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Monday, October 31, 2016

Love is the Better Option

Periodically, I have the chance to reread sections of Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk.  The book first appeared in 1996.  I had read some of Norris’ work and was eager to read this book when it was published.  I knew it was based on her time spent at St. John’s Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota.  As one who also is a Benedictine oblate, I was excited to see what her reflected experience would be.  I was not disappointed the first time I read it and I delight every time I pick the book up to read parts of it again.
           
Recently, I had to read a chapter she entitles, “Learning to love: Benedictine Women on Celibacy and Relationship.”  I suspect many readers would never bother with this chapter because of the title.  I think their mistake would be focusing on the subtitle, Benedictine women, and quickly assume there would be nothing there for them.  Instead I was intrigued with the idea of “learning to love.”  Maybe it is because I am a perennial student, but I am always pulled into something to learn.  And to learn love seemed particularly attractive.
           
Part of the way into the chapter, Norris quotes the philosopher, Ernest Becker.  His words were enlightening.  “There are two basic ways to experience a radical change: to undergo a nervous breakdown, and to fall in love.  And love is preferable.  Love, if we can move beyond projecting onto another person and see them as they really are, also makes us more aware of who we are.”  I fully agree.  I would rather fall in love than experience a nervous breakdown!
           
Having thought some about Becker’s words, allow me to unpack the quotation to share my learning.  The first key idea is to recognize what so many people do when they fall in love.  They project things on to the person with whom they are falling in love.  In a way they “create” their lover.  Of course, the other person is there in an objective way, but the person we see is not the actual person.  And naturally, we are not aware of this creative process.
           
In the early blush of love this is not a problem.  Especially in romantic love, the early phase of love---often the infatuation phase---is so exciting there are basically no problems.  For a little bit heaven has descended on to earth and envelopes both of us!  Each person is thrilled and filled.  In heaven there is not time and, so, this feels like it can last forever.  But of course, it doesn’t.
           
The problem has been there all along; it just takes time to manifest.  Ultimately, the other person will turn out to be who they really are.  And I will do the same thing.  I will turn out to be the real me and not be the person the one who loves me thought I was.  Reality sometimes is disappointing.  This would be both a little funny and unfortunate if it were only limited to romantic love.
           
However, I think this sometimes is what happens with people’s experience of God.  Early in a spiritual relationship, we create the image of who God is.  Perhaps we even fall in love with the image of who God is.  This God is usually very nice---super loving, especially to me.  God’s Providence has good things in store for me and every day is a bit like my birthday.  Life is a gift and is full of gifts.  It’s a blessing, as the saying goes.
           
In some ways this is true.  But it is not true they way I am tempted to frame it.  God is Love and life is a gift.  And surely, life is full of gifts.  But they might not be what I expect or wanted.  God always turns out to be who God is---not the image of whom I want God to be.  In fact, I wonder if most of us would not really prefer Santa Claus to God!
           
Becker has the right perspective.  They key is to see the other person---my lover or God---as they really are.  If we can do this, we are living in the land of reality and not fantasyland.  And when we can do this, not only do we see the other for the person they are, but also we become aware of whom we really are.  And when we are dealing with reality, spiritual growth and development become possible.
           
Reality is where radical change can happen.  In fact, it is the only place where change can happen.  And that is a nice way to understand why learning to love is a good option.  It is the way to be aware of ourselves and spiritually to be aware of the God who is Love.  And if we can develop a relationship with this God, we engage the process of becoming a remarkable person.
           
In the hands of this loving God we can realize that life is a gift.  I realize my life is a gift and every day I will be called to give my gift to the world in ordinary and, perhaps, extraordinary ways.  I can positively affect my little world and in my tiny way bring a bit of heaven to earth.  Love is the better option.               

Friday, October 28, 2016

Be Verbal

The call to be verbal is not always welcome news to anyone who is shy and introverted!  Being verbal is about the last thing they hope to hear.  But it seems to me this is exactly what the spiritual journey asks each of us to do: to be verbal.  Let me explain.

It makes most sense to begin the explanation with a reminder of what all of us knows about grammar.  I had a good elementary teacher—although I am not sure I can recall her name or the grade---who taught me the basics of English grammar.  I remember her saying something to the effect that the main components of the sentence are nouns and verbs.  She is correct; complete sentences have at least one of each.

If we generalize, we can understand most nouns having to do with a “state of being.”  If we say “cat,” we point to a group of animals---all of whom may be pretty different---that have in common “catness!”  Since I do not share their state of being (genetic code, etc.), I an not a “cat.”

On the other hand, verbs are different.  There are a couple kinds of verbs.  But the ones I want to give focus are the verbs which point to “action.”  Our language has a ton of action verbs.  We can stand, sit, jump, run, lumber, laugh, and so on.  Each of these is an action word.  The verb affects the noun.

Essentially, the verb can be said to “make the noun act.”  Of course, it sounds odd to say it that way.  But if we put it into a sentence, it makes sense.  For example, we can say that “the cat jumps.”  The verb made the cat move!  The cat was just a cat until it “got verbed!”  It could have been “verbed” differently.  We might have seen “the cat fall.”

Now what on earth might this have to do with you and me?  I think it is an easy transition to the analogy if we imagine that God---the Holy One, the Divine---is a noun.  In fact, the English word, “God,” is our accepted way to describe a Being, an Entity, a Reality, that is so “other-than-us” as to be nearly indescribable.  So we add other words to try to paint the picture.  We call God eternal, ineffable, etc.

But God was not content merely to be a noun---to be.  God decided to act---the “Divine verbing,” if you will.  One of the New Testament letters tells us that God is love.  But “love” in that sentence is still a noun.  It is when it becomes a verb, as in “to love,” that it swings into action.  So God loved.  And then comes the second verb, “create.”  God created.  Love is creation in action!

What’s more in the Christian understanding, when things in the world had gone too wacky, God became so loving that the Divinity became human.  Somehow in Jesus we see the noun, “God,” acting out in the world.  God loved; God healed; God taught; God fed; and the list goes on.  They are all verbs.

And now for us the spiritual journey is to be more than nouns.  For example, to say that I am a Christian, is to use a noun.  The same goes if I say I am Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu.  I can say I am a Christian and do nothing.  I can say that I am spiritual and do nothing.  What is missing is the verb---the acting.

So the call to embark on the spiritual journey is really a call to be verbal.  We are to do something, as well as be something.  We, too, will be called to love, to heal, to care, to ameliorate injustice, to share, and the verbal list goes on.

In fact, I am tempted to go so far as to say that if I have not spiritually “verbed,” then I have not done anything yet.  In contemporary street language, “we gotta’ walk the talk.”  The good news tells us there are countless ways to be verbal. 

Lord, let me be attentive in my day today.  Let me see where I can be verbal.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

People of Dark

I continue to enjoy working my way slowly through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise.  It is such a wonderful read because it is built around so many interviews she does with very interesting people.  Reading her book is the next best thing to sitting in the interview itself or, even better, being able to be with the various people by yourself.
           
The latest one that intrigued me was her interview with the writer, Richard Rodriguez.  I have read some of Rodriguez’s works and find him an engaging, thoughtful person.  I am acquainted with his exploration of his Catholic faith.  He also brings to the table his own Latino background.  With all of this difference from my own upbringing, I always feel like I have so much to learn.  Tippett was able to tease even more insight with her interview. 
           
Early in her interview she cites his memoir, Hunger of Memory.  She quotes a sentence from that piece.  Rodriguez says, “Of all the institutions in their lives, only the Catholic Church had seemed aware of the fact that my mother and father are thinkers, persons aware of their own experiences of their lives.”  Rodriguez picks up on her reading of this passage and begins to comment.  He says, “The power of religion to make us reflective of the lives we are leading seems to me to encourage an inwardness, which I would call intellectual.”  I am intrigued that he calls this inwardness “intellectual.”  I might call it “spiritual.”  In either case I want to pursue this.
           
After 9/11 Rodriguez pursued this inwardness by working to understand the religion, which seemingly had produced terrorists.  He noted that he worshipped the same God as they did.  So he moved to the desert, the place common to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  It is his reflection on the desert that led him to what I have taken from his writing, namely, a sense that we are a “people of dark.”  Let’s go to the desert with him and follow his journey.
           
He notes the desert “is a holy landscape.  It is also a landscape that drives us crazy.”  I am not a desert person.  I am a product of the flat Midwest scene of cornfields and soybean fields.  To read him is to be take to a strange land and invited to see and to learn.  I watch Rodriquez move from being in the desert to making assertions about God and how God works.  Rodriguez says, “Somehow, in this landscape, we got the idea that there is a God who is as lonely for us as we are for Him.”  Wow, what a thought!  God is as lonely for me as I am for God.  That describes God in a novel way for me.
           
To this notion of God, Rodriguez adds an equally insightful comment.  “And there is in this landscape, also, a necessity for tribe.  You do not live as an individual on the desert.  You live in tribes.  And that tribal allegiance, that tribal impulse, leads on the one hand, to great consolation, but also to the kind of havoc we are seeing now.  That very much helps me understand how Rodriguez is processing this new century.
           
And then he comes to the part I want to emphasize.  He comments, “You have to acknowledge when you wander the desert, how bright and blinding is light.  And how consoling is twilight and darkness.  In these religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), oftentimes shade and darkness come as consolations, or gifts…”  Rodriguez illustrates this with three neat examples.  Mohammed “has his revelation in a cave, in the darkness.”  We know from the Old Testament that Moses saw God from a cave.  And the resurrection also happened in the tomb or cave.
           
From there Rodriguez moves to my main point.  References to desert and caves lead him to conclude, “We sometimes forget that we are people of dark.  And we should accept that darkness as part of our faith.”  I need to hear we are people of dark.  As I am Quaker, I am so used to hearing about light and that we are children of the Light.  We are indeed.  But we are also people of dark.
           
Dark is the place of mystery.  Dark is the place of not knowing.  It is the place where God may be absent just as much as present.  But even if God is absent, I still have faith.  I still believe and act on that faith and belief.  I realize that I am like almost everyone else these days; we seldom are in the dark.  There is always a light switch.  We always see.  We have eradicated the mystery of darkness from our lives. 
           
I like the idea that I am a person of dark.  It gives me a chance to pursue mystery. I can learn to deal with obscurity.  As a person of dark, I can learn to wait---to be patient.  I can wait for God’s showing.  I can be patient for God’s own timing.  To be a person of dark is a great opportunity for growth in my faith. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Prodigal

One of the best-known stories of the New Testament is the Prodigal Son parable.  I remember learning this parable early on in my Sunday School career.  I wonder if most of us do not identify with that story?  I never really felt like the prodigal.  He was the one who grabbed his inheritance much too soon, ran off and blew it on lousy choices.  And then when things got tough, he decided to go home.

There is a part of the prodigal’s action that is funny.  He reminds me of the kid in the class who has so much going for himself.  Often he is charming, a jokester, and sometimes shyster.  He can simultaneously be admired and loathed.

However, there is that part of the prodigal’s action that is lamentable.  It is clear from the outset he is hurting his father.  He is being irresponsible.  There is a feeling of “wrongness” about everything he is doing.  He continually squanders his possibilities in dumb ways.  I never really felt sorry for him at any point.

Often people like me identify with the older son who stays home on the farm, obediently works at the job, takes care of dad, and inwardly seethes at younger brother’s arrogance.  We feel like we are in the “right,” but this is a tricky place to be.  While legalistically this might be true, there lurks a kind of poison in our rectitude.

This whole parable scene ran through my head yesterday as I opened an email from a student I had in class a year or two ago.  He was a prodigal.  He sat in the back of the room.  Clearly, he was bright and gifted.  He was funny and charming.  He was young---in years and maturity.  He was a bit of a shyster, but his peers really liked him.

What I did not know was his plan to take off.  At the end of the semester he had announced he was “outta here for a better place.”  Part of me felt sad.  (Sometimes I think I can make everything turn out ok!)  Part of me said, “Ok, good luck…and God bless.”  I never expected to hear from him again.

But some time later, I received an email from him.  Of course, he was doing “alright,” as he said (still needing to do some spelling work!).  He told me how much that class on Contemplative Spirituality had meant to him.  I both knew it had and was surprised.  His email was both an attempt to reassure me and to ask for help.  Much of ministry is simply being present.

And then yesterday came his latest email.  I was touched.  He said, “in the span of taking the Contemplative Spirituality class, I grew so much and learned so many valuable things.”  Was this authentic or the shyster?  I tend toward the authentic.  He went on to ask if I would write a recommendation because he wants to come back and finish school!

Suddenly, I felt like the father figure in the prodigal story.  The kid is coming back.  I felt like throwing a party!  I have no clue all the things he has done since he left.  And today that does not matter.  All I know is he cannot be the same kid who left.  That kid would have said he would never come back!

I am convinced if we tested his knowledge of what I taught in Contemplative Spirituality, he would flunk.  But I would like to think something he learned stuck.  And in my own spiritual understanding, I will claim somehow there was a Spirit moving in the class that continues to move in his life.  And he has paid attention to that Spirit.

I claim that same Spirit moves in you and me.  If we will listen, pay attention, and respond, that Spirit will take us to good places.  And good places have good people who usually are good in their ministries.

Tomorrow I write the recommendation so the prodigal can come home.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Temptation: All Too Real

From time to time, I find myself returning to Thomas Merton, famous Catholic monk of last century.  In some ways I have no idea why he appeals to me so much.  At most levels, we have very little in common.  He grew up in very global ways; I was about as provincial as it gets.  He had a knack for taking risks; in most ways I think I am fairly risk-averse.  He went from communism to atheism to Catholicism to a strict monastic calling.  I have been a Quaker all my life.  And yet, he speaks deeply to me.

Part of Merton’s appeal to me is his willingness to probe his interiority, cull the superficial from the depth, and be open to growth in the Spirit…wherever that took him.  Ironically, it took this urbane, worldly guy to a strict monastery in the boonies of Kentucky.  Part of him always was looking for an escape to “better things.”  He struggled with himself and that struggle was simultaneously a struggle with God.  And he did this in print.  So fortunately, that survives after his untimely accidental death in 1968.

I like reading his journals.  In a journal entry from January 10, 1960 Merton talks about temptation.  It is well to remember that he had been in those Kentucky boondocks since 1941.  He has become famous.  He has been looking for a way out for a decade or so.  But he was never allowed to leave… to his credit he did not.  That inspires me.

But he did deal with temptation.  Let’s listen to his words.  “The reality of temptation in monastic life---and in my life!”  I smile at that.  It is easy for me to think, “Ah, the monastery…there would never be temptations there…it would be much easier to be spiritual.”  Baloney, he would say!

And then, here is Merton at his best.  “It is clear that I have been severely tempted for a long time and have not avoided sin---the obscure, easily justified sins of self---will, pride, disobedience, infidelity to duty and obligation, lack of faith.”  “Wow,” I think.  “That really nails me, too!”

Those are not sins like murder and the other biggies.  I am safe on those.  But I must also admit, like Merton, that I am severely tempted and have not avoided sin.  Now since I think I am entirely normal, I usually do not think about being “severely tempted.”  More likely, I would say, “Oh yeah, from time to time I am tempted…a little bit, anyway.”  The implication is, “Oh, it was nothing and I easily avoided it.”  Then I am free to proceed in my daily sainthood!  But no, Merton makes it hard to go this route.

I know exactly what he means by those “sins of self.”  They are the will.  I can pray, “thy will be done.”  But more often, if I am honest, it is “my will be done.”  And pride…I know that one.  And I also know others are tempted by the exact opposite sin: seeing themselves as worthless.  As a child of God, no one is worthless.

Disobedience and infidelity to duty are two sins I am quite good at doing.  Sometimes, we can be so good at our sins, they never look like sin!  If I am clever (and often I am), my disobedience looks perfectly ok.  I know I can fool people; I should never presume I have fooled God.

Merton helps me see that I will be tempted and I will sin.  That seems to be a given.  But he hung in there.  He stayed in the monastery; he stayed in the process; he stayed in the game of life till the end.  That is what I want to do.

“Lead us not into temptation.”  But I probably will be.  And no doubt, sin I will.  And when that happens, may God be gracious and I be sorry.  And then, get on with life…a saintly life which, for sure, will go through temptation and sin.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Seeking Soul

One of the fun things about my interest in spirituality is that I am a soul seeker!  I like that phrase, “soul seeker.”  If you are interested, too, in spirituality, then maybe you should see yourself as a soul seeker.  I don’t know all that being a soul seeker means.  But let’s assume it is one part curiosity, one part sleuth, and two parts intentionality.

I think intentionality is key to most spiritual, soulful endeavors.    By itself curiosity is interesting, but usually goes nowhere on its own.  Curiosity is a bit like a puppy.  It is fun to watch; but it is impetuous.  It darts here and there.  There is a great deal of fury, but nothing really is accomplished.  Ultimately, there is no plan, no advancing, no achieving.  These may seem like funny words for the soul seeker, but without a plan, advance, and achieving, then I do not see how one is growing at all.  But we do need one part curiosity.

And then I do believe there is a role in spirituality for being a sleuth.  I admit that I like this word.  The roots of the word go back to the Middle Ages.  It is a variation of the word, “bloodhound.”  By the 19th century it comes to mean “investigation.”  Of course, many folks think of Sherlock Holmes when we employ the word, sleuth.

In that context I hope it is clear why the soul seeker needs to be a sleuth.  I like the fact that the word, sleuth, is both a noun and a verb.  I am a sleuth.  That is the noun.  But I probably will never be a noun---sleuth---unless I “do the verb.”  To do the verb means I start sleuthing!

Sleuthing is precisely the way we go about seeking soul.  As I understand the verb, sleuth, there is no blueprint.  Not one of us is handed a guaranteed “seeking soul manual,” where we will automatically succeed in finding soul if the manual is meticulously followed. Part of me wishes that were true.  But a deeper part of me is really glad I have to be a sleuth.

Here’s the trick.  I am convinced good sleuths have a great deal of intentionality.  Intentionality is the alternative to that “seeking soul manual” which no one gets.  Intentionality is the driving force for seeking soul.  Investigating where and when we might find soul takes time---and intentionality is what pushes us on through the time needed to seek our soul.

Because I do not think there is a blueprint for seeking soul, curiosity has its role to play.  Curiosity leads us to go here, check out there, explore this, and try that---all of which brings experiences, which are the seedbed of finding soul.

I am convinced soul is not found in the abstract.  Soul is discovered in the experience---in the moment with the Spirit.  In that soulful moment we feel grounded, connected, alive, free, committed and so much more.  As we begin to use language like this, we know we are not so much soul seeking as soul finding.  This is great!

But it never lasts---at least the experience of soul finding never lasts.  Seeking soul is a bit like eating.  We can, indeed, find soul---find those soulful moments, events, and relationships.  But because we are creatures of time, they come and they go.  But that’s ok.

As a soul seeker, I mix again: one part curiosity, one part sleuth, and two parts intentionality.  There is always enough intentionality to push on…to pursue the curiosity in me and to start sleuthing in ways and places (often surprising) that will enable me to find soul again. 

I welcome this new day…another chance to seek soul!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Window of Choice

I have been reading very slowly the fully packed book, Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett.  I figure if you become wise, it does not happen with a quick read over the weekend.  Wisdom is more organic.  You just don’t acquire it.  Somehow you grow it.  It takes seriously your experiences and marinates them with reflection.  I think Tippett is correct: we become wise.  And wisdom is not automatic, like growing old is automatic.  If you live long enough, you get old.  But you can live to be very old and not become wise.
           
Much of Tippett’s book is a series of interviews with the kind of people most of us would like to meet and get to know.  We probably won’t be that lucky, but she is.  Many of them joined her for interviews for her broadcast called, On Being.  Some of them have doubtlessly become good friends.  And all of them became wise.  With her book we get to join the conversation and give ourselves a good chance to become wise.
           
Recently, I was reading a section where Tippett talks about herself.  In the years after college, she was a hotshot journalist running around Europe.  She lived in Berlin for a while and watched the famous Wall come down in 1989.  She recounts the early spiritual stirrings in her soul.  This surprised her.  And then she comments, “I was living in England when I first circled back to religion in my late twenties, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer drew me with its poetry and its vigorous description of the human condition.”
           
These early spiritual stirrings eventually led Tippett to study at Yale Divinity School and to a career which she probably could not have anticipated.  She found a way to combine journalism with spirituality and has become rather famous in the process.  I think her fame, no doubt, hinges on the fact that she has a keen eye for issues and for how human beings are trying to live meaningful lives.  And then she can describe these in a way that helps all of us.
           
I find her way of seeing things to be insightful and her way of writing about them illuminating.  One of the ways I like to put it is she knows a great deal about spirituality without letting that affect the way she sees things.  Sometimes when you know a great deal, it closes you off to new ways of seeing.  That is what is refreshing about her.  I bumped into one such insightful account of hers that includes a look at the old-fashioned idea of sin, but offers a keen, contemporary way of understanding it and, perhaps, avoiding it.
           
She begins this account by recognizing, “So much of what we orient towards in culture numbs a little going in and helps us avoid the reckoning we actually long for---the push to self-knowledge and deeper lived integrity.”  Most people cannot speak of their involvement in culture in this clear fashion.  We live in culture, but we don’t think about how we “orient” ourselves.  But think about it.  Think about what we watch on tv, what we read, whom we talk to----these are the ways we orient ourselves in our culture. 
           
This often is not satisfying.  Our orientation to culture---American culture---numbs us and helps us avoid what we might really want.  This helps me understand why there is so much disappointment and disillusion.  We long for things that we don’t get---sometimes, don’t even understand.  She probes a little further with a reference to poetry.  “Poetry, says Marie Howe, hurts a little going in.  It soothes and deepens us and hurts a little all at the same time.”  And then, Tippett hits the nail on the head.  “So do many of the elements that give voice to the soul---silence and song, community and ritual, listening and compassionate presence.  They wake us up---the apt Buddhist language for spiritual illumination.  But there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb.” 
           
I appreciate the idea of a “window of choice.”  We have so many moments where the voice of our soul can speak.  We can be drawn to deep, authentic spiritual moments with the Holy One and with each other.  We can opt for aliveness and have vitality.  There is that window of choice.  And yet, too often we opt for distraction---the tv, the internet, the junk available.  And we settle into numb.  And that, says Tippett, is to sin.
           
In a poignant sentence she claims, “Maybe this is another way to think about original sin---the ingrained lure of the possibility of going numb, a habit of acquiescence to it.”  Whoever thought of describing original sin as going numb?  And when we do it sufficiently, we truly are living in sin.  This describes myself too often and it describes so many people around me and my world.
           
We always have options; we have windows of choice.  But we need to wake up.  We need to become aware.  We can quit numbing ourselves and live.  We have windows of choice.  Let me choose wisely. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

That Other Self

I went out for a jog yesterday afternoon like I have done so many times in my life.    In fact, it has been decades now.  It is so much part of me, I can’t imagine not doing it.  And yet I know someday for whatever reasons, my running/jogging days will be finished.  I certainly don’t look forward to that, but it is part of being human.  Everyone understands this about life.

So my day was unusual in no way.  But as I loped along, sometimes slowing to walk for a minute or so, I had a dawning awareness of something.  It was not novel, but it captured my attention and, then, I began to pay attention.

I know I am not a runner anymore.  I am either getting too old, have lost sufficient will to push myself, or whatever, but at best I am a jogger.  And I am ok with that.  In fact, as I indicated already about yesterday’s jog, periodically I slow to a walk before resuming the jog.  It was in such an interlude between jog and walk that something dawned on me.

I realized that I had started out to jog with little intention of interrupting the jog with a walk.  But at some point in the jog, something entered my mind that planted the seed, “Walking would not be as difficult!”  It was as if that other self in me had woken up and spoken up.  And before I knew it, I had slowed to a walk.  Why had I begun to do what I had not intended to do?

Who is or was that other self anyway?  I began to realize I differentiate my real self (the “I” or “me”) from that other self.  In my mind that other self is not as real.  But it certainly is real enough that I opted for the suggestion the other self-made that I begin walking.  It as almost as if I had to look around and wonder, “why did I just begin walking…I came out here for a jog!”

If I am honest, I know I have met that other self countless times.  Probably he has been with me most of my life.  But I always seem surprised when he shows up, suggests things, and I wantonly follow his lead.  I find myself doing things I had not intended to do. 

I am sure psychologists have dealt with this in many different ways.  I know about Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow self.  Theologians such as Thomas Merton talk about the false self.  These are explanations…nice terms to explain that other self.  I think I will go with the other self.  Whoever he is, he is internally strong enough that what he wants is what I do.  And I don’t think for a minute he is bad and the real “me” is good.

Actually, I think they both (and maybe more!) are aspects of me.  And I want to heed both.  I want to look at them in the best light.  Perhaps, they are options of my will(s).  They can be useful when I move through routine or, especially, face new things in my life.  I do not assume one is reasonable and the other more emotional and less reasonable.  They are just different.

Let me suggest they represent various desires in me.  In the example of my jog/walk, I am not surprised I went into that with both the desire to jog and desire to walk.  Both are good and both are legit.  I could have wanted to jog and to smoke.  That would have been a good desire and a less good desire! 

As I focus on desire, I think of desire as one step before my will.  What I desire leads to what I will.  It seems I was taught (or somehow learned) that humans just have one will.  I don’t think that anymore.  In many instances I do have a dominant desire that seems like I will just one thing.  But in multiple instances, I realize I have more than one desire.  Sometimes the complement each other; other times, they seem to be competing.

I do not think one desire is essentially spiritual and the other(s) is not.  Instead, these desires represent the complexity of being human.  That other self is usually not far away from the “me” who seems to be in charge.  That’s good, for I think that gives God at least two possibilities to lead me not into temptation and to deliver me from evil!  That I desire singly: to do God’s will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The God Delusion

I choose an odd title for today’s inspiration.  But it is a deliberate use of the book title of Richard Dawkins’ widely controversial 2006 book, The God Delusion.  Dawkins is the well-known scientist who teaches at Oxford University in England.  He also is a well-known atheist.  And it is atheism that he is really touting in this book.  Or, I can imagine Dawkins saying, it is the stupidity of the traditional god that he is bashing as nonsense.

Dawkins is an entertaining writer!  He is the kind who would rather provoke than placate.  If he can say something that would raise the ire of a believer, he feels successful.  “Ah ha,” he might say, “now I have you thinking about what you really believe.”  And I would say that is his real point…other than telling you he thinks the God in whom many of us would say we believe is, indeed, folly.  I must admit, this does not raise my ire because I know I cannot prove the God in whom I believe.  I guess that is why it is called faith.

I read Dawkins’ book some time ago, but had an occasion recently to return to it.  So it seemed good to interact with some of what he says.  Maybe it can be inspirational in an oblique way.  The first thing to establish is just what kind of god is Dawkins trashing?  “The traditional, supernatural divinity,” I am sure he would say.  Let’s look at an example.

Early in the book Dawkins defines the god against whom he rails.  “…there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”  Indeed the whole one-liner is italicized for emphasis.  Rather than get uptight and defensive (which Dawkins would only enjoy!), I want this exercise to be a reflective pondering on my part.  Certainly, much of this definition of god turns out to be quite like the God in whom I believe.  Is God intelligence?

I realize I don’t go around thinking about how “smart” God might be!  If I push myself a little further, I realize I think about God more as “wise” than “smart.”  I would trust scientists who tell me certain kinds of monkeys have a kind of intelligence.  And the porpoise apparently is quite “smart.”  Clearly, some humans are pretty smart and some of us are less than smart.  And amazingly, some of us who are fairly smart do dumb things!

But wisdom is another thing.  It is not unusual to see the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, used to describe God.  Part of what Dawkins is against, is a smart god designing and creating the world.  For many of us that is provocative.  You would not be surprised that Dawkins is convinced the world and every thing in it evolved. 

I would not disagree with him.  The disagreement comes when Dawkins would deny any guiding principle (except things like natural selection).  For him there is no “intelligent design.”  And I do not plan to submit that view of creation.  But I realize I do affirm there is a sense of Wisdom permeating the fabric of creation.  The universe seems purposeful to me.  As sappy as it gets, somehow I have faith that love is one of the ingredients in this human and cosmic evolution (I really have no problems with evolution as a principle).

So is my kind of God (only sketchily presented) the kind to which I can pray?  Dawkins would laugh out loud!  I would laugh and say, “sure.”  But what am I sure about?  I am sure I can pray to that God.  “Will it do any good,” many would ask?  I don’t know.  My job is to pray, not answer the prayers.  Prayer is not manipulative, utilitarian, nor selfish.

So, how did we wind up talking about prayer?  Whether God exists is an intellectual question, which is interesting to me.  But what does it matter, even if I think God exists?  It matters because I think God is love and love is at the cosmic heart of it all.  And I do think God and evolution allow for blessing or cursing.

Prayer is my way of practicing my faith in the God who so loved the world…  I can’t prove it.  I may be deluded.  So Lord, be with me and all of us this day, I pray.               

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Secret of Acceptance

Occasionally in my reading, I run into a sentence or even a phrase that is arresting.  It can be a stunner or a surprise or something that makes me laugh out loud.  It is arresting because it makes me stop.  Usually when I am reading, I just push on.  One sentence leads to another.  It is a bit like life…one day leads to the next.  But occasionally, there is an arrest.

It happened yesterday as I was reading further in the Thomas Merton journals.  No doubt, by now you know that Cistercian monk who died in 1968 is one of my favorites.  He was a prolific writer.  That is not too surprising because there are other prolific writers.  I think of James Michener or some of the science fiction writers whom I do not know.  But Merton is a bit surprising when you are aware of his context.

Every other year I take some students to Kentucky where we spend a weekend at the monastery, Gethsemani, where Merton was a monk from 1941 until his death.  The students and I try to fit into the monastic schedule which means beginning with worship at 3:15am and doing it another six times during the day.  And when you think about Merton also having to do physical work, teach the novices (beginning monks), etc., you wonder how he had time to write so much.

The particular place I am reading in his journal is now 1963.  He has now become famous and has countless visitors heading to Gethsemani to spend some time with him.  That in itself is paradoxical because to be a Cistercian means you basically commit yourself to a life of solitariness and silence!  But due to his fame and the abbot’s willingness, Merton was allowed a steady stream of visitors.  Two Spanish families came to spend the afternoon one spring day.

Merton enjoyed them.  Since he had spent so much time as a youth in Europe, he always felt “European.”  These Spanish folks reinforced that.  It is his reflection after they left that I found interesting.  And then I hit the sentence that arrested me.

Merton muses, “How good God has made all things.  And yet they are no happier than I, I am no happier than they, and for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.”  (IV:313)  I can smile when Merton says God makes all things good.  I agree.  But of course many good things screw up.  Sometimes I am one of them!

The next bit in Merton’s quotation is interesting, but I am not sure how I feel about it.  “They are no happier than I, I am no happier than they.”  It does seem some people are much happier than others.  In fact, I have known some who don’t seem to be able to be happy for any reason!  I am going to have to think about this one.

And then I hit the arresting phrase: “for all of us there is a secret of acceptance we have not learned.”  What is this secret of acceptance, I wondered?  I am intrigued by the fact that it is a secret.  I know what acceptance means.  I have accepted and have been accepted.  But Merton must be pushing beneath this obvious level.

I can guess he means something deeper than me accepting you.  Let me make a guess and use a fancy philosophical word.  My guess is he is talking in existential terms.  In effect this means he wonders if his mere existence is acceptable on its own…as it is.

Many of us feel acceptance based on more superficial things---like our looks---or based on what we do---please others, etc.  But Merton is driving deeper.  Is there anyone or anything that accepts us just as we are?

I am sure ultimately his answer is: Of course…God.  That is my answer, too.  If I can get beyond arrested, I will ponder further this “secret of acceptance.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

For What?

One of the things I most appreciate with Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise, is all the other voices she brings into her work.  In effect, she marshals many and various voices to describe, discuss and deploy the wisdom in our world.  Of course, one source of wisdom is history itself.  Whether it is the wisdom of sacred scriptures, like the Psalms, or the wisdom of particular people, like Socrates, history is a rich resource.  And in my estimation folks don’t spend much time reading and thinking about what history can teach us.  Too often, we prefer the stupidity of our contemporary culture!
           
Another source of wisdom is the wise ones who still are living and willing to teach us.  Tippett brings together so many of the voices, as she has interviewed an incredible variety of people in her work as a broadcaster.  While I know many of the names she brings forth, I also have met a great number whom I did not know.  One especially notable group she has helped me begin to learn is the poets.  I have been deficient in my knowledge of poetry and she is helping me.
           
Rather than focus on some unnamed wise poet, however, in this inspirational piece I would like to share from a wise one I know, Vincent Harding.  Harding was a revered teacher, speaker and worker for justice for more than a half century.  He died in 2014 after a storied career of making a difference.  He was a fellow worker with Martin Luther King and continued to implement King’s dream in his various capacities.  I heard Harding speak more than once.  More than once, I felt his challenge and appreciated his encouragement. 
           
In Tippett’s interview with Harding she asks, “When you say that we as human beings have a built-in need for stories, what your work shows is that we human beings also know what to do with stories, right?”  She continued to note that Harding felt like “the young people you work with know how to take those stories as tools and pieces of empowerment in this day, this year.”  I loved how Harding responds.
           
Harding says, “Yes, as tools for their own best work.”  Harding feels like young people can take the stories of their elders and their sages as tools for their own good work.  And then Harding adds this note that was so perceptive.  He feels “Now is a powerful time in this country for young people and others to be asking the question, What are we for?”  What are we for?  That is an amazing question.  If we come to have a good answer, we should have a good life.  Let’s pursue this.
           
Harding helps us see how to use this powerful question.  He asks, “Do we exist for some reason other than competing with China or finding the best possible technological advances?  Are there some things that are even deeper that we are meant for, meant to be, meant to do, meant to achieve?”  These two questions prompt me and us to think about how to answer, what are we for?  My first attempt at thinking about Harding’s question is to realize we can be for the more general and superficial. 
           
I certainly am not dismissing China or any other nation as superficial.  And technology is so sophisticated, it is amazing to ponder.  I never dreamed I would carry around a computer in my pocket and simply call it a “phone.”  Regardless of the technological sophistication, I do not think I exist for technology.  Harding is correct: there are some things deeper that I am meant for, meant to be, meant to do and, perhaps, even achieve.  Let’s consider this for a brief time.
           
I have lived so far into my life, I hope I have been at work on some deeper and important things.  At this stage in life I would say that I am meant for God and for all that is God’s.  That is both simple and potentially deep.  It is in my real life that being for God becomes particular and specific.  I am meant to be spiritual.  That includes so many things that Vincent Harding also tried to be: worker for justice, giver of mercy and lover of all human beings.  It is challenging.
           
What I am meant to be is linked to what I am meant to do.  At the simple level, I am meant to live out the justice, mercy and love I am meant to be.  This happens with students, faculty colleagues and even people on the street I do not know.  Every day I am given new opportunities to live out what I am meant to do.  It involves the early morning greeting to the clerk offering me coffee to the late night interaction with the confused student.  Can I be loving and do love?  That is the question.  That is what I am for!
           
I am not sure I think much about what I am meant to achieve.  Perhaps I did more of this when I was younger.  I seldom think about my achievements.  I prefer to think more in terms of obedience.  Was I obedient to the God who created me, loved me and wants me to do what God desires me to do?  Was I effective in being a servant-leader?  Did I check my ego and make my self available to others in ways that make a positive difference?
           
“What are we for” is a wonderful, spiritual question that can be asked each new day.  Every day you and I live out some kind of answer.  Make it a good answer!     

Friday, October 14, 2016

Life: a Fragile Thing

It is wonderful when the serendipitous happen.  What this means is I love it when a “gift” comes and I did not work for it nor even see it coming.  That happens more than I probably realized it.  But when I realize it, I can enjoy the moment.  And then, if possible, I can share the moment.

Just such a gift happened last night.  I was doing some “fun reading” which many folks would not consider fun at all.  It was still spirituality-focused.  I have been working my way through the multiple journals of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk who died in the late ‘60s.  I have taught an upper level seminar on Merton’s spirituality, so at one level I have a fair sense of what he thinks.  He impacted me in my early spiritual and intellectual formation and I suppose I will never “get over” him.  Even in his death, he challenges me and reassures me. 

Since the Cistercian monastic life is lived with so much silence and Merton was such an outgoing, talkative type, his journals became his dialogue partner.  So instead of sitting down and chatting with someone, Merton would sit down and “chat” with his journal.  The good news is that we now have those “chats” in literary form. 

So innocently last evening I was reading along---enjoying the conversation with Merton.  And then, boom, came this sentence, which nearly knocked me for a loop.  As the 1960s unfolded, Merton seemed to get an eerie sense of his own death.  He was not an old man yet (turned 45 years old in 1960), but death comes up in his writing with some frequency.  Such was it in this journal entry.

The entry for December 15, 1962 raises the death topic.  He says,“… this sense of being suspended over nothingness and yet in life, of being a fragile thing, a flame that may blow out, and yet burns brightly, adds an inexpressible sweetness to the gift of life, for one sees it entirely and purely as a gift.”  Somehow at a very deep level, I knew exactly what Merton was describing.  It is not a thought so much as a primal experience that is, then, put into words.  I am sure, Merton would say the words are inadequate to the depth of the experience.

There is power in the experience.  As I read it, the experience is being suspended.  There you hang…over nothingness and yet…not yet.  Somehow you know that ultimately nothingness will get you.  And when it does, life is over.  The thing I like about this Merton quotation is both the truth of this experience and the fact that he is not scared. 

I appreciate the next phrase.  He is aware of life “being a fragile thing.”  “So it is,” I exclaim.  Even big, strong guys at some point come to this realization!  And he goes on.  Life is “a flame that may blow out.”  But it has not yet extinguished.  In fact, it “yet burns brightly.”  That is what I so want to be true.  I want my life to be a flame that yet burns brightly.  I don’t want life to be a dull flame.  I don’t want it to flicker perilously, piteously gasping for just a little more oxygen to survive one more day.

Merton ends where I want to begin each day: life is a gift.  This seems to be the basis for blessing rather than desert.  If I can see life as a gift, then I am positioned to see it as a blessing.  If I somehow think I caused life and control life, then I see what I get as what I deserve.  Now that is scary, because at some point things will happen that I probably won’t think I deserve.

I really do think life is a gift.  Thank God!  And at some point I might be suspended over nothingness, but I want to remember I still am in life.  My flame can burn brightly.  Ah, that is the trick of the day.  My flame “can” burn brightly.  That is different than “will” burn brightly.

It is up to me.  Where can I burn brightly today with my life…this fragile thing?    

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Varieties of Religious Experience

Anyone who has done some reading in religion, philosophy or psychology might know that the title for my inspirational piece is also the title of a very famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James.  This book was originally published in 1902.  Most things written that long ago I would not bother to read because the assumption is it’s outdated.  Sometimes being a classic means it is old, but someone thinks I should read it!  In James’ case it is old, but I read it and have re-read it.
           
I admit I had not thought about the book in some time.  But I recently read an account of a person who talked about how important the book was to her.  Sidney Callahan wrote a piece for a publication that regularly gives some attention to classic books.  In Callahan’s essay we find someone who writes appreciatively of having read James’ classic work and she describes in some detail the power and lasting effect the book had on her.  The precipitated my own musing about the influence of James’ thought on my own intellectual development.

The book James published was originally delivered as lectures for the famous Scottish series, The Gifford Lectures.  The lectures were founded by Lord Gifford to bring distinguished speakers to one of the four major Scottish universities to lecture on “natural theology.”  In other words Lord Gifford wanted to hear people talk about “knowledge of God.”  The first lecture was presented in 1888 and continues to this day.  I read James’ book in graduate school and have referred to it many times since.

I was first attracted to the book because James focuses on religious experience.  This is where my own Quaker tradition always begins---with experience.  I know this is different than many Christian traditions, which tend to begin with doctrine.  Certainly Quakers get to doctrine---statements of belief.  But behind doctrine we find experience---at least the experience of the earlier folks who gave us the doctrine.  What I appreciated about William James is his quest to get back to the primary religious experience people have.  And I liked what Callahan shares about her own reading of the classic piece.

James prepared for this task by reading and travelling very widely.  His father was a wealthy man who could afford his son’s delay into working for a living.  When William James finally settled into a teaching career, it was as a professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard.  Here he became famous.  My own time on Harvard’s campus led me past a thirteen high rise building known as the William James Building, which housed philosophy, psychology and social relations professors.  One can say James left a lasting legacy on campus and around the world.

Callahan reminds me of the array of themes James pursues.  He talks about conversion, depression, and the neurological account of religious experience.  He considers whether we concoct our own religious experience or whether there is something “real” in those experiences.  He cites a range of people---historical and contemporary in his own time.  One of my favorites in his book was George Fox, the seventeenth century founder of Quakerism.  James thinks Fox was a kind of religious genius, but he also was probably slightly crazy.  I agree!

Callahan gives a good way to judge the merit of not only James’s efforts but the value of religious experiences and ideas in their own right.  She asks first, “are they morally helpful?”  The second question she asks is “do they make cognitive sense with everything else that is known?”  This seems to be a very valuable criterion even today.  In effect, this criterion says if our religious experience is so kooky as not to square with the world, as we know it, we better be cautious.  Her third question asks whether our religious ideas and experience are “immediately luminous?”  In effect this asks if they lead to good things, like goodness, joy and love?  If not, maybe they are not genuinely religious.

I appreciate a book like James’ Varieties because it does some hard work of investigating and legitimizing religious experience.  It affirms the mystery at work in our world, recognizing that mystery can be experienced, but not necessarily fully explained.  This means I can be content with science and its attempt to explain and elaborate more and more the world we live in.  I appreciate this and am thankful for science.

But I also realize there is a mystery at work in the world---call it God, if you want---that finally cannot be explained and elaborated.  We can experience God, we can talk about God and even follow and serve God.  This is a noble life---a God-directed life.  It is a life based on experience.  In my own life that religious experience contained a call, elicited commitment and resulted in a lifetime of service and ministry to many.  It has been a satisfying, open-ended journey.  It is a journey that will ultimately take me into my own death.  And mysteriously who knows beyond that.  But I am grateful.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Taking the Back Seat

I have no idea what the origins of the phrase, “taking the back seat,” might be.  We could be narrow-minded and assume it has to do with cars.  But a little thought would suggest buggies also had back seats.  One could climb into a horse and buggy mode of transportation and still land in the back seat.

Whatever the origins of this phrase, it has at least two clear implications.  First of all, you are along for the ride.  It does not matter whether it is a buggy, car, bus, or plane; you are along for the ride.  And the second implication is that you are not in control.  The reins are not in your hands.  The steering wheel is in someone else’s hands. 

Of course, those examples have to do with real rides in life.  But I also realize there are metaphorical rides in life.  Often in situations, circumstances, and relationships, I realize I am taking the back seat.  Sometimes I willingly step into the back seat.  Sometimes, I seem to be thrown into the back seat!  In either case, I am along for the ride.  And I am not in control.  And when you are in the back seat, there is usually not much concern for how you are feeling about it!

In practical terms I experience this now when one or both of my daughters come home.  Often they will take the reins.  I am on the passenger side or relegated to the back seat.  Once upon a time, this never happened.  For sixteen years, they were too young to drive.  And then for a little while, they were too deferential to assume they were driving and not me.  And now---well, it is scoot over; I’m driving!  Or they let me drive, but I know they do not approve.

With my understanding of spirituality, almost everything in life is related to the spiritual.  At its base, life is either contributing to spiritual well being or detracting from it.  So it is when life forces you into the back seat.  And sooner or later (and often!), life forces you into the back seat.  It may make some difference whether you choose to climb in the back, but the end result is the same.  You are along for the ride and you have no control.

There are negative or unfortunate things which force the in-the-back-seat move.  Things like sickness are sure bets.  Anyone with a serious case of the flu knows this.  The “back seat” in this case is the bed instead of the usual off to work.  Sometimes, aging parents or infants force us into the back seat.  Have a baby and you are along for the ride.  Babies and aging parents unmercifully steal large amounts of time when you might otherwise choose more interesting things.  Welcome to the back seat.

Sometimes it is not even for a laudable cause like babies and aging parents.  Sometimes, we are forced into the back seat just because we were not chosen; we were dismissed, or were not even considered for something.  Again we are along for the ride and not in control.

The spiritual lesson in this for me is “get used to it.”  Much of the spiritual life will be lived in the back seat.  It is an illusion to think I will always have the reins in my hands.  It is fantasy to assume I can always take the wheel of my life.  Once I was an infant and with any luck I might become an aging parent.  In both cases I would not have assumed I had the reins.  But at one level, I did…for my parents…and will…for my kids.

So one of my spiritual goals now is to settle into my back seat life.  What I want to do is make sure the reins are in the hands of God.  Oh, I know God does not really have hands.  But if God assumes the front seat and sets the direction, I am quite fine with that.  Indeed, that is a ride I want to have. 

I just thought of the biblical guideline for this: “Not my will, but Thine.”  I want to make those words real.  And try not to be a “back seat driver!”