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.
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:
The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.
I look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.
I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:
The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.
Dear Abba, Papi
Take all of this and make it new.
With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth
And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,
The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …
All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …
I give you my own flesh.
They have no idea how gentle you are.
How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,
Powerful enough to heal and restore
Every broken cell
Of this Cosmic Body!
So I give you my body, this one life, that your love
May be released into this time and place
Like the lava of love that will never stop.
Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,
To reverence each face as your beloved
And to bear the suffering and resistance that
Will inevitably come
with the grace of your humble surrender,
infinite faith and extravagant love.
I love you with my whole self.
I give this one life I have totally to you.
And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.
You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.
May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.
Yesterday I finished packing up my classroom. A somber weight pressed upon my shoulders as I cleaned out my desk, dusted shelves and put books and picture frames in boxes.
In the silence I prayed in gratitude for the room that has held so much life and energy for me during the past four years. I smiled as I thought of the love, learning, laughter, singing, dancing, and playful energy that the four walls had held. I sighed with relief to know that I will no longer have endless piles of papers to grade or have to deal with the pressure of an academic calendar. Sadness colored the blank walls with the intensity of letting-go.
I am not sure if I’ll ever teach in a classroom again. I am not sure what the future holds. I don’t know what God has in store for me.
I know some of the general facts, of course. This fall I will begin serving as a program and retreat presenter at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin. I’ll live with some sisters from my congregation in the Spirituality Center’s lodge on Trout Lake and have the opportunity to connect with God alive in creation each and every day. I’ll continue writing and studying, hoping to complete the master’s degree I have been working on and increase my creative writing endeavors.
And, I know I’ll continue to live my life as an FSPA and that I’ll offer myself for the service of God and God’s people. I know I’ll remain connected to my family and friends. And, I believe God will continue to guide me and show me the way.
I am not afraid of the future. I am encouraged by the past. I am challenged to trust in the Mystery and remain faithful to the Truth of Love.
God’s invitation to change ministries and move on came to me like a whisper, like a gentle nudge felt both in the exterior of community life and in the solid feelings of my body and heart. Mid-Lent I was at a meeting with some of my sisters, a discernment circle. I told the other sisters that I thought I’d make a change in ministry within a couple years and read aloud a list of the things I really hoped for in wherever God called me to next: more time in nature and for writing, ministry in an area of high need, service to the poor and marginalized, a strong community life. I had all sorts of ideas about how this could look, but hadn’t even thought about moving further north and into a largely rural area.
Our God is totally a God of surprises though, and once dreams are announced to a loving community one can let go and let the Spirit show the way. After I shared my general dream in that discernment circle a couple of sisters from Marywood spoke about the needs in the Superior diocese. As they spoke, one of the FSPA I am the closest to shot me a “Are-you-hearing-this?” look that I tried to ignore. Within days, more occurrences served as glaring road signs directing me to let go of the timeline I’d created and accept that it was actually the best time for me to move onward. When I prayed about what might happen, I heard encouragement to ask the sisters at Marywood about possibilities as soon as I could. A deep peace warmed my gut and my thoughts were immediately reframed. Before I could completely catch on, the Spirit blew through and stirred up my entire life.
When things shifted for me, I was in the midst of teaching my students about the epistles of the New Testament. I spoke to my students about St. Paul’s travels and itinerant, missionary life. I described how he went into some cities–such as Corinth, Phillipi, Ephesus, and Thessalonica–for no more than a couple years and established a strong Christian community centered on Love and service in a very relational way. He would preach in synagogues and minister and offer a loving presence straight out of the store where he mended tents and in the homes of those who hosted him. He was effective as a minister because he was excellent as a communicator and relationship builder. He was a master of maintaining relationships once he transitioned onward.
I am challenged by St. Paul’s witness in the early Church and encouraged to remain faithful to the Franciscan traditions of itineracy, preaching and poverty. I hope to maintain my own movement proclaiming the goodness of God, detached from taking possession or ownership of any particular place, ministry or group of people.
Nothing is mine. All is in the hands of God. There is a great sense of liberation in knowing this. And freedom permits me to joyfully express gratitude:
I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception,to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11
I am not sure if I’ll ever return to teaching in a high school classroom or how exactly I will be of service to God and God’s people in the long-range future. I leave, though, with faith that the future is in God’s hands.
No matter how we are nudged and encouraged, I believe that God can shine goodness into any situation and the challenge of letting go.
Note from Sister Julia: A version of the following text was written for my coursework in my Introduction to New Testament course at Catholic Theological Union where I am a part-time student. The assignment was to write a Biblical commentary on a particular Gospel passage. The passage I selected was Mark 6: 7-13, which was the Gospel for this past Sunday.
Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” So they went off and preached repentance. The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Jesus gave a particular Mission to the Twelve from the Gospel of Mark. And, it is a very interesting story when you are aware of the historical context. In the time of Jesus, there was another group of countercultural preachers who belonged to what was called the Cynic movement. They were founded by Diogenes of Sinope in fourth century Greece and had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, including Palestine. They carried a staff to show that they were homeless and a knapsack to show that they were self-sufficient. They were urban and individual. What Jesus establishes with his sending of the Twelve is a very different movement, as his missionaries were rural and communal and did not carry a knapsack (nor a staff, in Luke and Matthew). This showed their solidarity with and dependence on those to whom they preached. 
Like the Twelve, we are called to embrace God’s mission and serve. We must move out and go to be with the other to serve and share the good news. But we don’t arrive as heroes or messiahs, we come to companion and be a guest. We are equal with those who we help, as we unite with their experience of daily life and receive their hospitality. As we give messages of hope and healing, we receive. This is real solidarity and interdependency. It is a radical way of loving ones neighbor, for this “walking with” will not make us into the rich, famous or accomplished.
In order to really live the Gospel in this way of mutuality we may need to change our life around. We may need to change our mind about what it means to help and to serve in the name of God. We may need to make changes in our life in order to be present to others in the ways that God needs us.
In order to do this with integrity and love, it is necessary for us to pause and assess the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I offer a few simple reflection questions to guide us as we seek to implement Jesus’ mission into our modern times.
Question 1.) Who are you with? The Mission of the Twelve begins with Jesus summoning his friends and then sending them out as pairs. Christ summons each of us and wants us to remember that we are not alone. For the disciples of Jesus in the first century, it could have been dangerous to travel alone. Plus, people would have been less likely to take them seriously and welcome them if they were solo travelers. For us who are also called to build the reign of God, it is unnecessary and foolish for us to try to be alone in doing good for God. We are a communal people. We belong to a Trinitarian God of relationship. We need each other. Let us lean on others for support as we do the work of God. Let us support and unite with others while we do that which God calls us.
Question 2.) What does God need us to bring? The instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve is that they are to “take nothing for the journey.” (Although they could have a staff, a second tunic and a walking stick.) I am reminded of the time when I was a Jesuit Volunteer and flew to California to work with homeless youth for an entire year. As I was preparing for my missionary experience, a letter from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program director arrived and challenged me. The letter quoted this passage from Mark and reminded me that I would be arriving to a fully furnished house. I was asked to pack lightly and bring little with me so I could learn to live simply and live in solidarity with the poor. Packing was a real struggle because it helped me to recognize my attachments. Somehow I sensed that the less I went with, the more open I would be to receiving whatever God had in store for me. I knew I could trust the circumstances and I could trust God. We need to bring trust in God.
Question 3.) What does God need us to leave behind? When I was packing for my year of service it felt very freeing to realize that I could leave a lot of my possessions behind and start fresh in a new city. It became clear that I was bringing a lot of excitement and eagerness for my adventure. It also became clear that it would not be helpful for me to be guided by fear, but by love. Just as The Twelve, I needed to leave behind any attachments that could get in the way of serving God, especially any lingering attachments to fear. The Twelve needed to leave behind anything that would prevent them from being open to those who they would meet, anything (such as a purse and money) that would not show them to be an equal. God needs us to leave behind fear and other attachments that prevent us from being open to others.
When Jesus sent the Twelve on a mission, he was establishing a movement to live out his mission. In our day, we are also sent to serve. Like the Twelve, as we go on our journeys and do acts of love, we must bring hearts full of trust in God, leave fear behind and be ready to love all we meet as equals. When we move in this way, we will build relationships in solidarity and interdependency. We will build the Kingdom of God! May God bless us as we go. Amen!
 John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images, (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 148.
Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.
It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”
It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed…
Being Christian is not for sissies, I have heard some say. We must be bold, courageous and purposely enter into experiences of encounter that might make the average person squirm.
For starters, this is a life of serious love. And for us Christians, love is a verb, not a feeling. We have to love our enemies, not just our friends, even when it might not feel good or make sense. This love is done through countercultural actions: we have to forgive, stand up for justice, help the poor and marginalized.
All this love-in-action activity totally changes us for the better. Conversion gets the best of us. Our minds, hearts and behaviors change. For doing this love-work means we must hang out with prisoners, the people who scare us, the smelly— and we might become poor, scary, imprisoned and smelly ourselves in the process.
This being a Christian-thing: it’s messy, it’s complicated and totally challenging.
God really is demanding; God does ask a lot. We must give over our whole life and become totally transformed, and unite with God in our hearts, minds and spirits. For sure, this discipleship is an all-or-nothing thing. No pretending, going through motions, or half-assing any sort of faith-life; at least not if we want to really please God and build God’s reign of peace and justice.
Yes, like the verse in Revelation says, we must not be lukewarm with our faith.
I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
When we’re real with ourselves, though, we might be able to admit that we don’t always feel on fire for the Gospel and the love of Jesus. Sometimes we are just not in the mood to go to great lengths to care for others. And, other times we are full of doubts, confusion. We are hurting, exhausted and just plain weary.
So, if we’re feeling lukewarm and we don’t want God to spit us out, then what are we to do?
It’s important to understand the original context of the passage; it was written to encourage persecuted Christians to remain faithful and hopeful during the Roman Empire. Many Christians were hiding their faith or trying to participate in both the state religion as well as their Christian communities, in the same way that today some of us still participate in the sins of the common culture while still going to Church saying we’re a Christian. This is the type of lukewarm faith that doesn’t care, that is comfortable and not interested in growth or feeling passion for God and others.
But, what if we are lukewarm because we’re struggling? What can we do if we don’t feel hot for God like we want?
Here’s how to be hot for God:
Surround yourself with strong, faithful Christians who you can lean on for support. Recently one of my young nun friends posted a meme that totally summed this up for me. There was a picture of a bunch of ladies in wacky clothes and a statement: “surround yourself with people on the same mission as you.”
Study scripture and pray a lot. Ask God for a strong faith, for strength and keep in mind that faith is a gift, but faithfulness is required in all relationships. And, a life of faith is a life in relationship.
Do frequent acts of service because a great way to get to know God is by getting close to poverty.
Receive the sacraments and allow the graces of God to transform you from the inside out.
Listen and stay open to God’s beauty and love surrounding you all the time, whether it is nature, in art, your own acts of creativity or in the people you love.
Ask others to pray for you such as my community. By the way, we have a perpetual adoration chapel and are praying 24/7 and we love praying for all of you and all your requests! You can submit your prayer requests here.
Indeed, let us pray for each other, that all of us can burn brightly with our love for God! Amen!
As part of a larger discussion in my classroom yesterday, I asked my students how they define justice. Then, I asked them how they could better demonstrate justice.
The results were fascinating to me. Some students very quickly said justice means “fairness.” More students, however, said things like “being nice,” “treating people equally,” and “enforcing the laws.”
The context of the conversation was an examination of the following passage of scripture, a passage that shows the real meaning of justice. We are to change our hearts and ways to imitate God who is compassionate and fair: God who doesn’t necessarily treat everyone equally–but fairly–by giving special attention to those who are most vulnerable in society.
Now, therefore, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, to follow in all his ways, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with your whole heart and with your whole being,
To keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD that I am commanding you todayfor your own well-being?
Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it.
Yet only on your ancestors did the LORD set his heart to love them. He chose you, their descendants, from all the peoples, as it is today.
Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your hearts, and be stiff-necked no longer.
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the greatGod, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes,
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing.
So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.
The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and him shall you serve; to him hold fast and by his name shall you swear.
The way we are called to love and serve God is by loving and serving the most vulnerable in our society. For my students and me, that is people who are different than us.
My students are studying the Old Testament and they are 9th graders. Most of them are white and privileged, and enjoy lives of safety and comfort.
Justice may have been difficult for many of my students to define because they don’t have to think about it very often. Most of them are able to go through their days without having to worry about whether they will be stopped by the police when they walk down the sidewalk. They do not worry about being wrongly harassed by police. They don’t have to fear coming home to find that their parents have been deported.
Like my students, I also enjoy being able to trust that the police will protect me and keep me and my dearest loved ones safe. I don’t fear racial discrimination, brutality, or false accusations for crimes.
It’s Thanksgiving week, and we have much to be grateful for. We also have a lot to do.
It is a time of tension in this nation. The protests and violence concerning the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the debate about immigration reform show that a lot of intense emotion is stirring all over the land. (By the way, I am a supporter of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform, along with the Catholic Bishops).
During this time of chaos and conflict, what type of justice do we need to demonstrate?
The Scripture and our tradition make it clear. As people of faith, we are called to protect the most vulnerable. We must enter into intense social analysis in order to see what’s really going on in the systemic problems that cry out for the need for changes: we need immigration reform and less militarization in our police forces. We need more compassion.
We must rally non-violently. We must hold prayer vigils. We must offer loving presence to the hurting, the suffering, the vulnerable and oppressed. We must listen to their voices and not be quick to judge.
We must engage in simple acts of generosity and kindness, like God, and lovingly give the vulnerable food and clothing.
This is the real spirit of Thanksgiving: attitudes of gratitude that become actions for justice and kindness, recognizing we are blessed and making social changes so more people can experience the blessings. The type of Thanksgiving that our nation needs now is a celebration of generosity and compassion that honors the real meaning of justice.
We don’t have to go deep into the headlines to know that death and despair surround us. Our human family is suffering intensely. We all are.
When I really let myself feel it, I squirm. Awareness of injustice gnaws at my edges, compelling me to feel uncomfortable with the peace and security that I enjoy daily. The thickness of sorrow stews in my praying heart. Intercessory prayers begging the madness to end pour out of me; these prayers seem to be stuck on repeat.
Then, a message from an ancient prophet quiets me:
On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken. On that day it will be said: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the LORD for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” –Isaiah 25: 7-9
There is hope for all nations! I know this is real. God’s power is stronger than death. The Truth of Easter teaches me this.
The beauty of God’s designs in nature also remind me that we can be people of hope. The colors of the falling leaves insist that even when death and decay has its way, there’s reason to rejoice. There are many beautiful signs of God’s loving presence in the decay, in the changes and pain.
Indeed, signs of hope surround us. God’s love is known, even in the most awful, painful situations impacting our global family: