Hope

November Sings the Blues

Bare branches in the rain. Image courtesy PunctRo/shutterstock.com
Bare branches in the rain. Image courtesy PunctRo/shutterstock.com

Late November is Vitamin D season. The dregs of the year threaten to swamp the spirit, clinging to each rough edge of the soul, and frequent shots of sunshine and warm coziness are needed just to keep the deep at bay. Each shadow left in the wake of autumn’s receding glory whispers, “Not yet.” And, “Not anymore.”

Next week the liturgical church celebrates Advent — the crown jewel of liminal spirituality. Advent is the thinnest place of Christian ritual, where material Today touches fingertips with spiritual Tomorrow. It looks forward while standing still, gently holding the embers of our souls, watching with hope for divine light and grace to set them aflame. Advent is gospel, singing, “The real story is yet to come.” Advent is the Now and the Not Yet.

But this week is for the Not Anymore. Today is for the blues. 

To the Millennia and Beyond!

I CONFESS THAT I DO NOT often use the Revised Common Lectionary. As a Bible professor, I prefer to read texts in their larger literary and historical contexts. When a brief reading from one time period is lifted out of its context and juxtaposed with another written many centuries later, it can feel like an invisible hand is forcing me to compare apples and oranges—or even apples and mushrooms.

Nevertheless, I have been enriched by this year’s readings for Advent and Christmas. My “larger historical context” has become the sweep of a thousand years of Israelite history, from King David to the birth of the “son of David.”

For Christians, the coming of Jesus was a singularity. Though we focus on his birth in this season, that lower-class event was barely noticed at the time, and it is not mentioned by two of our gospel writers. It is his entire life, ministry, death, and resurrection that echoes throughout the ages and ushers in our hope of salvation. Our prophets and psalmists from the Hebrew Bible could not foresee details of the Christ-event from their perspectives centuries earlier. Yet their intuitions and hints and poetic expressions of joy over God’s in-breaking from their times are now borrowed to give voice to our exultation over Jesus’ coming today.

In a culture measured by quarterly profits and immediate gratification by credit card, we need a longer view to better understand what God is doing throughout human history. These Advent readings call us beyond the present to the millennia of the past and the hope of the future stretching to eternity.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at  http://www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

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'Don't Get Weary Though The Way Be Long'

IN JANUARY 2012, I was driving in the flatlands of northern Indiana with historian and democracy activist Vincent G. Harding. I was Harding’s tour guide and chauffer for the week. As we drove he asked me what I hoped to happen at an upcoming meeting. “We’re open to whatever you feel inspired to share with us,” I responded. He replied, “Joanna, this is your community. I want to hear from you what is important in this conversation. You know better than I what your community needs to be discussing right now.”

This was the organizational formula Vincent Harding had been using for more than 50 years: Bring people together, remind them of the strength of their roots, listen to their wisdom, and connect them to a broader biblical and historical movement.

Harding, who died May 19, 2014, was a lifelong activist for the development of a compassionate, multireligious, multiracial democracy and a leading historian in the black-led freedom struggle in the U.S. Harding and his spouse, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who died in 2004, had been colleagues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in the 1960s, and Vincent later became the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta.

When historian, author, and longtime friend P. Sterling Stuckey heard about Harding’s death, he said he found it hard to believe because “Vincent was larger than life.” Harding’s effect on movements for justice in the U.S. was far-reaching. He was a convener of scholars, activists, artists, youth, and people of faith. He believed that transformation happened when everyone was engaged and contributing—and he believed that everyone had something to offer in the creation of a compassionate, multiracial democracy.

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And That Is Grace ...

Image by Jomayra Soto / via Creationswap.com
Image by Jomayra Soto / via Creationswap.com

It’s interesting how the word “grace” gets used a lot, even by those who don’t necessarily consider themselves religious. It’s a favorite name for a character that represents someone who is a gift to us — I’m thinking about Bruce’s girlfriend Grace in Bruce Almighty, or Eli’s reassuring encounter with a woman named Grace in the second season of the TV series Eli Stone.

You can probably cite many more examples of characters named Grace in different movies, television shows, and books.

We like to put flesh-and-blood on the notion that we are recipients of some great gift that arrives unexpectedly and is given freely. Someone or something that comes into our life and significantly changes it for the better in some ways.

But what is grace? Who is grace to us?

A Shard of Hope: HBO’s 'The Leftovers' on Grief

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.
Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.

The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.

It is impossible to forget.

I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.

Economic Equity and Gender Equality for South Africa: A New Agenda for a New Generation

Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com
Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com

In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.

I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.

This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.

Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.

To Spiritually Thrive, We Must First Spiritually Survive (And Help Others Do the Same)

MJTH / Shutterstock.com
MJTH / Shutterstock.com

Theology doesn’t save us from spiritual burnout — people do.

No matter how convincing our doctrines and beliefs may be, they’re ultimately empty and unsatisfying if there’s no human relationship personifying them.

Throughout our faith journeys we’ll be faced with moments of suffering, hopelessness, and sheer desperation — sometimes lasting for what seems like forever. We’ll want to give up — sometimes we will.

These hardships can devolve into isolation, bitterness, and ultimately transform what was once a healthy spirituality and turn it into a total rejection of God. Within Christian culture we label this as “burnout,” but in reality it’s more of a “falling out.”

Not only do we have a falling out with God, but we also disassociate ourselves from other believers and those closest to us. When we feel hurt, betrayed, or abandoned by people we assume God is to blame, causing us to doubt God’s love for us — even questioning God’s very existence.

Many quit faith not because of a newfound disbelief in God, but because of broken and unhealthy human relationships — people are the main reason we give up on God.

Possible Grace

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

WHAT’S A GOOD priest for? So asks Calvary, the second feature film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, rooting itself in Ireland’s coastal landscape, centering on a pastor threatened with scapegoat-retributive murder from a grievously sinned-against parishioner. Its vibe owes a great deal to the quiet reflection of films such as Jesus of Montreal and Au Hasard Balthazar (in which a donkey evokes the love and wounds of Christ), and the archetypal Westerns High Noon and Unforgiven. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who was drawn into the church after his wife’s death, which allows us the rare experience of seeing a cinematic Catholic priest who is both a parent to his flock and to a beloved daughter, who feels somewhat abandoned by his commitment to the church.

Gleeson has the uncanny ability to hold his massive frame as both solid—almost concrete—and vulnerable. Knowing that everyone is both broken and breaker, his Father James is healing on behalf of a flawed institution, although he doesn’t confuse vocation with a job. His bishop’s response to a request for help is “I’m not saying anything,” reminding me of Daniel Berrigan’s challenge to religious hierarchies, heard at a public meeting in Dublin in the run-up to the Iraq war: “In Vietnam, they had nothing to say, and said nothing; now, they have nothing to say, and they’re saying it.”

Father James understands the difference between stewarding power and grabbing it (one obvious signal of his goodness), and he is up to his neck in the community, running the gamut from friendship with an American writer looking for inspiration in the land of his presumed ancestors to a visit with a former pupil whose own inner darkness has led him to do monstrous things.

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A Summit for Change

IN JUNE, SOJOURNERS decided to take part in a little experiment. What would happen if 300 faith and social justice leaders gathered together for a few days to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time? Our first ever Summit, under the leadership of chief strategy officer Timothy King, had as its tagline: “World Change through Faith and Justice.” Only time will tell how this experiment will play out in the long run, but in the short term I would consider it a great success.

Held over four days in June at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the conference brought together 296 leaders from churches, faith-based organizations, NGOs, media outlets, business, and politics. Fifty-three percent of attendees were female, and half were people of color; they were drawn from a wide range of Christian and other religious and spiritual backgrounds.

On the first night, when I saw who was there, I knew the Summit was going to be a powerful and wonderful time. Some participants were local Washingtonians. Others came from as far away as Ethiopia to attend. The group included icons of the social justice movement such as Ron Sider, Marie Dennis, Yvonne Delk, Otis Moss Jr., and Tony Campolo as well as newer leaders such as Otis Moss III, Rachel Marie Stone, and Daniel Varghese, a Georgetown undergraduate who celebrated the Summit’s “radical egalitarianism.” As Timothy King mentioned in our opening session, the group looked a lot like the kingdom of God!

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