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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dynamics of Faith

Because I had earlier quoted something from Paul Tillich’s book, Dynamics of Faith, I finally had to finish the project by adding footnotes.  Because I was not careful enough in my original citation, I realized I did not know for sure where in the book the quotation was.  Instead of getting mad at myself, I laughed and enjoyed pulling the book down from my bookshelf and begin to thumb through it looking for the quotation.
In some ways it was a fun journey back through a book that had been important to me during my graduate school days---at least, I think it was in graduate school that I first read much of what Paul Tillich wrote.  Tillich was one of the twentieth century giants of theological reflection.  I first heard of Tillich when I was in college in the 1960s.  I was aware of his death in 1965, although at that time, I had little clue what I would do in my life and the central role that religion and, later, spirituality would play.  In 1965 I simply was aware a very famous theologian died.  I barely knew what a theologian was or what that person would bring to me personally. 
Tillich was born toward the end of the nineteenth century.  His father was a Lutheran pastor.  Tillich proceeded through a series of German universities to gain his PhD in theology.  He served as a chaplain in the German army during WW I.  During the 1920s Tillich was developing a theology that would be critical of Hitler when he came to power.  And so in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor, he fired Tillich from his university teaching post.  An influential faculty person from Union Theological Seminary invited Tillich to leave Germany and move to New York City to teach there.  Tillich accepted.  And so he taught in this country until his death in ’65.
His little book, Dynamics of Faith, was originally published in 1957 and became very popular.  When I read the first sentence, memories came back.  Tillich says, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned; the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.”  I am sure part of what appealed to me when I read this is the Quaker language of “concern,” with which I grew up.  When Quakers use the language of “concern,” they are talking about a weighty focus.  It is not necessarily bad or troublesome, but a concern is important or “weighty,” as Quakers would say.  I was not sure whether this was how Tillich meant it, but I also knew we bring our own baggage to words that we use.
On that same first page, Tillich goes on to say that humans have all sorts of concerns.  We naturally are concerned about food, shelter and other necessities.  But we also have other concerns---sometimes these other concerns are even frivolous.  We are concerned whether our hair looks “just right.”  We may be overly concerned about the particular color of our next car!  Tillich recognized that humans are the sole part of the animal world that develops spiritual concerns.  I am not sure he is correct, but it makes sense to me.
And then Tillich quickly moves on to the piece I originally was looking for.  He says all humans develop some kind of “ultimate concern.”  This is the concern above all concerns.  We get a good sense of what he means by that phrase, ultimate concern, when he notes, “If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.”  In summary Tillich is saying an ultimate concerns carries a demand and offers a fulfillment.
Tillich notes a number of things humans have chosen as their ultimate concern.  People have chosen nationalism, success, money and the list can go on.  There is not an obvious number one.  Having said this, he is now ready to link ultimate concern to faith.  Tillich is clear when he says, “Faith as an ultimate concern is an act of the total personality.”  What does Tillich mean by that?  I think he means faith as an ultimate concern is that to which you willingly give your whole self to---your energy, your effort and your allegiance.  Again, it is easy to think about the things I like and about which I am concerned.  But I certainly don’t give all my energy, effort and allegiance to it.  I comb my hair, but it is not my ultimate concern.  I once had a red convertible that I really liked, but it was not my ultimate concern.
I first read Tillich when I knew I was looking for my ultimate concern, although I did not have that language then.  But I knew I was a seeker.  I grew up in a church, but was not sure about God and certainly was not sure about God and me.  I wanted to know if God were real?  And to be honest, I wanted to know if I were real?  I would claim I have answered that.  I am confident that God is real---for me.  Most of the time, I think I am real!
I know I want God to be my ultimate concern.  Sometimes, I know I fall short, but I am trying and I am committed.  I know the process is not finished.  But maybe faith is never finished.  I suspect that is why Tillich called it the “dynamics” of faith.  Faith is not static.  You do not just “have faith.”  Faith is a very; it is dynamic.  I am sure humans always will have faith in something or someone.  The question is: what is their ultimate concern?  What is the ultimate object or subject of our faith?
My ultimate concern is God.  And now I hope to live out the dynamics of that faith.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Relationships Make Us

I am fortunate to have lived long enough to have grandkids.  Having two girls of my own were great.  They taught me much as they grew up and became adults in their own right.  I always told people that I liked every next step of their lives better than the previous one.  Of course, it is amazing to see one’s own child born into this world.  The first year blows your mind because of their physical development.  And the second year is equally mind-blowing because of their mental development.  And so it goes. 
Even though I obviously was aware of relationships before they were born, their lives forced me to focus more on the nature of relationships.  There was something about becoming a father that changed.  Before my girls, I knew myself as a son, brother, cousin and friend.  All these relationships gave me a slightly different view of who I was.  I was always intrigued by the idea that I was a single individual---my own person.  But each of the relationships offered a different angle on myself.  Some were more important than others.
But it was the arrival of my two girls who made me a father that was a game-changer.  It is as if they offered an in-depth look into who I was and who I would become.  Of course, the process is never finished.  We are always evolving as people.  Relationships are simply one of the most predictable ways we evolve.  And now I have grandkids.  In some ways they look like me---which is genetically not surprising.  And in some ways I claim them to be “mine.”  But they are also obviously not “mine.”  But they give me another, interesting look at who I am.
Since they are still relatively young, they could not care less about what I do.  I write a book and they are not the least impressed.  They would rather go to the playroom and build a train track!  I could win an award and they would not applaud.  Almost anything our culture deems a mark of success or prestige makes no impression on them.   Instead, they are interested in whether I will play with them?  Will I be fun?  That is a much harder to question to answer.  Having a PhD is no guarantee that I am fun!
Having relationships and being in relationships caused me to think about what this means in spiritual terms.  I realize relationships are very important spiritually speaking.  As we begin to look briefly at the nature and effect of relationships, let me say that relationships are always tied to the issue of identity---who am I?  In fact, if I can answer the question, who am I, without reference to my relationships, then I probably don’t have an accurate understanding of who I really am.  Relationships are that important.
As I think about relationships from a spiritual perspective, I realize it goes back to the very beginning---at least for Christians and Jews.  Indeed, in that first chapter of Genesis we have the story of creation and, hence, the spiritual saga of our origin.  The first chapter of Genesis says that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  I know enough about this text to have a sense of how biblical scholars understand it.
Suffice it here simply to say that, like my daughter and grandkids, we have a genetic likeness to the God who created us.  This will always be true, regardless of what happens to us and whatever we do.  Scholars recognize that I might lose my likeness to God if I choose to go the way of being a jerk, i.e. a sinner in the old classical language.  But even I persist in being a jerk, I never lose being in the image of God.  That is like our spiritual genetic code---the spiritual DNA, if you will. 
If I follow the Christian path, there is another relationship that looms large.  In the New Testament there are a number of these relationships that are named.  If I think of the Apostle Paul, I think about all those times he talks about the role and effect of grace in our lives.  Grace is always a gift.  And the effect of God’s gift on us, according to Paul, is it creates a new relationship.  To come under the sway of God’s grace is to become a son or daughter of God.  With this image God becomes paternal.  I must admit I like the idea of being an offspring of God.  It is nice to know God as a kind of eternal, gracious parent who also parents all the other spiritual cousins of mine. 
When I think about the Jesus presented in John’s Gospel, I think about the Jesus who said to his followers that he no longer wanted them to think of themselves as slaves or servants (same word in Greek).  Instead, Jesus said to those disciples, “I call you friends.” (15:15)  That may be my favorite verse in the entire New Testament.  To be a friend of Jesus.  When I think about this, I think about friendship, to be sure.  But I also think about what it means to be a spiritual friend, because I am sure he had that in mind, too. 
I smile because I know I am not the only one who whom Jesus extended this friendship.  Over the centuries countless millions and, now, billions have been invited into that same relationship of friendship.  Every friend of Jesus also becomes a friend of mine.  I suppose we are all part of one, large community of friends.  This relationship and others are what make us.
Biologically, I began with my grandkids and end in recognition that I am a friend of Jesus and an amazing community of friends across the globe and across time.  Literally, I am nobody if all these relationships are erased from life.  Without relationships, my story would be a non-story.  Relationships make us.  And even more importantly, our relationships give us the amazing realization that we will always be somebody because we will always belong to Somebody. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Art of Remembering

In this country we find ourselves at Memorial Weekend.  Clearly, the description of the weekend is unambiguous: memorial means remembering.  It is the “Remembering Weekend.”  There will be parades to highlight the festivities.  The little parade in my suburban town is so quaint and tiny, it is hilarious.  Of course, there are the boy scouts and girl scouts.  There are all the Little League baseball and softball players.  The fire trucks gain attention because the siren going off in your ears at a distance of 15 feet is dramatic!  And finally, there are always the politicians!

The other thing that is a staple for Memorial Weekend is the visit to the cemetery.  Now that I am living in a much larger, urban context, I am less aware of folks going to the cemetery.  When I was a kid, I did not really understand this ritual.  No one significant in my life had died.  There was no one “living in the cemetery,” as I once put it, that I felt like I wanted to visit.

But when my grandparents began to die---one by one---I had a dawning sense of why my parents and others always wanted to go to the cemetery.  Of course, it was true that an annual visit was not the sole guarantee of “remembering” them.  I was aware my parents stopped by the cemetery on other occasions, too.  But somehow, Memorial Weekend was special, much like Christmas was special, but one still went to church other Sundays, too.

I like history, so it was fun to begin to learn something of the origins and history of the holiday.  It seems our own Civil War (1861-1865) formed the soil for the Memorial Day seeds.  That is not surprising.  That gruesome war left death, mourning, and the need to remember scattered all over our land.

The official Memorial Day proclamation occurred on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It commenced with the laying of wreaths on graves of soldiers of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  Well before the end of the 19th century all the northern states recognized this holiday.  What I was surprised to learn was the southern states refused to recognize this end-of-May memorial until after WW I when the focus of the holiday shifted from Civil War dead to the deceased from all wars.  Such formed the holiday which we celebrate this weekend.

As an American, I am happy to remember with appreciation all those women and men who have died for this country.  And I also remember the large number of them who suffered in so many ways.  The war that formed my own generation---the Vietnam War---still scars countless folks. 

I won’t go to the cemetery this weekend.  Most of my deceased family and close friends “live” in a couple different cemeteries back in Indiana.  To make that drive merely to stand physically at the graveside is not necessary.  What I will choose to do is take a little time by myself and “remember.”  The human capacity to remember dazzles me!  As St. Augustine said centuries ago, remembering is the human way to hold the past in the present.  So I will celebrate my Memorial Weekend.

I am also glad that the Weekend has expanded to include more than the war dead.  The key is “more.”  If we include all who have preceded us in death, we do not do less honor to the war dead.  They will always have a special place in this weekend’s art of remembering.

The inclusiveness of all deceased folks makes perfect sense spiritually speaking.  Finally, we are all in it together---all humanity is implicated by death.  Some have already died; the rest of us are in process.  What so many of us hope is somehow our lives---our ordinary, quiet, little lives---finally have meaning and the meaning will be remembered and celebrated.  But that remembering and celebrating has to be done by someone else when we are dead!

And that’s one of the points of spirituality.  When my own process of dying is complete (and I am dead), I take solace in the fact that God is the Other Who is very practiced in the art of remembering.  And it won’t happen just annually; it will happen eternally….whatever kind of Memorial Weekend that will be!

The next message will appear on Tuesday, May 30th.  Enjoy the long weekend!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Be a Saint

Even when I am not teaching my seminar on Thomas Merton’s spirituality, I find myself turning again and again to his writings.  Merton has been dead for more than forty years.  As many of you know, he was a monk in a very out of the way place in the hills of Kentucky.  Every time I have been to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I am amazed at how this worldly citizen wound up in this place and stayed there for so long until he met his untimely death in a bathtub in Bangkok, Thailand. 

I think the reason Merton became so popular in his own lifetime and that popularity continues now forty years later is the guy was so human, so fragile, so searching.  He was a man of contradictions and, certainly, confusions.  He was a monk, but at times he was not a very good monk---at least, according to his abbot.  To become a monk at Gethsemani meant he took a lifetime vow of stability.  And yet, he always seemed ready to chuck it all and take off for some other place.  Perhaps it was fitting that he died in some far away Asian country and, yet, was returned to his beloved monastery to rest in the cemetery right outside the church walls.   

As I was doing some work on the internet, I came across one of the quotations from Merton that I know fairly well.  But every time I read it, it seems fresh and challenging.  It engages me and, in effect, asks me what I plan to do with his words.  His words are not merely his words.  They are words that are about my life and your life, too, if you want to take on the challenge. 

Merton quipped, “For me to be a saint means for me to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.”  Those words resonate so truly with me I feel like I know exactly what he means and I am sure I have no clue what he means.  I feel like I know what he means because it feels so true. 

I find it very appealing to say becoming a saint is to become my self.  That sounds so simple…and I believe it is simple.  It is simple, but it is not easy.  I suppose most Americans don’t think about becoming a saint.  Can you imagine asking a little kid, “So what do you want to become?”  And that kid replies, “I want to become a saint!”  I would be appalled if I heard young lips utter such a sentence.  And I would be only slightly less appalled to hear some older person say it.  I am not sure I know anyone whose aspiration is to become a saint.  But why not? 

I think this is the deep question Merton poses to himself and to us.  If you are a creature of God (which I believe) and if you are created in the image of God (which I also believe), why would you not want to be a saint?  I am sure one of the reasons I never think this way is the stereotype I have of what a saint actually is. 

My saint-stereotype is some guy or gal who is otherworldly and way-too-serious.  A saint is someone who never has any fun and probably too boring to take to a party.  In my stereotyped mind a saint is someone pretty out of touch with reality---at least, reality the way I live it.  But my stereotype is malarkey! 

Merton’s words are a stiff challenge because they are a challenge to figure out life at its deepest level and, then, live it.  I like how he combines “sanctity” and “salvation.”  Sanctity is nothing more than the Latin word for “sacred” or “holy.”  I don’t use that language too much, but I am attracted to it. 

I am aware that our world and our culture are not very holy.  The opposite of sacred is profane.  Sadly, I believe we live in a “God damn world” more than we live in a “God blessed world.”  When we opt for profanity, we opt against becoming a saint.  And if Merton is correct, not to be a saint---or want to become a saint---is to opt for life as a false self.  I think he is correct. 

So his words and his challenge are keen for me.  To become a saint is to find myself and to discover my true self.  I want to do that.  Merton assumes---and I do, too---that if I find my true self, then I will be on the road to sanctity.  I will be leaving and giving up profanity.  Swearing is just the tip of the profanity iceberg.   

If I don’t engage this pilgrimage, I may become rotten to the core.  I can use perfume to hide the smelly rot, but this kind of life will truly become God-forsaken.  I find good news in Merton’s conviction that each of us already has a true self.  Becoming a saint is possible and preferable. 

It can be done slowly, patiently and usually in a community of nurturing, supportive people who are on the saintly journey, too.  It is not a heroic journey.  It is very democratic---anybody and everybody can do it.  If we can do it, we will become a sweet smell and savor to the God who created us and wants the best---the holy best---for each of us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fraudulent Life

Occasionally I either choose or have to return to a book I read some years ago.  That is usually a good experience.  One of the depressing things for me is to realize I cannot remember everything I read!  I suppose that has always been true, but somehow I am more aware of it now.  So it is usually the case that when I reread certain parts of good books, I feel the thrill of learning all over again.  And that is a good thing! 

So I returned to one of my favorite authors, friend, and fellow-Quaker, Parker Palmer.  I wanted to look at some sections in his book, A Hidden Wholeness.  I used this book once in the group I lead, which we call Soul Work.  I liked it then and I rediscovered it to my liking one more time. 

I also like it when books have subtitles.  Often they are more revealing than the main title.  Palmer’s book has a great, revealing subtitle: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World.  As Quakers would say, “that speaks to my condition.”  In other words that makes perfect sense to me! 

In order to achieve the wholeness that Parker Palmer talks about, we need to find some integrity in our lives.  For many of us that integrity---that wholeness---is already present.  It is simply “hidden.”  But it is not a simple thing to find it.  In fact, we may have to take action which will feel more like “creating” wholeness than “finding” it.  We create it by means of re-shaping the context in which we live.  To re-shape the context means we will necessarily re-shape the way we live.

Many of us probably are not living a life of wholeness because we are living what Palmer calls, “the divided life.”  We may have a gut feeling that this is true, but sometimes it is difficult to put into words what this really means.  If we can figure this out, then maybe we can find the path to the hidden wholeness.  To put it in theological language, maybe we can begin the pilgrimage to salvation.  (Salvation is really a Latin word that means wholeness or wellness.) 

Palmer talks about the costs of the divided life.  And he gives some examples, which resonated with me.  For example, he says that the persons living the divided life can “sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.”  The next one is the one that knocked my socks off.  Palmer notes that sometimes “We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.”  This one made me wince! 

Often the divided self that we are appears in a dual way.  By ourselves---alone---we may have some sense of who we really are.  But when we go public, we are not our true self.  We play some role or, perhaps, multiple roles.  American culture is very good at defining people according to roles.  I am a parent, a professor, a secretary and on and on.  Who we are is determined by what we do.

Sometimes money follows roles.  We don’t pay teachers what the lawyers make.  And the list goes on.  Looking at what we do and who we are can determine our value.  You make more than I do, so you must be more valuable than I am! 

Given this, how on earth do we welcome the soul and weave community?  Of course, that is not an easy question to answer.  But I agree with Parker Palmer that what was just described indicates a wounded world.  And it is in that world that the soul must be welcomed and community must be woven. 

The antidote to the divided self is to discover and develop our true self.  This true self is our soul and that is the “me’ that is central to community formation and nurture.  There are myriad ways we could suggest that we approach the soul work needed to give up the divided self.  Let me choose one that Parker Palmer offers, especially as it has to do with people who are too busy in life.  Too often schedule dictates life. 

Palmer tells us “There are three keys to creating a schedule that welcomes the soul: slow down, do more with less, and pay attention to rhythm.”  I like all three of these and can immediately see their relevance for my life.  And I realize I really don’t need any more “answers” or “suggestions” in the moment.  If I could just work on one of these---or perhaps, dabble with all three---then I am sure I would begin to sense that I was more soulful. 

If I were to pick off the most important one for me in the moment, it would be to pay attention to rhythm.  What is my daily rhythm?  How is it soulful?  Or is it soul destructive?  Those are serious questions that I normally would never take the time to ask nor ponder. 

How could I alter my rhythm to enable me to become more soulful?  Altering something does not always mean adding!  Perhaps I need to subtract?  Or switch?  Can I add something to my rhythm that enhances the growth of soul?  No doubt, the answer is yes.  Maybe I could begin a short period of meditation or a devotional.  I do some of this, but sometimes it is more haphazard than rhythmic. 

What could you begin to do?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Stroke is a Stroke

I admit that I play some golf.  It is a maddening game.  I always considered myself above average athletically, but when I play golf, I have my doubts.  I am not willing to claim there is anything spiritual about golf and, perhaps, there are no spiritual lessons to be learned.  It does teach me something about humility!  And it may well be diabolical---devilish---which may be as close to spiritual as it gets. 

I am intrigued by the scoring in golf.  For those who know nothing about golf, let me explain.  Any time the golf club makes contact with the ball, it counts as a stroke.  Strokes are added as you play the course and the one who has the fewest strokes for eighteen holes wins the game.  Most golf courses tell us “par” should be 72 strokes for eighteen holes of golf.  Of course, I would not know.  I cannot shoot “par” golf.  It always takes more strokes for me to play an eighteen-hole golf course than that “par” golf suggests it should take.

In this sense, “par” golf is not average.  Instead par golf is nearly ideal golf.  Only professionals can play golf so well that we can say they play “par” golf.  The rest of us play above par.  Some of us play significantly above par golf.  In fact, I recently heard a statistic that claims about 80% of us who play golf score more than 100 strokes on a 72-par course!   

What fascinates me about the scoring in golf is the fact that a stroke is a stroke.  Let’s explore that fact.  To say a stroke is a stroke is simply to say any time the club touches the ball, it is a stroke.  It does not matter how far you hit the ball.  It is a stroke.  I might have a strong day when I can hit with the longest club in my bag, namely, the driver.  The good players can hit a ball more than 300 yards with the driver.  I can’t hit it that far with the driver, but on a good day I can still hit it out there pretty far.  That big hit is a stroke. 

On the other hand, when you finally get the ball onto the green, the club to be used is the putter.  Most Americans are familiar with this part of a golf game, even if they have only played putt-putt golf.  Each time you putt the ball, it is a stroke.  So it could be a ten-foot putt or a two-inch putt and they all count as one stroke.  This is what fascinates me.  A two-inch putt is one stroke, just like the 300-yard drive.    

In fact, occasionally you will see a ball stop just short of the hole.  There are times when I am sure I could walk up to the ball sitting right on the lip of the hole and jump up and down and the ball would fall into the hole.  Nevertheless to touch it with the putter to knock it into the hole is still one stroke.  That truly amazes me that stroke counts the same as a 300-yard drive!  Part of me thinks that is not fair.  But that’s the way the game is played.  A stroke is a stroke.  That’s the rule. 

I wonder if this is not where the game of golf mimics the game of life.  Let me put it this way.  Let’s call the stroke the consequence of touching the ball with the club.  The touch could be a 300-yard drive or the one-inch putt.  Each stroke is a consequence.  I think this parallels our actions in life.  I would argue that our actions have consequences.  Of course, our actions in life are much more difficult to measure than the golf strokes.  And I understand not everyone agrees that our life’s actions have consequences.  But I also know most spiritual traditions do think life’s actions do have consequences. 

“An eye for an eye” is one way some traditions talk about it.  Another tradition talks about karma.  Karma is the way a Buddhist explains life’s consequences.  Karma is a spiritual rule, so to speak.  Just like the game of golf, we can cheat the game of life.  We can cheat by not counting all the strokes.  We can lie about what we actually did.  We can declare our own rules.  In golf there are many ways to break the rules and still claim we have not broken the rules. 

It is clear the same thing happens in life. There are things I have done that should have consequences, but I claim it should not matter.  On the other hand, some times I should do something and refrain from doing it.  Again, I would say that it is inconsequential.  I attempt to make my own rules.  If I can make my own rules, then I can always be just.   

Most major spiritual traditions claim that justice is blind.  What I want for myself should be the same for what others get.  If a stroke is a stroke, then it has to be the same for you as it is for me.  Too often, however, I want the advantage.  And sadly, sometimes I am willing to cheat or lie to get that advantage.  But I don’t want any consequences for having done so. 

This is where golf and life differ.  Ultimately, whether I cheat and lie in golf does not matter.  I can deceive myself about being a better golfer than I really am.  Or I can alienate friends and golf partners when I cheat.  Otherwise, life goes on. 

But in life, there is more at stake.  Lying and cheating have consequences.  A stroke is a stroke.  I doubt these are consequences that send us to hell.  But to play the game of life by your own rules does create hellish situations for those around us.  And ultimately, it condemns us to be a much lesser person than we can be.  And that is spiritually very sad.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Search Your Soul

Recently, I wrote some observations based on the epilogue Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk, wrote in his book, The Sign of Jonas.  The book uses the familiar Hebrew Bible prophet, Jonah, to talk about both himself and his monastic community, Gethsemani, in Kentucky.  The epilogue is dated July 4, 1952.  The piece describes the night Merton was on fire watch duties, which included walking though the monastery at night on the lookout for fires.  The special concern was the outbreak of fires in the surrounding wooded areas.
It is not unusual, however, that Merton turned this daily monastic duty into a metaphorical spiritual lesson.  Reading the rather lengthy epilogue is to accompany Merton on his night rounds throughout the monastery.  But even more than this, reading the account is to join Merton in his internal spiritual pilgrimage through his own faith journey.  I am confident Merton shared this so that we, too, could embark on our own spiritual trip of memory and expectation.
Let’s share Merton’s lead in order to see up our own search for our souls.  Merton is quite clear what is he doing and by implication, what he invites us to do.  Early in the epilogue Merton says, “The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”  First, we can unpack this and then follow Merton’s suggestion for a search for our own souls.
The fire watch is an examination of conscience.  It is interesting that Merton here uses the word, conscience.  He takes no pain in the context to explain what he means by it or why he uses the word.  Let me offer an opinion on both counts.  In the first place I believe Merton uses “conscience” here to mean the usual sense of “awareness of right and wrong.”  To elaborate, our conscience is the place, or better, space where we have some sense of God’s nature and our own true nature, at least, as God intended it to be.  To be aware of and live by our conscience is to acknowledge our role as moral beings---people who know right from wrong. 
Secondly, I wonder if Merton uses the term, conscience, in this context to mean something more than the normal moral meaning for that word, conscience?  In this context I get the sense that Merton is expanding the language of conscience to means something akin to what he normally means by the word, soul.  Pushing this further, conscience or soul is the place where we are aware of and, hopefully, in tune with God.  Merton was certainly knowledgeable and I join him, too, in realizing that he and I can be aware of our conscience or soul and still ignore it and go our own way and do our own thing. 
This is where I think Merton wants to go when he talks about using the fire watch as an “examination” of our conscience.  Periodically, I hear him telling us, we need to make a kind of “fire watch” pilgrimage in order to examine our conscience.  This is his exhortation for us to do some version of soul work.  According to Merton, there are some things that will inevitably happen in this process.  So let’s join him in our own fire watch march.
Initially he tells us, our task as watchman will suddenly appear in it true light.  Merton discovered his fire watch duty was more than circling through the monastery on the lookout for fires.  He realized he was invited metaphorically into a more spiritual trip.  That is why he says our duty will emerge in its true light.  We thought we were on the prowl for fires.  Additionally, we discover we are actually on the prowl for our own souls.
Here’s how Merton put it: the fire watch was merely a “pretext devised by God to isolate you.”  The first part of our task is to find ourselves alone.  Why do we need to be isolated?  It is in our solitariness that we have no help, no distraction, etc.  We are on our own.  In this isolation we will meet God in our nakedness.  In isolation God will come to undress us.  God does this by virtue of lamps which shine light on our dark places.  And God does this by the questions posed to us.  In isolation we have to deal with the lamps and questions.  We can’t hide in groups or our own business.
In this process God will search our soul.  We probably will have a myriad of experiences, some of which will be embarrassment, shame and some guilt.  But simultaneously, this also will be a purifying experience.  God’s light will eradicate our own darkness.  God’s questions will force our authenticity.  All this will happen in the “heart of darkness.”  No doubt, we all know life at night---the experiences of darkness---are much different than day-time living. 
What can we expect from this process of searching for our soul?  There will be some negativity---such as the shame and guilt mentioned before.  But there is much more positivity.  We noted the purifying that likely happens.  Even more importantly, we can expect that we will come closer to knowing ourselves in a true, authentic way.  We will begin to know ourselves as God created us to be and as God wants us to be.  This is a powerful experience of hope.
I appreciate Merton’s reflection on his night as a fire watch.  I appreciate mostly because of what it teaches me is necessary for my own “fire watch” time.  It is a time of isolation, examination, discovery and call to life like God most wants for me.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Story of Love

The Pope is up to it again.  I enjoy following Pope Francis in his travels, speeches and actions in our world.  He is such an inspiration to many---Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Even though I am not a Roman Catholic, I like to think he is my Pope, too.  I hope all my Catholic friends are ok with me claiming Francis to be my Pope as well as their Pope. 
I was pulled into his recent pronouncement by reading the article in a Catholic periodical that I regularly read.  The headlines of the article proclaimed, “God dreams big, wants to transform the world, defeat evil, pope says.”  This article deals with a recent papal speech in Francis’ appearance in St. Peter’s Square.  This was another in his series of papal addresses dealing with hope.  In his speech the Pope is dealing with the account of Mary Magdalene at the tomb of the crucified Jesus.  Unexpectedly to her, she has an experience of the risen Lord---God’s Presence.  At one point the Pope said, "she discovers the most earth-shattering event in human history when she is finally called by name."  Francis goes on to develop this point.
A key part of his message is this encounter of Mary Magdalene is not just a historical event describing one lucky woman.  It is really a description of how God will deal with each and every one of us.  Francis continues, "How beautiful it is to think that the first appearance of the Risen One, according to the Gospels, happened in such a personal way.  That there is someone who knows us, who sees our suffering and disappointment," whose heart breaks "for us and who calls us by name." 
The Christian good news proclaims that God will deal with each of us in personal ways.  We are assured that there is One who knows us.  John’s gospel graphically puts this in terms of God calling us by name.  I am a named person.  I am not some “you.”  Names identifies and specifies.  It does not matter that there are, in fact, many people with my first name.  The fact is we each have a name.  We were named and, thereby, became persons who are “somebody” and who are “special.”  That is how God deals with us.
And then I came to the place in the article that stunned me.  The Pope said that every one of us "is a story of love that God has written on this earth."  Francis goes on to finish this thought when he notes that, "Each one of us is a story of God's love."  I was deeply moved to think that I am actually a “story of love” that God is writing on earth.  That gives my life a value and worthiness that I don’t feel every day of life.  Let me suggest that my life as a “story of love” is both already and fact, but also a hope.
My life as a “story of love” is already a fact.  I did not merit that.  It was given to me as a gift.  It is a matter of grace, not my merit.  I can be thankful, but I cannot be egotistical because of my own accomplishments.  My “story of love” is a testament to God’s mercy.  And it is not just my fact; it is yours, too.  You also are a “story of love.”  That’s a fact!
But it is a story.  It is not over.  And it does not mean the story is perfect.  Ultimately, it might become a perfect love story, but it is not yet that for me.  There are some chapters in my life as a “story of love” that are not good or worthy.  A story of love may have some chapters describing our lives as wrong, stupid or lost.  I have experienced all of those facets of a sad story of life.  I have been wrong, stupid and lost.  But the story is not over.
The good news according to the Pope is we are not the sole authors of our lives.  Our life as a “story of love” is not just my story.  It is a life that is being co-authored.  God is co-authoring my life just as much as I am.  I am confident many of us are under the illusion that we are the sole authors of our lives.  If that were true, our lives likely will not turn out to be “stories of love.”  I do not have the confidence I can pull off a “story of love” all by myself.  If I am graced, then I have a chance.  Then I have hope and a bright future of love.  With the mercy of God, I do have confidence the story will have a happy ending. 
It can be a comedy, not a tragedy.  I think that is the heart of the Resurrection story---it is finally a comedy.  Death does not get the last laugh.  And it is no doing of our own.  The “story of love” is not only the story of love, but it is a narrative of God’s grace.  In fact, I remember somewhere Gerald May talks about love being the flowering of grace.  That fits here very nicely.
God cares.  And God dares to continue to write love stories.  Those love stories will have names---personal names.  One of them is my name.  I like to think I am a living “story of love” being written out.  Much of my love story has been written.  Not every chapter is a crowning success.  There are those chapters of stupidity, lostness and being wrong.  But I am confident of the ending. 
What I want to do as I write the remaining few chapters is to operate with the full knowledge that my life is a “story of love” unfolding.  I want to co-operate with my co-author and write the strongest finish possible.  I want my life to bear witness to the fact that it is not just my life.  It is also the Life of the One who is living within me---co-authoring my “story of love.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Scandal of Grace

I have a book that contains quite a number of short pieces.  Some of them are articles in various periodicals---journals that might be religious in nature or some more popular magazines.  I occasionally read another piece.  Some of the authors I know and very much like---people like Annie Dillard.  Others I have never seen their names and know nothing about them.  One such name was James Van Tholen. 

His article appeared in Christianity Today, a well-known, more evangelical magazine that I try to read with some regularity.  James was a pastor in a Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, NY.  He had been assaulted with a nasty kind of cancer at age 33.  After some months of chemotherapy, he was able to return to his church.  The selection I read was his first sermon back with his parishioners.  It was very touching and I wanted to share some of it. 

I was touched by his openness and vulnerability.  Early in his sermon he communicated these words.  “So let me start with honesty.  The truth is that for seven months I have been scared.  Not of the cancer, not really.  Not even of death.  Dying is another matter---how long it will take and how it will go.  Dying scares me.”  I resonate with this because I am pretty much in the same boat.  I don’t find the idea of death troubling, but dying is another matter! 

Van Tholen continues his reflections in the sermon.  This next piece surprised me.  He says, “My real fear has centered somewhere else.  Strange as it may sound, I have been scared of meeting God.”  That is crazy, we might think, since the guy is a pastor and spiritual leader.  Again I appreciate his honesty.  Indeed, Van Tholen says basically the same thing.  He asks, “How could this be so?  How could I have believed in the God of grace and still have dreaded to meet him?”  That is a great question!  I, too, believe in a God of grace.  We read on to find out how Van Tholen dealt with his dilemma. 

After his experience of cancer, Van Tholen begins inching his way to an answer to his question, “how could this be so?”  He tells us, “As the wonderful preacher John Timmer has taught me over the years, the answer is that grace is a scandal.”  I absolutely love that line and that idea.  Grace is a scandal.  I don’t think I have ever heard it put this way and it fits. 

Van Tholen goes further.  “Grace is hard to believe.  Grace goes against the grain.  The gospel of grace says that there is nothing I can do to get right with God, but that God has made himself right with me…”  This fits how I have come to understand grace.  Linguistically, I know that grace means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  It is not earned and not a matter of me deserving it.  Grace is a way of affirming me when there may be littler or no basis for that affirmation.

When I was in graduate school, I heard for the first time the idea of “prevenient grace.”  I had never heard that language while I was growing up in my Quaker tradition.  But I knew enough Latin to know the word, prevenient, meant “that which comes before or ahead of time.”  So prevenient grace is that grace that comes to us before we need it or hope for it.  Prevenient grace comes ahead of time.  I like the image of the door.  Prevenient grace is there and opens doors as we are coming to the doors.  We don’t deserve it, but it is a gift nevertheless. 

But why does Van Tholen call it the scandal of grace?  Why use “scandal” language?  Grace is scandalous because it seems to cancel the judgment of justice.  Scandalous grace says God loves us even when we deserve to be punished.  Scandalous grace says it is ok, when everyone knows it was not ok!

There are many within the church and even outside religious institutions who secretly want people to “get theirs!”  Some of us want people to get what they deserve.  Often we don’t like it for grace to come along and cancel out the just deserts.  We want people to hurt instead of sing Hallelujah!  Particularly those of us who play by the rules and are obedient may want those who don’t play by the rules to “get theirs.”  We want accountability and God offers grace---scandalous grace. 

Too often, I am the elder son in the Prodigal Son story.  The prodigal comes home after blowing his share of the inheritance.  And dad throws a party!  That makes some of us mad.  That is scandalous!  Indeed, it is scandalous grace! 

Lord, help me come to understand more fully and embrace this radical, scandalous gift of Yours.  And maybe some day, may I be able to grace others in the same way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What of the Paradox of the Night?

I like it when I am able to use material for two different things.  This inspirational piece is one of those opportunities.  I am responsible to write an article on another facet of Thomas Merton’s spirituality.  Although this is a task that requires some work, I am happy to do it.  Much of the satisfaction comes from having to dip back into Merton’s writings to see what he has to say about a particular theme.  In this case, the theme I am giving focus is “the mercies of the night.”
I chose to work with this theme because for Merton and for myself, mercy is an important idea.  Of course, it is a theological theme---even doctrine, if you will.  Certainly, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, it is commonplace to talk about the mercy of God.  Mercy is much like grace.  It is an undeserved gift.  Mercy is God reaching out to us when we have no reason to expect that. 
I also know how important the theme of the night is for Merton.  To talk about the night does not seem special when we think only of the period of the entire day when the sun has set and darkness surrounds us.  Night lasts until the inbreaking of the new day’s sunlight.  It is clear to me Merton makes much of this literal night.  But he also takes the literal night into the metaphorical night.  Associated images come into play with this metaphorical move.  Merton can introduce correlative themes like darkness, emptiness and not knowing. 
One of his writings I plan to spend a great deal of time analyzing is the epilogue of his book, The Sign of Jonas.  The book was published in 1953, but we know Merton began writing it five years after entering the monastery at Gethsemani (1941).  This is one of my favorite books from Merton’s pen.  In the book, Merton reflects on his day to day life in this Trappist monastery in Kentucky.  In so doing he is really reflecting on his vocation as a monk.  Merton is very intentional in choosing the name, Jonas (Jonah), the well-known prophet of the Old Testament who spends some time in the belly of a great fish (or, whale, as I learned in Sunday School).
Merton shares his rationale for choosing Jonah the prophet as the chief symbol of himself and the book.  In the prologue Merton says, “A Monk can always legitimately and significantly compare himself to a prophet, because the monks are the heirs of the prophets.”  Then he continues with a couple sentences I find interesting and to which I can relate.  Merton acknowledges, “Every prophet is a sign and witness of Christ.  Every monk, in whom Christ lives, and in whom all the prophecies are therefore fulfilled, is a witness and a sign of the Kingdom of God.  Even our mistakes are eloquent, more than we know.”  I would add all this is true not only of monks, but for all of us as believers and spiritual pilgrims heading to our own destinies.
In the book, Merton develops his idea that he senses that his vocation in the monastery is leading him to his destiny.  But this trip toward destiny in, oddly, in the belly of paradox.  To understand the idea of “belly of paradox,” Merton continues with the Jonah theme.  He declares, “The sign of Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was the ‘sign of Jonas the prophet’---that is, the sign of his own resurrection.  Hence the key to understanding Jonah---at least from the Christian standpoint---is the resurrection.  One can see here a link to the great fish (whale) and the tomb holding the dead Jesus. 
Merton continued this thematic development.  “The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection.”  This could have been all Merton said about the topic and it would have been sufficient.  There is much to understand even to this point.  In a sense, Jonah presages not only Jesus, but every believer.  We all have life---new life right now in faith---by the power of the resurrection.  But Merton does not stop here.  He personalizes it.
Merton claims, “But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”  This powerful sign is the way to read the entire book which we are giving focus.  Of course, there will be many themes, but being in the belly of the whale (paradox) is to be locked in darkness and obscurity.
This is the key theme to which Merton turns at the end of the book in his epilogue.  It is in darkness---at night---that Merton learns how really to learn.  So much of this will be paradoxical.  For example, he will learn that he must unlearn what he knows to go forward.  He has to stay in the night---remain in darkness---in order to be brought paradoxically to the light.
This is a fascinating and eventful journey.  We will come back to this on another occasion.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hate Group vs. Love Group

“1,000 hate groups active in U.S” was the headline in the CNN online news!  “Wow, that’s reassuring”, I cynically thought to myself.  Really I find that appalling.  It is not surprising…and that’s also appalling!  Not only do I find that sad, I find it even sadder that according to the news article, these kinds of groups are experiencing resurgence. 

How in the world would we know there are 1,000 of these groups?  The Southern Poverty Law Center apparently is carefully tracking these kinds of hate groups.  The article also quotes Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston.  Clearly there are people who have become experts in this kind of movement.  That is not surprising. 

I don’t know the precise definition of a hate group, but it is fairly easy to guess.  Obviously a hate group would be a few people who hate another group of people.  Surely, a hate group has to have it “in” for more than a single individual.  Nobody can have lived in the last half of the 20th century and not know about anti-Semitism and Hitler.  The Nazis were a very well organized hate group that killed millions of Jews.  The African-American population in our land knows a thing or two about racism.  

It also seems obvious to me that a hate group has a clear sense of the “other” whom they despise and hate.  Doubtlessly, that “other” is stereotyped.  What may be lost on some of us is the fact that stereotyping the “other” is also self-definitional for who we are.  If I see the “other” as lesser or greedy or whatever, then I am by definition more and not greedy.  The imperfection of the “other” is a backdrop for my perfection. 

I was intrigued how a hate group forms and recruits new members.  I am so naïve that I would not have a clue where to go or how to join a hate group, even if I wanted to do so!  But in this day and age, probably all one has to do is go to Google and type in “hate group” and the group of your choice would pop up!  Apparently, according to Levin, music---especially far-right music---is a great recruitment tool for the young folks.  Again, I am naïve.  I would not have a clue what far-right music is!  Again, I found a quick, little Google check revealed some examples of such music. 

Now I am provoked to think.  Hate groups are a given.  Are love groups also a given?  Google is not always the ultimate answer, but it does give us a glimpse into the culture we live.  Type in “love groups” and Google references mostly links to friendship groups and links that have to do with love, relationships, and married couples.  That’s certainly not bad, but it is not the direct alternative of hate groups. 

I wonder if it is not time to imagine how churches, synagogues, and other such gatherings of religiously sensitive and active people might not form love groups capable of contending with the hate spread by the other groups?  What if these kinds of love groups became more active in the world and tried to love their way to change---change for the better?  These love groups could engage economic, political, and social issues in such a way to change conditions for the better. 

What if I became a part of a love group and began to work in the world to eradicate the kinds of conditions that feed hate groups?  I could do it.  That is true.  Could I do it is not the real question.  The real question is, would I do it?  That calls for a commitment and an honesty about my own situation and desire to follow what probably is God’s desire for me. 

I can’t imagine God asking us to join a hate group and learning to hate with gusto!  But people have joined hate groups and then hated with gusto.  That leads to violence, murder and mayhem.  What would be the love group alternative?  It’s fairly simple, I think.  But it is not easy. 

A love group would be folks who are driven by concern for justice, fairness, and service.  Love groups would be willing to share and, even, sacrifice.  They probably would look and act quite a bit like Jesus and the Buddha and the other spiritual luminaries of history.  They would be ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 

Most of us can’t jump big time into a love group.  But we probably could imagine beginning in small ways in our own little world.  I could do that.  For example, I could refrain from gossip and put downs of others.  Instead I could find some kindness to offer and encouragement to build up.  I could be more forgiving.   

I think if I start doing this, I probably will find others doing it too.  This can become my love group.  Likely we won’t organize as effectively as the hate group, but we can become bigger, more effective, and ultimately more successful.  I’m ready to go.  Hope you come, too.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Wholehearted Lives

The phrase used in the title of this inspirational piece comes from listening to Brene Brown, who offers insight on one of the most viewed TED talks of all time.  Brown is a researcher in social work at the University of Houston.  The title of her famous presentation is “Listening to Shame.”  She links shame to vulnerability.  I have watched it more than once.  She is insightful, poignant and funny.  Much of the humor comes at her own expense.  That often is a good recipe for humor.  You are funny and no one gets hurt.
I also have run into Brown as I am finishing Krista Tippett’s wonderful book, Becoming Wise.  Tippett refers to and interacts with Brown in the final chapter of the book, which is entitled, “Hope.”  It is fair to say that Brown stumbled onto vulnerability while she was looking at what made some people able to live what she calls “wholehearted lives.”  So Brown set off to study the topic.  She said, “I started coding data and looking for patterns and themes in words and they started emerging very quickly."  Ironically, the things Brown thought would make me and you wholehearted turned out not to be the case. 
Then she came up with an astonishing research question.  She said “I remember thinking: Does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted?”  In a word, vulnerability, she had come up with the answer to wholeheartedness.  Many of us would agree that this surprises us.  People who are vulnerable---who are willing to risk brokenheartedness---are the people more likely to experience wholehearted lives.  I take this to mean, if I am not willing to risk---play it safe, in other words---I lower significantly my chances at a wholehearted life.
Then Brown takes it a step further in her interview with Tippett.  She notes, “I see students who come to us who have never had experiences, real experiences with adversity.”  I see this in my work with university students, too.  And sometimes I think I have been too careful with my own kids.  I mean, who wants to see your own kid get hurt?  And to avoid that, too often we shield them from being vulnerable.  If Brown is correct, we would never guess what we also are doing to them” shielding them from living wholeheartedly.
Brown’s next step fascinates me.  She claims, “One of the most interesting things I’ve found in doing this work is that the wholehearted share in common a profound sense of hopefulness.”  There is a tricky line of argument emerging here.  Be willing to be vulnerable seems to lead to more wholehearted lives and those lives are given the gift of hopefulness.  This is not good news for those of us committed to taking no risk or as little risk as we can.  Here I am not talking about risk in the sense of jumping out of planes, etc.  I am sure Brown has more in mind the risk necessary for authentic love and that kind of thing.  If you are not willing to risk, you really are not willing to love authentically.
I am intrigued by how this all links to hope.  Again, Tippett quotes Brown.  She says, “…hope is not an emotion.  Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.”  It seems important to describe hope as something other than an emotion.  Of course, hope can be associated with some emotions.  But hope is a behavioral process that we learn.  To me that’s good news.
I would like to quote two final sentences from Tippett to round off this look at wholehearted living.  Tippett describes hope in an incredibly insightful fashion.  “Hope is brokenhearted on the way to becoming wholehearted.  Hope is a function of struggle.”  This is just one more clever way of saying the only real chance we have to live wholeheartedly is that we be willing to risk---that we opt for a life of being vulnerable.  Play it safe and miss the dance is a way I might put it. 
This seems so backward to many of us, it will be hard to adjust.  But apparently, we have a couple choices.  One choice is to think Brown, Tippett and the others are wrong.  How they link vulnerability, brokenheartedness, hope and wholeheartedness is just plain not the case.  Or the other choice is to assume they know what they are talking about and their claims are actually pretty accurate.  If so, then I need to change not only my mind, but the way I want to live.
I actually would like to experience a wholehearted life.  And to have this wholehearted life, I am willing to believe I have to change my mind and be willing to be more vulnerable.  It will require some faith, but hey, this is a spiritual journey.  I wonder if this is not what Jesus had in mind anyway?   

Friday, May 12, 2017

Two Paths

Throughout the history of spirituality there traditionally have been two paths that one could follow.  These go by various names, but the thrust is the same.  One classic way of talking about them is to label them the active and contemplative life.  The active life is what characterizes most of us.  It is normal life in the world.  It describes those who have jobs and families.  The contemplative life typically is a more restricted, more reserved life.  Traditionally, it is seen a less worldly. 

Another way the two paths are described is the monastic and lay paths.  Obviously the monastic life is for those men and women who withdraw from the ordinary world and join a monastery.  They dedicate and devote their lives to God in a more focused and time-consuming way than the other, lay folks do.  To those of us outside a monastery, it might seem like a more demanding way of living.  But perhaps the monks look at all of us “out here” in the world and wonder how we do it.  For many there are jobs, families, chores at home and on and on.  Probably the real truth is both ways can be quite demanding.  They are just different. 

It is easy to equate the active life with the life most of us are living in the world.  In this case our lives are more complicated if we also want to live spiritually.  Balance becomes tricky.  How do I do my job, pay attention to family and friends, deal with problems and still give some attention to my spiritual journey?  It is not easy.  At times we fail miserably.  The temptation is to give up.  And yet we will have no spiritual life if we do not persevere. 

It is also easy to equate the contemplative life with the life of the monks living in community or solitude.  For those of us on the outside, it is tempting to conclude these monks have it made when it comes to living a spiritual life.  After all, they have all that “free time!”  They pray, do a little work, and be spiritual all day long.  Some of us might be envious of this spiritual luxury.  Many others of us wonder why they don’t get a real life and struggle like the rest of us!  We can be secretly resentful because they seemingly have opted out of real life. 

As with many models or categorizations, this way of understanding things probably is too simplistic and not useful.  In my own life I have been trying to manage something in all the arenas.  It is easy to see that I am in the “real world.”  I have a wife and kids and grandkids.  I have a job and I am busy like all other “normal” people.  So clearly I am a layperson leading an active life. 

But I also hang out with monks and in my own tiny way, I am attempting to live monastically in the midst of my normal life.  I also am drawn to the contemplative life and try to practice that when I can.  So I am either hopelessly confused or creatively trying to manage a tricky balance. 

I was intrigued recently when I encountered the words of a writer on spirituality.  His journey is the opposite of mine.  In his younger years, he spent considerable time in the monastery.  But ultimately, he struggled and finally left.  But he did not dismiss the monastic.  He simply learned to be spiritual and do spirituality in a different way.  Finally, both paths are legitimate and, perhaps, complimentary. 

Here are the sage words of Philip Zaleski, as he describes his move from one path to the other.  “The struggle to love and to be loved, to make a living and provide for your family, and to keep sufficient sanity to get along in the world is a path toward spirit as sure as a retreat from life in some hothouse of spirituality where the way seems direct and transparent.”  I like these words, but I fear he does not give the monastery as much credit as it deserves.  But I do like his way of describing the spiritual journey.  It involves loving and being loved.  That sometimes is a struggle.  Providing for a family can be quite easy.  And then, there are times it can be a real pain! 

We all know keeping sane in our world can drive you nuts!  In fact I fear our culture sometimes anoints certain forms of insanity and pretends those forms are sane!  For example, Americans honor hard work.  But workaholics are probably insane.  Sometimes I fear this is my chosen form of insanity!  But it can look so spiritual. 

I want to hold on to both spiritual paths.  I see them as complements to each other.  They can help me with the balance that I am sure is needed to grow spiritually.  I want to be active and, yet, preserve a contemplative perspective that moderates the extremes of the active life.  I want to embrace fully the lay life of being spiritual in the world.  But I want to hang out with monks and read the literature of the monks.  I want their witness to shine its light on my crazy dark places and bring me into the light. 

Lord, give me help and hope as I journey through life…walking two paths.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wisdom About Eyes

It is always fun to read something that looks intriguing, but you have no idea what’s coming.  That happened to me recently when I saw a title, “We must reclaim today’s ‘custody of the eyes.’  The author, Melissa Musik Nussbaum, was not someone I knew.  I learned she is a Catholic writer who lives in Colorado.  After reading this little reflection, I will be on the lookout for more of her writings.
I was not too surprised when she opened her reflections with reference to Matthew 5:29.  That passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount material in Matthew’s gospel.  It reads: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  I have read this passage many times and I think I know what it means.  But it is still a little intimidating.  I was eager to see what Nussbaum would do with it.
My intrigue heightened when I read these couple sentences.  She asks, “How could the first-century man Jesus have known how the human eye would surrender to the electronic eye? How could he have known what the eye would become, as not just an avenue for, but a source of disease, disorder and cruelty?”  Cleverly, she was finding a way to link that remote saying to our technological everyday world.  I was ready for more.
I like how she personalized the passage, which made it seem relevant to me, too.  She acknowledges, “Because, like most of us, I live in such a way that my "eye," the eye through I which I view and comprehend the world, is a collection of screens.”  Indeed, most of us see the world through our eyes.  Maybe that is even true for blind folks.  The difference is how they come to “see” their world.  I know I am such a visual person, it is unimaginable not to be able to see. 
And certainly for me, there are many different screens upon which I focus my eyes.  Through all these screens, our world is presented to us.  There is the computer screen, television, iPhone and all the material I read still in print form.  I know for a fact not everything I see is pure.  I watch violence and mayhem.  I see poverty and injustice.  I see a world that is too often in very sorry form and, sadly, I can ignore it.  I simply turn off a screen.  I can change channels or move on with my surfing.  I can engage with my eyes, but never actually engage.
So much of what we see today becomes quite compelling, if not addictive.  I think of the old saying, “he couldn’t tear his eyes away.”  Often our eyes become captive---having been captivated by something on the screen.  This is the point at which Nussbaum’s idea, “custody of the eyes,” comes into play.  I like that phrase.  Surely, those of us who have become addicted have lost custody of our eyes.  Nussabaum puts it poignantly when she describes it: “What relinquishing custody of the eyes may mean is that you can't unsee or erase from your sight or your mind” the things you see.  I like her two verbs here: unsee and erase. 
She offers some practical advice about custody of our eyes.  One piece of advice is to be careful about what we choose to look at in the first place.  If we choose wisely, then we have less “unseeing” to do.  We will need less often an eraser for our eyes.  She points to a truth that we do well to remember.  “Custody of the eyes simply means that your eyes are in your care, or custody.  They are not owned and controlled by Facebook or YouTube or any of the thousands of advertisers and Internet sites that sow clickbait, among even stories worth reading or sites worth visiting.”
In a few words I hear her, like I heard my mother: be careful.  I like it when she reminds me about our eyes, “We've handed them over and offered them up as we sit watching whatever those who do have custody of our eyes decide to show us.”  In effect, she asks me: who possesses your eyes?  My quick answer is, “I do.”  But that may only mean my eyes are still in my head.  The stuff coming into my eyes I may have abdicated control to some other, even unknown, entity.  My eyes are no longer filters for sin. 
Perhaps the central question Nussbaum poses for me is this: who controls your eyes?  Again, I am all too quick to assume I control my eyes.  But maybe I should watch myself for a few days and see all the things to which my eyes are drawn?  Where do I habitually go---without even thinking?  What kind of junk do I allow into my eyes?  Maybe eyes ingest junk food as surely as my mouth!
Do I have sound, healthy eyes?  My optometrist is not going to diagnose sinful eyes.  In fact, she never even asks that question!  I wear contacts to see more clearly.  But what I am choosing to see?  Am I even the custodian of my own eyes?  This must be what Jesus is really getting at.
I am going to pay attention.  I want to have custody of my eyes.  Thankfully this is wisdom about eyes.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On Two Levels

Recently, I was writing a paper on becoming a contemplative.  Sometimes I smile when I type that word, contemplative, or even say it.  As far as I know, I never heard the word while I was growing up a Quaker.  No doubt, I heard people say something like, “Let me contemplate that.”  I know that phrase meant nothing more than “let me think this thing over.”  To contemplate meant to think hard about something or be careful when you think something over.  I suspect I was in graduate school when I began to hear about it in the sense in which I use it today.
Thomas Merton is probably the most well-known contemplative with which I deal.  In fact, the group of monks he joined in Kentucky are known as a contemplative group of monks.  Their whole goal is to learn to be with God as contemplatives.  Without getting technical, let me use three short sentences from Merton to indicate what being contemplative means.  Merton says, contemplation “is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being.”  I decided if that is what contemplation means, then I want to be a contemplative.
To become contemplative means to learn to live life at a deeper level than our ordinary superficial lives.  Probably the first step in becoming contemplative is realizing that most of us are living too much of our lives on the surface.  Frequently we call surface living our “routine.”  We get up and go to work (unless we are sick or retired).  All too often, our lives are outwardly focused---focused on getting the work done or on emails or Facebook or something like that.  Our lives are not lived with much introspection or reflection.  Every tomorrow is much like today.  It’s not bad; it just is not contemplative.
To be contemplative means we know that deeper source.  For some of us, that deeper source might be God, in which case we probably capitalize Source.  This deeper Source is the place spiritual wonder originates.  It is the place where we come to know the sacredness of life, as Merton puts it.  To go there and to know ourselves at that deeper level elicits from us a sense of gratitude.  We want to say “Thank you” and “Amen.”  To become a contemplative means we learn to live from that Source, rather than make an occasional visit there.
To learn to live from the Source reminds me of words from my favorite Quaker writer, Thomas Kelly.  In his classic book, A Testament of Devotion, he has a little section on this theme of two levels. Allow me to quote that section and then offer a little commentary.  Kelly says, “The possibility of this experience of Divine Presence, as a repeatedly realized and present fact, and its transforming and transfiguring effect upon all life---this is this is the central message of Friends.  Once discover this glorious secret, this new dimension of life, and we no longer live merely in time but we live also in the Eternal.  The world of time is no longer the sole reality of which we are aware.  A second Reality hovers, quickens, quivers, stirs, energizes us, breaks in upon us and in love embraces us, together with all things, within Himself.  We live our lives at two levels simultaneously, the level of time and the level of the Timeless."
I think Kelly offers in these words how Quakers understand living contemplatively.  This is the language with which I grew up.  Spirituality---and contemplation---is experiential.  It is not just a bunch of ideas or fancy theology.  Of course, it may include ideas and necessarily becomes theological.  But it is primarily an experience.  Spirituality is the experience of the Divine Presence.  And fortunately, it is not a one-time event.  Spirituality is the contemplative learning to live within that Presence.  It means having that Divine Presence inform our lives and form our actions.
As Kelly suggests, the contemplative learns to live on two levels.  One level is our ordinary life.  Kelly calls this living “merely in time.”  To live merely in time does not have to be superficial, but is often is.  And to live from this level usually leaves us wishing for more to life.  We suspect life is richer than this, but we are not there yet.  We long to experience life at a deeper level.  And when we are gifted with that experience, a new level opens to us.
Kelly calls the chance to live at this second level the opportunity to “live also in the Eternal.”  It does not mean we cease to live in time---at our normal sense of time.  But we also know life at this deeper level, where we are in touch with and shaped by our experience of the Divine Presence.  This deeper level brings the meaning and purpose that thrills us with our life.  The great thing about this sense of life is we are content and grateful.  Life at this level does not leave us wanting more.  We already have everything we could possible want.  That is hard to imagine, but it is not only possible to all, but it is available.
We don’t have to invent this kind of life.  We have resources like Merton, Kelly and a host of folks alive and willing to show us how to live on two levels.  It does not require a high IQ nor significant money to make the purchase.  It will ask us to be open, to grow and to begin to see our lives in a different way.  It is a process.  I am on the way.  I still feel like I am in kindergarten, but at least I am in school!
Life is possible on two levels.  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Original Self

In the process of writing for another project, I had the occasion to return to one of my favorite authors, Thomas Moore.  I recalled he had commented on some ideas that I was trying to develop in my project.  In brief I am thinking about the issue of identity.  On one hand, that is fairly easy to determine.  Most of us would claim that we know who we are. 

On the superficial level, it is easy to describe our identity.  We have a name.  Most of us stick with the names our parents gave us.  As kids we may gain a nickname, but we all know that is not our ‘real name.”  And often women change their names when they get married.  But even if this happens, there are times when they will refer to their maiden name as if that is actually more basic to their identities. 

And in this country we all get social security numbers.  Of course, we don’t like to think about ourselves as a number, but the fact is, that number points to my uniqueness.  No one has the same social security number that I do.  So in the case of my name and social security number, I feel like I have an identity.  But I also know that neither my name nor my social security number capture my true identity.  I know that I am more than a social security number.  And I know that my name is only a description of me; it is not the real me. 

It is not unusual in our society, however, not to pursue who we really are.  We are often content to pile on more superficial tags for identity.  For example, I can tell you where I went to school.  I have more than one post-secondary degree, but that does not make me “more” than someone who dropped out of school after the eighth grade.  And sometimes, we choose material things to develop or enhance our identity.  I am sure some folks buy a specific kind of car, because that simply is “who I am.”  Buying a sports car usually is symbolic of how someone wants people to see him or her.  I once had a red sports car; I know!

I am convinced that none of this matters at the deeper spiritual level.  The real question at this deeper spiritual level is the “real me.”  In fact, the first question simply asks, is there a “real me?”  I want to believe the answer is “Yes!”  However, we need some more evidence for this.  Simply saying we do is different than knowing we do.  This is where I turned to some of Thomas Moore’s musings. 

In his book entitled, Original Self, Moore offered a perspective that I find quite compelling.  He says, “far beneath the many thick layers of indoctrination about who we are and who we should be lies an original self, a person who came into this world full of possibility and destined for joyful unveiling and manifestation.” (v)  Let’s unpack this sentence in order to appreciate the profundity of his perspective.

In this first place Moore tells me something I already suspect.  Our “real me” is not available to us on the surface of who we are.  He reveals that the real me is buried under many thick layers of indoctrination.  I don’t know that I really like that word, but I do think it points to something quite true.  Another way to put it is to acknowledge that we are all products of our culture.  The culture ranges from our immediate family to the larger national culture in which we grew up.  It is impossible to grow up and not be indoctrinated.  It does not wipe out the real me, but it does submerge that real me under the other “fabricated me’s” that our cultures produce. 

Happily, Moore says there is an “original self” deep within each of us.  I would posit that original self is the self that God created.  It is the self created in the image of God.  As Moore puts it, that self comes full of possibilities.  It is destined for joyful unveiling and manifestation.  By definition that self is synonymous with our soul.  And that self/soul comes divinely inclined. 

By that I mean the original self is not God.  But it is God’s.  We are birthed into possibilities with divine potentialities.  Because we are God’s, our “real me” is related to the God who gave us into life.  And because we will be God’s child maturing into God’s daughter or son, then we are called to grow up into the fullness of all that potentiality. 

The unveiling and manifestation of that “real me” is truly glory to behold!  The process consists of getting in touch with that original self.  And then we nurture and nourish the growth and development of that true self until we come more and more to recognize the “real me” that comes alive in the world.  The fullness of that development will manifest as loving presence in the world, which is given to the service and ministry of the rest of God’s children in this world.   

Lord, let me know and grow this original self.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Future Has a Name

One of the popular things in the media world right now is Pope Francis’ TED Talk, filmed in April, 2017.  The Pope is always a compelling figure, so I watched it with great anticipation.  I was not disappointed with his message.  Sometimes, I am amazed at how relatable this guy---some would say, old man---really is.  I was intrigued what his message would be.  As usual, there are many significant sub-themes, but I want to focus on his one major theme.  It is worth noting his overall theme is the future, so let’s center in on one particular place he deals with that.
I center on one particular section or big paragraph.  The opening sentence is very clever.  The Pope says, “To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is Hope.”  That is a cool way to introduce the theme of “future.”  For the Christian, Francis claims, to talk about the future is to talk about hope.  Rather than analyze what he means by this, we do well to quote some more papal words. 
The Pope begins to develop his ideas with the very next sentence.  He says, “Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing.”  That is very important.  Naïve people are not hopeful.  They are like people buying cotton candy expecting it to be food!  You take a bit and it evaporates in your mouth.  I learned a long time ago that hope has to be possible for it to be hope.  It cannot be some kind of wish dream.  And the Pope is certainly correct when he says hope is not ignorance.
In the next section of that paragraph, the Pope introduces some theology.  But it is not heavy-duty theology.  Listen to this longish sentence.  “Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness, that doesn't dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow.”  That is powerful.  Hope is, indeed, a virtue.  I have written three books in which hope appears as a virtue.  But I think the Pope describes it far better than I have.  Hope does not lock itself into darkness.  That does not mean we won’t see dark times.  As surely as night follows day, we will have dark and troubled times.  But people of hope do not get locked into these times.  Hope does not become despair---that prison out of which we never get.
Furthermore, hope does not dwell on the past.  Again, the Pope is not saying hope is ignorant of the past.  It may be very good to remember the past.  The past can be an effective teacher---even if it were a hard lesson.  But we don’t dwell in the past.  And what the Pope has to say about the future is quite insightful.  He tells us not simply to “get by” in the present. Simply getting by is not much of a way to live.  Rather, hope gives us a way to see a tomorrow.  Tomorrow is the hope.  And we have it today!
The Pope, then, becomes poetic.  He suggests that “Hope is the door that opens onto the future.”  I like the idea of hope as a door.  Doors offer access; walls block access.  Hope is a door.  In this sense hope offers possibility.  Hope knows there is a way.  I like the idea that hope is an opening.  That is the opening to our tomorrows.
Francis continues to analyze hope by introducing a couple of metaphors.  First, the Pope says, “Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree.”  Hope is a seed.  To hope does not mean we have to see the whole thing---to know the whole story of the future.  Plant the seed and some day you may get a tree.  Now that is faith.  But hope always demands some form of faith.  And then Francis switches metaphors.
He moves from seed to yeast.  He suggests, “It is like some invisible yeast that allows the whole dough to grow, that brings flavor to all aspects of life.”  This is an organic metaphor; yeast is alive.  It is a form of action; things happen with yeast, just as it does with hope.  Yeast and hope are lively.  Again, I feel the power of hope in a way I never feel empowered by “wishing.”  To wish something feels fairly weak, if not, passive.  Hope has power.
There is more in this single paragraph, but let me end with one more sentence from the Pope.  He points to each of us when he says, “A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you.”  I find this both reassuring and challenging.  It is reassuring because a single individual can make such a difference.  If one person has hope, hope exists.  I can always be that individual.  But it is also challenging because as a person of faith, I accept that it is my responsibility to be a person of hope.  My hope is not necessarily that things will get better.  My hope holds that there is a future---a tomorrow. 
In faith I am confident this is the Divine promise.  Regardless of what’s going on, there is hope.  Regardless of what happens, there is a tomorrow.  For the Christian, even death carried within it the seed and yeast of hope.  Through death comes life.  This is not fact; but it is true and meaningful in faith. 
I thank Pope Francis for giving me hope and for knowing the future has a name.  

Friday, May 5, 2017

Peace at All Costs

A Catholic publication I regularly read recently had an article celebrating the anniversary of Daniel Berrigan’s death.  Most of the students with whom I spend my days would have no clue who Daniel Berrigan was.  The fact that he was a Catholic priest would not create any interest.  If I were to tell them Berrigan also was a Jesuit, I am sure their eyes would roll.  And they probably wouldn’t even care that Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Phil, also a Catholic priest were two formative people for my own life.  Indeed, they were models for my generation, but they can be teachers for all generations.
If not for reading this article by Art Laffin entitled, “Redeem the times! A remembrance of Daniel Berrigan,” I would not have remembered the recent death of Daniel Berrigan.  Reading the article rekindled my awareness and appreciation of this twentieth century saint.  Of course, he has not been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church---and probably won’t be---but as a Quaker, I can consider him a saint.
While many would not recognize his sanctity, all faithful men and women likely would be willing to recognize Berrigan as a prophet.  Like most prophets, Berrigan confronted people and issues.  Often he made folks squirm.  He bore witness to the gospel message in a stark and, sometimes, confrontational way.  He was repeatedly jailed for his actions.  I did not know him personally, but I felt like I knew him.  He was a challenge for me.  In some ways I felt like he grasped the essence of Quaker witness far better than I did.
I felt like I knew the Quaker position on war and peace making.  I knew the history of my tradition---its early leadership on slavery, etc.  Quakers enjoy our history, but too often we come up short on actually living out the truth of our witness.  And the truth of that witness is nothing more than trying to live the gospel life to which Jesus calls all who follow him.  For me at least, there is a discrepancy between what I know and what I am willing to do.  Berrigan always was a challenge to this discrepancy.
Berrigan is best known for his stance against the Vietnam War.  He felt quite sure that Jesus would be unwilling to condone killing of any kind.  I remember very well the debate in the 60s about whether Vietnam was a “just war.”  I had studied enough Christian history to be very familiar with the arguments Christians had developed to decide whether a war or any conflict was “just.”  The logic followed that if a war were “just,” then somehow justice could dictate killing.  For most Quakers, this logic simply did not make sense.  Clearly, it made no sense to Berrigan.
Berrigan is now dead.  Most folks---probably many religious leaders---would be glad not to have him brought again to light.  However, I find that sad.  I want to remember him.  I want him to confront me again and challenge my still lingering discrepancies.  Most of us believers need a prophet in our midst.  It is too easy to become “soft” on the Spirit.  I appreciate Art Liffin bringing Berrigan’s words back into my consciousness and provoking me to write about it.
Listen again to the challenge of Berrigan as Laffin presents them.  Berrigan implores us to “Love one another! Know where you stand and stand there! Pray with your feet! Resist Empire! Create community! No more war! No more killing and torture! No more weapons! Beat all swords into plowshares! Reach out and show compassion to all who are marginalized!”  There is so much here, it is important to unpack and develop it a little.
I appreciate the imperative to “love one another.”  That seems core to the gospel.  And it is at the heart of every major religion.  When war and violence break out, there is a breakdown of love.  A peacemaker is a love maker.  I suggest Berrigan is saying that love is where we stand.  It is where we take our stand.  “Stand there,” he counsels.  Be unmovable from that love commitment.  And then be ready for action.  “Pray with your feet.”  Wherever you go, go in prayer.  Prayer is form of care for friend and foe alike.
“Resist the Empire,” he implores.  What he means by this is to know we are citizens of a wonderful country, but our allegiance is to a higher God and to the call of that gospel to love enemies…and not shoot and kill them.  This does not make us unpatriotic, although some may claim it does.  Next is the call to “create community.”  Of course, I value this very highly.  Creating community is the surest way to include and not exclude.  Community is not the same thing as conformity.  True community is normally built on justice and love.  That is the way we proceed.
Then comes the litany that we do no more war, no killing, no torture or weapons.  Berrigan’s final call is for compassion.  Compassion is love for the other.  This particularly means the marginalized---the poor, sick, etc.  Compassion is shown for those who cannot help themselves.  Again, Jesus is a model in this kind of ministry.  Of course, there is a cost related to compassion.  Jesus paid the ultimate price.  We, too, are called to be willing to pay the cost.  We should be willing to pay the cost---peace at all costs.