About Me

Friday, July 29, 2016

Naming Rights

Recently, my attention has been drawn to the issue of naming rights.  On a college campus naming rights are often at issue when a new building is built.  The question is whether someone will donate enough money to earn the right to have the building named after him or her.  In most cases this is going to cost the person or couple millions of dollars.  I have mixed feelings about this.  In some cases it certainly is a way to honor someone.  In other cases however I am not so happy that someone basically gives enough money to have his or her name go on a building.  Clearly, it is a time-honored way to raise money.
           
Another place where names play a part on a college campus is with respect to endowed chairs.  I have one myself.  My position at the university was funded in a generous way by the couple for whom it is named and their friends.  The interest from that pool of money pays my salary and other expenses.  I am the lucky recipient of this largesse. 
           
I am not sure I can argue this is ok and naming a building is more suspect.  What I do think is important is what the naming of a building or an endowed chair symbolizes.  In effect we ask, what does the name stand for?  Let me suggest there are at least two phases in figuring out what the name symbolizes.  The first phase is the phase where everyone knows the person or persons for whom something is named.  For example, there is a building on my campus named after a former president.
           
When people hear the name of that building and when they know the former president, that name carries huge significance.  That president was beloved by nearly all folks, as nearly as I can tell.  So for those who know him, hearing the name of that building brings all the memories into play.  By carrying his name, the building becomes special.  Although I did not serve under his presidency, I do know him.  Even though he is a kindly old man now, it is still easy to see why he is beloved. 
           
For all of us who know him, the building takes on the significance of that beloved person and leader.  The significance hits us every time we walk into the building or even here the name of the building.  But then inevitably a second phase kicks in.  At some point everyone who knew the former president passes on.  At some point no one is around who knew him.  There are no more first-hand stories.  He will die and never show up again on campus.
           
In this second phase the name on that building carries little or no significance.  Even though there is a picture of the guy in the entryway, it does not really matter.  In the words of students, “It’s just a picture of some dude!”  Being a “dude” carries little significance.  That is not necessarily sad.  In some ways I would simply say his legacy is not really a building.  This seems to be the end of the story.
           
As I think about it, there is another way of seeing naming rights.  Sometimes a name is used to characterize a group.  We see this in some of the Christian religious denominations.  It is easy to think about the Lutherans or the Wesleyans.  The names are the legacy of Martin Luther and John Wesley.  Although it does not mean every Lutheran or Wesleyan is the same as the historic men the name honors, the significance of Martin Luther and John Wesley lives through the men and women bearing those names.
           
When we go down this route, I am struck by the fact that none of the five major religious traditions bears the name of the founding person.  We might be tempted to think Christians and Buddhists are named after the founding figure, but that’s not true.  Christians take their name from the main descriptor of Jesus---he was the Christ, the Messiah, and the Anointed One.  Those of us who are Christians want to follow the path of the Anointed One.  Our hope is to be anointed ourselves to further the kingdom building he began.
           
And the Buddhists are named after the experience of the one who became enlightened.  The historical figure, Gautama, became the “awakened one” and attracted followers who hoped they might also experience this enlightenment.  Recognizing this fascinates me.
           
From this we conclude that Jesus, Gautama---and we might add Mohammed---were happy to have naming rights.  Effectively, they taught that you could have a name if you had the experience.  If you seek to become enlightened, you can be called a Buddhist.  If you seek to be anointed unto working to bring the kingdom in your life and the world, you can be a Christian.  If you seek to submit to the will of God and do that will, you can be a Muslim.  You have every right to those names.
           
I am very comfortable with this kind of naming right.  But it is a challenge.  You have a right to that name if you are willing to live up to what the name signifies.  Suddenly, I realize it is easier to put my name on a building or something.  To call myself a Christian is a bold and challenging thing.  I am up for it; name me!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thank You

It is such a simple phrase: thank you.  Two small words can say so much.  In many cases they are a gift in return for a gift.  As I began to think about this simple phrase, thank you, I realized again how important it is.  Furthermore, I realize it is also a potential sacred experience.  That was more than I ever imagined.
           
I have been saying thank you for decades.  As I remember my youth, my parents and, especially my dad, were really insistent that I learn to say thank you.  I am not sure what was behind his burn for me to learn and practice this habit.  I wish I had asked him that question.  For some reason it was very important to him.  So I dutifully learned to say it.  I internalized the act of saying thanks and it became a habit.  In my mind I am pretty good at it.
           
I would like to look at the phrase and the action from a couple perspectives.  The first perspective knows that saying thank you is a social grace.  I know my dad would say that is how we respond to people when they have given us something or have been nice to us.  Simply analyzing that simple phrase from it the social grace perspective reveals some interesting points.  Let’s detail those.
           
Perhaps the most basic to saying thank you is the assumption of some self-awareness.  If we are not self-aware, we don’t even realize or recognize that someone has done something for us.  Of course, sometimes it is pretty evident.  If someone hands me a $20 bill, I am aware enough to know I have $20 bucks that I did not work for or find on the ground.  It is gift and I say thanks.
           
This is a good point because I also realize that some of us are actually not very self-aware.  Oh, we might be aware enough to know that a $20 placed in our hands is a gift, since we did not have it a minute ago.  But other things are metaphorically plunked into our hands and our lives and we are not aware of it.  I know people do countless things for me that I would miss if I were not pretty self-aware.  I want to be alert to catch some of this less obvious gifts for which I should say thank you.
           
The next thing I am sure is true is that too many of us are too self-centered to recognize many of the gifts that come our way.  Sometimes I erroneously think everything I get is because I deserve it.  I work hard, I pay my dues, etc.  These all are announcements that whatever I get, I deserve.  Of course some of this is true.  But I dare say, in most things I word hard at, there is also an element of giftedness.
           
The worst form of self-centeredness is pure selfishness.  In this scenario I not only assume that what I get, I deserve.  Now I am assuming that I actually am owed everything I get.  Since I am the center of my little universe, it is all mine anyway.  Why should I say thanks for what is naturally mine?  We all know these kinds of folks are not much fun to be around. 
           
I want to move from the level of thanks, which is a social grace to the level where I see thanks as a spiritual issue.  That is not obvious and actually took learning a foreign language to awaken my fully to its reality.  For me to acknowledge thanks as a spiritual phenomenon means it has to be somehow a moment of the sacred.  To be spiritual is to participate in the sacred---which can mean God, the Spirit or however we want to conceive of the sacred.
           
I grasped this connection most clearly when I was studying eucharistic theology.  I purposely used that big, foreign word in order to make my point.  As a Quaker I am sure I never heard that word, Eucharist, until college or maybe graduate school.  As Catholics would know, the Eucharist is Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  It is a sacrament.  Precisely, it refers to the wafer and wine, which are the elements served in communion.  We get to the point when we recall the words of Jesus, which every priest utters at that sacred moment.
           
The biblical text says that Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and give it to the disciples.”  The words, “give thanks” are the Greek word, eucharisteo---eucharist.  The eucharist is a sacred moment---the moment when the bread also becomes sacred and is then given to us---to give us a sacred encounter.  This is instructive.
           
I want to argue that all “giving thanks” can become a moment of sacred encounter.  Saying thanks creates the space and the moment when the Spirit can be invited to bless the experience.  All of these Eucharistic moments---moments of thanks---do not have to be at the level of sacrament.  Or better, perhaps they all become little sacramental moments.
           
I am positive my dad never thought at this level.  But maybe he had an intuition; he certainly knew saying thanks was important.  I simply agree it is important and add that it can also be sacramental.  When I see it this way, I can never again use the phrase, thank you, as a throw away phrase simply to be nice. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Live Our Theology

I just finished a remarkable book.  Christopher Pramuk, a theologian who teaches at Xavier, wrote about the theology of Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of the last century.  Pramuk’s book is entitled, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton.  The book is not an easy go.  While it has the hallmarks of a doctoral dissertation, it is very articulate.  It is tough going because it brings in significant amounts of rather sophisticated theology.

Many people in the church would not know what the term, Sophia, means.  That is the Greek word for “wisdom.”  Sophia plays a role in both testaments of the Christian Bible.  In most cases the word would be translated “Wisdom.”  Even though I know Merton’s writings fairly well, Pramuk was able to lift out ideas and analyze them in fresh ways that I found exciting.  Part of the fascination, of course, is my own love of Merton.

He was a remarkable man and monk.  His life pilgrimage into faith is an intriguing story in itself.  Born in France to parents who were into the arts, Merton’s early life was one of instability.  He moved not from town to town, but from country to country.  He bounced between France, Long Island in New York and England.  For a while his father took him to the Caribbean.  Part of the intrigue is when Merton finally becomes religious, he joined the Catholic Church and, then, one of the most rigorous monasteries he could have chosen. And when he became a monk in 1941 at age 27, he took a vow of stability!  The vagabond promised to stay in one place.  And he did.

For all its sophistry (see our word sophia-wisdom in this term), Pramuk’s book is really an attempt to think about contemporary life and how to make sense of it and to make it better.  In fact the first line of the book contains a definition of theology that I very much like.  Pramuk says theology is “a lifelong conversation with wonder and mystery…”  That line already points to a way of seeing God.  God is wonder and mystery.  I think that is a good way to begin.

The key question that follows from this is how do we know this wonder and mystery in our real lives?  And furthermore, if we know this wonder and mystery, what difference does it make in how we live?  Those are crucial questions because all of us who are alive will necessarily choose some way to live.  Will we be ethical?  Or will we not give a hoot?  We will care about others or will we say we couldn’t care less?  Somehow those of us who claim in some fashion that we believe in God should have that belief reflected in real life.

This is the point to which Pramuk returns at the end of the book.  If we are going to be women and men of faith, how do we take the theology of our faith (our explanations of things) and actually live it out?  Wisely, Pramuk chooses words from Merton penned in my favorite book of his, namely, New Seeds of Contemplation.  There Merton says, “If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God (God become human), there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ.”  Pramuk, then, asks, “Is this not after all the deepest mystery of our faith that ‘has to break through a little’ if we are going to live as children of God, companions of Jesus, bearers of presence, peace, and hope in the twenty-first century?”

Personally, the focus on the incarnation is key for my own belief.  If God is wonder and mystery, as Pramuk puts it, then that wonder and mystery came into our world as a human being.  Somehow Jesus embodies that wonder and mystery.  That speaks positively to me.  Obviously it makes Jesus different than I am.  But it does not mean I cannot emulate Jesus.  The fact that Jesus embodies wonder and mystery is a call for me to do the same.  God is ready to come into me, too.

And when that happens, it makes me see the world in a whole new way.  As with Jesus, it means there are not more enemies.  As Merton said, I need to be prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of Christ in the other.  And I begin to live my life as a child of God---which is what Jesus did.  I become a peacemaker and justice-seeker.  I become a lighthouse of hope in a dark world.  I learn to pray (and mean it), “not my will.”

I can talk theology.  I can use big words, as Merton and Pramuk did.  That’s not bad; it is simply not sufficient to make me spiritual.  Merton’s counsel to his fellow monks at Gethsemani should be our counsel, too.  Thinking and theology are important Merton claims.  But, “What we must really do…is live our theology.”  That is the call and the challenge.

It makes me think of a more street-savvy way of putting it.  “Words are nice, but actions speak louder than words.  We have to live our theology.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Queen for a Day

In the mid 1950s there was a radio and tv show called “Queen for a Day.”  I don’t remember too much about it, but do recall the basic thrust.  It was part of that era’s fascination with game shows.  Often there was a pot of money or some other big prize to win.  That show usually had mostly women contestants and, I suspect, a bigger female audience.

The host of the show would begin by asking, “would you like to be queen for a day?”  Of course, the answer would be affirmative.  And then the host would interview the various contestants and at the end of the show the audience would vote one of them to be queen for a day.  I don’t recall many details. But it often was true the stories of the women contestants were sad and touching.

This reminds me of another show at the same time period, namely, The Millionaire.  In this show unsuspecting people were give a million dollars (a huge sum in 1950s currency) and see how a fortune changed lives for better or for worse.  That show had an amazing impact on how people often would express their desire for instant wealth.  Perhaps our contemporary culture’s fascination with the lottery is comparable.

It is funny and sad to see people live with what I would call an “if only…” mentality.  This perspective is not limited to wistful longings to be on a tv show and be the winner or suddenly to have someone drop out of the sky and hand us a million bucks.  We can see this mentality present in people’s lives in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  I have seen it when someone is diagnosed with lung cancer and laments, “if only I had not smoked.”  It is not unusual to hear a student’s cry, “if only I had studied a little…”

As a kid, I remember people asking each other, “so if you were queen (king) for a day, what would you do?”  We see versions of that in our own day around the lottery.  Or sometimes we see it when a high school or college super-athlete gets a huge signing bonus---becoming instant millionaires.  It is not unusual that they go buy a really fancy, expensive car.  They choose a status symbol like that which is an attempt to say, “look at me; I am somebody!”

I see these kinds of shows and, even, the appeal of the lottery as a way of inducing us to dream of a life different from the one we currently have.  Too many folks I know spend time wanting to be someone else.  In effect, they are saying, “if only…”  I certainly understand the appeal of fantasy.  Who would not want a perfect life?  Maybe money or fame would bring us closer.  But I doubt it.

I doubt it because fantasy is never real.  Fantasy is make-believe.  I understand it as entertainment, but when it is mistaken for reality or for hope, trouble looms.  Fantasy does not work because basically it is an escape.  Rather than being reality, fantasy is an escape from reality.  It is interesting the show only offered a chance to be queen for a day!  Why not a week, a year or the rest of my life?  To be queen for a day and then return to reality only seems disruptive to me.

Beneath all this I see a spiritual issue.  Spirituality is always a reality-based undertaking.  Let’s compare being queen for a day and the opportunity to be spiritual for a lifetime.  They both offer riches.  But they are very different kinds of riches.  Typically, to be queen for a day offers some kind of financial reward.  Spirituality offers the treasure of deep meaning and purpose.  One is a resource that will be spent down and the other is a resource that can never be exhausted.  In fact, like love the spiritual resource only increases.  Spiritually, the rich do get richer!

Being queen for a day almost never transforms your life.  You are still the same person, but with money or a new car.  Being spiritual should not only change you, but also transform you into a better and bolder person.  Instead of queen for a day, you become a child of God for a lifetime.  Spirituality is a long-term investment with a huge upside and an optimistic outcome---regardless of the process that we may have to go through.

Finally, a big difference between being queen for a day and being spiritual is who wins.  On the tv show there was only one winner.  The rest of the folks were audience---were being entertained.  They spend a half hour of their day watching someone else get rich!  And their lives never changed and no transformation happened.  Becoming spiritual, however, offers everyone a chance to be a winner.  In fact, spirituality is not a spectator sport.  It is not entertaining.  And it’s not a game.  It is real and for real.

I don’t mind watching some tv.  But I don’t want to be queen for a day.  I am trying to be spiritual instead.  

Monday, July 25, 2016

Serendipity Suffers

I read a fairly wide range of things throughout my day.  But one staple is the morning newspaper.  I am one of the old-fashioned people who like to have the physical newspaper in hand.  Every morning I make a trek to the store for a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper.  It is usually early in the morning, so it is quiet and, during much of the year, still dark.  It is a special time.

Sometime when I begin reading something, I think I might get an idea or be inspired for one of these inspirational pieces.  Other things I read, I have little expectation that something significant will appear.  For example, I like to begin reading the sports page.  I will even read an article about a game I may have seen the day before on tv!  Another thing I will do is read the whole paper.  Perhaps this stems from my early days when this was the way we were informed about our world.  Certainly, the internet has changed that and I am active on the web.  But I also am a throwback.

So it was that I settled in my chair with coffee in hand and read the sports page.  There was no revelation there.  Most of what I read I already knew.  And then I moved to the travel section of the newspaper.  I like this section because it often has a story about a place I have already visited.  I like both domestic stories and foreign.  And there are also stories about places I might visit some day.

My eyes wander to the bottom of the page and this headlined jumped at me: “Don’t let your baggage weigh you down.”  I smiled, as I thought how much I know about this topic.  I have traveled enough to know how to travel light.  And so I began to read Rick Steves’ piece with the assumption that I already knew what he was going to tell me.  And in almost every sense I did know everything.

Although I have never met Steves, I feel like I know him.  He writes regularly for the print media and he has a travel series on tv that I have seen.  He has a great job.  Somebody apparently pays for him to run around the globe, meet interesting people, eat some great food and report on it.  I would do that in a heartbeat.  He does it well and I appreciate that.

As I neared the end of the brief article, I hit an intriguing idea.  The idea began when I read the following sentence.  “Packing light isn’t just about saving time or money---it’s about your traveling lifestyle.”  I liked that idea that packing light is about my traveling lifestyle.  I realized there were spiritual analogies in this and what was to come.  My mind perked up.

The spiritual analogy works well if we think about life as a journey.  This is an ancient metaphor for understanding our life.  Life is a trip from birth to death---a journey.  It is intriguing to think about life reflects a “traveling lifestyle.”  Our lifestyle might be characterized by wealth and greed.  I might be poor and uneducated and that is a very different traveling lifestyle.

I am sure the way we think about and live out our spirituality is reflected in our traveling lifestyle.  On my best days I hope my spiritual lifestyle is characterized by caring and sharing.  I hope it is other-centered and not totally self-centered.  I am not perfect, so I am not a model of the spiritual lifestyle.  I am a work in progress.

But I do know it is best to pack light.  It is hard to be spiritual with huge possessions and very difficult to be spiritual when we are possessive.  It is tough to be spiritual when we don’t care and don’t share.  When we have too much stuff, we have too much baggage.  As Steves said, “Too much luggage weighs you down.”  When we have too much, then we are too focused on what is.  Change is often threatening.  I get stuck in this place too often.

That is when the next, short sentence of Steves’ profoundly impacted me.  If we have pack too much---carrying too much baggage on our trip through life---then “Serendipity suffers.”  Serendipity is one of my favorite words.  Serendipity is a pleasant, sometimes, great surprise.  As I understand it, it is always good.  Serendipity is good things coming our way we could not have expected and did not see coming.

Theologically, serendipity is grace and mercy.  It is love for us—realizing that we are cared for in ways we didn’t merit and may not even be able to explain.  Steves is right.  If we are carrying too much baggage---packed too much for the trip---we will suffer our chances for serendipity.  It is really easy to close ourselves off from serendipity.  If you are in a rut or in bondage, serendipity has been walled off.

I am not sure we can prepare for serendipity.  But we can travel lightly.  We can be open and even expectant.  If we pack too much baggage for our spiritual travel through life, serendipity suffers.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Loveable Losers

The title for this inspirational piece must seem a little strange.  Why write about losers?  I would agree that winning seems preferable.  I done both in my life and I do prefer winning.  It is more fun.  I got the title from the two words embedded in the middle of a quaint article.  It is in one of the online resources I routinely read simply because there is usually interesting stuff there.  I was not disappointed.

The resource is actually a national Catholic magazine that I read online.  So you can imagine that I was a little surprised when I read the headline, “What I learned about life playing center for the Cubs.”  The Chicago Cubs, I wondered.  Indeed, as the first sentence revealed.  The author, Michael Leach, says, “When I was a kid in the 1950s, all I wanted to be was center fielder for the Chicago Cubs.”  I was right---it was about the Cubs!  But I did not recognize Leach’s name, even though we have to be approximately the same age.  I don’t know all major league baseball players since the 60s, but the Cubs are close enough to Indiana, I was a little surprised I had never heard from him.

As I read further, I realized why I don’t know Michael Leach.  He talks about growing up in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs.  As he narrates his growing up years, baseball was learned in the alley three blocks from the field.  He confesses he barely made the Pony League team, so I knew he probably was not pro caliber talent.  There would be another angle to the title.

He claims his father took him to his first Cubs’ game when he was one week old.  It doesn’t matter.  Playing for the Cubs became his dream.  I know about the Cubs.  When Leach says, “It wasn't winning that drew us -- that was not going to happen much,” he was correct.  The next sentence gives the real reason.  “It was hanging out on this day with nice people under the sun with a lake breeze cooling our faces…”  As a theologian I said, “ah, it was community.”  

It was in the context that he uses the words, “lovable losers.”  The team was not going to win the pennant, but because of the community, the ambience, etc., it was fun to be part of the “lovable losers.”  A new thought began to creep into my mind.  You don’t have to win to have fun.  And losers are not necessarily despicable, sorry slobs!  Of course, I knew this; but the Cubs’ story is a nice reminder to all of us ordinary people.

Leach’s narrative gets more focus when he treks with his seventeen-year old friend to watch a Cubs’ game.  After the game concluded, a few players hung around to practice a bit more.  The two teenagers approached Dutch Leonard and asked if they could go onto the field and chase balls that were hit.  At first Dutch nixed the idea, but with pleading he relented in the way an old-school guy would. “What the hell. Go ahead. Be careful.”  Leach trotted out to center field.

He didn’t catch one ball.  And he nearly wiped out Moe Drabowsky in the process.  (I have heard of Moe!).  And then, Leach concludes.  It sounds a bit spiritual, even though he might not mean it that way.  “My soul learned a lesson in humility that day. Being a star isn't happiness.”  The key is not winning.  The key is remembering “the joy of just playing.”  That can be a recipe for the good life.  We don’t have to be winners to know joy.

I like very much the last line of Leach’s piece.  He says, “Baseball, like life, sets you free only when you play it for fun.”  Leach sets us up very nicely for seeing baseball as an analogy for life.  And I want to push it even further and talk about the spiritual life.  A couple important issues emerge from this last quotation.  Leach talks about a life that is free.  Freedom is a tricky idea.  I am sure everyone I know feels free.  None of us are in jail.  But we can be free from jail and in bondage at the same time.  Workaholics are trapped.  Our contemporary culture provides all sorts of ways that trap us.  Many of my younger friends are trapped by social media.  We are not as free as we think.

The second significant piece Leach talks about is having fun.  I think he is correct when he posits that no one who is trapped truly is having fun.  This is true even for those of us trapped by Facebook, Twitter, etc.  When we are trapped, we have to do it.  When we are free, we can do it.  Finally, it is fun only when we have the freedom to say no.

I think this applies to the spiritual life.  If we are spiritual because we have to do it (for whatever reason), then we are not free and it won’t be fun.  I’m some might suggest that being spiritual is not supposed to be fun.  Of course, it is not fun all the time---any more than being at a baseball game all day and night would be fun.  But if it is not fun some of the time, then I think we need to consider what kind of spiritual way are we walking.

Part of the fun in the spiritual life is community.  Being spiritual is not necessarily a long, lonely journey so that we can have fun later (maybe only after we are dead!).  That is not my spiritual path.  I want to play center field and have fun before I’m dead!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Present and Future

An unlikely source of spiritual inspiration, we might assume, would be alumni magazines.  My immediate family of four has access to quite a few of them, since the four of us hold multiple degrees from various institutions of higher education.  The range is from smaller, college-related institutions to larger public research institutions.  Of course, there is a great deal of commonality to these magazines.  And there also are significant particularities because no institution is just like another.

I was reading a recent edition of a magazine and landed on the column written by the president.  I am sure it was the title that caught my attention: “An Invincible Spirit.”  I like Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, although I have never met her.  By training she is an historian.  So I was not too surprised to find the article made use of some history.  But the content was a surprise.

The article gave considerable attention to Harvard’s decision to reinstate ROTC.  Harvard had discontinued ROTC in those tumultuous Vietnam years.  I remember those years and the protests that accompanied them.  On so many campuses ROTC was a lightening rod for anti-war protests.  What I did not know is ROTC had begun on the country’s oldest college in 1916 as the US prepared for the possibility of entering WW I.  So nearly a century later, ROTC was to be reinstated.

I am not that interested in Harvard’s action.  I have no knowledge to have an opinion.  As a Quaker, I am a pacifist.  However, I do respect the men and women who serve in the military.  Even a pacifist has to agree we live in a world with too many problems and with too much violence.  How this is addressed and peace brought to our lives is a complex, crucial issue.

President Faust talked about walking around campus, visiting various buildings with the names of Harvard alums who had given their lives in defense of this country.  She singles out one name, Charles Russell Lowell, 1854 class valedictorian, who served and died in the bloody Civil War.  She cites his words, offered a decade before his service and sacrifice for the country.  Those were the words that I found inspiring.

Faust says that Lowell encourages his classmates “both to consider what should be and to imagine what can be.”  He continued with this amazing thought: “This uneasiness with the present married with an eagerness to shape the future” is the key attitude.  Realizing that I am lifting these ideas out of the discussion about ROTC, they do seem to me to offer a good way of seeing the role of the spiritual in our individual lives and in the peace-making life of communities and, perhaps, countries.

The first thing to note---and this is very obvious---is we only live in the present.  I can only have today.  Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet.  But it is also true that humans have the capacity to know time in many dimensions.  Even though I am living today, I can remember yesterday, I can know what I did and, even, what I regret not doing.  In the same way I can anticipate tomorrow.  Having this capacity with time is a blessing of being human.

Because we don’t live in a perfect world, all of us can understand life in the same way Lowell talked about it in his first sentence.  We are able to consider what should be.  And more importantly, we are able to imagine what can be.  Notice the two different verbs used in that articulation.  We are able to “consider.”  This means in the present I am able to consider---to think about and ponder---what should be.  We should be good; we should be loving.

And we are able to “imagine” what can be.  This is a future state.  I imagine tomorrow; yesterday is gone.  But without imagination tomorrow will be like today---or perhaps, worse!  This is where the second thought of Lowell impacts me.  I like that Lowell talks about the uneasiness with the present.  That does not mean the present is awful; clearly, there are some good things going on.  But the big picture does make me uneasy.

I am concerned with climate change.  I am concerned about terrorists---people who make meaning in life so radically different than people I know.  Terrorists thrive on violence; there is no future there.  So I am uneasy with the present.  But I am also eager to shape the future.  That is crucial to me.  I have grandkids who likely will live to see 2100!  We have to shape a future that is going to great possibilities.

The good news is this is exactly what I think God desires, too.  God desires to shape the future so there is peace and love, instead of violence and hate.  God desires people of all religious traditions---and no traditions---to learn to love and to create communities of mutual care.  If we don’t do that, we have chaos and communal destruction.  It’s a spiritual work we have to do: create a future befitting a kingdom.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Happy to Serve

Richard Rohr is one of my favorite authors.  The Franciscan heads us a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque.  I have met him a couple times, but cannot call him a friend.  I have used his books in my classes and students generally find his thinking to be challenging and rewarding.  Since he is about my age, I know we have shared similar time frameworks, even though we have negotiated those from different perspectives.  I read him regularly.

Recently he posted a piece that had an initial line that riveted me.  Rohr said, “The only happy people I have ever met are those who have found some way to serve.”  I almost laughed out loud, not because I thought it was funny, so much as I found it such a bold statement.  I certainly know many people who have served and who are happy.  But I was not sure the bold statement from Rohr was fully accurate in my experience.  Sure, I thought, there must be some people who serve and who are sad?  And surely, there are happy people who have barely served a day in their life.  I wanted to pursue this a little more.

The first thing I wanted to ponder is whether you can be happy and hardly ever serve?  I know plenty of people who have not served very much.  It occurs to me to differentiate authentic service from being made to do something.  This helps.  I know many groups have a “service component” in their endeavor.  Even a football team can have a “service day” as part of the early season team-building exercise.  I am not belittling this, but I don’t really count this as service.  It is required and it is a onetime thing.

My college now has a “service learning” component in the graduation expectations.  Again, I think this is a good thing, but I don’t consider it service in the same way as the person who voluntarily puts himself or herself at the service of another.  A student doing service learning might be happy, but the fact is she or he is doing it because they have to do it---it is a course requirement.

I do think people can be happy and never serve.  But I doubt the happiness is deep and long lasting.  Life eventually gets ornery and sin, sickness or death can quickly and surely erode superficial happiness.  I think this is what Rohr begins to give voice.  There are superficial happy times.  My birthday is usually one of those times.  But the following day is not my birthday, so the happiness fades.

The other angle I also want to explore briefly.  Simply serving may not make me happy.  In saying this I realize we need to be clear about service.  It is a tricky word.  If I go to a restaurant, I get service.  The waiter is there to serve me.  To me it is service; to him it is a job.  He might be relatively happy doing his job---serving.  Or he might hate it.  I recognize that what we call service needs to be clarified.

This is where Rohr is helpful.  As I read a little further in his reflection, I realize he helps me see how we can use the idea of “service.”  Rohr says people involved in authentic service “are not preoccupied with self-image, success, and power.”  That thought is incredibly insightful.  It actually introduces the theme of intentionality behind service.  The kind of service about which Rohr talks is service that does not serve my ego.  It does not aim for my success.  And it is not about helping me get power or augment my power.

This enables me to see service in a way that is different than the restaurant server or the student doing service learning.  Rohr’s perspective helps us see the life of a Mother Teresa or Gandhi.  It helps me appreciate the many almost nameless Quakers and others I have seen in my growing up days.  These are the quiet saints among us.  And so often, they really are happy.  This was true, even to my young eyes, which could not understand “what was in it for them?”

The truth behind my question was either nothing was in it for them…or everything!  At first glance, they were serving and likely would get nothing out of it.  It was true they would get not ego boost, success or power.  Paradoxically, some of them did become famous---like Mother Teresa.  But that certainly was not her goal.  But what I suspect most of them got was happiness.

I have lived long enough to understand and appreciate Rohr’s insight.  If you want to be authentically happy---deeply and for long term---serve.  You don’t have to become a monk or a doormat.  You don’t have to serve for sixteen hours a day.  But serve.  Find a cause or someone who needs your care, your effort and your commitment.  Do it for the right reasons---because it needs to be done.  Give up your ego, your expectations and all other needs.

Simply give yourself. That is what service is.  Service is a gift of self.  In that sense it is like love.  And paradoxically, the more you give, the more you get.  Give yourself away and be happy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mercy of Obligation

In a busy day which involved interaction with a few, separate friends of mine, it hit me that I am obligated in some interesting ways.  I never thought about obligation in the fashion I would like to lay out in this reflective piece.  Normally, I don’t think much about obligations.  I would confess it is not even a word that I like that much.  Maybe that stems from my Quaker suspicion of authority.  Too often, authorities put us under obligation.  Erroneously perhaps, I have tended to equate obligation with orders from somebody!

I welcome a chance to think afresh about obligation.  And when I attach the word, mercy, with obligation, it really does take on a different hue.  No longer does obligation suggest rules, orders and unwilling obedience.  With mercy attached to it, obligation becomes invitational and hopeful.  I realize not only do I oblige; I do it willingly and happily.

When I think about the word, obligation, it is easy to see the relational aspect.  If I am obligated to you, then you and I are in a relationship.  And the same is true if you are obligated to me.  I also realize not all obligations are one-on-one.  I think there are individuals obligated to groups.  And there are groups obligated to other groups.  So the idea of obligation is actually fairly complex.

The other thing I realize about obligation is recognizing I am, in fact, obligated even in situations where I don’t think it would occur to me to use the language of obligation.  Let me give a simple example.  When my first child was born, I suddenly was obligated in some significant ways.  Of course, there are laws that rightly say I can’t abuse her, that I have to feed her, etc.  But my sense of obligation went far above the letter of the law.

I felt obligated to care for her in the very best way I could.  I felt obligated to help her grow into a strong, independent young woman (we succeeded!).  There were educational obligations that I owned that certainly were not required.  She went to a more expensive school rather than some local options.  They would have been quite good, but she wanted something else.  I felt obligated to help her become her very best.

Moving to another example, I think a great deal about friendship.  I don’t think there are many laws governing friendship.  For the most part, friendships are an issue of voluntary free choices.  No one makes me be a friend.  And I can’t force someone else to become my friend.  But when two friends opt for that friendship, they necessarily also assume some obligations that go with friendship.  There is no legal contract that outlines the obligations of friendship.  All of us are on our own in our friendships.

When I think about my friendships, I realize there is the mercy of obligation.  This is a good deal for me!  If someone becomes my friend, in effect they willingly agree to be full of mercy for me.  They agree to be helpful and supportive.  Tacitly, they sign up for making my life better.  While they do not want me to mess us, if I do mess up, they will be there to help the situation and me be better.  The mercy of obligation means there should be an element of forgiveness when I do mess up.

The mercy of obligation means they should be willing to go the second mile with me.  This kind of friendship is a joy.  It is a joy because there is someone out there who is there for you.  There is someone who thinks you are pretty neat.  They want to be with you and they like you.  Often you are treated better than you deserve.  That is mercy.  I thank God for these kinds of friends and for their mercy.

And then I realize, friendship is a reciprocal relationship.  Not only am I the recipient of the mercy of obligation in my friendships, but I also am obliged in a similar way to my friends.  I can flip the phrase: I have been talking about the mercy of obligation and can now talk about the obligation of mercy.  That is what I owe my friends (and what I owed my daughter in the earlier example).  In agreeing to be a friend, I also agree to take on the obligation of mercy.

When the friendship is real, offering mercy is not that hard.  I say this, while recognizing that offering mercy can often be costly.  If my friend wrongs me somehow, being merciful with forgiveness is not easy.  But it is the right thing to do.  Offering mercy can feel very unbalanced.  If I offer mercy, it can seem like the other person won and I lost.  However, if I feel this way, then it really isn’t truly a friendship.  Friends are willing to lose if that means their friend wins.

The final truth of obligation and mercy is the good news that everyone is a winner.  Because friendship is mutual and reciprocal, the mercy obligation goes both ways.  Ultimately, no one loses and both win.  Thank God for friendship and the obligation that comes with friendship.  It is a chance to learn and experience mercy.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Culture of Caring

I pay much more attention to the theme of culture than I used to.  This signifies that I recognize how important culture is.  Of course, culture has always been important, but I did not recognize how important it is.  Culture is important for high performing teams.  And clearly, the reverse is also true.  Culture is important for low performing teams.
           
Culture is not inherently a spiritual issue.  But it can and does become involved in the spiritual dimension when that dimension is present.  There is a huge amount of scholarship about culture.  It is a concern in various departments on a college campus---sociology, business, history and so on.  But I am not interested in the scholarly, formal definitions of culture.  I prefer to use a simple definition.
           
Culture is how people think, feel, and act alone and when they are together.  Groups of all kinds have culture; it is impossible not to have a culture.  Teams, churches, businesses, sororities, etc. all have some kind of culture.  However, most of us live in a particular culture and act out of that culture, but we never think about it.  It is like the air we breathe. 
           
It is easy to guess that there are strong and weak cultures, lively and deadly cultures, and so on.  I suggest that cultures can change, but they do so very slowly.  They can change by giving intentional leadership to culture change.  This often happens when a group gets a new president or a team gets a new coach.  It is easier to change the culture of a small group.  If you have a business with fifty thousand employees, it is going to take some real effort and time to change a culture.
           
The other side intentional culture change is the fact that culture change can happen rather unintentionally.  This is especially true for the groups with smaller memberships.  Consider the old saying: a rotten apple ruins the whole barrel.  This represents culture change.  A good barrel of apples is a sitting duck for a few bad apples.  Many of us have had experiences with teams or groups where one or two new characters came into the picture and seemingly messed things up for the whole group.
           
Any of us who are members of churches, synagogues or mosques know this is true for our groups as well.  Sometimes I visit a church and very quickly you get a “feel” for the place.  That “feel” is a quick sense of the culture.  Is it a warm, welcoming place?  Do they seem happy that I am here?  Sometimes groups pay lip service to the right kind of culture, but they live it out very differently.  The bulletin may say they are a welcoming community, but then I wonder why no one greets me, speaks to me or seems to care that I am there!
           
I am very aware of this when I begin a new class each semester.  I know that this group of students and I will form some kind of culture.  Even if we don’t think about it, a culture will form.  And once it forms, it is indeed difficult to change.  So I am very intentional about trying to help the group form a culture that is going to be open, curious, etc.  I know I cannot form the culture by myself.  But I know I have a major role in its formation.
           
To form a culture means we form how people think, feel and act in that culture.  Certainly, reputation and tradition play a part.  For example, if my reputation is that I am a boring professor, then people come expecting me to be boring and the culture begins to be formed around that expectation.  That same thing holds true for local congregations and perhaps even entire denominations.  If a church’s reputation is that it is a “cold place,” visitors come figuring that will be their experience.  Again, it’s difficult to change, so my idea is to form it in good ways from the beginning.
           
So when I meet a class for the first time, I know the foundation for a culture is being laid.  A key for me is to begin making connections and helping students make connections with each other.  I do this because connection is the link to caring.  If I feel connected to you, I am much more likely to care about you and to care for you.  And that is reciprocal.  You care about me.  So if we begin to build a web of connection---even that first day early on---then the caring will follow.  That builds a strong culture that is not dependent on me to carry the load.
           
It seems to me this is exactly what Jesus did with his disciples.  He called them into friendship.  In fact, in John’s Gospel Jesus explicitly said, “I call you friends.”  He intentionally had small groups.  They worshipped together, they ate together, and they cared for each other.  They were forming a culture.
           
I am amazed that the culture became so strong, it survived the death of Jesus, their leader, and has evolved and grow in unbelievable ways over 20 centuries.  Strong cultures survive and thrive.  Strong cultures are caring culture. They pursue and promote peace.  They are effective agents of the Spirit in our world.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Morning of Expectations

Many of us like typologies or stereotypes, as we often call them.  For example, some of us claim to be introverts and others clearly are extroverts.  I belong to the former introvert category.  Of course, most of us have a touch of both within ourselves.  But one tends to be the dominant type.  Being an introvert means that most of us need some time by ourselves to recharge our batteries.  I know that I need some regular time alone.  I like being with people, but at some point I look for some solitude.  Extroverts are different.  Being with people charges their batteries.

Another, less scientific typology is the morning vs. night person.  Again, I feel very clear that I am naturally a morning person.  Maybe that is due, in part, to growing up on a farm---a dairy farm no less.  But I have always favored the morning hours.  Even when I don’t have to get up early, it is difficult for me to stay in bed.  Once I wake up, I am ready to hit the floor and get going.  Of course, the other end of that spectrum is my preference for bed much sooner than any night person would contemplate.  I know; I have lived in a house filled with night people.

One of the favorite parts of the day for me is the early morning hour when I can be by myself.  I am happy to be up at an early hour and just as happy to be by myself.  I could be social at this hour, but it is nice not to have to be.  Being a morning person leads me to think about it in spiritual terms.  At first, my mind goes to the Liturgy of the Hours, as monks label it.  This simply means the prayer schedule with which monks structure their day.

The Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived and about whom I have much to say, begins their day at 3:15 in the morning!  Appropriately, they call this particular gathering Vigil, which means, “keeping watch.”  Intentionally, they precede the day---they go before the emerging daylight of a new day.  When I am at Gethsemani, I participate in all the Liturgy of the Hours.  There is something strange about getting up and “going to church” at 3:15am!  But I realize it is only strange if it is not part of your routine.

I like this because it puts a premium on the morning.  Effectively, there are no night persons at a monastery like this.  They simply could not function very long on so little sleep.  What must be true is some night people have been called to this way of life and have had to adapt.  For me it was close to my preference and would only require slight adjustment to get up a little earlier than I usually do.  I could do it.

I admit that I don’t normally get up and immediately go to church.  Rather I get up and go for that first cup of coffee and daily newspaper.  Instead of beginning with spirituality, I start with sports!  On second thought, however, I realize it is not quite as crass as I make it sound.  Instead of making coffee and having a paper delivered to my front door, each morning I walk to a local store and buy a cup of coffee and the paper.

This tends to be a meditative walk for me.  I don’t drive.  If it is raining or snowing, I dress appropriately and head out for the trek.  I like being outside in the weather.  It is what it is.  Being on the outside is to be in God’s world.  It is not artificially heated or cooled.  I love the stars when they are out.  A walk when there is a full moon is splendidly spiritual.  I have a chance to be quiet and to be thankful.  The only one around is God, so God gets thanked!

To awaken into the morning is to be gifted with a new day.  For me this means a day with some hope.  And just as importantly, it is a day with expectations.  I try to frame my expectations in a spiritual way.  Of course, there are routine expectations, such as having breakfast, etc.  But I also create spiritual expectations.  Let me enumerate a few.

I expect to be involved in some meaningful and purposeful activities.  I don’t want to waste my time; that would be a waste of a divine gift.  It is not necessary to be successful if my life is meaningful and purposeful.  So many signs of success are fleeting or superficial.  Too often, they are nothing more than ego-boosters.  But meaning and purpose typically are more transcendent.  They go beyond my ego.

I expect to be involved with some interesting people.  Some days I know much of my interaction will be with people I already know---friends, students, etc.  But I expect each new day and each new interaction can be special.  I don’t want to take people for granted.  I want to be open.  I want to be willing to be surprised by someone’s growth in a way I had not seen coming.  I also want to be open to serendipity.  Maybe I will meet someone new.  I don’t want to plan everything!

Expectations are not the same thing as a guarantee.  Expectations are a form of hope.  I might be fairly confident I know that what I expect to be true will be true.  But an expectation is always a future event.  Expectations are like the morning.  You have it, but you are not sure what will happen.  You have to live into it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spiritual Truths

No one ever makes it to adulthood alone.  For many of us, our first shapers were our parents.  And then, there were teachers, friends and sometimes even a few enemies.  A number of times I have been through an exercise to recall important, formative members of my past.  It is an easy list to pull out of my memory.  Because I am getting older, many of the names on my list are now dead.  But that does not mean their influence necessarily stopped.

Some of the people who have had a formative role in my life are people I never met.  Again, some of them are deceased.  In fact, some have been dead for centuries.  I think of people like the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and the Buddha.  Others died much more recently.  Here I think of people like Thomas Merton, my favorite monk, and Thomas Kelly, one of my favorite Quakers whom I never met.  Their writings played a key role in my spiritual development.

And then, there are the people who have influenced me and who still are living.  Because they still live, many of them continue to influence me.  Some I know very well and others I have only met once or twice.  People in this later category would have no idea how influential they have been in my life.  Among the people who fit here is Richard Rohr.  Rohr is basically my age.  He grew up in Kansas in a Roman Catholic family.  As he became more seriously involved in his spiritual pilgrimage, he was led to become a Franciscan friar.

Rohr has published many books.  And he also has a daily blog.  I have nearly daily interactions with Rohr, for which I am grateful.  Recently in one of his pieces he listed five things that I want to call spiritual truths.  They are important truths.  I see them as stepping stones to spiritual maturity.  I don’t think you can grow very much until you begin to understand the truth of each one.  As you do, you will be free to grow and mature into the spiritual person God wants from each of us.

Here are the five spiritual truths.  We can look briefly at each one.
1. Life is hard.
2. You are not that important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.

I don’t care how pampered you might be as you grow up, at some point each of us is going to realize life is hard.  Inevitably there will be some pain and suffering.  Things will not always go right.  There are many other things that will remind us that life is hard.  But life can always have meaning and purpose.  That is what spirituality provides us.

The second spiritual truth is one that people have different ways of learning.  For some of us, it is hard to learn that we are not that important.  This must be especially true for the stars and heroes of our age.  Social media turns some folks into larger-than-life figures.  It might be hard for them to learn they are not that important.  I like to make the difference between being important and special.  None of us are that important.  But every one of us is special---at least, special in the eyes of God.  After all, we were created in the image of God.

The third truth pronounces that my life is not about me.  The purpose of this truth is to lead us away from an egocentric, self-centered way of life.  If your life is not about something bigger than yourself, then ultimately life will be disappointing.  Becoming spiritual puts us on the path of knowing this truth.

The fourth truth says that we are not in control.  This is a tough lesson for all of us who control and manipulate our way through life.  But deep down, we know that we are not in control.  As I understand this truth, it frees me up to be a partner with God in the work of healing the world.

Finally, we are going to die.  Coming to terms with this will ultimately free us.  We will be freed to live in love instead of fear.  See appropriately, it is good news, not scary of bad news.  To be fully spiritual is to know all five truths---and be free.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Listening Ear

Some things in life are so simple, it is easy to overlook their importance.  Most of these simple things nearly everyone knows, but not everyone does them.  I am sure that is why when someone does a simple thing, it can seem so profound.  They are usually free of cost and make a situation better and, often, more pleasant.  Recently, I experienced one of these simple things.  In this case I happened to be on the doing end of the action.
           
I call this simple thing offering a listening ear.  Obviously, that is not a profound description.  Nearly everyone can hear.  Most of us don’t think this is special.  Unaware we pronounce hearing cannot be special if everyone does it.  At one level, this is true.  Except for the person who is deaf, hearing is no big deal.  We hear all sorts of things every day of our lives.  In fact, hearing is so present in life, we give it no thought.
           
However, spiritual sages through the ages know there is a difference between hearing and listening.  Listening presupposes that we hear, but listening adds a dimension to the hearing.  I would say that listening adds the dimension of paying attention.  Listening demands that we pay attention to what another person is saying. In fact, listening is always about the other person.  Maybe that is why there is so little good listening going on in our world today.
           
Too many of us are too pre-occupied or too selfish to be listeners.  To be a listener takes my issues off the agenda and puts the other person’s agenda before mine.  If I listen, I probably am not going to get what I want.  What’s in it for me is not part of the listening equation!  Some would consider stupid. 
           
If we unpack the components of good listening, we can recognize why it is such a profound experience.  And if we understand the dynamics of good listening, perhaps we will be more inclined to practice it in our lives.  And we can hope others might practice it toward us when we need or want to good listener to pay attention to us.
           
The first component of a listening ear is recognizing that it is always a gift.  Of course, I can try to listen to myself.  That is good, but it is still happening inside the container called “me.”  The true listening ear is someone else’s ear that is focused on me and which I receive as a gift.  Someone else is taking the time, making the effort, and actually paying attention to me.  This gift is certainly an experience of becoming special.  I am the center of attention.  My agenda is the focus of the moment.  This leads to the second characteristic of the listening ear.
           
This gift of listening, which I am given, is always a form of care.  Even if my issues are rooted in pain and suffering and I am spilling my woes, the listening ear is still an ear of care.  The listening ear may not heal my pain nor relieve the suffering, but someone has taken the trouble to listen and to care.  The caring is a form of sharing, even if nothing else seems to happen.  The gift of care is a rare gift these days.
           
In most instances the listening ear that is a caring ear moves to deeper levels.  Even if I am coming from a place of pain and suffering, the listening, caring ear moves to the level of empathy.  The listening ear has “moved in” with me to that place of woe.  And even if nothing immediately can be done about it, I am not alone in that hurt place.  That in and of itself is some solace.  But there is more depth to come.
           
The ear of empathy usually goes deeper to become compassion.  This is where the listener actually begins in some fashion to take on some pain and suffering with me and, if possible, on my behalf.  Certainly in the Christian tradition, Jesus models this suffering servant mode of listening.  The Buddhists also have the bodhisattva, the compassionate one who acts lovingly toward others.  At this level, compassion is healing.  It may not bring the miracle the sufferer wants.  The lame may not literally leap again.  With spiritual healing, the lame may become well, although she or he still limps.  That is the power of the listening ear.
           
The good news about all this is anyone can offer a listening ear.  It does not require special education.  There is no ordination necessary, no classes to attend or tuition to pay.  Surely every normal person has the capacity to discover and deploy a listening ear.  Opportunities abound.  Every day in every place it is easy to recognize someone could use a listening ear.
           
I am convinced if more of us could do this---around the world for sure---there would be such loving and peace-making, conflicts would have a harder time of breaking out and escalating.  It is easy to see this is not just an individual thing.  Groups and even nations can do it too.  But the same process will have to take place.  You have to set aside your own agenda.  You have to be willing not to be self-centered.  This is why it is hard to do.
           
And it is why I think the listening ear is usually a spiritual issue.  Without the spiritual dimension, I am not likely willing to set myself aside.  I am not ready to be other-centered.  And if I claim to be spiritually and am not willing, then I should wonder about my own spirituality.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Living God

In some recent reading I ran across a reference and quotation from one of my teachers in graduate school.  Just seeing his name made me smile.  Raimon Panikkar was an intriguing guy for an Indiana farm boy to encounter.  His class was an amazing experience, but he may have taught me even more by being himself.  Panikkar was born in 1918 in Barcelona, Spain.  His father was from India and was Hindu.  Panikkar’s mother was a Spanish Catholic from Catalonia.  Obviously, he was quickly into the interfaith movement!  And this he began teaching me, even when I did not have that language.

He looked like his Indian father.  He was a small man with a graceful presence that calmed every room I saw him walk into.  He had a charming smile that would have disarmed any malcontent.  But it was his brilliance that I found arresting.  That is not to say he was strong and arrogant.  To the contrary, he was entirely humble and simple.  He had doctorate degrees in science and theology.  He was an ordained Catholic priest.

For a few years he would show up at my alma mater to teach that semester and, then, in the summer he headed back to India to do research.  It was Panikkar who put me on my own global growth journey.  He was at home in worlds I did not even know existed.  For example, one of my favorite lines from Panikkar is autobiographical.  He quipped, “I started as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without having ceased to be a Christian.”

And so my memories came crashing to the forefront of my mind when I saw a reference to Panikkar in a recent book by the Catholic theologian, Ilia Delio.  She is an amazing thinker in her own right---like Panikkar a scientist and theologian.  She is one of the most trusted thinkers I know doing work at the margin where religion and science meet.  It is in this context that she references Panikkar.

Delio brings Panikkar into the picture when she writes about God.  She says, “Raimon Pannikar said that when theology is divorced from cosmology, we no longer have a living God, but an idea of God.”  Delio is concerned to describe God and the world or universe (theology and cosmology) in ways that keep them together.  In effect she wants us to understand that religion and science are complementary.  They go together.  You cannot separate them---even though most of us effectively have separated them.

I like very much Panikkar’s notion that you cannot divorce theology from cosmology.  If you take God out of the universe context in which we find God, then all that remains is an idea of God.  In effect that is what theology is: ideas about God.  That does not make them wrong.  But it does mean in one sense they are not real.  Panikkar, Delio and I are more interested in what he calls “the living God.”  This is the real God involved in the real world. 

This is the God to whom we pray and the God who somehow is both creative and sustaining of the world we know.  Panikkar worries that simply doing theology---taking God out of the world---risks simply dealing with this idea of God.  He puts it powerfully when he says if we do this, “God then becomes a thought that can be accepted or rejected rather than the experience of divine ultimacy.”  

I shudder when I read these words, because that describes the God about which I have spent years studying.  I have read many books on God and plan to keep reading those.  But I also am painfully aware that an idea about God is not the same thing as the living God.  I know at the deepest level no words can describe who God is.  When we use the English word, mystery, to describe God, that is precisely it.  God is mystery---and yet very real.  That is the God with which I deal and the God who deals with me.

I am confident of this, but certainly cannot prove it.  I can offer you my theology which adequately describes the God I encounter, but I also know this theology is a bit like cotton candy.  You take it in big doses and mysteriously it disappears!  I will keep doing theology, but more than that, I want to keep searching for and being available to the living God. 

That living God is the one who calls me deeper and deeper into the beauty and truth of this world and universe.  That is the God calling me and you to be healers of this vulnerable and fragile world of ours.  I suspect most of us despair that we can do anything or we are oblivious of the problems our world faces.  At best we have heard about global warming; at worst we think it is all a bunch of hooey.

If God is simply an idea, then the only worry we have is the harm we do to cosmology---to our world.  However, if there is a living God, then we need to get on the divine agenda.  Long, long ago one gospel writer started a line like this: “For God so loved the world…”  This living God cares for more than you and me.  The world counts, too.

Monday, July 11, 2016

God in Here

I appreciate how stories are good teachers---sometimes, the best teachers.  Stories usually are understandable and when they make a point, it is clear and memorable.  I thought about this as I was recently reading a piece by Richard Rohr, one of my favorite writers on spirituality.  Rohr’s story comes from a time when he was spending a little time at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trapppist monastery where Thomas Merton lived.
           
Rohr talks about his encounter with a recluse.  As Rohr explains, a recluse is a “hermit’s hermit.”  A recluse is a monk who has been given permission to move outside the monastery itself.  Often in this stage the monk is called a hermit.  Toward the end of his life, Merton was given permission to become a hermit.
           
Merton built a small hermitage about a mile from the monastery at Gethsemani.  I have visited the hermitage and easily can imagine living there.  It is more than ample space for one person.  It was this hermitage which Rohr was visiting.  The thing about becoming a hermit is not the space so much as the amount of time spent by yourself.  We know that Merton frequently walked into the monastery.  A hermit goes one step further.
           
A hermit is a monk who becomes even more radical.  A hermit might live in a tent or some makeshift hut deeper in the woods or further away from the monastery.  A hermit would only make it to the monastery on Christmas and Easter.  If we read monastic history, these guys would often appear on the scene looking very much like wild men!  But they would also be deeply spiritual men (and women).
           
With this background we begin telling Rohr’s story.  Rohr says, I was walking down a little trail when I saw this recluse coming toward me.”  Since I have likely been on that same trail that Rohr was walking, it is easy for me to imagine it.  What we have to appreciate, however, is Rohr was probably not expecting to see any other living human being.  It is not like those rolling, wooded areas have a bunch of people out for a hike.
           
Rohr continues by saying, “Not wanting to interfere, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him.  But as we neared each other, he said, ‘Richard!’  That surprised me.  He was supposed to be a recluse.  How did he know I was there?  Or who I was?”  This makes me laugh.  It is a version of spiritual spookiness!  I can imagine being out there on the path and seeing this guy who suddenly calls me by name.  Spiritual shock!
           
We close out Rohr’s story with words from the recluse.  “He said, ‘Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t.  When you’re preaching, just tell the people one thing: God is not ‘out there’!  God bless you.’ And he abruptly continued down the path.  Now I have just told you what he ordered me to do.  God is not out there! 
           
That is such a simple message.  I am sure that is what happens to a person who chooses to be monk, who then grows deep enough spiritually to be called to become a hermit.  And then the hermit continues this deepening process to the point they want to be deeper into silence and meditation as a hermit.  They want only to be with God and themselves.  In the process they continue simplifying until their faith and spirituality is utterly simple.
           
It is from this utter simplicity the recluse can say that God is not out there.  I could not agree more.  Rohr uses this simple statement to make the case for the incarnation.  I also think the incarnation is the key spiritual good news for me.  Simply stated, the incarnation is the fancy theological word that announces God has become human.  Within the Christian story Jesus is the means by which God becomes human.  That is how we begin to understand that God is not out there; rather God is in here.
           
The “in here” aspect of that affirmation is the human heart---the entire human person.  The theology with which too many of us grow up with seems to say God was out there---or maybe more often “up there.”  Perhaps this makes sense as a kid.  But when we grow up and learn something scientifically about out world, that kind of God makes no sense---to me at least.
           
Rather God is in here.  In its radical version, however, the “in here” is everywhere.  God is in here for every human being and for every living corner of our lives and our world.  I think the radical Christian claim is the claim that God not only came into the world as a human, but God continues coming into our world as humans---as me and as you.
           
I am confident that is the truth the recluse wanted Rohr to preach about and to teach about.  We all need to know we are potential carriers of the Divinity.  God wants us to become habitats for the Holy.  Like a holy virus, we are to infect the world with love and peace.  We are to provide so much joy, it will become impossible not to enjoy life and each other.  Just remember: God is not out there…God is in here.