About Me

Friday, October 30, 2015

Gift of Availability

I was rolling down the interstate recently without giving much thought to anything.  I was the passenger, as my friend was driving.  I realized I seldom go anywhere when I am not driving.  And we all know, when you are the driver, you need to be pretty attentive.  Hence, I was enjoying the luxury of my semi-conscious state with my mind wandering here and there.  Then at one point I noticed the van in front of us.           

I am not sure what caught my attention, but when I saw the writing on the back of the van, I jumped to attention.  With only a cursory look, it was easy to see the van was actually part of someone’s business.  There I saw the name of the business, but that did not register with me.  It could have been a plumbing or electrical business, but I have no clear memory.  I do recall seeing a phone number to call, but now I cannot even remember the area code.  In fact, there was only one detail that riveted my attention.           

On the back of the van in the upper right hand side I read these words: “23 ½ hours of service.”  I nearly laughed out loud!  Twenty-three and a half hours in service---Wow!  Immediately, I said to my friend, “I wonder what half hour he is not in service?”  We both laughed.  I was dumbfounded.  I tried to think of what kind of business would be available all the hours of the day and night except for a half hour.  My mind was stumped.           

Why would one need a half hour each day to be doing something other than whatever service you were rendering?  I know it did not fit the farm life I had lived---or any other kind of job I have held.  I am never surprised to see businesses offer 24-hour service.  You see this in restaurants, gas stations and all sorts of businesses.  24/7 is a phrase nearly everyone understands, even if we don’t understand why any business needs to be open every minute of every day of the week, month and year.             

Since I have no clue what kind of business that van was embodying, I decided to take the odd timing in my own direction and, even, spiritualize it.  The first thing that came into my mind is a favorite theme of mine when I think of ministry or service.  When I think about ministry and service, I easily link it to the idea of availability.  I have spent a few decades now in ministry or service of some kind.  Much of it has been a teaching ministry, as I like to call it.  Of course, in most kinds of ministry and service, there are the normal appointed things to do.             

As a teacher, there are the class sessions, the syllabus and the plans to be executed.  My daughter is a physician and she has her appointed duties in seeing patients, etc.  For her and for me all those standard, routine duties are part of the 23 ½ hours of service.  Clearly, I never saw myself involved in those kinds of hours.  No one by herself or himself can offer that kind of availability.  At least, that is where my thinking started.           

But as I thought further into it, I realized that was not quite true.  In the various kinds of ministry and services I have offered over the decades, I did not actually post hours I would be available.  I knew the class schedule I would follow and the other commitments that had their particular schedule.  But I also realized I was available, even though I might not be doing a scheduled thing.           

For example, I would never refuse to see a student if it were outside the classroom time.  If a student appears at my door, the door is always open.  I am available.  My ministry and service does not have parameters or limits that I know.  I don’t have qualifications that pertain to age, gender, money, etc.  If you have an issue and want to talk with me, I offer the gift of availability.  Most of the time this gift of availability falls within the normal working day for me.           

However, I also realize that I move through the life of my institution appearing in places that I am not required to perform---things like athletics, and various group gatherings.  Since I do this, I am essentially offering the gift of my availability to whoever wants to avail herself or himself to my gift.  This happens quite often.  Since I respond so effortlessly, I never have thought about my gift of availability in this fashion.           

And then the final thought came to me.  I can even be at home or even in bed and I know I will respond if someone needs me and calls upon me.  I have done it many times---in the middle of the night or any other hour.  My availability is offered nearly all the time.  But I wondered: is it offered 24/7.  At first, I thought it probably was.  But then I realized that is not quite true.           

I am really operating with 23 ½ hours of service because I know the necessity of at least one-hour a day for myself in prayerful, disciplined, self-care.  I must have at least that much restorative spiritual time or I will never be effectively available to anyone.  I give thanks to that van for helping me appreciate my gift of availability.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Servant Leader

Recently I was with a wonderful group of people who were thinking about servant leadership.  It is a concept that has rich meaning to me.  As I thought about it, I realized that I have probably been trying to be a leader since elementary school days.  I don’t know that I started out to be a servant leader, but that idea came to be part of my leadership style fairly early in my career.           

Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a servant leader is my own personality.  As I think about it, I have always preferred being part of a group and helping a group along.  I certainly have played the role of the lone ranger, but that is not as much fun for me as leading a group.  I also think my own Quaker tradition values encourage a kind of servant leadership model.  Quakers have always felt like the group is more important than any single individual.  I agree with this and have tried to support the group’s progress and success.           

As I anticipated being with this group of folks, I realized I had not thought deeply about servant leadership.  So I turned to the founding father of servant leadership---at least in the 20th century version of that idea goes.  Robert Greenleaf is usually credited with making the servant leadership idea known and available to people.  He was a business leader who also read theology, philosophy, English and was a well-rounded guy.          

In the middle of the 20th century he was working at AT&T, when it was a huge company.  He was astutely aware of both problems and potential and how leadership could affect both issues.  He published some essays in the 1970s and these were put together in a book, The Servant Leader, published in 1976.  It has become a classic.  It may be worth noting that Greenleaf also was a Quaker.  So when I read the book, I see traces of that spirituality in his work.           

I find his style of leadership to be very spiritual.  It is not religious in any doctrinal or dogmatic way.  It would not have become famous had that been the case.  And it is a leadership style that anyone can do in any kind of situation.  We do not have to have positions of power or authority to be servant leaders.  Let’s look at some of the key pieces of this leadership style.           

There is a powerful paragraph near the beginning of Greenleaf’s book that summarizes what servant leaders aim to do.  First, Greenleaf says, the servant is “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”  Of course, this means my needs and wants do not come first.  This is bad news for egocentric people.  Their needs and desires always top the needs of others.  So clearly, egocentric people cannot make good servant leaders.             

As this understanding of servant leadership begins to develop, it should remind you of Jesus, the Buddha and what all the other religiously folks sought to do.  This should become clear with Greenleaf’s next point.  He says, “The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons?”  This is a great goal.  Do those served grow as persons?  Just imagine what kind of society we would have if all of our leaders around the globe served in this fashion.  It might be difficult to find wars!           

Greenleaf adds another powerful description of the servant leader.  He asks about the effect servant leaders have on other people, “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  I think about how to apply that to myself.  There is no doubt; in some situations I am a leader.  My question now can be, do those I serve become healthier?  Do they become more free?  Are they more autonomous---that is, not dependent on other people?           

The last thing Greenleaf asks about servant leaders is insightful.  About servant leaders he asks, “what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Simply put, Greenleaf expresses his concern for the poor and the destitute in our society.  Greenleaf thinks the servant leader has a responsibility for the folks on the margin of our society.             

He warns us not to forget a segment of people.  This really sounds like the kind of thing Jesus would enjoin all of us to do.  A servant leader has to be clear that it’s not about you!  It is always about the other.  Even if you are the boss, you can be the boss as a servant leader.  And if you are not the boss, perhaps it is even easier for you to be a servant leader.           

Servant leadership is paradoxical.  In the first place you are a leader.  Leaders lead; it’s that simple.  But your leadership is exercised through being a servant.  You enable others to succeed.  You facilitate their growth and development.  You give them the credit and you are willing to take the blame when there is blame.  To be an effective servant leader, you need to be spiritual and mature.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Invitation

I was sitting at home one recent evening.  I had no special plans, except to write my usual spiritual reflection piece.  I like doing them in the evening, since that gives me a whole day to be aware, pay attention, and to see what comes my way.  I know one of the reasons I still like writing these things is it encourages me to live with a level of awareness that I am not sure I would do if I weren’t somehow responsible for writing something.  It is a wonderful discipline.

Out of the silence, my phone rang.  The nice thing about cell phones is there are almost no junk phone calls as I recall in the good old days of the landline.  If the phone rings, it almost is always for me.  Someone is connecting.  A very familiar voice greeted me.  That was nice.  But it provoked me to think.

At least in my world, no one calls without some intentionality.  That means there is a reason for virtually every phone call I get.  Even if someone calls simply to chat, that is a reason.  I am not sure I ever thought of this.  And the same thing is true when I make a call; there is a reason.  Someone might call “just to see how I am” and that is sufficient reason.  I am glad I am now aware of the intentionality of every phone call.

So I answered the phone, exchanged the appropriate pleasantries, like “how are you,” and then was presented with an invitation.  “Would you like to come and be with us?  We would love to have you,” the voice said.  I was touched.  I was being invited to join a couple of other people.  At one level, it was certainly no big deal.  I agreed, made the visit, enjoyed myself and was ready for a little more reflection.

An invitation is both a gift and a request.  It is a gift because it comes to us.  Of course, we can be more aggressive and invite ourselves into a situation.  But I don’t really count that as a true invitation.  The true invitation is a gift.  It comes as a request to join another person or a group in some kind of activity.  And the neat thing about an invitation is the choice is up to us.  We can say yes or no.  An invitation preserves our freedom. 

Thinking further into the phenomenon of invitation allows me to recognize that an invitation means someone wants us.  Someone wants to make the phone call, wants me to come over wants me to join.  An invitation is a call to belong.  Momentarily at least, someone or some group wants us to connect, join and belong.  In most cases, it is not for a long time.  Usually the invitation is temporary---with terminal limits.  The phone call ends with “Good-bye.”  The visit ends with my return home.  But for the moment, someone wanted me.  Someone requested me to belong.

From here it is easy to move it to a deeper, spiritual level.  As I ponder it at this deeper level, I realized how spiritual the idea of invitation really is.  Since I am a Christian, I want to reflect on it from that perspective---from the Christian invitational perspective.  I begin with the creation stories.  The way I read those Genesis accounts is to understand God out of love brought humans into existence in order for us to be in relationship.  God’s creative love is never coercive; it is always invitational.  

The story of human development has frequently been to refuse the divine invitation.  Out of our freedom, we so often have said a “No” to this divine-human relationship.  But God persists.  God has found many ways to issue a variety of invitations to humankind.  After the bondage of Egypt, God used Moses and invited the people out of bondage.  Oddly enough, this invitation had its first stop in the wilderness!  But there in that so-called God-forsaken place, God showed up on a mountaintop and invited the people to be part of the Covenant.  God’s invitation was this simple: “I’ll be your God and you’ll be my people.”  It was an individual invitation and a group invite.  Again it was a call to belong---to be part of.

For a Christian, the last invitation is the invitation God extends through Jesus.  In fact, I would interpret the call of disciples as an invitation.  “Follow me,” he often said.  I see that as his invitation.  It is a gift and a request.  It preserves our freedom.  We are free to say, “No.” 

I have repeatedly tried to say “Yes” to the divine invitations.  I appreciate the opportunity to belong.  Personally, I understand the kind of spiritual belonging offered by God and by Jesus as a chance to be in relationship with the Holy One who created me.  And corporately, I understand the kind of spiritual belonging offered to be in a community of others who have chosen to belong.  In fact, that is a good definition of community---a spiritual group of folks who belong…belong to God and to each other.

The alternative to belonging is stark.  Not to belong is to be isolated and alone.  It is to be unconnected and, in some way, unwanted.  Theologically, this would be some form of hell on earth.  The good news is this, too, is a choice.  If you want to be in hell, that is your choice.  If not, there will be an invitation.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Miracle

Spending some time recently with a friend brought some new, interesting ideas for me to ponder.  Some of what I want to share here is not original to me.  The basic idea, in fact, he handed to me.  Maybe he got the idea from someone, but it was not novel for me.  The conversation came out of a conversation about the miracles of Jesus.  For a long time, I have been intrigued by miracles.

I know many people swear by miracles.  Jesus performed miracles and folks believe that the miracle occurred just as the New Testament recorded it.  Other folks take a more liberal view.  They do not actually think Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.  They are confident the story of turning water into wine is embellished to make a good story.  And then, there are many contemporary people who think all talk about miracles is so much hogwash---literally and metaphorically nonsense. 

I certainly do not take everything in the New Testament or, even, the entire Christian Bible literally.  So that means, it is not necessary to believe every detail of all the miracles.  Having studied the language of the New Testament is helpful, but it is also important to remember that Jesus did not speak Greek, the New Testament language.  And no one has ever suggested that Jesus wrote anything.

There is not one Greek word for miracle.  Our English word comes from the Latin, miraculum, which means “wonder,” or something that elicits wonder.  One of my favorite Greek words for miracle is dunamis, which literally means “power.”  If you look, you can see that word gives us our word, “dynamite!”  Clearly, to work a miracle requires a kind of power, so that characterizes a miracle worker.   

Another one of the Greek words for miracles usually gets translated as “sign.”  This means that a miracle is a sign.  Signs signify.  And in many cases, signs become significant.  I love how those three words are hooked together: sign, signify and significant.  In fact, I would argue if a miracle is not somehow significant, then it is useless as a sign.   

This leads me to a little deeper place.  Sometimes the real miracle is not what seems to be the miracle itself.  Recognizing that may be confusing, let me explain.  If we take the New Testament story where Jesus fed the five thousand, clearly the feeding of such a great multitude seems like the miracle itself.  At the surface level, this is true.  But if we go beneath the surface, we get in touch with the real miracle.   

To get to the real miracle, we have to go to the beginning of the story.  At the beginning of the story, Jesus is out in the countryside with his disciples.  A large crowd has gathered.  It is late, so the disciples suggested to Jesus that he send the throng home.  That made perfect sense.  Instead Jesus said there was no need to send them away.  He decided to give the crowd something to eat.  Of course, that leads to the miracle that captures folks’ imagination.

At a deeper level, however, the real miracle is more subtle.  Rather than sending the crowd home, Jesus decides to minister to them.  Now that is a miracle.  Most of us are like the disciples.  We don’t have enough.  We would rather not share.  We do not want to be put in a place where we might have to share.  So get rid of them!  Send the others home.  We want to exclude.  The miracle of Jesus is not bread and fish, but inclusion. 

There is another lesson at this deeper level of miracle.  The ministry of inclusion is grounded in love.  If we cannot love, then we never will be able to include.  Of course, it is not miraculous to love those to whom we are close---family, and friends.  We can always include people like us.  But the crowd is a different story.  After all, who knows what kind of people are in the crowd!

There can certainly be sinners in the crowd.  Some or most of them will not be like us.  In fact, some of them are aliens.  Perhaps there are even enemies in the crowd.  Who in their right mind wants to fraternize with a crowd like that?  Fraternize is an interesting word here.  It comes from the Latin word, frater, which means “brother.”  Jesus saw that the crowd was a bunch of brothers (and sisters).  They were a spiritual fraternity!  Why would they be sent away? 

This leads to the final, deep lesson of the real miracle.  That lesson concerns the miracle that happens to the disciple, the believer, to me and you.  We come to learn that the real miracle is about falling in love---falling in love with the other.  This is the real sharing that is demanded.  It leads to other miracles, like peace making.  All miracles bring hope.  Love is the biggest hope of all.      

Monday, October 26, 2015

Meaning Tied to Worth

I am attracted to things that talk about meaning.  Maybe that is because I feel like I have spent much of my life thinking about meaning and testing to see if, indeed, I thought I was living a meaningful life.  I remember very well a period of life when I did not think I had any meaning or, at best, was not sure what that was.  Those were the years right after high school and the early college years.          

In my case much of school and high school was fine.  Maybe it is revisionist history, but I recall those days with some fondness.  I was an above average athlete, so that was a plus.  I was bright enough, so that also was a plus.  I am the oldest one in my family, so there was no sibling competition---no reputation to live up to or even live down.  Life was ok.           

Then I was off to college and began to experience a period of not knowing.  I began to have a nagging sense that what I was aiming for was not really what I wanted to do.  I began to accept that I was doing what others wanted me to do.  And when it came right down to it, I had no real idea what I did want to do.  I realized I had always answered the question, “what do you want to do in life?” with other people’s answer that I had adopted.  I did not know the real “me” and, of course, had no clue what that “me” wanted out of life.           

All this was exacerbated by a Vietnam War that I did not want and certainly did not want to support by my military involvement.  But I also knew that dropping out of college exposed me to the draft.  I could be asked to go to war and not asked how I felt about it!  Finally, I mustered more courage than I ever had done and left college anyway.   I did not know what I was going to do or whether I would ever find “me,” but I was going to risk trying it.             

In that process I did not know that actually what I was doing was engaging in an authentic search for meaning.  And that search for meaning inevitably was also a quest for identity.  After a number of months I began to realize something that was crucial to that search and quest.  I realized I did not know how to think about things.  Of course, I always assumed that since I was a good student, I knew how to think.  That was not necessarily true.  So I made another big decision.           

I went back to college.  I needed to be in classrooms where I could learn things that were foundational to meaningful living.  I needed teachers who taught me how to think and not just learn things for an examination.  Although I grew up in a church, it certainly would not be fair to say I was spiritual.  I had some religious ideas, but ideas don’t have much weight to them unless there is a deeper belief and trust.  These I lacked.           

All these memories came flooding back to me when I read a recent piece by the philosopher, Todd May.  He wrote a piece on meaningful lives that I enjoyed.  In that piece he cites Susan Wolf and a relatively new book of hers, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.  He observes, “A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one.”  That resonated with me.  I have never conflated happiness and meaningfulness.  They can be related, but they are not the same.           

May goes on to quote Wolf when she says, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.”  This was not altogether clear to me.  But then he added a sentence that sparked things.  “A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it…for life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile.”  I really like tying meaning and worth.  They do match and always go together.           

As I went back to college and ever since, I have been searching for meaning.  In many ways I have found it---or created it.  And I think I discovered meaning as I discovered a “me” that was doing something worthwhile.  And in that process I gained a new sense of the worth that “me” had.  As I reflect back on life, I am satisfied that much of what I have done has been worthwhile.           

That is satisfying even though my economic worth is not as great as it could be.  I could have done different things to make more money to be worth more.  Of course, it could have gone the other way.  I could have wasted time and done things stupidly and basically become worthless.  I am content with my sense of worth and the worthiness of things done.  I am not finished yet, so hopefully I am still creating worth---not in money, but surely in meaning.           

I appreciate tying meaning to worth.  It is a good way to see life and to live the spiritual life.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Psalm of Comfort

There are always good reasons for me to stay with the daily lectionary.  The lectionary gives me readings from the Psalms, other readings and a chance to ponder the important things in my life.  I do this because I realize that if I don’t do it, I will walk down an aimless, busy kind of life.  It scares me to think how easy it is to live an unreflective life.  I am sure this is what Socrates had in mind when he noted that “an unexamined life” is not worth living.           

The lectionary reading for Compline (the closing time of worship in the Benedictine monastic day) was reassuring.  I guess that is fitting that we be reassured as we close out the day and head to bed.  It proves the lectionary has a reason to it!  The time I spend with the lectionary matters to me because I know monks and other seriously engaged spiritual people are doing the same thing that I am doing.  The point is not simply to read the same stuff I know they are reading.  The point is to reflect on that material and let it massage my soul.             

Psalm 16 was the first Psalm in the Compline reading.  The fifth verse of that Psalm says, “You, Lord, are my inheritance and my cup.”  That sounds like the biblical way of saying that God and I are in relationship.  In a way we are part of the same family.  This is where the personal metaphors for God---like God is father or mother---make sense.  If God is our parent, then we will be inheritors.  We are part of the divine legacy.  That is a privilege and a gift.          

The Psalmist continues.  “You control my destiny.”  This can be a hard saying for all of us who are independent and think we can do anything we want to do.  Often I fit exactly in this category.  And for all intents and purposes, I am quite independent.  I have enough money to do what I want.  I have enough freedom that it seems like I can do exactly whatever I want to do.  I have enough health to be fairly free to go and do most things.  Who needs God?           

Of course, there is a deep part of me that is certain I need God.  Our ultimate independence is an illusion of course.  All the money, freedom and health in the world do not change the destiny of death.  In the end we all die in poverty, enslaved by mortality and sick to death.  God knows that and so do I.  That is why I am committed to my connection to God.           

The Psalmist continues with assurance.  “The lot marked out for me is of the best, my inheritance is all I could ask for.”  Once more, the Psalmist is confident in his relationship with God.  That I feel, too.  It does not depend on me.  My relationship is my strength.  I am good because of God.  And God is always good, always dependable even if I waver and wobble.           

I add another line from Psalm 16.  The Psalmist says, “I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding; even in the night my heart will teach me understanding.”  It is perfectly appropriate to bless God.  Blessing is an even higher order than thanking.  I am thankful for all that I have been given.  But blessing comes out of the inherent relationship we have with the Holy One.  Blessing ensues from staying true to the relationship.  God is ever dependent.  I am the tricky one!  That is why I need the Psalms to remind me of the blessings I have.           

This is the kind of wisdom the heart teaches even at night.  The blessing comes out of the assurance the Psalmist knows.  That writer says of God, “with him at my side I can never be shaken.”  The words of the Psalmist I want to claim for myself.  I think that is why it is written.  It is written for us, the readers centuries later.  The truth of the Psalmist is our truth.  That story can be our story.             

To claim the story, however, is to claim the whole story.  We cannot have the goodies without paying the price.  The price is not calculated in money.  The price is our life.  The currency is not coins, but commitment.  Over time the price increases.  As the passing of time happens, the price is not paid in dollars, but now in discipleship.  This is the journey I am on.           

Because of the journey, I need the discipline of the lectionary and the assistance of the Psalmist and the support of all those who have walked the path before me.  Some are saints and more are ordinary folks like me.  I am certainly no saint.  But I am related to the Holy One and the call is for me to do my best.  Sometimes I am disappointed with my “best,” but I vow to keep at it and improve.           

We call it a spiritual journey for good reason.  It is not a sprint.  It is a pilgrimage into a deeper and deeper life of the Spirit.  That is why along the way I need the comfort of the Psalms. Thank God!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sacred Stage of our Times

The title for this inspirational reflection comes from the end of the introductory chapter in a relatively new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, by Diana Butler Bass.  I do not know Bass personally, but I do like her writing and hope one day we might meet and get to know each other.  This initial chapter was a very good read and I look forward to reading the entire book.          

In effect, Bass is working off some recent polls testing the religious affiliations of the American population.  I am aware of some of these studies, such the recent Pew studies.  If effect some of the reporting is giving us ways of understanding why an increasing number of Americans have given up on what they call “institutional religion.”  Even though church membership is dropping, a growing number of people say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  This fits a significant number of students who are sitting in my classes.             

I think most of them would claim to believe in God, but they don’t go to church nor do they even see this as important.  I laughed and said, “God is not in trouble, but the churches may be!”  But it is not that simple.  We could say a traditional view of God is also in trouble.  Many people no longer believe in the kind of God with whom I grew up.  As Bass says, “’Where is God?’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”  Typically, the traditional God was “Someone out there.”  God was remote and not involved in our messy world.           

Bass puts it more graphically as she suggests the new version of God brings God down out of the sky into our messy world.  She suggests, “God is with us.  It is a wildly improbable turn of theological events to claim that God is with victims of war, terrorism, or natural disaster, with the valorous who run toward burning buildings or navigate flooding streets, and with those who mourn and doubt and even despair.”  I will admit that I like the view that God is with us.  God is involved.           

Much of what Bass does in this chapter is not surprising or new to me.  She and I have read similar people.  But it is fun to see what she does with what she knows.  And of course, her life has been different than my life.  She has had her own unique experiences.  And she shares some of her life within the chapter.  That makes it very interesting to me.            

I watched her share some of her life and then relate it to the developing analysis that was unfolding in that first chapter.  I did not try to guess where she was going to go at the end of the chapter.  She was talking about what she calls a “spiritual revolution” that is happening now.  She then comments: “And this revolution rests on a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us.” (26)  Clearly, she is making a big deal out of the God who is here and now---the God who is with us.  I agree with her, so it makes sense to me.           

She continued on that last paragraph in a way I found lovely.  “We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe.”  All this is the work of the God who is our ground and the God who grounds us.           

This is not an airy, fairy-tale kind of theology.  This is a theology about a God who is very involved with us---a God who is in the midst of our needs, our fears, our loves and our longings.  All this has come as a gift from the pen of Bass.  And then she wrote the last sentence of the paragraph.  It was wonderful           

Bass said, “This world, not heaven, is the sacred stage of our times.”  Bass has been sneaky good!  She has brought down into our messy world the God who once lived “out there”----distant and remote from us in our daily action.  Many of us would go to church to commune with that God.  While that is still possible, it is no longer necessary according to Bass.  Instead, God is in our midst.          

This world is where the action now takes place.  God is no longer simply a heavenly Being---watching us and waiting for us to elevate our lives to be able to visit those heavenly places.  Now the divine-human action takes place within this world.  As she says, the world is our sacred stage.  That is a powerful image.          

It transforms the way we can look at our normal lives.  In Bass’ view our normal lives are now being enacted on the sacred stage of the world.  For me it is at the university---in the classroom and in the gym.  It is in my granddaughter’s playroom and bedroom.  Perhaps that makes us actors in a divine play.  I trust finally it is going to be a comedy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Ego and Self

The thing that amazes me the most in this discipline of writing some spiritual reflection is where I get the ideas.  Sometimes I have to struggle to get an idea, but with some perseverance, I can get one.  More often than not, something happens and, boom, the idea pops into my head.  Such was the idea for this entry.  The idea came immediately, but the title came only with some reflection.

Oddly enough, the idea came when a car turned the corner in front of me.  I was out for a walk in the wonderful Metropark that is close to my campus.  It is a tree-lined, fairly wide path that goes for miles.  Where I join it, it passes a couple lakes.  There is some traffic on the adjoining road, but for the runners, walkers and bikers, the cars are a secondary distraction.  Most of us are enjoying the beauty of nature. 

As I approached the corner where the Metropark leads me back to the street, I heard a car coming, so I stopped.  Quickly this white car comes to the corner and turns almost recklessly on to the Metropark road.  As the car sped by, I noticed the driver was a rather young guy.  I also noticed the car was a really nice Mustang—a pretty sporty car.  As he rounded the corner, he hit the gas and the motor roared.  Within seconds I am sure he was well above the speed limit.  The car oozed sounds of power, etc. 

I laughed at myself.  Immediately, I felt sixteen years old and could imagine that being my car.  It was all masculine---power, might, almost a kind of arrogance.  Since I am not sixteen any more, I really don’t want that kind of a car.  I did not judge the guy.  In another world, that would be me if I could manage it.  There was nothing wrong with it.  And it did give me an idea and caused me to begin pondering.

I have often thought that things like cars can be one way we express ourselves.  I know if I had that sporty, white Mustang, I would be making a statement about myself!  That’s when it hit me.  I am not an expert psychologist by any means, but I do like to make a distinction between ego and self.  I understand ego in the sense of its Greek meaning.  I know ego literally is a Greek word.  I could write it in Greek, but then in English you would spell it: ego!  It translates as “I.”  So ego is “I.”  It is myself knowing what I want. 

Self, on the other hand, is a deeper, more spiritual person that I really am.  As I am understanding it, self is not superficial.  If I can distinguish ego and self, I would say the ego says “I want” and the self says, “I am willing.”  Let’s go back to the Mustang to explain it further. 

I think the guy’s Mustang was an expression of his ego.  Effectively, he is saying, “I am a Mustang!”  In this case ego is bold, powerful, fancier than most other cars, etc.  That’s how he wants to feel about himself.  Again, this is not bad; it is not too deep and, likely, not very spiritual.  But it was where I was at sixteen! 

Ego is not bad, but it is often fairly superficial.  Ego can never be our true self.  Ego can never be the real me.  In this sense, ego is not wrong or bad; it is just not true---at least, deeply true.  Down deep, the guy knows he is not a Mustang, but he wants to be!  Again, I don’t blame him.  While I know that my ego is not lusting after a big, powerful car, my ego can want other things that are just as much a sign of egocentric perspective. 

Egos get lived out in clothes, as well as cars.  Egos get lived out in sports and all sorts of other ways.  It is always well to know how easily ego links to egocentric---that which “I” am centered upon.  It usually is putting an image out there that we want to be and we hope others perceive us to be.   It is not bad; it is often just false.  As long as we live out of our ego, we usually are not very aware of our self. 

The self is deeper and usually more subtle.  The self is who we really are---at our core.  Our self is unique.  The spiritual journey can be understood as our quest to come to know our true self and, then, to live from that core or center.  When we know and live from that center, we would never think, “I am a Mustang.”   

As I understand the self from a spiritual perspective, our discovery of our true self will simultaneously be to discover the Holy One.  The self is the person God imagines us to be---or to become if we are not there yet.  This deeper, true self is the place where real love and compassion are possible.  The self is not competitive, but collaborates in the building of a better world. 

When we are in touch with this deeper self, we both tend to know who we are, but we are also aware of and sensitive to others.  This is why the “I want” of the ego shifts to “I am willing.”  The self is willing to help, care, laugh and cry with others.  The self shows up instead of showing off.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hush Little Soul

Recently I have become aware again of something I probably have known for a long time.  Perhaps I have even known it my whole lifetime!  It is not a dramatic knowing, but it is healthy and can be healing.  What more can we ask?  Put simply, I became aware again of what I would call the simple soulfulness of quiet and aloneness.  I can put more fancy spiritual terminology to this, but the simplicity is sufficient for now. 

I like to be engaged in my work.  I like being with people.  I know my life still borders on the too-busy end of the spectrum.  Even though I am getting older, I wonder whether I am any wiser?  I know more than I execute.  Ignorance often is not the problem.  I know enough to grow spiritually, but frequently my stupidity blunts the process.  So I find myself in the same place year after year.  It is not a disaster, but there is a mountain yet to climb.  I still like the metaphor of mountain when thinking about spirituality.  In many ways, I still am a flat-lander! 

Most of what I do is good stuff.  I help people.  I have fun doing what I do.  There is virtually no complaint coming out of my heart.  I am always tempted by the “more.”  Perhaps this is the general sickness of America.  From the get-go we are taught to go for “more.”  This is not inherently bad; it certainly is not evil.  But it can drain the soul.  Paradoxically, in soulful terms, “more” is often like the desert.  We are tempted to see “more” in lush terms, when in fact, it is desert.   

Going for more usually takes more from us.  It takes more time, more energy, more everything.  Frequently that leaves less for our real, deeper, true self.  Instead of nurturing that true self, we deplete it because we have no time, no energy, no nothing.  Too often, we awake to discover that we have “more” and are feeling less fulfilled, less whole.  Spirituality almost always turns out to be oddly true.  It is true---but it is oddly true. 

No doubt, this was the opening for recently becoming aware again of what I have known for a long time.  It is as if I have to learn all over again the soulful necessity of being quiet and alone.  The more normal spiritual terms for these are silence and solitude.  I like these words, but sometimes I need a different vocabulary.  So today I prefer quiet and alone.   

I know the word, quiet, comes from the Latin word, quies.  Obviously it shows us our English word.  But I like some of the other translations, which give me even more spiritual depth.  Quies also means “rest, relaxation, recreation and peace.”  These are all very good words for me to give focus.  But spiritually speaking, they have to become more than simply words or interesting ideas.  The spiritual trick is to take the idea and incorporate it into one’s actual life. 

Physically everyone knows the need for rest.  Most of us go to bed at night in order to get rest.  Our busy lives need rest from activity---from involvement.  Relaxation is a different version of rest.  To relax is typically an antidote to the seriousness and, sometimes, stress we often find in our lives.  These kinds of issues can be problems for people even when they have left the work world.   

I have always liked the idea of recreation.  Of course, it can mean play; that’s what it meant when I was a kid.  Recreation was recess from classes!  Recreation was playing instead of working.  It was meant to be fun.  However, for too many of us recreation came to be a kind of alternative stress.  We played too hard.  We risked not having any fun at all.  That is when I needed to be reminded that recreation is really re-creation---to be created again and again. 

Time alone has been as important to me as being quiet.  I don’t think that is simply because I am slightly introverted.  Time alone frequently is recreational for me.  It is rest and relaxation.  Spiritually speaking, being alone allows for time to meditate and to reflect.  I am absolutely sure being spiritual requires routine reflective time.  We need that time alone to ponder and to pray.  As quiet is recreative, so is alone time restorative.   

Thinking about this again reminds me that spiritually deep people know they need a regular, routine time to be quiet and be alone.  I know personally my life goes better if I have some of this on a daily basis.  Of course, it is difficult (or so I think) to have this as part of my daily discipline.  But that’s the rub. 

If I think it is too difficult to build into my life, then I probably am losing touch with the soul nourishing care I most need to be the person I want to be.  When I forget, my soul begins to be rushed, stressed and out of whack like the rest of me.  It is at this very moment I want to remember, whisper, “hush little soul,” and re-engage life at the soulful level I most want.   

Monday, October 19, 2015

Healing Power of Failure

The title of this inspirational piece was provided by a section header in a book I have enjoyed and which I still use in a class.  The book, The Active Life, by my friend, Parker Palmer, helps with the basics of living the kind of life I want.  The subtitle of the book is quite revealing: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.  I try to do all three things in my life.  I still work.  I hope to be creative.  And I want to care.  Let’s explore all three.          

I was reading one of his chapters when I landed on the header of a section in that chapter.  The header read: “The Healing Power of Failure.”  I was immediately intrigued by the idea that somehow failure could be healing.  I certainly have known enough about failure.  Anyone my age has failed a few times.  If he or she has not, that person is likely to be lying---or never tried anything!           

I jumped into the section to see how Palmer was going to develop it.  One of the things Palmer suggests is failure is not always a teacher.  Many of us choose to ignore it.  But he counsels that we “confront, acknowledge and explore” failure.  I reckon this takes a certain amount of courage.  This is good counsel for me.  I am sure I am one of those who usually ignore failure---or, at least, minimize it.  But I never learn from it if I do this.             

Palmer develops his ideas in ways that help me to learn.  He says that failure is often paradoxical.  Palmer claims, “The paradox is that failure may turn to growth, while success can turn to self-satisfaction and closure.”  When Palmer put it this way, I began to take off on my own analysis.           

Part of what I have been doing the last few years is to be involved in some entrepreneurial and innovative engagements.  To hang out with people who are quite innovative is exciting.  They do tend to be people with courageous hearts.  When I am tentative, they are ready to jump.  By saying this, I don’t mean to say they are reckless, much less stupid.  But they actively are responding to opportunities and trying to create opportunities.  It can be thrilling.           

Palmer has a one-liner that tells me why innovative people are in the minority---why so many of us are afraid to participate in this dynamic.  He says, “Our culture puts such a premium on success, and such sanctions on failure, that we find it hard to affirm the rightness of failing at a good cause, to affirm the creativity that failure can contain.”            

Again, this helps me re-focus the way I want to live.  I value success, but it is not the most important thing in my life.  And this is certainly true when I think about the spiritual journey.  The goal of a spiritual journey is not to succeed.  I am not even sure what a “successful spiritual journey” would even mean.  Most folks would not consider Jesus’ life to be “successful.”  It was meaningful, significant and world changing.  But being killed is not success.  And my spiritual journey is not geared to success either.           

Maybe once more I have grasped an important theme in referring to Jesus.  If his spiritual journey was meaningful, significant and world changing, why should that not be true of mine and of yours?  It is a tall order to live that way, but to live in the Spirit is a big challenge.           

This commitment to lead a spiritual life may set us up for failure.  I remind you of Palmer’s words: “our culture puts such a premium on success…that we find it hard to affirm the rightness of failing at a good cause.”  The good cause of the spiritual life includes following the implications of our deep commitment.  My deep commitment is to the God who created and called me into relationship.  That relationship may make demands on me that I would not make on myself.  But what God desires is always that “good cause” that Palmer describes.             

The good cause that is God asks me to love enemies.  I am not sure I would do that if it were solely up to me.  I am confident I have the power to hate.  But God does not desire that.  So I am living a life in which I am trying to love all people at all times.  I am failing in this, but I am trying to learn from my failure.  It would be easy enough to give up.  But that would be the ultimate failure and from that there is nothing to learn.           

The kind of love which I am trying to live out does at times lead to failure.  But failing at a good cause can be healing.  Instead of being wounded by my failure to love, I am healed and given more hope that I am learning and can be better in the future.  Many of us are not even good at loving those we say we love!  No wonder loving enemies is so hard.           

But I am trying and my failures are healed by the power of a larger Love than I am.  And the healing power of failure leads to more profound love.  I am glad to be on the way.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Experience of Reverance

I have been slowly reading a recent book by Barbara Brown Taylor called, An Altar in the World.  She writes well and I am enjoying it.  In many ways it is a book about spirituality rather than religion---assuming we can differentiate those words.  When I say it is not so much about religion, I mean it has much less to do with the church as an institution and the typical religious practices we associate with church membership.  It is more focused on being spiritual in the normal running of our days.  The particular chapter I was reading had to do with paying attention.

I have been teaching spirituality long enough to know that paying attention is very important if we want to “be spiritual.”  That was nothing new for me.  But what did pique my interest in her chapter was a focus on reverence.  In some ways reverence is an old religious concept.  It is so classical that not many people I know think about reverence or talk about it.

In a sense the idea of reverence seems a bit stuffy to me.  It sounds a little pietistic---the kind of thing older religious people might be “into.”  But Taylor began to resurrect the meaning of the term.  I appreciated this and wanted to plunge into thinking about it so I could write this inspirational piece.

As I pondered my own meaning for reverence, I realized it was a synonym for the holy or the sacred.  In fact, I know I prefer these two terms to the word, reverence.  I admit that it is a word game.  But we all know words have meanings to us and these meanings are often associated with experiences that shape how we feel about a word.  Simply because I associate it with older religious people casts a particular light on how I understand the word.  So reading Taylor helped me see afresh the word.

She quotes a philosopher, Paul Woodruff, to bring some clarity.  “By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self---something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.”  That makes much sense to me.  Most of us know we are not god, even though we might act like it sometimes!  I do recognize something greater than me.  I am ok with calling that God.

This is what Taylor says.  Using the criteria Woodruff offers, Taylor says, “God certainly meets those criteria.  God is beyond human creation or control.  God transcends full human understanding.  So God is an object of reverence.  But that is not all---and this is where I like what Taylor is doing.  She acknowledges that other things meet the criteria, too.  Specifically, she notes “birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, and wisdom.”

If I read her correctly, she is suggesting that each of these things also can be objects of reverence.  As I think about my own experiences of some of them, I am led to agree with her.  For example, I think about the birth of my two daughters.  In both cases I was in the delivery room when they emerged into this word.  It was a moment of reverence.  Something mighty had just happened.  Even though I knew it was coming and I actually was ready for it, I was not really ready for “it.”

Two daughters were born, but more happened than that.  Even though I had helped create two human beings, it was bigger than me.  The whole event was brimming with mystery and majesty.  Life had been created and the world had been altered.  I knew so much and, yet, there was so much about it that I would never know.  Reverence leads us to appreciate rather than understand.  Instead of analyzing, I said Amen.

We could take the rest of the list Taylor offers: death, sex, nature, truth, justice and wisdom.  They all precipitate experiences of reverence.  We can describe them and to a degree, explain them.  But we have to admit the experience of any of them transcends our ability fully to understand them.  And I am happy this is the case.

I think any experience of reverence is an experience of mystery.  They become burning bushes in our experience.  While we may not take off our shoes, as Moses did, we are face to face with the sacred.  And we may be in a desert or in a bedroom rather than the cathedral.  Reverence helps us see the sacred potentiality in all places and at any time.

Reverence cannot be routinized.  While we may routinely feel reverence---in nature, for example---it cannot become routine or else it will cease to be reverence.  Instead of a burning bush, it will simply become a little tree.  Reverence always takes us out of ourselves or it drives us so deep in ourselves that we know we don’t know.  We are in the presence of “it.”

I have had countless experiences of reverence.  I am grateful for them and delighted that I can recall them.  What I would like to do is grow more into learning to live reverently.  It is nice to have an experience of reverence.  It is deeply spiritual to be able to live a life of reverence.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Amazing Possessions

I was sitting in my chair at home and mindlessly looking around.  Sometimes I have the television on and, while that focuses me, I am not sure it gives me much for my attention.  It is like eating cotton candy at a county fair.  The fluffy stuff looks good and sometimes even smells inviting.  But then you take a big bite of it and suddenly there is almost nothing in your mouth.  What seemed like so much turns out to be so little! 

I am not one for many possessions.  Quakers have a thing for simplicity.  That always made sense to me.  As a middle-class American, I know I cannot claim to be that simple.  But as Americans go, I probably do live more simply than many.  It always seemed to me that simplicity is a good corollary to poverty.  I appreciate how the monks and friars, like the Franciscans, take vows to that end.  Most of us “normal people” won’t take a vow of poverty.  But most of us can live with less stuff than we actually have.  That does include me, too.  So I work on simplifying. 

As I looked around my room, one thing I noticed that I don’t pay too much attention is the array of books on the shelves.  I have always enjoyed reading.  And of course, when you have as much education as I have, books have been a significant part of my life.  And I am old enough to have spent a substantial part of life in the pre-technological age.  When I was in college, technological advance meant that I finally used an electric typewriter!

I have books here at home.  And I have many more books in my study at the university.  No doubt, I have collected books in a way people don’t do it today.  Rather I have friends who have nearly all their books on their electronic readers---their iPad, Kindle or some other brand.  But they still are books in the sense that I want to develop some thoughts in this inspirational piece. 

It began to dawn on me, as it never did before.  I began to see my books as amazing possessions.  I don’t mean it in the sense that I own them.  They could be library books for all that matters.  It is not the book, per se, that I see as amazing possession.  It is not the material possession.  It is the content of the books---the magnificent range of books.  I began to think about this in more depth.  I know it is not novel to me, but it hit me in a way I have never given thought. 

A book on the floor beside my chair is the last book my favorite dead monk, Thomas Merton, wrote.  He worked on it shortly before he died at the end of the year, 1968.  I smiled to myself.  Merton may have died in ’68, but for me he still lives and is present in my living room in this book.  He won’t literally speak to me, but he still speaks to me.  Of course, that prompted me to think more broadly. 

Across from me is a shelf of books.  There is a string of books, which are the works of Shakespeare.  Shakespeare died in 1616, so none of us alive today could have known him.  And yet, we have a ton of thoughts, words and insights from him.  I wish I had spent more time reading the Bard of Avon.  I can only cite a few lines that I like.  One of my favorites is Shakespeare telling us, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”  I must be making progress; I know how foolish I can be! 

The seventeenth century seems like along time ago.  But when I look at other books on my shelf, some ancient authors make Shakespeare seem like a contemporary.  I have a Christian Bible there.  That means I actually have people like Jesus and Paul in my house!  I can open it to the Old Testament and have the prophets speak: Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others.  I have an incredible amount of knowledge and wisdom in this place!  It makes Wheel of Fortune seem pretty ridiculous! 

I am literarily and spiritually a very rich guy.  I have some amazing possessions.  The knowledge, insight and wisdom I possess can be a life-changer for me.  With these riches I have acquired meaning in my life.  They have provided me with a deep purpose in life.  I have heard Jesus say to me: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  It may be foolish, to recall Shakespeare, but I want to be a child---a child of God. 

On my own I likely would have no clue how to become a child of God.  In fact, without my amazing possessions, it would not even occur to me to want to be a child again.  Most of us are glad to got past our childhood, so the thought of going back seems crazy.  But again, unless we are willing to become foolish to the world’s ways and desire to regain that child-like quality, we probably are not going to get the truth and power of the spiritual life. 

I leaned back in my chair and was struck by the irony of my life.  I have spent time and money accumulating some amazing possessions.  Ironically and sadly, I often choose to ignore them and chase the flashy fools’ gold of my culture.  Eternal truths and, potentially, eternal life are present in my room and I am tempted by the insanity of the instant moment.  I am rich and don’t want to forget it.