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Monday, August 31, 2015

Generosity and Gratitude

I use the two words, generosity and gratitude purposely, because those two words were the focus of a recent blog I read by my friend, Parker Palmer.  I have known Palmer for a long time, although we are not close friends.  He has had an outstanding career as a teacher and speaker at major events---particularly in the educational and non-profit worlds.  I once tried to lure him to the faculty when I was Dean.  He was smart enough to tell me no!

One of the things I like to read with some regularity is Krista Tippet’s “On Being.”  She routinely has people like Palmer offer short, pithy blogs.  They are the kind of thought provoking pieces that I like to encounter.  In some ways these kinds of things are soul food to me.  Sometimes they are so good, I want to share them further.  So it is here with Parker Palmer’s piece.

Palmer begins by saying, “Generosity does not require material abundance.”  That is very true.  He goes a little further to note that money does not come to mind when he thinks about people who have been generous to him.  The same would be true for me.  He rightly observes, “Instead, I think of the way they gave me their presence, their confidence, their affirmation, support, and blessing…”  I like the way he puts it and, especially, the detail of his sentence.

For a long time, the idea of “presence” has been important to me.  Perhaps, some of that has to do with my own Quaker tradition.  Palmer shares that tradition.  Presence is a key way Quakers talk about God’s availability in our world.  I also like the idea of presence when I think about its opposite: absence.  And the really good thing about both presence and absence is the fact they are different than non-existence.

I like the distinction between absence and non-existence.  When I learned this distinction, I realized there simply are times that God is absent from my experience.  That does not mean God does not exist.  This lessens the anxiety.  If God does not exist, that is a problem that cannot be solved.  If God simply is absent from my experience, then that is a problem that can be addressed and solved.  Of course, I can’t make God show up and be present.  But that is exactly what God wants to do.  So usually when I am experiencing God’s absence, it is my fault and not God’s.

I often find God’s presence in and through other people.  This leads to the generosity about which Palmer speaks.  And with that presence often comes those other gifts Palmer identifies.  Their presence exudes a confidence.  That confidence can embolden me and enable me to be more confident in myself and my offering to my own world.

The generosity of others can be very affirming.  Their affirmation of me makes life good.  Along with that usually comes support.  To have support in life is desired by everyone I know.  And this is a key role for any spiritual community.  A community is a support system that makes life a joy when times are good and is an incredible solace when times are tough.  I don’t know what I would do without my own support system.

With all this comes blessings.  I have to laugh when I think that most people talk about blessing only when someone sneezes.  What a paltry limitation of a huge gift of generosity.  When was the last time you had someone offer you blessing?  It seldom happens to me and, in some ways, I am in the business where you might think it would happen.  I try to offer and express blessing in all sorts of places to all sorts of people.  I even offer blessings to those I know are atheists.  I figure they can receive it on any terms they want!

From generosity Palmer goes to gratitude.  He asks, “And where does generosity come from?”  He offers this answer to his own question: “Perhaps from another life-giving virtue, the one called gratitude.”  In a word gratitude is “thanks.”  It is thanks for any gift that is given.  Gratitude is our expression of our experience of having been gifted.  The gift cannot be earned nor can it be coerced.

A gift is grace.  That is why in Spanish the response is “graci├ís.”  Every time we are given generosity, we should be thankful.  Generosity is getting more than we deserve and, maybe even, in spite of what we deserve.  I know all-too-well that I have been dealt with in generous ways.  It is not luck; it is more than that.

Generosity comes from the hands of people---friends and, sometimes, strangers.  Generosity comes from the goodness of the Holy One.  I know no other response than to be grateful.  And I appreciate my friend Parker Palmer leading me to ponder these twin spiritual themes.  Often I have been the recipient.  I want to keep growing in my capacity to be generous to others.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Real Soul Making

Some books I continue to return to in order to get a spiritual reminder or a spiritual boost.  One of those books is my friend Alan Jones’ book, Soul Making.  I find reading Jones a challenge, but always rewarding.  However, I also know that when I assign that book in one of my spirituality classes, the students seldom like it!  That usually makes me a little sad.  It is as if the students reject a little part of me.             

I think Jones’ book is so important to me because it came at a time when I was in a significant spiritual growth phase.  Simultaneously, I was also trying to figure out whether I could teach spirituality and, if so, how I would do it.  The idea of “soul making” was an eye-opener for me.  Growing up in a fairly rural Quaker meeting (church), I had only heard that language that affirmed people “had” souls.  Of course, at death the soul left the body and for many folks, the soul is what went to heaven.             

I never thought much about that.  When you hear stuff like that as a kid, you usually take it at face value.  At least I did.  So I assumed I “had” a soul.  But then in college I was asked to read classic authors and to learn to think, analyze and make up my own mind.  I still see that as a very healthy process.  I know religious fundamentalists do not see it as healthy; in fact, that is a threat.  But I am not a religious fundamentalist, so I am ok with thinking, analyzing and still making up my own mind.          

So I read Alan Jones and others who suggested that we “are” souls.  I began to see my soul more as an animating spirit.  I learned the language of soul is closely related to the idea of spirit.  Spirit is like wind or breath.  It was easy to connect soul to breath.  If I quite breathing, I “lose” my soul.  That does not necessarily mean my soul “dies.”  But it does mean when I quit breathing, my soul (my spirit) transforms---that is, it takes on another form.  When I die, I no longer will be an embodied soul, as I am now.           

But I do not want to talk about death.  Instead I want to talk about love and life and how those connect to soul.  It is here that I latch onto one of my favorite lines from Jones’ book, Soul Making.  He says, “Love is a gift or it is nothing.  Insofar as we are able to reject strategies of possessiveness and manipulation, the conditions are already set for the development of real soul making, real loving.” (131)  I find sentences like that riveting.  It speaks of a truth deeper than I think I have yet known, but to which I am drawn.           

For a long time, I have been convinced that life and love go together---real life at least.  I am sure you can live without love, but it is not real life.  And as much as it chagrins me, I am confident that Jones is correct: love is a gift.  For some of us, this is fearful.  It causes us to fear because we are afraid we won’t be given the gift.  And if we happen to have been given the gift of love, we are tempted to hoard it out of fear that we will never be given any more.  We see love as a scarce commodity.           

But it’s not like that.  Love is a gift and the Giver offers it lavishly.  The Holy One deals with an abundance strategy, not a scarcity model.  But some of us find this hard to believe---that is, we have little faith.  So we are tempted to manipulate our situations to create or compel love.  Jones is quite right to advise us to reject such strategies of manipulation and coercion.  I really can’t compel you to love me.  I can try and you may have to fake it.  But genuine love is a gift.  I can only receive and say “thanks.”           

I like how Jones links real soul making and real loving.  Again that seems deeply true to me in ways I probably cannot articulate.  And I can add that real soul making and real loving amount to real living.  That is what the whole spiritual journey is about as far as I am concerned.  I am on that journey.  I am very content to call it soul making.             

I am happy to call this soul making cardiac development.  Of course, I am playing around with the word for “heart.”  Soul making is nothing more than the development of my heart---its enlargement, softening and deepening.  A heart developing in this fashion not only becomes more and more a loving heart.  It becomes a compassionate heart.  When this happens, we rightly begin to talk about that person as a person “with a heart for the world.”  That is a big heart!           

I am sure that a big-hearted person is a deeply soulful person.  This kind of person would be so soulful that it would be evident when you come into the presence of that person.  Their being would exude soulfulness.  They would reek of the Spirit’s scent.  Just being with them makes you feel better and more well.             

That kind of person models the soul making process.  Somehow they have done real soul making.  I am sure it is coming to know the gift of love, accepting it and incarnating it in such a way they become ambassadors of the Spirit in our world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Importance of Interviewing

It may seem odd to be talking about interviewing in a spiritual reflection.  I never thought about it until recently when I was asked to interview some students for a special program.  It is funny that I never thought about this before, since I have interviewed students for many things over decades now.  But it hit me and I realized interviewing can be a spiritual experience. 

When I say it could be a spiritual experience, I don’t mean I was interviewing the student for some kind of religious job.  We never talked about God nor religion.  On the surface no one would get any kind of clue that it was about spirituality.  Perhaps it was only in my mind.  But let me unfold my understanding.           

I was set to interview a young man and the appointment was made.  From his name, I assumed he was Asian or, at least, Asian-American.  As far as I was aware, I have never met him nor had I ever seen him.  I asked him to tell me a bit about himself.          

I know this is not an unusual request when you are in an interview process and the interviewer does not know you.  It seems like such a common question, we are not likely to realize how profound it could be.  However, it typically is not very profound.  Instead of the profundity of the potential answer to who we are, the interviewee normally would talk about descriptions of himself that are not very revealing.           

In my case, some of this did come from the young man.  It turns out he was born and spent his early years in Korea.  He came to the USA to study and to gain some global experience.  He is a junior in college and shared that his major was business.  None of this seems remotely spiritual.  It could have stayed at that level and it never would have occurred to me that interviewing would be spiritual.           

It was only after our conversation deepened a little more that I realized it was becoming spiritual.  I realized in the beginning I had actually asked the young man a question of identity: who are you?  That has the potential of becoming profoundly spiritual.  However most of the time, we answer that question at such a superficial level, the spiritual is not even hinted at.  As long as we stay with things that describe our role---like being a college professor---we don’t enter the spiritual realm.           

This young man began to enter the deeper waters of identity when he shared that he has spent some time recently dealing with depression.  He was tempted to despair.  He shared that his dreams for himself had fallen away like leaves off a tree.  He returned home and felt like he was being drawn into a dark hole of nothingness.           

But there he was right in front of me with a smile and as much optimism as I could imagine.  Through effective help and significant effort, he had come back to life.  Religious people could even say he had been saved.  My point in the reflection is simply to say the interview had become spiritual for me.  Let me explain.           

One important facet of spirituality has to do with identity---who we are.  I suppose most of us assume we know who we are.  And we do at a superficial level.  But many of us don’t really know who we are at a deeper level.  This becomes routinely obvious in my teaching of undergraduates.  They are usually surprised when they begin to realize they don’t actually know who they are.  And I suspect that many of us who are “adults” have lived long enough that we assume we surely have come to know who we are.  But often, we are not much further along than the college junior.           

Identity is a spiritual issue for me because my assumption is that who we are is tied up with who God (or the Spirit) is.  While I realize not everyone would agree with my assumption, nevertheless I press on to suggest that we all have a deeper self---what Thomas Merton and others call our “true self.”  Until we begin to know that true self---and it is only known in relation to the Spirit---we don’t really know who we are.           

My time with the chap from Korea lead me to think about life metaphorically as a preparation for an interview.  Imagine coming in to engage the Spirit in an interview.  The invitation is offered; tell me a bit about yourself.  My function in life is pretty irrelevant.  More pertinent is whether I know my deeper self.  Has that self been depressed or despaired?  Has it loved and been loved?           

What are my commitments to my friends and, even, to my enemies?  What have I done to help and heal the world?  In this interview the Spirit will be less concerned about my net worth and more about my spiritual worthiness.             

I don’t see this interview as meeting God at the proverbial pearly gates when I am dead.  Instead, I imagine the Spirit as the ever-present interviewer for the job of living day by day and living with as much fullness, meaning, and joy as I can muster.  That really is the job I want---the job of a fully lived life. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Eye of the Soul

I recently read an interesting article.  Part of the interest was how much my own experience overlapped with the author, Joni Woelfel.  Although she has written a few books, I have never heard of Woelfel.  Now she is someone I want to meet and get to know.  Books have a way of bringing people together.  So I now have a new hope---to meet Joni Woelfel.           

Woelfel’s article is graciously entitled, “seeing the past with the grateful eye of the soul.”  I was drawn in by those words.  I loved the phrase, “eye of the soul,” which is why I entitled this inspirational piece with those words.  And the overall theme of her essay is focused on the past and on memory.  Memory is seen through the eye of the soul.  That would be very good in and of itself.             

What she writes about is her growing up on a Minnesota farm.  Of course, mine was an Indiana farm---but close enough!  Neither has anything in common with New York City or any other urban area.  She talks about grandfathers and that brought warm memories of my own grandfather, whom I saw nearly every day on our farm.  Of course, he is long since dead, but the memories are still very sweet.  And Woelfel’s grandfather is also long since dead, but the memories are what precipitated her essay.           

But the essay is about more than her grandfather.  It was about the farm and about a way of life that basically no longer exists.  Her family farm is long since gone---as good as dead.  And so is my family farm.  But there are memories.  And oddly, there is also a kind of hope.  In a very real sense all of us as humans are situated squarely in the present---sandwiched between past and future, between memory and hope.  That is where life is lived out.           

Finally what riveted me in Woelfel’s essay was not her grandfather, but it was a tree.  It is with the image of a tree that the author is able to coagulate all he memories of farm, grandfather and the rest.  She talks about the last time she and her husband visited the old place.  “A craggy tree still stands on the grassy, rolling hill of the pasture, overlooking what used to be our farm.”  She then turns the image into a powerful metaphor for the enduring in the midst of the temporal---the passing into nothingness.          

Her commentary is rich.  She writes, “Yet year after year, like us, the tree persevered and each spring came back faithfully to witness the daily unfolding of life on the farm and our dreams and prayers drifting across the fields.”  I was brought inside her thinking, enabled to participate fully in the unfolding of her teaching.  She added one more piece about the tree.  “It stood before God, alone, its roots sinking deep into the soil…”  I felt finished.           

But she had one more artful move.  She moved from the tree to its metaphorical link to hope.  She says, “That enduring tree serves as a metaphor of what it means to allow hope to wait as a sentinel with us as we experience this earthly mystery of transition.”  I loved the idea of the tree linked to a “sentinel of hope.”  As you know, a sentinel is a watchman.           

The tree metaphorically watches the transition of time---a transition that is sweeping us along as surely as it swept her grandfather and the family farm along.  I began to go further with her idea.  Being swept along with time is not bad; it is just fact.  The tree is our sentinel of hope.  It has roots sunk deeply into the soil.           

That suggests to me the same “tree-possibility” is our privilege, too.  In fact, I call it a spiritual privilege.  The tree-possibility as spiritual privilege brings us back to the soul.  If the tree suggests hope, then the key is not the tree, but hope.  And hope is a soulful thing for me.  It is hope that is the sentinel, not the tree.  And hope asks us to have eyes of the soul.           

With eyes of the soul we can also look forward with hope.  The transition does not only go backward to the past; it goes forward, too.  Hope helps us transition hopefully to a good future.  Especially, if we have our selves grounded with deep roots in the Holy One who is the soil of our soul.  If we are rooted and grounded in God, then like the tree, we are able to weather the storms and embrace the good weather and good fortune that spiritually can come our way.             

To have an eye of the soul is to have the ability to see things as they are.  We gain an eye of the soul as we get to know ourselves as spiritual children of the God of love.  This same God calls us into deep relationship and the relationship is the soil of our soul.  Our soul, then, is given the discerning eye to see clearly what the future offers us and how we get there.           

The future will be sure if what we desire is the will of God.  The eye of the soul comes to see that will, desire it, know it, and finally, live it.  If we do this, sweet memories will be ours.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Beginning of Day

I enjoy reading a range of things because of what they can teach me.  Even though I feel like I already know quite a bit about what I am reading, many times I am offered a new angle or perspective to understand something.  Recently I was reading a blog on spirituality.  I ran into a little story from Hasidic Judaism.  I know some things about that special Jewish group that tends toward the mystical.  There is something about the Hasidic spirit that resonates with my own Quaker spirit.
           
The story is about a rabbi who is asking his students or disciples a question.  “He asked, ‘How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?’”  In and of itself, this is not a spiritual question.  It is an interesting question, but just not specifically a spiritual question.  It is interesting because it is not easily answered.  As an early morning person, I have often wondered that too.  I am doubly intrigued because you can get reports that are very specific.  We might hear, for example, that sunrise happens at 6:31 tomorrow morning! 

Hence I was intrigued to read on in this little Hasidic story.  When does night end and day begin?  One of the rabbi’s students had an interesting answer.  It reminded me of my farm days.  The student said, "Day begins when, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep."  Now that made sense to me.  If I can tell the difference between a dog and a sheep, it has to be light enough for details to emerge that would say, “That’s a dog.” 

However, that was not good enough for the rabbi.  He did not think that was sufficient to answer, when does night give way to day.  We are given no reasons why this answer did not suffice for the rabbi.  He simply says, “No.”  Apparently more precision would be needed. 

Another disciple stepped in with a potential answer.  Intriguingly, the disciple offers it as a question---a question that is a potential answer.  The disciple asks if it is possible to distinguish night from morning “when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?"  That is an answer that does not come out of my world.  We had no fig trees on my farm!  I would not have known a fig tree if I saw one.  But I assume it looks nothing like a grapevine. 

But again, this was not the right answer for the rabbi.  Again, he says, “No.”  His students and disciples now were probably a little exasperated.  So they plead with him: "Please tells us the answer then."  I can feel for them.  So many times I have been in that place where you just know you are guessing for answers.  Perhaps in the beginning, you think you know or can figure out the answer.  And then at some point, it is clear you have no clue.  So come on, rabbi, give us the answer! 

And he does come through with his answer.  And of course, it is a spiritual answer.  "It is," said the rabbi, "when you can look into the face of other human beings and you have enough light in you to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us."  It is a great answer and, yet, a mystifying answer. 

It is a great answer because it does take sufficient light to be able to recognize a face.  I have both a brother and a sister in my family.  So I could read this story literally.  In sufficient light in a morning, I would be able to know whether the other person is really my sister…or just another person.  My sister is also a person, but in the light of day I recognize her as not just another person, but as my sister. 
 
However, I am confident the rabbi wanted us to hear the story at a deeper, spiritual level.  It really becomes day for me when there is sufficient “light” that I can see the other human person is also figuratively my brother or my sister.  In the spiritual family we are all brothers and sisters.  Spirituality is not about blood relationship.  It is about faith relationships.  And it is about love relationships.  And it is about communal relationships. 

When we understand it in this fashion, we understand that much of our world is still living in darkness.  When we see it this way, we know that it might be noon and the sun is shining brilliantly, but we are still “in the darkness of our night.”  As long as we can see other human faces and not understand them as our brothers and sisters, we have not come into the spiritual light of the day. 

I am confident this is what Jesus and other spiritual leaders through the ages came to teach us.  They want us to be able to see things as they really are in the light of the day.  At the beginning of day, they want us to be able to see all the brothers and sisters in our world.  They want us to be at work creating and caring for the family of God.  We are children of the light.  Let us live as children of the day.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Precariat: New and Troubling Word

I was reading a favorite periodical when I spotted the headline with a word that I don’t think I had ever seen.  The headline read: “The ‘Precariat:’ stressed out, insecure, alienated and angry.”  I’m not sure I had ever seen “precariat.”  I could guess what it meant.  The opening line of the article assured me I knew its meaning.           

“Inequality.  Class fragmentation.  Social and economic exclusion.”  Those words paint an unfortunate picture.  And that’s just the point.  The author of the article, Vinnie Rotondaro, is writing about the world’s large and growing group of people living precarious lives right above the poverty line.  This clearly does not include me; I have been very fortunate.  But that only means that I need to know about this sad phenomenon and see it for the spiritual issue it is, alongside being an economic and political issue.           

The author makes use of much of the scholarly work being done by Guy Standing, a British economist, who is Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.  His work is new to me and pretty impressive.  Standing suggests there is a new “emerging social class” that is “defining the new normal in societies across the world” and that class he calls the precariat.           

Standing elaborates in a helpful fashion.  “The lives of people in the precariat are defined by precariousness, or ‘precarity,’ he says. They experience pervasive economic insecurity and uncertainty, inconsistent work and labor relations, and increasingly, a lack of control over time.”  As I read this, I am aware I know many people whose lives are characterized by this kind of precarity.  I don’t see them in my sphere of work.  I see them on the margin of my work.           

I see them sometimes at McDonald’s when I stop for coffee.  I overhear tidbits of their lives that suggest way more precariousness than I have to experience.  Many folks have that kind of economic security.  They remind me of the migrants who descended on tomato fields in my boyhood Indiana.  They also were marginal to my normal world.  While they were not on my farm---we did not have tomatoes---they were on the edges of my town and my life.  And then, they were gone---often on north to Michigan to pick fruit in the autumn.             

And so I realize I have been exposed to precarity all my life.  Apparently those numbers are growing very fast.  And I don’t doubt it.  And they are going to affect the world much more than those migrants ever affected my life.  Standing estimates that the number in this group in many countries is approaching 405---that is countries like Spain and Italy.             

The new awareness that I bring to this is an awareness I did not have in my youthful Indiana days.  That awareness is that precarity is also a spiritual issue.  I realize this can be subtle, since the economic and political facets are usually much more visible.  But it is also spiritual.  Let’s develop this a little bit.           

A key component of spiritual is the inherent dignity and worth of an individual.  For those of us who grew up in the Jewish and Christian traditions, this inherent dignity and worth of human beings is grounded in the very creation story of Genesis.  Adam---and all human beings---is created in the image and likeness of the Holy One.  We are icons of the Divinity Itself.           

We are called “very good” at our creation.  Many of us who have children know this creative pride when we see the ones we bring into the world.  No sane parent looks at his or her little one and thinks, “What a piece of worthless junk!”  No parent wants his or her child to grow up in a situation of precarity---on the edge and brink of all kinds of disasters.  We know we are vulnerable, but no one wants someone else to be hurt.           

But that’s exactly what seems to be happening around our globe.  Our way of living is causing countless others to the margin.  The way the world is functioning puts people in precarious ways of living.  When I see this as a spiritual issue, it means I have to find a way to care.  Caring is the easiest form of love.  If you can’t care, there is no love in your heart.           

So if I claim to be spiritual, then I am on the hook to care.  And if I care, then I necessarily have to find a way to share.  Caring and sharing are bedrock spiritual ways of living in our world.  Of course, they are very general statements.  Each one of us has to find specific and particular ways to express the caring and sharing.  I am not part of the plutocracy---the .0001% who own a huge portion of the world’s wealth.  I can’t do it their way.           

I probably don’t have enough money to share in a way that makes much difference except for a very few individuals.  But I can work to change the situation.  And I can join others to make a bigger difference.  This is a ministry I willingly take on.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Encounters at the Well

Recently I had reason to engage a biblical text that I have not read for a while.  It is a very familiar story to me, so I was glad to hear it again. The story comes from John’s Gospel and it narrates an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.  Since I used to teach a seminar on John’s Gospel, I have thought about this rather long passage and read a fair number of commentaries to gain a deeper understanding.           

The passage is far too long to give consideration to all its aspects.  So we can pick off a few salient features that have something to do with our spiritual life today.  In the first place, a little historical background might be useful.  I almost always want to laugh when I begin to share some of the historical background.  I laugh because Jesus really should not be at that well at that hour with that woman!           

Going to the well to fetch water is a standard thing that must have happened in those ancient times.  However, because of the heat of the day, the normal time to go would be morning or evening.   And going to the well typically would have been a woman’s role.  Water clearly is a powerful spiritual symbol, as it is a necessity for life itself.  In fact, this sets up the central teaching of this story.  That teaching comes toward the end of the story when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he is a Source of life.           

We also know this story is meant to stretch us (and the people of his time) when we realize Jesus is talking to someone with whom he should not be associated. The Jews and the Samaritans where like the Hatfields and McCoys in their day.  In fact, the Samaritan woman probably had gone to the well at noon because she was not supposed to be there when the regulars went in the morning or evening to fetch water.             

Even at this level, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was spiritually loaded.  Jesus asks her for a drink.  Only a couple lines later, the revelation is happening.  Jesus tells her that if she really knew what was going on, he could give her the “living water.”  As it so typically happens, the woman misunderstands and scoffs, “you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep.”  I imagine her really saying, “Yeah, sure!”           

When I read this story, I have much more in common with the woman than I do with Jesus.  She is an outsider.  She has to be careful because she could get in trouble.  She is a woman, so that means she needs to be extra cautious in a place with strange guys.  It is safe to assume that she went to the well to get water, not to get saved!  And to presume that is what Jesus was doing is to miss the point.           

What Jesus wanted was to give her some sense and some participation in the very Source of Life that Jesus intimately knew, namely, the Divinity Itself.  Jesus wanted to share, to be sure.  He would share water.  More importantly, he was willing to share something about the Living Water.  He would share his connection to the Water that would never leave her thirsting again.             

His invitation to the Samaritan woman was an invitation to convert.  As a lad growing up in Indiana, I sometimes would hear “conversion” language and it almost always meant an altar call and much drama.  I don’t discount this kind of experience, but it has never been my experience.  Then I learned the classical languages.  In Greek the word for “conversion” literally means, “to turn around.”  It also means to “get a new mind.”  I push that to mean, “start living with a new outlook, a new commitment, a purposeful life.”           

That is what I believe Jesus was offering the Samaritan woman on the hot, dusty day at noon when she came to draw water.  When you view the story in this fashion, you can see that it was literally a transforming encounter at the well.  In that sense I think it becomes instructive of the possibility for each and every one of us.  The question is what or whom will we encounter when we go to the well?           

As the story unfolds, the well represents the place and occasion where we encounter the life transforming word and work of the Spirit.  In most instances it likely will be in the midst of our ordinariness, rather than some special occasion.  It is in this sense that I think this kind of “well’ turns out to be our altar-in-the-moment.  We will be invited to convert: to turn our lives around and live with more purpose, depth and love.           

This kind of well encounter probably will not be a one-time deal.  Instead, we will go often to the well and repeatedly be asked to convert---again and again.  As we begin to get it, we may be asked to be part of a community of converted ones---people like us who have turned full time to love-work and the bringing of justice to a world sorely in need of being saved.           

We will not be asked to be saviors.  But we will be asked to be servants---servants of the One who is present at every well in the world.  We will be servants ready to assist that One in whatever encounter awaits the next Samaritan coming to the well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Finite Resource

I had occasion recently to speak to our soccer teams.  On my campus the women and men’s soccer teams do much together.  I actually think that is a good idea.  I believe it builds into their programs a brother-sister dynamic.  Each team has a cadre of others who support and uphold them through a long season.  Friendships develop that are healthy and, often, long-term friendships.
           
I appreciate my involvement in the life of so many athletes.  I was once an athlete and, I suppose, in my mind always will be an athlete.  No doubt, I inflate the stories about how good I was.  Maybe that is the privilege of old age!  I was very average in every sport I played.  But I was able to play and to play is to learn.  I learned so much during the growing up years when I played on teams.
           
So the coach asked me to come and share some wisdom with the players.  It is easy to agree to do this.  But then, it hits me that I am not sure I have any wisdom to share.  And if perchance I have some wisdom, I am not at all clear an eighteen or twenty-year old wants to sit and listen to me.  I recognize we are on the same college campus, but the world of an eighteen year old is very different than my world.
           
I thought and pondered for a little while.  An idea came to me.  For me it is a spiritual idea---a spiritual theme.  I am not sure it is for them.  And I did not couch it as a spiritual issue, but I would like to pursue it as a spiritual theme in this inspirational piece.  I decided to talk about what I labeled as a finite resource.  I did not spend time defining the word, finite.  Maybe I should because so often college students do not have a very good vocabulary.  They probably have a better chance of understanding the word, infinite, than the idea of finite.  But I forged ahead to talk about finite resource.
           
When I used that phrase, “finite resource,” they had no clue what I might mean.  So I told them: the finite resource is time.  We are all participating in using up that finite resource.  I have less of that finite resource left than they do.  In fact, they are still so young, they don’t even think about it as finite.  Maybe at eighteen, life does seem nearly infinite.   But it is not!
           
Time is our common word to describe this finite resource.  We note it, we measure it, we value it and, too often, waste it.  It is odd the way humans talk about this finite resource and how we “spend” it.  Sometimes we even “kill” it!  As I begin to think about it with the various ways we describe it, I get the sense that it is a spiritual issue. 
           
In the first place it is spiritual because it is gift---a pure gift.  I did not cause myself to come into being.  I don’t create the gift of this day and the life I still have.  And I cannot create tomorrow, nor can I prevent tomorrow.  I can capture today on film or a snapshot, but I cannot stop time.  Because I recognize it as a gift---a gift of God the way I understand it---I can learn to say “thank you” for the gift.
           
I have been graced with this day and I say gracias---thanks.  My deal is just like the deal everyone on the planet gets with the resource of time.  My day lasts twenty-four hours.  The same is true for some guy in China and a woman in Egypt.  Knowing it is a finite resource leads me to want to treasure the gift I have been given and do something special with it.  I don’t want to waste the gift and squander the finite resource.
           
I figure if God is going to gift me with this day---with time---the second thing I can do is accept the gift and do something special with it.  When I say special, I don’t mean it has to be spectacular.  On most days I am not capable nor do I have the opportunity to be spectacular.  But I can make it special.  A couple ways I try to do this is through ministry and through service. 
           
In my understanding everyone is capable of ministry.  We do not have to be ordained to minister to people.  Most of my ministry is very simple.  I am a good listener.  That is a ministry.  I am an encourager and supporter.  That is an effective form of ministry.  It does not have to be spectacular nor does it require a theological education.  Anyone can do it.  But it is a choice and needs to be executed---it needs to be an action.
           
The other way I try to live out the gift of my time is through service.  One way of thinking about service is to see it as an action of giving yourself away.  Through service you become a gift to someone else.  Paradoxically the gift of time that you were given turns into the gift of you giving someone else something special.  Again, it does not have to be spectacular.  Almost nothing in my service is spectacular.  In fact, it is remarkably non-spectacular.  It is made up of countless little actions.  But together they add up to a satisfying life.
           
And maybe that is the point as we deal with our finite resource---time.  Being alive means we inevitably are using up the resource.  The real question is whether we can do it in a meaningful and purposeful fashion.  Are we living a life worth living?  And one sure way to tell that is to ask ourselves whether our life is a satisfying life.  I am working on it.  That is my spiritual journey.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Making Music

So often I have talked about returning to the basics.  That is always a good idea for sports.  When a golfer goes through a tough stretch, it is important to go back to the basics.  That usually means going back to the fundamentals of the game.  When things are going well, there never seems to be any issue with fundamentals.  But the game has its ups and downs.  I am sure the same thing holds true for musicians and other professionals.  It is not easy to sustain high performance over a long period of time.
           
And this is true for my spiritual life.  Sometimes it seems really easy.  I seem to be cruising along spiritually speaking.  Life seems rich and meaningful.  Things drop in your lap.  Good things happen almost without effort.  But then come other periods.  Quakers call these times “dry periods.” There seems to be no sense of God’s Presence.  I might feel spiritually cold or disconnected from things.  There is no vibrancy or bounce to my life. 
           
As with sports, the arts and other high level performances, spirituality is usually grounded in a life of discipline if it is to have long-term meaning.  Part of the discipline of my spiritual journey is the daily use of the lectionary readings.  The lectionary provides set readings for the various daily times monks spend in some kind of worship experience.  I like to follow this because the monks take the spiritual journey seriously and I also want to do it, as I am able.
           
The lectionary readings that I use have a selection from the Psalms for every session.  Since I did not grow up with the Psalms, I find this particularly helpful.  For example, one of the Psalms for todays Morning Prayer is Psalms 146.  I was intrigued by the opening verse of this Psalm.  It reads: “Praise the Lord, my soul.  I will praise the Lord all my life, make music to my God as long as I exist.”
           
A central theme of many Psalms is praise.  I am intrigued by the idea of praise.  When I think about it, the one place praise is very present in my life is with my own kids and the students I teach.  It is easy for me to see them doing something good or noteworthy and praise them.  I am also quite willing to praise the work and character of my good friends.  And I wonder, can I actually extend this to God?
           
That is a great question.  It is a spiritual question.  In my mind I think about God as the Source of our created world.  I don’t have to know all the details---whether it is evolution or how it evolved.  But somehow God is a creative God in my mind.  When I think of the wonder of the world, I am led to praise.  It is an amazing world in which we live.  I am so delighted to be part of it---for however long I might live.  Every day is like another privilege extended to me and to all those who surround me.
           
I can say we’re lucky---maybe so.  I can truly say that we are blessed.  Life and life in this created world has been a gift.  I did nothing to bring myself into being.  I did nothing to deserve to live now and to live where I do.  I can be thankful and can offer a world of praise.  That seems like the least I can do.  As the Psalmist says, I can praise my God all my life.  That I intend to do.
           
The last part of that initial verse of Psalm 146 makes me smile.  It says that I can “make music to my God as long as I exist.”  My temptation is to run to a good commentary and see what the experts tell me how I should understand this passage.  I understand other translators might not even translate the Hebrew this way.  So that is why I just want to stay with the translation offered and do my own commentary.
           
I like the idea of “making music” to God as long as I exist.  It’s a life-long process, not a weekend retreat.  That is what the spiritual journey is---life-long.  And the task is simple, according to the Psalmist: to make music.  I don’t read this literally.  I do not intend to pull out the drum or guitar and literally make music.  I think the Psalmist wants us to apply this to our lives.  Our lives are designed to make music.
           
But what does this mean?  Music, as I understand it, has to do with harmony, beauty and meaning.  That is what making music with our lives must mean.  Somehow we are to live life with some sense of harmony.  A harmonious life would be a life in tune with the Spirit and will of the Creator.  It is a life of peace making and lovemaking.  I am up for both of those!
           
Making music is also a life lived beautifully.  I don’t think the Psalmist had in mind simply physical beauty, although that is nice.  He meant a kind of spiritual beauty.  I think of Mother Teresa here and many of the other famous saints and unsung spiritual heroes.  How profound would it be if we were to become practiced to live a beautiful life?  How moving would it be if someone were to say, “You are a thing of beauty!”
           
And finally, making music is learning to live a life of meaning.  Surely God did not create us to live a pointless life!  We were designed for meaning and purpose.  Purposeful intent---that is the spiritual point of life.  And it is all so simple: learning to make music with our lives.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Relationships are Key

Part of what I always loved about teaching on a college campus is the beginnings.  I really enjoyed those days before the beginning of a new semester in the Fall when students began drifting back to campus.  Usually the athletes descended in their respective sport droves.  Sometimes the marching band also gathered before the beginning of classes.  And as the years have evolved, there are more special interest groups that come back early for special pre-semester programs.  We see Honors’ programs and others in these days.

College campuses are changing these days.  There is so much being done online and with hybrid kinds of classes.  But for residential campuses, there still is something special about the days leading up to the beginning of classes.  As students drift back, the campus literally comes alive with energy and vibrancy.  It is like a collegiate springtime after the dormancy of winter---only these seasons are reversed, since a college’s dormant period is summer.

I enjoy this returning experience every year, even though I have no responsibilities for the activities that bring back students.  What I find is what I will call a “seeping effect.”  That means all I need to do is hang around the edges of the activities and the energy and vibrancy seep into my environment.  In fact, I often do some things that enhance that seeping effect.

Let me elaborate.  One thing I like to do is drift by the practice fields and into the gyms to watch some athletes begin their workouts.  It is fun to see the returning students greet each other after a summer absence.  It is also easy to pick out the first year students who usually have no friends yet.  Often they don’t quite know what to do.  No one is embracing them and typically they are not laughing like the older ones.  However, their awkwardness is short-lived.  Never again on campus will they be the rookies.

It becomes personal for me when I am at some venue and students whom I have had in class in previous years come up to me and greet me.  They might be football players or theater majors.  They are all human beings and it is the human being whom I came to know pretty well during a semester together in class.  In fact, I don’t even like calling them “students.”  That sounds too cold and objective.  I prefer to see them as my friends.  We have built a relationship.

And it is that relationship that is being rekindled when a football player trots off the field with an extended hand to greet me.  It is that relationship that is being re-engaged when a theater major jumps off stage and runs to me to embrace me with vigorous hug.  I feel affirmed, grateful, invigorated.  In the terminology of my spiritual vocabulary, I feel blessed.  I have been given a gift that I could never go somewhere to buy.

Having introduced the spiritual into the reflection, allow me to play it out even further.  When I think about spirituality, relationships are the key.  Spirituality is not first of all about beliefs or theology.  I am all too aware that folks often begin talk about religion with a statement about “believing in God.”  This is not wrong so much as it is inadequate.  I believe in God, too.  But that does not actually tell you much about God or me.

The experience of spirituality typically is just that: experience.  Experience affirms a first-hand acquaintance with the Holy One.  Experience can talk about “knowing” God instead of merely “knowing about” God.  And it is this experience that is the beginning of relationship.  If I share my spirituality, I am sharing my relationship with God.  Unlike the beginning of a school year, which only happens once a year, my spiritual relationship is a daily factor. 

Using the analogy of going to the football field to be greeted by some players, I try spiritually to go daily to the “place” where God is.  Of course, that is not a church building or any other kind of building or field.  The “place” where God can be found is in the human heart.  I go there by prayer, meditation, study---there are a host of disciplines designed to pull me from the busyness of the ordinary world and draw me inside and deep into my spiritual center.

If I can do this on a disciplined basis, then I do form a relationship with the Holy One.  I learn to live in love.  I am taught how to be at peace.  I revel in the possibility of living a centered life---that is a life grounded in the Presence of God.  That does not mean my troubles are over and nothing bad can happen.  But it does mean I am in a relationship that will never fail me. 

In that kind of relationship the hand of God will always be extended, just as truly as the football player’s hand is thrust toward me, to welcome me back into relationship---every day and in every time.  Relationships are key. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Spiritual Medicine

I saw the title of a recent blog and knew I immediately would read it.  The title made a simple statement: “Doctors Fail to Address Patient’s Spiritual Needs.”  I suspected that was the case, but it is not a conversation I ever had with any physicians.  So I began to read with interest.
           
The story begins with a doctor describing a young woman in her 20s he is treating for cancer.  She was not responding well to the treatments and he feared the worst for her future.  He begins to narrate some details.  He acknowledged that he noticed that she and her mother, who visited daily, wore tiny gold crosses.  She also had a picture of Jesus at her bedside.  Robert Klitzman, the doctor, set the story for its context.  But the next few sentences made the article significant.
           
He said, “I wondered: Should I call a priest?  Should I ask her if she wanted to see one?  I wasn’t sure, and didn’t even know how to raise the topic.”  This confession touched me.  I have huge respect for physicians.  My daughter is one.  I know the incredible training they undergo.  They are expected to manage important situations they find themselves asked to address.  And I also know they have their own human limitations.  They are not god.
           
In effect, this is what Klitzman is confessing.  He claims to be a doctor, but not god.  He continued to write in a touching fashion.  “I was raised Jewish, and had no idea about when to call a priest, or what doing so might imply.  I feared that if I raised the issue, she and her mother would feel that I was giving up on her.  So for a few weeks, I did nothing.  But every time I visited her, I felt bad.”  Reading those words made him feel very human.
           
I found his next step a bit humorous.  He decided to ask the resident with whom he was working.  He tried to be nonchalant when he posed the question: “Do we ever call a priest?”  It was even funnier to hear the resident’s response: “That is simply not something we ever did as physicians.”  I can almost hear a resounding, “case closed,” sound in the background. 
           
Klitzman continues by noting some studies that seemingly demonstrate that talking about religion or spirituality often aids the healing process.  And particularly for end-of-life patients talking about this subject can be very important.  The thing I appreciate about Klitzman is his honesty.  He is using his experience to continue to learn and figure out how to be even more effective as a physician and human being. 
           
He realizes that he does not have to be religious to talk about religion with a patient.  That is a huge step.  We all have limitations---limitations in the knowledge we have, the boundaries our beliefs put on us and, hence, limit us and clearly the limitations of our own experience.  I certainly resonate with this.  I know the limitations I have and how they affect my job.
           
I am as willing to talk with people about religion and spirituality as Klitzman is unwilling.  However, I am under no illusion that merely talking about this kind of thing is going to heal someone from cancer or make a damaged heart healthy again.  In fact, I may be particularly effective in end-of-life contexts.  And we all know that at some point all humans are going to die.  Sooner or later, we all have end-of-life issues.
           
As I thought about what Klitzman was sharing with me, I realized that I offer a kind of spiritual medicine.  I don’t offer pills and give no shots.  Most of what I offer feels indirect and certainly not flashy.  But I think it can be healing.  And healing is the key idea.  I have thought quite a bit about healing.  Healing always leads to some sense of wellness.  Wellness is different than being physically ok.  In fact I might not be physically ok, but I can be well.  Finally, we can all be well even at the point of death.  Personally, that is my goal: to be able to die well.  Paradoxically, even though I probably will be sick, I can be well.
           
That is where spiritual medicine comes into the picture.  It may not cure cancer, but spiritual medicine can cure a sick soul.  And I have learned that many physically healthy people have sick souls.  In my experience, spiritual medicine often takes the form of offering folks a sense of meaning in life.  Sometimes it offers a deep sense of belonging.  That does not imply an atheist cannot have meaning and a sense of belonging.  But spirituality surely offers these.
           
Another significant aspect of spiritual medicine for me is the ego transcending nature of the medicine.  By this I mean the awareness and comfort that I am not the center of the universe---even my little universe.  In the best sense of the word, spiritual medicine puts me in my place.  I come to have a solid, non-egoistic sense of identity.  If this can be linked to some meaning and blessed with a sense of belonging, then I am going to be well in any context life may place me.
           

I would like to meet Dr. Klitzman.  I would like to team up with him and help him address patient’s spiritual needs.  We all have spiritual needs.  I know there is spiritual medicine to offer. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Love: The Ground of our Being

I have never met anyone who prefers the lack of love instead of love.  I agree with many writers in multiple spiritual traditions that humans want to love and to be loved.  I conclude that is a basic human desire.  I am sure we could point to the occasional person for whom this might not be the case.  But that person, I argue, is a person who has somehow become deformed or was malformed as he or she grew.  I have never read in any spiritual tradition where we don’t come to love at some point.
           
I have read so much about love that I sometimes think I have forgotten more than I have remembered.  I recognize how easy it is to think about love and even to write about love.  To think about love and to write about it does not mean necessarily that I am very good at loving.  In fact, most days I still feel like a kindergartner when I think about my capacity and execution of love.  So I welcome one more time to ponder love and see if I can continue to learn and to grow.
           
As I think about what I know about love, my best teachers have been people I have known throughout my life and some authors whom I have never met, but who have immensely helped my understanding of love.  My real live teachers of love have been my parents, spouse, my two kids and my friends.  It makes little sense to try to pinpoint who has taught me what.  Thankfully, they have taught me a few things.
           
Among the authors who have taught me well I would list Jesus, the Buddha and Augustine, an early Christian saint.  More contemporarily, Gerald May, the late psychiatrist and founding member of the Shalem Institute in Washington DC., Alan Jones, the now-retired Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, among others, have been so instructive.  Again without trying to identify which ones taught me what, let me note a couple key points about love that are central to my spirituality and my life.
           
Perhaps the most important piece in my spirituality is the biblical affirmation that God is love.  That is a core truth for me.  It helps me in two ways.  In the first place to say that God is love is a way of understanding God in such a way that God is not “really a person.”  Intellectually, I know God is not some guy in the sky.  To say God is love is to affirm something I feel like I know is true.  Even though I am not sure how to define love, I know it is true.  It is powerful; it is creative.  It is life-giving and life-changing.  And love is so much more.
           
All those truths about love become truths about God---the source, the energy and embodiment of love.  Love is not a person, but it is a force and energy.  It has no hands, but it is a force that uses my hands to love divinely.  When love comes into me and flows through me, then God becomes personal.  In some ways this points to the truth of the person of Jesus.  Jesus was the one in whom the God who is love so fully entered the human realm, that Jesus became so special he became the Source of an amazing group of people and tradition called Christianity.
           
But that God who is love did not stop with Jesus.  God as love keeps coming to and coming into people.  I am sure God has come to me and, hopefully, comes into me.  I am not Jesus, but I am like Jesus when I embrace and live out of that love.  I don’t become god, but I do become god-like when I embrace and allow that love to flow and flourish in me.
           
If I become a little more philosophical or theological, I want to affirm that love is the ground of my being---of our being.  I could capitalize those words to make them seem more holy.  I could say that the God who is Love permeates and penetrates the world.  That God who is Love is, in fact, the Ground of our Being.  That means that Love is the creative Source of my life, the Sustaining Resource of my living and the Culminating Source of my journey through life.
           
I am sure other theologians have said something like I want to say: we were created by Love, created for love and by loving we become creative.  It is really that simple and, doubtlessly, that complex.  I don’t want to chase the complexity of love.  Let’s keep it simple.
           
The key to the spiritual life is to know love, to practice love and to bear love’s fruit.  If I am not doing this, then I am part of the problem.  When love is missing or done poorly, there are problems.  It is simplistic to suggest that love is always the solution, but it may be close to the truth.
           
The practical, daily question that we should ask is whether we have been loving each day?  We need to be honest.  We need to intend to grow in our ability to love more fully each day.  We commit to minimize the times we blow it when it comes to love.  Love is the ground of our being.  Let’s stand firmly on that ground and walk into the fullness of a loving life.