Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving: a Day and a Way of Life

As Americans, we enter the Thanksgiving season.  Already people are wishing me a “happy Thanksgiving.”  I am delighted with that greeting.  And I would be delighted if someone next week wishes me a “happy Monday.”  But I guess Mondays are supposed to be normal…not so happy, not so awful. 

I am not sure I do major holidays very well.  I am not against them.  They celebrate important events in national, religious, and often personal lives.  Thanksgiving is an American deal.  In Turkey it is just another weekday!  As an American, I welcome it.  And I hope it is happy. 

I am confident one of the reasons I am not sure about major holidays is the trickiness of expectations.  For example, Thanksgiving is supposed to be “happy.”  Christmas is supposed to be “merry” and, of course, we return to the “happy” theme for New Years.  Clearly, for too many people there are too many lousy things going on to gear up to be “happy” and “merry.”  Holiday expectations are tricky things. 

The truth is Thanksgiving lasts one day.  It is here and it is gone.  Even if one adds “Black Friday,” that is only two days.  Since I am not a shopper and, certainly, not a shop-till-I-drop person, Friday is not part of the deal.  No one ever has wished me a “Happy Black Friday!” 

I am glad Thanksgiving is here.  And I am glad it is one day and then it is over till another year.  And I hope I am happy…and you, too. 

In reality I am more interested in how Thanksgiving can become a way of life.  In fact, I think we should not capitalize it.  I want my way of life to be one of thanksgiving.  That gets me at the spiritual roots of my life and how I want those roots to issue a way of life for which I can say, “thanks.”  And I hope my way of life becomes such that others can say, “thank you.” 

Both those qualities are necessary for my understanding of thanksgiving as a way of life.  I need to be able to say, “thanks,” and to have others respond genuinely with their “thank you.”  If I am only concerned with a way of life for which I give “thanks,” I fear it may be a way of life rooted in self-interest.  If I get all I want, then I will be thankful.  But some of what I might want may come at the expense of others.  And surely, they are not going to say, “thank you.” 

On the other hand, if I live only to get your “thank you,” I may be nothing more than your servant or, worse, doormat!  You happily say, “thank you,” but I certainly am not saying, “thanks.” 

The good news is that kind of thanksgiving is a way of life.  I don’t have to pull it off by the weekend.  Like music or sports, I will probably have to practice a fair amount.  There is time.  Perhaps, the real question is not whether I am succeeding, but am I making progress? 

How will I know if I am making progress?  Likely, there are many ways to measure it, but let me offer two.  I will be making progress if I am more loving---more loving than I was last week and last Thanksgiving.  Sometimes that is not easy---there are so many ding-a-lings out there!  And of course, most people are not as loveable as I am! 

The second measure is if I am more graceful.  I am not thinking of gymnasts and ballerinas.  Grace is always a gift.  If I am more graceful, I am more giving---perhaps, more forgiving.  If I can be more graceful, more giving, then people are more likely to say, “thank you.”
           
This is the last inspirational journey until Monday after Thanksgiving.



Monday, November 25, 2013

Creation, Community and Cemeteries

If you stop to read titles before launching into the prose of these inspirational pieces, this current title must baffle the reader.  Other than beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, there seems to be little in common with these three words.  There is certainly nothing obvious to connect them.           

A second thing these three words have in common that would not be evident is the inspiration for this reflection.  Most of the inspiration came from two students who are now my friends.  Faculty often complain about “grading.”  Some aspects of that are unappealing.  But anyone who grows up on a farm knows that that life has some unappealing aspects, too!  However, when I have a chance to read papers from students and to be privy to their experience, their creativity and their learning, I am usually made better for the process.           

Recently I had that privilege of reading their papers.  They were reflecting on some ideas from Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk.  That is a favorite book of mine, so it is fun to watch students engage it and wrestle with insights from Norris’ life.  Let’s turn to the three “C” words with a couple borrowed ideas from my students to be inspired for the day.           

The first word creation, I chose to go along with the other two “C” words that came from the students.  The reason I chose the word, creation, should be fairly obvious.  We never will make it to a cemetery unless we are born, live and die.  Creation is the acknowledgement that I am here.  I exist.  I was born---was created.  My parents certainly, and perhaps in my own theological understanding, God brought me into the world to be me.  I was given a name at birth, but I don’t think that was “me.”  The real “me” had to develop.             

Through experiences, learning, successes and mistakes we form an identity.  Part of my identity---part of “me”---is a spiritual identity.  I am spiritually a child of God.  That identity provides some of my meaning in life; it gives me purpose.  With effort and a great deal of grace we live our lives to some significant end.           

That leads to the second “C” word, community.  There is no way any of us would know who our “me” is without some kind of community.  Without question much of modern American life is propelled by self-interest.  We can hear it in the language: “watch out for #1.”  Of course, I am #1!  There is emphasis on individualism.  We are out to “get what is ours.”  This is reinforced by the urgency to “get yours while the getting is good.”             

One of my students has discovered the necessity of community as the antidote to rampant individualism.  My student got it right when she observed that each of us does better when we “become a part of something that lasts.”  If we become part of a community, we say we become “members.”  And every time the community comes together, we are re-membered---remembered.  Again, my student put it effectively when she acknowledged, “to be remembered is as simple as being a part of something larger.”          

I give thanks for my communities.  If we are really rich, we are members of more than one community.  There are communities made up of family, friends, churches, synagogues, teams, partnerships, and the list goes on.  But think about how many people are not really members---effective members---of a team.  If you are not effectively a member of a community---a group---then this probably could be the smartest, best gift you could give to yourself---and to others.  Do this before you die.           

And this leads to the third “C” word, namely, cemetery.  A second student brought a paper that reflected on life, death, and then what remains.  For most of us, the remains are buried in the cemetery---“our final resting place,” as I heard it called in my boyhood years.  I am old enough to have buried parents and some friends.  I don’t know that I have thought too much about cemeteries until I read my young friend’s paper.  He begins by acknowledging the cemetery to be both a sad and beautiful place.           

He is wise beyond his years.  For example, he said that he wants “to be next to people I love because you are only as good as your people.”  That sounds like an argument for good communities!  Then he develops this idea by hoping that he can be buried “next to my role models and mentors.”  What a thought!  No one has asked me if they can be buried next to me.  Maybe I have more modeling and mentoring to do!           

Finally, my friend says the cemetery is “like an insurance policy.  The insurance policy will only be as good as your life and relationships you build before you die.”  I value these two young friends who are, temporarily at least, part of my community.  I trust they will always be part of my spiritual community, even if we go physically our separate ways.  I don’t know where I will be buried, but I would be ok if it were between them!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Life With Hope

Sometimes I wonder if people give up on religion because they cannot figure out how to do it day by day?  This seems probable to me because I am not sure most of us common people are quite sure how to define religion.  By saying that, I do not mean those of us who went to church or to synagogue are complete idiots when it comes to religion and what it means.   

When you know something, it is always difficult to remember when you did not know anything.  Now that I have a Ph.D. in religion, it likely is impossible to remember accurately those Indiana farm days when I did not know beans about religion.  But let me guess nevertheless!

I suspect that most Christians, at least, would define religion along the lines of doctrine.  For example, I would assume if you ask the person on the street to define religion, he or she would begin by saying something about believing in God.  Doctrine has to do with believing.  If one is a Christian, it is likely that Jesus enters the picture in some form.  It would probably lead to statements about Jesus as redeemer or savior or some such doctrinal version.  Of course, this is not wrong.  But I wonder if it is adequate?

By adequate I mean I wonder if anyone can live daily by doctrine.  I do claim to be a Christian.  But when I bounce out of bed in the mornings, I am not immediately thinking in doctrine terms.  In fact, I can go all day long without the slightest reference to doctrine.  But if asked, I probably would claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense.  So I am suggesting that religion is prior to or deeper than doctrine. 

Doctrine is fine.  I like it.  I studied it.  Sometimes I even try to teach it.  But religion does not equal doctrine for me.  In fact, I would say doctrine is a reflection upon whatever I claim to be religious.  Again, let me explain. 

Doctrinally, I might say I believe in God (and I do).  That’s nice.  But it tells you virtually nothing about me, about my life, etc.  On the other hand, let’s start with experience.  If I tell you this morning when I bounced out of bed, I had the most profound experience of God’s presence.  I have told you something very specific and significant about me.  In a way I am telling you I know God---or at least, met my God.  Of course, you don’t know very much about the God I met/know.  But it is a more powerful statement than the doctrinal statement that I believe in God.  Knowing takes me further than simply believing. 

If I know my God---at least in this minimal way of experience---I can hope for more.  If I met God, then I can hope that I can meet God again.  And maybe I can begin to linger with this God.  It might become a daily presence---or at least, a coming and going presence.

That presence of God might become more.  More what?  I don’t even know how to answer this question.  God can become more than I can even imagine.  That is the function of hope.  Hope is grounded in the more…the more of whatever the future might bring.  Doctrines do not deliver futures.  Experiences deliver in the present and present a future. 

Experiencing God is a gift and a promise.  I recall the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech poet and politician, when he talks about being an optimist because of his experience of God.  Havel said, “I am not an optimist, because I am not sure everything ends well.  Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly.  I just carry hope in my heart.  Hope is feeling that life and work have meaning.  You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world around you.  Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life.  I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me.  I am thankful to God for this gift.  It is as big a gift as life itself.”   

These words are important to me.  I like how Havel connects life and work and meaning.  And I am truly appreciative how Havel connects it all to God.  I agree when he says hope is as big a gift as life!  That is a mighty big statement. 

I want to carry hope in my heart.  Hope grounds me today and promises tomorrow.  That is exactly how I perceive God at work.  When I experience God, I am grounded in today and I sense the promise of tomorrow.  Maybe hope is one way we carry this presence of God in an ongoing way.  Surely, I don’t experience God in every waking moment.  But I do have hope every moment---or can have it. 

Ok, I have it: life with hope. What a blessing.  What a gift.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Presentation of Mary

Growing up as a Quaker lad in Indiana meant that I never heard of this Feast Day, as the Catholic Church calls a day when a saint is remembered and celebrated.  Of course, the saints are not worshipped, but they do serve as models of faith.  They are human, but they also were so open to God’s Spirit working in and through them that they became servants of that Spirit in the world.  The implication is you and I also can become instruments of the Spirit.
           
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one such saint.  In fact, for many of my Catholic friends and non-Catholic friends, Mary would be unique among the saints.  Only she can claim to be the mother of Jesus.  In that sense she has been accorded special status within the Christian Church.  In fact, she even plays an important role within Islam.  Many of us who are not Catholics do not “get it.”  Rather than be dismissive of this stuff, perhaps we ought to pay more attention and see what learning there is for us.
           
Be open rather than opinionated is a pretty good approach.  Instead of dismissing the stories surrounding Mary as silly, perhaps we could open ourselves to those stories not as fact, but as teaching tools of the Spirit.  Let’s do a little of that here.
           
The Presentation of Mary as a religious festival goes all the way back to the sixth century.  It appears to have originated in Jerusalem.  Historically, it probably was associated with the building of a basilica, which was named in the Virgin Mary’s honor.  At that time the Christian geography existed primarily in two different parts, known as the East and the West.  The West was centered in Rome and dominated by the single Roman bishop, namely, the Pope.  Eastern Christianity did not have a single center.  Jerusalem was one focal point, along with Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople, located on the isthmus between Europe and Asia (the modern Istanbul, Turkey).  The Feast of Mary played a more prominent role in the East.  Over time, however, it took a place of importance in all of Christianity.
           
The Presentation of Mary is actually a dedication of the young Mary at the Temple.  The story is not found in the Christian Bible.  Rather one has to look in what is called the Apocryphal literature.  The literature is a group of writings from the second to fourth centuries.  The dedication of Mary’s story is found in a writing known as the Protevangelium of James.  I first ran into this little book when I was in graduate school.  In that little book we read that Mary’s parents took her to the Temple in Jerusalem.  There she was presented (dedicated) to the service of the Lord.  She would be tapped as one of the favored ones to play a special role in God’s work in the world.
           
I doubt that anything in this story is historical fact.  But that does not really matter.  What matters is the theology behind it---the spiritual fact, if you will.  In effect, the Presentation of Mary is the story of human availability for Divine action in the world.  Mary is not a passive tool.  She is an active participant.  I want to believe Mary had the option at any point along the way to say, “No.”  She could have chosen to be unavailable.
           
I like the idea of availability.  It is a common word that has spiritual impetus for me.  Availability is my willingness to be present.  If I tell you I am available, then you should be able to count on me to be present and helpful.  If I am available, then I am “at home” when you need me.  I think that is exactly the story of Mary.  She was dedicated to this purpose.  I want to be dedicated to that purpose, too.
           
Availability is closely related to hospitality.  But I do think hospitality takes another step further than availability.  Hospitality affirms that I will actually host you, if you come wanting something.  Hospitality means I will care and I will share.  Hospitality offers to you some of what is mine.  Availability means possibility; hospitality suggests actuality.
           
It is easy for me to understand Mary as available to God and willing to be hospitable to God.  But there is a third and more radical step Mary was willing to take.  She was ready to be incarnational.  That affirms that Mary was willing and ready to embody God---in her case, literally.  Mary became the Spirit embodied---“the Word became flesh,” as John’s Gospel tells it.
           
It is easy to acknowledge that was true for Mary.  But I would push it further.  Not only is it true for Mary.  It can be true for each of us.  Mary is the model---the paradigm.  She is the model of availability, of hospitality, and yes, of incarnating the Spirit of God so that we too might become servants of the Spirit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Conversion: Learning to Live

Every so often I run into a quotation that stops me in my tracks.  That happened yesterday when I was finishing one of Thomas Merton’s books.  Periodically, I teach a seminar on Merton’s spirituality.  I have done this multiple times.  I like Merton and I suspect I will get something new every time I teach that seminar.  Often I have read the book before, but somehow a particular quotation never hit me like it does the current time through the material. 

Merton was a Catholic monk who died tragically in 1968.  He wrote a great deal and was ironically very famous even as a silent monk in a monastery in the hills of Kentucky.  So even though he could not speak that much in his monastery and would have to get the abbot’s permission even to receive a visitor he “spoke” to millions of people around the globe through his writings.  The voice that had chosen the silent path spoke in volumes! 

Merton’s story is very familiar to me.  After a rather tumultuous youth and an atheistic phase through college years, Merton hit rock bottom in his pointless search for life’s meaning.  He began a spiritual quest and that finally landed him in the Roman Catholic Church.  He is very clear about his conversion process.  But it did not stop there.  That process continues to lead him right into the Trapppist monastery 45 minutes from Louisville in those Kentucky knobs.  So the highly educated global citizen landed as a monastic hick in the South. 

I was reading near the end of what, arguably, is my favorite Merton Book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Published in 1965 near the end of his life, Merton has become a critique of the culture in which he found himself.  It was the ‘60s---Vietnam, racial issues, feminist awakening, etc.  I hit a paragraph where Merton referenced his conversion and my eyes lite up. 

Merton comments, “God was not for me a working hypothesis, to fill in the gaps left open by a scientific world view.  Nor was He a God enthroned somewhere in outer space.  Nor did I ever feel any particular ‘need’ for superficial religious routines merely to keep myself happy.  I would even say that, like most modern men, I have not been much moved by the concept of ‘getting into heaven’ after muddling through this present life.”  Those lines of Merton are Merton at his best, in my mind.  He is so eloquent and, yet, so matter of fact.   

I resonate with Merton’s quip that God was not a working hypothesis for him.  God was not some reasonable idea in which Merton chose to believe.  Merton bluntly said he did not feel any need to be involved in religious routine.  This is funny to me coming from a monk who had been “going to church services” at the monastery seven times a day for nearly a quarter of a century!  And I most enjoyed Merton saying that he did not become religious in order to get into heaven!

Merton was not worried about getting into heaven.  He was more worried about getting into a real present life.  That is what he converted to get.  Again listen to Merton’s words.  “On the contrary, my conversion to Catholicism began with the realization of the presence of God in this present life, in the world, and in myself, and that my task as a Christian is to live in full and vital awareness of this ground of my being and of the world’s being…When I entered the Church I came seeking God, the living God, and not just ‘the consolation of religion.’” 

That’s the key, I thought.  Merton converted not to get into heaven, but to get into a real, genuine, and vibrant life in this world and in this present time.  That is where he sought God.  He sought the living God, as he says.  That is a very different God than some reasonable idea of God.  I can manipulate ideas of God.  I can make that God anything I want God to be. 

But the real God---the living God---will be Who that God already is and will be.  That God Merton found and that God changed his life forever.  That is the God I, too, want to meet and greet.  I do that with some trepidation.  I don’t want to be called to a monastery in some unimaginable place.  Probably, Merton did not intend that either. 

I suspect the living God will call me (and anyone else who seeks and finds that living God) into unimaginable places.  I am convinced that living God will call you and me into an educational experience.  We will learn to live.  Let me explain. 

To live is not simple.  There is a range to living.  Imagine the range is something like survival on one hand and thriving on the other hand.  Most of us are somewhere in between.  In my theology it is God---the living God---who teaches us how to thrive in our present lives.  That usually calls for a re-ordering of priorities, re-commitments, and re-newing.  This is what conversion means.  Only the living God can create thriving women and men who learn to live abundant lives.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Spirituality: Making Sense of Life

I lead a group that meets every Monday.  It is a delightful group of people to join weekly.  Our purpose is to discuss life and hear how each other is engaged in making sense of life.  That may seem too general to be interesting, but I can assure you it is not too general.  As a matter of fact, people bring their real life experiences to the group and we all prosper by hearing each other share what we know about life, as well, as listen to each other’s questions about life. 

I think we all have assumptions about life.  One assumption I have about people is that all of us in our own way are trying to make sense of our lives.  When I say make sense of life, I mean we are trying to figure out our purpose in life.  Another way to put it is we are trying to find meaning.  I am confident that the core experience of living a life without meaning is despair.  Despair literally means to be without hope. 

A second assumption I have about life is there are many, many different ways to make sense of life.  And any attempt to make sense of life is inherently a quest for purpose or meaning.  So if I say the point of life is to get rich, I have just admitted that is my purpose in life.  And I have confessed what I deem will make my life meaningful. 

Of course, I could disagree with this purpose.  I can marshal all sorts of reasons why getting rich is not a good way to make sense out of life.  I can clamor that there is no way that can be a meaningful life.  But what I am really doing is telling you that getting rich is not my way to make sense out of life.  In fact, I may be saying that is a senseless way to go about it. 

So my group is a wonderful opportunity for me to listen to people in process.  All of us are in process of making sense of life.  I am convinced it is a process because life is open-ended.  Even if I feel absolutely certain how to make sense of my life, something may happen tomorrow that challenges that.  I cannot establish my beliefs---determine what is meaningful---and then lock the door.  Of course, I think there are people who try to do this.  Religious fundamentalists come close to this certainty.  But I see this as rigidity, rather than certainty. 

I am leery of the person who has it all figured out---who has made sense out of life and has no need to think any more about life.  Lazy people choose this option.  And rigid people choose this option.  The problem with this position is new or unscripted life scenarios cannot be factored into the equation. 

This is why I think making sense out of life is a process.  Even if I nail it today, I want to be open tomorrow to new experiences, to new learnings, and to new revelations.  My knowledge is not absolute.  I don’t think there are absolute answers in the realm of faith.  Faith is trust, not a guarantee.  If I have faith there is a God, I cannot prove it.  I cannot guarantee to you there is a God.  I trust there is a God.  I can tell you why I trust there is a God.  I can explain to you why I make sense of my life and my future based on that trust there is a God. 

The function of my little group is to gather and to share these kinds of stories.  For example, if you think there is a God and that trust helps you make sense out of your life, I want to hear your story.  I want to hear about your experience.  I want to know how and why you interpret your story the way you do.  I want to hear the strength in your voice as you tell your story.  I want to listen to where you waver---to where you may not be sure or where you have questions.   

All this is what I mean by “spirituality.”  Spirituality is one specific means humans employ to make sense out of their lives.  It was during my teenage years that I become aware that meaning in my life was not a given.  Of course, I knew what my parents had taught me and I was aware of what my own Quaker tradition was telling me.  But is was not “mine.”  It was “theirs” and they implied it could be good enough for me.   

But faith---meaning-making---is not a hand-me-down like the clothes an older brother wore and handed them down to me.  I needed to find out whether the religion of my parents and my tradition “fit.”  Religion was not the same thing as faith.  They could teach me their religion.  They could not give me their faith.  That I had to manage on my own. 

As I thought about it, making sense of my life is simply a way of talking about that which I put my faith in.  It might be God; it might be getting rich.  Actually, I am glad there are options for making sense of life.  It makes life more interesting.  I am actually glad there is a range from despair to hope. 

I hope I am opting for a way to make sense of my life that is enduring and brings some sense of joy.  I know that when my group comes together, I experience joy.  And when someone can share how they are making sense of their lives, I enjoy.  I am confident that joy and enjoying are signs of a healthy spirituality.  And for me, it is a good way to make sense of life.

Monday, November 18, 2013

First Things First

I have heard the phrase, “first things first,” so many times during my life.  Growing up on a farm, it made perfect sense.  Often there was an order or sequence to the chores facing us.  Clearly, “first things first” implies a logic to how one goes about things.  Usually if you did not do the first things, nothing else would be possible.  Or things would start to go very badly.             

When I left the farm to go to college, I did not hear the phrase as often.  However, it surely applied to much of what I did in college and, then, later in life throughout my career.  It probably also makes sense when we think about having a family.  Likely it also makes sense when it comes to friendships and all the other adventures of life.           

It occurred to me this morning when I was trying to do a little spiritual time, that it also very much fits the spiritual life.  Some day, perhaps I will wake up and have nothing planned or nothing to do all day long.  Then “first things first” may not apply.  But that is not yet my state in life.  And it does not even seem to be the state of life for the folks I know who are retired.  Maybe “first things first” makes sense until we leave this earth!           

The phrase, “first things first,” came to me when I looked at the lectionary readings for Morning Prayer, or Lauds, as the Benedictines call Morning Prayer.  That is why I like using a lectionary.  It forces me to engage the reading of the Psalms on a regular basis.  And it prevents me from simply choosing my favorite ones.           

The reading today was Psalm 5.  The opening verses have the Psalmists saying, “Let my words come to your ear, O Lord; hear my sighs.  Listen to the voice of my crying, my King and my God.  As I make my prayer to you, listen to my voice in the morning; in the morning I will stand before you and await you.” (5:1-3)  For some reason the point of the reading for me today was the emphasis on “the morning.”           

Unless we die during the night, we all experience morning.  Morning comes whether we slept well or miserably.  Morning happens regardless of whether we are sick or healthy, poor or wealthy.  Morning comes.  It is a fact; it is an event.  On its own, morning’s coming is neutral…neither good nor bad in itself.  Mornings become good or bad, welcomed or hated, depending on how we see the morning, how we greet it and what we do with it.             

This morning’s reading for Lauds caused me to think about my mornings.  My mornings are fairly routine.  Normally I am the first one out of bed.  So I have the place to myself.  There is the inevitable cup of coffee, some time spent with the newspaper and a quick, first glance at my technological connections.  It is easy to slip into the shower, dress and run right into the work of the day.           

As I reflect on this, I realize it is not bad.  But it is not inherently spiritual.  I like reading the sports’ page, but it is seldom a spiritual experience nor does it feed my soul.  Whether my team wins or loses does not affect my day.  I begin to get a sense that I might not be doing a very good job of “first things first.”           

None of my morning routines are bad.  But none are spiritual.  I confess that I would tell you spirituality is important to me, but when I am honest, it may not be “first things first.”  I realize the Psalmist has challenged me.  I do not feel like a failure.  Rather I sense that I am not yet doing what I say is important.  Or that I am not doing it in the order that makes sense.           

So what do I do?  Typically in spiritual matters, huge changes do not have much chance of success.  I am in favor of what I call incremental spirituality---first things first.  If I can make small changes---incremental changes---then significant results can happen.           

I do not plan to give up coffee, the sports’ page or any of my normal morning routines.  But what I would like to do is incorporate the lectionary readings for the morning (Lauds) a little earlier in the day.  I will spend a little time with the reading of the Morning Prayer.  I have it on my phone as an application.  So in addition to checking the early morning emails, I can also access the reading of the day.          

Even if I take only a few minutes in meditative pondering the morning reading, that is likely to give my morning a spiritual start.  In my case it is not an addition to the day.  Normally I do it later in the morning.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But I have been thinking, “first things first.”           

If spirituality is important to me, as I say it is, then “first things first.”  I will move the spiritual into a more significant time of the day.  I want to take a few minutes in the morning and stand before the Holy One and await that Presence.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spiritual Community

I am part of a group that meets weekly.  It is a great group of fairly diverse people.  The folks have a variety of jobs.  Both genders are represented.  The age range is significant.  Some are retired and others are newer into their careers.  Not everyone has the same religious background.  We have Christians and Jews and some who probably are not institutionally affiliated.  But the greatest thing about the group is how well they get along. 

I like being part of a community.  Usually, I can tell if a group is a community or if they are just a collection of individuals.  They may even be working to some common end, but a collection of individuals will not automatically become a community.  I am pretty sure I cannot give you an academic definition of community.  But I do know there are some key aspects.

Community requires commitment from the various members.  Typically, the community members have voluntary membership in the group.  No one made them join up or even stay with the community.  Clearly there has to be mutual respect.  I have already indicated that communities do not have to be uniform or homogeneous.  There can be some significant diversity in communities as long as there is mutual respect.  Respect is different than agreement.  In fact, there may be some people with whom I agree, but do not necessarily respect.

I think authentic community expect the most from each member without presupposing that everyone is perfect.  Authentic communities have to find a way to understand and deal with the fact that occasionally some within the community will fail.  It might be a failure of omission---someone failed to do what he or she said would be done.  It might be a failure of commission---someone tried to be or do something and did not pull it off.  These two kinds of failure---failing to do and failing in what you actually do---are both failure.  The question is what to do with people who fail?

One obvious option is excommunication---banning the person.  If you fail, you are tossed out of the group.  Another option is probation of some sort.  This is milder than excommunication, but still holds a threat.  Probation says, in effect, you are on trial---you are on notice.  Shape up or you will be shipped out of the group.  Probation brings a certain kind of pressure.  If I am on probation, it is my choice whether to stay with the community and try to get back into the graces of the community.  But there is pressure.
 
A third option for people who fail is forgiveness.  In this case the community recognizes there was failure, but extends forgiveness.  Of course, everyone who has ever thought about forgiveness makes the point that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting.  Forgiveness is a fully conscious choice not to hold something against the person who failed.  Obviously, forgiveness usually presupposes some sense of remorse, some apology, some admission from the one who failed.  Forgiveness is not the same thing as saying, “oh, it does not matter.”  Forgiveness says, “it matters, but we forgive you anyway.” 

For me community has been an important laboratory of the spiritual life.  Not every community of which I have been a participant has been a spiritual community.  That’s ok, because even a non-spiritual community teaches me something about life in a spiritual community.  So what kind of laboratory is community? 

A spiritual community is a laboratory of love.  This is not the sappy kind of love, but the real love of life together.  It is the love that demands that I do my part and love others in the process.  It is a laboratory of love that asks me to set aside self-interest in the interests of others and, particularly, the community.  It is a laboratory of love that expects me to put the group ahead of my own self-interests.  Yes, the group is more important than I am!  That is counter-cultural in America today. 

A spiritual community is a laboratory of hope.  It is a place where the hope of the group (often expressed as the goal or mission of the group) feeds the individual hopes of each member.  Jesus called this hope the Kingdom.  I might call it the Blessed Community.  Again, it is bigger than I am.  It helps me transcend my own petty hopes and dreams.  It makes me a part of something bigger, something more important, and something significant.

I am grateful for my little gang.  I am grateful they include me.  They are going to take me places I could never go on my on.  They may even take me to the place where I can pray, “thy kingdom come,” and it will!  Blessed be community!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Caring and Being Careful

Yesterday I was asked to be part of a session in which we were supposed to talk about our work and the context of our work.  That sounds like a simple request, but it proved more difficult than I thought it would be.  My work centers in spirituality.  And many would argue the context of that work is the classroom.  I would not disagree.  But when I reflected further, the classroom is only one context for my spirituality work.  There are many other venues where my work is also is engaged.

At the superficial level, there were the obvious answers.  I teach religion.  In most instances I walk into a classroom and proceed.  I talk about ideas; I cajole them to reflect on and also talk about ideas.  I ask them to begin what many have never done, namely, talk about their experience (if any) and to begin to formulate that into their own belief system.  Most of them find it difficult, especially at first.  And I agree with them; it is difficult.

One cannot live superficially and reflect deeply.  Now I am not accusing my college students of living superficially, but it is likely that most of them have not yet begun to reflect deeply.  They are too much in a hurry to figure out major, play sports, be in musicals, etc.  Their lives are busy and that is not bad.  But being busy is not the same thing as having meaning or purpose.  Being busy does take up much time.  But it is not automatic that being busy gives any meaning to time.

So I decided that my work might not be primarily as it seems.  Of course, I teach religion classes and I enjoy that.  That gives me purpose and makes the time I spend quite meaningful to me.  But I cannot assume that it does the same for the students.  I was being taken to a deeper level. 

I realized that my work could be summarized in a simple phrase.  My work is “caring and being careful.”  When I thought about it, those words literally rolled off my tongue.  I would not claim to be inspired, but it was a vocational ah-ha experience for me.  I knew I had given some words to a deeper place that I take into my work.  Caring and being careful describe that deeper place in me that inspires and energizes me for the task.  That is the reservoir from which I am drawing every time I walk into a classroom.   

Of course, I am there to impart some knowledge if I can and if the students are open and receptive.  But I now know that I am also there with a deeper mission and message.  And I smile when I realize that message typically is delivered with no words!  I am caring and being careful without announcing it verbally. 

So my deeper work is caring.  And I execute that as carefully as I can.  Sometimes, I do it with words, for sure.  But I do it with smiles, with eye contact, and with a variety of other non-verbal cues.  Without words I am saying encouraging things; I exhort without words of exhortation.  Caring is not a one-time event.  It is a process.  Usually it is not complete even when the student completes the degree. 

Caring is not classroom specific.  I exercise that work all over campus.  My work context varies in remarkable ways.  I do it in the cafeteria, in the Recreation Center and, even, in the locker room.  I exercise it on the sidewalk.  The context is presented every time and in any place I encounter a student.  Seldom in those contexts am I teaching spirituality. 

But then it hits me.  Maybe every time I extend care to a student, I am teaching spirituality!  I would argue that any time anybody cares for someone, that person is doing a spiritual thing.  Spirituality does not begin with doctrine.  Spirituality begins in experience.  If I care for you, that is an experience.  It is an experience for me and for you.  Either one of us or both of us can theologize about it.  But it is primarily an experience. 

And caring can become a habit and, indeed, a way of life.  It can become a hallmark of my spiritual path and my spiritual journey.  In this sense it is appropriate to say that my spirituality is a commitment to being careful.  In this vein the context for my work is any place I can exercise my commitment to being careful---full of care. 

The wonderful thing about this is the realization that everybody can be spiritual in this way.  It is not specific to Christianity or Judaism or any major religious tradition.  You don’t have to be an adult to care.  You don’t have to be perfect or have “your act together!” 

Having realized this, I can’t wait to go to work!   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Spiritual Output and Impact

When you live long enough, no doubt you do things you never thought you would be doing.  I guess I have lived long enough!  I am ok with that. However, most of the stuff I am doing, that I never thought I would be doing, was not invented when I was a kid.  If I think about the friends I have who are in their eighties or nineties, the changes in the world in their lifetime is stupefying.  Even the changes in my lifetime astound me. 

Obviously, much of it is technology.  The fact that I sit with my laptop typing this inspirational piece which then will be uploaded to cyberspace to be read as an email or blog makes me laugh.  I use words in that previous sentence that would have made no sense to a Hoosier farm boy when I was growing up.  A car is a car, but my car today is not even close to the first car I drove.  And so the countless changes could be added to the list. 

I am not an early adapter.  I certainly was not at the head of the line to get to use the computer when they arrived on the scene.  I managed to write my first book without a computer.  Wite-Out was my favorite tool!  But I do adapt.  As my friend used to say, “I am just slow; I’m not stupid!”  So I have a laptop.  I operate in cyberspace (although I have no concept what that means).  And I blog (although that still seems like a very odd verb). 

But I am not for change for the sake of change.  I value tradition.  I value the classics.  Novelty is not truth, although truth certainly can come in novel forms.  And tradition is not necessarily true just because it is old---or traditional.  In fact, I like looking for truth in the intersection of tradition and novelty.  That intersection is usually the place of change.  Change could be described as the place where novelty is challenged by change. 

This may seem like an odd lead in for a spirituality professor to comment on a business passage.  But it was at precisely that change intersection between novelty and tradition that inspiration occurred.  I was reading one of my favorite commentators on business matters, Rosabeth Moss Kantor.  She teaches at Harvard Business School.  It was a sentence in a blog about motivation.   

Kanter was talking about special, highly motivated companies where engaged workers are transforming their business and, hopefully, the world.  Then I hit this sentence.  “Emphasis has shifted from output to impact---from how many products are sold to how much the products enrich the people’s lives in the broader society.”  Immediately, I saw how with a little tweak this becomes a spiritual passage. 

Religion and spirituality are not businesses, but they can become very business-like, if we are not careful.  We only have to watch some television religious shows to see what I call, the commodification of religion.  Religion sells products.  Output equals dollars.  And so on.

When I think about what Jesus, the Buddha and so many religious giants of old have done, I see the shift in emphasis that Kanter describes.  Jesus was not interested in output, so much as he was motivated to cause impact.  In fact, one could say it was the impact of Jesus that made all the difference. 

The impact of Jesus, the Buddha, the Hindu sages and all the rest created the major religious traditions that exist today.  However, I am sure every religious tradition is interested in nothing less than continuing to make an impact in individual human lives.  The goal of these traditions is not to add me and you to the list of devoted souls---to count us among the outputs that will measure the success of the religious tradition.  I am not a number and neither are you. 

Rather the goal of spiritual traditions is to make an impact.  The desired impact is to change my life and your life so that we are transformed human beings.  As transformed human beings, we are on our way to becoming the saints that God intended in the very beginning. 

And if I can be on the road to being a saint, then I am going to be living and acting in a way that will impact my own world.  It means I will impact positively those around me.  I can aspire to have a similar impact-effect on folks’ lives that Jesus had.  Of course, I am not the Messiah---not sure we need another one!  But I can be an impact.  And I can make an impact.

And if enough of us strive to be impact-players, then the world will begin to be transformed and the kingdom will get a little closer to reality.  That would be quite a spiritual impact.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Image of God

Even though I grew up in the Quaker tradition, I don’t think I was a very good Quaker.  But I was also not a bad Quaker.  In retrospect I probably would say in most ways I simply was not a Quaker.  I was a normal, middle class farm kid whose parents went to church like most of the families I knew.  “Going to church” in my case, meant going to Quaker meeting, as we called it.  If that is what you do every Sunday, it is easy to assume that is normal!
 
If I had gone to a Methodist church or a Catholic church, I would have claimed that as my identity: I would have been Methodist or Catholic.  In all likelihood I would not have been any better at being Methodist or Catholic than I was at being Quaker.  Going to church was what people did.  But that did not make it important or, even, relevant in my life.  After all, I was clear that basketball and girls were more important and, certainly, more relevant!
 
Things began to change for me late in high school.  There was nothing dramatic---certainly no crisis.  But that is the time in my life when I began seriously to think about what I would do in life.  There were many people in my family and circle of friends who had different ideas for my life.  And in some ways I probably listened too closely and tried too hard to live into their dreams for me.  That usually does not work!
 
I dutifully went off to college and began to work on the dreams others had for me.  But my heart was not in it.  Paradoxically even if I succeeded in managing their dream in my life, I would be a failure.  I would not be me!  This did not come as a revelation.  It crept into my consciousness and awareness.  Little by little I started to realize I was aiming to live someone else’s life.
 
And that led me to a precipice.  I did not know who I was.  In fact, I had no clue!  Of course, I had a bunch of answers and descriptors that I used to tell people who I was.  But they were like clothes someone else had given me.  Down deep, I did not know who I was and I did not know what I wanted to do.  Being in college was not answering that at all.  So I quit!
 
I quit college and began learning.  Apparently, I don’t get big bolts of revelation or enlightenment.  My discoveries and learnings seem to come at daylight rather than in the light of day.  I began to notice there was an inner emptiness that lurked below all the activities, beyond all family and friends, and above any dream I might conjure for myself.
 
I started to suspect that we are not “man-made” as the popular myth would have it.  We probably are not “woman-made” either, if we use inclusive language.  Suspicions like this one launched my genuine spiritual search.  I realized that a spiritual search is not the same thing as going to church.  Of course, going to church might aid the spiritual search, but the two are not the same.  My spiritual search was my quest for who I would be and what I might do.  In other words the spiritual search was my quest for identity and purpose.  I have been on this quest ever since.
 
To my surprise and sadness, I also realized how ignorant I was.  Going to church did not mean I had learned a thing.  Oh, I suppose I had learned a few things.  I knew about Noah and the ark.  I knew a few other things from the Bible, but they were random things that served no real purpose.  They were of no help on this spiritual search.  To my surprise, I realized I knew about God…but I did not know God!
 
 But this part was crucial.  Maybe I was not “man-made.”  If not that, perhaps I was  “God-made.”  That made more sense.  At that point something from some Sunday School class crept back into my mind.  Those original creation stories in Genesis talked about humanity being created in the image of God.  That’s it, I realized.  I am a person created in the image of God.
 
Suddenly, I knew I had hit upon the identity question.  I know who I am: I am a creature of God.  I image the divinity…and so do you!  I am a treasure in an earthen vessel.  Maybe that is my real purpose in life: to be that treasure.  My goal is to be worth something in that sense.  Of course, that is not a specific assignment.  But whatever specific assignment I take on---or is given to me---has to be “treasure-living” as the image of God.
 
I did not realize all this in a moment or, even, a short period of time.  It began at the dawn of my spiritual search and has continued throughout the daytime of my life.  I fully expect it to last until the dusk of my life and on into the night of my death.  It has been a wonderful spiritual search…and I am still on the way.