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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No Music on Bad Days

Anyone who has lived a few years knows that there are times when life is not good.  There are times when things don’t go very well.  We are assaulted by things that are not to our liking.  We can be sick, disappointed, or denied.  We can watch others get what we thought was rightfully ours.  We can try so hard, get so close and still lose.  Some days life is just not much fun.

I also think this is true for the spiritual life.  Anyone who has been involved in the spiritual journey for any length of time knows all days are not equal.  It is not unusual for the early days of the spiritual pilgrimage to be pretty good.  Often there is that initial burst of enthusiasm.  Not surprisingly, God can seem to be right there in your corner.  The spiritual tradition calls these graces of God “consolations.”  Consolations are good.  In fact, there are a bit like spiritual goodies.

The truth of the matter is, however, we should not be thinking we are entitled to these spiritual goodies.  It is important to recognize they are graces of God---spiritual gifts.  They are your due to no merit on your own.  You did not earn them.  You do not “deserve” them.  They are not a testament to your worthiness or spiritual prowess.  What is given can be taken away.

And if you hang in with the spiritual journey long enough, consolations typically will be taken away.  At this stage, it is important also to remember that this does not mean you have become unworthy.  You have not become a spiritual skunk in God’s eye.  It does not even mean you are no longer in favor with God.

The periods in which consolations are taken away and, apparently, you are now forced into a kind of spiritual desert is called “desolation.”  To experience desolation is akin to finding yourself in a wasteland, instead of the promised land.  It is easy to wonder what happened.  You thought that you and God were buddies and now this!  Instead of toasting your consolations, you are now feeling tested by the desolation.

These were the things that came to my mind when I worked with the biblical text from Vespers last night.  Vespers is the time in the daily lectionary that is evening.  I follow the lectionary of the Catholic monastery with which I am affiliated.  I cannot do all the periods of worship and reflection, but I usually try to do the early morning one and the evening one.  It is a good time for me to be disciplined for the long spiritual haul. 

I don’t mind the idea of a long spiritual haul.  If this were not the case, it would mean that I soon would be dead or would have given up the spiritual journey.  I am in no hurry for the one and want to avoid the other.  So I am quite content with the long spiritual haul---with its consolations and desolations.

When I read the Psalm text for Vespers---Psalm 137---I thought of the desolations that come with bad days.  I immediately recognized the context for the opening verses of that Psalm.  I know enough biblical history to know the historical context was the Babylonian Exile.  During this period in the 6th century B.C.E., the leaders and some people of Israel had been driven from their homeland and into exile in Babylon---modern day Iraq.  This would have been a hard time for the Israelites.  It must have been a series of bad days.

Let’s listen to the words of the Psalmist as those days are recounted.  The Psalmist opens the Psalm by saying “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (137:1)  These are the words of a forlorn group of people.  Notice the “we” language.  It is not just one sad guy.  It is a group of people in a period of desolation---a series of bad days.

So what does one do on a bad day?  Of course, you give up music and merry-making.  The Psalmist says “On the willows there we hung up our harps.” (137:2)  I had to smile.  That’s a great way to respond to a bad day: you just hang up the harp!  When you are sad or tied or feeling defeated, you certainly don’t feel like playing music, singing and having a good old time.

The Psalmist continues in that Psalm to talk about how the captors made fun of the Israelites and asked for music.  And so it is with our bad days.  Often we are not left alone to have a bad day.  Our society is too often (and perversely) preoccupied with “having a good time.”  No sadness is allowed.  If you don’t feel well, fake it.  Let the music roll.

People have bad days.  I value the old spiritual language of “melancholy.”  It does mean God has abandoned you.  We do, indeed, live East of Eden---outside of Paradise.  Life is not perfect, but it can be spiritual.  Relax, hang up your harp and just realize there is no need for music on bad days.  God be with us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Papal Questions

Recently, I encountered a publication that is offering some quotations from Pope Francis.  I gather it is a quote-of-the-day sort of thing.  Since I very much like the current Pope, I have begun reading these with some interest.  I like the way he thinks about things.  Since his upbringing and background are very different from mine, he often looks at things in a fresh way for my perspective.
I would like to choose one quotation and work with it.  It happened to be the one at the front of a list, so there was nothing special in it that made me choose it.  But one of the things about discipline that seems true to me is we have to stick to it.  One of the buzz words today is persistence.  I believe persistence is probably little more than commitment plus discipline.  It is staying with a thing even if you might not want to do it some particular day.  Persistence is normally the key to any kind of success.
Pope Francis notes, "How often we say: 'I must change, I can't go on like this … My life, on this path, will not bear fruit, it will be a useless life and I will not be happy'. How often these thoughts come to us. … And Jesus by our side, with His hand outstretched, says to us, 'Come, come to me. I will do the work: I will change your heart, I will change your life, I will make you happy.’ … Jesus is with us and invites us to change our life. It is He, with the Holy Spirit, Who sows in us this restlessness, to change our life and to become a little better.”  Let’s unpack this rich passage.
The Pope begins with a phrase I often have thought or even used.  “I must change.”  Any of us who don’t have perfect lives probably have thought this.  It can range from losing weight to becoming more spiritual.  Often it is like New Year’s resolutions.  We say we want to change, but we never really make much effort and nothing happens.  We resonate with the Pope when we lament, “I can’t go on like this.”  But we do go on like this.  We kill our future by inattention or inaction today.
Countless people feel like the current path of their lives bear no fruit.  Life feels useless, pointless and there is no happiness.  People hope to become happy; they want to be happy.  But it is more like wishing to be lucky.  We do nothing to begin to stack the deck of happiness in our favor.  We want to be happy, but we continue to walk the path of futility.  We know it won’t work, but we keep hoping it will.  And it is precisely at this point the Pope becomes religious.
The Pope introduces Jesus.  I am confident Pope Francis thinks Jesus is always the one who comes to our help.  Jesus is not a magic man.  I am ok with Jesus doing miracles, but the miracle typically is not the miracle we want.  We confuse magic and miracles.  Magic is quick, entertaining, amazing and seemingly effortless.  No wonder we want magic.  We want Jesus, the magician, to go “poof” and amazingly change our situation.  But Jesus is more the miracle worker.
Jesus works the miracle of telling us to come.  What a powerful invitation.  The invitation to come means we are not alone and we don’t have to work our own miracle.  Jesus says he will change our heart.  He will change our life.  Literally, we could not ask for more.  A change of heart is a total re-orientation.  I prefer to call it transformation.  We may well be heading to hell and Jesus offers a new possibility of happiness.  That is a miracle.  It is a miracle because it is a gift.  We could not do it by ourselves.  We may even have tried to gut it out.  And then comes grace. 
Without delving deeply into the theology of the Pope’s thoughts, I do like how he links Jesus with the Spirit.  He sees Jesus as co-presence with the Spirit.  This makes sense to me.  I have a powerful sense of the presence of the Spirit.  For me the Spirit is how Jesus is present and available today.  But because it seems very difficult to “see” the Spirit and any evidence of the Spirit’s work, folks normally dismiss this miraculous possibility of new life and happiness.  Most of us feel left to our own efforts.  No wonder we are unhappy.
I understand much of this may seem too preachy.  It may sound too easy or too good to be true.  And if we think this, we probably will discount and dismiss any help and healing the Spirit offers.  Too often, I have been guilty of this.  What I appreciate about the Pope’s quotation is the reminder that I am not alone in this journey through life.  Culturally, it seems many Americans think life is whatever we make of it. 
While at one level, this is true.  I cannot have someone else live my life.  That is a recipe for unhappiness and disaster.  But I can recognize that God does join me in this life.  I did not create myself and ultimately I am not fully in charge of life.  God joins me in life through the presence of the Spirit.  Ultimately, the Spirit is both the Source and resource of happiness and wholeness.  The story of Jesus is the personalization of what a Spirit-filled life looks like. 
That’s what the Pope tells me.  And it makes sense to me.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Case for Interconnectivity

Sometimes I read something simply because of the person who wrote the piece.  It is typical for humans to have their preferences.  Some people like specific musical groups.  Others are drawn to particular artists.  I am a person who likes specific authors.  In fact, I have a number of favorite authors.  There are the obvious favorites like the late monk, Thomas Merton.  He is pretty famous, which means many people know him.  Another favorite of mine is Paul Knitter.  Knitter has just retired from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  He is a long-time professor and scholar who is not as famous as folks like Merton.  But he has had a long, distinguished career shaping the  ways young folks think about life and their world.

Knitter was one of the earlier people involved in the ecumenical and interfaith conversations.  When I say ecumenical, primarily I mean the interaction and dialogue among different Christian traditions.  When I am involved ecumenically, it means I take my own Quaker perspective into conversation with Catholics, Southern Baptists---liberals and evangelicals.  The ecumenical dialogue recognizes that we are all in the Christian camp, but also recognize it is a pretty diverse camp.

When I talk about interfaith, I am referring to the interaction and conversations among adherents of the major faith traditions of the world.  It may be a dialogue of Christians, Jews, and Buddhists.  Or it may involve Hindus and Muslims.  We can think of the Jains or Sikhs and, then, get into even lesser known religious traditions.  Obviously, the interfaith interaction can be even more complicated than ecumenical dialogues. 

Paul Knitter has been a key player in this interfaith world because he is so clear about his own Christian heritage.  But he is also radically open and irenic---that is, he very much wants to hear and understand the other’s perspective and to deal with that (often different) perspective in a gentle and peaceful manner.  He brings respect and dignity to the conversation.

So it was that I was drawn to a piece he wrote that was entitled, “Are Buddhism and Science Incompatible?”  (It would be easy to ask the same question about Christianity, Judaism or any other religious tradition.)  I will say upfront that Knitter does believe they are compatible.  But I am not really interested in that argument.  I am more interested in a portion of his writing where he is talking about interconnectivity.  Interconnectivity is an idea from Buddhism that I really like.

Essentially, interconnectivity is the idea that basically all of life is connected.  On the surface, it looks like you are an individual and so am I.  And of course, on the surface that is true.  But at a much deeper level we are ultimately one---unity is the fundamental essence of the world.  This unity becomes, then, the goal of life---the end of the world.  Buddhism offers a roadmap, as it were, to travel this path to interconnectivity.  I think Christianity has its own version, but that is a story for another day.

Let’s listen as Knitter talks about this.  He says, “Buddha in his wisdom calls us to realize that our deepest happiness consists not in living as individuals but as co-participants in a pervasive, ever-changing interconnectedness.”  That is a pregnant statement that I find powerfully promising.  Who does not want to opt for “our deepest happiness?”  Knitter says it is realized by becoming a “co-participant in a pervasive, ever-changing interconnectedness.”  In street language I think we say, “we’re in this together!”

The spiritual journey is the journey together.  I have my own spiritual work to do---growth and development---and you do, too.  But we’re in it together.  This leads to the next piece from Knitter.  “To really live interconnectedly would mean “the eradication of the selfish gene.”  That is powerful.  Probably most of us are not going around thinking about our selfish gene.  But I know too much of my action betrays the fact that I do have this selfish gene.  Spiritual growth and development in the interconnectivity direction will eradicate this gene.  Good riddance!

I complete my quoting of Knitter with these encouraging spiritual words.  He says, “It would tell us, as many contemporary evolutionary biologists are now arguing, that the “fittest” who survive are not the most selfish but the most cooperative. The compassionate gene can replace the selfish gene.”  I am relieved that the spiritual blueprint of the universe may not ultimately be “the survival of the fittest.”  I am delighted that cooperation may be the bottom line instead of competition.

The thought of my selfish gene being replaced with a compassionate gene is thrilling.  If that happens for me, it happens for you, too.  Clearly, we are not there yet.  The world experiences too much conflict to say compassion has the upper hand.  That is the spiritual development we all need to engage and execute.  But it is exciting to see what is possible.  I find the case for interconnectivity compelling.  Now on to the work!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Key to Life

As I have mentioned so many times, when serendipity comes my way, I am delighted.  I always feel so lucky when serendipity hits.  I feel good when I recognize that serendipity has just graced my life.  Sometimes I wonder how many times I miss something that is serendipitous, just because I failed to notice it?

This time serendipity came in the form of a John Lennon quotation.  I like John Lennon and the Beatles, but I was never a huge fan.  The quotation from Lennon did not even come from some music.  Instead it came rather innocently in some regular mailings that I receive.  Often I do not even read those things.  For whatever reason, this time I read it and Lennon’s words leaped out at me.  I am thankful.

I also am curious, so I did some research.  It seems that it is pretty dubious that Lennon ever said the words I am about to quote.  But I don’t care.  It is not important to me that they be from him…or anyone else famous.  I also find some folks online don’t like the sentiment in the quotation.  But I don’t care about that either!  Let’s see what he reputedly said.

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down, ‘happy.’  They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”  These words may not be profound, but I find them interesting and worth giving some reflection.

When I was five, I am not sure what my mother told me.  If she told me anything like this, it did not register.  I don’t remember.  My guess is she did not get into philosophy when I was five.  I also don’t remember my dad telling me anything like this.  I do remember him telling me always to thank people when they gave me something, helped me or were nice.  That may not be the key to life, but it has been an important lesson I learned very well.

I would like to pick out two features of the quotation for reflection.  The first aspect is whether happiness is, indeed, the key to life.  I am sure there is a majority---perhaps a huge majority---who would say that happiness is the key to life.  I could imagine John Lennon’s mother saying that.  But personally, I am less sure happiness is the key to life.

I am not against happiness.  In fact, I like very much to be happy.  Somehow I don’t think happiness has staying power.  It is more momentary---more episodic.  Happiness comes and goes.  It is like a good laugh.  I love a good laugh.  But it does not last.  So I am not really sure happiness can be the key to life.  If not happiness, then what is the key to life?

I doubt there is one agreed-upon answer to this.  But for me, the key to happiness has to be love.  Love is a powerful emotion.  However, it is more than an emotion.  It is a state of being.  It is an attitude.  It is a commitment and, finally, a way of life.  Love has depth and breadth in a way that happiness does not have.  Love is both practical and luxurious.  The greatest of all is love. 

The second aspect of the quotation for reflection has to do with understanding life.  I don’t know about John Lennon, but I surely did not understand life at age five.  I am not sure I yet understand life!  But I’m working on it.  The one thing I do understand about life is that love is the key.  And if happiness happens, that is very good. 

One way I try to approach the issue of understanding life is to differentiate “life” from “existence.”  If you have a heart beating in your chest, if you take food, etc., you exist.  Existence is basic.  It is good, but not valuable.  Existence is possibility without realization.  It is potential without any profundity.  Understanding life surely means more than existence.

To begin to understand life means we realize that we exist, but we set forth to come to terms with the fact that we are valuable.  This happens many ways.  I may realize that I am a child of God and that God loves me.  That makes me valuable.  I may begin to love others.  I make them valuable.  To do these kinds of things actualizes the possibilities I bring to life. 

To understand life is to engage life in such a way that I develop my potentiality.  Every one of us has the potential to be profoundly human and profoundly spiritual.  We have the profundity of existing in the image of God.  And we can develop the potential to become God-like.  We can love and grow that love into compassion for all those in the world with less than we have.

The key to life: love, compassion and becoming like God.  That’s what I understand.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Nostalgia: For the Good Times

I certainly don’t want to mistake the New York Times or Fox News Network for the Gospel.  But there is good news in secular media---these two sources and many others.  I am delighted to read and appropriate good news wherever I can get it.  Some good news is inherently good.  It is good news for whoever finds it.  Other times, good news becomes good news when I am able to apply it to my situation.  One such example just happened for me.

I was reading the daily newspaper.  That is not novel.  I read about four newspapers daily---either in hard copy or online.  I like to be informed and I think I am basically curious---or nosy!  I like to know what’s going on, even though most of the time it probably does not affect my life in any significant way.  And so it was that I turned to an article about nostalgia.

It seemed like it could be interesting.  Anyone my age has experienced nostalgia---a memory, perhaps, longing for some piece or version of the past.  I began reading without much expectation that I would get anything out of the article except for some information.  I had no clue that nostalgia could be as important as it apparently is.  And I had little clue that it had some interesting spiritual implications.

The story opens by talking about a university professor who had just left the University of North Carolina for a job at the University in Southampton, England.  Dr. Constantine Sedikides met with one of his new colleagues and talked about his recent, powerful experiences of nostalgia of his Chapel Hill days.  He fondly shared stories of Tar Heel sports events, southern food, etc.  His colleague suggested he was depressed---sad at having “lost” all those previous Carolinian ties.

But it was not depression.  It was nostalgia.  And this pulled me on into the article and some fascinating awareness of contemporary research into the nature and function of nostalgia.  The first point made underscored the positive function of nostalgia.  Sedikides noted, “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity.  It made me feel good about myself and my relationships.  It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”  There are some amazing contentions within this quotation.

I like the link between nostalgia and the twin ideas of roots and continuity.  I am sure there is a relationship between having roots and having meaning in life.  If this relationship can be sustained over time, i.e. continuity, then we have a chance for meaning in life, rather than just a meaningful event.  Nostalgia makes people feel good about themselves and their relationships. 

This seems very true to me.  I look back over my life and think about the key relationships that I have been privileged to have, and I feel very rich.  Nostalgia is a past vindicator of the future I can yet have.  Feeling good about myself yesterday enables me to engage tomorrow with confidence.  As the article says, nostalgia gives texture to my life.  Texture is a “feel” for myself, others and things in general.  With this texture comes strength. 

I like the way Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University puts it.  “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function…It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”  Who does not want to be a valued person with a meaningful life?  This is where I am drawn to the link to spirituality.  It would be a good beginning definition of spirituality to talk about becoming a valued person who achieves a meaningful life.

I suggest that spiritual experiences can become building blocks of spiritual nostalgia.  Spirituality is not simply an “in the moment” fling with God.  There certainly are those kinds of moments.  I recall times of being at the ocean when I had a deep sense of God’s immense Presence.  I think about the birth of my two girls and associate those to the Profoundest Mystery of the universe.  Those were events, but I can remember them.  And when I ponder them, I can be nostalgic for the deep truth and meaning they convey.  The nostalgia begins to do its spiritual wonder.

Two other features of nostalgia remind me of the spiritual potential of it.  Nostalgia, we are told, “has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.”  Counteracting loneliness, boredom and anxiety is also what I experience when the power of the Spirit is within me.  If I truly have a Friend in God, I am not going to be lonely; I won’t be bored and have no reason for anxiety.

With nostalgia I do not even need to have this experience every day.  Once I have had experiences with God then I can remember.  I can even be nostalgic---and I am full of joy, strong, generous to strangers, etc.  What a great gift.  What good news---for the good times!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thoughts on the Incarnation

I have finished reading the wonderful book by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.  As I have indicated, Delio is a Franciscan Sister.  That appeals to me, since I deeply appreciate Franciscan spirituality.  I have often told people, the Franciscans are the closest thing to Quakers one can find within the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll save that comparison for another day.

The other thing I very much appreciate about Delio is the fact that she is a trained, knowledgeable scientist.  She knows what she is talking about when it comes to evolution, genetic development, etc.  Because of rapidity of scientific knowledge, I feel very uninformed, despite my attempts to read widely.  Delio does a great job of being knowledgeable scientifically and theologically.  It is like she is bilingual.  I am a theological monolingual

An area that she has helped me re-think some of my personal theology is the incarnation.  The incarnation has been central to my own theology since graduate school days.  Maybe it is because I like John’s Gospel and, perhaps, because I am a Quaker, but the incarnation is central.  That does not discount the Easter story and its powerful influence on western Christianity.  It still has meaning for me.  Maybe it is because I did a doctoral dissertation on a Greek Father of the Church that I have always been attracted to and formed by the Orthodox Tradition. 

The key New Testament text for the incarnation is John 1:14.  If you know anything about the Fourth Gospel, that verse is in the Prologue.  The Prologue begins with John imitating the opening verses of Genesis.  John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (1:1)  The key idea here is the focus on the “Word.”  It is important for the Fourth Gospel that we understand the Word was there in the beginning before the creation of the world.  And we also need to understand that the Word in some sense is God or divine.  And then, we can appreciate the power of the 14th verse, when John affirms that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”  Another way of saying this is to acknowledge that God became human.  That is the incarnation.

Literally, the Latin word, carnis, means “flesh.”  Hence the incarnation means God’s “enfleshment” or “embodiment.”  Now I can choose one line from Delio’s book about the incarnation and show how it informs my thinking in this inspirational piece.  Delio comments on the incarnation.  “The self-emptying of God into everyday life is what the Incarnation is about.  God becomes ‘nothing’ so as to appear as something, a human person.” (118)  Delio has a fairly simply, but actually profound definition of the incarnation.

The incarnation is God’s self-emptying.  This is her way of understanding John’s Gospel that “The Word became flesh.”  It does not mean God ceased being God.  But God self-emptied.  Look closely at her first sentence.  God self-emptied into everyday life.  This sets her up to offer what is, on the surface, a paradoxical statement.  God becomes “nothing” in order to become “something.”  In Christian terms, the “something” God becomes is Jesus. 

When Delio says God becomes nothing, she is not denying that God exists.  This is what the “death of God” theologians in the 1960s and 70s wanted to argue.  Rather, what Delio is suggesting is to focus on the fact that God wants to become something.  The “something” that God becomes is particular.  The God of the universe (Genesis creation account) is the non-specific God who is responsible for everything that is and will come to be.  And that expansive, inclusive and infusive God wants also to particularize.  And the particularization we call Jesus.  

The incarnation is this “nothing to something” move God made.  The story of Jesus is unique---he uniquely incarnates the creative God of Genesis.  But Delio is also convinced that the incarnation is not simply a story about Jesus---as important as that is.  The story of the incarnation is an ongoing story of particularization.  What this means in simple terms is that God also chooses to become nothing in order to become something in each one of us.  Now I certainly have no illusion that I am Jesus.  He incarnates and lives out of the fullness of God in a way that I have surely not done.  I am no one’s savior!

The incarnation is so important to me because it is a statement about God’s involvement and God’s participation.  God dearly wants to be “in it” with us.  And so, God becomes human.  God becomes particular and, if you will, normal.  If I try to put Delio’s perspective in funny terms, I would say God chose to be abnormal in order to be normal, like us.  And Jesus models the normality of being human.  Of course, he does it better than I am doing.  But he shows it is possible.

Thinking about the incarnation is this fashion is both challenging and reassuring.  It is a challenge because it suggests and shows that I also can do it.  God also chooses to particularize in me and in you.  We can’t simply shrug our shoulders and let Jesus do the heavy spiritual lifting.  We have to put our hand to the task of infusing the world with the love of God which John’s Gospel affirms in a different well-known passage: “God so loved the world…” (3:16)

I am reassured that I can do it, because Jesus could do it.  And God is with me, too.  That’s how I am thinking on the incarnation. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Freedom and Control

I was reading the Psalm selection that was from the Compline service that monks participate in every night.  Compline is the final time the monastic community comes together before they retire for the night.  The focus for Compline usually is on thankfulness for the day, gratitude for the night’s rest that is coming.  Compline typically acknowledges we will be in the hands of God as we spend the night in sleep.  
Even when I am with one of the more rigorous monastic traditions, like the Trappists monks who counted Thomas Merton among them, Compline is probably my favorite.  The Trappists gather for worship seven times during the day, in addition to the daily Mass.  When I am with them, I am very aware of how differently these multiple worships times shape my day compared to a normal day when I am on my own.  The monks structure their day so that it alternates the flow of the day between worship and work.  I like that rhythm.

Every one of the times of worship, some of them are fairly short---fifteen minutes or so---use some readings from the Psalms.  I also like this.  As I grew up going to church, I now know there was no intentionality to how the Bible was used.  For some Protestants, the passages pastors choose to develop sermons, etc., may have little pattern or rationale.  In the Catholic tradition and some Protestant traditions, a lectionary is used.  A lectionary is a guided set of readings.  For example, every Catholic Church in the land will use the same passages at any particular Mass.  

A monastic community works its way through all one-hundred and fifty Psalms every two weeks!  No wonder monks know the Psalms in a way I never will.  But I value my exposure to this use of Psalms and appreciate the positive benefit it has on my own spiritual life.  And so dutifully, I try to follow the lectionary of the monastic community.  And so it was, a recent evening’s Compline included the one hundred forty-third Psalm.  

A particular line in that Psalm stood out to me as I slowly read through the entire Psalm.  The Catholic translation I was using quotes Psalm 143:8 this way: “Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.”  I chose to look up a different translation, namely, the NRSV.  It quotes the same passage in this fashion: “Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”  Looking at these two different translations of the original Hebrew shows why we need to be careful when we use an English translation.  We get a good idea the meaning, but we can take it literally.  

For example, one passage mentions God’s “will.”  The other translation calls it “the way I should go.”  Obviously, these are similar and understandable, since I am making such a big deal out of it.  But imagine if I go to Catholic Mass some Sunday, I would be sure I heard a reference to God’s will in the scripture readings for the day.  In a Protestant worship, the same passage might be used from the NRSV, and the Protestant worshipper would claim never to have heard any reference to God’s will.  Same idea; different language.

Let’s focus for the moment on the first half of that quotation.  The one passage petitions God to “teach me to do your will.”  If I were not paying attention, I would probably assume it said, “teach me your will.”  But no.  The petition is that God teach me to do the will.  Presupposed in this is the fact that I already would know God’s will.  What the Psalmist suspects is usually true: I may know God’s will, but choose not to do it.  In many cases in my life, I have known the right thing to do.  I simply didn’t do it!

The NSRV translation is a little different focus, but clearly in the same direction.  Again, the petition is to be taught by God.  The Psalmist asks God to teach “the way I should go.”  Once more, the emphasis is dynamic.  The implication is I should be going somewhere---doing something.  But it is more specific than that.  I should be going the way God wants me to go.  I laugh at the impact this would have on us if we took it seriously.  It would do away from my own egocentric insistence that “I do whatever I want to do.”  No wonder no egocentric person can take this stuff seriously!

Basically what is at stake is control and freedom.  To be in relationship with God means that I begin to tamp down my own egocentric will.  In the beginning at least, this feels like giving up my freedom.  The other way to look at it is from the control perspective.  Good, individualistic Americans are usually not in favor of giving up control of their lives---to any other person or God.  We are afraid we will be made to do things we don’t want to do.  We like being in charge of our lives.

Of course, this is ultimately an illusion.  For sure, it can feel like I am in charge of my life.  I choose my breakfast food, etc.  But I am not in charge of some basics of life---for example, whether I die or, even, get sick.  I have some freedoms, but not ultimate freedom.  Finally, I think this is good and even something for which to be grateful.  But this takes some spiritual development to get there.

At the deepest level, I have learned, God is in control and I am grateful. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Internal Pawnshop

I have been reading a book by one of my favorite monks, Thomas Merton.  As many would know, Merton has been around in my life for quite some time, even though he died in 1968.  I never met Merton, although I feel like I know him.  He wrote quite prolifically before his untimely death in his early 50s.  One book I had never read is The Sign of Jonas.

In this book Merton used the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, as a kind of alter ego.  Many of you will know Jonah as that prophet whom God chose to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Babylonian empire.  Instead of obeying God, Jonah took off in the opposite direction!  He climbed aboard a ship, which soon ran into bad weather.  Feeling like he was to blame, Jonah was tossed into the sea, upon which he was swallowed by a giant fish.  Symbolically, he keeps getting farther away from and deeper from God.  This is an interesting comparison for Merton to be making.

I don’t want to focus on any particular content from the book.  Instead I was struck again how felicitously Merton is able to turn the phrase in his writing.  He uses images and metaphors that capture my imagination.  In many ways he writes with a kind of graphic presentation that enables the reader to identify with the material.  And then, the reader is able to make the ideas his or her own.  It can be quite moving.

Other times, I find Merton to be quite funny.  He will say something that makes me laugh out loud.  I ran into one such phrase as I was reading today.  The selection comes from the year, 1947.  He has been a monk at Gethsemani for about six years.  He is coming to the point where he makes solemn vows to remain a monk at that monastery for the duration of his life.  He tells the reader that he has been spending some time focusing on a different religious order than his own, namely the Carmelites.

The thing he picks up in his reading is the Carmelite focus on poverty.  He has high praise for the seriousness with which the Carmelites take up poverty as their ideal.  And then Merton says, “…I wish I were poor.  Yet I do not want to wish I were poor in a way that might imply that I thought myself rich.  I am not rich.”  I read along and felt like I understood what Merton was saying, although it did not seem surprising or unusual for a Cistercian like him to be for poverty.  I am sure he was not rich.

Then came the sentence that made me laugh.  Merton wrote, “I just sit in my little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas, and most of the time they make me slightly sick.”  As I reflected on it, I am not sure why I laughed.  In some ways Merton is being melodramatic.  Then I realized that I laughed because of the way he had expressed himself.  It may not be that he is comparing himself to the Carmelites.  It may be more the fact that he is expressing the fact that he has some growing and developing to do.  I can resonate with that!

Merton uses a graphic image to convey how he sees himself.  He pictures himself sitting in his “little pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas.”  That is a powerful description of his situation, as he assesses it.  I am impressed with this description because it would never occur to me to use the image of a “pawnshop.”  As with most great images, you get exactly what the point is.

A pawnshop is, indeed, rather second-rate.  I get the image of a seedy kind of place.  I don’t think I have ever been in a real pawnshop, but from the movies a pawnshop is rather old, musty and exists for the downtrodden.  There is nothing in a pawnshop that is first-rate.  It is all second-hand kind of stuff.  When Merton applies this image to himself, I don’t laugh any more.

Merton talks about his pawnshop of second-rate emotions and ideas.  This poignancy tugs at my heart.  In a real way he is saying he has no primary ideas or personal emotions.  His ideas and feelings are second-rate---borrowed from someone else.  This is a kind of dependency that is not necessarily bad, but is certainly sad.  In a way Merton is confessing that he has not yet found his own voice---his authenticity.

Of course, I don’t know whether he meant it this way.  But it is how I read him.  Perhaps this is because some part of me resonated with the image of the pawnshop.  I wonder whether part of me also is not sitting in my own little pawnshop of second-rate ideas and emotions?  Am I content with borrowing someone else’s ideas of God, spirituality and meaning in life?  Or am I working authentically on my own experience of the Holy One?

Am I pursuing life deeply enough to have my own first-hand engagement with the Cosmic Giver of Life in such a way that I can be transformed into the amazing person God wants me to be?  I don’t want to be content playing hinky-dinky spiritual games.  I want to be bold for the spiritual gold.  Of course, it is not the Olympics.  But it is a journey in search for the way, the truth, and the life.  I don’t want to settle for some pawnshop of second-rate stuff.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Community Losses

I am sure I learned very young that community was important.  I just didn’t have the language for it.  When I was a pre-school kid, I recall my dad going into the little town close to our farm.  A number of guys (I don’t remember any women) gathered each morning in the local drugstore to have coffee and discuss the hot topics of the night before and day to come.  I was thrilled to be included, but I don’t recall talking.  But I was present.

I am sure no one called that gathering a “community.”  But that is exactly what it was.  It was not a religious community, although I am sure most of the guys went to church somewhere in the little town.  It was not political, although politics surely were central to the discussion.  It was a “community community,” if that makes any sense.  Sports, local news, farm economy and local business news were the fabric of the community.

I have been part of communities most of my adult life.  It is fair to say they are important to me.  It seems I need them, although I suppose I could survive without one.  But I do know life would be immensely poorer.  Communities feed my soul.  They help my life have meaning and purpose.  They are life giving.

I am fascinated with how communities form and develop.  Some communities have lasted for a long time.  I think of communities like the Benedictine monks.  They have been around since the sixth century.  Of course, no monk has lived that long!  But somehow monks join, live there and die.  Yet the community endures and, often, prospers (in a spiritual sense, of course).  This prompts me to ponder a little more deeply.

I just got the news a good friend of mine was moving and would, therefore, leave one of the communities of which I am a part at my college.  The news is certainly not tragic.  After all, she is moving on to a better job for her.  It makes perfect sense why she would do this.  I support the move and applaud the neat opportunity for her.  There is not one ounce of me that thinks she should do anything other than leave me and the rest of the community.

However, that does not mean her leaving will not be a loss for us.  Good for her and sorry for us.  Then I realized, it is not “sorry for us.”  Of course, we will miss her.  A community will miss anyone who is integrally part of it.  If you are not integrally part of a community and leave it, most folks won’t miss you.  Good-bye and good riddance goes the saying!  Good-bye and we’ll miss you is what we will call as our friend leaves.

All this prompts me to consider community losses.  If someone who is important to a community leaves, I think there is a three-step process that enables us to understand what goes on.  It covers any kind of loss.  The loss could be like the one of my friend.  She is alive and well and moving on to a more appropriate place for her right now.  Another form of significant loss is death.  When someone important in the community dies, it is a key community loss.
The first step in the process of coping with the loss is some sadness and grief.  In the first blush of the loss, we realize the role the person played in our community.  This realization makes it clear to us that a real piece of the “communal us” has gone out the door and we will never be exactly the same gang.  Again, if we care about the person and who she or he has been in our midst, it is natural to feel sad and some grief.

The second phase of the process of dealing with community loss is beginning to cope with the “hole” in the community.  The place and the role of the person the community lost are starkly evident.  Coping usually takes the form of statements that say in effect, “We miss her.”  Or we hear memories like, “Remember when she…”  Coping with loss is natural and healthy.  We wished her well when she left.  And now, we are wishing ourselves well as we go forward in our community.

The third phase of the process of community losses entails filling the hole of loss with the love of a whole community.  Ultimately and finally, a healthy community begins to fill in the hole of loss with the overflowing love of everyone who is left in the community.  It is more like a healing process than it is a miracle.  Our sadness turns to good memories.  Our grief heals into acceptance.

It is a good reminder that all communities are mortal.  Communities are mortal because everyone within a community is mortal.  Perhaps that is one reason why communities are so precious.  They are crucibles for loving, living and, finally, losing.  They are a wonderful alternative to going it alone.  They are healthy antidotes to cynical solitariness.  Real community is always a grace.

I am thankful a recent loss can remind me so well how much I value community.  I give thanks to all those early communal teachers back in that little Indiana town.  And I give thanks to my recent community for all the grace and love it gives me now.  And to the one leaving, “Good-bye and blessings.” 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Home and Away

Most people I know have a home.  I have a nice enough home.  It is not luxurious, but it is more than adequate.  If you were to visit me, you would know that my home has that “lived in” feeling.  It is not the kind of place with dazzle and formality.  I have been in those kinds of homes.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable and on edge.  I hesitate to sit down or touch anything.  Even though I am fairly athletic, in those kinds of situations I temporarily become a klutz!

It is pretty commonsense to differentiate house and home.  Many people know the experience of moving into a new house.  In fact, we usually say it precisely that way.  We can buy a house and move into it.  But it takes a while to have the house become a “home.”  That process is likely different for most people.  And the process typically has no time frame.  Some may know how to become “home-makers” much more quickly than the rest of us.  I actually think I am a pretty slow homemaker.

There are intentional things people do to make a “home.”  There are the obvious things like our own furniture and, of course, things like pictures.  Pictures, special books, a favorite desk and so much more make it “our home.”  That is why you would get a “lived in” feeling if you walked into my home.  You would not be surprised to see pictures of my girls and, now, some grandkids. 

My home is unpretentious.  It is the kind of place people would be comfortable sitting down anywhere.  They probably would not hesitate to take off their shoes and relax, if they wanted to do so.  No one likes to spill something.  But if you visited me and spilled something, it would not be the end of the earth.  You would probably be embarrassed, but you would not be preferring suicide in the moment!  I would hope that my home would feel non-judgmental and non-condemning. 

I recently had an opportunity to come back home after some travel.  Most of the time, I enjoy some travel.  It is nice to get away from home and routine for a while.  But like most folks I know, it is always a treat to come back home.  I began to think about this experience of coming home only to realize what a wonderful spiritual analogy it suggests.  Let’s pursue this a bit.

As I pondered it, I realized that home means familiar surroundings.  I already have shared a little about my home, so you have a sense of what coming home means.  It means I can sit in my familiar chair.  I can look out my window and see my trees in their various stages to match the season.  I feel quite “at home.”  In fact, it can be pitch dark in my home and I can make my way with some confidence.

As I thought about coming home after being away, I realized I wanted to explore the analogy with a kind of spiritual home.  Come away with me and join me in that exploration.

The first thing that occurred to me is there is a deeper level of home than place.  The home in which I live is a literal place.  It has an address.  It is specific in that no other place---no other house---has the same address.  You can google my address and find my place.  With cell phones, I never have to give directions; it is easy to find my place.  But there is a deeper level of home than my place.

This is where the literal gives way to the figurative.  What I mean by that is this deeper level of home is a metaphorical place.  It does not have an address.  You cannot google it.  That deeper level is a “soul place.”  Certainly the word, soul, is a tricky, complex word.  Let me simply say that for me, soul is the essence of who I am.  It is my core self---my true self, in the words of Thomas Merton and others.  The deeper level of home has to do with soul.

I would put it this way: home is a deep, soulful place where we connect with the Spirit.  In this sense home is that metaphorical place that is a soulful place.  It is that “place” where my true self is available.  It is that “place” where my soul connects with the Divine Soul---with God, if you prefer.

My own spirituality would assume that God is always ready and willing to make “house calls.”  The Spirit would like nothing more than to go “home” with us.  In fact, I could imagine for those saintly folks, God has moved in!  God co-habits with these kinds of people.

I can imagine this deeper soulful level is co-habitation because the Spirit and the soul are in such intimacy that the language of “visiting” does not do it justice.  This deep homecoming of the soul with the Spirit has been expressed with the symbolic language of marriage by the Christian contemplatives and mystics.  I’m not there yet.  It is fair to say God comes to my spiritual house to visit.  But too often, I am away.  I have some work to do---some homework.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Seasons of My River

I have a little river that flows right by my back deck at my house.  Even with my baseball days long gone, I could still easily sit in my chair and throw a baseball and hit the river.  It is that close.  I like having that little river.  In fact, most days I am not even sure it is a river.  Much of the time, it is hardly more than a creek.

I am not even sure why I call it “my” little river.  I don’t own any deed to the river.  I don’t even think it is on my property.  More than likely, it marks the boundary of what is “mine.”  Even to use possessive language about land strikes me as a bit odd.  Of course, I know about laws, property rights, deeds, etc.  And of course, I really don’t want someone coming into ”my house” in the middle of the night to claim some space.  I understand why I have locks on my doors.

And yet, a big part of me thinks all the property---all the land, creeks, rivers, mountains and everything else---is really God’s.  For me to be part of nature is a gift.  It is a good gift.  I have been lucky to live in this land of plenty.  The natural world that surrounds me is gracious.  It is fertile; there is sufficient water.  The trees surrounding my place are wonderfully luxurious in many different ways.  I have been blessed.

And there is that little river---my little river.  It flows on and on.  It is symbolic in many ways, I have concluded.  It is a teacher.  I can be its student.  If I open myself to its teaching, I can learn a great deal.  In fact, I believe it is a source of wisdom for the one willing to become wise.  I want to be open to its wisdom.

One of the things I am convinced is true about my little river is that it has seasons.  Of course, you might say.  It goes through spring and summer, fall and winter just like anything else in nature in my part of the world.  That is true, but it is not what I mean my seasons.  Let me elaborate.

By the season of my little river, I mean the surging and flagging of the river flow.  My little river is quite sensitive to what is going on.  Normally, it is just my little river.  It flows rather steadily---without much ado.  It is easy to overlook in these normal times.  There is movement, but little drama.  There is action, but little reaction is elicited.  In these normal times, I have to be aware and alert if I want to learn anything from my little river.

It can teach me much about how to deal with normal times.  It is quietly effective as a river---moving water effortlessly along.  That teaches me how to be effective in my own normal times.  After all, most of my time is normal.  Most of my time is not dramatic.  I want to continue to learn how to be steady, effective and productive in my own routine times.  That would be a great accomplishment. 

That goes for my own spiritual life, too.  Most of my spiritual life is pretty normal---little drama or fanfare.  I want that to be solid and effective.  I want my own spiritual journey to be as steady as the flow of my little river.
Then there are the times when heavy rains come.  Heavy rains alter the normalcy of my little river.  My little river is quickly sensitive to environmental changes.  When heavy rains come, my little river turns into a tiger!  My little river becomes a pretty big, almost raging river.  The noise level elevates significantly.  It begins to sound like I am at the ocean.  There is rushing water and crashing sounds like waves hitting a wall.  That little river becomes robust and rambunctious.  To be in that river would be like climbing on a bucking bronco!

There are also seasons of my spirit.  There have been a few times when the fresh winds of the Spirit have blown so strongly, that I was deeply moved.  These are the times that I feel mighty and capable of really big things.  In these seasons, I want to imitate my little river.  I want to be responsive and become spiritually effective.  I want to make things happen---to make a difference.

And then there are the times when it gets dry and the dry season may become extended.  During these seasons my little river shrivels.  Its movement slows drastically.  It still flows, but it conserves energy---seemingly settling in order to sustain itself through dry periods.  It has less to give, but is nevertheless an impressive teacher.  My little river knows how to make it through dry, thin times.  It will survive and thrive.

What a great template for soul work.  Anyone who has been at soul work for a while knows there will be those dry times.  We know that even though we go through the motions of spiritual discipline, there may be little or no movement of the Spirit.  My little river teaches me to be patient and to stay with it.  My little river never gets mad and quits flowing.  “Stay within yourself,” I can hear it tell me during these times.

I value having such a wonderful teacher within a baseball throw.  It is mine.  I do not pay for the education and formation.   Like most things in God’s nature, it is gift.  It is a form of grace given liberally to me---and anyone else who wants to be open and see.

Tuesday, August 1, 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.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Spirituality and the Market

The title of this inspirational reflection suggests two different academic disciplines or departments.  On my campus if we were to talk about spirituality and the market, we think Religion Department and the Business Division.  In most cases the two would not be in conversation.  In my own case, however, I have done a great deal of collaborative work with a colleague from the Business world.  It has been productive work and surprising where our joint efforts have made a difference.

I have often said that it is only on college campuses that artificial divisions exist.  Sometimes I think it is unfortunate that we make students choose majors.  And too often, the students operate with the illusion that a particular major leads to specific kinds of jobs.  Of course, there are times when that does seem to be the case.  If a student is an accounting major, then it is true that he or she can probably find a job as an accountant after graduation.  But that does not mean he or she will be an accountant the rest of his or her life.

Surely the time students spend in college should help them prepare for some kinds of careers.  They need to make a living.  Many will have families.  And those like myself know that people need to save some money so that they will be able to take care of themselves when their working career are finished.  But career is just one aspect of life.

I also am clear a major facet of life is figuring out the meaning and purpose of life.  Unless someone figures out a way to make his or her life significant, his or her life will not be healthy or worthy. There are many ways to bring significance to our lives, but we do need something.  Careers may or may not do it.  Families may or may not do it.  I have been fortunate to have both career and family.  While they have been good, I would not say they bring ultimate purpose and significance to my life.

My ultimate significance is tied directly to God or the Holy One.  I have had children and I love them to death.  But I would not say they are my ultimate significance.  I am a child of God and so are my two kids.  There is where my ultimate significance resides.  I have had a role as father of two daughters.  But being a child of God is more than a role. 

Being a child of God is a core identity issue.  It defines me and destines me.  My real job in life is not being a college professor.  My real job is to figure out the deepest meaning of my life as a child of God.  And when I know my deepest identity as such, then the requirement is to live out of that identity in this world God has created.  To know that one is a child of God is to know that one is loved.  And to know that you are loved means that you go into the world to love as God has loved you.  It’s that simple.

All that I have said so far is pretty typical for a guy who spends significant time thinking about and writing about spirituality.  But I also am mired squarely in the culture in which I live.  And in that culture there are always odd things happening and funny things being said.  I love it when one of the odd or funny things happen and give me a chance to relate it to the life of the Spirit as I am trying to live it.

Just the other day one of those things happened.  It is a story that comes out of professional football.  Once a year there is a big event in professional football.  Over a three-day period the pro teams draft players out of college.  I know this is of interest only to those serious about the sport.  Perhaps the most fascinating thing to me is the fact that many millionaires are instantly made.  And some of them say dumb things.

For example, the University of Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan was picked by Miami.  He proceeded to announce to the nation, “Overall, I’m a great guy.”  This may be true; I don’t know the guy.  But it is certainly brazen self-promotion. I doubt that this has anything to do with the Spirit.

And then he continued by saying, “I always felt Mother Teresa didn’t sell herself enough.”  This clearly was spiritual or, shall we say, the lack of any spiritual understanding.  Dion Jordan feels the need to market himself---to be self-important.  I am sure Mother Teresa felt no need at all to market herself.  Self-aggrandizement vs. self-surrender.  It could not be more clear.  For Dion it is marketing…a business, selling himself.  For Mother Teresa it is service…spirituality, selling nothing.

I will watch football and endure the marketing.  I will admire Mother Teresa and hope to emulate her to the best of my ability.  And I hope in the process not to become rich and famous.  I would prefer being a saint…one of God’s holy ones.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Outstanding Trumps Average

I recently read an article whose focus was higher education.  Since I am affiliated with a higher education institution, I was interested.  Since I am much closer to the end of my career rather than the beginning, bad news obviously should affect me less than others. While this is good for me, it is a lousy outlook and, I would argue, is hardly a spiritual way of looking at things.
The article focused on the increasing cost of higher education, i.e. a college education.  As any college student will tell you, or the parents helping pay for college costs will say, the cost of a college degree is steep and getting steeper.  The looming question is where and when will folks say, “enough?”  Of course, I don’t think colleges will go out of business (although some might), but the game may be changing.
As one who is interested and involved in innovation, the corollary question is how can college education be done differently?  Can we do the same thing at less cost?  Or is there a more radical model that will allow learning to occur for students differently than the way it is being done?  There are emerging, alternative models.  Some find this fascinating and others see them as quite threatening.
One such model emerging is called MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).  This clearly is a technologically driven way of educating.  But the real issue is this: these courses are being taught by the very best faculty from well-known institutions like Stanford, M.I.T., and others.  And even more threatening to some schools is the fact that these courses are free!  Now if you are used to getting paid to teach, this gets your attention.
The recent article by Thomas Friedman is not the real point in my reflection here.  But the last line of his article caught my attention and seemed applicable to so much more than higher education.  Friedman ended his article with these words: “When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over.”  I am sure I gasped when I read those words.  Let’s take a close look at that sentence and what it implies about life and, perhaps, about spirituality.
It is clear to me two things are being contrasted in this sentence, namely the “outstanding” and the “average.”  Friedman is exactly right to say when the outstanding becomes so easily available, at that point the average is doomed.  This is exactly right when we are dealing with a competitive context.  In sports and in business outstanding routinely beats the average.
When I bring the idea into the arena of spirituality, I am tempted to relax because I don’t see the world of spirituality to be a world of competition.  I really don’t see religion as a numbers game.  If there are more Christians than Buddhists, then Christians win!  But maybe my relaxing is unfounded and, therefore, unfortunate.  I do think spirituality is a non-competing undertaking.
But I do not think that makes it ok to settle for average.  Let’s assume that one function of my spirituality is to provide meaning and purpose in my life.  I can’t imagine any person saying in effect, “Actually I prefer to have an average meaning and purpose in my life when I know I could have an outstanding one.  Thanks, but I choose average!”  I know I would choose to be outstanding.
However, I realize the idea of spiritually “outstanding” might be misunderstood.  I might think outstanding means spiritually professional---like a monk or priest.  And I know I don’t want that, so I settle for average.  I don’t think outstanding means “professional.”  I prefer to see outstanding to mean to the best of my abilities with myself all into it.  Furthermore, this assumption is grounded in who God is and what I think God wants for each one of us.
The creation story is important for me.  In that Genesis account we are told that God created us in the image and likeness of the Divinity.  We are the icons of the Divinity!  We were created for a purpose and that purpose is to live godlike lives.  This means to me that we are designed for love---to love and be loved.  As lovers of God and, I contend, lovers of each other, we are supposed to be in the world making the world into a kingdom of peace and joy.  If we do that, we will pull off the most meaningful and purposeful mission possible.
I don’t think for a moment that God had in mind average creatures for this kind of work.  I am confident that God needed outstanding spiritual women and men to engage and execute this special, spiritual task.  However, too many folks resort to being average or, sadly, less than average.  We tend to our own petty agenda and dilute or delete our spiritual task.
I use these reflections to renew a commitment to become outstanding.  It is within my capacity and your capacity, too.  Kingdom work is a noble work of dignity and worth.  Anything less than my outstanding effort is not acceptable.  With some effort and God’s grace, I know that outstanding trumps average.  And that’s good.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Pain I Feel Now

I had forgotten.  I had forgotten the great line from C.S. Lewis’, touching book, A Grief Observed.  Lewis wrote this book soon after the death of his wife, Joy.  I had forgotten that line because it has been so long ago that I read the book.  I ran across it in a recent reading of a periodical I regularly read.  The title of the article is “Happiness and Pain: That’s the Deal.”  The author, Amy Morris-Young does a nice job of reflecting on relationships and the death of those relationships. 
I like the way she opens the article.  She quips, “Let's get real.  Where the rubber meets the road for most of us in our relationship with God is when we are sick or hurt, or the people we love are.”  She probably is correct, even though many of us would say we have a deep and meaningful relationship with God long before tragedy.  Her line is a good reminder, however, of when the rubber does meet the road. 
She recognizes these times of death leads most of us to feel alone.  Humorously, she says at that point we are likely to ask, "Uh, God. You out there?"  Morris-Young then recounts her own experience with the deaths of a couple people close to her.  The first death she describes is the death of Red, her beloved grandfather.  As she recounted this story, my mind was flooded with memories of my own beloved grandpa.  I almost teared up when she shares the time he looked up at her and softly confided, "Almost done now, honey. Almost ready."  I hope I can be there when that time for me comes.
Toward the end of her reflections, she comes to C.S. Lewis’ experience of his wife’s death.  Many of us know of Lewis and the books he wrote, perhaps most famously, The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a professor at Oxford, that famous university and city about an hour from London.  I have lived a couple times in Oxford.  I have often visited the pub where Lewis and his sidekicks, among whom was J.R.R. Tolkien, hung out and called their gathering, the Inklings. 
In 1956 Lewis married Joy Davidson, an American poet.  Their marriage lasted only four years before her untimely death.  Morris-Young shares a brief exchange between Joy and Jack (as Lewis was known).  Basically, she wants to talk about her impending death and he does not want to talk about it.  At the end of that conversation, Joy uses the line, which then forms the end of Lewis’s book.  She says, “the pain I feel now is the happiness I had before.  That's the deal."  That is such a powerful line, I needed to reflect on its meaning.
Ironically, in this line Lewis connects pain and happiness.  On the surface these two ideas seem contradictory.  They seem to be either/or.  The way Lewis is using them, they are complimentary, not contradictory.  Perhaps part of the issue in understanding this is to recognize most of us think about happiness in more pedestrian ways than life and death.  For example, when I stop by my favorite place for morning coffee, I will say I am happy to get that cup of coffee.  But it is a long way from any kind of ultimate happiness.  I’m not sure I would be sad if I did not get it.  Coffee is not a very profound or deep happiness.  If I don’t get coffee, I don’t feel pain!
Of course, Lewis is pointing to a much more profound level of happiness.  The potential level of happiness in a marriage can approach profundity.  My kids and my friends can do the same thing.  I am deeply happy with them and for them.  To be deprived of them is more than sad; it can be painful.  This is the level to which Lewis points.  We inch toward understanding fully what Joy is telling Jack.
When there is profound happiness, you necessarily have signed up for potential pain.  Clearly, most of us never think about the other side of the coin when we are experiencing the sheer delight of happiness.  As she said, “That’s the deal.”  If you don’t want to deal with the pain that awaits you on the other side of happiness, then live life in neutral.  That sounds like a lot of fun!  If you care, you will hurt when it’s not possible to care anymore.  So, if you want to avoid that, don’t invest.  Live a shallow, uncommitted life devoid of love or friendships.
Otherwise, that’s the deal.  I was intrigued how Morris-Young ends her reflections.  Let’s go with hers and put my own reflections on hold.  How is she dealing with the happiness-pain issue that death of loved ones has given her?  She observes, “My greatest challenge is remembering to trust God, to not just believe but know that love connects us infinitely.  When death separates me from those I love — or I stand on the precipice of that great chasm myself — that faith is all I have.”
Like C.S. Lewis, Morris-Young comes back to faith.  And faith is always linked to love.  I am good with her theology, namely, that “love connects us infinitely.”  In faith I can affirm the truth of that without theologically knowing for sure how to work it out.  Maybe she is correct.  Faith is all we have.
If I feel pain now, it is because of happiness once enjoyed.  And pain is not the last word.  The pain I feel now is bracketed by happiness on both ends.  That’s the faith we all have.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Quiet Soul

The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter.  Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time.  I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.
As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm.  The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…”  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…”  In this case I prefer the first option.  It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things. 
It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!”  Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention.  If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements.  Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride.  I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.
The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.”  I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one.  That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”  That seems very clear to me.  It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.
Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up.  I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!”  When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant.  As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient.  It means that we should not get overly excited.  If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline.  Keep your journey simple.  Being spiritual is a life-long journey. 
The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts.  Why bother seeking to walk among the great.  Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture.  In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them.  In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture.  That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ.  Certainly this is what the monks seek to do.  And in my own way, I try to follow suit.
By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me.  Stay simple.  There is no need to call attention to myself.  Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift.  I just need to remember that I did not create my own life.  And I cannot prevent my own death.  I have choices, but they are choices on the way.  And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.
I like the next line in Psalm 131.  The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…”  The NRSV is nearly identical.  It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…”  Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition.  To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.
I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert?  Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts.  I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.
We all know the demands on us.  Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent.  I do think we live in a noisy culture.  And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head!  In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain.  Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!
A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language.  Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.”  Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul.  To be in the Center is to be with God.  It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.