About Me

Friday, July 31, 2015

Your Second Life

I read an extended blog today that was fascinating.  It was by Justine Musk whom I occasionally read, but do not know.  She is one of those people I would like to meet and befriend, but likely will never happen.  So I am content to know her through her writings.  I say that about her because it means I know nothing about her politics, religion, etc.  And at one level, it does not matter.  We read people to get what we can get and that is sufficient.

Her blog opens with this intriguing idea.  There’s a quote by Tom Hiddleston: ‘We all have two lives. The second life starts when we realize that we only have one.’”  I can’t help reading something like this and wondering, do I have lives?  Part of me thinks not.  But another part of me wonders how Tom Hiddleston knows! 

I have read enough of Thomas Merton and other spiritual writers---contemporary and historical---to know this is not a strange idea.  Merton frequently talked about the true and false self.  I wonder whether this is what Hiddleston and Musk have in mind.  I eagerly read further.

Quickly, I ran into what came to be a key sentence for me.  Musk says, “Your second life starts when the world cracks you open.”  That is a powerful image---being cracked open.  Little did I know when I read that sentence that she did, indeed, plan on using an image.  The image she had in mind was a coconut.  The coconut came to be the dominant image.  The coconut would symbolize the two lives we live.

And only when the coconut---or we---are cracked open, will the other part---the other life---be seen and realized.  So in effect, we are all coconuts!  As she says, our “first life is like a coconut.”  Once again, I realize the power that symbols have.  Symbols are a kind a short-cut story.  And Musk does a great deal with story that we don’t have time to pursue in this inspirational piece. But she knows what she is doing.

For example, Musk says, “Symbolism and metaphor and theme get a bad rap from high school English classes.  But they are clues to the deeper life of soul, which is older than language and too complex and slippery for language to contain.”  There’s a phrase that lures me in: “deeper life of the soul.”  That is exactly what I am after.  I want to have a sense of my soul.  I want to be in touch with soul.  I want to live soulfully.  I want a soul mate.  I want friends of the soul.

I get the sense that our lives are really the stories of our souls.  But much of life is the soul captured deep within.  The first part of our story is a story of the soul deep and, perhaps, hidden within.  It is “coconut life.”  It will need that breaking open in order to be exposed and lived---we are cracked open.  Musk thinks the first story we live is our story, but it is a borrowed and created story.

She puts it bluntly, “the purpose of your first story---the reason you co-create it with your caretakers and your culture---isn’t about truth.”  That reminds me of my early story.  It was an ok story.  At one level it was I.  But it was not the real me.  It was the “me” my parents, teachers, and my own dreams created.  I lived that story for years.  It was not bad.  But it was not authentic.  As Musk contends, “It’s about survival.”

In classical theology this often is talked about a life lived apart from God.  That still resonates with my spirituality.  To grow and become the self God wants you to become requires cracking open.  Again classical theology might talk about conversion or transformation.  I am ok with that language, but I am not it makes as much sense for contemporary generations.  I like how Musk puts it.  We need to be cracked open.

She says, “The point in your life when you crack open---the why and where and how---isn’t up to you either.  It happens early for some and later for others.”  My cracking open began to happen in college.  I did not sign up for it, but it happened and I had to deal with it.  It was the beginning of the person I am today.  I am grateful.  Significant things happened.

One significant thing Musk describes in terms I like: ”You move from your head to your heart.”  So true!  We are given the grace of new possibilities.  If we are lucky, it is the ending of the first story and the beginning of the spiritual story.  I like how she describes it.  “Beneath the story you needed to live, is the other, deeper story that needs to live through you. When you’re ready (you won’t feel ready), it steps out of the shadows with love and joy---to make your life hell.”

Being cracked open can be hell.  But it leads to a new path.  The new path is with the Spirit and toward spiritual things.  Hopefully that is the path I am traveling now in my second life.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fecundity of the Normal

Sometimes I know I am using a word that college students would not know.  Fecundity is one such word.  Rather than choosing not to use it because they don’t know what it means, I choose to use it and teach them what it means.  I figure I am educating them!  I am helping them build their vocabulary, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be more attractive job candidates when they are out there in the “real world.”
Fecundity means fruitfulness.  It is often used when speaking of plants.  It always makes me think of harvest time.  When it is applied to people, it could indicate a very productive or successful time.  It could suggest the outcome of hard work.  It might implicate a very talented individual who applied the talent to pull off significant outcomes.  There have been times in my life, which were fecund.  But it is not all the time.  Growing up on a farm taught me that it is not always harvest season.  Often there is a great deal of hard work and, even, waiting before you see the fecundity.
This leads me to think about my own life---especially my own spiritual life.  A recent experience enabled me to see things in a new light.  Recently I had the opportunity to host a very special guest.  It was a wonderful time.  It felt like life shifted into another, faster gear.  There were so many ideas flying around in the air.  The ideas were engaging and challenging.  The pace of interaction was brisk.  It was a vibrant time.  Everything was good and I delighted in the entire experience.
And then, almost suddenly, normality took over my life.  Of course, it was not really sudden.  A better way to understand the process is to realize that my normal life chugs along and then, periodically, something special---maybe even extraordinary---interrupts my normalcy.  Realistically that better describes what happened.  And it gave me cause to reflect.
I loved the extraordinary time.  But I realized that it was not a period of fecundity.  I was not really productive.  It was not a time of unusual success.  I learned things that might make a difference.  I enjoyed things and that is a cherished memory.  But it was not a fecund period.  Pondering this enables me to feel ok about that.  I learned something important.
Most of the fecundity in my life has come in the midst of normality---in the middle of my routine.  Of course, this is where most of us spend most of our time.  And that is the place in our lives where we are doing the real work.  Real work includes our actual job, if we are still working.  But it implies other kinds of work.  Real work could be the work of spiritual and/or emotional growth.
In spiritual growth and in emotional growth, there may be special times---extraordinary times.  There may be times of ecstasy or mystical experience if we are given the grace or are just lucky.  Those times are wonderful and I would sign up for one in a heartbeat.  But again, spiritually and emotionally most of our time is spent in normalcy and in routine.  And that is the space fecundity will happen.  Why is this true?      

It is true because fecundity is a result of effort, work and sheer “staying at it.”  Ecstasy and mystical experiences are the result of grace---they are gifts.  They are wonderful, but they are not fecund.  They are wonderful, but they are not fruitful.
As I reflect more into it, I am convinced that fecundity is typically the fruit---the product or end result---of disciplined effort.  I believe discipline is the key.  Discipline explains how we “stay at” something.  Discipline is the life of prayer.  Discipline explains the daily meditation that can slowly change lives and result in fecundity---fruitful spiritual living.  Fecundity is never solely the result of luck.  Farmers know that they have to plant the crops, till them and wait.  With effort and some good conditions, fecundity may result.
The same is true with the spiritual life.  It takes commitment, regular discipline and some real patience.  Fecundity may well happen.  The spiritual life may well blossom and bloom into the radiant spiritual life that can be very inspiring and very satisfying.  Discipline is the key.  Commitment without discipline is intentionality without action.  Patience is helpful, because fecundity is almost never instantaneous.  There is almost always a growing period.
The growing period happens in our routine---in our normalcy.  Normalcy is where commitment is made.  It is the arena of discipline and it is a time of patience.  Of course, God may add a pinch of grace.  And perhaps there will come a modicum of mercy.  Within the context of our normal lives something rather amazing can come to be: fecundity.  We can experience more fruitfulness and more fulfillments than we had a right to expect. 
I am always happy with special events and the potential for the extraordinary.  But I admit that I am always happy to return to normal.  The normal is where my own life of discipline is worked out and the seeds of fecundity are being planted and cultivated. Normalcy is the field of my spiritual work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Grateful Disposition

Every time David Brooks publishes something, I try to read it.  I find him dealing with so many issues that attract my attention.  And he thinks about them in a way that helps me form my own take on things.  Most of what he thinks about is the stuff that would make the world a much better place to live and work, if we would just actualize his perspective.

He wrote a recent Op-Ed entitle, “The Structure of Gratitude.”  It figures, so I thought.  I have actually been doing some things with gratitude in some of the retreats and training sessions I do for groups and for businesses.  What he offered was not novel for me.  But it was reinforcing and refreshing to see how he framed the gratitude perspective and how he articulated its benefits.  Let’s me share some of that with you.

Let’s start at the end, because if the end is not very good, then how he got there does not make much difference.  That betrays the fact that I like where his article finishes.  Brooks says, “people with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves.  Life does not surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.”  Brooks makes a few neat analytical distinctions here. 

In the first place he distinguishes between our efforts and ourselves.  That is simple and profound.  Brooks does not put down the efforts of people.  In fact he claims that grateful people might even be doing “grand” efforts.  And they feel good about their efforts.  There is not hint of false modesty or fake humility.  But the next distinguishing move is to say our efforts are the focus, not ourselves.  This takes care of big egos and it takes care of egomaniacs doing things to gain attention or accolades. 

What a wonderful world it would be if the egomaniacs would change their perspective.  Become grateful rather than prideful.  Take pride in your efforts.  Do good and enjoy the good deed.  Make significant contributions and be grateful for the chance to make such gifts. 

Secondly, Brooks focuses on expectations.  This is a theme that runs throughout his Op-Ed.  That is a great one for me to ponder.  I certainly have expectations.  Most people do; that is normal.  Grateful people understand that life has dreams (or at least, the good life will have dreams).  Dreams are good; they pull us into a bigger, richer future than living life with no dream.  Without dreams we may be condemned to live a nightmarish life.  No fun!

For the grateful person life does not surpass their dreams, but it does surpass their expectations.  Expectations usually shape how we see things.  Expectations often cause a kind of tension in life.  We set up a “if we do this, that will happen.”  Brooks helps us to see more clearly how this dynamic operates.  He opens his article with a story about expectations.  And then concludes that expectations powerfully “structure our moods and emotions.”  I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Then he draws an early conclusion.  “The beautiful emotion of gratitude” structures our moods and emotions more than any expectation.  I like how he develops this argument by offering a quick sense of how gratitude works.  “Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved.”  So true.  He dis not latch on to a key idea at this point that I might have expected. 

There is a clear linguistic link between gratitude and grace.  Grace is nothing more than a gift.  And the only appropriate response to a gift is to be thankful---grateful.  Brooks is correct to suggest that if we get what we expect, there is less reason to be grateful.  To get what we expected does not structure the situation that produces gratitude.  But if I get more than I expected, I tend to be grateful.  “Wow, thanks!”

The next sentence from Brooks nails it for me.  He artfully suggests, “Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.”  I really like the idea that gratitude is the laughter of the heart.  That is better than heartache or a heart attack any day!  Clearly, it is a cause for gratitude.  As he develops his thoughts, Brooks is arguing for formation of a grateful disposition.  I think this can rightly be called a spiritual formation.  If we could do this, it would become a version of building the Kingdom of God.

At one point Brooks employs a quotation from G.K. Chesterton, an early 20th century English writer on religion.  Brooks cites the saying of Chesterton that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  That is delightfully articulated.  Thanks are the highest form of thought.  That is worth remembering and honoring.

And gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  Who would not want a grateful life that yields happiness doubled by wonder?  That is so good it might be hard to experience.  And that may just why so many of us expect less and get exactly that---less. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

God Has Your Number

Occasionally I am aware that I have lived a pretty long, interesting life.  I do not lament this.  In fact, I celebrate it.  I have been lucky.  Many good things have happened to me that I could not have anticipated and surely not expected.  Perhaps that is why one of my favorite words is serendipity.  I cannot explain why I have been lucky.
That certainly does not mean life has been easy.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have has had problems and setbacks.  Some of them were handed to me for no known reasons.  Other problems and setbacks were of my own making.  Because of stupid choices or wrong decisions, I made life harder for myself.  But overall, I have made it this far and I am very grateful.  With some more luck and some decent self-care, I hope to have some significant time left.
One of the amazing things in my lifetime that I like to think about are the technological advancements that I have witnessed.  It sounds like I was born in the horse and buggy days!  It’s not that dramatic, but when I think about it, technology has been so revolutionary.  I seldom talk about this with students because is seems so preposterous that I am likely to be dismissed.  And of course, if I were eighteen years old, I would have no interest in what someone my age remembers and wants to recount!
When I think about the technological developments, it is easy to think about the revolution that computers have wrought.  I will admit that I am not a “techie.”  In the first place I am usually oblivious to new technological inventions.  Then I become aware of the early, curious techie folks begin to talk about some new thing and I have really little awareness of the thing they describe.  Then more and more folks buy into the technological thing---be it computer, cell phone, etc.  Finally, I climb on board to the technological bandwagon.
All this leads me to muse that in one sense I am a number.  I type this on my laptop computer with my cell phone sitting beside me.  I think about my cell phone.  It occurs to me that I have a special number---ten digits, three of them an area code.  So far as I know, I am the only one in the world with those ten numbers.  If I give you those numbers, you can dial them and my phone will ring.  You can even go to England or China and dial those ten numbers and we can chat!
This seems so commonplace for me, I give it little thought.  Had you told me in the 1950s this would come to pass, it would have been unthinkable.  I have to laugh at the technological advancement that I have experienced and always come to take for granted.  There is no way I want to return to my earlier phone days on the farm when we had a four or five digit number that enabled us to be on a party line!
All this brought me to a spiritual awareness.  My cell phone number prompted me to think of an analogy.  It seems to me that each one of us is unique to God in the same way as my phone number is unique to me.  Of course, I do not think you or I literally have a number that correlates with our relationship to God.  But we are unique.  God calls you differently than God calls me.  I would like to think God has our number from birth.
Like technological advancement, we go through a process of discovery and development.  At some point in life, we begin to discover that we are uniquely linked to God.  God has a special concern (number) for you and for me.  God loves us all, but God loves us all uniquely.  This does not feel cheap to me.  In fact, it feels lavish---God is a lavish Lover!
Discovery that we are uniquely connected to God---that God has our number---is only the beginning.  We can choose to know this and dismiss it.  Too many of us have put the “God-phone” on mute or silence!  God can call, but we won’t hear it.  And if we hear it, we ignore it.  On the other hand, we can take the discovery that we are special in God’s eyes and begin to develop what this means.
If I want to develop---as I have wanted---then we answer God’s calls.  I have tried to answer God’s call on my life.  When my number rings, I have tried to be obedient.  For me personally, this has had some vocational implications.  That might be true for others.  Sometimes God’s call is avocational. It has nothing to do with your particular kind of work---or no work, if you are retired.  Nevertheless God’s call on your life has implications.
God’s ring may be a clarion call to be involved in some special ministries.  It may be as general as simply being a loving human being who works for peace and reconciliation.  It can be as profound as serving folks in your church, in your neighborhood or community.  Some are called to go half way around the world.  Some are called to go around the block.
I am touched and pleased to know that God has my number.  As with my cell phone, I have grown to the place where I think I even have God on “caller ID!”  Of course, I don’t have a little window that lights up with the caller’s name, but when God calls, I know it is specifically for me and that it is my God who is calling.  Amazing!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sign of the Spirit

A theological assumption I hold is that God’s Spirit is everywhere at all times.  This is easy to think and say, but it certainly is not evident all the time.  Much of my life it would be an assumption with little evidence to show.  Sometimes, however, I become aware that I have just seen a sign of the Spirit.  Sometimes this happens in my own life and sometimes it is something I see or read about in someone else’s life.  I just had one of the latter experiences.

Oddly enough, it came in an article in a newspaper I read on a daily basis, The New York Times.  I don’t read everything every day; that is a big newspaper!  But I do tend to run my eyes over most of the headlines and read some that seem pertinent or interesting.  Recently, one such headline grabbed my attention.  It stated: “Black South Carolina Trooper Explains He Helped a White Supremacist” by Dan Berry.  I had to begin reading.

The scene was a white supremacist rally in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia.  A black state trooper noticed one thing, a white guy who “was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika.”  He seemed ill---potentially in trouble.  The details of the scene are Spartan.  We read, “The trooper motioned for help from the Columbia fire chief, who is also black.  Then with a firm grip, he began walking the wilted white man up the steps toward the air-conditioned oasis of the State House.”

Of course, this was only days after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in their church---clearly an act of racial hatred.  Leroy Smith, the State Trooper, emerges for me as a sign of the Spirit.  Of course at one level, it could be said he was only doing his job.  I agree.  But the article gives more details that demonstrate it was more than simply doing his job.  He was also a sign of the Spirit.  His act was caught on a photo and become widely disseminated on Twitter and other social media.

Smith was taken aback at the photo and its popularity, but said he “hoped the image would help society move past the recent spasms of hate and violence.”  That is exactly what I expect the Spirit of God would say to this world.  It sounds a great deal like the words of Jesus or the Buddha or any of the great religious leaders.  “Just say no to violence,” is the mantra of the Spirit.  Then the next section of the article was a clincher.

“Asked why he thinks the photo has had such resonance, he gave a simple answer: ‘Love.’”  If that is not the language of the Spirit, I don’t know what is.  And then, Leroy Smith offered this commentary.  “’I think that’s the greatest thing in the world---love,’ said the burly, soft-spoken trooper, who is just shy of 50.  ‘And that’s why so many people were moved by it.’”  I think this is profound

In fact, I would say it is theologically profound.  Love probably is the greatest thing in the world.  It would be fascinating to go into a shopping mall and ask people what they think the greatest thing in the world would be.  The range of answers might be stunning.  But I think Leroy Smith probably has the best answer---the right answer for me.  It is love.  I think that is why the New Testament writer of the letters of John could say that God is love.  It’s that simple and it’s that profound.

How did Smith come to perform his duty---or his act of love?  He was watching to make sure the demonstrators would not go crazy.  And then he saw one of them---the man whom he was to help.  Leroy Smith said, “He looked fatigued, lethargic---weak…I knew there was something very wrong with him.”  I don’t think the story ever reveals the name of the guy who was helped.  But in the Spirit it does not matter who it was.  It does not matte whether he was black or white, male or female.  It does not even matter that he was a white supremacist!  Some of us may have drawn a line at helping this guy. 

But Leroy Smith stepped right across that line.  We might say he was only doing his job.  I prefer to think he was more than a State Trooper doing his job.  He was a man of the Spirit who did something that became a sign of the Spirit.  He does not tell us his did it out of love.  But how else do you explain it when he himself said the photo had so much resonance because of love?

The powerful thing for me is not simply reading the story or seeing the photo.  The powerful thing for me is to understand this as an act of love.  An act of love is always the sign of the Spirit.  It is always contrary to the hate and violence, which also have so many signs in the world.  Nine dead South Carolinians in their church is surely too many signs of hate and violence.

It is ironic they were killed in a church.  In their own ways, they also were and are signs of the Spirit.  They were witnesses to their faith.  And then, they became martyrs.  I am inspired by Leroy Smith.  Inspiration, however, will also be a mere theological assumption unless it is followed by an act of love.  Then I also can be a sign of the Spirit.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Godspell as Transformative Experience

There are a few journals and things I routinely read.  They inform me of things happening that I probably would not know about until much later.  And they touch on subjects I likely would have said have no interest for me and I get interested!  They alert me to things that I want to pursue---perhaps a book to read or a person to meet.  These things are like regular friends to me.

One of the pieces I read on a regular basis is the National Catholic Reporter.  I know its reputation as a liberal Catholic periodical, but that does not bother me.  I am not reading it for the particular political perspective.  I read it because it helps me stay in touch with people and things in the Catholic world.  The Catholic world is personally interesting to me.  And I figure, any group with over one billion people is worth charting.  I keep up with China and India, too!

Recently, I was drawn to an article entitled, “Author traces lives touched by ‘Godspell,’” by Retta Blaney.  I never heard of Blaney (and she probably never heard of me!).  Blaney’s piece is really about the pilgrimage of Carol de Gierre, who wrote a book about the play, Godspell.  I am sure I was drawn to this article, in part, because I recall seeing Godspell more than once and loving it every time.  I was eager to see de Gierre’s take on the play.

I learned that Godspell opened off-Broadway in Spring, 1971.  I knew it had to be around that time, since I know I was living in Boston at the time.  Intriguingly, de Gierre did not see Godspell in its original period.  Now 63 years old, de Gierre said she did not see the play until her late 40s when she was living in Fairfield, Iowa.  I have been to Fairfield and on Broadway.  The two would not be confused with each other!

de Gierre was so smitten, she moved with her husband to southern Connecticut so she could be close to Broadway, where so much of theater creativity happens.  She discovered Steven Schwartz, who wrote the music for the play, and other cast members who began sharing memories of their early experience with the play.  This led to a book, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, which I would like to read.

The Blaney had a quotation from de Gierre that I found amazing.  "I like writing behind the scenes," she said. "Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation."  I loved that idea of being present at the creation.”  Outside of the context, I would immediately have thought of the Genesis creation some 13 billion years ago, according to scientists.  That certainly was transformative.  But de Gierre meant present at the creation of the play, Godspell.

Her words provoked me, however, to think about the creation of worldly things---like Godspell.  She wanted to get back to the Genesis of Godspell---to go to the beginning of what would be a transformative process that, in turn, transformed so many audiences who would see it.  I can count myself among those folks.

Reading this article put me into my own thoughts about transformation.  It was easy to conclude that any transformation is creative.  By definition transformation changes one form into another---one form trans (crosses over) to a different form.  I begin to think about this in spiritual terms.

No doubt, one of the more dramatic experiences of spiritual transformation comes with a conversion experience.  I know many folks who have had rather dramatic conversion experiences.  They fascinate me, because that has not been my own spiritual experience.  As we know, a dramatic conversion experience can be such that folks say, “one day I was a sinner and the next day I was not.”  They have been transformed.

Others of us experience transformation more like evolution.  That has been my type.  It has been very a slow, hit and miss kind of transformation.  Only gradually do I realize I am being changed from one form to another.  And that change is never without its hitches.  It is not always forward.  There have been relapses; there have been dry periods where nothing happened.  But somehow the Spirit always seemed to be at work.

As I think further into it, I believe transformation is always possible and ever ready to do its work.  And the work can be a dramatic event or a very slow process.  For me it is life-long.  I like de Gierre’s way of putting it: “the experience of being present at the creation.  If you think about it, every day is just such an experience.  Every day we have the possibility of a transformative experience.

Perhaps, the best-known song from the play is “Day by Day.”  I like that as a reminder of the transformative possibilities in our lives.  That is how it will happen…day by day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mary Magdalene: Common Saint

Following the Roman Catholic calendar of saints allowed me to know that yesterday was the saint day for Mary Magdalene.  I like to follow the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, as the daily readings are called.  Special days for the various Catholic saints are recognized as part of the daily notice.  It is good for me, since my own Quaker tradition does not have anything similar.  Our Quaker tradition does hold some folks to have been more “weighty” than others---a term that allows at one level we are all equal, while acknowledging that at another level some really had a larger impact on the world.

With this kind of language, we can say that Mary Magdalene was a “weighty spiritual woman” in her own time.  And that continues to this day.  The Catholic Church canonized her and now she is St. Mary.  I am fine with that.  It does not mean she is only for Catholics and the rest of us can only look from afar.  Hardly, since Mary Magdalene plays a primary role in the New Testament and, thus, belongs to all of us who hold dear the New Testament. 

We don’t know very much about the “real” Mary Magdalene.  Mary is a very common name in that era.  We also know that Magdala was a place near Tiberias in the north of Israel on the Galilee shore.  It may well be that this was Mary’s home area.  The are other suggestions by scholars, but it does not matter to me why she became Mary, the Magdalene.  I am more intrigued by her role in the faith than her origins.

Our historical options are threefold, if we stick to the New Testament.  Some scholars say she is the “sinner” talked about in Luke 7.  Then she was one of the women who followed Jesus in Luke’s next chapter and ministered to him.  More historically solid is the episode in which Mary Magdalene is at the scene of the cross and the crucifixion.  All four gospels place her at the foot of the cross at the last days of Jesus.  We are told that she saw him laid in the tomb.  Thirdly, we know from the New Testament texts that she is present at the tomb at the Resurrection.  In fact, John’s Gospel has only Mary Magdalene first and alone at the tomb.

So do we have three accounts of one Mary Magdalene?  Or do we have three accounts of three different Marys?  That is historically impossible to tell in all likelihood.  While as a scholar, I am intrigued by this, as a person of faith, it does not matter at all.  And this intrigue only becomes keener when we see the historical tradition become even more embellished.

What intrigues me the most in all of this is the role Mary Magdalene played in the witness of her faith.  She witnesses to three stages of faith, as I want to develop it.  The first phase is the “coming to faith.”  If Mary were the “sinner” of Luke 7, this tells us a bit about her pilgrimage.  The scene is a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house.  Through the course of the meal, the woman who is a sinner is washing the feet of Jesus, kissed him and anointed his feet.  Jesus contrasts her action with that of the dinner guests, none of whom had done any of this.  At the end Jesus forgives her sins, which is a kind of healing.  And then he says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (7:50) She had come to faith.

The second phase of the faith pilgrimage is “growing in faith.”  Here we know virtually no details for Mary Magdalene.  But she surely did grow in her faith.  She began to follow Jesus.  She became a disciple, even if that term were never used for her.  To be a disciple literally means to become a student.  Jesus was her Rabbi---her Teacher. 

Discipleship certainly entails a learning process.  But it is more than an accumulation of knowledge.  To become a disciple was a quest for wisdom more than a desire of knowledge.  That was Mary Magdalene’s journey.  She must have traveled it effectively.  She came not only to the cross, but was there for the rest of the story.  In fact, to begin with she may have been the first and only one there.  This brought her fully into the third stage of the faith, namely, “deep witnessing.” 

I call it deep witnessing because there are times the witnessing can lead to death.  This is capture very well in the Greek word for witness, marturo or martyro.  Clearly, the English word, martyr, is implicated in that Greek word.  The call to faith is ultimately a call to become a witness.  And witnessing has many levels to it.  The process of becoming a saint is tied up with this process of faith development.  Obviously, Mary Magdalene did it exceptionally well.

Finally, the real task is not to learn her story so well I can tell it without a hitch.  The real task is the personal one---my life and your life.  Mary has walked her walk.  She is now St. Mary Magdalene.  All of us are somewhere along the way of our walk.  Some of us may still be the sinners at the dinner table.  Others probably are growing in the faith.  And some are so long on the way, they have become witnesses in their own right.

I don’t like that I have used “stage” language.  That implies we do one stage and, like a step, leave that stage and move to the next.  I do like the phase language I also used.  I move between phases.  I know all too well that in an instant I can be a sinner and we begin all over!  But faith is about progress, not perfection.  Saints are those far into their progress.  I am ok; I am on the way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Crucible of the Spirit

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside.  It was easy when I was growing up on a farm.  Much of that life was spent outside.  In those days even the time on the tractor was outside---exposed to nature.  I know that is probably not good, given the health issues.  I can appreciate modern tractors and combines with their cabs, radios, etc.  As a boy, I leaned to “read nature.”

I learned things like prevailing winds and the clouds that would bring rain and clouds that did not.  I learned to smell the rain and deal with the snow.  I appreciated the seasons.  In an odd way I liked learning from the tough times that nature could deliver---wet springs, dry summers, cold winters.  Extreme and excess can teach us a great deal.  Life is easy when things are going well and there are no hardships. 

As life unfolded for me, I chose things that kept me inside much of the time.  That continues even to this day.  There are rare occasions that call for me to do my profession outside.  Most of my time is spent in controlled environments.  When it is cold, my building and house are heated.  When it is hot, the process is reversed and I am cooled.  All of this is good---it is modern, as we call it.  I am not asking for the good old days!

I try to make sure I spend some time each day outside, because I don’t want to lose the connection with nature.  I wonder if most young people have much connection with nature?  Most of them have spent their lifetimes in controlled environments.  I hope they have learned to appreciate the changing of the seasons.  I hope their can learn to do more than simply whine if the weather is not perfect. 

A couple days ago when I was outside and the weather was not perfect, I realized that it had not occurred to me to return to the inside, which clearly was more perfect.  I realized that my farm background and my involvement in sports had taught me there are times you are going to be outside and that’s the way it is.  There is no reason to whine---at least if you want to do what needs to be done.  And then I had another, deeper realization.

I had the profound experience that my life is pure gift.  There was no way I could sustain my life if nature were not providing the air to breathe.  If nature were to withdraw the oxygen from the air, I would be dead in minutes.  I was in the midst of nature and I was in the bosom of an incredible Giver whose minute-by-minute generosity was sustaining me and the other seven billion souls on this earth.  I did nothing to create it or to deserve it.

Most of the time I am not even aware of it.  Blithely I take it for granted.  Merrily, I go along thinking I am pretty independent and assuming I can do whatever I want to do.  At one level that is true.  But the truth of that depends on the incredible Giver continuing to grace us all with the necessities of life.

I really like the fact that all the classical languages have the same word for “breath,” “air” and “spirit.”  My life depends on breathing and that is nothing other than spirit.  Without the spirit, I am dead.  And I cannot be so bold as to assume it is my spirit.  That is why I capitalize it: “Spirit.”  There is a Spirit bigger than I am and external to me upon which I am dependent.

I took one more step to realize that nature is the crucible of the Spirit.  My spirit is sustained and nurtured by that Spirit and in that Spirit.  The only way out is death.  Otherwise, we are all in the crucible.  Our choice is to be aware or to be unaware.  If I am aware, then I can live with a level of appreciation and thankfulness.  That is what being outside teaches me.  I am more aware.

That leads me to think about the recent words about integral ecology, which Pope Francis borrows from Saint Francis.  He shows how Saint Francis models this awareness of nature and its gifts.  His (Saint Francis) response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.”

The Pope calls for us to live with the same kind of conviction that nature is the crucible of the Spirit that Saint Francis had.  The Pope says, “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters…”

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside to cultivate the openness to awe and wonder.  I want to continue to learn the language of fraternity with God’s creation and creatures.  I want to see, appreciate and share the beauty of the world.  I want to be a grateful participant in the crucible of the Spirit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Creation and Incarnation

There are some writers who are so clear in what they say, we always come away edified.  One such writer for me is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who directs a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have read a number of Rohr’s books and use a couple in my classes.  However, I have only heard him speak one time.  That was a series of three lectures and they were quite instructive.

One line he used at that time I still remember.  Rohr said, “The incarnation happened at the Big Bang!  Jesus just personalized the incarnation.”  When he said that, immediately I wrote it down, which is why I can recall it today.  At the time I also remember how much that one-liner resonated with me.  It resonated in my gut as a true feeling.  And it resonated in my head as a good expression of the theology I would espouse.  Let me unpack the one-liner.

The first thing to be noticed is how the one-liner ties together the twin ideas of creation and incarnation.  For those who might not know what the word, incarnation, means, it simply is the fancy word to describe the verse from John’s Gospel, which says, “the Word became flesh…” (Jn 1:14).  My way of putting it says the incarnation affirms that God becomes human.  This is a radical claim and is at the heart of Christianity.

When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to read fairly widely and to think rather deeply.  As I did this, I began to realize the incarnation is key to my own personal theology.  The last half of Rohr’s statement puts it rather playfully.  Jesus personalizes the incarnation.  This accounts for the central role Jesus plays in the Christian tradition. This is as it should be.  I am fine with that. 

That Christian tradition says that Jesus is the one in whom God came to be and to act in human ways in our world.  Jesus modeled what God wants people to do in the world.  That is the way to understand his ministry.  We can think about some details.  Jesus worked for peace and justice.  Jesus came to be a lover---he loved everyone with whom he crossed paths.  People beyond the pale of acceptability somehow were included in the pale of acceptability.  In effect, Jesus says that we should be careful of our exclusivity.

Now let’s go to the first half of Rohr’s statement.  Rohr says that the incarnation happened at the Big Bang.  Clearly, Rohr is being his usual playful self.  I do recall the audience laughing when he put it this way.  What he is claiming is a profound thing.  Essentially, he says that the incarnation began at creation.  Again as I thought about that, I agree.  But I also realize this requires a particular way of looking at the incarnation which might not be shared by everyone.  That’s ok.

When Rohr affirms that the incarnation happens at creation, he is really talking about God’s personal involvement.  Even in the creation, God decides to be involved and invested in the creation.  Gone is the old Deistic argument that says God created the world and then stepped back and watched the world work.  The familiar image of this God is of a watchmaker.  The world is God’s watch.  After making a watch, God’s work was done.  Step back and watch it.

This is not Rohr’s approach.  God’s creative work was involved work.  We all know that part of God’s majestic creation turned into a mess.  That describes me and could describe others.  Sin made a mess of God’s intended beautiful world.  Too many of us choose not to be fair to others and not to care about others.  We were ok with injustice, poverty, anger, hate and, even, war.  Atrocities were committed in God’s name.  Significant aspects of creation groaned with pain.  And that is not finished.  As the Pope’s recent encyclical protests, the whole climate issue is perhaps the biggest and latest human sin needing radical attention.

So when the world becomes a mess, God chose the second act of incarnation, namely, to become personally human.  Jesus had and has a special role to become a new creature---to model what God intended in the first creation.  The key here is not to see Jesus as so special or unique that none of this implicates us.  This is where Rohr comes in and I join him.

I would argue the incarnation has a third act.  The third act is what each of us can do when we let God come into our humanity.  Obviously you and I are not going to become Jesus Christ.  But just as obviously, we are called to be like Christ---to be and do the kinds of things he did.  And the things he was and did are simply what God wants done on this earth.

When Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” I figure he meant it!  He did not see the Kingdom as some post-mortem, otherworldly enterprise.  That might be part of it.  But he sees it as a here-and-now possibility. It is possible if we let God incarnate in us, too.  We become instruments of the Kingdom.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Friends on Earth

Recently I had a speaking opportunity with an organization I have known for decades.  It is a Quaker group that gathers annually.  Typically, there are a couple speakers and that was the role to which I had been invited.  Earlier in my career, this was a group I would have visited every year they gather.  On most of those occasions, I would not have been the speaker, but I did get to know many of the folks. 

Of course, over time many of the ones I would have known have moved or died.  And over time many new faces have moved into the area or simply have joined that Quaker gang.  So there were more faces I did not know that I could claim I knew.  That is a good thing!  But I also was more than happy to be back where some old friendships were rekindled, if only for a short period of time.  It led me to think about friendship, one of my favorite themes.

I have thought a great deal about friendship and have read much over the years.  And anyone my age clearly has had many friends.  Unfortunately, the term, “friend,” is used quite loosely and, often, without much meaning.  I know students and others who would claim to have more than five hundred Facebook friends.  According to the classical definition of friendship, having five hundred friends is impossible. 

I do not want to belabor the definition of friendship here.  What I would like to do is pick up the wonderful words of Jesus, which come to us in John’s Gospel.  At one point Jesus turns to the small group of his followers and says, “No longer do I call you servants; I call you friends.” (Jn 15:15)  This has been an important reference for my own Quaker gang, because our technical name is the Religious Society of Friends.  We take this passage as our understanding of discipleship. 

Our understanding of discipleship sees the call to be a disciple as a call to be a friend.  When Jesus told so many, “follow me,” essentially he was calling them into a relationship of friendship.  But was not to be a tepid, loose affiliation that Jesus had in mind.  It was to be a serious relationship with significant implications for us, his friends.  It is upon this I was led to reflect.  What was I, as a friend of Jesus, and all those others I called friends (and who were trying to be friends of Jesus) to think and to do?

Immediately, I thought of a key resource on this matter.  Some years ago I met and became an acquaintance of Liz Carmichael, a theology professor at St. John’s College, Oxford University.  She wrote a book on friendship, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love.  I would like to cite one passage that summarizes the nature of friendship---at least, the way Jesus might have wanted it.  Carmichael says it is “to be friends on earth, to offer love which may be in the truest sense sacrificial, to build community, to be peacemakers and healers, to seek and promote compassion and justice, to walk with the oppressed and help their voice be heard, to celebrate with all.” (197)  Let’s look at this in a little more detail.

I like the idea of friends on earth.  It does not discount we might be friends in heaven---after death, but it does not speculate on that.  To be friends on earth is to offer love.  It may even ask for sacrificial love.  That is clearly what one of the Greek words for love, agape, means.  It is the deep kind of love that parents have for their children.  It is the kind of love that does not worry about the price to pay to help someone else.  It is the opposite of selfish love.

The next idea is to build community.  A whole book could be written on this.  The work of friends---especially, if it is demanding work---cannot be done alone.  It requires the support of community.  Community refreshes us in the moment and provides momentum for the long haul.  Community picks me up when I don’t feel like I can do any more.  And community asks for me to pick up others when their zeal is flagging.  I could not do it without community.

I like the idea that Carmichael gets fairly specific about the ministry.  It is to be peacemakers and healers.  We seek and promote compassion and justice.  Compassion is nothing less than love---sacrificial love in action.  And justice is the work of those who have more than enough as we try to ensure those who have less than enough get a fair deal.  Certainly I am in that category of those who have enough.  The ministry of justice is a serious calling.

That is closely linked to seeking opportunities to walk with the oppressed and helping all those who are silent to find their voices.  I have learned how to do this in the classroom.  I need to learn how to do it better in the bigger world.  I still feel like a neophyte.  And the final word is the challenge to celebrate.  It does not have to be thankless, grim work. 

There are times we need to recognize and appreciate those who are friends in the community of ministry.  This helps us go forward as friends on earth.  So be it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Recreation Centers and Laboratories

Sometimes I get inspired in the oddest places.  I was in the middle of some exercise in the Recreation Center (or Rec Center, as it is affectionately labeled), when it hit me: this is it!  Well, this was not totally it; actually this was half of it.  So far, this should be making no sense!  Bear with me.
I was exercising in the Rec Center.  The days are long gone when I exercised vigorously.  In the old days I would have been going so hard, I would not have been thinking at all.  In those days I never was inspired, nor did I ever have a mystical experience, while exercising.  But these days, the exercise is more leisurely, shall we say.  I was inspired, but it was a slow, revealing kind of inspiration.
What hit me was the name of the building in which I was exercising: Recreation Center.  Of course, that is hardly novel.  Every college or university of any description has a Recreation Center of some kind.  There are plush ones, Spartan ones…but they all serve the same purpose.  I was not focused on the name of ours, for it is named after a person, as so many Centers are.  No, I was focused on the generic name students and most folks on campus call it: the Rec Center.
When we say it in its shortened version, we lose the sense of the longer word, recreation.  I like the word, recreation.  Like most folks, when I hear that word, recreation, I think of play.  We can use it as a verb---recreate.  Although it may sound a little odd, I can tell my secretary that I am going to recreate.  I am going to play.  Certainly recreate means more than physically working out.  I could go play cards or chess and that would be recreation.  Any form of play constitutes recreation.
As the inspiration unfolded, I thought about another set of central buildings on my campus: the laboratories (or “labs,” as they are affectionately known).  For many on campus, the labs are associated with science classes, because those have “labs.”  When students or faculty are in their labs, probably no one thinks he or she is there to play around.  Labs are for work.  And that is appropriate, because our English word, laboratory, comes from the Latin word for work, labor. 

The pace of the inspiration quickened.  With these two centers---Rec and labs---we come to a human polarity: work and play.  I wonder why I and most folks would write those in that order: work and play?  Perhaps our culture knows how to value work and to undervalue play.  Perhaps I and others need to look at life more as a play-work enterprise!

My inspiration demanded one more revealing move.  When we look closely at the word, recreation, we see its true meaning.  Recreation is literally re-creation…creating again.  Perhaps that helps us understand human life within the work-play polarity.  There are seasons for work and seasons for play.  In fact, I could argue at its best, work is creative and play is re-creative.  No one should work all the time.  There is a kind of sickness in that.  And no one should play all the time.  There is a kind of frivolity in that.

With all this inspirational unfolding, I was brought to a spiritual truth for humans.  Spiritually we were designed to live within this polarity of work and play.  To have one without the other is to live an unbalanced life.  Humans are designed to live with rhythm.  Our lives become purposeful with our work.  Our lives also need respite from purpose to enjoy the restorative moment without aim or intent.

At their heart, both work and play are spiritual functions.  They were both designed creatively into the fabric of the world itself.  The Divinity itself could be seen as a role model of this paradigm of work and play.  Appropriately, we can see the creation itself as God’s work.  The world became God’s lab---God’s place of creation with purpose.  We are part of the creative, purposeful holy work.  Putting it this way makes me feel special!

But God also ceased to work.  The biblical story calls it Sabbath.  It is rest, to be sure.  It is restorative.  I think it is also a kind of play.  Maybe I preferably should see our Rec Center as a playpen!  It is a place of re-creating.  Here we need a context that is free, light, without intent and without need for purpose and production.

Typically the spiritual life is a life of balance.  To be spiritually healthy, we need a balance of work and play.  Of course, that is easier said than done for many of us.  Perhaps we all have a tendency to get out of balance in predicable ways.  Some are really good at work---they are lab people!  Some excel at play---they are Rec people!  But spiritually healthy people need to be balanced people.  They need to know when to be a lab person and when to transition to become a Rec person.

I am grateful for my inspiration.  Every time I go to the Rec Center, I will be reminded why I am here.  I want to be careful about saying I am going to “work out.”  And when I go to a lab---even if it is my study where I write---I want to remember my task here.  I should not “play around.”

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ear of Your Heart

One of the documents of western Christian history that has had a significant role is the early medieval monastic Rule from St. Benedict.  This Rule was written in the early third of the 6th century.  It was the cornerstone of the most important and populous monastic group, the Benedictine monks.  This monastic group has endured more than sixteen centuries!  One can still find and visit Benedictine monasteries across this country and abroad.
But Benedict’s Rule never had the narrow role of guiding the life of a group of monks.  The Rule played a larger role in the life of the Church and, in some ways, the life of various universities through the ages.  The Benedictines always have played a central educational role.  Hence countless students---religious and non-religious alike---have been exposed to the spirit of Benedict’s Rule.  Indeed much of the Rule is a simple guide for Christian or, perhaps even, spiritual living.
Of course, the Rule presupposed there is a God.  The Rule assumes God has a particular will or desire for each of us and that we can know the will of God.  The Rule expects that we would want to obey the will of God, if we knew what that will is.  And because Benedict wrote the Rule to govern the life of a community of men and/or women, Benedict assumed that God had a will and desire for the whole community, too.  That does not seem much different than God having a desire for a particular congregation or other spiritual community.
I continue to be amazed at the relevance, the simplicity, and the moderation of this relatively short document.  The language is simple and direct.  You do not have to have a Ph.D. to understand it and know how to apply it to your life.  In many ways I get a sense of “you can do this” when you read it.  Of course, it needs to be said, Benedict was writing it for a particular kind of audience.  His audience was a group of believers; they were ready to hear what he had to say.
An example of the Rule comes with the very first sentence of the document.  Benedict says, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” I always have to smile when I read these opening words.  They offer good advice even for today: Listen!  We live in a world full of words.  Words babble to us from countless media sources.  Indeed, we are purveyors of words.  We use words so loosely, the words sometimes cease to have any meaning.
Benedict wants to direct his readers to a particular source of some words.  He tells the reader to listen to the mater’s instructions.  I am confidant Benedict is not telling the reader to listen to Jesus, although that is not a bad idea.  Instead Benedict is telling the reader to listen to his leader’s instructions---advice, if you will.  At an early point, the leader would be known as an abbot.  But the master can be anyone who has matured, acquired wisdom and can guide spiritual rookies.
Then comes my favorite aspect of this first sentence.  Benedict uses an interesting metaphor.  He tells us to attend to the master’s instruction by listening “with the ear of your heart.”  That phrase---the ear of your heart---resonates deeply with me.  Of course, it is metaphor.  My heart does not literally have an ear!  But Benedict knows what he wants from this metaphor.
The “heart” is a core spiritual idea meaning the person himself or herself.  My “heart” is the real me---the deep, original self.  We get close to its meaning when we use the phrase, “heart and soul.”  And Benedict knew that God has created each of us for special graces and roles in life.  We need to be instructed to know and, then, to do what is set out for us to do.  We really need to listen.  This is so counter-cultural.  Our culture assumes we all want to talk, to share, to compare.  Benedict says to listen.
The two ears hooked on to our head tend to feed our heads and, often, our egos.  That is why the heart needs its own “ear.”  All of our hearts have an ear to hear spiritually.  Benedict wants us to find and to use that ear of our heart.  Let me identify two or three ways to find and to use that heart’s ear.
A couple of the classic ways to find the ear is prayer and meditation.  Done rightly, both of these take us out of the driver’s seat of life and put us in a place to listen.  Don’t talk; listen.  Listen carefully!  We don’t need commentary; listening leads to obedience.  So spend a little time in prayer or some meditation.  Another form of listening is spiritual friendship.  Connect and spend some time with another person who has some experience and wisdom.  Be open and listen.
I have found and continue to find Benedict’s Rule to be life giving.  Often I do not have to read any further than the first sentence.  I need to be reminded to spend some time listening with the ear of my heart.  It is simple, but unless I do it, I am like a spiritually deaf man!