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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Sanctuary of Nature

I had occasion yesterday to spend some more significant time in nature than I usually do.  That in itself is not so strange.  Of course, we all live in some form of nature.  Nature surrounds us; it holds us in its very being.  However, I realize how easy it is to be pretty unaware of nature.  I think this may especially be true for urban or, even, suburban dwellers.  I now fit into that category.

It may be different for folks who spend most of their time “in nature.”  Growing up on a farm fits that bill.  I would think those folks who have to work outside also are more alert to nature than so many of us who work inside buildings or who are too old or sick to venture outside.  And surely, many of us in the US live in sheltered surroundings.  We move from house to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned buildings.  Or in the winter, it is from heated houses to heated cars to heated buildings.  Nature can’t get us!

Yesterday I spent considerable time in rural areas.  I walked in the woods.  I noticed the sounds of birds.  I saw animals that do not live in my neighborhood.  I saw a huge snapping turtle that might have been as old as I am.  I wondered if he had a story as interesting as I think my story is?  I was a bit leery of him; I wondered if he worried about me?  Finally, I wondered how much of life in that natural surrounding I was totally unaware of?  I am sure it was significant!

As I reflected a bit on my experience, I thought about the meaning of the term, nature.  I assume that virtually everyone would be sure they know what nature is.  And at one level, I am sure virtually everyone does not what nature is.  Most of us would affirm that nature is the physical world in which we live.  It is trees, rocks, and flowers---the earth itself.  Nature can be wonderful or threatening.  Nature delivers absolutely stunning spring days and tornados that ornery spring weather can brew.  Nature can coddle or kill.

Clearly, the physical world in which we all live is nature.  Sometimes it is spelled with a capital “N.”  Often, we refer to it as “Mother Nature.”  People from all ages have understood nature---or the earth---in maternal terms.  Mother Nature is fertile.  She nurtures us and all living creatures.  I had a pretty keen sense of this maternal, natural world when I was growing up on that Indiana farm.  Sadly, my typical sense of nature now is much more bland.  My earlier maternal world is now more like a “Neutral It.”  That is a wake-up call.

Maybe that wake-up call is due, in part, to having spent considerable time yesterday “in nature.”  In my closed-up house and closed-up car and closed-up building, it is much more difficult to hear birds, see turtles and feel the breeze.  As I write these words, I begin to sense how spiritual this whole thing is.  And that began to open my eyes and my heart.  That is how the spiritual happens for me.  It opens me---especially my eyes and my heart.

Perhaps this gives my thoughts too much credit to call it revelation, but that is how it seemed to me.  Revelation literally means to make visible that which was invisible.  With revelation you can now see what was hidden.  While revelation is often a religious term, it does not have to be.  For me it is both religious and very ordinary.  As I began to be aware that too much of my life is spent in closed-up places, I sensed a kind of revelation. 

The first bit of revelation was that closed-up places often are not natural.  Of course, we need to pay attention to the relationship of “nature-natural.”   But it did cause me to ponder my normal environment.  So much of that environment is artificial.  The building (and house) is usually an enclosed, regulated environment---hardly natural.  It occurred to me further that this could begin to confuse me about what is “natural.”  No doubt, a day in Nature can re-orient me to what is truly natural.

It was at this point the deeper spiritual insight came to me.  If my environment is mostly a closed-up environment, perhaps that can characterize my own life.  For example, if I spend most of my time on my own agenda---doing my own thing---that is a pretty narrow way of living.  Yet for most of us, that must seem pretty normal!  I suppose most folks really hope to get what they want.  But I am not sure this is the natural way humans are designed to live.

My thoughts turned back to my day in Nature.  As I said, it opened me---my eyes and my heart.  In Nature it is more difficult to be egocentric.  The world is too big for most of us to think we are the center of the world.  In Nature I always realize how small and insignificant I am.  In Nature I see myself more “a part of” rather than the “center” of it All.

I am using capital letters now because when I am in Nature, I begin to have a sense of the Spirit---the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, including me.  I realized again yesterday that in Nature I had stepped in the Spirit’s natural sanctuary.  I had stepped on to Holy Ground.  But wait; I am there in nature all the time.  I just don’t realize that it is Nature---God’s very Being.  That’s what happens in my closed-up world. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hearing and Speaking

Recently I had the occasion to encounter one of my favorite healing stories in the New Testament.  It is the healing of a man who could not hear and did not speak very well.  It is not the first time I had encountered the healing story, but I do think this time some new insight came my way.  I am always grateful when old things keep teaching me new things.

The healing story comes from the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus is ministering in the northern part of Palestine.  Hence, he is a long way from the religious center of Jerusalem.  In fact, the previous story narrates how Jesus heals the daughter of a Gentile woman, based on the Syrophoenician woman’s faith.  Then we are told “they” brought a deaf man to Jesus.  We are not told who “they” are, but we can assume they were some of the people who followed Jesus.  In light of some of his ministry and earlier healing events, perhaps Jesus was attracting some more attention.  And surely, he would be attracting some controversy since he was Jewish and was effecting a healing ministry in the Gentile territory.

The deaf man, who was brought to Jesus, also had a speech problem.  The ones who brought the man to Jesus asked Jesus to heal the guy.  Jesus withdrew to a private place, accompanied by the deaf man.  Jesus puts his fingers in the guy’s ears and spit on the guy’s tongue.  Jesus then prayed that the guy be healed.  And we are told the man could hear and now could speak plainly.  On its own, this is an entertaining story.  But it also is more than entertainment.

Let’s make a bold assumption.  Let’s assume the deaf man who does not speak plainly is us---you and me.  “That can’t be,” we want to complain.  I hear quite well and I speak very well.  This is true at the literal level.  But at the spiritual level, perhaps I am deaf and a poor speaker!  Maybe I need to be healed.

I heard some comments from a friend of mine who put me on the right interpretive track.  The healing story is not about literal hearing.  It is about hearing the truth of the spiritual life.  Our culture seldom speaks about this kind of truth.  Just think about the kind of “truths” given to us through the media---especially through commercials on tv and over the internet!  We don’t hear truth; we hear junk.

And if this is all of what we hear, then this is the kind of stuff we also speak.  We can only speak what we hear.  If I hear nonsense, I speak nonsense.  I need to be healed.  I need my ears to be opened and my tongue to be touched.  And if I am “normal,” then this seems like nonsense.  “Normal” people see no need of healing!

I am willing to allow that I need to be healed.  But where?  And how?  Is Jesus going to show up and stick his fingers into my ears and spit on my tongue?  I doubt that this literally will happen.  But again, I don’t need a literal healing.  I am ok at the literal level: I hear fine and speak well.  I need spiritual healing.

To be healed spiritually, I need something spiritual stuck into my ears.  It is not the cultural garbage to which I am routinely exposed.  I want to be open to spiritual truths and have those truths stuck into my ears.  A healing story, like the one we are giving focus, is one such spiritual truth.  And actually the Bible contains quite a number of glimpses of truth.  I personally also find truthful hints in the literature and stories from other major religious traditions.  I also find some deep truths in some of the spiritual luminaries from the Christian tradition---people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Mother Teresa and a host of others. 

Most of these people come to me without commercial.  In many cases they are counter-cultural.  They speak a language that is contrarian to much of my culture.  They usually are not “selling” anything.  They do not want anything from me.  Instead they want something for me.  What they want for me is to hear clearly and to speak plainly.    

In fact, what they want for me is to be healed and to be whole.  In some traditions this would be called “salvation.”  I am ok with that language, but it can also be misheard and understood.  I prefer the language of healing and wholeness.

I probably have lived life while being deaf to the possibility of wholeness.  And if I am broken, more than likely I don’t speak plainly.  The good news is I heard a story about a deaf man who could not speak plainly.  He was touched and healed.  Then he was able to walk into the world and the rest of his life in a completely new way. 

The good news is that man is you…and me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Service: Basic Care

Some days can be frustrating.  On second thought, I don’t think the days themselves are frustrating.  They are what they are.  It is we who decide to be frustrated.  Frustration is an interpretation of what’s going on.  I suppose frustration is, in most cases, a reaction.  Usually frustration boils to the emotional surface when things don’t go our way.  I try not to spend much time in that emotional state.  It changes nothing and it uses up valuable energy to no good end.

Nevertheless, recently I had one of those frustrating days.  It all started with a water meter.  Now I have no idea how to make a water meter into a spiritual lesson, so I won’t try that one.  But the water meter precipitated what would turn out to be a spiritual lesson for me.  For that I am grateful, in spite of some frustration in the process. 

The story began a long time ago, it seems.  Apparently I have a meter inside my house that is no longer acceptable to satisfy the company.  I will confess for a couple times, I ignored their request to come a replace it.  But when they threatened to turn off my water, having them come a replace it suddenly made sense!  I became co-operative!  So we scheduled a two-hour window for some person to come to the house to change the meter.

It amazes me how my schedule and time commitments become such an issue.  You would think I was being asked to sacrifice a week or more to make this possible.  So I “found” a couple hours to stay home and wait for some stranger to come and change my meter.  Things like that interest me so little, I was not even sure where the meter was located!  After about an hour into the two-hour wait, I received a phone call from the company.  Apparently, the guy (although it might be a female, for all I knew) could not make it.  Could we re-schedule?

What am I going to say?  No?  After all, the threat to disconnect my water still was in place.  “Of course, we can re-schedule,” I answered cheerily!  So a month or two later, I was back in my two-hour wait.  Two hours came and went.  I waited patiently.  After about four hours, there was no person and no phone call.  Frustration entered my heart.  Probably beneath that was some anger building, but I did not go there.

My water company is a local company in my midwestern town.  I called the Water Company, but they could only send me on.  They had outsourced the job.  So I was soon talking to some woman in South Carolina, who did not give outward signs of caring about me or my problem.  Apparently, she was not worried about her water being cut off.  After pursuing the thing, I finally did get a call from a guy who said he would soon be at my place to change my meter.

And this is where frustration begins to be melted by kindness. I hope being spiritual means we try to be more understanding, welcoming and willing to go for the best.  Let me put it this way: a water meter man walked into my house to do a job.  And he did it.  A very nice, helpful, congenial guy walked out of my house.  I barely know him, but I was touched by his heart.  It is always heart that makes something spiritual.  The water meter man had become a spiritual person for whom I have respect and appreciation.

The spiritual question is how did he do it?  Of course, the true answer is that I have no clue how he did it.  So I’ll make some guesses.  The most obvious characteristic was his service.  I know he was doing his job.  But he did more than that.  He did his job with some real care---some real basic care.  This does not mean he treated the meter change with tenderness.  But he did treat me tenderly.  He was understanding.  Real care typically is understanding.  Truly to care for someone requires some understanding on our part.  Somehow this guy knows how to do care very well.

I think care has to be a basic building block of the spiritual life.  Can you imagine a truly spiritual person saying, “I couldn’t care less!”  I have actually written some about the theme of care in one of my books.  I know care is part of what it means to be loving.  Of course, love is a very complex thing, but one key component of love is that it is caring.  If you love someone, you care for him or her.  True love never says, “I couldn’t care less.”

It was the basic care the guy had in his heart that enabled him to treat me kindly in his service.  And this kindness was coupled with a tenderness.  Care, kindness and tenderness are truly spiritual terms, as I understand them.  They certainly are capable of blasting frustrations right out of the picture.  A caring guy came to change my water meter and to blast my frustration right out the window.

The spiritual lesson was obvious.  It was the man---the guy who had come to service the water meter---became the teacher.  He was transformative.  Not only did he change the meter.  He changed me!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Humble Saint

If you pay attention to titles in these inspirational pieces, you might have some guesses who the “humble saint” might be.  Of course, I have made the attribution, so I obviously know whom I will name.  But if I saw it cold, the first guess I would make is St. Francis, the venerable saint of poverty, nature and the animals.  And that would have been so true.  But the person I have so named, “the humble saint,” in this piece is St. John the Baptist. 

John the Baptist actually has two saint days in the Catholic calendar.  Both his birth and his death are celebrated on separate days in June and August.  Only the parents of Jesus receive comparable honor in the Christian calendar.  John the Baptist has intrigued me for a long time---almost as long as I have studied religion.  In many ways, he is much easier to relate to than Jesus.  Let’s look a bit closer at the man and his role within the faith tradition.

The Gospel of Luke gives the most detail about John the Baptist.  The story of his conception and birth is told as a kind of counterpoint to the story of Jesus.  John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were quite old.  But through angelic intervention, Elizabeth conceived and John was on the way.  Zechariah had been in such disbelief, he was condemned to silence until the birth.  You might say, Elizabeth’s pregnancy shut him up!

John was born and the setting for Jesus was established.  The last verse of Luke’s initial chapter tells the story.  The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (1:80)  With this sparse description, John is ready for his role.  He is strong in spirit.  And the wilderness would be his domain until he would step out to play his role as the humble saint.

The role of John the Baptist is key to the opening of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark is the oldest gospel and, therefore, influences the other three gospels.  In the beginning Mark says he is narrating the gospel.  Immediately, he sets up the Baptist’s role by quoting from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (1:2-3)

In this context it does not matter what Isaiah meant with his prophetic words.  The gospel writer, Mark, is using Isaiah’s words to interpret the role of John the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus.  And in so doing, Mark also is interpreting who Jesus is, namely, the Lord.  Hence, John’s role is clear: he is the one to prepare the way.  In contemporary times, we could compare him to the opening act, preparing the audience for the star to come.  It is not a glamorous role, but most big shows have such a character.  In the idiom of the day, this person is “second fiddle.”  That is John the Baptist---second fiddle!

John is not unimportant.  In fact, his message both prepares and anticipates the message that Jesus brings to the world.  Again following Mark’s Gospel, we are told that John appeared in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4)  John may be second fiddle, but he is on script.  He is aware of the human tendency to sin---to miss the mark and to do less than the good thing.  But he has a remedy: repent.

The language of repentance seems like old-time religion jargon.  It does not resonate in contemporary ears.  Let me reinterpret it, while keeping close to the original meaning.  Repent means to quit doing the stupid stuff you are doing, be sorry and chart a new path.  It is easy to see how applicable this is to our own contemporary context.  Every day the news narrates stories of murder, cheating, lying, greed, etc.  There is much repenting to do.  However, it often takes a humble person to say what really needs to be done.

We all know that John played second fiddle to Jesus.  He has been a model to me to be willing to play the role seemingly given to me.  Culturally, we are fixated on the stars.  This is true for sports figures, Hollywood actors and the like.  John’s role was a supporting role.  He was called to prepare the way.  He was asked to be a witness to  “one who is more powerful than I.” (Mk 1:7) 

Because he was humble, he could pull it off.  Instead of resenting his second fiddle role, he embraced it.  Instead of thinking God might have made a mistake in not choosing him, John saw God’s mission for him.  That becomes an important clue for me.  Mistake or mission?  Probably if I am working my own agenda, I would see things as mistakes, if I were not the lead-player.  But if I can grasp the idea of mission, then I am willing to play my role---whatever that is.

I appreciate John’s story and modeling.  Because of his humility, he could embrace mission and be mighty.  He witnessed all the way---to his eventual martyrdom by beheading.  He witnessed in life and in death.  Only in humility is that possible.  I am grateful to this humble saint for his witness and his inspiration.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Randomness and Chaos

If we have open eyes, then it seems anything and everything in our world can be a conduit for spirituality.  I know this is especially true for much of what I read.  Of course, since I teach in a Religion Department, much of what I read would qualify as spiritual.  But I also read a fair amount that most folks probably would not consider spiritual.
Recently, I ran across an article that took me to the internet to find something that promised to be interesting.  The article focused on the twin ideas of randomness and chaos.  I was very intrigued.  At one level, I was pretty sure I knew what those two English words meant.  At another level, I was not sure whether they were the same thing or different, but related.  I knew I had never thought about the two at the same time.  If pressed, I would probably have guessed they were basically the same.  So I approached the article with curiosity.
I started reading and pretty soon bumped into a subsection that read thus: Noah Effects and Joseph Effects.  I was hooked, although I had no idea what those two effects were---except to recognize both were biblical names.  So I proceeded with the details.  The author, Greg Satel, began to tell me things.  He referenced some guy named Benoit Mandelbrot, of whom I had never heard.  But I don’t know that much about mathematics.  Apparently Mandelbrot has thought a great deal about chaos. 
It seems that mathematical models develop patterns.  But often there are some data points that don’t fit the pattern and these are called “outliers.”  Mandelbrot thought these outliers were important.  Somehow these would help him understand “the forces that governed chaos.”
Now to the biblical names.  The Joseph Effects “are persistent.”  Mandelbrot continues by saying, “Just like in the biblical story, where Joseph predicted seven fat years and seven lean years, events in a time series are highly dependent on what precedes them.  The Joseph Effect is an example of randomness. As Satal declares, “Randomness is actually fairly predictable, because it averages out…”  Wow, I never thought about it that way.
Chaos, on the other hand, introduces the Noah Effects.  “These create discontinuity,” we are told.  Satel goes on with an example.  “A storm comes and blows everything away; creating a new fact pattern…”  For example, a weather forecast might tell us that there is a 70% chance of rain.  In actuality, it either will rain or it won’t.  If it does, the streets get wet and that makes them more dangerous.  If we get into a serious car accident, we can end up hospitalized for a few months, altering the course of our life.  An outlier?  Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less important.” 
Chaos has no predictability.  And when chaos happens, a whole new ball game---a new pattern---is created.  We can cope with randomness, because over time it all averages out. Chaos is a different story.  It is not predictable and it is not clear how to deal with chaos when it happens in our lives.
All this may be interesting to you, as it was to me.  But spirituality so what, we might wonder?  I don’t know the full answer to this “so what” question.  But let me begin to ponder so what.
It occurs to me that dealing with randomness best happens when we are disciplined.  A good argument for practicing spiritual disciplines is the sense that randomly spiritual disciplines will advance our growth and development.  I contend that it is predictable to grow spiritually when we practice spiritual disciplines, even though I don’t know exactly when and how that growth will happen.  But at some random point or points, it will take place.
When it comes to chaos, spiritual disciplines have a different role.  When chaos happens in our lives it is unpredictable.  Practicing spiritual disciplines will not alter that unpredictability nor will it help us avoid chaos.  But spiritual disciplines can help us “be prepared.”  In this case, being prepared means whenever and however chaos assaults us, we should be in a better place and in better shape to cope with the new pattern of life that chaos demands of me.
If we were in that car wreck mentioned above and if we were incapacitated, spiritual disciplines won’t change that fact.  But I probably will be in a better position to cope with my incapacitation.  And I hopefully will still be connected to the God I know cares and loves me.  In that sense, I am prepared for anything.
I am convinced random and chaotic things happen to all of us---spiritual and non-spiritual alike.  I appreciate knowing the difference now.  And I want to continue my spiritual disciplines with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Grab the Cat's Tail

I had tried to resist imposing pictures and stories of my grandkids on people.  I understand that no one cares about my grandkid in the same way as I and the other grandparents do.  I have looked at countless pictures of others’ grandchildren and sat passively as they showed me pictures and all I could do was feign some interest and say something like, “That’s nice!”
These days of cell phones and instant pictures only make the assault worse.  Instead of the hesitation we used to feel when we took pictures, had to develop and pay for them, the cell phone makes multiple, instant pictures seem totally free.  Grandparents figure if one picture of the cute little bugger is good, ten pictures should be absolutely astonishing!
It was easy to feel smugly superior to all grandparents---that is, before I had any grandkids.  I was appalled at how insensitively folks would whip out a whole album of kids’ pictures and ask me to linger over each one!  “Oh, another nice shot of her two-month old birthday party,” I would croon.  “How nice!”  “She has hardly changed since her one and a half month birthday party!”
But it all changed---yes, a cosmic shift---when my first grandkid was born.  Of course, I did not change, but there was a cosmic shift apparent to me.  Of course, everyone I knew---even the most casual acquaintance---would definitely be interested in my grandkid.  Confidently, I knew they were dying to see a couple pictures.  I could be coy and wait to show the picture until they asked---which I knew they would.  If someone were just a little tardy in asking, I assumed they intended to ask, so I would shorten the waiting gap.  I could whip out my cell phone and show them the cutest little bugger of all time!  Everyone was absolutely fascinated and, I was sure that they secretly wanted more pictures.  But I spared them!
So I hesitate to talk about a recent picture of my grandkid, but ok, I will describe it.  The kid is sitting in the middle of the bed right behind her two cats---cats black as coal.  And the little one has the tail of one cat in firm grasp.  And she is looking at the camera with the biggest and most pleased smile possible.  Expression virtually is yelling, “I’ve got him!”  “I’ve grabbed the cat’s tail and he’s mine!”
So what’s this got to do with spirituality and how is it at all inspirational?  Basically, it has everything to do with spirituality or nothing at all.  Essentially, it inspires or it is utterly useless.  Of course, it is my grandkid and I think it has a spiritual message and I am inspired.  Let me explain.
For me the picture is an analogy.  The kid’s got the cat’s tail.  Let me suggest spirituality is like the cat’s tail.  Analogously, the cat represents God.  Like God, the cat is devoted to the kid.  The cat absolutely loves the little bugger and would do nothing but love and care for her.  That is how I picture God.
Of course, God is not some coal-black feline who sleeps on your bed, but analogously I think God is around like that cat.  Certainly the analogy breaks down when we all know God is not visibly present all the time like the cat.  But I would like to think God’s presence is a bit like that cat’s tail.  We can’t see God, like we can see the cat, but God’s “tail” is present and available.  Just like the tail is not the whole cat, so God’s “tail” is not the totality of who God is.  But the tail is hooked on to the whole cat and the entirety of God.
All you have to do is grab the cat’s tail!  Grab the cat’s tail and you’ve got hold of all that God can be.  Grab the cat’s tail and get Divine love and holy compassion.  Grab the cat’s tail and you will have a friend for life.  You will have warmth and friendship and everything that makes you special.  Just picture that!
What I picture for you and me, if we grab the cat’s tail, is exactly the expression splashed on my grandkid’s face.  It was utter delight.  It was exhilaration.  The picture conveyed pure joy and deep satisfaction that said, “I’ve got it!  I’ve got it all!”
That’s precisely what I think spirituality offers to anyone willing to believe God’s “tail” is available in this world.  All we have to do is reach out and grab the cat’s tail.  You, too, can have it all.  You too will find the deepest satisfaction and the purest joy!
Just picture that! 

Friday, June 20, 2014

St. Romuald: Weird or Wise

I like learning about various saints.  Most of the ones I come to know are saints within the Roman Catholic tradition.  Since Quakers don’t really honor saints, I did not grow up learning about saints nor even thinking about them.  Of course, there were a few legendary historical Quakers about whom all young Quakers learned.  For example, I learned about people like John Woolman, the seventeenth century Quaker who was far ahead of his time in working to free slaves.  But no one thought about him as a saint.  And I know all the religious denominations and traditions have similar saintly people, but few of them are called saints.

In the Catholic lectionary I use, I noticed yesterday was the special day honoring St. Romuald.  I like him.  I learned about him a few years ago.  I suspect even in Catholic circles, he is a pretty obscure saint.  Romuald lived into the eleventh century in Italy in the Tuscany area just north of Rome.  As a young man, he joined the Benedictine monastic group. 

By nature Romuald was a serious guy.  And by the eleventh century many Benedictine monasteries had lost their original medieval fervor.  Life for too many monks had become rather lax.  The zest and zeal of earlier monasticism had grown stale.  Romuald was disappointed.  And he tried to change things.  In his attempt to recharge the monastic life, he only alienated himself from many of the monks.  Becoming disgusted, Romuald asked to be released from the monastery and that was granted.  He headed to Venice where he found a saintly old hermit named Marinus.  Under the tutelage of Marinus, Romuald was able to live a much stricter life in the Spirit.  Some people would have discounted him as weird.

At some point, Romuald and Marinus began to attract followers who wanted the kind of life these two hermits were living.  At some point Romuald moved to an area called Camaldoli in central Italy and there built some cells for a few hermits. This gave birth to the movement called the Camaldolese.  This group of monks continues to this day.  I came to know them personally when I spent part of a sabbatical year in Berkeley, CA.   

There is a house near the Berkeley campus that houses about five Camaldolese monks.  I stayed with them for a few months.  I learned about Romuald.  It was an unusual way to spend some time on a sabbatical.  Some would consider it weird.  Maybe in this sense I am a son of Romuald.  I learned a great deal of wisdom from him and from the Camaldolese brothers with whom I spent time. 

Romuald and the Camaldolese monks combine a marked interest in solitude and communal life.  That dual focus suits me very well.  Maybe it is because I am an introvert, but I do like some time alone.  Furthermore, I am convinced the spiritual life demands that people spend some time in solitude.  If we are never alone with ourselves, how can we get to know who we really are?

In my experience I realized it would be impossible for me to get to know myself---my true self---if I never spent time alone.  I need time to confront my questions and my doubts.  As scary and unnerving as it is, I had to have time to wait in silence, to meditate and explore the large Unknown in which I (and we all) live.  My little world is too confined and defined.  God or the Mystery of the Universe is much bigger, more majestic and unfathomable than my little world.  In solitude I leave my cocoon and cross the threshold of that bigger world.

I am convinced this was the quest of Romuald.  He found the little world of the original Benedictine monastery too confined and defined.  He needed more space and grace to wander into the deep waters of the Divine Unknown Mystery.  And so he walked.  But he was not simply a loner. 

Romuald also knew the value of community.  Community was equally necessary, as solitude was.  He knew that the life of the hermit could lead to crazy things.  He needed community to guard against his craziness.  And I recognize the same thing.  Community---other people---are just as necessary as the life of solitude.

For me community is like the oasis in the desert.  Sometimes the solitary time---the alone time---seems like a desert.  I can feel lost, parched or even desperate by myself.  But when I have community, I have friends and encouragers.  I have people who satisfy my thirst for relationship.  I have colleagues in the spirit who walk with me, talk with me and feed my soul.

I value working with the lectionary and daily having set readings to ponder.  And I relish the days, which are saints’ days.  The saints give me a chance to have some historical friends who model for me aspects of the spiritual journey.  My goal is not to imitate their very path.  I want from them encouragement, hope the sense that I can do this spiritual journey in my own way.

I have no illusion that I am heading toward sainthood.  But I would like to do as well as I can.  It is my journey that I have to do as a solitary person.  But it is also a journey with other folks---my community---and for that I am grateful.  After all, it probably is a weird, wise journey that I travel.  And I am ok with that!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Creating a Legacy

I have no clue when I first heard about a legacy.  I doubt I knew anything about it until college days or even later.  It might have been one of those things I heard about, but it never registers.  I doubt very many young folks pay any attention to those kinds of things.  By the time I was teaching and, especially, doing some fund raising, I became very aware of the idea of legacy.  Only recently and only occasionally have I given any thought to my own legacy.

The word, legacy, often is associated with wills that dead people leave and about which the survivors learn in a court session or with the lawyers.  Often, legacies have to do with money and property.  Of course, some people are quite wealthy and their legacies to their heirs are remarkable.  My parents did not fit that category!  They left me and my siblings almost no money or property.  I did not care.  I did not have them as parents to make me wealthy!

It would be wrong to limit legacies to money or property.  Basically the idea of legacy is whatever a deceased person leaves behind.  Let’s widen the scope of meaning to include things like favors done, help offered, reputations enhanced, fame achieved, etc.  In effect, your legacy is what folks will remember about you.  Some legacies are so enormous, history will remember them. 

Not all legacies are good.  You can be an utter scamp or scoundrel and that will be your legacy.  Hitler left an absolutely reprehensible legacy---six million Jews dead is an evil legacy!  Contrast that with Mother Teresa to understand the stark contrast.  In my own lifetime, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Thomas Merton among so many.  But not all the legacies I can bring to mind are famous people.

Some of my favorite legacies are, indeed, my parents.  I can also think of the friends who helped me negotiate my entire educational pilgrimage.  Without their help and encouragement, I would not be writing this piece.  In a sense, they helped make me the person I am.

I am keenly aware that I am also creating a legacy.  I am not finished with life, so my legacy is continuing to be written.  I can add to it; I can damage it.  My legacy will be not be about fame nor financial wealth.  My kids don’t care---fortunately.  But I will have a legacy and so will you.  As I think about it, what is done is done.  I still have a choice about what can yet be.  What can I imagine adding yet to my legacy?

As I think about this, I realize that I want to put my legacy in the context of my own spiritual pilgrimage or discipleship.  I also realize that I don’t care too much about reputation, although that is probably a good reflection of what you actually did.  I would like to focus on three key aspects of the spiritual journey that I can yet improve and make a mark.  Those three are obedience, love and service.

Obedience is an old-fashioned word that seems oddly out of place in a culture where it is important to do whatever you want to do.  However, if we take the spiritual relationships seriously---in my case a relationship with the Holy One---then doing what that Holy One wants of me is a priority.  Of course, God might ask something of me that is challenging.  Of course, I am tempted to pray, “my will, not thy will.”  But if I claim the spiritual relationship and journey is paramount, then obedience follows commitment.  To do anything else is a lie.

I also would like to do more around the theme of love and have that a part of my legacy.  When I write that sentence, I am not even sure what I mean.  I suppose at the base level, pass the love test.  But I am capable of more.  I am capable of more love for those who are not my favorites.  I want to push myself further into the zone of loving the unlovable.  Great lovers have the capacity to love sacrificially.  Jesus was a great lover.  I still feel like I am love’s pre-school.  I want to grow up and grow into more, deep love.

Finally, there is more I can do in the way of service.  On this one, my reputation is probably better than I deserve.  I want to upgrade my service in ways that might make a more profound difference.  Again, I would like to serve more broadly than I do.  In many ways it is easy to serve family and friends.  Of course, I don’t want to quit doing that.  But I want to broaden it.  There are folks in the world who need a hand---or a foot or brain---to help them.  I want to learn more deeply what it means to be a servant leader.

To add to my legacy is not really an end in itself.  That simply is the way I have framed these spiritual reflections.  The end of my legacy will commence with the end of my life.  Perhaps one’s legacy is what will be said about you when nothing else can be said.  I hope my final legacy is a trail of people who can narrate how my involvement somehow helped them in their lives.  In some cases I am aware of what I have done and how I have helped.  In other cases, I am sure, I have no clue how I might have helped.

Finally I hope the helping side of the ledger outweighs the hurting side.  I confess that part of my legacy would be the negative stuff I wrought in people’s lives.  I am human and, I guess, you are too.  So we are still creating a legacy.  Let’s work on the right side!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Monica Two, Too

Sometimes I am surprised with what resonates with folks who read these inspirational messages.  Each evening I sit down with my laptop and on good days an idea comes to me.  Other days are more difficult and I have to go after an idea.  Sometimes I think some ideas are inspired.  Other times, I am sure than I concocted an idea and only can hope somehow God can bless it and use it.  But getting an idea is not sufficient.
I have to shape the idea and give it form in writing.  Often that is fairly easy.  Other times it is like a trip to the dentist…a great deal of pulling!  My ideas that are shaped and written become little gifts thrown out there to the world.  But they are unconditional gifts.  I have no control or demands on the gifts.  If they are meaningful or help someone, I am humbled and grateful.  Occasionally, I learn that some particular message has been meaningful and that makes me happy.
One such message was yesterday’s piece on Monica.  As I said, Monica---Saint Monica---was Augustine’s mother.  Augustine was, and is one of the most famous Christian theologians in the two thousand years history of that tradition.  His mother is only known and famous because of her son.  And yet, she also has been canonized---declared a saint.  I told her brief story yesterday.  It resonated.  I am pleased and have thought a little more about Monica.  This is Monica, Part Two.  Or if you prefer, it is about Monica, too.
Probably what attracted folks to Monica and her story was the fact that it really was not about her.  Monica is the kind of quiet, religious person who somehow seems to have her own life in order.  Of course, we don’t know enough about her to quibble that it is not true.  It is true we don’t know her shortcomings, her doubts, and weaknesses.  I assume she has all that since she was human.  But apparently by the time she gave birth to Augustine and, then, a couple more kids, she had figured out life sufficiently to know who she was and what life meant.  And God was right at the center of her picture.
And that God was big enough to encompass more than simple Monica.  Her God happened to be the creator of the universe.  I am sure she was not theologically sophisticated enough to tell us in detail how God created the universe.  A corollary of this belief was the belief that the creative God was also a providential God.  This means God cares for each and every one of the creatures---you, me and all the rest.  To be providential means God provides.
Of course, she loved her son.  And she was willing to be patient and let that providential God work.  I am confident she is attractive to so many of us simply because she shows us how to care when there does not seem to be much else to do in the moment.  She is a patient saint.  She is a hopeful saint.  She perseveres because she is saintly. 
She speaks to all of us who have been in situations where there does not seem to be much to do.  There may be someone about whom we care, but we seemingly can make no immediate difference.  It is tempting to give up.  A persevering saint finds an alternative to giving up.

Monica is a symbol of hope when hopelessness or despair seems more appropriate to a situation.  She is a symbol of hope not because she is idealistic or naïve, but because she believes.  I suspect there were times she believed in God more firmly than she believed in her son, Augustine. 
Monica offers a different model than the American penchant for the quick fix.  Of course, who would not want a quick fix when the situation is bad or the going gets tough.  Prayer seems like such a flimsy option to controlling or commanding someone to shape up.  But when that simply won’t work, then our only option may be despair or dependency on God.  Monica shows me how.
To put it bluntly, Monica gives me hope, too.  The first story about Monica---mother and saint---is a nice story and inspiring.  But my story is not Monica’s story.  I don’t even have a son!  But if we are involved in the world at all, then we also get our own version of Monica’s story.  There will be people and situations we simply can deal with in the normal, routine way.  All we can do is give them over to God’s providential care.  I know this feels like a lousy alternative.  Monica may have thought that, too.
But when you cannot do anything directly, you have only two alternatives: give up or give over.  Monica’s second story---Monica Two---gives me assurance that I can learn to care and minister in this indirect way.  Thank God I am not God!  Monica knew she was not God, too.  
The nice thing about Monica Two is the lack of definition and prescription.  When we wait, pray, persevere and hope, there is no “how to.”  And in some situations I am ok with that.  She models how to come to rest in the providential hands of God.  Sometimes that’s all you can do.  Monica knew that, too.