Hope as a Practice

“Hope is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory.”

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett offers these words of wisdom as she introduces the final, soaring section entitled “Hope,” in her new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I see three aspects of her conversations with others about hope that apply directly to the cultural climate of our nation: resiliency, relationship, and how we go about looking at the world.

Tippett talks about resiliency as she considers where hope comes from and what fosters an attitude of hopefulness. Resilience contains the expectation of adversity. People who are resilient have been through difficulties, and know from experience that hardship will not defeat them. Their resilience is a fundamental aspect of their hope. It provides perspective and helps guard against cynicism and despair.

One of Tippett’s conversation partners is Brené Brown, whose research into the values and practices of people who live wholeheartedly are reshaping our ideas about strength and relationship. There is nothing mushy about how Brown understands hope. “Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.” In other words, resilience learned from experience, combined with a sense of community and the power of co-operative effort, give rise to hope.

Maria Popova is the force behind Brain Pickings, a wise and enlivening presence on the web. Her conversation with Tippett brings another key aspect to considering the source of hopefulness. Popova recalls William James saying “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shape my mind.” James’s observation has everything to do with how we see the world. We see what we are prepared to see. Popova goes on to say, “And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world…”

With this election season upon us, our nation has a specific context in which the commitment to hope matters. Resiliency, working together, and the ability to see clearly are needed for the future of our democracy.

Hope is not naïve optimism or myopic quietism. As Tippett states, in “the deaths of what we thought we knew” there is a possibility of rebirth. We can get to a better place together if we can remain courageous and “let our truest, hardest questions rise up in our midst.” Asking the hard questions that arise during hard times, with the humility that allows us “a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised,” is a way to move forward.

We must vote for our nation in this coming election. We must vote for the opportunity to work on problems together. We cannot allow despair to overthrow our ideals of shared government in favor of despotic anger and cynicism. We cannot fall for the dark illusion that “they,” whomever “they” may be, are responsible for all that is wrong. We must ask for clear-eyed vision, and work on the truest, hardest questions together.

There is only one responsible candidate for president in this election. If you can’t vote for Hillary, then consider it a vote against Donald Trump. Vote for the constitution, for our nation, and for the chance to work out our problems in a responsible way. Consider the practice of cultivating hope, not hate, and then vote with your heart.

And in case you missed it, consider this powerful message from Disciples minister, Rev. William Barber.

 

Connecting with the Beauty of the World

This week’s homework assignment for a class I’m teaching on creativity and spirituality is about connecting with the beauty of this world. It can be a stretch to manage that when news of the world’s violence is an assault on the psyche. The New York Times is talking about the need to limit our exposure to media; even the FBI is advocating taking deep breaths.

Daisies in Blue Glass

It may seem counter-intuitive to look for beauty in a time of such turmoil. But we need this life-affirming discipline now more than ever.

Beauty speaks to us of hope, of abundance, of a life force that endures. Beauty assures us, through an affirmation deeper than words, that being alive matters and that what we do has meaning. Acts of kindness, the grace of the natural world, and the perseverance of love and growth are places where I see the beautiful.

The Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue, spoke of beauty as that in the presence of which we feel more alive. I’ve written more about this kind of beauty as a guiding value here, and you can hear a conversation between Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue here.

The world is worth paying attention to. The part of it right in front of us is as important as any other. Considering that it is the realm in which we have some influence, our immediate environment is most important of all.

There is every reason to focus on the work that is in front of us, and to take refreshment in the beauty that presents itself every day. To move through the day open to perceiving beauty is to live with an open heart. Our world needs more of that.

 

Honestly Facing the Darkness

During the Festival of Faiths a few weeks ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor Mike McBride posed a question that remains with me. He asked: Where is it that we have gone wrong as a culture in our theological formation of people?

Three Streams


It’s an essential question, asking religion to take a long look at its own shadow. The church has come to be seen as condoning questionable ethical, spiritual, and moral conduct. And for those who reject religion because of the darkness in it, the question remains for other cultural institutions and for the individual: What dark part of ourselves are we being invited to bring into the light for healing?

At the heart of this life, our soul’s journey is supported by a deep foundation of compassion. At the base of everything that is, is love. Love gives us the courage to look into the darkness and compassion gives us the strength to bring it into the light. That’s how we find healing and wholeness.

I’m looking within, asking whether I have been part of feeding the darkness. I’m holding in mind what is required of me: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the presence of the divine source of all life. Asking about my part in the institutions of our culture is more difficult, as is finding my role in bringing about change. But if we currently have the system we have asked for, then let me be clear. I’m asking for change.

Let us keep before us the ideal of a culture where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

 

 

 

 

Encountering the Tarot

I recently took part in a Tarot workshop called “Exploring the Tarot – A Tool for Insight and Contemplation,” led by Brian Relph. I expected it to be an interesting intellectual exercise. The images on the cards have spoken to people for hundreds of years, and I looked forward to delving into their symbolic meanings. But the workshop turned out to be an experience not primarily of the head, but of the heart.

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

 

The images came to life as they addressed the ongoing concerns of the workshop participants. We considered the feelings that arose from looking at a card in response to questions such as “What phase of life am I in now, and what awareness would be helpful to me?” or “What supports me in meeting this particular challenge?” Wisdom and insight emerged from considering how the energy and meaning of a card intersected with a particular aspect of life.

Having worked extensively with dreams, exploring images from the Tarot felt somewhat familiar to me. It was noticing that these images sometimes turn up in dream work that inspired me to learn more about the Tarot. These shared archetypal images represent universal patterns of human existence across time and throughout the world. We manifest these archetypes in our individual lives, but each of us lives them out in our own unique ways. The meaning of a dream element, like the meaning of a Tarot image, comes from the intersection of the universal and the particular.

There is ancient Judeo-Christian precedent for seeing dreams as messages from the divine. In both the Old and New Testament, dreams are a way of receiving heavenly insight and guidance. While it may not be common these days for Christians to work dreams as part of their spiritual life, it is part of our spiritual lineage. Tarot, however, is an unfamiliar tool in the Christian theological world view. We may believe that divine wisdom is available all the time through prayer, but if that wisdom arrives in an unfamiliar way it is often seen as suspect. It’s simpler and easier to reject the unfamiliar.

Yet people of faith find many different ways of becoming ever more aware of and attuned to the divine. We rely on the spiritual structures we put in place to encounter the help and guidance that are available to us all the time. Some look for insight conveyed through scripture or in worship. Some invoke the help and protection of the saints, carrying a St. Christopher medal when traveling, for example. Wisdom visits us through signs in the natural world, or a book that suddenly calls for attention, or the sudden resonance within a conversation.

Working with the Tarot is another way of paying attention. It’s not about fortune-telling. This misconception about (or misuse of) the Tarot as if it were for predicting events is similar to a common misunderstanding about the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and others were not trying to foretell events that would occur hundreds of years into the future. They were speaking clearly and directly about Israel’s current situation. The prophets were able to do this because they were deeply connected to the wisdom of the divine, able to anticipate the outcome of Israel’s ongoing actions. Yet when later generations look back at their divinely inspired words for guidance, their insights are so keen they offer a lens for interpreting current-day experience and seem to anticipate future events.

In processing my experience of the Tarot with my spiritual director, he asked where I thought the wisdom was coming from, or what it was I encountered through working with the images. The best answer I have for the time being is that the archetypes depicted on the cards open the door to a wisdom that comes from deep within. Yet this insight originates beyond my individual experience; it taps into the universal experience that connects us all. It’s what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, or what is recognized in the greeting Namaste—the divine in me acknowledging the divine in you. It is the Source of all life, available in every moment, offering itself to us if we will just pay attention.

The Better Part

I have long wrestled with the story of Mary and Martha* in the gospel of Luke. In my reading, Martha is a worker; Mary is a listener. Martha is active; Mary is contemplative. As the two sisters host Jesus in their home, Martha is busy with the tasks of running a household while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet absorbing his teaching. Martha is angry about doing all the work herself, and insists that Jesus have Mary help out with the chores.

Mary and Martha with Jesus, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

I understand Martha. It takes work to keep a household or anything else running smoothly. Martha wants to offer the finest hospitality to this amazing teacher. Perhaps she would have liked to sit and listen, but it takes work to provide a clean bed and a good meal.

Jesus responds by speaking kindly to her, noticing that she is worried by many things, and offering a different perspective. He points out that the work she thinks is necessary is actually distracting her from what is most important. Whatever standard Martha is trying to meet, it isn’t set by Jesus. He wants her to know that she is made for more than the treadmill she has put herself on. Jesus didn’t show up just to add to her chores.

I understand Mary. She is drawn to the wisdom of this new teacher and the power of his presence. She sets aside her normal activities, recognizing that this is no ordinary guest, and gives him her full attention. Yet following her heart means not living up to others’ expectations for what she should be doing. It’s not easy to disappoint Martha, who doesn’t share Mary’s priorities, and lets Mary know that she’s not doing her part.

Mary and Martha in stained glass, St. Patrick's, Dublin

I have long wished the story would show Jesus inviting Martha to sit down and listen, then have everyone pitch in with the chores.

We all have mundane tasks to do. But it’s important to recognize what merits setting them aside. Jesus refuses to send Mary back to her usual tasks just as she is beginning to hear his life-changing teaching. Mary has chosen the better part, he tells Martha. Jesus doesn’t want us doing more chores, he wants us to be transformed.

Mary and Martha both live inside me. There’s nothing wrong with Martha wanting to get the job done. The world is in need of a great deal of work. But the world needs Martha to lend her strength and skill to the most important tasks. In a world of “shoulds,” how to discern what truly is the better part is a question always before us. We need Mary and her ability to recognize what is genuinely life-giving.

Carl Jung offers an insight regarding his patients’ growth that applies to the tension between Mary and Martha:

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. (as quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing)

We need both Mary and Martha, not in opposition but in a complementary partnership. We need a higher level of awareness that incorporates them both. I like to think of Martha spinning a cocoon, Mary yielding to the transformation that happens within it, and through the work of the Spirit, a new creation emerging into the world.

 

*The text of the story is brief, found in Luke 10:38-42. Here it is, in its entirety:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

Making Space in the Holiday Season

The vase where I keep my pens is a pleasure to use. Not only is it beautiful, it reminds me of the friend from whom it was a gift. And it keeps my pens from rolling away, or being buried under papers and books.

Vase of Pens

Yet I recently found myself finished using one of my favorite pens and placing it beside rather than in the vase, hoping it wouldn’t roll off the tabletop. The vase was jammed with writing implements I never use—pens with dried or blotchy ink that won’t improve with time—and there was no room for the one I truly cared about finding again when I needed it. It was a lot like having no pen holder at all.

It’s easy not to notice as trivial items encroach on limited space.  Because the change is gradual, it’s almost invisible. The same thing happens as our days, our conversations, our thoughts, grow cramped from holding too many unimportant things. Noticing that feeling of constriction is the first step in making a change. We need breathing room, space for something that would better serve.

I’m thinking about that welcome (and welcoming) space as the holidays draw near. I look forward to traditions that mark these days as special, set apart. Yet some years are so filled with events and obligations to wedge into the holiday calendar there’s scarcely time to simply enjoy the season.

Our lives are already full, and when we add in the seasonal celebrations it’s easy to jettison the things we need most—the chance to relax, have a conversation, take a walk, read something inspiring, make something beautiful, enjoy good music, to name a few—can be harder than ever to fit into the day.

For a variety of reasons, this holiday season will be different for my family from years past. Change is unsettling, but it also brings a sense of spaciousness. I want to be able to appreciate this particular year, this celebration, without imposing too many expectations from holidays past. Our psyches can become so crowded with old expectations we can hardly be present to what actually shows up.

Now, before the season begins, it’s a good time to consider what aspects of our celebrations we really care about, what helps us connect with something greater than ourselves, how we can best show our love, what gives this season meaning, and where in it we find beauty and light. Maybe it’s possible to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves to produce wonder and delight, and be more open to the real experience of it.

The darkness in the world weighs on all of us. We need the restoration, the healing, the renewal, that the holidays—the holy days—can bring. The best chance of experiencing those gifts is if we make room for them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion, Hospitality, and Beauty

At the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville this year, Krista Tippett spoke of beauty as a core moral value. She noted the connection of beauty and vitality, and described God as being present in beauty. She mentioned mathematicians who say that if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it is likely not to be true.

 

UCC Washington, DC - Fountain

 

Influenced by the late John O’Donohue, she spoke of his distinction between beauty and glamour. O’Donohue taught that Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.

As a seminary student I came to love Vermeer’s “Woman Weighing Gold” aka “Woman Holding a Balance” because the print hung outside the office door of one of my professors. During my years in school, as I stood in the hallway waiting to talk with him I was given that rich image to contemplate.

Waiting brings particular attention to our surroundings. The places where we are required to wait speak clearly about the respite beauty can offer, or the grimness of its absence. The intentional creation of welcoming space is a sign of true hospitality. A thoughtfully chosen object or image can infuse a time of waiting with beauty and grace.

Individuals and organizations who understand hospitality find ways to offer nourishment for the soul in the arrangement of their physical space. In this quiet way, they make the world better. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue says:

[beauty] calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:

to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

The places where we wait are often filled with stress. We wait to be seen by the doctor, the government official, the interviewer. As we take in the space around us, we feel the presence of compassion. Or its absence. Unfortunately our culture has come to accept television screens as a way of offering hospitality in waiting areas. What a different environment we could create if those funds were spent on works by local artists. Yet far more spaces are arranged without any thought beyond offering a chair.

Where people have a choice about entering, spaces are generally more welcoming. Where people are required to show up, the setting is more likely to be utterly utilitarian, holding neither warmth nor tranquility. If, as John O’Donohue describes, we feel more alive in the presence of Beauty, then the palatable sense of beauty’s absence creates a space in which we die a little.

Buildings, and the spaces within them, are expensive. They require work and attention just to maintain. Given the investment already made in the physical facilities, why not use them well? Particularly when people are required to wait in a particular space, why not cultivate a peaceful environment that might carry through the entire workplace? Why not offer something beautiful to experience, granting a moment of tranquility in the midst of the day?

The UCC (United Church of Christ) in Washington, D.C. is an example of an intentionally hospitable space, not only for those who enter but for everyone who walks by. In the midst of a busy city, the walls of the church are made of glass so that passersby can see a small fountain inside. Simply to observe the flow of water across the stone disk and into the pool below is to feel a space opening in one’s psyche. What a gift, as well as an indication that this may be a rare place for the soul to thrive.

 

Knowing the River

Every day, I fill a pitcher with water from the tap. I appreciate being able to drink when I’m thirsty, and sometimes remember to be grateful for the rain that fills the river. Water sustains my life. It becomes part of me; I am intimately connected to its source. But sipping from my glass does not allow me to claim the river.

 

Red River Gorge

 

Going to the river is an entirely different experience. In Kentucky there are hundreds, thousands, of places where I might walk along the banks or step among the stones above the water’s surface. Where the water flows clear I can look through to pebbles lining the riverbed and fish darting among them. Where stones are slick with algae there’s always a chance of falling in. I can wade in the shallows or perhaps swim in a few places. The deeper, swifter water requires a vessel and some companions. A guide is helpful where the river churns white.

A close-up look at water’s edge is unlike the changing perspective from a boat, or the wider scene from atop the palisades. Even with a view from the air I can see only part of the whole river. Its long path is too much to take in at once, and yields infinite variations according to time, weather, and season. A blue line labeled on a map is easily found, but tracing the map is not the same as knowing the river.

It’s terrible that many rivers are so polluted we can’t swim or fish in them. Individually and collectively, our hubris has sullied what we need to survive. Yet even these tainted waters remain essential. We filter out the toxins the best we can, reclaiming the water we must have to live.

I can’t simply fill a glass with water as a way to know the river, much less hold the river in my hand. Neither can I quote the Bible and expect a scriptural sound bite to convey its teachings. Discernment is an important aspect of grappling with scripture; it’s not as simple as fishing out a pertinent chapter and verse.

The Bible is not a code of law or a constitution from which we draw off rules as we would draw water from the tap. Scripture is a conversation, an exploration that began thousands of years ago. It contradicts itself. It speaks in different contexts. Scripture is rich and varied, and to engage with it is to create an opening for wisdom.

To wield the Bible as a debate tool is to miss being part of its life-giving flow. Scripture can be experienced in a thousand ways throughout a lifetime, but to use it against others is to waste it. It would be absurd to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and declare that I’m acting on behalf of the river.

A line of scripture can offer hope or inspiration. It can be a reminder of the richness to be found in the entirety of the Bible. But separated from its context the passage eventually becomes a stagnant pool. Water separated from the flow of the river grows foul and breeds pestilence.

I am grateful for a glass of water. I am humbled and in awe of the river from which it flows.

 

 

What Happens When We Pray

I’ve recently spent time wandering through some of Ireland’s ancient monastic sites, and I continue to think of those monasteries and the beautiful settings where they were built. The buildings are in ruins now, emptied by war and worldly powers. Yet for a time these sites were a refuge for books and learning, and a place where Christianity met Celtic culture in a way that strengthened both.

Who could have anticipated the value of these sanctuaries to the centuries that would follow? The books copied by the monks in their scriptoriums salvaged Western learning after the fall of the Roman empire. Today, the religious impulse that gave rise to them permeates the walls that remain standing.

Clonmacnoise Ruins, Ireland

The stone structures with roofs open to the sky are beautiful remnants, the outward form of an encounter with God. Even more, the sense of divine presence in places like Clonmacnoise and Glendalough invites the pilgrim to seek his or her own encounter with the Source.

I happen to also be reading an exploration of prayer by Ann Belford Ulanov and Barry Ulanov, called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. It’s an encouraging and inspiring description of what prayer can be. The divine intersection of my travels and of reading this book is something the Ulanovs would see as an answer to prayer, with God’s response often found in the small events of our lives.

In Primary Speech, Ann and Barry Ulanov offer insight into what happens when we bring our full selves to prayer—all our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and regrets, our best selves and our worst. Through prayer, whatever we bring to God is transformed. In bringing everything to prayer we open ourselves, and our lives, to being shaped by the divine—not in a way that denies our individuality but in a way that brings out the brilliance of the gems we were created to be. Prayer opens us to be healed and strengthened, our lives made larger and more joyful.

Primary Speech by Ann and Barry Ulanov

 

We can’t transform ourselves, but we can allow God to continue creating us. When we act on our deep impulse to pray, we experience the God who is always at work in our lives and who responds to our prayer in a variety of ways, which we will notice if we pay attention. Prayer opens a window to the stuffy room of our limited mind, and God is the fresh breeze that enters.

Paul Prather’s recent column on prayer in the Lexington Herald-Leader underscores this lesson for me. In his eloquently straightforward way, he says that even pastors are subject to forgetting to pray when life gets busy. But his recent recommitment to spend quiet time with God every day, even for just a few minutes, has brought him refreshment in the midst of a stressful life.

Prayer changes things. It changes me and it seems to affect the world around me. I’m a novice at prayer and may always be so, but beginner’s mind is not a bad thing. Who knows what might be possible?