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Goodbye Billy Graham

Billy Graham has died.  It seems as if he has been around forever.  And in my life, he has been around forever.  I am not young anymore and, yet, Billy has always been there.  I never met him.  I was never in the same audience with him.  I never went to a revival where he was the speaker.  I know some communities sponsored revivals supported by Graham and I was never a part of one of these.  I saw him numerous times on tv.  I have certainly seen him on the news so many times I could not count.  He has been around forever.  And now he is dead. 

He died at age 99.  Billy Graham was born in 1918 as WW I was concluding.  Billy was a North Carolina farmer’s son.  That southern accent was riveting.  He was a Southern Baptist, but became larger than the evangelical tradition, although it could be argued he never left it theologically.  He came into his own through the technology of the twentieth century.  He had a powerful radio presence and was a towering tv personality.  Often he was haile…

Fecundity of the Normal

Sometimes I know I am using a word that college students would not know.  Fecundity is one such word.  Rather than choosing not to use it because they don’t know what it means, I choose to use it and teach them what it means.  I figure I am educating them!  I am helping them build their vocabulary, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be more attractive job candidates when they are out there in the “real world.”

Fecundity means fruitfulness.  It is often used when speaking of plants.  It always makes me think of harvest time.  When it is applied to people, it could indicate a very productive or successful time.  It could suggest the outcome of hard work.  It might implicate a very talented individual who applied the talent to pull off significant outcomes.  There have been times in my life, which were fecund.  But it is not all the time.  Growing up on a farm taught me that it is not always harvest season.  Often there is a great deal of hard work and, even, waiting before…

Return to the Heart

It is not unusual in the realm of spirituality to talk about the heart.  One can even say it is central to understanding who we are.  Just as our physical bodies cannot last very long without the beating of our hearts, so we can conclude spiritually can’t last too long without attending to the heart.  With this in mind, I thought it would be instructive to turn to some of my favorite authors to see how they describe the heart.  I invite you to join me in hearing them speak about the heart.

We can no better than begin with some words from the Hebrew Bible---words that are planted deep in the Jewish soul.  And all of us Christians should be very familiar with these words from Deuteronomy.  In Judaism these words form what is known as the Shema---from the first word of the quotation, “hear.”  The Deurteronomist says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  (6:4-5)  If we kno…

A Sheltered Life

I am fairly certain people who only see the title of this inspirational piece will misunderstand what I plan to do.  Typically, we think about shelters in a two-fold way.  In the first place shelters are those designated places people can go to in times of danger.  Hurricanes and tornadoes will send people to shelters.  Often the shelters are schools, maybe the local YMCA or military building.  Shelters are designed to put us in safer places than our houses and work places.  The second meaning of shelters suggests places of incarceration.  It is where we send troubled teens in order to protect the community and the teen himself or herself.  In this piece I don’t have either place of shelter in mind.

Instead, I recall the opening line of the Psalm used in the last worship of the day monks have in their Liturgy of the Hours.  The monks call this last worship Compline---which means to complete the day.  For centuries monks followed the suggestion found in one of the Psalms that they worsh…

The Function of Faith

I recently had the occasion to re-read parts of a book that I enjoyed years ago.  I picked up Sharon Daloz Parks’ book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, first published in 2000.  In essence the book deals with the question how people---and especially young people---think about faith and the role faith plays in helping people make sense out of their lives.  She spends a good amount of time in her second chapter helping the reader understand just what that word, faith, means.  Of course, it is a word used by most of us in many different contexts. 

If we are religious, we probably think faith is the common way to talk about how we believe there is a God and, probably, somehow God loves us, protects us, and wants the very best for us.  She captures well the old-fashioned meaning of faith with which I grew up.  Faith “is the assumption that it is essentially static.  You have it or you don’t.”  As a kid, I remember the people who would go to a revival service and “get it.”  They believed; the…

Doing the Impossible

On the surface the title of this inspirational reflection makes little sense.  Why would any person with brains want to do the impossible?  Most of us know that sometimes doing the possible is hard enough!  Why would you try to do the impossible?  And likely fail?  I think I would have agreed with this until I read an interesting little account in a book by my friend, Parker Palmer.

I have been using one of Palmer’s books, The Active Life, in one of my classes.  The subtitle of the book gives you a good sense of its focus: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.  It is not his best book, but the content matches something I try to help students and adults think about in their normal lives.  Many of us think monks and nuns can live a spiritual life.  They have made special arrangements in life so that being spiritual becomes their full-time job.  But the rest of us in the “real” world have it much harder.  Routine life gets in the way of being spiritual.

Palmer helps me and other…

Thoughts on Lent

For the western Christian tradition (all those who are not Greek or Russian Orthodox, etc.), this week brings us the season of Lent.  As usual, my childhood memory of Lent is non-existent.  Basically, Quakers did not observe Lent.  It is not so much that we were against it as that it was not necessary.  Quakers are a funny bunch.  At least originally, they sought to be serious about their faith on a daily basis.  I still find that laudable.  So it meant they were not inclined to set aside days and periods when a Christian should be more serious and others days and seasons when they could lighten up.

On the surface, I still agree with my Quaker heritage.  However, I also know the downside of that heritage is that it could produce the sour, dour Quaker who took everything so seriously that there was no longer any spice to life.  There was no reason to laugh and, maybe even, celebrate things.  To be chronically serious is probably neurotic or worse.  So I have tried to give…

Valentine: Sacred and Secular

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

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

The Desert Tradition

Anyone who knows much about the early Christian centuries would recognize immediately that the title for this inspirational reflection is much too general.  The desert tradition, usually capitalized, refers to a specific group of men and women in the third to the fifth centuries of the Christian era.  This group of believers saw threats to their Christian way of living in the emerging culture of the Roman Empire---an Empire that would embrace Christianity in the fourth century.  They were fully aware of the irony of the imperial powers taking on the faith that their predecessors once persecuted.

The Desert Tradition birthed the monastic movement as we know it in Christian circles.  The term, monachos, in Greek simply means “solitary one.”  Originally, these early monks withdrew from their society.  They left the cities and villages and withdrew to the desert.  In many ways they imitated their Lord Jesus in his time in the wilderness.  They were ready for the spiritual combat, too.

Ultim…

Pilgrimage Toward Home

With these three simple words---pilgrimage toward Home---the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, described his life in retirement and from his perspective of ninety years of life.  These words were originally written in Italian and the late, active German Pope capitalized the word, Home.  No doubt, it is theologically suggestive.  It was only a few years ago, the then Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing he was retiring.  Popes typically serve till they die.  Retiring was novel; what would we do with a retired Pope? 

By now the world knows, we do not do much with a retired Pope.  Of course, I have no clue whether current Pope Francis ever consults Benedict XVI.  From what I can tell, the retired Pope has stayed out of the way.  If he has meddled in Francis’ papal work, I have not heard about it.  It seems like he has been content to be retired in Rome and devote time to prayer, study and the like.  Meanwhile he continues to grow older.

And now apparently, Benedict XVI is growing …

God Has Your Number

Occasionally I am aware that I have lived a pretty long, interesting life.  I do not lament this.  In fact, I celebrate it.  I have been lucky.  Many good things have happened to me that I could not have anticipated and surely not expected.  Perhaps that is why one of my favorite words is serendipity.  I cannot explain why I have been lucky.

That certainly does not mean life has been easy.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have has had problems and setbacks.  Some of them were handed to me for no known reasons.  Other problems and setbacks were of my own making.  Because of stupid choices or wrong decisions, I made life harder for myself.  But overall, I have made it this far and I am very grateful.  With some more luck and some decent self-care, I hope to have some significant time left.

One of the amazing things in my lifetime that I like to think about are the technological advancements that I have witnessed.  It sounds like I was born in the horse and buggy days!  It’s not that d…

Sacred Act of Touching

Recently, I read an article that nearly brought me to tears.  The article was about touch.  In fact, the title of the article was arresting: “The sacrament of touch.”  Mark Etling is the author.  I have not heard of Etling, so I was interested at the end of the article when I found a brief biography.  We are told he is the spiritual programs coordinator at a Catholic Church in Illinois.  He also teaches at the School of Professional Studies at Saint Louis University.  But in a way, this has nothing to do with the story he told, which I found so gripping.

He begins his story with a compelling sentence.  “Last spring, my wife, Terry, was diagnosed with a Stage 4 glioblastoma brain tumor.”  Of course, I do not know Terry, but I immediately felt for her.  I have been through cancer; both sides of my family have been through it.  And I have offered a great deal of ministry to folks wrestling with this dreaded announcement that cancer is part of the story.  We all start the cancer journey wi…

Encounters at the Well

Recently I had reason to engage a biblical text that I have not read for a while.  It is a very familiar story to me, so I was glad to hear it again. The story comes from John’s Gospel and it narrates an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.  Since I used to teach a seminar on John’s Gospel, I have thought about this rather long passage and read a fair number of commentaries to gain a deeper understanding.

The passage is far too long to give consideration to all its aspects.  So we can pick off a few salient features that have something to do with our spiritual life today.  In the first place, a little historical background might be useful.  I almost always want to laugh when I begin to share some of the historical background.  I laugh because Jesus really should not be at that well at that hour with that woman!

Going to the well to fetch water is a standard thing that must have happened in those ancient times.  However, because of the heat of the day, the normal ti…

The Genius of Servant-Leadership

Sometimes I wonder when I first encounter a concept that has become important to me and my life’s work.  Sometimes I can remember, but most of the time I have no clue.  Often we bump into new concepts and there would be no way of knowing the concept will become important later in life.  Such it is with the concept of servant-leadership.

The idea of servant-leadership defines how I have tried to be a leader.  A leader is a leader, but many leaders are not servant-leaders.  And there are countless servants, but few would be servant-leaders.  The reason this concept is important to me is simple.  I think it is a spiritual approach to leadership.  I also happen to think most of the major world religions have championed this kind of leadership.  I think this is the style of leadership evidenced by Jesus.  That seems true for the one called the Buddha.  Within many of the other religious traditions, we will find leaders who also are servants.

The person who coined this idea---at least, in c…

Love: the Ground of Our Being

I have never met anyone who prefers the lack of love instead of love.  I agree with many writers in multiple spiritual traditions that humans want to love and to be loved.  I conclude that is a basic human desire.  I am sure we could point to the occasional person for whom this might not be the case.  But that person, I argue, is a person who has somehow become deformed or was malformed as he or she grew.  I have never read in any spiritual tradition where we don’t come to love at some point.

I have read so much about love that I sometimes think I have forgotten more than I have remembered.  I recognize how easy it is to think about love and even to write about love.  To think about love and to write about it does not mean necessarily that I am very good at loving.  In fact, most days I still feel like a kindergartner when I think about my capacity and execution of love.  So I welcome one more time to ponder love and see if I can continue to learn and to grow.

As I think about what I …

The Art of Thanks

Often I have commented that one of the most pleasant things in life is serendipity.  I like the word, serendipity, and I like the experience of it.  Serendipity is a pleasant surprise, an unexpected piece of good fortune.  Serendipity is good fortune finding us when we were not even looking. 

Recently I had the good fortune of being the recipient of a little serendipity.  It was not a big deal, but it was touching, nevertheless.  I received an email from a student whom I know, but I don’t know this student well.  He is a leader on campus, so I figured perhaps he wanted something.  So I opened the email with no expectations at all that it would actually be serendipity in the making.

The email began with a cordial greeting.  I appreciated that, but was not surprised.  This student is someone who has his act together, so he knows how to engage people.  I read on.  He told me that he was involved with a group of students who were interviewing other students about some matters.  One of th…

Follow Jesus

Occasionally, I realize I can read and read and wonder if it is like “binge reading.”  I realize this is probably not fair to those folks with an eating disorder and I mean no disrespect.  Of course, I think reading is good, healthy, etc.  I can’t imagine a life in which I could not read things.  I remember the liberation that comes from being able to put various letters together to get words and, then, watch the magic of sentences as multiple words combine to make deeper meanings.  For example, the simple word “cat” is barely interesting in itself, but put it in a sentence with a verb and that cat starts doing amazing things!  My interest in the cat soars.

But I also realize I can read things and never do anything with the ideas, advice and suggestions.  Learning with no application may not be adequate.  Surely this is true in the life of faith and in our spiritual journeys.  Faith is not simply an intellectual exercise.  As important as doctrine might be, doctrine does not inspire, s…

Freedom of Exploration

The phrase, freedom of exploration, I read somewhere.  I have no idea, since I read fairly widely.  I do remember when I saw it that my interest was piqued.  Perhaps it is because I have some interest in the process of innovation that it intrigued me.  But I also thought about my work in the discipline of spirituality.  Let’s look at both of these arenas.

The freedom of exploration seems like a suggestion or, even, advice to me.  I can imagine saying it to someone.  “Go ahead, explore freely.”  I do not know how you could order or command someone to do this.  It feels more like permission.  “Go ahead.”  There is an element of encouragement that I very much like.

I value both words, freedom and explore.  Our American culture talks a great deal about freedom.  It is assumed that we are a country with immense freedom.  Perhaps the ideal is being able to do what I want whenever I want and wherever I want.  I am not against this idea of freedom, but I am not sure that is the deepest or mos…

Unlearned Ignorance

I had not seen this phrase since graduate school days.  Unlearned ignorance is a phrase from the late-medieval theologian, Nicholas of Cusa.  Nicolas was a bridge figure---culminating the end of the medieval period and representative of the emerging Renaissance and Reformation period.  And unlike much of medieval theology, Nicholas still has something to say to us in the twenty-first century.  I met up with him again in an article I was reading in a periodical I routinely read.  The article was called, “Nurturing the cosmic perspective of learned ignorance,” by Alex Mikulich.

This article fits in with my quest to continue to learn more about the world of science and, thus, to be a reasonable conversationalist with my contemporary scientists.  Too often, people of faith are incredibly ignorant of the science of our day and, therefore, increasingly irrelevant to important discussions going on in our world.  And too often, people of faith arrogantly dismiss science as irrelevant.  The iro…