a spirituality of tenderness....

For all of my life unconsciously - and for the past few years intentionally - I have been inching towards what I am now calling a spirituality of tenderness.  It is a personal and political commitment to consciously cultivate compassion. It recognizes the inward/outward journey that Elizabeth O'Connor so wisely articulates. It has been shaped by the confessional writing of Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris and Henri Nouwen. It has been guided by the sacramental theology of Gertude Mueller-Nelson, Ed Hays, Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, Wendell Berry and Rumi. And it looks and sounds something like Yusuf Islam, Carrie Newcomer, Cannonball Adderly, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison and a whole lot of Lisa Fischer. 

Earlier this month, my friend and first mentor in writing, MB from St. Louis, posted a picture/ quote from Buechner that perfectly captured one aspect of this spirituality of tenderness:
We all hurt. We have all been wounded by the status quo - some way more than others - but none of us have escaped the anguish of living in the real world. Some of us have more creature comforts than others; we often have more addictions and denial, too. In her book, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion, theologian Wendy Farley made it clear to me that the key starting place for transformation is compassion. It is where God meets us and how our prayers become the Word enfleshed. I have explored this inwardly and intellectually in a variety of ways over the years starting with Thomas Merton and moving towards Harvey Cox, James Nelson, Dorothea Soelle as well as a variety of spiritualities of music. I now see, however, that the common thread woven throughout these explorations has been tenderness. 

So for the next few weeks I want to try to articulate both what I sense it means to practice such a spirituality of tenderness, and, why I discern this matters: at this fractious moment in US society the way of the heart strikes me as more important than ever. It has implications for the words we speak and write, the politics we endorse, the way we approach strangers, the manner in which we touch one another physically and emotionally and so much more. I have been so grateful for the way theologian Susan Thistlethwaite has consistently articulated the current phase of "the war on women." It is one aspect of her insights into a "just peace" theology and way of living. As she observed after the recent Republican "debate," Donald Trump's crude and ugly noise about Megyn Kelly - and almost everything else he said - must be heard by people of tenderness as the Id of US culture speaking loud and clear through a frightening vulgarian. As Ferguson once again erupts into public violence, as supporters of Bernie Sanders experience the shock of white privilege when race is pushed back into his campaign, when every Republican candidate spends time and money courting corporations and the radical right without once acknowledging the class conflict bubbling up from below, and when Pope Francis stuns the world with his clear call for a new way of living that heals Mother Earth and comforts the poor and broken of creation: a spirituality of tenderness is claiming shape and form.

At dinner last night with a friend, I had to confess that I was grateful for this extended time away from the United States with my sabbatical in Montreal. I have not read much of the news, I have not seen US television at all and besides a quick review of certain Facebook headlines, have remained outside the influence of the tools of propaganda and exploitation. We joked that I should request another 16 month extension of my sabbatical so that I might escape the presidential escapades that are already being cooked up. But that would denigrate the charism of this moment in history.

Suffice it to say I am certain that the way of tenderness must be expressed and embodied as a conscious alternative to the mean-spirited reality that grows like a cancer in my culture. It must also be shared as a means of solidarity with those whose lives are most obviously wounded by greed and oppression. Again, I believe it was Dr. Thistlethwaite who noted that Gustavo Gutierrez said: don't trust those who don't personally identify with the struggle for freedom for unless the struggle has an element of self-interest they will shrink away when the going gets rough. Forty years ago I heard Cesar Chavez say much the same thing when he spoke of why he became interested in community organizing. He said that church people are good and their charity is always helpful and necessary. But after a few years either they get bored and move on to the next good cause, or, their funding source is cut off. However it happens, they know they can always leave the struggle - and they do. 

So I want to spend some time writing about what it means to live into a spirituality of tenderness for these times. I am beginning to understand why I continue to be drawn to this song in all of its incarnations...


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