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Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 12:13 PM
On November 1, I began a new venture as a part-time interim pastor. In any new venture, there is a mixture of excitement and anxiety. This is a paradox of newness: even though we welcome it, we also fear it.
I feel a sense of excitement about being a pastor of a congregation again. It's been three and a half years since I served a congregation and I've missed things about being a pastor. The main thing I've missed is the closeness you can enjoy in a church community. I have also missed preaching regularly.
There are some anxieties as well. After three years will I remember how to preach a decent sermon? How will I juggle my other two jobs (teaching and writing)?
Will I be pushed out of my "comfort zone" and will I be able to grow from this? Will I be a good leader for this particular congregation?
I don't believe there is any way around the paradox of newness. In any new venture there are things to be excited about and things that can stir up our fears. Being human means accepting this paradox. Feeling excitement and anxiety are signs that we are alive!
Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 10:05 AM
I was watching a travel/cooking show last night and heard the phrase mise en place. Curious as to the meaning of this, I looked it up. It means, "putting in place" and refers to a chef getting everything ready before he or she begins to cook. All of the chopping, dicing and cutting needs to be done before a dish is assembled and cooked.
Just as it is in cooking, preparation is critical in life. Right now, I'm preparing syllabi for the three courses I'm teaching in the fall. Such preparation allows me to know what topics I'm going to cover and lets the students know what they need to read to be prepared for class.
Preparation is also important in the spiritual life. In the context of spirituality, preparation involves being open and receptive to the sacred dimension of life. How do we prepare ourselves to be receptive? One way is to have times of silence built into our daily schedules. Silence may be the best way to prepare ourselves to be open to the sacredness of the world around and the world within.
There are surely other ways of being prepared in a spiritual sense. Some prepare themselves by reading a sacred text or by reflecting on a specific concept or idea. I find that anticipation and expectation are important ways to be receptive to the spiritual dimension of life that continually surrounds us. We can find a connection with this dimension if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to perceive.
Monday, July 18, 2011, 11:56 AM
I recently returned from 8 days in Iceland. It's a place I've wanted to visit since I was 12 years old. My desire to see this unique place was inspired by Jules Verne's novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I saw the volcano across the bay from Reykjavik where Verne's characters began their decent into the earth's center.
Iceland is truly a place of fire and ice. There are 22 active volcanoes on this large island. In the past year, two eruptions have disrupted air travel in Europe because of volcanic ash. There are numerous glaciers as well, some of which are covering volcanoes. This means an eruption usually causes flooding and icebergs crashing into bridges and homes.
I was part of a group doing a 4-day trek through an area described as "Yellowstone on steroids." We hiked on ash-covered snow for the first two days and were treated to steam vents created by boiling water. The landscape reminded me of the prehistoric land in "The Land that Time Forgot." The photo above shows what I mean.
Fire and ice can also serve as metaphors for the spiritual life. At Pentecost, fire is a symbol for the indwelling of God's spirit. At times, we need the fiery energy that the spiritual life can supply, giving us the motivation and purpose to give ourselves to a cause greater than self.
While ice can symbolize the absence of God, it can also be a metaphor for non-reactivity and detachment. Buddhism has often been called a religion of "a cool head and a warm heart." This combination of fire and ice can be powerful. At times, we need detachment from those things that cause anxiety and stress; at other times, we need engagement in an important venture. In short, we need both fire and ice in our spiritual life.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 10:13 AM
I'm heading to Iceland on Friday for a week-long trek through a unique part of the earth called Laugavegur. This area in southeast Iceland has been described as "Yellowstone on steroids." It is characterized by geothermal activity such as geysers, hot springs, and volcanoes. It also features several glaciers. The photo above is from the official Iceland Tourism website.
When heading to a place I've never been, I have a sense of adventure and a feeling of anticipation. I feel open and alive to new possibilities and challenges. In Zen Buddhism there is a concept called "beginner's mind" (Shoshin). It refers to having a sense of openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when approaching a topic of study. Cultivating a beginner's mind toward all subjects, even those that are very familiar, fosters deeper engagement and learning.
I'm going to Iceland with a beginner's mind, even though I've read three books on this country and think I know what to expect. I want to be open and receptive to all that this amazing place has to offer.
However, a beginner's mind is good to cultivate no matter where we're going or what we're studying. A sense of approaching something for the first time helps us to not prejudge and, therefore, keeps things new and fresh.
Friday, June 17, 2011, 11:31 AM
A lively discussion occurred at my clergy study group this week over the concept of "sabbath." Sabbath, which means "rest," means taking an entire day of rest/worship/renewal once a week in Judaism. The Sabbath was instituted in Genesis 2:2-3 when God rested on the seventh day of creation and "hallowed" it.
The discussion focused on whether it is acceptable to take the one-day sabbath and break it into several mini-sabbaths throughout the week. Some argued that, in our fast-paced modern society this makes more sense because of the near impossibility of taking an entire day. Others argued that not taking an entire day undermined the purpose of the sabbath.
I understand both positions. Taking an entire sabbath day each week is ideal. If we have the will and discipline, we can make time for a sabbath day. However, the ideal is seldom achieved in life. For those who can't/won't/don't take a sabbath day, mini-sabbaths are an acceptable alternative.
What is a mini-sabbath? It is taking time out of a work day to pray or meditate. It is taking a walk or a bike ride. It is doing something that feeds one's soul. The key to mini-sabbaths is being intentional about making time for them. Writing an activity or time of rest on your calendar or day planner can serve as a reminder to take this sabbath time.
Sabbath time is holy time. The sacred dimension of life is not just available one day a week, but every day and every hour. When we connect with this holy dimension of life, our souls are renewed and we are better able to live the life to which God calls us.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011, 9:38 AM
Last week, I made my annual pilgrimage to Acadia National Park in Maine. I did four different hikes on this three day trip and each was amazing in its own way. What I love about Acadia is the dramatic vistas of ocean, mountain and forest. You can enjoy the thunderous collisions of waves against rock and also enjoy the quiet solitude of hiking through dense forest. The photo above is from the Acadia National Park website.
Hiking is one of my spiritual practices. By hiking in places of natural beauty, my soul is refreshed and renewed. However, a certain kind of awareness called "mindfulness" enhances the spiritual benefits of hiking (and other forms of activity, too). Mindfulness is being fully present in the present moment.
The key to hiking being a soulful experience is the attitude with which we do it. There are several ways to hike. A hike can be a race against other hikers where the goal is to finish as quickly as possible. A hike can become a time trial where the goal is to do your best time over a specific distance. A hike can also be done purely for exercise—to burn calories. A hike can also be done for spiritual nourishment.
When I hike mindfully, I am more aware of the natural beauty surrounding me. I notice the pattern of sunlight on the ground that filters through the branches of trees. I breathe in the musty forest air, rich with aromas of earth: decaying leaves, pine needles and evergreen cones. I look at the sky above the canopy of tree tops and marvel at the varying hues of blue and the puffy white clouds floating effortlessly. When hiking with this kind of awareness, I feel connected to the aliveness around me and feel more alert and alive within.
When it comes to spiritual practices, it's not so much what we do, but how we go about doing it. When we do something mindfully, we connect ourselves with what is holy, sacred and divine.
Monday, May 23, 2011, 11:52 AM
The media hoopla over Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end this past Saturday was both sad and silly. It's sad because there were people who totally bought into this date and quit their jobs, stopped paying bills and even sold their homes. It's silly because nobody can know when, how or if the world will end.
However, contemplating the end of the world is a human fascination. Biblical writers portrayed the world's end using apocalyptic poetry. To take these visions and images literally is to be guilty of a "misplaced literalism." When we try to describe the indescribable we are forced to use the symbolic language of metaphor. And, metaphors are open to a variety of interpretations.
Even though I believe that speculation about when or how the world will end is an exercise in futility, there is value in reflecting on the future. We all live toward some vision of the future. Is our vision one of hope or doom? How we view the future can make a great deal of difference in the present as it gives the present urgency and direction.
When it comes to the future, it's important to know what we can and can't control. We can control our own actions and how we take care of the earth we have been entrusted to care for as God's stewards. However, there is so much we can't control (i.e. the weather, natural disasters, astrological catastrophes).
I believe that Christianity presents a hopeful vision of the future. The world doesn't end in darkness and destruction, but is transformed into light and new life. Easter tells us that death is not the final word about us, but that resurrection and new life transform death.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 2:38 PM
I came across a new acronym while reading a New York Times article this morning: "Perma." Perma stands for: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. It was coined by Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of "positive psychology."
Dr. Seligman, who wrote "Authentic Happiness" in 2002, has since discovered that the concept of "happiness" is too limiting. He now is focusing on "well-being" or "flourishing." These words better capture the breadth of a fulfilling life. Well-being isn't tied to a particular feeling or mood (as happiness often is) but is "a combination of feeling good as well as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment," he writes.
I am in full agreement with Dr. Seligman. Happiness is a byproduct of being engaged in healthy relationships and doing meaningful work. We also need to be able to contribute to the good of others. While happiness is self-centered, well-being focuses more on making a positive difference in the lives of others.
For a full and fulfilling life, we not only need to be well, we also need to do good. When our life contains the five elements represented by "perma" the result is well-being. Even though this view doesn't mention spirituality, it is implied. Spirituality is a critical component of a well-lived life. The "tripod of spirituality" (humility, compassion and gratitude) I mentioned in my previous blog is important in well-being.
We were created by a Creator for a full and rich life that cannot be characterized by happiness alone. We were created for relationship, meaning, purpose and to serve a cause greater than self.
Friday, May 6, 2011, 5:00 PM
I'm in the last 2 weeks of my two World Religion courses. We've worked our way through Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's a lot to cover in a single semester.
At the end of the course, I ask my students, "What do these world religions have in common?" I get a wide range of answers: a commitment to peace, an ethical code, the Golden Rule and more.
My own view is that there are three spiritual values that can be found in all of the above religions. These are: compassion, humility and gratitude. I call these values, the "tripod" of spiritual life because they uphold and support it.
Compassion is the ability to not only empathize with another's pain, but to act in a compassionate way. Humility is the ability to see yourself as you truly are and to recognize your commonality with humanity. Gratitude is the ability to see all of life as a gift and to give thanks for this multitude of gifts.
It's impossible for me to comprehend a healthy spiritual life that lacks any of these values. Obviously, we can't perfectly embody these values. However, when it comes to the spiritual life, progress trumps perfection. To strive to internalize and to live by compassion, humility and gratitude is to live the best possible life. As the Dalai Lama once said, "The purpose of religion to make us better people."
Monday, April 25, 2011, 3:15 PM
Several of you have commented on my lack of blog posts for the past month or two. I could come up with a good excuse ("I took a blogging fast for Lent"). However, that would be untrue.
The truth is I've gotten out of the habit of regular blogging. Isn't it interesting that good habits are so hard to instill and so easy to break? It took me two months to become a 3-4 times a week blogger. I kept up that pace for nearly one and a half years.
How long did it take me to become an infrequent blogger? About one day. Once I got out of the habit, it became self-perpetuating. Each morning, instead of writing a blog, I started writing on a Bible study book that's due at the end of the summer. I need to write 4 pages/day to keep on schedule. After I finished writing, usually around noon, I convinced myself that I had already used up my creative energy for the day.
What happened to my blogging can happen in nearly any area of life. If we don't discipline ourselves to maintain good habits, they easily disappear. Since a virtue is a "habit of character," the consequences for lack of discipline in this area can be disastrous.
I'm committing myself to becoming more regular (at least once a week) in my blog posts. But, I may need to take another blogging fast from time to time. I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding. Come to think of it, patience and understanding are good habits to have. I'm glad I'm helping you instill them!