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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Choosing a God

I continue to use the lectionary every day.  As I have said before, the lectionary is a selection of daily readings, usually for devotional purposes.  Lectio in Latin simply means “reading.”  If you like words, that Latin term gives us our English word, lectern, the stand upon which books are placed so someone can read the book or notes.  A podium, one the other hand, is that upon which one stands---places your feet.  So we stand on the podium and read from a lectern.  Those words are often confused and used wrongly.

The daily lectionary I choose to use is the Benedictine one.  The Benedictine monks around the world use the same lectionary.  They have chosen some passages from the Old Testament and from the New Testament that are read at every one of their various worship times through the day.  I try on a daily basis to read the morning selection and the evening one.  I could choose my own, but for me it is nice to have someone else choose.  My goal is to do some devotional reading, not simply to choose it.

The morning reading for today had a selection from the Psalms.  In fact every time the Benedictines gather for worship, some selection from the Psalms is chosen.  Since I did not grow up using the Psalms, I like this feature.  The Psalms were the songbook of the Jews, so I like being linked to that tradition from which Christianity sprung.  The particular selection I focused on today had one line that I would like to share and then upon which to reflect.

The Psalmist says, “O God, your ways are holy, what god is as great as our God?”  (Ps 77:13)  On the surface this seems like a pretty simple one-liner and maybe does not seem all that special.  When I sat in reflection upon it, however, some significant things began to emerge.  The one-liner apparently has both a declaration and a question packaged into one sentence.  The first half is the declaration.  The Psalmist declares that God’s ways are holy.  I believe and like that affirmation.

As I read this, I get the sense the Psalmist is aligning himself with the God whom he thinks is holy.  In fact, I would push it a little further.  That God is God because God is holy.  When I was in college, one of the things I learned that differentiated God from the rest of creation was the element of holiness.

This way of looking at God affirms that only God is holy or sacred by nature.  That means God is naturally sacred.  In fact that is how you define God: what is sacred is divine.  The rest of us---the rest of creation---is not holy by nature.  But we do participate in the holy.  We can become holy, but never in the way God is.  The beauty of this perspective is it says none of us is god, but we can become God-like.

The last half of the Psalm we are looking at it really a question.  The Psalmist asks, what god is as great as our God?  This question fascinates me and, I admit, I was not sure in the beginning what to do with it.  But more reflection opened up an interesting interpretation.  Certainly, the Psalmist is allowing that there may be other gods than the one God who is holy.  Many of us are so into one God that we have never even considered this.  But it is worth pondering.

As I ponder it, I realized people do choose other gods than the one, holy God of the Christian Bible.  Those gods would be the things to which we give our attention, time, effort---indeed, devotion.  The two gods that fit this category are typically identified as fame and fortune.  If my sole goal in life is to become famous, then fame is the god of my choice.  And if being stinking rich is my aim, the same choice has been made.  I do think people make choices in both of these directions---fame and fortune.  Those have not been my choices.

Having thought about it for a while, I began to see that one early god I believe I chose is perfectionism.  For too many reasons to go into, it is true that too many of my years were spent playing the perfectionism game.  Of course, I was not really perfect, but I pretended to be; I acted as if I were.  Psychologists would say that I was living out of my “ideal self.” 

There is an obvious correlation between an ideal self and idolatry.  I would distinguish two states.  My real self---the only self I can actually be---can never be idolatrous.  I won’t worship my true self.  I know that self to be good, but not perfect.  I sin and sometimes fall short.  The ideal self ignores this reality and pretends that I am perfect, sinless and always on target.  In effect, this is to make myself a god.

I can choose to live with the illusion that I am god.  But that only me into my own idol.  Of course, that is foolish.  Perhaps it is even more foolish that choosing fame and fortune for my gods.  Whatever we choose to be our god is a bad choice.  It prevent us from knowing and following the one, true God.  And after all, that is the only Source of true life.  Choose wisely.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What is Prayer?

What is prayer?  This is not an everyday question, but I do think it is a real question for many.  And for many more of us, it not an issue at all.  There are two kinds of people for whom it is not an issue.  There is the large group of atheists---the non-believers---who think prayer is something between a quaint idiosyncrasy and utter nonsense.  And then, there is the other end of that spectrum which entails the believers who are very sure about prayer---both what it is and how one does it.

Many of us find ourselves somewhere in between.  We are not as clear as the non-believer.  We know there is some kind of God or “Other” in our world.  Or we have a sense there is a Divinity, but we are not at all clear how to connect with this entity. 

These thoughts were prompted recently when I read some comments in my graduate school alma mater’s newsletter.  It is written by Susan Abraham, a young professor of Ministry Studies.  In a lucid answer to the question, what is prayer, she offers these words.  “It is a practice, a desire, a force, a power of truth that embraces paradox.”  Let’s look at each of these descriptions of prayer.

The first description of prayer---a practice---is right on the mark, I am convinced.  Every major religious tradition has some time-honored practices.  Certainly, for the Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prayer is one such practice.  It makes sense to say that prayer is a form of practicing our communication with the Divinity.  Of course, there are many different ways we can practice prayer.  And you do have to practice it, just like one has to practice medicine or law or basketball.

The next description is one I very much like, but it would not be as obvious to many of us.  Abraham calls prayer a desire.  Every person knows a great deal about desire.  We have all sorts of desires.  Some desires take us in good directions and other desires lead us into temptation!  Prayer is the desire to connect with God and to act on that desire.  Think about someone in your life whom you really desired to have in your presence.  That is what prayer as desire is like.  It has an alluring quality.

In the third place she says prayer is a force.  This one is probably the trickiest one for me.  A force seems stronger than desire.  A force is capable of pushing me into something, while desire leads me into the same thing.  I am not sure I have experienced prayer as force yet, so this is something to which I can look forward to having in my experience.

Finally, Abraham says that prayer is a power of truth, a power of truth that embraces paradox.  Admittedly, this sounds the most like a professor!  She is not content simply to say prayer is the power of truth, but goes on to say a power to embrace paradox.  I can understand this because my experience of God is often paradoxical.  A paradox is something that is true, but seems contrary to the normal view or to common sense.  God fits this description of a paradox for me.
Prayer of this sort pushes us beyond or beneath common sense and connects us with that elusive Reality we call God.  You cannot call God on your cell phone, but paradoxically you can call on God.  That’s prayer.

This reflection helps me see the various ways to describe prayer and implement it in my life.  It gives me alternatives when I get bored with my traditional version.

Most of all, it provokes me to think and explore.  Thank God.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Beauty of Silence

I suspect I have written about silence about a hundred times!  It reminds me how often I have told congregations and classes of students that I probably only have about four major points in my outlook on life and the way I make sense of things.  Certainly life is complex and my life feels that way some of the time.  But I don’t think that necessarily means our philosophy or theology has to be complex.  In fact I think simplicity is called for. 
Simplicity does not mean that the complexity disappears.  But simplicity becomes a way to understand the complexity---even if we don’t understand all the details of the complex.  I know the universe if far too complex for my little mind to understand.  Most of the time I assume astrophysicists, molecular biologist and neuroscientist understand the complexity of our world far better than I do.  But I doubt that any of them could lean back in a chair and say, “There, I know it all!”
I do know there are many, many words to describe the complexity of our world.  I think I know a great deal of words, but when I look at a dictionary, I am humbled.  Or when I talk to one of my scientist friends, I know how little I know.  Of course, I can talk all day long.  Even someone with a limited vocabulary can talk all day long.  All of my grandkids were pretty verbal when they were young with still a relatively small vocabulary and they could talk all day long!
We all know that talking all day long does not mean something significant was said.  The same can be said for tv watchers.  I don’t abstain from tv.  I like to watch sports, news, specials, etc.  Certainly not everything I watch is edifying.  But I also know there is so much on the tube that I consider junk.  This reminds me that I can use words and I can listen to other people’s words and know that I am a junk dealer! 
I love words, but I know there is a time and a place for words.  Sometimes the very best thing that can be said is nothing!  Maybe it is because I am an introvert, but I have always been ok with saying nothing.  Maybe it is because I am a Quaker that I am ok with no one saying anything for a period of time.  I have never thought that it is wrong to conclude nothing is happening if there are no words being spoken.  In fact, just the opposite is true for me.  I refuse to believe just because words are being spoken, something real or important is happening.  In some cases the only thing happening is junk dealing.
This brings me to what I call the beauty of silence.  I hesitated to use the word, beauty, to describe silence.  I wondered if the word, beauty, had to refer to visual things, like paintings, sunsets and babies?  Clearly, this is the usual context for the word, beauty.  But I also feel that limits the word.  I think it is appropriate to describe silence as beautiful.  I have been to the top of a mountain and sitting on the beach of an ocean.  I have sat with people when not one word was being said.  These times of silence were beautiful.
Of course, it is important not to equate silence with lack of noise.  Silence is not the same as noiselessness.  At the top of a mountain, I may be very aware of the wind even though I am deep in silence.  Sitting at ocean side is usually not noiseless, but I can hear waves and be silent.  I try to think my way into why silence is beautiful.
Silence is beautiful because it invites us into places of profundity.  So many words and conversations are superficial.  Silence makes space opening us to the possibility of profundity.  When this happens to me, my heart feels like it grows bigger.  I get the sense that life has been touched in ways that make me feel privileged.  Often I feel at these times like I have been in the presence of God.
Silence is beautiful because it allows my soul to go deep.  Because so much of my life is lived in the normal and routine range, there is not much depth.  Many conversations and exchanges of my day are transactional.  It is like paying the bills.  It is necessary, but not noteworthy.  Our souls long to be touched in deep places.  There the Spirit of God enlivens us.  There beauty is linked to meaning and our lives are fed by living waters of the Spirit.
Silence is beautiful because it stretches me in expansive ways.  My soul expands to touch those who normally are beyond my frame of reference.  Words can constrict; they focus.  Silence expands our individual universe.  It allows more light into our realm of life and action.  The expansive soul entertains the “what if,” instead of insisting on the “no way.”
I don’t want to be void of words.  I don’t want conversations to stop.  Words are amazing human inventions.  But give me some silence…Lord, give me silence to live the beautiful life.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Map of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Spiritual Technology

I am enjoying my slow read through Krista Tippett’s recent book, Becoming Wise.  She writes with insight and eloquence and that is refreshing in an age where there is so much superficiality and bad thinking.  The other thing I very much like about her work is how significantly it is grounded in experience.  Even though it is a book about spirituality with a dose of religion thrown in, it is not dogmatic or doctrinaire.  To the contrary.  Instead, it is about living---as she says in the book’s subtitle, “the art of living.”
By now I have lived many years, but I am still trying to be an artist---an artist of my own life.  Who would not want his or her life to be a thing of beauty?  It should not be a superficial beauty.  Real beauty is deep and it is profound.  I am not sure I have approximated either of those yet.
Even though I have followed Tippett’s weekly interviews for the radio, I was not sure what I would get in the book.  Certainly some things are fairly predictable.  But other things surprise.  An early surprise in her book was the focus on virtue.  I have been thinking about and writing on virtue for more than a decade, so obviously I was intrigued what she would bring to me.
In her introductory chapter she offered the first clue to the role virtue would play in her thinking and writing.  She says, “The connective tissue of these pages is the language of virtue---an old-fashioned word, perhaps, but one that I find is magnetic to new generations, who instinctively grasp the need for practical disciplines to translate aspiration into action.”  That is a great sentence and one that resonates so well with my own experience.

More than a decade ago when my colleague and I began using the language of virtue, people surely thought we were old-fashioned.  The prevailing language of academics and the American culture since the 1980s had been the language of values.  Schools would devote time to “values clarification.”  Schools and businesses encouraged their cultures to hold close to values.  There is nothing wrong with this, but I was never altogether happy with the language of values because that language is rooted in economics.

For good reason we talk about the value of a house or the value of an education.  To use value language in the realm of morals and ethics seems out of place.  The old-fashioned language of virtues my colleague and I chose to describe classical moral issues like justice, love, etc.  And it seems this is where Tippett is going.

I believe she is correct that new generations are open to virtue language.  My experience says they don’t necessarily know or use this way of seeing and talking about life.  But they “get it” very quickly when they see how it works to describe their reality.  Further, Tippett is clever to hook up the language of virtue with the need for practical disciplines.  This is a big piece missing in so many lives today.

It is easy to see conversations about meaning in life and ethical action as hypothetical or theoretical.  For example, students don’t always see the connection between who I am and what I do---with identity and action.  I think action betrays true identity, regardless of who I say I am.  That is why ethics is called character---or lack of it!

And then, I like how Tippett links practical discipline with the process of translating aspiration into action.  Countless times I have followed Aristotle who says finally virtue is virtue when it becomes an action.  Until you love, love is only an idea.  This leads me to the other sentence I want to share from Tippett’s book.

She confesses, “I’ve come to think of virtues and rituals as spiritual technologies for being our best selves in flesh and blood, time and space.”  Again, this is a powerful sentence.  I admit I never thought about the virtues as technologies.  I never thought about spiritual technologies.  I think about technology to be rooted in skill or ability.  For example, to use the computer is to avail yourself of technology to do amazing things that are not otherwise possible.  Maybe the virtues do the same thing for creating and developing our best selves.

I’m convinced she is correct.  If someone were to ask me “how do I develop my best self?” that would be a tough question to answer.  Now with her take on it, I have a good answer.  Be virtuous.  Let the virtues be your technology to transform your aspiration (to be your best self) into action (a person with high character).  It’s simple, but maybe not easy.

I will still probably think about spirituality as more of an art than science.  But I will begin thinking about spiritual disciplines as technologies---skills you can learn to practice in a disciplined way to become your best self.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Beach Buddha

We all have heard the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Most of the time when I hear that, I don’t even think about it.  It is so commonplace that it really does not pack the punch it originally must have done.  It feels worn out.  But I am in the middle of an experience that is making that old saying seem real.  I received a picture.

When I received the picture in an email, I immediately recognized the figure.  It was my little granddaughter sitting in the water.  They have been on vacation at the ocean.  So I knew the scene, although I have never been to that particular place.  She is sitting by herself in the water just off the shore.  The waves are gently coming toward her as you see more coming in the background.

I have basically a side-view look at her.  I can see her face, but not into face.  Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, so her full face is exposed.  She sits with her legs apart and her arms dangling down between her legs with her hands in the water next to her feet also planted in the water.

It is a bright, cloudless day.  The picture suggests there is not another soul to be seen.  I am sure her mom is close by, but the picture itself suggests pure solitude.  She is by herself with her gaze outward toward the ocean.  She looks very serene.  However, when I say that, I know I am beginning to interpret rather than merely describing what I see.  When we interpret, we overlay our own framework on the picture.  But having begun that, let me take it further.

Let’s imagine my interpretation is indeed a framework for the picture of my granddaughter sitting serenely in the ocean’s water.  The picture I am going to draw is a spiritual picture.  In that picture she is the epitome of a spiritual self.  The picture is going to become a thousand words for my spiritual edification.  At the end I will ask, if she can do it, why can’t I?

I am going to give the picture a title: Beach Buddha.  I don’t know why I called it that; it essentially came to me.  But I am sure one reason it came to me that way is her posture.  She sits rather upright there in the ocean water.  But she is not uptight.  She looks very relaxed.  She reminds me of pictures of the Buddha postured meditatively.  That is the origin of the title.

I have seen Christian monks and lay folk alike in similar meditative poses.  So it is not solely a Buddhist thing.  The bottom line is that meditative pose and gaze.  She sits motionless, but with a soul in motion.  The soul is stirred by the presence of the water and the call of nature to union in the moment.  I can see just enough of her face to discern a smile.  Laughter would be too much---too raucous for that scene.

She is very centered.  Paradoxically, she seems quite centered in herself and yet participating in centeredness with the cosmic nature surrounding her.  She is deep within and far out!  These contrasts with much of my life, which is lived too much at the surface---shallow at best.  Maybe it is because I live all of my life on land where it is much more difficult to get into than the water where she sits.

Land keeps us on top of it.  Oceans invite us to step into it and be in it.  Maybe that is why oceans are a good metaphor for God.  I recall the wonderful image that George Fox, founding person of my own Quaker gang, used.  He talks about the “ocean of light and love.”  That is a good description of the place and space my granddaughter inhabits.  She is in the ocean of light and love.

Of course, I have gone wildly beyond any sure knowledge of would have of the real situation.  I know nothing more than having received the picture with no commentary.  But to me the picture has become an icon.  Icon is the Greek word for image, which comes from the Latin, imago.  So the icon is an image---a picture.  But an icon is more than that.  An icon is meant to draw you into the picture or painting and, then, beyond the image to the very Reality behind, beneath and above the image.

The icon invites us in---but deeper into the Reality which makes all things possible.  For me that is God---the Holy One.  The icon of my daughter says to me, “come on in; you too can enter the presence in which I am.”  She tells me, in effect, to sit down, relax and begin meditatively to leave the superficialities and idolatries of my life.  Get it straight and get real.  No doubt, this is why Jesus talks about children when he wanted to describe the Kingdom.

Clearly, I am too old, too gnawed by life’s experience, to do it the way she does it.  But she assures me I can do it.  She has become one with her world---and I assume that means in her own way, one with God.  It is what contemplatives call a unitive experience.  I am confident I can learn to live this way, too.

I am not jealous.  I am grateful.  Little kids can become our teachers.  In this case I happen to know my teacher!  I am grateful for this icon to show me the way---to invite me into fullness of life God intended.  That’s my Beach Buddha!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In the Margins

I feel like some people are my friends, even though I have never met them nor talked to them.  Some people in this category are very old---ancient, to be sure.  One of them was St. Athanasius, as the Roman Catholic Church calls him.  Athanasius was a fourth century bishop and theologian.  He was the patriarch of Alexandria, that great classical city in Egypt which was the seat of learning and culture in the ancient age.  Athanasius was archbishop of that city when the once unbelievable thing happened.  The Roman emperor became a Christian.
This radical change from an empire that had persecuted Christians from the time of Jesus now joined the cause, as it were, and became an ally of the Christian Church.  Many of us have questions whether this was a good thing, but nevertheless, Athanasius played a huge role in those times.  And I came to know him so well because he was the focus of my doctoral dissertation.  I felt like we became friends, but the only thing I had from his life were his writings.
A living person whom I feel like is my friend is the radio host and author, Krista Tippett.  For some years she has been the host of the public radio program, On Being.  Routinely, she interviews and engages well-known people about their lives, their faith and their spirituality.  Oddly enough, she has made a living and become famous for listening.  She has a gift for listening to another and then asking a trenchant question that leads to more reflection and some spiritual insight and wisdom.
I have listened to her podcasts, have read the interviews and been educated from the process.   I enjoyed her first book, Speaking of Faith.  She now has a rather new book out and I am reading it for everything I know it will bring me.  She entitles this book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  I like her focus on wisdom.  And I really appreciate seeing her talk about living as an art.  In this sense we are all artists practicing our craft---living to become better and deeper human beings.  Or if we are not doing this, perhaps we are wasting a precious God-given gift, namely, life.
I want to focus this reflective piece on a paragraph that comes very early in her book, the introductory chapter.  She says, “I’m a person who listens for a living.  I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for the voices not shouting to be heard.”  She confesses “my ideas have emerged conversationally, through a back and forth with graceful minds and lives.”  And then comes the next sentence that I have come to associate with Tippett’s eloquent style.  “I’ve come to understand the cumulative dialogue of my work as a kind of cartography of wisdom about our emerging world.”  Cartography is not a word that you run into every day!
I felt lucky that I knew the word means a “mapping.”  Cleverly, she says her book is a mapping project of the world’s wisdom.  But let her words speak here: “This book is a map in words to important territory we all are on now together.”  She has borrowed the image of a journey through a particular unknown territory called life.  But we have a map.  We have the wisdom of individuals to show us the way.
I add one more piece from the section.  She claims that the book as a map of wisdom is “a collection of pointers that treat the margins as seriously as the noisy center.  For change has always happened in the margins, across human history, and it’s happening there now.”  I love the emphasis on the margins of our lives and of our culture.  Most of life is lived from the center---what she calls the noisy center.  It is the place of our routine, the normal and the obvious.  But she suspect, the Spirit is more to be found on the margin---at the edge.  It is there that a new thing is happening.
It is at the margins that change steals in upon us.  It is on the edge that reform and, even, transformation begin their creative and re-creative work on our souls and spirits.  To become a new creature, as the Apostle Paul says, or a true self as more contemporary spiritual writers describe it, we need to be aware of and sensitive to the marginal work going on in our lives.
It is in the cracks, with little nudges that mighty soul work so often happens.  It has been true in my own life.  And so I am expecting Tippett’s new book to offer voices and wisdom to which I can listen to continue my own transformational work to be the truest self I can be.  Because I tend to be in control in my center, it is no wonder that God so frequently turns out to be a worker of the margins.  Tippett’s insights from others no doubt will direct me to that outer, vulnerable place and space in my life.
As odd as it might sound, my quest is to become a marginal person.  I want to be as marginally involved in my contemporary culture as I can.  It is in the midst of our noisy centers that so often we sign a pact with the devil.  It is to the edge I go.  Real life will be found in the margins.

Monday, August 22, 2016


Recently I heard a friend speak and one of the things he talked about was the idea of invitation.  I don’t think I ever spent any time pondering that very common phenomenon.  Of course, I have been invited to countless things over my lifetime.  And I have invited multiple people for various things I have done.  There are very standard invitations and, of course, special ones.
Standard invitations would be to things like birthday parties, weddings, etc.  Some invitations to these events are elaborate.  I have seen wedding invitations that seem quite expensive to make.  They are multi-colored, have ribbons and other fancy twists.  At the other end of the spectrum are invitations that I get via email.  There is nothing special about these in any way.  They are very functional.  They simply invite me to something, give me the time and place and that’s it.
Generally, I see invitations as a good deal.  To receive an invitation is to know that I am wanted at some event.  Some invitations are business related, but maybe these should not even be called invitations.  If there is a committee meeting, I hardly call it an invitation when I get the notice the meeting is some particular day.  That is more like an information piece or a notice.  Invitations are more like requests.  And generally, I see these favorably.
At the base level, an invitation is a request for my presence and/or my participation.  The wedding invitation, for example, is a request that I be present at a very special day for a couple.  The invitation essentially asks that I not only be present, but that I participate in wishing the couple a good day and a good life.  Some wedding invitations even hope that I and the other guests would be in prayer with the couple for their day and their good life together.  Most of the time I am touched to be invited and happy to participate with them.
An invitation does indeed communicate that I am wanted.  Invitations are always a request.  They are at the other end from a commandment.  To an invitation I can always say no.  My free will is honored by an invitation.  Clearly, a commandment or an order cannot be disobeyed without consequences.  I can say no to a commandment, but I’ll probably be in trouble.  If I responded positively to an invitation, I am committing myself out of my free will.  I am saying, “I want” to come.
In addition to being wanted an invitation implicitly says in some way I am valued---or valuable.  An invitation says I am wanted and, somehow, I am valuable enough to be present.  There is a range of why I might be valuable.  I might be invited because of some particular kind of knowledge I have that would add value.  I might be invited because of some of the soft skills I have.  Soft skills are things like caring, supporting, encouraging, etc.  I know I bring these to a situation and suspect that is why I am invited to certain things.
As I think about invitation, I realize this is what’s behind the call to discipleship that Jesus offered various people he approached.  The gospels narrate some of these invitations to discipleship.  One familiar story tells about Jesus approaching some guys who were fishing.  “Follow me,” is the usual form of invitation from Jesus.  Most of what we just said about invitations in general applies to these specific calls to discipleship.
When Jesus calls a person, he is telling that person he or she is wanted.  In every case I can think of, Jesus calls the person, not the skill.  Jesus did not call people who were fishing because he needed some fishers.  His invitation is always personal---to the person.  We are wanted.  His call is a request---a request for friendship.  I am confident that Jesus thinks we can add value to the spiritual movement.  In some way we are going to be valuable.  This is the place we might be expected to do something---to offer the value that we promise.
As with all invitations, the invitation from Jesus to enter into relationship can be met with our “no.”  We are free to decline the invitation.  We can choose to ignore it.  In effect we can say, “forget it.”  The invitation to spiritual relationship always honors our free will.  I appreciate this because it means we can never be coerced into being spiritually active. 
This is important to me because it frees me up to see that it is my choice to be in relationship with God.  And because I am freely engaged with God, when I say that I want to do what God wants me to do, I know I am acting out of my own freedom.  I am not a slave being ordered to do things I don’t want to do.  My relationship with God may not be a relationship of equals, but it is a mutual relationship.
Both God and I are in the relationship out of our respective freedom.  I am in it because I said, “yes” to an invitation.  Thank God!             

Friday, August 19, 2016

Love of Learning

When I was a kid on the Indiana farm, occasionally I would run into something that I had forgotten about and it was like discovering the thing anew!  It was as if something that had been lost was found.  Sometimes, I laughed because I realized I had not missed the thing until I found it again.  And then I could not imagine not having it.  One of my favorite places of discovery was a corner of our barn where most of the stuff was the stuff my grandpa put there.

I have fond memories of days spent on that farm in the tow of my grandfather.  That was especially true when I was young---too young for the heavy work of the farm.  It never occurred to me not to be outside with him and my dad.  But I also did not wonder why they were lifting the eighty pounds bales of hay.  I was watching and that seemed appropriate.

No doubt, it was because my grandpa was beyond his prime in physical strength and I had not arrived to my prime that we were bound together at the margins of the active farm life.  We drew the odd jobs that needed to be done.  Some of these I hated.  Things like fixing a fence or cleaning rust off of some piece of metal were tedious and boring---at least to me.  I was depressed that these kinds of jobs never seemed boring to my grandpa.  He had tenacity with things I was ready to ditch after five minutes.  He was fine with the job and I was stuck!

I continue on this tangent about that corner in my barn where I found things I did not know I had lost because I realize I am now my grandpa!  The only difference is there is no corner of a barn.  That “corner” is now the files on my computer---files that can go back decades.  My “junk area” is much neater than that old corner in the barn, but functionally it is still the same.  Occasionally I wander into those old files and inevitably find something that delights me and I relish exploring all over again things I had forgotten about.

Recently, that happened as I was rummaging around in an old file.  I found a little article by my friend, Parker Palmer.  The focus was community.  I know Palmer has books on community.  I know he learned much about community the way he describes it from his long stay at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center outside Philadelphia.  I know it well.  In fact that is where I met Parker Palmer decades ago.

As I twirled through that old article about community, I was struck again by how important that idea of community is in my work as a teacher.  It is central to how I imagine developing the culture of the classroom.  And I realize how much Palmer and I have in common.  I have learned from him, to be sure, but we both know we have imbibed deeply that Quaker sense for how people are meant to be together---whether as learners, worshippers or whatever.

I would like to focus on one short summary paragraph that resonates deeply with me.  He talks about the love of learning.  He says,  “The first is love of learning itself. The simple ability to take sheer joy in having a new idea reaffirming or discarding an old one, connecting two or more notions that had hitherto seemed alien to each other, sheer joy in building images of reality with mere words that now suddenly seem more like mirrors of truth–this is love of learning.”  I have known that love of learning and realize it still fuels my desire to be with people of all ages in various learning projects.

I especially like the point Palmer makes when he talks about the “joy in building images of reality with words that now suddenly seem more like mirrors of truth.”  I think I do that with students all the time.  I find too many students today do not value language.  They don’t take the time to be careful with their language and to appreciate the power of words.  They aren’t aware of how much our image of reality is built with out words.

They don’t value the fact that we are much like Adam in the creation story.  We are naming the stuff of our experience, just as Adam named the creatures of nature.  In that sense we are creating our realities.  If we are not actively doing this, we are resigned to accept a version of reality put together by someone else.

My love of learning continually takes me into other people’s perception of reality.  Often they use words and images to describe reality in a way that is new for me.  I can become inventive or innovative by connecting dots from two disparate arenas.  I find someone describe something that confirms the way I see it.  I may be taken more deeply into a truth I know I hold.  I am grateful.

You don’t have to be in school to pursue this love of learning.  That love keeps us vibrant and engaged.  But I realize how too many of us have turned off this love of learning.  We opt for the garbage of our culture---the pablum of an infantile take on human meaning.  God wants more.  There is spiritual food to feed growing spirits.  Learn to love this learning.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I personally enjoy reunions.  And I like watching other people enjoy reunions.  When I was a young guy, occasionally there would be family reunions.  It would be a time when I would see cousins whom I probably had not seen for a couple years.  It was also a time when the adults would sit around and talk about “old times.”  At that juncture in my life, I was sure I would never do that!  It seemed utterly boring to me.  I much preferred running off and playing ball.

When we finish our education, we typically belong to some class.  And at some point, you are invited to the reunion of your high school class year.  The same holds true for college reunions.  I remember going to my first high school reunion---it was the 20th, I think.  I was amazed how much so many people had changed.  Even though I was married late in my college years, we went on to graduate school and kids came along later than usual.  At my high school reunion, my classmates had kids and a couple even had grandkids!

Sometimes churches and other groups have reunions.  In every case the reunion seems focused more on the past than the future.  Of course, there is some catching up to do---quickly filling in the gaps about kids, jobs, etc.  But pretty soon the conversation sets off again in the direction shaped by the question, “Do you remember when…?”  And that provides a key link to reunions. 

Reunions are an exercise in remembering.  If there were no memory---in this case, shared memory---there would be no reunion.  That is why it is always difficult for a spouse or friend to have to go to someone else’s reunion.  There is no memory.  There are no common stories.  There is no feeling for everything being shared.

Personally, one of my favorite reunion times is when students come back to campus.  This happens, of course, after they are away after summer break.  But it also happens after the various holidays during the school year.  I delight in seeing someone coming at me whom I know from class or some other context.  There is a joy in recognizing and being recognized.  Recognition is a form of knowing and being known.  That is a rich experience for human beings.

This experience led me to some deeper thinking about the nature and meaning of reunion.  Perhaps the most obvious level is the meaning of the word, reunion.  Clearly, it is a compound word: re + union.  Since I know Latin, I know that “re” means “again.”  Literally, a reunion is a “uniting again.”  And that leads to the next insight.

You can never have a reunion without a prior union.  There has to be an initial uniting before there can be a re + uniting.  And I know the language of “union” suggests the experience of “oneness.”  If you are united, you have become in some sense one.  This is why marriages so often are called unions---the two become one.  Families are a union of persons.  By extension, graduating classes are united by a common experience in school that is solidified by a common graduation. 

To go further, I like to think about friendships as a form of union.  Friendships are unions of respect for each other, care, willingness to sacrifice, etc.  Friendships are unions in the sense that acquaintances are not.  Friendships are the relationships I feel for both colleagues and students.  So after a period of absence, it is nice to be reunited.  All friendships have a history.  It is not possible to have instant friendships---in spite of what Facebook alleges.

Because friendships have a history, it is always possible to have reunions, at which point there usually is a desire to share the memories of that history.  Again, those are naturally precipitated when someone asks, “Do you remember…?”  And at this point everyone in the conversations launches into a retelling of history. 

It is only a short step to see how clearly this relates to the spiritual level.  For example, when Jesus calls people into following him, he told them he would call the friends.  Discipleship is relationship.  And relationships have histories.  This is the individual aspect.  There is also a communal aspect.  When Jesus calls people to gather together, he said his Presence would be among them.  In fact he said even when two or three would gather, there he would spiritually be.

This is why community is spiritually so important to me.  The spiritual community is where friends gather and where human life is intentionally lived out in the way God designed it.  It is where love prevails.  It is where justice is worked out.  It is the place where peace is pursued.  And every time the community comes together again, there is a reuniting---reunion happens.

But in this reunion not only is the past valued, but the future is eagerly embraced.  In spiritual reunions the past is remembered, the present is a sacred moment and the future is tied to the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Art of Community

Recently I read something that contained the phrase, “the art of community.”  I have no idea what it was that I was reading and I don’t remember anything about the context of the phrase nor any more points that were made in developing the idea.  So I am hoping I am not committing plagiarism!  I am using a phrase and would give credit if I had a clue where I read it. 
I have had an ongoing interest in community for decades now.  Maybe it has been a lifetime, but I probably did not have the language for it when I was a kid.  Times were different when I was a kid.  In those days people went to church because many believed, I am sure.  But I am also sure folks went because it was the socially accepted thing to do.  In those days there was far less diversity in my part of the world---or at least, I was unaware of the diversity.  Of course, in a rural Indiana setting in the mid-20th century, there really was less diversity.
I am sure the idea of community was important even then, but I don’t remember that terminology.  People simply talked about “going to church” or “to meeting” in my case as a Quaker.  Church was more than the Sunday morning service.  Church was an attitude and a way of life.  In my language today church was the community, which was part of you even when you were by yourself.  With community, I never felt alone even when I was actually by myself.  For the most part I appreciated it.
I carried that desire for community on into my educational experience and it has lasted even to this day.  In fact I have a couple lines in the syllabus for every class I teach that expresses my hope that throughout the semester the class might become a community.  In the beginning I never try to define it for students.  And I tell them I cannot do it alone.  But it almost always happens.  And the process fascinates me.  I am convinced now that I invite them into the process of becoming artists of community.  I now have a new phrase to describe the process.
I would like to reflect some on that process of community formation---the art of community.  There are many elements to it, but I will identify three of them.  The first thing the art of community requires is respect.  Authentic community is not possible without mutual respect among the members.  This does not mean everyone is equal.  Clearly, in most communities there is inequality when it comes to abilities, development, etc.  But there can be mutual respect. 

Because I have a Ph.D. does not mean I hold everyone who does not have a doctoral degree in some disdain.  Having a Ph.D. does not mean I am better---or even smarter---than someone else.  My daughter is a M.D., so does that trump a Ph.D?  Just because she can prescribe pills and I can’t, does not make her better than I am.  Respect is for the person, not for the degree.  I applaud her for her abilities and tenacity to finish medical school, residency and all that.  But I respect her for the person she is.  And so it is with everyone in a community.

The second element of community is to learn the art of caring.  Caring is not something to prescribe like the medicine my daughter can prescribe.  Caring is heart work.  It is not always logical nor rational.  Typically caring for someone is not a matter of education nor even talent.  In fact I doubt there is any correlation between amount of education and the capacity for caring.  The question here really does have to do with the heart and not the brain!  Caring is one of the ways that communities balance the diversity and disparities. 

The last element involved in the art of community is forgiveness.  I am convinced that community development requires sufficient engagement and, even, intimacy that mistakes and failures inevitably will occur.  People will blow it.  People will get tired, mad, etc.  Surely there will be times when I have to confess and be sorry for what I say or do.  Without forgiveness, all communities will unravel.  Communities are not utopian.  While I am happy to think spiritual communities intimate heaven, they are not heavenly.

Forgiveness is the way communities go forward when problems threaten to derail the best of intentions.  Forgiveness is not saying, “Forget it.”  Usually forgetting it is not possible.  Forgiveness is how we recognize that even though we can’t forget it, we are not going to get stuck in the moment of failure.  Forgiveness is the hope of failure.  Without forgiveness, there is not hope.  There is only the reality of failure---the victory of the problem.

I am sure there are more elements in the art of community.  But surely there are these three: respect, caring and forgiveness.  They are the artistic tools of community formation and nurture.  We can all be artists of community.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Networks and Community

Sometimes I read something and want to respond with a “duh!”  It is even funnier when some very smart, high-level people “discover” something that I was sure would be true.  That happened to me recently when I was reading the alumni magazine from one of the institutions of higher education that granted me a degree.  Arguably it is one of the most well known universities in the land.  No one would deny some of the world’s smartest people teach there.  So when they conduct research and report their findings, it is usually received with utmost respect.
I do not doubt or put down this perspective.  In fact, I am delighted to be an alum of that university and read the magazine with regularity and appreciation.  Very interesting learnings come from those pages.  The recent short article that is referenced here is given the catchy title, “What Makes Teams Tick?”  I have played sports and been part of a myriad of groups, so I was eager to jump into reading the little report.
The article begins with something I am sure is true.  The big issues of our time---like climate change---will require what is called “interdisciplinary solutions.”  That is to say, biology alone or chemistry or even politics alone will be insufficient to effect the kind of change necessary.  It will take people from a variety of disciplines---academic talk for departments.  Something like climate change is a science issue, a political issue, a social issue and, perhaps even, a religious issue.  All this will be brought to bear to create a solution.  In effect, teams are going to be need---cross-disciplinary teams.
The question the study focused on is what makes successful interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary teams.  Or if we want to put it in business language, how do cross-functional teams in a business work well together?  What makes some teams very effective and other teams less effective?  All the people studying this conclude it is not simply talent alone that makes great teams.
Of course, anyone who has every played sports knows this.  Some basketball teams, for example, which clearly have the most talented players do not always win.  A team with highly talented athletes may not be a very good “team.”  There can be egotism, selfishness, etc. that prevents highly talented teams from winning.  Good, effective teams apparently require more than simply talent, whether that be the best shooter for basketball or the smartest for a big human problem to be solved.
What emerged in the study as a key factor was the “emotional aspect.”  In other words, it is not brains alone that make effective teams.  Duh!  The authors of the study focused on interdisciplinary teams---networks---to see what made them tick.  In addition to the intellectual factor, they found “also emotional and interactional elements” made a huge difference. 
I can appreciate the intellectual language the study used, but find it can be off putting to non-academics.  For example, one author found that effective groups or teams experienced a “collective effervescence!”  This means they liked each other and got along.  Duh!  Another one of the authors is quoted as saying, “What our study suggests is that we need to pay special attention to something that we sometimes take for granted or forget…”  Her conclusion is clear: “Successful collaboration requires the construction of a group identity.”  In my simple words, if all the “me’s” can become “we,” you got a strong team in the making.
Finally, the authors of the article were able to become simple.  In describing what makes teams tick, one of them notes, “They really like each other…”  Duh!  I don’t want to belittle the fine study.  For me it confirms what my experience and common sense already told me.  What makes good teams is more than brains or talent.  They have to really like each other.
My spiritual language for this is community.  Community is what you get when a group moves through the formation process just described.  Authentic community is where every individual knows the community is more important than any one individual.  There is mutual respect, caring and sharing within the community.  The community often provides meaning and purpose to the individuals.
High performing teams or communities know that succeeding is more fun because the group did it.  And failing or even suffering is tolerable because the community is still intact.  I have experienced this especially in my spiritual communities.  In my own Christian tradition, this is precisely what Jesus wanted when he gathered his disciples together and used the image of body to talk about their unity.  The community was one body make up of many members.  There is power in this communal reality.  They could withstand persecution and, often, martyrdom.
I wonder if spiritual communities are not still potential powerful players in the “big solutions” needed for our world problems.  I think so and I hope so. 

Monday, August 15, 2016


One of the books I am reading is Jim Forest’s All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day.  I have read Day’s own autobiography and some other things she wrote.  But I have never had a total look at this remarkable woman’s life.  Dorothy Day is on the radar of Pope Francis.  When he visited the United States, he was invited to speak to the US Congress.  In that speech he singled out Day, along with three others, as models of American religious life.  Some think at some point Dorothy Day will be made a saint.
Dorothy Day is best known for founding the Catholic Worker.  In the beginning this was simply a newsletter.  Later there were Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and other manifestations of Day’s spirituality.  Dorothy Day lived a fascinating, bohemian life in the early 20th century.  She was anything but a saint!  It seemed like everything she did was life on the edge.  Consistent through her life, however, was her writing.  Her father was a journalist and it seemed that came through in the DNA.
Although she was not raised in a religious home, it also seemed like Day always had a lure to the spiritual realm.  Through a fascinating pilgrimage, she finally became religiously convinced and was baptized a Roman Catholic.  True to form, Day would not be an average kind of Catholic.  She read the Gospels and felt like they were written for her and they were to be taken seriously. 
Her spirituality was a direct reflection of her sense of what following Jesus was supposed to mean.  For her it meant a radical sense of peacemaking.  It meant living with the poverty of a saint.  It meant caring for those who were despised or treated unjustly.  If we recognize much of her work began in the 1930s, we know this was a time of Depression and desperation.  
If I could summarize her life and message, it simply would be Dorothy Day cared and shared.  I choose one incident to illustrate this.  And the words to articulate it come from someone other than Day, but who was attracted into her circle by her personality.  In 1939 a French-Canadian priest came into Day Catholic Worker house in New York City.  Father Pacifique Roy would become influential in her continued growth in the spiritual life.  And through Dorothy Day’s sharing, Father Roy challenges my own growth in the Spirit.
There was an interesting engagement between Father Roy, Dorothy and others in the Catholic Worker house---an engagement that focused on the themes of giving and love.  I was pulled into this engagement because I also believe those are central concepts to the life in the Spirit.  At one point Day reports, “Love, Father Roy said, is what makes us want to give.”  This establishes a clear relationship between love and giving. 
Father Roy continued developing this theme.  “Giving is the essence of religious life; giving time and attention, giving prayer, giving possessions and money, giving space in one’s life and home, giving one’s life.  Don’t save.  Don’t store up ‘treasure which moth and rust attack.’  Live by the rule of giving.”  There is much to ponder in these priest’s words.
I like how he says that giving is the essence of the spiritual life.  This fits nicely with one of my basic assumptions about life: life is a gift.  And if life is a gift, then to live fully is to give.  Giving is what God essentially does.  Why should we not do the same thing?  With this perspective it is easy to see how sin messes up this spiritual tendency.  Sin becomes a selfish thing.  Rather than giving, we become concerned with getting.  We want what is ours and, often, even more than what is ours.  Instead of giving, we become greedy!
Father Roy details what he means by giving.  We give time and attention.  As someone who has been a teacher and who has tried to minister, this makes sense to me.  But giving time and attention is not limited to people like me.  It applies to everyone.  As Father Roy continued, it became more overtly religious.  Give prayer.  Prayer is one of the clearest ways we care for ourselves and for others.  Sometimes I think the only thing we can do is invite God into our situation or the situation of others.
Then Father Roy becomes more challenging.  Give our money and our possessions to others.  Here is where I am tempted to fear that I won’t have enough, so it’s harder to hear about giving money and possessions.  I can offer rationales for why I don’t need to share---or, at least, share very much.  But these are excuses.  But there’s more.  Give space in my life and my home.  I hear the challenge now is to be hospitable.
I am drawn to the idea that my life can be lived hospitably.  I can offer who I am and what I have.  It may be money; it might be time.  Surely, I can be hospitable with the care and love I am have.  I live to give.