Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; / in his arms he gathers the lambs, / Carrying them in his bosom, / and leading the ewes with care.
Isaiah 40: 11
“It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us…”
Luke 1: 78
Often the words of the late Huston Smith reverberate in my consciousness. In an interview conducted with him when he was well into his 90’s, he responded to the question of whether or not he would do anything differently by saying, “I’d try to be a little kinder.” It is not easy for us to be truly kind. I suspect this is why we much so readily create a god who is threatening, vengeful and angry rather than the one described in today’s readings. The images today are of a God who is strikingly tender. I was almost going to write threateningly tender, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Perhaps the tenderness of God is such a threat to us, that we prefer the image of the harsh and unyielding judge.
For Christians, God chooses to break definitively into God’s creation as a helpless and vulnerable infant. Of course, we cannot separate stages of Jesus’ life, and so we are aware that this choice of vulnerability to human persons is going to result in betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Perhaps this is why we desire so deeply the experience of tenderness in our lives, and yet we are so fearful of the vulnerability to which our being tender exposes us.
I suspect that by any standard of human judgment, Huston Smith was a very kind person. Yet, so late in his very full and fulfilled life, he realized that there was room for him to have been kinder than he was. I can’t speak for him, but for myself the difficulties in kindness and tenderness lie in my difficulties in forgiving. Every morning in the Church as we pray the canticle of Zechariah from Luke’s gospel, we say: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” Each morning, we are given a new day. We are given by God a chance to begin again. This very rhythm of creation reminds us of God’s tender compassion for us, whatever we have done or failed to do the day before. The mercy of God and the tenderness and kindness of God are a single attribute.
Whenever life and relationship gets difficult for me, I seem to revert to those modes of behavior and reaction that have marked my personality and limited my capacity to respond throughout all of my life. When the stress and pressure of dealing with the most difficult circumstances feels like it is going to overwhelm my heart and spirit, I want to flee it. I want to return to my comfort zone where the tension and conflict of human relationship will not so challenge and disturb me, will not bring out what feels like the worst in me. I can ask myself how I got into this and seek to return to the kind of distance and passivity from which I can just be a “nice guy” again. In short, I seek to flee the call to my own formation and my role in the formation of the others around me. And so, I am resisting the possibility of the tenderness that I, in fact, am so craving. I want to be close without paying the cost.
The story of Jesus is precisely a description of the cost of God’s kindness, of God’s tender compassion, toward us. It is also a description of the depth of the conflict and struggle that tenderness and compassion evoke in us. In light of the unconditional love of God in Jesus, we are at once the fearful and betraying disciples, the approaching and avoidant Martha and Mary, and the terrified and possessive scribes and pharisees. Slowly I am coming to understand that if I am to know and to share the kindness, tenderness, and compassion that I so desire with others and with the world, I must grow in the courage that forgiveness demands.
Jesus reflects in his life a love that is an invulnerable vulnerability. On the one hand, he is obviously vulnerable to all that others inflict on him: the suspicion, the rejection, the ridicule, the torture and death. Yet, he is invulnerable in his acceptance of all that he must undergo and in his forgiveness of those who ignore, reject, and persecute him. Our own experience, of course, may be a fairly weak exemplification of the life of Jesus, yet, for us too, it takes real courage to be ourselves. To live the truth which is our true and unique call from God requires a faith that perceives the Lord in all that happens to us, including our failure in kindness and compassion. When I withdraw from others, from the demands of a situation, from deeper engagement in shared life, I do so because I am tired of failing. It is difficult to summon up the courage to forgive the other for so challenging me and myself for having, once again, failed the challenge.
The sin, the problem, however, lies not in the failure but in the withdrawal. For it is a withdrawal not only from the other or others but from the depth of my own life, and so the ever-summoning presence of God. Reinhold Niebuhr says that “the final form of love” is forgiveness. And so, it is my inability and my lack of courage to forgive that inhibits my sharing and living the tenderness of God. This is the meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about how often we are to forgive.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times !
(Matthew 18: 21-22)
Jesus is teaching that somehow, and this is such an enormous challenge to our own formation, we are to live in a constant disposition of forgiveness. To be perfect as God is perfect (Mt. 5: 48) is not to reach a state in which forgiveness becomes unnecessary. It is precisely the opposite. It is, rather, to so embrace our human condition that our need for forgiveness ceases to scandalize us. That we are forgiving both ourselves and the other from moment to moment.
It is the narrative that constructs our memories that makes forgiveness so difficult for us. As the Buddha says:
“He beat me, he robbed me. Look at how he abused and injured me.” Live with those thoughts and you will never stop hating.
“He beat me, he robbed me. Look at how he abused and injured me.” Abandon such thoughts and your hatred and your suffering will cease.
Hating can never overcome hatred Only love can bring the end of hating. This is the eternal law. (Dhammapada, I, 3-5)
We can all appreciate how, as the Buddha describes, the hurts real and imagined that others inflict on us keep playing in our minds. We forget many things as we age, but hurts and grudges seem only to become strengthened in our memories. This is why formation requires a constant reformation of our memories in light of reality and truth. “Abandon such thoughts and your hatred and your suffering will cease.” Abandoning the thought does not mean imagining the hurtful event never occurred. Rather, it is abandoning the compulsive repetition of the memory of the hurt, somehow imagining that the constant repetition will help us, in time, to get even. This applies to others and to ourselves. It is forgiveness, “the final form of love,” that brings “an end to hating.”
Forgiveness takes courage because it is an abandoning of our control of things to a trusted Reality and/or God. We can let go because our duty is not to set things right but to grow in love and tenderness for the world. We have such a hard time with the mercy and tenderness of God because we want God to do what we’d like to do, which is to set things right by our own standards. We want the other to feel the pain they have inflicted on us. We want the limited child in us to “grow up and get it right.” At the level of our own ego, harshness comes to us much easier than tenderness and compassion.
The dawn from on high visits us again every morning. The true dawn from on high has visited and continually visits us in Jesus the Lord. All of this in the “tender compassion of our God.” One of life’s most difficult lessons is learning to let go. Yet, it is the prerequisite to receiving the new gift of the present moment, the “new song” that God wants us to sing. We can grow in our transcendent capacity to let go and receive anew as we develop the courage, born of faith, to trust that we are not “suckers” for doing so, that even if we are hurt in our vulnerability God’s merciful love and tenderness upholds us.
The light shouts in your tree-top, and the face
of all things becomes radiant and vain;
only at dusk do they find you again.
The twilight hour, the tenderness of space,
lays on a thousand heads a thousand hands,
and strangeness grows devout where they have lain.
With this gentlest of gestures you would hold
the world, thus only and not otherwise.
You lean from out its skies to capture earth,
and feel it underneath your mantle’s folds.
You have so mild a way of being.
who name you loudly when they come to pray
forget your nearness. From your hands that tower
above us, mountainously, lo, there soars,
to give the law whereby our senses live,
dark-browed, your wordless power.
R. M. Rilke, Poems From the Book of Hours, p. 35