Monday, November 30, 2009

The dynamism of compassion, part deux

Compassion is the key.

(All the major religions) have come to this conclusion

not because it sounds good, it sounds nice, but because it works.

We are at our most creative when we’re ready to give ourselves away.

We are at our most sterile and dangerous when we seek to have ourselves and more so,

and to use religion to enhance our sense of ego.

--Karen Armstrong, to Krista Tippett

I listened today to a podcast of an interview done for the program Speaking of Faith--it resulted in a show entitled “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong,” but what I heard was the unedited version, and it was terrific.

Karen Armstrong is a former nun, a religious historian/scholar, and currently leading the Charter for Compassion. I first heard of her 15 years ago or so when she was part of Bill Moyers’ Genesis discussion, and she struck me as a truly fresh voice, and won me with the line “Religion is at its best when it asks questions.”

That comment sparked a new chapter in my own faith life, and I’ve kept her work on my personal radar ever since. I recently linked to her TED video (which is related to her winning a TED prize for the idea of the Charter).I commend this interview to you; it’s available here. In it, she tells the story of her own journey through Roman Catholic religious life, through amused/bewildered atheism, to her present orientation as a person of faith not tied to a particular faith tradition--or, rather, lightly tethered to many and adept at finding their points of commonality.

The quote about compassion with which I opened this post captured my imagination today. The charity necessary for true compassion could be a truly powerful (holy!) force, were it fully unleashed in the world. She spoke of charity not in the sense of pity, which locates the charitable above the other, in the center; rather, charity is the force that gets us to willingly vacate the “center” position and put someone else see the world through their eyes. Whether we like them or not. Whether we agree with them or not. Even if they drive us nuts. Even if they’ve done Bad Things.

This isn’t new thinking. What got me was her assessment that this kind of generosity of spirit is the most creative of forces. That sings somewhere deep in my soul.

She also discussed the Western/Christian tendency to be hung up on doctrine--to focus first on believing rightly--in contrast with the Eastern/Muslim/Jewish orientation toward living rightly as a path to the Divine.

(We do spend a lot of time and energy arguing, do we not, fellow Lutherans?)

What if, instead, we tried this (Karen’s quote, again):

If we do what Hillel says (do not do to others as you would not have done to you), if we lived by that, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute--and it’s no good going straight on to Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein when there are people in our own immediate entourage who we find difficult to get on with--the Buddha always said you have to radiate compassion to all four corners of the world, but you’ve got to deal first with the people who are right there around you: that difficult sibling, that annoying colleague, that rival, your ex-wife. (When) you can extend benevolence, wish them well, this starts to break down the hard shell of ego.

If, every time you attempted to say something horrible about one of these “enemies,” (you stopped to consider) how you would like it said about yourself or a loved one and refrained (from doing so) that moment, you would have achieved a transcendence of ego--and that would be a religious life, I think. Hillel was right to say that that’s the essence of religion; that’s the Torah, the rest is commentary. Confucius uttered a version of this golden rule 500 years before that; Buddha taught a version of it.

I think lots of things would change if we learned from our co-religionists instead of fearing them, judging them, and focusing on why they’re “wrong.” I think part of the reason we argue so much is that it’s substantially easier and more immediately gratifying than it would be to live in the simplicity of genuine compassion. We like to be right, and don’t want to spend more time with the Other than we absolutely have to.

I had a Zen class in seminary. The view of “what’s next” expressed in that class frightened me at the time--it was about attainment of enlightenment via complete emptying of the self (oooo...sounds like Jesus); about a "goal" of finally sort of being absorbed back into the web of life that hums all around and through us. This is a contrast with most of the funerals, most of the conversation about death I’ve been part of in the Christian world--you know, harps, clouds, lots of anthropomorphizing, a “reward” for a life well lived (yikes!).

What if this whole journey IS about breaking down ego, about emptying the self to find the Divine? What does that change in each of our lives?

What if we Christians took Jesus more seriously than Church/Tradition/Doctrine?

If we try to live our way into the answer via compassion as depicted above, it seems to me that we’d all be changed for the better, regardless of our dogmatic location.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Friday Five: Crush

Though it's a few days late, this is too much fun to resist. Songbird of the Revgals writes:

I have to admit it. I felt for her.

You see, in high school, I had a crush on my Chorus teacher. He was a young guy, and he had gone to college with some cousins of mine, and over the summer between 9th and 10th grade, we ran into each other at a series of pre-wedding parties, and I feel DEEPLY in like.


1) Did you ever have a crush on a teacher?

I had a terrible crush on my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hager. She went to my church, and we bumped into one another out in The World once in a while (laying to rest my earlier understanding of teachers as context-sensitive beings who only existed in classrooms and faculty lounges, but evaporated if they tried to leave the school grounds...)

I was crushed out to the point at which I dressed like her...which sounds harmless enough, until you picture an 11-year-old in a calico shirt (the kind where every panel is a different fabric) over a TUBE TOP. (Shudder.)

2) Who was your first crush?

Hmmm...the first one. That was early. Kristin Setterstrom, our 4-houses-away
neighbor, was about 5 years older than I, and she looked a bit like Kristy McNichol. LOVED her. She babysat my sister and me a couple of times, and when all the rest of us (younger) kids on the block were playing Statue Tag in the front yard, I always kept one eye turned toward her house, in the hope that she might come out and join us. Alas, no.

3) Have you ever given a gift to a crush?
Oh, yeah. Poorly written, unmailed love-scratchings, mostly.

4) Do you have a celebrity crush? (Around my house we call them TV boyfriends and girlfriends...)

If Emma Thompson ever looked my way, Beloved might need to be a bit indulgent with me. ;-)

5) Have you ever been surprised to find yourself the crushee?

The first time was in first grade. George Christidis gave me a pin shaped like a chicken, that he'd got from a gumball machine. Looking back, he was a tiny George Clooney--gorgeous kid. Bet he's breaking some hearts now. Hope I wasn't too hard on him.

Oh, and Tom Harder called me several times in fourth grade to profess his undying devotion and to propose an ongoing relationship. Nice fella. Our dads drove the same kind of car. I liked the attention better than I liked him, though. Poor Tom.


Well, it's been a while.

It's been a challenging few months; Beloved has had struggles with her depression and her job; I've had a new job (which I love, but being new somewhere sort of demands that you raise the level of your game), and there have been a couple of other "extra effort" sorts of circumstances. I've had NO time to write, or even to think too deeply or for too long.

Which is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. ;-)

And we're heading into December, which is generally my most stressful month of the year. But today I'm in a good place with it. The last few days have taught me some stuff; Beloved and I stayed home and had a quiet Thanksgiving together, and it's been a terrific weekend framed by wonderful worship services at my home church.

For the six of you who are still reading after this long hiatus, I shall spill out the wisdom that's presently in my tenuous grasp:
  • In times of stress, sometimes you have to pare down to the essentials as a family. Being able to say "No, thank you" is a critical survival skill.
  • Remembering to do something sweet and surprising during such a time can have extra impact. Beloved got me a "real" version of this piece of art, had it beautifully framed and gave it to me on Thanksgiving. I get a bit weepy just thinking about it. The Ruth passage it references was read at our wedding.
  • Ask for help when you need it. (I know...duh, but I'm still working on this lesson, after years of Life's gracious re-presentation of opportunities to learn it.)
  • Speak your truth, even when it's difficult. Sometimes the only way forward is through.
  • Love is all around. Look for its impish grin peeking at you around corners and beckoning you.
  • Finally, from Meister Eckhart: if the only prayer you say in your life is "thank you," that would suffice.
About that last one--though I find much of contemporary culture (at least that part that relates to getting/having/sharing our stuff) seriously out of whack, I have to say that a day set aside for pondering the gifts of our lives, and being thankful for them, is a not-so-distant relative of the Biblical concept of jubilee. In the same way that jubilee released people from debt and punishment, intentional thankfulness releases us from the bindings of fear and despair by reframing our vision.
  • Instead of worrying about what might be, we see what is.
  • Instead of focusing on the material (and its potential for loss), thankfulness rightly locates us in the abundance of God's mercy and love.
  • Instead of ruminating about "I," we find ourselves in relationship with "Thou" (and "thou," and "thou," and "thou...").
This is all to the good, and I'm facing December with a lens of quiet confidence and with a singing least, for today.

Deo gratias.