Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Love Force


Today and next Wednesday I am revisiting two posts relevant to the upcoming U.S. elections. This post appeared on Nov. 7, 2012, but was written on election day, Nov. 6, before results were known.

Mid-October I read in the morning paper about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the Taliban shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for encouraging the education of girls in Pakistan, and the death of George Whitmore, an African American whose life was never good after a reckless and wrongful conviction for murders committed while witnesses actually placed him in a catering hall where he was employed, watching Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

Not exactly the stuff of contemplation, you might think.

Yet exactly the reason we need contemplation. In Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech echoes Merton and other contemplatives when he writes:

The contemplative is more of a threat to injustice than the social activist who merely sees the piecemeal need. For contemplative vision is revolutionary vision, and it is the achievement of this vision which is the fruit of true spiritual direction. A spirituality of clear vision goes hand in hand with love. To see with the eyes of God is to see truthfully and lovingly. Such a love is not sentimental or naïve: it is a love which undermines oppression and burns away illusion and falsehood, a love which has been through the fire, a love which has been purified through struggle. It is a love which has known solitude and despair.

I’ve been re-reading insights I’ve underlined in books I read long ago. The morning that I saw the above articles, I happened onto one of Mahatma Gandhi’s ruminations in The Gandhi Reader (ed. Homer A. Jack) on satyagraha, variously interpreted as love force, truth force, and soul force and politically expressed in non-violent direct action. “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth,” Gandhi wrote.

When asked for proof of its existence in history, he replies, “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” He uses the illustration of two siblings arguing. If they go to war or sue (for Gandhi, a lawyer, another form of violence) their quarrel will be remembered, but if their love for one another is reawakened and they reconcile, few notice because that’s as it should be. “Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history,” Gandhi explains, declaring that what’s true of families is true of nations.

The next day our newspaper carried an article about studies indicating we retrospectively characterize a week or a time in our lives by its peaks rather than intervening constancy, which to me seems to validate Gandhi’s point.

But I would add that satyagraha is revealed in history when love stands up to the test, such as Gandhi’s challenges to injustice through civil disobedience. This may give us a new way of understanding the cross: Jesus’ love force stood up to “the powers that be,” and the crucifixion interrupted the natural trajectory of truth, love, and soul of the inbreaking commonwealth of God, just as it was subsequently interrupted by the persecution of early Christians who tried to live into that commonwealth. Thus Easter is an affirmation of the triumph of truth, love, and soul and non-cooperation with the forces of violence and death.

I schedule my posts on Tuesday for Wednesday publication, so this was put in final form on election day in the U.S., which means I do not know the outcome. Indeed, the outcome may not be known by the time you read this, given the anticipated closeness of the presidential election and the possibility of contested election results.

No matter. Whoever is elected will have to deal with those who want to make a name for themselves or their party or their ideologies by exploiting division and divisive issues—in other words, making history rather than letting the forces of love, truth, and soul bring reconciliation, mercy, and justice to Washington, D.C. As much as I believe in recovery programs and understand alcohol may easily exacerbate orneriness, I long for the time when lawmakers would end their day having cocktails together and trust working together and compromise without looking to give the latest sound bite to inflame their constituencies, satisfy their contributors, promote their ideologies, and enlarge their egos.

What we need in government—as elected officials and voters—are more contemplatives.


Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Henri Joins the Circus

Henri catching the wing of a windmill.

To give us a break in the midst of our pandemic and political drama, as well as for my friends and family coping with fire and smoke on the West Coast of the U.S., I offer this to bring a smile to your face.

Attending an international Nouwen conference in Toronto in the summer of 2016, I was reminded of the research Henri Nouwen did for a book he never wrote about the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a German circus. He wanted it to say something about the spiritual life in more universal (rather than religious) language. So I wrote and posted this children’s story on August 10, 2016. I had fun drawing Henri on a windmill!  It alludes to his early book Clowning in Rome and his later fascination with the trapeze.

Once upon a time there was a wide-eyed boy named Henri. He lived in Holland during a great war. His hands were large, his ears were large, he was clumsy and awkward, and he felt like a clown.

And so he went to clown seminary. He devoted himself to learning all the gestures a clown must use, flapping his oversize hands like birds, extending them at arms’ length in welcome, clapping them rapidly together as if offering multiple expressions of gratitude for everything and everyone he encountered.

He stuck his neck out, squinted his eyes as if to see better, turned a big ear to hear clearly, bowed grandly but deferentially, and stood on tippy-toes to accentuate his already great height when making a point. And he had a huge, goofy grin that revealed his absolute delight at encountering you.

Henri found a costume that accentuated his vocation, and learned how to apply garish makeup that sometimes covered his true feelings.

So Henri joined the circus, following the poet e.e. cummings’ famous advice: “damn everything but the circus.” He travelled hither and yon, over hill and over dale, as the circus wagons kept rolling along.

He stumbled and fumbled and tumbled and somersaulted his way into people’s hearts. “He is just like us,” they said, sometimes smiling in recognition, sometimes deeply moved as his familiar foibles and limitations tugged at their heart strings. His disabilities mirrored our disabilities.

But Henri had a secret wish: to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Sometimes his height allowed him to catch an arm of a windmill, common in Holland’s countryside, and the uplift took his breath away. He could see great distances and imagine himself flung to the heavens before crashing to earth in a pile of hay, cushioning his fall.

And then Henri met Rodney, a trapeze artist. Rodney was strong and graceful, beautiful and amazing. He was everything Henri wished to be, and  HE COULD FLY! Boy, could he fly, doing doubles and triples midair without a care in the world.

“How do you do that?” Henri asked Rodney, appreciatively. “Being absolutely present in the moment,” Rodney explained. “I let go of everything that can hold me down: my cares, my doubts, my fears, even yesterday’s mistakes. And I trust. I trust the Catcher, and I trust the net. Gravity is not my enemy; it is the friend that brings me home. I can go up toward the skies knowing I will come home. I surrender to the moment and soar, knowing gravity will keep me down to earth.”

Then Rodney added, “It’s the same thing you do when you stumble and fumble and tumble and somersault into people’s hearts—except you do it grounded. Your gravity is compassion. Your home is the heart.”

Henri was stunned. He had never thought of his work in this way. Rodney’s words lifted him up, and Henri felt like this man on the flying trapeze.

My book about Henri:

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Compassion and Community

I took this photo of an 80-year-old Nicaraguan who had just voted in her first free and fair election. She is holding up her thumb that had been dipped in red ink to prevent voting more than once.

On our morning walks in the neighborhood before COVID-19, Wade and I would greet and be greeted by neighbors along our various routes (different for each day). But now that more people are out and about, walking, the new walkers seem less likely to look up from their cellphones or hear our greetings under their earbuds, though the runners still do, I guess because they have seen me run in the neighborhood and we have that connection.

I have supposed we have not yet formed with the new walkers the community needed to be acknowledged.

Last week’s post, “Recovering Compassion,” grew out of my current reading of a 1982 book by Henri Nouwen, Douglas Morrison, and Donald McNeill entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. What I have read since is that these three Catholic Christian authors believe compassion requires community: sensed, actual, and/or geographical.

What I first intended for this post was to suggest my difficulty feeling compassion for those with whom I politically disagree because they are not a part of “my” community. But instead let me describe this phenomenon positively. I feel compassion for Black Lives Matter protestors because the Civil Rights Movement “woke” me about equal justice and opportunity for all and inspired my own pursuit of that for LGBTQ people. And I admire the movement, We Are the 99 Percent, because my dad was a blue-collar Teamster truck driver and we lived on working class wages, despite my mom teaching at a Christian school for sacrificially low wages. And I better understand migrants escaping harsh conditions in Latin America because I have visited a post-Somoza Nicaragua and a post-Pinochet Chile.

And, in fact, I have tried to understand friends and family and fellow churchgoers with whom I share love and memories and values whose political bias opposes or diverges from mine. So true community does allow for diversity as well as compassion.

But I need—we need—to enlarge our sense of community.

The authors of Compassion write:

When we are no longer able to recognize suffering persons as fellow human beings, their pain evokes more disgust and anger than compassion.

Responding compassionately to what the media present to us is made even more difficult by its “neutrality.” … Whatever the news announces—war, murder, floods, the weather, and the football scores—is reported with the same ritualized tone of voice and facial expression.  … All of this is regularly interrupted by smiling people urging us to buy products of dubious necessity. The whole “service” is so distant and aloof that the most obvious response is to invest no more energy in it than in brushing your teeth before going to bed.

They contrast this with Jesus and God being moved by compassion, biblically described (multiple times) as feeling it in their guts (Jesus) and in their womb (Yahweh).

They offer as a role model the Trappist monk and social critic Thomas Merton whose “knowledge of the suffering of the world came not from the media but from letters written by friends for whom particular events had personal significance. To these friends a response was possible. When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized.”

On occasion, Merton invited many of them to gather at Gethsemani Abbey to share and pray together and community was formed.

I have travelled widely and that has piqued my interest in developments in many states, countries, and locales. I am more attentive to their stories on the news or in the newspaper as a result. When a recent U.S. president was elected who had never traveled abroad, I wondered how he could possibly “get” or care about other regions or cultures.

Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community” is larger than we can fathom. The commonwealth of God that Jesus proclaimed is more extensive than our fellow believers. Instead of the Prosperity Gospel prayer to “enlarge my territory” for personal success and wealth, we need the Progressive Gospel prayer to “enlarge my community” and thus our compassion.

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Recovering Compassion

Mosaic along Philadelphia's South Street

For the past four years, I have prayed daily for compassion within our nation’s leadership. So it’s high time I read the only Henri Nouwen book I don’t recall reading, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, co-authored in 1982 with Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison.

The copy I’m reading was my gift to my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1993, “remembering your own gracious gifts of compassion,” I wrote in it.

It’s an eye-opening experience, replete with many surprising considerations. Though I’ve written elsewhere that caring for those in need is considered by archaeologists a sign of civilization, compassion is not universally considered the highest human value. There are those who have argued that a compassionate society impinges on the “higher” value of individual freedom. Small wonder Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village was problematic for some!

The authors interviewed many people and many communities to prepare for writing Compassion. Of particular interest to me was their conversation about compassion in politics with the late U.S. Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a progressive of his time:

Senator Humphrey walked back to his desk, picked up a long pencil with a small eraser at its end, and said in his famous high-pitched voice: “Gentlemen, look at this pencil. Just as the eraser is only a very small part of this pencil and is used only when you make a mistake, so compassion is only called upon when things get out of hand. The main part of life is competition; only the eraser is compassion. It is sad to say, gentlemen, but in politics compassion is just part of the competition.”

The authors observe, “Compassion erases the mistakes of life… To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition.”

Compassion is neither our central concern nor our primary stance in life. What we really desire is to make it in life, to get ahead, to be first, to be different. We want to forge our identities by carving out for ourselves niches in life where we can maintain a safe distance from others. We do not aspire to suffer with others.

Is this the basis of “white grievance”? Do some straight white males see themselves diminished by the ascendance of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color? For the life of me, I can’t work up compassion for those who oppose rights and opportunities for those who have been marginalized. But I can understand those who feel they have been left out of the system because I was for so long as a gay man. Yet perception is not always reality. Leaders who play up that perception to gain power are not honest brokers. They are mistreating the same people they claim to empower.

“Must we simply recognize that we are more competitive than compassionate and try to make the best of it…?” the Catholic Christian authors ask in their introduction. “This book says No…” and then quotes Jesus in Luke 6:36: “Be compassionate as your [God] is compassionate.”

The authors don’t use the terms, but the call of Jesus is counter-cultural and revolutionary: “it is a call that goes right against the grain; that turns us completely around and requires a total conversion of heart and mind. … God’s own compassion constitutes the basis and source of our compassion.”

Here [in the example of Jesus] we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position… On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.

In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other. We have lost this gift because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful.

But what really counts is that in moments of pain and suffering someone stays with us.

I have reordered some sentences within the spirit of the authors.

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.