Monday, July 28, 2014

Open System - New Life


Sometimes I think I have this thing for monks and nuns!  I realize with all that’s going on in our world, that statement could get me in trouble!  Minimally, it sounds fishy.  But I mean it.  I am not sure exactly when it was that I met my first monk or nun.  I know it was not growing up through high school.  We barely had any Catholics in the rural area that I called home.  So it would be college time, at least.

There is not doubt my religious world expanded significantly in my college days.  I went to college in the south, so suddenly there were many Baptists in my life!  I also began to make friends with Episcopalians, Catholics and all their cousins who could teach this Quaker boy a thing or two about liturgy.  I made friends with Jews and knowingly made friends with Muslims.  My world was getting much bigger.

But I don’t remember meeting a monk or a nun.  However, I do remember reading about monks and, in fact, began reading some monks who wrote some important stuff in the early and medieval periods of Christian history.  I don’t think that I actually met a monk or nun until my graduate school days in Boston.  And that is where I went to my first monastery.  Maybe that is when I began to develop a thing for monks and nuns.

What I liked about them is the clear and deep commitment they had made.  They were living out their faith in a way that made my faith pilgrimage look like a kindergarten day trip!  I am sure I idealized their way of life.  I did not think I would follow suit and join a monastery.  Having a family makes that a tougher decision!  But I did want to learn from them.  And I have.

My most recent encounter with a monk or nun came through an article that I read.  A Franciscan nun, Illia Delio, was the focus of an article that I found fascinating.  “We are dying---and that’s OK,” is a pretty engaging opening sentence!  Those were the words Delio recently spoke to a gathering on nuns.  Immediately, it endeared me to her and that group of nuns---none of whom I know.  I figure only a group of nuns can hear words like that and be ok with it!

Most of us would hear the words, “we are dying,” and not be ok with it!  Delio followed up by saying, “It just means something new is emerging.  We need to become young again.”  The key is to understand she is not really talking about any particular individual.  She is talking about the group of nuns and, perhaps, even larger religious movements.  I can even think about my own Quaker tribe and our future.

The neat thing about Delio is she is a world-class scientist, as well as a nun.  This gives her knowledge and perspective I don’t have.  So I like what she says in the face of telling those nuns they are dying.  "If we attend only to the breakdown," Delio says, "we think we're over.  We see death.  But that's a closed-system way of thinking."  I understand closed thinking.  All too often this characterizes religious people.  We get the idea we have some answers, then we close off all thinking. 
 
That only makes us dangerous!  This kind of closed thinking can makes us judgmental.  It can lead to conflict and, sometimes, violence.  There is no life in this kind of thinking.  It does, indeed, lead to a kind of death.  Delio provides a wonderful alternative.  She calls it openness.  Listen to her words.   

"An open system has a capacity for newness.  New basins of attraction arise within the system and pull it, over time, in a new pattern of life.  So chaos really is a saving grace," she says, adapting the notion of chaos theory from physics.  I resonate with the idea of a capacity for newness.  This fits evolutionarily and, I think, it fits very well for spiritual development.  It is exciting to think our universe and all of us in the universe have a capacity for newness.  That is a great way to understand the work of God in our world.  God is graciously actualizing the newness in our lives. 

I find her writing style compelling.  She talks about new basins of attraction within our system.  Again, I translate this into spiritual terms.  I have been exposed to these basins when I encountered spiritually alive people and communities.  Some of these people and communities have been the monks and nuns I have met.  These new basins of attraction pull us into new patterns of life.  If this is a deep truth to life, then death and chaos can never be ultimate threats.

It is paradoxical to use a term like, “saving grace of chaos,” but it makes sense to me.  For a Christian, this is a perfect way to talk about the Resurrection. Through death comes life.  Chaos threatened order, but a new order emerged out of the mess of the crucifixion. That only makes sense in faith.  And I am sure that is where Illia Delio is coming from: faith.  An open system leading to new life.  Thanks to the nuns in my life.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Do Over


When we hear the phrase, “do over,” it probably conjures up some kind of mistake that we hope to rectify.  That happens to me often when I play golf.  I’ll hit a shot that goes astray and very much want a do over!  I am sure we can think of any number of times in our lives when we did something and either got a do over---or wished we could have one.  So it is not unusual to associate that phrase with negativity.

While that may be typical, it does not always have to be the case.  A do over can be anything we did once and, for whatever reason, we want to do it again.  I can think of many instances in which I sincerely wanted a do over.  Who would not want a do over of a very pleasant experience or a very positive outcome?

This came to my mind recently when I was gathering some information for a public presentation I have to make in a few weeks.  The topic given to me made me think of a book I read a few years ago.  The book by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, became a best seller.  Of course, Albom has written some other books since this book.  I do not recall when I first read Tuesdays.  I was a little surprised to discover that it was first published in 1997.  That probably means I read it last century!

It is a relatively short, easy to read book.  That does not mean it is superficial or not very worthwhile.  To the contrary.  I found it thoughtful and well written.  It offers good insights on life.  It was for this reason that I again turned to it.  I had a little difficulty finding it on my bookshelf.  I wanted my copy because I knew I had underlined it.  That meant I would find the nuggets faster and not have to read the whole thing as slowly as I must have the first time I read it.

Luckily I did find it and I was rewarded with the kind of gems I had remembered.  I must have realized the first time how spiritual it was.  This time through, that hit me again.  I had forgotten it had a subtitle.  One phrase in the subtitle says the book offers “life’s greatest lesson.”  I was surprised the word, lesson, was not plural---namely, lessons.  That made me ponder what Morrie (or Mitch) would consider life’s greatest lesson?

I think I could have guessed it, but was sure I found what Mitch would say on the first page of the text.  Albom begins the book in this way.  “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house…The class met on Tuesdays…The subject was The Meaning of Life.  It was taught from experience.”  The meaning of life; I knew it!

When anyone is talking about the meaning of life, that is spirituality in my understanding.  In fact, that is my chief way of describing spirituality or religion: they are ways humans make meaning.  I know, however, we cannot talk about meaning in life without identifying some specifics.  This is exactly what Albom does through his conversations with Morrie.  Let’s look at a few of them, since they still offer deep insight into what a good life is about.

I was drawn to a section near the end of the book.  Albom quotes Morrie, who says, “Once you get your fingers on the important questions, you can’t turn away from them.”  That is so true.  It is only by living the questions that we can be on the quest.  Our questions inform our quest for making a good life.  I like Morrie’s use of plural here: questions.

Morrie identifies four important questions, which make sense to me.  He says, “As I see it, they have to do with love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness.”  Morrie then adds a touching note.  “And if I were healthy today, those (questions) would still be my issues.  They should have been all along.”  Clearly, that is a big take-away from the book:  Don’t wait.

Don’t wait until you are sick, suffering and in a bad place to think about life and the meaning of life.  Don’t squander too much time chasing things that ultimately won’t be what you want or not worth much.  I very much like Morrie’s quartet of questions having to do with love, responsibility, spirituality and awareness.  I wonder if this is the order Morrie put them in?

I am fine with love being first.  Probably for many of us who strive for a meaningful life, love does need to be a part of it.  After all, if God is love, that’s a good argument for love being #1.  Responsibility is an interesting, but apt choice.  No doubt, many of us have loved irresponsibly at times.  Responsibility is a good word for the discipline and accountability of a meaningful life.

It is a little surprising to see spirituality in the list of four questions.  It has been huge in my life, so I resonate with its central role.  Finally, awareness is a great choice.  I don’t know how we can have a life with meaning if we are sleepwalking through our lives.  In some ways, awareness is a necessity for the other three.  I am thankful that Albom again peaked my awareness.  It has been a great do over!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Happy Hour


Recently I went to a local restaurant, sports bar place with some friends.  It was late afternoon and the plan was to spend a little time together after work and in a different setting than the one in which we normally interact.  I enjoy these opportunities to be with some folks I like, but some of whom I barely know.  I especially appreciate the chance to get to know some people who work at the same place I do, but whom I never have the chance to see. 

I am always amazed to walk into one of these gatherings and see some faces and have no clue who they might be.  It’s a humbling experience, since I usually think I know most people who work at my institution.  Wrong!  I like the fact that getting to know and spend some time with people is the reason we are getting together.  Where we do it is not that important.  But I know food and drink often make the occasion more pleasant, so I am happy to participate.

When we go to this kind of place, it is usually Happy Hour.  For the most part, that means food and drinks are discounted.  That’s a good deal, since we plan to eat and drink anyway.  I know Happy Hours are designed to draw people to the restaurant before we might normally go if we wanted simply to have dinner.  I appreciate the economic rationale and don’t complain.  I go for fun and have food, too.

As I think about this from a spiritual perspective, I am intrigued by the designation that a particular hour (or two) can be happy.  I smile when I think some food establishment can rather arbitrarily (it seems to me) declare a particular hour to be “happy.”  I understand the intent and know their idea works economically.  But I am less sure it works spiritually.  Let me develop that a bit.

In the first place, the whole concept of time, as we use it, is a human invention.  Of course, we know that nature delivers days and nights.  And we know there is a daily rhythm to that---day comes, followed by night and then the next day.  But dividing a day into twenty-four hours is arbitrary.  I know the Egyptians are credited with dividing the day into the twenty-four hours.  And the Greeks systematized it by making each hour the same length.  But it was not until the fourteenth century in Europe that mechanical clocks were invented that basically gave us the system we use today.  I doubt those Europeans would have thought to make two of those hours “happy hours!”

Again, I certainly don’t want to be known as the person who is against happy hours!  In fact, I am very much for happy hours.  In fact, the problem with happy hours, as we normally understand them, is they are too short and too narrow.  If we spiritualize the happy hour notion, it becomes even more attractive.  Let’s proceed.

The key is how we understand happiness.  I grant that there is a range of happiness.  At the Happy Hour I was happy enough with a soft drink, a glass of wine, some potato chips and whatever.  But when I looked back hours later, did the memory of potato chips make me happy all over again?  Hardly!  Potato chip happiness is pretty superficial and, certainly, very temporary.  In fact, if I eat too many chips at Happy Hour, I am likely to become very unhappy!

At the other end of the happy spectrum, think of an hour you spend with your best friend or with grandkids.  Probably we are very happy in the moment.  And hours later, when we look back, it is typical to get a smile on our faces again.  We become happy all over again.  Now that truly is a happy hour!  I would count these kinds of experiences as spiritual experiences.

In my own case, I think of the hour I spend each week with a group called “Soul Work.”  Almost always it is a happy hour.  There is rich conversation.  There is a great deal of caring the folks do for each other.  Often the spiritual depth and profundity is amazing.  I hear folks walking away from that hour talking about how happy they were to be there.  Truly, I think this counts as a happy hour.  And most of us don’t drink a drop nor eat a bite.  But we have been fed soul food!

This leads me to believe a true, lasting Happy Hour is one that is memorable and which we enjoy all over again simply by remembering.  This is why the birth of a child, marriages, even a good death count as happy hours.  It is indeed ironical that a good death can count as a happy hour, but when we live in the Spirit and, then, die in the Spirit, life is a comedy and not a tragedy.  There may be tears, but beneath the tears is joy.  And days and years later, the tears will have dried and the joy is a happy memory and, therefore, a happy hour.

Seen in this spiritual sense, the lure of our lives is to create numerous happy hours.  We will not have to traipse to a local restaurant in the late afternoon hours for their Happy Hour.  We have the capacity to create happy hours any time of the day or night and as frequently as we can.  The spiritual vision is to live every hour as happily as we can.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hospitality


I was rereading a passage from one of my favorite books, The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.  I know I have read that passage, but somehow it had not jumped out at me like it did this time.  Norris says, “I have become convinced that hospitality is at the center of the Christian faith---the bread of the Eucharist is called the ‘host’ after all, and for good reason.”  I will confess that I have an abiding interest in the theme of hospitality.  So it is not surprising that this sentence appeals to me. 
           
When I hit a sentence like this one, I want to stop and spend some time with it.  This is the kind of reading that characterizes spirituality.  So often we read simply to get content---perhaps to gain knowledge.  But we don’t often take time simply to ponder what we read.  Spiritual reading is not always about getting knowledge.  I like to say that spiritual reading is designed to bring us into the Presence of the Spirit and enable us to soak in that Spirit.  It is one of the most predictable ways for that to happen for me.
           
The key idea in that sentence from Norris is that hospitality is at the center of Christian faith.  I agree with her, but I don’t know that I have thought enough about it fully to appreciate it.  So let’s ponder what she is saying.
           
In the first place I laugh because it is vintage Kathleen Norris.  She says something that is so different from what one might expect that she catches your attention.  And then when you think about it, the profundity hits you.  “Yes, that is exactly the way it is,” I think.  Hospitality is the center of Christian faith.  If you asked most Christians, they probably would say something about Jesus Christ or God or some other predictable answer.  Now of course, these are not wrong.  But I like Norris’ answer better.  Here’s why.
           
Most people would know what hospitality means.  To be hospitable means to receive a guest.  Probably in many cases, we think about hosting someone in our home.  The guest does not have to be a stranger, but strangers count as guests.  I suppose it goes without saying, most of us are better at hosting friends than we are hosting strangers.  Maybe that gives us the first insight into Norris’ view that hospitality is the center of the Christian faith.  That faith does not insist that we have to be friends of God to be hosted by God.  That’s a relief to me.  It means that I don’t have to be perfect to sign on to the community. (And I suspect this is true about other religious traditions, too.)
           
At this point and maybe because I know too much theology, it is too easy for me to go to Christian doctrine.  For example, I immediately think of the incarnation as the theological explanation for how God “hosts” us.  Essentially, the incarnation is the doctrine that says God became human.  As Christians we know this God-become-human as Jesus Christ.  Now I have nothing against this particular doctrine.  In fact, it fits my sense of who God is and how God works.  But I am also convinced people are not saved by doctrine.
           
If we are saved (whatever that means!), I would opt for a “hosting God” as savior.  I know that phrase sounds funny---a hosting God.  But let’s pursue it a little more.  Let’s assume the earth on which we live is a “home” of sorts.  Because I have a house with an address, I never think about the earth as my “home.”  But where else could my home-with-an-address exist without the “home” of the earth?  Have you tried living on Mars lately?  If we could all come to see that we share this larger “earth home,” we might look at things differently.
           
Secondly, I like to think that God is willing to host each one of us individually.  In fact God is willing to do this hosting even if we don’t really deserve it.  Let me be first in line to say that I do not deserve it.  Of course most of the time I pretend that I do deserve whatever I get.  I rationalize that my education, hard work, charm, personality---whatever---is the basis for all that I have. 
           
Too easily I can dismiss those who have not done things my way as less than me.  Those uneducated, slackers who have no charm and certainly no personality deserve very little---certainly much less than I do!  Why would God bother hosting them?
           
But then it hit me.  The one verse most Christians can cite from memory goes like this: “God so loved the world…”  I am always embarrassed that it does not say, “God so loved me…”  But that’s the trick of Divine Hospitality.  If I can come to see my home as this “earth home” and all earth’s inhabitants as my neighbors, then I can begin to understand hospitality as the key to it all.
           
Hospitality is the key to salvation based on God’s love and brings peace on earth!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Good or Scared


I go to a few different places on Sundays when I worship.  And some Sundays I don’t go anywhere.  It was certainly true, when I was growing up, that the implication was one would probably go to hell if you did not go to church somewhere.  I don’t know that anyone ever told me that would be the case, but it seemed implied.  And I do not ever recall anyone tell me it was not true.

So I grew up assuming church attendance, while not compulsory, was very important.  Those were the “Leave it to Beaver” days!  How times have changed.  No one in my circles would consider playing golf on Sunday, even though I knew many people were out there on the golf course as I was dutifully riding to Quaker meeting with my parents.  How times have changed!

I am sure there are still Christians (and maybe Jews and others) who still feel attendance at the weekly or routine gatherings are a “must.”  However most people with whom I associate do not see it as a necessity.  Of course, my own theology has changed---I don’t know that it is fair to say it has grown, although that’s is how I see it.  With my view of God now, I cannot see how God would send me to hell for missing Sunday morning.  But I still go with some frequency.

I go not to avoid hell, but to find community and spiritual nurture.  I certainly would like to avoid hell!  Who wouldn’t?  I do not know anything about the potential heaven and hell after death.  What I do think humans can have if they want is hell right now, here on earth.  So when I say I would like to avoid hell, I would like to avoid the hell right now, here on earth.  Maybe going to church can help me in that process.

This past Sunday I was helped.  I went to a place which has a fairly rich sense of community.  The people enjoy being there and they seem glad to welcome me.  Since it is not a Quaker place, there is virtually no chance they will want me to do anything---certainly not be a leader there.  I can sit back and participate fully.

I had to smile when I heard the scripture reading.  I knew the passage well.  It was from Mark’s gospel.  One of the disciples approaches Jesus and told him someone was driving out demons in Jesus’ name.  The disciple told Jesus that he had tried to stop it, but to no avail.  Then comes the classic phrase from Jesus that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (9:40)  Following that is the admonition from Jesus that no one should cause the little one to sin, that one should hang a huge rock around the neck and go jump in the ocean.  And if the hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  And so on with the foot and the eye.  This, says Jesus, is what you should do to avoid being thrown into hell. 

I have always known that my hands, feet and eyes have caused me to sin.  Surely, the New Testament is not meant to be read literally.  If so I should be missing hands, feet, and be blind.  As I sat back pondering this, the speaker began to go in a creative direction.  He agreed; no one takes the entire Bible literally.  We all pick and choose---or we don’t even choose to take the Bible at all.
I liked the way the speaker framed the Gospel reading, as well as our take on life.  I know I have sinned.  I also know that I have both eyes, both hands and both feet.  If I read this passage literally, then I should be scared.  I should be scared that I am going to hell.  Of course, there is every good reason I should go to hell.  Doubtlessly I have done my share of creating and nurturing hell here on earth. 

Every time I sin, I nurture hell in some way.  And there clearly are times when I know I am living in the hell others have created.  These hells are not some post-mortem experience.  I like the advice of Jesus not to be scared, but to be good.  It is not a call to be good, however, to avoid some future hell.  It is a call to be good to eradicate the hell I and others have created right now, right here.

When Jesus prayed for “thy Kingdom come,” I think this is what he meant.  We need to work for the good, first by being good.  And then we work for the good by nurturing the good in others.  Working for the good in my life means basic things like love, justice, compassion and forgiveness. 

The message is not to waste time in fear.  Being scared accomplishes nothing.  I feel called to be a co-laborer of the Kingdom---the Kingdom to come in this world right now, right here.  I do it not through fear of hell, but engaging the hell I and others have created in order to transform that hell.  I do it by being good and by working for the good.

This is why I know I need community.  On my own, I am tempted by fear---scared as hell, as they say.  With the community of others working for the good, I am encouraged and take courage to cast out demons.  The world needs it.  It is a good thing to do.  And I am not scared to take on the demons that cause hell on earth.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Being


A few days ago, I pulled up behind a car, which was stopped at a red light.  For some reason I like randomly to read license plates on cars.  My eyes went to the plate on the car ahead of me and I was surprised to read “Being.”  “That’s great,” I whispered to myself.  For a second I thought that I would be happy to have that plate on my car.  But then, I had to laugh.

I am sure I have my share of vanity---being too prideful of ourselves or our things.  I care about how I look, etc.  But if asked, I would doubtlessly say that I am not very vain!  The plainness of my clothes, my car, etc. would substantiate that, at least compared to my peers.  I am also sure I was more vain when I was younger!  Maybe there is a connection between vanity and hormones!  I do think maturity and, certainly, becoming more spiritual should simultaneously begin eroding our vanity.

One thing I am fairly confident is I won’t spend extra money on vanity license plates.  Along with most folks, my plates are a random mix of letters and numbers.  I am not even sure I could actively come up with the right answer to what’s on my plate.  If I see it, I recognize it.  Vanity plates are not my thing.  To be honest, however, it may be that I am just cheap!  Maybe I am vain and cheap! 

I was curious about the guy’s “Being” plates on the car in front of me.  I wanted to jump out of the car and run up to his car and ask him about the plates.  I wanted to hear his story.  Of course, the light changed to green and he sped off.  I’ll probably never see the car again.  I’ll never know his true story.  What I am sure is no one randomly gets a license plate (in my state anyway) that says, “Being.”  So I decided to make up my own story.

I am confident the license plates are meant to convey the belief in a Higher Power, the God who is.  To say this is to affirm a theological or philosophical point.  To claim that God is claims that God exists.  Simply put, to exist is to “be.”  In fancy theological language is an ontological statement.  Of course, it is simpler to say God exists!  Logically speaking, the opposite would say that God does not exist, which an atheist would claim.  So the license plate is making a bold claim.

I can imagine a further detail in the story.  Let’s imagine the license plate suggests the driver has taken a good philosophy or theology class in college---maybe even majored in one of these academic disciplines.  If so, he probably studied people like St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval scholastic professor at the University of Paris.  One could argue Thomas Aquinas is the most important figure in Christian history, third only to Jesus and St. Paul.  Thomas Aquinas talks about God as Being Itself.

In simple terms Thomas affirms that God exists---God is Being.  But there is one essential difference between God and all the rest of us creatures who also exist.  God’s Being (existence) is eternal.  Early theologians put it this way: there never was a time when God did not exist.  Of course, every one of us knows there was a time when we did not exist.  When we talk about being born, we claim that as a time when we began to exist.  For sure, we can even push the beginning of our existence back to the point of our conception---when the sperm connected with the fertile egg to begin our miraculous journey.

The problem for me with this kind of God-talk (God as Being Itself) is not a matter of whether it is true or not.  That is a faith issue.  As a person of faith, I accept its truth.  The problem is to talk about God as Being does not give us much of a sense of who this God is.  We get no “feel” for this God.  That claim for God’s Being is about as warm as the license plate.  This is where theology has to morph into spirituality.  Being has to come to life.  The license plate has to take us to the driver---or to you and me.

If God is being, so do we “be” (obviously bad English, but good theology!).  We “are” because the creative Power of the universe wanted us!  We are the objects of Divine Desire!  I like desire language, because it so quickly becomes the language of care and of love.  Being Itself begins to take on affection and allows me to understand God’s affectionate desire---for me and for all of us.

I like to see myself, the driver of the car---all of seven billion of us in the world---as manifestations of this creative, loving God.  Our job is to translate our existence (our being) into lives that are fueled by desire---desire to care and to love.  Of course, our desire can go in bad ways.  We can desire things that are not desirable.  Theologically, we call this sin; in secular terms these are called mistakes or failures. 

Those of us who have faith in God want (desire) to live a mistake-free life.  We want our lives to proclaim the desire, dignity and delight God wants for us.  In this sense, it won’t matter what our license plates say.  What matters will be what our lives say.  Imagine your life like a license plate.  When others see it, what will it say?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Spiritual Cultural Serendipity


I know I have often expressed my appreciation for experiences of serendipity.  Basically serendipity means getting some good stuff that you had not expected to get.  As I understand it, serendipity is always good things.  “Bad” serendipity does not happen to us.  So it is always a good deal.  Furthermore, we don’t create serendipity; it is more like luck or grace.  We just get lucky.  Or we simply are graced.

I just had one such experience.  Not only was it serendipity.  It was a spiritual cultural serendipity.  It came as an experience, which I can relate as a story.  For me personally, it had a power that I am still appreciating.  And the fact that I experienced it with a couple students makes it even more special.

One of the organizations I work with on my campus is designed to help students learn about innovation and how to develop an innovative mindset and skill set.  It is fair to say its primary focus is on business, but we do manage to work with some non-profit organizations, too.  The learning for students is equal regardless of profit or non-profit. 

One special feature of our Center is we do consulting projects with real life businesses and non-profits.  We do this for some significant money, so it is real-life education with actual results that businesses value.  It is not the typical hypothetical situation that so often characterizes education.  In this case making mistakes is quite costly.  One current project is a consulting piece for a local school system and their desire to undertake a creative new school initiative.  Our job is to do some interviews to help the school system decide whether to move forward with the project.

I was asked to join two students to interview a parent in that local school system.  We knew the parent was fairly recently a transplant from another country---it turned out to be she was from Jordan.  She asked if she could have her high school daughter present to help with the translation.  That was important, since my Arabic is limited to about five words!  I have had quite a few cultural experiences in my travels, but I don’t think the two students have experienced much.

When we were invited into the home of this lovely woman and her daughter, we entered a different world.  Although we could see the shoes lined up on the porch, we were told not to take off our shoes.  This was the first of many signs of the hospitality we would be extended.  There was more to come.  We stepped into the living room to be greeted by the smells of the house, which were different than my house smells.  We sat down and the students began the work of interviewing.  I was there to supervise---which meant do nothing!

What I want to focus in this inspirational reflection is a byproduct of the actual interview.  But it is central to what I do and to my life.  Through the process of the conversation we learned the family is Muslim.  They are four years removed from Jordan.  They are finding ways to make a life in this country while facing demands and obstacles that most of us native Americans don’t even think about.

Soon the daughter disappeared, only to come bringing us some fruit juice.  We were guests and were being treated with touching hospitality.  The irony struck us, as we realized it is Ramadan and they were fasting until sundown!  The daughter disappeared again, only to reappear with some delicious dates for our enjoyment.  With the dates we were served water.  At that point the interview was finishing.

Instead of being the normal impetuous Americans---ready to jump up and leave---we lingered to talk a bit about being Muslim and things like that.  At that point, we were told that we would be served food!  The daughter disappeared, only to reappear carrying three plates copiously filled with rice and chicken.  Again the irony was they could not eat yet, since it was a few hours till sundown.

It was at this point I became very aware of the poignancy of the moment.  Three American Christians were sitting in the living room of a Muslim family being shown hospitality that seemed both gracious and unlimited.  Our only role as a guest was to receive this hospitality.  But it was not just hospitality.  My neighbor who lives next door can show me hospitality.

The hospitality being shown the three of us was grounded in a different culture and a different spiritual tradition.  That hospitality was rooted in an understanding of receiving a guest with care and love.  It was not because we were special.  We were unknown to this family.  We walked into a living room as strangers, to be sure, but they did not see us as strangers.  They saw and received us as guests.

We went for an interview, which we got.  We did not go for everything else we got.  More importantly than the interview, we were graced with a spiritual, cultural experience of serendipity.  Allah became very real for me at that moment.  I know Allah is simply Arabic for “God.”  Experience goes deeper than doctrine.  We were given an experience---a spiritual, cultural experience of serendipity.  Thank you and Amen.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Helpful or Meddling


I have come to the conclusion there are multiple benefits from reading.  That is not a revolutionary thought and, certainly, not novel.  But that does not make it any less true.  In fact, it is always a relief to discover the truth of something that is true!  That may sound a bit weird, but think about how many people don’t know the truth of true things.  Indeed, I have even known folks who swore some true things were false.  So it is not as simple as we think!

In my case reading often delivers a few different dividends.  In the first place much of what I read is what I want to learn about.  For example, I have been invited to do a keynote speech on Servant Leadership.  I know some things about this concept, but I also know there is a history to the concept that goes back to the 60s.  If I want to know this history, then I will read about it.

However, in the process of reading, I hit upon ideas that are inherently interesting to me or which become useful in some way down the road.  These ideas may have no role in the upcoming speech I will do, but they will come to function in some other way in my activities.  Often I hit upon ideas that I will incorporate in a class.  I never really know how I might employ some ideas that come my way.  I love the way authors write something that causes me to pause and go, “Wow, I never knew that” or “that is really interesting.”

I had an experience recently.  I was reading a chapter by Daniel H. Kim.  It is a chapter in a book on Servant Leadership, so clearly that was the reason I was reading the book.  Kim’s chapter wound up being fascinating, although I don’t think there are any ideas there that will help me in my upcoming speech!  It does not matter; I read it because I was hooked.

In bold letters indicating a special section in the chapter, Kim wrote these words: Helpful or Meddling.  Just seeing those words stopped me in my tracks.  I suspect part of the reason I was stopped is because generally I see myself as helper.  In fact, I assume I am a big help to many people.  Writing those words make me sound more special than I probably am!  Of course, I would much rather be a helper than a hurter (I have been that, too, but don’t dwell on that for obvious reasons).  So reading Kim’s words made me instantly reflective.

I would agree with Kim in assuming most people think they are helpers.  In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who would not assume he or she is a helper.  But then Kim poses the question: “How do you know you are helping?”  That’s an ornery question when I realize in my own case often I have no idea.  I would probably join the typical answer Kim suggests: I see myself as a helper because I intend to be a helper.  I realize that is nice, but it does not by definition make me a helper.

I pushed further.  I now see that I am a helper if I actually help somebody.  Furthermore, I don’t get to decide whether I actually helped.  The other person gets to make that call.  Of course, I always get to decide whether I want to help.  But I cannot decide whether I actually did help.  My intentionality does not automatically make me a helper.  I realized this is good.  It spares me being prideful about being a helper.

So where does all this leave me (and maybe you)?  And is there anything spiritual to be learned here?  My quick answer is there is something spiritual to be learned and is, therefore, healthy.  It cautions me to be content with my intention of helping.  I will continue to help wherever and whenever I can.  But I do it with some humility knowing that my intent to help does not automatically translate into actual help.  In fact, if I am not careful, my helping could become meddling!  For example, if I attempt to “help” someone who does not want my help, that could be considered meddling.

Even worse, I do think sometimes “helping” can be a form of coercion or manipulation.  I am sure I did this as a parent and, doubtlessly, as a professor.  That should take care of some of my pride in being a helper!  I want to learn to be content with simply my offer of help.  It will become help when the other person decides it really is help. 

I am beginning to see clearly that help is a gift.  Gifts can be received, ignored or denied.  If help is truly a gift, then I should never force the issue.  To see it in this fashion is to come close to seeing the spiritual dimension of helping.  My idea of God and of Jesus offers models of authentic helping.  God is creative and Jesus is a redemptive model of helping.  But this kind of authentic help is always gift---theologically called grace.  God is not a manipulator or forcer in my theology.

Fortunately, I know that I am a human being who needs help!  I appreciate what God is willing to do and I value the help of other people in my life.  I want to grow sufficiently to be gracious to others, to help as they want it and to give up meddling in unwanted ways.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vision Statement


I am not sure about you, but I am aware that I get ideas and have no sense of why that idea popped into my head.  That does not mean everything I think is profound.  Some stuff that pops into my head is crazy.  Some of it is random, irrelevant or even stupid.  But sometimes some good stuff pops into my mind.  An idea like that is analogous to someone walking up and handing you a $20 bill.  I can imagine that person saying, “Here ya go, $20 just for thinking!”

Most of the time, these ideas come and go.  I don’t pay enough attention, so I know I have missed some very good ideas.  Of course, the bad ones should be forgotten.  And I should just laugh at the stupid ones and forget them, too.  When I talk about the good ones coming into my mind, I am not talking about the ideas that come when we are in that half-sleep, half-awake state.  I have in mind more the kind of ideas that come when we are in the shower or doing something that seems totally unrelated to getting a good idea.

Recently, an idea came to my mind.  I was thinking about vision statements.  That is not a foreign idea for me.  I have lived long enough and been involved in enough institutions to have a passing acquaintance with vision statements.  I have seen some that I felt were pretty effective and others that I thought were a joke.  But I never thought about vision statements in the sense in which it just came to me one day.

I wondered whether very many people have personal vision statements?  I wondered what I would tell someone if a person came to me and asked me, “Do you have a personal vision statement?  If so, what is it?”  I realized I do have such a statement and I could quickly tell someone what my vision statement is.  That made me satisfied.

When thinking about vision statements for businesses or non-profits, I understand the statement to be the organizational reason for being.  The vision statement is the business or non-profit’s way of stating its purpose or goal.  It usually is simple and short.  If it is complicated or too wordy, then the organization is not really clear.  I think the same thing applies to a personal vision statement.

My personal vision statement is short, simple and general.  That is fine with me.  Let me share it with you and then develop it.  My vision statement says that my life’s goal is “to live and to love.”  I realize cynical people could laugh at it.  Someone might say, “Duh!”  But I don’t care.  It is my vision statement and it guides me day by day.  I could recount the story of when I came to this vision for myself, but that is not relevant here.  Suffice it to say, I have had that vision for quite some time in my life.  I did not have it when I was a kid, but it has been around a good bit of my adult life.

My vision statement---to live and to love---articulates both my goal and purpose for my life.  It answers that question, “what’s the point in life?”  I know I have thought about that question since I saw the 1966 movie, Alfie, starring Michael Caine.  The movie chronicled some of the crazy life of Alfie.  The line from the title song asks the simple question, “What’s it all about Alfie?”  When I saw the movie, I probably knew that was my question, too.  And it is doubtlessly everyone’s question.  My vision statement is my personal answer.  I know what’s it all about for me.

My vision statement---to live and to love---is general.  My job day by day is to make the general specific.  Daily I seek to live---not simply exist and not to go through the motions.  I don’t want to look back at the end of any day and say, “Well, that was a waste!”  If I can truly live each day, then I will experience a sense of vitality and well-being.  With my vision statement I can do that to my dying day.  We are all mortal.  I need a vision statement that can hold form even if I get sick, even if I am not able to be a productive person in the work world, etc.  I wanted a vision statement that could serve me to my dying day.

The other part of my vision statement has to do with love.  I don’t want merely to live.  I also want to love.  Love is a meaningful word to me.  Love works with family, friends and even enemies.  I can love my friends and my grandkids.  I can love the world.  And since love is an action word, I cannot be content to talk about love and never be loving.  If I am not loving, then love is merely a word---an idea. 

There are many vision statements a person can have.  I am convinced that most people have some kind of vision.  I doubt that many could articulate it on the spot.  In that sense it is implicit.  If the vision statement has any “punch” to it, then our lives should somehow reflect that vision.  I hope my life reflects in some small part my vision.  I know I have not pulled it off completely, but I have time!

My vision statement is closely tied to how I am trying to make meaning in my life and do it with a purpose.  I am not against having some wealth.  I would like to be happy.  And so forth.  But most of all, I am trying to live and to love.  And I know, that is going to take a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Twice Blessed


Sometimes in the evening when I sit down to write another one of these inspirational reflections, I wonder, does anyone “out there” read these things?  Fortunately I do not know how many people read them, although I know some do.  I also know that this has become an important part of my own spiritual discipline.  Of course, there are some days when I really don’t want to do a reflection, but I know right now it is a good discipline for my soul. 
           
For one thing since I write every night, it means I need a modicum of awareness as I go through my day in order to “catch” something in life, which is worthy of spiritual reflection.  When I catch such a moment, then it is important to pay attention.  I realize how easy it is to go through the motions of living.  Even though I interact a great deal with people, it is still too easy to give rote answers and not really engage and exchange in real and authentic ways.  However I might define spirituality, I would insist it has to be real and authentic. 
           
The funny thing for me to recognize is once I write one of these and send it on to appear the next day in cyber world, I tend to not think of it again.  That does not mean I don’t try to take my own insights seriously, but I don’t need to go back to re-read what I wrote.  Instead I try to incarnate it into my living the next day.  So in that sense, I become unaware and inattentive!
           
The evening before I had written about blessing.  I did not re-read it, but generally I knew what I had said.  But yesterday when the message actually appeared in cyber world, I had put it in the back of my mind.  About mid-morning I walked across campus to get a cup of coffee.  A woman came up behind me and whispered, “God bless you.”  “Thank you,” I responded.  The she reiterated her blessing and smiled broadly.  Then it hit me: she had read my piece and also was incarnating the message.
           
She was using the verb with me.  “Bless you,” was the verbal gift.  I became the noun---the blessing.  And we were both blessed.  In fact, I was twice blessed!  I was delighted and humbled in the same moment.  It felt like my gift had been given back to me with interest.  If she had handed me a $20 bill, I could not have been happier!
           
To my delight she was the first of a small number of people who brought blessing into my life in some fashion.  Repeatedly I was twice blessed.  I felt a bit sheepish that I had written something and proceeded to go on with my life without much attention to what I had thrown out there.  Like a good boomerang, blessing was coming back my way.  Unlike the boomerang, the blessings came back to land in my heart.
           
It occurred to me that I had been triangulated---in a very good way.  The blessor (her) had become blessed (me) and we both momentarily inhabited a bubble of blessing (community).  As I wandered through the day, other people joined the bubble of blessing.  Blessing is always a good thing.  Twice blessed is an amazingly good thing!
           
The whole process provoked another reflective look at blessing.  Why would I have not thought about being twice blessed?  It seems so obvious to me now.  Simply to bless someone does not mean the event occurs and is finished.  Why would I not assume, rather, that blessing is more like a rock thrown into a pool.  Inevitably there will be ripple effects.  Like the rock tossed into the pool, so with blessing you can see where it “lands.”  If I bless you, then it lands on you.  But why would I assume that’s that?
           
It makes more sense to assume that if I bless you, it will ripple on out to other people and other situations.  That’s what happened to me yesterday when I was included in the ripple effect.  The blessing I had extended rippled back to bless me.  I find that hilarious!
           
This makes me more eager to find ways and opportunities to bless people and to be a blessing in the situations I find myself.  Why would I not opt for that instead of cursing people and being a curse in my situations!  We all know people like that.  And if we are honest, we all know we have been those people on occasion.
           
I thank the wonderful woman who made my excursion to get coffee such a teachable moment.  Like so many gifts, I did not see this one coming.  I went for coffee and got blessed!  I looked for milk and got creamed with a blessing.  And as I write this, I realize I should be careful.
           
I should be careful that twice blessed is as far as it could possibly go.  Who can possibly know the extent or the boundaries of God’s blessing?  Why would I or you want to predict or limit the possibility or range of blessings?  Tomorrow I aim to throw another rock of blessing into the pool of humanity in which I find myself.  And I secretly hope there will be a ripple effect---a twice blessed ripple!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Receive My Blessing


I was asked to speak at my friend’s church.  It was not the first time I have done that, but each time is special.  It’s something I can do for him and I like doing things for friends.  Who does not like doing things for friends?  It does not cost me anything but some time and effort.  And it does not cost him anything.  It’s a gift---a gift of talent and friendship. 
           
The theme of the day was Receive My Blessing.  I did not have to focus on that, but it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.  As I began to think about it, my mind wandered in any number of directions.  It was obvious to me that the key idea was the notion of blessing.  I laughed when I thought that blessing is not something that plays much of a role in our culture except when someone sneezes!
           
It always amazes me when someone sneezes, more than one person jumps in with assurance, “Bless you!”  Even when I am in a room of twenty-seven students, a sneeze always brings this blessing.  I am not sure all the blessers in the room are religious, but I don’t know that that matters any more.
           
What’s probably the case is the fact that blessing has been secularized along with so much else in our culture.  Sadly people bless the sneezes in the world and curse everything else!  I know I am much more likely to hear “God damn you” than I am “God bless you!”
           
So I thought about what I would bring to my message.  I figured it would be important once again to locate the idea of blessing in its religious context.  That would be fairly easy.  I know the religious context was the covenant that God made with certain groups.  It has an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) focus that is, then, carried forward in the New Testament.  Let’s look quickly at this.
           
Perhaps the earliest occurrence is the covenant God made with Abraham (although he was still Abram at the time).  God says to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 1:1-3)
           
The covenant-blessing relationship is clearly portrayed here.  Keep the covenant and be blessed is the theme.  But then I looked more closely.  I realized blessing is used in three different ways.  It is a verb, a noun, and a gift.
           
In the first instance, God indicates that God will bless Abraham.  Blessing is a verb.  But God is not the only blesser.  You and I can also be verbal blessers!  My aspiration is to bless more and curse less.  In my daily encounters I want to find ways to bless both people and situations.  Blessings should bring more peace and joy and cause less strife and sadness.  I will seek ways to dissipate anger and inspire awe.  I want to help situations be more splendid and less sordid.

The second way blessing happens is as a noun.  When verbs become nouns, actions become states of being.  In Abraham’s case God made him a blessing.  This is powerful.  If Abraham or you or, even I, can be a blessing, then we are living in a state of blessedness.  I know at one level that sounds saintly, but that is to make it too pompous.  I prefer to see it more at the mundane level.  To live as a blessing is more like living gracefully instead of grumpily.  I want to grow to the place where my simple presence is a blessing to the people and the situations into which I come.
           
This already anticipates the third way blessing functions.  When I can be a blessing to any other person and within any situation, then I come as a gift.  I consider blessing always a gift.  At its deepest, blessing is always a representation of God.  Indeed, it is an incarnation of God’s Presence in the world.  With this understanding blessing is a profound way of saying, “See me, see the Holy One!” 
           
That is audacious, but true as I see it.  If I can learn to bless, if I can become a blessing and if I can be a blessing in the world I inhabit, then truly I represent and incarnate God’s abiding Presence in the world.  I can be a gift that keeps on giving.  In my own way I go through my day saying, in effect, “Receive my Blessing.”
           
And if you, too, opt for this blessed way of living, the world can be transformed.  Jesus calls it the Kingdom.  If we actually believe it is possible and are willing to actualize the possibility, we become co-creators of that Kingdom.  We begin building “heaven on earth.”
           
I’m willing.  Hope you are willing, too.  We’d make a good team…indeed, God’s team!  That’s nothing to sneeze at!!

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Heart is Ready


When I turned to the lectionary this morning, I began the section called Morning Prayer.  In the world of monasteries this period is called Lauds.  Lauds come from the Latin word for “praise.”  It is easy to see our English word, applaud, in the Latin, Laud.  I like the fact that Morning Prayers is a time for praise.  In a sense it is time to awaken to the new day and applaud what God has done again.
           
Because of our technology, it is easy to live life without the sense of nature’s rhythms.  When it begins to get dark, we simply flip the switch and the lights come on.  So we continue life as if it is the middle of the day.  If we want to continue reading or sewing, we have no problem.  If we want to wander around in the house at 10:00pm, we are in no danger of running into things we can’t see.
           
However if we were to live in the middle of nature without electricity, things would be different.  We would be much more sensitive to dusk as it begins to erase the day’s light.  We might be more eager to arise early in the morning before the dawning of a new day.  We would await the light from the darkness of the night.  In effect, we would be ready to applaud God---Lauds---when the dawn of new light appears.
           
I have come to appreciate these Morning Prayers---this time of Lauds.  I like the lectionary giving me some set readings.  I appreciate people who know the Bible and, especially, the Psalms.  I like how they arrange readings to fit the situation.  So it is that I eagerly turn to the lectionary each morning.
           
The first Psalm I encountered this morning was a perfect fit.  I engaged the first verse of Psalm 108 and had no need to go further.  The Psalmist begins that Psalm by saying, “My heart is ready, O God---my heart is ready.”  I wanted that Psalm to be my words for the day.  I also wanted to tell God that my heart is ready.  I decided to ponder this one-liner.
           
What does it mean to say to God that your heart is ready?  There are two important words here: heart and ready.  I know enough about the biblical text to know that the language of “heart” is the biblical way of talking about the whole person.  But it talks about the whole person at a deep level.  Clearly “heart” is used metaphorically.  The Psalmist is not talking about the beating organ in our chests that pump the blood to keep us alive.  However, that real heart undergirds the metaphorical heart.
           
My heart is the “real me.”  It is that true self, as Thomas Merton and so many others have identified.  Quakers have preferred the language of “center.”  My heart is my center.  It is the authentic me.  A Quaker is aware that only the person who knows his or her center can, thereby, live a centered life. 
           
Life lived from the center---from the heart---is a concentrated life.  Notice how the word, concentrated, works: Concentrate comes from “con-center.”  A con-centered life is a life centered “with” (the “co-“) oneself and centered with the Divine One.  The opposite of a centered life is an “eccentric” life.
           
Eccentric means one is living “away from” the center.  “Ec-“ is the preposition that means “from” or “away from.”  Eccentric understood this way does not mean “weird,” as it is often used in common language.  An eccentric person is someone who is “off center.”  This is the person whose life is out of whack---off balance.  I cringe at this description because it can describe me on some days. 
           
So it is that I pray with the Psalmist, “My heart is ready, O God.”  That word ready is a great one.  To be ready means we are ok to play the game.  We are prepared.  To be ready means we want to act and to be part of the action.  When we say to God that our hearts are ready, we are saying, “let’s go.”
           
That’s what I wanted to say to God this morning: “Let’s go!”  Some days I really do feel that my heart is ready, O God.  Other mornings I find that I am not quite ready.  On those mornings those first words of Psalm 108 are more aspirational.  On those mornings the verse becomes more like a prayer: O God, make my heart ready! Today I was ready.
           
I awoke and wanted to applaud God for bringing me through the darkness of the night.  While I slept, God kept watch.  God brought me through safely.  And when I arose, I offered lauds---praise.  This day is a gift.  I am ready to embrace the grace that I have to make a difference.  My heart is ready, O God.  And I will put my whole heart into this day.