One Word at a Time
April 29, 2012, 10:38 am
Filed under: interdependence, practice, vulnerability | Tags: , ,

What is help?

Sometimes I find myself fascinated by a word, spending time with it like I might with a good friend. Open, attentive, present, curious. It’s remarkable how difficult such a simple act of presence is today. We hang our lives on an overwhelm of words, after all. News reports, mundane communications for lunch or direction and more. Rarely do we devote our attention to just one word at a time. Rarely do we companion it with invitation, inquiry, a blessing of breath, full presence and attention offered without expectation of return. How often are you curious for what might be learned today, in contrast to what you expected yesterday, from one word?

Sitting with the word help, I’m struck by how common yet opaque it is. Helping is something we do every day. I help Dad around the house. She helped him put groceries into the Subaru. We helped a young man pay his rent. They helped students learn calculus for the AP exam. Here help seems to be something someone offers another who needs it. Notice already how a non-noun like ‘something’ is required? Nouns become synonyms for help, things like houseworkeffortmoney, or services of some kind.

Yet help is just as opaque as it is common. Think about those things offered as help that are not received, or able to be received, for some reason. I helped the older woman across the street before she hit me with her cane, saying, “Leave me be! I am fine.” Effort refused, perchance because it was misdirected. He provided answers to help them pass the test. Services of teaching offered here…or cheating that serves no one, in the end? She gave a $20 bill to the woman dressed in rags with her two children. Help or being had? Do we ever truly know? At the very least, help seems to accompany need, whether it is rightly perceived or even received.

Perception and reception are what draw me to the word today. How do we do the first thing for help–determine a need–then identify healthy response(s) to that need, and then either extend or receive such help? What is the responsibility of the one who needs and the one who helps? And of course, the ever-present power-differential: who is helping whom in this connection or interaction? Much like service, you see, help is consistently misunderstood in both perception and reception. The strong help the weak. The full help the empty. The wise help the ignorant. Here, the ‘more’ powerful (or provided, or smart, or…) offer assistance to the ‘less’ powerful (or…). Receptivity is the task of the one who needs, in this perception.

This way of looking at things falters in the face of need as gift or seed for transformation. Just because we don’t like to needto be needy, does not preclude the fact that our needs are strong signs of invitation to self-awareness, connection, learning. Without need, we stay just as we are. Without need, we do not extend ourselves. With need, we yearn for, we reach outside ourselves for… What better evolutionary schematic could there be for change, for learning, for new interactions and more life? If we consider a need to be a strong sign of invitation, to be a gift or seed of new life, then the task(s) of perception and reception in help change.

By naming a need, I join generations of the human race. I become both more than I was—by identifying my particular need-invitation and helping-path—and I connect myself to all those who have come before, all those living. Knowing this need in its specificity allows me to welcome all that may help and invites me to disregard the rest. Strangely, allowing the need, identifying it, puts me in a place to help myself, the only one who truly knows all dimensions of need and the best-path or prospect of help. Knowing my need makes me strong, when I act gently, slowly meeting it, face to face, with a smile.

The unavoidable counterpart here, of course, is that true help comes only with accurate perception and reception, a healthy willingness to discern and receive what the world offers. Both of these things are exceedingly difficult to do well for human beings who only know about 15% of their own brain functioning. [Neurologists estimate that human beings, by and large, live most of their lives dependent upon only 15% of their grey matter.] To respond to the opening inquiry, true help in this sense means that which meets a need toward life, toward wholeness, toward greater connection with self, other, world. Help is that which connects the ‘strong’ to the ‘weak’, the ‘empty’ to the ‘full’, teaching them both of distinct needs and meeting them both in healthy fulfillment of those needs.

Or at least so I surmise from help received this weekend. Unbeknownst to me, a need grew in me I can now see was a heavy feeling of isolation, an overwhelm by a burden I had willingly accepted. I had chosen to make a sacrifice, of sorts, though one unperceived by everyone around me. I had not needed anyone to know, as I didn’t choose the path for recognition (at least in my best self). As it grew heavier than I could sustain, I reached out in need. Help came, unexpected but shared in a smiling strength from afar. My loneliness was met, driven by need known and unknown. The burden became lighter, then moved to completion and release. It didn’t take much–a text-touch, a bit of wisdom-sharing–but I had to discern the need within me, seek the right responder and response, and receive whatever might come (or not come) in trust that I had done all I could on my own behalf. Help was both my action of reaching out and the response willingly received.

In the end, help is many things to many people. True help comes when entering into one’s own need and acting gently, slowly, to open to it, to its attraction of the right or healthy response. Only in such a way do we become fully who we already are, newly strengthened for life. The irony is what suggests its truth: one’s need is the hidden gift of strength. When tended in this fashion, need and help become one, interdependent, a new way of being together in and for the world. Not a burden taken or received. Not an ‘ought’ met in obligation.

A deep breath inhaled then shared outward, for good.


Obedience in the Light of Love
April 25, 2012, 10:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In 1928, a young Ruth Berger, my grandmother, took the word ‘obedience’ out of her Brethren wedding vows. I know little about the service except it was a double wedding with Ruth and Ben alongside her sister and fiancé. Nonetheless, I have had a strange relationship with obedience ever since. 

Here is Grandma Ruth, who became Ruth Berger Hess upon her wedding.  

My father sent the picture to me because a ministry student asked whether I might be related to the Mrs. Hess who had taken her sister and her under the wing in a rough time. As she spoke the details of her Mrs. Hess—guidance counselor, son was a doctor, Northmont High—it became clear her Mrs. Hess was indeed my Grandma Ruth. We both laughed, enjoying the unexpected connection. The picture is for her, but I startled to see it again myself, newly aware of a deep yearning to know her like I never did, never could have. 

The corsage Mrs. Hess/Grandma is wearing signals that it’s Mother’s Day. Look closely and you’ll see four baby roses, one for each son born and borne. Her hair had gone gray fairly early in life, usually ascribed to these four. Boys, not roses. Her glasses were vintage 1980’s and if the composition allowed it, you’d see one hip slightly higher than the other. Scoliosis, we learned through various family inheritances of this diagnosis. Her eyes danced—one blue, one brown—even when she was severe. The “Little Red Riding Hood” doll she made for me when I was five mirrored these eyes. I still have it.

 I find myself wondering today whether she would be pleased with her granddaughter who yearns and writes. You see, we wounded one another when I was young. Without intention, of course, but I’m not sure we ever quite recovered. I remember it fairly clearly, which is unusual for me. Junior high was my world, and I wanted to spend time with friends on a Sunday evening. A Sabbath evening, I should say, for Grandma’s thinking. Mom and Dad were away on a business trip and she was shepherding the homestead. We loved it when she could. On this particular evening, Grandma refused my desire. “No, you cannot go. It’s Sunday,” she probably said.

Not prepared was she for the will of a confined adolescent girl more like her than she knew. Tempers flared. I probably slammed a door or two, perhaps even saying things I would regret, if I remembered saying them. The evening passed in an angry silence. Whatever else transpired in this desire to be with friends whose names I cannot recall today, my grandmother and I were wounded that night. A natural course of events between generations, of course, but painful and poignant all the same. I discovered years later from my father that she was wary of me from that point on. She feared her granddaughter didn’t love her, though I had obeyed. 

Love and obey. This is the combination historically spoken in wedding vows of old. This is the coupling Grandma Ruth uncoupled, with good reason. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the wife’s obedience to the husband, “as the church is obedient to Christ,” or some such line. In most Pauline references, the task of the man’s obedience is often left implicit, unspoken, though it’s almost always written there too. Such texts have torqued relations for centuries, as men dehumanize themselves in the domination of women, and women dehumanize themselves in relinquishment of their own agency in relation to men. My grandmother reasserted her own agency. My grandfather was receptive to her—and his own—humanity. Yet she struggled to see them together all the same. Perhaps both my grandmother’s and my generation have steeped long enough in love as it was thought to be, avowed against  obedience as it has been. Perhaps love and obey can come alongside one another, when properly Referenced. 

Thomas Kelly’s essay “A Holy Obedience” marks the first life-giving words I received for obedience that is holy, what he calls “a life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd” whose accent falls completely upon God as initiator, aggressor, seeker, stirrer into life, ground, and giver of power (to us) to become children of God. (Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 26). Holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd. In a culture and overculture of multiple, conflicting voices, how is one to know this voice of the Shepherd? Especially if one is not Christian? 

Kelly notes that this voice offers a “serious, concrete program of life,” for one, wholly different from “mild, conventional religion.” He calls that “the first half.” Obedience that is holy, on the other hand, is the other half, the second half (as Meister Eckhart would and did say). It is observable in an insatiable God-hunger that drives one into a “passionate quest for the real whole-wheat Bread of Life.” (p. 28). It marks a life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). States of consciousness will fluctuate. Visions will fade. But this holy and listening and alert obedience will remain as “core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, work-aday living.” (p. 32). Perhaps this arrives as a passive receptivity for some. 

Most of us, however, (says Kelly) must follow an active path to this obedience, wrestling “like Jacob of old… whose will was subjected bit by bit, piecemeal and progressively, to the divine Will.” (p. 32). The first step to this obedience of the second half comes, perhaps, in the “flaming vision of the wonder of such a life,” or in meditation on the life and death of Jesus, or through “a flash of illumination” or, in George Fox’s language, “a great opening.” However it comes, it comes as an “invading, urging, inviting, persuading work of the Eternal One,” wholly unaccountable to modern psychology. However the active path arrives, the second step to holy obedience becomes just this: “Begin where you are. Obey now. … Live this present moment, this present hour, in utter, utter submission and openness toward [God].” A third step then: “when you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour, and assert your old proud self…don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets and self-accusations but begin again, just where you are” (p. 34). Knowing well the American ear, he refines the way with yet a fourth step, “Don’t grit your teeth and clench your fists and say, “I will! I will!” Relax. Take hands off. … Learn to live in the passive voice—a hard saying for Americans—and let life be willed through you” (p. 34). 

Most of my life, I’ve gotten stuck on the popular collusion of God and religion. Loving and obeying God meant obeying a religious institution, or a community’s fundamentals whose norms spelled out what I knew in my own experience to be lifeless. Or at least not life-giving to me. Simultaneously, I have recognized what Gerald May spoke in his Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology: we yearn to surrender ourselves to something or someone larger than we are. Whether we find healthy or unhealthy ways to deal with this yearning remains a regular contemporary challenge. Material prosperity found yet empty, addictions, serial relationships, and more show a quest, a search for something of meaning or release. 

In my own life, I learned surrender in both a beautiful and painful way. I had found a teacher, I thought, and covenanted my surrender to her teaching. What life I received! What energy, drive, direction, and significance. Heady spiritual stuff, to be sure. Until she became human, just as she was, as she ought to be. I had surrendered with inaccurate reference. Beautiful. Painful. But I received a glimpse of the life that is possible when surrender—even submission—arrives with the only Referent healthily chosen. 

Kelly refers to this One as the Hound of Heaven. The One who never lets us go. The One whose love infuses all until light is all within all. He describes “a holy blindedness, like the blindedness of the one who looks steadily into the sun. For wherever he turns his eyes on earth, there he sees only the sun” (p. 36-7). This One does work in the church, in the religious institutions of historical traditions. This One also invites us into lives of devotion outside of these bounds too. I dare say I sense such Spirit in lives of atheists too, though I could never ascribe my language to their non-theist experience without misunderstanding and anachronism. 

In this Referent, love and obedience do go together. They promise a liveliness in life unmatched by any substitute. How did Kelly say it? “A life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). Part of me thinks my grandmother knew that well. In her final years, alone but divinely companioned, she knew this Referent as she cooked dinner, cared for friends and family, told her stories again and again. Her language had grown rigid, untenable to one of her loving granddaughters, but I know she knew. 

Perhaps someday I’ll learn more about Mrs. Hess as others knew her, but for now, I think Grandma Ruth would be pleased with the granddaughter who yearns and writes. We know so many of the same people after all, but especially, we know the One who pairs love and obedience into a freedom beyond reckoning. Regardless of worldly matters so often considered, each of us would see only the sun were we to gaze upon one another today.

Loving and Leaving the Intersection

Today marks the day of one of the most ambivalent Christian habits of mind: a sacrificial dying for the sake of a received living. Not very eloquently written, perhaps, but each word and grammatical choice is significant. Ambivalent traditionally refers to an emotional state from being pulled in two directions, or a lack of expressiveness from feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. It may look like one doesn’t care at all, but in the etymological sense, one may be aware and devoted infinitely in opposite directions. Here, I use all that to describe the bi-directional day of death that purports to be about life. This day, of all days, creates ways of thinking within my tradition that, without awareness, urge us to err boldly in one direction or the other. Some revel in the violence of this day, and glorify a gory and excruciating death. Others disregard the violence of the death completely, bypassing any remembrance in order to rush onwards to Easter. The task, I find, is to maintain an ambivalent habit of mind: be infinitely aware of and be with the death while simultaneously, infinitely, looking for life.

Adjectives and gerunds are required, at least as I stand within Mother Church. ‘Sacrificial’ always seems to be required, probably thanks to Paul. Today is the day that sacrifice, however it may be (mis)understood, is glorified. ‘Received’ is offered in light of one of the main interpretations of this Christian day of atonement: a sinless life was offered up, to be received by God as payment or substitutionary punishment for sin. Life for us, not death, is to be received as gift. The gerunds remind us that while we prefer nouns, God does not. This day is about all the dimensions of dying, intimately related to all those of living. Not death, or life, like some word could actually represent the ‘suchness’ of either.

An earlier engagement with kashrut in devotion to an ‘other’ was (partially) about how liturgy impacts the way we think, the way we see the world through ir/religious lenses implicitly chosen or imposed. Not surprisingly, I wrestle the most with Good Friday liturgies. If your Good Friday is all about the violence of Jesus’ death, why? If you avoid any of the implications from Good Friday’s liturgy, why? How do your answers show you your mind?

For myself, the day has gotten increasingly heavy these last years—both chock full of intimate insights into my own Teacher, Lord, and largely void of any shared meaning with my own tradition or worshipping community. I hate that Christian tradition(s)—perhaps seen in most stark relief in Gibson’s The Passion—glorify Jesus’ death, revel in the violence, instigate stringently ascetic practices of repentance like physical self-flagellation. I have become sensately aware of how this propensity to glorify violence exacts violence on the world, Mother Earth, the ‘other’ or ‘scapegoat’ whom the community exiles or executes (thinking of work of Rene Girard here). I stopped participating in the litanies shared by the community a couple years back. Just couldn’t say the words, though I felt I needed to be at the service and be shaped by the community on this day. I continue to ask myself, “If I avoid Jesus’ death and its implications, why?”

Yet this day, the Good Friday liturgy, has taught me my Teacher as well. I resisted the litany last year, feeling distanced from the glorification of violence and the propensity to worship Jesus himself—a phenomenon I do not believe he ever desired, or desires now. Instead, I found myself listening within for how the disciples experienced the humiliating death of their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord. What would it be like to see one for whom devotion flowed out of you like a living spring, dying on a cross? In a flash, I saw faces of my own beloved intimates—a Buddhist lama, a rabbi, another rabbi, a woman. One after another, and the tears flowed. “The inanity of it all, the senselessness of death,” I thought. “If I only didn’t know the one who was dying, perhaps.” Then the ton of bricks fell: What would our world be like if we could so mourn the death of one we had never known, or those we do not like, such that our lives became intimately intertwined with theirs, such that they could feel and know undying devotion for them at their very last breath? That was worth bearing the felt-distance with my community in a liturgy I can no longer speak. That is the question that has been with me, taught me, all year. To feel and know devotion for another who is dying, to have that love cross the chasm between who we know and who we don’t, who we find easy to love and those we don’t. In a strange way, the faces of those dying began to smile back at me.

So I continue to receive nourishment from and stand within Mother Church. Much like my grandfather, Benjamin Musser Hess, I cannot speak truthfully all that Mother Church offers. (He would say the Apostles’ Creed, omitting the phrases he could not speak truthfully while offering thanksgiving for the Church that continued to profess all of them around him). I do not pretend clarity about dying that is righteous and that which is senseless, or, for that matter, life that is righteous and that which is not. I receive both her milk, as the infant in Christ I will always be (Hebrews 5), alongside the solid food that the raven brings, necessary to sustain life on the peripheries of community life I can no longer share (I Kings). What I have learned for this day, what I share with you amidst seeing it with my own eyes, is that Good Friday is not to be a glorification of the death of Jesus, nor about his life sacrificially given for the sins of many.  It marks a renewing, covenantally-driven way to live an old lifeline into human relationship.

“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” it is taught. A scripturally authoritative text for many, commonly associated with the so-called ‘legalistic’ practice of separating meat and milk dishes in kitchen and at table. If you immerse yourself inside it, however, you see and can know in your bones the everpresent mindfulness of a lifeline humans are commanded to cherish, to observe. A lifeline through which one becomes most fully human in relation with the Holy. One side, mother’s milk, honors the nourishment that comes from our forbears, all those who have fed and sustained us in body and spirit. The other side, the meat, honors the life given up for our nourishment, and that of others. Both sides are ever cognizant of death, but in such a way to honor life. Without nourishment, we die. With meat, some creatures die for others. With nourishment, we live. With meat, we remember the life of others.

So I ask my fellow Christians: If Good Friday is all about glorifying Jesus’ death for you, how is that not boiling a calf in Mother’s milk? Or lamb, in this case? How is that not succumbing to a felt-imposed choice between life or death when the fully human task is to welcome both, to know one cannot be truly cherished without the other? Death is not punishment deferred onto another, or something to be avoided, but simply one ‘figure’ to life’s ‘ground,’ both of whose whole reality is held in the Oneness of God. (Thank you, Tanya). For me, as this Lenten season concludes, the cross has become a reality not about death into new life or a glorification of Jesus’ death connected to the depth of my sin (however deep it may be). Neither does it require that an absolute commitment to life avoid or overshadow the ever-present reality of death, or the particular significance of this death.

The cross, here, today, marks an ambivalent lifeline demonstrative of devotion. Its bi-directionality—vertical and horizontal—is to connect heaven and earth just as much as it is to connect each of us to one another. We Christians tend to focus on the intersection, the place where we see our teacher and Lord, the only place where we think you can focus. But it may be time for us to breathe awareness into the lines instead, to be with the death while looking for life, to receive the living as we honor the dying. It may be time to see the figure/ground or either/or way we have traditionally entered into Good Friday, and sit instead with an inexplicable lifeline that arises in all directions underneath and around it. Not as proof of or sole movement to a particular one’s Resurrected Life, but as invitation to lives of devotion for the known and the stranger, our intimates and irritants.

May the cross, this day, bring in you the milk of loving-kindness through which tradition nourishes life, and the meat of humility that comes with the reality that others die—everyday—so that you may live.