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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The God Who Is…

It is probably not surprising that my mind and reflections are focused on the weekend spent with a group of friends in a Trappist monastery nestled in the hills of Kentucky.  It is also not surprising to know my friends are what make the whole adventure worth the effort.  And there was some effort.  A long drive, some thunder and lightening, etc. is not what one relishes!  But I can imagine the monks say, “God provides liberally!”  Some God!

It was not the rain, even though I have seen the monastery in rainy weather and even in snow. The weather does not bother the monks.  It is part of life---part of God’s creation.  But most of all in that kind of setting, weather revels---the monastery is set in a lovely natural area.

It reveals there is a nature in which we all live, move, and have our being…and seldom pay much attention.  Most of the time, we hop in cars, windows tightly protecting us from the elements, noise, and “otherness” of our world, and ride away.  Somehow being in a monastic setting rivets one’s attention.

Even though I drove there, when you step out, you are in a different world.  And this world turned out to be beautiful.  It embraced the monastery I have seen quite a few times.  But for many of my friends, it was their first time.  They probably will never think about Gethsemani without the memory of all of us who were there with them.  We were part of the landscape.

Oddly enough, the dress of Cistercian monks (for that is what the Trappists are: Cistercians of the Strict Observance) is white.  And the inside of the cloister church is all white with only the brown beams high above the ceiling.  White is the color of purity.  And for many, if not all of us, purifying is one aspect of the weekend.

We came away more pure, more whole, more centered.  I know I have now returned to the land of my normal reality…classes, meetings, readings, and the rest.  But I have been to the land of the pure, the white country.  And if I am lucky, and if God is providential, I will never be the same!

There is a Psalm which says something to the effect, “seven times a day should you pray.”  These Cistercian monks have taken that literally!  So seven times a day I “went to church with them.”  They chant Psalms, they sing, and they meditate.  There is very little preaching.  In almost every respect, they leave the individual to wrestle with the God about whom so much is said.

I come away wondering how many times I have chanted the Doxology….thirty or forty times daily?  It is praising “the God who is, who was, and who is to come…”  I like this description of “God who is”…but no attempt to tell me more.  God is…..…and you make whatever you make out of the God who comes to you.  It’s that simple.

A theologian is someone who tries to explain “who God is.”  And this explanation can get pretty sophisticated!  I can only imagine one of my monk friends smiling at the theologian.  A Trappist monk, committed to silence as he is (yes, we had a great deal of non-talking), would lead us into the Doxology to experience “the God who is…”

I cannot explain “the God who is…”  I know as best I can know, that I experienced that God.  That God was in the darkness of the monastic chants at 3:30am!  That God somehow swirled in the night…or maybe, God swirled the darkness around us?

I come back home fully aware there is nothing in my life which proves God exists.  If I were to hold out for a proof, I will hold out forever!  But a weekend in the monastery provides evidence….and it is pretty normal evidence: friends, monks, and serendipity.  I can affirm the “God who is…”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Memorial Day: Re-Membering

Memorial Day---or better, yet, Memorial Day weekend---is a complex holiday.  That does not make it anything less than other major holidays; it is just different.  It seems that the federal holiday has its origins right after the Civil War.  It was an opportunity to remember those Union soldiers who had died in that cause.  Gradually, the “remembering” expanded to include all the men and women who had died in the service of their country.

Earlier it often was called Decoration Day.  I heard this term most of the time when I was growing up in rural Indiana.  I understood it as the time when the old people went to the cemeteries to “decorate” with flowers the graves of their family and friends.  I knew it had some military association, but by my lifetime, the holiday again had expanded to include everyone who had already passed away.  But it was more complex than that.

For many people Memorial Day celebrates the beginning of summer.  That association with summer helps if it hits 90 degrees!  Summer begins and lasts till early September, when Labor Day signals its official end.  Of course, no one in early September thinks summer is finished---or at least, the hot weather has ended!   In many ways, Memorial Day and Labor Day are bookends.

However, for me and for most Hoosiers, the complexity of Memorial Day does not end here.  It is always the weekend the Indianapolis 500 mile race is run.  Even for those of us who could not care less about racing cars, the “Indy 500” was part of the weekend tradition.  In fact, that weekend---the race---culminated a month long build-up to the weekend.  For an Indiana farm boy, May was a time of finishing the school year, planting corn and beans, the beginning of baseball, Memorial Day and the Indy 500.

If I were asked whether it was in any way a spiritual thing, I would have replied negatively.  I never went to church.  Occasionally, I was aware of churches’ having “services,” but I did not see them as spiritual.  They were more patriotic---more nationalistic.  That was ok, but it was not the same thing as spiritual for me.  So Memorial Day weekend never has been a spiritual occasion for me.

And that is still true.  I am happy to remember and celebrate the lives of the American men and women who gave their lives on my behalf and my country.  I appreciate and enjoy being a citizen of this country.  Certainly those of us who are can count ourselves very fortunate.  But being American is not a spiritual thing for me.  It might be for others and that’s ok.

Given all that, is it possible for this Memorial Day weekend to become spiritual?  The answer is, of course!  It is possible for every day to become spiritual! That is the beauty of the life, the time, and the opportunities God gives to each of us.  I thank God daily for my life, my time, and my opportunities.  I know I did not create my own life.  I realize I do not make my own time.  And when my time is up, I can no more stop the ending than I began my beginning!  And I do not create all my opportunities.

So I am thankful.  And I believe being thankful is always a spiritual response.  I am thankful to my parents who gave birth to me and cared for me all those infant days I cannot even remember.  They are both deceased and buried in an Indiana cemetery.  I have no idea whether anyone took flowers to their graves this Memorial Day. But that does not mean I appreciate them any less.

I am thankful to other members of a church family who helped raise me from infancy to adulthood.  And I am thankful to others in the larger community who helped in countless ways to make my life possible.  No doubt, there were even people I did not know who probably helped me.  And there are many more people whom I knew, but never probably knew how they helped me.  A huge number of them also are long dead and inhabiting cemeteries scattered across a good number of states.

All these memories are sacred to me.  They are imbued with the Spirit of God who is for me a God of Providence---a providential Divinity.  In my spirituality God deals indirectly with people as much as directly.  I know as well as I know anything that God was at work in the members of my family, my church family, my community family to bring me to where I am today.  That is a wonderful memory.  And I am happy this Memorial Day to remember these people and their gifts.

As I engage this remembering exercise, one more thing occurs to me.  They were individuals---these people I am recalling.  They clearly were members of groups---family, friends, church, and community.  But in the process of my recalling them, they are pulled together into one group.  They are all re-membered by me and for me.  They are all members of my spiritual clan.  Many may be dead, others scattered around the world, but in my mind in this moment they are re-membered.  They become again in this moment members of my spiritual clan.  And in my thanks, God is present and still providing.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Education and Transformation

I once heard Richard Rohr, one of my favorite contemporary speakers and writers on spirituality, utter a significant line.  He said, “Don’t confuse education with transformation.”  That was one of those moments when I gasped and thought, “Exactly!”  Let me detail that “exactly.”  I do that as one who has been in education for much of my career and care deeply about education.  So the last thing I would say is that I am against education.  To the contrary, education is crucial in this generation and for every successive generation.

I also think there is a real need for education in religious and spiritual circles.  Frequently, I cringe at the ignorance and sometimes stupidity otherwise smart women and men utter in the name of religion.  Of course, I recognize at one point we all start out in ignorance.  We all were little babies!  Once I did not know anything.  But I have learned some things.  In religion, however, learning is tricky.  Not all learning is equal.

I want to put spiritual or religious learning, which I equate with education, in a good light.  After all, I have learned a lot!  I suppose it began in a small Quaker Sunday School, but I will admit I was not a good learner then.  I became more serious in college and then, obviously, got real serious when I did seminary and a Ph.D. in religious studies.  It has been a great thing for me personally.  I say that, even if I were not earning a living teaching the stuff.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        \
I have learned so much about my own faith---Quakerism and Christianity.  I have learned a great deal about Judaism and Buddhism.  I know some about Hinduism and Islam.  I have learned how to think about issues that range from doctrine to ethics.  I still find it really interesting.  But I also came to realize that was not sufficient.

Conventionally speaking, the goal of education is knowledge.  I am ok with that way of looking at it.  If it were someone in medical school, we hope their gain much knowledge.  We don’t want a quack practicing on us!  We want someone who knows what she is doing.  But even for a physician, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient to make a good doctor.  I would argue the same for a spiritual person.

I could have a ton of religious knowledge and still be a bad person.  To know about eithers, for example, is not to be ethical.  To know about God does not make me religious.  It makes me smart.  To know something does not make you that thing.  I can know about Communism, but that does not make me a Communist.  The same with Christianity.  I can have a Ph.D in it and have knowledge galore, but not be a Christian.  The same goes with other faith traditions.

That is where the other factor---transformation---enters the picture.  Transformation may build on education and knowledge, but they are not equivalent.  Transformation is about coming to be a spiritual person.  It is in some ways about conversion, although that term often gets bad press.  In transformation there is often a “before” and “after.”  It does not have to be an event---my transformation was not an event.  I was not saved one night.

But transformation is about become a different, new person.  In my terms transformation is coming to be a person of the Spirit.  That may happen with some education.  But it truly only happens with the Spirit is at work in our lives with our co-operation.  It is not magical.  There is no cookie-cutter process that I know.  Each of us is unique and the Spirit’s work in and with us has to be uniquely undertaken.

In my understanding transformation has both a “being” and a “doing” component.  Transformationally, I come to be a new person.  Typically, it is not just about belief.  I might get new ideas---new beliefs or doctrines.  But these in themselves are not transformational.  The belief, idea, or doctrine has to be translated into action---the “doing” component.  Often it has ethical implications.  I try to live according to the standards of the Spirit.  Normally, things like the Ten Commandments are guideposts.

The thing I most like about transformation is what it does not mean.  It does not mean you have to give up your way of life.  It does not mean going to church more.  Certainly, it does not mean joining a monastery or getting “serious” in some other stereotypically way.  It means living your life---your authentic life---from the Spirit.  In my own Quaker language it means living your life from the Center---the Divine Center, as I would describe it.

Experiencing transformation should make us more loving, more generous and more grateful.  Usually, transformational living has a service component.  We feel the call to minister to people or to causes.  We want to transform the world to know what we now know.  We know our world has troubles---sin is the theological word.  We want to be redeemers not wreckers.

The dream is to find a way to become educated and transformed.  Then you become a powerful instrument of the Spirit.  You are ready to live, to love and to lead an amazing life.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Legacy

Even to think about, much less write about, legacy betrays my age.  No sixteen year-old is thinking about legacy.  They probably don’t even know what the word means.  Legacy means to get something from someone.  Typically, it means some kind of inheritance.  It can be used to talk about what people left to you when they died or when whatever they were doing is finished.  Legacy means, on the other side of the coin, what we leave behind when it is all over or when we die.

It tends to be part of the discussion when people talk about making wills.  The lawyer will ask to whom the property will go?  Are you going to give it all to the kids or share some with churches, colleges, etc.?  Of course, if you are dirt poor, this discussion never happens.  Poverty is your financial legacy.

Fortunately, the idea of legacy pertains to things other than money and property.  In fact, I would argue the more important legacies have little or nothing to do with economic worth.  Legacies have to do with other kinds of worth.  Often legacy comes close to reputation.  Simply put, it asks a basic question: what kind of mark did you make?  Again, this is not something you only ask of dead folks.

Certainly, famous people leave a huge legacy.  In our own time we can think of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or many recall the life and work of Mother Teresa.  As far as I know, her vow of poverty left her without a penny.  And yet what a legacy!  At the other end of the spectrum, some legacies are awful.  Think of Hitler or Stalin and utter disgust is the response.  Their legacies are war, torture and murder...nothing to be proud of.

As you think about it, even young folks---sixteen year-olds can leave legacy.  Again, very well known high school athletes might leave legacies of prowess on the court or the field.  Some musicians might have been spectacular flute players in high school.  Some leave high school legacies of being nerdish.  But most of us got through high school and the legacy was very modest.  There might be two or three who can even remember me or what I did.  I am ok with that!

Sometimes I joke and say my two daughters are the best legacy I am going to leave the world.  But the joke may be on me.  That might actually be truer than I think!  If so, I am good with that legacy.  I must admit, I seldom have ever thought about legacy---at least, when it comes to myself.

Having mentioned MLK, Jr and Mother Teresa leads me to think about the legacy of the Spirit, as I like to call it.  Obviously, they join a whole host of saints from many centuries who left a spiritual legacy and are remembered for their lives and ministries.  Much of that was selfless.  They were not on ego trips.  In fact, they would have claimed all along, they were simply living out their obedience to the God who had called them.

I am drawn to some of the spiritual saints in history.  I am particularly drawn to St. Francis.  Saint Francis has a legacy that is mixed, if you look at his entire life.  Before becoming the spiritual giant that he was, Francis was a spoiled rich Italian kid who loved the high life.  He was a soldier for a while, perhaps seeking his fame in that venue.  But it all came crashing down.  He realized he was heading down a dead end in life.

He gave it all up to assume something that paradoxically seems to be more worthy.  He became poor in order to become rich.  It worked!  Taking a vow of poverty lead him into new ways of living and serving.  When he gave up on being famous, he stepped on to a road that has me writing about him long after his death in 1226.  He would be surprised, but still would not care that he is famous.  To become famous in the Spirit is not an ego trip.

For Christians it all leads back to Jesus, who had nothing going for him in terms of legacy potential.  Born poor, uneducated, without sophistication, a drifter and misfit, he arguably is the most famous person in the history of the world.  That is the irony of the Spirit and the source of all spiritual legacies.  A spiritual legacy is never the goal; it is always a byproduct of obedience to a higher cause.

Why is this important?  I recognize to many people, it is not important at all.  Some might be working for particular legacies; others couldn’t care less about legacy.  I care about it only in the Franciscan sense.  I want to be on the journey of obedience.  Legacy will be whatever comes in the wake of that journey.  Legacy is result.

Don’t worry about results.  Spend time in performance.  Maybe performance is a strange word when applied spiritually.  But life is performance.  I want my life to dance to the music of the Spirit.  I want to act in accordance to the direction of the Spirit.  When I exit the stage, I want the legacy to be spiritual.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Power of Three Letters

The English alphabet contains 26 letters.  Virtually all English words are made up of some combination of these letters. Most of the time when we are speaking or, even, reading, we give no thought to this.  But if we slow down to think about it, human language---English or any other language---is fascinating.  It is amazing to think that we now operate with a set number of letters.  And that a vast array of words is made of various combinations of letters.

At least one English word comes from a single letter. When I self-identify, I use a single letter, “I,” and we all know I mean “me.”  In Greek it takes three letters, “ego,” and in German it takes three, “ich.”  At the other end, we know there are some English words that require many letters.  There was one long word most of us kids learned that I think may have been 28 letters, but I never bothered to check!

I have been thinking about three letter words.  I have no idea how many three- letter words there are in the English language.  What I do know is all three-letter words are not equal.  Some words are more important than others.  Let me illustrate by choosing a couple three letter-words.  One word is “the.”  On a day when I talk a great deal, I might use “the” a thousand times.  It is a good, functional word.  But it does not have much pizzazz.

On the other hand, I think of the three-letter word, “sex.”  Now that one is really loaded with meaning---all sorts of meaning.  To use that word typically involves emotions, thoughts, and all kinds of things.  It provokes reactions and, maybe, strong reactions.  It is not neutral.  So three-letter words are not equal.

As I thought about this inspirational reflection, I had a specific three-letter word in mind.  I want to explore the word, “yes.”  Yes is a word of power---maybe more power even than sex!  I think about times in my life when I heard a “yes” to a question or invitation.  What power there is released when we get a “yes” to something important.  It would be fun to think about all the crucial moments when we heard “yes.”

Hearing “yes” with respect to pregnancy can be mind-blowing.  I would like to think that I was an answer to prayer---if not my parents’ prayer, at least God.  Hearing the “yes” to the pregnancy that led to my two daughters was amazing---still is.  “Yes” to a particular college application has been a dream come true for some students.  It is fun to watch students on my campus receive “yes” to internships, jobs, and countless things they may have their hearts set on.  “Yes” to promotions, to new opportunities, etc. brightens the day of countless people I know and people around the globe.

I enjoy saying “yes” to people.  They feel good and I feel good about making them feel good.  “Yes” builds up people.  It is affirming and confirming.  I suppose most of the time “yes” and positive go together.  Effective leaders find ways to put people in positions where “yes” is the word.

All this is fun to think about.  And yet, there is one more step I would like to take.  I am sure there is a significant role “yes” in the spiritual realm, too.  As a Christian, let me frame it this way.  Is there a God?  Yes.  Does God care about and love you and me?  Yes.  Does God want the best for you and me?  Yes.  Can I know what God’s desire is for me?  Yes.

Specifically for Christians, it goes further.  I think of the various calls to discipleship Jesus offered to folks in the New Testament.  Jesus would approach someone---a guy fishing--- and ask that guy to follow him.  Yes.  Yes is the response of discipleship.  Yes is the response to relationship.  Yes is the willingness to be in community.  Yes is the obedience of some form of ministry.  When I think about ministry, I don’t think about priests and pastors---although they do ministry.  I think about the original meaning of minister---to serve.  All disciples are called into relationship and called into some form of service.

Yes is a powerful word.  In some cases, yes is a life-changing word.  I think of the early martyrs.  If asked whether they were Christian, yes meant that they would die!  That’s a costly yes.  If I am asked whether I am Christian, it is not a life or death situation.

So if my yes to discipleship is not likely to cost my life, what are the consequences of saying yes?  For most of us, it is the cost of relationship.  Perhaps the analogy is the relationship of marriage or deep friendship.  If you have said yes to one of these relationships---to marriage or deep friendship---surely there is obligation, commitment, and cost.  So it is with my relationship with God.  I have said yes and there is obligation, commitment and a willingness to pay the cost.

I am willing to give myself, my resources---whatever I have.  To say yes is not to withhold.  I cannot say yes and be stingy with my time or resources.  I am glad to say yes.  Anything less is a selfish, lonely and, finally, desperate life.

Monday, May 23, 2016

From View to Review

One of the things I routinely do is review new books for a publishing house dedicating to making these reviews available to the reading public.  Of course, I am not the only reviewer.  In fact, I have no clue how many reviewers there are.  I review new religion books.  And of course, I only do certain kinds of books.  I am willing to review books that deal with the New Testament, the history of Christianity and contemporary spirituality.  I am not an expert in Buddhist studies or Islamic philosophy, so even the books I review have a narrower range than you might expect.

It is something I have done for a long time now.  It does take time to read a book and then think about it long enough to write a cogent review that might help some reader decide whether they want to buy that book.  I take seriously the charge I have been given.  If I write a lousy review on some book, the author of that book is going to suffer on book sales.  In many cases I don’t know the author, but I am influencing his or her career!

One of the reasons I like doing it is I am given opportunities to see new scholarship that I probably would not otherwise see.  The way it works is simple.  This publishing house gets books from all sorts of other publishers.  They send me a book.  I get to keep the book.  In return I write a review and that is published.  Countless people read my review and decide whether they are going to buy the book.  In the process I have read many books I am delighted to have in my library and other books I would never buy or read again.

I have never really thought much about the process I go though, but when I gave it some thought, I was intrigued.  I would like to offer the details of that process.  Then I want to suggest it is a bit like making meaning in our lives.  That might seem like an odd connection, but bear with me.

Since I still receive an actual book through the mail, it all begins with opening the mailbox.  It is very much like getting a surprise gift in the mail.  Typically it is wrapped in a brown recyclable container.  I know there is a book inside and I know it will tell me when I have to send electronically my review.  So the first step is to rip open the package and see what I have.  It is like having multiple Christmases!

The review process is actually two-fold.  The first part is viewing the new book.  In the beginning it is literally viewing it.  I pull it from the package, read the title, look at the authors name.  I have seen books that were barely one hundred pages and some they send me might be four or five hundred pages!  I quickly look at quotations on the back; I look for details about the author.  I see whether there is an index, etc.  All these have a bearing on whether the book is going to be useful.

The viewing process gets more serious.  I begin reading.  Literally, my eyes see letters; letters become words; words become sentences and sentences become ideas.  And then I mentally begin to form my “view” of the book.  What that means is I begin making assumptions: it is a good book, a hard book, an insightful book, etc.  It is fascinating that I can move from letters to a view---a perspective on the book.  If I know the author, I may “view” it differently.  In fact, that is what prejudice does to us: it affects the way we view things.

Now that I have my view, I can write a review.  I tell people what I think and why I think that way.  For example, my review might say a book stinks and I offer compelling reasons why it stinks.  That is probably going to be a disaster for book sales!  So I try to be fair.

And now we move to life.  Of course, we look at things---at our lives, other peoples’ lives, etc.  We view things and form perspective, opinion and outlook.  We develop tendencies, i.e. rosy outlook or gloomy outlook.  How we view things often shapes how we experience life.  Our tendency is to make the way we view things into facts.  The way we view things becomes the “just way things are.”

Often we fail to move to the other level: we seldom review things.  We don’t reflect on our views and we never formulate a review.  I think this is what living the spiritual life asks us to do.  The spiritual life, as I see it, needs to build in regular reflection time.  It might be called prayer or meditation.  It might be other kinds of spiritual disciplines.  I’ll use myself as an example.

In my theological view of things, God is active in my life.  And God can be a transforming Presence.  God might be so active in life that I will change the way I view things.  To illustrate: I might have seen myself as a worthless, sinful kind of guy.  God’s transforming Spirit goes to work in me and I begin to see myself as a chosen son of God.  I review the work of the Spirit and realize I view myself and my world in very different ways.  That is something to write about!

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Yearning Spirit

As I try to do every day, this morning I turned to the lectionary reading for some reflection time.  The lectionary is a daily selection of Biblical readings.  It is constructed around the day monks live.  So there are readings for morning and a series of other times throughout the day, culminating with some that monks do before retiring for the night.  I certainly do not do all of them

Given the way my day typically is structured, I more likely look at the morning readings or the evening ones.  Every session has some readings from the Psalms.  I appreciate this since in my growing up years---even in the Quaker context---we were seldom exposed to the Psalms.  Like many I memorized Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd…”  Beyond that, I would not have known there are 150 Psalms and would not have much of an idea what is to be found there.

So reading the lectionary regularly has afforded me the opportunity to be with the Psalms on a consistent basis.  I still feel like I don’t know them well or, perhaps, even understand some of them.  There are some strident, tough passages there.  The Psalmist pulls no punches.  However, there is much real life there---not all sweetness and life.  The question is how God and people deal with this?

When I saw the Psalm for the Morning Prayer today, I was delighted.  It has become one of my favorites.  The first line of Psalm 42 somehow resonates with me.  I have read it often and it happens every time.  The translation I used reads, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”  Other translations say, “yearn for springs of water.”  I have to smile.  Deer become a simile for people.  We are like deer who long for a drink from flowing streams.  A great deal emerges from this comparison.

One key aspect of this picture is a deer that is thirsty.  Thirstiness symbolizes an emptiness or lack.  The deer wants something---water---and ultimately must have water to sustain life.  So key to the story is the longing for water.  The deer longs for a basic, necessary element of life.  Without it, death is certain.  At the metaphorical level, this easily becomes a spiritual point.

That is the part that always resonates with me.  There are many ways of characterizes human life, but one way to do it is to recognize that to be human is to have longings---yearnings.  It may be as basic as acknowledging we have a human will.  We talk about will in the way we articulate our wants and needs.  Necessarily, I will long for the things crucial to life---food, water, and shelter.  But the human usually operates beyond longing simply for the things we need.

We also develop yearnings for things we say we want (but don’t actually need for our lives).  We want to be rich; we want a new car.  The lists of wants can be pretty extensive and, often, expensive.  Sometimes we are happy if we get what we want.  But the happiness does not always last.  Often we wind up wanting other kinds of things.  Sometimes I get the image of panting after things I want, but fail to find real satisfaction when I get them.

When that happens, it is always spiritual.  One way to understand the spiritual journey is to see it as a process of getting what we need and sorting out the wants that do not add anything positive to live.  Spiritually speaking, I realize how perilously close my wants come to being idols.  If I get too much stuff, it takes up my attention and my time.  I wind up cultivating the things that will not satisfy my spirit.

I recognize the peril of getting stuff instead of the Spirit.  I am not surprised by the confusion.  Stuff is usually easier to come by.  Indeed, much of it I can buy.  It is mine.  The Spirit---God---I cannot buy and it never becomes mine in the sense of being possessed by me.  I am sure this is why like a deer, my soul longs for you, O God.”  If I become to preoccupied with stuff, my soul has the good sense to long for the real need---the Spirit who gives life and love.

Spending some time in reflection helps me remember and pay attention to the deeper, healthy longing in my soul.  The Spirit will feed my soul.  Stuff fuels my greed.  More is not necessarily better.  If I don’t spend some time reflecting, I begin warping my longing for things like candy, instead of candor---truth.  Candy is temporarily satisfying.

Candy is not soul food.  The Spirit provides the communion that feeds the soul.  This day I long for that kind of soul food.      

Thursday, May 19, 2016

An Uncommon Life

Rather casually I opened the website to a weekly periodical I read.  It is one of those things I read just because I want to know what is going on in that particular world of religion.  I never go to it knowing what is in it.  And I scan almost all the titles and, then, read a few of them.  It is one of the things I enjoy doing.  I am not doing it for any special end.

And so it was this time when I opened it.  Almost immediately, my eyes were drawn to a photo.  I was taken aback because I recognized one of the two men in the photo.  It is not someone I know real well, so I had to read the caption below the photo to be sure.  And it was the guy I know.  It was Michael McGregor.  I would not expect anyone reading this to know whom Michael McGregor is.

I met Michael at a conference on the monk, Thomas Merton, about whom I write so much.  Even though Merton died a half century ago, his writings still have a significant influence around the world---literally in all corners of our globe.  Merton has not only influenced by spirituality, he also has influenced Michael’s life.  So a dead monk brings together two guys on a few occasions and we have now become casual friends.

When I first met Michael, he told me he was working on a book.  I learned Michael teaches English at Portland State University in Oregon.  He is an affable guy and so I pursued the conversation.  He told me he was writing a book about Robert Lax.  That intrigued me.  I knew Lax was a friend of Merton’s.  They met when both Merton and Lax were students at Columbia University in the 1930s.  They became friends and the friendship lasted until Merton’s death in 1968.  They both converted to Catholicism.  Lax had been Jewish.  Both were poets.  Only Merton joined the monastery, so their friendship was carried out mostly through letters, although there was the occasional visit.

So when I opened the website and saw the picture of Michael, I immediately knew the other guy in the picture was Robert Lax.  The photo was from 1992 and was taken in front of Lax’s house in Pasmos, Greece.  It was then that I remembered Michael telling me about visiting Lax who lived in Greece.  And now I realized what I was about to read was a review of the book Michael has now finished.  Eagerly, I began reading.

Michael entitled the book, Pure Act: the Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I knew Lax was fond of the great medieval Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.  And I knew St. Thomas understood God to be “Pure Act.”  Hence, I understand the title.  As I read the review, I knew I was going to buy the book and read the whole thing.  The review told me enough to whet my appetite.  I felt like I was beginning to get to know Lax and I’ll share some of that.

I remember that Lax was the one who told Merton he ought to be a saint.  Certainly, Merton was not a saint in any of the ordinary definitions of that word.  And I don’t think the Catholic Church will canonize him any time soon---if ever.  And as Lax comments, even he changed his definition of what a saint should be.  I like his later definition.  Here is the revised definition of saint: “What I'd mean by it now is be, hope to be, hope to get to be, the person you were created to be."  Simply, a saint is becoming the person you were created to be.

For those of us who believe in the Holy One and believe somehow God is creatively responsible for our lives, to be a saint is to be the person God created us to be.  With this definition it is easy to see why Lax chose to simplify life.  As the reviewer put it, “Lax spent much of his life stripping away all that was inessential. He ate little, possessed almost nothing, and lived in the sparest accommodations.”  Much of this appeals to me.  I do think stuff can get in the way of holiness!

The reviewer does not think many people will follow the way Lax strived to be saintly.  But his key question should be our quest: what does it mean to be fully human?  If we think the answer to that question is spiritual, then we will find ourselves at odds with much of our culture.  That is why I am sure Michael McGregor chose his subtitle: the Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  To be a saint is to opt for an uncommon life.

The uncommon life in our culture is a life that is not egotistical.  The uncommon life is not in it for all we can get.  We are not interested in accumulating stuff, accolades or any other form of earthly glory.  Instead we commit to a life of simplicity, of justice, of peacemaking and so forth.  To live an uncommon life is a crazy choice by our cultural standards.  And by spiritual standards the uncommon life is perfectly common.

Knowing about it does not make it happen.  I would like the uncommon spiritual life.  Now I know choose it and live it one day at a time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Learning from the Jesuits

There are sophisticated ways of putting it, but in simpler terms we are formed and influenced by those with whom we hang out.  Our friends form us into who we are.  I suspect that most people use the term, friendship, too loosely these days.  Some claim to have more than five hundred Facebook friends!  That’s ok; I don’t want to engage that issue.

What I do want to suggest, however, is not all my friends---and perhaps, your friends, too---are living.  I have quite a few friends who are only friends to me because of their books that I read and cherish.  Some of these friends are very old.  Actually, some of them pre-date Jesus himself!  But they influence me and have formed me into the person I am today.

That does not discount the formation I experienced at the hands of my parents and grandparents.  It does not belittle the incredible formation of early grade school teachers and professors in my graduate program.  I will always be grateful for the many friends I had along the way---those who sat in the classroom with me, those who taught me over coffee, etc.

But there are others to whom I am grateful.  Regular readers know about my journey with the Benedictine monks---men and women alike.  Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky has been a faithful teacher for decades now.  And there are other old-timers who will always be my teachers and spiritual directors.

There is another who has played an odd formative role in my spiritual journey.  That person is Ignatius Loyola.  I first encountered Ignatius in a history class.  I know I would have read about him in some of the first Christian history classes I had in college and, even more so, in graduate school.  I learned Ignatius was a sixteenth century Spanish knight whose career seemed designed to serve the King of Spain.  He was educated in the chivalry of that age, entered military service and was wounded in battle against the French.

It was during his recovery that he began reading some spiritual literature, among which books was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.  Slowly, Ignatius was transformed from a solder into a soldier for Christ.  He was to serve under a different flag.  As he prayed, reflected and developed spiritually, Ignatius realized he could help others on their journey as well.  He began writing down his thoughts.

Eventually, he produced his spiritual guide, the Spiritual Exercises, and he attracted a group of followers who became a spiritual community.  Ultimately, the petitioned the pope to grant permission for them to become a religious order and were known as Jesuits, technically, the Society of Jesus.  I began being aware of Jesuits when I had a few of them as professors in graduate school.  And I have continued my journey with them in some sporadic ways.

When I spend time with the Spiritual Exercises, it is like eating food that is good for you rather than food that is good, but not good for you!  His thoughts challenge my way of thinking.  Ignatius’ language is not always easy for me; he articulates things in a way that is not always inviting.  But he causes me to do some significant growing.  I appreciate his spiritual challenges to grow up.

If it seems like I am complaining, I hope I am not.  I am simply saying he is a struggle to stay with and grow from the encounter.  Again, to use a metaphor getting a dose of the Jesuit theology is like getting a plate of vegetables instead of ice cream.  That’s why I keep returning to have another measure.  And then I hit something like the following prayer from Ignatius and I have to eat my words.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give, and not to count the cost,
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labor, and not to ask for reward,
except that of knowing that we are doing your will.

I relish the beginning and end of this prayer.  He begins the prayer with a petition to be taught---vintage Jesuit theology.  And he ends the prayer in the way we all should end the prayer, namely, that we might know God’s desire for us so that we can get on with doing that will.

I appreciate learning from the Jesuits.  Joining his prayer I can only say, Amen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Godspell as Transformative Experience

There are a few journals and things I routinely read.  They inform me of things happening that I probably would not know about until much later.  And they touch on subjects I likely would have said have no interest for me and I get interested!  They alert me to things that I want to pursue---perhaps a book to read or a person to meet.  These things are like regular friends to me.

One of the pieces I read on a regular basis is the National Catholic Reporter.  I know its reputation as a liberal Catholic periodical, but that does not bother me.  I am not reading it for the particular political perspective.  I read it because it helps me stay in touch with people and things in the Catholic world.  The Catholic world is personally interesting to me.  And I figure, any group with over one billion people is worth charting.  I keep up with China and India, too!

Recently, I was drawn to an article entitled, “Author traces lives touched by ‘Godspell,’” by Retta Blaney.  I never heard of Blaney (and she probably never heard of me!).  Blaney’s piece is really about the pilgrimage of Carol de Gierre, who wrote a book about the play, Godspell.  I am sure I was drawn to this article, in part, because I recall seeing Godspell more than once and loving it every time.  I was eager to see de Gierre’s take on the play.

I learned that Godspell opened off-Broadway in Spring, 1971.  I knew it had to be around that time, since I know I was living in Boston at the time.  Intriguingly, de Gierre did not see Godspell in its original period.  Now 63 years old, de Gierre said she did not see the play until her late 40s when she was living in Fairfield, Iowa.  I have been to Fairfield and on Broadway.  The two would not be confused with each other!

de Gierre was so smitten, she moved with her husband to southern Connecticut so she could be close to Broadway, where so much of theater creativity happens.  She discovered Steven Schwartz, who wrote the music for the play, and other cast members who began sharing memories of their early experience with the play.  This led to a book, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, which I would like to read.

The Blaney had a quotation from de Gierre that I found amazing.  "I like writing behind the scenes," she said. "Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation."  I loved that idea of being present at the creation.”  Outside of the context, I would immediately have thought of the Genesis creation some 13 billion years ago, according to scientists.  That certainly was transformative.  But de Gierre meant present at the creation of the play, Godspell.

Her words provoked me, however, to think about the creation of worldly things---like Godspell.  She wanted to get back to the Genesis of Godspell---to go to the beginning of what would be a transformative process that, in turn, transformed so many audiences who would see it.  I can count myself among those folks.
Reading this article put me into my own thoughts about transformation.  It was easy to conclude that any transformation is creative.  By definition transformation changes one form into another---one form trans (crosses over) to a different form.  I begin to think about this in spiritual terms.

No doubt, one of the more dramatic experiences of spiritual transformation comes with a conversion experience.  I know many folks who have had rather dramatic conversion experiences.  They fascinate me, because that has not been my own spiritual experience.  As we know, a dramatic conversion experience can be such that folks say, “one day I was a sinner and the next day I was not.”  They have been transformed.

Others of us experience transformation more like evolution.  That has been my type.  It has been very a slow, hit and miss kind of transformation.  Only gradually do I realize I am being changed from one form to another.  And that change is never without its hitches.  It is not always forward.  There have been relapses; there have been dry periods where nothing happened.  But somehow the Spirit always seemed to be at work.

As I think further into it, I believe transformation is always possible and ever ready to do its work.  And the work can be a dramatic event or a very slow process.  For me it is life-long.  I like de Gierre’s way of putting it: “the experience of being present at the creation.  If you think about it, every day is just such an experience.  Every day we have the possibility of a transformative experience.

Perhaps, the best-known song from the play is “Day by Day.”  I like that as a reminder of the transformative possibilities in our lives.  That is how it will happen…day by day.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost: the Church’s Birthday

Yesterday was the Christian Church’s birthday.  Maybe “birthday” is not a good descriptor, but it gives you the idea.  Pentecost is a Greek word meaning “fifty.”  Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter.  Since Easter was so late this year in the calendar, Pentecost also has come late.

Pentecost commemorates the post-Easter gift of the Holy Spirit on the early Christian disciples.  Essentially, the New Testament texts for this major Christian day are Acts 2 and John 20.  The gift of the Spirit is about the only thing the two texts have in common.  The more well known of the two biblical texts is Acts.  In that account the disciples are gathered in an Upper Room and the Spirit comes upon the believers like a fire and they speak in a variety of tongues (languages).

The Holy Spirit is the key to their beginning ministry in the world, just as it was for Jesus.  In one sense, the presence of the Spirit on one’s life is a way of understanding God to be present in one’s life.  With this Divine Presence one is equipped, as it were, to go out in ministry.  I like to think of it as the Divine push and power.

The Pentecost story is also the story of the coming of this Spirit on all the disciples of Jesus.  Now God’s work in the world is extended to the entire community of believers.  They are now supposed to go into the world as teachers, healers, lovers, etc.  Their call is to do justice, to show compassion, and facilitate the coming of the kingdom of peace and joy.  What a job!

This would be quaint if it were simply a spiffy historical story…a kind of bible booster for kids.  In one sense it is funny to think about a bunch of the followers of Jesus upstairs in some ancient room babbling like drunks!  Read it, get a laugh, and then go about our business.

But that would completely miss the point.  Pentecost is misunderstood if it is seen merely as a historical story and not a present story.  Of course it is biblical; more importantly, it is contemporary…or it is meant to be.  But it is contemporary only if some of us take it to heart and live out the ministry to which it calls us.

The thing I like about Pentecost is the communal nature.  The Spirit may be personally given to me.  I believe it is, but it is pretty undramatic, compared to the Acts account.  I can speak other languages, but it is not due to the Spirit, but rather to the hard work of learning and practicing them.  Pentecost is not the gift of other tongues; it is the gift of a call into a life of ministry, service, and support.  Again, the signs are kingdom-making.

Am I doing acts of justice?  Do I offer compassion to those in need?  Is peace a fruit of my presence and work?  When the answer to any of these questions is “No,” then I am pathetic and not Pentecostal!

Actually, it is pretty funny for me to think about being Pentecostal.  For many of us, a Pentecostal is a Christian fundamentalist who does speak in tongues and is pretty extreme…a good laugh and leave it at that.

But if we get back to the Spirit of Pentecost, then ultimately it is the gift and call of God on the life of every person on this planet.  Do justice.  Be loving.  Be a peacemaker.  Bring joy…and enjoy!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Crucible of the Spirit

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside.  It was easy when I was growing up on a farm.  Much of that life was spent outside.  In those days even the time on the tractor was outside---exposed to nature.  I know that is probably not good, given the health issues.  I can appreciate modern tractors and combines with their cabs, radios, etc.  As a boy, I leaned to “read nature.”

I learned things like prevailing winds and the clouds that would bring rain and clouds that did not.  I learned to smell the rain and deal with the snow.  I appreciated the seasons.  In an odd way I liked learning from the tough times that nature could deliver---wet springs, dry summers, cold winters.  Extreme and excess can teach us a great deal.  Life is easy when things are going well and there are no hardships. 

As life unfolded for me, I chose things that kept me inside much of the time.  That continues even to this day.  There are rare occasions that call for me to do my profession outside.  Most of my time is spent in controlled environments.  When it is cold, my building and house are heated.  When it is hot, the process is reversed and I am cooled.  All of this is good---it is modern, as we call it.  I am not asking for the good old days!

I try to make sure I spend some time each day outside, because I don’t want to lose the connection with nature.  I wonder if most young people have much connection with nature?  Most of them have spent their lifetimes in controlled environments.  I hope they have learned to appreciate the changing of the seasons.  I hope their can learn to do more than simply whine if the weather is not perfect. 

A couple days ago when I was outside and the weather was not perfect, I realized that it had not occurred to me to return to the inside, which clearly was more perfect.  I realized that my farm background and my involvement in sports had taught me there are times you are going to be outside and that’s the way it is.  There is no reason to whine---at least if you want to do what needs to be done.  And then I had another, deeper realization.

I had the profound experience that my life is pure gift.  There was no way I could sustain my life if nature were not providing the air to breathe.  If nature were to withdraw the oxygen from the air, I would be dead in minutes.  I was in the midst of nature and I was in the bosom of an incredible Giver whose minute-by-minute generosity was sustaining me and the other seven billion souls on this earth.  I did nothing to create it or to deserve it.

Most of the time I am not even aware of it.  Blithely I take it for granted.  Merrily, I go along thinking I am pretty independent and assuming I can do whatever I want to do.  At one level that is true.  But the truth of that depends on the incredible Giver continuing to grace us all with the necessities of life.

I really like the fact that all the classical languages have the same word for “breath,” “air” and “spirit.”  My life depends on breathing and that is nothing other than spirit.  Without the spirit, I am dead.  And I cannot be so bold as to assume it is my spirit.  That is why I capitalize it: “Spirit.”  There is a Spirit bigger than I am and external to me upon which I am dependent.

I took one more step to realize that nature is the crucible of the Spirit.  My spirit is sustained and nurtured by that Spirit and in that Spirit.  The only way out is death.  Otherwise, we are all in the crucible.  Our choice is to be aware or to be unaware.  If I am aware, then I can live with a level of appreciation and thankfulness.  That is what being outside teaches me.  I am more aware.

That leads me to think about the recent words about integral ecology, which Pope Francis borrows from Saint Francis.  He shows how Saint Francis models this awareness of nature and its gifts.  “His (Saint Francis) response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists.”

The Pope calls for us to live with the same kind of conviction that nature is the crucible of the Spirit that Saint Francis had.  The Pope says, “Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters…”

I try to make sure I spend a little time each day outside to cultivate the openness to awe and wonder.  I want to continue to learn the language of fraternity with God’s creation and creatures.  I want to see, appreciate and share the beauty of the world.  I want to be a grateful participant in the crucible of the Spirit.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Affirmation

I recently received a very nice and extended thank you for a seminar I had led.  I am not sure it is fair to say I taught it, although I suspect that is what many folks who attended would have said.  I suspect that is what they would say because I am a college professor and when we show up, the assumption is made that we’ll teach something.  I don’t have trouble with that, although I don’t agree with it.  I think it is better to say I helped people learn some things that day.
   
Too often, the assumption is made that if I teach something, someone has learned it.  Of course, sometimes that is true.  I am sure I have taught many people---students mostly---many things over the decades.  I am also convinced that many times I taught things to people and they did not learn anything.  It was a good thing for me to realize that just because I taught something did not necessarily mean it was learned.  And surely, if grades mean anything, not everybody learns the same thing.  I have had students who sat in class the whole semester while I was teaching and they failed the class!  It would be hard to argue that I taught them anything.
   
The seminar I recently did was for older adults.  It was not geared for the college crowd, although a few from that age group did show up.  Rather than teach them all sorts of material, basically I created an environment of self-discovery, exploration and some guided learning.  If I taught anything that day, it was how to learn and, hopefully, how to grow from the learning. 
   
I think this approach made sense because I was convinced what folks probably wanted to learn varied.  Some wanted facts and others wanted nothing to do with facts.  Some wanted to explore a variety of options for thinking about a topic and others did not wonder about anything.  The image I conjured in my mind was a sandbox full of kids playing.  To be sure, they were all playing and playing in the same sandbox.  But they were playing with a myriad of toys, etc.  There was diversity and unity.
   
The time went well and that is what precipitated the longish thank you message.  I appreciated the words and the sentiments.  I appreciate receiving thanks when I do something.  That does not always happen in our world!  I appreciated the gratitude extended to me.  I figure gratitude is a good deal all the way around.  For someone to be grateful for something is healthy.  And for me to experience someone’s gratitude is also healthy.  Gratitude is a win-win situation.
   
As I thought about this, I realize there was a deeper dimension that would be easy to miss.  Being thanked and receiving someone’s gratitude is a first-level kind of thing.  If I do something, I expect there will be some kind of response.  That was appropriate and I appreciate it.  Too often, that’s that.  But this time I realized what I might call a second-level dimension.
   
I felt affirmed.  The affirmation I experienced was different than being thanked.  Being thanked is an event; it happens and then it is over.  You might have a memory of being thanked, but it is history.  The affirmation I felt from a job well done and the thanks that came from that is longer lasting.  The affirmation had two aspects to it.
   
In the first place I was affirmed for what I had done.  I could say more, but it is clear.  Secondly, I was affirmed for who I am.  This is a little trickier.  It might seem I was affirmed for who I am because someone said I was good---or even great.  No one told me I was great and if they had, I am not even sure what that would mean.  Being affirmed for who I am goes deeper than that.  For me it hooks into the spiritual journey I am traveling.
   
In brief my spiritual journey consists of being who God wants me to be and doing what I think God wants me to do.  While that is true, it is obviously very general.  It has to become specific and concrete to mean anything.  And that is exactly what the seminar afforded me.  As the leader of the seminar, two things were happening: I was being myself and I was doing my ministry.  This is what any spiritual person on the journey is trying to do. 
   
The affirmation that came was really an affirmation of who I am and what I am doing.  This is satisfying because it helps me see that I am making headway on my journey.  It was not a direct word from God, but it was the next best thing.  (I tend not to get direct words from God!)
   
The affirmation is important as a kind of booster shot keeping me active and healthy on my spiritual journey.  Being thanked was nice.  Being affirmed was support to keep sailing, spiritually speaking.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sleep

If you were to ask students about me, I am confident one thing they would tell you is I like words.  And they would be correct.  I have been fascinated by words---probably since I began speaking.  Even though I have learned a few languages, I have never studied in an academic philosophical way the nature of language.  Maybe some day I will do that.  In the meantime, I continue my fascination with words and, by extension, with phrases and sentences. 
   
Of course, part of the early fascination with words was the discovery that there were different languages.  Although I was pretty provincial, early on I was aware there were some people who spoke “a strange language.”  There was a stream of annual migrant workers who came through my part of Indiana in the middle of the summer.  They would pick tomatoes before moving on north to Michigan for the fruit season.  Sadly, I was isolated from these folks, but I was exposed enough to know they normally did not speak English.  And if they did, they had an accent.
   
As luck would have it, I learned some languages and was able to live for a year in Germany when I was a graduate student.  I actually had to learn to speak “a strange language” and to use it in my adopted home for the year.  Even though I was decent in speaking German, I still had an accent and couldn’t get the jokes!  I gained even more appreciation for words and language.
   
As I studied more religion, I was exposed to the power of words.  I was fascinated with the flexibility and complexity of words.  I am not sure I paid enough attention in English classes in middle and high school when I first was taught about simile and metaphor.  If we understand those, then we begin to understand and appreciate the power and complexity of words.
   
In order to illustrate this, I focus on the word, sleep.  Everyone from about the age two knows what sleep is.  We do it every day.  We know there is a difference between going to bed and going to sleep.  How many times I raised my voice and told my kids, “Go to sleep!”  We use different forms of that word.  It is a verb, a noun and adverb.  We sleep; we go to sleep; and we claim to be sleepy.  Everyone knows what we mean.  I could give you the German word, but it functions the same way in that language.
   
But then, almost magically, the word, sleep, becomes more complex.  It is so commonplace in our culture, we never think about how complex language becomes.  For example, we talk about “sleepwalking though life.”  That is a way of saying I was alive, but not paying any attention.  Using the word in this fashion begins to show what happens when we move beyond the literal meaning of the word.
   
We all know what it means literally to go to sleep.  But when we use sleep in a figurative way, it suggests a way of looking at a particular activity.  If we sleepwalk through life, we are inattentive to what life has to offer.  It suggests that we need to wake up!  Wake up and pay attention.
   
As I studied in religion, there are times when writers use the metaphor of sleep to talk about specific spiritual states.  In early Christian literature sleep was used as a metaphor for ignorance.  It was a neat way to talk about people who were very much alive and maybe even paying attention to their normal life.  But those people could also be spiritually asleep.  They were ignorant. 
   
One of the primary functions of spirituality is to awaken folks to reality---their own reality, the reality of God and of the world.  Spirituality serves as a wake-up call.  That is what it did for me.  In my college years I felt like I was going through the motions.  I could get a degree, get a job but maybe never get a life.  I was afraid I might sleepwalk though my years.  Sleepwalking is a form of deadliness before you actually are dead.
   
I have gained two things since my college days.  I have garnered much knowledge.  It has been important knowledge for me personally, although I can well imagine it is not of much practical use for most folks.  And secondly, I have gained a fair amount of wisdom.  Wisdom adds to knowledge an element of experience and practical application.  I am not sleepwalking through life any more.
   
I know too much to be asleep.  And fortunately, I have enough wisdom to know how my life has meaning and purpose.  In fact, I have spent much of my adult life trying to share this knowledge and wisdom with folks who may be asleep or who fear falling asleep.  It has been fun and rewarding to offer a spiritual antidote to sleepwalking through life.
   
I am glad to be where I am.  I know each night I need to sleep.  I need a good night’s sleep to feel rested for the next day.  But I also have enough spiritual knowledge and wisdom to avoid sleepwalking through my life.  I will sleep, but I won’t sleepwalk.  I am blessed to know the difference.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Enough

Not all words are created equal.  Some words don’t do too much in a sentence.  Other words are profound and some are even magical.  For example, if you tell someone you love them, that becomes a momentous declaration that can literally change their lives.  One word---love---can transform someone and have a lasting effect for fifty or more years.  It would be hard to overestimate how much has been written over the centuries about this word.
   
I think of another word.  I have often been intrigued by the word “enough.”  It certainly does not have the impact or fame of the word, love.  But it is an important word.  And it has spiritual connotations, which we will soon note.  The word, enough, has a wide range of references.  It pertains to many areas of our lives.
   
Oddly, when folks who have enough rarely think about the word.  In almost every category I fit into that group of folks.  When you are fortunate or, even, lucky, you don’t even have to think about it.  And too often, you don’t even know you are fortunate or lucky.  That is the shame of it.  Having enough is not shameful.  But not being aware and thankful that you have enough is a shame.  I try to avoid this.
   
Enough can apply to the basics.  We all need enough food to sustain life.  It is true we might get by with a bit less than enough, but we will be malnourished.  Enough food keeps us alive and relatively healthy.  When it comes to food, I am off the charts.  There is almost nothing I cannot have (only the rarest of food would be too expensive) and, in most cases, I can afford much more than I need.
   
Maybe that is a good definition of enough: enough is having what I need.  That is true for food and for the other basics in life.  Enough keeps me alive and relatively healthy.  I might not be satisfied with enough, but that statement doubtlessly comes from the perspective of plenty.  If someone has been starving, simply to have enough food probably seems lavish.  Perspective has a great deal to do with things.
   
Some judgments are more subjective.  Money comes in this category.  When I think of my own experience related to money, it has been varied.  Growing up on a farm, we did not have too much.  I never thought I was poor, but financially things seemed pretty tight.  I certainly did not get all the things I wanted; at times I felt like I was deprived.  The same seemed true during college days and even graduate school.  Looking back, I would say I had enough, but there surely was no surplus.
   
I am not rich (at least by my own subjective standards).  But I know presently I have more than enough.  I have monk friends who are working with a vow of poverty, but they are being taken care of in the monastery.  That is where the money-thing gets tricky.  The net worth of a monk is zero and, yet, monks may be far better off than poverty stricken folks living on the street or the margins of society.
   
Finally, I am intrigued by how the idea of enough functions within spirituality.  It is not something I have given much thought.  As I think about it, I realize there are different levels within spirituality to which “enough” can be applied.  In the first place there is the gift of life itself.  In my theology ultimately God is the source of life.  And insofar as I live, it is enough.  But then we can think about quality of life.  What does “enough” mean when we think about quality of life?
   
Spiritually, I would like to think about “enough” in respect to meaning and purpose.  I recognize people can have meaning and purpose in life without any sense of spirituality.  But I think meaning and purpose are central to spirituality.  Spirituality provides a sense of “enough” if I come to have an idea of who I am (identity), how I belong (community) and how life makes sense (meaning).  I would say I have enough if I have a clue to these three core issues in life. 
   
If I can grow spiritually, I begin to get more than enough.  If I have spiritual maturity, for example, I have a deep sense of who I am as a child of God.  I probably feel like a beloved child.  With this sense of identity, I really don’t need anything else, nor can I even want for much more.
   
Spiritual growth happens most effectively if I also have a community to which I belong.  It does not have to be a church or synagogue, but it does have to be one or more people who care for me, who nurture my spiritual growth and development and who help me to grow up into the person God wants me to become.  If I have this communal well being, I have more than enough.
   
And if I have a clear sense of who God is and who I am and what this Holy One wants for me and from me, then I have a meaning and purpose for life.  Life makes sense and I am grateful to be who I am and doing what I am doing.  With such a sense I know I am enough and that I have enough.  Life is good.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Eco Crisis

I am fascinated by titles.  Book titles and titles for articles play a significant role.  They are revelations of what the reader might find if they were to read the book or article.  Sometimes I find titles are quite accurate.  They deliver what they promised.  Other times, I feel like titles are misleading.  They could be a kind of marketing---luring the reader to buy the book, but inside the book I find disappointing material.  Coming up with titles for my own books and articles is not easy.  Perhaps that is why I appreciate titles so much.
   
Recently, I saw a title that linked the eco crisis to an ego crisis.  I thought that was brilliant!  Immediately, I was drawn to read the text.  I assumed, correctly, that the phrase, eco crisis, referred to what more normally is discussed as the global warming problem.  I know there have been many debates about the reality of the climate challenge ahead of us this century.  I admit that I am persuaded by the scientists who point to the evidence that the average temperature of our planet is warming and that it may well cause precipitous problems. 
   
Humans are primarily to blame, it seems certain.  The use of fossil fuels and other human activity has had deleterious effects on our climate.  Because climate change on a global scale happens slowly, it does not seem to be real.  But the problem with this perspective is that once the bad news hits, it will continue to get worse and our options will be limited.  It will not be in my lifetime, but that is not a wild card for me to ignore the issue.  All I need to do is think of my grandkids and know they are sitting ducks for inevitable problems.
   
So we have an eco crisis.  The world is in trouble---but on a sunny day it does not seem like it is true.  Apparently, we know the culprit; it is you, I and the rest of humankind.  And the reason we have blown it is an age-old problem: our own greed.  Of course, greed is usually grounded in some kind of legitimate need.  For example, we need food, but we do not need so much food that we get obese.  We need energy for electricity, etc.  But have we misused nature in order to generate the energy?
   
As I read the article, the author helps me see that the human needs that become human greed is a manifestation of our ego---the “I” or “me” approach that drives so many of us beyond the legitimate need we each have.  Because we all do it, it seems perfectly normal.  And that is the problem.  Let’s trace some of the key points in the article that perhaps helps us see how we can become healers in our world.
   
The article talks about the action of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.  Annually, he writes to the Buddhists around the world.  In the latest epistle, he addresses the climate change problem.  He recognizes "a shared understanding that at the center of the eco-crisis is, in fact, an ego-crisis, expressed by human greed, anxiety, arrogance and ignorance," the cardinal said in a message marking the Buddhist celebration of Vesakh, the Buddhist feast celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of the one called Buddha. 
   
The way forward, he claims, necessitates a “profound interior conversion.”  When he uses this kind of language, he makes it a spiritual issue.  I agree with this assessment.  An interior conversion is the way out of the ego crisis.  The ego crisis is an unhealthy focus on me and my desires.  An unhealthy focus on ego usually means I take it---the ego---to extremes.  I move from need to greed.  My needs are satisfied when I have enough.  When I go beyond enough, I enter the land of greed.  Taken far enough, this becomes a crisis.  This has happened with the climate.
   
Tauran says, "the crisis of climate change is contributed to by human activity, we, Christians and Buddhists, must work together to confront it with an ecological spirituality."  I am attracted to the idea of an ecological spirituality.  This is a spirituality that puts God and the world at the center and not ourselves.  If we can do this, then we cannot become egocentric---the ego at the center.  Of course, this is hard to do.  Of course, it does not feel normal. 
   
The inner conversion is the process by which you and I---all of us---begin to learn to live an eco-centered life.  This won’t seem normal at first.  It probably won’t feel easy.  And it is going to be a little disconcerting when others may have no interest in becoming less egocentric.  But some spiritual leadership will be called for.  We will need those early spiritual pioneers to step up and step out. 
   
My own way of trying to do this is to live more simply.  To choose to live a simple life does not mean we go without.  It does not mean we have to do away with ego---that would be impossible.  But we don’t have to have our ego at the center.  From a spiritual perspective, it is not normal to have our ego at the center.  When we do this, we participate in the actions that lead to the eco crisis. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Creation and Incarnation

There are some writers who are so clear in what they say, we always come away edified.  One such writer for me is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest who directs a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have read a number of Rohr’s books and use a couple in my classes.  However, I have only heard him speak one time.  That was a series of three lectures and they were quite instructive.

One line he used at that time I still remember.  Rohr said, “The incarnation happened at the Big Bang!  Jesus just personalized the incarnation.”  When he said that, immediately I wrote it down, which is why I can recall it today.  At the time I also remember how much that one-liner resonated with me.  It resonated in my gut as a true feeling.  And it resonated in my head as a good expression of the theology I would espouse.  Let me unpack the one-liner.

The first thing to be noticed is how the one-liner ties together the twin ideas of creation and incarnation.  For those who might not know what the word, incarnation, means, it simply is the fancy word to describe the verse from John’s Gospel, which says, “the Word became flesh…” (Jn 1:14).  My way of putting it says the incarnation affirms that God becomes human.  This is a radical claim and is at the heart of Christianity.

When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to read fairly widely and to think rather deeply.  As I did this, I began to realize the incarnation is key to my own personal theology.  The last half of Rohr’s statement puts it rather playfully.  Jesus personalizes the incarnation.  This accounts for the central role Jesus plays in the Christian tradition. This is as it should be.  I am fine with that. 

That Christian tradition says that Jesus is the one in whom God came to be and to act in human ways in our world.  Jesus modeled what God wants people to do in the world.  That is the way to understand his ministry.  We can think about some details.  Jesus worked for peace and justice.  Jesus came to be a lover---he loved everyone with whom he crossed paths.  People beyond the pale of acceptability somehow were included in the pale of acceptability.  In effect, Jesus says that we should be careful of our exclusivity.

Now let’s go to the first half of Rohr’s statement.  Rohr says that the incarnation happened at the Big Bang.  Clearly, Rohr is being his usual playful self.  I do recall the audience laughing when he put it this way.  What he is claiming is a profound thing.  Essentially, he says that the incarnation began at creation.  Again as I thought about that, I agree.  But I also realize this requires a particular way of looking at the incarnation which might not be shared by everyone.  That’s ok.

When Rohr affirms that the incarnation happens at creation, he is really talking about God’s personal involvement.  Even in the creation, God decides to be involved and invested in the creation.  Gone is the old Deistic argument that says God created the world and then stepped back and watched the world work.  The familiar image of this God is of a watchmaker.  The world is God’s watch.  After making a watch, God’s work was done.  Step back and watch it.

This is not Rohr’s approach.  God’s creative work was involved work.  We all know that part of God’s majestic creation turned into a mess.  That describes me and could describe others.  Sin made a mess of God’s intended beautiful world.  Too many of us choose not to be fair to others and not to care about others.  We were ok with injustice, poverty, anger, hate and, even, war.  Atrocities were committed in God’s name.  Significant aspects of creation groaned with pain.  And that is not finished.  As the Pope’s recent encyclical protests, the whole climate issue is perhaps the biggest and latest human sin needing radical attention.

So when the world becomes a mess, God chose the second act of incarnation, namely, to become personally human.  Jesus had and has a special role to become a new creature---to model what God intended in the first creation.  The key here is not to see Jesus as so special or unique that none of this implicates us.  This is where Rohr comes in and I join him.

I would argue the incarnation has a third act.  The third act is what each of us can do when we let God come into our humanity.  Obviously you and I are not going to become Jesus Christ.  But just as obviously, we are called to be like Christ---to be and do the kinds of things he did.  And the things he was and did are simply what God wants done on this earth.

When Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” I figure he meant it!  He did not see the Kingdom as some post-mortem, otherworldly enterprise.  That might be part of it.  But he sees it as a here-and-now possibility. It is possible if we let God incarnate in us, too.  We become instruments of the Kingdom.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Friends On Earth

Recently I had a speaking opportunity with an organization I have known for decades.  It is a Quaker group that gathers annually.  Typically, there are a couple speakers and that was the role to which I had been invited.  Earlier in my career, this was a group I would have visited every year they gather.  On most of those occasions, I would not have been the speaker, but I did get to know many of the folks.

Of course, over time many of the ones I would have known have moved or died.  And over time many new faces have moved into the area or simply have joined that Quaker gang.  So there were more faces I did not know that I could claim I knew.  That is a good thing!  But I also was more than happy to be back where some old friendships were rekindled, if only for a short period of time.  It led me to think about friendship, one of my favorite themes.

I have thought a great deal about friendship and have read much over the years.  And anyone my age clearly has had many friends.  Unfortunately, the term, “friend,” is used quite loosely and, often, without much meaning.  I know students and others who would claim to have more than five hundred Facebook friends.  According to the classical definition of friendship, having five hundred friends is impossible.

I do not want to belabor the definition of friendship here.  What I would like to do is pick up the wonderful words of Jesus, which come to us in John’s Gospel.  At one point Jesus turns to the small group of his followers and says, “No longer do I call you servants; I call you friends.” (Jn 15:15)  This has been an important reference for my own Quaker gang, because our technical name is the Religious Society of Friends.  We take this passage as our understanding of discipleship.

Our understanding of discipleship sees the call to be a disciple as a call to be a friend.  When Jesus told so many, “follow me,” essentially he was calling them into a relationship of friendship.  But was not to be a tepid, loose affiliation that Jesus had in mind.  It was to be a serious relationship with significant implications for us, his friends.  It is upon this I was led to reflect.  What was I, as a friend of Jesus, and all those others I called friends (and who were trying to be friends of Jesus) to think and to do?

Immediately, I thought of a key resource on this matter.  Some years ago I met and became an acquaintance of Liz Carmichael, a theology professor at St. John’s College, Oxford University.  She wrote a book on friendship, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love.  I would like to cite one passage that summarizes the nature of friendship---at least, the way Jesus might have wanted it.  Carmichael says it is “to be friends on earth, to offer love which may be in the truest sense sacrificial, to build community, to be peacemakers and healers, to seek and promote compassion and justice, to walk with the oppressed and help their voice be heard, to celebrate with all.” (197)  Let’s look at this in a little more detail.

I like the idea of friends on earth.  It does not discount we might be friends in heaven---after death, but it does not speculate on that.  To be friends on earth is to offer love.  It may even ask for sacrificial love.  That is clearly what one of the Greek words for love, agape, means.  It is the deep kind of love that parents have for their children.  It is the kind of love that does not worry about the price to pay to help someone else.  It is the opposite of selfish love.

The next idea is to build community.  A whole book could be written on this.  The work of friends---especially, if it is demanding work---cannot be done alone.  It requires the support of community.  Community refreshes us in the moment and provides momentum for the long haul.  Community picks me up when I don’t feel like I can do any more.  And community asks for me to pick up others when their zeal is flagging.  I could not do it without community.

I like the idea that Carmichael gets fairly specific about the ministry.  It is to be peacemakers and healers.  We seek and promote compassion and justice.  Compassion is nothing less than love---sacrificial love in action.  And justice is the work of those who have more than enough as we try to ensure those who have less than enough get a fair deal.  Certainly I am in that category of those who have enough.  The ministry of justice is a serious calling.

That is closely linked to seeking opportunities to walk with the oppressed and helping all those who are silent to find their voices.  I have learned how to do this in the classroom.  I need to learn how to do it better in the bigger world.  I still feel like a neophyte.  And the final word is the challenge to celebrate.  It does not have to be thankless, grim work.

There are times we need to recognize and appreciate those who are friends in the community of ministry.  This helps us go forward as friends on earth.  So be it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Relief

Recently some things were happening that nobody would put in the “fun” category. I did not feel particularly oppressed nor unfortunate. Everyone I know has days and even periods of time when things don’t go as well as we would want. In fact, some times are down right difficult. Life is not perfect---whatever perfect might mean. Think of the metaphors we use for life. “Life is a roller coaster” is a good place to start!

“Life has its ups and downs” is what I heard from my earliest days on the farm. Occasionally, I heard people use a baseball metaphor. Life was like being in the batter’s box. That is an interesting image, since successful baseball hitters fail seven out of ten times! Frequently I would hear someone say, “that was a curve ball.” I played enough baseball to know hitting a curve ball is not easy. In fact that lack of being able to hit the curve probably is what ended my baseball career!

I have thought a great deal about life. Being on a spiritual journey means by definition we would think about life. For me a spiritual journey is one intentional way to make sense out of life---to make meaning. I know there are other ways of making sense of life. But the spiritual way is the one I have chosen. To make sense or meaning out of life does not mean life becomes more perfect. It certainly does not mean life has fewer ups and downs. People on the spiritual path have curve balls thrown their way, just like all other folks.

Sometimes we experience pain in life. Pain can be physical, emotional or spiritual. Maybe physical pain hurts more than the other two, but I am not sure. Perhaps it is easier to take care of physical pain. Often an aspirin will do. If it is really serious, there are stronger drugs. Hospice folks often get morphine to ease their pain as a part of the palliative care process. I know that’s what I want when I am in dire straits. Emotional and spiritual pain seems less straightforward. They can hurt as much, but seem harder to find relief.

Typing that last word, relief, made me sit up straight. I am not sure I ever thought about relief. Of course, I have experienced it countless times. I have been relieved in big ways and in dinky ways. I have experienced physical relief and emotional relief. I also am pretty sure I have experienced spiritual relief. Now that I am using the word, relief, I realize that I never have analyzed it---never thought about it that much.

Typically, relief presupposes a prior problem. We don’t want relief when things are going well. When we are having a great time, having fun, we don’t want relief from that. We want it to last---forever would be ok! But of course, it does not last forever. Pain and problems inevitably come along at some point. They may be a headache or heartache. Whatever it is, we begin to long for some relief.

Relief is that pleasant feeling that comes over us when the pain or problem is resolved or goes away. Relief is what we feel when it is over. Sometimes the relief is only temporary.

Sometimes, it seems to fix the problem or takes care of the pain. Relief is always welcome. All along I have been using the noun, relief. That is a state of being.

I also realize that there is a verb form---relieve. I can use that in the active sense. Sometimes I can relieve myself. I laugh because that is one term folks use to talk about going to the bathroom! But it is accurate. When we feel pressure, we are able to relieve ourselves. Maybe that presents a cue to the process of relief. And it leads me to a spiritual consideration.

Relief is desired when the pressure is present. It may be the pressure of pain or problem. It can be specific or general, clear or amorphous. As I think my way into this issue, I have a sense that authentic spirituality is always in some sense a relief. It is a way of understanding and a way of living that can makes sense of life with its ups and downs. Authentic spirituality provides relief when thinking about and responding to the curve balls thrown by our lives.

I recognize I have been using “relief” in singular form. Obviously, there are a variety of reliefs---from going to the bathroom to morphine. A particular relief is usually specific to a particular problem. Again, this is a good cue to the viability of authentic spirituality. Authentic spirituality offers not just one form of relief. It offers a variety of appropriate forms of relief. Let me suggest a couple.

I can easily think of discipline as a form of relief. Spiritual discipline is an effective way of dealing with the ups and downs of life---with life’s curve balls. Discipline is a way of practicing that keeps us on track. Authentic spirituality also offers a way of thinking or, even, believing. This enables us to deal with both life’s messiness and mystery. My spirituality offers relief if I am diagnosed with cancer. It may not take away the immediate pain of such a diagnosis, but it will offer care and, finally, relief.

Authentic spirituality also offers relief when I think about what seems like the ultimate pain and problem, namely, death. It is not an answer or solution to death, but it offers a way of dealing with it and, hopefully, through it. It will be finally a relief.