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What if God made a New Year’s resolution?

—Katherine Mead-Brewer

Around New Year’s everyone starts putting together lists of goals and plans for the next 365 days of their life. Of course, many of these goals often fail to see fruition the way we’d like, but even in these cases of “failure,” I believe that the goals themselves were (and are) still worth making.

Goals, resolutions, and plans—these are the stuff of hopefulness. These are the stuff of making us stronger and more imaginative, more energized and more human. By the very nature of making New Year’s resolutions, we’re taking time to not only acknowledge the weaknesses in ourselves, but also to imagine how we might work to grow stronger. It’s a mixture of humility and vision (and the desire for transformation) that, to me, fits very naturally as a lead-up to the next major Christian holiday: Easter.

In Eastertime, we’re forced to face the ugliness that can come from humanity: the ugliness that persecuted and executed Jesus Christ, the ugliness that still ravages our communities today in the forms of racism, sexism, violence, and inequality. But then we’re also shown that we have the power and love within us to transcend this ugliness, because we’re given this power in the form of a new chance, a new life in Christ, our eternal New Year’s Day.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of New Year’s resolutions God might have, if God ever had any. Would God strive to intervene more or choose to intervene less in the world? And what would Christ’s resolutions be? To work new miracles here on Earth, or would he go to distant planets? To heal the world of its persistent, self-inflicted pains? To overturn yet more tables?

For me, it’s often more self-concerned things that make my list: the classic wish for weight loss and fitness, the desires to read more, play more, make more money, do all the things the advertisers say I ought to be doing. But when I take a moment to consider what a resolution could actually look like, what it could truly mean if given the kind of power and desperate love that was put into God’s resolution to save and forgive us through Christ, I find myself humbled all over again.

The power to create resolutions is the power to try and envision a new and better world for ourselves and others. And though this imaginative, hopeful muscle is one that more and more people seem to be losing now in a day and age that’s rife with talk of war and terrorism, it’s a muscle that becomes all the more precious precisely because of such times and talk.

What are some of your resolutions, and what kinds of resolutions do you wish the world-over might make for itself this year?

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The Poet, the Spider, & God

I have long been a dedicated reader of Wendell Berry, both his poetry and his essays, and often turn to his work whenever I feel a struggle in my soul for a moment of peace and wilderness.

His poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” especially, has always held tremendous power for me:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water …

Poetry in general holds a great deal of the stuff of God for me, reminding me to be mindful, present, and appreciative as I move through a world filled with the Creator’s wonder and mystery.

The Bible itself—like many sacred texts from around the world—is packed with poetry, from the psalms to the Song of Solomon. I suspect that this is not simply because of poetry’s popularity at the time of the sacred texts’ inception nor because this was the only art form available to its authors. Rather, I suspect that the use of poetry points to the fact that there are some things, some ideas and inspirations, that simply cannot be accurately conveyed through purely literal and linear forms of storytelling. Knowing this, it makes perfect sense to me that so many authors have turned to poetry to help them better capture in words the rapturous sensations and experiences of God’s presence in the world.

Another poem that continuously arrests and inspires me is Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”:

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

 

And you O my soul where you stand,

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Returning to this poem, I’m struck with the sensation of some gossamer thread of my own soul finally catching somewhere. I’m struck with a moment of peace in the midst of my constant web-weaving and thread-throwing. I’m struck by the strange power of God to speak to me afresh through the work of poets long-dead, unknown, or faraway.

I’m struck with a newfound appreciation for not only the mysterious, wonderful works of God, but for the gift of poetry that so faithfully reminds me that these catching-places are wonders deserving of constant pause, recognition, and gratitude.

Where are your catching-places? Do you find that poetry helps bring you back to these spots and moments, or is it something else—some other art, exercise, or discipline—that grabs your attention and reminds you of the beautiful wilderness of God?

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K.C. Mead-Brewer

All Hallows’ Eve: A Time for Remembering

Katherine Mead-Brewer

I’ve been thinking a great deal about death lately. Not only is it the week of Halloween, but I’ve also recently had more than a few friends suffer through major surgeries, vehicle collisions, and severe illness. And so maybe it’s because of these events and meditations that I’ve also been feeling especially grateful to have such a life- and living-centered faith. For although many focus on the torment and violent death of Christ, it is important to also constantly remind oneself of what it was he was dying for. To my mind, Christ was not simply a sacrifice, but a man who died for his dedication to the love, life, and eternity of the world. The legacy of Jesus then, for me, has always been a life-centered faith. A faith where the mysterious God empowers us to conquer death, where all things are interconnected and eternal rather than isolated, linear, and full of endings.

Despite this legacy, however, the Christian Church, like many religions, has left in its wake a tremendously bloody history thanks to the failings, fears, and prejudices of its practitioners over the centuries: persecution of countless men and women as witches, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other instances of war, terrorism, conquest, and “cleansing.”

As Halloween is nearly upon us, it strikes me as a strangely ideal time to pause and give a moment of remembrance to those who have suffered and to those who continue to suffer at the hands of people who claim to be acting in the name and service of God.

To aid you in this, I leave you with a prayer from Michel Quoist’s classic meditation, Prayers:

            Grant me, Lord, to spread true love in the world.

            Grant that by me and by your children it may penetrate a little

                        into all circles, all societies, all economic and political

                        systems, all laws, all contracts, all rulings;

            Grant that it may penetrate into offices, factories, apartment

                        buildings, movie houses, dance halls;

            Grant that it may penetrate the hearts of men and that I may

                        never forget that the battle for a better world is a battle of

                        love, in the service of love.

(Quoist, pg 103)

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Christ Church Cemetery, Alexandria, VA

Photo by Jessica Sexton, OSP Youth Minister

Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger…

slow to angerI don’t have a good answer for how to address the unfiltered, harsh, and mean-spirited language that is often used all around us. All you have to do is look at the news to see people verbally attacking each other. There certainly should be room for disagreement and debate about important issues, especially in our personal relationships. Anger is a natural and appropriate response whenever we feel wronged. But there are ways to honestly express our views without degrading the worth of other people. Christians are called to strive to use words in ways that express respect for the dignity of every human being.

Americans cherish the right to freedom of speech, and we believe this sets us apart from many other countries. But Americans also value the responsibility of every individual to work for building up the common good. These two values are in tension because building up the common good might sometimes cause us to practice restraint about the words we choose to say out loud. In recent years, the practice of rugged individualism has often won out over the practice of working for the betterment of a more just and peaceful society.

Christians have a higher calling to follow Jesus and the disciples by trying to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Here are some quotes from the New Testament that challenge Christians to be careful about what we say.

be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”   —James 1:19

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up”   —Ephesians 4:29

get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth”   —Colossians 3:8

make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”           —Romans 14:19

The Golden Rule to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us,” has been a cornerstone of all the world’s great religions. Those who call themselves Christians have a high calling to use words in ways that take into consideration the well-being of others, though this can be difficult in the heat of the moment when we are having an argument.

Brain researchers, along with Daniel Goleman and others working on the study of emotional intelligence, report that whenever human beings feel threatened or angry or fearful, there is a certain part of the brain called the amygdala that takes over, sending out neurochemicals that override other parts of the brain with powerful fight or flight messages. Throughout human evolution, this response has helped us to survive. But the problem is that when we are having an “amygdala hijack,” it’s hard to think rationally. For about ninety seconds (the typical lifespan of an “amygdala hijack”), we can only think about the fight or flight response, and rational reason is impossible. In the midst of a conflict, that’s why it is often so difficult to avoid blurting out things we later regret.

“Emotionally intelligent” people have learned to notice when they are feeling threatened or angry or fearful, and have developed the ability to pause for those ninety seconds before they say anything. That pause provides time for the neurochemicals caused by the amygdala response to settle down, thus allowing the rational mind to take over again.

One way to use this information is for us to take a “holy pause” whenever we are feeling upset. Once we notice we are feeling threatened or angry, we can say to the other person, “Let me take a moment to think about what you have said.” Then we can take ten long deep breaths, spanning about ninety seconds, to allow reason to return to us before we say anything else.

After taking a “holy pause,” we might have a better chance of coming up with words that are more thoughtful, realistic, and kind. At the very least, we might be able to achieve the ethical goal to “do no harm.” In the midst of taking a holy pause, and breathing deeply, we might even invite God to help us come up with the best words to respond.

The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley

Spanking Is Not The Way

Jesus advocated a non-violent approach to difficult situations. He taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and he told his disciples to put away their swords at the time of his arrest (Matt 5:39, 5:44, 26:52).  While Christ’s teachings on non-violence can be applied to international warfare, and adult interpersonal conflicts, I would like to focus on an important family issue – the spanking of children.

A 2013 Harris poll showed that 81% of Americans approve of parents spanking their children. Of course, parents want to correct the youngsters put into their care. Everyone can agree that discipline needs to take place in order to help our children grow and mature. One option is to use physical punishment. Sometimes the biblical verse, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24), is thrown into the mix.

Is spanking a violent act? Certainly not all these physical punishments are the same. Slapping a child in anger is different from a dispassionate and limited spanking. But can parents be moved beyond this one way of providing discipline, deciding that they will find more effective and less damaging ways of teaching children how to behave?

There are many secular reasons not to spank children. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association assert that spanking can emotionally harm both parents and children, and that it is one of the least effective methods of discipline. (To see more from these sources, visit: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx or http://nospank.net/aap4.htm)

kiddosPediatrician Dr. Bill Sears writes that “hitting models hitting” and teaches children that violence is the way to solve problems. He advocates other avenues of discipline that have much better outcomes.

In the last few years, we have grown in awareness of the dangers of domestic abuse. If spouses should never hit each other, can we get to a place where can agree that it is also unacceptable for anyone to physically hurt their children? Shouldn’t the basic human right to not be hit or slapped by another person be the same for both adults and children?

That much used “spare the rod” verse can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “rod” (shebet) can be used for guiding and protecting rather than hitting. More than that, Jesus modified the eye-for-an-eye culture of his day with a message of non-violence. He offers a challenging but ultimately more life-giving path of compassion and refraining from ever hurting others.

For all these medical, psychological, and biblical reasons, Christian parents may want to rethink their use of corporal punishment in favor of using more effective and less damaging forms of discipline. After all, the word discipline actually means “teaching” and there are many non-violent ways to teach so that children will learn to become kind, compassionate, and loving like Jesus.

—The Rev. Mark Stanley

Grateful to God for Rain in West Africa

Reading Katherine’s post, “Experiencing the Presence of God through the Weather,” was very timely for me because I felt the presence of God in the weather this morning. I am currently in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso in West Africa, and the weather here is quite different from Baltimore’s. The hot season (108 degrees when I arrived on Saturday) is hanging on longer than normal, and the seasonal rains have been slow to begin.

Village of Saaba
Village of Saaba

As I looked out the hotel window this morning, I could see the storm clouds gathering in the distance. Very soon, high winds kicked in, bringing a swirl of dust and trash blowing through the streets. The clouds of dust in the sky, after months of no rain, suddenly made it look as if it was night again. The streets emptied as pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists (cars are less common here) all took cover. The raindrops started to fall, slowly at first, then began beating down on the dry clay soil and dusty pavement.

Rain is a precious commodity in this part of the world as the Sahara desert advances southward. There is less rainfall every year, not so much due to God, but rather because of our collective inability to care for the environment that God created for our well-being. When it does rain, people are so thankful—their lives and livelihoods depend on it in a country where many people still eke out a living through rain-fed, subsistence farming. (Remember this the next time someone claims that climate change is a hoax.)

By the time I left to go to work, the rain was already starting to taper off. It did not last long, but it is hopefully the start of another agricultural season for farmers here. When I reached the office, my Burkinabe colleagues were all extremely joyful and grateful for God’s answer to their prayers for rain. Thank you, God.

—Post & Photo by David Leege

David Leege works for Catholic Relief Services, which implements international relief and development programs in 100 countries around the world. He travels internationally from time to time to provide technical support to CRS programs.

Experiencing the Presence of God through the Weather

How do you feel the presence of God?

This past spring, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley dedicated one of our Sunday Forums to a meditation on and discussion of just this question. People dove straight in, giving all kinds of fantastic and unexpected responses, everything from “in the love of family and friends” to “it isn’t something I necessarily have to feel, but experience.” Everyone was being so forthright and brave that I was surprised to find myself suddenly and unusually shy. Because although a very specific answer immediately leapt to mind for me, I was sure that no one else would understand, that it’d be thought of as juvenile somehow (despite all my trust and love for my fellow Old St. Paul’s congregants). This, for some reason, I was nervous to share.

And then, to my great astonishment, I didn’t have to—someone else spoke up and said precisely what was on my mind: I experience the presence of God through the weather.

My heart lifted and I know I felt God’s presence in that, in this bold woman’s admission.

I, also, so often experience the presence of God through the weather.

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When I’m walking through my neighborhood and feel a breeze that has me looking up at a tree in bloom, a tree I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, or get to take off my jacket when the clouds part for a great bolt of sunshine, I’m reminded to be thankful—reminded to acknowledge the presence and hand of God in these small but life-filling pleasures.

When I’m sitting at home writing and rain pounds against the windows, I’m reminded to be grateful not only for the rain that feeds the Earth, but also to be grateful for my mother who loves the rain (but rarely gets it where she lives). I’m reminded to be grateful for having a home at all—a dry, safe place to go to when I need shelter from the wet and the storm. And I’m reminded to lift up a prayer for those who do not enjoy the same blessing.

When the sun’s out in full yellow force such that I have to go around my apartment flipping on the window AC units to cool things down again, I’m reminded to appreciate the way my body naturally responds to the world—getting chills or sweaty or tired or energized. And I’m likewise reminded to be grateful for my apartment and those window AC units, knowing how many people go without these life-preserving comforts each year, and I’m reminded to pray for them.

Whenever the weather is just so

I’m reminded of my childhood in North Carolina, picking strawberries with my brother.

I’m reminded of spending a May week with my mother-in-law in Whidbey Island, WA where together we walked along a chilly beach and were grateful for each other.

I’m reminded of Christmases at home in Texas with my parents, brother, and little niece who I miss/worry about/am proud of/am excited about every day.

I’m reminded of my husband and the pumpkin patch we hunted through this past autumn.

I’m reminded of my husband and the time he kept us both safe while driving home through the one honest blizzard I’ve ever been in.

I’m reminded of my husband and of the walk we took together in remembrance of Freddie Gray.

And I’m reminded of just how few people get to relax enough to appreciate these weather elements as they walk outside, knowing how many women have been attacked or harassed on streets all over the world, knowing how many gay people and people of color have been attacked and harassed, knowing how many differently-abled people find navigating outdoor pathways painful/frustrating/unfair, knowing how many people are forced to live outside and expose the intimacies of their life to the weather in all its moods.

I experience the presence of God through the weather—a pervasive, constant force that fuels the world, touches every life every day, and helps keep me mindful, grateful, and praying.

—Katherine Mead-Brewer

(Photo by Evan Mead-Brewer)