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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No Music on Bad Days

Anyone who has lived a few years knows that there are times when life is not good.  There are times when things don’t go very well.  We are assaulted by things that are not to our liking.  We can be sick, disappointed, or denied.  We can watch others get what we thought was rightfully ours.  We can try so hard, get so close and still lose.  Some days life is just not much fun.

I also think this is true for the spiritual life.  Anyone who has been involved in the spiritual journey for any length of time knows all days are not equal.  It is not unusual for the early days of the spiritual pilgrimage to be pretty good.  Often there is that initial burst of enthusiasm.  Not surprisingly, God can seem to be right there in your corner.  The spiritual tradition calls these graces of God “consolations.”  Consolations are good.  In fact, there are a bit like spiritual goodies.

The truth of the matter is, however, we should not be thinking we are entitled to these spiritual goodies.  It is important to recognize they are graces of God---spiritual gifts.  They are your due to no merit on your own.  You did not earn them.  You do not “deserve” them.  They are not a testament to your worthiness or spiritual prowess.  What is given can be taken away.

And if you hang in with the spiritual journey long enough, consolations typically will be taken away.  At this stage, it is important also to remember that this does not mean you have become unworthy.  You have not become a spiritual skunk in God’s eye.  It does not even mean you are no longer in favor with God.

The periods in which consolations are taken away and, apparently, you are now forced into a kind of spiritual desert is called “desolation.”  To experience desolation is akin to finding yourself in a wasteland, instead of the promised land.  It is easy to wonder what happened.  You thought that you and God were buddies and now this!  Instead of toasting your consolations, you are now feeling tested by the desolation.

These were the things that came to my mind when I worked with the biblical text from Vespers last night.  Vespers is the time in the daily lectionary that is evening.  I follow the lectionary of the Catholic monastery with which I am affiliated.  I cannot do all the periods of worship and reflection, but I usually try to do the early morning one and the evening one.  It is a good time for me to be disciplined for the long spiritual haul. 

I don’t mind the idea of a long spiritual haul.  If this were not the case, it would mean that I soon would be dead or would have given up the spiritual journey.  I am in no hurry for the one and want to avoid the other.  So I am quite content with the long spiritual haul---with its consolations and desolations.

When I read the Psalm text for Vespers---Psalm 137---I thought of the desolations that come with bad days.  I immediately recognized the context for the opening verses of that Psalm.  I know enough biblical history to know the historical context was the Babylonian Exile.  During this period in the 6th century B.C.E., the leaders and some people of Israel had been driven from their homeland and into exile in Babylon---modern day Iraq.  This would have been a hard time for the Israelites.  It must have been a series of bad days.

Let’s listen to the words of the Psalmist as those days are recounted.  The Psalmist opens the Psalm by saying “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (137:1)  These are the words of a forlorn group of people.  Notice the “we” language.  It is not just one sad guy.  It is a group of people in a period of desolation---a series of bad days.

So what does one do on a bad day?  Of course, you give up music and merry-making.  The Psalmist says “On the willows there we hung up our harps.” (137:2)  I had to smile.  That’s a great way to respond to a bad day: you just hang up the harp!  When you are sad or tied or feeling defeated, you certainly don’t feel like playing music, singing and having a good old time.

The Psalmist continues in that Psalm to talk about how the captors made fun of the Israelites and asked for music.  And so it is with our bad days.  Often we are not left alone to have a bad day.  Our society is too often (and perversely) preoccupied with “having a good time.”  No sadness is allowed.  If you don’t feel well, fake it.  Let the music roll.

People have bad days.  I value the old spiritual language of “melancholy.”  It does mean God has abandoned you.  We do, indeed, live East of Eden---outside of Paradise.  Life is not perfect, but it can be spiritual.  Relax, hang up your harp and just realize there is no need for music on bad days.  God be with us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Papal Questions

Recently, I encountered a publication that is offering some quotations from Pope Francis.  I gather it is a quote-of-the-day sort of thing.  Since I very much like the current Pope, I have begun reading these with some interest.  I like the way he thinks about things.  Since his upbringing and background are very different from mine, he often looks at things in a fresh way for my perspective.
   
I would like to choose one quotation and work with it.  It happened to be the one at the front of a list, so there was nothing special in it that made me choose it.  But one of the things about discipline that seems true to me is we have to stick to it.  One of the buzz words today is persistence.  I believe persistence is probably little more than commitment plus discipline.  It is staying with a thing even if you might not want to do it some particular day.  Persistence is normally the key to any kind of success.
   
Pope Francis notes, "How often we say: 'I must change, I can't go on like this … My life, on this path, will not bear fruit, it will be a useless life and I will not be happy'. How often these thoughts come to us. … And Jesus by our side, with His hand outstretched, says to us, 'Come, come to me. I will do the work: I will change your heart, I will change your life, I will make you happy.’ … Jesus is with us and invites us to change our life. It is He, with the Holy Spirit, Who sows in us this restlessness, to change our life and to become a little better.”  Let’s unpack this rich passage.
   
The Pope begins with a phrase I often have thought or even used.  “I must change.”  Any of us who don’t have perfect lives probably have thought this.  It can range from losing weight to becoming more spiritual.  Often it is like New Year’s resolutions.  We say we want to change, but we never really make much effort and nothing happens.  We resonate with the Pope when we lament, “I can’t go on like this.”  But we do go on like this.  We kill our future by inattention or inaction today.
   
Countless people feel like the current path of their lives bear no fruit.  Life feels useless, pointless and there is no happiness.  People hope to become happy; they want to be happy.  But it is more like wishing to be lucky.  We do nothing to begin to stack the deck of happiness in our favor.  We want to be happy, but we continue to walk the path of futility.  We know it won’t work, but we keep hoping it will.  And it is precisely at this point the Pope becomes religious.
   
The Pope introduces Jesus.  I am confident Pope Francis thinks Jesus is always the one who comes to our help.  Jesus is not a magic man.  I am ok with Jesus doing miracles, but the miracle typically is not the miracle we want.  We confuse magic and miracles.  Magic is quick, entertaining, amazing and seemingly effortless.  No wonder we want magic.  We want Jesus, the magician, to go “poof” and amazingly change our situation.  But Jesus is more the miracle worker.
   
Jesus works the miracle of telling us to come.  What a powerful invitation.  The invitation to come means we are not alone and we don’t have to work our own miracle.  Jesus says he will change our heart.  He will change our life.  Literally, we could not ask for more.  A change of heart is a total re-orientation.  I prefer to call it transformation.  We may well be heading to hell and Jesus offers a new possibility of happiness.  That is a miracle.  It is a miracle because it is a gift.  We could not do it by ourselves.  We may even have tried to gut it out.  And then comes grace. 
   
Without delving deeply into the theology of the Pope’s thoughts, I do like how he links Jesus with the Spirit.  He sees Jesus as co-presence with the Spirit.  This makes sense to me.  I have a powerful sense of the presence of the Spirit.  For me the Spirit is how Jesus is present and available today.  But because it seems very difficult to “see” the Spirit and any evidence of the Spirit’s work, folks normally dismiss this miraculous possibility of new life and happiness.  Most of us feel left to our own efforts.  No wonder we are unhappy.
   
I understand much of this may seem too preachy.  It may sound too easy or too good to be true.  And if we think this, we probably will discount and dismiss any help and healing the Spirit offers.  Too often, I have been guilty of this.  What I appreciate about the Pope’s quotation is the reminder that I am not alone in this journey through life.  Culturally, it seems many Americans think life is whatever we make of it. 
   
While at one level, this is true.  I cannot have someone else live my life.  That is a recipe for unhappiness and disaster.  But I can recognize that God does join me in this life.  I did not create myself and ultimately I am not fully in charge of life.  God joins me in life through the presence of the Spirit.  Ultimately, the Spirit is both the Source and resource of happiness and wholeness.  The story of Jesus is the personalization of what a Spirit-filled life looks like. 
   
That’s what the Pope tells me.  And it makes sense to me.
  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Case for Interconnectivity

Sometimes I read something simply because of the person who wrote the piece.  It is typical for humans to have their preferences.  Some people like specific musical groups.  Others are drawn to particular artists.  I am a person who likes specific authors.  In fact, I have a number of favorite authors.  There are the obvious favorites like the late monk, Thomas Merton.  He is pretty famous, which means many people know him.  Another favorite of mine is Paul Knitter.  Knitter has just retired from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  He is a long-time professor and scholar who is not as famous as folks like Merton.  But he has had a long, distinguished career shaping the  ways young folks think about life and their world.

Knitter was one of the earlier people involved in the ecumenical and interfaith conversations.  When I say ecumenical, primarily I mean the interaction and dialogue among different Christian traditions.  When I am involved ecumenically, it means I take my own Quaker perspective into conversation with Catholics, Southern Baptists---liberals and evangelicals.  The ecumenical dialogue recognizes that we are all in the Christian camp, but also recognize it is a pretty diverse camp.

When I talk about interfaith, I am referring to the interaction and conversations among adherents of the major faith traditions of the world.  It may be a dialogue of Christians, Jews, and Buddhists.  Or it may involve Hindus and Muslims.  We can think of the Jains or Sikhs and, then, get into even lesser known religious traditions.  Obviously, the interfaith interaction can be even more complicated than ecumenical dialogues. 

Paul Knitter has been a key player in this interfaith world because he is so clear about his own Christian heritage.  But he is also radically open and irenic---that is, he very much wants to hear and understand the other’s perspective and to deal with that (often different) perspective in a gentle and peaceful manner.  He brings respect and dignity to the conversation.

So it was that I was drawn to a piece he wrote that was entitled, “Are Buddhism and Science Incompatible?”  (It would be easy to ask the same question about Christianity, Judaism or any other religious tradition.)  I will say upfront that Knitter does believe they are compatible.  But I am not really interested in that argument.  I am more interested in a portion of his writing where he is talking about interconnectivity.  Interconnectivity is an idea from Buddhism that I really like.

Essentially, interconnectivity is the idea that basically all of life is connected.  On the surface, it looks like you are an individual and so am I.  And of course, on the surface that is true.  But at a much deeper level we are ultimately one---unity is the fundamental essence of the world.  This unity becomes, then, the goal of life---the end of the world.  Buddhism offers a roadmap, as it were, to travel this path to interconnectivity.  I think Christianity has its own version, but that is a story for another day.

Let’s listen as Knitter talks about this.  He says, “Buddha in his wisdom calls us to realize that our deepest happiness consists not in living as individuals but as co-participants in a pervasive, ever-changing interconnectedness.”  That is a pregnant statement that I find powerfully promising.  Who does not want to opt for “our deepest happiness?”  Knitter says it is realized by becoming a “co-participant in a pervasive, ever-changing interconnectedness.”  In street language I think we say, “we’re in this together!”

The spiritual journey is the journey together.  I have my own spiritual work to do---growth and development---and you do, too.  But we’re in it together.  This leads to the next piece from Knitter.  “To really live interconnectedly would mean “the eradication of the selfish gene.”  That is powerful.  Probably most of us are not going around thinking about our selfish gene.  But I know too much of my action betrays the fact that I do have this selfish gene.  Spiritual growth and development in the interconnectivity direction will eradicate this gene.  Good riddance!

I complete my quoting of Knitter with these encouraging spiritual words.  He says, “It would tell us, as many contemporary evolutionary biologists are now arguing, that the “fittest” who survive are not the most selfish but the most cooperative. The compassionate gene can replace the selfish gene.”  I am relieved that the spiritual blueprint of the universe may not ultimately be “the survival of the fittest.”  I am delighted that cooperation may be the bottom line instead of competition.

The thought of my selfish gene being replaced with a compassionate gene is thrilling.  If that happens for me, it happens for you, too.  Clearly, we are not there yet.  The world experiences too much conflict to say compassion has the upper hand.  That is the spiritual development we all need to engage and execute.  But it is exciting to see what is possible.  I find the case for interconnectivity compelling.  Now on to the work!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Key to Life

As I have mentioned so many times, when serendipity comes my way, I am delighted.  I always feel so lucky when serendipity hits.  I feel good when I recognize that serendipity has just graced my life.  Sometimes I wonder how many times I miss something that is serendipitous, just because I failed to notice it?

This time serendipity came in the form of a John Lennon quotation.  I like John Lennon and the Beatles, but I was never a huge fan.  The quotation from Lennon did not even come from some music.  Instead it came rather innocently in some regular mailings that I receive.  Often I do not even read those things.  For whatever reason, this time I read it and Lennon’s words leaped out at me.  I am thankful.

I also am curious, so I did some research.  It seems that it is pretty dubious that Lennon ever said the words I am about to quote.  But I don’t care.  It is not important to me that they be from him…or anyone else famous.  I also find some folks online don’t like the sentiment in the quotation.  But I don’t care about that either!  Let’s see what he reputedly said.

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down, ‘happy.’  They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”  These words may not be profound, but I find them interesting and worth giving some reflection.

When I was five, I am not sure what my mother told me.  If she told me anything like this, it did not register.  I don’t remember.  My guess is she did not get into philosophy when I was five.  I also don’t remember my dad telling me anything like this.  I do remember him telling me always to thank people when they gave me something, helped me or were nice.  That may not be the key to life, but it has been an important lesson I learned very well.

I would like to pick out two features of the quotation for reflection.  The first aspect is whether happiness is, indeed, the key to life.  I am sure there is a majority---perhaps a huge majority---who would say that happiness is the key to life.  I could imagine John Lennon’s mother saying that.  But personally, I am less sure happiness is the key to life.

I am not against happiness.  In fact, I like very much to be happy.  Somehow I don’t think happiness has staying power.  It is more momentary---more episodic.  Happiness comes and goes.  It is like a good laugh.  I love a good laugh.  But it does not last.  So I am not really sure happiness can be the key to life.  If not happiness, then what is the key to life?

I doubt there is one agreed-upon answer to this.  But for me, the key to happiness has to be love.  Love is a powerful emotion.  However, it is more than an emotion.  It is a state of being.  It is an attitude.  It is a commitment and, finally, a way of life.  Love has depth and breadth in a way that happiness does not have.  Love is both practical and luxurious.  The greatest of all is love. 

The second aspect of the quotation for reflection has to do with understanding life.  I don’t know about John Lennon, but I surely did not understand life at age five.  I am not sure I yet understand life!  But I’m working on it.  The one thing I do understand about life is that love is the key.  And if happiness happens, that is very good. 

One way I try to approach the issue of understanding life is to differentiate “life” from “existence.”  If you have a heart beating in your chest, if you take food, etc., you exist.  Existence is basic.  It is good, but not valuable.  Existence is possibility without realization.  It is potential without any profundity.  Understanding life surely means more than existence.

To begin to understand life means we realize that we exist, but we set forth to come to terms with the fact that we are valuable.  This happens many ways.  I may realize that I am a child of God and that God loves me.  That makes me valuable.  I may begin to love others.  I make them valuable.  To do these kinds of things actualizes the possibilities I bring to life. 

To understand life is to engage life in such a way that I develop my potentiality.  Every one of us has the potential to be profoundly human and profoundly spiritual.  We have the profundity of existing in the image of God.  And we can develop the potential to become God-like.  We can love and grow that love into compassion for all those in the world with less than we have.

The key to life: love, compassion and becoming like God.  That’s what I understand.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nostalgia: For the Good Times

I certainly don’t want to mistake the New York Times or Fox News Network for the Gospel.  But there is good news in secular media---these two sources and many others.  I am delighted to read and appropriate good news wherever I can get it.  Some good news is inherently good.  It is good news for whoever finds it.  Other times, good news becomes good news when I am able to apply it to my situation.  One such example just happened for me.

I was reading the daily newspaper.  That is not novel.  I read about four newspapers daily---either in hard copy or online.  I like to be informed and I think I am basically curious---or nosy!  I like to know what’s going on, even though most of the time it probably does not affect my life in any significant way.  And so it was that I turned to an article about nostalgia.

It seemed like it could be interesting.  Anyone my age has experienced nostalgia---a memory, perhaps, longing for some piece or version of the past.  I began reading without much expectation that I would get anything out of the article except for some information.  I had no clue that nostalgia could be as important as it apparently is.  And I had little clue that it had some interesting spiritual implications.

The story opens by talking about a university professor who had just left the University of North Carolina for a job at the University in Southampton, England.  Dr. Constantine Sedikides met with one of his new colleagues and talked about his recent, powerful experiences of nostalgia of his Chapel Hill days.  He fondly shared stories of Tar Heel sports events, southern food, etc.  His colleague suggested he was depressed---sad at having “lost” all those previous Carolinian ties.

But it was not depression.  It was nostalgia.  And this pulled me on into the article and some fascinating awareness of contemporary research into the nature and function of nostalgia.  The first point made underscored the positive function of nostalgia.  Sedikides noted, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity.  It made me feel good about myself and my relationships.  It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”  There are some amazing contentions within this quotation.

I like the link between nostalgia and the twin ideas of roots and continuity.  I am sure there is a relationship between having roots and having meaning in life.  If this relationship can be sustained over time, i.e. continuity, then we have a chance for meaning in life, rather than just a meaningful event.  Nostalgia makes people feel good about themselves and their relationships. 

This seems very true to me.  I look back over my life and think about the key relationships that I have been privileged to have, and I feel very rich.  Nostalgia is a past vindicator of the future I can yet have.  Feeling good about myself yesterday enables me to engage tomorrow with confidence.  As the article says, nostalgia gives texture to my life.  Texture is a “feel” for myself, others and things in general.  With this texture comes strength. 

I like the way Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University puts it.  “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function…It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”  Who does not want to be a valued person with a meaningful life?  This is where I am drawn to the link to spirituality.  It would be a good beginning definition of spirituality to talk about becoming a valued person who achieves a meaningful life.

I suggest that spiritual experiences can become building blocks of spiritual nostalgia.  Spirituality is not simply an “in the moment” fling with God.  There certainly are those kinds of moments.  I recall times of being at the ocean when I had a deep sense of God’s immense Presence.  I think about the birth of my two girls and associate those to the Profoundest Mystery of the universe.  Those were events, but I can remember them.  And when I ponder them, I can be nostalgic for the deep truth and meaning they convey.  The nostalgia begins to do its spiritual wonder.

Two other features of nostalgia remind me of the spiritual potential of it.  Nostalgia, we are told, “has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.”  Counteracting loneliness, boredom and anxiety is also what I experience when the power of the Spirit is within me.  If I truly have a Friend in God, I am not going to be lonely; I won’t be bored and have no reason for anxiety.

With nostalgia I do not even need to have this experience every day.  Once I have had experiences with God then I can remember.  I can even be nostalgic---and I am full of joy, strong, generous to strangers, etc.  What a great gift.  What good news---for the good times!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thoughts on the Incarnation

I have finished reading the wonderful book by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.  As I have indicated, Delio is a Franciscan Sister.  That appeals to me, since I deeply appreciate Franciscan spirituality.  I have often told people, the Franciscans are the closest thing to Quakers one can find within the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll save that comparison for another day.

The other thing I very much appreciate about Delio is the fact that she is a trained, knowledgeable scientist.  She knows what she is talking about when it comes to evolution, genetic development, etc.  Because of rapidity of scientific knowledge, I feel very uninformed, despite my attempts to read widely.  Delio does a great job of being knowledgeable scientifically and theologically.  It is like she is bilingual.  I am a theological monolingual

An area that she has helped me re-think some of my personal theology is the incarnation.  The incarnation has been central to my own theology since graduate school days.  Maybe it is because I like John’s Gospel and, perhaps, because I am a Quaker, but the incarnation is central.  That does not discount the Easter story and its powerful influence on western Christianity.  It still has meaning for me.  Maybe it is because I did a doctoral dissertation on a Greek Father of the Church that I have always been attracted to and formed by the Orthodox Tradition. 

The key New Testament text for the incarnation is John 1:14.  If you know anything about the Fourth Gospel, that verse is in the Prologue.  The Prologue begins with John imitating the opening verses of Genesis.  John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (1:1)  The key idea here is the focus on the “Word.”  It is important for the Fourth Gospel that we understand the Word was there in the beginning before the creation of the world.  And we also need to understand that the Word in some sense is God or divine.  And then, we can appreciate the power of the 14th verse, when John affirms that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”  Another way of saying this is to acknowledge that God became human.  That is the incarnation.

Literally, the Latin word, carnis, means “flesh.”  Hence the incarnation means God’s “enfleshment” or “embodiment.”  Now I can choose one line from Delio’s book about the incarnation and show how it informs my thinking in this inspirational piece.  Delio comments on the incarnation.  “The self-emptying of God into everyday life is what the Incarnation is about.  God becomes ‘nothing’ so as to appear as something, a human person.” (118)  Delio has a fairly simply, but actually profound definition of the incarnation.

The incarnation is God’s self-emptying.  This is her way of understanding John’s Gospel that “The Word became flesh.”  It does not mean God ceased being God.  But God self-emptied.  Look closely at her first sentence.  God self-emptied into everyday life.  This sets her up to offer what is, on the surface, a paradoxical statement.  God becomes “nothing” in order to become “something.”  In Christian terms, the “something” God becomes is Jesus. 

When Delio says God becomes nothing, she is not denying that God exists.  This is what the “death of God” theologians in the 1960s and 70s wanted to argue.  Rather, what Delio is suggesting is to focus on the fact that God wants to become something.  The “something” that God becomes is particular.  The God of the universe (Genesis creation account) is the non-specific God who is responsible for everything that is and will come to be.  And that expansive, inclusive and infusive God wants also to particularize.  And the particularization we call Jesus.  

The incarnation is this “nothing to something” move God made.  The story of Jesus is unique---he uniquely incarnates the creative God of Genesis.  But Delio is also convinced that the incarnation is not simply a story about Jesus---as important as that is.  The story of the incarnation is an ongoing story of particularization.  What this means in simple terms is that God also chooses to become nothing in order to become something in each one of us.  Now I certainly have no illusion that I am Jesus.  He incarnates and lives out of the fullness of God in a way that I have surely not done.  I am no one’s savior!

The incarnation is so important to me because it is a statement about God’s involvement and God’s participation.  God dearly wants to be “in it” with us.  And so, God becomes human.  God becomes particular and, if you will, normal.  If I try to put Delio’s perspective in funny terms, I would say God chose to be abnormal in order to be normal, like us.  And Jesus models the normality of being human.  Of course, he does it better than I am doing.  But he shows it is possible.

Thinking about the incarnation is this fashion is both challenging and reassuring.  It is a challenge because it suggests and shows that I also can do it.  God also chooses to particularize in me and in you.  We can’t simply shrug our shoulders and let Jesus do the heavy spiritual lifting.  We have to put our hand to the task of infusing the world with the love of God which John’s Gospel affirms in a different well-known passage: “God so loved the world…” (3:16)

I am reassured that I can do it, because Jesus could do it.  And God is with me, too.  That’s how I am thinking on the incarnation. 




Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Freedom and Control

I was reading the Psalm selection that was from the Compline service that monks participate in every night.  Compline is the final time the monastic community comes together before they retire for the night.  The focus for Compline usually is on thankfulness for the day, gratitude for the night’s rest that is coming.  Compline typically acknowledges we will be in the hands of God as we spend the night in sleep.  
Even when I am with one of the more rigorous monastic traditions, like the Trappists monks who counted Thomas Merton among them, Compline is probably my favorite.  The Trappists gather for worship seven times during the day, in addition to the daily Mass.  When I am with them, I am very aware of how differently these multiple worships times shape my day compared to a normal day when I am on my own.  The monks structure their day so that it alternates the flow of the day between worship and work.  I like that rhythm.

Every one of the times of worship, some of them are fairly short---fifteen minutes or so---use some readings from the Psalms.  I also like this.  As I grew up going to church, I now know there was no intentionality to how the Bible was used.  For some Protestants, the passages pastors choose to develop sermons, etc., may have little pattern or rationale.  In the Catholic tradition and some Protestant traditions, a lectionary is used.  A lectionary is a guided set of readings.  For example, every Catholic Church in the land will use the same passages at any particular Mass.  

A monastic community works its way through all one-hundred and fifty Psalms every two weeks!  No wonder monks know the Psalms in a way I never will.  But I value my exposure to this use of Psalms and appreciate the positive benefit it has on my own spiritual life.  And so dutifully, I try to follow the lectionary of the monastic community.  And so it was, a recent evening’s Compline included the one hundred forty-third Psalm.  

A particular line in that Psalm stood out to me as I slowly read through the entire Psalm.  The Catholic translation I was using quotes Psalm 143:8 this way: “Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.”  I chose to look up a different translation, namely, the NRSV.  It quotes the same passage in this fashion: “Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”  Looking at these two different translations of the original Hebrew shows why we need to be careful when we use an English translation.  We get a good idea the meaning, but we can take it literally.  

For example, one passage mentions God’s “will.”  The other translation calls it “the way I should go.”  Obviously, these are similar and understandable, since I am making such a big deal out of it.  But imagine if I go to Catholic Mass some Sunday, I would be sure I heard a reference to God’s will in the scripture readings for the day.  In a Protestant worship, the same passage might be used from the NRSV, and the Protestant worshipper would claim never to have heard any reference to God’s will.  Same idea; different language.

Let’s focus for the moment on the first half of that quotation.  The one passage petitions God to “teach me to do your will.”  If I were not paying attention, I would probably assume it said, “teach me your will.”  But no.  The petition is that God teach me to do the will.  Presupposed in this is the fact that I already would know God’s will.  What the Psalmist suspects is usually true: I may know God’s will, but choose not to do it.  In many cases in my life, I have known the right thing to do.  I simply didn’t do it!

The NSRV translation is a little different focus, but clearly in the same direction.  Again, the petition is to be taught by God.  The Psalmist asks God to teach “the way I should go.”  Once more, the emphasis is dynamic.  The implication is I should be going somewhere---doing something.  But it is more specific than that.  I should be going the way God wants me to go.  I laugh at the impact this would have on us if we took it seriously.  It would do away from my own egocentric insistence that “I do whatever I want to do.”  No wonder no egocentric person can take this stuff seriously!

Basically what is at stake is control and freedom.  To be in relationship with God means that I begin to tamp down my own egocentric will.  In the beginning at least, this feels like giving up my freedom.  The other way to look at it is from the control perspective.  Good, individualistic Americans are usually not in favor of giving up control of their lives---to any other person or God.  We are afraid we will be made to do things we don’t want to do.  We like being in charge of our lives.

Of course, this is ultimately an illusion.  For sure, it can feel like I am in charge of my life.  I choose my breakfast food, etc.  But I am not in charge of some basics of life---for example, whether I die or, even, get sick.  I have some freedoms, but not ultimate freedom.  Finally, I think this is good and even something for which to be grateful.  But this takes some spiritual development to get there.


At the deepest level, I have learned, God is in control and I am grateful.