— Compassion Makes The World Go Round: Considering Rev. Nancy Shaffer’s Poetry

May 17, 2013 at 7:35 am | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment

“It isn’t love that makes the world go round but compassion – starting over in gentleness when love hasn’t been enough or other factors have failed: a gentle refusal to blame oneself or others and just begin again.” – UU Rev. Nancy Shaffer, b.1950 –  d.2012

Toward the end of her life, Rev. Nancy Shaffer, wrote poems to express her experience of what is sacred in living and in dying – in being simultaneously present to both worlds. Her poems are extraordinary explorations of “holding fast” and coming to  terms with letting go – or maybe not.  Does “letting go” literally mean letting go? When unpacked, does the journey  mean “beginning again and again and again?” as Rev. Shaffer considered in her verse.

The Sunday service, tomorrow at my home church, will be based on Rev. Shaffer’s poetry, life and death, and lead by two ministers, Revs. David Keyes and Mary McKinnon Ganz, both of whom accompanied Rev. Shaffer in her final year, along with many other caregivers. Rev. Ganz edited her poetry for the posthumously published book, “While Still There is Light.”

The quotation that begins this post occurs in one of  Rev. Shaffer’s poems. It jumped off the page, like a swimmer on a diving board, and plunged deep into my heart for several reasons.

I focus here on only one:  How her revelation about compassion can be considered  in a world where “the light” of human beings is always shining and accessible: in the digital realm. It’s the second of two offices of life, if you will, that humanity occupies simultaneously. It’s fundamental to REACH: A UU Digital Ministry program.

The poems reminded me that we all share a calling: The Call to Live.  And for me, the journey of life has been one that has begun  over and over again, through innovation, creativity, risk taking, healing, death, and change beyond my control. In moments of despair, I’ve felt my life has been a zero-sum effort.  I try to remind myself then of  all those who have filled me with their presence. It  has been influenced by those who shape them and if these extended influences are still alive and it’s appropriate I will find a way to acknowledge them all. In selfish moments, I have told myself that they have all been my “muses.”

It is the collective heart and wisdom of these influences that has brought me to my breath and these words today. I may move on, but  starting over hasn’t meant that I let go of the light of others.  In fact, I find a basic devotional practice of  “letting go” confusing and sometimes confounding. Rev. Shaffer’s poetry assures me that’s okay.

It isn’t just that “everything is connected” and therefore all that we encounter we carry. That cliche rings hollow.  What rings true, for me,  is the living legacy (witnessing, holding, integrating) of present relationships.

Rev. Shaffer’s revelation that “Compassion is what keeps humanity going and not love,” feels authentic because “brokenness” so often disrupts the power of love, turning it into a threat or discomfort instead of a holding power and doorway for higher good.

Humanity, I believe,  responds to compassion regardless. And what all of my muses have helped shape is my compassion,  which brings me to digital ministry.

Facebook, the largest “house” of  relationships on the planet (smart phones rank second), holds fast and doesn’t let go. Neither does Google. There is no “death” on the Web. It all lives – somewhere. Technology makes no distinction between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

For example, there is a facebook account for Rev. Shaffer. Does this mean that in death, facebook could be a gathering place for an ongoing living legacy of relationships between Rev. Shaffer’s facebook friends? The light of her presence in relationship is still there on her Timeline page and on the Facebook Timelines (aka profiles) of those to which she might have contributed.

How can we possibly “let go” in the fullest sense of the word in the age of the “always connected?” Once a connection is formed digitally, it manifests over and over again in a variety of ways, regardless of privacy controls and settings. We may delete or hide “friends” from our phones, address books, and facebook accounts, but the connections still exist on servers somewhere that, for a variety of reasons, return the relationships to our consciousness and into our digital presence – whether we want to them to be there or not. And if not in facebook, then somewhere else online.

Consider Google, for example: It’s the largest living catalog of  humanity to which we turn to help us live our daily lives. The presence and actions of individuals with whom you are no longer in contact but who walk this earth return in Google anyway.

What does this mean to you if you are a person of faith? What are the consequences? Do we dismiss this potential with dispatch or should we pause to consider what it means for reconciliation, transcendence and healing?

Here’s a leap in thought: Does this mean that digital life holds immense potential for the meaning and perpetuation of compassion? Does it play an increasing role in making the world turn? I think so which is why I believe that UUism has to be a vital presence in the everlasting here and now, or Digital Life.

I’m sharing my thoughts on all of this because life is now a blended combination of online and offline beginnings. Do you want your online church presence to initiate beginnings in a realm where light always shines? Where your palpable presence itself is an act of compassion? Digital ministry is a radical hospitality of new beginnings. Digital Ministry has the potential to be a kind of  radical compassion – especially when worship and in-church experience isn’t enough.

For example, UU Harvard Seminarian Sean Neil Barron’s efforts to be comforted in the week of the Boston Marathon bombing. In his blog, Spark Within, he said he found more God in a Google Hangout (group video chat) than in a real UU church during the horrific ordeal. He attended one of the Boston UUs where he was present for an attendee who sat next to him, but more or less dismissed by a greeter.

“I found more connection from singing awkwardly in my living (in a Goolge chat)  room than singing with hundreds of fellow UUs in a historic church,” he says in the post. “I found more relief from seeing my friends’ faces than listening to a great sermon in a community that seemed to pass me by.”

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