Hearts & Minds
I DIDN'T KNOW much about sepsis until it hit me out of the blue the Friday before Thanksgiving. After working late Thursday night, I woke up the next morning shivering and shaking, with my teeth rattling and full of pain; my left leg was swollen and fire-engine red.
I was immediately sent to the hospital and told frightening things about how dangerous a septic cellulitis infection can be. The ailment is random and can strike people of all ages; bacteria gets under the skin and spreads, and if it goes into the bloodstream, things can get dangerous indeed.
I am certainly not used to lying in a hospital with intravenous antibiotics being pumped into me day and night. Fortunately, thanks to my overall good health, I responded quickly to the antibiotics, resulting in a full recovery. I’ve often visited others in hospitals and been an advocate for patients in bureaucratic health-care systems, and this unexpected visit reminded me why that is so important. It is easy to feel alone in those systems and to lose your voice. I have always been impressed by nurses, who so often bring life, laughter, and even love to health systems that so easily block out such things, and some of my nurses were the delight of my lockdown hospital time.
I grew close to my roommate in the hospital, a man who, like me, is married to an English woman, and who was clearly suffering from cardiac issues. The lack of privacy through flimsy curtains forced me to overhear a doctor telling him that he had two choices: a heart surgery that the doctor thought the man wouldn’t survive, or hospice care with only six months or less to live.
Decisions about life and death often suddenly fill these hospital rooms. My leg infection quickly shrank in comparison, and being present to my roommate and his wife became very important. Friends coming by to talk to my roommate brought tears, stories, smiles, and fears.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE entering the hospital, I had gone on a much-needed personal retreat—not to lead but just to listen, learn, and be quiet. The topics of the seminar were “character” and “gratitude.” The former was intriguing, as the subject of character always is to me. But I found the latter theme, gratitude, to be profoundly challenging—and restful at the same time. Gratitude is hard. It is especially hard for those of us who see their vocation as changing the world—seeing what is wrong and trying to make it right. We see the unjust things and want to make them just, the broken things and want to help heal them; we see the bad and want the good. It can be exhausting.
IN NOVEMBER I had the honor of delivering the first annual Henri Nouwen lecture at the University of Toronto. I was invited by the Henri Nouwen Society to speak about the connection between spirituality and social justice and to offer reflections about a remarkable man and the Sojourners community’s relationship with him.
Henri Nouwen was a deeply spiritual and deeply human man whose life and work has inspired many of us in the extended Sojourners community for the last four decades. Our relationship with Nouwen goes back to the 1970s, when he often came to visit our budding community in Washington, D.C. As young firebrands with a passion for social justice, we learned much from Nouwen, who helped teach us the importance of a deep, authentic, contemplative spirituality, which we knew we needed to undergird the hard battles for social justice. Nouwen often shared with us that Sojourners, in turn, helped push him to not lose sight of the urgent struggles for justice and peace in the midst of his efforts to help people unlock a deeper spirituality.
What drew Nouwen to Sojourners, and us to him, was our common conviction that contemplative spirituality, which was his passion and vocation, had to be deeply connected to putting faith into action for justice in the world, which was ours. We spoke together about the dangers of people pursuing spirituality in a consumer culture, where resources aimed at the inner life could become just another commodity.
THE MONTH of December brings with it the season of Advent and Christmas. It’s always been my favorite time of the year, because it shows us powerfully and practically how our Christian faith entered the world. The incarnation is unique among world religions. The way I like to say it: In Christ, God hits the streets. Christmas gives Christians the annual opportunity to remember the incarnation of God’s love breaking into the world—how it did and how it still can.
Advent is about waiting, and Christmas brings the newborn who announces a new order meant to turn the world upside down—and our lives with it. Christmas always renews my commitment to bring that revolutionary love into a world that so desperately needs it, and into my own life again.
In the bustle of our daily lives, with all of the distractions and struggles that come our way—even in Christian ministries—it is so easy for us to lose sight of the transforming love embodied in the person of Christ. So it’s vitally important that we have this season to remember and re-encounter and re-center ourselves on the heart of our faith: God breaking into history to transform it, and us, in the person of Jesus.
Christmas always reminds me that being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus, willing to allow that message of the reign of God, a new order of things, to break in again and again.
While that statement about following Jesus may seem obvious, how many of us really focus, on a daily basis, on living our lives as Jesus did? On saying what he said, doing what he did, behaving as he behaved? On treating people in the way Jesus treated people?
AS THE SEASON turned from summer to fall, I was reflecting again about Sojourners’ vocation, the focus of our mission and ministry.
Matthew 25:31-46 is my own conversion text, the scripture that brought me to Christ a long time ago out of the radical student movement. It’s also been a converting text for many others here at Sojourners over the years.
The 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel has been foundational to Sojourners from the very beginning of the Sojourners community more than 40 years ago. But I am realizing that Matthew 25 is not only foundational for us, it is really our vocational text. In other words, it shapes not just what we believe and what we stand for, but also what we do as an organization—the issues we address, the campaigns we get involved in, the statements we sign, the coalitions we join, and much more.
In that sense, I’ve been thinking about Matthew 25 in relation to issues of organizational stewardship and sustainability. Autumn is always a busy season for me and for Sojourners. Faced with many invitations, requests, and opportunities to make a positive impact on a variety of issues, how do we decide where and how to focus our ministry, energy, staff, time, and gifts? How do we be good stewards of our calling? I think that Matthew 25:31-46 provides the answer. The key moment in the passage is when Jesus says:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me ... Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
ONLY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS really change history. Developing, nurturing, and supporting a new generation of leaders is central to the long-term success of these movements. As leaders like me get older and look to the future, mentoring young leaders is particularly important. More and more of my time is spent doing that mentoring, not only broadly but in relationship to particularly promising young leaders whom I have met. It is some of the most important and enjoyable work that I do.
For many years, Sojourners called together large conferences on biblical justice and peace. Thousands of people came year after year, and many positive things happened—new relationships, connections, projects, and organizations—even marriages and families! Now, several other groups are having justice and peace conferences, which is exactly the kind of “competition” Sojourners has always hoped for.
Last year, some of our younger staff came up with a great idea—to have a leadership “Summit” for people already providing leadership for the biblical vision of justice and peace. All the participants would have to be nominated by credible leaders doing this work, and instead of Justice 101 with big speakers and standing ovations, this would become a new, creative environment for moving justice agendas forward—Justice 202. We didn’t publicly advertise these gatherings—instead, the invitation spread by word of mouth as leaders, especially younger ones, were drawn together by experienced justice leaders who nominated them.
IT'S BEEN A difficult few months to be a Muslim living in the United States. Amid the continuing violence in the Middle East and the polarized debate over the Iran nuclear negotiations, Islamophobia in the U.S. is just about as bad as it’s ever been.
While this fear, distrust, and even hatred of Islam and/or Muslims takes many forms and gains traction in a number of ways (as Ken Chitwood explains in his article on page 22), it’s important to understand that Islamophobia gains much of its power and attention from a relatively small number of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to perpetuating a distorted, extreme view of what Islam teaches and what most Muslims believe. It is in fact a tragic irony that professional Islamophobes and Islamic extremists such as the so-called “Islamic State” perpetuate and benefit from a very similar and very warped interpretation of Islam. Both seek to convince the world that many Muslims in the U.S. and around the world either share or should share this radical fundamentalist perspective.
Purveyors of strident hate speech against Muslims and those that embrace violent extremism in the name of Islam actually benefit from each other’s existence and actions. The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) is the group behind the anti-Muslim ads on public transportation in several major cities. This spring, AFDI sponsored a contest in Garland, Texas, where participants were invited to “draw the prophet” Muhammad. The contest was attacked by two radicalized ISIS sympathizers, who were shot dead by police.