Thursday, May 27, 2010

Affluence and Ease

Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann says that the first stage of prophetic criticism is embracing grief. Prophets were able to see the other’s loss as their loss. They hurt for the poor, the downcast and the outcast. They were able to put themselves in the place of the lost and least. Hence, their righteous anger at the neglect of the poor. They felt the pain of the poor.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:19-31), we see a man who is blind to his neighbor’s plight. The rich man feasts each day, but he doesn’t really see the poor soul that lay at the gate to his home hoping for a few crumbs. Of course, this is a classic parable of reversal. For after death, their situations are reversed. The parable says that the advent of God’s kingdom means the turning upside-down of the present social order.

Luxury itself is not the problem. Neither the Old Testament prophets nor the rest of the Bible advocates asceticism, the idea that giving up comfort and pleasure will make one a better person. But the comfort of luxury becomes a problem when gained at the expense of others’ misery and when it deadens us to a sense of compassion and responsibility.

For the prophet Amos, it was the effect of luxury on one’s mind that is the real issue. Being “at ease” had led the affluent of his day to adopt the attitude: As long as I’m comfortable, that’s all that matters. Why disturb my comfort by worrying about the plight of others? We need to recognize the dangers of affluence, how it can diminish our compassion and how it can shift the focus of our lives onto self more than others.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Summer Prayer

As Memorial Day weekend approaches and summer weather begins, it's a time to savor the warm days of this season. The following is based on a prayer composed by Ted Loder in his book, My Heart in My Mouth (Innisfree Press, 2000).

Sabbath God,
In this season of warm days and long daylight,
Of cicadas, fireflies and birds singing at first light,
Of flowers bursting with color and grass so full and green,
We are grateful to be alive.

Give us the wisdom to pause from our hectic routines and enjoy
the simple things of this time of year...
To take off shoes and walk barefoot in sand or grass,
To sit outside in the cool of the evening and listen to the
symphony of nature.
To eat watermelon and spit out the seeds,
To swim in pools and oceans,
To play with children and like children.

Let us live easily for a time,
Putting away watches and looking away from clocks,
ignoring all the things that need to be fixed, moved or cleaned.
Let us lose ourselves in the beauty and bounty of
the earth you created.
May this be a time of rest, refreshment and renewal.

And, as we pause to play and rest, let us not forget to enjoy
time with you, Lord.
May we be calm enough and quiet enough to perceive your presence.
Let us not fill all our time with endless activity.
Let us not fill all our silences with noise.
Let us simply be for a while.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Many Faiths, One Truth"

In today's New York Times, there is an article by Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama--leader of Tibetan Buddhism) by the above title. In this article he argues that compassion is the common thread that weaves together the religions of the world.

The Dalai Lama attributes his understanding of the centrality of compassion to a meeting he had with Trappist monk, Thomas Merton in 1968. Merton said that he could be faithful to Christianity while learning in depth from other religions, including Buddhism. He believed that studying other religions enriched his own.

The issue of religious intolerance is also addressed in the article. The Dalai Lama sees a "virulent" strain of religious intolerance in today's world that has led to conflict, violence and even war. This situation "demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries," he writes.

Compassion in the antidote to intolerance. When compassion is practiced, understanding and empathy are nurtured. Fostering tolerance among the religions of the world is essential if humanity is to thrive in a peaceful way.

We need to listen to this wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Religion can be a force for mutual understanding or intolerance. When we embrace the common value of compassion, we tap into the power of religion to unite rather than divide.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Love As Loyalty

My niece's wedding was this past Saturday and she asked me to read a passage from the Book of Ruth (1:15-18). This passage is often read at weddings and I've transcribed it below.

"Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die--
there I will be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!"

The words above were spoken by the Moabite, Ruth, to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is a Hebrew. Naomi has migrated from Judah to Moab with her husband and sons during a famine. After settling in Moab, Naomi's sons both married Moabites. Tragically, Naomi's husband and her two sons die. Thus, Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are widows.

When Naomi decides to return home to Judah, Ruth and Orpah follow her. But she entreats them to turn back and make a life for themselves in their own country. Orpah does this, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.

The story of Ruth is a story of deep love, tragic loss and amazing loyalty. Because of her deep love for Naomi, Ruth is willing to leave everything familiar behind. This is an amazing example of love as loyalty. Perhaps this is why the verses above are often read at weddings.

Love-as-loyalty shows that love is a decision, an act of the will. Surely, love-as-loyalty is important to successful marriages, but also to successful friendships and family relationships. Loyalty is what keeps us committed to a relationship when feelings of love are diminished because of an argument, a betrayal or misspoken words. We can't rely on feelings of love alone when it comes to our closest relationships, even our relationship with God. That's why we need love-as-loyalty.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Verbal Fast

In a discussion about Muslims fasting during the month of Ramadan, a student said that he regularly engages in a "verbal fast." I hadn't heard this term before and asked him to explain. A verbal fast, he said, is to refrain from speaking for a certain period of time.

This student says that he has fasted verbally for up to a month. I asked him about the benefits of this kind of fast and he mentioned the following: silence and a greater focus on listening.

When you think about it, silence is a rare gift in our lives. We are nearly always surrounded by noise of some kind. Even when we're in a quiet place, there is rarely total silence. And, when there is, there is the noise within: thoughts, feelings, inner voices. That's why the goal of Buddhist meditation is to achieve a "blank mind" where we are silent within.

Whatever the spiritual benefits of silence, the greater benefit of not talking is that we have an opportunity to listen. It is difficult for the ears and mouth to function well at the same time. If we want to really hear what a person (or God) is saying, we need to be silent. Listening and silence are partners in the act of hearing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The "What" and "How" of Soulfulness

When it comes to feeding our souls, the issue is not so much what we do, it’s how we go about it. Doing an activity “soulfully” makes all the difference in how we experience it. By “soulful” I mean to be in touch with the joy, the meaningfulness and the beauty of what we are doing.

Here's an example. There are several ways to hike. You can hike for exercise and walk fast enough to get your heart rate high. You can hike competitively and try to beat other hikers to your destination. Or you can hike soulfully, appreciating the beauty of where you are, enjoying the activity for itself, and feeling gratitude that you can do this.

When we are soulful about what we are doing, we connect with such emotions as awe, gratitude and joy. And when this happens, we can take one more step and direct these emotions toward their creator and source.

Our souls are not only fed by being still and quiet, they are also be fed by movement. For it is in God that we live and move and have our being. In fact, for some persons, being outwardly active actually quiets and calms the soul within.

What is needed is a kind of balance in our spiritual lives between being and doing, between being active and being still. Yet, the balance doesn’t have to be 50/50. The balancing point can be different for each of us. Our need is to find that balance.

So how do we do this? Here’s a suggestion. Take some time today to reflect on what truly feeds your soul. The clues to answering this are: What brings you deep joy? What energizes you? What are you doing when you feel a deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction? Reflecting on these questions can point the way to living soulfully.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Just" A Symbol

In a recent discussion about holy communion, someone said of the bread and wine, "Well, they're only symbols." By using "only" this person was downplaying, even demeaning, the importance of symbols.

Symbols are powerful. Religions are filled with symbols. The cross, the prayer wheel, the yin-yang, the minaret, and the Star of David are just a few examples. We should never underestimate the power of a symbol to convey meaning.

Certainly, symbols point beyond themselves to the reality they symbolize. Yet, in the spiritual realm, we are forced to use symbols in the form a metaphors to describe the indescribable. A metaphor is a word-symbol.

I believe that all language about God is metaphorical. When we talk about an invisible, spiritual reality, we have no other language than the language of image, symbol and metaphor to convey the mystery and majesty of the divine.

To use the words "just" and "only" in relation to symbols is to undermine their significance. Of course, this is only my opinion...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Taking a Time Out

I just finished spending my morning in travel agent hell. I tried to make flight, hotel and rental car reservations for a July trip. I was trying to coordinate two different itineraries, one of which was a "three-legged" flight. What a headache!

I have garnered new respect for the declining Travel Agent industry. With all of the travel sites available on the internet, I act as my own travel agent. This usually works when things are simple and straightforward. But throw in a few variables like a three-legged trip, and it becomes an exercise in frustration.

I won't go into the details of the frustrations I experienced. They are really only minor irritations. But I did do something I will commend to others who get frustrated with a task: take a time out.

When my frustration reached its peak, I left my computer and walked outside for a few minutes. I walked around my front porch enjoying the sun, the green lawn and trees, and began to relax. I returned to my computer renewed and ready to tackle the daunting tasks before me. (Confession: I also called a real travel agent to book the three-legged flight. It was worth every penny of her $25 fee.)

Time outs are a good strategy whenever we allow our emotions to get in the way of our functioning. Unfortunately, I often forget about this simple strategy for becoming calmer and more centered. But when I remember, life goes better.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Common Love Ethic

What do the religions of the world have in common? This was the discussion question for my World Religions class last night. The answers to this question had both convergence and divergence.

Some of the answers pointed to some very general common features of religions: a system of belief, a moral code and rituals. Most religions share these three features. But, beyond these generalities, what specifically do the religions of the world have in common?

The consensus answer for my class was: a love ethic. We couldn't come up with a religion among the nine we covered this semester that didn't have some version of the Golden Rule. We also saw common values like love, compassion and doing good.

While there is a wide variety of beliefs in the religions of the world, there seems to be an agreement that we should treat our fellow humans with dignity, respect and love. Obviously, we all fall short of the ideal of loving everyone. That's another common feature among the adherents of religions: we don't live up to the highest ideals of our chosen religion.

I like what the Dalai Lama once said, "The purpose of religion is to make us better people." Perhaps this is yet another common feature of the religions of the world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone

All of us have a "comfort zone," a way of living that is familiar and comfortable. We like living in our comfort zone because it is safe and secure.

Yet, when I reflect on the times in my life when I have experienced growth--physical, psychological, mental or spiritual-- I have been pushed outside my comfort zone. The problem with staying in a comfort zone all of the time is that we risk becoming stagnant. Comfort zones are no-risk zones.

An example of getting outside my comfort zone has been teaching a World Religions course in a maximum security prison. When I drove up to this prison for the first time, I thought to myself, "What have I gotten myself into?" The prison buildings were surrounded by a three-story high concrete wall with guard towers every 200 feet. To get to the classroom building, I had to go through 8 sets of steel doors. The sound of these electronically-operated doors shutting behind me had a terrible finality to it.

The first time I walked into the entrance of the prison, I imagined the quote from Dante's "The Divine Comedy" of the words over the entrance to hell: "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter."

Yet, my prison classroom has been a place of hope, learning and laughter. My stereotypes of prisoners have been turned upside-down this past semester. If I had stayed in my comfort zone, I would have not met these men and shared life with them. In teaching these men, I have learned and received much more than I have given.

I'm not holding myself up as a paragon of venturing outside a comfort zone. Like everyone, I spend most of my time there. Yet, there is something to be said for taking the risk to get outside a comfort zone. When we step outside our comfort zones, we will find that we stretch their boundaries and grow in unexpected ways.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Little Deaths

Saying "goodbye" is a bittersweet part of life. A line from an Emily Dickenson poem expresses this, “Parting is all we know of heaven/and all we need of hell.” Shakespeare made the same point, “Parting ‘tis such sweet sorrow.”

Partings are often difficult because they mark an ending of some kind. Even when a relationship doesn’t end, saying good-bye can be bittersweet. That’s because an ending is a loss and we mourn what has been lost.

Someone has called the partings that occur throughout life “little deaths.” There are so many of these: moving from one town to another, sending a child to kindergarten or college, changing jobs, graduating, getting divorced, changing churches, and so it goes.

These little deaths can be painful. It’s sad leaving good friends behind when we move. Even if we keep in touch, the relationship must change. The same is true of sending our children off to college. Even though we know it’s part of their growing up, we miss the closeness of their daily presence with us.

Dealing with these little deaths can prepare us for the Big Death, that final parting in which we say “good-bye” for the rest of this life. Yet, in faith we know that death cannot break the bonds of love and that we are joined in heart with our loved ones who have died.

Everything I said about Big Deaths in the paragraph above applies to little deaths. Just because we no longer have the physical presence of another doesn’t mean the relationship ends. We can keep in touch by letter, phone or email. We can visit one another. Yet, it’s not the same.

Even if relationships don’t end after we part, they do change. And such change can be painful, even when we know it is for the best. As our poets remind us, parting can be both “hell” and “sorrow” as well as “heaven” and “sweet”

Yet, there is both promise and hope in the pain of endings. The promise comes in knowing this is the way we grow and evolve as persons. The hope comes because God is with us in the midst of endings. The last verse of the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” echoes these thoughts:
When we asunder part/it gives us inward pain,
Yet we shall still be joined in heart/and hope to meet again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How Many Mothers Do You Have?

I celebrated Mother's Day yesterday by calling my mother and going to lunch with my sons and their mother (who is also my wife). I expressed my gratitude to both of these women for being such wonderful mothers.

I still remember a sermon I heard on Mother's Day ten years ago. It asked the question above and expanded my understanding of motherhood. All of us have mothers beyond our biological mother if mothering is viewed as a nurturing role. You could restate the above question as: Who are the persons who have nurtured you in your life?

Among my mothers are grandmothers, aunts, sisters, my wife, and friends. Not all of my mothers are female-- there are several male relatives (including my father), friends and mentors who have nurtured me in important ways. In raising our sons, I have both mothered and fathered them.

God, who is usually portrayed as a father, is also a mother. God give us life, like a mother, and nourishes and nurtures us like a loving mother. It is no accident that the Greek word often used in the Gospel of John for Holy Spirit is female (paraklete). This word is also translated as "counselor" and "comforter," both terms that convey nurturing love.

Therefore, I give thanks for all of my mothers. Without them my life would not be as whole and as abundant.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Journey Inward/Journey Outward

What is the relationship between spirituality and religion? This question provoked a lively discussion in my World Religions class last night.

Most of us viewed spirituality as having to do with inwardness and solitude, while religion is communal. However, there is not a sharp dichotomy between the two. Rather, there is overlap and interconnection between spirituality and religion. The yin-yang symbol above captures their interrelationship.

Religion without spirituality is lifeless. Spirituality without religion tends toward isolation and individualism. Spirituality provides the connection with the sacred that inspires and motivates us to practice our chosen religion. There is a strong overlap between religious and spiritual values such as compassion, empathy, joy, hope and love.

I like Elizabeth O'Connor's view that spirituality needs a "journey inward" and a "journey outward." For the journey outward, religion can provide the means to serve the greater good. Religion is organized to help those in need and spirituality provides the energy to help.

Organized religion has a negative perception. Yet, at its best, religion is organized to serve humanity. I believe we need both inwardness and community in order to realize our full potential as humans. Spirituality and religion together can help us become fully human.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Youthful Aging

Why do some 80 year-olds seem vibrant and alive while some 60 year-olds seem prematurely old? I don't think genetics alone explains how we age. How we age has more to do with our inner attitudes than outer chronology.

A friend emailed me the following maxim: "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." While this is an oversimplification of the issue, there is some wisdom here. Those who age well are able to keep their sense of playfulness, humor and joy alive.

Aging is inevitable. It brings about changes physically, mentally and emotionally. Some of these changes are painful and impose limitations upon us. Yet, how we adapt to the changes of aging is critical. Are we able to see the opportunities in change?
Are we able to adapt to our limitations and find ways to live fully within them?

Here's an example of what I'm pointing to. A rowing friend of mine can no longer row competitively because of physical limitations. However, he has found new meaning, purpose and joy in becoming a rowing coach. He takes great pleasure in coaching his "kids" and claims this keeps him young.

We all need to discover those things and relationships that make us feel alive and joyful. We also need to be flexible and adaptable so we can find new opportunities when we are no longer able to do those life-enhancing activities. Each stage of life has its possibilities for being fully alive. Those who age youthfully are able to seize them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodovar's film "Broken Embraces" is a complex tale, or rather series of interwoven tales, about love, loss and obsession. It features (of course) Penelope Cruz as the mistress of one man and the lover of another. The other lead actor is Lluis Holmar, who plays a blind film director/screen writer.

This film is so full of images and complexity, I'll focus on the central image conveyed by the title. There is much brokenness in this series of interwoven stories. There is the brokenness of Lena (Cruz) who hates the powerful man she is living with. She wants to escape this loveless relationship, but only does so through death.

Mateo Blanco (Holmar) who, after being blinded in an auto accident, takes on the pseudonym Harry Caine. His brokenness is multiple. He is alienated from his son and the son's mother. He becomes close to another young man, whom he learns is his son. He is also devastated by a former lover's betrayal.

"Broken embraces" is an image that captures the difficulty and complexity of human relationships. The "embrace" stands for the closeness of intimacy and parental love. Embraces are inevitably broken by a variety of acts of betrayal, mistrust and selfishness. However, in these same relationships forgiveness and reconciliation is possible so that a new embrace results. The truth conveyed in "broken embraces" is that life is a series of embraces that are broken and then reassembled in new ways.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Art of Abiding

How do we stay closely connected with the sacred dimension of life? This is a question the Johannine community of the first century asked and answered with the concept of "abiding."

In both the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, a key concept is that of "abiding." Christians are called to abide in God and promised that God will abide in them. They are to abide in Christ's love and Christ's spirit will abide in them.

The Greek word translated as abide is menein. This word also means "to stay" and "to remain." The idea conveyed by menein is that of a deep and lasting connection between two parties. This connection is close and intimate.

While this idea of abiding-- like all language about God-- is a metaphor, it is a powerful one. To abide is to be connected with another in the closest way possible. That's why early Christianity spoke of the "indwelling" (another translation of menein) of God's spirit. The idea here is that God is as near to us as our own breath.

In practical terms, abiding in God means living an intentional spiritual life. It means weaving into the fabric of life times of spiritual nourishment and reflection. Abiding is not science, but art. As art, it requires creativity and commitment. We learn to abide by painting on the canvass called life.

Monday, May 3, 2010

"Natural" Evil

Early this morning we had strong thunderstorms pass through our area. This brought much needed rain that ended a dry spell. Most of us were glad to see the rain bring its nourishing water to grass, plants and trees.

Yet, this same weather system caused massive destruction and 15 deaths in Tennessee yesterday. When weather becomes violent and murderous, theologians put it into the category of "natural" evil. While moral evil results from human choices, natural evil is the result of natural processes that harm humans.

Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and famines all are examples of evil. When we're the victims of these forces of nature, we often ask, "Why?" Sometimes this question takes the form of, "Why did God allow this to happen to me?"

Is God to blame for natural evil? If God has the power to prevent a natural disaster from happening, why doesn't God do it?

I don't believe that God sends natural disasters; nor do I believe that God can/will intervene to prevent them. God created the natural processes in such a way that there is a greater balance of good over evil. The same forces that enable life to exist at all can come together in ways that destroy life.

I am arguing that there is a freedom in nature analogous to the freedom humans have to make moral choices. God's creative power is to bring order out of chaos and that process continues. Forces of nature can freely come together in chaotic ways that result in human suffering and death. Yet, if creation didn't have this freedom, existence would be very different than it, in fact, is. The restriction of freedom would lead to the constriction of life and its possibilities for good.