Hope is the thing with feathers…

This is one of my favorite of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Sometimes recently it’s been difficult to have hope. I turn on the news…and hear yet more lies…more insults and name-calling…more negating the humanity of those who are “other”…and it is deadening to the soul.

I find myself wondering what I can do. I am only one person–a not very significant person in the political world–and so what power do I have? But then I am reminded of the comment attributed to Margaret Mead that a small group of committed citizens is the only thing that can change the world…and I know there are others out there who feel the same way I do. We just need to find each other and work together…

In her poem, Dickinson didn’t say that hope would just be around when the going was easy. It sings sweetest in the storms–and I believe we are in the middle of tremendous storms in the world right now.

So hope keeps showing up.

It shows up when I am reminded of Anne Frank’s belief in the innate goodness of people…a belief that in some ways seems naïve, given what happened to Anne and her family. But it’s the only way to keep going.

It shows up when I am reminded of comments like this from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.”

It shows up when I remember Mother Teresa saying “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”…and a saying attributed to her: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

And most of all, hope shows up to remind me of what Jesus said in Matthew 25…that when we give a cup of water…visit the sick and prisoner…clothe the naked…welcome the stranger…we are doing it to him.

So…I am one person. But I will continue to do what I can…and bring hope to those who wonder if there is any reason for hope.

Yes, we are in a storm–but the bird of hope still sings as long as there are those of us who are listening to our souls.

Reading the Bible through the lens of love

In today’s climate, there appears to be a lot of emphasis on “what the Bible says.”

There are a lot of things that the Bible says…in fact, as we’ve discovered in the past, it is possible to “prove” almost anything from the Bible. We’ve done that with slavery…with the right of humans to dominate the earth…with male dominance in male/female relationships…to deny the validity of same-sex relationships…. There are probably other topics you could come up yourself.

However, if we want to be true to “what the Bible says,” I think it might help us to revisit what a couple of significant people have said about the Bible–and how to read it.

The first one is Jesus…the focus of much of what the Bible says. He spoke about a lot of different things, but what I think is important when we think about what the Bible says came when he was asked what the greatest commandment was. According to Matthew 22:37-40 (The Message translation), he said this:

…“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Hmmm…everything in the Law and the Prophets? According to Jesus…yes.

The second person is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He felt the Bible was absolutely an essential book to read…but not necessarily literally. He was aware that there were some things in the Bible that spoke to people more than others. For him, the theology found in 1 John, especially 1 John 4:19 was the central message:

“We love [God] because he first loved us.”

He felt that it was vital to read the Bible through the lens of love.

So what would happen if we did?

It would certainly challenge us!

But maybe…just maybe…that’s what the world needs today…a people who truly live and see life through the lens of God’s love–towards all of God’s creation.

Maybe…just maybe…that’s what it will take for God’s peaceable kingdom to become a reality…if there are enough of us willing to take that risk.

Pursue peace.

In my faith tradition, the two words in this title are part of our contemporary scriptures. “Pursue peace.”

That sounds so simple…but what does it really mean? I’ve thought a lot about that recently, especially in light of (1) the lectionary scripture for this last weekend in May and (2) the fact that this is Memorial Day weekend in the United States.

Part of the lectionary scripture says this (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Memorial Day–while often the “kick-off” celebration for summer in the United States–is actually a memorial for those who have died in the service of their country.

And so, as I think of these two things–and “Pursue peace”–I wonder. What does Christ’s peace mean?

I appreciate those who have served in the military. My husband was in the Navy during Vietnam. Two grandsons also served in the military–one a Marine who is now buried in a veterans cemetery, and the other in Afghanistan in the Army. They did what they believed needed to be done to try to bring peace.

But does it?

How many wars have been fought to try to bring peace? And how long has any of those times of “peace” lasted?

The peace that Christ promised (and promises) is not what the world expects. It’s a peace that is so much more than merely the absence of conflict! It’s right relationships… wholeness…reconciliation…completeness…wellbeing…a willingness to give back.

We’re never going to get that through force. Violence begets nothing but violence.

Pursuing Christ’s peace is not going to be easy. It’s counter-cultural. It requires us to see those we disagree with as people of value…people we need to be willing to listen to and work with the find common ground. It requires us to let go of our insistence on our own way and our confidence that we are right and have all the answers.

We don’t.

We can’t go on the way we have. Our world is hurting–desperately–and needs Christ’s peace.

Let’s pursue that peace.

Shalom is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves. –Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick

Practicing Christian…believing Christian?

I was recently at a retreat where our presenter, Jane Vennard, talked about the way she described herself in the forward to her book Fully Awake and Truly Alive. Her description intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about the meanings of the descriptions she used.

She describes herself as a “practicing Christian” rather than a “believing Christian.” A first response might well be, “Then how can she describe herself as a Christian?” But as I’ve thought about those words, the more sense they make…and are words that I want to claim as my own descriptors.

While others might have different reactions to the choice of words, here’s how they strike me.

Describing oneself as a “believing Christian” has been the default for many of us for many years–and is perhaps the simplest way of defining oneself. That means that there’s a specific list of beliefs that we agree with. It doesn’t necessarily require anything other than saying, “Yes, I believe that…I agree with that.” It allows me to sit comfortably in my pew (or chair) on Sunday morning, nodding my head in agreement, and then going back home until the next time the church doors are open.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to identify as a believing Christian…but I think it’s incomplete.

To be a “practicing Christian” is harder. It’s not that there is a specific list of beliefs that I have to agree with. Rather, my focus is on trying to emulate the example of the one we call the Christ…being with people…listening to them…bringing healing when possible…sharing good news…and all the other things that Jesus did when he walked on this earth. Beliefs may (or may not) grow out of these actions–but if I am working at being a practicing Christian, then my relationships with the people I meet will certainly have more in common with the kinds of ministry Jesus brought.

Ideally I can be both a practicing and a believing Christian…if my beliefs call me to actions that emulate the One whose name I claim. But if it comes down to a choice between them, I will choose to be a practicing Christian because I think that is much more in line with the challenge given to us in Matthew 25:31-46 (this is The Message version):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those “sheep” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those “goats” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”

Words hurt…or heal

I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently…about words and the impact they can have on us.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the wars the United States has been involved in–or whose parents or grandparents told us about them–can remember the ugly names we used to describe our enemies.

Those words were designed to dehumanize those we were fighting…to keep us from seeing them as human beings like us…with families who loved them…who had similar dreams and hopes as we did. And it succeeded–far beyond the war(s). Many of those words were used to describe people from those countries well beyond the end of the “official” war.

The United States is not the only country that did this. Others did as well. The example that had one of the most horrific results was Nazi Germany–with its description of “the other” (handicapped, Jews, Roma) as “vermin,” “mongrels,” “subhuman.”

The sad thing is that we see much of that being repeated today. People fleeing violence and poverty are being described by the current administration as “criminals” and “rapists” who are “infesting” the United States. The truth is that less than 1% of those seeking asylum are people we might fear. The rest are families or individuals who are trying to find a safe place–and who want to build better lives for themselves and their families.

I’m reminded of a book I loved by Robert Heinlein–Methuselah’s Children. It was the story of a particularly long-lived group of families…people who lived long enough that they became resented by those who lived “normal” lifespans. At one point in the book, as the families are gathering to try to find a safe place, Lazarus Long (the patriarch of the family) is watching and reading the news–and shows how subtle use of language is separating them from everyone else and demonizing them…making them “less than” and also someone to fear.

Yet words also have the power to heal and to bring us together. We have to be intentional to do this…to use words that include “the other”…to call out those words that are intended to divide us and foment hate.

It’s our choice. It’s easy to join the mobs that call out for separation…for dehumanizing and fearing those who are different. It’s more difficult to stand for those who have been marginalized…to delight in diversity rather than fear it.

But one brings death…the other brings life.

What color is your world?

My world used to be black and white. There was a right answer and a wrong answer. There was a right way to do things and a wrong way. There was one right way to believe and everything–and everyone–else was wrong.

It was an easy and a comfortable way to live.

I didn’t have to struggle with ambiguity. I could make quick and easy judgments…based on what I knew was right.

But then I began to get acquainted with people who believed differently from me–but who lived in what I knew was the right way.

I met people from different countries and discovered that even though we differed on politics and sometimes religion, we had a lot in common.

I became friends with people whose loved differently than I did…who loved people of the same sex. And I met others whose seemingly obvious birth gender didn’t match with their internal gender.

I began to listen to scientists who caused me to question some of my earlier simplistic beliefs.

And my world changed colors.

blue green and red abstract illustration

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

It was no longer just two colors. It began to be filled with bright, beautiful colors–colors of the rainbow.

Sometimes I miss my easy and comfortable way of living–but then I look around and realize that all the colors make my life exciting and beautiful…just as I believe God created life to be.

Having a dream

There are phrases and sentences that plant themselves in our memories and never go away. We may not always be aware of them–but they tend to surface at unexpected moments.

Sometimes they come from books and movies:

  • Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. (Gone with the Wind)
  • Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick)
  • We need a bigger boat. (Jaws)
  • A great man is passing by. (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Sometimes they come from songs:

  • The sound of silence (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • When will we ever learn? (Peter, Paul, and Mary)

And sometimes they come from political speeches:

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. (John Kennedy)
  • We have nothing to fear but fear itself. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  • I have a dream… (Martin Luther King)

While they come to us in a context, we make them our own. And these last few weeks/months, the quote that keeps rattling around in my mind is Martin Luther King’s: “I have a dream…”

I dream of a day when we will see each other as brothers and sisters…when we will delight in our diversity–of color, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, age, religion…when we will honor what each one can bring to the table.

I dream of a day when economic disparities are a thing of the past…when each one has enough to meet their physical needs…when money is no longer what makes someone “important.”

I dream of a day when we understand the interconnectedness of all of creation…when we realize that we are not called to “subdue” the earth, destroying the environment we live in, but that we are called to be stewards.

I dream of a day when learning and knowledge are seen as important…and are available to all…when we see that both religion and science have something to teach us.

But all of this has to be more than merely a dream. Dreams can be ephemeral, vanishing in the morning when we wake up. For dreams to be more than words, actions have to be added to words.

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine what those actions should be, because each of us is different. Some of us are able to be activists, in the forefront of pushing for change. Some of us work better behind the scenes. Some of us are wordsmiths, creating blogs/plays/poems/stories that challenge who and what we are and call us to be better.

And so I say with Dr. King,

I have a dream today….I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope….With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will he able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will he free one day.