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Friday, January 29, 2016

Thoughts on Faith

I have thought about some topics for decades now.  But it is always wonderful to come across someone who can shed new light on an old subject.  One such topic I have pondered for years is faith.  Anyone who has engaged religion in any form probably has thought about faith.  I reckon I first thought about faith---what it is and how it works---as early as high school.  Perhaps I thought about it even earlier than that, but I can’t remember.  However, I am sure faith was involved in my life long before I thought about it!
To be sure, faith is a word that is usually involved with religion and the religious journey.  I would even use it with respect to spirituality, assuming there is some difference between religion and spirituality.  But faith is not simply a word used in conjunction with religion.  And I would contend, it is not a religious word.  Rather, I might call it a human word.  If you are human, faith is part of your vocabulary and part of your life.
My earliest forays into faith led me to believe faith was something people “had in God.”  Growing up in that Quaker context, I often heard people say they “had faith in God.”  In my na├»ve mind I assumed at first we did not have faith and, then, for some reason we came to have faith.  My little world assumed that everyone would come to faith at some point.  Sometimes people got it at a revival.  Some of us went to a revival, but never got it!  I belonged to this second camp.
I was helped the most when I went to college and, then, on to graduate school.  I learned some foreign languages, which oddly enough, helped me develop my faith.  There were days I wondered why I was bothering with Greek and learning more Latin.  They seem perfectly useless to most people and most things people were doing in the world.  But I plunged on.  And some bits of revelation began to happen.
One of the earliest things I learned was the fact that in classical languages, faith is a verb, as well as a noun.  When I read the New Testament in Greek, I realized there was a translation problem.  To use bad English to illustrate the point, I wanted to translate a sentence like this; “He faithed the gospel.”  Good English would have to say, “He believed the gospel.”  Typically, we have to use the word, believe to get a verb for “faithed.”  Or sometimes, we switch to the word, trust.  To say I have faith in you, I normally would say “I trust you.”
This made a big difference for me.  Of course, faith can be a noun.  I can say I do have faith in my two daughters.  But I also “faith” them---that is, I trust them.  I want both the verb and the noun.  It was a big difference because it enabled me to see that faith can be a process.  When I say it can be a process, I mean that it can extend over time.  It is not necessarily an event---that is, a one-time thing.  I never felt like I could lock in faith and never have to worry about it again.  For me, it seems like it is always in process.  I always have to keep believing.
This is where I was when I read a piece from a recent book by a poet, Christian Wiman, entitled, My Bright Abyss.  He says, “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life.  Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures…so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product.”  “Yes,” I wanted to exclaim, “That’s true!”
Wiman put it as I experience it.  Faith is not an unchanging thing.  Even if I wake tomorrow and seem to have the same faith I had today, it only looks that way.  If faith is a process, as I believe it is, then when I wake tomorrow, I will trust all over again.  I will need to “faith” God one more day.  This is not some minor thing.  I know people claim they have “lost faith.”  What this means to me is the process of trusting can be derailed or submarined…or whatever verb of losing you want to use.
If I do not wake up tomorrow and claim again that process of trusting---“faithing”---I will have begun the process of losing my faith.  I know that faith establishes a relationship---with God or anyone else.  Without some regular attention to the relationship, that relationship will begin to sour.  It probably won’t instantly happen, but the process of “losing faith” will have begun.
Although I gave this meditation the title, “Thoughts on Faith,” I confess that much of the faith I experience is not intellectual or cognitive.  This means that I generally do not consider faith to be just an idea.  I also do not see it as a doctrine of religion.  It is more of a heart-word to me.  Trust (faith) as a verb is a heart thing, not a concept.  I can talk about my faith when I objectify it.  But faith is not an object. 
Faith is a process establishing a relationship that needs to be nurtured and nourished.  Those are my thoughts on faith.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Practical Contemplation

For a fairly long time in my professional life I have been interested in contemplation.  As I so often comment, “contemplation” is not a word I heard while growing up as a young Quaker in Indiana.  I am confident I was not paying attention.  I don’t think Quakers I knew were using that word, “contemplation.”  So if I had been asked about it, I would have offered a blank stare.
I am sure I heard about the word, “contemplation,” while I was in school.  I may have heard of it in college, but more likely I first heard about it in graduate school.  I can guess I encountered it first in some kind of history of Christianity class.  Because Quakerism dates from the 17th century, we have a bad habit of skipping from Jesus to the 17th century.  I knew almost nothing about the sixteen hundred years between Jesus and the origins of my tradition.  Quite a bit happened during that time!
Early Christian contemplative tradition is rooted in the early Christian developments of monasticism.  After the first couple centuries, some Christians began to feel like the Christian movement had begun to be watered down.  You can almost hear some of them saying, “It’s not like it was in the good old days.”  Of course, in the good old days, you could die for your faith---you could be martyred!  I think I am one of the lukewarm Christians, too!
So some of these serious guys and gals headed to the desert.  In effect, they went to the margins of their culture.  They wanted to walk away from the superficiality of their environment.  They wanted a more rigorous way to live like they thought Jesus had lived.  They felt like Jesus had been counter-cultural and they wanted the same thing.  In effect, their goal was imitation Christi---imitating Christ.  They wanted to pattern their lives after his model of prayer, meditation, etc.  And so the monks set up a different way of life than most of their peers.
Part of that monastic creativity was the attention they gave to contemplation.  This is the part of monastic creativity that I have appreciated and tried to adapt into my own spiritual journey.  There are many ways to describe contemplation, but I like the way Gerald May does it in his book, The Awakened Heart.  May says, “It is most frequently defined as an open, panoramic, and all-embracing awareness, but it is really this all-embracing awareness brought into fullness of living and action, an attitude of the heart and a quality of presence rather than just a state of consciousness.”  Let’s unpack and develop some of the thoughts in this wonderful sentence.
Even though May goes further, he does begin with a basic definition of contemplation.  It is an awareness.  Contemplatives are very aware of themselves and of things.  Contrast this with the huge number of people who sleepwalk through life.  Many of us are walking robots ambling through the motions.  Contemplatives are aware; sometimes they are quite alert---paying attention to themselves and to others.
May describes with some detail the nature of this awareness.  It is an open, panoramic and all-embracing awareness.  I can resonate with the idea of openness.  I know it, if I am open.  Again, robotic living is not openness.  Going through the motions is not openness.  May adds to this the idea of panoramic awareness.  That is awareness in a broad sweep.  It is not narrow or minutely focused.  It is a kind of sweeping awareness.  And this awareness is all-embracing. 
The good news is we can cultivate this kind of awareness.  It can be practiced.  Others can help us.  And this sets us up for the rest of May’s definition of being contemplative.  This points to contemplation being a way of life and an action.  One misconception of contemplation is that it is a kind of navel-gazing, mystical experience that has nothing to do with real life.  May counters this stereotype by suggesting contemplation can be a way to live everyday life.  That kind of life is grounded in the basic kind of awareness just outlined.  This appeals to me.
May tries to offer one more detail.  This kind of awareness is an attitude of the heart---a quality of presence.  I like the idea that it is a quality of the heart.  I think of other spiritual qualities of the heart.  One such quality would be a loving heart.  It is not hard for me to claim that a contemplative is one with that kind of quality of heart---a loving quality grounded in the all-embracing awareness.
The final piece from May is my favorite.  I like his focus on contemplation as a kind of presence.  Again it makes sense to contrast this with the opposite: absence.  So many of us can live absently---absent-mindedness.  A contemplative is present and has a kind of presence.  I strive to do this.  I aim to be present and to be a presence in any situation in which I find myself.  To this end, I practice contemplation.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Timing of Encouragement

Sometimes I get ideas for this inspirational reflection out the routine of my day.  Fortunately, I have learned to pay attention to life, even when its ordinariness would suggest nothing special would happen.  Certainly in the realm of the Spirit, our most likely experiences of the Spirit come in the midst of our routine and ordinariness.  Of course, most of us would like mountaintop experiences, but we can’t manufacture them.  And usually, they don’t come with much frequency.  And most of us realize very few people actually live on top of the mountain of the Spirit.  I am not one of those people!
My idea for this one emerged in the middle of a conversation I had with a coach.  I spend a fair amount of time with coaches and relish that.  I have found coaches are quite thoughtful.  In effect good coaches are first of all teachers.  Knowing this means they have much more in common with me than one might expect.  Of course, on game day their job is different than mine.  No one would confuse a final examination or paper to be equivalent to a game with a rival opponent.  And yet, they are all a kind of performance---a test of whether we have learned enough to perform well.
The coach and I were talking about how athletes and students in general make a commitment to a program—be that a team or an academic major.  Clearly, commitment and some form of discipline are necessary to complete successfully the program.  The program may be to develop a winner or to get a degree.  In neither case is success simply a matter of having it handed to you.
Normally the process is longish and often arduous.  There are long days of practice and of studying.  There may be setbacks along the way.  Sometimes defeat is experienced and that can be frustrating.  The real question is how to persevere with the process so that you win or get the degree.  I know the process well.  I have been an athlete and as student.  And I see it from the other side as teacher and coach.
The story could end there, but if that were the case, I would not be writing this.  My discussion with the coach moved to a conversation about expectations and encouragement.  My attention was sharpened.  He said some of his athletes---particularly the younger ones---wanted more encouragement and less expectation.  I laughed, because I understand that very well.  I think many students would ask for the same deal.  As I thought about it, I have expectations and I also dole out a fair amount of encouragement.  I also realized this issue was not only true in athletics and academics.  It is true in the life of the Spirit, too.
Let’s first look at expectation.  Expectations typically mean we will do what is expected.  Expectations do not come with choice.  While it may not quite be a military order, it is close.  When I was a kid, my parents had expectations.  As a parent, I had expectations of my two daughters.  And now I have some expectations of my grandkids.  I do not imply they have choice in the matter.  Just do it.  Of course, I think my expectations are appropriate and justifiable.  I also recognize the possibility that some expectations might not be…but that is a problem with the person who makes expectations.
Encouragement, on the other hand, is a different experience.  Encouragement leaves the choice of doing up to the other person.  In fact, I encourage him or her to do what there is to do.  I imagine encouragement to be my standing beside or behind someone saying, “Come on, you can do it.”  I hope they will.  Encouragement is affirming and hopeful.
Having written this much, I realize how appropriate this is to my spiritual journey.  I understand that God has some expectations of me.  Once I say I want to be in relationship with the Holy One, there are justifiable expectations.  God expects me to be faithful.  God expects that I will spend time to make our relationship healthy.  God expects me to begin acting like a disciple of the Spirit.  With these expectations, God is not saying, “Do it if you feel like it.”  No, expectations assume, in effect, that you will do it.  Indeed, expectations assume you want to do it.
But God does not only expect things of us.  God is also an encourager.  I think of many ways God encourages.  Sometimes God encourages me through new, fresh experiences of the Spirit’s presence.  Experientially, I am encouraged to press forward in developing my relationship.  Another predictable way God encourages me is through other pilgrims of the Spirit.  Older disciples offer words of encouragement, stories of potential growth in store for me and extend hugs of hope that I continue on the way.
The spiritual journey is a long one---indeed, it is a lifetime.  Every day is a new chance to continue on the way.  Each new day brings expectations.  And each new day is a day to me to be encouraged on the way.  Each day I vow to meet expectations and to appreciate the encouragement to stay the course.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hospitality: Making Friends from Strangers

I am a Benedictine oblate.  When I was a Quaker kid growing up in rural Indiana, I would not have known what either of those words means.  I am sure I never heard about “Benedictine.”  I would not have known they were monks.  If someone had told me that Benedictines were monks, I am not sure I would have really known what a monk was…or did!

After too many years of school and a great deal of experience in the ecumenical and interfaith worlds, I know much about Benedictines and about monasteries.  Benedictines are monks (men and women) who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict was an Italian Christian who lived in the late 5th and early 6th century.  It was a time of turmoil in the so-called “barbaric” period of the early middle ages.  The Roman Empire had fallen a century earlier.  All of Europe was politically, economically, and socially a mess.  Benedict wanted to find a way to practice his faith in a serious fashion.  He found many local churches wanting.  In many cases they were merely Christian institutions with little of God’s Spirit blowing in their midst.

So in effect, he withdrew from the crazy world.  He followed the lead of earlier monks in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Those monks had despaired of the climate and culture of the late Roman Empire.  They withdrew to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to look for God and to be found by God.  They were not interested in fame and fortune; they wanted only to be found in the presence of the living God.

So Benedict formed a community of people who wanted to live this kind of “desert spirituality.”  It was an idea, which struck a cord with countless people and still does in our own time.  Benedict wrote a Rule to give guidance to his community.  Benedictine monks still follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  In simple terms an oblate is a “lay” monk.  He or she “offers” his or her life to a similar quest for God’s presence.  Obviously, one does not have to be Roman Catholic to be an oblate.  And I don’t have to join the monastery and move in.  But I do “join” in a comparable quest---to the best of my ability.

One of the key tenets of the Benedictine way of life is hospitality.  Early in Benedict’s Rule, he tells the monks that they should be hospitable---hospitable to anyone who comes their way.  The rationale for this hospitality was not to be nice.  It was to receive every person---friend or stranger---as if they were Christ Himself.  If you do that, you will not recognize Christ when He comes into our midst!

I found myself very attracted to that perspective and attitude.  Could I learn to live so openly?  Could I grow into such a state of hospitable receptivity?  I want to do it and as an oblate I at least am committed to practicing it.  I may not be very good at it yet.  And I will never be a professional like my Benedictine brothers and sisters.  But I want to do the best I can.  I always look for help.

And then help came.  Recently in a book I am reading, I found a nice chapter on hospitality.  The author, Jana Riess, has been significantly influenced by St. Benedict and the Benedictines. In that chapter I encountered a good definition of hospitality and what it does.  This was the kind of help I am happy to be given.  Riess says that “Hospitality is about more than seeing to visitors’ nourishment and comfort, although that’s a hugely important start.  It’s about welcoming the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange.  He or she becomes known as a person.  When that happens, lives can be changed, friendships formed---even wars averted.”

I find that thoughtful and quite helpful.  I like how Riess extends the definition of hospitality beyond seeing to a guest’s comfort.  That probably is the minimal.  But Comfort Inn does as much.  But they charge for their hospitality!  And they provide no community nor nourishment.  If I offer hospitality, I offer it free of charge---or minimal charge.  I try to offer comfort, to be sure, and nourishment, if I can.  Often this is a meal or a cup of coffee.

But hospitality is more than this.  I love her line that hospitality is designed to welcome the stranger so the stranger is no longer strange!  That is a profound understanding of hospitality.  And it has potentially mighty effects.  The stranger becomes a person.  In that transition and transformation, the person can become a friend.  And this is no small feat.  In fact, if this happens on a global level, we can avert war.

That makes me want to break out that old 1960s song, “Ain’t Gonna Go to War No More…”  Let all of us commit to being hospitable.  Let us begin to practice this friend-making and peace-making approach to the stranger and the enemy.  If we do that, surely we will be found in the presence of God.