A Prayer for Peace

Candle with watercolors 4--Julie McCartyHeavenly God,

You know all that is in our hearts:
the good desires
and the not-so-good desires,
the longing for peace,
yet wanting things-my-own-way,
the instinct to share,
while also the instinct of hoarding-for-my-survival.

I don’t have to tell you that all people on earth
have the need for clean water, healthy food, shelter, and safety.
You know very well how people who are desperately suffering
from starvation, thirst, homelessness, or civil strife,
may fall into violence to get what they need to survive.
You also know some people turn aggression into a way of life,
using violent solutions at the least provocation.

Loving God, we ask you to help us to work for peace.
You are like a loving parent–we are your children,
whatever our nationality, tribe, religion, or culture.
We are all one family, and yet, like one family,
we disagree, we fight for dominance, we wrestle for power.

When harm comes to innocent people, we feel frightened or angry.
Do we fight back? Look away? Grab a gun or hold a dove of peace?
I think there is no easy answer. I think: it depends.

I beg you, Lord, to pour your Spirit of Wisdom
on those who have earthly power, the movers and shakers,
political leaders and public commentators,
and all those who speak in the streets or social media.

Show us the way to work and live together in harmony–
and give us the courage to follow that way
with compassion, inner strength, and mercy.

I’m not just asking, Lord, I’m begging.

Amen.

Healing after elections

The room was filled with spiritual directors, planning for an upcoming event, and one person pointed out that there would be a need for healing after the elections are over. In response, I heard an audible gasp around the room, the kind of “aha” moment signifying agreement and the silent, collective wonderment of why didn’t I think of that?

Every election has its share of mud-slinging and truth-twisting, but I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an intense, prolonged period of antagonism between groups. The sheer volume of messages–not only on TV and radio, but via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and so many other ways of communicating–certainly is new.

As I write this, it is the day before the U. S. election. I do not yet know if we will elect Mitt Romney or Barack Obama as president, if the propositions in our state will pass or fail, or which parties will control the many legislative bodies throughout the country.

The thing I do know is this: there will need to be healing between co-workers, friends, families, and many other people, if we are going to improve the country we live in. In this political climate, many people on both sides of issues have been hurt through angry words, harsh attacks, and twisted half-truths.

In the past, newspapers and televisions ran ads for politicians. This year, it was also our friends and coworkers sending us political messages electronically. (Were there lawn signs when I was a child?)  This is a wondrous exercise of free speech–and as a writer and budding artist, I greatly treasure freedom of expression!

However, in our excitement with lightning speed communication at our fingertips, some of us may have hurt others we love. We may have expressed things in type we never would have said in person. We may have stereotyped people or demonized people of the opposing group.

Now is the time to reach out with kindness to people you may have hurt in this process. Now is the time to stop blaming others for all sorts of problems, to put forth our own efforts to make the country and world a better place. Now is the time to shake the hands of your opponent, and show respect for people of all shapes, sizes, political groups.

What really makes the United States a great place is the ability to work together despite our cultural, regional, or religious differences. Our beliefs and values may vary, but our oneness exists because of something deep within that unites us. That unity is not based on all being clones of each other, but rather of working together to form a good place to live and grow and work and dream together.

The healing of the divisions in this country begins with you and me, when we reach out our hands in kindness and hospitality to those around us. This is not always easy, but it is classic for true followers of Jesus, the one who said:

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  (Matthew 5:44-45)

Until next time, Amen!

Building Bridges with Books

Since the last blog post, I’ve been thinking: What have I learned in the period since the tragic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001? Is there anything good in my life that was brought about by something that was otherwise an evil deed?

(I don’t believe God causes evil, but that sometimes, when you look back over a long period of time, you can find something good that God brought out of an otherwise bad/evil situation.)

In reflecting on this question, the thing that surprised me most is how much I’ve learned about Islam, that is, people called Muslims. It’s not that I even know that much about Islam, but before 9-11, I knew nothing about it. Absolutely nothing.  If it hadn’t been for 9-11, I doubt I would have ever wondered about this major world religion and its devout believers. 

Looking over the past decade, I discover that I’ve read a number of books I never would have thought to read otherwise–and a number by Muslim authors:

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Asar Nafisi;
  • The Kite-Runner, by Khaled Hosseini;
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Khaled Hosseini;
  • The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, by Irshad Manji;
  • Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter, also by Asar Nafisi);
  • The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew –Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner;

These books do not represent all sides of the Muslim world–they just happen to be the ones I read. As I said, I didn’t exactly plan it that way. I just observe this when looking over the past decade.

These books gave me windows into other people’s worlds, realms that were completely unknown to me. Reading stories or the personal experiences of others was far more engaging than merely reading theological textbooks (although those have their place). My reactions to various parts of these books covered the full gamut of human emotions: sometimes I was laughing or crying, sometimes feeling shock, anger, outrage, or empathy–and always, always, I learned something.

This doesn’t take away the evil or tragic dimension of what happened on 9-11–and particularly not for those who lost loved ones–but for someone like me it shows that God can bless us in unexpected ways.

Until next time, Amen! 

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Can you think of a time in your life when God brought something good out of something that was in other ways a bad situation?

2. Is there something positive you can do today about a situation that is otherwise sad, trying, frightening, or painful for yourself or someone else?

Jesus taught, “Love your enemies.”

But to you who hear I say,
love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.
     –Words of Jesus recorded in Luke 6:27-28.

The tenth anniversary of 9-11 will soon be upon us, and I wonder: What I have learned in those ten years? Have I overcome my fears and anger? Have I become more compassionate towards those who are “different” from me?

While thinking about this, I thought it might be worth revisiting a column I wrote at the time of the first anniversary of 9-11, published in The Catholic Spirit and a few other newspapers around the country.

Back then I was pondering the meaning of Jesus’ command to love your enemies, and the context was the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks. Today when I reread it, I think about how so many Americans have turned against each other in their extreme enthusiasm for their favorite political agendas.  At times it seems hostility has become the national pastime.

Being kind to those who hurt us is no easy task, and I certainly struggle with “love your enemies” myself. Nevertheless, if we call ourselves Christ-followers (Christians), then we must strive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to practice all that Jesus taught.

Here’s that original article:

Praying for Enemies on the Anniversary of 9-11

As the one-year [now 10-year] anniversary of the tragic events of September eleventh approaches, I am pondering the meaning of Christ’s command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Just what did Christ mean? Should I pray for terrorists?

A priest I know did just that during a time of shared prayer at church. Some people questioned what he meant by praying for terrorists. Was he condoning their acts of violence and murder? Did he want terrorists to “win” the war?

Praying for one’s enemies does not mean that we agree with their ideas or support evil. Praying for enemies does not mean staying in an abusive relationship. It certainly does not mean that we eliminate praying for the poor, the oppressed, and victims of violence.

Therese of Lisieux at age 15

A startling example of praying for “society’s enemy” is found in the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. When she was a teenager, Thérèse heard about a notorious murderer named Pranzini, whose story made headline news. While waiting on death row, Pranzini showed no signs of repentance. Because Thérèse felt a great longing to prevent sinners from suffering the pains of hell, she prayed ardently that God would forgive Pranzini, granting him eternal happiness in heaven. On the day following his execution, Thérèse read in the newspaper that “Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing and was ready to thrust his head beneath the guillotine’s blade when he suddenly turned, seized the crucifix offered him by the priest, and thrice kissed the Sacred Wounds.” Thérèse tells us that she felt such joy over this news that tears came to her eyes.

I find it difficult to pray for mildly irritating people, let alone violent criminals. However, someone taught me a method that helps. Setting aside your own agenda (that’s the hard part!), simply ask God to grant this person a pleasant day, peace, joy, etc. If you like, envision the blessings like a gentle rain showering upon this person.

When I pray this way for someone everyday for a month, I often notice a change in myself. Sometimes I begin to see this “enemy” in a slightly better light. I listen to him or her more at meetings.

Some wounds in life—like childhood sexual abuse—are so painful that we cannot do this type of prayer exercise. In these cases, we can pour out our troubles to the Lord, ask for God’s help, seek necessary professional help, and give ourselves time for the healing process. God understands.

Nevertheless, Christ calls us to deepen our love for others by praying for someone we dislike. Why do such a distasteful thing? Jesus explains that because God gives the blessing of sun and rain to all people—both saints and sinners—we must do the same. We ask God to grant our enemies the same love and mercy that God has given us.

Jesus also reminds us that being kind to people we like is not really so special or virtuous. (Even terrorists are kind to people they like!) The Lord Jesus forgave his executioners and the repentant thief during his own crushing agony on the cross. This same Lord promises that when we love our enemies, we will truly become children of God.

Jesus, Saint Clare, and the Gospel of Prosperity

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  —Mark 10:21-22.

Today is the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), a Christian who fully embraced these words of Jesus. A young woman from a wealthy family, Clare gave up a luxurious lifestyle at age 18 in response to the preaching of the now-famous Francis of Assisi. Like Francis, her goal was to embody the gospel message completely, to imitate Christ so much that her life might become a sort of mirror image of the Savior.

In founding the Poor Clares, a religious order of women who follow Franciscan ideals, Clare made living a life of utter simplicity or “holy poverty,” a foundational principle. Clare wanted to be free of all that might keep her from experiencing the fullness of Christ in her life.

That is not to say that poverty is a glorious thing. It is not glamorous or desirable to be forced into poverty. The Lord does not want people to starve. The key thing here is that those with much wealth and many material things (and most Americans fit into this category) can become so attached to these things that they focus their lives on obtaining more and more things or money rather than focusing their hearts on God.

The man in the gospel reading above goes away “shocked and grieving”–he can’t  believe his ears. He’s kept all the commandments and now Jesus wants him to get rid of his treasured possessions. This man probably spent his whole life amassing those possessions, maintaining them with repair and upkeep, and protecting them from thieves. His “things” were probably his main focus–and Jesus encourages him to get rid of them.

In her time, Clare took these words of Christ very seriously. I’m trying to imagine what this teaching means in our lives today. Certainly Christ desires that we have basic food and shelter. After all, he taught us to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread.” But I rather doubt Christ would want many of us (if any) to pray “give us this day, increased stock dividends,” or “save me from higher taxes.”

Yet, some Christian speakers of today give the impression that following Christ is a recipe for wealth, success, and earthly power. If you pray the right way, or donate to the right ministry, money will come back to you in return. This is known as the “gospel of prosperity.”

I wonder, how does one reconcile the gospel of prosperity with these words of Jesus telling the man to sell all he owned? To build up treasure, not in bank accounts, powerful cars or sleek electronic gadgets (confession: I just bought a Kindle), but rather “treasure in heaven”?

Saint Clare was counter-cultural when she dared to say no to her parents’ plan for her life (prestigious marriage, no doubt) and took up instead the cross of Christ in holy poverty. She even stood her ground on this issue when church officials wanted to release her from her vow of holy poverty because they thought it too strenuous for a woman. “Release me from my sins,” she said, “but never from the vow of holy poverty,” or something to that effect (I regret I can’t find where I read this).

Today we are bombarded with messages that would lead us away from the true way of Christ, some of them coming from people who call themselves “Christian.” May we have the courage of Clare, even when it means giving up wealth, power, or prestige for the sake of the gospel.

Spiritual Aerobics

Think about your possessions. Is there something you own that you could give to someone in need? Perhaps a closet filled with things you never use? Magazines? School supplies? Dishes? A table? Socks? Suitcases? Phones? Radios? Winter coats? School clothes? Books? A musical instrument or sports equipment? Blankets?