The Common Good

Gratitude as Resistance: An Ancient Idea for our Collective Anxiety

You know that time when the apostle Paul says “don’t worry about anything” I sometimes wonder if he could get away with that today.

For example: Did you know that Congress recently had an approval rating of 9 percent? To put that in perspective, 11 percent of citizens want the Unites States to be a Communist country . It’s a lower rate than people who would approve of polygamy! While this is sort of hilarious, it’s also pretty depressing.

Thank God (literally) there isn’t a poll on the approval rating of the church, but as a ministry leader in Seattle, trust me when I say that what makes the headlines is not what anyone would call good news. Throw into the mix the global unraveling we are witnessing in the Middle East, Iraq, and our own treatment of immigrants, and it’s sort of difficult to keep our collective chins up.

So yes, it might feel tough to log onto Facebook, or read the New York Times these days and feel like there is no reason to be anxious. Good thing for us the verse doesn’t end as a pejorative blanket statement. You know, the kind that so often feels like a cheap mandate to simply ignore reality? Instead, it names that that there lots for reasons for why we are surrounded by anxiety. But, in the eloquent paraphrase of the Philippians passage by Eugene Peterson, we are invited to:

“let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”

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3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change

I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.

Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.

I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”

I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”

Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.

I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.

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The Nature of Joy

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12

War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?

These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?

Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.

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Where is the Joy?

How do you talk about joy in times like these and not sound like a traveling salesman with a bottle of snake oil up his sleeve?

Recently, I received word that Robert Gittelson, the cofounder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, had died suddenly from a massive heart attack. Over the next seven days, the prolific 63-year-old comedian and actor, Robin Williams, committed suicide, and revered screen legend, Lauren Bacall, passed away at the age of 89.

Track back a few weeks, reports of three separate senseless deaths of black men at the hands of police officers rocked the nation:

1.     Eric Garner, 43, was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street in Staten Island when two police officers approached him and attempted to arrest him. Mr. Garner put his hands up, but Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner, an asthmatic, in a chokehold—which the NYPD has banned—and wrestled him to the ground. He continued to apply the chokehold even after Garner warned that he couldn’t breathe multiple times. Garner died.  

2.     John Crawford, 22, was in an Ohio Walmart speaking on a cell phone with the mother of his children while holding a toy rifle that he’d picked up from a nearby shelf. A shopper got concerned and called the police. According to reports, police demanded that he drop the weapon. Crawford allegedly said, “It’s not real.” They shot him. He screamed and cried, according to the woman on the cell phone. Then he died.  

3.     Michael Brown, 18, was a few days from entering his freshman year in college when he was gunned down by a police officer while walking home from a convenience store. Eyewitnesses and police have offered disputing accounts.  

Over the same period, the nation was glued to news of missionary doctors entering the United States to receive treatment for the Ebola virus. Then, this week, the U.S. manufacturer of the experimental Ebola antibody said they had run out of the drug.

CNN aired dramatic footage from one of its reporters embedded on an Iraqi military helicopter mission that dropped boxes of food and water and rescued desperate Yazidi Iraqis hiding on a mountaintop to flee persecution by the Sunni militant group, ISIS.

Oh, did I mention that House Republicans voted to sue President Obama for not enforcing part of the Affordable Care Act that they tried to prevent earlier? Meanwhile, the president announced plans for executive action on immigration reform despite the most inactive Congress in modern American history.

So … to think of joy right now, reminds me of snake oil.

When we planned to focus this issue of Faith in Action on the spiritual discipline of joy we had no idea how challenging that call would be.

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Silence for Peace

“If, as Christians, we believe that peace is rooted in Christ, then how we build that peace within us, in one way, is through the disciplines of solitude and silence; through spending time with God. Solitude is not necessarily extremely easy process, because it will bring to the fore all sorts of things that are within us. We will get to know ourselves in a fuller way. In solitude, where you know that God is with you, you can just be with God, and there is no need for a mask. Also, your humility might grow because you will see yourself as you really are — in a way that needs to be healed and transformed.”

 
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Occupy Good Pasture

The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order. We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world! And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage or superiority over others.

“As for you, my flock, saith the Lord, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” 

In other words: Do you have to get what’s yours and at the same time mess it up for others?

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Three Ways to Maintain Yourself While Maintaining a Movement

In July 2010 I joined with around 100 freedom fighters in Chicago, many of whom had traded the previous year of their lives to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. And we knew it was not going to happen in 2010, at least as we had imagined. Many in the room were exhausted, and defeated, and spent. The response from the campaign was to talk about the next hill to climb rather than deal with the pain and exhaustion in the room.

Doing justice is hard and exhausting work. We are compelled to action by the urgency of the suffering and pain and evil that mark life for so many in God’s world. And the work is never done. Win or lose, there is always another hill, another peak, another challenge that lies ahead. So the temptation is to keep on keeping on, and to rise to the next challenge.

For the past 20 years, I have either been a pastor or a community organizer, and for many of those years I have been both. For pastors and organizers, there is always one more email to write, one more call to make, and one more strategy to be explored. To be blunt, burnout and exhaustion are the order of the day.

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Silence: A Path to Action

I had such a hard time packing for my weekend away — cramming my bag with a stack of contemplative practice books, an anthology of my personal prayer journals, candles, an array of writing of instruments, and an iPod fully loaded with chanting monks and Hillsong worship songs. What does one take to a three-day silent retreat? Apparently a lot of noise.

My husband I were in the throes of church planting in Harlem. Our commitment to reimagining church not as a building, but as an incarnational community living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ had left our calendars fully loaded with “to do” lists for neighborhood barbecues, marches against “stop and frisk” laws, and prayer circles that met in our home.

And I was tired.

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The Overflow

… my cup overflows. 

-Psalm 23

Women have a lot to offer — and the problem is that we offer it too often and too long and without a break to fill the fountain. Women, at all ages, even girls, are set up to please and to give. Pleasing and giving are wonderful things — especially if they are appreciated and if they matter. When a womb is a fountain it overflows into goodness. When a womb is disrespected and unappreciated, even it can go dry.

I think of my two grandmothers: Lena and Ella. One was generous, the other stingy. One stretched the soup, the other made sure it was thick for her inner circle. One died happy and the other died sad. You may think I’m going to suggest that Lena, the generous, died happy and Ella, the less so, died sad. The truth is both had a certain joy and a certain regret. Women who give a lot to others often wonder when it will be their turn. Women who are as selfish as men with soup and self get hurt less. Women know we are “supposed” to keep the beat and feed the family. We also experience compassion fatigue, time famine, and wonder when what we give will come back to us. We worry that our fountains will go dry.

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Founding Mothers: Remember the Women

I love the 4th of July! It’s coming around again quickly, and I’m seriously deciding where I’m going to be based on which city has the best fireworks. I know. It’s a little crazy for someone who preaches about peace to yearn for a celebration attached to a war. But there’s something about the 4th that reminds me of the sacrifice that freedom requires in our fallen world.

Growing up our family would pack up the van (or minivan as we got older) and make the pilgrimage to the beach in Cape May, N.J. They knew how to do fireworks. Spectacular! Later, in college, while on summer mission project in New York City, I watched the Macy’s celebration from a rooftop on Roosevelt Island — choreographed fireworks as they played the Star Spangled Banner on the radio! I wept. To this day, I shed a tear when I imagine the moment when the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. It gets me every time.

But, recently I stopped and thought for a minute: “Why is it that, when I think of the founding of our nation, the faces I see in my mind’s eye are all men (with the exception of Betsy Ross)?”

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