Long Road to Compassion

by Mary Kay LeFevour

Shortly after meeting my wife Laura, 30 years ago, she told me the ultimate story of compassion where the Bodhisattva Quan Yin gives her arms and eyes to her dying father who had abused her throughout her life and had even ordered her beheading! I had recently received my Masters in Women Studies and my first thought was, “Wow, this Quan Yin needs to read some Mary Daly. She is one sister who desperately needs a consciousness raising group.” In 1987 I was an angry, fire-spitting feminist and if this was compassion, I wanted nothing to do with it.

Flash forward 24 years later to my first meeting with Ben, one of my new Clinical Pastoral Education classmates. We were sharing what our root religious traditions were and found we both had been raised Catholic. He told me quite frankly that he believed women and gays should never serve as priests in the Catholic Church and in fact he would leave the Church if that ever happened. I immediately thought, “Quan Yin, give me strength!”

***

A lot of life experience, seeking, and meditation has happened between my initial perception of Quan Yin as a dangerous role model for women and calling upon her to help me maintain compassion in the face of Ben’s fear and ignorance. Over time, I have come to love the beautiful ideal of the Bodhisattva who though they are able to reach nirvana, delays remaining in that transcendent state of freedom and continues to reincarnate out of compassion in order to help suffering beings reach their own enlightenment. I now keep a statue of Quan Yin on my altar to inspire me to strive towards the depth of compassion that the Bodhisattva embodies.

***

To my classmate Ben’s great delight, he found me an easy target for his sarcasm and sexism. In my mindless moments I take his bait and engage in fruitless debate about the patriarchal practices of the Catholic Church and in more mindful moments, I mentally roll my eyes and just smile. But I still found myself nowhere near the state of compassion as an expression of presence that does not hold attachment to outcomes. I just wanted Ben, as a weekly irritant in my life, to go away.

Laura watched my suffering and in her infinite compassion pulled out her Maharatnakuta Sutra and read this to me:

“Furthermore, there are four things that can cause a Bodhisattva to become a friend to all sentient beings:

  • To wear the great armor of patience
  • To benefit sentient beings without expecting any reward
  • Never to regress from great compassion; and
  • Never to forsake even those who often annoy and hurt”

Meditation on this sutra motivated me to keep trying to find compassion as I interacted with Ben.  I was committed to seeing through Ben’s persona of the sexist homophobe to his essential Self.

Over time I begin to see his other personas – the caring connector, the frightened boy who was continually criticized, and the Ben who yearned for warmth but was desperately afraid of appearing needy or vulnerable. I tried to hold all of his personas in my heart as Ben provoked me with his barbs. I wanted to see the enlightened being that lives beyond the personas. When Ben presents a case study (describing a recent pastoral visit) I give him positive feedback and would witness his warm connector persona appear.  At every positive comment, I see a relaxation in Ben’s shoulders and a shy smile. I feel his pleasure in being seen as the compassionate being he tries to be.

I begin to think there is a change in our relationship. That maybe my prayers to Quan Yin are being answered and Ben is softening around the edges and willing to show his essential Self. But I’m forgetting that true compassion has no expectation of outcomes and this lesson is brought home to me one Monday when after presenting my own case study that I felt was a successful spiritual care visit, Ben turns to me, smiles condescendingly as he says, “I found your pastoral visit to be….very superficial.”

Oy, Quan Yin, give me strength.

Hope, Creativity, and Art

by Rae Strozzo

In the midst of struggle, creativity is where hope finds vision.

We are in need of creativity and compassion in this moment.  This is a love letter to art and creativity that is so essential to all of us. Sometimes love is hard to see, and context is everything.  So first – the bad news.  

The current political moment seems so polarized and almost surreal.  We are at war now.  The U.S. is fighting itself as it has been since its creation but with a scary vigor. Fear seems to trump so much of what is good in the world if we spend our time on Facebook or watch more than 10 minutes of the news.  Shuffling through the lies to try and sort out what might be true feels like the new daily battle.  

The U.S. is fighting and exploiting other countries for the needs and greed of a few and the government and pop culture feeds it back to us as nationalism and what a “great nation” does for freedom.  All the while internally African American churches burn, Jewish community centers deal with bomb threats, and our Muslim brothers and sisters try to cope with threats, acts of violence and destroyed property.   Transpeople of color are murdered, gender expansive people commit and attempt suicide at astoundingly high rates, and lgbtq youth are homeless at much higher rates than their straight and cis gender peers.  

Walls are built to make and keep people illegal and separate, and families fear being broken up by immigration sweeps.  Our country incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and that is also to make a buck at the expense of those people’s lives and the lives of their families – most of whom are people of color.  Many of our neighbors grow up trapped in poverty and in systems of oppression that get labeled welfare, child protective services, and the mental health care system and so on, but work against the people they are created to help and against the people who work in those systems who want to help.  

Many ignore these problems and systems, and we step past the oppression because it is as subtle as “professionalism” in a workplace that really just says look/be whiter.  Or we say we are moving to a better neighborhood or sending our kids to better schools without seeing that those are whiter neighborhoods and whiter schools.  We live in “Right to Work States” that really say it’s okay not hire people who aren’t white enough, straight enough, gender conforming enough, Christian enough because as long as we don’t say it, we haven’t done anything wrong.   

Now is a time when a college education is so expensive only the most privileged can have it without the reality of mountainous debt and where public education is stifled by our system of lack. We live in a time where art and music struggle to find access points to most people’s lives and where the funding for those things are viewed as unimportant and stripped away.   We are taught to blame the poor rather than help. We are taught to walk away from people who don’t see things the way that we do. We are taught that tough love is about shunning people from families, from churches, from communities, so that somehow they will want to come back to us, but in the way we want them and not in the way that the universe created them.  

We use our limited understanding of creativity to control other people. We use our limited understanding of creativity for greed.  Succumbing to those same limits causes us to destroy our planet.  Our creativity is limited by what we think we know and it is wasted on anger, fear, destruction, and an illusion of control. We stifle vulnerability because we mistaken it for weakness rather than a place where new ideas are born.  We are strapped down by prejudice and are unable in those moments to be our fully connected and creative selves.  Empire wants us to die for lack of imagination. White supremacy wants us to hold it up out of that same lack of imagination.

That is a lot, especially acknowledging that it isn’t even close to giving voice to all of what is up in the world right now.

But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I firmly believe this.  All of these situations are things that were set in motion by people.  Logic suggests that if people created it, then people can also dismantle it. So there is hope. If we can be vulnerable enough to hope, then we have a place to start to vision something different, and that means creativity can come back to us and with its divine purpose intact.

Hope is where real creativity comes in.  Creativity, as it meets compassion, produces healing and love. This is where the arts are a healing force. Creativity as it is connected to love gives us the capacity for participation in beauty. It is the ability to turn the wound into a foundation for solidarity and into an olive branch for the “other side.”

As it is said, those with the capacity for great anger hold the capacity for great gentleness. So too those with great creative power towards greed hold that power for generosity. Those with great creative power toward destruction also hold great  power for creation. All of us hold creative power.  It is the link that bonds all of us to each other and to the universe. Creativity is what makes us human. It isn’t just a painter or a musician who holds creativity. Creativity is our mirror of the universe. It is our tether to the divine.  

Artists are a part of the priesthood of the creative and have a connection to the creative energy of the universe. When artists share their work, they open that connection to and establish that link for others.

The creative process and the artistic result aren’t just for the artist. Art is about completing a cycle and about helping other people and the culture it is a part of change, grow, and evolve. Art is a sacred reminder that we are ALL part of the creative flow of the universe. That is its purpose. Art reminds people that they have things to express and to express them. Creative expression is divine language no matter how it is spoken.

The teacher who makes a place for a struggling kid to learn because they take the time to rethink how they teach is a part of that energy.   The police officer who figures out how to stop violence without using it has that energy.  The activist who rallies support while seeing the other side as people and not just an opposing force is a part of this creative energy too.  

These are just examples. All of us have a link to what makes us our best selves. That is our link to the creative energy of the universe. We have been given this gift. But it isn’t about our minds and not even about our skill sets. It’s about our willingness to get vulnerable and listen to what our higher selves are telling us.  To listen to what our souls are telling us. To listen to what the universe is telling us.  

The path that is uniquely ours in life is lit by love and compassion as motive. Come to life with love and compassion and the steps to take become real.  The creativity to make things happen in our lives and in the lives of others becomes real.  Art is made in song, in paint, in photograph, and in every kind word, in every loving action. Listening to the creative energy of the universe and using that energy for kindness and compassion can heal a lifetime of wounds.  

True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art says, “Thinking goes as far as the mind understands. Then what? Art.”

Change for the good of all goes only as far as our ability to create compassion.  Then what? Art.

They’d Had a Tough Week

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons,
Designated Conference Minister

It had been a tough week for Jesus and his posse.  As Robert Brown observes in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, the realm of God wasn’t “exactly appearing overnight.”[1]

In a sobering moment, King Herod Antipas arrested Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, and beheaded him.

After fleeing north to escape Herod, Jesus asked his closest friends, “Who do people say I am.” And then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am? ” Peter nails the answer with, “You are the anointed one, Son of the Living God.” Jesus used the moment to clarify for the group what Peter’s answer meant. 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.[2] And then, if that wasn’t scary enough, Jesus adds, “If any [of you] want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [after] me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [3]

“Jesus’ followers had never seen crosses dangling over the stomachs of princes of the church, writes Brown, “but had seen plenty of crosses used as instruments of torture and very, very slow death.”[4]

How does one hashtag that? Yes, it had indeed been a rough week for Jesus and his followers.

One might think that being on a mountain with Jesus, and seeing him shining in all his glory accompanied by the Lawgiver, Moses, and the Proclaimer of Justice, Elijah, both dead for millennia but now somehow alive, would have captured the attention of John, James and Peter.  But they were exhausted. They’d had about as much ‘rough week’ as anyone could bear. So they laid down into as much sleep as they could find. There was a time for staying awake with Jesus but this was not it. This was a moment for surrendering to tired, and their feelings of enough.

After the mountain-top-experience in which Jesus took on the physical identity that is the real Son of God’s due, Jesus and his three climbing companions descend into the reality of a man whose soul is pierced through with the pain of caring for his epileptic son, the seizures of whom have thrown him into the fire to be burned, and rolled him into the water leaving him nearly drowned. His last hope had been Jesus’ followers waiting at the foot of the mountain for Jesus to come down again, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy of his illness.

What is a few moments of Jesus shining with God’s glory when your cousin and best friend had been set up to be murdered, when your child faces the possibility of death everyday from his illness?

Being God’s anointed, the Son of the Living God, doesn’t mean much to anyone but the anointed one if all you do with it is enjoy it on the mountain.

Being on the mountain with God’s anointed and witnessing the glory of God doesn’t mean very much to anyone but you if all you want to do with the experience is relish the perks of having had the vision.

This story’s meaning is all about God’s glory – the anointed One through whom that glory broke into the world, and the ones who witnessed God’s glory in the anointed One – coming back down the mountain and into the lives of families like the family of the epileptic boy, or the martyred John the Baptist. God’s glory only means something if we do something with it.

Those few moments of glory give meaning and reliability to the words that accompany them – words from God. Did you catch God’s words about the experience? “This One is my beloved; listen to him.”  Did you hear what Jesus said? “Rise up and fear not!”

Four other SWC pastors and I were at the ICE  building in downtown Phoenix [5]
when Guadalupe Rayos reported for her check-in appointment and was detained on Feb. 8. She was deported the next day. She was the test case for our new immigration rules for undocumented non-violent offenders. That was a tough week for the Rayos family; I saw it on their faces. It was a tough week for every family who has an undocumented loved one with a traffic ticket.

Earlier that morning the SWC announced that it joined other faith communities in filing an amicus brief in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of two Iraqi refugees denied entry into the US.  Ahmed Darweesh is a husband and the father of three children. He worked for the US military and his life was in danger in Iraq due to that relationship. The wife and son of Hader Alshawi, the other plaintiff in the case, were threatened because of their perceived ties to the US. Both men had been granted legal entry into the US only to arrive and be detained and threatened with deportation. That was a tough week for Darweesh and Alshawi and for every refugee awaiting entry into this country.

Next week the SWC becomes a friend of the US Supreme Court because we have befriended Gavin Grimm, a Texas High School student denied access to school facilities because he is a transgender youth. This week was a particularly tough week for Gavin and every trans high school student because rules protecting them and granting them access to facilities appropriate to their expressed gender were rescinded by the President.

Pastors all over our conference, and throughout our beloved United Church of Christ, have shared stories with me that everything they say seems to be heard as political speech. Maybe the examples of people having tough weeks sounded political or even partisan to you.

“Empathy seems like an act of defiant resistance,” wrote John Pavlovitz in a recent blog , “and in many ways, it now is. Maybe homeless refugees and sick children and the working poor and black lives and fewer guns and universal healthcare are indeed now ‘Democratic talking points,’ he continues. “And if they are, then you should take a long look in the mirror, let your knees hit the floor, and ask Jesus just why that is. Maybe some repentance is in order.”[6]

Before anyone accuses any preacher of being political because she or he proclaims those talking points, remember that those very same talking points are in every sacred text known by humanity.

“When Did Compassion Become Partisan Politics?” asks Pavlovitz.[7] Yes, when did compassion become partisan politics?!

You see, beloved, the people whose stories I shared with you a moment ago are at the foot of our mountaintop experience here this morning, and they’re waiting to see what we will do with the glory of God we’ve experienced. As dark and terrifying as things might get, in the deepest, worn out, tired, lost, scared and confused moments of our lives, God’s voice still breaks into human experience inviting us to listen, to rise up, and to fear not.

NT Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, invites us to

“suppose, just suppose, that the ancient prophetic dream had glimpsed a deeper truth. Suppose there were a god like Israel’s God. Suppose this God did after all make the world. And suppose [God] were to claim, at long last, … sovereign rights over that world, not to destroy it … or merely to “intervene” in it from time to time…, but to fill it with … glory, to allow [us] to enter a new mode in which [we] would reflect [divine] love, [divine] generosity, [the Creator’s] desire to make it over anew.

“[That] might mean a living God really had established … sovereign rule on earth as in heaven and was intending to [put] an end to the fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul, of humans organizing the world as though they were responsible to nobody but themselves.

“Perhaps the real challenge of Jesus’s transformations within the material world is what they would imply both [spiritually] and politically.”

In the transformation/transfiguration story of Jesus on the mountain, “Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet…where God’s new creation intersects with ours.” What if the gospels are not about “how Jesus turned out to be God.” What if they are about how God is becoming more and more “ruler on earth as in heaven.”  Isn’t that, after all, how Jesus taught his followers to pray? “Your kingdom come, will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [8]

Sometimes whole churches get caught up in their own moments of glory – past days on the mountain top – as if those glory days were an end in and of themselves. Like Peter sometimes congregations want to enshrine them, build booths of veneration to them, and never let them go.

But in today’s texts Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.[9] And so are we! Moments of glory like this one today are only valuable if in them we are transformed in ways that bring God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s compassion into the time and space of suffering and marginalized ones, in ways that heal and bring hope.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration/ transformation invites us to spend our lives stepping into both God’s glory and human suffering in ways that connect one with the other in healing hope-filled ways.

All this is more than supposition, beloved. We are not following cleverly devised myths, wrote Peter. We are in relationship with the powerful and majestic person of Jesus – the Child of the Divine One – who is trustworthy and gives us the strength to do what God has always invited God’s people to do: make God known in the world. That’s how this season of Epiphany comes to a close. And on Wednesday Lent begins, a season reminding us that there are tough weeks ahead of us, weeks filled with crosses and costs. “It’s time to listen, rise up. There isn’t any reason to be afraid.” Amen.

[1] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. P. 118ff

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:24–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Robert McAffee Brown. Unexpected Eyes: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes

[5] Immigration and Customs Enforcement

[6] http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/19/when-did-compassion-become-partisan-politics/

[7] Ibid.

[8] NT Wright. Simply Jesus.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Compassion: Orlando

by Teresa Cowan Jones

We mourn the loss of life of our brothers and sisters in Orlando and hold hope for healing and love for all the victims and their families and friends. May we all hold tight to the universal value of compassion, especially for the marginalized, and reach out to each other and to the source of life — the ground of all being, however you define it — for support in our grief.

I hear responses to this tragedy that seem to force a choice between love and accountability. We can hold these together; love provides both the means and the end.

We stand with the LGBTQ+ people and all those who are oppressed in the work of both love and justice, which must go together for either to have meaning.

We invite all to reclaim public space as safe space for human feeling and connection and to do so because, and not in spite of, our differences. Together only will we find our way to both honor the rich uniqueness of our cultures and wisdom traditions and celebrate our oneness as humanity. It’s OK that we don’t know how just yet. We will make mistakes but with the goal of compassion, we can stumble together to find our way to a new way of living and being together in which all beings are honored and have dignity.

Hate crimes and terrorist activity demand that we come together in love and solidarity. In Sacred Space this week, we’ll look with new eyes at the sayings of Jesus to help us stay sure-footed in both compassion and justice. We need not let beliefs, religions, race, gender or sexual orientation separate us anymore. We can be one.

May we all love, together, now.  May we focus on our unity and strength and continue to draw encouragement from each other in and for the creation of beloved community.  Let us look at our collective human heritage of the world’s wisdom traditions to teach us a new path.  Let us get to know the stranger – the seeming other – in a way that heals the human species and the planet.

May we let our collective and rightful outrage fuel the changes for which we can no longer wait or assign to someone else. May we all feel now and act now.

Family Portrait

by Karen MacDonald

His arm is lovingly draped over her shoulders, his fingers holding a cigarette away from her skin.  She stands close to him with a comfortable smile, holding their cute Chihuahua dog. A handsome pit bull/terrier mix dog stands between them looking at the camera, one ear flopped over.  John and Pepper, Chico and Deuce posed for this portrait in the parking lot of a church where they’re spending part of the day.

Pepper and John met a year ago at a methadone clinic and have been inseparable since.  She says she’s never been cared for like this before.  By the time each of them was six years old, they’d been started on the road of harsh knocks in their dysfunctional and/or abusive families.  He spent many years in jail, she spent many years selling her body, both of them hooked on drugs.  Now their addictions are cigarettes and state-sponsored methadone.  They each have multiple serious health issues, they have survived living on the streets–and they have each other and their canine companions.  

The money they manage to panhandle goes to the dogs’ food, bus passes, and cigs.  Their food stamps go mostly to support the woman who invites them to spend the nights at her apartment.  John hopes to land a job at a pizza joint near where they’re staying, though his felony record doesn’t help.  They’ve been attacked (with the scars to show), they’re ignored by individuals and the system, they’re sick, they’re tired.

And still Pepper says she loves life.  And they love each other and Chico and Deuce.  They’re a family.  They’re astute and compassionate.  The dogs are sleeping on the strip of grass between the parking lot and Wetmore Road.  Looking at Deuce, Pepper says, “’This dog is so judged. It’s because he’s part pit-bull….He’s not judged by the content of his character, but by his species….’”

In a different, though related development, there’s a push to prohibit (homeless) people from selling papers or panhandling on street medians in Pima County.  This would go along with a similar law in the city of Tucson.  The judging goes on, individually and societally.  Our work of compassion goes on.

(The story of John and Pepper and the quote is found in the Tucson Weekly, May 5, 2016, article entitled “The ballad of John and Pepper, hurting and homeless” by Brian Smith.

image ©Johnny Sajem 

The Gift of Listening

by Karen Richter

We’re all about listening when it’s children doing the listening and we wise grownups are doing all the yappin’.

We tell them they have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

“Listen” and “pay attention” are just behind the word no in their frequency in young humans’ lives.

It seems we teach our children all about listening because

  1. We teach the things we need most to learn ourselves.
  2. We are so desperate to be heard that we ask children to play the role of listener in our families and communities.
  3. We don’t think that we need to be listening to children.

I came home from my first two weeks at Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction with the overwhelming insight that, in every setting of my life, I talk too much. With friends, over coffee. At work, in the staff meeting. In the car, with my kids. Over dinner, with my spouse. At church, teaching and leading.  Too. Much. Talking.

So Hesychia was something of a remedial crash course in the art of listening to another human (of course it’s more than that too, but that’s where I needed to start). It’s a gift when we focus our attention on another’s story, not to fix or respond or correct but just to be present. We know this… I’ve read some variation on this theme on this very blog before. But it’s hard work and little valued in our culture.

I’m taking little baby steps. The other week in our Lenten study, one of our small groups asked if I had anything to add to their discussion. “No, I’m just listening,” I replied. They were a tiny bit surprised, but continued their exploration.

Another baby step is watching and expecting surprising examples. I was at Wal-Mart the other day and the customer in front of me was telling her life story to the cashier. I don’t know what prompted her sharing, but she spoke very vulnerably about the end of her marriage, her struggles to find her equilibrium on her own, and her sadness that her life was different from how she always imagined it would be.

I smiled, nodded, listened; the cashier did much the same – adding a small ‘hmmm’ at appropriate times. After the customer finished her transaction and left, I asked the cashier about this experience.

“I guess you’re a little like a bartender… People tell you their stories,” I asked.

“Happens all the time,” she said with a smile.

“Maybe people need someone to listen,” I prompted.

“I guess. Folks need to know that they’re going to be okay, that what’s going on with them is normal… I just try to listen, not jump in with advice or get them more upset. I just listen.”

I started to tell her that she was a spiritual director, or perhaps a retail chaplain, but I didn’t want to add to her stress. But what a gift she gave that morning – a compassionate voice, a nonjudgmental presence. It was certainly a gift to me, just observing and now sharing with you.

On Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, the children at Shadow Rock talked about the command from the voice of God: Listen! We discussed how often adults in their lives are like Peter in that story, bumbling about, making ridiculous plans, and missing the point of what’s happening right in front of him. I asked them how often they wanted adults to stop and listen. Their answers were sad and unsurprising.

So in the spirit of teaching/blogging about what you most need to practice, I suggest a Holy Week discipline:

More listening, less pontificating.
More presence, less judgment.
More gentle nodding, less interrupting.
More compassionate silence, less thinking about your own response.

There are holy stories all around us.