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Monday, December 19, 2016

Live in Heaven Now

One of the things I do to keep myself on my spiritual toes is to read what other people write.  I find it helpful to see whom other folks read and quote.  I am intrigued by how others writers formulate and develop their thoughts.  I am interested in other people’s perspective and, even, theology.  One of the writers whom I most enjoy and find helpful is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan who works out of Albuquerque at the Center for Action and Contemplation.
           
Rohr writes a daily blog, which I find to be good nurture for my soul.  I appreciate his creative, insightful approach to all things spiritual.  I know some folks, particularly some Catholics, find him troublesome.  But that usually indicates someone is working at some creative junctions between faith and life.  I find Rohr seeks a faith that resonates with our world, but does not sell out to our world.
           
A recent blog had a wonderful conclusion, which I would like to focus here.  The blog was entitled, “The Communion of Saints.”  This is a term that I came to value when I worked with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, long ago in my undergraduate days.  Bonhoeffer was a famous theologian and, then, martyr at the hands of the Nazis near the end of World War II.  He penned a book, The Communion of Saints.  I know the idea of a communion of saints is an important, although variously interpreted, idea.
           
It can refer to the whole body of believers throughout time and also is an interesting way of talking about heaven or life beyond death this this world.  I was intrigued to see how Rohr would use it.  He prefaces his remarks by citing the famous Jesus farewell prayer in John’s Gospel.  In that 17th chapter Jesus uses the occasion of the Last Supper to address God in a rather long prayer for union.  The prayer acknowledges the union between Jesus and God---a union which made possible the ministry of Jesus which was about to come to a close on the cross.  And the prayer continues for the union of all of the believers into that same union that was God’s and Jesus’.  It is a powerful piece of the Fourth Gospel.
           
Near the end of his blog Rohr’s offers his commentary on this prayer with a reference to heaven.  He writes a sentence that I found riveting.  Rohr notes, “You don’t go to heaven; you learn how to live in heaven now.”  I am sure this will provoke his naysayers one more time.  Rather than focus on heaven in a post-death situation, Rohr drags heaven back into this life and makes it a this-worldly opportunity.  I happen to like that and know it fits with one major way John’s Gospel describes “the end.” 
           
For John and for Rohr, as well, the “end” does not come with death---although that certainly will be an end.  The “end” for a believer comes with our belief.  For the early follower of Jesus, the “end” came with their decision to give up their old ways and follow the new way---the way of faith.  In that decision and that new life, they began to live the “end” in this life and this world.  I am confident that is what Rohr means by “learn how to live in heaven now.”  That is the call---the call of faith and new life.
           
Rohr develops his thought with more good insight.  He writes a fairly long commentary, but it is powerful for my and my faith.  Rohr says, “And no one lives in heaven alone.  Either you learn how to live in communion with the human race and with all that God has created, or, quite simply, you’re not ready for heaven.  If you want to live an isolated life, trying to prove that you’re better than everybody else or believing you’re worse than everybody else, you are already in hell.”  I fully hope that heaven is not for single occupancy!
           
And I am drawn to Rohr’s logic.  Basically, he says we either have to learn to live spiritually well with others---in communion---or we are not ready for heaven.  My theology affirms this truth.  And I notice he does not simply say that we need to learn to live with other Christians.  Of course, that is a given.  But we will have to learn to live with all others whom God has created.  Obviously, that is a tall order.  But who would expect less from a loving God?
           
In a sneaky way Rohr brings hell into the picture.  Essentially, he suggests that many of us are living in hell right now.  We don’t have to wait to be dead to be in hell.  Many of us create our own version of hell on earth.  I have seen enough of this to agree with him.  In fact I am sure there have been times I have created my own hell and opted to live in it.  And in the process, I was probably providing some hell for others in my company!
           
I like the way Rohr ends his thoughts and will let that end it for me.  I imagine him smiling and saying, “You have been invited—even now, even today, even this moment—to live in the Communion of Saints…”

Friday, December 16, 2016

Our Best Selves

I recently have finished Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: an Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  It is a fine book.  Much of what makes it such a good book are all the authors and sages Tippett interviews.  The range of people she introduces us to is remarkable.  The interviewees range from writers to prophets to paupers.  In the process we learn that wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge.  Of course, they can be related.  It is hard to imagine a wise person who does not anything.  But many people who are smart and know a great deal are not wise. 
             
Because the people Tippett interview are so interesting, it is easy to overlook her own contribution to the book.  She does more than simply string together stories.  Sometimes it is her own interpretation that I find intriguing.  Sometimes her insight is at least as profound as the person she interviews.  She has a fair amount of knowledge.  I know she has been to seminary---accumulating a good theological foundation for the kinds of life questions she poses to people.  I am sure she is becoming wise.  And her book helps us become wise or wiser.
             
Appropriately, the last chapter of her book is called, “Hope.”  It is a good chapter, especially as it helps me think about hope.  Hope is one of those ideas we all assume we know what it means, but when we think about it, it is difficult to define.  One of the best things about the book is the biographical stuff that informs so many of the stories and so much of the wisdom that is shared. 
           
 Near the end of her book, Tippett acknowledges, “I’ve traveled a long way since my early life in Oklahoma.  She confesses that hope is not always easy.  Cynicism is easy, but it is never constructive.  As she says, cynicism corrupts the situation.  This leads up to a summary-kind of statement which I will give focus.
             
Tippett says, “I experience the soul of this moment---in people young and old---to be aspirational.  This is something distinct from ambitious, though the two may overlap.  I’d say it this way: we want to be called to our best selves.”  There are at least two nuggets in these quoted words.  In the first place I really like the idea of a “soul of a moment.”  Maybe not all moments are capable of being soulful, but many moments are.  And most of us are totally unaware of the potential soulfulness of the moment.
             
Maybe that is a good way to see spirituality.  Spirituality is being aware of the potential soulfulness of a moment.  And not only is spirituality this awareness, it is the actualization of the moment’s soulfulness.  If we can manifest the soulfulness of the moments---and even periods---of our lives, then we are enhancing the depth of our lives.  We add a certain kind of richness to life.  This speaks to the transformation of existing into a vibrancy of living.  Who would not want this?
             
The second intriguing thing Tippett says is the soul of the moment is aspirational.  If I could load it a bit more, I would say this aspiration for soul can be inspired and usually is inspiring.  Aspiration is a form of hope.  It is hope for more---for better.  It raises up people rather than cynicism which tears down people.  And if someone can manifest the soulfulness of the moment, that becomes inspirational.  Everyone and every situation are raised to a new level---potentially a soulful level.
           
The last thing Tippett says that is important to me is her claim---which I agree with---that we want to be called to our best selves.  This in itself is an aspirational claim.  She thinks we want to aspire to be our best selves.  I can aspire to be my best self, even if I am not totally sure what this even means.  In the first place I like that she notes, we will be “called” to our best selves.  I take the liberty to assume she means the call comes from beyond who we are.  For me this means God.  It suggests, secondly, that on my own I probably do not even know what my best self could be.  On my own I will be too selfish or set the bar for myself too low.  God calls me to my best self.
             
And that best self is certainly aspirational.  I am not there yet.  But there is hope!  Certainly, there is reason in myself to hope.  But that personal hope is buttressed by the fact that God’s grace is in the process, as well.  On my own I likely can’t make it.  But with God’s call and God’s grace in the process, I may be able to live into my best self.  It’s a life project. 
           
And if I can become my best self, then surely I will frequently enjoy knowing the soul of the moment.  In fact as my best self, I am likely to be a transformational presence in the moments of many others.  I probably will become that light in the world.  I will be able to help others see.  I will be a means of insight---transforming sight into insight.  I will become a harbinger of hope.  That’s what my best self can be and can do.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hope in Chariots and Horses

Part of my personal spiritual discipline is trying daily to do the lectionary reading.  This means I follow a prescribed order of reading.  I have chose to follow the Roman Catholic lectionary.  I like the fact that I am doing the same thing millions around the world are doing.  I know I am following the readings being done in many monasteries.  It gives me a sense of connection.  I may be doing it on my own---but I am not the only one doing it.

As with any discipline, some days it goes very well and other days I wonder why am I doing it!  All this means is that it is important to know why we do discipline.  Typically discipline is a means to an end, and not the end itself.  I practice the piano in order to play better.  The goal is not practicing; the goal is to play better.  Practice is the means to get there.

So it is with a spiritual discipline.  For example, I don’t pray just to pray.  I pray in order to connect with the Divinity.  I pray in order to give God thanks or perhaps even praise.  I pray in order to invoke healing for another.  Again, the goal is not prayer.  Prayer is a means to some other goal.  In this sense it does not matter too much how I feel about it.  I pray because of the goal, not because it makes me feel good.

So my daily lectionary reading has as a goal to spend some time reflecting on my life and what God might want out of this life I am living.  The words of the lectionary are meant to be guides.  They focus my attention and give me an arena for reflection.  It is not the same thing as study.  My goal is not necessarily to understand everything I read in the lectionary.  Certainly, the goal is not to analyze it so I can pass a test.  Rather the lectionary becomes a laboratory for my experimentation with God.

The lectionary I use has morning readings, evening readings and some in between.  I admit that some times I look ahead and do the evening one early in the day.  I did just that today.  Here is part of the Psalm for tonight’s reflective reading.

The Psalmist says, “We will rejoice in your salvation, we will raise our banners in the name of God; may the Lord grant all your prayers.” (Ps. 20)  I like sentences like this.  There is so much meditative possibility.  To begin with the Psalmist speaks for those who rejoice in my salvation.  I find that good news!  It affirms my salvation.  Now I do not know precisely what the Psalmist might have meant by salvation, but I do know I would rather have it than not!

And that section concludes with the prayer that God grant me all my prayers.  “Yeah,” I say, “grant me all my prayers!”  I realize that is quite powerful.  If we read it carefully, it does not say, “grant me my prayers.”  It says ALL my prayers!  So is this license to go prayerfully crazy?  Of course not.  My theological perspective would say that God does not grant crazy, wacky prayers.  If all my prayers include a fancy Mercedes car, I don’t think for a minute God is going to deliver a sleek, black machine in my garage.  That is not a prayer; that is greed praying!

The Psalmist continues in this 20th Psalm.  “Now I know that the Lord keeps his anointed one safe: in his sanctuary in heaven he hears his prayer, and lends the support of his strong right hand.”  I take solace in these words, as I reflect on them.  I want to believe and accept that I am one of the Lord’s anointed.  Have I been blessed with oil?  No.  But I have been blessed.  I want to be safe in the sanctuary and be kept safe by God’s strong right hand.  Heck, I am ok even in God’s left hand!

Finally comes the line that made me smile.  The Psalmist notes, “some put their faith in chariots and some in horses, but we invoked the name of the Lord our God.”  I do not know one person who has put his or her faith in chariots and horses!  Obviously, that strikes us as funny.  It is so old-fashioned to put your faith in chariots and horses.  Clearly, it is a historical anachronism.  But I don’t dismiss it too quickly.

In what do I put my faith?  Sure, I can say “God.”  But if honest, I recognize I put my faith in other things.  Perhaps a contemporary rendition is to put your faith in positions of power or influence.   Maybe I put my faith in my bank account or my charming personality or brilliant looks.  There are many options for contemporary men and women.

The Psalmist has it right.  Be careful of putting your faith in “chariots” and “horses.”  Instead invoke the name of the Lord God.  I understand the Psalmist reminding me to go to the Source and to be careful relying on my own resources.  Make sure I spend some time seeking and, then, soaking in the Presence and Power of God. 

Put me in the place and give me the grace to be able to say, “not my will, but Thy will.”  There is where the real hope can be found.    

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

God is Not Santa Claus

As the Christmas season comes round, I am reminded of a one-liner I heard one day while listening to a lecture by Richard Rohr.  Rohr is one of my favorites.  He has a way of saying some very significant things, but often with a twist of humor.  No doubt, this is what endears him to so many people.  And it is also probably why some folks, particularly some Roman Catholics, find him troubling and wish he would quit speaking and writing. 

The line I wrote down, as Rohr was speaking, went like this.  “The operative image of God is Santa Claus!”  Of course, this line is basically about God and not Santa Claus.  Rohr is offering a theological look into his own mind.  It is not a comment on Santa Claus.  In this instance Santa is an image or a symbol.  Let’s look more closely at Rohr’s theology to see if it makes sense in our own lives. 

Clearly not everyone has the same idea with respect to Santa Claus.  However when Rohr uses the Santa Claus image, he is making an assumption that there is a common cultural meaning for that Christmas figure.  Santa Claus is the one who comes at Christmas Eve and brings gifts to all of us.  At least, Santa brings gifts to all those who have been nice, as the song goes.  As for the naughty ones, who knows?

Everyone’s hope is that Santa Claus brings us exactly what we want.  Part of me actually wishes there was a real Santa Claus.  That way I would not have to go to the mall after first contending with the traffic and the crowds.  So often I go in search of the gift that someone might not really want.  I never thought there is that “perfect” gift for the people in my life.  Maybe I have been a lousy Santa Claus!

When I go to the malls, frequently I spy some guy (usually guys) dressed up in the red suit and wearing the absurd white beard.  On most days the Santa is surrounded by droves of kids.  Anyone who knows anything knows that kids in droves are like dynamite waiting for the proverbial match!  Too often the Santa promises things that might not materialize on the expectant morning.

It would be easy to assume the gifts that Santa brings are comparable to God’s grace.  But this is precisely why I think Rohr is voicing objection.  I have no problem with gifts.  I have received many great gifts in my lifetime.  I appreciate what many different people have done for me when it comes to gift giving.  And some of the coolest gifts have been things I did not ask for and were really surprises.  But these kinds of gifts are not the same thing as God’s grace.

Let’s turn from Santa Claus to God.  I don’t know where Santa found all those gifts that he brought on the sleigh.  But I do know the source of God’s gifts.  That source is the love God has…or, perhaps better, that love that God is.  I like the New Testament passage that says, “God is love.”  Love is the very essence of God.  God’s identity is love.  This means that God can be nothing but love.  And God can do nothing but love.  In this sense, God cannot help but love us.  And God loves even those of us who do not deserve love.

That is a good definition of grace.  Indeed, the idea of “grace” means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  But it is not Christmas gifts.  Grace is a gift from God or one of God’s children when we really don’t deserve the gift.  And this gift of grace is always rooted in love.  A spirituality writer that I like says that grace is the flowering of love.  And love is the root of grace.

This understanding of grace is far from the sometimes superficial request to “say grace” at a meal.  I am not again a prayer at meal times.  In fact, I think it can be a good idea.  It is good to be thankful to God and the cooks for the meal at hand.  But grace is far more than a few words muttered over the meat! 

God is not Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is a one-time actor.  He appears dutifully on December 24, never to be mentioned again until time for the next annual appearance.  For those of us who hope for the love of God and the grace of God in our lives are sure hoping for someone “on duty” more than one day of the 365 days in a year!  We need a present God---not a red-suited bearer of presents.

The clincher for me is the fact that I could sign on to be the Santa Claus at the local mall.  All I need to do is agree to put on the costume and be willing to entertain the drone of kids who all want something.  But there is no way I can be God or even become God.

The best I can do is try to become God-like.  I also can learn to be loving.  I can become willing to be gracious---gracious to others and, sometimes even, to myself.  If I allow myself to be a vessel of the Spirit, then I can even be the presence of the Presence.  God is not Santa Claus…and neither am I!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

For Joan Baez

I am not sure how many of my college-age friends would know who Joan Baez is. I suspect there are not many who do know her.  In some ways this is not at all surprising.  Joan Baez is now in her mid-70s.  For an eighteen-year old that is an ancient woman!  But people my generation---near her age and ourselves products of the Vietnam era---Joan Baez is very well known.  I have been a fan of hers for decades.
           
For most of us who came of age during the 1960s, the Vietnam War was a defining moment.  And if that were not enough, it was also the time of race riots and the emerging feminist movement.  Some very good things came out of those times.  We saw some significant civil rights legislature passed.  Some major strides were taken by the women of this country.  And Joan Baez was right in the middle of all of that.  She was an inspirational leader.
           
I ran into Joan Baez again in a recent article in a Catholic publication I regularly read.  It was a great reminder.  The article celebrated her appearance back in Washington, DC for some honors and, of course, some music.  A picture of Baez accompanied the article and there was that familiar face---but with lovely gray hair.  The words and the photo triggered memories.
           
Joan Baez was born in this country to a man from Mexico.  Her grandfather left the Catholic tradition to become a Methodist preacher in New York.  Joan’s father worked in health care and for UNESCO, so they moved around the United States and often spent considerable time abroad.  In 1958 her father took a position at MIT in Cambridge, MA.  Joan’s budding career began in the coffee shops and clubs.
           
One of the most interesting details for me about Joan Baez is the fact that her parents aligned themselves to the Quaker tradition when Joan was still fairly young.  Since she was seen by many as Mexican, Joan was subjected to racist and other kinds of harassments.  No doubt, this planted the seeds of her well-known work for peace and social justice.  And of course, this fit well with her newfound Quaker faith.  I like to call her a sister in the faith.  Sadly, I have never met her.
           
I like to think about her music as her personal ministry.  Quakers understand ministry in very broad terms.  In fact Quakers would say that every one who comes to be a person of faith is also called to a particular kind of ministry.  We understand the meaning of the word, minister, is to serve.  Ministry is service to God by serving all of God’s creatures. 
           
There are so many stories, so many songs, so many sit ins---too many to recount.  Perhaps I can bring out one song that represents the many concerns of Joan Baez.  The song is entitled, “All the Weary Mothers of the Earth,” written in 1971.  It is a song of protest and of vision.  It sees a time when there will be no more war.  It begins with this line: “All the weary mothers of the earth will finally rest…”  Another stanza talks about “And the aching workers of the world again shall sing…’we shall no longer be the poor, for no one own us anymore…” 
           
The last stanza is vintage Joan Baez.  She sings, “And when the soldiers burn their uniforms in every land…General, when you come for the review, the troops will have forgotten you.  And the men and women of the earth shall rest.”  I think it is the memory of her own treatment and the knowledge of how so many others have been treated that continues to drive Joan Baez.
           
I appreciated the Catholic periodical quoting some words from her autobiography, A Voice to Sing With.  In that book she recalls moving with her family to Baghdad, Iraq when she was 10.  She writes, “Perhaps that was where my passion for social justice was born. The day we landed, in the heat and the strange new smells, we were horrified to see an old beggar being driven out of the airport gates by policeman using sticks and shouting in crude and guttural language. In Baghdad, I saw animals beaten to death, people rooting for food in our family garbage pails, and legless children dragging themselves along the streets on cardboard, covered with flies feasting on open sores, begging for money."
           
I am thankful to God and to Joan Baez for her work---her ministry, witness and long-time commitment to a kingdom vision.  Her work is spiritual in a very deep way.  It inspires all of us to keep the faith, as the slogan would have it.  In a results-driven world, it is sometimes difficult to keep the faith when we are doing spiritual work.
           
Often spiritual work has to do with obedience more than performance.  That is paradoxical when it comes to Joan Baez, because she is a performer.  But she is one who has obediently gone about her life and ministry.  I applaud her for that.  She is a servant---a servant leader.  May each of us follow suit in our own way. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Healthy Spiritual Growth

There are many fringe benefits associated with what I do in life, namely, the chance to teach and mentor college students.  The money I make is certainly adequate and now that my own kids are gone and on their own, I have more than enough.  The fringe benefits are not monetary and that’s fine by me.  One of the best spiritual lessons I have learned is if I have enough money, more does not bring more happiness or joy.  I am glad I learned this lesson relatively young in life.  I did not waste my life chasing something that ultimately does not bring satisfaction.
           
The best fringe benefit I get from teaching are the relationships that I develop.  In fact I prefer to call the folks in my class friends, instead of students.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a student.  After all, I still feel like I am a student of life.  I hope I can always be a life-long learner, as they talk about it in college and the real world.  I value the friendships I develop with the younger ones in my classes.  They often become teachers for me---role reversal!
           
One of the things I am privileged to teach is a course called contemplative spirituality.  I began teaching this because I very much wanted to know what it was and how it worked.  So many of the historical figures I read and value were contemplatives.  I count people like Thomas Merton, St. Francis and so many more live and write from this contemplative tradition.  I also realized that many of the Quakers in my own tradition were also contemplatives.  They just did not use that language.
           
Being contemplative is certainly not just a Christian thing.  There are contemplatives in all the major religious traditions.  I am especially helped by the Buddhists, who write from their perspective.  I also have come to realize being contemplative does not even require a particular religious perspective.  Having said this, it might be worth offering a very simple definition of a contemplative way of life.  Let me simply put it this way: a contemplative is someone living with a keen awareness and someone living very much in the present.  In my Quaker language it is a person who lives a centered life.
           
When I have the privilege of teaching this course, I provide a great deal of space for the students---my friends---to self discover and begin to find out for themselves what they can do to live with more awareness and to be more present to themselves, to others and in their world.  Being contemplative is more art than science.  There are not six easy steps to becoming contemplative.  It is not a thing achieved---an accomplishment.  It is a way of life and, as such, brings its own challenges and joys.
           
I appreciate being with my friends as they engage this process of learning to live contemplatively. Self-reflection is a significant part of that process.  At other points things like commitment, discipline and the like become part of a longer-term process of making contemplation a way of life.  Indeed, it will take a lifetime.  But that’s ok.  Life is a process, too.
           
My friends say things and write things that I find insightful and, often, very helpful for me.  In this inspirational piece I would like to share one such insight that is very good to know.  In a recent piece of reflection one student offered this observation.  “I have been fortunate enough to learn…that learning to live contemplatively does not need to be problem-based.”  I love the simplicity and profundity of this insight.
           
Unlike psychological counseling which typically is problem-based, the contemplative journey is an invitation into healthy spiritual growth.  That is not a put down on psychological counseling.  That is useful and, often, necessary for emotional health.  Sometimes it can be an asset in the contemplative journey.  But this contemplative journey is not merely psychological.  It involves the whole person.
           
The contemplative spiritual journey is a journey into a life and lifetime of healthy spiritual growth.  This journey is one that leads to emotional maturity and to spiritual wisdom.  It is a journey of learning to love and being willing to accept love when it is given.  Healthy spiritual growth will lead to a life of peace and simplicity.  It always moves people to a life of service.
           
The healthy spiritual growth that contemplation cultivates is an exercise of putting our ego aside and inviting the Mystery whom I call God to become the center of our lives.  A healthy contemplative will never be an egocentric person.  While a healthy person needs to have self-love, he or she is not ego-based.
           
The good news is it is never too late to commence the contemplative journey.  And even if one has been on that journey for a long time, it does not get boring or mundane.  When you are connected to the Mysterious Source of life, you will feel the vitality and vibrancy of being on the way.

Friday, December 9, 2016

They Eat the Mystery

There is a poignant story that gives rise to the strange title of this inspirational piece.  The story and these title words come from the first chapter of Ann Voskamp’s best selling book, One Thousand Gifts.  Voskamp is a Mennonite, Canadian farmer’s wife.  She is a keen observer of human experience and an articulate writer interpreting that experience.  The book was a gift to me.  And Voskamp’s words are profound gifts that are so welcome in my life of the Spirit.
           
Voskamp gives her first chapter an intriguing title: “an emptier, fuller life.”  It is a paradoxical tease into the profundity of the spiritual journey she invites us to travel.  The second half of the chapter centers around the death experience of the five-month old nephew of hers.  The brother of her husband appears in her doorway and announces that Dietrich’s lungs are failing.  Dietrich was doomed to follow into death an earlier brother’s death, Austin, at age four-months. 
           
This was too much for Ann Voskamp.  She narrates her encounter with her bother-in-law.  Anger was fueling her emotions---straining to get out of her being.  She grabbed him and said, “If it were up to me…I’d write this story differently.”  In effect this was a challenge to God and to the providence of God that this family believed was unfolding.  Effectively, Voskamp was asking, “how can that be?”  She caught herself and lamented, “I regret the words as soon as they leave me.”

This precipitates her brother-in-law, John, to begin reflecting of some stories in the Bible.  He recalls a few stories in the Old Testament where it might be easy to suggest God could have written the story differently.  But then, he pulls himself back from this edge.  I can almost see John pondering the possibility and then decided to go with the way things unfold, all the while trusting that God is in the process.  He confirms this in his own mind and then turns to Ann Voskamp.
           
He said to her, “Just that maybe…maybe you don’t want to change the story, because you don’t know what a different ending holds.”  In a sense she is convicted.  She is rendered nearly speechless.  But what she concludes thundered off the page.  She comments, “There’s a reason I am not writing the story and God is.  He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it all means.”  That is a mighty powerful theological statement.  I think I understand it fully---in a cognitive sense.  But I am not sure I understand it fully in the heart, faith sense. 

Theologically, I am not sure it represents what I think.  But I realize I don’t want to quibble theologically.  The theological challenge is to figure out how---if at all---God is at work in history?  The question is how does God work in the lives of each of us?  Or is it just some kind of random Fate working out the unfolding history of our lives and our world?  John, Ann Voskamp’s brother-in-law, has his answer to the why of history.  I wonder if I really do?

I realize that Ann Voskamp is using stories like these to shape the book that I am starting to read.  I begin to understand why she moves to the next illustration to show that she is starting to think John has a good sense of how God works in history.  She turns to the story of the Israelites being fed the manna in the wilderness. She quips about manna: it is “a substance whose name literally means ‘What is it?’”  She says they are hungry and yet “they choose to gather up that which is baffling.”  They eat “that which has no meaning.”

And then comes the sentence: “They eat the mystery.”  And she repeats the sentence with italics.  That prompted my own question about mystery.  Do I actually believe there is mystery in my life or have I solved it all?  Like so many folks, I plan and scheme so that I have a good idea how it will all work out.  I am tempted with the illusion of control.  I can make things happen.  And most things do happen that way.

This is the temptation to think we are gods.  Of course, no one would say they are in total control, but sometimes it feels as if we are in some control or, even, mostly in control.  We don’t plan to eat the mystery.  We order off the menu of life---no manna for us!  But I realize this way of living essentially factors God out of the equation.

I don’t want to do that.  I want to know more about how John and his sister-in-law, Ann, see and understand life.  I like scholars I read, like the psychiatrist, Gerald May, who sees God Itself as mystery.  Mystery does not mean you have not figured it out yet.  Mystery means you will never figure it out.  But it is ok.

I want to embrace mystery in my life.  I know that I am writing my own story---in part, at least.  But I will allow for the mystery---for what God has in store that I may or may not like.  But I will eat the mystery nevertheless.  Part of trusting the mystery of God is trusting that the story ultimately will be a comedy.  Things will work out.  That ending is not guaranteed.  But in faith we can trust.  We can eat the mystery.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Purpose of Human Life

I have often said that religion is one way of making meaning in life.  And I do believe that.  Religion offers a perspective on the world and on life that paints a picture to show how we understand ourselves in that world.  Of course not everyone has a religion or shares a religious perspective.  It is very easy and quite acceptable today for someone to be an atheist.  Atheism also is a way of making meaning in life.

Sometimes that bothers a few of my religious friends.  They do not think atheism is a way to make meaning in life.  Simply because they are religious, they cannot imagine any other way to do it.  With this perspective, religion is the only way to make meaning.  I understand that perspective; I don’t share it.  I don’t share it, in part, because I do not think I can be the one who defines what counts as meaning.  For example, if I am to assume that you have to be religious to have meaning, then I am going to tell an atheist that he or she cannot possibly have meaning---even if they think they do have meaning in their lives.  Somehow it strikes me as odd to tell someone who thinks they have meaning that, in fact, they don’t!

I am pretty sure there are many non-religious persons who are quite sure they have a life of meaning and life of meaning does not have God in the middle.  Far be it from me to tell them they are lying to themselves.  If they think they have meaning, I am willing to say, “Yep, you probably have meaning.”  I would also add, “and the way you have meaning is different than the way I do it.”

I am happy to talk about religion.  That should not be surprising since I teach it!  Indeed, I have a great deal of fun teaching religion.  I don’t try to convert anyone.  I figure that is God’s job!  My job is to talk about the various ways religion makes meaning.  And I can also talk about how various religious traditions make meaning in somewhat different ways.  Who is to say a Buddhist or Hindu makes meaning in the same way I do as a Christian and Quaker?

All this led me back to some words I once read from the late novelist, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was a native Hoosier, so perhaps that made him important to me.  He died in 2007, but before that he wrote a number of novels and other things.  He was not your typical kind of guy.  He often had a biting way of describing the world, but he made you think.

It was his one-liner about meaning that caused him to come into my mind again, as I am reflecting on the purpose of human life.  He offers an alternative to religion or atheism.  Vonnegut says, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  There are a number of things in the one-liner to be noted.

The first thing to note is the lack of arrogance on Vonnegut’s part.  He says “a” purpose of human life.  He does not say, “this is the only purpose of human life.”  He allows other purposes.  I like that.  Who’s to say how many purposes in life there might be?  And cannot any one human being have more than one purpose?

The phrase in Vonnegut’s quotation that is a bit puzzling is the phrase that says, “no matter who is controlling it.”  I doubt that Vonnegut meant God in this instance.  Perhaps God does control things, but that is a theological assumption.  In my theology God is not a controlling divinity.  I believe human beings were created with free will.  Of course, there are some things in life that we cannot change---regardless of how much free will we have.  But basically we have choices.  And I think God is a respecter of our choices.  Of course, our choices have consequences.

The last part of Vonnegut’s quotation is the heart of it.  The purpose of human life is to love whoever is around.  I think God would love this perspective.  It represents how God acts in the world.  Whoever is around, God loves.  What if we took this seriously?

We could not have enemies!  We could not hate people.  It means our intentions would need to be creative and not destructive.  Everyone knows that loving somebody or something does not always mean, “liking” them or it.  But love builds up; it does not tear down. 

I am convinced if I could begin to commit to loving whoever is around, then I clearly would have purpose to my life.  And if some others also make this commitment, the world would get better.  And if we all could commit to this purpose, paradise would be built!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Pain is not a Pain

A rose may be a rose, but a pain is not a pain.  Maybe somebody has said that before, but I have never heard it.  So I am assuming (for the moment) I made it up.  Of course, most of us have heard that line, “a rose is a rose.”  I don’t know who said it first or if I should give it a footnote, but I do know that I did not create that line.  Furthermore, we all could explain what the phrase, a rose is a rose, means.

However, if I say, “a pain is not a pain,” the reader may not be too sure what I mean by that.  And if the reader is unsure, he or she does not know whether to agree with me or say balderdash!  So let me explain it by some development.

For sure, every adult knows what pain means.  It is difficult to imagine living into adulthood and not experiencing some kind of pain.  There is physical pain; we all know this.  There is emotional pain----a pain many people know all too well…and others may barely know.  There may be something like spiritual pain, but this one is tricky.  Not everyone thinks there is such a thing as “spiritual.”  I happen to think there is a spiritual dimension in our lives and it is possible for that dimension to be “pained.”

When I say, “a pain is not a pain,” however, I do not want to focus on pain the way I just described it in the above paragraph.  That is just one way to think about pain.  So there is pain---physical, emotional, and spiritual.  I have experienced all three kinds of pain.  Pain hurts.  Pain is real.  If I am in pain, I would like to get out of it!  At every level, there is nothing positive or redemptive about this kind of pain.  It is hard for me to imagine anybody saying, “Sure, I like pain!  Bring it on!”  So pain in this sense is pain.  This is comparable to a rose being a rose. 

I can think of two other kinds of pain which led me to say, “a pain is not a pain.”  Allow me to identify a second kind of pain.  This is the kind of pain referred to in the saying, “pain in the butt.”  Many times I have heard someone say, “he is a pain in the butt.”  A pain in the butt is not limited to other people.  Sometimes people have a task or a job to do that is “a pain in the butt.”  I have had a few of those tasks in my life!

Generally, when someone describes “a pain in the butt,” she or he is not literally describing a pain in the sense above (physical, emotional, or spiritual).  A pain in the butt is more like an annoyance or irritation.  It does not literally hurt.  It may not even be literally true.  But it is perceived as annoying, irritating, or inconveniencing.  Ironically, I can say it is a pain, but it does not hurt!

A pain in the butt is typically my interpretation of my predicament.  Someone else in the very same situation may not experience it as a pain in the butt.  Some are less irritable than I, more tolerant, or more forgiving.  A good example is my neighbor’s dog.  She loves her dog.  She dotes on that dog.  That dog is a pain in the butt, as far as I am concerned!  I do not find the barking amusing.  I am not entertained by any canine tricks.  It is a pain in the butt. 

And then there is a third kind of pain.  This kind of pain is ultimately positive.  It may be redemptive.  It is the kind of pain that may well hurt---and maybe hurt badly.  But it is the kind of pain in which we say in some sense, “bring it on.”  For example, I think about my daughter giving birth recently.  I am not a woman; I have not given birth.  But the average birth story does entail some pain---some real, hurtful pain. 

But this kind of ”purposeful pain,” as I choose to call it, is the kind of pain that folks willingly endure.  I am sure my daughter willingly hung in there in order to birth that little girl.  It was pain, but it was not a pain in the butt.  A pain is not a pain.

This third kind of pain surely is the kind of pain Christians understand to be at stake in the crucifixion of Jesus.  Surely, there was pain---physical, emotional and spiritual.  Perhaps, Jesus even thought to himself” “well, this certainly is a pain in the butt!  Those crazy people who wandered so far from God now leads me to this!” 

But it is the third level of pain that enables me truly to begin glimpsing what the cross must mean for some Christians.  The cross is analogous to giving birth.  It was a pain that Jesus endured.  Ironically, it was a positive and redemptive pain.  I am sure I don’t fully understand it---or, likely, appreciate it.  It was a pain---but a purposeful pain.

Again, a rose may be a rose, but I am convinced a pain is not a pain.  Hopefully, this helps know how to deal with pain.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Second Simplicity

There are some people I would make every effort to hear if they were in my area of the USA.  Richard Rohr is one of those folks.  And some people write things that I want to read---whether it is a new book, an article or a blog.  Again, Richard Rohr is one of those people.  Rohr is a Franciscan who lives in Albuquerque and runs a Center for Action and Contemplation.  I have met him, but we are not friends.  I have many of his books and I like to read his daily blog.
           
In a recent blog he talked about human development.  Of course for him, human development includes spiritual development.  Rohr would not consider someone fully human unless that person were also fully developed spiritually.  The blog was aptly called, “Growing into Belonging.”  Suffice it to say here, no one is fully human and spiritual all by himself or herself.  The end game is unity, not individuality.  Let’s use a couple of his thoughts to develop this idea.
           
When I read Rohr, I move along through the text fairly quickly.  I have read enough to have a sense of where he is going.  But inevitably, I will run across a sentence or an idea that arrests me.  My reading slams to a stop and I ponder the gem I just read.  I hit one of those sentences in this blog and I share that as our jumping off point.  Rohr comments, “Many who are judgmental and unforgiving seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first childhood simplicity, perhaps avoided the suffering of the mid-life complexity, and thus lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second simplicity as well.”  This kind of sentence describes my experiences so well, I have to declare it true in a deep sense.
           
Every one of us has known some people who are judgmental and unforgiving.  To be honest, there are times when I am sure I have been just such a person!  To develop humanly and spiritually means we don’t have to get stuck in this place of judgmentalism.  Rohr offers an answer that I would like to pursue. 
           
Rohr suggests that these types of people missed out on the joy and clarity of first childhood simplicity.  I have had my own kids and now I am watching some grandkids grow into being little people.  I do think children desire a kind of simplicity.  This extends from taking things literally---like Santa Claus to believing their little animals are real.  Life is simple and with that comes a clarity and joy.  It makes perfect sense.
           
Obviously, there are also children who parents have troubles or whose circumstances make life difficult.  These children are deprived of the simplicity that enables healthy nurturing and development.  We all know that life gets complex and complicated soon enough.  Often we do it to our own kids by pushing them too hard in school, etc.  “Let kids be kids,” we often hear.  There is some truth to that.
           
The other observation Rohr makes about people who are judgmental and unforgiving is their luck to have avoided the suffering that do come to most of us---by middle age, if not sooner.  While suffering is never desirable, it can be a teacher and molder of character.  While I might be fortunate if I can avoid this kind of suffering, perhaps I will be deprived of the kind of developmental process that eventually makes me a suitable citizen of God’s kingdom.  When confronted by suffering, I don’t want it and I don’t want to miss its lessons!  Rohr calls this a kind of irony.
           
Rohr states, “The great irony is that we must go through a lot of complexity and disorder (another word for necessary suffering) to return to the second simplicity.”  I don’t think I know this second simplicity, but I do think I have hints of it.  I am old enough, but perhaps I have not yet suffered enough!  Again, I am not sure it makes sense to volunteer for suffering, but you can be ready for it when it comes your way.  And you can choose the route of compassion, which means you are willing to suffer with others who are mired in their own suffering.  People like Mother Teresa committed her whole life to this compassionate being-with.
           
The second simplicity is like the first simplicity, except it has been honed and steeped in the suffering.  To go through this experience brings us ultimately to a free and magnanimous place, as Rohr states.  These are the older, wise ones who seem to have it all figured out.  Of course, they may not have all the answers, but they do have an “ease and peace” about them. 
           
The second simplicity is people are free.  They are free of the attachments and bondages that still stifle those of us on the way.  They become big-hearted people---indeed, willing to give away their hearts.  They are a delight and a light to the world.  I am not there; but if I can keep growing, I can more closely approximate a second simplicity kind of person.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Called to be a Disciple

Recently I had the opportunity to return to some work I did a couple decades ago.  In my younger years, I was fascinated with the concept of “discipleship.”  People who belong to the Christian tradition typically are called disciples.  And I know that earlier philosophers also had disciples.  The term is not inherently religious, much less Christian.  One can even say the Buddha had disciples.  So what is a disciple or how does one become a disciple?
           
In order to keep it focused, I will stick with the process of someone becoming a Christian disciple.  I don’t think it would be much different for other traditions.  But before pursing the Christian process, a word can be said about the term, disciple.  It is from Latin and literally means a “student” or a “learner.”  Clearly, the English word, discipline, is related to being a disciple.  In effect, then a disciple is a student or learner who is willing to exercise a certain amount of discipline to pursue the path.
           
Jesus set about to call disciples very early in his ministry.  The way the New Testament tells the story, the call of disciples follow immediately after Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan and serves his 40 days in the wilderness.  In Mark’s Gospel, probably the oldest of the written Gospels, Jesus comes out of the wilderness ready for his ministry.  Soon he encounters some guys who are fishing.  We are told he “sees” them and “calls” them to follow him. (Mark 1:16ff)
           
The powerful story is narrated very succinctly.  In only a couple verses the lives of a couple guys are profoundly altered.  But that’s the point.  To be called as a disciple should be disruptive, disorienting and displacing.  Life, as you have known it, should be changed.  The narrative of the call to discipleship intends to make that clear.  And it implies the narrative is not simply a story about a few old guys who were called to special roles.  The narrative implies the same thing is meant for all of us who experience this kind of invitation into discipleship. 
           
It is no wonder the church has watered down the meaning of discipleship.  In fact most churches I know seldom use the language of discipleship.  Instead I hear the language of membership.  This sounds like the same language I hear for country clubs  and other social organizations.  There may be a fee to join, but the cost of membership is not too heavy.  None of them ask for much sacrifice and none I know of ask for your life!  I think Jesus had both sacrifice and life in mind when he called people into the way of discipleship.
           
I tell this story with no pretense that I am any further down the road than the average person.  Of course, I like to talk about Mother, now Saint Teresa, or Desmond Tutu, but I am a minor leaguer compared to people like them.  It is as if I am in Christian pre-school.  The tricky part of being Christian is having the knowledge is easy.  And it tempts us to think that is sufficient.  But it’s not.  Christianity, like Buddhism or any major religion, is a way of life.  To be part of the faith---to be a disciple---should alter life, as we knew it before enrolling in the journey.
           
To respond to the call to be a learner of the way of Jesus is to agree to be committed.  I have thought a great deal about commitment---what it is and how it is sustained.  A commitment is basically a promise.  A commitment is a yes to a relationship.  I am not sure our contemporary culture encourages or supports commitments the way it used to support them.  Commitment too often seems conditional---I stick with it as long as I get something out of it.  This kind of attitude does not lead to sacrifice and certainly not the giving away of my life.
           
Deep commitment requires an ego-less approach to things.  If I am egocentric, there is no way I will make lasting commitments---certainly no life-long commitments.  Egocentric commitments are conditional and tentative.  An old-fashioned way of saying what Jesus asked for is a self-transcending commitment.  If I am called to deny myself and follow him that is an invitation to self-transcendence.  Another way of saying it is remembering the Lord’s Prayer, which says, “not my will, but Your will.”  This is a hard prayer.
           
Where does this leave me?  To experience a call to discipleship is profound and humbling.  It is a call into the deepest kind of life possible and, yet, it means giving up the petty dreams we may have had for ourselves.  Essentially, it is an invitation into a loving relationship.  And we all know that love is the greatest of all.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Life With Hope

Sometimes I wonder if people give up on religion because they cannot figure out how to do it day by day?  This seems probable to me because I am not sure most of us common people are quite sure how to define religion.  By saying that, I do not mean those of us who went to church or to synagogue are complete idiots when it comes to religion and what it means. 

When you know something, it is always difficult to remember when you did not know anything.  Now that I have a Ph.D. in religion, it likely is impossible to remember accurately those Indiana farm days when I did not know beans about religion.  But let me guess nevertheless!

I suspect that most Christians, at least, would define religion along the lines of doctrine.  For example, I would assume if you ask the person on the street to define religion, he or she would begin by saying something about believing in God.  Doctrine has to do with believing.  If one is a Christian, it is likely that Jesus enters the picture in some form.  It would probably lead to statements about Jesus as redeemer or savior or some such doctrinal version.  Of course, this is not wrong.  But I wonder if it is adequate?

By adequate I mean I wonder if anyone can live daily by doctrine.  I do claim to be a Christian.  But when I bounce out of bed in the mornings, I am not immediately thinking in doctrine terms.  In fact, I can go all day long without the slightest reference to doctrine.  But if asked, I probably would claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense.  So I am suggesting that religion is prior to or deeper than doctrine.

Doctrine is fine.  I like it.  I studied it.  Sometimes I even try to teach it.  But religion does not equal doctrine for me.  In fact, I would say doctrine is a reflection upon whatever I claim to be religious.  Again, let me explain.

Doctrinally, I might say I believe in God (and I do).  That’s nice.  But it tells you virtually nothing about me, about my life, etc.  On the other hand, let’s start with experience.  If I tell you this morning when I bounced out of bed, I had the most profound experience of God’s presence.  I have told you something very specific and significant about me.  In a way I am telling you I know God---or at least, met my God.  Of course, you don’t know very much about the God I met/know.  But it is a more powerful statement than the doctrinal statement that I believe in God.  Knowing takes me further than simply believing.

If I know my God---at least in this minimal way of experience---I can hope for more.  If I met God, then I can hope that I can meet God again.  And maybe I can begin to linger with this God.  It might become a daily presence---or at least, a coming and going presence.

That presence of God might become more.  More what?  I don’t even know how to answer this question.  God can become more than I can even imagine.  That is the function of hope.  Hope is grounded in the more…the more of whatever the future might bring.  Doctrines do not deliver futures.  Experiences deliver in the present and present a future.

Experiencing God is a gift and a promise.  I recall the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech poet and politician, when he talks about being an optimist because of his experience of God.  Havel said, “I am not an optimist, because I am not sure everything ends well.  Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly.  I just carry hope in my heart.  Hope is feeling that life and work have meaning.  You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world around you.  Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life.  I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me.  I am thankful to God for this gift.  It is as big a gift as life itself.” 

These words are important to me.  I like how Havel connects life and work and meaning.  And I am truly appreciative how Havel connects it all to God.  I agree when he says hope is as big a gift as life!  That is a mighty big statement.

I want to carry hope in my heart.  Hope grounds me today and promises tomorrow.  That is exactly how I perceive God at work.  When I experience God, I am grounded in today and I sense the promise of tomorrow.  Maybe hope is one way we carry this presence of God in an ongoing way.  Surely, I don’t experience God in every waking moment.  But I do have hope every moment---or can have it.

Ok, I have it: life with hope. What a blessing.  What a gift.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Soul Holes

My friend gave me a new book.  I am not sure what prompted the gift, but that is why it is so special.  A gift means being given something you did not earn and do not necessarily deserve.  That surely is the case in the gift of my new book.  In fact I am glad I don’t know why he gave it to me.  It surely is special.  The gift is special and that makes the book special---even before I read the first page. 
           
I was eager to jump into the book.  The author, Ann Voskamp, is a Mennonite farmer along with her husband in Canada.  That helps me appreciate it.  I like the Mennonites.  I see them as cousins to Quakers, but I sense they usually are more serious and more deeply spiritual than many of us Quakers, so I have deep respect for Ann Voskamp for this reason.  I don’t know why I have not heard about her or read her. 
           
The book, One Thousand Gifts, has sold over a million copies!  So unless she has given a great deal of money away, Ann Voskamp is one rich Mennonite.  But I can’t imagine this would mess up her faith.  In my mind she has to be a simple, pious, winsome Mennonite woman.  She is a woman of faith.  As I began this first story in her book, this seemed more true than ever.
           
The first chapter is entitled, “An Emptier, Fuller Life.”  I liked the paradox of that.  The story turned out to have a raw poignancy.  She tells the story of her own birth and being named, Ann---meaning according to her, “full of grace.”  Within a page or two we hear about her younger sister, Aimee, who was killed by a delivery truck in her own farm lane.  That was the moment, ironically, that Ann and her family “snapped shut to grace”---grace being the meaning of Ann’s name.  Now the first half of the chapter title made sense.
           
However, it was a later paragraph in that chapter that grabbed my attention.  Basically, Ann Voskamp asks the question: is that all there is to life?  In effect she says no and invites us into her theological thinking.  She says, “But from the Garden beginning, God has a different purpose for us.  His intent, since he bent low and breathed His life into the dust of our lungs, since he kissed us into being, has never been to slyly orchestrate our ruin.”  I very much like the way she is easing us into a commentary on those early chapters of Genesis.  I eagerly read on.
           
“I open a Bible, and His plans, startlingly, lie there barefaced…His love letter forever silences any doubts…”  Voskamp then turns to a quotation from I Corinthians 2:7, quoting from the NEB: “His secret purpose framed from the very beginning (is) to bring us to our full glory.”  Ah, here is the second half of the chapter title.  I rush on in her text.
           
Voskamp claims that God “means to rename us---to return us to our true names, our truest selves.  He means to heal our soul holes.”  For some reason that short phrase, “soul holes,” jumps off the page, slamming through my eyes straight to my heart.  It is a wonderfully powerful way to describe the tragedy of Genesis’ Fall---chapter 3 when Adam and Eve decide to take a bite and all the vicissitudes of their problems and our problems are set in motion.  Our souls were wounded---we all have soul holes.  That’s now the given.  The only question is whether there can be anything else?
           
This is precisely the issue Voskamp addresses.  There can be something different.  Again follow me through quoting her words.  Reassuringly, Ann says, “From the very beginning, that Eden beginning, that has always been and always is, to this day, His secret purpose---to return to our full glory.  Appalling---that He would!  Us, unworthy.”

She finishes that paragraph with theological flair.  “And yet since we took a bite out of the fruit and tore into our own souls, that drain hole where joy seeps away, God had this wild secretive plan.  He means to fill us with glory again.  With glory and grace.”
           
The beauty of her words and the power of her faith and conviction of her theology leave me nearly breathless.  Can it be true?  In faith, yes.  Can it be proved?  Of course not.  But it impresses me as a powerful faith answer to a dead, little body of a girl---a sister---in a farm lane.  That was fact; faith has to do with coping and healing those kinds of facts of life.
           
It seems factual to me that most of us know about our own “soul holes.”  We know about the emptying of life that comes when our soul holes drain us of hope and joy.  Our lives are littered by disappointments and disasters of life.  Voskamp helps us see that emptiness was not part of God’s hopes and plans for the human race.  Instead God’s secretive purpose is to bring us to glory again---to fill us with glory. 
           
I am so thankful for my two gifts: the gift of this book and the gift of the book’s theology of glory.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Spiritual Commitment

I was reading along in a very nice little book and hit these lines about commitment.  The author, Mitch Albom, uses the voice of one of the main characters of his nonfiction book about faith to reflect on commitment.  The voice belongs to Albom’s old rabbi of the Jewish synagogue where he went until his college days.  The old rabbi, Albert Lewis, says “the word ‘commitment’ has lost its meaning.”

The rabbi continues in a way that surely would have many people saying, “Amen!”  About commitment he says, “I’m old enough when it used to be a positive.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  He was loyal and steady.  Now a commitment is something you avoid.  You don’t want to tie yourself down.”  I also think I am old enough to know that commitment was usually a positive word.  I can think of a range of situations in which commitment would have been seen to be positive.

For example, growing up was full of sports for me.  Commitment would have been presupposed to be part of a team.  If you were going to play basketball, you made a commitment to the team and the coaches.  You made a commitment to the discipline that went with playing ball.  The discipline was not just on the court.  There was the commitment to some of the rules.  Some rules were quite explicit.  There were dietary rules, etc.  One needed to be committed to these.  Other rules were implicit.  They were not written down, but everyone knew them and was committed to them.

I agree with the rabbi.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  Again, if I stay with the sports analogy, I remember holding in special esteem some of the older college and professional sports’ figures who “played the game the right way.”  They exemplified commitments to fair play, etc.  They were role models and demonstrated what a young person could become.  Certainly, this was not limited to the sports’ world.

I like the way Albert Lewis, the rabbi, began to develop what the committed person exemplified.  That person was someone who was loyal and steady.  It seems quite clear to me that loyalty is a hallmark of commitment.  A committed person is not a fair-weather friend.  The committed person is someone who is going to be there---be there for you or for the cause---whatever happens. 

It is easy to contrast this with much of what we see in our world today.  Too many people are driven purely by self-interest.  Of course, I would never say that no one today makes and keeps commitments.  But I would agree that commitment is not what it used to be.  This is not the place to try to argue the case that commitment is not valued the way I think it used to be. 

Instead I am interested in exploring spiritual commitment.  I am quite clear in my own mind that commitment is the glue of the spiritual relationship with the Holy One.  Commitment is relational.  Commitment is connecting---it connects me to someone or something.  There are two basic steps in commitment.  One “makes” a commitment.  Making a commitment entails saying “yes” to someone or something (one can be committed to a principle, for example).  Secondly, having made a commitment, one “keeps” the commitment.  Keeping a commitment is the duration over time of the relationship which was made.

A spiritual commitment is the engaging and engagement of myself to God.  It is not a one-way street.  God also commits to me.  That is significant.  Not only do I say “yes;” God also says “yes.”  In this sense the commitment is mutual and reciprocal.  That does not make it equal.  In my commitment to God, I am affirming that I will try to be all that I can be.  If I say that I give my heart to God, my commitment means that I will try to do it with all my heart.  But I also am convinced God makes the same commitment.  God also says that the Divine Heart will be poured out to me.  After all, “God so loved the world…”

Spiritual commitment also has another dimension.  I also think that my spiritual commitment to God has a corollary.  I also will need to commit to all those other human beings who, too, are in a spiritual commitment with God.  God and I implicate God and us.  The implications are clear and, sometimes, stunning to me.  It means I can do no less to you or any other human being than I would do to God.

I cannot ask for God’s blessings and, in turn, be cursing you!  When something goes wrong, I cannot petition God for mercy and insist that you do justice.  Spiritual commitment is not a commodity, like corn or coal.  Rather it is a relationship.  It is more quality and not quantity.  I can grow and develop my spiritual commitment.  I can deepen it.

This is the place where I ask God and you, too, to help me in that developing journey of deepening my commitment.