About Me

Friday, December 2, 2016

Life With Hope

Sometimes I wonder if people give up on religion because they cannot figure out how to do it day by day?  This seems probable to me because I am not sure most of us common people are quite sure how to define religion.  By saying that, I do not mean those of us who went to church or to synagogue are complete idiots when it comes to religion and what it means. 

When you know something, it is always difficult to remember when you did not know anything.  Now that I have a Ph.D. in religion, it likely is impossible to remember accurately those Indiana farm days when I did not know beans about religion.  But let me guess nevertheless!

I suspect that most Christians, at least, would define religion along the lines of doctrine.  For example, I would assume if you ask the person on the street to define religion, he or she would begin by saying something about believing in God.  Doctrine has to do with believing.  If one is a Christian, it is likely that Jesus enters the picture in some form.  It would probably lead to statements about Jesus as redeemer or savior or some such doctrinal version.  Of course, this is not wrong.  But I wonder if it is adequate?

By adequate I mean I wonder if anyone can live daily by doctrine.  I do claim to be a Christian.  But when I bounce out of bed in the mornings, I am not immediately thinking in doctrine terms.  In fact, I can go all day long without the slightest reference to doctrine.  But if asked, I probably would claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense.  So I am suggesting that religion is prior to or deeper than doctrine.

Doctrine is fine.  I like it.  I studied it.  Sometimes I even try to teach it.  But religion does not equal doctrine for me.  In fact, I would say doctrine is a reflection upon whatever I claim to be religious.  Again, let me explain.

Doctrinally, I might say I believe in God (and I do).  That’s nice.  But it tells you virtually nothing about me, about my life, etc.  On the other hand, let’s start with experience.  If I tell you this morning when I bounced out of bed, I had the most profound experience of God’s presence.  I have told you something very specific and significant about me.  In a way I am telling you I know God---or at least, met my God.  Of course, you don’t know very much about the God I met/know.  But it is a more powerful statement than the doctrinal statement that I believe in God.  Knowing takes me further than simply believing.

If I know my God---at least in this minimal way of experience---I can hope for more.  If I met God, then I can hope that I can meet God again.  And maybe I can begin to linger with this God.  It might become a daily presence---or at least, a coming and going presence.

That presence of God might become more.  More what?  I don’t even know how to answer this question.  God can become more than I can even imagine.  That is the function of hope.  Hope is grounded in the more…the more of whatever the future might bring.  Doctrines do not deliver futures.  Experiences deliver in the present and present a future.

Experiencing God is a gift and a promise.  I recall the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech poet and politician, when he talks about being an optimist because of his experience of God.  Havel said, “I am not an optimist, because I am not sure everything ends well.  Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly.  I just carry hope in my heart.  Hope is feeling that life and work have meaning.  You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world around you.  Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life.  I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me.  I am thankful to God for this gift.  It is as big a gift as life itself.” 

These words are important to me.  I like how Havel connects life and work and meaning.  And I am truly appreciative how Havel connects it all to God.  I agree when he says hope is as big a gift as life!  That is a mighty big statement.

I want to carry hope in my heart.  Hope grounds me today and promises tomorrow.  That is exactly how I perceive God at work.  When I experience God, I am grounded in today and I sense the promise of tomorrow.  Maybe hope is one way we carry this presence of God in an ongoing way.  Surely, I don’t experience God in every waking moment.  But I do have hope every moment---or can have it.

Ok, I have it: life with hope. What a blessing.  What a gift.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Soul Holes

My friend gave me a new book.  I am not sure what prompted the gift, but that is why it is so special.  A gift means being given something you did not earn and do not necessarily deserve.  That surely is the case in the gift of my new book.  In fact I am glad I don’t know why he gave it to me.  It surely is special.  The gift is special and that makes the book special---even before I read the first page. 
I was eager to jump into the book.  The author, Ann Voskamp, is a Mennonite farmer along with her husband in Canada.  That helps me appreciate it.  I like the Mennonites.  I see them as cousins to Quakers, but I sense they usually are more serious and more deeply spiritual than many of us Quakers, so I have deep respect for Ann Voskamp for this reason.  I don’t know why I have not heard about her or read her. 
The book, One Thousand Gifts, has sold over a million copies!  So unless she has given a great deal of money away, Ann Voskamp is one rich Mennonite.  But I can’t imagine this would mess up her faith.  In my mind she has to be a simple, pious, winsome Mennonite woman.  She is a woman of faith.  As I began this first story in her book, this seemed more true than ever.
The first chapter is entitled, “An Emptier, Fuller Life.”  I liked the paradox of that.  The story turned out to have a raw poignancy.  She tells the story of her own birth and being named, Ann---meaning according to her, “full of grace.”  Within a page or two we hear about her younger sister, Aimee, who was killed by a delivery truck in her own farm lane.  That was the moment, ironically, that Ann and her family “snapped shut to grace”---grace being the meaning of Ann’s name.  Now the first half of the chapter title made sense.
However, it was a later paragraph in that chapter that grabbed my attention.  Basically, Ann Voskamp asks the question: is that all there is to life?  In effect she says no and invites us into her theological thinking.  She says, “But from the Garden beginning, God has a different purpose for us.  His intent, since he bent low and breathed His life into the dust of our lungs, since he kissed us into being, has never been to slyly orchestrate our ruin.”  I very much like the way she is easing us into a commentary on those early chapters of Genesis.  I eagerly read on.
“I open a Bible, and His plans, startlingly, lie there barefaced…His love letter forever silences any doubts…”  Voskamp then turns to a quotation from I Corinthians 2:7, quoting from the NEB: “His secret purpose framed from the very beginning (is) to bring us to our full glory.”  Ah, here is the second half of the chapter title.  I rush on in her text.
Voskamp claims that God “means to rename us---to return us to our true names, our truest selves.  He means to heal our soul holes.”  For some reason that short phrase, “soul holes,” jumps off the page, slamming through my eyes straight to my heart.  It is a wonderfully powerful way to describe the tragedy of Genesis’ Fall---chapter 3 when Adam and Eve decide to take a bite and all the vicissitudes of their problems and our problems are set in motion.  Our souls were wounded---we all have soul holes.  That’s now the given.  The only question is whether there can be anything else?
This is precisely the issue Voskamp addresses.  There can be something different.  Again follow me through quoting her words.  Reassuringly, Ann says, “From the very beginning, that Eden beginning, that has always been and always is, to this day, His secret purpose---to return to our full glory.  Appalling---that He would!  Us, unworthy.”

She finishes that paragraph with theological flair.  “And yet since we took a bite out of the fruit and tore into our own souls, that drain hole where joy seeps away, God had this wild secretive plan.  He means to fill us with glory again.  With glory and grace.”
The beauty of her words and the power of her faith and conviction of her theology leave me nearly breathless.  Can it be true?  In faith, yes.  Can it be proved?  Of course not.  But it impresses me as a powerful faith answer to a dead, little body of a girl---a sister---in a farm lane.  That was fact; faith has to do with coping and healing those kinds of facts of life.
It seems factual to me that most of us know about our own “soul holes.”  We know about the emptying of life that comes when our soul holes drain us of hope and joy.  Our lives are littered by disappointments and disasters of life.  Voskamp helps us see that emptiness was not part of God’s hopes and plans for the human race.  Instead God’s secretive purpose is to bring us to glory again---to fill us with glory. 
I am so thankful for my two gifts: the gift of this book and the gift of the book’s theology of glory.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Spiritual Commitment

I was reading along in a very nice little book and hit these lines about commitment.  The author, Mitch Albom, uses the voice of one of the main characters of his nonfiction book about faith to reflect on commitment.  The voice belongs to Albom’s old rabbi of the Jewish synagogue where he went until his college days.  The old rabbi, Albert Lewis, says “the word ‘commitment’ has lost its meaning.”

The rabbi continues in a way that surely would have many people saying, “Amen!”  About commitment he says, “I’m old enough when it used to be a positive.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  He was loyal and steady.  Now a commitment is something you avoid.  You don’t want to tie yourself down.”  I also think I am old enough to know that commitment was usually a positive word.  I can think of a range of situations in which commitment would have been seen to be positive.

For example, growing up was full of sports for me.  Commitment would have been presupposed to be part of a team.  If you were going to play basketball, you made a commitment to the team and the coaches.  You made a commitment to the discipline that went with playing ball.  The discipline was not just on the court.  There was the commitment to some of the rules.  Some rules were quite explicit.  There were dietary rules, etc.  One needed to be committed to these.  Other rules were implicit.  They were not written down, but everyone knew them and was committed to them.

I agree with the rabbi.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  Again, if I stay with the sports analogy, I remember holding in special esteem some of the older college and professional sports’ figures who “played the game the right way.”  They exemplified commitments to fair play, etc.  They were role models and demonstrated what a young person could become.  Certainly, this was not limited to the sports’ world.

I like the way Albert Lewis, the rabbi, began to develop what the committed person exemplified.  That person was someone who was loyal and steady.  It seems quite clear to me that loyalty is a hallmark of commitment.  A committed person is not a fair-weather friend.  The committed person is someone who is going to be there---be there for you or for the cause---whatever happens. 

It is easy to contrast this with much of what we see in our world today.  Too many people are driven purely by self-interest.  Of course, I would never say that no one today makes and keeps commitments.  But I would agree that commitment is not what it used to be.  This is not the place to try to argue the case that commitment is not valued the way I think it used to be. 

Instead I am interested in exploring spiritual commitment.  I am quite clear in my own mind that commitment is the glue of the spiritual relationship with the Holy One.  Commitment is relational.  Commitment is connecting---it connects me to someone or something.  There are two basic steps in commitment.  One “makes” a commitment.  Making a commitment entails saying “yes” to someone or something (one can be committed to a principle, for example).  Secondly, having made a commitment, one “keeps” the commitment.  Keeping a commitment is the duration over time of the relationship which was made.

A spiritual commitment is the engaging and engagement of myself to God.  It is not a one-way street.  God also commits to me.  That is significant.  Not only do I say “yes;” God also says “yes.”  In this sense the commitment is mutual and reciprocal.  That does not make it equal.  In my commitment to God, I am affirming that I will try to be all that I can be.  If I say that I give my heart to God, my commitment means that I will try to do it with all my heart.  But I also am convinced God makes the same commitment.  God also says that the Divine Heart will be poured out to me.  After all, “God so loved the world…”

Spiritual commitment also has another dimension.  I also think that my spiritual commitment to God has a corollary.  I also will need to commit to all those other human beings who, too, are in a spiritual commitment with God.  God and I implicate God and us.  The implications are clear and, sometimes, stunning to me.  It means I can do no less to you or any other human being than I would do to God.

I cannot ask for God’s blessings and, in turn, be cursing you!  When something goes wrong, I cannot petition God for mercy and insist that you do justice.  Spiritual commitment is not a commodity, like corn or coal.  Rather it is a relationship.  It is more quality and not quantity.  I can grow and develop my spiritual commitment.  I can deepen it.

This is the place where I ask God and you, too, to help me in that developing journey of deepening my commitment. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Novice at Love

I continue to work my way slowly through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise.  I figure if I have any chance of becoming wise, it surely will be a slow process.  Each of her chapters is rather long.  And each one is a big topic.  Right now I am creeping through the love chapter.  That certainly is going to take a while.
Fairly early in that chapter Tippett shares about her own marriage and divorce.  That is always a story of love and love gone awry.  I appreciated her poignant account of it.  She said, “When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love.”  I suspect for many of the multitudes of the walking wounded, the story continues in that parallel universe.  But there is where Tippett had a turn of events.  And that is what attracts me to her thinking and writing.
She realized that love in her life continued.  Listen to her words.  “This is the opposite of a healing story---it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance.  I have love in my life, many forms of loving.  As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways.”  I am touched by her words.  I like the idea of discovering scarcity in the midst of abundance.  We usually are seeking the other way round.  I find her description of herself to be refreshingly honest and creative in a very simple way.
I especially appreciate her self-description as one learning to love in untheatrical everyday ways.  That is where most of us live most of our lives.  Her self-description set me up to see things in a new way.  The next sentence in her long paragraph took me a step further.  She confesses, “I can’t name the day when I suddenly realize that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly use of an essential word.”  I think I have dealt with a poverty of imagination all too often.
Tippett continued in a way that teaches me.  She observes, “And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved.  In this, I am a prism of my world.  I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”  That is it!  She has named my own place in my love pilgrimage.  I am also a novice---a beginner.  You would think someone my age would have figured much more out and been further down the love road. 
No doubt like Tippett, I also thought I was looking for love, but in fact I was looking to be loved.  Love never works very well in that kind of context.  Too often, there is too much ego in the mix.  I am happy to be loved, if and when it happens.  And it probably happens much more often than I realize.  To be loved is a wonderful experience.  But it is different than loving.  Like most people, I want to do both.  But it is important to keep clear about the two different experiences. 
The last phrase that I lift up from Tippett’s words is the phrase, “love in all its fullness.”  When I read that phrase, I was sure I did not know about love in all its fullness.  Of course, I know some things about love.  But like Tippett, I am a novice---a beginner.  How could I know about love in all its fullness?  That is what wise folks know.  That is what masters know.  They know love in all its fullness.  I am sure Jesus, the Buddha and the classical great spiritual teachers know.  And that is what they want us to learn.  Tippett is on the way; I am joining her on the great adventure, as she called it.
One last sentence from her love chapter puts it nicely.  She declares her intention.  “The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.”  The fullness of love will be learned and practiced across all relationships and encounters.  That is the challenge and, she says, the great frontier. 
Most of the time, it is relatively easy to love our family and friends.  But sometimes those end in divorces and family fights.  So even those are not guaranteed.  And there are many more encounters and relationships than family and friends.  There are foreigners, foes, enemies, strangers---it’s a big world out there.  To be a novice at love means I won’t always know how to do it.  In fact, sometimes I may not even know how to begin.  But if I have the intention, it becomes possible.
Reading Tippett helps me be ok with my novice status.  I can’t pretend to be any other thing.  And I know that pretending has no place in authentic love.  There is a role for imagination.  Indeed, I need more imagination when it comes to learning about the fullness of love.  But imagination is not pretending. 
With Tippett’s help, I know where to begin.  Any encounter---any relationship---is a practiced ground.  It is the frontier of the day.  I need awareness, imagination and courage to enter that frontier land of love.  I may be a novice at love, but I will learn, grow and become wiser and more loving. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thankfully the Holiday is Over!

Of course, the title of this inspirational reflection is partly in jest.  But part of me is serious when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over.  Both aspects need some clarification and development.

It is clear that I offer a word play on the most recent holiday, namely, Thanksgiving.  Actually, I am quite good with Thanksgiving Day itself.  I appreciate that it is totally an American holiday.  When we grow up Americans, it may be difficult to revel in that fact.  Truly, it was when I was abroad one November that I realized all my family and friends “back home” were celebrating Thanksgiving and I was simply doing what routinely was to be done on Thursday in the country where I was living at the time.  I missed Thanksgiving.

I like the idea of Thanksgiving.  Certainly I and most of the people I know have been very fortunate.  We all have much for which we can be thankful.  I am ok with taking a day during my year and making it a special Thanksgiving Day.  I can do that without falling into the trap of thinking there is no need to be thankful till next November! 

Indeed, hardly a day goes by in my life when I have not been thankful for this or for that.  My day starts early with coffee and the newspaper.  Since those are not delivered at my door, that means a trek to the store and a chance to interact with my first human being of the day.  It is a small gesture to utter those daily “thanks” to the store clerk, but it is an important gesture.  Not to be thankful is to begin a day with an attitude that is not good.

And if I can ignore the small things---those small incidents in my day for which I appropriately should be thankful---then I have started being the human being I really don’t want to become.  So I am quite willing to extend Thanksgiving Day---at least, the attitude of thanksgiving---into every new day until next November rolls around.

However, there is a part of me that is very glad---thankfully---the holiday is over!  I say this with the full awareness that most Americans would not agree with me.  For most people, Thanksgiving is not just a day---it is four days.  Thanksgiving holiday too often actually begins on Wednesday!  And clearly, Thanksgiving goes through Sunday.  That is what I mean when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over!

Actually, Thanksgiving Day is the easy part.  Black Friday I understand is an absolute hoot for shoppers.  Camping out for a day or two on a sidewalk outside the big box store to save some bucks on a tv most people don’t really need baffles me.  Of course, that means I cannot imagine doing it!  But I also know some folks cannot imagine going to a football game or the opera.

I am sure the major reason I am thankful that the holiday is over is the fact that I don’t fit in culturally.  I am not against culture---not even American culture.  That is the culture in which I live and in which I grew up. But there are parts of that culture I do not approve of and in which I don’t want to participate.

I know my biggest complaint about the holiday (and the holidays to come!) is the misplaced focus or emphasis.  Think about it.  Thanksgiving originally and traditionally was a time to be together with family and friends and give thanks.  It was originally a time those early settlers realized half of them would not die over the winter!  I am not sure what they did on Black Friday!  I think Thanksgiving is originally and traditionally spiritual.

Our culture is not designed to focus on the spiritual.  I suspect that we will need to be slightly counter-cultural if we opt for the spiritual.  Flat screen tvs are predictably a distraction from the spiritual.  I might be thankful to get one at a discount, but that I can get one is not inherently spiritual.

For me the spiritual has to do with life, love, justice, mercy and all those other things people offer or withhold from each other.  I want to use those as checkmarks for thanksgiving.  Am I aware of my life as a gift and am I thankful?  I want to make this a daily checkmark.

Am I doing as much loving as possible?  (I’ve got some growing to do here!)  Do I say thanks for the love given me?  Am I acting with a sense of justice---fairness---to all those people in my life?  Can I make this a daily checkmark?  Finally, am I able to be merciful to those whose only hope is mercy?  When I blow it, can I be thankful to those who show mercy to me?

Thankfully, the holiday is over…now I can get to the daily checking on my spiritual life.  I’ve got work to do!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving: a Day and a Way of Life

As Americans, we enter the Thanksgiving season. Already people are wishing me a “happy Thanksgiving.” I am delighted with that greeting. And I would be delighted if someone next week wishes me a “happy Monday.” But I guess Mondays are supposed to be normal…not so happy, not so awful.

I am not sure I do major holidays very well. I am not against them. They celebrate important events in national, religious, and often personal lives. Thanksgiving is an American deal. In Turkey it is just another weekday! As an American, I welcome it. And I hope it is happy.

I am confident one of the reasons I am not sure about major holidays is the trickiness of expectations. For example, Thanksgiving is supposed to be “happy.” Christmas is supposed to be “merry” and, of course, we return to the “happy” theme for New Years. Clearly, for too many people there are too many lousy things going on to gear up to be “happy” and “merry.” Holiday expectations are tricky things.

The truth is Thanksgiving lasts one day. It is here and it is gone. Even if one adds “Black Friday,” that is only two days. Since I am not a shopper and, certainly, not a shop-till-I-drop person, Friday is not part of the deal. No one ever has wished me a “Happy Black Friday!”

I am glad Thanksgiving is here. And I am glad it is one day and then it is over till another year. And I hope I am happy…and you, too.

In reality I am more interested in how Thanksgiving can become a way of life. In fact, I think we should not capitalize it. I want my way of life to be one of thanksgiving. That gets me at the spiritual roots of my life and how I want those roots to issue a way of life for which I can say, “thanks.” And I hope my way of life becomes such that others can say, “thank you.”

Both those qualities are necessary for my understanding of thanksgiving as a way of life. I need to be able to say, “thanks,” and to have others respond genuinely with their “thank you.” If I am only concerned with a way of life for which I give “thanks,” I fear it may be a way of life rooted in self-interest. If I get all I want, then I will be thankful. But some of what I might want may come at the expense of others. And surely, they are not going to say, “thank you.”

On the other hand, if I live only to get your “thank you,” I may be nothing more than your servant or, worse, doormat! You happily say, “thank you,” but I certainly am not saying, “thanks.”

The good news is that kind of thanksgiving is a way of life. I don’t have to pull it off by the weekend. Like music or sports, I will probably have to practice a fair amount. There is time. Perhaps, the real question is not whether I am succeeding, but am I making progress?

How will I know if I am making progress? Likely, there are many ways to measure it, but let me offer two. I will be making progress if I am more loving---more loving than I was last week and last Thanksgiving. Sometimes that is not easy---there are so many ding-a-lings out there! And of course, most people are not as loveable as I am!

The second measure is if I am more graceful. I am not thinking of gymnasts and ballerinas. Grace is always a gift. If I am more graceful, I am more giving---perhaps, more forgiving. If I can be more graceful, more giving, then people are more likely to say, “thank you.”

Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, I will return to writing on Monday, November 28th.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One Person’s Good

One of the pleasant things that can happen while you are reading is finding something you had not been seeking.  It happens to me quite frequently.  It can make me feel like a kid who finds a treasure.  Usually, I want to yell, “hey, look at this!”  But normally there is no one around…or worse, I am sitting somewhere with some people and if I yelled that, they would think I am daft or, perhaps, throw me out the door!

Last evening I hit one of those gems that made me want to yell to someone.  But no one was at home with me.  And the neighbor above me already thinks I am crazy enough…no need to add evidence!  So let me share that tidbit with you.

It comes from Dorothy Day.  Fewer and fewer people these days know when Dorothy Day was.  Dorothy was a Catholic saint, although she obviously has not been canonized.  I doubt that she will be, but to me she is a saint.  In her early life through the 1920s and 30s, she was active with the communists.  She was an agnostic and, as we would say today, she lived in the “fast lane.”  She had a couple common law marriages.  Then she had a daughter and became intrigued by the Catholic Church.

Dorothy always had a concern for the marginal and the down-and-out.  She was involved in the beginnings of the Catholic Worker movement.  This movement ran some Catholic Worker homes for folks down on their luck.  In a sense, Dorothy was a saint in a slum!

You can imagine my delight when my reading surprised me with a few words from Dorothy Day.  She said, “One of the greatest evils is a sense of futility.”  I smile because one does not have a sense that Dorothy ever felt that sense of futility.  But I also wondered, would anyone who has never felt that sense of futility ever consider addressing it?  I rather doubt it.  In fact, I suspect it was because Dorothy knew that sense of futility that she could address it as an “evil.”

No doubt the following words come from a woman who has lived well beyond that sense of futility and has a firm handle on meaning and purpose in life.  She continues by noting, “Young people say, ‘What good can one person do?  What is the sense of our small effort?’”  That is a daunting question: what good can one person do?  I certainly have asked that question.  It is an easy question when one’s situation seems hopeless…when the task seems too big.  What is the sense of our small effort?

Those two questions, though, are dangerous because they can become the excuse to do nothing.  They become our rationale for resignation.  And Dorothy Day would have none of that.  I like it when she says, “We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.”  True!

And then, she adds the clincher for me.  “…we can beg for an increase in love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”  The key is “an increase in love in our hearts.”  I want to believe and beg for this, just like Dorothy did.

I want to believe that somehow God can do this “increasing” that enables me to do this “loving” that can make the one good thing I can do.  And if we all ask for a little “increasing” of the love in our hearts, then perhaps a whole new movement can begin.

One person’s good: May I do my good this day…and you, too.