About Me

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Identity Question

Occasionally I have reason to go back over some things that I have written.  That can be a fun, rewarding experience.  Certainly not everything I have written is worth preserving.  Sometimes what we write is for the moment.  Clearly this would be the case with many papers we write when we took classes in school.  Many of us have jobs in which we have to write stuff for a specific moment.             

Computers make saving stuff much easier.  With computers we can create folders, organize all sorts of things and now store things “in the cloud,” whatever that means!  I think it means whatever I write and store in the cloud will live longer than I do.  Maybe that is a new version of life after death!           

Obviously I have lived long enough to remember the days before computers.  I recall the time when having an IBM electric typewriter was about as good as it got!  Those came equipped with the built-in means to backspace and erase a mistake.  That meant we could throw out the “white out” bottles!  However, I can be a bit wistful when I think of the white out liquid.  Magically it would make my mistakes go away.  And if I were careful and not use too much, it was very difficult to see where I had used it.          

My writing life goes even further back to the manual typewriter.  I don’t even tell my students that any more, because they don’t really care.  Besides, they can’t understand a guy who uses an iPhone talking about manual typewriters!  It simply does not compute!  I think I began using the manual typewriter sometime in my high school years.  I know I took a typing class in high school.  I still appreciate that skill set.           

Amazingly enough, I can even recall writing those theme papers for school, when the teacher insisted it be written in ink and written legibly and neatly.  Boy that was real pressure! To write in ink meant no errors.   

But through it all, it was still my own mind creating ideas that were committed to “paper.”  From the handwritten papers to the “papers” generated on my laptop, the unchanging facet has been me.  Of course, that does not mean I have not changed.  My mind has grown, developed, and expanded in phenomenal ways.  In some ways I am not at all that young guy writing papers with ink pins.  But in other ways I am still the same guy today composing thoughts on my laptop. 

While this might be interesting to some, one can wonder what does it have to do with spirituality and the spiritual journey?  As I narrated my journey as a writer, it has been a personal narration.  I have made that journey and still am on the way.  One might say the journey’s trail is the host of things I have written.  They represent me…but they are not me. 

To use poor English, I can pose the deep question: who is me?  I suspect most of us answering this personal question would settle on external and superficial aspects of who we are.  We can think of age or body type.  We cite vocation, interests, etc.  These are aspects of our identity.  But they are not truly who we are.  Identity goes deeper. 

Much of my writing seeks to be soulful.  Obviously that presupposes I have a soul or, as I might prefer, am a soul.  I do suppose that to be true.  Knowing there can be different definitions of soul, let me simply say I understand soul to be the essence of who I am. 

This means if I can tell you about my soul, then I am telling you at the deepest level who I am.  I realize that I have become quite spiritual at this point.  I cannot possibly tell you anything about my soul without telling you also about my soulful Parent---the creator God who “made” me in the beginning and blew the very Spirit of God into my soul.  At that very moment I became a living being.  “Me” was created and all the potentiality of my mind was activated. 

At some point, the actualization of my mind developed to the point where I had words and could conjure up ideas.  I became as creative as my Creator.  I knew I had words to share, just as much as God had a Word to share.  My words went onto paper and, then, into some people.  God’s Word went directly into people.  Receive my word and receive me. 

Communication becomes communion.  Understood well, communion is nothing short of miraculous.  Communion is “union with.”  It is a uniting---a union.  For Christians it is the three in one---the trinity.  Ultimately, it is the all in one.  At that point there will be no need for words.  The silence will go so deep into the Sacred, there will be nothing to say---no need for Amen.   

Then there will be no identity question.  Perhaps in the union of communion there is not even identity for all shall be One.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Friendship Revisited

I very much enjoy it when I read someone I respect who is dealing with an issue or theme that I think is important.  More often than not, these experiences are both confirming what I think and also tend to take my own thought further or deeper.  Just such an experience happened recently as I turned to the daily newspaper.  I still buy a hard copy of my local paper.  I also read two or three online papers or news sources, too.  I hit this article by David Brooks in my local newspaper.  But since he is syndicated, it also appeared in the other online newspapers.          

I was immediately drawn to the article by Brooks’ title.  It read: “Startling Adult Friendships.”  It also had an interesting subtitle: “There are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends.”  I have had a long interest in the topic of friendship.  In fact, I teach a class called “Spiritual Friendship.”  When I do that class, we begin with some Old Testament friendships, like David and Jonathan.  We look at what Aristotle has to say about friendship and, then, we tramp through the Christian centuries.  The idea of friendship has a rich history.  I wanted to see what Brooks brought to it.           

Brooks begins by talking about the role of friendship in making significant differences in people’s lives.  He contrasts it with the huge charitable gifts of people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and others.  Interestingly, Brooks cites people like Aristotle and Cicero, whom we read in my class.  He acknowledges the necessity of friendship.  Using these figures, Brooks says, “You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life.  Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects.”  I could not agree more.          

Brooks proceeds to argue that friendship offers three benefits.  I want to cite each of these three, since I agree with his thought process.  “In the first place,” Brooks claims, “friendship helps people make better judgments.”  This is a good point.  Friends help me make these better judgments because, he tells us, your friend is like a “second sympathetic self” working alongside you.  What a gift!           

This leads to the second benefit.  Brooks says, “…friends usually bring out better versions of each other.”  Then Brooks concludes, noting, “Finally, people behave better if they know their friends are observing.”  Clearly, this points to the moral argument for friendship.  We do not want to let down our friends.  We tend to feel more responsible because of our friendships.             

In true Brooks’ fashion, he then proceeds to use this idea to offer a critique of our world.  He simply acknowledges, “friendship is not in great shape in America today.”

Brooks cites some figures to underscore his contention that friendship is not in great shape.  He would like to change this landscape and so would I.  I also think any spiritual person would feel the same way.  Perhaps, friendships can be a crucial building block of making peace and bringing justice in a world too prone to being unfair and fighting.          

Brooks envisions a few ways to help people in making and building friendships.  I like some of his ideas, although he mostly has work and politics in mind.  I would add the spiritual dimension and expect he would not disagree.  Let’s look first at one of his ideas.

He says, “you have to get people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up.  You also probably want to give them challenging activities to do together.  Nothing inspires friendship like selflessness and cooperation in moments of difficulty.”  This idea would work if we also think about spiritual friendships.         

Because the Spirit is a radical democratizer and equalizer, spiritual friendships also cross boundaries of race, gender, class, etc.  Friendships of the Spirit call for us to be other-centered.  Just as the Christian is encouraged to pray, “not my will, but thy will,” so do friends hold the other person at center-stage.  After all, friendship is a form of love.  I learned this years ago in a Greek class, when I learned one of the Greek words for love is translated “friend.”  I have never looked at friendship the same way again.           

I also think spiritual friends should be even more capable of compassion than merely “secular friends.”  A life in the Spirit should prepare our hearts and souls to reach out to our friends and be willing to be self-sacrificing.  This is a different, higher order of love.  My experience in my spiritual journey should be, at the same time, an experience in having my heart prepared for sacrificial loving, if necessary.           

I feel like I still am in preparatory school on this kind of love, but I am committed and have aspirations to grow and develop.  If I cannot develop this kind of heart, then I am afraid I will be stuck in a “tit for tat” kind of mentality.  I might treat my secular friends in an ok fashion, but I am not sure I would be prepared for the peace making that God hopes and expects from me.           

I thank David Brooks for drawing me back again into this topic.  I love having a chance to revisit friendship.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Idea of Destination

I really enjoy finding things when I was not looking for them!  This may be true in much of life, if we would but just learn to live more spiritually attentive.  That is one of the ways I would define contemplative spirituality.  Too often, I think, people assume that something like contemplative spirituality is some esoteric, mystical kind of religious experience that normal people would never be given.          

To the contrary, contemplative spirituality is little more than living one’s daily life with a significant level of awareness and with an attentive spirit.  That way you can find things when we are not really looking for them.  That certainly adds a dash of serendipity to life.  And who is against serendipity?  At least my understanding of serendipity is something that is always a good deal.  Maybe that is a good definition of God: a serendipitous God.  God is the Being who is always making a good deal with us!           

So I was doing some reading for an event that I needed to attend.  The event itself was a bit of an adventure.  I did not know for sure what I was in for, but that did not matter too much.  I have found in life that some of the best things that have come my way have been things that might not have made much sense in the moment.  This is not my counsel to live life recklessly.  However, I suspect most of us live our lives too conservatively.  And maybe the older we get, the more we are drawn to conserve and preserve.  Like financial planning, we see our life’s resources from a model of scarcity rather than generosity.  But if God is a serendipitous God, then I doubt that scarcity is the Divine model!          

To prepare for my event, I was reading some things from a guy I met a couple years ago, John Hagel.  Hagel is not the kind of person a religion professor predictably would hang out with and from whom would try to learn things.  But that’s my serendipitous point.  Hagel is a business thinker and innovative change-maker.  I am fascinated by the way he sees things and thinks about things from angles that never would occur to me.  Even if I learned nothing from him with respect to content, I would learn from him by watching him process things.           

For example, I was reading in a section from Hagel’s writing where he was talking about the process of innovation.  He knows that innovators are people accustomed to looking for things that don’t exist, i.e. new things or new ways to do old things.  Perhaps most of us would throw up our hands and declare that we don’t know how to be innovators.  In effect, this declares that we are ok with the status quo!  Not John Hagel.  And as I ponder it, this is probably not true with God either.           

Hagel helps me to see how to engage the innovative process.  He says, “Please note: I am not saying we need to have a clear idea of our destination.”  This is a great piece of information.  How could an innovator---one looking for a new thing or a new way to do an old thing---know the precise direction?  It is not like one can pull out a road map and chart the roads to Chicago!           

The innovator might well know what she or he hopes for, or desires to get.  But he or she does not have the roadmap for the destination.  Perhaps the first trick for the innovator is to be ok with that.  However, I think it is ok to have an idea of the destination.  Let me cite a few more words from Hagel and apply that to our spiritual lives.           

We may not have a roadmap to an innovative way to live spiritually, but we can heed Hagel’s advice.  We can have what he calls ‘the passion of the explorer.”  By this he means “a clear and unwavering commitment to a domain of action that defines the arena you intend to play and grow in.” I love that idea---passion of the explorer.  I will adopt that as my spiritual model.  Spiritually, I want to develop the passion of an explorer.  I want to become willing to be innovative.  I want to be willing to explore new ways of becoming available to the serendipitous God who wants to make a good deal with us.          

How do we develop the passion of explorers?  Basically, it is simple.  We learn to love.  Or we learn to love more.  Passion is nothing more than a red-hot word for love.  Passion brings fire to our souls.  Passion brings heat to our spirits.  Passion emboldens the will to model generosity and to explore our world with this intent and desire.          

Developing the passion of explorers means we approach and engage life innovatively.  We go to new places, befriend different kinds of people, and loosen our hold on the conservative restraints, which hamper the explorer’s spirit.  To do this will make us vessels into which God will pour new wine.           

And that’s exactly where I want to be.  That’s my idea of my destination. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Life: It’s Like a Ball

I like working on a college campus.  Of course, it has some drawbacks, but for me personally the advantages far outweigh those drawbacks.  Part of what I like so much is the range of things that go on.  There is a huge range of things that students study.  Some things I know quite a bit about and other things, I barely know what the subject means.  And when you have this many people united in one enterprise called a college, there is an amazing diversity of abilities and talents.  Music, art, clubs, work and so much more make the array of possible involvement feel almost limitless.           

One thing I did not mention in the list was sports.  I like sports.  I played sports and I still like to watch sports.  I would be the first to admit that sports in America are probably out of whack.  There may well be too much time and money spent on a variety of games.  This seems particularly true of professional sports.  I am not too much into pro sports.  I am convinced something happens when people start getting paid to play things like basketball, baseball and all the others.  And it really feels ironic to think some Saturday autumn days, 100,000 people will gather in a stadium to watch 22 guys on a field playing football!          

I like to go to different venues on my campus and watch the sports teams practice.  It is fun because of knowing so many of the athletes.  At the collegiate level where I teach the athletes are pretty good, but they are not getting paid, nor will they get paid.  They will have to figure out another way to make a living.  So that’s life.  Play for fun.  And then become a “weekend warrior” like the rest of us who like to play sports into our middle and old age.  But nobody is going to pay me to play any sport!  That’s life!           

It hit me one day as I had drifted around to watch three different sports teams practice.  All three sports needed a ball in order to play.  But they were very different kinds of balls.  I caught a bit of the tennis team practicing.  I have played some tennis, so I know how small and relatively light a tennis ball is.  And that ball is fairly bouncy.           

Then I moved on to the soccer field.  I have much less experience playing soccer.  It still feels a little odd to me not to be able to use my hands.  A soccer ball obviously is much bigger than a tennis ball.  But it still bounces in a similar way.           

Finally, I caught the end of the football practice.  It takes no imagination to realize how different the football is from the tennis and soccer ball.  I watched the kicker sail the ball fifty yards.  When the ball hit the turf, I could not guess which crazy way that thing might bounce and careen.   

That is when the metaphor entered my mind.  Life is like a ball.  We bounce along through time.  Like a ball, life has a time and then it no longer will be “playable.”  At some point, the air goes out—the ball becomes flat and life ends in death.  It’s a good metaphor for me.  But there was more. 

Life may be like a ball, but the question is, what kind of ball?  Is my life like that tennis ball?  Am I more like the soccer ball?  I might actually be a bowling ball.  If my life is like a football, then that will be a very different kind of life!  I was intrigued.  How might I determine which kind of ball most characterized my life and what could I learn from this? 

Then another thing hit me.  There is a common saying that I heard countless times.  “That’s the way the ball bounces.”  Typically when someone says that, the person is suggesting things are out of control.  But I realized that is not quite true for all kinds of balls.  I played basketball and when I bounced that ball, essentially I controlled it.  It bounced “true.”  Maybe some of our lives are like that basketball.  In that sense our lives are “true.”  We may not be in total control, but life is fairly predictable and we seem to have life in hand.  Our life bounces along in good fashion with little surprises.

Of course, there is the football!  If life is like a football, then control is an issue.  When life is like a football, life becomes unpredictable, surprising, uncontrollable, and so on.  Some people I have known certainly have had “football lives.”  Compared to my life, their lives were crazy---often with weird bounces. 

But then I had one final revelation.  Maybe each of us does not have one “ball life.”  My life is not like a basketball---not all the time anyway.  In reality I think we all have various “ball lives.”  My life may be more like a basketball---fairly predictable, etc.  But there have been seasons where my life was much more like a football.  I careened and bounced in ways I could not predict or control.  All I could do was try to respond and manage my bouncing life.

So what?  If we know “that’s the way the ball bounces,” we can play the game of life to the best of our ability.  If we do that, God will declare all of us winners!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Good Samaritan

Recently I found an interesting article on religion on the front page of CNN news online.  Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament and Jewish Studies professor, who teaches at Vanderbilt, offered a fresh look at four of the best-known New Testament parables.  For example, she looks at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Her point is the way we tend to interpret these parables today does not match how the original Jewish audience would have heard and interpreted them.           

In this inspirational piece I want to look at how she deals with another very familiar parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Many of us know this parable as a story about who will stop and help a person lying wounded---robbed and beaten---by the side of the road.  In the biblical story, that person who offers helps is the Good Samaritan.  Before that person appeared, two others had passed by the wounded person, namely, a priest and a Levite.  Both of these persons were Jews.           

And that is where Levine jumps in to begin her work.  She says about our common understanding of this parable, “First, readers presume that a priest and Levite bypass the wounded man because they are attempting to avoid becoming ‘unclean.’  Nonsense.”  At least, she is clear!  She adds a further detail in her interpretation.  “All this interpretation does is make Jewish Law look bad.”  My point here is not to say she has it right or to take her point into contention.  She offers an interesting insight and I use her to provoke my own understanding.           

I like the way she thinks.  She carries me along with her developing argument.  She says, “Jesus mentions priest and Levite because they set up a third category: Israelite. To mention the first two is to invoke the third.”  This is a subtle move that might leave you and me not at all clear. It is easy to assume the priest and the Levite are Jewish.  And we always hear the Samaritan is not Jewish.  But when she says, “Israelite,” we are not quite sure how to understand this.           

She offers a clever analogy.  “If I say, “Larry, Moe …” you will say “Curly.” However, to go from priest to Levite to Samaritan is like going from Larry to Moe to Osama bin Laden.”  There is no mistaking this analogy.  Clearly Osama bin Laden is not one of the Three Stooges!  The analogy is clear and telling.  It makes me think I got it!  And then Levine cautions me by saying this analogy leads to another contemporary misunderstanding. Quoting her, we read, “The parable is often seen as a story of how the oppressed minority – immigrants, gay people, people on parole – are “nice” and therefore we should check our prejudices.”           

Levine has set us up to follow her as she leads us back to what the contemporary audience of Jesus would have thought when they encountered the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  She claims, “Samaritans, then, were not the oppressed minority: They were the enemy. We know this not only from the historian Josephus, but also from Luke the evangelist.”  That is an important distinction: oppressed minority or enemy.  I know this parable only appears in Luke’s gospel.           

Levine rightly puts the parable in its context.  “Just one chapter before our parable, Jesus seeks lodging in a Samaritan village, but they refuse him hospitality.”  And then she adds another note many contemporary folks would not know.  “Moreover, Samaria had another name: Shechem.  At Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped or seduced by the local prince.  At Shechem, the murderous judge Abimelech is based.”  This is Old Testament history, but history the original Jewish audience would know.          

Then Amy-Jill Levine comes to her punch line.  “We are the person in the ditch, and we see the Samaritan.  Our first thought: “He’s going to rape me.  He’s going to murder me.”  I find that powerful.  I never thought of myself as the person in the ditch!  Of course, that says much about the fact that I have never been an oppressed minority.  And I have never really conceived of myself as the enemy!  These realizations are sobering for me.           

Her last point drives home a powerful truth.  She notes, “Then we realize: Our enemy may be the very person who will save us.”  Oh wow!  If she is correct that the Samaritan is the enemy, then when the Samaritan stops to help the wounded person, that Samaritan becomes the Good Samaritan.  As such, the Good Samaritan becomes the savior.            

Through the process of thinking about his, I have come to new realizations.  I have seen new possibilities for myself.  I can be both the wounded person and I can be the Good Samaritan.  I also should not forget that too often, I have been the priest and the Levite.  The Good Samaritan is a story of the triumph of love and the work of grace.  I can be an instrument of both. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jesus, the Rabbi

Maybe it is because I am a college professor---a teacher---that I have always been drawn to the title of rabbi for Jesus.  I call it a title because “rabbi” is not part of his name.  That is also true of the title, “Christ.”  When I was a kid, I assumed “Christ” was his last name!  To the contrary, rabbi and Christ are titles that describe something about the function of Jesus. To call Jesus “the Christ” is to describe him as “the anointed one.”  And to describe Jesus as “rabbi” is to say he is a teacher.  That aspect of Jesus I can relate to and appreciate.
After so many years teaching, I feel like I know a thing or two about the process.  And I am confident enough about what I have learned teaching that I suspect some of the same things apply to Jesus, the rabbi.  Let’s explore a couple of these learnings.
One of the key learnings I picked up was crucial and humbling.  Simply put, just because I say something does not mean the other person (student) learned it.  If I say something, the only fact is that I said something.  I should not assume any other facts.  Perhaps I could assume the other person heard what I said.  That is usually true.  But I don’t always assume that.  I have had the experience of teaching (saying something), and the other person was not even hearing.  Their eyes might be open, but the minds could well be miles away.  You cannot look at a person and know whether they are daydreaming!
Furthermore, just because I say something and the other person hears it, does not mean that person has learned it.  For example, I could go to a lecture on astrophysics and hear it.  But that does not automatically mean that I learned astrophysics.  Rather what I probably would learn is that hearing it only convinced me that I did not understand astrophysics.  I could hear it, but only learn that I knew nothing.  I suppose that is progress…but not much!
Let’s go back now to Jesus.  I am sure he said things that other people (disciples) did not even hear.  Oh, they may have heard sounds coming out of his mouth.  They may even have heard his noise.  But they did not even hear.  I suspect Jesus was a much wiser teacher than I ever have been, so he must have known this.
I am also confident that Jesus also knew that the disciples might even have heard him clearly.  But that does not mean they learned.  Hearing and learning are two different enterprises.  Jesus really wanted the disciples to learn.  In fact, that is exactly what the word, “disciple,” means: a student or a learner.  Authentic disciples are those who hear and learn what the rabbi teaches.  That gives me a profound sense of who Jesus was and what he was doing.
Jesus was a rabbinical person traversing the Palestinian countryside teaching and calling for people to hear and to learn.  When they did learn, he said, “follow me,” and he made disciples.  Literally, becoming a disciple is “going to school” with the rabbi!  But this kind of teaching was only the beginning.
There is one more step in the teaching process.  The real teacher not only wants a student (disciple) to learn.  The real teacher wants the disciple to incorporate or incarnate that learning.  The disciple can take that learning to heart---take it literally into himself or herself.  The kind of teaching Jesus was doing did get to the heart of things.  It had to do with central truths of life: love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, hope and so on.
Just as seeing is not always believing, so learning does not always lead to doing.  Real learning leads to doing.  For example, I might learn what justice means.  I could probably pass a test, write an essay and, perhaps, get an “A.”  But until I actually begin to practice being just, I have only head-learning.  The goal of learning about justice is to begin acting justly.  So it is with the teachings of Jesus and his desire for the disciples.
The teaching that Jesus, the rabbi, gave to his disciples was meant to be heard, to be learned, and to be put into action.  These teachings often came in very simple phrases.  For example, Jesus, the rabbi, told the disciples to love the neighbor as the self.  In other words, I have to love my neighbor as I love myself.  I can imagine the disciples saying, “that’s an interesting idea!” 
Then Jesus would reply, “No, I really mean it.  I do want you to love the neighbor as you love yourself.”  Jesus was a great teacher, though.  I am sure he modeled the kind of behavior he taught.  His whole life was a proclamation that said, “Do as I do.”
If I want to be a disciple that is what I have to do: do as he did.  I have to be as loving, as forgiving, as caring and as serving.  It’s a tall order, but it is about the Kingdom, after all.  Finally, I think Jesus, the rabbi, would say the Kingdom is not just an idea to learn.  It is a reality to bring about.  It starts with you and it starts with me.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Spiritual Art of Counting

I am still one of the people who read a variety of news accounts every day.  I even buy a hard copy of my local newspaper, but I may be the last generation doing that.  Neither of my kids ever buys a newspaper and I seldom see a student reading a hard copy paper.  I also read a fair amount of news online.  Obviously that is more planet-friendly.  And it gives me a wide variety of sources to consult.  Clearly, that is a huge upside of our electronic age.  In the early days of my life, I would never had read the London Times or an English version of a Chinese paper.  Now it is very easy.
I was surprised when I went online yesterday to see a story with an arresting title: 4 Teachings From Jesus That Everybody Gets Wrong.  It should not be surprising that I immediately clicked that site.  I was interested that the opinion was by a well-known New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine.  She and I are not friends, but I do know about her.  She teaches at Vanderbilt University, where she is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies.  She is a very reputable scholar, but in religion no one would enjoy universal accolades.  I am sure there are Christian fundamentalists who would not appreciate her at all.
I was intrigued that she was offering a look at four different parables of Jesus.  For most Christians these parables are fairly well known.  And there probably is general consensus on what these parables mean today.  And that is the issue Levine takes on in order to give contemporary meaning her own twist.  She does not dispute that most contemporary Christians would interpret the parables in a similar way.  What she does suggest, however, is that our contemporary interpretation may well not be what the first century audience of Jesus would have thought.
Let’s look at one of the parables, namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  I am enough of a New Testament person to know that parable only appears in Luke’s Gospel.  The story is about a father and his two sons.  The elder son is the quintessential hard-working boy who deserves his father’s respect, etc.  The younger son asks for his part of the heritage and, then, proceeds to leave home and blow the whole wad of money.  At some point, the younger guy comes home.  The father welcomes him back by throwing a party.
In contemporary interpretations most people think the father in the parable portrays God and that the story is about repentance, grace, forgiveness and paternal love.  This is the point at which Levine begins her work.  She says that it is the Gospel writer, Luke, who shapes the reading of the story in this way.  She thinks the original Jewish audience would have “heard” the parable in a different way.  I was intrigued.
Levine reminds us who know Luke 15, that the parable of the Prodigal Son is prefaced by two other smaller parables: the lost sheep and lost coin.  Clearly these two are about the “lost.”  Levine says it simply: “the man loses the sheep; the woman loses her coin. But God does not ‘lose us.’”  She adds, “The first two parables are not about repenting and forgiving. They are about counting: The shepherd noticed one sheep missing out of 100, and the woman noticed one coin missing from 10.”
I like how Levine finishes her comments about the first two parables before turning to the Prodigal Son.  “And they searched, found, rejoiced, and celebrated. In doing so, they set up the third parable.”  Then Levine adds an important point that comes from the fact that she is Jewish and, hence, looks at things with a different eye than I do.  She says, in effect, the parable is about counting---just as the lost coin and lost sheep parables were about counting.  She drives home the point when she notes,  “if we see the father as surprising when he welcomes junior home, we mishear again. Dad is simply delighted that junior has returned: He rejoices and throws a party. If we stop here, we’ve failed to count.”
I find this “original” interpretation fascinating.  It points to an inclusive God.  I like the God who is always on the lookout for the missing ones.  God is one who counts and can be counted on.  Even if we stray or become lost, we can count on God to notice.  The story is never over, even if we are lost.  God counts and will include.  I find that to be good news.
If God is this way, those of us who call ourselves followers need to be the same way.  We want to be driven by the same compassion as the Holy One. We also need to learn the spiritual art of counting.  It is as Levine says: “Our parable is less about forgiving and more about counting, and making sure everyone counts. Whom have we lost? If we don’t count, it may be too late.”
I like the sentiment that everyone counts.  That includes me.  And the same is demanded of me: to make sure everyone else is counted.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Call

When some people see this title, they probably assume I am going to talk about some special call to the ministry.  For sure, this is often the language of priests and others who do feel a special call into some form of ministry.  I don’t minimize that, but I have a different kind of call in mind.  I have in mind something as simple as a phone call.          

Although people may not talk on the phone as much as a few years ago, there is still a great deal of conversation that goes over the phone waves.  Email and texting have not totally replaced actually hearing a human voice on the other end of the phone call.  As I pondered the matter, I quickly realized not all phone calls are equal.  And I have created a little way to distinguish between two different kinds of phone calls.           

In order to distinguish two different kinds, I appeal to the grammatical part of speech called an article.  I had a good English teacher who actually enabled me to appreciate language.  One thing she taught me was the form of speech called an article.  The two most common articles are “a” and “the.”  Obviously we all use the two little words on a daily basis.  For example, I often hear students talking about “a test” they are facing.  This kind of language is not specific.  When I hear that, I don’t know in which class their test will be given.  That is why it is called an indefinite article.           

On the other hand, “the” is a definite article.  It specifies a particular thing or person.  We hear it in a phrase like, “oh, that is the person!”  This sometimes points to something or someone special.   Again, I hear a couple refer to their upcoming wedding.  “We can hardly wait for the day.”  Here we almost want to italicize or put “the” in bold letters.             

This pushes me to think about the variety of phone calls I have received and others have received.  I have answered countless phone calls that were not that special.  That does not mean I did not care.  But they were not special.  Alternatively, I have received phone calls that fit in the category of “the call.”  And thinking about it now, almost all of those calls could somehow be described as spiritual---defined broadly.  Let’s look at a couple examples.           

Often to receive “the call” relates to expectation.  I think of the time my older daughter was pregnant with our first grandchild.  Since she lived hundreds of miles from me, we decided we could only travel there when the little one was born.  So we were expecting “the call” any day.  Finally it came.  That call was expected, special and significant.  Very few of my phone calls fit all three of those categories.  And for me, that makes it spiritual---to be expected, special and significant.           

Another example that comes to mind goes to the other end of life.  Just as people are born, so do people die.  Because I am older, I have experienced quite a few calls that have announced someone’s death.  Even when people are in a hospice program and everyone knows death is imminent, no one knows the precise moment that last breath will take place.  In those cases we know we will receive a call telling us death has happened.  We may be going about our normal routine, but all the while we know we are going to get “the call” that announces the death.  Calls like this are quite definitive.          

And of course, some people do not go the hospice route to die.  Some folks go almost instantaneously with a heart attack or something more drastic and dramatic.  These calls usually are not expected.  Often they induce some shock and, perhaps, even disbelief.  As such, they can be really difficult.  That is why we so often utter words like, “I can’t believe it.”           

Thinking about this idea leads me back to some basic sense of what spiritual and spirituality is for me.  I’ll spare you some fancy academic definition.  Let me simply say that spirituality for me has to do with real life.  It has to do with values and the value of life.  Spirituality always deals with the authentic life and never the inauthentic or pretentious life.             

I figured out a long time ago that spirituality was my way of engaging my own life and finding my own way of making sense and meaning out of life.  My spirituality happens to be religiously oriented.  By learning to live in this particular way, I hope I have prepared myself in the best sense of the word for whenever “the call” comes to me.  “The call” might be the best news I could have expected---or maybe even news I would never have guessed.  If so, I want to be able to embrace it and celebrate to the fullest.  And if it is lousy or devastating news, I want to be able to hear it, begin to absorb it and not let it kill me---literally or metaphorically.          

Prepare spiritually.  When the phone rings, you never know…

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Called by God

I have heard the language of “call” since I was fairly young.  It was not unusual to hear people in my religious tradition talk about people being “called into ministry.”  Although I knew sometimes God was the One who did the calling, I also suspected that God always was the One behind that call.  And if I am to be honest, I really hoped that God would never do that to me!          

At the time I did not know anything about the Quaker tradition.  I did not know that Quakers think God calls everyone!  The question is not whether one is called; the question is to what is God calling us to do.  I realized I had a great deal to learn about this “calling business!”           

Often it would be funny, if it were not pathetic.  I did not want any call on my life because I had bigger and better plans.  Talk about delusional!  Without ever saying it, I am sure I felt like I was better at planning my life’s outcomes than God.  I did not realize how shortsighted I was!  Thank goodness for some education and maturity.  So many folks assume they know everything about life planning.  No wonder so many of us make a mess of it!           

Last night I had the privilege of going to the Catholic seminary in my city.  The occasion was a public lecture to which I get an annual invitation.  I enjoy participating in this event.  The speakers are usually top-notch.  I met the speaker last night.  He is a very well-known American Church Historian.  He is a Jesuit and a priest.  I have much respect for who he is and what he has accomplished.           

I looked around the sizeable crowd to see where the speaker was so I could meet him.  I spent some minutes chatting with him.  It turns out his primary mentor at Harvard was one of the faculty people I know very well.  He also was a preeminent American Church Historian.  Ironically, he was a Quaker---a very well respected Quaker.           

As much as I enjoyed meeting the speaker and hearing his lecture, that was not the highlight of the evening for me.  The highlight was dinner!  It was not because the food was so special.  The highlight was the people with me at the table.  Purposely, I chose to sit down at a table of seven seminarians.  I did not really want to be with the seminary faculty, nor the large group of priests who were in for the lecture.  I wanted to be with the guys who had chosen to come to seminary to study for the priesthood.           

I think they were a little surprised when I asked if I could sit with them.  But they were nice!  They expected chitchat, no doubt.  But I had more in mind.  I turned to a couple of them and said, “So how did you know you were being called to come to seminary and begin studies for the priesthood?”  That also got the attention of the other five guys!           

Such began the very interesting conversation of how God works in the lives of people.  They each had graduated recently from college.  They had a variety of majors in college.  I am sure they had done much soul-searching.  I was intrigued how they understand God to be working in their heart and soul to nudge them to consider a career path they probably did not think about when they were kids.           

But even with that thought, I was brought up short.  I am not sure the priesthood can appropriately be called a career path.  It is not like the career in banking or the like.  The priesthood is a calling.  As they reflected and shared their stories with me, I began to hear some common themes.           

Each of them had an awareness that their lives would be lacking or unsatisfying if they did not yield to the gnawing sense that they were being called to something special.  No one had such an absolute experience of God’s call, that there could never be any doubt.  That resonated with how God works in my own life.  I loved hearing their stories.  I felt like I had stood on sacred ground as they recounted the Divinity working in humanity.           

As dinner concluded and we all headed to the lecture, I gave thanks for each one of their lives.  I told them to make good use of the next three or four years because they could very well be active in ministry until 2050 or even beyond!  How does one prepare today for life in 2050?           

I left them, but I did not leave the issue.  I settled back into my own Quaker tradition that says each one of us has a calling.  If we will but listen and pay attention, I am confident that the Holy One will “speak” to each of us.  I am confident there will be a calling on our lives.  It probably will have little or nothing to do with our career.  We can stay in banking or teaching or, even, in retirement.           

Some callings may have more to do with being than doing.  The calling might be as simple as being present to someone.  Like Jesus, we may be called into odd situations and with unusual people.  I know I want to stay open to God’s call.  And I want to be able to “answer” that call when I know it.  If I can live into that call, then I am sure I will come to know the peace that passes all understanding.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Solace for the Day

I like the word, solace.  If I were to use it in a college classroom, I am not sure how many students would know exactly what the word means.  I don’t think this is one of those places where I lament how much the younger generation does not know that I would claim my older generation knew at their age.  I am not sure that is true.  I do know that I learned so much along the way in life.  One great thing that college taught me was how little I knew!  Learning new words and being more articulate was an important learning, but it was one of many.           

I know solace means offering comfort to those who are sad or somehow grieved.  Solace also means offering cheer and making folks cheerful.  It comes from the Latin word, solacium, which means to console.  A significant element of the ministry I have done throughout my life has been to offer solace.  I have been with folks in their heartaches---through deaths, misfortunes and other setbacks.  Offering solace is nothing more than offering some comfort.          

In many cases there is actually very little that can be done.  Frequently solace is offered, but it does not materially change the situation.  If a spouse has died, offering solace to the surviving spouse does not change the situation.  The dead does not spring to life again.  Solace can become part of the medicine of healing.  Not all medicine is a pill or a treatment.           

Solace is often very simple.  It can be as simple as a word or a phrase.  It does not require a Ph.D. or, in fact, any education at all.  Generally, it does require some understanding, some empathy and compassion.  Typically solace is not heroic, but it is usually healing.  Just offering care---or knowing someone does care---is a form of solace.  Solace does not offer a “fix.”  To offer solace is not to become a problem-solver, but to become a healer.           

Sadly, too many of us see the healing process as the bailiwick of the medical world.  While that clearly is true, it unfortunately limits healing to the professionals with degrees and pedigrees.  If we get a grasp on the spiritual dimension of the healing process, then all of us can potentially see ourselves as agents of that healing process.  All of us can come to be caregivers and develop compassion.  Those talents and gifts come through experience and practice, not education and degrees.           

I am always amazed how much ache there is in our world.  Of course, there are the huge global gashes to the wellbeing of humanity.  There are the global hot spots where war, violence and mayhem seem to be the rule of the day.  These wounded places seem so humongous, we feel impotent to do anything about it.  Truly, what kind of solace can we offer in the face of the tragedies of the Middle East or other hot spots?  Some answers seem simplistic, but I contend they are better than nothing.  Why not pray for the people and their problems?           

Prayer is not magic and I don’t expect miracles to replace human ingenuity to figure out ways to bring peace and justice to areas starved for these virtues.  But for those of us who claim faith in a God who is loving and who loves justice, surely prayer aligns us on the right side.  Prayer enables me to identify as a healer and not a hurter.  That is a start.         

Prayer is also a worthy form of solace for our more immediate situations and contexts.  I figure it never hurts to hold people and their situations in the Light, as we Quakers are fond of saying.  In addition to this, I stay alert to the opportunities to offer solace.  The more aware I am and the more attentive I become, the more opportunities appear that appeal for some solace.           

If we have eyes to see, we can often observe a plea in the eyes of someone who sorely desires solace.  If we have ears to hear, we can hear the plea of someone begging to be touched---literally or metaphorically.  We can develop all our senses and our sensitivities to seek out situations waiting for some kind of solace.           
I like to see solace as a form of care and love.  As such, solace can repeatedly be offered and the source is never depleted.  In fact like love, the offering of solace tends to be compounding.  The more you are able to extend to folks, the more you have available.  And like love, offering solace often has a boomerang effect.  Something always comes circling back to me.  In giving we so often are given.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Spiritual Education

No one reading this inspirational piece has avoided education.  Without education you could not be reading these words.  It has been so long since I could not read, I cannot even remember those days.  And I don’t even remember the slow process of learning how to read.  I am grateful for all those early educators who must have had immense patience to hang in there with me.             

My memory tells me I was an above-average student when I was learning to read.  I was not the brightest one in my reading and English classes.  Girls always seemed smarter than the guys!  I don’t even know when I began using the language of “education” to describe my learning process.  When I was young, the whole educational enterprise was articulated as “going to school.”  At school, I “learned things.”  I was ok with that because there apparently was no choice.             

I did not grow up in a house where there was much talk about education.  It was assumed the kids went to school and implicitly assumed some learning was taking place.  My parents were always interested in my grades, but I don’t recall them asking what I learned.  I don’t fault them for this.  I am confident they assumed there was a direct correlation between grades and learning.  If I had an “A,” there must have been much more learned than if I had received a “C.”  Maybe that’s true, but I know I do not assume that.           

High school came and went.  Then many of us move on to college.  By college I was clear I was being educated.  It was normal to talk about a “college education.”  From that it is easy to conclude that we spent four years in the process of being “educated,” and then the process would be complete.  In fact the normal language would declare that I was “college educated,” clearly using past tense language.           

A couple things have happened along the way in my educational life.  In the first place, folks began using the language of “life-long education.”  I now have enough experience to know that I have continued to learn long after I no longer “went to school.”  I am fine with that.  I can learn without paying tuition!  In today’s complex world only an idiot would claim that nothing new is there to learn.  I am thrilled to be a life-long learner.    

Secondly, I began to understand “education” and “going to school” were not synonymous.  A corollary of this is to recognize that a huge amount of the learning I have experienced came in some context other than the classroom.  I have countless teachers scattered around the world with whom I have never been in a classroom.  For example, I have never taken a computer class, but I can function because of good teachers. 

As I have been writing this, it began to occur to me that spiritual education is comparable.  I realize so much of what I have learned spiritually did not come to me “at school” nor in a classroom.  For example, I have learned to pray, but I never had a class in prayer.  I also realize there is so much more spiritual education I would like, but sadly have settled for too little. 

If I am honest, I would say sometimes I feel like a spiritual kindergartner!  In my case that is ironic.  I have a Ph.D. in religion and in that sense I am highly educated.  But that does not make me spiritual.  I could write a dissertation on God and have no first-hand knowledge of the Divinity Itself.   

This leads me to acknowledge that experiential education is the key to my spiritual education.  My most valuable spiritual education has come as a result of the experience I have had.  Sometimes I need others to help me understand and interpret the experience.  I value the spiritual educational topics that life has offered me.  I have experienced first-hand the living, loving God.  I know what it is like to have been forgiven.  I have experienced grace---pure gift. 

Ultimately, spirituality is about love.  I am in spiritual elementary school when it comes to love.  I know quite a bit about the lower levels of love.  Most of us know infatuation.  We know how to love our friends.  To widen the circle, however, begins to ask more commitment and maturity.  To love in a godly fashion seems impossible for many of us.   

I am grateful for my life and for all the possibilities in store for me.  I am eager to still be a student of the Spirit.  Every day is potentially an opportunity for some spiritual education.  My teachers appear in ordinary and, sometimes, surprising forms.  One of my most effective, current spiritual teachers is my little granddaughter.  She does not even know she is my teacher! 

I thank God for angelically appearing in and through the lives of those around me to educate me spiritually.  I pray that I be aware and attentive to the ongoing spiritual lessons.  I want to live fully and know as deeply as I can.  I don’t want to die spiritually while I am still alive.  Spiritual education is the key.