Wednesday, April 30, 2014

When You Have a Bad Day

As many of you know, I like to try to follow a daily discipline of some devotional time.  No doubt, the key word is discipline.  It is so tempting to define spirituality and the spiritual journey in a way that excludes discipline.  It is easy to make spirituality the same thing as religion.  For many Christians religion is a matter of belief---of doctrine.  Certainly no Jew would begin with doctrine, nor would a Buddhist.  On the other hand, the Christian tends to begin a discussion on religion with some kind of “I believe” statement.           

I am not against belief.  It is clear to me that one cannot really be spiritual without having some kind of belief.  For many it will be a belief in God.  This is not where the Buddhist would begin.  I certainly have my own beliefs and, hopefully, some kind of coherent belief system.  For example, what I think about God should correlate with how I think about the world.           

Belief systems do not necessarily have an element like discipline.  I am convinced that spirituality has to have an inherent discipline or it is just a bunch of ideas.  Ideas are not bad; in fact, they are necessary.  But spirituality has to do with life and life is more than ideas.  Life is action---often sustained action over time.  And this is where discipline typically comes into the picture.           

So in my discipline practice, I turned to the readings from the Psalms that were listed for the night prayer in yesterday’s lectionary.  The night prayer is called Compline, which seems to imply “complete.”  Compline is the last monastic communal time before the monks head to their individual rooms and to bed to rest for another day.  Compline is my favorite part of the daily lectionary.           

I had to laugh when I read the first Psalm that was listed for yesterday’s Compline.  Early in Psalm 143, the Psalmist shares these words: “The enemy has hounded my spirit, he has crushed my life to the ground, he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.”  Wow, I thought, this is a bummer!  These words sound like the Psalmist has had a bad day.  That is when I laughed.  I don’t think I have ever considered the writer of the Psalms had a bad day.           

Too often religion and spirituality are offered as recipes for living so that people never will have bad days.  Of course, that is ridiculous.  Nobody can live life without having a bad day.  Maybe in Eden, Adam and Eve never had a bad day.  But then, we all know they had a bad day---a very bad day, indeed.  They fell, or so the story goes.  And on their bad day were sown the seeds of all the bad days all human beings apparently are destined to have.           

Listen carefully to the bad day of the Psalmist.  The first complaint is that the enemy has hounded my spirit.  I can resonate with this.  My “enemy” takes on many forms.  My enemy might be a co-worker or unruly student.  It might be the guy who runs into my car.  My enemy can even be me!  Sometimes I am my own worst enemy.  I become overcommitted---too busy---and drive myself nuts.  I do not even need an external enemy!  All my enemies hound my spirit.  They harass me relentlessly.           

The second line from the Psalmist becomes even more dramatic: he has crushed my life to the ground.  I understand that teenagers occasionally get grounded.  But when the enemy grounds us, that is serious!  This seems like the Psalmist is halted, stymied and impotent.  Hope fades and things get bleaker.  I have had bad days---and bad stretches---like that.           

So what is one to do?  Let me offer three simple suggestions.  They are not necessarily easy, but they are simple.  In the first place when you are having a bad day, keep your faith.  And if you don’t have faith, find or create faith.  It can be faith in God, which many of us have.  But even if you can’t have faith in God, have faith in something bigger than yourself.  Have a faith that transcends your person and your situation.  Faith helps us not be egocentric.  We are not god.  Discover God.         

Secondly, when you are having a bad day, stay with community.  And if you don’t have a community, get to work to find or create community.  Community is a place where people care for you and you are asked to care.  To be part of community is to be part of a place that offers meaning and purpose. Latch on to the bigger picture that community provides.  Again, it is not just about you.          

Finally, when you have a bad day, persevere.  Develop a quality of resiliency.  Authentic spirituality enables people to develop a resiliency---a quality of “bounce back.”  Resiliency means that one will not get stuck in the place the Psalmist describes: being shut in the darkness, like the dead.  The dead are not resilient.  You are not dead.          

When you have a bad day, keep the faith, stay with community and be resilient.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Climbing to God

Again, it’s back to the basics.  I know I have done this quite a bit.  But it is always a good thing occasionally to go back to the basics.  I like reading a range of material and I am always amazed how easy it is to find spiritual connections and lessons in a huge number of venues.  It is true, I believe, to find the spiritual ebbing through almost all of our daily life.  But there are always good reasons to go back to the basics.

Back to the basics for me means that I engage the daily lectionary that I use.  Of course, most days I don’t use that to comment on life.  But it is always present.  It is the substratum of life for me.  It is part of the day’s pulsating presence.  I know it is always there, but I also know that sometimes I pay no attention.  And then I wonder why life seems a bit shallow or maybe a little more aimless.  God is always present and ready to speak to me, if I will but listen. 

I know God does not speak in a normal human way.  I don’t hear voices in my ears.  I don’t get visible signs in the world as I walk around in it.  I have no billboard divine announcements.  But God does speak.  I hear that voice in scripture.  I discern that divine voice in the words of God’s saints.  And frequently God speaks to me with the voice of my friends and acquaintances, but those are the most difficult to believe that God is actually using them for me! 

For example, this morning I turned to the morning readings from my lectionary---the daily prayers and readings from my Benedictine monk friends.  The heart of the morning lectionary reading was from Psalm 84.  It was a Psalm I had not remembered reading, but I am sure I have done it a few times.  I love the way the Psalm begins: “How delightful is your dwelling-place, Lord of Hosts.”  

Then a little later in the Psalm comes some great spiritual truth for me.  The Psalmist assures us, “Blessed the man whose help comes from you, who has set his heart on climbing to you.”  When I am devotionally attentive to this kind of material, I try to move through it slowly and let the truth impact me and to absorb it.  If I stay with this sentence, I realize it affirms that God helps us.  I am convinced this is true for all of us.  However, it is also true that this help may not always be very evident or visible.  Some of us would have a difficult time pointing to something and saying, “Yep, that’s God’s help.”  And so, it is easy to assume God helps others, but not me! 

Maybe we need the other half of that verse to make it full.  God helps us, but we also have to set our heart on climbing to God.  That idea resonates with me, although there are times I confess I would just like God to help me and I’ll forget the climbing part!  Give me grace, O Lord, and don’t expect any effort from me!  Climbing?  That sounds like hard work! 

Let’s pursue the climbing theme to see how the Psalmist develops it.  The Psalmist tells us spiritual climbers “pass through the valley of thirst and make a spring there…”  The valley of thirst is a powerful image.  On the surface it sounds uninviting and foreboding.  Who wants voluntarily to pass through a valley of thirst?  Can’t God simply order a helicopter and fly us directly to the Presence of the Divine?  I think the answer is obvious. Spiritual climbing---the religious journey---takes human effort and the gift of Divine grace. 

Even though we go through the valley of thirst, there will be a spring made there.  I understand the spring to be symbolic of that grace God provides.  It takes some faith to believe that God will provide the grace of water if we head into the valley of thirst.  But if we have no faith, if we fail to go, we’ll never know that Presence of Divinity Itself. 

I would like to nab one more line from the Psalmist.  If we can undergo that spiritual climb, the Psalmist tells us that we “will go from strength to strength…”  That is encouraging and reassuring.  “Trust me,” I hear God telling us.  Trust is simply another word for “faith.”  Paradoxically, if you begin the work and effort of spiritual climbing, we will go from strength to strength.  Much of faith is paradoxical.  I think of the biblical assurance that in weakness comes strength.   

It is all worth it.  We have a goal.  The Psalmist puts it in biblical, theological terms.  The Psalmists blesses us with the promise: “they will see the God of gods, in Zion.”  You can’t see God unless you begin to climb.  Along the way, you will find springs of living water.  And instead of fatiguing, you will go from strength to strength.  And finally, you will “see.”   

We may literally see God.  But surely, metaphorically we will “see.”  We will understand life.  We will grasp meaning and purpose.  We will know that our life is good, is worthwhile, and has dignity.  We will know that we are treasures in earthen vessels.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sacrament of Ordinariness

Daily I read the newspaper.  It is a life-long habit.  I am one of the old-timers who actually like to hold the hard copy in my hand.  Most of the paper I read early in the morning with a cup of coffee.  Although too much of the news is stuff I may already know because I also check things on the internet or see them on television, nevertheless I like to read the paper.  Neither of my kids would read a newspaper, if you handed it to them.  I am confident the future of newspapers, as we know them, is in peril.             

I often start with the sports page.  That probably is a holdover from when I was a kid.  Today I know sports is not the most important thing in the world.  In fact, much of sports are not worth much.  I especially don’t like professional sports.  But I read about sports of all sorts as if I were an addict.           

I almost never would expect to find anything spiritually uplifting in the sports section.  I also do not really expect to read that section and be inspired or be given a neat idea.  But recently I got one of those unexpected gifts from the front of the sports page.  It was by a local writer, Bill Livingston, whom I have met, but don’t know well.  I like his work.           

The title of the article was “Triumph of the Ordinary.”  In effect, Livingston argues that the focus on the biggest, most spectacular in sports masks what he calls “the power of the ordinary.”  I loved that phrase---the power of the ordinary.  Somehow it resonates with a truth that makes perfect sense to me.  I eagerly read on in the article.  He talked about such things as the bunt in baseball as an example of the power of the ordinary.  We all know there is much hoopla around the home run.  The quaint bunt---the ordinary---gets little attention.  But it is very important.           

Livingston develops a case, which makes sense to me.  He argues, “the ordinary play…becomes a sign of dependability.”  He continues, “Dependability replicated often enough becomes consistency.  Consistency with enough longevity becomes a Hall of Fame career.”  He makes a very good point when he notes that it takes a long time before we begin to understand and appreciate the power of the ordinary.             

Perhaps our culture is so hyperactive and impatient, we don’t value or appreciate the little things in life.  We would rather see grandeur and wait for the bombastic.  We want to see the big splash and do not value the little drip.  Livingston’s article is really about baseball, but it applies to any arena where the ordinary plays a huge, but often underappreciated role.           

Near the end of the article he writes about baseball, “The sacrament of ordinariness is part of it.”  I was nearly dumbfounded when I read that phrase: the sacrament of ordinariness.  Immediately that phrase became a wonderful spiritual descriptor of how the ordinariness in our lives can play an important role.           

Even though I am a Quaker, I value quite highly the meaning and purpose of the sacramental.  For too long I heard Quakers say that “we don’t have sacraments.”  That simply is not true.  More to the truth was for me to learn Quakers seek to see and find that all of life is sacramental.  Livingston’s phrase---the sacrament of ordinariness---is a perceptive way to put it.  I knew instantly that I had a new way to articulate a deep truth for me.           

If all of life is potentially sacramental, then surely there has to be a way in which the ordinary---the routine---has to be a sacramental conduit.  Certainly not all of life---my life anyway---is flashy, full of grandeur and bombastic.  Most of my life is lived routinely and in the middle of my ordinariness.  But it can be spiritual.  And with Livingston’s help, I know it can be sacramental---the sacrament of ordinariness.            

A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace or inner holiness.  If I translate that into my ordinary life, then I can come to see my ordinariness potentially as a visible sign of an invisible grace.  Let me use an example.  A simple example is my commitment to being nice.  That sounds simplistic.  Being nice is no big deal.  Most people are nice.             

Because it is so simple and prevalent, it is easy to overlook or underappreciate the power of ordinariness---the power of being nice.  Being nice is much like the bunt in baseball.  It is a little thing.  In fact it is sacrificial.  Being nice is a little thing and, often, sacrificial.  But being nice is sacramental.  It is a sign of a kind of divine grace.  Being nice is a graceful act.           

I am grateful to a sports writer and an innocuous little article on baseball to give me a great idea for spirituality and an understanding of the spiritual life.  It really is good news.  And good news itself---regardless of source---is a cause for thanksgiving and celebration.  I love knowing that I can go through my day doing some simple, ordinary things and know they are, in fact, powerful and sacramental. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Where Your Treasure Is

Long-time readers of this inspirational reflection could have rightly concluded that music is not a big deal with me.  Traditionally music was not important to Quakers.  In fact, the first two centuries or more of our history, music was not used at all.  And when I was growing up, music was not very present in my family.  So I have not had much in my context that supports and values music.  I am certainly not against it.   

Being a product of the 1960s means I was very aware of the rock n’ roll music that blared from the radios.  I recall how aghast the parental generation was when Elvis hit the scene.  I liked the Beach Boys and would agree that overall the lyrics of the music in the ‘60s left something to be desired!  By the time I was growing up, many Quakers were using music in their worship services, but it often was pretty mediocre. 

One of the things that I most liked when I began visiting monasteries was the music.  Very often, it would be the Gregorian chants that lured me into the feeling and the words of the music.  It felt very spiritual and I am not sure I could explain that.  But I liked it.  I began to appreciate how music could be a conduit for the Divine Presence.  I appreciate how soulful it could be. 

Recently, I wandered into a setting where the gathering hymn lured me into a meditative mode.  It did “gather” those of us who had come to worship.  Once again, I was very aware how affective---how much feeling---the music was for me.  The tone and melody sucked me into a deeper place within.  And yet paradoxically, it also brought me outside of myself to begin that process of joining and being conjoined with all the other people who were present.  It was as if the Spirit had come melodically into our midst and was picking each of us up by our souls and making us one.  We began to become one with the One. 

I can be touched by the music and pay almost no attention to the words.  But this gathering hymn was so simple that when we sang it time and time again, the words started to work their way into my heart.  I did not have to read them any more.  My voice literally was putting words to music.  And this was part of the unison activity of all of us together. 

I was vaguely aware of the theology of the words I was singing.  I knew they were biblical words and could have told you they were from one of Paul’s epistles.  But I really did not want a biblical lesson.  I wanted the unifying worship experience.  And so I continued to participate at a sub-theological, sub-rational level.  It was time to be spiritual.  Theory would be shelved in favor of practice. 

Time and time again, we began the gathering hymn.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be.”  I knew deeper and deeper that this was true.  In the moment I was sure my treasure was this group of people and our God.  When worship is over and I am on my own, I realize my treasure might slip into other, less divinely focused arenas.  I need to stay aware of this and watch out. 

The second line of the hymn spoke to this reality.  The line affirms, “All that your possess will never set you free.”  How true, indeed!  And that is why those of us who are rich in material wealth have such a hard time with authentic freedom.  Oh, we may be free to do, as we like.  But we are not really free.  We have to be on guard.  Again, I understand why my monk-friends take the vow of poverty.  Why not opt out of possessions and make oneself really free?  Sounds so simple, but it is difficult when we have stuff!

I found the next line encouraging.  It tells me to “Seek the things that last.”  Again the truth of that seemed so obvious to me.  Once more, it is so simple.  Seek the things that last.  I guess that rules out fancy cars and all the trappings that I know I could easily go after.  I have enough money to buy some of that stuff!  A new car might be super, but it never can be soulful.  And ultimately, it will rust.  Maybe our souls also rust when we are seeking after the things that don’t last. 

And so we go back to the beginning.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be.”  Half the time, I have no clue where my heart is.  I could probably make up an answer if I were asked.  But would it be accurate and honest?  In many instances, I doubt that it would be. 

My treasure is likely betrayed by what I spend my time and effort on.  To what do I give my heart?  Making money?  Television or computer games?  We likely would not say they are our treasure or that we find our heart in those things.  But it is nevertheless true.  I want to do better. 

So I am going to exercise some care with respect to my possessions.  And I am going to seek the things that last.  In a spiritual group I do pretty well.  On my own I realize I need help.  So Lord, grant me community---the gathered community.  It is a treasure in its own right.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Celebration: Understanding What It Is

Most days when I go to work, I realize how lucky I am.  In fact, I resonate with the person who first understands that if you enjoy what you are doing, it does not feel like work.  Most of why I like what I do is because it involves significant time with young adults---college students.  It is an exciting time for so many of them as they are transitioning from being a child at home to a young adult testing out their independence and figuring out the kind of person they want to be.           

It is a joy to be involved with so many of them as they engage some aspect of spirituality.  Many of them sign up for a class with me, not so much because they want to focus on spirituality.  Honestly, most of them take a class because it counts for some kind of requirement.  In a sense they conclude I am the best of a bad thing!  Or just as likely, they like the time of the day when the class is offered.           

But that does not concern me.  For decades now, I have seen my role in the form of ministry.  Put theologically, I am trying to be a servant of the Spirit.  It is an issue of obedience for me.  My job---indeed, my life---is trying to incarnate the Spirit and allowing that Spirit to use me to “speak” to a younger generation.  It is not about me.  In many instances, my first job is to make something interesting when they did not really expect it to be interesting.  Secondly, I hope they come to see spirituality to be relevant to their lives.  If that happens, my obedience has borne some fruit.          

Recently I had an experience that indicated some were bearing some fruit of the Spirit.  I have been teaching a course on Spiritual Disciplines.  On the surface, that does not sound exciting and appealing to the average college student.  The word, discipline, is not usually a “turn on” for an eighteen year old!  The adjective, spiritual, only makes it worse!  But I am patient.  Often it takes some time for them to open up and engage the topic and the process.           

One of the topics at semester’s end is the theme of celebration.  Rather than spend time trying to memorize what some author tells us celebration is, I asked the students as a group to come up with their own definition of celebration.  I was very pleased with the result.  In a relatively short period of time, they came up with a two-part definition, which I plan to incorporate into my own understanding of the term.          

In a somewhat surprising move, the first half of the definition of celebration focuses on the communal aspect---the group.  In an American culture driven by individualism, it was refreshing to see them grasp the communal aspect.  Their definition said, “Celebration is a community of shared attitudes of appreciation and gratefulness.”  I love the phrase, “a community of shared attitudes.”  This describes very well the power of the people in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque.          

It is key to see celebration having to do with attitudes of appreciation and gratefulness.  Gratitude is a response to the joy of living.  Celebration is recognizing this joy and appreciating it.  If we can develop this attitude, we set ourselves at a full table of life and have so much to celebrate.  The students discovered real insight with this half of the definition.           

The other half of the definition moves from the communal to the individual.  Without individuals, there never will be community.  It is equally important to us to learn to celebrate ourselves.  Again, the students offered insight.  They say, “Celebration is opening oneself to the goodness of the world.”  I find this definition so interesting, because it is not obvious to define celebration in this way.            

Celebration as “opening” is a clever move.  Celebration does open us.  Or maybe it is the other way around: only if we open ourselves, can we come to celebrate.  But it is more than mere openness.  It is openness to the goodness of the world.  There is a presupposition in this definition.  The students were presupposing there is goodness in the world.  I agree with them.  That has been my experience.            

However, it seems so many people are trained or habituated to see the bad in the world.  This comes through pessimistic attitudes that depreciate and grumble at the world, instead of appreciate and be grateful.  In order to celebrate we are going to have to see the good in the world.  It is there; I simply need to stop, look, and listen.  Goodness is not a train, but it comes nevertheless.           

When I see this kind of work and wisdom among students, I realize they are not merely students.  They, too, have become disciples of the Spirit.  They too are in the process of incarnating the ever-present Spirit.  To become spiritual is to live in, through and from this Spirit.  If I can do that---if we can do that---there is cause for celebration everywhere and every day.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Work a Miracle

I was listening fairly closely as the priest was working his way through the liturgy.  It may seem odd that a Quaker participates so gladly in a much more liturgical worship than a silent form of worship which would be my normal fare.  Sometimes I joke and say I am spiritually ambidextrous!  That is not a bad comparison.  To be able to shoot a basketball with either hand was an asset when I played ball.  And to be able to participate and appreciate a highly structured worship approach or one rooted unstructured in silence feels enriching to me. 

The good news for me is I feel comfortable in either setting.  I have participated in liturgical worship situations fairly frequently, so I know what’s going on.  I can play my role as a participant in the group.  I like the fact that I will not be chosen to be up front and leading.  I like the music, the prayers and the sacrament.  But I also like those places in the liturgy where I won’t be able to guess what the priest might say or do.

There are the predictable unstructured places, even in the liturgy.  The homily or sermon is one such place.  There are other places where good priests have some liberty in what they will say or do.  I especially like to be attentive at those places.

It was just in one of these open spaces that I heard the phrase that I knew was going to stick in my brain and become the focus of some reflection.  I have no idea what the context of the phrase was.  It was near the end of the worship experience.  The priest said that “in some way to work a miracle.”  It was an innocent little phrase.  It was not intoned any differently that the sentence before or after it.  In fact, I wonder how many people actually “heard” it in the sense that they could have shared it with another person?  I am not even sure why it registered so clearly in my brain.  But it was my take-away of the day!

I am sure that what grabbed my attention was that part of the phrase which says we should “work a miracle.”  I wanted to say, “Yes,” to yell “Amen.”  I am for working a miracle, but then I realized I am not sure what that means.  This is where I need to reflect on the matter.

Doubtlessly, the issue is the meaning of the word, miracle.  Work a miracle?  Sure, but what does a miracle look like?  At one level, I don’t like the word, miracle.  It is used too loosely in our culture.  There are miracles on baseballs fields and sundry other places.  Sometimes it can mean as little as something special.  I am not against special things, but I don’t categorize them as miracles.

At the other extreme is the assumption that a miracle is any kind of divine intervention.  Again I have no problem thinking that God might intervene in some ways---although it is difficult to be specific.  And it clearly raises some troubling questions why God would not intervene in other cases, i.e. seriously sick people? 

I turned to the classical language and, as usual, found them helpful.  I know the Latin and Greek words for “miracle” can also be translated “wonder” or “marvel.”  This is helpful, but it is not conclusive.  But I am not really sure you can be conclusive when it comes to miracles.  That either disappoints us, or it might make us relieved.  I am one of those that are relieved that we can’t be conclusive about miracles. 

That means I might see or do a miracle that not every person would agree to be miraculous.  That is ok with me.  Let’s stay with the classical definition of miracle, i.e. a wonder or marvel.  If I can do something marvelous, I am willing to say that is miraculous.  It did not require God’s immediate intervention, although I am sure God would be happy with the miracle.  And if someone else does not interpret that marvelous deed as miraculous, that’s ok; it’s still marvelous!  The deed is what is important, not what we call it.

I think this is what hit me so positively about the priest’s phrase.  In some way this day I want to work a miracle.  Maybe I can manage a couple or three!  And maybe you can, too?  It does not mean we have to turn water into wine! 

I do think we have all sorts of chances and situations in our normal day to be miraculous.  They are not prescribed, but they can be performed in some way.  Your way probably will be different than my way.  Perhaps the way we all can look at it---as miracle workers---is to ask where in this day can I do wondrous and marvelous things?  And maybe it is not always a matter of doing.  Perhaps it can be as simple as being marvelous and wondrous.

If we all did this today, that would be a miracle!  I am going to try. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On the Road Again

Yesterday I spent a good part of the day on the road.  Periodically, I take trips to see people.  If it is a distant trip, that means a plane ticket and flight.  But if it is less than five hundred miles, I prefer to drive.  Flying used to be fun, but that is not the word I use to describe it any more.  Driving may not be fun either, but is does seem more sane to me.  At least, I am in control of my schedule and I feel more free.           

I am not na├»ve that taking a car trip is profound.  At one level, there certainly is nothing spiritual about it.  The intent was to hop in the car and travel from one point to the other.  The trip can be measured in miles or in time.  Sometimes we say, “the trip was about four hundred miles.”  Other times we will say something like, “the trip took six hours.”  Finally, all that really matters is that we make the trip and arrive at our destination.          

My trip yesterday was not spectacular in any way.  Fortunately, it was uneventful.  There were no mishaps---no near wrecks.  Sometimes, I am amazed at how far I can drive and apparently not be too observant.  There was nothing especially noteworthy about the scenery.  Often I can be a little disappointed in myself that I notice less of what is “there,” than I am sure is “there.”  Perhaps that is because I just want to finish the trip and arrive at my destination.             

I think it was this last dawning realization that set me to thinking.  I began to think about trips.  I immediately went in two directions with my mind.  The first direction sent me into my memory bank and the famous song by Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again.”  A quick research told me that Willie wrote and debuted the song in 1980.  I thought it was older than that.  I like the song.           

The other direction that my mind went was to recall how important the metaphor of “journey” is in a number of different spiritual traditions.  Often life itself is portrayed as a journey.  It occurred to me that we could talk about life as a journey.  However, it takes on even more meaning if I talk about it as a spiritual journey.  I find this an engaging idea.           

Like my trip yesterday, the journey of life has a beginning and an end.  Certainly, the beginning is the day of our birth.  While we could say the destination of life’s journey is death, I think there are better options.  Of course, we will die.  We could see life’s destination as heaven or the kingdom---two significant biblical images.  I have nothing against either of these.  I can hope to wind up “there,” whatever the kingdom or heaven “there” turns out to be.           

However, I prefer to talk about the duration of life’s spiritual journey as a love story.  And the destination of this journey is Love Itself.  I imagine death as the doorway into Love Itself.  Instead of extinction, death is more like a matriculation---a beginning of new life.             

If life’s journey is a love story, then surely it is not a solitary trip.  It has to include friends.  And this took me back to Willie Nelson’s song.  Willie’s song opens with these words: “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.  The life I love is making music with my friends.”  These words can be appropriated for the spiritual journey of life.           

If it is a journey of love, then I can wait to get on the road again.  Willie says the life he loves is making music with his friends.  I would say the same thing.  I am not talking about literally making music, but I do think life’s journey as a love story is musical---harmonious, melodic and sweet.  Like Willie says, this journey is “goin’ places that I’ve never been. And it is “seein’ things I may never see again.”  Perhaps this is the secret of life as a spiritual journey.  As a spiritual journey, we will see things that I might not ever see and I might be taken places that I have never been.           

I like another one of Willie’s lines in the song.  He talks about a band of his friends going down the highway.  In fact, Willie says, “We’re the best of friends.”  This is the place I stop and take stock.  Am I part of just such a band?  Do I have “the best of friends” traveling with me?  For me this is the question of community.  Am I part of a nurturing, nourishing community of travelers?  Am I part of someone else’s love story?           

If the answer is affirmative, then I need to cultivate my own love story and those stories of my friends.  If I realize I am traveling alone too much of the time, then I have time.  I have time to get on the road again.  I have time to look for spiritual travelers who would be willing to let me join their band of folks on the way.  If they are a true community, they always will be open and inclusive.             

I had to laugh, as I pulled into my destination.  I was home; the trip was finished.  But my spiritual journey is not at all finished.  I am thankful to be on the road again with the best of friends.  I am heading into the heart of Love Itself.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Life and Grace

May this day bring you a taste of grace---grace without which everything in life begins to dull or maybe even become overwhelming.  Life and grace is what the whole Easter season has been about.  I emphasize life and grace.

If we look at the calendar, we know that Easter is over.  Spiritually the challenge now is not to get over Easter!  In saying this, I have in mind more than just the Christians in our world.  I want to include all humans.  Chronologically, Easter is history, but this should not mean we lose its mystery.  Not to lose its mystery is to continue asking God to touch those parts of our lives, which have become deadened.  It means realizing some days we feel like we have been deposited in the tomb.  We may feel deadened.  We require that angelic visit to proclaim life again.

We need to keep our eyes open to the awe, wonder and meaning daily around us.  We can put our hands to the task of creating meaning to these lives of ours.  We bend forward with ears to hear the quiet voice---the divine inner voice---which is always threatening to be drowned out by the noise and confusion of our society.

I am reminded of the long-ago words of Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the U.N.  Hammarskjold said, “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

In another place Hammarskjold says, “What gives life its value you can find – and lose.  But never posses.  This holds good above all for ‘the Truth about Life.’”   This is the sad possibility of Easter---we can say it is over.  But this is true of any special, meaningful event.  It is true of birthdays.  We can’t “possess” them any more than we can stop the calendar.

Wanting to possess a meaningful experience basically is a desire to stop time.  But we know this is not possible.  What we can do is remember.  Memory is a wonderful human capacity to savor again something which once happened.  Of course, it is not the same.  So memory is not possession, but it is the chance to “have” something again…and again, if we want.

Obviously, memory deals with the past.  In that sense it is re-creative.  It re-creates what once was or what once happened.  We can also be creative.  That is the way we can choose to deal with the future which is still coming at us.  That is the way to avoid becoming deadened in our daily lives.

The spiritual trick is to find Easter---life and grace---again and again, to find it daily.  We can find it in the wonder of your life.  We can create instead of complain.  We can generate instead of gripe.  I think this is the truth about life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Week and Easter…Again

Even if you are a Christian, I have concluded it depends on where you are---what is your context---how aware of Holy Week and the impending Easter you are.  If you are a Christian and work in a mainly secular environment, you may be relatively unaware of Holy Week.  For many it does not dawn on them until at least Thursday.  And of course, in the secular world there is absolutely nothing special about Thursday. 

But even in the secular world, Friday often assumes special connotations.  It might be a holiday---a day off.  It is at my University.  So I suppose it is the one day Jews, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians are thankful for their Christian brothers and sisters!  But for the Christian, Friday---Good Friday---is an interesting one. 

I suspect that for many Christians Friday is simply skipped.  They see Easter as very special and nothing else really matters.  The resurrection is key for them.  Why bother with anything less?  Let’s skip sadness and depression and go straight for the joy and jubilation! 

Even as a Christian, that quick move to Easter seems too easy.  That choice seems to me an option for a suffering-less Jesus, and by implication, a suffering-less world.  Ever since I began studying some of this Christian faith (instead of just going to church because of family expectations), it seemed clear to me that you can’t have Sunday without Friday.  In fact, the Romans and all the oppressors throughout the ages are all-to-real to be able to skip.  There simply has been and is too much suffering to ignore.

Whatever Christianity is, I believe it is not an “ignoring religion.”  In fact, none of the major religious traditions are “ignoring religions.”  I am very aware that my Jewish sisters and brothers have already this week entered the Passover season.  Passover is that annual remembering of the Jewish suffering in Egypt and God’s liberation of God’s people.  Of course, they were liberated straight into the desert!  But that is another story for another time.

But the Jewish Passover season may well hold the key to a proper understanding of the Christian Easter celebration.  Rightly understood, I think Easter is its own story of liberation.  In this case Christians would affirm the same liberating God chose a different way of doing it.  Instead of a trip through the Red Sea, God in Jesus walked the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) straight to the cross.

You can’t get to Sunday without living (and dying) on Friday.  Knowing this impacts me in a deep way.  Who among us would not want to skip Friday and go straight to Sunday?  But it does not work this way.  The story of Easter is always the story of hope.  But it must go through Friday.  The desire to skip Friday is an option for illusion.  

What is important for me this Holy Week and Easter---important again is how it grounds me in the deeper realities of my life.  Sometimes, I think I live most of my life as if I were in Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  I know my own Friday will come, but I put off thinking about it.  I get too involved in my own little secular world to think about death, meaning, and ultimate purpose.  I can even live my Wednesdays without much sense that Friday is looming.

Thankfully, these seasons of Passover and Holy Week are annual events.  If I ignore or mess up this one, I get another chance next year---assuming my own Good Friday does not come.

So I want to resolve to pay attention.  I want to pay attention to fact of oppression, the suffering in reality, and the story of love’s triumph.  And then let me resolve always to be on love’s side!

May all be blessed; a new inspiration appears on Monday

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Reality of Reality

We live in it at all times.  It surrounds us, penetrates us and yet is probably separate from us.  It is independent and dependent at the same time.  It is mysterious and, yet, completely transparent and knowable.  It’s reality.

Of course, there are different philosophical and theological perspectives on just what reality is.  I am sure there must be scientific versions, as well.  Psychologists might tell is reality is a matter of perspective.  I suppose some extremists are confident there is no such thing as reality.  Maybe I am in illusion, but it seems to me pretty clear there is such a thing a reality.  The good news is, I do not intend to explore its philosophical and scientific roots.  I am going to take reality for granted.  For me, it is.  Let’s think about the reality of reality.

What prompted these beginning thoughts was a random sentence in an article I was reading.  The article was not very good, but it did have a great sentence from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr.  It comes from his book, The Naked Now.  The sentence from Rohr that captured my attention tells us we need to “forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.”

My immediate response when I read this line was “yes, that’s true.”  I think it is true, but the truth it points to seems deeper and more complex than I grasped in the moment.  I also realized that I probably did not know as much as I thought I did.  But that’s probably true most of the time.  Sometimes I think I am pretty smart; other times I am sure I hardly know anything.  Again, reality does that to me.

When I read Rohr’s words, I was not particularly interested in the “forgiveness” part.  We may come back to that, but I did not want to begin with that idea.  What intrigued me more was the idea that reality is exactly what it is right now.  I am sure that is what propelled me to say, “yes.”  So what does that mean for me and for you?

I want to take it a couple different ways.  In the first place reality is a given.  For example, the physicality of much of our lives is reality.  Chronologically I am the age I am.  I am not a teenager.  Reality is I am living into my seventh decade.  I can’t change that.  Much of the world we inhabit is that kind of reality.  It is a world of beauty and charm.  It is also a world that at times is threatening and fearsome.  That reality is a given.

This is the first place Rohr’s words are instructive.  Sometimes we will have to forgive reality for being what it is right now.  If I am sick, that’s reality.  I can forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.  Maybe my sickness is something that I’ll get over and then reality will be different: I’ll be well.  But maybe my sickness is terminal and that’s reality.  Then I can still forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.

There is a second aspect of reality that is different.  This kind of reality is the reality I create for myself.  In some ways this is perceptual.  I think of the “glass half empty, glass half full.”  How I perceive it is my reality, but I have a choice about which reality I choose.

And this second kind of reality, I do have choices.  I think much philosophy, theology and spirituality deals with this second reality.  For example, the physical world is what it is: that’s reality.  But whether it points to a God who is Creator and creative is more a matter of perception---of belief.  Some choose to believe in this God; others find it absurd.  Not surprisingly, I choose to believe in that God.  That God is part of my reality.  In fact, God in Whom I believe creates and shapes much of the first kind of reality---the given reality of the physical world, etc.

This all may seem convoluted or fuzzy.  But for me, it is very real.  I live my life based on what is real and what I think is real.  I choose to be spiritual because I want to be as aware as I can of reality and the depth of my reality.  I want to pray and engage other spiritual disciplines to enable myself to live as deeply real as I can.  I am all too aware of how superficial life can be.  It is too easy to be alive, but not really live.

The spiritual life aims to be as grounded as possible in the reality of God’s love.  The goal of my spiritual life is to become as deeply and fully loving as my effort and the grace of God can muster.  The reality is that I am a work in progress.

Sometimes the reality is that I don’t do a very good job.  When that happens, I will need to forgive reality for being exactly as it is right now.  But that is not a condemnation forever. Often, I can change my reality and our reality. 

Love does just that.  It transforms reality.  Jesus and the other religious giants did just that: they were transformers of reality.  As followers, we are called to do likewise.  That’s the reality of reality.  That’s the spiritual reality of love.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Tea Party With Some Friends

The title of this inspirational reflection was the title of an email my daughter recently sent to me.  I noticed there was a photo attached.  I did not have a clue what the email subject line, a tea party with some friends, might mean.  I know some of my daughter’s friends, so it could be that she met with someone I know and who wanted to wish me well.  Her friends are thoughtful that way.  Of course, it could be about either of her own two kids, my own grandkids.  However, I had no clue what they knew about tea parties!           

The text of the email was short, but it set the context.  The text went something like, “things were a little quiet in the basement, so I popped down to find…”  Those words obviously were meant to lead me to the photo, which would connect to the subject line of the email.           

So I had to open the photo.  And there she was: my two-year old granddaughter.  She was in her pajamas, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, which led to the basement.  Right next to her was a good-sized Pooh Bear, her favorite.  She was holding another one of her stuffed animals, a guy named JZ.  I have not the faintest idea why the long, slinky animal is called JZ.  All she says is, “he’s a smiley guy!”  The rest of the bottom two stairs found countless more animals---all apparently gathered for a tea party!           

Instead of tea, I did notice her plastic cup of milk.  And there was a bowl that contained what looked like cereal.  I mused that “tea party” was simply a generic term to indicate she had gathered her pals for a time together.  She looked quite content.  I guess she figures, if you are surrounded by good friends, what else do you need?  Thinking about that, I realized I agree with her philosophy.            

I began to treasure the fact that this two-year old was beginning to teach this old guy with a Ph.D. a thing or two.  I never realized how young scholars could be!  So I stared at the picture for a while to ponder what she was trying to teach “an old dog.”  I don’t ever want to get so old that I can’t learn some “new tricks.”  So here are a few things my little one taught me through the photo.           

Of course, the most important one is the blessing of friends.  I know if I had to choose to be rich in money or friends, I instantly would choose friends.  That would guarantee that we could die loved instead of rich!  No one was ever born with friends.  We make friends, we keep friends; we can even screw up friendships.  But to have no friends?  That is an impoverished life, indeed.           

Secondly, she taught me to treat my friends well.  Clearly food and drink are important ingredients to friendship.  Just as surely are good conversations.  She may have favorite friends---the ones she holds more dearly.  But that does not mean the ones who are not quite as close to her are marginalized.  They matter, too.  They are cared for in significant ways.           

The best way to explain this is to resort to my knowledge of Greek.  In Greek the word for “friend” is one of the words for “love.”  So if you are speaking Greek, you talk about your friends with the language of “love.”  Put in this context helps us understand that friendships of any kind are love relationships.  My little granddaughter may, in fact, see Pooh Bear as her “best friend.”  But that does not mean Pooh Bear exhausts her love.  She still has enough to go around for the others on the step.          

Another reminder that she offers me is the need for regular time and attention needs to be spent with friends.  Friendship is a bit like food.  We can go for some time---a few days---without food.  But long-term fasting from food imperils our health.  And finally, without food ultimately spells our demise---that is, we die!  I think the same thing is true for friendship.           

We need friends for a healthy life.  We don’t have to have them in our lives every moment.  We can fast from certain friendships.  But ultimately, we need healthy, helpful friends in order to live well.  Most of the spiritual giants about whom I know counsel the importance of friends.  In fact, I know one of the most important designations Jesus offers to describe his disciples is “friendship.”  At one place in the gospels, he turns to the disciples and says, “I call you friends.”  The Greek word there is philos---a love word.           

“A tea party with some friends” said the subject line in the email.  A picture was, indeed, worth a thousand words.  I leaned back and begin to wonder.  If I were to invite my friends to a tea party, who would join me on the bottom steps of my basement?  Do I have a special, close friend---like Pooh Bear?  Do I care for my friends and make myself available?           

The good news is friendships can be cultivated and nourished.  If you have no one who would join you on the step, it is not too late.  Begin investing in relationships.  Take time to care.  Throw a tea party.  It is the spiritual way of eat, drink and be merry---it’s a good life.

Monday, April 14, 2014

God’s Doing a New Thing

For many people around the world this week is Holy Week.  I know enough Christian theology and I am liturgically aware enough to know what this means.  But to say that I know what it means is not to say I know what it means for any specific person.  For some it probably has been a deeply moving week, as we head into Good Friday.  For others likely it has been pretty superficial, at best.  

I ponder how it might continue to have possibilities of being a “holy week” for you and me.  One necessary ingredient I would be pretty sure is needed for it to be “holy” is that we take time.  This reminds me of the old hymn I heard so many times: “Take Time to be Holy.” I know as a kid when I sang it, I paid little attention to the words and probably even less to what the hymn meant.  Maybe now is to take some time and reflect…to be holy.

Another practical guide for learning the art of the holy is to “pay attention.”  Increasingly, it seems, we live in a world that pays little or no attention to the sacredness of our surroundings.  Even the season of spring is the miraculous coming to life again of God’s good, sacred world.

Green is the color of spring.  Green is the color of life springing back into the grass.  Take a drive and notice the vibrant green which is just emerging in the country fields in my geographical world.  Watch the trees spring back to life with budding leaves.  Easter is all around us, if we only pay attention.

Spirituality is the way to discover the life of Easter in what, otherwise, may be merely an experience in emptiness.  To pursue the theme of spring, we read these words from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul.  “Spirituality is seeded, germinates, sprouts and blossoms in the mundane.  It is to be found and nurtured in the smallest of daily activities.”

The discovery and nurture of the “spirituality of Easter” comes as we pay attention.  Paying attention means we are alert.  We are interested.  We want to be engaged.  We are willing to listen.  We are willing to learn---to be open, to risk, to move.

With our modern cars most of us drive around all insulated from the world with windows up.  Not only are we insulated, but also now we are talking on cell phones.  And it is not unusual to have the radio playing or occasionally a TV show on!  How can we pay attention to a meaningful conversation, drive, and enjoy God’s sacred world at once?  I can’t.

Maybe this driving scene symbolizes normal life, non-holy life.  Easter-living might mean getting out of our “cars of life,” hanging up on the unimportant conversations in life, and opening our eyes to the sacred which doubtlessly surrounds us.  But too often, we don’t know it and, therefore, cannot appreciate it.

In this season of Passover and Easter, the stories are that God did a new thing.  May we be open to that same God doing a new thing in our lives.