Friday, October 27, 2017

21st century loving-kindness...

For most of my days in ministry - and all of my days as an advocate for social justice - I have been energized by a call to compassion. In different eras, this calling emphasized varying nuances. Early on, my outward perspective tended towards the stark challenge of Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Like many privileged bourgeois activists, not only did I privatize the ancient prophet's words shared once with a post-exilic Israel, but I wrestled with them without context.  Self-righteousness is often the result of such study - and my assertiveness was no exception. Without a community to help me understand these words in history - and without mentors to plane off the rough edges of my zeal - I was cocksure I knew what the Lord's will meant better than most - and acted accordingly. I was blunt, insensitive and impatient towards others. I was equally blind to my own arrogance and emotional aggression. After all, with a monopoly upon truth, why waste time in the company of those who were too slow, frightened or compromised to topple the status quo?

My laboratory for experimenting with moderation was Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Many of my peers were equally doctrinaire - and articulate. Women called me out over sexism. GLBTQ colleagues did likewise over my shallow sense of human sexuality. People of color publicly and privately took me to task for denying my racism. And key professors quietly cautioned me to move beyond my materialist reading of reality into a more complex appreciation of our shared human experience. As one feminist friend said to me in a class Dorothee Soelle was teaching about anxiety, "You could quote Marx chapter and verse with authority. You had a history of organizing and nonviolent action. But the way you spoke came across like a club rather than a tool. Your vigor was obnoxious and isolating." To be sure, my seminary experience took me down a few pegs. I was invited by some - and directed by others - to learn to listen and share rather than control and lead.

Becoming a pastor in discrete communities of faith strengthened the call of downward mobility.  With real people to love - and real consequences to my thoughts and words - the practice of patience and greater silence took on a new urgency. I still too often spoke without thinking, but now the effects of my words mattered. The local church is where I learned again and again the relationship between humility and humiliation. It is also where I began to find allies willing to help me go beyond denial, overconfidence and antagonism. This was especially true in the recovery community.  Along with a wise and tender spiritual director, they showed me new vistas of compassion and encouraged me to honor the gift of silence. Henri Nouwen once wrote:  without dedicated time each day for resting in communion with God's love there is no way to authentically share it in the world.  By the end of my tenth year of ordination, a new text from the Bible had become my mantra:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message)

By my twentieth year of ministry, I was ready to throw it all away.  Entering the doctoral program at San Francisco Theological Seminary was a life saver: this is where I learned to integrate intellect with pastoral ministry. It was also where I explored how the arts give shape and form to the most profound human truths. Here was a new language that cut deeper than the sanitized liturgies I grew up with; here, too, was a way to speak to those beyond the confines of organized religion. In time, my dissertation on popular culture and a "still speaking God" shaped my new direction in ministry.  Psalm 37 became my guide:

Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices... Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land.

And now, with 36 years of ordained ministry at my back and 40 years of working in the local church, yet another insight about compassion and justice is being revealed.  Jean Vanier of the L'Arche community wrote in his ground-breaking Community and Growth:

The Hebrew word 'Hesed' expresses two things: fidelity and tenderness. In our civilization we can be tender but unfaithful, and faithful without tenderness. Our world is waiting for communities of tenderness and fidelity. They are coming.

I have long wondered about "loving kindness" in the English translations of
Scripture. For decades this rendering seemed too meek. Incomplete. But not so any longer.  A word search reveals that "hesed" becomes mercy 149 times in the Bible and loving kindness another 30 times.  And my heart suggests that the both/and of loving kindness is more useful in the 21st century as action and intent embrace.  Psalm 85 is illuminating concerning the marriage of heart, mind and body:

Steadfast love (or the loving kindness of hesed)and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and will make a path for his steps.

In our age, we are saturated with fear and overwhelmed by callous indifference and selfishness.  Loving kindness is indeed a balm for our wounds - and a clear alternative to the status quo. As Vanier has written elsewhere: the most any of us can do is share love with those closest to us. Applying the 10 foot rule keeps us focused and resourceful without giving in to despair.  And that is where my soul finds rest this day:

O Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not raised in haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters, with things that are too high for me. But I have quieted and stilled my soul, like a weaned child on its mother's breast; so my soul is quieted within me. O Israel, trust in the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.  (Psalm 131)

God knows I still have my blind spots - and my shadows that I barely know are there - but such is the human condition, yes?  

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