Thursday, October 27, 2011

Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue

It has been a rough ten years. Last month we marked the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. Subsequently we saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We have been assaulted by images of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the Indian Ocean Tsunami. And massive earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan, China. More recently, there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with the resulting damage to nuclear facilities. Many of us have watched many of these events unfold before our eyes either live or nearly live. In addition to all of this, over the last three years or so, we have been confronted with a global and national – not to mention, personal – financial crisis.

Add on the stories we each know of family, neighbors, friends, and fellow church members who are struggling with disease, family issues, work difficulties, etc. and it all starts to feel overwhelming.

Even if you are not in the midst of such troubles yourself, knowing about them can become a cumulative burden on your spirit.

I wonder if this isn’t a main contributing factor to the sense I get from talking to people that many of us feel harassed by life.

Information technology and social networking mean we are more connected than ever to the rest of the world. This means we are aware of more pain, suffering, and disappointment than ever.

It takes a toll. I wonder id our whole society isn’t experiencing a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Or more accurately, perhaps, the related condition of “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue has traditionally been associated with people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, police officers, social workers, etc. But, with the increased connectivity and access to images and information, I think it has become more generalized.

The symptoms are:
•disturbed sleep
•intrusive thoughts (unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate)
•outbursts of anger
•hyper-vigilance (constant scanning of the environment for threats)
•and a desire to avoid people who we know are hurting or who you know will disturb your equilibrium.

Sound familiar? I suspect many of us have experienced several of these over the last few years. And they seem pervasive in our society. I suspect that this explains in part the increased polarization we see all around us. It also explains the pervasive cynicism, anger, and hopelessness.

Some researchers have suggested that all of this leads to a sort of “psychic numbness” that diminishes our ability to engage those around us and the world with compassion. We are tempted to resort to a hunker down mentality and become insular or to throw up our hands in resignation that nothing can change for the good.

And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is a call to compassion, a call to care. How might we respond to that call while avoiding compassion fatigue?

Let us first of all admit that loving our neighbor is not always easy. Not just because some neighbors are hard to love, but because of the nature of love itself. To love someone means to make ourselves available to them –available to their hopes and joys, their need and their fear. That also means we make ourselves vulnerable to their hurt and sorrow. That is the inevitable consequence of love. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

The cumulative effect of that vulnerability is what leads to compassion fatigue.

How do we avoid becoming weary or cynical or withdrawing into our own small private worlds? How do we continue to be available and vulnerable in love toward our neighbor in an age of compassion fatigue?

• I suggest it begins with the first commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul.” When we orient everything in our heart, mind, and life toward God who is working all for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) the hard realities in our lives and the world around us are put in perspective. We love God first of all because God is worthy of love. But, because we are made for that love, orienting our lives toward the love at the heart of it all is the foundation of our health and strength.

• Make it a priority to carve out time each day for plant yourself next to streams of living water as the psalmist encourages us this morning (Psalm 1). That means pray. Certainly pray about the things that concern you. But I encourage you to practice the prayer of silence. Be still and know that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10). Listen for the still small voice of God. Calm and quiet your soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast (Psalm 131:2)

• And don’t just pray alone. Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but come to worship where we reorient ourselves toward God and encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

• Keep Sabbath. Take extended time to rest and focus your attention on God. Try this. On Sundays, do not watch the news, do not go on the internet, and rest from the worries of the world. God will continue to tend the world while you rest. Do something restorative – read, walk in the woods, exercise, knit, make something, etc. Some researchers suggest that our capacity for compassion is finite and will become depleted if not restored. Among other things, Sabbath is a means of restoring that capacity.

• Acknowledge your own vulnerability. You are a limited, finite creature. You are not God. Only God, who is love, can be infinitely available and vulnerable in love. Our capacity for compassion is limited and can become drained. You cannot give all of yourself all the time to everyone. And sometimes it is OK and necessary to step back for a time. Know when you’ve had enough.

• Remember that God bears it all and bears it with you. You are not alone. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." The burden is light because he bears it with you.

• Do what you can and trust the rest to God. Focus your care. Again this is part of accepting our creatureliness. We cannot do everything everywhere. So it helps to decide what we can do and focus on that. Our involvement with the Sudan is an example of this. We cannot address all the needs of the world or even I the Sudan. But, God has placed the people of Renk and Maban in our path and we can do some things for them. And doing that allows us to trust God to rise up others to care for Haiti, Japan, or elsewhere. Doing something somewhere also frees us from despairing of feeling helpless. This is true locally and personally as well. If we are careful not to take on more than we can manage, we can manage, with God’s help, what we are called to take on. In doing so, we can still remain open to People and situations that aren’t already on our radar while discerning what we are called to do and letting go of the rest.

• Find someone to talk to about the hard stuff but who will encourage you. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1).

• Don’t dwell on the negative. Don’t allow yourself to get in a rut of rehearsing all that is bad in the world or the wrongs that have been done to you. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

• End each day naming the good – in your own life and in the world. Give thanks to God for at least three three things. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Jesus enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is difficult and perilous thing as we make ourselves available and vulnerable to caring in a world full of tragedy and disappointment. But, by the grace of Christ’s Spirit working in us and through us we can continue to love our neighbor even in an age of compassion fatigue.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Love your neighbor

"The Christian path is a slow and often painful schooling under the tutelage of Christ, as we learn to welcome the nearness of one neighbor after another."
p. 34

Jesus said, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Matthew 22:27-40

"We belong to Jesus completely, in body as well as spirit, because he has become our neighbor through his own radical availability, even at the price of his own life: 'You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body' (1 Corinthians 6:20). But if we belong to Jesus, then we also belong to one another: we cannot have Jesus as our neighbor without also having each other. The Christian task, then, is to find the appropriate ways to live out the fact that we do not belong to ourselves alone. The Christian life is shaped by this challenge and to address it is to devote oneself to the 'affairs of the Lord' (1 Corinthians 7:22)." p. 50

"Our availability to one another can be very frightening, even in the light of the gospel. But we find our help in Jesus, who is God’s yes to our nearness and its sanctification. We profess belief in a savior who drew near to us and suffered the abuses to which that nearness exposed him. The purpose of the Incarnation was not to rescue us from nearness or from the body, but to set our nearness right. Through the Incarnation the Word of God has become our neighbor. As our neighbor, Jesus reveals to us what nearness looks like when it is not corrupted by sin, and bestows on everyone who receives him the experience of a redeemed and justified nearness. We are encouraged by this experience to begin, not naively yet with hope, to embrace our nearness with one another." p. 31

Except for the passage from Matthew, the quotes are from Christian Households: The Sanctification of Nearness by Thomas Breidenthal (now Bishop of Southern Ohio)

Friday, October 14, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Roman Catholicism & Anglicanism

A couple of years ago, the Pope proposed an "Anglican Ordinariate" (Anglicanorum Coetibus) making it easier for disaffected Episcopalians to become Roman Catholic by allowing such "converts" to maintain some Anglican forms of worship. At the time, someone asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was considering taking the pope up on his offer. I replied that I wasn't, because, among other things, I could not accept as formal dogma some of the Roman church's recent theological innovations, e.g., the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870), and the Assumption of Mary (1950). Of course, this was intentionally impish given that the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion more generally, has sometimes been accused of theological innovation. There is much that I appreciate about Roman Catholicism and have benefited greatly from reading R. C. scholars, theologians, and writers on prayer and spirituality. And, frustrated as I am sometimes with some tendencies in the Episcopal Church, it has its attractions. Still, there are parts of the package I cannot bring myself to accept. I am in many ways a catholic minded Anglican. But, there is more than one way to be catholic.

I was thinking about this as I read an entry on Anglican vs. Roman ways of being "catholic" at The Curates Desk, a fine blog by Fr. Robert Hendrickson of Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

I was also reminded of this letter from C. S. Lewis to a correspondent enquiring about his views of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (I have spelled out some words Lewis abbreviated):

My position about the Churches can best be made plain by an imaginary example. Suppose I want to find out the correct interpretation of Plato’s teaching. What I am most confident in accepting is that interpretation which is common to all Platonists down all the centuries: What Aristotle and the Renaissance scholars and Paul Elmer More agree on I take to be true Platonism. Any purely modern views which claim to have discovered for the first time what Plato meant and say that everyone from Aristotle down has misunderstood him I reject out of hand.

But there is something else I would also reject. If there were an ancient Platonic Society existing at Athens and claiming to be the exclusive trustees of P’s meaning, I should approach them with great respect. But if I found that their teaching in many ways was curiously unlike his actual text and unlike what ancient interpreters said, and in some cases could not be traced back to within 1000 years of his time, I should reject these exclusive claims: while still needing, of course, to take any particular thing they thought on its merits.

I do the same with Christianity. What is certain is the vast mass of doctrine which I find agreed on by scripture, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, modern Roman Catholics, modern Protestants. That is true ‘catholic’ doctrine. Mere ‘modernism’ I reject at once.

The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specifically from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the B. V. M. [Blessed Virgin Mary] I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament: where indeed the words ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’ receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul towards St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists in defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claims: though this does not mean rejecting particular things they way.

. . .

Hooker (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) is to me the great formulation of Anglicanism. But the great point is that in one sense there is no such thing as Anglicanism. What we are committed to believe is whatever can be proved from Scripture. On that issue there is room for endless progress.
From a letter to Lyman Stebbins, May 8, 19454 in The Collected letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2. (the recipient become R.C. anyway)

I mostly agree with Lewis. His approach is my default position. But, I wonder if it is altogether possible or desirable for a church to avoid all innovation or development in theological or biblical understanding. Lewis himself notoriously rejected the idea of one innovation, the ordination of women, which I accept as a faithful extension of the gospel. And this is something the Roman church rejects as well.

Perhaps the question is not simply whether or not innovation is faithful, but which innovations are faithful, how is their faithfulness discerned, how are they adopted once discerned, and where does the authority lie to do so? The Roman Catholic Church has some relatively clear answers to those questions. The lack of clear answers to those questions is straining the "bonds of affection" in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

If Necessary Use Words

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the much-loved, but often sentimentalized and misrepresented saint. The phrase, "Preach the gospel everywhere; if necessary use words," is often ascribed to Francis. It's a popular phrase. The problem is, there is no eveidence Francis said it.

Of course the wisdom of that particular saying does not depend upon its source. And I do not think it is without wisdom. Many of us have been on the receiving end of words spoken in the name of the gospel by someone whose life or attitude did not "preach" the gospel. Our lives must bear witness to the good news of Jesus before our words about that good news can make any sense. But to suggest that the gospel can be preached without ever using words is deceptive. We ought to be able to tell the Story that makes the story of our lives make sense. That requires words as well as actions.

If we use this saying attributed to St. Francis as an excuse to never speak words of the gospel to others, it is rather like saying, as one wag has it, "Feed the hungry; if necessary use food."

And if we attribute only this saying to Francis, we will misrepresent the fact that he, himself, actually used words -- and used them boldly -- to preach the gospel.

Here is a story from the life of Francis of Assisi (emphasis mine):

The people of Gubbio, a town north of Assisi, were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life,

Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp… and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God… stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
(as told by Jim Forest in The Ladder of the Beatitudes, p. 116-117)