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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Life as Story

I am working my way through a book now that is quite challenging and very rewarding.  Fortunately, I am reading it along with a group that I lead.  The folks in the group are great troupers.  They are plugging along with me.  They are not complaining---no whining!  I fear if I were using it in a normal college class, there would be some grumpiness about how “hard” it is.  The book is by Christian Wiman and is entitled, My Bright Abyss.  The subtitle is revealing: Meditation of a Modern Believer.
I don’t know Wiman and have to confess that I had not even heard of him.  He is a poet.  He also is a lecturer in religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.  He has been editor of Poetry magazine, which one publication calls “the oldest and most esteemed poetry monthly in the world.”  Wiman was born in 1966 and as a relatively young man of thirty-nine was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  That obviously added a powerful, new twist to his life story.

He talks about growing up in West Texas with a Southern Baptist background.  He describes growing up “in a culture and family so saturated with religion that it never occurred to me there was any alternative until I left.”  He left to attend college and soon found that West Texas faith was a thing of the past.  He did not lose faith.  I enjoyed the way Wiman put it in an interview with the magazine, Christianity Today.  He said “the religious feeling went underground for a couple decades, to be released occasionally in ways I never really understood or completely credited---in poems, mostly.”

Wiman talks about falling into despair, which precipitated a long dry period when he could not write his poetry.  Almost in a funny follow-up, Wiman describes serendipitously falling in love with a woman who became his wife.  In a powerful, incisive comment he says, “the despair was blasted like a husk away from my spirit.”  He was able to begin writing again.  I find his words to be poignant.  “I was just finally able to assent the faith that had long been latent in me.”  And his book, My Bright Abyss, is the result of that newfound ability to write.

I share all this because it helps me to appreciate, if not understand, the challenge of reading the book.  One piece with which I connected has to do with life as story.  I begin with one of his challenging sentences.  “A god, if it’s a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.”  When I grasp this, I agree with Wiman.  God is found within our world more than beyond our world.

Then he moves to the theme of this inspirational piece.  Wiman says “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”  That resonated deeply within my soul.  I know that Jesus often uses a story to convey his message, but I appreciate that even more now.

I am sure that Wiman is arguing for story more than doctrine or dogma.  The question emerges for me: what is the story I am willing to stake my life on?  One way to get at this is to look at the story my life (or your life) has already told.  Every person’s life tells a story---even if it is pointless story!  My story includes having a family, kids and now grandkids.  It is a story of much education, teaching and ministry.  I hope it is a good story---certainly not a great story.  But I have not yet reached the end.

Wiman says existence is not a puzzle to be solved.  That makes sense to me.  What he adds, then, is not easy to understand.  Existence is a narrative that is inherited, undergone and transformed.  If I try to apply this to my life, the form takes some shape.  The narrative of my existence begins on an Indiana farm within a Quaker context.  Inheriting the narrative is the easy part.

Undergoing the Quaker narrative is where it gets more difficult.  This means for me actually giving shape to and life to the Quaker message.  It means I seek the Center, which is the Living Christ.  I seek to live out of that Living Christ.  It calls me to live a life of love.  I sense this is where the transforming begins to happen.  If I can live a life of love, then I can also begin to be a peacemaker in the world.  I am likely in no position to make peace other than person to person, as Wiman says.

Like you, I can only do the loving and peacemaking in the context in which I find myself.  Personally, that means in the classroom with students, in the locker room with athletes and in the hotels with the groups I am working with around the world.  Because of my education, I could share a great deal doctrine, but I am sure Wiman is correct to say that my story is more important than doctrine.  As I see it, that is the work yet to be done---until my story inevitably ends.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Designing Your Life

The title of this spiritual reflection is a direct theft!  It is the title of a wildly popular class at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA.  Stanford is one of the highest quality colleges in the world---an elite school which sometimes must seem like that for the elite.  It is one of those places which almost never elicits the response, “Where’s that?”  And if you went there, you would never be asked, “Is that a good school!”             

I found out about the course at Stanford from a tweet on some site I follow on Twitter.  The article that described the course was fairly long---certainly for a tweet.  Some of the material covered was interesting to me, but not really pertinent to this inspirational reflection.  But one focus I found fascinating and, in some ways, see it to be suggestive of the spiritual journey.  I would like deal with that focus.          

Early in the article, mention was made of four areas that were covered in the course.  I admit I was a little stunned by the four areas.  I was not stunned by them, but by the fact it was being dealt with in a class like this one.  But I was simultaneously very pleased because I try to do some similar things in my own teaching.  The four areas were gratitude, generosity, self-awareness and adaptability.  Let’s deal with each of these in a spiritual fashion.           

Gratitude is a great place to begin.  There has been much written lately about gratitude and how important it can be.  Sometimes I think scholars have found a fancier word than the more simple “thanks” and ride a new wave of popularity.  If you read any of the recent literature, you find out that there tends to be a clear link between gratitude and happiness.           

That should not be very surprising because people who are grateful feel like they have been graced, lucky or maybe just rewarded by their own hard work.  Gratitude is a response, to be sure.  But gratitude can also be an attitude and, finally, a way of life.  Gratitude is a positive way to look at one’s life.  To have an attitude of gratitude probably means we tend to look on the bright side, we see the glass as half full, etc.  And the good news is, we can choose our response and attitudes.  We can learn to be grateful and to act gratefully.           

The second of the areas is generosity.  When you think about generosity, it is easy to see it in economic terms.  We can talk about generous contributions to some cause.  The opposite of the generous person is the miser---the one who hoards money, selfishly holds back any significant gift.  However, it is easy to move from the economic arena to others aspects of generosity.  We can be generous with our time and our talent, as well as our treasure.           

The whole arena of volunteerism counts on the generosity of people.  I know first-hand that some of my best experiences in life have come through giving my time to some worthy cause.  You get nothing monetarily out of it, but you get an amazing return on the investment of your time and effort.  And authentic volunteers are never doing something to get something out of it!  And often, they are surprised that they reaped some benefit.           

The third area of Stanford’s class focuses on self-awareness.  This seems like a no-brainer to me.  And it is an essential aspect of being spiritual.  Self-awareness means I am present in and to the moment.  I am awake.  Self-awareness can be broad and general.  It is a kind of openness to what is and what can be.  If I am self-aware, then chances are I will not miss opportunities.  To lack self-awareness is tantamount to being blind.           

Self-awareness can be cultivated.  In a way it means to wake up.  Our awareness can be dulled by busyness or boredom.  Awareness can be frazzled by the pace of life so many folks are living.  In spiritual areas self-awareness is a prerequisite to the ways the Holy One is at work in our lives and in our world.  To be unaware is to miss all of this.           

The final piece of the Stanford course is adaptability.  This one is so important because a chief characteristic of our world and time is change.  The fact of change and the speed of change are remarkable.  Every one of us with some age can remember “the good old days” when life seemed different.  We tell stories of times before cell phones, computers and, even, television!  All that has changed.  And the speed of change has accelerated.  And it is not going to stop.           

The only way to cope with change is to be adaptable.  Of course, this is something that Darwin figured out and offered evolution to explain the story of survivors!  While this sounds simply scientific, I suspect it is equally applicable to our spiritual journeys.  Even if someone is “saved” at some altar call experience, he or she does not finish that day with that experience.  It is more like a commencement.  Now the real living begins.           

I appreciated seeing the four areas focused on in the Stanford class on designing my life.  They were good reminders to me that they are building blocks in the spiritual process of life.  The final thing I would add is to suggest that I am co-designing my life.  I have faith that in some way God also has designs on my life.  And I am good with that!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Experience of Divine Presence

I enjoy finding pithy or great summary statements.  I just found one in my favorite Quaker book.  Thomas Kelly wrote the popular Quaker book, A Testament of Devotion, which actually is a series of lectures.  Some of these come out of his experience of WWII.  Kelly spent some time in Germany watching Hitler come to power.  He returned to this country.  One of the chapters is entitled, “The Eternal Now and Social Concern.”  The core ideas were originally a lecture delivered to a gathering of German Quakers.           

The summary statement embodies so much of what I have been taught when growing up as a Quaker.  Kelly writes that the central Quaker message affirms “The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life…”  If I can unpack this amazing sentence and understand it, I will have my own central message.  And more importantly, if I can embody this message and live it out, then I truly will be engaged in the spiritual life.           

The key focus in the sentence is the experience of God.  I like better how Kelly puts it: “experience of the Divine Presence.”  All too often, the word, God, does not help much.  It is an overused word for so many people.  Frequently it is a word without meaning, a sound without content.  People use it in swear words and typically mean nothing by it.  When someone says, “God damn,” I do not think that person remotely expects God to intervene in some situation and damn something or someone!  I prefer Kelly’s naming of God as “Divine Presence.”           

Kelly wants us to know we all have the possibility of this experience of the Divine Presence.  That is a careful way of putting it.  The experience is possible.  However, it is not guaranteed.  The possibility of this experience may actually ask something of me, too.  I can seek this Presence.  I can be open to It.  Or I can totally ignore it and go about my own egocentric business.  For me personally that Divine Presence becomes the Divine Absence!           

In a vintage Quaker way, Kelly asserts this possibility is repeatedly realized.  That is great news.  Experiencing God is not a one-shot deal.  It can become a deal for you or me each and every day.  Notice how repeatedly realizing the experience actualizes the possibility that is there for each of us.  It is repeatedly realized as a present fact.  An implication of this means not only can I “have” an experience, I can come to “live” in and from this experience.  To live such means I come to be theocentric (God-centered) instead of egocentric.  I don’t cease to be me; but I become me-in-God---a much truer and richer version of the “real me.”           

The experience of Divine Presence has a powerful effect on my life.  As Kelly says, I experience “its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life…”  This means I should not be open to this experience of Divine Presence if I want to stay exactly as I am.  If I open and experience this Presence, I will be transformed.  I will commence the process of losing my egocentric focus and begin to become God-centered.  This is probably what Jesus had in mind when he taught us how to pray: not my will, but your will.           

To pray such is to give the divine green light to the transformational process.  As transformation happens, I will become more than a spiritual dabbler in religious things.  I quit toying with spirituality and really take it on.  It begins to transfigure me.  Of course, this is not some spiritual facelift!  My face will look the same in the mirror.  On the face of it---on the surface---it may not look much different in my life.  But deep down---in the center where I am being transformed---I am becoming a different person.  Kelly has another sentence that wonderfully implicates the full meaning of what is happening.           

He says, “Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal.”  That is exactly what the spiritual journey aspires to become: a new dimension of life.  Experiencing the Divine Presence does not take us out of time and does not deliver us from the ordinariness of life.  We still eat, sleep, go to work, have disappointments and sadness.  But all of our ordinariness is framed by the Eternal.           

To be theocentric---rooted and grounded in that Divine Presence---means we are liberated.  We are free to become more loving---indeed, compassionate---because we are not worried about losing anything.  Generosity becomes our perspective.  Love is a compounding experience.  This is great news in a world and culture with a scarcity perspective.  Fear of losing gives way to delight in sharing.           

In the spirit of experiencing the Divine Presence we no long ask why?  We ask, why not?  And then we care, share, and bear the burdens of any and all who need us.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Incremental Inspiration

I would claim that I have been inspired at times in the past.  Since I know Latin, I know the word literally means to have air or the spirit blown into us---“breathed into.”  Normally the language of inspiration involves the Deity.  For centuries people would think that God inspired people.  To this end, inspiration carried the notion that it was an opening or access to special or revelatory knowledge.  In this sense inspiration was always a gift.  Inspiration came from the outside.

I don’t disagree with any of this.  I do think inspiration is a gift in the sense that it comes from without.  This does not discount hard work or study.  Often they are prerequisites for inspiration.  I also like the idea that inspiration comes to us if we are open.  I suppose it is theoretically possible for inspiration to come to someone who is closed and not looking for anything.  However, the normal and expected coming of inspiration happens to those who are looking for it. 

I also believe that God inspires people.  Of course, if you are atheistic, then this makes no sense.  If there is no God, surely there is no divine inspiration!  This does not mean that atheists cannot be inspired.  It does mean they would never think the source of inspiration is God.  This is not the place nor the time to take on this point.  Suffice it to say, since I do believe in some sort of Divine Being, I think that Being can be (and usually is) the source of inspiration. 

What intrigues me is the process of the inspiration.  As I thought about my own experience, I realized that inspiration seldom has been momentous.  That is to say for me, inspiration is not some big mountaintop revelation.  I don’t discount these kinds of experiences.  Perhaps I have even had one or more that would be categorized as such.  In my case, however, these were not moments of inspiration so much as occasions of experiencing the presence of the Divine Spirit.  Hence, I am distinguishing between the experience of the presence of God and the experience of being inspired by God. 

For me inspiration more often has been incremental.  That is to say, inspiration has tended to come slowly over time.  And more often than not, inspiration has come in little bits.  If I were to use an analogy, inspiration is more like the dawning of a new day rather than the sudden burst of sunlight at noontime.  Inspiration is more like the greying light that begins to brighten as the sun emerges into the full day.  In the beginning it might be hardly discernable. 

Because inspiration is incremental, it can be easily missed or overlooked.  Analogously, if we are paying attention to the breaking of a new day, it is quite difficult to discern exactly when the night is finished and day has begun.  That is why I like to describe inspiration as a kind of dawning awareness.  Let me give you an example. 

I have had three major career moves.  Because I wanted to be involved in a work situation where I felt “led” to be there, that meant even in my first career spot, I felt inspired by God to be there.  I realize this is very traditional language.  I can try to explain in some detail more about the process of being inspired by God to take a particular career piece.  It would be true for me, but would be singularly unconvincing to an atheist.  But I am ok with that. 

My second career move was equally inspired by God.  In many ways this career move made little sense to a secular person.  In the eyes of the secular world, I lost money, status and more.  Why would anyone want to do this?  It was a legitimate question, but the answer was simple: I was inspired by God to make the move.  The inspiration was not momentous.  It came to me incrementally.  Only gradually and over time, was I more and more internally convinced this was how God was moving in me.  Of course, I could have been wrong.  After all, it is about faith.  I trusted God and my process of discerning inspiration. 

My third move simply repeated the incremental inspirational process.  Career moves seem fairly big in life.  However, inspiration is not limited to “big time items.”  I am convinced I have been inspired in fairly small and, sometimes, seemingly insignificant ways.  There have been many occasions when I felt inspired just to be quiet and wait.  Perhaps I have remained more open because of this. 

And just as many times, someone may come into my waiting presence with a problem or opportunity that I am able to take action.  This has happened too many times for me to discount it as pure happenstance.

I go back to where I began.  So much inspiration happens incrementally.  It depends on me being open to the possibility.  I need to provide access to my inner being for God to breathe in some spirit.  I need to be aware and attentive.  I don’t force anything.  I wait for whatever gift may be given.  And if there is no gift, that is ok.  Life goes on.  But when the gift of inspiration comes, I give thanks and respond.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Spiritual Search

One of the things I have come to value is the daily lectionary.  A lectionary is a schedule of readings used by many Christian traditions.  It is a useful tool for anyone looking to engage in some kind of daily or regular worship and reflection.  As a young Quaker, I had never heard the word, lectionary.  We never used that, although I was aware of a few people using the Upper Room devotional booklet, which was a similar idea.
I first encountered the lectionary with my Catholic and Episcopal friends I made when I went to college.  The lectionary always had some readings from the Bible, including readings from the Psalms.  Sometimes, these Biblical readings were augmented by a reading from a figure from Christian history or some more contemporary author.  The lectionary moved one through the liturgical year.  I realized the lectionary helped me avoid simply picking out my favorite passages.  It moved me through much of the Old and New Testaments.
The lectionary I choose to follow is provided by the Benedictine monks.  For years I have been a Benedictine oblate, which means I am a layperson associated with a local Benedictine monastery.  The monks welcome me into their spiritual community.  Although I am not going to become a Benedictine monk, I can choose to imbibe some of the monastic spirituality and life.  Using their lectionary aids this process.
One of the things I have come to appreciate is the daily encounter with the Psalms.  The Psalms played a key role in the long history of Jewish worship and the early Christian Church brought this focus into their worship tradition.  I did not grow up with the Psalms, so I was pretty ignorant when I began this monastic flirtation.  Every day now I have a steady suggestive stream of Psalms’ passages to read and upon which to meditate.
For example, the Psalm for the Morning Prayer in today’s lectionary reading comes from Psalm 63.  While I know I have read this Psalm more than once, it is not riveted in my mind.  Every time I encounter it, I am drawn into the imagery, the petition, and the power of the words.  I try to engage the Psalm’s sentiments and to make them my own.  I do this through some meditation and, sometimes, prayer.  It helps me with the way I want to live the day.
Psalm 63 begins with these words from the mouth of the Psalmist.  “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…” (63:1)  When I read these words, it seems to me the Psalmist feels like he knows God in personal ways.  “You are my God.”  I don’t read these words as an expression of possessiveness, but rather as an expression of faith and appreciation.  As I meditate on these words and try to make them my own, I hope to come to understand God as “my God.”
With the claim that God is his God, the Psalmist next says that he seeks God.  I very much connect with this quest.  I, too, am a seeker of God.  I see this in a positive light.  Even though I have had a number of experiences of God, nevertheless I will always remain a seeker.  While theologically I believe God is ever-present to me and to you, I also think it takes intentionality and some effort to come to awareness of the ever-present God.  God may be present, but it is too easy for me to live as if God is absent!
When I seek God, I am not suggesting God is absent.  I could even say that daily I seek to know that present God and to live my day in that Presence.  If I can do that, my day, my comings and goings, and everything I will do will be bathed in the Spirit.  My own life will come to have its own kind of presence for those who surround me this day.
I like the image the Psalmist uses to picture the seeking soul.  The Psalmist says that his soul thirsts for God.  Of course, I do not read this literally; it is metaphor.  As a Christian, it is easy for me to connect with this image, since I recall that Jesus talked about being the “Living Water.”  We know that water is necessary for life.  Water can be used as an image of the Spirit.
When water is absent or scarce, life is a struggle.  Life becomes a desert.  Life in the desert is a threat.  In this case life becomes a search---a search for water.  This is the imagery behind the Psalmist’s petition.  If I can find water, I live.  Analogously, if I can find God---the Living Water---my soul will thrive.  I will not only live; I will thrive and flourish.
That is my daily quest.  My thirsty soul seeks water---the Source of life.  Even if I find it today and quench my soul’s thirst, I will need to seek again tomorrow.  That’s how it is with the spiritual search.  The good news is we can always find that for which we seek.  God is always present.  When seek spiritually seek, we will discover that we already are in that Presence!   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Sense of the Past

One of the journals I regularly read is the National Catholic Reporter.  While I am not a Roman Catholic, it is important to me to know what the Catholic Church is doing.  I know there are over one billion Catholics in the world---about one out of every seven people on the globe is a Roman Catholic!  Those numbers are staggering to this Quaker who is used to dealing with small numbers.          

It is instructive to follow the Catholic Church through the lens of the NCR, as it is often called.  It routinely reports on the current Pope and current issues facing the Church.  Some of these issues are solely the issues of the Catholic tradition.  Some of the issues are also issues for Quakers and the rest of the Christian group.  And some issues are issues for every major religious tradition.           

I have been reading this periodical for so long, I have my favorite authors.  One such author is the Benedictine nun and activist, Joan Chittister.  I am not a personal friend with Chittister, even though I have been to her Benedictine convent in Erie, PA.  Sometimes I do not agree with what she writes, but I deeply appreciate her spirit, thoughtfulness and desire to be obedient to the God she follows.             

A recent piece Chittister wrote focuses on the wanton destructiveness of some holy sites in Iraq by the radical group, ISIS.  She says the column is about religious thuggery, which she decries when perpetrated by any radical group---Muslim, Christian, etc.  She used a phrase in the column, which grabbed me when I read it.  The phrase has to do with history and tradition.  She understands the thuggery was an attack on history.  It attempted to wipe out some statues that represent a culture that is nearly 10,000 years old.  In effect, Chitterster says the vandals were attempting to wipe out the past.           

Listen to her words as she describes the upshot of this wanton destruction. ‘Without a sense of the past, life becomes monochromatic for everyone: There are no colors against which to compare the colors of plans and policies and principles emerging everywhere because there is no history of ideas against which to gauge them.”  I like the way Chittister talks about history as a “sense of the past.”  We have this as individuals and we have it in our communities and our country.  A sense of the past is constituted by our memories, but they are memories shaped into a story.          

For a community and a country, the sense of the past is the story of culture.  Chittister is insightful when she says a sense of the past gives us a chance not to live a life that is monochromatic---a colorless life.  I immediately think of North Korea as a country that is monochromatic.  The leader determines the color of the nation’s story.  As Chittister suggests, we need a sense of the past to think about and judge contemporary plans and policies.  This is what the wanton vandals wanted to wipe out.  They want to impose their own version of the present---which they want to be the only story, the only way to see life in the present.          

Notice the way Chittister describes it.  “To destroy the past is to make the present our idol -- untried, untested, untempered by anything but the passions of the moment.”  I find this to be a powerful statement that applies not only to the unfortunate actions of destroying statues in Iraq, but perhaps a reminder to myself and others of what can happen in our own lives.  Let’s apply it in that fashion in the rest of this reflection.           

I wondered whether I have ever made my present an idol.  On the surface I would naturally respond I would never have done that.  Perhaps I do not fully understand what it means to have an idol---to worship something that is not God.  I have not worshipped the present.  But I do think that I have valued it in undue fashion.  I pick up the last phrase Chittister uses---“the passions of the moment.”  Surely I have experienced those passions and, doubtlessly, I have been captivated and captured by those passions of the moment.                     

Those passions can distort truth and reality.  They can lead me to be egocentric---to live with myself at the center of the universe.  To be captured by the passions of the moment can wipe out everything I know from the perspective of history.  I become shortsighted and even manipulative to make the world bend to my will.             

A sense of the past will always tell me I cannot manipulate life.  My own sense of the past tells me that I am a human being with all the potential glory of being God’s child and with the sobering reality that I have sinned and fallen short of that glory.  To retain this sense of the past gives me the best hope for my future.  I live with the truth of the past; I do not destroy it.           

But the past sets me up to plan life in a way that can lead me into a life of faith and obedience.  I can embrace the promise of grace and the potentiality that God is working with and within me to enable me to become a child of God. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Peaceful, Happy and Strong

It is hard for me to imagine anyone seeing the three words that form the title of this reflection---peaceful, happy and strong---not wanting a share in all three.  Can you believe anyone would say, “Nah, I prefer war to peace.  I prefer conflict to peace!”  Can you imagine anyone saying, “I much rather prefer sadness and despair to happiness!”  And it is just as difficult to hear someone saying, “Heck, I’d much rather be weak and hurting than be strong.”  Anyone in his or her right mind wants to be peaceful, happy and strong.          

The real question is not whether I prefer these attributes, but how do I get them?  Is there anything I or we can do to make them come true?  Or do we simply have to wait, sit back and hope to become peaceful, happy and strong?  The good news is, there are some things we can do to bring peace, happiness and strength to ourselves and to others.           

I encountered these ideas recently when I was reading one of my favorite books which I use for a class.  The book is by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, and the book is entitled, Going Home.  I also am fond of the subtitle of his book: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.  I have enjoyed reading this Buddhist monk for many years.  He left Vietnam during the time of conflict in the 1960s and has lived in France since then.  He has traveled to the United States many times and his message is wonderfully compatible with other major religious traditions.  His ministry is designed to bring meaning into the lives of his followers and to enable them to be workers for peace.             

I encountered the three words that are the title for this spiritual reflection as I began reading a paragraph in Hanh’s book.  He stated, “We have to make steady progress in our spiritual life.”  That struck a chord in me.  Indeed, I thought, but how do you know what to do to make steady progress.  I am for it, but I am not sure I can pull it off!  And by the way, what does steady progress look like?             

In some ways I think the three words in the title give us an answer.  Let’s look at how Hanh frames it and, then, we can develop it further.  I read deeper into the paragraph.  Hanh tells us, “We have to let our faith grow.  To help our faith grow, we have to let our love grow.  And because our faith and our love continue to grow, our happiness will also grow.  If you are not peaceful, and happy and strong, how can you expect to help other people be happy, and strong, and stable.” 

That seems simple enough.  However, it is still quite general.  Let your faith grow.  What does that mean?  Believe more?  I doubt it.  The problem with this is assuming that faith means belief.  Too many people say, “I have faith in God,” and mean “I believe in God.”  This means they think God exists.  In my understanding and, I think, for Hanh, faith means something like “trust.”  To have faith in God means you trust that God exists and probably cares about you. 

We let our faith grow by trust more and more deeply.  We let our faith grow by putting our lives more and more fully in the hands of God.  And perhaps having more faith means we trust God’s people more and more.  We trust the community of God’s people.  We give up our independence and choose to depend on God and to be interdependent with God’s people.  In this process we come to have more peace.  We become more peaceful. 

Does this mean we don’t have problems any more?  Of course, that is not the case.  We will have problems; we will experience pitfalls.  But in the deep faith in God, we will not be shaken.  We will be made strong.  And we will likely be happier. 

The same goes for love. We help our faith grow more by letting our love grow.  An interesting assumption pops up here.  It assumes that love will grow.  “Let your love grow,” says Hanh.  I agree with his assumption.  If we depend on God and are interdependent with God’s people, I do think we will love and we can let that love grow.  The natural state for humans and their natural tendency is to love.  And it is probably ok to be greedy about love!  Some love is good; more love is even better.

I am sure where love exists, peace also is present.  To be in love is to be in peace.  To be full of love is to be full of peace---be peaceful.  And I am just as sure that where love exists, there will be happiness.  I don’t know anyone who is deeply loving who is also not happy.  Love and happiness generally go together.  And I am also sure this is true for strength. 

To have faith and to be loving is to be a person of strength.  We think of the martyrs.  These men and women of faith and love were so strong, they would withstand anything the persecutors brought their way.  I am not in their league, but I am in the program.  If I can grow my faith and deepen my love, I will become more peaceful, stronger and happier.  I am on the way! 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Imagination and Illusion

I have long been fascinated by imagination.  We only have to spend a little time with kids to witness the power of imagination.  Even fairly young kids---toddlers---can imagine with the best of them.  Imagination is the formation of ideas and images, which are not present to us.  Imagination is, as the dictionary tells us, a creative ability.  Imagination is able to create worlds that don’t yet exist.  Imagination fosters alternative worlds.  Imagination is the key to the future.

If memory is the key to the past, imagination is the key to the future.  Memory often is quite a treasure.  Memory is the way we capture mentally those times, which have passed.  Memory preserves.  I have fond memories of some of my own childhood days.  I have quite fond memories of the times my two little girls were growing up, learning things and beginning to make lives of their own.  I am very thankful for the gift of memory. 

And I am just as thankful for the gift of imagination.  By imagining we are able to create future possibilities.  Imagination allows us the privilege of trying out different scenarios.  We are able to discard the losers without putting much time or effort into bringing them to pass.  One way to see imagination at work is to play the “what if” game.  What if we did this?  What if we discontinued doing that?  This sounds like the old human version of game theory. 

For a long time I have been intrigued by the twin possibilities of imagination and illusion.  In many instances it seems difficult to distinguish the two possibilities.  But there clearly are not the same.  In fact one---imagination---is quite healthy and, potentially, creative.  The other one---illusion---is tricky and, sometimes, unhealthy and, potentially, even dangerous.  Let’s consider both of them.  We will see that only imagination has spiritual ramifications.

An illusion can be tricky because illusions are deceptive.  They can be portrayed as real, but illusions are not real.  Some illusions are accidental.  They are not intentionally deceptive, but they still are not real.  We might have the illusion that we did well on an examination, but in reality we did not do very well at all.  People deal with many illusions when it comes to health issues.  Smokers may be under the illusion that the habit causes no real harm.  Or some may feel like it won’t cause them any harm, although it is harmful to people in general! 

The key thing about illusion is the fact that illusion is never real---the illusion is simply not possible.  Spending time cultivating illusions or hoping that they will come true is utterly a waste of time and energy.  It may fall under the “wishful thinking” category.  Any illusion about God or my own spiritual life is no different.  An illusion is an illusion. 

Imagination, on the other hand, is a way of conceiving the inconceivable.  Imagination is a way of painting a picture of something, which can be abstract or complex.  Images are pictures that can be helpful in dealing with some aspects of reality.  For example, I have images of God.  I have no clue what God in the Divine Self or Divine Reality looks like or acts like.  But I can create images that help me think about the God in whom I believe. 

I do find parental images of God to be helpful.  I am ok with the traditional image of God the Father.  There are aspects of God dealing with me that seem quite paternal.  But I also like the image of God the Mother,  In fact, much of God’s action in my life seems very maternal---caring, nurturing, etc.  I know these are images.  But I also would claim at some level that the images “capture” the essence of the reality I experience when God is in my life.  Obviously, I cannot prove it.  But it is real to me; it is not an illusion. 

I am confident imagination is a great way to enrich our lives.  I realize much of my spiritual life deals in the currency of imagination.  Quite a bit of my spiritual discipline uses images---hence, imagination.  When I am praying, imagination is engaged.  When I ask God the Mother to care for me and those surrounding me, I know there is imagination in play.  Will that maternal God literally bend down (another image) and kiss me on the cheek?  Not likely…that would be illusory.  But I can imagine that divine maternal care and with that my soul is thereby soothed. 

One of the delights of spiritual communities is the shared imagination.  When spiritual people gather, they often share different kinds of images.  Sometimes it comes through songs sung.  Sometimes it is through spiritual literature.  Another rich resource is the personal spiritual stories that folks can share about their own spiritual pilgrimage.   

I want to become more and more aware of the spiritual treasure that imagination makes possible.  I want to cultivate my own imagination and be attentive to the riches of others’ imagination.  This is a wonderful avenue of spiritual growth and deepening.            

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Titles: Trust, Tease or Toss?

I have always been fascinated with titles.  When you read that sentence, you probably think of book titles.  Certainly, most people would say that book titles are important.  I would not disagree.  But when you think about it further, there are many other kinds of titles.   

Since I have paid off my old car, I have the title to that.  It shows that I now own it.  The bank owns the title to most of our houses.  So apparently, a great deal of property comes with titles to show ownership.  But not all ownership is individual.  Some things are owned corporately.  The college where I teach is a private school, so that means there is ownership.  But it is owned corporately.  The appointed trustees, in fact, oversee their ownership responsibilities.  But no single person owns the campus or the buildings.  The same idea pertains to national parks.  All Americans, in effect, own Yosemite National Park.  Even though it is in California (and I don’t live in CA), you and I and all of us own it. 

Since I stayed in school long enough and did sufficient work, I was awarded a doctoral degree.  So students can call me “Doctor.”  That is a title.  As the holder of a Ph.D., I am “entitled” to be thus addressed.  I have a daughter who finished medical school and has the M.D. degree, so she also can be called “Doctor.”  If you become sick, I suggest you call the right Doctor!  I might care for you, but that might not be all you had in mind. 

While this may be interesting, does it relate at all to spirituality?  It certainly can.  Let me begin with my own Quaker tradition and perspective.  While I feel good about having the doctoral degree and appreciate the learning that happened while I studied for that degree, I feel uneasy when addressed as “Doctor.”  This uneasiness betrays my own spirituality. 

Titles can be descriptive and they can be symbolic.  Let’s look at each of these functions for titles.  I understand that my Ph.D. is descriptive.  It describes the fact that I studied, passed tests, successfully wrote a dissertation and received the degree.  I have a “diploma” to prove it.  But that diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper.  It signifies that I know something. 

The spiritual question is whether anyone can trust this paper-diploma-degree that signifies that I know something entitling me to be called “Doctor?”  Trust is a huge spiritual issue.  You trust that piece of paper.  You did not go to class with me nor did you see me graduate.  That seems simple, until you remember that people can get online degrees from multiple websites for $25 and nearly instantaneously!  Now we see how trust is at stake. 

Some titles are a tease to lure us into a false sense of security.  If we see a title, we may assume too much.  Again, think of book titles that tease us to buy and read, but we actually purchase junk!  Instead of edification, we are better off simply tossing it.  The title was deceptive.  I suppose someone might get a false M.D. and pretend to be in practice.  Pretty soon that person (hopefully) will be discovered to be a quack.  Again, the title is deceptive---untrustworthy. 

I am not cynical about titles.  They do have a function to describe and symbolize.  What needs to be recognized, however, is the title is not the essence.  Again, think about a book title.  The essence of the book is the contents inside---the message.  The title simply describes that content.   

Now let’s put that in personal, spiritual terms.  The essence of who I am is the “inside” of me---my soul or spirit.  It is my character.  It is defined by my actions.  My Ph.D. does not change my essence.  The doctorate did not change my spiritual character.  That spiritual character is changed, developed and deepened by experience with the Holy One.  It deepens through spiritual disciplines and compassionate action in a hurting world.   

Billions of people have been spiritual without title.  Some are canonized and are called “saints.”  Most of us are just regular people trying to live life in God’s Spirit and bask in the gracious love of the Divinity.  If we can somehow manage to be on this spiritual path, we will be entitled to much: blessings and perhaps more.   

We can trust this.  God’s blessings are not a tease.  They should not be tossed off or neglected.  Finally we don’t need a title in order to be blessed.  We won’t own the blessings.  That’s the good news.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Innovation in Spiritual Things

In addition to being involved in the world of religion and spirituality, I also have been fairly involved in the world of innovation.  Much of this grew out of collegial work that I have done with a friend of mine.  I will admit that I never thought too much about innovation before he and I began doing some thinking and, then, some writing on the topic of innovation.  A couple things occurred to me in the process. 

In the first place I realized that it did not matter too much whether I used the word, innovation.  In fact, I have been fairly innovative much of my life.  When I learned the meaning of the language of innovation and looked at my experience, I recognized there was a match.  Part of my misunderstanding was thinking that innovation was solely a business word.  I knew businesses needed to be innovative---especially in today’s climate.  And since I was not in business, the language of innovation did not apply to me.  I was wrong. 

Secondly, I realized that innovation can be learned.  While there certainly can be natural aptitude for innovative thinking, innovation is not simply a matter of your genetic make-up.  If you did not choose innovative parents, that does not matter.  With some reading, experience and networking, you can mightily enhance your innovative aptitude.  That has happened to me. 

Having said this, let me give the basic definition of innovation that my friend and I have used.  As we see this definition, it should be clear much of it can apply to spiritual things---to our spiritual journey and life.  In the first place, innovation means doing a new thing.  This is probably the most common definition.  To understand this meaning, think of something like the airplane.  It is still part of the “movement industry.”  But it is very different than horses or bicycles.   

Secondly, innovation means doing an old thing a new way.  When you think about it, this makes a great deal of sense.  One can think of cars or smart phones to get a sense of what innovation means in these two cases.  I think much of what I have done in my teaching career has been innovative in this way.  I am still teaching as I did when I got out of graduate school.  But I certainly am doing it in very new ways. 

Let’s now see how innovation applies to our spiritual journey and life.  The first definition of innovation---doing a new thing---seems easy to correlate to the spiritual journey.  Given my age, I can say that I have been practicing the spiritual discipline for quite a long time now.  And I can surely attest that I have done many new things over the course of my journey.  I think, for example, of contemplative prayer. 

I can type those two words, contemplative prayer, and know exactly what I mean.  But if you asked me in high school or college or, probably, even in graduate school, I am sure I would not have known anything about it.  But gradually I have learned what contemplative prayer means and how I can practice it in my own prayer life.  Essentially for me, contemplative prayer means learning a form of prayer that does not necessarily need words.  It is more of an “attentive prayer,” the goal of which is to come into an awareness of living in God’s presence.  Contemplative prayer innovates my prayer life. 

Somewhat related to this is the Quaker notion of “centering.”  I did grow up with this kind of language.  Much like learning English, when you grow up with centering language, you begin to figure out what it means and through imitation you learn how to do it.  Basically to “center” means to take some time to leave the outward, superficial trappings of life and “move to the center.”  It can be partly psychological and partly spiritual.  In Quaker spirituality my “center” will be that place where I encounter the Holy One.  To center means I come into awareness and presence of the Divine Being. 

Over the years I have been innovative here in the sense that I have found new ways of engaging the centering process.  Some of the innovation comes from new knowledge I have gained from reading, etc.  Some of the innovation also comes from trial and error---learning through experience. 

One of the main things I have learned as I apply innovation to my spiritual journey and life is the fact that innovation can be a fresh and exciting way to continue to bring growth and vibrancy to my spiritual journey.  There is no doubt that the spiritual journey can have peaks and valleys---can reach plateaus.  The journey can become stalled or stale.  Think about innovation as a potential re-starter and re-charger. 

As with innovation in the business world, so I think with innovation in the spiritual world, having friends, mentors and, especially, community is an incredibly valuable asset.  Think about your own spiritual journey.  If you have no spiritual friends, no spiritual mentor or spiritual community, your chances of being innovative are quite low.  Maybe this is the place to start---to start thinking about innovation in spiritual things. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Inspiring Friendship

The concept of friendship has been an important one for quite a long time for me.  And I am sure the phenomenon of friendship has been important to me since I was in the first grade, at least, and probably even before then.  I have taught a few times a college class on spiritual friendship.  Every time I have done that, it has been a special occasion.  It seems that teaching a course on friendship creates a special opportunity for significant personal development among the students.  And fortunately, I am the beneficiary of that experience, too.

I have studied the idea of friendship, so I probably know more about the history, the philosophy and theology of friendship than most people know.  I have valued the way Aristotle talks about different kinds of friendships.  I appreciate the way Cicero, right before the time of Jesus, developed some profound ways of understanding how friendships are formed and how they should be lived.  Friendship came to be a very important idea in the history of Christian spirituality.   

In fact, in the New Testament Jesus calls his disciples “friends.”  I really like the fact that the Greek language of the New Testament uses a word that normally translates “love” as the friendship word.  So in biblical Greek the language of friendship is love.  That heightens the importance of friendship, as I understand it.  My own religious tradition, namely the Quakers, have a more formal title called “The Religious Society of Friends.”  I like being a Friend and a friend. 

All of this was not really on my mind as I turned to the lectionary of the day.  I usually do this each morning in order to spend a little time in my spiritual discipline.  I like to do some reading, spend a little time in prayerful waiting and meditation.  The lectionary---daily readings---I use comes from the Benedictine monastery.  It gives me regular readings.  Another feature that comes with it is the notation of particular saints’ days. 

Although I am not Catholic, I am catholic in spirit.  And many of the Catholic saints I would also claim as my own.  If I am part of the greater Christian tradition, then the best of that tradition is shared by all of us.  So I am always pleased to see when a particular day singles out some special holy person. 

Today the person was Ignatius of Loyola.  I immediately recognized this sixteenth century Spaniard as the founder of the Jesuits.  Ignatius began his adult life in the military, but was soon wounded.  During his recovery he read some spiritual literature and decided, in effect, to become a soldier of Christ.  He and some buddies formed a spiritual group and offered themselves to the Pope to be used as the Pope saw fit.  Soon this band of serious spiritual soldiers were recognized as the Society of Jesus---hence called the Jesuits. 

I was intrigued by the role friendship played in the whole process of the Jesuits’ founding.  No doubt, a key component was the personality of Ignatius of Loyola.  I did a little background reading.  Soon I found a fascinating sentence that I found revealing.  The author of a little article talked about the leadership role Ignatius played in the beginning of the Jesuit formation.  

We read that “Ignatius had a gift for inspiring friendship, and was the recipient of deep spiritual insight.”  In the article it was an innocuous little sentence.  But it stood out to me as a clarion characteristic of a spiritual leader.  Interestingly, the article does not claim that Ignatius was a naturally talented guy---although he may have been that, too.  He had a gift.  The gift was to inspire friendship.  Going back to the root meaning of friendship---love---we conclude that Ignatius had a gift for inspiring love.   

To inspire love is to inspire relationships.  Relationships of love are typically grounded in a commitment to the relationship.  Commitment entails doing enough---and usually more than enough---to develop and deepen the relationship.  If it is truly a love relationship, then you matter more than I do.  This is a very spiritual way of seeing love.  It suggests the way I understand Jesus to be loving.  You matter more than I do. 

The brilliance of this, however, is the recognition that if everyone is a friend in this fashion, you have the ingredients of a powerfully effective community.  If everyone is a friend in this fashion, then everyone is committed.  If this commitment were lived out with the assumption that you matter more than I do, then there would be little selfishness or egocentricity present in this community. 

With this kind of community, almost anything is possible.  When a group is non-defensive, non-egotistical and compassionate, then there is tremendous power available to make the world a better place.  Just reading about this inspires me.  In its own way, Ignatius’ story is still inspiring friendship.  If I can get this, then maybe I can begin to get the deep spiritual insight Ignatius apparently had.  Thanks friend!

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Music on Bad Days

Anyone who has lived a few years knows that there are times when life is not good.  There are times when things don’t go very well.  We are assaulted by things that are not to our liking.  We can be sick, disappointed, or denied.  We can watch others get what we thought was rightfully ours.  We can try so hard, get so close and still lose.  Some days life is just not much fun. 

I also think this is true for the spiritual life.  Anyone who has been involved in the spiritual journey for any length of time knows all days are not equal.  It is not unusual for the early days of the spiritual pilgrimage to be pretty good.  Often there is that initial burst of enthusiasm.  Not surprisingly, God can seem to be right there in your corner.  The spiritual tradition calls these graces of God “consolations.”  Consolations are good.  In fact, there are a bit like spiritual goodies. 

The truth of the matter is, however, we should not be thinking we are entitled to these spiritual goodies.  It is important to recognize they are graces of God---spiritual gifts.  They are your due to no merit on your own.  You did not earn them.  You do not “deserve” them.  They are not a testament to your worthiness or spiritual prowess.  What is given can be taken away.

And if you hang in with the spiritual journey long enough, consolations typically will be taken away.  At this stage, it is important also to remember that this does not mean you have become unworthy.  You have not become a spiritual skunk in God’s eye.  It does not even mean you are no longer in favor with God. 

The periods in which consolations are taken away and, apparently, you are now forced into a kind of spiritual desert is called “desolation.”  To experience desolation is akin to finding yourself in a wasteland, instead of the promised land.  It is easy to wonder what happened.  You thought that you and God were buddies and now this!  Instead of toasting your consolations, you are now feeling tested by the desolation. 

These were the things that came to my mind when I worked with the biblical text from Vespers last night.  Vespers is the time in the daily lectionary that is evening.  I follow the lectionary of the Catholic monastery with which I am affiliated.  I cannot do all the periods of worship and reflection, but I usually try to do the early morning one and the evening one.  It is a good time for me to be disciplined for the long spiritual haul.   

I don’t mind the idea of a long spiritual haul.  If this were not the case, it would mean that I soon would be dead or would have given up the spiritual journey.  I am in no hurry for the one and want to avoid the other.  So I am quite content with the long spiritual haul---with its consolations and desolations. 

When I read the Psalm text for Vespers---Psalm 137---I thought of the desolations that come with bad days.  I immediately recognized the context for the opening verses of that Psalm.  I know enough biblical history to know the historical context was the Babylonian Exile.  During this period in the 6th century B.C.E., the leaders and some people of Israel had been driven from their homeland and into exile in Babylon---modern day Iraq.  This would have been a hard time for the Israelites.  It must have been a series of bad days.

Let’s listen to the words of the Psalmist as those days are recounted.  The Psalmist opens the Psalm by saying “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (137:1)  These are the words of a forlorn group of people.  Notice the “we” language.  It is not just one sad guy.  It is a group of people in a period of desolation---a series of bad days. 

So what does one do on a bad day?  Of course, you give up music and merry-making.  The Psalmist says On the willows there we hung up our harps.” (137:2)  I had to smile.  That’s a great way to respond to a bad day: you just hang up the harp!  When you are sad or tied or feeling defeated, you certainly don’t feel like playing music, singing and having a good old time. 

The Psalmist continues in that Psalm to talk about how the captors made fun of the Israelites and asked for music.  And so it is with our bad days.  Often we are not left alone to have a bad day.  Our society is too often (and perversely) preoccupied with “having a good time.”  No sadness is allowed.  If you don’t feel well, fake it.  Let the music roll. 

People have bad days.  I value the old spiritual language of “melancholy.”  It does mean God has abandoned you.  We do, indeed, live East of Eden---outside of Paradise.  Life is not perfect, but it can be spiritual.  Relax, hang up your harp and just realize there is no need for music on bad days.  God be with us.