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Friday, May 30, 2014

Pax: Peace by Any Other Name

On a recent trip to see my daughter, I had to catch a flight home to attend some meetings.  I did not mind.  I like my daughter and I like the organizations that hold meetings that I have to attend.  Both those commitments---daughter and meetings---are signs that I still have a life.  I still have a role to play in the lives of people and organizations.  I am glad about that.

Sometimes, I conclude, the saddest part about being human is when one no longer has any role to play in the world.  Now I do not think our entire identity is wrapped up in our roles.  Even if I were not a father, I would still exist.  Some version of “me” would be alive on this earth.  But it would not be the same “me” that is dad to two girls.  My role with them defines, in part, who I am.  My role defines my reality.

I am confident being spiritual is having significant, meaningful roles in this world.  There probably are a variety of roles that make up spirituality.  Certainly, there is the role of believer.  I do believe in God.  But that could be just an idea.  There is no role in simple belief like that.  If I believe in God, that should implicate a role to be played.  In my tradition the role often is called “discipleship.”  Discipleship is the way I live out my belief.  Discipleship is the role lived out in the real world.

I know spirituality can become pretty “heady.”  Sometimes it is made up of many ideas and notions, but little reality undergirds these ideas and notions.  There is no emergent role that gets lived out.  That’s why my definition of spirituality calls it a lived experience.  For me spirituality has to be more than a set of ideas.

Indeed, this is a long way from my flight home with which I opened this reflection.  But it is connected.  I had traveled from my daughter’s apartment to the airport.  I am one who does not like to get somewhere at the last minute and breathlessly wonder if I have made it.  My preference is to get somewhere and have some time to sit.  So I sat.

I watched some people go by.  Of course, in an airport everyone is going by!  No one lives in an airport!  We are all transitory.  If you think about that, life is a bit like an airport.  We are all passing through.  We have come from some place and we are going to a different place.  We pass each other in those long corridors.  Some people are heavily laden with baggage---just like life.  Others travel light---reminds me of the monks.  Most of the time I think I travel through airports and life with too much baggage!

So I sat.  For some reason my eye wandered across the corridor and spotted a little establishment on the corner.  I giggled when I read the name of the business.  In bold letters I read PAX Bar & Eatery.  It was just like that; Pax was in much bigger letters than the other two words.  I giggled.  If I said it out loud, I would enunciate Pax with a strong voice and trail off with Bar & Eatery.

I would love to meet the owner or the person that came up with the name.  I know Latin, so I know Pax means “peace.”  I am sure whoever named the place also knew what she or he was doing.  How clever to build a place of “peace” right in the middle of the flux of the airport.  And I liked that peace was associated with food and drink.  How biblical and spiritual.

My imagination began to spring into action.  I imagined that all who enter PAX put aside all anger and animosity.  It would be against the rules to carry grudges into the “peace” place.  And by the way, if we go into this bastion of pacifism, we would do well to check our egos at the door and give up our demanding selfish ways.  We could prepare to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

And this is why I love it that PAX is right there in the ebb and flow of the airport---the world.  One does not know the neighbor there in the “peace” place.  But whoever goes in there, goes in as a neighbor and takes on the obligation of treating everyone else as neighbor.

I never moved from my seat.  I simply took out my cell phone and clicked a picture.  I wanted to make sure I did not forget the name.  I wanted to know there really is a place of PAX---a place of peace.  There is…I saw it.  And I can show you the picture.

But if we get the picture, we don’t need to go to that airport.  If we can begin to take on a spiritual role in our lives, we begin to build “peace places” wherever we are.  That is one of my new goals.  I want to create that kind of specific place and space wherever I am and wherever I go.  I want to be open for business.  I want to invite people into my place and bring some peace and joy to earth---exactly what Jesus and other religious giants did.

The name does not matter because PAX is peace by any other name.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

When You Get What You Want

The phrase, which became the title of this inspirational piece, came to me during a recent conversation.  The person with whom I was conversing periodically was talking about wishing for this or for that.  As I listened to her, I realized that wishing for certain things was a way she expressed hope.  For example, I am sure at one point she must have said something like, “I wish I can have some kids.”  Translated that would have meant that she planned to have kids…and did have them.

In many ways I can relate to that.  I suspect I am not unusual in saying that I have spent a lifetime wanting certain things.  When I was a kid, I wanted to play sports and, of course, wanted to be good.  I did get to play sports, but I was average at best.  I would have to confess I wanted to date certain girls and sometimes got what I wanted.  Other times I got a flat “No!”  That was disappointing, but it didn’t kill me.  I suppose most of us realize we don’t get everything we want.  “That’s life,” goes the saying.

The next realization I had was to be sure that often people do not even know for sure what they want.  Of course, most of us have multiple wants.  And that is legitimate.  I want many things for my kids and, now, for my grandkids.  That seems quite normal.  In this case having these kinds of wants is tantamount to saying that I “hope” these things are true for the kids.

I would like to take this to another level.  I would like to think about it in a spiritual way.  For me spirituality is one significant way people make meaning in life.  Of course, there are other ways to make meaning.  In many ways meaning is relative.  What you find meaningful, I might not find meaningful at all.  It does not make you right and me wrong.  It simply means we are different.

When we use the phrase, “when you get what you want,” we have two things involved.  The first is obvious: what we want.  The second piece is the timing piece: when we get what we want.  Clearly, this assumes there are things we want and that we will get it or them.  Wanting things is not magical.  Very often, we work for the things we want.  And that is quite good and respectable.

Again, to bring in the spiritual dimension into the picture, what we want would be meaningful or would bring meaning.  Let me get concrete.  There are many things people want and, even, work hard to get that ultimately may not be very meaningful.  For example, I know some folks who wanted to be rich.  And they worked hard and made it happen.  Materially, they had a very easy life.  But that may or may not be meaningful. 

We can generalize and say that it is very easy to work hard to get some of the things we want.  And then we get them and we realize we don’t actually want them that badly.  Or we find out that getting what we wanted turns out to be unsatisfying.  We can turn out to be disappointed with what we thought we wanted.  I have had this experience more than once.  At one level, it is unbelievable.  It is unbelievable to want something, get it and then be disappointed now that we have it.

This is where it connects to the spiritual.  If what I want is spiritual, then it means it will be inherently meaningful.  And this means that when I get what I want, I will get something meaningful.  And that will be satisfying.  Again, I can relate personally to this process.  For example, I have wanted to do in life what I discerned to be God’s desire for me.  If I could know and do that, then it would be inherently meaningful because I would be in good relationship with the Holy One.  If this is true, then nothing else matters as much.

This knowing leads me to add one more aspect to the original phrase.  The original phrase said, “when you get what you want.”  Of course, that is simply a phrase.  It is not even a sentence.  In fact, it is a conditional phrase.  The conditional word is “when.”  The conditional phrase begs for completion.  And here is how I complete it: “When you get what you want, make sure it is what you want!” 

“Make sure it is what you want” is a different way of saying to make your deepest want a spiritual want.  If what you want is an authentic, spiritual want, then God will give you what you want.  And if it is a spiritual want, then when we get what we want, we truly will want it.  It will be meaningful.  It will be satisfying.  It will fit me.

Again to be personal, if my desire is to know and to do God’s desire for me, then I am bound to be satisfied and content with getting what I want.  It may sound complicated, but it is actually simple.  There are a million things people can want.  But not everything we want is the same level.  At the deeper, spiritual level, our want is important for our lives.  At this level, when you get what you want, make sure it is what you want.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Stroke is a Stroke

I admit that I play some golf.  It is a maddening game.  I always considered myself above average athletically, but when I play golf, I have my doubts.  I am not willing to claim there is anything spiritual about golf and, perhaps, there are no spiritual lessons to be learned.  It does teach me something about humility!  And it may well be diabolical---devilish---which may be as close to spiritual as it gets.

I am intrigued by the scoring in golf.  For those who know nothing about golf, let me explain.  Any time the golf club makes contact with the ball, it counts as a stroke.  Strokes are added as you play the course and the one who has the fewest strokes for eighteen holes wins the game.  Most golf courses tell us “par” should be 72 strokes for eighteen holes of golf.  Of course, I would not know.  I cannot shoot “par” golf.  It always takes more strokes for me to play an eighteen-hole golf course than that “par” golf suggests it should take. 

In this sense, “par” golf is not average.  Instead par golf is nearly ideal golf.  Only professionals can play golf so well that we can say they play “par” golf.  The rest of us play above par.  Some of us play significantly above par golf.  In fact, I recently heard a statistic that claims about 80% of us who play golf score more than 100 strokes on a 72-par course! 

What fascinates me about the scoring in golf is the fact that a stroke is a stroke.  Let’s explore that fact.  To say a stroke is a stroke is simply to say any time the club touches the ball, it is a stroke.  It does not matter how far you hit the ball.  It is a stroke.  I might have a strong day when I can hit with the longest club in my bag, namely, the driver.  The good players can hit a ball more than 300 yards with the driver.  I can’t hit it that far with the driver, but on a good day I can still hit it out there pretty far.  That big hit is a stroke.

On the other hand, when you finally get the ball onto the green, the club to be used is the putter.  Most Americans are familiar with this part of a golf game, even if they have only played putt-putt golf.  Each time you putt the ball, it is a stroke.  So it could be a ten-foot putt or a two-inch putt and they all count as one stroke.  This is what fascinates me.  A two-inch putt is one stroke, just like the 300-yard drive.   

In fact, occasionally you will see a ball stop just short of the hole.  There are times when I am sure I could walk up to the ball sitting right on the lip of the hole and jump up and down and the ball would fall into the hole.  Nevertheless to touch it with the putter to knock it into the hole is still one stroke.  That truly amazes me that stroke counts the same as a 300-yard drive!  Part of me thinks that is not fair.  But that’s the way the game is played.  A stroke is a stroke.  That’s the rule.

I wonder if this is not where the game of golf mimics the game of life.  Let me put it this way.  Let’s call the stroke the consequence of touching the ball with the club.  The touch could be a 300-yard drive or the one-inch putt.  Each stroke is a consequence.  I think this parallels our actions in life.  I would argue that our actions have consequences.  Of course, our actions in life are much more difficult to measure than the golf strokes.  And I understand not everyone agrees that our life’s actions have consequences.  But I also know most spiritual traditions do think life’s actions do have consequences.

“An eye for an eye” is one way some traditions talk about it.  Another tradition talks about karma.  Karma is the way a Buddhist explains life’s consequences.  Karma is a spiritual rule, so to speak.  Just like the game of golf, we can cheat the game of life.  We can cheat by not counting all the strokes.  We can lie about what we actually did.  We can declare our own rules.  In golf there are many ways to break the rules and still claim we have not broken the rules.

It is clear the same thing happens in life. There are things I have done that should have consequences, but I claim it should not matter.  On the other hand, some times I should do something and refrain from doing it.  Again, I would say that it is inconsequential.  I attempt to make my own rules.  If I can make my own rules, then I can always be just. 

Most major spiritual traditions claim that justice is blind.  What I want for myself should be the same for what others get.  If a stroke is a stroke, then it has to be the same for you as it is for me.  Too often, however, I want the advantage.  And sadly, sometimes I am willing to cheat or lie to get that advantage.  But I don’t want any consequences for having done so.

This is where golf and life differ.  Ultimately, whether I cheat and lie in golf does not matter.  I can deceive myself about being a better golfer than I really am.  Or I can alienate friends and golf partners when I cheat.  Otherwise, life goes on.

But in life, there is more at stake.  Lying and cheating have consequences.  A stroke is a stroke.  I doubt these are consequences that send us to hell.  But to play the game of life by your own rules does create hellish situations for those around us.  And ultimately, it condemns us to be a much lesser person than we can be.  And that is spiritually very sad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Monastic Towers and Powers

I have had the occasion to be back at Gethsemani, the monastery where my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, lived until his untimely death in 1968.  I like going to monasteries, which may be a bit strange for a guy who grew up a Quaker.  As a kid, if you had asked me what a monastery was, I am sure there would only have been a blank stare.  I am confident I did not meet a monk until I was in graduate school. 

Of course, in school most of us read about monks.  Many of them were involved in making history, especially during the medieval period.  Meeting a monk or two helped me begin to develop an appreciation for not only them as people, but for their way of life.  It really is foreign to the way I grew up and from the way of life of the people who taught me about religion.  In my early formative days it was still pre-Vatican II, so the Catholic Church was off limits. 

Then I began to develop a fascination with the monastic tradition.  Monks were more than merely a curiosity factor.  I came to appreciate their calling, their discipline and dedication.  More than most people I knew, they lived their faith in impressive ways.  Of course, it is easy to idealize something when you don’t know anything about it.  But I did come to learn a great deal about the monastic life.  Surely one of my good teachers was Thomas Merton.  And I never met him.

Gethsemani is an impressive place.  There is a relatively small community of about forty monks there now.  In Merton’s heyday in the 50s and 60s, there would have been some two hundred fifty.  And other monks left Gethsemani to form daughter houses.  I wish I could have known Gethsemani in those heady days.

When you come around a corner of one of those Kentucky hills, Gethsemani suddenly looms in all its majesty.  Every time I go there, I am struck by how big it is.  Above the apse, where the altar is found, looms a tall tower.  The nave, where the worshippers gather has rather high ceilings.  But outside, it is the tower that dominates the majesty of the building.  And that is precisely what the tower symbolizes for me: majesty.

Ironically, I like to think about the monks as majestic.  I am sure there would be guffaws of laughter if they heard me claim this for them.  The monks at Gethsemani take three vows: obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic life (mainly a commitment to stay in one place and develop spiritually).  In other words, at Gethsemani the monks agree to abide under the tower until they die.

I would like to think the tower symbolizes the heights to which they grow spiritually.  Why not aspire to great things, when you sign on for life!  They sky is the limit.  But this aspirational spiritual growth should never lead to pride or arrogance.  In fact, the Rule of St. Benedict spends more time talking about humility than any other single thing---more irony!

I am challenged by the tower of Gethsemani---the literal and figurative tower.  I have a tower on top of my building at the university.  Other than signaling that this is my building, I don’t know that it symbolizes much else.  It is interesting architecture, but that is about all. 

I am going to adopt Gethsemani’s tower for my own personal, aspirational desire for spiritual growth and development.  My spirit desires to be stretched and pulled upward.  Too easily I settle for too little.  Even a flat-lander like me can have an imposing tower to challenge.

The other feature of life at Gethsemani is power.  Perhaps, it is simply because I am a visitor.  But I experience monastic power every time I go there.  Now I do not think being a monk is any more noble than being spiritual in any other context.  However, they have made a commitment, a promise and intention to become empowered by the Spirit.  Again, they do it humbly.  Monastic power is not gaudy or off-putting.  Some folks would simply say they are comfortable in their own skin.

Monastic power is unlike the kind of power we tend to see outside the monastery.  Of course, they are not perfect.  Monasteries can be political.  Many people join a monastery, only to find out that way of life is not for them, and then they leave.  But when the monastery has done its spiritual development, you will see a man or woman with incredible power. 

Monastic power is power to make a difference.  On the surface a monk seems utterly useless.  Beneath the surface, monastic power can be a difference maker.  But finally, it is not monastic power.  It is the Spirit who is Power that has taken up abode in the monk. 

You and I can have that same kind of Spirit-presence.  We can become a tower of strength, people of power capable of making a huge difference in the world.  Let’s go.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Art of Remembering

In this country we find ourselves at Memorial Weekend.  Clearly, the description of the weekend is unambiguous: memorial means remembering.  It is the “Remembering Weekend.”  There will be parades to highlight the festivities.  The little parade in my suburban town is so quaint and tiny, it is hilarious.  Of course, there are the boy scouts and girl scouts.  There are all the Little League baseball and softball players.  The fire trucks gain attention because the siren going off in your ears at a distance of 15 feet is dramatic!  And finally, there are always the politicians!

The other thing that is a staple for Memorial Weekend is the visit to the cemetery.  Now that I am living in a much larger, urban context, I am less aware of folks going to the cemetery.  When I was a kid, I did not really understand this ritual.  No one significant in my life had died.  There was no one “living in the cemetery,” as I once put it, that I felt like I wanted to visit.

But when my grandparents began to die---one by one---I had a dawning sense of why my parents and others always wanted to go to the cemetery.  Of course, it was true that an annual visit was not the sole guarantee of “remembering” them.  I was aware my parents stopped by the cemetery on other occasions, too.  But somehow, Memorial Weekend was special, much like Christmas was special, but one still went to church other Sundays, too.

I like history, so it was fun to begin to learn something of the origins and history of the holiday.  It seems our own Civil War (1861-1865) formed the soil for the Memorial Day seeds.  That is not surprising.  That gruesome war left death, mourning, and the need to remember scattered all over our land.

The official Memorial Day proclamation occurred on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It commenced with the laying of wreaths on graves of soldiers of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  Well before the end of the 19th century all the northern states recognized this holiday.  What I was surprised to learn was the southern states refused to recognize this end-of-May memorial until after WW I when the focus of the holiday shifted from Civil War dead to the deceased from all wars.  Such formed the holiday which we celebrate this weekend.

As an American, I am happy to remember with appreciation all those women and men who have died for this country.  And I also remember the large number of them who suffered in so many ways.  The war that formed my own generation---the Vietnam War---still scars countless folks. 

I won’t go to the cemetery this weekend.  Most of my deceased family and close friends “live” in a couple different cemeteries back in Indiana.  To make that drive merely to stand physically at the graveside is not necessary.  What I will choose to do is take a little time by myself and “remember.”  The human capacity to remember dazzles me!  As St. Augustine said centuries ago, remembering is the human way to hold the past in the present.  So I will celebrate my Memorial Weekend.

I am also glad that the Weekend has expanded to include more than the war dead.  The key is “more.”  If we include all who have preceded us in death, we do not do less honor to the war dead.  They will always have a special place in this weekend’s art of remembering.

The inclusiveness of all deceased folks makes perfect sense spiritually speaking.  Finally, we are all in it together---all humanity is implicated by death.  Some have already died; the rest of us are in process.  What so many of us hope is somehow our lives---our ordinary, quiet, little lives---finally have meaning and the meaning will be remembered and celebrated.  But that remembering and celebrating has to be done by someone else when we are dead!

And that’s one of the points of spirituality.  When my own process of dying is complete (and I am dead), I take solace in the fact that God is the Other Who is very practiced in the art of remembering.  And it won’t happen just annually; it will happen eternally….whatever kind of Memorial Weekend that will be!

Due to the holiday this will be my last message for the weekend.  I will post a new message on Tuesday, May 27th.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Remain in the Provisional

It is touching to be given gifts.  There are a couple kinds of gifts.  The first kind of gift is the gift one expects.  When I say this, I think of special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas.  Giving gifts is part of the norm on these occasions.  While it is not right to say that we expect gifts, it is normal to assume we are going to get gifts.  Of course, we probably don’t know what the gift will be, but we know most likely we will be getting gifts.  So it is not a surprise to be handed a gift.
The other kind of gift is the serendipitous gift.  That is the gift we are given when we did not expect it.  In fact, with these serendipitous gifts, we usually do not even see it coming.  We may well be caught off guard. We don’t know what to say.  We did not even think about getting a gift.  Often it feels quite humbling to be given a gift.
I received such a gift a few months ago.  I had been invited to speak to a gathering that was interested in Thomas Merton, the 20th century monk, whom I like and have studied quite a bit.  The gathering was at the motherhouse of a religious order of women.  I know the nun who invited me.  I know she shares a deep interest in Merton, too.  I like her and was happy to do the evening.
When it was over, she handed me a couple books by Merton.  She asked if I had these two volumes and I was glad to say that I did not.  So I put them on my desk and vowed to read them when I had time.  Recently I began reading one of the volumes.  The volume I picked up is entitled, The Rule of St. Benedict.  I know about the Rule.  It is the 6th century document penned by St. Benedict to guide the formation and life of his community of monks.  That Rule is still used in monasteries around the world today.
I know that Merton taught the novices in his monastery.  The novices are the young monks who are early in their monastic formation.  It is that probationary period in which the monks are deciding whether they are going to stay in the monastery and take their final vows.  This volume is basically Merton’s notes and commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict.  In effect, it is like having his lecture notes.  As I began to read, it was fascinating.
At one point Merton is talking about doing what God wants from us---God’s will.  Of course, that is exactly what a monk would want to do, namely, God’s will.  But that is not just a monastic concern.  I, too, would want to do the same thing.  If God’s will is known and clear, then it is no problem.  We either do it (obedience) or we don’t do it (disobedience).  But what if we don’t know what God wants from us---or if we are unsure?  What then?
Merton provides me with real insight.  He suggests if we do not know what God wants in a particular situation, then “humility entails a willingness to remain in ‘the provisional,’ without attempting to manipulate uncertainties to become certainties.”  That hit me like a bomb.  So many times I have been uncertain what God might want from me in a given situation.  I learned a long time ago that you cannot obey what you don’t know.  Not-knowing is not bad; it simply is not clear.  So what?
Merton is so helpful with the “so what.”  Merton says to remain in the provisional.  I like that term, provisional.  If you look at a dictionary to get a handle on the word, provisional, you would discover that it means something exists in the present moment, but is likely to change.  So if we are in the provisional moment in which we do not know what God desires for us, then we should remain in the provisional.  It will likely change.
The provisional is not bad.  It is momentary.  I can see in the word, provisional, the idea of “provide.”  Maybe the provisional time and place is precisely the time and place God wants us in order to provide us with a more clear sense of what God wants.  It seems to me that we need to be patient in this provisional place.  I can hear Merton say, “don’t get antsy.”  Be patient.  Be open.  Be ready, but don’t be in a rush.
I appreciate the wisdom on this counsel.  If we really want to do what God desires, then we wait until we know what it is that God desires.  Waiting does not mean doing nothing.  Waiting is really a time of preparation, of anticipation, and of getting ready.  Waiting is not passivity.  It is a provisional time.  We are to use this time well.
As I think about it, provisional time makes a lot of sense.  If I am honest, much of what I do in life is my agenda.  To say that I was to do what God desires of me is to say that I want to do God’s agenda.  To make the switch from my agenda to God’s agenda probably does require some transitional time.  This is how I understand provisional.  To remain in the provisional is the first step in living outside of my own agenda.  It is preparation to move into doing God’s agenda. 
I am thankful for this fresh look at an old issue: discernment and obedience.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Primacy of Care

I was recently at a gathering of sports figures, business folks and normal people like me.  It was an interesting gathering in two ways.  The first way the gathering interested me was because of the topic, namely, how to work effectively with young people.  Of course, that is a perennial concern.  So I was all ears to gain some tidbits that might help me do a better job in my own teaching.  The second way the gathering was interesting to me was simply the unlikely collection of different kinds of people.  It reinforced my conviction that some of the best learning I experience comes when I hang out with people different than I am.
The best line of the event came in an almost off-handed comment by a football coach.  While he would not have been tabbed as the philosopher of the group, he had some deep insights because of his own involvement and work with young people.  I listened to him, less as a football coach, and more as an experienced teacher.  At one point he was describing one of his key convictions.  He said something to the effect that “players don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
When he said this, I was reminded that I have heard the quotation before, but I had no idea who might have originally said it.  It is not a sports’ saying.  I know it can be found on the lips of patients when they comment on their doctors.  It is easy to imagine multiple contexts in which the saying has a truth.  But the key piece is the saying itself.  Let me unpack it from a spiritual and community perspective.
The first thing that jumps out to me is the two central themes: knowledge and care. Both are important themes in the spiritual journey.  It is impossible to make a spiritual journey without the assistance of some knowledge.  It is clear to me that there are a variety of sources of knowledge.  We have knowledge from others.  This can come through books, retreats, media, etc.  And there is knowledge from our own selves and our experience.  Knowledge can come from nature.  And for some of us, knowledge comes from God---via revelation.
Generally speaking, knowledge is good.  As a rule, to know is better than to be ignorant.  At my age I have a fair amount of knowledge.  Some of it I would like to teach to younger people.  I am confident it can be good for them, help them live a richer life and so on.  As the saying goes, however, usually they don’t care what I know.  That is, they don’t care until…
Until they know that I care.  And care is the second theme of the saying.  I could contend that care is primary.  It is more important than knowledge.  Both are significant, but if you only can have one, choose care.  In a way, care contains a form of knowledge.  If someone cares about me, then I know that I matter.  I know they have the capacity to put themselves aside and put me front and center.  When someone cares about me, then it is about me and not about them.  That is a lovely, humbling place to be.
In the spiritual journey, I am convinced that care is primary.  In Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions we might even say the spiritual journey is a journey into care---or, maybe, a journey rooted in care.  This seems deeply true to me because I know that care is a form of love.  That is why care is primary---care is love lived out.
At its best, care is non-discriminatory.  Care does not discriminate between those who can afford something and those who have no resources.  Care is not prejudicial.  As a form of love, care does not pre-judge who deserves care.  Care is universal.  Care is for anyone in my house.  Care is for anyone in my community.  And care is for anyone in my universe.
I automatically wince when I hear the phrase, “I couldn’t care less.”  I understand it is often used in jest.  I wince when I think historically how true this phrase often was when it came to particular groups of people.  Sadly, it is not just a historical problem.  I think it can still be found in our world today. 
Care is primary.  None of us would have made it as human beings if it were not for the care we received.  How many newborns could live more than a few hours or days without care?  And it does not stop there.  I suspect many of us live in the illusion that we don’t need (and maybe think we don’t want) any care now.  We see ourselves as autonomous and independent. 
Care is primary.  I like to think about care a soul food.  Care nourishes our soul and protects us from sickness and disease.  Care is primary because it is a profound expression of belonging and a visible form of community.  Care is an affirmation of my dignity and worth.  If someone cares for me, I matter enough to count.  I am worth the care given to me.           

Care is a gift and a calling.  It is a gift when it comes my way.  And it is a calling on my heart to give care to others.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Scandal of Grace

I have a book that contains quite a number of short pieces.  Some of them are articles in various periodicals---journals that might be religious in nature or some more popular magazines.  I occasionally read another piece.  Some of the authors I know and very much like---people like Annie Dillard.  Others I have never seen their names and know nothing about them.  One such name was James Van Tholen.

His article appeared in Christianity Today, a well-known, more evangelical magazine that I try to read with some regularity.  James was a pastor in a Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, NY.  He had been assaulted with a nasty kind of cancer at age 33.  After some months of chemotherapy, he was able to return to his church.  The selection I read was his first sermon back with his parishioners.  It was very touching and I wanted to share some of it.

I was touched by his openness and vulnerability.  Early in his sermon he communicated these words.  “So let me start with honesty.  The truth is that for seven months I have been scared.  Not of the cancer, not really.  Not even of death.  Dying is another matter---how long it will take and how it will go.  Dying scares me.”  I resonate with this because I am pretty much in the same boat.  I don’t find the idea of death troubling, but dying is another matter!

Van Tholen continues his reflections in the sermon.  This next piece surprised me.  He says, “My real fear has centered somewhere else.  Strange as it may sound, I have been scared of meeting God.”  That is crazy, we might think, since the guy is a pastor and spiritual leader.  Again I appreciate his honesty.  Indeed, Van Tholen says basically the same thing.  He asks, “How could this be so?  How could I have believed in the God of grace and still have dreaded to meet him?”  That is a great question!  I, too, believe in a God of grace.  We read on to find out how Van Tholen dealt with his dilemma.

After his experience of cancer, Van Tholen begins inching his way to an answer to his question, “how could this be so?”  He tells us, “As the wonderful preacher John Timmer has taught me over the years, the answer is that grace is a scandal.”  I absolutely love that line and that idea.  Grace is a scandal.  I don’t think I have ever heard it put this way and it fits.

Van Tholen goes further.  “Grace is hard to believe.  Grace goes against the grain.  The gospel of grace says that there is nothing I can do to get right with God, but that God has made himself right with me…”  This fits how I have come to understand grace.  Linguistically, I know that grace means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  It is not earned and not a matter of me deserving it.  Grace is a way of affirming me when there may be littler or no basis for that affirmation.

When I was in graduate school, I heard for the first time the idea of “prevenient grace.”  I had never heard that language while I was growing up in my Quaker tradition.  But I knew enough Latin to know the word, prevenient, meant “that which comes before or ahead of time.”  So prevenient grace is that grace that comes to us before we need it or hope for it.  Prevenient grace comes ahead of time.  I like the image of the door.  Prevenient grace is there and opens doors as we are coming to the doors.  We don’t deserve it, but it is a gift nevertheless.

But why does Van Tholen call it the scandal of grace?  Why use “scandal” language?  Grace is scandalous because it seems to cancel the judgment of justice.  Scandalous grace says God loves us even when we deserve to be punished.  Scandalous grace says it is ok, when everyone knows it was not ok!

There are many within the church and even outside religious institutions who secretly want people to “get theirs!”  Some of us want people to get what they deserve.  Often we don’t like it for grace to come along and cancel out the just deserts.  We want people to hurt instead of sing Hallelujah!  Particularly those of us who play by the rules and are obedient may want those who don’t play by the rules to “get theirs.”  We want accountability and God offers grace---scandalous grace.

Too often, I am the elder son in the Prodigal Son story.  The prodigal comes home after blowing his share of the inheritance.  And dad throws a party!  That makes some of us mad.  That is scandalous!  Indeed, it is scandalous grace!

Lord, help me come to understand more fully and embrace this radical, scandalous gift of Yours.  And maybe some day, may I be able to grace others in the same way.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Paths

Throughout the history of spirituality there traditionally have been two paths that one could follow.  These go by various names, but the thrust is the same.  One classic way of talking about them is to label them the active and contemplative life.  The active life is what characterizes most of us.  It is normal life in the world.  It describes those who have jobs and families.  The contemplative life typically is a more restricted, more reserved life.  Traditionally, it is seen a less worldly. 

Another way the two paths are described is the monastic and lay paths.  Obviously the monastic life is for those men and women who withdraw from the ordinary world and join a monastery.  They dedicate and devote their lives to God in a more focused and time-consuming way than the other, lay folks do.  To those of us outside a monastery, it might seem like a more demanding way of living.  But perhaps the monks look at all of us “out here” in the world and wonder how we do it.  For many there are jobs, families, chores at home and on and on.  Probably the real truth is both ways can be quite demanding.  They are just different.

It is easy to equate the active life with the life most of us are living in the world.  In this case our lives are more complicated if we also want to live spiritually.  Balance becomes tricky.  How do I do my job, pay attention to family and friends, deal with problems and still give some attention to my spiritual journey?  It is not easy.  At times we fail miserably.  The temptation is to give up.  And yet we will have no spiritual life if we do not persevere. 

It is also easy to equate the contemplative life with the life of the monks living in community or solitude.  For those of us on the outside, it is tempting to conclude these monks have it made when it comes to living a spiritual life.  After all, they have all that “free time!”  They pray, do a little work, and be spiritual all day long.  Some of us might be envious of this spiritual luxury.  Many others of us wonder why they don’t get a real life and struggle like the rest of us!  We can be secretly resentful because they seemingly have opted out of real life. 

As with many models or categorizations, this way of understanding things probably is too simplistic and not useful.  In my own life I have been trying to manage something in all the arenas.  It is easy to see that I am in the “real world.”  I have a wife and kids and grandkids.  I have a job and I am busy like all other “normal” people.  So clearly I am a layperson leading an active life. 

But I also hang out with monks and in my own tiny way, I am attempting to live monastically in the midst of my normal life.  I also am drawn to the contemplative life and try to practice that when I can.  So I am either hopelessly confused or creatively trying to manage a tricky balance. 

I was intrigued recently when I encountered the words of a writer on spirituality.  His journey is the opposite of mine.  In his younger years, he spent considerable time in the monastery.  But ultimately, he struggled and finally left.  But he did not dismiss the monastic.  He simply learned to be spiritual and do spirituality in a different way.  Finally, both paths are legitimate and, perhaps, complimentary. 

Here are the sage words of Philip Zaleski, as he describes his move from one path to the other.  “The struggle to love and to be loved, to make a living and provide for your family, and to keep sufficient sanity to get along in the world is a path toward spirit as sure as a retreat from life in some hothouse of spirituality where the way seems direct and transparent.”  I like these words, but I fear he does not give the monastery as much credit as it deserves.  But I do like his way of describing the spiritual journey.  It involves loving and being loved.  That sometimes is a struggle.  Providing for a family can be quite easy.  And then, there are times it can be a real pain!

We all know keeping sane in our world can drive you nuts!  In fact I fear our culture sometimes anoints certain forms of insanity and pretends those forms are sane!  For example, Americans honor hard work.  But workaholics are probably insane.  Sometimes I fear this is my chosen form of insanity!  But it can look so spiritual.

I want to hold on to both spiritual paths.  I see them as complements to each other.  They can help me with the balance that I am sure is needed to grow spiritually.  I want to be active and, yet, preserve a contemplative perspective that moderates the extremes of the active life.  I want to embrace fully the lay life of being spiritual in the world.  But I want to hang out with monks and read the literature of the monks.  I want their witness to shine its light on my crazy dark places and bring me into the light. 

Lord, give me help and hope as I journey through life…walking two paths.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Appreciation: a Matter of Perspective

I stopped by one of my favorite places to get something to eat.  It was supposed to be a quick in and out, so that I could head home to do some work.  Sometimes I will go there for a little social time.  The people who hang out there are so very different from me.  At one level, we share almost no common interests, except perhaps an interest in sports.  While I like sports, they certainly are not a very high priority in my life.             

I know the owner of the place pretty well, although I would only call him a friend in a very loose sense of that word.  So I was sitting on a chair, waiting for some food to arrive.  The owner came to me and greeted me.  It was nice to see him, for it had been a pretty long time since we had seen each other.  I was genuinely glad to see and greet him.           

I am sure he makes it a high priority to befriend all the people who come into his place.  In the business world that is called business development!  If I were to put it crassly, I was part of his business development plan!  If I would come to his place more often and spend more money, I would be more important.  That might be true, but he never treats me that way.  And I appreciate that.           

Our conversation began with the usual small talk---chitchat.  I always ask about his business. My guess is that most of his customers like the business, but only for their self-serving purposes.  They don’t really care about his business.  I try to show some care when I ask, “how is business going?”          

He talked about hanging in there till his two kids get through school.  “I feel like I owe them that---a good college education,” he quipped.  It occurred to me that he was very aware of why he was doing what he was doing.  It was pretty selfless.  That touched me.  I am sure he would be happy to be rich, but his kids were more important.  I get the feeling when they are through with school, he will sell the business and move on.  He looked tired.           

I commented on the fact that it was neat that he was giving his kids the gift of an education without debt.  “Someday they will appreciate it,” I said.  This seemed to trigger something in him.  I know he immigrated to this country from Lebanon when he was in high school.  Thinking about how much he was giving his kids prompted him to go back to his own childhood in Lebanon.             

“We did not have a TV in the house till I was in high school,” he said.  He talked about how some of the kids in his neighborhood would gather at someone’s house that had a TV.  They would sit on a bench and all watch the same TV.  He began to recall other, small things he would have that would seem to be nearly nothing compared to what his own kids have.  And that is true for many in older generations.  It is often true that our kids have much more than we ever did.  At one level, this is quite good.  We want that for them.  At another level, if we have too much, it may make appreciation harder to develop.           

For me personally that word, appreciation, is a poignant spiritual word.  There is a profundity to it that always goes deeply into my soul.  I began to think about appreciation---what it is and how we get it.  Two words immediately came to my mind to describe appreciation, namely, gratitude and joy.  Gratitude seems to be a window into appreciation.  Appreciation is a recognition and savoring of something good and beneficial in our lives.             

It occurred to me that appreciation is a matter of perspective.  From a certain perspective almost anything can become an object of appreciation.  From a different perspective, I may have no appreciation for the same thing.  For example, we might be together on a warm sunny day.  You might appreciate the beauty of the day.  At the same time, I might complain about how hot it is, how damnably bright the sun is, etc.  Instead of appreciating, I grump my way through the day.           

It became clear that if I can cultivate good perspectives, then I am more able to appreciate what is.  And that surely leads to more joy.  If I can cultivate an appreciative perspective on life---on who I am and what I have---I am more likely to live in that joy---to enjoy more deeply and fully.           

All these thoughts swirled through my head as I listened to the owner.  While he may not have thought about this in the same way I just presented it, I am fairly confident that he basically has an appreciative perspective on life.  He knows what it is to live with much less than his kids.  He appreciates what he has, but could be content and appreciate much less.  There is a radical freedom in that.          

I don’t want to be just like him.  Instead I would like to give some attention to my own perspective on my life---who I am and what I have.  I would like to develop a spiritual perspective.  If I can do that, I am much more likely to appreciate myself and what I have.  I am more likely to live in joy.  And I will be free. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Original Self

In the process of writing for another project, I had the occasion to return to one of my favorite authors, Thomas Moore.  I recalled he had commented on some ideas that I was trying to develop in my project.  In brief I am thinking about the issue of identity.  On one hand, that is fairly easy to determine.  Most of us would claim that we know who we are. 

On the superficial level, it is easy to describe our identity.  We have a name.  Most of us stick with the names our parents gave us.  As kids we may gain a nickname, but we all know that is not our ‘real name.”  And often women change their names when they get married.  But even if this happens, there are times when they will refer to their maiden name as if that is actually more basic to their identities. 

And in this country we all get social security numbers.  Of course, we don’t like to think about ourselves as a number, but the fact is, that number points to my uniqueness.  No one has the same social security number that I do.  So in the case of my name and social security number, I feel like I have an identity.  But I also know that neither my name nor my social security number capture my true identity.  I know that I am more than a social security number.  And I know that my name is only a description of me; it is not the real me. 

It is not unusual in our society, however, not to pursue who we really are.  We are often content to pile on more superficial tags for identity.  For example, I can tell you where I went to school.  I have more than one post-secondary degree, but that does not make me “more” than someone who dropped out of school after the eighth grade.  And sometimes, we choose material things to develop or enhance our identity.  I am sure some folks buy a specific kind of car, because that simply is “who I am.”  Buying a sports car usually is symbolic of how someone wants people to see him or her.  I once had a red sports car; I know! 

I am convinced that none of this matters at the deeper spiritual level.  The real question at this deeper spiritual level is the “real me.”  In fact, the first question simply asks, is there a “real me?”  I want to believe the answer is “Yes!”  However, we need some more evidence for this.  Simply saying we do is different than knowing we do.  This is where I turned to some of Thomas Moore’s musings. 

In his book entitled, Original Self, Moore offered a perspective that I find quite compelling.  He says, “far beneath the many thick layers of indoctrination about who we are and who we should be lies an original self, a person who came into this world full of possibility and destined for joyful unveiling and manifestation.”  Let’s unpack this sentence in order to appreciate the profundity of his perspective.

In this first place Moore tells me something I already suspect.  Our “real me” is not available to us on the surface of who we are.  He reveals that the real me is buried under many thick layers of indoctrination.  I don’t know that I really like that word, but I do think it points to something quite true.  Another way to put it is to acknowledge that we are all products of our culture.  The culture ranges from our immediate family to the larger national culture in which we grew up.  It is impossible to grow up and not be indoctrinated.  It does not wipe out the real me, but it does submerge that real me under the other “fabricated me’s” that our cultures produce. 

Happily, Moore says there is an “original self” deep within each of us.  I would posit that original self is the self that God created.  It is the self created in the image of God.  As Moore puts it, that self comes full of possibilities.  It is destined for joyful unveiling and manifestation.  By definition that self is synonymous with our soul.  And that self/soul comes divinely inclined. 

By that I mean the original self is not God.  But it is God’s.  We are birthed into possibilities with divine potentialities.  Because we are God’s, our “real me” is related to the God who gave us into life.  And because we will be God’s child maturing into God’s daughter or son, then we are called to grow up into the fullness of all that potentiality.

The unveiling and manifestation of that “real me” is truly glory to behold!  The process consists of getting in touch with that original self.  And then we nurture and nourish the growth and development of that true self until we come more and more to recognize the “real me” that comes alive in the world.  The fullness of that development will manifest as loving presence in the world, which is given to the service and ministry of the rest of God’s children in this world.   

Lord, let me know and grow this original self. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Having a Purpose is Good News

As I began to study religion in college, I began to acquire information and knowledge that helped me to think about my own religious heritage.  Acquiring some knowledge also helped me to think about life.  In the days when I was growing up on an Indiana farm, there was not the technology that exists today.  Because of that, I spent great deal of time by myself riding a tractor in some field.  There were only things to do: think and daydream.  I did a huge amount of both!           

This life was a good life.  But there was one drawback, which I did not recognize at the time.  The drawback was that I did not have enough information, experience and knowledge to make sense of life.  I was given a rudimentary religious education that probably helped make sense of life.  But I don’t think I paid much attention and, certainly, did not really “own” it as my perspective.  In some ways it was like a borrowed or rented perspective.           

I doubt that I was unusual.  I do not think babies come equipped with meaning and purpose in their lives.  Those are not issues of our DNA.  Of course, we are exposed early on to our parents “take” on life.  However our parents and friends make sense of their lives is the way we typically will take on to make sense of our lives.  But it is often a “make do” way of making sense of life.            

Inevitably most of us come to question our inheritance.  In my case I began to wonder if I were really a Quaker or actually a Christian.  Both were very good ways of making sense of life, but if they were to be really meaningful, I needed to work with them and “own” them.  I needed to get to the place where I bought them, instead of simply borrowing them from parents and friends.  For me this process really began in college.           

Decades later, I can say that I have a significant amount of knowledge.  I continue to take in information.  Hopefully in the process of living, I have gained some wisdom, too.  One writer I like describes wisdom in this way: it is deep understanding with practical application.  In my life this means that religion (or spirituality) is not simply some head knowledge.  To the contrary, my spirituality informs and forms my life, as I go forward.           

All this was in place when I read an interesting tweet.  The title of the tweet was catchy: “A new study suggests emotional state does not affect your longevity, but having a purpose in life does.”  Wow, I exclaimed.  I was hooked.  I opened the little article to read the details.  The title of the article was even more riveting: “Sense of Purpose Lengthens Life.”  I loved the first line, which reassured me.  “New research finds having a purpose in life appears to be an excellent buffer against mortality risk across one’s adult years.”             

I am not so na├»ve as to think getting a purpose in life guarantees a long life.  But I do agree with the sentiments of the article.  I am not surprised that having a purpose in life actually enhances the chances that we will live to a ripe old age.  I suspect there are a number of factors that would account for this.           

I can imagine having a purpose in life means that we generally take better care of ourselves.  To live in despair is to live without hope.  If we have no hope, then we really don’t care---or, as we hear in common language, “I don’t give a damn.”  Having a purpose means we do give a damn---whatever that means!  To have a purpose means we are more likely to be content with today and we actually look forward to the next day and the next week and so on.  We know we are mortal, but we are in no hurry to be mortem!           

I am not so narrow to think only religion or spirituality give us meaning and purpose.  But I am certain spirituality is a great indicator that you have some purpose in life.  With an authentic spirituality in our lives, we would expect that we have some kind of vision for our lives.  In fact, as I work with students, I like to ask them, “so what is your spiritual vision for your life?”  That is a difficult question that most folks have never pondered.  But if you can begin to answer that, you have a purpose.  And maybe you will live longer.           

And even if I don’t live longer, in my own case I know my life will be better, richer, and more satisfying.  I would like to live a long life.  That is true, even though I am entering my autumn years, as some would have it.  But I don’t mind getting older.  I would mind getting purposeless and being condemned to live a meaningless life.  For me, that would be mortem while still breathing!           

I come away from this reflection reassured.  I am reassured that having a purpose is good news.  My ministry now is to spread the good news.      

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Beginning Again

I have often commented that the key to a discipline such as writing one of these daily inspirational reflections is to pay attention.  That sounds so simple---and it is---but it is not always easy.  I am always amazed by how easy it is for me to go through my life on autopilot.  Having a number of routines in my life makes autopilot very easy.  Like many people, I’m sure, my daily routine does not vary much.  Coffee and newspaper in the morning.  Meals are about the same time.  I tend to see the same people on a regular basis.  There is nothing wrong with any of this, but it does make living on autopilot very easy.

I like variation and variety.  And I do have some of that in my life.  And I know that it is much easier to pay attention to things when I am engaged in something different.  For example, when I drive the same route day after day, it does not call for much attentiveness to get from point A to B.  But if I am driving to some new place, I need to be attentive.  I have to take the right roads, make the correct turns, and be alert to the way to my destination.  I would argue that following the spiritual path is comparable to this.

After we practice some spiritual discipline for a while, it is easy for things to become routine.  That is one thing that fascinates me about my friends, the monks.  Some of the older ones have recited the same Psalms for decades now.  They have prayed the same prayers that it makes me wonder how they can still be fresh?  How do they pay attention when the way is so well known and their path so well trod? 

I am not in the same place as those grizzled old monks.  In many ways I still feel like a beginner---a spiritual rookie.  I vacillate between youthful enthusiasm for a new “go” at prayer or some other discipline.  Or I sometimes despair that I will ever “get into” this stuff like prayer or discipline.  Spiritual rookies often find themselves starting over---again and again.  But that is the key.  When we have seen our zeal flag or when we actually have quit for the millionth time, the only thing to do is to begin again.  We can begin again---begin right where we are and right as we are. 

Not to re-engage a spiritual discipline again is to settle for having quit---for having given up.  We can be sad or, even, mad that we quit and went autopilot, but the bottom line is, it’s over, unless we begin again.  I am sure there are many reasons people give up on the spiritual journey.  Let’s look at a few of these. 

One reason folks give up is the simple fact that our hearts are not in it.  People begin the spiritual journey for many reasons.  But I am confident if our hearts are not in it, it will become virtually impossible to sustain a discipline.  We may even feel like we need to pursue things, but I always say there is not enough energy in the “should” to keep us going.  For example, people who feel like they “should” stop smoking seldom are able to pull it off.  There is not enough energy in “should.”

Another reason folks give up the spiritual discipline is they get distracted.  Discipline and distraction work at odds.  Discipline asks for focus and distraction obliterates focus.  And of course, we live in an increasingly distracting culture.  Televisions going, while the computer whizzes, and the cell phone is beeping messages are part of too many lives.  And maybe the radio in the background entertains someone else making noises in far corners of the house.  Really!  Try focusing in this environment that is normal for too many of us! 

There are many other ways for us to lose attentiveness on our spiritual discipline and our spiritual pilgrimage through our life.  Once we have lost that attentiveness, all we can do is recover it.  In fact, I do not really think we can go through life and never lose our focus or our attentiveness to the spiritual journey.  Instead what we can do is get better at catching ourselves when we have wandered or squandered our journey.  We can minimize the time spent in alienating places.  We can learn to “check in” to our commitment and journey to make sure we are on track.  And if we discover that we have wandered away, we can get back on board.  

I have found that I need a way to monitor whether I am on autopilot.  One of these ways is what I call “awareness check.”  I know that I cannot pay attention if I am not aware.  And I know that autopilot is a form of unawareness.  The crazy thing about autopilot is I can be unaware and still get things done!  So I need an awareness check. 

The awareness check is simple.  I stop in the moment and ask myself if I know what I have been doing or thinking?  Am I aware of what’s going on in the moment?  If not, I have been on autopilot. 

I don’t think God deals with autopilots.  God only deals with pilots!  And so I want to be aware and be attentive as a pilot.  I am the pilot of my own life and I want God to fly along with me.  That can and will happen, unless I go off on my own course.  When I do that, I want to begin again.