About Me

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Creating a Legacy

I have no clue when I first heard about a legacy.  I doubt I knew anything about it until college days or even later.  It might have been one of those things I heard about, but it never registers.  I doubt very many young folks pay any attention to those kinds of things.  By the time I was teaching and, especially, doing some fund raising, I became very aware of the idea of legacy.  Only recently and only occasionally have I given any thought to my own legacy. 

The word, legacy, often is associated with wills that dead people leave and about which the survivors learn in a court session or with the lawyers.  Often, legacies have to do with money and property.  Of course, some people are quite wealthy and their legacies to their heirs are remarkable.  My parents did not fit that category!  They left me and my siblings almost no money or property.  I did not care.  I did not have them as parents to make me wealthy! 

It would be wrong to limit legacies to money or property.  Basically the idea of legacy is whatever a deceased person leaves behind.  Let’s widen the scope of meaning to include things like favors done, help offered, reputations enhanced, fame achieved, etc.  In effect, your legacy is what folks will remember about you.  Some legacies are so enormous, history will remember them.   

Not all legacies are good.  You can be an utter scamp or scoundrel and that will be your legacy.  Hitler left an absolutely reprehensible legacy---six million Jews dead is an evil legacy!  Contrast that with Mother Teresa to understand the stark contrast.  In my own lifetime, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Thomas Merton among so many.  But not all the legacies I can bring to mind are famous people. 

Some of my favorite legacies are, indeed, my parents.  I can also think of the friends who helped me negotiate my entire educational pilgrimage.  Without their help and encouragement, I would not be writing this piece.  In a sense, they helped make me the person I am. 

I am keenly aware that I am also creating a legacy.  I am not finished with life, so my legacy is continuing to be written.  I can add to it; I can damage it.  My legacy will be not be about fame nor financial wealth.  My kids don’t care---fortunately.  But I will have a legacy and so will you.  As I think about it, what is done is done.  I still have a choice about what can yet be.  What can I imagine adding yet to my legacy? 

As I think about this, I realize that I want to put my legacy in the context of my own spiritual pilgrimage or discipleship.  I also realize that I don’t care too much about reputation, although that is probably a good reflection of what you actually did.  I would like to focus on three key aspects of the spiritual journey that I can yet improve and make a mark.  Those three are obedience, love and service. 

Obedience is an old-fashioned word that seems oddly out of place in a culture where it is important to do whatever you want to do.  However, if we take the spiritual relationships seriously---in my case a relationship with the Holy One---then doing what that Holy One wants of me is a priority.  Of course, God might ask something of me that is challenging.  Of course, I am tempted to pray, “my will, not thy will.”  But if I claim the spiritual relationship and journey is paramount, then obedience follows commitment.  To do anything else is a lie. 

I also would like to do more around the theme of love and have that a part of my legacy.  When I write that sentence, I am not even sure what I mean.  I suppose at the base level, pass the love test.  But I am capable of more.  I am capable of more love for those who are not my favorites.  I want to push myself further into the zone of loving the unlovable.  Great lovers have the capacity to love sacrificially.  Jesus was a great lover.  I still feel like I am love’s pre-school.  I want to grow up and grow into more, deep love.

Finally, there is more I can do in the way of service.  On this one, my reputation is probably better than I deserve.  I want to upgrade my service in ways that might make a more profound difference.  Again, I would like to serve more broadly than I do.  In many ways it is easy to serve family and friends.  Of course, I don’t want to quit doing that.  But I want to broaden it.  There are folks in the world who need a hand---or a foot or brain---to help them.  I want to learn more deeply what it means to be a servant leader. 

To add to my legacy is not really an end in itself.  That simply is the way I have framed these spiritual reflections.  The end of my legacy will commence with the end of my life.  Perhaps one’s legacy is what will be said about you when nothing else can be said.  I hope my final legacy is a trail of people who can narrate how my involvement somehow helped them in their lives.  In some cases I am aware of what I have done and how I have helped.  In other cases, I am sure, I have no clue how I might have helped. 

Finally I hope the helping side of the ledger outweighs the hurting side.  I confess that part of my legacy would be the negative stuff I wrought in people’s lives.  I am human and, I guess, you are too.  So we are still creating a legacy.  Let’s work on the right side!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Simple Heart

Yesterday I attended a lecture at my university.  The guy who was talking is an old friend whom I have known for a dozen years.  It is always nice to have him come to campus and speak to our students.  He has such an interesting and, in some ways, inspiring life that it is good to have every new group of students hear his story.  I have heard his story many times, so it is not novel.  But it is always interesting and inspiring even for me.          

Part of his inspiration is the fact that he has failed three or four times in his life.  Somehow he bounces back and the next chapter seems even better than what he was doing before he failed.  When I talk about his failures, I am mostly talking about business or career failures.  It is not some moral failure.  His story is one of failure, innovation, and reworking what he is capable of doing.             

Many people would probably fail like he does and be done.  They would not only be wiped out financially, but personally.  He talks about being down for a while and, perhaps, even lost.  But there is something in his intrepid spirit that enables him to get back up and move to a new way of being.  If he is successfully doing A, it seems to happen at some point A fails.  And then he figures out a way to move to B.  So many of us never get to B.  He must be on D or E by now!  He is remarkable.           

And he seems so average.  He is not charismatic.  He is not amazing.  What he has done is amazing, but he seems so ordinary.  I know his story and have heard it multiple times and, yet, every time I am moved again.  It is like watching a trick and you never see the magic happen.             

He is not quite as old as I am, but he is significantly older than any student in the audience.  For some years now the most impressive thing I hear him say is that he meditates.  When he says this, it usually falls on deaf ears.  And then he details it.  I meditate an hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening, he claims.  And he says he has been doing it now for forty years!  Maybe that is the trick?           

Most Americans I know are too unbelieving, too busy, too preoccupied to meditate and certainly not with that kind of regimen.  There is no way he would claim that because he meditates, he is thereby innovative.  That is absurd.  But it is equally dangerous to assume his meditation has nothing to do with his innovative ability to land back on his feet and enact a “do over.”           

One thing he said yesterday that seemed new to me was an emphasis on the “heart.”  While he is not against the brain or the mind, somehow the heart was his focus.  He thinks that is the key.  And meditation helps him center---to be heart-full.  I can believe that.  My own Quaker tradition talks about being centered.  My goal as a Quaker is to live each day as nearly as I can from my center.  There is life, energy, equanimity, and even courage.  Maybe meditation would enhance the heart for me.           

His words were with me when I settled in last night to spend some time in Compline, the last of the Benedictine monastic worship periods.  It is usually done right after sunset, not long before bedtime for the monk who might be getting up for the first worship period at 3:15am!  The words from one of the Psalms jumped out at me.           

One of the Psalms being used in Compline was Psalm 86.  In the Benedictine book I was using, a verse midway through Psalm 86 has the Psalmist asking this of God: “Make my heart simple and guileless, so that it honors your name.”  I like to do Compline by myself so that I can pause and savor words like these.  I liked the petition to have my heart made simple.  My heart too often is complex and complicated.  Simplify me, O Lord.  And make me guileless.  I doubt many students know what this word, guileless, means.  It means innocent or, even, na├»ve.  Such a heart is able to honor God’s name.           

I was curious about the translation, so I checked another translation.  The New Revised Standard Version has the Psalmist asking God to “give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”  This is clearly the same meaning, but I like the way the Jerusalem Bible has it in the first translation.  Make my heart simple.  Make it guileless.  Make me honorable before the Lord and in the world.          

I realized this is the quality my friend has.  He has a simple heart.  He is guileless.  He is not capable of cheating or cutting corners.  He is an honorable man.  All that does not prevent failure.  It has not protected him from that, but it has protected him from lasting anger and resentment.  He has a simple heart.  Simple hearts cannot rage and lash out.           

People with simple, guileless hearts are peacemakers, not makers of messes.  And when his did make a mess of a business, he cleaned it up and moved on to more good stuff.  He is not a hero to me.  But he does model an important quality.  I also want to be given a simple heart.  I think that is a key to a life in the Spirit---a centered life.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Probably it is because I am educated as a theologian, I look for things perhaps other people do not see.  When people talk about God or Jesus, I listen fairly carefully.  When I read things where people are describing what God is up to, again I read fairly carefully.  I have faith in God.  I have faith that God is at work in the world.  But I also know there is no way I can tell you exactly who God is or exactly how God works in this world.           

The job of a theologian is to try to describe this God who works in the world.  And the job is to describe to the best of our ability how that God works in the world.  I have learned that theology is not the same thing as God.  God exists and works in the world whether or not theologians try to describe this work.             

I also know that theologians are not all professional.  Not all theologians are at work as priests or teaching in some kind of college religion program.  Of course, there are theologians doing both of those jobs.  But there are countless other theologians out there who probably don’t see themselves as theologians and have not received a dime to do theology or offer any theological advice.  These are what the church calls “lay people.”  I try to listen very carefully when they speak or write.           

One of the things I like to do is pay attention to how other theologians describe the God they have encountered.  So I am like a sleuth in waiting.  When I read or hear someone begin to describe God, I come out of hiding.  And so it was that I was sleuthing when I began to read the first chapter of Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World.  Basically, Taylor’s book is about finding God in various places in the world---finding God in places other than churches, synagogues, and mosques.  I was intrigued.           

Her first chapter is about waking up to see God in some different places.  One predictable place to find God is in nature.  That is no surprise, but it is surprising how many of us forget that we know this is true.  And so we don’t look for God or we go trudging off to some church so we can find God.  As she develops the chapter, Taylor moves from seeing tracks of God in nature to the place of worship in which she has spent much of her life.  It is obviously true that God can be found in those houses of worship, too.          

She talks about doing things in the churches that were meaningful.  It was a wonderful experience and she is full of gratitude for those experiences.  She said, “…it was as if we were building a fire together, each of us adding something to the blaze so that the light and heat in our midst grew.  Yet the light exceeded our fire, just as the warmth did.  We did out parts, and then there was more.  There was More.” (5)  I was captivated by her use of the word, “more.”           

There was “more.”  No big deal.  That is like a coach saying the team is better than the sum of the parts.  So is a group within a church.  We each do our thing, but our things add up to more than we could have expected.  Is it a miracle?  In a way, yes.  The miracle is God.  I realized Taylor had added to the mix God’s Presence.  That Presence is always “More.”  And that can be capitalized.             

I like that way of talking about God---about “More.”  I realized Taylor had given me a new synonym for God.  God?  Oh yes, you mean More!  That is a fascinating image for God.  I read on in her chapter for more to learn.             

She talked about the meaningful work that went on in the church.  She writes, “Still, some of us were not satisfied with our weekly or biweekly encounters with God…We wanted More.” (5-6)  As I pondered the theology that Taylor was using to talk about her God, I began to appreciate it in deeper ways.  In effect, she was telling me something about the God she experiences, but also warning me there is more---More.”  Essentially, she was telling me that she does not know it all.  And neither will I.           

I quote one final piece from that chapter.  She wisely confesses, “The only reality I can describe with any accuracy is my own limited experience of what I think may be God: the More, the Really Real…” (7)  I know that I can only do the same.  I can share my own limited experience of God, but there is More.  Any theologian can do as much.  We can all pool our experience and add our theologies.  That might be impressive.  But there is always More.           

Instead of being depressed about this, I am thrilled.  Instead of being disappointed, I am delighted.  My quest for God will be ongoing; indeed, it will be eternal.  That is a race I will never win and I couldn’t care less.  The race is it.  It is thrilling and delightful.  And there is always More.           

I have grown as a theologian.  I have found a nice, new way of describing the God I have experienced and can only describe in my own limited way.  Now I know there is always More.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Four Saints

He did not call them saints, but I am going to bless them as saints.  I am not Roman Catholic, so I can take all their saints and add some.  And I think in his heart of hearts, Pope Francis would agree with me.  In his recent speech to the US Congress the Pope referenced these four people for very specific reasons.   I found the speech inspiring and his framing of the speech around these four people a clever move to speak to the American people.           

Pope Francis used each of the four saints to make a particular point.  I was pleased with the four people he chose.  His four saints include Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Two of the four would be universally known in the United States.  Three of the four have lived during some part of my own lifetime.  We all know when Lincoln was assassinated.  Both King and Merton died in 1968 and Dorothy Day died in 1980.             

In a paragraph near the end of the address to the US Congress, Pope Francis gives his reason for choosing these four.  He lines up each one with the theme he wants them to introduce and to which he calls each and every one of us to emulate.  The Pope says it this way: “Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”           

It is easy for me to see all four people as people of faith and, therefore, I call them saints.  And the themes the Pope associates with each of the four I also see as spiritual.  Let’s look briefly as each theme to see how deeply spiritual his message to the Congress really was.           

First is Abraham Lincoln, the champion of liberty.  “And freedom for all” goes the phrase which Lincoln was willing to do everything possible to be true for people of all races.  This squares with the creation story, which declares that God creates all sorts of diversity and, I would argue, wants to bless that diversity.  Diversity clearly is a key theme of the Pope and all of us are encouraged to work for it.           

Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued that same theme of liberty, which in his case more often was talked about as freedom.  “We shall overcome” was the phrase I and so many others sang in the ‘60s as we worked for another kind of civil war---a war against racism, sexism and others who were not get a fair share of the cultural goodies.  I like the Pope’s word, non-exclusion.  That was the dream of MLK.  His dream should still be our dream---and that on a global scale.           

Dorothy Day was a daring, challenging, warm woman of faith.  She drove some of the people in the church nuts and, likely, alienated a fair share of people outside the church.  Her quest for social justice was a ministry involved with the poor and the down-and-out.  She founded the Catholic Worker House and these still are active in our own day.  She was tireless in her work to ensure the rights of all people.  Her call to justice through love is still a clarion call for each one of us to do our part and to do better.           

Thomas Merton is the one I know best.  Every other year I teach a seminar on Merton.  I visit his monastery in Kentucky every chance I get.  He routinely bugged his abbot and, I’m sure, plenty of the monks who had to put up with him.  Saints are not always the man or woman most likely to succeed in our culturally crazy world.  Merton struggled with being faithful or famous.  Because he was such a success as a writer, fame was always there to seduce him.  But he stayed in the monastery, stayed true to his vows and stayed the course to be as faithful as he knew how to be.          

I like how Pope Francis framed Merton.  He lauds him for his capacity for dialogue.  By the end of his life, Merton was in dialogue with Buddhist monks, Protestants, Muslims, Taoists, feminists and a host of others outside his natural Catholic, monastic setting.  While he was seldom allowed to travel outside the monastery, it seems as if he was always “leaving home” or “bringing others to his home.”  That work must continue in our own way in our own day. This is what the Pope dearly wants.          

And Merton is appreciated for his openness to God.  As any reader of Merton knows, he continued to grow in his faith and his witness.  In his vow to be faithful to the living God, he also was pulled into a vow to be open to whomever God wanted him to become and wherever God wanted him to go.  That same quality of openness the Pope hopes for in each one of us.  And I would like to think, that quality is what God wants, too.          

These four saints at work in the words of Pope Francis are calling each of us into our own spiritual relationship with God and work for God in the world.  We, too, will be blessed.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Importance of Vision

It is pretty common to find some kind of vision statement in a business or even non-profit.  It is even typical for these organizations to revisit occasionally the vision statement to see if it still matches what the organization sees as a reason for its being.  I think this is quite healthy.  This should be the case for spiritual communities, too. 

It is not unusual for people to know the phrase, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”  What many folks probably do not know is that phrase comes from the Old Testament.  It can be found in Proverbs 29:18.  If we were going to do the passage justice, we would have to look at it in its context.  That should help us know what it likely meant at the time it was written.  But for our purpose here, the focus is on vision.  And the argument I would make is the people will, indeed, perish without vision.  I think this is the typical organizational perspective, too. 

The first question might be the basic question, namely, what is a vision?  I am sure there are complicated definitions.  But I like the simple one I read years ago.  A vision is a picture of the future.  It does not matter whether it is a church or a corporate business; the vision is the church or business’s picture of its future.  Clearly in a group---be it church, business or non-profit---most of the members need to buy in for the vision to be effective.  Obviously, it would be easy to have a vision, put it on a plaque, hang it on the wall and ignore it.  I suspect that happens with frequency! 

It is also pretty likely that many organizations have a vision, but most folks in the group would have no real clue what the vision might be.  We would rightly ask them, so without the group’s vision, what is your “functional vision?”  That asks them, so what drives your stepping into the future?  In many cases there is no vision.  People and the group simply are creating their futures by doing the same thing they have been doing for a time---in some cases, a very long time.  In this sense vision is nothing more than destiny---the past dictating the future. 

It is easy to see the need---maybe necessity---of visions for groups.  But I would also argue it is important for people---individuals---to have a personal vision.  The same definition holds for personal vision.  What is your personal picture of the future?  Probably most of us have given some thought to that.  It might be more focused in our earlier years.   

People ask vision questions of younger folks when they are asked, “what do you want to do when you grow up?”  In college students choose majors, partly in the expectation those majors will lead to jobs and careers they envision for themselves.  Notice the verb I just used: envision!  Often vision amounts to little more than the job or career they want to have.  That may be part of a vision, but I hope there is more to your vision. 

As we grow older, we may have to revisit earlier visions.  If we get sick or old, then career cannot be an appropriate vision for us.  As we get older, earlier visions may no longer fit who we want to become.  I would argue not all visions have to focus on what we want to do.  It is appropriate to have a personal vision that focuses on what I want to become. 

If you want to think about personal vision, I suggest a nice way to ponder it is to think about how you want to bring meaning and purpose into your life.  Vision is related to meaning.  A vision is a picture of the future that I want for myself.  Clearly there seems to be better and lesser visions.  I might have the vision to get rich---nothing inherently wrong with that.  But it probably is not ultimately satisfying or fulfilling.  I suggest visions that have to do with love or service make better choices---ultimately speaking. 

To come up with a vision is an appropriate way to ask the age-old question: for what am I living?  Practically speaking, we can ask ourselves: so why do I get out of bed each day and go forward?  If you have not thought about that or if you don’t know your own personal answer, then you probably are on automatic pilot.  Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with being on automatic pilot.  But it probably will not ultimately be satisfying or fulfilling. 

It is not unusual for people not to be too sure what their vision is.  Much of our culture does not want us coming up with deep visions.  Culture would rather make us in its own image---telling us what to buy, how to think, how to spend time, etc.  Having a vision puts us in control of our own lives.  In many cases we may not want what culture is selling us.  A vision will determine how we spend our time.   

I am sure we can have many visions that serve short-term purposes.  But I hope each of us can come up with our personal vision that gives us the best chance of living life, such that we will be satisfied and fulfilled.  That ultimately will be the best we can do.  I can envision the picture of my future.  Do you have a picture, too? 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Divine Ear

While I try to stay up on the news and even novel things that are happening in various corners of the knowledge world, I also try to stay grounded in my own Christian tradition.  That tradition is a resource.  It is like soul food.  I need a healthy balanced diet of soul food to stay healthy.  It is like the food balance we need to be healthy and physically well. 

One thing I do is follow the daily lectionary.  Because of my association with the monastic tradition, I follow the daily lectionary provided for Benedictine monks.  Many years ago I became a Benedictine oblate.  That means I am affiliated with a local Benedictine monastery and am something like a lay member there.  I find that way of life to offer a sane choice of living within an often-insane world.   

Of course one of the things I quickly learned when I began hanging out with the monks is they can be as crazy as those of us who don’t live in the monastery.  Monks have taken vows to try as hard as they can to live a life of the Spirit.  They see Jesus as a great role model for their own life’s journey.  The guidelines for a healthy spiritual life are fairly clear.  But all of this matters not, until they begin to put it into practice.  That’s the hard part.    

The Benedictines carve up the day to have a balance of worship and work.  In fact that is their motto---worship and work---Ora et Labora.  The great thing about this is their decision that worship (broadly defined) is central to their lives.  They know as well as I do, if they do not intentionally make this happen, their lives will be swallowed up in busyness just like my life can be.   

The lectionary is the predetermined selection of readings and prayers all Benedictines say all around the world at appointed times.  It begins with an early morning period of worship replete with Psalms, bible readings and times for meditation.  And there are similar spots throughout the day, culminating in a time at the end of the day called Compline, which means complete or finished. 

I don’t follow all of the appointed times for spiritual refreshment, but I try to do some of them.  It is easiest for me to do the morning one and or the evening one.  Compline is my favorite---coming at the end of the day.  Too often, however, I choose some lesser activity---like watching basketball or something.  I guess I am a work-in-progress! 

Yesterday I managed to spend some time with the early morning lectionary reading.  The first Psalm that was offered was Psalm 86.  I usually read the entire Psalm, but then I settle in on one or two verses so I can let that portion feed my soul.  So yesterday I focused on the first two verses of Psalm 86.  There was much there to ponder. 

I laughed at the audacity of the Psalmist with these opening words: “Incline your ear to me, O Lord…” (86:1)  That sounds like a spiritual, “Hey Lord!  Listen up!”  There is no meek worm offering this request.  It is a bold spirit.  I want to emulate that, too.  The audacity continues when the Psalmist asks God to “answer me.”  At that point the Psalmist asks this of God and confesses, “For I am poor and needy.”  My own Quaker tradition would say with the Psalmist: “You speak my mind.”  That means something like, “That’s just how I was thinking.” 

I doubt that the Psalmist meant that he was economically poor---although maybe he was.  I am not financially poor.  But I am usually dealing with poverty of spirit.  As we used to say on the farm, “we’re running on the fumes.”  Busy lives and busy schedules sap us of our energy and our spirit and we’re running on the fumes of our lives.  We are poor and needy.  We know there is a source of living water. 

The second verse of Psalm 86 follows with two more petitions.  “Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.”  I am not sure the Psalmist is saying he is literally dying and asks that his life be preserved.  Instead, I think maybe the issue is spiritual dying.  I certainly know the experience of being so unplugged from life that it feels “as if” I am dead. 

The final petition is touching.  “Save me.”  I don’t take this in an altar call, revivalistic sense---although there is nothing wrong with that.  I learned in Greek the word often translated “save” could also be translated “heal.”  I like the word the petition that way: “heal me.  Make me whole.”  That is my request, too.  That is what I will speak into the Divine ear.         

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Saving Me Now

I lead a weekly group on my campus.  Actually to say I lead it is a little too bold.  I certainly arrange the meetings.  And they let me pretend to be the leader.  The group begins early in the Fall semester and we continue through the school year until things are over in May.  I have been doing this for nearly two decades.  One woman has been in it every year we have done it.   

When I first met her, she was working in one of the coffee shops on campus.  I like to get to know people like her.  My faculty colleagues are under the impression that we are the most important folks on campus.  That’s not true!  It is people like Suzanne who are the most important.  Faculty don’t see people like her and the powerful, often invisible, ministry they do.  Students see it and make use of her empathy and compassion.  And sometimes she simply told them to knock it off and they complied.   

She is now retired, but is eager to keep learning and loving.  So she shows up every week.  She joins others and me as we begin to read some contemporary book on some aspect of spirituality.  The books are good, but it is not actually a book discussion.  The book offers some starting place for us to pursue our own experiences.  We share and learn from each other.  We share and grow from the encouragement of each other.  That group is like an ever-present oasis in the middle of the desert of life.  Living waters are found there. 

One book we recently took is An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.  The book has a neat title, A Geography of Faith.  I like the kinds of things Taylor does in the book.  She is a good writer and offers insightful ways to see life and to engage life in meaningful and purposeful ways.  She gives me and others a chance to be better.  Let me share some early quips from the book. 

One of my favorite lines comes in the introduction to the book.  Taylor talks about being invited by a priest to speak to a church on one of the southern states.  Like I would, Taylor asks the priest what he wants her to address in the speech.  His answer blew me away.  He told her to “Come tell us what is saving your life now.”  When I read that, I nearly burst out laughing.  I also have been invited to speak in countless contexts.  But I don’t think I ever have been given such a challenging assignment.

It is a direct, open invitation to talk about something important in your life.  Taylor shares over the next couple paragraphs how she processes the speech invitation.  How she processes it is actually more important to me than the specific answers she comes up with and the speech she developed.  I will share a couple of the processing lines. 

The first sentence in her processing the invitation indicates the direction her speech will take.  Taylor says, “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.”  While that may not be an answer, it is directive in ways I find helpful.  She becomes clear early on that what is saving her now is not theological doctrine, even if that is important.  Church dogmatics are not the means to grace.  God is the origin and giver of grace. 

There is no spiritual treasure apart from our bodily experiences of human life.  I agree with Taylor.  What is saving me now has to be real in this bodily existence within my real world.  This reminds me of the perspective of so many of my students.  They do not find religion to be real.  That is why they so often are looking for their reality in spirituality---even if they cannot tell you what that actually might mean.  In their own way they need something to address their bodily existence in this human life. 

This is exactly what Suzanne came to know in her life.  She calls that something “God.”  But her God is a living reality who helps her as she pushes into her eighties.  Students and even I want the same kind of living reality.  And we seemed to be joined with Barbara Brown Taylor in what she knows and shares. 

Taylor offers me a very nice take on what is saving her now.  She comments,  “What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”  I know this might not be a very good answer to some church bureaucrats, but it is good enough for me.  She aspires to become more fully human.  Me too!  I figure if I can become fully human, I will in the same process become fully god-like. 

That was the creative design of God in the first place.  To become fully human is to be all that God meant us to be.  That means to live out of a loving place, committed to the work of justice and to make peace.  That sounds a great deal like kingdom living!  That is what is saving me now.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Talking Signs

When I go for a run, I often turn the run into a walk.  Of course, that is a sign that I am getting older.  But I don’t mind.  I am still moving, and moving gives me a chance to see and enjoy life.  I am thankful.  I have become aware when I turn the run into a walk, I begin to notice more things.  That is not surprising, since I am going more slowly with less effort expended.  It is like having eyes than can focus on things.           

I am not sure how it happened, but I began to notice the various signs along the way.  There were the inevitable signs of the road.  I saw stop signs, speed limit signs and signs that told me of impending road intersections.  Of course, I have seen millions of these in my lifetime.  Nothing I saw was novel.  But what was new is that I began to ponder what I was seeing.  And this led to a sense for the process of knowing.           

As I thought about it, I realized the signs were talking.  Of course, there was no discernable sound.  When I approached the stop sign, I heard no voice saying, “Stop please.”  But it told me to stop and told the cars, too.  And most of them “heard” it and stopped.  Others either didn’t “hear” it, or like my kids when they were young, “heard” it, but ignored it!           

I began to think more deeply.  It is interesting that we call those things “stop signs,” “street signs,” etc.  Typically, they are inanimate objects.  They are made of metal, wood or plastic.  In this sense they are not materially different than any other object made of that stuff.  Some words, or perhaps some symbols are added to the object.  And sometimes the object is shaped into a particular form.     

We all know the physical form of the stop sign.  Usually it is red, although I recently was in a different part of the country and saw a green stop sign!  Even though it told me what to do (stop!), I have no clue why it was green.  That part of the story is a mystery.  And on the shaped metal is the single word, STOP.  When I see one of these signs, it is so familiar I almost don’t even pay attention.  Habitually, I slow and then stop the car.  Look both ways and proceed.  And I can announce that I “heeded” the sign.  I did what it told me to do.           

Only now am I realizing how complex this whole process is.  The various signs function to inform and direct peoples’ attention and action.  However, this caused me to think more broadly about my experience.  I recall my travels to England.  I have lived there three different times.  When I drive in England, I quickly realize the signs are in English, but I don’t understand all of them.             

I realized they talk about “overtaking” instead of passing!  There were other signs that I had to get used to the language.  “Lorries” are trucks.  That’s worth knowing.  This pondering took me even further afield.  I remembered the times I have been in China or Japan.  They also have signs.  But that is tough.  In both of those countries, I had no clue what the sign was “telling” me.  It was “speaking,” but I could not understand.  If the Chinese or Japanese sign were not paralleled by a sign in English, I was doomed.            

I wanted to push even deeper.  I realize that a sign works when it signifies something.  In fact, signify is the verb for sign---even though “sign” can be a noun or verb.  For example, someone “talks” to a deaf person by “signing.”  A Chinese sign or Japanese sign does signify something.  The problem is I don’t have the ability to understand the sign and, therefore, it has no significance for me.             

I realize I stumbled on to the third step in signs.  First, there is the sign.  The sign signifies.  And if it signifies successfully, it has significance.  It could have ended at that point.  But I had a revelation.  All this can become spiritual.           

It occurred to me that human beings can also be a sign.  My words certainly are signs.  They can have significance.  But I can also lie or deceive.  This causes people to be misled.  Of course that has serious implications.  This means that human beings are less predictable signs than stop signs and street signs.  They always mean what they say.  Humans do not always mean what they say.             

Human actions probably are more clear and predictable than words.  Actions have significance.  It is one thing to say I love you.  It is more powerful actually to love you. The significance of loving you is huge.  I realize that much of my ministry has actually been a life of spiritual signing.  Metaphorically, I have been signing to a deaf world---a world that needs its own language and guidance to know how to find spiritual meaning and purpose.           

This is the role all the major religious traditions are called to play.  We disciples of those religions become signs.  We have to live lives of significance in order that others may see, hear and obey.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Drawbridge of Differences

Any time I see something new written by Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun from Erie, PA, I immediately want to read it.  Chittister has been a prophetic voice in the Catholic Church and for Christianity for decades.  While I have spent some time in her monastery in Erie and even was invited to speak there in the recent past, I count it the highest privilege to be in the same place she is.            

Sr. Joan Chittister is one of those rare human beings whose faith seems so deep that she is given a different set of eyes to see things than most of us.  It is as if we only see things.  She sees into things.  She has a kind of penetrating gaze into the reality of life that give her the capacity to articulate things so that it comes to us as a form of revelation.  I am left with a sense that “I have seen that, but I have not seen THAT!”           

And so it was when I began reading a Catholic journal that I regularly read.  Chittister is a frequent contributor to that journal, so I know I am going to get her gems on occasion.  The most recent one has an article by Chittister that focuses on the nuclear treaty talks the US and Iran has been holding.  She revealed things I did not know.  I know that the Vice-President Biden and Mohammed Zarif, chief Iranian negotiator, were engaged at the highest level.             

What I did not know was there also was a team of six religious folks sitting across the table from each other.  All six happened to be representatives of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.  How cool!  I did not know it, but I was not surprised.  Clearly, Biden and Zarif were working on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.  In Chittister’s words, the group of six “were hoping to find the common ground that makes having weapons of mass destruction unnecessary.”           

I hope they succeed.  And if they don’t, there will be precedent for another place and another time.  My faith holds that finally love has to triumph over hate.  Finally, peace has to derail war.  Hope is future tense.  But the work for hope is a present tense activity.  That is why I am sure Chittister is a hopeful person.  She is hopeful because she is a woman of faith.  I want to be one, too.           

What became clear to Chittister and others over time was the fact that all major religions can be perverted.  Some people who claim to be Christian do things in that name that no sane Christian would accept as Christian.  The same is true for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.  Most of us would agree to that.  Chittister puts it boldly.  “The message is clear.  The Crusaders did not carry the heart of Christianity.  The Taliban does not bring glory to Islam when it murders Christians and destroys the shrines of Buddhists.  The Koran does not accept the persecution of Jews who, like us, are ‘the people of the Book who deserve respect.’”           

The nuclear talks are a specific situation and will soon be history.  But at the end of Chittister’s article, there is a sentence with a wonderful gem that I pick out that will serve countless situations for a long time.  Speaking of the kind of work and words that were being shared, Chittister comments, “that's the kind of holiness that invites us across the drawbridge of differences carrying the best of the faith that is in us.”  The phrase, drawbridge of differences, leapt out at me and arrested my attention.           

I am sure that phrase fits the US-Iranian talks.  But it fits so many other situations---globally and locally.  It fits church contexts and equally fits the context of my own college campus where there can be serious differences.  And we all know that differences can lead to misunderstanding and that can spiral downhill to nastiness and, unfortunately, sometimes violence.             

The image of a drawbridge is a powerful image.  A drawbridge goes across a river or gorge.  There are two sides.  And so it is in so many of the contexts in which we live.  There are two sides---race, gender, generations, etc.  There is always the “other side.”  Too often, this becomes “us” and “them.”  There may be little traffic to the other side.  Without a bridge there can be no movement.           

But I noticed that Chittister purposely used the image of a drawbridge rather than a simple bridge.  Obviously, a drawbridge can be lifted and no traffic can go across the bridge.  This suggests to me there are times and situations in which a drawbridge is the beginning bridge that can be built.  To contact the other side means we put down the bridge and cross over.  But there are also times when the bridge goes up.             

The drawbridge is a very hopeful image.  When it becomes a drawbridge of differences, my hope turns to confidence.  It fits a myriad of situations.  It provides hope for crossing over, for understanding, for reconciliation and for peace.  Building bridges is a spiritual work to do.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Art of Focus

The title for this inspirational piece is a straight steal from the editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks.  Although I don’t always agree with Brooks, I find him a thoughtful, relevant writer.  Much of what he says is so open to spiritual interpretation and development.  Perhaps that is why I enjoy his challenges and contributions.  So when I read his title, “the Art of Focus,” I ploughed into the editorial.  I was not disappointed. 

His opening sentence captivated me.  He confesses, “Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war.”  While Brooks is a bit younger than I am, he can remember the pre-social media days.  He knows life before Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.  Without putting a value judgment on these versions of social media, Brooks knows, as I do, that life was different then.  I certainly don’t look back to those times as “the good old days.”  In fact, I like the immediacy of interacting on Face Time with my distant kids.  But with Brooks, I realize there are claims on my attention that did not used to be there. 

Brooks continues to confess that he has heard the sermons against multitasking, but acknowledges that he is unrepentant!  Then he nails it: “And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect. Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.”  I resonated with his sentiments.  Then Brooks makes his clever move---and these are the reasons I like him.  He says, in effect, since we are no good at making changes and learning, let’s turn to the experts, namely, children! 

The rest of Brooks’ thinking is influenced by an interview of Andrew Phillips, a child psychologist, in The Paris Review.  I would like to share the key points, because they seem so implicitly spiritual.  The first point, in Brooks’ words, is “children need a secure social base” to pursue their intellectual development.  When I think about this in terms of pursuing spiritual development, the same thing holds true.  In my own development, a community is a huge asset. 

We don’t need a community that dictates dogma to us.  But we do need a community that provides a secure social base.  We need a place that is loving---that teaches basic care, allows us to wander without direction or answers, and can be forgiving when we wander off the communal reservation.  Again in our technologically driven world, such communities are not a given.  Our options are to find one or to create one. 

A second point Brooks make is that “children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening.”  To this Brooks added a stunning quotation from Phillips.  “Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”  That struck me as profoundly spiritual.  How much of my aliveness can I bear?  What a question.  And how much do I anesthetize?  Clearly this is an arena that spirituality takes head on and without spirituality, probably we are avoiding any heads on confrontation.  In fact, I have been with people who are dying while avoiding! 

I really liked the next point: “children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness.”  That makes me realize I am not a child anymore!  The upshot of this for children is this: “Their experience of life is more direct because they spend less time on interfering thoughts about themselves.”  Again, this seems profoundly spiritual to me.  One of the key aims of spirituality is to learn to get out of our own way.  In the old days I would hear the phrase, “let go and let God.”  While I don’t really like the phrasing, the idea is a good one. 

So where does this leave us?  I like Brooks’ ending.  He talks about finding our “terrifying longing.”  In the world of innovation where I spend some of my time, the language is to find your passion.  Brooks’ final words can lead our final words.  “The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.” 

I can’t imagine a better way to talk about the goal of spirituality than to talk about being “fully alive.”  To this end much of the social media, while nice, is superficial and often numbing.  To be spiritual does not mean I have to give it up.  But it does mean I will need to go deeper.  I will need to find my passion.  To discover the Holy One can even turn out to be a terrifying longing.   

But it is worth it.  To find that Divine One will be a different form of face time!  As Brooks says, it will lead to an experience that produces joy.  Joy is the fruit of the Spirit.  To pull this off will require that I learn the art of focus.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

When You Get What You Want

The phrase, which became the title of this inspirational piece, came to me during a recent conversation.  The person with whom I was conversing periodically was talking about wishing for this or for that.  As I listened to her, I realized that wishing for certain things was a way she expressed hope.  For example, I am sure at one point she must have said something like, “I wish I can have some kids.”  Translated that would have meant that she planned to have kids…and did have them.
In many ways I can relate to that.  I suspect I am not unusual in saying that I have spent a lifetime wanting certain things.  When I was a kid, I wanted to play sports and, of course, wanted to be good.  I did get to play sports, but I was average at best.  I would have to confess I wanted to date certain girls and sometimes got what I wanted.  Other times I got a flat “No!”  That was disappointing, but it didn’t kill me.  I suppose most of us realize we don’t get everything we want.  “That’s life,” goes the saying.
The next realization I had was to be sure that often people do not even know for sure what they want.  Of course, most of us have multiple wants.  And that is legitimate.  I want many things for my kids and, now, for my grandkids.  That seems quite normal.  In this case having these kinds of wants is tantamount to saying that I “hope” these things are true for the kids.
I would like to take this to another level.  I would like to think about it in a spiritual way.  For me spirituality is one significant way people make meaning in life.  Of course, there are other ways to make meaning.  In many ways meaning is relative.  What you find meaningful, I might not find meaningful at all.  It does not make you right and me wrong.  It simply means we are different.
When we use the phrase, “when you get what you want,” we have two things involved.  The first is obvious: what we want.  The second piece is the timing piece: when we get what we want.  Clearly, this assumes there are things we want and that we will get it or them.  Wanting things is not magical.  Very often, we work for the things we want.  And that is quite good and respectable.
Again, to bring in the spiritual dimension into the picture, what we want would be meaningful or would bring meaning.  Let me get concrete.  There are many things people want and, even, work hard to get that ultimately may not be very meaningful.  For example, I know some folks who wanted to be rich.  And they worked hard and made it happen.  Materially, they had a very easy life.  But that may or may not be meaningful. 
We can generalize and say that it is very easy to work hard to get some of the things we want.  And then we get them and we realize we don’t actually want them that badly.  Or we find out that getting what we wanted turns out to be unsatisfying.  We can turn out to be disappointed with what we thought we wanted.  I have had this experience more than once.  At one level, it is unbelievable.  It is unbelievable to want something, get it and then be disappointed now that we have it.
This is where it connects to the spiritual.  If what I want is spiritual, then it means it will be inherently meaningful.  And this means that when I get what I want, I will get something meaningful.  And that will be satisfying.  Again, I can relate personally to this process.  For example, I have wanted to do in life what I discerned to be God’s desire for me.  If I could know and do that, then it would be inherently meaningful because I would be in good relationship with the Holy One.  If this is true, then nothing else matters as much.
This knowing leads me to add one more aspect to the original phrase.  The original phrase said, “when you get what you want.”  Of course, that is simply a phrase.  It is not even a sentence.  In fact, it is a conditional phrase.  The conditional word is “when.”  The conditional phrase begs for completion.  And here is how I complete it: “When you get what you want, make sure it is what you want!” 
“Make sure it is what you want” is a different way of saying to make your deepest want a spiritual want.  If what you want is an authentic, spiritual want, then God will give you what you want.  And if it is a spiritual want, then when we get what we want, we truly will want it.  It will be meaningful.  It will be satisfying.  It will fit me.
Again to be personal, if my desire is to know and to do God’s desire for me, then I am bound to be satisfied and content with getting what I want.  It may sound complicated, but it is actually simple.  There are a million things people can want.  But not everything we want is the same level.  At the deeper, spiritual level, our want is important for our lives.  At this level, when you get what you want, make sure it is what you want.