Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas Appeals

My desk is covered with appeals for funds. Most of these are organizations I have supported regularly or sporadically in the past. I have huge respect for what they do. Some are for educational institutions, but most are for agencies who work to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, release the captive, give sight to the blind. For the biblically literate, those phrases speak of the prophetic call on the life of Jesus when he first began public ministry. Later in the Gospel messages, Jesus clearly states that those are also the tasks of those who say they are God's people.

When we work together to relieve suffering, we come close to moments of transcendence. We go beyond ourselves into a greater sense of both our humanness and our greater than human selves, that is, the image of God stamped up us.

We don't have to look hard to find suffering. It sneaks or comes slamming upon every single sentient creature. The fight to keep ourselves free from suffering, pain, sadness, blindness, hunger, and imprisonment motivates most of our work, our addictions, our play, and our distractions. It's also why is it so much fun to fall in love. In the hormonal and emotional high that comes with the initial phases of romantic love, suffering is swallowed in joy and delight. The presence of the beloved so lights our eyes that everything glows from the spill-over of romance. We float for a while, and glory in the respite. Eventually, however, the suffering of others and the suffering of our own souls will again poke into consciousness. Again, we enter the round of escape by work, play, distractions and addictions. 

Is there an escape from this cycle? Well, unless and until there is a new heaven and a new earth, and until God does indeed wipe every tear from our collective eyes, no. For now, we can buffer ourselves from pain in every way possible by riches, comfort, ignorance, self-gratification, and any other means we can think of and it will still make its presence known. Alternately, we can open ourselves to it by active engagement in the relief of suffering in others, and find that much of our own melts in the process. 

Take an inventory: who are the happiest people you know? Are they the richest? Most comfortable? Most accomplished? Most beautiful? Best-dressed? Most talented? Most adulated? Most popular? Perhaps, at least briefly, they may find happiness. But the most consistently happy people are those who actively relieve suffering in others. They volunteer at animal shelters, work with abused children, adopt or foster those whom no one else wants. They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, work to release those who are held captive. This does not mean they ignore their own needs for clothing and food and freedom, but that those needs find a different perspective and take on less importance.

So, back to the many appeals for help on my desk. Almost everybody I know has experienced some financial challenge this year, and many faced devastating ones. Our first tendency at this point is to give into fear. The fear: there will not be enough. Those who are least likely to reach this point are those who had little to begin with. But those who had more, and who saw it dwindle, find fear a constant companion. Fear begets greed. We clench our fists, put a tight hold on our giving. And we die in the process. We become less human, more animalistic, taking first what we need for ourselves, caring less about the larger community and the greater good.

I know I face that temptation. It's been a tough year. And I've decided to choose the transcendent way. I will give more, not less. I will recognize that when I chose my temporary comfort over the larger needs of this inter-connected, suffering world, that I will lose my soul in the very act of protecting it. This is not an easy choice--it has taken much internal wrestling to get here. But it is the right one.

Let's unclench our fists, and get free. Yes, we will have less. And we will also have much, much more.

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