Category Archives: Faith

Gratitude as Spiritual Discipline

My family and I recently went to Columbus, Ohio, where my wife, Diane, grew up, to see an Ohio State football game. This trip was far more than to see a game; it was a pilgrimage of gratitude for her father who passed away this spring. One of her fondest childhood memories was going to the Rose Bowl to watch Ohio State play, but she had never been to a home game in Columbus. Isn’t it wonderful that we have a God of surprises, and we had a great surprise on Sunday when attending the church where we were married. The sermon was about gratitude, and the minister referenced Henri Nouwen who had been his teacher at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen, an inspiration to me, is an internationally renowned priest, professor and author, who wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. Most of all, he is a beloved pastor. In 1986, after teaching at Yale and Harvard, he made his home in L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, one of Jean Vanier’s Christian communities where people with developmental disabilities are the core members, and those without are the assistants.

And so on this Sunday, as we felt so grateful for Diane’s father and all of our blessings, Nouwen’s former student preached on gratitude. He told the story of how Nouwen would lead students after dinner back into the kitchen to thank all those who had prepared their meal. These were loving encounters, sharing about family and daily lives. But to me, Nouwen was teaching a gratitude far deeper than appreciation for their service in preparing the meal; he was practicing a loving, mutually enriching gratitude for who they are, for who his students are, as children of God. In the spiritual practice of gratitude, we are our true holy selves, united with and through God with each other and all of creation. We no longer see others or ourselves by how we are seen and relate to one another in the secular world, by what we have or can do or social status. Rather we see with the eyes of Christ, and see others as fellow members of the body of Christ. Nouwen made it a point to tell his students how important this kind of gratitude was and to carry this on after he was gone.

In the language of Martin Buber, I and Thou, it is in this kind of spiritual gratitude that we see each other as a thou, and not as an object. We embrace the full mystery, richness, and unknowable fullness of another’s being. To me this is what it means to be in the body of Christ, seeing Christ in each other and thereby becoming more like Christ. Paul shouts in Colossians 3:11 “There is only Christ, he is everything, and he is in everything.” In this way, we are joyously grateful to Christ because in and through Christ we can be with others as thous. We flawed human beings cannot do this on our own, so blinded by our own egos and exclusionary identities of tribe, politics, culture and history. We can do this only through self-emptying humility and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder before the unifying love and sustaining creativity of God. In Christ-centered gratitude, we open our hearts and minds fully to receive the spiritual gifts of others; we grow in love, courage, faith, hope, compassion and creativity. We transcend the labels and identities that can divide and separate us, and rejoice in the unity of our shared identity in Christ. This depth of gratitude for one another that Nouwen exemplified for his students is the divine reciprocity we encounter in Stephen Ministry as care givers with our care receivers, the amazing grace we feel when in giving we are receiving so much more, each of us growing in the presence of Christ.

It was to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline, as a way of life, that I believe led Nouwen to leave Yale and Harvard, certainly the peak of social and intellectual success, to spend the rest of his life at L’Arche.  Here in this community, these thous together could live the astonishing good news of Christ: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Here and now, and forever, in the miracle, mystery and paradox of the Cross, the persecuted, the least, the little children, the hungry, the poor, the prisoners, the disabled can live, share and build the kingdom of heaven. Christ turns the world upside down, not to merely change positions, those at the bottom now at the top, and those at the margins now at the center. But rather he invites all of us into a personal spiritual transformation that overflows into an ongoing social revolution, seeing all equally as unique and original children of God and acting on this transformative vision. We are all in Christ, we are all with Christ whether in the center or at the margins, top or bottom. In whatever conditions or circumstances, whether in joy or suffering, whatever our abilities, we transcend these human categories and experiences, we surpass seeing and judging the world through the measures of man, and are never more ourselves then when we do.

I would like to conclude with a beautiful prayer by Henry Viscardi. Viscardi was born with stumps for legs and spent the first eight years of his life in hospitals. His is an inspiring story of triumph not just over his disability but, more importantly, over others’ attitudes toward people with disabilities. The founder of many organizations that help individuals with disabilities live full and active lives, he was an adviser to every president from Roosevelt to Carter. For me, he is like the blind man in the gospel of John who is healed by Jesus; Viscardi too responded to his disability as an opportunity to glorify the saving grace and love of God. I think you will see that like Nouwen, gratitude is his central message too.

Finding Blessedness in One’s Own History

Henry Viscardi

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am most richly blessed.


God’s Generosity: A Life and World of Abundance

The daily devotional from Henri Nouwen:

God is a god of abundance, not a god of scarcity. Jesus reveals to us God’s abundance when he offers so much bread to the people that there are twelve large baskets with leftover scraps (see John 6:5-15), and when he makes his disciples catch so many fish that their boat nearly sinks (Luke 5:1-7). God doesn’t give us just enough. God gives us more than enough: more bread and fish than we can eat, more love than we dared to ask for.

God is a generous giver, but we can only see and enjoy God’s generosity when we love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength. As long as we say, “I will love you, God, but first show me your generosity,” we will remain distant from God and unable to experience what God truly wants to give us, which is life and life in abundance.

On September 14, 2012, about three and a half years ago, I began my spiritual journal. I had decided to commit myself to a morning spiritual discipline of prayer, writing, study and contemplation. It was wonderful. I was going through a long and extended crisis in my life, brought about in part by the increasing hopelessness of unemployment, the seeming loss of identity through work, and I set out deliberatively to find God in this darkness. While I always felt, as far back as I can remember, a sense of quiet communion with God, I now wanted desperately to know the reality of God in the whole of my being—my mind, heart, body and soul. I was tired of having a ritualistic and even intellectual faith, of merely knowing the “truth” of God without truly experiencing it in my innermost being and consciousness.

Interesting, I was inspired to begin my journal with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, not in admiration of his greatness as among the few and privileged individuals that too often distract and haunt us by their insistent imagery but for his understanding and sharing of my place of humility and surrender.

I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day.

In these words, I found resonance with my own deep connection to God. I recognized that I had struggled the past ten years with my inability to make a full commitment to God, to Christ—really, to anything. I was now ready, I wrote, to completely surrender to Christ, to fully trust that this is what is missing in my life, and that this is how to free and release what is most sacred in me. This is the way to living an abundant life, and of being a blessing to others. I have known intellectually that I withdrew from a frightening and unsafe world as a child due to trauma, as a natural coping strategy for survival of my spiritual “true” self. I was always confident that this self was my unique birthright, my poetic sensibility, my soul. I like all children beloved by God who experience in their early life the violence of unrestrained egoism of the world was gifted with a prophetic voice of hope in response, a “little” voice to add to the multitudes of true and beautiful witnesses that sing the overflowing grace of God. My divine sensibility was to have great empathy for those in pain, to be a compassionate witness, and to be very aware of and sensitive to the great variety of forms of violence, judgment, and power over others. I found myself especially aware of and fascinated by the problem of the harm that the good do but do not see. Yet as an adult I felt deep shame that I did not live this true self. I had let it wither for so deeply buried within had it become. Indeed it seemed to now mock me as a grinning false persona—living in the world kindly with great humor, rejoicing in goodness and love, but only halfway, never fully engaged, never fully present in the moment.

Interestingly again, although I had Lincoln’s quote as the first entry in my journal, it was not until a month later, October 18th, when I first went down upon my knees in prayer during my morning spiritual practice. This was the first time I had done so as an adult except with my children in nightly prayers. Wondrously, I simply gave up seeking God through the effort of my spiritual practice, and surrendered to God. This was the moment of my conversion. I suddenly felt the desire to cry out to God, “I cannot do it alone. I am tired of waiting.” In my mind, having been stripped bare by a career and health crisis, I intended by this cry to mean waiting for the next job. But I heard, and this is the very voice of the Holy Spirit, a completely different and unexpected response. I heard that I had been putting my life on hold my entire life and that I didn’t have to anymore. It is all right here, and I looked to the Bible open before me and it came to life for me. And I heard, you don’t have to wait, you can live fully, here and now. You can be engaged completely with your wife and sons. I felt an overwhelming sense of deep peace and joy. I later extended this conviction of greater engagement to my friends, my church, and my community, an ever widening circle of living in God’s grace. I shared this moment publicly in my church as a “minute for witness:”

One morning, I called out to God. I had never done this before. I actually went down on my knees for the first time as an adult (other than praying with my own children). I cried out to God, I cannot do this alone. I cannot live my life on my own strength. I was tired of putting my life on hold, waiting for a new position at work to bolster my identity and confidence. Then it hit me. I had been putting my life on hold for most, if not all, of my life. And that I didn’t need to do that anymore. A new abundant life could begin right now, right here.

In this very moment, Christ came to me and I came to Christ!

I found what I had had been looking for. Immediately I felt a sense of profound inner peace and joy. I now have a real, living faith and a growing sense of God’s love for me and my family. There are still going to be ups and downs, even troubles. But now I am choosing to abide in this peace, with Christ at the center of my life.

My past sense of homelessness has been replaced with a growing awareness that I am home. I’m rejoicing in being at home in this church. I’m thankful to be at home together with you. And I join you in wanting to embrace Christ’s call to share this Spirit of peace and reconciliation with a homesick world.

In our humility, as taught by Jesus and Paul, and that the truly great like Lincoln know, when we go down on our knees, to the very bottom of our soul, we are reawakened to the simple joy of the gift of life from God. We are grateful for the little joys and blessings in our life. Empty of the delusions and distractions of the ego, we are surprised by this spirituality within us, a comfort and deep abiding peace that we are loved by God. In this way, we rediscover the abundant life and love that God gives through our relationship with him.

Yet human nature is informed over the millennia of evolution by the deeply embedded experience of fear of scarcity and seeing the world as stingy in its goods. This is the driving concern of the evolutionary forces of egoism, kinship and tribalism. We live in constant fear that we will not have enough and therefore we constantly strive to hold tightly to what we do possess—our ego identity as outwardly successful, our job, our home, our family, our health, out tribe. This is very understandable but it can lead us away from the real joy of the holy Scripture, the original blessedness of all creation as good, of all creation incarnate of God as written in the book of Genesis and of all humanity incarnate of God as revealed by Christ. This anxiety due to our human fear of scarcity, this tight possession of God as most manifest through rare and fragile prosperity, is especially true in times of suffering and loss. For having a superficial understanding of God’s favor, we feel forsaken and abandoned when going through the valley of the shadow of death. This fear of scarcity is why our deepest human desire is to be self-sufficient, to be successful and even wealthy. We strive unconsciously to compare ourselves against the wealthy, the strong, the gifted, and the beautiful; these are the idols of abundance of God’s favor, the truly blessed of God that seem to have transcended the enslavement of scarcity and suffering. These alone have God’s grace. This is what we desperately want for ourselves, our children and family, and our friends. And if we persevere, live in these idols’ image of God, we may prosper like them, flourish with them, be like them, be graced by them. We have tragically, unconsciously, limited God’s grace to this human measure and striving, remaking God in our own human image and likeness.

But Jesus comes to the poor and the despised not so much to turn this world upside down, merely having the poor change places with the rich, lifting the bottom to the top, and moving the top to the bottom. For this is no spiritual revolution at all. It leaves the world essentially unchanged, only reversing the direction of man’s hierarchy and oppression and exclusion, and actually reinforcing the values of envy, pride, arrogance, greed, lust, and anger that lead to injustice, oppression and war. No, the paradox and mystery of Christ is far greater than this. Christ came to utterly deconstruct and astonish the world, to transcend this entire mindset of scarcity and fear. To tear up its very roots that are so deeply embedded in human nature and society, and to amaze the world by revealing our true holy nature, one of love and peace, not competition and comparison in the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Our innermost, emerging being is one of courage, not fear, hope, not despair, faith, not doubt, where everyone can flourish in the abundance of God, not just the few and privileged. Indeed it is those who are least sufficient in the world of man—those at the margins of society, those who do not prosper either by ability or desire or injustice in the material world of man—who are chosen by God, who are most likely to yearn for Christ, to surrender themselves in their humility and poverty in spirit. These least of us are often marked by their greatest desire to follow God’s will and their yearning for spiritual transformation. These least are given the kingdom of heaven here and now by God, as Christ proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. They have broken through the prison of scarcity, of fear, of envy of those who appear according to the worldly values of man to be most blessed. These poor in spirit who have come joyously to Christ have discovered their essential unity with God, with creation, with humanity, here and now, and forever. These know the overflowing abundance and goodness of God and God’s creation. This is why St. Francis embraced poverty as the way to live the Sermon on the Mount taught by Jesus, this is the alternative Franciscan way to simply follow Christ. In embracing worldly poverty, Francis enjoyed unending spiritual abundance, love and joy.

In our solidarity with the poor, with Christ, we too can know this abundant life, regardless of our condition or circumstance, rich or poor, able or disabled, at home or homeless. And this is the joy of the Gospel seen so beautifully in Pope Francis.


Finding God in the Wilderness

It is profoundly difficult to get outside one’s culture and history, yet this is the beginning point for true contemplation and spiritual freedom. Paul writes in Romans 12: 2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Furthermore, he rejoices that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20). As a white, educated, American man, conditioned by genetics, family, culture and history, and profoundly influenced in unconscious ways by myriad experiences and traditions transmitted through the great arc of Western civilization, I realize I’m both privileged and blinded on so many counts. From my own experience, I know I need a contemplative practice to escape my “old” self and free myself of the distractions, delusions and comforts of my ego, culture and history. Some form of solitude and spiritual practice, of deep prayer and communion with God, is necessary to remember and recreate my innermost spiritual being and consciousness. This is where deep and lasting transformation occurs. From this place of contemplation and inner peace, I am able to understand more clearly what is mine to do and have the courage, compassion and creativity to do it.

Immediately after receiving the glorious baptism as Son of God from the Father and the Holy Spirit through John the Baptist, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to encounter the Devil. It is not until after he fasts for forty days and nights and is hungry when the devil first approaches him. Presumably, Jesus is in this weakened state so to intensify beyond all conceivable resistance the nature of the temptations the Devil presents, the first being bread. Jesus identifies so extremely with the weakness of human nature, draws into the bewilderment and enslavement to our desires and appetites that is the human predicament, so that he faces the full power, terror and temptation of these tests. Certainly, his triumph over the Devil’s temptations gives us great strength and encouragement that we too can triumph over the temptations in our life by following Jesus. This is an enduring truth of this Scripture.

But I wonder if going into the wilderness right after his revelation as the Son of God and before he begins his public ministry is also to demonstrate how we must strip ourselves of any possible vestige of egoism, culture or history to be at our full strength and holiness in encountering temptation. Jesus demonstrates an intense and agonizing spiritual retreat of forty days and nights to strip himself of every shred of his Jewish culture and history, every trace of his particular secular tribal identity, to invite us to do the same. Instead of this wilderness experience revealing a weakened state, I believe it reveals Jesus at his most divine state of being and consciousness, emptied of his humanity. Immediately following the apotheosis of his membership in the Holy Trinity in baptism, Jesus endures a purging and cleansing of his human and cultural identity so that he will have the divine strength, endurance and wisdom to resist the devil in his most cunning and powerful form. Jesus invites us to search deeply within for the remaining weeds of egoism and secular culture that lead us away from the spiritual kingdom of heaven, lead us away from being in Christ. If we surrender to these being pruned away, root and branch, nothing is impossible for us through God’s grace and our faith.

Throughout human history, going back to its most primitive beginnings, the delusions and distractions of tribalism, just like those of egoism, have been and are still deeply embedded in every human being as essential for our survival, and even for our flourishing as a people and individuals. This is the very paradox of the believer. We need to confront what is good in the cultural and individual identity of the old self, and then transcend it to fully embrace our new creation and divine identity in the spiritual body of Christ. The very liberation and transformational quality of finding new being and consciousness through faith is premised on the very fact of how deeply influenced we are by received culture and tradition, the unconscious conditioning since infancy from family, community, and the other institutions of our surrounding society. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian “cultural” Marxist (he wrote on political theory, sociology and linguistics), developed the concept of “cultural hegemony” wherein the structures of power and domination operate through the very consent of the governed on the terrain of cultural values and beliefs. The dominant culture that circumscribes individual freedom and collective action and supports the existing power structure and institutions is “thoroughly saturating,” going to the depth and bredth of our being and consciousness. This is especially true in a democracy and of a free people, and our very challenge to see. For me this recalls Paul’s warning above not to conform to the patterns of the world but to free yourself from the false delusions and distractions of secular culture. These tragically and ironically saturate the church and religion, as the great violence and barbarism done in the name of God far too overwhelmingly confirms. It also works on a personal level, and yet this is also where we have our greatest opportunity to triumph over it, and rejoice in authentic and intimate communion with God.

And so true spiritual self-discovery and liberation begins with a very searching and honest inward inquiry, and at times painful peeling away of the comforts and delusions of culture and history. It begins in the wilderness of being alone in God’s creation, to discover anew the beauty and goodness of the incarnation of the divine in nature, in all human beings, and in your true holy self. This is then what gives you the strength and compassion and courage that Jesus demonstrated to face the Devil fully. This gives the amazing freedom that comes from being released from the Devil within, which is the ego’s own will to power, pleasure and meaning. The sheer power of this human will is at once a primitive and necessary impulse for survival in early human evolution, but it then refuses to let go in our ongoing evolution to greater spiritual being and consciousness, to our ever greater capacity to surrender to God’s will and purpose.

Jesus goes into the wilderness to become totally self-reliant, the new Adam. We too can follow and become the new Christ, reliant not on our material and temporal egoistic self, the self that is conditioned by family, culture and history. But on our spiritual self that Richard Rohr calls an “immortal diamond.” This is the self that is created and loved and sustained by God. This is the kind of transcendental individualism that Ralph Waldo Emerson envisioned as possible in the new America in his great essay on “Self-Reliance.”

Who so would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

Emerson’s paean to individualism in the New America was not the small-minded and tawdry selfishness and profit-seeking of free market “capitalist” competition. This is actually how the idea of capitalism developed in the specific history of America in the 1800s, a particular form that developed into an enduring cultural hegemony in the full blast of rapid settlement through privatization of public lands and of public works (e.g. the railroads) of the west following the Civil War and the stark, raw and unrestrained industrialization at the end of the century. All of this created vast inequalities and injustices. Fortunately, the genius of American democracy allows for many counter and alternative currents to ever bring Emerson’s alternative vision of individualism to greater fruition. There are many dissident and nonconforming voices and movements in the great multitude of followers and seekers, before and since his age. And just so, Christianity as practiced as authentic faith can also be a compelling and joyous alternative narrative to the dominant culture of secular society and the institutional church. Christian faith can also live like the Franciscan Order as a flourishing alternative way of peace and reconciliation that is given space within the established order of the Catholic Church.

Along with Emerson, Walt Whitman envisioned “spiritual democracy” as the kind of polity and community that truly free and equal citizens can create together. Indeed, theirs was one of the rare great awakening of consciousness that springs forward in various times and places in history. This was also the mind and sensibility of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith. It is no coincidence that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Smith’s Wealth of Nations were both published in 1776. For this age was the unprecedented emergence of the ongoing revolutions of democracy and capitalism, each mutually-reinforcing toward widening circles of greater freedom, equality, wealth and community. (See for example, Thomas Haskell’s Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, in which capitalist values of individual dignity, social trust, and creative work informed the Abolitionist movement.) Both of these founders of democracy and capitalism, respectively, would be greatly disappointed in the turn of history away from Emerson’s and Whitman’s vision of individualism and toward the thoroughly secular and small-hearted and narrow-minded ideology of self-centered, profit-seeking “possessive individualism” (C.B. McPherson). This more humane sensibility informed their vision and hope for the new polity and economy of the new nation. Each influenced by the “moral sense” school of the Scottish Enlightenment, they simply understood that trust in individual freedom, and supported by education, would bring forth a much richer, authentic and robust commonwealth; they trusted that all the educated and creative individuals would “naturally” seek the common good.

Right individualism or, as Alexis De Tocqueville called it, self-interest rightly understood, was what they assumed would be unleashed in the new freedom from the corrupt, abusive and stagnant mercantilist world of Europe spreading across the Americas. Jefferson and Smith were actually horrified by the selfish egoism of that corrupt world, and looked to a democratic and free people for a new birth of virtue, social trust, creativity, fair and just judgment, and empathy. Instead the market unleashed the savage egoism and materialism of “the war of all against all” as envisioned by the Tory, Thomas Hobbes. His use of the construct, “state of nature,” referred to any kind of society outside the social contract. He used it to defend the underlying order of the aristocratic society of England, as the only such example of a society based on a social contract. It was indeed a heavenly society extending back in philosophic and religious justification to the sixteenth century Elizabethan “chain of being,” where all things and creatures were arranged in an anointed divine hierarchy of ranks and degrees, linked together in reciprocal rights and responsibilities, with the greater privileges and powers highest at the top and descending downward to the obscure masses safely anchored in peaceable villages and towns. How ironic that we now have a polity and economy far more closely resembling a “state of nature!” We have an often ruthless political and economic life that is still far too much influenced by the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century and its sad ethos that through natural selection only the best and the brightest are intended to survive and flourish. The rest of us are, as Jefferson most vehemently protested we were not on the occassion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, “born with saddles on our backs,” for the “favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

O Lord, I pray to be immersed in the beauty, harmony and purity of your wilderness. Please cleanse me of the unconscious patterns and enslavements of egoism, culture and history. I rejoice that through you, “I live no longer, not “I” but it is Christ living in me.”

John Henry Twachtmann, American Artist, “Winter Harmony” circa 1890

Christ’s Beatitudes: Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

This opening statement to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most loving, astonishing and still bewildering scripture in his teaching and ministry. In the profound mystery of this beatitude lies the call of St. Francis to renew himself in the grace of God in his complete embrace of humility and poverty. The paradox of this blessing is perhaps why Gandhi devoted his adult spiritual practice to daily prayer of the Sermon on the Mount. Like all those who have been drawn to this text, I find it endlessly rich and revealing of the character of God and the amazing, radical, impossible to believe truth of our divine being and consciousness. It is in our suffering and humility that we empty ourselves of our human ego, and thereby can free ourselves of its enslaving will to power, pleasure and meaning that lead away from the kingdom of heaven. It is in our poverty of spirit that we yearn most sincerely and fully to be filled with the Spirit of God. I will return to the Sermon on the Mount again and again in these writings.

Who are the poor in spirit that Christ gives his kingdom of heaven to? The disciples and the crowd, the multitudes gathered before him that day who are among all those Jesus has touched with the joy of the Gospel, liberated and healed and blessed with wholeness of being through his salvation. They were chosen by the Father to come to the Son, just as the disciples were chosen by the Father for Christ to gather, due to their spiritual yearning to go beyond their present condition or circumstance, even to go beyond the most blessed and devout godly community of the Jews, which was held in God’s loving hands for over two thousand years, and still is. Yet within the hearts of the disciples and the multitudes this community, this practice, this life was insufficient despite its great riches in scripture, history, tradition and culture.

And so they yearned for grace in the ministry, caring and healing power of Jesus. The poor, the lame, the blind, lepers, all those at the margins of society, the strangers, the outsiders, and all “others” who were excluded even by the chosen and beloved people of Yahweh who authentically exemplified service and love of God and each other. We can scarcely   imagine how astounding and challenging the call to Christ was without first appreciating how devout and faithful the Jewish community was, even given its human weaknesses and flaws. These were people of amazing courage, compassion and creativity in their faith, hope and love. How could Christ find any fault with them? How could he offer more than what they had persevered to grow and protect in struggle and victory for two millenia? Do you see how much more staggering Christ’s challenge is when you begin with being in the place and time of the Jews first encountering Jesus, on the other side of the resurrection, on the other side of the Pentecost and the infusion of the revealed and palpable Holy Spirit into the world?!

The fact of their near perfect faith community and practice is what is so utterly astonishing about Christ, that he came to fulfill, not abolish, the law and the prophets, and to thereby surpass this extraordinary life and world that had been for so long held in God’s care and protection. A people of God who in God’s will prepared the world for the incomprehensible, utterly unexpected, and unfathomable human incarnation of God through Christ, it would require people on the edge of such an amazing God-led society, people who were so devout in their faith, so trusting in God, and so utterly bereft of human delusion and comfort, that they felt the limits even of this received most perfect faith and world of the Jews. These are the poor in spirit of that time that received Christ’s blessing. And they received it in the immediacy of the present tense, here and now. And forever.

But the poor in spirit are also all of us, all the multitudes past, present and future. Christ calls all of us, especially in our solidarity with the suffering of humanity, to see and feel in our innermost being his joy when poor in spirit. Or, if rich in spirit, by simultaneously being in loving reciprocal relationship through empathy as a member of the body of Christ with those who are poor in spirit. We as children of God are never in just one pole of being and consciousness, either full of joy or full of sorrow, one way of being with God, but ever hold both together in the fullness of the divine. Both joy and suffering, both rich and poor in spirit, these extremes that cover the full spectrum of human experience, knowing each of these poles through giving and receiving across them, transcending the human limits of their polarity. Sharing each opposing experience and perspective intimately, trustingly with another is the very way of love and compassion. We thereby hold together and transcend both poles in the abundant life and agape love of Christ. This is the paradox, mystery and miracle of the cross, this sacred and triumphant union of suffering and joy, despair and hope, sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection.

And so Christ gives his kingdom to those in joy and suffering, rich and poor, able and disabled. As members of the body of Christ, we live and share and deeply empathize with people in the great variety of experiences, circumstances and conditions described by the creative relativity of these two poles. This polarity is the rhythmic heartbeat of faith.

Children of Crisis, Leaders in Hope

I am a child of crisis. This identification has deep personal meaning in both my faith and my vocation. The circumstances of my birth made my parents unable to give me a loving, nourishing and safe home. For the first two years of my life, I lived in many homes but was never at home. Afterwards, living with a mother unable to be the mother she desired to be, we moved every year, sometimes twice, on the edge of poverty. Uprooted, vulnerable, at risk and unprotected from the violence of the world, I know what it feels like to be invisible at home, community and school. I felt rejected and abandoned, without a loving family. I felt like Joseph (Genesis Bible story) also a child of crisis.

One of my fondest childhood memories, however, is listening to my grandmother tell me stories while I sat in a big, comfortable rocking chair in her bedroom. I felt a peace and joy as if God was wrapping his arms around me. My grandmother was a person of wondrous and joyous faith, a poet and story-teller who grew up in Lebanon (then Syria); her grandfather (founder of the American University at Beirut) and father were American Presbyterian missionaries for almost a century in Lebanon. One of my most vivid memories is the story of Joseph that she made come to life in my imagination. The cruelty and injustice he experienced and his triumph over them touched me deeply and gave me joy, hope and love. I wonder now if she knew the special way this story made me feel and how it would continue to resonate my entire life.

Although a child of crisis, I had as far back as I can remember a spiritual yearning for some greater truth, some greater possibility. I refused to be defined by my circumstances. I could not understand this spiritual sensibility except that it gave me great perseverance. I now know that God was developing within me the gift of empathy, by placing me at the edges of society. And God gave me the beautiful gift of a loving grandmother so that I could, like Joseph, know that God’s abundant love is triumphant over the violence of the world. I now know that my suffering as a child, even the trauma of abuse, God uses for good. As Joseph said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50: 20

My faith inspired my vocation, public education policy and advocacy, where I seek to serve the most vulnerable children, those at the margins. Amazingly, I discovered during my career a child psychiatrist and educator at Harvard, Robert Coles, who wrote about “children of crisis.” He discovered that children who had experienced trauma—whether of the hate of racism during desegregation battles in the South in the 1960s, ethnic cleansing in Serbia, or tribal atrocities in Africa—often had a surprising inner spiritual life, a moral imagination, a resiliency and abiding curiosity about the world. They had a deep empathy, kindness and hope in how they responded to this violence, and in how they lived in the world afterwards. Instead of victims, they are “leaders in hope.” Coles encouraged educators and communities to respond to these children in kind, to listen and learn from their extraordinary voice and witness. As a Christian, I know the source of their great hope. I am so grateful that God gave me the experience of being a child of crisis, in my little way, so that I can know and listen to their voice. I am grateful for my evolving calling to ever grow in my faith, and grow in my leadership and service to encourage and strengthen children of crisis, and to educate them as fully as they deserve, so that they too can educate us.

By the grace of God, I was given insight into the mystery and miracle of redemptive suffering through Christ. Like Christ on the cross, our suffering is transformed into the ever deepening renewal of hope, faith and love. I have found that suffering is so painful because of, not in spite of, our relationship with God; otherwise our losses, our disappointments, our pain is meaningless for it merely embodies the indifference of a chaotic and seemingly pitiless universe devoid of God. To the contrary, our personal suffering is at times so painful because we cannot understand how a loving God would permit it. This is not the purpose he has in creating the world, in creating all those we love, in creating us. In this way, in our prayerful turn toward God, in heart-felt dialogue, we find God transforms our human pain into divine suffering. We are invited by God to be angry with God over our suffering and loss. To grieve deeply, to feel utter anguish and loneliness.

And yet as we grieve we come to realize the very fact of the depth of our suffering mysteriously, miraculously affirms that God is very real in our lives and in the world. We feel his comforting and redeeming presence. We know again that his goodness, all of his godly goods of love, joy, peace, beauty, truth and justice are eternal, ever present in the here and now, and will triumph fully in the end. He not only weeps with us in our suffering but then calls us to use it for good, to join Christ on the Cross in the human solidarity known through shared suffering. Like Joseph, we are all children of crisis called and sent by God to respond to the violence and divisions and suffering in the world with the healing balm of Christ, with the joy of the Gospel. This is the miracle of faith that calls me to serve as a Stephen Minister, to walk with those in crisis. I rejoice at the opportunity to let the Holy Spirit fill us–care giver and care receiver alike–with the abundant love and eternal life of God.

Redemptive suffering in Christ reminds us that the whole world suffers not in his absence but in his presence, not in spite of but because we are beloved children of God in the midst of a broken world. We are invited again into the “new creation” of the body of Christ, to find our true holy selves as one of many members, each of us essential and extraordinary and original, because each of us is blessed and given a divine calling to triumph over the world’s suffering and turn it into resurrection, to have empathy for others and to respond in love.

I am grateful for the call to mission God gave my ancestors. They loved the people and land of Syria, which contained Lebanon then, and brought forth multiple families there. And so, by blood and faith, I feel the suffering of the little children among the refugees from Syria. I yearn like all of us, as we are woven together in the body of Christ, to reach out to them, to comfort them, and to bring them the peace and comfort of God. It is overwhelming. I do not know what to do but to pray and trust even more deeply in the story of Joseph that what is intended for evil God will use for good. I pray that God will continue to lead me in my faith and my calling, to serve the children of crisis—both distant and in our very midst.

Thomas Merton’s Most Famous Prayer

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.