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Friday, October 31, 2014

Ordinariness into Sweetness

On its own the title for this inspirational journey makes no sense.  Of course, the words are understandable.  Everyone knows what ordinariness is.  And sweetness is a no-brainer!  But together, who knows?  What is missing is a context. 

Actually, context is more important than we usually think it is.  So often, meaning is gained when we know the context.  For this phrase, “ordinariness into sweetness” (the text), to mean anything, we need other surrounding words (providing the “con,” which means “with,” for the text!).  Those surrounding words form a context.  They would shape to how we are supposed to understand “ordinariness into sweetness.”

Let me build the context by making suggestions.  The first suggestion is when I came up with the phrase, “ordinariness into sweetness,” I was thinking of Halloween.  No doubt, now the “get” half of it!  Halloween---candy---sweetness!  And you are exactly right.  Everyone thinks of candy when the Halloween season approaches. 

In fact, you probably have enough of a context, you could begin making reasonable guesses as to what I may mean.  “Oh,” you might say, “with respect to candy all other days are rather ordinary.  But on Halloween, candy is in excess and kids run wild!”  That would be true.  It would be a good guess. 

Let me add another suggestion with a second “H” word: Holy.  “Ordinariness into sweetness”---Halloween---Holy.  That may have confused the situation more than enlightened it.  So if I explain some more, then I am providing more context for my meaning.  And so I will. 

Halloween is about candy, to be sure.  But that is more the secular “take” on the last day in October.  I am not against candy, nor secularity (well, sometimes I am against secularity!).  But there is a deeper significance to Halloween than candy.  The Holy is the spiritual “take” on that October day.  Originally, Halloween had to do with holiness. And I am always for that. 

I prefer the Latin word for holiness, namely, sanctus.  That gives us our English word, saint.  A saint is a holy person.  Some traditions insist that we wait until someone is dead before proclaiming him or her a saint.  I guess I am impatient.  I like living saints, too!  I am not one…but I have known some. 

Let me suggest further that I think saints are sweet.  Historically, “sweetness” is a metaphor for God, the Holy, and holy ones.  I am also convinced one is not born a saint.  One is made a saint---made by who one becomes and what one does.
In fact, “saint-making” is the process of transforming “ordinariness into sweetness.”  And there you have it: the full context.  We enter the season the Christian tradition honors all those who have completed the transformative process of turning their ordinariness into sweetness. 

I have already said I am not there.  In fact, in many ways I am not even doing a very good job. Too often, I prefer candy!  But that sweetness is temporary and is of no use to anyone in this world. 

But it is not too late.  I would like to choose and do better.  Lord knows, I have enough ordinariness!  But with some effort, attentiveness, and grace, I can be sweeter.  And so can you---if you want!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Importance of Image

I try to follow various people I respect to see what kinds of things they are doing with regards to spirituality.  One of the people I respect is Richard Rohr.  While I don’t agree with everything he writes, I find his Franciscan spirit resonates with my Quaker spirit.  He and I are about the same age, so it makes it easy to understand some of his concerns and issues.  Neither one of us deals with teenage problems any more!           

He has the ability to look at a common issue and see it in a way I might not ever look at it.  Perhaps some of that is due to our different backgrounds and experience.  I recall Rohr talks some about growing up in Kansas.  That might not be too different than growing up in rural Indiana.  But he also talks about his caring German, Roman Catholic family.  My family certainly was caring enough.  I have no complaints on that score.  But growing up a Quaker in pre-Vatican II world surely is quite different.  My family was fairly regular in church attendance on Sunday morning, but that was about it when it came to religious evidence in our lives.  In retrospect I would say that we were good, but I am not sure we were Christian in the way I might define it today.  But I am sure my parents would have said they were Christian.  And that brings me to the words from Rohr with which I connect.          

In one of his meditation pieces Rohr says, “Your image of God creates---or defeats you.”  That is a pretty powerful line.  Any time someone talks about defeating me, that person gets my attention!  I don’t mind the creating part---that actually is quite good.  That sounds positive and I am all for positive!  But defeating is less attractive.  In fact, I have gone to some lengths at times to avoid defeat.          

For Rohr to tie my creating and defeating to my image of God is a bold step, but I might not be sure how that works.   So the next line Rohr writes helps in my understanding.  He adds that, “There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe.”  Once again, I find this very intriguing.  Not only does Rohr say there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself.  Rohr says this is an absolute connection.  I understand that to me the connection between these two is fail proof---guaranteed, he might confirm.            

At first blush I realize I probably never thought about whether there is a connection between how I see God and how I see myself.  I am sure many folks would be quick to doubt or, even, deny this contention of Rohr.  But that likely would be nothing more than a defensive move.  I suspect most of us think we have a pretty accurate view of ourselves.  We feel like we know ourselves pretty well.  And I also suspect that we assume that our view of ourselves resonates very closely with how others see us, too.  So we have an honest and accurate view of ourselves.  Finally most of us probably do not think this self-view has much or anything to do with how we see God.           

“Wrong,” says Rohr!  Let’s add one final sentence to see how Rohr wants to make his point.  He says that, “The word ‘God’ first of all is a stand-in for everything---reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe.”  I can imagine some people saying, “that’s not my view of God!”  I am not quick to dismiss Rohr.  I think that he is on to something.             

I do think how we view reality is linked to our view of God.  For example, if I think the world is orderly, friendly, etc., then I certainly connect this with God.  The idea of truth is even easier for me.  Most believers would latch on to that New Testament idea that God is truth---indeed, truth with a capital “T.”  As such, God is the shape of my universe.             

And this is where Rohr is sneaky and a real challenge.  If there is an absolute connection between how I view God and how I view myself, then my whole being is at stake---I am either created or defeated.  However, I wonder if Rohr might not have it reversed.  I wonder if the real sequence is not this way: the way I see myself is absolutely connected to the way I see God?  I think this is probably true, although it may be difficult to see or admit.           

If I am honest, I think it is true for me.  And I am also sure I would not have seen this in my earlier life.  I would have assumed God is quite different than I am.  But the longer I have lived and experienced life, the more I think I do see the absolute connection between my self-view and how I see God.  And now my real task is to make sure that I see both myself and God in such a light to make this whole process creative.           

I want to view my God as a caring, loving Spirit, which is at work in the world to bring justice and inaugurate a realm of peace and joy.  And I want just as much to view myself in the same way---to be involved in a ministry of care and love.  I want to be involved in the creative process of bringing justice and being a harbinger of peace and joy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Holy Curiosity

Even though I grew up on a farm in Indiana and spent a great deal of time outside, I would not say I am as attuned to nature as one might expect.  In some ways it is a little disappointing to realize this and admit it.  Of course when I was outside, I was surely aware of the weather.  If it is raining, you don’t need a very high IQ to know it is raining!  Awareness of the weather, however, does not mean you are generally aware of nature.           

Every time I come back to Annie Dillard’s great book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I am reminded of my off-and-on relationship with nature.  I realize again how much I miss on a walk across campus.  I lament at how unconscious I apparently am so much of the time.  At one level, this is sad because it means I am capable of so much more.  At another level, it is funny.  It is funny because I sometimes think I am fairly aware and, then, realize perhaps I am not as aware as I think I am.  Another good opportunity for some humility!  Whenever I have the opportunity for some humility, at least I am on a spiritual track again.           

Near the end of a chapter called, “Spring,” Dillard quotes Einstein.  I have never double-checked the quotation, so I hope he said it.  If he did not, then whoever said it has a good idea.  “Never lose a holy curiosity,” said Einstein.  Clearly, the key word here is “curiosity.”  Let’s look at this idea and see how it fits within spirituality.          

If you were to look up that word in a dictionary, you would find that curiosity means a desire to know something or to find out something.  A curious person is an inquisitive person.  I would like to think that most people are curious to an extent.  If we watch children, they seem pretty curious by nature.  The will explore almost anything.  Little ones will put anything in their mouths!  Maybe that is when we begin to lose our curiosity, namely, when we outgrow the desire to put things in our mouths!           

I think it is ok if we literally get over putting things in our mouths.  But if we see it figuratively, we need to be careful not to lose our taste for exploration.  Maybe this is the clue to what Einstein means.  If we lose our willingness to explore, then we have become settlers.  We have settled for what already is.  We declare in our own way that we are ok with the routine and the given.           

That is not bad.  Typically, there is nothing wrong with the given and our routine.  More than most people, perhaps, I am a person who values routine.  But if I settle for the routine as all there is, then I have lost something important in my life.  I have lost the possibility for the novel---the new.  I have lost the chance for the different.  There is nothing wrong with sameness---I value that.  But there is more; there is always difference.           

Curiosity is a quest.  It is an inquisitiveness for the novel and the different.  It is a free choice.  Voluntarily my curiosity opens me to a world that is more interesting, more complex, more beguiling that I ever imagined.  I hope I never get to the place where I say, “I don’t care.”  If I do, I probably have admitted that I am finished growing as a human being.  I think we were created for growth.  Curiosity is the divine implanted grow impulse.           

Having said that, I realize I have just introduced the opening to talk about the adjective Einstein used, namely, “holy.”  “Never lose a holy curiosity,” he said.  I like the way he puts it.  I can understand his use of “holy” in a couple ways.  I have already indicated one way we can understand “holy curiosity.”  This holy curiosity is the divinely implanted impulse to grow and deepen as human beings.  I have already indicated that I could be much more attentive when I am in nature.  I could let nature teach me so much more about myself and about my God, the Creator of this amazing world and the unfathomable universes.  To settle for my routine and the given in my life is sadly to settle for so little.  I have a God to discover and I too often settle for my own little world and my own sorry self.           

The other way we can understand “holy curiosity” is to see our curiosity to be wired to desire to know God.  We are naturally inquisitive for the Divine.  We would be idiots to assume that we are the center of the universe.  Any sane person knows that the egocentric person has it all wrong.  The trouble is, being egocentric often feels so good---so “god-like!”  Again, we would be idiots to set ourselves up as gods and not see the idolatry in doing so!           

Our holy curiosity is designed to not fall into temptation, but deliver us to the doorstep of God Itself.  We might find that doorstop in the details and intricacies of nature.  We might find ourselves approaching the heart of God when we go deep within and find our own hearts.  Holy curiosity leads us both without---into the big world out there filled with amazing things.  And it leads us deep within---where in the words of a revered Quaker, we find “an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.”  It is there that the holy curiosity delivers us into Holiness Itself.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Leaf: Icon of Life

Most of the time I am absolutely convinced spirituality is about learning the simple lessons the complexity of life has to teach us.  I am also persuaded that our level of education has an indirect correlation to our capacity as students to learn these spiritual lessons.  Since by worldly standards, I am pretty highly educated, I probably am the worst kind of student of life and spirituality.  I am a slow learner, but I am trying.  For the most part, I still find being in the school of life interesting and thought-provoking.           

Since I have advanced degrees and am a professor, I usually don’t think about finding teachers to teach me things.  That is my job!  And that’s how my problems begin.  I see myself as a teacher and in many ways I don’t know anything.  Perhaps the first step in growing is to realize and accept truth as it is revealed to you.  I had a little lesson recently.  My little granddaughter became my teacher.  Fortunately, I began to recognize I was her student, although I don’t recall enrolling in her class!           

We were on a little walk.  Well, at least I thought it was just a walk.  In retrospect I realize she was on a journey and she was exploring.  My walk was rather aimless---just spending some time is how I would have put it.  Her journey was fueled by curiosity.  Compared to her, I was walking like a blind man.  She had eyes wide open.  We walked hand in hand.  No doubt, I was under the illusion I was watching out for her---making her safe---when in truth she was guiding me on to a path of attentiveness.             

Although I did not know it in the moment, my lesson began when she stopped, bent down and picked up a leaf.  It could have been any season, but it was autumn when the splendor of the leaves is at their best.  But it is also the time when the leaves give up life and begin the transformational process to become fertilizer for the earth.  To me it was just a leaf.  To her it was a revelation of the mystical.  She and I represented the two extremes of human life---the mystic and the moron.  Our roles seem clear!  So I began to pay attention to my teacher.           

She was fascinated by the leaf.  She held it as if it were a crystal ball ready to reveal its secrets.  I began to cultivate my own fascination.  I followed her lead and started to open my eyes and my heart.  I am not sure what her reflective capacities are, but I know mine are pretty good when I apply myself.  I was ready to reflect on the leaf for what it would teach me.           

The first thing to hit me was the phrase, “icon of life,” as a description of the leaf.  I can imagine some folks don’t really know or appreciate the idea of an icon.  I only came to appreciate it when I took Greek and learned that “icon” was the Greek word for “image.”  So an icon is an image---a picture or snapshot.  That does not mean it is the same thing as a mirror.  A mirror reflects back the very same image.  If I look into a mirror, my exact image stares back at me.  On the other hand, an icon draws us into it and reflects something deeper inside it.  That’s what the leaf did to me.           

To understand the leaf as an icon of life meant that I began to see how the leaf experienced stages of life just like I have.  Leaves are born in the springtime.  Spring is the time of renewal, vitality and exuberance.  The leaf begins as a bud, just as we all began as babies.  We come with so much potential and so much power.  In many ways my granddaughter is still in that early stage.           

Spring gives way to summer.  The leaf is fully-grown and green is the color.  I could be cynical and say green symbolizes money, but that is too superficial.  I see green as the color of life, vibrant, meaningful life.  Summer can last a long time.  Leaves are crucial to the tree---work to do.  But they also are bearers of beauty.  I see you and me having the same dual opportunity.  There is work to do---meaningful, creative work---and there is beauty to bear.  Do both well.           

And then comes autumn.  The leaf begins its odyssey into brilliant colors.  Leaves go out in a blaze of glory.  I hope to do the same thing.  At first, the leaf changes colors and gives the tree a radiance that is incomparable.  All you can do is look at the leaf as the handiwork of a Divine Artist.  I hope some day people could look at me and see traces of that same Divine Artistic work.             

Inevitably, a strong wind will dislodge the leaf from the tree and it will twirl or be hurled to the earth.  Perhaps it will be picked up by the small hand of a little girl.  Or it might simply begin the transformational process of enriching the earth to produce the next generation of beauties.  Perhaps it is not true to say the leaf’s life is finished.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say the leaf’s work has changed.  And maybe that is my fate and your fate some day when the Spirit’s strong wind dislodges us from this life.  Our lives will not be spent so much as re-quipped for the next phase.  That’s what I learned, thanks to my little teacher and her leaf.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

When in Doubt, Wait

The title of this inspirational piece may seem odd.  When in doubt, we should wait.  That does not seem like the American way.  I think Americans tend to be more pushy.  When in doubt, push ahead.  Force things!  Make things happen!  You can do it!  There are many ways we express the fact that we should seldom wait---for anything.  We pride ourselves that we lived in a fast-paced fashion.  “Get yours while the getting is good,” is a phrase I heard all my life.  The implication was you had to be quick, perhaps a bit grabby, and certainly never dally.  Slow people are losing people.           

There may be times the above-mentioned perspective serves us well as people and as a nation.  But spiritually speaking, that is usually not a good way to go.  However, I believe that we often carry our lives-as-normal into our spiritual lives.  That should not be surprising.  Why would we expect ourselves to be one way “in the real world” and a different way in our “spiritual lives?”  As I think about this, I realize this is one place where I feel my own Quaker tradition offers some sage advice.           

As a Quaker---as a Christian---I seek to follow God’s desire for me.  The more common term is “God’s will.”  I can live with that terminology, but for whatever reason I prefer the language of “God’s desire.”  Perhaps it is because the idea of “will” too often carries the connotation of control.  Some of us grow up in families where our parents’ “will” was quite demanding.  As long as we did what they wanted, life was ok.  Going against their will was sure to elicit elements of control.  We might be coerced to do their will.  Frequently the element of freedom was non-existent.           

Personally, that is why it is tricky to use personal, parental imagery to describe God.  I understand that God can be like a Father---or like a Mother, for that matter.  But God is not my Father.  And God might not even be like my father.  I prefer to let God simply be God.  Secondly, I believe the reason for creation and the reason for my own personal creation is love.  God created because God loves.  In a sense God loved me and loved you into being.  We exist because of love and we live for love.           

Love is the language of desire.  God did not only lovingly bring me into existence.  God continues to love me in my existing.  And God’s loving desire continues to lure me into deeper, fuller life.  That is what it means to follow God’s desire.  To follow God’s desire is to opt for love.  That is why I want very much to go with God’s desire.  It is an option for love.           

It really is that simple for me.  The problem is when God’s desire is not clear.  When I am not sure what God’s desire is for me or when I am not sure what the desire is, then the question is: what do I do?  It seems to me that there are two options.  When I am not sure what God’s desire is, I can go with my best guess.  I make a good guess about that Divine desire and go for it.  I am sure I have done this too many times.  However noble it might seem (at least I did my best is the argument), it nevertheless smacks of self-will.  In effect, I could not discern God’s desire, so I took it into my own hands, made a good guess and went with it.           

The second option picks up the title of this reflection.  If I am not clear about God’s desire for me, I wait.  I keep perspective.  I know that my commitment is to do God’s desire, not simply to be doing something.  The argument suggests that if I do not know God’s desire for me, doing nothing is better than doing something.  Waiting is not bad in this scenario.  In fact, waiting seems like the only prudent thing to do.  The logic here asks, why would I do something if I am not sure what to do?  I take self-will out of the equation.           

Waiting does not mean unwilling to do anything.  Waiting means that I wait until I am clear.  My commitment is to do God’s desire---not simply to do.  Waiting provides me more time for prayer, for meditation, for whatever I can do to become clear about the Divine desire.  Waiting is different from inactivity or doing nothing.  I prefer the language of active waiting---expectant waiting, if you will.           

Active waiting is expectant.  It is a seeking, probing kind of waiting.  Waiting is a posture that has me ready to act when I become clear about God’s desire.  Paradoxically, there is an urgency in active waiting, as well as a comfortable patience.  Active waiting is grounded in a trust that God’s desire will become known to me.  There is no despair in active waiting.           

I can relax with all of this.  If I keep it in context, I realize the context is my relationship with the Holy One and my willingness to act within that context.  If I am in doubt about the action, I rest in the fact that the relationship is still present.  I am still in that relationship, even if I don’t know what to do in the moment.  That’s ok.  When in doubt, wait.  The action will come.     

Friday, October 24, 2014

Path of Life

Last evening as I was doing the readings from the Benedictine lectionary for the Evening Prayer (called Compline), I was struck by one line.  It comes at the end of Psalm 16.  The Psalmist speaks to God, “You show me the path of life.” (16:11)  I appreciate the matter-of-factness in these words to God.  It is not a petition to God.  The Psalmist is not asking God to be shown the path of life.             

When I read it closely, however, I see there are two possibilities.  One way to read this passage is to understand the Psalmist saying, in effect, “You have shown me the path…thank you.”  This would show me the Psalmist now knows the path and needs no more instruction or revelation.  The job now is to get on with it.  In some sense it now becomes an issue of obedience.  I know the path and now I have to walk it!          

The other possible reading is more of a process.  In this reading the Psalmist says something like, “You are showing me the path and you will continue showing me the path.”  With this reading the Psalmist acknowledges getting enough insight to begin the journey on the path.  But the whole thing has not been given.  We must start to walk the path and trust that more will be given as we traverse it.  In this sense obedience is paired with more revelation.              

When I read a line like this one, I often am tempted to think about how the Psalmist would have articulated it.  Where would he put the voice inflection?  Imagine with me.  Would the Psalmist emphasize the subject of the sentence, namely, God?  If this is the case, you can imagine the voice would emphasize “YOU.”  Say with me an emphatic “You!”  It is you, O God, who shows me the path.  To look at it this way means the subject---you---is the most important part of the sentence.  The emphasis is upon the actor---upon God.           

Or it is also easy to image the emphasis is not upon the subject---upon “you”---.  Rather it might be on the verb---“show.”  This is easy for me to suspect might be true.  So many times, I tell students verbs are really important.  They are the action pieces of the sentence.  In this case the Psalmist would emphasize the verb.  You SHOW me the path.           

Showing could be seen as a form of revelation.  Reveal to me the path, O God.  Indicate to me the way I should think and practice my faith that will take me into the fullness of the Godhead itself.  I like this emphasis.  It shows a kind of Divine care.  God is solicitous on our behalf.  Don’t worry; God will show us the path.           

The final obvious choice for emphasis in the sentence is the direct object---the “path.”  In fact, it is not just any old path.  It is the path of life.  That prepositional phrase---“of life”---is quite important.  The Divinity Itself will reveal to us the way to live life to the fullest and to participate in the beatitudes of God’s blessings.  It is interesting to me that the Psalmist does not say, “show us the only way.”  The Psalmist simply says it is God who shows us the path of life.           

Most of us could probably write a few paragraphs about the path of life.  For me it would have to be a spiritual path.  It would have to be a path that is good---that is virtuous.  It would be a path that is enlivening and vitalizing.  After all, it is a path of life.  This implies there are other paths that can be chosen.  There are paths that might be deadening or that might be superficial.  Meaning and purpose are not guaranteed in this life.  One has to tread an appropriate path that leads to meaning and purpose and, hence, to life.           

The good news is God will show that path of life to us.  One more observation can be made.  God does not do this haphazardly or randomly.  God may do this “showing” to all people.  But if we look closely, the Psalmist says that God shows this path of life to me.  That is very good news!  I trust and hope you get this “showing,” too.  And perhaps we all get it in the end.          

It is good news that I have it shown to me.  But I also realize it probably is not automatic.  I suspect that if I have not readied myself to see it, I will miss the “showing.”  And if I were not prepared to begin walking that path of life, the “showing” would have been pointless.  To see is not yet to do.  In this case it is seeing and doing.           

This has become a powerful verse for me.  It is reassuring, but also cautionary.  It reassures me because it suggests that God is always ready to show me the path of life.  However, I also am cautious.  There are things I need to be and to do to prepare to see what is shown.  It is not as simple as flipping the switch on an electric appliance.  Rather I must flip my spiritual switch and ready my heart and mind---and then eyes to see.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Divine Ambusher

The words in my title come from a little online meditation piece I read from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr.  Rohr is a Franciscan who founded and runs a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.  I have been reading Rohr for a long time and still use a couple of his books in my classes.  He is a Catholic who has taught this Quaker a great deal over time.           

Rohr always has a fresh way of putting things, even if I have thought about those things in my own way.  He makes me twist my head---symbolic of twisting my mind---and pondering something in a different way.  In a way the title of this little piece is evidence of that.  I never thought about God as a Divine Ambusher!  I don’t know that I would find that image for God in the Christian Bible, but I think the sense of the way God sometimes acts resonates with the title.  Let’s look at how Rohr puts it.           

Rohr draws in the reader with the following words.  I wonder if the only way that conversion, enlightenment, and transformation ever happen is by a kind of divine ambush.  We have to be caught off guard.  As long as you are in control, you are going to keep trying to steer the ship by your previous experience of being in charge.  The only way you will let yourself be ambushed is by trusting the “Ambusher,” and learning to trust that the darkness of intimacy will lead to depth, safety, freedom, and love.”  There is so much in this passage, but a few points jump out at me.  So let’s look at a couple.           

It is clear to me that the main point of this passage is not actually God.  It is the need or desire of humans for some kind of conversion, enlightenment or transformation.  I appreciate the three options Rohr provides to articulate this human desire for more out of life---for a way out of or beyond our ordinariness.  Most of us do not think we can do it ourselves.  We need a kind of conversion.  This is not my favorite word.  For me it suggests some kind of revival service and altar calls.  I am not against those.  But they have not been the paths of my experience.           

The language of enlightenment is ok for me personally, although I associate it more with Buddhism than my own Quaker or Christian tradition.  To me it also feels pretty mental.  It is like a religious “Ah-ha,” which again has not been my own experience.  The language of transformation speaks most clearly to my own experience.  Transformation means I am led from where I normally am to a new spiritual place and way of being.  And I know I cannot do it on my own.           

I love the terminology Rohr uses.  For transformation I need to be ambushed by the Divinity!  I have to be caught off guard.  Without realizing I am sure I am on guard most of the time.  I am cautious of the abnormal and the unusual.  And that is precisely where the Divine Ambusher lurks.  As Rohr so adroitly says, when I am in control, I am unlikely to be transformed.  If I stay in control, then I am steering my own ship.  It is not a bad thing; however, it is not usually a very spiritual thing.           

Rohr suggests that we learn to trust the Divine Ambusher.  That is a tricky thing for me---and perhaps for most of us.  Trust is the alternative to control.  I learned a long time ago that if we could control something, then you don’t have to trust.  I also learned that I could not control God.  Perhaps I could control myself, but that probably is an illusion.  So I began to learn to trust.  In spiritual terms trust is usually called faith.  So I think Rohr is actually talking about faith.           

He talks about trust/faith in two ways.  In the first place there is trust in God---the Ambusher, as he calls God.  And secondly, Rohr says that we also learn to trust the darkness of intimacy.  That phrase fascinates me.  But it should not surprise me.  Much of who God is, I am convinced, is mystery.  One way to talk about mystery is to talk about darkness rather than light.  At the experiential level, we can experience the Divinity, even if we cannot see God.  This is what Rohr is describing.           

Why would we want to trust the darkness of intimacy?  Rohr is clear.  We trust it in order to be led to depth, safety, freedom and love.  When I look at these four elements---depth, safety, freedom, love---I see profundity and not superficiality.  This is the place I would like to go on my own, but it likely is impossible.  In my guarded condition, I am not able to go deep, be ultimately safe, be free and discover authentic love.          

I must give up control to experience life at this spiritual level.  I have to trust the Divine Ambusher and the intimacy that God provides in order to be led to this wonderful place.  Notice that Rohr says we are led; we don’t walk there ourselves.  On our own we will never be able to find or create this kind of life for ourselves.  Only God knows that deep place and only God can take us there.  Our choice is to be willing to be ambushed…or stay in control.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Words and More Words

Most days I do not think too much about it.  But yesterday I became very aware of how many words I use.  That is not surprising, since I am still teaching.  And certainly we know that teaching entrails speaking, even though I never lecture to the students.  I could lecture, but that would prove nothing except that I could talk all the time.  If I am talking all the time, how could I know whether they are learning anything?           

I do not spend every waking hour talking.  In fact I am essentially an introvert.  So I enjoy time by myself.  Solitude has never been a problem, especially since I have been an adult.  As a teenager, I am sure too much time by myself caused some anxiety.  But teenagers are anxious as a matter of course!  So I was probably no crazier than any other teenager.           

I am curious how many words I use in one day?  I truly have no clue.  It has to be in the thousands of words.  I wish I had some kind of “word count” that I could check, much like I can check the word count on my computer to see how many words are in a document.           

Once I read a study that suggested the average university educated person has a base vocabulary of about 17,000 words.  A base vocabulary means a word like “time” only counts one time, even though we can use words like “timely,” etc.  If we count the related words, like “time” and “timely,” then we can easily say the average person knows about 50,000 words.  That is many more than I suspect the average person would guess.           

It actually amazes me to think that when I step into a classroom, I have so many possibilities.  In fact, I might even have more possibilities, since I know some technical language in theology and spirituality.  And I have some familiarity with foreign languages, so I may be slightly above average.  It fascinates me how I choose the many words that I choose.           

Certainly there are two factors that govern many word choices.  I would identify those two factors as my intent and the context.  Let me elaborate on both.  Intent gives a potential conversation some focus.  For example, if I walk into a class on spiritual disciplines, I am not likely to start talking about major league baseball.  I know a fair amount about major league baseball and I like it.  But to talk about that in a spiritual disciplines’ class is not appropriate.  So intent gives focus.           

The second factor that governs my word choice would be the context.  Again, if we step into that same class on spiritual disciplines, the context is set.  It is not a class on physics.  That is a different context, although just as appropriate on a college campus.  To some significant degree, the context will dictate some word choices.  But it does not dictate all word choices.           

Think about all the little words that all of us use all of the time.  How many times have I already typed the word, “the?”  If I were speaking this, I am told I could speak about two words per second!  So if I do a great deal of talking, I can spit out a ton of words!           

So there are words all over the place in my daily life.  I use them copiously.  And I listen to others spew forth bundles of words.  Words and more words all over the place.  We can make a major shift, however, if we switch from the number of words to the meaning or significance of words.  Here the numbers plummet.  It would be true to say that most of my words are not significant.  Seldom does the word, “the,” carry that much significance.  There is no comparison between the two words, ‘the” and “God.”           

Speaking of God brings us to the place where we can appreciate a key point in Christian theology.  Words have played a crucial role in the origin and development of the Christian faith.  The context of this goes back to the opening words of Genesis.  There we read that God “spoke’ creation into being.  Read the text.  Frequently, we read that God said, “Let there be…”           

In Christian theology it gets even more specific.  John’s Gospel tells us that at some point in history, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (1:14)  That verse is the basis of my own personal theology.  Essentially it says that God comes to be present in our very midst.  Radically God chose to become human.  God embodied the very truth and life God wants us to follow.  Because the Word became flesh, we now have a model---Jesus---who shows us a way.           

The beauty and simplicity of this is it only took one Word---the Word of God.  The same Word that God spoke into creation now became part of creation.  The intent of the Word become flesh was that we all be healed and enabled to live the life God ardently desires we all lead.  Finally, it is about more than words.  It is about life.  We can talk about it.  But the call is to live it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Middle and the Marginal

Sometimes my ideas for an inspirational reflection come in odd ways.  The idea for this piece originated in the classroom.  We were discussing a section from Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk, which is one of my favorite books.  One of her paragraphs made reference to the French phrase, point vierge.  Because I have read her book a number of times, I am familiar with the term.  And I also know that Thomas Merton, my favorite monk used the phrase in a very significant way.           

The French phrase is translated in various ways.  Literally it means the “virginal point.”  It suggests that time at dawn---the breaking of the new day---when the light is just beginning to appear.  It is the point where night meets day.  It was used by Merton to talk about “the still point.”  All this I knew, but I was still curious about the phrase.  So I chased my curiosity a little further.  I turn to Google, which magically and efficiently makes so much information appear.           

Many of the informational leads took me to something in Merton.  Much of this I already knew.  At some point I landed on a very interesting piece of writing by Albert J. Raboteau, a Religion professor at Princeton.  The title of his work captured my attention: “A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Again, I know some of the history of Merton and King.  Ironically, they both tragically died in 1968 in the very prime of their lives and careers.             

Merton was living the life of a reclusive Trappist monk in the middle of Kentucky and King obviously living a much more visible life in Atlanta and traveling over the South.  Both men were leaving distinctive marks on their world.  And plans were well underway for King to visit Merton at Gethsemani, the monastery, in the very near future.  That visit never happened.  So there are many interesting lines of inquiry when we think about these two men.             

It was at this point I read one of Raboteau’s paragraphs.  Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Catholic monasticism and Black Protestantism, two very different locations and two very different traditions and yet, they did share a common trait -- marginality.”  This is such an interesting and insightful idea.  Indeed, they both were marginal men.  By contrast I have spent virtually all of my life right in the middle---the middle of my culture and my world.           

Eagerly, I read further.  “Monks were marginal by profession; they had rejected the ‘world.’  Blacks were marginalized by discrimination; they were rejected by the dominant white society.”  One was marginalized by choice.  The other was marginalized by accident---the accident of being born a black man.  But the marginalization they shared in common.  And it helps me understand why they shared a vision for what the world could become.               

I continued to read the amazing paragraph.  “Both monasticism and the black church were profoundly extraneous to the priorities and to the values of America in the 1950s.”  I can remember the 50s, although I was young.  In those days I knew almost no Catholics, certainly knew no monk or knew nothing about monasticism, and was first-hand acquainted with the still overt racism of the day.  And yet because I was in the middle of my culture and world, I assumed the way I saw things was perfectly normal and acceptable.  I did not have the “eyes of marginality.”           

Raboteau led me further to see.  He says, “Marginality provided Merton and King with the critical consciousness necessary for radical dissent from the religious and political status quo. Moreover, the contemplative tradition within monasticism, and the prophetic tradition within Afro-American religion, furnished Merton, the contemplative, and King, the prophet, with the spiritual insight necessary to articulate convincing critical analyses of society and the religious experience necessary to ground their prescriptions for social change in personal authenticity.”  It was at this point I began to understand.           

I understand to be part of the status quo is the fate for those of us in the middle.  It is not inherently bad.  But it is limited and, often, myopic (nearsightedness).  Most of us who grow up “normal” are also “middle people.”  One of the functions of authentic spirituality is to take us to the margins.  Jesus describes this process when he told the disciples to deny themselves, take us their cross and follow.  The Apostle Paul uses the image of dying to the old self in order to walk in the newness of life.           

I know for myself part of me wants a spirituality that makes no demands.  I sometimes only want a spirituality that leaves me comfortable in my status quo.  People like me in the middle usually have quite a bit at stake to get serious about being spiritual.  We are not willing to be prophetic like Merton and King.  And yet something in me wants to read and take these two guys seriously.           

Maybe I am ready to live in the middle and occasionally visit the marginal.  At least that would be a start.  It will take some practice, some patience and some grace.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Basic Human Questions

I recently read an interesting interview about a woman who has just written a book on the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Clearly this is a prevalent phenomenon in our world today.  It often is associated with the young people, but I think it is a mistake to assume they are all this way and that older people are, by and large, still religious in the traditional sense.  Things are much more up for grabs these days.           

The person being interviewed, Linda Mercadante, teaches in a Methodist seminary.  I found her interview both fascinating and insightful.  No doubt that is partly true because a significant number of the students who are in my classrooms consistently claim they are spiritual but not religious.  I have explored that theme, but not in the depth that Mercadante has.  So let’s examine some of her findings.
There was one question that I thought was revealing.  The interviewer commented to Mercadante that she had focused on four particular themes: “the sacred, human nature, community, and the afterlife.  Why these four themes?”  As I thought about these four themes, I was very clear these are major themes of human development---basic human questions.  Mercadante’s answer fit right in with what I was thinking.             

Let’s look at her rather long answer and, then, we can unpack what she is saying about the folks who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Mercadante says, “These themes seem to get at the main questions that trouble humans and require answers.  Is there anything beyond myself?  Is anything sacred?  Who am I as a human, and what are my potentialities and limitations?  How determined are my choices—do I have free will? Am I on this journey in life alone?  How much am I a self-enclosed being, and how much am I open to others?  What happens after death? Is there anything afterward?  These are the kinds of questions human beings ask even if they don’t consider themselves religious.”          

These questions---basic human questions---go to the heart of what spirituality is.  The initial question is a poignant one: is there anything beyond myself?  Of course, I know I exist and I know that you exist.  But is there anything beyond us?  Are we it; we live our lives the best we can and that’s it?  This necessarily leads to the second question: is anything sacred?  That is a complex question.           

To ask the “sacred” question invites in complexity.  But I already know that the world is complex.  The longer I live, the less I think I know.  To ask the question about the sacred is really to ask the “God question.”  But with the spiritual but not religious crowd, to introduce the word, God, is usually a problem.  This group is not sure they believe in God---certainly not the traditional God of Christianity.  So language of “sacred” is preferable.            

I know in the classical languages the language of “sacred” points to some kind of divinity, but not necessarily a traditional view of God.  And sacred marks off the divine from the non-divine (usually called the profane).  When we introduce the profane---profanity---we certainly have entered the human realm.  This leads to a range of human questions.  The first asks the basic question, who am I?  What are my potentialities and limitations?  In most cases I think humans are capable of more than they think they are.           

The next human question is a huge one: how determined are my choices?  In effect this asks whether I have any free will?  I am under the illusion that I do have some choices.  But do I?  And finally, am I on my journey alone?  Oh, I know you are making your journey, too.  But is there any afterlife?  Is this all there is?  These are all good, basic human questions.             

Religions have offered standard answers to these questions.  The people who claim to be spiritual but not religious are not content with the standard religious answers, but they are finding what they feel are spiritual answers.  In effect this means they are not interested in institutional church, institutional church answers or institutional church life.  Sometimes I can’t blame them.           

But they do want answers.  They want to know that they are not alone on their journey.  They do sense there is some kind of sacred energy or force in the world to which they can be connected.  They would like some kind of community, but they may not make a commitment to that community.  They really do think they have some choice; affirming free will is important.  And yet, most of them whom I know affirm, “everything happens for a reason.”  I am not sure about that, but they seem sure!           

In the last analysis I appreciate reading this interview and thinking about the folks I know who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  It prompts me to get in touch with my own basic human questions.  How am I answering those?  How am I living out those questions?  I realize the answers are not so much answers as they are reasons for being.  And to find these reasons for being is to find meaning and purpose.  And that is what the spiritual folks also want: meaning and purpose.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Non-Verbal Spirituality

We live in an age of verbosity!  Put in street language, this means we live in a wordy world.  Maybe other people live in situations where there are not so many words.  But my world is a wordy world.  Just think about how the typical person goes through a day.
It would not be unusual for a person to get out of bed and turn on the tv or the radio---words.  If you have family around, there would be more words.  If we are still working, it would be normal to be somewhere surrounded by words.  Of course, in my college world, there are a million words.  People who stare at computer screens are typically dealing in words.  Often there is some kind of music in the background and the music comes with words.  Meals, social occasions and more tv or computer work at night means a mountain of more words.
As my students would attest, I love words.  Words are an incredible human invention.  We can literally “talk” to each other.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  That is marvelous.  In fact, I can learn a foreign language and begin to communicate with people who are unlike me.  They can tell me about life from a perspective I never imagined.  I have appreciated my chances to go to China, India, Brazil and countless other places.  In many instances I need them to speak my language so I can learn their ways. 
There is a downside, however, to words.  Words can be very revealing.  But words can also be concealing.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  But I can also mislead you.  I have the capacity to lie.  I can create a world for you that simply is an illusion---it does not exist. 
Controlling people do this kind of thing.  Manipulating is a subtle form of control.  I might be able to manipulate the way you think about me or dictate how you should behave.  If I am really good at misleading words, you might not even know you are being misled!  So words are wonderful, but they also can be wounding. 
Spirituality is no different.  I have read millions of spiritual words during my time as a student and teacher.  Words have tried to capture the majesty of Divine splendor, the miracle of human transformation and the malevolence of humans to humans in the spilled blood of religious conflict.  Here again words can be wonders or wounders.
I am fascinated with the power of words.  Surely Hitler was one who used words to bring cataclysmic wounds to our world.  And Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that was articulated in words that resound even in our own day.  However, it is also true that too many words deal in superficialities.  Too many words are surface words.  There are words, but no substance.
I endeavor to pay attention to the deeper levels of life.  I am convinced this is where much of life’s truth and meaning come to us.  I am convinced the various spiritual traditions of our world point to a spiritual depth that is too deep for words.  In fact, I have watched people go deeper into spiritual experience where it became clear to them there were no adequate words to describe the deeper reality.
I have learned some things simply cannot be talked about.  That does not make them any less real.  I personally have been taken so deeply into the Divine Presence that I literally was speechless.  I knew it, but could never name it.  I am willing to talk about a non-verbal spirituality.  That is about the best I can do.
I realize the silliness of talking about a non-verbal spirituality!  So let me use a few words simply to point to the reality of the experience of non-verbal spirituality.  A couple words that point in the direction of this kind of spirituality are deep and bright.  I am sure I have experienced both.
Deep points to the spiritual experience that takes us radically away from the surface and the superficial.  To be taken deeply into God’s Presence is to shut the mouth to words.  But it simultaneously tends to turn the lips into a smile.  Often I have emerged from a deep spiritual experience with someone only to find them with a knowing smile.  The smile is confirmation that “we know.”  We’ve been there and we know.  There is no laugh; that is too frivolous.  A smile is suggestive.  If you know, the smile says everything.
Light is the other way I have experienced the Divine deeply; there are no words.  Light suggests breadth rather than depth.  A few times I have been taken so far into the light that it seems like I have become luminous.  I have no idea how to express it, but I am confident I become radiant.  Skin color does not change.  But there is an unmistakable brightness that leaves no doubt.
I am happy we have words so that we can communicate.  But I am delighted that some experiences take us so deep and far, that we become content with being inexpressible.  On second thought, maybe smiles and radiance say it all.