Friday, August 29, 2014

Awaiting Labor Day

We anticipate another Labor Day for yet another year.  As holidays go, it is one of the least important for me.  Maybe it is because I grew up on a dairy farm, so Labor Day was pointless; we still milked the cows twice that day just like any other day!  But clearly, it is special in many ways for many people.  And I am always intrigued by the history of a special day. 

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland.  The traditional day of celebration apparently was chosen by some unions in New York.  Since I have spent some time abroad, I know the traditional global day of celebrating labor is May 1.  Sometimes these international days of celebration can lead to political protest and disruptions.  It seems President Cleveland was concerned about that, so he wanted to avoid that May date.  So the first Monday in September was a safer alternative. 

There are typical associations with Labor Day.  When I was a kid, schools did not begin until after Labor Day.  Typically, Labor Day is seen as the end of summer.  That is probably why it is not the favorite holiday of young people: end of summer and beginning of school! 

It also is seen as the beginning of the fall sports seasons.  The professional football season begins following Labor Day.  Most fall college sports kick off their seasons at this time of the year.  And then, there are some anomalies.  My little town celebrates Octoberfest in September!  In so many of these celebrations, the end of summer gives way to autumn and the harvest season. 

So Labor Day can be captured with twin themes: rest and harvest.  It does not take much thought to see how clearly these two themes---rest and harvest---are also key pieces of any spirituality.  Let’s look at how each plays a significant spiritual role.

Anyone from the Jewish or Christian traditions should already know about the importance of rest.  The theme of rest is built into the fabric of the universe.  According to the Genesis creation account, God worked at the creative endeavor for six days and then on the seventh, God rested.  That theme is codified in the idea of Sabbath. 

Sabbath was meant to be a day unlike the other days of the week.  Clearly, work is necessary and valued.  But Sabbath also seems to be necessary and valued.  But often the idea of Sabbath is neither necessary nor valued.  It seems in our American culture this has become very true.  Once upon a time, there were “blue laws” which dictated against stores being open, etc.  Historically this was rooted in the Christian cultural tradition, primarily the Puritan early heritage of our country.  These blue laws were free Sundays from normal work, etc.  Obviously, for Jews and Muslims and a host of others, Sundays are not holy days.

As usual however, we have gone overboard.  By getting rid of blue laws, we seem to have lost the valuable idea of rest.  Now everyone can work, play, and so forth 24/7, as the phrase goes---24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  That’s not healthy.  That’s not meaningful.  That’s not spiritual. 

A healthy, meaningful spirituality is a balanced spirituality.  Not surprisingly, monks “get” this.  For example, the Benedictine tradition builds the daily schedule around a balance of work and worship.  Of course, worship is not necessarily rest, but like rest, it balances on obsession with work.  It challenges the assumption that worth is determined solely by work.  There is a place and role for rest. 

The other theme of Labor Day is harvest.  This is a seasonal theme.  In our part of the hemisphere, spring is for planting, summer is for growing, and autumn is for harvest.  It is the time for gathering the fruits of our labor.  It is the season to enjoy.  It is a time to celebrate accomplishments.  It is a time for “thanksgiving.” 

Yet again, many of us in this country do not do this very well.  If our sense of worth is wrapped up in work, then enjoying the fruits of our work is not done very well.  It is as if we don’t trust the legitimacy or value of enjoying the fruits of our labor.  In fact, some of us even feel guilty if we are not busy---not at work.  Again, this is not healthy. 

We were not born workers.  We were born babies!  We were quite useless as workers for some time.  But we are no longer babies.  Adults often learn bad habits and choose to live stupidly.  On Labor Day it is time to re-assess our spiritual condition.  Two easy ways to do this is to ask about balance in life.  Do I balance work (or busyness) with adequate rest?  And do I have the ability to enjoy the fruits of my labor and the good things in my life? 

Or if you want one overriding question, ask yourself how you determine your worth in life?  If it is determined solely by work…then you have work to do!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Augustine and Monica

Two saints!  The Roman Catholic Church has a ton of saints.  Of course, that is a statement by a Quaker, a tradition that typically does not talk about saints.  As I grew up in the Quaker environment, the only time I heard “saint language” was about some of the writers in the Bible.  I did hear people talk about St. John or St. Paul.  As a kid, if asked about saints, I would have assumed saints are “Bible guys.”  Since I never gave it any thought, I never thought about women saints. 
      
My own Quaker tradition has held the radical equality of men and women since the beginning of our seventeenth century.  That part of Quakerism rubbed off on me and I have been very happy about that.  I have always seen women as my equal.  In fact, I would usually assume women were, by and large, better saint candidates than men---myself included!  
       
I am glad that my provincialism has been crunched.  I am much more widely aware and appreciative than I was when I was a kid.  Much of my education came from friends and from studying Catholicism and other traditions.  Part of that education has been “saintly.”  Augustine and Monica became historical teachers.  As I follow the daily lectionary---the readings offered by my Benedictine path---I bump into the various saint-days.  These are days honoring a particular saint.   

Two straight days in August give us Augustine and Monica.  I first ran into this pair when I did a church history class in college.  There was more exposure in seminary and then in my doctoral studies, I focused on the early church period.  I got to know well this couple.   
     
Saying they were a couple is misleading.  Monica was Augustine’s mother.  Augustine is perhaps the most famous or influential Christian figure after the New Testament gospel writers and St. Paul.  But we may never have heard of him if it were not for his mother, Monica.  She was born early in the fourth century.  Augustine came along mid-fourth century.  She was born into a Christian family.  Augustine wanted nothing to do with Christianity.           

She is a saint, not because she is a famous theological thinker or martyr, but because she lives her own life of holiness.  Part of that life was harboring hopes of holiness for her son, when he did not share at all those hopes. Part of her sanctity is a holiness of patience.  Like all good parents, she knew she could not force her son to be the person she wanted him to be.  But she also trusted that God would be graciously at work in Augustine.  Apparently, God was!         

When Monica died in 387, Augustine had become a Christian and was on his way to Christian fame.  When she died, she completed a holy journey and he was traveling what became his own holy journey.  Oddly enough, without the famous Augustine, we would never have heard of Monica.  And without Monica, Augustine would be, at best, a footnote in history.    
    
I am confident neither one would have said their goal was to be a saint recognized by the Catholic Church.  They both would have said, I am sure, that they espoused to live a life of obedience to what they perceived to be the will of God for their lives.  Their goal was not some self-serving, egotistical design for some kind of gratification.  Instead, their goal was to live out the commitment of their call to be a daughter and son of the living God.           

In this sense, they are not much different than any one of us contemporary people living out our own lives.  We might contend that our times are more complex, more difficult---whatever.  But in reality I think the basics of life are still fairly simple.  A basic life question is this: for whom or what am I living?  Obviously, there are many answers.  One common answer is that we live for ourselves.  We have our own agendas and most of us would want to be as happy as we can be.  
       
I am glad I know Monica and Augustine, because I do not think this would be their answer.  I think they would want to be happy, if possible.  But that would not be their goal.  Their goal would be to embrace the call of God on their lives, as they experienced that call.  They would want to live out that discipleship in as much fullness and depth as possible.        
 
For both of them, discipleship entailed giving away your life.  They gave life away in love and in service.  In some ways, I find Monica more useful than her son.  Some parts of Augustine’s life and ministry are difficult for me to accept.  But I do think he was trying to be true to that which he sensed God calling him to be and do.           

In the process his life and his story became not only his, but it became the church’s story.  Those who knew him and those who read about him came to see his life as the story of God’s life lived out in a fallible human being.  The holy life is not a perfect life.  Neither Monica nor Augustine was perfect.  Neither am I.  But if we strive to be obedient, at least we are on the holy path---baby saints, perhaps.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

God’s Face

Most of the time I feel quite fortunate.  The nature of my job requires that I read books and other things.  Because I have the privilege of teaching, I have to assign various books.  And then I have to read them and think about the material before I see students who interact with the material.  Sometimes I know those same students groan about having to read the things.  And I want to say, “Really?”  “Would you like to have a boring job instead?”           

As I was reading last night in preparation for a class, I ran across these words from the Qur’an (Koran) which was quoted by one of my textbooks.  I don’t know the Qur’an very well, so I was glad to get unexpectedly something from it.  The quotation was simple.  It said, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” (Walsh, 173)  Having read it, I now get the opportunity to think about it.  In many ways this is a spiritual discipline.           

First of all, let me say I must have immediately thought I understood the passage, because immediately I thought that it was true.  What this means is my understanding of the passage resonates with my own theological understanding of God and how I think God is present in the world.  Let’s unpack that a little more.          

Clearly this important part of the Qur’an quotation is the idea of the face of God.  Those are simple words, but the concepts are not so simple.  Obviously the language is metaphorical.  This merely means that there is a God in my view; God exists.  But I don’t for a minute think God has a literal face.  God does not have a body with a face, two arms and some legs like you and I do.             

I still prefer the idea of “Spirit” as the best description of God.  Because God is Spirit, God is like the wind or like breath.  I can know and understand the concepts of wind and breath and affirm that somehow God is just as real---just as present.  So why bother with the metaphor of “face?”  Why bother to talk about “God’s face?”          

We bother---and the Qur’an bothers---because it is important to be able to describe things about God.  If I want to be able to describe for you how it is I experience God, then I will need some words.  And if you also have experiences of the Divinity, I hope you will want to share with me.  And you also will need some words.  Because humans are capable of some complex thinking, we have learned to talk with each other in metaphors, analogies, figures of speeches, etc.  Actually our English language is full of these kinds of descriptions.           

So when the Qur’an says that wherever we turn, there is the face of God, it means that God is everywhere.  No matter where we turn our gaze, God can be seen.  Clearly this suggests that much of the time when I am looking around, I am not really seeing.  So often in my looking around, I would claim that I do not see God.  So is God not there or do I not see God?  The Qur’an suggests the problem is with me and not God.  I would agree!           

The real issue in this quotation is the phrase, “the face of God.”  As we noted already, this is a metaphor.  But why choose the metaphor of “face?”  The key is in the role that we give to a person’s face.  Let me suggest that we often think that if we see someone’s face, we thereby “see the person.”  We can go into a little detail.          

It seems to me that the first thing we generally see when we meet someone is his or her face.  There are less distinguishing features in our hands or our knees!  So the face---my face and your face---is the most distinguishing feature.  You can tell it is I when you see my face.  That is why twins are so difficult!          

We also talk about seeing the “face of something.”  The face of a building is called the façade.  We know that a façade can mislead us.  Things behind the façade might not be like the façade would suggest.  In fact, sometimes we hear about someone who is putting on a façade.  This means we cannot take who they are or what they say at “face value!”           

Now back to God, we see what is at stake when we see the face of God wherever we turn.  I connect the idea of façade here.  Let’s imagine that nature is the façade of God---the face of the Divinity.  When I walk through the beauty of the autumn trees, I see seeing the face of God.  When I become enamored by the first winter snowfall, I contemplate God’s face.           

One of the surest façades of God is the newborn baby’s smile.  It is simply divine!  There is power in that infant smile.  It is the power of God.  It is as if the Divinity Itself has once again become incarnate---become flesh---and we behold the Divine Glory.  I believe in one real sense this is true.           

Having said all this, I realize I need some more work in “face recognition.”  I need to be more aware and more alert to see the face of God wherever I turn. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Paradox of Religious Experience

A friend has given me a book.  That is not the first time I have been given a book.  I suspect that is due, in part, to my profession.  Because I’m a college professor, I am sure that folks think I deal with books all day long.  Sometimes that is close to the truth.  Books are important to my work.  It is not the books per se; it is the ideas in the books.  Books are written because people have ideas and want to develop those ideas and share them.  And so it is that I want to dive into my new book.           

The book is by S. Brent Plate and is entitled, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects.  I have only begun the book, but I know he talks about things like stones, which have historically played a key role in religious observance and life.  It should be interesting and a challenge because my normal Quaker response is that I don’t care much about “religious things.”  Of course, that is a provincial and warped perspective!  At least I know it!           

My friend probably gave me the book because he figures I should read it.  And he probably knows it will be good for me and I will profit by what I learn.  I respect that.  And I will, indeed, read it…and probably come to appreciate it.  Once again, half the good things I have managed in life come by the grace of others!  That is a really good argument for community.          

I only have made it a few pages into the book.  Already I can say I have been surprised at how engaging it is.  Already I found a one-liner that I very much liked.  The line reads like this: “Such is the paradox of religious experience; the most ordinary things can become extraordinary.”  In the first place I find that a beautifully written sentence.  Since I claim to be some kind of writer, I appreciate the art of putting words together.  This is a nicely worded sentence.  In an odd way I find it both simple and fairly complex.          

The first half of the sentence is the more complex part.  Plate talks about “the paradox of religious experience.”  My own Quaker tradition always focuses heavily on experience.  In fact, we normally will begin with experience rather than doctrine.  I am more interested in the underlying experience that leads to a particular doctrine (belief).  My tradition underscored how easy it is to have a doctrine without experience.  For example, I can talk about believing in God without having any experience of the living God.           

But what does Plate mean by the paradox of religious experience?  It might be good to remind ourselves what a paradox is.  The dictionary definition would tell us a paradox is “something…that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.”  Plate points to the paradox in the second half of that sentence.          

“The most ordinary things can become extraordinary.”  That is the paradox: ordinary become extraordinary.  I think I have understood the sentence.  Now the trick is to see if somehow it resonates with my experience?  I think it does.  Allow me to elaborate a bit.           

My own Quaker tradition values simplicity.  At one level I know how profoundly this has affected my own life.  When I think about clothes, my cars---almost every level of my life---I am fairly simple.  I don’t do “flashy” very well!  In the moment I am equating simple with ordinary.  Ordinary is the opposite of ostentatious.  That could be the end of the story.  But it is not.           

I don’t even need to read more of Plate’s book to begin anticipating where he might go.  I can already start thinking about the ordinary things in and around me that can become spiritually extraordinary.  One of the most predictable things is my classroom.  When a semester begins, about twenty-five students gather in a room to begin an educational process.  Ostensibly it is a process of learning some things about religion or spirituality.  That is the ordinary…and it happens.  They learn.           

But so often, something else happens.  Often the ordinary is transformed.  There is no magic; there are no tricks.  People read some pages from a book, come to class for a discussion and something clicks.  When you have twenty-five or thirty people together sharing stories from their lives, we all begin to be sitting ducks for the extraordinary to break through the surface.  And it does!           

Often a word will be said---typically with some humility or innocence---that rocks the boat of the group.  We learn that the rather bland girl sitting in the back has a mother dying of cancer at home.  Suddenly she becomes a person---a soul with an ache that is palpably felt by all of us.  Concern and compassion become the group adrenaline.  It is as if we all are touched by a Divine Hand.  We become instruments of ministry.  The ordinary classroom has become an extraordinary compassion laboratory.           

All members of the class have become a paradox of religious experience.  We were just individuals going about an educational venture.  We were touched, transformed and turned to a new way of thinking about living.  What a paradox!
 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Throw a Bucket of Cold Water

There is an idiomatic phrase in English that I have heard since I was a little boy.  The phrase is “throw a bucket of cold water on it.”  The phrase means, “to criticize or stop something that some people are enthusiastic about.”  Sometimes I have heard that phrase being used when the act has already been done.  For example, someone might quip, “I would have succeeded but someone threw a bucket of cold water on it.”  Sometimes the phrase is used as a kind of warning or cautionary note.  Someone might say, “Go ahead and try it, but you’ll find someone will come along and throw a bucket of cold water on it.”           

I have heard the phrase describe the kind of “Debbie Downer” person who always takes a negative view of things.  I associate the phrase with a kind of negativity.  Because of the work I have done in innovation, it is a dreaded phrase.  It usually means someone thinks I am nuts.  “Nothing will work out,” they seem to be saying.  It is a statement that seems to lack courage.  The statement implies, “Why bother?  Someone will blow up your idea.”           

In my mind it often betrays a pessimistic view of the world or personal outlook.  It is clearly a “glass half empty” approach.  It is the perspective of the person whose approach usually begins with the statement, “it probably won’t work.”  It is probably obvious this is not a phrase I use very much.  I am not a flaming optimist, but I do have confidence in things like hard work, grace and so on.  I think these can be difference makers.  And it is hard to throw a bucket of cold water on things like these!           

Recently, there has been a phenomenon that caused this phrase to come to mind again.  The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge may change the way the old phrase is used.  Most people know ALS by its initials---Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis---and even more often by “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”  I know the Greek words behind these English words and they roughly mean, “the muscles waste away.”  Indeed, it is a neurodegenitive disease.          

Thanks in part to contemporary social media, like Twitter, and in part to a clever fund raising campaign, the Ice Bucket Challenge emerged for ALS to raise money.  The idea is simple and has been wildly successful.  It is like a legitimate Ponzi scheme!  Someone is challenged to dump a bucket of ice water on his or her head.  And usually that person makes a donation to ALS.  And in the process, that same person challenges three others to make the same ice bucket dump and donation.  Millions of dollars have been raised compliments of millions of ice water baths!          

I, too, was duly initiated into the “dumped and donated” club!  Even though it was a summer day when the loaded icy waters were raised over my head, the jolt to my system was significant when the icy waters crashed on to my head and rather thoroughly drenched my shirt and shorts.  As shocking as it was, I felt victorious and privileged.  The jolt was momentary.  It happened and I simply took the towel and dried off a bit and went on my way.  Sadly, someone suffering with ALS cannot walk away from his or her problem.           

That is when the spiritual dimension began to dawn on me.  For me the Ice Water Bucket Challenge was an event and, then, it was over and I resumed normal life.  I have already noted ALS is not an event that people get over.  That is surely a negative.  I began to imagine a spiritual positive that might be developed.           

I do imagine there is a Spirit---a Presence---that is part of our universe.  We all live within this Spirit, but most of us are unaware of it.  It is a good Spirit---healing, helpful and holistic.  It is a creative Spirit wanting to create peace, harmony and well-being for every living being on this planet.  Clearly, in our times there is much working against this Spirit.  The Spirit needs as many of us as who are willing to take the plunge, get the Spirit, and donate time, talent and treasure to the healing of our world.           

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been a great thing.  But it has come and, inevitably, will become history.  The challenge to be immersed in the Spirit and become a healer and creator in our world is a long-term challenge.  Surely, it will last way beyond my lifetime and the lifetime of any reader of this inspirational piece.           

I want to take the Spirit plunge every waking day.  I want to be aware of and committed to be an instrument of healing, health and wholeness each and every waking day.  In most case my spiritual work will happen in very ordinary ways with very ordinary people.  It will not be YouTube material.  But it will be crucial.  And at times, it will be critical.          

I need to remember all those who will want to throw a bucket of cold water on this idea.  There will be a hundred reasons why we can’t save the world or why it won’t work.  There are armies of pessimists who won’t try anything.  But I live in hope.  I am willing to bet for every “downer” out there, many more of us are ready to live in the Spirit and do the work of the Spirit. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hands of the Spirit

Recently I have been privileged to work on a project that focuses on hands.  When I first was asked to do this work, I thought, “How hard could that be?”  As with things that seem so deceptively simple, it was not so simple!  I will spare you the details of the work.  It was not inherently spiritual.  But it did provoke some interesting and, I think, spiritual considerations for me personally.  These I will share.           

If you have two hands---which most people have---you probably are like me in the sense that I don’t pay too much attention to my hands.  Since I have had hands all my life, they seem to be there as a given.  They are a normal, natural part of the human anatomy.  I know they allow me to do a myriad of things.  And many of the things I can do are actually pretty astonishing.  But I must say, I think most of the time I am not aware of my hands.          

My hands are simply there---doing things at a subconscious level.  It is probably only in these times when my hands fail me, that the awareness of them jumps into my mind.  I notice these little things.  For example, as I am getting older, I have less strength.  It is not as easy to open one of those glass jars as it used to be.  Often when I give that first twist and nothing happens, I find myself looking at my hands.            

I am intrigued by the language we use pertaining to hands.  It is not unusual to hear someone talk about a “hands on” operation.  We use similar language when we want people to stay out of our business or out of the action.  We talk about a “hands off” protocol.  Language about hands often becomes metaphorical.  When I was growing up, it was not unusual to hear someone describe himself as a “handyman.”  When folks are stymied in a task, we hear them say they are “handcuffed.”  And of course, when we need help, we turn to someone and ask them, “give me a hand.”           

Clearly what hands can do is amazing.  Watching a violinist’s hands move is mesmerizing.  I have always been captivated by the expert typist whose hands seem literally to fly.  And there is no person my age who can match the unbelievable speed of the young person texting on his or her cell phone!  We truly can conclude that our hands are fascinating tools for executing an incredible range of activities.           

The more I pondered hands, the more I could sense the spiritual undertones.  I have never taken the time to think about that because I was unaware of the total meaning of my hands.  The hand is more than the extension of an appendage of the body.  Clearly the arm is the appendage and to that the hand is connected.           

Let me be bold and suggest our hands are sources of revelation.  Probably all of us have heard the phrase, “the eyes are the windows of our soul.”  I believe this to be true.  And I also believe there is a similar perspective about our hands.  I would articulate this perspective like this: “our hands often express our deeper self---the deeper ‘you.’”  Furthermore, this expressive process is spiritual.           

If you don’t think hands have an expressive function, simply watch some folks talk.  Some of us can talk with our hands in our pockets, but others simply cannot use words without hands waving, pointing, etc.  The hands can caution or invite.  Hands can hush or cheer.  The deaf among us can literally “talk with their hands.”  It makes me wonder how do you say “love” with your hands?  I am sure sign language has its signal.  But I have my own version of sign language.           

When my young granddaughter takes my hand and we walk together, we are telling each other something about love.  As I expand this line of thought, I know my hands have been healing hands.  It may sound corny, but I am confident the Spirit has flowed through my hands with a healing effect for others.  I don’t confuse healing with miracle.  I don’t suggest I can put my hands on a cancer-ridden person and he or she suddenly experience physical healing.             

I also am confident my hands have been hands of blessing.  And I know others have touched me with hands that were blessings.  In one sense the blessing comes from me.  In a deeper sense the blessing comes through me.  When I have offered healing and/or blessing hands, I have felt that I am the instrument of the Spirit.  To paraphrase the biblical perspective, it is not I but the Spirit working through me that makes all the difference.           

This resonates with my own belief that deep within each of us is a Divine Center.  It is at that place (although not a literal place) that we discover our deepest self.  This is the true self, as Merton called it.  It is the place of purity and power.  It is the meeting place of God’s Spirit and our own individual spirit.  

When we are in touch with that deeper self, then whatever expression and action coming through our hands becomes special.  When we are in this place, truly we do have hands of the Spirit.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Here We Go Again

In an academic world where I live, every year I get to watch the campus come alive.  Traditionally American campuses are quieter during the summer months.  Even if there is summer school and the normal spate of camps, etc., summer is not the same.  So I always am eager to see things begin to change.  It is almost as predictable as the changing of the leaves during autumn.

Like the changing of the leaves on the tree, I am never sure which day I will notice the change.  Yesterday it happened.  I arrived fairly early on campus and there is the usual calm.  I am one of the earlier ones to arrive on campus, so it is still very quiet.  I can park almost anywhere I want.  Sometimes the door to my building is still locked, so I fumble for my key.  Since I am in an old building---one more than a hundred years old---I am greeted with some creaks and familiar sounds that I never hear when it hums with students.

Later in the morning, I had to go out.  That’s when I first noticed it.  Some students were in front of one of the campus dorms to greet some folks who were beginning to arrive and move in.  “Wow, we’re going to get students again,” I thought!  As I drove nearer the Recreation Center, I noticed the place was a beehive of activity.  Young folks were going and coming.  It hit me that our football players were arriving.  And that’s no small bunch of students.  They soon will be followed by other sports’ teams, the band, specific groups of special students and before I know it, the campus will thrive again.

I love this time of the year, just like I love the fall season of changing leaves and weather that begins to portend the coming of the winter reality.  There is a vibrancy to both incoming students and oncoming winter.  Life has many qualities to it, but vibrancy is one of the most important to me.

Lurking in the word, vibrancy, is the idea of life itself.  Vibrancy means to pulsate with life, to be engaged actively, to be energized with some pizzazz.  The opposite of vibrancy is inactivity, sleepy, lazy, deadness, etc.  I would like to think that most people, if given a choice, would opt for vibrancy.  I know I would.

If we are vibrant, we are always ready to say, “here we go again!”  Vibrant people tend to be up for the task.  They usually are keen to get started.  They want to sustain good things.  Vibrant people can be very dedicated and disciplined people.  I know these student athletes, who are the first arrivals on campus, are just such vibrant people.  I sense a vibration---a buzz---just being around them.  It is as if there is energy pulsating from their very beings.

It would be easy to assume only the young and healthy can be vibrant.  When we get older, we could assume that we will begin to experience the maladies of getting older---slower, sometimes sicker.  We could assume, then, that we cannot be vibrant.  I disagree, however, with this assessment.

In the first place, I do not consider vibrancy always to be an issue of physicality.  By that I mean, we don’t have to be young or fully healthy to be vibrant.  Older people, disabled people, average people can all be vibrant.  At one level, I sincerely believe vibrancy is an attitude as much as it is physical energy.

And surely, we have to be “present” to be vibrant.  When I say that, I mean we cannot be living in the past or solely in the future and be vibrant.  Vibrancy is a present-tense mode of being.  Again, let’s go back to the meaning of vibrancy: engaged, active, energized.  For me these are also spiritual words.  In fact, I would go so far as to say anyone who is authentically spiritual will necessarily be vibrant.  To be authentically spiritual is to be energized.  That person will be engaged somehow in life.  And that person will be active.

I have always enjoyed knowing that the early Christian Church talked about the monks as spiritual athletes.  That is a good image for me.  My athletic days are mostly over.  And certainly any prowess in athletics---if there ever were---is long gone!  But I can be---and hope I am---a spiritual athlete.  I engage that image.

I don’t have to change clothes or put on special shoes to be a spiritual athlete.  I have to have a focus, a relationship with a cause (in my case a cause from God), and a commitment to work and play for that cause till we no longer can function.  My cause is to have meaning and purpose in my own life and to serve and minister in the world to make it a better place.

I know this is very general, but I have a specific context---my own playing field, so to speak---where I play out my authentic spiritual life.  Every day I can arrive at my place and effectively say, “here we go again.”  Put me in Coach.  Bless my day as I make my way.  Ad Gloria Dei---to the glory of God.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Joy of Reunion

Recently I have had a couple occasions of reunion.  They both brought some joy to my life and I truly appreciated the opportunities.  In my mind, reunions are a good thing.  They have positive connotations.  I can’t imagine saying that we are going to a reunion and we hope to have a really bad time!  So for me, a reunion is always a good deal.           

I know there are family reunions.  Some families do reunions on a regular basis.  That would not be true of my family.  Family reunions are rather rare in my tribe.  I am not sure of all the reasons, but that is the way it is.  There are class reunions in schools and colleges.  There are other kinds of reunions in clubs and other organizations.  Again, I am assuming these reunions also are meant to be fun and to bring some joy.           

There are formal reunions, such as the family reunion that is planned months in advance.  Everybody is invited to a specific place at a specific time.  This kind of reunion has the advantage of being able to make plans.  In this case, expectations can develop and hopes formulate for the people we will see and what will happen.  Predictably these kinds of reunions bring joy because our expectations often shape our experiences.  We expect that it will be good…and it turns out to be good.           

Other kinds of reunions I would describe as informal.  These are reunions that happen---often serendipitously---that we did not expect.  We go some place and someone shows up whom we had not expected.  This happens at restaurants and other places like that.  These kinds of reunions bring joy because we had no reason to expect we would see someone.  The simple experience of seeing someone like this usually elicits shrieks of joy.  Often these shrieks are the first verbal expression, although clearly not using recognizable vocabulary.           

As I begin to ponder these reunions---whether planned or serendipitous---I become fascinated by the process and meaning of reunion.  Allow me to play out these emerging thoughts.           

The first thing that occurs to me is the fact that we cannot have a reunion unless there was first a union.  The “re” on the front of any word is nothing more than the Latin prefix meaning “again.”  So a reunion is being united again.  The first encounter or experience of someone cannot be called a reunion.  So a reunion presupposes a prior union.  But how should we understand the original union?           

I understand union to mean two or more human beings are in relationship.  It seems impossible to me to have a reunion, if there were no prior relationship.  Typically, the relationship is a relatively developed relationship.  For example, I have been to Russia and met a few people at a couple Russian universities.  However, if I were to return there and meet some of these folks again, I don’t think I would call this a reunion.  I don’t really have any existing relationship with them.  Rather I think I would say something like I met them again.  That would be nice, but it falls short of reunion.           

As I understand a relatively developed relationship that makes up a reunion, I am saying this is a form of love.  It could be the love of kinship or friendship.  So for me the language of union (as a relatively developed relationship) is the language of love.  A basic form of love is care.  So at the foundational level, any union I have with another person is a basic form of care.  There may be gradations of care.  I might care deeply.  I might even care sacrificially.  But the union is a relationship of mutual care two or more people have for each other.           

And when they have been separated, this union is intact, but it is not functional.  The minute the reunion happens, the care and love kicks into action and joy is experienced.  It is as if one’s heart jumps for joy!  That’s why reunions are typically fun and festive.  Where love and joy exist, there usually are not tears of sadness.  There may be tears of joy and happiness.           

Even if all this is an accurate description of the process and meaning of reunion, does that mean it is spiritual?  I would contend it is spiritual.  It is hard for me to say that any experience where there is reunion---where care, love and joy are experienced---is not simultaneously spiritual.  Part of my understanding of spiritual comes with the idea of presence.  When something or someone is spiritual, there is the presence of the Present One.           

When the Present One is present, there is always care, love and joy.  In effect, this means whenever we become aware of the presence of the Holy One, there is a form of reunion going on.  Reunions are usually times of healing and wholeness.  In times of reunion we are re-united.  And the reunion is profoundly spiritual when we recognize presence of the Presence---the Spirit.  O joy!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Servant Leader

Recently I was with a wonderful group of people who were thinking about servant leadership.  It is a concept that has rich meaning to me.  As I thought about it, I realized that I have probably been trying to be a leader since elementary school days.  I don’t know that I started out to be a servant leader, but that idea came to be part of my leadership style fairly early in my career.           

Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a servant leader is my own personality.  As I think about it, I have always preferred being part of a group and helping a group along.  I certainly have played the role of the lone ranger, but that is not as much fun for me as leading a group.  I also think my own Quaker tradition values encourage a kind of servant leadership model.  Quakers have always felt like the group is more important than any single individual.  I agree with this and have tried to support the group’s progress and success.          

As I anticipated being with this group of folks, I realized I had not thought deeply about servant leadership.  So I turned to the founding father of servant leadership---at least in the 20th century version of that idea goes.  Robert Greenleaf is usually credited with making the servant leadership idea known and available to people.  He was a business leader who also read theology, philosophy, English and was a well-rounded guy.              

In the middle of the 20th century he was working at AT&T, when it was a huge company.  He was astutely aware of both problems and potential and how leadership could affect both issues.  He published some essays in the 1970s and these were put together in a book, The Servant Leader, published in 1976.  It has become a classic.  It may be worth noting that Greenleaf also was a Quaker.  So when I read the book, I see traces of that spirituality in his work.          

I find his style of leadership to be very spiritual.  It is not religious in any doctrinal or dogmatic way.  It would not have become famous had that been the case.  And it is a leadership style that anyone can do in any kind of situation.  We do not have to have positions of power or authority to be servant leaders.  Let’s look at some of the key pieces of this leadership style.           

There is a powerful paragraph near the beginning of Greenleaf’s book that summarizes what servant leaders aim to do.  First, Greenleaf says, the servant is “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”  Of course, this means my needs and wants do not come first.  This is bad news for egocentric people.  Their needs and desires always top the needs of others.  So clearly, egocentric people cannot make good servant leaders.             

As this understanding of servant leadership begins to develop, it should remind you of Jesus, the Buddha and what all the other religiously folks sought to do.  This should become clear with Greenleaf’s next point.  He says, “The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons?”  This is a great goal.  Do those served grow as persons?  Just imagine what kind of society we would have if all of our leaders around the globe served in this fashion.  It might be difficult to find wars!           

Greenleaf adds another powerful description of the servant leader.  He asks about the effect servant leaders have on other people, “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  I think about how to apply that to myself.  There is no doubt; in some situations I am a leader.  My question now can be, do those I serve become healthier?  Do they become more free?  Are they more autonomous---that is, not dependent on other people?           

The last thing Greenleaf asks about servant leaders is insightful.  About servant leaders he asks, “what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Simply put, Greenleaf expresses his concern for the poor and the destitute in our society.  Greenleaf thinks the servant leader has a responsibility for the folks on the margin of our society.             

He warns us not to forget a segment of people.  This really sounds like the kind of thing Jesus would enjoin all of us to do.  A servant leader has to be clear that it’s not about you!  It is always about the other.  Even if you are the boss, you can be the boss as a servant leader.  And if you are not the boss, perhaps it is even easier for you to be a servant leader.           

Servant leadership is paradoxical.  In the first place you are a leader.  Leaders lead; it’s that simple.  But your leadership is exercised through being a servant.  You enable others to succeed.  You facilitate their growth and development.  You give them the credit and you are willing to take the blame when there is blame.  To be an effective servant leader, you need to be spiritual and mature.   

Monday, August 18, 2014

Healing the Hurt


I learned a long time ago (as most adults do), that life inevitably hurts us from time to time.  Even though we know this will happen, it always is a tough and lousy situation when it happens.  Even though we know we will make it through, the “making it through” is not a fun experience.  I know the old saying assures us that “time heals,” but it often takes a lot of time!
           
Recently, there have been a number of people I know and hold dear that have been hurt.  Unfortunately the hurting was not of their own making.  This can make the hurt even more biting.  It is one thing to hurt ourselves; it is another to have the hurt inflicted upon us.  Finally, it perhaps does not matter how the hurt happens, but in the beginning it is tougher when the hurt is inflicted upon us.
           
Hurts come in various forms.  Probably the initial and the basic hurt is the physical.  I remember very well going to the doctor’s office when I was quite young and getting that shot.  I am sure I was given shots before I was old enough to know about it.  But that early memory of the nurse grabbing that syringe and coming at my arm still makes me cringe.  Of course, I have had many shots since that time, but it is never fun!
           
Those kinds of physical hurts often pass fairly quickly.  A minute or two after the shot, the pain is gone and life goes on.  Certainly, there are other serious physical pains that can go on for days or even quite a bit longer.  Aging often makes us vulnerable to those aches and pains that may become chronic.  We begin to accept that some physical hurting may be a “fact of life,” as some folks put it.
           
There are other levels of hurts.  No doubt all of us have experienced emotional hurts.  Emotional hurts are more complex than the physical pain.  Physical pain usually hurts in one place, i.e. we have a stomachache.  Emotional hurts are non-specific, but just as real.  People don’t talk about having a “broken heart” for no good reason.  Doubtlessly, most of us can tell you what a broken heart feels like.  Our literal, physical heart may be beating just fine, but our metaphorical heart is broken.
           
Very often the emotional hurts that come our way are done unto us.  For example, we don’t generally break our own hearts.  Someone else breaks our heart.  Normally this means we have a vested interested in someone and that someone divests his or her interests in us!  That divestment breaks our hearts.
           
Hurts are always tough when someone or something does it to us.  And the hurt seems compounded when we think it is unfair.  “It’s just not right that I was hurt that way,” is a lament that I have heard recently.  It is not the first time in life I have seen this kind of hurting, but that makes no difference in the moment.  Hurt is hurt.  It does not need to be unique.  It does not matter that it happened before or if it never happened before.  When hurt happens, hurt happens.
           
Emotional hurts are more difficult to deal with, it seems to me.  You cannot take an aspirin and feel better.  Healing emotional hurts takes time and patience.  That is never good news in a culture that deals with time in warp speed.  So how does the healing happen?
           
That has been a question I have posed to myself many times.  My basic assumption is that healing does happen.  When I am with others, I trust that the healing process happens.  I am clear I am not a healer, although there are times it might appear that way, as it probably has been true for each of you.  I am happy to become involved in the healing process because I trust that healing happens.  For me this basic assumption is built into the Divine fabric of our universe.  In this sense when healing happens, it appears “normal.”
           
There are a number of things we can do as “healers” participating in the healing process.  We can be present to those who hurt.  Our presence often is a soothing balm.  We can be a sign of peace within the cauldron of anger the hurt one is experiencing.  We can listen to the hurts.  Communication is one of the time-honored healing venues.  We can be active listeners.  This is a specific form of presence to the hurting one.  Listening does not remove the hurt.  But it does become a salve to apply to the wound.
           
Another thing we can do is be patient.  The healing process seldom happens on our timeline.  Just as we usually are not in charge of the hurting process, we certainly are not in control of the healing schedule!  It is likely true that the healing process will take longer if the person thinks the hurting is unfair.  In effect, this is a double hurt: the hurt it self, and the “unfairness of it all” hurt.  Healing a double hurt takes longer and even more patience.
           
Healing hurts is a wonderful ministry for all of us.  If we are willing to be vehicles of the Spirit, we can be used in gracious and graceful ways to heal the hurts of those around us.  And the good news is, when I am hurt, there should be many of you out there who are ready and able to join in the healing process.  Thank God!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Being In It Together


No doubt we have all heard the phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  Probably, many of us have used it…or, at least, thought it.  Seldom does the phrase come to mind in good times.  It comes when we feel like we are losing.  Or we watch someone else prosper in ways we think we could or should.  Uttering that phrase often comes in a fit of anger or a wistful lament. 

As a form of speech, I believe it is a proverb.  That form of speech is a popular adage or bit of wisdom.  Proverbs express what most folks would consider true or to be good advice.  But in this case, our proverb, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” carries the implication that life is the opposite of what we are saying.  The proverb implies, in fact, the grass is not greener on the other side.  We just think it is.

So if the grass is not really greener on the other side, what are our options?  First, the only real option is to deal with life---with our situation---in the context in which we find ourselves.  Second, there almost always are two options in the context in which we find ourselves.  One option is to find a way to change the situation.  If this is not possible, it almost always is an option to change the way we look at the situation or deal with it.

I am reminded of a story which comes from the early monks in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts.  This story tells of a brother who “was restless in his community and he was often irritated.”  So the monk decides, “I will go and live somewhere by myself…and so I shall be at peace, and my passionate anger will cease.”  The story continues with the monk leaving and living by himself in a cave.  One day he fills a jug with water and puts it on the floor of the cave.  Alas, the jug fell over and the floor is now all wet.  This happens a second and a third time.  The monk becomes livid, picks up the jug, and smashed it to pieces.

I like this turning point in the story.  We read, “Coming to his senses, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him…”  Actually, there are two key pieces in these words.  The first key is that the monk came to his senses.  I would not go so far as to call this “conversion.”  But it certainly is an “Ah-ha” moment.  And these moments clearly are linked to conversion experiences. 

In a non-spiritual context we might say “he came to the realization…”  However, I do not think this gets at the heart of it.  To say, “I came to the realization,” sounds quite heady.  It is almost like I figured it out.  “To come to my senses” might mean that I figured it out.  Or it might be a little more like revelation in that “it dawned on me.”

The other key point is his awareness that the demon of anger had nabbed him.  Of course, today most of us would scoff at the idea that there is a demon of anger.  No good psychologist is going to diagnose me having such a demon!  I have no problem reading “demon” in a metaphorical way.  My “demon” may be the negative side of me that tempts me to be a jerk or do stupid things.  That demon does not have a red tail, because that demon looks a lot like me.

How we deal with demons is not the crucial insight of the story.  What is crucial is the insight that the monk had when he realized it was not the community that was the problem.  It was he…himself!  He acknowledges as much when he says, “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me.  I will return to the community.”

And then the concluding teaching, if you will.  “Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.”  The monk came to his senses that the grass was not greener on the other side of the fence.  Or, we might allow the grass might be greener over there.  But, it is still I who will be over there!  And I will take all my demons right over there with me.

What I better do is stay put.  And realize I need to give effort.  Patience usually helps.  And thank God for whatever divine help comes my way.  If I am in community it might well be my brothers and sisters who become the angels to help me with my demons. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Happy Hour and the Spirit


Yesterday I went to Happy Hour.   This is a periodic gathering of some people from my college community.  It is a pleasant occasion, which I am always delighted to attend.  There are almost no faculty who go to this kind of thing.  It is a nice group of people from various spectrums across our campus.  It gives me a chance to be with people I seldom or never would have any reason to greet and spend time in conversation.
           
It is pleasant to be in a context where there is no agenda---and especially no hidden agenda.  When I am there, I am not looking for anything, I am not asking someone for something and there are no expectations.  The conversation can be engaging or rather aimless and it does not matter to me. 
           
As I drove away, I began thinking about the Happy Hour phenomenon.  I know Happy Hour is a familiar idea.  I know many pubs and some restaurants sponsor a daily Happy Hour.  I know these are designed to get people into the place before the dinner hour.  Sometimes they are designed to get people in the door and to linger longer than the people otherwise would probably stay.  Of course, the lure is the discounted prices for drinks and the hors d’oeuvres that fill my stomach and leave me wanting no dinner!
           
I am sure the notion of Happy Hour can be abused.  But with my group no bad things happen.  It was a good time with some good people.  Some fun was had and we all went home to get ready for a new day.  It was a happy hour and I was glad to be there.  There were some spirits, but there were no issues.  Responsibility abounded.
           
But I did begin to think about the Happy Hour phenomenon.  I know some folks would not approve of Happy Hour.  Some unhappy people are never in favor of happiness or of anyone being happy.  Some unhappy people think if someone is happy, there must be sin lurking somewhere in the vicinity!  But I don’t want to go in that direction.
           
Instead I am intrigued that we have to create a “happy hour.”  Does that mean the other twenty-three hours each day is a bunch of “unhappy hours?”  Sadly I do think there are some aspects of our American culture where this unfortunately is true.  It is truly sad for the person who climbs out of bed dreading the day ahead.  Some head to a job they hate.  Some feel condemned to work with people they can’t stand.  I know there are folks seemingly condemned to perform tasks that have no apparent purpose or value.
           
It is no wonder people turn to spirits of various kinds.  Some are legal, like the drinks served at the bar.  Some are illegal, like the marijuana and other hard-core drugs.  These spirits work, but they don’t bring any kind of meaningful or lasting happiness.  They may last for more than an hour, but the price for this happiness is more than the cost of the joint.
           
I am convinced there is another spirit---a Spirit in and of the Universe---that leads to deep and lasting happiness.  Some people call this the Holy Spirit; others have various names for that Spirit.  The names are unimportant; the reality is the recipe for countless happy hours.  Let’s pursue this a bit.
           
It seems to me the true happy hours are not the focus.  They are not actually planned and executed.  The true happy hours are more a by-product.  These happy hours are a by-product of the person who comes under the influence of the Spirit---the Holy Spirit---and begins to live an inspired life.
           
An inspired life is not one in which the person goes around speaking in tongues or making a spiritual spectacle of herself or himself.  An inspired person is the one who is so “inspirited” that they can’t help working for the good cause.  Inspired people are the ones who want to reach out to the ones mired in needy places.  Inspirited persons can’t help but reach out to those in need.  They are ready to serve and to go a second mile where needed.
           
This inspired person is always ready to turn misery into majesty.  Their lives proclaim that happiness is not limited to the hour of the planned party.  The inspired person knows that life can be festive and that we have twenty-four hours a day to celebrate.
           
And maybe celebration is the key.  If we have been given the gift of life and the grace to live our lives in love and service, why should happiness by limited to a single happy hour!  Truly, there is so much more to life than that.
           
This does not deny there is suffering in the world.  But the suffering should be the pretext and context for all spiritual people to become agents of transformation.  The transformational agents should always be ready to proclaim the hour of happiness and be ready to throw the party of life.  Or as Jesus might have said, “thy Kingdom come…”