Monday, June 24, 2002

Community: Forgiveness

Peter asked Jesus,"Lord how often shall my brother sin against me,and I forgive him?
As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:21-22)

When I walked into her hospital room, she could tell I wasn't having a good day. Tony and I had got to know each other pretty well over the past few months and there were times when the roles of patient and chaplain seemed to get reversed. She was dying of congestive heart failure and had been in and out of the hospital numerous times with stays ranging from several days to several weeks. They'd dry her lungs out, patch her up and send her home again where there wasn't anyone to take care of her. Soon she'd be back again. Tony was a devout Catholic and as serene as Buddha. She'd had a hard life, raising a large family on a meager income mostly by herself since her husband had been an alcoholic until he died years ago of liver failure. Her joyful faith was an inspiration in spite of all the trouble she'd seen. We had wonderful long discussions and she had much to teach and inspire an inexperienced recent seminary graduate.

She kept pressing me about why I was so long of face that day and I ended up confessing my anger at the person who had wounded me so badly. He was my superior on whom I had depended on and whose good will I needed and I felt hurt and betrayed and helpless to do anything about it. After a time, I asked her how it was that she had endured so much and had such a hard life and no help from an abusive husband, yet could be so calm and serene in spite of it all. She told me she had forgiven him. Anger is far worse than heart disease or a cancer, she told me. Sickness can destroy our body, but anger can destroy our soul. Someone does us an injustice. If we let that injustice dominate our heart, we continue to suffer injustice every day of our life, long after the original incident is passed. But we can transform that injustice and pain through forgiveness and find peace once again.

Well, I'd heard all that before. Certainly, I know we should forgive our enemies. The problem is, how do we go about doing that? Some things are much harder to forgive than others. Perhaps some things should never be forgiven. Does forgiving mean forgetting? It's one thing to forgive a friend who's made us mad or even an enemy who has injured us once, but how can we forgive someone who has repeatedly injured us. How do victims of serious crimes forgive the perpetrator? How can a child forgive dysfunctional parents for years of abuse? How do people forgive such things as sexual abuse or the destruction of a reputation or the infliction of an injury that has life long consequences. Sometimes it's not possible to distance our self from the person who has hurt us. We have to go on enduring their malice or the after effects of the injury day after day.

According to Jesus, forgiveness is a process we must practice over our whole life. Somehow, we are called to develop the capacity to receive, embrace and transform suffering. It takes a big heart to do this. Many people never experience justice in this life. How can we apply this teaching to all the pain and suffering we hear about in the news? It seems endless; war, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, economic exploitation and injustices, attacks on human dignity, sexual and physical abuse. The pain and suffering I've endured looks small up against the vast misery of the world. As long as humans have lived in community, there has been conflict and suffering inflicted by one party on another. In the Genesis story, the first two brothers came into conflict and one killed the other in a fit of jealousy.

I was beginning to learn that forgiveness is at the very heart of the spiritual quest. Buddhists don't talk about forgiveness; instead they talk about the impermanent nature of feelings such as anger and the perceptions that lead to suffering. I've learned that both western religious traditions and eastern ones are driving at essentially the same thing, only from different directions. The transformation of suffering takes place through receiving, embracing and transforming. Books, advice columns, mediators, negotiators, counselors and support groups proliferate.

It's a huge subject and time was short. How could you do it, I asked. How were you able to forgive him and find peace in spite of all that has happened. Oh, she said, I couldn't do it on my own. I'm only human. I knew he was God's child, the same as everyone and that somehow God understood him and forgave him. After all, Jesus forgave the people who killed him, from the cross. So I forgave him with his forgiveness. I would say to myself, "I can't forgive you myself, but I forgive you with the forgiveness of Jesus."

It was only a first step, a baby step, but it was all I could manage for now.

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Independent Co-Arising and Stewardship: Uncle Bill and the Wolves

Uncle Bill was a cattleman which I guess is different from a rancher because he lived in town and leased a 350 acre place east of there from an elderly fellow who lived up in the Panhandle. Bill's place was less than an hour's drive from Dallas and when I was growing up we spent many weekends fishing and camping by the the 40 acre lake on the property. Bill was my favorite uncle. Years ago, during World War II, he was in the civilian corps and spent several years in the Yukon Territory where he did a lot of trapping. He had a multitude of stories to tell and he is the first one who taught me about the Buddhist concept of "Interdependent Co-Arising", although he didn't call it that. He was part Cherokee Indian and had a great respect for balance and harmony in nature. Although he had done his share of hunting, usually out of necessity rather than sport, he had "No Hunting" signs posted on his property that caused a bit of controversy with neighboring ranchers because Bill's Place, as we called it, was a refuge for a medium size pack of timber wolves. At night, when we were camping, they often awakened us with their howling and although I was scared to death of them at first, I learned to love their sound.

In the evenings, I would ride with Bill when he went to feed the cattle. (I was useful for opening gates.) Often, the wolves would be peacefully resting in the shade a short distance away from where the cattle were grazing and they seemed to co-exist peacefully together. The wolves had become so tame they wouldn't bother to move even when we were only yards away. Bill explained that there was plenty of small game in the vicinity because most of the land around was in the soil bank program and not being farmed so the wolves had no need to bother the cattle.

Years ago the timber wolves had almost been hunted to extinction. The land was rich mid-plains prairie covered with native grasses and had been plowed up and planted in cotton which wore out the soil in a short time. Farmers had eradicated the numerous prairie dog towns which had been essential to keeping the prairie meadows aerated. Deprived of a major food source, the wolves had resorted to attacking cattle. So the wolves were eliminated which allowed the rabbit population to explode. Rabbits were a major pest to farmers because they eat down new vegetation so the rabbits had to be hunted down but it's a lot harder to eliminate rabbits than wolves. Then the soil wore out and was put in the soil bank program and native vegetation began to take over once again. With careful conservation measures, you could make a living raising cattle by rotating the pastures so long as you didn't overgraze and gave the pastures time to recover during the fallow intervals. Gradually the wolves began moving back in and they helped keep rabbits, coons and armadillos in check.

The Buddhist concept of "Interdependent Co-Arising" teaches that there is no separate independent self. Everything is interdependent and interrelated. As humans, we have the capacity to imagine that we are separate beings from other creatures and nature, but this is an illusion. In all circumstances, our physical selves are defined only as part of sets of relationships with others. We are a father, sister, neighbor, employee, employer, friend or citizen, to name only a few of these relationships. None of us exists in isolation, nor can we. Our physical existence impacts and is impacted upon by everything both living and non-living. We can ruin our environment by polluting it or destroying it and it is we ourselves who suffer. We can fail to live up to the responsibilities incumbent upon us in our various relationships, and we are the ones who ultimately suffer.

We teach our children the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have other do unto you." But too often we ignore the corollary to that rule which is, "What we do unto others will be done unto us." When we act out of disregard for the needs and rights of others, we ultimately will find our own needs and rights ignored or violated. When we act unjustly, break trust or fail to show compassion, we will be the ultimate recipients of the suffering, injustice and lack of trust we have shown to others. The social contract that governs relationships in community, or the covenant relationship the Bible teaches us about are based on this understanding of "Interdependent Co-Arising". We cannot exist successfully without others and community is not possible without self-sacrifice, honesty, loyalty and trust-worthiness.

The past 30 years have witnessed a tragic loss of trust and accountability, first in government, and now more recently in the scandals in the business community and most recently in the sex-abuse scandal confronting the church. All of these situations arise because of a mind set of individual pride, greed and lust for power that leads individuals and groups to act selfishly and independently of the needs and rights of others. The concepts of self-sacrifice, honesty, loyalty and trust-worthiness seem no longer to govern the actions of either persons in positions of leadership or the general public.

There is a Buddhist proverb that says, "If one horse is sick, all the other horses in the stable will refuse to eat." We practice stewardship when we understand that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer; if one of us is deprived, all of us are deprived; if one of us suffers injustice, eventually all of us will suffer injustice. This is an instance where Buddhism and Christianity compliment each other and can contribute to a greater understanding on the part of each. The Christian concept of Stewardship is based on the understanding of creation as a gift. We have an ethical obligation to care for each other, and especially for the weaker or more vulnerable members of the community. The Buddhist understanding of "Interdependent Co-Arising" helps us understand that there really is no reality of separateness; Thou art I, I am Thou. To live in and for others recognizes and celebrates our essential Oneness and enables us to forego selfish individual actions that cause suffering. When we give up acting as if what we do affects only ourselves and begin to act in concert with others for our mutual benefit, we will discover a rich reward in the expanded consciousness of the life we all share.

Saturday, June 1, 2002

The Bat Under the Refrigerator

Our migrant ministry in Sioux City was a small store front operation. The big church that sponsored us was up the hill behind us on the opposite side of the block. We often used the kitchen in the church basement and the adjoining recreation hall for events. The church itself was a grand English Gothic structure with a bell tower and a high vaulted nave and bats were an ongoing problem. All sorts of attempts were made to keep the bats out by putting screen wire over possible points of entry, but in a large old church it was nearly impossible to find all the places bats could get in and a few apparently could always get in through some very small places. They created a nuisance during services by swooping down over the congregation and the ushers kept a tennis racket and net handy just in case some one was able to knock one of them off.

The church had hired Irma Gomez as sexton and Irma also was my right arm, hand, eyes, mouth and principle adviser for our little congregation which we named "Los Milagritos del Norte" (The Little Miracles of the North). Between her very limited English and my classroom Spanish we managed to work together very well. When I was preaching in Spanish, it wasn't unusual for her to correct me, supplying a word or phrase that she knew better suited what I was trying to say and I was glad to let the Holy Spirit arbitrate whatever meaning ensued. I believed that what we were doing together was so much more important than exegetical precision. Besides, Irma's strong practical nature was an important amendment to my sometimes visionary idealism. I ran everything by her, but I failed to ask her about the bat.

The bat apparently had fallen behind the refrigerator in the kitchen and couldn't get out. Several of us could hear it squeak every so often even though we couldn't see it. I'm very soft hearted when it comes to distressed animals and as the days went by I worried that it might die of starvation or thirst. I started putting a small bowl of water down behind the refrigerator and propped a broom up beside it hoping that the bat might climb up the broom. I had learned that bats are unable to take off and fly from ground level, but need a ledge or something to drop from in order to take flight. The bat obviously had fallen to the floor behind the refrigerator and was unable to find anything to climb up in order to launch itself out of its predicament.

About this time the state diocesan convention took place and since our ministry was the first Hispanic ministry in the province, I was invited to present a workshop on how we got started and how we were doing. As I thought about my address, it occurred to me that the bat behind the refrigerator presented a sort of parable. I told the audience about the bat and how in the human community, none of us is able to launch ourselves directly into life without lots of assistance. From infancy into adulthood and to the end of our lives, help from others is essential for survival. Throughout life, we encounter times of need when we need extra or special assistance. The first European arrivals in North America survived those first winters in the wilderness only with the help of the indigenous people already here. New immigrants always have depended on the kindness and generosity of those already here and established to help them make the climb into American life and culture. That is what we were all about with our ESL classes, translating assistance, food pantry and other programs. This is the essence of the Christian faith. God understands our needy situation and reaches down to lift us up so we can find new life and hope.

The workshop was a great success. The large room was packed. Many priests and three bishops were present, including one from Scotland. Everyone was excited and hopeful for our new ministry and many people were touched by the little parable I told. We had been funded generously from both the diocese and the national Counsel of Bishops as well. Several people asked me for a copy of my address in order to include it in their church newsletters. When I got home, I happily related to Irma all that had transpired. She stared at me for several seconds and then broke out into laughter. So that was why she kept finding a bowl of water on the floor by the refrigerator. She couldn't imagine what was going on but there wasn't any bat back there. That squeak was a loose belt on the refrigerator motor.

Unhappily, our migrant ministry was short lived. The rector of the church who had envisioned the ministry and recruited me to direct it left for another position and in the interim, before another rector was called, the vestry decided not to continue the ministry. The ministry had been controversial from the start and since it was a local ministry of this one church, even though we had outside funding, there was no way to continue.

There were those who viewed us, like the bats, as unwelcome intruders and were unhappy about the social action component of the ministry. In the United States, the prevailing attitude is that people should be able to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" and many people have the opinion that people needing assistance are unworthy of help. It's useless to try to argue against this position because it is the result of an attitude of entitlement. It is a national replay of the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-31) It is so easy for those who enjoy material comforts and well being to ignore or disdain the needs of the poor. How quickly they forget, if ever they knew, that all they have is due to the good fortune of being the right person in the right place at the right time and having the means, health and intelligence to take advantage of it. Those things count far more in prosperity than choices or insight.

Nothing done in love ever can be counted as loss. My spiritual adviser reminded me that God does not depend on individual programs or individual successes for the Holy Spirit to do its work. Success just isn't the point! Our efforts need be no bigger than the grain of mustard seed to grow into a great shrub and the miracle of the gospel is that God uses even our mistakes and failures to further the advance of His Kingdom, perhaps even an imaginary bat. There is no way to anticipate outcomes. What we do is so much more important than how we interpret the results when we act in love, hospitality, compassion and as stewards of life. Our fledgling ministry was an inspiration and impetus for other similar ministries that came later. Perhaps none of those will matter in themselves in the long run. What matters is what we do together, who we call our brother, sister, friend, the sharing of our lives, the gratitude we feel for everything we have and our willingness to give a hand up.