Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Shepherds and Sheep

May 30, 2017

Growing up in a Christian household I knew well the language and imagery of Shepherds and Sheep. Jesus was our Shepherd and we were his sheep. The same imagery was applied, to a lesser degree, to the Pastor of the Church. We, the members of his congregation, were the flock that he tended, cared for and protected.

The Shepherd symbol was so pervasive and normative in my youth that I never gave it a second thought. In fact, I don’t even think that I was aware that it was a metaphor.

That changed when a young Christian Pastor pointed out that, “Shepherds smell like sheep.” He made this statement in a discussion about the difficulties that churches inevitably encounter when they welcome the homeless into their facilities. Understandably, no church wants to have to deal with difficult people and situations.

Unfortunately, life and people are complicated. If we want to help house the homeless, then we cannot separate ourselves from the messiness of life. People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Housing can be expensive and hard to find. A period of bad luck and unexpected expenses can land individuals and families on the street.

There are certainly homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or disability. There can also be substance abuse issues. A handful have been homeless so long they can’t imagine being housed. Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is complicated.

“The homeless” are people just like us. Their lives are filled with both joys and sorrows. Like us, they are driven by hurts, emotions, and motivations that are buried deep in the mind. They may react, as we also often do, to people and situations in ways that are contrary to their best intentions and beliefs.

christ of the bread linesHousing the homeless means getting to know the people who are are homeless as people. Unique. Human. Challenging. It may involve sharing meals, entering into conversation, or just listening.

It is important, however, to remember that shepherds, no matter how they smell, are not sheep. No one seeing a herd of sheep would mistake the shepherd for the sheep. Nevertheless, to be effective, the shepherd has to live among his/her sheep. The shepherd cannot delegate shepherding. He/She cannot create a non-profit whose mission is ensuring that no sheep “goes astray.”  No. Being a shepherd means tending and nurturing sheep with our own hands. It involves getting dirty and stinky, as well as sharing in the fullness of the life of sheep: birthing, nursing, protecting, and burying.

If we, as religious leaders and people of faith, are akin to shepherds — and I think there is value in the metaphor — then the question is do we, “stink of sheep?”  How protected from adversity and unpleasantness have we made our spiritual lives and churches? Who are the “lepers” in our life and our community? What uncomfortable work have we have delegated to others?

All us will answer this question differently. We each have different callings. The work and mission of each church will differ. We are, however, capable of doing more than we think we can. The first step is a willingness to get our hands dirty or, in the words of my Christian friend, “smell like sheep.”

Peace, Paul

Compassion is Challenging

April 1, 2017

I often write about the importance of cultivating love as a spiritual practice. This is natural. I was raised in a Christian household in a dominantly Christian country. Love is the spiritual value at the heart of Christianity. It informs how we interact with those around around us —Love of neighbor. It dictates how Christians relate to God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” It also defines Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. He is continually pointing us beyond our limited and parochial love towards the vastness of divine love.

Love, however, is primarily an outward flowing thing. We can love others without being transformed by them or gaining an appreciation for their situation and struggles. In some Christian theologies, therefore, it is possible for God to love us completely without being changed or affected by our sufferings and joys.

Compassion_GraphicCompassion is a different matter. Compassion means to “suffer-with.” Having compassion means understanding and sharing in the suffering of another. Even our most hated enemy, for example, doesn’t want to get sick. Like us they experience emotional ups and downs, get frustrated, experience anger and happiness, and generally share in the entire panoply of life. While we may disagree with or even oppose their actions, compassion allows us to recognize that they, our enemy, are not fundamentally other.

Compassion is the spiritual expression of our interconnectedness. We are connected to and therefore affected by the people and beings around us. Compassion affirms this interconnected reality through our courageous willingness to enter into mutually transforming relationships with others. Compassion is responsive. Our compassion responds to the people and situations we encounter. Since those situations are not of our making, compassion opens us up to new possibilities, new understandings, and new ways of living in the world.

When we “suffer-with” others, we instinctively want to alleviate the pain and suffering of the other person. The familiar analogy is that of our own bodies. If we touch a hot stove, we instantly take action. We recoil! If we have been burned, then we seek medical attention or apply a soothing ointment.

Often, unfortunately, there is little we can do to alleviate another’s pain. If they are hungry, we can, of course, try to feed them. But in the relatively affluent West, suffering is often less concrete and more existential. In these situations the best we can usually do is recognize another’s “pain.” We can see them for who they are: precious beings struggling to do the best they can.

Compassion is challenging for many of us today. We are caught up in the outrage and anger of the current political environment. We tend to objectifying political opponents as “fundamentally other.” This objectification is both un-true and lacking in compassion. If we truly live in an interconnected world, then our political opponents cannot be intrinsically or objectively bad (evil). They may have a different vision for the future. Their ideology may be diametrically opposed to ours. They may be woefully misguided. The may act in harmful ways. But they are still human. Their lives are filled with many of the same sufferings and joys that we ourselves experience.

Because politicians often have power and privilege, we can be resistant to allowing ourselves to feel compassion for them. It is much easier to generate compassion for the downtrodden and persecuted who lack even the basics of life. It is hard to be compassionate towards the powerful, who have material security and luxury. Nevertheless, the rich and powerful are suffering as well. They have succeeded materially but still experience discontent and dis-ease.

As with the practice of love, it is important to practice extending compassion to specific people in specific situations. We need to use our hearts, imaginations, and life experiences to help us appreciate the reality of another’s difficulties.

The most natural place to cultivate compassion is in our own daily lives. We can open ourselves to the joys and sorrows of the people and beings we encounter everyday. We do not need to “like” or “agree-with” a person in order to have compassion for them and their particular situation. We simply need to recognize that they too are suffering.

Compassion takes courage. Once we have seen into another’s life and tasted their sufferings, we are forever changed. We respond to them and to the world differently. Over time this transforms the way we live and how we view our work. Specific goals are contained within the much bigger goal of: Ending suffering in all its forms! In the rough and tumble world of politics, our goal is to alleviate suffering, even for those individuals whose words, policies, and actions create and perpetuate suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul

Prayer, Love, Social Transformation

May 20, 2016

As a religious person who has worked for many years in non-profits that serve “the least of these,” it is abundantly clear that we cannot fix people. Each person must work out the tangles and knots in their own lives.

We can, however, respond to the people around us with love and compassion. Listening to them deeply and acknowledging their humanity, we offer what help we can. Often the specific and concrete help, though necessary and important, is insufficient. There are huge structural issues that keep people in poverty. We can and should address these social ills.

The most immediate social ill, the one that we as individuals and as faith groups can heal, is the stigma attached to poverty and lack. The “poor,” the “homeless,” and the “hungry” are first and foremost people – just like you and I. They are, to use the language of Jesus, our neighbors.

Holding a Tea CupTherefore, simply giving food to the hungry is not enough. We must love the ones we serve, expecting nothing in return. Love must be freely given, a heartfelt response to the intrinsic value of another person. Such love is a universal salve. It is the essence of prayer and has the power to heal wounds of the spirit. It can provide peace and respite to the weary and downtrodden. Collectively, it paves the way for the radical transformation of society into one based on love and compassion, in which privation is unknown.

In Christianity, this is the realization of the Realm of God. In Buddhism, it the manifestation of Amida’s land of love and bliss.

Peace, Paul

Agape and Christian Charity

April 19, 2016

An advanced degree in religion can sometimes come in handy, as was the case when I found myself explaining charity to a group made up predominantly of Christians.

Charity comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word άγάπη  – Love.  (Άγάπη is spelled agape in English, which can also mean wide open.) Agape is the the heart of the Christian teaching. Christ taught that the nature of God is Love. Over and over again, Christ demonstrates that no one and no group is beyond God’s love. Following Christ means living, or at least bearing witness to, that divine love. Agape is lived in the most mundane circumstances as well as the most challenging. Love is practiced by bearing wrongs, turning the other cheek, healing the sick, and caring for the “least of these.” Love is “sharing the good news” of God’s love, through our actions as well as our words.

Charity is an act of divine love. It is the way we express agape – God’s love – despite our personal likes or dislikes. Christ gave us clear guidelines on practicing love, even when we are in the presence those we cannot personally love. My personal limitations, judgements, and dislikes should not be a barrier to carrying out the “works of mercy” or extending hospitality to another. If we are truly faithful, then we know that God’s love is not lessened or limited because we find someone despicable. God’s love is omnipresent. Charity is our response to God’s love. It is our willingness to love and serve everyone we encounter, simply because God loves us all.

Peace, Paul

A Life Lived Deeply

January 6, 2015

Buddha handsA new year is here. The previous year is gone. Some of us have lost friends and family over the course of the year. Others have made new friends, entered into new relationships, and seen the birth of children.  None of us has passed the year without being touched by impermanence and change.

Life is passing by so very swifty. If we are not careful, we may find ourself on the cusp of death, filled with regrets and doubts. So let’s use the turning of the new year as an opportunity to take stock of our lives. Let’s take some time to reflect and ask ourselves, have we lived a noble life? Is the world a better place, filled with more love and compassion, because of the life we have been leading?

In our heart, we already know the answers. Life is precious, sacred even. Yet most us  do not have a sense of the sacredness of life. We miss it because our lives are filled with the press and stress of the work-a-day world. There is no time for stillness, and wonder, and gratitude. Today’s world does not support such idleness.

Thus to live a life of prayer, to live deeply and embrace the sacredness of life, is to live counter to the ambient culture. Certainly it is not easy. The path, however, is clearly marked. Set aside time each day for silence and prayer. Give up anger and cultivate love as much as possible. Read and study the lives of the many great beings who have glimpsed the fundamental goodness of life. Practice generosity and kindness toward all you encounter. Keep the sacred always in mind.

Such a life has transformed whole societies. In our case, if we are lucky, through our efforts we may be able to bring a little light to someone in pain and sorrow who has lost all hope. What a wonderful gift that would be.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Wyoming_Jackrabbit

Creating a More Compassionate Society

December 9, 2014

peter_maurinIn this last month of the year, I have found myself dipping back into the writings of Dorothy Day. I am rereading parts of her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.” She and Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker continue to inspire and shape the way I understand what it means to live a religious life.

Being a Buddhist myself, some of the Catholicism does not resonate. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of striving to live a life rooted in faith and love and forgiveness are solid. The emphasis on voluntary poverty, non-violence, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for effecting positive change in the world are as relevant today as they were when the Catholic Worker was founded in 1933.

Watching the grotesque theater that passes for politics, it is clear that politicians are not going to be able to address the serious issues facing us today. There is just too much money and power to be had by protecting the status quo: A world of greed and hatred.

We, individually and in small groups, must find ways to live lives that value and promote peace and compassion. The seeds of a more compassionate, a more loving, and more peaceful tomorrow are found in the accumulation of innumerable little daily actions, words, and thoughts. It is found in how we treat our neighbors. Do we speak kindly and compassionately about others, or do we engage in gossip and vicious speech? Do we think about those who are difficult, or have wronged us, with compassion and forgiveness or anger and impatience?

This is the hard long term work of creating a more compassionate society. Of course it is not enough to be satisfied with our own inner transformation. We must also do the important work of creating a better world by, “Resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted.” This is where the rubber meets the road. To end war, or end hunger, or protect children from harm and exploitation, we must be willing to work towards these goals in real and concrete ways. We ourselves may not see an end to war or poverty. But if we adhere to non-violence, compassion, and love as our method, we will find the goal is already present in the work that we do.

Life is short. Tomorrow may never arrive. Today, let’s begin to live compassion filled lives so that our children may grow up in neighborhoods, cities, and societies that are free of war and privation.

Peace, Paul

Photo of Peter Maurin care of Jim Forest

Gratitude

November 28, 2014

Gratitude, like some much of religious life, is a combination of practice, perseverance, and openness. Gratitude is cultivated slowly, over years and decades. It involves the daily recollection of the many things, great and small, that we receive each day. Some days the practice is easy, other days it is a struggle to be grateful. Often it can be helpful to remember that many individuals lack even the basics of food, water, clothing, and shelter. Remember also that others are suffering the ravages of war, or experiencing ill health, or perhaps mourning the loss of loved ones.

This is a good practice. However, is important to remember that “the map is not the territory.” The daily practice of gratitude, while important and valuable, is only a technique. It is not true gratitude. It is a close approximation.

True gratitude is a spiritual experience that arises as if by accident. The self, with its blue skysmall concerns, falls into the background and suddenly we are overwhelmed by gratitude. Perhaps the blueness of the sky becomes almost unbearable. Or maybe the kind words of a stranger brings us to the brink of tears. Such gratitude cannot be conjured. It arises spontaneously and does not add to our sense of self but rather strips us down to nothing as we encounter the wonder and power and mystery that is existence.

Peace, Paul

Friends

November 3, 2014

I have been travelling the last couple of weeks. During my travels I have had the opportunity to meet new people and renew old friendships. I have hung out with like minded individuals as well as quite a few people whose views were radically different from mine. Most of these people, whether rich or poor, religious or non-religious, urban or rural, were good hearted people. They were people trying to do the right thing, based on the norms of the community in which they live.

We are all shaped by the people and social structures in which we live our daily lives. The speech and behaviour that we hear and see day in and day out, shape our own thoughts, speech and behaviour. Consciously or unconsciously, we become the things that we consume through our senses. If gossip and back biting are the norm, then we will become gossips. If we continually consume words and images of hatred, fear, and judgement then we will live lives filled with these same qualities. Likewise, if we are surrounded by words and actions of compassion, kindness, and concern for others, then these are the qualities that will adorn our lives.

As religious practitioners we must remain aware of the influence of the ambient culture on our lives. However, if our goal is to create a more loving and compassionate world, a world free of violence and oppression, then we need to make sure that we have friends whose values are in line with that goal. We also need to strive to align our own conduct of Body, Speech, and Mind with the values of compassion and non-harming so that we can be a friend and support to others striving to live world transforming lives rooted in love and compassion.

Peace, Paul

Love and Hope

September 30, 2014

christ of the bread lines

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” St. Paul

 

Here in Puna, on the Big Island of Hawaii, we seem to be transitioning from one disaster into another. In August, Hurricane Iselle pummeled the Puna district. No lives were lost, but many lives were disrupted.

Now, we are watching, waiting, and stressing as a snaking flow of lava works its way down from the volcano towards the populated areas of Puna.

There is very little to be done except make plans to evacuate and help those who will be displaced. Against volcanic lava, the living life blood of Madame Pele, we are powerless to protect peoples’ houses, businesses, and livelihoods. Loss and suffering are the nature of this world.

Adversity, such as this, can bring out the best and the worst in people. Hopefully, those of us who have rooted ourselves in a religious practice can respond with compassion and forgiveness. It is in these difficult times, when people despair and feel lost, that we, as religious practitioners, can provide support, strength and hope. Not with fancy words or religious dogma, but through compassionate action that reveals our deep concern and love for all.

There are certainly very real and concrete actions we can take to alleviate physical suffering. However, to relieve this existential angst, we must be willing to open our hearts to the fundamental, and shared, pain of human existence. The very real human experience of loss, insecurity and mortality.

It is a pain we all know. It is a pain we often try to avoid. However, if we are willing to set aside the judgements and fear and the stories we tell ourselves about others. If we quiet the mind and still the fear inside our own hearts, then we can see each human being as they truly are: A precious being worthy of love and compassion.

Often we we fail to love each person we meet. It is an almost impossible task. But we are people of faith. We have faith that if we keep striving to love all, to hold each person dear, that slowly, over time, perhaps over life times, love will begin to leak into our lives and relationships despite our flaws and imperfections. And at the right moment, when faced with someone who is lost and in need, that spark of love may be just enough to awaken the faintest glimmer of hope.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

The Jesus Dharma of Love in Action

December 29, 2013

Both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa describe their work with the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, and the dying as, “serving Christ in his distressing disguises”. It is a provocative image. How often do we fail to see the value of, and open our hearts to, those whom we know and love? Not to mention seeing suffering strangers as Christ?

In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus, as Christ, reveals that the followers of Jesus will be judged based on their treatment of their fellow human beings.

It is a powerful and moving passage, not for the faint of heart. As with the Sermon on the Mount, it grounds the practice of love and compassion in concrete action: Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Naked, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Offering Hospitality to the Stranger, Visiting the Imprisoned. There is nothing “airy fairy” here. This is where the rubber meets the road. Either you are living your faith through love in action or you aren’t. No excuses!

Like Buddha, Christ has turned the Wheel of Dharma. He shows us the way to overcome the horrors and sufferings arising out of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Christ has revealed the Dharma of Love in Action.

It is a Dharma that we as Buddhist should pay attention to. Great Compassion does not make distinctions between good or evil, rich or poor, male or female. We, as practitioners of the Mahayana, the All Encompassing vehicle of Awakening, are the heirs of this Great Compassion. We have vowed to set aside our own awakening and bliss, to plunge repeatedly into the world of Samsara to help all beings.

If we take our vows to save all beings seriously, then our lives will refract, in some little way, the limitless light of the Buddhas. We must, however, make an effort. We must set aside our short sighted goals and desire to see results. The work of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas transpires over vast periods of time, built upon innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. We will never know the effects of the good done in our lives.

The Buddhist path, the path leading to the ending of suffering for all beings, begins with the generosity. Practicing generosity is easy.

  • Give time, care, and compassion to others.
  • Give to those who are less fortunate.
  • Give to organizations and people who are working to alleviate suffering.
  • Give your time to silent prayer and study.
  • Give your life meaning by working for the welfare of others!

Each of us plays a role in creating a world with less suffering, less poverty, less warfare, less greed. Both Christ and Buddha show us the way.

Peace, Paul