With an armful of children’s books and DVD’s, I make my way through the glass library door. I feel awkward as I carry these items, as foreign to me as the rocks on Mars. I feel like I should explain that these books aren’t for my children, that I don’t have any.
I’ve been visiting this library for nearly a year, yet I only stepped into the kid’s section for the first time during this visit. I felt like an intruder, like I needed to explain myself, justify my presence there. I guess I felt a bit lost away from…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the Page. Continue reading here.]
Every ordinary day, I am reminded that I am weak and desperately need God.
When I forget the birthday of someone dear to me, when I lose my keys, when irritation and anger bubble up in my heart–each experience of imperfection can block my trust in God.
I am tempted to think I am worthless and ought to stop trying. In times like these, this song speaks to me.
I want to avoid admitting my brokenness. I would rather freeze and stop turning to God. Yet, I know that only God can provide the freedom and hope I need. Here is a tune to inspire faith and freewill.
I know I am a sinner. I can be cruel and selfish. Ugly thoughts and actions clog up the loving in my life. I feel dirty and worthless. Here is a song for trials like these.
Sometimes my faith doesn’t feel deep. I get it in my heart that God has the ability to work great miracles, to free me from troubles in the most dramatic of ways. Yet, my head doubts that will happen. This song helps keep hope alive.
I am constantly on a journey of conversion and transformation, as God brings me through these challenges. This tune helps me remember that God is with me in my lows and the awesome highs of life.
In the end, God’s embrace is the greatest place of peace I know. I am so restless, and God is the only source of rest and strength.
Thanks be to God for the comfort we all can know, for the music that will help us make our way through the beautiful mess of the human experience.
Easter has ended. Jesus ascended. The power of Pentecost is nearly here. (We’ll celebrate this feast on Sunday.) What sort of wildness is unleashed into the world by way of these turns in the liturgical calendar? How has the energy transformed us and made us more into the people God has called us to be?
I don’t know. I think we each ought to pray and reflect on this individually and communally and come to our own conclusions.
Yet, I believe in the potential—power is active in the world for we’ve all been connected and created anew by the truth that evil, death and ugliness don’t get to have the last word. Hope, love, resurrection, and peacemaking remain the strongest forces in our lives, in our world.
The Holy Spirit can show up each day (no matter the liturgical phase we are in) and blow where She will, energizing and enlivening us with grace. We realize that if we empty and open ourselves to mystery and wonder the Spirit can blow through us and make music. We become instruments of mercy, peace, hope and love in the hurting world.
We are transformed by God’s activity in us. And our “yes” helps transform the world.
Listening to the news each day continually reminds me that the greatest transformation the world so desperately needs is the construction of unity, the building of bridges over the canyons of divisions. I believe God wants us all to participate in the bringing together of divided peoples.
With our cooperation the power of God is wild and fierce; the Holy Spirit can’t be contained. We abandon our fears, judgments and assumptions. We reach outward to our enemies and realize that they can be our friends. Mercy makes us free.
So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. ~ James 2:12-13
How does this happen? How does the Holy Spirit move us outward and across enemy lines? What is required of us for this to happen?
Certainly, it starts with prayer. The sort of self-emptying surrender that Jesus modeled for us and demonstrated on the cross. The sort of communion with Christ that opens up spaces where we can hear whispers of guidance from God. The widening of our hearts and minds to make space for thinking beyond categories and the edges of boxes.
Then, we are compelled to consider who it is that we think of as “other,” as unlike ourselves. Who and what do we despise and how can become curious about them?
Then, we move toward them. We trust the Spirit to provide the courage and compassion we need. We enter into their world and try to hear their perspective with a great, loving curiosity. All this from a grounded place of playfulness, of child-like love that assumes everyone is good.
As Courtney E. Martin writes:
In some ways, it’s incredibly complicated to have worthwhile conversations about things you care deeply about with people who disagree with you … Part of why we don’t engage in conversations with people who have different belief systems from our own is because we don’t have the emotional energy. Our lives exhaust us. We’re too busy and too frustrated. It feels better to bond with people we know agree with us than to wade into the unknown waters of a psyche that might anger us. It takes real effort and emotional sturdiness to assume genuineness in someone you perceive as “the other.” It takes a resilient naïveté. Sometimes, it even takes a kind of playfulness.
Lastly, if the Spirit is to use as an instrument in this way, we must be willing to change, to compromise. We find common ground and then build new things together in that solid place. This video, which I love, demonstrates it very, very well:
Come Holy Spirit! Make us into instruments of your love!! AMEN!
Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen.
Last Friday morning—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—two screens were in front of me; words and images flooding in.
A glowing laptop sat upon my knees, my web browser opened to an online Bible, Psalm 34. It was there because I awoke with this song in my head, particularly the “The LORD hears the cry of the poor, blessed be The LORD” part.
I stared at these words:
Keep your tongue from evil,
your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
~ Psalm 34: 14-15
I heard these words:
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.
I can’t make sense of the division, the gap between the two ways. I know, though, that I want to live under the influence of Scripture, the sacred Word of God.
I wonder what is happening to the Body of Christ; whether the wounds are becoming infected. Perhaps flesh is being gouged, torn apart. Maybe blood is flooding our world and we are too blind to see. (I have been meditating on the wounds of Christ ever since Inauguration Day.)
Certainly, much stirs in my mind and heart. What will happen to the children of God who are in the most vulnerable corners of society? What will happen to those who have been declared as enemies?
I see faces of friends waiting for decades for their citizenship papers to come through. I visualize children passing their lives away in detention centers. I see the face of a teen I taught years ago—a beautiful Iraqi Muslim who had migrated out of a war zone.
I think of the millions of people who are also fleeing war zones, oppression, starvation—good people who of course would prefer to stay securely in their homeland but can’t. They are powerless in their circumstances. (I know the feeling of powerlessness.)
I remember the women—young mothers coming right off the streets, desperate to get their lives together—choosing life with every chance, only to have the structures of society spit out a mess of impossibility at them. It’s impossible (all at once) to afford food, to find a job, to have good transportation, to find secure housing and to have proper health care but somehow—perhaps by the might of love alive within them—they persevered and gained stability for their family.
I think of the polluted waters and soils; of the climate refugees moving from place to place across this planet.
I think of the words of Jesus Christ uttered from the cross, his body aching with misery: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
I feel my own heart thirst for justice and peace for all; for a world centered on the love of Truth and guided by Gospel values—values of sacrifice for the sake of the other; values of protection of the planet and the poor and vulnerable.
Inauguration Friday was as another Good Friday, another day when the Body of Christ was wounded upon the cross.
Meditating on the cross of Christ in the world today, I remember my deep conviction that the United States, with only 5 percent of the population but with 25 percent of the world’s wealth, needs not selfishly protect itself—we need not to give into the temptations for greed, power and pride. We must reject all of the seven deadly sins.
With all the news of heartache, fear and pain rapidly increasing in our world today, it seems we are stuck upon the cross, we are stuck in Good Friday.
We need not stay stuck. We believe in Easter Sunday and we know it is always coming in three days. We know that Christ’s wounds upon his body have been transformed, glorified.
The LORD’s face is against evildoers
to wipe out their memory from the earth.
The righteous cry out, the LORD hears
and he rescues them from all their afflictions.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,
saves those whose spirit is crushed.
~ Psalm 34: 17-19
We are that body, formed and guided by mercy, generosity and hope. We shall arise as one body united, radiating Love and Truth.
Happy Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day to all of you! What are you doing to honor the legacy of Dr. King today?
Please, let us allow ourselves to be disturbed and transformed on this national holiday. This is not a day for sentimental history lessons. It is not a day to rest nor enjoy the comforts of privilege. We cannot afford to rot in complacency.
Rather, we must become students of nonviolence and courageous change makers. Today is a day for contemplation and action; for meditation and community building. Let us effectively scrutinize these times and organize our resistance. Let us lean in to the Spirit to be transformed into true Gospel people. These are the ways we can truly honor Dr. King–and all those who gave up their lives nonviolently for the sake of equality.
Or, I’d like to invite you to do as I did this morning: listen to Dr. King’s Christmas sermon “Peace on Earth.” As you do, I think you’ll be amazed at how timely his speech is, even though it is from 50 years ago. The sermon remains a call to action!
If you click on the video, you can listen to a recording of Dr. King preaching while you read the text pasted below it. I have bolded particular phrases in the sermon because I believe the words can be instructive to us as we resist the current oppression in the world.
Plus, let us pray for each other and for peace for all.
God, transform us and create us anew. Help us be the nonviolent peacemakers your world needs. We rely on you to fill us with strength, grace, and guidance as we struggle in brave love, as we suffer willingly for the day when all people will know your true peace and justice. Work through us, Holy Spirit, and help us to be vibrant in our faith and hope in you. We pray this through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen!
A Christmas Sermon: Peace on Earth
By Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
December 24, 1967
This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian hope. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power. Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the very destructive power of modern weapons of warfare eliminates even the possibility that war may any longer serve as a negative good. And so, if we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and so let us this morning explore the conditions for peace. Let us this morning think anew on the meaning of that Christmas hope: “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men.” And as we explore these conditions, I would like to suggest that modern man really go all out to study the meaning of nonviolence, its philosophy and its strategy.
We have experimented with the meaning of nonviolence in our struggle for racial justice in the United States, but now the time has come for man to experiment with nonviolence in all areas of human conflict, and that means nonviolence on an international scale.
Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.
Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. I have spoken to you before of our visit to India some years ago. It was a marvelous experience; but I say to you this morning that there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with one’s own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when one sees with ones own eyes thousands of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night. They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. As I beheld these conditions, something within me cried out: “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh, no!” And I started thinking about the fact that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge? in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.
Now let me say, secondly, that if we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere. One of the great philosophical debates of history has been over the whole question of means and ends. And there have always been those who argued that the end justifies the means, that the means really aren’t important. The important thing is to get to the end, you see.
So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there? they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.
It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. And so when we say “Thou shalt not kill,” we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world. Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God, made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such. Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars. One day somebody should remind us that, even though there may be political and ideological differences between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. But in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. In Christ there is neither male nor female. In Christ there is neither Communist nor capitalist. In Christ, somehow, there is neither bound nor free. We are all one in Christ Jesus. And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.
There are three words for “love” in the Greek New Testament; one is the word “eros.” Eros is a sort of esthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way.
Then the Greek language talks about “philia,” which is another word for love, and philia is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people that you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved.
Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word “agape.” Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
If there is to be peace on earth and good will toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations. Something must remind us of this as we once again stand in the Christmas season and think of the Easter season simultaneously, for the two somehow go together. Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than the light, and they crucified him, and there on Good Friday on the cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is an eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again. Easter justifies Carlyle in saying, “No lie can live forever.” And so this is our faith, as we continue to hope for peace on earth and good will toward men: let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.
In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of.
And so today I still have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.
About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
I grew up as a Quaker in North Carolina. Now I am a Franciscan Sister in Wisconsin. You may think I have traded hush puppies for cheese curds and simple silence for complicated ritual. But actually I find God constantly holding me in love and light through them both. For me, there is more in common between these two paths than difference.
Especially now as we enter Advent, some particular Quaker sayings speak to me on how to prepare for the Christmas event of the coming of Christ.
Speak only if the words improve upon the silence
The Quaker (officially the Society of Friends) meeting I grew up in was unprogrammed, meaning that our worship service was an hour of silence. During that silence if you felt a “leading” you could speak. Maybe you would share an insight you had that week, a thought on a piece of Scripture, or even sing a song. In any case, there should be a deep prompting that the words you are going to say are worth breaking the holy silence we are all gathered in.
This seems to me a good habit for every day, but especially for Advent. Have I gotten lost already in the Christmas season or am I silently preparing in expectant waiting? Am I speaking from my heart, from a deeper sense of life-giving hope?
I’ll hold you in the Light
Currently, I have a prayer ministry as the coordinator of prayer intentions at our convent. When I was a Quaker, instead of “I’ll pray for you,” it was more common to hear my Quaker friends quickly say, “I’ll hold you in the Light.” They are referring to that Light of Christ that shines in everyone, the unifying communion of God’s love that is always ready to hold us. In the Light, we can see our gifts and our struggles more clearly. In the Light, we are not alone. In the Light, I am completely known as I am.
My heart is always touched deeply by this phrase of love and concern. The term of “holding” signifies to me more than a fleeting prayer. My friend will hold me, sustain me, and even join me in that Light that unites us all. This phrase reminds me that Advent is a time of communal retreat. It’s not something we do alone. The people of faith are preparing for the coming of Christ and together we are united.
That all flesh should keep silence
So, why sit in silence and wait? The foundation of Quakerism is that God communicates directly with each and every person. The Inner Light is within us all. The noise and clutter of the world get in the way. But silence clears a path. For me, personally, sometimes sitting in the silence was also like sitting in the dark. I never knew what was going to come next. I let go of my own expectations, even of my own words, and simply waited. As one Friend states:
The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own Life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; that the measure of light, life, or grace thus given increases by obedience; and that in order clearly to hear the Divine voice speaking within us we need to be still; to be alone with Him, in the secret place of His Presence; that all flesh should keep silence before Him. ~ Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909
I love this! God leaves both “a witness in the heart” as well as in our “surroundings.” As we enter Advent, am I both seeking within and without to see God’s love made visible? Advent as preparation is both about waiting and about seeking at the same time. We know the Light is coming, and the darkness helps us hunger for it more.
“And then, O then, there was one, even Christ Jesus who could speak to thy condition.”
This is the quintessential Quaker quote that started a movement. George Fox, who founded the Quakers, was an avid seeker. From his journal he records how he traveled around asking questions both of priests and Protestant pastors, but no one seemed to help him. But then, with great joy he heard a voice which told him that Christ Jesus “could speak to thy condition.” God communicated directly. From that all else flows—the silent meetings, simplicity, conviction not to pick up weapons; the sense that every person has dignity and all life is holy.
For me this is also the Advent lesson. As we wait for the Light, time collapses. The beautiful Scripture readings lead us through the three-fold coming of Christ. In the past, Christ was born and changed the world forever. In this very moment as I wait, Christ comes within my own heart. As we try to build the kingdom of justice and peace on earth we anticipate the future fullness of Christ’s coming. Christ indeed does speak to each of us where ever we are in our own condition. Taking the time to turn to God opens up the space for that direct, but often subtle experience of God.
I will admit that in the convent there is a fair amount of ritual around Advent—special readings, colors (violet), traditions, and songs. (If I hear “O Come Emmanuel” one more time!!!) I’ll never forget the first Sunday I realized that most of the sisters had dressed liturgically and were wearing violet to match the season! But ultimately, it is a time of waiting and expectation. Waiting in silence for the Light is the Quaker’s specialty. I find myself returning to silence and the Quaker wisdom that raised me to come to a deeper appreciation of the season. Truly, Christ has come, is with me now, and will come again. My heart spills over with hope, especially in these darker days. As Brian Wren says so simply, “When God is a child there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.”
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.
I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.
Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.
Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”
As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:
Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.
I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.
Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:
No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?
There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.
Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.
I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.
I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)
I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.
No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.
Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.
Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)
With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.