Archive for the ‘Spiritual Perspectives’ Category

Holy Imagination

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

What most of us want is a God who will solve our problems. It is no surprise that petitions and intercessions top the prayer charts in most American churches.  Invite people to spend some time in silence opening themselves up to the will of God and folks will fidget.  Give them a chance to role out their list and there’s no stopping them.

The same problem-solving God shapes the way in which most of us read the Bible.  There is a reason that the Gideons have long offered a Bible with a problem-solving list of passages at the back of the book.  If in trouble, read this…if depressed, read that…

But does assaulting heaven with a laundry list of needs constitute “holy imagination?”

No.  No matter how big the needs are, no matter how long the list might be, no matter how confidant you are that God will fill the requisition list — none of that constitutes holy imagination.

Don’t misunderstand.  There is nothing wrong with talking to God about our problems.  But a non-stop conversation with God about our needs is not the same thing as a spiritual life and imagining a bigger, longer list of stuff for God to do does not constitute a holy imagination.

A holy imagination is a life that is open, immediate, and raw — receptive and ready to respond to God on God’s terms.  An imagination open to what God wants to do — an imagination that isn’t tied to me and mine, or here and now.

That’s why when the prophet Joel anticipated a new future for humankind he didn’t indulge the specifics of competing needs and well-defined futures.  And he didn’t imagine a future that embraced just his own nation, or the movers-and-shakers. Instead he described a generation of people immediately and vulnerably in touch with the will of God and filled with fresh imaginings:

“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”  (NIV, Joel 2:28)

By all means, talk to God about your needs.  But save space when you pray or read Scripture for more than that.  Save space to dream with God.

Take your gift and say thanks

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

For many across the United States the winter of 2011 has been filled with surprises.  Falling temperatures, snow, and ice have pummeled nearly every part of the country.  Here in Dallas the weather plunged from highs in the seventies to lows in the teens with ice and then snow.

We complained about the uncharacteristically warm temperatures.  Then after days on end of ice and snow, others groused, “It’s beautiful, but enough.”

When I was tempted to join the chorus, I thought, “Take your gift and say thanks.”

We complain far too much.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with desires and longing, ambition or progress.  But some elements of life just are what they are and almost nothing that needs to be changed yields to change over night.

The secret of life deeply and joyfully lived is just one that not only lives in the moment (as I so often hear people say).  The secret of life lived joyfully is life lived in the present with gratitude.

Take your gift and say thanks.

You will live with greater joy.  You will notice things for which to give thanks.  And change will not leave you struggling in quite the same way.

Sallyland Fundamentalists

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

During the time that I spent in Jerusalem, St. Catherine’s Monastery was a regular destination for the classes that I taught.  We took a chartered bus to Sharm el Shekh, crossed through the border control, and on the other side met Bedouin who drove us across the trackless expanse to the southern tip of the Sinai Desert.  There we visited the monastery; climbed Mount Sinai at three in the morning; and celebrated Eucharist on the way back down.  The return trip to Jerusalem, like the one on our way down, was a long one and it required an overnight stop.

It will sound strange, but our favorite respite from the trip was a small motel called “Sallyland,” located on the Gulf of Aqaba.  The owner was from Chicago and had named the establishment after his wife, Sally.

When we arrived the first time the owner apologized repeatedly for the absence of TVs and mini-bars in the rooms.  We didn’t miss either one.  Frankly, we were thankful for beds and clean sheets.  But the apology struck me as odd.  So I finally asked why, if he felt badly about it, the rooms didn’t have both.

“We did, at one time,” he explained, “but fundamentalist Muslims from Cairo would hide out here for days on end, drinking heavily and watching television with the volume turned all the way up.  It disturbed our other guests and eventually drove them off.  So we took both the bars and the TVs out of the rooms.”

It was one of many experiences over the years that have taught me these truths:

  • There is no worldview or religion without its fundamentalists.

  • There is no fundamentalism without hypocrisy.

  • And every creed and conviction has its fundamentalists and hypocrites.

Fundamentalism is not the product of a single religion or worldview.  It is one of two poles.  A place where opinion and passion constellates around a distilled and oversimplified version of a creed — just as the same passion and opinion constellates around its rejection at the other end of the spectrum.

  • Muslims at Sallyland —
  • Christopher Hitchens, fundamentalist to atheists —
  • Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Christian —

Name a religion, life philosophy, or political point of view and you will find fundamentalists left and right.  People are drawn to it or repelled by it.  For some it constitutes the purest expression of a tradition, for others it represents the best reason for rejecting it.

The troubling truth is that those who connect with a faith in ways that are passionate, without being fundamentalist, are few and far between.   Passion too often resides at the extremes.  Far too many people who lived in the middle are simply disaffected.  But it is that passionate balance that is needed.

Find it.

Nurture it.

Live from it.

No More Random Acts of Kindness

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Traffic jams force you to pay attention to the back of the car just ahead of you and after years of attending to the philosophical and political commitments of other drivers, I’ve concluded that not all bumper sticker wisdom finally wears well.

One of the widespread bits of wisdom that doesn’t wear well from a Christian point of view is the one that urges the reader to practice random acts of kindness.  Of course, being kind is not a bad thing.  And the great strength of the invitation is the freedom and surprise of such behavior implied in the word “random.”  I am sure that at least some of what made this bit of bumper sticker morality attractive was that it leaves us in control and it allows us to be a surprise to others.  That tracks well with the culture in which we have been reared.

Christian kindness, however, is not supposed to be “random.”  It’s not even clear that the word “kindness” is really the central virtue of the Christian faith.

In fact, it isn’t even easy to convey the central virtue of the Christian faith any longer.  The Latin for it is caritas and that word has been variously translated “charity” and “love.”  But both words have fallen on hard times in the English language.

Charity often means little more than “hand out” and love has degenerated into something amounting to not much more than “affection.”  By contrast, caritas is rooted in a different way of seeing the world that is rooted in an unqualified passion for God and for seeing the world as God sees it.  The dignity, care, and love that is characteristic of caritas is rooted in the conviction that we are all the children of God, equally wonderful, equally in need of God’s grace.

Caritas doesn’t give, nor is it affectionate in a random fashion.  It calls for much more and it calls for it consistently, because it is rooted in a fundamentally different way of seeing life.  Random has nothing to do with it, because it’s not about the act of kindness, it’s about a fundamentally different way of being and seeing.

Beware of bumper sticker theology.  There are times when it just doesn’t say enough.

What Steve Jobs Can Teach Us

Monday, January 24th, 2011

New Column:

Here temporarily

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Once, while the great Jewish sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked him:  “How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?”  The man answered that it would require 70 years.  Honi asked:  “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”  The man answered:  “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me.  So, too, will I plant for my children.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a)

The Jewish and Christian traditions demand attention to the present.  But both are also spiritual traditions grounded in the goodness of creation.

For that reason, Judaism and Christianity are deeply shaped by a sense of indebtedness to the past and responsibility for the future.  We are here temporarily, but we are part of the much larger work of God and of generations past and future.  That awareness should ground us and motivate us to think about our lives in much larger ways.

There is a lot of talk today about finding meaningful relationships and work.  But if sociologists are right, that quest is often conducted in narrow ways that are about the tight confines of our individual lives.  How would your quest change if you grasped the fact that you are here temporarily and the meaning of your life depends upon the degree to which it is grounded in the lives of those who were here before you and those who will be here when you are gone?

Hitting a religious nerve

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

In a recent column written for the Washington Post, I commented on religious displays in public spaces.  As is the case with articles of that kind, the Post went for a title that would match other contributions to the symposium that they were featuring.  Their title for the article was “The Scandal of Atheist Campaigns against Christmas” and, predictably, it attracted a different audience.

The change in title was a bit unfortunate, because I’m not sure that there is a campaign against Christmas.  That’s not what I argued.  And, even if there is a campaign of sorts, I am not the least bit worried about it.  The bigger challenge facing the church is not atheism or agnosticism, it’s the church’s own failure to believe deeply what it teaches at Christmas — and a fair bit of sloppy thinking about what that teaching even is.

But the visceral, vicious, and — at times — vulgar remarks made by some (not all) of the people who identified themselves as atheists did surprise me.  So, I learned a few things about the American spiritual landscape.

One, conversations about atheism hits a religious nerve with some atheists and agnostics.

Two, some atheists and agnostics are just as religious about being agnostic or atheist as religious people can be.

Three, for all their protests that religion is a purveyor of animosity, evidently, atheists and agnostics can be just as rude and dismissive as religious people can be.

A colleague of mine noted that it reminded him of a bumper sticker he saw once: “Militant Agnostic on Board: I don’t know AND YOU DON’T KNOW EITHER!”)

So, what’s going on in the American spiritual landscape that includes militant atheists and agnostics?

A few observations:

One, there is a religious narrative of sorts imbedded in the atheist and agnostic position:  There is no God.  Science will eventually not only describe what goes on around us, but will explain it all.  This journey will yield a rational world free of the violence and prejudice that plague our planet thanks to religious superstition.  Christianity is the most evil religion that ever existed.  And, although we are here by accident, we can live a meaningful, moral existence before we expire and our consciousness evaporates.

Two, people do not necessarily become atheists or agnostics for entirely rational reasons.  Some do, perhaps, but as the word “atheist” implies — some arrive at their position in large part out of a reaction against religion.  So, you can hit a religious nerve trying to talk to an atheist or agnostic — because they are evangelists for a point of view.  In fact, one of the things that I discovered is that at least a few of them consider themselves the vanguard of a loose coalition devoted to the destruction of religion.

So here are questions to consider:

Can we really believe that violence and prejudice are traceable almost solely to religious belief?

Can we really believe that atheism and agnosticism are positions that are singularly more rational than the positions taken by people who are religious?  Isn’t the assertion that we will know that there isn’t anything beyond our descriptive powers — in other words, proof of a negative — as much a faith-statement as is the assertion that there is a god?

Can we really believe that atheists and agnostics are less prone to narrow-mindedness, bigotry, arrogance, or the violence than are religious people?

Can science really free us?  Is it free of ideology, agendas, and the potential for abuse?  Can science really be explanatory as well as descriptive?

What is a meaningful existence?  If we are here by accident and we are all bound for extinction, what are the limits to a meaningful existence in a world without God?  What’s more, why should anyone feel bound by those limits?

Can we really be as confident (as some atheists and agnostics seem to be) that we would be better off in a world without Jesus, St. Francis, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Elie Wiesel, Confucius, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rumi, The Right Reverend Oscar Romero, Krishna, Moses, Ghandi, and countless others who have attributed the shape of their lives and the contributions they have made to a belief in God?

More on differing without damning

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Thoughtful responses to:

Some of them have been side bar conversations.  Reflecting on our inability to talk civilly with one another, one colleague observed: “I had a friend who used to say, fix the problem, not the blame, but the problems are way out of our individual leagues to fix…so hard and so true.”

I think that she is right.  There are times when progress is unlikely.  In those moments all we have to go on is the obligation to try.

Fundamentally Wrong

Monday, November 8th, 2010

This week’s column is now live at:

Eating as Affirmation

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, “The heart of all Jewish festivals can be summed up like this: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

Eating as affirmation: Affirmation of God’s goodness, affirmation of life, affirmation of life’s goodness.

Small wonder, then, that festivals and eating are so much a part of religious celebrations and small wonder that heaven is portrayed as a banquet.

Invite your friends and family into your home, cook a meal, share your table.  There is no need to worry about your culinary skills.  More than one great religious festival in the Jewish tradition was eaten on the run without a lot of time for preparation.

What is important is the affirmation at the heart of it all.