Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tempo of Obedience

I have returned to reading some of Thomas Merton’s journals.  As you may know, Merton is one of my favorites.  He was a monk at a monastery in the middle of nowhere Kentucky.  Oddly enough, he was in a monastic tradition that valued and practiced significant silence.  He was a man of few words in the monastery and yet was a man of prolific words in writing! 

There are seven big volumes that make up the journals of Merton.  I find them fascinating.  It is both a pleasure and profound to read the thoughts of this monk as he lives his life in a situation very different than mine.  And yet, the themes of his life are amazingly similar to mine.  His life was a quest for meaning and purpose.  He desired deeply to learn to love.  He knew (sometimes only opaquely) that life only finally mattered if God somehow were involved in his life.  I share all theses themes. 

As I was reading along yesterday, I hit upon a great phrase that stopped me in my tracks.  The entry was December 22, 1964.  By now Merton is living in his own hermitage nearly a mile away from the monastery.  So he has vast amounts of time to himself and his reflections.  The context of the passage had to do with God’s will.  At that point Merton says that he wants “to learn slowly, patiently, the tempo of such obedience.”  

The tempo of obedience…I was arrested by that phrase.  It clearly struck a deep chord in me, but I was not sure why or how.  It was as if there was a profound truth in that phrase, but I would have been unable in the moment to say how it was true.  It was something upon which I needed to ponder.  It was like having an onion in my hand.  I need to peel back some layers to get at the kernel of truth for my own life. 

I am pretty sure the kernel of truth in Merton’s phrase is the notion of “obedience.”  It would be easy to suggest that was the key to the life and ministry of Jesus.  Perhaps in the deepest way possible, Jesus knew and incarnated the will of God into his life.  I suspect the plan is no different for any follower of Jesus.  And I also am confident that obedience is not just a Christian thing.  I would be sure Jews and Muslims have their own version of obedience. 

So the “onion” to be peeled here is the idea that obedience has “tempo.”  That is the novel idea for me.  Before hitting that phrase, I would have simply understood obedience to be obedience…a kind of straight-lined thing.  But when I ponder it, I begin to see that obedience does probably have a tempo.  The dictionary defines tempo as the rate of motion or activity.  So it makes sense that obedience has various rates of motion.  As I reflect on my own life, there are times of more intense obedience.   

Obviously, I have not been to the cross, as Jesus did.  But we all have our own lesser crosses along life’s way.  Those are the places where we can seek God’s will and endeavor to do it.  Our own crosses to bear often call for more intense obedient activity.  I remember one of those phases in my life back in the 1960s and my involvement in the peace movement as we all struggled with the Vietnam issue. 

Of course, there are other phases of life where the tempo of obedience seems fairly easy and constant.  It is obedience on cruise control.  We may be in a job we know God would have us do.  We may be in the spiritual grove and God’s will (and, hence, our obedience) is nothing more than continuing in that groove.  Nothing more is needed.  No special effort is demanded. 

No doubt, the real issue is being able to sense what the tempo of obedience should be and going with it.  The trick is to be sensitive to when the tempo begins to change and to alter our obedience to fit the changing tempo.  We all will experience changing tempos.  Inevitably we all will face a crisis or two. And major changes in our lives probably will change the tempo of obedience. 

I like this idea and will need to think more about it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Spirituality and the Market

The title of this inspirational reflection suggests two different academic disciplines or departments.  On my campus if we were to talk about spirituality and the market, we think Religion Department and the Business Division.  In most cases the two would not be in conversation.  In my own case, however, I have done a great deal of collaborative work with a colleague from the Business world.  It has been productive work and surprising where our joint efforts have made a difference.

I have often said that it is only on college campuses that artificial divisions exist.  Sometimes I think it is unfortunate that we make students choose majors.  And too often, the students operate with the illusion that a particular major leads to specific kinds of jobs.  Of course, there are times when that does seem to be the case.  If a student is an accounting major, then it is true that he or she can probably find a job as an accountant after graduation.  But that does not mean he or she will be an accountant the rest of his or her life.

Surely the time students spend in college should help them prepare for some kinds of careers.  They need to make a living.  Many will have families.  And those like myself know that people need to save some money so that they will be able to take care of themselves when their working career are finished.  But career is just one aspect of life.

I also am clear a major facet of life is figuring out the meaning and purpose of life.  Unless someone figures out a way to make his or her life significant, his or her life will not be healthy or worthy. There are many ways to bring significance to our lives, but we do need something.  Careers may or may not do it.  Families may or may not do it.  I have been fortunate to have both career and family.  While they have been good, I would not say they bring ultimate purpose and significance to my life.

My ultimate significance is tied directly to God or the Holy One.  I have had children and I love them to death.  But I would not say they are my ultimate significance.  I am a child of God and so are my two kids.  There is where my ultimate significance resides.  I have had a role as father of two daughters.  But being a child of God is more than a role. 

Being a child of God is a core identity issue.  It defines me and destines me.  My real job in life is not being a college professor.  My real job is to figure out the deepest meaning of my life as a child of God.  And when I know my deepest identity as such, then the requirement is to live out of that identity in this world God has created.  To know that one is a child of God is to know that one is loved.  And to know that you are loved means that you go into the world to love as God has loved you.  It’s that simple.

All that I have said so far is pretty typical for a guy who spends significant time thinking about and writing about spirituality.  But I also am mired squarely in the culture in which I live.  And in that culture there are always odd things happening and funny things being said.  I love it when one of the odd or funny things happen and give me a chance to relate it to the life of the Spirit as I am trying to live it.
 
Just the other day one of those things happened.  It is a story that comes out of professional football.  Once a year there is a big event in professional football.  Over a three-day period the pro teams draft players out of college.  I know this is of interest only to those serious about the sport.  Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me is the fact that many millionaires are instantly made.  And some of them say dumb things.

For example, the University of Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan was picked by Miami.  He proceeded to announce to the nation, “Overall, I’m a great guy.”  This may be true; I don’t know the guy.  But it is certainly brazen self-promotion. I doubt that this has anything to do with the Spirit.

And then he continued by saying, “I always felt Mother Teresa didn’t sell herself enough.”  This clearly was spiritual or, shall we say, the lack of any spiritual understanding.  Dion Jordan feels the need to market himself---to be self-important.  I am sure Mother Teresa felt no need at all to market herself.  Self-aggrandizement vs. self-surrender.  It could not be more clear.  For Dion it is marketing…a business, selling himself.  For Mother Teresa it is service…spirituality, selling nothing.

I will watch football and endure the marketing.  I will admire Mother Teresa and hope to emulate her to the best of my ability.  And I hope in the process not to become rich and famous.  I would prefer being a saint…one of God’s holy ones.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spiritual Excellence

A good friend of mine sent a short article to me.  I had to laugh when I saw the opening line, because it means she knows me fairly well.  The first line goes like this: “Are you a perfectionist?  Or do you strive for excellence?”  I felt like someone just peeked into my soul!  I am sure that once upon a time I would have answered “yes” to both questions.  Yes, I am a perfectionist.  And yes, I am striving for excellence.  It caused me to stop and ponder, which I think, is a very spiritual way of going about things.          

I made some spiritual progress in my early pilgrimage when I realized I was a perfectionist.  Being a perfectionist is not an awful thing; it is just an impossible thing.  Even people who are very good cannot pull off the perfectionist hope.  We are all too human to be perfect.  So I was better off when I gave up that dream…which was actually an illusion.  Giving up being a perfectionist does not necessarily make life easier.  But it does make life possible!           

I read on in the article.  The article states that perfectionism and excellence is not the same thing.  I had not really thought about it, but could agree.  I liked how that article differentiated them.  “Perfectionism is focused on ‘doing the ‘right,’ how things APPEAR, and if OTHERS think it’s done right.”  That resonated with me.  I acknowledge how important to a perfectionist it is what others think.  Being a perfectionist for me meant pleasing others.  Doing things “right” was paramount.            

I would add that it is impossible to be truly who you are if you are a perfectionist.  That person is always trying to be something that it is impossible to be.  Normally you are trying to live up to some ideal standard.  Often that standard is set by someone else.  This was the important lesson I learned.  When I gave up the perfectionist quest, then I could start to discover who I really was.  This is what Thomas Merton and other writers on spirituality mean by the “true self.”           

When I read what the article said about excellence, it again resonated with how I understand reality.  “Excellence is about ‘doing the right thing.”  It is focused on the REASON for a task, and the RESULTS for it to be a success.”  When I read that excellence is about doing the right thing, it reminded me of the work I have done on the theme of character and integrity.  Doing the right thing has to do with the virtues---or “values” in today’s language.             

When I think about the spiritual giants in history---Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, and others---they would all have been people aiming at this kind of excellence.  They wanted to do the right thing.  They focused on the reason for their task.  It might be a huge task like inaugurating the kingdom of heaven!  Or it might be a lesser task (but no less important), like healing a local woman of her illness.           

I recognize that excellence is appropriate for all of us who are not spiritual giants.  However, I realize that I feel somewhat shy when it comes to claiming excellence for myself.  It is probably because I see excellence to be such a high standard; only super-human folks can reach that.  In our own culture excellence gets associated with super-athletes or a musical protégé.  For average people, excellence is a bit unnerving.           

To link excellence with the spiritual seems even more unthinkable.  But then, I realized that I needed to consider it, especially in light of the definition being used here.  It makes perfect sense to understand spiritual excellence as doing the right thing.  In this sense excellence is not reserved for the elite.  It is appropriate for you and me to aspire to this kind of spiritual excellence: to do the right thing.             

Additionally, it seems perfectly appropriate for all of us ordinary folks to aspire to spiritual excellence when it comes to focusing on the reason for the task.  Let’s assume my spiritual task is to know and do the will of God.  The reason for doing this task is so that I can lend a hand to the building of the kingdom that Jesus began.  I understand myself as a co-worker in this kingdom-building.  I hope you join me, too.           

In this light it is admirable to aspire to spiritual excellence.  It will not lead to pride or some form of egocentrism.  I am sure that perfectionism does set one up for egocentric temptations and the ensuing trials.  Perfectionism sets us up for the pride that comes from near successes.  And it also bombs us with the inevitable impossibilities and ensuring despair that comes with failure.           

In almost every way I am surprised that I come out with a determination to go for spiritual excellence.  The adjective, “spiritual,” is key here.  If it is spiritual excellence, then the spotlight shines on the right thing to do and the task set before us.   The task is to be involved in God’s work and that is the right thing to do.  I hope I can become spiritually excellent in the process.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A New Friend

The theme of friendship has been important to me for a long time---at least two or three decades.  And no doubt, friendship has been important to me most of my life.  That is probably true for you, too.  In saying that, I am not referring to the rather modern version of Facebook.  I understand with Facebook, I could have hundreds of friends!  But I don’t feel deprived by not being on Facebook.  Some day maybe… 

A couple times, I have actually taught a class on spiritual friendship.  I have enjoyed tracing the idea of friendship from Aristotle through key medieval figures to our own contemporary world.  In some ways I think the ancients understood friendship more deeply than we do in our age.  It is too easy in our age to be superficial.  It is too easy to claim a friendship with someone after barely meeting him or her. 

However, I don’t want to dwell on the philosophical or historical levels.  I want to stay with the everyday, real level where most of us live our lives most of the time.  It was at this level yesterday that I became aware of the friendship process. 

I am intrigued by the process of making friends.  I know that I meet many, many people with whom I do not become friends.  That is not bad; I cannot manage hundreds of friends, as Facebook suggests is possible.  So I have many acquaintances, as I would call people I know, but who are not my friends. 

This suggests there is at least one special quality of the relationship in friendship that is not present in acquaintance relationships.  Actually there probably are many qualities, but let me suggest a basic quality.  I think there has to be an attraction to the other for a friendship to begin developing.  Of course, in saying this, it is easy to be misunderstood. 

The language of “attraction” is tricky in our contemporary world because it is so easily sexualized.  Somehow being “attracted” to someone often has sexual overtones.  Attraction is the first step to who knows what!  This is unfortunate.  Certainly, attraction plays a role in sexuality.  But surely not all the attractions I or anyone experience with other people are sexual. 

I doubt that friendships can develop devoid of an ongoing attraction.  Sometimes, the attraction is as simple as wanting to be with a friend.  I have had friendships for decades that last because I still want to be with them.  If the attraction were to dry up, the friendship would wither. 

Yesterday I had lunch with a younger person who is becoming my friend.  I enjoyed it and clearly that is one function of friendship: joy.  I enjoy the exploration process with a new friend. Part of the attraction is a willingness to explore who each other is, etc.  Friendships are open-ended. Because a friend is another person, there is always a potential depth just because most people are deep.  Probably I don’t even know my own depths; I need friends to help me in my own inner exploration. 

In all this musing about friendship, I realize I also have been doing spirituality.  For me Jesus is the model friend.  He was attracted to a wide range of people.  Many of these folks were suspect, i.e. tax collectors, Samaritans, etc.  With them Jesus engaged in exploration.  Many of them became new people because of friendship. 

Maybe that is the theme of spirituality: becoming a new person, a deep person, a person of the Spirit.  Becoming friends is a great way to engage this transformative process.  And so I thank my new young friend.  Through friendship I get one more crack at a richer spiritual life.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

God of Compassion

This morning when I was doing some devotional reading, I was struck by a line from the morning prayer selection from the lectionary I use.  As usual, some of the Psalms appear.  And it was there in the 86th Psalm that I read these words about God. “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” 

A different translation renders that first line, “And you, Lord, are a God of compassion.”  I like this way of describing the nature of God.  I trust it is true.  There is a solace in not only believing in God, but also believing that God is a God of compassion.  Another way to say it is to affirm that compassionate God is a merciful God. 

I sincerely believe there are times and occasions where only compassion and mercy can rule the day.  I am confident that God is and will be that compassionate and merciful Divine Being.  I am not talking about death, judgment, and eternal life, although that often is the context for discussion of God’s compassion and mercy. 

I know many of the biblical texts that discuss the judgment of human beings.  Clearly, some passages do talk about life eternal.  And no doubt, each one of us will die in due course.  I am not worried about any of these---with the possible exception of death!  I am willing to trust God in that ultimate process. 

What I would prefer to do is not leave God to be compassionate and merciful only at my earthly demise.  I think there is a significant---maybe even crucial---role for God’s compassion and mercy in the process of my living.  I see a twofold role here. 

On one hand I am in continual need of that Divine compassion and mercy.  I am not perfect.  Probably you are also not perfect.  In a way compassion and mercy compensate for my lack of perfection.  Of course, that does not get me off the hook of trying.  It is imperative that I try to be just, loving, prudent and all the other virtues.  I need to adhere to the Golden Rule and treat others as I would like to be treated.  And I do try. 

However, sometimes my trying is not enough.  For whatever reason, I can fail God and I can fail other human beings.  That kind of failure creates an opening for one of two possibilities: getting even…or getting compassion.  We live in a world where the choice usually is made to get even!  That response is both the source and resource of conflict, hatred, and mayhem. God models a different option: the compassionate response. 

And this implicates the other role for God’s compassion and mercy.  Not only do I hope to be the recipient of that Divine compassion, but I hope also to learn how to be an instrument of that Divine compassion and mercy.  I want to enroll in the School of Divine Love in order to become steeped in the practice of compassionate living. 

I am confident that if humans make it through this century, it will be because enough of us graduate from this School and figure out how to apply our learning.  There are many venues to practice.  We can practice on other people.   

It is pretty easy to see openings where an act of compassion or a work of mercy will redeem something that is going wrong or coming up short.  In my case is can be in the classroom, coffee shop, or committee meeting.  Doubtlessly, your life context provides just as many opportunities.

Writing or talking about it is easy.  So as the saying goes, “now it’s show time!”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sacred Gift

Recently I wrote a piece on what I called “sacred aging.”  In that piece I wanted to point out the difference between what I called sacred aging and simply getting older.  I believe everyone gets older.  Unless you die, you are in the process of getting older.  It is perhaps most stark in a retirement center or nursing home.  In those places there is a constellation of old people.  In many ways they have already gotten old---and are in the process of getting older.  But they all still have a choice about sacred aging.           

Almost in a blink of the eye, I was presented with a stark alternative to sacred aging.  This new experience was easy to label as “sacred gift.”  Since it has to do with gift, that means I had almost nothing to do to get the gift.  All gifts plunk into our laps.  Allow me to tell you about the sacred gift.           

My sacred gift is a granddaughter.   As with all kids, she was born a very little baby!  Of course, babies rapidly grow.  They turn into adolescents and then teenagers in what often seems like warp speed.  Soon enough they are zooming through high school and proudly run off to college and the rest of their lives.  If we are lucky, we are kept in the loop of information and updates.  Sometimes they get married and have babies.  That at least is the trajectory of how I got a granddaughter.           

Obviously, I had a great deal to do with my daughter.  Blood, sweat and tears went into her upbringing, as all parents can narrate.  When your kids make it on their own, you feel a sense of accomplishment and relief.  At least, that was how I felt.  Then you realize your kids are going to replicate what you did!  They begin the pattern all over.  And not surprisingly, grandsons and granddaughters often are the result.  That has now happened to me.           

It hit me when I became aware of sitting in my chair with my granddaughter in my arms.  She is a sacred gift.  I did not ask for her.  I was not consulted.  I was not asked if I wanted a grandchild.  I did nothing to create or foster this experience.  And there I sat with a little kid that theoretically carries my DNA and will be part of my legacy.  In an odd way she is “mine.”           

It sounds odd to use that possessive pronoun---“mine.”  For sure, she is “my” granddaughter because she is the “kid of my kid.”  In that sense, she definitely is “mine.”  But in many other senses, she is not “mine.”  Basically, she is God’s child---God’s precious child.  In this respect she is just like every other baby that is born.  That includes me and it includes you, too.  Each one of us is God’s child.           

This is a great reminder for myself.  If she is a child of God, as I am a child of God, then that gives every one of us special status.  As a child of God, she comes as a sacred gift to my daughter and me, as grandparent.  As I see it, there is actually only one appropriate response: thank you!  Gracias.  As I held her in my arms, that is all I could think to say: gracias.  I hope I can maintain my sense of appreciation for the gift that she is.           

Then the implications hit me.  If she is a child of God, so am I.  As such, I also am a sacred gift.  I did not cease to be a special gift when my parents died.  I am not limited as a special gift only to my parents.  In the widest sense possible, I am God’s sacred gift to the entire world.  And so are you.             

What if we each began to see ourselves and fully appreciate ourselves as a sacred gift?  That would re-orient a great deal of self-perception.  I suspect most folks do not see themselves as a sacred gift.  I like this perspective and want to live more fully into that truth about myself.            

If we can begin to see ourselves and each other more and more in this light, then we would begin to appreciate ourselves and each other in profoundly new and enriched ways.  If I see you as sacred gift, then I value you in significant ways.  To go to this level would portend huge things.  I imagine that love would break out all over the place.  I certainly feel love for the little bundle in my arms.  I am not going to take you into my arms---literally, at least.  But if I see you as sacred gift, then I figuratively will take you in my arms.  Love will lead.           

And, I believe, peace will follow.  To see everyone as sacred gift should lead to less conflict, far less chaos and a radical out breaking of peace.  This would be like the prelude to communion as practiced by the Catholics and other liturgical tradition.  Before going to the communion table, everyone offers to each other “the peace.”  “The peace of the Lord be with you.”  And I respond with something like, “and peace be with you.”             

If we can all see ourselves and each other as sacred gifts in the world, we would necessarily become lovers and peacemakers.  Funny what holding a kid can do!  Turns out to be a sacred gift!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sacred Aging

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a retirement center.  It was a very pleasant experience.  The retirement center is affiliated with my own Quaker tradition, so in many ways I felt right at home.  I was there to offer a few words about Quaker spirituality and I always enjoy doing that.  It is fun to talk about yourself.  Since I am a Quaker, to talk about Quaker spirituality is a chance to talk about myself.           

Over the years I have visited countless retirement centers in my work.  Typically, they are quite nice places.  Although they are similar to nursing homes, they are not the same.  Most people don’t go into nursing homes until they are sick or incapacitated.  Nursing homes are often not quite as nice.  Few people probably are willingly there.           

Retirement centers, on the other hand, are normally populated by people who chose to be there.  Of course, it means most of the folks are of such age that they know they need to be somewhere where they will receive life care.  No one who is sixteen moves into a retirement center.  I do find many of the folks who live in retirement centers to be relatively content and still engaged with life.             

That’s when it began to dawn on me.  There really are different ways people cope with the accumulating years.  I began to think about the process of getting older---the process of aging.  I saw it in a new light.  The people surrounding me in this retirement center were giving me a new lease on getting older.  I am grateful to them for some new thoughts.          

A key distinction came to me.  I distinguish getting older from what I want to call sacred aging.  We all get older.  Even my grandchildren are getting older!  The good news for them is, they have a long way to go before they are old.  I am much closer to being “old.”  But I don’t mind.  As I see it, getting older is a given.  If you don’t get old, that means you have died!  I am in no hurry for that, so getting older is not a problem.           

What the folks at the retirement center taught me was an alternative to getting older.  They showed me something about the process of sacred aging.  I want to associate this idea with spirituality.  Getting older is clearly a biological process. Getting older can also be an emotional issue.  But sacred aging is a spiritual process.  Let me try to detail how I understand sacred aging.           

Basic to the idea of sacred aging is the recognition and acceptance that you are getting older.  You cannot reverse the physiology of getting older.  Sacred aging recognizes that truth and accepts it.  The second aspect of sacred aging is the recognition of the centrality of the Spirit.  Of course, they are many ways to talk about the Spirit.  For many people, the Spirit is God.  I am ok with that association.  For others the Spirit is just that---some kind of universal Spirit.  This Spirit is perceived to be more in the world---permeating all aspects of our world.  I am ok with that view of the Spirit, too.           

The key to sacred aging is to recognize that each one of us is an intricate part of God or that Spirit.  In Buddhist spirituality we would say that we are already home.  We don’t have to go home.  Sacred aging is the process of realizing we already are at home.  We don’t have to die to get there.  Sacred aging allows us to relax.  In effect, we can loosen our grip on life and live deeply in the Spirit.           

Our younger years often are so busy and preoccupying that living deeply in the Spirit is harder to do.  Our older years often leave a little more time to practice this deep living in the Spirit.  Let’s look a little more closely to how we might practice deep living in the Spirit.           

The first step is simple, but not easy to take.  This is the step of awareness.  To live deeply in the Spirit asks us to be aware of the Spirit in which we already live.  To become aware is to walk through the door of superficiality and enter more and more deeply into the Spirit.  It is clear to me how much of our culture pulls us away from depth and coaxes us to live on the surface of life.  Without awareness we are stuck on the surface.           

The second step of practicing deep living in the Spirit has to do with contemplative living.  I offer a basic definition of contemplative living by saying it is living with a sense of awe and wonder.  It is a stance in life that is content with what is.  The contemplative is full of gratitude.  The contemplative is a caring person who is always ready to show compassion to those in the world needing heartfelt attention.  It is the Spirit that fuels the contemplative.           

Sacred aging means I know all this and am willing to begin engaging the process to sacred aging.  Getting older is a given; sacred aging is a choice.  I know what I am going to choose.  I thank the gracious, wise folks at the retirement center for becoming my teachers.  As I get older, I am choosing sacred aging. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Seeds of Hope

Because I spend a great deal of time with people, I tend to be fairly aware of what is going on with them.  Sometimes they tell me and others what’s happening and other times I simply pay attention and they may “talk” with body language or other means.  I certainly don’t have any special gifts or skills in this.  I think I just pay more attention than many people.
           
One of the facets of being human that fascinates me is what people hope for.  It seems that humans tend to be creatures of hope.  I have no clue whether we are genetically wired that way or if our environment---especially our American culture---shapes us to be hopeful.  And I can imagine my own perception is warped by the kind of particular culture in which I live and spend most of my time.  For example, much of my time is spent in a university setting and that surely is a place of significant hopes.  Compare that to a slum which is mired in poverty and, perhaps, infested with drug dealers and the scene of hope is likely different.  But I don’t know that culture.
           
Let’s assume that humans are designed for hope.  That is how I would read the Genesis creation stories.  God created us with the hope that we would enjoy Eden and participate in the relationship with the Holy One.  Of course, we went off on our own.  We plucked the fruit, ate and blew it.  We opted for a piece of fruit and fractured the relationship with God.  Bad choice and lousy deal.  For dessert we had to desert Eden!
           
East of Eden the nature of hope changes.  Instead of paradise, humans were put to work.  Pain and suffering enters the human picture.  Complaints dominate whereas contentment characterized Eden.  But there is still hope East of Eden.  In this new place hope becomes an element of the future.  Our world is still East of Eden.  For us today hope still deals with the future.  Hope is how we would like “tomorrow” to be.

Our hopes might be very short term.  It is not unusual for a student to walk into a class and “hope” to get an A.  On the other hand, hope might be very long term.  A new parent usually hopes the infant grows up and develops in good, healthy ways.  It is typical that same parent hopes the infant becomes successful and has a great life.  But the parent knows it will take many years before that hope is realized.
           
I am intrigued by how hope works.  At the outset, let me suggest I think there actually are some things humans can do to enhance the likelihood their hopes might come to pass.  And clearly, there are other aspects of hope that are entirely out of our control or influence.  Let me elaborate.
           
In the first place we can note that the seeds of hope are always planted in the soil of the present.  This is obvious, but too often we overlook the obvious.  Another way of saying the same thing is to acknowledge that it is in our “todays” we hope for “tomorrow.”  In our normal understanding of time, we are always in “today.”  Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet.  We exist today.  And we know that today will pass into a “yesterday.”  And we know that in a day “tomorrow” will become “today.”  But we are always in today.
           
It is for that reason that I am sure that the seeds of hope we plant are always planted in the soil of the present.  By definition what I hope for “today” is not in my present.  If it were, I would not have to hope for it.  However, there are some things I can do to enhance the chances that what I hope for will come to be.  Let’s look at a couple things.
           
In the first place, we can choose those seeds of hope wisely.  By this I mean some seeds of hope are pretty realistic, some are a reach and some, apparently, are nearly impossible.  I illustrate with a spiritual example.  I think it is quite realistic to hope that I can have an experience of God if I want.  I think God is always eager to be present with us.  And if we hope for that, it is pretty likely to come to be.
           
However, I might really hope for a mystical experience of God.  That begins to specify what kind of experience I want.  This raises the bar on hope.  My hope is now picky!  God may or may not want to be mystically present with me.  And that hope can even be narrowed.  I might have hope that I have a mountaintop mystical experience of God in which I lose my very sense of being and am fully absorbed into the Presence of the Holy One.  That might happen, but it is not very likely.
           
To plant that last seed of hope in the soil of the present means there is hardly any chance at all that my hope will actualize.  So I am reminded to choose wisely the seeds of hope that I plant in the soil of my present.
           
And secondly, I can cultivate carefully the ground of hope.  I can give attention to how I live in the present so as to ensure the best growing conditions for the seeds of hope that are planted.  I think about things like spiritual disciplines that enhance spiritual hopes.  The good news assures us there is hope.  Be wise and careful with the seeds of hope.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Idea of Community

Probably most of my adult life I have valued the idea of community.  I am not sure where or how that valuation happened.  I do know the idea of community is generally important within Quaker spirituality.  However, I think that would give me more credit than I deserve to suggest I got this at an early age! 

Oddly enough, I suspect part of my attraction of the idea of community is related to sports.  I played team sports and liked that aspect of the athletic life.  I liked “being in it together” with other guys.  When I was older, I played on mixed softball teams so enjoyed being in it together with other guys and gals.  I found it much more fun to win when I was with others.  And it certainly is easy to experience losing when you are in it with others.  Nobody talks about this as community---but I think it is a form of community. 

So for fifty years, I have valued the idea of community.  I have actually been aware of and appreciative of this idea of community for quite some time---probably forty of those fifty years.  I have read about it, talked about it, tried to form and nurture community.  Sometimes, the experience of community was effective and other times it only seemed to be malformed. 

I am sure part of my attraction to the monks and the monastic life---Christian and otherwise---is the focus on community.  The Buddhists have a term for it, Sangha.  Buddhism has three key elements: the Buddha, the teaching, and Sangha (community).  I don’t think it is far-fetched to see a comparable trio of elements in Christianity: Jesus, the teaching, and community. 

At some point, however, community becomes “the Church.”  I have never been quite comfortable with the idea of Church.  The word tends to suggest an institution, rules, etc.  It is no wonder younger people either have little interest or are wary of “the Church.”  I have always looked for ways to put the two together: community and Church. 

And then yesterday, I ran into a great quotation by Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of the 20th century.  In a journal entry from 1963 Merton writes these words: “How can the idea of ‘Church’ make any sense without this trust in man as capable of grace, capable of cooperation?  Here’s the real beginning of the idea of community.”  Merton puts the two together: community and Church.  Furthermore, he points to a key building block of community (and the Church). 

It is obvious that human beings are the building blocks of community.  But more needs to be said than that.  Essentially, Merton says community begins and is sustained by trusting humans as capable of grace.  That is so insightful.  Without grace community will not form and without grace, community certainly cannot grow and be sustained over time.

And when humans lose the capability of being graceful, the community is doomed.  It may take a while to die, but community is doomed. So we can work on community by encouraging and cultivating the graciousness of human beings.   

The other key element Merton identifies is trusting that humans are capable of cooperation.  So true!  People who refuse to cooperate are communal cancers.  Any coach knows that fact.  Can folks be taught to cooperate?  I think so.  Can they be forced?  Probably for a while, but with resentment.  And resentment infects any possibility for authentic community. 

I still love the idea of community.  But I now know the role grace and cooperation play in the formation of community.