January 28, 2015
Christmas is behind us. This year the holiday season was, for me, a time of waiting. I waited and watched my grandson as he anticipated Christmas and the presents that accompanied it. His family came to our house on Christmas Eve. His eyes sparkled as he danced around the room helping everyone open their presents. I thought of my own childhood Christmases as I watched him. My aunts and uncles came to our house on Christmas Eve. We children waited upstairs for Santa to come. There would be a knock at the door, and we would run to greet him. He carried a large bag filled with presents. We stood back a little, fearful, as he handed each of us our gift. To this day, I can feel the knot in my stomach, part fear and part excitement, as I reached for my gift from this strange bearded man.
We spend much of our lives waiting, sometimes in hope and sometimes in fear. I remember waiting as a teenager, wondering if the girl of my dreams would accept my invitation to a dance. I also remember waiting when I searched for my first job. Pregnancy and birth involve a lot of waiting. The same is true of adoption. Young people wait to grow up and old people wait to die. Hungry people wait for a meal. Athletes wait anticipating the competition.
This days I watch news reports, waiting with a mixture of hope and fear. Will the tactics of ISIS result in further suffering and death? Will terrorist cells kill people here like they did in the Paris attacks? Does the recent killing of African Americans by police indicate that racism is on the rise? Is our political system being sold to the highest bidder as wealthy politicians restrict advantages to middle and low income people while lining their own pockets? Is it even possible to build a society where trust and good will are the norm rather than fear and domination? Does the spirit of Christmas and the delight of little children have any affect? Or are these images merely the hopes of dreamers who are not in touch with reality?
Underlying all of this is the question: How can I live with hope and expectation in these chaotic times? This question isn't new. It has haunted humankind for ages.
The Old Testament book of Habakkuk records the prophet's anguished dialogue with God:2 Habakkuk screamed, “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, 'Help! Murder! Police!' before you come to the rescue? “ And then God answered: “Write this. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It will come right on time.”
Habakkuk's anguished cry was joined by Ellie Wiesel and two other rabbis who put God on trial in a Jewish concentration camp.3 Wiesel states, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty.' It means ‘He owes us something.' Then we went to pray." These rabbis trusted God even when they believed God owed them something for their suffering.
Hindu activist, Mahatma Gandhi4, lived in hope and expectation as he led the fight for Indian liberation from Britain. Although he was assassinated as he tried to stop the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bengal, his strategy of resistance through mass non-violent civil disobedience, changed the world.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Gandhi's strategy as he campaigned for civil rights in America. He was gunned down as his “Poor People's March on Washington” faltered and failed to achieve its goal. Yet he lived in the belief that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”5
Although there are times when I am able to feel compassion for my enemies, there are other times when I am beside myself with frustration. I want to destroy those who oppress the powerless and flaunt justice. At these times King's words ring in my ears. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. . . . Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
So what is this life-giving love that can drive out hate? In my less cynical moments, I catch glimpses of it.
My sister Sue died of cancer nearly four years ago. She was a school counselor, played horn in a brass choir and was active in her local church. She was quiet, well-liked and had a wicked sense of humor. She was not known as a mover and shaker in the community. People at her funeral told story after story of how Sue had affected their lives. One young man said, “Thirty years ago, I was headed for trouble. But Sue believed in me, and that made all the difference.” With stories, laughter and tears people gave witness to the life-giving love that flowed through Sue into the community.
Ed Steichen, was a priest and papal volunteer in South America. There he met Helder Camera, Brazil's archbishop of the poor.6 Ed was deeply impressed when archbishop Camera attended a convocation of bishops dressed in peasant's garb rather than the traditional royal robes. Later in life Ed left the priesthood and married Aggie. We became friends through Madison Urban Ministry. Ed was a tireless advocate for the poor. He, like Camera, critiqued the oppressive structures of Society.7 He fought to reform the dehumanizing practices of the prison system, particularly solitary confinement in the super-max. Ed's connection with the life-giving love of the cosmos was evidenced in his actions and in his second passion, nature photography.
Sometimes life-giving love is manifest in organizations, groups that are characterized by people who move forward with passion and humor even in dire circumstances. The Church of the Saviour, founded by Gordon Cosby in Washington D.C., is one such organization. Cosby told how he and his brother, also an activist preacher, met annually at a motel to strategize. One year, the president of Cosby's congregation joined them. She was ill with cancer. Gordon said, “Here we were, two old men and a woman with cancer, sharing how God was using us to change the world.” The congregation he led continues to minister in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C. Life-giving hope and love flows through these people into our nation's capitol.
Sometimes life-giving hope and love manifests itself in large social movements., like the civil rights struggle where millions of people are impacting the course of nations. Some of the leaders are familiar to us8, but the power of life-giving love is carried mainly by thousands of ordinary people and organizations who operate behind the scenes with little fanfare. We gravitate to such endeavors because something important is happening through them, something that is transforming the world. Many of us risk reputation and personal safety to be a part of these efforts.
Yes, we humans are part of a mysterious dynamic that defies rational description. We are more than we think we are. We know this dynamic, not through logical arguments and theories, but in our experiences. It might be in watching a sunset, looking at a picture, listening to a piece of music, hearing a story or experiencing one of the thousands of everyday events that fill our lives. This knowing comes from our guts, not our heads.
Habakkuk described this knowing as engaging Yahweh. My sister Sue, my friend Ed Steichen and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violent resistance motivated by his life as a Hindu. Buddha preached an enlightenment that grows out of compassion.
Inspiring as these teachers were, many of us today are not moved by traditional religions. They no longer speak to us. Their images and beliefs seem outmoded and irrelevant when viewed through the lens of our twenty-first century technology, science and psychology. Yet we all experience moments when we “know” something that is difficult to explain rationally. This knowing often gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
Fritjof Capra9 and David Steindl-Rast10, with Thomas Matus, discuss this disconnect in the book, Belonging to the Universe11. I have excerpted a few paragraphs below:
David: We all carry with us a great question. There is something questioning within us. It is unexpressed most of the time, or perhaps always. Our very life is a quest, a questioning. And once in a while, for no particular reason, we suddenly know the answer, we glimpse the answer. But the answer is not yet spelled out. We just say, “This is it.” It may be the smile of a baby in a crib. A parent looks at the baby, and there, “This is it.” It is this kind of being able “to rest in it” from our restlessness with which we normally pursue life.
Fritjof: Yes, but I want to get at something else in spirituality or Religion . . . It is the sense of connectedness to the cosmos as a whole. That's also in the smile of the baby, because I am the father, but the smile of any baby is also my smile. And the smile of a dolphin - if you can call it a smile – is also my smile. . . . So this sense of connectedness with the cosmos is essential to religious experience for me. . . . the expression I usually use (is) belonging.
Thomas: Belonging has a double meaning. When I say, “This belongs to me,” I mean that I possess something. When I say, “I belong,” (I mean) I take part in, am intimately involved with a reality greater than myself, whether it's a love relationship, a community, a religion, or the whole universe. So “I belong” means “Here I find my place,” “This is it,” and, at the same time, “Here I am.”
David: Maybe one can now use another image. I said we go around with this quest, with this question. Maybe one can say we often feel orphaned; we feel lost; we feel we're wandering and looking for something. Then comes a moment, unexplainably, “Now I am at home, this is my home. And I belong. I am not orphaned. I belong to all other humans.” Even if there's nobody around, this is clearly felt. I am at home with them. I am responsible for them and to them. We all belong together in this great cosmic unity.
Fritjof: Etymologically, the root of religion is connectedness and the root of theology is in theos, God. But the way you present it it does not require the concept of God.12
David: It does not require the name “God.” And I am always very careful not to say “God” unless I know that the people with whom I speak feel comfortable with it, or at least don't misunderstand it too greatly. The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.
I am impressed with David Steindl-Rast's insight in the paragraph above. “(Religion) does not require the name 'God.' The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.“
This statement puts us all on equal footing. Whether or not we use the name God, we are each responsible for how we engage that unexpressed questioning in our lives. We can try to ignore it. We can lose ourselves in societally conditioned pursuits that never really engage this dimension of living. Or we can seek to live our lives as authentically as possible, saying, “Here I am.” “I belong.” Only when we engage that sense of belonging that we occasionally glimpse will we know our authentic selves, our human capacity to live in hope even during desperate times.
Only then will we sense that we are part of the energizing, creating dynamism of the cosmos. Perhaps this is why the recent celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is so meaningful to me. It is a manifestation of humankind's potential in the midst of humankind's shortcomings. We are able to discover life-giving love and hope even in the midst of the hopelessness and fear that often characterizes our human condition.
I will end this reflection with another personal story. Sometime in late November, we were caring for our grandson. He told us he wanted to take a break in the crib in our bedroom. He knew he could only have his pacifier and blanket when he was in his crib. I put him down and lay on our bed, hoping he would go to sleep. I felt restless and despairing as my mind played through all the violence and suffering in the world. In the silence, I heard my grandson talking to his stuffed animals: Big Doggie, Little Lamb and Little Doggie. After asking them questions, he was quiet. Then I heard this little voice say, “Big Doggie, I love you so-o-o much.” My heart melted. I felt strangely at peace. Something soft yet powerful filled the room through my grandson's proclamation.
1I want to thank pastor Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang of Woburn (MA) United Methodist Church, whose sermon on Nov. 30, 2014, “Standing at Watchpost,” inspired this reflection.
2The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk lived in the late 7th century about the time the Hebrew people were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.(Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:2-3)
7The late archbishop's place in history will be heavily influenced by one of his more memorable sayings. "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."
11Belonging to the Universe: Explorations on the Frontiers of Science & Spirituality, Fritjof Capra author of The Tao of Physics & David Seindl-Rast with Thomas Matus, Harper Collins, p. 14-15
12Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word back to an old Latin word religio meaning "taboo, restraint." A deeper study discovers the word comes from the two words re and ligare. Re is a prefix meaning "return," and ligare means "to bind;"