Compassionate Attunement – Chuck Rush (11/2/14)

Compassionate Attunement
Psalm 138:8,15,16; Mk. 3:1-6

The Gospel of Mark was written about 1800 years before the invention of psychology, so we don’t get the window into the psyche of Jesus like we would if a piece was written about him today. But it is fairly clear that Jesus had an extraordinary empathy with people. So many of the stories that are remembered about him, he goes out of his way to welcome someone who was hated at the time like a tax collector named Zaccheus. He is not afraid to go near to lepers that were shunned- the Ebola patients of the 1st century. He spends time with the women of the household, like Martha and Mary, and he speaks openly with prostitutes in front of other religious types that thought prostitutes should just be condemned. And there are so many stories like this one today that Jesus just healed people.
What is interesting is not the miraculous healing itself, though you may not know this. The gospel of Mark was written by a Roman for Romans. Healing was how Romans demanded authenticity among their religious leaders. So when you read the Roman historians that write about Jesus, they always mention that he was known widely as a great healer. Roman religious stories were mostly told with this dimension of miraculous healing.
But Roman healing stories don’t always have a moral with them. The stories of healing with Jesus always do. And the moral is one of humane compassion. The religious and political leaders that saw Jesus as a threat are depicted as waiting for him to make a mistake so they could trump up charges against him. In this case, he is healing a man on the Sabbath and the Torah says you should do no work on the Sabbath.
But Jesus is remembered as a prophet that was not afraid to stretch the boundaries of religious more in order to express humane compassion for those in need. Jesus says, “is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” even if it involves some work, on the day of the week you are supposed to rest?
In other words, is it okay to be humane? That is different from other Roman miracle stories. They were about mysterious power but not necessarily connected to an ethic of compassion.
If we wrote the stories about Jesus today, we would depict him as a man that was extraordinarily attuned to other people. He just seemed to get other people. More than that, they felt heard. They felt included and empowered. They felt healed.
Today, we have quite a developed literature that being attuned to other people is really the goal of our development. It gives our lives spiritual depth and fulfillment. And there is no short cut for developing it either.
Part of the early research came at the issue negatively. We started studying criminals, violent criminals in particular: those who engaged in rape, torture, child sexual abuse and the like. We wanted to find out what makes them different and how they were different.
Not surprisingly, what we found was that they actually have a diminished capacity for empathy with other people. One of the reasons that they were able to engage in cruelty is that they are missing a piece that normal people have.
Also, not completely surprising, they were much more likely to suffer from attachment disorders. They were much more likely to have suffered from neglect as infants and toddlers, either having no mother or having been ignored because of something like drug addicted parents. Others had some sort of damage to a common region of the brain that manifested the same range of symptoms.
Because it is really quite amazing to watch just how empathetic we humans are from infancy onwards. “The moment Hope, just nine months old, saw another baby fall, tears welled up in her own eyes and she crawled off to be comforted by her mother, as though it were she who had been hurt. And 15 month old Michael went to get his own teddy bear for his crying friend Paul; when Paul kept crying, Michael retrieved Paul’s security blanket for him.” As far as we can tell, infants internalize the distress of others around them, as early as a few months and they will cry when others are distressed as though this pain was their own. By the time, they are a year, they are aware that the cry of other people is not their own, so they register confusion when they hear other people cry because they don’t know what to do about it. They feel like they should respond to it as though it were their own.
By the time toddlers are 2 ½, almost all children will approach someone who is in distress. Sometimes they will start crying themselves. They will stroke their hair, pat their shoulders or hug them, trying method after method of empathy to relieve the distress of their neighbors. When you think about it, we have a rather pronounced ability in this regard.
What we’ve documented is that toddlers are demonstrably affected by their interaction with their parents. It turns out that mimicry is very important. We can actually develop the capacity of empathy in our youngest children by observing their interactions and helping them name their feelings.
In ye olden days, when I banged my brother over the head for trying to play with my truck when I was four and he was two, my grandmother would grab me up by the arm and say, “Charles you are a naughty boy”. That might have made her feel like she had righted the moral compass but it was not nearly as effective as today when our Mother’s say, “Charles you were frustrated and you hit your brother with your wooden hammer on the head. Look how sad you made him.” We name the child’s emotions and we call attention to the emotional state of the other children, so that the child can pay attention to the emotional distress.
This interaction between parent and child, between child and child- it isn’t simply that the children are copying what we are doing, they are actually growing in their capacity for empathy. So psychologists call this capacity attunement. It is when you interiorize how others around you are feeling in a given social situation and you figure out how to get along, how to synchronize with others- as we Christians would say, how to be a reconciling presence and make things work.
Professor Martin Hoffman has studied the relationship between empathy and moral development and spent his career documenting that being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes is critical for developing a sense of justice that motivates you.
He was quite taken for example, at the way children are capable of developing a sophisticated emotional attunement. Already my granddaughters, aged 8, can distinguish between a cry from pain and a cry from embarrassment, like someone wetting their pants. If it is pain, they will quickly hover around their cousins and hug them up or distract them with a toy. But, they won’t draw attention to someone crying from embarrassment because they know it will only make things worse.
It is also interesting that around the age of 8-10 children can start to understand that certain people have to live with chronic distress, say because they are poor or because they are old and confined to a wheel chair. What Professor Hoffman was able to demonstrate is that the better children could identify with the distress that other people had to endure, the more likely they were to develop a sense of compassionate justice that wanted to make the world a place that could relieve some of that suffering. The more likely they were to grow up thinking that we have a social obligation to eradicate poverty and help the least of these, as Jesus taught us in that mature spiritual vision, that we have a social obligation to make our world inclusive of people with disabilities so that they aren’t segregated off where we don’t see them and they can’t have the fulfillment of broad human contact.
At the other end of the spectrum from compassionate attunement, you have its opposite or its deficit. That is not simply indifference or a lack of caring but intimidation that attempts to control others through fear. That is the way of domestic violence. That is the macabre inversion of families that happens in gangs. That is the strange deformation of loyalty that happens with terrorist groups like ISIS or Boko Haram.
Today researchers have been able to document what Christians have been teaching as axiomatic for centuries that our moral development can be taught, that in fact that most profound personal transformation takes place when we model for our children an integrated way of being.
We actually can and do make a huge difference by being simple, positive examples in the way that we live. Professor John Cacioppo has used micro sensors to demonstrate how deeply we affect one another. He has shown that if you smile, for example, people around you are quite likely to smile back if someone is smiling at you, even if it is so subtle that it is not detectable to the eye alone.
From that he was able to determine that our ability to be emotionally in sync with one another is a key factor in our ability to be interpersonally effective. If you are adept at attuning to other people’s moods, or you can easily bring others under the sway of your own, your interactions will go more smoothly at the emotional level. Conversely, people that are poor at receiving and sending emotions are prone to problems in their relationships.
The really good news is that we can move the needle in a positive direction. Our ability to shape the moment morally and spiritually can be significant. Professor Daniel Goleman at Harvard uses a dramatic example from the Vietnam war to make a more subtle point.
An American platoon was hunkered down in a rice paddy when they came under intense fire from the Vietcong. The battle was raging and right in the middle of it, a group of Buddhist monks came walking over a berm that separated the Americans from the Vietcong. They were walking right into the middle of the conflict. Unarmed, unfazed by the gunfire, they walked calmly, almost serenely, six of them. Spontaneously, the soldiers stopped shooting on both sides. They interviewed one of the Americans and he said, “It was really strange, because nobody shot at them. And after they walked over the berm, suddenly all the fight was out of me. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to do this anymore, at least not that day. It must have been that way for everybody, because everybody quit. We just stopped fighting.”
Were that it were so direct to end all conflicts. But the point is this. We possess an enormous power to make a moral and spiritual difference, even in polarized conflicts. We humans find emotions contagious. And your positive aura, when you let the Spirit of God guide you in the higher way that you are capable of being, you can change the social calculus around you. Especially, if we can pay attention to the myriad of ordinary small things that we can control.
Kate and I have been growing into this as grandparents. When we started looking for places to retire to, both of us realized that this next generation is more plugged in and structured timewise than any generation in American history. So we ended up getting a place that is more rural than suburban. And Nana declared that when we were out there as family, there would be no television and no hand held devices.
Instead, we spend our time actually running outside, searching the creek for frogs, salamanders, and interesting butterflies, jumping in piles of leaves, and building bonfires at night.
When we put the grandchildren to bed at night, Kate would tell them a couple of very long stories. She is a nursery school teacher and a pro. But she asks them what they want to hear about, what kind of characters they want to be in the story- (My grandsons list several animals that must make an appearance)- and then she takes whatever story she had in mind and adapts it to make it interesting and remarkably close with a nice moral point.
Then she turned to me and said, “You’re on… sing them to sleep from the hallway.” Who me? So I started singing the only thing I could think of in a pinch, hymns. It is funny in moments like that, I sat there singing, imagining what my grandmother would have sung to me and it would have been mostly hymns.
But thank God for the internet and my phone because now I’ve added a few other tunes with the lyrics downloaded. But what would you sing? What does the rising generation need to know and remember? What will make them better. I added Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World. I added “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz. And then I stumbled on a closer from Mark Miller that goes, “God, who began a good work in you… will be faithful to complete it”… That is what they need to fall asleep hearing.
And fall asleep they do. And we eat meals together as a family, simple enough, but I read that fewer and fewer families are able to do it and we now know that eating together and sharing conversation is critical in all these little ways for developing attunmenent.
And we say a family prayer and everyone holds hands. It is the same prayer, but it is our prayer. It is about being together and you know what, it will be very important years from now when we say it together and one of us is in danger or one of us is missing significantly.
You come with a built in authority as grandparents. I’ve started one simple tradition. I take them out two at a time to the Summit Diner for breakfast. They absolutely love it. My two year old granddaughters got so excited drinking their chocolate milk for breakfast, they were too full to eat a pancake. Milk was plenty.
We twirl around on the stools and hold hands crossing the streets. Already, I can tell that years from now, if I really need to talk to them about something important, it is a pretty good bet that I’ll call them up and say “Why don’t we go get breakfast at the Summit Diner”.
All these simple, but profound ways that we lay down some good track together. It is not likely that what our children and our grandchildren need is another structured sports practice or another technological way to divert their attention for their personal amusement.
No, what they need are ways that they can practice and develop their spiritual and emotional attunement with each other. I hope for you an awareness of the wonderful role that you get to play positively forming those around you. I hope for you the spiritual creativity and confidence to step out and create your own traditions to shape your family and loved ones in positive ways. I hope for you the blessing of growing as you heal those around you. Amen.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.