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Friday, December 19, 2014

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 5, 2015.
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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Adventure of Friendship

“Friendship is an adventure and a journey that changes us over time.”  That is the first line of a group paper the folks in my class on Spiritual Friendship are writing.  It is an interesting project.  They have been a good group, they are working hard and I respect that effort.  So instead of the normal classroom assessment protocol, i.e. exams, we are in the process of writing together a paper defining and detailing what the students have learned about friendship.  

The focus is on the nature of friendship.  This is the simple question, what is friendship.  Most people could offer an answer to that question, but I am confident the students could add some depth and breadth.  They have centuries’ worth of thinking from other luminaries of the past.  They can cite Aristotle and Augustine.  They have read people like Cicero and a medieval monk that virtually no one has ever heard of, namely, Aelred of Rievaulx.  Aelred wrote a magnificent little book called, Spiritual Friendship.             

The students have thought a great deal about what we would call the process of friendship.  How does friendship develop? Finally, they have quite clear answers to the question, so what do people get out of friendship?  Again, most people in the world could offer a general answer to this question.  But the students can add very insightful details to their answer. 

With this in mind, let’s return to the opening sentence of this inspirational reflection, which is also the beginning of the student paper.  Friendship is an adventure.  Friendship is also a journey.  Those two words---adventure and journey---are wonderful metaphors to describe the process of friendship.  To see friendship as an adventure is compelling.  Who is not up for an adventure?   

The language of adventure is tinged with anticipation and excitement.  Some adventures have elements of risk.  So does the friendship relationship.  As friendships develop, we have to risk some things.  We risk sharing elements of our lives.  We risk being misunderstood or unappreciated.  In effect, we risk love.  Friendship is a “love word.”  All the classical languages, like Greek and Latin, use a “love word” to mean friendship.  Only in English does this link go missing.  So friendship is a risk of love.  That is why it is an adventure. 

It is also a journey.  Friendship is a trip!  The journey of friendship is a journey of relationship development.  No one can know for sure in the beginning whether the friendship will actually get somewhere.  There is always the possibility that any particular friendship will end in a wreck.  Or friendships get lost and never get to any significant destination.  When the journey of friendship takes us to good places, then it is a super trip.  When the friendship wrecks, it is a lousy, sour experience. 

The last part of the opening line of the students’ paper is a daunting claim.  The adventure of friendship changes us over time.  That is a powerful claim, but I believe it is absolutely true.  In fact, I would suggest that a friendship that does not change you over time is not a true friendship.  It would be more an acquaintance or something like that.  Since friendship is a “love word,” I argue that you cannot be in a friendship without that friendship changing you over time.  

In fact, I think there should be a sign hanging over the entrance to friendship that says, “Do not enter unless you are willing to be changed!”  In deceptive ways those words---friendship will change you over time---sound benign or relatively harmless.  I doubt that many of us enter friendships with the awareness that true friendships will change us over time.  But that should be a very good thing. 

It is a good thing because authentic friendships---since they are “love relationships”---change us in every good way that love always changes someone.  To have a friend is to be loved more and more into the good person that we have the capacity to be.  To have this kind of friend is to have someone who cares about me deeper and more deeply into the person God wants me to be. 

Indeed for me, friendship is the key to the Spirit.  Jesus knew the connection.  I love that wonderful passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells those disciples, “I don’t call you servants; I call you friends.”  Surely this call was a call to adventure.  It was an invitation by Jesus to journey with him.  It would be a journey of love.  Of course, there were risks involved.  But oh, the potential and the promise of such a friendship! 

I am confident the Divine Spirit continues to call us into this kind of relationship.  It might be with the Divine Self.  It makes perfect sense for me to understand myself as a friend of God.  But it also might mean that I am called into a friendship relationship with some of God’s finest---you and others like you.  If you are a true friend, then you can love me into the person God wants me to be.  And that, my friend, is the adventure of friendship!     

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Do Not Fear

Yesterday I had the pleasure to participate in a memorial service.  I have done that probably a thousand times.  Many times I officiate the entire service.  Sometimes, like yesterday, I only give guidance to portions of the service.  I cannot remember a memorial service or funeral where I am not very conscious of the fact a human being died in order for us to be gathering in his or her memory.          

The man being remembered and honored yesterday was a person I never met.  I know his son and it was through this connection, I was asked to participate in the service.  I was happy to do so.  My feeling is we never know when an act of kindness or some ministry will bear fruit that is significant in some way.  So I did my part in honor of a person whom I never met.           

However, I never mind participating in a service like this, even if I don’t know the guy or gal.  This guy was a real human being.  He had lived for some eighty years.  Since I know his son and, assume rightly or wrongly, that some of the deceased shows up in the son, I felt like I had some sense of him.  It was interesting to hear the son and another brother say some things about their dad.  By the end of an hour, I felt like I had come to know the old guy a little bit!           

Authentic memorial stories are engaging because they are full of stories.  After all, that is the essence of human living: we are story creators!  Clearly some stories are more interesting than other stories.  Some of us lead more or less interesting lives than other folks.  When I am in these kinds of situations, my mind sometimes drifts off wondering what kind of stories am I creating?  Maybe it would be fun to be conscious somehow and present at our own memorial service!           

One thing that did emerge in the words about the deceased was the fact he was religious.  That intrigued me.  It made me aware of how I make all sorts of assumptions based on some flimsy suspicion.  The son is not overtly religious.  So there was nothing in my very limited context that would suggest his dad would have been religious.  Again, this only serves to underscore how stupid I can be!           

At one point in the sharing, it was noted that the deceased really liked reading and pondering the Bible.  Someone said the dead man’s favorite verse was “do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isa. 41:10)  As I sat listening to this verse being read, I recognized its familiarity.  In the moment, I am not sure I could have told you where in the Bible it could be found.  I knew it probably was from the Psalms or, perhaps, one of the major Old Testament prophets.           

When I had time, I looked it up.  I was on the right track.  The verse is from the great prophet, Isaiah.  The middle section of Isaiah is addressed to a people in exile.  They have been under duress and some of the folks, no doubt, were questioning the God in whom they believed.  So it is with many of us in our own lifetimes.  When things are going badly, we might wonder just where is this God who loves us?  That is when the words from the prophet speaking on God’s behalf meet us in our pain.           

Do not fear, says the Holy One.  Don’t fear because I am with you.  That always brings solace to my life.  I like hearing and being reminded of this.  I would love to know how the deceased man understood this passage?  Why was it so important to him?  I can only guess.  But my best guess is the passage can be read both as assurance and as promise.  It is assuring to be told and reminded that God is with us.  Since God is Spirit, it is difficult sometimes to know just how God is present.  I have no easy answers here.  One thing I am sure, however, is that God often is present in and through others.  And this God promises us.  Maybe all of us who want to be ministers of God can see ourselves as the promise-keepers of the Holy One!           

When God promises to be present, we can be the agents and instruments of that abiding presence.  That is a powerful, privileged calling.  Maybe that is what I was doing in my presence at the memorial service!  When God says later in that verse that God will strengthen and help us, we again are given no specifics as to how this is done.  I wonder what the deceased man thought about that particular piece of God’s promise?           

Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if you and I cannot be part of the strengthening and helping presence of God.  I recall the words of Jesus who said something like, if you feed one of these, you have done it for me.  If you offer clothes to one of the needy, you have done it for me.  Maybe, just maybe, we are part of the victorious right hand of God!           

I did not go to the memorial service yesterday to become a biblical scholar and theologian.  I went out of care for a dead guy’s son.  I went to offer a bit of ministry and, in turn, I was ministered to.  I was willing to give and, in return, was given something.  I don’t know that I have a favorite verse of the Bible.  But maybe I was given one yesterday: do not fear! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Contemplative Living

I participate in some forms of social media, although I have not yet become a Facebook follower.  That clearly means I am not all in!  But I do think there is a role for social media.  One of the roles I see for myself is social media provides one more outlet for me to share some spiritual nuggets that students, especially, would not get.  That may sound arrogant, but there are quite a few folks from my university that read the thing just because I am writing it.  The numbers are not huge, but Jesus only managed a few followers!  I am in good company.           

The other thing that participating in social media affords is a chance to keep thinking about life and how to make the most sense out of it.  I grant that so much of the stuff that appears via social media---Facebook, Twitter and the rest---is not profound in any sense.  Much of it is technological chitchat.  I am not sure it is much different than what I heard my grandparents doing as they were sitting on the porch swing talking about the neighbors or sharing some kind of gossip about their circle of friends.           

Yesterday I sent out a little message that I thought I would share again and take the opportunity to develop it a little more.  If you are on Twitter, for example, you can only have 140 characters---and that counts spaces between words.  So this is the message I sent yesterday.  “To live contemplatively is to live with sufficient awareness that you can appreciate everything that comes; the good and to learn from the bad.”  As I re-read that, I still believe it!  Allow me to elaborate.           

I am very interested in contemplation---contemplative living.  As a young Quaker, I never heard the word and would have had no clue what it meant.  Today in spiritual circles, it has become a fairly popular word.  Certainly within Christianity there is a contemplative tradition that goes all the way back to Christian origins.  But it is not solely a Christian thing.  It is fair to claim that every major religious tradition has a contemplative aspect to it---if not a whole group of people who would call themselves contemplative.           

One simple understanding I have of contemplation is to understand it as living in the Presence of God.  Of course, that is clear and, yet, it is so general that it does not offer much substance.  I can be asked how I understand “the Presence of God?”  That is a good, fair question, but it is really a theological question.  For me God is love.  God is compassion for me, for you and for the world.  To live in the Presence of that God is to live in love.  It is to act because of that love.  Simply put, it is to love and be loving.           

This requires a degree of awareness---awareness of myself and of the loving God.  It is amazing to me how much of life I can live unaware.  To use an old analogy, it is like driving down the interstate.  At some point, you realize you have gone for miles, but you have no awareness or memory of the trip.  Life can be like that!  So awareness is key to contemplative living.           

We need sufficient awareness to appreciate things.  I am not sure it is possible to appreciate anything unless we are aware of it.  This is where my little message on social media was, perhaps, surprising and nuanced.  The surprising thing in the message is the suggestion that we should appreciate everything---and that includes the good and not-so-good.  This is rather bold.  Most folks are happy to appreciate the good things in life.  We appreciate gifts and other goodies that enhance well-being and our happiness.           

But who in their right mind, I could be asked, would suggest appreciating even the bad?  On the surface that might be what it looks like I said.  But if you look closer at the social media message, I actually say to appreciate what we can learn from the bad.  I am not for anyone receiving anything bad.  I don’t appreciate the bad---certainly not evil.  But I also think that most of us live long enough that we will have some bad come our way.           

I remember when I was diagnosed with cancer.  That certainly was not good.  I did not think it was good and no one I knew thought it was good.  But at the same time, I did think I could learn from the experience.  And I am convinced I have learned.  Finally, I appreciate what I have learned from that experience.           

It enabled me to grow and deepen as a spiritual human being.  I suppose I could have done that in other ways, but I am not sure I could have experienced the depth of growth and deepening that came with a bad spot in my life.  I do appreciate the learning.  By the way I do not sit here hoping for more bad stuff in my life in order to learn more!          

It is worthwhile to have more space to elaborate the short message I sent out earlier.  It helps me clarify how I understand myself, my God, my life and the world in which I live.  I laugh.  That would be really difficult to do in 140 characters!  I can say in a few words what contemplative living is.  But I have to live it day by day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Five Gifts

I realized some years ago that I actually receive many more gifts than I ever would have thought.  I realized this when I changed the way I perceive gifts.  As a young boy I certainly thought about gifts in materialistic terms.  That is why birthdays and Christmas are such wonderful events.  People are obligated to give you things!  Of course, the reverse is also true.  On those two occasions I am also obligated to give others some gifts.           

Of course, material gifts count.  I have had some fantastic gifts over the course of my life.  A new baseball mitt that I received in my early youth was about the best gift a kid could have received.  Like me, I am sure you have received many gifts during your life.  Some were likely fairly expensive and others cost hardly any money.  In fact, some of the most touching gifts I have received have come from natural resources and may not have cost any money.  I think of flowers, for instance.           

I am not sure at what age I began to change my view on gifts.  I began to see that some of the most valuable gifts I was given were not materialistic---there was no “thing” that someone gave me.  I am sure I had been given these gifts all my life, but I had not recognized them as such.  I was reminded of this yesterday.             

I got an email from a friend who sent me a link in the email.  He said I would probably enjoy the sentiments in the email.  So I clicked the link and recognized the name of the person who had written a short article for the Huffington Post.  I follow this website of blogs, so I went to the one my friend wanted me to read.  It was by Karen M. Wyatt.            

Wyatt is a family physician and for twenty-five years a hospice medical director.  She has written quite a bit on end of life issues.  I like the things she writes.  So in a sense this was another one of those non-material gifts.  And it provoked me to think about writing this inspirational piece on gifts.  The title of her blog is “5 Gifts to Give Yourself This Holiday Season.”  So now you see why I am writing on gifts!           

When we are given neat gifts, it seems appropriate to share those.  And so I do share these five gifts that Wyatt describes.  While a couple of them involved material things, the gift itself is not material, as you soon will see.             

The first gift Wyatt introduces is “the gift of solitude.”  Of all the gifts she enumerates, this is the one I think I understand and appreciate the most.  I know how important some times of solitude are for me.  Solitude is a necessity for my spiritual well being.  And it becomes especially so during holiday times and other busy seasons of my life.  Treat yourself to some solitude, too.           

The second gift Wyatt discusses is “the gift of spontaneity.”  I don’t think I do this one as well as the first one, solitude.  Spontaneity is taking those opportunities to do the unusual.  It might be going to church if you usually don’t do that.  It could mean hooking up with someone you always wanted to spend some time with, but never made the connection.  There are a zillion ways to be spontaneous, but it is nothing until we do it.           

Wyatt brings into the discussion the third gift, namely, “the gift of wisdom.”  This one is important to me and is a big piece of what I would mean by contemplative living.  It means spending time with the wise people you know and the sages of history---long dead, but living through their writings.  Wyatt cites the medieval figure, Rumi, one of my favorites, too.  Personally, I also think about Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich and the Buddha.  This could be a profound gift for you.           

The fourth gift Wyatt tells us to get is “the gift of hunger.”  Now this one may seem really odd.  It sounds like fasting and, indeed, it is a kind of minor fast.  During holidays and special times, Wyatt notes, we may err on the side of gluttony.  We eat too much; we lose our sense of moderation.  So, she councils us, we can fast from one meal.  Allow yourself to experience a little hunger.  It is fascinating to see this kind of hunger as a gift!           

The last gift she describes is really interesting to me.  She tells us to give ourselves “the gift of stars.”  I had to laugh.  When some folks read this, I could imagine they conjure up Hollywood stars or star athletes!  Maybe those are the only stars some folks can imagine seeing.  To the contrary, Wyatt means the real stars---those things far up in the sky, quite visible on a clear night.           

Take yourself outside and look up.  Lie on the ground and stare at the heavens.  Enjoy the free gift of beauty.  Nature is a wonderful source and resource of spiritual revelation.  Allow the stars to expand your world.  Let your tiny, little world become blown up to cosmic proportions.  Imagine the stars as God’s wink to you!           

Inevitably most of us are pretty lucky.  We will be given all sorts of gifts in the holiday season and on our birthday.  There is nothing wrong with this.  But they are not inherently spiritual gifts.  Do yourself a favor and give yourself one or more of these spiritual gifts, too.  You’ll be blessed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take Care

I would have no idea how many times I have told people, “take care.”  And I am sure there are just as many people out there who have said the same thing to me: “take care.”  It is very much like the phrase, “how’s it going?”  Most of the time I hear someone ask me that question, I assume it is not a real question.  It is a figure of speech---something we likely are to say to someone we know as we pass him or her on the street or in the hallway.           

I am not against this act of cordiality.  I just don’t assume it means much more than that---people being cordial to one another.  It is an extended form of “hi.”  It is not a negative thing and I am not complaining.  In fact, I know the two phrases can become quite meaningful with the right kind of eye contact or voice inflection.  If I actually stop, look someone in the eyes and ask, “how are you,” with the right kind of voice, I am sure there will be an honest answer.          

And if I look at someone a bit more intently and say, “take care,” I am convinced that other person will receive those two words with some impact.  Intellectually I know that the language of “care” is really the language of love.  Of course, it is not the passion of romantic love, although care is a part of that too.  Caring is an encompassing, public kind of love.  I can care about multiple people out in public and that is perfectly acceptable.           

I was prompted to think about this when I was re-reading a section of the book, The Active Life, by my friend, Parker Palmer.  Palmer is a fellow Quaker and has been a friend for decades now.  His insights about care struck me a profound.  I would like to share a couple lines from that book and, then, reflect a little on what it means to me.           

Palmer says, “Caring is also action freely chosen.  But in caring we aim not at giving birth to something new; we aim at nurturing, protecting, guiding, healing, or empowering something that already has life.”  I agree with the first point Palmer makes, namely, caring is an issue of my free choice.  This means I can never be forced to care.  I could be forced to pretend to care.  Our society does this all too often.  I can fake care.  But there is no heart in that.           

Authentic care has heart in it.  That is because authentic care---real caring---is a love word and love is from the heart.  This becomes clear when we look at the rest of the Palmer quotation.  Interestingly, Parker says that caring does not give birth to something new.  Caring is about that which already exists.  I can care about other people.  I can care for nature---for our environment.  I like how Palmer details authentic caring.          

I like the five words he uses to detail the act of caring.  Caring is nurturing.  Probably, the ultimate experience of that is maternal caring.  I suppose all of us from time to time just want our mothers!  Nurturing care always seems like care that holds and nestles us in loving arms.           

Secondly, Palmer says that caring is protecting.  I think about the passage from the Old Testament where God is imaged as a mother hen and we gather under the protective wings of that divine chicken!  God protects.  Caring offers safety.  No human gets too old or to0 independent not to need this kind of caring.           

Thirdly, Palmer rightly notes that caring guides us.  I think about the care parents have for their children.  I watch my daughter take care to teach her little one how to go down the stairs.  She is offering to him a form of guiding care that is, at the same time, protective.   

In the fourth place, Palmer talks about caring as healing.  I suspect this is one aspect of caring that many of us would not have thought about.  When you think about it, however, caring is healing.  To care never intends to hurt.  In fact, it is when we are hurting that some form of care is so welcome.  No doubt a huge amount of the caring that goes on in our world is some form of healing care.  Think about all the work that nurses and others in the healing professions do on a daily basis.  Simply put, they care. 

Finally, Palmer talks about caring as empowering.  This is huge.  Too many folks in our world are marginalized and rendered impotent because no one cares.  And this can lead the people themselves not even to care about themselves.  Too often, folks don’t feel like they deserve to cared about or cared for. They lack a sense of their basic human dignity. 

This brings me back to spirituality and my own sense of the Holy One.  In my theology God is the ultimate caregiver---the ultimate Lover in the world.  We were created in the image of the divinity.  Based on this, we all have some form of divine dignity.  This means we should never care less.  And certainly, we should not be careless!  Simply put: take care!   

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sacrificial Love

The story in the article began with an engaging interaction.  “A parishioner walks up to her pastor and says, ‘I want to give you my kidney.’  Pastor smiles and says, ‘OK.’  Don't expect a punch line.  It's no joke.”  The story comes from an encounter in a Roman Catholic Church in West Simsbury, CT---St. Catherine of Sienna Parish.  Father Michael Whyte arrived as parish priest in 2008.  Due to diabetes and other complicating factors, he was in need of a new kidney.  One day at Mass he let the parishioners know he was on a waiting list.

This is a sad story, but certainly not a unique story.  Fr. Whyte has an advantage because he could assume people would care about him.  We all know there are many people in the world in need of something and no one cares.  That is always tragic.  Fr. Whyte would not have been surprised that many within the church offered to get tested to see if they were a match.

The story gets interesting when Margaret Domashinski enters the picture.  She belonged to St. Catherine and we read that she “already knew she would be the one.”  She is quoted: “I knew I was a match.”  She adds for good measure, “I know that sounds kind of spooky, but it’s true.  I knew.”  Asked why she would even think about doing it, she replied in a matter-of-fact manner.  “He needed a transplant. He needed a kidney.”

I had to smile.  Had I asked her that, I could imagine she would look at me like I was dense or stupid!  She does it because he needs a kidney.  Any dummy should be able to understand that.  And of course, I do understand it.  What I am slow to understand are all the spiritual lessons being taught in this story.  She is giving us an advance course on sacrificial giving---sacrificial love.  And because I still have too much self-interest, it is difficult for me to fathom this kind of action.

Of course, I know the story of Jesus and his sacrificial love.  Because I know that story so well, at one level it does not seem very real.  After all, for many people he was a savior.  Of course, saviors do that for people.  But not someone with my name or the name of Margaret Domashinski!

The story continues its unbelievable message.  Margaret did give her kidney and Fr. Whyte did have the transplant.  When asked about his perspective, he is as nearly flummoxed as I was.  He could not believe she did it.  He said she offered it “like it was a doughnut.”  The transplant went well.  Apparently he was healthy enough to celebrate Mass soon after that.  And of course, Margaret was right up front.

I loved her line: “And I was sitting in front saying, 'Yeah, that's mine! You'll get 30 years out of it!”  The priest is doing very well.  Of course, no one is worrying about Margaret Domashinski!  There are so many ways to read this story.  In one way I see it as a challenge.  It is a challenge to me because I don’t think I am capable of love at that level.  Talking about love like this is easy.  Having to act lovingly like this would be a showstopper for most of us.  It makes someone like Margaret very intriguing.  What does she have that I don’t.  I am not jealous; I am intrigued.

 An obvious question is why would Margaret be willing to do this good act?  Many of us would find it a bit easier to understand if it were her own kid or maybe some other family member.  But a priest?  Even if she liked him a great deal?  It seems apparent to me the only answer is love---sacrificial love in this case.  It is a heroic act.  For sure, she is not giving her life.  But she does have to go through surgery and recover.  She is giving up one kidney and now is one kidney away from her own problem.  There are so many human, rational ways to see this as an almost superhuman act.

The only other way I can see it and understand it is as a spiritual action.  She has such a sense of her own dignity as a child of God and the priest’s dignity as a child of God, too, that she apparently cannot imagine not doing it.  When asked why she would consider it, her answer was almost funny.  Her upbringing shaped her.  She said she learned, “You're not here just to be a piece of furniture.”  Now that makes sense to me!  I agree that I am not here on earth to be a piece of furniture either.

Put in spiritual terms, we are children of God and we are put here on earth to do God’s work.  Surely a central facet of that divine work is love.  We were loved into being and we are supposed to love---to love God, ourselves and others.  If someone needs a kidney and we have two, why not share one of ours?  The question is simple; she saw it and did it. 

I like Fr. Whyte’s comment to her: “So this is really a miracle. It's a gift of life.”  Maybe that says it all.  Love always gives life---it creates life and re-creates life.  Love is constructive.  And the highest kind of love we can offer is sacrificial love.  Clearly for Christians this is precisely the story of Jesus.  And now that I know about Margaret Domashinski, that is her story too.    

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Life on the Treadmill

It was just an ordinary day.  I like to exercise in the late afternoon.  I think this probably goes back to my athletic days---maybe all the way back to high school.  First one spent the day in classes.  Then when school was out, we headed to practice.  In the spring and summer it was baseball.  In the winter we played basketball.  I liked the rhythm of the day---work and then play.  That still is a preferred rhythm for me today.

Certainly, my athletic days are over.  I have good memories.  Of course, my memories are probably evidence of my creative imagination!  As I tell the stories today, I ran faster, threw harder and was much more unstoppable on the basketball floor than was actually the case.  By now---as I remember it---I was nearly all-American in everything I did!

And so I headed to the treadmill.  I don’t like doing the treadmill.  I still prefer a run or walk outside.  Or if I can’t do that, I still prefer running or walking on the track.  But sometimes the treadmill is my only option.  So I climb aboard.  I set the controls---easy at first and then increasingly faster and harder.  The recreational center where I do it has televisions in front of the machine.  I am too old-fashioned; I hate the tvs!  And I do not use headphones, iPod or anything else.  I use my time exercising as a time for some reflection and mindless daydreaming.

The treadmill drones on.  My mind was bouncing from idea to idea.  There was no real focus.  And then, I began to notice there was a theme emerging and I grasped that it had some spiritual intent.  I am sure many people before me have used the image of a treadmill to talk about life.  And I am also sure that the treadmill image is usually negative.

In this moment, however, the treadmill image has some positive overtones.  Of course, central to the treadmill image as life is the incessant movement.  Just as the treadmill keeps rolling, so do the days of our life---mile after mile, day after day.  This is often portrayed negatively, but I like a positive spin.  Negatively, the treadmill image suggests our stuckness.  We are caught up in the movement, but going nowhere.  We can’t get off---it can’t be stopped.

But positively, the treadmill is carrying us to health and well-being.  Literally, movement is good for the heart.  And certainly, exercise is beneficial to my emotional and spiritual health.  When I exercise, I am much less grumpy.  It is easier to see the bright side of life.  I sense possibilities instead of pessimism.  The treadmill is a conduit to good health---emotional, physical and spiritual.

My treadmill has features, just like most of our lives.  My treadmill can be adjusted for speed and incline.  It only goes one speed if you are willing to leave it set at one speed.  But you can go faster or slower.  You can leave the walk at one level or you can build in hills.  In this it seems to mimic life.  Only in life we do not always control the variables.  The great thing about a treadmill is we control many things.  In fact, when we have had it, we can push the “stop” button and the whole thing comes to a halt. 
Spiritually speaking, I think there are again significant similarities.  I think we are more in control of our lives than many of us think.  Some folks, no doubt, feel like they are stuck on that proverbial negative treadmill of life.  But it simply is not true.  Let’s explore a few places where we do have some control.

We don’t have total control over the speed of our lives.  But we do have quite a bit of control over how “fast” life goes.  To exercise this control, we need to be aware.  If we are aware of how we are living life, we have some choices about adjusting things.  If it feels too fast, we can slow it down in many ways.  For example, we might choose to take some time during our day simply to reflect on things.  So many of us live our lives in front of television or with iPod, iPad or iPhone in place---in our ear or hand.  These have a treadmill effect on life.

We can slow things down by spending some time in prayer or meditation.  Maybe we can opt for some yoga.  Perhaps it is a long walk in the woods.  All of these alter the normal “treadmill pace” of our lives.  We bring some balance and restorative effects into our life.  These are healthy---emotionally, physically and spiritually.

We can also increase the incline of life.  We can study or do a retreat or opt for some kind of course.  We can add some intensity to our spiritual life workout that likely increases our spiritual health and well-being.  We can do all this without worry.  If we are aware, our lives usually have a “stop” button, too.  We can take time off or, even, time out. 

I like the image of a treadmill of life.  It is not a place of stuckness, but a place of choice.  It sees the treadmill of life as a place of spiritual exercise.  All I have to do us use it wisely.  It is the life-way to health, not sickness.  It is a life-way of freedom, not bondage.  It leads to a long, good life. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

God is Not Santa Claus

As the Christmas season comes round, I am reminded of a one-liner I heard one day while listening to a lecture by Richard Rohr.  Rohr is one of my favorites.  He has a way of saying some very significant things, but often with a twist of humor.  No doubt, this is what endears him to so many people.  And it is also probably why some folks, particularly some Roman Catholics, find him troubling and wish he would quit speaking and writing. 

The line I wrote down, as Rohr was speaking, went like this.  “The operative image of God is Santa Claus!”  Of course, this line is basically about God and not Santa Claus.  Rohr is offering a theological look into his own mind.  It is not a comment on Santa Claus.  In this instance Santa is an image or a symbol.  Let’s look more closely at Rohr’s theology to see if it makes sense in our own lives.  

Clearly not everyone has the same idea with respect to Santa Claus.  However when Rohr uses the Santa Claus image, he is making an assumption that there is a common cultural meaning for that Christmas figure.  Santa Claus is the one who comes at Christmas Eve and brings gifts to all of us.  At least, Santa brings gifts to all those who have been nice, as the song goes.  As for the naughty ones, who knows?

Everyone’s hope is that Santa Claus brings us exactly what we want.  Part of me actually wishes there was a real Santa Claus.  That way I would not have to go to the mall after first contending with the traffic and the crowds.  So often I go in search of the gift that someone might not really want.  I never thought there is that “perfect” gift for the people in my life.  Maybe I have been a lousy Santa Claus!

When I go to the malls, frequently I spy some guy (usually guys) dressed up in the red suit and wearing the absurd white beard.  On most days the Santa is surrounded by droves of kids.  Anyone who knows anything knows that kids in droves are like dynamite waiting for the proverbial match!  Too often the Santa promises things that might not materialize on the expectant morning. 

It would be easy to assume the gifts that Santa brings are comparable to God’s grace.  But this is precisely why I think Rohr is voicing objection.  I have no problem with gifts.  I have received many great gifts in my lifetime.  I appreciate what many different people have done for me when it comes to gift giving.  And some of the coolest gifts have been things I did not ask for and were really surprises.  But these kinds of gifts are not the same thing as God’s grace. 

Let’s turn from Santa Claus to God.  I don’t know where Santa found all those gifts that he brought on the sleigh.  But I do know the source of God’s gifts.  That source is the love God has…or, perhaps better, that love that God is.  I like the New Testament passage that says, “God is love.”  Love is the very essence of God.  God’s identity is love.  This means that God can be nothing but love.  And God can do nothing but love.  In this sense, God cannot help but love us.  And God loves even those of us who do not deserve love.  

That is a good definition of grace.  Indeed, the idea of “grace” means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  But it is not Christmas gifts.  Grace is a gift from God or one of God’s children when we really don’t deserve the gift.  And this gift of grace is always rooted in love.  A spirituality writer that I like says that grace is the flowering of love.  And love is the root of grace. 

This understanding of grace is far from the sometimes superficial request to “say grace” at a meal.  I am not again a prayer at meal times.  In fact, I think it can be a good idea.  It is good to be thankful to God and the cooks for the meal at hand.  But grace is far more than a few words muttered over the meat!   

God is not Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is a one-time actor.  He appears dutifully on December 24, never to be mentioned again until time for the next annual appearance.  For those of us who hope for the love of God and the grace of God in our lives are sure hoping for someone “on duty” more than one day of the 365 days in a year!  We need a present God---not a red-suited bearer of presents.

The clincher for me is the fact that I could sign on to be the Santa Claus at the local mall.  All I need to do is agree to put on the costume and be willing to entertain the drone of kids who all want something.  But there is no way I can be God or even become God. 

The best I can do is try to become God-like.  I also can learn to be loving.  I can become willing to be gracious---gracious to others and, sometimes even, to myself.  If I allow myself to be a vessel of the Spirit, then I can even be the presence of the Presence.  God is not Santa Claus…and neither am I!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stream of Joy

A recent reading from the daily lectionary brought me to a familiar Psalm, Psalm 36.  The familiar words come in the middle of that Psalm.  The line I connected with is really a confessional, laudatory line.  The Psalmist says to God, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!”  Since most of us do not have the ability to read the Psalms in their original Hebrew, perhaps the best we can do is read a couple English translations.  A different translation of the passage just quoted goes like this: “How precious is your kindness, O God!”

Clearly the first passage uses the English phrase, steadfast love, to capture a Hebrew word.  And the second passage uses the word, kindness.  In both cases the Psalmist is praising a divine attribute that characterizes God and God’s action in the world.  The Psalmist is confessing that this divine love or kindness is precious.  For some reason I very much like the idea of precious.  To be precious means something is extremely valuable.  It is very dear.  Precious can be something that is rare.

In the context of divine kindness or love, precious is an appropriate word.  God’s love is extremely valuable.  It is very dear.  And divine love is incredibly rare.  Of course, God is by nature loving.  And it is a precious kind of loving.  But one can hardly expect this kind of loving from fellow creatures.  God’s love is what the Greeks call agape.  It is self-sacrificial love.  That kind of love is precious.

Having praised this kind of love from God, the Psalmist continues to use an interesting image to illustrate the precious divine love.  The Psalmist says “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”  The other English version I consulted says something very similar.  We read that people “will take shelter under your wings.”  The imagery used here suggests God is some kind of an animal---often portrayed as a mother hen.  Elsewhere in the Psalms God is said to be like a mother hen.  Of course, this is an image---a metaphor.  God is not literally a chicken!

But the imagery of the mother hen introduces maternal, protective ideas.  If God is metaphorically a mother hen, then we are little chicks.  We are able to come under the shadow of those divine wings.  We can take shelter under those wings.  Even more, we are safe there.  We are protected from the wiles and wilds of the world in which we live.  Under those wings we are no longer vulnerable---no longer sitting ducks for danger.  Thank God, we are tempted to say!

As we read on in this Psalm, the imagery keeps shifting, but it all comes in support of the God whose love is precious.  The Psalmist says to God that we will “feast on the abundance of your house and you give them drink from the river of your delights.”  The other version says we will “eat their fill from the riches of your house and drink all they want from the stream of your joy.”  Clearly, the imagery describing God has shifted from being under the divine wings to now being in the house of God.  Again, this is not meant to be taken literally.

I understand the “house of God” to mean being in God’s presence.  God’s house is not some literal building.  It is not brick and mortar, but more like presence and power.  To be in God’s house is to be in the presence of God and to experience the power of the Holy One.  This is a very good place to be. 

The Psalmist uses the imagery of a party to describe this.  In that house we will feast.  There is abundance---all we can eat and even more.  No one comes away wanting more.  We are satiated---satisfied.  This feast and abundance are meant to suggest the copious love God has for all God’s people.  There is always enough---and more than enough.

Then the Psalmist switches from food imagery to the image of a river.  In God’s presence we are able to drink from the river of God’s delight.  I very much like the image of a river of delight.  A river runs on---ever flowing and making more new stuff available.  This river of delight never will run dry.  There is no need to worry.  Surely, there is no need to hoard anything.  We can drink all we want.  We will never be cut off and the river will never be depleted.

The other version has an even more winsome image.  We are able to drink everything we want from the stream of God’s joy.  Somehow I can picture and appreciate God’s inviting all of us into that stream of joy.  I imagine a stream of joy to be bright colors that continually lightens and enlighten us.  In the process we become aware and wise. 

We know who we are as beloved children of God.  We know that we are eternally protected by the love of God that is never ending.  And we know that we live our lives in a river of delight.  We spend day after day experiencing the beautiful, precious stream of joy.  In the end love always brings joy.  And when we are in love with and loved by the Holy One, we are in a stream of joy.  I can’t imagine living life anywhere else!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Spiritual Excellence

A good friend of mine sent a short article to me.  I had to laugh when I saw the opening line, because it means she knows me fairly well.  The first line goes like this: “Are you a perfectionist?  Or do you strive for excellence?”  I felt like someone just peeked into my soul!  I am sure that once upon a time I would have answered “yes” to both questions.  Yes, I am a perfectionist.  And yes, I am striving for excellence.  It caused me to stop and ponder, which I think, is a very spiritual way of going about things.
I made some spiritual progress in my early pilgrimage when I realized I was a perfectionist.  Being a perfectionist is not an awful thing; it is just an impossible thing.  Even people who are very good cannot pull off the perfectionist hope.  We are all too human to be perfect.  So I was better off when I gave up that dream…which was actually an illusion.  Giving up being a perfectionist does not necessarily make life easier.  But it does make life possible!
I read on in the article.  The article states that perfectionism and excellence is not the same thing.  I had not really thought about it, but could agree.  I liked how that article differentiated them.  “Perfectionism is focused on ‘doing the ‘right,’ how things APPEAR, and if OTHERS think it’s done right.”  That resonated with me.  I acknowledge how important to a perfectionist it is what others think.  Being a perfectionist for me meant pleasing others.  Doing things “right” was paramount.
I would add that it is impossible to be truly who you are if you are a perfectionist.  That person is always trying to be something that it is impossible to be.  Normally you are trying to live up to some ideal standard.  Often that standard is set by someone else.  This was the important lesson I learned.  When I gave up the perfectionist quest, then I could start to discover who I really was.  This is what Thomas Merton and other writers on spirituality mean by the “true self.”
When I read what the article said about excellence, it again resonated with how I understand reality.  “Excellence is about ‘doing the right thing.”  It is focused on the REASON for a task, and the RESULTS for it to be a success.”  When I read that excellence is about doing the right thing, it reminded me of the work I have done on the theme of character and integrity.  Doing the right thing has to do with the virtues---or “values” in today’s language. 
When I think about the spiritual giants in history---Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, and others---they would all have been people aiming at this kind of excellence.  They wanted to do the right thing.  They focused on the reason for their task.  It might be a huge task like inaugurating the kingdom of heaven!  Or it might be a lesser task (but no less important), like healing a local woman of her illness.
I recognize that excellence is appropriate for all of us who are not spiritual giants.  However, I realize that I feel somewhat shy when it comes to claiming excellence for myself.  It is probably because I see excellence to be such a high standard; only super-human folks can reach that.  In our own culture excellence gets associated with super-athletes or a musical protégé.  For average people, excellence is a bit unnerving.
To link excellence with the spiritual seems even more unthinkable.  But then, I realized that I needed to consider it, especially in light of the definition being used here.  It makes perfect sense to understand spiritual excellence as doing the right thing.  In this sense excellence is not reserved for the elite.  It is appropriate for you and me to aspire to this kind of spiritual excellence: to do the right thing. 
Additionally, it seems perfectly appropriate for all of us ordinary folks to aspire to spiritual excellence when it comes to focusing on the reason for the task.  Let’s assume my spiritual task is to know and do the will of God.  The reason for doing this task is so that I can lend a hand to the building of the kingdom that Jesus began.  I understand myself as a co-worker in this kingdom-building.  I hope you join me, too.
In this light it is admirable to aspire to spiritual excellence.  It will not lead to pride or some form of egocentrism.  I am sure that perfectionism does set one up for egocentric temptations and the ensuing trials.  Perfectionism sets us up for the pride that comes from near successes.  And it also bombs us with the inevitable impossibilities and ensuring despair that comes with failure.
In almost every way I am surprised that I come out with a determination to go for spiritual excellence.  The adjective, “spiritual,” is key here.  If it is spiritual excellence, then the spotlight shines on the right thing to do and the task set before us.   The task is to be involved in God’s work and that is the right thing to do.  I hope I can become spiritually excellent in the process.