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Friday, May 29, 2015

Pathways of the Heart

Recently I learned that one of the leading commentators on contemporary spirituality is very ill.  Phyllis Tickle is someone I do not know well, but she is one whose writings I have followed.   She was educated in traditional religious ways.  Instead, she was a writer and editor.  She had some short teaching stints in a couple colleges, but she came to her fame as an editor, most noteworthy as editor in the newly constituted religion division at Publisher’s Weekly.

Tickle spent most of her life in Tennessee.  In 1977 she moved with her physician husband, Sam, to a small farm---a very different setting than the urban Memphis she left.  Perhaps the most important facet of her training is the fact the she is a mother of seven, one of whom died nearly as soon as he was born.  Factors like this shape our perceptions and understanding about life.  We are all products of our experiences.

In a touching news article, reporter David Gibson, narrates this latest saga of Tickle’s health issues and offers her profound response to what is a death sentence.  However, rather than recounting this, I found another piece of the article more compelling.  In an attempt to describe Tickle’s influence on the American scene, Gibson uses a phrase that grabbed me.  He tells us, “Tickle has diligently mapped the pathways of the heart and the demographics of the soul while becoming one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals on all things religious.”

I loved that phrase, “pathways of the heart.”  Perhaps I like it so much because a course I teach is entitled, Modern Spiritual Paths.  The first thing that is true about my course title and the phrase used about Tickle is the fact that “paths” is plural.  Paths or pathways?  I see these synonymously.  And I do believe there are multiple pathways to connecting with the Holy One, as I choose to describe God.  Indeed, I think there are even “religious” pathways that may not even have a traditional idea of God.  Buddhism is likely the best example here.  For example, I don’t think we could approach the Dalai Lama and say, “Because you don’t have a traditional view of God, you cannot be religious!”

The second thing I like about this description of Tickly is the focus on the “heart.” The author says that she has mapped the pathways of the heart.  Of course, heart is being used metaphorically.  In the Old Testament context “heart” means the whole person.  Heart is not the soul-part, separate from the flesh-part of human beings.  In religious terms heart is who I am and what I do.  The heart has desires; the heart loves and can be broken.  It is a powerful metaphor.

Tickle knows and so do I that finding a pathway of the heart is a key to a deep and meaningful life.  In her case and in mine the pathway of the heart stems from God and leads back to the Holy One.  One function of religion is to offer pathways to our heart.  Even within Christianity, there is not a single pathway.  I have spent a fair amount of time finding one that speaks to my condition, as Quakers would say.

Perhaps one of the biggest tasks for the heart pathway is to find a way that enables us not only to live meaningfully, but also to die with dignity and meaning.  This is the chapter that Tickle has now entered.  And not surprisingly, she is doing it with some real grace.  As she says, “the dying is my next career.”

I appreciate her realistic perspective.  She says, “At 81 you figure you’re going to die of something, and sooner rather than later…I could almost embrace this, that, OK, now I know what it’s probably going to be, and probably how much time there is. So you can clean up some of the mess you’ve made and tie up some of the loose ends.”  It is another line, however, that struck me as powerfully spiritual.  She quips, “Am I grateful for this?  Not exactly.  But I’m not unhappy about it.  And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”

I can apply this to my own life.  Even though I am not under an immediate death sentence, I know death is inevitable.  Am I grateful for that?  No.  But with Tickle, I am not unhappy about it.  I know I can still do something about life---and I am grateful for my life and for my pathway of the heart.  It will take me to good places.  That does make me happy.

Tickle concludes the interview by acknowledging she has always had an inner voice who tells he what to do.  I can hear this and understand it, but it is different from my experience.  I love her clarity and her willingness to go with the truth that God gives to her.  “It’s the truth.  Just like I’m told to do this…Which is why it doesn’t bother me. The dying is my next career.”

I am old enough to know her pathway is somewhat different than mine.  So I need to know how my own “inner voice” speaks its truth to me.  I am confident the inner voice speaks to my “heart.”  And my pathway is my way of knowing, hearing and accepting my truth.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Faith as Creation

I love what I do.  I have been privileged to be involved in spirituality for many years now.  I have done it through teaching and a variety of what I like to call ministry venues.  I like the Latin basis of our word, ministry.  Literally, it means to “serve.”  I am content to think that I have spent a great deal of my life serving. 
I am convinced that is one of the aspects of the Christian journey.  Everyone who walks this path has an obligation to serve.  But I also am sure that it is not a Christian thing.  I know Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others encourage the same walk of faith.  I suspect part of the reason service is a given in these major religious traditions is the fact that they all are grounded in love.  Love inevitably issues forth in service.  Love will put us all at the feet of others.  Sometimes we literally will be called to wash their feet as the story of Jesus in John’s Gospel narrated.  And sometimes it is more metaphorical that we are put at people’s feet.  In that sense we are to serve.
No matter how much I have been able to read and reflect upon, I continue to be helped by many others who have read and thought more deeply than I have.  There are a range of folks who write books, blogs and other things that encourage me and countless others on their walk of faith.  In that sense they serve me.  And I am grateful.  One such servant of mine has been Richard Rohr, the Franciscan who runs a center in New Mexico that focuses on contemplation and action.  His writings have been spiritual direction for me.
Recently he had a piece that spoke to my condition, as Quakers would say.  Rohr wrote about the role of faith.  Sometimes faith plays a minor role compared to love.  Too often, folks assume faith is in place and move on to talk about love.  But not Rohr.  He has a real appreciation for the role of faith in the spiritual journey.  Let’s ponder his words.

Rohr gets my attention when he offers these words: “Faith is the opposite of resentment, cynicism and negativity.”  That is an important word for our contemporary culture, which can exhibit all three of those destructive tendencies.  Resentment is an attractive feeling if I feel like I have been beaten in the competition of life.  I can resent others who seem to be luckier than I am.  Resentment can make me very cynical.  All of this breeds a chronic negativity that corrodes the possibilities of a good life. 

Spirituality can transform this life perspective.  I use another line from Rohr to help me understand how this is possible.  Rohr says, “Faith actually begins to create what it desires.”  That is powerful.  Faith creates.  Typically we don’t think about faith as creative, but it certainly is.  Faith begins to create what it desires.  In this sense faith engages.  It engages that which I desire.  That could be God.  It could be love or justice.  Faith can begin to create the good life.

I realize Rohr is onto something and he is helping me understand spirituality on a deeper level.  Rohr drags me along into this deeper spiritual place.  He continues by saying that “Faith always re-creates the good world.”  I appreciate this idea that faith is not only creative, but it is also re-creative.  Faith is not a one-night stand.  Faith works today and it will be at work tomorrow. 

If things go sour, resulting in resentment, cynicism and negativity, faith can re-create.  Faith is transformative---turning bad things into constructive aspects of the good life.  Rohr helps me see faith in this transformative, spiritual sense.  He uses the image of “new eyes.”  He puts it eloquently when he says, “Faith is a matter of having new eyes, seeing everything, even our most painful suffering, through and with the eyes of God.  It is the only way to keep on the path toward love.”

Faith is having new eyes!  Faith is like a spiritual eye transplant.  To have faith in God is to get new eyes.  In faith and through faith I begin to see myself and my world through the eyes of God.  It does not eradicate pain and suffering, but faith does allow me to put painful suffering in a larger context---in a holy context.

In this sense faith is conjunctive---it joins itself to other virtues.  Rohr articulates one other virtue, namely, love.  As he says, faith keeps us on the path toward love.  To be in faith---to be faithful---is to journey to love---and be in love in the process.  But faith also implicates the other virtue: hope.

Faith is the conduit of hope.  Seeing with new eyes is an act of hope.  The re-creation of a good world through faith is an act of hope.  To create what I deeply desire is an act of hope.  In faith I walk toward love in hope.  Wow!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Trust and Faith

Out of my rather aimless thinking recently, an important idea moved to the front of my mind.  Recently, I was on a flight.  That is not unusual.  I am not one of those business folks who seemingly fly all the time.  But I do a fair number of flights in a year’s time.  So there was nothing unusual about this one.

I began to think about the process of having moved on board the flight.  There are the usual instructions to fasten seat belt, what to do with the life preserver in the event that you go down in water, etc.  I wondered if I could remember any of this in the event of the real danger.  I fear my assumption that I have heard it all before and know it all would be severely tested!  I need to pay more attention.

It began to dawn on me, as I thought about the process of flying, how much trust is demanded of the passenger.  Again if we were to think about it, we would realize how true that is.  And yet, like me during the flight instructions, we pay little attention to one of our central assumptions, namely, how trusting we really are. 

As I sat in my seat, readying to take off, it occurred to me that I was trusting the two pilots up front.  I laughed.  In fact, I actually was trusting that there were two pilots!  I walked on to the plane and never even looked into the cockpit.  So I trusted there were two and that they knew what they were doing.  That suggested to me that I also trusted the particular airlines I had chosen for the day.  Somehow they must have verified that the two pilots were capable of protecting my life. 

I realized I also was trusting the engines on this plane.  I laughed again.  I did not even know how many engines the plane had!  I assumed there were at least two engines.  I know little planes can fly with one engine, but this was not a little plane!  Maybe there were four engines.  And if one or more engines failed, how many engines does it take to make it down safely?  I trusted someone knew for certain!

Then it occurred to me I had no clue who made those engines.  A bunch of people somewhere---maybe even abroad--- crafted some metal in such a way that it would lift me and a bunch of others high into the sky and take us to another place of our choosing.  I could not have thanked those manufacturers, even if it had occurred to me to thank them.  I was trusting a bunch of unknown people!  I was not particularly nervous.  But I was very aware of the huge role trust was playing in my life---even if I were not thinking about it.

As a spiritual person, that made it obvious and easy for me to move from trust to faith.  For me, those two are synonyms.  When I say that I have faith in God---or the Holy One---I am affirming nothing more than I trust God.  Saying the word, faith, may somehow make it seem more special, but it is not.  Faith is trust.

Having faith in God may seem trickier than faith in pilots and engine makers because I can’t see the physical aspect of God, like I can actually look into the cockpit and see the men or women flying the plane.  I can observe God the way I can look at a plane as I approach it and count the engines.  I know some people would use creation itself as God’s handiwork and, therefore, conclude there has to be a Creator.

I am fine with the idea of God as Creator.  I can look at a tree and conclude I know the Creator of the tree.  It is simply not the same idea as looking into the cockpit to see two folks sitting there.  The invisibility of God can make faith more challenging.  Faith is not obvious.  And I am ok with that.  I am content to put my life into the hands of the “Pilot of life.”   And frankly, it never dawned on me to use that metaphor for God.  As with most metaphors, it is suggestive, but should not be taken in any kind of literal sense.

It is a weak metaphor in the sense that God as Pilot of my life is not going to deliver me to a specific place like a plane will literally take me to the airport of my choice.  Rather the destination of my life is more general---something like blessed or fulfilled.  I assume there are many ways to get there and I trust my Pilot to help me in my travel.  On my own I don’t know that I can get there.  I trust that God has some graceful ways of facilitating the process through my life’s tricky places.

It is a strong metaphor in the sense that I put my life in the hands of God just as surely as I put my hands in the life of the two people who take me 170 miles an hour down a runway and, then, 35,000 feet into the sky to deliver me at some distant point.  I understand the idea of putting my life in someone’s hands.  That takes trust and faith.

I laugh for the final time.  Even though I know all this, it does not take away the necessity of trust and faith.  Even though I know all of this, the next time I walk on to a plane I still have to trust the pilots.  And even though I know all of this, tomorrow I have to trust the Creator and Sustainer of life to take me further into the blessed potentiality awaiting me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Angels of Annunciation

It is a wonderfully fulfilling moment when I am reading something and a phrase or sentence jumps out to capture my attention.  Sometimes it is simply the way the author puts it.  Other times, there is such a profundity of thought that I am temporarily arrested and can read no further.  In a recent reading I had such a moment.  There was a phrase that I found that made me go, “Wow.”
The author was discussing something that was not that novel to me.  I understood what she was saying, but was not prepared for the phrase that leaped out at me.  At one point, the author talked about the “angels of annunciation.”  It was not Advent or Christmas season, when you expect the theme of Annunciation to be to the forefront.  It was not in the context of the liturgy.
I know the word, annunciation, means “announcement” or “pronouncement.”  Most folks know what an angel is.  Even if I don’t believe in angels, I know what the typical meaning is.  I know the word, angel, comes from the classical languages and means a “messenger.”  And angel is one who brings news.  The angel is an announcer or pronouncer.  In the biblical context the angel is one who brings news from the Holy One.  Often God speaks through angelic figures.  Some of the New Testament angels are known by name: Gabriel, Michael and others.
I probably should not have been surprised by the phrase that puts together angel and annunciation.  I know that angels announce and, sometimes, pronounce.  I know the biblical story from Luke’s Gospel where the angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary to proclaim that she would be the handmaiden of the Spirit.  But I don’t think I had ever heard the phrase, “angel of annunciation.”
What surprised me even more was the fact that the word, angel, was plural.  The phrase said, “angels of annunciation.”  I liked the idea of multiple angels who are announcers.  I decided I wanted to take this idea into our contemporary world.  Let’s explore who are the angels of annunciation and what they might be announcing.
As I thought about my own experience, I realized that I have had any number of angels who have been God’s annunciators.  The first one I immediately thought about was the leader in my Quaker meeting that was my first spiritual home.  Growing up in that Quaker community was not that special.  Everyone was nice enough, but I was not really “into religion.” 
As I finished high school and headed off to college, I realized that I had more questions, doubts and confusions about life than I ever would have imagined.  I was intellectually, emotionally and spiritually at sea.  That leader was an angel of annunciation.  Fortunately he did not tell me simply to believe.  Doctrine was not my problem and doctrine would not solve my problem.
I knew doctrine would tell me that there was a God and I should believe in that God.  However, I began to wonder if I had ever experienced that God!  My angel of annunciation told me to be patient.  He told me it was ok to have doubts.  Being unsure of anything could be the first constructive step onto my own spiritual journey.  That angel also promised to walk along with me during those early baby steps.  No one expects a baby to walk and, surprisingly, I felt pretty spiritually small.
There have been other angels of annunciation along the way.  Some of them have been professors.  Again, I feel like I have been lucky.  Almost no one insisted that I just buy into some specific answer or particular doctrine and I would be “ok.”  I think angels of annunciation do have announcements to make.  But not all announcements from the Spirit or about the Spirit are doctrinal guidelines to proper theology.  Sometimes these angels of annunciation simply pronounce things like, “it is ok to doubt.”
I have to laugh when I think other angels of annunciation are at the complete other end of professors.  I have been announced to by very young people.  It could even be a baby who can’t talk.  But that baby can be an angel and that little angel can profoundly pronounce very spiritual things.  On such occasions the baby “talks” through action.”  Who said all announcements have to be words?   I am confident some announcements are actions.  After all, actions can speak louder than words.
I am very grateful for the angels of annunciation who have been instruments of grace for me.  As I write this, I become aware that I, too, could become an angel of annunciation.  As I have come to know some things---particularly things by experience---I have a responsibility to pronounce to others what is possible. 
With that angelic responsibility I now have, I will look for opportunities to be a herald of the Spirit.  Angels announce.  They do not coerce, insist, etc.  I am thankful that I have known angels and that I now can become an angel for others.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: Re-Membering

Memorial Day---or better, yet, Memorial Day weekend---is a complex holiday.  That does not make it anything less than other major holidays; it is just different.  It seems that the federal holiday has its origins right after the Civil War.  It was an opportunity to remember those Union soldiers who had died in that cause.  Gradually, the “remembering” expanded to include all the men and women who had died in the service of their country.

Earlier, it often was called Decoration Day.  I heard this term most of the time when I was growing up in rural Indiana.  I understood it as the time when the old people went to the cemeteries to “decorate” with flowers the graves of their family and friends.  I knew it had some military association, but by my lifetime, the holiday again had expanded to include everyone who had already passed away.  But it was more complex than that.

For many people Memorial Day celebrates the beginning of summer.  That association with summer helps if it hits 90 degrees!  Summer begins and lasts till early September, when Labor Day signals its official end.  Of course, no one in early September thinks summer is finished---or at least, the hot weather has ended!   In many ways, Memorial Day and Labor Day are bookends.

However, for me and for most Hoosiers, the complexity of Memorial Day does not end here.  It is always the weekend the Indianapolis 500 mile race is run.  Even for those of us who could not care less about racing cars, the “Indy 500” was part of the weekend tradition.  In fact, that weekend---the race---culminated a month long build-up to the weekend.  For an Indiana farm boy, May was a time of finishing the school year, planting corn and beans, the beginning of baseball, Memorial Day and the Indy 500.

If I were asked whether it was in any way a spiritual thing, I would have replied negatively.  I never went to church.  Occasionally, I was aware of churches’ having “services,” but I did not see them as spiritual.  They were more patriotic---more nationalistic.  That was ok, but for me it was not the same thing as spiritual.  So Memorial Day weekend never has been a spiritual occasion for me.

And that is still true.  I am happy to remember and celebrate the lives of the American men and women who gave their lives on my behalf and my country.  I appreciate and enjoy being a citizen of this country.  Certainly those of us who are can count ourselves very fortunate.  But being American is not a spiritual thing for me.  It might be for others and that’s ok.

Given all that, is it possible for this Memorial Day weekend to become spiritual?  The answer is, of course!  It is possible for every day to become spiritual! That is the beauty of the life, the time, and the opportunities God gives to each of us.  I thank God daily for my life, my time, and my opportunities.  I know I did not create my own life.  I realize I do not make my own time.  And when my time is up, I can no more stop the ending than I began my beginning!  And I do not create all my opportunities.

So I am thankful.  And I believe being thankful is always a spiritual response.  I am thankful to my parents who gave birth to me and cared for me all those infant days I cannot even remember.  They are both deceased and buried in an Indiana cemetery.  I have no idea whether anyone took flowers to their graves this Memorial Day. But that does not mean I appreciate them any less.

I am thankful to other members of a church family who helped raise me from infancy to adulthood.  And I am thankful to others in the larger community who helped in countless ways to make my life possible.  No doubt, there were even people whom I did not know, who probably helped me.  And there are many more people whom I knew, but never probably knew how they helped me.  A huge number of them also are long dead and inhabiting cemeteries scattered across a good number of states.

All these memories are sacred to me.  They are imbued with the Spirit of God who is for me a God of Providence---a providential Divinity.  In my spirituality God deals indirectly with people as much as directly.  I know as well as I know anything that God was at work in the members of my family, my church family, my community family to bring me to where I am today.  That is a wonderful memory.  And I am happy this Memorial Day to remember these people and their gifts.

As I engage this remember exercise, one more thing occurs to me.  They were individuals---these people I am recalling.  They clearly were members of groups---family, friends, church, and community.  But in the process of my recalling them, they are pulled together into one group.  They are all re-membered by me and for me.  They are all members of my spiritual clan.  Many may be dead, others scattered around the world, but in my mind in this moment they are re-membered.  They become again in this moment members of my spiritual clan.  And in my thanks, God is present and still providing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Art of Remembering

In this country we find ourselves at Memorial Weekend.  Clearly, the description of the weekend is unambiguous: memorial means remembering.  It is the “Remembering Weekend.”  There will be parades to highlight the festivities.  The little parade in my suburban town is so quaint and tiny, it is hilarious.  Of course, there are the boy scouts and girl scouts.  There are all the Little League baseball and softball players.  The fire trucks gain attention because the siren going off in your ears at a distance of 15 feet is dramatic!  And finally, there are always the politicians!

The other thing that is a staple for Memorial Weekend is the visit to the cemetery.  Now that I am living in a much larger, urban context, I am less aware of folks going to the cemetery.  When I was a kid, I did not really understand this ritual.  No one significant in my life had died.  There was no one “living in the cemetery,” as I once put it, that I felt like I wanted to visit.

But when my grandparents began to die---one by one---I had a dawning sense of why my parents and others always wanted to go to the cemetery.  Of course, it was true that an annual visit was not the sole guarantee of “remembering” them.  I was aware my parents stopped by the cemetery on other occasions, too.  But somehow, Memorial Weekend was special, much like Christmas was special, but one still went to church other Sundays, too.

I like history, so it was fun to begin to learn something of the origins and history of the holiday.  It seems our own Civil War (1861-1865) formed the soil for the Memorial Day seeds.  That is not surprising.  That gruesome war left death, mourning, and the need to remember scattered all over our land.

The official Memorial Day proclamation occurred on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It commenced with the laying of wreaths on graves of soldiers of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  Well before the end of the 19th century all the northern states recognized this holiday.  What I was surprised to learn was the southern states refused to recognize this end-of-May memorial until after WW I when the focus of the holiday shifted from Civil War dead to the deceased from all wars.  Such formed the holiday which we celebrate this weekend.

As an American, I am happy to remember with appreciation all those women and men who have died for this country.  And I also remember the large number of them who suffered in so many ways.  The war that formed my own generation---the Vietnam War---still scars countless folks. 

I won’t go to the cemetery this weekend.  Most of my deceased family and close friends “live” in a couple different cemeteries back in Indiana.  To make that drive merely to stand physically at the graveside is not necessary.  What I will choose to do is take a little time by myself and “remember.”  The human capacity to remember dazzles me!  As St. Augustine said centuries ago, remembering is the human way to hold the past in the present.  So I will celebrate my Memorial Weekend.

I am also glad that the Weekend has expanded to include more than the war dead.  The key is “more.”  If we include all who have preceded us in death, we do not do less honor to the war dead.  They will always have a special place in this weekend’s art of remembering.

The inclusiveness of all deceased folks makes perfect sense spiritually speaking.  Finally, we are all in it together---all humanity is implicated by death.  Some have already died; the rest of us are in process.  What so many of us hope is somehow our lives---our ordinary, quiet, little lives---finally have meaning and the meaning will be remembered and celebrated.  But that remembering and celebrating has to be done by someone else when we are dead!

And that’s one of the points of spirituality.  When my own process of dying is complete (and I am dead), I take solace in the fact that God is the Other Who is very practiced in the art of remembering.  And it won’t happen just annually; it will happen eternally….whatever kind of Memorial Weekend that will be!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Good Word for Confidence

I know what to do with pride.  All the spiritual literature tells us to be careful about pride.  In the Christian list of sins, pride ranks right up there.  Pride is usually linked to our egos.  Pride typically is rooted in an egotistical attempt to have it our own way.  So I get it, when it comes to pride.
However it gets tricky, because that might imply the best way to avoid pride is to be a loser in life.  Don’t anything good or important and you will have no problem with pride.  Be a disaster and pride will never haunt you.  We can poke fun at this perspective, but it can teach us that aiming to be a loser in life is stupid.  And most people are not stupid.
As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me that an alternative to pride is confidence.  I would never argue they are synonyms.  Clearly, they are not the same thing, but I do think they may be related.
As I ponder both ideas---pride and confidence---I came to this distinction.  I see pride as the outcome; it is a result.  Pride is what one thinks or feels about something positive.  Pride in its negative form typically points to exaggeration. It is rooted in overestimation of the situation.  “I’m the best.”  “I am the most beautiful.”  These are estimations of pride.
I see confidence as process, rather than outcome.  Confidence is more means than it is ends.  Pride is more like fact; confidence is more of a hope.  Confidence is hopeful, but it is not successful.  The outcome is not yet determined in the process of confidence.  There is hope for success, but failure is a possibility.  Usually when pride is involved, failure is not an option.  Let’s pursue a bit further the process of confidence.
I am glad of the facility I have with some languages.  When I pondered the word, “confidence,” I immediately had a clue.  I knew the root of the word were the three letters, “fid-“  “Faith,” I thought to myself.  “Fid-“ is from the Latin word, fides.  And fides means “faith” or “trust.”  And of course, the “co” on the front of any word is nothing more than the Latin preposition, “with.”  So confidence is literally to have “faith with” or to “trust in.”
If I have confidence in someone or something, I have faith in it.  I trust it.  I can even have confidence in myself.  I can trust my students.  I certainly have confidence in my kids and I hopefully will learn to have confidence in my grandkids.  But I also realized that confidence is not the same thing as guarantee.  I was correct.  Confidence is hope.
Confidence is hope in the process of working itself out.  Failure is still a possibility.  But I have confidence that I or you will work something out and be successful.  For example, I have confidence that I know some Latin.  But there is no pride in knowing Latin.  I know I am not perfect.  There is so much I don’t know.  I forget some things I once knew. 
As I have been thinking about pride and confidence, I realized I did discover a good word for confidence.  That word was “faith.”  Of course at this point, it is easy to pivot to the spiritual level.  I do have faith in God.  I have faith that God is creative and loving.  I have faith that God wants good things for me and from me.  All this means I have confidence in my sense of who God is and how God works. 
But there is no pride.  I am not positive that this is truly God.  I have no guarantee that what I am saying about God is exactly the case.  I am not proud that I know this God and cannot possibly be wrong. 
My relationship with God is a process because it is a faith journey.  I have begun a relationship with God and it is a little further down the road than it was in the beginning.  But it is a process.  Today was a little step on that journey and tomorrow will be yet another step.  I am on the way.  I am making my way.  It is a hopeful way.  But there is no guarantee.  For me personally, I don’t see the destiny as predestination. 
My destiny is to be with the Spirit.  I have faith I will be and trust that I am on the way.  Because I see it this way---a way of the Spirit and a way of faith---there is no room for pride.  My spiritual faith journey is not predestined.  I could be detoured, delayed or destruct on the way. 
I am confident in my part of the journey, but I have more confidence in God being who God really is.  In the end I will say, “thank God,” rather than “thank me.”  There is no room for pride in this journey.  There really is a good word for confidence: faith.  And with faith, there is hope.  Thank God.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Home on the Range

The title for this inspirational piece is not really my creation.  Most of us know a song by that name.  It was a song I learned at an early age.  It is a western song, but that is about all I knew about it.  With a bit of research, I learned that the words of the song are part of a poem written in the 1870s by a Kansan physician, Dr. Brewster M. Higley.  It came to be a song in the 1940s and quickly became very well known. 

I ran across the phrase, home on the range, as I was reading an article.  Home on the range was only part of the title of the article.  The full title reads: “Benedictine nuns make their home on the range.”  I was really intrigued by it and wanted to delve into the article itself.  I was not disappointed.

The first sentence of the article sets the context.  “Sr. Maria Walburga Schortemeyer is at home wading through the mud and manure of a barnyard in boots, work pants, a fleece jacket and her white veil.”  I did not even need a picture to imagine the scene.  I could imagine the good Sister looking much as I looked as an Indiana farm boy wading through the mud and the manure.  I have too many memories of days like that.  But I never was wearing a white veil.  In her farmyard clothes the white veil is the only vestige of her religious habit.

I know quite a few of the men’s monasteries are or were farms.  Many had dairy cows or hogs.  They produced milk, cheese and other farm products, which could be used for their own consumption or for sale to support the monks.  I know the Benedictine motto is “ora et labora,” “worship and work.”  The Benedictines believe every one of us is meant to be creatures of worship and creatures who also value the work God meant us to do.  That makes perfect sense to me.

I also know that Benedictine slogan goes for the sisters as well as the brothers.  They also believe in worship and work.  It just never occurred to me that they, too, might actually be on working farms.  I am guilty of my own prejudices.  That is why reading about these nuns in Colorado was such a good story for me.  Eagerly I read on about the nuns making their home on the range.

The scene opens with Sr. Maria in her work clothes and white veil tromping through the mud and the manure.  Barely a few minutes later and a few sentences later we see her in a different context.  “Minutes later, in the black-and-white habit of a Benedictine nun, she is equally at home singing psalms and praying the Divine Office in a chapel with other nuns.”  Schortemeyer is the ranch manager of the Benedictine Abbey at St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.

This is not a monastery I know.  I am aware of the men’s monastery in Snow Mass, CO.  I always wanted to visit that one.  But now, I find that I am even more drawn to visit the sisters in Virgina Dale.  I think they have much to offer me, much to teach me, and much wisdom to share.  Maybe I can anticipate some of that in these reflections.  

It is tempting to see Sister Maria operating in two mutually exclusive realms.  On one hand she is a farmer---a rancher in Colorado.  On the other hand, she is a Benedictine nun---a spiritual woman living as deeply as she can in the Presence of God.  I realize I don’t always see being spiritual coalescing with a walk through the mud and manure!  Being spiritual too often is seen as something ethereal---something heavenly and delicate.  And walking through manure is anything but ethereal!  As I read her story, I realized my own limited way of envisioning things.  She became my teacher.

No doubt, part of my limitations---and probably of our culture---is seeing the spiritual as something antiseptic---untouched by the real, nasty world.  Anyone who is living deeply the spiritual life will tell us, the spiritual journey is lived very much in the midst of the “mud and manure” of our lives and our world.  The good sister knows this; I am learning it.

The lesson for me is to recognize that my own life will be spent at times walking through the mud and manure of my life.  The real question is not whether that will be true.  The real question is how to participate at the same time in the spiritual dimension?  Can I also find my own equivalent of the Psalms, hymn singing, prayer and a spiritual community to give my life depth, meaning and purpose in spite of the mud and manure?

I realize the mud of the world is a given.  What needs to be sought and found is the miracle of the spiritual.  It will not be found somewhere “out there.”  It will be found right in the midst of this world that God created.  The miracle of the spiritual can also be found in a community of others who share the journey that I am traveling.

We are all pilgrims through life in this world---out there on the “range” of our lives.  Our desire is also to find a home on the range.  Can we both be on a journey and also at home?  Sr. Maria and her twenty-three sisters have indeed figured it out.  The have made a home on the range.  All of us can do it, too, in our own way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tradition and Convention

My favorite monk, Thomas Merton, makes an interesting distinction in his book, No Man Is an Island.  Merton differentiates tradition and convention.  Merton talks about tradition in very positive terms.  I like the way Merton defines tradition.  “Tradition is living and active…Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it…Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives.  Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine.”  I will unpack this lengthy quotation as we consider the meaning and impact of tradition in our spiritual lives.
But first let’s get a sense for how Merton uses the idea of convention.  Then it will become clear how he differentiates convention and tradition.  “Convention,” says Merton, “is passive and dead…Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine.  Therefore convention easily becomes an evasion of reality.  It offers us only pretended ways of solving the problems of living---a system of gestures and formalities.”
In some ways tradition and convention are both accumulations of the past.  I have traditions from family, from the Quaker meetings in which I spent my youth, some athletic traditions and others.  Within many of these traditions were conventions.  If you went to my Quaker meeting (or church), there would be certain things you were “supposed to do,” even though there were no rules that someone could have handed to you. 
Conventions often come to us as those things “we have always done that way.”  Conventions usually mean that you are right if you do it the right way.  I think Merton is insightful when he describes convention as passive.  “Just do it,” is the mantra of the convention.  “Don’t ask why, just do it,” is the unwritten rule of convention.  Convention has an implicit assumption that suggests doing the act results in the act being meaningful.  For example, convention would say that sitting together in silence in a Quaker meeting for worship means you necessarily have a spiritual experience.  Anyone who has done that knows it is not necessarily true.  It may be true; but it is not necessarily true.
I think this is the insightful, which Merton figured out.  Tradition is living and active.  Tradition is also the “story” by which we engage the past.  In some ways tradition, like convention, says, “this is the way we have always done it.”  Tradition knows this past and wants to hand it on to all newcomers.  If you play on my team, if you join my group, if you are part of my family, then this is the way we have always done it.
But tradition never assumes that “the way we have always done it” is a guarantee that it always works.  Tradition never assumes that merely doing some traditional thing guarantees success.  Convention implies that is true; tradition knows it is not always true.
I like Merton’s emphasis on the fact that tradition really teaches us how to live.  No doubt that was true for his monastery, which would have been steeped in tradition.  My Quaker meeting back home is more than two hundred years old.  And it is part of an even older Quaker story and tradition.  And Quakers are part of the much older Christian tradition.  Of course, there are many conventions that have resulted.
Conventions are like the sediments of our history.  They are the ordinary and the routine.  There is nothing bad about them.  But they are not active and do not live.  Being conventional is ok, but not vital.  Doing conventions is ok, but not enlivening.  On the other hand, tradition puts us in touch with the past and with history, but it vitalizes the present and thrusts us forward into exciting futures.  It teaches us how to take full responsibility for our lives.
Tradition helps me take full responsibility for my life.  Allow me to go back to the Quaker example of sitting.  It is Quaker tradition to use silence as a medium to be available to the Spirit of God to engage us.  Convention would say to be silent and God will come.  Nothing to it!  But tradition says to become silent.  Silence, however, is not passive waiting.  Silence requires active waiting.  In silence one prepares the heart, opens the mind, becomes vulnerable to the Presence.  Being silent guarantees nothing, but is does insure the increased likelihood that the Spirit will be experienced.
If I get myself out of the way, the Spirit comes my way.  That is what tradition teaches me.  But tradition teaches me knowing that is different than experiencing that.  Tradition teaches me how to become spiritual.  But I actually have to do it.  Knowledge is good, but it is not sufficient. 
I appreciate the many conventions in my life.  But I value the traditions that form me spiritually and that teach me how to take responsibility for my own life.  And I thank Merton for helping me understand the difference.  I don’t mind being conventional.  I want to be traditional.  But most of all, I strive to be incarnational.   

Monday, May 18, 2015

God's Dwelling Place

If you are a careful reader of these inspirational pieces, you might think that you just read one on God’s dwelling place.  And indeed, you did read one with a very similar title.  I did write one that basically said God’s dwelling place was not some building, like a church, but actually was the people themselves.  The bottom line was God dwells in people’s hearts, not in buildings.

I had not planned to return to this theme so soon.  But in my daily lectionary---the readings provided by the Benedictine monastery that I follow---I was pleased to see the reading from the Psalm for the Morning Prayer.  The first Psalm reading came from Psalm 84.  I don’t know the Psalms well enough to be able to say, “Oh, Psalm 84: I know exactly what that one says.”  But when I read the initial line, I realized I had heard this line many times.  And then I realized I want to pursue the theme of God’s dwelling a little further.

The initial verse of Psalm 84 says, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts.”  I did not consult a commentary for this Psalm, but I would be confident the Psalm is a royal Psalm written at a time when the Jewish Temple was still standing in Jerusalem.  The erection of this Temple was the achievement of King Solomon.  Although most Jews would not have thought that God actually lived in the Temple, there would have been a sense that the Presence of God would be found therein.  At the heart of the Temple would have been the Holy of Holies.  There would be the Presence of God.  To go into the Temple would be to go into God’s Presence.  Apart from the Temple is the profane world.

At one point this Jewish Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  We know that a Second Temple was built and that one existed during the time of Jesus.  Soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, that Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  The Jews have lived without a Temple to this day.  So this is the backdrop to Psalm 84.  That is significant because we now read the Psalm at a time when the idea of a Temple in Jerusalem is no longer a factor in our experience. 

This means to me that we automatically read this verse metaphorically.  When we hear the Psalmist say that that God’s dwelling place is lovely, I suspect the Psalmist probably meant it literally, that is, the Temple really was a pretty place.  But when the Temple---the actual building---is gone, God’s dwelling place has to be re-defined.  It could be the place where the destroyed Temple once stood.  That would mean the place---the ground---was holy and represented God’s dwelling place.

As I suggested in my earlier reflection, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the idea of God’s dwelling place moved from some building to the human heart.  In the New Testament we are explicitly said to be the temple of God.  In that sense our bodies have replaced the building.  Our hearts are, as it were, the Holy of Holies.  We potentially are the sacred Presence of God living amidst a profane world.  That certainly is the direction my own theology goes.

When the Psalmist says that God’s dwelling place was lovely, that would have been true for the Psalmist simply because the building was standing there.  But the meaning of the Psalm is now potentially different than it was when it was originally written.  The huge difference is the fact that you and I have replaced the Second Temple.  We have become the temples of God. But it is not so simple now as it was in the time before 586 BCE. 

I put it this way.  We are not automatically temples of God.  We are potentially temples of God.  But that depends upon whether we are living in a sacred manner of living profanely.  To live in a sacred manner does not mean that we are perfect.  It does mean that we are trying to know and to follow the will of God.  To live profanely means we couldn’t care less about God’s will.  It is our will---our own desires and wishes---that drives our lives and actions.  Again, that does not make it bad; it just means it is not God’s will.

If we are followers of God’s desire, then we become temples of God.  And we are, by the Psalmist’s definition, lovely!  I doubt that means we are physically beautiful, although that may well be true.  But the loveliness of the temple of God---you and me---is more like a spiritual loveliness.  It means that we are attractive to people.  Our way of life is lovely to behold.

This kind of spiritual loveliness cannot fathom too much anger, bitterness or fighting.  There cannot be much selfishness.  Rather, service has to be the dominant mode of operation.  Most of life is driven by our sense of love and work for justice.  I have known people like this.  I aspire to be just such a person.  I want to be God’s dwelling place.