”  A quick research told me that Willie wrote and debuted the song in 1980.  I thought it was older than that.  I like the song.           

The other direction that my mind went was to recall how important the metaphor of “journey” is in a number of different spiritual traditions.  Often life itself is portrayed as a journey.  It occurred to me that we could talk about life as a journey.  However, it takes on even more meaning if I talk about it as a spiritual journey.  I find this an engaging idea.           

Like my trip yesterday, the journey of life has a beginning and an end.  Certainly, the beginning is the day of our birth.  While we could say the destination of life’s journey is death, I think there are better options.  Of course, we will die.  We could see life’s destination as heaven or the kingdom---two significant biblical images.  I have nothing against either of these.  I can hope to wind up “there,” whatever the kingdom or heaven “there” turns out to be.           

However, I prefer to talk about the duration of life’s spiritual journey as a love story.  And the destination of this journey is Love Itself.  I imagine death as the doorway into Love Itself.  Instead of extinction, death is more like a matriculation---a beginning of new life.             

If life’s journey is a love story, then surely it is not a solitary trip.  It has to include friends.  And this took me back to Willie Nelson’s song.  Willie’s song opens with these words: “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.  The life I love is making music with my friends.”  These words can be appropriated for the spiritual journey of life.           

If it is a journey of love, then I can wait to get on the road again.  Willie says the life he loves is making music with his friends.  I would say the same thing.  I am not talking about literally making music, but I do think life’s journey as a love story is musical---harmonious, melodic and sweet.  Like Willie says, this journey is “goin’ places that I’ve never been. And it is “seein’ things I may never see again.”  Perhaps this is the secret of life as a spiritual journey.  As a spiritual journey, we will see things that I might not ever see and I might be taken places that I have never been.           

I like another one of Willie’s lines in the song.  He talks about a band of his friends going down the highway.  In fact, Willie says, “We’re the best of friends.”  This is the place I stop and take stock.  Am I part of just such a band?  Do I have “the best of friends” traveling with me?  For me this is the question of community.  Am I part of a nurturing, nourishing community of travelers?  Am I part of someone else’s love story?           

If the answer is affirmative, then I need to cultivate my own love story and those stories of my friends.  If I realize I am traveling alone too much of the time, then I have time.  I have time to get on the road again.  I have time to look for spiritual travelers who would be willing to let me join their band of folks on the way.  If they are a true community, they always will be open and inclusive.             

I had to laugh, as I pulled into my destination.  I was home; the trip was finished.  But my spiritual journey is not at all finished.  I am thankful to be on the road again with the best of friends.  I am heading into the heart of Love Itself.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Life and Grace

May this day bring you a taste of grace---grace without which everything in life begins to dull or maybe even become overwhelming.  Life and grace is what the whole Easter season has been about.  I emphasize life and grace.

If we look at the calendar, we know that Easter is over.  Spiritually the challenge now is not to get over Easter!  In saying this, I have in mind more than just the Christians in our world.  I want to include all humans.  Chronologically, Easter is history, but this should not mean we lose its mystery.  Not to lose its mystery is to continue asking God to touch those parts of our lives, which have become deadened.  It means realizing some days we feel like we have been deposited in the tomb.  We may feel deadened.  We require that angelic visit to proclaim life again.

We need to keep our eyes open to the awe, wonder and meaning daily around us.  We can put our hands to the task of creating meaning to these lives of ours.  We bend forward with ears to hear the quiet voice---the divine inner voice---which is always threatening to be drowned out by the noise and confusion of our society.

I am reminded of the long-ago words of Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the U.N.  Hammarskjold said, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

In another place Hammarskjold says, “What gives life its value you can find – and lose.  But never posses.  This holds good above all for ‘the Truth about Life.’”   This is the sad possibility of Easter---we can say it is over.  But this is true of any special, meaningful event.  It is true of birthdays.  We can’t “possess” them any more than we can stop the calendar.

Wanting to possess a meaningful experience basically is a desire to stop time.  But we know this is not possible.  What we can do is remember.  Memory is a wonderful human capacity to savor again something which once happened.  Of course, it is not the same.  So memory is not possession, but it is the chance to “have” something again…and again, if we want.

Obviously, memory deals with the past.  In that sense it is re-creative.  It re-creates what once was or what once happened.  We can also be creative.  That is the way we can choose to deal with the future which is still coming at us.  That is the way to avoid becoming deadened in our daily lives.

The spiritual trick is to find Easter---life and grace---again and again, to find it daily.  We can find it in the wonder of your life.  We can create instead of complain.  We can generate instead of gripe.  I think this is the truth about life.

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.