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Friday, April 28, 2017

Ten-Speed Bike

While reading for an upcoming speech I have to give, I ran across a great quotation and some helpful reflection.  Although it was not inherently a spiritual message, it struck me that implicitly it was spiritual.  The one-liner comes from the well-known Peanut cartoonist, Charles Schulz.  He said, “Life is a ten-speed bike.  Most of us have gears we never use.” 

Obviously Schulz is using an analogy here.  Life is more complex than a bicycle.  But if we understand something about the bike, then we can gain some insight to life.  This is a time-honored way of approaching not only life, but also spirituality.  Use what you know to learn about what you may know less about.  Of course, most of us have ridden bicycles in our lifetime.  And you have to be pretty old to remember bikes that only had one gear!  Since I can recall those kinds of bikes, that is one more sign that age is creeping up on me. 

At some point, the bike that only had one speed evolved to the 3-speed bicycles.  I do remember this very well.  At the time, they seemed like a stunning invention.  Just imagine, we speculated, how much riding would get easier if you could shift the bike into a lower gear as you climbed a hill.  It was advancement over the one-speed bike.  It complicated the riding process, but it enhanced the process in the same vein.   

And then more gears started appearing on bicycles.  There were ten-speeds and fourteen gears.  Then it even evolved into the bikes with more than twenty gears.  Riding these kinds of bikes became something the casual biker did not really know how to do.  As I think about it, our lives may evolve in similar fashion. 

Some of us are more like 3-speed bikes.  We are fairly simple.  We do have flexibility; we can do the “hills of life” easier than earlier folks.  But life is still simple.  Of course, as our world and life itself get more complicated, it is nice to have more gears to cope with the complexity.  Let’s imagine the complexities of life to be like the hills one faces in an extended bike ride.  Bike rides and life are not usually totally flat and without obstacles.  The “gears” give us more capacity to cope and even excel when we face these obstacles and hills.  This is where the Schulz quotation began to take me. 

I do think it is true that most of us have gears we have not used.  John Maxwell, who writes about leadership, asks a good question.  “What are we saving those gears for?”  Let’s assume that we have some significant God-given talent.  And when we combine that with some dedicated education and a good dose of life experience, we are equipped with several “gears” on our life-bikes.  One trouble is not thinking we actually have these “gears,” when in fact we do have them.  Another problem is not caring or being too lazy to use all our “gears” to get the most out of life.

Maybe we have settled for too little in our life.  I’m afraid there is much in our current American culture that simply counsels people to “do your own thing.”  We are extolled to do whatever we want---if we can.  This is basically culturally approved egotism!  On the contrary, I would argue that one facet of our life on earth is to get where God wants us to go.  We are to ride our “life-bikes” into the Divine sunset!  Along the way we are to do good, to work for justice, to love the unlovable, etc.  That hardly sounds like egotism.  I think God wants us to care as much about our neighbor as our self!  

Life, like riding a bike, takes effort.  In fact, Maxwell tells us, “It’s not good to travel through life without breaking a sweat.”  I agree.  I like one more point Maxwell makes.  He tells us to beware of the problems of “self-imposed limitations.  They limit us as much a real ones.”  It makes me pause and ask whether I have self-imposed limitations?  If so, what are they?  Self-imposed limitations would be like having gears on my “life-bike” that I will never use.  They limit my capacity to do the good and to be compassionate in significant ways. 

Maxwell puts it succinctly when he acknowledges, “Life is difficult enough as it is.  We make it more difficult when we impose additional limitations on ourselves.”  God has given us abilities and gifts.  We have talent to make a big difference in the world.  In fact, our job is to help God bring the Kingdom.  That’s our “life’s ride.”  So let’s not limit ourselves.

I want to ponder those places and occasions where I limit myself.  I do think my life is a ten-speed bike.  I fear I am riding while I only use four or five of my gears.  I am moving through life, but I could be doing much more.  I know I can’t ride as aggressively as when I was young, but I can “ride” more wisely and with experience.  Sometimes, it is simply a matter of shifting into another gear!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Unceasing Prayer

People in the major religious traditions of the world, with the possible exception of Buddhism, believe in and practice some form of prayer.  Christians pray to God---classically understood as God the Father.  In my own devotional life, I am just as content to pray to God the Mother.  In fact, I like having both parental images.  One gets different content with each image. 

Most of us have had a father and a mother.  Even if we came from a single-parent family, many of our friends would have had both parents.  If you think about fathers, then you begin to get a sense of the “content” of the image of God the Father.  In my case, my father---Dad---was a hard-working farmer.  So that image is tinged with all sorts of agricultural images, too.  He cultivated the land; he took care of animals.  So the father image has connotations of someone who cares and is careful.  If your dad worked in a factory or taught school, likely your “content” is different than my content.

The same goes with the image of God the Mother.  For many people this is a bit strange to hear.  Probably most people who grew up within the church seldom or never heard people use that phrase, God the Mother.  It is a biblical and historical image, but no one ever told me that either!  Again, there are fairly predictable things associated with the image of mother.  Typically she is more tender than father.  Usually images of nurturer and comforter come with that image. 

As Christians when we pray, we are normally dealing with that kind of God.  Jews have a prayer life that is similar to Christians, but it is not the same.  When I am with the Jewish community, I get a more powerful sense of the group than I typically get in Christian congregations.  It seems Jews see God, first of all, as the God of a people.  Only secondarily do Jews have that sense of individuality.  To be a Jew is to belong to a people---a people called together and bound in a covenant with God and with each other.  To that end, prayer feels more corporate. 

When Muslims turn to Allah in prayer, I usually feel like God has become more mighty and more awesome.  Just watching the devout Muslim pray five times a day ups the ante in my book.  And they assume a posture that clearly humbles the believer in the face of that God, Allah.  The Muslim gets on bended knew and prostrates herself or himself on the floor.  It is a clear sign of humility to place your forehead on the floor below yourself.  It makes me feel like a wimp just to sit in my chair and close my eyes. 

I suppose most of us---if we pray at all---tend to do it on the run.  We give a momentary nod in the direction of the Divinity and get on with the business of the day.  Of course, some people are more dedicated and disciplined than that, but I suspect my description covers the bulk of the people.  I know my own life of prayer too often is a quick hello to God, a petition for something to come my way, and an adios to God on my way to my own affairs.  I have done my duty, but have I been dutiful? 

What would it be to take prayer seriously?  Immediately, my mind went to that Pauline idea of prayer unceasingly.  That passage occurs in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17)  There Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Some translations say to “pray constantly.”  It certainly depends on how you define prayer whether praying constantly is possible. 

For example, if prayer is a matter of uttering holy words, then it seems clear to me you cannot pray unceasingly.  I don’t utter holy words during sleep, etc.  But if prayer is more like an attitude or perspective, then it is conceivable to see prayer as a constant.  I was helped to think about this second option by a short article I recently read. David Brattston writes that “As long as we speak and act in accordance with the divine will…we are praying.” 

I like the basic idea that prayer is somehow being in accordance with the divine will.  That makes prayer different than simply uttering holy words, although that counts, too.  It’s a broader understanding of prayer.  It makes prayer an action, as well as speaking words.  To put it another way, prayer can be my verbal articulation or prayer could be my life in action. 

If we are living a life in accordance with God’s desires, then we are praying constantly.  Our lives are a prayer.  Our lives are a petition to God to remain present to us during the day and through the night.  We are praying unceasingly.  I want to engage more and more in that kind of prayer.  In addition to mouthing prayer words, I want my life also to be an act of prayer.  As I live, so I pray.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Thirsty Soul

Last night I turned to the last prayers of the day, which are focused around a couple readings from the Psalms and a Biblical passage.  The night prayer in the monastery is called Compline.  When I visit a monastery, I think it may be my favorite part of the day.  It “finishes” off the day of worship and work and the monks head to their rooms and a night’s sleep. 

When I visit one of my favorite monasteries, Gethsemani in Kentucky, Compline comes at 7:30pm.  It is not a long service.  This is understandable when you realize the monks will be up again and in the sanctuary at 3:15am!  What’s interesting is that for much of the year, the monks begin in the darkness and conclude in the darkness.  I like Compline during those months when the sun has already gone down and the monks and the visitors gather in the soft lights for the last service.  As the service is ending, the lights are turned out and only one or two lights make the exit possible.  That truly does give one a sense of peace for the night to come. 

Of course, it is not the same thing when I am sitting in my easy chair.  I read the texts for Compline on my computer, so the screen is brighter than any spot in a monastery would be.  And when you are by yourself, it is not the same as being with 60 monks and assorted visitors.  But it is still significant for me to join in spirit with the monks and be ready to welcome the night. 

I appreciate some monks somewhere choosing the readings for the various worship spots throughout the day.  It should not be surprising that the Psalm themes for Compline focus on peace, on rest, and protection from the Holy One as one gets ready to pass into the sleep mode.  I always laugh and think of the child’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”  Perhaps Compline is the adult version of that! 

One of the Psalms I read for last night was Psalm 143.  Let me pick out a few lines from that Psalm to develop these inspirational reflections.  The Psalm is a conversation between the Psalmist and God.  The Psalmist says, “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” (143:5-6)  I appreciate the reminder of the Psalmist here that I, too, should take some time to think about the Divine Deeds, some of which have come to me.  I am thankful for another day and the graces that come with it. 

Some days are better than others, but probably no day goes by without some form of grace.  I am grateful for friends and can pray for those who make my life more difficult.  I hope they pray for me when I am a hassle rather than a helper!  I want my day today to find me more graceful and less grumpy.  I want to bring peace rather than blast things to pieces! 

The Psalmist meditates on the works of God’s hands.  It is easy to see this as an invitation to pay attention to nature.  Even if we believe in some version of evolution and hold somehow to God’s patient hand in the evolutionary process, we can still gives thanks for the creative power and majesty of God’s handiwork.  Mountains may not have been made in one day, but they are there nevertheless and no less amazing.  Thanks be to God! 

And then the Psalmist moves to the line that gave me the title for this reflection.  The Psalmist says, “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” (143:6)  This sentence conveys great imagery.  Stretching out my hands is symbolic.  It is symbolic of openness and desire.  The outstretched hands, in effect, are saying, “come to me” or “receive me.”  The outstretched hands are a petition for relationship.

Contrast this image with arms folded across the chest and hands disappeared in those folded arms.  This symbolizes independence or, even, defensiveness.  It certainly is not a request for relationship.  I want to spend more time today with hands and arms outstretched and less time defending myself or my opinions. 

The Psalmist finishes that sentence by switching imagery.  The Psalmist says that the soul “thirsts” for God.  Sense language is being used metaphorically.  Everyone knows what it is like to be thirsty.  This is a good imagery to convey the soul’s desire for God.  And the Psalmist adds one more piece to this imagery. 

The soul’s thirst is like parched land.  Again in days of drought, the imagery of parched land is powerful.  We know what that looks like: hard, brittle, lifeless, colorless and sad.  So can a soul be without God’s Presence.  No doubt, this is why the Biblical tradition so often uses water as the image of Presence. 

So Lord, water me today.  My soul thirsts for you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Flowering: Doing Your Job

It happened quite innocently. I was not even looking for an idea for reflection. But there they were: flowers. I had just finished my run and was slowly walking around the front of our Recreation Center. It was hot and I wanted to cool down a little before going into an air-conditioned building. I was tired and not very alert.

But there they were: flowers. They were beautiful. Resplendent colors, but mostly white and a variety of purples met my eyes. There were two benches, but it was the urns at the end of each bench which caught my attention. The urns are pretty big. I doubt that I could wrap my hands around one. And they all were full of those radiant flowers. They were so full of flowers, one could see nothing else inside.

Obviously, they were in dirt. They were real. They were alive. I suppose artificial flowers can be pretty. But they are not the same. Natural beauty beats artificial beauty any day! Maybe the same thing goes for natural human beauty!

I had only intended to take a minute to cool down and, then, I planned to head inside to stay cool. I had stopped for a short break and found beauty instead! In the face of this cosmic generosity, I decided to sit on one of the benches and bask in the gift of beauty that had been given me.

The flowers became my teacher. I sat on that bench and tried to open myself to this didactic exercise…in other words, I let myself be taught. I began to be amazed at how many little flowers there were in each of those four urns. I could take my thumb and biggest finger and surround each little flower. Individually, they would be pretty, but no big deal.

But all together in that urn, they became a veritable knockout! One little flower by itself would offer only one color. Oh, it would be pretty enough. I like purple and one purple flower would be quite nice. But all together----whites surrounded by a variety of purples---were stunning.

I appreciated the beauty. Maybe that is all one is supposed to do with beauty. It is not meant to be utilitarian---to be useful. Beauty is meant to be appreciated, not applied. To appreciate means to take some time, to ponder, to soak, to bask, and other great action verbs like these. Had I simply stopped a moment to catch my breath and go on, I would have missed the beauty that graced my world.

Then it dawned on me. Those flowers were doing their jobs. I am not sure who assigned them the job: be beautiful. I guess I settle on God. I suppose it could be Fate or Destiny or Genetics. Those are ok, too. But I like God. Surely, some guy or gal planted those seeds and hoped they would grow into beauty. So the planter did not assign the job; he or she only started the process by planting.

And how they have done their job! Of course, then the spiritual lesson emerges. I have been planted in this world. I am old enough to have spent considerable time growing. The question is whether there are any blooms on me? I don’t know that my job is to be beautiful, but I do believe I have a job to do…and so do you.

Perhaps, this re-introduces God into our picture. What job does God intend for you? For what reason were you “planted” in this world? In a general sense, I am willing to say the job of all of us is to love the way God wants us to love.

And I also believe God wants us to serve. The flowers served me well today. Have I been loving and a servant in a way that God would be pleased? Have you loved and served in a way God would say, “Beautiful?” The way I see it, that’s our job: to flower as individuals in this world.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Dripping Water

The title for this inspiration may seem odd.  But it comes from a story the famous Buddhist writer in spirituality shared in his wonderful book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who grew up in Vietnam.  He was forced to leave that country in the 1960s in the throes of the American involvement in that civil war.  Hanh eventually settled in France, but he has traveled all over the world.  He is one of the best known writers on spirituality.  When I use one of his books in class, students always fall in love with Hanh.
Near the end of that book, Hanh shares some autobiographical information about his younger days in Vietnam.  He tells the reader he became a novice Buddhist monk at age 16.  Most of us in this country could not imagine making that kind of decision at that young age.  All I wanted at age 16 was my driver’s license!  I hope I was mature enough for the responsibilities of driving, but certainly I was not ready to make a life-long spiritual decision as Hanh did. 
In a way that was not immediately clear, Hanh uses this fact of becoming a Buddhist monastic novice to tell a story about bells.  He notes that he grew up hearing bells.  As he notes, “In my country, I heard the Buddhist temple bells…”  He reflects on the fact he also heard the bells of the Roman Catholic Church, but those were not special bells for him.  All this leads him to share an early story of his life that I found intriguing and profound. 
He begins the story in this innocent way.  “I was about eleven years old and on a small mountain in northern Vietnam called Na Son.”  He tells us that he had gone to the mountain with a very big group of school boys and girls.  Since they were inexperienced climbers, they went out too fast.  Half way up the mountain, they were exhausted and out of water.  With this setting, Hanh sneaks in what will be the main focus for this story.  “I had heard that on the top of the mountain there was a hermit who practiced to become a Buddha.  I had never seen a hermit, so that day I was very excited.  I wanted to see a hermit, to see how he practiced to become a Buddha.”

Hanh shares with the reader that he had seen a picture of a Buddha.  The picture portrayed this religious figure as one who “looked so peaceful, so relaxed, and so happy…Looking at the Buddha’s picture, I suddenly wanted to become someone like him, peaceful, relaxed, and happy.”  Hanh was eight years old!  Somehow half way up that mountain that day, Hanh connected his image of the Buddha with what he thought he would see when he found the hermit.  “That is why I was excited to meet the hermit,” he claims.  I would have expected the same.

Sadly, when Hanh and his group reached the summit, the hermit was not to be found.  Of course, Hanh was deeply disappointed.  Then he reflects, “I guess a hermit is a man who wants to live alone and he does not want to meet three hundred children all at the same time.”  So Hanh concludes the hermit must have hidden.  Makes sense to me!

I appreciate the spirit of this young guy.  Undaunted, he tells us “I left my friends and went alone into the forest hoping that I would be able to discover the hidden hermit.  After a few minutes, I began to hear the sound of water dripping.  The sound was very beautiful; it was like a piano.”  It is easy for me to let my imagination take me to the mountaintop with the young Buddhist-to-be, Hanh.  I can imagine his disappointment at not finding the gnarled old hermit somewhere.  And then, he hears the water dripping.  Somehow this gives him hope.
He continues his saga.  “I followed it (the sound), and very quickly I discovered a beautiful natural well.  The water was so clear, you could see everything at the bottom.”  The young guy is ecstatic.  He describes carefully the well.  He proceeded to taste the water and comments, “I had never tasted water that was so delicious.”  And then comes the great conclusion.  Hanh tells us, “I had read a lot of fairy tales and was very influenced by them.  I believed that the hermit had transformed himself into the well in order for me to meet him privately.”  The dripping water had led Hanh to the transformed hermit, masquerading as a natural well.
We could dismiss this as youthful fantasy.  But maybe there is a lesson here.  It makes me wonder if I have gone into the world looking for God as surely as Hanh went looking for a hermit, who revealed the Buddha?  Disappointed, I never seem to find God, who either went into hiding or, worse, simply does not exist.  This is exactly what so many in our world conclude.
But maybe, just maybe, God also goes into hiding.  We won’t see God face to face, one-on-one.  Instead, God transforms into things more ordinary.  Maybe God becomes a natural well.  But more likely, God comes into the poor and downtrodden who cross my path.  God might be in the depressed gal or the little kid who is a pain.  Maybe God is calling me into those places which are calling for my compassion.  Maybe God is in the delirious play of the kids who know pure joy and exuberance.
Maybe God is all over the place, but I only hear something like dripping water and dismiss it as nothing.  The youthful Hanh has taught me a good lesson.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Don't Rush It

I have been doing some background reading for an article I intend to write.  This kind of work is interesting to me for a number of reasons.  In this instance one reason is one of the people I am focusing on is someone I knew, namely, Douglas Steere, a stalwart Quaker of the 20th century.  I knew Douglas and his wife, Dorothy, through some mutual Quaker activities.  At the time I came to know him, Douglas was already post-retirement.  Although he was still very active, he clearly was aging.   

Douglas was one of those people who had done many significant things in his life.  It was easy for me to see this man in his “ripe old age.”  I have used that line many times.  When I used it as a kid, it was not usually complimentary.  The connotations suggested some old guy who basically had lost it…or outlived his usefulness in life.  The arrogance of youth is sometimes truly amazing!  Perhaps God’s best joke on me is giving me enough years that I slowly am becoming a guy looking in the mirror as his “ripe old age.”  And maybe I have lost it and don’t know it! 

But Douglas was a sage---his wisdom was both impressive and evident.  His experience was both deep and wide.  He had participated in redevelopment work after WW II in Europe.  He was an official non-Catholic observer during the Vatican II sessions.  He was a mover and shaker with many major players on the religious scene in the middle of the 20th century.  For example, I have enjoyed coming to know about Steere’s relatively brief friendship with Thomas Merton, famous Catholic monk who died in 1968. 

I was reminded of this relationship when I was re-reading a 1975 article Steere entitled, “Contemplation and Leisure.”  In that article Douglas was talking about some of the essence of the Quaker spirit.  Since I am a Quaker, I had to chuckle at this description.  According to Steere, Quakers “have nevertheless throughout their history been in continuous protest against an overplanned church, with overplanned programs, overplanned rituals, overplanned physical plants, overplanned creedal requirements, and overplanned authority and patterns of governance.”  I laughed because I thought there are seeds of truth in this. 

It seems to me any institution inherently tends in the direction of overplanniing.  The overplanning often becomes part of the structure.  But sometimes the structure and the overplanning begin to sap the life out of the institution.  Institutions rush ahead to plan even more.  Activity sometimes masks effectiveness.  Just “doing it,” is not the same as “doing something important.”   

Too often, individuals and groups do not stop and occasionally ask, “why are we doing this?” And if we never ask this question, probably we will keep on doing what we are doing.  We will assume it is important or, perhaps, meaningful.  This especially concerns me when I think about walking along the spiritual path.  The real question here is whether God is leading me along in the direction I am going? 

I have often told people I only have two key issues in my life: learning how to live and to love.  It is easy to assume I am doing fine with these, but deep down, I know that is not a legitimate assumption.  I need to test it some.  Am I in touch with God and what God desires from me?  Is my life heading in that vital, loving direction I most want? 

Quakers have traditionally held to the notion that God is present to us and that we can know the Divine Desire for our lives.  But it is not automatic.  God will not text me to tell me how it’s going.  I don’t go on email expecting something from the Holy One!  This is where one last line from Steere was incredibly helpful.

Steere assures me and you in these words.  “Of this Inward Guide, the Quakers would agree with Thomas Merton that when they are truly quiet and centered ‘we don’t have to rush after it.  It was there all the time and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.’”  I love this idea and want to take the leisure to practice it.  I want to quiet myself and spend some centered time so that the Inward Guide will make itself known to me. 

This is not the same thing as the institutional answer.  It is not doctrine, much less dogma that I am looking for.  I am looking for the Divine Voice itself to speak to my life.  And I am willing to take the time and exercise the patience to wait for it.  Don’t rush it!  I realize how difficult this can be, even for me as a Quaker.  And I realize how counterculture it seems to Americans who are used to instant responses. 

One cannot plan the time, place, and occasion when God automatically will reveal the Divine Self to us.  Certainly, one cannot overplan this event or experience.  Don’t rush it.  Relax and be quiet.  Center and allow yourself to move from the margins of your life to the core where your soul can be touched by the Holy One.  You can do it.  I can do it.  I will do it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Climbing to God

Again, it’s back to the basics.  I know I have done this quite a bit.  But it is always a good thing occasionally to go back to the basics.  I like reading a range of material and I am always amazed how easy it is to find spiritual connections and lessons in a huge number of venues.  It is true, I believe, to find the spiritual ebbing through almost all of our daily life.  But there are always good reasons to go back to the basics. 

Back to the basics for me means that I engage the daily lectionary that I use.  Of course, most days I don’t use that to comment on life.  But it is always present.  It is the substratum of life for me.  It is part of the day’s pulsating presence.  I know it is always there, but I also know that sometimes I pay no attention.  And then I wonder why life seems a bit shallow or maybe a little more aimless.  God is always present and ready to speak to me, if I will but listen. 

I know God does not speak in a normal human way.  I don’t hear voices in my ears.  I don’t get visible signs in the world as I walk around in it.  I have no billboard divine announcements.  But God does speak.  I hear that voice in scripture.  I discern that divine voice in the words of God’s saints.  And frequently God speaks to me with the voice of my friends and acquaintances, but those are the most difficult to believe that God is actually using them for me! 

For example, this morning I turned to the morning readings from my lectionary---the daily prayers and readings from my Benedictine monk friends.  The heart of the morning lectionary reading was from Psalm 84.  It was a Psalm I had not remembered reading, but I am sure I have done it a few times.  I love the way the Psalm begins: “How delightful is your dwelling-place, Lord of Hosts.”  

Then a little later in the Psalm comes some great spiritual truth for me.  The Psalmist assures us, “Blessed the man whose help comes from you, who has set his heart on climbing to you.”  When I am devotionally attentive to this kind of material, I try to move through it slowly and let the truth impact me and to absorb it.  If I stay with this sentence, I realize it affirms that God helps us.  I am convinced this is true for all of us.  However, it is also true that this help may not always be very evident or visible.  Some of us would have a difficult time pointing to something and saying, “Yep, that’s God’s help.”  And so, it is easy to assume God helps others, but not me!

Maybe we need the other half of that verse to make it full.  God helps us, but we also have to set our heart on climbing to God.  That idea resonates with me, although there are times I confess I would just like God to help me and I’ll forget the climbing part!  Give me grace, O Lord, and don’t expect any effort from me!  Climbing?  That sounds like hard work! 

Let’s pursue the climbing theme to see how the Psalmist develops it.  The Psalmist tells us spiritual climbers “pass through the valley of thirst and make a spring there…”  The valley of thirst is a powerful image.  On the surface it sounds uninviting and foreboding.  Who wants voluntarily to pass through a valley of thirst?  Can’t God simply order a helicopter and fly us directly to the Presence of the Divine?  I think the answer is obvious. Spiritual climbing---the religious journey---takes human effort and the gift of Divine grace. 

Even though we go through the valley of thirst, there will be a spring made there.  I understand the spring to be symbolic of that grace God provides.  It takes some faith to believe that God will provide the grace of water if we head into the valley of thirst.  But if we have no faith, if we fail to go, we’ll never know that Presence of Divinity Itself. 

I would like to nab one more line from the Psalmist.  If we can undergo that spiritual climb, the Psalmist tells us that we “will go from strength to strength…”  That is encouraging and reassuring.  “Trust me,” I hear God telling us.  Trust is simply another word for “faith.”  Paradoxically, if you begin the work and effort of spiritual climbing, we will go from strength to strength.  Much of faith is paradoxical.  I think of the biblical assurance that in weakness comes strength.   

It is all worth it.  We have a goal.  The Psalmist puts it in biblical, theological terms.  The Psalmists blesses us with the promise: “they will see the God of gods, in Zion.”  You can’t see God unless you begin to climb.  Along the way, you will find springs of living water.  And instead of fatiguing, you will go from strength to strength.  And finally, you will “see.”   

We may literally see God.  But surely, metaphorically we will “see.”  We will understand life.  We will grasp meaning and purpose.  We will know that our life is good, is worthwhile, and has dignity.  We will know that we are treasures in earthen vessels.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Where Your Treasure Is

Long-time readers of this inspirational reflection could have rightly concluded that music is not a big deal with me.  Traditionally music was not important to Quakers.  In fact, the first two centuries or more of our history, music was not used at all.  And when I was growing up, music was not very present in my family.  So I have not had much in my context that supports and values music.  I am certainly not against it.   

Being a product of the 1960s means I was very aware of the rock n’ roll music that blared from the radios.  I recall how aghast the parental generation was when Elvis hit the scene.  I liked the Beach Boys and would agree that overall the lyrics of the music in the ‘60s left something to be desired!  By the time I was growing up, many Quakers were using music in their worship services, but it often was pretty mediocre. 

One of the things that I most liked when I began visiting monasteries was the music.  Very often, it would be the Gregorian chants that lured me into the feeling and the words of the music.  It felt very spiritual and I am not sure I could explain that.  But I liked it.  I began to appreciate how music could be a conduit for the Divine Presence.  I appreciate how soulful it could be. 

Recently, I wandered into a setting where the gathering hymn lured me into a meditative mode.  It did “gather” those of us who had come to worship.  Once again, I was very aware how affective---how much feeling---the music was for me.  The tone and melody sucked me into a deeper place within.  And yet paradoxically, it also brought me outside of myself to begin that process of joining and being conjoined with all the other people who were present.  It was as if the Spirit had come melodically into our midst and was picking each of us up by our souls and making us one.  We began to become one with the One.

I can be touched by the music and pay almost no attention to the words.  But this gathering hymn was so simple that when we sang it time and time again, the words started to work their way into my heart.  I did not have to read them any more.  My voice literally was putting words to music.  And this was part of the unison activity of all of us together. 

I was vaguely aware of the theology of the words I was singing.  I knew they were biblical words and could have told you they were from one of Paul’s epistles.  But I really did not want a biblical lesson.  I wanted the unifying worship experience.  And so I continued to participate at a sub-theological, sub-rational level.  It was time to be spiritual.  Theory would be shelved in favor of practice.

Time and time again, we began the gathering hymn.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be.”  I knew deeper and deeper that this was true.  In the moment I was sure my treasure was this group of people and our God.  When worship is over and I am on my own, I realize my treasure might slip into other, less divinely focused arenas.  I need to stay aware of this and watch out. 

The second line of the hymn spoke to this reality.  The line affirms, “All that your possess will never set you free.”  How true, indeed!  And that is why those of us who are rich in material wealth have such a hard time with authentic freedom.  Oh, we may be free to do, as we like.  But we are not really free.  We have to be on guard.  Again, I understand why my monk-friends take the vow of poverty.  Why not opt out of possessions and make oneself really free?  Sounds so simple, but it is difficult when we have stuff! 

I found the next line encouraging.  It tells me to “Seek the things that last.”  Again the truth of that seemed so obvious to me.  Once more, it is so simple.  Seek the things that last.  I guess that rules out fancy cars and all the trappings that I know I could easily go after.  I have enough money to buy some of that stuff!  A new car might be super, but it never can be soulful.  And ultimately, it will rust.  Maybe our souls also rust when we are seeking after the things that don’t last. 

And so we go back to the beginning.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be.”  Half the time, I have no clue where my heart is.  I could probably make up an answer if I were asked.  But would it be accurate and honest?  In many instances, I doubt that it would be. 

My treasure is likely betrayed by what I spend my time and effort on.  To what do I give my heart?  Making money?  Television or computer games?  We likely would not say they are our treasure or that we find our heart in those things.  But it is nevertheless true.  I want to do better.

So I am going to exercise some care with respect to my possessions.  And I am going to seek the things that last.  In a spiritual group I do pretty well.  On my own I realize I need help.  So Lord, grant me community---the gathered community.  It is a treasure in its own right. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


I don’t know how old I was when I learned the word, remember.  I suspect it is learned fairly early---at least early in the stage when you are learning bigger words.  My guess is this word is used with some frequency in households.  I also think it is a word that all normal people use.  It is not a sophisticated word that only highly educated folks have in their vocabulary.  It is a word we would hear at home.  And certainly, it would be a word heard at school.  No doubt, all of us were cajoled to remember the things we were learning.
I am confident the word first is associated with the things we learn and are not supposed to forget.  We learn math and sentence structure.  We are supposed to remember this stuff so we can go on to bigger learnings.  If we forget, then we have to be re-taught in order to remember.  As I think about it, to remember something is a present activity based on a past activity.  To remember is to make present that which I once learned or did in the past.  We never remember the future!
I first took Latin in high school.  At the time everyone who thought about going on to college took some kind of foreign language.  I don’t have a clue why I did Latin as opposed to Spanish or French (I think these were the only other options).  In many ways in retrospect I wish I had done Spanish, given how prevalent Spanish is in our culture.  But most of the folks I know can’t remember (!) any of their high school Spanish.  So Latin was not a bad choice.
Choosing Latin helped me with English and other foreign languages I eventually would try to learn.  I took more Latin in graduate school because I would need that language for the research necessary for my Ph.D. dissertation.  In high school I never thought I would use Latin in that fashion.  But it has served me well.
Since I knew Latin, I knew that the word, remember, was a compound word.  The “re” on the front of most words is the Latin word for “again.”  Hence our word, remember, literally means to “member again.”  Taking this a little further, I realize that remember means to “put things back together again.”  We get a clear sense of this when we go the other direction.  Most of us know exactly what it means to say something is “dismembered.”  If we cut up a chicken for dinner that night, the chicken is dismembered.  We get legs, thighs, breast, etc. which will be the meal for the family.  In this case it probably is literally impossible to “re-member” that same chicken!
If we take our word, remember, back into the cognitive arena, we realize that forgetting something is a form of dismembering.  We once had it, but presently forgot.  If we can bring it back into our memory, it is an act of remembering.  Sometimes that is easy; sometimes we need help.  I experience that sometimes with names.  Occasionally, I have a hard time remembering someone’s name.  It is maddening to know I once knew her name, but cannot recall it in the moment.  I refuse to chalk it up to getting older.  It is just momentary failure!
The direction I want to push this analysis is with respect to relationships and community.  Those are two arenas the idea of “remembering” plays a significant role.  In fact, I argue without the phenomenon of remembering, it is impossible to sustain relationships and community.  Let me elaborate.
Relationships have a tensile quality.  By this I mean, all relationships stretch and experience tension at points.  Even committed relationships like marriage have this tensile quality.  That means over time the relationships stretch, bend and undergo tension.  It the tension is too much, the relationship breaks.  It there is no tensile quality in the relationship, then the relationship probably does not matter.
If the relationship breaks or, even, is strained, some remembering is in order.  Things need to be restored---put back together again.  While it may take some effort, this remembering is very doable.  That is the neat, hopeful thing about remembering.  The same holds true when we apply it to community.
Community is a group of folks linked by common allegiances, commitments, etc.  An individual cannot be community.  Community requires others and relationships.  The can be wonderful, life-giving experiences.  And bad communities are awful, draining experiences.  Ultimately, these bad communities fall apart.  It is not possible to remember then---except as bad memories.
Good communities, on the other hand, are formed and re-formed every time they are re-membered.  Remembering happens every time the individuals gather again---unity from individualities.  To be in community is to be re-membered for the moment.  To be a member of a bigger entity is a wonderful experience.  To be in community is to be in something bigger than ourselves.  We give and we get.  Love and care are two of the most important gifts coming from the re-membering of the community.
Sometimes, I marvel at the depth and power of a word.  Remembering is one such word.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Attitude of Thanksgiving and Joy

The title of this inspiration comes from an unlikely source.  It is a quotation from former President, Jimmy Carter, in an editorial on his Christian beliefs.  I know something about the faith of this Georgia Baptist.  I know he has been a man of faith for a long time.  I respect him for his life and witness.  It is probably fair to say President Carter is a much-beloved man---more so since he was president than any time during or before his presidency. 
I voted for Carter in his election.  For many critics, his single-term presidency (1977-1981).  I remember the 1976 election and his close win over Gerald Ford.  I vividly remember his second day in office he pardoned all Vietnam draft dodgers.  I thought it was a savvy move, but obviously it was and, probably, still is controversial.  I saw is as an example of his capacity to forgive.  All of us who lived through the 60s know what a chaotic, crazy time it was.  And Vietnam was the epitome of that chaos.  Carter attempted to be a healing agent for the country.
Economically, it was a time of struggle.  There was high inflation, high unemployment and growth that slowed to a trickle.  As most of us know, economics make or break presidencies.  It doubtlessly sealed the deal for Carter’s defeat at the hands of Reagan in the 1980 election.  Reagan was the dominant figure in the 80s and Carter retreated into an amazing work that led to significant fame.  For example, at the turn of this millennium he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his Carter Center.  I have imminent respect for this man of faith.
And so it was I found the recent Op-Ed in the New York Times.  The writer, Nicholas Kristof, entitles his Op-Ed piece, “President Carter, Am I a Christian?”  I was drawn to read it because I suspected I would know how Carter would deal with provocative questions.  The real question Kristof posed was what I call “the Easter Question.”  That question asks whether one needs to believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian.  To this end Kristof began the query by pushing Carter on whether he believes in the literal reading of the Christian Bible?  Carter is clear he feels like the Bible is inspired and admits there are discrepancies within it.  This is what I would have expected President Carter to say.
An example Carter gives comes with his statement, “I accept the overall message of the Bible as true…”  Some would label this an avoidance of Kristof’s question, but I see Carter’s response to be valid and insightful.  In effect, he is saying he does believe the Resurrection to be “true,” as he affirms the miracles of the New Testament.  Carter details his answer in a winsome fashion.  He says, “My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof.”  Carter takes a stand, but does not insist that his faith is the same thing as a proof.  In fact, I am confident he would say he could not prove it.  The resurrection is what I call a “faith statement.”
To Kristof’s question about whether he (Kristof) is a Christian if he does not believe in the resurrection, Carter is very pastoral in his answer.  He simply explains, “I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian.”  Perhaps Kristof was hoping for a yes-no answer; Carter re-frames his answer by focusing on himself.  I am sure Carter is comfortable letting God decide such questions.  Maybe they are real questions God will decide and maybe they are only our questions, which are not really God’s questions.  I appreciate Carter’s wisdom.
Kristof continues his probing questions.  Another angle he pursues with Carter is whether Carter thinks good people, who are not Christian---people like Gandhi and others--- are doomed to hell because they are not believers.  Again, I loved Carter’s gentle answer to this pesky question.  He says, “I do not feel qualified to make a judgment. I am inclined to give him (or others) the benefit of any doubt.”  This satisfies me.
And it was in Kristof’s ending question about prayer that I most resonated with Carter.  Of course, Carter believes in and practices prayer.  But then he added the sentence I most admire.  He states, “My general attitude is of thanksgiving and joy.”  This is a perspective I would want for myself and could wish for everyone else---friend and foe alike.  This shows Jimmy Carter at his very best.  His general attitude is thanksgiving and joy.  As I hear that, I realize I tend to substitute “gratitude” for “thanksgiving,” but to the same end.
Carter did not say it, but I do think he meant that being a Christian and practicing prayer, etc. has brought him to this attitude as a way for him to live.  And it is a powerful way to live.  Just think: if you could wake up every day and be thankful.  And can you and I maintain that attitude of gratitude throughout our day.  Of course, not everything will go our way.  There will be bumps and we will be bruised.  An attitude of thanksgiving can be maintained, even if some things don’t go my way. 
I am sure Carter was not thankful he lost the presidency to Reagan, but this did not eradicate his attitude of thanksgiving.  It did not ruin his life.  He chose thanksgiving instead of bitterness.  He never would have won the Nobel Prize if he had chosen to be bitter!  Instead he chose to be better.  And this choice opened the road of joy for him to tread.
To be joyful is not the same thing as being happy.  Happiness is fleeting; joy abounds and we can abide in joy, even when things again don’t always go our way.  This Jimmy Carter teaches me.  Each new day I have a choice.  Jesus modeled this way and Carter is on the way. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Holy Week

We find ourselves moving through what Christians know as Holy Week.  It begins with Palm Sunday, which was last Sunday, and it culminates with Easter Sunday.  On the way through the week we pass Good Friday, a mysterious Saturday between the crucifixion and, then, the resurrection of Jesus that Easter celebrates.  It is a heavy-duty week for Christians.  For other folks, it is just another week!

So for my Christian readers, I hope this week continues to have possibilities of being a “holy week” for you.  It is worth thinking a bit about what holy week might mean.  A number of things occur.  One that occurs to me is that one ingredient necessary for it to be “holy” was that we need to take time.  “Take Time to be Holy,” the classic hymn I remember singing when I was young, can become the theme song for the day.  I am sure that holiness requires time. 

Time is an interesting commodity.  In the business world a commodity is anything that exists that people can sell.  A commodity would be the same across the board among sellers.  Corn, for instance, is a commodity.  Corn is corn; it does not matter who is selling.  We look for the cheapest price.  We buy.

So in one sense, time is a commodity.  Everyone in the world gets twenty-four hours every day---no more, no less.  The real question, of course, is what one does with those twenty-four hours.  We can spend some of them striving to be holy.  Or we can devote the whole time to other affairs, which might be entirely secular or even profane.  So during this Holy Week, Christians are encouraged to “take time to be holy.”

In addition to time, another practical guide for learning the art of the holy is to “pay attention.”    Increasingly, it seems, we live in a world that pays little or no attention to the sacredness of our surroundings.  Too many of us are oblivious to the sacred.  Even the season of spring is the miraculous coming to life again of God’s good, sacred world.  Holy Week is a good occasion for questions. 

Sometimes, a good question is a great way to pay attention.  For example, do I have a sense of the sacred?  Where do I find the sacred in my life?  Sometimes we find the sacred inside the church.  But just as frequently, we find the sacred in other places---scattered here and there amidst the secularity of life.  Interestingly, I routinely discover the sacred in my classroom.  It pops out in deep encounters of students engaging the Spirit of God when they had not expected to meet and be met by that Spirit.  Very often the sacred comes through our engagement with Nature. 

We know that green is the color of spring.  Green is the color of life springing back into the grass.  Spring came early this year in my part of the world.  One can take a drive and notice the vibrant green of the fields.  We can watch the trees spring back to life with emerging leaves.  Easter is all around us, if we but pay attention.  Nature is in the throes of its own resurrection right before our eyes.

This leads us to say spirituality is the way to discover the life of Easter in what, otherwise, may be merely an experience in emptiness.  To pursue the theme of spring, we read these words from Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul.  “Spirituality is seeded, germinates, sprouts and blossoms in the mundane.  It is to be found and nurtured in the smallest of daily activities.” (p. 219)  It is in the middle of the mundane---the worldly---that spirituality is found.  And it was in the profanity of a murder---an execution---that God’s Spirit wrought the miracle of new life.  Holy Week charts the movement from murder to miracle---from the awful to the awe-ful.

The discovery and nurture of this spirituality in this Easter season comes as we pay attention.  Paying attention means we are alert.  We are interested.  We want to be engaged.  We are willing to listen.  We are willing to learn – to be open, to risk, to move.

I am not sure we know how to pay attention any more.  I often see men and women driving around all insulated from the word with windows up.  Sadly, I do it myself!  Not only are we insulated, but also we are talking on phones as we drive along.  How can we pay attention to a meaningful conversation, drive and enjoy God’s sacred world at once?

Easter means getting out of our “cars of life,” hanging up on the unimportant conversations in our lives, and opening our eyes to the sacred.  Holy Week will bring us to Easter and that will bring us to new life. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Week and Easter…Again

Even if you are a Christian, I have concluded it depends on where you are---what is your context---how aware of Holy Week and the impending Easter you are.  If you are a Christian and work in a mainly secular environment, you may be relatively unaware of Holy Week.  For many it does not dawn on them until at least Thursday.  And of course, in the secular world there is absolutely nothing special about Thursday.

But even in the secular world, Friday often assumes special connotations.  It might be a holiday---a day off.  It is at my University.  So I suppose it is the one day Jews, Muslims, atheists, and other non-Christians are thankful for their Christian brothers and sisters!  But for the Christian, Friday---Good Friday---is an interesting one.

I suspect that for many Christians Friday is simply skipped.  They see Easter as very special and nothing else really matters.  The resurrection is key for them.  Why bother with anything less?  Let’s skip sadness and depression and go straight for the joy and jubilation!

Even as a Christian, that quick move to Easter seems too easy.  That choice seems to me an option for a suffering-less Jesus, and by implication, a suffering-less world.  Ever since I began studying some of this Christian faith (instead of just going to church because of family expectations), it seemed clear to me that you can’t have Sunday without Friday.  In fact, the Romans and all the oppressors throughout the ages are all-to-real to be able to skip.  There simply has been and is too much suffering to ignore.

Whatever Christianity is, I believe it is not an “ignoring religion.”  In fact, none of the major religious traditions are “ignoring religions.”  I am very aware that my Jewish sisters and brothers have already this week entered the Passover season.  Passover is that annual remembering of the Jewish suffering in Egypt and God’s liberation of God’s people.  Of course, they were liberated straight into the desert!  But that is another story for another time.

But the Jewish Passover season may well hold the key to a proper understanding of the Christian Easter celebration.  Rightly understood, I think Easter is its own story of liberation.  In this case Christians would affirm the same liberating God chose a different way of doing it.  Instead of a trip through the Red Sea, God in Jesus walked the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) straight to the cross.

You can’t get to Sunday without living (and dying) on Friday.  Knowing this impacts me in a deep way.  Who among us would not want to skip Friday and go straight to Sunday?  But it does not work this way.  The story of Easter is always the story of hope.  But it must go through Friday.  The desire to skip Friday is an option for illusion. 

What is important for me this Holy Week and Easter---important again is how it grounds me in the deeper realities of my life.  Sometimes, I think I live most of my life as if I were in Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  I know my own Friday will come, but I put off thinking about it.  I get too involved in my own little secular world to think about death, meaning, and ultimate purpose.  I can even live my Wednesdays without much sense that Friday is looming.

Thankfully, these seasons of Passover and Holy Week are annual events.  If I ignore or mess up this one, I get another chance next year---assuming my own Good Friday does not come.

So I want to resolve to pay attention.  I want to pay attention to fact of oppression, the suffering in reality, and the story of love’s triumph.  And then let me resolve always to be on love’s side!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Work a Miracle

I was listening fairly closely as the priest was working his way through the liturgy.  It may seem odd that a Quaker participates so gladly in a much more liturgical worship than a silent form of worship which would be my normal fare.  Sometimes I joke and say I am spiritually ambidextrous!  That is not a bad comparison.  To be able to shoot a basketball with either hand was an asset when I played ball.  And to be able to participate and appreciate a highly structured worship approach or one rooted unstructured in silence feels enriching to me.   

The good news for me is I feel comfortable in either setting.  I have participated in liturgical worship situations fairly frequently, so I know what’s going on.  I can play my role as a participant in the group.  I like the fact that I will not be chosen to be up front and leading.  I like the music, the prayers and the sacrament.  But I also like those places in the liturgy where I won’t be able to guess what the priest might say or do. 

There are the predictable unstructured places, even in the liturgy.  The homily or sermon is one such place.  There are other places where good priests have some liberty in what they will say or do.  I especially like to be attentive at those places. 

It was just in one of these open spaces that I heard the phrase that I knew was going to stick in my brain and become the focus of some reflection.  I have no idea what the context of the phrase was.  It was near the end of the worship experience.  The priest said that “in some way to work a miracle.”  It was an innocent little phrase.  It was not intoned any differently that the sentence before or after it.  In fact, I wonder how many people actually “heard” it in the sense that they could have shared it with another person?  I am not even sure why it registered so clearly in my brain.  But it was my take-away of the day! 

I am sure that what grabbed my attention was that part of the phrase which says we should “work a miracle.”  I wanted to say, “Yes,” to yell “Amen.”  I am for working a miracle, but then I realized I am not sure what that means.  This is where I need to reflect on the matter. 

Doubtlessly, the issue is the meaning of the word, miracle.  Work a miracle?  Sure, but what does a miracle look like?  At one level, I don’t like the word, miracle.  It is used too loosely in our culture.  There are miracles on baseballs fields and sundry other places.  Sometimes it can mean as little as something special.  I am not against special things, but I don’t categorize them as miracles. 

At the other extreme is the assumption that a miracle is any kind of divine intervention.  Again I have no problem thinking that God might intervene in some ways---although it is difficult to be specific.  And it clearly raises some troubling questions why God would not intervene in other cases, i.e. seriously sick people?   

I turned to the classical language and, as usual, found them helpful.  I know the Latin and Greek words for “miracle” can also be translated “wonder” or “marvel.”  This is helpful, but it is not conclusive.  But I am not really sure you can be conclusive when it comes to miracles.  That either disappoints us, or it might make us relieved.  I am one of those that are relieved that we can’t be conclusive about miracles.   

That means I might see or do a miracle that not every person would agree to be miraculous.  That is ok with me.  Let’s stay with the classical definition of miracle, i.e. a wonder or marvel.  If I can do something marvelous, I am willing to say that is miraculous.  It did not require God’s immediate intervention, although I am sure God would be happy with the miracle.  And if someone else does not interpret that marvelous deed as miraculous, that’s ok; it’s still marvelous!  The deed is what is important, not what we call it. 

I think this is what hit me so positively about the priest’s phrase.  In some way this day I want to work a miracle.  Maybe I can manage a couple or three!  And maybe you can, too?  It does not mean we have to turn water into wine!   

I do think we have all sorts of chances and situations in our normal day to be miraculous.  They are not prescribed, but they can be performed in some way.  Your way probably will be different than my way.  Perhaps the way we all can look at it---as miracle workers---is to ask where in this day can I do wondrous and marvelous things?  And maybe it is not always a matter of doing.  Perhaps it can be as simple as being marvelous and wondrous. 

If we all did this today, that would be a miracle!  I am going to try.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Free Laundromat

Simply reading the title of this inspirational piece would not suggest anything spiritual.  I had to use laundromats back in my graduate school days and in those first few years of marriage when the tiny apartment had no room for a washer and dryer.  And I am sure I never thought about spiritual things in the laundromat and I never had a spiritual experience while doing laundry!
As I was reading my usual range of things on the internet, I spied a headline that immediately drew me to read the short article.  The headline read: “Pope opens free laundromat for homeless.”  My initial impulse was to smile and nearly laugh out loud.  Pope Francis continues to do things that are surprising and really cool.  He really has pastoral heart.  I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I am ok calling him my Pope, too.  It is easy to dismiss anyone with this much power and prestige.  But Francis pulls it off very effectively.  If he is on an ego-trip, it does not show.
So I jumped into the article by Josephine M. McKenna.  The first sentence of the article is a great lead in to the story.  “First came the showers and the haircuts.  Now the washing machines.”  Again, I laughed.  I did not know about the showers and haircuts.  Where was I when the Pope inaugurated the shower/haircut program?  So I read on.  McKenna tells us the Pope is determined “to help the poor with practical actions…”  That is why he is known for emphasizing the pastoral approach.  When you need a shower, haircut and clean clothes, you do not need a lesson in theology and, certainly, not a lecture!  You need a shower, a barber and a laundromat.
Why is Pope Francis doing this?  McKenna thinks she knows.  She says he is doing it “to help restore their dignity.”  That does sound a great deal like Jesus.  When we read the stories associated with Jesus, he is almost always restoring dignity.  I know the word dignity really refers to one’s worth.  The Pope is saying everyone---the dirty, the shaggy, etc.---is a person of dignity.  And when they are down on their luck, the Christian and human response is to help to restore their dignity.  If it were I, I would deeply appreciate this move.  And in fact, we owe it to them, even if they don’t appreciate it.
As I read further, I learned two companies are helping out the Pope.  Whirlpool is donating six washers and dryers for the Pope’s work.  And P&G, based in Cincinnati, OH is donating the detergent for the process.  Of course, I’m sure some will criticize both companies for taking advantage of this for their own publicity purposes.  There are always cynics in the crowd.  But in my mind I say give the credit for their willingness to help.  I don’t know their motive, so I assume the best.
The almsgiver’s office provides more detail (I did not know there was an almsgiver’s office at the Vatican!).  The Pope wanted to do this because it “gives concrete form to charity and works of mercy aimed at restoring dignity to so many people who are our brothers and sisters.”  Once more, I note the pastoral concern.  The Pope wants to do something concrete.  This does not call for a new theological statement.  It calls for pastoral action.  Let’s give concrete form to charity and works of mercy.
The thing I like about this is effectively the Pope is saying charity and mercy are not merely theological ideas.  Of course, they are that.  It is easy to say that Jesus taught about charity---love---and about mercy.  But he also enacted these ideas.  He was loving and he was merciful.  As a follower of Jesus, the Pope is doing the very same thing.  If the person needs a shower, then build a shower.  If he needs to wash clothes, buy a washer and dryer and find some soap.  Done!
Of course, the Pope is not done.  We come to the end of the article and read this.  “In the coming months, showers, barbers and medical services will also be added to the new laundromat, which will be run by volunteers.”  Kudos to the Pope.  But we all know, there are people doing this papal work of kindness all over the place---in my hometown and yours.  They do not get the attention the Pope can get.  My prayer is what the Pope is doing brings attention to all the nameless folks helping out in their own small ways. 
We all know too many folks who are homeless and who are laboring with life without a sense of dignity.  And too many of us avoid or deny their existence.  I certainly am guilty of this.  Many of our cities are so constructed, we can avoid the “folk like this.”  Even our language betrays our complicity of neglect.  I laud the Pope for stepping up and stepping out to address the issue. 
To restore the dignity of another human being is a noble calling.  It also happens to be a spiritual calling.  It does not require a seminary degree.  It can be as simple as providing a washing machine.  Restoration of dignity is charity enacted and mercy incarnated.  If I were in Rome, I would volunteer at the free laundromat.  Since I am not, I want to figure out how to be involved in my own local, figurative “free laundromat.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Getting In, Over and Deep

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a gathering of folks.  The invitation was to talk about how people get into spiritual living.  While that was an interesting topic to address, I soon realized how diverse and complex the answer really is.  I doubt there is a recipe or game plan that you can offer folks and everyone immediately proceeds to get into spiritual living.  I am sure people do it in different ways.  Perhaps it is that the same person does it differently over a period of years. 
I will offer three ways people get into spiritual living.  Over a period of time, I am confident people do all three.  I certainly have practiced all three.  I would like to talk about entrances, thresholds and openings.  These are not steps---to be taken one after the other.  They are not stages.  They are simply different ways we get into the spiritual. 
The first option is by way of entrance.  When I think about entrance, I first think about it in a literal fashion.  Probably the most typical entrance is a door.  Doors literally open and we step in.  Doors separate the outside from the inside.  And inside, doors separate one room from another.  In addition to doors, there are gates and, sometimes even, windows.  All of these provide access to some place we are not. 
Sometimes, we get into spiritual living simply by going to places where spiritual living is talked about and practiced.  We can go to churches, temples, etc. and literally open the door, go in and begin to learn and practice some form of faith.  We can find a place that feels like the “right” place for us.  Even though I grew up in the Quaker tradition, at some point I felt it necessary to decide whether it was the “right” place for me.  One way I did this was to go to a particular Quaker worshipping group and be with them long enough for me to make up my mind.  Countless times I would approach their place, literally open the door and pass into their midst.  Over time I was getting into spiritual living---thanks to their help.
The second way I suggest we get into spiritual living is via thresholds.  A threshold is a beginning point.  For me it is less literal than an entrance and more figurative or metaphorical.  I think about commencement at the university.  It is a threshold to the next stage in the life of the college graduate.  Even though commencement celebrates the finishing of their undergraduate education, it is still a threshold---a beginning point---over to the next step.  They are now ready to go over the threshold to engage the next step. 
There are many other thresholds.  Marriage, having children, even dying---all these rites of passages that so many of us step into in our lives.  The spiritual life also has thresholds.  We may pass through the entrance to some church, but we don’t immediately come to believe and make it the faith of our lives.  For most people coming to faith itself is a kind of threshold.  Coming to believe in God or believing that God actually is love can be thresholds.  Once we embrace that which we come to believe---step over the threshold---our lives change. 
We can undo our step over a threshold, but it is not as simple as going back out the door we made our entrance.  We can undo a threshold like marriage, but we can’t undo the threshold of death.  We can decide not to believe what we once stepped over a threshold to believe, but it is not as easy as stepping back outside a door.  Thresholds add a quality and a degree of seriousness that I don’t find associated with mere entrances.
The final way into spiritual living is the phenomenon of openings.  I will admit this is the Quaker language with which I grew up.  The way I use openings is metaphorical.  An entrance simply lets us in.  Thresholds take us over---over to some new place or space where we likely are changed.  Openings add a quality of depth.  Openings can take us in, take us over, but they always take us deeper.  As I understand it, openings always take us into the Presence of God or into the love, truth and wisdom of the Holy One.  Openings are a form of revelation.  I recall the early words of Thomas Kelly’s Quaker classic, A Testament of Devotion.  He says, “Deep within us all is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul…”
To realize this deep place---to be taken there---means we need to be opened to it.  There are many ways this opening can take place.  But openings are always grace; they are always gifts given to us.  We don’t open ourselves.  Of course, we can be open.  That is the most we can do.  If we are open, then it is possible and, maybe more likely, we will be opened by the Spirit.  Early Quaker writings are full of phrases like, “it was opened unto me.” 
Any and all three of these ways provide the path into spiritual living.  It can be as easy as walking through a door---making the entrance.  Sometimes we just need to go in.  This is something we can choose to do.  We don’t need grace; just opened the door!  Sometimes, we come to thresholds in our lives.  These are usually beginning points.  One option is not to go through.  We do not have to cross over thresholds---at least many of them.  But saying no to the threshold---staying put---is often a commitment to a static life.  Nothing happens; nothing changes and the world passes us by.
Openings can be big and small.  Openings can literally change my life.  Openings have led me to a new job, a new ministry and some of the deepest truths I know.  When I am opened by the Spirit of God, I am taken to deep places---deep within to that inner sanctuary of the soul.  These are the ways we get into spiritual living.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Spiritual Creativity

I would like to do a little more with a short article from Cosmopolitan that a friend sent me.  The little piece is an interview Gloria Steinem did with Anne Lamott.  As I have said, I am not a regular reader of this periodical.  I know about Gloria Steinem.  And I like reading Anne Lamott, although after a few books, I am not sure about reading more of her.  I think most writers---certainly true for me---have a few foundational themes that recur throughout their writing.  For example, I have a particular view of God that will not necessarily change week by week as I write more things.  So it is with Lamott.
But this interview by Steinem asks interesting questions and gives me a chance to hear Lamott offer observations that both fit her and put her thoughts in a fresh fashion for me.  The interview has a long title: “Anne Lamott Talks to Gloria Steinem about Writing, Kindness, and Making Sense of the Universe.” 
One of the things Steinem addresses with Lamott is creativity.  Steinem comments to Anne, “You have a gift for…super-concentrated phrases…”  I fully agree with this assessment of Lamott’s writing.  She can be so insightful and so funny.  Her life has been such, there is always a ton of experience for her to reflect upon.  And this is really where her creativity is generated.  And I would like to call much of what she does “spiritual creativity.”  And I think all of us are capable of our own version of spiritual creativity.
But first let’s follow Steinem’s intrigue with some of Lamott’s super-concentrated phrases.  Steinem lifts up four such phrases as examples.  Each in its own way is vintage Anne Lamott and has her particular charm.  The first one has Lamott telling us, “Be where your butt is.”  That’s worth a laugh and, then, we say, “Yeah, that’s it.”  To be creative, be where your butt is.  Where else could you go?  Spiritually, this sounds like the advice to be in the present.  Too many of us live in the past or worried about the future.
The second phrase Steinem cites sounds Catholic.  I know enough about Catholicism to appreciate it.  Lamott talks about “a rosary of loss.”  As most of us know, the rosary is a number of beads on a string that forms a circle.  A devout Catholic would hold the rosary in the hands and slowly move from bead to bead.  Instead of spiritual focus, when our mind fingers our rosary of loss, we are actively going nowhere.  I can hear Lamott saying, “Give it up…lay it down and get on with it.”
The third phrase Steinem introduces into the interview is powerful.  Lamott notes that “expectations are resentments under construction.”  This one is so close it can hurt.  I know almost no one who does not have expectations.  And doubtlessly we all know the precariousness of holding expectations.  Not all expectations pan out.  Some expectations are not met.  Many expectations depend on others and we have no control over them.  When that happens, expectations turn into resentments.  To be spiritual is to put those resentments under construction.  Otherwise, they eat us up and, often, destroy things for us and for others.
The last phrase Steinem brings to our attention is a good one for many of us.  Lamott talks about “the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.”  I suppose every knows the value and importance of self-respect.  Sometimes however, we turn to others for our self-respect.  And if we don’t get it from them, we are in trouble.  This breeds and unhealthy dependence.  I am confident God respects us and wants us to respect ourselves.  Sometimes we will need the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.  This means that God provides the gift for us to grow in respect for ourselves.  This is a gift we should accept and practice.
All four of these phrases are examples of Anne Lamott’s spiritual creativity.  Of course, I do not think we will do it like her.  But we do have the creative capacity.  I like her recipe.  She says, “I make myself available for creativity, and I cultivate spaciousness through the outdoors, meditation, reading a lot of poetry.”  I think about all the things I do to distract myself: tv, internet, etc.  All of the work to blunt spiritual creativity.
My spiritual creativity might not be writing.  It is Lamott’s venue.  Here’s how she describes her process.  “Then I get my butt into the desk chair, and through bribes and threats, I sit and wait while ideas and phrases get knit together inside my spirit and heart and mind.”  Am I as expectant and patient?  Maybe that is what spiritual creativity asks of me and you.  Anne trusts it will come.  Make yourself available and be ready to create when God speaks.
Here’s how she describes her process.  “One day, I was just sitting bitterly at my desk, with no ideas, and something inside me said, ‘Laughter is carbonated holiness.’  And I looked around for the sound.”  Again I laugh, but I move on to think about my own process.  I won’t be funny like she is.  And my spiritual creativity might not be books and speeches. 
The invitation is to seek and be open to finding your own form of spiritual creativity.  And when you find it, be obedient and create---create your life and your own ministry.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hitting the Snooze Button

Sometimes I run across something to read that I never would have found or chosen on my own.  Cosmopolitan is not on my regular reading list, but a friend sent a link to an article in that periodical.  When I read the title, I knew I would read it.  The title was pretty self-explanatory: “Anne Lamott talks to Gloria Steinem about Writing, Kindness and Making Sense of the Universe.”  I like to read Anne Lamott and Gloria Steinem I know.  So I figured, why not?
The first book by Lamott I read was Traveling Mercies.  I still think that is one of her better ones.  In many ways Anne Lamott is quirky and unpredictable---especially when you initially encounter her.  After reading a few of her books, they begin to sound alike.  But I realize she is only one person.  After a few conversations with me, I probably start repeating myself, too!  Nevertheless, I was intrigued what might come out with the conversation between these two fascinating women. 
The first question Steinem poses to Lamott is a good question.  Basically she asks Anne whether she was ever tempted to be more theological or philosophical in her books?  After all, Lamott is a Christian and theologically a pretty evangelical Christian.  Lamott’s answer is wonderful.  Lamott says, “I don't see myself as a deep philosopher.  The things I write about tend to be what we all have to face, or consider, or experience, that I talk about with my friends and brothers.  It's universal stuff, told in my own voice, my own details and truth, which is all I have to offer.”  I appreciate this.  She is effectively telling us she writes about her own experience, which is a version of every human’s experience.  It is easy to learn from her wins and her mistakes.
Lamott continues in her own blunt way.  She says “we are all going to die.”  She elaborates this commentary on death with her perspective on life.  Listen to her words.  “But the question is, how do we live as women and men in the face of this?  Why do we let ourselves be so distracted and obsessed by meaningless B.S. in light of having one short, precious life?  When are we going to wake up and be fully alive to each other and nature and magic and wonder and Life with a capital L?  When will we stop hitting the snooze button? And then, how alive are we willing to be?”  You will notice the title of my inspiration near the end of these quoted words: hitting the snooze button.
I liked this image for living an unaware life---a life on cruise control.  When we should wake up and get on the road of life, we hit the snooze button.  Instead of awakening, we opt for more sleep.  Instead of engagement, we prefer laziness.  Instead of opening our eyes in order to see, we keep them shuttered in a self-imposed blindness.  In this state our world literally is a dream.
Lamott is correct: the question is how do we live in the fact of death’s inevitable call at our door?  The real question is not whether we will die; it is whether we will choose to live---really live?  We cannot hit the snooze button and exercise our choice to live.  As usual, Lamott instructs me in the art of living.  I know I don’t see things the way she does, so that is why she is so helpful.  I am usually helped more by the people who think differently than I do.  Hanging out with like-minded friends is no challenge.
Lamott moves us a little further in our consideration of real living when she poses the simple, but penetrating, question, “why do we let ourselves be so distracted and obsessed…?  So many times I am distracted and obsessed by “meaningless B.S.,” as she delicately put it.  She is probably correct.  If fact, we can likely go so far as to say all B.S. is meaningless.  No doubt, we enter a spiritual danger zone when we try to justify our own B.S. as somehow meaningful.  And surely, our culture is selling meaningless B.S. all over the place.  Watching commercials is a good place to see that selling going on!
So the spiritual life is a life that gets rid of distractions and obsessions.  These attach us to something other than the Holy One.  Lamott goes on to detail what the spiritual life looks like.  It is when we choose to “wake up and be fully alive to each other and nature and magic and wonder and Life with a capital L?”  Notice the contrast of “waking up” and hitting the snooze button.  We can’t be spiritual and asleep!  If we wake up, then we have a chance to be fully alive to each other.  This will take us to the heart of community and into the heart of community.  We will be able to wake up and be full alive to nature.  Too many of us now live in unnatural bubbles.  It is always heat and air-conditioning and these become symbols of our sanitized soul-life.
We can choose to wake up and be fully alive to the magic and wonder of life.  Maybe we can even play around with the notion that becoming spiritual is becoming a magician.  We do not manipulate God’s Spirit, but we do incarnate it and allow it transform us.  And finally, she encourages us to become fully alive to life.  She even capitalizes it: L. 
All this is possible if we don’t hit the snooze button.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Insignificance of Humans

I assume it is fairly normal for most of us to think a little more highly of ourselves than is warranted. By saying that, I don’t want to imply we are pieces of junk! To the contrary, I believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God. I do like the early Genesis creation accounts that give humanity a key role to play in the universe. In a very real sense, we are special.

But being special and being significant is a balancing act. I realize it is risky even to take on the subject. I am postulating that we are all special. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. We each come with divine potentiality to create and develop the specialness we have. And some people actually pull it off. I suppose those are the ones we call saints. The really big saints are known to all of us. There are people like Mother Theresa. Probably only the youngest have not heard about her and the incomparable work in the slums of Calcutta. But in a few more years, no young person will ever have heard of her.

In God’s economy there continues to be the need for new saints. God continues to need some of us who are special to step up and live lives of saintliness. That sounds daunting, but maybe it is easier than it seems. To be a saint is simply to be holy. Now I know “holiness” language does not typically enjoy favor in the world we inhabit. It sounds way too sanctimonious---holier-than-thou. I am not even a real fan of the word. But I know what it is supposed to mean, so I am ok with that.

In the classical languages holiness is best understood as the opposite of profane. So look at it this simply by examining our language. If I am determined to go around telling people, “God damn you,” then I am being profane. And if I am going around with the language of “God bless you,” then I have opted for holiness. Blessings or curses? If we assess our television/movie culture, we see how pervasive the language of cursing has become. Damning people in God’s name is so common, it seems perfectly normal. In fact, it is not unusual for kids to damn us and send us to hell---linguistically at least. When was the last time you heard someone say “God bless you?” (sneezes don’t count!)

We live in a damnable culture and hardly think about it. And oddly, too many of us think we are not only special, but also significant. I would argue there is nothing of significance in a damnable society. Of course, I can throw out the baby with the bath water. In this case the “baby” is every one of us who is special. And with my logic, that is every one of us. I will keep coming back to this foundational point: you and I and every person is special. You and I and every person is a creature of God---created in the image and likeness and, therefore, special.

But special is nothing until we begin to do special things. And doing special things is difficult if the “bathwater” in which we find the baby is polluted. For sure, no one thinks he or she is living in polluted “baby water.” But many of us are. Sometimes I know I am! We may not be junk, but think of some of the junk on television! Or what passes for entertainment is often quite junky in my opinion. I am convinced it often is polluting the minds of our young (and older) people. We are all creatures of our cultures. We can’t help but be creatures of our cultures.

The story of Adam and Even is the story of a culture change. They were in paradise with only one rule: don’t eat of that one tree. Of course, they did! And in that eating, they experienced a culture change. They had changed the “baby water.” It was now characterized as sin. It was no longer pure. Most of us don’t talk any longer of a “Fall.” But we do live in a fallen world.

We humans are still special people in our fallen worlds. We never cease being God’s creatures. Adam and Eve did not cease being children of God. But they were tossed out of Eden. They went to live East of Eden. They were still special. But they had become insignificant. They had forfeited their significance as children of paradise. We are more like them than we care to imagine…special but not significant.

Let me explain. We are special in the sense that we are (and always will be) creatures who image the Divine Itself. Bunnies don’t image God. Birds don’t and flowers do not. They are all created by God and may well be images of beauty, etc. But they are not created in the image and likeness of God. Only humans are. And that makes us special.

Specialness is a given. To be human is to be special. But we are also living East of Eden. We are sinners. I know that word has little currency today. Let’s just say, we are not perfect. Too many of us are living selfishly and not selflessly. Mother Theresa I am not. She was a saint. Her life was significant as well as special. And that’s the hope. You and I can be significant. But that is not a given as being special is a given.

That is the spiritual quest. The quest is not to be special. You and I have already achieved that, although many people do not know they are special. The real quest is to become significant. And this really is quite tricky. Significance is skewed in our culture. Significance is too often measured by money or status. Mother Theresa had neither. She was not rich and had no status---she was not a CEO! Her status was more like a servant to the poorest of the poor and to the sick. What a job description! But it was a saintly job. She threw out the “bathwater” and kept the “baby.” She was a saint to the sick.

I can’t imagine she was full of pride. I doubt that self-esteem was much of a concern. She was more concerned with obedience and service. In some ways she pulled off what Adam and Eve could not. She stayed obedient in the slums. They blew it in paradise! How ironical…

Adam and Eve are the model story. They were special and significant. They blew it. They were then special and insignificant. Mother Theresa is a model for our story. She was special. And then she chose of life of service and ministry. In a screwed up culture, it made no sense. But in a spiritual culture, it was a choice of holiness and saintliness. It was a significant witness in a world that is too often committed to the insignificant.

To become significant is a choice. It is the choice of a spiritual culture and a life of service.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Significance of Signs

I was out for a leisurely walk yesterday afternoon. It was one of those glorious days that would be unfortunate to miss. It was an effort not so much focused on exercise and more focused on simply enjoying the day. I am not sure I do enough of that. Too often I am in the middle of something I think is important and I am too much in a hurry to get to wherever I am going. I think I do miss the roses sometimes!

I was trying to pay attention to the world around me and the cosmic beauty. But I was not particularly focused on anything special. I was not trying to see anything nor learn anything special. I was certainly not thinking about this reflection to be written tonight. But as usual, if one is open and attentive, things are revealed. Once again, I went for a walk and something spiritual occurred.

It was provoked by an older woman who was driving down a street. I did not even notice until she stopped and a young lad jumped out of the car and disappeared into one of the college buildings. There was nothing unusual in that. But then the woman pulled into a driveway and began to turn around. Suddenly, I was alert. She was preparing to drive the wrong way on the one-way street.

I came close to the car, as she was already backing out, ready to head in the wrong direction. Without a sound, I simply pointed to the direction she was supposed to drive…and I walked on. Sometimes I know people intentionally drive the wrong way on a street. But I think she was going wrong out of ignorance. I had shown her the correct way; it was up to her to decide which way to go.

I do think in her case, it was ignorance. I don’t think she saw any one-way sign. And then it hit me. Immediately I was fascinated by signs and their function. Suddenly I started seeing signs all over the place. I never realized how many signs there are in my work neighborhood---and probably in many neighborhoods.

There are stop signs, street signs, signs to identify buildings. There are signs on stores and in stores. I realized that a primary function of a sign is to point out something. Signs “tell” us things. More precisely, signs “signify” something. Good signs are clear and unambiguous. We talk about a stop sign. It means one thing. It ‘signifies” by both its shape and its wording. Of course, we can choose to ignore it. Funny that when that happens, we say someone “ran a stop sign!”

The most common form of signs in our world would be the words we use. If I say “cat,” you do not think “elephant.” The word “cat” signifies some little feline animal---anything but an elephant. Good signs usually have a shared meaning. All of us who drive know what the stop sign means. Signs like this have significance.

The significance of the stop sign is that it prevents accidents and chaos. Think how messy it would be if all drivers did whatever they felt like when they came to stop signs. If we did this, the stop sign would have no significance. It would be meaningless.

One more step led me to realize not all signs deal with words. If I smile, that is a sign that I am ok or, even, happy. That could have significance. It probably means I am not likely to bite off your head! So signs signify and they have significance. But is there anything spiritual in all this?

Of course there is spirituality implicated here. Let’s take the cue from my example of the smile. My smile is how I present myself in the moment. It gives you a cue and maybe a clue to my personality. Or my smile may mislead you; my smile may be faking you out to believe something I want you to believe. But we all know that I am more than a smile. And you are, too.

But the point is made. I present myself every day by how I am and who I am. I am a walking, talking sign. I am always signifying. Hopefully, I have significance. But I know some signs have no significance.

Allow me to take this to the ultimate level. I suggest the incarnation itself is the super-sign. For Christians the incarnation affirms that the Divinity became humanity in Jesus. In effect, Jesus “signs” God’s Presence on earth. What he said and did were powerful events of signaling something specific about God’s desire for human beings. His life as a sign had immense significance. That is spiritual to the “nth” degree.

The spiritual significance in this is clear: each of us has the same “signing” capacity as we go about our own lives. It is not just a Christian thing; it is a religious (or spiritual) thing. Our lives signify our loyalties, our values, and our purpose. Let your life speak! And let your life speak significantly. Let your life be one of significance of the sign of God’s Presence.