About Me

Friday, March 31, 2017

Venue for Human Goodness

Sometimes the inspiration for these pieces comes from very traditional and predictable sources.  I read a great deal in spiritual literature, so that obviously is a marvelous resource.  I try to follow the lectionary of the Benedictine monastic community, so I know that is always a resource for readings from the Psalms and other biblical references.  I try to watch as my days unfold for those obvious or, even, subtle revelations of inspiring moments.  I find if I stay aware, a lot happens that hints at profundity.
Today’s inspiration came from a predictable place.  I regularly read a number of periodicals online.  In the old days we would have called them magazines!  But I don’t receive magazines in the mail any more.  A few regularly come on the internet and it is there I find some inspiration.  As I was reading last night, my eyes caught an intriguing title.  The title reads, “7 ways I find human goodness in pickup basketball.”  I immediately knew I would read this one.  I began to think about the zillion of pickup basketball games I have played in my lifetime. 
I played on organized teams throughout school and am grateful for those days.  But in truth, pickup games were way more in number than “official” games I ever played.  And probably they were just as much fun.  But I’ll admit, I never thought about them the way this author, Mike Jordan Laskey, insightfully offers his observations.  I had to laugh at his name.  I wanted to know if his middle name really were “Jordan,” but I decided not to do that research.  I just hope that is his name!
Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of the Life and Justice ministries for the Catholic diocese of Camden, NJ.  Maybe I’ll meet him some day.  Until then, I am grateful and content with his reflections on pickup basketball.  I don’t want to quote much of the article.  Instead, I prefer to begin with the last sentence of the blog.
Laskey concludes his thoughts with this sentence.  “Maybe basketball, wherever it's played, can be a venue for human goodness because success requires sharing, teamwork, persistence and wanting the best for each other, over and over again, until the final buzzer sounds or the high school custodian shuts off the lights.”  I loved that sentence and now want to unpack it.  I believe it not only characterizes pickup basketball games, but it analogously is true about spiritual communities.  Maybe we who want to live the spiritual life---and hopefully in community---can learn from pickup basketball games.
I appreciate the major finding of Laskey, namely, that pickup basketball games “can be a venue for human goodness.”  As he realizes, there are occasions in the pickup game when quarrels break out.  But they normally get resolved---without referees and without police.  Our world could learn and thing or two here.  It fascinates me that the pickup game is competitive; players do want to win.  But it is never “win at any cost.”  People play by the rules.  Players call fouls and errors all by themselves.  There is respect for the game and its boundaries.  For this to work, people need to be good.  Cheaters wreck the game and, ultimately, bring an end to the game.
I especially like the way Laskey’s final sentences analyze why pickup games are venues for human goodness.  “Success requires sharing,” he says.  This is an astute observation.  He is right.  And so does spiritual living require sharing.  Sharing is the opposite of greed or hoarding.  Sharing says, “what is mine is also, in part, yours.”  Sharing opens up relationships rather than closing them down.  Sharing creates friendships and refusal to share causes hard feelings and, in the worst case scenarios, enemies. 
Laskey continues by acknowledging pickup games require teamwork.  I suspect part of the appeal and beauty of basketball is the team aspect.  I loved playing team sports.  In spiritual terms, this goes to the heart of community.  It is difficult and, certainly, no fun to try to be spiritual all by ourselves.  Both basketball and spirituality are participation sports.  In addition to teamwork, the games require persistence.  No game is won in the first minute.  To win you have to play the game---the whole game.  This means teammates have to work together to the very end.
Human goodness is not won in a weekend.  It also requires persistence---being good over time.  Just like a basketball game, there will be challenges and probably mishaps.  But you hang in there.  You keep trying and trying to do it right.  Teammates help.  Both the pickup game and life have to be seen through to the very end. 
Finally, Laskey’s last point is my favorite.  The pickup game works because the teammates want “the best for each other.”  This is a great deal for everyone.  To each of us individually, it feels demanding.  I do need to want the best for every other player.  But the good news is: every other player wants the best for me!  This is true in spiritual community as well.  It is a good life when you know there are others out there who want the very best for you.  That is a far better deal than traveling alone and trying to make it on your own---alone.

I can’t play basketball anymore.  But I can be fully a part of spiritual community.  It is nice that it, too, is a venue for human goodness.   

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lunch With a Friend

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend. That is not breathtaking news. There was no special occasion. There was no news that we were dying to tell each other. When the lunch was finished, I was not profoundly moved, had no penetrating insight, or strong resolve to go out and save the world. It was just a lunch. I had soup, not sushi.

The lunch was perfectly ordinary, just like the soup. There were no sushi qualities to it. I associate sushi with something extraordinary---something special and unusual. I like sushi, but it is not an ordinary lunch fare for me. Most of the time, I am just a soup kind of guy. And so is my friend. And so was our lunch.

Economically it was a loss. I bought both lunches! It would have been cheaper to go to lunch by myself. I smile as I type this because I know when we go to lunch again (when, not if), he will pay for the lunch. And I know that day it will feel like a gift that he gave me---a free lunch! He probably felt that way yesterday; I gave him a gift.

If someone were to watch this whole hour-long event, it would be easy to conclude the lunch was entirely ordinary with almost no interesting exchange. God was barely mentioned. Spiritual stuff was woefully lacking in most of the conversation. We talked about his kids and my kids and on and on. At the end, we shook hands and vowed to stay in touch and have lunch again. And of course, I will have at least one more so he can pay! And then we drove away.

So why did we do it? And why am I bothering to talk about something so apparently banal (I love using that word!)? I know that on one level, there was nothing very significant about that lunch and about our conversation. However on another level, I know exactly why I had that lunch and that conversation. I did it because we are friends. And I am sure that is why he did it. We are friends. And that is deeply significant to me. And that is profoundly spiritual for me.

So it was not the soup or the small talk. The soup was so-so and the conversation ho-hum. But it was a great hour. And I came away one more time grateful for the friendship. Real friendship is great and gratifying. Like soup and small talk, so much of real friendship is characterized by the ordinary. For sure, there will be times friends go to a sushi-type lunch and the conversation will soar to dizzying heights. When those times happen, it will feel more like a trip to the altar than to lunch!

So I had lunch with a friend just because I wanted to. There was simple desire. That desire was not complicated by any agenda. I was not wanting anything. It was not a networking opportunity. There were no “angles.” Authentic friendship is one of the clearest, cleanest relationships possible. And that is the key to why we had lunch. Friendship is relationship.

In my mind the moment we begin to talk about relationship, we implicate the spiritual dimension. That is because most of spirituality, as I understand it, is more like soup and less like sushi. Yet, it seems many people see spirituality as more like sushi. Perhaps some even see it like caviar! In fact, most of us ordinary mortals are not quite sure we even know what caviar is. If you peak at a dictionary, you can read that caviar is the “processed salted roe of large fish (as sturgeon).” There is another definition I like. Caviar is “something considered too delicate or lofty for mass appreciation.”

The point is spirituality, like friendship, is much more like soup. It is what two or more humans do in relationship in ordinary ways to make life sustaining and nurturing (using the food metaphor). In fact, that is why meals are such a spiritual staple. Two or more people get together to eat, to share, to care, to listen, to counsel, and to celebrate. It is so simple, but it is so deeply significant. I understand perfectly why Jesus told those gathered disciples in John’s Gospel, “I call you friends.”

And I like knowing Greek, so that I can tell you the Greek word for friend, philos, is one of the Greek words for “love.” So friendship---authentic friendship---is always an act of love. That is why it is spiritual and significant. Yesterday I had lunch with a friend: it was a love feast! Soup, friendship, love, the Spirit! No wonder I felt like I had been to a banquet.

It would be easy for a bystander to say there was nothing very special about that lunch. But to me, it was amazing. How many times can you get quadruple hit in life: soup, friendship, love and the Spirit? It cost me money and I felt like a rich guy. It took an hour and I got a clip of eternity.

I really do think this is the small, secret, spiritual stuff of life that Jesus, the Buddha, and so many other spiritual giants knew, lived and preached. And to most of us, it seems so ordinary that we set off on quests for sushi. But it is more simple than that.

Just have lunch with a friend. I did and I will again.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Visit to the Buddhist Temple

One of the very best things that happened to me when I went to college decades ago was the fact I began to broaden my experience.  When you grow up on a farm in rural Indiana, as I did, your world is pretty small.  Of course, at the time I did not realize how provincial I was.  I assumed the entire world was just like my little world!
In that world there were a lot of Quakers around the place.  And in that tiny world there were many Quakers.  What I did not realize was that particular place in Indiana was where Quakers migrated to before the Civil War in order to avoid the slavery issues.  Fortunately, Quakers were ahead of their times on that issue.  But in college I began to get the sense Quakers were a pretty small group.  This was true.  Compared to Baptists, Catholics and a host of other Christian traditions, we were pretty small fish.
In college I began to get a taste of the religious world beyond Christians.  This was totally new for me.  Having Jewish friends was the first step into religious diversity.  This was good for me, although it had its theological challenges.  I was facing theological questions that were totally new to me.  I did not know how to think about the bigger picture.  But with help from other, wiser souls, I made progress and expanded my worldview and found ways to be inclusive.
Through graduate school and, now, decades of teaching I have continued to broaden my world.  Clearly, the world has always been very broad---diversity sometimes feeling rampant.  But I grew into the bigger world.  In graduate school I became friends with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.  I now knew the five major religious traditions in the world.  And then my world became much more complex and interesting.  I welcomed that diversity, even though I often did not know how to cope with it.  But I learned and I appreciated.  I still do.
And now as a professor, I try to offer this same gift to students.  Many of my students come from fairly limited perspectives.  Certainly their worlds are usually not as narrow as mine was, but they still have not experienced too much.  And they normally have not thought much about the complex, diverse world in which they live.  They don’t make friends in broad enough ways.  They often have chosen to be provincial.  I want to help them grow.
And so, often I pack up the van and go to a “strange” context for many of them.  Recently, we headed to the Buddhist Temple.  It is only about a ten-minute drive from campus, but almost none of the students know about its existence.  The same thing is true for two stunningly other places within the same range of my university: an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple.  Even students who live in the area are surprised these places of religious worship are in their backyards and they did not know it!
The Buddhist Temple where we go is not very impressive on the outside.  But students are amazed as soon as they walk through the doors and glimpse what’s inside.  It is pretty clear we step into a different world---really, a different culture---when we are inside the Temple.  The pictures on the wall are dominated by Asian faces.  The statues portray the familiar figure of the Buddha, but there are other statues are students don’t not recognize.  Often the inscriptions and other writing on the wall are in a foreign language.  Students usually do not know about Sanskrit, Pali and the contemporary languages of Buddhism. 
When it comes time to meditate, students normally feel the beginner’s awkwardness.  The mat on the floor and the small pillow that is your “chair” for the duration are not much solace.  Getting comfortable in the meditating position is a big challenge for all of us not used to this position.  Not too long into the meditation, legs become uncomfortable, backs begin to ache and any meditative focus evaporates.  But students hang in there. 
No one becomes an expert in ten minutes.  Ten minutes seem like an hour when you first start this meditating process.  Even with instruction it is nearly impossible not to notice the crazy thoughts that go zinging through your brain.  “Breath and breath out; push your nave forward and on and on,” drones the soothing voice of the leader.  Focus comes and goes for most of us.  It is difficult not to wonder when this will end!
When it does end, students have an experience that I hope begins to broaden their thinking and enlarge their worlds.  In my estimation I have given them a gift.  In most cases I will never know what difference the gift of growing up, becoming more understanding and inclusive, etc. will actually mean for them.  I often tell folks it is my ministry of peacemaking.
If I can help folks be understanding, inclusive and loving, then maybe I have helped people be less likely to hate, be prejudiced, etc.  The world and our country needs these kinds of people.  The world needs people with a mission and a message of peace.  I remember one of the slogans from the 60s: “make love, not war.”  I think that still is a message for our day.
I would like to think a little visit to the Buddhist Temple was an act of “making love.”  If we can make friends of strangers, there is less likelihood they will become enemies.  Giving an evening of my life to this cause is a small price to pay for a world we all would hope someday to see: a world where everyone belongs.   

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Desire for Peace

That phrase, “desire for peace,” resonated with me as I was reading the first sentence of an article about peace. It appeared in a new journal series I am reading to figure out whether it would be a useful addition to some of my teaching. By and large, I have not found the articles very helpful, so I admit that I may not have been reading some new stuff with much expectation of good results. And I recognize that may not be a very good approach to new reading material or, perhaps, to life.

Not only was the phrase a good one, but also the entire first sentence was arresting. The sentence reads, “The desire for peace is a holy longing.” I realized I had stopped after reading that sentence and re-read it. That was my clue that something had resonated. Usually I read along fairly quickly. I am confident we can read, take in information and not be affected by what we are learning. Reading the phrase inside this sentence was different.

I read it, but I am not sure I took in information. When one takes in information, there is an implicit, “Oh, that’s good to know,” and move on to the next idea. If we think of a beginning class, we could imagine reading the first chapter and learning that mixing hydrogen and oxygen will give us water. Again, we say something like, “Oh, that’s interesting to know,” and we move on. Knowing that hydrogen and oxygen constitute water does not significantly change our lives---even though we are dependent on water for life!

That sentence resonated with me not because I took something in, but because I realized there was something to take in. And I also realized that I don’t think I have taken “it” in yet. In fact, I was not sure what “it” would be that I could take in. This was the arresting effect the sentence had on me. There was something to learn, but I felt like I did not know what “it” was that I was to learn. And if I did not know “it,” I could not possibly have learned yet.

The sentence was an impression, but not yet information. I needed to spend some time with the sentence. I needed to let my soul soak in it. I knew whatever “it” would be was going to take me deeper into my soul than mere information usually goes. I sensed the “it” was going to be a deeper truth---a spiritual truth. It would not be a mere informational fact. It would a formative truth that demand to be lived out.

I returned to ponder the sentence: “The desire for peace is a holy longing.” I like grammar. It reveals things to me and to anyone who pays attention. The sentence was what my old English teacher said was an intransitive sentence. The verb, “is,” connects two equal parts. The parts are “desire for peace” and “holy longing.” In effect, the verb “is” says they are equal or the same thing. Because this is true, you can say it either way. The desire for peace is a holy longing or a holy longing is a desire for peace.

I am sure some of my attraction to this sentence was the words, “desire” and “longing.” Both of those words are profoundly spiritual for me. In fact, I know one way I would define spirituality is to describe it as human desire. It is human desire for meaning and for purpose. Longing adds to the pulse of spirituality. Both of these words are insisting and urging words. But they are not commandments or compulsions. One can choose to ignore desire and pay no attention to longing. Just so, we can ignore our spirituality and choose to live some other kind of life besides the spiritual.

I also find the language of desire and longing to be the language of the heart. It is heart language for me, not head language. As such, the desire for peace and the holy longing are not ideas. They are much more than ideas. They are callings. They are the Spirit’s call to us and on us to live a particular kind of life, namely a life of peace.

Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Pax in Latin) is more than simple absence of conflict. Peace is more than a feeling. Shalom is a life rooted and grounded in the very Presence of the Holy One. It is life lived in tune with the Spirit’s desire for us. Pax is that pacific calling to live as deep in the Living Water as we can possibly live.

Peace is deeply spiritual. Although I am not Roman Catholic, I like going to Mass. And one of my favorite spots in the Mass is right before Holy Communion when the congregation passes the peace. It has immense symbolic power for me. I get to turn to my neighbor and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” And the neighbor then says, “And with your spirit.” That is the peace of friendship, of community and of the kingdom.

When we can muster this desire for peace, then we truly are praying that “thy kingdom come.’ The desire for peace is a longing to become a peace-maker---the hope of the world.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Agonized Uncertainty

I find interesting and, often, good news in a variety of places.  I am a regular reader of newspapers and magazines.  Recently, I ran across an intriguing editorial in one of this nation’s premier newspapers.  The article was entitled, “After Great Pain, Where is God?”  You can probably see why I was immediately drawn to read this short piece.  It was authored by Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center.
I was not aware of Wehner, but guessed that this Center was some kind of Washington think tank.  Indeed, it is.  The website basically tells me it is a conservative religiously and politically think tank devoted as the website says to “applying Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”  This fit the tone and direction of Wehner’s thought, which I very much appreciated.  It gave me some nice ways to think about classical problems and I share this here.
The title I chose for this inspirational reflection steals a couple words from one of Wehner’s sentences buried deep in the essay.  Wehner’s reflection focuses on the suffering that is present in our world.  Specifically, he shares a number of vignettes about friends who are suffering.  Of course, as a person of faith, that causes him to wonder about God and Jesus, whom he follows as a disciple.  His thoughts were very helpful to me.
Wehner asks what are we to think and to say when we or our loved ones face suffering.  Of course he recognizes that Jesus, too, faced his own moment of suffering.  I like Wehner’s response.  “Jesus’ question, like ours, was not answered in the moment.  Even he was forced to confront doubt.”  I appreciate this stance.  I also think Jesus must have harbored doubts---momentarily dubious about God’s presence in that whole adventure to and through the suffering and cross. 
But as Wehner points out, doubt is not the same thing as loss of faith.  He says this of Jesus: “But his agonized uncertainty was not evidence of faithlessness; it was a sign of his humanity.”  There are the two words of my title: agonized uncertainty.  Suffering clearly is agony.  No sane person wants to suffer.  Jesus was sane.  But he also was thrown into the uncertainty of those last days leading up to Jerusalem. 
I like how Wehner develops the theme.  He says, “Like Job, we have to admit to the limitations of human knowledge when it comes to making sense of suffering.”  He continues noting soberly, “So, too, is any assurance that the causes of our suffering, the thorns in our flesh, will be removed.  So what, then, does Christianity have to offer in the midst of hardships and heartache?”  I take no solace in the fact that suffering may not be removed.  This is hard to bear.
Wehner asks the poignant question: so what does Christianity have to offer?  He answers his own question in a way that I love.  Part of the answer anyway is community.  Enjoy this sentence from Wehner as much as I appreciate it.  “The answer, I think, is consolation, including the consolation that comes from being part of a Christian community — people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help.”
That is a great sentence.  Community is consolation.  Consolation is not eradication of suffering.  But if we have to suffer, at least let that be done in a spiritual community.  I value how he details the nature of this gift of community.  The first thing Wehner notes is community provides people who walk alongside of us.  We have companions in our journey of grief.  This is the definition of compassion---people willing to “suffer with.” 
Notice how Wehner describes the gifts of compassionate ministry.  These fellow pilgrims offer tenderness and grace.  I appreciate how he contrasts these two gifts with pieties.  Pieties are an answer to suffering, but it is a lousy answer!  Tenderness is a real gift.  You can feel it and it makes a difference.  It does not eradicate suffering, but it does make it possible to sustain life through the suffering process.  And the same goes with grace. 
Fellow pilgrims also offer encouragement and empathy.  With these gifts we know we are not alone in the suffering we endure.  And that’s not all.  Wehner counsels fellow pilgrims to give practical help where possible.  This is very welcome.  Certainly nurses and other aides offer this kind of practical help.  But we can be given the practical help of our community members, which means a great deal.  This can make all the difference.  
Wehner finishes his thoughts in a way I welcome.  He acknowledges his faith.  He says, “For those of the Christian faith, God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering… And from suffering, compassion can emerge, meaning to suffer with another — that disposition, in turn, often leads to acts of mercy.”  In these words, Wehner has identified the polarities of faith: suffering and mercy.  One begs for the other.  Where there is suffering, may there be mercy.  God says yes and God’s disciples embody the mercy.
Wehner has the last word.  He admits, “I have seen enough of life to know that grief will leave its mark. But I have also seen enough of life to know that so, too, will love.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Mystery of Truth

The phrase, mystery of truth, is found in the last line of a recent article by David Brooks, one of my favorite commentators on the life and times of our world.  While I don’t always find myself in agreement with Brooks, I find him to be a trenchant observer of human nature and behavior.  He writes clearly and with tremendous insight.  Often he frames things in a way that gives us a new, clear way to think about a problem and come up with plausible solutions.  I think about him as an intellectual helpmate.         

His recent article is entitled, “The Benedict Option.”  The article was replete with an image of St. Benedict, a picture I immediately recognized and to which I was drawn.  I know a fair amount about this founding father of Benedictine monasticism.  Benedict was an Italian Catholic living in sixth century post-Roman Empire Europe.  When I was in school, this was referred to as the “Dark Ages.”  Although this is not a very useful description today, it does convey the times were different than the “good ole days” of the Roman Empire at its zenith.  Seeing Benedict’s life in this period helps explain why he withdrew and began to live the Christian life in common with other folks.  From this the monastic movement, as we know it, was birthed and continues to this day.         

So whatever Brooks was up to implicated St. Benedict.  Half way through the article Brooks references a new book by Rod Dreher which carries the title, The Benedict Option, which Brook calls the most important book of the decade---high praise indeed.  As it turns out, Dreher despairs of our times and culture in America and calls for folks, like St. Benedict, to opt out so they can live faithfully.  Brooks argues for another response.         

Brooks offers an interesting dual way of looking at our world.  His first line reveals these two options: “Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist.”  Quickly, I knew where he was going.  Brooks gives us a clear sense of both options.  He tells us, “Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole.  All questions point ultimately to a single answer.  If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.”  In effect, this is the Benedict option.         

Brooks describes the other option, the ironist, in these words.  “The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one…For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.  There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.”  This option probably makes sense to many of us, because that is likely the way we are dealing with our times and culture.         

Brooks develops his own version of this ironist option.  As usual, he puts it forth with a clarity and creativity, we are able to think about it and make up our own mind.  Brooks says, “The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism.  It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal.”  I like his descriptor, Orthodox Pluralism.  A pluralist perspective notes the diversity of our culture and tries to come to terms with it, rather than dismiss it.  I find that attractive, but certainly not easy.         

I know enough Christian history to know both options---purist and ironist---has been tried.  My own Quaker tradition historically has been the ironist.  The Amish are good examples of the purist---enacting the Benedict Option without becoming monks.  They simply withdrew and farmed or were carpenters making furniture!  One could argue they are na├»ve.  And of course, the purist could say the other option if foolhardy!         

To put the options very simply, the purist basically gives up on the world.  The ironist opts to stay in the world, but to work to transform it.  It would be easy to dismiss the ironist as idealistic.  Brooks counters this charge.  He notes, “it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path.”  I agree with him; it is difficult, but not impossible.  I would argue it is to align ourselves with a way of love that ultimately can lead to peacemaking.  Not easy, but possible.  In my lifetime?  Probably not.        

I like the method Brooks outlines.  He says this transforming work is “to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”  Friendship is a form of love---probably the most frequent form of love.  I suggest we see the call is to learn to love.  Make friends.  To make friends is to make peace.         

I like the way Brooks ends his article.  To involve ourselves in this loving peace work, we will need to “humbly accept the mystery of truth.”  For sure, it is a work of humility.  How can you be arrogant enough to know for sure you can bring peace?  Just as importantly, it means accepting the “mystery of truth.”  This is something a purist cannot do.  Oddly, this is a bet on who God is and how God works.  I do believe God deals in truth, but it is a truth that can be mysterious.  I need to be careful about being sure I know this truth.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Penny Wise

Recently I was writing a blog with a couple of my friends.  The blog had more to do with business than spirituality.  I am always amused by how much work I do within a business context, but then remember that business is nothing more than people.  In fact, I am in the “people business,” so any context is a possibility for my involvement.  The basic point of our work was not to be stupid.  That seems simple enough!
I was editing some of what my co-author had written.  Suddenly, I knew the perfect saying to edit into the text.  But in the moment, I could not cite the phrase.  I stepped out to ask my secretary, but she could not come up with the phrase.  She is quite a bit younger than I am, which made me wonder whether younger generations use the phrase?  We all know languages evolve, which means some terms and phrases drop out of daily usage and new things creep into daily language. 
For some reason, the word “flesh” was floating in my mind as part of the slogan.  It turns out this was not correct, which means it misled us.  We floundered for a while chasing dead ends down the computer search.  Of course, it is amazing the things that do come up.  It is easy to get distracted and stay busy looking up things, but making no progress.  At some point, I felt guilty about wasting her time, so I suggested calling off the search.  But she is tenacious.  She finally nailed it.
“Penny wise, pound foolish,” she asked.  Indeed!  That’s it.  It was as if we won the lottery, but no money was involved---ironically even though the phrase was about money!  But it really was not about money.  It is really about prudence or wisdom.  And I know prudence is one of the classical virtues, so in that sense, it is about spirituality.  I would argue spirituality---like religion---is always about being virtuous. 
I was intrigued by the phrase, which I heard so often while growing up on that Indiana farm.  A little research yields interesting results.  The phrase means people can be careful about smaller things that don’t really matter (penny) and overlook, underestimate or waste things that are of significant value (pound).  It was obvious to me British money was the context for the saying.  This meant it either originated somewhere in the British Isles or in this country in the early days when British money would have been the currency.  It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but there is little evidence this was his creation.
In saying the word, pound, refers to the basic British currency, which is much like our word, dollar.  In contemporary British money there are 100 pence (pennies) in one pound.  So the saying is clear.  Don’t pay undue attention to one penny and ignore 100!  That is why it is about prudence---being wise.  In other words, don’t be stupid!
It is spiritual for me because I am confident our culture---particularly our commercial culture---entices us to pay attention to thing we don’t need.  If we watch any television or commercials online, we are lured into buying cars, beer, clothes, rings---you name it.  We are lured into looking different than we look, say different things than we say and act in different ways than we act.  Thomas Merton, my favorite monk, says this is an invitation to become a false self.  I think he was on to something.
Our culture is enticing us to pay attention to the pennies.  We are tempted to become penny wise.  In the process we forget about being pound foolish.  It is similar to paying attention only to today and forgetting we need to be ready for tomorrow.  This reminds me of the classical fable of the ant and grasshopper.  As you remember, the grasshopper squandered his time and when push came to shove, was forced to ask the ant for some food.  The ant was the prudent one.  Often prudence is as simple as preparing oneself.  I think this is core to the spiritual life.
One of the ways I like to talk about spirituality is that it offers a way of making meaning in life.  Meaning is usually tied up with purpose.  If I am spiritually penny wise, I am chasing short-term, flashy kinds of experiences.  I may think getting rich will bring meaning and offer me a chance to have a purpose.  But study after study suggest this simply is not true.  There is no good correlation between money and happiness.
Monks who take a vow of poverty are often happy characters.  It is because they have chosen a life that delivers for them real meaning.  They become clear about their purpose in life.  They are working to become their true self and avoiding, insofar as they can, being a false self.  The key is, of course, figuring out what the “pound” in your life is.  Preparation and discipline come into play as we labor for that which is worth something. 
We all know we sometimes work for things that turn out to be worthless.  Ask the grasshopper!  His frivolous summer days gave way to more dangerous times ahead.  He wasted time on pennies and blew his chance to have pounds.  The teaching is clear to us: don’t be penny wise, pound foolish.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Defining Religion

Often I am the one pushing students to define things.  Defining something is necessary to learn and understand it.  When I think about how I expanded my vocabulary through high school and college, as well as through graduate studies, it mostly was learning how to define words.  Regardless of which major folks choose to do in college, typically there is a specific vocabulary that goes with it.  In physics and religion and all the other majors, you have to learn certain basic words.  In my case it was even helpful to learn Greek and Latin because they helped me sharpen my vocabulary.
I realized how important this was as I moved from the church context to the university context.  As I grew up in the church, hearing religious words was normal.  However, seldom did anyone asked me to define something.  My learning was quite passive.  Of course, I usually had some kind of vague notion of what a word or concept meant, but if you had asked me to define it, nothing clear would have come out of my mouth.
As I moved through school, I knew I had a curiosity to learn words and ideas.  It was not always easy.  I remember my early college days when it seemed like I was looking up every third word in the dictionary because I could not understand what I was learning if I did not know the meaning of the words.  Slowly it was if my reservoir of known words became bigger and deeper.  I began to realize I had learned so much, I was not always looking up new words.  Of course, the process never is finished, but I do have a pretty significant reservoir to feed my understanding of new things I read.
I also find I enjoy reading something that challenges my normal way of understanding.  I may already feel like I can define something clearly and, yet, I read something that offers a different way of looking at that same thing.  If I stay open, I can learn.  This happened to be recently when I was working my way through Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  This is a marvelous book full of things I already knew and with challenges to my ignorance.
In her chapter on “Faith,” Tippett talks with Pico Iyer about spirituality and religion.  The question usually raised about these two things is whether they are the same?  Iyer says they are not the same.  Since we don’t have space to work with both of them, I will choose the definition Iyer offers for religion.  He says, “And religion is the community, the framework, the tradition, all the other people into which we bring what we find in solitude.”  I like this because it is short, incisive and offers me a little different way to understand religion.  And it seems to me, this definition can even offer an intriguing way to understand religion when they otherwise are dismissive of religion---often preferring to say “I am spiritual, but not religious.”
Iyer defines religion with four aspects.  The first aspect is community.  That is very interesting, because many people begin defining religion by doctrine---how to believe in God, Jesus Christ, etc.  Instead, Iyer begins with the folks who have a particular faith and strive to live together in community.  It would take a book to detail what community means.  Suffice it here to say community is different than a group or a bunch of people who might go to the same church.  True community provides folks with a sense of belonging.
The second aspect of religion is the framework.  I cannot be sure I know what Iyer means by this, but I can guess.  The framework is the structure of the faith.  It may have to do with what some people dismiss as “the institutional structure,” which they do not find attractive.  I prefer to think about the framework as the rituals and routines that define the community.  The framework is the culture of the community.  If you were part of a Roman Catholic community, the framework is different than the Quaker community in which I grew up. 
The third aspect of religion is the tradition.  Again, we could write a book about this aspect.  But tradition simply is how the community has lived out its faith over time.  It can include doctrine, but it is more.  Think more about the stories of the people of faith that are told over time---sometimes generations and even centuries.  When I think about the Catholic Church, I do think about doctrine---like the Trinity.  But I also think about Mother (Saint) Teresa, St. Francis, Dorothy Day and all the rest.  Tradition is a very broad umbrella under which we find wide diversity.
The final aspect of religion is a very broad one---namely, people.  But Iyer talks about a specific kind of people.  I might talk about this people as our crucibles or, perhaps, our dialogue partners.  It is with these special people we abide in order to share what we are thinking and feeling in our solitude.  They are the special ones who help us sort out what is happening to us.  They put us on our path to God and to purpose.  Or they may put us back on our path when we have lost our way or, simply, become too tired to walk on with our faith journey.
When I think about religion this way, I am tempted to modify my own definition.  I really like how Iyer has defined it.  It makes sense to me and helps me to make sense of my own religious journey.  I have been helped by reading, thinking and deepening my understanding.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Buddhists Helping Christians

I am grateful for the opportunity to read books authored by non-Christians.  I don’t know whether I read any person who was not a Christian before I went to college.  Perhaps I did, but I was not aware of it if I did.  In college I began my pilgrimage with a few non-Christians.  I can remember very well the first Jewish theologian.  I bumped into some other spiritual folks who were not Christians.  And then I went to graduate school.
Ironically, I received two kinds of education in graduate school.  The obvious one was the classes and degrees that I paid money to have.  I appreciate that.  The other kind of education was provided by my living context.  When I moved to a new city to do graduate education, I rented the top floor of a house very near the graduate school of theology.  Since my house was on a corner, I had two neighbors on either side.  On one side was the Hillel House, the campus Jewish ministry outreach.  The other side was the Center for the Study of World Religion.
That Center doubtlessly speaks for itself.  It was an academic building focusing on various world religions.  Christianity was only one of those.  In addition to classes held there, it was a rather big building that had living spaces.  So I had neighbors who were Hindus, Buddhists, Muslim and others.  I felt like I was living in a spiritual laboratory!  Every time I stepped out my back door was a global experience!  I never knew what religious tradition I might encounter.  And I never knew what country around the globe I might encounter.  It was exciting.
Whenever I had a chance to read a non-Christian, I am excited about what I might learn and how I might grow.  Recently for a class, I had to read one of my favorite Buddhist authors, Thich Nhat Hanh.  In his book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, we learn about Buddhism and also we learn about our own Christian tradition from this wonderful Buddhist.  I especially liked his reflections on the Holy Spirit and will share that as a focus for these inspirational musings.
I begin with the Hanh’s first sentence in our focus.  He says, “The Holy Spirit, the energy of God in us, is the true door.”  I like his description of the Spirit as energy.  That fits how I conceive of that presence of God.  I know in classical languages the word for “spirit” means “wind” or “breath.”  When I feel the wind on my body, it does feel like an energy.  When I become aware of my breathing, it feels like energy.  All that makes sense, but what does it mean to say the Holy Spirit if the “true door?”
The trick is not to understand “door” in a literal fashion.  A door is an opening.  One goes through the door to another place or space.  That is what the Spirit enables us to do.  The Spirit as door gives us an opening to the place of God’s presence.  Go pass through the true door---the door of the Holy Spirit---is to go into the spiritual place, the place where God abides and spiritual communities thrive.
Hanh carries this thinking forward with more ideas and words.  “We know the Holy Spirit as energy and not as notions and words.  Wherever there is attention, the Holy Spirit is there.  Wherever there is understanding, the Holy Spirit is there.  Wherever there is love and faith, the Holy Spirit is there.  All of us are capable of recognizing the Holy Spirit when it is present.”

This first point is an important one.  Hanh reiterates that the Holy Spirit is energy.  When I think about the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the odd one.  The other two members of the Trinity are personal---in traditional language referred to as the Father and the Son.  The Spirit is not personal in the same sense.  The Spirit is a non-personal image.  The Spirit is energy.  However, we all know the power of energy.  It is necessary to life.  Hanh says the Spirit is real; he claims it is not merely an idea or notion.

Then Hanh helps us see how we know and recognize the Holy Spirit.  Wherever there is attention, there is the Holy Spirit.  Wherever there is understanding, there it is.  Finally, wherever there is love and faith, there we find the Holy Spirit.  All of these are simple, but also profound.  Attention, understanding, love and faith are all places---occasions---for recognizing the Holy Spirit is with us.

I appreciate Hanh’s guidance.  At times in my spiritual journey, I have wondered how we actually can recognize the Spirit?  I know some would claim it is merely an idea---a notion people in the Church made up and promulgate in churches.  I knew I could not prove the Holy Spirit exists, nor could I make the Spirit appear, like the magician pulls bunnies from hats.  But Hanh, the Buddhist, helped me the Christian.

He points out that where attention, understanding, love and faith appear, the energy of the Spirit comes to be present.  The energy of the Spirit moves us from ignorance to some knowledge.  It moves us from apathy to engagement with God and with life.  There is still more to learn, but thanks to this Buddhist, we are farther on our way. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Need for Courage

I have begun to receive a new journal of spirituality. I thought it could be quite helpful, but it turns out to be mediocre at best. Now that may seem like an odd comment on spirituality. After all, how does one determine that a spirituality is “good” or “bad” or just mediocre? Either I do not know or I know it would take an entire book to answer that question. Since I have no interest in writing that book, let me simply say that my judgment is doubtlessly subjective.

And I would hasten to add, I do not think the spirituality represented in the journal is mediocre. In fact, I am not sure spiritualities can be good, bad or mediocre. I think they can be more or less meaningful to a variety of people. I actually said I thought the journal was mediocre. And I feel like there is some basis for that kind of judgment. A journal could be good or bad based on things like writing style, cogency of argument, perceptive development of ideas, etc. I find this new journal fairly mediocre because it seems to me that the spirituality presented is superficial.

That’s nothing new in our society, I would contend. Much of religious language, exhortation, and presentation is superficial. Let me explain. Let’s take the sentence, “we should love everybody,” as an example. I understand that sentence. I agree with it and I could tell you I agree with it. We could both walk away assuming way too much about me. For one thing, just because I believe it does not mean I do it. Maybe I even plan to do it in the future, but not now!

If we agree that we should love everybody but spend no time taking that to some detail, we have opted for the superficial. If I tell you that we should love everybody, you could ask me how I practice this? That forces me to begin to be specific and to develop my answer with some depth. This is what I am finding missing in the new journal. (I admit I have only read two issues, but how long does one hang on with a new project before saying it really is not worth the money or time?)

It is not a total loss, however. Perhaps that is like most things in life. Normally, things are not a total waste in life. The question more normally is whether something is worth the time and the money. That’s where I am with respect to the journal.

In the most recent issue, I did find one little article a bit helpful. Without going into much detail about the article itself, I can simply say the author was addressing the inward heart of people---that place where we encounter the Divinity. Thomas Merton normally called this the “true self.” Quakers traditionally talk about the “Inner Light” or the “Light Within.” I find this focus very interesting. I want to know what that “place” is? I want to know “how” to get there? I am curious how we “meet” God there? I understand that much of this is metaphorical. This means we talk around it and talk about it, but we can never nail it like you can in science.

This is where the author offered a helpful comment to me. She said, “Discipline and fortitude have always been required to persevere on the journey to the innermost chamber of the self. Saint Teresa (of Avila) is blunt: ‘I tell you there is more need for courage than you think.’” Indeed, this is helpful, but it is not at all developed. I want to say, “Yes, that’s true; courage is more needed than we think. But how do we muster more courage?” The article is silent to these queries.

If I want to begin or continue the journey to the innermost chamber of the self---and I do want to---then how can we muster more courage than we thought we might need? I offer some quick observations.

Most obviously, we should first ask God to “en-courage” us---to put courage into our hearts. Seems simple, but so many folks try going it alone! Secondly, I think we are better off hanging out with spiritually courageous people. Saints are preferable! I am convinced I am more courageous when I am with people of courage. Thirdly, we should spend regular time growing in courage. Why would we think our measure of courage is given once and for all and is, therefore, static? I submit we can grow to be more courageous.

All of these observations begin the process of adding a little depth to the fairly superficial note that we will need more courage than we thought. Of course, my observations now need to be pushed even further. For example, how do we ask God to encourage us? To answer this takes us even more deeply.

All of this is another argument for community. I figure if I can be part of a vital faith community, then I can be led and forced to go beyond the superficial. And that will enable me to grow in the Spirit and more likely to go further on that journey to the innermost chamber of the self.

Not only do I need more courage, but also I think I have a clue how to get some!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Hope of Community

People who know me know that I have a love of community. But I am also quite aware of how superficial and shallow “community language” can be. Anyone can pronounce that any group is a community. I know that it is a slippery word. I don’t know too many people who are against community, but I suspect many of us don’t quite know exactly what community is nor how it is developed and sustained. Sometimes I am not sure myself.

So when I wanted to revisit this topic, I turned to one of my old friends, Parker Palmer. My relationship with Parker goes a long way back. We share quite a bit of ideas and commitments, but he has become famous (and probably rich). I have achieved neither! Palmer has been thinking about and writing about community for a long time. He has been actively involved in thinking about this from the perspective of the educational world. But I don’t think it is that much different from the world of churches, temples and mosques.

Let me share a basic definition of community, as Parker Palmer offers it. He says, “My definition of community is simple, if partial: I understand community as a capacity for relatedness within individuals–relatedness not only to people but to events in history, to nature, to the world of ideas, and yes to things of the spirit.” This definition is a little convoluted, so let’s take some time to unpack it.

In the first place, Palmer defines community to be a capacity. This means a couple things. Most importantly it means community is possible. If we have the capacity for community, that implies it has to be possible. But that raises the second important point. It may be possible, but it is not a given---it is not inevitable. Thirdly, this suggests to me that community will have to be created and nurtured. Simply put, we will have to develop the capacity for community.

The next affirmation about community is that community is a capacity for relatedness. This is the key idea. It means that community is essentially relatedness. This makes sense to me. Basically community is an issue of relating to others. Palmer acknowledges that we all have this capacity within for relatedness. That’s the good news. The less than good news is the fact that not everyone will develop his or her capacity for relatedness. Some of us might not even care. If I am grossly egocentric, I am not at all interested in relatedness.

Finally, Palmer promulgates a notion of community that encompasses more than just people. He talks about community as relatedness with respect to history, nature, ideas, and the spiritual. That is much more inclusive than many of us would think about community. I like this; it serves us well in the 21st century to think in bigger terms. And of course, I very much like how Palmer links community and the Spirit. Let’s move in that direction.

I share one more quotation from Palmer that takes us deeper into our consideration of community. Palmer comments, “If you ask what holds community together, what makes this capacity for relatedness possible, the only honest answer I can give brings me to that dangerous realm called the spiritual. The only answer I can give is that what makes community possible is love.” This may sound a bit odd, but remember Palmer is primarily addressing an educational audience. But he is speaking truth, as I understand it. I love his answer.

The spiritual holds community together. I am convinced this is true. And if we lose touch with the Spirit, ultimately we will lose community. And I appreciate even more the last line of Palmer’s words. What makes community possible is love. This is so simply said, but it is so profoundly true.

So if we want to build, develop and sustain community, we need to get in touch with the Spirit. And then we need to learn love. If we cannot love, we will not have community. Sometimes I have been asked what I thought the secret of community is? I really don’t think there is a secret. It actually is as simple as Parker Palmer makes it.

It is about love and about the Spirit. It is not any more complex than this. But because it is simple, does not means it is always easy. Love is not always easy. But not to love is sad---and perhaps, even, tragic. Community inevitably is a choice that will be a comedy. Oh, it may not be a comedy in the street sense of good laughs. But it is a comedy in the sense that it all comes out well in the end.

My own hope is that I find and live in community. But community is not just my own private hope. I suggest community is nothing less than the hope of the world.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

No Meaning to Express

What if the title of this inspirational essay were really true, namely, that there was no meaning to express. That would be sad! It would be sad because that is a key distinguishing feature of what a human does: make meaning. In fact, that is one way I like to talk about religion and spirituality; they are ways people make meaning. Of course, they are not the only ways. But they are key ways.

So if there were no meaning to express, then I would have serious questions about why we are living? If there is no point to life, then why go through the motions? Sure, there are some short-term pleasures. If we are lucky, nice things may happen to us along the way. But at some point, life usually brings some share of suffering and, then, death. Hopefully these are not the point in life!

I wandered into this reflection when I read parts of an old book that I had not thought about for years. The book is entitled, Behold the Spirit, by Alan Watts. It was published in 1947. I could not believe it was that early in the last century. Watts was quite the guy! I actually met him in the early 1970s before his death in 1973. By then, he was world-famous. He was one of the early introducers of Eastern religions into this Western world. He was audacious, provocative, and very entertaining. In some ways he anticipated and, then, represented the 60s in very significant ways.

The thing that really floored me when I looked at some of his words from that 1947 book is just how contemporary it seems. He could have written it last year. In his usual fashion, Watts was offering a critique of an institutional church that sometimes misses the boat in its dealing with people. Listen to his words. “”Today, in Church and out of Church, there are thousands of souls who realize in varying degrees of clarity that what they want from religion is not a collection of doctrinal and ritual symbols, nor a series of moral precepts. They want God, by whatever name…” I still think this is true in our own time.

This kind of sentiment very much characterizes the attitude of many of the students who show up in my classrooms. Many of them are not very involved---or not involved at all---with the institutional church. But a high number of them are looking for some kind of experience of God. Or they may be searching for meaning in their lives. And for many of them, to find meaning is to find God---or to find God is to find meaning. If this search is unsuccessful, then there will be no meaning to express.

The insightful Watts continues to note what he thought people in 1947 wanted. I submit this is what folks today still want. He says they “want to be filled with God’s creative life and power; they want some conscious experience of being at one with Reality itself, so that their otherwise meaningless and ephemeral lives may acquire eternal significance.” I admit that I really like this sentiment.

I, too, want to be filled with the Divine creative life and power! I can’t imagine any who would say, ”nay, I prefer my own uncreative, impotent way of living! No meaning is fine with me!” I would love to be at one with Reality itself. That would mean I was so in touch with myself and the world around me, that the point of living would be crystal clear. And I would have shining clarity about my role in life, so long as I shall live.

And then comes the ecclesiastical critique of Watts. He says the Church has a way to the “purest gold of mystical religion.” I know only too well the idea and language of “mystical” scares some people. And it can be very scary for those who are in charge of ecclesiastical institutions. Maybe I don’t find it threatening because my own tradition has used that kind of mystical language. Without going into in any depth, let’s simply take “mystical” to be that kind of first-hand, direct, immediate connection with the Divinity Itself.

And let’s assume that every woman, man, and child can have this kind of experience. There is no inherent need of an intermediary, although they can be very helpful and useful. But that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is to experience this Divinity---this God---and begin the process of gaining meaning in our lives. It is not instantaneous. It is a process. We connect, develop, and grow into a relationship, which will fill us with creative life and power. And as that process grows and deepens, we inevitably will be given the key to being human. We will be given meaning and purpose. We will know why we are alive and what we want to do with our lives.

Never again will we have to say there is no meaning to express.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Reality of Reality

We live in it at all times. It surrounds us, penetrates us and yet is probably separate from us. It is independent and dependent at the same time. It is mysterious and, yet, completely transparent and knowable. It’s reality.

Of course, there are different philosophical and theological perspectives on just what reality is. I am sure there must be scientific versions, as well. Psychologists might tell is reality is a matter of perspective. I suppose some extremists are confident there is no such thing as reality. Maybe I am in illusion, but it seems to me pretty clear there is such a thing a reality. The good news is, I do not intend to explore its philosophical and scientific roots. I am going to take reality for granted. For me, it is. Let’s think about the reality of reality.

What prompted these beginning thoughts was a random sentence in an article I was reading. The article was not very good, but it did have a great sentence from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr. It comes from his book, The Naked Now. The sentence from Rohr that captured my attention tells us we need to “forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.”

My immediate response when I read this line was “yes, that’s true.” I think it is true, but the truth it points to seems deeper and more complex than I grasped in the moment. I also realized that I probably did not know as much as I thought I did. But that’s probably true most of the time. Sometimes I think I am pretty smart; other times I am sure I hardly know anything. Again, reality does that to me.

When I read Rohr’s words, I was not particularly interested in the “forgiveness” part. We may come back to that, but I did not want to begin with that idea. What intrigued me more was the idea that reality is exactly what it is right now. I am sure that is what propelled me to say, “yes.” So what does that mean for me and for you?

I want to take it a couple different ways. In the first place reality is a given. For example, the physicality of much of our lives is reality. Chronologically I am the age I am. I am not a teenager. Reality is I am living into my seventh decade. I can’t change that. Much of the world we inhabit is that kind of reality. It is a world of beauty and charm. It is also a world that at times is threatening and fearsome. That reality is a given.

This is the first place Rohr’s words are instructive. Sometimes we will have to forgive reality for being what it is right now. If I am sick, that’s reality. I can forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now. Maybe my sickness is something that I’ll get over and then reality will be different: I’ll be well. But maybe my sickness is terminal and that’s reality. Then I can still forgive reality for being exactly what it is right now.

There is a second aspect of reality that is different. This kind of reality is the reality I create for myself. In some ways this is perceptual. I think of the “glass half empty, glass half full.” How I perceive it is my reality, but I have a choice about which reality I choose.

And this second kind of reality, I do have choices. I think much philosophy, theology and spirituality deals with this second reality. For example, the physical world is what it is: that’s reality. But whether it points to a God who is Creator and creative is more a matter of perception---of belief. Some choose to believe in this God; others find it absurd. Not surprisingly, I choose to believe in that God. That God is part of my reality. In fact, God in Whom I believe creates and shapes much of the first kind of reality---the given reality of the physical world, etc.

This all may seem convoluted or fuzzy. But for me, it is very real. I live my life based on what it real and what I think is real. I choose to be spiritual because I want to be as aware as I can of reality and the depth of my reality. I want to pray and engage other spiritual disciplines to enable myself to live as deeply real as I can. I am all too aware of how superficial life can be. It is too easy to be alive, but not really live.

The spiritual life aims to be as grounded as possible in the reality of God’s love. The goal of my spiritual life is to become as deeply and fully loving as my effort and the grace of God can muster. The reality is that I am a work in progress.

Sometimes the reality is that I don’t do a very good job. When that happens, I will need to forgive reality for being exactly as it is right now. But that is not a condemnation forever. Often, I can change my reality and our reality.

Love does just that. It transforms reality. Jesus and the other religious giants did just that: they were transformers of reality. As followers, we are called to do likewise. That’s the reality of reality. That’s the spiritual reality of love.

When Life Gets Tough

Anybody who lives to adulthood knows that there are times when life gets tough. I suppose Adam and Eve had it made in Paradise, but they blew it and found out even then that happiness was not guaranteed! God had told them not to do one thing. Of course, they could not resist! So they grabbed the fruit, ate it, blamed the serpent and each other, and paid the price. They were kicked out of Paradise.

To quote the famous book title of John Steinbeck, East of Eden, that is precisely where they were condemned to live. And all of us know we live “East of Eden.” In that place---our place really---is the place of toil, pain, and often, unhappiness. I could ask for a better deal, but it won’t matter. We are no longer in Eden. We are in Cleveland or New York or London or Moscow. It does not matter where we are in the globe, because the whole globe is East of Eden.

I am not sure Eden was ever a real, literal place. Even if it were, it does not change my interpretation. More specifically, I am convinced Eden was metaphorically a place. That means I feel like Eden was more a particular kind of relationship than a literal place. Adam and Even lived metaphorically in Eden when God created them in the beginning. They were created good. And the relationship with God and with each other was good.

Good relationships don’t cause toil. When the relationship is good, it does not seem to take any work at all. Just ask any pair of lovers. Their relationship is great. They can’t imagine being without the other. Life is always fantastic. There is no pain. Happiness seems like a sure thing. Many of us have known these kinds of relationships. But all adults know it is not realistic for this to go on forever.

The fracturing of the great relationship with God and with each other came when Adam and Eve “disobeyed.” Every relationship has some limitations. God had simply told them not to do one thing. It is too easy to complain that God should have put no limits on them. That way they could have remained perfect. But that is unrealistic. Human beings are free creatures. And we have to learn how to live into that freedom and exercise it. In that sense they had to “prove” their ability to maintain the relationship. They could not do it.

Likely no one else could do it. I know I have not and probably cannot in the future. Certainly all of us now living East of Eden are vulnerable to our own “fall.” Inevitably we too will blow it. Surely all of us will have to deal with those times when life gets tough. It is difficult; it causes pain; it produces unhappiness. Just writing these words makes me feel some sadness. I could wish it were otherwise, but wishing usually does not produce results.

Yesterday I spent an entire day with a number of people who were dealing with a situation in which life got tough. I am sure all involved wished that we did not have to be there. Everyone could desperately wish to walk right back into Eden and forget all the nonsense that had transpired. Nobody was having any fun. There was enough pain to satisfy any cynic. There was not going to be a party at the end regardless of how things turned out.

And that is precisely what some of life East of Eden looks like. Invariably there will be occasions when life gets tough. People hurt and get hurt. One could be pessimistic and say it is only a matter of when, not if, one will get hurt when life gets tough. So what’s one to do?

There is no recipe for successfully dealing with those times when life gets tough. But I do think there are some very general guidelines. In the first place, when life gets tough, try not to make it worse than it already is. Put positively, when life gets tough, at least we can exercise the most care we can muster. It is time to be careful instead of careless.

Secondly, when life gets tough, it is not unusual for things to be said or done that mess up the relationships. This is even true if getting cancer precipitates my life getting tough. That surely messes up my relationship with my body. In any of these instances, forgiveness quite often will be necessary to prevent things from getting worse. It might even help the healing process---of cancer and of relationships.

Finally, when life gets tough, I think there is always a role for love. I know that is an easy word. Clearly, love is easy to manage when life is great. But love is decidedly needed East of Eden when life gets tough. When God banished Adam and Even from Paradise, God did not cease loving them. I would argue that is when God was challenged really to start loving them. Why should it be different for us?

When life gets tough, be careful, be ready to forgive, and be loving.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Just Say No

The title of this inspirational message might seem like an advertisement for some kind of drug treatment program or a stop smoking campaign. Or perhaps more likely, it sounds like an early teenage admonition to refrain from sex. And indeed, it could be all of the above, since they are all legitimate and worthwhile campaigns.

I actually got the idea from the words of the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. I have quoted Merton enough that folks know how much I like him. Part of the appeal of Merton, I’m sure, is that part of his life overlapped my own life. Merton lived into the 1960s, which was the decade of so much of my own personal and spiritual formation. When Merton tragically died in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968, I was already in graduate school studying theology. Merton was the most unlikely person to have become a strict Catholic monk.

He had spent his early years living in France, England and the USA. He was a bright, curious young guy who had little sense of himself or his place. Moving around and staying with parents, grandparents and others gave him a sense of the world, but little sense of his personal identity. He went through phases: atheistic, communistic, religious phases and more. His life was a quest---a quest for meaning, for identity and for belonging. Ironically, he chose finally to pursue that quest in a fairly strict monastic setting in the hills of Kentucky.

Above all, Merton was a writer. His writings are transparent. You can read his works and, especially, his journals and watch him “working out life.” He kept growing and changing. I like that part of him. I find him inspiring---not in the way that I want to be like him, but in an area that I do want to be like him. I want to be like him in the sense that I, too, want to grow in significant ways.

Merton chose a monastery that prized a great deal of silence and solitude. I value these, as well. I think they are important components of any spiritual journey. If I am not silent---at least some of the time---I never hear any music in my mind except the elevator music of the world. I never hear the Divine melodies. If I am not alone---at least some of the time---I never can find my true self. I want to be like Merton in that quest.

One would think Merton chose the optimum place for that quest. But that means we don’t know monasteries! Actually Merton found too many meaningless requests for his time and effort. He sensed too many demands from monks and non-monks alike. As he became famous, it got worse. It sounds like an oxymoron to talk about a “busy monk,” but that describes precisely Merton’s problem.

It is just such a context in one of his journals in January 1961, that I hit these poignant words. Merton says, “To be freed from involvements---on all sides.”

And then it gets better. Merton adds, “To know when, how and to whom to say no! Considerable notes and difficulties. Not to want to hurt people certainly, but not being too anxious to placate them.” I wince at how true that is.

It makes me ponder all my involvements. Most of them are good involvements. They are all legal and some are even laudable. But do I need them? Are they helping me with the central aim of my life: to live and to love? And to ponder even more closely that challenging words of Merton is a real chore. Do I know when, how and to whom to say no? I fear my answer is no…no, I don’t know when. No, I don’t know how. And no, I don’t know to whom I should say no.

And I fear that if I have insufficient time of silence and solitude, then I will never figure this out. And if I never figure this out, I will not experience any spiritual growth. Instead I will be captive in my context. And it really is not my context; it is my social context. All the people and the sounds/noise of my world are my context.

Again, the people in my social context are not bad. In fact, most of them are good and some are already enrolled in the sainthood program! And the sounds of my social context are not awful. Some are actually quite sweet. But they fill my space and that leaves no room for grace.

The answer? Just say no. “No” is the road to freedom. It frees me from the captivity of my context. “No” is different than “never.” If I tell someone or something “no,” it does not mean I can’t come back to it and re-engage. Just say no. Give myself a chance and a choice.

Just say no. Choose some silence and solitude so, in turn, I can grow spiritually and deepen service.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Disenchanted Universe

One of the people I routinely turn to for my own inspiration is Richard Rohr.  I have a number of his books and have enjoyed reading all of them.  I suppose I have read enough of him that I can pretty much figure out where he is going.  But I am fine with that.  I have never thought the only reason to read is to learn new things.  Of course, that is a good reason to read, but it is not the only reason.
Most of us probably have favorite books.  For many of us one of those books would be the Christian Bible.  And even within that Bible, we might have our favorites.  When I think about the gospels, I confess I prefer John’s Gospel.  When I was growing up, I heard people say that John was the Quaker Gospel.  I had no idea what this meant, but surely it suggested it should be my favorite.  It is my favorite and maybe that is true because some older women in my Quaker meeting told me it was the Quaker Gospel.  When I think about Rohr, my favorite book is the first one of his I read, namely, Everything Belongs. 
I’m not sure when I first read this book.  It was originally published in 1999.  I still occasionally use the book in some classes I teach.  And I know there are newer editions, because the pagination in my original edition is different than the ones students use.  That is not a problem except I like to use my original edition because that is the one I have underlined and marked with notations on the side.  Re-reading my original editions is like visiting a treasure.  Rohr is a master of turning a wonderful phrase or, even, a paragraph.  I love reading these one-liners and tidbits of spiritual insight.
The passage I want to lift up comes in the chapter Rohr entitles, “Cleansing the Lens.”  Anyone with dirty glasses or old enough to have had cataracts knows what this means.  Rohr wants to help us understand that good spiritual teachers enable us to see clearly.  We all know that the language of seeing can be used literally, as in actually seeing the tree in front of us.  But “seeing” language also can be used figuratively or metaphorically.  When we understand something, we exclaim, “I see!” 

With this in mind, let me quote Rohr as he distinguishes contemplation and cynicism.  “At the bottom of the deconstruction of our society is a cynical response to reality.  If contemplation teaches us to see an enchanted world, cynicism is afraid there is nothing there.”  He continues by saying, “We’re tremendously underconfident about what it means to be human.  For many secular people today it is a disenchanted universe without meaning, purpose, or direction.  We are aware only of what it is not.  Seldom do we understand what it is.  Probably it is only healthy religion that is prepared to answer that question.”

I agree with Rohr that there is much cynicism in our world.  It is easy to be cynical.  All you need to do is complain, be negative and bash hopes.  Cynics never add anything positive.  They are never constructive.  That is why Rohr talks about “deconstruction.”  Cynics are deconstructionists.  What fascinates me is how Rohr links this to the idea of enchantment.  This is not a normal word used in the circles I run.  I like the idea of enchantment.  I realize some folks might associate the word with attraction---almost sexy.

It can come close to this idea.  Enchantment means pleasure or, better, delight.  Obviously, being sexy can lead to both pleasure and delight.  But those are much bigger words than sex.  Nature can be enchanted.  Many other things can share the characteristic of enchanting---even people.  Some folks link enchantment to being under a spell---sometimes magic points us in this direction.  Again, I am good with that.  I do think some people are magical in the way they live or make things happen.  Jesus was not a magician, but he certainly was magical in the way he challenged his followers to a higher form of life.

I like the way Rohr links enchantment with meaning, purpose and direction in life.  And he is probably right in sensing that many of us don’t even know what it is.  This situation then creates cynics! Rohr helps us “see” and when we see spiritually, life begins to be enchanting.  We begin to take delight in who we are and what we are called to do.  For most of this it does not mean spectacular things.  In my own case it simply means being more aware and attentive in what I routinely do. 

Enchantment is not an other-worldly phenomenon.  Enchantment is discovering meaning and purpose in the ordinariness of our lives.  Enchantment is learning to be delighted in the gifts we have rather than longing for what we don’t have.  Becoming enchanted is a constructive way of living.  Cynicism is bashing of any hope for purpose or purposeful direction in life. 

The good news is we have choices.  We can see and choose a life that is cynical.  We can successfully ruin ourselves and those around us.  We can choose a disenchanted life and universe for ourselves.  Or we can see and choose a life that is enchanted.  With this we can have meaning and purpose.  And we’ll have friends and hope in the process.