Friday, February 8, 2013

We Must Change Nation’s Hateful Tone

This Sunday, February 10, the Orlando Sentinel will feature a new "My Word" column I wrote. I'm posting some of my previous columns from the past few months, here over the next few days...

(from Orlando Sentinel, August 7, 2012)
By Bryan Fulwider

The hate-monger who on Sunday killed six worshipers in the Sikh temple near Milwaukee got his 15 minutes of fame, though he didn't survive to bask in all his deluded, blood-soaked glory. Unfortunately, the ripples from his actions will go on long after his name is forgotten. That’s why hate crimes are so insidious.

Certain aspects of this tragedy are quantifiable. We can count the bodies of those killed. We can determine the number injured. Doctors can provide percentage probabilities concerning recovery.

What we cannot quantify is the heartache, the devastation, the anguish experienced by those who had a loved one murdered. And we can’t quantify the pall of fear — already present, but now greatly exaggerated — that will hover over Sikh communities throughout the U.S. for years to come.

By no means are the Sikhs the only group who are left feeling that danger lurks around every corner. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any minority whose skin color or accent or religious attire draws the attention of those who view violence as the way to settle some imaginary score. All perpetrators’ 15 minutes of fame come at a high price, not only for the victim group but for society as a whole.

A huge price of which, this atrocity reminds us, is the danger of fatalism. Inevitability. Resignation. After all, what can we do to prevent a few deranged humans from engaging in such appalling acts?

I would suggest we can do more than many think. We can individually and collectively work to change the nation’s tone. Let’s start by honoring the “self-evident” truths our Founding Fathers put into this nation’s first document, the Declaration of Independence.

Let’s daily remind ourselves that all people “are created equal,” that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” that for every person those rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Let’s stop slandering. Rather, let’s refuse to circulate unsubstantiated claims that sound good to us simply because they make some person or group we don’t like look bad.

Let’s remove the hateful words and violent tones that characterize too much of our discourse — because Sunday’s actions suggest that someone with a sick mind may be only too willing to take the tone of our discourse to what seems to him its logical conclusion.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is a fellow at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College and president of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Search for Morning

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
"Only that day dawns to which we are awake."

Like masterfully hand crafted bookends, these phrases serve, in essence, to start and finish Henry David Thoreau's acclaimed Walden.  As we know Thoreau had set out to a quiet place, away from the hubbub and noise of the world, to live – as he called it – deliberately.  In his first chapter Thoreau suggests that human beings are in essence often trapped in a world which represents neither their designs nor their desires: thus the feeling of quiet desperation.  By the end of Walden Thoreau suggests that if we live our lives in a state of wakefulness, we may indeed see the dawn.

Human beings are often in search of morning: the coming of a new day, a fresh perspective, some renewed insight, the relentless belief that things will be better tomorrow.  In the midst of the stresses and uncertainties of our lives we long for the possibility that things will get better.  Our feelings of quiet desperation come in many forms and by many avenues.  Everything from the end of a relationship, difficulties in our work settings, painful challenges with family or friends, and unkindnesses in 1000 different forms can be the cause of that feeling of quiet desperation.  That feeling may come through a gradual and growing awareness, or it may hit like a tidal wave, but when it comes we know it, unequivocally.  Sometimes, as I think Thoreau is suggesting, we can live with this quiet desperation for a very long time.  The weight of it can become almost unbearable.  In those moments we long desperately for morning to come, we beg in the inner reaches of our soul for the dawn to break.

My day generally starts well before sunrise, and whenever possible I try to catch a glimpse – at least a glimpse – of the newly dawning day.  There's something magical about watching the morning light begin ever so gently to fill the sky, then by-and-by the brightness grows to a glow, and finally – at least on a clear morning – the sun begins to peek out from its chamber of rest.  In that moment I know what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, "only that day dawns to which we are awake."  I suspect, however, that Thoreau meant far more than simply the physical arrival of a new day, although that physical reality certainly gives context and meaning to Thoreau's deeper understanding.

The truth is, one can spend many sleepless nights, wrestling with the realities of quiet desperation, and when the physical morning comes there is still no dawn, no relief.  In reality, we must be mentally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared to see the light.  There is often no way to see the dawn without having wrestled deeply with the quiet desperations in our lives.  The journey of spirit is often wrought with struggle, disappointment, uncertainty, and much faltering.  As the old spiritual teachers remind us, it is almost always after we have experienced great loss, a significant fall, or a deep wound, that we are able – finally beyond the pain – to open our lives to new possibilities.  These new possibilities are almost without fail far richer and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined before we endured our struggles in quiet desperation.  When we have finally come through all the stages of grief, when we have passed through the chilly waters, when we have been tempered and refined by the fire, when we have sustained deep scars from life's battles – then, and only then – might we awaken to the dawning day.  But when that day truly dawns, it is a sunrise possessing a beauty beyond description.

It turns out that it is not flashy, or glitzy, or shiny, or sparkly – rather, it is warm, magnificent, genuine, and it lights a path of simplicity, compassion, and tenderness.  In short, it is a part of our journey toward becoming fully human.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 Years Later . . .

(below are my remarks from the "Celebrations of Peace" gathering at the bandshell at Lake Eola Park delivered tonight on the eve of the 10 Year Commemoration of the events of 9/11)

How long is 10 years?

From the Indus Valley region of India there is evidence of the beginning of Hinduism some 4,000 – 5,000 years ago; Judaism dates back to around 1800 BCE, around 3,800 years ago – both find their time of beginning in the Bronze Age, the average life expectancy was 26 years old.

In 563 BCE Siddhārtha Gautama was born in what is today known as Nepal - he would become the Buddha - this is over 2,500 years ago. Not long after, in the grand sweep of history, a young prophet rose up from among the Hebrew people from a small village in the northern regions of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, some 2,000 years ago – during these periods of time, the average life expectancy was 28 years old.

Around 600 years later, approximately 1,400 years ago, another prophet, this time by the name of Muhammad, began leading his people into a new religion of peace in his part of the world, and the average life expectancy had risen to around 35 years of age.

Today -- worldwide -- the average life expectancy is around 68 years of age. 

So, how long is 10 years? In terms of life expectancy it would feel now much shorter than it did 5000 years ago.

For most of us in America the events of September 11, 2001 can in some ways seem as fresh and horrific as if they happened yesterday. All of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news that the first World Trade Center tower had been hit by a plane, then the second tower was hit, then the news of a plane crashing into the Pentagon, then another airplane crashing into the countryside of Pennsylvania. Without question most of us would agree that on that day in America there was a building sense of foreboding… of fear… of uncertainty. In those moments, and in the hours and days that followed, many in our nation were frozen in fear. For some, that posture of fear has never receded.

In his book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore very ably outlines, in the introduction and first chapter, the effects of fear on the human psyche. In short, it stultifies our capacities for reason. Since the rise of what Alfred North Whitehead in his book, Religion in the Making, called rational religion which began roughly 10,000 years ago, as the Mesolithic Period was beginning, human beings have attempted to make sense of their world in part through spiritual understandings, concepts, and beliefs.

Whether we are talking 10,000 years, or 5,000 years, or 10 years – and whether our life expectancy is 26 or 68 years of age – human beings, at our best, are constantly in the process of trying to make sense of the world around us. Religion in its highest and most noble form provides a pathway for that journey of meaning. The four religions and one philosophy that I have mentioned here: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all share common understandings about the centrality of the need for peace in the human soul and in the human community.

The spiritual life – whether it is based on faith or religious understandings or a philosophy or a combination of all of these– does not decry reason, but rather celebrates the human capacity for reason and understanding and thoughtful reflection. In fact, I would suggest without equivocation that one's capacity for reasonability and love are absolutely central to the growth and development of the spiritual life, and thus ultimately for the development of peaceful human community.

In that light it is staggering that 10 years after September 11 the United States of America continues in wars on two fronts (though I suppose we only officially admit to one of them now), terrorist attacks worldwide have increased, members of our own government seem incapable of speaking to each other with civility or any apparent concern for the common good, the economies of this nation and of the world – turbulent and unstable – seem to be the result of the opposite of peaceful processes, and the undercurrents of anger and dis-ease seem at times unbridled in our communities. We might ask, after 10,000 years, given the rise of rational spiritualities, and the various progresses of humankind – why have we not marched with greater conviction and certitude toward civility and peace?

How long is 10 years?

For us I believe 10 years is long enough to know that very early on after the day of September 11, 2001 our leaders lead us down the wrong pathways. Capitalizing on that national sentiment of foreboding and fear we found ourselves easily and willingly led into two wars, into the dismantling of the basic civil rights which had for over two centuries marked the pinnacle of American democracy and freedom (which in those days was the envy of the world), and then over the succeeding seven years we were led down a path which placed us teetering on the brink of near complete and total economic destruction. It is yet to be seen how we will survive that final example of the wreckage of fear-based leadership.

However, this 10 years has also been an opportunity for each of us to look deeply into our own souls and into the soul of our nation. It is my firm belief that though at so many turns we have taken the wrong pathways, there is always the opportunity for redemption, renewal, and the changing of hearts and minds toward a new way.

And that is why we are here today... IF the faith community has anything to offer to the larger community it is the understanding that for people who seek to live lives of spiritual grace there is always a hope and a promise for peace.

While the average life expectancy of a citizen of the US far exceeds the worldwide "68 years" mark, the truth is, after 10 years we don't have one more day to wait. It is upon our hearts and in our hands to begin the work of peace in a new way today. As we seek to live out the spiritual enterprise of reasonability and love it is incumbent upon us that we help our fellow citizens in this community and our fellow citizens of the nation and our fellow citizens of the world to move away from pathways which are the result of fear: war, destruction, and self absorbed greed, and instead move forward in the risky business of building a community and a world of peaceful relationships, finally recognizing our interdependence.

How long is 10 years?… It is long enough!

My sisters and my brothers as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his magnificent I Have A Dream speech, "Now is the time…" The golden voice of that powerful preacher still echoes through the years.

We know how long 10 years is, and while we remember with reverence our sisters and brothers who fell that day at the hands of brutal terrorists we are not willing to give their memory over to fear.

We know how long 10 years is to have wandered down paths that have led us toward nothing but our own possible destruction not only of body, but also of soul.

We know how long 10 years is to allow our nation to be co-opted by the greedy and self-serving.

We know how long 10 years is… And it is long enough… Now is the time!

Now is the time for peace, now is the time to build a just and stable economy, now is the time to study war no more, now is the time to plant a garden of hope in the midst of the rubble, now is the time to sing the songs of transformation in hope…

All we are saying is give peace a chance,
all we are saying is give peace a chance,
all we are saying is give peace a chance.

Now is the time for peace… Pray for peace, sing for peace, stand for peace, work for peace, play for peace, dance for peace, sew and harvest for peace, build for peace, organize for peace, prepare your heart for peace, create your home and community in peace... all we are saying is give peace a chance. We know how long it's been – and we know what time it is as – peace, peace, please O God who IS Love, let there be peace on earth – and let it begin with us. Amen

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hate is Not a Christian (Muslim, Jewish, or Any Faith For That Matter) Value

Fulwider, Engel, and Musri (L to R)
Lovingly known as "The Three Wise Guys"
The article below appeared in the Orlando Sentinel just over 10 months ago.  As the out-of-town hate group, "Operation Save America" descends with all its venom on our Central Florida community this week, it is important for people of compassion and good faith - especially from the Christian community who sincerely try to live out the love of Jesus in the world - to make clear statements in conversation and practice which separate this out-of-town group and their cruel hate from the true teachings of Jesus which are all about God's unconditional love.  It is also a time for all people of good will and heart from every community of faith and of no faith group to stand together against hate, but more importantly, for LOVE.  I was in a long meeting this week with two of my dearest friends - Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, and Rabbi Steven Engel of the Congregation of Reform Judaism - and we committed once again to stand with each other in the face of this hate group coming to town.  the Rabbi and I are on the Imam's speed dial, and we will be there when and if he needs our support this week!

This hate group and their convicted criminal-stalker-leader are in Central Florida to bring their vitriolic and violence provoking message of hate to women's clinics, the LGBT folks who are our friends and an important part of our community, and to our Islamic friends and neighbors in Central Florida.  May each of us find the courage of our convictions to speak clearly in opposition to any voice of bigotry, hatred, and destruction.  People of "Good Faith" are needed for such a time as this.  We are needed to stand with our friends, our community, now!

From the Orlando Sentinel...
My Word: Faiths must counter Islamaphobia
September 05, 2010|By Bryan Fulwider

In Gainesville, a church called the Dove World Outreach Center plans a Quran-burning on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. In Manhattan, protesters and politicians denounce plans to open a mosque and community center two blocks from ground zero. In Tennessee, local and federal authorities investigate a fire at the site of a mosque being built by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Preliminary evidence indicates arson.

Ignorance and intolerance are not values espoused by any of the great religions of the world, including Islam. Yet, as a Christian pastor, I've become increasingly disturbed by the attitudes of many otherwise reasonable people who profess to believe in freedom of religion and to follow the teachings of Jesus. How did we reach this point?

We're living in an age where there's more information, more readily available, than at any other time in history. Yet, ignorance is rampant. We're living in a world where we're able to interact with a greater variety of races, creeds and colors than ever before. Yet, intolerance is rising.

In the story of Jesus, there is not one book burning, not one protest against a house of worship, education and peace. Our greatest enemies, in fact, are not loving people who seek to live in accordance with their beliefs, be they Christian, Islamic or Buddhist. Our greatest enemies are extremists who seek to harm those whose faith differs from their own. Too often such acts are carried out in the name of religion. But it's nothing more than hate, brokenness and sinful behavior.

The day following the tragic events of nine years ago, I met with the Islamic community in its house of worship for prayer. The Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, and I were the only Christian pastors there that day.

I also convened the Interfaith Council of Central Florida to discuss ways of responding while offering support to the entire community, including our Islamic friends. Through the years, I've served on numerous interfaith panels promoting peace and understanding, and led many trialogues with Imam Muhammad Musri and Rabbi Steven Engel.

In June our church sponsored a series of films and discussions led by members of the local Islamic community. Attendees learned that those who follow the true tenets of Islam — the majority of Muslims — are people of peace who clearly reject any notion of violence against others.

Islamaphobia must be countered by Christians and people of other faith traditions ready to engage in the hard work of faithful dialogue and relationship building. Otherwise, as the cliché goes, the terrorists truly do win.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is senior minister at First Congregational Church of Winter Park/United Church of Christ, and Chair of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, "The time is always right, to do what is right!"

In whatever ways a person of any faith community may struggle with certain things, whether they be about issues regarding abortion, homosexuality, or Islam - or - about corporate and bank greed, the mistreatment of the poor in society, and the self-serving practices of right-wing politics, there is never a time for hatred of the other and inciting violence against those with whom we disagree.

Now is the time to be a voice and presence of courageous love, compassionate care, and loving concern for those in our community being targeted by this out-of-town hate group we do that together, through non-violence, indeed "we shall overcome!"

Monday, June 27, 2011

Loving Acceptance and an Open Spirit is a Good Place to Start

A Majestic Redwood Tree
To borrow – and probably wholly misappropriate – a phrase from e.e. cummings (and I don't think he would mind), "…here is the deepest secret nobody knows (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)" for the spirit to grow, one must be radically, fundamentally, and fully open.

First, we must be open to the truth that there are very few things which we actually, truly know. Second, we must be open to the possibility that the things that we think we know may simply not be true, at least not for everyone. Third, we must be open to the likelihood that there are many different good and positive ways to see and experience life and to live it. Finally, we must be open to the other who may see and experience and live their life quite differently than we do, and then be willing to lovingly accept them as the same child of the living God whom we believe ourselves to be.

One of the deepest wells of Christian scripture is found in the "Sermon on the Mount." Three brief chapters in one of the narratives known as the Gospels outline some of the most profound teachings of Rabbi Jesus. In one section the spiritual luminary, Jesus, talks about the issue of judgment.

Now, understand that in the "historical critical" method of biblical interpretation we do not presume that everything which has been attributed to Jesus was actually said by him; we do not presume that the historical references in scripture are necessarily accurate, at least historically speaking; we do not presume that when the scriptures suggest that God has told someone to do this or that, that God has actually told someone to do this or that. The “Progressive Christian” method of dealing with scripture is to try to sort out, from the volumes of material in the various books of the Bible, what the human beings who wrote the text – who were surely doing their very best to try to understand God from their vantage point at their moment in history – actually might have gotten right about God, Jesus, faith, and how we might live our lives well as the "spirit-beings" whom we are.

So, having said all that, the spiritually discerning reader of this section of the Sermon on the Mount will likely surmise that there is great spiritual value in this concept attributed to the great spiritual teacher, Jesus:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged"

In this section from the gospel of Matthew (chapter 7, verses 1 through 5) it is reported that Jesus goes on to say in essence… and just be aware that here I am going to take some rather “open-spirited” poetic license in my paraphrasing…

"in the same way that you're being judgmental of other people, in the end, you'll likely find the same kind of judgmentalism foisted upon you… so my dears (a wonderful phrase I learned from Mr. Rogers), spend the majority of your very limited time on the planet paying attention to working on the troublesome issues within your own heart and soul, and then try to do some real good for others; these are the things that you need to deal with, and stop being so blasted smug and self-assured about how good and wonderful you are; you have plenty of soul-work to do on yourself (yet, in spite of that God loves you with absolute, complete, and unconditional love – pay attention to that great truth first and foremost).  So, you should really take a permanent holiday from criticizing others with such vehemence and vengeance and vitriol, because that kind of behavior does great damage to your own soul."

The Eagle Nubula - stars forming in our galaxy...
and it is quit likely that the universe is expanding
The spirit of Jesus – like that of all of our great spiritual teachers whether they be from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or many, many other traditions – never narrows the journey down, but rather, always opens the journey up. The spiritual journey is about the breadth and depth of the capacities of the human heart – created in the image of God – to carry and convey that love, which is God, and about the height to which the spirit can soar and the width commensurate with the ever-expanding universe which the mind of faith seeks to traverse.

Therefore, the spiritual life cannot be marked by a ruthless littleness of spirit. Judgmentalism is one of the ways that we thwart the human soul, and close the heart and mind from experiencing the breadth of God's love as the goal for our own lives. In his book, Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges (an author and faith leader who comes out of the "Evangelical Tradition" of Christianity) addresses a dozen clusters of specific "acceptable" sins that we tend to tolerate in ourselves – such as jealousy, anger, pride, unthankfulness, and judgmentalism. In regard to the issue of judgmentalism he pens these thoughtful and helpful words:
"The sin of judgmentalism is one of the most subtle of our ‘respectable’ sins because it is often practiced under the guise of being zealous for what is right. It’s obvious that within our conservative evangelical circles there are myriads of opinions on everything from theology to conduct to lifestyle and politics. Not only are there multiple opinions but we usually assume our opinion is correct. That’s where our trouble with judgmentalism begins. We equate our opinions with truth." (p. 141)
Well... I have news for you Brother Bridges, this issue of folks hiding their judgmentalism behind the "guise of being zealous for what is right" is sadly just as often prevalent among the Liberal or Progressive Christian community.  Did I mention that jealousy, anger, pride, and unthankfulness also seem to abound with many who would identify themselves as Progressive Christians?  It seems that in this case, the Evangelicals simply don't have a corner on the market.

Therefore, each day as we rise from a night of slumber, however we begin our day – whether we are one of those people who jump out of bed and throw the curtains open with great exuberance to see and gleefully celebrate the new day dawning, or, one of those people who slowly and gently move from sleeping to waking, perhaps involving the need for calm quietness and possibly something warm with caffeine in it – it is imperative that if we seek to live the life of spiritual growth and renewal, we begin each day trusting in the idea that "loving acceptance and an open spirit is a good place to start." Regardless of those we encounter, whose lives may be steeped in some kind of destructive judgmentalism, our goal is to greet each living creature, created in the image of God, in the spirit of "Namaste'."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Not by Bread Alone… Yes, But Bread Still!

Gathering around meals - "food" - is a central act
of human community
Here is a haunting statistic reported at a meeting that I attended yesterday morning with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida: "…if Interstate 4 were lined with children suffering from hunger just from our Central Florida communities and they were standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ and you began to drive at 55 miles per hour beside that line of children it would take you over 30 minutes of driving before you would come to the end of that line (shoulder to shoulder – I mean shoulders touching!)."  Add to that, people are being arrested for sharing their food with the hungry in downtown Orlando.  Add to that, in the midst of our recent recession more children than ever before in the history of the United States of America have fallen under the poverty line and many of them are going to bed hungry every night.  Add to that, we are still the richest nation in the world with its largest economy.

It is in the spirit of Jesus that the Christian community was founded nearly 2000 years ago.  Christianity in its most faithful form provides an opportunity for the spiritual development of individuals and communities around the principles of loving compassion lived out in ways that create communities and environments where every person is loved and valued.  Each human being, especially those who are most vulnerable, can find the opportunity for wholeness, hope, and healing if we are truly living out the Spirit of Jesus.

A scene from the "Spice Market"
Istanbul, Turkey
One report from the Christian Scriptures suggests that when Jesus was in a struggle with a dark force of destruction (the antiquated biblical ideology states that he was, "tempted by the devil") he was encouraged to use his power for self-serving interests (turning stones into bread).  His response was quite simple, "human beings do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."  Indeed, we do not live by bread alone, we also require spiritual nourishment.  People of faith, whatever their religious identity may be, believe that we are far more than simply a combination of chemicals organized by biological processes into soul-less creatures.  We are spirit at our very core, and those of us who travel the journey seeking to live a faithful life believe that the human spirit is connected and imbued with the divine.

Through the various religions and spiritual conceptualizations in the world we will characterize this relationship to the divine in many different ways.  We will see and understand the journey through various matrices.  We will organize ourselves and our communities defined by those various principles in a variety of ways.  But at the end of the day, the best of all of our traditions, religious concepts, and spiritual understandings, will be marked by a central and core belief that we are called to love and care for one another as we share this journey called life.  People of honest and sincere faith would likely agree it is not all about bread alone: nevertheless, everyone should have enough bread – enough food!  Our world is rich with resources, thank God, and the truth is there is enough for everyone.   Yet in our own community, in our nation, and in the “world which we all share” there are still people who go hungry every day.

A vendor at the water's edge of the
beautiful Bosphorus Straights
Of course, the word "bread" is also used in the common vernacular to mean “money.”  Now consider the words, "human beings do not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God."  It is perhaps true that what stands most often in the way of our ability to share what we have in meaningful and life-giving ways is our attempt, each of us, to amass more and to share less.  We have become too comfortable with the idea that greed is good.  We have allowed our pursuit of stuff, our petty amusement with the things we own, and our arrogance connected to the size of our bank accounts and our investment portfolios to guide our every waking decision.  In such an environment there is little hope for those who traverse the journey of life in the most meager of circumstances.
At the "Spice Market"
The Christian Scriptures contain warning after warning for the human race regarding the pursuit of our own wealth, comfort, and ease while we ignore, or worse still, demean and harm the most vulnerable and fragile among us.  Righteousness in biblical terms is not about a small minded set of moralisms; it is about creating a world within our own communities which provides – through loving compassion, generosity, and fairness – for the needs of each human being.

There is a beautiful scene in one of the sections of the Christian Scriptures: it suggests a setting of some sort of final, cosmic judgment.  I prefer to think of it in the context of each of us coming to the end of our own journey in life.  In my scene, as my life is beginning to fade (I hope that's a long time in the distant future, but really, who knows?)...
I see myself sitting, let's say on the beach near the water's edge, and beside me is my friend and teacher Jesus, and he says to me,  'I was just thinking about that time, when I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you went and got me a drink of water, I was sick and you stopped by to see me, I was in prison and you came to visit me, I was alone and afraid and uncertain about the future and you were honestly concerned about me, you did your best to help me.'  I look at the 'spiritual presence of Jesus' at that moment in complete confusion and say,  'honestly, I don't remember doing any of that for you.'  At that point, my teacher and friend says to me, 'oh, you misunderstood what I was saying, you see, because I am the divine reality of life I am present in every living creature, and every human being. Every time that you honestly did your best to show loving kindness and compassion toward another by your actions, I experienced that kindness, so in a very real sense all of those things, the only thing in life that really matters, you did those things to me.'
Now, I don't necessarily think that this fanciful conversation will actually happen as my life is coming to an end.  But if it did, well… I guess I would hope that my teacher and friend, the divine spirit of Jesus - which I continually seek to guide my life - might be able to offer such words.  In any event, I do believe that living a life of loving and just compassion is simply why we are here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

So, You Have Enemies?

As I prepare for a lunch meeting today with two of my best friends - an Islamic Imam and a Jewish Rabbi (we meet for lunch regularly), we also do "Interfaith Discussion" programs in the community, and we work together on a number of other important interfaith initiatives in Central Florida - I am reminded that each of our faith traditions have something to say about enemies. In each case the best of our traditions call not for the destruction of the enemy, but rather for means whereby we can find a way to co-exist. Here is one of the great truths for me:

Almost no one seeks to make someone an enemy,
but having enemies is too often a part of life. 

This may in fact be more true for those who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in the community. If you state an idea, or clearly indicate a direction that you believe should guide life or community, or if you challenge someone in a way that makes that person uncomfortable you may well find yourself with an enemy. It is likely an unintentional outcome of some interaction. So, I will state it again, almost no one seeks to make someone an enemy!

All the great sages of all the faith traditions in the past (and currently for that matter) understand that dealing with enemies from time to time is a part of life. As with other faith traditions Christianity, in the Spirit of Jesus, has some rather clear statements about dealing with enemies in as positive and life-giving a way as possible. Jesus is remembered as saying, for instance, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," and also, " your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your God is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."  Even the early church leader, Paul, weighs in on this when he suggests, "feed your enemies."  Too lofty?

We may think so, but here's the thing: without this high calling we run the risk of living in the ongoing cycle of violence and vengeance which has too often come to define our society and world.  We need "lofty," and we need people who commit themselves to these high and noble ideals in very practical ways.  This is critical work for the spiritual mind and heart.  I think that it cannot be achieved solely through biological processes (yet, this is a discussion for another day: how biology is both affected by and part of the holistic connection of spirit/mind/body).  Part of the work of spirituality for each of us is to learn the way of peaceful co-existence with our enemies, the bullet points are these:

  • Love your enemies and pray for them - it means prayers of support and kindness, I'm pretty sure.

  • Help your enemies if they come to you or if you see they need help - with a heart of compassion - a bridge of new or renewed friendship just might be built on such a foundation, if not, do it anyway (without expecting to get anything in return).

  • Show mercy to others and live in non-judgmental ways - refuse to put your spectator's chair on the sideline waiting for them to "mess up" so you can "get 'em" - there is nothing good or life-giving in such behavior.
In a world where ideological intransigence, smug self-righteousness, and 'destroy the other at all cost' attitudes are far too prevalent, we are in desperate need of those who seek the spiritual maturity to stretch their lives toward this understanding.  Lofty?  Indeed.  Hard?  You better believe it.  The only real hope for a broken and beleaguered human race and planet?  Absolutely!

Confession time: I am still far from living this vision out in my own life.  But it is my goal, everyday.  Join in the revolution of compassion and kindness.  May we each find our way in - as the Dalai Lama suggests as regards enemies - tolerance, patience, and forbearance.  It is only by this path that we become co-creators with the Great Spirit of Life of a world that is fit to live in.