Friday, January 31, 2014

Truth and Power


As often as I am on the prowl for the new and interesting events of the day to see where spirituality is at work, I am just as often very content to stay with the daily lectionary readings for inspiration.  Perhaps this is like a two-handed approach.  On the one hand, I watch for spiritual novelty.  I think God continues to work in our world doing new things, if we but had eyes.  I try to use my eyes to catch these new things.  On the other hand, there is the traditional---the oldies, but goodies.  God is just as much involved in speaking through tradition if we but had eyes to see.

So today it is the traditional that spoke to me.  When I use the daily lectionary---the daily readings provided by the monastic community---I start with morning prayer.  If I were really at a monastery, these would be the hymns, scriptural readings, and prayers that the monks would chant and say.  I can’t be at the monastery every morning, but I can participate in what I know they are doing.

Today’s morning prayer opened with a familiar prayer---the one they pray to open every morning time of worship.  And then comes a hymn.  This morning’s hymn particularly spoke to me.  Allow me to share the first stanza and then to reflect on it.  The hymn begins as if it were a prayer to God:

Creator of the earth and skies,
To whom the words of life belong,
Grant us thy truth to make us wise;
Grant us thy power to make us strong.

To address God as Creator is one of my favorite ways of greeting the Divinity.  I do think of God as Creator and as creative.  If forced to try to explain how God creates, I find myself on shaky ground.  I do not take the Genesis creation story literally.  I don’t think God used seven literal days to create the world we know.  I trust the scientists who tell me the story of evolution.  Somehow I think God created in an evolutionary fashion.  And if that is true, then God is continuing to create.  I actually think that is cool that God is still creatively at work!

God is the creator of earth and skies.  That says to me that God is the Creator of the entire universe.  And it is to that creative God that “the words of life belong.”  That phrase is a little harder to understand.  In the first place the words of life may well be a reference to that Genesis creation account where God “speaks” the creation into existence.  In that account God keeps saying, “let there be” and, lo and behold, there was! There was light; there were animals; there were human beings.  And it all was good!

The last two lines of the hymn really caught my attention.  Both of these lines are petitions.  One line asks God to “grant us thy truth to make us wise.”  The first thing to strike me about this is that it is a prayer of the community.  It is not the lone individual sitting with this request.  The line uses plural language---grant “us.”

Grant us truth.  Yes, but the real request is to become wise.  And we become wise by learning and knowing the truth.  I suspect this hymn is talking about a particular kind of truth---a spiritual truth.  It is not the truth to be discovered in a laboratory, but rather a truth that is discovered in the heart.  What kind of truth would this be?

One aspect of that kind of truth that makes us wise would be the truth that God is love.  And our Divine calling is to know this love, to embody this love in our actions in the world so that we might become peacemakers.  Just think what a different world this would be if we all could know, accept, and live this truth.  Heck, we would have a difficult time finding a war in which we could fight!

The last line of the hymn is also a petition: grant us power to make us strong.  I like that request.  I doubt the hymn writer meant physical power.  This is not a call to hit the weight room and develop muscles.  I think the writer is talking about spiritual and psychological power.  Probably it is the power to live out the truth, which God will grant us.

It is the power, which strengthens us to be strong in a principled life.  It will make us strong in the face of temptations to lie, cheat and steal.  I know I am tempted to lie to myself---to pretend to be who I am not.  I am tempted to cheat.  I can cut spiritual corners and hope “God understands!”  I am capable of stealing.  I don’t steal money.  But I might steal someone else’s rights, privileges, and due rewards.

So Lord, grant me truth and power.  And grant me the chance to grow into both your truth and power this day.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Calls or “the Call”

It seems like all one has to do is pay attention and potential themes for spiritual inspiration and reflection daily jump out at you.  One way of saying it is religion is always in public life.  Sometimes it is explicitly religious and other times religion is in the public life, but it is implicit.  When it is implicit, you have to be alert and pay attention or you’ll miss it.

Such was the case yesterday when I was reading an article online.  Gradually it dawned on me what I was reading was implicitly spiritual.  It was an article by Andrew Keen, a British-American entrepreneur and social skeptic, as he was called.  That description of the guy nearly stopped me in my tracks.  I understand an entrepreneur, but social skeptic?  That is an interesting vocation! 

The article is entitled, “How our Mobiles Became Frankenstein’s Monster.”  I hope it is clear that “mobiles” means our smartphones.  For a long time, I could laugh at this one.  I did not have a smartphone and did not plan to buy one.  Wrong again!  I remember making a joke that I had a “dumb phone!’  Well the joke is on me.  Now that I have one, I figured I had better read the article with some care.  After all, who wants Frankenstein’s Monster in your pocket? 

As I began to read, I thought the article was going to be more psychological.  Keen talks about whether folks are able to live without the device.  Psychologically this sounds like the opening to a lecture on addiction.  Listen to his words.  Exaggeration? When was the last time you went out without your smartphone? How naked, how lost, do you feel without your mobile device? How much essential data, I mean really personal stuff that you wouldn't want anyone else to see, does your mobile phone contain?” 

It was there in those words I began to see the implicit spiritual material.  Notice how he talks about our state of being without our mobile.  He uses language I associate with sin: naked and lost.  That sounds like Adam and Eve in the garden after munching on the forbidden fruit.  Maybe my smartphone has become the proverbial apple! 

I was now very intrigued.  I read on.  I had to laugh.  These gadgets are not called “smartphones” for no reason.  Once again, I was on the lookout for religious language.  Keen says, “The real problem with these phones is their increasing intelligence. Just as Google is designing the self-driving car, so tomorrow's cell phone will become more and more all-knowing.” 

It hit me squarely.  The author speculates on the smartphone becoming “all-knowing.”  That sounds like God-language to me.  I certainly don’t think about myself as all-knowing.  My mind is too frail and feeble ever to make me think I know everything.  I am a limited human being.  And so is every other human being I know.  But if any one or anything is all-knowing, it is God. 

So if the smartphone approaches being all-knowing, then we would start attributing god-like attributes to that device.  That sounds to me perilously close to idolatry.  Who needs to listen for God’s call on my life?  I prefer to get a phone call, email, or text message and get the “word!’  In fact, there are multiple calls on my smartphone.  That is even better than God!  And the connection is almost always good.   

There is a conference happening in Barcelona, Spain, that precipitated Keen’s article.  He refers to this event when he notes, "All the coercively seductive new products unveiled in Barcelona in the next few days are just phones. They can't make us younger, richer, more virile or more intelligent. And they certainly don't empower us.”  Now here is some spiritual sanity that I can grab.  Be careful about the addictive, idolatrous call of my smartphone.  It can be seductive!  But it cannot make me younger or richer.  It has no chance of making me more virile.  It may be a smartphone, but it won’t make me smarter. 

Just as the Old Testament folks had to be careful and distinguish the real God from the idolatrous gods, so do we in the twenty-first century.  I begin to ponder this.  If I am always connected---always getting calls, texts, etc., then I have little or no chance of receiving the one call of God on my life.  So what difference does this make? 

A big difference, I would argue.  If I am intrigued and trapped by all the calls, I am probably trading the important for the interesting.  Of course, I find all the little calls interesting.  They may even be entertaining.  But are they important?  Perhaps.  Are they ultimately important? Of course not.  There is only one ultimately important call.  And that is God’s call on your life and on my life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Double-Belongers

I cannot recall the first time I heard the term, double-belongers.  I probably did not even know what it meant.  It is not a term I see very much; I think it is still fairly rare, at least in the circles I spend time.  I have no idea whether it is a technical term in the theological world, but it does not matter.  It makes some sense to me, even though I am not sure that I am a double-belonger.           

Fortunately I learned some time ago that I could learn a great deal from people who are not like me and from traditions that are not my own.  The person who introduced this term to me, Paul Knitter, was until recently a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  I know Union.  In fact, when I was heading off to seminary, Union was one of the places I gave very serious consideration.  It was globally famous even in those days.  Before Union, Knitter taught for a long time at Xavier in Cincinnati.          

Knitter is a fascinating man.  He is Roman Catholic.  He studied in Rome and became an ordained priest.  And then after some time, he asked to be released from this clerical role and became a university professor of theology.  Later he married, had children and watched his wife become a practicing Buddhist.  So Paul Knitter began his own dance with the Buddhist tradition.  He read extensively, practiced meditation, etc.  Although he never abandoned his native Catholicism, he nevertheless became significantly influenced by Buddhism.           

I have always liked Knitter’s irenic (peaceful) spirit.  He understands not all Christians would appreciate his perspective.  Clearly there are some in his own Catholic tradition who probably think he has watered down or lost his meaningful Catholic faith.  I am not here to judge.  I appreciate how he wrestles with the issues and how he helps me understand my own world.  Let me share a few thoughts from Knitter.      

I will highlight a couple sentences from a public lecture that I heard Knitter deliver.  Knitter is forthright, as he speaks about people like himself.  For example, he says, “The teachings of Buddha help them to understand and more deeply appropriate the teachings of Jesus.”  There is no historical connection between the one called Buddha and Jesus.  The Buddha lived a few centuries before Jesus.  There is no evidence Jesus knew anything about the Buddha.  And yet, as Knitter tries to show, there certainly are some spiritual connections between the founders of two major religious traditions.           

Notice how Knitter carefully articulates what understanding something about Buddhist teachings does for the Christian.  Understanding the Buddhist teachings helps the Christian understand the teachings of Jesus.  And more importantly for myself, knowing something about Buddhist teachings helps the Christian deeply appropriate Jesus’ teachings.  Notice the adverb, “deeply.”            

I would claim to understand something about the teachings of Jesus.  However, I am not sure I understand them “deeply.”  To go deeply into Jesus’ teachings would be to take more and more seriously the commitment and ministry to which Jesus was dedicated.  To be deeply ensconced in those teachings would mean that I am ready to give my life to the cause of Love.           

One more sentence from Knitter takes us even further.  He says, “Buddhist practices of mindfulness, meditation, active compassion inspire them to combine contemplation and action in our contemporary ecologically threatened and violent world.”  There is much to emphasize here, but let me begin with the dual focus on contemplation and action.  Often the Christian tradition asks us to be one or the other: be a contemplative and withdraw from the world or choose the active life and stay in the world to make if different and better.  Buddhist spirituality and, I would argue, Christian spirituality allows and encourages each of us to be both contemplative and active in the world.           

The reason for being active in the world is simple and Knitter nails it.  Our contemporary world is ecologically threatened and it is too violent.  Only the fool would deny either the ecological threat or the contemporary violence.  And yet, I know too many fools!  And too often I am the biggest fool!  Apart from the spiritually motivated and committed, I am not very hopeful.           

Surely one gets this potential motivation and commitment from both the Buddhist and the Christian.  (I am sure other major religious traditions play their own role, too.)  But if we are only superficially into either Buddhism or Christianity---half-hearted, at best---there will be no transformation.  There will continue to be too much transgression of nature’s laws and God’s love.           

If the Buddhist practices of mindfulness, compassion, etc. can help me know and appropriate similar teachings from Jesus and make my commitment more solid and my transforming action in the world more worthwhile, then I am grateful.  I appreciate this kind of double-belonging.  I will be happy to double up with anyone who is present and working for good in the world. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Meditate, Cogitate and Activate

This silly little trio of words came to me in a class I was teaching about meditation.  But sometimes these little teaching tools come in handy when trying to explain things and help people move from ideas to action.  Let’s look at the function of each of these three ideas.           

Meditation certainly gets much more attention than it did when I was a kid.  Maybe I was out of it when I was younger, but I don’t recall anyone in my church tradition talking about meditation.  Granted I did not grow up Catholic, but I am not sure young Catholic kids heard much about meditation either.  Perhaps meditation is only a grown-up thing.           

I know there is a long and storied history of meditation in Christianity.  After studying Christian history and spirituality, I know Christians have always practiced some form of meditation.  I know meditation was important in the monastic tradition.  Monks have been meditating for centuries.  Perhaps the common layperson also was exposed to that, but I am less aware that they were.           

In my lifetime I think meditation became more mainstream in the 60s, when there was an influx of religious traditions from the East.  It was only in the 60s that people began to be aware of Buddhism and Hinduism.  In fact, when I was in graduate school, I met a number of folks from Asia who were practicing Buddhists or Hindus.  The Buddhists regularly meditated.  In fact, their meditation equaled or exceeded the time devout Christians spent in prayer.  Through this process of developing my awareness, I was driven back to Christian roots, about which I was ignorant.           

I know people use the word, meditate, in the secular world in a way that suggests, “thinking something over.”  But I would like to keep it in the religious realm.  In this sense meditate means a focused pondering of something God-given.  I might meditate on a short piece of scripture, some aspect of nature, some spiritual reading.  In meditation I let the material simmer and soak in my mind and in my heart.  I open myself to be taught and to be formed in a spiritual way.  One way I like to explain meditation is to say it is designed to bring me into the presence and power of the Holy One.           

That could be sufficient in itself.  However, I like to move further.  I meditate and then, cogitate.  This simply means I move from meditation to thinking about the fruit of meditation.  I try to think about what this means in my daily life.  For example, in my meditation I might have come to sense that I am a beloved child of God.  As I cogitate on this realization, I think about what this can mean for me in my normal, daily living.           

If I am a beloved child of God, that means I should not have to worry about other people’s approval.  In my past I know there have been too many times my actions were dictated by my desire to have other folks like me.  Many of us have been people-pleasers.  That is not wrong, but it can be limiting.  If I am worried about what others will think, then I am not free to be who God wants me to be.  And I am shackled in my efforts to grow up in the Spirit of the Divinity.          

I am not content to meditate and cogitate.  I want to move to the third phase, namely, to activate.  Clearly, this is the action phase.  Spiritually I don’t want to settle for simply a mental kind of spirituality.  I do not think God created us simply to think about holy things.  I am confident that we are beloved children of God and we are to be present in this world “acting out.”             

We live in a world where clearly the kingdom has not come.  There is injustice and hate.  There is too much poverty and degradation.  There is still a huge need for helping and healing in many corners of our communities.  This is the kind of stuff that Jesus meditated on and cogitated on.  But in the final analysis Jesus went into action.  He became a helper.  He called people into new places with new lives.  He helped and he healed.  Nothing less is expected of us.           

One of my personal risks in teaching is to see spirituality as solely an academic exercise.  I can teach students about meditation and we can even spend some time meditating.  But then class is finished and we all can go about our merry way without affecting the world in any way.           

The stage of activation is a key for me to go beyond “playing around with spirituality.”  Jesus also was a teacher.  But he was so much more.  That is precisely what all of us are called to be: so much more.  That is worth meditating on.  I should even spend some time cogitating where and how I can be “so much more.”           

But finally, I have to activate.  I have to motivate myself to go do likewise---just like Jesus and the other spiritual giants have done.  I am called to live the gospel in deeds---in doing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Being Busy: a Spiritual Issue

I am convinced when you work on a college campus, everyone is busy.  Talk to faculty and they are very busy, as they will be quick to tell you or complain.  Talk to students and one hears the same lament.  “I’m so busy,” they profess.  We can even ask the staff and they, too, are busy beyond belief.  And certainly, I have those periods where I also whine about being too busy.           

I know it is not simply an issue in the academy.  I know some folks in business who are quick to tell you how incredibly busy they are.  I suspect if we were to step into a hospital, the nurses, aides, doctors and others would echo the busy refrain.  Perhaps the patients are not busy, but everyone else is.  I even have to laugh.  So many monks I know would sigh about how busy the monastery has become.  Even though monastic traditions, like the contemplatives, have often incorporated too much to do that they feel like their monastic calling has been compromised.           

I wonder if this is a malady that only affects the kind of people I know and with whom I hang out?  I know there are places like nursing homes where the residents cannot possibly be too busy.  I am sure the caretakers for those residents are busy---perhaps too busy.  It makes me wonder if busyness is simply a given in people’s lives unless they are very young, very old or sick?           

I also wonder if busyness is not, in part, a spiritual issue?  My beginning assumption is affirmative: busyness is, in part, a spiritual issue.  And I don’t think busyness has to be a given.  I think there is choice---theoretically anyway.  But I also recognize busyness can be so chronic in a person or a group, that it no longer seems to be a choice.  Busyness can become so much a part of the culture---in my college, for example---that everyone in that culture has to be busy or they really are not “productive” or “carrying their own weight.”       

Being busy is fairly easy to understand.  Busyness only applies to folks who are actively engaged in something.  If you are doing nothing, you are not busy.  We can be busy with work, with people or with things.  Often we are busy with a combination of these three: work, people and things.  Clearly none of the three is inherently bad.  Work is good; people are good; and things can be good.  It is a matter of proportion.          

Perhaps that is the key.  When we are busy---or “too busy,” as we might lament---the proportionality is out of whack.  Work is good.  But work piles up and begins to push us to the limit.  Being busy means there is no end in sight; there is no break.  Being busy feels like we can hardly breathe.  We may be really good at work and, then, more can be added.  Being busy usually means we are feeling like we are at the limits.          

The same is true for people and things.  We can be so busy with people that there is no longer any space for ourselves.  Or we can be so busy with things, there is no let up.  Being busy usually means we can barely manage---we struggle to hang on.  We feel like we are being twirled by life and busyness speeds up so much, it feels like we will come apart.           

While I have not used spiritual language much, I think busyness is a spiritual issue.  Let’s reflect a bit on this.  Being busy usually means we are feeling off center.  We may feel out of balance.  I like the language of “center,” because that is a spiritual word for me.  Hence, if I am feeling off center, then I clearly am not “centered.”  In my understanding, spirituality is designed to center us in life.          

Spirituality centers us by connecting us to God---to the Holy One or Spirit of Life.  To be connected with the Holy One gives me a chance to know myself and, therefore, to be my true self.  When I am too busy, I am pulled out of myself.  I am “at my wits’ end” or “pushed to the limits.”  There is no longer the solidity or stability that comes with being centered.           

Being busy---too busy---threatens to turn me into someone I am not.  Busy people can become desperate people---on the treadmill with someone else’s hand on the speed button!  I may be in control, but it is perilous.  Often the only way I get off is to be thrown off (get sick?).           

If busyness is a spiritual issue, then we can address it in a spiritual fashion.  Spirituality naturally seeks to address busyness by bringing balance, some moderation and some common sense.  They are relatively simple, but seldom easy.  Spirituality must reassert that we have a choice.           

When I am too busy, I know I need some time alone.  I need some prayer or meditation to reconnect.  I know I need some others---some community---to help me step back from the limits, which have overextended me.  Busyness exhausts me; I need the space and grace to go back to my center---that vitalizing center.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Focus My Flickering

Recently I was doing some work with the poetry of Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of the twentieth century.  Merton wrote a huge amount of poetry and, in fact, saw himself first and foremost as a poet.  Many people who like Merton a great deal do not know anything about his poetry.  I am told his poetry is not great, but that is ok with me.  I am not a poetry expert.           

One of my regrets is not paying attention more in those high school English classes when the teacher was trying to develop an appreciation for poetry.  I am not sure what kind of stupid reason I would have given for my lackadaisical engagement, but love of poetry did not happen.  Clearly the problem was not with poetry; it was with me!  I have been playing catch-up ever since.           

I was working with one of Merton’s most famous poems, entitled Hagia Sophia.  Since I know Greek, I knew that translated “Holy Wisdom.”  The biblical image of Wisdom plays a key role in the spirituality of Thomas Merton.  In biblical understanding, Wisdom is the Divine.  Wisdom is one of the ways God is present in our world.  Wisdom is creative and inspiring.  In many ways Wisdom is almost Christ-like.           

I was sharing this with a group to whom I was speaking.  It turned out a woman in the group is very much into poetry.  It was fun to watch her become so engaged.  For her poetry was virtually a medium of revelation.  To her poetry sometimes spoke the very words of Wisdom.  I knew I had much to learn from her.  Then I laughed.  In Greek, Sophia (Wisdom) is feminine.  You would appropriately talk about “her.”  Perhaps Divine Wisdom was using this woman I had just met to teach me.  I simply said thanks to her---to the woman and to Wisdom!           

Later that same night I had a note from the woman.  She talked about how she was connecting Merton’s poetry to another Catholic poet of the nineteenth century, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I don’t know too much about Hopkins.  I know he converted to Catholicism, became a Jesuit, was ordained and was one of the leading Victorian poets.          

My new friend also talked about the poet, Denise Levertov.  I don’t know much about her except some sense of her long, agonizing entry into the Catholic Church.  My new friend shared a piece of Levertov’s poem, to which she gave the title, “Flickering Mind.”  I was grabbed by this poem, as if Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) were speaking to me.           

At one point Levertov writes, “Not for one second will me self hold still, but wanders anywhere, everywhere it can turn.”  That resonated deeply with how it sometimes seems to be with my self---my soul.  Then to God, she confesses, “Not you, it is I am absent.”  Mea culpa, I want to say---my fault.  Even when I intend to attend to Wisdom who is within us, I fail.  My mind will wander.  I will chase any distraction that comes my way.  Vowing stability, I choose to be instable in attention and in action.           

I can agree with Levertov when she writes about God: “You the unchanging presence, in whom all moves and changes.”  This affirms God to be the creative Source of the universe, of you and of me.  Without Holy Wisdom, we die.  Without Holy Wisdom, we go mad and are insane.             

Finally, I came to a passage in Levertov’s poem that has become key for me in my pilgrimage in faith.  Delightfully she asks a question, rather than make a pronouncement.  I think much spiritual growth comes from questions, rather than pronouncements.  Levertov asks, “How can I focus my flickering, perceive at the fountain’s heart the sapphire I know is there?”  As I ponder this question, two things hit me.            

The first thing is the conviction Levertov has that we each possess a sapphire.  To me this means that we each have at our core something incredible, valuable and beautiful.  That sapphire might well be our deep soul, the true self, the child of God in whose image we have been created.  Merton uses the image of a diamond.  It seems to me they both are one in the same thing.  We are beautiful at our core.           

Secondly and sadly, we cannot stay there at the core and live from it.  We do move away and chart our own agenda.  That is why I am arrested by Levertov’s serious query: how can I focus my flickering?  I love the image of “flickering.”  We think of the perilous candle flickering in the wind.  Will it go out?  Or will it bear the light for which it is intended?  That is a soulful question.           

Flickering suggests both peril and promise.  On our own, the flickering probably will end in extinction.  But if we can focus that flickering, we have a chance.  We have a chance to know and be known by Holy Wisdom.  Teach me, O Wisdom.  Teach me to focus my flickering.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Night God

As part of my daily discipline, I try to follow the lectionary reading.  A lectionary is a pre-selected series of readings.  The one I follow from the Benedictine monastery has morning prayers, evening prayers, night prayers, etc.  If one knows anything about the monastic life, one knows that monks follow a daily regimen that alternates worship and work.  In fact, for the serious, classical monks there are seven different periods of worship throughout the day.  And this pattern is repeated day after day. 

To live your life with this kind of schedule is bound to shape you in ways that most of us are not.  For example, contrast your daily schedule with that more worshipful structure of the monks.  Even though my daily schedule can be fairly busy and, in some ways, pretty structured, it does not approximate the monastic life.  Of course, my goal is not to be a monk. 

But a monk’s goal is not to be a monk either!  The monk’s goal is to live life in such a way that the monk is living in and from the Presence of the Divine One.  I once read Thomas Merton saying that the goal of the monk is to be a saint.  I would amend that to suggest the goal of any of us is to become a saint. 

Now of course, when one thinks about becoming a saint, it cannot mean that we come to live perfectly sinless and mistake-free lives.  That is likely not humanly possible as long as we are in this body in this world.  So to be a saint cannot mean being perfect.  Being a saint means one is living in and from the Presence of the Divine One.  As such, Love becomes the goal of life.  And Love is the motivation of life.  And Love is the resource of life. 

If this is my aspiration, then how will I best tap into that Love---that goal, that motivation and that resource?  The simple answer is through worship.  And that worship surely has to be scheduled and perhaps structured.  In many ways this is funny coming from the pen of a Quaker.  Quakers tend to be wary of schedules and structures.  We want to say that we can worship any time we want to worship.  And we can do it any way we want to do it.    

That is true, but it also means I have to do it.  I truly may not need a schedule or a structure.  But I need the discipline to do it.  And that is where the lectionary comes in very handy---even for this Quaker.  I may not need schedule and structure, but they surely can help on a daily basis. 

So I use the lectionary.  For example, the evening reading for last night came from Psalm 16.  The evening reading prepares one for the night---that time of darkness and transition to a new day.  I like the words found in the middle of that Psalm.  The Psalmist says, “I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding; even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.”  I resonate with that.  Thanks be to the God who gives me understanding.  And glory be that during the night I can still be taught wisdom.  I can joke by saying, “Good night; I am going to wisdom school!” 

The Psalmist continues:I will hold the Lord for ever in my sight: with him at my side I can never be shaken.”  There is a peace and calmness that comes to the one who can read these words of the Psalmist and take them to heart---let them become part of that night-time wisdom.  The Psalmist says it effectively.  Thus it is that my heart rejoices, heart and soul together; while my body rests in calm hope.”  That is the nighttime gift. 

With this kind of assurance, we can go to bed and go to sleep.  I am comforted by the fact that with God at my side, I can never be shaken.  It does not matter that I go into the darkness of the night.  I can never be shaken.  I am in the hands of the Night God.  My body can rest in calm hope. 

I will be carried in that calm hope throughout the night.  In fact, in the night my heart will be teaching me wisdom.  There is no fear.  In this calm hope I do not fear for I know that I have a future. 

I am grateful for the lectionary leading me into these kinds of places where I encounter the Night God.  On my own I do not do as well.  I realize I am aided by a schedule and a structure.  I am helped to know it is time for the evening reading.  It is time for the structure of the Psalmist’s words.  Theologically I can affirm that God is always ready to reach out to us.  But too often, I need a prompt. 

I need the lectionary to tell me it is time.  I need to be led into the Psalmist’s words and reassurance that the God who is ready to meet me is the Night God who not only will meet me, but also take me calmly through the night! 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vicarious Spirituality

It hit me as I was reading the first journals handed in by students in a course I am teaching.  Although I generally don’t think about it this way, I realized in a way I am forcing students to engage spiritual issues.  “Forcing” is a heavy word.  It makes me a little uneasy when I see myself as being “forceful.”  After all, I try to make my classes as full of choice and voluntary as I can.   

I am forcing the students just because they are taking the class.  I suppose if one is going to be forced, this is about the most benign way force can happen.  I certainly am not coercing any of them to take the class.  But if they sign on for the class, then they are going to have to engage in some spiritual exploration and spiritual work.  The hope is that engagement will lead to spiritual growth and development.  I do not map out what the spiritual growth and development has to be.  In fact, different people will develop in very different ways. 

It hit me that I ask the students to engage a spiritual process and assume that there will be some spiritual growth and development, but I do not necessarily go that route myself.  Instead, I can vicariously participate in their growth and development.  Maybe I should pause at the word, “vicarious.”  I know I never heard that word when I was growing up.  Maybe I learned it in college.  But perhaps I never really encountered it until graduate school. 

Basically, “vicarious” means that one experiences something sympathetically through the experience of another person.  It means that I do not really go through something; I go through something by watching someone else go through it.  For example, I might think about being involved as a princess in a royal wedding by watching the royal wedding at Westminster with one of the English royalty.  I am a princess vicariously. 

Perhaps a more common vicarious experience comes in the sports world.  So many parents are involved vicariously in their kids’ sports.  We want the son to be a world-class quarterback on the football team so that father figures can be that quarterback vicariously.  Countless sons and daughters have suffered from crazed sports parents who are living someone else’s dreams. 

This is what hit me, as I was reading those journals.  I have little question but that they are experiencing some significant spiritual upheaval, growth, development, and so on.  Their journals ring with authenticity, honesty, and hope.  Many of them come alive.  They face problems and, sometimes, conquer fears.  Occasionally someone even goes through heroic struggles only to emerge as a saint-in-the-making.  Truly sometimes the process is amazing.

My concern is that I am doing spirituality vicariously.  I am having spiritual experiences vicariously through the experiences of others.  It is easy to kid myself that great things are happening in my life.  It may actually be that nothing is happening in my life---certainly not great things.  But great things may be happening in the student’s life and I participate vicariously.  Their experience is real; my experience is a facsimile. 

We don’t use the word, facsimile, any more.  Instead, we use the word “fax.  I can send you a “fax” if you give me the phone number.  A “fax” is an exact copy.  In the business world that is efficient and effective.  Send me a “fax” and I have the document and can proceed. 

But in the spiritual realm, I need to be wary of the “fax.”  If I am participating vicariously in someone else’s spiritual experience, then I am “faxing.”  I have a copy of their experience, but it is not real---it is not the original!  It is a cheating way to be spiritual.  It is a pretension.  It is a kind of spiritual voyeurism.  It is spiritual plagiarism---spiritual copycatting! 

I want to be able to enjoy the power and profundity of the college-age student on his or her own spiritual journey.  But I don’t want to take the easy way out and become spiritual only vicariously.  I want to engage my own journey.  I need to suffer my own pains and setbacks.  I need to experience my own mountaintops and glories. 

I want to be free to support the other people’s spiritual odyssey, but not neglect my own.  I revel in the fact that I get to read about their experiences.  But I need to attend to my own.  I want to be able to give what I ask for, namely, to engage, reflect, and live into the fullness of all God wants us to be. 

God does not want me vicariously---no vicarious spiritually.  God wants the real me and the real you.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Life Worth Celebrating

One of the things I know about myself is I prefer the routine and normal.  I hope this does not mean I am incapable of living in different kinds of times---special times and, perhaps, even crisis times.  I have had some of both, as would be natural for anyone my age.  But in the end, I prefer the normal and the routine.  Maybe that is because so much of life happens in that sphere. 

However, special times do come at regular times.  There are the religious holidays. If you are Christian, the two big ones are Easter and Christmas.  If you are Jewish, there is Passover and Yom Kippur, which is the most important holy day.  Of course, Muslims, Hindus and other major traditions have their holidays, such as the Hindu Diwali.  As I write this, I realize a particular day can be a religious holiday for some tradition and just a normal day for another tradition.  I don’t know very many Christians who celebrate Diwali. 

And then, there are holidays that are not religious.  In this country the obvious ones would be Thanksgiving and July 4, Independence Day.  They may seem quasi-religious, if you are American.  But I would argue, they are not religious---even though they are important.  

And then, there is a different class of holidays.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day is one such example.  There is no question that day honors a person who was a pastor, hence religious in that sense.  MLK day also is a national holiday that is political.  It honors the man and the movement that worked for civil rights.  Perhaps because of the nature of the man, Martin Luther King, and what the day stands for, many Americans are not quite sure what to do with it.  In that sense it is very different than Christmas or Passover, holidays that are centuries old. 

Let’s ponder a little more fully what we can do with a holiday like MLK day.  As I think about it, I believe there are three ways to understand it.  In the first place, MLK day is indeed a day.  It is meant to honor MLK and is associated with his birthday.  He was born on January 15.  However instead of celebrating it on that specific day, it moves around a bit so that it is always on the third Monday of January.  It became a law in 1983, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.  Many of us are old enough to know when this happened and can remember life without that holiday. 

So in the first place, MLK day is just that: a day that we celebrate.  The second way of looking at MLK day is to see it as a chance to celebrate a life, namely, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.  No one my age can forget the tumultuous times of the 60s.  MLK was right in the middle of it.  It was a time of change and he was a key leader of the change that was happening.  In biblical terms, MLK was a prophet.  And as with so many prophets, there was a price to pay.  He was calling the country and its people to a new way of seeing and acting.  There was a price to pay. 

And King paid the price---the ultimate price.  He lost his life to a bullet on the second floor of a Memphis hotel.  The bullet killed the man, but it did not kill the dream or the changing times that he led.  Not only was he a prophet.  He became a martyr.  The bullet probably created the memory of a man’s way of life.  He had a dream, spoke about it and died for it.  It is that way of life that MLK day celebrates. 

Clearly, we can celebrate the day and we can celebrate his way of life.  But that is mere history.  The deepest move we could make is to change ourselves.  We could endeavor to live our own lives, so that they also might be celebrated.  This is the challenge to which I want to dedicate myself.  I can imagine King would put it simply: our age has a choice to do our own thing, or, to do God’s own thing. 

Doubtlessly, much of our culture encourages us to do our own thing.  There is nothing inherently evil about this, but I do think God and MLK would say we were created for more than simply doing our own thing.  What does it mean to do God’s thing?  There are many answers to this, but I think the answers basically boil down to a couple.  Perhaps the biblical tradition still says it best: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Perhaps it really is that simple: love. 

If you are loving, then you would also try very hard to be just.  You would treat others as well as you possibly could.  You would share and have compassion.  You would do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself.  These things are old as dirt, but every new generation has to learn them, as if they were newly minted.  And learning them is only the beginning. 

They must be lived to be real.  That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. did.  He lived them.  And his life was celebrated.  We are called to live them, too.  If we do, our lives will be celebrated.  It won’t matter that a national holiday will be created to immortalize us.  In the eyes of God and our neighbor, we will be honored for a life worth celebrating.