May my Life be the Spelling of an Answer- Abraham Heschel
Author: Natalie E. Thomas
Natalie believes, almost foolishly, that it is possible for our world to embody the Beloved Community that God desired and Jesus modeled. She has dedicated her career to accompanying faith and justice leaders who are developing communities in which we honor one another, work for justice and love without ceasing.
Natalie is currently the Director of Engagement for Episcopal City Mission (ECM) in Boston, MA. ECM cultivates partnerships between local organizations, grassroots movements and faith-rooted communities who are working towards economic, racial and immigrant justice in Massachusetts. She is also an ordinand for the Diaconate in the Diocese of Massachusetts.
When I was a little girl I had a bad habit of taking things without asking. I’d sneak a cookie before dinner, borrow my mom’s shoes without checking with her, and even sometimes take five dollars from my dad’s wallet.
Looking back, I can see that I was more afraid of hearing “no” than I was of getting caught. As a child, “no” is your first experience of rejection or feeling unworthy of the request you made. Rather than risk being (so I feared) devalued, I snuck behind my parents’ backs to get what I wanted.
As I read the Gospel stories for today I saw this same experience of hesitation and fear in Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion. Their approach of Jesus is drastically different than the hemorrhaging woman who pulled on his coat in the crowd, or the Syrophoenician woman who boldly challenged Jesus. Zacchaeus hides in a tree, Nicodemus comes at night, and the Centurion claims he “does not deserve” to have Jesus come to his home.
Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion were in no way sick.
As wealthy men of power they had spent their lives benefiting from economic and social systems. What’s more, they had likely used religious, political, and financial systems to oppress the very people to whom Jesus “proclaimed liberty,” and “set free.”
I imagine they thought Jesus would say no. No, you’ve already had your due. No, you’re not in need of me. No, you’ve got more than enough support already.
But that’s not what happened.
Jesus instead encounters each one of them with the same compassion he bestowed on those who were so visibly hurting. The vulnerability of these three men reveals deep places of pain, and Jesus, moved by their risk, comes to meet them. In doing so, he transforms the life of each man.
In communities of privilege, our conversations about ending oppression — specifically white supremacy — are targeted at ameliorating the pain of those who are most impacted. How can we, those who have been in power, adapt so that others’ lives are better? What do we need to do to “fix it?” How can we “solve the problem?” While we most certainly need to seek the liberation of those around us, it is equally important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we are sickly as well.
We are so burdened by the drive to be better that it leads to mental illness. We choose to work unbearably hard to sustain being the best, the wealthiest, the most respected — and in doing so we forfeit peace in our lives. We are numb and disconnected from our heart after years of avoiding the truth of how we treated people. We value thinness as if it was health and perpetuate practices that harm our bodies. We live in denial of the impact we have on others. We too are sickly and our world will never heal from a place of numbness, restlessness, and denial.
It seems that Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion knew they were sick. They knew they needed Jesus and they came, despite facing rejection. They came, not for the sake of others but because they needed to be set free. They came, risking their reputation of privilege for the chance to be seen, known by Jesus. And, from that place of humility and awareness emerged the willingness to be entirely transformed for the sake of others.
It is time that we come as well.
Prayer: Open me to feel the pain of oppression.
Reflection: Why is it easier for us to focus on the benefits of change to others than to ourselves? What do we gain by ignoring the way oppression impacts us? What might change if we were willing to acknowledge its impact on our lives?
This post, originally written in 2014, still captures my feelings about what the Church could learn from Jesus and Planned Parenthood about honoring women. In ways it feels even more relevant given the #metoo movement. I made a few changes to the revised version; you can find the original here.
In November of 2014 I traveled to East Africa with Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to launch a program that will support local communities of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in several countries in Africa.
While preparing for the training Jacob Okumo, my colleague from Tatua Kenya, asked me about my connection to Planned Parenthood. My eyes welled up as I told Jacob about how Planned Parenthood had been my primary healthcare provider when I was young. I grew up hearing sex had one place, in a heterosexual marriage. As a sexually active teen, trying to be responsible, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, STD tests, and annual exams. Planned Parenthood continued to support me through adulthood, providing me with exams when I was uninsured, even inserting my IUD.
At the opening of the initial training for the small group facilitators who would lead the training in Uganda, we answered the question, “Why do I care about sexual and reproductive health?” As we went around the table I heard stories of women who were fired for being pregnant, shamed for needing birth control, discarded for being sexually active. Many of the stories carried the same disturbing theme: as a woman in East Africa your worth was undeniably tied to your body.
This theme was incredibly disturbing but even more so was the realization that although I was raised in a very different context, this was my story too.
Despite the fact that I intended to wait until marriage, I first had sex at 17. The combination of wanting to be liked, raging hormones, and attention from a popular older guy was too much; we ended up having sex one stormy afternoon in a car. Today I remember that day fondly, but at the time I thought the “loss” was pretty much the end of my life. I began having sex frenetically, with little concern to my partner or my own desire. Looking back I can see that the first five years of my indiscriminate sexual activity was a reaction to this idea that I had “lost it all.” It wasn’t until I was 24 that I began to think about sex in a positive light. Even now, at 30, I still struggle to be fully present to sexuality because I’m afraid that I will be seen as dirty and undesirable. I know that is a lie but the voices from our past are hard to release.
These voices rage in our U.S. culture. Mainstream culture may not demand abstinence but it encourages women to maintain rigid body standards in order to be valued: all the while being careful to maintain the impossible balance between being flirtatious but not “too promiscuous.” Salary scales enforce the belief that once you reach a certain age you should be at home with children, not competing for managerial positions with the men. Pop culture reinforces this by portraying single women as incomplete and unfulfilled. As a whole, these cultural rules prevent us from connecting with our true selves and celebrating whatever sexuality we feel we possess and instead shame us into silence and estrangement both within ourselves and the world at large.
What I saw in East Africa last week was that Planned Parenthood is healing this divide through the way they treat women. As a patient at Planned Parenthood I was often asked about my sexual past or history and never felt judged for the honest answers I provided. This platform encourages us to engage with our sexual partners, friends, and family members in a way that promotes open discussion and MUTUAL choice about the way we have sex. Finally, Planned Parenthood fights to extend this type of care to ALL women, regardless of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. It is stated in their tagline: “Care. No matter what.” Planned Parenthood honors our wisdom, worth, and value as women by operating under the radical belief that we can be trusted to make good choices for our bodies: elevating us from a place of shame to value.
This elevation of women mirrors what we know of Jesus Christ’s interactions with women; rather than treat women as the “lesser” sex he spent time conversing with them and invited them to join him as leaders. His conversations with Mary and Martha appear innocuous today but in Christ’s time they were countercultural and a threat to the way men in power understood the role of women.
Even racier were his interactions with ‘scandalous women,’ such as his conversation with the woman at the well who is infamous for her many lovers. Here he offers us insight into his ability to see women as much more than their sexual past. Rather than focus his interaction with her on her sexual choices he instead engages with her on the topic of authentic worship and eternal life. He treats this woman’s sexual past in a similar way to the team at Planned Parenthood, a simple fact. Because of this he is able to move on to a more meaningful level of interaction with her and truly connect with her soul.
When it comes to treating a woman with dignity, the church can learn a great deal from Planned Parenthood. Conservative Christian communities continue to devalue women through the glorification of purity, lack of leadership opportunities, use of degrading language, and emphasis on the need to assume the role as mother if they are to be considered “of worth” to society. While progressive Christian communities have moved away from such practices, they fail to create a space in which people of faith can discuss sexuality in a healthy way. The silence cannot continue. It is time the church joins Planned Parenthood in promoting a culture of worth for women.
Imagine a church that brings God back into the bedroom by creating a space in which teens can talk about how to integrate sexuality and spirituality, a church that celebrates our bodies for their many facets, a church that offers women the tools to make decisions about their sex and sexuality without judgment. Imagine a church that elevates women as Christ did by paying women and men equally, by encouraging women leadership, and offering generous maternity leave. Imagine a church that leads us to a world in which women are honored for more than our bodies.
Prayer: Open our eyes to the ways we participate in oppression.
Reflection: What values or opinions do I have about sexuality? How do they promote or deny the dignity of others?
Join the Praxis Community, a community of faith-rooted leaders who believe God calls us all to build liberating and joyful communities. To this end we have dedicated ourselves to ending oppressive cultures and systems of economic and racial injustice by challenging dominant systems of power. Through participating in a shared rule of life centered around prayer, right-relationship, and prophetic action we hope to join in God’s movement of liberation. For more information email Natalie@EpiscopalCityMission.Org.
My friend Julian and I recently had a conversation about how thinking about time as rhythm rather than structure loosens our adherence to the clock and deepens our connection to the needs of the moment.
For me, this means letting go of a schedule that siphons activities into thirty-minute blocks and instead remaining mindful of how I fit prioritized activities into the day. It requires an attention to my energy level, the needs of those around me, and the ever-changing context of the world.
Perhaps because of my conversation with Julian, I was particularly drawn to the way Jesus intuits his way through the feeding of the thousands in every Gospel account. He knows that he and his disciples are tired so he plans on them spending time alone and, according to some of the versions of the story, he gets a little quiet time but it is soon interrupted by a crowd who has come to be with him.
Rather than sending them away because “it’s not time for that sort of ministry,” Jesus’ open-hearted nature conjures up compassion within him. This attention to the needs of the situation rather than to the confines of a schedule is the same impulse that motivates Jesus to feed the crowd when it was time to eat.
I am inspired by Jesus’ prioritization of moment over fixed structure, whole over parts, and relationship over preference. His choice illustrates not only his deep identification with people but also his disregard for the proper structures of time that we “should” adhere to in our world. Those are structures that, when unexamined, support dominant ways of being. One example might be choosing to arrive on time rather than having a valuable conversation with someone or ignoring the needs of someone living on the street to get to a work meeting.
On the other hand, the rhythmic way of living invites us into a deeper sense of what brings about right-relationship with ourselves, one another, and the world around us.
Prayer: May I have the wisdom to follow God’s rhythm.
Reflection: When have I allowed structure prevent me from being present with myself or others? How might I loosen my connection to a schedule to deepen my connection to current needs?
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Dr. Martin Luther King
We tend to define relationship as an interpersonal object that begins and ends at our will. In reality, relationship is more of a principle than a noun: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We are constantly in relationship with one another. Our choices, ideas, and attitudes impact those around us, and in some cases, those thousands of miles away. The question is not whether we want to be in relationship with one another, but how will we be in relationship with one another?
Jesus’ entire ministry was to foster right-relationship with people: Relationships that honored God’s dream for equity and justice. Relationships that tore down structures of oppression. Relationships that lifted up the disenfranchised and challenged the powerful. Relationships that fostered our ability to know, claim, and own that we are the Beloved of God. Relationships that invited us into liberating love.
Knowing this, it makes sense that Jesus would begin his ministry by speaking to how, in all types of relationships (marriages, disagreements, keeping oaths, public prayer, and judgement of others), we are to be mindful of the mutuality that exists between us all. If our sibling is hurting, we hurt too, so we need to try and heal the situation. If we respond to hatred with hatred, we only perpetuate hatred. Therefore, we are instructed to address the situation non-violently in a way that exposes the pain others inflict upon the world.
By addressing injustice and exposing pain, we end cycles of violence and indifference and develop a heart of compassion that causes us to mourn with those who mourn, hunger for justice, and suffer with those who are persecuted. We become those Jesus honored in the Beatitudes — we enter the heart of relationship.
Prayer: Increase my hunger for righteousness.
Reflect: Consider one or two particular relationships. How are you honoring the belovedness of people in how you treat them? What might you change to further acknowledge their belovedness through your relationship?
The first time I set foot in an Episcopal Church service was for the baptism of my friend Kristen’s child, Ryder. I was immediately struck by the communal and collective rhythm of the service. Prior to attending the service I had been on a year hiatus from church — I left a more conservative branch which had an individualistic bent to their spiritual practice. In that church, were all trying to out-Jesus one another by praying more, knowing more scripture, or singing the loudest during worship.
The communal nature of this new Episcopal church was especially present in its collective commitment to uphold Ryder and to live the Way of God alongside him. Towards the end of the service the congregation articulated their commitment through the words of the Baptismal Covenant:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.
I was struck by how much the commitment depended on God rather than self — no one was expected to do it alone. This blanket claim of our humanity is one of the reasons I’ve stayed part of the Episcopal community. There are certainly those who stray from this generalization, but the majority of the Episcopalian community maintains their commitment to God while living very human lives.
And, for a faith tradition looking to follow Jesus, this isn’t too far off the mark.
Today’s gospels emphasize the human nature of Jesus. In his baptism at the River Jordan we meet Jesus as a companion on the Way who, like us, made a commitment to turn from the ways of the world and follow God. In the wilderness we see Jesus tempted by the human desires for comfort, power, and wealth, yet he remains committed to God.
Stories of Jesus’ humanity fill the gospels: his friendships, his hunger, his frustrations, his sadness, his anger, his longing for God’s favor, etc. These stories give us a way of meeting God that is not wrapped up in perfection or in theology, but in the vulnerabilities and practicalities of human life. In Jesus we can claim a new human identity. This identity is rooted not in the fleeting nature of this world but in the eternal way of God. This identity restores us to right-relationship with God and one another, through the Christ.
This identity inspires us to follow the way of Jesus, with God’s help.
Prayer: Open me to your help.
Reflection: Where can you connect to Jesus’ humanity? Why does it matter to you that he was human?
The Gospel of Luke begins with this reason for its writing, “So that you may know the truth about those things which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4). At least seventy years have passed since the death of Jesus. The young Church is growing to include more people who never met Jesus, and the Gospels serve as written testaments to his life. Following my preceding blog posts, I will explore the stories that align with the claims of the Epistles, the letters written to help form the ideas and behaviors of the people of the Way.
In effect, Luke writes that these are the stories you must know to understand why we believe what we believe and why we do what we do. Using this lens, we will be reflecting on the Gospel passages this week through two questions: What do these stories reveal about the nature of Jesus? Why might the authors have included them in their Gospels?
The birth narratives we read today reveal to us the truth that Jesus is of God. Jesus’ birth is foretold by messengers of the Divine in the form of angels. His name Emmanuel signifies that now God is with us, and he is born under miraculous conditions.
Not only is Jesus Divine — he is of the same God that the Hebrew people worshiped in the Hebrew Bible. The use of the prophetic texts to describe Jesus connect him to the stories we read in the Hebrew Bible, which express a longing for a ruler to come restore Israel. This is their king.
Why was it so important to make clear that Jesus was and is of God?
One, it is vital that the earliest followers, and likewise we today, recognize Jesus as part of the eternal story of God. He is not a new fad: he is The Very God who, from all eternity, has been calling us into right-relationship with God, one another, and creation.
In this light, we can understand the life of Jesus as the incarnate of right-relationship on Earth. His eternal relationship with God, as John’s Gospel names, qualifies him to illuminate the way of God for those of us who have not seen God. Jesus knows intimately the grace written in the letters to the Ephesians, and his life gives us an example of what it might look like if we embodied that grace here on earth.
Prayer: Jesus, may I know you as God.
Reflection: What about the birth narratives struck you? Why might you be drawn to those aspects today?
“We spend our lives waiting for our parents to apologize. They spend theirs waiting for a thank you.”
For a long time, my relationship with my father illustrated this quote from the TV show Casual. Although I never doubted my dad’s love, there were times when I didn’t feel it or receive it in the way I needed. This experience of frustration motivated me to create a healthy distance between the two of us. This distance prevented me (and possibly him) from knowing the reciprocal love between us.
When I was in my mid 20s I invited my father to come with me to a Maundy Thursday service during Holy Week. As we knelt at the rail for communion I experienced my dad in a new light. Instead of seeing a man who had failed me, sitting next to me was a man receiving the same grace and gift as me. My heart broke and I wept at that communion rail as I realized in my bones how far the grace of God extends.
“One single sacrifice for all.” 10:12
The practice of communion allows us to understand God’s extension of grace in a real and tangible sense as we experience Jesus’s willingness to suffer with us. He chose not to maintain the security of the divine realm and instead embrace the human condition. In this, he is the great high priest, the one who understands and knows our suffering and can support us and our weaknesses.
In the body and life of Jesus there was a bit of heaven that revealed a deeper understanding of God. That life was marked by suffering: by scars and bruises, by unfulfilled promises and unrealistic expectations, by imperfect ancestors who held to faith alone, by unlawful shootings and forced deportations, by being scorned and excluded.
Our human experience of suffering yokes us not only to him but to one another. And, in communion we are deeply present to suffering in a way that allows us not only to know suffering but also to know the grace that accompanies it.
Prayer: May I know you in suffering.
Reflection: When have you chosen to avoid rather than embrace suffering? What might help you embrace suffering as a pathway to knowing grace?
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent this week in Bermuda with my partner and Purity, a very good friend from Kenya. I’m going to share more photos and stories from the trip in a later post; for now, here’s one of the three of us at Cooper’s Island.
The week provided time for enjoyment, wonder, and conversations that are impossible in the normal hustle of life. After this photo was taken the three of us drove our scooters to Pizza House for traditional Bermudian fish sandwiches and a particularly powerful conversation about the cross-cultural nature of oppression.
Although our experiences of oppression were incredibly varied given our diversity of race, ethnicity, class and gender, there was a common thread that ran through our experiences and cultures: humans have always created systems to differentiate between who is right and who is wrong, who was “in” and who was ‘out,” who is valued and who is shunned, who has access and who is denied.
This eternal struggle shows up in our reading for today: the people of the Way are forming beliefs that limit the gospel’s reach to only only the most deserving. This institution of merit is especially surprising in this situation because the community of the Way is founded on the grace of Jesus. By “grace” Paul is referring to the idea that all people have the capacity to comprehend and intimately know the love of God.
Paul is infuriated that people are placing bounds and limits on that which was never theirs to mediate. He responds: there is no other gospel than grace.
This plea of Paul’s, to stop creating systems that lay claim to what was never ours, is one we would do well to heed today. Although I would love to be proven wrong, it is unlikely we will ever stop creating systems of oppression. They are part of our very being.
However, the good news is that the love and grace of God abound in equal measure to our propensity to f**k things up. And if we can come to truly know this grace, a gift that we never earned and to which we can only respond to with abundant thanks, maybe then we will stop holding tightly to what we consider ours and work ardently to secure access for all people.
Prayer: Forgive our tendency to divide.
Reflection: Where are systems of merit or value present in my world? How do I benefit from them?
Today’s readings include sets of instructions about how the earliest followers of Jesus are to live as people of “the Way.”
The passage reminded me of a video that I love by Dave Tomlinson that was produced by The Work of The People. Dave offers the modern-day followers of Jesus a similar message to that of Paul’s. His words about what it looks like to walk “the Way” today inspire me to more boldly pursue a life of love. I hope they do the same for you.
For the sake of transparency, I am away this week celebrating my loving partner’s birthday. I was able to write three out of four reflections before we left. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Darrell (a man who clothes himself in love daily) and forgive me for this shorter entry.
Prayer: Reveal your way to us today.
Reflection: Who in my life embodies “the Way”? What is it about them and their way of being that I find so compelling?