Friday, April 30, 2010

The Doldrums

The "doldrums" is a nautical term describing the calm winds near the equator. Also, called the "equatorial calms," the doldrums affect the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

Even though we're far north of the equator, I've experienced this phenomenon while sailing in Long Island Sound on a hot summer day when there is no wind. It's no fun to be in the doldrums. The heat and lack of wind can be stifling.

There are doldrums in our spiritual lives as well. These are times of stagnation and even listlessness, where we don't seem to be moving in any direction. The monks had a name for the spiritual doldrums. They named this time of stagnation "acedia," a word meaning "inability to care."

When the desert fathers and mothers struggled with acedia, they were told to go back to their cells and wait it out. This advice is still valid. When we're in the spiritual doldrums, our tendency is to try to will or work ourselves out of it. We mistakenly believe that if we "just do something" we can overcome acedia.

Being patient and confident enough to ride out the doldrums and wait for them to end is counter-intuitive. However, those who are able to be calm in the doldrums can emerge from them stronger and more grounded in their spiritual lives.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Poetry of Prayer

Sometimes, the poetry of prayer can succeed where prose falls short. Here's a prayer I wrote recently.

Creator God, who calls each of us to a new way of life and to the vocation of love: We are grateful for the many ways that you speak to us.
You speak through the amazing and intricate processes of nature so that we can see you in sunrises and sunsets, in the beauty of ocean and sky, and in the overwhelming variety of life teeming on this earth.

You speak to us through the quietness of silence and in the noise of great music.
You speak to us through the words of other people, written and spoken.
You speak to us through our minds and conscience.
You speak to us through the daily events we experience.

There are a multitude of ways that you address us, if we would be aware and listen. Too often, we aren’t listening for your voice. Or, if we think we hear it, we ignore it.

When we do hear your call, we often offer excuses for why we can’t do what you call us to do. You call us to do your work and we claim that we’re too busy. You call us to reach out to a person we don’t like and we whine, “It’s too difficult.” You call us to share our resources and we contend, “We don’t have enough for ourselves.”

Yes, we are reluctant followers of your way. Yet, when we do heed your call, we find genuine and abundant life. When we follow your way, we discover our true selves, persons built for relationship with you and with our fellow humans.

So let us open our ears, minds and hearts to your calling. And, once we understand what we are called to do, give us the courage and wisdom to obey. Strip away our evasions and pretensions so that we are left without excuses for not following your way. Amen.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Inseparability of Divine/Human Love

I've been getting prepared to teach a 3-day course on "The Letters of John" this summer. These three brief letters are part of the "General Epistles" in the New Testament, along with James, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude.

One of the major themes of First John is the inseparability of our love for God and our love for each other. The author of this letter puts this theme in the strongest terms possible, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (4:20).

I believe this understanding of the nature of divine/human love is true. We show our love for God by loving each other. Love for God and love for our fellow humans is woven together in such a way that they can't be divided. They are two sides of the same coin.

This truth is sobering. It causes us to look at our lives carefully and examine how we act toward those who are difficult, or seemingly impossible, to love. Again, I return to a view I blogged about earlier: to love is to act in the best interests of the other. I wonder how differently we would act toward others if we understood that we were actually acting toward God.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A "Second Life" Beyond Cancer

There is a poignant feature in today's New York Times about survivors of cancer. In addition to an article by Katherine Russell Rich who has survived Stage 4 breast cancer for 17 years, there is a wonderful photo gallery. Here's the link:

Many of these survivors view their life in two phases: BC (before cancer) and AC (after cancer). A theme running through many comments is that a survivor of cancer has a "second life." The image of the phoenix above symbolizes this new life.

There is an undercurrent of gratitude for life reflected in several comments. Jennifer McLaughlin Cassidy wrote, "Little things mean a whole lot more...Post-cancer, things have changed. I'm truly experiencing life-- not just living it."

Yodi Collins wrote, "I died of cancer in 2004, and via a meticulous chemotherapy regimen was reborn six months later, in 2005, into something remarkable. I have spent the past five years since then celebrating that giddy spring day. Today I am love and hope and joy and wisdom and strength."

Linnea Duff wrote, "As someone with a terminal illness, I am acutely aware of what a gift each and every day is, and I have learned to focus on the simple wonders of being alive."

These stories of hope, gratitude and courage are inspiring. They help me realize what an amazing gift life is. I don't believe you need to survive cancer to realize this, but facing death has a way of deepening your appreciation of the wonders of life.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Contentment In Rough Waters

My rowing club has started its training program for the summer sprint races. The workouts are long (over an hour) and hard. This morning, there were high winds that made the water in Long Island Sound rough and difficult to row on. We were also buffeted by wakes of several oyster and lobster boats leaving the harbor for a day of fishing.

When I jokingly complained to the coach about the rough conditions he said, "This will make you appreciate the calm water up river." Since the river is protected by high banks, the wind was blocked and we had flat water for the last mile of our workout.

This rowing experience contains some truths about living. Often, we are more grateful for the "calm" times after a challenging time of difficulty. The times of loss, deprivation and suffering enhance our appreciation for the times of abundance, contentment and relief from suffering.

The spiritual challenge woven into the above is to be able to experience gratitude in the stormy times. It's easy to be grateful when things are going smoothly. But, when we have to experience "rough water" times, being grateful is challenging. The key is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that transcends our life circumstances. Grounding our gratitude in a lasting relationship with God is one way to sustain it.

The Apostle Paul was able to write these words from prison, "I have learned to be content with whatever I have..." Paul's strong relationship with God was the basis of his contentment in every circumstance. He provides a clue for us to learn the secret of contentment in stormy times.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Love or Respect?

In my World Religions class last night Christianity was the focus. I asserted that the "love commandment" was the main ethical imperative for the early church and remains so today.

One of my students challenged this by saying, "Love is too broad and difficult to define. I think that respect is more important than love in relationships." A lively discussion ensued. Some felt that love could be defined and others agreed that respect trumped love.

I think that the love vs. respect dichotomy is a false one. I can't imagine love existing without respect. Respect is a subset of love. However, respect can exist without love.

I see the point of the student above, especially when the "love commandment" is expressed in loving one's enemies. When it comes to our enemies, feeling love for them is difficult, if not impossible. Respect might be the best we can hope for.

My own definition of Christian love is "acting in the other person's best interests." This takes love out of the emotional realm and places it in the realm of the will. Love is a decision we make in any relationship, a decision to act on behalf of the other's good. This is also how I understand God's love-- as God desiring the best for us.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Good Morning"... "Good Evening"

The above greetings have become ritualized. We say them to each other without thinking about their meaning. In Spanish, there's even a greeting for the afternoon: buenos tardes. What do we mean by these greetings?

I believe the maxim that "words themselves don't have meaning, but people mean things with words." So, the right question is, "What do I mean by saying 'good morning' to someone?"

On the surface, saying "good morning" is to greet someone. But, it can mean more: it can be a way of wishing them well. Further, it can be a way of expressing gratitude and thanksgiving for the goodness of the day.

In High School one of my friends always responded to "good morning" with "what's so good about it?" I have come to love mornings, especially the early morning (although I used to hate getting up early). The glory of a sunrise, the beginning of a new day, the enjoyment of breakfast and reading the newspaper-- these make morning good. Four mornings a week, I get up early to row. Starting the day with vigorous exercise only enhances the enjoyment of a morning.

As for evenings, they are good because they signal the winding down of the day. Watching a sunset is one of life's great gifts. Mornings and evenings frame the rest of the day and night. No wonder Muslims pray at both of these times. These are times for the rest of us to give thanks as well.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two Kinds of Knowing

The verb "to know" has two basic meanings. On the one hand there is a factual kind of knowing. In this kind of knowing we "know about" something or someone. For instance, to know about a person, we might know how tall they are, what they are wearing and the nature of their work.

A second kind of knowing is "to know" a person. In this kind of knowing, we know someone on a deeper level than factual. We know who they are-- their values, their beliefs and their expectations of our relationship with them.

This second kind of knowing is important in a loving relationship. To love someone is to know them in a deeper way. Certainly, we might love how they look and what they do. But love can also deepen so that we get to know who they truly are and receive their love in return.

These kinds of knowing/loving can be applied to our relationship with God. We might "know" that God exists and is the creator of all that is. Yet, if we are to have a close relationship with God, we need to know God in the second sense. This second way of knowing means having a spiritual connection with the holy and sacred dimension of life. In this spiritual connection, we don't only know about God, but we know God and are known by God.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Live Your Life!

Yesterday, at a memorial service for the 35 year-old son of a good friend, the sermon ended by quoting the deceased: "Go ahead and live your life!" He had said these words several years ago to his father, a widow, who was considering remarriage. He took his son's advice and is happily married to a wonderful woman.

This advice seems so simple in theory, but isn't so easy in practice. So much gets in the way of living life to its fullest. There are problems to be solved, relationships to be healed, obstacles to overcome, compulsions to be tamed and fears to be calmed. Not a day goes by that we don't have to deal with some challenge or difficulty. But, what's the alternative to living our life?

There is a line from a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney that is relevant here: "How perilous it is not to live the life you've been shown." My interpretation of this is that, if we refuse to "live the life we have," we risk not really living at all. We risk going through the motions of living without experiencing the meaning, purpose and joy of living.

We only have one life to live. This life is a gift to be enjoyed and appreciated. So, let's go ahead and live our lives!

Monday, April 19, 2010

"Do You Love Me?"

Jesus asked the above question to Peter three times in a poignant story at the end of the Gospel of John (21:15-19). This is a post-resurrection story in which Peter experiences forgiveness for his denial of Jesus.

While some commentators interpret these questions as the Risen Jesus doubting whether Peter still loves him, I have a different view. I believe that Jesus was offering Peter three opportunities to reaffirm his love for Jesus. The three affirmations cancel out the three denials. If this is true, then this is a scene of forgiveness and freedom. Jesus liberates Peter from his guilt and shame.

Not only does Jesus forgive Peter, he gives him a mission to "feed my sheep." Peter can now move forward with the purpose of taking care of the flock of believers.

Forgiveness doesn't consist in saying the words, "I forgive you," but in showing trust in the one forgiven. By entrusting Peter with the community of Jerusalem Christians, Jesus was expressing confidence in Peter.

There is a lesson here for us. When we forgive someone, we need to also show that we trust them. Although it may take time to move from the words "I forgive you" to trust, it is important not to stop with words. Words need to be backed up by actions.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Butterfly Effect

A cloud of ash generated by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland shut down airports in northern Europe for another day. This is yet another reminder of the awesome power of nature to disrupt our lives.

This series of events reminds me of the "butterfly effect," which says that a small, seemingly insignificant event can have great consequences. This idea is captured in the classic question, "Can the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" Although the eruption of a volcanic vent is much more powerful than the flapping of a butterfly's wings, it does show our interconnectedness with nature.

Of course, the "butterfly effect" is a metaphor. Yet, it is a useful one in the spiritual realm. Small things can have large (and often unintended) consequences. A decision to forgo a time of prayer in the morning could ripple through one's day, resulting in greater anxiety. Taking time to help someone in distress could lead to an out-of-proportion feeling of satisfaction. The moments of our lives are interconnected in ways we can't see or grasp.

It's good to be reminded that small decisions can have large consequences and that we're not always in control of these. Every moment has meaning and significance. It's good to be mindful of this truth.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Retirement Redefined

The idea of retirement has really changed. Even though retirement for me is 10 years away, I went to a retirement seminar yesterday and it was eye-opening. In previous generations, retirement was defined as that stage of life when we could put our feet up and enjoy endless days of leisure time. Retirement communities promising unhurried days of fun activities popped up like toadstools in the morning. The idea of retirement was that of perpetual fun—days of golf, bridge, fishing, or whatever suited our fancy.

Two important changes have occurred in the last thirty years that have had a huge impact on this earlier understanding of retirement. First, we are living longer. Retiring at the traditional age of 65 meant that we will likely have 20 or more years of leisure time—and that’s a lot of leisure time! If you calculate that the length of our working life is about 40 years, then retirement could be more than half as long.

Secondly, we discovered that our retirement savings are inadequate to finance a lengthy retirement. Because Social Security is only supplemental income, we need IRA’s, 401K’s and pensions (although these are getting rarer) to retire. Further, most retirement reserves got hit hard by the 2008-09 recession. Because of the stress on retirement savings, some have delayed their retirement and others have secured part-time employment.

The truth is that the “old” idea of retirement as pure leisure has faded into the sunset. The new reality is that retirement is viewed as a time of productive work. However, this doesn’t mean our latter years of work are the same as our so-called “working years.” At its best, retirement can be a time of reinventing ourselves, a time for doing those things we put off doing because we didn’t make time for them. Retirement can be a time of self-discovery and an opportunity to “make a life by what we give.”

Spiritually, retirement can be the most fertile time of life. Free from the pressures of a full-time job, we have more time to enjoy those activities and practices that feed our souls. In Hinduism, this time of life is called the “forest dweller” stage. It is seen as a time of increasing solitude and withdrawal from social obligations. After this rich time of self-discovery and spiritual renewal, “forest dwellers” may eventually evolve into the final stage: the “pilgrim” or sannyasin. The image here is of a person on a spiritual journey who has discovered total contentment and freedom from wants and desires.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Sources of Joy

Why were first century Christians so joyful? The New Testament-- especially the Book of Acts and Paul's letters-- clearly portrays these first Christians as filled with both joy and mutual love. Paul gives this advice to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!"

Huston Smith, author of the bestselling The World's Religions, believes that these early Christians were joyful because three crushing burdens had been lifted from them: (1) fear and especially the fear of death, (2) guilt, and (3) ego. The burden of fear was lifted by the conviction that God was with them in life and death. The burden of guilt was lifted by God's forgiveness. The burden of ego was lifted by the spiritual path of selfless love as exemplified in the life and death of Jesus.

We can be weighed down by these same burdens as well as others. When a burden is lifted, there is lightness and freedom; there is relief and joy. The lifting of a burden is like this: being underwater while holding a weight and then letting go and rising to the surface. Above the surface of the water is air, light and life.

These early Christians can serve as signposts pointing us on the path to joy. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: What burdens are weighing me down? What would my life be like if this burden was lifted? How can these burdens be lifted so I can be free?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rut or Routine?

I am a creature of habit. Having a daily routine falls into the category of "necessity" rather than "luxury." I need structure in order to make productive use of my time. Even when I have a day free of my regular routine, I create one by the time I've finished breakfast.

This drives those around me a little crazy at times. For example, I really like to know what we're having for dinner early in the day. Why? Partly because I might need to go grocery shopping. But, my need to know the dinner menu goes beyond this. Knowing what we're having for dinner gives me something to look forward to. My wife, who is a more spontaneous person, has trouble grasping this and sees it as a warning sign of OCD or worse.

I find that structuring my day into a series of routine tasks aids my self-discipline. The first thing each morning I make out a list of what needs to get done that day. Important appointments go on my calendar. Then, I start working on the list until I finish it. I don't think this is abnormal, but I'm not the best judge of my own behavior.

When it comes to living a spiritual life, I believe that being disciplined about it is good. I don't go so far as to write "Pray from 2-2:30 p.m." on my calendar, but I do have a regular time to pray. Yet, I realize that a routine can become a rut when it chokes out all spontaneity. Sometimes, we need to give up the security of a routine to give free reign to spontaneous creativity. This is something I'm working on. In fact, I've put "Be spontaneous" on my calendar for 2:00 this afternoon.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The "Already" and the "Not Yet"

I just finished writing a 100 page Lenten Bible study book for the United Methodist Publishing House that will be released early in 2011. I've been working on this book since mid-January.

On the one hand, I'm glad it's done. There is always a sense of satisfaction when a project is completed. It feels like a burden has been lifted. As much as I enjoyed writing this book, there was always that April 15 deadline looming in the future. To meet that deadline, I needed to write at least 4 hours a day for the past 12 weeks.

There is a sense of sadness as well. Completing a book is like saying "goodbye" to a friend. I have a similar feeling of loss when I finish reading a good novel.

There is also a sense of anxiety that arises with the question, "What's next?" On Monday, when I sit down at my desk, I will begin working on a new project. However, I haven't yet decided what I'm going to work on. There are several possibilities, but I want to take some time for these to germinate and see which possibility will take root and grow.

As one theologian put it, we are always living between the "already" and the "not yet." The "already" is what has been done, accomplished and finished. The "not yet" represents the possibilities that lay ahead in the future. While the "not yet" gives rise to anxiety, it also creates anticipation and excitement. We can't know the future-- we can only move into it. So, here I come!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Believing Thomas

I think that "Doubting" Thomas has gotten a bad rap. The negative moniker "doubting" was attached to him on the basis of the story in John 20:19-31. In this Easter day story, Thomas isn't present when the Risen Christ appears to the other disciples. When they tell Thomas what happened he says, in effect, "I don't believe you. I need to see the Risen Christ for myself."

There are several different types of doubt that Thomas doesn't exhibit. He doesn't doubt the existence of God. He doesn't doubt that Jesus existed. He doesn't express "existential" doubt, which is deep and powerful uncertainty. The nature of his doubt is, "I need to experience this for myself."

Thomas's spiritual journey to faith in the Risen Christ is a common one. Rather than taking someone else's word, he needs to have first-hand experience in order to believe. What's so wrong with this?

In fact, Thomas makes the ultimate confession of faith when the Risen Christ appears to him a week after Easter. He says, "My Lord and my God!" This is the confession that the author of John's gospel wants us, the readers, to make. This author says that he wrote the gospel so that we would believe that Jesus is the Christ and, in believing, have new life.

So my nickname for Thomas is Believing Thomas. His doubt of his fellow disciples leads him to a powerful encounter with the Risen Christ that results in faith. So may our "doubts" lead us to faith.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Imperfect Perfection

As a Connecticut resident for the past 25 years, I was delighted to see the UConn women basketball team win a second consecutive national championship-- and secure a second undefeated season! Last night, they defeated Stanford 53-47, their 78th consecutive victory.

So UConn completed a "perfect" season. Yet, the championship game was anything but perfect. In fact, the first half was dismal for both teams. They shot a combined 7 for 40 in the first twelve minutes and the score at halftime was Stanford 20, UConn 12. The twelve points tied the lowest total for a half of any UConn team ever, and set a record low for a women's championship game.

In other words, this game was not only imperfect-- it was severely flawed. Yet, in the second half, UConn's best player, Maya Moore, lifted her game to its usual high level and led her team to victory, scoring 23 points.

The lesson I took from this game is that perfection is nearly always imperfect. This is true of every area of life including the spiritual realm. Perfection is a moving target. Once we achieve one level of perfection, there is always another level to strive for.

While we usually use the word "perfect" to describe something that cannot be improved upon, human perfection can always be improved. We are always growing, evolving and developing. We are prone to mistakes, flaws and errors. When we can accept that perfection is always imperfect, then we can be free of perfectionism and be content with an imperfect life.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spectator Versus Participant

Not only am I an Olympics junkie, I'm also a March Madness aficionado. For the past three weeks I've been watching various NCAA basketball playoff games. Although I have several Duke alumni friends, I was rooting for the underdog Butler last night. What an exciting game! Butler had two chances to win in the closing seconds, only to have their shots rim out.

Watching sports can be exciting. Yet, the thrill is vicarious. There's nothing wrong with this one-off kind of excitement, but it can't compare to participating in a sport. When you're in the midst of a contest, the excitement is more direct and deeply experienced. Obviously, only a few can compete at the highest level of a sport. Yet, participation trumps skill.

The same is true of a spiritual life. While we can read about, and admire, spiritual greats like Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu or Thomas Merton, reading falls short of experiencing a personal spiritual connection with God. Like sports greats, spiritual greats can offer us examples to aspire to, but to truly connect with the sacred dimension we must be participants in a spiritual life rather than spectators.

Kierkegaard viewed communal worship in this way. He said that when we sit in a pew, we view ourselves as spectators watching the drama unfold on the "stage." However, he said that we were really actors in the drama of worship and God was the spectator. Understanding worship in this way, he thought, would transform how we go about doing it. To become a participant makes all the difference.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Easter Within

After celebrating Easter yesterday, I've been reflecting on its meaning. There is a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that goes, "Let him Easter in us." This points to the inner reality of the possibility of new life. There are three dimensions of Easter/resurrection: past event, present possibility and future hope.

I fear that resurrection as present possibility gets eclipsed by the other two dimensions. Yet, the present experience of new life is what Easter is really about. We have no control over the past and little control over the future. The present moment is all we possess.

So how do we experience the Easter within? One way is to connect with the Creator and Source of life. Spirituality is the word we use for this life-giving connection. The immediate experience of the Divine and Holy is the goal of spirituality. When we connect with God we find our inner life nourished and renewed. We also experience love and acceptance, hope and joy, forgiveness and freedom.

The Easter experience is not meant to be confined to a single day a year. A hymn I sang in church yesterday expresses this idea beautifully, "Every day to us is Easter with its resurrection song." Let him Easter in us!

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Day Off

Yesterday, because I had the day off from teaching (Spring break), I took the day off from blogging and writing. I decided to take a long hike in Bear Mountain State Park (NY) in the Hudson Highlands area.

I did an eight mile hike to a summit called the "Timp" and then to Duderburg Mountain. It was a spectacular day: sunny and in the 60's. The hike was challenging: 8 miles and about 2,000 feet of vertical. The photo above from the Timp looking north is from TomOnHudson on the website. Looking south you can see the New York City skyline. I had lunch on this summit and took in the inspiring views.

I returned from this hike tired and with a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to spend Holy Thursday in nature's cathedral. This day of hiking was refreshing on several levels: physical, psychological and spiritual.

To renew and refresh our spirits, we need to regularly take a day off from our usual routine. In religious terms, a day off is a sabbath, a Hebrew word meaning "rest." The sabbath's origins can be traced to the first creation story in Genesis chapter one when God "rested" on the seventh day of creation. If God takes regular days off for rest, so should we.