Friday, February 26, 2010

Faith As Trust

When we hear or read the word “faith," we are most likely to understand it as a synonym for “belief.” In this understanding, faith is intellectual assent, the act of believing certain truths about God, Jesus, the Bible, and so on. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed is an example of this definition of faith.

For Paul, however, faith is active and radical trust in God. Faith is an active verb rather than a passive noun. Faith is a relational word; it describes our active reception of God’s grace. Abraham is the great example of faith-as-trust because he responds to God’s call by risking everything. He trusts God’s covenant and acts upon that trust by leaving his home and parents to travel to a distant and unknown land.

Faith isn’t simply assent to a set of beliefs, but an active, dynamic relationship of trusting God. God’s stance in this relationship is captured by the word “grace.” There are many definitions of grace, but the one I find most powerful is: God’s unconditional love. God loves us without condition. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God’s love. It comes as pure gift. All we can do is receive it. And the word that describes our reception of God’s grace is “faith”.

When you think about it, trust is critical in any relationship. I would go so far as to say that where there is no trust, there is no relationship. Think about the persons in your life that you trust. Your list will likely include family members, friends, co-workers and church members. The more we trust someone, the closer is our relationship with them.

When we trust someone, we feel free to be ourselves around them. We are also able to risk telling that person our deepest feelings, even those things we might be ashamed of and would like to keep hidden. Love and trust go hand in hand. Love grows as trust deepens. This is not only true of our relationship with each other, it is the truth about our relationship with God.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Benefits of Tests

I just gave my first test in my world religions course. As I handed it out, I could sense the anxiety of my students. They asked several questions about the test: would I give partial credit? could they earn extra credit? how soon would it be graded?

I told them my theory about tests: they are occasions to engage the material in a deeper way. I'm not interested in students memorizing facts, but in thinking more deeply about what we've covered. To think deeply about something, we need to spend time with it and reflect upon it. Without the motivation of a test, I said, you might not spend enough time with your notes and books for deep learning to occur.

A test in a course is an analogy for the tests we face in life. In life, we face many different kinds of tests: tragedy, disappointment, failure, suffering, crisis, loss. Such tests can challenge our faith and try our souls. To "pass" these tests often means surviving them with our faith, hope and love intact.

Without life-tests I don't believe we would reflect as deeply on life's meaning and purpose. Neither would we grow as much. Just as with my students, none of us welcome these tests, but they are inevitable. To prepare for life-tests means to strengthen our connection with the Source of strength and courage so that, when they come, we will not only survive them we will emerge from them stronger.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spiritual And Religious

When someone discovers that I'm an ordained minister they often say something like, "I don't go to church, but I'm very spiritual." Their need to justify why they don't go to church probably has to do with guilt. Or, maybe they just feel awkward talking to a minister and feel the need to say something.

Yet, a growing number of people consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious." This phrase seems to mean that they don't participate in organized religion (i.e. attending worship services), but still follow a spiritual path.

I want to affirm anyone who is a spiritual seeker. Living a spiritual life is a very good thing. Spirituality is most often practiced privately while we're alone. Prayer, meditation, contemplation are primarily done individually, even if you're in a group.

Religion, however, has a strong communal dimension. The heart of religion is worship, which is done in a community. Also, religion provides an outlet for helping and serving others.

I think spirituality and religion can compliment each other. We need the individual inspiration and connection that spirituality offers. We also need a community to foster spiritual growth and to provide opportunities for serving others. As humans, we are individuals, but individuals-in-relationship. We can be spiritual and religious.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Was Blind, But Now I See"

When I don't wear my contacts or corrective glasses, I am legally blind. The definition of "legally blind" in North American and Europe is have 20/200 vision or less in your best eye. Fortunately, my vision can be corrected to 20/20.

For the few moments when I wake up each morning, I get a taste of vision impairment. It's a little scary not to be able to see clearly. I can only imagine what it would be like to not be able to see at all.

However, there are other kinds of blindness just as debilitating as physical. There is the blindness that can't see beyond outward appearances. When afflicted with this kind of blindness we focus on physical beauty and ignore inner beauty. Even worse, we might judge the value of a person solely based on physical characteristics. The title of this blog is from the hymn "Amazing Grace." It was written by John Newton, a slave trader, whose eyes were opened to the horrors of slavery. He was not only able to see his own wretchedness, but also God's grace.

In the spiritual realm, a form of blindness is the inability or unwillingness to see life as a sacred gift. When spiritually blind, we don't/won't recognize what is good and holy in the creation, including each other.

The cure for spiritual blindness is to open our eyes to the sacredness of the surrounding world. To see the world through the corrective lens of gratitude is to recover our sight. As with cures for other kinds of blindness, this is a process that can take time and effort. Yet, it begins with the simple words, "thank you."

Monday, February 22, 2010

What the Fox Taught Me

I just saw a fox in my yard! I had just sat down at my desk to write and there it was: a beautiful reddish-brown fox with a thick winter coat. Fortunately, it didn't see me and I watched as it trotted across the snow into the forest.

It's always thrilling to see a wild animal (as long as it's not after you). Usually, I see these wild creatures while hiking in a wilderness area, as when I recently saw a herd of elk in New Mexico. Seeing wild creatures in your own front yard is a reminder that we share the earth with these creatures.

In the creation story in Genesis humans are given "dominion" over the creatures of the earth. Adam is portrayed as naming these creatures, symbolizing our power over them. Yet, dominion is not domination. Rather, dominion is care-taking.

Animals deserve our care and respect, even those we consume. They are part of God's creation, just as we are. Seeing animals reminds us that we are not the only sentient beings on this earth and that we have a God-given responsibility to make sure they are not exploited. Wild animals are part of the amazing diversity, beauty and sacredness of nature.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Forced Asceticism

We had an fascinating discussion last night in my prison World Religions class. I had presented the basic beliefs of Jainism, a religion that believes disciplined asceticism is the way to liberate the jiva (soul). Asceticism is the renunciation of worldly comforts and pleasures.

When I asked for examples of asceticism, I got several of the usual answers: the desert fathers and mothers of Christianity, Buddhist monks, Roman Catholic religious orders, and John the Baptist. Then, one of the students said, "Asceticism is forced on us in here."

I followed up this answer with another question, "How can this forced asceticism be beneficial to you?" There were some insightful suggestions: try to make better use of your time alone; accept deprivation with equanimity even though it isn't really a choice; view asceticism as spiritually beneficial.

With many persons out of work and having to cut back on expenses, forced asceticism is a reality. Perhaps the wisdom of these men above can offer some clues to how to cope with deprivation. Their answers caused me to think more deeply about my worldly comforts and pleasures and what I would do without them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Pain But No Fear"

I unashamedly confess that I am an Olympics junkie. Whenever the Olympic Games are on, winter or summer, I'm glued to the TV. Yesterday was one of the greatest days for American athletes ever in the Winter Games: 6 medals including 3 golds.

What a thrill it was to watch Lindsey Vonn ski an amazing run in the women's downhill! And, she did so despite a painful shin injury. As a skier, I appreciate what it took for her to give her best despite the pain. The New York Times headline on the Sport's Page read: "Pain But No Fear As Vonn Wins Downhill."

The fear of pain is one of the limiting factors in living life to its fullest. While pain is a signal that something is wrong, avoiding pain is not necessarily a good thing. For example, if we avoid loving relationships because we're afraid of the pain of loss or rejection, then our life is diminished.

We need to pay attention to our pains and use wisdom to discern which to avoid and which to embrace. Seeking pain for its own sake doesn't make sense. But enduring pain in order to achieve something good and positive often makes sense.

There is no way to avoid all pain. To try to do so would undermine our living a rich and full life. Neither should we allow our fear of pain to keep us from doing the things that enhance life. Pain is a teacher and we are its students. To fear the teacher is a roadblock to learning our life lessons.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Fellowship of Suffering

During the winter months I meet some fellow rowers at 6:30 a.m. four times a week to work out on rowing machines. These machines, called "ergometers," are calibrated so that we know how many meters we row and how hard/fast we're doing it. The photo on the right is of a Concept2 ergometer, the kind that we use.

After a 5 minute warm-up, we row for 45 minutes. By the end of this hour, we are usually tired and sometimes exhausted. However, the tiredness is temporary because the endorphins soon kick in, giving us a feeling of well-being. We vary our workouts so that we don't become bored and some of them are extremely demanding.

I find that I work out longer and harder when I'm with this fellowship of suffering. The word "suffering" applies because rowing is grueling work. I usually burn over 600 calories during these workouts and am left gasping for breath at their conclusion.

There is a spiritual dimension to nearly every kind of physical activity, but working out with others helps connect us in a different way than working out solo. The word "compassion" means "to suffer with" and there is plenty of empathy in our group. We encourage each other and that helps bring out our best performance. The fellowship continues most mornings as we go to breakfast together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Blessing of Thirst

Psalm 42 uses thirst as a metaphor for our longing for God’s presence. It begins, “As a deer longs for flowing streams/so my soul longs for you, O God./ My soul thirsts for God,/for the living God” (42:1-2a). Our yearning for God’s presence is a kind of thirst. Although this Psalm describes the need for God’s help in a time of distress, this desire for relationship with God can come any time.

The need for relationship is one of our most basic human needs. To have a full and fulfilling life, we need the opportunity to share life and love with others. We need to know that someone will be there for us in a time of desperate need. We also need opportunities to give love as well as to receive it. All of what I’ve written in this paragraph also applies to our relationship with God.

When a relationship is broken by alienation or estrangement, we yearn for restoration and reconciliation. This is true of our human relationships and our relationship with God.

Our need to restore a broken relationship with God is so deep and intense that the word “thirst” is appropriate. We hunger and thirst for this relationship of love, forgiveness and grace. When this critical relationship is absent from our lives, our hearts long for it even more. Our thirst for God is a blessing because it leads us to seek reconciliation, only to discover that it has already been offered to us as a gift. As it says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Friday, February 12, 2010

Three Movements of Spirituality

In his book, Reaching Out: The Three Movement of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen describes the fullness of spirituality. He views the spiritual life as having (1) an inner dimension, (2) a social dimension, (3) a transcendental dimension.

The "three movements" of the spiritual life correspond to these dimensions: (1) the movement from loneliness to solitude, (2) the movement from hostility to hospitality, (3) the movement from illusion to prayer.

I appreciate this way of looking at spirituality because it integrates it with all of life. Spirituality is not only concerned with our inner life, but with our relationships with others and with God. There is both a movement inward and a movement outward in healthy spirituality.

One way to remember this is by the acronym: SOG: Self, Others, God. This way of looking at spirituality affirms that all of life is sacred. All of our relationships are included in the spiritual life. Nouwen saw the importance of "reaching out" to all three dimensions of life. By so doing, he takes spirituality out of a too narrow inwardness and expands it to embrace the fullness of life.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

God As Guru

Tonight, we're learning about Sikhism in my World Religions course. It's a relatively new religion, founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of present-day Pakistan.

One key to understanding Sikhism is the concept of "guru-ship." The word "guru" means "spiritual guide" or "teacher." For Sikhs, God is The Guru and uses earthly gurus to impart wisdom. The goal of Sikhism is union with God. The word Sikh means "disciple."

Guru Nanak began by distinguishing his path from both Hinduism and Islam. However, Sikhism is similar to Hinduism in that it believes in a supreme and formless God and in reincarnation. It is similar to Islam in rejecting the caste system and the notion of divine incarnations (avatars).

The tenth and last Guru of Sikhism (died in 1708) put together the chief scripture called the Guru Granath Singh. This serves as a guide for Sikh's daily life and worship. This last Guru also created a religious order called the Pure Order. Open to men and women, it requires abstention from tobacco, meat and alcohol. Members of this order also wear the "five K's," named after Punjab words beginning with the letter "k": comb, uncut hair (usually wrapped in a turban), a sword or dagger, a steel bracelet and undershorts. Each of these has symbolic meaning as well as practical use.

Sikhs seek salvation through union with God through loving the Person of God dwelling in the depths of their own being. Apart from God, life has no meaning and suffering is the result. Sikhs embrace tolerance and coexistence in relation to other religions. They believe that all monotheistic religions come from God. There are approximately 13 million Sikhs scattered throughout the world.

What I most appreciate about Sikhism is its emphasis on union with God and its tolerance of other religions. It's a religion worth learning more about.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day!

A snowstorm is keeping many of us at home today in the New York City metropolitan area. There is a blizzard warning for this afternoon. The words "snow day" evoke great joy and excitement, especially in school children. All the area schools (including NYC schools which only cancel once every 10 years!) are closed and children will enjoy a day of sledding and snowball fights.

Of course, adults are working at home. With the advances in technology, a snow day is simply another work day. But I wonder if we can't tap into some of the joy of children on a day like this.

We can see a day where we're forced to stay home as incarceration or as liberation. To view this day in the former way is to see it as something forced upon us, a limiting of our freedom to go about our normal activities. But to view it in the latter way is to see this day as a gift of freedom from our normal routine.

Even if you're stuck working at home, you can take some time to get outside and play a little. Even walking around in the snow can be playful because it is so awkward. Children's play involves spontaneity and joy. Such play has a spiritual dimension because our souls are fed by joy. So, like children, let's welcome a snow day as the gift that it is!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blogging Lessons

I've been blogging for 6 months now. I've enjoyed this experience even though blogging 4-5 times a week can be challenging. Here are some things I've learned.

(1) My initial delusions of grandeur have been humbled. Agents haven't beaten down my door to offer me six figure book deals. Google hasn't offered me a huge contract to blog for them. My readers number in the teens rather than in the thousands. However, learning humility is a good thing.

(2) I was initially worried that I'd run out of things to blog about. This hasn't been the case, even though some days I have more to say than others.

(3) What has amazed me is the great diversity of connections I've made with others in the spirituality field. I've exchanged comments with Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics, Evangelical Christians, Progressive Christians, Shamanists and Non-religious persons. I've learned that many persons are seeking a deeper spiritual connection and have a great variety of ways of seeking it.

(4) Blogging almost daily has forced me to dig deeper into my own soul and life experience. As I've dug I have found greater clarity in understanding and describing a spiritual life.

As I've found with teaching, the teacher is really a fellow learner. I am grateful for all the lessons I've learned through this experience, and am looking forward to a future in the blogosphere.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's Never Too Late

The film "Crazy Heart" is about Bad Blake (played by Jeff Bridges), a washed-up country and western singer who's had one too many marriages and way too many drinks. He meets a young reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and his life is forever changed. I won't give away too much because I think everyone should see this excellent movie.

One of the reasons I loved this movie is that it is a story of hope and transformation. One of it's main messages is: it's never too late to change your life for the better.

As we grow older, many of us accept the myth that "change is impossible." We think that because we've lived the way we have for 50, 60, 70 or more years, we can't make major changes in our lives.

Yet, change is not only possible, it is inevitable. To live is to change either by choice or by chance. Crises, losses, pitfalls and tragedies happen to us without asking for our permission. Aging brings on changes we must accept.

Change doesn't only happen to us. Change can be an act of the will. We can choose to change those parts of ourselves and our lives that are destructive and unhealthy. It's never too late to change directions and embrace a better, happier and more meaningful life. If Bad Blake can turn his life around, anyone can.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Scorpion Story

This is a proverbial story from Hinduism that I've come across in several different religion/spirituality books.

A yogi (Hindu teacher) was sitting on the bank of the Ganges River and saw a scorpion floating in the water. He reached out his hand to rescue the scorpion and was stung by it. He reached out again and was stung again. He reached out a third time and was stung yet again. A passerby yelled at the yogi, "Fool! Why do you keep trying to rescue this scorpion whose only gratitude is to sting you?" The yogi replied, "Just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I change my nature which is to help?"

I told this story last night while teaching my World Religion class at the prison and saw something light up in one of my student's eyes. He said, "Thank you for this story. It so powerfully expresses how I'm trying to live in here."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Many Paths to the Summit

The first religion I'm covering in my World Religions course is Hinduism. Hinduism has several unique features. First, it has no single founder. Secondly, it is not an "organized" religion as it has no central organizing authority. Therefore, there are a great varieties of beliefs and practices under the Hinduism umbrella.

What I most appreciate about Hinduism is that it offers a variety of spiritual paths to achieve "moksha," a word meaning "liberation." The goal of Hinduism is the liberation of the soul ("atman") and union with the Universal Spirit (Brahman). Christianity, Buddhism and several other religions are considered valid spiritual paths by Hindus.

One of the the images that comes from Hinduism is that there are many paths that lead to the same summit. Not everyone has to take the same path to reach the goal. Another Hindu image is of many streams flowing into one large river.

I appreciate this gift of celebrating diverse spiritual paths. We do not need to convert others to our own path. We can affirm them in their own choice of a spiritual path. I think the religious world would be a better place if we practiced the "live and let live" spirituality of Hinduism.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Impermanence and Permanence

I realize I've written about the beauty of fresh snow before, but must do so again. Last night's snow silently covered all surfaces and tree limbs and I woke up to a winter wonderland.

Fresh snow is one of winter's gifts and I am grateful for it. Yet, by the end of the day, most of the snow will have melted with temperatures reaching near 40. The gift of snow is only temporary.

The melting of snow reminds me of the impermanence of all things. In the material realm nothing lasts forever. Snow comes and goes. Rocks erode. Suns eventually run out of fuel and become supernovae.

Only in the spiritual realm is there eternity. At least that is what I believe. God has existed from the beginning of the universe and will live past its end, if there is an end to it. I also believe that our souls, the deepest part of ourselves, will also endure for eternity. I don't/can't know what form that eternal existence will take.

In the midst of the impermanence of the material realm is permanence of an eternal, spiritual realm. Therefore, death (impermanence) is not the final word about our existence but eternal life (permanence) is.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Promise in Pain

The poet Ogden Nash once penned this brief poem: Some pains are physical/some pains are mental/but the one that’s both is dental!

While we might smile at Nash’s witty words, pain is no laughing matter. We need to become more aware of our pain. It may seem strange to call for a greater awareness of pain since pain calls attention to itself so well. Yet, too many of us suffer silently with our pain.

Most of us seek medical attention when our pain reaches the level of intolerance. Unfortunately for some, pain can become chronic. Chronic pain is an overwhelming issue for a vast number of persons in the United States. It is estimated that fifty million Americans live and suffer with chronic physical pain.

As the Nash poem reminds us, pain is not only physical. A large number of Americans suffer from emotional pain. However, in the case of emotional pain many persons don’t seek treatment because of the stigma associated with depression, grief, or bipolar disorder.

Pain is often the first sign that something is wrong and is nearly always viewed as a medical issue in need of medical treatment. There have been many advances in the treatment of physical and emotional pain. If these treatments alleviate, or reduce our pain to manageable levels, we are fortunate.

But what happens when medical treatments don’t bring the relief we need and want?

One of the most dehumanizing aspects of pain is that it can cause us to feel helpless and powerless. We can easily see ourselves as victims with little control or power over our pain. Is there a way to find power and purpose in our suffering?
Because of a strong and proven mind/body connection, a spiritual approach could help when other treatments fail.

A spiritual approach involves: (1) acknowledging that pain is an inevitable part of being alive, (2) facing our pain rather than running from it, (3) learning the lessons pain can teach us, (4) discovering our inner strength to cope with pain, (5) being willing to journey with others in finding hope in the midst of pain.

How we cope with the pain that inevitably comes into our lives has so much to do with whether we feel happy, content and fulfilled. So let us suffer silently no more. If we have chronic pain, let us resolve to seek treatment. And, if we are in emotional pain, let us seek treatment as well.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Blessings in Disguise

I'm in the midst of writing a Lenten Bible study on the theme "blessings in disguise." I focused on this theme because the given title for the study is "Blessings of the Cross."

The cross is the opposite of a blessing. It's an instrument of torture and death. In the first century, it was a cruel means of capital punishment. Yet, in Christianity, the cross is a symbol of new life.

Jesus suffers and dies on a cross. Yet, out of this death comes resurrection. The cross shows the very worst humans are capable of: torturing and murdering an innocent person. Yet, the cross becomes a means of forgiveness and redemption.

For Christians, the cross is the ultimate blessing in disguise. However, we experience blessings in disguise in daily life. Through an illness we learn to appreciate the gift of life on a deeper level. In a financial crisis, we discover what truly matters to us. In a time of tragedy we encounter God's grace.

Not every negative event that happens is a blessing in disguise. Yet, there is the possibility of it becoming so if we learn to look for it. Discovering these hidden blessings is not simple or easy, but it is worth the effort of looking for them.