Monday, September 2, 2013

"The Life You've Been Shown"

News of the death of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, on Friday reminded me of a line from one of his poems that has stuck with me over the years. I can't remember which poem it is in, but I can't forget the line: "How perilous it is not to live the life you've been shown."

Like all great poets, Heaney expresses the essence of deep and great issues of human life in a few simple words. With these few words, he captures the concept of vocation. A vocation is usually expressed in the auditory term "calling." We feel or hear a sense of being called to a particular profession or to a specific way of life. An example of the latter kind of calling is John Wesley's contention that all Christians are called to a single vocation capture in the word "love."

Heaney's brilliance is that he puts the vocational issue in terms of sight or insight. When we've been "shown" the path we should walk in life, it is dangerous not to take that journey. Our world is filled with persons who have listened to the wrong voice and are living diminished lives as they suffer in working at a job they hate. In other words, they are not living the life which they have been shown.

How do we "see" our vocations? Each person must answer this question for him or herself. A vocation can come out of a spiritual quest or it can come out of working at something that is deeply fulfilling. However, once we have "seen" what we are called to be and do, we ignore this vocation at our peril. Fortunately, even though Heaney is gone, his words endure.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gratitude For the Office?

A colleague dropped by my office a few minutes ago. I asked how his 4th of July holiday weekend went and he said, "It was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute." I commented that all this enjoyment ended with coming back to the office on Monday morning. He then said "We are so fortunate to be in a place that has electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing and where we don't have to worry about Malaria."

To be thankful about being back in the office on Monday morning is a genuine expression of deep gratitude. It's easy to be grateful for leisure time and for good food, drink and company. Yet, true gratitude encompasses all dimensions of life: work as well as play, difficulties as well as joys, defeats was well as victories.

It's not that we are grateful for everything that happens to us. Giving thanks for cancer, violence or hatred doesn't make much sense. However, I believe we can be grateful in every circumstance. Gratitude is an inner perspective on what happens to us and to our world. Seeing life through the eyes of gratitude can be transforming.

So I'm going to work on cultivating a deeper and more persistent gratitude. I want to be able to give thanks in all circumstances and to have a gratitude that will stand up to defeat, disappointment and failure. I want to be able to be grateful even when I don't feel grateful.

This deep and resilient gratitude comes from believing that all of life is a gift, even the parts of life we don't like or enjoy. To be gratefully alive is to be able to affirm this giftedness of life. Gratitude isn't only about counting our blessings, but being thankful for the lessons taught by pain, disappointment and deprivation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Benefits of Church-Going

Did you know that weekly church attendance has been scientifically linked to lower blood pressure, a strengthened immune system and can add up to three years to your life span? So contends an April 22 New York Times blog by T.M. Luhrmann.

Luhrmann speculates on the reasons for the health benefits of church attendance and comes up with several. First, being a part of a community has social benefits. This is especially true in a faith community with the mission of helping others. Secondly, healthy behavior is encouraged in religious communities. As the Dali Lama once said, "The purpose of religion is to make us better persons."

However, her the third reason she cites is the most intriguing. Because God is immaterial, she contends that those going to church are encouraged to conceive of God as personal and real. Therefore, religious persons can have a personal relationship of love and trust with God. While she admits this way of visualizing God may work in a similar way to the "placebo effect," she nonetheless argues that it is powerful and even transforming.

Religion at its best can make our lives healthier and better. However, Christians follow a Jesus whose spiritual path led him to suffering and death. The paradox at the heart of Christianity is that when we give of our lives for others, we receive a fuller and more abundant life.

I don't believe we ought to "sell" church-going as a cure for physical, emotional or social ills. At the same time, I do believe that connecting with the sacred dimension of life will make our lives fuller, richer and better. And, when suffering does come, we have a community and a God who walks this journey with us.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Lessons From the Book of Job

In the "Wisdom Literature" course I'm teaching this fall, we have just finished reading and discussing the Book of Job. Job is a righteous person who loses nearly everything: his wealth, children, and health.

At first, Job patiently accepts these losses with equanimity, saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." However, when his three friends tell him that he must have done something wrong to cause his suffering, Job offers a strident defense of his innocence.

Job also wants answers from God as to why this is happening to him, a good and moral person. First, he asks for a meeting with God and then wants a trial in which he and God can plead their cases to be judged by someone neutral. Finally, Job rails at the injustice of God and questions God's goodness.

When God finally does speak, God doesn't answer Job's questions. Instead, God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions that cowers Job into silence.

The story of Job doesn't answer the question of why the innocent suffer. Rather, Job portrays a relationship with God in the midst of innocent suffering. Job rails at the injustice of his suffering. He gets angry with God and tries to provoke a confrontation with God. Yet, he never gives up on God and God never abandons Job.

Like Job, there is unjust suffering in our world and we are sometimes victims. Job teaches us that it is ok to question, challenge and even become angry at God. God is big enough to take our anger.

In any relationship, there are times of difficulty and stress. This is also true of our relationship with God. The key is to remain in relationship until the issues can be resolved.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Taking Great Chances

An essay by Steven Petrow in today's New York Times caught my eye. The essay was titled "New Cancer Threat Lurks Long After Cure" and dealt with "secondary cancers." These cancers are caused by the radiation and chemotherapy treatments for an initial cancer.

Mr. Petrow contends that cancer survivors go in one of two directions. Some are stalked by anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others experience higher self-esteem, a greater appreciation for life or a deepened spirituality.

He cites late Senator Frank Church, a cancer survivor who wrote that survival led him to live life more fully:
Life itself is such a chancy proposition that the only way to live is by taking great chances.

Senator Church followed his own advice and became an avid environmentalist and led a life of doing good whenever and wherever he could.

I agree with Senator Church up to a point. I think taking risks in life can lead to more fulfillment and satisfaction. However, I don't think all chances have to be "great." Even taking small risks like speaking to a stranger or doing an unexpected kindness for someone can lead to a more satisfying life.

Another way of putting this is to get outside of your comfort zone. Trying new things and doing things that are unfamiliar often require us to go beyond what is safe and comfortable. Doing this leads to growth and growth seldom happens without risk or difficulty.

Fortunately, I haven't had to deal with cancer. Yet, I think Senator Church's advice is good for those of us who don't have a life-threatening illness.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nature Deficit Disorder

When I was an adolescent growing up in Albuquerque, NM, I spent most of my waking hours outdoors. I loved to take long walks in what we called "the mesa," which was actually the upper sonoran desert that began at the end of our street. On Saturdays, I would hike in the foothills of the Sandia mountains, which were about two miles from home. As a Boy Scout, I spent one weekend a month on a camping trip that usually involved backpacking.

This way of life is now gone. Children and adolescents spend most of their time indoors looking a computer screens or TV's. Adults, too, spend most of their working hours and leisure time indoors. As a result we suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The symptoms of NDD are obesity, depression and a lack of spiritual connection.

It's the lack of spiritual connection that I'm concerned about. I find it difficult to imagine a rich and full spiritual life without spending time in the beauty and sacredness of nature. My soul is fed by early morning rows on the Norwalk River and weekly hikes in Devil's Den Nature Conservancy, as well as sitting on our front porch reading.

In his book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder,Richard Louv writes:
It's hard to fathom how any kind of spiritual intelligence is possible without an appreciation for nature. Most of us intuitively understand that all spiritual life, however it is defined, begins with and is nourished by a sense of wonder. The natural world is one of our most reliable windows into wonder and, at least to some, into a spiritual intelligence."

Louv has hit the nail on the head. If we want to experience awe and wonder, then we need to discover places that evoke these sacred emotions in us. For me, this sacred place is outdoors in the God-created world. Being there leads me to connect with it's Creator. The photo above, taken in Nepal, symbolizes the sacredness of nature by showing a "stupa" (shrine) against the background of the Himalayas.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Picture Is Worth...

Some of you have been asking me to post some of my Everest trek photos. Below is several thousand words worth...
Here I am standing in front of a "gompa" a Buddhist monastery.
This is a "lenticular" cloud surrounding Mount Nuptse. Lenticular means "shaped like a lens." These clouds are found at high altitudes.
This is a view of Mount Everest from Kala Patthar (18,500 feet), our highest point on the trek. Everest, seen faintly between the two clearer peaks, is often shrouded in clouds.
This photo was taken atop Gokyo Ri (17,500 feet), another high point on the trek. Mounts Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse are in the background.
This is one of the dozen or so steel suspension bridges we crossed. While they look dangerous from a distance, I thought the were very safe.
This is a Hindu temple in Durbar Square in Kathmandu. The "pagoda" style architecture originated in Nepal.