There’s Hope for the World

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:21-23

Three years and seven months ago, my husband and I closed on our first house and moved to the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. The town has all the same problems as the world at large on a smaller, more intimate scale. We struggle with racism, income inequality, violence, climate change, food insecurity, immigrant rights, political divisions and more. I’ve been known to joke that those struggles were the reason I moved here in the first place. I figured that if I could help solve those problems in a small town of less than 10,000 people, there would be hope for the rest of the world.

Most days, this small town looks much like the rest of the world. The last few months have brought us Covid-19 pandemic infections that rival larger urban areas (when proportionally adjusted for our population). Amidst the murders of black women and men around our nation and systemic racism, Facebook posts from local friends reflect the same news articles and resources posted by urban friends. My default “hope setting” has stayed on something like Hebrews 11:1 describes.

Last night, though, was different. Undeterred by nationwide reports of violence at similar events, a few young women from our local high school organized a peaceful protest and march to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Hundreds of community members gathered at the town square and walked down Main Street to condemn the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless victims whose names go unreported or unremembered by a society that so often fails to value people of color. I listened as the young women spoke before the event. I listened as our police chief and another officer spoke out against police brutality and marched with us, while others directed traffic and handed out water to the marchers. I walked down Main Street with a crowd extending past my line of vision, and I came face to face with a determined hope. It’s a big deal when the marching crowd seems as large as the turnout for Bacon Fest and the Prime Beef Festival parade. (They’re two separate things, because why not?)

We haven’t solved the world’s problems. Cities are still burning around our country, threats to life threats abound. Here, though, there is hope for our world. Refrains of “We Shall Overcome” could be heard in the crowd. Cheers of “Vote, Vote, Vote” lingered as we dispersed. The work has begun, it will continue, our shared humanity depends on our building beloved community. We may be starting small, but we have big visions and a deep, liberating hope.


Have Courage and Be

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9, The Bible

The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation…The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

I don’t know what strikes fear and dismay into your heart. Maybe it’s the headlines. Or a barrage of emails sent by decision-makers who are doing the best they can with a dumpster fire raging out of control and a smoldering landfill nearby. Maybe it’s fear of having to actually use the ridiculous glitter-infused hand sanitizer from Bath and Body Works that your mom got you for Christmas years ago. Maybe your heart beats a little faster when there is no chicken, bread, milk, or toilet paper on the grocery shelves you took for granted. Maybe you are ninety-two years old, or wondering if you will get a chance to (cool) iron out the square creases of your plastic-wrapped cap and gown. Maybe you wake up in these strange days, knowing that your old and new co-workers will require, in addition to the usual productivity, food/treats/diaper changes/entertainment/walks/exercising/snuggles. I don’t know what it is that makes you fearful, but it’s enough.

For me it’s partly the experience of asking, all at once, if something like “Zoom” can facilitate meaningful worship, vocation, meaning and purpose, family, and community. For me, it’s knowing, as I write this, someone will not turn ninety-three. For me, it’s knowing, as I write this, you will learn that you won’t walk across the commencement stage in your neatly pressed (or not) cap and gown on the day you intended. For me, I am dismayed at the Sisyphean task of self-examination and existence in a world that is so uncomfortably different from the one I had become accustomed to.

I am also encouraged. I am encouraged by educators who risk new pedagogies so that what they know of the world will be carried by a new generation. I am encouraged by students who trust that the pursuit of knowledge is worth fighting for. I am encouraged by families who are honest about the pain of living with one another. I am encouraged by lapsed musicians who pick up their instruments, and active ones who deliver their art in unique ways. I am encouraged by friends who offer to put jigsaw puzzles on their porch for a trade. I am encouraged by communities of faith who step back long enough to examine the “why” of their sacraments as much as the “how.” I am encouraged by libraries who let me check out dozens of books for the long haul. I am encouraged that faith, hope, and love still abide in a time when doubt, despair, and hatred are easier.

I don’t know what encourages you. I don’t have a recipe for these times (though I can recommend good cookbooks and tell you to wash you hands before eating). I hope that you will take time to be lost, to be poor, to take risks, to feel the dusty rocks and sharp stones of the wilderness beneath your feat, to mourn what will not be. I hope you will choose to live again, in spite of all that threatens to undo your life. Most of all, I hope that you will be, and be of good courage.

Who is my neighbor?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The last year of my life has been like a modern re-enactment of God’s command to Abram in Genesis 12:1. God tells Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I got married on December 5, 2015 and moved out of my parents’ house into the apartment my husband, Ryan, and I rented in Evanston, IL. Three months later, my job came unexpectedly to an end, and a few months after that I accepted an invitation to join the chaplaincy staff at Monmouth College several hours away. My husband and I bought a house in Monmouth, and he patiently lives half-way in ‘the old country’ for his job in Chicago. It has been such a whirlwind, I’ve only now really started to look around me at this new country God has chosen for me. Monmouth is a town of less than 10,000 people and the smallest place I have ever lived. It’s been overwhelming at times, but mostly it has been oddly eye-opening.

In the few short months that I’ve been here, I’ve had to take my Bible more seriously. Someone thought it would be a great idea to let me preach in chapel for the first service after our recent presidential election, and again for the first service following the presidential inauguration. If you’ve kept an eye on national news, you have a sense of what kind of time it’s been. Over the past week especially, I’ve had to look in the mirror and ask the question of the Good Samaritan parable: “Who is my neighbor?”

Here are just a few examples from this week. We have an older boiler system in our house, and the circulator pump has been on its way out since day one. In the first place, I now know what a circulator pump does and what it looks like. Not bad for a city girl, right? More importantly, I now know the skilled technicians who replaced our failing part who have been at work here for generations practicing their trade. When I mention to others who we had do the work, more than one person has affectionately referred to them as ‘good, salt of the earth folks.’ Ryan and I have met many of our neighbors on the block…which is impressive, because we haven’t exchanged more than a few words with any of the six other families from our urban Evanston apartment building. They have offered advice, an open door to garages full of tools, and even the manual labor of their teenage sons. Today, I met a wonderful woman whose 17-yr-old son is really excited to pursue a vocational training program for welding after graduation this spring. She’s really excited for him because it means he will likely have a steady wage, a career that values apprenticeship, a trade that allows him to see the tangible fruit of his labors, and he has job prospects that give him the option of staying close to his family.

I share all this because I often forget to value the deep worth of all my neighbors. I’m passionately on the side of the oppressed and underprivileged and my facebook feed is full of college and grad-school educated friends who are just as passionate about peacemaking, seeking justice, and doing good in the world. We call on each other to write letters, we read and post newspaper articles, we make phone calls to our governmental representatives. But today I’ve noticed, with greater clarity, that I can also reach a wider group from where I’m sitting, and the work of conversation is harder. The welder, the farmer, the tradesperson, the immigrant, the stranger, are my all neighbors here in Monmouth, and it’s not as easy as a facebook post.

If I’m honest, I have to remember and value the diversity of where I’ve come from. My family is a family of immigrants, so I value the newly arrived immigrant and the refugee. When my dad graduated from high school in a tiny Minnesota farming town, he went on to learn the vocational trade of an electrician and is way more useful than I’ll ever be around a dark house. He married my mom, a woman in ministry who has since completed doctoral work. Bringing up ‘politics’ at family gatherings can be uncomfortable. I come from complicated roots. I have seen changes happen, walls come down, and compassion increase, but it has taken a lot of time and a lot of hard work.

The small town where God has called me needs every single one of our gifts to survive and thrive. In our small school district, over 30% of students from preschool to third grade now have a language other than English as their primary language. 77% of students are considered low-income and are eligible for free or reduced meals at school. According to the 2010 census, the population was 88% white. Six years later, public school data from 2016 reveals that our area is much more diverse: only 64% of students from K-12 are white. Diversity has emerged rapidly over a relatively short period of time, and the work of interdependence and community building is an urgent challenge. People are all over the map where the recent election was concerned. We read our Bibles and interpret our faith traditions in dramatically different ways. To practice a liberating theology in this place is to embrace many truths, to be surprised by the broadness of mercy, and to seek to be faithful as real discomfort and complexity are encountered by the roadside.