Living Theology At The Bottom

Posted by Rick Phillips on Sep 22, 2021
 
[I was deeply touched by Chaz Howard's recent Awakin reading, and particularly, the recent conversation he had with Nipun. Below were my reflections for our local Awakin Circle.]

I wanted to touch on five different things from what stood out for me in this remarkable passage. I was struck by a number of things.

First the idea of lived theology, to live your faith, but then to live it at the “bottom” as a way to gain spiritual insight and compassion. And, of course, Chaz did this! He spent time living by choice on the street, amongst the homeless, in Philadelphia where he’s from. So, he really can speak from that personal experience, as he does in the conversation with Nipun and in the book he's also written.

The next thing that struck me was the idea of the wounded heart as being a source for great compassion or great violence. This spoke to me personally, and I have a story about that.

When I was growing up, I was subjected to intensive and persistent bullying well through my grade school, junior high school, and high school, and I became—at least in my own experience—a pariah amongst all of my fellow students. I developed a lot of anger and a lot of frustration—mostly self-directed anger at the time—and then I went off to college and became an architect and set-out upon my career.

But then, I took that wound with me and all I could do was work for revenge against these people who had ruined my childhood and, as I had it, ruined me in the process. This was the anger side of the wounded heart and I wanted to win that battle, I strove to have an illustrious career as an architect and rub their noses in it. This was not violence in the sense of waving a stick or shooting gun, it was a kind of emotional violence that one could inflict on the other, and I really got that.

Then later in life—actually recently, in the last 20 years—I flipped. I was able to move beyond the battle, to really thinking about what was it that had them do what they did. They weren’t evil inherently, something must have happened to them—and to me as well! What was I doing? I was seeking revenge, waging violence in response. It’s the same question for me as it is for them.

And so, I began to forgive, first them and then myself as well. As I’ve done this, I’ve had the experience of going from anger and revenge to presence and compassion, for myself and for them. I still have my moments, but I really am in that transition right now very thoroughly in my life and it's wonderful to have made that change.

And so, this leads to the third thing that stood out for me, this potential for redemption—specifically the potential for redemption as a radical place to stand. For me, the radicalness of it is actually declaring what is so and that you're going to live from that. You don't have proof, you just say I’m going to place my feet right here and stand in the space that redemption is possible. What living like that can bring is incredible.

And that led to maybe the biggest “Wow!” of all for me in this passage, the idea, as Chaz describes it, of the great strength of character required to panhandle.

I think that many of us, including myself, have looked at the homeless and thought there's weakness there, that becoming homeless is a result of weakness. And yet, in the conversation Chaz has with Nipun, he tells the story of Aaron, the homeless man he knew on the streets of Philadelphia, and how he got that he—Chaz—would do anything to feed his children. He was willing to accept whatever humiliation or trouble that might bring upon him, and that was his strength of character. It was very, very moving for me to hear that, to get that it was strength, not weakness, that was forming their experience.

And then, finally, the fifth thing is this idea of living theology at the bottom, and understanding what the bottom, the bottom of the barrel, the travails we have, can do to us. We're not evil people, but things happen to us and we react, and it’s to gain this as a humanizing, not a patronizing, understanding. I have a little story about that I will also tell.

I found myself almost homeless once in my life. I reached out with my begging bowl, so to speak, and what was given me was the opportunity to work with the homeless, for a whole year in Tucson, Arizona, almost 40 years ago. I started out with resistance to even proffering my bowl, shamed by the prospect of homelessness. By the time I got to the end of that year, I was very, very, very clear—clear that it was a case of we're all in this world together and, but for the grace of God, go we all. We can all land there and the question then is what do we do with our lives in that place, for ourselves and each other?

That understanding changed my life, literally.

There's so much in this passage that’s so wonderful to consider! So, now, some seed questions. The first could be “How do we relate to the notion that we are all beggars?” All of us as humans are beggars—a fascinating question.

Another: “Can you share a personal story of a time when you became aware of what the bottom can do for a person?” What I would add is that could come from the experience, as I had, of a wounded heart.

Finally: “What helps you retain empathy when hurt?” I can say from my own experience it's having been through those stages I described, where I really got the cost of living in anger, living in separation, and beginning to realize what embracing can provide me and the people around me!

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Comments (4)

  • Rajalakshmi Sriram wrote ...

    Very beautiful reflection. I could feel and relate t each part of it . Thanks for sharing with such an open heart

  • Neelam Mandhani wrote ...

    Well said……Thanks for sharing this!

  • Richard Whittaker wrote ...

    Thank you, Rick, for this eloquent and lucid reflection.

  • Kate Milligan wrote ...

    Thank you, Rick, for your reflection. I've returned to it many times. Especially when you speak of the "potential for redemption as a radical place to stand and planting your feet there. A powerful and heartfelt testament that led me to listen to Chaz Howard's Heart Talk and reading. Thank you.