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Showing posts from 2017

Thanksgiving: a Day and a Way of Life

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

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

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

The truth is Thanksgiving lasts one da…

Music of the Spirit

One of the things I most like about the semester ending is the fact we are getting near the end of the various books I use.  For example, in one class I have students read Kathleen Norris’ great book, The Cloister Walk.  The book originally appeared in 1996.  I am not sure when I bought it and read it.  I first became aware of Norris’ work with her book, Dakota.  That book is about landscape and a look at place and space.  I came to appreciate a few things about Norris.

I learned that her educational background was poetry.  She is a published poet.  Even of more interest to me was the fact Norris had spent two lengthy periods in a Benedictine monastery.  Like me, Norris is a Benedictine oblate, which basically means she is a “lay Benedictine.”  That commits us to living as nearly as we can the monastic life.  Both Norris and I are married; I have kids.  Of course, that means we cannot be monks in the traditional sense of the word.  But we can make a spiritual commitment to follow that …

First Things First

I have heard the phrase, “first things first,” so many times during my life.  Growing up on a farm, it made perfect sense.  Often there was an order or sequence to the chores facing us.  Clearly, “first things first” implies a logic to how one goes about things.  Usually if you did not do the first things, nothing else would be possible.  Or things would start to go very badly.  

When I left the farm to go to college, I did not hear the phrase as often.  However, it surely applied to much of what I did in college and, then, later in life throughout my career.  It probably also makes sense when we think about having a family.  Likely it also makes sense when it comes to friendships and all the other adventures of life.

It occurred to me this morning when I was trying to do a little spiritual time, that it also very much fits the spiritual life.  Some day, perhaps I will wake up and have nothing planned or nothing to do all day long.  Then “first things first” may not apply.  But that…

Evidence of Divine Presence

The title for this inspirational piece came from a wonderful reflection I read in a periodical I regularly read online.  It comes from Joni Woelfel, whom I have never met even though we have communicated with each other.  I hope someday to meet her and have that face-to-face conversation that I am confident will be very good.  I am sure I have things I can learn from her and that it will be fun.

The enticing title of Joni’s meditative reflection is “The good that rises when the bottom falls out of life.”  I am confident that most of us who live beyond adolescent years know what life feels like when the bottom falls out.  It can come through a variety of causes.  Special lover dumps you; you get sick; you lose the job you like or don’t get the job you covet.  Any disappointment triggers the bottom to fall out.  Of course, some things are much worse than others.

Joni begins her meditation by recalling the time she came home from the hospital.  She was a young mother, but was not in any co…

I Have Seen You

I frequently realize I live in different times than when I grew up.  Since I spend most of my time with college-age students, I spend little time reminiscing about the “good old days.”  I am absolutely certain college students don’t care and they don’t want to hear about “what it was like when I was their age.”  And I don’t blame them.  When I was their age, I surely did not want to hear a bunch of old guys (or gals) talking about their younger years. 

Yesterday was a reminder to me that I live in a different era.  I was invited to do a keynote speech.  That is not unusual.  I have been invited to speak for years now---even decades.  Sometimes it is an invitation from a friend or, as often happens, from a Quaker group who knows me or knows about me.  These kinds of invitations are never surprising.  In many of these cases, the person or group who invites me has a very good idea of what they will get when they invite me.  And sometimes I am invited by students on my campus.  And of cou…

Inward Journey and Outward Pilgrimage

There are so many different ways to think about the spiritual life. And of course, in our country there are so many different variations of religious experiences. There are liberals and conservatives. There are fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Besides the dizzying variety of Christian traditions, there are many different non-Christian traditions. There are the major traditions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. There are the slightly more obscure traditions, such as Sikhism, Jainism, etc. And then there are more fringe groups and, even, pseudo-religions.

There are defining doctrines and religious practices. Some of these are specific to a particular tradition or a few traditions, such as the koan, which is used in Zen Buddhism for example. Other defining doctrines or practices are common across the religious board. Something like meditation would be a good example. Christians meditate; Buddhists meditate. And other groups practice this spiritual discipline.

A favorite way…

Preserve Me, Lord

Sometimes I wonder if I would make it as a monk!  Actually I don’t really wonder, because I am fairly sure I would blow it.  There is so much about being a monk that I find attractive.  But I fear that I idealize what being a monk means.  And that is funny, since I have been to any number of monasteries and convents and actually know quite a few monks and nuns.

If I am honest, what really attracts me is not being a monk, but it is the way of life that monks and nuns undertake.  That attraction is deepened by the fact that a group of them undertake that life together in community.  And they do that life together with such intentionality.  I am sure that intentionality is a big piece of the attraction for me and it is probably why I know I would blow it!  That is because intentionality has to be married to discipline to be effective.

So I content myself to staying on the margins of monastic life.  Fortunately the monastic community welcomes people who like to do as much as we can.  An…

Tradition and Convention

My favorite monk, Thomas Merton, makes an interesting distinction in his book, No Man Is an Island.  Merton differentiates tradition and convention.  Merton talks about tradition in very positive terms.  I like the way Merton defines tradition.  “Tradition is living and active…Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it…Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives.  Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine.”  I will unpack this lengthy quotation as we consider the meaning and impact of tradition in our spiritual lives.

But first let’s get a sense for how Merton uses the idea of convention.  Then it will become clear how he differentiates convention and tradition.  “Convention,” says Merton, “is passive and dead…Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine.  Therefore convention easily becomes an evasion of reality.  It offers us only pretended way…

Contemplation and Action

At some point in my teaching career, I realized there are certain basic themes I want to address in almost every different kind of class I teach.  One of these themes is the twin ideas of contemplation and action.  Too often in the history of the Christian Church, these twin themes are treated as either/or.  Either one is a contemplative or one gives life to action.  But I think all of us are called to be both contemplatives and active in life if we are to live a fully rich life. 

Of course, I am not the only one to think this way.  There are many others, but one of my favorite writers on this subject is my fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer.  He treats this theme in a rather full fashion in his 1990 book, The Active Life.  The book focuses on three sub-themes, which come across in the subtitle: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.  There are many places in the book where Palmer makes the case for both contemplation and action, but one I choose to share makes the point.  “Action w…

Human Nature Revisited

Some books are good enough to read again.  A few of the books I use for classes are books I have read more than twice and every time I read one of them, I am both reminded of why I thought the book was so good.  And I find new nuggets of insight that keep bringing me back to that book the next semester.  One of those books is a classic from the 1960s, Langdon Gilkey’s journal-become-book, entitled Shantung Compound.

I read this book first when I was in seminary.  And then one of my colleagues used it in a theology class he taught at the seminary where I first taught.  I was intrigued how he used the book and so when I began teaching an introductory type theology class, I began to use Gilkey’s book.  I find it still does the trick even well into a new century.  Oddly enough, the book is historically located.  It tells of Gilkey’s nearly three years as an internee in a Japanese prison camp located in China during WW II.

Gilkey had just gone to Beijing right after graduating from college i…

A Good Word for Confidence

I know what to do with pride.  All the spiritual literature tells us to be careful about pride.  In the Christian list of sins, pride ranks right up there.  Pride is usually linked to our egos.  Pride typically is rooted in an egotistical attempt to have it our own way.  So I get it, when it comes to pride. 

However it gets tricky, because that might imply the best way to avoid pride is to be a loser in life.  Don’t do anything good or important and you will have no problem with pride.  Be a disaster and pride will never haunt you.  We can poke fun at this perspective, but it can teach us that aiming to be a loser in life is stupid.  And most people are not stupid.

As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me that an alternative to pride is confidence.  I would never argue they are synonyms.  Clearly, they are not the same thing, but I do think they may be related. 

As I ponder both ideas---pride and confidence---I came to this distinction.  I see pride as the outcome; it is …

To Make Heaven on Earth

Recently I heard a friend use a phrase that deeply struck me.  I don’t actually remember the context and I don’t remember anything else he said.  But that phrase lingered long after I heard it.  It really was a phrase---not even a sentence.  The phrase simply says, “to make heaven on earth.”  Since I have no clue what he was talking about, I am going to make the phrase my own and develop it in ways that make sense to me.

I am going to take it in two contexts.  One context is overtly spiritual.  The other context is to use it as a phrase that makes some sense, but actually has nothing to do with religion or spirituality.  This might be the way you would hear the phrase in contemporary culture, much like swearing might use God-language, but have no real reference to God. 

The first way this phrase can be used is the spiritual.  I prefer this one and want to spend some significant time developing it.  In this sense “heaven” normally means the place to which we (at least the good ones!) …

Opting for Social Justice

I am for social justice.  If asked whether I am for social justice, of course I would answer positively.  Even those who are against it----or who don’t care---probably would say they are for it.  It is easy to conclude it would be un-American to be against social justice.  In fact, I would guess that most of us think social justice is actually about us.  We are for social justice because we claim it is important to be just.  And part of that claim is society should treat us justly.  It is our right---our human, American right.

But I also know there are plenty American citizens who are quite sure there are some in this country who are being denied social justice.  And they are sure some of us are more privileged and that we are the ones who are not aware of social injustices.  No doubt, I know I am one of the privileged.  In fact, I have many markers or privilege: race, sex, education and so on.  I am set up for things to go my way and to get my way.  This seems perfectly normal for me …

Real and Virtual Ministry

Recently I read a book review of a new book I want to buy and read.  The book is by Deanna A. Thompson and entitled, “The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.”  It was not the book which first caught my attention.  It was the title of the review by Melissa Jones called, “Virtual connectivity helps us to attend to life’s pain.”  By now when I see the word, “virtual,” I assume it somehow has to do with the internet.  In this case I was correct, but I didn’t fully appreciate what I was going to learn.  The review started slowly.

Jones first talked about the “research-to-practice gap” that exists in health care.  Essentially, what is at stake here is the amazing research done by so many different folks in the health care world, i.e. physicians, nurses, etc.  And yet their findings do not trickle down into the actual practice with sick folks needing help.  This was an interesting point, which I had given no thought.

With this short set-up, Jones points us to Thompson’s book and wha…

Learning to be Responsive

A recent discussion in class remind me of a distinction I learned a long time ago.  I learned there is a distinction between being responsive and being reactive.  This is a fairly simple distinction, but it is a huge learning to implement.  And I do believe it was a spiritual growth issue for me.  Perhaps it is not spiritual for everyone else, but it was for me.  Being part of that class discussion reminded me that I have not fully incorporated the learning in my life.  At times I still find myself reacting inappropriately. 

The class context for the discussion had to do with emotions.  Many folks do emotions really well.  Some of us don’t do emotions well at all.  And of course, there is the big group of people in the middle.  Sometimes we mess up our emotional life and sometimes we do fairly well.  Probably I am in the big middle group.  But I am old enough to have joined the good people by now.  But I am a work in progress.

It is easy to understand the folks who react to things.  Th…

The Happiness Trap

I thought about the happiness trap as I was reading an editorial in an online newspaper.  I am aware that happiness is a big thing.  I am confident if you asked the college students I teach what their goal might be, a quick answer would be they want to be happy.  I concur.  I want to be happy, too.  I suppose any sane person would rather be happy than sad.  Happiness is a basic human desire.  The real question is how do we become happy?

The editorial I read approached this latter question in a helpful fashion, which leads me to want to share some of the insights.  Finally, for me the insights lead to some spiritual reflections.  The editorial is by Ruth Whippman.  She writes a piece entitled, “Happiness is Other People.”  This title gives away her answer, but let’s follow her argument in order to appreciate more fully that happiness is other people.

I admit I never heard of her.  So I did a quick search and found out she is a British journalist who came to this country to live in Califo…

Preparing for the Sacred

I am not sure Quakers are always prepared to talk about the sacred.  But I do think Quakers are taught fairly well to be prepared to engage the sacred.  Let me explain and elaborate the difference.  I suspect in the process of explaining and elaborating, some of you who grew up in other traditions or, perhaps, no tradition at all will find some resonance in my own experience.

First of all, I define the sacred as the Presence of God or the Holy One.  Sacred simply means the place or space of the Divinity.  In the history of religions the sacred might be a place, like a cathedral, a grove in the forest or some other shrine.  The sacred can be the object of pilgrimages.  Sometimes the sacred has been the place of healing, as well as revelation.  The sacred is opposite of the profane---which literally means “outside the temple.”

I personally like the language of “Presence.”  The sacred is the place or space where you encounter the Presence.  Often I think the Catholic Church and other tra…

Play Your Hand –Live Your Life

There is an old saying that says something like, “You have to play the hand dealt you.”  Obviously this uses a figure of speech drawn from the world of playing cards.  It could be poker or some other card game.  In card games there typically is only one winner.  The winner is normally determined by some element of skill and luck.  The skill part is obvious.  If you know the rules of poker and if you have years of experience, you are more likely to win than a novice at the game.  On the other hand, if the novice is really lucky in the cards dealt, he or she will be very hard to beat---regardless of skill.

An Ace is an Ace regardless of skill.  Two Aces beat one Ace every time!  I have not played cards for years, perhaps even decades.  When I was small, I remember my parents playing cards.  And during my growing up years, I played some cards.  That probably was more prevalent in the pre-technology days.  Most folks I know today would rather be on their cell phone checking Twitter or pla…

Taking Care of Our World

Recently I received a copy of a periodical in which I have an article.  It is always humbling when I see something in print that I wrote.  When I was taking those writing classes in high school, it never occurred to me that someday I would see my ideas in print.  I simply would have thought the writing was merely homework that was due.  In most cases I considered it a pain to write, edit and receive some kind of grade.  I didn’t think someone else might be helped by what I thought.

The journal which came in the mail is a British publication put out by the Jesuits.  I figure that is enough for a little laugh---a Quaker publishing in a Jesuit British magazine.  It certainly is not going to be widely read.  While I feel good about what I said, it will not change the world.  In some ways I am honored to be included in a publication that is not an obvious one for me, given my background. 

And so it was that I opened the journal and found my article.  They made it look good.  The editors add…