John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | May

Commentary for a Pentecost Observance: THE SPIRIT WITHIN, or Where the Wild Things Are

 [A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.]

Spirit of God within me possess my human frame;
Fan the dull embers of my heart, stir up a living flame;
Strive till that image Adam lost, new minted and restored,
In shining splendor brightly bears the likeness of the Lord.

                            Spirit of God With Me, Timothy Dudley Smith


When children’s storybook writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, died recently, generations of parents and their kids undoubtedly paused for a moment to recall earlier days; and briefly returned, with their imaginations still intact, to the place he so vividly described Where the Wild Things Are.

In the storyline, mischievous Max in his wolf’s costume is sent to bed without supper for rumpus-making, but his imagination remains untamed. He sets sail for the place where fearsome monsters dwell, only to stare them down, win them over and become “the king of all wild things.” [Sendak once remarked the that idea for the wild things was inspired by the Yiddish expression “Vilde chaya”, a reference to boisterous children.]

Eventually Max becomes lonely and homesick. Returning to the world of mothers and fathers, families and households, he finds himself in his bedroom once again, with his supper still warm and waiting for him.

It is one children’s version of the archetypal story of prodigal journey and joyful, grace-filled return. And in the meanwhile, there are those lively moments in time and place that remind us that there can sometimes be more reality expressed in spirited fantasy than the dull perceptions of the real world that would feign to define reality. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it’s best to look within.

“Vilde chaya”, boisterous one, is also what I think of when I think of spirit; as in holy spirit.  As Robin Meyer’s remarked in his latest book, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, it’s like the “prodigal child that leaves home and then shows up without warning.”

It’s also like the wind that cannot be harnessed; and the flame that can enlighten, purify, and reduce to dust and ashes the timbers that would sometimes seek to encase it.  Beware is the message to what some call “church.”  There’s something afoot.

So it is that I’ve thought about this spirit of God, and the place from which it springs. It’s a place where the wild things are. And I’ve also thought about it in terms of those shrines we like to construct in which to enshrine it, define it, and some even claim to dispense it with presumed proprietary rights.

There are those religious traditions within the Christian faith that speak of sacraments as the conferring of “gifts” of the holy spirit; like baptisms, or eucharistia (thanksgiving), or ordination.  So wondrous are they that they’re meant to leave such an impression as to be indelible.  It’s strange therefore when those who claim the right to dispense such gifts occasionally even ask for them back.

Last year, when an earthquake demolished the beautiful cathedral in Christ Church, New Zealand, it should have been clear to anyone God doesn’t play favorites.

But when the pinnacles of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, were damaged by another quake that followed on the other side of the world, I wonder if I was the only one on the face of the earth who wondered if that wild spirit that “blows where it wills” whenever it wants wasn’t trying to tell us something.

Then when I recently read the attempts to raise funds to rebuild the damaged temple in DC was lagging far behind, I also wondered if folks nowadays were trying to tell the temple-keepers something.

In the mid-Sixties, my late father who was at the time the Episcopal bishop of Western Michigan built a magnificent cathedral in Kalamazoo, that many considered an architectural masterpiece.  With waning financial support for the message of a mainline church that’d lost its voice, the building and surrounding acreage was sold off a mere half century later for a pittance to Valley Family Church, a non-denom mega-church that uses the original building as a wedding chapel.

Inside, the cathedra, the presiding bishop’s chair that resembled a stone throne is long gone. The whereabouts of the spirit that once inhabited those four walls – and presumably still does – is anyone’s guess

And finally, when Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral was sold off earlier this year to the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Anaheim, I couldn’t help but call to mind the cautionary adage for the new tenants, about “those who live in glass houses …”

So it seems that religion of any stripe or color would claim to invoke and accommodate the spirit of what we might define as divine.  But for anyone who would describe themselves as spiritual (if not merely religious) what kind of spirit might they mean?

People periodically speak about the “indomitable human spirit,” that perseveres and presses on against all odds.  Others talk about that divine, “holy” spirit that comes out of nowhere from somewhere outside us, and then inspires us from within.  Sometimes it is said it nearly overtakes us, and changes everything; or at least changes the way we perceive and relate to everything from that point on.  Some call that conversion.

Other times we just call it “divine inspiration.”  It is that elusive and intangible spirit that is at the same time within us — but not a part of our own conjuring — that constitutes both that tenuous thread and tether of a relationship with whatever we might call the holy divine.

It is that elusive and intangible spirit that is within us … that constitutes both that tenuous thread and tether of a relationship with whatever we might call the holy divine.

Here’s the thing: that “holy” spirit that dwells within is as elusive as it is pervasive.  Lord know, we’ve tried in vain to harness its life-giving energy, traditionally symbolized (in scripture and elsewhere) as wind, or breath, or fire.  [Okay, doves too, but I’ve often thought there’s little difference between a dove and a pigeon.  And personally, I just can’t go there.]

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The Capacity and Compunction for Compassion

[A pdf version to print and read may be found here.]



In a drenching rain in Oslo, an estimated 40,000 people recently stood in protest outside the courtroom where the self-confessed mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was being tried for his crimes. When convicted, under Norway’s laws, he will either be placed in a psychiatric facility or incarcerated for a minimum of 21 years.

This protest demonstration on the streets of Oslo, however, was not a lynch mob shouting for retaliatory justice to be meted out in equal measure to the violence Breivik committed. Instead, as an utter refutation of Breivik’s cruel and unspeakable acts, they sang a Norwegian version of Pete Seeger’s children’s song, Children of the Rainbow.  It was the very song Breivik had claimed was brainwashing the country’s youth and weakening their society by promoting more tolerant immigration policies.

A sky full of stars, blue sea as far as you can see
An earth where flowers grow, can you wish for more?
Together shall we live, every sister, brother,
Young children of the rainbow, a fertile land.


Meanwhile, in this country, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments pro and con in the dispute over the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB1170, and the state’s rights to usurp or supersede Federal immigration policies.  Opponents object to the arbitrary and subjective manner in which law enforcement could single out anyone suspected of being an illegal alien, tantamount to racial profiling; while exasperated proponents are determined to seek any means necessary to mitigate the detrimental impact felt by American citizens in border states.

And finally, this week the national media stage turned its attention to the one-year anniversary of U.S. special forces finding and killing Osama Bin Laden; a religious terrorist who makes the deranged Norwegian ideologue look like an amateur.

No matter what one’s opinions may be with regard to any of these three seemingly disparate stories a common question could be asked: Is there any place for a compassionate response to every person in each case?

That is, beyond any question of ethical and legal right or wrong, reason or rationale, human goodness or human evil, guilt and judgment, worthiness or worthlessness — when all is said and done — does there remain yet a response that is not only possible, but necessary, to acknowledge the dignity and worth of every human being?  In what are perhaps the most difficult and extreme examples just mentioned, do we have both the capacity and compunction to include in the mix some expression of compassion in such tragic stories of brokenness and estrangement, violence and vengeance.

It is not a matter of accepting or excusing the actions of another; nor even, in some cases, expecting forgiveness and reconciliation where all bounds of reasonableness have been surpassed.  It is rather a matter of acknowledging the utter necessity for what may seem to be the last resort, and should probably be the first: to allow the transformative power of compassion to short-circuit the typical juxtaposition of egos battling for same turf.

But how do we muster the capacity to express a sense of compassion for the sake of the other? And, what is it that wells up within us when we find ourselves moved to act with that sense of compunction; to refuse to cast one of us into the realms of outer darkness, or even stand for a fleeting moment in someone else’s shoes.


The Capacity for Compassion


A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a customer standing in front of the sales counter of a gun shop.  On the wall behind the sales clerk various rifles of different sizes and shapes were displayed.  The caption was a question posed by the clerk, “Well, just how much ground do you want to stand?”

This is the presumptive place from which we all function and relate to one another. I have my position, and you have yours.  In my own defense, at least I maintain my position based on principled convictions, right? In the center of my position I place my self.  From there, I safeguard my position, while advancing supremacy and dominance over your position.  It is in my best self-interest to do so. And that’s just the way it is.

But in an article for The Greater Good Science Center entitled, The Compassionate Instinct, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner contradicts such common assumptions with the evidence of new research. He begins with those common assumptions we all have that are taken for granted:

Humans are selfish. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, and war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. … Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Many question whether true compassion exists at all— or whether it is inherently motivated by self interest.
(But) recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good. 
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