Earth Day 2015

Each year, since 1970, people around the globe have marked Earth Day. While seen by some as a fringe movement, Earth Day awareness and modern environmentalism have led to the environmental protection laws, the use of unleaded fuel in automobiles, and local initiatives to plant trees, clean-up trash spills, and educate communities about the environment.

Earth Day itself was an idea conceived by Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson. Following a 1969 oil spill that marred the Pacific beaches at Santa Barbara, Nelson recruited California Republican Representative Pete McCloskey to serve with him as co-chair of the first Earth Day. The result was that on April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans were involved in educational events and social action directed at protecting the environment. In the last 45 years, Earth Day has continued to grow and its impact widen. While much work needs to be done to protect the habitats of Earth, today environmental concerns are part of our consciousness and consideration in business, planning, zoning, manufacturing, and the long term sustainability of Earth.

As I consider issues of environmentalism and the future sustainability of Earth, it seems to me that there is an fundamental grid-lock involving two outlooks: one is an outlook that places primary value on long-term environmental preservation with the belief that human interaction with the habitats of Earth are leading to the destruction of the planet. The other is the perspective that believes that human beings can adapt and change to circumstances as they arise. Based on this second perspective, it’s deemed reasonable to continue the course of our current resource development based on the assumption that we’ll solve any problems as they arise. These two perspectives are fundamentally in opposition to each other and result in political, economic, and social tension as we humans face the future.

While at some level I value debate, I also have a clear position when it comes to the Earth and environmental protection. As a person of faith, I believe that life itself is a gift. We are given that gift for a short time. During that time, we experience life on Earth and are meant to savor it. The destruction of habitat for profit, which may be a short term convenience for us, is selfish. It prevents future generations from sharing the wonders we experience today: the beauty of glacier covered mountains, the rich color of varied sea life, the amazing diversity of flora and fauna, as well as the nature-made sources to heal our various illnesses and infirmities in addition to the possibility of clean air and water as well as a safe food supply. These are things we do not need to lose if we are simply willing to change.

My grandparents were part of one of the greatest economic changes that occurred on Earth. They lived through the decline of the agricultural age and became part of the industrial age. All four of my grandparents were born to farming families in Eastern Europe. They came to the United States and were part of the emergence of new industry that transformed the world. Just as they were part of a social and economic transformation a bit more than a hundred years ago, we, too have the opportunity to be part of the transformation from an industrial economy to a green economy. In that process, many things will change. Perhaps the most important change will be how we live on this planet. At the same time, I have no doubt that just as people like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller became quite wealthy as “captains of industry,” so too there will be those who profit by the transition to a green economy. Ultimately, the dichotomy between environmentalism and economic growth is a false one. As long as human beings have an enterprising spirit, there will be profit. (And that’s a topic for another day.)

On this Earth Day, it is my hope that we begin to seriously consider what it means to chart a new course for the future based on environmentalism and sustainability. We have it within our grasp to make this transition just as previous generations navigated equally significant transitions. But do we have the will to move ahead to create a new way of living on Earth? That’s the question I ask on this Earth Day.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Younger Generation: A Perspective on Changing Spiritual Values

I found her to be nothing less than amazing: bright, engaged, open to new ideas, and about seventy years of age. I wasn’t sure from her gray hair, but I bet she was probably a red head in her youth. She had a fiery spirit as well as a deep inner wisdom. Periodically I’d chat with Sr. Mary Thomas over coffee in the dining room of her monastery. I always enjoyed the time we spent together.

It was about ten years ago when she confided something I wasn’t expecting. “I really don’t understand the young women who join us today. I think they really want the life we gave up years ago. They want to be pious nuns in a convent and not the intentional monastics we’ve become. I don’t understand why they want to return to the things we worked to change.”

Sr. Mary Thomas shared with me stories of monastic life of women when she became a nun. All the time was regulated, no unapproved books could be read, and even the life of prayer was proscribed. She had to follow a manual to pray each day in addition to the set times for mass and the periodic communal prayer commonly called “the hours.” She was one of the women who helped break the mold. She’d get new books on prayer and theology. Because she couldn’t be seen reading them, she’d slip into the lavatory late at night while others slept and sat in a toilet stall and read. She pushed the boundaries in other ways as well. As a result of what she and others did to broaden the experience of women in monasteries, there were opportunities for advanced studies and graduate programs, options created for the sisters to study with Hindu and Buddhist teachers, and to welcome people of other faiths to the monastery to learn the monastic traditions of Christianity. As she grew to the end of her career, Sr. Mary Thomas found it confusing that younger women sought out the pious devotions that she and the other older women had found outdated and oppressive.

Today, I find a very similar struggle to the one Sr. Mary Thomas shared with me a decade ago. In the few years I’ve lived in Atlanta, I’ve worked with and served as spiritual director for several twenty-something’s who are preparing for ordained ministry in my denomination. Within the overall context of Christian theology, they are inclusive and progressive in their outlook toward people. At the same time, they also gravitate to theologies and practices that seem very much out-dated to me.

While they are familiar with contextual theologies (i.e., feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, etc.), they prefer the classic works of white male German theologians from the early to mid twentieth century. They prefer traditional liturgical forms that separate the minister from the congregation rather than the preference I hold to bridge the divide between minister and congregation. They talk much more about the rightness of the teachings of Jesus while I often focus on the transformative experience of the spiritual encounter with God. In many ways, they seem to be more inclined to a hierarchical church while I scratch my head and wonder with several colleagues who have also been in professional ministry for the long haul at how they would end up valuing what we worked so hard to leave behind.

I grew up in a time when church was very formal and very boring. As a teenager, I was engaged by those who made religion accessible. It began with teachers who played recordings of popular music by artists like Simon and Garfunkel and asked us how their message made sense in the context of our beliefs. Our vision was to be that “bridge over troubled water” for others, to allow others to “lean on me,” and to “let peace begin with me.” In time, sitting on the floor with others and discussing passages of the Bible helped to form my inner awareness of personal faith and spirituality. Later, I would gather with friends around coffee tables in homes, breaking bread and sharing the cup, understanding that our communion was not just the symbolic elements but the heart of the community we shared with others. The formative process of my youth and through my twenties led me to intimate experiences of the Sacred within small communities that were vital, accepting, and dynamic. From those experiences, I learned what it meant to be involved in significant social justice issues including advocacy for people with AIDS, work with the homeless, and making attempts to bridge racial divides. In those small gatherings, my friends and companions also used our rituals to have fun. A great example was on July 24, 1984 when a group of us organized a celebration of Christmas in July, decorating a Christmas tree, baking Christmas cookies, and welcoming a visit from Santa. We celebrated “Midnight Mass” in the back yard as dusk began to fall. At this event we collected a truck load of toys for a children and youth program whose director told me that they never had stuff to give the kids during the summer. So we used our informal community of faith to provide a way to help these young people.

It is that kind of intimate, hands-on experience of Christianity that embodied a living theology in the context of people’s lives that has nurtured me over the years. It’s that experience of Christianity that I attempted to share with others when I served as pastor of various churches and administrator of denominational programs.

Christianity is in the midst of a difficult transition. In many parts of the world, the institutional church is dying. It’s outlived its usefulness. Today, the church is stuck on problems of institutional survival and focused on inconsequential issues. In recent decades, the church has generally failed to take moral and ethical leadership in areas that have been vital for the post-modern era focusing instead on maintaining antiquated sexual ethics. I look to the millennial generation who are preparing for ordination to lead us in new ways. At the same time I recognize that the path that seems best for them is not one I can easily follow because it harkens back to what I worked so hard to change.

The one decision I have made is this: I won’t be like many of the clergy from my youth who often told us that we were wrong for wanting change. “Oh, that guitar music has no place in church,” they’d say. “You need to show proper reverence for sacred things,” they’d admonish us. “When you’re older, you’ll understand,” was their sure conclusion. Those pastors taught me a great deal about ministry. From them I learned exactly what not to do if I wanted to be a supportive influence in the lives of others. Their admonishments resulted in frustration and anger, resulting in many people from my age group giving up on church. Luckily, I found other options.

I guess that’s been the theme of my life since my youth: finding other options for sharing a dynamic faith rooted in an awareness of the presence of the Divine infused throughout all of life. These days, as I work to be of some support for talented younger people entering professional ministry, I hope that I am accepting of our different generational perspectives and help them find their own way. At the same time, I wish that I lived closer to Sr. Mary Thomas. As my senior in accepting the different perspective of younger generations, I’m sure she’d have some helpful insights.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Self

Often times, when people talk about spirituality, it sounds like spirituality is something “out there” or something one needs to get. Other times, people will refer to activities or events as being “spiritual” or “not spiritual.” For example, meditation is spiritual but hanging out at a corner bar is not spiritual. For me, spirituality is not something outside of a person nor do I view events, places, or activities as being more spiritual than others. Instead, my understanding of spirituality is that it’s a dimension of who we are. Spirituality is part of the self in the same way that my body or emotions are part of who I am. Just as I take my body with me when meditating or when watching a game and having a beer with friends at a sports bar, so too the spiritual dimension of who I am is also present every moment of every day.

This week, I am sharing an excerpt from my book, The Integrated Self: A Holistic Approach to Spirituality and Mental Health Practice, which explains the spiritual dimension of self.

The spiritual dimension of the integrated self is that dimension that allows and enables us to experience something more than what is already given in the other dimensions. The spiritual dimension is that aspect of who we are that adds value to human experience from the other dimensions.

The spiritual dimension is a dimension of transcendence toward something more than is apparent in the experiences of the other dimensions. It is a dimension of aspiring to find or discover something greater than is part of the other dimensions. It is also transcendence in and through the other dimensions. In other words, this “more than” spiritual dimension is experienced as part of the other dimensions. It is a transcendence that is within real life.

The spiritual dimension is evident within the engaging dimension when work is transformed from routine and drudgery to something meaningful; when the day-to-day sacrifices of a long-term relationship and family life are experienced as something of value; or when the tedium of hobbies like gardening or needle-point are experienced as valuable and enjoyable.

The spiritual dimension is manifested through the embodied dimension when the experience of touching another becomes an act of love or care; when pain, as in childbirth, is a source of joy; when physical exhaustion from dancing at someone’s wedding or from exercise and body building become purposeful because there is something more than just exhaustion taking place.

The spiritual dimension is often rooted in the sociohistorical dimension as aspects of one’s culture form the sources for meaning, purpose, and value in an individual’s life. Cultural customs, foods, and icons take on particular value as national anthems, the raising of a flag, singing a Christmas carol, or gathering for a holiday meal become something more than songs or routine habits. Perhaps even more deeply rooted are cultural values that shape an individual’s life in potent ways including a culture’s understanding of the role of parenthood, success, or specific belief systems.

The spiritual dimension of the integrated self may be expressed in religious idioms but is not limited to religious language. For example, consider an individual who goes for a walk in the woods to sort out thoughts about a particularly stressful experience at work. On this walk, the person pauses and watches and listens to a bird perched in a tree who is chirping in a pleasant manner. A person who practices a certain set of religious beliefs may interpret the experience as God sending the song-bird with a message about the need to take more time to relax rather than focus on work stress. Another person may describe the same experience by stating that by watching the bird, there was an inspiration about the need to relax rather than focus on work stress. The presence or lack of religious idiom is not what constitutes the spiritual dimension. Instead, it is the dynamic through which an ordinary life event, hearing a bird sing, is understood as more than just a chirping bird. The transcendent dimension of the spiritual dimension results in the discovery of something meaningful about the bird’s song, which in turn adds meaning and value to the person’s life.

The spiritual dimension of the self is operative in and through the other dimensions, opening those dimensions to something “more than,” infusing them with meaning, or purpose, or value.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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