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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Inspiring Friendship

The concept of friendship has been an important one for quite a long time for me.  And I am sure the phenomenon of friendship has been important to me since I was in the first grade, at least, and probably even before then.  I have taught a few times a college class on spiritual friendship.  Every time I have done that, it has been a special occasion.  It seems that teaching a course on friendship creates a special opportunity for significant personal development among the students.  And fortunately, I am the beneficiary of that experience, too.

I have studied the idea of friendship, so I probably know more about the history, the philosophy and theology of friendship than most people know.  I have valued the way Aristotle talks about different kinds of friendships.  I appreciate the way Cicero, right before the time of Jesus, developed some profound ways of understanding how friendships are formed and how they should be lived.  Friendship came to be a very important idea in the history of Christian spirituality. 

In fact, in the New Testament Jesus calls his disciples “friends.”  I really like the fact that the Greek language of the New Testament uses a word that normally translates “love” as the friendship word.  So in biblical Greek the language of friendship is love.  That heightens the importance of friendship, as I understand it.  My own religious tradition, namely the Quakers, have a more formal title called “The Religious Society of Friends.”  I like being a Friend and a friend.

All of this was not really on my mind as I turned to the lectionary of the day.  I usually do this each morning in order to spend a little time in my spiritual discipline.  I like to do some reading, spend a little time in prayerful waiting and meditation.  The lectionary---daily readings---I use comes from the Benedictine monastery.  It gives me regular readings.  Another feature that comes with it is the notation of particular saints’ days.

Although I am not Catholic, I am catholic in spirit.  And many of the Catholic saints I would also claim as my own.  If I am part of the greater Christian tradition, then the best of that tradition is shared by all of us.  So I am always pleased to see when a particular day singles out some special holy person.

Today the person was Ignatius of Loyola.  I immediately recognized this sixteenth century Spaniard as the founder of the Jesuits.  Ignatius began his adult life in the military, but was soon wounded.  During his recovery he read some spiritual literature and decided, in effect, to become a soldier of Christ.  He and some buddies formed a spiritual group and offered themselves to the Pope to be used as the Pope saw fit.  Soon this band of serious spiritual soldiers were recognized as the Society of Jesus---hence called the Jesuits.

I was intrigued by the role friendship played in the whole process of the Jesuits’ founding.  No doubt, a key component was the personality of Ignatius of Loyola.  I did a little background reading.  Soon I found a fascinating sentence that I found revealing.  The author of a little article talked about the leadership role Ignatius played in the beginning of the Jesuit formation. 

We read that “Ignatius had a gift for inspiring friendship, and was the recipient of deep spiritual insight.”  In the article it was an innocuous little sentence.  But it stood out to me as a clarion characteristic of a spiritual leader.  Interestingly, the article does not claim that Ignatius was a naturally talented guy---although he may have been that, too.  He had a gift.  The gift was to inspire friendship.  Going back to the root meaning of friendship---love---we conclude that Ignatius had a gift for inspiring love. 

To inspire love is to inspire relationships.  Relationships of love are typically grounded in a commitment to the relationship.  Commitment entails doing enough---and usually more than enough---to develop and deepen the relationship.  If it is truly a love relationship, then you matter more than I do.  This is a very spiritual way of seeing love.  It suggests the way I understand Jesus to be loving.  You matter more than I do.

The brilliance of this, however, is the recognition that if everyone is a friend in this fashion, you have the ingredients of a powerfully effective community.  If everyone is a friend in this fashion, then everyone is committed.  If this commitment were lived out with the assumption that you matter more than I do, then there would be little selfishness or egocentricity present in this community.

With this kind of community, almost anything is possible.  When a group is non-defensive, non-egotistical and compassionate, then there is tremendous power available to make the world a better place.  Just reading about this inspires me.  In its own way, Ignatius’ story is still inspiring friendship.  If I can get this, then maybe I can begin to get the deep spiritual insight Ignatius apparently had.  Thanks friend!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Coach, the Monk and the Truth

Somebody once said that we are known by the company we keep.  To an extent, I think this is probably true.  I would be happy to be known by the range of friends that I have.  I have some very good people I call friends.  To be associated with them is a privilege.  But we can take this even further.

It might also be true that we are known by the people we read.  No doubt, the folks that we read do inform us.  And often, they form us.  There is no question but what I have been influenced mightily by the various spiritual writers I have read over the decades.  I think this is especially true in our younger years when we are being formed as people.  But hopefully, we continue to grow even into our “silver years.”

I would call this a form of continuing revelation.  Calling it such is not meant to take on the tricky issue of biblical authority.  As I want to use the phrase, continuing revelation, I simply mean an ongoing relationship with authors, ideas and my own personal growth.  I very much hope I can continue this growth trajectory until I am no longer able to read and interact. 

By growth I do not mean that we necessarily keep changing our minds.  To the contrary, a good bit of personal growth is not changing our minds so much as it is getting some intellectual, emotional and spiritual depth.  Effective growth might be stabilizing as much as it is change.  My hope is that I might grow more and more into the truth that I come to see and understand.

That’s why yesterday’s reading was fascinating.  I felt exposed to some deeper truth that resonated with what I felt I already knew.  And it came rather unexpectedly from two sources I happened to be reading.  I was reading to be informed.  And in the process personal and spiritual formation happened.  I am always grateful for this experience.

The first source came from the daily newspaper I read.  Early morning hour with coffee and sports page is not typically the venue for continuing revelation.  I was reading a story about the collegiate football powerhouse, Ohio State.  Since I am not a native Buckeye, I lack the passion for this football phenomenon that some colleagues manifest.  So I was rather casually reading about the famous coach, Urban Meyer. 

Suddenly a sentence jumped out at me with a kind of resounding truth that I gulped my coffee.  It was a basic truth, but it deepened my conviction of how true it really is.  Meyer said, “Routine is something that is undervalued.”  I agree with Coach Meyer that routine is extremely important.  Routine is the heart of discipline.  In my case it is not football; it is spiritual discipline.  It is clear to me that we succeed with spiritual discipline when we are able to establish a routine.

Routine is crucial because it enables us to continue being engaged with the discipline even when we may not want to do it.  When we are in a routine, we don’t have to decide every day or every occasion whether we want to do something.  Routine is like a favorite friend who nudges and nourishes us toward good things.  Routine is like a good friend helping us to do good things. Well said, coach!

Then later in the day, I turned to my favorite monk, Thomas Merton.  Unlike Coach Meyer, Merton is deceased.  But that does not mean his words do not ring just as true.  I was reading one of his books from the early 50s and hit this sentence.  Merton quips, “Duty does not have to be dull.”  Once again, this rang so true to me.

It seems like duty has a bad reputation these days.  Many folks shun duty, if they possibly can.  Freedom is more important.  Duty gets in our way of doing what we want.  And yet, there is a time-honored role for duty.  I link duty with obligation.  And it often means something I “have” to do.  But it does not have to be solely a drill sergeant mentality.  Let’s cite two instances of duty that come out of our freedom.

In the first instance, if I have chosen and developed a friendship, then I have an obligation---a duty---to nurture and cherish that friendship.  I “owe” it to my friend to be faithful, helpful, etc.  And my friend has the same duty to me---thankfully.

Secondly, I think of my duty to the Holy One.  If I have entered into a relationship with God, then I have freely assumed an obligation---a duty---to be faithful, loving, etc.  Duty is a delight in this case.  To shun my duty is to be untrue to the relationship and to my belief.  Duty is healthy and delightful.  As Merton says, duty does not have to be dull.  Well said, monk!

I appreciate my monk friend and my football coach for the truths they speak.  They give me a new appreciation for two rock solid convictions about human relationships and activity.  Much depends on routine and on duty.  I am happy to be known by the company I keep---monks, coaches and truth seekers.  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Martha: Patron Saint for Non-Winners

Today is the feast day of Martha---known as St. Martha in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Martha is a figure we met a couple times in the New Testament.  Probably the more famous of the two accounts comes in John’s Gospel when we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha.  Clearly, the important person in this story is Lazarus.

The other reference to Martha comes in Luke’s Gospel.  This is a much shorter story and throughout history has been open to various interpretations.  In this story Jesus comes to have a meal with the sisters.  The sisters function in two different roles.  And often one of these roles is seen as a “higher” or more important role.  If this were a contest, Martha would become the patron saint for non-winners.  Let’s get a bit of the background.

In this Gospel story from Luke we read that Jesus came to a village where the sisters lived.  Right away we are told that Martha “welcomed him into her home.” (Lk 10:38)  I very much like this opening of this story.  I don’t know how else to read it other than Martha was the hospitable one.  Hospitality is a powerful witness of love and compassion for the “other”---whoever that other might be.  In order to appreciate fully the role that Martha plays, we need to value this hospitable welcome.

In the next verse we are told that Martha has a sister, Mary, and that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” (10:39).  Quickly Mary’s action is contrasted with that of Martha.  We read that Martha was “distracted by her many tasks…” (10:40)  These two contrasting actions became throughout Christian history the two classical types of the Christian life: the active life (Martha) and the contemplative life (Mary).  And it was always tempting for those in monasteries and other more “serious” ways of being religious to say, or at least imply, that Mary had the “better role.”

This interpretation is reinforced apparently by the words of Jesus himself.  Martha complains (rightly?) that Mary asks, “do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  To me this always seemed like a legitimate question.  In fact, it strikes me as a question of justice.  In effect, Martha is saying, “this is not fair.”  In many ways I really don’t like the response of Jesus to Martha.  Effectively, he says to Martha, “you are too worried about things.”  And then he says, Mary has chosen the better part…” (10:42).  It is easy to see how this leads to preferential treatment for Mary and all the followers of Mary’s way.

However, I suspect far more people in life feel like they have been given the “Martha role” in life.  Even if we are not talking in religious terms, the Martha role is the dominant one in our world.  We hear it in phrases like, “you have to work for what you get” and “there is no free lunch.”  I dare say, many of us in the world don’t really appreciate the way Mary deals with Martha nor, even, how Jesus responds to Martha.  Basically, we feel like Martha gets a raw deal!

When I read this story, somehow it always feels like Mary comes up the winner---and I am not sure she should be the winner.  Of course, I doubt that the Gospel writer Luke and, probably, not Jesus himself wanted the story to be read as a “winners-losers” story.  But I am tempted to feel like Martha loses in this one.  I identify with her.

Of course, I don’t think Martha is an ultimate loser.  I do think Jesus loved her and had a clear sense of the value of her life, role and purpose.  In the moment it seems like she gets a raw deal.  In the end I am sure everything turns out well and she ultimately is a winner, not a loser.  And I believe that fate awaits all of us.  This story does not tell us what happened to Martha and Mary in the rest of the story. 

So I appreciate this is the feast day for Martha---she is honored.  Why does it matter to me?  It matters because I identify so much with Martha.  There have been countless times when I felt like I was doing more than my share, that I was being shortchanged by others, or that my efforts were not seen or were being ignored.  I felt like I was getting a raw deal.  If I raise my complaint, either I was not heard or got nothing to change my situation. 

It is easy to feel some anger here.  It is easy to feel like a non-winner.  This story and Martha have taught me an important lesson.  Even in spiritual matters there will be times I will not feel like a winner.  Either I don’t get what I feel I deserve or others will get what I thought I deserved.  Even if I complain, nothing will change.  I am tempted to feel like a loser.

But Martha was not a loser and neither am I.  In the story she simply does not seem to be the winner in the moment.  Apparently she learned a deeper lesson.  She says nothing further---no more complaints.  And I recall in the beginning that she was the hospitable one.  Hospitality is always a winning move.  She does not need to be the winner every time.  Thanks Martha, patron saint for non-winners. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Papal Insight

I like following the work of the Pope.  Since I am not Roman Catholic, the Pope has no inherent spiritual authority over me, but he does exercise a kind of spiritual authority for all Christians.  It would be absurd to say that since I am not Catholic, the Pope does not matter.  After all, there are more than one billion Catholics in our world---that means about one out of every six human beings are Catholic!  Those are impressive numbers.  And to think that one human being has spiritual authority over that group is doubly impressive.

If we wanted a comparison, the best comparison would be the nation of China.  That nation also has over one billion in population.  And it, too, is governed by a single president, Xi Jinping.  Even he does not have the kind of authority that the Pope has.  But I am not really interested in the issue of authority---either religious or political.  I am actually interested in the person who is elected to this kind of position and, therefore, acquires that kind of authority.

Clearly, the Pope is a very visible figure.  People flock to Rome in order to visit the Vatican and catch a glimpse of the Pope.  Wherever the Pope travels, thousands of people flock to see him and to be with him.  If the Pope speaks or writes something, the world knows it.  This is how I follow the papal happenings.  I tend to get my papal news from the television news and online reports.  If the Pope publishes an encyclical---a document treating some particular subject, I usually download it and read it.  So for a non-Catholic, I probably have an above-interest and knowledge of papal things.

I am intrigued by the current Pope, Francis I.  It was quite interesting when he was elected Pope that he chose to be named Francis, after the great medieval friar, Francis of Assisi.  Perhaps it is because that medieval Francis is one of my favorite historical figures that I am enamored by Pope Francis.  I hope he lives more and more into the spirit of those early Franciscans.

I am always on the lookout for interesting papal news.  Recently it was reported that Pope Francis “invited believers to always be prepared for surprising ways in which "difficulty" and "sin" can be converted into "new friendship" with God.”  Wow, I thought, that is an amazing perspective.  This is a very significant sentence and worth unpacking.

First of all, it makes sense that Francis would invite believers to something.  I appreciate the language of “invitation.”  That is so much more respectful than “obeying” or “ordering” or “commanding.”  Invitation suggests a particular kind of understanding of his own authority.  Imagine the power of the person who could command you to do something.  And instead of command, the person invites you to do something.  I think most of us would feel respected, inspired and energized.  Let’s look at what the Pope invites us to do. 

He asks us always to be prepared.  That seems like sage advice.  Being prepared is usually preferable to not being prepared.  But more than that, we are always to be prepared for surprising ways to become something or somebody new.  That is an amazing invitation to preparation.  Wow, I think, count me in.  I want to be prepared.

Prepared for what?  Here comes the power of Pope Francis.  We are always to be prepared for the surprising ways difficulty and sin can be converted.  That is amazingly good news.  Anyway, who wants to sign on for difficulties and sin?  Not me!  But clearly both difficulties and sin are inevitable.  I don’t know any human being who has not experienced both.  The good news is they can be converted. 

Normally, I don’t really like the language of conversion.  But here it is quite compelling.  Intriguingly, the Pope suggests that difficulties and sins are not wiped away; they are converted.  They are changed from one thing into another.  That says a great deal about the way the Spirit works in our midst---converting lousy things into lovely things.

The lovely thing into which difficulty and sin are converted is new friendship with God.  Wow, I think; that is wonderful.  From the mess of difficulty and sin comes the miracle of friendship.  Who does not want to hear and believe this good news?  Who does not want to have our messes converted into miracles?  That is good news.  I believe.

I am quite fine with this good news coming from the Pope.  It seems true to me, not because the Pope suggests that it is true.  It seems true to me because it is grounded in my experience of the working of the Holy One in my life and in the world.  I suspect that is why the Pope also knows it is true. It is true to our experience, not because the Pope says it.  The fact that the Pope says it gives it credibility and weight. 

I like Pope Francis.  I appreciate his papal insight.  I would like to think that both of us are news friends of the Divine One.  And there must be a whole host of other friends, too.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Hope of Community

People who know me know that I have a love of community.  But I am also quite aware of how superficial and shallow “community language” can be.  Anyone can pronounce that any group is a community.  I know that it is a slippery word.  I don’t know too many people who are against community, but I suspect many of us don’t quite know exactly what community is nor how it is developed and sustained.  Sometimes I am not sure myself.

So when I wanted to revisit this topic, I turned to one of my old friends, Parker Palmer.  My relationship with Parker goes a long way back.  We share quite a bit of ideas and commitments, but he has become famous (and probably rich).  I have achieved neither!  Palmer has been thinking about and writing about community for a long time.  He has been actively involved in thinking about this from the perspective of the educational world.  But I don’t think it is that much different from the world of churches, temples and mosques.

Let me share a basic definition of community, as Parker Palmer offers it.  He says, “My definition of community is simple, if partial: I understand community as a capacity for relatedness within individuals–relatedness not only to people but to events in history, to nature, to the world of ideas, and yes to things of the spirit.”  This definition is a little convoluted, so let’s take some time to unpack it. 

In the first place, Palmer defines community to be a capacity.  This means a couple things.  Most importantly it means community is possible.  If we have the capacity for community, that implies it has to be possible.  But that raises the second important point.  It may be possible, but it is not a given---it is not inevitable.  Thirdly, this suggests to me that community will have to be created and nurtured.  Simply put, we will have to develop the capacity for community.

The next affirmation about community is that community is a capacity for relatedness.  This is the key idea.  It means that community is essentially relatedness.  This makes sense to me.  Basically community is an issue of relating to others.  Palmer acknowledges that we all have this capacity within for relatedness.  That’s the good news.  The less than good news is the fact that not everyone will develop his or her capacity for relatedness.  Some of us might not even care.  If I am grossly egocentric, I am not at all interested in relatedness.

Finally, Palmer promulgates a notion of community that encompasses more than just people.  He talks about community as relatedness with respect to history, nature, ideas, and the spiritual.  That is much more inclusive than many of us would think about community.  I like this; it serves us well in the 21st century to think in bigger terms.  And of course, I very much like how Palmer links community and the Spirit.  Let’s move in that direction.

I share one more quotation from Palmer that takes us deeper into our consideration of community.  Palmer comments, “If you ask what holds community together, what makes this capacity for relatedness possible, the only honest answer I can give brings me to that dangerous realm called the spiritual. The only answer I can give is that what makes community possible is love.”  This may sound a bit odd, but remember Palmer is primarily addressing an educational audience.  But he is speaking truth, as I understand it.  I love his answer.

The spiritual holds community together.   I am convinced this is true.  And if we lose touch with the Spirit, ultimately we will lose community.  And I appreciate even more the last line of Palmer’s words.  What makes community possible is love.  This is so simply said, but it is so profoundly true.

So if we want to build, develop and sustain community, we need to get in touch with the Spirit.  And then we need to learn love.  If we cannot love, we will not have community.  Sometimes I have been asked what I thought the secret of community is?  I really don’t think there is a secret.  It actually is as simple as Parker Palmer makes it. 

It is about love and about the Spirit.  It is not any more complex than this.  But because it is simple, does not means it is always easy.  Love is not always easy.  But not to love is sad---and perhaps, even, tragic.  Community inevitably is a choice that will be a comedy.  Oh, it may not be a comedy in the street sense of good laughs.  But it is a comedy in the sense that it all comes out well in the end.

My own hope is that I find and live in community.  But community is not just my own private hope.  I suggest community is nothing less than the hope of the world.    

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

No Music on Bad Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Royal Baby

Understandably, there is much hoopla when a royal baby is born somewhere around the world.  Since Americans don’t have a monarchy, we have nothing like a royal baby to celebrate.  Fawning over a royal baby is both fun and funny.  For Americans a royal baby creates an occasion for much fun.  It is fun to join the world in speculating when the birth will come, what the name will be and so on.  In some ways it is so much fun because we have nothing at stake. 

And it is funny.  It is funny because if we had any national stake in the birth of a royal baby, we would be in revolt.  We took care of the king/queen issue back in the Revolutionary War.  I know some people who think having a president is bad enough!  A king or queen would be unthinkable.  There will be no royal babies here.  But somewhere else?  That’s great; we’ll watch and participate with pleasure.

Having pondered royal babies, I have concluded it does not matter much at all to me.  Of course, I am always happy the royal baby is safely born and, apparently, healthy, etc.  That is always cause for celebration.  I am sure the royal baby will do well.  Royal babies have about the best deal possible for human beings on this earth. 

The birth of another royal baby caused me to think about babies, rather than about royalty.  This is the juncture most media coverage take the other path.  For media and all of us watching the media, the birth of a royal baby is news and newsworthy simply because the baby is royal.  If it were my baby or my kid’s baby, there would be absolutely no media.  You would never know another baby had come into the world unless I told you.  So let’s focus on the baby, rather than the royalty.  That potentially makes this a spiritual focus.

The spiritual question that can be posed asks this: what if every baby born into the world were to be seen AND treated royally?  A royal baby is the lucky infant born to parents within the royal lineage.  In this sense “royal” is an adjective.  The baby is royal because of parents and lineage…and no other reason.  However, if every baby in the world were seen and treated royally, then the only qualification for royalty is to be a baby!

Seen this way radically democratizes the way to see royalty.  That should appeal to every American.  And of course, for me, this radically spiritualizes the way to see every baby born into the world.  This radical spiritualization can be seen to take three forms.

In the first place, to see and treat every baby royally is to see every baby with the dignity he or she deserves.  As a Christian, it is important to me to affirm what the Genesis creation story contends, namely, that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  Of course, this is true for the royal baby.  He is created in the image and likeness of God.  This is the dignity he bears as a human being.  In my mind that is the mark of his royalty.  He is a child of God.  But the good news is, every other baby born in the world bears this divine lineage.

It is important that we not only see that this is true for every baby born into the world, but that we begin to treat every baby as the royalty of that dignity deserves.  This is true for babies born in the most innocuous place in Africa, in the darkest places in America’s inner cities and in the swankiest hospitals around the world.  Every human being bears the mark of divine dignity.

Secondly, every royal baby has decided advantages.  But I also contend that every baby born into the world deserves to be seen and treated royally.  He and she deserve advantages, too.  We are all spiritual equals in the eye of the Holy One.  It is time people in the world stepped up and treated royally all the little, dignified ones with the advantages they deserve.  Advantages come both in material form and spiritual form.  Every baby should be given both.

Finally, every baby born into the world deserves the royal treatment of deep love.  Not to love deeply every little, dignified baby is to sin against him or her.  Worse than not being fair, not to love deeply is a sin.  All the major religious traditions teach us that we should care for those who are less than advantaged.  Babies are simply too young and innocent to be held accountable for anything.  They are blameless.  They deserve the best.

Every baby merits being treated royally.  Perhaps the profoundest way to do this royal treatment is to love them---love them deeply.  It certainly would be nice if their parents could do this.  But we all know in too many cases, this is not working.  We cannot throw up our hands and say, “oh well.”  Instead, we have to pitch in to do the deep loving they may not get any other places.

All of us who see the spiritual truth to the royal nature of all babies have to become God-like and do the loving that God wants us to do.  We only have one chance to love babies and that is when they are babies.  To wait is to waste golden opportunities to begin to transform the world.  I am sure if we are willing, we will be given a chance to treat someone royally.  Go for it.      

Monday, July 22, 2013

Practice to Grow

I am always delighted to meet someone who has been spiritual for decades.  Perhaps it is because I spend a great deal of my time with younger folks.  Even if a college-age student has been religious for quite a while, that still pales in comparison with an eighty or ninety-year old person who has “been at it” for decades.  Most college-age students simply have not lived long enough to experience the serious ups and downs of life.  On the other hand, if you have lived eighty years, chances are you have seen a great deal.

I am intrigued to know how the old-timers manage to hang in there with their spiritual practices.  What sustains them over the years?  In my own Quaker tradition we talk about “dry places.”  These are the times of the life of the spirit when nothing seems to be happening.  We may spend time in prayer, but there seems to be no connection.  We may meditate regularly, but to no real avail.  We practice, but our spirits are so dry, there is no growth.

I long to know God’s Spirit so well that I can persevere over the decades of ups and downs.  I want to be connected sufficiently that dry places do not tempt me to give it up completely.  I want to know what it is like to sign up for the long haul---till death do me part?  

It was at this point I ran across a couple sentences from a work I value quite highly.  Roger Walsh has written a book entitled, Essential Spirituality.  It is one I use when I teach a class on Contemplative Spirituality.  I consistently find nuggets of wisdom in this book.  And its real strength is the myriad of practical exercises designed to help us grow and develop our spiritual lives.  Let me share those sentences.

The first thing Walsh claims is that “Over time, spiritual practices work their transformative wonders on our hearts, minds, and lives.”  Let’s unpack this sentence to discover the power of Walsh’s insight.  Clearly, Walsh is talking about spiritual practice or discipline.  All of these are designed to help us with the spiritual journey “over time.”  Discipline is not a one-night stand.  Spiritual practices are engagements over a period of time.  They are designed to take me into my eighties or, even, nineties, if I live that long.

The next thing that Walsh affirms about spiritual practices is that they work transformative wonders.  I love that claim.  I cannot imagine anyone saying, in effect, “nope, I don’t want any transformative wonders!”  To the contrary!  Even if I am not sure what kind of transformative wonders are being described, I want in on the action.  “Here am I, Lord,” I shout.

Without summarizing Walsh’s entire book, I can say that the transformative wonders are, indeed, life changing.  In essence, these wonders enable me to know myself at my deepest level and to know the Holy One deeply within me.  They are called “wonders” for good reason.  The wonders affect every aspect of who I am.  As Walsh affirms, they work their magic on my heart, my mind and my life.  All of who I am is transformed---to the very core of my being.

And this is exactly what Walsh claims in the second sentence I want to quote.  He says, “As the heart opens and the mind clears, we see further and further into the boundless depths of the mind.”  Apparently, the early work of the spiritual practice working its transformative wonder is to open the heart and to clear the mind.  This is the kind of claim that is easy to read.  But it takes a little time to reflect on the profundity of that claim. 

If we can engage the spiritual practices and allow our hearts to open, we will be more and more vulnerable to God’s creative and re-creative work in our hearts.  Our hearts will become more deeply capable of love and, ultimately, of compassion. 

The same thing is true for the clearing of the mind that is effected by spiritual discipline.  As our minds clear, we see more sharply and more truly.  As Walsh says, when the mind is cleared, we see more and more into the boundless depths of the mind.  To see and, then, to live from those boundless depths of mind is to be situated in life in such a way that personally become spiritual transformers of our world. 

Surely, this helps explain the lives of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus and all the spiritual giants we could name.  Surely it was only through the practice of the disciplines that they developed the breadth and depth we associate with them.  Surely, it was the basic practices that enabled them to grow.  And surely, it is the same with us, too.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Case for Interconnectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Significance of Signs

I was out for a leisurely walk yesterday afternoon.  It was one of those glorious days that would be unfortunate to miss.  It was an effort not so much focused on exercise and more focused on simply enjoying the day.  I am not sure I do enough of that.  Too often I am in the middle of something I think is important and I am too much in a hurry to get to wherever I am going.  I think I do miss the roses sometimes!

I was trying to pay attention to the world around me and the cosmic beauty.  But I was not particularly focused on anything special.  I was not trying to see anything nor learn anything special.  I was certainly not thinking about this reflection to be written tonight.  But as usual, if one is open and attentive, things are revealed.  Once again, I went for a walk and something spiritual occurred.

It was provoked by an older woman who was driving down a street.  I did not even notice until she stopped and a young lad jumped out of the car and disappeared into one of the college buildings.  There was nothing unusual in that.  But then the woman pulled into a driveway and began to turn around.  Suddenly, I was alert.  She was preparing to drive the wrong way on the one-way street.

I came close to the car, as she was already backing out, ready to head in the wrong direction.  Without a sound, I simply pointed to the direction she was supposed to drive…and I walked on.  Sometimes I know people intentionally drive the wrong way on a street.  But I think she was going wrong out of ignorance.  I had shown her the correct way; it was up to her to decide which way to go.

I do think in her case, it was ignorance.  I don’t think she saw any one-way sign.  And then it hit me.  Immediately I was fascinated by signs and their function.  Suddenly I started seeing signs all over the place.  I never realized how many signs there are in my work neighborhood---and probably in many neighborhoods.

There are stop signs, street signs, signs to identify buildings.  There are signs on stores and in stores.  I realized that a primary function of a sign is to point out something.  Signs “tell” us things.  More precisely, signs “signify” something.  Good signs are clear and unambiguous.  We talk about a stop sign.  It means one thing.  It ‘signifies” by both its shape and its wording.  Of course, we can choose to ignore it.  Funny that when that happens, we say someone “ran a stop sign!”

The most common form of signs in our world would be the words we use.  If I say “cat,” you do not think “elephant.”  The word “cat” signifies some little feline animal---anything but an elephant.  Good signs usually have a shared meaning.  All of us who drive know what the stop sign means.  Signs like this have significance.

The significance of the stop sign is that it prevents accidents and chaos.  Think how messy it would be if all drivers did whatever they felt like when they came to stop signs.  If we did this, the stop sign would have no significance.  It would be meaningless.

One more step led me to realize not all signs deal with words.  If I smile, that is a sign that I am ok or, even, happy.  That could have significance.  It probably means I am not likely to bite off your head!  So signs signify and they have significance.  But is there anything spiritual in all this?

Of course there is spirituality implicated here.  Let’s take the cue from my example of the smile.  My smile is how I present myself in the moment.  It gives you a cue and maybe a clue to my personality.  Or my smile may mislead you; my smile may be faking you out to believe something I want you to believe.  But we all know that I am more than a smile.  And you are, too.

But the point is made.  I present myself every day by how I am and who I am.  I am a walking, talking sign.  I am always signifying.  Hopefully, I have significance.  But I know some signs have no significance.

Allow me to take this to the ultimate level.  I suggest the incarnation itself is the super-sign.  For Christians the incarnation affirms that the Divinity became humanity in Jesus.  In effect, Jesus “signs” God’s Presence on earth.  What he said and did were powerful events of signaling something specific about God’s desire for human beings.  His life as a sign had immense significance.  That is spiritual to the “nth” degree.

The spiritual significance in this is clear: each of us has the same “signing” capacity as we go about our own lives.  It is not just a Christian thing; it is a religious (or spiritual) thing.  Our lives signify our loyalties, our values, and our purpose. Let your life speak!  And let your life speak significantly.  Let your life be one of significance of the sign of God’s Presence.           

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Key to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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