Friday, December 20, 2013

Another Year

I am not sure how old I was when it dawned on me (or someone told me) that Christmas and the New Year did not come at exactly the same time everywhere in the world.  I am not sure how I felt when I learned the kids in Europe had opened their presents six hours before I did.  And for sure, I do not think I could quite grasp the fact that Chinese kids had done their New Year’s party at noon my time.  And by the time I watch an old year go out and welcomed a new one, the Chinese had just had their lunch! 

Now I know fully that all this is due to the fact that our earth is round.  It is a big ball.  And it takes the ball twenty-four hours to spin around one time.  I know this in my head, but honestly I have had very few experiences to convince me the earth is round!  It still looks flat, except when you get in the mountains.  But there is nothing even with the mountains that would tell us the earth is round.  I don’t doubt the scientists, but I do have to take it on faith. 

What really intrigues me is the whole idea of time.  Clearly, day comes, followed by night, and yet another new day.  That is pretty easy to grasp.  Along the way some smart person figured out how to measure time.  Days and nights were no-brainer measurements.  If I go to sleep when it gets dark, at some point I realize it is getting light.  So I conclude the night is “over.”  And a “new” day has come.  It can’t be the “old” day.  That was destroyed by “last” night. 

And then, the measurements of time became more specific.  Hours were invented; then seconds.  It takes twenty-four hours in one day-night cycle.  Given this, China can be twelve hours “ahead” of me since China is half way ‘round the globe. 

I think it would have taken a little longer to figure out the cycle of years.  Spring giving way to summer and then falling leaves and snow became clues.  “Years” became the measurement of this cycle.  Our calendar decides the New Year comes with January 1.  For Christians and Jews this follows upon the Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations. 

For me these holiday seasons and New Year’s Day always feel like a coming and going.  But that’s time.  And that’s life.  You can’t grip it, you can’t hold it, you can’t stop it.  You live it.  And hopefully, you live it as meaningfully as you can.

Sometimes meaning comes really easily.  It is almost effortless and is like grace.  And sometimes, life throws you a curve and it is difficult, if not unimaginable, how to make meaning.  I think in most cases meaning is made.  Many of us don’t think about it this way; somehow, it is tempting to think meaning either “is or isn’t.”  We don’t realize the power of our choice.  We don’t fully appreciate the fact that we can make meaning out of almost anything that time delivers to us.  To make meaning is a form of power.  Victor Frankl recognized this power even in the throes of a Nazi concentration camp. 

Indeed, we cannot always change the situation in which we find ourselves.  But we always have the choice how we view the situation.  Neither Nazi guard nor anyone else can deprive us of that freedom.  I take solace in this.  But I also realize I need to take responsibility. 

If meaning is made, then I want to make good choices so that my meaning can be as full and rich as possible.  All my “yesterdays” are gone.  The New Year is upon us.  In addition to scientists, I also have faith in the God who is present to us in all our times. 

May we recognize and respond to that God.  May that God bless you and me…in every new day that comes our way. 

This is the last message until the University opens again January 6, 2014.
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Age of Anxiety

This title is not exactly the title in the opinion section of the New York Times I read, but it is close.  I was pulled to read the entire article.  Clearly there have been times when I have felt anxious.  I am sure that is perfectly normal.  If someone told me that he or she has never been anxious, I would not believe it.  Even after years of public speaking, I still get a little anxious when I step to a microphone or to the lectern to begin a speech.  Even if I am pretty confident, there is always a tinge of anxiety.

But that’s not the kind of anxiety the article is describing.  The kind of anxiety the author of the article, Daniel Smith, is describing is a more chronic, more debilitating kind of anxiety.  The tinge of anxiety I feel when I begin to speak wanes very quickly.  Soon I am into it and all the anxiety has vanished.  That kind of anxiety is not chronic and it is not debilitating.

The issue the author is engaging is whether our age---our American culture---has created a context in which a significant number of people find themselves very anxious?  Certainly the numbers would argue that ours is an “age of anxiety.”  I am intrigued by this phenomenon because I wonder to what extent it is also a spiritual issue?

I found it interesting that it was not till the very end of the article that the author defined anxiety and what causes it.  I liked how he began to describe it.  “Anxiety begins with a single worry, and the more you concentrate on that worry, the more powerful it gets, and the more you worry.”  That seemed true to my experience.  Let’s take my public speaking.  With this definition I can understand that I was not really anxious.  I was slightly worried.  It was a single worry.  I might fall on my face.  But once I began speaking, everything worked out.  The worry vanished.  It did not turn into anxiety.

I did not concentrate on that worry.  I did not “fuel” it, so to speak.  The worry was not given any power.  It seems that is the turning point between a worry and anxiety.  Anxiety is a worry that has gained some power.  That anxiety begins to grip me and over time that grip becomes tighter and tighter.  This is the process by which the anxiety becomes debilitating.

The next point the author made was important.  In effect, he says that my anxiety is just that: my anxiety.  The anxiety is real, but it is personal.  The author says, “from a sufferer’s perspective, anxiety is always and absolutely personal. It is an experience: a coloration in the way one thinks, feels and acts. It is a petty monster able to work such humdrum tricks as paralyzing you over your salad, convincing you that a choice between blue cheese and vinaigrette is as dire as that between life and death.”  These words are both powerful and perverse!  They describe a kind of bondage---a slavery to anxiety.  In this sense, anxiety is a spiritual problem.

Spirituality is about many things, to be sure.  But one important facet of the spiritual life is that it is a life of freedom.  Spirituality liberates.  Spirituality and slavery are opposites.  One cannot be spiritual and also a slave to something or someone.  Hence, spirituality---authentic spirituality---should liberate one from any form of slavery---anxiety included.

In the face of anxiety it certainly can sound simplistic to suggest that one become spiritual.  Easier said, than done!  If I am anxious, there is no easy fix.  There is no magical wand to wave and, voilĂ , I am healed of any anxiety.  Probably that is why medication is such a good alternative.  The article says that, indeed, fully 18% of the American population wrestles with anxiety.  Indeed medication is widely used.  For example, “the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam — better known by its brand name, Xanax — was the top psychiatric drug on the list, clocking in at 46.3 million prescriptions in 2010.”

I am not against medicine; I use medicine every day.  But I am also for the Spirit.  I try to use the Spirit every day!  I believe that life is designed to be grounded in the Spirit of God.  If we can become grounded in that Spirit, we will be connected to the Source of meaning and purpose.  Ultimately meaning and purpose will inoculate me from anxiety.  In some sense anxiety results when there is no higher purpose. 

If I can transcend my little self and my little worries, anxiety will have no soil to germinate and grow “the worry seeds.”  How do I transcend my little self?  I begin to do it by traditional spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation.  Instead of focusing on my little self, I begin to open myself to the larger world and the God who permeates that world. 

Through things like prayer and meditation my world begins to expand.  Anxiety constricts.  Prayer expands.  God explodes worry seeds into tidbits of nothingness!  We do not live in an age of anxiety.  We live in an age of possibility.  Go for it.  Carpe diem…seize the day!     

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keep Me Faithful

One of the reasons I use and like the daily lectionary (reading) is the fact that it gives me the benefit of regularity.  And in a sense, regularity is the key to any discipline---spiritual disciplines, too.  Spiritual disciplines are much like physical exercise.  If I did it only when I felt like it or want to do it, I might slack off.  I would get out of shape---physically and spiritually.  So I decide I want to be in shape physically and spiritually and, therefore, make the commitment to be disciplined about it.  That is the role of the lectionary.           

Since I use the lectionary more in the mornings than the rest of the day, I often look at the readings for Morning Prayer.  I also like the fact that Benedictine monks around the world are doing the same readings as I am doing.  That connects me to a community that I value.          

One of the readings for this morning came from Psalm 86.  That is not one of the familiar ones to me, so it is always a bit of a surprise when I come to one of these Psalms.  The opening words of the Psalm come as a plea to God.  The Psalmist writes, “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.” (86:1)  Another translation asks the Lord to “turn your ear to me.”             

I had to laugh a little.  I can just see God turning the divine face and putting that divine ear near to my mouth.  Of course, I cannot take this literally.  I don’t actually imagine God as a real person.  But I am quite fine using personal, metaphorical language to describe God.  In some way I do think God puts the divine listening ear in my direction and hears me.  But why would God bother to do this?           

God would bother to do it because I am me!  And that is why God would do it for you, too---just because you are you.  It is not because you or I are more special than other folks.  The joke on all of us is the fact that God considers all of us special.  Of course, that must be rather difficult to consider some of the monsters of our world to be special.  But my theology says that is exactly what God does.  It does not mean that God does not hold these special monsters accountable for their “monster-ness!”           

We ask God to bend the divine ear in our direction because we are poor and needy.  That sums up very well my sense of being some of the time.  Some days I am on top of the world.  Those days are the easiest to forget to turn to God for nurture and sustenance.  Other days are just the pits, as the saying goes.  These are the days I feel poor and needy---poor and destitute as the other translation goes.  When I am feeling destitute and desperate, I need the God who considers me special.           

The next line of Psalm 86 is also very significant.  “Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.” (86:2)  Preserve me.  I relate to that request.  Especially in times of depression or danger, we plea to be preserved.  Another translation I like says, “keep my life safe.”  I like the Psalmists’ basis for this request to be preserved or saved, namely, because the Psalmist is devoted to God.  The other translation asks to be preserved, “for I am faithful.”          

At that moment I realized this whole request to God is based on one condition, namely, that I be trustworthy or faithful.  I don’t have to be perfect or a saint.  I don’t have to grit my teeth and use herculean effort to be God’s child.  I do have to trust God.  I do have to be faithful.  I need to reflect a minute on what this means.           

I find it to be reasonable that God would expect us to be faithful, if we are asking to be answered, preserved and saved.  Faithfulness is nothing more than trust.  God is saying, “if you can trust me, then all things are possible.”  Trust and faith are crucial to any relationship.  And that is exactly what we have with God: a relationship.  It can be a good relationship, a stormy relationship or a lousy relationship.  I contend that it cannot possibly be a good relationship unless there is faith and trust.           

Trust is both a verb and a noun.  As a verb, trust is a process.  I trust you this minute and this day.  But when tomorrow comes, I must trust again and again.  As a verb, trust never finishes.  So it is with God.  Today I might trust God (sadly, the English word, faith, cannot be used as a verb, although we want to say that we “faith” God).  This is what God is asking us to do: each day to trust or to “faith” God.  It is fairly simple, but we have to do it.  It is an action verb.           

Trust and faith as nouns suggest the state of trusting daily.  If I trust God today and tomorrow and the next day and so on, then I can say that I am faithful.  I am faithful---full of faith.  Being faithful is how we sustain a relationship.  God wants us to be faithful so that we are not deciding minute by minute whether to trust.  Being faithful is like the discipline we talked about in the beginning.           

If I want God to lend an ear to me, in order that I be answered, preserved and saved, then God counts on our relationship with the Divinity to be a faithful relationship.  We cannot come and go relationally---blowing hot and cold.  We cannot go chasing other gods of our own making.  We need to be faithful and ask to be kept faithful.  It’s that simple.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

By Their Fruits

First it was an email and then a follow-up phone call.  The name I did not recognize.  But as I read the email, clues began to emerge.  The person contacting me was a student in my classes more than three decades ago!  I was not surprised that I did not recognize the name.  He would have been one of twenty or thirty in a class of seven or more classes in my second year of teaching.  There have been hundreds, probably thousands, of students in and out of my life in more than three decades. 

Of course, theologically I would affirm that each of us is a unique human being.  Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God.  Sure, all of us “image” the same God.  But we are not “spitting images” of each other, as my grandfather would say.  So David, as I will call him, was not someone whose name triggered my memory bank. 

Of course, none of us is a name alone.  There must be tens of thousands of guys named David in this country alone.  He may even share a last name with some other Davids.  But he is unique.  Only he---that unique David---has lived his life, has experienced his experiences, and become the child of God he has become.  That David was now contacting me. 

That David, too, has grown up.  He had graduated from college and had gone on to medical school.  He is now a successful physician married to another physician and now has two kids.  One of those kids is college age and David and family were in town to check out my college.  So we met in the parking lot! 

I recognized him when he emerged from the car.  His hair is greying, but so has mine!  It was nice to meet his wife and his two children.  Our conversation was a strange mixture of memories of David and me in a classroom long, long ago and anticipation of what it might be like to have his son in my classroom in some distant future.   

I had to laugh.  There I was---stuck in the middle of the past and the future.  Maybe that is always where the present is lived---stuck in the middle of the past and the future.  Seldom is it so stark as it was in that moment.  In some ways I did not know how to process it.  What was I to make of it?  A few thoughts began to form and to which I can give voice. 

In the first place I give thanks for awareness.  I realize it is a real gift of being human that I can be aware.  I can be aware of a past and aware of a future that I probably have.  Thanks be to God!  I am not traversing life merely by going through the motions.  I am trying to make a difference.  To make a difference is another way of saying I am trying to live my life with meaning and purpose.  I am sure you are, too.

So when David came back into my life through an email, a phone call, and then in person, I had a great chance to see the past become present.  I had not touched his life in more than 30 years was my first thought.  And at the literal level, that was true.  I had not talked to him nor seen him in more than 30 years. 

However, I think there are multiple levels of impact.  The biblical passage from Matthew’s gospel came into my mind.  In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Mt 7:16)  I laughed again.  I am not prone to having biblical verses pop into my head.  But the verse was perfect and helped me see the situation in a light that I liked. 

David was a fruit of my work more than 30 years ago.  I recall almost nothing I would have done in the class that we had together.  Probably that does not matter.  Apparently, I made in impression and, perhaps, had an impact.  How else would one explain why he would bother to contact me?  I have no favors to offer; there is no special deal coming from me.  All we have are some interesting, mutual memories. 

But he is the fruit of my work.  He gives me a sense of meaning and purpose for what I do.  It cannot be measured in money or other tangible means.  But it is real.  I am lucky to see him at this “fruit stage.”  Thirty some years ago, I was planting seeds in his life.  I was cultivating his potentiality and clear capabilities.  Perhaps, I was sowing hope in his imagination.  Maybe I helped stoke the dream of service than he now renders as a physician and father.  

I feel lucky.  It is easy to work for days, weeks, or even years and have little clue whether one is making a difference.  For long periods I am not aware at all whether there will be any legacy---any fruit that results from the activity.  David has given me assurance that my life and work have born fruit. 

We are all living in the present---sandwiched between the past and the future.  Make sure who you are and what you are doing brings the possibility of making a difference.  Make sure that by your fruit you can be recognized.  In the present there is always that chance and that choice.  Don’t waste it with rotten stuff.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Desert and Dessert

When I was younger, these two words confused me.  Sometimes, I misspelled them.  And I see this same confusion among students today.  I know that many faculty claim students are not what they used to be.  My guess is the same thing was being said of my generation.  Spelling may be one of those things we all are sure current students don’t do as well as the older ones remember they once did!          

What I do remember is not being clear, which was to spell the arid land devoid of water and the food served at the end of a meal.  Do I use one “s” or two?  And why does English have to be so confusing was the question?  I can only imagine what learning English as a second language might mean.            

I thought it would be fun to explore both words---desert and dessert---as words that can have a spiritual meaning.  In this way perhaps we can have a handle on how to remember them.  And as we will see, they are opposite ends of the spiritual perspective.           

We can start with the first word, desert.  Perhaps we can say that it is simpler, if only because it has one “s.”  When we say it, we put the emphasis on the front syllable.  One says “desert” by making a hard “d” sound. When you pronounce it, it feels like you are forcing the word out of your mouth.           

When I examine the spiritual aspect of the word, desert, I realize it is also associated with my sense of simplicity.  We all know that a desert literally is an inhospitable area.  It is an area devoid of water.  In my imagination a desert is a sandy, hot, foreboding place.  I imagine huge stretches of land where all we see is sand and, perhaps, sand dunes.  I imagine it to be scorching hot.  Typically it might induce some sense of wariness, if not fear itself.  The desert can easily be seen as a dangerous place---a place to be very careful.           

Biblically speaking, the desert is also wilderness.  It becomes a place of testing and, often, temptation.  The desert is the place where we may have to be for some period of time.  But the desert is not the kind of place where you want to stay and, certainly, not to build a home.  The desert is not home; it is a place to endure, a place to pass through, if we can.           

Inevitably, we will all have times and seasons of “desert spirituality.”  My own Quaker tradition talks about “dry places.”  I realize this is desert language.  A dry place is a time when one has no sense that the Spirit is present.  One can continue spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation, but have no sense that there is any engagement or meaning.  If we stay on the spiritual journey long enough, we will experience desert times.          

When we add that second “s,” the desert is transformed!  It becomes the sweetest experience possible.  Dessert typically signals good stuff and good times.  There is even a hint of luxury and plenty with this good thing called dessert.  Dessert can be seen as a gift.  It is not a necessary part of a daily meal.  It is an add on---a bonus.  It feels like saving the best till last.           

When I lived in England, I liked the way they talked about dessert.  Often it was called “sweets.”  I think that can apply to a certain aspect of spirituality.  In classical spiritual tradition, the good stuff of spirituality was called consolations.  Consolations were the sweet things God gave to people: neat experiences, grace, etc.  Consolations “console” the soul.  They are never guaranteed, but they are sweet when given.             

Consolations are not merit-based.  People do not deserve to be given dessert after every meal, nor do spiritual folks merit consolations based on our good works.  Dessert and consolations are always add ons---gifts to enjoy.  And that is precisely the appropriate human response to dessert: enjoy.  If it is a gift, offer your appreciation and enjoy.  But do not become expectant or take it for granted.             

Desert and dessert are not simply confusing words for third-graders to keep separate and be able to spell correctly.  They are important descriptions of two key aspects of the spiritual journey.  As we travel our spiritual journey, there likely will be times we find the path has led straight into the desert.  In this spiritual desert there may not literally be sand and scorching sun.  But there will be trials, temptations and tests.  It may be a place of hardship and suffering.  We will be asked to endure and make do.  Persevere is the attitude.           

At some point---unexpectedly and graciously---we will be led out of the desert.  Often we come out of the desert into our normal spiritual time and place.  But sometimes, like the ending of a good meal, the host offers dessert.  We may be blessed with consolations that seem out-of-this-world good.  They might even seem like heaven on earth.  However, the caution is not to get used to it.  Simply enjoy it.           

On the spiritual journey we never know whether there will be one “s” or two “ss.”  It makes a difference: desolation or consolation, heaven or hell?  On the spiritual journey it does not matter.  Stay true.  Keep going and keep growing.  My best guess is at the end it will be dessert!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Me For Sure, Maybe You

The title of this spiritual reflection came from an article I read about the Pope, Francis I, and his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).  This publication comes far enough into Francis’ papacy, people now are beginning to suspect they understand how the Pope thinks about things.  Clearly the first Pope from the southern hemisphere looks at things differently than the previous European-based Popes did.  I find this fascinating.           

Since the publication of this apostolic exhortation (a long document), there have been a variety of comments.  The Pope has been praised for his emphasis on the missionary impulse of the Church.  He is lauded for his focus on the poor and marginalized.  He has been criticized for what some see as an attack on capitalism.  One commentator went so far as to label the Pope a Marxist!  I find some of this to be spot on, as the British say.  Other critiques I find amusing.           

I found one commentator who made a great deal of sense to me.  This commentator, Michael Gerson, picked up on the Pope’s concern about the individualism that can characterize our western culture.  It certainly is a feature of American contemporary culture.  Gerson is clearly a fan of capitalism, as the following quotation will testify.  “Defenders of market economics---and I count myself one---should recognize that global capitalism is the most powerful force of modernity, with a mixed influence on traditional ideals and institutions.”  I find myself in a similar boat with Gerson.           

Gerson continues his insightful analysis that recognizes exactly what the Pope is getting at in his publication.  Still talking about capitalism, Gerson says, “It has taken hundreds of millions out of poverty…”  That is a good thing and the Pope would agree.  But then Gerson described what can be called the potential down side of capitalism---at least the way it has been practiced in much of America and other lands.  “…it has also encouraged individualism and loosened the bonds of family and community.”  Gerson continues, “It has produced innovation and extended lives.  But in the absence of certain social conditions…capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.”           

I am also concerned with the wealth of a few that condemns the many into cyclical poverty.  I worry that the American mystique---the rugged individual---always suggests that anyone can become self-made.  The implication is the poor suckers who cannot thrive and prosper in our land are somehow tainted.  They are losers---perhaps lazy, surely incompetent, or something.  At any rate, we figure it is their own fault and walk away from any responsibility to be involved.           

I like the papal phrase, the “globalization of indifference.”  An individualistic mindset---the perspective that I am the centerpiece of my existence---potentially breeds this kind of indifference.  In effect, it argues that we all are responsible for our own justice.  The poor suckers who are on the margins are not really my concern.  I might even feel bad for them, but not bad enough to do anything about it.           

Another sentence Gerson wrote helped me understand things better.  He says, “Absent a moral commitment to human dignity, justice and compassion, capitalism is conducive to materialism, individualism and selfishness.  It is a system that depends on virtues it did not create.”  That part really rang a bell for me.  It should.  I have spent the last decade thinking about and writing about virtues: love, courage, justice, prudence and the like.  I, too, am convinced that without a life grounded in the virtues, rampant individualism will likely lead to materialism and this ultimately will lead to no good end.           

This is precisely where it becomes a spiritual issue.  And I am sure this is exactly why Pope Francis is addressing it in his apostolic exhortation.  He wants all of us---Catholics, Christians and all people---not to be uprooted from our spiritual moorings.  He wants us to found our lives squarely in the virtues.  In fact, I cannot imagine how anyone can be spiritual without also being virtuous.  And if you are virtuous, then somehow in my estimation you are also spiritual.           

I return now to my title: Me for sure, maybe you.  I was not trying to be clever.  I was trying to catch in a simple phrase what might be the theme song of American culture.  Although we may cringe to think it is true, nevertheless I do think it captures the American spirit.  I do think a substantial portion of our society does begin with self: me for sure.  That is a given.  Everything else is an option.           

If I am the given, then you are the option: maybe you!  This perspective always begins with “me.”  I may or may not even get to a sense of “we.”  In fact, I might only get to “we” when it advantages “me.”  The kind of “gospel joy” the Pope talks about is radically different, as was the message of Jesus, the proclaimer of that gospel.  I do think Jesus always had “us” in mind.  The Kingdom to which he called each of us is communal.  Finally, spirituality is a community---or it is nothing.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Poets of the Soul

One of the ways lately I have been thinking about spirituality is focused by the phrase, poets of the soul.  By itself, the phrase may sound nice, but it does not convey anything special.  If I simply used the phrase, poets of the soul, you would not have a clue what I meant by it.  So let me unpack it a bit and give it a context and some specific content.
           
No doubt, most of us would have some idea about poetry.  Most of us had exposure to poetry in high school, if not before.  Probably some of us would say something like, “exposure, ha, I was forced to read poetry!  It is easy at my age to have some regrets about my education.  One of my regrets is that I did not take poetry more seriously.  I don’t blame the poets or my teachers.  I am sure the blame falls squarely on my shoulders.  I do not know why I would have claimed, “I don’t like poetry,” but that would have been my claim.
           
It surely means that I have missed out on a real treasure of wisdom, beauty and truth.  It is something I can still do, namely, engage poetry and be open to its formative and spiritual process.  Perhaps this is what I am trying to do when I come to the wonderful phrase, poets of the soul.
           
I am confident it was only when I was learning Greek that the point and power of poetry became clear to me.  As odd as it sounds, learning the Greek language prepared me to appreciate poetry.  I can’t tell you what day it was, but it was an important day when I learned that the Greek word for poetry was both a verb and a noun.  The Greek word, poiema, is close to our English word, poem.  The eye-opener for me was to learn this Greek verb is translated “to make.”  A poem is something that is made---a work.  A poem must be created.  A poem is a creation.
           
Learning this on that day in the Greek classroom set my brain racing.  It did not take much to realize the beginning chapters of Genesis are about poetry.  God is a creator---God is a poet.  The world is God’s poem.  I am God’s work of creation.  I am God’s poem and so are you! A poem became so much more than a bunch of words that rhyme.  A poem became a work of art.
           
Learning all this led me to see myself and every human being in a two-fold manner.  I am both a work of a Poet (God) and I am a poet at work.  Let me elaborate by looking at three aspects of what I consider my poetic work.  And the work that I am about is the work of soul making---my own soul making.  I am a poet of the soul---of my soul.
           
I have already named the first aspect of this in the language of soul making.  A poet is a maker.  For too long, I heard about the soul in such a way that people “had” soul.  I grew up hearing that we “have” a soul and, then, when we die, the soul goes to heaven.  Being a child of a scientific age, that always set uneasily with me.  Very early I knew no physician could locate my soul, like that doctor could find my heart or kidneys. 
           
Then I read a piece that made a huge difference.  I began to realize that I did not “have” a soul.  I “am” a soul.  I like the definition of soul that says my soul is the “essence of me.”  With this understanding, I am born as a soul.  But it is an infant soul.  I and others will need to do a great deal of soul making to bring me into the fullness that God desires.  In this sense, I have been commissioned by the Holy One to be a poet of my soul.
           
I find this to be an exciting assignment: make myself a poem.  A second word comes to mind to describe the process and the product of this soul making.  The product---a poetic soul---will be a soul of majesty.  It will be me---a poem of which God will be proud.  I will be a soul of majesty.  And the soul making process is a majestic process.  To see living and my life as one of majesty is pretty profound.  It seems deeply spiritual.  I like the idea of living majestically.
           
Finally, if I can pursue this poetry of the soul---soul making---and have it come off well, then I will have participated in a miracle.  A miracle is an unusual event (often caused by God).  A miracle is an amazing or wondrous achievement or result.  This is exactly how I have come to understand the process of poetic making of the soul.  I affirm there is a sure role of God’s grace in this poetic process.  But I am the poet---the poet of my soul.           

Maker, majesty and miracle.  Those are poetic ways of understanding the way of spiritual living that I want to embrace.  I like being a poet and I really like the idea of soul making as creating a poem---a poem of my soul.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Purpose of Human Life

I have often said that religion is one way of making meaning in life.  And I do believe that.  Religion offers a perspective on the world and on life that paints a picture to show how we understand ourselves in that world.  Of course not everyone has a religion or shares a religious perspective.  It is very easy and quite acceptable today for someone to be an atheist.  Atheism also is a way of making meaning in life.

Sometimes that bothers a few of my religious friends.  They do not think atheism is a way to make meaning in life.  Simply because they are religious, they cannot imagine any other way to do it.  With this perspective, religion is the only way to make meaning.  I understand that perspective; I don’t share it.  I don’t share it, in part, because I do not think I can be the one who defines what counts as meaning.  For example, if I am to assume that you have to be religious to have meaning, then I am going to tell an atheist that he or she cannot possibly have meaning---even if they think they do have meaning in their lives.  Somehow it strikes me as odd to tell someone who thinks they have meaning that, in fact, they don’t!

I am pretty sure there are many non-religious persons who are quite sure they have a life of meaning and life of meaning does not have God in the middle.  Far be it from me to tell them they are lying to themselves.  If they think they have meaning, I am willing to say, “Yep, you probably have meaning.”  I would also add, “and the way you have meaning is different than the way I do it.”

I am happy to talk about religion.  That should not be surprising since I teach it!  Indeed, I have a great deal of fun teaching religion.  I don’t try to convert anyone.  I figure that is God’s job!  My job is to talk about the various ways religion makes meaning.  And I can also talk about how various religious traditions make meaning in somewhat different ways.  Who is to say a Buddhist or Hindu makes meaning in the same way I do as a Christian and Quaker?

All this led me back to some words I once read from the late novelist, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was a native Hoosier, so perhaps that made him important to me.  He died in 2007, but before that he wrote a number of novels and other things.  He was not your typical kind of guy.  He often had a biting way of describing the world, but he made you think.

It was his one-liner about meaning that caused him to come into my mind again, as I am reflecting on the purpose of human life.  He offers an alternative to religion or atheism.  Vonnegut says, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  There are a number of things in the one-liner to be noted.

The first thing to note is the lack of arrogance on Vonnegut’s part.  He says “a” purpose of human life.  He does not say, “this is the only purpose of human life.”  He allows other purposes.  I like that.  Who’s to say how many purposes in life there might be?  And cannot any one human being have more than one purpose?

The phrase in Vonnegut’s quotation that is a bit puzzling is the phrase that says, “no matter who is controlling it.”  I doubt that Vonnegut meant God in this instance.  Perhaps God does control things, but that is a theological assumption.  In my theology God is not a controlling divinity.  I believe human beings were created with free will.  Of course, there are some things in life that we cannot change---regardless of how much free will we have.  But basically we have choices.  And I think God is a respecter of our choices.  Of course, our choices have consequences.

The last part of Vonnegut’s quotation is the heart of it.  The purpose of human life is to love whoever is around.  I think God would love this perspective.  It represents how God acts in the world.  Whoever is around, God loves.  What if we took this seriously?

We could not have enemies!  We could not hate people.  It means our intentions would need to be creative and not destructive.  Everyone knows that loving somebody or something does not always mean, “liking” them or it.  But love builds up; it does not tear down. 

I am convinced if I could begin to commit to loving whoever is around, then I clearly would have purpose to my life.  And if some others also make this commitment, the world would get better.  And if we all could commit to this purpose, paradise would be built!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Freedom of Exploration

The phrase, freedom of exploration, I read somewhere.  I have no idea, since I read fairly widely.  I do remember when I saw it that my interest was piqued.  Perhaps it is because I have some interest in the process of innovation that it intrigued me.  But I also thought about my work in the discipline of spirituality.  Let’s look at both of these arenas.           

The freedom of exploration seems like a suggestion or, even, advice to me.  I can imagine saying it to someone.  “Go ahead, explore freely.”  I do not know how you could order or command someone to do this.  It feels more like permission.  “Go ahead.”  There is an element of encouragement that I very much like.           

I value both words, freedom and explore.  Our American culture talks a great deal about freedom.  It is assumed that we are a country with immense freedom.  Perhaps the ideal is being able to do what I want whenever I want and wherever I want.  I am not against this idea of freedom, but I am not sure that is the deepest or most profound freedom.  In fact the idea of freedom in the phrase, freedom of exploration, is more qualified.           

In fact, I think the more important idea is the idea of exploration.  The phrase simply acknowledges that we have the freedom to explore.  I think the idea of exploration is the radical idea, not freedom.  It is radical because the process of exploration is a process that opens us up.  It potentially calls into question the status quo---the routine that seems to run most lives and most institutions.  The freedom to explore implies that a new way, even better way might be discovered.           

In the world of innovation we know that freedom to explore is a necessity.  By its nature, innovation looks for new things or new ways to do old things.  By nature innovation is potentially disruptive.  It is a potential threat to the status quo.  Doing things the way we always have done them might be comfortable, but ultimately refusal to change usually spells death.  Innovate or die!           

I would argue that the same thing is true in the spiritual realm.  Most of us would not think to speak about spirituality and innovation in the same sentence.  For too many people spirituality is rooted in tradition.  Thinking the way we have always thought seems to rule the day.  By its nature, tradition is conservative.  Tradition is rooted in the past and tends to abhor change.  From the perspective of tradition, why is there a need for freedom to explore?          

I certainly am not against tradition or heritage.  In fact, I did a Ph.D. in early Christian history.  But if we deal only with the past, we are anything but free.  We become prisoners of what was.  And we resign ourselves to being mere spectators to what will be.  We risk becoming spiritual dinosaurs in a world, which only sees a role for the dinosaur in a museum.  It has little to do with the vibrancy of real life.          

Oddly therefore, my analysis comes to the place where I would say that we have no choice but to explore.  We have come to the place where we should say that we have the obligation to explore.  Let’s push this a bit further into the arena of spirituality.           

We can begin with God.  God surely was a God who worked in history, as I see it.  In fact the biblical tradition is a record of God’s work in history.  There are the two covenants---Old and New Testaments.  There is the rich treasure of twenty centuries of Christian tradition.  So clearly, there is a God of history.             

But I assume there is also a God of mystery---the Spirit who is at work in the present and the Spirit who is pulling us all into the mystery of the future.  This is where the freedom of exploration takes place.  In the freedom of our exploration we need to be actively looking to see where and how God is at work today.  It might be in the institutional church, in the creeds and sacraments.  I would affirm this is probably true.  But the working of the Spirit is probably not limited by these traditional modes of Divine Work.           

We are called and challenged to exercise our freedom to explore other venues where the Spirit may be at work.  The answers here are not obvious.  And the ones who come up with new insights may not be the bureaucrats of tradition---the priests, professors of religion and the like.  The bureaucrats may be the least likely to be innovative, because we are the conservers. That is why exploration requires freedom.           

It requires freedom, not anarchy.  Freedom is the space and the grace to go ahead and explore.  Freedom is new questions and new openness to fresh winds of the Spirit.  Maybe it is the child---and the childish---in our midst, who might be an explorer of the Spirit.  Perhaps it is the marginalized.          

Freedom to explore does not require ordination.  It requires curiosity, courage, and commitment.  It is open, non-judgmental, and flexible.  I want to be more involved in this future work.  I hope all people of the Spirit want to become explorers and have the freedom of exploration.  It is our future!

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Deeper Understanding of Thanks

I remember so many times when I was growing up in rural Indiana, one of my parents (or even grandparents) would ask, “Did you thank him?”  They drilled into my head that I owed someone a word of thanks if I were given something or if I were told something special.  I suspect that I did not fully appreciate what they were doing for me.          

I am sure they were teaching me this lesson long before I could register what they actually were doing.  I know with my own kids and, now with grandkids, I am watching that age-old lesson being taught.  No doubt, the kids are too young really to grasp why saying “thanks” is all that important.  I know when I was young I was just happy to get a gift.  I am sure I was driven by pure self-interest.  In a one or two-year old, that is normal and fine.           

But learning to say “thanks” is an early lesson in self-transcendence.  That is a big word, which simply means, you are not the only one in the world!  What’s more, the world does not revolve around you and your interests.  Of course, I believe you and I are important.  In my theology we each bear the image of God.  We are precious children of God.  But we are not gods!          

I appreciate my parents instilling this habit of saying “thanks.”  I grew old enough finally to realize what they were doing.  They helped me see that people are often gracious to me.  More times than I could count, someone has given me a gift, said a nice thing to me, praised me---all these deserve a response like, “thanks.”  In many instances, saying “thanks” is the only appropriate response.  Not to respond seems like the epitome of selfishness.           

I would like to take “thanks” to a deeper level.  Little did I realize this would happen when I studied classical Greek language in graduate school.  However, I was pursuing a degree that required being able to read the New Testament and early Christian theologians in their original Greek tongue, so I learned Greek.           

I remember the day I hit the Greek word, eucharisteo.  This is the verb.  It also comes as a noun.  Being a Quaker---a non-Catholic---I did not see the inherent connection to our word, eucharist.  If I had been more savvy, I would have known that is the word for Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist---all synonyms for what many Christians still do today when they gather for worship.          

What I learned about that verb, eucharisteo, was more revealing than something about communion.  The Greek verb really needs to be translated, “to give thanks.”  The Eucharist---Holy Communion---is at its heart a “Thanksgiving.”  To put it the other way, “Thanksgiving” becomes a sacrament!  Communion sacramentalizes the simple, “thanks.”           

To me this came like a revelation.  It was as if the Holy One had spoken---had offered me an insight as profound as those writers of the biblical stories.  “Thanksgiving” is at its deepest level a sacrament.  Of course, as a Quaker I would not have been able to define precisely what a sacrament was.  But I learned what St. Augustine would say and I liked it.  A sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible reality.”           

To say “thanks” is to create a momentary sacred bond between the giver and the receiver.  The one to whom something is given says, “thanks”---the visible reality (a sound, a word) of an invisible reality (gratitude, a sense of being graced).  On the surface this might seem like much ado about nothing.  Surely, saying “thanks,” if someone merely opens the door for me, is not sacramental.  But why not?  Why does a sacrament have to be large-scale, like baptism and Holy Communion clearly are?  What about the little, sacramental moments?           

I would like to think any time we say “thanks” (if it is sincere and authentic), we have created a sacred moment.  “Thanks” is a reciprocal, closing the loop between the giver and the receiver.  You give me something and I say, “thanks.”  My “thanks” loops back to you, the giver, and bonds us momentarily in a sacramental connection.  It is a sacred exchange.           

This is profound because we all know the sadly secular nature of our world.  We live in a time when folks are out to rip us off, take advantage of us, grab while the grabbing is good, etc.  It is a dog-eat-dog world, you know.  All these betray an attitude of selfish initiation and competition.           

The attitude of “thanks” and “thanksgiving” is an attitude of openness, receptivity and appreciation.  This attitude allows the Sacred into the middle of our dealings with one another: a gift, a recognition, a sacrament.  Knowing all this gives me a deeper understanding of thanks.  Thank God!

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Pain is not a Pain

A rose may be a rose, but a pain is not a pain.  Maybe somebody has said that before, but I have never heard it.  So I am assuming (for the moment) I made it up.  Of course, most of us have heard that line, “a rose is a rose.”  I don’t know who said it first or if I should give it a footnote, but I do know that I did not create that line.  Furthermore, we all could explain what the phrase, a rose is a rose, means.

However, if I say, “a pain is not a pain,” the reader may not be too sure what I mean by that.  And if the reader is unsure, he or she does not know whether to agree with me or say balderdash!  So let me explain it by some development. 

For sure, every adult knows what pain means.  It is difficult to imagine living into adulthood and not experiencing some kind of pain.  There is physical pain; we all know this.  There is emotional pain----a pain many people know all too well…and others may barely know.  There may be something like spiritual pain, but this one is tricky.  Not everyone thinks there is such a thing as “spiritual.”  I happen to think there is a spiritual dimension in our lives and it is possible for that dimension to be “pained.” 

When I say, “a pain is not a pain,” however, I do not want to focus on pain the way I just described it in the above paragraph.  That is just one way to think about pain.  So there is pain---physical, emotional, and spiritual.  I have experienced all three kinds of pain.  Pain hurts.  Pain is real.  If I am in pain, I would like to get out of it!  At every level, there is nothing positive or redemptive about this kind of pain.  It is hard for me to imagine anybody saying, “Sure, I like pain!  Bring it on!”  So pain in this sense is pain.  This is comparable to a rose being a rose. 

I can think of two other kinds of pain which led me to say, “a pain is not a pain.”  Allow me to identify a second kind of pain.  This is the kind of pain referred to in the saying, “pain in the butt.”  Many times I have heard someone say, “he is a pain in the butt.”  A pain in the butt is not limited to other people.  Sometimes people have a task or a job to do that is “a pain in the butt.”  I have had a few of those tasks in my life! 

Generally, when someone describes “a pain in the butt,” she or he is not literally describing a pain in the sense above (physical, emotional, or spiritual).  A pain in the butt is more like an annoyance or irritation.  It does not literally hurt.  It may not even be literally true.  But it is perceived as annoying, irritating, or inconveniencing.  Ironically, I can say it is a pain, but it does not hurt! 

A pain in the butt is typically my interpretation of my predicament.  Someone else in the very same situation may not experience it as a pain in the butt.  Some are less irritable than I, more tolerant, or more forgiving.  A good example is my neighbor’s dog.  She loves her dog.  She dotes on that dog.  That dog is a pain in the butt, as far as I am concerned!  I do not find the barking amusing.  I am not entertained by any canine tricks.  It is a pain in the butt.   

And then there is a third kind of pain.  This kind of pain is ultimately positive.  It may be redemptive.  It is the kind of pain that may well hurt---and maybe hurt badly.  But it is the kind of pain in which we say in some sense, “bring it on.”  For example, I think about my daughter giving birth recently.  I am not a woman; I have not given birth.  But the average birth story does entail some pain---some real, hurtful pain.   

But this kind of ”purposeful pain,” as I choose to call it, is the kind of pain that folks willingly endure.  I am sure my daughter willingly hung in there in order to birth that little girl.  It was pain, but it was not a pain in the butt.  A pain is not a pain. 

This third kind of pain surely is the kind of pain Christians understand to be at stake in the crucifixion of Jesus.  Surely, there was pain---physical, emotional and spiritual.  Perhaps, Jesus even thought to himself” “well, this certainly is a pain in the butt!  Those crazy people who wandered so far from God now leads me to this!”   

But it is the third level of pain that enables me truly to begin glimpsing what the cross must mean for some Christians.  The cross is analogous to giving birth.  It was a pain that Jesus endured.  Ironically, it was a positive and redemptive pain.  I am sure I don’t fully understand it---or, likely, appreciate it.  It was a pain---but a purposeful pain. 

Again, a rose may be a rose, but I am convinced a pain is not a pain.  Hopefully, this helps know how to deal with pain.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Devout, Doubt and Out

Recently I read a great opening line and now cannot even remember where it was.  But I do remember the gist of the line.  I think the line was used about Roman Catholics, but it really applies to all traditions and, certainly all denominations.  The author said there were three kinds of believers: the devout, those who doubt and those on their way out!  I certainly know some Quakers who fit all three categories.  I am confident I can come up with names of Catholic friends in all three.  And clearly in Judaism and, likely, every other major group, there is membership in all categories.          

I suppose in our now secular age, we could add a fourth category, namely, those who were never in.  But they really don’t count, since they are not wrestling with the issues of faith, belief, membership, etc.  Or if they are wrestling with it, it is not in the context of the church or synagogue.  So I will set this fourth group aside.  I am interested in the other three.           

Personally, I can only identify with two of the three groups.  Growing up within the Quaker tradition, I sensed fairly early on that I was part of this group.  I did not think much about membership---certainly not formal membership.  In fact, I am confident membership in the Quaker tradition may be looser than in other groups.  There was a sense that if you participated, you belonged.  And this sense of belonging was more important than any kind of formal membership.  Indeed, Quakers have been critical of the perspective that says you can have formal membership, but in actuality not really participate.  (But honestly, we have some of the same problems---of course!)           

When I think about the group of devout believers, I do not think first of all people who are into theology.  For me, being devout is more a way of life than necessarily a way of believing.  To be devoted to someone or something means giving your heart and soul to it.  If I am spiritually devout, that means I am totally committed to the Holy One.  I have given my heart to God.  I am all in.  And I will be all in, come “hell or high water,” as my grandpa used to say.           

In my perspective people are not born devoted.  To be devout is different from being dependent.  My little grandkids are dependent.  Every little child is helpless for quite a long period of time.  They need to be fed, held, changed, etc.  They are not devout.  They are dependent.  Of course, they will grow up to become independent (thankfully).  And then they can choose whether to be devoted.  For me that means the devout have chosen to be in relationship.  And of course, they can choose not to be in relationship.           

That brings us to the second category, namely, doubt.  Personally, I have spent a fair amount of time in this place.  Even those of us who grow up in a religious tradition need to go through a phase of “owning” the faith we inherit.  I do not think there is any way a child can own his or her own faith.  Rather they have the faith of their parents, their church, etc.  Predictably, at some point something happens that provokes them to wonder whether they will become people of faith on their own terms.           

It is not unusual to become aware of the fact that we are not even sure what “our own terms” are.  Often we know what we are supposed to say, supposed to believe, and supposed to do.  But we are not sure; we have doubts.  Doubts are not necessarily negative.  Doubts are more like saying, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”  Personally, doubt is like the desert.  In doubt there is not the lushness of belief.  Instead of the living waters, in doubt there are hot winds and sand.          

Doubt can be a healthy place.  It is a time of testing and, sometimes, temptation.  For me, doubt is an in-between time and place.  That does not mean it is quick.  One can be in this stage a long time.  But finally, I think we either become believers (again) or we join the third group.           

The last group---the folks who have already gone out---are not necessarily wrong, nor are they bad.  They simply are folks who don’t belong to a spiritual tradition.  I respect their place and support them in their non-spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in life.  After all, they face the same human questions and predicaments that believers do, i.e. imperfection, mistakes, death, etc.  I treasure them because they have so much to teach me.           

I realize there may be some fluidity between these categories.  I am confident God honors each phase or stage.  I am confident that the Spirit continues to work in people and in the world regardless of where I or you are.  And in faith I can ultimately say perhaps the categories are irrelevant.  We are all on a pilgrimage through life.  In faith and in the end, I think it is all spiritual---for the devout, the doubters and even those on the way out.