About Me

Friday, January 30, 2015

Fundamental Human Questions II

If the first fundamental human question is “who am I,” surely the second question is “what should I do?”  In most cases these two questions are inextricably tied together.  What happens with one question affects the other one.  However, we can only talk about them one at a time, so this reflection piece gives focus to the question, what should I do?           

The first thing to realize in this question is the focus goes on the verb.  In the other question, “who am I,” the focus was on the subject---on “who.”  But in this second question the focus clearly shines on the verb---“do.”  The implication is everyone should do something.  Not doing something is, in effect, doing something, i.e. doing nothing.  This tells me that human beings are essentially designed to be somebody and to do something.  The only questions are who am I as a somebody and what should I do, since I have to do something.           

Humans were designed from the beginning to do something.  In the Genesis story of human creation, the original humans were planted in the garden of Eden---in Paradise.  And there in paradise God gave them something to do.  They were supposed to till and keep the garden of Eden.  It is as if God said, you cannot be truly human and do nothing.  Here is the Divine task for you.  You have to take care of Paradise!  That certainly sounds like an important job!  And that is a pretty important Boss!           

When things did not go so well for the original humans, they were kicked out of Eden.  In the biblical story and made famous in John Steinbeck’s epic title, the humans were condemned to live East of Eden. Things became more difficult.  The world was no longer paradise.  They had to work the land and endure some pain in childbirth.  The things to do became more demanding.  And that sounds a great deal like the world in which we live.  It is not paradise.           

It is not paradise, but it is not necessarily awful.  The idea of doing something took on new meaning in later spiritual traditions.  In the New Testament tradition, the idea of doing something became connected with how Jesus “called” people to be disciples.  In fact, when Jesus came along and said to various people, “follow me” he was calling them into not only a relationship, but an obligation.           

The relationship with Jesus Christians call their discipleship.  A disciple is one who follows the rabbi---a disciple becomes a student connected to his or her rabbi, or teacher.  In some sense this is the identity issue for a Christian---who I am as a Christian.  And it has implications for the other fundamental human question: what should I do.          

To use traditional language again, what the disciple should do is “ministry.”  In Latin ministry means to “serve.”  That is the job: to serve---to do.  You are to serve neighbor and stranger, friend and enemy.  That is a tall order.  Basically your doing is to love.  To love is to serve.           

Later in spiritual history the idea of “doing” was connected with the Latin word, vocatio.  Clearly, the English word, vocation, comes from that word.  Spiritual people had a vocation---a “calling.”  This was not narrowly limited to being a priest or monk.  Every spiritual person had a vocation---a calling.  It might have to do with your job.  It might have to do with some other kind of ministry.  You vocation might be as simple as being the best wife or husband you could be.  That would be God’s desire for you.           

Like the earlier Eden story, something happened to the idea of vocation.  It became secularized.  It lost its spiritual roots.  Vocation came to mean merely a job or a career.  God disappeared and lowly human bosses took God’s place.  East of Eden became the secular world we all know as our own.  The key spiritual question here,  however, is still “what should I do?”           

That is not a career issue.  It is not something to go to career services and get a lead!  Instead, one goes back to the basics.  One engages the Holy One to get a sense of what to do.  The answer in some sense is always going to be some form of ministry---some form of service.           

Traditional spiritual language says what you do is God’s will.  Some folks don’t like “God’s will” language.  Personally I prefer to talk about God’s desire.  God has desires for each and every one of us.  We need to find a way to know that desire.  That might be prayer, meditation, reading---there are many ways to know God’s desire.  It might have to do with your job.  But more than likely, it has more to do with your place and situation in the world and how you can be part of the kingdom-building which is God’s ultimate goal.             

In a real sense our “to do” list is nothing less than the restoration of Paradise.  Our ministry is to take us back to Eden.  Or probably more likely, our calling is to work toward the Kingdom that is to come.  The simplest way to doing this is to be clear who you are spiritually.  And then, begin acting and doing what mature spiritual people should do: love, work for justice, be compassionate, etc.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fundamental Human Questions

I have the pleasure throughout my day of engaging some very interesting people.  Many of those people are students.  And others are adults of various ages and stages.  I don’t do too much with the younger children, so I can’t speak to that level of human development.  I have read about the earlier developmental stages, but I don’t have a great deal of practical experience.  I have watched my two daughters grow through the various stages, but that probably is not sufficient evidence for stating truths about life.

As I have paid attention to the range of conversations over the years, I conclude there may be two fundamental human questions.  I am sure others could argue there are many other fundamental human questions.  Of course, many might agree with my two questions.  Right now I posit these two.

The first fundamental human question asks, “who am I?”  Essentially, this is the human question of identity.  I can’t tell you for sure when kids begin to ask that question.  But I suspect it is earlier than many of us assume.  I know psychologists talk about stages of human development and that makes sense to me.  Let’s pick up human development at the teenage years, since this is when I first encounter students in college.  College is a time when people normally are “redoing” their identity.  

This does not mean people who are college-age disregard entirely their former identities---although this occasionally happens.  More often than not, it means the people this age are able to form an identity on their own.  Perhaps for the first time, they are free to start thinking about “who am I” on their own terms.  They are able to begin the process to be the person they want to be.  They usually are free not to be solely the person their parents want them to be or other authority figures (or peer figures) want them to be.

It is not unusual for some folks to delay this process until middle age or even later.  Many of us spend almost a lifetime being the person other people want us to be---spouses, our kids, our co-workers.  Hopefully all of us have a chance to be free enough to become the person we are meant to be. 

As a spiritual person, I would add one more piece to identity.  I think the person we are meant to be is actually the person God wants us to be.  Writers on spirituality refer to this person as the “true self.”  I am happy to talk about the true self as our “real self” or our “authentic self.”  The language is not crucial here.  What is crucial is the chance for us to be the authentic person we can be.  I argue this person is also the person (the self) God want us to be.   

I could put it this way: my true self is the authentic person I want to be which is simultaneously the person God wants me to be.  This sounds like the answer to the key question, who am I?  The corollary question, then, becomes: how do I manage this true self?  What is the process by which I become my true self?

No doubt, the answer is complex.  However I think there are two facets of the process.  I will need to give particular attention to my own sense of who I want to be.  I probably need to spend some time in prayer, meditation or some form of seeking what God’s sense of my identity might be.  There are other resources, like the Bible and tradition, that offer good clues to shaping our spiritual identity.  To spend a little time doing this is counter-cultural.  Most Americans spend little to no time thinking about identity---who am I---in this fashion. 

I like to use the language of “process” to describe how the true self is discovered and developed.  I don’t think it is an “answer” we find, lock in, and then never worry about again.  Identity is typically a process.  If I begin to figure out in my 20s who I truly am, that does not mean the answer is the same as when I am in my 40s or 80s.  Circumstances change and my identity will reflect the changing circumstances. 

For example, at one point I was not a parent, and then I became a parent---twice over in my case.  Being a parent came to be part of my identity---part of who I am.  Being a parent is part of my true self.  That does not bother me.   

I actually like the fact that my identity---who I am---evolves and develops.  I am a work in progress.  My identity is dynamic, not static.  My true self is becoming deeper, more profound and more amazing.  Perhaps that is a good way to judge whether I am sufficiently engaged in the identity question.  Am I becoming deeper, more profound and more amazing?  If I am boring, I have some work to do! 

Identity is one of the two fundamental human questions.  Identity implicates the other human question.  Now that I know who I am, what am I to do?  More on that one…

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thomas Aquinas: Theological Mentor

Today is the saint day for medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  St. Thomas, as he was known after being declared a saint, is arguably the most famous theologian in the Catholic Church and even the greater Christian community.  Although I don’t recall hearing about him until I bumped into his writings in college in a class on Christian history, I suspect that is not quite true.  I am sure many high school European history classes have some material about Thomas Aquinas.          

Thomas lived during the period that often is called the “High Middle Ages.”  It was a time in which the Catholic Church played a huge role in medieval European society.  Thomas was born in a well-to-do family in 1225 in southern Italy.  His early education came at the hands of the Benedictines monks, who had already been around for more than six hundred years. With Thomas’ religious bent, it might have been expected that he would join the Benedictines and move into the monastery.  But Thomas chose another route.           

Thomas Aquinas decided to join the new friar movement.  He became a Dominican friar.  The Dominicans and the Franciscans were not monks per se, but their lifestyle was not altogether different from the monks.  Unlike the monks, however, the friars chose to live within urban areas rather than the usual more remote monastery.  While the monk basically chose to walk away from the world and try to live a Christ-like life in the monastery, which was perceived to be a kind of Paradise on earth, the friar chose to stay in the world and to minister in the mix of secular society.  The friar would become a kind of leaven of heaven in a sea of sinners.           

Thomas moved on to study in a couple of major educational centers of the time, namely, the universities in Cologne and Paris.  He studied with the most famous philosophers and theologians of the time.  It was as if he went to Harvard and Yale and was receiving the best education possible.  It was at the University of Paris that Thomas settled in to study for the Doctor of Theology degree and began a storied teaching career.             

His is a fascinating career.  The Dominicans were known as the Order of Preachers and would be known by the abbreviation, OP, found after their name.  This is important because it meant that Thomas was not simply some stuffy medieval theologian.  He also was one called upon to preach in the churches and in the streets.  His astute philosophical and theological writings would be balanced by sermons directed at normal human beings.  The range of his abilities was impressive.

Thomas wrote volumes.  His most famous work, the Summa Theologica (a comprehensive theological treatise), exists in many English volumes.  But perhaps the most interesting thing came toward the end of his life.  On a December day in 1273, a year before his death, Thomas had an ecstatic experience during worship where he was preaching.  The experience was so profound that it altered the life of the famous theologian.           

At some point subsequent to his experience, a priest, Father Reginald, pressed him to continue writing for the Church.  Thomas replied with his now-famous words: “I can do no more.  Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”  A more famous translation says that Thomas simply replied, “Everything I have written is straw!”           

Thomas Aquinas has been a mentor to me.  While it is not accurate to say that I am a Thomist (a follower of Thomas), I have been influenced by him.  I have appreciated all that he has taught me and modeled for me.  I see him as a spiritual person---a man with a strong mind, a warm heart and a sweet spirit.  He has showed me how important clear thinking is needed for twenty-first century spiritual life.  We live in an amazing scientific era.  I am blown away, for example, by what the neuroscientist teaches.  Thomas would have been thrilled and would have figured out how to do spirituality alongside the exciting science of our day.  He is my mentor.           

But that was not the total Thomas.  He was the guy who also joined a spiritual community.  He wanted to live the life of faith, not simply study it and write about it.  The ecstatic experience at the end of his life doubtlessly culminated what had always been true.  Theology is important, but it is secondary to the primary walk in faith with the Spirit.  Thomas never forgot that.  He is my mentor.           

Thomas also was deeply involved in ministry.  His life was one of service.  He gave in many ways---according to his gifts.  He was a preacher and teacher.  He was hospitable to those in need.  He was a leader and encourager.  He is my mentor.          

Mentors are a wonderful gift.  But mentors are worthless if we do not put into practice what they teach us and show us.  I am thankful to Thomas both for what he showed me and how he inspired me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Practical Contemplation

For a fairly long time in my professional life I have been interested in contemplation.  As I so often comment, “contemplation” is not a word I heard while growing up as a young Quaker in Indiana.  I am confident I was not paying attention.  I don’t think Quakers I knew were using that word, “contemplation.”  So if I had been asked about it, I would have offered a blank stare.           

I am sure I heard about the word, “contemplation,” while I was in school.  I may have heard of it in college, but more likely I first heard about it in graduate school.  I can guess I encountered it first in some kind of history of Christianity class.  Because Quakerism dates from the 17th century, we have a bad habit of skipping from Jesus to the 17th century.  I knew almost nothing about the sixteen hundred years between Jesus and the origins of my tradition.  Quite a bit happened during that time!           

Early Christian contemplative tradition is rooted in the early Christian developments of monasticism.  After the first couple centuries, some Christians began to feel like the Christian movement had begun to be watered down.  You can almost hear some of them saying, “It’s not like it was in the good old days.”  Of course, in the good old days, you could die for your faith---you could be martyred!  I think I am one of the lukewarm Christians, too!           

So some of these serious guys and gals headed to the desert.  In effect, they went to the margins of their culture.  They wanted to walk away from the superficiality of their environment.  They wanted a more rigorous way to live like they thought Jesus had lived.  They felt like Jesus had been counter-cultural and they wanted the same thing.  In effect, their goal was imitation Christi---imitating Christ.  They wanted to pattern their lives after his model of prayer, meditation, etc.  And so the monks set up a different way of life than most of their peers.           

Part of that monastic creativity was the attention they gave to contemplation.  This is the part of monastic creativity that I have appreciated and tried to adapt into my own spiritual journey.  There are many ways to describe contemplation, but I like the way Gerald May does it in his book, The Awakened Heart.  May says, “It is most frequently defined as an open, panoramic, and all-embracing awareness, but it is really this all-embracing awareness brought into fullness of living and action, an attitude of the heart and a quality of presence rather than just a state of consciousness.”  Let’s unpack and develop some of the thoughts in this wonderful sentence.           

Even though May goes further, he does begin with a basic definition of contemplation.  It is an awareness.  Contemplatives are very aware of themselves and of things.  Contrast this with the huge number of people who sleepwalk through life.  Many of us are walking robots ambling through the motions.  Contemplatives are aware; sometimes they are quite alert---paying attention to themselves and to others.           

May describes with some detail the nature of this awareness.  It is an open, panoramic and all-embracing awareness.  I can resonate with the idea of openness.  I know it, if I am open.  Again, robotic living is not openness.  Going through the motions is not openness.  May adds to this the idea of panoramic awareness.  That is awareness in a broad sweep.  It is not narrow or minutely focused.  It is a kind of sweeping awareness.  And this awareness is all-embracing.             

The good news is we can cultivate this kind of awareness.  It can be practiced.  Others can help us.  And this sets us up for the rest of May’s definition of being contemplative.  This points to contemplation being a way of life and an action.  One misconception of contemplation is that it is a kind of navel-gazing, mystical experience that has nothing to do with real life.  May counters this stereotype by suggesting contemplation can be a way to live everyday life.  That kind of life is grounded in the basic kind of awareness just outlined.  This appeals to me.           

May tries to offer one more detail.  This kind of awareness is an attitude of the heart---a quality of presence.  I like the idea that it is a quality of the heart.  I think of other spiritual qualities of the heart.  One such quality would be a loving heart.  It is not hard for me to claim that a contemplative is one with that kind of quality of heart---a loving quality grounded in the all-embracing awareness.           

The final piece from May is my favorite.  I like his focus on contemplation as a kind of presence.  Again it makes sense to contrast this with the opposite: absence.  So many of us can live absently---absent-mindedness.  A contemplative is present and has a kind of presence.  I strive to do this.  I aim to be present and to be a presence in any situation in which I find myself.  To this end, I practice contemplation.

Monday, January 26, 2015


I confess to liking the way columnist, David Brooks, thinks and writes.  I read almost every piece he writes in the New York Times.  I have never met him nor have I been to hear him speak.  I would enjoy doing both, but until then, I am left to read what appears in newspapers and other media.  He recently wrote a piece entitled, “The Devotion Leap.”  I had no clue what the title might mean.  I suspected it was something on politics or the global situation.  Even in these ponderings, I find what brings to bear philosophically and, even, religiously is fascinating.  But my guess was wrong.           

The first line of the article immensely surprised me.  “The online dating site OkCupid asks its clients to rate each other’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5.”  Wow, I did not see this one coming!  I was tempted not to read further.  I am at the age where dating services are of no interest and even less help to me!  Besides, the last thing I want to know is how other folks are going to rate me on an attractiveness scale.  I am sure the truth would hurt!          

My fears were born out.  The median rating by women for men was between 1 and 2.  “Only 1 in 6 guys was rated as having above average looks.”  Again, I was ready to ditch the article.  There is no way I am going to be that one guy rated above average looking!  But because I trust Brooks, I persevered.  Soon he began making some sense as he made me interested in what he was thinking.           

When I came upon the following lines, I sensed it was true, but was a little troubled by the implications.  Brooks writes, “They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people.  They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person.  They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work.”  Of course, this is not bad and I know people who have met their spouses through online sites.  But the thought of “commodifying people” unnerves me.  In a different context, that strikes me as not spiritual.  And this leads me to the end of Brooks’ article where the philosophical and religious conclusions are found.           

I understand that people going to an online site to find a significant other is operating with some level of self-interest.  I would, too.  Again, there is nothing wrong with that; I do things out of self-interest all the time.  But there is another level humans are capable of achieving and this is where the spiritual tends to enter the picture.  And this is where I pick up words from Brooks that underscore why I like him so much.          

The shift from what I am calling self-interest to other-interest is typical of people acting spiritually.  This predictably happens with love.  Saying as much leads us to recognize that it is desire for love that normally drives folks to online dating sites.  And many find love.  And it is a different form of love that leads to different kinds of expressions.  I like the way Brooks analyzes it.           

He says,In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.”  He offers powerful insight with these two sentences.  Spiritual love is grounded in vulnerability.  We are sitting ducks for the Spirit and to God’s people in the world.  We are pushed toward service.  We become willing to give and, if needed, to give sacrificially.           

Brooks helps us see how the spiritual aspect of being human is under duress.  He notes, “When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.”  I really like this focus on enchantment.           

I see enchantment to be the work of the Spirit.  Of course, people looking for love often begin with a sense of enchantment.  Perhaps being attractive is one form of enchantment.  But I see enchantment much more deeply.  Enchantment is related to intrigued and, even, captivated.  God is the ultimate source of enchantment.  I am even willing to see God as the Ultimate Enchanter!  And God’s world is an enchanted world.  The spiritual life is the beginning of the enchanted life.           

I think that people who begin to live spiritually begin to have enchanted lives.  They are attracted to the kinds of things God is attracted to.  And they are enchanted by the kinds of ministries and services that God would do.  A spiritual enchantment leads people to work in soup kitchens and things like that.  A spiritual person is an enchanted person.           

Enchanted people are more engaging people.  They are willing to jump in and to stick with what needs to be done.  They will be more satisfied.  Spiritual enchantment is highly desirable.  Everyone who opts for it will be highly attractive.  That is good news.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tools of the Spiritual Craft

The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic spiritual text.  It was written by the founder of the Benedictine monastic tradition, Benedict.  He was an Italian who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century.  The Rule is usually dated somewhere around 529 CE.  The era of Benedict was a chaotic time in what is modern day Italy.  The glory of the Roman Empire was long over.  The identifiable nations of modern Europe were far from being formed and developed.  It was the period known as the early Middle Ages.  When I was in my early years of education, this period was known as the Dark Ages. 

Christianity was now part of the fabric of the land.  But Christianity had lost some of its original spirit and fervor when it became so much a part of the social culture.  Since it was no longer illegal to be a Christian, it was easy---some would argue, too easy---to be Christian.  People like Benedict wanted more.  They wanted a life of the Spirit that would approximate how Jesus lived and that characterized those early disciples of Jesus. 

So literally and figuratively, monks (as they came to be called) withdrew from mainstream society.  They went to the edge of society and were counter-cultural.  They purposively became marginal people.  Sometimes they lived alone in the countryside or in caves.  Sometimes they formed small groups of like-minded people.  Sometimes they were spiritual vagabonds. 

This was the scene in which Benedict decided needed some organization and some sense of order.  Even serious spiritual folks need some guidelines and parameters.  So Benedict wrote a Rule.  The Latin word for Rule, regula, should be seen more like guidelines than hard and fast regulations.  Benedict wanted to give his community a framework and structure to govern their life together. 

And that Rule was widely adopted.  It has now lasted 1,500 years.  It still governs the array of Benedictine monasteries around the globe.  It is relatively simple, practical and general, but it has been an amazingly successful instrument to enable groups of men and women to live spiritual lives together.  It is even a guide that I try to follow in ways that fit my life. 

The Rule is divided up so that someone like myself annually goes through the entire document three times.  As I read the selection for yesterday, a phrase caught my attention.  I must have read it countless times, but I don’t remember latching on to it like I did this time.  The section was entitled “the instruments of God’s works.”  It is indicative of the practical advice the Rule offers to fulfill God’s will, to live in obedience.  The guidelines come, in part, from the biblical tradition.  We are to love our enemies.  Respect elders.  Don’t hate.  All that makes perfect sense for a good life. 

I would argue that a good life is a spiritual life, whether or not one claims to be Christian (or Jewish, Buddhist, etc.).  And by definition, the spiritual life would be a good life.  I don’t know anyone who would argue that he or she can be spiritual and be a lousy person.  By nature God is good and so should anyone be who claims to be following that God. 

So after listing a few of these spiritual guidelines, Benedict concludes, “These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft.”  That was the phrase that I have read many times, but this time it jumped out at me.  I like the idea of “spiritual tools.”  Much of religious traditions deal with doctrine---with ideas.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.  But one could have many religious ideas and still be a lousy person!   

Finally, it comes down to practicing one’s faith.  Ideas are good; actions are better.  “Action speaks louder than words,” is the old saying.  This must surely be true in matters of faith.  To perform spiritual action, we need some tools.  We need to hone the “spiritual craft,” as Benedict calls it.  

It is not unusual in business circles these days to hear about the tool kit or toolbox needed to perform particular skills.  Perhaps this is a good analogy to the spiritual.  In order to know what God desires and to actualize that Divine Desire, we need some tools of the spiritual craft. 

To have these tools enables is to become crafts people of the Spirit.  Imagine being an apprentice.  The master says something like, “here is the tool of honesty.”  Here is the tool of respect.”  And so on, one finds a variety of tools of the spiritual craft.  There is no way to move from being an apprentice to acquiring some mastery without practice. 

I appreciate The Rule of St. Benedict for offering many of these tools.  But I need to be careful and not assume that because I read it and understand it, I am thereby spiritual.  Benedict would laugh at that notion.  You become spiritual by applying these tools of the spiritual craft in your real life…today and again tomorrow.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cultural Shift: Spiritual Loss

There are some writers who speak to me in fairly predictable ways.  Some of them are contemporary people who write for newspapers, on the internet, and other social media.  Others who speak to me are long since dead: spiritual greats from centuries ago, i.e. people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and a host of others.  I don’t really pay too much attention to their political or religious categorization---such as conservative or liberal, evangelical or modern.  

One such writer I like is David Brooks.  He writes for the New York Times.  Some of the really great material he brings is nothing he invented.  It comes from something he reads or hears and, then, reflects on it.  Maybe I am attracted to this because it is much like I work. 

Recently, I read something from Brooks.  I was lured by the headline of the article: “What Our Words Tell Us.”  Granted, I have a love of words.  Any of my students will tell you that.  So I wondered what our words tell us, according to David Brooks.  I was not disappointed.

His article begins with the fact that Google has launched a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008.  Figures like this blow my mind.  But I admit that I wondered whether my books were part of the database.  I guess that is hubris---pride.  I am glad I don’t know the answer! 

The database enables someone to enter a word and perform a search.  You can find out how often the word is used in a particular century.  Brooks was quite interested in the trend line of words.  What words were once important and have become less important in our own time?  Do these trends tell us something about our culture?  These are fascinating questions.  And Brooks thinks he can sense some trends and make some conclusive guesses about our culture.  I share a couple of his observations.

The first point Brooks wants to make is clear.  So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic.”  This one did not surprise me.  In fact, I would have been very surprised had he concluded differently.  It does seem like the world in which I live is more individualistic.  He has a host of words---words like “personal” and “self”---that make the case for his point. 

The second point is a little disturbing.  Brooks contends this about our culture.  As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked.”  Simply put, he is suggesting our time is less moral and less aware of morality than earlier times.  Again, I am tempted to think this is true.  And apparently our use of words buttress that point.  He cites the decreased us of words, such as “virtue” and “decency.”  That makes me cringe.

Clearly, both of these points have implications.  Brooks puts it bluntly.  The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”  I would be willing to argue this does reflect a culture that is more individualized (atomized) and demoralized.   

The question this poses for me is whether this means spirituality is implicated?  I think the answer is affirmative.  To put it more sharply, I wonder if this does not explain, in part, why religion seems less important in so many arenas of American culture.  In fact, I wonder if the rising interest in spirituality is not the human heart---atomized and demoralized---looking for meaning and purpose in ways that religion used to address them?

Brooks has his own conclusion which, granted is not proof, but is a good guess.  He says, these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.”  I think he is correct.  I do see less interest in community and, certainly, less focus on obligations.  For example, many writers point to contemporary culture’s emphasis on “rights” and less on “responsibilities.”  This resonates with me. 

I am persuaded that there has been a cultural shift.  As one who recalls the ‘60s, our world nearly 50 years later is culturally different.  Explosions of technology, scientific innovation, etc. has created a different world.  So has the cultural shift led to spiritual loss.  In some ways I believe the answer is yes. 

I am not depressed by this or ready to give up.  I am challenged and energized to seek with others how to generate a spirituality fit for our times and our culture.  And I believe what our words tell us give us a clue.  Perhaps we generate this spirituality by focusing on community and morality.  Perhaps these are the key and not doctrine.  That’s my hunch.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Host and Guest

Hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  I was first clued in to this fact when I learned Latin.  The Latin word, hospes, gives us the English words, hospital, hospice and related words.  In its Latin form, it can be translated “host,’ “guest” or “stranger.”  That is why I can say that hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  The Latin coin is hospes.  Let’s look at each side of the coin. 

Probably most of us learn about being a guest before we learn about hosting.  I have early childhood memories of going with my dad into the town in early mornings.  For a kid growing up on the farm, this was a big deal.  Since I was the oldest kid, there could be an entire day when I would see no one except my two parents.  That was not bad.  But it was more fun to go to town and see some of my dad’s friends.   

Often we would stop at the local drugstore, which was really the epicenter of human interaction on an early morning in that small town.  There the guys would gather, have coffee and talk about local sports and world news.  I felt years beyond my age when they would accept me into the circle.  At least, that is how I interpreted. 

I would not have had the language yet that could have told you I was a guest in their midst.  They were gracious to me.  They invited me into their space.  They made space for someone who did not quite fit.  I was young, inexperienced and had literally nothing to contribute to the conversation.  But I was their guest.  And I felt immensely important for having been included. 

I think that early experience taught me much about being a guest.  People invited me into the gang.  They made a place for me---even though it was a temporary visit.  They made me feel welcome and important.  I was put at ease.  I was comfortable.  I could be myself---no pretentions needed to be present.  They helped me to learn how to invite guests into my places and my life.  This has been a great lesson in life for me. 

If we turn over the coin, the other side is the hosting side.  To host is to initiate.  To host someone is to invite him or her into your place---your home, your room, or even your space.  Fundamental to hosting is the willingness to include and to share.  There is a kind of grace to effective hosting.  Perhaps some folks are naturally gifted with hosting abilities.   

But I am also sure we can learn to be effective hosts.  In the first place, effective hosts are people who are willing to take responsibility for hosting.  Guests are at the mercy of the hosts.  In fact, one cannot be a guest until someone decides to be a host.  In addition to taking responsibility, the effective host makes the whole process easy and pleasant when he or she is gracious.  Bringing a guest or stranger into a place of comfort takes effort and grace. 

The effective host makes the guest feel comfortable and even wanted.  A good host makes being guest easy.  We all know what it is like to feel awkward.  A feeling of being awkward often is accompanied by the feeling that “I want out of here!”  When some people host me, that “I want out of here” feeling dominates my thinking.  Instead of relaxing as a guest, I am furtively looking for the fastest way out of the situation.  I find myself praying for a “guest exit” sign! 

By the time we become adults, we have experienced both being hosts and being guests.  In my experience they both were learned and take some effort.  Perhaps being host is a little more demanding, simply because the host is the initiator and the responsible one---at least in the beginning.

As I write this, I realize this phenomenon is potentially quite spiritual.  Perhaps this hosting-being guest experience is very much an analogy to the human encounter with the Holy One.  It is tempting to think God is always the host and we humans are always the guests.  But this misses half the opportunity.

For sure, the Holy One is a host.  In fact, God is an amazing host.  Potentially God hosts us into some of the truly profoundest places and opportunities.  By definition God invites us into relationship, includes us, makes us comfortable, is gracious unto us and so much more.  As guests, there is so much to look forward to when the Divine Hosting includes us. 

I also think we can host the Holy One.  God invites us, to be sure.  But we also can invite God into our midst, into our lives.  In fact, some of us have lived a life so self-focused, it would be fair to say God is actually a stranger.  For God to become real to us will require that we take the initiative and invite God to be our guest. 

To be human is to be both host and guest.  Consider life to be an opportunity to practice both. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Travel and Travails

I had a recent trip out of town.  It was a pleasant trip to a place I very much like to visit.  Since I was traveling for an organization I represent, it was not going to cost me much, except the time I would spend away from campus and from my friends.  I always miss that, but the trade-off is not bad.  I get to meet new people and, maybe, see some old friends.  So off I went.           

I like being in different cities.  Each city has its own characteristics.  Often there is a different offering of restaurants---sometimes with local ethnic fare.  I like experimenting with different options.  It is on trips like this, I realize again how very provincial my growing up on an Indiana farm really was.  I don’t lament that, but I am grateful that I have begun to experience a much bigger world.  I am not sure we can understand and appreciate just how big and diverse God’s world is until we travel a bit.  I have been fortunate.          

One of the things planned for the end of my trip was a scheduled appointment with a person that is a relatively new friend.  I met him fairly recently at a conference on Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of last century.  Anyone who shares an interest in Merton is someone I would enjoy seeing and engaging in some conversation.  Merton is such a fascinating figure, I am always intrigued how any particular person found and is attracted to Merton.  George and I were scheduled to meet at a hotel and have some coffee.  I was glad to see him walk into the lobby and head with me to the restaurant for some coffee.           

George and I have very different backgrounds, which I find, begins to enrich our new friendship.  I am an Indiana farm boy; he is a New York City guy.  I am a life-long Quaker and he is Jewish.  He has an accent, as all New Yorkers do!  And he laughs at my Midwestern way of speaking.  We both have found our way into Merton’s life and spirituality, so there was much to talk about.           

As the conversation began to unfold, I became aware of the twin themes of travel and travail.  I had traveled some hours to be in the city and to arrange the meeting with George.  He had traveled two hours to make our visit possible.  We both wanted this to happen and we made it happen.  But throughout our conversation, I began to be aware of another dimension of travel.  Sometimes travel is not willingly taken up.             

Sometimes travel is forced.  I mentioned that George is Jewish.  During our conversation, he mentioned some of the work he is doing around the Holocaust.  When we talked about the Holocaust, we underscored how often the Jews were rounded up---against their will---and put on trains for the forced trip to a concentration camp.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to be forced on to a train and head for what I would know would be my sure death.  Talk about travail---an unfortunate situation or lousy experience.  Travail can be a painful circumstance, which surely the Holocaust would be.           

I am not sure those of us who are not Jews can fully appreciate what being Jewish means with the Holocaust a part of our Jewish story.  This would be the same for those of us who are not African-American with the slavery thing as part of our Black History.  I can claim to know “about it,” but in no way can I claim to know “it.”  The same goes for all the individual travails of our particular lives.  I have my own travails and so does everyone else who has lived some amount of time.           

Travail is part of the human experience.  Live long enough and you, too, will experience some travail. But it occurred to me.  There is the inevitable travail of being human---some hardships along the way, perhaps some cancer and inevitably death for us all.  And there is the inflicted travail that humans do to other humans.  Here we have the Holocaust, slavery, wars, murders, etc.             

This is where the conversation between George and me focused.  Essential to the spiritual life is the call to justice and peacemaking.  Merton knew and did this.  So did Martin Luther King, Jr. and a whole host of others.  Any one of us spiritual people also needs to sign on to this kind of work.           

We are called to alleviate people from their travails.  If we cannot alleviate their travails, then we need to join them in the midst of travail.  There may not be a Holocaust on the same scale as WW II, but terrorism is a modern version of travail.  We know well about the terrorism appearing on the news.  What is less visible is the terrorism people are perpetuating on in quieter ways.  I see parents yelling at their young child.  I see the rich getting richer and the poor being consigned to a quiet form of travail.           

George and I solved no world problem.  But we did vow to keep working in our own little corner to alleviate the travail we see.  In some cases Merton’s word or example might be helpful.  Sometimes it might be my word or example.  It could be yours, too.  I was grateful for my trip, for George and our new resolve to do an old thing: build the kingdom.

Monday, January 19, 2015

I am Free

To be free, oh, to be free.  Freedom has always been a major theme of American culture.  Indeed, this country was rooted in a political and religious quest for freedom.  Any of us with any age hears the resonant voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the turbulent 1960s calling for freedom to ring out.
But freedom is a much older concept than these North American colonies, now global super-state.  And freedom certainly is not an American concept alone.  Freedom goes back to those Jews who experienced liberation from Egyptian bondage.  It is as old as those Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle.  Freedom has been an issue on the national scale as well as on the individual scale.
Freedom is always the opposite of bondage and slavery. In many ways I would claim never to have experienced bondage and slavery.  But it can be an issue even for me and others like me who are politically free, who are not bound by the bondage of poverty, etc.  Ironically, we can be free and, yet, bound.  We can be stuck in psychological and spiritual bondage.  Often these are not visible, but they are nevertheless very real.
I thought about all this as I read a few words from Wendell Berry.  Berry is a Kentucky farmer, poet, ecologist, and kingdom-liver.  I have never met him except through his words.  I know people who know him.  When they talk about Wendell, they begin to glow as they remember their encounter, as if they had stepped into a sacred space with a saint!  Apparently, there is a quiet charisma about the guy.  I would love to meet him and let him mentor me.
In a poem by Wendell Berry we encounter these words.  “When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be---I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, where the great heron feeds.”  Berry is not talking metaphorically.  I firmly believe he actually goes outside to be with nature.  There is a spirituality within nature that can calm fears and induce peace. 
He puts it so much more poetically.  “I come into the presence of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought and grief.”  When I read this, I want to cry, “and who would not want to come into the presence of wild things!”  But I know most of us would not.  We could not dare go into the presence of wild things.  Our lives put fences, walls, and all sorts of guards to prevent any contact with wild things.
So we choose to stay with our incredible ability with forethought to imagine almost anything.  We see things in our future that scare us, that intimidate us, that make us shy away from any kind of real living.  And when we don’t get what we want, we grieve.  And especially when things we are attached to are taken away from us, the grief goes deep. 
Berry continues with this line: “I come into the presence of still water.”  Of course, this reminds me of the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd…”  Somehow for me still water should be deep water.  Still water has the connotation of peace and security.  Still water is the opposite of turbulent waters, tumultuous waters, and chaotic waters.  Who wants to live in those kinds of water?  And yet, so many of us do live lives in chaotic waters.  Paradoxically, we may even think we are free, but if we are caught in those kinds of water, we are not really free.
Berry’s experience and his vision offer an alternative…and it is actually a spiritual alternative.  And he articulates this with words of freedom, which reveal the spiritual, if we but listen closely.  He concludes, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”  This is great.  “I rest in the grace of the world.”  If we are in the chaotic waters of life, we are not even sure there is grace in the world.
Berry’s words comfort me with the thought that grace is always there.  Even if I do not sense it or see it, grace is always there.  It is always a gift ready to be given.  The problem is that I often want a particular kind of grace.  Too often, I want to dictate how I will be graced…how I should be gifted.  I want to get to that place where I am free enough to allow God to offer the grace God wants me to have.
When we are stuck or trapped in some kind of chaos or tumult, we fear we are stuck in the tumult forever.  We are in prison!  I want to remember that there is grace.  By God there is grace.  By the grace of God we shall be free.  As Wendell Berry says, I am free.  I want that kind of freedom, too.      

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mindfulness for the Moment

I often wonder what goes through folks’ minds when they see the title of my inspirational reflection.  When I use the word, mindfulness, I wonder what sort of connotations that has for the people who read this.  If they have some awareness of Buddhism, they might figure I am doing a Buddhist thing today.  Certainly mindfulness plays a very important role in Buddhist spirituality.  But mindfulness is not a Buddhist concept.  It is a more general concept which plays a huge role in Buddhist practice.
I suspect there is a role for mindfulness in every major religious tradition.  Clearly, the word, mindfulness, may not be used in all the traditions, but the idea is there. In fact, it is difficult for me to imagine anyone who is religious or spiritual who is not mindful in some way.
Let’s take a general look at what people mean when they use the word, mindfulness.  I like the definition I found in a recent article.  The writer talks about mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.”  This is a good definition for me.  It does not seem essentially to be Buddhist, although Buddhists no doubt would be comfortable with that.  It is also easy for me to imagine Jesus would be very comfortable with that idea of intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.  I would hope Christians would be comfortable with it, too.  And probably Jews and Muslims would be ok with it.
The real issue, however, is not whether someone agrees with the definition.  That is easy.  The real issue is how to practice that.  That is the real question for the Buddhist, the Christian, the Jew and the Muslim.  Words are easy.  Practice is not always so easy.  The real issue is not whether I believe the sentence.  It is how do I put into practice the sentiments of the sentence.  To do that will make me a better person---more spiritual---and it will help me to make the world better.  This is applied spirituality, if you like.
The author had another idea that I liked.  She said mindfulness is a good way to “take yourself out of autopilot.”  Perhaps this means a great deal to me because I recognize that I spend too much time on autopilot.  Autopilot is not inherently bad.  It is not sinful.  It is just a state of mind that is not engaged.  It is a life that simply exists, but does not experience vibrancy, depth and meaning.  Autopilot is getting by when you can get so much more out of life.
Mindfulness is a great way to take yourself out of autopilot.  Mindfulness is a means by which we can experience ourselves.  Mindfulness is a great way to be aware of the world around me.  It is to be aware of your suffering and the suffering of others.  Mindfulness helps me see the grace I am daily offered.  And mindfulness enables me to be a graceful conduit of love and mercy to a world sorely in need of careful attention instead of careless inattention.
A final basic sense of mindfulness comes with the author’s description of the practice of mindfulness.  She says mindfulness “is about being present.”  Again that sounds so simple---and perhaps ultimately it is---but it is not easy for most of us to manage this state.  Being present.  Who would not want to be present?  The illusion is most of us probably assume we are present.  In fact, most of us are probably absent---and absent from ourselves and the world we inhabit. 
There is an alternative.  The alternative is life and, as Jesus said, life abundantly.  The article quotes Dr. Baime, Director of a program at University of Pennsylvania Health System.  Dr. Baime tells us that mindfulness can “create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.”  That is a great description of what being present means.  It is not an idea; it is an experience.  It leads to a way of living.
I long for the kind of world that brings depth, meaning and connectedness.  That sounds like a spiritual world to me.  Picture the opposite kind of world: shallowness, meaninglessness and loneliness.  That is a description of hell on earth.  It is not spiritual and certainly not desirable.
Mindfulness is not magical.  It is not a secret.  It is a practice.  It is a way to begin to be centered.  It seeks the center.  For Christians the center is that place deep within where my soul meets the Holy One.  For the Buddhist mindful practice brings awareness.  It enables me to be present.  It creates a world of depth, meaning and connectedness.
Notice the language: it creates.  Mindfulness is something you can do.  It is a way of taking responsibility for your life and for your own meaning.  Mindfulness creates and it is creative.  It is a choice we have.  Mindfulness is a choice for the moment---for the present.