About Me

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Making Choices

Not everything I do originates in religion.  I have a variety of interests and read fairly broadly.  I have done some work in the field of leadership.  I have been a leader, but realized at one point I never read much in that area nor had any real formal training.  Thankfully, a number of the organizations I belonged to when I was a kid provided some informal training.

In retrospect, I can see that many organizations provide some role models for leadership.  Of course, not all role models are good ones. In fact looking back, I can see that some of them were quite mediocre!  But one can learn some things from people who are mediocre or, even, very poor leaders.  Of course, no one verbally announced, “ok, this is a lesson in poor leadership!”  However, everyone in the group would have known.  And I would have learned that you cannot do leadership that way…at least do it that way and be respected and effective.

I know that some leaders are leaders because they bring necessary skills to a position.  For example, when a college or university looks for a new president, there is usually a description of the needed skills.  One needs to be an effective fundraiser, strategic planner, etc.  The college or university is certainly looking for someone who is more than a nice guy or a very pleasant woman.  That quality would be welcome, but not sufficient.

So occasionally, I try to read some material in the leadership field.  A book someone has loaned me I find quite interesting.  The book has a catchy title, Talent is Not Enough.  It is authored by John Maxwell.  I have already a good idea of what the term, talent, means.  Typically talent means the skills, aptitudes, natural gifts, and training someone brings to a task.  Normally, talent means both natural gifts and developed skills.  I might be very smart, but if I have done nothing to develop my intellectual capacity, I am pretty useless.  On the other hand, someone who is a hard worker might not be sufficient for a job.  I don’t care how hard working you are, if you have not been to medical school, I don’t want you for my physician!

However, it was a different kind of thought that captured my attention early in Maxwell’s book.  At one point Maxwell says, “Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”  This sentence resonated with the way I see things.  Let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

I agree that life is a matter of choices.  Although that is true, it is not true in absolutely every instance.  Some things clearly are not a matter of choices.  I did not choose my parents nor my genetic makeup.  There are other things in life to which we could point and say, “I had no choice in that!”  But by and large, much of life is a matter of choices.

What is clever in the Maxwell quotation is the second half of the sentence.  Every choice we make makes us.  That is insightful.  And it is profound.  Essentially, he is saying for the most part we are the “authors of our own life.”  That is both scary and sacred.  And it surely makes me responsible for who I am.

It is scary to think that the choices I make form me because it means I have no one to blame for what I choose.  Let’s put that in spiritual terms.  It means if I choose never to engage spiritual disciplines, then I am hoping to be lucky to encounter God.  Or it could mean that I presume God will grace me with the divine encounter.  However, if I responsibly engage discipline, i.e. pray or meditate, then I would argue that I am more likely to find God or be found by God.

On the other hand, I find it humbling to realize the choices I make form me.  It is not only humbling; it is also a sacred responsibility.  It reminds me of a saying Thomas Merton once uttered: “I want to become a saint.”  In effect, Maxwell’s quotation would say “yes” to Merton.  You and I can also become saints.  We can choose to be holy.  We can choose a life of sanctity.  That does not mean we become holier than thou.  Nor does it mean that we become sanctimonious. 

I like the fact that I am responsible---through my choices---for what I become.  It does not mean I am solely responsible.  I also think God is a co-creator with me.  I believe God graces us through our choices (and, in some cases, in spite of our choices).  But it only makes sense to me, since I believe God endowed us with dignity and honor, to ask us to choose our own way through life. 

And because I also firmly believe in the power of community, if I am a member of a community where people are making good, responsible choices, then the power of you making your good, spiritual choice strengthens me and my choosing.  In the most profound sense, this is the experience of love.  Love is my choice, God’s choice, and your choice.  But if we are all choosing love, what can be better!  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Another Look at the Real Me

I couldn’t resist.  As I was glancing through a magazine that I read online, my eye spotted the title, “Discovering the true self in God with Merton’s guidance.”  I knew immediately that I would be reading this one.  As most folks who know anything about me know, I find the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, inspiring and instructive.  Although he died tragically in 1968 in Thailand far away from his monastic home in Kentucky, his impact on the world continues in some remarkable ways.  He certainly is one of the most impactful spiritual thinkers of the twentieth century.

But Merton was not the only lure to read the article.  The author of the article is another person I admire and follow through her writings.  Ilia Delio is a Franciscan who teaches at Villanova.  She is a widely recognized expert on science and religion.  I like reading her because she knows so much about the natural world that I never know.  And yet, she carefully tries to articulate her faith in a theology that takes seriously the natural world and, yet, honors her own Christian and Franciscan sensibilities.

As I engaged the article, I realized it was another one of the series in which famous people talk about an influential book they read that made a difference in their life.  Delio was writing about my favorite book of Merton, namely, Need Seeds of Contemplation, originally published in 1961.  Delio confesses that she discovered Merton in a laboratory.  In her own words, “I was a doctoral student in pharmacology at New Jersey Medical School working on a model of moto-neuron disease known as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease)…”  She says she “was drawn to Merton like a magnet.”

She tells us more about Merton when she acknowledges, “What drew me to Merton (and still does) was his deep inner search for truth and light, his inner yearning for God.”  As I read on in Delio’s article, I realized what I liked was her own perspective on this favorite book of mine.  She summarizes in these words: “Two particular ideas stand out in the beginning that I think govern the flow of ideas throughout the book: prayer and self-identity.”  She was right, but I probably would have offered a slightly different summary.

I would join her in saying Merton is famous for wrestling with the issue of identity.  No doubt, this is partly true because much of his early life---if not his entire life---was spent finding out who he was at the deepest level.  Merton worked effectively with the well-known pair of ideas, namely, the false self and the true self.  When I first read him, these ideas resonated so well with me.  I realized immediately I knew a great deal about the false self.  But I was not at all confident I knew anything about the true self.

Delio continues her sharing when she focuses on the identity issue.  “Often we think of ourselves as finished products, as if God created us and then disappeared.  But Merton…realized how short-sighted this thinking can be.  The "I" is not a finished product, something left over from God's creative activity; rather it is the very process of God's creative action.”  I find this perspective makes a great deal of sense.  I don’t think I ever assumed I was a finished product.  I am willing to assume there is some core “me.”  Perhaps there is an enduring “me” that gets lived out in this body and with this mind throughout my earthly life.  If this is in any sense accurate, I am assuming that is what Merton meant by the true self.

As I said, however, I know more about my false self.  I know that person I tried to be.  I know the many masks I have worn during my lifetime.  I can tell you about the persons I have tried to be to please others---my parents and other people.  These masks were not dishonest, but they were not the true self.  That quest---like Merton’s quest---has been my spiritual pilgrimage over the past few decades.  And Merton certainly has been a help, as Ilia Delio helps me.

Further into her article, Delio says something that I found very perceptive.  “The search for true identity requires an honest self-love.  Love of self is not selfishness but a humble recognition of our lives as true, good and beautiful.”  I am not sure I ever would have come up with that on my own.  True identity requires honest self-love.  It requires that we see ourselves as true, good and beautiful.  I wish someone had told me that a long time ago.  But in many cases, I think people find that hard to believe and, perhaps, even harder to do.  But until we get that right, it will be hard to get anything else right.

Delio adds one more thing, which she would be confident is Merton’s sense.  “Without real love of self, all other loves are distorted.”  Perhaps this explains why so much love today is messed up love.  There is so much messed up love because people don’t know about honest self-love.  Instead of honest self-love, we go looking for self-love in the love of others.  And it just doesn’t work very well.

I thank Thomas Merton and his interpreter, Ilia Delio, for giving me another, fresh look at an old personal issue for me.  It is the question of identity.  Who am I really?  Who is the real me---the true self?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Save Me: Give Me Some Space

Recently I have been giving thought to the idea of “the sacred.”  Not long ago we had a visitor who led us into thinking about nature as sacred space.  I find that intriguing.  Since the majority of Americans are now urban or suburbanites, I don’t think we give nearly as much consideration to nature and our natural world as in the old agrarian days.  Having grown up on a farm, I know I am much less aware of and observant of my natural world.

Most of us probably don’t live very close to nature.  Of course, we are all in nature, but it often is not “natural.”  If I am honest, I leave my house and jump in the car.  If it is cold outside, the windows are up and the heater is on full blast.  Most of the time the radio is playing some kind of music.  If it is hot, the windows are up and the air-conditioner is on full blast and the radio is playing some kind of music.

I arrive at the building where I have a pleasant study and where I teach my classes.  Most of my day is spent there.  Seldom are the windows open.  It can be sunny or cloudy and normally I am not very aware.  A good thunderstorm might catch my attention.  And then I go home in that same car with the windows up and the radio playing some kind of music.  And days repeat days.

The opposite of sacred is profane.  Think about the role of profanity in our vocabulary.  It contradicts the language of the sacred and holy.  How often have you heard someone lately  “bless” you?  More often, there is just the opposite.  We are “cursed!”  My interaction with nature is not profane.  It is “secular.”  Secular is the land between the sacred and the profane.  Being unaware is the most normal way we deal secularly with nature.

Obviously you and I exist in nature.  We occupy space.  But again most, if not all, of my space is not sacred.  I have a house, a car and that’s about it.  I don’t own any land.  So actually my physical space is pretty limited.  And I am not unusual.  Think about the ten million (or more) inhabitants of New York City.  They may have less than I do!

But let’s think about space in a different way than physically.  We can deal with it psychologically.  I have heard people ask to be “given space.”  If I am feeling pressured, I ask for some space.  Space is different from place.  Actually, my house is a place.  It has an address.  But is also contains space. 

So it is with me as a human being.  I occupy a place.  Right now, I am sitting in a chair while I type this.  But I also contain space.  And it is in this vein of thinking that I begin to ponder the relationship of space and spirituality.  I am convinced there are a connection and a relationship.

To help develop that connection, listen to the words of Gerald May, the late psychiatrist who was associated with a center for spirituality.  May says, “When you think about it, it makes sense that space would be intimately associated with salvation.”  With this quotation May is even more specific than my idea of connecting space with spirituality.  May boldly says space is associated with salvation---intimately associated.  Let’s follow his lead.

May elaborates by noting, “Space is freedom: freedom from confinement, from pre-occupation, from oppression, from drivenness, and from all the other interior and exterior forces that bind and restrict our spirits.”  Space is freedom.  I am sure this is also true for salvation.  I like how May defines freedom.  He uses terms that make sense for modern men and women who may be less free than we think.  No wonder we long to be saved---to be free. 

At first glance, I assume I am free.  But when I use May’s terms, I may be more confined than I realize.  Have I ever been pre-occupied?  Of course I have.  And I might live much of my life pre-occupied by various things.  Pre-occupation is not freedom and I need to be saved!  Have I ever been oppressed?  I have not been oppressed by people with knives and guns.  But I have been oppressed by a variety of other factors.  I need to be saved.

I know all-too-well the bondage of drivenness.  It is not a universal axiom, but I would guess most people who are relatively successful are driven in some way.  And too often, those who are not relatively successful are driven to be successful.  Again I need to be saved.

Save me: I need some space.  To be saved spiritually means I need space, not confinement.  I need space, not to be pre-occupied.  I need space, not oppression.  I need space, especially when it comes to my drivenness.

Ah, the grace of space…thank God!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Dorothy Day Effect

One of the periodicals I regularly read has a regular column written by various people as they reflect on their favorite books or a book that profoundly affected their lives.  These are always interesting reads for me, since I know most of the books on which they comment.  Of course, most of the books are classics or books that had become very popular in their day.  So in some cases, it is a trip down memory lane for me.
Recently, the column featured a piece by Julie Hanlon Rubio.  She was reflecting on her long love affair with Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness.  I liked the title of her reflections: “Arguing with Dorothy Day challenges my quest for a Christian life.”  The article comes replete with a great picture of the silver haired saint herself.  I like to call Dorothy Day a saint, although the Catholic Church has not canonized her.  I don’t know whether they ever will move her through the process of becoming a saint, but to me she already has made it.
I have also read a fair amount of Dorothy Day’s works.  She is probably best known as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  This included a series of houses in urban areas that fed the homeless and generally worked on behalf of those whom society has left behind.  Dorothy was a convert to Catholicism, but became a staunch woman of piety.  Her deep faith was nurtured in some very traditional ways, like daily attendance at mass, etc.  But the radicality of her faith was lived out in ways that did (and do) challenge those of us with a much less committed faith.
When I read Dorothy Day I feel like a spiritual lightweight!  But she makes me want to be more and to do more.  Although she did not die until 1980, I never met her.  As I look back on my life, I probably could have met her with just a little intentionality.  But that’s the beauty of books.  In that literary sense I have “met” her.  And I have hung out with her, listened to her and watched her.  And Rubio says, this challenges my quest for a Christian life.
I don’t want to cite many passages from Rubio’s column, but only want to use the last section of her reflection on Dorothy Day.  Rubio begins her conclusion with these words.  “Even though I have found a certain peace in my much less radical life choices, I confess to being perpetually unsettled by the beauty and hardship of Day's life.”  That expresses nicely my own sentiments.  Dorothy Day can be perpetually unsettling with the beauty and hardship of her life.  That does not mean it is a bad thing.  In fact to be unsettled by the beauty of someone’s faith is a good thing.  I appreciate it, although I am unsettled.
Then Rubio commences her final reflections.  I quote her final words.  “This is what I love about Dorothy Day: her relentless quest for a moral life shaped by a vision of radical discipleship and by novelists whose stories captured what is true and beautiful, and what it costs to be a Christian.  Because I started reading her nearly 30 years ago, and keep reading her even now, my quest to live a Christian life is much more difficult, and for that I remain ever in her debt.”  Let’s unpack Rubio’s reflections.
I like the way Rubio describes Day’s relentless quest for a moral life shaped by a vision of radical discipleship.  It is clear that Jesus and other religious giants did see that a moral life was core to the spiritual journey.  And in the case of Dorothy Day’s take on Christianity, it was a moral life shaped by her vision of radical discipleship.  She thought she was doing nothing more than following the lead of Jesus and how he shaped his life.  That was her commitment and that is her challenge to all of us who are tempted to domesticate and water down the message.
Like Rubio, I have probably been reading Dorothy Day for thirty years.  I had to laugh when Rubio confesses that her reading of Day made her own quest to live the Christian life more difficult.  With a domesticated Jesus and a watered-down message, it is easy to be a disciple.  All we have to do is mutter a prayer now and then and maybe toss a few coins into the coffer or help a good cause from time to time.  But Dorothy Day makes that approach pitiful---as it indeed is.
Rubio concludes the little reflection with a perfect take on Dorothy Day.  As challenging and troubling as she is, Day is the kind of saint that forever puts us in her debt.  Fortunately, reading her presents and represents the challenge that won’t go away.  And we can thank God for that---assuming we, too, want to be children of God and disciples of the way that Jesus followed.  That is the Dorothy Day effect.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Truth and Power

As often as I am on the prowl for the new and interesting events of the day to see where spirituality is at work, I am just as often very content to stay with the daily lectionary readings for inspiration.  Perhaps this is like a two-handed approach.  On the one hand, I watch for spiritual novelty.  I think God continues to work in our world doing new things, if we but had eyes.  I try to use my eyes to catch these new things.  On the other hand, there is the traditional---the oldies, but goodies.  God is just as much involved in speaking through tradition if we but had eyes to see.

So today it is the traditional that spoke to me.  When I use the daily lectionary---the daily readings provided by the monastic community---I start with morning prayer.  If I were really at a monastery, these would be the hymns, scriptural readings, and prayers that the monks would chant and say.  I can’t be at the monastery every morning, but I can participate in what I know they are doing.

Today’s morning prayer opened with a familiar prayer---the one they pray to open every morning time of worship.  And then comes a hymn.  This morning’s hymn particularly spoke to me.  Allow me to share the first stanza and then to reflect on it.  The hymn begins as if it were a prayer to God:

Creator of the earth and skies,
To whom the words of life belong,
Grant us thy truth to make us wise;
Grant us thy power to make us strong.

To address God as Creator is one of my favorite ways of greeting the Divinity.  I do think of God as Creator and as creative.  If forced to try to explain how God creates, I find myself on shaky ground.  I do not take the Genesis creation story literally.  I don’t think God used seven literal days to create the world we know.  I trust the scientists who tell me the story of evolution.  Somehow I think God created in an evolutionary fashion.  And if that is true, then God is continuing to create.  I actually think that is cool that God is still creatively at work!

God is the creator of earth and skies.  That says to me that God is the Creator of the entire universe.  And it is to that creative God that “the words of life belong.”  That phrase is a little harder to understand.  In the first place the words of life may well be a reference to that Genesis creation account where God “speaks” the creation into existence.  In that account God keeps saying, “let there be” and, lo and behold, there was! There was light; there were animals; there were human beings.  And it all was good!

The last two lines of the hymn really caught my attention.  Both of these lines are petitions.  One line asks God to “grant us thy truth to make us wise.”  The first thing to strike me about this is that it is a prayer of the community.  It is not the lone individual sitting with this request.  The line uses plural language---grant “us.”

Grant us truth.  Yes, but the real request is to become wise.  And we become wise by learning and knowing the truth.  I suspect this hymn is talking about a particular kind of truth---a spiritual truth.  It is not the truth to be discovered in a laboratory, but rather a truth that is discovered in the heart.  What kind of truth would this be?

One aspect of that kind of truth that makes us wise would be the truth that God is love.  And our Divine calling is to know this love, to embody this love in our actions in the world so that we might become peacemakers.  Just think what a different world this would be if we all could know, accept, and live this truth.  Heck, we would have a difficult time finding a war in which we could fight!

The last line of the hymn is also a petition: grant us power to make us strong.  I like that request.  I doubt the hymn writer meant physical power.  This is not a call to hit the weight room and develop muscles.  I think the writer is talking about spiritual and psychological power.  Probably it is the power to live out the truth, which God will grant us.

It is the power, which strengthens us to be strong in a principled life.  It will make us strong in the face of temptations to lie, cheat and steal.  I know I am tempted to lie to myself---to pretend to be who I am not.  I am tempted to cheat.  I can cut spiritual corners and hope “God understands!”  I am capable of stealing.  I don’t steal money.  But I might steal someone else’s rights, privileges, and due rewards.

So Lord, grant me truth and power.  And grant me the chance to grow into both your truth and power this day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Calls or “the Call”

It seems like all one has to do is pay attention and potential themes for spiritual inspiration and reflection daily jump out at you. One way of saying it is religion is always in public life. Sometimes it is explicitly religious and other times religion is in the public life, but it is implicit. When it is implicit, you have to be alert and pay attention or you’ll miss it.

Such was the case yesterday when I was reading an article online. Gradually it dawned on me what I was reading was implicitly spiritual. It was an article by Andrew Keen, a British-American entrepreneur and social skeptic, as he was called. That description of the guy nearly stopped me in my tracks. I understand an entrepreneur, but social skeptic? That is an interesting vocation!

The article is entitled, “How our Mobiles Became Frankenstein’s Monster.” I hope it is clear that “mobiles” means our smartphones. For a long time, I could laugh at this one. I did not have a smartphone and did not plan to buy one. Wrong again! I remember making a joke that I had a “dumb phone!’ Well the joke is on me. Now that I have one, I figured I had better read the article with some care. After all, who wants Frankenstein’s Monster in your pocket?

As I began to read, I thought the article was going to be more psychological. Keen talks about whether folks are able to live without the device. Psychologically this sounds like the opening to a lecture on addiction. Listen to his words. “Exaggeration? When was the last time you went out without your smartphone? How naked, how lost, do you feel without your mobile device? How much essential data, I mean really personal stuff that you wouldn't want anyone else to see, does your mobile phone contain?”

It was there in those words I began to see the implicit spiritual material. Notice how he talks about our state of being without our mobile. He uses language I associate with sin: naked and lost. That sounds like Adam and Eve in the garden after munching on the forbidden fruit. Maybe my smartphone has become the proverbial apple!

I was now very intrigued. I read on. I had to laugh. These gadgets are not called “smartphones” for no reason. Once again, I was on the lookout for religious language. Keen says, “The real problem with these phones is their increasing intelligence. Just as Google is designing the self-driving car, so tomorrow's cell phone will become more and more all-knowing.”

It hit me squarely. The author speculates on the smartphone becoming “all-knowing.” That sounds like God-language to me. I certainly don’t think about myself as all-knowing. My mind is too frail and feeble ever to make me think I know everything. I am a limited human being. And so is every other human being I know. But if any one or anything is all-knowing, it is God.

So if the smartphone approaches being all-knowing, then we would start attributing god-like attributes to that device. That sounds to me perilously close to idolatry. Who needs to listen for God’s call on my life? I prefer to get a phone call, email, or text message and get the “word!’ In fact, there are multiple calls on my smartphone. That is even better than God! And the connection is almost always good.

There is a conference happening in Barcelona, Spain, that precipitated Keen’s article. He refers to this event when he notes, "All the coercively seductive new products unveiled in Barcelona in the next few days are just phones. They can't make us younger, richer, more virile or more intelligent. And they certainly don't empower us.” Now here is some spiritual sanity that I can grab. Be careful about the addictive, idolatrous call of my smartphone. It can be seductive! But it cannot make me younger or richer. It has no chance of making me more virile. It may be a smartphone, but it won’t make me smarter.

Just as the Old Testament folks had to be careful and distinguish the real God from the idolatrous gods, so do we in the twenty-first century. I begin to ponder this. If I am always connected---always getting calls, texts, etc., then I have little or no chance of receiving the one call of God on my life. So what difference does this make?

A big difference, I would argue. If I am intrigued and trapped by all the calls, I am probably trading the important for the interesting. Of course, I find all the little calls interesting. They may even be entertaining. But are they important? Perhaps. Are they ultimately important? Of course not. There is only one ultimately important call. And that is God’s call on your life and on my life.

Monday, January 23, 2017

On Care for Our Common Home

On a recent trip to China, I was reminded of one of Pope Francis’ first public documents.  That may seem like an odd way to begin an inspirational reflection, so let me explain.  I was in China with my friend to do a seminar.  There is nothing unusual or inspiring in that, I grant.  I travel with him fairly often, but normally it is not to China.  The trip was uneventful; we did what we planned to do.  Of course, being in a very different culture, as China is, leaves a profound impression on me.  But I don’t even want to talk about that.
What I do want to discuss is the air pollution I experienced.  Of course, China is not the only place on earth where that happens, but rarely have I been somewhere the air is so markedly unhealthy.  I was lucky.  Much of the week I spent inside a comfortable hotel.  And I was in Shanghai, which is usually not the worst place in China.  Typically, Beijing is worse than Shanghai and other industrial cities are even lower on the “awful meter.”
Rather than bash the Chinese for messing up their air, I recognize we are all polluters of our world.  And I am one of those who think it is real and who thinks it can become quite serious.  And I am also one who thinks about this in spirituality terms.  And that is what reminded my of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato Sì, which he issued in May, 2015.  The Pope has done some important thinking on the climate problem and I want to return to that document to pick up some points.
What most readers won’t recognize is the title of my inspirational piece is actually the subtitle of the Pope’s encyclical.  It puts the climate issues in spiritual terms: on care of our common home.  The earth---indeed, the entire universe and world, however big it is---is God’s creation.  Our earth is our common home.  This is difficult to remember in our culture where we have ownership perspectives.  For example, I think I own my own home.  I don’t think about it being God’s!
I love how the Pope opens his encyclical with the words from his namesake, Francis of Assisi.  The earlier Francis “reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”  I like his use of two feminine metaphors to describe the earth.  But I first note his use of the adjective, common, to talk about the earth.  The earth---our home---is common to all of us.  Even if I think about owning my own home and the land on which it is built, I have to recognize this is folly.  Of course, I can legally claim it; I can sell it, etc.  But spiritually speaking, it is not “mine.”  It is on loan to me from God.
Pope Francis clearly articulates the climate change issue in the second section of the encyclical.  “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”  I see significant spiritual insights here.  Let’s explore those.
In the first place the Pope our sister now cries out to us.  That is a great way to describe the experience I recently had in China.  As I was outside in the polluted air, the earth-sister had my attention.  It was easy to see she was sick.  The paradox struck me that her polluted state was because I and millions of Chinese and people from all around the world had polluted her.  The Genesis creation stories talk about God creating the earth and declaring the earth to be good.  We have polluted this good earth.  And now she is sick. 

And some of us don’t even believe that.  But if you had been with me that recent day in China, there is no way you could argue the earth is fine and dandy.  Even if the sun were shining that day, it would have been impossible to see it.  Pope Francis is right: we have inflicted harm on sister earth because of our irresponsible use and abuse.  Spiritually speaking, God’s gift to us has been abused.  Because we often call it “our own,” we feel like we can do anything we like.  And slowly the gift is turning to poison.

We could say that is nothing to sneeze about---but it literally is something to sneeze about and cough about and so on.  A sick earth will make us sick.  In China that day it was undeniable.  And yet, the world rushes on in our own unchanged way.  It makes me wonder how much more will we inflict, only to have it inflict more on us?  The answer seems clear to me.  And it is a spiritual answer.

The way we deal with pollution is purification. This is true of water and it is true of sin.  But before purification works, change has to happen.  That seems to be where we are now: facing a problem, but refusing to change.  It is time to change.  It is time to care for our common home.

Friday, January 20, 2017

When God Is Needed!

One of the things I most like about writing this inspirational thing is how it forces me to live life more attentively.  I do not know of any major spiritual tradition which does not say one needs to live attentively.  The other amazing thing about myself is how easy it is not to live attentively.  This is probably true for many of you, too.

It is easy for me to fake out myself.  If I am not thinking about it, I assume that I would be living attentively.  If I am honest, I have a pretty high view of myself.  By that, I don’t mean I am a walking, prideful, arrogant guy.  I don’t think that.  By having a high view of myself, I mean that I see myself as pretty capable---pretty “with it” when it comes to functioning in the world. 

At one level this is probably true.  I am educated at a level higher than the average American.  By now I also have lived long enough to have accumulated significant experience.  And the list goes on.  What I have achieved has been a mixture of some ability and, surely, some luck.  That is not different than most people.

But having a high view of myself means I can fool myself.  Instead of living attentively, I might be prone to live more selfishly.  Instead of being open to what is, I might see things from a warped, self-centered perspective.  That does not mean I see things wrongly, but I do often warp the way I see things.  And this is contrary to a truly spiritual way of going about life.

So that’s why I like this discipline of writing.  It forces me to live attentively---or, at least, to try to live attentively.  That includes a fairly broad range of things.  I pay attention to people, to situations, and many other things.  Another key place for me to pay attention is reading pretty widely.  When I do this, I find interesting and, sometimes, challenging ways of understanding myself and my world.  And yesterday I hit one of those interesting things.

I was reading an interesting online article, entitled, ““What Atheists can Learn from Religion.”  It is written by a British atheist, Alain de Botton.  But he is an open-minded atheist, which attracted me to what he had to say.  I wanted to be open to how he would challenge me.  Basically de Botton says he does not believe God exists, but understands those situations when God is needed.

For example, de Botton says that  “God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions…do not go away…”  Clearly, I am not in the same boat as de Botton.  I do believe God exists, although that does not solve the urgent issues any more than de Botton’s atheistic starting point.  Oddly enough, the point is not whether God exists.  The point is urgent issues exist and those issues demand resolutions.

So what would these issues be?  De Botton does not cite them, but it seems easy enough to identify a few of them.  They are the “big” issues of our world.  One issue is the whole global warming phenomenon.  Of course, I know there are many people who do not believe this is an issue.  And lucky for me and sad for the world, I probably won’t live long enough for this to affect me.  But with luck, my little granddaughter can live until the next century---yes, until 2100!  Will she be so lucky?

De Botton and I both would agree that God will not step in and magically change the global warming situation.  De Botton does not think there is a God and I don’t think that God works that way.  Global warming is a human problem that we have the God-given ability to resolve.  But will we?

This brings me to another quotation of de Botton.  I like him because he can admire the strength of religion.  He says, “Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture -- a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history.”

I love the way de Botton affirms the “sheer conceptual ambition” he sees in religion.  That gives us God-believers a mighty challenge.  We need (along with God’s help) to continue changing the world.  How about working for world peace?  How about raising the standard of living of the poor and derelict in our neighborhoods and in the far reaches of our world? 

I am bold enough to believe that we can pray the Lord’s Prayer and actually mean it!  Let’s boldly pray that “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done.”  In our religious boldness let us begin to pray that prayer and to do that work of Kingdom-building.  This is truly when God is needed.  And I believe I and you are needed, too.  Let’s go!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Night God

As part of my daily discipline, I try to follow the lectionary reading.  A lectionary is a pre-selected series of readings.  The one I follow from the Benedictine monastery has morning prayers, evening prayers, night prayers, etc.  If one knows anything about the monastic life, one knows that monks follow a daily regimen that alternates worship and work.  In fact, for the serious, classical monks there are seven different periods of worship throughout the day.  And this pattern is repeated day after day.

To live your life with this kind of schedule is bound to shape you in ways that most of us are not.  For example, contrast your daily schedule with that more worshipful structure of the monks.  Even though my daily schedule can be fairly busy and, in some ways, pretty structured, it does not approximate the monastic life.  Of course, my goal is not to be a monk.

But a monk’s goal is not to be a monk either!  The monk’s goal is to live life in such a way that the monk is living in and from the Presence of the Divine One.  I once read Thomas Merton saying that the goal of the monk is to be a saint.  I would amend that to suggest the goal of any of us is to become a saint.

Now of course, when one thinks about becoming a saint, it cannot mean that we come to live perfectly sinless and mistake-free lives.  That is likely not humanly possible as long as we are in this body in this world.  So to be a saint cannot mean being perfect.  Being a saint means one is living in and from the Presence of the Divine One.  As such, Love becomes the goal of life.  And Love is the motivation of life.  And Love is the resource of life.

If this is my aspiration, then how will I best tap into that Love---that goal, that motivation and that resource?  The simple answer is through worship.  And that worship surely has to be scheduled and perhaps structured.  In many ways this is funny coming from the pen of a Quaker.  Quakers tend to be wary of schedules and structures.  We want to say that we can worship any time we want to worship.  And we can do it any way we want to do it.  

That is true, but it also means I have to do it.  I truly may not need a schedule or a structure.  But I need the discipline to do it.  And that is where the lectionary comes in very handy---even for this Quaker.  I may not need schedule and structure, but they surely can help on a daily basis.

So I use the lectionary.  For example, the evening reading for last night came from Psalm 16.  The evening reading prepares one for the night---that time of darkness and transition to a new day.  I like the words found in the middle of that Psalm.  The Psalmist says, “I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding; even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.”  I resonate with that.  Thanks be to the God who gives me understanding.  And glory be that during the night I can still be taught wisdom.  I can joke by saying, “Good night; I am going to wisdom school!”

The Psalmist continues: “I will hold the Lord for ever in my sight: with him at my side I can never be shaken.”  There is a peace and calmness that comes to the one who can read these words of the Psalmist and take them to heart---let them become part of that night-time wisdom.  The Psalmist says it effectively.  “Thus it is that my heart rejoices, heart and soul together; while my body rests in calm hope.”  That is the nighttime gift.

With this kind of assurance, we can go to bed and go to sleep.  I am comforted by the fact that with God at my side, I can never be shaken.  It does not matter that I go into the darkness of the night.  I can never be shaken.  I am in the hands of the Night God.  My body can rest in calm hope.

I will be carried in that calm hope throughout the night.  In fact, in the night my heart will be teaching me wisdom.  There is no fear.  In this calm hope I do not fear for I know that I have a future.

I am grateful for the lectionary leading me into these kinds of places where I encounter the Night God.  On my own I do not do as well.  I realize I am aided by a schedule and a structure.  I am helped to know it is time for the evening reading.  It is time for the structure of the Psalmist’s words.  Theologically I can affirm that God is always ready to reach out to us.  But too often, I need a prompt.

I need the lectionary to tell me it is time.  I need to be led into the Psalmist’s words and reassurance that the God who is ready to meet me is the Night God who not only will meet me, but also take me calmly through the night! 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hearts That Speak

I do not usually read books looking for quotations.  But inevitably a phrase or, even, a whole sentence will jump out at me and I know it is a “keeper.”  Sometimes, I do not even know for sure why it is so important or why it captivated me.  I am convinced that sometimes I am captivated and, then, I have to figure out why that is the case.

Just such a thing happened recently as I was reading a book that is being used by a group of which I am a participant.  Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life, is a good read.  I confess that I like Parker, that he is a friend of mine, and I am biased to like whatever he writes.  But that confession does not mean he cannot say important things and everyone would agree.

The phrase that jumped out to capture me comes in a chapter he entitled, “Active Life: The Shadow Side.”  Thinking about the shadow side does not entice me.  In fact, I find it a bit foreboding.  I don’t have doubts that I have a shadow side.  To be honest, part of me really hopes it stays in the shadows!  But I also know that is not the way to grow and deepen in the Spirit.    But most of us would have no clue how to find the shadow side, even if we acknowledge we probably “have one.”

So Palmer gave me a clue.  The shadow side is typically (in my understanding) seen as bad news.  It is something that may be negative---something we are “stuck with,” but would rather not have.  The only way we “get rid of” it is to face it and deal with it. 

But I get a different take from Palmer’s one-liner.  He says, “It often takes years for our hearts to speak, and when they do we often cannot hear them…”  I know exactly what grabbed me.  It was that phrase that suggests our hearts speak.  Clearly, that is metaphorical.  I know the organ beating in my chest does not speak.

But wait a minute, I think.  Of course, the organ in my chest does not speak---speak with real, vocal words.  But I do think it speaks.  Sometimes, it speaks literally.  Ask somebody who has just experienced a heart attack and see if she or he would not claim the heart spoke loudly!  Ask someone who has fallen heads over heels in love if their hearts are not speaking?  Their heart literally throbs in the absence of the beloved.

But surely, there is also the metaphorical “speaking” our hearts do.  I think Palmer suggests there is a true inner voice inside each one of us.  It is our “true self” that Thomas Merton and so many others have claimed we possess.  It is the Divine Voice within---the Divine Whisper.  But it is like the shadow self.  It is there…but hidden.  It is obscured by the self our society and culture require us to be.  Our true self may never see the light of day.

The question is: will I ever truly be me?  My answer is a resounding “yes.”  But it is not automatic.  I have some work to do to get in touch with the true self.  I know that true self is the “heart speaking.”  I am convinced everyone has a “heart speaking.”  Some of us don’t listen.  Some of us hear it, but choose to ignore it.  But it “speaks.”

The place I have to be most careful is not to assume my heart is the same thing as my ego.  I know all too well what “ego speaking” sounds like!”  Seldom is “ego speaking” the same thing as my “heart speaking.”  In ego-speak there usually is no Divine Voice involved!

So my quest (and even prayer) is to turn down the ego-speak volume.  I want to be quiet, pay attention, and begin to catch the utterances of my heart speaking.  I am confident it speaks.  I am hopeful I can hear it.  And I dearly want to practice what my heart speaks. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Already There

I was innocently reading along in the textbook for the next class and I hit an arresting line.  Before sharing that line, let me give you the context.  The book I was reading is one of my favorites.  It is by Richard Rohr and entitled, Everything Belongs.  I find the subtitle quite interesting: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.  It certainly is that, but it is so much more.  In some ways, the book is a spirituality primer.

In a chapter, which Rohr titles, “Vision of Enchantment,” he charges that we modern people have a problem.  He says, “We have to accept that we share a mass cultural trance, a hypnotic trance.  We are all sleepwalkers.”  In many ways this is hard to believe.  I do not generally think I am in a trance.  I certainly do not think I am hypnotized.  I often have wondered what it would be like to be hypnotized, but so far have not stepped forward to let someone do it to me.  So I find it strange to hear Rohr tell me culture has already done it to me!

Rohr sets this context because he wants to get to the main point, namely, we need to learn to see.  Of course, that may strike us as odd since most of us think we see and, perhaps, see quite well.  I may not be 20/20 now, but with my contacts and glasses, I do very well.  I see fine.  What does Rohr mean when he says that we need to see?

In an ironic way Rohr has brought us to the doorstep of religion.  Boldly, he says, “religion is really about seeing.”  So there, I think.  If I can get my mind around that sentence and learn to live it, I will have full understanding.  That may be true, but it is going to take a little more pondering---and maybe praying.  So let’s ponder---and pray---and read a little further in Rohr.

If religion is really about seeing, that must mean, according to Rohr, that we don’t really see.  We don’t really see what’s there.  Like someone with cataracts, we have distorted vision.  That is exactly what Rohr is suggesting.  We see, but we don’t see clearly.  To see in a distorted fashion is to be misled.  Seeing what’s there is key.  Seeing clearly what’s there is imperative.  So what’s wrong, according to Rohr?

Rohr shows me, at least, my cultural distortion.  He says, “We’re used to focusing on attainment and achievement, a sort of spiritual capitalism.”  From here Rohr leads us around an analytical corner to begin to show us how to see.  He reminds us that religion is about seeing.  And then he affirms that spirituality is “not about earning or achieving.  It’s about relationships rather than results or requirements.”  Let’s unpack this to see the deeper truth that he is revealing.

I think it is a fair critique that many folks may see religion as a kind of attainment or achievement.    And why wouldn’t we?  We live in a capitalistic society.  We prize “working” on things.  It does seem like things often have to be achieved or attained.  “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” is a line I have heard many times.  “You get what you work for” is another one-liner that often is used.  That might be true---or sometimes true---in the financial, work world.  But is it true in the spiritual realm?

Rohr does not think so.  What if God leads with grace?  What if God’s first offer is gift, rather than expectation or demand?  Indeed, in the spirit of Rohr, what if it is already there?

What is “it” in that last sentence?  Rohr suggests, and I agree, that “it” is nothing less than God’s Presence.  It is the very Divinity Itself.  We don’t create it; we don’t fabricate it,  It already is there because God is always everywhere around and surrounding us.  We bask in this Presence and are bathed in it.  Sadly, we usually are not aware of it and, therefore, don’t know it.  And that’s where Rohr’s profound insight comes to the fore.

If God is always and already there, then spirituality is about relationships, not results or requirements.  That is why it is first and foremost about faith.  Faith is the way humans form relationships with God.  And faith grows into love.  Love is the faith relationship lived out deeply and passionately.  And hope is the love of faith lived out in the sure and bold knowing that God is already there and we, too, are “there” with God.

Maybe that is why the Psalmist was so quick to say Hallelujah!  Maybe that is why men and women of God are so ready to say Praise---praise God from Whom all blessings flow.  No wonder we have a hymn of that title!

I will admit it is taking me some time to wrap my mind around Rohr’s perspective.  I think I may be, in part, a spiritual capitalist.  Perhaps I am too good with attainment, achievement, results, and requirements.  My spiritual development may well be an exercise in awareness.  Wake up to the fact that it already is there!  Hallelujah!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Vicarious Spirituality

It hit me as I was reading the first journals handed in by students in a course I am teaching.  Although I generally don’t think about it this way, I realized in a way I am forcing students to engage spiritual issues.  “Forcing” is a heavy word.  It makes me a little uneasy when I see myself as being “forceful.”  After all, I try to make my classes as full of choice and voluntary as I can. 

I am forcing the students just because they are taking the class.  I suppose if one is going to be forced, this is about the most benign way force can happen.  I certainly am not coercing any of them to take the class.  But if they sign on for the class, then they are going to have to engage in some spiritual exploration and spiritual work.  The hope is that engagement will lead to spiritual growth and development.  I do not map out what the spiritual growth and development has to be.  In fact, different people will develop in very different ways.

It hit me that I ask the students to engage a spiritual process and assume that there will be some spiritual growth and development, but I do not necessarily go that route myself.  Instead, I can vicariously participate in their growth and development.  Maybe I should pause at the word, “vicarious.”  I know I never heard that word when I was growing up.  Maybe I learned it in college.  But perhaps I never really encountered it until graduate school.

Basically, “vicarious” means that one experiences something sympathetically through the experience of another person.  It means that I do not really go through something; I go through something by watching someone else go through it.  For example, I might think about being involved as a princess in a royal wedding by watching the royal wedding at Westminster with one of the English royalty.  I am a princess vicariously.

Perhaps a more common vicarious experience comes in the sports world.  So many parents are involved vicariously in their kids’ sports.  We want the son to be a world-class quarterback on the football team so that father figures can be that quarterback vicariously.  Countless sons and daughters have suffered from crazed sports parents who are living someone else’s dreams.

This is what hit me, as I was reading those journals.  I have little question but that they are experiencing some significant spiritual upheaval, growth, development, and so on.  Their journals ring with authenticity, honesty, and hope.  Many of them come alive.  They face problems and, sometimes, conquer fears.  Occasionally someone even goes through heroic struggles only to emerge as a saint-in-the-making.  Truly sometimes the process is amazing.

My concern is that I am doing spirituality vicariously.  I am having spiritual experiences vicariously through the experiences of others.  It is easy to kid myself that great things are happening in my life.  It may actually be that nothing is happening in my life---certainly not great things.  But great things may be happening in the student’s life and I participate vicariously.  Their experience is real; my experience is a facsimile.

We don’t use the word, facsimile, any more.  Instead, we use the word “fax.  I can send you a “fax” if you give me the phone number.  A “fax” is an exact copy.  In the business world that is efficient and effective.  Send me a “fax” and I have the document and can proceed.

But in the spiritual realm, I need to be wary of the “fax.”  If I am participating vicariously in someone else’s spiritual experience, then I am “faxing.”  I have a copy of their experience, but it is not real---it is not the original!  It is a cheating way to be spiritual.  It is a pretension.  It is a kind of spiritual voyeurism.  It is spiritual plagiarism---spiritual copycatting!

I want to be able to enjoy the power and profundity of the college-age student on his or her own spiritual journey.  But I don’t want to take the easy way out and become spiritual only vicariously.  I want to engage my own journey.  I need to suffer my own pains and setbacks.  I need to experience my own mountaintops and glories.

I want to be free to support the other people’s spiritual odyssey, but not neglect my own.  I revel in the fact that I get to read about their experiences.  But I need to attend to my own.  I want to be able to give what I ask for, namely, to engage, reflect, and live into the fullness of all God wants us to be.

God does not want me vicariously---no vicarious spiritually.  God wants the real me and the real you.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Spirituality and Serenity

Occasionally, I run into a quotation that I want to embrace, ponder, and keep in mind.  I know there are some of my favorite authors who often provide just such a quotation.  They are dependable friends, if you want to put it that way.  Many of them I have never met, but I feel like I know them.  And I am always quite happy to invite someone else into that circle of people who offer memorable things for my life.

One such author is Rollo May.  I feel like I have known Rollo May for decades.  I probably first bumped into his writings in the 1960s.  I really don’t know how many books he has written.  I have encountered him in articles, in interviews, and other venues.  I have never met him.  Some day, maybe, in this life or the next phase of life---whatever that is---we will become friends.

Some twenty years or more ago, I encountered May’s book on beauty.  I liked the title: My Quest for Beauty.  Part of what attracts me to this work of May’s is the fact that I really don’t know much about beauty.  I am not quite sure why that is.  I could blame it on my farm upbringing.  Or maybe it is simply the culture in which I grew up.  I don’t even recall people in my family using the language of “beauty.”  Of course, I heard people talk about a physically stunning person as “beautiful.”  But even then, it would be more likely to hear someone say that person was “pretty” or something like that. 

When I encountered May’s book, I knew he was talking about beauty at a whole different level.  Rather than physical looks, May was diving into the philosophical, aesthetic, and sometimes, religious levels of beauty.  I began to read with curiosity and with joy.  The sentences rolled by my eyes and I began to feel like I was encountering beauty for the first time.  I was learning.  Often, I felt challenged.  But I read on.

I love it when I come to a sentence that stops me in my tracks.  For example, I felt stopped when I read the following sentence.  “There is also a cultural reason why we do not talk much about beauty.  Our culture worships change.  As Don Michael puts it, we become bored instead of serene…”  I am sure I was grabbed, in part, because May was giving me a reason why I felt so culturally out of it when I thought about beauty.  It was nice to have a reason.  I thought perhaps it was just I!

Even in the 1980s, when the book was published, May could say that our culture worships change.  How much more so now!  When we think about how quickly our technology changes, we sense even more the pace of life in our worlds.  I never thought about a culture worshipping change, but I can understand it.  I think about my pre-computer days.  Having a typewriter was a big deal.  And then came the electronic typewriter.  And probably about the time May was writing his book, the first computers entered my life.
I certainly am not the first adopter into the technological evolution, but I do adopt.  Then came the internet.  And now if the internet is “too slow,” I complain bitterly!  Where is beauty in all this?  I am not concerned with beauty.  I want speed, efficiency, etc.  And that is precisely where May’s book and his focus on beauty is so compelling, even though it is arresting.

May comes to his punch line with his quotation of Don Michael.  With our cultural worship of change, we become bored instead of serene.  That is a powerful statement for me.  How many times I hear students and others complain of being bored!  By this, they usually mean, “nothing is happening,” or the like.  Seldom is this seen as a spiritual issue.  But I actually believe boredom is often a spiritual issue.  In the spiritual literature of early monks, boredom was know by a technical term, acedia.  This could be translated as apathy or lethargy, but boredom is as good a translation as any.  So what’s the antidote?

Serenity.  I think serenity is a beautiful spiritual word.  But it is more than a word.  In fact, it is more than an idea or concept.  Serenity is an experience.  It is closely related to joy.  It is akin to the feeling of peace and contentment.  As a spiritual experience, serenity suggests to me an at-one-ment with the world, with others, and with God.  In a word it is a “unity” with self, others, and the Holy One.

Having put it this way, one gets a profound sense of how beautiful this is---beauty not in the physical sense, but in a deeper spiritual sense.  Serenity is an acceptance of things as they are.  It is this contentment with who one is and how one is with the Divine One.  Instead of boredom, serenity gives rise to gratitude. 

Although I still feel like a beginner, I would like to cultivate beauty in my life and the world around me.  I would be open to the serenity that likely comes from spiritual beauty.  And I want to be appropriately grateful for the Divine gift of spirituality and serenity.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Look for the Doorknob

I am aware that I have three consistent teachers of spirituality.  Two of them are pretty obvious: other people and books.  In fact, books really are other people, but most of them I have not met.  Some of them are deceased---maybe long-ago dead.  Others are people who are living, but I have not met them.  I value these teachers very much.  I am always open to meeting new ones, so that my learning can continue.

The third teacher is also fairly familiar in the literature of spirituality, but this teacher often is not recognized or overlooked.  This teacher sometimes goes by the name of nature.  However, I like to widen it beyond nature.  Too many times folks limit nature to the outdoors---to trees, water, etc.  Those are very valuable, to be sure. 

Instead of just saying nature, I like to mention the third teacher as my natural and normal surroundings.  This obviously includes the outdoors---the winter snows, the lovely sunsets, the soothing ocean.  But my natural and normal surroundings also include things indoors.  That is where I go for the content of my title: “look for the doorknob.”  It probably is not self-evident what meaning is behind this title.  So let us proceed.

It hit me last night or early in the morning as I made my way in the pitch black of night from my bedroom to another room.  I could have turned on the light, but chose not to do that.  I knew the room to which I was going would have a closed door.  Even though I know the layout of my place, I proceeded slowly.  I don’t know if that is what it is like to be blind, but I certainly could not see.  That meant there was a looming door and I needed to watch out.  However, it is tough to watch out when you can’t see!

So I did what most folks probably do.  With extended hand and arm, I felt along until I contacted the door.  I reached for the doorknob, turned it, and entered the room without a second thought.  What I did I have done a hundred times, if not more.  It seems perfectly natural and normal---as I said, I did it without thinking. 

But then, I began to think about it.  I began to reflect and realized I had a nice little parable of spirituality.  I certainly would not claim looking for the doorknob is the key to spirituality, but it can be a viable method to discover and develop spiritually.  I find it reassuring that method is natural and normal.  Just look for the doorknob.

Of course, when I use that phrase---just look for the doorknob---I am speaking metaphorically.  The image of a door is a familiar one in spiritual literature.  Clearly, a door is an opening---it is a way from one room to another, from one place to another.  It is a different kind of opening than a window.  Normally, we don’t walk through windows; we do walk through doors.

Even though the door is an opening, it might not always be opened!  Often doors are closed.  So it is in my spiritual experience.  Often I am closed off from where I can or want to go.  There is a door, but it is closed.  Does that mean there is no hope?  Of course not!  Does that mean there is nothing I can do?  Of course not!

It is obvious that when the door to spiritual growth and development is closed, we should simply open it.  But what if it is “nighttime” in our spiritual life?  The sun may be shining brightly outside, but spiritually it might well be pitch black.  In that case I can’t even see the door---I cannot spot the opening to spiritual growth and development.  I am in the same situation as I was last night as I felt my way along the hallway to the other room.  I had to feel my way to the door.  So it likely is with my spiritual pilgrimage.  Sometimes I have to feel my way.

If I do that, I will come to the door.  Spiritually the door may be closed, as that door was last night.  So like last night, I will have to look for the doorknob.  It might seem odd that I use the verb, “look,” when it is pitch black and you can’t see a thing.  But there are others ways to look than with one’s eyes.  Feeling your way---seeking the doorknob with our hand---is a form of “looking.”

The spiritual doorknobs we find that will open doors can be varied.  A tried and true one for me is simply to take some time to meditate---to reflect or maybe even pray.  Busyness is a door that I close myself off from the spiritual reality.  I speed along through my life, but I am unconnected and not spiritual.  I have slammed the door shut on my own growth and development. 

When I come to my senses, I realize spiritually I am in the dark again and I want to find that door.  And I realize I may have to look for the doorknob.  It can be fairly simple.  It does not require a miracle.  It simply asks for a little intentionality and a bit of courage to walk through the night, look for the doorknob and go on into the other place.

Spiritually speaking, that other place will be a place of spiritual growth and development.  It will be a place of spiritual nourishment and nurture.  It can be a place of community and communion.  All you have to do is go through the doorway.  But sometimes you may have to look for the doorknob to open the door.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Second Coming

I suspect some readers are going to see this title and have certain expectations.  Some will be disappointed that I am writing on something like this and may never read it again.  Others will be so happy and, then, when they read it, will likely be disappointed.  And they may never read again anything I write.  So indeed, this is about the second coming, but probably not in the traditional way people associate with that idea.
I did not set out to write this little inspirational piece.  But the idea was dumped into my lap---or my mind, as it were.  I am part of a group that meets weekly and explores spiritual issues.  It is a group that has been meeting for many years now, so it is not unusual to get personal stories emerging out of a discussion about some issue.  Most of them are important, because the people are important.  But most of them do not provoke me to write about it.  The one shared recently moved me to reflect and here it is.
The story was a wintertime story and actually was pretty hair-raising.  A good friend in the group was sharing about her travels to Florida soon after the first of the year.  As might be expected, she left in the cold of winter and looked forward to getting to the southern part of our country to enjoy the warmth of those southern latitudes.  However, it was fraught with some tricky weather.
About half way through the journey, the roads precipitously got slick with the ice that formed.  She and her companion slowed and were ready to push on.  Coming upon a semi going very slowly, they responded accordingly.  Soon however, the semi-truck began a slide and moved gracefully to the side of the road.  They were ready to swing left around that ditched truck, only to find another semi enters its slide.  Danger that truck came to a halt perpendicular to the other semi now grounded at the side of the road.  There was no way around.  They were trapped---knowing other cars, trucks, etc. were heading down the highway ready to hit the ice and maybe them, too. 
Not long after they stopped, they noticed a pickup truck approach.  I was listening to the story, but without too much engagement.  And then my friend described the guy get out of the pickup.  Apparently, he got out, filled some bags with sand and put it around his truck.  And then he began to do the same for all the cars now stranded behind the two trucks.  What was going on?
Her description of him brought me to full attention.  She said, “our savior with a San Francisco 49’s coat and a cowboy hat got out of the pickup truck and made people safe.”  I almost laughed out loudly.  Maybe it is because I have a warped mind, but it struck me funny that this could be an offbeat way to describe the second coming!  And it is certainly a different version that any I had heard.
No doubt, what triggered the association in my mind was her use of the word, “savior.”  Of course, that is a descriptive term often applied to Jesus.  Christians are used to hearing and using such language to describe who Jesus was and what Jesus was here to do in our midst.  It is typical in certain Christian circles to hear language such as, “Jesus came to save us from our sin.”  My interest is not to get into whether this is true or not, but to understand it as one way to understand how God is involved in our world trying to make things better.  I have no doubt this is what Jesus was up to.
The traditional Christian teaching suggests that the saving work of Jesus continues after his own death.  And more conservative Christianity follows the lead of the last book of the New Testament, namely, Revelation, that at some appointed time, Jesus will return to the earth and finish his work.  This is the second coming.  What was funny in my friend’s story is seeing this second coming as some guy in a pickup, cowboy hat and 49’s jacket.  That is not the usual image of Jesus in his second coming.
I could have laughed and left it at that.  But maybe there is an inkling of truth here.  Maybe Jesus does come again every time someone acts on behalf of others.  Maybe every loving act---redeeming some sin, evil or disaster---is a manifestation of the second coming.  Maybe instead of one big, last act, it will be a series of mini-actions in multiple places in a variety of times.  Who is to say how God may come again and again?
It makes me wonder if the second coming is nothing more than every disciple and every person in the world choosing to follow his example and be part of the power of love in our world rather than participating in the power of the problems of the world.  Our work is to be redeemers and not ridiculers.
I know how the book of Revelation talks about it and I am not saying it is inadequate.  But I also wonder if there is not more to the story than simply waiting for Jesus to come back again to end this mess.  Maybe those of us who are in the middle of the mess can do our saving part right now.  We may not need a pickup truck, 49 jacket and cowboy hat, but we can go into those places of sin and danger and work to make folks safe.  It becomes a nice metaphor for the work of salvation.    

Monday, January 9, 2017

Killing the Future

One of the major days in the Christian calendar is Epiphany.  For virtually all the Christians I know, Epiphany is not as big a deal as Christmas.  It is hard to gauge how significant Christmas really is because of all the hype and commercialism that goes with the Christmas season.  In fact for many people, there is no religious significance to Christmas.  It is merely a long shopping time, which begins in late October and reaches a crescendo by the Christmas Day itself.  Of course, I am not recognizing the authentic meaning and depth Christmas has for so many people.
Epiphany is different.  While it is less than two weeks later than Christmas and, indeed, is now the bookend to Christmas itself, it is far less known and probably less celebrated.  In fact, many Protestant traditions do not recognize nor celebrate Epiphany.  Growing up as a Quaker, I never heard of it.  I am not sure when I first heard the word.  Churches that are much more liturgical, i.e. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, etc., were aware of Epiphany and would have celebrated it on January 6 or the Sunday closest to that.
What I learned when I studied religion is the background and meaning of Epiphany.  I also learned that within the Orthodox tradition, it was the day of the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus.  In the Greek tradition the word for Epiphany day is theophany, which literally means “manifestation of the divine.”  The Christmas story we hear on December 25 is the story drawn from some of the Gospels, namely, the account of the baby Jesus born in a manger, etc.  But that is nothing else than a particular narrative form of God’s manifestation.
The key idea of Epiphany is that God is here and God is visible---you can actually see what God is like and how God works in the world.  That is the role of the life of Jesus---his life is the epiphany, the manifestation.  I must admit when I learned this kind of material, it made the whole Christmas season much more understandable and relatable.  I will confess that I actually like Epiphany more than Christmas itself.
Like all of the major holidays in the Christian calendar, Epiphany has its scriptural basis.  In this case it is the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  This is the story of the three magi or kings, as it often is called.  That chapter opens by telling the reader Jesus had been born in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod.  The three magi came from the East to see the baby and “king of the Jews.” (Mt 2:2)  The presence of these wise men from the East raises concerns in Herod’s mind, so he summons them to help him find this new little royal figure. 
The story concludes with the wise men making it to Bethlehem and offering the three gifts---gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Of course, no kid has a clue what those last two gifts are!  And then, we are told the wise men are led to go home via a new way in order to avoid King Herod.  As such, the story ends on a high note.
Rather than commenting on that high note, I am intrigued by the fearful figure of Herod.  Herod is King and he does not want to share that nor does he want any threats.  To hear there is a new king born raises alarms.  I am assuming Herod is significantly egocentric, so this heightens his wariness.  As King, he controls not only his own future, but also those of his people.  He wants it that way. 
So the story that follows the Epiphany text is quite important.  At some point Herod knew the wise men from the East were not coming back to work with him to destroy the new little “king of the Jews.”  So Herod ratcheted up his manipulative plans.  He decreed that all kids two years and under around Bethlehem be killed.  A friend of mine says this was Herod’s plot to kill the future.  I couldn’t put it more starkly.
This is always the threat to God’s presence in our world.  The threat is to kill that presence, in order that our own agendas can go forward.  Especially for those of us who are egocentric and more controlling of our futures (and sometimes other folks’ futures, too), God’s presence is a threat.  It threatens to seize control from us and provide other people and other programs to go forward.  What happens if I am not king?
I find this sobering because I realize how easy it is to kill my own future.  I can do it by a million ways.  I do it by staying in control of my own life, instead of obeying the leading of God’s presence in the world.  And I am sure I have intended to kill the future of others.  For that I am sad.  No doubt, I have attempted to be god in their lives.  And when I am trying to be god, Epiphany is not good news!
So I appreciate Epiphany.  It is a reminder that God is with us.  And since it includes the Herod story, it is clear reminder of my own petty tendencies to control, manipulate and mess up my own future and, often, that of others.  I welcome again the good news of Epiphany.

Friday, January 6, 2017

To Be Human

The most recent essay by Thomas Friedman is thought provoking, as his work usually is.  It is one I have given some thought.  He focuses on the twenty-first century technological revolution that is happening in our midst.  If we have even a smidgeon of awareness, we can know it is happening.  But so often we ignore the most obvious signs.  One of the unmistakable signs is the amount of shopping that folks are doing on the Internet.  All the so-called big box stores and the smaller mom and pop stores struggle to compete with the new elephant in the room.
What I enjoyed about Friedman’s reflection was his sense of where this is taking us.  Part of the intrigue is his account of visiting his former teacher, Dov Seidman.  Seidman’s first words, which Friedman shares, are unnerving.  “What we are experiencing today bears striking similarities in size and implications to the scientific revolution that began in the 16th century…The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, which spurred that scientific revolution, challenged our whole understanding of the world around and beyond us — and forced us as humans to rethink our place within it.”  With these words I knew where Friedman was heading.  The last part of Seidman’s quotation gives us the clue: “forced us as humans to rethink our place within it.” 
The stakes are even higher in this present revolution.  In the 16th century humans knew they had a place in the world; the question was “what” was their place.  As Friedman clearly shows, the present question confronting humans is “whether” they have a place.  In some ways this is even more dramatic.  In the 16th century humans at least knew they could think.  That set them apart from everything else in the world. 
But now computers think better and faster than most of us.  Our computers talk to us and figure out our issues sometimes before we know we had issues.  Most of the time this is exhilarating and sometimes just funny.  But it also can be scary; most of us don’t want to go there!  Friedman faces the issue head on and put it in a way I can understand and see the potential for what is coming.  And in some deep way it is a spiritual issue.
Friedman states succinctly what is at stake: “The technological revolution of the 21st century is as consequential as the scientific revolution, argued Seidman, and it is ‘forcing us to answer a most profound question — one we’ve never had to ask before: ‘What does it mean to be human in the age of intelligent machines?’”  Simply, the question now is what does it mean to be human?  This is a generic question.  The specific question is: what does it mean to be me?
This sounds like a basic identity question.  It is an identity question with two key levels.  For the second time in history humans have to deal with both levels.  The first time humans really did not have to deal with it.  God dealt with it for them.  I am thinking about the creation accounts in Genesis.  The most familiar line in those accounts says that God created human beings…male and female, God created them.  And the other part of the familiar line is the affirmation that God created humans in the “image and likeness” of God. 

That is a special status---being in the imago Dei, the image of God.  The most noteworthy thing is this image and likeness of God is not equated to the fact that humans are thinking beings.  That is not what makes us special.  And this is the key.  Now that computers are thinkers, too, that does not make them special in the same way we are special to God and within our world.  This is where I rejoin Friedman.

Friedman gets his cue from his teacher: “The answer, said Seidman, is the one thing machines will never have: ‘a heart.’”  I like how he, then, amplifies this.  “It will be all the things that the heart can do…Humans can love, they can have compassion, they can dream.  While humans can act from fear and anger, and be harmful, at their most elevated, they can inspire and be virtuous.  And while machines can reliably interoperate, humans, uniquely, can build deep relationships of trust.”  This is a powerful way of describing the new way to answer the question, how are we uniquely human?

This helps me loop back to the Genesis story.  Maybe the image and likeness of God are “heart” focused, not head focused.  Or maybe the focus is simply shifting.  It does not matter to me.  I had to laugh when Friedman talked about “hired hands” and “hired heads.”  Manual labor required hands.  On the farm we actually called them “hired hands.  And certainly companies have hired brains to do things.  Dov Seidman says now the quest is “about creating value with hired hearts…”

When it is put this way, we can see the value of spirituality.  This is the arena that deals with heart-things: passion, compassion, empathy, etc.  If we can grow into these, we can grow as human beings.  It can be an exciting world to be human.