Saturday, January 19, 2013

Spirituality, Secular and Religious


I attended a workshop not long ago that was held at one of our local hospitals on the relationship of emotional intelligence to the spiritual well being of patients and care givers.  It was aimed with a double edged sword at medical personnel, therapists, pastors, chaplains, and others for whom the emotional and spiritual well being of patients/clients is important.  One edge was to help them sharpen their understanding of what patient/client care means.  The other edge was to help them hone their understanding of what is essential for their own self care.  For what it’s worth, it was the second workshop I’ve attended that was presented by Dr. Paul Crampton of the Adventist Health Care System, and he is not to be missed if he’s in your area.  He’s an outstanding teacher whose broad understanding of science and theology reaches far beyond denominational lines.  

Crampton spent the majority of his time guiding the audience through the practical application of Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman, et al.) to self care and care of others, but he began and ended with tying it to the spiritual dimensions of emotional and physical health care in and out of the hospital setting.

There was one problem, not with him, but with some in the audience.  When asked by him about the importance of spirituality in their lives and work, the several who responded equated spirituality with religion and prayer from a personal Christian perspective.  There was nothing wrong with that.  Spirituality is very personal, and we Christians should not be shy about claiming the Christian spirituality that nourishes us in essential ways.  But I understood these several persons to equate their understanding of spirituality to be exclusive as to what is, or should be, normative for both the workplace and greater community.  It reminded me of voices lamenting that we are no longer the Christian nation that we once were, something with which I have little sympathy.

It revealed a narrow definition of spirituality, and missed several important characteristics of it.  The first, and most obvious, is the large population who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  We can’t just toss them off with a “pffft” and dismissive wave of the hand.  Those people are our patients, clients, and sometimes the strangers checking out our churches.  The second is the growing number of us who may be religious, but not Christian.  The third, and the one I want to explore a bit, is the ambiguity of the word spirituality itself. 

After four decades of observing a wide variety of workplace cultures, I’m convinced that almost every regular gathering of persons has a spiritual dimension.  The spirituality of a workplace, for instance, is how the cultural ethos of the group is expressed.  There is something in the air, so to speak, that cannot be defined by any management or sociological measure, but is sometimes captured by writers and poets.  If I’m right, spirituality is ubiquitous, and, however personal we claim it to be, its origins are social.  Even hermits discover the core of what spirituality means to them in social situations.  St. Antony of the Desert, or, more recently, Thomas Merton, being cases in point; their profound spirituality may have matured in the desert or hermitage, but it had its origins in the spirituality of corporate worship, and they were compelled to return to society to share what they had learned. The point is that spirituality has deep social roots, and most any regular social gathering (including work) has a spiritual dimension to it.

Moreover, this spirit of the group can be said to be acted out by rites and rituals not found in any policy or procedure manual, yet is well understood by most who are part of the group.  It is, in a sense, the religion of the place.  Spirituality is always present in every regular group, but it is not always religious in our normal way of thinking about religion.  I doubt if the firefighters with whom I minister would ever think of the corporate spirituality they share as a religion, but each shift has exudes a certain spirit that makes it different from the others, and part of that spirit is acted out in rituals that have a strong liturgical flavor, so that it becomes a sort of secular religion: a religion without overt mention of God or the sacred, and yet it speaks to something deeply spiritual.  

I think we too often assume that spirituality is a good thing to be encouraged.  I’m not so sure.  Spirituality, whether secular or sacred, can be positive or negative, tending toward healthy or toxic environments.  Think of the cult movie “Office Space” as an example of a toxic spirituality and the Errol Flynn version of “Robin Hood” as a healthy spirituality.  If you are too young for an Errol Flynn movie, try most any episode of Star Trek.  I’ve used the movie “The Caine Mutiny” in management training as an example of the psychology of workplace dynamics, but in recent years have also seen it as an exploration of spirituality that lurches between healthy and toxic, with Lt. Greenwald’s (Jose Ferrer) final speech as the prophetic utterance of sacred truth.

What that means is that when talking about spirituality, we need to be more precise in defining the dimensions of it.  Otherwise we are tempted to assume that what spirituality means to us is what it means to others.  We cannot assume that some people are not spiritual because they don’t share our religion.  We cannot assume that some people are not religious because they claim to be so.  And we certainly cannot assume that the religious spirituality of another faith tradition is more or less like ours, just expressed in a slightly different way.  

If spirituality is important to patient/client care, and I think it is, then care givers need to explore a bit to discover how a patient/client expresses his or her spirituality, and that may take some patience because the word spiritual is loaded with assumed meaning.  

A patient/client who lives most of his or her time in a healthy spiritual environment provides a base from which to begin integrating that spirituality into their emotional and physical well being.  As a Christian pastor and chaplain I have no reservations about building on that healthy spiritual environment to introduce God into the conversation, not as a means to evangelize, but as a matter of full disclosure.

A patient/client who lives most of his or her time in a toxic spiritual environment provides a challenge that may be impossible to overcome in the short time given for pastoral care as a chaplain, but at least the few moments of time together can be an example of what a healthy spiritual environment can look like. 

NPR ran a series not long ago on young people in D.C. area who have turned away from religion, and even from any admission to being spiritual.  Almost all of them expressed a form of gentle envy of those whose religious spirituality helped them cope with life.  Most of them were unaware of prayer that was not a grown up version of sitting on Santa’s lap asking for things, or of prayer that was other than just talking to themselves.  Apart from my firefighters, the people I deal with are not bright young adults from D.C.. More likely they are in emotional turmoil, poor, not that well educated, and relatively unsophisticated.  Whether young urbanites from D.C. or the poor and troubled from a small rural city, they are the ones coming through the E.R. doors, sitting with folded arms in the back of the church, and seeking non-psychiatric help from pastoral counselors and chaplains.  Whether they say it or not, they are spiritual.  They have and practice a spirituality.  Any meaningful conversation about that has to start from where they are rather than from where we are.  We cannot know where they are if we don’t ask and listen non-judgmentally, and yet from our own places of healthy spirituality, which, as Christians must be well grounded in the sacred soil of our religious traditions.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is the God of Love a Doormat?


Some years ago I wrote a newspaper column in which I asserted that scripture contains a progressive unveiling of God that finally achieves its fullness in Jesus Christ.  At each step along the way God incrementally pushed human understanding in two directions: toward greater inclusiveness and greater love.

I was soundly beat upon the head and shoulders by an irate pastor’s letter to the editor who chastised me for suggesting that each word in the bible was not equally true and valid with every other word and for all times.  There is nothing about progressive revelation in the bible, he said.  To suggest such a thing is to deny the inerrancy of scripture, an apostasy not to be tolerated.  There wasn’t much point in arguing with him on the pages of the local paper, and we never crossed paths for any face to face conversation.  But he wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the idea.

Members of my congregation also had their doubts.  It was during the advent of the gay issues that challenged many to take a hard look at who they would allow in and who they would keep out of their circle of acceptable others.  Surely God’s push toward inclusiveness had limits.  To be sure, we had broken down the walls that kept out people of other races and cultures, but we tended to replace them with attractive fences that one had to climb over to get in (You can come in if you promise to be just like us).  We denied it of course, but the guilt that haunted the recesses of our minds did not let us get away with it.  After all, hadn’t we recognized the legitimate ministry of women?  What more could you want?  I’m pleased to say that our congregation had the courage to make dramatic strides against the tide of beliefs held life long, but it’s not over.

Inclusiveness is all well and good as long as it’s about including Christians, and people who want to be Christians, in a society that is nominally Christian, at least in the minds of those who remember a former time that never really existed.  How can one become more inclusive in a pluralistic society where many do not want to be included for some pretty darn good reasons?  How can Christians be inclusive among people who believe that Christians are exclusive, bigoted, and superstitious?  And, parenthetically, so are the hard core believers in every other religion.  Just look around the world and see who the violent agents of despotism are: religious fanatics.  Include  me out!

Following God toward greater inclusiveness is not an easy path, but God never said it would be.

Following God toward greater love has it’s own obstacles.  I was frequently challenged in my adult Christian education classes by tough minded people, mostly men, who equated greater love with passive submission.  Either you stood up for yourself and defended what was yours, by force if necessary, or you became a doormat to be tromped on and over by anyone and everyone.  It’s one way or the other.  To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior was a wonderful thing.  Everyone should do it.  But to follow Jesus’ teaching and example by turning the other cheek, defeating evil with good, or giving up your life without a fight, that was just plain crazy.  Too much love makes one a pansy.  Be careful who you love, and don’t do too much of it. 

We are called by God in Christ Jesus to be profligate in our love for others, as hard as that may be, but the progressive unveiling toward greater love found in scripture is more about God’s self revelation about God’s self.  As God, especially through Christ, reveals a more and more powerful, unlimited love for creation, the echoes of God as angry, wrathful and vengeful recede farther into the background.  Oddly enough, some people don’t want to give up on those images of God.  The pastor who chastised me didn’t.  An angry, wrathful God is what kept Christians in line: scared the hell out of them, kept them fearful about getting into heaven, and, therefore, made them more committed to trying to be a good Christian.  That logic eludes me, but I’ve discovered an abundance of it buried in the minds of some of my own parishioners. 

The flip side of that are those who have made the God of unlimited love into a lovable puppy dog or teddybear.  In other words, they have done to God exactly what my tough minded men have claimed.  Either you stand up and fight or become a doormat, and they have made God into a doormat: a very nice one certainly, it even says welcome on it.  Just wipe the mud off your feet and come on in.

That is not the God of love revealed in scripture, but it is what happens when we interpret God in our own image.  That, I think, is what has happened over the centuries and is faithfully recorded in scripture.

Whether we are or not, God is inclusive and God is love.  How we progress in our understanding of that remains to be seen.  What is clear is that we have a long way to go and are very slowly making progress, so slow that it’s sometimes hard to measure. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Customer Quicksand


You may have seen the recent article about the musician whose vintage guitar was destroyed by the Delta Airlines baggage handling system.  His attempts to contact Delta about it were simply disregarded.  They vanished into the quicksand of the corporate bog without a trace.  There is nothing like being ignored to enhance customer satisfaction.  Almost as bad is to receive a computer generated response that makes it abundantly clear that your letter, email or phone call was sorted into slot A to be answered by response B.

The story ended well for Mr. Schneider, the musician in question.  He received apologies and compensation from Delta, but only after the event became well publicized on the Internet.  In other words, only after the matter ceased to be just another customer annoyance and became an issue of corporate image damage control.  It should not have to be that way.  Events should not have to escalate to viral status on the Internet before they generate a response that bears the mark of understanding authenticity.

It would not be fair to dump on Delta Airlines alone for the corporate sin of disregard of the individual in favor of aggregate numbers defining performance in the market place, which are likely to skewed by staff to please or appease top management.  It’s a characteristic of most bureaucracies, and an organization does not have to be all that large to behave bureaucratically.  The matter is complicated by the advent of email, which makes it easy to dash off a quick note of complaint about some triviality that one would never send if it required the cost of a first class stamp.  Being flooded with them leads to dumping most into the disregard pile.  Government agencies, congressional offices, corporations, and even church organizations are guilty in equal measure.

The solution is a simple one, or should be.  Assuming that an organization is one of overall integrity, the course of daily business will always generate events that evoke some level of customer dissatisfaction.  The majority of them are predictable, mostly a function of the normal variation that occurs in the life of every system.  To be sure, some systems are sloppier and/or greedier than others, more tolerant of behavior that is likely to generate complaints.  But assuming that a particular organization has higher standards and tighter systems, the lowest level of staff possible should be fully authorized to respond with clear, honest communication and compensation if appropriate, on behalf of the entire organization, and trained and encouraged to do so.  Any event that falls outside the predictable majority should be quickly flagged and immediately attended to by whoever is designated to do so in the like manner.  Outliers demand at least some attention to see whether the “way we do things” needs to be changed.

Will that happen?  Probably not, except for temporary spurts engineered by the PR department, or some outside consultant, because the CEO publicly announced that he/she would see that something like this “will never happen again.”  It's possibly the single dumbest thing that any CEO could say, but often does.  Parenthetically, the second dumbest thing is to treat every event as a unique requiring a unique solution.  That can only end up creating such a tangled mess of standards and procedures that the entire organization grinds to a slow, halting circular dance in which vertical motion is mistaken for forward progress (Churches are especially prone to that).  The third dumbest thing is to be paralyzed by paranoid nitpickers in the legal department.

Will we cease doing these three dumbest things?  Probably not.  Why abandon what we do so well, and for which we are so richly rewarded by the executive compensation system?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Geeks and Holy Mystery


A lasting contribution to our way of life, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, has been the popular assumption that all things can be explained by reason, if not now then soon.  It’s made living comfortably with holy mystery a bit of a problem.  Reason cannot make much of a dent in holy mystery, and so it has not had a lot of credence with many believers.  It’s tended to be put in the closet along with “ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.”  The result has been that serious conversation in the congregation about the work of the Holy Spirit has been hard to come by.  It’s been substituted with often heartfelt, almost magical, belief in the Holy Spirit as something between a benevolent genie and the agency of baptism that slays human souls or unleashes babbling tongues for which sophisticated Christians have no time.

We are, at last, entering an era when it is again possible to have serious conversations with ordinary members of our congregations about holy mystery and the Holy Spirit because they have a new frame of reference in which that conversation begins to make sense.  I’m talking about smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, and the Internet.  I know there are Dilbert-like geeks for whom there is no mystery in these things, and I know that ten year olds are proficient in all aspects of their use, but the fact remains that, for most of us, it’s all a mystery, and we are satisfied to live in it’s company.

It’s a little spooky that Siri always knows where I am, that all the controls on my car are run through a computer before anything happens, that I can have face to face conversations with friends and family living in distant countries, that I can get cash out of an ATM in a remote village in Italy, that even my stove and refrigerator have micro-processors managing operations.  A woman sitting near us in a restaurant announced to her friend that she loved her new tablet.  She didn’t understand it.   She just kept pushing buttons and new things happened, but how it all worked was a complete mystery, a mystery she was happy to live with.  

The ubiquity of electronic gizmos and applications, in all their mystery, that must be embraced, happily or unhappily, for modern life to exist has made it possible to reintroduce the concept of holy mystery and the work of the Holy Spirit to an audience that is no longer so resistant.  It’s not that God becomes the big geek in the sky, but that the idea of living in an environment in which we are surrounded by that which we use and depend on but do not understand provides an opportunity to guide toward a new discovery of the wholly otherness of God in the mystery of the Holy Spirit that is both with us and for us in ways that we may not understand, but are yet more essential to life than anything that can be dreamed up for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. 

Take advantage of it before the whole thing crashes.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Educational Career


I learned to tie my shoes shortly before I entered kindergarten.  It wasn’t an admissions requirement.  More a matter of pride.  No one wanted to be the boy who had to ask the teacher to tie his shoes.  Girls, for the most part, didn’t have to worry about it.  They wore funny little slipper type shoes with a buckle strap to hold them on.  The thing is, it was about then that my education began the bumpy ride it was to be for the rest of my life.  Apparently I did not learn how to tie my shoes so that they would not become untied.  Now, as I complete my seventieth year, my tie up shoes remain, as they have for much of the last sixty-five years, in the constant process of becoming untied. 

I only solved the problem once, and that was with a pair of Topsiders.  Once they were neatly tied in just the right way, I superglued the bows.  I might do that again with the pair I now have.  A more successful strategy has been to avoid tie up shoes altogether.  Thus my life long preference since kindergarten has been loafers, not counting the years in which engineer or cowboy boots were in.  Loafers come in every style to suit every time and event, and I’ve owned them all.  My favorite is the traditional preppy penny loafer, my trademark footwear.  I still have a few pairs of tie up shoes, but they are the bane of my life.  Thankfully, they are relegated now to sneakers and hiking boots, both of which have it in for me. 

What I’ve noticed the last few years is that more of the men my age, who did learn how to tie their shoes so that they wouldn’t become untied, have converted to something less demanding than digital bow tying dexterity while bending over to reach the floor.  They’ve opted for ridiculous looking old man shoes bound to their feet with Velcro.  Some of them still have trouble because it does require a degree of bending over and reaching down, but that’s another problem.  I will not go down that path, the path of Velcro bindings on old man shoes.  It’s loafers to the end.

But I digress, what this started out as was a brief essay on my bumpy educational career.  It’s true, it all began with shoe tying in kindergarten and the pattern seems to have followed me all the way.  I’ve entered each phase enthusiastically prepared to learn, but what I’ve learned tends to become untied and must be done over again and again.  Life long learning has been my discipline, partly to expand intellectual horizons, but partly to retie the lessons that once appeared securely laced up.  I wonder if my grandchildren, who appear confident that their very fine education is being laced up and securely tied, will have the same problem.  Probably not.  They’re girls, and got away with funny little slipper type shoes with a buckle strap to hold them on.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What is Your Faith?


What faith are you?  What faith community do you belong to?  Do you have a faith?

They are common questions about faith, but what does the word faith mean?  I’m not asking for a word study of its origins in the Greek or Hebrew texts.  I’m asking what it means in the ordinary sense of the word as we use it today.  As for me, I think it has two distinct meanings that work in parallel with each other, or should.

There is faith as belief, and there is faith as trust.  Faith as belief is what we proclaim in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.  Faith as belief is what some of us, if old enough, were supposed to memorize from the catechism.  Faith as belief is what is argued in the records of synods councils, and tomes of systematic theology.  I think that is what most people mean when they ask about someone’s faith; What are the doctrines that define what you believe about God?  Perhaps there was a time when saying that we were Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic was a shorthand, but well understood, way to explain what we believed.  I’m not sure.  That’s certainly not the case today.  Today it means little more than that we like something at church A better than church B without the slightest understanding or care of how they differ in doctrine.

Faith as trust is quite different.  Consider Abraham for instance.  He had no faith as belief, only as trust.  He had no doctrine of God, no creed to guide him, no catechism to teach him, no church to attend, and no pastor to turn to.  Whatever faith as belief he had was in the gods of Mesopotamia, and he had left them behind.  What he did have was faith as trust in the invisible God who spoke to him, calling him to journey forth, and promising that he would be the ancestor of nations.  It is also what the Epiphany stories of Matthew’s gospel are about.  Joseph could not possibly have had faith as belief to guide him as he took Mary to be his wife.  He could only trust in the words of the angelic messenger.  The wise men, by tradition, were foreigners to the Jewish faith as belief.  They could only trust in whatever it was that drew them to Bethlehem and led them home by a different way. 

My suspicion is that we need more of both in today’s world.  Most Christian are, I think, woefully ignorant about why they believe what they believe about God and humanity, and what they believe is sketchy at best, no matter how firmly it is held.  It leads to superstitious, magical, shallow, vapid kinds of faith as belief, bearing only the name and faint coloring of Christ.  Moreover, I have my doubts about faith as trust.  A good many of the folks I know who have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and who believe that God, who is, they say, in absolute control of everything, has a plan for them, are loathe to follow God in Christ without the assurance of their firearms and prudent qualms about their neighbors.  Like Luther before he discovered faith (as trust) through grace, they live in an untrustworthy world of demons and a wrathful god.

I’m a theologian.  Not a very good one, but a theologian nevertheless.  My passion is adult Christian education.  Faith as belief is important to me.  But on That Day, I believe I will be standing behind those who, like Abraham and Joseph, have walked in the way of faith as trust.  This Epiphany season maybe I’ll work on having more courage to walk into the unknown darkness trusting in the flickering light of a baby.