Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Marriage Mutuality

I'm in the midst of writing an adult Bible study book on Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Right now, I'm working on Ephesians 5:21-33. This passage includes these words, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as your are to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church..."

Unfortunately, these words have been taken out of their context to "prove" that women should be submissive to men in marriage and to argue for male superiority in marital relationships.

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth if the entire passage is read. The passage begins, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," and continues, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies."

What is being presented here is mutuality in marriage. No member of the marriage partnership is superior to the other. Each is being called to treat the other with respect, dignity and self-giving love.

Granted, these words are put in the terms of a patriarchal society of the first century. That makes it even more amazing that marriage is seen in term of mutuality instead of male dominance.

Passages like the one cited above show why it is so critical to not take biblical verses, sentences or ideas out of their larger context. Doing this is called "proof texting" and is a way of getting the Bible to support a position already taken. You can literally make the Bible say nearly anything you want by this method. That's why we need to allow it to speak its own truth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Blues

As a pastor, I've become increasingly aware that the Christmas season isn't a time of joy for everyone. Cries of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" and upbeat carols can't always overcome feelings of sadness, isolation or grieving. This is especially true if we have suffered the loss of a loved one around Christmas time.

The cultural myth we labor under is that "everyone else is having a great time at Christmas." This can heighten feelings of sadness and isolation. Yet, for many, Christmas is a stressful time of shopping and card sending deadlines. Holiday gatherings with family members can be difficult and challenging. W.H. Auden admitted in his poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, to "Having tried, quiet unsuccessfully, to love all of my relatives..."

Also, there are those who feel depressed during the darker and colder months of winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a documented psychological disorder. That's why most "Blue Christmas" services take place on the Winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

So tonight, I'm participating in a Blue Christmas service. This is a service of solace and comfort for those who find the Christmas season difficult or depressing because they are grieving for a loss or feel alone and isolated. This service acknowledges that Christmas can be a difficult time and offers hope to the disconsolate and grieving.

For those of us who are having a merry Christmas, let's not forgot those who aren't. Christmas can be a time of reaching out to those who need a word of comfort and solace.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sacred Drumming

Last night I experienced the spiritual practice of drumming for the first time. What an amazing experience it was! The context for the drumming was a Wednesday evening Advent service at the church where I serve as interim pastor.

Our drumming leader, Jenifer, has been practicing spiritual drumming for 20 years. She explained how drumming can focus our thoughts and prayers in a rhythmic way. Drumming can be a form of meditation where the beating of drums shuts out all distractions.

In preparation for our drum circle we heard excerpts from a reading by Layne Redmond: "Handheld drums are among the oldest known musical instruments... The rituals of the earliest known religions evolved around the beat of the drum... It remained a powerful tool for communal bonding and individual transformation..."

Jenifer started playing her drum in a heartbeat-type rhythm and the rest of us joined in. After a few minutes I was lost in the beating of the drums as they blended together in a kind of melody and harmony at the same time. We played for a little over 10 minutes and it felt like just a few seconds had passed.

It's good to be open to new spiritual practices and I'm so glad I was able to experience sacred drumming. Life has its own hidden rhythms and drumming is a way of connected with those rhythms deep within our souls. When we are able to connect with these, we are more able to follow the drumbeat of God's spirit.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Prayer for Openness

The following is a prayer based on Ted Loder's, "Gentle Us Open," from his book, My Heart in My Mouth.

Lord of life and light,
Help us not to fall in love with the darkness that separates us from you
And from each other.
But to watch with wide yes, open hands and eager minds for your Word.
Let us dream and hunger and pray for the light of you and the life
for each other.

Lord, in the midst of our white-knuckled busyness in this season,
We realize deep within us that your gifts of mercy and light, peace and joy,
grace upon grace, can only be received if we are open and receptive.

So this is our prayer, Lord. Open us. Pry us open any way you can. Shock, beguile, knock, amaze, squeeze any way you can open us.

Open us to see your glory in the coming again of the light of each day,
The light in children's eyes and lovers' smiles, the light of truth wherever
it is spoken and done.

Open us to the songs of angels in the rushing traffic, the rustle
of shoppers, in the hum of hope and the longing within each of us,
In the cries of our brothers and sisters for justice and peace, and in
our own souls' march toward goodness.

Open us to share the gifts you have given us, and to the deep yearning to
share them gladly and boldly. Open us to initiate the exchange of
forgiveness, to risk a new beginning free of past grievances, and to find
the gifts of a larger love and deeper peace,

Open us, Lord, to the miracles of the ordinary,
To the heart-pounding wonder of birth,
To a mother's fierce love and a father's tender guidance.
Open us so that we may born anew in the fullness of your image,
The fullness of a just and joyful human community,
The fullness of your kingdom,
In the fullness of time.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Biblical Proportions"

While reading a New York Times article on the unusual weather we've been having this year, I came across the phrase "biblical proportions." This phrase was used to describe the October 29 freak snow storm that knocked out power to over 2 million homes on the East coast.

So what are "biblical proportions"? They are huge, gigantic, enormous and immense. When something happens on a massive scale, the word "biblical proportions" describes its immensity.

I wonder what events from the Bible qualify for this two-word adjective. Certainly, the creation of the world decribed in Genesis would qualify, as would the Flood Story. Perhaps the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt in the Exodus might also be an event large enough to evoke a response of "biblical proportions."

In modern times, we would probably use "biblical proportion" to describe large-scale catastrophes such as the 2005 southeast Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Surely, the explosion of an atomic bomb would also qualify.

Yet, I wonder if this phrase causes us to focus too much on visibly spectacular events and causes us to miss significant things that happen on a small scale. Some believe that, when God acts in our world, massive displays are the result. However, we need not be so impressed by largeness of scale that we forget the "still small voice" in which Elijah heard God addressing him.

Our world and our lives are changed in both large and small ways. To limit God to events only of "biblical proportions" is to overlook the subtle ways that God is present in our world.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Paradox of Newness

On November 1, I began a new venture as a part-time interim pastor. In any new venture, there is a mixture of excitement and anxiety. This is a paradox of newness: even though we welcome it, we also fear it.

I feel a sense of excitement about being a pastor of a congregation again. It's been three and a half years since I served a congregation and I've missed things about being a pastor. The main thing I've missed is the closeness you can enjoy in a church community. I have also missed preaching regularly.

There are some anxieties as well. After three years will I remember how to preach a decent sermon? How will I juggle my other two jobs (teaching and writing)?
Will I be pushed out of my "comfort zone" and will I be able to grow from this? Will I be a good leader for this particular congregation?

I don't believe there is any way around the paradox of newness. In any new venture there are things to be excited about and things that can stir up our fears. Being human means accepting this paradox. Feeling excitement and anxiety are signs that we are alive!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Being Prepared

I was watching a travel/cooking show last night and heard the phrase mise en place. Curious as to the meaning of this, I looked it up. It means, "putting in place" and refers to a chef getting everything ready before he or she begins to cook. All of the chopping, dicing and cutting needs to be done before a dish is assembled and cooked.

Just as it is in cooking, preparation is critical in life. Right now, I'm preparing my syllabi for the three courses I'm teaching in the fall. Such preparation allows me to know what topics I'm going to cover and lets the students know what they need to read to be prepared for class.

Preparation is also important in the spiritual life. In the context of spirituality, preparation involves being open and receptive to the sacred dimension of life. How do we prepare ourselves to be receptive? One way is to have times of silence built into our daily schedules. Silence may be the best way to prepare ourselves to be open to the sacredness of the world around and the world within.

There are surely other ways of being prepared in a spiritual sense. Some prepare themselves by reading a sacred text or by reflecting on a specific concept or idea. I find that anticipation and expectation are important ways to be receptive to the spiritual dimension of life that continually surrounds us. We can find a connection with this dimension if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to perceive.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Land of Fire and Ice

I recently returned from 8 days in Iceland. It's a place I've wanted to visit since I was 12 years old. My desire to see this unique place was inspired by Jules Verne's novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I saw the volcano across the bay from Reykjavik where Verne's characters began their decent into the earth's center.

Iceland is truly a place of fire and ice. There are 22 active volcanoes on this large island. In the past year, two eruptions have disrupted air travel in Europe because of volcanic ash. There are numerous glaciers as well, some of which are covering volcanoes. This means an eruption usually causes flooding and icebergs crashing into bridges and homes.

I was part of a group doing a 4-day trek through an area described as "Yellowstone on steroids." We hiked on ash-covered snow for the first two days and were treated to steam vents created by boiling water. The landscape reminded me of the prehistoric land in "The Land that Time Forgot." The photo above shows what I mean.

Fire and ice can also serve as metaphors for the spiritual life. At Pentecost, fire is a symbol for the indwelling of God's spirit. At times, we need the fiery energy that the spiritual life can supply, giving us the motivation and purpose to give ourselves to a cause greater than self.

While ice can symbolize the absence of God, it can also be a metaphor for non-reactivity and detachment. Buddhism has often been called a religion of "a cool head and a warm heart." This combination of fire and ice can be powerful. At times, we need detachment from those things that cause anxiety and stress; at other times, we need engagement in an important venture. In short, we need both fire and ice in our spiritual life.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cultivating A Beginner's Mind

I'm heading to Iceland on Friday for a week-long trek through a unique part of the earth called Laugavegur. This area in southeast Iceland has been described as "Yellowstone on steroids." It is characterized by geothermal activity such as geysers, hot springs, and volcanoes. It also features several glaciers. The photo above is from the official Iceland Tourism website.

When heading to a place I've never been, I have a sense of adventure and a feeling of anticipation. I feel open and alive to new possibilities and challenges. In Zen Buddhism there is a concept called "beginner's mind" (Shoshin). It refers to having a sense of openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when approaching a topic of study. Cultivating a beginner's mind toward all subjects, even those that are very familiar, fosters deeper engagement and learning.

I'm going to Iceland with a beginner's mind, even though I've read three books on this country and think I know what to expect. I want to be open and receptive to all that this amazing place has to offer.

However, a beginner's mind is good to cultivate no matter where we're going or what we're studying. A sense of approaching something for the first time helps us to not prejudge and, therefore, keeps things new and fresh.

Friday, June 17, 2011


A lively discussion occurred at my clergy study group this week over the concept of "sabbath." Sabbath, which means "rest," means taking an entire day of rest/worship/renewal once a week in Judaism. The Sabbath was instituted in Genesis 2:2-3 when God rested on the seventh day of creation and "hallowed" it.

The discussion focused on whether it is acceptable to take the one-day sabbath and break it into several mini-sabbaths throughout the week. Some argued that, in our fast-paced modern society this makes more sense because of the near impossibility of taking an entire day. Others argued that not taking an entire day undermined the purpose of the sabbath.

I understand both positions. Taking an entire sabbath day each week is ideal. If we have the will and discipline, we can make time for a sabbath day. However, the ideal is seldom achieved in life. For those who can't/won't/don't take a sabbath day, mini-sabbaths are an acceptable alternative.

What is a mini-sabbath? It is taking time out of a work day to pray or meditate. It is taking a walk or a bike ride. It is doing something that feeds one's soul. The key to mini-sabbaths is being intentional about making time for them. Writing an activity or time of rest on your calendar or day planner can serve as a reminder to take this sabbath time.

Sabbath time is holy time. The sacred dimension of life is not just available one day a week, but every day and every hour. When we connect with this holy dimension of life, our souls are renewed and we are better able to live the life to which God calls us.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mindful Hiking

Last week, I made my annual pilgrimage to Acadia National Park in Maine. I did four different hikes on this three day trip and each was amazing in its own way. What I love about Acadia is the dramatic vistas of ocean, mountain and forest. You can enjoy the thunderous collisions of waves against rock and also enjoy the quiet solitude of hiking through dense forest. The photo above is from the Acadia National Park website.

Hiking is one of my spiritual practices. By hiking in places of natural beauty, my soul is refreshed and renewed. However, a certain kind of awareness called "mindfulness" enhances the spiritual benefits of hiking (and other forms of activity, too). Mindfulness is being fully present in the present moment.

The key to hiking being a soulful experience is the attitude with which we do it. There are several ways to hike. A hike can be a race against other hikers where the goal is to finish as quickly as possible. A hike can become a time trial where the goal is to do your best time over a specific distance. A hike can also be done purely for exercise—to burn calories. A hike can also be done for spiritual nourishment.

When I hike mindfully, I am more aware of the natural beauty surrounding me. I notice the pattern of sunlight on the ground that filters through the branches of trees. I breathe in the musty forest air, rich with aromas of earth: decaying leaves, pine needles and evergreen cones. I look at the sky above the canopy of tree tops and marvel at the varying hues of blue and the puffy white clouds floating effortlessly. When hiking with this kind of awareness, I feel connected to the aliveness around me and feel more alert and alive within.

When it comes to spiritual practices, it's not so much what we do, but how we go about doing it. When we do something mindfully, we connect ourselves with what is holy, sacred and divine.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The World Will End On _____

The media hoopla over Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end this past Saturday was both sad and silly. It's sad because there were people who totally bought into this date and quit their jobs, stopped paying bills and even sold their homes. It's silly because nobody can know when, how or if the world will end.

However, contemplating the end of the world is a human fascination. Biblical writers portrayed the world's end using apocalyptic poetry. To take these visions and images literally is to be guilty of a "misplaced literalism." When we try to describe the indescribable we are forced to use the symbolic language of metaphor. And, metaphors are open to a variety of interpretations.

Even though I believe that speculation about when or how the world will end is an exercise in futility, there is value in reflecting on the future. We all live toward some vision of the future. Is our vision one of hope or doom? How we view the future can make a great deal of difference in the present as it gives the present urgency and direction.

When it comes to the future, it's important to know what we can and can't control. We can control our own actions and how we take care of the earth we have been entrusted to care for as God's stewards. However, there is so much we can't control (i.e. the weather, natural disasters, astrological catastrophes).

I believe that Christianity presents a hopeful vision of the future. The world doesn't end in darkness and destruction, but is transformed into light and new life. Easter tells us that death is not the final word about us, but that resurrection and new life transform death.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Perma-nent Well-Being

I came across a new acronym while reading a New York Times article this morning: "Perma," which stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. It was coined by Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of "positive psychology."

Dr. Seligman, who wrote "Authentic Happiness" in 2002, has since discovered that the concept of "happiness" is too limiting. He now is focusing on "well-being" or "flourishing." These words better capture the breadth of a fulfilling life. Well-being isn't tied to a particular feeling or mood (as happiness often is) but is "a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment," he writes.

I am in full agreement with Dr. Seligman. Happiness is a byproduct of being engaged in healthy relationships and doing meaningful work. We also need to be able to contribute to the good of others. While happiness is self-centered, well-being focuses more on making a positive difference in the lives of others.

For a full and fulfilling life, we not only need to be well, we also need to do good. When our life contains the five elements represented by "perma" the result is well-being. Even though this view doesn't mention spirituality, it is implied. Spirituality is a critical component of a well-lived life. The "tripod of spirituality" (humility, compassion and gratitude) I mentioned in my previous blog is important in well-being.

We were created by a Creator for a full and rich life that cannot be characterized by happiness alone. We were created for relationship, meaning, purpose and to serve a cause greater than self.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tripod of Spirituality

I'm in the last 2 weeks of my two World Religion courses. We've worked our way through Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a lot to cover in a single semester.

At the end of the course, I ask my students, "What do these world religions have in common?" I get a wide range of answers: a commitment to peace, an ethical code, the Golden Rule and more.

My own view is that there are three spiritual values that can be found in all of the above religions. These are: compassion, humility and gratitude. I call these values, the "tripod" of spiritual life because they uphold and support it.

Compassion is the ability to not only empathize with another's pain, but to act in a compassionate way. Humility is the ability to see yourself as you truly are and to recognize your commonality with humanity. Gratitude is the ability to see all of life as a gift and to give thanks for this multitude of gifts.

It's impossible for me to comprehend a healthy spiritual life that lacks any of these values. Obviously, we can't perfectly embody these values. However, when it comes to the spiritual life, progress trumps perfection. To strive to internalize and to live by compassion, humility and gratitude is to live the best possible life. As the Dalai Lama once said, "The purpose of religion to make us better people."

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Blogging Fast?

Several of you have commented on my lack of blog posts for the past month or two. I could come up with a good excuse ("I took a blogging fast for Lent"). However, that would be untrue.

The truth is I've gotten out of the habit of regular blogging. Isn't it interesting that good habits are so hard to instill and so easy to break? It took me two months to become a 3-4 times a week blogger. I kept up that pace for nearly one and a half years.

How long did it take me to become an infrequent blogger? About one day. Once I got out of the habit, it became self-perpetuating. Each morning, instead of writing a blog, I started writing on a Bible study book that's due at the end of the summer. I need to write 4 pages/day to keep on schedule. After I finished writing, usually around noon, I convinced myself that I had already used up my creative energy for the day.

What happened to my blogging can happen in nearly any area of life. If we don't discipline ourselves to maintain good habits, they easily disappear. Since a virtue is a "habit of character," the consequences for lack of discipline in this area can be disastrous.

I'm committing myself to becoming more regular (at least once a week) in my blog posts. But, I may need to take another blogging fast from time to time. I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding. Come to think of it, patience and understanding are good habits to have. I'm glad I'm helping you instill them!

Thursday, March 24, 2011


The full moon that graced us last Saturday was spectacular. It was called a "supermoon" because it was 14% closer to earth than usual and 20% brighter. Although I missed the moonrise at 3 p.m., when night came, it filled the sky with bright light. To gaze on such a wonderful sight was awe-inspiring. The photo above is by Joe Sarno.

Such amazing natural phenomena remind me that the universe is vast and varied. I was watching "Nova" last night and was reminded that there are billions of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and billions of other galaxies. The show was on the search for earth-like planets that might have life.

When we are too absorbed in our own concerns, problems and issues, phenomena like the "supermoon" serve to get us outside of ourselves and open our eyes to the fact that what happens in the universe isn't always about us. There are forces so much vaster and complex that we struggle to comprehend them-- things like black holes, dark energy and subatomic particles.

A story in Genesis tells of Abraham worrying about how the promise God had made that Abraham would be the father of a great nation would be fulfilled. In a dream, God came to Abraham and told him, "Go outside your tent and look at the stars. Your descendants will be as numerous as these."

Sometimes, we need to get outside our metaphorical tents and look at the night sky. Then, we can realize that there are things much larger than ourselves, that the universe doesn't revolve around us and that we are part of a vast and wondrous universe brought into being by a benevolent Creator.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Giving Up or Taking On?

The season of Lent is traditionally a time of giving up something enjoyable like candy, alcohol, favorite foods and the like. I've done this in years past and have found it to be a helpful way of practicing self-denial, one of Lent's themes.

However, a few years ago I tried a different way of observing Lent: taking on a new spiritual discipline. One year I focused on gratitude and reflected each morning on something I was thankful for. Another year, I observed 10 minutes of silence each day. Lately, I've observed Lent with more active spiritual disciplines like meditative walking or reflective stretching.

Whether you give up or take on something isn't the most important thing about Lent--strengthening your spiritual connection with God is the key. Doing those things in our daily life that helps focus our thoughts and feelings upon the holy and sacred dimension of life helps keep us centered and grounded.

I'm not sure yet what new discipline I'll take on during this Lenten season. I have a few more hours to figure it out. Maybe I should give up procrastination!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Spiritual Fitness

Have you heard of "BOD4GOD"? I encountered this word-phrase last week in an article about The Journey church. It describes a program that uses "spiritual" principles for weight loss and exercise.

Although the article didn't go into detail as to what these spiritual principles are, I think the idea of connecting physical and spiritual fitness has some merit. I would also add emotional/mental fitness into the mix.

There is an intimate connection between body, mind and spirit. When one of these three is out of shape or damaged, it can affect the other two. For example, depression doesn't only affect the emotions, it affects the body and the soul. When we're down, we don't eat well and exercise is difficult. Depression also saps our spiritual energy as well.

When it comes to exercise, we need to apply it to our minds and souls as well as our physical selves. St. Ignatius developed several spiritual exercises, including prayer, reflection, imaginative reading of scripture and others. Keeping our minds active and growing can be done with reading, crosswords, problem-solving and writing.

I believe that to exercise any one dimension of our self has benefits for the others. To get physically fit gives us more mental and spiritual energy. What I call "active spirituality" encourages us to look at spiritual practices that involve motion and movement such as walking, hiking, fishing, cycling and so on. Spiritual fitness is interconnected with physical and mental/emotional fitness.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Yesterday, I was inspired by the story of a friend who had been through some very difficult times in his life. He escaped from Denmark after the Nazi's invaded his home country. He lost a son to a boating accident 25 years ago. His daughter-in-law has survived for 7 years with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. And, he is being treated for metastatic cancer.

Despite these difficulties, he says that he feels "lucky" and "fortunate." He is filled with gratitude for his life and is focused on how he can help others.

The quality I see in this friend is resilience. Despite being knocked down by the blows life has dealt him, he remains steadfast and positive. He doesn't give in to self-pity or depression. Even though his initial reaction to these tragedies was deep sadness, he bounced back from each difficulty.

My suspicion is that the source of his resilience is his deep gratitude for life. Gratitude is the foundation of resilience. If we can understand how we are blessed, even in the midst of challenging circumstances, we will find the inner strength and fortitude to survive and even thrive.

As I said, I have been inspired by my friend. So, each morning I'm reflecting on what I'm grateful for. I'm making a list and adding to it each day. To begin each day by giving thanks for even one thing can make the rest of the day go better. When we strengthen our sense of gratitude, we also strengthen our resilience when difficult times come-- and they always do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Listening to the Silence

One thing that feeds the soul is solitude. While solitude can be an inner quality such as inner peace, it can also be external. I seek external solitude in places that are away from people, traffic, and noise. Fortunately, there is a wonderful nature preserve called Devil's Den that is a 20 minute drive from my home (I am aware of the irony that one of the important places in my spiritual life is called Devil's Den).

A few days ago, after I finished my work, I headed to Devil's Den for an hour of snowshoeing. Since we've had 4 major snowstorms over the past 6 weeks, there was plenty of snow-- up to 3 feet in most places! Because it was a cold Friday afternoon, I was the only person there.

I was enjoying the exertion of snowshoeing when I stopped for a drink of water. Suddenly I heard it. Silence. There was no wind. No birds were singing. Just silence. I stood there for several minutes, not wanting to break the spell. I watched the sunlight filter through low clouds and took in the beauty of the brilliant white snow.

So often, we don't know what we're missing until we experience it. I realized that such silence is all too rare in my life. While driving, I listen to the radio. While walking in my town, there are sounds of traffic. Even when I'm alone at home with no appliances on, there are sounds of wood creaking and the heater blowing. Silence is also rare in nature with the sounds of wind, birds, streams and boots hitting the trail.

There are few things that feed the soul like silence. Finding times and places of stillness can help soothe the mind and calm the soul. However, our ability to enjoy silence depends on whether we have cultivated inner solitude as well. More about that in another blog.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blessings in Disguise

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to teach a class using my new Lenten study, Blessings of the Cross (Cokesbury). It's a lectionary-based Bible study based on the theme of "blessings in disguise."

What is a blessing in disguise? It can be almost anything. However, we use this phrase to describe negative events that turn out to have positive value.

Here are some examples. Through an illness we learn how to depend upon others for help and experience deeper gratitude. After a financial crisis, we discover what really matters to us. Because of a failure we get in touch with humility and a renewed resolve to go forward. After a tragedy such as the death of someone close to us, we learn resilience in the face of a devastating loss.

None of us would call an illness, financial crisis, failure or devastating loss a "blessing." In fact, these would seem to be the opposite of blessings. Yet, if we learn from these negative things and are able to get in touch with our inner resources of faith and perseverance, they can be character and faith building.

Certainly, the cross is a blessing in disguise. This instrument of torture and execution has been transformed into the central symbol of the Christian faith. Through the eyes of faith, the cross represents new life, new hope and even joy. If the cross can be transformed into something positive and life-giving, so can any horrible thing that happens to us in life.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Struck by Grace in the New Year

As we begin another year, the gift I hope for all of us is the gift of grace. The late theologian Paul Tillich understood grace as "God's radical acceptance of us." My favorite Tillich quote on grace comes from his book, The Shaking of the Foundations.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we are estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us has they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that your are accepted!" If that happens to us we experience grace. After that experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.