Tag Archives: beloved community

‘crazy’ dreams – Syria, Dr. King, and the Common Good (on compassion)

© erin dunigan 2013

© erin dunigan 2013

Estimates are that 100,000 people gathered on St. Peter’s Square and countless others around the world heeded the cry of Pope Francis for a day of ‘prayer and fasting’ for Syria. Hearing about it on Friday, I passed the world along in the way I so often do, – posting it to Facebook.

 Fasting? Why fasting? What good will fasting do?
Am I going to send the food to Syria?
Does God want me to fast?
Am I somehow going to change God’s mind about whether people should be killing there?
What is the point?
Am I supposed to feel guilty that I am enjoying this lovely meal while others are being displaced from their homes?
What is the point?

As I sat and contemplated these questions while eating my morning oatmeal… a thought occurred to me.

The point of fasting, the point of doing without, is not about sending the food to the ‘poor starving children’ and it is not about appeasing some angry deity who is a masochist and enjoys seeing me suffer.

The point, I realized, is to help connect me to the other.

The point of fasting is to, for a moment, displace me from the center of my world and my life, even if it is just around food – but, for those who know me, you know that is a central component of life!- but, for the moment, for the meal, for the day, I am given the opportunity to, in a small sense, allow my life to be joined with the one who is suffering.

No, it doesn’t make their suffering any less, no, it doesn’t somehow change God’s mind about me or them – but what it does do is to provide a link – a link of solidarity. But also a link to something larger than my own individual self, my own isolated self.

Which is, of course, what compassion is all about.

Compassion, according to wikipedia, is the understanding or empathy for the suffering of others, an emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates the desire to help.

Not exactly empathy, though related.

Not pity, but related.

Not exactly charity, though related.

Not exactly service, but related.


Steve has told us what the word compassion means in the Hebrew scriptures – it is related to the word womb. To feel deeply, as a mother feels from her womb. The scriptures speak of God’s womb trembling with compassion.

In the Christian scriptures the word that is used for compassion is splagchnizomai – Literally, to be moved to ones bowels, for the bowels were thought to be the center of ones feeling, the center of love and of pity.  It is the word that gets used in the story of the Good Samaritan – when he sees the many lying in the ditch by the side of the road, he has compassion – he is moved to his very being.

It is the same word that gets used in the story of the Prodigal Son – a story of two brothers, an older and a younger. The younger decides that he has had enough of this two horse town and wants to take his share of the inheritance – basically saying to his father, you don’t matter to me, only your money does, so give me my share and I’m outta here – a less than respectful way to leave. He takes the money, goes to a far away land, squanders the money on loose living and winds up with the pigs – not exactly a great spot for a young Jewish boy.

One day it occurs to him – you know, I could go home and be a servant and I’d be living better than this. So he heads back. Not with any sense of remorse, necessarily. Not with a sense of ‘I have squandered what I have been given I need to go home and apologize.’ Nope. Just a sense of ‘I’m hungry and if I returned home at least I could eat.’

As the story goes, when the son is still a long way off the father sees him – has the father been watching for him all along? The father sees his wayward son and does something remarkable – he runs toward him.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons. One, it is a relinquishing of a man’s dignity, to run in such a way. It reminds me of the other day when I went to Paola’s for lunch and, upon hearing that they had chilis rellenos, reached my hands into the air and cried, ‘yes!’

But not only was the running a shedding of dignity – it was also a letting go. The boy had done his father wrong. The boy had not acted like a good son. The boy needed to apologize. The father deserved an apology. The son owed it to him.

But the father ran. He ran before he knew what the boy’s motives were for returning. Without asking for or demanding any sort of explanation of the past months or years, he embraced his son. And he threw a party.

Compassion. To be moved to ones bowels.  Even to the point of running, of embracing, and of throwing a party.

The older brother, the one who had stayed home, taken care of the farm, done all the right things and behaved the right ways, was not as pleased.

“What are you doing, encouraging this delinquent by such behavior?!” he demanded of the father. “He has done wrong. He should pay. He needs to apologize at least. And then pay back all that he has squandered.”

To which the father responded, “This son of mine was lost – now he’s found – celebrate with me.”


The older brother couldn’t go there. He was too stuck on the way he thought things were supposed to be. I wonder, does that sound familiar?

As we all know, there is much talk these days about the ‘spiritual but not religious’ – and one of the main things that gets mentioned in this conversation is the idea of ‘belief.’ People don’t necessarily want to have to ‘believe a certain way’ in order to be on a spiritual path. Don’t tell me what to believe.

But did you know that this linking of belief with an intellectual assent is actually a fairly recent phenomenon?

Prior to the last few hundred years the word belief had almost nothing to do with ‘what I believe or don’t believe to be true about x.’ Rather, the word belief actually meant commitment. (see this post by Karen Armstrong for more info)

So, to say I believe meant not I acknowledge or assent to intellectually, but I commit myself to.

I believe in justice – I commit myself to justice.

I believe in caring for the environment – I commit myself to doing so.

Committing oneself to is a much different animal than agreeing intellectually, isn’t it? We can agree with things intellectually and yet never actually put them into action, can’t we?

But ‘I believe’ as in ‘I commit myself to’…well, that’s a much more demanding prospect.

Just over a week ago was the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, a speech whose ‘I have a dream’ is a call for ‘commit yourself to.’

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream. I believe. I commit myself to.

There have been many studies done recently about the physical effects of compassion.

Did you know that practicing compassion actually lengthens your life? That people who practice compassion are, across the board, happier and healthier? Sounds like an infomercial, doesn’t it? But before you rush to practice compassion for all of these benefits you should know one other piece of information – only when compassion is practiced selflessly, as in, without regard to personal benefit, does it actually produce these results.

But there is something else, and what I find to be the most interesting thing about compassion – practicing compassion actually reconfigures our brains.

Compassion, according to Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax, enhances neural integration. When we go through trauma, or even stress, especially as young children who experience abuse, terror or trauma, but even as adults who experience difficulties, and challenges the stressful or traumatic event actually causes blockages in our brains that, with repetition, are like damming up the flow of a river. Because of those blockages we are not able to think always as clearly or as well or as easily. For most of us we acclimate to the new situation and move on, not always even realizing the damage.

Compassion actually has the capacity to mend those broken places in us, remove those blockages, re-connect that which had been disconnected.

Re-integrate that which had been segregated.

When can often assume that compassion is for the benefit of the other – for the benefit of the one who receives our compassion. But the act of compassion actually heals us in the process as well. Compassion mends the broken places in us. Compassion re-integrates that which had been separated.

When we are moved to our bowels, splagchnizomai, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, we are welcoming back those parts of ourselves that have gone off wandering in a far country. It is that very practicing of compassion that brings healing to ourselves, but also healing to the world.

What is the failing of the older brother in the story? He fails to have compassion. He is so preoccupied with the rules, with his own preoccupation with following them to the t, that he misses the larger point – that the point is to have compassion. He is so concerned with following the rules that he misses the relationship.

Compassion re-integrates that which has been kept separate.

Which, of course, is the meaning of the word religion – to re-bind, to connect. To mend that which has been torn. To remind us, to invite us, into a world where father’s run with arms wide open, throwing dignity to the wind in their rush to lavish extravagant love. Not to demand that we punish ourselves, or wallow in our wretchedness. But to throw a party, no string attached.

To re-integrate that which has been separate. To help us see that separate is the illusion – connected is the reality. To repair the broken places.

There is a Buddhist story about Acharya Asanga who medidated in a cave for 12 years, hoping, in so doing, to have a vision of the Buddha Maitreya.

He exerted so much throughout those years but still he could not have a vision. He lost heart and came out of his meditation cave. He was walking towards town when all of a sudden, he came across a female dog totally infected by maggots on the lower part of her body. Asanga felt so much compassion towards the maggots and towards the female dog. He was wondering how to relieve both the maggots and the female dog.

Under such strong compassion, he reached out his tongue with the eyes closed. No matter how much closer he went, he could not touch the dog. Asanga opened his eyes and saw Lord Maitreya there in all His glory.

It was the cultivating of compassion, and then acting upon that compassion, that finally allowed him to see. 

Compassion, thusly practiced, has the power not only to heal us, but to bring that healing to the world – what we have talked about as the Jewish concept of Tikun Olam, the repairing of the world.

What does compassion look like, when practiced by a community?

It looks like the common good. Not just my own personal private good – not just my own benefit, but the benefit of all.

Or, to put it in the words that Dr. King used to describe it, it looks like the beloved community. His vision was that of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice where brotherhood would be an actuality, not just a dream.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

what we nurture*

I have another story for you from the garden…I know, maybe you are getting sick of stories from the garden? But, the thing is, two of my favorite story tellers also focus on stories from the garden, or about the land—those storytellers, are, of course, Jesus and Garrison Keillor.

This story is from a few years back. It, too, is one of the instrumental pieces in my becoming the ‘gardener’ that I am today. It was really the sort of ‘taking it to the next level’ of my gardening prowess.

It was summer. Maybe even July, which is, under normal circumstances, a bit too late to begin planting seeds. But these were not normal circumstances.

My good family friend, Jack, like a father to me, and what I had left after my own father had passed away three years before, was nearing the final stages of dying from cancer. He was still living a fairly ‘normal’ life, but it was clear that he would not be ‘winning’ this battle. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult time.

As it happened, two of his three grandchildren were away at camp. The third, Tommy, at 6 was too young, and had to stay home.

To be honest, I don’t really remember exactly how it played out, but, on a whim really, Tommy and I decided to plant a garden in his grandparents back yard. Or Tommy decided. Like I said, I’m not sure how it actually began. But I can tell you how it grew.

There was a lot of unused dirt, that had been laying fallow for years. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was capable of growing anything, truth be told. But we decided to take a chance, and to see.

So, Tommy and I made a trip to the nursery, and I told him to pick out whatever he wanted to plant. Let’s just say we left with quite a collection of seeds—pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots, Crenshaw melons and even morning glories, which we only later found out were poisonous, but which provided a beautiful canopy of color along one of the fences.

For the next few weeks Tommy and I cultivated sections of that fallow, untouched dirt and waited to see what would happen.


Again Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’


As we began to talk about Not Church for May, and the realization that it was falling on Mother’s Day, it was suggested that we take that and allow it to guide us toward a theme of ‘nurture.’

To be honest, I was less than thrilled. Nurture? I thought. It somehow struck me as a Hallmark excuse to sell cards—this sort of surface level celebration of all things motherly and sugary and sweet. But that is what the group had decided, and I wasn’t going to be the one to overrule it.

But as I thought about it, nurture seemed, to me, a bit sentimental, a bit ‘warm and fuzzy’ a bit ‘kum ba yah’ and group hug. It seemed, as I thought about it, to lack grounding, to lack roots. It was, perhaps, a beautiful flower, but one whose color faded quickly, almost like the seed in Jesus’ story, the seed that was dropped along the path and quickly plucked away by the birds, or that which fell amongst the rocks, sprang up quickly, and then was scorched by the sun.


The sun was hot that summer, that summer that Tommy and I planted a garden in his grandparents’ backyard—no gloomy marine layer in that July.  Each afternoon, Tommy and his mom would come over to his grandparents’ house to water the ground, to water the seeds.

For my part, I was a bit nervous. I had never done such wide scale planting before. I had no idea if it would ‘work.’ I had no idea if we would actually be able to grow anything in that hardened, dried out and crusty dirt. Added to that, I had let a six year old do most of the work. Did we really know that the seeds had been planted at a quarter of an inch, or a half inch or…? Everyone seemed to look to me as the expert, since I was the one with the idea. But I was learning along with the process. Sure, I had been planting tomatoes for the previous three years, after the passing of my dad. And I had dabbled with zucchini—supposedly the easiest thing in the world to grow, but for which I seemed to lack the secret, getting one mediocre squash the entire season. All of my gardening had all been in pots in my moms small yard. Nothing of the scale or magnitude that Tommy and I were attempting.


This past week, as I began working on a new section of my garden, adding the freshly composted soil that I’ve been allowing to decompose for the past six months, it occurred to me, and for those of you who are parents, you mothers in particular, this will likely not seem surprising—that nurture is hardly a ‘fluffy’ or ‘sentimental’ idea—it is hard work!

Preparing that soil had meant moving mounds of dirt, adding truckloads of dried manure, searching for enough dead leaves and other decomposing plants to mix in, and hauling them, in buckets and large garbage bags, down the road from where I had found them and into the garden. It meant pick axing the hardened ground to loosen it in preparation. Shoveling, moving it slowly, in buckets, from one part of the garden, into a pile, and then from that pile to the final destination. It was back breaking work, almost literally.

On top of all that, it meant carefully transplanting my tiny little tomato shoots, and the seedlings of something in the squash family that I can’t remember exactly what I planted, seedlings that I have worked hard to get to this point, and putting them into the newly prepared ground, hoping that they will be able to take root.


What was taking root, that summer, was more than simply those seeds Tommy and I planted. What was taking root was, in a quite literal sense, life.

In the midst of a time where death seemed to hang in the air as something not quite present, but on the tip of your tongue, we were literally sowing life. Hope. The act of gardening, of planting seeds, is, by its very nature, an act of hope for the future. It is not an immediate process. It takes effort—it requires nurture. And it waits for growth, for new life.

Over the course of the next few months there were times when I had to be out of town, During those times I’d get a phone call, from Jack, Tommy’s grandfather, giving me a report on the garden. “Erin, you’re not going to believe it, but I think the morning glories are going to take over the block.” Or “Hi Erin, I just wanted to let you know that the tomatoes are taller than Tommy now.” Or “This pumpkin vine looks as though it is going to take over the entire back yard.”

It was amazing. Like nothing I had ever seen before, or anything I’ve seen since. That garden—that hardened, fallow ground—burst forth with abundant new life. It was, I believe, a gift of pure grace. It offered a respite from the death, and an experience of and participation in cultivating, nurturing, life.

It was like the seed, in Jesus’ story, that fell on the good soil—it came up, produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, a hundred times.


There is a term I’ve been reminded of lately. Beloved community. It was a term used by a young woman—younger than me!—who is an artist and in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and who seeks to foster such ‘beloved community’ in her life as an artist and as a minister.

It struck me that, like the word nurture, the word community can often be seen as something a bit, well, a bit sentimental and not necessarily very deep—can’t we all just get along, why don’t we pretend to be buddy buddy—a sense of glossing over the differences or the challenges and putting on a happy face. But community, like nurture, does not have to remain in the realm or at the level of a Hallmark card.

Which is why I like this phrase, beloved community. For me, it conveys a sense of something that may require pick-axing hardened ground, moving bucket loads of dirt, waiting months, or even years, as the elements are allowed to come together, to sink in, and to create a rich and fertile soil, a good soil, one that bears much fruit.

A beloved community is one which may take some work, some hard work, but which bears much fruit, which blossoms, and displays its colors in a beautiful canopy.

A beloved community is one that…offers hospitality to friends and strangers alike—and we all know that no one is allowed to remain a stranger long in this place!

A beloved community is one that comes together to celebrate weddings, to remember those who have passed on, to enjoy life over a shared meal or an evening cocktail, or that comes together in a space like this, to set our intention on that which binds us all together in our common journey…

A beloved community doesn’t pretend that it is perfect or without fault—we all, at times need help finding our way—but a beloved community is one in which we come alongside our neighbors, our friends, and even those with whom we might disagree on politics or religion.

A beloved community, it seems to me, does not live only for itself, but offers itself to the world, a taste of the richness and goodness of life lived in all its fullness.

That, is what we nurture.

*A sermon written for Not Church on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Doug Rye, for delivering the sermon on my behalf.