When love comes to town cynicism and tenderness…

Last week an acquaintance replied to an upbeat posting from me with what I took as a cynical and dismissive barb. I am reasonably able to compartmentalize and let go of such things when I am well-rested and spiritually grounded. And most of the time I tune-out mocking or sarcastic commentary. Life is too short. The best thing is to follow the words of Jesus – shake the dust off your sandals and keep moving – but something about this got under my skin. Not personally. No, it was more like these dismissive words negated what I experience as hopeful. Simplistic or dismissive commentary often suggests a shadow conversation is about to emerge.

I hear shadow talk a lot these days – harsh and suspicious words – that regularly denigrates faith, hope and love.

My heart resonates with Nick Lowe who wrote, "What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" some forty years ago. But the quest for common ground is clearly not at the core of our culture. And those advocating for compassion and tenderness in this dog eat dog era are labeled hopelessly naive and/or socially irrelevant.

Why expect anything better in a culture obsessed with possession and addicted to bottom line metrics? If people, time and the resources of creation are merely commodities to be used only for personal gratification, no wonder we become callous. Self-centered. Men, women and children without eyes to see or ears to hear the deeper purpose of existence. When consumption is our fundamental goal, it should not come as a shock that individuals often become shallow and depressed while our shared common life reeks of gloom. If the way we live and the love we share has become unmoored from ethical virtues, then greed and cynicism makes sense.

While I was at L’Arche Ottawa recently, we spoke of this dilemma: there are now three generations of adults who have matured without any deep consideration of religious wisdom. I get why. I have been alienated from the corruption, boredom and anemic values of Western Christianity, too. And there is much to be said for those attempting what Thomas Moore describes as the "invention of our own religions."

What I see missing from smörgåsbord spirituality that picks and chooses values, texts and prayers that are personally appealing is any deep connection to the insights of tradition. Specifically, the time-tested language that interprets both ethics and how the mystical connection between humans and the holy is encountered. Most handmade religion is solipistic. It begins with an elevated sense of personal insight that is rarely dragged through the sands of human history. Without time, our spiritualities cannot have their rough edges worn down. Without time, we can’t benefit from the experience of others. And without time, there is no chance of rediscovering the hard-won wisdom that has already been revealed. As Huston Smith, the father of comparative religion in the US, used to say: The written Scriptures of the world’s religions are the distilled wisdom of humanity over generations. Why try to reinvent the wheel? Why act with hubris when humility is historically how human beings discover new meaning? Why work for a spirituality saturated with a consumerist world view?

Contemporary culture in the United States either ignores the intersection of spirit and flesh through cynicism or busyness, or, it constructs spiritualities that ignore sacrifice. Yes, yes, yes: the way sacrifice has been taught in Western Christianity has been deadly. In both Reformed and Catholic incarnations, we highlight human depravity. We fixate on sin. We are consumed with a fear of a punitive God. None of these obsessions, however, are reflected in Jesus who welcomes our brokenness, heals our wounds, invites us into community and encourages sharing humble compassion. Jesus shows us a quiet, small and tender alternative to the cynicism and fear of our age. Jesus emphasizes caring for both body and soul in small acts of gentleness. Henri Nouwen once put it like this:

The largest part of Jesus’ life was hidden. Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, "under their authority" (Luke 2:51), and there "increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with people" (Luke 2:52). When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events. Jesus’ hidden life is very important for our own spiritual journeys. If we want to follow Jesus by words and deeds in the service of his Kingdom, we must first of all strive to follow Jesus in his simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary hidden life.

One of the reasons I find myself so drawn to the presence and witness of L’Arche is that it acts like Jesus. Not perfectly, of course. And not without angst or anguish. But consistently and profoundly L’Arche teaches me how to live tenderly in the midst of cynicism. L’Arche also shows me that the cruel and crass words and acts of others begins in their own brokenness. This spiritual path notes that all of us are broken. Indeed, it is through our brokenness that we not only discover how we hurt others but how we can move towards greater love. It is slow, small and hard work. And that’s what I love about it: L’Arche has helped show me the path of tender foolish love in a crass and cynical culture. In community I experience people who can be trusted. People eager to deepen love. People who ask for forgiveness. People who acknowledge their wounds and trust that God’s love is greater. Jean Vanier puts it like this:

Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and their capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain. To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: “You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.”