About Me

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Spiritual Commitment

I was reading along in a very nice little book and hit these lines about commitment.  The author, Mitch Albom, uses the voice of one of the main characters of his nonfiction book about faith to reflect on commitment.  The voice belongs to Albom’s old rabbi of the Jewish synagogue where he went until his college days.  The old rabbi, Albert Lewis, says “the word ‘commitment’ has lost its meaning.”

The rabbi continues in a way that surely would have many people saying, “Amen!”  About commitment he says, “I’m old enough when it used to be a positive.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  He was loyal and steady.  Now a commitment is something you avoid.  You don’t want to tie yourself down.”  I also think I am old enough to know that commitment was usually a positive word.  I can think of a range of situations in which commitment would have been seen to be positive.

For example, growing up was full of sports for me.  Commitment would have been presupposed to be part of a team.  If you were going to play basketball, you made a commitment to the team and the coaches.  You made a commitment to the discipline that went with playing ball.  The discipline was not just on the court.  There was the commitment to some of the rules.  Some rules were quite explicit.  There were dietary rules, etc.  One needed to be committed to these.  Other rules were implicit.  They were not written down, but everyone knew them and was committed to them.

I agree with the rabbi.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  Again, if I stay with the sports analogy, I remember holding in special esteem some of the older college and professional sports’ figures who “played the game the right way.”  They exemplified commitments to fair play, etc.  They were role models and demonstrated what a young person could become.  Certainly, this was not limited to the sports’ world.

I like the way Albert Lewis, the rabbi, began to develop what the committed person exemplified.  That person was someone who was loyal and steady.  It seems quite clear to me that loyalty is a hallmark of commitment.  A committed person is not a fair-weather friend.  The committed person is someone who is going to be there---be there for you or for the cause---whatever happens. 

It is easy to contrast this with much of what we see in our world today.  Too many people are driven purely by self-interest.  Of course, I would never say that no one today makes and keeps commitments.  But I would agree that commitment is not what it used to be.  This is not the place to try to argue the case that commitment is not valued the way I think it used to be. 

Instead I am interested in exploring spiritual commitment.  I am quite clear in my own mind that commitment is the glue of the spiritual relationship with the Holy One.  Commitment is relational.  Commitment is connecting---it connects me to someone or something.  There are two basic steps in commitment.  One “makes” a commitment.  Making a commitment entails saying “yes” to someone or something (one can be committed to a principle, for example).  Secondly, having made a commitment, one “keeps” the commitment.  Keeping a commitment is the duration over time of the relationship which was made.

A spiritual commitment is the engaging and engagement of myself to God.  It is not a one-way street.  God also commits to me.  That is significant.  Not only do I say “yes;” God also says “yes.”  In this sense the commitment is mutual and reciprocal.  That does not make it equal.  In my commitment to God, I am affirming that I will try to be all that I can be.  If I say that I give my heart to God, my commitment means that I will try to do it with all my heart.  But I also am convinced God makes the same commitment.  God also says that the Divine Heart will be poured out to me.  After all, “God so loved the world…”

Spiritual commitment also has another dimension.  I also think that my spiritual commitment to God has a corollary.  I also will need to commit to all those other human beings who, too, are in a spiritual commitment with God.  God and I implicate God and us.  The implications are clear and, sometimes, stunning to me.  It means I can do no less to you or any other human being than I would do to God.

I cannot ask for God’s blessings and, in turn, be cursing you!  When something goes wrong, I cannot petition God for mercy and insist that you do justice.  Spiritual commitment is not a commodity, like corn or coal.  Rather it is a relationship.  It is more quality and not quantity.  I can grow and develop my spiritual commitment.  I can deepen it.

This is the place where I ask God and you, too, to help me in that developing journey of deepening my commitment. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Novice at Love

I continue to work my way slowly through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise.  I figure if I have any chance of becoming wise, it surely will be a slow process.  Each of her chapters is rather long.  And each one is a big topic.  Right now I am creeping through the love chapter.  That certainly is going to take a while.
           
Fairly early in that chapter Tippett shares about her own marriage and divorce.  That is always a story of love and love gone awry.  I appreciated her poignant account of it.  She said, “When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love.”  I suspect for many of the multitudes of the walking wounded, the story continues in that parallel universe.  But there is where Tippett had a turn of events.  And that is what attracts me to her thinking and writing.
           
She realized that love in her life continued.  Listen to her words.  “This is the opposite of a healing story---it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance.  I have love in my life, many forms of loving.  As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways.”  I am touched by her words.  I like the idea of discovering scarcity in the midst of abundance.  We usually are seeking the other way round.  I find her description of herself to be refreshingly honest and creative in a very simple way.
           
I especially appreciate her self-description as one learning to love in untheatrical everyday ways.  That is where most of us live most of our lives.  Her self-description set me up to see things in a new way.  The next sentence in her long paragraph took me a step further.  She confesses, “I can’t name the day when I suddenly realize that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly use of an essential word.”  I think I have dealt with a poverty of imagination all too often.
           
Tippett continued in a way that teaches me.  She observes, “And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved.  In this, I am a prism of my world.  I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”  That is it!  She has named my own place in my love pilgrimage.  I am also a novice---a beginner.  You would think someone my age would have figured much more out and been further down the love road. 
           
No doubt like Tippett, I also thought I was looking for love, but in fact I was looking to be loved.  Love never works very well in that kind of context.  Too often, there is too much ego in the mix.  I am happy to be loved, if and when it happens.  And it probably happens much more often than I realize.  To be loved is a wonderful experience.  But it is different than loving.  Like most people, I want to do both.  But it is important to keep clear about the two different experiences. 
           
The last phrase that I lift up from Tippett’s words is the phrase, “love in all its fullness.”  When I read that phrase, I was sure I did not know about love in all its fullness.  Of course, I know some things about love.  But like Tippett, I am a novice---a beginner.  How could I know about love in all its fullness?  That is what wise folks know.  That is what masters know.  They know love in all its fullness.  I am sure Jesus, the Buddha and the classical great spiritual teachers know.  And that is what they want us to learn.  Tippett is on the way; I am joining her on the great adventure, as she called it.
           
One last sentence from her love chapter puts it nicely.  She declares her intention.  “The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.”  The fullness of love will be learned and practiced across all relationships and encounters.  That is the challenge and, she says, the great frontier. 
           
Most of the time, it is relatively easy to love our family and friends.  But sometimes those end in divorces and family fights.  So even those are not guaranteed.  And there are many more encounters and relationships than family and friends.  There are foreigners, foes, enemies, strangers---it’s a big world out there.  To be a novice at love means I won’t always know how to do it.  In fact, sometimes I may not even know how to begin.  But if I have the intention, it becomes possible.
           
Reading Tippett helps me be ok with my novice status.  I can’t pretend to be any other thing.  And I know that pretending has no place in authentic love.  There is a role for imagination.  Indeed, I need more imagination when it comes to learning about the fullness of love.  But imagination is not pretending. 
           
With Tippett’s help, I know where to begin.  Any encounter---any relationship---is a practiced ground.  It is the frontier of the day.  I need awareness, imagination and courage to enter that frontier land of love.  I may be a novice at love, but I will learn, grow and become wiser and more loving. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thankfully the Holiday is Over!

Of course, the title of this inspirational reflection is partly in jest.  But part of me is serious when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over.  Both aspects need some clarification and development.

It is clear that I offer a word play on the most recent holiday, namely, Thanksgiving.  Actually, I am quite good with Thanksgiving Day itself.  I appreciate that it is totally an American holiday.  When we grow up Americans, it may be difficult to revel in that fact.  Truly, it was when I was abroad one November that I realized all my family and friends “back home” were celebrating Thanksgiving and I was simply doing what routinely was to be done on Thursday in the country where I was living at the time.  I missed Thanksgiving.

I like the idea of Thanksgiving.  Certainly I and most of the people I know have been very fortunate.  We all have much for which we can be thankful.  I am ok with taking a day during my year and making it a special Thanksgiving Day.  I can do that without falling into the trap of thinking there is no need to be thankful till next November! 

Indeed, hardly a day goes by in my life when I have not been thankful for this or for that.  My day starts early with coffee and the newspaper.  Since those are not delivered at my door, that means a trek to the store and a chance to interact with my first human being of the day.  It is a small gesture to utter those daily “thanks” to the store clerk, but it is an important gesture.  Not to be thankful is to begin a day with an attitude that is not good.

And if I can ignore the small things---those small incidents in my day for which I appropriately should be thankful---then I have started being the human being I really don’t want to become.  So I am quite willing to extend Thanksgiving Day---at least, the attitude of thanksgiving---into every new day until next November rolls around.

However, there is a part of me that is very glad---thankfully---the holiday is over!  I say this with the full awareness that most Americans would not agree with me.  For most people, Thanksgiving is not just a day---it is four days.  Thanksgiving holiday too often actually begins on Wednesday!  And clearly, Thanksgiving goes through Sunday.  That is what I mean when I say, thankfully, the holiday is over!

Actually, Thanksgiving Day is the easy part.  Black Friday I understand is an absolute hoot for shoppers.  Camping out for a day or two on a sidewalk outside the big box store to save some bucks on a tv most people don’t really need baffles me.  Of course, that means I cannot imagine doing it!  But I also know some folks cannot imagine going to a football game or the opera.

I am sure the major reason I am thankful that the holiday is over is the fact that I don’t fit in culturally.  I am not against culture---not even American culture.  That is the culture in which I live and in which I grew up. But there are parts of that culture I do not approve of and in which I don’t want to participate.

I know my biggest complaint about the holiday (and the holidays to come!) is the misplaced focus or emphasis.  Think about it.  Thanksgiving originally and traditionally was a time to be together with family and friends and give thanks.  It was originally a time those early settlers realized half of them would not die over the winter!  I am not sure what they did on Black Friday!  I think Thanksgiving is originally and traditionally spiritual.

Our culture is not designed to focus on the spiritual.  I suspect that we will need to be slightly counter-cultural if we opt for the spiritual.  Flat screen tvs are predictably a distraction from the spiritual.  I might be thankful to get one at a discount, but that I can get one is not inherently spiritual.

For me the spiritual has to do with life, love, justice, mercy and all those other things people offer or withhold from each other.  I want to use those as checkmarks for thanksgiving.  Am I aware of my life as a gift and am I thankful?  I want to make this a daily checkmark.

Am I doing as much loving as possible?  (I’ve got some growing to do here!)  Do I say thanks for the love given me?  Am I acting with a sense of justice---fairness---to all those people in my life?  Can I make this a daily checkmark?  Finally, am I able to be merciful to those whose only hope is mercy?  When I blow it, can I be thankful to those who show mercy to me?

Thankfully, the holiday is over…now I can get to the daily checking on my spiritual life.  I’ve got work to do!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving: a Day and a Way of Life

As Americans, we enter the Thanksgiving season. Already people are wishing me a “happy Thanksgiving.” I am delighted with that greeting. And I would be delighted if someone next week wishes me a “happy Monday.” But I guess Mondays are supposed to be normal…not so happy, not so awful.

I am not sure I do major holidays very well. I am not against them. They celebrate important events in national, religious, and often personal lives. Thanksgiving is an American deal. In Turkey it is just another weekday! As an American, I welcome it. And I hope it is happy.

I am confident one of the reasons I am not sure about major holidays is the trickiness of expectations. For example, Thanksgiving is supposed to be “happy.” Christmas is supposed to be “merry” and, of course, we return to the “happy” theme for New Years. Clearly, for too many people there are too many lousy things going on to gear up to be “happy” and “merry.” Holiday expectations are tricky things.

The truth is Thanksgiving lasts one day. It is here and it is gone. Even if one adds “Black Friday,” that is only two days. Since I am not a shopper and, certainly, not a shop-till-I-drop person, Friday is not part of the deal. No one ever has wished me a “Happy Black Friday!”

I am glad Thanksgiving is here. And I am glad it is one day and then it is over till another year. And I hope I am happy…and you, too.

In reality I am more interested in how Thanksgiving can become a way of life. In fact, I think we should not capitalize it. I want my way of life to be one of thanksgiving. That gets me at the spiritual roots of my life and how I want those roots to issue a way of life for which I can say, “thanks.” And I hope my way of life becomes such that others can say, “thank you.”

Both those qualities are necessary for my understanding of thanksgiving as a way of life. I need to be able to say, “thanks,” and to have others respond genuinely with their “thank you.” If I am only concerned with a way of life for which I give “thanks,” I fear it may be a way of life rooted in self-interest. If I get all I want, then I will be thankful. But some of what I might want may come at the expense of others. And surely, they are not going to say, “thank you.”

On the other hand, if I live only to get your “thank you,” I may be nothing more than your servant or, worse, doormat! You happily say, “thank you,” but I certainly am not saying, “thanks.”

The good news is that kind of thanksgiving is a way of life. I don’t have to pull it off by the weekend. Like music or sports, I will probably have to practice a fair amount. There is time. Perhaps, the real question is not whether I am succeeding, but am I making progress?

How will I know if I am making progress? Likely, there are many ways to measure it, but let me offer two. I will be making progress if I am more loving---more loving than I was last week and last Thanksgiving. Sometimes that is not easy---there are so many ding-a-lings out there! And of course, most people are not as loveable as I am!

The second measure is if I am more graceful. I am not thinking of gymnasts and ballerinas. Grace is always a gift. If I am more graceful, I am more giving---perhaps, more forgiving. If I can be more graceful, more giving, then people are more likely to say, “thank you.”

Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, I will return to writing on Monday, November 28th.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One Person’s Good

One of the pleasant things that can happen while you are reading is finding something you had not been seeking.  It happens to me quite frequently.  It can make me feel like a kid who finds a treasure.  Usually, I want to yell, “hey, look at this!”  But normally there is no one around…or worse, I am sitting somewhere with some people and if I yelled that, they would think I am daft or, perhaps, throw me out the door!

Last evening I hit one of those gems that made me want to yell to someone.  But no one was at home with me.  And the neighbor above me already thinks I am crazy enough…no need to add evidence!  So let me share that tidbit with you.

It comes from Dorothy Day.  Fewer and fewer people these days know when Dorothy Day was.  Dorothy was a Catholic saint, although she obviously has not been canonized.  I doubt that she will be, but to me she is a saint.  In her early life through the 1920s and 30s, she was active with the communists.  She was an agnostic and, as we would say today, she lived in the “fast lane.”  She had a couple common law marriages.  Then she had a daughter and became intrigued by the Catholic Church.

Dorothy always had a concern for the marginal and the down-and-out.  She was involved in the beginnings of the Catholic Worker movement.  This movement ran some Catholic Worker homes for folks down on their luck.  In a sense, Dorothy was a saint in a slum!

You can imagine my delight when my reading surprised me with a few words from Dorothy Day.  She said, “One of the greatest evils is a sense of futility.”  I smile because one does not have a sense that Dorothy ever felt that sense of futility.  But I also wondered, would anyone who has never felt that sense of futility ever consider addressing it?  I rather doubt it.  In fact, I suspect it was because Dorothy knew that sense of futility that she could address it as an “evil.”

No doubt the following words come from a woman who has lived well beyond that sense of futility and has a firm handle on meaning and purpose in life.  She continues by noting, “Young people say, ‘What good can one person do?  What is the sense of our small effort?’”  That is a daunting question: what good can one person do?  I certainly have asked that question.  It is an easy question when one’s situation seems hopeless…when the task seems too big.  What is the sense of our small effort?

Those two questions, though, are dangerous because they can become the excuse to do nothing.  They become our rationale for resignation.  And Dorothy Day would have none of that.  I like it when she says, “We can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.”  True!

And then, she adds the clincher for me.  “…we can beg for an increase in love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”  The key is “an increase in love in our hearts.”  I want to believe and beg for this, just like Dorothy did.

I want to believe that somehow God can do this “increasing” that enables me to do this “loving” that can make the one good thing I can do.  And if we all ask for a little “increasing” of the love in our hearts, then perhaps a whole new movement can begin.

One person’s good: May I do my good this day…and you, too.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Image of God

Even though I grew up in the Quaker tradition, I don’t think I was a very good Quaker.  But I was also not a bad Quaker.  In retrospect I probably would say in most ways I simply was not a Quaker.  I was a normal, middle class farm kid whose parents went to church like most of the families I knew.  “Going to church” in my case, meant going to Quaker meeting, as we called it.  If that is what you do every Sunday, it is easy to assume that is normal!

If I had gone to a Methodist church or a Catholic church, I would have claimed that as my identity: I would have been Methodist or Catholic.  In all likelihood I would not have been any better at being Methodist or Catholic than I was at being Quaker.  Going to church was what people did.  But that did not make it important or, even, relevant in my life.  After all, I was clear that basketball and girls were more important and, certainly, more relevant!

Things began to change for me late in high school.  There was nothing dramatic---certainly no crisis.  But that is the time in my life when I began seriously to think about what I would do in life.  There were many people in my family and circle of friends who had different ideas for my life.  And in some ways I probably listened too closely and tried too hard to live into their dreams for me.  That usually does not work!

I dutifully went off to college and began to work on the dreams others had for me.  But my heart was not in it.  Paradoxically even if I succeeded in managing their dream in my life, I would be a failure.  I would not be me!  This did not come as a revelation.  It crept into my consciousness and awareness.  Little by little I started to realize I was aiming to live someone else’s life.

And that led me to a precipice.  I did not know who I was.  In fact, I had no clue!  Of course, I had a bunch of answers and descriptors that I used to tell people who I was.  But they were like clothes someone else had given me.  Down deep, I did not know who I was and I did not know what I wanted to do.  Being in college was not answering that at all.  So I quit!

I quit college and began learning.  Apparently, I don’t get big bolts of revelation or enlightenment.  My discoveries and learnings seem to come at daylight rather than in the light of day.  I began to notice there was an inner emptiness that lurked below all the activities, beyond all family and friends, and above any dream I might conjure for myself.

I started to suspect that we are not “man-made” as the popular myth would have it.  We probably are not “woman-made” either, if we use inclusive language.  Suspicions like this one launched my genuine spiritual search.  I realized that a spiritual search is not the same thing as going to church.  Of course, going to church might aid the spiritual search, but the two are not the same.  My spiritual search was my quest for who I would be and what I might do.  In other words the spiritual search was my quest for identity and purpose.  I have been on this quest ever since.

To my surprise and sadness, I also realized how ignorant I was.  Going to church did not mean I had learned a thing.  Oh, I suppose I had learned a few things.  I knew about Noah and the ark.  I knew a few other things from the Bible, but they were random things that served no real purpose.  They were of no help on this spiritual search.  To my surprise, I realized I knew about God…but I did not know God!

 But this part was crucial.  Maybe I was not “man-made.”  If not that, perhaps I was  “God-made.”  That made more sense.  At that point something from some Sunday School class crept back into my mind.  Those original creation stories in Genesis talked about humanity being created in the image of God.  That’s it, I realized.  I am a person created in the image of God.

Suddenly, I knew I had hit upon the identity question.  I know who I am: I am a creature of God.  I image the divinity…and so do you!  I am a treasure in an earthen vessel.  Maybe that is my real purpose in life: to be that treasure.  My goal is to be worth something in that sense.  Of course, that is not a specific assignment.  But whatever specific assignment I take on---or is given to me---has to be “treasure-living” as the image of God.

I did not realize all this in a moment or, even, a short period of time.  It began at the dawn of my spiritual search and has continued throughout the daytime of my life.  I fully expect it to last until the dusk of my life and on into the night of my death.  It has been a wonderful spiritual search…and I am still on the way.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Conversion: Learning to Live

Every so often I run into a quotation that stops me in my tracks.  That happened yesterday when I was finishing one of Thomas Merton’s books.  Periodically, I teach a seminar on Merton’s spirituality.  I have done this multiple times.  I like Merton and I suspect I will get something new every time I teach that seminar.  Often I have read the book before, but somehow a particular quotation never hit me like it does the current time through the material.

Merton was a Catholic monk who died tragically in 1968.  He wrote a great deal and was ironically very famous even as a silent monk in a monastery in the hills of Kentucky.  So even though he could not speak that much in his monastery and would have to get the abbot’s permission even to receive a visitor he “spoke” to millions of people around the globe through his writings.  The voice that had chosen the silent path spoke in volumes!

Merton’s story is very familiar to me.  After a rather tumultuous youth and an atheistic phase through college years, Merton hit rock bottom in his pointless search for life’s meaning.  He began a spiritual quest and that finally landed him in the Roman Catholic Church.  He is very clear about his conversion process.  But it did not stop there.  That process continues to lead him right into the Trapppist monastery 45 minutes from Louisville in those Kentucky knobs.  So the highly educated global citizen landed as a monastic hick in the South.

I was reading near the end of what, arguably, is my favorite Merton Book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  Published in 1965 near the end of his life, Merton has become a critique of the culture in which he found himself.  It was the ‘60s---Vietnam, racial issues, feminist awakening, etc.  I hit a paragraph where Merton referenced his conversion and my eyes lite up.

Merton comments, “God was not for me a working hypothesis, to fill in the gaps left open by a scientific world view.  Nor was He a God enthroned somewhere in outer space.  Nor did I ever feel any particular ‘need’ for superficial religious routines merely to keep myself happy.  I would even say that, like most modern men, I have not been much moved by the concept of ‘getting into heaven’ after muddling through this present life.”  Those lines of Merton are Merton at his best, in my mind.  He is so eloquent and, yet, so matter of fact.

I resonate with Merton’s quip that God was not a working hypothesis for him.  God was not some reasonable idea in which Merton chose to believe.  Merton bluntly said he did not feel any need to be involved in religious routine.  This is funny to me coming from a monk who had been “going to church services” at the monastery seven times a day for nearly a quarter of a century!  And I most enjoyed Merton saying that he did not become religious in order to get into heaven!

Merton was not worried about getting into heaven.  He was more worried about getting into a real present life.  That is what he converted to get.  Again listen to Merton’s words.  “On the contrary, my conversion to Catholicism began with the realization of the presence of God in this present life, in the world, and in myself, and that my task as a Christian is to live in full and vital awareness of this ground of my being and of the world’s being…When I entered the Church I came seeking God, the living God, and not just ‘the consolation of religion.’”

That’s the key, I thought.  Merton converted not to get into heaven, but to get into a real, genuine, and vibrant life in this world and in this present time.  That is where he sought God.  He sought the living God, as he says.  That is a very different God than some reasonable idea of God.  I can manipulate ideas of God.  I can make that God anything I want God to be.

But the real God---the living God---will be Who that God already is and will be.  That God Merton found and that God changed his life forever.  That is the God I, too, want to meet and greet.  I do that with some trepidation.  I don’t want to be called to a monastery in some unimaginable place.  Probably, Merton did not intend that either.

I suspect the living God will call me (and anyone else who seeks and finds that living God) into unimaginable places.  I am convinced that living God will call you and me into an educational experience.  We will learn to live.  Let me explain.

To live is not simple.  There is a range to living.  Imagine the range is something like survival on one hand and thriving on the other hand.  Most of us are somewhere in between.  In my theology it is God---the living God---who teaches us how to thrive in our present lives.  That usually calls for a re-ordering of priorities, re-commitments, and re-newing.  This is what conversion means.  Only the living God can create thriving women and men who learn to live abundant lives.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Spiritual Commitment

I was reading along in a very nice little book and hit these lines about commitment.  The author, Mitch Albom, uses the voice of one of the main characters of his nonfiction book about faith to reflect on commitment.  The voice belongs to Albom’s old rabbi of the Jewish synagogue where he went until his college days.  The old rabbi, Albert Lewis, says “the word ‘commitment’ has lost its meaning.”

The rabbi continues in a way that surely would have many people saying, “Amen!”  About commitment he says, “I’m old enough when it used to be a positive.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  He was loyal and steady.  Now a commitment is something you avoid.  You don’t want to tie yourself down.”  I also think I am old enough to know that commitment was usually a positive word.  I can think of a range of situations in which commitment would have been seen to be positive.

For example, growing up was full of sports for me.  Commitment would have been presupposed to be part of a team.  If you were going to play basketball, you made a commitment to the team and the coaches.  You made a commitment to the discipline that went with playing ball.  The discipline was not just on the court.  There was the commitment to some of the rules.  Some rules were quite explicit.  There were dietary rules, etc.  One needed to be committed to these.  Other rules were implicit.  They were not written down, but everyone knew them and was committed to them.

I agree with the rabbi.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  Again, if I stay with the sports analogy, I remember holding in special esteem some of the older college and professional sports’ figures who “played the game the right way.”  They exemplified commitments to fair play, etc.  They were role models and demonstrated what a young person could become.  Certainly, this was not limited to the sports’ world.

I like the way Albert Lewis, the rabbi, began to develop what the committed person exemplified.  That person was someone who was loyal and steady.  It seems quite clear to me that loyalty is a hallmark of commitment.  A committed person is not a fair-weather friend.  The committed person is someone who is going to be there---be there for you or for the cause---whatever happens.

It is easy to contrast this with much of what we see in our world today.  Too many people are driven purely by self-interest.  Of course, I would never say that no one today makes and keeps commitments.  But I would agree that commitment is not what it used to be.  This is not the place to try to argue the case that commitment is not valued the way I think it used to be.

Instead I am interested in exploring spiritual commitment.  I am quite clear in my own mind that commitment is the glue of the spiritual relationship with the Holy One.  Commitment is relational.  Commitment is connecting---it connects me to someone or something.  There are two basic steps in commitment.  One “makes” a commitment.  Making a commitment entails saying “yes” to someone or something (one can be committed to a principle, for example).  Secondly, having made a commitment, one “keeps” the commitment.  Keeping a commitment is the duration over time of the relationship which was made.

A spiritual commitment is the engaging and engagement of myself to God.  It is not a one-way street.  God also commits to me.  That is significant.  Not only do I say “yes;” God also says “yes.”  In this sense the commitment is mutual and reciprocal.  That does not make it equal.  In my commitment to God, I am affirming that I will try to be all that I can be.  If I say that I give my heart to God, my commitment means that I will try to do it with all my heart.  But I also am convinced God makes the same commitment.  God also says that the Divine Heart will be poured out to me.  After all, “God so loved the world…”

Spiritual commitment also has another dimension.  I also think that my spiritual commitment to God has a corollary.  I also will need to commit to all those other human beings who, too, are in a spiritual commitment with God.  God and I implicate God and us.  The implications are clear and, sometimes, stunning to me.  It means I can do no less to you or any other human being than I would do to God.

I cannot ask for God’s blessings and, in turn, be cursing you!  When something goes wrong, I cannot petition God for mercy and insist that you do justice.  Spiritual commitment is not a commodity, like corn or coal.  Rather it is a relationship.  It is more quality and not quantity.  I can grow and develop my spiritual commitment.  I can deepen it.

This is the place where I ask God and you, too, to help me in that developing journey of deepening my commitment. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Spiritual Community

I am part of a group that meets weekly.  It is a great group of fairly diverse people.  The folks have a variety of jobs.  Both genders are represented.  The age range is significant.  Some are retired and others are newer into their careers.  Not everyone has the same religious background.  We have Christians and Jews and some who probably are not institutionally affiliated.  But the greatest thing about the group is how well they get along.

I like being part of a community.  Usually, I can tell if a group is a community or if they are just a collection of individuals.  They may even be working to some common end, but a collection of individuals will not automatically become a community.  I am pretty sure I cannot give you an academic definition of community.  But I do know there are some key aspects.

Community requires commitment from the various members.  Typically, the community members have voluntary membership in the group.  No one made them join up or even stay with the community.  Clearly there has to be mutual respect.  I have already indicated that communities do not have to be uniform or homogeneous.  There can be some significant diversity in communities as long as there is mutual respect.  Respect is different than agreement.  In fact, there may be some people with whom I agree, but do not necessarily respect.

I think authentic community expect the most from each member without presupposing that everyone is perfect.  Authentic communities have to find a way to understand and deal with the fact that occasionally some within the community will fail.  It might be a failure of omission---someone failed to do what he or she said would be done.  It might be a failure of commission---someone tried to be or do something and did not pull it off.  These two kinds of failure---failing to do and failing in what you actually do---are both failure.  The question is what to do with people who fail?

One obvious option is excommunication---banning the person.  If you fail, you are tossed out of the group.  Another option is probation of some sort.  This is milder than excommunication, but still holds a threat.  Probation says, in effect, you are on trial---you are on notice.  Shape up or you will be shipped out of the group.  Probation brings a certain kind of pressure.  If I am on probation, it is my choice whether to stay with the community and try to get back into the graces of the community.  But there is pressure.

A third option for people who fail is forgiveness.  In this case the community recognizes there was failure, but extends forgiveness.  Of course, everyone who has ever thought about forgiveness makes the point that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting.  Forgiveness is a fully conscious choice not to hold something against the person who failed.  Obviously, forgiveness usually presupposes some sense of remorse, some apology, some admission from the one who failed.  Forgiveness is not the same thing as saying, “oh, it does not matter.”  Forgiveness says, “it matters, but we forgive you anyway.”

For me community has been an important laboratory of the spiritual life.  Not every community of which I have been a participant has been a spiritual community.  That’s ok, because even a non-spiritual community teaches me something about life in a spiritual community.  So what kind of laboratory is community?

A spiritual community is a laboratory of love.  This is not the sappy kind of love, but the real love of life together.  It is the love that demands that I do my part and love others in the process.  It is a laboratory of love that asks me to set aside self-interest in the interests of others and, particularly, the community.  It is a laboratory of love that expects me to put the group ahead of my own self-interests.  Yes, the group is more important than I am!  That is counter-cultural in America today.

A spiritual community is a laboratory of hope.  It is a place where the hope of the group (often expressed as the goal or mission of the group) feeds the individual hopes of each member.  Jesus called this hope the Kingdom.  I might call it the Blessed Community.  Again, it is bigger than I am.  It helps me transcend my own petty hopes and dreams.  It makes me a part of something bigger, something more important, and something significant.

I am grateful for my little gang.  I am grateful they include me.  They are going to take me places I could never go on my on.  They may even take me to the place where I can pray, “thy kingdom come,” and it will!  Blessed be community!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Capacity for Marvel

I am very aware there are many definitions of spirituality floating around in our world. I first became aware of the word, spirituality, in the 1980s. That was the time people in non-Catholic universities and theological schools discovered what Catholics had been using as a normal word. Before that time, Protestants normally used the word, religion, and other similar words.

As last century ended, a number of people began to use spirituality to talk about their experience with the Divinity. Many of these folks either did not like the traditional religious language or sometimes had even walked away from the institutional church and wanted nothing to do with “religion” anymore. I don’t share the “reject religious language” view, but I also like what spirituality has to offer.

For many people spirituality seems preferable language to describe their experience because their experience of God, of the Holy One, of the Spirit is less defined. For many folks spirituality is a better way to talk about the mystery of dealing with the Spirit. Spirituality offers a way to “talk about” their experience without precisely defining it. I appreciate this element because mystery plays a significant role in my religious experience.

Another facet of spirituality that I like is the phenomenon of marvel. Perhaps you have not thought about how “marvel” is a spiritual word. I like the verb, marvel. It also can be a noun. No doubt, most people use it in its adjective form, marvelous.

That is a word that can describe an amazing concert or spectacular game played in an athletic event. People come away exclaiming, “that was simply marvelous.” Let’s play around with the phenomenon of marvelous in order to see how it can have a spiritual function. Let’s simply suggest life has two possible levels: the ordinary and the marvelous. I like “marvelous” language better than “extraordinary” language because marvelous sounds so much more than extraordinary. Extraordinary can be only slightly more than ordinary. If something is marvelous, it is way better than ordinary. Marvelous leaves the ordinary in the dust!

Now let’s drag human beings into the story. I like the Genesis 2 account of creation (yes, there are two creation accounts in Genesis). In Genesis 2 God creates Adam from the ground. In fact God comes along and scoops up some dirt---some dust---and forms that into a human being whom God calls Adam. I like the fact that the Hebrew word for ground or earth is adam. So in the beginning we are dirt---we are nothing but dust! That is ordinariness.

The good news is this is only the beginning of the story. We may be ordinarily dust, but we have such marvelous capacity. We can be so much more than our humble beginnings. In fact, God wanted and expected so much more for us and from us. Our marvelous capacity is symbolized by the fact that we were created in the image and likeness of the Very Divinity Itself. I would say our capacity for marvel is our capacity to be imitators of the God who created us.

We are the apple of God’s eye! We were meant for so much. And sadly and so often we do so little. Too often, we turn out to be bad apples! Everyone knows a few bad apples spoil it for the whole bunch. But it does not have to be that way. We always carry with us the capacity for marvel.

I recently spent a long weekend with a fair number of select college students. I marveled at how good they were and how well they worked at making the whole group even better. I began to notice how they were developing their marvelous capacity. It is not complicated, but it takes a dream, discipline and determination. And that seemed just like a recipe for spirituality.

To be spiritually marvelous requires a dream. Jesus called the dream the Kingdom. My own Quaker tradition has sometimes called it the Blessed Community. The dream is a group of people who are committed to and working for peace and harmony. We are a gathering who wants to love and be compassionate in the world. We want to incarnate the same kind of energy I see in young people. We want to incarnate God’s Presence in the world just like Jesus did and similarly to how the Buddha did it and probably Muhammad and all the other saints.

I want to be a marvel…spiritually speaking. I want to hang out with marvelous people. It is a simple dream. It will take some discipline and determination. But I don’t have anything better to do. And I certainly don’t want to be ordinary. Join me!

Monday, November 14, 2016

This is the Day

For no reason at all, the music and words of an old hymn entered my head and got stuck there.  I like the hymn, so it could be worse.  It is an upbeat hymn.  I don’t remember singing it as often as many of the other old hymns, but it is one I liked better than most of the others.

The hymn begins with the catchy words, “This is the day.”  Somehow that always resonated with me.  Of course, I would think, this is the day!  In fact, this is the only day I have.  And if you are alive, this is the only day you have, too.  I have already had yesterday.  It might have been one of the greatest days ever.  Or, it might have been absolutely lousy.  In either case, yesterday is over.  You can remember it, but it is over---it is past tense.  And of course, tomorrow has not yet come.  There is hope that I will get to tomorrow, but it is future tense.  This is the day.

As if that were not sufficient, the hymn repeats the little sentence: “This is the day, this is the day…”  And then comes one of my favorite affirmations.  “That the Lord has made,” affirms the hymn.  This is the day that the Lord has made.  However, I recognize this is an odd theological place for me.

Do I really---literally---think the Lord made this day?  And did God really make yesterday and is God standing by to make tomorrow in its turn?  Of course, I do not literally mean it, if it requires a God in some heavenly laboratory throwing another day on the potter’s wheel, as it were.  God is not in some daily manufacturing plant.

But I also know deep down that I certainly did not make this day.  That much I am very sure.  I did not make this day.  I revel in the fact that I went to sleep last night in the darkness of another concluded day.  Yesterday’s day ebbed into the darkness of night.  And somehow out of that darkness, sometimes out of that chaos of dark despair comes the light of another day!  It is a gift.  It is my grace and your grace.

I can wake up and complain, get dressed, and stumble into another routine day.  Or I can wake up, embrace the gift---this the day the Lord has made---and celebrate.  That is what the old hymn counsels.

That hymn continues.  “We will rejoice, we will rejoice and be glad in it, and be glad in it.”  This is a spiritual goal for me.  I want to learn how to wake up each day that the Lord has made and rejoice in it.  But I need to think about it for a moment.  What does it mean to “rejoice” in the day that the Lord has made?

It hit me!  If I am able to rejoice, that means I must have found some sort of “joy.”  The key to rejoicing is “joy.”  “This is the day that the Lord has made.”  That is a given.  It is a daily grace.  I don’t have to do anything to get this grace.

But I want to embrace the grace.  I want to dive so deeply into the grace of this day, which the Lord has made, that I experience joy.  The day is a given, but my experiencing it in joy is not.  I need to pay attention.  I need to cultivate my ability to live this day such that who I am and what I do become a source of joy.

I think we have the ability to create joy.  Of course, we might get lucky and joy just comes.  But for the most part, we create the joy.  We create joy by the way we look at things, by the way we participate in things, and the way we contribute to things.

That is pretty simple, but I will need practice.  I create joy by how I learn to look at things.  I create joy by how I participate in things.   And I create joy by how I contribute to things.  Fortunately, I have this day---the day that the Lord has made---to practice.     

Friday, November 11, 2016

Monkish Attraction

A monkish attraction?  Some would definitely consider that to be sick!  But I admit that it is something I suffer…well not actually suffer, more like delight.  This is an acquired attraction.  Growing up in rural Indiana as a young Quaker I never heard about monks, certainly did not know any monks, and was completely free of any taint of monkish attraction.  But you know what they say: “when they leave the farm….”

I suppose I read something about monks when I took some European history class in college or, perhaps, high school.  But it made no impression.  The first clear memory of encountering monks in literature would have been a history of Christianity course in college.  But again, there was little or no impression. 

I am confident my vulnerability to this monkish attraction came with my own spiritual search.  In those transitional years of college, I began the move from interest in knowledge “about God” to knowledge “of God.”  I began the exploration of my own spirituality.  I did not have much language to describe the spiritual searching process, but the desire to explore goes deeper than language.  I was on a quest…still am!

So I began to want to know about the experience of people who went before me.  What was their journey like?  How did they experience the “work of the Spirit” in their hearts and on their lives?  How did their desire translate into spiritual discipline and that discipline develop depth in their spiritual lives?  How did meaning supplant misery?

It is possible to read a lot of theology or philosophy and completely avoid the monkish attraction.  But if one wants to go for experience instead of just head-knowledge, It can be said, I suppose, that all roads lead back to the Christian bible---the Old and New Testaments.  But surely one of the most important and early stops on that road is the literature of the monks---those early holy women and men. 

In the late 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries these folks chose to be counter-cultural.  They said “no” to the Roman Empire and usually moved into the desert of Egypt or Syria---literally marginal people who were living on the boundary between civilization and chaos.  There they became students of the Spirit.

We are lucky to have significant writings from that period.  Normally, it comes as one-liners, short pithy sayings which could be memorized and passed on to newer ones who opted for counter-cultural, too.

The themes are quite basic: obedience, non-judgmental, compassion, humility, etc.  But these are tried and true.  If you or I want to become students of the Spirit, probably some of these themes will need to be incorporated in our lives.  And if they are, we, too, likely will become slightly counter-cultural.  It is difficult to be an authentic monk and a normal American!

Let’s take one saying as an example.  Poemen was one of the famous early monks.  No doubt, he was asked, “what are the works of the soul?”  He answered: “To be on guard, to meditate within, to judge with discernment: these are the three works of the soul.”

Easy, eh?  Be on guard: watch out for the temptation to be suckered into any and all things non-spiritual.  Meditate within: ruminate on the Spirit of God at work in yourself and in others.  Judge with discernment: learn to look deeply into things to know God’s desire for you…and then do that.  This all seems so true to me.

But that is because I am afflicted with a monkish attraction!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Leaf: Icon of Life

Most of the time I am absolutely convinced spirituality is about learning the simple lessons the complexity of life has to teach us.  I am also persuaded that our level of education has an indirect correlation to our capacity as students to learn these spiritual lessons.  Since by worldly standards, I am pretty highly educated, I probably am the worst kind of student of life and spirituality.  I am a slow learner, but I am trying.  For the most part, I still find being in the school of life interesting and thought-provoking.
   
Since I have advanced degrees and am a professor, I usually don’t think about finding teachers to teach me things.  That is my job!  And that’s how my problems begin.  I see myself as a teacher and in many ways I don’t know anything.  Perhaps the first step in growing is to realize and accept truth as it is revealed to you.  I had a little lesson recently.  My little granddaughter became my teacher.  Fortunately, I began to recognize I was her student, although I don’t recall enrolling in her class!
   
We were on a little walk.  Well, at least I thought it was just a walk.  In retrospect I realize she was on a journey and she was exploring.  My walk was rather aimless---just spending some time is how I would have put it.  Her journey was fueled by curiosity.  Compared to her, I was walking like a blind man.  She had eyes wide open.  We walked hand in hand.  No doubt, I was under the illusion I was watching out for her---making her safe---when in truth she was guiding me on to a path of attentiveness. 
   
Although I did not know it in the moment, my lesson began when she stopped, bent down and picked up a leaf.  It could have been any season, but it was autumn when the splendor of the leaves is at their best.  But it is also the time when the leaves give up life and begin the transformational process to become fertilizer for the earth.  To me it was just a leaf.  To her it was a revelation of the mystical.  She and I represented the two extremes of human life---the mystic and the moron.  Our roles seem clear!  So I began to pay attention to my teacher.
   
She was fascinated by the leaf.  She held it as if it were a crystal ball ready to reveal its secrets.  I began to cultivate my own fascination.  I followed her lead and started to open my eyes and my heart.  I am not sure what her reflective capacities are, but I know mine are pretty good when I apply myself.  I was ready to reflect on the leaf for what it would teach me.
   
The first thing to hit me was the phrase, “icon of life,” as a description of the leaf.  I can imagine some folks don’t really know or appreciate the idea of an icon.  I only came to appreciate it when I took Greek and learned that “icon” was the Greek word for “image.”  So an icon is an image---a picture or snapshot.  That does not mean it is the same thing as a mirror.  A mirror reflects back the very same image.  If I look into a mirror, my exact image stares back at me.  On the other hand, an icon draws us into it and reflects something deeper inside it.  That’s what the leaf did to me.
   
To understand the leaf as an icon of life meant that I began to see how the leaf experienced stages of life just like I have.  Leaves are born in the springtime.  Spring is the time of renewal, vitality and exuberance.  The leaf begins as a bud, just as we all began as babies.  We come with so much potential and so much power.  In many ways my granddaughter is still in that early stage.
   
Spring gives way to summer.  The leaf is fully-grown and green is the color.  I could be cynical and say green symbolizes money, but that is too superficial.  I see green as the color of life, vibrant, meaningful life.  Summer can last a long time.  Leaves are crucial to the tree---work to do.  But they also are bearers of beauty.  I see you and me having the same dual opportunity.  There is work to do---meaningful, creative work---and there is beauty to bear.  Do both well.
   
And then comes autumn.  The leaf begins its odyssey into brilliant colors.  Leaves go out in a blaze of glory.  I hope to do the same thing.  At first, the leaf changes colors and gives the tree a radiance that is incomparable.  All you can do is look at the leaf as the handiwork of a Divine Artist.  I hope some day people could look at me and see traces of that same Divine Artistic work. 
   
Inevitably, a strong wind will dislodge the leaf from the tree and it will twirl or be hurled to the earth.  Perhaps it will be picked up by the small hand of a little girl.  Or it might simply begin the transformational process of enriching the earth to produce the next generation of beauties.  Perhaps it is not true to say the leaf’s life is finished.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say the leaf’s work has changed.  And maybe that is my fate and your fate some day when the Spirit’s strong wind dislodges us from this life.  Our lives will not be spent so much as re-quipped for the next phase.  That’s what I learned, thanks to my little teacher and her leaf. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Road to God

To use a title like, “Road to God,” might seem fairly arrogant.  If I were to see this title, I might think the author knows the road to God and is going to share the secret.  I can assure you this author does not know the road to God and I don’t have any secrets.  So at least I am not arrogant!  In fact on this issue, I am incredibly humble.  I would like to learn something about that road so I could begin the journey.
           
This topic arose as I was preparing for a class.  One of the ongoing joys in teaching spirituality is getting a chance to keep reading and thinking about something that is so personally important to me.  In fact, I might well claim spirituality is the most important thing in the world to me.  That is because I do think it offers insight and assistance in finding my way to God.  And to find my way there is to discover meaning and purpose for myself and, indeed, for the life we are can live.  That helps me understand my life as a miracle and not a waste.
           
A key book I use for the contemplative spirituality class I teach is by Roger Walsh, entitled Essential Spirituality.  The book is full of nuggets that help the beginning in the journey, as well as the seasoned pilgrim.  Most of the time I feel like the beginner.  Half the time I am reminded of something I forgot and by this forgetting realize why I am such a slogger on the divine trail to the Holy One.  But I plan to “keep on keepin’on.”
           
In a section in Walsh’s book called, “Cultivate Spiritual Intelligence,” Walsh focuses a great deal on wisdom.  Sprinkled throughout the text are one-liners from the spiritual giants of the past.  These sayings usually illustrate the point Walsh is making.  Typically, I am amazed at how simple these sayings are, but also how difficult they can be to implement in my life.  I would like to share one of these now.
           
Walsh quotes a line from the Buddha.  The Buddha says, “Self-knowledge is the shortest road to the knowledge of God.”  I immediately want to say, “Yes…of course that is true.”  But then I realize how tricky it is to feel confident that I know myself.  I laugh at how long I have lived “being myself,” I assume. But I am really?  Walsh and other spiritual writers are pretty confident many of us spend time---maybe a lifetime---being someone other than who we really are. 
           
It is commonplace to know that we often are presenting a mask to the world.  We pretend to be someone we really are not.  Like actors on a stage, we perform a role.  We often become so adept at playing our role, we forget that we are actually in a role.  The role becomes real---in our mind, at least.  We can spend so much time “outside of ourselves” that we no longer have a clue who we really are.  We are a mystery to ourselves as much as we are a mystery to others.
           
Another version of what the monk, Thomas Merton, calls the “false self” is the illusion that our self can be.  This illusion can take various forms.  Many of us think we are better than we actually are.  For example, most of us do not think we lie.  But if ask about gossiping---which may be a mild form of not telling the truth---we squirm a little.  I know when gossiping comes up in the classroom, every student admits to participating!  And I am not immune to the gossip disease.
           
I conclude that self-knowledge is not as easy as it seems when I first read the Buddha’s sentence.  So what is the road to self-knowledge?  Here I am no expert, but a couple things seem obvious.  In the first place honesty---brutal honesty---is necessary.  I think a lie about myself never brings me to self-knowledge.  And illusion and pretension are forms of a lie about who I am.  They are not bad, so much as they are wrong.  You cannot start down a wrong path and get to a right end.  So I have to be honest with myself. 
           
Secondly, I am confident that being honest with myself is more possible if I have some form of community in which I practice honesty.  A community might be a little as a very good friend.  I need another to help me not pretend.  I need that friend occasionally to say, “Really?”  The other needs to ask me if what I just assumed about myself is really true?  If a good friend comes to know me pretty deeply, then that is a great mirror to my own look at myself.  In fact there are times others may know us better than we know ourselves.
           
Honesty and community are keys for the beginning of self-knowledge, which is the way we begin the journey on the road to God.  Perhaps the further down the road we get, the more knowledge of myself I get.  The good news is it takes a lifetime to travel that road to God.  It is not a sprint.
           
I suspect that our true self continues to grow and deepen, so the journey is ever progressing.  It does not mean we can never rest, but to stop means life is over.  I am on the way!    

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I-Thou Relationships

Those of us who have read theology or, perhaps, those who are people of faith and are old enough might well recognize this title as a reminder of the late Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber.  I remember reading Buber’s book, I and Thou, when I was in college in the 1960s.  It was already a famous book by then.  I am not sure I fully understood it, but that would not be the last time I read it.  It has been a while since I looked at the book.
           
Buber came up in a conversation with a friend who asked if I had seen the recent article by David Brooks?  I had not seen it, but when I was told about it, I knew I would quickly locate and read that piece.  I very much like what Brooks decides to write about and what he contributes to societal conversation.  I wish more people read him and took him seriously.
           
Brooks’ article focused on the 2016 contentious election.  He provocatively suggests, “Read Buber, Not the Polls!”  I think Brooks puts it well when he said that Buber “devoted his whole career to understanding deep intimacy.”  In thinking about deep intimacy, Buber came up with the distinction of two types or relationship: I-It and I-Thou relationships.  Basically, I-It relationships treats others as objects and I-Thou relationships treats others as real people (or God as God). 
           
Brooks differentiates I-It relationships into two types.  One type is utilitarian, which means I need another for some purpose.  For example, I hire someone to do my taxes, but it does not involve any level of interaction, much less, intimacy.  This is not a bad relationship.  The other kind of I-It relationship is not good.  Here I treat another as an object when I ought to treat them as real people.  Brooks calls these “truncated versions of what should be deep relationships.”  These can be our kids, friends, etc.  Instead of treating that person as a person, we treat him or her as an object.
           
The other, I-Thou, relationships “are personal, direct, dialogical---nothing is held back.”  It is at this point Brooks turns to direct quotations from Martin Buber.  It reminded me of what I knew about Buber.  Martin Buber was born in 1878 and worked within the Zionist movement long before Israel became a country.  He became a professor in Germany, but resigned the position in the 1930s in the face of Hitler’s coming to power and the anti-Semitism that came with Hitler.  He moved to Palestine in what would become Israel in 1948.  Buber died in 1965, when I was a much younger college student.
           
I am glad Brooks has dragged me back into my memory and allowed me to cherish again the work of Buber.  And I particularly like the perspective Brooks adds to my own memory.  I appreciated the words from Buber that Brooks incorporates in his article.  Buber said, “All real living is meeting.”  I take this to mean that our lives are social.  There is no way we can make it alone in this world.  In my perspective we are dependent---dependent on God, on the natural world and on each other.
           
Brooks focuses on our relationship with each other.  Ultimately, the good life will come when we have some I-Thou relationships as opposed to what Brooks calls “mechanical relationships.”  People who are open to I-Thou relationships, Brooks notes, are those with “a guard-down posture that is openhearted and open-minded.”  That is a lovely way to describe a potentially rich life.  I can certainly name those times when I was anything but a guard-down guy.  There are times when I am defended---wall up and defenses at the ready.  I can only make I-It relationships when I am so postured.
           
I appreciate Brooks’ thoughts not so much for the 2016 political season, but more for what it means for me and for us long-term.  I-Thou relationships create the possibilities of love and compassion.  The I-Thou perspective is the spiritual option.  It leads folks to want to give, to share and to care.  This kind of relationship leads to respect, appreciation and acting for the good of all.  Importantly, it can lead to service---ministering to the least fortunate in our midst or around the world.
           
I-Thou is the pathway to a relationship with the Holy One who creates, cares and redeems us from our worst selves.  This relationship is embodied in Jesus who becomes the paradigm of holy action in our world.  Jesus is not some holy other, but is the radical presence of Thou in our world.  When Jesus said, “follow me,” he invited each and every one into an I-Thou relationship.
           
I am grateful to Brooks, to Buber and to every one in my life who have endeavored to live an I-Thou relational life.  I am trying to do so, too.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Before Time and in Time

Coming up with a title for a particular inspirational reflection is fun and useful for me.  It may do nothing for the reader, but it is my chance to figure out in a very succinct way what I thought I was doing in the longer reflection piece that I write.  Sometimes, I have a title before I write one word of the essay.  And sometimes I write something only then to figure out what I was trying to say.  I realize the title is not essential, but it can be a pointer to my thoughts.
           
The title for this inspirational piece came when I was reading the first couple verses of Psalm 90.  They are familiar words for anyone who has spent much time in the world of the Psalms.  The words are the Psalmist’s address to God.  Some interesting theology emerges in these words, which I will share and then offer some reflection.
           
The Psalmist opens the Psalm by speaking to God, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (90:1)  Another familiar translation says that the Lord is our refuge.  I like “dwelling place;” it sounds more contemporary and common usage.  What intrigues me here is the affirmation that it is God who is a “dwelling place.”  Normally we think about dwelling place as a real place---a building or something like that.  We do not usually think about a person being a dwelling place, even God as a person.  Perhaps the Psalmist is not thinking about God in personal terms in this passage.
           
I think the Psalmist thinks God is a dwelling place in the sense that the Christian Bible talks about humans having their being in God’s very Being.  In other words we exist because God chooses us to exist---in short, God creates us.  We are dependent on God for our very existence and being.  In that sense we  “dwell” within God’s Being. 
           
If we are dependent on God for our existence, then God existed before we did.  A Creator necessarily pre-exists the creation.  This is certainly the point of the Genesis creation stories.  In the beginning when God created…” (Gen. 1:1)  The writer of Psalm 90 makes this even more clear in the second verse of that Psalm.  The Psalmist proclaims, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (90:2) 
           
With this second verse, the Psalmist argues conclusively that God existed before time---before the mountains were brought forth or even before the earth was formed.  This argument suggests that time begins when God begins creating the world.  With creation we now can understand there is a before and after, which is how time is measured.  All this says God is before time.
           
But that is only half the story.  Those of us who took a philosophy or religion class in college may have bumped into Deism.  That is the perspective, which suggests God is like a clockmaker.  God created a clock (the world), wound it up and then stepped back never to intervene.  This is not the experience of God most of us who have faith think is true.  Our God is not only before time, but God is present in time and works with us in time.  God is not an absent landlord!   
           
If God were only a philosophical principle, I don’t think I would be a believer.  I am not sure we experience a principle.  My experience is an experience of a God who is very present in time and in my life.  I sense God is Presence.  My way of expressing it theologically is to say God is both Creator and creating.  Creation is an ongoing process.  It has begun, but is not complete.  In that vein evolution makes perfect sense to me.
           
I also realize it is not that simple.  I cannot say simply that God creates and is creating.  I believe that God asks us and expects us also to create and be creative.  This is what it means to be created in the image of God.  As God is creator and creating, so are we the same.  In fact, it makes sense to say that we are co-creators with the Holy One. 
           
In that sense we are partly responsible for where the world is heading.  We are responsible for what happens and for what will happen.  I am disappointed and saddened when I think how irresponsible I have sometimes been and how others have been.  It could easily be argued that humans are making a mess instead of a miracle.  I am sure God had in mind a miracle when God created the world and you and every other human being.
           
This affirmation is why I think it is so important to take theology seriously.  Theology won’t save the world, but God can and we might.  This is where my reflection takes me as I think about the God who is before time and in time.  I conclude by saying it is about time we became as responsible as we can be.  We have miracles to make.  Let’s not make any more messes!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Day’s First Sounds

One of the things I most like about being in a monastery setting is the fact that it becomes so much easier to be devotionally involved.  I did not grow up knowing anything about monasteries or monks.  I suppose the best that could be said is that I had an ignorant, stereotyped view of what a monk would be.

Probably high on that stereotyped view would be a man (or woman) who did not have much else going for himself (herself) in the world, so opted out.  It does not get any worse because I was so ignorant I could not formulate any more opinion.  Basically, I was just dismissive.  For sure, monks and monasticism were dismissed as having anything to do with me and essentially irrelevant.

But how things change with a little openness, education, and common sense!  Not only do I see the point of monasticism now, but I also have an appreciation of how relevant it is to my own life.  Common sense now tells me that so many of us “normal” people out here in real life are squandering our lives on useless things---and doing it with little relevance to anything. 

Just as I used to laugh at monks and their monastic life, now I think they may have the last laugh!  What I do know is occasionally I like to hang out with them.  And routinely I try to live a little more “monastically.”  Essentially, this means for me trying to follow the daily lectionary.  All that means is that I try to follow the daily readings that guide the monk through his (her) day.

And I know all too well that on my own I do not do nearly as well.  Getting up in the morning and being thankful for a new day sounds pretty simple…and it is if you do it!  And on my own it is so easy to forget...to grab coffee and read the sports page instead of the morning prayers and readings.  But in this case, intending to do it and failing is better than not intending it at all.  So I intend it; and some mornings I actually pull it off.  So began my morning…not as early as it would have if I had been at a monastery. 

There the Morning Office, as it is called, would have had the monks singing this hymn:
     Our tongues’ first sound doth thee proclaim.
     Our minds to thee first kindle flame:
     Ensuing thence, O Holy One,
     Be all our acts in thee begun.
Since I was by myself, I simply read these words.  They would have been more meaningful with a group of monastics and if I had actually sung them.  Nevertheless, I could meditate on them.

The first line affirms that my mouth’s initial sound was a sound of praise of the Holy One.  That is such a different thought than the request for “a coffee and paper,” as my normal first uttered sound.  And secondly, our minds come alive with first thoughts of the Divine One.  All this early morning spirituality is to one end.

That single end of our devotions is that all our daily acts will be done in the spirit of the Spirit.  If I can put it in my own words, those early devotional intentions are an attempt to align my own will with the Divine Will.  But why would I bother to do this?  Or even want to do it?

The answer is quite simple.  I want my life to be guided by love and driven by justice.  I want to act compassionately and be a bringer of peace.  And on my own, I don’t do a very good job.  Often there is a disconnect between what I say I want and what I actually do.  I desire to be connected to the Spirit.

That way I have a chance.  And that’s why I need to pay attention to the day’s first sounds.