Thursday, February 28, 2013

Friends Who Sing

I enjoy reading Thomas Merton.  In many ways Merton’s life is so different than my life.  And yet so much of what he says makes sense to me.  And so often what he says helps me think about my own life and how I am trying to make sense out of my life.  I suspect Merton speaks to so many people because he experienced so much in his life.  Merton lived through both big wars of the 20th century and, then, was active through the Vietnam War.  He was an unlikely person to join a rigorist monastery in the middle of Kentucky.  But again, he made that experience something that spoke to people well beyond a Catholic monastery.  And he still speaks to people long after his untimely death in 1968.
           
In a very real sense I consider Merton a friend.  I never met him, although I do know and am friends with people who did know him.  I think the idea of friendship is a good way to enter the world of spirituality.  Friendships are relationships that reveal so much about who we are, what we think, and to what we aspire.
           
I am sure my take on friendships is what made me stop abruptly when I read the following line from Merton’s book, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander.  Merton wrote,
"There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know.  A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other (Cor ad cor loquitur---heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing)."  These words rang true to my experience.  I began to think about the people I have met in the books I have read.  Merton counts as one such person who fits this quotation.
           
All of us have met a large number of people either in real life or in the books and other things we have read.  I wonder how many different people I have read on my way to getting a doctoral degree so that I could teach?  It must be thousands.  I have observed countless people in my life.  I have met many of those folks.  And I even have come to know quite a healthy number of people.  Add these to all the authors I have read and the number has to be quite large.
           
But then there is another, much smaller, number of people.  These are the ones with whom Merton says there is a deep resonance.  As he wrote, there is a deep resonance of our own being with the entire being of the other.  I can think of a few people who fit this experience.  I like the word and the idea of “resonance.”  To resonate means there is a harmony---a synchronicity.
           
Merton puts it well when he moves to the Latin phrase, cor ad cor loquitur---“heart speaks to heart.”  I recognized immediately that he was referring to the coat of arms for John Henry Cardinal Newman, a nineteenth English churchman.  Newman was one of Merton’s favorite figures.  That is a great way to express the deep resonance that happens between two people who meet soulfully.
           
However, it is how Merton elaborates this, which I find intriguing.  Heart speaks to heart, says Merton, in the wholeness of the language of music.  It is interesting to think about music having “language.”  Certainly music does speak to us.  And the kind of music that speaks “heart to heart” provides the language of this deeply resonating experience of two people meeting at the level of soul.
           
Then Merton finishes the amazing sentence when he says that true friendship is a kind of singing.  When I read this, I had a double response.  On the one hand, I felt like I knew exactly what he was talking about.  I have true friendships where there was a kind of singing.  And that is said by one with little musical talent!  But the resonance and relationship of this spiritual friendship was musical---it was a kind of singing.  On the other hand, I was not sure I had a clue what Merton meant.  True friendship is a kind of singing.  What does he mean?a
           
What I do know is singing is so much richer that merely speaking.  Singing adds melody and tonality to the true friendship.  Probably the common language on the street talks about people “being on the same page.”  That is such a bland way of putting a relationship.  Compare that to Merton’s idea of true friendship is a kind of singing and we see the difference.
           
I understand true friendship in two ways.  In the first place true friendship characterizes the relationship Christians have with Jesus or with the Divinity Itself.  It is not without reason Jesus called those disciples “friends.”  In this sense true friendship is spiritual friendship with God.  And surely this is characterized well by a kind of singing. 

The other understanding of true friendship is the relationship that many of us are graced to have with other spiritual people.  I can count a few people who have graced my life in this way.  We have a deep resonance that can only be called soulful.  There is a spiritual harmony that results from our soulful relationship.  When we are together, we are indeed friends who sing.
             
           

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Importance of Image

I try to follow various people I respect to see what kinds of things they are doing with regards to spirituality.  One of the people I respect is Richard Rohr.  While I don’t agree with everything he writes, I find his Franciscan spirit resonates with my Quaker spirit.  He and I are about the same age, so it makes it easy to understand some of his concerns and issues.  Neither one of us deals with teenage problems any more!

He has the ability to look at a common issue and see it in a way I might not ever look at it.  Perhaps some of that is due to our different backgrounds and experience.  I recall Rohr talks some about growing up in Kansas.  That might not be too different than growing up in rural Indiana.  But he also talks about his caring German, Roman Catholic family.  My family certainly was caring enough.  I have no complaints on that score.  But growing up a Quaker in pre-Vatican II world surely is quite different.  My family was fairly regular in church attendance on Sunday morning, but that was about it when it came to religious evidence in our lives.  In retrospect I would say that we were good, but I am not sure we were Christian in the way I might define it today.  But I am sure my parents would have said they were Christian.  And that brings me to the words from Rohr with which I connect.

In one of his meditation pieces Rohr says, “Your image of God creates---or defeats you.”  That is a pretty powerful line.  Any time someone talks about defeating me, that person gets my attention!  I don’t mind the creating part---that actually is quite good.  That sounds positive and I am all for positive!  But defeating is less attractive.  In fact, I have gone to some lengths at times to avoid defeat.

For Rohr to tie my creating and defeating to my image of God is a bold step, but I might not be sure how that works.   So the next line Rohr writes helps in my understanding.  He adds that, “There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe.”  Once again, I find this very intriguing.  Not only does Rohr say there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself.  Rohr says this is an absolute connection.  I understand that to me the connection between these two is fail proof---guaranteed, he might confirm. 

At first blush I realize I probably never thought about whether there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself.  I am sure many folks would be quick to doubt or, even, deny this contention of Rohr.  But that likely would be nothing more than a defensive move.  I suspect most of us think we have a pretty accurate view of ourselves.  We feel like we know ourselves pretty well.  And I also suspect that we assume that our view of ourselves resonates very closely with how others see us, too.  So we have an honest and accurate view of ourselves.  Finally most of us probably do not think this self-view has much or anything to do with how we see God.

“Wrong,” says Rohr!  Let’s add one final sentence to see how Rohr wants to make his point.  He says that, “The word ‘God’ first of all is a stand-in for everything---reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe.”  I can imagine some people saying, “that’s not my view of God!”  I am not quick to dismiss Rohr.  I think that he is on to something. 

I do think how we view reality is linked to our view of God.  For example, if I think the world is orderly, friendly, etc., then I certainly connect this with God.  The idea of truth is even easier for me.  Most believers would latch on to that New Testament idea that God is truth---indeed, truth with a capital “T.”  As such, God is the shape of my universe. 

And this is where Rohr is sneaky and a real challenge.  If there is an absolute connection between how I view God and how I view myself, then my whole being is at stake---I am either created or defeated.  However, I wonder if Rohr might not have it reversed.  I wonder if the real sequence is not this way: the way I see myself is absolutely connected to the way I see God?  I think this is probably true, although it may be difficult to see or admit.

If I am honest, I think it is true for me.  And I am also sure I would not have seen this in my earlier life.  I would have assumed God is quite different than I am.  But the longer I have lived and experienced life, the more I think I do see the absolute connection between my self-view and how I see God.  And now my real task is to make sure that I see both myself and God in such a light to make this whole process creative.

I want to view my God as a caring, loving Spirit, which is at work in the world to bring justice and inaugurate a realm of peace and joy.  And I want just as much to view myself in the same way---to be involved in a ministry of care and love.  I want to be involved in the creative process of bringing justice and being a harbinger of peace and joy






Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just Pushing Rocks

I read an interesting recent article in an online newspaper.  It was written by Bill Keller, a regular writer for the New York Times.  Keller wrote about a book of poetry which was published.  Apparently the poetry is not all that good, but the story behind the poetry is wonderful.  Hence, it is really a story about John Borling.  Keller puts the story in its context when he says, “Borling’s poems were tapped out in code, letter by letter, on the walls of a wretched cell in Hanoi during his six and a half years as a prisoner of war.”

Maybe I am interested in this simply because the story comes from the period of my youth and concerns “my war.”  Sadly it seems, every American generation has “their war.”  My war happened to be the Vietnam War.  I never was sent to Vietnam, so I cannot talk first hand about the experience.  I certainly know quite a few people who went and I have shared vicariously some of their experiences.
I cannot imagine being in a prison camp anywhere for six years.  That he survived and is sane today is a testament to two miracles. Let’s listen to some details of the story, as it will lead to some spiritual lessons.

I was fascinated by the code to write the poems.  It was a code that could be shared in “words” that were spelled out by knocks on the wall.  Keller gives us the code that Borling used:

        1. A B C D E
        2. F G H I J
        3. L M N O P
        4. Q R S T U
        5. V W X Y Z

The code worked in this way.  Let’s say you want to “write” the word “bad.”  The letter “b” is line one, second letter.  So that would be 1.2.  The “a” is 1.1 and “d” is 1.4.  This is simple, but clever.  And apparently Borling and others committed these poems to memory and now they are in this book.
Borling came home in 1973.  In 2004 he ran for the senate seat in Illinois, but was beaten soundly by Barak Obama!  He has had other ventures in life that seemed like good ideas at the time, but for a variety of reasons came to no good end.  I like how Keller concludes this part of the story.  “Viewed one way, as Borling will be the first to tell you, his life is a series of defeats.”  This should resonate with some of us.  Not everyone I know would say life has been wonderful---with no setbacks.  We may not have served time in Hanoi Hilton, but we have had our own prisons.

Apparently one of Borling’s favorite literary pieces is Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.”  I know this story.  The Greek hero is condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of a mountain, only to quite make it, have it roll down and start all over again.  Undaunted, Borling says, “My view is that our job is to get the rock up and over the hill. And once you do, the rock rolls down the other side, and what do you see? You see another hill. The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.”  I laughed out loud!

I thought about it more and figure that he might be correct.  Spiritually I would say that life is service.  Service is like rolling the rock up the hill or mountain.  The real question is not whether you succeed, but did you serve?  That is what Jesus and all the other major religious figures ask us to do.  Ask Mother Theresa in her Calcutta slum!  Did she succeed or did she simply serve?

In some ways this is un-American.  We always seem to want to win.  We want success and anything less is a loser!  But spirituality and service are measured in different ways.  I am not sure Jesus felt like a winner or a success as he hung on a cross.  For all intents and purposes, the Romans had won!

I think Borling and other spiritual sages are correct.  The essence of life is really just pushing rocks.  This gives me pause.  What is my rock or my rocks?  Am I pushing them?    That is what God asks---just keep pushing the rocks.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Holy Curiosity

Even though I grew up on a farm in Indiana and spent a great deal of time outside, I would not say I am as attuned to nature as one might expect.  In some ways it is a little disappointing to realize this and admit it.  Of course when I was outside, I was surely aware of the weather.  If it is raining, you don’t need a very high IQ to know it is raining!  Awareness of the weather, however, does not mean you are generally aware of nature.
           
Every time I come back to Annie Dillard’s great book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I am reminded of my off-and-on relationship with nature.  I realize again how much I miss on a walk across campus.  I lament at how unconscious I apparently am so much of the time.  At one level, this is sad because it means I am capable of so much more.  At another level, it is funny.  It is funny because I sometimes think I am fairly aware and, then, realize perhaps I am not as aware as I think I am.  Another good opportunity for some humility!  Whenever I have the opportunity for some humility, at least I am on a spiritual track again.
           
Near the end of a chapter called, “Spring,” Dillard quotes Einstein.  I have never double-checked the quotation, so I hope he said it.  If he did not, then whoever said it has a good idea.  “Never lose a holy curiosity,” said Einstein. (122)  Clearly, the key word here is “curiosity.”  Let’s look at this idea and see how it fits within spirituality.
           
If you were to look up that word in a dictionary, you would find that curiosity means a desire to know something or to find out something.  A curious person is an inquisitive person.  I would like to think that most people are curious to an extent.  If we watch children, they seem pretty curious by nature.  The will explore almost anything.  Little ones will put anything in their mouths!  Maybe that is when we begin to lose our curiosity, namely, when we outgrow the desire to put things in our mouths!
           
I think it is ok if we literally get over putting things in our mouths.  But if we see it figuratively, we need to be careful not to lose our taste for exploration.  Maybe this is the clue to what Einstein means.  If we lose our willingness to explore, then we have become settlers.  We have settled for what already is.  We declare in our own way that we are ok with the routine and the given.
           
That is not bad.  Typically, there is nothing wrong with the given and our routine.  More than most people, perhaps, I am a person who values routine.  But if I settle for the routine as all there is, then I have lost something important in my life.  I have lost the possibility for the novel---the new.  I have lost the chance for the different.  There is nothing wrong with sameness---I value that.  But there is more; there is always difference.
           
Curiosity is a quest.  It is an inquisitiveness for the novel and the different.  It is a free choice.  Voluntarily my curiosity opens me to a world that is more interesting, more complex, more beguiling that I ever imagined.  I hope I never get to the place where I say, “I don’t care.”  If I do, I probably have admitted that I am finished growing as a human being.  I think we were created for growth.  Curiosity is the divine implanted grow impulse.
           
Having said that, I realize I have just introduced the opening to talk about the adjective Einstein used, namely, “holy.”  “Never lose a holy curiosity,” he said.  I like the way he puts it.  I can understand his use of “holy” in a couple ways.  I have already indicated one way we can understand “holy curiosity.”  This holy curiosity is the divinely implanted impulse to grow and deepen as human beings.  I have already indicated that I could be much more attentive when I am in nature.  I could let nature teach me so much more about myself and about my God, the Creator of this amazing world and the unfathomable universes.  To settle for my routine and the given in my life is sadly to settle for so little.  I have a God to discover and I too often settle for my own little world and my own sorry self.
           
The other way we can understand “holy curiosity” is to see our curiosity to be wired to desire to know God.  We are naturally inquisitive for the Divine.  We would be idiots to assume that we are the center of the universe.  Any sane person knows that the egocentric person has it all wrong.  The trouble is, being egocentric often feels so good---so “god-like!”  Again, we would be idiots to set ourselves up as gods and not see the idolatry in doing so!
           
Our holy curiosity is designed to not fall into temptation, but deliver us to the doorstep of God Itself.  We might find that doorstop in the details and intricacies of nature.  We might find ourselves approaching the heart of God when we go deep within and find our own hearts.  Holy curiosity leads us both without---into the big world out there filled with amazing things.  And it leads us deep within---where in the words of a revered Quaker, we find “an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.”  It is there that the holy curiosity delivers us into Holiness Itself.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Path of Life

Last evening as I was doing the readings from the Benedictine lectionary for the Evening Prayer (called Compline), I was struck by one line.  It comes at the end of Psalm 16.  The Psalmist speaks to God, “You show me the path of life.” (16:11)  I appreciate the matter-of-factness in these words to God.  It is not a petition to God.  The Psalmist is not asking God to be shown the path of life. 
           
When I read it closely, however, I see there are two possibilities.  One way to read this passage is to understand the Psalmist saying, in effect, “You have shown me the path…thank you.”  This would show me the Psalmist now knows the path and needs no more instruction or revelation.  The job now is to get on with it.  In some sense it now becomes an issue of obedience.  I know the path and now I have to walk it!
           
The other possible reading is more of a process.  In this reading the Psalmist says something like, “You are showing me the path and you will continue showing me the path.”  With this reading the Psalmist acknowledges getting enough insight to begin the journey on the path.  But the whole thing has not been given.  We must start to walk the path and trust that more will be given as we traverse it.  In this sense obedience is paired with more revelation.   
           
When I read a line like this one, I often am tempted to think about how the Psalmist would have articulated it.  Where would he put the voice inflection?  Imagine with me.  Would the Psalmist emphasize the subject of the sentence, namely, God?  If this is the case, you can imagine the voice would emphasize “YOU.”  Say with me an emphatic “You!”  It is you, O God, who shows me the path.  To look at it this way means the subject---you---is the most important part of the sentence.  The emphasis is upon the actor---upon God.
           
Or it is also easy to image the emphasis is not upon the subject---upon “you”---.  Rather it might be on the verb---“show.”  This is easy for me to suspect might be true.  So many times, I tell students verbs are really important.  They are the action pieces of the sentence.  In this case the Psalmist would emphasize the verb.  You SHOW me the path.
           
Showing could be seen as a form of revelation.  Reveal to me the path, O God.  Indicate to me the way I should think and practice my faith that will take me into the fullness of the Godhead itself.  I like this emphasis.  It shows a kind of Divine care.  God is solicitous on our behalf.  Don’t worry; God will show us the path.
           
The final obvious choice for emphasis in the sentence is the direct object---the “path.”  In fact, it is not just any old path.  It is the path of life.  That prepositional phrase---“of life”---is quite important.  The Divinity Itself will reveal to us the way to live life to the fullest and to participate in the beatitudes of God’s blessings.  It is interesting to me that the Psalmist does not say, “show us the only way.”  The Psalmist simply says it is God who shows us the path of life.
           
Most of us could probably write a few paragraphs about the path of life.  For me it would have to be a spiritual path.  It would have to be a path that is good---that is virtuous.  It would be a path that is enlivening and vitalizing.  After all, it is a path of life.  This implies there are other paths that can be chosen.  There are paths that might be deadening or that might be superficial.  Meaning and purpose are not guaranteed in this life.  One has to tread an appropriate path that leads to meaning and purpose and, hence, to life.
           
The good news is God will show that path of life to us.  One more observation can be made.  God does not do this haphazardly or randomly.  God may do this “showing” to all people.  But if we look closely, the Psalmist says that God shows this path of life to me.  That is very good news!  I trust and hope you get this “showing,” too.  And perhaps we all get it in the end.
           
It is good news that I have it shown to me.  But I also realize it probably is not automatic.  I suspect that if I have not readied myself to see it, I will miss the “showing.”  And if I were not prepared to begin walking that path of life, the “showing” would have been pointless.  To see is not yet to do.  In this case it is seeing and doing.
           
This has become a powerful verse for me.  It is reassuring, but also cautionary.  It reassures me because it suggests that God is always ready to show me the path of life.  However, I also am cautious.  There are things I need to be and to do to prepare to see what is shown.  It is not as simple as flipping the switch on an electric appliance.  Rather I must flip my spiritual switch and ready my heart and mind---and then eyes to see.



   

Thursday, February 21, 2013

From Connection to Communion

I have been intrigued by the idea of rebooting the mission.  The idea may stem from the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the chance for the Roman Church to elect a new Pope.  But the idea of rebooting the mission is more comprehensive than the Catholic Church.  I think it applies to all of us in the Christian tradition.  And perhaps, it is even more widespread than that.
           
As I have given it some thought, the first thing that came to my mind was the opportunity---maybe, the need---to repackage the message.  This has been an ongoing obligation for spiritual leaders throughout the centuries.  The heart of the gospel must be presented in lucid, understandable ways to the culture in which it is proclaimed.  It does no good to proclaim a transforming message in fourth century language to a scientific, pluralistic, global 21st world.  The message is affected by the medium.
           
As I thought further, a sense of the process begin to emerge.  Let’s assume the heart of the spiritual message is one of transformation.  All humans need and desire to be transformed.  We long to be lifted out of our small, narrow lives and lured into the big picture.  We want our lives to be played out so that justice, compassion and joy are the dominant themes.  We want lives that matter and that culminate in victory.  We do not want to settle for meaningless lives that succumb to the debility of deadness.  We pine for the last word to be “Yes!”  The question is, how do we get there?
           
I would like to propose three simple and general ideas about repacking the message and redirecting the mission.  The first idea has to do with connection.  I think contemporary American culture is basically fragmented and tending toward disconnect.  This I affirm in spite of our technological advances.  Miraculously I can instantaneously send an email to China or Russia and get a response immediately.  I can be friends with 500 people on Facebook.  And yet, I can feel very alone.  Much of modern life is isolating and compartmentalizing.
           
It is easy to be with people.  It is more difficult to connect with people.  And it may even be more difficult to connect with the message of the transforming Spirit.  I put it this way for good reason.  Of course, I could tell someone to read the New Testament or to come to church and hear a sermon.  Reading and hearing are not necessarily connecting.  Connecting goes deeper.  It points to a level of engagement and, even, incarnating.  To incarnate means to take it into my flesh---into my very being.  I am sure this is exactly what Jesus did.
           
Jesus incarnated the message and, then, connected people he met with the message he incarnated.  He was the Word become flesh.  Then he went about the neighborhood and the world.  He contacted people and connected with them.  He shared the message.  It was a transforming message that liberated people (disciples) from their bondage, stuckness and addictions to the ordinary.  He communicated the possibility of the Kingdom.
           
He connected through communication, the second idea.  Communication may be a matter of words.  But when it is transformational, it is so much more than words.  Communication is more than simply sharing some words.  It is sharing the Word---the same Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus did not come to people to say, “I’ve got a few words to share with you.”  He came to share the message of radical love that leads to new life.
           
This has to become the spiritual message today.  It is not a fancier sermon.  It is not a more eloquent book.  It is a message that disorients those of us who are stuck in old patterns and old ways.  It reorients by planting us right in the middle of the kingdom.  In fact kingdom is probably the language of the old message.  The new message will likely use language of community or some better word or idea.
           
Finally, when we find ourselves in this new place, we will know that we are in the place of communion.  This is also an old word.  If the message delivers us to the kingdom---the new community---then we will be in the place where our spirits and souls are nurtured.  Spiritual communities have much competition from the secular world when it comes to nurturing souls. 
           
I suggest most people are living in a fast-food kind of world.  So many are nurturing their souls with television, the internet, junk food and the like.  People are full, but not satisfied.  Like any addict, it takes more junk to give us satisfaction.  But that satisfaction turns out not to be satisfying!  And that is a vicious cycle destined to be repeated.
           
People long for the bread of life.  That is what spiritual communion offers.  That is what spiritual communities inevitably provide.  Churches may or may not be these kinds of spiritual communities.  Providing the connection, communication and communion is the spiritual priority of our day.  It is an old message that often needs to be rebooted and repackaged.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Repackaging the Mission

I recently ran into an interesting phrase used to think about the opportunity the Roman Catholic Church was presented when the Pope resigned.  The phrase was “reboot the mission.”  I liked that phrase.  And when I pondered it, I realized this is not a Catholic opportunity alone.  It is actually an opportunity for all Christians.  And perhaps the same could be true for all the other major religious traditions, too.  Since I personally hail from the Christian tradition, I will limit these thoughts to that tradition alone.  If what I say applies more widely, then I am delighted.
           
The idea of rebooting the mission leads me to think there is nothing wrong with the mission.  Succinctly stated, the mission is to save souls.  At least this was the take by the author I was reading.  At one level, I would say this is accurate.  It is easy to read the New Testament and conclude that is what Jesus came into the world to do: save souls.  Of course, the tricky part is to determine precisely what that means.  I know that this has led to a number of conflicts and, probably, splits within the Christian family.
           
Let’s give some thought to what rebooting this mission might look like in the 21st century.  What is going to make it a compelling and attractive for people in our neighborhood and our world?  That is the missional question.
           
In the first place I would give some attention to the language.  A long time ago in the 1960s Marshall McLuhan recognized the relationship between the medium and the message.  In our focus the message is the mission: to save souls.  There are a variety of mediums (media) that can be used to “message the mission.”  For centuries the sermon has been an important---maybe the dominant---medium.  In a larger sense the sermon is part of the worship service---the Mass or other types of worship services.  This happened within a congregational setting.  People came together physically to worship and to hear the sermon.  This was the context for the message and to learn the mission.
           
This certainly remains the way it works for many in our contemporary American culture.  But statistics suggest that is working for a declining population in our country.  In this we appear to be following the trend that has characterized Europe for decades.  Does declining population going to church suggest the message and mission no longer matter?  I doubt it.
           
The dominant media for messages in our culture now would be television (perhaps also a declining population of viewers) and, certainly, the internet.  Cell phones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook and other electronic deliverers offer all sorts of messages.  The question is how does one announce the mission to save souls in one of these media?  Do I tweet someone and start the soul-saving process?
           
Again, I doubt it.  This leads me to my second point concerning rebooting the mission.  I think we probably have to change some of the ancient language and find new words, ideas and metaphors.  For example, let’s give attention to the idea of “save.”  I am sure that many people still value that word.  But I also think it carries less and less theological punch.  I do not find much evidence in the world in which I live that people are worried about being saved.  And if someone suggests that they need to be saved, they are not even sure what that means.
           
It is not certain what new language might work better.  But let me offer one possibility.  I suggest we talk about being made “whole.”  In my mind being saved is the same thing as being made whole.  But I think this new language might make more sense in our world. 
           
For example, I suspect most people do not think they are whole.  We are too busy, to bored, too superficial, too lost and too fragmented to feel like we are whole.  At the same time I think most people see “being made whole” as both possible and desirable.  Who would not want to be made whole?  The question is what that means and how does one get it or be given it?
           
Oddly enough, it is clear to me that classical Christianity offers substantial help here.  Being made whole has to do with meaning and purpose.  Without those, wholeness is a sham.  Being made whole has to do with relationship and, perhaps, community.  But if going to church is increasingly in peril, what is the 21st century alternative?
           
I don’t think the alternative is simply to try to re-create church online.  Instead we need to repackage the mission.  Part of that repackaging is the language change.  The mission is to be made whole.  For sure, the electronic media---Facebook, Twitter, tablets, etc.---can be the conduit for the message.  I offer a three step approach to this process: connect, communicate and communion.  If we can be brought to communion, we will be made whole.  More to come…
             

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reboot the Mission

When I sit down daily to read the paper (and a few online papers) or delve into a book, I don’t go in thinking that I will find something about which to write an inspirational piece.  But so often, that is the case.  Something in an article or a point in a book becomes a focal point for some reflection.  With some reflection comes a connection to an aspect of the Spirit’s presence and work in our world.  Often this inspirational piece takes on a life of its own.
           
When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, it was clear the Roman Catholic Church was heading into interesting times.  I am one of the countless non-Catholics who are quite intrigued with what will happen.  Of course, we all know that a new Pope will come along and the Church will move forward.  I am Catholic enough (being a Benedictine oblate), I care deeply how the Church will respond to the leading of the Spirit.
           
So I was nearly taken aback when I read an article online that was entitled, “Catholicism Inc.”  The author, Bill Keller, has an understanding and sympathy for the Roman Catholic Church as a spiritual entity.  But he also posed the question, what if we also understand it like a business.  Of course that is different than saying it is a business.  Seeing it like a business allowed him to borrow some business perspectives as he looked at the institution.
           
He put it like this.  He says, “the business of the church is saving souls, but it is nevertheless a business: a closely held conglomerate with a work force of more than a million, 1.2 billion more-or-less regular customers, 10 times as many outlets as Starbucks, more real estate than Donald Trump dreams of and lobbying clout to rival that of any secular industry.”  I don’t know that I would have said the business of the church is saving souls, but that is sufficient to capture its mission.  No quarrels here.
           
His description of the Church as business was captivating.  It was clever to use the figures as he does.  To call parishioners “regular customers” is an unusual, but not bad, way to portray them.  The rest of his business-like description rings true to me.  And then he moves in to suggest what businesses do to enliven the business.  Thus he is suggesting at the same time this is what the Roman Catholic Church could do.  During the transitional time between Popes, the Church can prepare for what he calls “a serious relaunch.”
           
I think all institutions go through periods of renewal.  One does not have to be Roman Catholic to know this.  Both churches and businesses are institutions.  Hence both have renewal work to do---relaunching, if you will.
           
I was intrigued by Keller’s ideas.  In order to do this relaunching, he says, “it would help to have a pope with the drive and charisma to reboot the mission, someone with the gift of persuasion, a bit of media savvy and enough years ahead of him to follow through.”  He calls the Pope a CEO figure.  At one level, he is correct.  At another level, I am not sure the CEO model is appropriate.  Certainly the Pope is Head of the Church---the Vicar of Peter.
           
Pope aside, I was struck with Keller’s idea that what is needed is to reboot the mission.  This captured me and struck me as a great idea.  All of us who use computers know there are times we need to reboot our computers.  This is such a simple act, but I often forget the simple action, while I am searching for a more complex solution.  Simply reboot!
           
Of course the Church could reboot the mission.  After all, the world we live in is very different than the world in which Benedict XVI grew up, was educated and ministered.  In one sense the mission of the Church is centuries old: the business of saving souls.  The mission is clear.  What needs to happen is to reboot the mission.  One seeks to know how to execute the mission in the world and communities in which the 1.2 billion people live.  That mission (and rebooting) is just as much a Quaker concern and Methodist issue as it is a Roman Catholic opportunity.
           
But this is the place where rebooting may be simple, but it is not easy.  I reboot the computer by turning it off and, then, turning it on again.  It is not that simple or easy for the Church.  This is exactly where leadership comes in---the CEO (Pope) and all the other leaders.  The leaders will figure out how to execute that rebooting of the mission.
           
Here is where I will step in.  My own sense of disciples and the Church suggests that we are all leaders.  I may not have an office, i.e. be a priest, pastor, etc.  But I am a leader if the Spirit of God comes to me, speaks to me and has designs for me.  Let me offer a couple quick suggestions.
           
If the business is to save souls, we need to figure out in this 21st century, from what are we saving souls?  And secondly, to what are we savings souls?  My rebooting idea?  Perhaps we need to discard some ancient language like sin and salvation and reboot for new perspective and language.  More to come…  



Monday, February 18, 2013

Gift and Reception

I recently finished Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward.  The subtitle of that book gives a sense of its focus: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Chronologically at least, I am in the second half of life.  Mathematically there is no way I can live as long as I already have lived!  But chronology does not guarantee much except physical maturity.  We all know that people can be old, but emotionally immature.  And that certainly goes for spiritual maturity as well.
           
Rohr’s book has given me some good ideas for dealing emotionally and spiritually with the second half of life.  Chronologically, I know I am heading to death.  Emotionally and spiritually I would like to aim for life and to head in that direction.  When I say that, I am not necessarily talking about eternal life---life after death.  I am not opposed to that, but I am more concerned with real, true life before I die.  I want to live today!
           
I found a line in the last chapter of Rohr that excited me and, then, caused some trepidation. Matter of factly, Rohr says, “God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire.” In the first place, this is a very daunting claim.  God will always give us exactly what we truly want and desire!  This is a very bold theology and theological claim.  Let’s unpack it and see what is at stake.
           
This line says something about God and something about ourselves, too.  Perhaps we should look at ourselves and, then, move to God.  I am sure each one of us knows full well that we have many wants and desires.  It is interesting to me that Rohr names “wants and desires.”  I wonder what happened to “needs?”  Clearly our needs are in a different category.  It is also clear that our wants and desires fall into the optional camp.  Needs are necessary; wants and desires are optional.
           
So it is amazing to think Rohr believes God always gives exactly what we want and desire.  But then, that is not quite right.  The adverb modifying those two verbs, want and desire, is really important.  The adverb is “truly.”  I don’t know precisely what Rohr has in mind here, but I can guess.
           
What we truly want and desire is very limiting.  For sure, we can want and desire a great number of things.  I want a Mercedes car, but I don’t truly want one.  And it certainly is not a necessity.  So God is not going to give me a Mercedes.  I can buy one if I want that car.
           
I realize what I truly want moves quickly to the spiritual level.  I truly want my life to be meaningful and have a purpose.  I want my time on earth to count for something.  I want to make a difference.  These things I truly want.  Having said that, I realize my true wants and desires are never egocentric.  It might be arguable, but I postulate what humans truly want and desire are things that are good and laudable. 

And those things take human effort---to do all that we can do.  I know that I am following Rohr’s line of thinking when I look at the next sentence after the line just quoted.  Rohr adds that we should “make sure you desire, desire deeply, desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true, and beautiful.”

This is where it shifts to God.  In these situations God always gives us exactly what we want and desire.  In effect, this affirms that God wants and desires what we truly want and desire.  Our human effort will always be matched by God’s grace.  Grace is simply the theological way of saying God always gives us this gift.  Grace does not limit my human effort.  We cannot slack off saying, in effect, God’s grace will take care of me.  We have to do our part---human effort---and God will do God’s part---always grace.  It is an amazing deal!

I am very grateful for this Divine Gift.  I don’t think there is any other response to God’s actions except gratitude.  However, I can only come to the place of gratitude if I have done the spiritual work of becoming clear what I truly want and desire.  I have to winnow the totality of my wants and desires to come to the key wants and desires I truly want.

As I winnow the many wants and desires I have, I again realize that what I truly want and desire can only be the spiritual.  As Rohr says, I truly desire myself, my God and the good, true and beautiful.  This is my spiritual work---truly to want and desire the good, true, and beautiful.  If I do that, God will always give me exactly what I want.  And I will be grateful---maybe eternally grateful.