Friday, May 31, 2013

Faith and Belief

I sometimes wonder what would have been my journey if I had taken the other fork of the road?  I am not being flip.  I assume that we all have come to numerous forks in the road.  We have to choose and when we do choose, heading down one particular way, we know the other road at the fork that we did not choose is lost to us.  We will never know what life would have been like if we had chosen that other road.  I don’t lament lost choices.  I don’t regret any of my choices---although they certainly have not all been good choices!  But I do wonder.

One of the good choices I made was to continue being a reader.  Clearly there were choices in my life, where if I had made them, would effectively have meant that I would have quit reading.  Oh, that does not mean I never would have read anything.  There probably are many jobs that people do that entail no reading.  But most people working those jobs are literate.  They can read. 

They have to read to pass the driver’s test and get a license.  They have to read enough to order from a menu.  They may read the sports’ page---but less necessary in our ESPN world!  They might read a book to their little child.  But reading is not something they would choose to do.  And certainly, they would not do it for fun.

I am different.  I am a reader.  I love to read newspapers---even the newspaper that you literally hold in your hands and, sometimes, get ink on your fingers.  I read magazines and Twitter.  I read online.  I read things that seemingly have nothing to do with my life or my job.  Maybe that is the source of some new ideas.

I like to read things that turn out to be surprising.  Recently I read an op ed piece in a famous national paper.  I recognized the author’s name, T.M. Luhrmann.  I remembered that she is a professor of anthropology at Stanford.  I also recall that she has just written a book based on her observation among evangelical churches.  The title of her op ed was “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.”  I was hooked and read on.

Essentially, she distinguishes faith and belief.  Given my job as spirituality professor, that was not new.  Quickly, I realized she was more focused on faith and thinks faith is primary; belief is secondary.  I would agree.  But I liked even more how she was developing her thoughts.  Her argument is not based in heady scholarship, but rather based in the life experience of folks she has observed and whom she has come to know.  That makes sense to me.

One thing she noted interested me.  She says, “you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon.”  That probably is quite true.  She continues by citing one of my graduate school professors---famous, but now deceased.  She writes, “as the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, ‘to believe’ meant something like ‘to hold dear.’

She continues by quoting Smith: “’The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul.  I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him.  I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’  Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’”  These are significant words from an old friend that are really words about faith and not belief.  Faith is a bet with my life.  Belief is cognitive principle.  There is a difference.

I like how Luhrmann talks about faith.   She says, “it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.”  I very much like the idea of faith as questions.  For example, I might say that I believe in God, but it could very well make no difference in how I live life.  On the other hand, to have faith in God is to begin living life “faithfully.”

Belief affirms that there is a God.  Faith seeks to involve that God in my life and attempts to live my life following the Divine Desire for me.  And my faith journey is enriched if I can find a community of people also living out of their faith.  They might say a creed to affirm their beliefs.  But more powerful will be their communal effort to know God, love each other as their selves. 

And in the best scenario, they are willing to try to love their enemy.  If they can begin to pull off that feat, they will become transformers in this world.  In this sense they will participate in the building of the Kingdom about which Jesus spoke.  This has a great deal of attraction to me.  I want to have the faith to be part of the process.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Religion: What Do You Think?

Out of the blue came a request to write something very short on religion.  The request was not much more specific than that.  “Sure,” I thought, “I can write a few words on religion!”  I know that it sometimes is much more difficult to write a few words than to wax eloquent about a topic such as “religion.”

The other part of the request that was funny was that I see teenagers as one target audience.  “Of course,” I thought, “I am an expert on teenagers, their psychological and spiritual development.  After all, a few words should do it!”  After that, I think I will solve the American budget crisis and eradicate the national debt!

So where does one start when you are going to write a few words on religion?  One thing I do not assume is that most people would define religion in the same way.  I have a hunch there are many different definitions floating in the air out there.  Often that is where trouble begins; you don’t have a “correct” understanding of religion and I make some judgment.  Of course, you can do that to me, too.

However, it is just as tricky not to define religion.  If we don’t do that, then we probably are assuming I know what you think religion is.  And I probably would guess you think religion is the same thing I think it is.  After all, what I think religion is must be true! 

So let me begin with my definition of religion.  Religion is one way human beings make meaning of their lives.  To say that suggests there are other ways to make meaning in life.  I assume it is possible to be an atheist and have a meaningful life.  Religion is not necessary in my understanding (and clearly this is one place religious folks could differ with me).  And when I say “make meaning in life,” I see religion as one way to make sense out of human experience.  Meaning is a way of seeing some order, pattern, and coherence to what happens to me and to you.

I will use stories, symbols, and images from a religious tradition to structure my religion.  In my case I employ the Christian story.  That includes God who is creative.  It narrates a story about Jesus as the model human being.  There are various symbols like the cross to communicate details of the larger story.  But this is where it can get tricky.

I am reticent, however, to make religion simply a matter of “believing the stuff or not.”  Let me add a couple other things.  One healthy aspect of discussing about religion is to say questions are ok.  Questions allow exploration.  Questions allow people  (teenagers and otherwise) to talk freely about life experience.  As I was growing up and even during my teenage years, I don’t remember anyone telling me (or suggesting) that questions were ok.  Perhaps, I first heard that in college.  Before that, the message I picked up was simply to “believe that stuff.”  That’s what made you religious.

Questions do allow exploration.  Many of us have life experiences that do not necessarily make sense.  Life does not always have any coherence.  I am convinced people “make meaning,” rather than finding it in a book somewhere.  Christianity and, specifically, Quakerism have given me a solid foundation.  But I needed to be able to ask questions and tailor my religion to my life.

And this leads me to my last point.  While religion does offer answers, it is appropriate for religion to have room to grow.  Unless we are dead, there is more of life to be lived.  Who knows what yet will happen.  Hopefully, our religion is spacious enough to allow for new experiences and complexities that will come.  I have dealt with some significant issues in life, but there certainly are some life experiences I have not yet encountered.  The most predictable one, for example, is dying. 

So I want a personal religion that has room for growth.  Personally, I need a religion that is big enough to account for all those religious people out there who don’t claim their religion is Christian.  In saying that, I know there are other religious people who would disagree with me.  And that brings us full circle.  If you disagree with me, then we likely are defining religion in different ways.

So that is what I think about religion.  It would be fun to have a bunch of folks in a room and ask, “What do you think?”  That would be fun, but I also realize it would be a bit shortsighted.  After all, religion probably is also more than simply what I believe.  It also has to do with how I live---how I act. 

In my religion it does not matter much if one somehow is not loving.  Love is not so much a belief as it is an action.  I could believe in love and not be loving.  Indeed, that might even be more important.

That’s what I think about religion.  What do you think?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Defining Spirituality

From time to time, I return to something I have read years before.  I guess that is one good argument for a library!  In our technological culture I am sure there is less book buying than I did.  That is not a bad thing.  But I still do like to have a book to hold in my hand, to underline and place back on a shelf in the hope that some day in the future, I will again pull it off the shelf and re-read parts of it.

I did that just yesterday.  I am working on some guest lectures for the near future.  It is a topic that I have given some thought to, but have never actually lectured or spoken publically about this theme.  This is an odd place---a place where I have been many times.  The topic given to me to address is one that I am quite happy to do.  I have many, many thoughts, ideas, and half-baked suppositions running through my head.  On one hand, it feels like I know quite a bit and could stand up right now and speak for an hour on the topic.  On the other hand, realistically I know that I have no organized way to present the extraneous material floating about in my brain.

I may know quite a bit, but it is randomly related, unorganized and, probably, chaotic.  I could stand up and make a whole range of thoughts that would not be related or connected.  An audience would think I am nuts, if I were to do it right now.  I need to ponder the topic.  I need to find a couple filters to sift through the variety of ideas that I have.  I need a magnet to line up the various strands of thought.

The topic is about spirituality.  Of course, there is much more specificity than that.  Spirituality is a very general term. There are many ways you could take a speech.  Some in the audience would assume they know what spirituality is.  And others would claim to have no clue.  What is needed is some definition.  Some focus would be helpful in the moment. 

And that is exactly what I found in a book that I had pulled down from the shelf.  I knew I had read it before.  Indeed, the markings in the book proved that I had read the whole thing.  I am always amazed and a little disappointed to see that I had read this book fairly carefully and, yet, had little recollection of what it said.  Maybe it is better to have read and forgotten, than never to have read at all!

I have no memory of the book’s definition of spirituality.  Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, is one of my favorite writers.  She is a spunky, daring writer who takes all of us half-hearted spiritual creatures to task.  In a book from the 1990s Chittister distills the meaning and truth from St. Benedict’s Rule.  The Rule offers guidelines for monks, nuns and other spiritual people to live meaningful lives.  I have read it often and try to follow its direction.

It was not specific words on the Rule that captured my attention.  What grabbed me was Chittister’s definition of spirituality.  She says, “Spirituality is more than churchgoing.  It is possible to go to church and never develop a spirituality at all.  Spirituality is the way in which we express a living faith in a real world.  Spirituality is the sum total of the attitudes and actions that define our life of faith.”  To me that resonated as quite true.  Don’t confuse spirituality with churchgoing.  Somehow, spirituality is different than going to church---although spirituality may include going to church.

It was the next line that made so much sense to me.  She says that spirituality is the way we express a living faith.  That also is a general statement, but it strikes me as being profound.  Spirituality is an expression.  It is more than ideas and more than doctrine.  It is an expression---an expression of a living faith.  It leaves me with some queries---some questions.  Do I have a living faith?  I am sure I have a faith.  But it is a living faith?  That’s the key question.

She continues.  Spirituality is the sum total of the attitudes and actions that define our life of faith.  Again, I like the idea of spirituality as both attitudes and actions.  Attitudes and actions are so much more than mere ideas.  For example, I could have a belief in God---a doctrine of God.  But if it does not shape my attitudes and develop specific actions, it is actually pretty puny.

Chittister’s definition gives me a good way to think about my own spirituality.  Is it a living faith?  Or it is only something to which I give only incidental, passing thought?  Does my spirituality actually shape my attitudes?  Or do I have my normal attitudes about things that have no real connection with my spirituality---my living faith?

Finally, does my spirituality shape and define my actions in the world?  Do I do anything because that is how my spirituality dictates the action?  Or are my actions totally unrelated to what I would say my spirituality is?  Perhaps that is the key question: do I act in a way that befits my spirituality---my living faith?   

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day: Re-Membering

Memorial Day---or better, yet, Memorial Day weekend---is a complex holiday.  That does not make it anything less than other major holidays; it is just different.  It seems that the federal holiday has its origins right after the Civil War.  It was an opportunity to remember those Union soldiers who had died in that cause.  Gradually, the “remembering” expanded to include all the men and women who had died in the service of their country.

Earlier, it often was called Decoration Day.  I heard this term most of the time when I was growing up in rural Indiana.  I understood it as the time when the old people went to the cemeteries to “decorate” with flowers the graves of their family and friends.  I knew it had some military association, but by my lifetime, the holiday again had expanded to include everyone who had already passed away.  But it was more complex than that.

For many people Memorial Day celebrates the beginning of summer.  That association with summer helps if it hits 90 degrees!  Summer begins and lasts till early September, when Labor Day signals its official end.  Of course, no one in early September thinks summer is finished---or at least, the hot weather has ended!   In many ways, Memorial Day and Labor Day are bookends.

However, for me and for most Hoosiers, the complexity of Memorial Day does not end here.  It is always the weekend the Indianapolis 500 mile race is run.  Even for those of us who could not care less about racing cars, the “Indy 500” was part of the weekend tradition.  In fact, that weekend---the race---culminated a month long build-up to the weekend.  For an Indiana farm boy, May was a time of finishing the school year, planting corn and beans, the beginning of baseball, Memorial Day and the Indy 500.

If I were asked whether it was in any way a spiritual thing, I would have replied negatively.  I never went to church.  Occasionally, I was aware of churches’ having “services,” but I did not see them as spiritual.  They were more patriotic---more nationalistic.  That was ok, but for me it was not the same thing as spiritual.  So Memorial Day weekend never has been a spiritual occasion for me.

And that is still true.  I am happy to remember and celebrate the lives of the American men and women who gave their lives on my behalf and my country.  I appreciate and enjoy being a citizen of this country.  Certainly those of us who are can count ourselves very fortunate.  But being American is not a spiritual thing for me.  It might be for others and that’s ok.

Given all that, is it possible for this Memorial Day weekend to become spiritual?  The answer is, of course!  It is possible for every day to become spiritual! That is the beauty of the life, the time, and the opportunities God gives to each of us.  I thank God daily for my life, my time, and my opportunities.  I know I did not create my own life.  I realize I do not make my own time.  And when my time is up, I can no more stop the ending than I began my beginning!  And I do not create all my opportunities.
So I am thankful.  And I believe being thankful is always a spiritual response.  I am thankful to my parents who gave birth to me and cared for me all those infant days I cannot even remember.  They are both deceased and buried in an Indiana cemetery.  I have no idea whether anyone took flowers to their graves this Memorial Day. But that does not mean I appreciate them any less.

I am thankful to other members of a church family who helped raise me from infancy to adulthood.  And I am thankful to others in the larger community who helped in countless ways to make my life possible.  No doubt, there were even people whom I did not know, who probably helped me.  And there are many more people whom I knew, but never probably knew how they helped me.  A huge number of them also are long dead and inhabiting cemeteries scattered across a good number of states.

All these memories are sacred to me.  They are imbued with the Spirit of God who is for me a God of Providence---a providential Divinity.  In my spirituality God deals indirectly with people as much as directly.  I know as well as I know anything that God was at work in the members of my family, my church family, my community family to bring me to where I am today.  That is a wonderful memory.  And I am happy this Memorial Day to remember these people and their gifts.

As I engage this remember exercise, one more thing occurs to me.  They were individuals---these people I am recalling.  They clearly were members of groups---family, friends, church, and community.  But in the process of my recalling them, they are pulled together into one group.  They are all re-membered by me and for me.  They are all members of my spiritual clan.  Many may be dead, others scattered around the world, but in my mind in this moment they are re-membered.  They become again in this moment members of my spiritual clan.  And in my thanks, God is present and still providing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Improvisation Meets Serendipity

A friend of mine sent me an interesting article on improvisation.  I know what improvisation means, but I admit I never thought too much about it.  Probably like you, when I do think of improvisation, I think of nightclubs and television.  Those are the usual venues where actors of some sort entertain people by “winging it.”  That is probably the street definition of improvisation: the ability to wing it.

That is a decent beginning understanding of improvisation, as I begin to think about it more.  The article that I read gives this street definition a little more clarity and development.  Kip Kelly, the author of the article, begins his definition in this fashion.  “In essence, improv, short for improvisation, is performing without a script; it is spontaneous invention…that is often needed to create something entirely new and unique.  Improvisation is often thought of as ‘off the cuff’ activity, with little or no preparation or forethought…”  That made a great deal of sense to me.  So far, so good.

And then to his definition, Kelly adds these words: “but this can be misleading.”  I was hooked.  I had to read further in the article.  He says that “real improv requires preparation, and often practice, to develop the ability to act and react in the moment.”  As I thought about it, this also makes sense.  I suspect the people who are really good at “winging it” are, in fact, very well prepared and experienced. They are so good, they make it look easy.

So it seems improvisation is an interesting combination of preparation and spontaneity.  We can get prepared for things and then when something spontaneous happens, we are ready to act and react.  This surely is paradoxical.  There is much you can do (preparation) and nothing you can do to anticipate what will come your way (spontaneity).  That does sound a bit like life!

Let’s look at the preparation side, since that is something we can work on.  Again, Kelly is helpful.  He talks about skills.  He notes that “some of the basic skills improvisation requires are the ability to listen and be aware of the others…” This is a great skill in many arenas.  Secondly, he says, other skills are  “to have clarity in communication, and to possess the confidence to find choices instinctively and spontaneously.”

If we could practice these three basic skills---listen, communication and making choices---we would be more ready to improvise.  In the moment when it is not clear what to do or say, we would be better prepared to make good moves and begin to write an acceptable script to go forward.  While most folks would be frozen in just such a minute, we would be able to move ahead and make something out of it.  That is attractive to me.

It was at this point that I realized there was a clear connection to a bigger picture. For me the bigger picture is life itself.  And that always includes the spiritual dimension as a crucial component in life.  I think there is much in life that is planned.  Many of us plan our lives in significant detail.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

But we all know things happen that we did not plan.  These can be called surprises, accidents, or whatever.  The fact is, we did not see them coming.  “That’s life” is often the expression we hear that attempts to explain just such events.  I would like to talk about “serendipity” as the explanation of the unexpected.  Serendipity means that we find things that we were not searching to find.

I like to think the Spirit is a form of serendipity.  For me the Spirit is a way of talking about the presence of God or the Holy One.  I cannot control that Spirit.  I cannot coerce it.  But I can be available to it when it comes.  I can embrace it when I encounter it.  I can look for it.  I can hope for the Spirit.  I can develop some basic skills to enhance my chances of being engaged by the Spirit and becoming spiritual.  And that sounds a great deal like improv.

I am arguing for improvisation as preparation for the spiritual life.  Spiritual improv is developing those basic skills---maybe even listening, communication and making choices---that prepare me to discover and delight in the Spirit.  When the Spirit comes serendipitously into my life, I am “ready.”  I can engage it, act and react in ways that deepen my life. 

My goal will not be to entertain, but it will be to obey and, as the apostle Paul says, “to walk in the newness of life.”  I won’t be acting, as in a nightclub, but I will be a spiritual actor on the stage of life.  I won’t receive applause.  But I might hear a word which says, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

I am ready to work on improvisation.  I will prepare.  And then when serendipity happens, improvisation will meet it.  And I will be on my spiritual way.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tools of the Spiritual Craft

The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic spiritual text.  It was written by the founder of the Benedictine monastic tradition, Benedict.  He was an Italian who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century.  The Rule is usually dated somewhere around 529 CE.  The era of Benedict was a chaotic time in what is modern day Italy.  The glory of the Roman Empire was long over.  The identifiable nations of modern Europe were far from being formed and developed.  It was the period known as the early Middle Ages.  When I was in my early years of education, this period was known as the Dark Ages.

Christianity was now part of the fabric of the land.  But Christianity had lost some of its original spirit and fervor when it became so much a part of the social culture.  Since it was no longer illegal to be a Christian, it was easy---some would argue, too easy---to be Christian.  People like Benedict wanted more.  They wanted a life of the Spirit that would approximate how Jesus lived and that characterized those early disciples of Jesus.

So literally and figuratively, monks (as they came to be called) withdrew from mainstream society.  They went to the edge of society and were counter-cultural.  They purposively became marginal people.  Sometimes they lived alone in the countryside or in caves.  Sometimes they formed small groups of like-minded people.  Sometimes they were spiritual vagabonds.

This was the scene in which Benedict decided needed some organization and some sense of order.  Even serious spiritual folks need some guidelines and parameters.  So Benedict wrote a Rule.  The Latin word for Rule, regula, should be seen more like guidelines than hard and fast regulations.  Benedict wanted to give his community a framework and structure to govern their life together.

And that Rule was widely adopted.  It has now lasted 1,500 years.  It still governs the array of Benedictine monasteries around the globe.  It is relatively simple, practical and general, but it has been an amazingly successful instrument to enable groups of men and women to live spiritual lives together.  It is even a guide that I try to follow in ways that fit my life.

The Rule is divided up so that someone like myself annually goes through the entire document three times.  As I read the selection for yesterday, a phrase caught my attention.  I must have read it countless times, but I don’t remember latching on to it like I did this time.  The section was entitled “the instruments of God’s works.”  It is indicative of the practical advice the Rule offers to fulfill God’s will, to live in obedience.  The guidelines come, in part, from the biblical tradition.  We are to love our enemies.  Respect elders.  Don’t hate.  All that makes perfect sense for a good life.

I would argue that a good life is a spiritual life, whether or not one claims to be Christian (or Jewish, Buddhist, etc.).  And by definition, the spiritual life would be a good life.  I don’t know anyone who would argue that he or she can be spiritual and be a lousy person.  By nature God is good and so should anyone be who claims to be following that God.

So after listing a few of these spiritual guidelines, Benedict concludes, “These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft.”  That was the phrase that I have read many times, but this time it jumped out at me.  I like the idea of “spiritual tools.”  Much of religious traditions deal with doctrine---with ideas.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.  But one could have many religious ideas and still be a lousy person! 

Finally, it comes down to practicing one’s faith.  Ideas are good; actions are better.  “Action speaks louder than words,” is the old saying.  This must surely be true in matters of faith.  To perform spiritual action, we need some tools.  We need to hone the “spiritual craft,” as Benedict calls it.  

It is not unusual in business circles these days to hear about the tool kit or toolbox needed to perform particular skills.  Perhaps this is a good analogy to the spiritual.  In order to know what God desires and to actualize that Divine Desire, we need some tools of the spiritual craft.

To have these tools enables is to become crafts people of the Spirit.  Imagine being an apprentice.  The master says something like, “here is the tool of honesty.”  Here is the tool of respect.”  And so on, one finds a variety of tools of the spiritual craft.  There is no way to move from being an apprentice to acquiring some mastery without practice.

I appreciate The Rule of St. Benedict for offering many of these tools.  But I need to be careful and not assume that because I read it and understand it, I am thereby spiritual.  Benedict would laugh at that notion.  You become spiritual by applying these tools of the spiritual craft in your real life…today and again tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cultural Shift: Spiritual Loss

There are some writers who speak to me in fairly predictable ways.  Some of them are contemporary people who write for newspapers, on the internet, and other social media.  Others who speak to me are long since dead: spiritual greats from centuries ago, i.e. people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and a host of others.  I don’t really pay too much attention to their political or religious categorization---such as conservative or liberal, evangelical or modern. 

One such writer I like is David Brooks.  He writes for the New York Times.  Some of the really great material he brings is nothing he invented.  It comes from something he reads or hears and, then, reflects on it.  Maybe I am attracted to this because it is much like I work.

Recently, I read something from Brooks.  I was lured by the headline of the article: “What Our Words Tell Us.”  Granted, I have a love of words.  Any of my students will tell you that.  So I wondered what our words tell us, according to David Brooks.  I was not disappointed.

His article begins with the fact that Google has launched a database of 5.2 million
books published between 1500 and 2008.  Figures like this blow my mind.  But I admit that I wondered whether my books were part of the database.  I guess that is hubris---pride.  I am glad I don’t know the answer!

The database enables someone to enter a word and perform a search.  You can find out how often the word is used in a particular century.  Brooks was quite interested in the trend line of words.  What words were once important and have become less important in our own time?  Do these trends tell us something about our culture?  These are fascinating questions.  And Brooks thinks he can sense some trends and make some conclusive guesses about our culture.  I share a couple of his observations.

The first point Brooks wants to make is clear.  So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic.”  This one did not surprise me.  In fact, I would have been very surprised had he concluded differently.  It does seem like the world in which I live is more individualistic.  He has a host of words---words like “personal” and “self”---that make the case for his point.

The second point is a little disturbing.  Brooks contends this about our culture.  As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked.”  Simply put, he is suggesting our time is less moral and less aware of morality than earlier times.  Again, I am tempted to think this is true.  And apparently our use of words buttress that point.  He cites the decreased us of words, such as “virtue” and “decency.”  That makes me cringe.

Clearly, both of these points have implications.  Brooks puts it bluntly.  The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”  I would be willing to argue this does reflect a culture that is more individualized (atomized) and demoralized. 

The question this poses for me is whether this means spirituality is implicated?  I think the answer is affirmative.  To put it more sharply, I wonder if this does not explain, in part, why religion seems less important in so many arenas of American culture.  In fact, I wonder if the rising interest in spirituality is not the human heart---atomized and demoralized---looking for meaning and purpose in ways that religion used to address them?

Brooks has his own conclusion which, granted is not proof, but is a good guess.  He says, these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.”  I think he is correct.  I do see less interest in community and, certainly, less focus on obligations.  For example, many writers point to contemporary culture’s emphasis on “rights” and less on “responsibilities.”  This resonates with me.

I am persuaded that there has been a cultural shift.  As one who recalls the ‘60s, our world nearly 50 years later is culturally different.  Explosions of technology, scientific innovation, etc. has created a different world.  So has the cultural shift led to spiritual loss.  In some ways I believe the answer is yes.

I am not depressed by this or ready to give up.  I am challenged and energized to seek with others how to generate a spirituality fit for our times and our culture.  And I believe what our words tell us give us a clue.  Perhaps we generate this spirituality by focusing on community and morality.  Perhaps these are the key and not doctrine.  That’s my hunch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Celebrating Inequality

When I saw the title, which is the same newspaper title I use in this inspirational piece, I was immediately pulled to read it.   Authored by George Packer, the article is about inequality and also about heroes.  I don’t often put those two themes together, so it was an interesting perspective.

Packer helped me to think about the phenomenon of celebrities.  I will admit that I don’t care much at all about celebrities.  In many ways the cultural celebrities come from arenas that don’t impress me that much, namely, entertainment and sports.  I certainly like sports, but I don’t think the heroes in the sporting world are any different than the average person---except they are really rich!  And that is part of the article’s argument.

Packer asks the right question.  He queries, “What are celebrities, after all?”  Rich, famous?  Usually both are true.  Packer continues by noting that celebrities “dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach.”  That is an interesting way to put it.  In some ways celebrities do dominate the landscape.  They play an inordinate role in the cultural lives of Americans.  They dominate the media world.  They are used in the advertisement world to sell things.  They tell me what to think and what to buy.

I like Packer’s line of argument.  He begins to go a little deeper in his analysis.  He says that celebrities “are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion.”  If you are reading this closely, you realize that we have now entered a kind of spiritual realm.  He says that celebrities are intimate and they are grand.  I assume that is probably true.  In an unfortunately odd way, they become role models for folks.

But then Packer adds, celebrities offer themselves for worship.  Whoa, I think!  LeBron James? Michael Jackson?  Choose your own favorite celebrity.  Are they offering themselves for worship?  I might have worshiped some sports figures when I was a little kid.  But I cannot imagine worshipping any celebrity today.  For me that would cross a line---a real no-no.

Packer says the celebrity offers himself or herself for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion.  That is an interesting contention.  It seems this argument suggests people want to need some object of devotion.  At one level, I would agree with this.  In this world of spirituality there is one line of thought that says humans are homo religiosus---that is, naturally religious.  I admit that I always have been attracted to this idea of humans. 

Humans are naturally religious.  The real question is in what they will place their devotion.  In spiritual terms the question is asked: will they believe in God or will they place their trust in that which is not God, i.e. an idol.  The answer is pretty clear: many of us place our trust and hopes in some form of idol.  Perhaps this is exactly what a celebrity is: an idol.  The celebrity is a god of our own making.  He or she has become a suitable object of our devotion---for whatever reason.

As I reason my way through this, it helps me see why I am not drawn to celebrities.  I already have a firm belief in the Holy One.  I am in quest of the real, living God.  And I don’t watch television to see God.  And I don’t expect to find God on the internet!  Surely, I can find out a great deal of stuff about God on television and the internet.  But God is not found in the box.  God is found in the human heart.

The final question is how does all this tie into inequality?  Packer offers a convincing perspective.  He says that celebrities “loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.”  This perspective offers a telling critique on our contemporary society.  Our times do see inequality soaring.  I would agree that trust in institutions is not as strong as in other times.

I find it interesting that he does not list churches, mosques and synagogues in the institutions in which trust is being lost.  I would not be so sure but that they also should be on the list.  Whatever the case, I find it odd and unfortunate that celebrities would replace the institutions.

Maybe it is time again to reassess in what we place our faith.  Let me be clear that my faith and trust is in God---the Holy One.  This does not mean I will have no problems.  This will not automatically mean that inequality will go away and everyone can live happily ever after.  But life with God is for me the way, the truth and the life.  Anything less is idolatrous and leads to no good end.  Instead of inequality, I celebrate God

Monday, May 20, 2013

Host and Guest

Hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  I was first clued in to this fact when I learned Latin.  The Latin word, hospes, gives us the English words, hospital, hospice and related words.  In its Latin form, it can be translated “host,’ “guest” or “stranger.”  That is why I can say that hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  The Latin coin is hospes.  Let’s look at each side of the coin.

Probably most of us learn about being a guest before we learn about hosting.  I have early childhood memories of going with my dad into the town in early mornings.  For a kid growing up on the farm, this was a big deal.  Since I was the oldest kid, there could be an entire day when I would see no one except my two parents.  That was not bad.  But it was more fun to go to town and see some of my dad’s friends. 

Often we would stop at the local drugstore, which was really the epicenter of human interaction on an early morning in that small town.  There the guys would gather, have coffee and talk about local sports and world news.  I felt years beyond my age when they would accept me into the circle.  At least, that is how I interpreted.

I would not have had the language yet that could have told you I was a guest in their midst.  They were gracious to me.  They invited me into their space.  They made space for someone who did not quite fit.  I was young, inexperienced and had literally nothing to contribute to the conversation.  But I was their guest.  And I felt immensely important for having been included.

I think that early experience taught me much about being a guest.  People invited me into the gang.  They made a place for me---even though it was a temporary visit.  They made me feel welcome and important.  I was put at ease.  I was comfortable.  I could be myself---no pretentions needed to be present.  They helped me to learn how to invite guests into my places and my life.  This has been a great lesson in life for me.

If we turn over the coin, the other side is the hosting side.  To host is to initiate.  To host someone is to invite him or her into your place---your home, your room, or even your space.  Fundamental to hosting is the willingness to include and to share.  There is a kind of grace to effective hosting.  Perhaps some folks are naturally gifted with hosting abilities. 

But I am also sure we can learn to be effective hosts.  In the first place, effective hosts are people who are willing to take responsibility for hosting.  Guests are at the mercy of the hosts.  In fact, one cannot be a guest until someone decides to be a host.  In addition to taking responsibility, the effective host makes the whole process easy and pleasant when he or she is gracious.  Bringing a guest or stranger into a place of comfort takes effort and grace.

The effective host makes the guest feel comfortable and even wanted.  A good host makes being guest easy.  We all know what it is like to feel awkward.  A feeling of being awkward often is accompanied by the feeling that “I want out of here!”  When some people host me, that “I want out of here” feeling dominates my thinking.  Instead of relaxing as a guest, I am furtively looking for the fastest way out of the situation.  I find myself praying for a “guest exit” sign!

By the time we become adults, we have experienced both being hosts and being guests.  In my experience they both were learned and take some effort.  Perhaps being host is a little more demanding, simply because the host is the initiator and the responsible one---at least in the beginning.

As I write this, I realize this phenomenon is potentially quite spiritual.  Perhaps this hosting-being guest experience is very much an analogy to the human encounter with the Holy One.  It is tempting to think God is always the host and we humans are always the guests.  But this misses half the opportunity.

For sure, the Holy One is a host.  In fact, God is an amazing host.  Potentially God hosts us into some of the truly profoundest places and opportunities.  By definition God invites us into relationship, includes us, makes us comfortable, is gracious unto us and so much more.  As guests, there is so much to look forward to when the Divine Hosting includes us.

I also think we can host the Holy One.  God invites us, to be sure.  But we also can invite God into our midst, into our lives.  In fact, some of us have lived a life so self-focused, it would be fair to say God is actually a stranger.  For God to become real to us will require that we take the initiative and invite God to be our guest.

To be human is to be both host and guest.  Consider life to be an opportunity to practice both.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Mindfulness for the Moment

I often wonder what goes through folks’ minds when they see the title of my inspirational reflection.  When I use the word, mindfulness, I wonder what sort of connotations that has for the people who read this.  If they have some awareness of Buddhism, they might figure I am doing a Buddhist thing today.  Certainly mindfulness plays a very important role in Buddhist spirituality.  But mindfulness is not a Buddhist concept.  It is a more general concept which plays a huge role in Buddhist practice.          

I suspect there is a role for mindfulness in every major religious tradition.  Clearly, the word, mindfulness, may not be used in all the traditions, but the idea is there. In fact, it is difficult for me to imagine anyone who is religious or spiritual who is not mindful in some way.           

Let’s take a general look at what people mean when they use the word, mindfulness.  I like the definition I found in a recent article.  The writer talks about mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.”  This is a good definition for me.  It does not seem essentially to be Buddhist, although Buddhists no doubt would be comfortable with that.  It is also easy for me to imagine Jesus would be very comfortable with that idea of intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.  I would hope Christians would be comfortable with it, too.  And probably Jews and Muslims would be ok with it.           

The real issue, however, is not whether someone agrees with the definition.  That is easy.  The real issue is how to practice that.  That is the real question for the Buddhist, the Christian, the Jew and the Muslim.  Words are easy.  Practice is not always so easy.  The real issue is not whether I believe the sentence.  It is how do I put into practice the sentiments of the sentence.  To do that will make me a better person---more spiritual---and it will help me to make the world better.  This is applied spirituality, if you like.            

The author had another idea that I liked.  She said mindfulness is a good way to “take yourself out of autopilot.”  Perhaps this means a great deal to me because I recognize that I spend too much time on autopilot.  Autopilot is not inherently bad.  It is not sinful.  It is just a state of mind that is not engaged.  It is a life that simply exists, but does not experience vibrancy, depth and meaning.  Autopilot is getting by when you can get so much more out of life.           

Mindfulness is a great way to take yourself out of autopilot.  Mindfulness is a means by which we can experience ourselves.  Mindfulness is a great way to be aware of the world around me.  It is to be aware of your suffering and the suffering of others.  Mindfulness helps me see the grace I am daily offered.  And mindfulness enables me to be a graceful conduit of love and mercy to a world sorely in need of careful attention instead of careless inattention.           

A final basic sense of mindfulness comes with the author’s description of the practice of mindfulness.  She says mindfulness “is about being present.”  Again that sounds so simple---and perhaps ultimately it is---but it is not easy for most of us to manage this state.  Being present.  Who would not want to be present?  The illusion is most of us probably assume we are present.  In fact, most of us are probably absent---and absent from ourselves and the world we inhabit.             

There is an alternative.  The alternative is life and, as Jesus said, life abundantly.  The article quotes Dr. Baime, Director of a program at University of Pennsylvania Health System.  Dr. Baime tells us that mindfulness can “create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.”  That is a great description of what being present means.  It is not an idea; it is an experience.  It leads to a way of living.           

I long for the kind of world that brings depth, meaning and connectedness.  That sounds like a spiritual world to me.  Picture the opposite kind of world: shallowness, meaninglessness and loneliness.  That is a description of hell on earth.  It is not spiritual and certainly not desirable.           

Mindfulness is not magical.  It is not a secret.  It is a practice.  It is a way to begin to be centered.  It seeks the center.  For Christians the center is that place deep within where my soul meets the Holy One.  For the Buddhist mindful practice brings awareness.  It enables me to be present.  It creates a world of depth, meaning and connectedness.           

Notice the language: it creates.  Mindfulness is something you can do.  It is a way of taking responsibility for your life and for your own meaning.  Mindfulness creates and it is creative.  It is a choice we have.  Mindfulness is a choice for the moment---for the present. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fundamental Human Questions II

If the first fundamental human question is “who am I,” surely the second question is “what should I do?”  In most cases these two questions are inextricably tied together.  What happens with one question affects the other one.  However, we can only talk about them one at a time, so this reflection piece gives focus to the question, what should I do?           

The first thing to realize in this question is the focus goes on the verb.  In the other question, “who am I,” the focus was on the subject---on “who.”  But in this second question the focus clearly shines on the verb---“do.”  The implication is everyone should do something.  Not doing something is, in effect, doing something, i.e. doing nothing.  This tells me that human beings are essentially designed to be somebody and to do something.  The only questions are who am I as a somebody and what should I do, since I have to do something.           

Humans were designed from the beginning to do something.  In the Genesis story of human creation, the original humans were planted in the garden of Eden---in Paradise.  And there in paradise God gave them something to do.  They were supposed to till and keep the garden of Eden.  It is as if God said, you cannot be truly human and do nothing.  Here is the Divine task for you.  You have to take care of Paradise!  That certainly sounds like an important job!  And that is a pretty important Boss!           

When things did not go so well for the original humans, they were kicked out of Eden.  In the biblical story and made famous in John Steinbeck’s epic title, the humans were condemned to live East of Eden. Things became more difficult.  The world was no longer paradise.  They had to work the land and endure some pain in childbirth.  The things to do became more demanding.  And that sounds a great deal like the world in which we live.  It is not paradise.           

It is not paradise, but it is not necessarily awful.  The idea of doing something took on new meaning in later spiritual traditions.  In the New Testament tradition, the idea of doing something became connected with how Jesus “called” people to be disciples.  In fact, when Jesus came along and said to various people, “follow me” he was calling them into not only a relationship, but an obligation.          

The relationship with Jesus Christians call their discipleship.  A disciple is one who follows the rabbi---a disciple becomes a student connected to his or her rabbi, or teacher.  In some sense this is the identity issue for a Christian---who I am as a Christian.  And it has implications for the other fundamental human question: what should I do.           

To use traditional language again, what the disciple should do is “ministry.”  In Latin ministry means to “serve.”  That is the job: to serve---to do.  You are to serve neighbor and stranger, friend and enemy.  That is a tall order.  Basically your doing is to love.  To love is to serve.           

Later in spiritual history the idea of “doing” was connected with the Latin word, vocatio.  Clearly, the English word, vocation, comes from that word.  Spiritual people had a vocation---a “calling.”  This was not narrowly limited to being a priest or monk.  Every spiritual person had a vocation---a calling.  It might have to do with your job.  It might have to do with some other kind of ministry.  You vocation might be as simple as being the best wife or husband you could be.  That would be God’s desire for you.           

Like the earlier Eden story, something happened to the idea of vocation.  It became secularized.  It lost its spiritual roots.  Vocation came to mean merely a job or a career.  God disappeared and lowly human bosses took God’s place.  East of Eden became the secular world we all know as our own.  The key spiritual question here,  however, is still “what should I do?”           

That is not a career issue.  It is not something to go to career services and get a lead!  Instead, one goes back to the basics.  One engages the Holy One to get a sense of what to do.  The answer in some sense is always going to be some form of ministry---some form of service.           

Traditional spiritual language says what you do is God’s will.  Some folks don’t like “God’s will” language.  Personally I prefer to talk about God’s desire.  God has desires for each and every one of us.  We need to find a way to know that desire.  That might be prayer, meditation, reading---there are many ways to know God’s desire.  It might have to do with your job.  But more than likely, it has more to do with your place and situation in the world and how you can be part of the kingdom-building which is God’s ultimate goal.             

In a real sense our “to do” list is nothing less than the restoration of Paradise.  Our ministry is to take us back to Eden.  Or probably more likely, our calling is to work toward the Kingdom that is to come.  The simplest way to doing this is to be clear who you are spiritually.  And then, begin acting and doing what mature spiritual people should do: love, work for justice, be compassionate, etc.