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Monday, November 30, 2015

Thankfully the Holiday is Over!

Of course, the title of this inspirational reflection is partly in jest.  But part of me is serious when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over.  Both aspects need some clarification and development.

It is clear that I offer a word play on the most recent holiday, namely, Thanksgiving.  Actually, I am quite good with Thanksgiving Day itself.  I appreciate that it is totally an American holiday.  When we grow up Americans, it may be difficult to revel in that fact.  Truly, it was when I was abroad one November that I realized all my family and friends “back home” were celebrating Thanksgiving and I was simply doing what routinely was to be done on Thursday in the country where I was living at the time.  I missed Thanksgiving.

I like the idea of Thanksgiving.  Certainly I and most of the people I know have been very fortunate.  We all have much for which we can be thankful.  I am ok with taking a day during my year and making it a special Thanksgiving Day.  I can do that without falling into the trap of thinking there is no need to be thankful till next November! 

Indeed, hardly a day goes by in my life when I have not been thankful for this or for that.  My day starts early with coffee and the newspaper.  Since those are not delivered at my door, that means a trek to the store and a chance to interact with my first human being of the day.  It is a small gesture to utter those daily “thanks” to the store clerk, but it is an important gesture.  Not to be thankful is to begin a day with an attitude that is not good.

And if I can ignore the small things---those small incidents in my day for which I appropriately should be thankful---then I have started being the human being I really don’t want to become.  So I am quite willing to extend Thanksgiving Day---at least, the attitude of thanksgiving---into every new day until next November rolls around.

However, there is a part of me that is very glad---thankfully---the holiday is over!  I say this with the full awareness that most Americans would not agree with me.  For most people, Thanksgiving is not just a day---it is four days.  Thanksgiving holiday too often actually begins on Wednesday!  And clearly, Thanksgiving goes through Sunday.  That is what I mean when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over!

Actually, Thanksgiving Day is the easy part.  Black Friday I understand is an absolute hoot for shoppers.  Camping out for a day or two on a sidewalk outside the big box store to save some bucks on a tv most people don’t really need baffles me.  Of course, that means I cannot imagine doing it!  But I also know some folks cannot imagine going to a football game or the opera.

I am sure the major reason I am thankful that the holiday is over is the fact that I don’t fit in culturally.  I am not against culture---not even American culture.  That is the culture in which I live and in which I grew up. But there are parts of that culture I do not approve of and in which I don’t want to participate.
I know my biggest complaint about the holiday (and the holidays to come!) is the misplaced focus or emphasis.  Think about it.  Thanksgiving originally and traditionally was a time to be together with family and friends and give thanks.  It was originally a time those early settlers realized half of them would not die over the winter!  I am not sure what they did on Black Friday!  I think Thanksgiving is originally and traditionally spiritual.

Our culture is not designed to focus on the spiritual.  I suspect that we will need to be slightly counter-cultural if we opt for the spiritual.  Flat screen tvs are predictably a distraction from the spiritual.  I might be thankful to get one at a discount, but that I can get one is not inherently spiritual.

For me the spiritual has to do with life, love, justice, mercy and all those other things people offer or withhold from each other.  I want to use those as checkmarks for thanksgiving.  Am I aware of my life as a gift and am I thankful?  I want to make this a daily checkmark.

Am I doing as much loving as possible?  (I’ve got some growing to do here!)  Do I say thanks for the love given me?  Am I acting with a sense of justice---fairness---to all those people in my life?  Can I make this a daily checkmark?  Finally, am I able to be merciful to those whose only hope is mercy?  When I blow it, can I be thankful to those who show mercy to me?

Thankfully, the holiday is over…now I can get to the daily checking on my spiritual life.  I’ve got work to do!          

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Saying Thanks

I had just finished my run (which in actuality is as much a walk as run), when I met a guy I know in the parking lot.  We exchanged greetings and both headed into the Recreation Center.  He was ready for his exercise and I was going to shower and head home.  So we walked in together and headed right on into the locker room.  He is not a close friend, but I was happy to see him and chit chat.

He is somewhat involved in athletics, so we have that in common.  And of course, that is the easiest place for the conversation to ensue.  We did not have sufficient time to solve the world’s problems, so we settled on solving the dinky problems within the college athletic system!  He is fairly aware of some of the things I do for the athletic department, so the conversation was going to end there.  I was robed with only a towel and was turning to head to the shower. 

“Thank you for all you do for the kids,” he said.  I was caught up short.  “Seriously,” he continued, “I am thankful for what you do and I know the kids are appreciative, too.”  I was floored.  He could have handed me $100 and I would not have been more pleased than I was hearing his words.  I nodded, expressed some kind of gratitude and headed on to the shower.  But I had been touched. 

How simple that act of his had been.  And yet how powerful its impact on me had been.  Truly, I don’t know what it was worth.  Was it really a $100 gift?  To me it was, but I have enough money and I have a salary.  So I get money on a regular basis.  But there is no predictability to being thanked.   

Oh, I know people predictably thank us in the normal social exchange of life.  When I stop each morning and buy coffee, I thank the clerk for assisting me in my daily fix.  But that is perfunctory.  Of course, I mean it.  But it does not come from the depth of my heart.  It is a cup of coffee and I paid for it. 

The guy in the locker room offered his thanks to me for no predictable reason.  I had done nothing for him.  He has never been in a class with me.  He does not need me for anything and I don’t really give him anything.  There is no social exchange as there is in the purchase of coffee.  When I buy coffee, I owe the lady a word of thanks.  But there was nothing to precipitate his gracious words to me. 

But I was touched.  Part of the delight was the surprise of it.  Certainly I know what all I do for a variety of people around my campus.  And clearly I am getting paid a good base amount for what I do.  And in some cases, I know I go above and beyond the necessary effort to fulfill my contractual obligations.  I know all that and I am ok with it.  I don’t go around looking for people to thank me.  I know I am not the only one around.  A great number of people are doing exactly what I am doing, but in their own contexts. 

I know all of this is true, but I also know how much I was touched by his simple gesture.  Indeed, it was so simple.  It cost him nothing.  He lost nothing in doing it.  It was not obligatory.  Had he not thanked me, I would never have thought a moment about it.  I would not be poorer if he had not thanked me. 

It was pure gift.  “Tis a gift to be simple” goes the old Shaker hymn.  How true!  All I was going to do was take a shower and go home.  I did that.  But I took so much more with me.  I took a heart that had been touched.  I was smiling for no apparent reason.  Joy is such a rich emotion.  It is a kind of elixir.  I had been drugged and could still pass a drug test! 

This seems inherently spiritual, as I reflect on it.  To take it to that level may make it seem more momentous than it really was.  But that is the spiritual point.  It was not momentous; it was utterly simple.  A mere two words had changed me.  Oh, it was not a conversion.  But maybe, it was a tiny touch of heaven.  To have a touch of the heavenly while still here is a great gift. 

After all, we live in a world where there are so many of us making life hell for ourselves and countless others.  In my estimation, hell is a given.  Heaven will have to be chosen, created, and offered as gift.  This guy has taken on angelic proportions the way I am telling the story.  But that is precisely what I think happened. 

I went into the Rec Center with some guy I know.  In the process he became angelic and offered evangelical good words (“thank you”) and put me momentarily into a heavenly space.  And then I took a shower. 

But it did not rub off.  I can still remember it and appreciate it and celebrate it.  It was so simple.  It was a gift.  And I can do the same to others.  There is no patent on spiritual goodness.  Love lavishly by saying thanks. 

This is the last inspirational journey until Monday after Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I find ideas in funny places.  Maybe that is because I am always looking for new ideas, always attentive to where something fresh may come to my awareness.  I read an odd collection of things.  I found the idea for this inspirational reflection in a book review.  The review is focused on a book I hope to read in the near future.  The author of the book is a Franciscan sister, Ilia Delio.  I have never met her, although I would dearly love to do so.  I know she teaches at Villanova University in the Philadelphia area, so maybe I will make a trip to visit with her.
Sister Delio has a fascinating background.  She is a scientist who is also trained as a theologian.  She has a doctorate in Pharmacology.  She was pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship when she discerned that God was calling her in a different direction.  Ultimately she wound up with the Franciscan tradition.  That is when she began study theology, which she now teaches.  And she is writing on issues of science and religion, particularly on issues around evolution, the nature of the universe and God.
What I did not know was that Delio has published a new book.  A review by Jamie Manson informed me about her new book, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness.  Manson’s review was given the title, “Delio breathes new life into the term ‘catholic.’”  I discovered I already knew some of the things Manson was telling me that Delio was figuring out.  I already knew some things about the term, “catholic.”  But Delio also added to what I knew.  Let’s trace that discovery through this book review.
Originally, the word, “catholic,” is a Greek word.  It is a transliteration of the Greek, which means the way we see it is a letter-by-letter rendition of the Greek word into English letters.  Furthermore, the original Greek word is actually a compound word.  As the review rightly points out, the “cat” part is actually a preposition in Greek---literally written “kata.”  That preposition means “through.”  This is also what Delio learns.
The main part of the word, “catholic,” comes from the Greek, houlou, and means “whole.”  The preposition coupled with the noun gives us the adverb meaning “wholly.”  In this work with words Delio is following a lead of the Jesuit scholar, John Haughey.  I also know his work and very much appreciate it.  The book review, Manson, quotes one passage from Haughey, which summarizes the whole word exploration.  Katholikos, a substantive that is best rendered ‘catholicity’ in English…connotes movement towards universality or wholeness.”
We have taken some pains to come to the realization that our English word, “catholic” or “catholicity,” basically means universality or wholeness.  While I appreciate the intent of the Roman Catholic Church using the word, it cannot in good faith claim everything around catholic.  I trust there is room for Quakers, Methodists, Nazarenes and non-denominational folks, too.  And who knows, maybe we will ultimately even find Jews, Buddhists and all the rest.  My God is big enough to do this kind of ultimate catholic work!
What fascinates me is to get a glimpse of what Delio is going to do with this newfound knowledge.  This review gives me a hint, which I share with you, but I will go to the book for the full story.  The hint emerges in these words from Delio.  She says that doing this background word-work shows her the word, “catholic,” to be the “truest meaning as the very inner dynamic of an evolutionary universe.”  That is a bold claim.  Catholicity is the inner dynamic of the evolution of the universe; this claims catholicity is the main point of the universe!  This is close to the early Greek meaning of the term: catholicity points to the wholeness of the universe---its orderliness.  Delio takes the term even further.
Delio does a thorough review of the term, “catholic,” in the history of the Christian Church.  In the process she recovers how the term came to be applied to Jesus.  Clearly, this is a Christian move, but one that intrigues me.  She notes the early church used the word, “catholic,” to apply to the church, because the church understood Jesus to be catholic, a “whole-maker.”  I love that way to describe who Jesus was and what his ministry was about.  As she says, the ministry of this “whole-maker” was characterized by “love, mercy and compassion” and that he “healed a fragmented humanity.”
I resonate with the image of Jesus as catholic---as a “whole-maker.”  I agree that sin---by whatever contemporary word you want to use---fragments, alienates, separates, dissipates, destroys and all the rest.  Sin begs for healing.  It will be healed when made whole again.  That is the work of Jesus. 
That is the same work for all the followers of Jesus.  And I dare say, it is the work of Buddhists, Hindus and all the rest.  I also say it is the call to work for the atheist and the agnostic.  If you are human, there is “whole-making” work to do.  Not to do it is to say ok to the mayhem, violence and disasters of our current world.  Let’s get to work!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Theology of the Other

As regular readers of this inspirational journey know, I follow the writings of David Brooks.  I find the topics he addresses to be very interesting and relevant.  And I like the way he thinks about things.  Thirdly, he usually offers some supportive material from people I may not know or have not read.  He expands my knowledge and my capacity to think.  In that sense I still am in school!
Anyone aware of our world in recent years knows about the terrorists who make life unpleasant and unpredictable for so many around the globe.  That awareness goes back at least to 2001 for Americans, although there were certainly terrorists before then.  And every few months it seems there is another terrorist event.  Some folks are usually left dead, others wounded and a whole host of other folks are either mad or fearful.  And that is the point of terrorism---it is disruptive of life as normal.
In the current version of terrorism, ISIS gets front page.  They are quick to claim responsibility for the calamity that has just happened.  The thing that is so tricky about ISIS or any other variation of terrorism is the elusive quality characteristic of them.  Unlike Hitler and Nazi Germany, we don’t know the enemy.  They are not yet, at least, a nation.  They don’t wear uniforms.  They are unpredictable and their terrorism is unpredictable.
It is against this backdrop that I read a recent Brooks’ essay.  Invitingly, he entitled it, “Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts.”  In the process of his analysis he referenced a rather new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name.  That is a book I will read.  Sacks offers Brooks good analytical perspectives to think about how we confront the threat of ISIS and other kinds of terrorism.  The first thing Sacks put forth is that ISIS is the kind of threat we will face in the coming decades of our new century.
Brooks summarizes words from Rabbi Sacks.  “The 21st century will not be a century of secularism…It will be an age of desecularization and religious conflicts.”  That is an interesting thought.  So many folks in the church today are worried about the secular world.  By secular world they mean a world devoid of religion and spiritual concern.  Secular usually means non-religion or even anti-religion.  Sacks is not worried about that.
I combine words of Brooks and Sacks to put forward their thesis.  Brooks begins by noting, “Humans are meaning-seeking animals.”  I could not agree more.  And Brooks and Sacks do not think that secularism ultimately offers adequate meaning.  Sacks describes our current time as a century that “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”  Characteristic of the secular perspective is everything is relative and nothing has ultimate meaning.  The substitutes for religion are finally inadequate substitutes. 
Sacks does not think religion leads to violence and war.  But he does contend that “religion fosters groupishness and the downside of groupishness is conflict with the people outside the group.”  I think he is certainly correct about this.  Even within the various Christian communities we can see groupishness.  Why would it be any different in other religious tradition?  Sacks continues in the words of Brooks.  “Religion can lead to thick moral communities, but in extreme form it can also lead to what Sacks calls pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are impeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad.”  It seems to me that goes a long way in describing our current situation.
Then comes one of the most interesting sentences in the whole essay.  Sacks correctly argues we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace.”  It is here that I see a role to play and all those I am trying to teach.  While I am not going to be part of the military solution, I can be part of the long-term solution---ideas for a lasting peace. 
Brooks says that these ideas will come from “reinterpreting the holy texts themselves.  Then he writes the second profound sentence of the essay.  “There has to be a Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God’s face in strangers.”  I really like this idea of a Theology of the Other.  I am glad to have a name for what I think I have been doing over some decades of teaching and ministry.  In effect this calls for a view of a God bigger and better than the God many of us worship.  This calls for a God bigger and better than the one for whom the terrorists apparently are willing to die.
To do this kind of theology will lead inevitably into discussions of justice and love.  Not surprisingly, this is exactly where Brooks goes.  We will save those reflections for another day.  For today I am going to get used to being a Theologian of the Other.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Spirit of Innovation

Recently I was at a conference on innovation.  In fact I had a hand in the conference even happening.  I have not been using the language of innovation and certainly not the language of entrepreneurship until the last few years of my life.  I would have guessed they were not relevant to what I was doing in my own career.  But to my surprise, when I began to think about it, I realized I have been fairly innovative in my time.  I just never called it that.
I have never started my own business and truly would not have thought about myself as entrepreneurial.  But I now know I could start my own business if I wanted to do so.  Likely, I never will, but I know I could.  And so I have this newfound interest in innovation that is really an old interest in new language.  I am intrigued by people who are creative and can figure out new things or figure out how to do old things in fresh, new ways.  I am sure we live in a time where more people need to be innovative.  I may not have too many more years to do this myself.  So I spend a great deal of time helping students and younger people learn about it.
One of the speakers talked about innovation in a way that made a great deal of sense to me---maybe it is because it echoes how I tend to describe innovation and innovative people.  As he spoke, I thought, “indeed, that is truly the spirit of innovation.”  In brief he described innovative people as curious, engaged and passionate.  Let’s look at each one of these.
I have to laugh when he began by saying innovative people are curious.  I continue to tell students they can be ahead of other people if they simply cultivate curiosity.  I know children are curious.  I had a couple kids of my own and know they were curious.  Of course, we all know that three-year olds are incessantly asking why!  I am sure all parents get really tired of answering that question.  We know an answer is merely a trap.  Once we try to explain why, another question is birthed from their curiosity.
Somewhere along the line, kids seem to lose that curiosity.  Schools often get a bum rap because they are blamed for destroying the innate curiosity.  I prefer to think maybe it is things like television and maybe the kids’ peer groups.  What I do know is people who are innovative are still curious.  They wonder about doing things differently.  They ask questions.  And they are hard to satisfy.  They are kids of the spirit of innovation.
The second point the speaker said characterized innovative people is engagement.  They don’t go through the motions.  They are engaged when they are with other people.  They are looking for ways to get better and to grow.  They read, meet other people and do many other things.  Engagement tends to create purpose and meaning.  They have fun.  And they may be satisfied with things, but they are discontent with the status quo.  They are children of the spirit of innovation.
Finally, the people of this spirit are also passionate.  They bring commitment and fire to the task.  No doubt, their passion fuels the engagement.  And the passion supplies the energy to keep going.  Passion can withstand failure and rebound from setbacks.  Their passion often is apparent in the persistence it takes to grow and succeed.  These kinds of folks are often contagious.  They are offspring of the spirit of innovation.
As I have been writing this description of innovative people, it began to occur to me that it also applies to people of the Spirit.  I capitalize Spirit to designate the Spirit of God.  I am convinced that the life of the Spirit is also an innovative life.  It is a creative life.  All three characteristics we have laid out also apply to people of the Spirit.  Let’s look quickly at this.
People of the Spirit are curious.  They are curious where they will be lead in their spiritual journey.  Becoming spiritual is not a well-scripted journey.  Everyone’s walk with the Spirit is different.  God does not call me to do your job.  Spiritually, I pursue my curiosity through prayer and other disciplines.  I feel my curiosity throughout a lifetime.  I am often creating new paths of life for myself.
            People of the Spirit are engaged.  Of course, I can be Christian (or any other religion) and not be engaged.  I can go through the motions.  I can live a superficial, status quo kind of life.  But real disciples are engaged disciples.  We are willing to go for the gusto---to go the second mile, to go where called. 
People of the Spirit are also passionate.  Hopefully, we are inflamed with the Spirit.  The Spirit is often symbolized by fire.  This passion fuels a healthy zeal---not zealots who are crazy and dangerous.  But we have a zeal that sees us through the journey to the blessedness that comes as a fruit of the Spirit.  I hope I can be such a person of the Spirit.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Spiritually Tired

Some days I am sure there are some spiritual lessons I missed!  There is so much more talk and literature today on spirituality than was true in my growing-up years.  Perhaps there was more in the Roman Catholic Church, but I doubt it---not for the layperson anyway.  In fact, I never even heard “spirituality” language when I was a boy or even a young man.  The talk was always about “religion.”  For the most part, what I learned I learned by going to the little Quaker meeting.  There was the Sunday School hour, which never seemed very interesting or relevant to my life.             

I became more actively interested in religion during my college years.  Part of the reason for this is those college years were the time I was trying to make sense of out my life.  Today I would talk about that as learning how to make meaning in life.  I feel fairly well along that road these days.  But back in college I was trying to figure out how to get started.             

I have learned a great deal from a variety of venues.  Reading books, taking classes, teaching classes and wonderful discussions have all been important in my spiritual journey.  I have learned about spiritual discipline and spiritual friendship.  I have learned a fair amount of theology and talk about Christian doctrine with some knowledge.  I would like to think much of this has been like learning spiritual lessons.           

It seems to me there has been a great deal of emphasis upon growth and spiritual growth.  It always felt like I was supposed to be active and spiritually growing.  I am sure I have even suggested as much to other people in my classes and retreats and speeches.  I certainly am for spiritual growth.  Growth entails being alive---a kind of growing up spiritually.  I do think there is such a thing as spiritual maturity.  I am not there yet, but I am hopeful.  I do not think I am in spiritual kindergarten any more!           

One thing I occasionally experience is something I never heard anyone address: being spiritually tired.  That may strike some as an odd phrase.  Perhaps to others, talk about being spiritually tired makes no sense because some folks may not even believe spiritual tiredness is possible.  I think it is and I feel like I know what it is to be spiritually tired.           

Everyone knows what it is like to be physically tired.  After days of hard work, we legitimately feel physically tired.  I remember my sports days when practice would be so demanding, I would go home “physically exhausted,” would be my phrase.  And certainly most of us know something about being emotionally tired.  I know this experience from times I have been so emotionally invested in leading groups that when it was over, I felt “emotionally exhausted.”           

In both cases of exhaustion the remedy is simple: rest.  I suspect the same recipe works for those of us who may from time to time feel spiritually tired.  Predictable times for me to be spiritually tired are those times following some spurts of spiritual growth.  If we are regular in our spiritual disciplines, there will be times when we become spiritually tired.  When I am in that place, I simply want to “take a break” or “not do it for a while.”  The trick at these times is not to feel guilty.  It is easy to allow our spiritual tiredness to become a double whammy when we load it with guilt.           

I could coin a term for being spiritually tired.  I call it “soul fatigue.”  There is soul fatigue when I lose the energy and vibrancy of the spiritual journey.  Soul fatigue is different from what Quakers have traditionally called “dry periods.”  This phenomenon is well known in classical spiritual traditions.  Dry periods are those times when we experience nothing, even though we still are doing the spiritual disciplines, etc.  This is close to what St. John of the Cross means by the terms, Dark Night of the Senses and Dark Night of the Soul.  These are particular kinds of experiences (or lack thereof) where God seems to be absent.           

Soul fatigue is not a God-issue; it is a me-issue.  Soul fatigue is simply my being tired---not wanting to do anything in the moment.  This is not serious.  It is not terminal!  The answer---the solution---is typically very simple and easy.  Take a break.  Rest.  Let your soul have some space and, perhaps, become available again for some grace.           

When I feel spiritually tired, I try to pay attention and take it easy for a little bit.  Life is not meant to live in a fevered urgency.  And certainly our spiritual lives do not always have to be on fire.  Fires sometimes move to some phase of being embers.  Embers can be reignited and again roar.  So it is with souls on fire.           

When you are spiritually tired, slow down.  Take a rest.  Take some time off.  Taking a break is different than quitting.  Don’t trick yourself.  Treat yourself.  Treat yourself gently and nicely.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

God’s Gift

Sometimes when I am outside, it hits me how majestic and wonderful nature can be.  Since I grew up in rural Indiana, I have always known this to be the case.  However, we live much more insulated lives than people did when I was a little boy.  We live in controlled environments much of the time.  We use air conditioning to keep it cooler in the summer and, then, turn on the heat to keep the rooms warm during the winter months.  I am not complaining and am not suggesting we go back to the good old days! 

But I do think living life in an insulated way leads more of us to live more unaware.  Because our environments are controlled, we shape our reality as much as it shapes us.  This does not make us crazy, but it does allow us to live in a kind of illusion.  When it is nearly one hundred degrees on a summer day, it probably is a comfortable seventy-two degrees inside.  We have little awareness of the reality of nature.  And we never give it any thought that we are living in an unnatural world inside our little buildings. 

Again, I am not calling for a return to days like those of my youth.  Even if I could call for that kind of thing, it would be naïve of me to think there would be any followers.  Instead I call for a raise in our awareness and consciousness.  This goes to the heart of spirituality, as I understand it.  I do not think we can be naïve and spiritual at the same time. 

So I try to be cognizant of nature.  Fortunately, I go out into nature enough to practice my awareness.  But it does take practice for me and all of us who live our lives more artificially inside buildings.  Because I grew up in the Midwest, the seasons were part of my experience.  I loved all the seasons.  Each has a glory of its own.  There is a marvel in the particularities of spring, summer, fall and winter.  They all have things to offer to us. 

One of my favorite recent memories, for example, came on a pretty autumn day.  The leaves had begun the colorful change.  The sunlight in the fall season is different than it is all during the summer time.  I recall it to be a lovely fall day.  I headed out of my building for a destination on the other side of the campus.  I felt the warmth of the sun, although I still had on a light jacket.   

It was the kind of day you just breathe more deeply as you walk along the sidewalk.  I remember seeing a woman, whom I know, approaching me from the other direction.  Neither of us was walking fast.  It was a day too beautiful to be in a hurry.  Hurry usually destroys the spiritual.  As she came closer, my eyes met her eyes.  As I typically would do, I offered a greeting.  “Hello,” I said. 

We came closer.  She extended her left hand to reveal something.  I looked more closely as the distance between us diminished.  Her hand held a red leaf.  She extended it so that I could get a good look.  “See,” she uttered.  It did look pretty---lovely the way autumn prepares beauty for our pleasure.  While I did enjoy the glimpse of beauty, I was not prepared for anything more. 

As I began to pass her, she held it a little bit higher.  And then she said, “Look what God gave me.”  The profundity of that statement nearly riveted me in the moment and in that place.  Her words shook me out of my half-conscious state.  I was expecting a pleasantry and got, instead, a profundity.  God had given her a gift and she had, in turn, given me a gift.  Gracias!  It was grace.  Thank you. 

In the moment she had become my spiritual mentor.  She had shown me how to see and how really to see such that I could understand.  I suspect most of us, like me, would not even really see leaves.  After all, in the fall season there are so many of them!  Even though they are pretty, at some point we become numb to the beauty…as unbelievable as that might seem.  Her simple words yanked me into full consciousness. 

She had seen a leaf---a lovely red leaf.  I could have seen that, too.  And perhaps, I had seen it.  But my sight and attention was merely in passing.  There would be no hint of appreciation.  Not only had she seen, but had really seen.  She stopped and picked up that leaf.  She brought it fully into her awareness.  She saw deeply.  She had been taught a significant lesson by that red leaf.  That simple leaf became a mode of God’s revelation! 

That deep appreciation in her soul led her to something both insightful and profound.  It was that simplicity, insight and profundity that enabled her to offer me the spiritual lesson I was not looking to get: “Look what God gave me.”  She had been led from the leaf to the Holy One!  And she carried the witness of that revelation in her hand and had offered it to me.  No wonder I was touched.   

It was as if she had offered me a glimpse into what God was doing to gift all of us.  But we live too much time inside---inside buildings and inside our own little lives.  We have eyes, but don’t always see much.  We may be smart, but too often we don’t know much.  I have learned.  I am now open to and looking for God’s gifts.  I am thinking they are all over the place.  Gracias!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Change of Era

I really like Pope Francis.  Of course, I have never met him and there is no reason to assume I will ever get close to him, much less meet him.  In fact, I probably should not even say I like the Pope.  Rather I like what the Pope is saying and doing.  Somehow I assume the guy I would meet, if I met him, would be the kind of guy who resonates with his message.  I am sure he is a steely kind of guy.  You don’t become archbishop, cardinal and, then, Pope by being a patsy!
Most Catholics I know like the Pope, too.  I know there are circles within this country and abroad that don’t like what he is doing.  They perceive him to be a threat to the traditional Catholic Church they think this world needs.  I figure when you have over one billion people in your organization, there will be some who don’t like you!  My hope is he lives long enough to see much of his spiritual agenda realized.
The recent speech the Pope delivered to a large gathering of Italian clergy meeting in Florence is a case in point.  I don’t have the full text in English and cannot read Italian, so I am dependent on reporting sources who provide the gist of it in English.  At the big gathering the Pope told those Italian Catholics that the church needs to be open to change.  I will admit that when the Pope speaks about the church, I usually want it to be the one bigger Christian church, not simply Roman Catholicism.  I agree that the church needs to be open to change.
Indeed, the church faces the same dilemma other organizations do: innovate or die!  Change will happen; we probably have little choice about that.  We can sometimes choose how to change and how fast we do it.  I am clear the Pope is saying, now is the time.  A line from that speech to the Italians says it nicely. The Pope said, “We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.”  I loved that because I think it is so true.  I am ready for that kind of challenge and change.
I know many folks are not ready for the challenge nor the change.  They prefer the status quo.  It is easy to say that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and the church is the one place where we kind find solace in the midst of the cultural maelstrom.  This perspective is naïve and doomed.  While we might choose to stay as we are, we would be choosing to become some 21st version of the Amish.  We can opt for being quaint, but I prefer going with the question: how do we need to be open to change?
What does being open to change look like?  One place the Pope explicitly gave focus was on doctrine.  I thought this was a clever move.  Typically we think of doctrine as some article of faith set in stone.  Although my own Quaker tradition does not use creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, I know a great deal about creeds.  The Nicene Creed lays out for a huge majority of Christians what “right thinking” about God, the trinity, etc. is.  The thing about creeds is they are supposed to be the corporate statement of belief.  If effect the creed says, “this is what we believe.”
The Pope, as I understand him, is not saying the creeds are wrong.  In fact it is hard for me to imagine any Pope in the future saying something like, “the Nicene Creed is wrong.”  Rather what I think will happen is to acknowledge that the Nicene Creed is a good articulation of who God is, what the trinity is, why Jesus came to be human and so forth.  But it is just one way of putting it.  Because the Pope is open to change, he thinks doctrine probably could be articulated in additional ways.
So the Pope tells the Italian gathering, Christian doctrine “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries, but it’s alive, and able to unsettle, animate.”  That is amazingly profound to read.  Doctrine is not a closed system.  Remember, the Pope is calling for us to be open to change.  And so doctrine---what the church has always said---has to be vulnerable to change.  I can imagine the Pope saying that doctrine can change, but that does not mean God has changed.
Doctrine is not a closed system.  Closed systems are incapable of generating questions, of entertaining doubts, of refusing to welcome queries.  It helps me to remember that the Pope was a scientist before he became a priest, bishop, archbishop and now Pope.  Science is fueled by questions, doubts and inquiries.  And so should our quest for the God of Truth.
I value the Pope’s view that real doctrine in the church is alive.  It is as alive as the Spirit that moves among us.  In fact, as a Christian I am willing to see the movement of the Spirit somehow related to the movement of the Spirit that animated Jesus during his earthly ministry and may somehow still be part of the “resurrected Jesus,” whatever that means in our new kind of doctrine.  I like the idea of a doctrine that is somehow alive.
I wonder though, is it the doctrine that is really alive or is it the people doing the new thinking---the new theological work---to make our perspective of God fit what will become our verbal articulation of it?  The new doctrine itself won’t unsettle us; it will be the spirited people creating new ways of responding to and verbalizing the work of God in our midst.  It is an exciting time; it is a change of era.