Monday, September 30, 2013

One Person's Good

One of the pleasant things that can happen while you are reading is finding something you had not been seeking.  It happens to me quite frequently.  It can make me feel like a kid who finds a treasure.  Usually, I want to yell, “hey, look at this!”  But normally there is no one around…or worse, I am sitting somewhere with some people and if I yelled that, they would think I am daft or, perhaps, throw me out the door! 

Last evening I hit one of those gems that made me want to yell to someone.  But no one was at home with me.  And the neighbor above me already thinks I am crazy enough…no need to add evidence!  So let me share that tidbit with you. 

It comes from Dorothy Day.  Fewer and fewer people these days know who Dorothy Day was.  Dorothy was a Catholic saint, although she obviously has not been canonized.  I doubt that she will be, but to me she is a saint.  In her early life through the 1920s and 30s, she was active with the communists.  She was an agnostic and, as we would say today, she lived in the “fast lane.”  She had a couple common law marriages.  Then she had a daughter and became intrigued by the Catholic Church. 

Dorothy always had a concern for the marginal and the down-and-out.  She was involved in the beginnings of the Catholic Worker movement.  This movement ran some Catholic Worker homes for folks down on their luck.  In a sense, Dorothy was a saint in a slum! 

You can imagine my delight when my reading surprised me with a few words from Dorothy Day.  She said, “One of the greatest evils is a sense of futility.”  I smile because one does not have a sense that Dorothy ever felt that sense of futility.  But I also wondered, would anyone who has never felt that sense of futility ever consider addressing it?  I rather doubt it.  In fact, I suspect it was because Dorothy knew that sense of futility that she could address it as an “evil.” 

No doubt the following words come from a woman who has lived well beyond that sense of futility and has a firm handle on meaning and purpose in life.  She continues by noting, “Young people say, ‘What good can one person do?  What is the sense of our small effort?’”  That is a daunting question: what good can one person do?  I certainly have asked that question.  It is an easy question when one’s situation seems hopeless…when the task seems too big.  What is the sense of our small effort? 

Those two questions, though, are dangerous because they can become the excuse to do nothing.  They become our rationale for resignation.  And Dorothy Day would have none of that.  I like it when she says, We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.”  True!  

And then, she adds the clincher for me.  “…we can beg for an increase in love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”  The key is “an increase in love in our hearts.”  I want to believe and beg for this, just like Dorothy did. 

I want to believe that somehow God can do this “increasing” that enables me to do this “loving” that can make the one good thing I can do.  And if we all ask for a little “increasing” of the love in our hearts, then perhaps a whole new movement can begin. 

One person’s good: May I do my good this day…and you, too.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Apple Picking

I recently went apple picking; I did not anticipate being moved by the Spirit.  My daughter and her husband have wanted to go to an orchard and pick their own apples.  So much for the supermarket and the ease of simply walking through the checkout counter!  Trudging through the orchard is so much more fun!

Actually, it was a pretty day.  There were wispy clouds and a brisk and windy day.  The wind was motivating.  And the people flocked all over the place.  Eden was never this crowded!  But the kids were a hoot.  They dart in and out of the rows of trees.  And the little ones who would scramble up a tree to try to wrest the apple on the highest branch from its flimsy attachment.  It made me remember my own early-climbing days.

There is a difference between the apple plucked from the shelf of the local grocery store and the fresh one.  The store-apple does look inviting---usually shiny and picture-perfect.  It masks itself as “the ideal apple.”  But when you pick a fresh apple, still hanging on its branch, it is not usually shiny.  But one bite tells all.

There is a freshness that something flown across country, or maybe from half way around the world, simply cannot match.  Pick, polish and put right in the mouth are the only way to go first-class.  It was in this awareness that the Spirit’s movement began to happen.  

Being in the orchard made me spiritually vulnerable.  Nature can do that to me, but it often does it to people in general.  It is so much easier to be aware in the freshness of Nature than it is in the artificiality of a store.  But just remember how it goes.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  But in the beginning men and women build the store! 

Being aware made me conscious of the plentitude of the place.  I have no idea how many acres constitute this orchard, but it is probably on the order of 40 or 50 acres…it is big.  And that means a huge number of trees.  There were rows of trees---row after row.  And so many of those trees were offering their fruit.  The apples were just hanging there.   

Literally, the trees were bearing fruit.  And there were more apples than eye could see.  In fact, the workers there instructed us to go into the trees, pick an apple and taste it to see if we liked it.  It was an invitation to plentitude.  It occurred to me that so many of us live in a context of scarcity.  Surely in our world, there are people who have to do with so little.  But here in the orchard---God’s garden---there is plenty.  The crowd could not make a dent in how much was available.  I bet 5,000 people could eat their fill and there would be baskets left over!

I was overwhelmed by an experience of grace.  Certainly, the plenitude was a sign of grace.  And then, I also realized I had done nothing to deserve this.  I had not planted, cultivated---nothing.  Of course, other people did this for me.  But is that not what grace is?  God and other people do things for me and I don’t deserve it is how I describe grace.  Really all anyone can do with grace is accept it and be grateful.  I was grateful.  Gratitude filled my heart as I stood in the middle of those trees.  It was so simple and, yet, so profoundly moving.

I left the orchard, but I went with resolve.  I want to find the “garden of grace” in all the places I find myself in normal life.  I want to look for those opportunities to offer “an apple of grace” in my daily life.  And then we can all look up and say, “So be it!”  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Inward Journey and Outward Pilgrimage

There are so many different ways to think about the spiritual life.  And of course, in our country there are so many different variations of religious experiences.  There are liberals and conservatives.  There are fundamentalists and Pentecostals.  Besides the dizzying variety of Christian traditions, there are many different non-Christian traditions.  There are the major traditions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.  There are the slightly more obscure traditions, such as Sikhism, Jainism, etc.  And then there are more fringe groups and, even, pseudo-religions.
 
There are defining doctrines and religious practices.  Some of these are specific to a particular tradition or a few traditions, such as the koan, which is used in Zen Buddhism for example.  Other defining doctrines or practices are common across the religious board.  Something like meditation would be a good example.  Christians meditate; Buddhists meditate.  And other groups practice this spiritual discipline.
 
A favorite way I like to think about my own Quaker tradition that has some currency among other traditions is with the distinction between the inward journey and the outward pilgrimage.  This is certainly not unique to Quakers.  Quite a number of the different Christian traditions have their own version of this way of being spiritual.  It is also not uncommon in other religious traditions.
 
Since I believe it is a good way to understand the spiritual life, let’s take some time to detail what this dual focus means.  One direction of the focus is inward.  Personally this is the arena of experience, as my Quaker tradition talks about it.  The inward journey is the effort I put out in order to “meet” God somewhere in the internal spaces of my life.  Personally for me, this usually is felt in my midsection---in my belly.  Maybe it is because I live so much of my normal life in my head, I need spiritually to begin to drop from my head to my heart in order to experience the Holy One.
 
There deeper within my heart is the core place where I encounter the Other, whom I call God.  Thomas Kelly, perhaps my favorite Quaker writer opens his wonderful book, A Testament of Devotion, with words to this effect.  “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.”  My inward journey is the quest to discover this amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.  And if I have discovered it, then I want to connect with the One who gave me life and breathes the Spirit into my life.
 
Even if I am graced with this inward experience, I cannot hold it or capture it.  Even if it feels like a communion with the Living One, at some point the experience begins to recede and my normal life resumes.  Life cannot be lived inside at the altar.  However life can be lived “from” that altar.  And this anticipates the outward pilgrimage.
 
I like the language of pilgrimage for this outward focus.  Pilgrimage is more religiously specific than a journey or a trip.  I can take a trip to New York or to Tokyo, but it is not a pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage typically has a religious intent and, ultimately, religious content.  A pilgrimage is purposeful.  The destination normally is a religious destination.  But this does not mean the course of the pilgrimage is uneventful.
 
Indeed, for my Quaker tradition the outward pilgrimage is usually portrayed with an emphasis on religious action and service.  If the inward journey is about experience, then the outward pilgrimage is about express---expression of that inward spiritual experience.  The outward pilgrimage is the “outward living from the spiritual center.”  The pilgrimage is not just about destination; it is about day-to-day.
 
Although we have talked first about the inward journey and, then, the outward pilgrimage, they are not sequential.  Rather, they are simultaneous.  Experience is simultaneously expressed in the pilgrimage.  And the spiritual expression fuels more encounters at the amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.  Both exist in tension and intentionally.  They are the two halves of the spiritual whole person.
 
Periodically it is well to ask about our spiritual growth and development.  We can ask questions from either the journey or pilgrimage perspective.  But we do well to remember that one leads to questions about the other.  There may be seasons in which one---the journey or the pilgrimage---seems to be more important or in ascendency.  But over time the need to be in a healthy balance.

For many of us living “normal” lives in our little world, the outward part might be more often the focus.  We are trying to live a good life.  We are caring, fair, reasonable people.  We want to live a life helping others, avoiding as much sin as possible.  But we can be unaware or forgetful how important the inward journey is.  If we travel that inward journey road, our outward expression will become easier, deeper and more consistent.
 
Others of us think spirituality is just about the inner experience.  We are really adept at prayer, meditation, etc.  We may have a rich inner life.  But we may see no carry-over---no engagement in serving or saving our world in any way.  We are too content to see spirituality as an inner dynamic between ourselves and God.  This is insufficient.
 
The true spiritual life is a dual trip: inward journey and outward pilgrimage. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Oops is Not a Good Word

When I said it, I knew my attempt at humor did not work.  Oops!  Instead of a laugh, I could see the slightly furrowed brow and a hint of pain.  Oops!  What I had intended did not work.  In fact, it turned into a mini-disaster.  There was no need of an ambulance or first-aid.  There was no bleeding.  But I had caused a slight hurt.  Oops! 

There was no physical pain.  There was no malice on my part.  In fact, I meant well.  I was trying to cultivate a relationship.  Instead, I damaged it.  Oops!  There are all sorts of words that describe these kinds of situations: unintended consequences, hurt, destruction.  I rather like the innocuous little word, oops.  It must be one of the earlier words we learn and use.  Surely it is pre-kindergarten.           

Oops!  It is a vibrant word.  It is only one syllable, but it is a long syllable.  If you say, oops, you can drag out the sound for a long time.  Maybe if I write it “ooooooops,” you get the sense for how long a syllable can be!  It I say it this way, it probably signals a big boo-boo.  Today’s boo-boo was not that big.  In the cosmic order of things, it was miniscule.  But I had caused some damage instead of delight.  Oops!           

I am not sure in the moment I was thinking about spiritual things and spiritual implications.  But most of normal life has spiritual implications, I think.  I refuse to define spirituality in such mystic, arcane ways that it has nothing to do with normal, routine life.  For me all relationships are a reflection of my spirituality.  They may reflect good spirituality (healthy relationships) or bad spirituality (unhealthy relationships).           

Relationships are not static.  There is no relationship---humanly speaking---that I have had all my life.  Since both of my parents are deceased, that surely is true.  No one I currently know has been part of my life, all my life.  Every relationship I have has a beginning, some endurance and no ending---yet.  Of course, I could point to countless relationships I have had that have ended.  Probably in many of those cases, I am guilty of bad spirituality.  Oops!           

My backfire attempt at humor was an endeavor to develop an early relationship I have with this person.  As with most early relationships, we are walking on eggs and don’t really know it.  In new relationships, we often do not know where the pitfalls are.  Oops!  It is easy to “fall into the pit.”  Oops!  I fell into the pit today.  No doubt, “Oops” was the sound accompanying my fall.  I tried to scramble out of the pit, but I knew I had messed up the developing relationship.  Now oops had turned to Dang!           

Oops is typically the moment of recognition.  Some people swear instead.  I don’t find swearing very effective.  In fact, swearing tends to be dismissive.  If I blow it and swear, I might feel better---but that surely is an illusion because nothing is better.  I like oops much better.  Oops is my acknowledgment that I messed up…I blew it somehow.  Even if I did not intend to blow it, once I recognize it, oops is my momentary apology.           

Of course, there is much more work to do.  Oops is transitional.  Oops means, “Dang, I blew up.”  Oops says, in effect, “my fault.”  Normally, oops is my first response on the way to “I’m sorry.”  I can elaborate by saying how I am sorry.  “I did not intend to do it,” is one version of sorrow explained.  Oops is important, because it means I am not trying to blame the other for my mistake.           

Oops is humbling.  Oops articulates the fact that I am not perfect.  In theological terms, oops is the human response to sin.  Again, oops is the recognition that theologically I blew it.  I wonder if the Genesis text actually missed one of the utterances of Adam and Eve.  When they ate the fruit in Eden and realized what they had done, I can believe Adam turned to Eve and said, “Oops!”  Eve would have said something like, “Dang, we blew it.”  And then they hid in the garden, for they were naked and afraid.           

Let’s follow this biblical story.  God did not immediately condemn them to hell forever and ever.  Instead, God did banish them from Eden (another word for Paradise or Perfection).  Now they were to live East of Eden---the world in which you and I live.  East of Eden is a world of risk.  Even when we mean well in our relationships, we risk blowing it.  Probably the question is not whether we will blow it, but rather when will we blow it?  Yesterday was my day to blow it.  Oops!           

I am confident my friend will be gracious and allow us to move beyond my mistake.  I appreciate the grace---even if it seems like no big deal to the friend.  Grace usually is a “Yes, but” experience.  Grace comes to us even when we, Yes, have blown it.  My friend and, doubtlessly God, says, “Yes you blew it, but…but that’s ok.  Let’s move on.”  Thanks to my friend and thanks be to God.           

I will never take lightly those moments when I say, Oops.  I will know it is a time of recognition and, ultimately, restoration of relationship.  I thought Oops was not a good word.  I now recognize it may actually be a good word.  It is a good word if I can recognize and act on my mistake.  Grace turns oops into Whew!  Thanks!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Death: Life’s Curtain Call

In theory we all know that death is inevitable.  When I type those words, I know the truth of them.  I know them intellectually.  This kind of intellectual knowledge has little affective effect.  I can type those words without any feelings.  It is as if the truth of that knowledge has no immediate effect.  But that does not change the fact.           

At some point the inevitability of death begins to impinge on our own lives.  Death no longer is merely an intellectual idea.  It is no longer merely a possibility.  It becomes reality.  Often it takes on an affective element that moves us to feel things.  It affects us---sometimes mightily.           

Certainly at my age I think about death more than I did when I was in my teens or twenties.  Appropriately most folks in that age range should not be troubled with concerns about death.  But they should not totally ignore it.  The inevitability of death should help us learn to live life with some useful purpose and quest for meaning in our lives.  Because we are likely to live a long time does not mean we should waste most of life on things that don’t matter.           

Things can change.  Things do change.  I remember reading someone quite some time ago who commented that change is the price by which the future invades our lives.  He was correct.  Death is ultimately a change---a radical change for us.  We should not dwell on it, but neither should be dismiss it.  Change happens and sometimes unexpectedly and without warning.           

And so it does.  Yesterday was one of those days.  I was informed that a very good friend of mine had died.  I know that death is inevitable, but this one was not expected.  It is easy to say that he was old enough to die.  So am I!  Because he was not in his teens or twenties, he obviously was more likely to go before folks in those early years.  When I heard the news, I had to begin dealing with the reality that the plans we had been making to see each other had just radically changed.           

When I started to process the news, these are the words I wrote.  “When death becomes personal, we realize how precious and fragile life is.  Be aware, be thankful.  Value your gift of life and make it count.”  I wrote these words for myself and, no doubt, for others who read the stuff that I write.  Many of my readers are younger folks.  I hope they read these words and begin to take them to heart.           

“When death becomes personal…”  That is what happened to me today.  Death was not an intellectual inevitability.  Death assumed and consumed a friend of mine.  Death took a name today.  Death erased someone from my life.  Frequently, we use the phrase, “that’s life.”  I guess today that phrase was re-phrased for me.  Death became personal.  It is not the first time nor will it be the last time.             

“When death becomes personal, we realize how precious and fragile life is.”  There is a deep truth in the second half of that sentence.  I do think life is both precious and fragile.  But too many of my days I live in such a way that I pay no attention to that fact.  Life is a gift.  It is precious.  There is no one like me.  I am precious…and so are you.  But the precious gift that I am is also fragile.  “Handle with care” is still a good motto!           

“When death becomes personal, we realize how precious and fragile life is.  Be aware, be thankful.”  When I wrote those next two phrases, that is how I knew I could respond to the life of my deceased friend and my own yet-to-be-lived days.  Be aware.  I don’t know how else to come to value how precious I am and you are without being aware.  If I am aware, then I have a chance---a chance to live to the very depths of my being.  And secondly, I want to live thankfully.  Thanksgiving is not just some holiday in November with turkey.           

If I can’t be aware and thankful, then I am the turkey!  If life is a gift, then I want to be cognizant of its beauty and we thankful.  If I can manage that every day, then I am on my way to a spirit-filled life.          

This is my way to “value your gift of life and make it count.”  Make my life count is both the goal and the process of living.  I make my life count if it is lived for some good and noble purpose.  It counts if I make a difference, instead of making a mess.  I make my life count one day at a time.  The numbers will add up.           

When my own death brings down the curtain, I hope the sum total of my life is significant.  Thanks to my friend, I am both reminded and inspired to keep making each day count.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Leaving Room for Doubt

Although I am not Roman Catholic, I feel like the Pope is in some sense “my” Pope.  Of course I don’t think the Pope is my Pope in the same sense as a Catholic must see the Pope as his or her Pope.  I know quite a bit about Catholicism and I hang out with a fairly substantial group of Catholics.  I am a lay Benedictine monk, which means I am free to participate with the Benedictine monks in their life and worship.  I am grateful for everything the Catholic community has given to me.

But I am still not a real Catholic in the sense that someone must be if he or she is actually a full member of the Church.  And I recognize the Pope is the Head of the Roman Catholic Church and, as such, has a special relationship with all those who are full members of that Church.  But to see the Pope in that role is to have a too narrow view of the Papal Presence in our world.

I am convinced the Pope is also more than Catholic.  In many instances the Pope speaks to the entire human race.  When the Pope speaks about making peace in our world, that is not simply a Catholic concern.  When the Pope addresses issues of humans doing good work for fellow human beings, hopefully more than the Catholic community is listening and responding.  The Pope always has my ear.

The Pope recently was interviewed and his comments were reported out in Jesuit publication.  I found his remarks engaging and thought provoking, as did so many others in this country and around the world.  There were a couple sentences in the wide range of thoughts that particularly captured my attention.  Let’s look at these sentences.

Pope Francis is quoted to say, “The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt.”  Perhaps this resonated with me because I think it is so true.  And maybe it also surprised me a little, because leaders like the Pope are not usually commenting on the role of doubt in religious life. 

Leaving Moses aside, let’s ponder the role of doubt in our human lives.  To doubt is to be uncertain about something or someone.  Doubt means we are not confident in something.  It might even mean we think something is unlikely.  Often I have said, “I doubt that,” and by saying this, I am saying I really don’t think it is true.  Certainly doubt is not the same thing as “false.”  Doubt is a gray area somewhere between truth and falsehood.  To doubt is to be unable to affirm the truth or the likelihood of something.

I agree with the Pope.  I think great leaders do leave room for doubt.  Probably leaders of all kinds---great and otherwise---should leave room for doubt.  But when the Pope says it, it is powerful because the person with the greatest power to command faith or belief is saying it is ok to leave room for doubt.  That perspective I find refreshing.  It goes against the grain of a leader’s usual privilege.

For example, let’s focus on a different kind of leader than the Pope.  Let’s consider the role of mother or father as leader---leader of a family.  Too often I believe parents put children in intellectual and faith straightjackets by insisting on believing something which may, in fact, be dubious.  Belief in God is one such area where believing is not always easy. 

Apparently some people have experiences that compel belief in God.  That belief is so powerful, deep and sure, it makes any temptation to doubt seem silly.  At the other end of the spectrum, some folks are equally convinced that God does not exist, that there is no basis for God; any form of doubting again is silly.  For an atheist, doubt seems as frivolous as for the die-hard believer in God. 

But for the huge number of folks in the middle---in the gray zone---doubt is seemingly unavoidable.  I believe, but I also can say that my belief is not absolute.  There are clear and good reasons for me to harbor some doubt.  And I certainly doubt that my view of God and how God works comes very close to the real God.  My theology is dubious.  It is a working model until God reveals more or until I come face-to-face with the Holy One in this world or the next!

I appreciate Pope Francis allowing room for doubt.  And his second sentence I find equally compelling.  The Pope says, “You must leave room for the Lord.”  That’s a zinger, too!  When you think about it, this second sentence balances nicely the first sentence.  The Pope is savvy.  Of course, we should leave room for doubt.  But we should also leave room for God!  We could write a book on this one.

Perhaps one function of doubt is to clear away the debris in order to make room for fresh and renewing experiences of God’s Presence and Power.  Perhaps we can learn to doubt the nonsense of our lives in order to gain new senses of our human potentiality and possibilities in the Real Presence of God.  Thanks Francis!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Hospitality

I have been reading again some excerpts from Martin Marty’s writings.  Many of you know I like the kinds of things Marty has written now for nearly sixty years.  What Marty writes about all things religious is great in and of it.  But he quotes so many interesting people and this adds spice to the mix. 

It was in one such piece that I encountered another friend of mine, the late Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who came to this country.  He was one of the early, popular writers on spirituality.  He was one of those writers who helped me begin to read and appreciate spirituality.  One of my favorite times was the occasion when I hosted Henri for a couple days where I used to teach. 

The words Marty gleaned from Nouwen have to do with hospitality.  As I understand it, hospitality gets at the heart of discipleship.  Listen to Nouwen’s words.  “When hostility is converted into hospitality, then fearful strangers become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.”  I find that opening line arresting: when hostility is converted into hospitality…  The verb is an active verb.  I or you are the ones who can convert hostility!  I suppose God could do it, too.  But in Nouwen’s words, we humans have the task or opportunity. 

How would we go about this kind of converting?  Perhaps, the simplest way is not meeting hostility with more hostility.  In words I have used elsewhere, I suggest we might respond to hostility instead of react to it.  Usually, reacting is leveraging my power to get even or, even, win.  But if I respond, I have a much wider range of possibilities….like converting hostility into hospitality.  Nouwen tells us what might happen. 

Fearful strangers can become guests.  At one level, this seems unbelievable.  And sometimes it might not work.  But that does not mean it is unbelievable.  Why should we expect this to succeed every single time?  Nothing else I do that matters succeeds every time either!  What if it succeeds only some of the time?  That certainly makes it worth doing.

If a fearful stranger becomes a guest, then we can see (and appreciate) the promise the formerly hostile stranger carried within himself or herself all along.  Instead of a punch, we get peace.   

Nouwen has one more thought that I value.  If we do the converting of hostility into hospitality, “then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the newfound unity.”  You and I know what it means to be both a host and a guest.  Both words are nothing more than the poles of a relationship.  In some sense, they are roles.  For example, if you come to my house, let’s call you guest and I will be the host.  If I visit your place, the roles reverse. 

But you and I are the same people.  Our friendship will be the same whoever’s house we have entered.  That is what hospitality does: it invites the other into our place.  On a big scale, this is exactly how I understand God at work in our world.   

I see God continuously inviting each of us into relationship---befriending us.  God wants us even when we are hostile.  Why?  Love.  Routinely, God converts hostility into hospitality by loving us.  As disciples, we are called to do no less.   

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Opportunistic Spirituality

I use the word, spirituality, with frequency.  I am also aware that this word is tossed around in many different ways.  In fact, I do think that many of us use the word without being very clear what it means.  Sometimes, I think some folks want to use the word to say something like, “I’m religious, but not really into religion.”  Usually that means they are not part of an institutional form of religion.  For many, that simply means they gave up going to church or to the temple. 

When I use the word, spirituality, I am wanting to point to the “lived experience” aspect of religion.  Spirituality always begins with experience in my understanding.  For example, it is one thing to say, “I believe in God.”  It is quite another to say, “here is how I experience the God in Whom I believe.”  That is spirituality. 

It is for that reason I consider dealing with spirituality to be more difficult than dealing with religion.  Religion---at least, in the Christian sense---typically begins with doctrine or belief.  If one were to ask the common person on the street to define religion, I think most would begin by talking about what they believe. 

Doctrine and belief are mental.  They are rational ways to explain something about our universe.  It is not unusual to have to “make up our minds” about what we are going to believe.  And we can change what we believe.  However, if I change what I believe about God, for instance, that does not necessarily mean God changes.  God is still God; but if I have changed my belief, that means I have changed the way I view God---changed the way I talk about God. 

Spirituality, on the other hand, tells folks how I encounter and experience that God.  There are countless ways for me to be intentional in my hope to encounter and experience God.  Prayer and meditation would be two of the classic ways.  If I pray regularly, then probably my chances of experiencing God are enhanced.  The same goes for meditation.  By meditating regularly, I open myself and make myself available for God to be present in my experience. 

Intentionality is very good and I am all for it.  In fact, that is the most predictable way to become spiritual and to enhance one’s spirituality.  But there is another way to become spiritual.  The alternative way is to be aware of the unintended opportunities that come our way.  In effect, we become opportunistic (instead of intentional). 

If we become aware, we will realize opportunities come our way with some frequency.  Nature is one sure bet to offer us opportunities to experience the Holy One.  One only has to pay attention to the beauty of the autumn season.  Who do you think painted the natural landscape? 

Here I want to point out especially the role other people play as spiritual opportunities.  That reason that so many of us do not consider other people as opportunities to experience the Divinity is we simply do not expect that to be possible.  But think about it.  All the major religious traditions talk about God being active in the world.  What is to say part of the Divine activity does not frequently happen through other people with whom we come in contact? 

Be opportunistic.  Change the way you think God might be available to you this day in the lives and actions of others.  Who says the other person’s smile is not a glimpse of humor?  Who is to say the tender word is not a spiritual caress? 

And why choose to be that Divine vehicle yourself?  Incarnate the Spirit and become an opportunity for some friend to encounter and experience God this day.   

Participate in opportunistic spirituality.  Why wait? 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Edge of Autumn

On a recent run through the park area I almost always choose for my route, I noticed the sky, the air, and general sense of “place.”  This is both good and bad.  It is good that I was taking notice.  And it is bad because it lets me know how unaware I typically may be.  I know as well as anyone how important awareness is for the spiritual journey.

But that day I was aware.  The keenest part of my awareness was how the late afternoon had “the feel of autumn.”  As autumn approaches, the light in the sky comes at a different angle and intensity.  At least in my part of the country, the air does not immediately go from summer to winter.  Autumn is usually announced with some cool nights and early mornings.  Then it might even get fairly warm, or even hot, during the day. 

It struck me that autumn had not yet come, but I was on the edge of autumn.  I am not sure I had ever thought about it that way.  As I normally think about edges, they usually are sharp.  Maybe because it has been those sharp edges that typically caused pain when I recklessly played and bumped into one!
 
But as I now ponder edges, I realize they do not all have to be sharp.  And they do not all have to be painful.  What all edges do, however, is they mark limits.  When you come to an edge, you have come to the limit of the space in which you find yourself.  Edge does not have to be dangerous nor scary.  But edges have taken you out of the middle of it.

The edge of autumn comes with different light, cooler air, and a promise of falling leaves.  They leaves have not fallen yet, but every morning now I watch a few of the “premature fallers” glide to the ground.  They are like prophets---the harbingers of what is to come.  The leaves have not even turned into their multi-colored last act before falling.  But I know we are on the edge of that beautiful miracle.  The curtain is going up on this year’s autumn show.

Thinking about edges brings me back to awareness and the spiritual journey.  I think awareness may be like the edge.  When I am living unaware, it is like I am living right in the middle of my life-space.  What I mean is I understand life-space to be determined by my own ego---my own person.  It is a life-space affected significantly by my culture, by others, and by the normalcy of my  ordinary life.  It is not bad, but it too easily settles for bland.

I always think, “I can do better.”  And I can.  And then comes the inevitable “But…”  And it does not matter what comes after the “But…”  Anything after the “But…” leads to nothing.  “But…” is a stopper.  It is an intentionality-blunter.  “But…” is always a way to say “not yet” or “tomorrow.”  “But…” brings me from the edge of change and possibility and deposits me right back in the middle of my blandness and nothingness.  I have opted for living rather than being alive!

I am now realizing I need to spend more time at the edge.  If I can be present there, I can get the Spirit when it initially comes.  If I can be patient there, I will be prepared to be receptive when that Spirit blows around the edge.  That is a good image for me.  I think the Spirit of the Divine often is blowing so softly, so gently that it is difficult to discover or discern if we are living right in the middle of our life-spaces.

Certainly, right in the middle of life-spaces we can be aware of the hurricanes of the Spirit.  But like the Caribbean Sea, there are seasons of hurricanes.  And if I am not at the edge, much of the time I will miss the gentle blowing of the fresh winds of the Spirit.

So where will I find the edges of my life-space? “Easy,” I conclude.  The edge of life-space is at the point of awareness.  We are in our culture all the time.  We have a context all the time.  Every moment is a sitting duck for spiritual encounter.  Every occasion is pregnant with possibility.

If I am aware, then I can pay attention.  And if I pay attention, then I will see when and where to act.  See you at the edge!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Keep the Faith

I was involved in conversation with one of my good friends yesterday.  The topics ranged widely due to frequent interruptions.  But if you are in conversation with good friends, it usually does not matter. Of course, it is nice to have conversations that are focused, intense, and eminently satisfying.  But life often interrupts.  And true friendships survive all interruptions!  “Keep the faith!”

The fact that life interrupts is a good thing and, sometimes, a bad thing.  We are all living our lives.  Most of the time, I don’t think about it in these terms.  I move from commitment to commitment.  In my case, commitment often means classes.  I teach one class and, then, move on to the next one.  You all have your movements through the day.

We are living our lives.  And that is exactly where spirituality takes place…in the midst of living our lives.  I think people mistakenly assume that spirituality (or religion) is what one does when one takes “time out.”  During the “time out,” one goes to be spiritual or religious---often understood as going to church, synagogue or mosque.  When “time out” is over, real life begins again.  As I said, I think this is mistaken.

The spiritual is either a part of real, ongoing life or it is nothing.  And so I come back to my conversation with my good friend.  We were talking about the real stuff of life---her life and my life.  I always think this is how Jesus was involved in ministry.  I am confident he traveled around with some of his friends and wherever he went, he made new friends.

But this is not really about Jesus, so much as it is about finding the spiritual in the ordinariness of our lives.  It is discovering in our everydayness some purpose or meaning.  Sometimes, our ordinariness is so blah it is difficult to find meaning.  Not all jobs are a great deal.  Dealing with cancer or the foibles of old age is not fun.  So we cannot sugarcoat this thing.  As my students would say, some parts of life do suck!

But this is where I want to return to the theme of the day: “keep the faith.”  As I departed yesterday, those were my words to her: “keep the faith.”  I caught myself in the moment.  That was a phrase erupting from my past.  Any of us who lived through the 1960s automatically said that phrase, “keep the faith.”  It was part of the lingo along with phrases like “groovy.”  But it was the ‘60s and “keeping the faith” was at stake.  Keep it…or lose it…

To come full circle, we recognize that our ordinariness will inevitably have those times when the spiritual is not obvious---when meaning is missing---and all we can do is “keep the faith.”  There is so much implied in that phrase.  But surely, it means at least two things.

First comes the verb, “keep.”  You have faith; it is a treasure.  Faith is not a guarantee.  It not “for sure.”  But it is a great bet; it will see you through the day.  Keep the faith!

And “faith” is the noun.  For me, faith is trust.  It is trust in a Spirit which is present and working toward good ends.  I trust that to be true.  I will live my life into the truth of that.  In the midst of my ordinariness I will trust that good possibilities can come my way.  So I “keep the faith.”

When I left my friend yesterday, I realize I was encouraging and, maybe even, admonishing her to “keep the faith.”  Persevere; hang in there.  And probably I was hoping she would be wishing the same for me.

After all, that’s what friends---spiritual friends---do: they tell each other to “keep the faith.” 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Practical Spirituality: Do Good

Sometimes I may not be fair to religion when I separate it from spirituality.  To me they are quite related, but are not the same.  I am certainly not against religion.  After all, I tell people I teach it!  However, I also find that I am more at home in the arena of spirituality---the spiritual.  This is not the place for an extended essay defining both and arguing why I think they are not the same.
           
Suffice it to say, religion for me (and most folks I know) is first and foremost in some doctrines.  For example, people are quick to tell me they do believe in God---or don’t believe in God.  Obviously for those who believe, there often is more they believe in, and it may well be the case that their beliefs inform their actions.  Spirituality for me is first and foremost experience.  I know this can sound wishy-washy.  But spirituality is about experience of the Holy One.  This usually has implications for actions in our lives.
           
So it is that I am intrigued by what I believe or what my experience might be and how my actions and life are impacted.  This seems to me to be a key factor is judging the worth of both religion and spirituality.  I know the biblical tradition assumes a relationship between belief/experience/action.  So do the major religious traditions, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
           
All this came to mind recently when I was doing some work with Psalm 15.   This Psalm is full of helpful guidance if we familiarize ourselves with it and then try to follow it in our lives.  This Psalm could be a guide to practical spirituality.  And its primary focus is on “doing good.”  And in my view, doing good leads to the good life.
           
The Psalm begins with a legitimate question for those of us with some kind of belief in a Divine Being.  The Psalmist asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Without spending undue time unpacking each verse, let us simply note the real question here is “Who can be in relationship with God?”  Belief is not sufficient, although important.  Experience is also not sufficient, although welcome.  Rather, action is necessary to be in relationship with God.
           
This becomes clear when we pursue the other verses of the Psalm.  The second verse answers the question, Who can be in relationship with God?  The Psalmist begins the answer.  “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” This is a good trio of things to do.  This is practical spirituality that becomes alive by doing good.  Walk blamelessly means that we do nothing that would lead to us having to say, “I’m sorry.”  Do what is right is simple and clear.  Life would be good if we did what is right every time and in every situation.  And finally, we should speak truth from the heart.  This means more than saying what someone expects us to say---that would be speaking from the head.  No, we are to be truthful from the heart---from deep within our very being.
           
This Psalm continues to develop practical spirituality, as I want to call it.  We have three more guidelines to form our actions.  The Psalmist tells us that people “should not slander with their tongue.” In other words, don’t lie!  Next people should “do no evil to their friends.”  Pay attention: it does counsel about “speaking” evil; it says, “do no evil.”  Finally, no one should “take up a reproach against their neighbors.”
           
And at the end, the Psalmist offers three more practical spirituality guidelines.  The Psalmist says that people should “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” This one can be a tough one.  Basically, it tells us that we need to honor our pledges---be true to our word.  If we say that we are going to do something (our oath), we need to do it---even if it hurts us.  Obviously, this is not wishy-washy.  This one may cost us---and the Psalmist tells us to pay the price!
           
Next we are told that we should “not lend money at interest.” This one is really difficult.  No one told the banks about this one!  Now I know most major religious traditions have figured out ways around this one and found ways to justify interest on money.  We need take on those arguments.  Simply, let it be noted what the biblical tradition counsels us practically to do in order to do good.
           
Finally, we are not to “take a bribe against the innocent.”  For most of us, this one seems quite easy.  No one is bribing me---at least in this country.  But I realize I may be thinking too narrowly.  I may be thinking on money bribes alone.  If I expand my thinking, I realize I may be bribed in other ways.  Sometimes a person’s good looks bribes people against the innocent who may not be people of beauty.  Think about the way you are persuaded.  If you are persuaded by something that is a bit questionable, does that amount to a bribe?
           
I appreciate the clarity and detail of this Psalm.  It helps me understand some details of practical spirituality.  It offers guidelines that chart what I should do in order to be in relationship with God---the Holy One.  Religion is not just a matter of thinking and spirituality not just a matter of grooving with God.  Both need to be acted out in good deeds.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Narrowly Escaping Death

It was not these words used in the title, “narrowly escaping death,” that lured me into reading the article in the newspaper.  Those words were buried near the end of the article.  Rather it was the two pictures that drew me.  One picture was an ordinary looking guy holding a rather battered briefcase.  He was standing in front of a lovely green background of some trees.  He was a fairly old guy, handsome enough in his own right.  There certainly was nothing special about him---a story on some business guy or someone’s grandfather, I supposed.

The other picture was something else.  It showed three guys walking away from what looked like a war scene.  They were covered with dirt, clothes tattered---almost looking like miners emerging from deep underground.  The figure on the right was carrying a briefcase.  At first sight I would not have guessed he was the same guy I just described in the above paragraph.

He is a survivor of the World Trade Center fiasco.  He is now retired and living in my part of the country.  The local news reporter did a wonderful story on him that I immensely enjoyed reading.  It is a human story.  And it is a divine story.  It is a story worth retelling.  Thank you Phillip Morris, reporter and storyteller.

“George Sleigh was a dead man walking as he stepped into the stairwell of the 91st floor.  He just didn’t know it,” begins the newspaper article.  That’s a great opening paragraph and I had to read further.  “It never occurred to him that not a single soul would survive on the 19 floors above his office.”  I cannot imagine what George experienced that day, nor can I imagine what he thinks today as he remembers that fateful day in the fall of 2001. 

We are simply told that he heard the roar and saw the plane a split second before it crashed into the building.  I laughed at his response.  “It never occurred to him to let go of his briefcase---his work---as he said a quick prayer and began his exit from the North Tower…”

The reporter, Phillip Morris, did a great job in the interview.  George Sleigh told Morris about “two incongruous visions that continue to command his thoughts on that day.  One involved the certainty of death.  The other involves the normalcy of life even in the face of death.”  I agree.  Those two thoughts are incongruous: the certainty of death and the normalcy of life.  Perhaps only folks at the margin of their lives can entertain such incongruity and make sense of it.

I realized I had now two more clues about Sleigh’s spirituality.  I had nearly missed the first clue.  That clue noted that he said a prayer before beginning to descend the stairs from the 91st floor.  Perhaps folks unaccustomed to praying always miss this clue.  Others of us who might believe in prayer believe in a way that does not really take it for the power that prayer might actually have.  For us prayer is more like the “God bless you” that accompanies a sneeze!

Because Sleigh was a spiritual guy, he believed in prayer and was able to face the certainty of death and accept the normalcy of life in the face of that certainty.  “Wow,” I thought!  The story continues to unfold.  Obviously Sleigh made it down and out of harm’s way.  And now he is living in my region telling his story.

There was one more paragraph in Morris’ article that I found fascinating.  Morris quotes George Sleigh.  “I believe that God is firmly in control…But the lessons we must never forget is that we are vulnerable and must remain vigilant.”  This is Sleigh’s theology that doubtlessly buttressed him on his walk down 91 flights of stairs.  I can appreciate that theology.

It is good for me to read this and ponder it.  I am not sure Sleigh’s theology is my theology.  But that is ok.  I can learn from him.  Clearly his theology shapes the way he sees life and lives his life.  That is powerful.  I can ask myself whether my theology is as powerful for me?

I agree with Sleigh that we are vulnerable.  We may not be living in our own World Trade Centers.  But we are vulnerable to attacks from without and within.  Most of us don’t need foreign terrorists.  Some of us are capable of terrorizing ourselves with our bad choices, stupidity and stubbornness.  Too many of us never find the stairs to the safety of the good life and we perish in the mayhem of our life’s choices. 

God may be in control.  But we have to do our part.  We have to be responsive and responsible.  God does not walk down the stairs; we do.  And if we choose to walk down the stairs of our life, then we also will narrowly escape death.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Precious Learnings

I continue to be fascinated by life and potentially what it can teach us.  Each new day I try to be open to the wonder of it all.  Looked at this way, I can appreciate all of life.  Seen this way, life does not always have to be going well.  Health and wealth are not the only things that count.

For example, I am fascinated with babies and how they begin to grow.  I am intrigued both by what we learn and how we learn.  I am disappointed when I squander my chance to learn, when I close down and shut off God and God’s world.

A long-time friend of mine, Gene Roop, has written a book of reflective poetry entitled, Heard in our Land: Prayers of Life.  One prayer I very much like he calls “Precious Learning’s.”  It begins, “Thank you, God, for those who share their experience, the most precious learning’s from their life.  How to trim trees and enjoy a meal; how to plant seeds and play with a lover; how to care for a friend and respond to hate; how to express anger and mend torn clothing.  Grant us, God, patience.”

When I hear these words, I am thankful to God for all those folks in my life who have taught me---and still teach me---by sharing their precious learnings.  I think about my now-deceased dad who taught me how to play baseball and basketball and, whom late in his life, I taught to play golf.  I think about my grandpa who taught me early lessons about grace and generosity.  He was just a farmer.  He taught me how to plant cornfields.  All those are now only memories, but the precious learnings are still very much a part of my life even this day.

Precious learnings also come with educational degrees and, more often than not, simply from the school of life.  For example, I may have learned as much from my cancer, as I did from Harvard!  And Harvard certainly did not teach me what having cancer did teach.  God has given you and me life.  Too many of us treat life like the school we may have hated.  It would be misfortunate to hate life in the same way as school. 

God gives us life---not to hate---but to love.  I don’t want to squander that.  And probably you do not want to squander your life either.  God even chose to become human and show us how to live and love.  As Jesus, God has given us precious learnings.  He shows us how to be helpers and healers.  God gives us each other to share our experience---our precious learnings from life.

Now that is an interesting way to see all the people with whom I will come into contact today.  They potentially are all in my life to share experiences.  They might well be my teachers offering precious learnings, if I will pay attention.  Only a few of them are legitimately labeled as teacher or professor.  But students, co-workers, store clerks, etc. all qualify as educators in the school of life, capable of offering me precious learnings. 

Lord, give me the openness and capacity to learn today.  You can, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Paying Forward

I had not really thought much about it until my friend mentioned it in his remarks to me and some of my younger student friends.  He is a pretty “big person” in our part of the world.  He is a name of national prominence.  I feel fortunate to have a good relationship with him.  Apart from a good friendship, I don’t get any special things from him.  The best thing is his willingness to take time to speak to my student friends.

The “it” he mentioned was in the phrase, “paying it forward.”  There he was in front of us saying the real reason he was spending time with us was to “pay it forward.”  It was appropriate.  He did not have to do this.  He wasn’t going to get anything personally from doing it.  In fact, we could actually be seen as a pain in the neck for him!  But he wanted to pay it forward.

Most of us know what this means.  Usually it comes out of recognition that somebody or, even, a few others did things for us when we were younger.  It could have been opportunities for something we might not have managed on our own.  Sometimes it is as simple as introducing us to someone and suggesting that person look out for our welfare.  Personally, I have been graced by a few people who were good mentors.  They paid it forward for me by taking some time, having some interest in me and offering me a chance to learn from their experiences and mistakes.  In most cases this was not something I could have learned in the classroom.

So there was my friend “paying it forward.”  He was offering insights from his own experience.  He was making suggestions.  They were more like suggestions than advice.  Too often, advice is given, but it really does not mean much.  One of the best things my friend did was to use himself as an example to show us what it meant when people “paid it forward” for him.

Long after the event, I began thinking about this experience, but this time from a spiritual point of view.  It became clear to me that “paying it forward” can appropriately be seen in the spiritual context.  Obviously almost everything that has been said so far can apply to the spiritual context.  We can have spiritual mentors.  We usually benefit from spiritual suggestions.

As I thought about it, I realized there was even more to “paying it forward” spiritually.  Let me put it simply.  “Paying it forward” has dual directionality for me.  From one direction “paying it forward” means that I have be graced from God and from others.  God looked out for me before I started looking out for myself.  Others had my welfare and best interests at heart even before I was too concerned for my spiritual best interests---and began work for those spiritual best interests.

This kind of grace is not just a historical event---something that was done for me in some time past.  It is not like some kind of inoculation shot that you get and it covers you for life.  To the contrary.  This kind of “paying it forward” grace happens in the past and happens in the present.  To stay with the metaphor of shots, I can get a booster shot of grace any day---any time or all the time.  Grace is the kind of resource that can never be depleted and will never run out.  Like God’s love, it is inexhaustible.

On the other hand, “paying it forward,” means for me a kind of ministry.  Here I am the actor and not the recipient.  Ministry is a matter of paying it forward.  Ministry is my grace for others.  The good news about grace---either for me or for others---is grace is always a gift.  The question of whether you deserve it or not doesn’t enter the picture.  In my ministry to others, my call is to be gracious.  This is a relief.  I do not have to calculate whether the other is worthy of my grace in ministry.  I don’t have to worry or get mad if they do not seem to appreciate my ministry for them.

My ministry is service.  It is care---a form of loving.  I do it regardless of how it is received.  I give it unconditionally.  This is a radically free place for me.  I “pay it forward” because that is my commitment in ministry.  Therefore, I have done my duty.  I have been responsible and obedient.

I know some times my ministry might be effective in creating positive things.  But I also know that some times the ministry goes out to folks who are not ready for something different.  Ministry is gift, not coercion.  Ministry is gift, not manipulation.  My simple calling is to “pay it forward.”

In summary, I am glad to know that I am in the middle of “paying it forward.”  I realize some others are continuing to “pay it forward” for me.  I know this is exactly what Jesus, the Buddha and other religious giants have done.  My call is to do my part by “paying it forward” in my ministry.  I will never be confused with Jesus or the Buddha.  Being them, however, is not my calling.  Being me---fully and authentically me---is my calling.  Being me happens best when I realize what others have done for me, and what I am to do for others.