How Friends See the World by Paul Blankenship

News headlines

“At least 50 dead and 1,300 listed as missing nearly two weeks after hurricane Dorian hit Bahamas.”

“Beto O’Rourke on gun control following record number of mass shootings in the United States: ‘hell yes we’re going to take your AK47.’ Come and try, a concerned citizen retorts.”

“Megachurch pastor who was an advocate for mental health kills himself.”

“Leading Psychologist has found that depression rates rose by more than 60 percent among children age 14-17 and 47% among those age 12-13. Between 2007 and 2015, children and teenagers seen in hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide have doubled.”

“Microsoft President Brad Smith Says Our Democracy is at risk, Government Needs to Step in and Regulate Big Tech.”

“Climate Change is Already Displacing Millions of People—It’s our Responsibility to Help Them.”

“Jerry Falwell, Jr. Faces Backlash Over Emails. The Liberty University President, who is one of the most influential Christian leaders in the United States, sent emails where he allegedly belittled students and staff during the past decade.”

“Vandals Deface British WWII Graves in the Netherlands.”

“NFL star accused of raping his former athletic trainer.”

“Tearful Felicity Hoffman gets 14 days in prison, $30,000 fine in college admission’s scandal.”

“Economic Forces Are Killing the American Dream. Reporter traces the nation’s deterioration from an equitable country to a more unjust one.”

The Difference it Makes on Our Imaginations    I just read several popular news headlines from the past week. The news headlines I read come from many different news outlets. As a general practice, I do my best to read news, everyday, that comes from different perspectives—news from the right, the left, and the shrinking in between—in order to develop a good enough understanding of how different people make sense of the world. I do that because I am ultimately interested in how people act and because how people act is related to how they make sense of the world. Seeing is doing. One point I want to make today is that the way we see the world matters because it shapes how we act in the world. Seeing breeds action.

The reason a sermon about seeing and doing matters, I will say, is because Friends of Jesus are called to a particular and actually quite radical kind of seeing and doing in the world. And since for the most part we see and do naturally (that is, without thinking twice about it), it is important to create space—sacred space, space where we gather before our God of peace, love, and joy—to step back and reflect on how we actually see and do in the world in order to ask whether we’re doing all of that as Jesus might.

That is because, after all, Jesus remains our teacher—he teaches us how to see and do.

Let me first step back and ask a question. Did you notice a theme in the news headlines from the past week that I just read? I’m really asking. What do you think is something that all of the headlines have in common?

In my mind, the theme that is most salient is suffering. Radical suffering. Overwhelming suffering. Suffering everywhere. Scary suffering. Maddening suffering. Rageful suffering.

Natural disasters are killing and displacing people. Mass shootings are murdering people—and eliciting powerful emotions about the government’s role in shaping our lives. Our children are suffering from mental health issues—and dying from suicide—in record numbers. Our democracy is sick, and at great risk. Our climate, the womb of God we all live and breathe and have our being in, is being destroyed—unnecessarily. Religious leaders are treating people they are called to love with hate. They are acting like abusive shepherds, not at all like the Good Shepherd. People are profaning the sacred—disrespecting war heroes, for example. Our sports stars are committed acts of war on bodies they claim to love in their own homes. Movie stars are trying to rig the system—the rich are teaching their children to cheat their way to top of our social hierarchy. The American Dream—which is really about a dream we all need to dream for a good life—is being murdered.

Little wonder I find myself reluctant to turn on the news in the morning. NPR is tempting to turn on in the car, but a good song just feels better. Like medicine. It’s hard to connect to the radical suffering spilling out of the radio and filling our minds with the horrible things happening in the world.

The Gift of Our Imagination    Friends, God has given us many wonderful gifts. Certainly, one of those gifts is our imagination. Our imagination is like a canvas our spirits get to create on. It is a place of endless potential and beauty. With our imaginations we create the most beautiful art. Yesterday I spend some time at St. Al’s Church at Gonzaga: the stain glass windows, the candles, the wood carvings—the beauty of it wood me into an experience of God and made me supremely grateful for the artistic hands that create. Maybe, I thought, our artists are the greatest theologians of our time. Anyway. Our imaginations also create the most beautiful music. It is a wonder to me how Lois and Polina can touch a few keys on the piano and then, boom: almost like magic, our atmosphere is full of sensory goodness; our worried minds can rest on the keys they play effortlessly. Our imaginations create stories—stories that put our children to sleep and encourage them dream big and become whatever their hearts encourage them to become. Though I read it for the first time as a child, I still dream about C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan still fills my heart with the fierce, fiery mercy of God.

Wounded by Radical Suffering     The amount of suffering we are aware of today, I am afraid, friends, is negatively impacting our imaginations. Don’t get me wrong. It is good that we can learn about misfortunate. Learning about the plight of another person from across the world can help us ease that plight, that suffering. Being exposed to so much suffering, however, is too much for some of us. Our imaginations feel assaulted. We are being wounded by a wounded world. The suffering in the world is wounding our capacity to see and respond to the world as friends of Jesus. That is the point I want to make. And today, I want to talk about three ways the radical suffering in our world is wounding us.

First, being exposed to radical suffering on a regular basis is just plain hurtful. Most of us cannot help but  feel the pain that we are being exposed to. Learning about so many people suffering so intensely is like being repeatedly punched in the face. Except the pain of seeing others suffer so deeply is not just bodily; it is also spiritual. Radical suffering causes us to feel pain in our most intimate and sacred spaces; in the internal waters we run to when our spirits are faint, bruised, parched.

Second, our exposure to radical suffering engenders hopelessness. It’s not rocket science. Seeing so much suffering leads many people in our world to cry out: what is the purpose of this existence? Is suffering all there is? Where is the good, the true, and the beautiful? Has God abandoned us? Are we fooling ourselves when we think that a good and loving God is alive and ultimately steering our ship-like-universe to a shore of forever goodness? Is our world just a faucet of pain and suffering? Why can’t we turn it off? Radical suffering leads to despondency, despair. And some of us—the most vulnerable amongst us—are more sensitive to that than others. So suffering is unevenly distributed.

Here is a third consequence of our exposure to radical suffering. We turn on one another. We blame one another. It’s a terribly unfortunate truth: when we are wounded, we are likely to wound. Suffering is an infectious disease that becomes deadly unless it finds escape. So, we often see radical suffering with eyes that look for a culprit to punish and imprison. The philosopher René Girard observed that the desire to blame is a human universal. He saw it in every culture—throughout history. Suffering makes us thirsty for blood. Bloodthirsty, we search for a scapegoat to take the blame and ease the pain.  Wrongly, and without really knowing it, we think that blaming others will cure our wounds.

Jesus’ Way of Seeing the World      Our Scripture reading for the day comes from Matthew 9:35-38. Jesus’ sacred words—his sacred words of healing, of life—come at the end of his having conducted a series of healings. It’s a remarkable time for our healer—and actually only a snapshot of his healing ministry. He healed a leaper suffering from a terrible disease, a centurion’s servant who was paralyzed, Peter’s mother-in-law who was ill with a fever, men who were experiencing some kind of demonic possession, another paralyzed man, a young girl who was dead, a woman suffering from hemorrhages, two blind men—and a person who was mute. Wow.

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

I want to point out four things that happen in this passage—that, actually, we are invited to make happen again. Again and again and again. We are called to make Jesus feel real and alive to others again and again and again.

First, Jesus is, like we are today, surrounded by incalculable suffering. By radical suffering. Suffering everywhere. Rageful, destructive suffering is the air in Jesus’ human lungs. Second, Jesus looked at what was there. He did not turn away. He did not become despondent. He did not district himself. He saw the world—that is, what was before him—honestly and courageously. Third, Jesus responded with compassion. He saw that people were overwhelmed with suffering. That, like a big snake with a weapon-tongue to a nasty mouse, suffering was swallowing people. Real suffering. Suffering in bodies, in mouths, in minds, in spirits. Suffering killing friends and families and sacred communities. The suffering people before him, Jesus said, were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus did more than say something, though. Words, in the end, are a poor cure for pain. Jesus felt them; he suffered with them, not just on the cross but in the awful everydayness of their lives. Compassion is an interesting word. In Scripture, it means something womb-like. Jesus’ compassion is likened to the way a mother feels the pain of a child in her womb. A kick inside the belly. The word is a way of saying: God feels your pain like you are in Her womb. Like a mother, then—not a violent father with a paddle and a lecture— Jesus responds.

And that is the next thing Jesus did. He responded. He healed. How he healed is a great mystery to us, but I trust that many of us trust that God has the power to heal people who are suffering in ways that strike us as mysterious.

There is one last thing that I want to point out which Jesus did. He told his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” And then he told them something else: to pray to God that more people would get to work of the fields of pain and suffering so that God’s healing love might transform wounded lives.

 How we do that     I submit to you, friends, that we are the living, embodied answers to that prayer of Jesus, that prayer of Jesus’ disciples. Or we should be.

In Friends for 350 Years: The History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends Since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement, Howard Brinton remarks that Quakerism is fundamentally a method. That is, being a Quaker is, at its heart, about helping people have a spiritual experience of God so that they can be loving people in the world. Still, Quakers try to live out George Fox’s encouragement to his friends, and to us Friends: to answer the call of God in everyone and to walk cheerfully over the world.

Ah. To walk cheerfully over the world. That speaks to me. It’s a good song. It’s the song I want to put on when I listen to the news. To walk cheerfully over a world that is experiencing radical suffering. Can we still—in our age, which may be closer than any other age to the end of all ages, whether by nuclear war or climate change—still walk cheerfully over the world?

The Quaker Question for Our Time     The question for our lives, the question for our meeting, I believe, is precisely this: how do we walk joyfully over a world that is aching from the wounds of radical suffering and that is wounding us with its wounds. Wounds that are harassing people, making them feel helpless and wandering in the world like sheep without a shepherd.

I want to reference Howard Brinton’s wonderful book, 350 Years of Friendship, again. He writes that the method of Quakerism is not just about how to have personal experience of God in the quiet space of our togetherness. Ultimately, it is about making a difference in the world. We gather to feel the warm waters of the Holy Spirit, sure, but we don’t stay in the hot tub of our silence with a cocktail while the world outside struggles to find clean water. The point of the Quaker church—or of any church regardless of denomination or religion—is forming communities that exemplify the love of God. Communities, that is, which, like Jesus, see the suffering of the world and respond with compassion.

Seeing and doing like Jesus is hard. Unless we see that happen in the real world—in communities like ours—we won’t be able to do it. Seeing—alas—at least sometimes, is believing. That’s why churches like ours remain vital to our world and to cities like Spokane. We are laboratories of compassion the world needs to see in order to believe there is more to this life than suffering.

Seeing compassionately—healing the wounds.     So, this is how Friends see the world. We do what Jesus told his friends to do. We see that people are suffering and we respond to them with passion. It’s hard—but also remarkably, and thankfully—quite simple. Not just in our minds to people on the news in extraordinary circumstances, by the way. No. People in our midst, in our very meeting. People walking down the street begging for spare change. People in line at Starbucks—taking too damn long to order a Frappuccino with whipped cream and cinnamon and chocolate sprinkles and a rainbow cookie and a paper straw. People driving big trucks, farmers working for their harvest, corporate executives on Wall Street making more money than God. People in evangelical churches that we may disagree with, people in public office causing us and the world so much pain.

No one escapes the fangs of suffering in our world. We are all vulnerable to the brutalizing bite.

The fundamental power that we need to respond to suffering is faith. The cure for radical suffering is the faith of Christ: faith, that is, in the living and loving goodness in all things now and even more things to come. A faith, by the way, that we need Jesus’ faith to have faith in. Lord I believe, I think we often cry, but help my unbelief.

So, we do not respond to a suffering world with pitch forks. We do not threaten the world with eternal flames of hell. We do not respond to the suffering in our world and in ourselves with blame. We do not respond with gossip or backbiting. Friends of Jesus respond to the suffering in the world and in themselves with water in a bowl. Like our teacher—our beloved, our Mother, our Father, our Brother—we kneel at the feet of the suffering people in our midst and wash them. We wash dirty, smelly, bloodied feet. Friends wash suffering feet—the feet even, and perhaps especially, of those who cause us suffering. For what kind of love do we have for the world if we can only love those who are nice to us and do not hurt us?

Foot washing. It’s probably not a job that will make you 6 figures. But it is a job that will save your soul. It’s a job that will truly transform lives and set people free to be the people God has called them to be.

Wounded Healers     So far I have said that friends of Jesus see and do in the world in a particular way. We see that people are suffering and we respond with compassion. Of course, I am not suggesting that we must feel responsible to see and cure every pain in the world. That would lead to madness. We trust God to communicate with us about the little ways we can love everyday—little ways, though, that create big waves.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize a critical part of what it takes to respond to a hurting world with compassion. What I want to say is this. We cannot respond to the world with compassion unless we respond to ourselves with compassion. The psychologist Carl Jung had a helpful term for this. “The Wounded Healer.” Basically, Jung said that all people who try to be healers in the world should know that they are wounded and that their power to heal comes from their woundedness. It’s a backwards but true way of thinking. Our wounds—the places in us which we may be ashamed of, afraid of, and angry at—are sources of healing. Our wounds are sacred centers of holy power. Our wounds are places that we can love in the silence where God speaks, and that will help us be loving.

Friends, seeing suffering and doing compassion requires seeing the suffering within ourselves—and responding compassionately. Our wounds are not pretty sight—but the healing compassion of God is pretty amazing.

Query. Might God be inviting you to respond to your wounds with compassion—so that you can respond to the wounds of others with compassion?

 

This message was given by Paul Blankenship on September 12, 2019,  We apologize that is hastaking so long to pusoting

 

 

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