Friday, April 4, 2014

The Art of Listening--a sacrifice of ego

Has this ever happened to you? You bump into an acquaintance. The person is likable. Good heart. Generous. But he or she can’t listen worth a darn. The conversation with your acquaintance involved nothing except your acquaintance talking about him or herself. Even after he or she asked a question of you, and you began to answer, he or she interjected for 10 minutes. You never finished answering the question originally asked.
Ernest Hemingway was correct when he remarked, “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
There are few spiritual practices more important than listening. Imagine what would have become of the ancient Hebrews had Moses not taken time to listen to the Lord? As the New Testament book of James declares, “You should be quick to listen and slow to speak.”
I’m beginning to think that listening is out of vogue. Rarely does one meet anyone who is keener to listen than speak. As a pastor-theologian, I wonder: If we are not quick to listen to other human beings, can we listen to God?
The 20th century Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, wrote: “When you are listening to somebody completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
It’s easy to pretend to listen to someone. You can daydream about fishing or surfing or what you will have for lunch. You can nod your head and, from time to time, say, “Uh-huh,” all the while not paying much attention to the person who is speaking. I know this because I have done it.
I am guilty of not always being the best listener to my wife, son, friends and parishioners. It’s true what Steven Covey wrote in his “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
The lack of listening is, at its heart, a moral issue. A lack of listening implies a degree of selfishness — even a sense of superiority. If I am more ready to reply than to listen, it suggests that what the other person has to say is not as important as what I have to say. This disregard for listening may indicate that I imagine myself superior to the one I am supposed to be listening to. Either way, such behavior is self-centered. Listening, real listening, requires a sacrifice of ego.
The next time you are engaged in a conversation, try to listen more than you speak. Use your ears more than your mouth. Sacrifice your need to speak, because what you have to say is probably no more important than what you ought to be listening to.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Doubt is the whetstone of faith

Philosophy, art and poetry have always welcomed doubters. Shakespeare, the bestselling poet of all time wrote, “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” Unlike philosophy, art and poetry, however, religion is not always comfortable with doubt. In the Christian tradition, folks are often weary of doubt—and doubters.
One of the most notorious religious doubters was a disciple of Jesus named Thomas. In the Christian New Testament book of John, Thomas declares to his buddies (who have recently seen the resurrected Jesus), “Unless I see… I will not believe.” One week later Jesus appeared to Thomas. In most English translations, Jesus says to him (rather dryly, I imagine), “Do not doubt, but believe.”
On April 20th, Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Prior to that holy day, I would like to try and set the record straight. I want to clear Thomas’ name. I want to clarify and redeem that odious title “Doubting Thomas,” which is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek text.
In the original Greek of the phrase I quoted above, Jesus does not say, “Do not doubt, but believe.” A more accurate translation is “Don’t become unfaithful, but faithful.” The difference between doubt and unfaithfulness is important, because one can have doubts, but still be faithful.
Doubt, by definition, presumes some level of belief, for you cannot doubt that which you do not, at some level, believe. You must believe a part of something in order to doubt another part of the same thing. The issue for Jesus with Thomas, according to the original language of the text, is not that he might have doubts about the resurrection, but that he might lose his faith in the God of the resurrection.
You may wonder if I have gone off the deep end. Why else get so nit-picky about a couple of words?
The choice of words makes all the difference, and here’s why. My experience suggests that religious faith is a two-sided coin. On one side is belief. On the other side is doubt. A living faith has aspects of doubt and belief. It’s like Khalil Gibran, the third bestselling poet of all time declared, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Were it not for doubt, which is nothing more than curiosity or inquisitiveness, we would not grow in faith. Like a knife in need of sharpening, faith needs a whetstone to hone its edge. Doubt is the whetstone of faith.
Doubt is an intellectual gift from God. Doubt is not to be feared, but embraced, for God is greater than doubt. Indeed, God uses our doubts to lead us deeper into the mystery of our faith. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Thomas.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Going to Hell

Not long ago I was leaving my classroom at Flagler College where I teach a course on world religions. On the sidewalk I passed two young men holding inflammatory religious signs and speaking loudly at students.
The young men with signs were yelling threats of hell at students. When I tried to speak kindly to one of the young men, he rebuffed me. When I asked if we might speak privately about his method of spreading the good news of Jesus, he shouted at me, pointed a finger, and then promptly condemned me to hell.
I guess the young man had not read the latest news. A recent poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that condemning nonbelievers to burn in hell for eternity is not an effective means to convert them. The study interviewed more than 10,000 participants by phone and found that of 2,342 professed non-believers who were told they would suffer the fires of hell for their disbelief, not a single one converted to believing in God.
Hell should never be wielded like a club by religious folk. Who is going to hell, if indeed anyone is going to hell, and for what, is God’s business. It is certainly not the business of young men in suits and ties to judge college students and offer up condemnation for an array of imagined sins.
The Greek New Testament concept of hell originally referred to a garbage-dump outside of Jerusalem where fire continuously burned trash. The Greek word, Ghenna, does not appear very many times in the New Testament. In one text, hell is described as the punishment for calling a sister or brother “fool (Matthew 5:22)” and in another text hell is offered as the punishment for despising of “little ones,” i.e., “outcasts” (Matthew 18:9). Typically, when hell (Ghenna) is spoken of, it connotes generalities and not behavioral specifics.
All of this is to say that any reading of the Bible that focuses on the fear of hell as a means for converting the unchurched or dechurched is a poor tool for evangelism. But such attempts at evangelism do a fantastic job engendering negative stereotypes of Christians.
So, if you happen to be the type of Christian who points your finger at people and then beats them over the head with threats of hell, you may want to examine how many fingers are pointing back at yourself. You may also want to recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

Babble

It’s my judgment that too many people, too many businesses, too many politicians, and too many talk-news programs speak without thinking. The 19th century English newspaper publisher Sir William Benham had it right when he remarked, “Speaking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.” As a man who enjoys shooting, I will tell you this: if you do not aim you are aimless. And to be aimless with a gun carries the propensity for death. Whether this metaphor aptly carries over to politics, religion, business, and civil society, I cannot say.
St. Ambrose, a fourth century Christian, once said, “It is easier to look wise than talk wisely.” My gut tells me there are a lot of people who hope to look wise but are not talking wisely. Talking wisely has become the exception to the rule in public discourse. And why is talking wisely on the decline? Because talking too much is on the rise. To paraphrase Shakespeare, people of few words are the wisest of people.
To be wise and to be a windbag are categorical opposites. Like oil and water. One cannot be a babbler and a sage. To talk wisely is, according to Buddhism, to abstain from idle talk and gossip, along with lies and deception.
The reason that wisdom is rarely seen among those who profusely talk is because wisdom journeys with listening. To listen is to hear another person’s ideas and needs. But in order to listen one must be silent. And silence, these days, rarely gets to speak.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Become a Hero


In the New Testament book of Acts Jesus is reported to have spoken these words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus understood that to sacrifice self-indulgent desires, for the sake of someone else, brings happiness.

Christianity is not the only world religion that stresses the significance of giving.  Every major world religion stresses the importance of charity. In the Qur’an we read, “True piety is this…to give of one’s substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveler, beggars, and to ransom the slave…” And from the Hindu Vedas: “The wealthier person should give unto the needy.”
Even though Americans give more than citizens of any other country, there is something surprising in those numbers. According to Forbes, “While the wealthiest citizens give the most in sheer dollar amounts—it’s in fact low-income employed Americans who give the highest portion of their income, or 4.5%.”

 It seems that the less money one has the more one is willing to part with one’s money. By why is this? Why do the wealthier among us give a smaller portion of their income to charity? What is it about having less that equals giving more? My experience suggests that when we have less we more fully realize our dependency upon God. I'm not, however, suggesting that we give away retirement accounts or the kid’s college fund, but there is wisdom in the idea of sacrificial giving.

I remember a Hebrew professor in seminary who once told my class, “Show me your checkbook or credit card statement and I will show you your faith.” Or, in the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” The habit of our giving is symbolic of our faith—or lack thereof.
There is a story about a man packing a shipment of food for the poor people of Appalachia. He was separating beans from powdered milk, and canned vegetables from canned meats. Reaching into a box filled with various cans, he pulled out a little brown paper sack. Apparently one of the pupils had brought something different from the items on the suggested list. Out of the paper bag fell a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and a cookie. Crayoned in large letters was a little girl's name, "Christy Room 104.” She had given up her lunch for some hungry person that she had never met.
The little girl in the story was a hero. It’s never too late to champion a cause greater than yourself. It’s never too late to become a hero in some else’s life.

So dig deep into your pockets. Demonstrate your faith in God. Give on a regular basis. Sacrifice for a cause bigger than your own self-indulgent desires. Do this and you will discover that giving is more blessed than receiving.  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Explore, Dream, Discover

My maternal grandmother once lamented that our family, having arrived in St. Augustine in 1832, did not purchase miles of beach-front property. “Such a missed opportunity,” she said. All of us, I imagine, can relate to missed opportunities. All of us can relate to standing on the sidelines only to regret our inaction at a later point.
Robert Fulton, an artist and engineer, was responsible in the early 1800s for putting sailing ships out of business. He made the steamboat a standard on the open seas. It is said that he presented his idea to Napoleon. After a few minutes of this presentation, Napoleon is reported to have said, “What, sir? You would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.”
As a pastor, I am privy to stories of regret from people who missed out on adventure only to later bemoan the botched opportunity. The lost opportunities seem to always have a common question at their core: “Why didn’t I take the chance?”
An Arabian proverb given to me by a Rotarian friend is true: “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.” All of us know that fumbled opportunities do not come back. Some of us live our lives lamenting a chance never taken. We look back upon something that we wish we would have done, but out of fear we played it safe. Perhaps we should all take advice from the Jewish Talmud, “Act while you can: while you have the chance, the means, and the strength.”
My experience suggests that we often regret with great pathos those things that we did not do but wished we had done. For example, a common regret — missed opportunity — is not traveling when you have the health to travel. After all, as the sun sets upon our lives we have but memories; these memories are often colored by seized opportunities or regrets of inaction.
It is fear that oftentimes keeps us from taking a chance. Fear of what might happen. Fear of the unknown. Fear of potential consequences. But if we exist too much by the dictates of fear we will live on the periphery of life. Fear governs strictly and is antithetical to a life well lived.
As each year passes into the next, the more convinced I become that Mark Twain was correct when he observed: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

Failure

If there is one thing that is endemic to humanity, it is failure. Failure is universal among us. There are more or less successful people; but all people have endured failure.
Failure may happen in politics, morality, business or academics. Failure may happen in relationships or it may happen with one’s own integrity. Regardless, no one lives without tasting the fruit of failure, which can be bitter.
According to the late psychologist B.F. Skinner, “A failure is not always a mistake; it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” I suppose we have all heard something along these lines from parents, teachers, friends, or clergy. “Don’t give up!” they say. So we push forward trusting that, as someone once said, “Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.”
Sometimes our highest hopes are destroyed so that we can be prepared for better things. The failure of the caterpillar is the birth of the butterfly. The passing of the bud is the blooming of the rose. Our failures can be the door to a new success. As the Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, wrote, “The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.
The name of John James Audubon is forever associated with the magnificent paintings he made of the birds of North America. No one else has so accurately painted the birds and the natural environment in which they were found. But his success as an artist might not have happened had he not gone bankrupt in business. In 1808, he opened a store in Louisville, Ky. It was after he went bankrupt in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. Audubon’s failure in business was his success in visual art.
C.S. Lewis noted that “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement,” but this is not always the case. Often people give up after one or two attempts at something in which they have failed. But success often comes after multiple failed attempts at an endeavor. As Thomas Edison remarked about the continual problems related to his invention of the light bulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
It’s usually assumed Handel’s “Messiah” was written at the pinnacle of his success. But that is not the case. The composition of the “Messiah” was written after Handel suffered a stroke. It was written while Handel suffered through a particularly desperate night of despair over his failure as a musician. Upon waking, Handel unleashed his creative genius in a musical score that continues to inspire us generations later.
It may be that failure is universal among us. But so, too, is success. The trick, which really is no trick at all, is dogged persistence. For success rarely comes to one who easily accepts failure as the final word.