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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Preparation for Spiritual Leadership

I suspect most of us who claim to be spiritual don’t think about ourselves as spiritual leaders.  We leave that to priests, pastors and other functionaries.  Even if we are leaders in other areas of life, we tend not to think about ourselves in that way within the spiritual realm.  I began thinking about that when I realized today is the feast day for St. Ambrose.  I don’t know whether Roman Catholics know about Ambrose.  I am fairly confident in thinking most non-Catholics have little clue who Ambrose was.
I have the advantage here because of my studies.  When I did a Ph.D, I did much work in the early Christian period.  I had never heard of Ambrose, but I learned.  He became most famous in his time when he became the Christian bishop of the major Italian city, Milan.  The story of Ambrose is an interesting one and I will share some of it.
Ambrose was born into a very well to do family in what is now southern Germany.  His father was fairly high up in the government service.  Ambrose received the best education of his day.  He was schooled in Rome, the imperial city of the world.  After school he quickly made his way up the ladder in various government appointments.  He was becoming “somebody!”  In 372 he was made prefect of the government territory in northern Italy, which means he was the head honcho there.  The capital city of the area was Milan.
Ambrose was a Christian, but he was not in any leadership role.  Apparently, he was quite happy with his own vocational trajectory.  But in a couple years things changed rather dramatically for him.  In 374 the bishop was gone and the position of leader of a very important church was vacant.  The people turned to Ambrose and asked him and, then, began demanding that he become their bishop.  Ambrose felt safe.  For example, he had not even been baptized yet.  It had become customary for Christians during that time to delay baptism.  He would have been Christian, but had not yet taken the step formally to join the Church. 
The people were relentless.  They wanted Ambrose.  They finally had their way.  Ambrose consented and within a week he was baptized, ordained priest and installed as bishop of Milan.  Talk about fast track!  From our vantage point, that may seem highly unusual---and it was.  But it makes sense.  The church at Milan was a mess.  It needed help and the people were smart enough to know Ambrose could bring the help.
Ambrose was financially well off when he became bishop.  He gave away his money.  He gave his lands to the Church.  And he began to study theology.  He was already highly educated, but he needed to know theology in order to combat the problems of the Church.  He became a beloved leader of the flock.  His care and compassion became legendary.  He resolved problems and led the people to higher levels of life together.  He wrote hymns, some of which we still sing today.  He died in 397.
It is obvious he made such a big impact that he was later canonized to become St. Ambrose.  To become a saint means that you become a model of faith.  It means your life becomes a holy sign of others to emulate.  To emulate does not mean we, too, become bishops or give away all our money.  But it does mean we need to be open and alert to new possibilities in our calling.  Ambrose did not go looking at how to become a bishop.  But he was open.
His leadership was prominent and quite visible.  Being a bishop is a big deal.  Not all of us will be called to be as prominent and visible as leaders.  But we need to be ready for whatever comes our way.  This is what Ambrose did.  Ambrose prepared to be a spiritual leader---even though he had no clue that he was doing it.
What Ambrose did do was prepare to be a leader.  He was educated, although it did not entail doing theology.  He prepared to live a life that made a difference.  At first, it was as a government official.  He learned skills that were translatable.  He learned how to serve people and serve effectively.  We should be doing the same thing.  We cannot take ourselves off the hook by simply claiming we have no interest in being a priest, pastor or any other kind of ecclesiastical leader. 
The real question is whether I can help others on their spiritual path?  Can I offer leadership to a person or to a group that will take them deeper into the power and truth of their spiritual pilgrimage?  I don’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader.  In the best sense of the word, to be spiritual is to be a spiritual performer---not in the sense of on stage, but in sense of living out a calling.  I perform as a spiritual pilgrim.  That is what Ambrose did.
We all know that good performers are disciplined performers.  Good performers, i.e. holy people, are people who have prepared well for the journey.  And during the journey, they keep preparing to be the very best they can be.  This was Ambrose’s lesson to me and I pass it along.  Prepare, practice and perform and then do it again and again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New Binding Religion

By now folks know I appreciate the insights and articulation of essay writer, David Books.  He has a recent piece entitled, “Revolt of the Masses.”  It is a good examination of our times.  We live in a time where terrorists might attack airports, nightclub or churches.  Unfortunately, sometimes the perpetrator is Muslim, so an entire faith tradition is lambasted.  If the doer of a heinous crime is Christian, he or she is just a wacko.  And so the situation often worsens.

As I reflect on our contemporary society, I have concerns.  Economically, there is a widening gap between the folks making significant money and the larger group of people who are holding their own or worse.  And it is difficult to see this changing as we go further.  In fact, I suspect the gap between the rich and poor is only going to get worse.  There are many people in the so-called service industries who have little hope to make a better life.  We only have to think about the huge number of people working for minimum wages.

Part of the problem is the educational gap.  If you are uneducated, the chances for a good paying future jobs are pretty bleak.  We all know the rapidly accelerating technology that is so prevalent in our lives.  It is hard to believe that we will some day look back at the cell phones in our pockets and laugh at how old-time they are!  Anyone my age is absolutely amazed at what is possible with a phone in our pocket.

Technology drives the economy.  Robots will increasingly do more of the work that human hands now get paid to do.  The folks who create the robots are handsomely rewarded.  The poor folks whom the robots replace are the real losers.  What will they do now?  This is the backdrop to some of our societal ills.  Certainly, I don’t suggest the poorly educated, under-employed are the sitting ducks for problems.  But their disadvantages do not help.

Brooks identifies the problems in ways I recognize.  The opening line of his essay nails it.  “Anybody who spends time in the working-class parts of America (and, one presumes, Britain) notices the contagions of drug addiction and suicide, and the feelings of anomie, cynicism, pessimism and resentment.”  I know in my own middle-class community the rampant use of drugs is amazing.  Heroin is cheaper than alcohol in some places.  And there is fentanyl, which is the rage now.  It is one hundred times more potent than morphine!

This is the context, which is the focus of Brooks’ analysis.  Clearly much has changed in my lifetime.  Brooks is right when he says, “What’s also been lost are the social institutions and cultural values that made it possible to have self-respect amid hardship…”  It seems true to me that someone dealing in heroin or fentanyl is not someone with high self-respect.  I am convinced our social institutions have changed and, in some cases, been lost.

It is easy to blame technology for these changes.  I am convinced institutions like churches do not play the same role for a significant number of people that once was true.  Things like cable television and online streaming of entertainment have drastically changed other public institutions.  I don’t lament this and long for the good old days.  While interesting, the Amish solution will seldom be a popular choice.

In the heart of the essay Brooks makes a statement that I find both true and arresting.  He notes, “Sports has become the binding religion, offering identity, value, and solidarity.”  I am one who has valued sports my whole life.  I played sports and I still participate.  But I also believe Brooks has a point.  Even in my own life there were times when sports became a quasi-religion.  But it was never my religion.  I think Brooks offers a good sense of what real religion offers.  It offers identity, value and solidarity.

In effect religion helps me understood who I am (identity).  It teaches me what to value---what is worthwhile in life.  And it offers solidarity, which in my own perspective is what I call community.  These three characteristics are evident when you watch teams in action.  And if the team should win some kind of championship, these three are powerfully present.  People wear team colors, uniforms, etc.  There is a powerful sense of community among the supporters.

But even championship teams do not measurably change the lives of ordinary people.  Sports do not offer ultimate meaning in life.  There is no human growth and development in being a sports fan.  The group loyalty I feel for a particular team is not going to lead to self-sacrifice and peace-making.

I hope sports are always around and a part of my life.  But I also hope our culture can be healed in such a way that everyone can find some sense of identity, value and community in healthy ways that make a difference in the local places and across the globe.  It is not an argument for old-time religion.  But it is an appeal for a new binding religion that is more than sports can offer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Moment of Poignancy

Most of our lives are lived in the middle of routine.  That is certainly not bad.  In fact, my routine life is very good.  I cannot claim it is an emotional high---exciting day after exciting day.  I enjoy my life.  I have been given much more than I ever will give.  I have learned the meaning and lessons of grace.  Grace is a gift.  I have learned to recognize small gifts, which come from people and from nature---things I see as gifts that others might not consider anything special.

Apparently in our day, the word “blessing” is not seen as a useful, preferred word.  I am not sure why.  I still find the word useful.  It seems to me there is no other way to describe what happens to me when I am gifted except to say I have been blessed.  I suppose I could bless myself, but essentially I see a blessing as something that comes from without.  God has blessed me; friends and strangers have blessed me; and nature certainly has been a blessing.

And so it was in the midst of routine that I received an email.  It was authored by a friend, whom I don’t see very often.  She is one of those people whom I would even call a good friend, although we don’t see each other very often.  But that does not seem to matter.  When we connect, it is good and fairly deep.  So I was glad to hear from her.

Sadly, her message was not good news.  The husband of a good friend of ours had died in the middle of the night.  The widow I know fairly well.  She used to be a colleague of mine and was part of a group I lead at my university.  The group meets for the entire year, so I was with her week after week for a few years.  I had heard countless stories of her husband.  And now he was dead.  And he leaves a twelve-year old daughter who probably wonders why her dad did not wake up?

When I got the email, naturally I was quite saddened.  I did not know the guy very well, but I was sad that my friend has been thrown a major curve ball in her life.  Last night was the time to go to the funeral home visitation.  I’ll spare you my mixed feelings about open caskets, etc.  What I contemplated, as I joined the long line which was a parade to the grieving widow, my friend, was what would I say?

Her job was not an easy one.  Person after person came to her and said how sorry they were.  Soon that would be me.  What do you say?  If it were not so sad, I would laugh.  I am one who basically deals all day long in words.  I am fairly articulate.  Yet, as I approached the widow, I know there were no adequate words.  What do you say?  “Sorry?”  That is a puny word for a profound occasion.  I could add an adverb: “very sorry.”  But that’s little help.

Fortunately, I knew the power of presence would outweigh any impotent words I might utter.  And she will never remember exact words, anyway.  I took solace in the fact that just being there was the best thing I could give.  Maybe I can be a momentary gift.  Perhaps in some unknown way I can even be a blessing.  Who knows, maybe God can use me as an instrument of an early stage of healing.  There is no pride here.  All I am called to do is to be me.  Who I am has a history with the widow.  So whoever I am to her, I become that---and more---in the moment.

As I neared the widow, I prepared myself.  I did not rehearse the words I would use.  I trust the words that would come out of my mouth.  What I prepared was how I would be present to her.  As we engaged each other, she simply called me by name and we embraced in a hug.  In fact no words were exchanged.  We embraced in what I would call a moment of poignancy.  Poignancy is an expressive word.  It means to be “deeply affected.”  Often it is linked to pain or sadness, so it was a good word for the situation.  Typically, poignancy is felt rather than thought.  It is a heart word.

In that moment of poignancy, there was no need for descriptive words.  But I was part of a parade of people and the moment of poignancy had to give way to the moving reality of folks behind me wanting to be with her, too.  So we shared some words and assurances that I would be there when the funeral was history and everyone in her life returned to their normal lives.

I think this was the guarantee of that moment of poignancy.  It is the residue of the power of presence.  I did not make promises and, I'm sure, she did not expect promises.  I doubt that verbal promises would be remembered anyway.  In one sense the only promise I made was friendship, which we already have.  I don’t know what specifically it means, nor does she.

All I know is I gave the only gift I know to give in that moment.  It is to give myself.  Others have done it for me.  In a moment of poignancy the power of presence is the most amazing gift that can be offered.  And it is always a blessing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ark in Kentucky

I could not help it when I saw the headline, “”A Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, Dinosaurs Included.”  When I began reading Laurie Goodstein’s article, I was not sure what to expect.  But I figured it would be entertaining.  I assumed it was about the Noah’s ark story in Genesis and I was right.  I recently spent some time in Kentucky and saw signs to a Creation Museum in northern Kentucky and wondered whether it would somehow be about that.

It turns out to be related.  Creationism is a particular kind of Christian fundamentalism about which I know a little.  It believes in the literal truth of the Bible.  With respect to God’s creation, narrated in the earliest chapters of Genesis, the creationist believes that God literally created our world in six 24-hour days.  And our world is literally about 6,000 years old.  Of course, evolution is wrong.  This is a way of seeing our universe that does not square with my own theology.  I understand it, but don’t agree with it.

Ken Ham, originally from Australia, is the person behind the Creation Museum.  And now he has another project being built in Kentucky that is nearing completion.  The “Ark Encounter” is a chance for people of all walks of life to see first-hand what kind of ship Noah built at God’s behest to withstand the destruction of the Flood which Genesis says, wipes out the rest of the human race.

The story is well known.  Because of the moral degradation of humanity, God decides, in effect, to start all over.  Because of Noah’s uprightness, God chooses him to be a kind of “new Adam.”  Ham is concerned that humanity has not done much better than our ancestors who were killed in the Flood.  The story of Noah is effectively a story Ham uses to suggest we shape up or we will face the same destructive result.

Soon we will be able to visit the ark.  There will be the requisite animals on board, but they will be stuffed.  As one who grew up on a farm with animals, there is much to be said for stuffed animals.  It will cut down on the messes made!  Clearly, Ham sees this “encounter” as a chance to proselytize those who come to visit.  I am sure Ham sees his perspective as the truth and the Noah encounter will give him a chance to straighten out the large majority of folks---Christians and non-Christians alike---who believe some other version of the faith…or no version at all.

I think it is cool that there will be drawings on Noah and the seven family members who were on board the original ark.  This is certainly an exercise in imagination, since this is obviously long before there were iPhones to record the experience.  However, I do appreciate human imagination and what it can conjure.  So I look forward to visiting the Ark Encounter some time when again I am in Kentucky.

But before that happens, I would like to add a little spiritual commentary on this story.  If there is any inspiration in what I write today, it can only begin at this point.  The most obvious thing to state is to say that I have the same Christian Bible that Ken Ham has.  We both share the same Genesis text and the same creation story (well, actually two creation stories: see Genesis, chapters 1-2).  So the differences between Ham and myself come with interpretation of the same text.

Basically, Ken Ham is a literalist and I do not take all texts literally.  I think ancient writers used the same kinds of figures of speech as we do today.  For example, if I said someone ran so fast, it was a hundred miles-an-hour, no one would literally believe that.  Of course, I am not God, so that can be dismissed as a figure of speech.  I am indeed not God, but I think the biblical writers whom God did inspire also used figures of speech.

An example of this is my own belief that God “speaks” to people.  I feel like God has “spoken” many times to me.  I did not hear literal words.  The “voice” in my head was literally “real,” but figuratively it was as “real” as any literal voice I ever heard.  In fact, that voice was so real, I made major moves in my life’s path.  In effect, I bet my whole life on the truth of that reality.

I close with a story from Christian history with respect to Noah and the ark.  The Church used the ark as a symbol of salvation.  For many the ark symbolized the church.  To come to belief and to join the church is, effectively, to jump on the ark.  I like that kind of interpretation.  But it leaves open some interesting judgments to be made.  Let me suggest a couple.

Whoever gets on the ark of salvation depends on God.  I believe God is originally and ultimately a loving God who wants nothing more than loving relationships with all people.  And I think God is merciful God who will be patient enough and merciful enough to bring us all back into that loving relationship.  My beliefs here have implications.  It suggests I think finally everyone gets on the ark.  If so, it is going to have to be a much bigger ark than the one being built in Kentucky!

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Spirit of Innovation

Recently I was at a conference on innovation.  In fact I had a hand in the conference even happening.  I have not been using the language of innovation and certainly not the language of entrepreneurship until the last few years of my life.  I would have guessed they were not relevant to what I was doing in my own career.  But to my surprise, when I began to think about it, I realized I have been fairly innovative in my time.  I just never called it that.
I have never started my own business and truly would not have thought about myself as entrepreneurial.  But I now know I could start my own business if I wanted to do so.  Likely, I never will, but I know I could.  And so I have this newfound interest in innovation that is really an old interest in new language.  I am intrigued by people who are creative and can figure out new things or figure out how to do old things in fresh, new ways.  I am sure we live in a time where more people need to be innovative.  I may not have too many more years to do this myself.  So I spend a great deal of time helping students and younger people learn about it.
One of the speakers talked about innovation in a way that made a great deal of sense to me---maybe it is because it echoes how I tend to describe innovation and innovative people.  As he spoke, I thought, “indeed, that is truly the spirit of innovation.”  In brief he described innovative people as curious, engaged and passionate.  Let’s look at each one of these.
I have to laugh when he began by saying innovative people are curious.  I continue to tell students they can be ahead of other people if they simply cultivate curiosity.  I know children are curious.  I had a couple kids of my own and know they were curious.  Of course, we all know that three-year olds are incessantly asking why!  I am sure all parents get really tired of answering that question.  We know an answer is merely a trap.  Once we try to explain why, another question is birthed from their curiosity.
Somewhere along the line, kids seem to lose that curiosity.  Schools often get a bum rap because they are blamed for destroying the innate curiosity.  I prefer to think maybe it is things like television and maybe the kids’ peer groups.  What I do know is people who are innovative are still curious.  They wonder about doing things differently.  They ask questions.  And they are hard to satisfy.  They are kids of the spirit of innovation.
The second point the speaker said characterized innovative people is engagement.  They don’t go through the motions.  They are engaged when they are with other people.  They are looking for ways to get better and to grow.  They read, meet other people and do many other things.  Engagement tends to create purpose and meaning.  They have fun.  And they may be satisfied with things, but they are discontent with the status quo.  They are children of the spirit of innovation.
Finally, the people of this spirit are also passionate.  They bring commitment and fire to the task.  No doubt, their passion fuels the engagement.  And the passion supplies the energy to keep going.  Passion can withstand failure and rebound from setbacks.  Their passion often is apparent in the persistence it takes to grow and succeed.  These kinds of folks are often contagious.  They are offspring of the spirit of innovation.
As I have been writing this description of innovative people, it began to occur to me that it also applies to people of the Spirit.  I capitalize Spirit to designate the Spirit of God.  I am convinced that the life of the Spirit is also an innovative life.  It is a creative life.  All three characteristics we have laid out also apply to people of the Spirit.  Let’s look quickly at this.
People of the Spirit are curious.  They are curious where they will be lead in their spiritual journey.  Becoming spiritual is not a well-scripted journey.  Everyone’s walk with the Spirit is different.  God does not call me to do your job.  Spiritually, I pursue my curiosity through prayer and other disciplines.  I feel my curiosity throughout a lifetime.  I am often creating new paths of life for myself.
People of the Spirit are engaged.  Of course, I can be Christian (or any other religion) and not be engaged.  I can go through the motions.  I can live a superficial, status quo kind of life.  But real disciples are engaged disciples.  We are willing to go for the gusto---to go the second mile, to go where called. 
People of the Spirit are also passionate.  Hopefully, we are inflamed with the Spirit.  The Spirit is often symbolized by fire.  This passion fuels a healthy zeal---not zealots who are crazy and dangerous.  But we have a zeal that sees us through the journey to the blessedness that comes as a fruit of the Spirit.  I hope I can be such a person of the Spirit.