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Friday, July 21, 2017

Love as Embrace

I continue to read Ilia Delio’s, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.  Her subtitle is also instructive: “God, Evolution and the Power of Love.”  It has proven to be a remarkable book.  I have never met Delio.  I know about her.  She is a Franciscan Sister who is both a scientist and theologian.  That in itself is a rare combination.  It takes some real smarts and some significant time to be able to learn all you need to do in both science and religion arenas.  I know people who know her and they all talk about how sweet her spirit is.
Her book takes absolutely seriously all that science teaches.  Of course, it is always possible to find particular scientists who disagree with the prevailing truths, but for example, the consensus that evolution is the way the world and we came to be seems pretty solidly true.  Whatever I want to think about the Genesis creation accounts of the world and humanity, the truth of science has to be a factor in that interpretation.
And so I appreciate how Delio is able to help me be scientifically sound and see the theological implications.  She helps me see that some of the ways God and our world have been viewed are probably outdated.  It does not mean they are wrong; they simply don’t make as much sense in the new worldview.  It is like saying the horse and buggy days are not wrong; they are also dated.  Most of us prefer cars.
In the chapter I just read, Delio cites another theologian whom I find instructive.  Mirolav Volk teaches theology at Yale Divinity School.  He is a native of Croatia and his experience of that sometimes war-torn country gives his theology a power I find significant.  Delio finds Volf’s 2002 book, Exclusion and Embrace, to help her talk about how God is love and how the world is an expression of God’s love.  When I read Volf’s book, I was fascinated with how much he was able to do with the word, “embrace.” 
This is where Delio picks up the theme.  Let me cite a couple sentences from Delio to set the stage.  She says, “Am embrace, Volf writes, begins with opening the arms.  ‘Open arms are a gesture of the body reaching for the other.  They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity and a code of desire for the other…’  Open arms signify I have ‘created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other.’”  Let’s unpack this and explore the provocative themes.
Volf says an embrace commences with open arms.  This is true, as all of us know.  The more normal language I hear is “hug.”  And embrace is a hug.  We open our arms and invite in the other.  As Volf rightly claims, the embrace is a gesture of the body reaching for the other.  I love how he elaborates that the embrace is a code of desire.  It says we don’t want to be alone---self-enclosed identities, as he puts it.  And I am confident he thinks this is true not only for people, but it is true for God as well.
The embrace means I have created space in myself for the other person to come in.  And reciprocally, they make a space for me to go into them.  The symbolism of the two is powerful---unity out of diversity.  It would be easy to develop this thought even further, but I want to add another thought from Volf, which Delio offers.  She writes, “A genuine embrace entails the ability-not-to-understand but to accept the other as a question right in the midst of the embrace, and to let go, allowing the question of the other to remain mystery.”
I find it insightful that the embrace does not mean we necessarily understand the other.  Understanding is not the pre-condition nor necessary result of embrace.  Delio suggests, instead, we accept the other person as a question---a question right in the middle of the embrace.  And furthermore, we let the question remain as mystery.  I love this idea. 
The other person is there---and there to embrace---not in order to understand and, surely, not to control.  But they are mystery.  And so it must be with the God who is also Other.  God, too, we can embrace.  And God can be taken into us and we taken into God.  Mystery loves mystery.  But it is not automatic.
Delio speaks to that when she notes, “Every effort to love---every embrace---has the possibility of refusal and resistance...”  Here she explicitly links love and embrace.  I like this; it makes a great deal of sense.  It means all we say about embrace is really a declaration about love.  Importantly, Delio recognizes all embraces and love can be refused or, at least, resisted.  We all have experienced this with hugs.
This is important to me because it is a growth point.  I know it is easy to embrace those I like.  And to be honest, it is really difficult to imagine hugging someone I don’t like.  When I see myself this way, I realize how far from God this feeling and thinking is.  I don’t get down on myself.  Rather, I see it as a growth point.  It is the same feeling I get when I hear Jesus talking about loving our enemies.  This is an easy theory to talk about.  But it is incredibly difficult to imagine implementing.
Maybe it begins with seeing love as embrace.  If I can’t hug, maybe I can at least shake hands!  And maybe this can grow in love.  Maybe love as embrace is the handshake growing into a hug.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Faith and Belief

I sometimes wonder what would have been my journey if I had taken the other fork of the road?  I am not being flip.  I assume that we all have come to numerous forks in the road.  We have to choose and when we do choose, heading down one particular way, we know the other road at the fork that we did not choose is lost to us.  We will never know what life would have been like if we had chosen that other road.  I don’t lament lost choices.  I don’t regret any of my choices---although they certainly have not all been good choices!  But I do wonder.

One of the good choices I made was to continue being a reader.  Clearly there were choices in my life, where if I had made them, would effectively have meant that I would have quit reading.  Oh, that does not mean I never would have read anything.  There probably are many jobs that people do that entail no reading.  But most people working those jobs are literate.  They can read. 

They have to read to pass the driver’s test and get a license.  They have to read enough to order from a menu.  They may read the sports’ page---but less necessary in our ESPN world!  They might read a book to their little child.  But reading is not something they would choose to do.  And certainly, they would not do it for fun.

I am different.  I am a reader.  I love to read newspapers---even the newspaper that you literally hold in your hands and, sometimes, get ink on your fingers.  I read magazines and Twitter.  I read online.  I read things that seemingly have nothing to do with my life or my job.  Maybe that is the source of some new ideas.

I like to read things that turn out to be surprising.  Recently I read an op ed piece in a famous national paper.  I recognized the author’s name, T.M. Luhrmann.  I remembered that she is a professor of anthropology at Stanford.  I also recall that she has just written a book based on her observation among evangelical churches.  The title of her op ed was “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.”  I was hooked and read on.

Essentially, she distinguishes faith and belief.  Given my job as spirituality professor, that was not new.  Quickly, I realized she was more focused on faith and thinks faith is primary; belief is secondary.  I would agree.  But I liked even more how she was developing her thoughts.  Her argument is not based in heady scholarship, but rather based in the life experience of folks she has observed and whom she has come to know.  That makes sense to me.

One thing she noted interested me.  She says, “you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon.”  That probably is quite true.  She continues by citing one of my graduate school professors---famous, but now deceased.  She writes, “as the comparative religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out, when the King James Bible was printed in 1611, ‘to believe’ meant something like ‘to hold dear.’

She continues by quoting Smith: “’The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul.  I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him.  I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusting His mercy.’  Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.’”  These are significant words from an old friend that are really words about faith and not belief.  Faith is a bet with my life.  Belief is cognitive principle.  There is a difference.

I like how Luhrmann talks about faith.   She says, “it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.”  I very much like the idea of faith as questions.  For example, I might say that I believe in God, but it could very well make no difference in how I live life.  On the other hand, to have faith in God is to begin living life “faithfully.”

Belief affirms that there is a God.  Faith seeks to involve that God in my life and attempts to live my life following the Divine Desire for me.  And my faith journey is enriched if I can find a community of people also living out of their faith.  They might say a creed to affirm their beliefs.  But more powerful will be their communal effort to know God, love each other as their selves. 

And in the best scenario, they are willing to try to love their enemy.  If they can begin to pull off that feat, they will become transformers in this world.  In this sense they will participate in the building of the Kingdom about which Jesus spoke.  This has a great deal of attraction to me.  I want to have the faith to be part of the process.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Religion of Evolution

I have been working my way through Ilia Delio’s book, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.  It is not an easy book and challenges the belief with which I grew up.  But it is very rewarding and pulls me into thinking about God, myself and the world in fresh ways.  Delio is a Franciscan Sister who is Senior Fellow in Science and Religion with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.  She is a trained scientist, a theologian and a Catholic Sister.  What a combination!
Many people would simply not read her.  Too many folks I know still are simply religious, but give no truck to science.  In fact, they are not even interested in science.  Of course, I am sure they hope their personal physician paid attention to the science they were learning in order to make it through medical school!  People like this, I am afraid, do know understand the world in which they live. 

It is ok not to understand the world in which we live.  I am convinced I don’t understand that much.  But I think it is important.  Let me explain.  Stated simply, I think my world has to correlate with the God in whom I believe.  It seems clear to me that I cannot read the Genesis creation account in a literal sense.  There is nothing about the way scientists talk about the world that suggests it happened in seven days.  Most reputable scientists adhere to some form of evolution to explain a world---our world---that is some 13 billion years old.  

And so Delio is helping me tie together the world as scientists understand it and a view of God that makes sense with this picture of the world.  I appreciate this process.  Even as a kid, it did not make much sense to sense a God “up there.”  I am sure it made sense when I was three or four, but when you send men to the moon, “up there” takes on a different sense.  And now we know there are many universe---galaxies beyond galaxies and soon my mind is blown!

About half way through Delio’s book, I found a nugget that helps me put together a picture of God and the world.  She says, “Christianity is a religion of evolution in that it anticipates a new creation that is not individual but communal, the unity of all persons and creation in God.” (123)  I very much appreciate the way she describes my own tradition: Christianity is a religion of evolution.  This can be a tenet of belief for me, even if I do not know everything there is to know about that.

For sure, I am a kindergartner in my understanding of evolution and its scientific process, etc.  But I also do not know much about how the motor in my car works, but I have no trouble having faith it does and taking off to some place down the road.  I trust the world is evolving---whether I understand it or not!  And I think God has a hand in that process---whether I understand it or not!

Let’s follow Delio’s argument in that one sentence I quoted.  Christianity as a religion of evolution anticipates a new creation.  That sounds much like the end of the New Testament book of Revelation.  There heaven is portrayed as a new creation.  I sense that Delio is saying that new creation is evolving.  God is part of the process and so are we.  In this way we truly are co-creators.  That is exciting to me.  Talk about having something to do!

Delio's next point might be a little threatening.  She says the new creation coming to be is not individual but communal.  There probably are ways I can misunderstand this, but I am confident she means that the new creation is not about me---at least not solely about “just me” in a self-centered way.  Rather, the new creation is about us.  But the good news is I am not discounted; instead, I am counted in.  I am included in the community.  I think her vision of this evolutionary, creative, communal process is big.  

The aim of all this new creating is the unity of all persons.  Furthermore, it is the unity of all creation in God.  I am intrigued by two little words that make a big difference.  In the first place she talks about the unity of all persons.  This might make some people mad; others will be disappointed.  Some of our religions don’t want everyone to be included.  Some of us truly want some others to “get what’s coming.”  

From God’s perspective, we are all going to “get what’s coming.”  This is truly where our view of God is at stake.  If I were God, some people would really be in trouble.  But then, I find it hard to love all people.  However, I am willing to understand God is bigger and better than I am!  I can imagine somehow in faith God can pull it off.

The second little word I liked was Delio’s note that the unity of all persons is accompanied by the unity of creation in God.  This means religion is not just a human thing.  It is human and cosmic---the world is included in the evolution of religion.  Obviously, this has tremendous implications.  It argues that we care for our world, just as we are to care for each other.  I know I have much to learn and to put in action on this point.

I appreciate what Ilia Delio is offering me.  She offers me a way to understand religion as evolution and invites me into the process of a new creation.  It’s exciting.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Life is a Gamble

My friend, John Punshon, died some months ago.  I came to know John in the very early 1980s.  He had been appointed a Quaker Tutor at a Quaker college that is part of the University of Birmingham in England.  I spent a sabbatical year at that college and came to know John fairly well.  John helped me understand British Quakers and he taught me many other things as well.
John was a very bright guy.  He was educated at Oxford and enjoyed some of the privilege that goes with that.  But he was never arrogant and was able easily to relate to common people.  After all, John’s own family and upbringing were not wealthy, upper-crust kinds of folk.  With his upbringing and education, he was able to straddle two worlds. 
After coming to know him fairly well, John joined me throughout the 1990s and others on the faculty of the college I taught.  It was wonderful to have his collegiality and his friendship.  He was fun and funny.  He embodied the British humor that is different than our American humor.  John was a popular teacher and wrote a fair amount.  Much of what he wrote grew out of conversations he had with me and countless others.  So when we would read his next article or book, there were always the familiar parts and, then, the surprises that we had no idea he was including in the writing piece.
John was asked to offer the lecture at a very special annual Quaker lecture in Great Britain.  That lecture grew into a small book, which John entitled, Testimony & Tradition.  I have my own signed copy from John, which I now cherish even more.  When I learned of John’s death, memories flooded through my mind.  And within a few days I was asked to write a memorial reflection that will be included in a special journal honoring his life and work.  This invitation provoked me to pull some of his writings from the shelf and look through them.
One of my favorite stories from John comes at the end of that Testimony & Tradition book.  John shares some memories of his grandfather.  He begins by saying, “My grandfather was enormous.”  John tells us that his grandfather taught him many lessons in life.  I like how John nuances his grandfather’s pedagogy.  John says his grandfather taught him, “not through what he said so much as by what he was.”  I never met John’s grandfather, but it is easy to begin imagining him.  But none of this is worth much until we see what comes next.
I smiled when I read a little further and came upon this sentence.  “One of these lessons is that it does not really make sense to watch a sporting event without gambling on the result.”  You can imagine how some Quaker ears would hear this passage!  Quakers are not known for their gambling prowess.  So I am confident John told this story to get the audience’s attention and, no doubt, to poke some fun at his fellow Quakers.  And it is really a set up for where he wants to go.

John gives his reason why you gamble on sporting events.  “The reason is that much sport is ritual, and not sport.  In rituals, unseen changes of a very serious nature are taking place, and are of great importance to the participants.  To observe rituals for enjoyment is a species of sacrilege.  You cannot watch boxing for fun.  You have to have something riding on the result.  You have got to stand to lose.”  In clever fashion John has gone from boxing to ritual.  Very quickly he is talking about sacrilege, which implicates the sacred.  Almost magically, through boxing John has shown us that life has something riding on it.  You can lose!  Life is risky.

This is where John really wants the reader to go.  Inherently, we know that life is risky.  In fact, most of us try to eliminate or, at least, minimize risk.  Many of us are risk-averse.  I think institutional religion becomes this way.  And to become risk-averse is to risk losing the Spirit.  I am confident the Spirit is always doing a new thing---sometimes in the form of renewing.  And this often calls for change, but too many of us want nothing to do with change---especially when it comes to religion.

It is at this point John allows that he does not watch boxing or gamble.  But he has set us up to make what will be the final point.  He says, “The principle I am trying to illustrate is that there is all the difference in the world between playing a game yourself and watching other people play.”  In this sense religion is like sport.  You play; don’t become a spectator. 

This is exactly where John wanted to take us.  “The same principle holds good in religion.  Many people think they are practicing religion when they are in fact only thinking about it.  They do not realize that knowledge of religious truth comes only through practice and is inaccessible to thought alone.  This is because religion is an activity and has to be done to be understood.”

Life is a gamble.  Thanks to John, we know we should bet on it!

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Moment of Poignancy

Most of our lives are lived in the middle of routine.  That is certainly not bad.  In fact, my routine life is very good.  I cannot claim it is an emotional high---exciting day after exciting day.  I enjoy my life.  I have been given much more than I ever will give.  I have learned the meaning and lessons of grace.  Grace is gift.  I have learned to recognize small gifts, which come from people and from nature---things I see as gifts that others might not consider anything special.
Apparently in our day, the word “blessing” is not seen as a useful, preferred word.  I am not sure why.  I still find the word useful.  It seems to me there is no other way to describe what happens to me when I am gifted except to say I have been blessed.  I suppose I could bless myself, but essentially I see a blessing as something that comes from without.  God has blessed me; friends and strangers have blessed me; and nature certainly has been a blessing.
And so it was in the midst of routine that I received an email.  It was authored by a friend, whom I don’t see very often.  She is one of those people whom I would even call a good friend, although we don’t see each other very often.  But that does not seem to matter.  When we connect, it is good and fairly deep.  So I was glad to hear from her. 
Sadly, her message was not good news.  The husband of a good friend of ours had died in the middle of the night.  The widow I know fairly well.  She used to be a colleague of mine and was part of a group I lead at my university.  The group meets for the entire year, so I was with her week after week for a few years.  I had heard countless stories of her husband.  And now was dead.  And he leaves a twelve-year old daughter who probably wonders why her dad did not wake up?
When I got the email, naturally I was quite saddened.  I did not know the guy very well, but I was sad that my friend has been thrown a major curve ball in her life.  Last night was the time to go to the funeral home visitation.  I’ll spare you my mixed feelings about open caskets, etc.  What I contemplated, as I joined the long line which was a parade to the grieving widow, my friend, was what would I say? 
Her job was not an easy one.  Person after person came to her and said how sorry they were.  Soon that would be me.  What do you say?  If it were not so sad, I would laugh.  I am one who basically deals all day long in words.  I am fairly articulate.  Yet, as I approached the widow, I know there were no adequate words.  What do you say?  “Sorry?”  That is a puny word for a profound occasion.  I could add an adverb: “very sorry.”  But that’s little help. 
Fortunately, I knew the power of presence would outweigh any impotent words I might utter.  And she will never remember exact words, anyway.  I took solace in the fact that just being there was the best thing I could give.  Maybe I can be a momentary gift.  Perhaps in some unknown way I can even be a blessing.  Who knows, maybe God can use me as an instrument of an early stage of healing.  There is no pride here.  All I am called to do is to be me.  Who I am has a history with the widow.  So whoever I am to her, I become that---and more---in the moment.
As I neared the widow, I prepared myself.  I did not rehearse the words I would use.  I trust the words that would come out of my mouth.  What I prepared was how I would be present to her.  As we engaged each other, she simply called me by name and we embraced in a hug.  In fact no words were exchanged.  We embraced in what I would call a moment of poignancy.  Poignancy is an expressive word.  It means to be “deeply affected.”  Often it is linked to pain or sadness, so it was a good word for the situation.  Typically, poignancy is felt rather than thought.  It is a heart word.
In that moment of poignancy, there was no need for descriptive words.  But I was part of a parade of people and the moment of poignancy had to give way to the moving reality of folks behind me wanting to be with her, too.  So we shared some words and assurances that I would be there when the funeral was history and everyone in her life returned to their normal lives.
I think this was the guarantee of that moment of poignancy.  It is the residue of the power of presence.  I did not make promises and, I'm sure, she did not expect promises.  I doubt that verbal promises would be remembered anyway.  In one sense the only promise I made was friendship, which we already have.  I don’t know what specifically it means, nor does she.
All I know is I gave the only gift I know to give in that moment.  It is to give myself.  Others have done it for me.  In a moment of poignancy the power of presence is the most amazing gift that can be offered.  And it is always a blessing. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Improvisation Meets Serendipity

A friend of mine sent me an interesting article on improvisation.  I know what improvisation means, but I admit I never thought too much about it.  Probably like you, when I do think of improvisation, I think of nightclubs and television.  Those are the usual venues where actors of some sort entertain people by “winging it.”  That is probably the street definition of improvisation: the ability to wing it.

That is a decent beginning understanding of improvisation, as I begin to think about it more.  The article that I read gives this street definition a little more clarity and development.  Kip Kelly, the author of the article, begins his definition in this fashion.  “In essence, improv, short for improvisation, is performing without a script; it is spontaneous invention…that is often needed to create something entirely new and unique.  Improvisation is often thought of as ‘off the cuff’ activity, with little or no preparation or forethought…”  That made a great deal of sense to me.  So far, so good.

And then to his definition, Kelly adds these words: “but this can be misleading.”  I was hooked.  I had to read further in the article.  He says that “real improv requires preparation, and often practice, to develop the ability to act and react in the moment.”  As I thought about it, this also makes sense.  I suspect the people who are really good at “winging it” are, in fact, very well prepared and experienced. They are so good, they make it look easy.

So it seems improvisation is an interesting combination of preparation and spontaneity.  We can get prepared for things and then when something spontaneous happens, we are ready to act and react.  This surely is paradoxical.  There is much you can do (preparation) and nothing you can do to anticipate what will come your way (spontaneity).  That does sound a bit like life!

Let’s look at the preparation side, since that is something we can work on.  Again, Kelly is helpful.  He talks about skills.  He notes that “some of the basic skills improvisation requires are the ability to listen and be aware of the others…” This is a great skill in many arenas.  Secondly, he says, other skills are  “to have clarity in communication, and to possess the confidence to find choices instinctively and spontaneously.”

If we could practice these three basic skills---listen, communication and making choices---we would be more ready to improvise.  In the moment when it is not clear what to do or say, we would be better prepared to make good moves and begin to write an acceptable script to go forward.  While most folks would be frozen in just such a minute, we would be able to move ahead and make something out of it.  That is attractive to me.

It was at this point that I realized there was a clear connection to a bigger picture. For me the bigger picture is life itself.  And that always includes the spiritual dimension as a crucial component in life.  I think there is much in life that is planned.  Many of us plan our lives in significant detail.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

But we all know things happen that we did not plan.  These can be called surprises, accidents, or whatever.  The fact is, we did not see them coming.  “That’s life” is often the expression we hear that attempts to explain just such events.  I would like to talk about “serendipity” as the explanation of the unexpected.  Serendipity means that we find things that we were not searching to find.

I like to think the Spirit is a form of serendipity.  For me the Spirit is a way of talking about the presence of God or the Holy One.  I cannot control that Spirit.  I cannot coerce it.  But I can be available to it when it comes.  I can embrace it when I encounter it.  I can look for it.  I can hope for the Spirit.  I can develop some basic skills to enhance my chances of being engaged by the Spirit and becoming spiritual.  And that sounds a great deal like improv.

I am arguing for improvisation as preparation for the spiritual life.  Spiritual improv is developing those basic skills---maybe even listening, communication and making choices---that prepare me to discover and delight in the Spirit.  When the Spirit comes serendipitously into my life, I am “ready.”  I can engage it, act and react in ways that deepen my life. 

My goal will not be to entertain, but it will be to obey and, as the apostle Paul says, “to walk in the newness of life.”  I won’t be acting, as in a nightclub, but I will be a spiritual actor on the stage of life.  I won’t receive applause.  But I might hear a word which says, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

I am ready to work on improvisation.  I will prepare.  And then when serendipity happens, improvisation will meet it.  And I will be on my spiritual way.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Tools of the Spiritual Craft

The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic spiritual text.  It was written by the founder of the Benedictine monastic tradition, Benedict.  He was an Italian who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century.  The Rule is usually dated somewhere around 529 CE.  The era of Benedict was a chaotic time in what is modern day Italy.  The glory of the Roman Empire was long over.  The identifiable nations of modern Europe were far from being formed and developed.  It was the period known as the early Middle Ages.  When I was in my early years of education, this period was known as the Dark Ages.

Christianity was now part of the fabric of the land.  But Christianity had lost some of its original spirit and fervor when it became so much a part of the social culture.  Since it was no longer illegal to be a Christian, it was easy---some would argue, too easy---to be Christian.  People like Benedict wanted more.  They wanted a life of the Spirit that would approximate how Jesus lived and that characterized those early disciples of Jesus.

So literally and figuratively, monks (as they came to be called) withdrew from mainstream society.  They went to the edge of society and were counter-cultural.  They purposively became marginal people.  Sometimes they lived alone in the countryside or in caves.  Sometimes they formed small groups of like-minded people.  Sometimes they were spiritual vagabonds.

This was the scene in which Benedict decided needed some organization and some sense of order.  Even serious spiritual folks need some guidelines and parameters.  So Benedict wrote a Rule.  The Latin word for Rule, regula, should be seen more like guidelines than hard and fast regulations.  Benedict wanted to give his community a framework and structure to govern their life together.

And that Rule was widely adopted.  It has now lasted 1,500 years.  It still governs the array of Benedictine monasteries around the globe.  It is relatively simple, practical and general, but it has been an amazingly successful instrument to enable groups of men and women to live spiritual lives together.  It is even a guide that I try to follow in ways that fit my life.

The Rule is divided up so that someone like myself annually goes through the entire document three times.  As I read the selection for yesterday, a phrase caught my attention.  I must have read it countless times, but I don’t remember latching on to it like I did this time.  The section was entitled “the instruments of God’s works.”  It is indicative of the practical advice the Rule offers to fulfill God’s will, to live in obedience.  The guidelines come, in part, from the biblical tradition.  We are to love our enemies.  Respect elders.  Don’t hate.  All that makes perfect sense for a good life.

I would argue that a good life is a spiritual life, whether or not one claims to be Christian (or Jewish, Buddhist, etc.).  And by definition, the spiritual life would be a good life.  I don’t know anyone who would argue that he or she can be spiritual and be a lousy person.  By nature God is good and so should anyone be who claims to be following that God.

So after listing a few of these spiritual guidelines, Benedict concludes, “These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft.”  That was the phrase that I have read many times, but this time it jumped out at me.  I like the idea of “spiritual tools.”  Much of religious traditions deal with doctrine---with ideas.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with that.  But one could have many religious ideas and still be a lousy person! 

Finally, it comes down to practicing one’s faith.  Ideas are good; actions are better.  “Action speaks louder than words,” is the old saying.  This must surely be true in matters of faith.  To perform spiritual action, we need some tools.  We need to hone the “spiritual craft,” as Benedict calls it. 

It is not unusual in business circles these days to hear about the tool kit or toolbox needed to perform particular skills.  Perhaps this is a good analogy to the spiritual.  In order to know what God desires and to actualize that Divine Desire, we need some tools of the spiritual craft.

To have these tools enables is to become crafts people of the Spirit.  Imagine being an apprentice.  The master says something like, “here is the tool of honesty.”  Here is the tool of respect.”  And so on, one finds a variety of tools of the spiritual craft.  There is no way to move from being an apprentice to acquiring some mastery without practice.

I appreciate The Rule of St. Benedict for offering many of these tools.  But I need to be careful and not assume that because I read it and understand it, I am thereby spiritual.  Benedict would laugh at that notion.  You become spiritual by applying these tools of the spiritual craft in your real life…today and again tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Life Stressors

I recently received an email from someone I know, but who probably cannot be considered a good friend.  I was a part of a small group who received this, so I knew it was not specifically meant for my eyes only.  Sharing some from this very moving email will not threaten her anonymity, so here goes. 
I first met her at conference-type occasion.  She was young, engaging, dynamic and even more.  She probably is about the age of my daughters, so I was impressed with her in the same kind of way my own kids impress me.  She was the kind of person who obviously grabbed the world by the tail and make her world deliver whatever she wanted.  She seemed to have everything going for her.  She was young---probably looked younger than she actually was.  She was good looking and attractive in almost any way you could name.  She was not arrogant, but she was highly confident. 
We lived far from each other, so I only followed her sporadically and from a distance.  She was not in my world and fortunately did not need anything from each other.  So when I got the email, I was not totally surprised, but I also did not anticipate what her words began to reveal.  For the first time, I began to get a sense for the real person inside that dynamo I had come to know.  The one who seemed fearless now clearly was feeling fragile. 
Her first sentence was a kind of lament, as if it were the first line of her own Psalm.  She confesses, “I used to get excited, a lot.”  She wistfully acknowledged that she was a powerhouse.  She could go, go and go some more.  I say wistfully, because it was clear as I read further into the email that something had changed.  She said it herself: “Then something happened.”  For two years she has been “laying low,” as she put it.
She offered a catalogue of things she no longer was doing, among them things like traveling often.  And then came a rather poignant statement; “I stopped chasing.”  This was followed by my favorite sentence in her entire tome.  “Major life stressors decided to have a convention in my life.”  That is funny, powerful and doubtlessly, painfully true.  She gave some detail to her personal life stressors.  Most of them are readily recognizable and are suffered by countless people around the globe all the time.
Of course, her words made me think and ponder my own life.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have and probably most of the readers of this inspirational piece have their own life stressors.  Life does happen.  And not all of life is fun and games.  In fact, a pessimist will conclude that suffering is necessary; some happiness is optional.  It is easy to get down and be tempted to give up.  This is normal.  Even Jesus had to confront these kinds of temptations more than once in his life.  I am sure all the religious greats had their own trials.  That goes with being human.
I would not have shared all this if the story ended her.  In some ways it is a classic story of tragedy to this point.  But that’s not the whole story.  I like the way my friend is continuing to unfold her life.  She says she is now “an observer of my life, actions and momentum.”  As I read further, I realized she is in the middle of what I call spirituality.  I loved the way she describes what is happening.  She notes that “I have been awakened to a new sense of awareness.”  That is insightful and deep. 
To be awakened is a classic way of talking about spiritual growth and development.  The image of being “awakened” is so powerful because of what it implies.  Before we are awakened, we are “asleep.”  Of course, we all know we can sleep and still be alive.  We do it every night!  But she is also pointing toward a metaphorical understanding.  It is possible to “sleep walk” through life.  We are tempted to see sleep walking in a slow, lumbering way.  But it really means living inattentively.  My friend and, probably, I have been an active, dynamic sleep walker.  We can be busy without being attentive.  We can even win, but not enjoy or appreciate it.  That is what her life stressors have done to her.
She says, “I feel reborn.”  What more can one say.  I would only add now that she is reborn, she is beginning to live a new life---a life of the Spirit.  She concludes her longish email by offering some suggestions about what she is reading and how she is restricting her life based on her new sense of awareness.  I find this helpful, but obviously it is only helpful for those of us who are ready to be awakened in our own lives. 
Reading her touching email and sharing the gist of it with you won’t in itself cause any change.  It’s a tough, but nice, story.  I hope to sit with it and ponder it.  Finally, I know her story is her story.  My own story is still being written.  No doubt, I will have my own life stressors.  The come with being human.  Her story helps me see that life stressors do not have to dictate how I respond.  I can also awaken.  I also can have a new sense of awareness.
It is through awakening and being aware that I can come to know the Spirit and to know that healing touch that the Spirit always brings.  That is reason for optimism---spiritual optimism.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bear One Another’s Burden

Little did I know as a kid when I was learning to read how valuable that skill would be.  Because I grew up on an Indiana farm, I never went to kindergarten.  I guess the kids in the town near where I grew up went to kindergarten, but I hardly knew any of them, so I never asked.  I’m not sure what good it would have done.  I was not going to kindergarten anyway.  So I began school in the first grade.  So did everyone else I knew because it was a rural school.  Times were different then.
All this is to say, I’m not sure when I actually began to read.  Of course, my two daughters were reading before they went to kindergarten and the same is true for my grandkids.  Times are different now.  All I know is reading has been such a gift and wonderful skill.  I cannot imagine not being able to read.  Probably most of the knowledge I have comes from things I read.  Of course, wisdom comes from experience, but if you don’t know anything, you won’t get very wise.
And so I read widely.  I actually have a habit Bear One Another’s Burden
of reading things that may not look interesting.  Why would I decide impetuously not to read something because I don’t like the title?  Why would I only read in areas that I am “interested in?”  Of course, I could learn some new things, but it would still be in a fairly narrow range.  For example, I now have three books co-authored with my business buddy.  Why would someone who does religion hang out with a business friend and write books?  It has been a fascinating journey and I am not the same for having done it.
And so it was that I recently hit the title in a periodical called, “Pallbearing, like life itself, carries weight and risk.”  Why on earth would I continue to read a piece on pallbearers!  As someone in the religion field, I have done my share of funerals.  I have been to the funerals of my own parents, grandparents and, even, brother.  I have seen hundreds of pallbearers---and been one myself.
I have read some stuff before by the author of this article, Melissa Musik Nussbaum and I like what she does.  So I read on.  The focus of the article is on her mother-in-law’s death at ninety years of age.  However, she opens the article by commenting on how modern funeral homes for the most part have taken over the function of pallbearers.  I like her tongue-in-cheek explanation.  “I understand their preference for this practice. It's efficient and neat and safe.  You have a cadre of trained pallrollers who've had lots of practice with the transfer and movement.  It fits the goals of any business: do the work as fast and efficiently as possible while avoiding risk. But it's also brought the mechanics of business into that most human act of dying.”
But her mother-in-law did not want professionals.  Her detailed instructions demanded that her ten granddaughters be the pallbearers.  That is a simple request, but it did not fit the funeral home professional’s idea of a good idea!  Almost comically, the family was told the granddaughters “could be pallbearers, but that they could not bear the pall.”  The professionals expressed concern the “girls” might “waver or stumble and drop the body?  It wouldn’t be safe.” I can only imagine what my two daughters, who were athletes and are now mothers, would say!
I’ll spare you the details of the story’s end, except to say a compromise was reached.  What I did enjoy the most was Nussbaum’s concluding reflection which focused on community.  Adroitly, she concludes, “When we live in community we carry one another, we bear one another’s burdens, we lift one another up.  It’s risky.  Sometimes we fall together and rise together.  But there are always hands, reaching out, reaching up, holding, holding on.”  This is a wonderful description of community. 
To live in community is to lift one another up.  We do this and we have it done unto us.  It happens with regularity and with frequency.  And then finally, it happens one last time at the end when the pallbearers take us on home.  This is the final bearing of the burden.  But along life’s way we bear each other’s burdens.  The scary part of today’s society is how many people want to go it alone.  They think they are strong, independent, but they are only crazy.
Community is the sign of sanity---the hope of love and the assurance of faith.  Of course, life is risky.  Risk is what makes community the wonderful crucible for risk-taking.  Sometimes we do fall and do fail.  But true communities forgive and bear up.  I really like how Nussbaum uses the image of hands.  There are always hands.  Hands reach out.  Hands reach up.  Hands hold on, but she makes it a verbal noun---holding on, holding on.
The pallbearers use their hands.  Their hands reach out and take hold of the casket.  The hands lift up the casket and begin the walk, all the time holding on, holding on.  The pallbearers symbolize the community.  A single individual cannot be a pallbearer.  It is a communal undertaking.  Through life and on to death’s home, we are carried.
And that is the message of the Spirit.  As the Spirit bears us along through life, we are to bear one another’s burden.

Monday, July 10, 2017

In Consideration of Commitments

I read everything David Brooks publishes.  I appreciate his way of seeing things and how he articulates his thoughts.  I use him as a backdrop for a number of these spiritual reflections because much of what he chooses to address is spiritual in nature.  Reading and thinking along with him helps me to understand the world and figure out what I want to do with it. 
Recently he had a piece entitled, “The Golden Age of Bailing.”  I was not sure what issue he was taking on in this one.  But as I got into the piece, I realized how much I wanted to get his analysis of this issue.  His first sentence was engaging, but I still did not know where he was going.  “It’s clear we’re living in a golden age of bailing.”  Soon it became clear Brooks was using the language of “bailing,” to describe what I might more typically describe as “commitment.”
His second paragraph is very clear and a graphic indictment of our contemporary culture.  It made me sit up and take notice.  For example, it cannot be more clear than when Brooks claims, “Bailing is one of the defining acts of the current moment…”  Then Brooks offers some detailed evidence for his claim.  Bailing is a defining act “because it stands at the nexus of so many larger trends: the ambiguity of modern social relationships, the fraying of commitments, what my friend Hayley Darden calls the ethic of flexibility ushered in by smartphone apps — not to mention the decline of civilization, the collapse of morality and the ruination of all we hold dear.” 
That is a boatload of details to wail against bailing---or commitment, as I call it.  I am intrigued by Brooks’ describing the ambiguity of social relationships.  I think he is correct.  For example, I think of the utter ease folks talk about 500 Facebook friends.  I teach a class on spiritual friendship and know for certain if you use Aristotle’s definition of friendship or virtually anyone from the long theological and philosophical tradition, it simply is not possible to have 500 friends---or 50 for that matter.  You can have two or three deep and meaningful friends. 
Again, I think Brooks is absolutely right when he talks about fraying of commitments.  Another way of saying this is to describe many commitments as rather superficial, which makes them fragile.  They do not stand the test of time or the pressure of many situations.  Many commitments are not really commitments.  They are more like relationships of convenience.  When they are inconvenient, they are no longer useful.  And if they are not useful, why would you keep it?  These are not so much commitment as relationships of utility.
It is not fair to blame the smartphone and all its apps, but that offer possibilities never before seen.  I do think smartphones and all they provide are wonderful avenues to a world of superficiality.  They tempt us to live in temporary time.  We temporarily spend time as long as it is interesting or entertaining or it serves the purpose.  And then, we’re outta here!
Brooks’ analysis of why things are this way offer food for thought.  He states, “Bailing begins with a certain psychological malady, with a person who has an ephemeral enthusiasm for other people but a limited self-knowledge about his or her own future desires.”  His word, ephemeral, comes close to what I call commitment.  In fact, if we are ephemeral, it is probably impossible to make and keep commitments the way I understand them.  I also find it interesting that he ties this to our sense of our own future desires.  I think he is correct.
He makes me realize commitment is something we make in the present, but it has future implications.  If I make a commitment to you, you would rightly expect that commitment would still be in place tomorrow.  I don’t decide each morning whether I am going to re-up my commitments for the day.  In a sense a commitment is a promise.  And a promise is only worth something if it is kept.
Brooks finally gets to the connection of commitment and friends at the end of his piece.  He has a nice phrase that notes, “friendship is about being adhesive.”  That is a clever way of saying commitments should stick.  Commitments and friendships are sticky relationships.  I like that!  Whenever I think about friendships and commitments, I always recall the words of Jesus late in John’s Gospel.  I like it when he turns to his disciples that evening at the Last Supper and tells them the secret.
Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends…” (15:15)  Indeed for me, the whole understanding of Christian discipleship is a meditation on friendship.  And I know the classical languages tell me that our word, friend, is nothing more than a word for “love.”  All friends are people of love and in love.  It is not erotic, but neither should it be erratic.  And that is what bailing is: it is erratic love and that makes a lousy friendship and relationship.
People who bail simply cannot be counted on.  I am glad for David Brooks making me think about this again.  But finally, it is more than thinking and knowing.  Bailing is an action---and so is commitment.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Cultural Shift: Spiritual Loss

There are some writers who speak to me in fairly predictable ways.  Some of them are contemporary people who write for newspapers, on the internet, and other social media.  Others who speak to me are long since dead: spiritual greats from centuries ago, i.e. people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and a host of others.  I don’t really pay too much attention to their political or religious categorization---such as conservative or liberal, evangelical or modern. 

One such writer I like is David Brooks.  He writes for the New York Times.  Some of the really great material he brings is nothing he invented.  It comes from something he reads or hears and, then, reflects on it.  Maybe I am attracted to this because it is much like I work.

Recently, I read something from Brooks.  I was lured by the headline of the article: “What Our Words Tell Us.”  Granted, I have a love of words.  Any of my students will tell you that.  So I wondered what our words tell us, according to David Brooks.  I was not disappointed.

His article begins with the fact that Google has launched a database of 5.2 million
books published between 1500 and 2008.  Figures like this blow my mind.  But I admit that I wondered whether my books were part of the database.  I guess that is hubris---pride.  I am glad I don’t know the answer!

The database enables someone to enter a word and perform a search.  You can find out how often the word is used in a particular century.  Brooks was quite interested in the trend line of words.  What words were once important and have become less important in our own time?  Do these trends tell us something about our culture?  These are fascinating questions.  And Brooks thinks he can sense some trends and make some conclusive guesses about our culture.  I share a couple of his observations.

The first point Brooks wants to make is clear.  “So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic.”  This one did not surprise me.  In fact, I would have been very surprised had he concluded differently.  It does seem like the world in which I live is more individualistic.  He has a host of words---words like “personal” and “self”---that make the case for his point.

The second point is a little disturbing.  Brooks contends this about our culture.  “As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked.”  Simply put, he is suggesting our time is less moral and less aware of morality than earlier times.  Again, I am tempted to think this is true.  And apparently our use of words buttress that point.  He cites the decreased us of words, such as “virtue” and “decency.”  That makes me cringe.

Clearly, both of these points have implications.  Brooks puts it bluntly.  “The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”  I would be willing to argue this does reflect a culture that is more individualized (atomized) and demoralized. 

The question this poses for me is whether this means spirituality is implicated?  I think the answer is affirmative.  To put it more sharply, I wonder if this does not explain, in part, why religion seems less important in so many arenas of American culture.  In fact, I wonder if the rising interest in spirituality is not the human heart---atomized and demoralized---looking for meaning and purpose in ways that religion used to address them?

Brooks has his own conclusion which, granted is not proof, but is a good guess.  He says, “these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.”  I think he is correct.  I do see less interest in community and, certainly, less focus on obligations.  For example, many writers point to contemporary culture’s emphasis on “rights” and less on “responsibilities.”  This resonates with me.

I am persuaded that there has been a cultural shift.  As one who recalls the ‘60s, our world nearly 50 years later is culturally different.  Explosions of technology, scientific innovation, etc. has created a different world.  So has the cultural shift led to spiritual loss.  In some ways I believe the answer is yes.

I am not depressed by this or ready to give up.  I am challenged and energized to seek with others how to generate a spirituality fit for our times and our culture.  And I believe what our words tell us give us a clue.  Perhaps we generate this spirituality by focusing on community and morality.  Perhaps these are the key and not doctrine.  That’s my hunch.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Dynamics of Love

I have begun reading a new book that is both challenging and exciting.  I have known about the author, Illia Delio, for some time.  Delio is a Franciscan sister, who happens also to be a scientist and theologian.  I know some people who know her and they all talk about a bright, engaging, humble woman.  She is currently a Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center, which is part of Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
I am working my way through her 2013 book, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.  When I read these science/religion books, I always get the religion part fairly easy.  After all, studying theology was my own educational background.  And I know that can be somewhat daunting.  But then, someone like Delio adds a whole new academic discipline, namely, science.  As any of us know who studied some science in school, that really is demanding.  To be an expert in both arenas is something pretty rare. 
As we can guess from the title of her book, Delio thinks the scientific perspective on science is the only real way to understand our world as it exists today.  I find that argument convincing.  How we conceive of our world---its origins, development and future---scientists and theologians alike call cosmology.  Cosmology comes from the Greek word, cosmos, which I translate as “world” or “universe.”  So everyone has a cosmology, even if he or she never thought about it.  Everyone has some view of their world or universe.
The thing I like about Delio is not unique to her, but I enjoy meeting the issue again is the relationship between cosmology and theology.  In simple terms this means how we understand our world determines, in some ways, how we understand our God.  Or we can reverse it and say how we understand our God determines how we see the world.  For example, if a fundamentalist thinks God created the world in seven literal days and that the world is only some 5,000 years old, that is a very different cosmology than the evolutionist who says our world evolved and it is a little over 13 billion years old.  These two cosmologies implicate two very different types of Divine figures.
When I read someone like Delio, I find that I engage in a two-fold process.  In the first stage my goal is simply to understand what she is saying.  In this case it is understanding how she sees evolution as a process---a process that is still going on to this day.  It is to understand that human beings are also part of that evolutionary process.  The second part of my engagement with Delio after I have understood some of what she says is trying to fit it into my own experience and thinking.  So my two-fold process is about understanding and meaning.
I can understand some things that may have no meaning to me.  Delio helps me with both aspects.  The good thing about her is she has had to do this for herself.  After all, she is not just a scientist.  She is also a theologian.  But she is even more than that.  She is a Franciscan sister---which is somewhat like being a nun.  Somehow she is making sense of science and being religious.  She can be my teacher, for sure.
All scientists are not alike.  And even all people who believe in some form of evolution are not totally like-minded.  Some would be atheists.  And some, like Delio and myself, believe in God---in some fashion.  This is where Delio is helping me think about things.  For example, she suggests that love plays a crucial role in the evolutionary process.  And this dovetails with the biblical perspective that God is love. 
For example, early in her book she says, “Love is the fundamental energy of evolution.”  Even here I have to think a bit.  When I say to someone, “I love you,” I am not sure I immediately think about love as energy.  But when I do think about it, it makes perfect sense.  Everyone who is in love---or who loves---does feel energy and energized.  And Delio certainly stretches my mind when she claims that love is the fundamental energy of evolution.  Literally, love is what makes this whole thing---not just me---go.  And if God is love, then this puts God directly in the middle of it all.  God is the love Force of the universe.
In fact, she adds another short sentence that I find thrilling.  She describes God as “the dynamics of love.”  This is her way of seeing God at work in the world.  God is the dynamics of love at work.  It’s going to take me a little more thinking to tease out what all this means, but I like the direction.  It means wherever there is love in the world, there is God.  Of course, we have to recognize that hate and violence also still play a part.  But the hope---the future---is on love’s side.
The implications for me and my behavior are pretty clear.  If I am on the side of love, then I am on God’s side.  I am on the side of the evolutionary trajectory that ultimately will prevail.  My call and my ministry is to be a lover!  That means minimizing and, if possible, eradicating my own participation in hate and violence.  And community will be crucial.  I need to affiliate with others who also embody and act from this love.  The world sorely needs community of lovers to be at work. 
I find it exciting.  I find it especially exciting that I can be part of the dynamics of love and be confident I am doing God’s work.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Backyard Destruction

I have seen this before, so I know what it is.  My backyard is being destroyed from the inside out.  There is some underground terrorism happening right outside my window.  The destruction happens at night when I am out of it.  The destruction is apparent; the destroyer is stealthy and remains unseen.  It causes me to laugh and cry at the same time.  I have a mole!
Wikipedia is graphic in its description of this little devil.  The first descriptive statement is accurate, but gives no indication of the devilish behavior that results from moles.  Wikipedia says, “Moles are small animals adapted to a subterranean lifestyle (i.e., fossorial).”  I read on.  “They have cylindrical bodies, velvety fur, very small, inconspicuous ears and eyes.”  Described this way, you would expect every little kid on the block would want one as a pet.  Velvety fur sounds like a real come on!  It sounds like an exotic piece of clothing---“especially made of velvety fur!”
Moles are very small says our source.  I can imagine if you are going to live underground, being small is an advantage.  And they have inconspicuous eyes and ears.  In comparison, I suppose all of us humans have conspicuous eyes and ears.  I never thought about having big ears, but compared to a mole, apparently I do.  I admit to being a little embarrassed to know my ears are conspicuous. 
I would like to know how that mole works.  How does he make such a mess of my backyard?  You can follow the tunnels that are made.  From what I read in the article, the moles are looking for worms and insects that also live underground.  The other thing that bugs me is the areas of grass that the mole uproots.  Again, I assume the little devils is looking for food, but his quest for food certainly is doing a number on my backyard.  Maybe food trumps aesthetics in the real world, but it does cause me some consternation.
I wanted to share this story in order to use it as an analogy for something more personal and serious.  The mole in the backyard I can take care of---or hire someone to do it.  As an analogy, I want to take it in two directions.  The first direction is to think about the mole on my body---and perhaps your body, too.  If you live long enough, you become a candidate for a mole or two on your body.  Some moles are harmless.  Other moles can be more serious. 
These kinds of moles can cause destruction as real as that mole in my backyard.  Some moles on our bodies are cancerous.  Cancer makes a mess of our body as much as that mole makes a mess of my backyard.  Cancer can be dealt with, but we have to be intentional and deliberate.  We can be thankful for the experts who come to our rescue.  Just as I hope my backyard can be whole and healthy, so do I have the same hope for my body.  Any of us want our bodies to be whole and healthy.  Moles can mess up both backyards and bodies.
The second analogy of the mole in the backyard that I want to make has to do with the more invisible moles inside our bodies.  Unlike the mole on my skin, which I can see and deal with, there are moles inside that are more difficult to know about and to deal with.  These internal moles are more like the mole in my backyard.  I never see the little devil in their own right, but I can witness the destruction.  Let me be specific.
The internal mole I am describing has classically be called sin.  I know this word, sin, is not in vogue in most contemporary circles.  Seldom do I find myself in the company of people who think and talk about sin.  But I am also clear that just because sin is not part of my mindset and vocabulary does not mean it is nonexistent.  I am confident the reality of sin is present in most people’s lives, whether they call it that or not.  Even if I don’t like the word, sin, the reality is there.  There are other words we use to describe the phenomenon.  We use words to describe it: mistake, oops, screwed up, blew it, etc. 
Sin can be as corrosive and destructive as that mole in my backyard.  If we don’t attend to it, it makes an even bigger mess.  I find it ironic that many people would be more concerned with the mole in the backyard than they might be the inner mole in their lives.  And I also find it to be true that it is impossible to be whole and healthy if we do nothing about this inner mole called sin. 
To deal with this inner mole of sin does not mean we have to go to a doctor who went to medical school.  But we will probably have to invite the physician of our soul into our lives.  The physician of our soul was an early Christian image for God.  This physician will deal kindly with us.  Usually instruments of forgiveness, love and encouragement are the medicine that brings us back to wholeness and health.  The treatment need not be awful.  But we will need attentive treatment.
Throughout this reflection, I realize I can deal with the mole causing backyard destruction.  I also want to be attentive to that inner mole, which also can be destructive.  I want a life of wholeness and health.

Monday, July 3, 2017


Much will be made this week around the theme of “freedom.”  It would be difficult to imagine any American, or any person from any country for that matter, who is not “for freedom.”  Can you imagine anyone saying, “No, actually I prefer bondage?”  However, it is true that some folks in this country are not really free.  There still exists some bondage in race terms, in gender terms, in economic terms, and even others.  

Yet over this week, stories will abound about independence.  Probably we will hear again that the British were unfair to our forbearers in the 18th century and so Americans did what Americans always will do: fight!  I have been in Independence Hall in Philadelphia more than once.  It is an impressive building and the history of the place is almost palpable.  It is easy for my mind to try to imagine those days of drama as those guys discussed why and how the American colonies needed to move forward independently from the British.  Truly, the Constitution is a wonderfully amazing document which has served us well for over two hundred years.

One can do no better than cite Lincoln’s eloquence when he describes this country as a “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  All citizens in this country are free.  At one level that is true.  Politically, we are all free to do what we want within the bounds of legality.  But once we say this, we realize freedom is a more complicated concept than it seems on the surface.  For example, we just acknowledged there are some boundaries to our freedom when we said we are free to do what we want as long as it is legal.

Of course, you and I are free to do things that are illegal.  Drug dealers do this daily!  But to do illegal things puts us in jeopardy.  If we are caught, that is the end of freedom.  If we are jailed, we may still have some freedoms, but walking out of the jail is not one of those freedoms.  Captivity has replaced freedom.  And no one really cares how we feel about it!

As a corollary to political and individual freedom, let’s consider the spiritual freedom about which Jesus speaks.  Spiritual freedom necessarily takes into account that we now are no longer just talking about us.  God also is now in the picture.  In fact, spiritual folks probably would go so far as to say it is God’s picture and we are in the picture---individually and as a group.  In this interpretation Americans are nothing more than one group in a much larger group in God’s picture of the world.

A second thing that is in the picture (since God is now in the mix) is God’s desire (often referred to as God’s will).  This is a huge addition to the freedom equation.  Now there are two wills: God’s will and my own individual will (and even a third if we add the community’s will).  Of course, I can still understand freedom as the freedom to do whatever I want.  In spiritual terms, this kind of individual freedom to do what I want inevitably leads to sin: doing what I want instead of what God wants.  

This leads to the crux of spiritual freedom.  It is paradoxical.  Spiritual freedom says I want to do what God wants me to do.  Obedience is a deeper form of freedom than my individual desires.  Obedience is not bondage because I am willing God’s will for me.  The spiritual person is the most radically free person.

It is radical freedom because there is no impulse to selfishness, no protectionist tendency, no manipulative motivation.  Lord, make me this free!

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Cleaning Lady’s Name

The routine and predictable do not surprise us.  The serendipitous always is a surprise.  I like the word, serendipity, because it normally is a good surprise.  If we were to hear a doctor tell us we have cancer, that would not be serendipity---but it is surprising bad news.  I recently had a serendipitous moment.  A good friend of mine said she had a book for me.  While I did not expect something like this from her, it still was not that unusual.  
Soon I was handed a book.  I looked at it and recognized it immediately when I saw the title, The Winners Manual.  I had heard about it, but I am not sure I had actually seen it.  The book is by Jim Tressel.  For the people around my university, this is a well-known and even famous name.  All the coaches here have the book.  And I now have it.  I now have an autographed copy, which even has a personal note to me.  Some would consider me incredibly lucky.  I am grateful.  I am grateful to two people.  I thank Jim and I really appreciate my friend.

A person---even Jim Tressel---is never just one thing; life is too complicated to be that simple.  To many people, Jim is best known as the former coach of The Ohio State football team---national champions, to be sure.  Most folks in the state of Ohio know this.  Many others know him as the President of Youngstown State University, where he once was the football coach and was leader of a national championship team at a lower level.  Fewer know him as a graduate of my own institution where I teach.  Here he was a football player and quarterback.  But if you know him, you know he is far too small ever to have played beyond the small college level.  To others he is a brother, a father and for many, a man of faith.  Jim Tressel is, like all of us, a complex person.  
I have begun to thumb through the book.  After all, it is a gift and gifts are meant to be relished.  I want to relish it over time.  The sub-title of the book is “For the Game of Life.”  He has written a winner’s manual for the game of life.  Obviously, it is about football, but it is more than football.  I have not thumbed through too much yet, but a little story jumped out at me and I want to share it.
The story appears in Tressel’s chapter on “Love.”  It has the benign title, “Her Name was Dorothy.”  I did not expect much when I began to read the brief snippet.  It begins by saying, “During my second month of college, our professor gave us a pop quiz.”  The narrative goes on with the student claiming to be more than ready for this test and breezed through it.  Then came this question---the last one.  “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?”  I laughed and you have laughed too, if you paid attention to the title of this inspirational piece.
The student thought at first thought it must be a joke.  The student continues: “I had seen the cleaning woman several times.  She was tall, dark-haired, and in her fifties, but how would I know her name?”  I was touched by this sentence.  It is a challenge to me and, likely, to many of us.  What is the cleaning lady’s name?  Or what is the lady’s name who sells me the coffee each morning?  Who are all those people in our lives who make our lives better.  Who are the silent servants to our sometimes whimsical desires?  Like the student taking the test, we hand in the exam with the last question left blank.  We simply don’t know.

And we never stop to think it might matter.  Too many times I have been too uninterested to bother getting to know.  And sadly, I have probably even been dismissive.  To be dismissive is even worse than not caring.  As I write this, I am anticipating where the little story of Dorothy is going.
We jump back into the story only to hear, “Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our quiz grade.”  The professor retorted, “Absolutely.”  The professor continued the lesson in life.  “In your careers, you will meet many people.  All are significant.  They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say, ‘Hello.’”  And then the short story concludes with the clincher.  The student says, “I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  I also learned her name was Dorothy.”
It is easy to see this story both at the literal level and analogously at the spiritual level.  At the literal level, it is a great lesson to learn and practice.  I want to do better at this literal level.  And then, at the spiritual level there is much to learn.  The story is one I can imagine Jesus telling.  Pay attention.  Love!  No wonder Jim Tressel put this story in the Love chapter.  If I am spiritually aware, I can come to see every person in my life embodying the image of God and potentially bearing that image with the dignity of a child of God.  I can help this process and certainly need the loving help from others.

I don’t know the cleaning lady’s name at my college.  She is there sometime in the night.  But there are countless other “cleaning ladies” I do see who deserve my attention and care.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Host and Guest

Hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  I was first clued in to this fact when I learned Latin.  The Latin word, hospes, gives us the English words, hospital, hospice and related words.  In its Latin form, it can be translated “host,’ “guest” or “stranger.”  That is why I can say that hosting and being a guest are two sides of the same coin.  The Latin coin is hospes.  Let’s look at each side of the coin.

Probably most of us learn about being a guest before we learn about hosting.  I have early childhood memories of going with my dad into the town in early mornings.  For a kid growing up on the farm, this was a big deal.  Since I was the oldest kid, there could be an entire day when I would see no one except my two parents.  That was not bad.  But it was more fun to go to town and see some of my dad’s friends.

Often we would stop at the local drugstore, which was really the epicenter of human interaction on an early morning in that small town.  There the guys would gather, have coffee and talk about local sports and world news.  I felt years beyond my age when they would accept me into the circle.  At least, that is how I interpreted.

I would not have had the language yet that could have told you I was a guest in their midst.  They were gracious to me.  They invited me into their space.  They made space for someone who did not quite fit.  I was young, inexperienced and had literally nothing to contribute to the conversation.  But I was their guest.  And I felt immensely important for having been included.

I think that early experience taught me much about being a guest.  People invited me into the gang.  They made a place for me---even though it was a temporary visit.  They made me feel welcome and important.  I was put at ease.  I was comfortable.  I could be myself---no pretentions needed to be present.  They helped me to learn how to invite guests into my places and my life.  This has been a great lesson in life for me.

If we turn over the coin, the other side is the hosting side.  To host is to initiate.  To host someone is to invite him or her into your place---your home, your room, or even your space.  Fundamental to hosting is the willingness to include and to share.  There is a kind of grace to effective hosting.  Perhaps some folks are naturally gifted with hosting abilities.

But I am also sure we can learn to be effective hosts.  In the first place, effective hosts are people who are willing to take responsibility for hosting.  Guests are at the mercy of the hosts.  In fact, one cannot be a guest until someone decides to be a host.  In addition to taking responsibility, the effective host makes the whole process easy and pleasant when he or she is gracious.  Bringing a guest or stranger into a place of comfort takes effort and grace.

The effective host makes the guest feel comfortable and even wanted.  A good host makes being guest easy.  We all know what it is like to feel awkward.  A feeling of being awkward often is accompanied by the feeling that “I want out of here!”  When some people host me, that “I want out of here” feeling dominates my thinking.  Instead of relaxing as a guest, I am furtively looking for the fastest way out of the situation.  I find myself praying for a “guest exit” sign!

By the time we become adults, we have experienced both being hosts and being guests.  In my experience they both were learned and take some effort.  Perhaps being host is a little more demanding, simply because the host is the initiator and the responsible one---at least in the beginning.

As I write this, I realize this phenomenon is potentially quite spiritual.  Perhaps this hosting-being guest experience is very much an analogy to the human encounter with the Holy One.  It is tempting to think God is always the host and we humans are always the guests.  But this misses half the opportunity.

For sure, the Holy One is a host.  In fact, God is an amazing host.  Potentially God hosts us into some of the truly profoundest places and opportunities.  By definition God invites us into relationship, includes us, makes us comfortable, is gracious unto us and so much more.  As guests, there is so much to look forward to when the Divine Hosting includes us.

I also think we can host the Holy One.  God invites us, to be sure.  But we also can invite God into our midst, into our lives.  In fact, some of us have lived a life so self-focused, it would be fair to say God is actually a stranger.  For God to become real to us will require that we take the initiative and invite God to be our guest.

To be human is to be both host and guest.  Consider life to be an opportunity to practice both.