About Me

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving: a Day and a Way of Life

As Americans, we enter the Thanksgiving season.  Already people are wishing me a “happy Thanksgiving.”  I am delighted with that greeting.  And I would be delighted if someone next week wishes me a “happy Monday.”  But I guess Mondays are supposed to be normal…not so happy, not so awful.

I am not sure I do major holidays very well.  I am not against them.  They celebrate important events in national, religious, and often personal lives.  Thanksgiving is an American deal.  In Turkey it is just another weekday!  As an American, I welcome it.  And I hope it is happy.

I am confident one of the reasons I am not sure about major holidays is the trickiness of expectations.  For example, Thanksgiving is supposed to be “happy.”  Christmas is supposed to be “merry” and, of course, we return to the “happy” theme for New Years.  Clearly, for too many people there are too many lousy things going on to gear up to be “happy” and “merry.”  Holiday expectations are tricky things.

The truth is Thanksgiving lasts one day.  It is here and it is gone.  Even if one adds “Black Friday,” that is only two days.  Since I am not a shopper and, certainly, not a shop-till-I-drop person, Friday is not part of the deal.  No one ever has wished me a “Happy Black Friday!”

I am glad Thanksgiving is here.  And I am glad it is one day and then it is over till another year.  And I hope I am happy…and you, too.

In reality I am more interested in how Thanksgiving can become a way of life.  In fact, I think we should not capitalize it.  I want my way of life to be one of thanksgiving.  That gets me at the spiritual roots of my life and how I want those roots to issue a way of life for which I can say, “thanks.”  And I hope my way of life becomes such that others can say, “thank you.”

Both those qualities are necessary for my understanding of thanksgiving as a way of life.  I need to be able to say, “thanks,” and to have others respond genuinely with their “thank you.”  If I am only concerned with a way of life for which I give “thanks,” I fear it may be a way of life rooted in self-interest.  If I get all I want, then I will be thankful.  But some of what I might want may come at the expense of others.  And surely, they are not going to say, “thank you.”

On the other hand, if I live only to get your “thank you,” I may be nothing more than your servant or, worse, doormat!  You happily say, “thank you,” but I certainly am not saying, “thanks.”

The good news is that kind of thanksgiving is a way of life.  I don’t have to pull it off by the weekend.  Like music or sports, I will probably have to practice a fair amount.  There is time.  Perhaps, the real question is not whether I am succeeding, but am I making progress?

How will I know if I am making progress?  Likely, there are many ways to measure it, but let me offer two.  I will be making progress if I am more loving---more loving than I was last week and last Thanksgiving.  Sometimes that is not easy---there are so many ding-a-lings out there!  And of course, most people are not as loveable as I am!

The second measure is if I am more graceful.  I am not thinking of gymnasts and ballerinas.  Grace is always a gift.  If I am more graceful, I am more giving---perhaps, more forgiving.  If I can be more graceful, more giving, then people are more likely to say, “thank you.”
           

This is the last inspirational journey until Monday after Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Agency

If you glanced at the title of this, it might make very little sense.  Many folks would know the word, agency, but have no idea what it actually means.  We would know the word, agent, and assume they are related---which they are.  Agency means the capacity to do something---to get something done.  It requires some power to pull off the task.           

The idea for this inspirational message came when I read a recent editorial by David Brooks.  While I do not always agree with Brooks, I find him incredibly thoughtful and articulate.  He writes about philosophical and spiritual things and writes for an audience that would not always be eager to read such things.  He is an astute observer of human nature and our communities.  The title of the recent editorial was “The Agency Moment.”  I began reading that column with interest and with no guess what he was going to do.           

He began by talking about the nineteenth century writer, George Eliot.  Even though it is a masculine name, George Eliot was a female.  Brooks calls her needy!  In a bold letter she wrote to the philosopher, Herbert Spenser, she asked in effect to become his woman.  He rebuffed this offer.  Eliot could have emotionally withered and died.  She did not.  Brooks’ take on this epic moment is fascinating.  He said this was her “agency moment.”  He gives detail to this when he says it is “the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.”           

This sentence grabbed me.  I resonated with the idea of an agency moment---that time we know that we can initiate action and drive our own lives.  In effect, we become agents of our own lives.  Brooks uses this idea to reflect on the huge number of people who seem to have no agency moments.  They are still flailed about by all sorts of circumstances.  They are not their own persons in any sense of that word.  These are the people driven by other people and by external situations.  They have no sense of control or destiny.  Often they are hapless and helpless.  This is truly tragic and not something God possibly wants for any of God’s children.           

It is easy to think about my own life.  I have been lucky.  I have had agency moments.  I have had people in my life who have helped me discover and develop my own sense of agency.  While it would be ludicrous to claim we control our lives, I do control many elements of life.  In addition to the people in my life who have given me so much, I also have a view of God as One who wishes every one of us would discover and develop our agency.  I am sure God wants us to be agents of love and peacemakers in this world.  The ministries God has given us are really nothing more than the various agencies of the Spirit God wants us to enact.          

I have been lucky.  Others have not been lucky or fortunate.  As Brooks observes, “So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.”  I love that last sentence.  Agency comes when an inner fire is lite.  I have had---and still do have---that inner fire.  It is a personal fire that is part of the larger, cosmic fire that is God’s love and care.           

When you have that fire, then you have a fire that fuels relentless action towards the things you and God care about the most.  It seems simple: no fire, no fuel, no action.

The fire comes when we feel connected to ourselves.  And it comes when we feel a connection to God---to God’s Spirit.  And the fire can come from being with others who know something about this fire.           

The fire feels like motivation.  It brings within our heart a desire to be who it is that God most wants us to be.  Of course, we can selfishly derail this noble desire and use our fire for the selfish ends.  This is what is known as sin.  The fire that fuels us to act in the world is the fire of ministry.  It often looks like love in action.  Frequently its’ aim is justice---justice for all.             

Those of us lucky enough to know something about this have a big responsibility to use our agency in good and laudable ways.  We bear a responsibility to help out those who have not yet discovered their own fire---especially the young and the lost, older ones in our midst.  I can remember when I did not have it and wondered whether I would ever get it.             

I like to use an analogy.  I see myself as a torch.  I have the agency to be and to do almost anything I want.  I choose to use myself---myself as a torch---to touch others.  I can use my fire to kindle their torches---light their fires.  But I can take no credit.  It is not my fire.  It is the fire of the Spirit.  I merely am an agent of the Spirit with work to do.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Variety of Fortunes

I was in a situation yesterday that provoked my thinking about a variety of fortunes.  I understand most of us never use the word, fortune, in the plural.  We never talk about “fortunes.”  Instead we employ the singular word, “fortune.”  But when I thought about it, I realized there are a variety of fortunes.  Let me explain.          

I think it is obvious there are two major ways the word, fortune, is normally used.  Probably the most obvious is to talk about monetary wealth as a fortune.  If I am a billionaire, like Warren Buffet, then appropriately they can be said, “to have a fortune.”  Some people really are stinking rich!  Some executives earn more in a year than most people earn in a lifetime. It does seem absurd to me to think that some people earn multi-millions of dollars annually.  It makes my salary look like chump change!  And I know I have earnings above the average American.  Compared to a very poor person, I suppose it is correct to say I “have a fortune.”  But I don’t think about it this way.           

Does this mean “having a fortune” is relative?  That question suggests that I have a fortune only if I think I have a fortune.  Probably most of us---with the exception of people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates---do not think they have a fortune.  I can even imagine someone like me saying, “I feel fortunate to have what I have.”  But in the same breath, I add, “but I don’t think I have a fortune.”           

All of this suggest that it is tricky when fortune relates to money.  What is a fortune to one person is not enough to be a fortune for another person.  I conclude that we probably always will refer to money this way---I have a fortune or, no, I don’t have a fortune.  Maybe understanding fortune in a different way leads to a different result.           

The other major way the language of fortune is used is to refer to something like Fate or Destiny.  Certainly many people have an idea that their lives are “fated.”  “It was meant to be” would be the street version of saying life is fated.  We can think our fated life is either fortunate or not.  We can also talk about destiny.  Destiny is a kind of fortune.  My destiny might hinge on the winds of good fortune.  In that case, I would say, “let ‘er come!”  Or alternatively, my destiny might not bode very well.  In that case we talk about misfortune.   

I think I have experienced both in my life, so I am one who tends not to see Fortune as a Fate or Destiny driving my life.  I am too committed to my own sense of freedom---free will---to believe that my life is fated.  Of course, it seems true that I am fated to die.  But I certainly have a great deal of freedom to decide how to live before I die.  Death may be my Destiny; mortally I am fated.  But I have incredible freedom on the way.  In many ways, life is what you make of it. 

In addition to money and Fate, I think there is a third way to talk about fortune.  Let me designate this the spiritual view of fortune.  I will talk about the spiritual view of fortune in two ways.  The first way of being spiritually fortunate is to talk about friendship.  I value highly my friendships.  I don’t know that they are rare like gold is rare.  But they are quite valuable to me. 

Good friendships are not a given.  Of course, I realize in this Facebook world, people have five hundred or more friends!  But of course, I also do not think most of those five hundred passes the real friendship definition I would use.  With my definition of friendship, it is impossible to have five hundred friends.  Historically, the theologians and philosophers talk about perfect friends or true friends.  One can only have a few of these kinds of friendships. 

With my few true friends, I feel wealthy.  I feel quite rich.  These friends are gift, grace and gratuity.  I can only be grateful in response.  I feel fortunate and like I have a fortune.  They do not add one cent to my pocket and they are not destined to be friends in my life.  I appreciate and am deeply grateful for the fortune that my friends afford me.  With this kind of fortune, I do feel stinking rich. 

The other way of talking about the spiritual view of fortune is to talk about the Divine Spirit---God, if you like.  I am ok with talking about God as a Fortune.  I am also happy to talk about the Divine Spirit as friend.  Obviously God is immense and God’s value is inestimable.  No valuation can be put on the Divine Spirit.  The only way I can even imagine talking about God’s Spirit is with words like extravagance. 

When I am aware of the huge gift of God’s Spirit in my life, I can only confess to being fortunate.  It is an unbelievable fortune to have as gift and donation to me.  It is grace; I don’t necessarily deserve it.  I did not earn it.  It is not because of inheritance.  Finally I realize it is the only kind of fortune that really matters.  If I have been fortunate to be gifted in this way, I do not need monetary wealth and Fortune/Destiny is irrelevant.  I am a fortunate guy.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

But Not of the World

Sometimes the classes I am teaching hit really interesting issues and the students and, even I, are challenged by the idea and have to figure out what we really think.  This happened recently.  Often I can see these issues coming and know the students will be challenged.  Other times, I am as surprised as they are.  This latter was the case on this one.

Students were reading a chapter in a book on contemplative spirituality.  However, one student picked on what could have been an obscure, not very important sentence in the chapter.  But the question turned out to be not only interesting, but also challenging.  The sentence talked about “being in the world, but not of the world.”  The student said that she was perplexed by what this meant.  And the minute she confessed that she was perplexed, about twenty-five more said they were unsure what it meant.  We had engaged an interesting text and issue.

Sometimes in these situations, I have no more clue than the students.  But I do have more practice in thinking about something.  And in most cases, I am a little more experienced in analyzing something like a text that is difficult or obtuse.  And to be honest, I think I am usually more patient and willing to stay in the place of not having an answer---especially the right answer---than the students are.  Maybe this is generational or maybe it is a matter of experience.  It does not matter.  But it also means that I might be able to model patience and a willingness to hang in there with a tougher issue until some light is shed.

In the case of “being in the world, but not of the world” I did have an advantage.  I had some knowledge.  In the first place, I know that Jesus says some things to this effect.  And more precisely, I know there is a second century Christian text that explicitly uses this phrase.  A late second century writing called the Epistle to Diognetus talks about the Christian presence and place in the world.  Of course, the world at that time for Christians was the Roman Empire and Christians were not legal and, essentially, not wanted.  The specific quotation from that text reads, “Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.”

While it is a Christian quotation, I think it is easy and appropriate to see it as a spiritual text---a broader context than Christianity.  It also clearly fits the context for contemplative living.  This means a contemplative, as I understand it, also realizes that he or she lives in the world, but not of it.  Let’s unpack this and see what it means.

It is obvious to me that we all live in the world.  Human beings take up space and are in a place.  Even if we are homeless, we occupy a place.  Your body is somewhere.  Your identity if formed by some kind of culture.  It is impossible to be non-spaced and non-placed.  We all exist in the world.  Perhaps death delivers us out of the world, but until then, here we are.  The trick is to understand what it means to be “not of the world.”

To me this is not a literal thing.  Let’s take it on backwards and discuss what it would be “to be of the world.”  In spiritual language the “world” represents culture, environment, etc.  So my “world” is American culture, middle-class ways of living, what is “normal” for people like me.  The “world” is a set of attitudes and perspectives.  Typically my “world” is what I would consider normal and usually I am relatively unaware of that perspective.  Because my “world” is normal to me, I never think about it.

However, if I am spiritual and a contemplative, I begin to think about it.  I become aware.  I begin to realize my “world” might best be accessed by watching tv commercials!  What is being sold that makes up my world?  What kind of car should I drive, clothes I should wear, thoughts I should have, etc.?  My world shapes me and my expectations.  It might be said that most of us are in some bondage to our world.

Our world shapes us to be, so think, to do and to behave in predictable ways.  We don’t really know who we are.  I might buy a big, racy red car because that is the identity I have chosen for myself.  I am my car!  Or my clothes, hairdo or whatever!  At this point my spiritual awareness slams on the brakes and asks me who I really am?  Do I even know my true self?  Can I live as that true self in the world?  Because I am in the world…no avoiding that.

My spiritual, contemplative pilgrimage is a journey of awareness and choice.  In the first place I want to be aware---aware of the traps lurking for all of us who are “of the world.”  But awareness is not sufficient.  Based on my awareness, I begin to choose more authentic, more appropriate ways of being and doing.  In old Christian language I become a new self.  I die to the old self and am raised a new self.  This is not simply a Christian thing.  A Buddhist, who is becoming enlightened, experiences a similar awakening.

The path is clear, but not detailed.  We accept that we are in the world---at least in this lifetime.  But we can choose how aware we are, what choices we want to make.  We might choose to become of the Spirit of God and not of the world of commercials.  We have a choice by which standards we want to live.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wendell Berry on Spirit

My friend gave me a poem written by Wendell Berry.  My friend knows I like Wendell Berry, although I would never claim that I know too much about him.  Born about ten years before I was born, Berry is still active.  Berry is a fascinating guy.  Berry is a Kentuckian farmer.  However that does not tell you much about this man.  He is a learned farmer.  He is famous writer and poet.  He is an active Christian---a Baptist.  He is a contemporary prophet who has challenged the complacency of so much of the traditional church.  I have laughed at him and cringed at some of his challenge to my own faith.           

My friend gave me a poem Berry penned in 1991.  He entitled the poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Berry may be the most quotable living American.  So to be given this poem is to be given enough thoughts and one-liners to fill a month’s worth of these inspirational reflections.  Let me pick one line that my friend dearly loves and reflect on that.           

Near the end of the poem, Berry writes that, “Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  I love that line, too.  I have no idea why my friend focused on that line and called my attention to it.  She probably has her own take and, as with all good poetry, it likely speaks a different message to her than it does to me.  But this is what Berry says to me with this line.           

I very much like the first sentence.  “Laughter is immeasurable.”  I have said on more than one occasion, I don’t trust someone who lacks the capacity to laugh.  Of course, life is not just a barrel of laughs.  We all know there are the ups and downs in life.  There clearly are sad times and, even, tragic times.  But ultimately, there are also occasions of celebration and laughter.  Certainly within Christianity---and I think there other major religious traditions as well---the bottom line of life is either comedy or tragedy.  Life is either a win or a loss.  The essential Christian message is a message that is comedic---that claims life is finally a comedy.           

Berry is no doubt correct when he says that laughter is immeasurable.  Oddly, there are some phrases we use that point to that conclusion.  “I laughed till I cried” means the laughter went off the charts---it was immeasurable.  After that thought, we meet the ironic, spiritual Wendell Berry.           

Berry says to “be joyful.”  This connects quite well with the idea of laughter.  Perhaps joy is the way laughter extends throughout our lives.  It is true that we can laugh all the time.  As noted, there inevitably are times of sadness and, often disappointment.  It is not possible to laugh at these times.  But there can be a subterranean joy that runs like ribbon through our lives.             

Joy is the correct word.  I like that idea of joy.  So many folks I know want to be happy---to be happy all the time.  I would like that, too.  But it is unrealistic.  Who would not want to sit around and giggle and laugh all day long!  However, life does have its serious side.  But joy is another matter.  I can have joy.  Especially spiritually speaking, I can have a joy in my life that goes very deep.  That deep joy can withstand more surface disappointments and consequential sadness.             

For me joy is a soulful quality.  When I come to know myself as a soulful person, then I will inevitably have a sense of joy.  The joy becomes part of my identity.  I understand myself as a child of God.  I have the dignity of the Divinity.  My relationship with the Holy One is strong and inviolable.  This is truly the kind of joy that one can often enjoy!           

This understanding of joy as an issue of the Spirit enables me to comprehend what Berry might have meant by the remainder of that line.  “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts,” Berry tells us.  I had to laugh.  I enjoyed this line and this thought.  I am convinced this is Wendell Berry at his spiritual, ornery best.          

He knows all the facts in our lives and in our world do not seem to lead to laughter and joy.  We all know there are enough reasons to cry and be sad.  But if we know ourselves as people of the Spirit, we will be ok.  No, we will be more than ok.  We will be healed of all the negativity that can seem pervasive.  And we can become healers in a world that sorely needs us and our action.           

That is Berry’s sneaky spiritual lesson.  That is Wendell Berry on Spirit.  The good news is it does not all depend on you.  When you know that, you can laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  And when you can laugh, you begin to get it.  You get it to the very core of your being---your soul.  And when you get it, you know joy.  Be joyful.  Enjoy.  And we can be joyful, though we have considered all the facts!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Servant Leader

I have been privileged to be able to see myself as a leader.  I do bring some native talent to the leadership opportunities I have had, but I also have had a helping hand offered by many different people at a number of junctions in my life.  I have had many good leadership models to help me get clear about what leadership style fits my personality and my own Quaker convictions.  I also have watched some leaders whom I thought were not very good and were more of a negative model.  They showed me ways I never wanted to be seen as a leader.           

I remember getting some leadership opportunities as early as elementary school.  In the bigger scheme of things, these were miniscule leadership chances.  However, they gave me an early chance to practice being a leader.  Much to my surprise, some other kids followed my lead!  I guess you are a leader if someone follows you.           

As I grew, so did some of my leadership opportunities.  In high school I became more aware there were different ways to be a leader.  In my vainest moments I was attracted to leadership roles where I had authority.  Although I could boss people around, I soon realized this was not an effective leadership style for me.  I became aware that I am more of a nurturer and encourager.  That does not require raw, brute power to boss people around.  I developed what I might call a “pull strategy” as opposed to a “push strategy.”           

Early in my working days I continued to get some leadership opportunities.  I tried to grow and develop and become a more effective leader.  As a Quaker, I was reminded time and time again that being a leader was not about me.  Some leaders stoke their egos.  Quakers insisted we get our egos out of the way.  Leadership is more about the vision and about the group.  Egomaniacs make lousy Quakers.  And I believe, egomaniacs make lousy spiritual leaders!           

In the 1970s I became aware of a particular kind of leadership called the servant leader.  I was intrigued by that combination of words---servant and leader.  The focus was clear.  The noun was “leader.”  “Servant” was an adjective; it modified the noun.  Servant leadership is a particular style of leading.  I knew it resonated with my Quaker spirit.  And then, I had the opportunity to make a big difference in my leadership life.           

I met Robert Greenleaf, then living in a Quaker retirement center near Philadelphia.  Greenleaf had coined the term, servant leader, and had begun to write extensively about it.  Greenleaf had been in business---AT&T back in the days when it was a corporate giant.  Greenleaf happened to be a Quaker.  Things began to click for me.  I knew I had found my leadership style and tried to hone my skills.  I have been trying to practice it ever since.          

Greenleaf wrote quite a bit and one younger student of Greenleaf’s began to take up the servant leadership mantle.  Larry Spears was his name and he also was a Quaker.  I became acquainted with him and, then, became friends.  He helped me understand even more about this way of leading.  Let’s look at how he defines a servant leader.  "The servant-leader is servant first.  It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve.  The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  The best test...is this: Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"           

I like Spears’ words that the servant leader begins with the feeling that he or she wants to serve.  That seems very spiritual to me.  An egomaniac has no interest in being served.  Instead the egomaniac expects to be served!  The servant leader makes a choice; to serve—to be there for the other.  Servant leaders willingly sacrifice their own interests and well being for others.  It is an act of love.           

The test of the servant leader is clear and noble.  Do the ones I serve grow as persons?  I try to do this as a leader in my classroom.  The neat thing about this leadership test is we all can practice leading in almost any situation.  Do I help others to grow as people?  Do they become healthier, wiser and more free?  If the answer is yes, then I have been an effective leader.  I may get no credit, but that’s ok.  I can be a leader, not an egomaniac!           

The servant leadership test goes further.  Do the people I serve become more autonomous?  That means that my leadership helps the other become more able to operate on their own.  Autonomy means I help others stand on their own two feet.  And finally, does my leadership help others become inclined to be servant leaders in their own right?  If this answer again is yes, then I have done a superb job of unlocking and unleashing more spiritual servant leaders in the world.           

In a sneaky spiritual way, the servant leaders have engaged the task of kingdom building in the way Jesus meant for us to work for peace and to bring joy.  I am happy to do my share in this work---the work of leading as a servant.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Let It Snow!

I arose early this morning---long before the first glimmer of light appeared in the eastern sky.  With my first step out the door, I was aware of how cold it was again going to be today.  I could feel it on my exposed cheeks and the sound of the snow’s crunch underfoot told me that sub 32-degree weather still engulfed us.

Having a hot cup of coffee and sitting inside a warm room means all is well---for me.  But I know that people will complain about the cold weather, and the snow will be condemned as a nuisance or a problem.

As I think about this negative view of the winter weather, I wonder what would happen if we looked at the snow as this season’s blessing from nature.  The snow is white---for centuries this has been the religious color of purity.  Let us look at the snow as God’s natural way of purifying this part of the world.  I want to be able to see my “white world” this day and appreciate the beauty of its purity.

It is so true of our world and those of us who live here that the purity of the freshly fallen snow does not last.  Life keeps coming at us and we are destined to “get dirty” again.  This happens as quickly and surely as the temperatures begin to rise some day.  As the thermometer passes thirty-two degrees, the snow begins to melt.  Our winter wonderland will become a world of sloppy, gray slush.

As I indicated, I think this is much like my life, and maybe it is like yours.  I have an all-too-human tendency to live life in the gray slush.  I can easily overlook the gifts and graces in my life and complain about the grunt work and all of the grumpy people in the world.   Too often I want more and seemingly have to settle for less.

It is at times such as this that God needs to dump some snow on me.  I do not mean this literally, of course, thought it might awaken me a bit quicker.  I mean this in the sense that I need a blanket of purity from the Divinity.

I would like to think that God “snows.”  The divine grace and presence falls on us---it covers us.  The Old Testament talks about us making our souls “whiter than snow.”  I pray for God’s grace to come this day and cover the pollution of our sins and shortcomings.  Let our souls glisten and crunch with the virtue of that purity of life.  Let is snow!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Preventative Spirituality

Recently, I took the opportunity to undergo one of those tests that we all should do when we get older.  Of course, there are ranges of these tests that are good for older folks to do.  There are a number of good reasons for us to do these things, but probably the key issue is called self-interest!  The problem here however, it sometimes does not seem to be in our self-interest.  In all honesty I had no interest at all in doing it!  And I could come up with ten reasons why I “really did not need to do it….not now anyway.”           

To follow my own “logic” here would only prove my stupidity.  I know there are other ways I opted to be stupid, but most of the time when it comes to my health, I sacrifice stupidity and go with safety.  Throughout the process I am always intrigued by the guile and gravity of my mind.  It is one creative, tricky little dude!  Sometimes I don’t even think it is my mind.           

There are tests that only women do and ones that only men do.  And there are many more that are not gender specific.  Women and men both have hearts, livers, kidneys, colons, etc.  If we live long enough and have even a modicum of care, we will go through one or more of these tests.  The smart ones among us go through a few of them a number of times, because that means we are doing some preventative care.             

As I ponder it, preventative care requires some intentionality and a little discipline.  Perhaps that explains why so many of us don’t bother.  And if we don’t bother, then it does not much matter the excuse or reason we use to “explain” why we are not doing it.  Those of us who do bother know in our heads that only two good things can come out of it: either there is no problem and that is great news or, secondly, there is a problem and we have caught it early and have the best chance to do something about the problem, which is also great news.           

So in spite of not wanting to do it and all the compelling stupid logic why it was not necessary, I let my intentionality trump stupidity and I went to do the procedure.  I had the discipline to sit in the waiting room until my name was called and I would disappear into the throes of the thing.  Waiting is difficult, because I am so creative I could come up with any number of reasons why I should get up and immediately leave.  I could create a momentary crisis and “explain” to the receptionist that I had to rush off to do something more important.  Sometimes I can laugh at myself!           

Then it occurred to me.  If there is preventative health care, I am sure the same thing can be said about preventative spirituality.  I don’t recall ever hearing that word and may be subconsciously stealing it, but the idea makes perfect sense to me.  And the parallels between preventative health care and spirituality seem pretty extensive.  What can be said about one can likely be said about the other.           

Of course, the most important word is “preventative.”  Literally that word means, “that which comes before (pre).”  In the case of health care and spiritual care that means doing something before something bigger or worse comes along.  It is tempting to think that spirituality does not have to worry about real issues like cancer, heart attacks, etc.  However, that may be shortsighted.           

Would you want a healthy heart and live without meaning and purpose for decades?  Despair for a healthy person is not much better than despair for a sick person!  How about being cancer-free and feeling no self-worth?  I bet that is not much fun!  Physical health does not guarantee much at all about emotional or spiritual health.  I argue we need to practice preventative spirituality.           

There are basic things to do here, just like in preventative health care.  Prayer is a time-honored discipline.  Meditation is a good one, because it crosses the lines of religious traditions---Christians, Buddhists and other do it.  Learning to live contemplatively has been an important practice in preventative spirituality for me.  Learning to live contemplatively does not automatically control my blood pressure or make me perfect.  But it does enable me to deal with these and all the other human issues in a much saner, holistic way.          

There are the less obvious preventative spiritual measures.  Another key one for me is having some key, close, cool relationships---most of these I call friendships.  A corollary of this is community.  Probably one of the best things spiritually any of us can do for ourselves is to become an active, contributing part of a community.  It might be a church, synagogue or mosque community.  It might include a group that does yoga or similar physical-spiritual endeavors.  It probably has less to do with what it is and more to do with the fact that you belong.           

It helps me to write out this stuff.  It helps because it reinforces my intentionality and gives hope to my discipline to engage what I know is good, healthy and rewarding.  And often it is both a relief to have done it---the check-up or the spiritual check-up.  And in many cases, it is fun.  And if I can keep my friends and community, they will help me not be stupid!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Time of Respite

I have been teaching long enough to be able to guess when the students will not know a particular word that I might use.  For example, using the term, respite, in the title of this inspirational piece would be something many of the students in a typical classroom would not know.  And if they do not know the term, they would not use it.  Not knowing the term I understand.  Once upon a time, none of us had language.  All the words we know and use we had to learn.           

What I don’t understand in so many students in my classroom is their lack of curiosity.  It strikes me as quite sad when folks still so young don’t seem curious.  Of course, they may be curious in other arenas in life.  But I suspect curiosity is a fairly broad trait.  If I am not curious in one area, I think it is likely my “curiosity quotient” is pretty low across the board.  I know part of my function as a teacher is to raise that curiosity quotient---to elevate their potentiality.  That is a key to learning.          

I also realize there are limits.  Every human being has limits.  I am not talking in this instance about physical and mental limitations.  Of course, we do not all have the same IQ.  And we all will not be skilled enough to be professional players or make it in the most famous symphony orchestras.  I am talking more about limits that routinely come to us regardless of IQ or physical prowess.          

I am talking about the limits that come when we simply get tired.  Or I think about the limit that comes from concentrating too long.  When we hit these kinds of limits, we know we need a respite.  Respite means a period of rest or relief.  A time of respite is a temporary time away or time off.  A respite is different than quitting something.  A respite is an interval.  We know that we will go back; we will re-engage and go at it again.  In theological terms a respite is a sabbatical.           

We know athletes, who are training hard, need a day off.  They need a respite from their training.  It is healthy.  But we also know those athletes often find it difficult to take the respite.  They are so used to pushing it, they find it hard to back off.  I think the same must be true for workaholics.  Any sane person knows that a workaholic needs a respite.  But like the skilled athlete, that person also has a hard time with respites.          

If we practice some kind of spiritual discipline, the same need for a respite follows.  That is exactly why the Genesis story of creation stuck the Sabbath into the week.  The respite of Sabbath-time moderates the creativity of ordinary time.  Embracing a time of respite is interruptive---in the best sense of the word.  Even if we are doing great things, we need a time of respite.  The same need of a time of respite holds even if we are having the time of our life---the most fun you can imagine.             

Having said that, I think it is difficult for many people to take a time of respite.  Many of us are trapped by our routine.  We are frozen in our ordinariness.  To take a time of respite is usually energizing.  A time of respite offers a chance for a different focus.  A time of respite creates an opportunity for some freedom.  It is a time of freedom from what we normally do.  It is freedom from routine. But again, like the athlete or the workaholic, taking that time of respite is often quite hard to do.  Why is this so?           

Let me offer a couple reasons that come out of my own experience.  Sometimes we are so identified by what we do, it feels risky to take a respite.  Oddly enough, our identity is at stake.  Some of us identify who we are by what we do.  We can imagine that folks who are retired are not trapped by this problem.  However, I find many people who are retired identify themselves that way:  I am retired; I am no longer a worker!           

Another reason people fail to take a respite is they trade one form of routine for another.  Our technological era offers many mind-numbing alternatives to a true respite.  Television is a favorite.  I might want a respite from a taxing job or demanding routine.  But then I might settle into a stretch of tv watching that offers little respite.  Watching tv is not usually restorative to the soul.  It is like junk food.  It is not usually soulful.  Particularly I like to think about a time of respite as a soulful time.             

I know what is soulful for myself.  Reading a good book can be very soulful.  I know some time by myself is a respite from being with people much of the day.  Exercise has been a valuable form of taking a respite.  I never think about going for a run or a walk as saving my soul, but I actually think it is!        

Deep conversation, especially with friends, I find very soulful.  I have learned that being in nature is restorative to my soul.  I love to step into an early morning and be absorbed by the beauty of nature.  We all know what a beautiful sunrise or sunset can do for the soul.  It is a time of respite for the dreariness of our lives.  An amazing moon also does the trick for me.           

I know what the word, respite, means.  But that does not mean I act on it.  Lord let me be more sensitive to my own needs---my need to take time for respite.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Spirituality for All Seasons

Too often spirituality, and religion for that matter, is portrayed as the antidote to sadness, sickness and sundry other less than desirable aspects of life.  Of course, no one told me explicitly that was the case, but it is true this was the implication I took from my young days.  The implication was the truly religious or spiritual never would suffer from being sick, from being sad or other human maladies.  When I was young, I guess I thought religion was a kind of inoculation shot against human problems.     

Now that I am older (but questionably wiser!), I don’t think this is true at all.  Religious and spiritual folks get sick just like normal people.  We have bouts of sadness just like all humans.  And we are not immune from any of the other maladies that afflict the human race.  In fact, I would argue to be human is to be a sitting duck for sadness, sickness and sundry other aspects of life.  That just seems to be the reality of the deal.  So what does this suggest about spirituality?           

The first thing I take away from this question is my conviction that spirituality can never make us less than fully human.  In fact, I would argue just the opposite.  To be spiritual is to be as fully human as we can possibly be.  To be fully human never means that we won’t get sick.  Of course we will.  And clearly we will die.  And probably there will be suffering somewhere along the way of life.  And there are sundry other things lurking in the bushes of life that will ambush us---often when we are not even looking.           

Maybe in Paradise it was different.  But as Genesis describes and John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, tells the story, we are all living east of Eden---outside Paradise.  There, Adam had to begin working for a living---till the ground.  And Eve was given to childbirth---no easy task.  East of Eden is where one brother killed another brother. All the hallmarks of human strife and stupidity begin to characterize people living in a world of sin, having opted for that instead of the world of sanctity characteristic of Paradise.  We all live out our lives East of Eden.             

If all this is true, the obvious question asks, so what good is spirituality or religion then?  That is a fair question and not an easy one to answer.  My thinking on this was guided by some pondering on the Psalms.  Although the Psalmist uses some imagery that I might not use in my own writing, the Psalmist does get to the heart of things.  In some prayerful words to God the Psalmist complains, “The enemy has hounded my spirit, he has crushed my life to the ground, he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.”  Perhaps many of you would balk at the idea of an enemy hounding you.  “I don’t believe in a Devil,” you might say.  I am not sure I do either.  But look at it this way.          

What if our enemy is not the Devil, but something else that is equally diabolical?  What if the enemy is cancer or depression?  What if our enemy is some kind of addiction that keeps us in an unseen prison?  The enemy might be a failing heart or kidneys.  It could be Alzheimer’s disease.  All of these feel like they attack the very core of our being.  They feel like an attack on our human worth and worthiness.  This is how I get hold of the Psalmist’s wisdom.           

If I understand it this way, then I can appreciate that the enemy hounds my spirit.  The enemy crushes life---sometimes ultimately in our death.  The enemy can shut us in the darkness.  Surely, this is one apt description of my friends who suffer some emotional disturbance in life.  That is like moving from the light into the darkness.  Every one of these maladies feels very personal when it afflicts us.  But every one is characteristic of humanity as a whole.    The question is not whether I might be afflicted.  The real question is how does spirituality enable me to understand and deal with life at this level?          

The obvious thing to say is spirituality does not make me immune from life’s troubles.   But I would argue, spirituality does provide some valuable means to cope with being human.  In my case, spirituality offers an intellectual means of understanding life in its entirety.  My view of myself and my world includes a loving God.  That God will not spare me any of the range of human experiences.  But the story of my God is the story of a compassionate, sacrificial God who can suffer.  This intellectual knowing does not magically help me rise above maladies.  But it does enable me to cope in healthy ways.           

My spirituality also provides an emotional means to deal with life’s orneriness.  To be spiritual is not an option to be naive.  God does not come down and pat me on the head!  But I do think God is in it with me.  Personally, God comes into the picture for me with community.  My spirituality holds that God is at work in the world through people.  God continues the incarnating presence through my friends and, sometimes, through strangers.  Again, that does not mean my problems are solved.  Some problems never get “solved” in the sense that they disappear.  Spirituality can help me put my problems in their place.           

The longer I live, the more convinced I am spirituality must be a spirituality for all seasons if it is going to be worth anything.  If spirituality is just for sunshiny days, then most of us will be in trouble when it gets cloudy!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Experience of Divine Presence

I enjoy finding pithy or great summary statements.  I just found one in my favorite Quaker book.  Thomas Kelly wrote the popular Quaker book, A Testament of Devotion, which actually is a series of lectures.  Some of these come out of his experience of WWII.  Kelly spent some time in Germany watching Hitler come to power.  He returned to this country.  One of the chapters is entitled, “The Eternal Now and Social Concern.”  The core ideas were originally a lecture delivered to a gathering of German Quakers.          

The summary statement embodies so much of what I have been taught when growing up as a Quaker.  Kelly writes that the central Quaker message affirms “The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life…”  If I can unpack this amazing sentence and understand it, I will have my own central message.  And more importantly, if I can embody this message and live it out, then I truly will be engaged in the spiritual life.          

The key focus in the sentence is the experience of God.  I like better how Kelly puts it: “experience of the Divine Presence.”  All too often, the word, God, does not help much.  It is an overused word for so many people.  Frequently it is a word without meaning, a sound without content.  People use it in swear words and typically mean nothing by it.  When someone says, “God damn,” I do not think that person remotely expects God to intervene in some situation and damn something or someone!  I prefer Kelly’s naming of God as “Divine Presence.”           

Kelly wants us to know we all have the possibility of this experience of the Divine Presence.  That is a careful way of putting it.  The experience is possible.  However, it is not guaranteed.  The possibility of this experience may actually ask something of me, too.  I can seek this Presence.  I can be open to It.  Or I can totally ignore it and go about my own egocentric business.  For me personally that Divine Presence becomes the Divine Absence!           

In a vintage Quaker way, Kelly asserts this possibility is repeatedly realized.  That is great news.  Experiencing God is not a one-shot deal.  It can become a deal for you or me each and every day.  Notice how repeatedly realizing the experience actualizes the possibility that is there for each of us.  It is repeatedly realized as a present fact.  An implication of this means not only can I “have” an experience, I can come to “live” in and from this experience.  To live such means I come to be theocentric (God-centered) instead of egocentric.  I don’t cease to be me; but I become me-in-God---a much truer and richer version of the “real me.”           

The experience of Divine Presence has a powerful effect on my life.  As Kelly says, I experience “its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life…”  This means I should not be open to this experience of Divine Presence if I want to stay exactly as I am.  If I open and experience this Presence, I will be transformed.  I will commence the process of losing my egocentric focus and begin to become God-centered.  This is probably what Jesus had in mind when he taught us how to pray: not my will, but your will.           

To pray such is to give the divine green light to the transformational process.  As transformation happens, I will become more than a spiritual dabbler in religious things.  I quit toying with spirituality and really take it on.  It begins to transfigure me.  Of course, this is not some spiritual facelift!  My face will look the same in the mirror.  On the face of it---on the surface---it may not look much different in my life.  But deep down---in the center where I am being transformed---I am becoming a different person.  Kelly has another sentence that wonderfully implicates the full meaning of what is happening.           

He says, “Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal.”  That is exactly what the spiritual journey aspires to become: a new dimension of life.  Experiencing the Divine Presence does not take us out of time and does not deliver us from the ordinariness of life.  We still eat, sleep, go to work, have disappointments and sadness.  But all of our ordinariness is framed by the Eternal.           

To be theocentric---rooted and grounded in that Divine Presence---means we are liberated.  We are free to become more loving---indeed, compassionate---because we are not worried about losing anything.  Generosity becomes our perspective.  Love is a compounding experience.  This is great news in a world and culture with a scarcity perspective.  Fear of losing gives way to delight in sharing.           

In the spirit of experiencing the Divine Presence we no long ask why?  We ask, why not?  And then we care, share, and bear the burdens of any and all who need us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Our Machine Masters

I confess up front that the title for this inspirational reflection is stolen from a recent article by David Brooks who uses the same title.  I am a regular reader of Brooks, not because I agree with everything he says, but because every thing he says is so thoughtful and insightful.  He takes on big, important issues and deals with them in a way that I have to take seriously.  In this article Brooks focuses on artificial intelligence.           

I confess, too, that I know virtually nothing about artificial intelligence.  Rather than take pride in my ignorance, I am worried about it.  I know that ignorance is seldom good---especially for the one who does not know.  And that is precisely the point of Brooks’ trenchant treatment of the topic.  I figure if I am ignorant, at least I ought to know of what I am ignorant!  What are the issues?           

Early on Brooks quotes technology writer, Kevin Kelly.  Kelly “argues that the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand.”  Then Brooks adds another line that is deep, but troubling.  Kelly says, “Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize,”  Let me unpack this a bit.  We have electrified so much stuff in our lives.  If you have a garage door opener in your car, that is electrified.  Everything on your computer is electrified.  And the list goes on.  We use this electrified stuff to think about and use to our advantage.           

But Kelly points to another step.  Now you are being bypassed.  The computer not only stores (electrifies) knowledge.  It begins to cognitize that material.  To cognitize is to think.  In fact, the computer has advanced to the state that it often can out-think humans.  Humans lose chess matches to artificial intelligence.  Computers figure out which music you like, which stuff in the grocery you buy, etc.  What we once assumed was the human domain (thinking and reason) is now being co-opted by computers who cognitize!           

Now Brooks steps into the equation.  “Two big implications flow from this. The first is sociological. If knowledge is power, we’re about to see an even greater concentration of power.”  Brooks says that the power will be centralized in a few big companies—think Google or Amazon.  And then he offers a sober warning.  “If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.”           

“The second implication is philosophical,” says Brooks.  “A.I. (artificial intelligence) will redefine what it means to be human.”  We may be beaten at the intelligence game, but Brooks says we can win at the game of affection, intuition, imagination, and morality.  There will be the defining hallmarks of our humanity.  Our human advantage will be “personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate.”           

I like this list because it reminds me of the kind of spiritual characteristics I think are central to being human.  To be fully human means to be spiritual.  Just look again at the four faculties Brooks enumerates.  We can be likeable.  For me likeable could be the basic step toward loving.  Likeable is foundational to peacemaking.  If people can become more likeable, there will not be enemies.           

Industrious is the trait describing people who are willing to work and to be disciplined in that process.  Industriousness eradicates laziness.  Artificial intelligence will not replace the need to work.  It should eliminate much of the drudgery of some work.           

Trustworthy is a huge human advantage---or disadvantage if it is missing.  Trust goes to the heart of human interaction and relationship.  Artificial intelligence can electronically hook up with other computers.  But that’s different from developing trust.  I know trust is simply another word for faith.  You cannot electrify faith and automatically produce trust.  And that easily leads to affection and being affectionate.           

Who wants to hold hands with a computer!  I doubt that God is computer-like, although God’s work in the world might seem a bit that way.  The Biblical tradition holds that God is love and I am still good with that basic definition.  God is love and therefore capable of being affectionate.  And God is trustworthy.  No doubt God is industrious---six days on the job and one day called Sabbath.           

And God is certainly likeable.  God is always for me and for you.  What’s not to like about that?  If I can be clear about all this, then I don’t ultimately worry about being mastered by machines.  I know artificial intelligence will become more prominent---whether I understand anything about it or not.  But I am a child of God and not the computer’s offspring.  I am created in the image of God---thank God!