Tuesday, November 22, 2011

May We Not Lose Even One

I am reminded of a reading recently in the Daily Office, where Jesus, not unlike the Ghost of Christmas Present, points to a child as an example. In these days of political madness, widespread struggle, commercial frenzy, and holiday stress, his words are for me like balm to an open wound in our common body.

From a new article at Episcopal Café.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Way of Compassion

The Way of Compassion in Christianity
A Reflection

Delivered at the
Building Bridges of Understanding Series:
Interfaith Understanding and Social Justice

Session Three: Compassion
Saturday, November 12, 2011

Creekside Room, Dominican University of California

I decided to approach the subject of compassion somewhat critically today – not because I believe compassion has no place in Christianity (I believe quite the opposite, as you will see), but because Christianity, particularly in the West, sometimes treats compassion as an adjunct to its theological premises, a sort of step-child to the full-blooded doctrines, canonical strictures, and theologies that have grown up over the years a bit like ivy growing up and clambering unchecked over old buildings.

At first glance, compassion seems to have a relatively small place in the heart of Christian tradition – the word itself appears in Christian Scripture only eighty times in one widely used contemporary translation (NRSV), and it almost always is associated with the divine response to human suffering and need. "Turn, O Lord! How long?" writes one Psalmist (90:13), "Have compassion on your servants!" For the ancient Israelites, who suffered frequent invasion and periodic exile, suffering was part of their spiritual landscape as a people, and the need for compassionate mercy and help from their God was essential to their hope and spirituality. But does that readily translate into the imperial Church of the later Roman Empire, the expansion in Northern Europe and development of a uniform Catholic tradition, the time of the Crusades, the Reformation, or, for that matter American Christianity of the twenty-first century?

To further illustrate my point, I might as well talk about my wardrobe – sometimes it's best to describe something that might prove to be a bit of a distraction, in any case! You are not likely to see too many Christians marching around Marin these days in a habit and wearing a funny hat. Even amongst those, you are unlikely to encounter Christians in habits who also happen to be married, as I am, and with children. As a member of a relatively recently founded order in The Episcopal Church, The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, I've inherited a hybridized tradition that draws on numerous sources, so simple questions sometimes receive complex answers!

Late this summer, while walking outside my parish in Mill Valley on a warm, sunny afternoon, an SUV rolled up behind me with the windows down, and from inside, I heard a voice say, "Shabbat Shalom." When the vehicle passed someone else inside said, "But wait! He's wearing a cross!" It was too easy to imagine the comical question mark hanging over the SUV as it turned the corner on its way. It's that kind of puzzlement, I suppose, most Christians, and indeed many religious traditions can encounter in the complexities of today’s world. The hat is not, of course, a kippa or a yamaka, but a zucchetto – literally it means "little squash" in Italian. It originated as head gear for Christian monks to cover their tonsures in the Middle Ages – probably for warmth in inclement weather – and later evolved into ceremonial garments for religious orders and clergy. The white habit is more ancient, tracing its way back to the earliest Christians who were dressed in white tunics as they were received into Christian community from the waters of baptism – a symbol of their spiritual rebirth, a sign of the new, cleansed life in the Risen Christ they had embraced as their old selves died with Christ on the cross. The cincture for me, a novice brother, is a symbol of my being yoked to a promise of obedience, the first step on a journey towards the three evangelical or Gospel counsels taken on as vows in ancient monastic traditions: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

I share all of this with you for two reasons. The first is to illustrate a Christian problem, and perhaps a wider problem of any longstanding religion, and that is that we tend, over time, to accumulate and practice layer upon layer of tradition. This practice of accumulation often buries the essential truths of Christianity, which brings me to my second and primary point this morning: that we can so often lose the importance of the "why" of our accumulated traditions, we can too easily lose the proverbial forest for the trees.

My eight-year-old son reminds me of this repeatedly these days when he starts the "Why" game, in which every answer to a question is met with another "Why?" In the West, Christianity of all kinds, ranging from Roman Catholicism to hardline Protestant fundamentalism and everything in between, including my own Anglicanism, can forget to play this critical game and end up propping up an inherited tradition without cultivating its heart, its core. So, why the funny clothes, and, for that matter, why the prayers and the practices and the stories and the theologizing? And that brings me back to the subject of compassion.

The ancient Greek translators of Hebrew scriptures and the Greek writers of Christian texts of the Bible that we commonly call the New Testament used the verb "splagchnizomai" which is derived from the Greek word for intestines or guts. In the ancient Near-Eastern mind, the seat of human emotion, the center of the human heart, was not where we locate it today with the muscle pump in the chest, but in the digestive tract, the bowels even. Compassion, for these ancient authors, was what we might call a visceral response to human suffering, and being a verb, it implied an almost instinctive, active response – the response of a parent to a suffering child, for instance; of a leader to a leaderless crowd (as it is employed to describe Jesus' compassion in the gospel narratives), or amongst the early Christian authors and expanding in later Catholic theology, of a God to a suffering humanity and cosmos.

Splagchnizomai, compassion, is the primordial response of the divine to us as a people, the visceral birth, if you will, of what early Christian communities recognized as divine love. It is not so much that Christian tradition and theology and doctrine demonstrate to us that compassion is a way to be Christian. Rather, Christians argue that it is only through the eyes of compassion and its full manifestation in mindful love that any theology, tradition, or doctrine is to be tested; it is only through compassion that the accretions of our tradition make any sense both in their interpretation and application. Put simply, I would argue that compassion is the heart of the Christian Way, and without it, we have only a hollow shell of a religion. We utter almost blithely, quoting scripture, when we say "God is love," but there is no more profound theological statement anywhere. Our struggle is only to embrace this more fully in every aspect of our lives.

Many of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity – from a dangerous idolization of inherited institution on the one hand, to a radical disregard for simple moral common sense and a willful deafness to the complexities of human suffering on the other – are the result of losing touch with our central call to compassion, the result of ossifying out hearts with weighty tradition and rigid ideologies. This is an old spiritual problem. The Hebrew prophetic tradition, in which Jesus squarely stood and taught, spoke of the need to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of living flesh again. Salvation, an oft-abused word employed too often these days to ostracize, judge, and condemn, in reality points back to this restoration of compassionate living, this healing of our core humanity. A world of mutual compassion undergirds the peaceable kingdom the prophet Isaiah hopes for, and Jesus speaks of a kingdom of God in which all are fed, all are free: a place more precious than any wealth or power the world can provide. And each act of mercy, of compassion, helps build and usher in this kingdom among us.

Jesus summarizes the Law of his Jewish heritage as love of God and love of neighbor, a love that clearly flows from compassion. We love, as an old children's song I learned standing around the organ in a little mission congregation in the Midwest, because God first loved us. Our response of thanksgiving to God's love for us is to be compassionate with one another and everything around us. This means the funny clothes I wear are meant to serve as a reminder to me and to others about the compassion I am to share with others, a witness to the love that flows forever from the heart of God. It's a love that we argue transcends death, a compassion that will embrace death if necessary so that others may have life, a love, a compassion that gives life and abides, in our central Christian practice of communion, in the deep union with everything that is and the Divine Life. Likewise, the old vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are disciplines for Christian community not as ascetic practices for the sake of spiritual pride, but as a means to live more fully into what we used to call in Latin, caritas, charity in the old language, or love and compassion and we more often use these days.

So that's all fine as a heady theology or idea. How do we put it to practical good use? In one Gospel story a lawyer well versed in the Hebrew tradition puts this question to Jesus in response to his central command to love God and love neighbor: "Who is my neighbor?" In other words, to whom am I to show compassion?

Jesus responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, which like many of his parables is filled with irony. The Samaritan, who above the ostensibly faithful religious authorities that carefully pass by on the other side of the road to maintain their ritual purity, is the only person to show compassion to a man who is beaten and left for dead by bandits. Samaritans were considered the dregs of Jesus' time, the outsiders who, to the authorities of the ancient Israelites, held only a distorted and corrupted version of their common faith. Jesus lifts him up as an example that not only undermines the lawyer's self-justifying motives in posing the question, but also illustrates that it can be the most assiduously religious who sometimes have the most to learn about the central call of compassion, of love. As a matter of fact, we insiders and outwardly religious sorts might learn compassion best from those we most easily ignore or ostracize!

In another famous story, Jesus talks of a stubborn widow who seeks justice from a corrupt judge. It is her insistence that eventually wears him down, and he grants her petition even though he has no heart for her cause. Christians these days often imagine themselves at best imparters of compassion. We "do it" for others. What we can forget, however is that compassion always resides in a social context, and it is not always ours to give. What about compassion when we find ourselves, like the widow, on the raw end of the stick? Her example, I wonder, might tell us that insisting on compassion – even from the seemingly pathologically unjust – is an essential part of our call.

Last weekend, I drove into the City to visit Occupy San Francisco. A group from our parish were led there by a youth member who was first moved by their witness and their call for justice. As we spoke with people who had taken up residence in the growing tent town across the Ferry Building, I was struck by the words of one woman who saw her role as a witness to the powerful – not to tear them down, but to appeal to them for fairness, for justice. She reminded me of the widow in Jesus' story, a witness to the call of compassion – of healing the world from below. Our media is rife these days with criticisms of the psychopathological tendencies of some of the most wealthy elites whose amoral greed and selfish ambition led, with our government's complicity, the world economy and financial system to the edge of the abyss. The result is considerable suffering. This woman's witness is a reminder that beyond the mere judging and cries for justice is a call to appeal to the perpetrators for compassion. When we need it from the powerful, we ask for it. Just as I get calls almost every day from people on the margins seeking not only financial assistance but a compassionate ear.

What would society look like, I wonder, if we all regularly appealed to one another for compassion, for love in this vein? Our tendency towards litigation and legislation is the familiar capitalist and democratic response to the injustices of this or any age. But the Christian response, the Way of Compassion, is an appeal to re-humanize our relationships, to go for the gut, if you will, to summon forth that primordial visceral response to need and suffering, and through that response, to participate in the world's redemption.

Location:Dominican University of California

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Falling Up(wards)

A sermon delivered on
the Feast Day of Adelaide Case
July 19th, 2011
at the Summer Convocation of
the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York

by Richard E. Helmer, p/BSG

Just under two weeks ago, a devoted member of a neighboring parish gave me a copy of Richard Rohr's latest book. It was as timely a gift for me as it was gracious. In his new book, Rohr explores what he calls the two halves of our earthly pilgrimage: the first half being consumed with building up of self, of identity, of ego, of accumulating skills, goods, and achievements. The second half, and a half that not everyone undertakes, is of giving away, of turning our life over to service -- of turning to what we could call the religious life, in whatever manifestation of that life God summons us into.

The process of engaging this second half of life is what Rohr calls "Falling Upwards," hence the title of his new book. Seeing that title immediately took me back to the third grade in the small-town Midwest, sitting on the orange carpet with my classmates, listening with delight as Mrs. Klenda read to us Shel Silverstein's poetry, which later included this little gem called Falling Up:

I tripped on my shoelace
And I fell up --
Up to the rooftops,
Up over the town,
Up past the treetops,
Up over the mountains,
Up where the colors
Blend into the sounds.
But it got me so dizzy
When I looked around,
I got sick to my stomach
And I threw down.

Now I ask you: What could be a better description of the journey of the religious life?

It has only just dawned on me that Shel Silverstein was in his own fashion the first philosopher, if not the first theologian, I encountered as a child. He offers more than mere milk for infants. He pens, in his earthy, humourous way, solid spiritual food for young stomachs being weaned by grace.

Tripping on our worldly shoelaces and falling up in the religious life can indeed give us a sense of spiritual vertigo, and at times it makes me queasy. Does it you? As in the gospel passage we just heard, the world can turn topsy-turvy when we take on religious disciplines and community: what is secret is revealed, gifts become demands for service, and inner light becomes the illumination for the outer darkness. When I joined this journey with all of you just over a year ago, I was warned to expect to lose everything. The prospect was as terrifying as it was compelling, and I can say that unpleasant expectation has been more than fulfilled! But in surprising ways. What was lost, what is being lost, either returns more vital and vibrant because it truly matters, or it is shed forever for being truly worthless. These days I find everything from my my marriage to my family life to my ministry in the parish to the community in which I've been planted looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling very different than it did a year ago. And there is yet so much further to fall....so much further, I hope and suppose, to fall upwards.

Falling has a long and hallowed history in our tradition. But it often is painted in a negative light, whether it's popular notions of Augustine's musings on Original Sin or good old threats of hellfire and brimstone. It is easier, truly, to imagine ourselves falling down into the hands of an angry God who is all about wrath and punishment, easier to obey the gravity of our worldly fears and failures projected onto the divine...than it is to consider falling upwards into the transformative grace of a counter-intuitive, loving Savior. God, it seems, is either our severe, judging and punishing über parent, which leaves us forever infants crying for our spiritual milk; or God is the faithful Father and wise Mother calling us to grow up, to live into the grace we have been offered, to take on the solid food that has been placed before us in the feast of the Kingdom. The distance between these two understandings of the divine may well be a measure of our faith, either a faith built on fear or a faith built on love.

So we all fall indeed, but how we fall matters, and falling upwards, defying the gravitational logic of a cynical world bent on self-referential ego and trappings of power, demands much more than passivity in the midst of our imperfections. It demands action, self-emptying self-offering, and a commitment of nothing less than everything we are. In short, falling down is easier than falling up. That's why Christian vocation, however it manifests in our lives, is always the narrow, difficult road for each of us, and why we need community to pick us up, dust us off, and keep us on that road with grace leading the Way.

* * *

"In no area of life is it so true as in the area of religion that we are living suspended between two worlds -- a past that has gone and a future that is yet to be."

Adelaide Teague Case, whom we commemorate today, penned these words just over eighty years ago. She was a shining example, a light out from under a bushel, of what it means to fall up rather than down. After serving as a vibrant teacher at St. Faith's school for girls barely a stone's throw from here in Poukeepsie, she witnessed against the insipid sentimentality and Sunday morning sequestering of much of what passes as Christian education, and she soon ascended the ladder of brilliant secular academic achievement. But she, too, tripped on her worldly shoelaces and fell. She ultimately set aside an illustrious career as an esteemed professor and chair of religious education at Teacher's College, Columbia, to answer a call to the less-well-endowed, male-clerical-dominated world of Episcopal theological education. At the Episcopal Theological School, she became the first woman to be made full professor at an Episcopal seminary, where her radical insistence on putting the students' needs before professorial ambition and ego compounded her challenges in an institution more patriarchal than even early- to mid- twentieth-century secular academe. It is said students refused to take her classes at the seminary simply because she was a woman. But she was eventually recognized for her gifts to the Church, gifts which were almost uncountable as she served and taught all her life. From Women's Auxiliary lectures to organizing for peace in the 1930's and 1940's, she reflected to her generation and generations to come the gifts of Lady Wisdom -- that enigmatic, captivating figure in Proverbs, working constantly and often unassumingly in our midst -- another image of Christ hinted at by mystics and theologians from Julian to Anselm: transformative grace undaunted by our often narrow vision and blighted hope.

For Adelaide Case, that fall up into the paths of Lady Wisdom first began with a young adult conversion to the religious life -- she joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a lay order of women committed to simplicity of life and social action. Maybe this move was initially provoked by chronic illness (she was diagnosed early with tuberculosis of the bones, which haunted her for much of her natural life), but it was ultimately nourished and sustained by the sacraments and a life devoted to prayer. By falling up, Dr. Adelaide, or Dr. A as she came to be lovingly known by some of her students, was long remembered -- like many saints -- not so much for her theology or academic writing, but by exhibiting a life deeply planted in Christ.

What remains striking to me about her writing, however, is how it continues to speak with prescience to our age today, and to us here and now gathered in religious community. In the same pages where she reflects on our being suspended in religion between two worlds, Adelaide Case opines that we generally in the Church talk about religious life just about as clearly and directly as we talk about sex -- which, of course is to say not very clearly nor very directly at all. At best in much of our society we tend to be voyeuristic about both.

I needn't begin you tell you, dear Brothers, about the way the religious often risk being treated as church ornaments. Romantic notions about the religious life projected on the vowed religious parallel the same sort of unfulfilled fantasies projected onto the characters in an episode of Desperate Housewives or The Tudors. In the past year, I've had to confront in people I serve odd but understandable fears, rumors hatched on golf courses even; worries that I might run off to the monastery, habit flapping in the wind, leaving my wife and son bereft at the side of the road. The apostolic religious, I've learned, make less sense to many of our sisters and brothers in Christ than the cloistered monastics, which I suppose makes us all the more dangerous: dangerous perhaps most of all to the voyeuristic approach to religion, an ever-present danger of the Anglican tradition. And yet that brings us back to the challenge of this afternoon's Gospel. The grace we have been given and the call we have received can ill afford our hiding our light under a bushel. And for those to whom much has been given, Jesus warns us, much is expected.

But the greatest wisdom of the religious life, Adelaide Case reminds us, is found not so much in our thinking, skills, or knowledge, our sophistication and erudition, or our cleverness or projects of power and influence. Rather it is found in devoted, faithful, practice of the Gospel of grace. In 1948, while on her death bed and enveloped in prayer, Dr. A received the sacraments daily. Her last reported words were simply,

"What can I do for you?"

I reckon she would recognize the charisms of this community, and be at home this week with us in prayer and Eucharist. She would understand our shared vocation in learning to live a life of service, planted in our various callings, struggling frequently, challenging ourselves and others to stop hiding the light of Christ under bushels, and cultivating more than sentimental Sunday morning spirituality. She would appreciate our shared labor, and our yearning journey to fall. . .to fall up. . .to fall upwards into the life of our beloved Christ.


"Falling Up" from Falling Up by Shel Silverstein. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Background on Adelaide Teague Case from Holy Women, Holy Men and the Talbot School of Theology website: http://www2.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=adelaide_case

"Religion and the child's life" from Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg (Eds.) Our children: A handbook for parents. New York: The Viking Press (1932), pp. 307-317.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fully Seen

Last Sunday's sermon on a favorite gospel story:

Listen to the audio

Wood print by Sadao Watanabe

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Argument Wears Thin

It would seem in the late great debate of blessed unions we must either cast marriage as the linchpin of our civilization -- that to change our chosen definition of this institution signals our downfall;

Or that marriage is simply a means to an end, be it solving the "division" between the sexes, or right procreation -- a tool in either the human or divine toolbox to somehow fix us.

Sadly, neither idolatry nor utilitarianism make for good theology, nor do they disclose God's healing love for broken human hearts.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Exclusionary Principle

Today's daily office reading from Paul's Letter to the Galatians speaks to the current situation in the Anglican Communion:

They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Witness to Humanity

David Kato, voice for the voiceless, martyr for the marginalized, bore Christian witness for persecuted sexual minorities in Uganda and wider Africa.

His brutal murder echoes across the Anglican Communion, reminding us what is truly at stake in the controversies of these past years: lives, dignity, and a Gospel too often distorted by fear, prejudice, and hatred.
As with the martyrs of centuries past, Kato's voice seems to have more power in death than in life. An editorial in Uganda's largest independent newspaper shows a remarkable and undeniable shift is beginning, even in the face of dehumanizing legislation.
Kato is yet another witness among many who brings fresh meaning to the cross, and to Paul's unmistakable hope in Romans 14:8 -
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
May David's soul, the the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.