About Me

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Long Loving Look

Writing a daily inspirational reflection or blog is a disciplined, humbling experience.  The disciplined part should be self-explanatory.  It is like exercise or playing an instrument.  It won’t work if I just do it if and when I feel like it.  Discipline means I do it---regardless of feelings.  Over the years I have learned that insight is not too closely linked to how I feel.  In the end that is a relief!

Writing these pieces is also quite humbling.  On one level it seems presumptuous that whatever I think or say others will want to read.  This smacks of a false humility.  I actually know there are folks who want to know what I think.  Some are intrigued by how I think.  I know I am not brilliant.  But I do have experiences and I know how to reflect on them and how to learn from them.  And this is what some people want to know.  So I humbly submit it day after day.

In order to feed my own soul, I do look at what others say.  Of course, we tend to pick our favorites in this regard.  One of my favorites is the Franciscan, Richard Rohr.  Rohr is about my age, but came through life very differently than I have.  We both have pretty humble midwestern backgrounds.  But he was a Catholic from the get-go.  And I was a pre-Vatican II Quaker who barely knew anything about Catholics.  Rohr became a Franciscan.  It would be at least college before I would have had any clue what that even meant!

Rohr writes a daily blog which I read.  While we share many similarities, we remain quite different guys.  He has more training in psychology than I do.  And because he is Catholic, he has read some Catholic authors whom I have not.  But we share much.  We are both interested in the contemplative tradition.  I think Quakers have always been contemplative, but we never used that language until very recently.  So when someone like Rohr talks about the contemplative life, I pay close attention.

He did just that in a recent blog.  Rohr was doing a series on his Order’s founder, namely, St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis was a well-to-do playboy until a series of events put him on the spiritual quest.  The upshot was a commitment to follow the way of Jesus.  Francis saw poverty as the hallmark of that way of life and so committed himself and his followers to that simple life.  But he was also a contemplative. 

This is where I began to follow Rohr.  In a recent post Rohr reflects on Franciscan contemplative spirituality.  Rohr says of Francis, “He practiced contemplation, or ‘a long loving look at the real,’ which allowed him to see in a new way.”  This offers a wonderfully simple definition of contemplation.  Contemplation is a long, loving look at the real.  That makes contemplation seem quite ordinary. Contemplation has to do with the real.  That is deceptively simple.

It is deceptively simple, because too many of us complicated the real.  And some of us fabricate our own versions of what is real---reality.  Through our experience and, sometimes, our education, we develop views of reality that are actually very real!  We create illusions and substitute our illusion for reality.  Or we warp reality in a way to make it fit the way we want the world to be.  This was the early world of Francis.

Through a kind of conversion process, Francis learned to see in a new way---a contemplative way.  This is what Rohr has seen and said.  The key piece for me was not the long look at reality.  Rather it was a long, loving look.  I am not sure what all it means to look at reality lovingly.  But I am up for learning more.  I think Rohr adds a helpful piece when he says it is like getting a new pair of glasses.  He describes it as, “Seing from a pair of glasses beyond our own is what I call ‘participative seeing.’  He  pushes this further.  “This primal communion, communicates spaciousness, joy, and a quiet contentment.”  This is quite descriptive of the contemplative experience.

The contemplative receives a primal communion.  That communion communicates qualities of spaciousness and joy and contentment.  That I long for.  And that I can begin to have by living the contemplative life.  In the contemplative life I am free for what is real.  I am free because “the essential gap between me and everything else has been overcome.  I am at home in a benevolent universe, and I do not need to prove myself to anybody, nor do I need to be ‘right,’ nor do others have to agree with me.”

Those last words of Rohr do a wonderful job of describing the life of the contemplative.  He or she comes to be at home in a benevolent universe.  Such a universe is not out to get you!  That universe is present and provides a loving reality that wants you not only to survive, but to thrive.  At times this is difficult to trust.  But that is why it is a journey of faith.

It begins in faith, but it is not a head trip through theology.  It is a journey of life through the experience of a long loving look at reality.  Reality turns out to be a benevolent universe that communicates joy, contentment and spaciousness.  How fine!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Complexities and Troubles

Everyone who has kids or even grandchildren knows there are teachable moments when they are the teacher and you are the student.  Sometimes you are a willing student.  And other times you did not want to be a student at all!  I recently had one of the former moments.  I was not looking for it, but I was taught and was fine with it.  I was not unwilling.

To set the scene, you have to imagine a room half full of boxes.  A house project led to the accumulation of many boxes.  Of course, a scene like this is irresistible to any young soul.  My granddaughter was sucked right into the middle of the boxes.  You can use them as forts or a maze.  Some of them were so big you get into it and seemingly be lost to the world---or, at least, a parent.  Quite a bit of time went by in the wonderful world of box land.  Then she was finished and wanted to escape.

At one point, a young voice plaintively appealed for outside advice.  She asked a simple question.  “How do I get through this crap?”  The room was no longer filled with boxes.  They had become a problem.  They had been re-labeled as crap!  They were not entertaining any more.  They had become obstacles and the issue now was how to surmount the problem?

My granddaughter’s life had gone through a metamorphosis.  The boxes that had lured her into the space now turned out to be complex.  Added to this, they had become nothing but trouble.  The only question was how to deal with these complexities and troubles?  She realized fairly quickly that she needed help.  So she made the appeal.  And with good parents around, help came fairly quickly and her troubles were over.  That could have been the end of the story.

In some ways it was the end of the story.  But in my mind the story also took a different form.  I realized that it could serve as a metaphor for life.  Most of our lives have their ups and downs.  As we go through life, we go into “rooms” that can be like phases of life.  Sometimes the rooms have things that lure us to settle in and play.  The “boxes” can be any number of things.  Remember, it is just a metaphor.

There come times, however, when the room---when a particular phase of life---changes on us.  The phase of life may come to be nothing but complexity and trouble.  We can sometimes feel trapped.  We are certainly not having any fun.  We would opt out, if we could only figure out how to do it.  Sometimes it is ignorance that stops us.  Sometimes we are impotent---we don’t have the power to change things. 

I have been in these kinds of situations.  They can be of our own making.  I have done a few of those.  We get into trouble and then we can’t get out---at least, we can’t get out of trouble on our own.  We need help.  Sometimes our complexities and troubles come to us and we did nothing to cause or provoke it.  Again, we need help.  

I would like to think about this metaphor in a spiritual sense.  Life does put us into troubles and complexities.  These always have a spiritual side.  As I reflect back on my own life, two such periods come to mind that I can share.  One came at that transitional time when I went to college.  The other one came more at mid-life.

Dutifully, I went to college.  At some point during that initial year, I realized I actually did not know who I was or where I was headed.  College made no sense.  So I finally mustered up enough courage to leave and go back home.  Of course, that solved no problem, but it did give me time and a context to think about things.  And to learn to pray.  An older friend came into my life and became a spiritual mentor.  He solved no complexity and did not get me out of trouble.  But he helped me learn how to have faith at a deeper level and to grow into the person I was to become.  I went back to college and then some!  He helped me get out of a room of “boxes.”

The second time I will share came when I was diagnosed with cancer.  My girls were still young---one in diapers.  I did not feel particularly unlucky or that God owed me something better.  People get sick at all ages.  And my theology would say God does not give us bad things to test us.  Once again, I cried out for help and God came in the form of many friends and family.

Physically, I survived and have thrived for decades now.  For that I am grateful.  But even more grateful am I for all those folks who were there for me.  They would have been just as graceful and helpful had my fate been different.  Life or death---they would have been friends of the Spirit.  They helped me at a time when I really wanted to ask, “How do I get through this crap?”

We do not live in a perfect world.  We may enter phases of life that deliver obstacles and troubles and we ask, “How do I get through this crap?”  Very often, it is someone else who comes to our aid.  Often, it is a community.  Always I think it is the Holy One.  It is my experience that this Holy One typically uses others.  And I am always grateful.           

Friday, June 26, 2015

Relational Keys

There are few indications in my life that I am “with it.”  I remember that term from my growing up days.  Being “with it” was something most of us aspired to achieve, but most of us never made it.  I don’t even think I came close.  I suspect that one of the problems was most of us would never quite be sure what “it” was that we were supposed to be “with!”  Was it the clothes to wear?  Sometimes it seemed like it must be the hairstyle.  All I knew was farm guys probably did not have a chance.

Many of us never outgrow this aspirational quest to be “with it.”  I am sure the “it” changes.  It might be the place you go to college, the car you drive, the one you date.  Again, I was never sure about it.  Fortunately for myself, I felt the urgency to be “with it” subsides over the years.  I hope it is because I gave “it” up, rather than simply gave up!  I did feel more free as a result.

Although I don’t consider being on Twitter “with it,” it is not something I would likely have done without the effective cajoling of my very competent secretary.  Like many things, Twitter is whatever you make of it.  I do a great deal of news and follow people I never would get a face-to-face meeting.  I see things presented in a brief package that I probably never would have run into otherwise.  Recently one of these caught my attention.  The headline simply said, “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits.”  I could not resist.

The tweet took me to a piece that Emily Esfahani Smith did for the Atlantic.  Of course, I wanted to know what those two things were.  I have been in some long lasting relationships.  I have had relationships I hoped would be long blow up too quickly.  So I was open to learn.  I went to the site and began reading.

Typically, we are given tantalizing tidbits to draw us into the meat of the article.  Quickly I learned that every June 13,000 couples get married---beginning what they hope is a long-term relationship.  13,000 couples: Wow!  I read on to learn that according to some experts only three people of ten who get married have a happy marriage.  All this was interesting and the supporting research to get to the results, but I was in a quest to find those two basic traits that build lasting relationships.  Of course, near the end I found them.

When I found them, I laughed because I was not surprised.  The two basic traits of long relationships are kindness and generosity.  I was happy these were the two traits.  I was happy because they really are special, to be sure, but they really are not special.  What I mean by saying they are not special is anyone can be kind and be generous.  They are not like IQ or something that many people don’t have.  Being kind and generous is not having superior talent.

Knowing these are the two basic traits was not surprising because I realized my parents were teaching me these two traits from an early age.  And I certainly was trying to instill these characteristics into my two girls when they were small.  The good news about kindness and generosity is they can be learned.

To be kind is to be other-focused.  Being kind is not about you.  It is about the other person.  No wonder this is a key to long-lasting relationships.  Of course, in a relationship, kindness is reciprocal.  I am intent on being kind to you, but you have the same intent toward me.  So paradoxically, I wind up getting what I gave.  Kindness is a form of love.  I love and am loved in return.  That is a good deal!

The same goes for generosity.  Generosity is related to liberality.  The opposite is selfishness and hoarding.  You ask for one and I give two.  Generosity is always more than enough.  And frequently, generosity is more than I can even have imagined.  How many times when someone has been generous with me, I say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have.”  And that’s correct.  They did not do it because of a “should.”  They gave out of the generosity of their hearts.

Kindness and generosity are not the privilege of a few or the lucky ones.  I can choose either or both any time I want.  And if I enter a relationship, I can practice being kind and generous.  If I am committed to being kind and generous, I am not in a conditional, tit for tat relationship.  Generosity and kindness are not bargaining chips for getting something I want.  They are not coercive.

Most of the major religious figures model kindness and generosity.  I know there are times I do it.  But I want to grow up and do it more consistently and do it better.  I want to be able to be kind and generous to a broad range of people.  It is easier with the ones I like or want to impress.  Like Jesus, I want to be able to grow my capacity to be kind and generous to those more on the margin of my relationships.

This reflection on a tweet will become a blog and perhaps give the wrong impression that I am “with it.”  I aim instead to get “with it” as I grow into a more kind and generous person.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Freedom of Exploration

The phrase, freedom of exploration, I read somewhere.  I have no idea, since I read fairly widely.  I do remember when I saw it that my interest was piqued.  Perhaps it is because I have some interest in the process of innovation that it intrigued me.  But I also thought about my work in the discipline of spirituality.  Let’s look at both of these arenas.
           
The freedom of exploration seems like a suggestion or, even, advice to me.  I can imagine saying it to someone.  “Go ahead, explore freely.”  I do not know how you could order or command someone to do this.  It feels more like permission.  “Go ahead.”  There is an element of encouragement that I very much like.
           
I value both words, freedom and explore.  Our American culture talks a great deal about freedom.  It is assumed that we are a country with immense freedom.  Perhaps the ideal is being able to do what I want whenever I want and wherever I want.  I am not against this idea of freedom, but I am not sure that is the deepest or most profound freedom.  In fact the idea of freedom in the phrase, freedom of exploration, is more qualified.
           
In fact, I think the more important idea is the idea of exploration.  The phrase simply acknowledges that we have the freedom to explore.  I think the idea of exploration is the radical idea, not freedom.  It is radical because the process of exploration is a process that opens us up.  It potentially calls into question the status quo---the routine that seems to run most lives and most institutions.  The freedom to explore implies that a new way, even better way might be discovered.
           
In the world of innovation we know that freedom to explore is a necessity.  By its nature, innovation looks for new things or new ways to do old things.  By nature innovation is potentially disruptive.  It is a potential threat to the status quo.  Doing things the way we always have done them might be comfortable, but ultimately refusal to change usually spells death.  Innovate or die!
           
I would argue that the same thing is true in the spiritual realm.  Most of us would not think to speak about spirituality and innovation in the same sentence.  For too many people spirituality is rooted in tradition.  Thinking the way we have always thought seems to rule the day.  By its nature, tradition is conservative.  Tradition is rooted in the past and tends to abhor change.  From the perspective of tradition, why is there a need for freedom to explore?
           
I certainly am not against tradition or heritage.  In fact, I did a Ph.D. in early Christian history.  But if we deal only with the past, we are anything but free.  We become prisoners of what was.  And we resign ourselves to being mere spectators to what will be.  We risk becoming spiritual dinosaurs in a world, which only sees a role for the dinosaur in a museum.  It has little to do with the vibrancy of real life.
           
Oddly therefore, my analysis comes to the place where I would say that we have no choice but to explore.  We have come to the place where we should say that we have the obligation to explore.  Let’s push this a bit further into the arena of spirituality.
           
We can begin with God.  God surely was a God who worked in history, as I see it.  In fact the biblical tradition is a record of God’s work in history.  There are the two covenants---Old and New Testaments.  There is the rich treasure of twenty centuries of Christian tradition.  So clearly, there is a God of history. 
           
But I assume there is also a God of mystery---the Spirit who is at work in the present and the Spirit who is pulling us all into the mystery of the future.  This is where the freedom of exploration takes place.  In the freedom of our exploration we need to be actively looking to see where and how God is at work today.  It might be in the institutional church, in the creeds and sacraments.  I would affirm this is probably true.  But the working of the Spirit is probably not limited by these traditional modes of Divine Work.
           
We are called and challenged to exercise our freedom to explore other venues where the Spirit may be at work.  The answers here are not obvious.  And the ones who come up with new insights may not be the bureaucrats of tradition---the priests, professors of religion and the like.  The bureaucrats may be the least likely to be innovative, because we are the conservers. That is why exploration requires freedom.
           
It requires freedom, not anarchy.  Freedom is the space and the grace to go ahead and explore.  Freedom is new questions and new openness to fresh winds of the Spirit.  Maybe it is the child---and the childish---in our midst, who might be an explorer of the Spirit.  Perhaps it is the marginalized.
           
Freedom to explore does not require ordination.  It requires curiosity, courage, and commitment.  It is open, non-judgmental, and flexible.  I want to be more involved in this future work.  I hope all people of the Spirit want to become explorers and have the freedom of exploration.  It is our future!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Importance

Someone recently thanked me for being important in her life.  I appreciate the gratitude and, even more, appreciated the opportunity to think about importance.  Perhaps this is an issue of spiritual immaturity, but that’s probably where I am anyway.  I always hope to find things to ponder that might lead to some growth and a bit more maturity.  As I thought about the gal who thanked me, I would have agreed with her that in her mind I was important to her.  She was right.  I didn’t do that in order to be who I am.  But I was glad to help someone.

As indicated, the spiritually mature person probably never thinks about being important.  That is not their goal.  However, all truly mature spiritual people undoubtedly are important---perhaps in many ways.  But it would not register nor really matter, if they were to come to know it.  For those of us less saintly, perhaps it is a good exercise to think about importance.

Maybe our earlier ego development needs some sense that we are important.  Of course, I only have my own experience.  And I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know the official psychological perspectives on the matter. I do assume that having some sense of one’s importance is a healthy thing.  And probably even healthier is the capacity to recognize that others are important.  Let’s unpack that a little.

I cannot remember my own infancy, but I have watched my two girls and now some grandchildren.  And I have seen a ton of babies throughout the years.  There is little doubt in my mind that for a little one, parents are important.  Furthermore, in most cases I observe, typically the mother winds up being more important much of the time.  Of course, there are all sorts of exceptions that anyone can cite.  I know if you ask my youngest grandkid who is the most important person in the world, God would not qualify!  Mom wins---hands down.

That does not always change.  It is not surprising to me to watch some college students still relate to their mothers as if she were still the most important person in the world.  I know I have introduced a tricky issue into the equation: there is important and, then, there is the issue of most important.  Somehow the idea of importance can become competitive or hierarchical.

If I am honest, there usually are stages in my life where I could have told you who was the most important person in my life.  Early on it may have been my mother.  As a young boy, I think it would have been my father, since he and I spent so much quality time together on the farm.  At some point, I am confident some of my peers took over the number one slot.  This often is articulated as “my best friend.”  I laugh because some I know claim to have three or four “best friends.”  Grammatically, you can only have one!

For many of us adolescence comes and priorities begin to shift.  We may see our “best friend” become someone of the opposite sex.  There is no comparison to the puppy love stage!  In the fullness of puppy love one never feels more alive or more engaged.  There is no doubt who is number one---the most important.  In fact, nearly everyone else drops off the face of the earth!  We all know it does not last.  But in the middle of it, life does not get better!

I have seen myself go through progression.  If we get married, probably at some stage the spouse is the most important.  He or she displaces parent, siblings and others.  If and when we have kids of our own, it is not unusual that our children push our spouse down the importance ladder.  And then you come to my place.  I am very confident I am not the most important person in anyone’s life.  And that is exactly as it should be.  I am fine with that.  But it does not mean I want to be unimportant.  That is where it becomes a spiritual issue with me.

Spiritually I think it is quite fine to want to be important.  If we are dealing with the spiritual perspective, then our ego is not an issue.  Ego is a psychological issue.  Spiritually speaking, we want to be important, because that means we matter.  I would hate that I would live my entire life and not matter.  I don’t need to matter in any financial or egotistical way.  I don’t need wealth, fame or any other worldly accouterment.

Spiritually it does not matter that I am the “most important,” but I would like to be important.  And I would like to be important simply for whom I am—not something I have done or achieved.  That’s when I began to realize a significant truth: I am important!  I am important in God’s eyes.  God values me.  I am worth something and worthy.  The good news is my worth does not make you or anyone else less worthy.  It is not a competition.

In fact, I would argue that the nature of God is such that I can actually be to God the “most important” one.  And from your perspective, you can too.  God’s unfathomable depth, love and mercy make every one of us “the most important one.”  When I grasp the truth of this, I can relax.  I’ve got it made!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sandpit of Life

Sometimes in my research for other things I am doing with my time and life, I run across ideas for these inspirational musings.  Occasionally, it even feels like a eureka moment---I found it!  And in these moments, I am not always sure what I think or where it is going to take me.  But I know the process of thinking about it and letting it ferment in my brain and heart will bring me to some knowledge, insight and maybe some wisdom.  The process is significant.

I am working on another book.  At least the ones I write require some wide reading and research.  I have opinions, but my books need to be more than something I thought about over breakfast and then shared.  And so I found myself reading a piece about primates!  Don’t ask how that relates to anything else I am doing.  I came across a fascinating account of a British anthropologist and psychologist person named Robin Dunbar.  I had never heard of him.

Dunbar’s research “was trying to solve the problem of why primates devote so much time and effort to grooming.”  This is surely an interesting question, but I never thought about it until I read about Robin Dunbar.  As usual, what he found out not only began to answer this question, but also was suggestive for other areas of knowledge. 

I read on to discover that the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis (now known as the Social Brain Hypothesis) had just been introduced into anthropological and primatology discourse.”  This hypothesis “held that primates have large brains because they live in socially complex societies: the larger the group, the larger the brain.”  As a human being, I was beginning to feel implicated!  My mind began to race ahead and I’m sure I was making similar guesses about what I expected that Dunbar had been guessing at the time.

I could not have put the best answer in his terms, but I understood it.  Dunbar concluded: “Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex, the frontal lobe in particular, you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal.”  Naturally, Dunbar jumped to see if this information worked for humans, too.  Apparently there is some good correlation.  

One conclusive hypothesis Dunbar asserts is “judging from the size of an average human brain, the number of people the average person could have in her social group was a hundred and fifty.”  That number---which has become known as the Dunbar 150---is basically the optimal size group of folks we can call casual friends.  If our group is bigger than this, we can’t manage it very well.  When I thought about myself, this made some sense.  It fits.

I realized I had “learned” years ago.  In my work with churches, I found that churches could grow to about 150 or maybe 200 maximum and maintain a nice sense of community.  Often churches try to grow bigger than that and it simply does not work.  I figured out the church has to change its model of membership and sense of community if it grows beyond these numbers.  It can, but it demands a different way of thinking.  And I knew it was not easy.

That is the first place I saw the relevancy of his research for my own interests in religion.  The second place I was intrigued has to do with where our technological revolution will take it.  Essentially, the question is: will the stuff of today change who humans are?  Dunbar also is interested in this same question.  For eons the humanization of humans happened in real, live groups---homes, schools, friends and acquaintances.  Will our technology develop humans differently?

Dunbar knows that “We aren’t born with full social awareness,” and Dunbar fears, “too much virtual interaction may subvert that education.”  He illustrates this when he says, “In the sandpit of life, when somebody kicks sand in your face, you can’t get out of the sandpit. You have to deal with it, learn, compromise.”  I really liked that phrase, “sandpit of life.”  My sandpit of life has been a particular family, specific schools and wonderful, but not perfect, churches.  My sandpit got much bigger with travel.  I found folks from England, Germany, Brazil, India and other places in my sandpit.  I am sure going online to those places is not the same.

Dunbar puts it effectively when he says, “On the internet, you can pull the plug and walk away. There’s no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn.”  That is a powerful observation.  He is concerned that too many virtual friends might replace our real, social friends.  It is something to think much more about and exercise care how we proceed.

For the moment, however, I become even more thankful for all my friends in my sandpit of life.  I resolve to spend more time telling them I appreciate them and ask them to help me even more to form the spiritual life in community that I desire.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Spiritual T Roads

I am assuming that most of us who have a driver’s license and have spent time behind the wheel know what a T road is.  I grew up in rural Indiana and it was not uncommon to be on a T road.  Pretty quickly you learn there are only two options---well at least two good ones!  I know I learned this lesson long before I was old enough to drive a car.  But then I also know I was driving tractors on the roads long before I was sixteen!  Now that I think about it, I am not sure anyone ever wondered if that were legal!

When I assume things, I always am prepared to be on guard that my assumptions may not be shared by all.  For example, I am not sure younger, urban drivers grow up learning about T roads.  Perhaps, they have never heard the phrase and have no clue what I mean.  So for their sake a T road is a road that dead-ends into a perpendicular road---forming a T, as it were.  When you are driving up the trunk of the “T,” you do dead end into the other road.  You have a choice to continue: go right or go left.

The nice thing about a “T” road is you are left with a choice.  You can continue; you can make progress.  Of course, you cannot keep going straight.  That road ends.  But you can make a turn and continue.  Obviously, that is why a “T” road is not the same thing as a dead end road.  I am sure we have all seen those signs along the way.  When you turn down one of these roads and get to the end, it is the end!  No further progress is possible.  Only going backwards is possible.

As I was walking one day, I realized that my spiritual journey has had both dead ends and spiritual “T” roads.  I was drawn to think about the spiritual “T” roads.  The first thing occurring to me is the fact that I almost never knew in the beginning that I was on a “T” road.  I laughed at this insight.  As I thought back, I don’t recall every seeing a sign at the beginning of a road that said, “T” road.  Of course, it always did at the end---right before the “T” road.  No doubt, the same thing holds true for spiritual “T” roads.  We usually are on one before we realize it is a “T” road.

Theoretically, this is not a problem.  It will not stop us.  It will change our course.  I think I can offer my own example of prayer.  I suspect this may resonate with a number of people.  In the beginning of my spiritual journey, prayer seemed rather easy and often fulfilling.  I was eager to do it and there was a satisfaction in doing it and some spiritual fruit from having done it.  I did not realize it, but I had entered a spiritual “T” road.  Maybe if I had read enough, I might have suspected this might be the case.  But I was naïve.

But that was ok.  I was on the journey and that was a very good thing.  There was spiritual movement and growth and that, too, was a very good thing.  Indeed, a spiritual journey is a journey.  It is not an event.  In most cases it is not a race and certainly not a sprint.  I had every reason to hope it would be a lifelong journey.  So I was not thinking about “T” roads and clearly not worried about it.

Normally, spiritual “T” roads don’t have signs as clearly as the ones that marked those rural Indiana roads.  And sometimes you cannot see a spiritual “T” road as clearly as you could see the approaching “T” option on the literal Indiana road.  My prayer life came to its “T” more gradually and slowly emerged into my consciousness.  At some point I realized much of the satisfaction had gone out of my prayer.  It felt like I was forcing it rather than embracing it.  What had once been fulfilling was leaving me less and less touched.  I had come to a “T.”

That meant I needed to find a different way to move ahead.  It did not mean the former prayer life was bad.  It was just the end---the end of the road.  It had brought me so far.  It was time to turn right or left.  It was time to find a different form of prayer.  Or it was time to find a different way of doing a similar kind of prayer.  There were a variety of very good options.

I realized, however, that many of us get stuck at the “T.”  It’s not as simple as driving a car, turning the wheel and giving it the gas again!  In that case the car is doing all the work.  In the case of prayer it seems like I am doing all the work.  I am sure God graces us, but usually God does not grace us automatically when we some to that spiritual “T.”  And I am not sure honking the horn is going to move God to start gracing.

God knows we have options and good possibilities.  Spiritual journeys require that we grow up and develop.  I suspect the spiritual “T” often hastens this developmental process.  Maybe spiritual journeys are a “go and grow” process!  For myself I know attitude has a great deal to do with it.  It is not a hardship.  It is not a dead end.  If I can be patient, I am thankful for the options and possibilities.  I can choose.  I can develop.  I can grow into the fullness of life that God has in store for me.

Go and grow!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Current of Culture

I recently read an article that might well provoke some, but I found it very interesting.  It was written by a Catholic priest.  The title of the article caught my attention: “Could what happened in Delphi happen in Rome?”  When I first read it, I thought I might know what it meant, but I was not sure.  So curiosity drove me to begin reading.  The article begins when the author, Peter Daly, talks about traveling to Greece and visiting the historic ruins at Delphi.

Early in the initial paragraph, I figured out where he was going.  Daly wrote, “At one time, it was the spiritual center of the ancient Mediterranean world.  For more than 800 years, people flocked to consult the famed oracle, bathe in the springs and worship in temples of Apollo and Athena.  Today, nobody comes to worship. It is a ruin, an archeological museum.”  I know some early Greek history and could appreciate his observation.  Delphi would have been the destination for worshippers of that period.  It would be tantamount to folks making a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem or Mecca.  It was the spiritual epicenter of the world at the time.

One begins to feel the sting of the analogy that Daly is setting up when he simply says, “Today nobody comes to worship.”  Many people go to Delphi, but not to worship.  It is an archeological museum.  People go to see artifacts.  Artifacts are facts, but lodged in history.  They do not live.  Daly is now ready for his challenge.

“Is the Catholic church going out of business?”  Daly has challenged not only Catholics, but probably Christianity and all the contemporary religious traditions.  Can what happened in Delphi happen in Rome?  It is a fair question.  Given my age, I am sure the church will outlive me.  Even if Rome goes the way of Delphi, it will happen so slowly, it will be hard to document. 

At one level, I don’t care.  Allow me to quote one more line from Daly’s article to explain why, at one level, I don’t care.  He asks whether the Catholic Church is going out of business.  His answer resonates with me.  “I think the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ ‘Yes’ if you think of the church as an institution in the 1950s model.  ‘No’ if you think of the church as a movement of the followers of Jesus Christ.”

The church as an institution of the 1950s is probably doomed; maybe it does not exist anymore except in the rare instance.  Certainly, the church as a movement---as a group of people with a purpose heading toward the vision of the Kingdom as Jesus envisioned it.  That I find attractive and compelling.  And I think it will continue to attract folks and compel them to their own life and ministry.  The real question is how this will evolve?

The last line I would use from the Daly article gave me an interesting way to think about this evolution.  He asserts,No matter how hard we paddle in the new evangelization, we are carried downstream by the current of culture.”  The current of culture…  That is a great idea and wonderful way to put it.  Every person and, indeed, every organization or group is enmeshed in a culture.  It is impossible to be a-cultural---that is, without culture.

Indeed, most of us are participants in multiple cultures.  I am part of a family culture, college culture, church culture, Midwestern culture, and American culture, to name only some of them.  Some of my cultures, like my college culture, have multiple sub-cultures.  It seems fairly clear that American culture today allows and, it seems, often encourages us not to be authentically spiritual.  It is ok to have beliefs, but don’t take them too seriously!

Our American culture needs us to be as greedy in consuming as possible.  We as asked to continue supporting a significant Defense Department budget to wage war, if necessary.  Probably too many of us are not very involved in the real cause of justice.  Racism is still a problem as we witness too much mayhem and murder in our land.

As I think more about this, the real question for me is not whether Rome (or choose your own denominational equivalent) will become like Delphi.  The real question is whether Christians sign up for what might be called Kingdom work?  We don’t need institutions to work for justice, to labor for peace and to engage love.  These are the real hallmarks of authentic spiritual living.

Where these are found alive and well, I am convinced the Spirit of the Living God is present and supporting our lives and actions.  Ultimately, I don’t care about the institution.  But I do care deeply about our lives in the Spirit.

It is no good for the church to shout, "Women, back to the kitchen! Nuns, back to the cloister! Laity, back to your pews! Gays, back in the closet!" The toothpaste is out of the tube. We can no more bring back the church of the 1950s than we can bring back the Papal States.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Devout, Doubt and Out

Recently I read a great opening line and now cannot even remember where it was.  But I do remember the gist of the line.  I think the line was used about Roman Catholics, but it really applies to all traditions and, certainly all denominations.  The author said there were three kinds of believers: the devout, those who doubt and those on their way out!  I certainly know some Quakers who fit all three categories.  I am confident I can come up with names of Catholic friends in all three.  And clearly in Judaism and, likely, every other major group, there is membership in all categories.
           
I suppose in our now secular age, we could add a fourth category, namely, those who were never in.  But they really don’t count, since they are not wrestling with the issues of faith, belief, membership, etc.  Or if they are wrestling with it, it is not in the context of the church or synagogue.  So I will set this fourth group aside.  I am interested in the other three.
           
Personally, I can only identify with two of the three groups.  Growing up within the Quaker tradition, I sensed fairly early on that I was part of this group.  I did not think much about membership---certainly not formal membership.  In fact, I am confident membership in the Quaker tradition may be looser than in other groups.  There was a sense that if you participated, you belonged.  And this sense of belonging was more important than any kind of formal membership.  Indeed, Quakers have been critical of the perspective that says you can have formal membership, but in actuality not really participate.  (But honestly, we have some of the same problems---of course!)
           
When I think about the group of devout believers, I do not think first of all people who are into theology.  For me, being devout is more a way of life than necessarily a way of believing.  To be devoted to someone or something means giving your heart and soul to it.  If I am spiritually devout, that means I am totally committed to the Holy One.  I have given my heart to God.  I am all in.  And I will be all in, come “hell or high water,” as my grandpa used to say.
           
In my perspective people are not born devoted.  To be devout is different from being dependent.  My little grandkids are dependent.  Every little child is helpless for quite a long period of time.  They need to be fed, held, changed, etc.  They are not devout.  They are dependent.  Of course, they will grow up to become independent (thankfully).  And then they can choose whether to be devoted.  For me that means the devout have chosen to be in relationship.  And of course, they can choose not to be in relationship.
           
That brings us to the second category, namely, doubt.  Personally, I have spent a fair amount of time in this place.  Even those of us who grow up in a religious tradition need to go through a phase of “owning” the faith we inherit.  I do not think there is any way a child can own his or her own faith.  Rather they have the faith of their parents, their church, etc.  Predictably, at some point something happens that provokes them to wonder whether they will become people of faith on their own terms.
           
It is not unusual to become aware of the fact that we are not even sure what “our own terms” are.  Often we know what we are supposed to say, supposed to believe, and supposed to do.  But we are not sure; we have doubts.  Doubts are not necessarily negative.  Doubts are more like saying, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”  Personally, doubt is like the desert.  In doubt there is not the lushness of belief.  Instead of the living waters, in doubt there are hot winds and sand.
           
Doubt can be a healthy place.  It is a time of testing and, sometimes, temptation.  For me, doubt is an in-between time and place.  That does not mean it is quick.  One can be in this stage a long time.  But finally, I think we either become believers (again) or we join the third group.
           
The last group---the folks who have already gone out---are not necessarily wrong, nor are they bad.  They simply are folks who don’t belong to a spiritual tradition.  I respect their place and support them in their non-spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in life.  After all, they face the same human questions and predicaments that believers do, i.e. imperfection, mistakes, death, etc.  I treasure them because they have so much to teach me.
           
I realize there may be some fluidity between these categories.  I am confident God honors each phase or stage.  I am confident that the Spirit continues to work in people and in the world regardless of where I or you are.  And in faith I can ultimately say perhaps the categories are irrelevant.  We are all on a pilgrimage through life.  In faith and in the end, I think it is all spiritual---for the devout, the doubters and even those on the way out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Whispers of Evil


I try to follow some of the daily lectionary readings.  This is a discipline for me, which I know is healthy if I can do it.  However, there are typical temptations that derail my intentionality to be disciplined.  In fact, I am amazed how easily tempted I am and how easy it is to succumb to these temptations and not do what I intended to do.  When this happens, I am disappointed in myself, but I don’t beat myself up.  I just try to do better the next time.

Today I succeeded.  I managed to do the Morning Prayer.  Morning Prayer is the best way to get my day started.  I find it focusing.  I know that a little reflective time at the outset of the day is good for my soul.  I like following this prayer because I know it always uses a couple of the Psalms.  I know how important the Psalms have been throughout history---for the Jewish community and the Christian community.  The Psalms play a central role in the life of monastic worship.  My own Quaker tradition seldom made use of the Psalms, so I felt like I came to them later in life.

The beauty of the Psalms is the fact that they are not all happy Psalms.  By happy Psalms I mean those that say good things about human beings.  In happy Psalms humans are blessed and praised.  Humans get good things from God and, perhaps, even the early rulers.  But there are other Psalms.  I don’t call them sad Psalms.  But they are Psalms in which human being are not faring very well.  Sometimes these Psalms are brutally honest, calling to task humans who have fallen short and, even, failed.  Some of these Psalms present an angry God who is not about to put up with human nonsense.  No wonder I never learned about these Psalms.

The lectionary is good because it ploughs through all 150 Psalms.  You get the good and the tough Psalms.  You get praised and blasted.  You are kudoed and challenged.  And you often are warned.  This warning Psalm was the kind I encountered in the Morning Prayer.  The Psalm was Psalm 36.  I am not familiar with it, which means part of it, at least, is not a happy Psalm.  I decided to focus simply on the first verse.

I usually like to look at two different versions---two different English translations of the original Hebrew words.  One version that I normally prefer reads as such: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.”  This is pretty straightforward.  When I read this, I get the sense there are times I am “the wicked!”  Although I prefer not to see myself in those terms, it is probably good for me honestly to admit there are times I am more wicked than good.  And when I am in my wicked phase, there probably is no fear of God in my mind.  Ugh, the Psalmist has nailed me!

I realize I did not say anything about the word, transgression.  I seldom hear that word, so it likely means it is not part of the normal language of our culture.  I would never say that I “transgressed the speed limit” on the interstate.  But I will confess that I “break the speed limit” or “exceed the speed limit.”  That sounds more acceptable!
However, the second translation actually helps me understand better what the Psalmist meant.  That version comes from the Benedictine lectionary that I use.  It reads:  “Evil whispers to the sinner in the depths of his heart: the fear of God does not stand before his eyes.”  Now the wicked has become the sinner.  That certainly is familiar language.  It is easy for me to understand myself as sinner---because I can certainly choose to sin!

What this Psalm helps me understand is why I would sin.  I sin (or transgress) because evil is whispering in the depths of my heart.  In other words, I am tempted.  And I give in to temptation.  And when I do that, I have temporarily lost any fear of God.  I am on my own…and that usually is not good!
           
Now I don’t have an image of the devil whispering evil in my heart causing me to sin.  I never really bought that line, “the devil made me do it!”  Instead, I prefer to think about the temptations in my life as the whispering evil calling to my heart.  Temptations are always evil in my estimation.  I would never talk about being tempted to do a good thing or to do well.  To the contrary, temptation leads to sin---to me being wicked.
           
And I do think my temptations---the evil pull in my life---come more like a whisper than a shout.  Temptations are subtle; they are wily.  They masquerade as urges, often with the rationale that “it is ok” or “it really does not matter.”  This is what the whisper lures me into believing.
           
As I type this, I think of another line from the biblical tradition.  This time it comes from the New Testament.  It is a line I have prayed many times, as Jesus did: “lead me not into temptation.”  I choose to see the as the anti-temptation---the antidote to temptation.  I can see why I need to pray this daily.  With this prayer, perhaps I can drown out that whisper that leads to sin and to wickedness.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Deeper Understanding of Thanks

I remember so many times when I was growing up in rural Indiana, one of my parents (or even grandparents) would ask, “Did you thank him?”  They drilled into my head that I owed someone a word of thanks if I were given something or if I were told something special.  I suspect that I did not fully appreciate what they were doing for me.
           
I am sure they were teaching me this lesson long before I could register what they actually were doing.  I know with my own kids and, now with grandkids, I am watching that age-old lesson being taught.  No doubt, the kids are too young really to grasp why saying “thanks” is all that important.  I know when I was young I was just happy to get a gift.  I am sure I was driven by pure self-interest.  In a one or two-year old, that is normal and fine.
           
But learning to say “thanks” is an early lesson in self-transcendence.  That is a big word, which simply means, you are not the only one in the world!  What’s more, the world does not revolve around you and your interests.  Of course, I believe you and I are important.  In my theology we each bear the image of God.  We are precious children of God.  But we are not gods!
           
I appreciate my parents instilling this habit of saying “thanks.”  I grew old enough finally to realize what they were doing.  They helped me see that people are often gracious to me.  More times than I could count, someone has given me a gift, said a nice thing to me, praised me---all these deserve a response like, “thanks.”  In many instances, saying “thanks” is the only appropriate response.  Not to respond seems like the epitome of selfishness.
           
I would like to take “thanks” to a deeper level.  Little did I realize this would happen when I studied classical Greek language in graduate school.  However, I was pursuing a degree that required being able to read the New Testament and early Christian theologians in their original Greek tongue, so I learned Greek.
           
I remember the day I hit the Greek word, eucharisteo.  This is the verb.  It also comes as a noun.  Being a Quaker---a non-Catholic---I did not see the inherent connection to our word, eucharist.  If I had been more savvy, I would have known that is the word for Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist---all synonyms for what many Christians still do today when they gather for worship.
           
What I learned about that verb, eucharisteo, was more revealing than something about communion.  The Greek verb really needs to be translated, “to give thanks.”  The Eucharist---Holy Communion---is at its heart a “Thanksgiving.”  To put it the other way, “Thanksgiving” becomes a sacrament!  Communion sacramentalizes the simple, “thanks.”
           
To me this came like a revelation.  It was as if the Holy One had spoken---had offered me an insight as profound as those writers of the biblical stories.  “Thanksgiving” is at its deepest level a sacrament.  Of course, as a Quaker I would not have been able to define precisely what a sacrament was.  But I learned what St. Augustine would say and I liked it.  A sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible reality.”
           
To say “thanks” is to create a momentary sacred bond between the giver and the receiver.  The one to whom something is given says, “thanks”---the visible reality (a sound, a word) of an invisible reality (gratitude, a sense of being graced).  On the surface this might seem like much ado about nothing.  Surely, saying “thanks,” if someone merely opens the door for me, is not sacramental.  But why not?  Why does a sacrament have to be large-scale, like baptism and Holy Communion clearly are?  What about the little, sacramental moments?
           
I would like to think any time we say “thanks” (if it is sincere and authentic), we have created a sacred moment.  “Thanks” is a reciprocal, closing the loop between the giver and the receiver.  You give me something and I say, “thanks.”  My “thanks” loops back to you, the giver, and bonds us momentarily in a sacramental connection.  It is a sacred exchange.
           
This is profound because we all know the sadly secular nature of our world.  We live in a time when folks are out to rip us off, take advantage of us, grab while the grabbing is good, etc.  It is a dog-eat-dog world, you know.  All these betray an attitude of selfish initiation and competition.
           
The attitude of “thanks” and “thanksgiving” is an attitude of openness, receptivity and appreciation.  This attitude allows the Sacred into the middle of our dealings with one another: a gift, a recognition, a sacrament.  Knowing all this gives me a deeper understanding of thanks.  Thank God!