Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Courage to Hope in the Face of Hate

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
(Romans 12:12, NRSV)

The news from Charleston, South Carolina has been deeply shocking and faith-challenging to many. After so many accounts of African-Americans suffering violence in our streets, to have people gathered in their own church—supposedly a place of safety, refuge, sanctuary—gunned down while in prayer and Bible study seems to empty the spirit of hope for healing and reconciliation in our nation.

The shooting at Emanuel AME Church brings up many serious matters that are deeply wrong in our society, especially the acceptance and glorification of violence (and gun violence, above all). While the facts of this particular case are still unclear, the results are immediately obvious: people have died, others grieve losses that can never be restored or made sense of, and a community—and by extension, our nation—is further fragmented and cast into fear and the temptation of hopelessness.

There will be many inquiries into the specifics of the Charleston church shooting, and there will be yet more calls for gun control, racial justice, and mental health reform in our nation coming out of this terrible event. But one of the other issues of great significance is the question of whether or not we can be a people of hope in the face of evil and the seemingly endless parade of human wrong.

A people without hope is a people paralyzed. The creativity and determination it takes to seek solutions and bring people together becomes impossible when we do not have a sense of hope. The loss of hope makes yet more such acts not only inevitable, but almost expected and therefore tolerated. No civil society can endure such a condition.

Some have voiced the view that a loving God would never have allowed such a violent act to happen to people studying Holy Scripture. On the face, it seems like a reasonable statement. But, for anyone taking the Christian life seriously, we know such thinking is skewed and deeply flawed.

Jesus Christ never teaches that those of us who follow him will be spared the woes and struggles of this life. In fact, he explicitly tells us that we will endure persecution, suffering, exclusion, and even death in order to be part of the birth-giving of God's Kingdom (e.g. Matthew 24:9, Mark 10:30). Our faith is not an escape from the evil of this world, but an ultimately victorious encounter with evil in the strength of God. So, the Christian must be prepared to meet evil at home, at work, on our journeys, in our minds, in relationships, and even at church.

In fact, one of the most counter-worldly things we can do—and perhaps one of the greatest threats to the established order of this broken world—is to be faithful and committed to the study of the Scriptures as a community, taking in the Spirit’s power and direction to live out the Gospel of peace, truth, and divine justice in the face of human and spiritual fallenness. To gather in study, praise, and prayer is a radical rejection of the norms and preoccupations of a consumerized and morally stricken society. In this sense, the people of Emanuel AME Church were doing work that put them at additional risk. They were gathered for nourishment in hope and power, in direct opposition to a world urging us to become angry without action, fearful without freedom, and despairing without direction.

The Bible teaches us to live otherwise. In Christ, we are active, free, and directed towards the truth.  Above this, we are a people of hope under all circumstances. St. Paul, in writing to the Church in Rome, shared what he considered to the be marks of authentic, world-challenging (and world-changing) Christian faith: genuine love, no compromise with evil, a tenacious hold on the good.

He also made clear the necessity for hope even while enduring suffering. Only such a way of life can continue to confront evil, refusing to submit to it. He then wrote that such faith will persevere in prayer—which is exactly what the brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church were doing. They were living out the duty each person of Christian faith has to be actively growing in living out the Gospel, and they died in the line of that duty. They must be honored for a kind of simple, unsung heroism that is often taken for granted: the heroic, daily commitment to being light in darkness, life in the midst of death.

Each church community in our nation needs to respond to this event in prayer, and by doing so, to discern how God is calling us to act in Spirit-led and responsible ways to confront this and other present evils from a place of strength and moral courage, so that these good people’s witness will not be forgotten or offered in vain.

As we reel from the terrible news of yet more hateful, racially-motivated gun violence in this nation, it is essential that we heed what St. Paul taught and practiced about hope. We must hate the evil and hold fast to the good. We need to reach out in showing honor to those under threat in our community. But perhaps first and foremost, we need to rejoice—yes, rejoice—for the hope that is in us, hard as that may be.

This hope must never be given up or laid aside, for it is like precious water in a vast desert. For hope alone allows us to look through the gloom, tears, and sorrow of today into Jesus’ promised tomorrow as revealed in the Holy Gospel—a world where his prayer “thy will be done” overcomes the hate, selfishness, and cynicism around us through the collective will, actions, and prayer of a hopeful, determined people.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Visitation & Spiritual Potentiality

And when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, 'God's blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?  I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord's promise would be fulfilled!'
From the Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 1:41-45 (NEB)

The truth is that our being is incomplete without God. To seek God is, therefore, a fundamental tendency of our nature. “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We cannot attain human fulfillment except in relationship with God. There is a space in us that can be filled by only God. There is a certain spiritual potentiality that never comes alive if we are locked in a world of self-sufficiency. “Look to God that you may become radiant” (Psalm 34:5).
From “Living in the Truth,” p. 19, by Michael Casey

The Feast of the Visitation, part of the Incarnation Cycle in the Church calendar, is very much a celebration of presence: the (sometimes hidden) presence of God in the world, the presence of God in our inner lives, the presence of God in those the world counts as marginal or “lost,” and the presence of life, new possibilities, and hope where these things are thought absent.

When St. Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin Mary meet, we see two women—one older, one younger—share in the mystery of God transforming human life. While the immediate focus in the text is on child-bearing, the meaning and application goes far beyond this. These two women physically manifest the work of the Gospel to fill all things with divine presence and power.

St. Elizabeth—considered beyond child-bearing years and something of sad figure in the culture of her time and place—testifies to God’s presence and capacity to bring about new beginnings in our seemingly routine, played-out existence.

St. Mary—caught in a scandalous and potentially dangerous situation of being with child before her marriage, thus being sent into the countryside where she would attract less attention—testifies to God’s presence in the unexpected, the un-asked for, and our human capacity to be partners with God in order to bear the Divine presence in the world.

Beyond this, the two unborn children—hidden, unseen, but very much present—testify to the centrality of what is not acknowledged or clearly understood in life. Their presence, in fact, determines all that happens and follows in this beautiful, intimate story—revealing once more that the small and ordinary things of life (such as a familial greeting in a rural village) may be pregnant with meaning on a scale beyond imagining.

The world around us is currently attempting to live without reference to God, to “go it alone.” The results are clear, however. Living in what Michael Casey calls a “world of self-sufficiency,” the fullness of humanity is being diminished and made more brittle. Our attempt to turn our selves into machines, consumer products, assemblages of genetic data, or autonomous, isolated observers is gradually creating anxiety, despair, and confusion on a previously unimagined scale. Disconnected from the whole of Creation, cut off from completion through communion with God, we lack that radiance the Psalmist speaks of. What we want most—wholeness and love—remains elusive while we refuse to cooperate with our true identity, our essential relationships. This Feast provides an image of what a return to our true purpose and mission looks like.

The Collect for the Visitation recalls the truth that the virgin mother of God’s incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but then goes on to emphasize that she was still more blessed in keeping God’s word. So, while we marvel at the event recounted in Scripture about people and happenings long ago in Sacred History, we do not experience this as a kind of “theatre of sacred absence” from our own lives: indeed, each of us are made aware in this prayer that we, too, are gifted with a call and grace to “keep God’s word” in a unique way, to be “God-bearers” in our life and world. In that way, we join in with these Holy Women in proclaiming God’s presence through relationship, receptivity, and the courage to persevere.

It is by keeping God’s word in our several ways that we will shine with the presence of God—a presence satisfying to the inner life as well as providing guidance and hope for others. By consciously bearing Christ’s presence into the world through our prayers, humility, service, and witness, God’s calling to others who have lost the language of the Divine in their lives may become activated, and like St. John the Baptist in St. Elizabeth’s womb, “stir within them” to a new life of holiness and peace.

So, when you think upon the Visitation, remember to place yourself in this sacred picture, prayerfully asking God how you yourself may live out the promise of presence found in this country greeting between two women so long ago.

Collect for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.