A search for life’s meaning

In a different context, my children are collecting my answers to various posed questions. One of the more challenging ones has been “What do you think is the meaning of life?” Here’s my attempt at an answer.

Now there’s a question that needs more than a few paragraphs. The answer — or, rather, the search for the answer — has filled countless books. I guess one might conclude that the meaning of life for a philosopher is to discover the meaning of life. No, make that “to search for the meaning of life.”

The same also could be true for theologians. Looking at it theologically, the meaning of life might be said to be trying as much as possible to emulate the Creator, in whose image we are created. “God is love” (and thus “Love is God”), we are taught. Along this line of thought, love gives life meaning — loving others, loving creation, and acting on that love. And let’s not leave out embracing the creative process itself. Being creative can also give our lives meaning.

This is consistent with the notion that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Searching online for “meaning of life” yields some philosophical links, but at least as many literal explanations: Life means not dead or inanimate. We are still breathing, and we’re not rocks. There may be some food for philosophical thought there.

Yet, we don’t have to be philosophers, theologians or scientists to find meaning in life. We can — and, I think, often do — look for meaning in small ways, seeking answers to small questions that provide some clues to what life is essentially all about.

[Really, many of my posts on this blog speak to the question, “What do you think is the meaning of life?”]

Most of us don’t think constantly about the “big picture,” but rather look for meaning on a daily basis. Something you see, hear, feel, observe, recall or maybe just sense that causes you to feel, at that moment, I’m glad to be alive.

To innovate or not to innovate

There have been times when wearing my minister hat, I’ve tried to be innovative. Sometimes that has worked better than at others. Here’s a couple of those other times.

In a sermon many years ago, I was trying to share how the spiritual dimension of art could help one be more aware of the spiritual side of existence. I read two poems that, I thought, exemplified this. They were not “religious” poems — no “God language” or anything like that. They worked because they suggested that life is more than physical, and their lyrical beauty was ethereal.

Afterward — maybe a couple of days later — one person told me she and another congregant thought I could’ve just read poetry for the whole sermon “and gotten away with it.”

Gotten away with it? Maybe, in a backhanded way, she was saying she got the point about poetry, but I wasn’t trying to “get away with” anything. I was trying to share an experience, using the poems to illustrate part of what I was trying to communicate didactically.

On another occasion, I was called on to offer the blessing before a luncheon in a non-church setting where I was working at the time. I had heard Garrison Keillor say that the purpose of a meal-time blessing is to remind us that we already are blessed. This resonated well with me. I decided to give that point a go.

When called upon, I quoted Keillor, then asked each person to think seriously about something for which they were especially thankful. After a moment of silence, I said, “Amen.”

Almost immediately, someone came up to me and with a sly grin said, “Sneaky!” Sneaky? I wasn’t interested in playing some kind of trick on people. My intention was to help them feel more blessed than they might’ve if they’d heard some potentially trite words and phrases.

Well, you try, and maybe give yourself at least a B+ for effort.

“Samaritans” today

Even many people who’ve never set foot in a church are familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan,” and many have at least a rough idea of the story. “Samaritan” has come to mean “a charitable person.” Thus, much of the original point of the story is obscured, if not lost altogether.

For those to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not have a positive connotation. They considered Samaritans to be inferior, half-breed people to be avoided. Sure, the listeners probably got the point about how we should help others, but they may have been taken aback when the hero of the story was “one of those people.” Yet, Jesus told the story in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? He was expanding the definition of “neighbor.”

In the ’60s, there was a version that was popular with advocates for racial integration, of which I was one. In it, the man robbed was white, those that passed him by were church leaders and the “Samaritan” was Black. Once when I heard it told, someone suggested that the victim could be a white liberal and the Samaritan a “redneck.” Indeed, Harry Chapin, in his song “What Made America Famous,” offers a similar approach to the parable.

I find it helpful to look at the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets,” with The Good Samaritan story in mind.

Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is racist and homophobic. He earns his living writing trashy romance novels. He won’t bother to take his OCD medication, which would help him be less annoying. He doesn’t seem to like other people and doesn’t seem to care whether they like him.

Greg Kinnear’s character, Simon Bishop, is Udall’s neighbor. He is an artist who is gay. Udall verbally spars with Bishop and with his African-American agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr,), making no attempt to hide his prejudice toward both.

Then Simon is beaten and robbed in his apartment. He’s left seriously injured, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s not able to get help from his family nor from anyone on a long list of friends and fellow artists.

Melvin takes him in to his own apartment, to give him a place to live as he heals from his injuries and gets back on his feet financially. It’s a more expansive understanding of being a neighbor.

Adventures in job hunting

Have you ever had a job interview that didn’t go well? (I’m guessing your answer is “yes.”) Who’s had one that seemed doomed from the start? (Yeah, I see those hands rising.) You may not relate to the profession, but the situation I’m about to describe is likely familiar. You may not have had the very same experiences, but I’ll bet you’ve had some that were similar.

Back when I was in campus ministry, or at least trying to be, I set up a job-search file with an ecumenical organization that had a presence on many college campuses across the country. I was working as director of a local, non-profit service agency, when I got a notice that the campus ministry program at one small university in the mid-west had expressed interest in me.

They arranged to fly me out for an interview. For reasons I don’t recall, it had to be wedged in between commitments I had at home through a Saturday evening and a seminar nearby at which I was to speak on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. It seems possible that my schedule would’ve been more flexible from that Wednesday afternoon through the upcoming weekend.

They booked me on an odyssey that began early Sunday morning. I landed twice along the way, changing planes at the second stop, before reaching a large airport across the state from the school. There I was met by someone from the organization’s national office.

First we had to connect. He had me paged, but had my first name wrong. Hearing someone else’s first name, I didn’t focus on the rest of the announcement. But I asked myself, Didn’t the last name sound like mine? Could it have been meant for me? But why would he not have the correct name? As I pondered, the page was repeated. I went to the designated meeting spot. Yes, the guy didn’t really know my name.

Then we set out in his car, swinging by another big airport to pick up one of his colleagues. Apparently the plan was for them to get to know me along the way. One might think that a preferred alternative would’ve been for the two of us flying in to have landed closer to the school, and the three of us to have gotten acquainted there rather than in a car. But one who might think that didn’t make the plans. We stopped for a quick evening meal. At some point it started to snow. The campus was covered by the time we got there.

I went directly from the car into a building with a large meeting room for the official interview. Tables were arranged in a large circle and filled with people. My job interview would be conducted by 27 individuals. That is about two dozen more than ideal.

I had not heard of this school before the initial inquiry came. As I began the interview, I had taken less than a dozen steps on the campus, and my feet had not made direct contact, thanks to the blanket of snow upon which I had walked. I hadn’t even ever been in that state before. I knew nothing of the resources for and past programming of the campus ministry there. I had some experience and ideas on which to draw in a general way, of course, but I couldn’t lay out for them at that moment a program tailored to that community.

I had an assigned host for the brief visit. First he took me to my lodging for the night. I was put up in a private room with bath in a women’s dorm. It was on the ground floor and had its own entrance from the outside, apparently designated for guests. All the typical dorm-room furniture had been pulled away from the walls (for painting? cleaning?) — and not put back. The single bed was near the middle of the room; the other pieces were scattered about. It felt sort of like sleeping in a small warehouse. But I did sleep, after a welcomed shower.

My host picked me up the next morning, Monday, for breakfast and a day of gathering information that would’ve been useful in the previous night’s Q & A. There was a tour of the campus, including a visit to the campus ministry offices. The tour of the small town included stops at 2-3 key supporting churches. I met more people. Conversations revealed more about how this program looked, past successes and failures, hopes and expectations. A couple of hours of this activity on the day before might have been more helpful to me than riding across the state.

One person I met was the token Jewish faculty member, also known for his left-leaning politics (maybe a token there as well). My host seemed to regard him as a friend, but didn’t pronounce his name correctly.

A few people were selected to have lunch and dinner with me. So there was informal, but mostly pertinent conversation at both that day. After dinner, I was taken to the small airport in a neighboring town. I boarded a small plane that took me to a larger airport for the first of two plane changes. The overall route meandered eastward.

I was scheduled to get back in time for my Tuesday morning conference, fortified by whatever in-flight naps I could catch and, of course, plenty of coffee. Fog at the second connection, however, intervened. I missed the first day of my commitment, though those in charge were understanding.

The potential employer and I didn’t make good enough impressions on each other to proceed. File it under learning experience. At least I learned some things, and I have to think they did, too. The flight delay taught me that is is unwise to rely on an air-travel schedule with no wiggle room. I hope we both learned not to shoehorn such an occasion into such a tight time frame and to find a way for the candidate’s job interview not to be conducted before any orientation.

Another lesson would be to have 3-4 people conduct the direct interview and report to the larger body. (O.K., I had already known that.) The value of using a professional travel agent to book the flight is yet another potential lesson.

I thought about beginning this entry with something about having spent a week there one day. But that wouldn’t have been accurate. It was more like “2-3 days in 30 hours.” And the days were in reverse order.

Twelve days leading to Epiphany

Realizing that celebrating Christmas is something we get to do, not something we have to do, I try (within my human limitations) to approach it this way:
After September and October have come and gone with Labor Day and Halloween, respectively, I turn my attention to and enjoy Thanksgiving. Then for most of December, it is Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas, which arrives December 25.

The “preparation” doesn’t primarily mean shopping, putting up decoration, wrapping presents, etc., though it necessarily does include these tasks. I get more out of Christmas with some mental/spiritual preparation. I try to keep that in mind during the logistical preparations. Sometimes it helps to stop a minute, take a breath and refocus.

I think it’s also helpful to remember that Christmas will come whether or not we get all the decorations up in exactly the right places. At our house, we decorate modestly, about a week before Christmas. It’s enough to keep us mindful of the season, without overpowering the meaning. I guess what I’m saying is that the decorations are the means, not the end itself.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be quite busy for many of us. It’s mostly enjoyable, but still busy. I’ve grown to appreciate how much Christmas is enhanced for me by celebrating all 12 traditional days. No, we don’t give gifts everyday, though for families such as ours, there may be additional gift-opening sessions on subsequent days of Christmas after day 1, depending on individual schedules. It may not be the 25th, but it is no less a Christmas gathering.

A value of acknowledging all 12 days of Christmas, I’ve come to realize, is that there is more time — even some occasional down time — to stop and remember that it’s Christmas and think about all that truly means. It’s not just keeping the tree up until Epiphany because that is what tradition dictates. It’s walking past the tree and being reminded of — and feeling — the love and joy of Christmas at random times, after the hustle and bustle have subsided.

To the extent I can follow this plan — and I am not always successful — Christmas is less something I have to do and more something I enjoy in a meaningful way.

I’m glad I went

It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.

Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.

I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.

At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”

I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.

It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.

Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.

I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.

Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.

I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.

To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.

_______________
Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.

Happy New Year

Each year during December, some well-meaning people tack on “and Happy Hanukkah” when they say “Merry Christmas.” It’s as if they feel a need to give equal time to their Jewish acquaintances. We hear this a good bit in our Judeo-Christian family, but I also see it other places, such as social media.

But the way to give equal time is to wish Jewish friends “Happy New Year” now.

Rosh Hashanah — ראש השנה — Jewish New Year — begins at sundown today, Sept. 29, 2019, thus beginning year 5780.

For those of us who are Christian, Rosh Hashanah most closely corresponds to Christmas. The Church Year begins with Advent, which prefaces Christmas. But more significantly, there are two High Holidays in each religion. The Most Holy Day in Judaism is Yom Kippur; in Christianity it is Easter. Rosh Hashanah and Christmas are close seconds in importance.

There are Jewish festivals that occur near the times of Christmas and Easter, but — even though Easter has a historic link to Passover — Christmas and Easter are comparable to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively, rather than Hanukkah and Passover.

Comparing Holy Days with festivals is like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing Holy Days to each other is like grapes to grapes, or ambrosia to ambrosia.

Some thoughts for Trinity Sunday

When Don McLean, in his hit “American Pie,” refers to “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” as “the three men I admire most,” I suspect many people find that consistent with their own view of the Trinity. There is much that can be said about the anthropomorphic and gender problems with the word “men,” and I am among those who have a problem with those, but that discussion is for another time. I want to look at the number.

I think that most, if not all my Trinitarian friends will easily affirm a belief in One God. Yet the way many talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sounds polytheistic at times. Thus, I can understand why my Unitarian friends can be led to scoff at such a notion.

I ascribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, yet I am a monotheist. Is that possible?

One God in three forms. Is that simple or complex? It seems simple until someone starts talking about the Trinity as “three men” or three seemingly independent beings. Why go out of the way to say “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” when it’s just one Being?

I saw a program on public TV many years ago that attempted to show how a two-dimensional being (i.e., length and width, but no depth) would experience a three-dimensional one.   As the three-dimensional being passed by, it would appear to the two-dimensional one in changing, two-dimensional forms. The 2-D cannot experience the 3-D any other way.   It has been suggested that our ability – or rather shortcoming thereof – to understand a Triune God is kind of like that. God has more dimensions than we do, thus appearing to us in different forms in different circumstances.  

Countless volumes have been written about the nature of God. I could write a lot of  words in trying to explain what I may understand on this topic at this point in my life, but I’m aiming here for a page, not a book.  Many words and phrases come to mind, including “Creative Force,” “Sustainer of Life,” “Power” and, especially, “Love.”   I grew up hearing the Bible verse “God is love.”   In recent years, I applied the “if A=B, then B=A” logic and have found it helpful to say also “Love is God.” 

And here’s something I don’t believe: I don’t understand God to be some white-haired and -bearded man in a robe sitting in some large chair somewhere up in the clouds.

I’ve always resonated well with the rock song “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me.” I find that I refer to “Jesus” in couple of differing, though related ways. In the past tense, I mean the historical figure who taught us a lot about God and how we should live. In the present tense, I am referring to God as revealed in the teachings and personal example of the historic person. “Christ,” to me, refers to the special and mysterious way in which God was present in the historical man, and to the spirit that he engendered and which lives on today in many people.

I’ll admit I’m a little hazy in distinguishing between “Spirit of Christ” and “Holy Spirit.” But maybe that’s OK, since both refer to God’s presence within us. I think perhaps one distinction may be that “Spirit of Christ” has to do with how we want to live and “Holy Spirit” how we can more nearly do so. Maybe “Christ” is the Love; the “Spirit” is the Power.

I’ve also learned that “Christ” means “God incarnate” – Jesus in the first Century and now the “Body of Christ,” which is the Church – and that the “Holy Spirit” is the “breath of God.” This suggests to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is a reminder that God is living and breathing. That’s helpful to me, as is remembering that “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” can mean “We honor You in all the ways we experience Your Presence.”

At this moment in my journey, I find that I identify as a Unitarian Jesus freak, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The Golden Rule reconsidered

Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”

When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.

What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?

Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.

On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.

I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.

Wearing your “Sunday-best”

On Easter Sunday, the newspaper had a feature story on “Sunday-best” clothes. An on-line search reveals that it is a popular topic. It was especially appropriate on Easter because of the tradition of getting and debuting new “church clothes” on that Sunday. The article discussed this tradition, bringing back memories for me.

Our family tradition included picking out our new clothes some weeks before Easter, then putting them on layaway. For any not familiar with the phenomenon, layaway meant the store set the clothes aside for you until you made enough interest-free payments to equal the total cost. This allowed someone on a tight budget to spread the payments over more than one paycheck. Or for those tight-fisted with money, it eased the pain of parting with the whole sum all at once.

In those days, it was important to dress one’s best for church, and a little more so on Easter. That has changed in many circles, notably in those of my experience. I still see some individuals dressing a little better on Easter. I used to have a green sport coat I wore only on Easter — because I got tired of being asked if I’d won the Master’s every time I wore it on any other Sunday. When I got one of those comments even on Easter — to which I’d said, “No, it’s Easter. New life and all” — I stopped wearing it then, too.

I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up. And the discomfort of being dressed up. Now I could throw on whatever in a couple of minutes and not be distracted from the spiritual experience by itchy pants or choking ties.

I rarely wear a tie for any occasion. I do wear a sport coat to church and certain other places in the cooler months. It’s not so bad without a tie, plus I like having all the pockets. I generally wear my “dress jeans” — i.e., they are black — and my “dress sneakers” — also black. (I have always hated shoes. I prefer to be barefooted. So I wear the least uncomfortable possible.)

It’s just a personal choice, but I don’t wear shorts to church. I have no problem, though, with others who do. Similarly, I do not wear sports team clothing to church. Some people do. That’s their prerogative.

When I appeared as a choir member in a Playmakers Repertory Company production of “The Christians” in early 2018, we wore robes, making pants leg + shoes visible to the audience for only the two or three steps between the stage door and choir loft on our entrance and exit. Our costuming instructions were “Wear church clothes. No jeans or sneakers.”

I was amused, since my church clothes include jeans and sneakers.