Lesser-known Heroes

I continue my subscription to Christian Century because there is always something special in every issue—something that makes me pause and think or maybe causes me to be a little more grateful. A lot of my blog posts had their roots in something I read in the magazine.

“Faith Matters” is a column that I always take a look at, and in the January 7, 2015, issue the column was entitled “Lesser-known Heroes.” It was written by M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary. His lofty title notwithstanding, Barnes was writing to recognize local pastors who not only do not usually have lofty titles, but are seldom celebrated. He reminds us that “there are many unpretentious, undistinguished pastors in the world who are quietly doing heroic things.”

And what is the main heroic thing these pastors do? Barnes tells us: these pastors go before their congregations, people often beaten up by the effort life can be, to remind them, “We have a Creator for our lives who is not done. We have a Redeemer for all of the tragedy we have created by acting as if we were gods. We have a Spirit who will not abandon us to the mess we’ve made of ourselves and the world.”

To be thus reminded has to be one of the highest reasons to attend local church services.

           

New Year—Reason to Reflect

We’ve just brought the New Year in, but this year I did not take part in any of the usual festivities. For example, we usually dance with the dogs at midnight, write in journals, watch fireworks, and otherwise take special note of the passing of one year into another. Not this year.

This year we were, instead, caught in the life-and-death reality of my partner’s illnesses.The crisis came on suddenly around five in the morning on December 31, continued all through the day, all through the night, and all through New Year’s Day to approximately eight in the evening, when she was finally again stabilized. In the night, I had been setting the alarm for every two and a half hours to get up to see how she was doing. (I should add that she adamantly refused to go to an ER.)

So where was the “everyday spirituality” practice here? It was in my continuous praying, of course. It was in my constant belief that the divine Spirit is always with us, seeing us through whatever trial we face. The health crisis was not my idea of how to welcome in a new year, but maybe it was ideal for causing us to stop and reflect on what it means to come into a new year.

           

Why Do You Pray?

The December issue of Christianity Today included a graphic entitled “Prayers of the People” that included 10 responses Protestants had given concerning their prayer life. The response with the highest percentage was “prayer for my own sin” – prayed for regularly by 51% of the respondents. Of course, you might have guessed that one, along with the 44% who pray for people in natural disasters.

But I found some surprises in the graphic. According to CT, 46% of people who pray actually pray for their enemies. Seems high but hopeful. Then, 20% pray to win the lottery, and that’s one number I would have thought might be higher, along with 11% for a favorite team to win a game, 9% to find a good parking spot, 7% to not get caught speeding, and 5% for someone’s relationship to end. Really?

I contrast this graphic with the introduction to a wonderful book entitled The Little Book of Prayers. The first sentence of the introduction asks this question: “How soon after humans stood upright and turned to the sky did they begin to pray?” Editor David Schiller poses the more commonly considered reasons to pray: to give thanks, to ask for answers, to receive, to give, for ask for help. Typical names for types of prayer include praise, petition, thanksgiving, and atonement.

Schiller offers another “universal quality” to prayer. I hadn’t thought that it was universal, but I hope it is. That is humility. He writes: “And in an age that could be characterized by its astonishing lack of humility, prayer offers a rare chance to put our inflated selves aside, and in the suddenly unburdened state that follows rediscover the things that really matter.”

Humility before God, regardless of the content of your prayer, seems like the surest way to build that crucial relationship.

           

Spiritual ADD

Several days ago I happened to catch a TV program featuring Kerry Shook, senior pastor of a congregation in Texas. Kerry is an excellent communicator, but what grabbed my attention was his topic: “Spiritual ADD.” I do not recall that he spoke to that topic at any length – most of the sermon time was given to a very effective presentation by his wife, Chris – but Kerry’s topic sparked my imagination.

These days it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t know that ADD means Attention Deficit Disorder or that key symptoms may include hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness. ADHD is another term used for it. In fact, the latest twist on the name is “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder predominantly inattentive (ADHD–PI).” I’m surprised anyone can pay attention long enough to get that entire name out! Depending on how broadly ADHD or ADD is defined, as much as 5% of the world population is believed to show symptoms of it.

Spiritual ADD likely affects a much higher percentage of the population. I would suggest that the key symptom is inattentiveness to one’s spiritual life. It would be easy to blame the technology available to us today and how devoted we all seem to be to keeping up with our electronic devices. But even though technological innovations surround us like never before, there is no greater reason now than ever to allow them to supplant the time and attention our spiritual lives require.

Unlike the usual types of ADD/ADHD, spiritual ADD has a cure. Spending a little time every day in silence, focused on your own inner self, inviting communion with the divine element within you is really all you need to do to resolve spiritual ADD. You can choose to use a zabuton cushion or a simple chair. You can choose to be indoors or outdoors. If you are really fortunate, you might even find a place like the one pictured here: a private bench at Meditation Mount near Ojai, California.

Make your spiritual life a priority; the rewards will astound you!

 

           

When Life Gets Away from You

On the first day of this month, my partner took a bad spill and ended up with a fractured radial bone in her left wrist. It took only one look at her arm to know that the break was a bad one and the bones would have to be set. We went immediately for X-rays, and the first doc who saw her was actually more concerned about the possibilities of concussion from the bump on the head than he was about the wrist. But the orthopedic surgeon could be dissuaded from surgery only when she learned about my partner’s five heart stents and the blood thinner she regularly takes.

So, purple was chosen for the cast color, and Christopher, who applied the cast, turned out also to be in charge of setting the broken bones. At the last possible minute before the cast turned to stone, he grasped the wrist and squeezed with all his might, expertly aligning the bones for healing.

Since then, I’ve been my partner’s left arm, helping with dressing, helping more with the dogs, doing more in the kitchen, doing her hair every morning and washing it every few days, etc. These may be labors of love, but they are labors nonetheless and they have pressed in on my available time for things like writing regular blog posts.

The question is: what do you do when life gets away from you. First, it’s a stretch to claim that my life has gotten away from me; I have simply become busier. But second, it’s been a good exercise in examining how to pursue everyday spirituality in situations like this one.

I’ve found that when patience seems to be in short supply, prayer is not. I am reminded every day that patience is Item #4 in the fruit of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control] (Galatians 5:22-23). These nine gifts are our birthright when we choose to be children of God, and it helps to bring them to the surface in our lives when we repeat the verses over and over from memory or reading aloud from Scripture.

My everyday spirituality has also been enhanced by continuing my meditation practice. When I sink into the chair to begin the twenty minutes of absolute quiet, I know that I know that all is well in my world.

This has been a painful break for my partner, and it hurts to see her in pain, even after more than two weeks. The cast will be on a while yet and if the pain is lessening, it is doing so at a very slow pace. Meanwhile, I can make it part of my everyday spirituality to look for and find the ways to be helpful.

           

The Meaning of Life

Ha! Bet you laughed when you saw that heading! But two “meaning of life” inputs came to me on the same day, so I had to give it a second look.

First, if you’ve looked into Ecclesiastes lately, you’ve seen Solomon declare over and over that everything is meaningless. Purported to be among the wisest ever to live, he spells it out so there can be no mistaking what he is saying: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc. 1:14)

This is the same book with the often-quoted section on “seasons”: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity.” But as to the level of meaning available to humans, Solomon concludes that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work.

The Buddhists may be a little ahead here, because they have realized that all this doing and striving that occupy the minds of humankind will not lead to contentment and peace. So what will?

The second input on this subject was a video clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson (known as an astrophysicist and science communicator) speaking to a group on the meaning of life. Tyson came at the subject from a different angle, a much more practical, hands-on model. He said that the meaning of life is not something you find and put into yourself. Rather, the “healthier” way to think of it is “the meaning of life is what I give it.”  Expounding on what that means, he said: “Any day I’m alive, I want to make sure I know more today than I did yesterday. And in tandem with that, at some level, I want to lessen the suffering of others.”

I found that a profoundly useful perspective.

           

Good and Faithful Servant

I went to a memorial service today that was held in honor of the husband of a friend of mine. I didn’t actually know the gentleman (I attended in support of my friend), but I was surprised to hear a long list of generous and thoughtful activities he had pursued in his long life to aid other people, especially people “on the fringe.” These activities were sometimes in his own community, sometimes in other countries.

On the front of the service bulletin was a picture of a cross adorned with three verses (Matthew 25:21, Philippians 2:17, and Hebrews 6:10) run together so that the message read: Well done, good and faithful servant … your faithful service is an offering to God. He will not forget  … how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers.”

It was an artful reminder of the two great commandments given in Matthew 22, instructing that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourself. Today all of us attending the memorial service had the blessing of seeing how those commandments might look in an ordinary contemporary life. It made me spend some time considering how they should look in mine.

           

The Value of a Good Book

The monthly newsletter for Parkplace Books, Kirkland, Washington, featured a quote from Oscar Wilde that I want to share:  “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Is that nothing more than a clever twisting of phrases? Or is there something worth thinking about here? I voted for the latter because of the inherent point about building character.

The various kinds of media engagement have impacts on who we are. Certainly films and songs and social media can affect us deeply, or can be simply passing entertainment. But generally a book requires a commitment of time, of living with one story or one point of view for some duration of time, and that is formative by nature. It subtly shapes the attitudes and outlook of the reader as it broadens his or her experience of life. This, in turn, alters who that person becomes.

There are all manner of books that we can choose to read, but what if we spend time every day (or at least very often) reading the Bible, even though we don’t have to? With no effort on the reader’s part, other than the simple act of reading, the messages, the themes, the guidance, the perspective, the promises of the Bible begin to shape who that person is, how that person thinks, and how that person reacts to life. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, it determines who that person will be when he or she can’t help it.

The next time you are choosing a book to read, maybe it would be wise to consider the kind of person you want to be.


           

Contemplation

After so many years of regular meditation, I can no longer imagine my life without it. On really busy mornings, it is the last thing I am likely to cut in order to get out the door on time. I have written before in these postings that of all the spiritual practices, this one has been the most vital and life-sustaining for me.

So, I was very interested in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Living Peace, a publication written and distributed by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, because the theme of the issue is “contemplative stance.” Contemplation is a form of meditation that focuses, usually, on the breath rather than on a mantra.

Of the articles in Living Peace, the one that most resonated with me was by Terrence J. Moran, CSJP-A. He wrote, “Contemplation is not another agenda item we add to an already overfull day. Rather, it is the wellspring that nourishes all our other activities. It is a choice we make to look at our life and our world in a particular way. It is a lens not a chore.” And in my experience, the nature of that wellspring is such profound peace that it changes the texture of everything else in your world.

Later Moran added: “The contemplative stance is not a matter of reading, workshops, ideas. It is a practice – daily, diligent, persevering even when results seem scanty.” This point is so important that I was surprised it was buried in the text rather than set off as a breakout quote. What makes meditation yield results is the dailyness of it, the regularity, the continuity of sitting in silence every day, regardless of whether you “go deep” or stay on the surface, whether your mind is beset with thoughts or as still as a frozen pond.

You could read about it, or go to a workshop to hear about it, or talk about it as an idea with someone else, but what makes contemplation work is actually doing it.

           

You Already Know More Than You Need to Know

Recently on Facebook, a friend posted this encapsulation of Biblical advice. It doesn’t have a title, but it includes several short lines that could serve: “It’s not rocket science” or “Just go do it.” I chose the final line because it’s a good reminder that we are all equipped and empowered for kindness and compassion. My friend who made the post is an ordained minister, but this advice is for all of us.

One of the most “Christian” individuals I have ever met described herself as an atheist. I met her on a trip years ago and no longer remember her name, but I remember the way she interacted with other people. Her mode of being was to be kind, to give of herself, to encourage others, to treat everyone with respect and courtesy, to constantly show love to the people she encountered.

You could reply that she was missing the important one “Worship God.” Matthew 22:37 says that Jesus emphasized two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The John Ortberg quote above pretty well captures those two commandments in language anyone can understand.

It appeared to me that the young woman I met on the trip had figured out how to live the second commandment. That seems like an excellent avenue for finding the way to the first commandment.