Monday, November 25, 2013

A Life of Gratitude Is More than a Prayer of Thanksgiving

I do not believe it is possible to live a thriving spiritual life without gratitude. By gratitude I mean a particular orientation toward life, a pervasive spirit that saturates our thinking and compels our doing.

Gratitude is a way of life that flows naturally from the awareness that all of life is gift, that all we have and are is due to divine grace.

A life of gratitude, therefore, should not be equated with expressions of thanksgiving that all too often arise from feelings of superiority, deservedness, and the delusional belief that we are self-made.

One might recall the barrage of opposition launched at President Obama when he pointed out that no one has succeeded in this life without some help.   

Some of you may recall the table-grace offered by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, Shenandoah. He prayed:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the   harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same for food we’re about to eat.

A prayer of thanksgiving? Sort of. A prayer naturally flowing out of a life of gratitude? Definitely not. No one would question that a healthy sense of independence is necessary for a healthy life, but too many people want to believe that all their good fortune is their own doing.

Some people are blind to a fundamental truth of our common humanity, namely, we need each other. We are all interdependent and interconnected, and this is true not just between human beings, but with all creation.

A grace-filled life would issue forth a much different prayer than the one prayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character. It would reflect an understanding that the health and physical ability to work the land, the growth of the seeds, the rain and sunshine, the fertility of the soil, and everything else—it’s all gift.

How much do we have as a result of opportunities that many are not given? How much is ours simply by the random turn of the wheel of life? Did we determine our mental and physical capacities wired into our genetic code? Did we pick our family of origin and have any control over our early childhood nurturing (or lack thereof)? Did we pick the time and place of our birth or the economic, political, religious, and social conditions of our environment?

Prayers of thanksgiving can easily be misinformed, misdirected, and miss the meaning of life as God intended. Like the religious leader who prayed in the parable told by Jesus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . . I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He felt he was one of God’s chosen. As Jesus made clear in the story, the spirit of thanksgiving that filled his heart was not of God.

A life of gratitude, on the other hand, sees our solidarity and union with all things. It accepts the responsibility of being our sister’s and brother’s keeper, as well as keeping and preserving our planet. We all belong to earth’s household and God wants all of his/her daughters and sons to enjoy a flourishing life.

Here is a better prayer to pray not just for Thanksgiving, but for every day of the year:

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms.
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.

(Brother David Steindl-Rast)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Am I? A Confession

The late William Sloan Coffin, when he was chaplain at Yale University, would sometimes ask students, “Who tells you who you are?” Coffin knew all too well the power of higher education to tell students who they are.

I ask myself, “Who tells me who I am?” My greatest regret is that for a large part of my life my need to be somebody—to be successful, popular, and important—influenced so many of my decisions and controlled so much of my thought. My ego, attached to American ideals of success, determined who I was.

In high school, I strove to be a stand-out basketball player so I would be popular. I danced to the music of whatever tune would win me applause.

One Sunday in church, a girl from another high school attended my Sunday School class. Attracted to her, I asked her out and we started dating. She was not popular and I began to catch drift of rumors questioning my judgment. She was a good person—real and authentic; I was shallow and superficial, driven by ego.

Without any explanation or reason offered I simply stopped seeing her. In keeping with my propensity for conflict avoidance, I stopped calling, without any consideration of how this might hurt her. It wasn’t until I began a more enlightened spiritual journey in the second half of life that I felt any regret or guilt about my actions.

Now I like to say that if one doesn’t have any regrets, that person is either a rare breed of goodness and authenticity, or completely lacking in self-awareness and/or honesty.

I lacked self-awareness. I was blind to the way my false self with all its attachments to ego and addiction to prestige and prominence pervaded my attitudes, aspirations, and actions.

I regret the many times and ways I failed to appreciate my wife for the sacrifices she made so I could pursue my institutional church work and goals. I assumed that she would comply with my decisions and I did not adequately value the contributions and investments she made. And yet it was her partnership in the work that enabled me to succeed.

I convinced myself that I was doing all this for God, but so much of what I did was for the accolades of others and the advancement of my career. Religious leaders can easily be more delusional than their parishioners.

I now mourn my egocentricity and lack of awareness. I am grateful, however, that I experienced something of a conversion. I cannot tell you when it happened, but at some point I decided that the pursuit of popular applause was meaningless. I began to see how destructive to my true self and harmful to others my self-centered pursuit of recognition had been.

I am glad that I am now on a journey to be more real, true, honest, and aware—aware that I am nothing but “a little shit,” but a little shit loved unconditionally by God and by family and friends. My awareness that I do not deserve this is humbling.

I love the dinner scene in the move, As Good as it Gets, where Carol (Helen Hunt) becomes so upset with Melvin (Jack Nicholson) for his total insensitivity and unawareness that she gets up to leave. Melvin begs her to stay. She says, “Then pay me a compliment. I need one now.” This deeply flawed and neurotic man says, “Carol, you make me want to be a better man.” 

My hope and prayer is that the opinions of others will increasingly mean less and less, and I will be able to nurture this passion to become a better person—to love wastefully, to act graciously, to forgive magnanimously, and to live more honestly, humbly, and simply. Amen.

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For those interested in exploring a progressive Christian faith and spirituality I invite you to read my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls).

Monday, November 18, 2013

There Must Be More!

Sometimes deaths in communities come like waves. I am ready for the tide to turn. I have conducted too many funerals in too few days. The following is a story I love to share with families. I’m not sure where it originated. I got it from a minister who got it from a minister who got it from a minister.

Once there lived a colony of grubs at the bottom of a swamp. Ever so often a member of the community would feel the urge to swim to the surface of the water and then disappear, never to be seen again.

This confused and bewildered the others, and so one day they agreed that the next time one of them felt compelled to leave the colony, that one would return and share with the others what it was like above the surface of the water.

It wasn’t long before one felt the urge to depart. She swam to the surface and crawled out onto a lily pad and in the warmth of the sun went to sleep. As she slept the carapace of the little creature broke open, and out emerged this beautiful rainbow colored dragonfly.

She spread her wings and began to soar in the glory and brightness of this new world.

But thin a tinge of sadness came over her, for she remembered the promise she made to the others. She knew she could not go back to that place and they would not recognize her if she did. 

But the sadness quickly dissipated when she realized that they too would make the journey, they too would experience the glory.

The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul—that in death the immortal soul departs from the body. The Hebrews believed in resurrection—that in death both soul and body die and by an act of God the total person is raised to new life.

The early Jewish Messianic Christians certainly followed the Jewish tradition. I get the impression that many Christians today are uncertain whether they believe in immortality or resurrection.

Almost all religious traditions seem to intuit some form of life after death.

By instinct we seem to know that this life is too sorrowful and hurtful to be the whole story. Too many lives are tragically cut short, or deeply devastated by circumstances over which they had no control. We spiritually intuit that there must be more to long for and expect. Even those of us who have many advantages in this life die with unfinished business and the realization that our lives are not complete.

So what will life after death, life in “heaven,” life in that bright new world look like, feel like, be like?

It’s hard to imagine. 

I believe that life in that world will be a dynamic process of continued development and growth. No sitting around in mansions playing harps or basking in luxury.

Whatever the particulars, I feel confident there will be no end to our learning, exploring, risking, growing, working, playing, evolving—this is basic to our humanity.

Human reality at its best is one glorious adventure pervaded by grace and fueled by the need to share and spread the healing, transforming power of unconditional love.

A version of this blog appears on

For those interested in learning about a progressive approach to Christian faith and spirituality check out my book: Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know it alls)   The questions at the end of each reflection make this a great resource for reading and study groups.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Jesus Believed about Life after Death and Why it Matters

The only time in the Gospels where Jesus talks about life after death is in a response to a question by the Sadducees. They did not believe in life after death, so the question posed to Jesus is a loaded question. A woman had married seven brothers successively in obedience to the law of levirate marriage. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

The Jews who believed in life after death, like the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, not immortality. Many of the Greeks believed in immortality. They believed in a sharp distinction between soul and body. Some Greeks called the body the prison house of the soul. They believed that in death the soul doesn’t die, it simply departs the body.

In the Hebrew tradition, there is no separation of soul and body; soul and body are one. The immaterial is inseparably connected to the material in Hebrew thought. Therefore, they believed that when the body dies so does the soul, and then it takes an act of God to raise the total person. 

Jesus would have believed in resurrection. The teaching of resurrection is an affirmation of life in all its variety and diversity, both physical and spiritual.

It is also an affirmation of life now, not just in the future. One reason belief in resurrection arose in Jewish life was because of the need for vindication. They began to intuit that in order for God’s justice to prevail there must be more than life in this world.

So the doctrine of resurrection emerged in Jewish spiritual consciousness as an affirmation and vindication of those who lived in life affirming ways. They intuited that there must be something more.

Resurrection affirms that what we do now and how we live now is important, and that nothing we do for the good of others, no act of forgiveness, no act of mercy, no kind word or good deed, no courageous stand for justice, will ever be lost to God.

If I believe in resurrection, then, I should aspire to be faithful in loving God and loving neighbor. I should embody a life of forgiveness and work for peace. I should give myself for the good of others and live as a good steward and caretaker of this planet. I should embrace everything that heals, redeems, and enhances life now, because how I live matters.

In response to the loaded question of the Sadducees Jesus says: She will not be anyone’s wife because those who live in a resurrected state “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That kind of relationship, says Jesus, is not applicable to that state of existence.

I suspect that what Jesus is saying is that in the resurrected state we will be so much more at one with everything and everyone, we will live in such a unified field of reality, that the exclusive kind of oneness reserved for married couples in this world will no longer be necessary or appropriate. Our understanding and experience of family will be very different in that realm of existence.

I think that those who treat the teaching of resurrection as some sort of evacuation plan from this earth and use it to justify a lack of effort or sense of responsibility to care for this planet and work for a just world will have a lot to answer for. Every good teaching can be abused.

Death, of course, is inevitable. All things die: insects and humans, stars and galaxies. The process of creative transformation in this universe always involves death and rebirth. We must, then, learn how to embrace death as a part of the transformative process, and this is as true right now—spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally—as it will be later when we undergo physical death.

Putting off the old and putting on the new is an image that Paul uses to highlight the importance of dying to and letting go of those ways of thinking and living that keep us bound and addicted to the powers of death. There are some things we just have to die to in order to be open to new life experiences.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetypal pattern for our transformation both now and later.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Am I my mother's Son? A religious conversation

Once a month I visit with my mother who lives a couple of hours away. Typically, we talk for a couple of hours, I take her out to eat and we run some errands. Though I am a minister, spiritual teacher, and a writer, we rarely talk about religion. There is a reason for this.

On a recent visit, I took her a copy of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. I did this, as I have done with all my books, because she is my mother. And because I am her son, she reads them. She doesn’t read them quickly or easily, but she reads them.

She told me, “They’re deep.” What she really meant was, “How the hell did my son come to believe such nonsense?” She would never admit this. She would severely object to the way I just used “hell,” in her view a perfectly sound biblical teaching. I am joking, of course . . . kind of.

Our conversation turned toward the state of the world. Such a state signals for many conservative Christians that Jesus will soon return. She was reflecting, “I’m glad I am not going to be here. I am glad I will be caught up to heaven.” She asked me initially, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back soon?” Then, she remembered who she was talking to and rephrased the question rather tentatively, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back?” She did not appear too optimistic about my response.

Not really wanting to get into it I answered, “Well, I’m not sure what I believe about that.” She couldn’t understand how I could be unsure when it’s clearly in the Bible. It was time to jump in, no matter how cold the water.

I responded, “Well, the early Christians who wrote the New Testament also believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Paul told the unmarried people at Corinth to stay unmarried because he believed that the world as we know it was going to end soon (see 1 Cor. 7:27-31). It didn’t happen. They were wrong. Maybe they were wrong about the whole idea of Jesus returning.” At this point, I thought about doing an excursion into apocalyptic thought and imagery, but then came to my senses.

She said that the Bible cannot be wrong. I responded, “Sure it can. It has been wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. You can find support for genocide, for slavery, for female inferiority and subjugation to men—it’s all in the Bible.” I continued, “The Bible contains both transformative texts and oppressive texts. There are both wonderful and terrible texts in the Bible. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues.” She wasn’t buying it.

I asked, “Do you know any infallible human beings?” She most certainly didn’t—everyone she knew was full of flaws. I continued, “Fallible human beings wrote the Bible.” Her response was that God made sure that what these fallible human beings wrote was infallible truth. She couldn’t explain how that could be so, but she knew it was. 

Then she asked, “You don’t believe in hell do you?” Apparently this was something she wanted to ask me for some time and so she seized the moment.

“No, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place, but I do believe in judgment. Judgment, I believe, can be painful, though I think it is also hopeful. I believe in judgment the way I believe in a purifying fire that takes away all the dross and impurities. I believe in judgment the way I believe in the knife in the surgeon’s hands who wounds in order to heal.”

“But the Bible says . . .” And so we were back to the infallibility of the Bible which I knew would take us nowhere. So I asked, “Do you really believe a loving God would torture people?” She tried to defend God, as most Christians who believe in a literal hell do, by saying that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. “We are given a free will. People send themselves to hell.”

“Really, you believe that?” She did. I replied, “If there is a hell, who created it? If people end up in hell, surely it is because God has arranged things that way. If God knows that a person is evil and will always be evil and will never choose the good, couldn’t God just terminate that person’s existence? God wouldn’t have to torture them if God didn’t want to; after all, God is God right? Why would God do that? You wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t torture anyone. Are we more loving than God?”

She made a decision at that point not to try to reason her way through it. She said tersely, “It’s in the Bible and I believe it.” She also believes that God is a loving God. I encounter this frequently; people who believe in a literal hell and in a loving God are rarely open to consider how utterly unreasonable and contrary to common sense that appears.     

She just couldn’t understand how I could believe these things. I said, “Mom, you believe what you believe because that’s what you were taught. All the preachers and teachers you have ever trusted reinforced these beliefs. I use to believe all these things too, because that is what I was taught. These teachings were reinforced by friends, by professors and ministers I associated with, by the churches I belonged to. But there came a point in my life when I decided that I was going to pursue truth wherever truth could be found. So I am on a journey.”

She declared, “You could be wrong.”

“Sure, I could be wrong. So could you. I’m sure we are all wrong about a whole lot of things. I am very comfortable admitting that. But you don’t seem to be. Why do you think that is?” She couldn’t tell me.

This went on for a while, then she instructed, “When you preach my funeral, I want you to make it simple. Don’t preach all this other stuff.” I assured her, “I will make it simple.” I am assuming that “simple” is subject to interpretation.

Please understand that I love my mother. I tend to avoid religious conversations because this is typical of how it goes. However, I have some ground to hold a glimmer of hope. She knows what it is like to swim against the current.

In a conservative Southern Baptist church, my mother is a democrat. Before the 2012 election, it had become something of a sacred tradition in her Sunday School class to spend a few minutes bashing President Obama before beginning the lesson. She endured this for many weeks. Finally, she could take it no more. One Sunday she came out of the closet, “I’m a democrat and I voted for president Obama and will be voting for him again. Church is no place for partisan politics.” There are still a lot of elephants in the room, but now they make less noise.

If I write another book, I will give my mother a copy. She will read it, as difficult a task as that will be for her. And I hope that she might lock on to something that will give her the courage to risk the movement from knowing the right answers to asking the right questions. I wish for her the courage to think and move beyond the certitudes that she was taught and explore other possibilities. 

Thomas Merton captured it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not be clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”

Without the capacity to live and love the questions, a spiritual life becomes stagnant. We become stuck in a rut. Most of us don’t just fall into ruts, we dig them for ourselves. Then we curl up in them and settle in. There is no doubt that such places offer emotional security and comfort, but growth is sacrificed.

I wish for my mother and others like her the fortitude to confront their religious insecurities and fears, and to discover the Christian path as a journey into the mystery and wonder of a God too great and glorious to be encapsulated in a particular belief system.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Singing Acapella

The conference program said that just before the message the vocalist would sing accompanied by tape. She had rehearsed this song numerous times in preparation for this event and the time had now come. Confidently on stage she waited for the music to begin. The sound operator looked up and made some motions. The unthinkable had happened. The tape had malfunctioned, and he didn’t have a back up. She knew there was a decision to make. Either leave the stage rather awkwardly calling attention to the problem or sing the song without the music. Out of the silence, strong and sure, the vocalist sang unaccompanied by the sound track. 

Can we sing the song of faith without the music? The prophet Habakkuk faced such a dilemma. The prophet wants to know why God is silent when the wicked hem in the righteous and justice is perverted?

What do we do in those times when we cannot hear the music on account of the screams of violence or from the noise of our own fearful chatter and cries for help? What do we do when things don’t go as expected, when our plans get thwarted, our dreams dashed, when our questions and our prayers go unanswered, when circumstances entrap us in prisons of disappointment and bring us to the brink of despair? Do we give up on faith and say it was all a mistake, all an illusion, that we were just kidding ourselves to think that we ever heard the music at all?

We do what the prophet did. We learn to live by faith (2:4). Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that the righteous or just person is one who keeps God’s covenant, one who invests in the community, and is particularly attentive to the poor and needy.

Living by faith is not about getting our beliefs right, but about doing right things. It’s about being faithful to love God and love neighbor.

I like the way author Sara Miles has said this. Sara was raised an atheist, but for some reason wandered into an Episcopal church one day in San Francisco. She ate the bread and drank the wine and found that it somehow nourished her soul and quenched her thirst. She kept going back. She started a food pantry, right in the middle of their beautiful church sanctuary.

There are no forms to fill out. People come and choose what they want. The down-and-out, the addicted, the messed up, the homeless, all are welcome and all are treated with dignity. Sara and the other volunteers pray with those who want prayer, they listen and bless those who need a blessing. Those who come are considered part of their church community.

In her spiritual memoir titled, Take this Bread, she observed that what she learned about faith by directing and working in the pantry is that authentic faith is more about “orthopraxy” (right practice) than it is about “orthodoxy” (right belief).

She wrote, “I was hearing that what counted wasn’t fundamentalist theology or liberation or traditional or postmodern theology, it wasn’t denominations or creeds or rituals. It wasn’t liberal or conservative ideology. It was faith, working through love.” What mattered was faith working through love. 

How do we find the inner strength and power to be faithful when the music doesn’t play? We remember. In 3:2 as part of a song or psalm, the prophet begins by remembering: “O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work.” The prophet was part of a faith tradition that rehearsed God’s mighty works in times past. The prophet prays: “Renew them in our day, in our time make them known” (3:2).  His cry for help is based on an inherited tradition of God’s salvation.

Again and again in Scripture the people of God are told to remember God’s great creative and redemptive acts. This is what we do when we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember how God made God’s self known to us through Jesus of Nazareth and how Jesus poured out his life for us even unto death. We remember his faithfulness and we celebrate this great revelation of love.

We may not feel worthy—it doesn’t matter. We may not feel close to God; we may feel like God is distant—it doesn’t matter. We may not be able to see beyond our own disappointment or hear beyond the cries of our own pain—it doesn’t matter. When we come together and partake of the bread and cup we are remembering what God has done for us, how God has acted in and through Jesus Christ to draw us into relationship with God’s self and to show us how to love and care for one another.

We also wait in hope. Sometimes, all we can do is wait for the music to start again and that is never easy. I remember watching the comedy show “Hee Haw” with my grandmother when I was a kid and one of the comedy pieces I loved was where Doc Campbell was treating a patient who said something like, “What do I do Doc, I broke my are arm in two places?” And the Doc said, “Well, stay out of them places.” 

The prophet finds himself in a place he could not avoid. We all do. The prophet knows it will get worse before it gets better, but he believes there will come a day when God will make all things right. In 2:14 the prophet envisions a day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The life and words of the prophet inspire us to be faithful as we remember redemptive encounters and as we wait in hope. 

Any of us could find ourselves in a place of brokenness and suffering with no way out. It may be at the graveside of a loved one, or in the throes of some great tragedy, or in the grip of a debilitating illness, or in the ruins of financial collapse.

Can we sing acapella? Can we sing the song of faith without accompaniment? With the help of our sisters and brothers, with the prayers, support, and encouragement of our faith community, and with the abiding presence of the Sprit of Christ inspiring us to remember and to wait in hope, I believe we can.