About Me

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Goodbye Friend

A good friend of mine has recently died.  He happens to be English, so I have not seen him for some time.  He moved back to England.  Distance does not diminish friendship; it just makes it more difficult to spend one-on-one time in person.  We’ll call my friend, John.  I have known John for nearly four decades.  He was a fellow Quaker.  We had some things like that in common.  And there was much about him that was quite different than me.
I learned that John was an avid sports fan.  As a former athlete and sports fan, this appealed to me.  Very early in my time in England, John posed a question.  “Do you want to go with me to a football match?”  Affirmatively, I replied.  And so it was that I saw my first English Premier League soccer match.  It was at Aston Villa, one of the three Birmingham “major league” teams, as we would call them.
And so began my soccer----football education---in English.  I learned that the game was played on the pitch, not the field.  My education happened not only at the game, but soon thereafter.  My profound memory of that football match happened as we were leaving the stadium.  We emerged into a huge football hooligan brawl.  There must have been five-hundred younger fans from both sides engaged in a pitched battle.  Bottles, bricks and the like were flying like missiles.  We crouched next to a brick wall just beyond the melee.  I was scared, but John reassured that we would survive.  Suddenly, I realized he was not only a friend; he was also becoming a kind of mentor.
Because both of us were involved in higher education around the broad theme of religion, discussions were also breaking out about various issues of spirituality.  Because Quakers always begin their spiritual story with experience, rather than doctrine, I was intrigued to learn about John’s own pilgrimage.  Our personal stories are always revelatory.  His story did not disappoint me.
And so the real person, John, came to be a friend.  He was a bright, insightful Quaker scholar.  He was the Oxford-educated intellectual.  But he was a sports guy with interests as pedestrian as mine---a guy who grew up on an Indiana farm.  John was fun and funny.  He could be serious and, yet, he always had a twinkle in his eye and was ready for a laugh.  I found him to be both extraordinary and ordinary.
A pivotal point in John’s life was his experience of his father’s death.  John told me the night his father died, “I had to take a long look at myself.  I had to ask what I believed.”  To ask yourself what you believe is a profound moment.  John focused some on the fact that he was educated at Oxford University.  This is like being at Harvard---or even better!  John had to contend with whether he was “fully Oxford” or whether this was just part of his development?  His story became even more intriguing to me.  John’s story became a story of transformation.
Listen to his fairly long narrative.  Thinking about what trying to be “fully Oxford” demanded of him, he made a decision.  “The consequence of all this is that I parted company with my pedestal.  I saw through the system that had selected me and schooled me and given me its values and standards.  I prized my education highly, but came to reject what it had been for.  I discovered the joy of being ordinary.”  I loved this end-point: a joy in discovery he was ordinary.  As a farm boy from Indiana, I could relate. 
But his story did not end there.  He continues in a very spiritual fashion.  “These changes were set in motion the night I got back from the hospital…That night I came to know that as Christ was resurrected, so should my father live.  For the very first time, I had life in me.”  I find this very touching.  Even if I had no faith at all, I don’t think I could doubt the validity of his experience and even interpretation.  He had life in him and he knew why.  All this was behind John by the time I met him.  But it was also still in front of him, because he was still living out the consequences of the life he had in himself.
And now my friend has died.  So I can amend his earlier quotation about his father.  I expect that as Christ was resurrected, so should John now live.  I can affirm this in faith.  Clearly, I cannot prove it.  I hope it is true---for John’s sake and mine.  I am sure that John would have agreed with me that some form of life after death is not necessary to live a spiritual life here on earth. 
In death, as in life, John is a friend and mentor.  I can laugh at the fact we also were soccer buddies and baseball buddies.  To be spiritual should make us more human, not less.  That was one of my key learnings from John.  When people are popular, like he was, too often people try to imitate him and his life.  We were different enough, that I know imitating him was not an option.  Besides the spiritual key is to become all that God wants us to be.  That is our life’s work.
His life’s work is finished---at least, on this planet.  But his influence still is present---befriending and mentoring.  For that I am grateful.  And I can say, goodbye friend.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Agnosticism in Our Hearts

Titles intrigue and, sometimes, inspire me.  Maybe it is because I have written some books and numerous articles and had to come up with titles for all of them.  Some titles are merely descriptive; they tell you what the contents are.  Other titles go for more of a marketing angle.  They are designed to encourage you to buy the book or read the article.  While this kind of title may be catchy and intriguing, you may not be altogether sure what the contents will be. 

So it was that I landed on a title of a little article in an online publication I routinely read.  The title reads: “Friends from seminary days gather at Redemptorist center to bury friend’s ashes.”  I was immediately hooked; I had to begin reading it.  Maybe some of it is because of my age.  I have done countless funerals and have buried some of my own family members and friends.  I have my own stories and wanted to know this story.  I wonder whether in my younger, just-beginning-days whether I would have been intrigued and read the article?
The story was a good one.  It talked about the gathering of a bunch of guys who had studied in a Redemptorist seminary back in the 1950s and 60s.  In those days all of them would have planned on becoming priests.  Who they are now is the story of a number of individual lives and, really, the story of the life of the Catholic Church in America.  Some of them did continue and become ordained.  Some were still priests to this day.  Others were ordained but have since left the priesthood.  Some got married; some left their studies before they even finished.  I suspect it is not that different for Protestant seminarians from those days.  
The article was a touching story of the gathering of guys (and a couple wives) to bury their friend, Richard Koeppen.  Of course, I never heard of him, but that did not lessen my intrigue.  Richard was one of the dropouts from the seminary.  Richard was described briefly in their article.  We are told “had made a small fortune as a business executive then spent it all caring for the homeless.”  That is a great line describing a neat guy whom I’ll never know.  The story becomes tinged with sadness when we additionally are informed Richard suffered from dementia and died penniless.  But he still had friends.
That is one of my learnings from reading this.  Richard had life plans.  Those life plans changed, but he made the most of it.  He made some money and spent it on really good a really good cause---helping fellow human beings who had much less.  Actually, that is not a bad form of ministry.  It may not be the priesthood, but it is ministry nevertheless.  And he still had friends.  There is probably a book in that idea, but I won’t write it now.
Instead I want to share another piece from the article that also intrigued me.  Buried in the middle of the article is a quick story of one of Richard’s friends, a guy only called Mev.  Mev is one of those who finished seminary, was ordained and is still a priest.  We only know this about Mev until we hear some perspective from him.  We are told Mev “reminds us early in discussions that there's at least a little agnosticism in all our hearts.”  I love this coming from a priest.  Stereotypically, we might think a priest has it all together.  They have been taught, trained and now are tight with God.  My experience suggests this is almost never the case.

I agree with Mev: there is a little agnosticism in all our hearts.  Of course, it is important that I distinguish between agnosticism and atheism.  I was delighted when I learned the distinction.  It made life easier.  Atheism contends there is no God---it denies God’s existence.  Agnosticism, on the other hand, says, “I don’t know.”  Or maybe, the agnostic says, “I’m not sure.”  
That certainly resonates with faith, as I understand it.  Faith is different than certainty.  I certainly do have faith in God---that God exists and loves, etc.  But I cannot prove it.  I can even doubt it.  In that sense I have a little agnosticism in my heart.  Mev puts it well when he says, the agnostic “doesn't have certainty of either the self-proclaimed believer or the self-proclaimed atheist" about what may — or may not — happen in the great hereafter. The aspiring believer must then couple a quest for faith with that natural agnosticism.”
I like the idea of “natural agnosticism.”  It allows for faith---sometimes very deep and confident faith.  But it is faith.  It is faith that is also humble.  A little agnosticism in our hearts is a good pill of humility to take.  It prevents the arrogance of the kind of faith most of us probably don’t really like.  Faith without humility can create a religious bully.  No one wants to deal with this kind of character.
I do not think admitting that we all have a little agnosticism in our hearts makes us weak or second-class believers.  After all, faith is not a contest that determines winners and losers.  Faith is a journey of discovering and deepening in God’s Presence.  It is a relationship---a relationship of love.  It requires trust and discipline.  Faith is not the same thing as control.  
I appreciate Mev’s insight.  I am touched by Richard’s friends’ willingness to gather and bury his ashes.  There may be a little agnosticism in their hearts, but there is even more love and care for a friend.  That’s powerful.

Friday, June 23, 2017


A theme that is part of the Quaker vocabulary, with which I grew up, is the idea of waiting.  I am sure to most people, the idea of waiting for anything seems pretty boring.  Of course, we do have to wait for things in life, but generally we don’t like it.  I wonder if American culture has not been a race to get faster?  There are many examples that suggest this is true.
So much of the world I inhabit seems to be on a quest to get faster.  The evolution of the internet is a great example.  I was aware of computers coming to be a factor in our world, but did not personally get involved in computers till the mid-1980s.  Of course, that was before the internet had been invented.  In those days all my mail came through the mail!  I finally made my peace with computers and, of course, now can’t imagine not having one.
Then the internet was invented---in the 90s, I think---and at some point my mail started coming through electronically---appropriately labeled, “email.”  Now if I get a real, interesting letter in the mailbox, I celebrate like an old friend pulled off a miracle!  And with the advent of cell phones now, most of us get our “letters” on a phone in our pocket.  Instead of going to the mailbox, we simply pull out the phone and read our emails.  And the email might be from half-way around the world and it is still instanteous.  No one wants to wait one second longer than necessary.
And that brings me back to the Quaker theme of waiting.  Quakers happened upon this term because our theology says we cannot program God to operate on our own sense of timing or whim.  We cannot demand that God show up on our command and do exactly what we want to do.  In effect, we are resigned to the fact that God is still God and we are still human.  Of course, an atheist denies God’s existence, so doesn’t worry about interacting with God.  But I still have a sense there is God and so am intent on interacting with my God.
I am intrigued with what God might want to say to me and what God might want me and others to do.  If I can’t email God, then I have to wait.  I recognize my timing is not necessarily God’s timing, so I have to wait.  Even if I am in a hurry, that does not means God is in a hurry.  So I have to wait.  And that’s the issue.
The theme of waiting came to be prominent for Quakers in their gatherings to worship.  Theoretically, Quakers see worship as a time when the people come together physically in order that they might be gathered into the Presence of God.  It is fair to say the hope is to experience some sense of unity coming out of our diversity.  It does not happen every time Quakers come together.  After all, God is not programmed by a group any more than by an individual.  I do think God promises to show up.  But God will show up in God’s own sense of timing.
And so Quakers gather.  It is appropriate that we gather expectantly.  It is appropriate because God does promise to be present.  But God does not promise to be present whenever and however we demand it.  And so we gather.  In effect we ready ourselves and come to be ready to be gathered into the Presence of God.  That is our part---to become ready.
The Quaker language I learned is we gather “to wait upon the Lord.”  I know this is a line that occurs frequently in the Journal of George Fox, that seventeenth century early Quaker.  To wait upon the Lord was his way of expressing the “readying process” that made Quakers aware and available to the God who would come.  While the waiting might not seem very exciting, it does not have to be boring.  Let me use an analogy.
Perhaps it is not a good analogy, but the place where expectant language is regularly used is with women expecting a child.  Typically, we say “she is expecting.”  In effect, she is waiting.  It is not boring.  It is not a question of whether, only when.  Analogously, this is how it is with God.  Ironically, waiting is the active part we humans can do.  Waiting is indeed active waiting.  That’s the trick, if there is a trick.  Most Americans probably seen waiting as both boring and passive.  There seems nothing to do when one is waiting.  But that is not true with active waiting.
The more I work with various layers of spirituality, I wonder if active waiting on the Lord is not an exercise in awareness and attention?  I suspect it is.  I am also convinced it is a form of spiritual discipline.  This is a good way contemporarily to talk about the process of coming to meet and be present with God.  That is still the basic question.
I assume that most people who believe in God and want to interact somehow with the Divine One do not think God is some kind of “cosmic bell hop,” as one friend put it.  We do think there is always a timing issue with God.  Theologically, God may always be present, but it takes a certain amount of awareness and attention on our part to know it.  And God may be sitting around always waiting for us to show up, but generally it takes some discipline on our part to learn to show up.
So in that little phrase, “waiting upon the Lord,” Quakers nicely have captured a succinct way to talk about coming to be in the Presence---to meet and mingle with God.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Quiet Soul

The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter.  Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time.  I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.
As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm.  The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…”  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…”  In this case I prefer the first option.  It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things. 
It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!”  Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention.  If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements.  Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride.  I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.
The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.”  I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one.  That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”  That seems very clear to me.  It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.
Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up.  I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!”  When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant.  As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient.  It means that we should not get overly excited.  If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline.  Keep your journey simple.  Being spiritual is a life-long journey. 
The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts.  Why bother seeking to walk among the great.  Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture.  In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them.  In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture.  That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ.  Certainly this is what the monks seek to do.  And in my own way, I try to follow suit.
By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me.  Stay simple.  There is no need to call attention to myself.  Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift.  I just need to remember that I did not create my own life.  And I cannot prevent my own death.  I have choices, but they are choices on the way.  And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.
I like the next line in Psalm 131.  The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…”  The NRSV is nearly identical.  It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…”  Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition.  To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.
I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert?  Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts.  I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.
We all know the demands on us.  Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent.  I do think we live in a noisy culture.  And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head!  In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain.  Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!
A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language.  Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.”  Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul.  To be in the Center is to be with God.  It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Celebration of Reformation

Writing a headline that calls for celebration of Reformation might cause some consternation.  This might especially be true if I capitalize “Reformation,” as I just did.  If I left the word, reformation, in lower case, it might appear I wanted merely to describe a process.  But Reformation suggests Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the other reformers---some of who were radical.  In fact, my own Quaker tradition has its origins in the Radical Reformation, as my mentor, George Williams, helped me learn.

I capitalized the word, Reformation, because we have entered a season where this movement will be much discussed.  I have already been solicited to write an article for a British Jesuit journal, which plans on dealing with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing the famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  As I ponder this, I am aware of what feels like a thousand ways to approach the story.
Many folks are tempted to read that historical period with a win-loss mentality.  If one happens to grow up on the Protestant side of the equation, it can well feel like a win.  Smugly, Protestants can tell a story of Catholic degradation, abuse and the like that left the poor Old Testament professor at Wittenberg no alternative except to begin a Reformation.  However, if you grow up Catholic, it is fairly easy to admit things were not perfect with the sixteenth century Catholic Church, but people like Luther went too far and was rightly excommunicated.  And so much of the half-millennium story since has been told.  
I had my own version (inarticulate, to be sure) of the story growing up in pre-Vatican II Indiana.  I knew where the Catholic Church was, but it never occurred to me to visit it.  When Vatican II happened (1962-65), I don’t even remember being aware of it.  Little did I know how profoundly it would affect my life.  It is too much to tell the Vatican II story, but I will say how grateful I am that Pope John XXIII had the vision and courage to move ahead with it.  I celebrate him and, now, I celebrate the Reformation.
When I say I am celebrating the Reformation, I am not cheering the victory of Luther, Calvin and the rest.  I am cheering the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.  In this sense I am on the side of every person and institution that is open to and co-operates with the work of the Spirit.  I caution this does not mean I think the Spirit was at work in the Reformers alone.  I don’t suggest for a minute that the Catholic Church was devoid of the Spirit and its own sense of needing to be reformed.  One only has to look at a figure like Erasmus to know this would not be true.  
I will make one theological claim.  While I certainly hold that the Spirit can work in all people and, indeed, in all institutions, I don’t think any person or institution can alone claim to possess the Spirit.  The Spirit is God’s Presence and that is not possessed.  It might possess, but it is never possessed---as in captured.
A characteristic feature of the Spirit, as I understand it, is the Spirit moves and causes movement.  The Spirit always brings life; it is not static.  And so where there is decay and death, the Spirit has gone.  A second characteristic of the Spirit is its movement causes evolution.  This is what the Spirit was doing in the sixteenth century and, I believe, is still doing in our own twenty-first century.  Because the Spirit is causing evolution, there should always be cause for celebration.  Another way of saying it, is to recognize the work of the Spirit is always renewing.  It brings new life.
This is the angle I prefer to look from when I hear about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation period.  Looking at it this way, prevents a win-loss reading of that history.  And more to the point, it helps us see our own time and where we can be led---if we are open to and heed the evolving, reforming work of the Spirit.  This is the exciting potential of remembering.  To remember reading history in order to learn from history in order to make a more meaningful history.
I want to read sixteenth century history---Protestant, Catholic and all others---from the perspective of the Spirit’s work.  I am convinced the Spirit is present and at work in all times and in all places.  But not all of us are attentive and open to this work.  And certainly, not all institutions are attentive and at work.  
What worries me about celebrating the Reformation is the temptation to read it as history alone.  It will be easy to make fun of the win-loss perspective and miss that we are in the same throes as those sixteenth century religious folks.  I am convinced the same Spirit is in our midst reforming and asking us to evolve.  To miss this is surely to opt for decay and, just as surely, death.  Our story may be so unremarkable no one will remember it.  
That’s why I want to celebrate Reformation and reformation.  My life and our times are at stake.  


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Encountering Heschel Again

I read a number of things daily online.  One of those is the New York Times.  I am not so careful that I read everything every day.  But I try to be consistent in following things.  Although there is the usual spate of daily news that is depressing, there are other occasions when I run across something that helps me get a grip on the depressing things.  I ran into on such article by George Yancy, philosopher professor at Emory University in Atlanta.  I have read some of his stuff before in a posting he calls “The Stone.”
The article that caught my eye this time, Yancy entitles, “Is Your God Dead?”  I am old enough to remember the “God is Dead” movement in the 60s and wondered if that theological movement were being revived.  The answer is a flat “no.”  Instead, Yancey wonders if we---you and me---have lost our real God and only serve some idol of our own making?  It is a provocative question that I feel obligated to face.

Yancy is not talking about sophisticated theology, but practical theology.  He wonders whether we are looking “in the face of your neighbor on the street.”  He does not mean the rich neighbor across the way, but the poor one across town.  He presses on with more ornery questions.  And then he made a move that I deeply appreciated.  He began to refer to various words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late twentieth century Jewish theologian---one of my favorites.  Heschel was born in Poland, was overrun by the Nazis and harassed till he left for England and then the US.  He labored for peace, was a close friend of Martin Luther King and more.   

Herschel had a sense of his own need to stay engaged with all sorts of people and make his faith count.  He has provoked me before and provided solace, so I want to use some of his words here that Yancy quotes.  We can let Heschel instruct us in the faith---his faith and ours and everyone’s faith.  And we have to include even those who have no faith---at least, religious kind of faith.
Yancy’s first Heschel quotation portrays him concerned whether we “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.”  This is a challenge right away!  Following on this, Heschel is concerned about “an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.”  I am sure I have been and, likely, still am guilty of this.  I can do better.  

Decades ago Heschel charged, “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.”  I suspect that charge still fits most of us.  As I think about myself, I realize I am knowledgeable about things and yet do not move on to action.  I can do better.  My faith tradition calls for me to do better.  I do not need to berate myself and, certainly, not others.  Living one’s faith tradition is voluntary.  We are not conscripts.  But when we pray, “Thy will be done,” we should actually mean it.

Most of the problems of our lives and our world did not just happen.  Heschel could use his experience of the Holocaust to make this point.  Listen to him when he describes the Holocaust.  “It was in the making for several generations. It had its origin in a lie: that the Jew was responsible for all social ills, for all personal frustrations. Decimate the Jews and all problems would be solved.”  What are our own personal and social “holocausts” today?  They doubtlessly are not as horrific as the Holocaust Heschel experienced, but they still need to be dealt with.

There are a couple other quotations from Heschel I would like to include before concluding.  Heschel was a savvy dealer with words, especially when you consider English was not his first or second language.  Listen to him challenge people of all faiths.  Heschel notes, “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”  This is a wonderful, simple definition of an idol.  Most contemporary idols are not like the old idol gods found in Christian scripture.  Instead our current idols are very common-place.  But contemporary idols, like those of old, still control our lives and misdirect us from the true God.

One final quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel may be the most provocative of all.  He observes, “one may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”  That one nails me, for sure.  And it probably describes many of the kind of people with whom I hang out.  Pious and sinful; that is probably very accurate.  Of course, many of our sins are socially acceptable; after all, most people are doing them!  And this is exactly what Yancey is trying to convey and he uses Heschel to strengthen the narrative.

I appreciate encountering Heschel again.  I have always loved reading him, even if it usually does turn out to challenge me and bring me up short.  While most of the quotations here do not bring comfort, that is what Heschel also offers.  He’s been there and knows what he is talking about.  

Heschel always invite me to live into my better self. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Gift as Expression of Hospitality

I have recently returned from a conference.  That is not surprising to know an academic goes to a conference.  College professors go to conferences all the time.  I have done my fair share, but generally don’t go anymore.  It is not that I think conferences are unimportant.  But I do have the sense that in my own field of religion, conferences that are academic are not where I spend most of my time now.  The papers presented at such conferences tend to be too arcane to be of much use to me.  

Most of my time these days is spent in what I would call ministry within the academic community.  That does not mean I go around praying for people all the time.  I am not preaching sermons.  I am not trying to get students to become Christian or anything else.  I am trying to help them think about life---their own life and others.  I want to help them figure out how they will make sense of their lives.  Of course, many of us make sense of life through our own religious tradition or via spirituality. 
I use a variety of people---historical and contemporary---to help students think about life.  One such person, whom I often cite and admire, is the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  Even though Merton died tragically in 1968, his writings and teachings still have an amazing relevance to our world and making sense of our world.  And that was the point of this conference, which focused on Merton’s writings and legacy.  This was a conference that “spoke to my condition,” as Quakers would say.  But my story is not really about Merton.  He simply provided the context.
And so it was at this conference I met a young, engaging college senior.  I never saw her in my life, but I do know her mentor.  And it was her mentor who wanted to connect us.  And connect we did.  As we talked, she described her love of studying religion and business, especially accounting.  Of course, this is not the normal combination for college students.  It was easy to guess why the mentor wanted us to connect.  I, too, harbor interests in both religion and business.  In fact, I have written books in both arenas.  I guess that makes me strange, too.
I encouraged her not to feel like she has to choose between them.  My advice was not really advice.  People her age should feel no pressure to focus too quickly and exclude things that could be difference-makers later in life.  “Follow your spirit,” was my suggestion.  Of course, that is hardly specific.  In some ways I am not even sure I know what I am telling her.  But I do trust she has a spirit and that spirit connects with the Spirit of God.  What I suggested to her is precisely what I am still trying to do in my own life.
After spending a considerable amount of time talking with her and getting to know her, I became confident she will find a way forward.  I doubt that she (or anyone else) can plan this course of life.  Even at my ripe age, I don’t think I can plan my life.  Of course, we can all make plans and chart courses of action.  At some point I may leave my house and live in a retirement community.  She can choose graduate schools, etc.  But none of these choices dictate what life will come to be for her.
As we left each other that first meeting, I told her I would touch base the next day.  I already knew what I planned to do for her.  I would give her one of my books that deals with business and some spirituality.  The book’s content would not give her a game plan.  I meant it more as a form of encouragement.  And so the next day I looked for her to give her my gift.  I succeeded; she has my book.
As I ponder this action, I realize what I actually offered her was a form of hospitality.  The initial aspect of hospitality was to meet with her.  The hospitality deepened when I sat with her and intently listened to her story and receive her questions.  That could have been the end of the story.  But I wanted to offer more.  Encouragement can be a good word for someone.  But to offer an action is more powerful than a word.  And so I gave her a book.  The book may or may not be important.  What I hope is the lasting bit of importance is the giving of the gift---the gift of hospitality.
This provokes me to ponder the nature of hospitality.  As I think about it, hospitality is always a gift.  It has to be a gift.  You cannot require hospitality.  You cannot coerce it.  Of course, you can make someone do something.  But that is not hospitality.  That is a power play.  Hospitality is never a power play.
As I think about it further, hospitality is discerned by the gift that expresses it.  Hospitality may be a room in your house that you offer.  It might be a listening ear.  There is a myriad of possible gifts that can be expressions of hospitality.  Many of these gifts are free; they cost you only a little time and effort.  But they can be profound gifts---often better than money itself.
I am glad I did what I did.  I don’t know that I will ever see or hear from this gal again.  But that does not matter.  When you offer a gift expressing hospitality, it has no strings attached.  The gift does its own work thereafter.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Shelter Me, O God

Recently I was in a worship service where I noticed the music.  Now for many people that would not be surprising, but I am not very good with music.  I like it, but I don’t sing that well and I am not even sure I appreciate music in effective ways.  Perhaps some day when my working days are finished, I will take an appropriate music appreciation class and develop that ability.  I look forward to that.
As I sat in worship listening and, then, singing the music, I knew immediately the words were taken from the Psalms.  I certainly don’t know the Psalms like the monks who recite the whole Psalter every couple weeks.  I know I have read all 150 Psalms, but I don’t do it every two weeks.  And I certainly don’t keep going through the Psalter time after time after time. 
The refrain of the song we were singing went like this: “Shelter me, O God; hide me in the shadow of your wings, You alone are my hope.”  Interestingly the song sheet we were using did not reference the Psalm.  And I was not sure which Bible translation is being used.  In a sense, all that does not really matter when one is at worship.  It might matter if it were a Bible course in college or seminary.  But in worship it does not matter.
Let me simply suggest one locus for the music’s lyrics is Psalm 17.  You may not know that Psalm, but you may have heard of the imagery used in 17:8.  In that verse the Psalmist says, “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”  Of course, this is the Biblical background for the saying that you and I are “the apples of God’s eyes.”  I believe in that claim and in that claim I put my hope.  I love the fact that I am the apple of God’s eye.  And I think it is good that you are an apple, too!
So let’s assume that is the Biblical text for the song that develops.  A little more searching reveals this hymn has a popular history.  A number of people have recorded it and it appears in worship services often.  In fact, I may have sung it before, but don’t remember. 
Again, the refrain petitions God to be sheltered.  It is reassuring to think of God as the Protector.  When we were children, we needed protection.  As we become adults and may have children, we take on the role of protector.  As I think about it, I realize I have been both a protected child and a protector of children.  Thinking about it even further makes me realize that I never become too old to need protection.  That is where God comes into my theology.
I ask God to shelter me.  Hide me in the shadow of your wing, I could ask.  I know I am never that poetic.  When in trouble or wanting something from God, my usual prayer is, “Help!”  And I know many others probably are just like me.  Perhaps we can learn from this short hymn.
Maybe the trick is to learn to pray at times when we are not desperate.  We could learn the habit of prayer and supplication when the sun shines in our lives.  It would be good to develop this as a habit. 
The other line in that refrain is a good reminder, too.  “You alone are my hope.”  I know that is true ultimately.  And I suspect it is true even in my daily, non-ultimate routine, too.  Of course, there are many others in my life who also give me hope and bring me hope.  Included in this list are my kids, my friends and family.  But behind all of them is the God of hope.
So in this meditation we have found two themes.  God is my protector.  I can hide under the wings of God and be sheltered.  This brings me hope.  Whatever the world and circumstances come at me, I can find solace, protection and hope in God.  I am sure this is true in those little daily threats.  I am even confident this is true in those days ahead when I may have to suffer.  And of course, we all know at some day ahead of us, we will have to face the ultimate test, namely, our own death.
I want to find ways in this day and the days ahead to practice this hymn.  By practicing, I don’t mean I want to find times to sing it, although that would be appropriate.  I mean I want to take occasions to pray that God shelter me.  I am sure there is an independent streak in me that is not healthy.  Too often, I am sure, I choose to go it alone.  I want to recognize my own dependency on God and ask God to shelter me.
I want to ponder what it might be like to nestle into the shadow of God’s wings.  Of course, this cannot be taken literally.  I am not going to work and find some Divine Wing in the parking lot.  I want to figure out metaphorically where and how I take my place in the shadow of that wing.
What I do know, is there under that wing is my hope.   There is my hope and, ultimately, my hope eternal.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Called by God

I have heard the language of “call” since I was fairly young.  It was not unusual to hear people in my religious tradition talk about people being “called into ministry.”  Although I knew sometimes God was the One who did the calling, I also suspected that God always was the One behind that call.  And if I am to be honest, I really hoped that God would never do that to me!
At the time I did not know anything about the Quaker tradition.  I did not know that Quakers think God calls everyone!  The question is not whether one is called; the question is to what is God calling us to do.  I realized I had a great deal to learn about this “calling business!”
Often it would be funny, if it were not pathetic.  I did not want any call on my life because I had bigger and better plans.  Talk about delusional!  Without ever saying it, I am sure I felt like I was better at planning my life’s outcomes than God.  I did not realize how shortsighted I was!  Thank goodness for some education and maturity.  So many folks assume they know everything about life planning.  No wonder so many of us make a mess of it!
Last night I had the privilege of going to the Catholic seminary in my city.  The occasion was a public lecture to which I get an annual invitation.  I enjoy participating in this event.  The speakers are usually top-notch.  I met the speaker last night.  He is a very well-known American Church Historian.  He is a Jesuit and a priest.  I have much respect for who he is and what he has accomplished.
I looked around the sizeable crowd to see where the speaker was so I could meet him.  I spent some minutes chatting with him.  It turns out his primary mentor at Harvard was one of the faculty people I know very well.  He also was a preeminent American Church Historian.  Ironically, he was a Quaker---a very well respected Quaker.
As much as I enjoyed meeting the speaker and hearing his lecture, that was not the highlight of the evening for me.  The highlight was dinner!  It was not because the food was so special.  The highlight was the people with me at the table.  Purposely, I chose to sit down at a table of seven seminarians.  I did not really want to be with the seminary faculty, nor the large group of priests who were in for the lecture.  I wanted to be with the guys who had chosen to come to seminary to study for the priesthood.
I think they were a little surprised when I asked if I could sit with them.  But they were nice!  They expected chitchat, no doubt.  But I had more in mind.  I turned to a couple of them and said, “So how did you know you were being called to come to seminary and begin studies for the priesthood?”  That also got the attention of the other five guys!
Such began the very interesting conversation of how God works in the lives of people.  They each had graduated recently from college.  They had a variety of majors in college.  I am sure they had done much soul-searching.  I was intrigued how they understand God to be working in their heart and soul to nudge them to consider a career path they probably did not think about when they were kids.
But even with that thought, I was brought up short.  I am not sure the priesthood can appropriately be called a career path.  It is not like the career in banking or the like.  The priesthood is a calling.  As they reflected and shared their stories with me, I began to hear some common themes.
Each of them had an awareness that their lives would be lacking or unsatisfying if they did not yield to the gnawing sense that they were being called to something special.  No one had such an absolute experience of God’s call, that there could never be any doubt.  That resonated with how God works in my own life.  I loved hearing their stories.  I felt like I had stood on sacred ground as they recounted the Divinity working in humanity.
As dinner concluded and we all headed to the lecture, I gave thanks for each one of their lives.  I told them to make good use of the next three or four years because they could very well be active in ministry until 2050 or even beyond!  How does one prepare today for life in 2050?
I left them, but I did not leave the issue.  I settled back into my own Quaker tradition that says each one of us has a calling.  If we will but listen and pay attention, I am confident that the Holy One will “speak” to each of us.  I am confident there will be a calling on our lives.  It probably will have little or nothing to do with our career.  We can stay in banking or teaching or, even, in retirement.
Some callings may have more to do with being than doing.  The calling might be as simple as being present to someone.  Like Jesus, we may be called into odd situations and with unusual people.  I know I want to stay open to God’s call.  And I want to be able to “answer” that call when I know it.  If I can live into that call, then I am sure I will come to know the peace that passes all understanding.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Work, Creativity, and Caring

What a trio of words we have in the title of this inspirational essay.  Work, creativity, and caring are all weighty words alone.  But together they are heavyweights!  These words come packaged in the last paragraph of the book, The Active Life, by my friend, Parker Palmer.  This is a book I have used in class, as well as the Soul Work group I lead on campus.  In essence, it is a book, which tries to teach us who are involved in the active life how to be contemplatives.  To those of us in the active life, it always seems easier to think about becoming a contemplative---that is, living life from the perspective of contemplation---if we could run off and join a monastery.  But obviously, most of us are not going to do that.
So I appreciate Palmer’s effort to show me how, as I live an active life on campus, to live my life contemplatively.  This is where that last paragraph literally grabbed my attention.  Let me quote the entire sentence.  “In the active life of work, creativity, and caring, we are given endless opportunities to lose ourselves so that we may find ourselves, to join with others in the great community so that, freed from the fear of isolation, we may become who we are.”
In the first place I like how Palmer identifies the active life.  He does not do it by referencing jobs, such as my job of college professor.  He identifies the active life with three descriptions that include countless jobs and roles.  The active life involves work.  I am intrigued by the fact that the word, “work,” is both a verb and a noun.  I work.  That is a verb.  But if I say I have work to do, unless you know me, you really don’t know specifically what that means.  When I was a teenager, the work that I had to do was milk cows and homework!  Now the work I have to do may be teach a class, grade a paper, or homework!  Those examples of work are nouns.
Work has an honorable quality to it.  When Adam and Eve sinned, God tossed them out of Eden and put them to work.  Work replaced Paradise-living.  And it has been ever since Genesis 3! 
The trick for me is to learn how to work and to do my work as a contemplative.  That means to work with a degree of awareness and with some desire to appreciate what I am doing.  In my case it is to pay attention to the people with whom I find myself and to be present to them.  To work contemplatively is to value what I do and to add value by doing what I do.
The second big word is creativity.  I suppose there is a whole host of folks who do not think they are creative.  We leave that term to artists, musicians and other people who have that kind of talent.  We can be tempted to see ourselves as more mediocre and involved in quite mundane work.  We may not value our work, nor do we see how we add value. 

The trick is not to see value in economic or materialistic terms.  I add value if I can make someone’s day better.  Value is added if I can bring addition to a situation and not subtract.  Can I be a plus and not a pain?

If you don’t think you are creative, then move to the verb, create.  Create means to bring into existence.  It means to generate.  We can also be re-creative.  People do re-generate---create and generate again and again (that’s what the “re” means: again).  Perhaps we can play around with the word, re-create.  You should see our word, recreation there!  Recreation should somehow be fun.  Creativity ultimately is fun.  To live the active life as a contemplative is to figure out how to do it so that it is fun.  To be contemplative is to understand finally life is a comedy and not a tragedy!

The final word is caring.  In some ways this seems the easiest of the three words from a spiritual perspective.  It seems appropriate to think that a contemplative is someone who has figured out how to live, how to work and how to create with care.  The contemplative is the person who has learned how to be care-ful.  To live life carelessly is to have no clue what the contemplative life can be.

I am always appalled when someone says, “I couldn’t care less.”  Don’t get me wrong.  There are a bunch of things that I don’t care about.  And there is another big list of things I don’t care much about.  But I hope I never get to the place where I say, “I couldn’t care less.”  That would mean that I have lost my capacity to care.

A contemplative always has that capacity to care.  And we contemplatives are seeking opportunities to exercise care.  In this, we are imitators of the Holy One who cares deeply about every living human being.  Can you imagine God saying, “I couldn’t care less!”

With Palmer’s wonderful sentence and these three words, I have a simple blueprint for living my active life from a contemplative perspective.  Each day I will work, I will be creative, and I will care.  I want to do this with the quality that mimics God’s work, creativity and caring in this world.  To do that will be deeply spiritual.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Sense of Purpose

My inspirational reflection comes from an unlikely source: a billionaire who is still younger than my daughters!  Mark Zuckerberg is a college drop-out who wound up doing very well.  It could be argued that almost anyone who gets into Harvard has already been advantaged by life and likely will do very well.  I am sure this is the case with Zuckerberg.  Of course, he is better known as the founder of Facebook than he is as Harvard drop-out.  He made his first billion by the age of twenty-three.  I have not made my first billion yet!
I am not one who usually would have a great deal of information on someone like Zuckerberg.  But he recently found his way back to Harvard to deliver the commencement address.  And of course, he picked up an honorary doctorate in the process.  I know about it because I did my graduate studies at that same institution and the alum literature was full of stories about the 366th commencement.  I was intrigued what he told the graduates and was pleased with the content, which I share here.
His goal for our world was stated simply: “to make that world become a better place in which to live, work, laugh, love, and connect, and to encourage others to do the same.”  I cannot disagree with this take on life.  I suppose some might argue it doesn’t sound very spiritual, but I would argue it is deeply spiritual.  Essentially, Zuckerberg’s speech had three points, but I want to touch on only his initial point.  His first, and arguably most important point, has to do with purpose.
Zuckerberg has a nice take on purpose.  He says, “Purpose is that feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself, that you are needed, and that you have something better ahead. Purpose is what creates true happiness.”  This jives well with the ways I have often defined purpose, as I encourage folks that having a purpose is much better than not having one.  Zuckerberg is correct to say that purpose is being part of something bigger than you are.  Put a bit more spiritually, purpose is transcendent.  Purpose should take up beyond our own egos. 
This kind of definition means simply getting rich is not the kind of purpose about which Zuckerberg talks.  Of course, he is incredibly rich.  He can buy anything any human being could possibly think he or she needs---or even, wants.  But ultimately that won’t make a life of meaning.  Let’s look at the other two things he describes as he talks about purpose.  Purpose brings us a feeling of being needed.  To be needed is a powerful feeling.  It is the opposite of being disposable.
When I type that last word, disposable, I immediately think of the apparatus in my kitchen sink---the disposer.  That is where you put the stuff that is no good, the rotten or leftover.  You flip the switch and magically it grinds the stuff into oblivion.  With the swoosh of water, it is washed down the drain and disappears altogether from your life. 
I realize there are some people whose lives feel just like that.  Too often, people come to feel like a leftover.  They may feel rotten about themselves.  Perhaps the people around them have said or implied they were no good.  This might explain some of the opioid addiction, etc.  Too many have no idea they are created in the image of God.  They have no sense of the dignity that comes with this creative fact of their life.
The other thing Zuckerberg says about purpose is that it suggests there is something better ahead.  In other words, purpose gives you a future.  It reminds me how many times I have told folks to “get a purpose.”  A purpose can give you not only a future, but a reason for living.  I explain to students that purpose gives you the future in the present moment.  But the purpose is something like the “promise of tomorrow” for the work and effort today.  Purpose is not a guarantee.  But it is a hope.  Purpose is a gift, but it requires some effort in order to be received.
The last thing Zuckerberg links with purpose is happiness.  Simply he says, purpose creates true happiness.  I agree.  And I appreciate his adjective, true, modifying happiness.  It is easy to have false happiness; that is drug use.  A true happiness is immediate and long-lasting.  Although Zuckerberg is not yet using the language of meaning, in my understanding this is what he has described.  Purpose does not bring happiness in the sense of being giddy.  Purpose delivers deeper, longer-lasting and meaningful satisfaction.
Notably, Zuckerberg wants to “create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”  This sounds very much like the promise of inclusive spirituality.  Everyone belongs, to use the title of one of Richard Rohr’s books.  Life does not demand losers and some winners.  We hear of win-win strategies.  Spirituality is the ultimate win-win strategy.  I would argue that is what God had in mind all along.  All of us are created in the image of God.  We all have inherent dignity and worth.
To recognize our dignity and gain a sense of our own worthiness, we need a purpose.  A life of purpose is a worthy life full of dignity.  We’ll be happy.  And we will win.  That is what God had in mind.

Monday, June 12, 2017


I recently received a very nice and extended thank you for a seminar I had led.  I am not sure it is fair to say I taught it, although I suspect that is what many folks who attended would have said.  I suspect that is what they would say because I am a college professor and when we show up, the assumption is made that we’ll teach something.  I don’t have trouble with that, although I don’t agree with it.  I think it is better to say I helped people learn some things that day.
Too often, the assumption is made that if I teach something, someone has learned it.  Of course, sometimes that is true.  I am sure I have taught many people---students mostly---many things over the decades.  I am also convinced that many times I taught things to people and they did not learn anything.  It was a good thing for me to realize that just because I taught something did not necessarily mean it was learned.  And surely, if grades mean anything, not everybody learns the same thing.  I have had students who sat in class the whole semester while I was teaching and they failed the class!  It would be hard to argue that I taught them anything.
The seminar I recently did was for older adults.  It was not geared for the college crowd, although a few from that age group did show up.  Rather than teach them all sorts of material, basically I created an environment of self-discovery, exploration and some guided learning.  If I taught anything that day, it was how to learn and, hopefully, how to grow from the learning. 
I think this approach made sense because I was convinced what folks probably wanted to learn varied.  Some wanted facts and others wanted nothing to do with facts.  Some wanted to explore a variety of options for thinking about a topic and others did not wonder about anything.  The image I conjured in my mind was a sandbox full of kids playing.  To be sure, they were all playing and playing in the same sandbox.  But they were playing with a myriad of toys, etc.  There was diversity and unity.
The time went well and that is what precipitated the longish thank you message.  I appreciated the words and the sentiments.  I appreciate receiving thanks when I do something.  That does not always happen in our world!  I appreciated the gratitude extended to me.  I figure gratitude is a good deal all the way around.  For someone to be grateful for something is healthy.  And for me to experience someone’s gratitude is also healthy.  Gratitude is a win-win situation.
As I thought about this, I realize there was a deeper dimension that would be easy to miss.  Being thanked and receiving someone’s gratitude is a first-level kind of thing.  If I do something, I expect there will be some kind of response.  That was appropriate and I appreciate it.  Too often, that’s that.  But this time I realized what I might call a second-level dimension.
I felt affirmed.  The affirmation I experienced was different than being thanked.  Being thanked is an event; it happens and then it is over.  You might have a memory of being thanked, but it is history.  The affirmation I felt from a job well done and the thanks that came from that is longer lasting.  The affirmation had two aspects to it.
In the first place I was affirmed for what I had done.  I could say more, but it is clear.  Secondly, I was affirmed for who I am.  This is a little trickier.  It might seem I was affirmed for who I am because someone said I was good---or even great.  No one told me I was great and if they had, I am not even sure what that would mean.  Being affirmed for who I am goes deeper than that.  For me it hooks into the spiritual journey I am traveling.
In brief my spiritual journey consists of being who God wants me to be and doing what I think God wants me to do.  While that is true, it is obviously very general.  It has to become specific and concrete to mean anything.  And that is exactly what the seminar afforded me.  As the leader of the seminar, two things were happening: I was being myself and I was doing my ministry.  This is what any spiritual person on the journey is trying to do. 
The affirmation that came was really an affirmation of who I am and what I am doing.  This is satisfying because it helps me see that I am making headway on my journey.  It was not a direct word from God, but it was the next best thing.  (I tend not to get direct words from God!)
The affirmation is important as a kind of booster shot keeping me active and healthy on my spiritual journey.  Being thanked was nice.  Being affirmed was support to keep sailing, spiritually speaking.

Friday, June 9, 2017


I was rereading a passage from one of my favorite books, The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.  I know I have read that passage, but somehow it had not jumped out at me like it did this time.  Norris says, “I have become convinced that hospitality is at the center of the Christian faith---the bread of the Eucharist is called the ‘host’ after all, and for good reason.” I will confess that I have an abiding interest in the theme of hospitality.  So it is not surprising that this sentence appeals to me. 
When I hit a sentence like this one, I want to stop and spend some time with it.  This is the kind of reading that characterizes spirituality.  So often we read simply to get content---perhaps to gain knowledge.  But we don’t often take time simply to ponder what we read.  Spiritual reading is not always about getting knowledge.  I like to say that spiritual reading is designed to bring us into the Presence of the Spirit and enable us to soak in that Spirit.  It is one of the most predictable ways for that to happen for me.
The key idea in that sentence from Norris is that hospitality is at the center of Christian faith.  I agree with her, but I don’t know that I have thought enough about it fully to appreciate it.  So let’s ponder what she is saying.
In the first place I laugh because it is vintage Kathleen Norris.  She says something that is so different from what one might expect that she catches your attention.  And then when you think about it, the profundity hits you.  “Yes, that is exactly the way it is,” I think.  Hospitality is the center of Christian faith.  If you asked most Christians, they probably would say something about Jesus Christ or God or some other predictable answer.  Now of course, these are not wrong.  But I like Norris’ answer better.  Here’s why.
Most people would know what hospitality means.  To be hospitable means to receive a guest.  Probably in many cases, we think about hosting someone in our home.  The guest does not have to be a stranger, but strangers count as guests.  I suppose it goes without saying, most of us are better at hosting friends than we are hosting strangers.  Maybe that gives us the first insight into Norris’ view that hospitality is the center of the Christian faith.  That faith does not insist that we have to be friends of God to be hosted by God.  That’s a relief to me.  It means that I don’t have to be perfect to sign on to the community. (And I suspect this is true about other religious traditions, too.)
At this point and maybe because I know too much theology, it is too easy for me to go to Christian doctrine.  For example, I immediately think of the incarnation as the theological explanation for how God “hosts” us.  Essentially, the incarnation is the doctrine that says God became human.  As Christians we know this God-become-human as Jesus Christ.  Now I have nothing against this particular doctrine.  In fact, it fits my sense of who God is and how God works.  But I am also convinced people are not saved by doctrine.
If we are saved (whatever that means!), I would opt for a “hosting God” as savior.  I know that phrase sounds funny---a hosting God.  But let’s pursue it a little more.  Let’s assume the earth on which we live is a “home” of sorts.  Because I have a house with an address, I never think about the earth as my “home.”  But where else could my home-with-an-address exist without the “home” of the earth?  Have you tried living on Mars lately?  If we could all come to see that we share this larger “earth home,” we might look at things differently.
Secondly, I like to think that God is willing to host each one of us individually.  In fact God is willing to do this hosting even if we don’t really deserve it.  Let me be first in line to say that I do not deserve it.  Of course most of the time I pretend that I do deserve whatever I get.  I rationalize that my education, hard work, charm, personality---whatever---is the basis for all that I have. 
Too easily I can dismiss those who have not done things my way as less than me.  Those uneducated, slackers who have no charm and certainly no personality deserve very little---certainly much less than I do!  Why would God bother hosting them?
But then it hit me.  The one verse most Christians can cite from memory goes like this: “God so loved the world…”  I am always embarrassed that it does not say, “God so loved me…”  But that’s the trick of Divine Hospitality.  If I can come to see my home as this “earth home” and all earth’s inhabitants as my neighbors, then I can begin to understand hospitality as the key to it all.
Hospitality is the key to salvation based on God’s love and brings peace on earth!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Randomness and Chaos

If we have open eyes, then it seems anything and everything in our world can be a conduit for spirituality.  I know this is especially true for much of what I read.  Of course, since I teach in a Religion Department, much of what I read would qualify as spiritual.  But I also read a fair amount that most folks probably would not consider spiritual.
Recently, I ran across an article that took me to the internet to find something that promised to be interesting.  The article focused on the twin ideas of randomness and chaos.  I was very intrigued.  At one level, I was pretty sure I knew what those two English words meant.  At another level, I was not sure whether they were the same thing or different, but related.  I knew I had never thought about the two at the same time.  If pressed, I would probably have guessed they were basically the same.  So I approached the article with curiosity.
I started reading and pretty soon bumped into a subsection that read thus: Noah Effects and Joseph Effects.  I was hooked, although I had no idea what those two effects were---except to recognize both were biblical names.  So I proceeded with the details.  The author, Greg Satel, began to tell me things.  He referenced some guy named Benoit Mandelbrot, of whom I had never heard.  But I don’t know that much about mathematics.  Apparently Mandelbrot has thought a great deal about chaos. 
It seems that mathematical models develop patterns.  But often there are some data points that don’t fit the pattern and these are called “outliers.”  Mandelbrot thought these outliers were important.  Somehow these would help him understand “the forces that governed chaos.”
Now to the biblical names.  The Joseph Effects “are persistent.”  Mandelbrot continues by saying, “Just like in the biblical story, where Joseph predicted seven fat years and seven lean years, events in a time series are highly dependent on what precedes them.  The Joseph Effect is an example of randomness. As Satal declares, “Randomness is actually fairly predictable, because it averages out…”  Wow, I never thought about it that way.
Chaos, on the other hand, introduces the Noah Effects.  “These create discontinuity,” we are told.  Satel goes on with an example.  “A storm comes and blows everything away; creating a new fact pattern…”  For example, a weather forecast might tell us that there is a 70% chance of rain.  In actuality, it either will rain or it won’t.  If it does, the streets get wet and that makes them more dangerous.  If we get into a serious car accident, we can end up hospitalized for a few months, altering the course of our life.
An outlier?  Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less important.” 
Chaos has no predictability.  And when chaos happens, a whole new ball game---a new pattern---is created.  We can cope with randomness, because over time it all averages out. Chaos is a different story.  It is not predictable and it is not clear how to deal with chaos when it happens in our lives.
All this may be interesting to you, as it was to me.  But spirituality so what, we might wonder?  I don’t know the full answer to this “so what” question.  But let me begin to ponder so what.
It occurs to me that dealing with randomness best happens when we are disciplined.  A good argument for practicing spiritual disciplines is the sense that randomly spiritual disciplines will advance our growth and development.  I contend that it is predictable to grow spiritually when we practice spiritual disciplines, even though I don’t know exactly when and how that growth will happen.  But at some random point or points, it will take place.
When it comes to chaos, spiritual disciplines have a different role.  When chaos happens in our lives it is unpredictable.  Practicing spiritual disciplines will not alter that unpredictability nor will it help us avoid chaos.  But spiritual disciplines can help us “be prepared.”  In this case, being prepared means whenever and however chaos assaults us, we should be in a better place and in better shape to cope with the new pattern of life that chaos demands of me.
If we were in that car wreck mentioned above and if we were incapacitated, spiritual disciplines won’t change that fact.  But I probably will be in a better position to cope with my incapacitation.  And I hopefully will still be connected to the God I know cares and loves me.  In that sense, I am prepared for anything.
I am convinced random and chaotic things happen to all of us---spiritual and non-spiritual alike.  I appreciate knowing the difference now.  And I want to continue my spiritual disciplines with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation.