Friday, August 30, 2013

Revelation: A Spider’s Web

There are always cool things to learn if we are open to learning.  And some of the stuff I learn, I am not quite sure what I will do with it.  Just this weekend I read an interesting article in the local newspaper about spiders.  I am neutral on spiders.  They are interesting creatures.  I am not scared of them.  They don’t bother me, but before reading the article I was not particularly fascinated by them either.

But now I am intrigued.  The title of the article is catchy: “Unraveling a spider’s secret miracle fiber.”  I think any time someone uses the word, “miracle,” intrigue is built into it.  And then you add the qualifier, “secret!”  Who can resist a “secret miracle?”

The article gets to the point when it describes the silk woven by the spider.  We read that “Spider silk is nature’s miracle fiber.  It’s ultra-strong, versatile, durable, replenishable, even edible.  Spiders can churn out 100 yards a day.”  “Wow,” I think, “100 yards!”  “And they can eat it!” I’m hooked on spiders now.  How many times I have seen spiders’ webs and paid little or no attention.  It is easy to think about all those times when I was a boy on that Indiana farm and saw numerous spider webs all around the barns.  I remember seeing that various things---bugs, flies, etc.---had been caught in the web.  I wondered how they got caught.

Now I realize the web is such that the bug which is caught has no option.  That bug is stuck.  This web-stuff is strong.  Now I realize, according to the article, that spiders “can coat it with glue to snare prey…”  No wonder things get stuck in it.  A flying insect just “hit glue.” 

The article is actually about scientists at the University of Akron who are trying to figure out how the spiders do it so humans can replicate it. The article goes into the evolution of spiders and other such detail that leaves my head spinning.  And I thought they were just bugs!  But maybe these bugs are sources of revelation.

Clearly, they are revealers to the scientists.  Through study the scientists hope to uncover the “secret miracle.”  Then something hits me.  Perhaps not all revelations come to humans while we are just sitting around waiting for the revelation to drop like manna from heaven.  Maybe some revelation happens through human effort.  Perhaps some revelations come by virtue of my discipline and even dogged determination. 

I know the word, “revelation,” or its verb, “reveal,” means to make something known, make something visible, to disclose something.  In the religious context it normally means God is doing something so that we or all of humanity can now “see” something or “understand” something.  But it does not necessarily mean that we take a seat and tell God: “ok, I am ready for another dose of revelation.” 

Perhaps it is more like the spider and the scientist.  Who would think God would use spiders to reveal something of nature’s splendor, creativity, and possibilities?  And perhaps the spiritual journey to revelation is like the scientist.  We have to seek, be disciplined, and open to revelation’s surprises. 

Thanks be to God for this lesson in humility.  If I become too smug, let me then spin a web!  But I do have webs…webs of friends, for instance.  I think I will stand by for the spider to teach me more.  You, too?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Prayer: Making Connection

I hope this day is a prayerful day for you.  I realized at one point that I did not always know what people meant if they talked about prayer.  It was not so much that they did not know what they meant.  No doubt, I was the problem.  I became aware that I was not at all sure I knew what I meant by “prayer.”

I grew up in a church context.  I watched people pray.  I listened, but realize I really did not listen.  I think I heard words, but paid no attention.  There even were those times when I was supposed to pray.  Now I know that no one had taught me anything about prayer.  Then I only felt “put on the spot!” 

I have now learned a little more about prayer.  It is not easy.  But maybe it is, and I have just made it too difficult.  And then at one point I encountered the work of the wonderful Jewish theologian, Heschel.  I have been guided and assisted by this 20th century spiritual titan.  Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, Quest for God, has inspired me and I like the sub-title: “studies in prayer and symbolism.” 

The book opens with these accurate words.  “There was never a time in which the need for self-expression was so much stressed.  Yet there was never a time in which self-expression was so rarely achieved…  The self is silent; words are dead, and prayer is a forgotten language.”

To learn to pray is learning again to speak.  Heschel guides us.  He says “to pray is to pull ourselves together, to pour our perception, volition, memory, thought, hope, feeling, dreams, all that is moving in us, into one force…Not the words we utter…but the way in which the devotion of the heart corresponds to what the words contain…is the pith of prayer.”  This is very powerful language.  I wish someone had told me about this kind of prayer.  It is so much more than what you do verbally so you can eat!

I have heard about people who “pray their hearts out.”  I think I have misread the meaning in that phrase.  I always assumed it meant they tried very hard---worked hard---like the basketball player who “played his heart out.”  That leaves the player exhausted.  I am not sure the goal of prayer is exhaustion.  I think it is probably something like connection…connection to God and, probably, to each other.

To “pray your heart out” is not that kind of athletic work.  Indeed, it is the work of connecting.  A prayer, which is only words, is not “connecting” prayer.  The words---when effective---are signs or symbols of the connection of the human heart to the loving divine heart.  Prayer is the means; connection is the result. 

Finally, I like Heschel’s words when he says “prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God.”  With a stethoscope a physician can get a clear, audible reading on my beating heart.  Maybe my prayer is a spiritual stethoscope, which links my heart to the ears of God.

Let this day be prayerful---full of prayer.  It may be words.  It surely is connection.  I can do it.  You too?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Without Preaching the Gospel

Although the title for this inspirational reflection comes from inside the text of a small article I read online, it was the title of that online article that lured me into reading.  I routinely read quite a few religious and spiritual websites just so I can be more aware of what’s going on in the world.  And it is literally in the world.  Once upon a time, you were current if you knew what was going on in your city or state.  Really “with it” people had a good national awareness.  When I was growing up, I don’t think I knew anyone who had been abroad.  In those days on the Indiana farm, to go to New York City or DC was tantamount to going abroad!

With the internet things have changed.  The world is as near as the click of the mouse.  So I try to follow the global news, particularly in the spiritual sense.  If I am dealing with students in my class who may live till 2085, I need to help them live with an awareness of the shrinking world they inhabit.  I have to be careful of my own perspective and prejudices.

As I was reading online, suddenly this title jumped out at me: “Beauty and Beer.”  What a pair of words: beauty and beer!  I had no idea what the article would be describing.  Then I saw the subtitle, which helped a little.  The subtitle proclaimed, “Monk’s Outreach is Part of New Evangelization.”  That certainly redefines evangelization from what I knew as a boy.  I was hooked; I had to read the article.

The story is about a Benedictine monastery in Italy---Norcia, to be exact.  Norcia is the birthplace of Benedict, the Italian Catholic who founded the Benedictine monastery in the 6th century.  The monastery in that Italian city has only eighteen monks.  Father Benedict Novakoff is the director of the brewery, as well as being the subprior (basically the second in command---“vice-abbot,” if you please).  The brewery is a recent venture.  Since Benedictine monasteries are supposed to be self-supporting financially, it was begun with moneymaking in mind.

However, when people began to flock to the monastic gift shop to buy the beer, the monks realized perhaps God had given them more than a mere way to make money to support the community in its prayer and work life.  The gift shop became an engaging place of hospitality for a group of monks whose commitment is always to be hospitable.  But they were not only hospitable to folks.  The monks soon discovered they were involved in a kind of ministry.

Deep in the article I found a remarkable sentence that made me sit up and take notice.  Again in conversation with Father Novakoff, we learn that the monks recognize the multiple circumstances in which they meet people.  We can listen to Novakoff’s insightful words.  He says, “we have to preach the gospel without preaching the gospel---just through the example of Christian charity and being kind to people.”  That sentence is an absolute gem.

I was drawn to the idea of preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel.  There are still a number of churches that intend to convert people to Christianity.  They still work with revivals and, often, altar calls.  Of course, they can still be effective.  But that has not been my style.  And I know a multitude of people for whom that is a real turn-off.  Clearly the monks have an alternative: beauty, beer and preaching without preaching.

The insight of Father Novakoff, which I take away, is the interpretation he offers for “preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel.”  They preach without preaching in two ways.  In the first place they model the example of Christian charity.  They love!  How quaint!  How powerful.  If love is “preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel,” then count me in.  I want to become a preacher!

In the second place they preach by being kind to people.  How sneaky, I thought.  Being kind to people is something we can do any place and at any time.  I don’t need a degree or special education.  I don’t need to be divinely called by God to preach and to evangelize.  I don’t even insist that people become religious in a particular way.  I simply am going about my evangelizing “without preaching the gospel.”

This is when the beer came into focus.  Beer in the gift shop of a monastery is clever.  It is a wonderful sign of hospitality.  It is a gift (well, for a little money).  It is a sign of love.  Certainly, it is one of the ways monks are being kind to others.  But then, I realized, the real gift is not the beer.  The real gift is the love that God is showing through the monks.  The gospel is being lived out in the monks’ kindness to the guests.

That is really good news.  For sure, it is good news which is precisely what the gospel is: “good news.”  It is hospitality, love, kindness and, finally, relationship with God, the Giver of Good News.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Insight: A Look Within

It was while I was reading a really interesting book that I had an insight.  The insight itself is not what I want to give focus.  Instead I became intrigued by the process of getting an insight.  What happened?  How did the process happen?  Was it a matter of luck or is there really something I could do to enhance my chances of getting insights?  Let’s pursue this idea, especially with respect to spiritual insight.

The word, insight, is fairly simple and straightforward.  It is a compound word, “in” and “sight.”  Literally it means to “see within” something.  It means looking “inside” something (it could even be a person).  In that sense we get an “inside look.”  But it also is a little trickier than this.

If we were standing outside a house and peered into a window, we would not say that we had “insight” into the house.  We merely would affirm that we had looked “inside.”  And if I open a drawer in my house, I would never say that I had “insight” when I looked inside.  I simply looked inside.  So insight is more than simply physically looking inside something.  This is suggestive of the second meaning of insight.

If we consult a dictionary meaning of the word, insight, we learn that it means, secondly, a “seeing into the nature of something.”  Many dictionaries actually move to language like “apprehending” or “seeing intuitively.”  Both of these ideas take the word, insight, to a deeper level than the literal.  For example, I would never say I opened a drawer, peered inside and apprehended my socks.  Instead, I would say that I opened the drawer, looked in and grabbed my socks.

At this second level, insight is a mental phenomenon.  When I “apprehend” something, mentally I am saying something like, “I got it!”  In effect, I claim that I understand.  Also to see something “intuitively” suggests that I see deeply enough into something, that I am working at some secondary, deep level.  I see beyond the obvious.

It was at this level I realized I had reached when I was reading that interesting book.  At the surface level, I was gaining some knowledge.  I had some new facts.  I was even gaining some new perspective, as the author guided me through her logic.  Over and over, I could say something like, “I understand.”  To understand meant that I was learning and processing the information in a way that I could truly say I was learning.  But this was not the same as insight.  Insight is another level yet.

For the sake of this reflection, let’s assume there are three potential levels when you or I read something.  The first level is the literal reading.  If they are in English, I can read the words and get some general sense.  The second level is the level of understanding.  At this level, not only did I read it, but I also understood it.  I could demonstrate my understanding by explaining to you what I just read.  I could even put it into my own words, and I could explain it to you.  From years of teaching, I know that I cannot explain something if I don’t understand it.

The third level is the level of insight.  This is the deepest of the levels.  Here I apprehend or intuit something of significance in the reading.  Insight is often accompanied by the “Ah-ha” experience.  We might say it is understanding plus (understanding +).  The level of insight almost feels like a gift.  It is experienced as revelation.  I read, I understand and, then, I am given a gift.  I am given significance.

This is especially true when it comes to spiritual insight.  Perhaps an example is worth more than a myriad of words trying to explain it.  When I first began the spiritual journey, I don’t think I understood anything.  I would read stuff at the first level only.  And then I would read something different and change my mind!  I wondered if I ever would begin putting down some spiritual roots or a spiritual foundation.  Slowly that did begin to happen.

The roots began to form when I could read something and have an understanding.  I began to watch my understanding grow.  In fact, I realized I could read something with which I did not necessarily agree, even understand it, but be true to my own foundation.  I often use the analogy that I can read and understand Marxism, but I am not a Marxist.

Then gradually I began to have an insight.  One of the most blessed insights given to me was to be able to apprehend the absolute amazing, extensive compassionate love God has for all of us.  It is a love that goes beyond justice.  It is a love that is so gracious, it seems to cancel out all the messes we have made.  It is the kind of love that makes the consideration of whether I deserve it irrelevant.  This insight was more than fact.  It even went beyond my human understanding.  It was simply the gift of intuiting the whole reason God became human.  It was actually for me (and you).

The insight is a gift and, as such, is meant to be shared.  I don’t need to prove it or insist on it.  It is what I know from a look within---a look within the heart of the Divine One.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ears of God

I like reading a variety of things that help me on my daily spiritual trek through life.  Help comes from many and, sometimes, odd venues.  Daily newspapers, magazines, preparation for classes and even notes on the wall have provided inspiration over the years.  I am thankful for the myriad of revelational sources.  But among the lot, no doubt the biblical text still ranks right up there as very important.

I am not one who thinks every verse in the Christian Bible is significant.  I am ok thinking that the Bible, as a whole, is inspired.  But it is difficult for me to think every sentence or word is divinely inspired.  That would require an extensive discussion, of course, on what “inspiration” means, how it happens, etc.  I actually don’t have too much interest in that discussion and, certainly, have no interest in pursuing in here.  Suffice it here to acknowledge that inspiration means to help, encourage, to light up your life.  God certainly does that; but so do other people.

One of the best things I do for my daily spiritual trek is to follow the daily lectionary.  A lectionary is pre-set readings to augment spiritual edification and growth.  I choose to follow the one laid out for Benedictine monks.  I appreciate that group of men and women who have dedicated their lives to something so focused and noble.  I am sure any Benedictine would tell you it is quite possible to be a miserable monk, just like it is possible to be a miserable human being.  But at least they are trying!  And so am I!

One of the lectionary readings this morning came from Psalm 5.  One of the things I like about the lectionary is the focus on the Psalms.  There are always a few Psalms offered for the day.  This continues to broaden me, since I grew up not seeing my own tradition do much with the Psalms.  So each day I look forward to the Psalm selection.

Psalm 5 opens with these words: “Let my words come to your ears, O Lord…”  When I read this, I smiled.  What a wonderful image, I thought.  I like the image that suggests God has ears. Why not, I reasoned.  If I have words, surely there has to be someone to hear them.  I have ears to hear.  Everyone I know has ears to listen to me talk.  Why not God?  Fortunately, it is an image---a metaphor. 

Of course, I do not think God literally has ears…at least, physical ears.  But I began to reason more deeply.  Actually it is not my physical ears---those lobes on the side of my head (called the pinna)---that enable me to hear.  I appreciate those physical markers.  Without them I would look odd.  It is not that they are that beautiful, but since everyone has those ears, we come to assume that is “normal.”  But I could whack off the physical ears and still hear. 

I could still process the sound wave that comes into the holes in the side of my head.  Thinking even more deeply, I suppose it is more true to say that my brain is my literal ear.  The brain processes the sound waves to “make sense” of them.  The brain determines what I “hear.”  Until the brain gets it, a sound is simply airwaves translated into electrical signals.

So perhaps God is more like the brain than the outer ear (pinna).  God is like a cosmic brain or Mind to Whom humans send words.  God processes our words, hears our requests and begins to make sense of what we pray, ask, tell, plead, complain, etc.  I think God hears us, but does not always hear us the way we want God to hear us.

For example, I have doubtlessly asked God to help me when, in fact, God knew I should actually help myself!  God wants me to learn to be responsible and not a wimp!  But let’s assume the words I send to the Lord make perfect sense.  I believe God always stands ready to be present and to be helpful…whatever that means in the moment. 

We all know there are times when life becomes difficult.  At that time, we join the Psalmist in petitioning God to “hear my sighs.”  Those sighs are sounds, too, but unlike words, we can only hope God knows what to do with them.  If effect, I am asking God to help me in ways I can’t even imagine being helped.  There certainly are times I am sure God knows what I need better than I know.  Thank God!  

As I begin my day, I use the words of Psalm 5:3: “Lord, listen to my voice in the morning; in the morning I stand before you and await you.”  If I can practice standing before God and awaiting the Divine Presence to come to me, surround me, engulf me and transform me, then not only will the day go better, but my life will go very well.  It seems simplistic and, perhaps, nonsensical.  Most people just get on with life and do it on their own.  But there is a secret (and it is not so secret).  Life goes better if you just send a word into the ears of God.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Foundationals

Sometimes my life can get too complex.  It may be because too much is going on.  Perhaps it is something like the beginning of a new school year or a holiday season.  Sometimes it is self-inflicted.  For those of us who have a hard time saying, “no,” life can become too demanding.  Busyness is always a sign that life is bordering on being too complex.

But I am aware that complex lives cannot simply be equated with busy lives.  For some people, it is the opposite extreme, namely, boredom.  I know some people who, in their own words, “are bored to death.”  Obviously they are not literally dead.  But their boredom is a form of being dead---a kind of pre-mortem deadness.  They are as good as dead. 

When I sense complexity is becoming a pressing life issue for me, I know it is time to entertain its opposite: simplicity.  Simplicity has a hallowed history in my own Quaker tradition.  I know I have been “for it” all my life.  When you are younger, simplicity is easier to manage.  But as you age, typically life becomes more complex.  Usually there is some form of busyness.  It is typical that we begin to try to balance school, work, families, kids, parents and the list goes on.  It is much easier to add to the list than to subtract.

When I discover (or should I say, re-discover) that it is time to think about simplifying my life again, I know the route for myself.  I have traveled this path many times.  It is not magical, but with some attention, it can work.  I’ll share it with you.

The key to simplifying my life is to return to the foundationals.  I know what some of these foundationals are for myself.  They may be different for you or for other folks.  Whatever they are, foundationals should be the keystones to a more simple life and, therefore, a more centered life.

I use the plural, foundationals, because although we may talk about “the foundation” of our life, I suspect in most cases there actually are a few foundational things that make life what we really want it to be.  They are not necessarily universal.  What is foundational for me may not work for you.  But I suspect there are a few foundationals that do work for most of the people most of the time.  Let’s look at just one of these foundationals.

The most important foundational for me has to do with time.  When my life is getting too complex, more than likely it has to do with my becoming too busy.  We could define and describe busyness in multiple ways, but I wonder if busyness is not at its core an issue of time?  Busyness means I have too much to do in too little time.  It typically means I am pressed for time.  I don’t have time to breathe.  There probably are other, well-known ways of describing this.

That is why time is the initial foundational.  I know that I need to take a little time for myself---a kind of adult time out!  My busyness needs to be interrupted.  I need a little self-intervention.  I know that if I don’t make a few changes in the way I do time, then nothing changes.  Or even worse, I know that if I do not do anything different with my time, then my body or my soul will take over.  I will get sick.  My body or my soul will find a way to shut me down for a while. 

So my real choice is whether I will intentionally find some time to be different…or will I be unintentionally put down for a time.  You would think I am smart enough to know this, but too often I am really a slow learner!

One way intentionally to take some time is to build in some devotional time.  It can be some time in prayer or meditation.  It could be some time of study.  I might do yoga or something more active.  It can be as simple as a thirty-minute walk.  The Buddhists talk about the wisdom of walking meditation.  The key is to do it. 

Thinking about doing it, planning to do it, hoping to do it---all these are inadequate because none of them is an action.  Anything less than a foundational that is action is inadequate.  But I also know the action has to be “doable” and that means reasonable.  If I am out of shape, I cannot climb spiritual mountains!

There is some time-honored wisdom for implementing an intervention in the busyness of my time.  I know I need to start slowly.  Five minutes is better than nothing.  Five minutes for a week is better than a half hour one day and then quit.  Use small steps and build on this.  Foundationals help us to become spiritual- slowly and surely. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Depending on Your Participation

I very much enjoy reading things that make me think.  When I hit one of these pieces of literature, I realize how much my own routine imprisons my creativity and imagination.  I certainly do not think routine is bad.  I like my routine.  It makes me feel quite comfortable.  By nature routine is predictable and knowable.  There is usually a sense of security with our routines.  That is fine with me.

But I also know there is another facet of life that is just as intriguing.  The other facet of life points to the imaginative---the creative and innovative.  It is the side of life that is not routine.  It may be moments of serendipity.  It involves the unexpected and, even, the unanticipated.  Surprise is the dominant feature of this side of life.  I am drawn to this part of life, but I also confess it makes me somewhat uneasy and a little nervous.  It makes me feel more vulnerable than secure.

I have been reading some words of the Franciscan Sister, Ilia Delio.  I have never met her, but I imagine her to be an intelligent, zippy little religious figure.  I know she has taken vows and is a member of a religious order.  But I also can only imagine that she is not a predictable, old-fashioned nun---whatever that means in our world today. 

She is very well educated and teaches theology to the best and the brightest.  She has participated in the highest academic circles and, yet, is a woman of faith.  She is a scientist who is living a life of faith within a Roman Catholic order---the Franciscans.  All of these facets of her life must make for a very interesting person.  I hope to meet her some day.

Recently, she was addressing a large gathering of Catholic religious Sisters.  I find her thoughts intriguing and challenging.  I would like to share a couple of those in order to help us engage the spiritual development process.  Her words are opportunities for me to grow.  I thank her.

When she thinks about this universe in which she lives, she concludes, “the universe is unfinished.”  As I ponder it, I agree.  She continues: “God is not finished creating…”  I really like this image of God.  Most people are tempted to think in the beginning God created the heavens and earth, as Genesis proclaims.  Most folks don’t think about a God who keeps on creating.  I like the fact that God is not finished creating.  The universe is unfinished.

She adds a corollary thought that I find captivating.  Delio comments, “life is not behind us, it is ahead of us.”  I certainly thought this was true when I was a young guy.  But now that I am closer to the evening of my life than the morning, is it still true that life is ahead of me?  I am certain the answer is a resounding “yes.”  Although I have years and decades of my life now behind me, “life” is still ahead of me.  The memories that are of my “life-behind-me” are nice---but they are just memories. 

“Life” is what I lived today and will live tomorrow.  Life is always present tense.  I feel this is absolutely true.  I value the life I lived in the past.  I feel quite good about most of my past life.  But life is what I have today.  If I do not have life today, then I have died!  And this brings me to the last thought from Delio.

She writes that “people are not fixed essences but ‘dynamic becomings…’”  Again, this makes sense to me.  I am convinced God continually is creating me and the whole universe.  There is no fixed “me.”  I am different than I was when I was one year old and when I was sixteen.  Of course, I had the same name and feel like I have been the “same person,” but actually I doubt that I have been.  I am evolving---becoming more and more or, sadly, less and less.

Finally, Delio tells us, “What we become will depend on our participation.”  I appreciate this sentiment.  I am becoming---I am still making something out of myself.  And my becoming---who I will be today and all the days to come---will be determined by that in which I participate.  Let me be simply here.

If I participate in the Spirit of God, then I am becoming more and more spiritual.  On the contrary, if I participate in the lousy, crappy stuff of life, then I am heading down that path.  God gives me choices: with whom do you want to live, move and have your being?  I want to choose the Spirit.  I want to choose to participate with those who are of the Spirit.  I want to join the friends of God.

That does not mean I write off the ungodly world.  But it does mean I go into the world---day by day---participating in God’s Spirit as I try to bring justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.  I will forgive sins; I will address evil.  But I will go forward, knowing full well who I am depends on my participation---participation in the Spirit.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

God’s Love Affair

One of the reasons I enjoy reading a variety of things is because of new ideas that come my way.  Of course, I read quite a bit of religious and spiritual material.  But I like a range of other things, too.  I actually enjoy reading about contemporary science discoveries.  And the whole psychological world fascinates me, mostly because all human beings are psychological beings.  I read a piece recently that combined most of these different areas.

The article was written by a Franciscan Sister, Sr. Ilio Delio, and it contained the gist of her comments to a gathering of religious women.  On the surface this seems like a boring read.  In fact, I found it fascinating.  In the first place, I was quite intrigued by the theology inherent in the text.  By theology I mean her view of God and how God works in our world.  Clearly, she is well versed in the scientific way of viewing our world---our cosmos.  I am always inspired by someone who has a deep faith in God and a mature, contemporary understanding of the world in which we live.

Let’s listen to a few words from this Franciscan sage.  She says, “A dynamic universe provokes the idea and the understanding of a dynamic God.”  I like the combination of these two ideas---that of a dynamic universe and of a dynamic God.  The two do seem to go together in my mind.  And then she adds another sentence that must work very well in her speeches.  Delio notes, “This is not a stay-at-home God.”  Surely this line is a guaranteed laugh-getter.  I laughed.  I agree: God is not the kind of Being who would stay at home.  God is active in this dynamic universe.

Delio pushes on to flesh out her understanding of this dynamic Being who is at work in this dynamic universe.  She says, “This is a God who is deeply immersed in a love affair with the beloved, the creation which flows out of his divine heart.”  This is powerful stuff for me personally.  I very much like her language.  She talks about a God who is deeply immersed in a love affair.  Of course, that is a daring, perhaps, jolting description of God.  But I think it makes a bold case for the God she knows and the God I want very much to know.

I appreciate hearing about a God who is so passionate that God would become involved in a love affair.  The reason God is so deeply immersed in this love affair is precisely because of the intimate relationship God has with the universe---with God’s creation---and each of us within that creation.  The creation flowed out of the divine heart of God.  That is to say, each one of us and the entire universe comes from the deepest core of who God is, namely, God’s heart. 

This says to me that God bears each one of us at the deepest part of the Divine Self---the very heart of who God is.  And it does not stop there, according to Sr. Delio.  She comments that “To say that God is love is to mean that God is eternally and dynamically in love.”  How else would you posit a divine love affair unless that God who created us continues to hold us dear to the Divine heart?  This is not a momentary thing by a stay-at-home God.

To the contrary, the God dynamically immersed in a love affair with God’s beloved is a God who is eternally in love.  This God does not take time-outs.  This God does not periodically visit the world and then check out for a time.  Rather, our God is eternally and intimately involved with all of us all of the time.  We may not know it because we pay no attention.  But God is there nevertheless all the time and everywhere.

When we begin to pay attention, we come to know something about this divine love affair that has been going on all the time.  We come to know the power and the profundity of this Divine care.  The dynamism of the Divinity is directed toward ourselves.  We can experience the “just-for-me” presence of God.  In our heads we know that God is “just-for-everyone.”  But that does not lessen the fact that God is here for me---right now and right here.

Most of us probably do not know what is involved in a love affair.  The love affair with God almost literally knocks us off our feet.  We are left gasping for air and for more!  It seems almost unbelievable and yet is quite undeniable. 

There are only a couple responses that are appropriate.  In the first response we are utterly grateful for this gift of grace.  We have been loved at our core that leaves us never needing more.  And secondly, our response should be to take us out of ourselves and into the cosmic love affair with God.  We desire to join God in dynamically caring for the world and all those within the world.

This is the power of God’s love affair.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Amazing Grace

Probably like many of you, I first learned about these words, “amazing grace,” from the old hymn by that title.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” goes the first phrase and that one I know by heart.  One of the things about me and music of any sort---hymns or popular music---is that the melody somehow takes my mind to a different place and I can seem to pay attention to words.  I can even begin a song with the intended purpose to listen to the words, to pay close attention…and that melody does it again.  At some point, I realize the song or hymn is nearly finished and I have not paid attention!

This happens to me even when I “know” the hymn and have sung it countless times.  But I also confess, this is not always bad.  It actually does enable me to sing and enjoy some hymns that I might not really like or feel comfortable with the theology.  And in some cases, the theology of the hymn, Amazing Grace, is not to my liking.

For example, the phrase after the opening one which I just quoted, goes like this: “That saved a wretch like me!”  In my head I understand this theology.  And I understand the fact that too many times, I am not a good person and can easily do something which is clearly not good.  But I still don’t think of myself as a wretch.  Some could well tell me that I still live with the illusion that I am not wretched when, in fact, I am.  And I am willing to grant they may be correct.  Maybe I am wretched.

My own theology holds that I, nor you, need to be wretches to experience grace.  And I do need grace…from God and others!  So I like to sing the hymn, Amazing Grace, and often be glad that I don’t register the words.  The melody does its own gracious thing with my soul.  But the hymn is not my only encounter with Amazing Grace.

A few years ago Kathleen Norris, one of my favorite poet-theologians, wrote a book by that same title, Amazing Grace.  Kathleen is about my age and so represents what so many of us in our contemporary culture go through with respect to religion.  In college in the 1960s she abandoned religion.  And then in her mid-life found her way back into religion, but knew she needed it in a way that was different than her childhood version.  And she needed religious language in a new way.

Delightfully, she calls human beings “essentially storytelling bipeds” and that to tell our stories we need “potent religious words.”  But in the best sense these potent religious words do not come from the dictionary as much as from “the lived experience of them.” (AG 3)  Interestingly, the little two-page section she does on grace begins with the story of the rascal, Jacob.

Norris narrates her story.  “Here’s a man who has just deceived his father and cheated hiss brother out of an inheritance…But God’s response…is not to strike him down but to give him a blessing.” (150)  Grace is nothing more than God blessing us when we do not deserve it.  It is a gift.  Grace is a story of God ‘s desire for us when we are not yet desirable.

I do like that line from the old hymn: “How precious did that grace appear.”
May God be gracious unto thee…

Monday, August 19, 2013

Insecurity's Gift

This odd title is an altered form of an intriguing article I just read.  It is by Eric G. Wilson and his title is “The Gift of Financial Insecurity.”  Often I am looking in some unlikely places of ordinariness to find the spiritual gems.  Much of what Wilson discusses is insightful.  He certainly does not discount the problems that our current economy has brought…and probably yet will bring.  There are layoffs, cutbacks, and other misfortunes.

But there are “gifts” in these lousy circumstances.  I particularly like one of his lines because it rings true to my own experience.  Wilson says that these times can cause us to question the way we have been living.  He continues with the comment that, “Doing so, we pull within, explore ourselves, and discover what is really important to us, what we most require to make our lives valuable.” I actually smiled when I read that last phrase, “to make our lives valuable.”

A flip remark crossed my mind: “oh, so valuables don’t always make life valuable!”  Indeed, a valuable life is not constituted by the valuables we have.  Having valuables clearly can make our lives easier, more painless, and at one level, more enjoyable.  But there is no direct association between valuables and meaning in life.  And I think this is where Wilson is going.  And this is the spiritual which, for me, is always about meaning in life.

One truth about being human---in good times and in bad---is that time marches on.  Of course, in good times that marching is more fun, more pleasant, etc.  But this truth leads Wilson to recognize that “nothing in this ephemeral life is secure at all.”  No doubt, all of us beyond about the age of seven know this.  But if you are like me, too much of my life is lived disconnected from that reality---almost as if I did not know.  And then along come some bad times and, boom surely enough, “nothing is secure at all.”

And then we hit the spiritual note in Wilson’s little essay.  He says, “Almost of necessity, we are being forced into a more contemplative life, in which wealth can be immaterial and scarcity can make room for abundance.”  Cleverly, Wilson has played around with the normal meaning of concepts.  He leads us to consider how our immaterial treasures are really our wealth.

For me that is easy to grasp and, I think, it is true.  My kids, my friends, my abilities are all my wealth.  The good news is I actually can increase their value.  It is what my business buddy calls “wealth creation.”  I can become wealthier!  It can even be a really good thing to do in bad times. 

Wilson also talks about how “scarcity can make room for abundance.”  I do suppose that is his more sophisticated way of saying that “less can be more.”  I do recall the first time I heard that saying…and I said, “Huh!”  But I think I am closer to getting it.  And getting it is a spiritual thing.  I do think the monks with whom I was recently associated get it.  They already know “less can be more.”  In an odd way they chose scarcity, so that they may find spiritual abundance.  But that is one big difference: they chose it and so many of us won’t.  It will be forced on us.

But we do have a choice…a spiritual choice.  We, too, can choose a more contemplative life.  Bad times do not have to be just misery (although they probably will be that).  Bad times can also lead to spiritual wealth.

My prayer is: Lord, I am not asking for bad times.  But if bad times come, teach me to be a contemplative.  And give me some friends to help me.           

Friday, August 16, 2013

Spirituality: More Than Flipping a Switch

Sometimes when I stop to think about something, my reaction is to be stunned.  Occasionally, I become aware that something I routinely do is really amazing.  This experience occurred today.  I walked into a room in my home, flipped on light switch and, no surprise, immediately the lights glowed.  Instantly, I had transformed darkness into light.  Instead of groping in the dark, I go directly in the light.  As we would say, I could “see.”  This may not be miraculous, but it still is amazing to me.

Of course, I know the technology of our times makes things like this possible.  Once upon a time, I would come into my home, find the matches, light a lamp, and have some dim light to find my way.  Before modern technology, this would have seemed perfectly normal.  And it would have been better than no light at all.  I suppose once upon a time when night came, that was it.  Go to bed and wait for another day to dawn.

But today we artificially alter the way we have to live.  If I want to come home and stay up till midnight---or beyond---all I do is switch on the lights and that’s that.  Easy, effortless, and done…without one thought.  And now my artificiality seems perfectly normal.  This normality is only (and temporarily) interrupted by some kind of nasty storm that “knocks out my lights.”

Now that I am into this image, I realize how often I use the imagery of “light” to talk about my own spirituality and my spiritual path.  Quakers easily talk about the “Light Within.”  By this we mean the inherent gift God places within each human being.  It is a God-given capacity to connect with the Divinity.  I can come to be “in the Light.”  For me this means I come to be in the presence of God.

Furthermore, I can “mind the Light.”  This classic Quaker phrase is one of my favorites.  It is a way of saying I want to be aware of and live in the Light.  I can mind the Light.  The alternative is obvious enough.  Don’t mind the Light.  Live in darkness!  If I mind the Light, that makes it possible to “walk in the Light.”  This is how I would talk about a way of living---a life-style, if you will.

As I talk about my spiritual path, I realize how different it is from flipping a light switch when I come into a room.  That is instantaneous.  Spirituality is never instantaneous.  It takes more effort than “hitting the switch,” as we say.  God did not equip us with a switch!  Oh, that would have been easy.  But I understand why God probably did not do it this way.  Too easy, indeed.

When I walk into a darkened room and hit the switch, I do not even think about it.  I do not think I “really did anything.”  I do not feel good about it.  It brings no meaning into my life.  It is purely a functional move to make something else possible, like reading.

However, spirituality is not possible without thinking about it.  Typically, I feel like I am doing something when I am pondering spirituality or walking my spiritual path.  And I am doing something.  I feel good about what is happening.  God’ s grace matches my human effort and that is good.  I find that spirituality brings meaning and purpose to my life…thankfully.  Spirituality is not merely functional; it has become essential.  I cannot live without spirituality. 

Without it I am in the dark.  And there is no switch to flip!  See?