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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

From Me to We

Community has always been important to me.  But it is more than just an idea.  Community can be an experience.  I have been fortunate to be part of a number of communities.  Community is more than a group.  I have also been part of many groups, but they were not communities.  I could probably list a few characteristics of community.  Among them would be care for each other, etc.  However, detailing the list is not important here.

I have also been fascinated with the process by which community is formed.  At the beginning of every new semester, I tell the students that I hope somehow through the course of the semester we can form a community.  In most cases the students do not know each other.  The only thing they have in common is they go to the same college.  I think I have some ideas about community formation, but I certainly do not think I am an expert. 

I received another insight into community and community formation when I was re-reading a book by my friend, Alan Jones.  It is a book I have often used in classes.  I like the book very much and have told Alan that it is my favorite book that he has written.  The book bears the title, Soul Making.  I also like the subtitle: The Desert way of Spirituality.

The insight came when I read these couple sentences.  “I have to learn that my ego is not my real and best self.  The ego is not the soul.  I am, paradoxically, most myself when I can say ‘we.’”  Although on the surface Jones’ words do not seem to be dealing with community, I contend that they are directly about community.  Let’s pursue it to see how this is the case.

The first thing that Jones contends is crucial to understanding what he wants to argue.  My ego is not my true or best self.  This can be both confusing and disappointing.  It can be confusing to those of us who have not thought about ourselves very much.  The word, ego, gets used in our culture, but perhaps many of us don’t really understand what it means.  Literally, the word, ego, is a Greek word.  It appropriately is translated “I.”    So the ego is “I” and “me.”  It would seem that this would describe my true and best self.

But of course, Jones says it does not.  The trick here is to observe that Jones shifts to the language of “self.”  Apparently, the ego is not the same thing as the “self.”  This is where I can well be disappointed.  It suggests that “I” may be less important than my self.  Put simply, this means what I want is not always legitimate or appropriate.  We can get a good take on this if we see the tendency of the ego (the “I”) is to put itself in the center.  When that happens, we say that I am now “egocentric.”  Of course, we all have enough experience in life that we are wary when someone is egocentric!  If I am egocentric, then I am the center of the world and you are not!  If I am egocentric, then I try to get what I want and I don’t necessarily care about what you want.  Egocentrism is independently and individualistically driven.

But ego is not the same as my true or best self.  My ego is not the same thing as my soul.  I am ok with true self and soul being synonymous---being the same thing.  This point brings us back to Alan Jones’ quotation and his insight.  He said that I am most myself when I can say “we.”  I like this, but I need to reflect on it to understand why I like it.  In my simple understanding, Jones is asserting that I find and become my true self when I am in the midst of community.

Another way to put it is to say that becoming truly and authentically part of a community means we have to check our egocentrism at the door. To be a real member of community means I have to put the community ahead of my own needs and desires.  To be a real member of a community means it goes to the center and not my ego.  In a fancy way we can say that the true self is commune-centric and not ego-centric! 

No wonder so many people want nothing to do with this approach.  We prefer egocentrism.  We prefer to get our way---to get our desires and fulfill our wants.  What we don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) is that egocentric living typically is selfish living.  Communal living asks us to become selfless and give up our selfish ways.  That is a tall order for the typical American!

The only sure way I know to make this move is to embrace the spiritual.  To become spiritual is to discover the self and to become soulful.  That is the key to Jones’ book---soul making.  The only other option is egocentrism, which is nothing less than pretending we are each our own gods.

But if we begin to walk the spiritual path, we begin to understand the wisdom of Jesus, of the Buddha, and so many others saints in various traditions.  We get a glimpse of the spiritual path if we pay attention to the words in the Lord’s Prayer---not my will but Thy Will.”  That is the prayer of the soul in search of community, not the egocentric petition of the selfish one.

Spirituality enables the move from me to we.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Theology as Metaphorical Meat

Recently, I read the account of a Spanish-speaking conference held at Boston College.  The focus of the conference was the Liberation Theology movement associated with Central and South America.  I know something about this theological way of making sense of God, humanity and our world.  That theology came on the scene about the same time I was in college and graduate school.  It grew out of the political and economic situations of the Americas that in some ways I could say I knew about, but didn’t really know. 

Liberation Theology has not always been kindly looked upon by the officials within the Catholic Church.  This is not surprising, since the Church often was implicated because they sided with the power structures in Latin America.  Too often through the later part of the twentieth century, the political power structures of various countries had policies that oppressed the poor and marginal folks.  Women were too often harassed and other minorities suffered as well.  The original Liberation theologians took the side of the poor and marginalized and claimed that is where Jesus also would be found.

Fast forward to the Boston College conference---held entirely in Spanish---and we see the same concerns that fed the original movement.  And this time there is an Argentinian Pope Francis, who certainly knows about Liberation Theology.  He would have been not only aware of it, but would have been influenced by it as Archbishop in Buenos Aires.  Indeed, there were a couple papal representatives in attendance.  And everyone had in some fashion become aware of and shared the “worldview” of the Pope.

The first day of the conference presented an iconic name in Liberation Theology.  Peruvian Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the original thinkers within the movement---and one I read decades ago---set some of the agenda for the theological meeting.  Gutierrez used an image that I liked and that forms the idea for the title of this inspirational piece.  We are told he “discussed poverty and the importance of the pastoral, quipping that "theology is like frozen meat: everything you need is there, but you can't eat it." 

I was fascinated by that image of theology.  Since I also have spent time doing pastoral ministry, I felt like I could resonate.  I have read a fair amount of theology in my time.  It can be fascinating and it can be quite complex and highly academic.  While I am glad to have that kind of theological knowledge, I also was quite aware I could not use it directly in many pastoral settings.  Picture visiting an elderly woman in a hospital who wants someone to pray for her.  She is not looking for complex theological ideas.  She wants God to come and be present to her.

That is why I think Gutierrez quips that theology is like frozen meat.  It is fine and it is nourishing.  But you can’t eat frozen meat.  It has to be thawed and cooked.  It has to be prepared.  That is when the meat---the theology---can be useful to the average person.  Liberation Theology attempts to make theology appropriate to the suffering poverty and oppression that is still found in many quarters of Latin America.  It also seeks to make theology applicable in that economic context.

I like the way Gutierrez carries the imagery forward.  He states, "If I'm hungry, it's my problem," he said. "If my neighbor's hungry, it's my soul's problem."  In much of Latin America (and I daresay parts of North America, as well) there is hunger.  Some of the hunger is literal---people do not have enough to eat.  Some of the hunger is figurative---people do not have religion presented in a way that makes any difference.  Many younger folks feel this kind of hunger.  People need to be fed---fed food and meaning.  This is something the Church can do.  But often it does not fulfill this mission.

To this point I appreciated the thinking of another bishop attending the conference.
“Bishop Raúl Biord Castillo of La Guaira, Venezuela, one of two papal delegates who are to present the group's work to Francis, reminded those attending the conference that "the church doesn't have a mission; the mission has a church."  This is profound.  The mission precedes the Church.  The Church exists to carry out the mission.  But whose mission”  And what mission?

It seems to me the answer is clear.  The mission is the job Jesus gave to the early followers and all the disciples after.  It is the same mission he had: to incarnate the Presence of God in the world and to feed, free and heal.  He called this Kingdom proclamation, but it is more than words.  The Kingdom is deeds---actions that brings everyone into healthy, healed lives.  As Bishop Castillo notes, “Mission isn't even about having more people enter the church. It's about being witness to God's love that includes all people."  I love this.

The way I see it, it is not only the mission of the Church.  It should be the mission of each of us.  Or to put it like the Bishop, the mission should have us.  When we make a commitment, we get the mission---or, better, the mission gets us!  But it sometimes comes as frozen meat---or frozen theology.  Our job is to prepare and then present the good news to a world sadly in need of food, freedom and healing.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Trapped in Normalcy

I ran across a line in one of Richard Rohr’s books that I use for a course I teach.  The book is entitled, Everything Belongs.  I have used the book a number of times in some classes.  I find it challenging, comforting, and encouraging.  It is encouraging when I read that ultimately everything belongs.  Obviously, that is pretty general.  But it is also radical.

It is general and sometimes generalities don’t mean much.  It is tempting to say, “yeah, everything belongs, but belongs to what?”  The first place in Rohr’s book where he addresses this question provides a good, beginning answer.  He says, “In God’s reign, ‘everything belongs,’ even the broken and poor parts; the imperial systems of culture, however, demand ‘in’ and ‘out’ people, victors and victims.”

When Rohr says “everything,” he means every thing.  That includes me and you.  That means all of us and all of our world (and every other world out there).  This is the radicality of his message.  It is such a radical message that many of us recoil in the face of it.  Too often, we are so much a part of what he calls “imperial systems of culture” that we can’t get our minds around a concept like, “everything belongs.”  We seem naturally to think some things belong, but surely other things don’t.  Like the systems of culture, we need victors and victims. 

This is especially true for us who are rather fortunate.  Some of us are so lucky that we are fortunate in many ways.  We are what might called multi-fortunate!  I am one of them.  I am a white male who is very well educated and nicely situated financially.  Of course, I see myself as only “slightly well-off!”  In my normal world, I do not always compare favorably to those around me. 

But all this thinking and comparing and, sometimes, complaining comes from “my reign.”  It comes from my framework of the world where there are “in” people and “out” people.  Rohr is not talking about this “reign,” this self-constructed little world of mine.  Indeed not!  Rohr’s vision that everything belongs comes from the perspective of “God’s reign.”  That is not a term used very much today.  I could substitute the idea of “God’s kingdom” for the phrase.  From God’s kingdom everything belongs.

Put that way surely will call for negative pushback from many different kinds of folks.  Put this way underscores that many of us really do work from a perspective that requires “in” people and “out” people.  “Surely,” we assert, “not everyone can be an ‘in’ person!”  Of course, I assume I am an “in” person.  I can base this claim on any number of factors.  I might religiously be an “in” person.  I belong to the right religious tradition, i.e. normally Christianity in our culture.  I can think of a number of other categories where I consider myself “in.”

That’s surely the trouble with normalcy.  Most of us define it such that we are “normal!”  I know I do.  And if I hang around with other “normal” people, then I am confirmed in my assumption that I am normal.  But that undoubtedly makes some other folks “not normal.”  Of course, they are the “out” people.  And surely, they don’t belong---everything can’t belong according to this logic.  And tragically, if I am an “in” person, I might not really care about the others---those “out” people!  I’m “in;” they’re “out;” that’s life!

This is why Rohr’s sentence so challenged me when I read it.  He says, “We are usually trapped in what we call normalcy, ‘the ways things are.’  Life becomes problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers.”   Rohr says we will never understand from this perspective that everything belongs.  Rather, he admonishes us to “be drawn into the sacred, often called liminality.”  Liminality is a fancy word meaning “threshold.”  We have to be drawn to the threshold of a different perspective---the sacred---in order to see and understand that everything belongs. 

Probably most of us don’t see things with God’s eyes---from God’s perspective. Indeed, we are trapped in normalcy.  How could we begin to see things from “God’s reign?”  Let me offer a couple small suggestions.  First, we will need a new set of eyes!  This is not a call for a transplant.  But it is a call for transformation.  We will need to begin seeing with eyes of grace and not eyes of judgment.  Of course, judgments will need to be made; it would be naïve to assume otherwise.  But judgments should lead to grace and not grief.

Secondly, we begin to see from “God’s reign” when we get eyes of love.  Our culture is pretty good with lust.  It is not always so good with love!  Eyes of love can see what is already good and affirm that.  Eyes of love can see the potential good which often is hidden or, perhaps, trapped.  The eyes of love lead to liberation and freedom. With the eyes of love, we will see that everything belongs.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mortar of Love

It is reassuring to work at a place that is supportive.  I know enough about engagement studies to know that good relationships at work not only are more pleasant, but also it enhances productivity.  While productivity is often measured in economic terms, there are also other measures.  When I think about my own job of teaching spirituality to college-age folks, it is difficult to measure my productivity in economic terms.  While I would like to think I am effective, I doubt there is an economic measurement that would confirm my effectiveness.
Part of the joy of my work is having folks help and encourage me.  One of those people happens to be president of my institution.  I was not surprised recently when I received an email from him.  What did surprise me a little was the content of the email.  It is worth noting that, although I do not work at a Catholic institution, my president is Catholic.  And he knows how much I value the Catholic tradition and how much, particularly, the monastic tradition has informed my own faith and spirituality. 
The email began with his acknowledgement that the Catholic calendar of that particular day happened to be the feast of St. Peter Damian.  I had to smile.  I am sure he is the first and only president I ever had who would know this particular piece of information.  And perhaps, he is the only president who would have cared!  Although I am not a specialist in medieval spirituality, I know a few things about Peter Damian.
I know Peter Damian was an eleventh century Italian.  He was a serious young man---a kind of John the Baptist type.  His approach to religion was pretty rigorous and, some might say, severe.  At one point he became a Benedictine monk.  Peter felt called to reform the Church.  He was strict in what he wanted from people, although he was capable of being merciful to those less fortunate souls.  But there is no doubt, he felt called to help people “shape up.”  I was intrigued that in preparation for his day, my president would be reading this saint.
His note indicated that he had come upon a sentence from Peter Damian that he knew connected with my interests and some of my work.  I was touched by this connection and appreciated the fact that he not only thought about me, but actually took the time and made the effort to share this sentence from Peter Damian with me.  Listen to Damian’s words: “Let the entire edifice that you are constructing from the living stones of the virtues be strengthened with the mortar of sincere love.”
Without doing extensive research on this passage from Damian, let me offer my own interpretation or commentary.  In the first place I think the “edifice” about which he is talking is his life and our lives.  I believe he is correct to suggest that we construct our edifice.  We make our lives by what we think, feel and act.  There is much choice in the way we build our lives, although obviously there are also things beyond our choice.  But one thing we do have a choice is whether to live life according to the virtues.
I am intrigued that Peter Damian describes the construction of the edifice of our life from the living stones of the virtues.  This makes a great deal of sense to me.  I have written on what I call the seven classical virtues: love, justice, faith, prudence, temperance, courage and hope.  As Aristotle well said, virtues “aim at the good.”  If you put together a life of virtue, you have crafted a life of character.  And character-based living is a worthy goal of every living human being.
I second Peter Damian in extolling each of us to create just such an edifice with the living stones of virtues.  I appreciate his image of a virtue as a living stone.  Of course, most of us do not think rocks live.  But the virtues are “living” in the sense they form our life but also motivate us to live virtuously.  They are not merely ideas or principles.  They are the motivation to live a worthy life in real ways in our real world. 
And Damian concludes this sentence by describing how all this hangs together.  This virtue-based life is integrated---made one---by the mortar of sincere love.  Simply put, Damian says it all works because of love.  I am attracted to the image of love as a mortar.  That mortar surrounds each particular living stone of virtue and unites it to the other, single living stones. This fits very well with the idea that God is love.  Doubtlessly, Damian had this in mind.
The last thing I notice is the adjective Damian chooses to modify love.  The adjective is “sincere” love.  We all know the messy situation with our English word, love.  People love their kids, pizza, their cars, etc.  While I like pizza and care about my car, I cannot say either involves “sincere love.”  Sincere love is a virtue and unites all virtues.  It is the love we have for God, ourselves, others and our planet.
With sincere love, we are inclined to bring all the other living stones---the virtues---to bear on any situation.  In sincere love we take justice seriously when it comes to dealing with the poor, disadvantaged, etc.  I know my own edifice is still a work in progress.  I am thankful to Peter Damian for helping me think about constructing my virtuous life and for his encouragement to make it the kind of edifice that will be hospitable to all who come to my life as a visitor.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Recreating Through Us

The title for today’s inspirational reflection comes from a sentence from my favorite Quaker saint, Thomas Kelly.  Oh, Quakers don’t actually have saints in the traditional Catholic sense.  But if we did, Kelly would be sanctified.  Clearly he was no more perfect than any other human being.  He was a man with some significant flaws, but who among us does not have significant flaws?

Kelly died in 1948 at a relatively young age.  He had aspirations to be a world-class scholar.  In some ways he was on the path to achieve some of that dream.  And in other ways, he failed and suffered depression and other maladies because of that.  He taught at a couple Quaker colleges and wanted more.  He struggled to get a Harvard degree, but that did not bring him the success he sought.  He also was spending time in pre-war Germany in the 1930s.  There he saw the rise of Nazism and the horrors that would become WWII.

Finally toward the end of the 1930s, Kelly seemed to turn a spiritual corner.  His priorities began to realign and a spiritual wisdom and depth appeared in his thinking and writing.  He delivered some lectures at Germantown Friends Meeting (Church) which were to become the published book, A Testament of Devotion, which went on to be a best-seller in the 20th century.  It is a book I have read a number of times and it still continues to shape my own spirituality.

In one of his chapters entitled, “The Eternal Now and Social Concerns,” Kelly has this sentence.  “For the Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working through those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal by the dynamic guide in recreating, through us, our time-world.”  This is such a pregnant sentence, let’s take time to unpack it and reflect on it.

I like Kelly’s many ways to talk about God.  In this case he calls God the “Eternal Now.”  This suggests to me a Divinity Who is always present and available.  I might or might not be aware of that Divinity, but It is here---eternally now.  And Kelly’s first phrase talks about the activity of that Eternal Now.  The Eternal Now is breaking into time.  Since you and I live in time---we are creatures of the temporal---that is where God breaks in to meet us. 

But there is more.  Pay attention to Kelly’s adverbs.  The Eternal Now is “urgently” and “actively” breaking into time.  That excites me.  God is not a ho-hum Divinity.  God is coming into our presence right now!  There is urgency and activity.  You think God does not care?  Think again!

Kelly is quite clear why God is urgently and actively breaking into time.  That God wants to work through those of us who are willing to be touched, taught, and teamed with each other in an important ministry.  Let’s detail that process.

God seeks out those of us willing to co-operate.  But there are some ground rules.  We need to be willing to be laid upon.  That is an odd phrase, to be sure.  But the key piece is the idea of our “willingness.”  God is not a coercive God.  God is urgent and active, but also waits for each of us to be willing.  It reminds me of that passage from one of the prophets who responds, “Here I am Lord.”  We have to be willing to have God grab hold of us.  This obviously has implications which Kelly points out.

Essentially, Kelly tells us that God who breaks into time asks us to surrender.  Now that is not a popular word in American culture.  But it is what spiritually growing women and men are called to do.  We need to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort.  In other words, we have to give up our own agendas---our own egotistical aspirations---in order to will what God wills.  And all this is to one point.

We give up our egotistical agendas in order to allow God to recreate us and through us to recreate our world.  I do think this is Kelly’s version of “thy kingdom come.”  I am confident Kelly thinks God breaks into time and touches as many of us as are willing to begin to be co-creators with that Genesis-God the coming kingdom.  That kingdom will not be Eden restored.  It will be more real, more magnificent than Eden.

I find that a compelling call.  I sense a mission beyond my wildest dreams.  Whatever role I imagine for myself cannot compare to this Divine Opportunity.  It literally is a chance to turn the world upside down and inside out.  It is a mission that goes beyond creative or innovative.  It goes to the transformative.  In that transformative mission God urgently and actively needs many of us to say, “Yes.” 

“Here am I Lord.”  Lay hold of me.  I surrender and sign on.  Not my will, but Thy Will.”  I am going to work now---the Divine Work of re-creation.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Keep the Faith

One of the things I try to do in order to maintain some discipline in my spiritual journey is to follow the lectionary of the church.  The lectionary is a set of daily readings.  I choose to follow the lectionary that I know the Benedictine monks follow.  This is a group to which I have some affiliation, so I enjoy knowing that I am doing what they are doing.  Of course, I know they are much more diligent in their discipline.  So I figure there are times their diligence is covering for my lack of diligence!
In fact, they are so disciplined, they set aside a number of different periods during the day when they stop whatever they are doing and join together in community for worship.  I cannot do all these, so I try to pay attention to the morning and evening sessions that they do.  I like the fact that every one of these gatherings include some readings from the Psalms.  I never had much to do with the Psalms as I was growing up.  I suppose that is because Quakers I knew did not pay special attention to the Psalms.
It was only when I took an Old Testament class in college that I became aware how important the Psalms were in Jewish history and spirituality.  The Psalms were the praise book of the Jewish people.  I try to remember and appreciate that when I am working with the Psalms.  For example, last evening when I turned to the lectionary reading, the first Psalm used was Psalm 86.  I would like to focus on the first two verses of that Psalm.
Let’s look at these verses and then I will offer a commentary.  “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.  Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.”  The first thing to observe is this Psalm actually is a petition to God.  The Psalmist asks God to turn an ear to the words of the Psalmist.  In fact, the Psalmist is explicit: answer me!  The Psalmist is asking the Lord to pay attention to him and give him an answer.
The Psalmist is detailed in his request.  Answer me because I am poor and needy he says.  Another translation says the Psalmist is destitute.  This suggests to me more than simply a lack of money.  To be destitute means I have no resources---financial or emotional.  I am at my wits end.  In this situation only God can answer in a way that makes any difference.  The Psalmist is needy.  To be needy often borders being desperate.  I certainly have had needs.  But I am not sure I ever have been so needy I was desperate.  I can learn from the Psalmist.
The Psalmist moves to the real request.  He asks God to preserve his life.  This is a much bigger request than for money.  His life is at stake.  No wonder only God can intervene in action.  The Psalmist offers his reason for God to save him.  The Psalmist says that he has been devoted to the Lord.  This is both honorable and laudable.  Devotion is a matter of loyalty.  It is grounded in faith.  I think everyone is devoted to someone or something.  Devotion is how we live out commitment.
Finally, the Psalmist asks God to save God’s servant.  That is an interesting way to portray the Psalmist’s relationship to God: a servant.  It is to this end---salvation---then, the Psalmist asks God to act.  Save me is the request.  And the basis for the request is the trust or faith the Psalmist has had in God.  In effect, I hear the Psalmist saying he wants God to save him because he has trusted God.
Having covered in some detail these two verses, we can step back and appreciate how the Psalmist models the faith journey.  It begins in faith.  Faith is trust in action.  Faith is a verb, although in English we need to switch to “trust” for the verb.  Faith establishes commitment.  It is our commitment that we live out our fiduciary relationship.  This commitment lived out over time is nothing more than devotion.  Devotion is disciplined commitment. It is more than theology or a set of beliefs.  Devotion is action---it is life poured out to someone else.  This is nothing less than the life of a servant.  The servant is faithful, devoted and dedicated to service.
I appreciate seeing how the Psalmist models this journey.  When I see it laid out this way, I understand more how idols work in life.  Idolatry is the displacement of God with something else.  It can be another person or some thing---like money, ego, etc.  We see the same sequence in idolatry: faith, commitment, devotion and action.  As the Jews learned long ago, idolatry, however, is not worthy of your faith and devotion.  While my idolatry may be satisfying in the short run, in the long run, there will be no salvation.  There will be no ultimate healing and wellbeing.
I appreciate this lesson.  But I also know a lesson does not mean I have learned it.  And for sure, it does not mean I can live it.  That is up to me and up to you.  But if I have not learned it and begin to live it, I can never legitimately ask what the Psalmist asked in this Psalm 86.  That is now my goal.  Goals are actualized when we begin to act.  Now is the time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cultivate Holy Curiosity

Recently I have had the pleasure of returning to one of my favorite books of all time, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  This Pulitzer Prize winning work was initially published in 1974, so it is getting some age on it.  By now it probably can be called a classic.  The first time I read it, I was captivated.  And I experience that every time I read it.  Dillard has an amazing facility with words to express and elaborate a world of nature she sees so much more intricately than I ever have seen.
Dillard’s classic is a great example of what I might call, subtle spirituality.  You read her book and God seldom appears clearly and without obstruction.  Rather God dances on the margins of her narrative about experiencing God.  God is behind the scenes.  It seems that God does not reveal as much as peek and peer into our reading of the text.  Dillard teases us with hints of the Divine.  She wants us to read, pause and reflect.  Maybe this is the way the biggest truths of life really come to us.
In my recent reading of Dillard, I was in the chapter she entitles, “Spring.”  So much of her writing can seem like some banal description of the stuff in nature.  It is easy to get bored or even dismiss her details as so much stuff about nothing.  I know this tends to be the conclusion of my students.  And in the process, they claim she is hard reading.  They are correct!   But that is where the fun begins.
We have to learn to read Annie Dillard.  We have to learn to slow down and soak it in.  I like that word, soak.  It takes time.  It requires a kind of lingering over what we read.  If God is going to peek out from the words we are reading, we cannot go so fast that we will miss the Divine hints.  A trick I have learned over many readings of this book is to pay close attention to the end of the chapter.  There is where Dillard seems to be the most revelatory.  There glimpses of God and of truth seem to be the easiest.
In that “Spring” chapter, Dillard finishes with a story with a look at monostyla rotifers!  She made me laugh when she talks about the “tiny career” of these little creatures. (122-3) She gets more serious when she notes, “These are real creatures with real organs leading real lives, one by one.  I can’t pretend they’re not there.  If I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer.”  And in this moment she sneaks in the Divinity. 
She talks about the fact that we humans were created and “set in proud, free motion.”  She assumes the same thing for the rotifer.  Then she asks about the point of it all?  For humans and for rotifers?  And boom, comes a question, which I think is a rhetorical question.  She speculates on the purpose of humans and rotifers: Ad majorem Dei gloriam?  Luckily, I know Latin: “to the greater glory of God?” is how this phrase translates. 
Interestingly, she chooses to put this phrase in Latin and to italicize it.  I can guess that to many of our ears (Catholic ears used to hearing much of Mass in Latin) this signifies holy language---the language of the Church.  I suggest this is a rhetorical question because I think she wants us to say, “Of course, we are created to the greater glory of God.”  “And so are rotifers!”  I am ok with that reason for my being.  It certainly is something to live up to.  It is a mighty calling in life.  Sadly, it is too easy to aim much lower and squander life.
Dillard is not done with us yet.  She says, “If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account.  ‘Never lose a holy curiosity,’ Einstein said…” (123)  I love that short phrase: never lose holy curiosity.  Normally, our culture simply talks about “curiosity.”  I hear this language among innovators and entrepreneurs and, certainly, among scientists in their quest for truth.  But “holy” curiosity?  Holy curiosity is my willingness to join Dillard and Einstein in chasing down new things and new truths. 

It is more.  It is my willingness to be available in those times and places where God may choose to peek out from the normal.  It is to be available when and where God may move from the margins of my world straight into the middle of my awareness so that I may see and claim the truth that I, too, am here ad majorem Dei gloriam---to the greater glory of God. 

If I can come to be clear that I am living my life to that end, I would be humbled and glorified in the same breath.  I hope it’s true.  I want to live into that truth.  And I am grateful for the holy curiosity that propels me to be in quest of that truth for my life. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Human Development---Spiritual Development

Even though I read quite a bit, there is always more to read.  In fact, I am sure I am losing ground on all the new stuff out there.  That is probably true even in the world of religion and spirituality.  I am sure there is more being published---in print and on line---than any one person can read.  Rather than get discouraged, I simply hope to get my hands on some of the good ones.

My memory may be faulty, but I recollect that some person at Harvard in the early 1700s was the last person who had read all the books in Harvard’s library.  I know first-hand the library system there is amazing.  It is (I believe) the third largest in this country, after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.  Even when I think about my little college, I realize there is no way I could read all the volumes.

However, I occasionally come across a book that I say, “I must read that one.”  This happened just recently when I was reading a review of a new book.  The book is by Edward O. Wilson.  I know Wilson’s name; he is a famous naturalist at Harvard.  Basically, he studies bugs---ants in particular.  But he has developed a phenomenal reputation as a world-class thinker and philosopher.  He is not an easy read and he is a real challenge for those of us who have some kind of religious affiliation.  The new book is entitled, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I must read that one.

Somewhere in the book he writes these sentences:  “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology…We thrash about.  We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.”  This sounds so like E.O. Wilson!  It is a great couple of sentences and engages me to ponder and digest.

Wilson thinks we need to study bugs of various kinds to understand human development.  This is not too surprising, since I know he believes in evolution.  But it is interesting that he wants to go to the bug-level instead of the usual ape.  But then we get his clue.  Allow me to quote from the reviewer of the book, Kristin Ohlson.  She says, “Wilson ascribes the evolutionary success of humans and social insects to their complex social systems, which are rare in nature.”  He coins a word for these ”insect societies,” namely, “eusociality.”  Now since I know Greek, I know the word “eu” is the word for “good or well.”  So eusociality is nothing more than good or well societies. 

That connects to human development in Wilson’s mind.  He charts the usual evolutionary development as humans wander from the sea, develop a larger brain, etc.  But then, according to Wilson, we come to the crucial developmental phase which charts our creation of eusociality.  Through the words of the reviewer, Wilson notes that “what really took humans over the threshold into eusociality was the emergence of traits that favor a strong ‘nest:’ communication, the ability to read the intentions of others, the ability to divide tasks and cooperate.”

I find this fascinating.  It does not bother me to think that we have much in common with bugs!  Eusociality is an attractive idea.  The opposite would be a-sociality or malsociality---bad or awful sociality.  Murderers, Hitler, and others fit into that category.  So I find the idea hopeful that evolutionarily we are bred for goodness.

That seems in line with what the Genesis creation story told us so many aeons ago.  We were created for goodness.  This is where I would add the spiritual dimension to Wilson’s evolutionary tale of human development.  I fear that human development is not sufficient in itself to bring us fully into eusociality.  In fact, I am convinced there is a religious idea of what eusociality would be called.  I think Jesus called it the “kingdom.”  He came to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God.  Spiritually that was a call to religious eusociality!

Jesus knew well how the Genesis story unfolded.  He knew the original couple began in paradise, but they blew it.  They sinned and were kicked out of the blessed place.  There was some atoning and restoring to be done.  That was the message and ministry of Jesus.  I suspect the same will be true for the evolving eusociality of Wilson’s vision.

In fact, I would be so bold as to suggest that world peace will come when “thy kingdom comes.”  I am not sure we can evolve (or devolve back) into paradise without the grace of that creative God who still loves us and will love us into well being.  We will need the grace to discern the intentions of each other and encourage the best.  We will need communal love to cooperate in kingdom-building.

That’s the promise of human development with the graceful assistance of spiritual development.    

Thursday, February 16, 2017

People are Like Trees

One of my favorite stories in the New Testament is a healing story.  In that story Jesus heals a blind man.  If you work some with New Testament scholarship, you soon will learn that healing blind people generally is an analogy to finding faith.  “Seeing” and “faith” make a good analogous pair.  If I can come to “see” something, then I can be said to have “faith.”  So in this healing story, the blind man comes to have “faith” in Jesus and who Jesus really is.

That’s fine, but that is not my focus for the day.  I am more intrigued with a little glitch in that healing story.  Jesus approaches the guy and touches his eyes.  Then when the man is asked if he can see, he basically says that he can see people, but they look like trees.  At that point, Jesus has to do a touch-up, so that people become people in the healed man’s eyes.

What I want to focus on in this inspirational reflection is not the healing story per se, but on the man’s response to Jesus.  In effect, he says trees are like people.  However, in this reflection I want to reverse the analogy and suggest that people are like trees.  Let me elaborate.

One of the obvious things about the spring season is how the world comes alive.  It happens every spring, and every spring I am amazed and delighted.  I love the surge of new life that seems to ebb and flow every place you look.  We are again in the midst of spring and that moves me again.  Let’s focus on the trees.

All winter the trees stand naked of foliage.  They are as good as dead.  I know we call it dormancy, but it looks dead to me!  It is almost as if the trees stand there, brace themselves and take it---take all that winter can blast their way.  But then the seasonal warming that we know as spring breaks onto the scene.  Imperceptively, the trees begin to come alive.  It is always sneaky, because you cannot see it coming.  You know it will happen, but when it is happening, you cannot see it until part way into the process.

And then in the staging of spring, buds begin to appear.  From the bud comes some really nice flowers.  Particularly, some fruit trees bear gorgeous flowers.  Every spring I fall in love again with trees.  I know the beautiful phase of flowers on the trees does not last long, but it is impressive every time.  I know the green leaves will begin to replace the flowers and I am good with that.  But I love the in-between flowering stage. 

And then the green leaves do set onto the trees.  This prepares the trees for the long haul through spring, a hot summer, and on into the fall season.  And then obviously, the cycle is set to deliver the trees back to the dormancy of winter.  The circle will come around one more time.  But in the springtime, one never zooms that far ahead.

Perhaps it is that cycle I see in trees that make them such good analogies for people.  Let’s take a closer look.  The human life-cycle is much like the tree.  The springtime of the human, as I understand it, goes from infancy through childhood.  To me the baby is much like the initial seasonal surge that spring brings to the tree.  Something is happening, but the results are hard to discern.  So it is with an infant.  A great deal is happening, but it is hard to discern.

As the infant grows on into childhood, the beautiful “flowers” appear where once there was just a bud of a baby.  The flowers are pretty; the baby-turning little kid is cute.  And then the “leaves” of the childhood come full force.  There is amazing development, growth, and vibrancy.  So much happens.  So much promise comes to the scene.  The tree and the child are both ready for the summer season of productivity.

Adolescence brims with potency.  That bleeds on into the fullness of a maturing person.  Spring/summer/fall can be a long season for the leafed tree and for the generativity of the human being.  I think about my own life and realize I am like that “mature” tree in the middle of the fall season.  The productivity begins to flag a bit and the greenness of mid-summer and mid-life begins to fade.

If the tree analogy holds, then I am headed for “ripeness.”  Let’s use this as a time to move this analogy into a spiritual direction.  We can imagine the infancy/childhood phase of spring to be that time when the spiritual seeds are sown.  When we are young, we carry the seminal potential for so much good stuff later on.  On into adolescence and early adulthood, the seeds sprout and grow into the spiritual person we potentially can be.  As we move into full adulthood and towards the autumn of our lives, we can accumulate spiritual knowledge and experience in spiritual living that can make us stalwarts of our “forest” (our community).

Many of you are in that phase now.  Do it as well as you can.  And some of us are already in that autumn or late autumn phase.  Like the trees we hopefully can bear the fruit of accumulated wisdom.  I really hope I can become a sage of the Spirit.  For when I begin to lose my leaves, I want them to be spectacularly beautiful.  Then I will be at peace as I fall into God’s ground to make it richer for the new season.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Make Love Work

I know I often refer to books and even articles I read as I get ideas to ponder in order to write these inspirational essays.  I enjoy the variety of things I read and I value the chance to reflect on them.  I am quite aware that if I did not write these essays, I would probably not take the time to reflect on what I read.  That is not bad, but I also know that I would miss a great deal.

I also have become aware that I read a whole different category of work.  This would be the pile of papers and examinations that routinely come my way.  Some of my classes have weekly journal assignments, so there is a steady stream of papers that come my way.  Some days I look forward to the reading material pouring in.  And other days I feel more like, ugh, papers again!

When I step back and think about it, I realize the students are sharing some of their more precious thoughts.  I feel privileged to be able to look into the window of their souls and glimpse their truths, their questions, their doubts and sundry other things.  In effect, I get a chance to see their souls. 

When I recognize this, I also recognize I am sharing a sacred space.  I firmly believe our souls are sacred.  And if I share something of my soul with you, I have shared some sacred space.  That deserves respect.  That merits your care in dealing with my soul.  And of course, the obligation is just as real for me.  So when the students share some of their soul, I owe them respect and care.

I felt that obligation come upon me last evening as I was reading a set of examinations.  The student actually was working on an essay from one of my favorite books, Soul Making, authored by my Episcopal priest friend, Alan Jones.  I felt like the student had grasped the essence of what Jones was saying in one of his chapters on love.  The student commented that “love requires vulnerability and the willingness to trust.”  I couldn’t agree more and commented as such on his paper.

I continued reading through that particular answer.  And then I hit a phrase that made me smile.  It was a good sentence, but I realized I had to read it a particular way in order to understand what the student was trying to say.  In effect the student was talking about how to “make love work.”  If English is your first or primary language, you probably can handle that phrase quite well.

It would be obvious to us that the word, make, is the verb in that phrase.  We are correct.   But if we look closely, the word, work, is also a verb.  Clearly, the point of the phrase is something should work, namely, love.  We “make” love work.  And for us English speakers, “love” is a noun.  “Love” is what we want to work.  So we are good to go and we probably keep on reading.

What occurred to me, however, is actually all three words could be verbs.  In the sentence I also realized that the word, “work” could also be a noun.  We use it as a noun all the time.  How many mornings do we hear people say, “I am going to do my work now?”  Perhaps I am now confusing.  But think about it.  Love and work can be nouns or verbs.  I can love or I can make love.  I can work or I can do my work.

So now go back to the student’s phrase, “make love work.”  Again clearly the verb is the word, “make.”  We may be too quick to assume the word, “love,” is a noun.  What if it were just a phrase with three verbs: make…love…work? Let’s assume that is the essence of soul work or soul making or soul loving.

Perhaps we are endowed with our Creator with that kind of charge.  We are to “make.”  This means we are to be creative.  We are to be imaginative and help God fabricate the kingdom.  I can well imagine God asking us to be co-creators of the kingdom to come.  I am good with this, but my question is how?  How do I do it?

The little phrase has already offered the answer.  We do it by “love.”  The kingdom will come when we learn to love (verb = action).  I like the idea that we all learn to “love in the kingdom to come.”  And if we can’t learn to love, we will never get the kingdom!

But the kingdom to come requires more than simply love.  It requires “work.”  I am fairly convinced that God won’t just give it to us.  We will have to work for it.  Part of the work is the love that we verbally do.  But it also requires things like the work of justice.  We cannot go around treating others unfairly and pretend we also “love” them.  We have to work to heal the injustices, heal the woundedness in ourselves and in others. 

I actually like these three words to be verbs.  Verbs are action.  I am ok with God’s desire that I make---that I love---and that I work.  I am ready, Lord.  Throw me into the Divine game---make me an active verb!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine: Sacred and Secular

One of the things I began to realize as a Quaker boy growing up in the middle of last century was that I was deprived!  When your world is small and provincial, you have very little to compare.  It is easy to assume people are all basically just like you are.  You assume most people live just like you live and have relatively the same amount of money, etc.  I figured I was normal and that was the deal life dealt to most people.  I was ok.

But then I went to school.   Back then, going to school was usually the window out of one’s provincialism.  I suddenly confronted “difference.”  Of course, I have to smile.  Back then, difference consisted of farm boy having to spend time with very small town “city kids.”  But they were really different.  They seldom wore blue jeans.  They did not have to milk cows nor drive tractors.  They did not know a bull from a heifer!  I was farm-smart, but they did not care.  They had a city, street-kind of sophistication---or so it seemed to me.  I was intrigued by them; they thought I was funny.

I learned more than a,b,c’s in school.  There would be special days that were full of revelation.  St. Valentine’s Day was one such occasion.  Very early, perhaps second grade, we had to make Valentine’s cards for all the other kids in our grade.  I had never heard of St. Valentine.  Again, I felt deprived.  I did not really know what a “saint” was.  As a Quaker, I had never heard of saints; we did not have any saints.  None of our buildings were named “St. Something.”  Once more, it felt like farm-naivete vs. urban sophistication.

I began the process of learning about the sacred.  Valentine---whoever he was---apparently was very special.  Only slowly and in bits and pieces did I begin to learn he was so special with God that he wound up playing a key, witnessing role.  The story goes that he was martyred.  He was killed for the faith.  I figured this meant he was chosen to be part of God’s All-American team!  It did strike me odd that no Quaker had ever made that team!

The other thing I remember about that early St. Valentine’s Day experience was the chocolate.  Everybody got cards and chocolate.  I admit that I rather liked the experience of getting cards---so many cards---from all the others.  Some of them were personalized.  Some girls said I was special!  Some of my little guy friends said nice things.  My heart soared.  And the chocolate was delicious. 

And then Valentine’s Day was over---done for another year.  It was back to routine.  St. Valentine had come and gone.  I don’t remember what happened to the cards and the chocolate disappeared quickly.  All remnants of the sacred had vanished.  And that’s what I thought the sacred would be: hearts, cards, chocolate and, then, nothing.

I have spent a lifetime since the second grade learning about the sacred.  The sacred has become a creator God who deals mysteriously with humans and continues to make meaning out of our messes.  The sacred is the story of Jesus appearing to reveal the power of God’s love.  The sacred is the story of people like you and me becoming witnesses to the ongoing divine love making good things out of people’s messes.

Now that I work for the sacred, i.e. God’s ambassador, I see how easy it is for folks to dismiss the sacred and go for the secular.  Let’s go back to St. Valentine.  He has lost his sacred stature.  Catholics and others are not so sure who he really was and what he really did.  If you look at the feast days for saints, he has disappeared.  As a Quaker, this does not bother me much.  I did not have him anyway!

What’s left are the cards, now the e-cards, chocolate, and hearts all over the place.  Oh I think it is fun; I still like cards.  I am all for love---even if it is only for a day! The Church may have given up on St. Valentine, but Hallmark keeps him as their February cupid.  The secular transforms a martyr into a cute little guy on a heart with a bow and arrow!

St. Valentine’s Day will come and go.  What I want to work to keep is the sacred for every day of the year.  I love the fact that our word, “martyr,” comes from the Greek word, which simply means, “witness.”  Clearly someone who is killed for the faith has paid the ultimate witness; hence, that one is appropriately called a “martyr.”  But all of us can also be “martyrs,” be witnesses to the sacred at work in and through us.

I may give a card or chocolate today.  But I will martyr myself by loving.  I want to witness to God’s immense love and infinite compassion.  I want to join all the others in living as fully as I can from the sacred center, which is that Divine Center in me and you.  In that sense I pray that this day I can be a saint---a holy witness to the Power and Presence of God.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Deep Listening

I have enjoyed reading slowly Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise.  Often I have to read books quite quickly.  I may need some information or just some acquaintance with the material in the book.  But I figure if I am reading something that is supposed to help me become wise, I should take it slowly and actually try to become wise!  I don’t know whether it is working, but I am making the effort.  I realize I did not have a wisdom baseline before I started the book.
I would like to think I have built up a little wisdom over the decades of my life, but how is one to know.  People don’t just come up and say, “Boy, you really are wise.”  In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever said, “Wow, you are a little wise!”  Knowledge is a little easier to measure.  You can take a test or something similar and know whether you actually have learned some things.
Wisdom often has to do with the things in life that are difficult to measure.  Wisdom has to do with love, faith, compassion and things like that.  I know Mother (Saint) Teresa was wise and, certainly, Gandhi seemed very wise.  Many of us know our grandparents were at least a little wise.  I know my paternal grandfather was wise and he had little education.  So he proves wisdom is not a factor of formal education.
The thing I most like about Tippett’s book is all the quotations from people she has interviewed in the process of hosting her radio show.  So many of the folks she talks to are people I know from their writings or from the news about them.  In fact there are some she includes whom I personally know.  That is always a fun read.  I have known people like Parker Palmer, Vincent Harding and others.  When I read her and meet someone I don’t personally know, I always think how cool it would be if I had known her or him.
Some of these folks I would love to meet are still living.  One such person is Sister Simone Campbell.  I know she is a member of the Sisters of Social Service.  Campbell is best known for her leading role in the “Nuns on the Bus” project.  This began in 2012 when a bunch of nuns hopped a bus and traveled around the country calling for support of various social justice issues.  Campbell is also known as the Executive Director of NETWORK, an advocacy group working for justice rights and concerns.  I see her as the prophetic conscious of the Church and American society.  She helps us see it the way it should be.
I like the snippet about Sister Campbell that Tippett has in her book.  The section I find most intriguing is on deep listening.  I know there is a contemporary movement focused on deep listening, but I don’t want to chase that here.  Common sense tells us what deep listening means.  Rather I am interested in how Tippett portrays Campbell.  Tippett notes, “Deep listening’ is a virtue that anchors every kind of love relationship and it is the compass Sister Simone cites again and again as a creative, openhearted anchor to her life of strong passions and advocacy.”
I like the idea of listening as a compass that anchors relationship---especially love relationships.  It seems true to me that love cannot really exist without some modicum of listening.  If I talk all the time---or if there is no talk at all---then surely love is not a part of the relationship.  It helps me see why and how the nun goes about her advocacy work.  This kind of listening anchor enables her to be present in a creative, openhearted way to all people.  It strikes me this could be a recipe for how we do peacemaking.  If we could even approach strangers and enemies like this, new things would be possible.
Tippett goes on to talk about Sister Campbell.  The nun “offers these lines of self-appraisal on whether one is being true to deep listening in any situation…”  Campbell asks these questions: “Am I responding in generosity?  Am I responding in selfishness?  Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me, that builds me up, that is respectful of who I am?”  These are powerful questions.  If we all ask ourselves such questions, we would anchor ourselves in love.  We would become peacemakers in our turbulent world.
If I want to make this part of my own life, I will need to listen.  I realize I am involved in countless conversations.  All around me people are talking.  Sometimes I listen; the real question is whether I ever practice deep listening?  I fear that often I hear, but I don’t listen.  Too often, I have my own agenda running instead of listening to the other.  I make myself more important than the other and, therefore, completely miss opportunities to be present for the other.
I want to ask the nun’s questions.  Am I responding in generosity?  I know what this means.  Am I willing to be this generous?  I hope so.  Am I responding in selfishness?  Sadly, I know all too well what this feels like!  Her third question is huge: am I responding in a way that builds up people around me?  That builds me up?  That is respectful of who I am?  This is where I want to be.  Now it is a matter of acting on it.  Knowing it is not sufficient. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

To See is to Live

The title of this inspirational piece is close to the old saying, “to see is to believe.”  There certainly is some truth to this old saying, but that is not quite what I want to give focus.  Obviously, believing can be very important.  And not believing might be even more important.  For example, the people today who do not believe there is a climate challenge are sadly off base.  I trust the scientists and, sometimes, I trust my own eyes when I am in a place like Shanghai, Los Angeles or almost any big city on a truly smoggy, bad-air day.
The title of this inspirational message, however, refers to a one-liner I recently encountered again in a reading of Richard Rohr’s book, Everything Belongs.  Rohr is a favorite author for me and that means I return to his writings from time to time.  His truths speak to me every time I look at one of his books.  I had occasion again to read the second chapter of Rohr’s book and that’s when I bumped into this sentence.  “Spirituality is about seeing.”
I could be cute and say that reading that sentence opened my eyes!  I don’t want to be cute, but in some real way that sentence does open our eyes.  I think it is true.  Hopefully, my reflections on that passage makes its truth come to be more obvious and clearer.  It seems certain to me that the passage cannot be read at the literal level.  If spirituality is about seeing---literally speaking---then blind people are literally in trouble.  That would mean they never could see!  At the literal level, that is true.  But at the metaphorical level that obviously is not at all true.
When Rohr says that spirituality is about seeing, we necessarily move to the non-literal level.  Early on in elementary school we learn the phrase, “I see.”  Seldom does this refer to literal seeing.  It means we understand the math problem or the science experiment.  It references a move from ignorance to some level of knowledge.  Often we use this phrase to express the insight we just gained.  Notice that word, “in-sight.”
To have insight means we are able to “look in” something and see things that may have been hidden.  Insight is a form of knowing and understanding.  It is the springboard to wisdom.  We can never have wisdom without insight.  And spirituality is the process of gaining this kind of insight, knowledge and wisdom into the way we are living our lives.  I realize it is fully possible to live without gaining any insight.  It is possible to live life only at the literal seeing level.  This is where Rohr’s further words are helpful to us.
Immediately after the initial sentence about seeing leads to living, he adds, “It’s not about earning or achieving.”  I wince a little when reading this sentence.  So much of American culture is a rewards-based culture.  Work hard and reap the benefits.  Study hard and you will succeed.  Take care of yourself and you will live a long and happy life.  Indeed, there are many more of these kinds of platitudes that govern our lives.  Of course, most of them contain partial truths and are worthy of being heeded.  But life comes with virtually no guarantees.
True “seeing” gives us the clues to authentic living.  With this kind of seeing, we are able to live lives of meaning and purpose.  Our lives have a point and are worthwhile.  We don’t feel like we have wasted or been wasted by life.  There is a reason to get out of bed, embrace the day and live fully.  We all know people who manage to pull off this kind of life.  Too often, it only elicits jealousy.  We find reasons to be dismissive of these kinds of folks.  They are lucky or privileged in some ways we aren’t.  We complain about our own fortunes. 
Instead of figuring out how we can come to “see,” we may sulk and grump that life sucks.  Complaining usually means I don’t see.  And hearing this likely makes me mad or even more grumpy!  Rohr adds another helpful thought.  Spirituality is about seeing, not earning or achieving.  He nails it for me when he comments, “It is about relationship rather than results or requirements.”  I could nod my head to this notion, but realize it flies in the face of what I heard---either explicitly or implicitly while growing up in the church.
I am not sure it is fair, but my memory tells me the spirituality I heard while growing up had a great deal to deal with earning and achieving.  In this the religious message seemed all too like the school message.  Work hard.  Be obedient.  Be a good boy.  Don’t rock the boat.  These kinds of phrases and more tumble out of my mind.  None of them are bad in their own right.  But I am not sure they helped me orient myself in such a way to “see” and to begin to gain some insight.
I am confident my growing up years worried too much about believing and not enough about living.  Of course, they wanted me to live rightly.  But this often meant following rules and standards, which often looked too much like cultural norms rather than spiritual truths.  Rohr and people like him helped me get radical.  I did not get radical like some of the others in the 1960s.
I wanted to get radical in the deeper meaning of that word: getting to the root of things.  For me that meant getting back to the radical message of Jesus and the women and men of my early Quaker tradition.  They could teach me again about life, not just doctrine.  I am still learning to see that I might live.   

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Merciful God

What a good deal, I thought: a merciful God.  This idea comes from the opening line of one of the Psalms used in today’s lectionary reading.  Actually, it is the opening line to one of my favorite Psalms, namely, Psalm 51.  The main reason I have liked that Psalm is the Psalmist’s petition that God create in him a clean heart.  I love that image---a clean heart.

Certainly one of the ways our spiritual tradition has talked about sin---or going wrongly---is as “dirt” or “dirty.”  To sin is to soil oneself.  It soils the purity of the heart created by God and the pure heart in relationship with God.  But the sinner is the one who leaves this pure relationship to go out and play in the mud of the world.  Maybe I always resonated with this image because I grew up on a farm.  I was always close to the earth.  And I knew what it was like to get dirty.

However, I think I was often too quick to get to that passage in the middle of the Psalm that I never lingered long enough at the beginning of the 51st Psalm.  In fact, there is where the Psalmist sets the context for all that comes later.  And central to that context is God’s mercy.  I am not so sure people today really understand the concept of mercy.  We are more used to talking about grace.  So let’s consider the idea of mercy.

The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, is very instructive.  It actually is a compound Latin word, that is, made up of two words.  The first word is miser, which means sad, unhappy, wretched.  We get our English word, “misery” and “miserable” from that word.  The other word, cordia, is the Latin word for “heart.”  So misericordia---mercy---means having a heart for the sad one or the wretched one.  It was when I saw that meaning that I began to grasp more fully what mercy means.  And I especially saw the power of it when I am told that God is a merciful God.

Let’s reconnect to the idea of getting dirty---sinning or going wrongly.  It is one thing if we have literally been playing outside in the mud.  We simply come inside and take a shower.  And then we are clean.  But what if this dirt is symbolic?  We have said that sinning is getting dirty.  No longer is a shower sufficient.  We cannot wash away the symbolic dirt---the sin---with a shower.  In fact, there may be little or nothing we can do to get clean.  In this sense, we have become wretched; we are sad and unhappy.  What can we do or where can we turn?

The spiritual answer is simple: the mercy of God.  The good news is that God is a merciful God.  That God is the One who has a heart for the sad and wretched human being.  Let’s see how the Psalmist puts it.  The writer of the Psalms says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy…”  There is some very profound theology affirmed in this single verse.  Let’s look deeper into what the Psalmist has declared about God.

In the first place the Psalmist appeals to God to be merciful.  In my mind this means the Psalmist assumes God is a God of mercy.  I would agree.  That is how I see God.  To be God is to be merciful, I would claim.  Mercy is part of the Divine nature.  God has a heart for all God’s people---all of us.  God created us, God loved us, and God is merciful when we go out into the sinful world and get dirty.  I can try to put it in a funny way by saying when we get dirty and hurt, God does not bomb us, but balms us.  I don’t know whether “balm” can be used as a verb, but I do know that God offers the balm of mercy when we are hurt.

The next thing that impresses me about the Psalmist’s words comes when he locates the source of God’s mercy in God’s steadfast love.  Theologically, I would put it this way: because God is Love, God is therefore merciful.  We can unfold this idea even further.  Mercy is God’s love worked out in the world.  Mercy is God’s love when God reaches out to those of us who are sad, unhappy, and wretched.  Instead of saying, “Go to hell,” God says something like this, “Come to me, all you who are sad, and I will give you mercy.  I will draw you into my loving arms and give you peace.”

I think God’s mercy is much more than God simply saying, “Oh, that’s ok.”  Often the mercy God extends to us comes in places where it’s not ok.  If we have sinned or been involved in wrongdoing, it is seldom ok.  Mercy is much more than the superficial, “it’s ok.”  To be shown mercy is to be loved instead of being let off the hook by the simple “ok.” 

Hearing the simple, “it’s ok,” lets me off the hook.  I can walk away.  But mercy puts me on the hook.  Mercy puts me on the hook of love.  To be given mercy asks me to respond in kind.  If I am given mercy, I am given love and an obligation.  I am asked to engage again in the relationship.  Instead of walking away, I am to walk into the relationship of love. 

And if I lovingly re-engage God and all of God’s people, then I also take on the capacity to be merciful.  I also will be asked to work out the love of God in the acts of mercy I offer to the sad, unhappy, and wretched around me.  Thank God, Merciful God!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Hospitality: Making Friends from Strangers

I am a Benedictine oblate.  When I was a Quaker kid growing up in rural Indiana, I would not have known what either of those words means.  I am sure I never heard about “Benedictine.”  I would not have known they were monks.  If someone had told me that Benedictines were monks, I am not sure I would have really known what a monk was…or did!

After too many years of school and a great deal of experience in the ecumenical and interfaith worlds, I know much about Benedictines and about monasteries.  Benedictines are monks (men and women) who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict was an Italian Christian who lived in the late 5th and early 6th century.  It was a time of turmoil in the so-called “barbaric” period of the early middle ages.  The Roman Empire had fallen a century earlier.  All of Europe was politically, economically, and socially a mess.  Benedict wanted to find a way to practice his faith in a serious fashion.  He found many local churches wanting.  In many cases they were merely Christian institutions with little of God’s Spirit blowing in their midst.

So in effect, he withdrew from the crazy world.  He followed the lead of earlier monks in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Those monks had despaired of the climate and culture of the late Roman Empire.  They withdrew to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to look for God and to be found by God.  They were not interested in fame and fortune; they wanted only to be found in the presence of the living God.

So Benedict formed a community of people who wanted to live this kind of “desert spirituality.”  It was an idea, which struck a cord with countless people and still does in our own time.  Benedict wrote a Rule to give guidance to his community.  Benedictine monks still follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  In simple terms an oblate is a “lay” monk.  He or she “offers” his or her life to a similar quest for God’s presence.  Obviously, one does not have to be Roman Catholic to be an oblate.  And I don’t have to join the monastery and move in.  But I do “join” in a comparable quest---to the best of my ability.

One of the key tenets of the Benedictine way of life is hospitality.  Early in Benedict’s Rule, he tells the monks that they should be hospitable---hospitable to anyone who comes their way.  The rationale for this hospitality was not to be nice.  It was to receive every person---friend or stranger---as if they were Christ Himself.  If you do that, you will not recognize Christ when He comes into our midst!

I found myself very attracted to that perspective and attitude.  Could I learn to live so openly?  Could I grow into such a state of hospitable receptivity?  I want to do it and as an oblate I at least am committed to practicing it.  I may not be very good at it yet.  And I will never be a professional like my Benedictine brothers and sisters.  But I want to do the best I can.  I always look for help.

And then help came.  Recently in a book I am reading, I found a nice chapter on hospitality.  The author, Jana Riess, has been significantly influenced by St. Benedict and the Benedictines. In that chapter I encountered a good definition of hospitality and what it does.  This was the kind of help I am happy to be given.  Riess says that “Hospitality is about more than seeing to visitors’ nourishment and comfort, although that’s a hugely important start.  It’s about welcoming the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange.  He or she becomes known as a person.  When that happens, lives can be changed, friendships formed---even wars averted.”

I find that thoughtful and quite helpful.  I like how Riess extends the definition of hospitality beyond seeing to a guest’s comfort.  That probably is the minimal.  But Comfort Inn does as much.  But they charge for their hospitality!  And they provide no community nor nourishment.  If I offer hospitality, I offer it free of charge---or minimal charge.  I try to offer comfort, to be sure, and nourishment, if I can.  Often this is a meal or a cup of coffee.

But hospitality is more than this.  I love her line that hospitality is designed to welcome the stranger so the stranger is no longer strange!  That is a profound understanding of hospitality.  And it has potentially mighty effects.  The stranger becomes a person.  In that transition and transformation, the person can become a friend.  And this is no small feat.  In fact, if this happens on a global level, we can avert war.

That makes me want to break out that old 1960s song, “Ain’t Gonna Go to War No More…”  Let all of us commit to being hospitable.  Let us begin to practice this friend-making and peace-making approach to the stranger and the enemy.  If we do that, surely we will be found in the presence of God.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Discovering the Heart of Wisdom

It is fine to expect our spiritual journeys to bring us to a place of wisdom.  Most of us suspect there is some difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Most languages, even English, have different words for knowledge and wisdom.  In Latin the word for knowledge is scientia, which gives us the obvious English word, science.  Most of us can remember those classes, even in high school, where gaining knowledge was not easy.  Those chemistry classes, math classes, and others were deemed “hard.”

As I recall my formal education, certainly that education before college, I recall no one mentioning, much less teaching, anything about wisdom.  If one had a good philosophy class in college, reference might be given to the “wisdom of the Greeks.”  But again, colleges do not seem to be in the business of teaching about wisdom. 

Even churches, at least Christian churches, are seemingly not in the business of teaching about wisdom.  Of course, that is not quite fair.  There are books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that explicitly are called “Wisdom Literature.”  I think of Job, Proverbs, some Psalms and others.  There are snippets of the New Testament that can be seen as part of this “Wisdom Tradition.”  Sometimes John’s gospel portrays Jesus as Wisdom incarnate.  This means that John sees Jesus living his life as Wisdom in human form. 

But I am still left pondering: “Yes, but where do I, practically speaking, look for and, hopefully, find wisdom?”  I was helped in something I recently read in a book called, Essential Spirituality, by Roger Walsh.  To the question, where do I look for wisdom, Walsh answers, “everywhere: in every person, situation, and experience to which I bring an open inquiring mind.”  Walsh continues by recommending five particular places we could seek wisdom: in nature, in silence and solitude, from the wise, in ourselves, and finally, from reflecting on the nature of life and death.

I find this kind of advice quite helpful.  It is still very general, but it gives me a focus for some spiritual development.  Let’s look at some of these in detail.  One source of wisdom, says Walsh, is nature.  That is so true for me.  I covet that first day of spring when the world “comes alive.”  It is as if the very Spirit of the Divinity Itself awakens from the winter’s dormancy.  The vibrancy of the world comes into our awareness and it is easier to believe.

A second place wisdom is found is in silence and solitude.  This has been very important to me.  I admit that I am an introvert, so I may be less bothered by solitude than my extrovert friends.  And perhaps my Quaker background prepares me to be at ease with silence that is different than our noisy culture.  Whatever the case, I am confident that all people need to spend some significant time in silence and solitude to begin discovering the heart of wisdom.  I am pretty sure there is little wisdom being dispensed in the cultural media of our day---television, etc.  I need to be alone and quiet for the God of Wisdom to speak to my condition.  I need to be quiet to hear.

I absolutely love Walsh’s next source of wisdom, namely, the wise.  That seems so obvious I wonder why more of us don’t take advantage of it.  Of course, if I want to discover the heart of wisdom, why not find myself with someone who has a heart of wisdom!  One of those people who played that role for me was a colleague who taught at the same place I once taught.  She had not done any formal theological training, so in many ways, was much less knowledgeable than all the rest of the faculty.  In fact, some of us wondered whether she was competent to be teaching!  But she was a wise soul.  She knew God in her heart and she soulfully followed God’s desires.  I needed to learn to walk with her.  Then I could discover the heart of wisdom.

Walsh’s next source is a bit surprising.  We are a source of wisdom for ourselves.  Part of me wants to yell, “No, I’m not!”  However, I acknowledge that I am a child of God---created in the divine image.  Most of us know a great deal more than we think we know.  And most of us can become wise if we would allow that process to unfold.  We have spiritual instincts.  We are divinely intuitive.  We need to touch that and trust that process.  We already have a heart of wisdom; we simply need to discover it.

The final source is again pretty obvious.  We can study life and death.  Life is quite revelatory.  Pay attention to what your body tells you.  Listen to the deep questions of your spirit.  Recognize the lessons that dying and death will teach.  As I get older, I become more aware that I really am mortal---that I will die.  For a long time in my life, I knew it was theoretically true.  Now it seems much more likely to be absolutely true!

So what do we find when we discover the heart of Wisdom?  Simply put, we discover the very God Itself.  We discover a God who calls, who cares, and who is ultimately compassionate.  We discover a God who loves us to death.  And likely who loves us beyond death.  WOW!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Path of Justice

I try to build some spiritual discipline in my life by following the daily lectionary---the readings provided by an organized planner.  In my case I use the lectionary of the Benedictine monastic community.  I like knowing that the readings I do are being done by my brother monks around the world.  I am certainly not as faithful as they are.  But I figure when my zeal flags, somehow they are covering for me.  And I am sure they do it non-judgmentally.  I appreciate that.  I think that’s the nature of spiritual community.         

A specific thing I like about following this Benedictine lectionary is the copious use of the Psalms.  I know the Benedictines move through the entire 150 Psalms every two weeks.  For some people that would be awful.  How can they keep using the same body of literature over and over?  I am sure one of their answers is they do so in order to be joined to the body of believers stretching back over five centuries.  The Psalms, we know, are not just in the Christian Bible.  Originally and to this day, they are the heart of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament in Christian terms.  Our brothers and sister Jews have been reciting and prayer the Psalter for centuries.     

It is not normally true that Protestants do know and don’t use Psalms like the Catholics and Jews have done.  That certainly was the case for me as a Quaker.  Rather than lament this, I simply make use of the lectionary and that always includes readings from the Psalms.  I am making up for lost time.  I have found a treasure and I gladly use it and let it form my heart.         

The lectionary reading for today is pulled from a portion of Psalm 5.  In that Psalm the Psalmist asks God to lend an ear.  Of course, I don’t think God has real, literal ears.  But in some metaphorical way God does hear us.  In fact, God listens carefully to the desires of the heart.  I do not think for a moment that God grants me whatever I might ask.  And I do think God grants me things I would never have dreamed of asking.  God provides for me and for each of us.  From that conviction comes my theological understanding of a providential God.  That does not mean God predestines every minute detail of my life.  But God does provide.         

I see in Psalm 5 the Psalmist affirming the providential character of God.  In spite of the craziness of being human, the Psalmist affirms, “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house…” (5:7)  In a more contemporary way I might say something like, “by God’s grace I am included in the circle of God’s friends.”  It is not by my own doing.  That does not take me off the hook for trying to live a good life.  But it does not depend solely on my actions.  God cares and will take care.          

The Old Testament idea of “steadfast love” uses a deeply loaded Hebrew word to characterize the zealous love God has for the ones God utterly cares for.  This is the kind of love that suggests to me the deepest kind of maternal love---the love of the mother for her young child.  It is difficult to imagine anything the little creature could do that would alienate the loving mother.  And so it is with God’s “steadfast love.”         

As I read a little further in this Psalm 5, I watch the Psalmist move from the theme of “steadfast love” to the theme of “justice.”  Again we see this in the petition of the Psalmist to the Lord.  The writer of the Psalm asks, “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness…make your way straight before me.” (5:8)  Another translation uses my term, “justice,” instead of “righteousness,” which sounds like an old-fashioned word that none of my students would really know what it means.  So I prefer justice language.          

In this petition the Psalmist asks for two things.  In the first place the petition is that God would lead the Psalmist in justice.  And secondly, the Psalmist asks that God’s way be straight.  Let’s look at each one of these.  To be led in to the just path of God is to have life shaped in a way that we will grow in spiritual maturity.  To be just is to be willing to treat people equally.  And sometimes when equality is not possible, at least we can always be fair.  Justice is the baseline of true community.  In fact, there never will be community without justice.  For example, justice demands that we treat everyone with respect and dignity.  And justice particularly harbors concerns for the poor, sick and downtrodden.  How we treat the least of these is how God will see our life and actions.          

Secondly, we ask that God make the divine way straight.  It is not obvious how we should understand this.  But let me make an educated guess that having the divine path of justice made straight means we can see where to go and how to act.  Life has its ups and downs and does seem to pave our way with curves and corners to negotiate.  That probably won’t change.  But if the path of divine justice is straight, then we can manage all the tricky parts of life with a sense of doing it with justice.          

If we can learn to live with justice---treating every other human being with the baseline justice they deserve, then we will be freed to move on to love.  I am sure it is not possible to be loving if we have failed to be just.  First things first, the old saying goes.  That is why it is worth asking God to make the path of justice straight.