You are what you eat... mostly!

I remember reading Feuerbach back in the day - and lots of Marx, Nietzsche and Hegel, too - as I prepared for seminary. For even though I sensed a "calling" into ministry at 16 (1968), it took me a long time to accept that I was being called into local church work. As my children are fond of saying, I was on the "10 year under-graduate degree plan" and along the way I stopped to become a conscientious objector, work in a residential home for wounded children and organize with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. Then, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, when it was clear that I couldn't do anything else, I finished up my BA in political science and headed off for theological school.

I had two babies by then - one only 6 months old - and the summer before seminary I read most of the writings of Marx as well as my favorite American socialist -Michael Harrington - while taking care of the children and managing a summer softball concession stand. For those paying attention, my choice of Harrington - and to a lesser degree both Gramsci and Lukas - over Marcuse, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky and Althusser suggests that I was already more interested in the whole notion of "alienation" rather than "scientific socialism" or dialectical materialism. I wanted to have a solid Marxist background before getting to seminary because I was most interested in Latin America liberation theology.

Once I arrived at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, I had the great privilege of being assigned to a young Philosophy of Religion professor: Cornell West. What a trip! We hit it off, he turned me on to other great thinkers in the realm of religion and politics and helped me sort my way through the often bizarre contours of seminary. His book, Prophesy Deliverance, still is crucial to my understanding of how the church in the United States is called to challenge the status quo while offering creative and compassionate alternatives.

Under Cornell's tutelage, I was able to read all of the great liberation theologians - including 6 months in Latin America - and working with another exciting European thinker: Dorothee Soelle. Her fusion of faith, mysticism and a radical commitment to justice deepened my own emerging spirituality. In fact, I often go back to her book, Suffering, as a way of staying grounded in the paradoxical mission of being a pastor. Once, while painting her apartment and then sharing ice cream during a hot ass summer in NYC, she said something like, "As contemporary Christians of privilege, we are called by God to commit class suicide." She was one of the finest post-Bonhoeffer theologians to come out of Germany and I give thanks to having had the chance to study with her, too.

But - and this is a major qualification - while I learned a great deal from both Cornell and Dorothee - and was enriched and challenged by my engagement with liberation theology - I chose another path. Like many in the once mainstream, but now side-line Protestant denominations, I was aching for a way to nourish the soul, too. Like Kathleen Norris writes in both Dakota and The Cloister Walk, it wasn't enough to be engaged in social transformation if there was not depth or nourishment within. What's more, it was becoming clear to me that without watering and feeding my soul, not only would I burn out, but my social action was likely to become as harsh and fear-driven as the status quo I opposed.

I've written about this before: the quest for balance became the real challenge for me - how do I change within and quit making excuses for being just as cruel or stupid or angry as those already in power while also refusing to ignore the wounds of the world. I think Pete Townsend hit it right when he shouted: meet the new boss... same as the old boss! So, with Elizabeth O'Connor and Henri Nouwen and Kathleen Norris and Joan Chittister as guides, I becan to explore what they call the "inner/outward journey." A balance of prayer and solitude as well as social engagement in community with others. The realm of traditional progressive Protestant had taught me nothing about the inner journey and clearly something was mission...

And now, almost 30 years later, I find that while I value my Marxist education and celebrate the work I did in liberation theology - and I would never trade-in any of my political or union social justice work - what matters most to me now is... kindness. Compassion. Mercy.

Today my ministry is much more like Jewel when she sings: in the end, only kindness matters. And as I was going to sleep the other night it hit me: Feuerbach was right (to a degree) because we ARE what we eat. But not in his simplistic materialist understanding, but rather in a manner that recognizes that whatever we give our hearts and time to shapes and informs who we become. If we are always confronting evil - without nourishing the good within and disciplining our own broken self - we will become what we hated. As they say in some of the 12 Step groups: if your only tool is a hammer, then everyone will look like a nail.

The rabbi who taught me the essence of Hebrew once pointed me towards a story that I now see has become emblematic for me: Once there was a young man studying to be a rabbi who thought that he could change the world. He was full of passion and zeal and after his ordination decided to work with his congregation to make a difference for justice in the world. He worked vigorously and gave himself to the task of social justice day and night. But after five years of work he realized that not much had changed and he had hurt many of his loved ones in his pursuit.

So, he said maybe I shouldn't concentrate on the world - maybe I should give myself to changing my synagogue - so that became his quest. And he gave it everything he had for another five years. And when he sat back to assess what had happened, he had to confess that for all his hard work not much had changed in the congregation. So, with a measure of humility, he said perhaps I should concentrate more on changing my family - and that became his life's work: shaping his family into advocates for justice and integrity.

And, as you can gather, at the end of another five years when he stopped to look at what had been accomplished, he had to admit that it wasn't very much. In fact, more often than not he had upset his wife and children without helping them become stronger social activists. So, he devoted himself to prayer and study, loving his family and congregation and helping out in the wider world when he could. And when he was asked by another recently ordained rabbi five years later why he had made such a change in his life's emphasis, he said quietly, "All those years I was trying to change the world, my congregation and my family... what hubris! I mostly can't even change myself... no wonder not much in the world has changed."

That doesn't mean that the world is any less broken. It doesn't mean that suffering has ended or cruelty doesn't need to be confronted. But the humility born of our failures can be become wisdom if it results in more tender compassion and less ugly noise. At least that's what I'm seeing in retrospect. Like the Hebrew prophet Micah reminds: What does the Lord require? To do justice, to share compassion and to walk in humility with the Lord.

Last night I read these words that seem to capure the essence of the inward/outward journey: "Manna is described in the Bible as tasting like wafers made with honey, but the romance of it all was tempered by a certain amount of labor, too. The flakes had to be gathered and measured and used according to instructions. There was baking and boiling and storing for the sabbath. With the miracle - or blessing - came responsibilities. Human involvement was required." (Post and Turner, The Feast, p. 20)

We do become what we eat: today I am grateful that it has been the bread born of both blessing and responsibility - the bounty of the feast - that leads towards balance and compassion. And in this search for balance, I've come to see why confession is so important. The work of Howard Rice, master of the Reformed spiritual tradition, wrote this confession:

Merciful God, we are always wanting our due. It is easy to see what we should receive, but somehow we are blind to our responsibility. We work to save what we do not even want and value objects over people. Help us to know your mind, O Christ, and learn your way. Commit us to building the place where all are welcome and all are cared for you, in your compassion. Amen.


Black Pete said…
Hmm, I wonder if maybe this needed titling "You are What you Do--and How you do it." Or something like that.
RJ said…
Could be? My wife often says man you could really do something with a good editor? ;-)

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