Thursday, October 23, 2014

Divine Ambusher

The words in my title come from a little online meditation piece I read from one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr.  Rohr is a Franciscan who founded and runs a Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.  I have been reading Rohr for a long time and still use a couple of his books in my classes.  He is a Catholic who has taught this Quaker a great deal over time.           

Rohr always has a fresh way of putting things, even if I have thought about those things in my own way.  He makes me twist my head---symbolic of twisting my mind---and pondering something in a different way.  In a way the title of this little piece is evidence of that.  I never thought about God as a Divine Ambusher!  I don’t know that I would find that image for God in the Christian Bible, but I think the sense of the way God sometimes acts resonates with the title.  Let’s look at how Rohr puts it.           

Rohr draws in the reader with the following words.  I wonder if the only way that conversion, enlightenment, and transformation ever happen is by a kind of divine ambush.  We have to be caught off guard.  As long as you are in control, you are going to keep trying to steer the ship by your previous experience of being in charge.  The only way you will let yourself be ambushed is by trusting the “Ambusher,” and learning to trust that the darkness of intimacy will lead to depth, safety, freedom, and love.”  There is so much in this passage, but a few points jump out at me.  So let’s look at a couple.           

It is clear to me that the main point of this passage is not actually God.  It is the need or desire of humans for some kind of conversion, enlightenment or transformation.  I appreciate the three options Rohr provides to articulate this human desire for more out of life---for a way out of or beyond our ordinariness.  Most of us do not think we can do it ourselves.  We need a kind of conversion.  This is not my favorite word.  For me it suggests some kind of revival service and altar calls.  I am not against those.  But they have not been the paths of my experience.           

The language of enlightenment is ok for me personally, although I associate it more with Buddhism than my own Quaker or Christian tradition.  To me it also feels pretty mental.  It is like a religious “Ah-ha,” which again has not been my own experience.  The language of transformation speaks most clearly to my own experience.  Transformation means I am led from where I normally am to a new spiritual place and way of being.  And I know I cannot do it on my own.           

I love the terminology Rohr uses.  For transformation I need to be ambushed by the Divinity!  I have to be caught off guard.  Without realizing I am sure I am on guard most of the time.  I am cautious of the abnormal and the unusual.  And that is precisely where the Divine Ambusher lurks.  As Rohr so adroitly says, when I am in control, I am unlikely to be transformed.  If I stay in control, then I am steering my own ship.  It is not a bad thing; however, it is not usually a very spiritual thing.           

Rohr suggests that we learn to trust the Divine Ambusher.  That is a tricky thing for me---and perhaps for most of us.  Trust is the alternative to control.  I learned a long time ago that if we could control something, then you don’t have to trust.  I also learned that I could not control God.  Perhaps I could control myself, but that probably is an illusion.  So I began to learn to trust.  In spiritual terms trust is usually called faith.  So I think Rohr is actually talking about faith.           

He talks about trust/faith in two ways.  In the first place there is trust in God---the Ambusher, as he calls God.  And secondly, Rohr says that we also learn to trust the darkness of intimacy.  That phrase fascinates me.  But it should not surprise me.  Much of who God is, I am convinced, is mystery.  One way to talk about mystery is to talk about darkness rather than light.  At the experiential level, we can experience the Divinity, even if we cannot see God.  This is what Rohr is describing.           

Why would we want to trust the darkness of intimacy?  Rohr is clear.  We trust it in order to be led to depth, safety, freedom and love.  When I look at these four elements---depth, safety, freedom, love---I see profundity and not superficiality.  This is the place I would like to go on my own, but it likely is impossible.  In my guarded condition, I am not able to go deep, be ultimately safe, be free and discover authentic love.          

I must give up control to experience life at this spiritual level.  I have to trust the Divine Ambusher and the intimacy that God provides in order to be led to this wonderful place.  Notice that Rohr says we are led; we don’t walk there ourselves.  On our own we will never be able to find or create this kind of life for ourselves.  Only God knows that deep place and only God can take us there.  Our choice is to be willing to be ambushed…or stay in control.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Words and More Words

Most days I do not think too much about it.  But yesterday I became very aware of how many words I use.  That is not surprising, since I am still teaching.  And certainly we know that teaching entrails speaking, even though I never lecture to the students.  I could lecture, but that would prove nothing except that I could talk all the time.  If I am talking all the time, how could I know whether they are learning anything?           

I do not spend every waking hour talking.  In fact I am essentially an introvert.  So I enjoy time by myself.  Solitude has never been a problem, especially since I have been an adult.  As a teenager, I am sure too much time by myself caused some anxiety.  But teenagers are anxious as a matter of course!  So I was probably no crazier than any other teenager.           

I am curious how many words I use in one day?  I truly have no clue.  It has to be in the thousands of words.  I wish I had some kind of “word count” that I could check, much like I can check the word count on my computer to see how many words are in a document.           

Once I read a study that suggested the average university educated person has a base vocabulary of about 17,000 words.  A base vocabulary means a word like “time” only counts one time, even though we can use words like “timely,” etc.  If we count the related words, like “time” and “timely,” then we can easily say the average person knows about 50,000 words.  That is many more than I suspect the average person would guess.           

It actually amazes me to think that when I step into a classroom, I have so many possibilities.  In fact, I might even have more possibilities, since I know some technical language in theology and spirituality.  And I have some familiarity with foreign languages, so I may be slightly above average.  It fascinates me how I choose the many words that I choose.           

Certainly there are two factors that govern many word choices.  I would identify those two factors as my intent and the context.  Let me elaborate on both.  Intent gives a potential conversation some focus.  For example, if I walk into a class on spiritual disciplines, I am not likely to start talking about major league baseball.  I know a fair amount about major league baseball and I like it.  But to talk about that in a spiritual disciplines’ class is not appropriate.  So intent gives focus.           

The second factor that governs my word choice would be the context.  Again, if we step into that same class on spiritual disciplines, the context is set.  It is not a class on physics.  That is a different context, although just as appropriate on a college campus.  To some significant degree, the context will dictate some word choices.  But it does not dictate all word choices.           

Think about all the little words that all of us use all of the time.  How many times have I already typed the word, “the?”  If I were speaking this, I am told I could speak about two words per second!  So if I do a great deal of talking, I can spit out a ton of words!           

So there are words all over the place in my daily life.  I use them copiously.  And I listen to others spew forth bundles of words.  Words and more words all over the place.  We can make a major shift, however, if we switch from the number of words to the meaning or significance of words.  Here the numbers plummet.  It would be true to say that most of my words are not significant.  Seldom does the word, “the,” carry that much significance.  There is no comparison between the two words, ‘the” and “God.”           

Speaking of God brings us to the place where we can appreciate a key point in Christian theology.  Words have played a crucial role in the origin and development of the Christian faith.  The context of this goes back to the opening words of Genesis.  There we read that God “spoke’ creation into being.  Read the text.  Frequently, we read that God said, “Let there be…”           

In Christian theology it gets even more specific.  John’s Gospel tells us that at some point in history, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (1:14)  That verse is the basis of my own personal theology.  Essentially it says that God comes to be present in our very midst.  Radically God chose to become human.  God embodied the very truth and life God wants us to follow.  Because the Word became flesh, we now have a model---Jesus---who shows us a way.           

The beauty and simplicity of this is it only took one Word---the Word of God.  The same Word that God spoke into creation now became part of creation.  The intent of the Word become flesh was that we all be healed and enabled to live the life God ardently desires we all lead.  Finally, it is about more than words.  It is about life.  We can talk about it.  But the call is to live it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Middle and the Marginal

Sometimes my ideas for an inspirational reflection come in odd ways.  The idea for this piece originated in the classroom.  We were discussing a section from Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk, which is one of my favorite books.  One of her paragraphs made reference to the French phrase, point vierge.  Because I have read her book a number of times, I am familiar with the term.  And I also know that Thomas Merton, my favorite monk used the phrase in a very significant way.           

The French phrase is translated in various ways.  Literally it means the “virginal point.”  It suggests that time at dawn---the breaking of the new day---when the light is just beginning to appear.  It is the point where night meets day.  It was used by Merton to talk about “the still point.”  All this I knew, but I was still curious about the phrase.  So I chased my curiosity a little further.  I turn to Google, which magically and efficiently makes so much information appear.           

Many of the informational leads took me to something in Merton.  Much of this I already knew.  At some point I landed on a very interesting piece of writing by Albert J. Raboteau, a Religion professor at Princeton.  The title of his work captured my attention: “A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Again, I know some of the history of Merton and King.  Ironically, they both tragically died in 1968 in the very prime of their lives and careers.             

Merton was living the life of a reclusive Trappist monk in the middle of Kentucky and King obviously living a much more visible life in Atlanta and traveling over the South.  Both men were leaving distinctive marks on their world.  And plans were well underway for King to visit Merton at Gethsemani, the monastery, in the very near future.  That visit never happened.  So there are many interesting lines of inquiry when we think about these two men.             

It was at this point I read one of Raboteau’s paragraphs.  Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Catholic monasticism and Black Protestantism, two very different locations and two very different traditions and yet, they did share a common trait -- marginality.”  This is such an interesting and insightful idea.  Indeed, they both were marginal men.  By contrast I have spent virtually all of my life right in the middle---the middle of my culture and my world.           

Eagerly, I read further.  “Monks were marginal by profession; they had rejected the ‘world.’  Blacks were marginalized by discrimination; they were rejected by the dominant white society.”  One was marginalized by choice.  The other was marginalized by accident---the accident of being born a black man.  But the marginalization they shared in common.  And it helps me understand why they shared a vision for what the world could become.               

I continued to read the amazing paragraph.  “Both monasticism and the black church were profoundly extraneous to the priorities and to the values of America in the 1950s.”  I can remember the 50s, although I was young.  In those days I knew almost no Catholics, certainly knew no monk or knew nothing about monasticism, and was first-hand acquainted with the still overt racism of the day.  And yet because I was in the middle of my culture and world, I assumed the way I saw things was perfectly normal and acceptable.  I did not have the “eyes of marginality.”           

Raboteau led me further to see.  He says, “Marginality provided Merton and King with the critical consciousness necessary for radical dissent from the religious and political status quo. Moreover, the contemplative tradition within monasticism, and the prophetic tradition within Afro-American religion, furnished Merton, the contemplative, and King, the prophet, with the spiritual insight necessary to articulate convincing critical analyses of society and the religious experience necessary to ground their prescriptions for social change in personal authenticity.”  It was at this point I began to understand.           

I understand to be part of the status quo is the fate for those of us in the middle.  It is not inherently bad.  But it is limited and, often, myopic (nearsightedness).  Most of us who grow up “normal” are also “middle people.”  One of the functions of authentic spirituality is to take us to the margins.  Jesus describes this process when he told the disciples to deny themselves, take us their cross and follow.  The Apostle Paul uses the image of dying to the old self in order to walk in the newness of life.           

I know for myself part of me wants a spirituality that makes no demands.  I sometimes only want a spirituality that leaves me comfortable in my status quo.  People like me in the middle usually have quite a bit at stake to get serious about being spiritual.  We are not willing to be prophetic like Merton and King.  And yet something in me wants to read and take these two guys seriously.           

Maybe I am ready to live in the middle and occasionally visit the marginal.  At least that would be a start.  It will take some practice, some patience and some grace.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Basic Human Questions

I recently read an interesting interview about a woman who has just written a book on the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Clearly this is a prevalent phenomenon in our world today.  It often is associated with the young people, but I think it is a mistake to assume they are all this way and that older people are, by and large, still religious in the traditional sense.  Things are much more up for grabs these days.           

The person being interviewed, Linda Mercadante, teaches in a Methodist seminary.  I found her interview both fascinating and insightful.  No doubt that is partly true because a significant number of the students who are in my classrooms consistently claim they are spiritual but not religious.  I have explored that theme, but not in the depth that Mercadante has.  So let’s examine some of her findings.
There was one question that I thought was revealing.  The interviewer commented to Mercadante that she had focused on four particular themes: “the sacred, human nature, community, and the afterlife.  Why these four themes?”  As I thought about these four themes, I was very clear these are major themes of human development---basic human questions.  Mercadante’s answer fit right in with what I was thinking.             

Let’s look at her rather long answer and, then, we can unpack what she is saying about the folks who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Mercadante says, “These themes seem to get at the main questions that trouble humans and require answers.  Is there anything beyond myself?  Is anything sacred?  Who am I as a human, and what are my potentialities and limitations?  How determined are my choices—do I have free will? Am I on this journey in life alone?  How much am I a self-enclosed being, and how much am I open to others?  What happens after death? Is there anything afterward?  These are the kinds of questions human beings ask even if they don’t consider themselves religious.”          

These questions---basic human questions---go to the heart of what spirituality is.  The initial question is a poignant one: is there anything beyond myself?  Of course, I know I exist and I know that you exist.  But is there anything beyond us?  Are we it; we live our lives the best we can and that’s it?  This necessarily leads to the second question: is anything sacred?  That is a complex question.           

To ask the “sacred” question invites in complexity.  But I already know that the world is complex.  The longer I live, the less I think I know.  To ask the question about the sacred is really to ask the “God question.”  But with the spiritual but not religious crowd, to introduce the word, God, is usually a problem.  This group is not sure they believe in God---certainly not the traditional God of Christianity.  So language of “sacred” is preferable.            

I know in the classical languages the language of “sacred” points to some kind of divinity, but not necessarily a traditional view of God.  And sacred marks off the divine from the non-divine (usually called the profane).  When we introduce the profane---profanity---we certainly have entered the human realm.  This leads to a range of human questions.  The first asks the basic question, who am I?  What are my potentialities and limitations?  In most cases I think humans are capable of more than they think they are.           

The next human question is a huge one: how determined are my choices?  In effect this asks whether I have any free will?  I am under the illusion that I do have some choices.  But do I?  And finally, am I on my journey alone?  Oh, I know you are making your journey, too.  But is there any afterlife?  Is this all there is?  These are all good, basic human questions.             

Religions have offered standard answers to these questions.  The people who claim to be spiritual but not religious are not content with the standard religious answers, but they are finding what they feel are spiritual answers.  In effect this means they are not interested in institutional church, institutional church answers or institutional church life.  Sometimes I can’t blame them.           

But they do want answers.  They want to know that they are not alone on their journey.  They do sense there is some kind of sacred energy or force in the world to which they can be connected.  They would like some kind of community, but they may not make a commitment to that community.  They really do think they have some choice; affirming free will is important.  And yet, most of them whom I know affirm, “everything happens for a reason.”  I am not sure about that, but they seem sure!           

In the last analysis I appreciate reading this interview and thinking about the folks I know who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  It prompts me to get in touch with my own basic human questions.  How am I answering those?  How am I living out those questions?  I realize the answers are not so much answers as they are reasons for being.  And to find these reasons for being is to find meaning and purpose.  And that is what the spiritual folks also want: meaning and purpose.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Non-Verbal Spirituality

We live in an age of verbosity!  Put in street language, this means we live in a wordy world.  Maybe other people live in situations where there are not so many words.  But my world is a wordy world.  Just think about how the typical person goes through a day.
It would not be unusual for a person to get out of bed and turn on the tv or the radio---words.  If you have family around, there would be more words.  If we are still working, it would be normal to be somewhere surrounded by words.  Of course, in my college world, there are a million words.  People who stare at computer screens are typically dealing in words.  Often there is some kind of music in the background and the music comes with words.  Meals, social occasions and more tv or computer work at night means a mountain of more words.
As my students would attest, I love words.  Words are an incredible human invention.  We can literally “talk” to each other.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  That is marvelous.  In fact, I can learn a foreign language and begin to communicate with people who are unlike me.  They can tell me about life from a perspective I never imagined.  I have appreciated my chances to go to China, India, Brazil and countless other places.  In many instances I need them to speak my language so I can learn their ways. 
There is a downside, however, to words.  Words can be very revealing.  But words can also be concealing.  I can tell you how I feel and what I think.  But I can also mislead you.  I have the capacity to lie.  I can create a world for you that simply is an illusion---it does not exist. 
Controlling people do this kind of thing.  Manipulating is a subtle form of control.  I might be able to manipulate the way you think about me or dictate how you should behave.  If I am really good at misleading words, you might not even know you are being misled!  So words are wonderful, but they also can be wounding. 
Spirituality is no different.  I have read millions of spiritual words during my time as a student and teacher.  Words have tried to capture the majesty of Divine splendor, the miracle of human transformation and the malevolence of humans to humans in the spilled blood of religious conflict.  Here again words can be wonders or wounders.
I am fascinated with the power of words.  Surely Hitler was one who used words to bring cataclysmic wounds to our world.  And Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that was articulated in words that resound even in our own day.  However, it is also true that too many words deal in superficialities.  Too many words are surface words.  There are words, but no substance.
I endeavor to pay attention to the deeper levels of life.  I am convinced this is where much of life’s truth and meaning come to us.  I am convinced the various spiritual traditions of our world point to a spiritual depth that is too deep for words.  In fact, I have watched people go deeper into spiritual experience where it became clear to them there were no adequate words to describe the deeper reality.
I have learned some things simply cannot be talked about.  That does not make them any less real.  I personally have been taken so deeply into the Divine Presence that I literally was speechless.  I knew it, but could never name it.  I am willing to talk about a non-verbal spirituality.  That is about the best I can do.
I realize the silliness of talking about a non-verbal spirituality!  So let me use a few words simply to point to the reality of the experience of non-verbal spirituality.  A couple words that point in the direction of this kind of spirituality are deep and bright.  I am sure I have experienced both.
Deep points to the spiritual experience that takes us radically away from the surface and the superficial.  To be taken deeply into God’s Presence is to shut the mouth to words.  But it simultaneously tends to turn the lips into a smile.  Often I have emerged from a deep spiritual experience with someone only to find them with a knowing smile.  The smile is confirmation that “we know.”  We’ve been there and we know.  There is no laugh; that is too frivolous.  A smile is suggestive.  If you know, the smile says everything.
Light is the other way I have experienced the Divine deeply; there are no words.  Light suggests breadth rather than depth.  A few times I have been taken so far into the light that it seems like I have become luminous.  I have no idea how to express it, but I am confident I become radiant.  Skin color does not change.  But there is an unmistakable brightness that leaves no doubt.
I am happy we have words so that we can communicate.  But I am delighted that some experiences take us so deep and far, that we become content with being inexpressible.  On second thought, maybe smiles and radiance say it all.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Quiet Soul

The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter.  Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time.  I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.           

As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm.  The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…”  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…”  In this case I prefer the first option.  It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things.             

It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!”  Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention.  If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements.  Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride.  I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.          

The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.”  I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one.  That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”  That seems very clear to me.  It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.           

Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up.  I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!”  When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant.  As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient.  It means that we should not get overly excited.  If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline.  Keep your journey simple.  Being spiritual is a life-long journey.             

The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts.  Why bother seeking to walk among the great.  Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture.  In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them.  In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture.  That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ.  Certainly this is what the monks seek to do.  And in my own way, I try to follow suit.           

By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me.  Stay simple.  There is no need to call attention to myself.  Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift.  I just need to remember that I did not create my own life.  And I cannot prevent my own death.  I have choices, but they are choices on the way.  And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.           

I like the next line in Psalm 131.  The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…”  The NRSV is nearly identical.  It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…”  Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition.  To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.           

I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert?  Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts.  I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.           

We all know the demands on us.  Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent.  I do think we live in a noisy culture.  And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head!  In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain.  Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!             

A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language.  Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.”  Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul.  To be in the Center is to be with God.  It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Meaning of Compassion

One of the books I use in a course on contemplative spirituality that I teach is by my friend and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer.  Parker’s book, The Active Life, tries to describe what contemplative living looks like for the average person who will not join a monastery.  I like the subtitle of his book: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring.    One of the chapters I like focuses on “action, failure, and suffering.”  It is a story about an angel who wants to alleviate suffering---an angel who tries to care.           

Clearly all of us know there is suffering in our world.  No doubt many who read these inspirational pieces have known some personal suffering.  I don’t know whether suffering is necessary in life, but I am convinced it is inevitable.  Live long enough and you will suffer.  Something the angel needed to learn was sometimes suffering cannot be alleviated.  But suffering can be dealt with.  That is where care and compassion enter the picture.           

I am fascinated by a personal story Palmer shares in the chapter.  I know Palmer’s struggle with some of his own suffering.  That is why his story has a poignancy that touches me.  “In the midst of my depression I had a friend who took a different track.  Every afternoon at around four o’clock he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet.  He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me.  He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity.  He had no need to ‘fix’ me.  He knew the meaning of compassion.”          

I know things like depression are not respecters of intelligence, status, etc.   Parker Palmer is a bright, engaging and successful professional.  And yet, the demon of depression can go after him just as much as someone who has marginal intelligence, might even be disengaged and is unsuccessful.  However, the story in this case is not really about Palmer, but about his friend.  Let’s look at this story from the friend’s perspective.          

Depression is not a weekend problem.  It often lasts for a while.  So when Palmer’s friend decides to help, he is not signing on for an occasional cup of coffee.  As Palmer tells us, every late afternoon his friend would show up.  In fact, this might be the most important thing his friend did---simply show up day after day.  That shows a level of commitment and care that spoke louder than any word could speak.           

I like Palmer’s simple utterance: “he came to me.”  Is that not really the essence of care and the heart of compassion?  To go out to another?  His friend sat in a chair.  And the following sequence touches my heart.  His friend took off Parker’s shoes.  What an act of humility, compassion and service.  My mind races to the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as they gathered that last night.  And then Jesus enjoins the disciples to wash the feet of others.           

Washing someone’s feet is not an action many of us would be willing to perform.  Feet are often forbidden territory.  Sometimes people don’t even like their own feet.  And yet there is Parker’s friend, sitting in the chair, removing the shoes and massaging his feet.  What an amazing act of hospitality and of generosity.  Perhaps that is part of the meaning of compassion---the willingness to be hospitable and generous.  Like Jesus, Palmer’s friend becomes a model of compassion.           

In one sense that is the end of the story.  The rest of it is Palmer’s interpretation.  He tells us the friend “hardly said a word.”  Often compassion is an act, not some words.  Instead of saying, “I’ll care for you,” his friend actually did.  And then comes the most profound statement from Palmer: “he was there, he was with me.”  That summarizes the action and the effect of compassion…to be there for someone.  Compassion is being with someone in need.            

It is a beautiful story.  In Palmer’s own words his friend became “a lifeline to me.”  In an almost literal sense the friend had become a kind of savior.  Palmer was not dead, but depression is a form of deadliness.  His friend offered a hope---a saving hope.  He was not there to fix Parker, but he was repeatedly there to favor him with grace, mercy, care and compassion.  All that was wrapped up in two hands massaging two feet.  How simple and, yet, how profound.          

His action of compassion link Palmer back to the human community and, especially, back to himself.  One could say compassion is a heart to heart encounter.  Like love, compassion can be given and not be depleting.  In his compassion the friend lost nothing.  I can imagine the friend even saying that he had found something.  By giving he was enriched.  That’s the meaning of compassion.