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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Beautiful Thank You

Recently I spoke to a group of people who are interested in Thomas Merton, the late 20th century Trappist monk.  I have referenced Merton a number of times, so it is obvious that I like to read his writings.  As noted before, Merton lived in a monastery, Gethsemani, in the rolling hills of Kentucky.  When I teach an upper level seminar, it is usually on Merton’s spirituality.  Although Merton died tragically in 1968, interest in him and his spirituality continues in remarkable ways.
 
It is always easy to speak to a group that is inherently interested in the topic you address.  They give you the benefit of the doubt.  Typically, they assume you were much better than you probably were!  But that’s ok; I would rather be told good things than bad things!  Most people would, I assume.
 
So when the evening was finished, the Catholic nun who had invited me and had served as the host for the event handed me a little bag.  I certainly appreciated the gesture and headed to my car.  I expected there was a little something in the bag, which expressed the group’s gratitude that I would prepare some remarks and spend an evening sharing those.  I was happy to do it.  I appreciate small gestures.  In ministry one should never expect to be paid money and I am ok with that.
 
I did not even open the bag until the next day.  I found three things inside.  The first thing I pulled out was an envelope.  Clearly it was carefully crafted.  I know the nun is an artist, so it was apparent that I was holding her handiwork.  It makes Hallmark cards look store-boughten!
 
I opened the handcrafted card inside only to find some money!  So the joke was on me.  I had been paid by a nun to come and speak about a monk!  The irony is too funny; sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
 
The second thing I pulled out of the bag was a lovely, small rosary.  Now that is a great gift for a Quaker!  Never in my life have I received a rosary.  Most Quakers would have no clue what to do with one, if he or she were given one.  No doubt, most of us would think it were a necklace or bracelet!  So again, the joke is on me.  I love it.
 
The third gift was a small stack of thank you cards.  Again, my nun-artist-friend’s handiwork was evident.  Each card has a drawing and some words from Thomas Merton. These cards will be a gracious way for me to extend the generosity of the group that allowed me to come and speak. 
 
I began to thumb through the little stack and stopped to pull out one card.  The drawing is a bushy tree with some birds in the top.  The background is a yellowy orange and looks like a morning sky to me.  And then I noticed the expected words of Merton.  But I was pleasantly startled to see also some words from Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian, and one of Merton’s heroes.  Let me share those words.  These words from the two powerfully spiritual men of the Christian tradition were a wonderful thank you for what I thought would be simply an “ok” evening.
 
Merton’s words say, “No writing on the solitary meditative dimension of life can say anything that has not already been said better by wind in the pine.”  Clearly, this is both a call and a reminder that nature is a source of revelation about spiritual things.  With ears to hear, we indeed can discern nature “speaking.”  This reminds me again to pay attention.  Every day as I leave my condo, I step out into nature.  Unless it is lousy weather, I normally just take it for granted.  If the weather is lousy, I become grumpy.  I want to learn to pay attention.  I desire to hear the Voice of God in the sounds of silence.
 
The words of Bernard of Clairvaux strike the same nature theme.  Bernard tells us that “More things are learnt in the woods than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere.”  What a powerful message…what a beautiful thank you.  The money I received pales in comparison to the beauty of the gift.  Because what the nun had done was to give me the gift again of nature.
 
She reminded me again that we are always right in the middle of it.  Nature is both the womb and the crucible of our spiritual birth and creativity.  We are always in it; we simply need to pay attention.
 
It sounds so easy…and maybe it is, if we pay attention.  But the world I create for myself is more often tomb, than womb.  It is deadly.  I needed a wake-up call.  I thought I was going to do something for a group.  And I did.  But I got more in return.  I got a beautiful thank you!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Generosity and Community

Those of us who go to college and graduate school make some friends that we track all through our careers.  Sometimes we don’t have much contact with them, but we watch their careers take off or take different kinds of turns.  Often we watch them through the books they publish.  Today we frequently track them through social media like Twitter.  If they are in our academic discipline, we might see them periodically at conferences.          

One such person I have known for decades now is Parker Palmer.  Although we never were in school together, we have known each other since the earliest days of our careers.  In the earliest days he was not a Quaker, but he was at a Quaker institution and was flirting with Quakerism.  Because he was serious about his spiritual search, he became in many ways more Quaker than those of us who grew up as Quakers!          

He figured out how to take the best from my own Quaker tradition and “package” it in teaching and leadership situations to become “somebody.”  It was fun to watch him become pretty well known in academic circles.  He became prominent by virtue of his speaking and books.  He had a knack for taking stuff that I knew so well and presenting it in a way that was compelling to folks---most of whom never heard about Quakerism or thought we only dealt with oatmeal!

Parker Palmer began to do what we call “spirituality” before most non-Catholics wandered into these waters.  I did, too.  That was one of the things we had in common in the days when we both were young and full of promise.  No one ever introduces me today as one full of promise!  I am sure Parker and I found spirituality so attractive because Quakerism always emphasizes experience first and then theology/doctrine.  And that is one of the ways I differentiate spirituality and religion.  Spirituality always begins with experience.  Religion tends to begin with doctrine.          

I am now using one of Palmer’s books in a class I teach.  I don’t know whether the students fully appreciate him, but I find what he does in that book, The Active Life, very valuable.  One of the places I found interesting was his suggestion that we all tend to look at the world from one of two perspectives.  Some of us view the world from a model of scarcity.  Others view the world with an abundance model.  Of course, I immediately think: which am I?          

The scarcity model says the world contains limited resources.  “There is only so much,” is the mentality.  “I better get mine while the getting is good!”  We all know the various ways this view of the world shapes us.  I think it is the worldview my family held as I grew up.  This kind of view of the world breeds anxiety and sometimes fears.  We are worried that we will not get enough.  In fact, the word “enough” might characterize this way of seeing the world.          

Palmer characterizes this world well with these words.  “In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive.”  In this kind of world most of us will be losers.  But there is another option: the worldview of abundance.  This view works well with a sense of God.            

Here the perspective suggests that the world is always “more than enough.”  Of course, it is easy to think about famine, poverty, etc. that seems to say that is a lie.  But think about the gifts and graces of the world.  Think about love.  If viewed this way, the world offers abundantly.  Love is a resource that can never be used up---there is always more.  This is the insight that Palmer offers to me.          

I appreciate his words that guide me in re-imaging the world and what it has to offer.  He says, “in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.”  To think about generosity and community help me to see the world differently---to see it as a source of abundance.          

I have known the gift of generosity from people, from nature and from life.  Generosity comes to us as “more than enough.”  We feel we don’t deserve that much.  We are amazed.  We are overwhelmed.  We can only be grateful.          

Community is the same.  True community gives me a sense of belonging, care and love that amazes me.  To begin to see the world with the abundance model is transforming.  It enables me to see possibility and potentiality that creates a new future for myself, others and the world.  I think this must have been the case with Jesus who imagined a new world.  He called it the kingdom.  I think I begin to understand.  The kingdom is a new world---a world of generosity and community.