Probably the first thing I remember of my learning in church was to “love your neighbor!”
Here’s the way “the deal” was presented to me as a child: God loved you, SO, you should love others.
Has an easy logic, right? If God gifted you with God’s Love, then in response, you should love others.
That drumbeat followed my journey throughout my tour as a South of God Christian. It continued as I made my way through the magic of childhood, into the time when I faced the Copernican revolution of realizing other people were looking at me, assessing me, judging me. It’s commonly referred to as adolescence. It is experientially known as “hell”.
That perspective is complicated and compounded by the fact that hormones are rising, let’s be honest, surging through your rapidly developing body. Feeling those initial feelings of attraction to an “other”,. wondering what she thought about you, was the attraction shared, and hearing from other “others” known as your peer group as to “what the score was”, “does she like me?”…..all these things are swirling in the mind of an adolescent. And the church responds with a simple beat: Love one another….but not too much and not in the way your sinful mind is suggesting.
Later, we move into young adulthood as we make our way onto the playing field of life. We are told to be competitive, it’s the American Way. If you do it well, you will be rewarded monetarily and in other intangibles such as fame, respect, even envy. And still the beat goes on: Love your neighbor, but only after you make your quota, finish your project, complete the deal….then, love your neighbor. And, oh by the way, give 10% to the church.
Somewhere along the way, someone will mention that this dude, Jesus, said in a sermon on some mountain, that you should add your enemy to your love list. Now, this first landed home to me in the unlikely place of a Broadway stage with the musical play, Godspell. But it made the tough reality of the call to love and the real possibility of that happening plain and clear. I am certain that my pastors covered that in their erudite sermons, but I was probably looking at Terri or Phyllis at the time, planning my next move. I did mention adolescence, right?
Loving your neighbor is not a problem when they are attractive, interesting, or presenting a side utilitarian benefit. It makes logical sense, but now, you are going beyond logic. My enemy? You have to be kidding. What’s the punchline…and it turns out the back-slapping punchline is, you should pray for those who persecute you!
This continues throughout one’s life. If you happen to be a follower of the Christ Way, you are constantly in tension with what this rabbi from Nazareth said, on a mountain, or embodied “on a hill far away”, the ultimate love, laying down your very life. The church is strong on telling you that are you to love your neighbor. It’s very symbol is advertisement for the cost, but most wear it as an accessory. Didn’t Madonna wear one for a time? And what about Flava Flav? Nah, that was a clock, another symbol of our culture, yeah, boyeeeeee!
The problem I found was at least three-fold. One, there was infighting within the church itself as people jockeyed for power, fighting to the death over certain issues. But the jealous, self-promotion seemed to run counter to this basic marching order in this group claiming to follow Jesus.
Secondly, there seemed to be a problem in defining the boundaries of who my neighbor was. It turned out, my neighbor was often the one who looks like me, thinks like me, acts likes me. My experience was that the circle of who counts was drawn pretty tightly, which defined who was our “real” neighbor. Others might be paid off by a check to some organization who will do the loving for us, to assuage our fleeting guilt.
But thirdly, and this is what strikes me the most currently, the church does not teach us HOW to love the neighbor. Just HOW does one transform one’s tendency to focus on self, to center on one’s own agenda. We do a pretty good job at teaching about this love, tracking scriptural references, even cross-referencing until the proverbial cows or prodigal son comes home, But HOW do we do it?
Maybe the instruction manual got lost. Maybe Peter put it in that drawer where all whatchamacallits go to die. Now, some will say the Bible is the instruction manual, but as a serious student of that book, I beg to differ. The WHERE we are to head, the direction, seems clear: Love, Kingdom of God, Beloved Community all seem pretty well-defined. The directions seem to be a little thin. The “S” at the end of the word “direction” makes for an important gap, between what we are to do and how we are to do it. The “S” turns out to be your ass, which you are left holding.
This left me looking for a way, a training, as to how I can deal with this “love” thing. It was fascinating to me that the Broadway play I mentioned, Godspell, spends most of its time showing how that love gets done within the community of ten people on the stage. To point, I’ve never seen a better demonstration of what this love looks like, with the possible exception of Tom Key and Harry Chapin’s Cotton Patch Gospel that transposes the Gospel love into a Souther idiom, but that may be too close to home for some of my South of God readers. How do I love the neighbor who is in my neighborhood? How do I love the neighbor who does not share my beliefs, my values, my agenda? That’s a project worth tackling, but that’s just the start. It’s complicated, as they say.
How do I love those that have betrayed me? How do I forgive those who have wronged me? How do I love the folks who have tried to hurt me, who let their own interests drive them to betray my trust? These are the deep cuts that are hard to heal. At one point in my life, I found myself faced with this question existentially. Was I going to be sentenced to a life of anger, bitterness, or even retribution. My soul longed for NO, refusing to give away my own agency, and my soul’s call. But, my ego, formed in my culture, said Payback is the Way, best served cold.
You can say it was luck. You can say it was fortune. You can ascribe it to my constant curiosity that tends to take me to some exotic places. Or, you might suggest, in a whisper, it was God’s spirit leading me. In any case, I wound up in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation session at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, the North American center of the school of Buddhism sponsored by none other than the Dalai Lama. It is affiliated with Emory which gave me a natural curiosity and connection.
I had been meditating since college, tasting the effect of Transcendental Meditation, made popular by the Beatles. A cast of Trappist monks transformed that practice with the baptizing of my TM into an ancient monastic tradition of Centering Prayer. I had used that method throughout my priesthood for some thirty years, to center me when I was buffeted by critics and lured by pitch men. It was my “center”.
On that fateful day of wandering into this Tibetan center, I found a clear linkage to what Buddhists refer to as shamatha, which is a method of quieting the “monkey mind” by sitting, and using a variety of methods to still the self, to experience a calm, a focus. On my initial visit, that meditation felt like “coming home”, a journey to a place that felt familiar, and how refreshing to just “be” and not be in charge. On top of that, I experienced a community that was characterized by compassion, a value that is at the center of what the Dalai Lama teaches. The kicker was, he was also training folks how to do that. That got my attention.
Through time, hanging out at the Center, and getting serious about the teaching of Buddhism, I came across a practice known as Compassion Meditation. It began with the normal practice of most meditation, taking deep breaths in order to center oneself, beoming really present in the now moment. I had this down, in fact, as my practice through the years helped me to become pretty good at taming my infamous “monkey mind” that leaps from tree to tree, idea to insight. There was not a rabbit or squirrel that my mind could not follow whatever hole they might dart down. My basic spiritual work was focusing my mind, to slow it down, and simply be in the moment.
But a new piece was added in Compassion Meditation. I was asked to bring into my mind a person who I cared for deeply. I brought my wife, Mary, to my mind. I was asked to dive deeply into her life, what the circumstances were, the current presses on her life, the challenges, the issues. It wasn’t hard because I loved her, I knew of her life as a teacher with dyslexic kids at the amazing Schenck School. I had heard her speak of her love of her kids, her valuing the colleagues who shared her passion of mainstreaming these children who have a unique issue of learning to negotiate. I knew of her love for our two kids, trying to figure out how to best care for these diverse young adults. I knew of her spiritual hunger, her life-long friends from Druid Hills, her mountainous issue of having to live with my craziness. This exercise put me in mind of her life, and asked me to take her perspective in my mind. A good thing, but not that difficult, beginning with the easiest target, going for a “quick win”, by design I would learn. But this was just the start.
Then, the meditation leader would ask us to focus on a neutral being, that is, a person that you had no strong emotional connection, but a person who you come into contact on a regular basis. I had a face come to my mind immediately. It was my drycleaner who worked just up the hill from my townhouse. I would encounter him almost every other day or so. He was business-like taking my business suits, my blazer, my shirts, giving me the infamous “ticket”, listing what items I had brought and when I could expect to pick them up. It was a business transaction that would be repeated over and over.
Through time, I would notice a golf club behind his counter and would find him training his swing in the parking lot. I ran into him a few times at the local muni course, which changed our relational connection. And yet he was not a friend, but remained a neutral being. I put the energy into imagining his family, what his day was like, his challenges, where he found joy in his long day of receiving dirty laundry. This exercise led me to see him as a human, not a mere element of transaction, making me take him more seriously as a person. How might this change the way my next encounter would go with him? In my time of using this method, I have brought many other so-called neutral beings into my meditation, bringing me into a deeper perspective-taking of these persons who share my life space. I enjoyed it, in fact. And it has produced good fruit in my interactions with others with whom I share this life space.
But the kicker in this whole “compassion meditation” gig is that after holding one’s loved one, followed by a neutral being, one is now invited to bring to mind an “enemy”. I was first surprised with that suggestion after I had been so loving to my loved one, and so curious with my neutral being, but Enemy?
At that particular time in my life, two people leapt into my consciousness, two enemies that I felt had done me wrong, betrayed my trust, which was at the top “sin” in my book. Dutifully following the instructions, I decided to focus on one, rather than going with my instincts of a double-barrel. I began to imagine this person’s life, his life situation, particular issues that he had to deal with. I called to mind what I knew of his background, and particularly what I knew was his lack of experience. This hard work was continued in sessions for about a month, with the result being a deeper appreciation of the unique position of this person, with my attempt to understand his perspective. Through months of work, I experienced a breakthrough as I realized that this person did not have the personal capacity to have done anything other than what he did.
It was surprising how this process freed my mind, heart, and soul from focusing my energy and anger on this person. In my own language world, I “got off that hook”, freeing my energy for other worthy efforts. Plus, I think it brought me to a more complete comprehension of this person, who I had limited by my definition into a category. I actually had the occasion to invest the time and energy to go to engage this person, seeking resolution. Are we best friends? No, but a transformation occurred for which I am thankful. I have used this technique to engage my mind in perspective-taking that disturbs my categorization which robs a person of the deeper humanity. In honesty, I have to admit this past election cycle, particularly the aftermath, has tested the metal of this technique, but I am trying.
I share this story to illustrate the practical technique of putting the “love your neighbor” and “pray for your persecutor” into action. I think we as people of faith need to be open to learn from one another as to how be compassionate people who can exist with one another, even when we disagree, or hold conflicting positions. That seems to be in short supply these days.
I would present to you an invitation to try this on in the remainder of Lent. IF, and I know it’s a big “if” (since my readers are all holy folks, loving of God and neighbor, righteous folk)….but if you have somebody who bothers you, you might try this Buddhist technique on for size. Dedicate ten to twenty minutes to do some of the righteous perspective-taking that might just free your mind to consider the humanity of the one that is getting under your skin, making you mad, or even inhabiting a group or party which you hold in contempt. Hell, for some of you, I bet it might be me! How’s that for preemptive perspective-taking?
Try this on and see if it doesn’t work. I’m a pragmatist at heart. Let me know how this works out for you, a practical way to take the perspective of your neighbor. Just might free up your soul to love your neighbor….even your enemy. God knew I needed it. God knows, we need it. Blessings.