About Me

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Generosity and Community

Those of us who go to college and graduate school make some friends that we track all through our careers.  Sometimes we don’t have much contact with them, but we watch their careers take off or take different kinds of turns.  Often we watch them through the books they publish.  Today we frequently track them through social media like Twitter.  If they are in our academic discipline, we might see them periodically at conferences.
One such person I have known for decades now is Parker Palmer.  Although we never were in school together, we have known each other since the earliest days of our careers.  In the earliest days he was not a Quaker, but he was at a Quaker institution and was flirting with Quakerism.  Because he was serious about his spiritual search, he became in many ways more Quaker than those of us who grew up as Quakers!
He figured out how to take the best from my own Quaker tradition and “package” it in teaching and leadership situations to become “somebody.”  It was fun to watch him become pretty well known in academic circles.  He became prominent by virtue of his speaking and books.  He had a knack for taking stuff that I knew so well and presenting it in a way that was compelling to folks---most of whom never heard about Quakerism or thought we only dealt with oatmeal!

Parker Palmer began to do what we call “spirituality” before most non-Catholics wandered into these waters.  I did, too.  That was one of the things we had in common in the days when we both were young and full of promise.  No one ever introduces me today as one full of promise!  I am sure Parker and I found spirituality so attractive because Quakerism always emphasizes experience first and then theology/doctrine.  And that is one of the ways I differentiate spirituality and religion.  Spirituality always begins with experience.  Religion tends to begin with doctrine.
I am now using one of Palmer’s books in a class I teach.  I don’t know whether the students fully appreciate him, but I find what he does in that book, The Active Life, very valuable.  One of the places I found interesting was his suggestion that we all tend to look at the world from one of two perspectives.  Some of us view the world from a model of scarcity.  Others view the world with an abundance model.  Of course, I immediately think: which am I?
The scarcity model says the world contains limited resources.  “There is only so much,” is the mentality.  “I better get mine while the getting is good!”  We all know the various ways this view of the world shapes us.  I think it is the worldview my family held as I grew up.  This kind of view of the world breeds anxiety and sometimes fears.  We are worried that we will not get enough.  In fact, the word “enough” might characterize this way of seeing the world.
Palmer characterizes this world well with these words.  “In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive.”  In this kind of world most of us will be losers.  But there is another option: the worldview of abundance.  This view works well with a sense of God. 
Here the perspective suggests that the world is always “more than enough.”  Of course, it is easy to think about famine, poverty, etc. that seems to say that is a lie.  But think about the gifts and graces of the world.  Think about love.  If viewed this way, the world offers abundantly.  Love is a resource that can never be used up---there is always more.  This is the insight that Palmer offers to me.
I appreciate his words that guide me in re-imaging the world and what it has to offer.  He says, “in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.”  To think about generosity and community help me to see the world differently---to see it as a source of abundance.
I have known the gift of generosity from people, from nature and from life.  Generosity comes to us as “more than enough.”  We feel we don’t deserve that much.  We are amazed.  We are overwhelmed.  We can only be grateful.
Community is the same.  True community gives me a sense of belonging, care and love that amazes me.  To begin to see the world with the abundance model is transforming.  It enables me to see possibility and potentiality that creates a new future for myself, others and the world.  I think this must have been the case with Jesus who imagined a new world.  He called it the kingdom.  I think I begin to understand.  The kingdom is a new world---a world of generosity and community.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Sister, My Friend

Recently I had occasion to go back to my home state, as I like to call it.  I have not lived there for nearly two decades, but I suppose the place where you are born and live much of your life will always be “home.”  As they say, it is where you are from!  No matter where you are now, that is the place where you are from. 
I was not going to the place where I actually was from.  I had to go to the state capitol for a funeral.  Of course, this funeral had not been part of my plans.  Funerals seldom are part of anyone’s plans.  Maybe it is not even in the plans of any of us living; we know we will die, but we don’t plan to!  Sometimes those folks in a good hospice program are now planning to die.  That is what I would do it I have the kind of death that comes with my knowing it and having the grace of some time to plan to die.
However, the funeral was for a beloved woman who had helped me and my community in so many key ways.  She had lived a quiet, non-egotistical life and made everyone around her better in so many ways.  For quite a few years, she made my role as a leader much more effective.  She made me look good.  I got the credit; she got very little, if anything.  But she was happy and never complained.
I arrived in the state capitol hours before I had to be there.  It is a city I know fairly well.  There is much to see and to do, but I was not there as a tourist.  I was not in the mood for entertainment or even excitement.  The death of a friend is a solemn occasion.  I was preparing to celebrate her life, but that celebration would not be a party.  As I drove into the city limits, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  There is a Benedictine monastery there and I knew the sisters would not mind me strolling the monastic grounds.
I figured the monastery was a perfect place for me to bask in the solemnity of the occasion.  I only know moderately well one of the Benedictine sisters, but I had not really gone there that day to see her.  It was the place, not the person, that I wanted.  Besides it had been some considerable time since I had seen or talked to her.  I parked the car and stepped on to the sidewalk.  Rather aimlessly, I headed down the sidewalk toward a grove of trees that had a couple statues.
After some time imbibing the lovely sunshiny day, I decided I would head to the chapel.  Even though I am not Catholic, I love hanging out in a chapel or even Catholic Church.  They do it so differently than my Quaker tradition that I feel richly blessed by that environment.  Since it is a Benedictine place, I knew they would welcome me.  Hospitality is a signature of the Benedictine folks.  That is partly why I appreciate them so much.
I walked in and was aware there were a couple sisters cleaning and preparing the chapel for the upcoming worship events.  They invited me in and were worried that they would annoy me.  I laughed because I was more concerned that I would mess up whatever they were doing.  So I sat down and tried to be unobtrusive.  It was not too long before one of them approached me.
She asked if I needed anything, which I did not.  She asked if I wanted to talk to anyone.  That was not necessary and told her I only knew one of the sisters.  But I am not looking for her, I added.  I had come to know her when I was doing some consulting work for a university in that town and she was doing some teaching.  I mentioned her name and the Benedictine sister laughed and said, “Oh, she is our prioress now.”
Pretty soon the sister to whom I was talking disappeared and soon came back with the prioress.  She approached me and gave me a big hug.  I laughed; I don’t get hugged by nuns every day!  In true hospitable fashion she suggested we go get some coffee and chat.  It was a good time of re-connecting and getting up to date on each other’s life.  I thought: here we are two people who are different in so many ways, but each trying to know what God wants and then do it.
Over coffee a friendship had been rekindled.  We did not need anything from each other nor were we offering anything.  It was simply the joy of the moment.  We were in that moment.  It was simple: a cup of coffee, interest in each other, careful listening to each other’s story and prayerful appreciation for the gift that we were given in the moment.  It was simple.
As I reflect on the experience, I am grateful for what happened.  I realize I had put myself in the place of possibility by going to the monastery.  I did not go with expectations, but I always am trying to be open and receptive to what might happen.  When the prioress appeared, I did not see her as the Benedictine boss, which she clearly is.  Rather she became again the Benedictine sister I know and the friend I value. 
It is pretty arrogant to think what she and I managed in the moment can be the paradigm for world peace and harmony.  But maybe it is.  If I and everyone else can come to see each other as brothers and sisters and if we can make friends of each other, then we’ll have it.  It may not be paradise, but it’ll be close.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Without a Doubt

A friend sent me an interesting article that I want to share some parts of it with you and a little commentary on it.  The article carried the intriguing title, “God is a Question, Not an Answer.”  The author, William Irwin, is a philosophy professor at a college at King’s College.  What I did not know was the phrase apparently comes from a fairly recent novel.  The novel is not important; what is important is the phrase that God is a question, not the answer. 
Irwin offers his perspective within the first paragraph.  Irwin says that phrase resonates with him.  He comments, “The question is permanent; answers are temporary.  I live in the question.”  Some of us may laugh off this perspective by saying what else would you expect from a college philosophy teacher!  But that is too easy.  I don’t go as far as Irwin, but I do hold high regard for questions.  And no one who is an adult should say all answers are sacred and never change.  Most of us know we have changed our minds on some of our earlier “answers” in life.  So let’s persevere a little further.
I was not surprised to see Irwin take the article into a discussion about atheists and believers.  However, I know it is too superficial simply to assume all atheists only have questions and all believers think they have answers.  In fact, it is often just the contrary.  Too often, atheists feel like they have all the answers---with respect to God at least.  And many believers---myself included---do have questions.
Irwin is correct when he says, “Any honest atheist must admit that he has doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all…”  I think this is absolutely true.  Not surprisingly, Irwin moves to the other side.  Basically, I agree with him.  If believers are honest, they also will likely harbor some doubts at times.  I know I certainly do.  Then Irwin moves to what might be the most important point.

Irwin says, “People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe.  They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others.”  This seems quite fair to me and does resonate with my experience.  Like Irwin, I am a bit uneasy with atheists who are too certain they know and believers who also are too certain they know for sure. 

And then Irwin adds a sentence that does make sense to me, but in saying so, I realize that opens me to some suspicions.  He claims, “It is impossible to be certain about God.”  Allow me to unpack that, as I understand it.  I agree with Irwin because I believe he is saying it is impossible to know with a certainty that is beyond doubt that there is a God.  I know I cannot.  I do have faith in God---in fact, I would say it is a mature, strong faith.

But that strong, mature faith still does not amount to an absolute certainty, which excludes any doubts whatsoever.  And even if I were certain about God, I could not prove it to an atheist.  Even if I were certain, my certainty cannot become the certainty of someone else.  I have faith in God precisely because I cannot be certain.  And I am ok with that.  God is a unique Being in our world.  We know God by hints, by analogy, by images we create out of experiences that may feel unquestionable, but still cannot be called certain beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I like the quip from that earlier twentieth century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who also was an atheist.  When asked what he would say, if he died and discovered there actually was a God whom he met at judgment, Russell quipped, “You gave us insufficient evidence” that God existed!  I suppose if I were to die and realize there is no God, I might say something like, “Wow, I misread the evidence.”  That is the arena where faith is operative.  There can be doubts.  I am not certain.

I admit I probably liked the article because near the end, Irwin quoted my favorite monk, Thomas Merton.  When Merton comments on faith, he says faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven---it is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been make by somebody else.”  That description resonates deeply with how I understand faith.

As much as I might hope that it would be possible to have faith that had no doubt, I realize this is not possible.  If it were, that would not be called faith; that would be certainty.  So when it comes to God, there cannot be life without a doubt.  But the good news is I don’t linger with the doubt.  I don’t let my doubts drag me into the pit of depression and despair.

Whatever doubts I have lead me to look more carefully for how and where God is present with me.  My doubts leave me humble and honest with myself and others.  And my doubts save me from the arrogance of the believer and the arrogance of the atheist.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Home and Away

Most people I know have a home.  I have a nice enough home.  It is not luxurious, but it is more than adequate.  If you were to visit me, you would know that my home has that “lived in” feeling.  It is not the kind of place with dazzle and formality.  I have been in those kinds of homes.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable and on edge.  I hesitate to sit down or touch anything.  Even though I am fairly athletic, in those kinds of situations I temporarily become a klutz!

It is pretty commonsense to differentiate house and home.  Many people know the experience of moving into a new house.  In fact, we usually say it precisely that way.  We can buy a house and move into it.  But it takes a while to have the house become a “home.”  That process is likely different for most people.  And the process typically has no time frame.  Some may know how to become “home-makers” much more quickly than the rest of us.  I actually think I am a pretty slow homemaker.

There are intentional things people do to make a “home.”  There are the obvious things like our own furniture and, of course, things like pictures.  Pictures, special books, a favorite desk and so much more make it “our home.”  That is why you would get a “lived in” feeling if you walked into my home.  You would not be surprised to see pictures of my girls and, now, some grandkids. 

My home is unpretentious.  It is the kind of place people would be comfortable sitting down anywhere.  They probably would not hesitate to take off their shoes and relax, if they wanted to do so.  No one likes to spill something.  But if you visited me and spilled something, it would not be the end of the earth.  You would probably be embarrassed, but you would not be preferring suicide in the moment!  I would hope that my home would feel non-judgmental and non-condemning. 

I recently had an opportunity to come back home after some travel.  Most of the time, I enjoy some travel.  It is nice to get away from home and routine for a while.  But like most folks I know, it is always a treat to come back home.  I began to think about this experience of coming home only to realize what a wonderful spiritual analogy it suggests.  Let’s pursue this a bit.

As I pondered it, I realized that home means familiar surroundings.  I already have shared a little about my home, so you have a sense of what coming home means.  It means I can sit in my familiar chair.  I can look out my window and see my trees in their various stages to match the season.  I feel quite “at home.”  In fact, it can be pitch dark in my home and I can make my way with some confidence.

As I thought about coming home after being away, I realized I wanted to explore the analogy with a kind of spiritual home.  Come away with me and join me in that exploration.

The first thing that occurred to me is there is a deeper level of home than place.  The home in which I live is a literal place.  It has an address.  It is specific in that no other place---no other house---has the same address.  You can google my address and find my place.  With cell phones, I never have to give directions; it is easy to find my place.  But there is a deeper level of home than my place.

This is where the literal gives way to the figurative.  What I mean by that is this deeper level of home is a metaphorical place.  It does not have an address.  You cannot google it.  That deeper level is a “soul place.”  Certainly the word, soul, is a tricky, complex word.  Let me simply say that for me, soul is the essence of who I am.  It is my core self---my true self, in the words of Thomas Merton and others.  The deeper level of home has to do with soul.

I would put it this way: home is a deep, soulful place where we connect with the Spirit.  In this sense home is that metaphorical place that is a soulful place.  It is that “place” where my true self is available.  It is that “place” where my soul connects with the Divine Soul---with God, if you prefer.

My own spirituality would assume that God is always ready and willing to make “house calls.”  The Spirit would like nothing more than to go “home” with us.  In fact, I could imagine for those saintly folks, God has moved in!  God co-habits with these kinds of people.

I can imagine this deeper soulful level is co-habitation because the Spirit and the soul are in such intimacy that the language of “visiting” does not do it justice.  This deep homecoming of the soul with the Spirit has been expressed with the symbolic language of marriage by the Christian contemplatives and mystics.  I’m not there yet.  It is fair to say God comes to my spiritual house to visit.  But too often, I am away.  I have some work to do---some homework.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Week and Easter…Again

Even if you are a Christian, I have concluded it depends on where you are---what is your context---how aware of Holy Week and the impending Easter you are.  If you are a Christian and work in a mainly secular environment, you may be relatively unaware of Holy Week.  For many it does not dawn on them until at least Thursday.  And of course, in the secular world there is absolutely nothing special about Thursday.

But even in the secular world, Friday often assumes special connotations.  It might be a holiday---a day off.  It is at my University.  So I suppose it is the one day Jews, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians are thankful for their Christian brothers and sisters!  But for the Christian, Friday---Good Friday---is an interesting one.

I suspect that for many Christians Friday is simply skipped.  They see Easter as very special and nothing else really matters.  The resurrection is key for them.  Why bother with anything less?  Let’s skip sadness and depression and go straight for the joy and jubilation!

Even as a Christian, that quick move to Easter seems too easy.  That choice seems to me an option for a suffering-less Jesus, and by implication, a suffering-less world.  Ever since I began studying some of this Christian faith (instead of just going to church because of family expectations), it seemed clear to me that you can’t have Sunday without Friday.  In fact, the Romans and all the oppressors throughout the ages are all-to-real to be able to skip.  There simply has been and is too much suffering to ignore.

Whatever Christianity is, I believe it is not an “ignoring religion.”  In fact, none of the major religious traditions are “ignoring religions.”  I am very aware that my Jewish sisters and brothers have already this week entered the Passover season.  Passover is that annual remembering of the Jewish suffering in Egypt and God’s liberation of God’s people.  Of course, they were liberated straight into the desert!  But that is another story for another time.

But the Jewish Passover season may well hold the key to a proper understanding of the Christian Easter celebration.  Rightly understood, I think Easter is its own story of liberation.  In this case Christians would affirm the same liberating God chose a different way of doing it.  Instead of a trip through the Red Sea, God in Jesus walked the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) straight to the cross.

You can’t get to Sunday without living (and dying) on Friday.  Knowing this impacts me in a deep way.  Who among us would not want to skip Friday and go straight to Sunday?  But it does not work this way.  The story of Easter is always the story of hope.  But it must go through Friday.  The desire to skip Friday is an option for illusion. 

What is important for me this Holy Week and Easter---important again is how it grounds me in the deeper realities of my life.  Sometimes, I think I live most of my life as if I were in Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  I know my own Friday will come, but I put off thinking about it.  I get too involved in my own little secular world to think about death, meaning, and ultimate purpose.  I can even live my Wednesdays without much sense that Friday is looming.

Thankfully, these seasons of Passover and Holy Week are annual events.  If I ignore or mess up this one, I get another chance next year---assuming my own Good Friday does not come.

So I want to resolve to pay attention.  I want to pay attention to fact of oppression, the suffering in reality, and the story of love’s triumph.  And then let me resolve always to be on love’s side!

May all be blessed; a new inspiration appears on Monday

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Week

We find ourselves moving through what Christians know as Holy Week.  It begins with Palm Sunday, which was last Sunday, and it culminates with Easter Sunday.  On the way through the week we pass Good Friday, a mysterious Saturday between the crucifixion and, then, the resurrection of Jesus that Easter celebrates.  It is a heavy-duty week for Christians.  For other folks, it is just another week!

So for my Christian readers, I hope this week continues to have possibilities of being a “holy week” for you.  It is worth thinking a bit about what holy week might mean.  A number of things occur.  One that occurs to me is that one ingredient necessary for it to be “holy” was that we need to take time.  “Take Time to be Holy,” the classic hymn I remember singing when I was young, can become the theme song for the day.  I am sure that holiness requires time. 

Time is an interesting commodity.  In the business world a commodity is anything that exists that people can sell.  A commodity would be the same across the board among sellers.  Corn, for instance, is a commodity.  Corn is corn; it does not matter who is selling.  We look for the cheapest price.  We buy.

So in one sense, time is a commodity.  Everyone in the world gets twenty-four hours every day---no more, no less.  The real question, of course, is what one does with those twenty-four hours.  We can spend some of them striving to be holy.  Or we can devote the whole time to other affairs, which might be entirely secular or even profane.  So during this Holy Week, Christians are encouraged to “take time to be holy.”

In addition to time, another practical guide for learning the art of the holy is to “pay attention.”    Increasingly, it seems, we live in a world that pays little or no attention to the sacredness of our surroundings.  Too many of us are oblivious to the sacred.  Even the season of spring is the miraculous coming to life again of God’s good, sacred world.  Holy Week is a good occasion for questions. 

Sometimes, a good question is a great way to pay attention.  For example, do I have a sense of the sacred?  Where do I find the sacred in my life?  Sometimes we find the sacred inside the church.  But just as frequently, we find the sacred in other places---scattered here and there amidst the secularity of life.  Interestingly, I routinely discover the sacred in my classroom.  It pops out in deep encounters of students engaging the Spirit of God when they had not expected to meet and be met by that Spirit.  Very often the sacred comes through our engagement with Nature. 

We know that green is the color of spring.  Green is the color of life springing back into the grass.  Spring came early this year in my part of the world.  One can take a drive and notice the vibrant green of the fields.  We can watch the trees spring back to life with emerging leaves.  Easter is all around us, if we but pay attention.  Nature is in the throes of its own resurrection right before our eyes.
This leads us to say spirituality is the way to discover the life of Easter in what, otherwise, may be merely an experience in emptiness.  To pursue the theme of spring, we read these words from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul.  “Spirituality is seeded, germinates, sprouts and blossoms in the mundane.  It is to be found and nurtured in the smallest of daily activities.” (p. 219)  It is in the middle of the mundane---the worldly---that spirituality is found.  And it was in the profanity of a murder---an execution---that God’s Spirit wrought the miracle of new life.  Holy Week charts the movement from murder to miracle---from the awful to the awe-ful.

The discovery and nurture of this spirituality in this Easter season comes as we pay attention.  Paying attention means we are alert.  We are interested.  We want to be engaged.  We are willing to listen.  We are willing to learn – to be open, to risk, to move.

I am not sure we know how to pay attention any more.  I often see men and women driving around all insulated from the word with windows up.  Sadly, I do it myself!  Not only are we insulated, but also we are talking on phones as we drive along.  How can we pay attention to a meaningful conversation, drive and enjoy God’s sacred world at once?

Easter means getting out of our “cars of life,” hanging up on the unimportant conversations in our lives, and opening our eyes to the sacred.  Holy Week will bring us to Easter and that will bring us to new life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Living Experience

I have been re-reading some of Thomas Merton for an upcoming speaking engagement.  I always find Merton to be thought provoking and quotable, even though he died in 1968.  I always find the irony to be too much that a guy who took vows to live in a contemplative, rigorous monastery in the middle of Kentucky still has a tremendous relevancy to folks in the twenty-first century.  I think the reason is Merton was so human.
It is easy to assume that someone who runs off to a monastery cannot be normal.  And living in a monastery should be a guarantee that you never will be normal!  I know I had that assumption.  But when you meet monks, as I have done countless times, you usually come away thinking that those monkish guys or gals are actually pretty normal.  What they are doing living the monastic life is not the run-of-the-mill kind of job.  But when I think about it, guys and gals who drive racecars for a living or who are astronauts are not living normally as most of my friends.
I love coming away from a reading of Merton and think to myself, wow, that guy is so human.  Virtually all of the things he writes about have to be with being human and being human in the most meaningful way you can do it.  For him being human inevitably leads to God.  Of course, this is not true for everyone.  It is true for me and that draws me to read further to see how Merton connects being human and relating to God.  He still instructs me.
Another thing I like about Merton is how he grew and changed over the course of his life.  As he followed his quest and asked questions, he was drawn into new experiences.  Those new experiences gave him new ways of thinking about himself, about his world and about God.  The same thing has happened to me.  At one level, I am still the kid who grew up on an Indiana dairy farm.  But I also am the guy who studied at one of the finest universities in the land---far away from Indiana.  And I lived in Germany and England and traveled so much more. 
Through the course of this, I have met so many people who are very different than I am.  Many of those come from faith traditions that once were completely foreign to me.  I have met Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.  I have dined with Sikhs and talked with Jains.  Every one of those encounters has put me into some tension with my own Christian beliefs.  I did not feel threatened.  But I did realize I needed an understanding of my own faith that could account for difference.  I needed a way to continue to relate to God, but understand Muslims and Hindus related to God in some different ways.
As I talk about this kind of interaction, I realized I was drawn into the world of interfaith dialogue, as it is called.  Merton experienced the same kind of pilgrimage into other faith traditions.  At first it was accidental, mostly because when you live in New York City, you encounter significant difference in people and cultures.  Later, Merton became quite intentional about interacting with other faith traditions.  He began to read widely and to make friends with folks of different faiths.
In the ‘60s, Merton’s writings reflect the impact other faith traditions had on his faith and life.  One of my favorite books of his has the intriguing title, Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  I pulled this one off the shelf and began reading the underlining from earlier reads.  When I do this, I find the re-read nearly as fresh and the first time I plunged into the text.  It was revelatory.
The second chapter of that book is entitled, “A Christian Looks at Zen.”  Merton offers a critique that resonates with my Quaker soul.  He talks about Catholicism, but it fits Christianity as a whole.  Merton says, “This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Catholicism, too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations.” (39)  The heart of Christianity is a living experience.  That is foundational to my faith.
Religion is not a bunch of doctrines, rituals and laws.  Religion---or spirituality for me---is about experiencing God.  I tell students that atheists can have views or ideas about God.  Atheists can understand doctrine.  But atheists do not have a living experience of God.  For me it starts with experience and then moves toward explanation---theology or doctrine.
With this as my starting point, I can engage the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or other, as Merton did, and ask about their experience.  This is precisely what Merton does.  And he does this in an open way.  In effect, he asks them to talk about their experience.  What is your living experience, he queries them.  And a good question like this one enables you to sit back, open your ears and listen.
To hear someone talk about their living experience is an invitation to join them on their holy ground.  I feel like taking off my shoes.  It is a humbling, gratifying gift to be invited into a discussion of one’s living experience of God.  I can only say thank you.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Mud Baby

Reading a chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, was a good reminder of what I know.  The chapter was entitled, “The Practice of Carrying Water.”  The context of her chapter is a power outage.  Taylor moves from the electricity outage to some rumination on the nature of work.  She has a wonderful section on digging potatoes, which reminded me of my own childhood days on the farm when I also had to dig potatoes. 
And then Taylor moved into talking about the early Genesis chapter that describes the creation of humans.  This is a text I know well.  I have read it many times and have used it as a basis for a number of different presentations.  Even when you know something well, there is always a good chance you will think of new things when you re-visit the text. 
Taylor talks about trying to learn Hebrew.  I also had little success with that language.  I only learned enough to be able to dance around the edge of any meaningful engagement with the text of the Hebrew Bible.  She confessed that she grew up on the King James version of the Bible.  In many ways that would have been true for me.  Then I read a sentence in Taylor’s chapter that made me smile and I knew exactly where she was going.  Learning Hebrew usually entails predictable lessons.  She says, “One of the first nouns I learned was ‘earthling.’”  She continued, “I was greatly affected by the knowledge that God did not make ‘man’ in the second chapter of Genesis.”
Taylor was headed down the predictable road.  “God made adam---an earthling---from adamah---the earth.”  Here Taylor is making the familiar word play available if you know Hebrew.  Adam, the name of that first human creation of God, is related to the Hebrew word for earth or dirt.  I know the first time I hit this piece of knowledge, I was a little unnerved.  Adam was not really the first person’s name, so much as it was a descriptive term.
But then I came to my intellectual senses and relaxed.  I actually knew a guy who lived on a farm not too far from mine.  His name was Dusty!  No one that I knew thought it was funny.  He was just Dusty.  It was a name.  Maybe when he was little, kids would tease him and call him “Dirty.”  But as an adult, he just had a name that was descriptive.  So it was for Adam. 
This could be the end of the story, but Taylor has such a good sense of humor, there was more to come.  God made Adam from the earth.  Now listen to how Taylor develops that.  “God made a mud-baby, a dirt-person, a dust-creature.”  If I ever had heard it this way when I was a kid, I am sure I would have connected it to the Dusty I knew.  That would have been cool, but I guess timing is everything.  Adam and Dusty were never connected in my mind.
I revel in Taylor’s three descriptions of Adam: a mud-baby, a dirt-person and a dust-creature.  When you think about the first creature as a mud-baby, that does something to the imagination!  If it were created in the South with the red clay dirt I associate with my time in the South, Adam would have been a reddish human creature.  Maybe he would have looked more like a Native American than he would look like me.  And of course, we all know there are other dirt colors. 
Thinking about it this way makes me appreciate the diversity of the human race.  Thank goodness reading the Genesis creation account with this lens means we cannot link one particular color of human with the “original Adam.”  It means I cannot assume Adam was not a white, European guy looking much like me.  He might have, but there are a few other good options, too.  And that certainly means that all the human diversity can count as being children of Adam and, therefore, children of God.  God’s children are from all the colors of the rainbow.
I like the “truth” of the Genesis creation account.  It is not scientific “truth,” but it is true in a theological manner.  I am ok thinking that I am a mud-baby!  I am ok thinking you are a mud-baby, too.  We are all mud-babies, but that does not mean we all look alike.  I like to think God likes rainbows and colors.  I think it is rather creative to scoop a divine handful of dirt to prepare for a human. 
Taylor has one more clever move for creation.  With that divine handful of dirt, “God breathed into its nostrils, giving it divine CPR, and behold!”  God created a living creature.  This divine inbreathing is the very Spirit of God that moves us all into life.  And it inspires us to move through life with that same Spirit that adds value, meaning, and purpose to the mud-baby. 
With God’s Spirit, we are not just mud-babies.  Each one of us becomes a special somebody!   

Meaning Tied to Worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 18, 2016


Teaching for a long time has many blessings, but one I really appreciate is a chance to re-read a book that has been significant.  Of course, there are many books that have made a difference in my life.  I have often wondered how I would answer the question that is posed: if I were stranded on an island and could have only one book, what would I choose? 
I am sure I would surprise and disappoint some people when I confess I know that book would not be the Bible.  That does not mean the Bible is not important to me or that I have it memorized and don’t really need it.  I know the Bible has formed me in crucial ways.  As a Christian and Quaker, much of what I think is rooted in the Bible.  But it would not be my choice.
There are a few books by Quakers I might choose.  I would seriously consider the one by Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion.  That is a simple, inspiring book that would serve me well on the deserted island.  I really like some of Gerald May’s books and would be happy to be “stuck” with one of them.  I like his book, Will and Spirit, and also would be happy with The Awakened Heart.  And then there is my monk-friend, Thomas Merton.
Merton has been a formative influence on my spiritual life and thinking.  One possible choice would be his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  It was written in the 60s when I was moving through college and on into graduate school.  I have taught a seminar on Merton’s spirituality and, consequently have re-read quite a few of his books.  I just had the opportunity to read again Conjectures.
I am always stunned to have a passage jump out at me that I know I have read a few times already.  It happened again.  On the very first page of the Preface I latched onto a line that I want to savor.  Merton writes that he does not have too many answers.  He continues, “I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, I think a man is known better by his questions than by his answers.”  I am sure if Merton were writing that today, he would use inclusive language.  Instead of saying, “a man is known better by his questions,” Merton would have said, “a person is known better…”  It is true for women and men.
Answers are definitive.  They are statements and put periods at the end of the matter.  Answers state what is and what should be.  Of course, there is a huge role for answers.  Some things are clear and complete.  Much of science has these kinds of answers.  But there are others areas of life where the question should be the approach.  Questions function differently than answers.
Questions open up.  Questions make room for what might be. There is an obvious link between questions and quest.  Questions put us on a quest.  We quest for direction, for knowledge, and even wisdom.  Questions engage us and pull us into the activity of listening, probing, and patiently waiting for something to open up.  Questions put us in a posture of expectation. 
As I am pondering the nature of question, I am thinking primarily of the big questions in life.  Indeed, perhaps the biggest question of any human being is what does it mean to be human?  This becomes particularized when I ask, what does it mean to be me?  This is an identity question: who am I?  Clearly, there could be many answers to this.  And we do have answers.  I am a guy, a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a teacher, and the list goes on.  They are all true, but they are not the deepest essence of who I am.  It is at this deepest level that I want to ask that question, who am I?
For me the Bible helps me formulate an answer.  I am persuaded I am created in the image and likeness of God.  I am a child of God.  Thomas Kelly helps me know that “deep within there is a inner sanctuary of the soul…”  And Thomas Merton assures me that there is a “true self” and that I can come to know and be my true self.  It is tempting to say these are the answers to the basic question, who am I? 
But that is not quite true.  These so-called answers only point to the deeper questions.  What does it mean to be in the image of God?  What does it mean to live as my true self?  What does it look like on a daily basis to live like a child of God?  I can only answer these questions in my real life and a day-by-day basis.  And when I do it today, I will be offered the opportunity again tomorrow.
That is the wonderful thing about the spiritual journey.  Each day I wake up with my questions.  I am known by my questions.  And then I endeavor to answer those questions in my real life interacting with real people.  That’s it!  I am the answer to God’s question: who will I be?          

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Poignancy of the Path

In the classes I teach I try to engage with material that deals with real life.  I figure if spirituality does not connect with life as most of us live it, then it is probably not worth doing.  This is the reason I usually have a component of every class that asks the student to reflect on his or her experience.  It varies among the classes, but I do intend for every class to have this experiential aspect.  In other words, how does any particular reading or exercise have the potential to affect your real life?
I intend for the examinations and the papers also to hook into real life.  Again, I am not sure I can justify asking the students to learn things if it somehow does not apply to real life---their real life.  This is precisely what makes teaching fun for me.  And it is what makes reading the things they write so fascinating.  It is not hypothetical stuff.  It is real life---their real life.
Recently I read a paper that hit me---I was moved.  It was not the happy-ever-after kind of paper. That would be unrealistic to think that I teach a class, everyone gets it and they live happily ever after.  Instead, I know there always is an issue of timing in people’s spiritual lives.  And I know there is an element of readiness.  I am not in charge of someone else’s spiritual journey.  I might be helpful, but I cannot live another person’s life.  I can offer guidance and, maybe, some knowledge.  But ultimately each person takes on the task of walking his or her own spiritual path.
I know this, but sometimes I am still caught off guard.  I was recently caught off guard when I began to read a student’s reflection on his journey.  The paper was very well written.  Good organization, lucidly crafted.  The ideas flowed flawlessly.  But as I read on, I realized this was heartfelt stuff that was being poured onto the page.  I felt like I had been led to sacred ground. 
It was sacred ground, but it was not happy-ever-after.  I was being invited into the heart of someone who was struggling.  Of course, that is the nature of some of the journey on the spiritual pilgrimage.  Just ask Jesus or the Buddha.  Ask some of those Jews who were caught in Egypt and wandered for years in the desert.  As I read on, I felt like I ought to take off my shoes, as the Israelites were asked to do when they approached the Divinity.
The thing that struck me about the person writing the paper was his own awareness.  He is quite aware.  And in many cases, he knows what he probably should do to get on with the spiritual journey.  But he is not yet ready.  One such sentence touched me with stark realism.  The person said, “I hate to admit to my faults because I know that I do not want to fix them.”  This demonstrates the poignancy of the path.  It reminded me of the lament of the Apostle Paul who wondered why he did the things he knew he should not do?  That is a real human, spiritual question.
I read on in the paper.  My friend says, “I do feel lost.  I do not know myself.”  He continues to describe in the starkest realism I have read for a while.  Finally he concludes that he is experiencing these problems in life because “I think this is because I lack ‘spirit’ in my life.”  Once more, I felt the poignancy of the path.  This is not hypothetical---a case study in some book on spirituality.  Instead it is a real person---someone I have come to know and value as a person and friend.  That’s what makes it poignant.
Clearly there are answers I could offer my friend.  I could give him a good book or two to read, as if reading a book magically makes the issues go away or be healed.  I always caution against this.  In his case, the problem is not really knowledge.  He knows enough, just as St. Paul knew enough.  To the contrary, the real problem is the will.  He does not yet have the will to do what he should do and what, deep down, he really wants to do.  But right now, his will in in some kind of bondage. 
Clearly, he does not need advice from me---or anyone else.  So what can we offer the person who is experiencing the poignancy of the path?  Actually we can offer quite a bit.  We can offer a sense of understanding.  I understand the times I have been at a similar stage on my path.  I appreciate the understanding of others.
We also can offer patience and community.  I doubt that much of our spiritual pilgrimage can be rushed.  Patience allows for the spiritual fermentation to ripen our journey.  And community is always important.  Too many people today are choosing or, even, being forced to travel their spiritual path alone.
Community is where we have the best chance to receive the understanding and patience required for the journey.  Community offers the love and care to sustain us in our deserts of wanderings.  Community offers the consolation of others to be an antidote to the desolation of our own isolation.  Finally, we are all in it together.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Lesson of Love

There are periodicals I routinely read just to be informed about certain areas in my life.  It is not just religion and spirituality issues that I want to be up to date.  I also have wide-ranging interests because I know that a variety of interests make me a more interesting person.  And if I have wide ranging interests, then I am likely to be more creative.  All innovators know putting together things that are not necessarily linked produces new possibilities.

Over my life I have applied this principle, although for a long time I would not have known to call it innovative.  Early in my studies, I wanted to wander beyond my own Quaker tradition.  As I spent time with people who were not like me and read more widely in Christian history, I began to realize how narrow and provincial I was.  I am not sure how it could have been any different.  I grew up on a farm with people who were mostly like me.  That was my “world.”  Until you know there is difference, you define things, as you know them.

My earliest years were before Vatican II, that amazing global Catholic council in the late 50s and early 60s that dramatically opened up Catholicism and affected how non-Catholics related to the Roman Catholic world.  Little did I realize how much Vatican II would affect me and my own little world.  There are many ways to describe it.  I would say my mind expanded.  My soul grew in ways that added depth and breadth.  My “world” got bigger.

One of the things I decided to do was regularly read some Catholic literature so I would be more informed and better able to participate with fellow Catholics in whatever community I lived.  After all, if there are over one billion Catholics in the world, many of my neighbors will belong to that faith tradition.  And I better well understand their perception and experience of God.  I acknowledge somehow their God is my God.  If they experience God in a variety of ways, I need to know about it and celebrate it.  To that end, one thing I regularly read is the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly Catholic publication.

In a recent edition I read a sermon by Thomas Gumbleton, who is the retired auxiliary bishop of Detroit.  He shared a story that was charming and I would like to share.  It is the story about Judaism.  Gumbleton says, “I have a priest friend in another diocese who invited an Orthodox rabbi to speak to his parishioners about Judaism. He explained about the 613 laws of the Torah and how he faithfully keeps those laws. Someone asked him about his belief in an afterlife. The rabbi said, “I believe everyone eventually gets into heaven.”

Now I knew things were going to get interesting.  Gumbleton continued.  “Then people raised their hands; they all had the same question, ‘Why do you keep all those 613 laws if you think everyone is going to get into heaven anyway?’ The rabbi smiled and answered, ‘Because God has asked me to keep them.’”  I laughed.  Even before I read on, immediately I thought, “of course; it’s a matter of obedience.”

I think obedience is a tough term in our culture.  Most of us don’t want to be obedient to anyone---to be “beholding,” as my grandfather would put it.  We want to be independent.  Indeed, why would be bother with 613 laws if we were going to get the good stuff anyway?  That seems stupid.  And stupid is how so many folks think about obedience.

But Gumbleton adds a great twist that helps me understand obedience.  He says,  "It's a matter of friendship.  If a friend asks you to do something, you do it.  In this case, you recognize that what God is asking of you is for your own good.  God asks and we respond. God loves and we respond.”  I love how he takes it into the realm of friendship.  That image of friendship is one of my favorites for the God-human relationship.  I like to understand God as friend.  Of course, for a Christian this works very well, particularly when Jesus enters the pictures.  Jesus as friend is a powerful way to perceive the relationship.

And clearly, any one of us who values friendship knows if a friend asks for something, we are going to try our hardest to do it.  If a friend asks me to do something, I don’t tell him that’s stupid.  I don’t evaluate how I feel about it.  I respond.  I act.  A friend is a person I love and I act out of love.  That’s how it is with God.

As I step back from the story, I realize it is a wonderful lesson of love.  In our culture love can be sexualized to the point of ridiculousness.  Or it can become so superficial, it is like the greeting of the waitress in a restaurant who asks, “Love, what can I get you?”

The lesson of love is not whether it is 613 laws or just one law.  The lesson of love is friendship is a relationship of responsibility and responsiveness.  If my friend asks for something, I do it.  That's true for the best friend I have: God

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Talking Signs

When I go for a run, I often turn the run into a walk.  Of course, that is a sign that I am getting older.  But I don’t mind.  I am still moving, and moving gives me a chance to see and enjoy life.  I am thankful.  I have become aware when I turn the run into a walk, I begin to notice more things.  That is not surprising, since I am going more slowly with less effort expended.  It is like having eyes than can focus on things.
I am not sure how it happened, but I began to notice the various signs along the way.  There were the inevitable signs of the road.  I saw stop signs, speed limit signs and signs that told me of impending road intersections.  Of course, I have seen millions of these in my lifetime.  Nothing I saw was novel.  But what was new is that I began to ponder what I was seeing.  And this led to a sense for the process of knowing.
As I thought about it, I realized the signs were talking.  Of course, there was no discernable sound.  When I approached the stop sign, I heard no voice saying, “Stop please.”  But it told me to stop and told the cars, too.  And most of them “heard” it and stopped.  Others either didn’t “hear” it, or like my kids when they were young, “heard” it, but ignored it!
I began to think more deeply.  It is interesting that we call those things “stop signs,” “street signs,” etc.  Typically, they are inanimate objects.  They are made of metal, wood or plastic.  In this sense they are not materially different than any other object made of that stuff.  Some words, or perhaps some symbol are added to the object.  And sometimes the object is shaped into a particular form.
We all know the physical form of the stop sign.  Usually it is red, although I recently was in a different part of the country and saw a green stop sign!  Even though it told me what to do (stop!), I have no clue why it was green.  That part of the story is a mystery.  And on the shaped metal is the single word, STOP.  When I see one of these signs, it is so familiar I almost don’t even pay attention.  Habitually, I slow and then stop the car.  Look both ways and proceed.  And I can announce that I “heeded” the sign.  I did what it told me to do.
Only now am I realizing how complex this whole process is.  The various signs function to inform and direct peoples’ attention and action.  However, this caused me to think more broadly about my experience.  I recall my travels to England.  I have lived there three different times.  When I drive in England, I quickly realize the signs are in English, but I don’t understand all of them. 
I realized they talk about “overtaking” instead of passing!  There were other signs that I had to get used to the language.  “Lorries” are trucks.  That’s worth knowing.  This pondering took me even further afield.  I remembered the times I have been in China or Japan.  They also have signs.  But that is tough.  In both of those countries, I had no clue what the sign was “telling” me.  It was “speaking,” but I could not understand.  If the Chinese or Japanese sign were not paralleled by a sign in English, I was doomed.
I wanted to push even deeper.  I realize that a sign works when it signifies something.  In fact, signify is the verb for sign---even though “sign” can be a noun or verb.  For example, someone “talks” to a deaf person by “signing.”  A Chinese sign or Japanese sign does signify something.  The problem is I don’t have the ability to understand the sign and, therefore, it has no significance for me. 
I realize I stumbled on to the third step in signs.  First, there is the sign.  The sign signifies.  And if it signifies successfully, it has significance.  It could have ended at that point.  But I had a revelation.  All this can become spiritual.
It occurred to me that human beings can also be a sign.  My words certainly are signs.  They can have significance.  But I can also lie or deceive.  This causes people to be misled.  Of course that has serious implications.  This means that human beings are less predictable signs than stop signs and street signs.  They always mean what they say.  Humans do not always mean what they say. 
Human actions probably are more clear and predictable than words.  Actions have significance.  It is one thing to say I love you.  It is more powerful actually to love you. The significance of loving you is huge.  I realize that much of my ministry has actually been a life of spiritual signing.  Metaphorically, I have been signing to a deaf world---a world that needs its own language and guidance to know how to find spiritual meaning and purpose.
This is the role all the major religious traditions are called to play.  We disciples of those religions become signs.  We have to live lives of significance in order that others may see, hear and obey.