Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?

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In the Ice

When freezing rain moved through in mid-January, it covered the trees and bushes with ice. The crabapple tree in my front yard still has a few fruits, not yet eaten by the birds, and they glistened through the ice like red jewels.

The ice-coated crabapples are like the soul that is frozen in grief or despair. Ice covers the fruit, stems, twigs, and branches, isolating them from the winter air, just as suffering isolates the spirit from joy and comfort. But the beauty of the soul is still visible. The fruit survives and will become food that sustains life. Within the fruit are the seeds that will grow into new life. The crabapple waits. Spring will come.

We are all connected to everything that is, even when we can’t feel it or even perceive it. We all have times of ice, times when we feel disconnected and paralyzed. But the Spirit of light and life is with us, even when we don’t believe it exists. The ice will melt.

One Body

How We See Jesus

Every Christian community has portrayed Jesus as its own.  There are African versions of Jesus, Chinese versions of Jesus, Northern European versions of Jesus, Korean versions of Jesus, Mediterranean versions of Jesus.  For Christians, our connection to Jesus is so strong that it has always seemed natural to visualize him as one of us, a member of our own ethnic or genetic group.

In fact, though, the most common images of Jesus in our modern Eurocentric culture embody a medieval European idealization of the Christ.  It was customary in the Middle Ages to portray historical figures as contemporaries of the painter (or the painter’s patron).  Jesus’ long blond or light brown hair, fair skin, blue eyes, lean physique, height, and flowing robes represent medieval ideals of male beauty.  These things have little to do with what Jesus might actually have looked like.

Another Problem

Through the ages, painters have worked to suggest Jesus’ divinity, his suffering, his love, and his connection to those who view their paintings.  This simple desire gets complicated in a diverse community.  If we portray Jesus as a Northern European, what does that say to those of African ancestry?  Of Asian or Latino ancestry?  What does it say to anyone who isn’t like the portrait?  How can a community become the Body of Christ if part of the body feels merely tolerated – or even excluded?  If we see Jesus as Anglo, might we fall into the unintended trap of seeing non-Anglos as Other?

If I could create a true portrayal of Jesus the Christ, it would look like everyone.  It would be something in which every viewer would see himself or herself.  It would be a picture of that part of God that resides in each of us.  It would be a painting of the Breath of God within us.  But I couldn’t begin to paint such a portrait.  I’m not sure anyone could.

A Scientific Image

So I’m left with a desire to paint Jesus as he might actually have looked in his incarnation.  No one knows what Jesus looked like.  We have no paintings of Jesus, no word-pictures from the Gospels.  But we can make several assumptions about Jesus:  he was Semitic, spent much of his time outdoors, would have worn a beard in the Jewish tradition.  He would have had short hair (see 1 Corinthians 11:14-15).  His appearance was ordinary enough that Judas had to identify him when he was arrested.

My image of Jesus is based on the work of Richard Neave, a British medical artist, and the forensic anthropologists who worked with him to reconstruct a typical first-century Jewish face from skulls from that era.  Neave’s work is described in an article in Popular Mechanics.

I also wished that my portrait of Jesus as he might have looked should convey something of his Spirit, something of the compelling love that makes all Christians claim kinship with him, that draws us all into the Body of Christ.  In addition, I wished to convey my conviction that all humans are part of the family of God whatever their faith – or no faith.  So I surrounded Jesus with small sketches of people of many different ethnic backgrounds, based on people I know and love as part of the Body of God.

 

Creation and Mystery

Joy in the Clay

The clay is a cool hump under my hands,
Turning on the wheel, circling to symmetry,
Pushed and pulled into a centered mass
Spinning with possibilities.

I open the center of the spinning clay with two fingers,
Making a well, a space for the spirit of the vessel.
At that moment the pot receives its essence;
Though I don’t know yet what it is,
My hands are eager to find the shape of the vessel
In the moving clay.

I dribble water over the clay
And pull up the sides of the pot
With the tips of my fingers
Transmitting all the force of my arms and back
Into the thinning walls of the vessel.

The pot grows under my hands, still spinning,
Slower now as I round the sides outward, narrow the top,
Filling the pot with the breath of my intention.
I shape the lip of the pot, giving it strength and endurance.
I smooth the sides of the pot, cleaning away any mark or spot.

The pot will dry to leather-hard strength before I trim it,
Shaping a foot to hold it upright and firm.
When it is completely dry, it will be fired in the kiln,
Tested and made strong, ready to be adorned with glaze
And fired again to a shape strong enough to endure fire and water.
I am part of that pot as it is part of me, and I rejoice
In the feel of the clay and pleasure of making.

So my God made me,
A formless lump till God centered and shaped me
With a hole at my center for Spirit,
Blessed with water and filled with God’s breath,
Pushed and pulled and smoothed and trimmed,
Tested and burned and glazed all over with the glory
And the joy of the Creator’s creation creating.

 

What’s Sacred, Anyway?

Finding the sacred – the holy, the wholeness, that which is of God – is a journey outward, into the connectedness of all creation, all faiths, all people.  It is also a journey inward, into the center of our own essential being, that part of us that is closest to God, where God dwells in us.

We seem to be born with a need to seek out the sacred (though we may call it by many different names or by no name).  People of all faiths and of no faith find the wholeness that is the sacred in nature, in light and color, in sacred places, in words and images, in other people, in symbols, in beauty.

The sacred is personal, cultural, and universal.

The sacred is  that which points to or reflects God – God within us, God around us, God everywhere and in everything.  This is what is universal in the sacred.  This is what connects us all, in every faith and in no faith, to God in whatever way God has revealed Godself to us.

Every culture, every faith, has its own icons or emblems of the sacred.  The dome of a basilica, the minarets of a mosque, the spire of a cathedral, the ghat leading down to the sacred river, the river itself, the prayer wheel, hymns and songs of remembrance and praise, statues and paintings of sacred subjects, and other such symbols are not holy in themselves but are sacred in that they point to God.  Each culture’s emblems thus become sacred to that culture, with a holiness reflected from God.

Beyond the symbols of our faiths, we find the sacred in our own lives and surroundings.  A flower opening, a baby’s smile, the sun shining through leaves, the sound of wind chimes, the scent of incense, a particular song or place or view may become holy to us.  Here is where our personal and individual relationship with God finds expression.

If we find any one of these three aspects of the sacred, we are drawing nearer to God.  If we can find all three, our lives are immeasurably blessed and our relationship with God deepened.

Look within, look around, look beyond.