Help Us Tell Our Story
6101 Ward Parkway,
6101 Ward Parkway,
In early March of 1991 I watched the horrid beating of Rodney King in south Los Angeles on our television in Holton, Kansas. We lived in a big older home with a wrap around porch. I often rocked my daughters on the porch swing. Ages 9 and 7, they played on the swing – reading books, eating popsicles, and spending long afternoons with Barbie dolls. On summer evenings I would sit there listening to the crickets and birds. That was where I took a harrowing journey of prayer with Mr. King and other brothers and sisters.
A year later in April of 1992, we learned the news of the acquittal of the four officers involved in the brutal beating. Soon after this news a white man was pulled from his truck and beaten until dead by some black men. What followed were riots in south Los Angeles. The riots lasted five days. More than 60 people died and over 2000 were injured. Damages were estimated at one billion dollars.
At the time I was studying the story of the stoning and death of Stephen in Acts, thinking about deep intercessory prayer, and feeling helpless to make a difference.
So I wrote a poem in the style of a rap, which reflects the story of Rodney King, and other stories similar to his and the story St. Stephen. This poem has numerous references to scripture texts, which I have provided here at the end of the poem.
Twenty five years later I still believe we are called and capable of deeply transforming prayer for people we may not even know, as well as acts of justice and mercy. Rodney King himself became a sign of the power of love and sacrifice. In April of 2012 his autobiography, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption. Learning How We Can All Get Along was published. In June of 2012 Mr. King died. I offer this poem in his memory and the memory of all who suffer injustice.
-Loretta F. Ross
Run brother, trapped in the ghetto
in a gangland nightmare, run.
Here, look quick, a hole in the darkness,
startled with starkness,
a tiny crack of light at the end of the street,
a rupture in time, a rent in the curtain,
the one thing certain,
a valve slid open in the throb of a heart beat.
Daughter of Promise, Son of Despair
weaving hopefulness out of thin air
Daughter of Promise, Son of Despair
exchanging your lives for a thing more fair
Daughter of Promise, Son of Despair
rock in the porch swing, singing your prayer.
Daughter of Promise, Son of Despair
run through the dark streets meeting death’s dare.
“I see an opening in the heavens,” Stephen cried,
and slipped in an instant to Eternity’s side.
“Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prayed.
“Forgive them!” he shouted, knelt unafraid.
Stephen preached full of power and grace
doing wonders and signs with his angel’s face.
“You stiff-necked people!” he railed, then died,
killed by the stones in the hearts he’d tried
to turn from malice and murder and lies
to the truth of a Love which could die and rise.
I’ll hold the door open for you,
I’ll lift the latch that seals the catch
that quarantines time from eternity,
heaven from hell.
And then the first stone fell.
Hip thrust out against the door,
arms spread wide, shoulders aching, stomach quaking
straining beneath the blow of doubt and pelt of defeat.
Promise’s child prays on the porch swing.
Promise’s child picks up the beat.
Here, you running down the street,
looters, shooters, losers, boozers, resisters,
you who don’t believe, cannot conceive
a way out, an open door
you lost, walking in circles, blinded by pain
you know this voice, hear it again
here is the way, the cleft, the gate, the threshold
make for it with all your heart,
and safely enter the sheepfold
before she loses her nerve and the sea unpart.
Brother, sister, God hears your cries!
And she spies the skies opened and glory spilling out,
God’s tears like golden rain down mercy’s spout.
Help is coming. Here this life laid down for you,
for love of you, for love of Love –
this life laid down, fallen down,
hunched in a ball and rolling down,
spread out, offered down to the quick,
to the dregs
this life drinking your cup of sorrow,
swallowing your poison,
handling the vipers, walking across the floor of hell
this life laid across yours like a shield
absorbing the shocks that you may be well.
You there running down the streets with your gun,
has anyone ever laid down her life for you?
Can one white lady sitting on a porch swing in Kansas
turn the tide of rage and hate you carry in your bones?
Maybe tonight you catch a glimpse of hope.
Maybe tonight the fear that clutches you releases
and you imagine a new future –
maybe somewhere something lets go in the cosmos,
something stopped up, clogged, frozen, held enthrall.
A new wind wakens, rushes in and you are freed.
She prays for you, child of Despair,
running down the streets carrying your VCR,
running down the streets grabbing for what you never had,
running after a stolen dream.
The politicians rant.
The child on the curb by the burnt out building is hungry.
We need a new program, a plan, an idea, a solution…
some mental gymnastics to comfort us
that there is something that can be done
without costing us too much.
And then they will all settle down
and we can turn back to our own affairs.
We shall not get out of this
without paying to the last penny.
Sit down on the curb with the hungry child
and drink her cup.
The sickening blows fall again and again.
The man draws up his knees and rolls in pain.
Still they come, faster and harder,
mercilessly over and over,
slamming into the soft flesh,
pulverizing bone and sinew –
speak to him of eternity now
while sin and evil rain steady destruction
speak to him of salvation now
But she is beyond talk,
running for her life, lungs straining,
gasping for air in the smoke,
tears coursing down her cheeks,
sweating, legs aching, hearing the shots,
backing up against a wall of despair,
the bitter gall moving through her
like a stream of fire,
holding his bounty to her heart, darting out of alleys
And her brother is sitting in the sweet night air
swinging in the porch swing calm and cool,
listening to the mourning dove, waiting for the fireflies
swinging low, carried home.
They say it can happen like this
if you have a mustard seed of faith:
One night while sitting at supper, talking about your day, asking for the salt – you are transferred in a wink of an eye to the camp, where you stand in line with your cup for rice and wrap the thin blanket around your shoulders against the chill . . .
and a gaunt refugee woman sits down at our table munching your hamburger,
and we pass her the salt.
Cram your cranium into heaven,
poke a hole in eternity
hold it open with your body
and be transformed
in a twinkling of an eye
by the renewal of your mind
and cradled in the looter’s arms
and no one can snatch you out of his arms
and you shall never perish
for you belong to him and he to you
to have to hold and to cherish.
The daughter of Promise sings her lullaby:
Swing low, sweet brother
and have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Sweet brother, swing low.
Hear the wind blow.
For days I have lain in your pain.
And I have lain in that thick smoke-filled darkness
murky with ambiguity and lies
oned with you and with the one from whom we come
descended into your hell
that you might rise
and I be carried home
in this dark world no more to roam.
~ written in April of 1992
Acts 6: 8-15, 51-60
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit[a] with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth[b] will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. . . .
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Romans 12: 2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I Corinthians 15: 49-52
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
John 10: 27
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
John 10: 14-16 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
I first wrote this when my daughter was around a year old. She is now 34. I posted it here in 2012. It is a lullaby worth hearing again in these times of continuing uncertainty and suffering. May you find comfort here and deep assurance in the steadfast love of the One Who Is Greater than All.
My heart is not proud nor my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters or things too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul. As a weaned child clinging to its mother – like a child that is weaned is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 131)
The little one stood waiting. Its whole life had led up to this moment. While the One Who Is Greater than All, most gracious, almighty, mother and father, reached down and down and through and through, lifted and kissed the little one and held it tight. The little one nestled into the arms of the One Who Is Greater Than All and lay back, gazing into the dark face with starry eyes. And the two began to rock.
Like babes, we cling to the earth’s smooth furrows with tiny fingers, as it makes its daily rounds. We feel the beat of creation’s pulse against our cheeks.
What child is this? Whose lullabies are these? Whose nursery is this – this universe of spattered fire and splashing water? Souls, spilled across the Milky Way, find their way in a manger, and sway swaddled in the earth’s sweet clothes of winter snows and summer hay.
Who rocks us here, while our eyes, transfixed by Love’s pure light, discover our image reflected in the holy face? The little one stood waiting while the One Who Is Greater Than All spoke:
Come sit with me and rock a while and I will sing you lullabies that Sarah sang to Isaac. I will tell you stories, wondrous tales of adventure, danger, miracles and love. For these songs must be sung, these stories told. Not kept on shelves like jars of pickles in a darkened cellar. No spice can preserve us, but these stories can save. In the telling is new life. In the singing is good news.
How did we come to this place, this rocking on God’s lap and listening to these stories? Go back to the beginning of the beginning, before we were intricately wrought in the depths, before the forming of our inmost parts, before we were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs to when our unformed substance was first beheld. For we were held before we were even something to behold.
We began babes in Christ, smacking, sucking infants grasping and gasping at the source of life, gulping in the Spirit’s breath like ones nearly drowning in the rushing waters of the world:
O Lord, get me through this, help me, heal me, save me, free me, show me what to do! We lift to you our many hungers and concerns – our budget, our new addition, the middle East, global warming, the economy, the droughts, the poor, those in prison, those who mourn, the sick and lonely, the persecuted and enslaved – Lord, hear our prayer – and don’t forget the little children!
And God continued to hold us, while Mary held God’s squirming son. The nursing infant is too weak to hold onto its mother. She must lift the child and support its back. She must turn its head and draw its fingers from its mouth and place it on her breast. It knows not how to feed itself.
So we rocked with God under a cloud of violence, whose mists seeped into our lives as ghostly fears. Life, never a certain thing, seemed like a runaway kite in a storm, while we grasped frantically to its frayed and thinning string. We denied and argued and pleaded and bargained with the menacing cloud, until spent and weary with making peace with death, we learned there is no peace with death and we did not go gentle, but wore out our rage in colic screams. All this while our patient God walked us in our dark nights and bore against our stiff-legged kicking.
Then came the weaning.
The Hebrew word for wean means also to ripen and repay. Wean is not a sudden loss of sustenance, but a ripening toward greater fulfillment and profound nourishment.
O Lord my heart is not haughty, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with ambitious desire or things which are too marvelous for me.
Done with getting and spending and proving and earning.
Done with seeking and striving and the thin piercing whine of urgent need.
Done with bawling hungers and waking in the night with stomach cramping and the terror screams that know no hope nor appetite appeased.
Then came the weaning, the ripening.
An early evening rain splashed gently on the apple blossoms, sending white petals sifting to the glistening grass. We heard the wet whistle of the cardinal and watched a robin listen, head tilted, for the rumble of earth worms. We saw the drops slide down the glass. “The window crying,” you said. It was dusk, the color of plums. Teddy slipped from your lap. You gazed into my eyes and smiled. And before I offered you to suck, you fell asleep. And thus you ripened. And so we rocked all night, past striving, past approval seeking, past demon whispers of ambition. And in the morning you bit into the Spirit’s fruit.
The weaned child has attained strength and muscular control. It climbs onto its mother’s lap without help. It pats her face and nuzzles its head against her shoulder. It delights simply in the mother’s presence.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s breast is my soul.
No longer consumed with consuming,
no longer gulping and choking on life,
content to rest in God.
An awareness – childlike, simple, accepting –
came to the psalmist who sings to us today,
an awareness that came to Job,
when God spoke to him out of the whirlwind:
there are some things too wonderful, too marvelous for us
that mere knowing will not save us, that understanding will not end suffering, that strategies and master plans and mission statements cannot ease our pain, that psychological acumen, administrative expertise, and a panorama of pretty programs with flashy learning centers and lesson books printed in three colors will not root out the evil in our hearts
that dedicated scholarship, facile exegesis, brilliant preaching, flashing memes, a new economy, and all that we may do and strive to produce will not ease our pain.
The way is in the manger.
Come, lift the child and hold it close to your heart as Mary did.
Hush. Speak softly. Walk on tiptoe.
What is needed is persons with quiet souls who cling to Holiness as the trees cling to the earth.
What is needed is persons with humble hearts who will mother the Christ within them, who will speak gently to all they meet for they know that each of us carries Mary’s sleeping boy.
Our work is of such utter simplicity and ordinariness that we shrink from it. Surely there must be more – than to be a friend, to share another’s burden, and to be in love with Grace.
We rush about anxious, agitated, and oh so busy. Our plans and prayers are ill-conceived and sloppy. Our eyes are raised too high. We are occupied with ambitious desires. We presume to be absorbed in things too marvelous for us.
Climb on God’s lap and rest. And a multitude of persons will find God’s rest near you.
Fall deeply in love with the Christ child, care for it ever so tenderly, and your simple presence will nurture the Christ child in others.
At that time they came to him and said: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus took up a little child and placed it on his lap and said: “Unless you turn and become like this little child, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The little ones snuggle closer:
the humble singer of the psalm, you and I, and Eve and Moses and Sarah and Peter and Martha and that littlest one of all with the holes in his hands and feet.
The curve of time turns in on itself, bends back and threatens to disintegrate. Apocalyptic whispers and end time sonnets play in bars and senate chambers. Death watches on the TV news announce more violence, more battles, more destruction.
“We like the old songs best,” the people tell the pastor. “I sang ‘Whispering Hope’ at my mother’s funeral,” the gentle man tells her on his way out. “Thank you for letting us sing it again.”
a whisper so soft, we must be stilled and quieted to hear it
a whisper so soft, we must be clinging close to hear it
soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard.
Like a child that is weaned is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.
May your year ahead be blessed with holy rest and whispers of hope, gentle delights and profound joy. May you gather the strength and courage for whatever you face, secure in the knowledge of a love that will not let you go.
Loretta F. Ross
Whispering Hope, hymn by Alice Hawthorne, copyright 1924 by the Standard Publishing Company
He lay slumped on her lap like a great heavy mail sack stuffed with the cards and letters of creation’s lovelorn. They spilled from him with the blood. “Save me. Heal me. Help me. Love me. Save me. Heal me. Help me. Love me.” Over and over the messages were the same. Some were written in the scraggly script of the old, some in the sprawling letters of the very young, some on the finest stationary. Others were on scraps of newspaper, prison walls, and sheets from hospital beds. Some were stamped out in the snow, and some were imprinted on faces, especially around the eyes and mouth. “Save me. Heal me. Help me. Love me.” https://theprayinglife.com/tag/pieta/
Prayer that hurts
If anyone claiming to be united to God is always in a state of peaceful beatitude, I simply do not believe in their union with God. Such a union, to my mind, involves great sorrow for the sin and pain of the world; a sense of identity not only with God, but also with all other souls, and a great longing to redeem and heal. St. Teresa of Avila
Vulnerable involvement with the broken world will expose our own wounds and need for forgiveness. If I pray for my enemy, I risk having my mind changed. To pray for others is to consent to experiencing the cross. It may be as simple as dying to my own desires for a particular outcome, or dying to my desire to do something other than to respond to someone’s need for prayer.
Intercessory prayer asks what good is my peace, my sense of well-being, when my sister is hurting? What good is my abundance, if it does not give me the freedom and strength to bring my faith and peace to someone else’s weakness and sorrow?
Sometimes intercessory prayer tends to be more a desperate act of love, than eloquence; a messy melodrama, than a polite request. It is as though the intercessor has one foot in the darkness and terror of human existence and the other in the beauty and joy of abundant life. The presence and being of the intercessor becomes a life line through which moves the power of God. To stand in the gap of another’s need without being pulled to one polarity or the other requires spiritual strength and maturity.
The formality and reticence of ecclesiastical prayer is utterly foreign to the Bible. Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, and indecorous. It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of churches. – Walter Wink, Methodist pastor and author
When I began this ministry of prayer, I did not have a clue as to what praying would mean. I took on too much. I felt too much. I was a child playing with fire. I carried other people’s pain. I became ill. There were periods when I strongly identified with Christ on the cross in ways I wondered if I was going crazy. Over time I learned what God was teaching me about suffering and redemption, vulnerability, and the presence of Christ in our lives.
Some people do suffer in prayer for others. Saint Therese of Lisieux saw this as her vocation as a Carmelite nun. 18th century Presbyterian missionary, David Brainerd wrote: “God enabled me to agonize in prayer. My soul was drawn out very much for the world. I grasped for a multitude of souls.”
Evelyn Underhill notes, “As the personality of the saints grew in strength and expanded in adoration so they were drawn on to heroic wrestling for souls..Real saints do feel and fear the weight of the sins and pains of the world. It is the human soul’s greatest privilege that we can thus accept redemptive suffering for another.”
I believe we all suffer for one another within the larger mystery of Christ’s suffering. However I also believe Walter Wink’s caution: “We must not try to bear the suffering of creation ourselves…We can only give it expression and let the groaning pass through us to God. Only the heart of God can endure such suffering. Our attempts to bear them are masochistic, falsely messianic, and finally idolatrous.”
We have limits. We need to know the difference between suffering with another at God’s invitation and when it is merely tragic and spiritualized self-abuse. There is a difference between prayer and acts which are codependent, manipulative, ego driven meddling, and prayer and acts which are life-giving. Knowing when to back off, what is truly my concern, how to protect myself with clear boundaries, and when one’s work is finished comes with experience.
It is difficult to open your heart and mind to the raw suffering before you and remain there steadfast and watching in someone else’s Gethsemane. Yet to wait in faith and hope at the foot of your neighbor’s cross is one of the most healing acts we can offer one another. This is because here in the darkness at the end of the road is where divine action meets human limitation and leaps from heart to heart.
Maybe you light a candle, say the rosary, ask others to pray with you. Maybe you go outside and spread yourself over the ground and let all the sorrow and pain drain out of you into Mother Earth. You might pound on the table or the wall. You might shout to the heavens, “Do something! Be merciful! Be God for us.” You reach out, call a friend or a hotline, write a letter, or paint a picture of the great groaning earth crying for mercy. One way or another we each funnel a piece of the anguish of this broken world through our being to the One we believe can help.
Your prayer does not have to sound beautiful. It just needs to be honest. Carry what you have been blessed to bear over the terrain of your day into the heart of God.
Pretty soon your life will be etched with little channels running between the ocean of suffering in this world and the endless mercy of God.
Read entire issue here: Holy Ground, Intercede, Part 2 – Summer 2014
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My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
– Psalm 63: 2-9
At dawn my sleepy lab whines softly. I rise and let him out to sniff his boundaries and empty his bladder. A few minutes later he pounces on the door. Eyes glinting light, he shakes off the blanket of snow on his back. Then lifting one front leg after the other, he prances in the kitchen, pulls a dish towel off the counter and waves it toward me. The toaster, jar of peanut butter, and humming refrigerator sparkle like icicles in the sun.
I love winter – all of it – grey dishwater skies, wind rattling the siding on the house, cold, ice, blizzards, early sunsets, long nights, and dogs ploughing glad furrows in the snow.
I love that winter is a force I cannot control, but only yield to with humility and respect.
I love winter’s summons to gather up the scattered pieces of myself, burrow down deeply, and simmer in darkness, drawing strength for spring.
I love having to wait and trust in what is unknown and unseen.
Winter grows gratitude in my heart for the privilege of shelter, warmth, running water, and the freedom to stay home. Winter also blooms with compassion and sends me out to help those for whom winter is not some cozy spiritual experience.
Winter spirituality is a less-is-more Holiness of pared down praise. Winter speaks in koans and says, “Behold the fullness of this emptiness!” Now excess in prayer and lifestyle seem gauche and redundant in a world, stripped down to its bare essentials – all bones and angles, holding out its harsh, nonnegotiable truths.
I had had enough of winter thirty five years ago, when I pulled out of my drive in Kalamazoo, Michigan and headed south to Kentucky. I had spent the previous thirty three years of my life in Michigan and Iowa. I am not sure why I am so hungry for ice and snow now.
In contrast to the world of humans with our getting and spending, the natural world never tries to impress or persuade me of its opinion. It has nothing to market. It simply is in its implacability, given over to being what it is – a dead maple limb in my front lawn after the storm, a dried tomato vine, a fox checking the garbage can, a rabbit without regret or apology leaving tracks in the snow.
What is implacable about me, unchanging, or nonnegotiable? I wonder. I am a hermit at heart and welcome snow days. I love people and I love being with people. And love for them burns in me like a furnace and pours out molten in my prayers.
And there is this other love – a love of absence, silence, solitude, simplicity – a winter of the soul, where I sit down to a great feast so satisfying that I need nothing else.
flutter among our leaves
settle in the crotch
where eagle builds her nest
cushion and cling
to the little talons of her brood
who carry them off to towering
cliffs, broad rivers, wetlands, tundra,
borne on ascending thermals
to deliver your hearts’ longing back
to your frail lives
A bald eagle’s nest weighs on average 1000 pounds, but can reach 2000 pounds.
Mary takes hold of,
The purity and faith of the virgin
penetrate the illusion and falsity
that surround her,
and she offers her whole being –
intellect, imagination, heart, and body-
to deliver redemption into her world.
She claims her power
as the mother of redemption
and joins with God in a dance of saving love.
That same dance has the power to transform Cousin Carl in his fake angel costume and Aunt Edith with her hair in curlers into the heavenly hosts,
and you and me into bearers of Christ.
Do you see the mutuality in this exchange of love
between a mortal and the Holy One?
The prophet Zephaniah calls Israel to rejoice
because God is in her midst;
he further proclaims that this God in her midst is rejoicing over her with gladness (3: 14-18).
Israel rejoices over God.
God rejoices over Israel.
God chooses Mary.
Mary chooses God.
We long for peace and wholeness.
God longs to give us peace and wholeness.
What prevents more of this dancing in our lives and world?
A significant impediment must be our fear.
In the story of Christ’s birth several of the players are exhorted not to fear – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds. The gospel writers over twenty times show Jesus admonishing others not to fear.
Fear may be seen as one of the indicators of the presence of God. Fear of God, which is the human response to God’s overpowering majesty, glory, and power, is an appropriate and desired reaction. In contrast, fear of the world, fear of self and others is seen as counterproductive to God’s action in our lives.
Beatrice Bruteau writes of faith as an attitude of the consciousness that is participating in divine activity, God’s creative work in the world. Faith is “the disposition which Jesus declared to be a condition for the realization of his works. The doer of the work had to have faith, and the receiver of the work had to have faith.”
Brutear considers faith as “not only the consent of the intellect to the reality of something that does not appear immediately to the sense, but it is the consent of the imagination and the affective faculties attached to the imagination.”
– Beatrice Bruteau, Prayer: Insight and Manifestation, in Contemplative Review, Fall 1983
Thus, the new thing God is doing enters this world –
as we agree something better is possible,
as we are able to vividly envision the new thing,
as we feel in our hearts the joy and delight of that yet unborn promise,
as we persevere in that vision in the face of fear and threats,
and as we live expectantly as if the vision is accomplished.
Fear keeps us stuck in the present reality, constricted and paralyzed by the very thing God is setting about to redeem. Fear distracts us from watching and waiting eagerly for the in breaking of God’s promises into the world. Fear turns our eyes away from the coming bridegroom to become mesmerized by the horror of a realm that does not know God.
Fear, then may be seen as faith in your enemy.
The danger, as Ian Matthews writes, “is of folding in on oneself. Pain does that, and the temptation is to look for a both/and:
both staying with the new setting, and feeding on nostalgia for the old one.
Unhappily this both/and tends to backfire. We cannot both indulge self-pity and make the most of a new situation.”
– Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross
Simply put, our faith, as does Mary’s consent, allows Christ to enter the world.
Think for a moment.
How do you feel when someone expresses faith in you?
When another trusts you and has faith in your gifts, are you not enlarged, empowered, and more willing to offer your gifts?
Perhaps the reason why Jesus urges his followers to have faith, why he shakes his head in dismay at the disciples’ doubts and fear, is that their faith in Jesus empowered Jesus.
So, as Annie Dillard writes: “Faith, crucially, is not assenting intellectually to a series of doctrinal propositions; it is living in conscious and rededicated relationship with God.” Annie Dillard, For the Time Being.
Further, faith is not a vague and wispy sense that God is out there somewhere looking on us with a benevolent eye, nor is it an exercise of philosophical proofs.
Faith is the means by which God enters and changes our reality.
Faith is an interactive experience, a dance of mutual love between a mortal and God in which both parties are needed, affected, and changed for the benefit of the whole world.
Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
The Lord has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
Zephaniah 3:14-18 (CEB)
Adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38
Most every epiphany or showing of God in scriptures is met with fear. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying, “Rejoice, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary does not break out in ecstatic bliss. Instead she is greatly troubled at the saying. As Luke tells it, she considers in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And well she might. It was probably not the first time some itinerant ladies’ man claiming to be an angel had come on to her.
The angels in the Bible get some of the worst lines. They are hard to pull off with any authenticity. Enter one angel Gabriel with a flourish of wings and heavenly splendor who must make believable both his incredible presence and the words: “Rejoice, O favored one.” Smile, God loves you. This is your lucky day! Any virgin with an ounce of sense might consider in her mind, “Right sweetie. Have I ever heard that one before.”
The immensity of the heavens is about to invade Mary in a mysterious and awesome conception that will defy rational explanation and accomplish an incarnation that ushers in the redemption of the world. Yet before Christ is born, Mary must face her fear and make a choice. And so it is with us. When God’s cheery messenger meets us with the news that we will conceive and bring forth the fruit of salvation, fear rather than joy is likely to be our first response.
Messengers sent by God to announce God’s saving love often wear camouflage. They have a hundred disguises. Can we trust that they are who they say they are? This seed of hope they want to place within us, dare we believe it, receive it? What if we are mistaken and this is all a dream or a product of our own egotistical imaginations? What arrogance makes you think you can bear sacred saving gifts into the world? This is no angel, but Cousin Carl dressed up in Aunt Edith’s chenille bathrobe with some tinfoil wings and a halo made out of a pie pan!
In real life angels rarely look like the ones in paintings. And yet, does it matter if the angel really is Cousin Carl? To me, what matters is that we believe that holiness and salvation are afoot, whatever ridiculous disguises they wear.
Prior to the advent of God’s redeeming love in our lives and world comes a courageous act of faith. The birth of Christ is contingent on the belief of a young girl with an imagination creative enough to envision the impossible and a sense of her worth strong enough to defy fear and anxiety. She places her whole being in jeopardy as she lays out her life and all that she holds dear on the gamble that there is a God in the heaven who might have some business to do with her.
We are to rely on faith rather than evidence, Ian Matthews writes in his interpretation of St. John of the Cross. Yet, here’s the kicker: the danger St. John warns of “is not so much that we shall trust in the wrong thing, but that we shall stop trusting at all; that, while we may never say it in so many words, we shall cease to believe that we are factor in God’s life.”
Survival demands a certain skepticism. We are trained to cope as social beings by keeping our desires within realistic limits. But where God is concerned, the problem lies in our desiring too little, and growing means expanding our expectations; or rather, making [God’s] generosity, not our poverty, the measure of our expectations. – Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross
Mary, sizing up her heavenly visitor, is moving from the rather safe place of conventional norms into a new realm where few of the old rules will make much sense. No one else can judge for her the validity of that grinning angel holding out joy like Aunt Edith’s peanut brittle. Should she take a bite? She hasn’t forgotten that incident in the garden with the serpent. What is truth? How can she be sure this is an invitation from God?
There are no books she can read, no wise men and women she can consult. She alone must determine and act on her own truth. How will Joseph or her village ever believe what is happening to her? Yet what others will think is not her ultimate concern. Her concern is obedience to the living God, to hope, to the possibility of wonder that lies beyond what the eye can see.
Joseph and the others must come to their own conclusions. They, along with the rest of us, are given that freedom. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, Joseph says to Gabriel:
All I ask is one important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.
Weighing the odds, Mary asks one question, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”
“No problem,” guarantees the angel. And citing the case of barren Elizabeth, he assures her that with God nothing is impossible. Mary’s question raises a far from minor point. The participation of a male is a basic ingredient for conception. When God sends a divine messenger to us announcing that we have been chosen to bring forth some saving work, it may appear that some major components for success have been omitted. How shall this be since I have no money? Since I have no work? Since I have no education?
“No worry, it’ll be a cinch,” says Cousin Carl, snapping his fingers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
Finally it is up to Mary. The redemption of the cosmos is resting on the consent, the free choice of this mortal woman to have faith, to believe that what she is experiencing is true, and to claim and live out her experience of that truth by conceiving the fruit of salvation.
What will be your answer to Cousin Carl?
This post is adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38