Monday, March 31, 2014

The Genius of Servant-Leadership

Sometimes I wonder when I first encounter a concept that has become important to me and my life’s work.  Sometimes I can remember, but most of the time I have no clue.  Often we bump into new concepts and there would be no way of knowing the concept will become important later in life.  Such it is with the concept of servant-leadership.           

The idea of servant-leadership defines how I have tried to be a leader.  A leader is a leader, but many leaders are not servant-leaders.  And there are countless servants, but few would be servant-leaders.  The reason this concept is important to me is simple.  I think it is a spiritual approach to leadership.  I also happen to think most of the major world religions have championed this kind of leadership.  I think this is the style of leadership evidenced by Jesus.  That seems true for the one called the Buddha.  Within many of the other religious traditions, we will find leaders who also are servants.           

The person who coined this idea---at least, in contemporary times---is Robert Greenleaf.  Greenleaf worked at a major corporation---AT&T back in the mid-twentieth century.  He was a Quaker, which may partly explain why I was drawn to this idea.  Greenleaf acknowledges that he got his idea of the leader as servant from reading the German novelist, Hermann Hesse.           

I had the good fortune of being with Greenleaf a few times in the late 1970s and 80s.  He was a captivating man who was knowledgeable, curious and experienced.  He was the kind of person who wondered how he could make everyone’s life better and more meaningful.  He was one who wanted our lives at work to have some significance.  The leaders in our world were largely responsible for aiding the process of helping people live meaningful lives---at work, at home and at play.  If the leaders could be servant-leaders, they would probably be even more effective.           

This is how Greenleaf describes a servant-leader.  “The servant-leader is leader first…Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to serve 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?  And what is the effect on the least privileged in society, will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”             

I continue to be fascinated with this approach to leadership.  How amazing would it be if everyone who aspires to lead has the commitment to lead by first serving?  Again, this sounds so much like Jesus or any responsible spiritual leader.  To aspire to serve first grounds my leadership in a humility that means I am more likely to use power responsibly.  It would mean that people in positions of authority would have the best interests of their followers in mind.           

I also admire the way Greenleaf offers to test leadership.  What a great question to ask: do the ones served grow as persons?  How many leaders ponder this question?  No one who is arrogant or power-hungry would care to ask this question.  But don’t you think Jesus would have asked it?  Of course!           

Greenleaf continues to make perfect sense to me.  Do the people served become healthier?  I would suggest this question is posed with respect to health in its multiple facets: physical, mental and spiritual.  I must ask whether the ones I am leader of are more healthy as a result of my leadership.  Greenleaf pushes further.  Do the ones served become wiser and more free?  It is easy to think of leaders in our community and around the world who seem to be imprisoning people, rather than freeing them.  It is a good question to ask of our own leaders.             

Do those leading enable the served to become more autonomous?  Do the men and women being served actually become more of the people they are capable of becoming?  Or does the leadership make people smaller, more scared, less and less genuine people.  Unfortunately many work places are doing just that to people.  People sometimes go to work as a person and leave work as a mess!           

Effective servant-leaders should be sources of healing and not hurting.  They should be encouragers and not discouragers.  This ties in with Greenleaf’s last query.  Do the least-privileged in our society come away from my leadership better off…or at least, no worse off?  If a leader’s effect on the less privileged is negative, then that leadership is a travesty.            

I am sure Robert Greenleaf would have said that he did not invent this idea of servant-leadership.  It is a genius form of leadership because it is spiritual and that is why Jesus and so many spiritual giants were servant-leaders.  Their work was to heal, free, enlighten.  They had followers and they wanted all their followers and disciples to find wholeness, significance and meaning.  Contemporary leaders---all of us---should want nothing more.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Something of Heaven

In yesterday’s inspirational piece I commented over of the most recent issue of The Merton Seasonal.  That is a quarterly publication by the International Thomas Merton Society, which continues to spread the message of the late twentieth century monk, Thomas Merton.  Although Merton died in 1968, his writings, poetry and photographs still speak to the spiritual seeker of the twenty-first century.          

That recent volume had a wonderful drawing on the front cover by my friend and Ursuline nun, Sister Donna Kristoff.  Beneath the drawing are a few words from my favorite book of Merton’s, namely, New Seeds of Contemplation.  The words fit the drawing, upon which I commented yesterday.  In this piece I would like to ponder Merton’s words.          

Thomas Merton said, “As we go about the world everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch…plants in us…something of heaven.”  For those of us who know Merton’s works fairly well, this is vintage Merton.  It is simple, yet elegant---much like the drawing from Sr. Donna.  It is important to recall that drawing pictures a solitary figure walking down a deep, snowy path through woods that are framed by a bunch of evergreen trees.  Merton---if that is Merton---or any of us making this pilgrimage through life, is deep in nature, which Merton feels is the product of a creative Author of beauty.         

No doubt, something like this experience prompted Merton to write the words just cited.  “As we go about the world…”  Who among us is not going about in the world?  If you are alive, you are going about in the world.  It may be scintillating or boring, an adventure or blasé.  The real issue is not whether we are going about in the world.  The real issue is how we are going about in the world?  That’s the spiritual question that Merton lifts up.          

Merton’s words are prompts for us to be aware and to pay attention.  These are two necessary aspects of any kind of spiritual growth and development.  We cannot be spiritually alive without being spiritually sensitive and attentive.  We can’t get it if we miss it! Merton’s words are a simple recipe, but they work.         

“Everything we meet…”  This reinforces my assumption that he means nature, at least as much as people.  He could have said “everyone” we meet, but he chose “everything.”  That is a good reminder for me.  I value the role people play in my spiritual vitality…and that’s good.  But the world is bigger than people.  Am I aware of the nature in which I live?  Do I see the trees and the flowers?  Can I appreciate the rain, the wind and the sun?  Am I oblivious to the obvious?  If the answer is “yes,” then I can’t be very spiritual.          

“Everything we see and hear and touch…”  Merton checks off three of the five senses we use to engage the world in which we live.  I think about the biblical passage that asks, “do you have eyes but fail to see?” (Mk 8:18)  I have eyes to see, but how often does my spiritual eyesight fail me?  With my lenses, my eyesight is 20/20, but I may still be spiritually blind!  It is time to wake up.          

Everything we hear asks the same question that seeing posed.  If nature speaks to me, do I hear it?  Have I learned the language of nature?  Or is it really music and the birds are the singers?  What do I miss in my fast-paced race through life?  Where am I going that is so important that it matters not what I miss on the journey?         

Everything I touch…  I am not sure I know much at all about spiritual touch.  You would think a farm boy would know a great deal about touch, but the way we farmed was more like an industry than like the Amish.  When I was with animals would be the time I learned the most about the touch of nature.  But I think I need a remedial course!  I need to walk in the woods more.          

The key to Merton’s line comes at the end.  As we go about in the world…everything…plants in us something of heaven.  I like how he picks up on my agricultural metaphor.  I am happy to think about heaven as a seed that is planted in each one of us.  It is not necessary to have a fully developed theological understanding of heaven in order to have that seed planted in us.         

I have enough faith in the Divine Sower that whatever heavenly seed is implanted in me will be good, beautiful and full of love.  I am quite fine if heaven is not a place---happy finally to go nowhere.  I actually would be delighted if heaven is actually space---a good space, a beautiful space and a loving space.          

I think it would be just like a creative Artist (one way I like to picture God) to plant a rich variety of seeds in each of us.  Maybe heaven will mimic nature with its variegated presence and power.  I want to see my trip through life as a walk in the woods where everything that is done makes me available to have something of heaven planted in me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Walk in the Woods

As regular readers of this inspirational reflection know, I find the writings of the twentieth century monk, Thomas Merton, very insightful and helpful as I think about my own life.  On the surface, it would not seem like a Trappist monk (that is a very serious and strict order of Benedictine monks) and a Quaker would have too much in common.  He took a vow of poverty and I have money in the bank, a wife and kids and grandkids.             

However, there is much about Merton’s spiritual experience that resonates with my own.  In fact, I find him so helpful because he was in quest of similar things to me: a life with purpose, a life with deep meaning and a first-hand experience of the Living God.  He felt called to join the monastic community in Kentucky.  He knew he needed a community of fellow spiritual travelers to help him on his way.  I also know I need a community of fellow pilgrims to help me.  I find my spiritual helpers in my college community and in my local church communities.             

Although Merton died in 1968, his legacy continues in some amazing ways.  Merton died in his late 50s, but left multiple writings, painting, photos, audiotapes and countless friends.  His books continue to make impact on people.  Some of his legacy is encountered in a visit---literally or virtually---to the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY.  I have been there multiple times and am touched by the spirit of Merton every time I visit.           

Publications continue to pour forth in words by and about Merton.  A regular journal that appears in my mailbox is called The Merton Seasonal.  It contains articles, pictures, etc.  My latest version just appeared.  Immediately I noticed the lovely drawing on the front of the Seasonal, as I call it.  It is a winter scene.  The scene pictures nothing but trees---clearly the woods.  There is a kind of pathway down through the woods with a solitary figure walking away from the person looking at the picture.          

My mind has no doubt that the artist means to portray Thomas Merton in the woods on the monastic property.  He is perhaps on a meditative walk.  You can see the trail of footprints his meditative journey has left as he plodded through the snow.  I know Merton’s writings well enough to be confident that man could very well be Merton.  He loved nature, wrote poems about nature and took countless photos of nature.  Nature was a source of God’s revelation for him.           

Then it hit me.  It might not be Merton.  Perhaps, the solitary figure walking through the opening in the trees, trudging through the snow, represents every one of us who is making a journey in search of the Author of the beauty of the world.  Although we may be part of big families or part of church communities, nevertheless each one of us makes our pilgrimage through life in a solitary fashion.  No one can live my life, but me.  Finally, it is me and the world and, hopefully, the God who created the world and me.           

For me (and for Merton), life is my quest to find and to be found by the Holy One.  There are plenty of places to look for the Spirit.  God can be found in nature or discovered deep inside at the center of my being.  I have looked both places and, I know, Merton did, too.           

The footprints in the snow are significant for a couple reasons.  The footprints are evidence that I still am alive.  I am moving.  The footprints trace my journey.  If they could, they would tell a story.  The footprints are literally the history of my journey---describing where I was and indicative of the direction I am heading.             

The picture is not defined by the footprints.  The person is still central to the picture.  The footprints serve to draw the eye of the beholder to the person making his or her way through the opening in the forest.  One gets the dynamic sense in this picture.  The figure is still moving---still making more footprints.  Life continues and the journey will go further.  The figure was Merton.  It is I. And it is you, too.           

There is one more wonderful aspect to the picture.  Beneath it we are told the drawing is by Donna Kristoff---Sister Donna, as I know her.  She is a friend and an Ursuline nun and a gifted artist.  She has a monastic heart and an artist’s eye.  Because she is a woman with a monastic heart and an artist’s eye, I am confident she knows the Spirit in ways I don’t.  She, too, is that solitary figure walking through the opening of the forest.           

Instead of a narrative, she draws pictures.  Because she is good, she draws me into the picture.  So far I see forest and snow and a solitary figure walking.  Maybe she has also drawn into the picture the Holy One.  I have not yet seen that Spirit, but I want to stay on my journey long enough to find the burning bush.  Even though it is snowy, when I come to that bush, I will take off my shoes.  At that point, it will have become more than just a walk in the woods.
 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Real Soul Making

Some books I continue to return to in order to get a spiritual reminder or a spiritual boost.  One of those books is my friend Alan Jones’ book, Soul Making.  I find reading Jones a challenge, but always rewarding.  However, I also know that when I assign that book in one of my spirituality classes, the students seldom like it!  That usually makes me a little sad.  It is as if the students reject a little part of me.            

I think Jones’ book is so important to me because it came at a time when I was in a significant spiritual growth phase.  Simultaneously, I was also trying to figure out whether I could teach spirituality and, if so, how I would do it.  The idea of “soul making" was an eye-opener for me.  Growing up in a fairly rural Quaker meeting (church), I had only heard that language that affirmed people “had” souls.  Of course, at death the soul left the body and for many folks, the soul is what went to heaven.            

I never thought much about that.  When you hear stuff like that as a kid, you usually take it at face value.  At least I did.  So I assumed I “had” a soul.  But then in college I was asked to read classic authors and to learn to think, analyze and make up my own mind.  I still see that as a very healthy process.  I know religious fundamentalists do not see it as healthy; in fact, that is a threat.  But I am not a religious fundamentalist, so I am ok with thinking, analyzing and still making up my own mind.          

So I read Alan Jones and others who suggested that we “are” souls.  I began to see my soul more as an animating spirit.  I learned the language of soul is closely related to the idea of spirit.  Spirit is like wind or breath.  It was easy to connect soul to breath.  If I quite breathing, I “lose” my soul.  That does not necessarily mean my soul “dies.”  But it does mean when I quit breathing, my soul (my spirit) transforms---that is, it takes on another form.  When I die, I no longer will be an embodied soul, as I am now.         

But I do not want to talk about death.  Instead I want to talk about love and life and how those connect to soul.  It is here that I latch onto one of my favorite lines from Jones’ book, Soul Making.  He says, “Love is a gift or it is nothing.  Insofar as we are able to reject strategies of possessiveness and manipulation, the conditions are already set for the development of real soul making, real loving.”  I find sentences like that riveting.  It speaks of a truth deeper than I think I have yet known, but to which I am drawn.          

For a long time, I have been convinced that life and love go together---real life at least.  I am sure you can live without love, but it is not real life.  And as much as it chagrins me, I am confident that Jones is correct: love is a gift.  For some of us, this is fearful.  It causes us to fear because we are afraid we won’t be given the gift.  And if we happen to have been given the gift of love, we are tempted to hoard it out of fear that we will never be given any more.  We see love as a scarce commodity.          

But it’s not like that.  Love is a gift and the Giver offers it lavishly.  The Holy One deals with an abundance strategy, not a scarcity model.  But some of us find this hard to believe---that is, we have little faith.  So we are tempted to manipulate our situations to create or compel love.  Jones is quite right to advise us to reject such strategies of manipulation and coercion.  I really can’t compel you to love me.  I can try and you may have to fake it.  But genuine love is a gift.  I can only receive and say “thanks.”          

I like how Jones links real soul making and real loving.  Again that seems deeply true to me in ways I probably cannot articulate.  And I can add that real soul making and real loving amount to real living.  That is what the whole spiritual journey is about as far as I am concerned.  I am on that journey.  I am very content to call it soul making.            

I am happy to call this soul making cardiac development.  Of course, I am playing around with the word for “heart.”  Soul making is nothing more than the development of my heart---its enlargement, softening and deepening.  A heart developing in this fashion not only becomes more and more a loving heart.  It becomes a compassionate heart.  When this happens, we rightly begin to talk about that person as a person “with a heart for the world.”  That is a big heart!          

I am sure that a big-hearted person is a deeply soulful person.  This kind of person would be so soulful that it would be evident when you come into the presence of that person.  Their being would exude soulfulness.  They would reek of the Spirit’s scent.  Just being with them makes you feel better and more well.            

That kind of person models the soul making process.  Somehow they have done real soul making.  I am sure it is coming to know the gift of love, accepting it and incarnating it in such a way they become ambassadors of the Spirit in our world.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Importance of Interviewing

It may seem odd to be talking about interviewing in a spiritual reflection.  I never thought about it until recently when I was asked to interview some students for a special program.  It is funny that I never thought about this before, since I have interviewed students for many things over decades now.  But it hit me and I realized interviewing can be a spiritual experience.

When I say it could be a spiritual experience, I don’t mean I was interviewing the student for some kind of religious job.  We never talked about God nor religion.  On the surface no one would get any kind of clue that it was about spirituality.  Perhaps it was only in my mind.  But let me unfold my understanding.          

I was set to interview a young man and the appointment was made.  From his name, I assumed he was Asian or, at least, Asian-American.  As far as I was aware, I have never met him nor had I ever seen him.  I asked him to tell me a bit about himself.           

I know this is not an unusual request when you are in an interview process and the interviewer does not know you.  It seems like such a common question, we are not likely to realize how profound it could be.  However, it typically is not very profound.  Instead of the profundity of the potential answer to who we are, the interviewee normally would talk about descriptions of himself that are not very revealing.          

In my case, some of this did come from the young man.  It turns out he was born and spent his early years in Korea.  He came to the USA to study and to gain some global experience.  He is a junior in college and shared that his major was business.  None of this seems remotely spiritual.  It could have stayed at that level and it never would have occurred to me that interviewing would be spiritual.           

It was only after our conversation deepened a little more that I realized it was becoming spiritual.  I realized in the beginning I had actually asked the young man a question of identity: who are you?  That has the potential of becoming profoundly spiritual.  However most of the time, we answer that question at such a superficial level, the spiritual is not even hinted at.  As long as we stay with things that describe our role---like being a college professor---we don’t enter the spiritual realm.           

This young man began to enter the deeper waters of identity when he shared that he has spent some time recently dealing with depression.  He was tempted to despair.  He shared that his dreams for himself had fallen away like leaves off a tree.  He returned home and felt like he was being drawn into a dark hole of nothingness.           

But there he was right in front of me with a smile and as much optimism as I could imagine.  Through effective help and significant effort, he had come back to life.  Religious people could even say he had been saved.  My point in the reflection is simply to say the interview had become spiritual for me.  Let me explain.           

One important facet of spirituality has to do with identity---who we are.  I suppose most of us assume we know who we are.  And we do at a superficial level.  But many of us don’t really know who we are at a deeper level.  This becomes routinely obvious in my teaching of undergraduates.  They are usually surprised when they begin to realize they don’t actually know who they are.  And I suspect that many of us who are “adults” have lived long enough that we assume we surely have come to know who we are.  But often, we are not much further along than the college junior.           

Identity is a spiritual issue for me because my assumption is that who we are is tied up with who God (or the Spirit) is.  While I realize not everyone would agree with my assumption, nevertheless I press on to suggest that we all have a deeper self---what Thomas Merton and others call our “true self.”  Until we begin to know that true self---and it is only known in relation to the Spirit---we don’t really know who we are.           

My time with the chap from Korea lead me to think about life metaphorically as a preparation for an interview.  Imagine coming in to engage the Spirit in an interview.  The invitation is offered; tell me a bit about yourself.  My function in life is pretty irrelevant.  More pertinent is whether I know my deeper self.  Has that self been depressed or despaired?  Has it loved and been loved?           

What are my commitments to my friends and, even, to my enemies?  What have I done to help and heal the world?  In this interview the Spirit will be less concerned about my net worth and more about my spiritual worthiness.             

I don’t see this interview as meeting God at the proverbial pearly gates when I am dead.  Instead, I imagine the Spirit as the ever-present interviewer for the job of living day by day and living with as much fullness, meaning, and joy as I can muster.  That really is the job I want---the job of a fully lived life. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Encounters at the Well

Recently I had reason to engage a biblical text that I have not read for a while.  It is a very familiar story to me, so I was glad to hear it again. The story comes from John’s Gospel and it narrates an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.  Since I used to teach a seminar on John’s Gospel, I have thought about this rather long passage and read a fair number of commentaries to gain a deeper understanding.          

The passage is far too long to give consideration to all its aspects.  So we can pick off a few salient features that have something to do with our spiritual life today.  In the first place, a little historical background might be useful.  I almost always want to laugh when I begin to share some of the historical background.  I laugh because Jesus really should not be at that well at that hour with that woman!     

Going to the well to fetch water is a standard thing that must have happened in those ancient times.  However, because of the heat of the day, the normal time to go would be morning or evening.   And going to the well typically would have been a woman’s role.  Water clearly is a powerful spiritual symbol, as it is a necessity for life itself.  In fact, this sets up the central teaching of this story.  That teaching comes toward the end of the story when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is a Source of life.          

We also know this story is meant to stretch us (and the people of his time) when we realize Jesus is talking to someone with whom he should not be associated. The Jews and the Samaritans where like the Hatfields and McCoys in their day.  In fact, the Samaritan woman probably had gone to the well at noon because she was not supposed to be there when the regulars went in the morning or evening to fetch water.            

Even at this level, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was spiritually loaded.  Jesus asks her for a drink.  Only a couple lines later, the revelation is happening.  Jesus tells her that if she really knew what was going on, he could give her the “living water.”  As it so typically happens, the woman misunderstands and scoffs, “you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep.”  I imagine her really saying, “Yeah, sure!”          

When I read this story, I have much more in common with the woman than I do with Jesus.  She is an outsider.  She has to be careful because she could get in trouble.  She is a woman, so that means she needs to be extra cautious in a place with strange guys.  It is safe to assume that she went to the well to get water, not to get saved!  And to presume that is what Jesus was doing is to miss the point.          

What Jesus wanted was to give her some sense and some participation in the very Source of Life that Jesus intimately knew, namely, the Divinity Itself.  Jesus wanted to share, to be sure.  He would share water.  More importantly, he was willing to share something about the Living Water.  He would share his connection to the Water that would never leave her thirsting again.            

His invitation to the Samaritan woman was an invitation to convert.  As a lad growing up in Indiana, I sometimes would hear “conversion” language and it almost always meant an altar call and much drama.  I don’t discount this kind of experience, but it has never been my experience.  Then I learned the classical languages.  In Greek the word for “conversion” literally means, “to turn around.”  It also means to “get a new mind.”  I push that to mean, “start living with a new outlook, a new commitment, a purposeful life.”          

That is what I believe Jesus was offering the Samaritan woman on the hot, dusty day at noon when she came to draw water.  When you view the story in this fashion, you can see that it was literally a transforming encounter at the well.  In that sense I think it becomes instructive of the possibility for each and every one of us.  The question is what or whom will we encounter when we go to the well?          

As the story unfolds, the well represents the place and occasion where we encounter the life transforming word and work of the Spirit.  In most instances it likely will be in the midst of our ordinariness, rather than some special occasion.  It is in this sense that I think this kind of “well’ turns out to be our altar-in-the-moment.  We will be invited to convert: to turn our lives around and live with more purpose, depth and love.          

This kind of well encounter probably will not be a one-time deal.  Instead, we will go often to the well and repeatedly be asked to convert---again and again.  As we begin to get it, we may be asked to be part of a community of converted ones---people like us who have turned full time to love-work and the bringing of justice to a world sorely in need of being saved.          

We will not be asked to be saviors.  But we will be asked to be servants---servants of the One who is present at every well in the world.  We will be servants ready to assist that One in whatever encounter awaits the next Samaritan coming to the well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Love: the Ground of Our Being

I have never met anyone who prefers the lack of love instead of love.  I agree with many writers in multiple spiritual traditions that humans want to love and to be loved.  I conclude that is a basic human desire.  I am sure we could point to the occasional person for whom this might not be the case.  But that person, I argue, is a person who has somehow become deformed or was malformed as he or she grew.  I have never read in any spiritual tradition where we don’t come to love at some point. 

I have read so much about love that I sometimes think I have forgotten more than I have remembered.  I recognize how easy it is to think about love and even to write about love.  To think about love and to write about it does not mean necessarily that I am very good at loving.  In fact, most days I still feel like a kindergartner when I think about my capacity and execution of love.  So I welcome one more time to ponder love and see if I can continue to learn and to grow.      

As I think about what I know about love, my best teachers have been people I have known throughout my life and some authors whom I have never met, but who have immensely helped my understanding of love.  My real live teachers of love have been my parents, spouse, my two kids and my friends.  It makes little sense to try to pinpoint who has taught me what.  Thankfully, they have taught me a few things.           

Among the authors who have taught me well I would list Jesus, the Buddha and Augustine, an early Christian saint.  More contemporarily, Gerald May, the late psychiatrist and founding member of the Shalem Institute in Washington DC., Alan Jones, the now-retired Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, among others, have been so instructive.  Again without trying to identify which ones taught me what, let me note a couple key points about love that are central to my spirituality and my life.           

Perhaps the most important piece in my spirituality is the biblical affirmation that God is love.  That is a core truth for me.  It helps me in two ways.  In the first place to say that God is love is a way of understanding God in such a way that God is not “really a person.”  Intellectually, I know God is not some guy in the sky.  To say God is love is to affirm something I feel like I know is true.  Even though I am not sure how to define love, I know it is true.  It is powerful; it is creative.  It is life-giving and life-changing.  And love is so much more.           

All those truths about love become truths about God---the source, the energy and embodiment of love.  Love is not a person, but it is a force and energy.  It has no hands, but it is a force that uses my hands to love divinely.  When love comes into me and flows through me, then God becomes personal.  In some ways this points to the truth of the person of Jesus.  Jesus was the one in whom the God who is love so fully entered the human realm, that Jesus became so special he became the Source of an amazing group of people and tradition called Christianity.           

But that God who is love did not stop with Jesus.  God as love keeps coming to and coming into people.  I am sure God has come to me and, hopefully, comes into me.  I am not Jesus, but I am like Jesus when I embrace and live out of that love.  I don’t become god, but I do become god-like when I embrace and allow that love to flow and flourish in me.           

If I become a little more philosophical or theological, I want to affirm that love is the ground of my being---of our being.  I could capitalize those words to make them seem more holy.  I could say that the God who is Love permeates and penetrates the world.  That God who is Love is, in fact, the Ground of our Being.  That means that Love is the creative Source of my life, the Sustaining Resource of my living and the Culminating Source of my journey through life.           

I am sure other theologians have said something like I want to say: we were created by Love, created for love and by loving we become creative.  It is really that simple and, doubtlessly, that complex.  I don’t want to chase the complexity of love.  Let’s keep it simple.           

The key to the spiritual life is to know love, to practice love and to bear love’s fruit.  If I am not doing this, then I am part of the problem.  When love is missing or done poorly, there are problems.  It is simplistic to suggest that love is always the solution, but it may be close to the truth.           

The practical, daily question that we should ask is whether we have been loving each day?  We need to be honest.  We need to intend to grow in our ability to love more fully each day.  We commit to minimize the times we blow it when it comes to love.  Love is the ground of our being.  Let’s stand firmly on that ground and walk into the fullness of a loving life.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Story of Endings

In many ways being in an academic institution, like a college, is different than being in the real world.  In fact, students and faculty often make references to the “real world out there” as if the world of the college is not “real.”  Often the real world is painted in unkind ways.  People talk about the dog-eat-dog life out there!  Folks will lament living in a rat race.  We have all heard these references and usually they are not pointing to some fun time. 

Granted there is much in our world that is hard and unpleasant.  Life can be difficult and does create losers.  If we are old enough, we all know what it is like to lose.  We don’t get the break we think we deserve.  Someone may have cheated us out of an opportunity.  Some get sick---sometimes very sick---and life does not seem fair.  The list goes on.  

Fortunately, there is another side of the story.  Sometimes things do go well.  Rather than a rat race, it may turn out to be a walk in the park.  For some people things do come up roses.  And amazingly, there are winners and, even more amazingly, sometimes I win!  Those are great days.  The sun shines and the world is a great place. 

But to everything there comes an ending.  Being in a college setting gives me quite a bit of practice with endings.  It causes me to think about the story of endings.  Or maybe better, all endings have a story---or are a story.  Let’s look further at this phenomenon---the story of endings. 

In college settings endings come fairly frequently.  All the courses I teach have endings.  The semester goes fifteen weeks and then it is over.  The year has two semesters and it finishes.  Students come for four years (or five) and then graduate---another ending.  When I think about it, I have had much practice with endings.  However much practice does not necessarily mean that one gets good at it.  Let me analyze a little further the phenomenon of endings.

Probably the way many endings take place is simply the time runs out and it is over.  For me it is easy to spend the fifteen weeks teaching a class week after week and then one day (usually Friday), it is over.  You might say good-bye or wish the students good luck and they walk out of your life forever.  There may actually have been much learned, but no relationship.  You may have known them by name, but not by heart.  It is easy to lecture---to go solo---and know nothing about anyone’s soul.  In some cases it is not good-bye, but good riddance! 

Too many times this mimics the “real world.”  This sounds like too many divorces and broken relationships.  No one may have been shot, but there often is too much violence---physical and emotional.  I am sure there are decent ways to end even bad relationships---to write an effective story of ending even in this instance. 

There also are creative, life-giving ways to write the story of endings.  It usually takes some intentionality.  Normally good endings don’t just happen.  One can expect that good endings typically require some kind of care.  In the best sense one needs to be care-ful---full of care.  “Be careful” often simply means, “watch out.”  It can mean “danger ahead.”  But I prefer to understand being careful means exercising care.  Care is actually a form of love.  So to be careful is to be loving.   

Maybe that is a cue to creating a story of a good ending.  Perhaps the trick is to ask about any ending, what is the most loving thing I can muster?  If it is a bad situation, the most loving thing may simply be to exit as gracefully as possible.  But most situations can be made better than you think.  Maybe to be careful in loving means to exercise some imagination about the story of endings. 

I try to be as intentional and careful as I can be when I create the story of an ending.  Every semester I get to try it again with numerous classes.  I believe there are some predictable ways to write the good story of endings.  The first thing is to be as affirming as you can be.  Surely in any story there have been good things and worthwhile events or accomplishments.  Affirm those.  Memory can be a good thing.  Often the story of a good ending cherishes the memories that contain the story line.   

For example, in one class I teach all the students remember the day one of them shared about the death of his father.  It was a riveting story and the group was never the same after that.  Group memory is a powerful tool. 

Finally, it is good to celebrate the endings.  Obviously, this is easier when the ending is a good, happy one.  But even if it is sad, it can be celebrated.  Celebration is a way of saying “thank you” and moving on.  I don’t think I am very good at celebration, but I am hoping to learn.  Maybe that means I am still figuring out how to write a good story about my ending---whenever it comes.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

To Live Creatively

It may not be quite true, but I think half the good things in my life come to me graciously and unexpectedly.  Of course, that does not take me off the hook for planning and having some discipline in the way I go about life.  I am sure that is true for you, too.  I am willing to conclude life is lived with an interesting mixture of human effort and grace (whether that is divinely bestowed is a theological question).  In sum, life comes though effort and serendipitous gift.  We can upset the balance and probably mess things up pretty easily.

Workaholics err on the side of effort.  Workaholics think they only get wherever they want to get by sheer effort.  Granted there is much to laud in human effort.  If I think about myself, I never could have been offered a college teaching post without having my Ph.D.  That is fact; it is neither good nor bad.  And I can tell you, a Ph.D. does not come without human effort.  I learned those foreign languages.  I wrote those papers and, ultimately, that dissertation.  I mustered the discipline.

But it also would be crazy for me to think the Ph.D. was solely the result of my human effort.  I had a number of faculty who were gracious to me with their time, patience, and encouragement.  There were family and friends who assisted with money, succor and support.  All this help was significant.  However, their support alone would not have convinced the University to grant me the Ph.D.  There is a balance, as there usually is.

Typically, we need a strong sense of self to aspire to goals and persevere in the process to meet those goals.  If we are too wimpy, either we never will even try to reach lofty goals or we will have no staying power to achieve them.  It is not unusual to hear people blame bad luck, their misfortune, society, or anything else for their own personal failure or shortcomings.  The problem with the blame-game is that it never solves the problem or changes the situation.

On the other hand, we have to be careful and not have such a strong sense of self that we cross the line into egocentrism.  Nobody really likes egocentric people.  Egocentric people typically are too arrogant to be around.  They have an incapacity to share or give credit to others.  They have no sense of humility.  They do not know the difference between request and demand!  They have lost a sense of balance.

Oddly enough, it is this idea of egocentrism that brings me back to the beginning and how graciously I have been treated.  I have a friend who gave me a book out of the blue.  The book, A Sacred Voice is Calling, is by John Neafsey.  I have never heard of him or the book.  There was no reason for the book to be given to me.  I put it on the stack with the rest of my unread books.  But for whatever reason, last night I picked it up and started thumbing through the pages.  My eyes stopped on a page and a couple sentences jumped out at me.

Neafsey writes, “The psychological parallel to the spiritual concept of sin is egocentrism.  ‘Psychologically’, says John Sanford, ‘the egocentric state corresponds to the religious notion of original sin, for it is a state of affairs from which we must be saved if we are to live creatively and know God.’”  There is some great stuff here which I would like to unpack and offer some commentary.

I find it fascinating to think that original sin is the theological equivalent of egocentrism.  I will admit that I find the idea of original sin not quite to my liking, but I think it works just as well even if I simply think of sin.  I am convinced egocentrism is equivalent to sin.  Both egocentrism and sin fracture relationships; they tear things down instead of build up.  They contradict whatever image of salvation we might want to put forth.  I like the quotation from John Sanford that Neafsey cites.  I have heard of Sanford and I like his material. 

Put simply, sin and egocentrism are the problems; salvation is the solution.  You cannot be egocentric and saved at the same time.  You cannot sin and claim to be saved; they are contradictory.  I know the biblical take on sin.  The apostle Paul tells us the wages of sin are death.  Maybe the fruit of egocentrism also is a form of death: death of healthy relationships and respect. 

But there is an alternative and that alternative is salvation.  Salvation normally is seen as a grace.  It is a gift to you and to me.  But it is a gift with a mission.  The mission is for us to begin to live creatively and to know God.  We can do neither as egocentrics or sinners.  Lord, heal me, says the sinner.  Lord, humble me, says the egocentric.  And when that happens, we are saved and are ready to begin to live creatively.  And to do so leads to the knowledge of God.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Our Wounded Ego

I have been teaching for a long time now, but I never tire of the freshness of what I am doing.  I feel very fortunate to have groups of young people troop through my classes.  I suspect that most of them really don’t know what they have signed up to receive in my class.  That may be true for most college classes, but I doubt it.  I should think if you sign up for a Chemistry or Accounting class, you have a pretty good idea what the content will be.  However, when eighteen year-olds sign up for a class called, Contemplative Spirituality, most of them have little clue what that really means.           

In fact, I am frequently surprised that students keep signing up for something like this.  Generally human nature is not up for taking on the unknown.  Most of the time most of us prefer the known.  I am grateful for the chance to have so many walk into the room the first day of the semester and, then, hang in there for four months.             

When I tell them my focus is “experiential,” I don’t think that really registers.  They know what “experience” means, but when you move that word to its cousin, “experiential,” they might be able to guess, but that’s not the same as knowing.  What it means is they are in there not only to learn some ideas and concepts, but to learn about life through their experience.  What’s more, the learning that I propose will likely fiddle with how they experience life and how they think about life.  If I were honest, I should post a sign on the door: “Danger Ahead!”           

Of course, it does not mean they inevitably will be hurt.  My class is not designed to be a regimen of pain.  But sometimes, spiritual growth entails a little discomfort and, sometimes, a little suffering.  Frequently, good things come out of some discomfort and a little suffering.  Ask a mother who has just given birth to her child.  Most new mothers are ecstatic to have their baby, but most of them experienced a little discomfort and, perhaps, some suffering in the birth process.           

And so three days a week, twenty-eight students walk through the classroom door.  Often they have been asked to read some material.  Sometimes I don’t think what they read actually hits them.  We can speed read some passages about love, but when you slow down and think about what you read, its weightiness begins to hit you.  That was the case with a passage in a book by Gerald May (Will and Spirit) that I had asked them to read.           

The passage talked about experiences of having a “wounded ego.”  Those are easy words to read as we speed along in the text.  But if we stop and think about what we are reading, the words become more daunting.  I asked if any of the students had experienced wounded egos?  I was not surprised when two or three mustered up the courage to share their stories.  It was a poignant moment for them and for all of us who were privileged to hear them.          

Our culture encourages us all to have strong egos.  In fact, our culture often tilts in the direction of being egocentric.  We are led to believe we are the center of the universe---our little universe, anyway.  We are taught to get ours while the getting is good.  All this sets us up not to be vulnerable, if we can help it.  Too often, we confuse our ego with our self.  Most spiritualities that I read warn against this confusion.  Our true self is not the same thing as our ego.  We are more than and deeper than our ego.  God does not deal with egos; God deals with our real self.           

The students who shared their stories of a wounded ego were able to learn a deep spiritual lesson.  Their wounded ego also was a wounded sense of who they thought they were.  If I am an athlete, I usually have a good bit of ego vested in being an athlete.  If that athletic prowess suffers wounding, I realize I am not who I thought I was.  My wounded ego challenges my identity.  A wounded ego often forces us to wonder if we are somebody at all?             

A wounded ego is usually a humbling experience.  The ego is knocked off its lofty perch.  But with the humility comes a wonderful opportunity to begin to know who I really am---at my deeper level.  It allows me to begin to know my true self.  Finally, my true self is the only “real” self.             

When the students shared their wounded ego stories, they invited us into their grief and, at some point, what will be their healing and growing as true selves.  Their story will have to become our story, too, if we ever are to know truly who we are.  As long as we are caught up in ego-agendas, we are not “real” people.  For sure, we might look good and be temporarily successful.  But we are not real.         

Sooner or later, our ego-identity will need to be wounded so that the true self can emerge, grow and blossom.  That is the self that God patiently seeks to see.  Finally the wounding is good news.  However, it seldom seems that way in the beginning.  This is all knowledge; be willing to greet the wounding---the good news that you are on the way!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Walkways and Pathways

Often I am inspired to write one of these reflections by an experience I would never guess could become spiritual.  This happened recently when I was in a large east coast city.  Since I grew up on an Indiana farm, visiting a city continues to be an eye-opening experience.  As a kid, I had cornfields, not skyscrapers!  I appreciate nature, to be sure, but I also appreciate the marvel of human engineering and building that the large cities represent.            

It was during a rather leisurely walk in the middle of this large city that I began to take note of something pretty mundane.  A couple times, I turned off a big, multi-lane street on which I was walking and headed down a much more narrow side street.  There is nothing remarkable about that, until I began to notice the stark contrast between the huge throughway that the big street represented and the tinier walkway that linked some of the larger roads.            

It occurred to me that I would never describe the major throughway as a “walkway.”  I was intrigued with that word, so I checked the dictionary.  A walkway obviously is a place to walk.  More precisely, a walkway can describe a connecting place between two buildings or streets.  Literally, it is a “way” to walk.             

My mind immediately went to some of the European or Asian cities I have visited.  Sometimes those walkways are nearly hidden, obscure and twisting.  Occasionally, those walkways would be covered.  I also remember heading down some of those foreign city walkways and was really unsure where they would take me or what I might see on the way.  They were a bit foreboding.  They provoked caution, even though I would know it was a “way to walk.”  The walkway would get me from point A to point B.  But that is as special as it ever became.           

As I reflected a little further, I realized that I switch language when it comes to spirituality.  Instead of walkway, I use the language of “pathway.”  I am sure for some people, the two words, walkway and pathway, are synonymous.  But for me, pathway is a spiritual term.  I would agree that a pathway could also be understood as a means to get from point A to point B.  But this becomes very different when points A and B are spiritual.  For me a pathway is never simply a way to move from 8th Street to 9th Street.           

I am certain all the major religious traditions offer pathways for people to search for and connect with the Holy One.  Of course, a tradition like Buddhism would not talk about the Holy One, but something more like the realization of the truth.  But the Buddhist also would have a spiritual path.  Since I know the most about Christianity, let me stick with that tradition to illustrate the nature of a spiritual path.           

It is well known that at one point Jesus talks about being the “way.”  Of course, this has led to doctrines that can become very controversial.  I prefer to avoid doctrine and talk about Jesus’ description of the “way” as the pathway he trod and invites all his disciples to walk, too.             

The spiritual path begins with faith.  For me personally, faith meant coming to trust that there was a God and that I could come to know and connect with the Divine One.  Faith means that no one can prove that God exists and that we can know God.  It is a pilgrimage of faith and a way of trust.  I can become confident, but I can never be sure that God is there with me and for me.           

So I walk the spiritual path in trust and learn to love.  Learning to love is not like the walkway that takes us from 8th Street to 9th Street.  Learning to love is a pathway that is more byzantine.  It is more like those ways in Asian cities that can even seem foreboding.  On the spiritual pathway there may be some fear and trepidation to test the faith with which one walks.           

Learning to love on the spiritual path is much like walking the maze.  Unlike a labyrinth, a maze is not easy.  In fact, when we enter a maze, we cannot be sure we can even make it to the middle.  The path is not clear; it is often not even marked.  There will be dead ends, wrong choices, and times of being lost.           

This is why the spiritual path requires times of prayer and meditation.  We need time to explore, time to test options, times to listen for God’s still small voice.  The spiritual path can be frustrating, because it is often not clear whether we are making progress---whether we really are getting anywhere.  We are tempted to want to try to turn our spiritual pathway into a walkway.  We want a guarantee---a sure thing.           

That is the difference.  If you are on a spiritual path that seems like a sure thing---believe this and do that---you can be confident you have turned the spiritual path into a walkway.  For me this is a sure sign that I have opted for the illusion that I’ve got it and I will surely make it.  I know I am on a spiritual path and that is why I am sure of nothing.  And that feels like progress!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Waiting For the Lord


Last night I turned to the lectionary.  The last time of worship and devotion in the lectionary is called Compline.  When I visit a monastery, it is my favorite one of all periods  of worship.  If you go to a rigorous monastery, like Gethsemani where I take my students, you have seven worship periods throughout the day.  The first one begins at 3:15, which is a tough one for normal people.  The remaining six periods structure the day in a way that is very different for most of us.

The day culminates in the evening with Compline.  For much of the year here in the Northern hemisphere, it is dark when Compline is conducted.  A common theme of Compline is prayers for rest and, perhaps, protection.  Compline finishes or “completes” the day.  One is ready for bed and the preparation for a new day.

Last night when I turned to the lectionary readings for Compline, I was directed to the words of the Psalmist found in Psalm 130.  It is a short Psalm and contained the familiar Compline themes.  Let’s look at a few of these.

Often it can be instructive to look at a couple of different translations to get a better feel for what the passage is saying.  Since most of us do not read Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, we are dependent on a translation.  In this case we can look at the translation that I find on my Catholic website and the New Revised Standard Version.  Of course, there are many other translations we could use, but these two will give a feel for the possibilities.

I focused on a couple lines in the middle of the Psalm.  The Catholic translation says, “More than the watchman for daybreak, let Israel hope in the Lord.”  One gets a slightly different focus if we turn to the NRSV: “my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.”  I personally prefer the first translation because of the explicit desire for hope.  Hope is typically a theme for Compline: thanks for the day and hope for the tomorrow.  In the NRSV the hope element seems more muted.  We are told instead that the soul is waiting for the Lord.  Of course, there is likely hope implied in this, but I prefer the explicit hope.

The basis for the hope comes next in the Psalmist’s writing.  The basis of our hope is in the Lord.  God is hope.  Let’s look at the Psalmist’s words.  Again, the Catholic translation I find appealing: “for with the Lord there is kindness and abundant redemption.”  This is theology that speaks to my condition.  One can hope in God because with the Lord there is kindness.  That’s a relief!  And with that Divine kindness we also learn that with God there is abundant redemption.  That seems like a great deal!

Redemption means that we have a way out of our predicament.  Redemption happens for those who are caught in a spiral of defeats.  Redemption comes to those who are judged guilty and headed to some kind of prison.  For many of us, we are not heading to a literal prison with bars, etc.  However, we can be imprisoned by many things.  There are many psychological forms of imprisonment.  With the Lord there is abundant redemption.

The NRSV is not a bad translation.  It tells us, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”  Clearly here is the clarion call for hope.  This hope is founded in the steadfast love of the Lord.  I know enough Hebrew to know that those two words, “steadfast love,” translate a very important Hebrew word.  It is very close to the Greek word, agape, that many of us use.  It means sacrificial love.  It is the kind of love that is at the heart of the Christian Easter story.  With that kind of love, it is easy to harbor hope.

And our hope is grounded in the power of the Lord to redeem.  Again, this introduces the liberation theme.  This is a powerful word for any of us who feel trapped and are not sure there is a way out.  It is key word for all of us who feel condemned and, perhaps, unable to do anything else. Redemption is what we long to have.  And redemption may be the very thing we fear we either do not deserve or will never to given. 

For those of us in this situation, all we can do is wait for the Lord.  We may have to wait through the darkness of not knowing if it can happen.  But the words of the Psalmist should be a comfort.  That is why I read the words of Compline and pray the words into my own reality.

I will wait upon the Lord and seek hope in God’s kindness and power to redeem.  Sometime that hope will be realized.  That is the promise.  I am content to wait in hope.