Wednesday, October 03, 2012

            DOING THEOLOGY
                 October 3, 2012

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
                                                            - Zen Master Linji

While in Morocco a few years back, we took a cab from the harbor in Tangiers to the railway station. Along the way, our daughter, who, praise be to Allah, speaks Arabic, was engaged in an animated discussion with the cab driver. They were, in Moroccan tradition, loudly proclaiming whatever it was they were discussing. We sat in the back seat without a clue as to what was going on. Finally, the driver threw up his hands...and in Moroccan traffic that is a very dangerous thing to do.. .and then patted our daughter on the shoulder and murmured something and offered her a big smile. When we arrived at the train station and after shaking hands with the man several times, we asked her what had transpired…
"He wanted to know how I could speak his language..

 (Molly is blond and stands out in a crowd of North Africans the way a burqa-clad woman would stand out at Pilgrim Place.)

Then he wanted to know what I was doing in Morocco.
…and then he wanted to know if I was Muslim.
When I told him I wasn't Muslim, he couldn't believe it.
So we discussed how an Arabic-speaking woman could be a Christian.
Again, he said he couldn’t believe it.
 But then he patted me on the shoulder and said,
 "All in good time, my child, all in good time."

You needed to have been there, I suppose, but I found myself reflecting on his declaration in a couple of ways. I know he was being authentically kind. He really did believe that ultimately all people will come under the Islamic tent…not with fear and trembling but genuinely acknowledging the wisdom of this particular revelation.   On the other hand, I worry that he, like so many Christians I know over here, can't accept the multiple pathways of truth. Why must I become a Muslim or why must he become a Christian? Surely there are other ways of experiencing a nurturing, productive spiritual journey than one particular religion?

Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others are struggling to separate that which is essential in their teachings from that which is tangential. We can see evidence of this in a myriad of ways. Fundamentalist Muslims who see the modern world as evil, who demand ancient dress codes or entice youngsters to suicidal missions with the promise of eternal rewards, convinced that this is the only way of being a Muslim cause moderate Muslims to wonder if such a conservative stance is really essential.  And, of course, there are Christians who make similar demands with ludicrous claims on science and sinister designs on the political process causing other Christians to separate themselves from such thinking. Indeed, there is a growing movement within Judaism that has many faithful Jews wishing to separate their religion from support of Israel. Decades of murder and mayhem have convinced them that any claim that God has promised a particular piece of real estate to one particular people is false. 

Discovering what is essential in our  own spiritual journeys is to constantly remind ourselves that the finger we use to point to God is not God, that the lens we look through on our search for the divine, is not the divine. All talk of God is metaphor.  When we forget that essential understanding of the spiritual journey, it is time to kill the Buddha. 

* * * *

Christianity, as most people understand it, is formed not around the teachings of Jesus but rather the teachings about Jesus.  These teachings about Jesus began long before Matthew, Mark, Luke or John put quill to parchment and even before Paul, the earliest and most prolific of New Testament writers, began sending out his theologically driven epistles. It began with stories, stories told not via instant messaging or over the internet but one person, one story at a time and as the story went from one person to the next it was changed, altered, embellished, perhaps even mingled with other familiar stories going around the neighborhood.  One of the great theological insights regarding this phenomenon comes from those masters of religious inquiry, Monty Python.  In their brilliant movie “The Life of Brian” the Jesus figure is lecturing to the crowd in what appears to be the Sermon on the Mount.  Someone on the periphery thinks he hears one thing…when we all know he should have heard another… 

“What’s he saying?’
“Blessed are the cheese-makers.”
“Blessed are the cheese-makers?”
“Blessed are the cheese-makers!!!”

…and on and on it is passed in a brilliant example of the imperfections of oral tradition.

What exactly did Jesus say? 

The Jesus Seminar, an often ridiculed but extremely dedicated group of scholars who have sought to determine the authentic words of Jesus found in the Bible and elsewhere, has spent considerable time and energy trying to answer that question.  What they have discovered is, in fact, precious little that could be assuredly ascribed to Jesus.  Nevertheless their work has, to my mind, offered a brilliant critique and an extremely helpful guide for those of us fascinated with the idea that we might actually peel away two millennia of often convoluted doctrine and catch a glimpse, perhaps only a very small glimpse, of the actual teachings of Jesus.

Such an enterprise, precarious as it may be, has been enormously inspirational to me and thousands of others who have found in the life and teachings of Jesus a model and guide for living. 

Now what is so curious about this model and guide is that it is fully accessible without an attending theology.  That is, one can employ, thanks to The Jesus Seminar and others, the assumedly authentic teachings of Jesus into one’s life without actually believing in God.  Indeed, given the often bizarre beliefs that have been formulated in the name of Christianity, it just may be easier to be a devoted disciple of Jesus if you don’t believe in God.

I don’t for one moment think that Jesus didn’t believe in God.  In his time and situation, it made all the sense in the world to accept the existence of a theistic being who ruled the universe with both a compassionate heart and an iron fist and who, not so incidentally, had a special place in the cosmic scheme of things for Jesus’ own people, the Jews.  Everyone back then had a god or, more often, a plethora of gods to turn to when things got a little rough down below.  But, of course, then came Copernicus and then came Galileo and then came Newton, and Darwin and Freud and Einstein and quantum physics and string theory and Sputnik and on and on and on.  The world underwent enormous changes, some advantageous some not. We evolved.  Industry, commerce, education, science, all evolving, all it seems, but our religions.  To this very day, many religions cling desperately to language, metaphors and symbols that speak to a different age, a different time, a different way of understanding reality.  I continue to marvel over the fact that most of us would never employ a doctor who still uses leeches or a dentist who has failed to stay current on advances in her profession and yet many Christians still choose
similarly ill-equipped pastors and congregations.

Jesus believed in God but whether he did or not does not undermine the enormous wisdom found in his teachings.  Again, it just may be easier, given the current state of conventional religious teachings, to be a devoted disciple of Jesus without believing in God.

This case for a kind of Christian Atheism gains strength when we consider the manner in which we develop our images of God.  A friend and mentor, Jack Spong, offers this little bit of theological insight gained from Xenophanes: “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.”  So, for instance, the Lutheran god looks a little like a combination between Ingmar Bergman and Garrison Keillor…dark and gloomy most of the time but once a week you can count on a few good laughs.  The Jewish god is pretty concerned with geography and the Muslim god likewise but with a decidedly different bias.  The Presbyterian god likes most things in good order and the Catholic god speaks in a deep and very male voice while the Quaker god keeps silent.  The Unitarian god seems to love everyone without exception even as the American god spends a good deal of time blessing, well, America.  All kinds of horses with all kinds of horse-like gods.

Here at Pilgrim Place, and particularly at our mealtime grace, language is often employed that conjures up a peculiarly partisan god who seems to be extraordinarily eager to bless us who are gathered with the benefits of good food, fine company and meaningful lives while apparently ignoring the 90% of the rest of the world who go without such divine and disturbingly capricious, magnanimity. (“Heavenly Father, We are so blessed with this great food, wonderful staff, dear friends…”) What, one wonders, does that mean for all those without great food, wonderful staff and dear friends?

 Christian Atheism recognizes the reality of a self-designed and self-designated divinity and suggests that it might be best to leave that often confusing component completely out of our spiritual lives.  Christian atheism finds in the life and teachings of Jesus more than enough provision for a rich and meaningful life, an abundant life centered in a pre-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of history, a Jesus without the doctrine, without the distortion of creeds and archaic confessions of faith…creeds and confessions that were created out of the best intentions but nevertheless are no longer relevant in a post-modern world that has long since left literalistic interpretations and archaic myth-making far behind.  Christian Atheism announces, haltingly, hesitatingly to be sure, but sincerely and honestly that the time has come to simply leave God in all her manifestations behind and center our faith in the figure of Jesus, admittedly little known but known enough to pin our hopes and dedicate our lives to following in his footsteps.

It is both curious and illuminating to note, by the way, that in three of the four gospels, Jesus puts very little emphasis on belief systems.  He spends a rather insignificant amount of time urging his listeners to accept particular theological concepts or doctrinal descriptions.  What he does spend the majority of his time doing is living out a life of compassion, of justice, of radical hospitality…and what he says, time after time, is not “Believe in me” but, rather, “Follow me.”  Follow me!  Don’t worry about whether you believe in this or don’t believe in that.  Don’t worry whether you were born a cursed Samaritan or a denigrated woman.  Don’t worry if you are despised by your neighbors or decorated by the state.  Just follow me.  And in so doing you will discover what I have discovered.  You will enter into the kingdom of heaven that is all around you.  You will experience the abundant life.

Amazingly, this emphasis on doing rather than believing has been dismissed by Christian hierarchy as nothing less than heresy.  In my own Lutheran tradition, we were admonished by Dr. Luther to ignore the very action-oriented biblical book of James as being no more than “a book of straw” with little or nothing of import for faithful Christians.  (Not so incidentally, it is this very book that often serves as a bridge between progressive Christians and other religious traditions.  James is reportedly the favorite book of the Bible for the Dali Llama.)

For most of the past two thousand years, Christians have been told that the only thing that really mattered was that you believe particular doctrines and accepted certain theological descriptions.  You needed to be born-again or at a minimum dipped three times in water to claim the mantle of Christian.  But the emerging evidence of Biblical scholarship suggests that is precisely not what Jesus was teaching.  “Follow me,” Jesus says, over and over again, in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  “Believe in me…” is left, almost solely, to the Jesus found in the gospel of John, the latest and most doctrinal of the four gospels and, not so incidentally, the gospel most favored by conservative Christians.

Speaking of conservative Christians…in recent years, an emerging movement seems to be taking root in evangelical Christianity.  A growing number of the faithful, particularly among the young and educated, are beginning to put an emphasis on some decidedly non-traditional conservative concerns…like the environment, like a fair and equitable health care system, like a government that seeks peace rather than war.  Now this is a very exciting development because, I believe, whether these non-traditional evangelicals realize it or not, such thinking will move them ever closer to Christian Atheism.  By that I mean: The more closely you follow Jesus the less you will need doctrines about God and the less you need doctrines about God the less you need God.  Rick Warren, the enormously successful evangelical pastor who built up a church of tens of thousands and has sold millions upon millions of books centered on purpose driven lives is beginning to understand this principal whether he knows it or not.  In the past few years, Warren has turned his incredible talents to serving those in need.  He has rallied thousands, maybe millions, of evangelical Christians to turn away from their navels and look out to a world suffering from hunger, poverty, war, AIDS and so much more.  In a matter of days, he raised millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers for Rwandan relief.  When asked about this change, he confessed that he now realized that he had spent far too much time building up his church and far too little caring for the world.  At a Baptist convention a few years ago, Warren announced the need for a second reformation that would be about “deeds not creeds.”  Talk about a slippery slope!  Welcome Pastor Warren to a conversation that some of us have been having for a very long time.  Welcome Pastor Warren to a god-diminished religion.  Welcome Pastor Warren to the possibility of Christian Atheism.
On one of my sabbaticals, I spent the summer serving an Anglican parish in London and studying the history and theology of the Anglican tradition.  Now The Church of England is a very curious institution indeed.  It can be the most rigidly traditionalist force in all of English society and, at the same time, produce some of the most radical theological thinkers of this or any other day.  One such radical is the Anglican priest and Cambridge scholar, Donald Cupitt.  Cupitt is a kind of living archetype of the paradox that exists within the Church of England.  For the Reverend Mr. Cupitt, an Anglican priest, is also a practicing atheist.  He is a priest, I dare say, of Christian Atheism, of a movement that is drawn deeply and profoundly into the teachings of Jesus but has little interest in or commitment to the traditional teachings about Jesus.  Cupitt has written extensively on his unique spiritual journey.   In the preface of, what I believe to be, his most helpful book: “Taking Leave of God”, Cupitt explains his choice of title by quoting a great medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, writing on spiritual maturity: “Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, man takes leave of God.”  It is that parting movement that seems, at least to me, the logical and inevitable destination of all those who choose, like Dr. Cupitt and a growing number of others, to be committed to following the teachings of Jesus rather than believing the teachings about Jesus. This is both the start and the essence of Christian Atheism.

Jesus taught and lived a life of compassion.  It is the very heart of his ministry and it is a perfect model for our own imperfect ministries.  It is an invitation to an abundant, meaning-filled life that can be experienced fully, richly, completely with or without much of the accompanying doctrine.  Surely we have reached that place in inter-religious dialogue here at Pilgrim Place where all folk are welcomed…even those Christians who have taken leave of God. 

Now I certainly understand there is nothing new in this proposal.  It has been proffered for more than two thousand years and condemned as heretical for the same amount of time.  But every so often, it seems to me, it is good to bring this little heresy back out into the open where others can see it and ponder its meaning for them and, perhaps, to discover as I have, that such an understanding, heretical as it may be, nevertheless offers a spiritual path that provides all that one needs for an abundant life, indeed all that one needs to enter into what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven.     

Monday, March 05, 2012

A recent Gallup poll of 1,012 adults rates the honesty and ethics of 21 professions. Clergy ranked sixth behind Nurses (84%), Pharmacists (73%), Medical Doctors (70%), High School Teachers (64%) and Police Officers (54%) but we rabbis, pastors and priests have nothing to gloat about. This same poll ten years ago had 64% of the folk giving high-marks to clergy. This year we got only 52%. That’s not even passing! We’re still rated above Lobbyists and Politicians who tied for the lowest mark at 7% but who wants to brag about that?

I suppose we could blame it on a problematic few but I have a hunch that even without the pedophiles in priests’ clothing , our popularity would still be shrinking. We’re the ones, after all, who continually set ourselves up and then let everyone else down.

In any case, I’m all for trusting nurses above everyone else. As someone who has spent a great deal of time visiting in hospitals, my admiration for the nursing profession only grows broader and deeper. These are the men and women on the front lines of health care. Countless times I have had the privilege of witnessing the healing power of the dedicated nurse. When, understandably, a doctor can spend but a few minutes with a patient, it is the nursing staff that provides the therapeutic power of simply being present…monitoring vital signs, administering pharmaceuticals and emptying bedpans. But also developing relationships, offering a listening ear, comforting a frightened soul as well… these are the reasons why anyone who has spent any time in a hospital would concur with the 840 people who told Mr. Gallup just who they thought were the most trustworthy folk of all.

I suspect the 7 interviewees that rated politicians as paramount in honesty and ethics all have a cousin running in some election. And the seven others who thought lobbyists were worthy of our respect probably are getting fat checks from either oil spillers or gas guzzlers. Even before the Occupy Movement made headlines most of us in the 99% were rethinking this whole notion of trickle-down economics. We’ve come to realize it’s not even a slow drip.

I’ve tried to find where kindergartners rank on this year’s list but it appears they didn’t make the cut. I suspect this reflects more the failings of the pollsters than the kids. This is entirely anecdotal but my experience with 5 and 6 year-olds would have me placing them right up there with the nurses.

For many years, I had the privilege of meeting with 20 or so kindergartners every Friday morning. We would spend our time catching up on each other’s lives and reading a story or two. If what we are judging here is honesty and ethical behavior, you’d have to go a long way to find more ethically and honest folk than these little people. For instance, not too long ago I was caught off guard when, in the midst of what I thought was a most entertaining story, one of the kids confessed that he had a better story to tell. Against my better judgment, I invited the tyke to tell his tale.

With surprising aplomb, the boy launched into a detailed description of a less than joyous discussion between Mommy and Daddy that occurred the night before. The kids and I sat in rapt attention as the boy graphically represented both the language and body language from the previous night’s drama. Because I am a clergyman whose honesty and ethics are on the decline, I hesitated before stopping the story from continuing. In that pause, my young storyteller reached his conclusion and we all discovered that the Tuesday Night Fights ended with giggles from the bedroom. Soon all the little honest and ethical kindergartners were sharing similar stories.

I could certainly tell you more but then next year we clergy might be listed behind the lobbyists.

Friday, February 10, 2012

“May I have a name, please?” the kind young woman asked as she finished relaying my tall latte order to her co-worker.

In the nanosecond or two that bridged the gap between her question and my response, a strange and potent power seemed to make its presence known deep within the gaps of my psyche. Here was my chance, I surmised, to change my identity. I could, with the ease of unchallenged conversation, simply become someone other than myself.

For instance, I might stare deeply into her rather unresponsive hazel eyes and say, “They call me Steel” and see if such nomenclature might buckle her probably aching knees. Or, if I was feeling a need to convince myself and any overhearing others that I possess intellectual powers now abundantly lacking, I might respond to her innocent request by squinting more than a little, push the bridge of my glasses higher up on my formidable nose and say, “Albert” or, “Leonardo”, if I’m feeling that bold.

My mother once mentioned that I bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman or maybe it was Danny DeVito. No matter. Now was my chance to try on either for size. Actually, I have for many years now spent too much time wondering what it would be like to have a book on the bestseller list. I could say “John” (as in Grisham) or “Chicken” (as in Soup).

Isn’t this fun? OK maybe fun isn’t exactly the right word but surely you can see the myriad of possibilities that present themselves. You call the restaurant to make your reservation but instead of something as prosaic as Jones or Smith or Mayfield, we get to say, “Ferrari” or “Gates” or maybe “Eli Manning” if you’re feeling really cheeky. I’ll bet the table waiting for you won’t be by the bathroom door.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but, just between you and me, I sometimes am not completely honest when someone asks what it is I did before I retired. Like changing my name, I have been tempted not to fully reveal my former professional status to strangers. Over the years I have found such a pronouncement can, and very quickly, end conversation and put dampers on any fun. Once on a chairlift, I was, most hospitably, offered a toke on my seat-partner’s marijuana joint. My smiling declination did not prevent him from sharing two-thirds of his life story by the time we were half way up the lift. As we hit the mid-point, he inquired as to my profession. Honestly I told him and, honestly, he never said another word.

Another time, on a two and a half hour flight to California, the fellow sitting next to me offered me something very different than my acquaintance on the lift. This guy gave me nothing more than a big smile. But then he opened up a Bible and began to feverishly take notes, underlining whole chapters. He would frequently turn toward me in a not too subtle invitation to conversation. I buried myself in my book and pretended not to notice his very public piety. Had he asked I would, without question, have told him anything but the truth. I’m nauseous enough when I fly.

“Pierre”, I could say with one raised eyebrow, hinting of exotic locales. “Igor” I could grunt and experience, if only momentarily, what it might be like to be an intimidator rather than always the intimidatee.

My dad had the wonderful name “Max”, although I never appreciated it when I was a kid. I wanted an old man with a moniker like “Joe” or “Bud”. “Max” always seemed more mousy than macho. People named their dogs “Max” not their people. Only now that he’s gone I miss hearing his name. So here was my chance to honor his memory. Should I take it?

I once knew a man named “Caroll”. Johnny Cash knew a boy named “Sue”. I have a male friend named, “Joy”. Would it be too shocking to tell her my name was “Charlotte”? Would the laugh be worth the embarrassment of innocently shouting out “Margaret”?

The possibilities are many, the risks reasonably few. Here was my chance, at least for the moment, to alter my past, leave my mistakes behind and start completely anew.

I bit my lower lip and took a deep breath.

“Rich”, I said.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Have you ever wondered who all those people are who are listed in the credits at the end of a movie? Do you have any idea of what a Key Grip does or how a woman can be a Best Boy? How in the world can there be so many people involved in the making of one little film?

Before I ever earned the “Rev.” before my name, I spent a good many years working in television and motion pictures. Indeed, there are a few movies where I am listed as one of those interminable names at the end. I have been not only a Key Grip and a Best Boy but a Gaffer, a Boomer, a Loader, a Puller, an A.D., an Assistant to the A.D., a 2nd Unit Director and, believe it or not, a stunt car driver. Although the memory dims, I think I can still remember just what each job entailed although I am a little fuzzy over what my responsibilities were back when I was paid to be a Clapper. I know it didn’t have anything to do with applauding.

Such reminiscing calls me to reflect on the myriad of folk who have had a hand in my own making. Leading roles would go, of course, to my parents but the list of credits would be long and probably, much like the movies, of not great interest to anyone but those whose names are listed.

Nevertheless, it seems a worthy exercise to ponder just precisely who would be on the rolling credit when my life finally goes to black.

I would have to include my first grade teacher, Miss Schwartz, who planted the seed of reading pleasure deep within my soul. In that same category, although I cannot remember any names, I would honor the librarians at the Westchester Public Library in Los Angeles who allowed me to spend hours taking up valuable space just paging through old Life magazines and re-reading Beverly Cleary books.

I don’t know what I would call them: Molders and Shapers? This would be a long list that would contain all those dear people who sacrificed time and energy to get me where I’ve gotten. I doubt many of them ever imagined I’d end up working in the religion biz but, in some strange and mysterious way, because of them I did. I’m thinking now of Mr. Lopez from High School English Class who wouldn’t allow me to just get by. Curiously, I would also give credit to the college counselor who in my freshman year told me to save my parents’ money and drop out now. Her lack of conviction in my abilities, I am convinced, made me all the more able.

Teachers seem to make up a lot of my credit list. Part of that is because I have spent so much time in and around schools but it also reminds me of what a sacred profession teaching is. The power these men and women have in the lives of all of us should give us pause. It should also compel us to make sure they are the very best our society can offer. It is an interesting commentary on all of us that we pay teachers so little and expect from them so much.

Antithetically, I would list Reginald DuPree as “Reality Doser”. DuPree was my first employer out of college. When he hired me to work in his Import/Export business he took note of a proud fact I had listed on my resume. “Oh, I see you’re a college graduate.” he said to me. When I smugly smiled he went on to say, “I’ll give you an extra $25 a month for that.”

As the credits continue to roll, I would have to add a long list of names under the title “Inspirers”. Included would be the famous and the almost forgotten, all those who, by their lives, encouraged me onward and outward. Some of the great writers would be on this list but so would some of the not so great. I am humbled to remember how certain folk have reached out to me in the course of their lives and changed the course of my own.

I remember casually mentioning to a friend a long time ago that my wife and I were pregnant. “Oh brother is your life going to change!” is what he said and what he said was absolutely true. Under “Life Changers” I’d list three. Under “Life Sustainer” I’d list just one: my wife, my lover, my dearest friend.

The list is long and growing longer so I’ll have to leave some space for other names between now and the inevitable The End.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The recent release of the new movie production of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which involves the search for a mole within the British Secret Service, reminds me of another search closer to home that scandalized America and shook the FBI to its core.

His name is Robert Philip Hanssen and he was a 25-year career FBI agent who was arrested in 2001 for spying for the Soviets. His friends and neighbors, his co-workers and superiors, all expressed shock and disbelief. Apparently, Hanssen exhibited the most conservative and traditional of values as he went about his nefarious business. No one suspected that he was a willing participant in a terrible treachery.

All kinds of theories have been proposed as to how the man managed to pull off what the Justice Department called “possibly the worst case of intelligence disaster in US history”. Some suggest that he was simply in it for the thrill. Others say it was the money. I’ve read one analysis that plays with the idea that Hanssen was schizophrenic and literally led two parallel lives that never seemed to cross.

Interestingly to those of us who ponder issues of morality, there are some experts who believe that Hanssen may have managed to compartmentalize his life so much that he was totally unaware of the damage he was doing to others.

While serving in the FBI, Robert Phillip Hanssen was an active follower of Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic organization that seeks a kind of Christianity more akin to the Middle-Ages than the 21st Century. Opus Dei is rabidly anti-modern, anti-ecumenical and, most certainly anti-communist. Given this fervent religious conviction, it is almost unbelievable to think that Hanssen was involved in such a reactionary movement while, at the same time, selling secrets to the Russians.


But haven’t we all met people who have, on a much smaller scale, acted in similar ways as did Mr. Hansen? Good, decent folk who have managed through intellectual self-manipulation to compartmentalize certain aspects of their lives so that they do not affect other aspects.

For instance, sensitive as I am to the foibles of ministers and priests, I have, on occasion, been both amused and a little shocked to find radar detectors on the dashboards of some of my peers. I wonder how they have managed to work out the seeming incongruity of a man or woman employed in an occupation based completely on honesty and trust with such a dishonest activity. They have managed, of course, because they see no connection between radar guns and religious activity.

Kids are good at pointing out this same incongruity. Sometimes they do it with their behavior rather than their voices. After all, if one’s normally honest and truthful parent brags of beating the government out of taxes that are rightfully owed, why should we blame a teenager for breaking the law in his or her own way? All they are doing is compartmentalizing their lives in the same way most of us adults do.

One of my heroes is the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin who spoke often of the need to have a “seamless garment” of philosophical consistency. If we claim to be pro-life in regard to the not yet born, we must also be pro-life in regard to capital punishment or reckless defense spending or the battle against AIDS or a host of other examples where being pro-life means more than picketing Planned Parenthood Clinics. Compartmentalizing allows us to ignore the inconsistencies that fill our lives.

For those of us who have worked in social services, an all too common example of compartmentalizing can be found in cases of abuse. Often the abuser leads an exemplary life in all areas but one, a very terrible one. Long ago I learned not to be surprised to discover that some of the most seemingly upright of folk are engaged in the most despicable of activities. Even more shocking, perhaps, is how often these perpetrators fail to see the incongruity in their lives. A lifetime of inconsistency can build a strong foundation for a future of contemptible incongruity.

There is an old saying in my circles about making sure you take the log out of your own eye before you point to the speck in another’s. Perhaps before condemning Mr. Hanssen and others like him, we search for similar inconsistencies in our own lives.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Periodically, I find it both helpful and necessary to leave my routine and spend time reflecting on who I’ve become and what I want still to do. Such ruminating used to find a welcome home at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. There the dozen or so monks welcome those folk who, like me, need time apart.

It really is a lovely place. Like an island to a shipwrecked sailor, the monastery rests in the center of a vast valley. Each time I drove onto the property, a palpable sense of peace surrounded me. I cherish the memory of those holy times.

I would often bring more books than I should and make more plans than I ought. But then there were those times when I focused less on projects and more on place. Sitting with the brothers in their simple sanctuary, breathing deep and slow, I remembered again what really matters.

Contemplating those sacred times apart, my thoughts turn to the writing of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk who captivated much of the world with his honest writings of the spiritual journey. A sentence or two from his work can be all the fodder one needs to feed the soul. I’ll never forget the time I was pulled up short with this profound thought: “The intention to please God, pleases God.” It may not seem like much to some but for those of us who live with questions and doubt, such a promise is deeply comforting.

And thinking of honest writers, one of my favorites is Anne Lamott whose take on things spiritual is quirky to say the least. Here’s one that I’ve been carrying around in my notebook waiting to share it with you: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” That particular perspective is revealed, over and over again, in a couple of my favorite books by Anne: “Traveling Mercies” and “Bird by Bird”. Great reading for your next retreat.

Another resource for reflection comes not from a Christian monk but a Buddhist, Jack Kornfield. He reminds me again of the discipline involved in the spiritual quest with a clever quip: “There is no McMeditation.”

James Finley, whose book, “The Contemplative Heart,” is an excellent guide to take on your retreat. Finley used to have a poster in his office that read…“Things to do today: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.”

Going on retreat, whether to a beautiful monastery or to the privacy of, as Virginia Woolf put it, “a room of one’s own,” allows us to see the world around us in ways that can be transforming. Nikos Kazantzakis captured a sense of that conversion experience when he wrote… I said to the almond tree, “Sister, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.

Toward the end of his life, Merton became keenly interested in Buddhism. In fact, he was in Bangkok dialoging with monks from all different religions the very day he was accidentally killed. Here is a comment of his that transcends religious differences and gets to the heart of any healthy spirituality: “What we have to be is what we are.”

If all this seems just too serious, allow me to offer one final quote from Merton’s profound pen: “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as play is perhaps what God takes most seriously.”

It would be so helpful if just once when the preacher asks us all to bow our heads and assume the position of prayer; she’d give us a sly, little grin and say instead, “Let us play!”