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.


Sanctuaries and Stumbling Blocks

God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, the Lord is a rock that brings Israel down, the Lord is a trap and snare for the people. (Isaiah 8:14).

Richard Rohr always seems to soothe and discomfort, both at the same time. He opens a chapter of his Falling Upward with this scripture, then simply observes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.” (p. 65). This is an obvious statement, of course, but in the context of a life of service, it does take on some undesirable if then desirable realities.

Unless this is not an obvious statement, I suppose. For many of us, failure at faith has been deemed as “lack” of faith. A personal failing. A weakness of spirit. A moral negligence even. But any classical “spiritual path,” in this case an orthodox Christian one, requires this failure, this hard-wall slam into the limitations of human finitude. We always hope the ‘slam’ will be the least painful possible, but ‘slam’ is really the only word that gets at the experience. The word I often use is ‘fracture,’ but the sense of difficulty, painful awakening, brokenness that is necessary for new awareness remains the same. Vulnerability in the face of righteousness of God is the only pathway to wholeness. We so often fear the vulnerability in the assumed righteousness of “others” or “them,” however, that sometimes we resist any vulnerability at all. Then we die, either spiritually or emotionally, because without growth and change, there’s no life.

So the failing, the stumbling stone, instigates the necessary discomfort, what Rohr calls “necessary suffering.” Whether we call this (as Rohr does) the groaning of creation, along with Paul (Romans 8:22), or the hating of family along with the Gospel voice of Luke (Luke 14), a travail or separation lies at the heart of spiritual formation unto maturity. We want the ego truths of our notion of good news, an easy intimacy of home, the thrill of the mountain top. We face the challenges of community or the dysfunction of denomination with an ego’s sense of injustice, lack of vision of ‘others’ or Them. Yet if we hear Isaiah’s words, that God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, then we must also hear and surrender to all these things as somehow within the provision of God, a “necessary suffering,” however it may be redressed in our actions along the way.

Take the church we have been taught to hold in holy awe…and (for some of us) in proactive disdain. Organized religion takes it on the chin every day in the news, in the hearts of frustrated (and wounded) ex-religionists (ex-Catholics, ex-Baptists, ex-denominationalists, secular Jews, non-observant “fill in the blank”). The largest category of statistical community in this respect to religion is the “nones,” those who may understand themselves as spiritual but not religious. My own path could be described as a love-hate relationship with the institutional church that professes the Gospel and distracts itself with arguments about sanctuary carpeting, that proclaims the Kingdom is at hand and bickers amongst itself about ideological stands deemed either about “purity” or “justice.” Many of us participate in communities whose identity is to be “purer than they are,” or “more filled with the Spirit” than where we were before. Or perhaps our token of truth says Our community enacts justice while They are only about words or worship or care of themselves. Protestants are by and large the most concerned with the authority of the Word and unity of faith, yet we fracture our Communion, split to avoid this “hypocrisy,” more than any others on the planet.

I’m beginning to smile with Rohr about now, however. You can almost hear his wry smile and gentle laughter: “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.” (p. 74). What if the most hypocritical “burr” of the institutional church is actually the necessary suffering by which we are forced to grow up in faith? What if the institutional church is the brilliant seed of “necessary suffering” which we refuse to allow ever to blossom every time we “leave” to be more “fill in the blank” than “them”? Rohr describes it in this way: “The pedestrian and everyday church has remained a cauldron of transformation for me by holding me inside both the dark and the light side of almost everything, and by teaching me nondualistic thinking to survive. It has also shown me that neither I nor the churches themselves really live much of the real Gospel—at least enough to actually change our present lifestyles! It is just too big a message. … the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride.” (76-78; and if you’re startled or offended by the language, read Hosea; it’s canonical-scriptural).

Regardless of what I think, however, perhaps this is timely for the start of a new learning path, a seminary degree program, a calling into certification where the institutional body says it wants one thing while its actions suggest another. Or perhaps one could even imagine a covenantal peer-group in this light too—a space of sanctuary at times, but then also a stumbling block of wasted time, irritating colleagues, over-emotional peers or under-emotional and distant ones “who are supposed to care.” However we experience this “classical spiritual path,” it seems to be a rhythm of sanctuary spaces and stumbling blocks. Both of which Isaiah suggests are divinely intended.

Rohr concludes with a word of reminder, and of hope. For reasons unbeknownst to many, “It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again—but now on a new level.” (p. 67). If you’re not losing something, then you’ll never find it again at the next level. And however we may rail against the community in which we practice, or the Body in which we serve, we are also given the full assurance of the good news. As Rohr says, alongside the church that is both whore and bride, “The Gospel itself is my full wedding partner. It always tells me the truth, and loves me through things till I arrive somewhere new and good and much more spacious.” (p. 81). Just because the truth may make you miserable at the outset does not mean it’s not true or God is not trustworthy. The truth will always love you through the stumbling block and though we may struggle to conceive it, believe it, God’s Truth is always more spacious on the other side than within our tightly-grasped, ego-driven truths.

But do be warned. If you insist upon only the sanctuary, it will simply become your stumbling block. You will always be a child of God, of course, but you can never determine in the end the nature of the path other than this “necessary suffering.” The world will simply pass you by as other journey-folks build the Kingdom all around you.