Friday, February 28, 2014

Recreating Through Us

The title for today’s inspirational reflection comes from a sentence from my favorite Quaker saint, Thomas Kelly.  Oh, Quakers don’t actually have saints in the traditional Catholic sense.  But if we did, Kelly would be sanctified.  Clearly he was no more perfect than any other human being.  He was a man with some significant flaws, but who among us does not have significant flaws?

Kelly died in 1948 at a relatively young age.  He had aspirations to be a world-class scholar.  In some ways he was on the path to achieve some of that dream.  And in other ways, he failed and suffered depression and other maladies because of that.  He taught at a couple Quaker colleges and wanted more.  He struggled to get a Harvard degree, but that did not bring him the success he sought.  He also was spending time in pre-war Germany in the 1930s.  There he saw the rise of Nazism and the horrors that would become WWII.

Finally toward the end of the 1930s, Kelly seemed to turn a spiritual corner.  His priorities began to realign and a spiritual wisdom and depth appeared in his thinking and writing.  He delivered some lectures at Germantown Friends Meeting (Church) which were to become the published book, A Testament of Devotion, which went on to be a best-seller in the 20th century.  It is a book I have read a number of times and it still continues to shape my own spirituality.

In one of his chapters entitled, “The Eternal Now and Social Concerns,” Kelly has this sentence.  “For the Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working through those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal by the dynamic guide in recreating, through us, our time-world.” This is such a pregnant sentence, let’s take time to unpack it and reflect on it. 

I like Kelly’s many ways to talk about God.  In this case he calls God the “Eternal Now.”  This suggests to me a Divinity Who is always present and available.  I might or might not be aware of that Divinity, but It is here---eternally now.  And Kelly’s first phrase talks about the activity of that Eternal Now.  The Eternal Now is breaking into time.  Since you and I live in time---we are creatures of the temporal---that is where God breaks in to meet us.   

But there is more.  Pay attention to Kelly’s adverbs.  The Eternal Now is “urgently” and “actively” breaking into time.  That excites me.  God is not a ho-hum Divinity.  God is coming into our presence right now!  There is urgency and activity.  You think God does not care?  Think again! 

Kelly is quite clear why God is urgently and actively breaking into time.  That God wants to work through those of us who are willing to be touched, taught, and teamed with each other in an important ministry.  Let’s detail that process.

God seeks out those of us willing to co-operate.  But there are some ground rules.  We need to be willing to be laid upon.  That is an odd phrase, to be sure.  But the key piece is the idea of our “willingness.”  God is not a coercive God.  God is urgent and active, but also waits for each of us to be willing.  It reminds me of that passage from one of the prophets who responds, “Here I am Lord.”  We have to be willing to have God grab hold of us.  This obviously has implications which Kelly points out.

Essentially, Kelly tells us that God who breaks into time asks us to surrender.  Now that is not a popular word in American culture.  But it is what spiritually growing women and men are called to do.  We need to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort.  In other words, we have to give up our own agendas---our own egotistical aspirations---in order to will what God wills.  And all this is to one point. 

We give up our egotistical agendas in order to allow God to recreate us and through us to recreate our world.  I do think this is Kelly’s version of “thy kingdom come.”  I am confident Kelly thinks God breaks into time and touches as many of us as are willing to begin to be co-creators with that Genesis-God the coming kingdom.  That kingdom will not be Eden restored.  It will be more real, more magnificent than Eden. 

I find that a compelling call.  I sense a mission beyond my wildest dreams.  Whatever role I imagine for myself cannot compare to this Divine Opportunity.  It literally is a chance to turn the world upside down and inside out.  It is a mission that goes beyond creative or innovative.  It goes to the transformative.  In that transformative mission God urgently and actively needs many of us to say, “Yes.” 

“Here am I Lord.”  Lay hold of me.  I surrender and sign on.  Not my will, but Thy Will.”  I am going to work now---the Divine Work of re-creation.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Human Development---Spiritual Development

Even though I read quite a bit, there is always more to read.  In fact, I am sure I am losing ground on all the new stuff out there.  That is probably true even in the world of religion and spirituality.  I am sure there is more being published---in print and on line---than any one person can read.  Rather than get discouraged, I simply hope to get my hands on some of the good ones. 

My memory may be faulty, but I recollect that some person at Harvard in the early 1700s was the last person who had read all the books in Harvard’s library.  I know first-hand the library system there is amazing.  It is (I believe) the third largest in this country, after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.  Even when I think about my little college, I realize there is no way I could read all the volumes. 

However, I occasionally come across a book that I say, “I must read that one.”  This happened just recently when I was reading a review of a new book.  The book is by Edward O. Wilson.  I know Wilson’s name; he is a famous naturalist at Harvard.  Basically, he studies bugs---ants in particular.  But he has developed a phenomenal reputation as a world-class thinker and philosopher.  He is not an easy read and he is a real challenge for those of us who have some kind of religious affiliation.  The new book is entitled, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I must read that one. 

Somewhere in the book he writes these sentences:  “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology…We thrash about.  We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.”  This sounds so like E.O. Wilson!  It is a great couple of sentences and engages me to ponder and digest. 

Wilson thinks we need to study bugs of various kinds to understand human development.  This is not too surprising, since I know he believes in evolution.  But it is interesting that he wants to go to the bug-level instead of the usual ape.  But then we get his clue.  Allow me to quote from the reviewer of the book, Kristin Ohlson.  She says, “Wilson ascribes the evolutionary success of humans and social insects to their complex social systems, which are rare in nature.”  He coins a word for these ”insect societies,” namely, “eusociality.”  Now since I know Greek, I know the word “eu” is the word for “good or well.”  So eusociality is nothing more than good or well societies.   

That connects to human development in Wilson’s mind.  He charts the usual evolutionary development as humans wander from the sea, develop a larger brain, etc.  But then, according to Wilson, we come to the crucial developmental phase which charts our creation of eusociality.  Through the words of the reviewer, Wilson notes that “what really took humans over the threshold into eusociality was the emergence of traits that favor a strong ‘nest:’ communication, the ability to read the intentions of others, the ability to divide tasks and cooperate.” 

I find this fascinating.  It does not bother me to think that we have much in common with bugs!  Eusociality is an attractive idea.  The opposite would be a-sociality or malsociality---bad or awful sociality.  Murderers, Hitler, and others fit into that category.  So I find the idea hopeful that evolutionarily we are bred for goodness. 

That seems in line with what the Genesis creation story told us so many aeons ago.  We were created for goodness.  This is where I would add the spiritual dimension to Wilson’s evolutionary tale of human development.  I fear that human development is not sufficient in itself to bring us fully into eusociality.  In fact, I am convinced there is a religious idea of what eusociality would be called.  I think Jesus called it the “kingdom.”  He came to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God.  Spiritually that was a call to religious eusociality! 

Jesus knew well how the Genesis story unfolded.  He knew the original couple began in paradise, but they blew it.  They sinned and were kicked out of the blessed place.  There was some atoning and restoring to be done.  That was the message and ministry of Jesus.  I suspect the same will be true for the evolving eusociality of Wilson’s vision. 

In fact, I would be so bold as to suggest that world peace will come when “thy kingdom comes.”  I am not sure we can evolve (or devolve back) into paradise without the grace of that creative God who still loves us and will love us into well being.  We will need the grace to discern the intentions of each other and encourage the best.  We will need communal love to cooperate in kingdom-building.

That’s the promise of human development with the graceful assistance of spiritual development.       

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Doing the Impossible

On the surface the title of this inspirational reflection makes little sense.  Why would any person with brains want to do the impossible?  Most of us know that sometimes doing the possible is hard enough!  Why would you try to do the impossible?  And likely fail?  I think I would have agreed with this until I read an interesting little account in a book by my friend, Parker Palmer.          

I have been using one of Palmer’s books, The Active Life, in one of my classes.  The subtitle of the book gives you a good sense of its focus: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.  It is not his best book, but the content matches something I try to help students and adults think about in their normal lives.  Many of us think monks and nuns can live a spiritual life.  They have made special arrangements in life so that being spiritual becomes their full-time job.  But the rest of us in the “real” world have it much harder.  Routine life gets in the way of being spiritual.          

Palmer helps me and others think about how to pull off being spiritual in the ordinary work world that most of us inhabit.  It is not always easy.  We have to be intentional.  It takes time.  We are not always “successful.”  And certainly, things like “success” have to be treated very carefully when it comes to gauging spiritual things.  It is one thing to be successful in business.  It is another thing to succeed spiritually.  In fact, I suggest we dispense with “success” language when it comes to the spiritual realm.         

At one point, Parker Palmer shared a little story---an incident in his life---which rocked me.  The story was about one of his friends who worked at the Catholic Worker house in New York City.  I know a few things about the Catholic Worker movement.  The name of Dorothy Day is associated with that amazing ministry that began in New York and spread to many other cities.  The Catholic Worker was a ministry to the poor people in New York---the down and out. 
         
It served people who were hungry, homeless and sick.  I always thought it must have come as close as any ministry I knew to replicating what Jesus was about in his ministry.  The Catholic Worker had a non-judgmental approach that often was a challenge to many of the “faithful,” who often make too many judgments---without thinking we are judgmental, of course!          

Parker describes his friend and her work in this way.  “Daily she tries to respond to waves of human misery that are as ceaseless as surf in that community.”  That puts it pretty graphically!  And then Parker begins to indict himself, as I am sure I would have, too.  He tells us, “Out of my deep not-knowing I asked her how she could keep doing a work that never showed any results, a work in which the problems keep getting worse instead of better.”           

I cringe because Palmer’s question makes perfect sense to me.  Take a moment and notice the assumptions he is making in that question.  He assumes the work she is doing will never show any results.  That makes sense to me.  He assumes it is senseless to do it, if you have no hope that there will be results.  That logic matches my logic.  He assumes that actually things will keep getting worse instead of better.  Again, I would have agreed.  In effect, Parker is saying to his friend: “You are crazy!”          

His friend is a genius---a spiritual genius, I think.  She does not challenge his assumptions.  In fact, she might have agreed with him…but I doubt it.  Instead her answer is an answer from the spiritual perspective, not the human, rational perspective.  She changes perspectives.  As Parker puts it,  “I will never forget her enigmatic answer.”  Her answer is spiritually powerful.  “The thing you don’t understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”            

That answer only makes sense if you are crazy or spiritual.  I hear her answer to be straight from the heart of obedience.  She is so clear about her commitment to God and to God’s call on her life, she is willing to act just like God (or Jesus) would act in New York City.  So it seems impossible?  Do it anyway!  Why?  Because it is the right and spiritual thing to do!            

Her mission surely was not to be “successful.”  On that calculus she might be an abject failure.  Rather, her mission was to be obedient.  Perhaps that is the secret of real ministry in our world.  Real ministry grows out of obedience.  The goal of obedience is not success; it is obedience.  So it might be impossible…just do it.  To the folks in the world, it might seem like you are crazy.  But you know the difference between craziness and obedience.          

I am not sure I am yet up for that kind of obedience.  But I understand it now.  I understand why someone spiritual is quite willing to do the impossible.  Who knows, God might succeed!

Tuesday, February 25, 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 months, 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!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Polycarp: Model of Perseverance

One of the things I like about hanging out with Catholics is the fact that I am continually sharing parts of that particular Christian tradition that my own Quaker tradition does not emphasize.  One of the things is their use of the saints of the Church.  I like that so many days of the year are dedicated to particular saints.  In my own mind there is no necessary connection of a day and the saint associated with that day.  But it is always a good occasion to focus on a special person of the Church.           

Recently one of the saint days that I welcomed was the day celebrating Polycarp.  I used to spend some time with that old saint, but since I don’t teach more specialized courses in Christian history, I seldom have occasion to think about Polycarp.  So to share his saint day was like a reunion with an old friend.           

I am sure that I never heard of Polycarp during my growing up days as a Quaker.  But I learned about him in my first serious Christian history when I went to college.  I was fascinated by his life and his witness.  Let me share a few highlights of this saintly figure from the early Church.  He was born just past the halfway mark of the first Christian century…probably about 70CE.  He lived nearly a hundred years, therefore, dying mid-second century.  It is possible Polycarp actually knew a few disciples of Jesus.  More likely, he was a young friend of some of the second-generation disciples.             

He lived in what was then called Asia Minor---modern-day Turkey.  He became a Christian at some point and, then, became a Christian leader.  He was revered as a bishop.  As a leader, he was engaged in helping chart the evolution and development of the Christian movement.  Because Christianity is such a given in our culture, it is difficult to imagine what it really was like in those early, formative days.  Polycarp’s early years would have been simultaneous with the appearance of the four Gospels.             

The thing that doubtlessly caused Polycarp to be remembered, sainted and celebrated more than eighteen centuries later was his martyrdom.  Polycarp died for his faith.  Polycarp lived at a time when Christianity was not recognized by the Roman government.  Leaders were especially vulnerable to discovery and execution.  Polycarp would have been a very visible leader.  Like others before him, he would have had a choice: denounce his faith or suffer for his faith.           

Polycarp chose to suffer for his faith.  He paid the ultimate price.  When I first encountered the story of Polycarp, I was moved by his story.  As a leader among the Christians of the second century, he played a crucial role.  He must have always known the possibility that death lurked around the corner.  But he had made his commitment.  He would live out that commitment.  He had the resolve to stay the course---whatever course that might be.             

I think it was his commitment that was the foundation that enabled him to persevere.  His life and then his death made him a model of perseverance.  In today’s language we would probably say that he “walked the walk.”  Talking the talk is easy where there is little or no price to pay.  Polycarp’s faith was true and his commitment was unflappable.  In the face of persecution he could “walk the walk.”  He persevered.  He modeled an exceptional quality of allegiance.           

I think about his model of perseverance.  Surely, there are many components in this modeling.  I can think of at least three.  In the first place he had a deep and abiding faith in God.  Perhaps today this might be described as a faith in a Cause or Principle bigger than ourselves.  I am comfortable with God-language.  Polycarp helps me see that my God has to be a cause or principle far bigger than I am.  Is my God worth my ultimate sacrifice?  I have growing to do!           

Secondly, his deep faith must have given him confidence and the resolve to persevere---no matter what.  He must have known that when the going gets tough, “the tough get going.”  It may seem odd to talk about a martyr having confidence, but I think it was a confidence rooted in the strength of his faith, his commitment and the integrity of faith that he was bound to live out.           

Thirdly, I think there must be an element of grace in the perseverance.  Somehow Polycarp surely was very clear God would be with him.  To the secular ears of our culture, that must seem like utter nonsense.  But I have some sense of God’s grace and, I’m sure, so did Polycarp.  Clearly God’s grace was not going to swoop down and spare his life.  He died!  But he persevered.  He models perseverance.           

I hope I never get tested the way Polycarp was tested.  I know I am not ready for that kind of test.  Sometimes I feel like a spiritual kindergartner!  With Polycarp’s help, I know the growing that can take place.  I have the faith, commitment and resolve.  It can grow and deepen.  That’s the good news---the hopeful news.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fecundity of the Normal

Sometimes I know I am using a word that college students would not know.  Fecundity is one such word.  Rather than choosing not to use it because they don’t know what it means, I choose to use it and teach them what it means.  I figure I am educating them!  I am helping them build their vocabulary, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be more attractive job candidates when they are out there in the “real world.”           

Fecundity means fruitfulness.  It is often used when speaking of plants.  It always makes me think of harvest time.  When it is applied to people, it could indicate a very productive or successful time.  It could suggest the outcome of hard work.  It might implicate a very talented individual who applied the talent to pull off significant outcomes.  There have been times in my life, which were fecund.  But it is not all the time.  Growing up on a farm taught me that it is not always harvest season.  Often there is a great deal of hard work and, even, waiting before you see the fecundity.           

This leads me to think about my own life---especially my own spiritual life.  A recent experience enabled me to see things in a new light.  Recently I had the opportunity to host a very special guest.  It was a wonderful time.  It felt like life shifted into another, faster gear.  There were so many ideas flying around in the air.  The ideas were engaging and challenging.  The pace of interaction was brisk.  It was a vibrant time.  Everything was good and I delighted in the entire experience.           

And then, almost suddenly, normality took over my life.  Of course, it was not really sudden.  A better way to understand the process is to realize that my normal life chugs along and then, periodically, something special---maybe even extraordinary---interrupts my normalcy.  Realistically that better describes what happened.  And it gave me cause to reflect.          

I loved the extraordinary time.  But I realized that it was not a period of fecundity.  I was not really productive.  It was not a time of unusual success.  I learned things that might make a difference.  I enjoyed things and that is a cherished memory.  But it was not a fecund period.  Pondering this enables me to feel ok about that.  I learned something important.           

Most of the fecundity in my life has come in the midst of normality---in the middle of my routine.  Of course, this is where most of us spend most of our time.  And that is the place in our lives where we are doing the real work.  Real work includes our actual job, if we are still working.  But it implies other kinds of work.  Real work could be the work of spiritual and/or emotional growth.           

In spiritual growth and in emotional growth, there may be special times---extraordinary times.  There may be times of ecstasy or mystical experience if we are given the grace or are just lucky.  Those times are wonderful and I would sign up for one in a heartbeat.  But again, spiritually and emotionally most of our time is spent in normalcy and in routine.  And that is the space fecundity will happen.  Why is this true?     

It is true because fecundity is a result of effort, work and sheer “staying at it.”  Ecstasy and mystical experiences are the result of grace---they are gifts.  They are wonderful, but they are not fecund.  They are wonderful, but they are not fruitful.           

As I reflect more into it, I am convinced that fecundity is typically the fruit---the product or end result---of disciplined effort.  I believe discipline is the key.  Discipline explains how we “stay at” something.  Discipline is the life of prayer.  Discipline explains the daily meditation that can slowly change lives and result in fecundity---fruitful spiritual living.  Fecundity is never solely the result of luck.  Farmers know that they have to plant the crops, till them and wait.  With effort and some good conditions, fecundity may result.           

The same is true with the spiritual life.  It takes commitment, regular discipline and some real patience.  Fecundity may well happen.  The spiritual life may well blossom and bloom into the radiant spiritual life that can be very inspiring and very satisfying.  Discipline is the key.  Commitment without discipline is intentionality without action.  Patience is helpful, because fecundity is almost never instantaneous.  There is almost always a growing period.           

The growing period happens in our routine---in our normalcy.  Normalcy is where commitment is made.  It is the arena of discipline and it is a time of patience.  Of course, God may add a pinch of grace.  And perhaps there will come a modicum of mercy.  Within the context of our normal lives something rather amazing can come to be: fecundity.  We can experience more fruitfulness and more fulfillments than we had a right to expect.            

I am always happy with special events and the potential for the extraordinary.  But I admit that I am always happy to return to normal.  The normal is where my own life of discipline is worked out and the seeds of fecundity are being planted and cultivated. Normalcy is the field of my spiritual work.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Make Love Work


I know I often refer to books and even articles I read as I get ideas to ponder in order to write these inspirational essays.  I enjoy the variety of things I read and I value the chance to reflect on them.  I am quite aware that if I did not write these essays, I would probably not take the time to reflect on what I read.  That is not bad, but I also know that I would miss a great deal.

I also have become aware that I read a whole different category of work.  This would be the pile of papers and examinations that routinely come my way.  Some of my classes have weekly journal assignments, so there is a steady stream of papers that come my way.  Some days I look forward to the reading material pouring in.  And other days I feel more like, ugh, papers again!

When I step back and think about it, I realize the students are sharing some of their more precious thoughts.  I feel privileged to be able to look into the window of their souls and glimpse their truths, their questions, their doubts and sundry other things.  In effect, I get a chance to see their souls. 

When I recognize this, I also recognize I am sharing a sacred space.  I firmly believe our souls are sacred.  And if I share something of my soul with you, I have shared some sacred space.  That deserves respect.  That merits your care in dealing with my soul.  And of course, the obligation is just as real for me.  So when the students share some of their soul, I owe them respect and care.

I felt that obligation come upon me last evening as I was reading a set of examinations.  The student actually was working on an essay from one of my favorite books, Soul Making, authored by my Episcopal priest friend, Alan Jones.  I felt like the student had grasped the essence of what Jones was saying in one of his chapters on love.  The student commented that “love requires vulnerability and the willingness to trust.”  I couldn’t agree more and commented as such on his paper.

I continued reading through that particular answer.  And then I hit a phrase that made me smile.  It was a good sentence, but I realized I had to read it a particular way in order to understand what the student was trying to say.  In effect the student was talking about how to “make love work.”  If English is your first or primary language, you probably can handle that phrase quite well.

It would be obvious to us that the word, make, is the verb in that phrase.  We are correct.   But if we look closely, the word, work, is also a verb.  Clearly, the point of the phrase is something should work, namely, love.  We “make” love work.  And for us English speakers, “love” is a noun.  “Love” is what we want to work.  So we are good to go and we probably keep on reading.

What occurred to me, however, is actually all three words could be verbs.  In the sentence I also realized that the word, “work” could also be a noun.  We use it as a noun all the time.  How many mornings do we hear people say, “I am going to do my work now?”  Perhaps I am now confusing.  But think about it.  Love and work can be nouns or verbs.  I can love or I can make love.  I can work or I can do my work.

So now go back to the student’s phrase, “make love work.”  Again clearly the verb is the word, “make.”  We may be too quick to assume the word, “love,” is a noun.  What if it were just a phrase with three verbs: make…love…work? Let’s assume that is the essence of soul work or soul making or soul loving.

Perhaps we are endowed with our Creator with that kind of charge.  We are to “make.”  This means we are to be creative.  We are to be imaginative and help God fabricate the kingdom.  I can well imagine God asking us to be co-creators of the kingdom to come.  I am good with this, but my question is how?  How do I do it?

The little phrase has already offered the answer.  We do it by “love.”  The kingdom will come when we learn to love (verb = action).  I like the idea that we all learn to “love in the kingdom to come.”  And if we can’t learn to love, we will never get the kingdom!

But the kingdom to come requires more than simply love.  It requires “work.”  I am fairly convinced that God won’t just give it to us.  We will have to work for it.  Part of the work is the love that we verbally do.  But it also requires things like the work of justice.  We cannot go around treating others unfairly and pretend we also “love” them.  We have to work to heal the injustices, heal the woundedness in ourselves and in others. 

I actually like these three words to be verbs.  Verbs are action.  I am ok with God’s desire that I make---that I love---and that I work.  I am ready, Lord.  Throw me into the Divine game---make me an active verb!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hospitality: Making Friends from Strangers

I am a Benedictine oblate.  When I was a Quaker kid growing up in rural Indiana, I would not have known what either of those words means.  I am sure I never heard about “Benedictine.”  I would not have known they were monks.  If someone had told me that Benedictines were monks, I am not sure I would have really known what a monk was…or did!

After too many years of school and a great deal of experience in the ecumenical and interfaith worlds, I know much about Benedictines and about monasteries.  Benedictines are monks (men and women) who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict was an Italian Christian who lived in the late 5th and early 6th century.  It was a time of turmoil in the so-called “barbaric” period of the early middle ages.  The Roman Empire had fallen a century earlier.  All of Europe was politically, economically, and socially a mess.  Benedict wanted to find a way to practice his faith in a serious fashion.  He found many local churches wanting.  In many cases they were merely Christian institutions with little of God’s Spirit blowing in their midst.

So in effect, he withdrew from the crazy world.  He followed the lead of earlier monks in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Those monks had despaired of the climate and culture of the late Roman Empire.  They withdrew to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to look for God and to be found by God.  They were not interested in fame and fortune; they wanted only to be found in the presence of the living God.

So Benedict formed a community of people who wanted to live this kind of “desert spirituality.”  It was an idea, which struck a cord with countless people and still does in our own time.  Benedict wrote a Rule to give guidance to his community.  Benedictine monks still follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  In simple terms an oblate is a “lay” monk.  He or she “offers” his or her life to a similar quest for God’s presence.  Obviously, one does not have to be Roman Catholic to be an oblate.  And I don’t have to join the monastery and move in.  But I do “join” in a comparable quest---to the best of my ability.

One of the key tenets of the Benedictine way of life is hospitality.  Early in Benedict’s Rule, he tells the monks that they should be hospitable---hospitable to anyone who comes their way.  The rationale for this hospitality was not to be nice.  It was to receive every person---friend or stranger---as if they were Christ Himself.  If you do that, you will not recognize Christ when He comes into our midst!

I found myself very attracted to that perspective and attitude.  Could I learn to live so openly?  Could I grow into such a state of hospitable receptivity?  I want to do it and as an oblate I at least am committed to practicing it.  I may not be very good at it yet.  And I will never be a professional like my Benedictine brothers and sisters.  But I want to do the best I can.  I always look for help.

And then help came.  Recently in a book I am reading, I found a nice chapter on hospitality.  The author, Jana Riess, has been significantly influenced by St. Benedict and the Benedictines. In that chapter I encountered a good definition of hospitality and what it does.  This was the kind of help I am happy to be given.  Riess says that “Hospitality is about more than seeing to visitors’ nourishment and comfort, although that’s a hugely important start.  It’s about welcoming the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange.  He or she becomes known as a person.  When that happens, lives can be changed, friendships formed---even wars averted.”

I find that thoughtful and quite helpful.  I like how Riess extends the definition of hospitality beyond seeing to a guest’s comfort.  That probably is the minimal.  But Comfort Inn does as much.  But they charge for their hospitality!  And they provide no community nor nourishment.  If I offer hospitality, I offer it free of charge---or minimal charge.  I try to offer comfort, to be sure, and nourishment, if I can.  Often this is a meal or a cup of coffee.

But hospitality is more than this.  I love her line that hospitality is designed to welcome the stranger so the stranger is no longer strange!  That is a profound understanding of hospitality.  And it has potentially mighty effects.  The stranger becomes a person.  In that transition and transformation, the person can become a friend.  And this is no small feat.  In fact, if this happens on a global level, we can avert war.

That makes me want to break out that old 1960s song, “Ain’t Gonna Go to War No More…”  Let all of us commit to being hospitable.  Let us begin to practice this friend-making and peace-making approach to the stranger and the enemy.  If we do that, surely we will be found in the presence of God.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

God Has Your Number

Occasionally I am aware that I have lived a pretty long, interesting life.  I do not lament this.  In fact, I celebrate it.  I have been lucky.  Many good things have happened to me that I could not have anticipated and surely not expected.  Perhaps that is why one of my favorite words is serendipity.  I cannot explain why I have been lucky.
           
That certainly does not mean life has been easy.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have has had problems and setbacks.  Some of them were handed to me for no known reasons.  Other problems and setbacks were of my own making.  Because of stupid choices or wrong decisions, I made life harder for myself.  But overall, I have made it this far and I am very grateful.  With some more luck and some decent self-care, I hope to have some significant time left.
           
One of the amazing things in my lifetime that I like to think about are the technological advancements that I have witnessed.  It sounds like I was born in the horse and buggy days!  It’s not that dramatic, but when I think about it, technology has been so revolutionary.  I seldom talk about this with students because it seems so preposterous that I am likely to be dismissed.  And of course, if I were eighteen years old, I would have no interest in what someone my age remembers and wants to recount!
           
When I think about the technological developments, it is easy to think about the revolution that computers have wrought.  I will admit that I am not a “techie.”  In the first place I am usually oblivious to new technological inventions.  Then I become aware of the early, curious techie folks begin to talk about some new thing and I have really little awareness of the thing they describe.  Then more and more folks buy into the technological thing---be it computer, cell phone, etc.  Finally, I climb on board to the technological bandwagon.
           
All this leads me to muse that in one sense I am a number.  I type this on my laptop computer with my cell phone sitting beside me.  I think about my cell phone.  It occurs to me that I have a special number---ten digits, three of them an area code.  So far as I know, I am the only one in the world with those ten numbers.  If I give you those numbers, you can dial them and my phone will ring.  You can even go to England or China and dial those ten numbers and we can chat!
           
This seems so commonplace for me, I give it little thought.  Had you told me in the 1950s this would come to pass, it would have been unthinkable.  I have to laugh at the technological advancement that I have experienced and always come to take for granted.  There is no way I want to return to my earlier phone days on the farm when we had a four or five digit number that enabled us to be on a party line!
           
All this brought me to a spiritual awareness.  My cell phone number prompted me to think of an analogy.  It seems to me that each one of us is unique to God in the same way as my phone number is unique to me.  Of course, I do not think you or I literally have a number that correlates with our relationship to God.  But we are unique.  God calls you differently than God calls me.  I would like to think God has our number from birth.
           
Like technological advancement, we go through a process of discovery and development.  At some point in life, we begin to discover that we are uniquely linked to God.  God has a special concern (number) for you and for me.  God loves us all, but God loves us all uniquely.  This does not feel cheap to me.  In fact, it feels lavish---God is a lavish Lover!
           
Discovery that we are uniquely connected to God---that God has our number---is only the beginning.  We can choose to know this and dismiss it.  Too many of us have put the “God-phone” on mute or silence!  God can call, but we won’t hear it.  And if we hear it, we ignore it.  On the other hand, we can take the discovery that we are special in God’s eyes and begin to develop what this means.
           
If I want to develop---as I have wanted---then we answer God’s calls.  I have tried to answer God’s call on my life.  When my number rings, I have tried to be obedient.  For me personally, this has had some vocational implications.  That might be true for others.  Sometimes God’s call is avocational. It has nothing to do with your particular kind of work---or no work, if you are retired.  Nevertheless God’s call on your life has implications.
           
God’s ring may be a clarion call to be involved in some special ministries.  It may be as general as simply being a loving human being who works for peace and reconciliation.  It can be as profound as serving folks in your church, in your neighborhood or community.  Some are called to go half way around the world.  Some are called to go around the block.           

I am touched and pleased to know that God has my number.  As with my cell phone, I have grown to the place where I think I even have God on “caller ID!”  Of course, I don’t have a little window that lights up with the caller’s name, but when God calls, I know it is specifically for me and that it is my God who is calling.  Amazing!

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Merciful God

What a good deal, I thought: a merciful God.  This idea comes from the opening line of one of the Psalms used in today’s lectionary reading.  Actually, it is the opening line to one of my favorite Psalms, namely, Psalm 51.  The main reason I have liked that Psalm is the Psalmist’s petition that God create in him a clean heart.  I love that image---a clean heart. 

Certainly one of the ways our spiritual tradition has talked about sin---or going wrongly---is as “dirt” or “dirty.”  To sin is to soil oneself.  It soils the purity of the heart created by God and the pure heart in relationship with God.  But the sinner is the one who leaves this pure relationship to go out and play in the mud of the world.  Maybe I always resonated with this image because I grew up on a farm.  I was always close to the earth.  And I knew what it was like to get dirty. 

However, I think I was often too quick to get to that passage in the middle of the Psalm that I never lingered long enough at the beginning of the 51st Psalm.  In fact, there is where the Psalmist sets the context for all that comes later.  And central to that context is God’s mercy.  I am not so sure people today really understand the concept of mercy.  We are more used to talking about grace.  So let’s consider the idea of mercy. 

The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, is very instructive.  It actually is a compound Latin word, that is, made up of two words.  The first word is miser, which means sad, unhappy, wretched.  We get our English word, “misery” and “miserable” from that word.  The other word, cordia, is the Latin word for “heart.”  So misericordia---mercy---means having a heart for the sad one or the wretched one.  It was when I saw that meaning that I began to grasp more fully what mercy means.  And I especially saw the power of it when I am told that God is a merciful God. 

Let’s reconnect to the idea of getting dirty---sinning or going wrongly.  It is one thing if we have literally been playing outside in the mud.  We simply come inside and take a shower.  And then we are clean.  But what if this dirt is symbolic?  We have said that sinning is getting dirty.  No longer is a shower sufficient.  We cannot wash away the symbolic dirt---the sin---with a shower.  In fact, there may be little or nothing we can do to get clean.  In this sense, we have become wretched; we are sad and unhappy.  What can we do or where can we turn? 

The spiritual answer is simple: the mercy of God.  The good news is that God is a merciful God.  That God is the One who has a heart for the sad and wretched human being.  Let’s see how the Psalmist puts it.  The writer of the Psalms says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy…”  There is some very profound theology affirmed in this single verse.  Let’s look deeper into what the Psalmist has declared about God.

In the first place the Psalmist appeals to God to be merciful.  In my mind this means the Psalmist assumes God is a God of mercy.  I would agree.  That is how I see God.  To be God is to be merciful, I would claim.  Mercy is part of the Divine nature.  God has a heart for all God’s people---all of us.  God created us, God loved us, and God is merciful when we go out into the sinful world and get dirty.  I can try to put it in a funny way by saying when we get dirty and hurt, God does not bomb us, but balms us.  I don’t know whether “balm” can be used as a verb, but I do know that God offers the balm of mercy when we are hurt. 

The next thing that impresses me about the Psalmist’s words comes when he locates the source of God’s mercy in God’s steadfast love.  Theologically, I would put it this way: because God is Love, God is therefore merciful.  We can unfold this idea even further.  Mercy is God’s love worked out in the world.  Mercy is God’s love when God reaches out to those of us who are sad, unhappy, and wretched.  Instead of saying, “Go to hell,” God says something like this, “Come to me, all you who are sad, and I will give you mercy.  I will draw you into my loving arms and give you peace.”

I think God’s mercy is much more than God simply saying, “Oh, that’s ok.”  Often the mercy God extends to us comes in places where it’s not ok.  If we have sinned or been involved in wrongdoing, it is seldom ok.  Mercy is much more than the superficial, “it’s ok.”  To be shown mercy is to be loved instead of being let off the hook by the simple “ok.”   

Hearing the simple, “it’s ok,” lets me off the hook.  I can walk away.  But mercy puts me on the hook.  Mercy puts me on the hook of love.  To be given mercy asks me to respond in kind.  If I am given mercy, I am given love and an obligation.  I am asked to engage again in the relationship.  Instead of walking away, I am to walk into the relationship of love.   

And if I lovingly re-engage God and all of God’s people, then I also take on the capacity to be merciful.  I also will be asked to work out the love of God in the acts of mercy I offer to the sad, unhappy, and wretched around me.  Thank God, Merciful God!