Voices of Progressive Christianity: Compassion in Chaos

November 11, 2012


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 11, 2012

“Compassion in Chaos”
Zechariah 7:9-10; I Peter 3:8

Sam Keen, who holds 2 degrees from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from Princeton, wrote a book in the mid-1990’s that still rocks my soul. The book is entitled, “Hymns to an Unknown God; Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life”. In it, he puts words to the mystery that faces many progressive Christians: “(part of being a human means) we cannot know enough to be theists or atheists. We have no alternative except to decide whether to trust or mistrust the encompassing mystery (that is God).” Pg. 69

And so, we choose to believe in a God we cannot fully understand or know. And our religious rituals, even our lives themselves are hymns/ songs to this unknowable God. In the modern world, that means that we may borrow ideas from the Buddha, while following a Hindi Yogi, meditating on music from the classics, and praying prayers from the Episcopal prayer book. Each of us takes what resonates within our souls and tries to put it together for our own spiritual enrichment. This is well and good, says Keen. The majority of the book is about this very difficult task of finding a modern spiritual life that works.

Most intriguing to me, however, is near the end of the book when Sam Keen challenges the 20th century focus on individualism. Instead, he asks if, in the 21st century, we are ready to “begin the bold experiment of creating a new communal order… a compassionate community.” He says that a “soulful person is not an autonomous atom but a quantum self, a particle and a wave, an entity and a hologram. A spirited life is continually being expanded to include an ever-widening community. This requires that we cultivate an elastic heart, an erotic body, a generous mind, and a compassionate imagination to root out whatever keeps us from loving ourselves and the others with whose lives ours are intertwined.”
Pg. 229

Taking some of those powerful words: imagination, empathy, and compassion, Keen suggests these become our new religious sacraments. You know that sacraments of the church are the sacred rites and rituals. The Roman Catholics have 7 sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, penance or reconciliation, ordination to priesthood, marriage, and last rites. (I think there are some of you who confused marriage as your last rite, but that’s another sermon!) Most Protestant congregations observe only 2 sacraments: baptism and communion. But Keen focuses us on 3 new sacraments: Imagination, Empathy, and Compassion.

It is the sacrament of compassion I want to focus today. Compassion is also a Biblical principle. The Hebrew words translated as compassion are all prepositions that mean to be “around”, “with”, or “encircle”, “beside” or “alongside”. Having compassion is a physical presence in and around another person. The ancient text from Zechariah uses this idea as the prophet Zechariah says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show compassion and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
(Zechariah 7:9-10)
So often when a friend is struggling with the chaos that is life, we ask what we can do. The Hebrew words for compassion give us a clue: be with, around, and beside the person.

The Greek words translated as compassion are verbs: “to pity”, “to be merciful”, or “to be moved” and even “to suffer with”. A common Greek understanding of this word we call compassion is literally translated “to have the bowels yearning”. In other words, compassion is a yearning from deep within. In I Peter, we hear these words: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, compassion for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (I Peter 3:8)

“Compassion”, Keen says, “is an outgrowth of wisdom, a consequence of the awareness that self and other are already joined.” He even suggests that we could use constant reminders of people practicing compassion, like some people use posters and pin-ups of athletes and movie stars! Instead, we need to put together pinups of (and I’m quoting) “sexy saints, winsome prophets, (and) heroines of compassionate political action!” These images and stories would re-mind and en-courage us in our practice of compassion. Pg. 233

Now I don’t know about you, but I find Keen’s ideas very humbling. In our world of chaos and noise, we are quick to place a “practice random acts of kindness” bumper sticker on the car, while we speed by those with flat tires, signs asking for work, and homeless folk pushing a cart of belongings. Instead, what would it look like for a “multitude of ordinary people… to maintain civility and create community… where we can exercise imagination, empathy, and compassion.”?

In the chaos of this world, we all hunger for a sense of community and a place to belong where we can share the innermost part of our souls. A personal story: about 8 years ago, I sat in my house one evening. It was the normal hubbub of activity when you have teenagers, homework, friends over, dinner, the phone ringing, and schedules to coordinate, and 8 loads of laundry waiting to be folded. I sat in the midst of this chaos and found a hollow spot in the pit of my stomach. It was my birthday. Sure, my husband and children remembered and I had some gifts to open. But the phone wasn’t ringing for me, and the majority of the mail that day was bills and advertisements. I was profoundly lonely. And what was even more bothersome was the knowledge that this loneliness was of my own making. As a minister, I spent a lot of time nurturing others. Being a mom and a minister, I was busy doing things for others most days. But I hadn’t really developed a web of love for my self.

That day taught me something. We all yearn for something that will transform us, as Keen writes, “(from) a mass of alienated individuals into a caring community that is created by countless acts of kindness and charitable foresight.” Pg. 233

I began to call women I knew and ask them to form a lunch bunch. At first, we got together to explore new restaurants and to try new things. Soon, this group of women turned into a trusted circle of soul friends who share the deepest thoughts of our souls, the hurts and questions of life, help children in need, celebrate life’s joys together, travel and shop together, and love each other. This is where I experience deep community and compassion to soothe the chaotic mess of life. (Although my son, Adam, calls the group the “the women’s sewing circle and terrorist society”!)

To live a spiritual life, we are called beyond our selves and into a spirited community where compassion is key. I want to end with a quote from Keen:

What impels a man or woman on this great venture is not the expectation of arrival but a sense of vocation. Something calls my name and demands that I respond. The voice does not say, ‘Eliminate all suffering and create the heavenly city.’ It says, ‘The gifts you have are needed to heal the dis-ease of your time.’
• You are an architect – shape space care-fully to create better buildings and a more humane city for all citizens.
• You are a banker – work to create a more sustainable economy.
• You are a farmer – tend the land so it will be fertile for generations to come.
• You are a physician – attend to the healing of the whole person.
• You are a cook – prepare meals that delight the palate and nourish the body.
• You are a parent – take time to enjoy and guide your children.
• You are a CEO – create and market only those products that increase the common good.
• You are a soldier – minimize violence, keep the peace, and when you must fight, do so without hatred or the bitterness of revenge.
• You are a television producer – create stories that dignify, increase empathy, and inspire compassion.
So long as we respond to the needs of our world by offering both our compassion and our skill, we will not fall into despair at the overwhelming quantity of need. The spiritual life is based on a refusal to despair that arises from concerned action and humble agnosticism. We don’t know enough to despair. Hope is rooted in trust in the Unknown God. We do not know the final destiny of the individual soul or the commonwealth of beings; therefore we work, wait, and hope. And that is enough.” Pg. 245

So be it. Amen.

Bible References

  • Zechariah 7:9 - 10
  • 1 Peter 3:8