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Friday, February 27, 2015

Self-Justification

Recently I wrote a piece on self-forgetfulness.  This idea came to me from reading one of Thomas Merton’s latest pieces, The Springs of Contemplation.  Essentially Merton says that progress on the spiritual journey requires that we become self-forgetful.  Unless and until we begin to become self-forgetful, our “self” will be front and center.  Another way of putting it is to recognize that our ego will be the driver of our attention and actions.  To be guided by our ego is not bad, but ultimately it is not spiritual. 

To be guided by our ego is to be centered on ourselves.  In a word, we will be egocentric.  Again that is not bad; it is spiritually shortsighted.  Unless and until we are able to put God in the center, we will make little or no spiritual progress.  The Lord’s Prayer from the lips of Jesus put it very simply: “Thy will be done…”  One cannot be egocentric and pray that prayer, “Thy will be done…” 

That is why the idea of self-forgetfulness appealed to me.  It strikes me as an important building block to the spiritual journey.  In saying this I realize we cannot pull this off in one easy step.  We cannot immediately decide to become self-forgetful and, voilà, it is done!  It will take small steps and grow incrementally.  Another point Merton made helps me see how this process can be facilitated.

Merton talks about self-justification.  I know this concept all too well.  I can recount too many instances where I know that I did something and then offered my own justification for doing it.  Basically, self-justification is our way of saying, “Don’t blame me!”  Self-justification is our way of taking ourselves off the hook.  Most of us have experience in this matter. 

Merton is helpful to me because he offers insight into the relationship of self-forgetfulness and self-justification.  Merton rightly observes that we cannot be self-forgetting if we are self-justifying.  That seems profound to me.  It is the kind of thing I want to keep in the front of my mind in order to gage my spiritual development.  Let’s listen to Merton’s words.  He says, “You can’t forget yourself if you are constantly trying to justify your relations with other people.” 

At that point Merton takes a creative turn.  He links the concepts of self-justification and love.  Hear his words: “Self-justification is really a matter of not wanting to believe you are loved.”  In effect Merton tells us that if we do not believe we are loved, then our ego---me---is all I have.  If no one else loves me, then I am on my own.  I have to justify myself.  This seems so true to me.

Then Merton adds to his insight.  He declares, “If I do not believe I am loved, I’m going to want to be justified.”  This intrigues me.  Merton is not saying that I am not loved; in fact, I might be loved.  But if I believe that I am not loved, then I will move into self-justification.  Behind this statement is the assumption that if I believe I am loved, I do not need any self-justification.  This is profound.  It means that love is justifying!  If I am loved, I already am justified---justified by the lover.

Without love, I move into self-justification in order to assert my own being.  If I do not believe I am loved, then I have to justify myself.  In my own way I have to assert my being and, perhaps, my importance.  Effectively, I am saying, if no one else will do it, then I have to do it myself! 

Merton puts it well when he says, “If no one else justifies me, I will justify myself, usually by trying to dominate everyone else.”  With these words from Merton, we can see the potential destructiveness of self-justification.  Without love, I am tempted to move into some form of domination in order to prove my right and my might.   

So far, this might not sound very spiritual.  But I would argue that any time we are talking about love, we are implicating spirituality.  In this reflection on self-justification, we point to the importance of love.  Obviously, it is nice if we know there are others in our life who love us.  That already takes us off the self-justifiying hook---or, at least, should take us off the hook.  With other humans who love us, however, my experience is we are not taken of the hook.   

Too often we are loved by others, but we don’t believe it---or don’t trust it.  So we continue to perform---trying to earn that love.  Or we become self-justifying---trying to prove we deserve that love. 

Ultimately, there is one super solution, namely, God.  My own spirituality affirms the biblical notion that there is God and that God is love.  This means by definition there is a Lover of us all.  There is One who loves us individually and as a whole.  That may sound theoretical.  The key is to actualize that Divine Love into actual experience.  When that happens, we know deeply that we matter and that we are supremely important.  When this happens, we have no need for self-justifying.  And if I know this, forgetting myself is easy.           

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caring for Nature

For some time now I have been aware of the reports and, sometimes, controversy over the whole issue of climate change and nature.  Some folks think we are heading toward a climate crisis—global warming and the like.  Other folks scoff at such an idea and assume everything is fine.  Most of us are scientifically not savvy enough to have a clue how to think about it.  I know I am not smart enough to be an expert.  In fact, it is a struggle to know enough to have an educated opinion.           

What I know is I trust science.  Having said that, I also know quite a few religious people put no faith in science.  In fact, quite a few religious folks think there is a basic conflict between religion and science.  I do not find myself in that camp.  I see science and religious as compatible, but different, ways of seeing and understanding our world.  I like to think I am both scientifically appreciative of knowledge and religiously motivated to see the Spirit involved in our world and in my life.             

Lately, I have been doing a little more focused reading and thinking about the natural world and the human threat to that natural world.  I know many religious thinkers have focused on this issue.  I am aware Thomas Merton, the 20th century monk I enjoy reading and teaching about has a good take on the human relationship to the world.  I would agree with Merton that all the major religious traditions speak about this.           

Within the Jewish and Christian traditions there is the shared Genesis story of creation.  While I have no interest in the debate over evolution and creationism, I do have an interest in the fact that the Genesis creation stories (there are two versions of the creation),  always affirm the goodness of God’s created world.  Step by step the Genesis story says God created something and then affirmed the created something to be “good.”  Humans are part of this created something.  Granted, Genesis talks about humans created in the “image of God” and this is special, but it does not mean that we are so special, we don’t have to care for the world in which we find ourselves.           

This is the place where the conversation or debate begins.  Are humans taking care of the world in which we find ourselves?  Sadly, some would say it does not matter.  The world is here for human domination.  We can do with it as we please.  This attitude says the world is there for whatever purpose we want to make of it.  We can use it as we please.  But I wonder if there are not places---even in this view of the world---when the “use” becomes “abuse.”  This is where the folks who see an environmental crisis looming.           

Scientifically, there is sufficient evidence for me to think there is some kind of serious problem---maybe even crisis---looming.  Part of the human problem is the scale of time.  For us one hundred years is a huge time period.  In ecological history one hundred years is a drop in the bucket.  We see in the oddity of one summer’s weather or the weirdness of one winter season a predictor.  That is highly unlikely.  But cumulatively, I do see problems.           

A recent writer on this topic, Thomas Berry, helps me see some of the scope of the issue.  Berry was an active Catholic, a priest and a scholar of both science and religion.  When he talks, I listen.  He puts it pretty starkly.  He says, “our ecological destruction is causing the end of a geological era…”  And he comments further that this awareness is “absent from the concerns of most theologians and lay people.”           

He helps me with some further commentary.  He says, “We are changing the chemistry of the planet, we are disturbing the biosystems, and we are altering the geological structure and functioning of the planet…This process of closing down the life systems of the planet is making the Earth a wasteland…”  Clearly, these are strong words.  I can see why people cavalierly dismiss by saying, “I don’t believe that crap.”  Such dismissal announces, “there is no problem,” and life goes on as usual.  But what if there is a problem?           

That’s where I am.  I do think there is a problem.  I have no clue how big the problem.  But there is a problem.  The problem may be a crisis or it could become a crisis.  But where there’s a problem, it seems to me we should be working on and enacting a solution.  I put it this way.  It is time to begin to take care of nature.  Too many of us have a “couldn’t care less” attitude about nature.           

That seems to me to be the simple, but stark, choice.  Do we care about nature and will we theologically work with God to treat it like the garden God envisioned?  Or do we take a “couldn’t care less” approach to nature and participate in turning Earth into a wasteland?  I don’t need proof to take a stand.  I am opting for the “care for nature” perspective.  It is not just for myself.  I am old enough to escape any serious consequences.           

But I think of all the babies being born.  It is highly likely they will live to 2100 and beyond!  What kind of earth am I bequeathing them?  Will it be polluted wasteland or paradise?  I am convinced God wants me to care…to care about nature.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent: Season of Preparation

As we think about the season of Lent, we realize that there are many different ways in which we prepare for the life that God has in mind for us.  And I do believe God has something in mind for us.  I see Lent as a time for raising our consciousness---a time for becoming both intentional and using discipline.

As I look back over my life, there have been obvious times of preparation.  Every time that I went out for a team sport, there was a time to prepare.  If I made the team, I began by going to practice.  Day after day, I worked on the fundamentals.  I never saw practice as drudgery; I loved playing.

All of the foreign languages that I have learned involved times of preparation.  I had to learn new words---new ways to create sentences.  I had to get used to hearing different sounds.  But what a thrill, after I learned, to live life in a new and different way!

Both of these examples---playing sports and leaning a new language---involved times of preparation.  They are good examples to have a sense of what Lent is about.  Lent is like basketball practice or word drills in German.  Some of us might be disappointed that Lent only prepares us for the life that God has in mind.  We would rather skip Lent and go straight to life!  For most of us, this skip is not practical, and maybe not even possible.

If I do not choose Lent to prepare this space for God, I probably will fill my emptiness with other silly or meaningless things.  Lent is not the object.  God and the life that God has in mind are what I am choosing.

Often, when I want to choose the life that God has for me, I do not know what exactly I am choosing.   Lent is a spiritual discipline.  It is not egocentric.  Lent is that time to prepare for what God has in mind.  Lent is that time in which I prepare to give myself wholly over to God and the divine will.  Only then I can pray:  “Thy will be done.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Self-Forgetfulness

I like to read in monastic spirituality because the monks and nuns are so clearly focused on the spiritual life.  It is their central concern in life.  Monastics set aside the usual normal things that occupy most of us in order to be singularly occupied with the search and life with God.  That does not make them more than human or even more spiritual than any of the rest of us.  But it does give them a singular advantage. 

One of the things I am most sure of is the fact that much of the spiritual life is actually simple.  I do not know any monk who would not confirm the fact that much spiritual life is simple.  Of course, there can be some complexity at times.  But by and large, the spiritual journey is simple.  We probably are too self-serving to say that spirituality has to be complex.  If that were true, then it takes us off the hook from even trying.   

In addition to being simple, I also am confident that much of spirituality is practical.  This means much of the spiritual journey is applied rather than theoretical.  Again we do ourselves a disservice if we assume spirituality is mostly doctrinal stuff.  Of course, there are ideas---doctrines.  But that is more true of theology.  Spirituality is actually more practical---more applied.  For example, it is more about praying than about a doctrine of prayer.  It is more about experiencing God than coming up with ideas about God. 

I was made aware of this again when I was reading a new book (for me) by Thomas Merton.  I have read so much of Merton, but I know I have not read everything that 20th century monk wrote.  I like him so much because he has such a clear, helpful way to put things.  Even if he is talking abut something about which I know a thing or two, Merton still puts it in a way that I find very helpful. 

The book I was reading grew out of a retreat that Merton was leading for some nuns who lived in a convent very near Gethsemani, his own monastery in Kentucky.  The book, The Springs of Contemplation, reads like a transcript of Merton responding to questions by the nuns.  At one point Merton makes a comment that fascinated me.  Although he was talking about the “religious” (monastic language for those who have chosen to be monks and nuns), it seemed to me to apply to all of us who want to be spiritual.  I suggest that when he says “religious,” we put our name in its place.

Merton claims, “For any religious, self-forgetfulness is a real litmus test.” (94)  This sentence affirms that self-forgetfulness is a good thing for monks…and maybe for all of us.  In fact, if we cannot muster some self-forgetfulness, then our spiritual journey probably will be stuck at the beginning.  I see this as a very important point for us.  And it is likely obvious that self-forgetfulness is not a desirable concept for most folks.  It seems to be counter-intuitive.  Our American society encourages just the opposite: self-importance.  This is probably why so many of us find the monk’s option for life hard to grasp. 

Merton pursues this idea of self-forgetfulness as it is a key for life in the monastery.  He says, “if people are more or less self-forgetful, they are probably in the right place, they are where they belong.”  Let’s pursue why Merton thinks that people (in this case the people he is talking about are the folks who enter the monastery) need to cultivate self-forgetfulness.  In simple terms, if I am not able to begin the process of forgetting myself, it will be difficult to think about life any other way than self-centered. 

I am convinced most of us grow up in such a way that we are self-centered.  This is not inherently bad.  But it is pre-occupying.  We are taught to make our own way.  While we may not think we are #1, nevertheless we do think we are important.  Most of us want to get our own way in life.  Again none of this is wrong.  In fact in good doses, I think it is healthy.  Clearly, it is better than seeing ourselves as scum and dregs of the world. 

However, it may not be the way to engage and begin to develop a spiritual journey.  Core to the spiritual journey, as Christians understand it, is to be able finally to utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “not my will, but Thy will be done.”  To pray this prayer---and more importantly to put this prayer into practice---is to step into the world of self-forgetfulness.  To practice doing someone else’s will is to forget our own will. 

In worldly terms this surely seems like a step backwards---a step towards immaturity.  In spiritual terms, however, to be able to practice doing God’s will is a tremendous step into a mature, spiritual realm.  By practicing self-forgetfulness we are able to practice compassionate self-presence.  We are able to be more fully present to others---to God and to our neighbors.   

Self-forgetfulness is simple and practical.  It is also a challenge and counter-cultural.  I have a hunch that it will turn out to be extremely rewarding if we can live more and more into the reality of it.  But it is paradoxical.  It is like the axiom, “it is better to give than to receive.”  Only the fully spiritually mature and the saints know the full truth of it.  Beginners like I am can receive hints.  And that’s enough for me---to start with.     

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Real Me

Who am I?  That is a question almost everyone entertains and, perhaps, spends a good deal of time in life figuring out the answer.  It is not unusual for us to come up with a few different answers in the process of living our lives.  I am confident I would have answered that question differently when I was ten years old than I would today as a relatively mature, older guy.           

I know there are some religious traditions that scoff at the idea there is even a real me.  For example, Buddhists question whether there can ever be a self or a real me.  Of course, we can pretend there is one; we can act as if there is one.  In my world of illusion I can have a self-illusion.  I am sure there are some psychologists who do not believe there is such a thing as a real me.  I am hoping they are not correct.           

As a Christian and Quaker, I am captivated by the early Genesis creation account that humans are created in the image and likeness of the Divine One.  I value that affirmation and hope in some sense it is true.  Along with the early theologians of the Christian Church, I can understand that I have lost the likeness to God.  Through sin and other human foibles, I am more unlike God than I am like God.  My spiritual pilgrimage is to grow more and more into that likeness.  But I never lost the image.  Even in the midst of my bad news, the good news remained that I bear the imago Dei---the image of God.           

Since I have lost the likeness of God, I wonder if that has not played a role in my quest for the question, who am I?  Since I am not like God, I am not sure who I am.  At birth we are given a name, but not an identity.  Early childhood years find people telling me who I am or giving me identifiable taglines to use to describe my identity.  In my case I was a farm boy, a fairly bright guy, a good boy, etc.  These became part of my answer to the question, who am I.           

But at some point---and I think it was in high school---I became uneasy about these more superficial identity badges.  I did not think they were wrong; in many cases, I was all of them.  But the were not the real me.  And at that point, it is appropriate to say I had an identity crisis.  Perhaps calling it a crisis gives it too much drama.  There was not much drama; there was a great deal of befuddlement.  I simply was not sure who I was!           

The real me question has interested me since high school.  I like the way the 20th century monk, Thomas Merton, dealt with it.  Merton talks a great deal about the “true self.”  Merton’s words have become well known to me.  “For me,” wrote Merton, “to be a saint is to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”  That has been an apt and wonderful way to talk about my journey spiritually through life.  It has been a quest to discover my true self and to live out that truth in my world.  I hope I am making progress.           

Other philosophers, theologians and psychologists have been on the same quest.  A recent book given to me by a friend has a whole chapter on this kind of quest.  John Neafsey authored a book with a title I very much like: A Sacred Voice is Calling.  For Neafsey, there is a link between the Sacred Voice and our discovery of our true self or the real me.  One of the points Neafsey deals with is exactly how it is that we discover our true self?  How will we know “that’s it?”           

Neafsey suggests we will know, in part, by “a felt sense of authenticity.”  That resonated with me: if it feels authentic, you are on the right path.  Then he quotes William James to make his point.  “I have often thought that the best way to define a person’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon them, they felt most deeply and intensely active and alive.  At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’”  Again that resonated with me.           

Personally, I doubt that anyone can know with absolute certainty “this is the real me.”  But I do think we can be very confident that we know it.  That confidence will come with a high degree of authenticity.  I believe James is correct when he says we will feel most deeply and intensely active and alive.            

I would add that this sense of the real me will endure over time.  This contrasts with a simple mountaintop experience when I tend to feel this deep and intense aliveness.  A mountaintop experience is short-term.  The real me endures over time.  It endures through thick and thin.  It can suffer and it exalts.  It is not contingent upon my circumstances.  It is not conditional.           

Likely, I will always be fascinated by the question, who am I?  Merton is correct in my opinion: to find myself means I also find God.  That is my quest.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Meaning of Silence

One of the blessings of teaching is the chance to continue to read good books.  And often, it means the opportunity to re-read some of my favorite books.  In spite of our society’s penchant for the new and novel, I learned some time ago that there are classics that stand the test of time and continue to speak to humans in all walks of life.  Obviously there are classics in music, in architecture and in books.

One of the classics I have had a chance to read again is Quest for God by the great 20th century Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel is one of the theological giants who came to this country as a result of the Nazi craziness of the 20th century.  Heschel was born in Poland in 1907.  He was educated in Berlin, Germany.  When he was lecturing in 1938 in Frankfort, Germany, he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland.  He was encouraged to leave before he would be killed.  So he fled to London and in 1940 arrived in New York City.  He spent five years in Cincinnati teaching at the Hebrew Union College, leading Reformed Jewish Seminary

In 1946, Heschel left for New York where he spent the rest of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  He died in 1972.  I read Heschel when I was in college and continued to follow him until he died.  The thing I most liked about him was his spiritual journey was not simply about being a theologian.  He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and just as involved in protesting what he felt was an unjust involvement in Vietnam.  He was deeply steeped in the Old Testament Prophets and, like Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, felt like he had to be a prophetic witness for the civil rights of African-Americans and the withdrawal of US troops from Southeast Asia.  Seared in my mind is a picture of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. marching side-by-side in a civil rights’ march.

Heschel was also a deeply spiritual man.  This is the side of him that comes out in the book, Quest for God.  The range of spiritual issues he addresses is impressive, but one that struck me in my recent reading was his word on silence.  About silence Heschel says, “Twofold is the meaning of silence.  One, the abstinence from speech, the absence of sound.  Two, inner silence, the absence of self-concern, stillness.  One may articulate words in his voice and yet be inwardly silent.  One may abstain from uttering any sound and yet be overbearing.”  Let’s unpack this rather dense quotation.

The first level of silence that Heschel describes is the easier one to understand.  The first level is simply the human gone mute.  This level hears no sound.  There is no speech; silence eradicates all else.  It is clear to me that most folks do not live in this level of silence—almost ever.  Ours is a noisy world.  Much of the noise is fabricated by humans.  If you live in an urban area, there is the constant din of street noise.  Individual people normally have music playing in their ear or constant talking on the phone. 

This is not soulful.  The soul needs some silence.  The soul craves “sound-less bites” in contrast to the cultural use of sound bites.  The constant drumbeat of sounds provides no respite---no space for rest.  There is no opening for something more profound to enter the picture.  This is what Heschel addresses in his second level of silence.

This second level of silence moves from the external sounds to the internal place of silence.  At this level the idea of silence becomes metaphorical---“inner silence,” as Heschel calls it.  At this level of inner silence, we move toward stillness.  I like the way he describes stillness: as absence of self-concern.  It is at this point Heschel becomes more complex.  What does he mean by absence of self-concern?

This is where silence becomes spiritual.  To become spiritual, we move from the ego to the soul.  By definition the ego is self-concerned.  After all, for the ego it is all about me!  Self-concern keeps the ego up front and in control.  The ego speaks---continually speaks.  It may be literal words, or it may figuratively be the ego demanding that it all concerns me.  For Heschel this is the world of sound.  That is why he counsels that we solicit silence.

The spiritual quest and journey necessitate both levels of silence.  Certainly we need those times of literal silence.  We need the occasions where we unplug: turn off the phone, turn off the tv, and take the music device out of our ear.  Quiet and be quiet.  The absence of sound becomes the crucible for the Divine to begin working on our soul.

This Divine working will be transformative.  This work will lessen our self-concern.  This work will lead us into deeper places of stillness.  In that place of stillness we are prepared to hear a Word bigger and better than any words we ever will use.  At that still place in the heart we will know we have come to our center, the primordial meeting place of our soul and the Holy One.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lent: Season of Remodeling

The theme of Lent is preparation for Easter---preparation for real life.  Lent is a special time for me because it allows me a chance again to re-engage a process of making something out of life.  Maybe you are like me.  I get disgusted at myself when I make life worse rather than better.  Lent is always that time and opportunity to listen to God saying, “Oh, you really can do better.  Come on, now!”

A key to this process is to let God come into our inner world and reshape us---remodel us.  In one sense, when we allow this divine Spirit into our inner world, we become an artist of the Spirit.  Unlike a scientist who may be handed a manual, the Spirit grants experiences out of which we make life – make it better or worse.

Albert Einstein pursues this image in this one-liner.  He says, “the greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.”  Our inner worlds are built.  They are like a house, which will be built.  Sometimes, the house is pretty inadequate.  It may be thrown up – no real foundation and little protection from the weathering life inevitably brings.  A house is a very good metaphor to think about what the season of Lent builds.

Lent is a time of building our inner world so that our dwelling place will be a place of security and comfort.  Who wants to live in a house where you are afraid the thing will collapse with the slightest wind?  Lent is the time to examine the foundation of our lives.  If need be, it is another chance to lay a good foundation.

I can ask a series of questions.  Is my life of prayer solid and capable of supporting me through the storms of the seasons?  Some houses are infested with termites or other critters.  Is my life infested?  Is it polluted?  Have I regularly taken out the garbage?  Spiritual foundations are probably as crucial as building foundations.

This is also a time of checking my insulation so that I may be warm and cozy in the midst of the cold and sometimes brutality of the world’s winter.  The weather is not always perfect and neither is life.  Cold winds will blow our way.  However, God is love and that love generates heat.  We will be given this divine heat.  May our inner world be insulated to conserve this warm energy.

Finally, Lent is a time to check our doors and windows.  Probably not one of us is a hermit…buried deep in the woods or mountains out of sight.  What happens when visitors into our lives appear?  When they peer into the window of my soul, what do they see?  Our inner world needs to be reconciled with our outer world.  Are my doors such that I can invite friends into the beauty of my inner world?

I think I have some remodeling to do!  In my case, it is likely more than just a housecleaning.  In this Lenten season may God give you and me courage to remodel and patience to stay with it.  And then may I experience the delight of opening my doors to any and all and say, “Welcome!”


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lent Begins

Today is the beginning of the season of Lent.  The theme of Lent is preparation for Easter- preparation for real life.  Lent is a special time for me because it allows me a chance one more time to re-engage a process of making something out of life.  Maybe you are like me.  I get disgusted at myself when I make life worse rather than better. Too often it is appalling how easy it is to make life worse!  Lent is always that time and opportunity to listen to God saying, “Oh, you really can do better. You really can do better.  Come on, now!”

A key to this process is to let God come into our inner world and reshape us – remake us.  In fact, one of the good things about Lent is that it calls us to consider again our inner life.  It is so easy to live life every day without any attention to our inner world.  So much of life deals with externals…with the demands of others, the expectations of those who care about us, our own concern for reputations, and so on.  But our inner world---the inner life---is always there, just beneath the surface. 
 
But there is an alternative.  In this alternative sense, when we allow this divine Spirit into our inner world, we become an artist of the Spirit.  Unlike a scientist who may be handed a manual, the Spirit grants experiences out of which we make life – make it better or worse.  To go with the Spirit is to make things better.  And this is what Lent is about.
 
Albert Einstein pursues the image of the artist in this one-liner.  He says, “the greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.”  Our inner worlds are built.  They are like a house, which will be built.  Sometimes, the house is pretty inadequate.  It may be thrown up – no real foundation and little protection from the weathering life inevitably brings.
 
Lent is a time of building our inner world so that our dwelling place will be a place of security and comfort.  It is another chance to lay a good foundation.  Is my life of prayer solid and capable of supporting me through the storms of the seasons?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In the Spaces

Recently a writer for the New York Times died.  David Carr wrote about culture for that famous newspaper.  He is someone I read sometimes, but I was not a regular reader of his material like I am for someone like David Brooks, whom I very much respect and from whom I learn a great deal.  When Carr died, he was given much press and was lauded as very smart and quite influential.  My interest was piqued, so I read more about him than might be expected.           

Carr was still relatively young when he died.  He was born in 1956.  I was intrigued to track his career.  Clearly, he had learned to make a living using words.  Jobs like his fascinate me.  I wonder how many kids think that they could figure out how to use words and make a really good living?  After all, everyone uses words!  He just learned how to use words very effectively.  He learned how to use words and manage to have people pay to read those words.  That is clever!          

My inspirational piece would never have happened if I had just read about him and turned the page to the next article.  But I was caught by a phrase from a piece he wrote than precipitated this inspirational effort.  That piece apparently came from a syllabus from a college course he was teaching.  Carr had recently agreed to teach a class on journalism at the Communications School at Boston University.  The New York Times provided a look at the syllabus for that course and picked out particular examples of how the syllabus was vintage David Carr.          

I enjoyed reading this, perhaps because it made me think of the syllabus I write for every course I teach.  It is hard for me to imagine anyone looking at or quoting from any syllabus I ever wrote!  Maybe I can take a lesson from Carr and spice up the next syllabus I write.  But this is not what inspired me.           

What inspired me was a short one-liner in which Carr was encouraging the journalism students to value teamwork.  Carr said, “While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people…”  I am sure there is much in the work of the journalist that is solitary, just as there is in my job and, perhaps, the job of many readers.  But the last half of Carr’s sentence is what jumped out at me: “great work emerges in the spaces between people…”   

The idea of “the spaces” between people grabbed my mind.  Those “spaces” are certainly present among teammates.  It is easy to think about team sports.  A basketball team has five players on the court at one time.  Coaches often spend a fair amount of time teaching proper spacing for effective execution of plays.  The same can be said about teammates in a business setting or in an orchestra. 

The nature of a team is such that the team can perform tasks differently than individual people can.  Of course, I could play a one-on-one basketball contest with someone else, but that is not the same game as the normal five-on-five.  Personally, it is not as much fun to play one-on-one.  I love the dynamics, challenges and rewards of the five-on-five team game of basketball.

Then it occurred to me, perhaps there is an analogy between the teamwork of a team of journalists or a basketball team.  I realized the “spiritual team” I have played on is typically called “community.”  Surely, much of the spiritual journey is the journey each of us takes on our own.  On my journey I have to make my commitments; I have to develop my own faith.  I have thought about and can articulate the theology undergirding that faith.  That and so much more is true about my own journey. 

But at the same time, community has been crucial for me.  I learned a long time ago that a spiritual community was necessary for sustaining and nurturing my spiritual pilgrimage.  In effect, I need spiritual teammates.  On my own I am ok.  With spiritual teammates I can be so much more.  As Carr said, there is great work to emerge in the spaces between spiritual teammates.  I love thinking about it this way. 

The spaces between spiritual teammates are fertile ground.  Let me illustrate it with love.  Love is the space between the lover and the loved.  That might be between God and me.  Or it might be between you and me and, perhaps, God connected as our teammate.  Love fills the space in between us.  That love will be the source and resource of the great work that can emerge.  And there are so many other possibilities coming from the spaces between teammates. 

Carr has helped me focus not only on the players---sports, business or spiritual players---but he also has opened my eyes to the spaces between the players.  In the spaces great work can emerge.  This gives me fresh ways of thinking about spiritual community---my team of players and the great work that can emerge in and from us.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Doubting Thomas: My Hero

The story of Thomas, as we find it in the New Testament, has always been one of my favorites.  Today is the feast day for Thomas, so I bumped again into the story.  If you are not familiar with the story, let me share it.  We find it in John’s Gospel.  The time frame for it comes after the resurrection of Jesus.  The resurrected Jesus was in Jerusalem on Sunday evening appearing to some of the gathered disciples.  As it turns out, Thomas was not with them.  When Thomas comes, the disciples told him they had seen the resurrected Jesus.  

Thomas’ reply is classic.  He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (20:25)  With these words Thomas expresses what so many of us surely would have exclaimed.  I can certainly sympathize with Thomas.  After all, Jesus had been his friend.  His friend had been horribly crucified only three days earlier by the detestable Roman soldiers.  I would be confident Thomas would already have been in his grief period.  There is no way we could expect a person, like Thomas, to lose a close friend and be sitting around waiting for a resurrection.

To come into a room with your other friends, the disciples, and have them tell you they had seen the Lord would test the limits of credibility.  It could have seemed like some kind of cruel joke.  Why would they be kidding him at this poignant moment?  I can imagine responding much like Thomas.  Perhaps that is why he is my hero.  I can imagine him saying, “Sure!  If I see it for myself, I will believe.  If I can put my hands in his wounded side, then I will find your words credible.  Seeing is believing.  And I have not seen.”  So I imagine Thomas telling his disciple friends. 

The story continues a week later.  We are told the disciples had gathered again in a house.  This time Thomas was present.  Then comes the famous passage that tells us Jesus came into the room, even though the doors were closed.  This is neither the time nor the place to talk about the historical probability of this account.  Rather the key issue is Jesus somehow appeared in their midst.  This time Thomas was in on the deal.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.” (20:27)  Interestingly, we are not told whether Thomas did this!  All we are told is Thomas came to believe.  He said, “My Lord and my God! (20:28)  How do we make sense of this?

In a simple sense the doubting Thomas story is a story of coming to faith---coming to believe.  It is not really a story about putting hands into the wounded sides of a crucified guy.  It truly is a story about “seeing is believing.”  The trick is what “seeing” means.  It seems clear to me the “seeing” has little or nothing to do with the literal level---with actually having some kind of material contact with the crucified Jesus.  I am confident the “seeing” has to do with the figurative or metaphorical level.  It is more like the person who finally solves the problem and says, “Oh, I see.”  In effect, this kind of “seeing” is closer to “understanding.”

Thinking about it this way enables me to double back to the doubting Thomas.  Perhaps he was doubting Thomas because he did not have the cognitive capacity to grasp the deeper truth of faith.  His doubting makes perfect sense on one level.  Doubt has a role to play where credibility---ability to have faith---is not present.  However, when Jesus comes into their midst (however we are to understand this), the ground for credibility is set.  Now Thomas can move from doubt to faith.  Being dubious stymies us from moving on.  When we are able to come to have faith, we are ready for a journey of faith.  That is surely the journey Jesus traveled.  His call to the disciples and to all of us is to find our own faith and begin our own journey. 

I have found Thomas to be my hero on many occasions.  Doubting is a normal part of the human experience.  Doubting seems to be a given.  The real question is whether we can come to faith---can we believe and begin the faith journey?  For me Thomas is a man of hope.  He is a paradigm of the possible. 

I wonder if our role is not much like Thomas.  One we have moved from doubt to faith, our role is to become beacons of hope for all the other folks in the world who are still stymied by doubt.  Serious doubt can be debilitating.  Faith is rehabilitating.  My role as a disciple is to be present in the world as a living testament to the Divine Presence.  Sometimes I am humbled by the realization that I might be the living presence of this Divine Presence.   

By my word and deed I may help someone make their own move from being a “doubting Thomas” to a woman or man of faith.  May we all prove to be useful instruments of God’s revealing work. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Divine Protection

Recently it dawned on me that my spiritual discipline is a great deal like my physical discipline.  I am sure that is not novel, but I also am sure I never thought about it quite like that.  Being active physically has been important to me for as long as I can remember.  I am lucky in the sense that it has always been something I wanted to do, rather than felt like I had to do it.  Perhaps growing up on a farm helped the process.  I cannot remember when I did not go outside to work or to play.  On the farm there was a great deal of work.  But there also was a fair amount of play.  Both are healthy. 

In due time sports became very important to me.  I certainly was no star, but I played with gusto.  I had fun and was active.  I continue to play long after my eligible years in school were finished.  Being physically active was a way of life for me.  It was not a matter of virtue.  I did it because I wanted to do it; it was fun. 

Spiritual discipline has not always been a part of my life.  For sure, I cannot remember not going to church.  In my younger days going to church was simply what we did.  I don’t recall being asked whether I wanted to go.  It was a given.  But I would also be less than honest if I did not say I differentiated going to church and getting something out of going to church!  For sure, I was physically present.  But most of the time, I do not think I was spiritually present. 

Again, that habit continued long after I left home for college and all the years since college.  I have never been one who thinks that going to church equals salvation or whatever “merit” is thought to be the “reward” for going to church.  During my adult years, I figured out that participating in my faith journey with a group of people was important.  In effect, I began to articulate a sense of community.  Community became a necessary ingredient in my spiritual journey.  It still is. 

I realize it is optional whether I do physical exercise and spiritual discipline.  I could cease doing either or both.  I could quit exercising and being spiritual.  But in my case, that would be stupid.  And I prefer thinking I am not stupid! 

Physical exercise is perhaps the easier one to understand and appreciate why I would keep doing it.  It keeps me somewhat in shape (my athletic days are very distant in the mirror of my life).  I like to think being active physically keeps me mentally on top of it.  I know I feel better and am sharper.  Again, there are no guarantees, but I plan on playing as long as I can. 

I suspect people could wonder about the spiritual discipline.  Spending some time each day in various disciplines, like prayer, meditation, silence, etc., could seem childish, wasteful or silly.  Sometimes it seems, our culture would assume that smart, relatively successful, emotionally healthy people would not need spiritual disciplines.  The implication would be, if you have your act together, why would you need spiritual stuff?  I rather doubt that I have my act together!

I don’t think practicing spiritual disciplines adds more days to my life and likely has little to do with eternal life.  I am not against either one---more days or eternal life.  But they are not why I practice spiritual disciplines.  I practice them in order to continue trying to be present to life and to practice the Presence of the Spirit that gives you and me life itself. 

I like the way one of the Psalms from today’s lectionary puts it.  Psalm 91 opens with these familiar words to me.  “You who live in the shelter of the Most High…” (91:1).  That is still a challenge for me.  I don’t think I am able to “live” in the shelter of God’s Presence.  Perhaps I do, but I am not always aware of it.  Practicing spiritual disciplines gives me the chance to become aware of this Presence.  Practicing those disciplines enables me to be mindful that I can live in the shelter of the Divine Presence.  It is more a daily quest than a daily conquering. 

The second half of the initial verse of Psalm 91 essentially repeats the first part of the verse.  That part of the verse talks about the one “who abides in the shadow of the Almighty.” (91:1).  I like the verb, abide.  That is my aspiration.  If I keep practicing the spiritual disciplines, then I have a better chance of coming to abide in the Presence of the Divinity. 

Why would I care to abide in the Divine Presence---especially if I am not doing it precisely to gain more days in life or necessarily eternal life?  I care to abide in the Presence because that Presence is the very Heart of the universe.  In my understanding God is the Heart of the universe---the Soul of the universe, if you can think of it that way.  To be able to come to know and abide in that Soul would be the most soulful thing I could imagine. 

It would lead me to come under Divine Protection.  Practicing spiritual disciplines helps me learn to spend more and more time under this Protection.  Ultimately the hope is to abide under the Divine Protection.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Home and Away

Most people I know have a home.  I have a nice enough home.  It is not luxurious, but it is more than adequate.  If you were to visit me, you would know that my home has that “lived in” feeling.  It is not the kind of place with dazzle and formality.  I have been in those kinds of homes.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable and on edge.  I hesitate to sit down or touch anything.  Even though I am fairly athletic, in those kinds of situations I temporarily become a klutz!

It is pretty commonsense to differentiate house and home.  Many people know the experience of moving into a new house.  In fact, we usually say it precisely that way.  We can buy a house and move into it.  But it takes a while to have the house become a “home.”  That process is likely different for most people.  And the process typically has no time frame.  Some may know how to become “home-makers” much more quickly than the rest of us.  I actually think I am a pretty slow homemaker.

There are intentional things people do to make a “home.”  There are the obvious things like our own furniture and, of course, things like pictures.  Pictures, special books, a favorite desk and so much more make it “our home.”  That is why you would get a “lived in” feeling if you walked into my home.  You would not be surprised to see pictures of my girls and, now, some grandkids. 

My home is unpretentious.  It is the kind of place people would be comfortable sitting down anywhere.  They probably would not hesitate to take off their shoes and relax, if they wanted to do so.  No one likes to spill something.  But if you visited me and spilled something, it would not be the end of the earth.  You would probably be embarrassed, but you would not be preferring suicide in the moment!  I would hope that my home would feel non-judgmental and non-condemning. 

I recently had an opportunity to come back home after some travel.  Most of the time, I enjoy some travel.  It is nice to get away from home and routine for a while.  But like most folks I know, it is always a treat to come back home.  I began to think about this experience of coming home only to realize what a wonderful spiritual analogy it suggests.  Let’s pursue this a bit.

As I pondered it, I realized that home means familiar surroundings.  I already have shared a little about my home, so you have a sense of what coming home means.  It means I can sit in my familiar chair.  I can look out my window and see my trees in their various stages to match the season.  I feel quite “at home.”  In fact, it can be pitch dark in my home and I can make my way with some confidence.

As I thought about coming home after being away, I realized I wanted to explore the analogy with a kind of spiritual home.  Come away with me and join me in that exploration.

The first thing that occurred to me is there is a deeper level of home than place.  The home in which I live is a literal place.  It has an address.  It is specific in that no other place---no other house---has the same address.  You can google my address and find my place.  With cell phones, I never have to give directions; it is easy to find my place.  But there is a deeper level of home than my place.

This is where the literal gives way to the figurative.  What I mean by that is this deeper level of home is a metaphorical place.  It does not have an address.  You cannot google it.  That deeper level is a “soul place.”  Certainly the word, soul, is a tricky, complex word.  Let me simply say that for me, soul is the essence of who I am.  It is my core self---my true self, in the words of Thomas Merton and others.  The deeper level of home has to do with soul.

I would put it this way: home is a deep, soulful place where we connect with the Spirit.  In this sense home is that metaphorical place that is a soulful place.  It is that “place” where my true self is available.  It is that “place” where my soul connects with the Divine Soul---with God, if you prefer.

My own spirituality would assume that God is always ready and willing to make “house calls.”  The Spirit would like nothing more than to go “home” with us.  In fact, I could imagine for those saintly folks, God has moved in!  God co-habits with these kinds of people.

I can imagine this deeper soulful level is co-habitation because the Spirit and the soul are in such intimacy that the language of “visiting” does not do it justice.  This deep homecoming of the soul with the Spirit has been expressed with the symbolic language of marriage by the Christian contemplatives and mystics.  I’m not there yet.  It is fair to say God comes to my spiritual house to visit.  But too often, I am away.  I have some work to do---some homework.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Creation, Innovation and Renovation

This inspiration is rooted in a rather serendipitous time I recently had with some athletes, coaches and a professional music composer.  While it is not unusual for me to hang out with athletes and coaches, there typically is not a music composer thrown into the mix!  But he added a tremendous leavening effect to the dialogue and spurred me to thinking about things about which I normally would not.        

The intent of the meeting was straightforward.  If people who are not in the same fields or who are not alike spend time together, new and different conversations are likely to happen and, possibly, new ideas arise.  I am sure we would have to do it more than one time, but that one time was enough to suggest the possibilities.  And they were exciting.  And even more, it was a great deal of fun.           

I was fascinated to listen to the music composer describe his work.  I would not know the first step about composing a piece of music.  Whatever musical ability I have is latent---totally unexplored.  I have been assured I am not a good singer.  Unfortunately for me, music and art were not popular subjects in grade school.  I trust the current younger group is more mature than I was.  So it was a great learning experience to hear a professional composer talk about being creative.           

He writes notes on a page that the musicians can “read” and make music.  The only thing I can compare it to is the writing I do.  I begin with a blank page and have a zillion words from which I can choose.  Choosing words, developing sentences, paragraphs and, then, making a whole piece must be like writing music.  Even though I know what I said and meant, sometimes another person reading what I wrote understands it differently.  Once the words are on paper, I have no control over what the reader takes away from those words.  So it is with the composer: once the musicians begin to play, his music might sound different than he intended.           

I have been creative, but not in that musical sense.  The fun part was to begin to relate creativity to innovation.  I have been involved in the world of innovation.  A couple basic ways to see innovation is to create a new thing or to figure out a new way to do an old thing.  When I put it this way, it is easy for me to see a significant relationship between being creative and innovative.             

When we add the third element, namely, renovation, again it is easy for me to see how related it is to the other two.  Renovation is little more than an application of the innovative process dealing with an old thing.  For example, we talk about renovating an old house.  In the end the structure of the house may be unchanged.  From the outside it looks just like it always did.  But inside, the transformation might seem unbelievable.  In many ways renovation takes creativity and innovatively applies it to the old thing.           

While this may be interesting, does it have anything to do with spirituality and the spiritual journey many of us are walking?  The answer is a resounding “Yes” for me.  Let me elaborate.  As I thought about this set of ideas, it occurred to me the three key words in the title of this piece could be used to summarize much of my Christian understanding of my spiritual journey.  And I think, most of it is applicable to other major religious traditions, like Judaism, Buddhism, etc.           

A key piece of my understanding of God is that God is creative.  Even though I opt for some form of evolution, I still understand God as Spirit being creatively involved in the process of the world coming to be and continuing to be.  All of us creatures are dependent on that life-giving Spirit continuing to support our lives.  Evolution itself is a form of innovation.  Most of us would claim some relationship to the ape world.  Apparently I share a very high percentage of my DNA with mice!  I might claim uniqueness, but there is a great deal of relatedness, too.  And as a human being, my own life has been innovative.  I keep doing new things and old things new ways.           

And a final big piece of my spiritual journey is the honest recognition that I have often screwed up and done things badly.  The old theological language for this is sin.  Even if I want to get rid of that word, I cannot deny the reality of sin---things gone badly.  That is where renovation comes into the picture!  The same creative Spirit of God is also the renovative Spirit of God.  Again classical Christian language might call this reconciliation or use a variety of other words, the effect is the same as the renovated house.           

When I have messed up, I still look like the same guy who was the good guy before messing up.  The renovative process does not change my looks any more than the renovated house looked different.  But that process transformed me and makes me whole.  If I am with coaches, we might talk about changing the way we play the game.  Perhaps the music composer can use language of tempo change and other avenues to make new music from an old song.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Imagination to Be Free

Much of the time I get material from the things I read.  But sometimes I hear interesting things.  Such was the case yesterday.  I was with a group of people whom I very much like.  They are gracious.  They are warm and quite hospitable.  I like to sit back and watch them do what seems very natural.  I long ago concluded that people who live in the Spirit do what comes natural to the Spirit. 

I think people of the Spirit naturally begin to focus on others, rather than themselves.  People of the Spirit know the first thing you do is to welcome the other.  They do this even if the “other” is stranger.  I am sure they see a stranger who has not yet become a friend.  That is a neat way of looking at the world.  It certainly is a way of peace making.

It is a way that begins in trust and hopes for the best.  Some would call this naïve.  The bolder critics would call it stupid!  It is naïve and stupid if defending our own ego is the most important thing.  We all know the world’s perspective too often is to “get yours before someone else gets theirs.”  This can be a recipe for success---in worldly terms.   

It can bring wealth and fame.  It is a good way to win superficial friends.  However, it sets up a situation where the “get mine first” people have to be very careful.  In fact, they usually have to be defended.  They frequently operate out of a mode of fear and insecurity.  They are vulnerable to someone being stronger or smarter.  They are sitting ducks for the next person operating out of their same mind-set.  They may be wealthy or famous, but they are not free. 

When we talk about freedom in this country, it is tricky.  Of course, nearly everyone in America assumes that we are a “free country.”  And indeed, we are.  There is so much freedom and we all should be very grateful.  It is a precious treasure.  We can talk about freedom in the political sense and, certainly, the religious sense.  I am free to be whatever kind of religion I want to be.  I also am free not to be religious at all.  I am even free to make fun of the various religions and religious people and that it ok.   

There are other kinds of freedom besides political and religious.  Let’s talk about psychological freedom.  That may seem a bit more subjective and more difficult to ponder.  If you are not quite sure how to think about psychological freedom, then begin with the idea of dependency.  It is easy to see that babies are not psychologically free.  They are very dependent---for a whole range of needs.  As the baby grows up, the hope is that he or she will become more independent. 

Many folks manage to achieve some kind of healthy independence.  Some of us even get to the mature place of being interdependent.  That is a worthy goal of all of us.  But not all achieve a mature, healthy phase.  Some folks are stuck in a real place of dependence.  And others might even be forced or coerced to be dependent. 

Sometimes human beings do this to other humans.  Probably it has been true that males have coerced women to be dependent.  We can cite religious traditions that promote a kind of spiritual dependence.  Individuals who are dependent are not free people.  They are in a kind of bondage.  There might be a future for dependent people, but there is not much hope.  A hopeless future is not much of a future! 

This is where I return to yesterday’s words of the speaker.  He talked about imagination.  I admit I very much like the idea of imagination.  He even used the phrase, imagination to be free.  That resonated with me.  In fact, it could be the key to freedom.  Let’s explore it briefly. 

We can think about two ways that people are not free.  One way to lack freedom is to be stuck.  There are lousy ways to be stuck.  These we usually know.  We may be stuck by circumstances or by our own choosing.  Imagination is a great way to see how to become free of our stuckness.

Another way that people are not free is fear.  If I am “scared to death,” I am not free.  Even lesser fears make me captive to the emotion.  Again, imagination can be useful to see how to escape our fears.  Imagination works to create alternative futures.  For example, through imagination there probably are a few different ways to get over or beyond particular fears.  Our imagination enables us to be free. 

I find that linking my imagination to the world of God’s Spirit is powerful.  God’s Spirit never asks for dependency.  God’s Spirit offers freedom---radical freedom to be who we were created to be.  God wants us to be free in order to serve through love.  That is the radical kind of freedom I saw in the people of the Spirit.  I want to be free of any fear or stuckness that prevents this kind of service.  With some imagination, I can be free.