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Monday, February 29, 2016

Spiritual Innovation

I ran across a reference to a new book recently, which I plan to read when I can get a copy.  The book is Transformational Leadership: Conversations with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, edited by Annmarie Sanders.  Two things make this a likely book for me to pick up and read.  The first thing is my own interest in leadership issues.  I have written a book on leadership.  And I think I have been trying to be a good leader for a long time now and in many different contexts.  I have had official leadership roles, like Dean, and I have been in informal leader with no title in many other instances.  So I am always interested in a fresh look at leadership---what it is and how it happens.

The second reason I am interested in taking a look at this book is because of the respect I have for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  This is a group of leaders from various American congregations of mostly nuns.  This group is often unfairly portrayed as liberal.  Of course they are going to seem liberal in the face of typical American culture because they are committed to living out the gospel.  The women religious also face the male hierarchy in the Roman Catholic church.  And all women religious have taken a vow of obedience.  So leadership in that kind of context is tricky.  That’s why I have tremendous respect for them and their work.

I immediately was attracted to the book’s title: transformational leadership.  I like the idea of transformational action.  I know this kind of leadership is often portrayed as the alternative to transactional leadership.  Transactional action is simply a transaction---this for that.  A transaction is what I do when I buy my morning coffee.  I pay some money and get my coffee in return.  There is not much creativity in that.  And usually, there is not much creativity in transactional leadership.

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, often demands creativity.  After all, in transformational action one form gives way to another form.  Another word I associate with transformational is innovation.  Of course, innovation is creative.  So I see transformational leadership to be that kind of leadership that brings about new forms of living and acting.  Jesus was a transformational leader par excellence.  And the spiritual life requires that kind of transformational thinking and acting.

In the little article giving me the tip about the book, there was a quick reference to chapter three.  A couple sentences were lifted from the author, Nancy Sylvester.  I would like to share these to help me think about the kind of leader I am sure Jesus was and the kind of leader I would like to be.  Sylvester uses the idea of contemplation to think about a particular leadership style.  Because I have done quite a bit with contemplation and contemplative spirituality, I was eager to read this little selection.

Sylvester says, “The contemplative posture is one that opens us up to ambiguity, paradox and the unknown because it releases for us a lot of our preconceived ways of being and thinking and it releases us of our ego.”  She thinks about leadership, which is born of the contemplative posture.  This is attractive because it helps us get to fresh places to see old things in new ways and, indeed, to see new things.  I do think becoming contemplative does open us to ambiguity, paradox and the unknown.  And of course, this is where we are more likely to see the fresh and the novel.

Most good leaders I know do have to take time to be centered, as my tradition talks about it.  This is especially true for transformational leadership.  Your knowledge and experience do go a long way (and usually are sufficient for transactional leadership), but transformational leadership requires new insight.  This is what I think Sylvester gets to in her next sentence.  She notes, “As we try to get in touch with the God within and become open to the spirit, we are doing some of the very difficult inner work so essential if we are to respond in new ways.”  When we see it this way, we perhaps can understand why so few leaders are transformational.

Many leaders do not see a role for God to speak to them and be a partner in leadership functions.  But spiritual leaders need to be in tune with this.  We do well to get in touch with God and be open to the spirit.  If our leadership roles ask for transformation, this contemplative approach makes sense to me.  I am sure it will seem incredibly inefficient (and it is compared to transactional leadership).  But I also know innovation cannot be rushed.

And if we throw God into the picture, why do we think we control the time-line of innovative, spiritual leadership?  The contemplative approach to living and leadership is a good way to ensure that our leadership is not merely a factor of ego.  Too often, I am sure my leadership actions were too ego driven for my own good and probably for the good of the group I was leading.  In fact, I am confident I was sometimes effective, but maybe not right!

I like this approach to what I want to call spiritual innovation.  I am confident much of this is going to be required as we live on into this century.  Doing things the way we always have done them is no future at all.  We need spiritual people and leaders who take enough time to be contemplative so that we all can become transformational leaders.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Prayer as Exposure

In my spiritual journey I have learned many things, as would be expected.  Indeed, it would be sad if we were to be on a journey for a period of time and learn nothing.  That sounds more like stagnation than a journey.  One important thing I have learned is to balance working with the new---staying connected to the relevant things happening in our world---with the traditional---things like spiritual disciplines to keep me grounded.
           
A good bit of what I read comes from the spirituality in my contemporary world.  I do not fall for the illusion that anything new has to be better than the older ways of being spiritual.  But I am not so na├»ve as to think that most of whatever is new will have no staying power in our world.  For example, there is so much research coming out of our scientific community, we would be idiotic to ignore that.  Neuroscientists are discovering so much about how our brains work, how humans develop and how they learn, it would be silly to ignore or denigrate this.
           
I am not a religious fundamentalist.  I believe God is continually at work in the world and in us, the people of the world.  I firmly believe God wants us to join in laboring for the coming of the Kingdom.  If I am aware of contemporary events, I know there is so much more peacemaking to do.  There are too many guns in our society and deaths and injuries caused by guns.  If I know God, I am sure I know that God is calling me (and you) to a life of action and service.
           
Having said this, I also recognize the need for me to be grounded in the living tradition.  One time-honored way for me to do this is through prayer.  As old as it is, prayer does not become an old thing.  It does not become outdated.  I am not worried that neuroscience will finally debunk prayer.  Neuroscience might help me understand how prayer works or even how I can do it more effectively.  For me, that would be good news.  In any case I will keep praying.

As I was thinking about the role of prayer in life, I had a chance to re-read some wonderful words of the twentieth century Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  In his book, Man’s Quest for God, Heschel writes, “Reading or studying the text of a prayer is not the same thing as praying.  What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.  To pray means to expose oneself to Him, to His judgment.”  Heschel contends that reading or studying the text of a prayer is not the same thing as prayer seems quite true for me.

Then Heschel turns to an insightful way of understanding of prayer.  The act of prayer, he says, is a decision.  This tells me prayer is the result of intentionality.  In most instances I have to will myself to prayer---I have to want to pray.  It does not just happen.  And if I do it today, tomorrow is a new day and will require the same kind of intentionality.

Heschel sharpens his definition.  The act of prayer is a decision to enter and face God.  This precise way of describing prayer is helpful.  I think sometimes I have not really understood prayer.  It seems like I have often sat in my chair and prayer was something like flinging my words out into the air: “Hey up there?  Anybody around?”  My prayer has no focus.  It has no expectancy.  When I fling those words into the air, I don’t really expect a response.  Heschel helps me focus and find.
           
The act of prayer is the decision to enter God’s presence.  While this may still sound pretty general, I think it is actually specific.  My theology holds that we are in God’s presence all the time.  In fact, it is impossible to live life outside of God’s presence.  However, what is normally true for me and many others, is we are unaware of God’s presence.  Because we don’t seek it or sense it, we assume that God is absent.  We feel stuck in God’s absence!
           
Heschel’s words on prayer are a reminder that prayer is actually a form of coming-to-be-aware.  Prayer is waking up to what already is.  In this sense prayer does not create anything; it becomes aware of something.  Prayer is exposure.  What Heschel means by this is prayer makes us vulnerable.  To expose myself to God is to allow my vulnerability to open me to new and deeper possibilities in life.
           
To expose myself vulnerably in the face of God means I risk having to give up some control of life.  To come into the presence of God is come to grips with another factor in my life---a major factor.  I know I want to do that, even though exposing myself does not always sound inviting!  But as I see it, unless I do it, I am just playing around.  To play or to pray…that’s usually my choice.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love of Learning

When I was a kid on the Indiana farm, occasionally I would run into something that I had forgotten about and it was like discovering the thing anew!  It was as if something that had been lost was found.  Sometimes, I laughed because I realized I had not missed the thing until I found it again.  And then I could not imagine not having it.  One of my favorite places of discovery was a corner of our barn where most of the stuff was the stuff my grandpa put there.
  
I have fond memories of days spent on that farm in the tow of my grandfather.  That was especially true when I was young---too young for the heavy work of the farm.  It never occurred to me not to be outside with him and my dad.  But I also did not wonder why they were lifting the eighty pounds bales of hay.  I was watching and that seemed appropriate.
  
No doubt, it was because my grandpa was beyond his prime in physical strength and I had not arrived to my prime that we were bound together at the margins of the active farm life.  We drew the odd jobs that needed to be done.  Some of these I hated.  Things like fixing a fence or cleaning rust off of some piece of metal were tedious and boring---at least to me.  I was depressed that these kinds of jobs never seemed boring to my grandpa.  He had tenacity with things I was ready to ditch after five minutes.  He was fine with the job and I was stuck!
  
I continue on this tangent about that corner in my barn where I found things I did not know I had lost because I realize I am now my grandpa!  The only difference is there is no corner of a barn.  That “corner” is not the files on my computer---files that can go back decades.  My “junk area” is much neater than that old corner in the barn, but functionally it is still the same.  Occasionally I wander into those old files and inevitably find something that delights me and I relish exploring all over again things I had forgotten about.
  
Recently, that happened as I was rummaging around in an old file.  I found a little article by my friend, Parker Palmer.  The focus was community.  I know Palmer has books on community.  I know he learned much about community the way he describes it from his long stay at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center outside Philadelphia.  I know it well.  In fact that is where I met Parker Palmer decades ago.
  
As I twirled through that old article about community, I was struck again by how important that idea of community is in my work as a teacher.  It is central to how I imagine developing the culture of the classroom.  And I realize how much Palmer and I have in common.  I have learned from him, to be sure, but we both know we have imbibed deeply that Quaker sense for how people are meant to be together---whether as learners, worshippers or whatever.
  
I would like to focus on one short summary paragraph that resonates deeply with me.  He talks about the love of learning.  He says,  “The first is love of learning itself. The simple ability to take sheer joy in having a new idea reaffirming or discarding an old one, connecting two or more notions that had hitherto seemed alien to each other, sheer joy in building images of reality with mere words that now suddenly seem more like mirrors of truth–this is love of learning.”  I have known that love of learning and realize it still fuels my desire to be with people of all ages in various learning projects.
  
I especially like the point Palmer makes when he talks about the “joy in building images of reality with words that now suddenly seem more like mirrors of truth.”  I think I do that with students all the time.  I find too many students today do not value language.  They don’t take the time to be careful with their language and to appreciate the power of words.  They aren’t aware of how much our image of reality is built with out words.
  
They don’t value the fact that we are much like Adam in the creation story.  We are naming the stuff of our experience, just as Adam named the creatures of nature.  In that sense we are creating our realities.  If we are not actively doing this, we are resigned to accept a version of reality put together by someone else.
  
My love of learning continually takes me into other people’s perception of reality.  Often they use words and images to describe reality in a way that is new for me.  I can become inventive or innovative by connecting dots from two disparate arenas.  I find someone describe something that confirms the way I see it.  I may be taken more deeply into a truth I know I hold.  I am grateful.
  
You don’t have to be in school to pursue this love of learning.  That love keeps us vibrant and engaged.  But I realize how too many of us have turned off this love of learning.  We opt for the garbage of our culture---the pablum of an infantile take on human meaning.  God wants more.  There is spiritual food to feed growing spirits.  Learn to love this learning.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

General Sense of Disorientation

There are a few people I follow in the sense that I want to hear and read whatever they are putting out there.  My interest in these kinds of people does not parallel the people the general culture follows.  For example, when I go through the checkout counter in the grocery store, I read with some amusement the cover of the various Hollywood-type magazines.  I usually don’t even know the people about whom the magazine is putting forward.  People are pregnant, getting dumped or duped or generally making a scene out of their lives and I don’t care.  I just want to pay for the carrots!
           
I am not really interested in the sports stars upon whom our culture lavishes so much blabber.  I don’t care about Tiger, LeBron or Michael.  Certainly, they are accomplished in terms of a skill set for a particular sport.  But that says nothing about the kind of human being they are.  Many are stinking rich, but I know what most major religious traditions think about wealthy people who don’t share.  The kinds of people I follow are different.
           
One of the people I like to follow is the Pope, Francis.  Although I am not Catholic, I nevertheless am a follower of him.  I admire what he stands for, what he is trying to do, and the spirit with which he engages things.  It does not matter to me why he does it.  In some ways he is pretty old…in his later seventies.  But he has both a young and very mature spirit.  Maybe it is because he is Argentinian or a Jesuit, I don’t know.  I would like to think it is because he knows himself well, he has clarity about why God apparently chose him to lead the worldwide Catholic Church and he is going to give it his best shot while he has the passion, power and prestige of the Papal Office to make the world a better place.

One of the things I like about him is the early apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”).  This writing was issued late 2013.  It is meant to guide Catholics (and others, I would argue) to understanding Christian teaching and how to live it out.  An apostolic exhortation usually focuses on one aspect, in this case, on the gospel of joy.  When I first read the document, I was moved by some of the language and encouraged by the challenge the Pope offers each of us.
           
Let me give one example.  In the following passage, Francis is offering a critique of contemporary culture that I think is accurate.  If we understand the critique, then we can begin to figure out how to deal with the problem.  Hear the words of Pope Francis.  “The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal.  Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.  These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change.”
        
Francis thinks our culture puts us all through a process of secularization.  A process of secularization attempts to deny or mitigate any sense of the sacred.  A secular person is one who simply denies there is anything sacred.  In fact, that kind of person would not even believe in the possibility of the sacred.  Or alternatively, the secular person might believe there could be some sense of the sacred, but the sacred is so minimal or marginal, it makes no difference.  No person with any brains would spend two minutes seeking or relating to the sacred in any public way.
        
Hence Francis says the process of secularization limits faith to the private life.  Following this, secularization begins to erode ethics.  Without a sense of the sacred, ethics can also be privatized.  When this happens, ethics can become more self-centered; self-interest reigns supreme.  This can lead, finally, to a sense of disorientation.
        
I particularly like this point.  I see a great deal of what Francis calls a “general sense of disorientation” in our world.  I see it all the time in the college classroom.  Students are busy, pressed to perform, and under pressure to succeed.  But often, they are not even sure why they are doing it.  They have little or no sense of orientation.  They might have some sense of a purpose, i.e. to get a good job or make money, but they don’t have any meaning in their lives. 
        
If ask about deeper questions of life, the disorientation colors their faces.  They have not yet taken that class in college.  They have not been given the answer.  In a sense they might feel at a loss.  But it is not their fault.  They have succumbed to the process of secularization. They often don’t know it, but they have a general sense of disorientation.
        
I like the answer Francis offers.  It is a gospel---good news.  It is a gospel of joy.  A good job and much money do not always deliver joy.  As a follower of Francis, I also offer this gospel orientation.  Orient yourself toward joy.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Power of Partnerships

Occasionally ideas simply pop into my head.  They come as gifts of the universe or God or some Giver of gifts.  When I write this, I have to laugh.  I laugh because it is true for me.  At the same time, I realize how the truth of this could tempt me to want to manipulate it.  I am tempted to think, why not have money pop into my hands instead of ideas popping into my mind!  I could immediately spend the money.  Ideas come, but they seldom have any value until I work with them, fashion them and put them into a larger whole.

This is what I am doing with this inspirational piece.  The phrase, “power of partnerships,” came into my mind.  It would have been the easiest thing in the world to ignore it.  On the surface, the phrase sounds true enough, but there is nothing special about it.  There is nothing that inherently attracted me to the phrase.  But I have learned to receive this kind of gift---even if I do not know what it might mean---and then begin to work with it until its value starts to become evident.

The phrase, power of partnerships, clearly affirms the important of partnerships.  A partnership is two or more people (or maybe, teams) who are committed to work together.  In some cases in the business world, a partnership might even become contractual---a legal entity.  In any case, a partnership is more than one person working together toward some agreed upon end.  There is a sharing of responsibilities, resources, etc.

The term, partnership, has wide-ranging applications.  Marriages have been called partnerships.  I personally have been in partnerships with colleagues in my own colleges and, even, colleagues in other universities around the country and the world.  I recognize there is nothing inherently spiritual about the idea of partnerships.  But the idea certainly can go in the direction of the spiritual.  And that’s where I want soon to take it.

Before doing that, however, I would like to focus a little on the idea of partnerships having “power.”  We know this to be true, or at least, guess it must be true.  However, unless we incorporate this fully into our consciousness, we cannot realize the full impact.  Let’s look at some of the reasons partnerships have power.

The most obvious reason partnerships have power is the factor of addition, if not multiplication.  Two heads are better than one, goes the old saying.  In most cases this is probably true.  And so it is with partnerships.  For me the huge advantage is the fact that I am not alone.  All things being equal, partnerships can do more, can do better and do it longer than any single human being.  Metaphorically speaking, partnerships have more hands, can offer more effort, get tired much more slowly, etc.

I also think partnerships typically are smarter than the single individual.  I routinely face the limits of my potentiality.  Even if I operate with a growth mindset, I cannot do it instantaneously.  Especially partnerships with folks who think differently than I do, have different experiences than I do and have complementary competencies add immeasurably to what I might bring to the table.  I have a great deal of experience in life that backs up this contention.  All this seems evident and true to me.  And there is power in this truth.

Having said that, let’s now take the idea of partnerships in the direction of the spiritual.  Other than marriage, I don’t know where else in the spiritual world we talk about partnerships.  But we do think about spiritual teams.  And I also think about spiritual communities that have many of the characteristics of partnerships.  And there clearly is power in these spiritual communities.  Let me offer two examples of the power of partnerships with respect to spiritual communities.  These communities are not there to make products or make us richer, as perhaps in the business world.  But they help.

The power of spiritual communities is routinely experienced in times of sickness or misfortune.  No one wants to be alone in the midst of trouble, misfortune or sickness.  The community is there with us and for us.  In fact, there may be nothing the community can do to change the situation, but the community’s presence can be a healing presence.  In fact, I have watched communities heal people unto death!

A second area I have seen the power of community function is in its generational function.  By this I mean the ability of a spiritual community to be generative and re-generative.  Not all spiritual communities do this.  But the good ones are generative.  They come up with new ideas, new ways of being and new ways to live authentically the spiritual life in a chaotic world.  And good spiritual communities are re-generative.  They continue to embrace the new and the young in the community to provide for a meaningful life that will outlive all current members.  Most spiritual communities do not have this power.  That does make them bad, but they are not powerful.

I appreciate learning long ago the truth of the power of partnerships.  I am not sure I had this language.  I am grateful for the gift of the idea.  I now have language to talk about an important truth for my life.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Palace in Time

Recently, I had one of those odd experiences which are both funny and humbling.  I am nearly finished with Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World.  I continue to enjoy and appreciate both her perspective and articulate ability to teach me and to draw me into reflection about my own life.  But that is not what is funny.  As one who has tried to do some of what I do for a living, I am humbled by how well she does it.  But it also is not what initially humbled me.
           
In her wonderful chapter, “The Practice of Saying No,” Taylor quotes one of my all-time favorite authors, the late Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1972.  Basically, the chapter is about the Sabbath.  And the quotation Taylor uses from Heschel comes from his book, The Sabbath, published in 1951.  I remember discovering this book while I was in my seminary days.  I recall how amazing that book touched me.  Heschel had a way of seeing things that made me gasp and think, “I never would have thought about it that way!”
           
Reading Heschel and seeing the Sabbath from the eyes of a Jew and one who certainly knew the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) far better than I knew it, made me want to learn even more.  But this was not in my mind as my eyes cruised over the words in Taylor’s book.  Most of what Taylor writes about is at least things I have thought about and often know quite a bit about.  So when she started describing Sabbath from the Jewish perspective, I didn’t expect too much.
           
Correctly, she notes, Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and concludes at sundown on Saturday.  Then she makes a comment that caused me to realize something I had never thought about.  She says, rather innocently, “Look the word up in the book of Exodus and you will discover that Jews were observing Sabbath before Moses brought the stone tablets of God’s holy law down from Mount Sinai.”  “Ah, so it was,” I thought to myself.  But I did not realize what I was about to learn in the next couple sentences.
           
She continues, “The first holy thing in all creation, Abraham Heschel says, was not a people or a place but a day.  God made everything in creation and called it good, but when God rested on the seventh day, God called it holy.  That makes the seventh day a ‘palace in time,’ Heschel says, into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives.” I laughed.  To read that piece that Taylor borrows from Heschel both was fun and humbling. 
           
It was fun because it was so good.  It is vintage Heschel.  It reminds me that I have read Genesis and the creation story multiple times, but it never hit me.  Sabbath is built right into creation itself.  Of course, at one level I know that---knew it even before going to school and, certainly, before going to seminary.  But it seems I never “knew” it.  It is like knowing something, but not knowing its significance.  To learn now is fun and funny!
           
And it is humbling.  It is humbling because I know I have read Heschel’s book!  And I can’t remember ever reading that line.  I looked it up and it is right at the beginning of Heschel’s book.  I could not have been tired of the book that fast!  It is humbling to know I read something so profound and I missed it!  But thanks to Taylor, I still have a chance to get it. 
           
The first holy thing God gave the world was the Sabbath. For six days God created things and called them “good.”  But when God created the Sabbath, God called it “holy.”  The Sabbath is the first holy thing---not a people nor a place.  This reminds me what I do know---holiness is first of all a feature of time rather than space/place.  That is very Jewish and very Christian.
           
It seems to me contemporary Christians and secular people do not think about time as being holy---or at least capable of being holy.  Christians might more readily think about places being holy.  After all, so many churches---Catholic and even non-Catholic---are named St. Something.  But contemporary people have lost a sense of time being holy.  Perhaps the closet we get is a birthday or, better, a birth.  A woman giving birth does seem to be a holy moment.
           
Rediscovering the Sabbath does not mean going back to doing nothing on Sunday (or Saturday if you are Jewish).  Those days of my boyhood are over.  Rediscovering the Sabbath does not fine or make some time for holiness---for sacred experience.  The words of an old hymn come to mind: “Take Time to be Holy.”  Taylor is on to something in her chapter when she says it often means saying “No.” 
           
Taking time to be holy is an identity thing.  It means taking time to find and spend time with the Holy One.  To spend time that way reminds me that I am created in the image and likeness of the Holy One.  My life is also meant to be lived sacramentally.  It is meant to be a special life in this palace in time.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Spiritual Transformation

One of the classes I have taught for years is Spiritual Disciplines.  I am always amazed at how many students sign up for this class, even though they don’t really know what it means or what they might learn.  Even if they went to church in their growing-up years, they probably don’t have much of a sophisticated idea of what spiritual disciplines means.  They usually think it is going to be a course in prayer.  Of course, prayer is a key classical spiritual discipline.
           
It goes without saying many students know what discipline means.  They might be musicians, artists, scientists or athletes and in each case a fair amount of discipline is required to be successful.  We know the very successful ones combine both significant talent and an equal amount of discipline.  Without discipline the very talented ones cannot excel.  Discipline is a difference-maker. 
           
Spiritual disciplines are no different.  Many of us know what it is like to pray haphazardly.  We pray if we need something.  We utter a prayer in the face of fear or danger.  We hope the God of the universe hears us and acts kindly on our behalf.  I had a friend once who called this kind of God our “cosmic bellhop!”  I am not immune to my own sarcasm.  Too many times I have uttered a plea to the cosmic bellhop.  But I know this is not really my theology.
           
I see spiritual disciplines as means to an end.  We don’t do any of the disciplines simply to be doing them.  For example, we pray in order to connect and communicate with the Holy One.  We do it regularly because that is how good relationships are nurtured.  God is probably not that much different than other good relationships.  I think the same thing is true for the other disciplines.
           
There is a range of disciplines.  Meditation is probably as well known as prayer.  My friend, Richard Foster, lists twelve classical disciplines in his famous book, Celebration of Disciplines.  In addition to the two-already mentioned ones, there are simplicity, study, fasting, worship, celebration and others.  All of these are means to an end.  Discipline is always the one thing I can do to help my relationship with God---and maybe with others.  They are a way to stay true to form.
           
If I can stay with the life of discipline, then I think there usually is some fruit that results.  I thought of this the other day when I was working with one of the Psalms.  Working with the Psalms is one form of discipline.  We can use the Psalms with the discipline of study, meditation, prayer and maybe others.  I find them to be a rich resource to nurture and nourish my spiritual life.  They are not magic; but they are helpful to my understanding and growth.
           
Recently, I was working with Psalm 30.  I have read the Psalms many times, so I cannot say, “Wow, I never read that before.”  But there are times when something jumps out at me and I wonder, “did I ever read this?”  One line stood out when I read that Psalm this time.  This line suggests to me the possibility of spiritual transformation that can come to any one of us.
           
In conversation with God the Psalmist says, “You have turned my weeping into dancing…” (Ps. 30:11)  I see spiritual transformation here when I see the transition from weeping to dancing.  That clearly is a move from sadness to happiness.  It transitions from something static to movement.  We can go so far as to suggest that weeping is associated with death and dancing with life abundant.  They represent the polarities of the human experience.
           
As I think more about this, I am confident we experience both ends of the polarity during different parts of our lives.  I have wept at funerals and at certain aspects of inner deadness within my own soul.  In fact, I probably worry more about the deadness I have inside---while I am still alive---than the actual moment of physical death.  I am tempted to think that many of us spend too much of our time in this weeping mode.  Our only question is whether we will ever get to dance?
           
I am confident the resounding answer should be “Dance? Yes, by all means dance!”  But we typically don’t dance alone.  We usually need a partner.  And that is where God comes in.  God is always the willing dance partner.  God is the one who approaches us---even in our weeping---and invites us to dance.  Saying yes to the invitation to dance brings spiritual transformation.    We literally become new people.  If there are tears, they are now tears of joy. 
           
The really good news is the chance to dance is not a one-time fling.  It does not mean we never will weep again.  But spiritual transformation does put us in the place where we know the disciplined life can usually take us to the dance floor.  Out there we always find a willing partner.    

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Map of the Heart

When I stay at my daughter’s house, I am aware there is a rather large map on the wall by my bed.  I like sleeping right next to the entire world!  Obviously, I am old enough to have looked at maps a thousand times.  I have traveled enough to know where most major countries and places in the world can be found.  I know if you look at a map and locate China or Australia, you realize why it takes so many hours in a plane to get to those places.  Maps give us a sense of place.

I have liked maps since I was a kid.  Of course, I grew up in the pre-internet days, so maps were much more prevalent.  Nearly everyone I knew had a map or two in their cars.  I grew up in Indiana.  I knew all the big and little towns in the vicinity.  I was so provincial, I thought Indiana was a rather large place.  I guess it beats Rhode Island, but it is one of the smaller states.  And yet, there were so many places I could never locate until I checked the map.  Maps seemed necessary to know where you were at in relation to every other place.

My world expanded.  College was in another state and graduate school was in yet a third state.  A fellowship took me to Germany for a year.  I certainly appreciated the availability of maps that year.  I only knew where I was at because my place was in relation to other places.  If you are in Munich, the map shows you were in southern Germany.  If you were heading to Paris, the map showed you to head northwest and be prepared for a few hours in the car or train.

My world expanded even more.  I traveled all over Europe.  Maps were especially helpful for the smaller countries.  I spent one summer in Israel on an archaeological dig.  Because of maps, I began to get a much better geographical sense of the biblical history.  It is only when I approached Masada in the Dead Sea area, I realized you always went “up” to Masada.  Further travels to China, India, Brazil and other places enabled me to find my place on much of the whole map hanging on my daughter’s wall.

I laugh when I spot a cache of maps in my car.  I know I transferred those maps from the old car that I traded in---now years ago---for my current model.  I laugh even more when I realize I have not looked at one of those “real maps” for years!  They are like relics in an automotive sanctuary!  I never look at them because I always check the phone.  Google or some other app will show and talk me to wherever I want to go.  Checking a “real map” would only be quaint.

Thinking about maps caused me to realize maps have been spiritualized.  It is possible to talk about spiritual terrain, spiritual paths, spiritual destinies and so forth.  Spiritual directors might help us “map out” a way to grow spiritually in directions we want to grow.  Spirituality has a kind of topography.  We talk about spiritual mountaintop experiences and the inevitable desert places---inevitable if we practice spirituality long enough.

Reflecting this way led me to think about a map of the heart.  By this I obviously don’t mean some cardiologist’s MRI of my physical heart.  I am thinking about a map of the heart, which would show anyone who wants to consult the map the good directions to go if you want to arrive at some place specific.  Let me give an example.

Let’s say one of our goals is to have a loving heart.  I think this is something people who are spiritually mature have managed---their hearts become loving like the heart of Jesus or the Buddha became loving hearts.  But I also am sure---based on my own experience---that I don’t naturally and normally get a loving heart.  That requires some spiritual mapping---mapping of the heart.  There are a few pat markers on the way to having a loving heart.  We have to see the “other” as a child of God---created in the image of God just like we are.  I know Jesus told us to love the neighbor as ourselves.  That sentence is easy to type and difficult to live out.

I get to this kind of heart by passing through predictable places on the way. For instance, I think it is impossible to love thy neighbor if we have not learned to love our own self.  And I suspect there are some roadmaps to do that.  These roadmaps would include some psychological stops, as well as some spiritual stops. 

I am pretty confident we never get to have a loving heart if we do not spend a little time going through the land of forgiveness.  I know I am not perfect and no one I know claims to be perfect.  This lack of perfection proves to be a breeding ground for mistakes, sins and other kinds of trouble.  If I don’t learn to negotiate the land of forgiveness, I don’t think I will ever get to the loving heart.

As I play around with the image of a map of the heart, I realize it helps me think about things in a fresh way.  But I also realize there is a trick.  The trick is not to assume because I know the map, I know everything about places on the map.  The map in my daughter’s room proves this to be true.  I know exactly where Antarctica is, but I have not been there.  So I have no experience of that southern-most place. 

The same is also true about spiritual places of the heart.  To know what they are is not the same thing as being there and experiencing.  Time for a spiritual trip!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Peaceful, Happy and Strong

It is hard for me to imagine anyone seeing the three words that form the title of this reflection---peaceful, happy and strong---not wanting a share in all three.  Can you believe anyone would say, “Nah, I prefer war to peace.  I prefer conflict to peace!”  Can you imagine anyone saying, “I much rather prefer sadness and despair to happiness!”  And it is just as difficult to hear someone saying, “Heck, I’d much rather be weak and hurting than be strong.”  Anyone in his or her right mind wants to be peaceful, happy and strong.
           
The real question is not whether I prefer these attributes, but how do I get them?  Is there anything I or we can do to make them come true?  Or do we simply have to wait, sit back and hope to become peaceful, happy and strong?  The good news is, there are some things we can do to bring peace, happiness and strength to ourselves and to others.
           
I encountered these ideas recently when I was reading one of my favorite books which I use for a class.  The book is by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, and the book is entitled, Going Home.  I also am fond of the subtitle of his book: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.  I have enjoyed reading this Buddhist monk for many years.  He left Vietnam during the time of conflict in the 1960s and has lived in France since then.  He has traveled to the United States many times and his message is wonderfully compatible with other major religious traditions.  His ministry is designed to bring meaning into the lives of his followers and to enable them to be workers for peace.    
           
I encountered the three words that are the title for this spiritual reflection as I began reading a paragraph in Hanh’s book.  He stated, “We have to make steady progress in our spiritual life.”  That struck a chord in me.  Indeed, I thought, but how do you know what to do to make steady progress.  I am for it, but I am not sure I can pull it off!  And by the way, what does steady progress look like? 
           
In some ways I think the three words in the title give us an answer.  Let’s look at how Hanh frames it and, then, we can develop it further.  I read deeper into the paragraph.  Hanh tells us, “We have to let our faith grow.  To help our faith grow, we have to let our love grow.  And because our faith and our love continue to grow, our happiness will also grow.  If you are not peaceful, and happy and strong, how can you expect to help other people be happy, and strong, and stable.”

That seems simple enough.  However, it is still quite general.  Let your faith grow.  What does that mean?  Believe more?  I doubt it.  The problem with this is assuming that faith means belief.  Too many people say, “I have faith in God,” and mean “I believe in God.”  This means they think God exists.  In my understanding and, I think, for Hanh, faith means something like “trust.”  To have faith in God means you trust that God exists and probably cares about you.

We let our faith grow by trust more and more deeply.  We let our faith grow by putting our lives more and more fully in the hands of God.  And perhaps having more faith means we trust God’s people more and more.  We trust the community of God’s people.  We give up our independence and choose to depend on God and to be interdependent with God’s people.  In this process we come to have more peace.  We become more peaceful.

Does this mean we don’t have problems any more?  Of course, that is not the case.  We will have problems; we will experience pitfalls.  But in the deep faith in God, we will not be shaken.  We will be made strong.  And we will likely be happier.

The same goes for love. We help our faith grow more by letting our love grow.  An interesting assumption pops up here.  It assumes that love will grow.  “Let your love grow,” says Hanh.  I agree with his assumption.  If we depend on God and are interdependent with God’s people, I do think we will love and we can let that love grow.  The natural state for humans and their natural tendency is to love.  And it is probably ok to be greedy about love!  Some love is good; more love is even better.

I am sure where love exists, peace also is present.  To be in love is to be in peace.  To be full of love is to be full of peace---be peaceful.  And I am just as sure that where love exists, there will be happiness.  I don’t know anyone who is deeply loving who is also not happy.  Love and happiness generally go together.  And I am also sure this is true for strength.

To have faith and to be loving is to be a person of strength.  We think of the martyrs.  These men and women of faith and love were so strong, they would withstand anything the persecutors brought their way.  I am not in their league, but I am in the program.  If I can grow my faith and deepen my love, I will become more peaceful, stronger and happier.  I am on the way! 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Spiritual Support

Sometimes it seems those of us who strive to live some kind of spiritual life, try too hard.  Saying such does not mean I believe the spiritual journey is so demanding that we need to see it as a herculean effort that only strong folks can manage to do.  Actually, I think the journey may be fairly simple.  Theology can become quite complex, but the spiritual walk itself is relatively simple.  I think that is probably true in all the major religious traditions.  I am convinced it is for Christianity.  I suspect it is also true for my Jewish friends, my Buddhist colleagues, etc.
           
There are some basic components to the journey.  Faith is surely a beginning point.  Somehow we need enough trust to begin the walk.  There has to be some commitment to develop along the way or we would not continue.  Commitment is formed through a process of discipline.  Surely any journey that lasts for some time is going to require a modicum of discipline. For anyone who played sports or music, this is no surprise.  Discipline is always a factor of a journey or a practice.
           
Faith, commitment and discipline may be the only basic components needed.  Surely, there are other things that can be added that make the spiritual journey a worthwhile experience.  Among some of these “add ons,” I would mention spiritual support.  I am tempted to make it the fourth basic component, but conceivably some folks can manage their journey as a solo journey---needing nothing from anyone else.  I do not count myself among those.  I always need spiritual support along my way.
           
“Your religion is what you do with your solitude,” is a famous line from twentieth century William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury.  I think I understand this line from Temple and can appreciate what he is trying to address, but I do think it has a dangerous side.  The dangerous side implicitly suggests that you do religion alone.  In effect, it might suggest that the community dimension is not necessary.  And for many, that comes to mean the community element is not even helpful.
           
I wonder if this sentiment is not the driving force behind the popular, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” perspective so many folks today have?  Certainly, a huge group of students I see every day share the sentiment of this line.  Do they think there is any need for spiritual support?  Most of them would say “No,” if my guess were correct.  If I think religion is what I do when I am alone or living solo, then it probably never occurs to me that spiritual support might actually be an asset.
           
Perhaps it is because I cannot imagine living spiritually by going it alone.  Spiritual support is necessary for me and I welcome it at every turn.  Let me offer a few details that narrate why spiritual support is a huge boost to the one on a spiritual journey.
           
The first thing I recognize is so much support has come my way from people who have already walked the walk I am treading---they already have “seen that, done that.”  While they may not be giving me advice, they can offer understanding and, perhaps, some hints.  It is similar to my experience with cancer.  Obviously, I was not the first human being to cope with that malady.  Others had done chemotherapy.  They had some understanding and could meet me where I had need.  So it is with veterans of the spiritual journey---“been there, done that.”
           
Most journeys will lead to places where we get tired, maybe even sick, and occasionally we might be tempted to chuck it all.  We dearly deserve spiritual support in these kinds of places.  I know that if I am tired, I do much better when I am with friends.  They can help bear my load.  Their words of support are energizing.  I can persevere when otherwise I might just flame out!  When I am sick of the spiritual walk, I find excuses to quit or, at least, go back.  I always laugh at this place, because I am just like the people of Israel who left the bondage of Egypt only to be led into the wilderness.  At some point, they complained about Moses and only wanted to go back to bondage!
           
I am also very aware there will be some small spiritual victories along the way.  They may be times of some spiritual giddiness or near ecstasy.  These times are not fun when we are stuck by ourselves---with our only solace being the solitude we have chosen.  If there is fun, I want a party!  A party is more than one person---even if it is I!  I want others to be with me, to applaud what went well and to encourage me even further on my journey.  Spiritual community is necessary for this dimension.
           
In my experience, spiritual support comes mostly in very small doses.  It can be a word of greeting or a wink of encouragement.  Simply to have someone solicitous for my well-being is huge.  To have someone or a group care about you is wonderful.  And I also find being a supporter of others on their journey is also healthy for myself.  To be for someone else, to care for their well-being and extend myself on their behalf keeps me grounded and unselfish. 
           
I can’t imagine going it alone.  I firmly believe we were all created by love in order to love.  To love and to be loved requires others.  Going it alone makes no spiritual sense to me.  Spiritual support makes it all possible for me.          

Monday, February 15, 2016

Living With Purpose

I continue to work through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World.  In this book Taylor is looking at everyday experiences to show that they can become practices, which enhance our spiritual growth.  The chapter I just read is entitled, “The Practice of Living with Purpose.”  When I saw the title, I knew I would resonate with it.  The theme of purpose has been an important one for me for a long time. 
           
Taylor has a funny autobiographical story of her search for what God wanted her to do in life---for her that would become her purpose.  Finally, she narrates, God spoke to her and gave her the one-line purpose for her life.  What did God tell her to do?  “God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’”  Well, that is clear, but it is pretty general!

As Taylor said, “At one level, that answer was no help at all.  The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted…Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered.”  I like her conclusion, because it matches my own experience.  Taylor tells us, “If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.”  In a way I think God can honor almost any avenue of work and life that brings the good, health and well-being. 

Taylor then tells the story of a guy who works in a glass factory.  His job was fairly non-descript.  His work did not provide much interest; it was actually fairly unpleasant.  But the guy was not unhappy.  He was happy because his heart was in another place.  He coached a soccer team in his little town.  When work was finished, he would head to the soccer pitch, as they call the soccer field in England.  As Taylor says, he “became an amateur soccer coach.”  Then Taylor plays with the word, amateur.

Because I know Latin, I knew where she was going.  Even though he was an amateur, that “did not mean that he was unskilled at coaching, although he was certainly unpaid.  It meant that he loved what he was doing.  Coaching was his amore, the thing that wedded his life to the players and the whole village for whom they played.”  If you do not recognize that Latin word, it is part of the root word for “love.”  An amateur is someone who does what he or she does because of the love of the thing.  They are not professional only because they are not being paid.

Taylor ends the chapter by talking about what I would call a “general vocation” to which we are all called.  This larger vocation is “the job of loving God and neighbor as myself.”  She then elaborates.  “Over the years I have come to think of this as the vocation of becoming fully human.”  Once again, this is fairly simple, but it is not always easy.  It sounds simple to say love God and also your neighbor.  And doubtlessly, we fool ourselves that we really do love God.  Because God is rather abstract, it is easy to assume I love God.

But the loving of neighbor is not always so easy.  Of course, some of my neighbors are pretty easy.  There actually are some lovable folks in my daily life.  They make loving them easy.  I look more like a pro and not an amateur when I love them.  But then, there are others.  I am tempted to think God has provided a few rascals in my life.  “There you go,” says God, “try loving these rascals!”  They may be grumpy.  Often they seem way too demanding!  I have a couple complainers in my circle.  And then there is the one guy who is never happy regardless of how loving I am.  That guy always wants more.  That guy puts me back in love kindergarten every time!

It is with this cohort of people that my purpose becomes so clear.  I wince because I know God is not going to be content with me loving only the easy ones.  And God did advise that I love all my neighbors.  On my bad days, I can’t see why loving most of my neighbors isn’t enough.  If I can’t love all of them, then I need practice.  I need to work on the amore---the love---that makes me a really good amateur lover.

As I write all of this and experience the temptation to whimper a bit about how hard it is, I suddenly realize I, too, am a neighbor.  I am also the neighbor whom all my Christian and religious friends are called to love.  I am their test.  Perhaps on my bad days, I am one of the rascals.  It never occurs to me, but I am the arena in which some folks are working out their purpose.  If I am unlovable, then I am like that job that is hated and which never provides purpose or meaning.

I appreciate the clarity of Taylor’s discussion of living with purpose.  It is not that complicated.  The good news is she unhooks living with purpose from our job.  Too many folks think it has to be connected with job or work.  But that would discount kids, older people and the sick.  If purpose is tied up with work, then they are out of luck---or condemned to life without purpose.

Taylor’s word and now my word are: if you can love, you can have purpose.  Simply love God.  And equally, love neighbor.  If you can do that, then keep doing it.  You have found living with a purpose.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Blessing of Generosity

Her name was Anna Kurzwell and I had never heard of her.  In fact it would have been virtually impossible for me to hear about her if I did not regularly read the National Catholic Reporter.  I like reading periodicals like this in order to stay somewhat informed on the world’s news.  I don’t read all the articles, but apparently my eyes glance over most of the titles.  I was grabbed by this title: “Kansas City teacher astonishes with a $2 million gift to the Jesuits.”  “Those lucky rascals,” I thought!
           
I like the Jesuits and I respect them.  Although I am not Catholic and never went to a Catholic school, I have had a couple Jesuits as faculty.  They were smart and well trained.  In fact our current Pope Francis is a Jesuit.  The Jesuits’ official title is the Society of Jesus.  If you see a SJ after a priest’s name, that means he is a Jesuit.  They were founded in the sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola.  They are distinctive in that they owe obedience to the Pope.  So they are free from many of the local constraints that often hamper other Catholic leaders.
           
But I had never heard of Anna Kurzwell.  And why would I?  She was a little known teacher outside of Kansas City.  Not in a million years would anyone have expected that she would be a millionaire.  She was 101 when she died.  She was the youngest of eight children.  Early in her life she had spent some time in a convent.  She had spent one summer working in a leper colony in New Guinea.  In her later years she traveled to other parts of the globe.  
           
As a teacher, she had never earned more than $20,000.  She volunteered for a shelter and helped facilitate other worthwhile endeavors.  I come away with a sense that Anna Kurzwell was a remarkable woman, but also a remarkably unremarkable woman.  She ended life by living on a $1,000 monthly pension.  No one had a clue about her wealth.  And I am sure she offered no clues.
           
The writers of the article, Sally Morrow and David Gibson, are no doubt correct when they say, “the Catholic faith was the golden thread that ran through her life.”  I am sure this is true.  I have known Quakers about whom the same thing can be said.  I am sure she would have told us that her faith and her church were crucial to her life.  In fact, it would be impossible to understand her life apart from faith and the church.  Doubtlessly, she was committed to God and committed to sharing what God had provided her.
           
In most ways it does not matter that the Jesuits were the beneficiaries of the largesse.  It could have been any worthy group.  And that is because the story is about Anna Kurzwell, not the Jesuits.  It is the story of commitment, a life of service rooted in her dedication, and a generosity of spirit.  Her whole life was a life of giving.  She gave to countless 4 and 5th grade students throughout her years.  I suspect she gave more than the required hours to teach.
           
I am now painting the picture I have of her.  I suspect it is, in part, accurate and likely bigger than life, too.  I would like to think her financial generosity to the Jesuits is simply one more thing---and the last thing---that fit a pattern of her life’s service.  No one knew she had this kind of wealth.  But thinking about it should cause us to get over our surprise.
           
No one who commits, even for a short time, to life in a convent is going to become a spendthrift when she leaves.  And she left the convent to take care of a sick and dying mother. She wanted the simple life because that was the life Jesus lived.  She lived according to need and experienced the freedom that folks with a commitment to simplicity feel.  She was not a slave to her passions.  She was free---free to give generously.  And she did it in a way that caused no fanfare---at least for her!
           
I am glad that I did not need to know her personally to be inspired by her story.  Stories inspire.  To be inspired by Anna Kurzwell does not mean I have to do exactly as she did.  I don’t have her wealth.  But I can be rich in the Spirit as she was.  Because I live, I still have a chance to give---to give of myself and my gifts.  Most of my gifts are not monetary.  And I suspect, her gifts of love, service and encouragement were worth more than $2 million. That just happened to be her financial worth.
           
Her spiritual worth was significantly more.  Fortunately, it cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  I do suspect she got her reward.  I rather doubt she got too many awards or, maybe, even thank yous.  But I know that the kind of generosity she bestowed brings its own blessing.  I am confident she was a very blessed woman.  I hope she knew it.
           
Generosity---especially when it is freely given without strings attached---is always a blessing.  There is no hidden agenda; there is no source of pride.  It is clean.  And it is always a blessing.  The lesson for us is to learn this kind of generosity.  Be generous in a pure and detached way.  And blessing will surely come your way---the blessing of generosity.