Archive for the ‘Spiritual Perspectives’ Category

Leadership in Anxious Times

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Some thoughts on Leadership in Anxious Times:

Nothing sidelines an institution faster than contraction and flailing that is labeled as vision and the dawning of a new era.

Read more:

Burning Snow

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Some thoughts on ancient spiritual wisdom:

Holidays and The Dave Test

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Question number three: “Can I avoid using stained glass language?”  You can find it here:

God is not on our side

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

We were on a mission to find Indian Food at one of our favorite restaurants and en route we were listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”  Terry Gross was interviewing Nick Paumgarten and we caught the conversation midstream.

Paumgarten was talking about on-line dating and observed that one of the random indicators he had found of potential marital bliss was whether or not a couple agreed on their like — or dislike — of horror films.  What about you, he asked Ms. Gross.

His host was diffident and responded, well, it depends on what you mean by horror films — classic or new, slasher movies or…

Woa! Paumgarten responded.  This is a binary thing.  You’re for them or against them.  If you want to qualify your view you’re not going to get dates.

That’s right.  And that’s precisely the problem with our society today.  That’s why we name-call, instead of discussing issues.  We brand and exile people who don’t agree with us.  Our news commentators and their guests talk over one another, scream, and shout.  Our politicians battle away at one another defending old positions and programs — and why none of them are capable of entertaining new ideas.  That’s also why, even in the church — if you want to get ahead, you are forced to choose a side.

For far too many people there is, quite simply, never any more than two choices available.  Left, right — up, down — black, white — yes, no.  Most of life doesn’t yield to that binary pattern, but we have imposed that pattern on it.

It won’t matter to everyone, but to those who care, it’s time to hear this and hear it clearly:

“God is not on your side.”

You meant “their” side, right?  No, I meant “your” side (And, by the way, God is not on my side, either.)

Let me elaborate (so that I avoid being binary!): In life, there are a handful of occasions when picking a side will likely put you on God’s side.  Cheating on your taxes, taking your neighbor’s life without provocation, abusing a child — under those circumstances it’s not hard to figure out where God stands.  But the problem is that most of those choices are pretty obvious and they almost never present themselves in real life.  The vast majority of life is not like that.

More importantly, from a spiritual point of view, when we conclude that we have done what God wants us to do by making those binary choices, the choice becomes an end in itself — a god of our own making.  And that’s why I think it’s time for us to hear, “God is not on your side.”

Every time Jesus was approached with a binary choice and asked —

tell me who to love and who to hate,

tell me who to forgive and how often to forgive them,

tell me who to serve, God or Caesar

— Jesus insisted on listening to God, instead of giving an answer.

Bob Lyon, a dear friend, mentor, and teacher, used to observe: Christians are meant to be a part of “the loyal opposition” — because God is “the loyal opposition.”  Everytime we want to draw a line, check off a box, or make a choice, God responds, “No, there’s more to hear — listen to me.”  And I think Bob was right.

As long as we reward binary behavior — make a choice, get a date — make a choice, get elected — make a choice, get a job — make a choice, find a welcome — the binary choices will look like the only thing possible.  They will also be all we have.

God is not on our side — yours or mine.  God doesn’t need a side.  We need to listen.  When we do, we will find fresh vision and insight — as well as new depth of community.  We will also find God, instead of our feeble binary interpretations of what God wants.


Wisdom is a Choice

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Wisdom is not an accident.  It is not the peculiar endowment of a select few.  It can be discovered, accumulated, cultivated, and appropriated.  But you need to care.  You need to pay attention.

It is a choice.

Wisdom requires awareness, devotion, effort, and focus.  You cannot age into wisdom, run into wisdom, or borrow it.  It is not a part-time job, a hobby, a serendipity, or recreation.

It is a way of life.

The fabric of life yields insights, but it requires interpretation.  It requires a lens.  One lens will dominate.

It is a way of seeing.

We can craft wisdom of our own making, or we can see the world through the eye of God.

Wisdom is a choice.

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the End

Monday, June 13th, 2011

If you are reading this, we are (mostly) all still here and the end is not yet.  May 21, 2011 has come and gone and here we are.  So, perhaps it’s time to ask what “the end” is all about.

Obviously, for some it’s about getting the date right.  Deciding whose left behind, caught by “the thief in the night”  — a brick short of the full spiritual load — and, of course, the wise virgin and the faithful watcher.  What so much of the contemporary conversation about the end focuses on is that all important, ever relevant, irrepressible question: “What’s going to happen to me?”

So, the questions revolve around “Where am I going?”  “When will I get there?” and “What is required to make sure that happens?”  And, if not, then there are the questions that arise from a zero-sum spirituality: “Who’s not going?” — because I can’t go to heaven unless you go to hell.

But have you ever wondered why the Bible is so damned (pun intended) fuzzy about all of that?  Have you ever asked yourself, “Why is the best answer to all of those questions, ‘What kind of God do you believe in?’”

The answer?  The Bible doesn’t care about the answer.  So it doesn’t try to answer.  The answer Job’s author offers is typical.  In response to Job’s demands for an answer, God responds, “Were you around when the foundations of the world were laid?”  Similarly, the writer of Revelation effectively argues, “God wins…hope you are going along for the ride.”

The Bible isn’t all that worried about you and me.  It’s worried about the fact that God made claims that history seems to frustrate.

So, when the Bible talks about the end, it’s all about how God makes good on those promises.  It’s not that God doesn’t love you or me.  The stakes are just larger.

That’s good news really.  God is committed to something bigger than you and me and we get to go along for the ride.  God is committed to being God.

The details?  Is Ghandi in heaven?  What about people who haven’t heard or think differently?  Questions like that are above our pay grade.

We were called to participate in the Kingdom.

To usher in its existence — among the weeds in the field and the wheat husks on the threshing floor.  That’s more than enough.

Open yourself to the call of God.  Weigh in.  Participate.  But don’t take yourself so seriously.  After all — it’s not the end — yet.

Saving the Samaritan

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

The namesake of my wife’s parish is the Good Samaritan.  So I have been more alert to that great figure in the teaching of Jesus than I might be otherwise.  Of course, the Samaritan has a proverbial and cross-cultural hold on our minds — so he commands a bit of attention all on his own.  Along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Samaritan could use some saving.

What is striking to me is how little the parable is actually understood.

  • It is not about what we should do.
  • It’s about who does what should be done.
  • And more specifically, it’s about the unexpected sanctity of one who — by definition — most Jews assumed lacked a capacity for the things of God.

It’s strange, then, to discover that so many focus on what he does and then ask themselves, who are my needy neighbors or how can I act like a Good Samaritan?  But, then again, perhaps that isn’t really all that strange.  The scribe questioning Jesus wanted to know who the neighbor was — wanted to pin it down and quantify his obligation.  So, it isn’t really all that surprising that we do the same thing.

It’s strange, too, to discover that for many the parable is about the victim. It isn’t that either.  But there are things that ought to be said about him as well.

  • He is not the everyman of people in need.
  • There is no roadmap here to caring effectively for people, while avoiding the errors of codependency, for example.
  • He is not the addict, the alcoholic, the compulsive gambler, the abusive husband, or the convicted felon.

He is the victim of random violence and he is unclean by religious standards.  So, he sets the stage for the behavior of the Samaritan — who values mercy over observance of the Law and is, therefore, the unexpected agent of God’s reign.

And that’s the point.  The Samaritan isn’t a do-gooder, a codependent deeply drawn to anyone in distress, a legalist who is afraid he will fail to do the right thing, or a social activist.  He is an agent of God’s reign who responds to the priority that God gives to the exercise of mercy.

The potent combination of inner priority and the exercise of mercy is worth contemplating.

I often get the impression that at least some people believe that an emphasis on the spiritual life will rob the church of its ability to reach out to others.  It can, I suppose.  And there are certain brands of spirituality that are more likely to feed a narcissistic quietism than others.

But when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he declined to answer and, instead, describes one whose inward orientation made him the reliable agent of God’s work.  The Samaritan exhibits the kind of spirituality that grounds a life of active mercy.

His spirituality isn’t a dead end.  It isn’t about his feelings or his eternal fortunes.  It’s about a spirituality shaped by the conviction that the times have changed and the time for mercy is now.

That kind of spirituality won’t rob the church of energy for engagement with the needs of the world.  It will ground that energy.

Wasted Words: Orthodoxy

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Orthodoxy has become a dirty word.  It is treated as a synonym for “narrow,” “unthinking,” “uncharitable,” “mean-spirited,” “backward,” and “benighted.”

But at root, orthodoxy is not about labeling things right for the sake of labeling them — much less labeling other things “wrong.”

It’s about accountability to something and — even more importantly Someone beyond us.

A wooden orthodoxy that needs “right belief” as a substitute for that Someone is misguided.  But a spiritual orientation that rejects every kind of accountability other than one of its own making is no less misguided.

The argument between both has made it difficult for us to listen.  When we are polarized by the debate and inclined to take sides it is almost impossible to hear the most important Voice of all.

Head to toe

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”  (Jn 13:3-4)

Some biblical passages attract more confusing sermons than others.  It isn’t the stories’ fault.  The ones that do are often among the most powerful and vivid of them.

And this is definitely one of them.

There are a lot of reasons…

Feet are a big part of it.  Open-toed shoes with manicured nails, swimming pools, the beach — feet don’t attract a lot of attention.  But talk about taking off shoes in public — paddle-footing around in church in your bare feet, rather than in dress shoes — that’s an attention getter.

So is the business of washing feet.  Some people are terribly conscious of the whole process — one woman I know who is in her eighties had her toenails painted black just for the occasion (and for the satisfaction of shocking the Cathedral’s dean) — and one group of little girls even announced in anticipation of the event, “You know, you can get infections that way,” reflecting evidently on conversations among far older adults about the perils of getting a pedicure.

For us — not for ancient Jews who tromped around on dusty steets with lightly-clad feet — foot washing is an unfamiliar, awkward experience.

But that’s where the confusing sermons come from, too — people run with the symbolism and assume that they know what it’s all about.  The result?   Sermons on service, servant leadership, doing good, submission, and humility.

Now, these are not bad things in and of themselves.  But reading the foot washing passage this way has led to a lot of strange theology — not the least of which is basically the storyline that says, “There are lots of good people out there, but Christians are good people, servant leaders, submissive, humble or ‘all of the above,’ because Jesus set the example for them by washing the disciples’ feet.”

Small wonder we have these crazy conversations about whether you really need to be a Christian to be good, and about whether or not there are good people who aren’t Christians.  Duh, yes.

Small wonder, too, that for a lot of Christians the spiritual journey is a strange, disconnected two part story: part one, “get saved” — part two, “be good.”

As good as service, humility and all the rest might be, that just isn’t the point of the story.  The key to its meaning lies in the exchange with Peter:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’”  (Jn 13:6-8)

Jesus knows that Peter is on his way spiritually.  He has left his fishing business, tromped around the countryside with Jesus, and he’s been on mission trips.  But he hasn’t arrived and he’s about to face the biggest set back yet in his journey.  He has been cleansed, but he is still picking up road dust.  And unless he is willing to let Jesus continue that process of cleansing, then there is no way for him to find intimacy with his Lord and a place in the Kingdom of God.

Service in the Kingdom, then, is not a matter of doing good for others for no particular reason — or doing good for the sake of doing good.  Service is about a life of service lived out of a recognition of one’s own deep dependence upon God for forgiveness and cleansing.  And it’s about service that points others to the same need for God’s forgiveness and cleansing.

Now, inevitably, some will complain, “Oh, I see, so we are good to others so that we can get them into the church.”  But that’s a matter of getting your shoe on the wrong foot (if you will forgive the pun).

The Christian’s availability to others is not about serving them in order to “get them for God.”  It is a life so deeply, comprehensively shaped by the journey into God’s Kingdom that no one could ever read your life as anything but a journey into God.

Among my cherished friends during my Cathedral days in Washington was a man by the name of John Crause.  John was a deeply devoted Christian and a Cathedral volunteer. When I was there he would still come around on Sunday morning for conversation, coffee, and donuts with some of us on the staff.

John had a blood disease that finally morphed into Leukemia and claimed his life and I had the great privilege of being there for his funeral.  The preacher said: “John left strict instructions that there were to be no eulogies.”  He told me, “One man lying in the Cathedral is enough.”

“But,” the preacher observed, “to know John was to know his Lord.”

And that, dear friends, is what washing feet is all about.  Many will serve and do good works.  Many will be vulnerable, accessible, humble, and giving.

But our lives are meant to be inspired and shaped by having “a share” in Jesus — by a life of intimacy with our Lord and a journey into the Kingdom.  The epitaph by which any of us should be remembered are the words, “To know him — to know her — was to know her Lord  — his Lord  — your Lord — mine.”  Beginning to end, from head to toe.

Nukes in Japan

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

One of the fastest moving stories in the news and, in some ways, the story that has overshadowed the suffering in Japan is the news about its damaged reactors.  This, in spite of the fact that only one person has died (in a non-nuclear) and several others made ill, whereas by comparison the earthquake and tsunami have claimed thousands of lives and wiped away whole communities.  While it is unclear how the situation will finally be resolved, the measured, sane, scientific voices have pointed out that even the catastrophic failure of the reactor at Chernobyl claimed not many more than 59 lives and most of those were firefighters and others who courageously brought the plant under control.

Setting aside the question of energy resources for the moment, it is worth asking, why we are so absorbed with this one dimension of the story to the near exclusion of sustained attention to the larger tragedy?

There are a number of reasons — all four with spiritual dimensions.

One reason, of course, is simply the sensationalistic nature of the story. It will take years for Japan to rebuild and the effort will require sustained, long term attention.  Some of the losses — particularly in human lives — cannot be addressed or fathomed at all.  By contrast, the problem with the reactors is just the kind of news story that stirs passions and draws an audience.

The second spiritual problem is, sadly, that the reactor story is the sort of story that hooks those who do not live in Japan — because the prevailing winds might bring radiation our way, because there are nuclear power plants in our own countries.  The news outlets know what we will not admit — that our sense of commitment to the well-being of others is so fragile that a story that impinges on us is intrinsically more interesting than a story that affects the lives of others.

The third reason for this story’s riveting nature is our desire for guaranteed safety.  The outcry for eliminating nuclear power plants is, in part, a scientific, technical, and social issue which we can all debate and for which there are arguments to be made, pro and con.  But beneath it all I can hear in what some have said the notion that if we eliminate nuclear power plants, we will have eliminated a serious threat to life and limb.  Perhaps, but as the tragedy itself indicates, it would not eliminate all the threats.  No one is discussing the elimination of all but concrete bunkers in our cities; the elimination of beach side cities and towns; the banning of all ocean-going vessels; and the evacuation of all fault lines.

The fourth reason is this: The fascination with the crisis arises out of a desire to define the end of life. Even a nihilistic or apocalyptic ending arises out of an all but instinctive need to name and visualize that end.  A larger human need to define where we are going and where we will end as a species is evident in countless secular apocalyptic scenarios, including global warming and nuclear holocaust.  Life is shaped by stories and no element of those stories informs the rest like the fate of the human race.  The story of nukes in Japan has fed that need.  Even non-Christian secularists are forever reading the present against a loose collection of apocalyptic scenarios all their own.

How does the Christian faith speak to the four impulses described above?

One, needs worthy of our attention transcend the momentary interest born of controversy and novelty.  We are obligated to care, because those in need are our neighbors.

Two, we are obliged to care for others whether their needs impinge on our well being or not.

Three, Christians know that there is nothing certain about life.  Our confidence lies in God and sustains us.

Four, Christians are deeply engaged in the whole of life because in it is played out the shaping of our souls and beyond it lies a new heaven and a new earth. Neither religious, nor secular apocalypse should deter us from courageous living.