Gordon MacDonald, author and speaker on spirituality, tells about one Christmas vacation when their son Mark flew home from college and greeted his parents with an unexpected gift – a cute little ferret named Bandit. Unexpected, for sure. And not exactly a gift they were hoping for. But in the following weeks, the cute little furry animal worked its way into their hearts – Bandit was cuddly, fun, funny. They enjoyed him.
But enjoyment stopped after about four months. Bandit began to grow up, and they started learning the hard way that adult ferrets can become nasty – they bite, they exert independence by neglecting simple hygiene producing a stinky house – it all overwhelmed their delicate senses.
Gordon and his wife Gail soon lost all affection for this Christmas gift critter. Which led them to begin considering how they could get “rid” of Bandit. The idea finally emerged: Why don’t we take Bandit up to our cabin in the woods and give him his freedom. After all, the acres of forest and woods will be perfect for him to live and roam and enjoy! Nothing there will be bothered by his smelly habits!
Gail said she’d feel more comfortable if she could first go and talk to the pet store people to see what they thought. Later that day, she came home and told Gordon: “The pet store people explained that we shouldn’t release a tamed ferret (or any tamed animal for that matter) in the woods. It would be dead within twenty-four hours because it wouldn’t know how to find its own food and it wouldn’t know who its enemies are or how to defend itself again them.”
The irony of the situation struck them both. By taming this ferret, by taking it out of the real world and teaching it to live in the safety and seclusion of their nice home, they had destroyed its ability to live where it had been born to inhabit. It could never be a free ferret.
Is it possible we do the same thing with our faith and our spirituality? By trying to forge faith and spirituality within the exclusive confines of a personal, small, safe, isolated, and secluded world, we create a faith that doesn’t work in the real world – a limited faith and spirituality – a potentially timid, narrow, insecure, ineffective, unliberated spirituality.
I love the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it. Bonhoeffer was the Protestant pastor in Germany during WWII who became convicted that he should preach and write against Hitler and the genocidal Nazi regime. He boldly broke ranks with many Christian leaders of that time who were either silent or supportive of Nazism. He ended up being arrested and jailed and then finally executed by Hitler just as the Allied Forces struck the final blow of liberation in Europe. Here’s what he wrote:
“It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.”
Effective spirituality, transformational spirituality, has to be forged and lived in the real world. It has to work and make sense and produce positive effect in the WHOLE world, not just our safe, small worlds.
So in my spiritual community Second Wind, we’ve had a series during September called “APPLYING YOUR SPIRITUALITY TO THIS WEEK’S GLOCAL HOT SPOT." Our goal is to inform our spirituality by means of seeing the rest of the world beyond our individual lives. So each week, we focused in on a current issue taking place in the world (*GLOCAL = think global + act local). What is the “crisis/need/situation” – what are the issues involved – who are the people involved – how is the situation being currently handled – how are we impacted? And how does this situation inform and shape our spirituality? What kind of spirituality does it take to work in this situation?
The whole attempt is to inform our spirituality and faith with the real world, opening ourselves up to a bigger picture than we would typically allow for ourselves.
This last Saturday we looked at the current plight of the Roma, Europe's largest minority group that originally migrated from Northwestern India back in the 11th century. They traditionally held slave-type positions among the aristocracy and monasteries of Central and Western Europe. And now they find themselves spread out all over the continent and beyond, often living in camps under squalid and marginalized conditions from the rest of society, barely able to eke out subsistence to stay alive and provide for themselves. Last year, Amnesty International described current realities: "The Roma community suffers massive discrimination throughout Europe. Denied their rights to housing, employment, health care and education, Roma are often victims of forced evictions, racist attacks and police ill-treatment."
The Roma have especially been in the news the last few months as France's President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to expel over 1,000 Roma from his country back to Romania and Bulgaria, creating quite a firestorm of controversy among the nations of the European Union. It's forcing leaders to address this significant humanitarian crisis within their borders.
So how does our spirituality and faith inform our response to this contemporary situation? How does this significant human need shape and inform our spirituality and faith?
Timothy Egan, in The New York Times last week said it well: “Perhaps the best way to judge the health of a nation’s heart is by how it treats the shunned.”
He's certainly echoing the sentiments of historic sacred scriptures. Jesus himself put it this way: "If you've shown compassion to one of the least of these, you've shown it to me."
In other words, a Christlike heart (a healthy heart) manifests Christlike compassion, especially to the shunned and marginalized of our world (in Jesus' statement of what the final judgment is about, he refers to acts of compassion to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and prisoner). And the amazing thing about Jesus' statement - that reveals how important this issue is to Jesus and the values of God's Kingdom - is that when we show compassion to those in need, we are in reality showing compassion to Jesus - Jesus incarnates himself within the "shunned" person so that we're actually encountering and relating to Jesus himself. And in the End, says Jesus, we are judged by our response to these people (and therefore to him). Quite a different paradigm from the picture of Judgment so many religious groups paint of the End, where we're judged by what we believe, by our subscription to the doctrines of those religions and how closely we align with them.
Transformational spirituality is informed by a global view of the world, not just our narrow individual every day worlds. Transformational spirituality, the kind that really works and makes a difference, chooses to actively engage with the "least of these," refusing to ignore the shunned, the strangers among us, the aliens and foreigners, the dispossessed, the refugees and immigrants, the sexual "other," all of those people groups who are too often labeled and judged as "less than" or wrong or unworthy for whatever reason.
This is a raw and honest kind of spirituality that refuses the easy way out, that allows itself to be confronted by those most unlike us, that chooses to look beyond the surface and in fact discover that we are one family under God, interconnected, interdependent, and intertwined in the life of this planet. How we navigate this complex, complicated, and yet very human journey is how we are ultimately judged, says Jesus. Sobering and yet exciting and brimming with possibility!
I'm reminded of Robert Frost's profound poem Mending Wall. He pictures himself and his neighbor walking along the stone fence that separates their two properties, talking together about the purpose of the wall, the sections that need mending and how. His neighbor's view is that "good fences make good neighbors." He, however, doesn't see it that way.
"There where it is we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. / He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it / Where there are cows? / But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down.'"
Transformational spirituality is about taking down walls where there shouldn't be any. It's about refusing to shut ourselves out from the "shunned." It's about engaging the world of hurt, human suffering and pain. It's about not allowing our sight to become mono-focused and narrow to our own little worlds. It's about compassion for "the least of these."
Rarely easy to do. I admit. But, as Timothy Egan reminds us, it reveals the true health of our hearts. And who among us doesn't want a healthy heart!
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