Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Time for Compassion - Both Charity and Justice-Making

What do Nepal, Baltimore, and the Vatican all have to do with each other? They are all in the headlines. But more than that they represent different faces of poverty, compelling us to consider the nature of compassion.

You may be saying “What, the Vatican has a relationship with poverty?” A tremendous amount these days. The current pope, Pope Francis, has a clear commitment to stand with and minister to the poor. He goes so far to say that the central function of the church is to respond to the needs of the poor. Everything else is secondary. Everything the church does, he has expressed, should first be considered through the lens of the worth and dignity of every person--and the poor are so easily forgotten. I agree with him that followers of Jesus are called to similarly embody compassion.

Pope Francis is the most powerful religious leader in the world, and it is very significant that he fully accepts the conclusions of science. He accepts reality that the climate changing and that human beings are responsible for how quickly it is changing--and we human beings have a moral imperative to address this change. Meeting with scientists, religious leaders, and political leaders this week, Pope Francis is pushing for a United Nations climate change accord that focuses on the needs of the poor. 

I eagerly await the Pope’s upcoming “encyclical,” the formal church teaching expected to be released in June that addresses the environment and the needs of the most vulnerable among us. This will be deemed politically charged. But guess what, compassion for Jesus is and was often a political act. 

Too often our culture thinks of compassion as merely charity. But compassion has two manifestations: charity and justice-making. Both are essential for people of compassion to embody. And today, this week they are both so important.

First, charity.

The horrible earthquake in Nepal has been heavy on my heart. This is an under-developed country where the vast majority of people are very poor. The widespread destruction puts so many people at risk and calls for an international response. 

But it’s also personal. I know some people who live there. I met them when I visited over twenty years ago. I don’t know how Krishna and Ingo are, but the news reports leaves me in tears, particularly a photo of a wounded boy lying in bed next to his dead friend. 

This image particularly broke my heart. And it broke through all the abstractions of suffering described by merely numbers and stories of masses of people sleeping out in the rain and losing access to clean drinking water. 

When the human dimension comes through, then our compassion is so much more likely to be ignited. And we as human beings are moved to action on behalf of people we don’t even know. And we give of ourselves through charitable contributions or charitable actions.

My wife is from Mexico City. She lived through the horrible earthquake of 1985. She was in middle school. It was chaotic. So much destruction and so many people without shelter or food. She remembers gathering at school to make sandwiches for hours at a time over several days. Catastrophe brings people together unlike anything else. But our hearts must be opened up if we are to participate and become part of the helpers who ultimately make life meaningful. This is the heart of charity.

Compassion also includes justice-making.

Baltimore is taking on suffering on behalf of the rest of the country. Although the vast majority of the thousands of protesters have been peaceful, a small fragment of them have commanded most of the attention by waging violence towards police and property destruction. 

In recent years, so much institutional racism has recently been uncovered in our criminal justice system. And over the last several months, several poor black people have died at the hands of white police. Now Freddie Grey has been killed while in prison with no explanation, only a broken back to attest to maltreatment. 

Collective frustration and outrage has brought so many people together to demand change. And in Baltimore, rage is spilling over, and violence has erupted, thus giving the keepers of law and order a trump card to focus on the violence and distract our nation from the deeper issues that so need attention. And now Baltimore is taking on suffering for the rest of the country. Unless we as a society learn from this, the rage will spread.

While racism is clearly alive and well, what often goes overlooked is how poverty plays into the Black Lives Matter conversation. In this country, African American people typically have much less resources and opportunity, and the cycle of poverty rolls over the vast majority of those who suffer it generation after generation. 

While charity is important, charity alone is not sufficient. What is needed is social change. What is needed is justice-making. All human beings need to be seen as possessing worth and dignity. But the way our society acts, the poor are so often ignored. Right now we are in need of compassion, the kind of compassion that affirms the worth and dignity of every person.

It is my prayer that more hearts will change and we can collectively resist the impulse to view people as things instead of the sacred beings that we all are. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Challenge to Savor or Save the World

Earth Day! All over the world, people are honoring our planet and acknowledging the ecological crisis that is being brought about by climate change--climate change that has resulted from an excessive amount of carbon being absorbed into the atmosphere. 

Here in Illinois, hundreds of people are gathering in Springfield, Illinois, today to advocate for the recently proposed legislation to hugely invest in clean energy that will result in 32,000 jobs, reduction of carbon emissions by 20% by 2025, and get the state of Illinois to using 30% renewable energy by 2030. Fantastic!

However, it is sometimes hard to stay the journey of environmental justice. Change comes so slowly in the United States and the industrialized nations, all the while developing countries are ramping up their emissions to achieve similar economic vitality as we have here. 

E.B. White said, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.’ The reality is that if we forget to savor the world, if we fail to notice the exquisite beauty of creation whether it be the majesty of birds or plants, the simple vibrant colors in the sky or the sweetness of a lover’s caress, then there ultimately isn’t any reason to save the world. 

We must savor our lives if we are to put them into the service of helping to save the world. That’s the irony. Sometimes we passionate people get so focused on serving as change agents that the beauty of our own lives runs thin. If we lose connection with those we love most, then we become impotent. 

Or perhaps we get sick or ill. Last week I failed to post a blog entry. It was the first week since I began in mid-January that I failed to post on Love with Courage. I simply couldn’t--due to lack of energy caused by illness. I’ve fallen sick way too much lately. It is discouraging. And so this seems like what I should write on this week.

So many of us who address justice work must learn how to deal with stress and stay the course. It is so easy to forget who can support us and feel like we’re walking all alone. Or our vision simply narrows because of the multitude of demands placed on us--or perhaps better put, the multitude of demands we allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled by. 

Ultimately it is our choice what to give our attention to. And there are always a multitude of worthy demands for our time and energy, but unless we get clear what our focus is, we cannot be effective. 

Each of us are in formation. We are here on this planet, I believe, to learn how to love and love courageously. And this calls us to listen to what is calling us, discerning what calls us to focus on.

Many of us are open to transformation and are currently undergoing the changes necessary to bear real fruit. But it isn’t easy. For we are like seeds. We are in formation, if we’re not yet creating fruit. To bear fruit, we must stay the course of our calling.

I so appreciate how David Rynick describes the experience of a seed. In his book The Truth That Never Fails, he writes:

I feel like a tomato seedling emerging from the earth after many days in the damp darkness of the ground of myself. Those uncounted days are an eternity for the tomato seed. The unfamiliar tickling of moisture calls to something inside me--the deep ache of longing for something unimaginable. All I know of me is flat and round--a small disc of unremarkable color. Everything else is a scarlet dream--a picture once glimpsed--a whispered fragment of a story. Then the terror and wonder starts. The wet coolness of the earth begins to dissolve me. Here are urges I have never felt. I try to resist but am powerless. I can’t hold myself together. Saying my last prayers, I allow myself to be split open. Breaking apart, I discover anew that I am not what I thought. I feel myself going up and down at the same time. The vertical urge toward a power above appears as a single stem whose full function is, as of yet, hidden from me. And in the other direction is a gentler, finer urge downward. Little white threads spreading quietly deeper into the soil to receive necessary nourishment from this unknowing darkness. ... I pray for the faith and determination to keep walking ahead--to keep doing that which I do not know how to do. 

On this Earth Day, may we be reminded of what seeds are being planted, what seeds have already transformed into fruit-bearing plants, and where we need to put our attention. 

For we can only nurture a select few seeds. May we discern and choose wisely.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

When grief gets stuffed, we get stuck

Why is it that many people, especially men, have such a hard time talking about emotional pain? Why is it when it comes to grief and loss, many of us never turn to others, certain that bearing our own pain quietly is better than opening up to others and sharing just how awful it is to lose something or someone we love? Why is it that an increasing number of Americans would say they have no one in whom they feel they can really confide?

The most poignant answer for me comes from personal experience. I was 13 years old and a boy scout. In my troop the older boys liked to swear, drink, and talk about girls. Across town there was another troop. Their scoutmaster was a colleague of my father at the local university, and his three boys were members. I loved getting together with this troop. 

The older brothers, Peter and Daniel, both Eagle scouts, were these two tall slim guys who were attentive, cheerful, and focused. Their younger brother Jason was my age, and I marveled at what kind of older brothers he had. For Peter and Daniel hosted activities for us younger teens. 

One of my most vivid, joyful memories of being 12 and 13 years old was getting together periodically with this troop to play capture the flag over the varied landscape of a giant park and then afterwards gather together to work on an engaging service project. With them, I experienced an intense sense of community and service and good-natured fun.

Unlike the gatherings of my own troop, there was no bravado nor sneering as the tone was set by Peter and Daniel. I just knew these guys were special. They were kind, thoughtful, and fun. In Bakersfield, California, role models like this were few.

I’ll never forget that early morning when my father approached me. I can still remember just how the living room looked and where I was standing when he said, “Alan there’s something I should tell you. Peter, Dan, and Jason were coming home from a ski trip Sunday night. There was a terrible accident. All three of them were killed. I thought you should know.” 

All I said was ‘oh’--I didn’t know what to say--and then my father walked away. 

As I stood there alone in the living room, I thought I probably should feel something because this was terrible, really terrible. But I didn’t feel a thing. I understood that I would never see these three great guys ever again but somehow I didn’t mourn their deaths or grieve the loss of the community that they created for me... for years--actually decades.  

After that morning when my father told me about the horrible accident, I never mentioned Peter, Dan, and Jason to anyone until quite recently. I did what many of us are taught by example--I retreated to an emotional isolation that allowed me to suppress my experience of grief and hide my own vulnerability in which resides my capacity to really love. 

Then a few years ago, I woke up one morning and the faces of Peter, Daniel, and Jason were right in front of me. They were smiling at me, and I began to sob uncontrollably for hours. 

I cried for their parents, their devoted parents whose marriage didn’t survive. I cried for Peter, Daniel, and Jason, how their three lives of tremendous potential were cut short. And I cried for their gift of community that touched many young people, a gift that I experienced as suddenly and irrevocably taken away. And this last thread of grief that opened me up at the core: I cried for me, I cried for what I had loved and lost. And I cried for how I distanced myself for so many years from their precious gift. As I sobbed, I could feel the wall of my heart being lifted.

Since then, waves of grief have come. I have come to see that Peter and Daniel and Jason are not lost to me. Once I grieved their deaths and entered the pain of what their loss meant for me, I realized that I never lost their gift, I only lost sight of it by the clamping down of my heart in emotional isolation. Ever since I began truly grieving their loss, my faith in fostering the kind of community I experienced with them has grown. Now it is as if their spirits walk with me as I seek to actively foster community that provides the necessary safety for play, adventure, and connection.

Since my last post on “Whose love shapes you?” last week, six friends or parishioners have lost their mother or father.  And several others have lost loved ones in the past month. So grief is on my mind and heart.

What do you love? What do you love that you have lost because you have yet to grieve? Perhaps it wasn’t an experience of community but instead a vision you shared with others, maybe it was a kind of innocence, or your fidelity. What do you love that you have distanced yourself from, that you need to reclaim by finding a way of opening up the inner sanctuaries of your heart?

There’s a Sufi teaching about three horses that we ride over our lifetime: 

The white horse is the horse we ride as we grow up and are learning. This is the time in our lives we are in preparation for participating in society but aren’t yet fully there.

The brown horse is the horse we ride for much of the rest of our lives as we make a living, build a life and household, support the needs of others including children if we are parents.

But there is a third horse that comes and goes...

The black horse is the horse of grief and mourning. At some point, everyone will ride the black horse. Sometimes we must take a ride early in life and sometimes we can make it through a significant part of our lives before the black horse makes its appearance. 

If you are someone who is currently riding the black horse, take your time. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t simply turn away from the pain of your loss but find ways to honor your grief. We can’t simply jump off the black horse at will, it takes attention and courage and care. Sharing with loved ones is an important step.

Once we’ve rode the black horse in our lives, we are naturally more compassionate towards those who are now in that saddle. 

Sometimes the black horse rides alongside us, waiting for us to hop on to grieve the loss of a cherished individual but we simply don’t grieve for years, or--as in my case--even decades. 

I believe the measure of a religious or spiritual life is how much love is being nurtured in your heart. The only honest way to tell if your spirituality is leading you forward is whether you are connecting with and bringing forth love and leaving love and justice in your wake as your life unfolds.

As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Passover this week, retelling the exodus story, that extraordinary journey of freedom, may our own journey through grief lead us to the freedom to respond to what is tragic in our midst.

So many of us are capable of steeling ourselves to get through significant pain and suffering, but the question isn’t whether you can endure or withstand great pain. What matters is whether you ride the black horse when the time comes to open your heart to what is tragic in our midst. 

And so much is tragic and broken in our world. May our grief connect us to one another and what needs attention in our community, nation, and world.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Whose Love Shapes You?

This week, I’m thinking a lot about whose love and sacrifice has shaped me--and still shapes me, even though many of these people are no longer alive. For the nature of love is that it survives death. Love never dies. People do. Love lives on and continues to ripple through our lives, such that we touch others.

And because it is holy week, I am reflecting on how the love of Jesus shapes people like me who don’t profess mainstream Christianity and yet find deep meaning in our understanding of Jesus, though often more with the pre-Easter Jesus than the post-Easter Jesus.

Whose love has shaped you? Whose love continues to shape who you are and what you are called to? 

I had a grandfather who didn’t amount to much in the eyes of the world. My maternal grandfather was a mortician and assistant funeral director for most of his life. He served in the navy but never learned to swim--he was lucky to have been posted at San Francisco as a pharmacist during World War II. My grandfather had so little in his 60s, he got a job as a safety deposit clerk at a local bank. 

My other grandfather was a professor of psychology and became the dean of the graduate school at Yale. World War II prevented him from pursuing his Rhodes scholarship. Instead he invented a form of anti-radar shield for aircraft. He had a larger than life persona. He died at age 52 of cancer, when I was 4 years old. 

I know I have been shaped by both my grandfathers. My grandfather Carlson had a gift of listening to people, laughing with others, and finding contentment with simple joys. Family was always first. I knew firsthand his deep love.

My grandfather Taylor valued education and leadership to change the world. He gathered the leading psychologists of his generation. He valued institutional influence and, if he had lived, likely would have been an Ivy League university president. He was so engaged with his career, his children did not know him well. 

Both of my grandfathers were men who cared deeply, in different ways, for different aims. One for the direct support of others and the enjoyment of simple gifts, and the other for the betterment of the world through institutional influence. Both sought the well-being of others. 

I continue to be shaped by my grandpa Carlson’s laughter and emotional presence. I continue to be shaped by my grandfather Taylor’s drive to develop institutions to make a difference in the world. When I think about resurrection, I believe both of them, through their unique form of caring, shape who I am.

But there is a dynamic form of love that also shapes me that is not of my grandparents, family members, or the various mentors who guided my way.

Because this week is holy week, I am also thinking about how the love of Jesus touches  my life. For years, Jesus was foreign to me. Perhaps because I grew up in a non-religious, almost anti-church that gathered not for “worship” but for “Sunday services.” When I was growing up, it seemed to me that God and prayer were never mentioned except in contempt or jest. Yet I found a longing for such a framework, so much so, I ended up majoring in religion.

But I didn’t encounter a compelling figure in Jesus until my first semester of seminary, in a class on Howard Thurman, the African American theologian who founded the first interracial, interdenominational church, The Fellowship of All Peoples, in the United States. He also served as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University. 

I will never forget reading Jesus and the Disinherited. I hadn’t realized that Jesus was a Jew, a poor Jew, among an oppressed people, second class citizens with little influence in worldly affairs, that often suffered persecution. His religious vision spoke to people who had their backs up against the wall, people for whom nothing was certain in life, except that someday they would die. Any person, he taught, no matter their social standing, no matter their riches, no matter their health, any person can walk in the paths of love and fairness and forgiveness, and thus each and every person has the capacity to bring light to the world. And more than that, each person cultivates a personal integrity when walking these paths, an integrity, a dignity, that cannot be taken away, even in death. 

Thanks to Thurman, I discovered the Jesus that called upon people to secure the keys to their own dignity and to come into community with others who committed to walk their shared path together. And just how easy it is to succumb to anger and what Thurman calls the hounds of hell: fear, hatred, and deception. I love Thurman’s work on black spirituals. The Jesus that slaves sang about is a Jesus that, ironically, comes alive for me. 

However, it is primarily the pre-Easter Jesus that Thurman evokes for me. The teacher, the exemplar, the prophet who challenged the domination system of his day, the religious ecstatic, the healer. 

For me the love that survived Jesus by touching people who followed him and wrote about him continues to influence many today. For me, this is what the resurrection is about. The love that never dies. 

I so appreciate the portrait of Jesus provided by Marcus Borg in his bestselling book of 20 years ago entitled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. One passage caught me and still catches me: 
“[I]t is only when we appreciate … Jesus’ emphasis on compassion that we realize how radical his message and vision were. For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community. To put it boldly: compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion. This conflict and this social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today.”

As Easter comes among us, I lift up the love that shapes us, whether that comes from people we have known, spiritual teachers like Jesus, or extraordinary individuals who changed the world by acting on love including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. 

Whose love shapes you? Whose love has rippled into your life?

There is love shared by people known and unknown throughout the ages that ripple through the lives of others, calling us to love--and love with courage. May you experience the rebirth of such love this Easter Season.