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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Practical Spirituality: Do Good

Sometimes I may not be fair to religion when I separate it from spirituality.  To me they are quite related, but are not the same.  I am certainly not against religion.  After all, I tell people I teach it!  However, I also find that I am more at home in the arena of spirituality---the spiritual.  This is not the place for an extended essay defining both and arguing why I think they are not the same.
Suffice it to say, religion for me (and most folks I know) is first and foremost in some doctrines.  For example, people are quick to tell me they do believe in God---or don’t believe in God.  Obviously for those who believe, there often is more they believe in, and it may well be the case that their beliefs inform their actions.  Spirituality for me is first and foremost experience.  I know this can sound wishy-washy.  But spirituality is about experience of the Holy One.  This usually has implications for actions in our lives.
So it is that I am intrigued by what I believe or what my experience might be and how my actions and life are impacted.  This seems to me to be a key factor is judging the worth of both religion and spirituality.  I know the biblical tradition assumes a relationship between belief/experience/action.  So do the major religious traditions, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.
All this came to mind recently when I was doing some work with Psalm 15.   This Psalm is full of helpful guidance if we familiarize ourselves with it and then try to follow it in our lives.  This Psalm could be a guide to practical spirituality.  And its primary focus is on “doing good.”  And in my view, doing good leads to the good life.
The Psalm begins with a legitimate question for those of us with some kind of belief in a Divine Being.  The Psalmist asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Without spending undue time unpacking each verse, let us simply note the real question here is “Who can be in relationship with God?”  Belief is not sufficient, although important.  Experience is also not sufficient, although welcome.  Rather, action is necessary to be in relationship with God.
This becomes clear when we pursue the other verses of the Psalm.  The second verse answers the question, Who can be in relationship with God?  The Psalmist begins the answer.  “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” This is a good trio of things to do.  This is practical spirituality that becomes alive by doing good.  Walk blamelessly means that we do nothing that would lead to us having to say, “I’m sorry.”  Do what is right is simple and clear.  Life would be good if we did what is right every time and in every situation.  And finally, we should speak truth from the heart.  This means more than saying what someone expects us to say---that would be speaking from the head.  No, we are to be truthful from the heart---from deep within our very being.
This Psalm continues to develop practical spirituality, as I want to call it.  We have three more guidelines to form our actions.  The Psalmist tells us that people “should not slander with their tongue.” In other words, don’t lie!  Next people should “do no evil to their friends.”  Pay attention: it does counsel about “speaking” evil; it says, “do no evil.”  Finally, no one should “take up a reproach against their neighbors.”
And at the end, the Psalmist offers three more practical spirituality guidelines.  The Psalmist says that people should “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” This one can be a tough one.  Basically, it tells us that we need to honor our pledges---be true to our word.  If we say that we are going to do something (our oath), we need to do it---even if it hurts us.  Obviously, this is not wishy-washy.  This one may cost us---and the Psalmist tells us to pay the price!
Next we are told that we should “not lend money at interest.” This one is really difficult.  No one told the banks about this one!  Now I know most major religious traditions have figured out ways around this one and found ways to justify interest on money.  We need take on those arguments.  Simply, let it be noted what the biblical tradition counsels us practically to do in order to do good.
Finally, we are not to “take a bribe against the innocent.”  For most of us, this one seems quite easy.  No one is bribing me---at least in this country.  But I realize I may be thinking too narrowly.  I may be thinking on money bribes alone.  If I expand my thinking, I realize I may be bribed in other ways.  Sometimes a person’s good looks bribes people against the innocent who may not be people of beauty.  Think about the way you are persuaded.  If you are persuaded by something that is a bit questionable, does that amount to a bribe?
I appreciate the clarity and detail of this Psalm.  It helps me understand some details of practical spirituality.  It offers guidelines that chart what I should do in order to be in relationship with God---the Holy One.  Religion is not just a matter of thinking and spirituality not just a matter of grooving with God.  Both need to be acted out in good deeds.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Paying Forward

I had not really thought much about it until my friend mentioned it in his remarks to me and some of my younger student friends.  He is a pretty “big person” in our part of the world.  He is a name of national prominence.  I feel fortunate to have a good relationship with him.  Apart from a good friendship, I don’t get any special things from him.  The best thing is his willingness to take time to speak to my student friends.
The “it” he mentioned was in the phrase, “paying it forward.”  There he was in front of us saying the real reason he was spending time with us was to “pay it forward.”  It was appropriate.  He did not have to do this.  He wasn’t going to get anything personally from doing it.  In fact, we could actually be seen as a pain in the neck for him!  But he wanted to pay it forward.
Most of us know what this means.  Usually it comes out of recognition that somebody or, even, a few others did things for us when we were younger.  It could have been opportunities for something we might not have managed on our own.  Sometimes it is as simple as introducing us to someone and suggesting that person look out for our welfare.  Personally, I have been graced by a few people who were good mentors.  They paid it forward for me by taking some time, having some interest in me and offering me a chance to learn from their experiences and mistakes.  In most cases this was not something I could have learned in the classroom.
So there was my friend “paying it forward.”  He was offering insights from his own experience.  He was making suggestions.  They were more like suggestions than advice.  Too often, advice is given, but it really does not mean much.  One of the best things my friend did was to use himself as an example to show us what it meant when people “paid it forward” for him.
Long after the event, I began thinking about this experience, but this time from a spiritual point of view.  It became clear to me that “paying it forward” can appropriately be seen in the spiritual context.  Obviously almost everything that has been said so far can apply to the spiritual context.  We can have spiritual mentors.  We usually benefit from spiritual suggestions.
As I thought about it, I realized there was even more to “paying it forward” spiritually.  Let me put it simply.  “Paying it forward” has dual directionality for me.  From one direction “paying it forward” means that I have be graced from God and from others.  God looked out for me before I started looking out for myself.  Others had my welfare and best interests at heart even before I was too concerned for my spiritual best interests---and began work for those spiritual best interests.
This kind of grace is not just a historical event---something that was done for me in some time past.  It is not like some kind of inoculation shot that you get and it covers you for life.  To the contrary.  This kind of “paying it forward” grace happens in the past and happens in the present.  To stay with the metaphor of shots, I can get a booster shot of grace any day---any time or all the time.  Grace is the kind of resource that can never be depleted and will never run out.  Like God’s love, it is inexhaustible.
On the other hand, “paying it forward,” means for me a kind of ministry.  He I am the actor and not the recipient.  Ministry is a matter of paying it forward.  Ministry is my grace for others.  The good news about grace---either for me or for others---is grace is always a gift.  The question of whether you deserve it or not doesn’t enter the picture.  In my ministry to others my call is to be gracious.  This is a relief.  I do not have to calculate whether the other is worthy of my grace in ministry.  I don’t have to worry or get mad if they do not seem to appreciate my ministry for them.
My ministry is service.  It is care---a form of loving.  I do it regardless of how it is received.  I give it unconditionally.  This is a radically free place for me.  I “pay it forward” because that is my commitment in ministry.  Therefore, I have done my duty.  I have been responsible and obedient.
I know some times my ministry might be effective in creative positive things.  But I also know that some times the ministry goes out to folks who are not ready for something different.  Ministry is gift, not coercion.  Ministry is gift, not manipulation.  My simple calling is to “pay it forward.”
In summary I am glad to know that I am in the middle of “paying it forward.”  I realize some others are continuing to “pay it forward” for me.  I know this is exactly what Jesus, the Buddha and other religious giants have done.  My call is to do my part by “paying it forward” in my ministry.  I will never be confused with Jesus or the Buddha.  Being them, however, is not my calling.  Being me---fully and authentically me---is my calling.  Being me happens best when I realize what others have done for me and what I am to do for others.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Something Special

One of my favorite authors, the late monk, Thomas Merton, had a great answer to the person who asked him what he wanted to be?  Merton responded, “I want to be a saint.”  The first time I read that line, I sat back with the exclamation, “Whoa!”  That is an audacious aspiration.  I can’t imagine telling someone I want to be a saint.  Perhaps, the real reason I would never tell someone that I want to be a saint is the fact that I really don’t want to be a saint!
It is probably true that Merton and I don’t really mean the same thing when we say, “saint.”  Since I did not grow up Roman Catholic, I never had anything to do with saints.  Occasionally, the authors of the New Testament were called saints.  Reference would be made to St. John or St. Paul.  Since these guys wrote what we now call “Scripture,” there was no way I would have aspirations equal to them.
I think the only other saint I would have recognized was St Valentine.  He was a great saint, as far as I was concerned.  Of course, I knew nothing about St. Valentine, except somehow he was associated with love.  As an elementary school lad, St. Valentine’s Day was a day when there was a party.  Every student brought little cards for everyone else in the classroom.  There was candy and other things to make it a very special day.  That much I knew.
That prompted my thinking.  I might not want to be a saint, but I certainly would want to be special.  I presume most people would like to be special.  Being special is not a given; you surely have to work to become special.  In my early thinking I am sure I would have thought that being special was some kind of an achievement or accomplishment.
This is true, especially in a culture like ours, which in many ways is quite competitive.  Sports teams and spelling bees are all competing to be Number 1.  Many people think human beings are wired to compete.  Even Darwin suggested that losers don’t have much of a future!  Being special is certainly preferable to being second-rate.
However, that either/or (special or second-rate) may not be the only way to understand how we become special.  When I ponder what makes something or someone special, two or three things come to mind.  Something special is a particular thing or person, as opposed to things in general or a crowd.  I am special because no one can be me.  They can imitate me, but no one can be me.
Another characteristic that makes a person or a thing special is a quality.  For example, we might point to a particular person and say, “She is special because she always has a smile.”  I become reflective when I ponder whether I have any qualities that make me special?
A third feature making something or someone special is the purpose to which the person or thing is given.  A person or thing is special if it dedicates to a particular purpose.  In this sense a priest, for example, is special because that person is dedicated to the ministry of God.  That person is special in distinction from the rest of the general crowd of people.
I may not have aspirations to be a saint.  But can I aspire to be special?  I would very much like to be special in good ways.  How do I proceed?  With these three characteristics, I have a kind of roadmap.  The first concerns being or doing something particular.  This does not have to be heroic.  If you are a parent, you are a parent to particular kids.  Figure out how to be particularly special to your kids.  There are many simple ways available to all of us to become special.
The second characteristic focuses on quality.  What kind of good qualities do I have that can make me special?  (Remember special does not mean unique; many people may have the same special qualities).  I know myself well enough to know that I have special qualities.  I am a good listener.  I know I have some other qualities that are sufficient to make me special.  I don’t have to be the best in the world.  I don’t even have to be perfect in order to be special.
Finally, I am very clear about my purpose.  In effect, my purpose is to be in ministry---to be a servant in this world.  We do not have to be ordained to make this possible.  We don’t need to be commissioned to love.  We can love, serve and be of service.  What a wonderful legacy when our days are done.
When I think about it, I am something special.  And thinking about it further, to be special is to be on the way to becoming a saint.  I will never be sanctified by the church.  But that is ok; ultimately God makes saints.  I am on the way because I am special.  You are, too!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Faithful Not Safe

Recently I had the occasion to return to some readings that I did long ago.  Because of an article I am writing, I needed to go back to my Quaker roots for some ideas and Quaker way of putting those ideas.  I returned to one of my favorite Quakers of last century, Douglas Steere.  I knew Douglas as an acquaintance, but not well enough to call a friend.  He was a long-time professor of philosophy at Haverford College in the Philadelphia area. 
In some ways Douglas Steere became a role model for me.  He was one of those seasoned veterans who come along early in one’s career.  Douglas was an academic---a good academic.  But he also was a man of the Spirit and a man of the world.  Douglas was involved in the ecumenical movement long before most of us knew what the word meant.  He read Catholic literature, much of which today we would talk about as the Catholic spiritual literature.  He chose to spend a month in a European monastery and that shaped his own Quaker Christian spirituality.
Douglas was involved in Quaker peace work.  This was especially noteworthy in Europe after WW II.  This peace work continued through the Vietnam period when I came to know him.  Not only did he want to work for world peace, he wanted to work for peace among the Christian churches and the various religions that span our globe.  I was fascinated by his stories of being an official non-Catholic observer during the sessions of Vatican II in the late 50s and early 60s.
I turned to his little volume called, Together in Solitude.  This book contains a number of different speeches and articles Steere delivered on the interior life.  One of the chapters is called “Spiritual Renewal.”  At one point he turns to the Grand Canyon to illustrate how time and experience weather a person.  The Grand Canyon is deep and amazing because of all that time has brought it.  The same can be said for the deep, mature person of the Spirit.  He calls these people Grand Canyonites!  As he says, “They never seem to be spared from troubles, but only to look at trouble through different eyes.”
Steere then uses the African Christian group, the Kikuyu, who experienced martyrdom for the faith at the hands of the Mau Mau tribe.  They said, “Oh Lord we ask Thee not to be safe, but to be faithful.”  That prayer hit me like a brick in the head!  I immediately sensed the audacity of this prayer.  It had a power and poignancy that I knew I was not yet capable of mustering in my own spiritual life.  I could pray that, but it would be a lie.  I am not yet a Grand Canyonite.
Right now I feel fortunate because it is quite likely I am not facing martyrdom.  I am safe---safe at least from that kind of ultimate harm.  I know there are Christians in other places in the world who do face this kind of ultimacy.  They may well be Grand Canyonites.  To use a baseball metaphor, I am still a minor leaguer.  It remains to be seen whether I am even capable of playing at the major league level. 
Clearly, I still need instruction, practice and more experience.  Probably we have to be tested---and maybe tested in very significant ways---before we even know whether we are capable of playing big.  What I know now is that I want to be instructed, I want to practice and I want to gain more experience.  I can want all of this without necessarily wanting to be martyred.  No sane person should desire to die for his or her faith.  The history of the Church is clear we are not to provoke martyrdom.  But we are not to shy away or run away if it comes to us.
I will continue pursuing instruction.  That can come from books and from what other, more spiritually mature folks can share with me.  Certainly, I need practice more than I do now.  Grand Canyonites must have more than a spiritual discipline.  They have found a way to live in the Spirit.  Their spiritual practice must be deep and daily.  I have a long ways to go here.
Finally, I can continue to welcome the kinds of experiences that will chisel me spiritually.  This is where the prayer of the Kikuyu comes back into the picture.  I want to be able legitimately to pray to be faithful, not safe. I hope to be safe, for sure, but I want more to be faithful.  I know those are easy words.  I also know the deeds are all that counts.
Steere ends that small section in his book by saying Jesus’ followers were promised three things.  They would be “absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble!”

Friday, April 24, 2015

Real Business of Life

Recently I have been doing some background research for a paper that I have agreed to write.  The paper offers a comparative look at my favorite monk, Thomas Merton, and the Quaker perspective on contemplative spirituality.  Certainly, Merton thought and wrote quite a bit about contemplation.  In fact, his monastery in Kentucky is rightly called a contemplative monastery.  Without going into a full explanation of contemplation, let it simply be understood here as a way of trying to live life in the Presence of God.           

Quakers historically have not used the language of contemplation.  That meant that I would not have know much about the topic and would probably have answered negatively, if I had been asked whether Quakers were contemplative.  Now I would say that Quakers share much of what contemplation means without using the term or the normal contemplative language. 

I had just hit graduate school when Merton died in 1968.  Hence, I never had the chance to meet him.  I have read a great deal of his writings.  During this reading, I discovered that two different Quaker couples knew Merton, interacted briefly with him and have a little correspondence between them and Merton.  It turns out, I knew all four of these Quakers.  So when I read some of the correspondence, I feel like I might know a little more than the typical reader. 

One of the Quaker couples engaged with Merton is the Steeres.  Douglas Steere was a philosophy professor at Haverford College, a Quaker college in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  His wife, Dorothy, was quite a woman in her own right and was involved with Douglas in a wide range of Quaker travel and work.  They were involved in the reconstruction work in Europe after WW II.  They were involved in the ecumenical movement in the 50s and 60s.  In fact, Douglas was an official non-Catholic observer during Vatican II. 

Merton met the Steeres in February, 1962, at Gethsemani, Merton’s monastery.  They spent an hour and half together.  Douglas kept notes of the meeting and wrote them, which I now have read.  As a result of that meeting, a series of letters went back and forth until Merton’s untimely death.  It was in my re-reading of this correspondence that I came across a phrase from Merton that jumped out at me. 

By 1965, Merton was living the life of a hermit in his own little hermitage about a mile from the monastery.  Douglas had been trying to get Merton to join him in an ecumenical gathering at a monastery in Minnesota, but Merton’s abbot would not let him go!  While this angered Merton, he nevertheless understood if he really wanted to be a hermit, he should not be running around the country going to meetings!  So in a letter to the Steeres in January, 1966, Merton reflects on his life. 

“The hermit life has been working out very well, in its own way.  For one thing I have no longer any question whether it is the thing for me.  It is.  It seems to me to be the only kind of life in which in a twenty four hour day one can begin to have time to get down to the real business of life.”  The real business of life!  I both wondered what Merton meant by that phrase, while thinking I probably had some good guesses.  To begin with I am sure adding the adjective, “real,” is important to Merton. 

Surely there is a huge range of things that make up the business of life.  Some are big and others are petty.  But Merton had gone to the monastery in the early 40s to figure out what the real business of life might be.  By the late 60s in his hermitage, he had begun to find it.  One more sentence reveals what it meant to him.  “However things do seem to be pulling together into a real simple unity, meditation, psalms, reading, study, wood chopping, one meal at the monastery, writing and so on.”  Merton says no more about this.  And I wonder what Douglas Steere made of that passage? 

I am confident Merton would say the real business of life has to do with taking the time to seek the Holy One.  It means making myself available to the movement of God’s Spirit.  It entails taking time to be in communion with the One who nurtures our souls and nourishes our spirits.  It does mean finding the simplicity of life that enables us to be centered and integrated into a meaningful life. 

I am sure, like Merton, I prefer to figure out the real business of my life.  It won’t mean joining a monastery nor moving by myself to a hermitage.  But it contains similar aims in my life.  I live in the midst of complexity, superficiality, distractions, temptations and lures of all kinds.  Perhaps the easiest way to describe contemporary life is to say much of it is distracted---distracted from the real business of life.  But because most people are like I am, it seems perfectly normal.  Merton appears to be the crazy one!  

Thanks to Merton, I now can focus on the real business of life.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lucky to be Alive

With a title like this one, you might expect this to be a reflection by someone who has just survived a near-death experience.  It could be one who escaped from a nasty car accident or a near-miss airplane landing.  Lucky to be alive sounds like the relieved words of someone who stood in front of death’s door and turned around to walk away.  “Praise the Lord,” we expect to hear them mutter.

But my reflections have nothing of the drama suggested in the first paragraph.  I have not had a near-death experience.  I have certainly thought about dying and being dead, as I suppose is natural for anyone my age.  I have fortunately never been in a nasty car accident.  I have had some scary enough (for me) plane takeoffs and landings, but nothing that was disastrous.  So I guess I have lived a fairly eventful, normal---maybe---boring life.
That does not mean I cannot feel lucky to be alive.  I do feel lucky.  Let me elaborate.  I have often quipped that there was no committee meeting scheduled when I was conceived.  I have no memory of my parents asking if I wanted to be born.  We are all conceived and born without a chance to vote on it!  At that point of my birth, I would not know whether I was lucky or unlucky to be alive.  Obviously, I have no memory of that event or day.
People nurtured me.  My parents did the best they could---and it was pretty good.  I grew, got educated and developed my own “person.”  At some point we begin to realize we are alive and, finally, on our own.  We are tracking our way through life.  Most of us will make it to adulthood and beyond.  Few are unlucky enough to die young and virtually all of us decide against suicide.  So we pile up the days and the years.
We may not have much of a sense, however, that we are lucky to be alive.  That requires some awareness and reflection.  Sometimes that never happens until our lives come under some threat.  What I decided to do---a long time ago now---was to try to live with an awareness of how lucky I am to be alive.  I did not want to wait until I was in trouble or threatened with some kind of disaster to begin appreciating life.
For me this was a spiritual move.  There are many ways to define spirituality.  A couple important aspects of my definition are that spirituality is experiential---that is to say, it is experience and not primarily doctrine of some sort.  I am not against doctrine.  I have doctrines, too.  But doctrines don’t live and breathe.  They don’t vibrate with life.  The Spirit in me lives and breathes through me.  It vibrates in and through my life.  It gives me a quality of vibrancy that I would not otherwise have.
The second quality of spirituality for me is awareness.  I am not sure how I can have some sense of being spiritual if I am not aware.  I know how easy it is to sleepwalk through life.  It amazes me how days can pass into weeks and I can be relatively unaware.  Oh, I can be aware that I am hungry and, then, eat.  But I am talking about a deeper awareness.
I want an awareness of the fact that I am alive.  I want to have some sense of that deeper purpose calling me to some significance in life.  I want to be aware of that deep Center within me that keeps me centered and not living some crazy, wacky life.  I want to be so aware of life that I don’t wake up one day to realize I am old and not sure how I got here.  I want each day to count instead of simply being checked off.
I want to be spiritual enough to go into the wonderful park system near my house and see the deer that are just inside the woods.  On a recent run in the park, I saw four.  They were young.  I am sure if I were unaware, I would have missed them.  It was no big deal.  But it added a quality to my run.  It made me less egocentric.  I realize again that I share this world.  It is not “my world.”  It is God’s world and I am lucky to be alive and sharing it.
If I am aware on my runs, I recognize the seasons as they come and go.  My trip in the park is magical.  Sometimes it is the fall season and the leaves paint a colorful picture for me.  Spring reverses the scene.  Trees bud and the green, young leaves begin to appear.  I hope I never go for a run and not feel lucky to be alive.
I do feel lucky to be alive.  But then I go a little deeper.  There may be luck involved.  But because the Holy One is the center of my belief-system, I recognize it is more than luck.  I do think there is a huge element of grace.  I am actually a gift of God to the world! That is both a funny and sobering thought---to be a gift to the world!  You are, too, you know!
If I am a gift to the world, I want to experience all that is possible.  And I want to be as aware as possible.  If I can manage both, then I will be as spiritual as possible.  If I am spiritual, then I am authentically thankful.  I can say Gracias for the grace.  The good news: my luck may run out; but grace is forever.  Gracias

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

To Miss a Life

Sometimes all it takes is one sentence.  Sometimes all it takes is one sentence to be sufficient focus for an entire inspirational reflection.  In fact, some sentences contain so much richness, it takes more than one meditative setting to begin to digest everything in a few words.  Some writers seem to be directly and intuitively connected to the Holy One.  The words that pour forth from their pen are, as if, immediate revelation.  It is almost like the Divine Being Itself has grabbed the pen.           

One writer I find like this is Walker Percy.  I have not read as much of him as I wish, but when I do, I am spiritually floored.  For example, in his novel, The Second Coming, we find this single sentence, which is actually a question.  “Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane?”  This question arrests me.  It grabs me and won’t let go.  In many ways it is a rather simple question.  On the surface it is even a bit playful.  Immediately, I smile and almost break into a laugh.  But ultimately, it is no laughing matter.           

It is a great spiritual question, which invites us to ponder it, unpack it and learn from it.  The question actually poses a possibility by offering something known and simple (missing a plane) to think about something more subtle and more serious (missing a life).  Let’s start with the simple part.           

I have missed a plane---more than once.  Sometimes it has been my fault.  Other occasions I would claim it was not my fault; the airlines changed the schedule or something like that.  However, the end result is the same: my airplane was gone!  I missed my plane.  That is never good news.  Suddenly you are searching for Plan B.  Typically, you go into scramble-mode.  In the end it may turn out ok, but in the process it never feels that way.           

I remember my “favorite” missed plane incident.  My friend and I were to join another friend on a trip to Brazil for some scheduled teaching and speaking.  We had an initial flight leg and, then, would meet our friend in Newark, NJ.  Because of stormy weather in our destination city, we were late departing.  When we arrived in Newark, we mustered all our prior athletic abilities and sprinted to the Gate where we would find our plane nearly ready to depart for Sao Paulo.           

Breathlessly, we arrived at the Gate.  We saw the plane sitting outside the window.  My relief was a hoax.  The doors had already closed and we were told we had missed our plane.  I wanted to cry.  I probably did cry internally.  And then we began to concoct Plan B.  Two days later we arrived in Brazil, having missed some of our engagements.           

Is it possible that we can miss our lives in the same way we miss our planes?  The obvious answer for me is Yes!  And the prospect of missing my life makes me shudder.  Missing my plane is unfortunate and, certainly, inconvenient.  Missing my life is unfortunate and tragic.  I can find another plane.  There is no other life to find!           

The possibility of missing my life seems like a profound spiritual issue.  A missed life would be a life that is misplaced, lost or wasted.  Clearly, we have options if we want to miss our lives.  Let’s explore each one.           

Some people miss their lives, like they would miss a plane, by displacing their lives, as I call it.  A displaced life is a life lived “out of place.”  People who are dependent are living this kind of displaced life.  A dependent person is someone who does not really have a life of his or her own.  She is living the life someone else wants her to live.  God cannot relate to a displaced person.  God can only deal with the “real you.”           

The second kind of missed life is a lost life.  This is the kind of life I am most tempted to live.  A lost life is a life in which I know who I am, but I put my energies and allegiances in things that don’t matter---at least, ultimately don’t matter.  This characterizes people who are after fame and fortune.  This is a deceptive kind of life.  It can feel good and fulfilling---for a while.  But then, we realize we have misspent our efforts.  We were making good time---but we were lost.           

Finally, there are the folks who missed their lives because they wasted their lives.  No plane ever comes to your house to pick you up.  No life ever comes to your heart and makes you instantly whole.  A wasted life is a life with potential that never actualizes that potential.  A spiritual life is not like the breakfast cereal.  Get it out of the closet and it is ready-made!           

To live your life spiritually is to avoid missing it.  It requires that we be aware.  We want to live attentively (with some discipline to practice growing in spiritual depth).  And the spiritual life is an active life.  It is active in seeking out the Holy One, developing the relationship and living out the love that God has for each of us.  It’s up to you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Without Preaching the Gospel

Although the title for this inspirational reflection comes from inside the text of a small article I read online, it was the title of that online article that lured me into reading.  I routinely read quite a few religious and spiritual websites just so I can be more aware of what’s going on in the world.  And it is literally in the world.  Once upon a time, you were current if you knew what was going on in your city or state.  Really “with it” people had a good national awareness.  When I was growing up, I don’t think I knew anyone who had been abroad.  In those days on the Indiana farm, to go to New York City or DC was tantamount to going abroad!           

With the internet things have changed.  The world is as near as the click of the mouse.  So I try to follow the global news, particularly in the spiritual sense.  If I am dealing with students in my class who may live till 2085, I need to help them live with an awareness of the shrinking world they inhabit.  I have to be careful of my own perspective and prejudices.           

As I was reading online, suddenly this title jumped out at me: “Beauty and Beer.”  What a pair of words: beauty and beer!  I had no idea what the article would be describing.  Then I saw the subtitle, which helped a little.  The subtitle proclaimed, “Monk’s Outreach is Part of New Evangelization.”  That certainly redefines evangelization from what I knew as a boy.  I was hooked; I had to read the article.           

The story is about a Benedictine monastery in Italy---Norcia, to be exact.  Norcia is the birthplace of Benedict, the Italian Catholic who founded the Benedictine monastery in the 6th century.  The monastery in that Italian city has only eighteen monks.  Father Benedict Novakoff is the director of the brewery, as well as being the subprior (basically the second in command---“vice-abbot,” if you please).  The brewery is a recent venture.  Since Benedictine monasteries are supposed to be self-supporting financially, it was begun with moneymaking in mind.           

However, when people began to flock to the monastic gift shop to buy the beer, the monks realized perhaps God had given them more than a mere way to make money to support the community in its prayer and work life.  The gift shop became an engaging place of hospitality for a group of monks whose commitment is always to be hospitable.  But they were not only hospitable to folks.  The monks soon discovered they were involved in a kind of ministry.   

Deep in the article I found a remarkable sentence that made me sit up and take notice.  Again in conversation with Father Novakoff, we learn that the monks recognize the multiple circumstances in which they meet people.  We can listen to Novakoff’s insightful words.  He says, “we have to preach the gospel without preaching the gospel---just through the example of Christian charity and being kind to people.”  That sentence is an absolute gem.

I was drawn to the idea of preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel.  There are still a number of churches that intend to convert people to Christianity.  They still work with revivals and, often, altar calls.  Of course, they can still be effective.  But that has not been my style.  And I know a multitude of people for whom that is a real turn-off.  Clearly the monks have an alternative: beauty, beer and preaching without preaching.

The insight of Father Novakoff, which I take away, is the interpretation he offers for “preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel.”  They preach without preaching in two ways.  In the first place they model the example of Christian charity.  They love!  How quaint!  How powerful.  If love is “preaching the gospel without preaching the gospel,” then count me in.  I want to become a preacher! 

In the second place they preach by being kind to people.  How sneaky, I thought.  Being kind to people is something we can do any place and at any time.  I don’t need a degree or special education.  I don’t need to be divinely called by God to preach and to evangelize.  I don’t even insist that people become religious in a particular way.  I simply am going about my evangelizing “without preaching the gospel.” 

This is when the beer came into focus.  Beer in the gift shop of a monastery is clever.  It is a wonderful sign of hospitality.  It is a gift (well, for a little money).  It is a sign of love.  Certainly, it is one of the ways monks are being kind to others.  But then, I realized, the real gift is not the beer.  The real gift is the love that God is showing through the monks.  The gospel is being lived out in the monks’ kindness to the guests. 

That is really good news.  For sure, it is good news which is precisely what the gospel is: “good news.”  It is hospitality, love, kindness and, finally, relationship with God, the Giver of Good News.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Insight: A Look Within

It was while I was reading a really interesting book that I had an insight.  The insight itself is not what I want to give focus.  Instead I became intrigued by the process of getting an insight.  What happened?  How did the process happen?  Was it a matter of luck or is there really something I could do to enhance my chances of getting insights?  Let’s pursue this idea, especially with respect to spiritual insight.           

The word, insight, is fairly simple and straightforward.  It is a compound word, “in” and “sight.”  Literally it means to “see within” something.  It means looking “inside” something (it could even be a person).  In that sense we get an “inside look.”  But it also is a little trickier than this.           

If we were standing outside a house and peered into a window, we would not say that we had “insight” into the house.  We merely would affirm that we had looked “inside.”  And if I open a drawer in my house, I would never say that I had “insight” when I looked inside.  I simply looked inside.  So insight is more than simply physically looking inside something.  This is suggestive of the second meaning of insight.           

If we consult a dictionary meaning of the word, insight, we learn that it means, secondly, a “seeing into the nature of something.”  Many dictionaries actually move to language like “apprehending” or “seeing intuitively.”  Both of these ideas take the word, insight, to a deeper level than the literal.  For example, I would never say I opened a drawer, peered inside and apprehended my socks.  Instead, I would say that I opened the drawer, looked in and grabbed my socks.           

At this second level, insight is a mental phenomenon.  When I “apprehend” something, mentally I am saying something like, “I got it!”  In effect, I claim that I understand.  Also to see something “intuitively” suggests that I see deeply enough into something, that I am working at some secondary, deep level.  I see beyond the obvious.           

It was at this level I realized I had reached when I was reading that interesting book.  At the surface level, I was gaining some knowledge.  I had some new facts.  I was even gaining some new perspective, as the author guided me through her logic.  Over and over, I could say something like, “I understand.”  To understand meant that I was learning and processing the information in a way that I could truly say I was learning.  But this was not the same as insight.  Insight is another level yet.           

For the sake of this reflection, let’s assume there are three potential levels when you or I read something.  The first level is the literal reading.  If they are in English, I can read the words and get some general sense.  The second level is the level of understanding.  At this level, not only did I read it, but I also understood it.  I could demonstrate my understanding by explaining to you what I just read.  I could even put it into my own words, and I could explain it to you.  From years of teaching, I know that I cannot explain something if I don’t understand it.           

The third level is the level of insight.  This is the deepest of the levels.  Here I apprehend or intuit something of significance in the reading.  Insight is often accompanied by the “Ah-ha” experience.  We might say it is understanding plus (understanding +).  The level of insight almost feels like a gift.  It is experienced as revelation.  I read, I understand and, then, I am given a gift.  I am given significance.           

This is especially true when it comes to spiritual insight.  Perhaps an example is worth more than a myriad of words trying to explain it.  When I first began the spiritual journey, I don’t think I understood anything.  I would read stuff at the first level only.  And then I would read something different and change my mind!  I wondered if I ever would begin putting down some spiritual roots or a spiritual foundation.  Slowly that did begin to happen.           

The roots began to form when I could read something and have an understanding.  I began to watch my understanding grow.  In fact, I realized I could read something with which I did not necessarily agree, even understand it, but be true to my own foundation.  I often use the analogy that I can read and understand Marxism, but I am not a Marxist.           

Then gradually I began to have an insight.  One of the most blessed insights given to me was to be able to apprehend the absolute amazing, extensive compassionate love God has for all of us.  It is a love that goes beyond justice.  It is a love that is so gracious, it seems to cancel out all the messes we have made.  It is the kind of love that makes the consideration of whether I deserve it irrelevant.  This insight was more than fact.  It even went beyond my human understanding.  It was simply the gift of intuiting the whole reason God became human.  It was actually for me (and you).           

The insight is a gift and, as such, is meant to be shared.  I don’t need to prove it or insist on it.  It is what I know from a look within---a look within the heart of the Divine One.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Starving for Wisdom

There are a number of reasons I continue to read new and disparate things.  As I get older, I don’t want to become more boring!  That assumes some of my students now consider me to be boring.  I realize I do not get to decide whether someone thinks I am boring.  I could be the most exciting human being in my state, but if an eighteen-year old college student decides I am boring, then for them I am boring.  What I think does not matter for them.          

I continue to read because I am curious.  I learned long ago that nurturing my curiosity makes me more interesting and more knowledgeable.  I have the best chance of being interesting if I am interested.  That goes for a number of things, but I am convinced it clearly is true for spirituality.  I like to have a wide range of interests.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, the old farm saying goes.  As one who grew up on a farm with chickens, I learned the truth of that lesson the hard way!           

So I was very intrigued reading the Op Ed page in the New York Times.  It was the title that grabbed me.  The article carried the same title as this inspirational reflection: “Staving for Wisdom.”  That title has a lure for me.  I would have read it regardless of the author.  But I recognized the author, Nicholas Kristof, who is well known.  Usually, I do not make up my mind whether I will read something based on whether I like the author (that typically means I agree with the author!).  In fact, I can learn more by reading someone with whom I disagree or who thinks about things differently than I do.          

When I saw the title, not only was I intrigued, but also thought I could guess what he might be giving focus.  I like to think about the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.  In spirituality, there is a role for both knowledge and wisdom.  I know what I think, but I jumped into the Op Ed to see what Kristof thinks.  I was not disappointed.           

The first line of the article quotes the noted Harvard scientist, E. O. Wilson.  “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” Getting one sentence like that makes the whole effort of finding and reading the article rewarding.  “Yes,” I want to scream!  Sometimes I do feel like I am drowning in information.  I have numbers galore.  I have phone numbers, zip codes, bank account numbers, ID numbers, Social Security number, and passwords with numbers, etc.  I do not pine for the good old days.  As a rural Indiana boy, I recall our phone was a party line with a couple other neighbors!  Those are not good old days!           

Eagerly I read on in Kristof’s piece.  It turns out, Kristof is arguing for the liberal arts in a college curriculum or experience.  Since that is what I teach, it felt reassuring.  I do feel folks have a better life if they know something about religion or philosophy.  Reading literature, learning a new language and so on likely makes me more interesting and, potentially, more valuable in a world of information, knowledge, facts, etc.  However, let’s take the issue of wisdom outside academia and see its value in real life.           

One point Kristof makes helps us see the value of wisdom.  He says, “Wherever our careers lie, much of our happiness depends upon our interactions with those around us, and there’s some evidence that literature nurtures a richer emotional intelligence.”  I think we can replace the word, “literature,” with others words, like religion, philosophy, etc.  Let me pick up on three key ideas in his sentence.           

First, he talks about happiness.  Just knowing facts and a great deal of information is not likely to make me happy.  I think he is exactly right: our happiness typically does depend on those around us---our relationships.  I personally don’t care if my relationships are with scientists, business folks, etc.  I care whether they are spiritual, whether they are engaged with life, whether they love, help and are of service to the world.  That is how I want to be and I want to be with people like that.  It would make me happy.           

We have already implicated his second thought.  Much of our happiness and meaning in life comes with our interactions with other people.  I wonder if we are not really reflections of the people with whom we associate and spend time?  It is with others that I am likely to bump into wisdom.  Spiritually this is very true.  I know quite a few facts and information about Jesus and the early Christian Church.  But I bet you would rather hear the wisdom about living my life as a follower of Jesus and as a member of the Church.  Wisdom inspires!           

Kristof talks about emotional intelligence.  EI, as it is often called, is like IQ, but actually more interesting.  Someone with a rich EI is someone who can relate well to people and who makes people feel included, valuable and generally better about themselves.  I am sure Jesus had a very rich emotional intelligence.  People wanted to hang out with him.  They wanted some of his wisdom. They wanted more than facts; they begged for more than information.           

I’m not starved for wisdom because I know where to find it and, hopefully, how to share whatever wisdom I have.  But our world is starved for wisdom.  Let’s go to work!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ears of God

I like reading a variety of things that help me on my daily spiritual trek through life.  Help comes from many and, sometimes, odd venues.  Daily newspapers, magazines, preparation for classes and even notes on the wall have provided inspiration over the years.  I am thankful for the myriad of revelational sources.  But among the lot, no doubt the biblical text still ranks right up there as very important.

I am not one who thinks every verse in the Christian Bible is significant.  I am ok thinking that the Bible, as a whole, is inspired.  But it is difficult for me to think every sentence or word is divinely inspired.  That would require an extensive discussion, of course, on what “inspiration” means, how it happens, etc.  I actually don’t have too much interest in that discussion and, certainly, have no interest in pursuing in here.  Suffice it here to acknowledge that inspiration means to help, encourage, to light up your life.  God certainly does that; but so do other people. 

One of the best things I do for my daily spiritual trek is to follow the daily lectionary.  A lectionary is pre-set readings to augment spiritual edification and growth.  I choose to follow the one laid out for Benedictine monks.  I appreciate that group of men and women who have dedicated their lives to something so focused and noble.  I am sure any Benedictine would tell you it is quite possible to be a miserable monk, just like it is possible to be a miserable human being.  But at least they are trying!  And so am I! 

One of the lectionary readings this morning came from Psalm 5.  One of the things I like about the lectionary is the focus on the Psalms.  There are always a few Psalms offered for the day.  This continues to broaden me, since I grew up not seeing my own tradition do much with the Psalms.  So each day I look forward to the Psalm selection. 

Psalm 5 opens with these words: “Let my words come to your ears, O Lord…”  When I read this, I smiled.  What a wonderful image, I thought.  I like the image that suggests God has ears. Why not, I reasoned.  If I have words, surely there has to be someone to hear them.  I have ears to hear.  Everyone I know has ears to listen to me talk.  Why not God?  Fortunately, it is an image---a metaphor.   

Of course, I do not think God literally has ears…at least, physical ears.  But I began to reason more deeply.  Actually it is not my physical ears---those lobes on the side of my head (called the pinna)---that enable me to hear.  I appreciate those physical markers.  Without them I would look odd.  It is not that they are that beautiful, but since everyone has those ears, we come to assume that is “normal.”  But I could whack off the physical ears and still hear.   

I could still process the sound wave that comes into the holes in the side of my head.  Thinking even more deeply, I suppose it is more true to say that my brain is my literal ear.  The brain processes the sound waves to “make sense” of them.  The brain determines what I “hear.”  Until the brain gets it, a sound is simply airwaves translated into electrical signals. 

So perhaps God is more like the brain than the outer ear (pinna).  God is like a cosmic brain or Mind to Whom humans send words.  God processes our words, hears our requests and begins to make sense of what we pray, ask, tell, plead, complain, etc.  I think God hears us, but does not always hear us the way we want God to hear us. 

For example, I have doubtlessly asked God to help me when, in fact, God knew I should actually help myself!  God wants me to learn to be responsible and not a wimp!  But let’s assume the words I send to the Lord make perfect sense.  I believe God always stands ready to be present and to be helpful…whatever that means in the moment.   

We all know there are times when life becomes difficult.  At that time, we join the Psalmist in petitioning God to “hear my sighs.”  Those sighs are sounds, too, but unlike words, we can only hope God knows what to do with them.  If effect, I am asking God to help me in ways I can’t even imagine being helped.  There certainly are times I am sure God knows what I need better than I know.  Thank God!    

As I begin my day, I use the words of Psalm 5:3: “Lord, listen to my voice in the morning; in the morning I stand before you and await you.”  If I can practice standing before God and awaiting the Divine Presence to come to me, surround me, engulf me and transform me, then not only will the day go better, but my life will go very well.  It seems simplistic and, perhaps, nonsensical.  Most people just get on with life and do it on their own.  But there is a secret (and it is not so secret).  Life goes better if you just send a word into the ears of God.