Peter Storey came to Boston University two weeks ago. If you’ve never heard of him, Storey was chaplain to Mandela and other political prisoners in the 60s; he served as president of the South African Council of Churches near the end of apartheid; he co-chaired the regional Peace Accord structures intervening in political violence before South Africa’s first democratic elections and was one of those appointed by President Mandela to design and select the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
He came to us with extraordinary memories, immense wisdom, and clear eyes; but there was also the hint of a searching heart behind his gaze. He told us of his country’s great progress since the new South Africa began. He told us also of continuing crime, extreme poverty, an educational system in shambles, race relations slow to heal, and vast, though now more racially integrated, chasms between rich and desperately poor. He stood before us with humility and determination, clearly honored and still amazed to have given his life to the work of ending apartheid; yet wondering what he and his country’s other leaders could have done to prepare South Africa for a better future than this one.
Bishop Storey told us of his days as prison chaplain on Robben Island, one of his first appointments as an ordained clergyman; referring to life among Mandela and the other prisoners as “learning to walk among giants”. But listening to him speak story after story and insight after insight, we knew we were ourselves in the presence of a truly great man. He spoke often of the unnamed people working for freedom in rural areas, of the courage of the victims who came forward to the TRC, of all those who suffered and persevered in the 40-year struggle, and of Mandela’s own regard for the same people. But it was clear that, if they were ever to make a peaceful transition of power without enormous bloodshed and dysfunction, the people had needed Mandela, Tutu, and the other leaders who labored in nonviolence.
In reflecting on his years at Robben Island, Bishop Storey said, “Here I met people who were unafraid.” He once asked one of them, Robert Sobukwe, how he could stand being locked up while his captors went free. Sobukwe stared across the water to Capetown, at white people’s homes for which blacks’ had been bulldozed and at the government building where the powerful levied his sentence. “They are the prisoners,” Sobukwe said, “not me.”
Storey told us of his country’s “deep sense that we were meant to live better, more gracefully with one another,” and we could see that Mandela had called out to the better, more graceful person inside every oppressor and every anti-apartheid worker. These men fought for decades and yet amidst the frustration and injustice they held themselves and their nation to convictions of non-violence, truth, equality for all, and reconciliation over retaliation. They worked with extreme conviction of the truth, but never with hatred for their enemies. They lived on love for their country and deep, deep faith; a belief that reconciliation was the true way because Jesus said so. And they called an entire nation of wounded people into its nobler self.
So there was not just sadness or frustration – there was a sense of betrayal in Bishop Storey’s voice when he quietly railed against his country’s continued pain and injustices, and its deliverance into the hands of corrupt politicians, corporate lobbies and petty factionalism. It was suddenly hard, in that room, to be young; to hear a still-young but still-70-year-old man wonder why his people had turned from a spirit of greatness to one of selfishness. To hear him wonder who would carry on for him.
We can hurry past the work of remembering how miraculous the end of apartheid was. We can remember Mandela with a sort of pious nod, as if he were a saint or angel sent to someone else’s past. Or we can listen to him bold, unshakeable, human, asking us all to be yet better. Giving us a chance to deny a place in our lives to the lazy way of hatred, or the hateful way of complacency. Leading his own life in the way of Jesus.
We honor Mandela when we refuse to accept selfish motives and easy-ways-out from ourselves and from our leaders.
But perhaps we honor him most when we dare to wonder what sort of God this man served.
A candle is a protest at midnight. It is a nonconformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ’.
President Mandela, thank you for your light.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Hope extends just as far as it is needed, into tomorrow or into eternity, holding up our heads when we are bent low by all that we carry. We hold out for a rescue we’ve no cause to expect. And what if it is foolishness, to stand tall amidst destruction, to wage this daily war against despair?
We hope for what we have not seen. We hope for what we have not imagined. We hope in a God who works miracles, not in ourselves. There is a time to cease puzzling over projects and investing in prideful anxiety that we are not enough. Of course we are not enough! We are sufficient for our own tiny, holy, ordained role – but only God is enough for the world. So in Advent, we wait; we slow and prepare so that on Christmas we may cease working and building and fixing,
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
Today I learned of Aquinas’ metaphysics
that “pied” is a word for “spotted”
the evidence for Paul’s gospel as anti-imperial statement
the requirements for my degree
of a friend’s slow healing and small miracles
and that a mother still cries when she says the word “Newtown”.
A simpleton, I am daily struck dumb
with delight, tedium, brilliance, agony
knowledge may yet be fruit for fools
but there is no hiding from life after Eden.
Olly, Olly, in come free
Hey friends – I’m at On Pop Theology today! Check it out.
“You deserve a new car upon college graduation!” shouts the television.
“I think you are right,” say the people.
“Only you must add this little bit of debt onto the mountain of your school loans,” says the television. “But don’t worry. We can all pretend it’s not really there.”
I’ve seen several variations on this advertisement from different car dealerships. If asked, I suppose we’d all agree that the only thing one has actually earned upon college graduation is a diploma and hearty congratulations. But it is nice to hear someone say that you deserve more. It’s almost like they recognize your worth. If you are a young person uncertain of your place in the world, it is easy to believe that entering the world of adults requires certain paraphernalia and thus, that the world owes it to you. The world obliges, offering you a car and a new professional wardrobe and a nice watch and a house just a bit nicer than the one whose mortgage you knew you could truly afford.
To escape would mean giving all that up; and then what did you even go to college for?
The rest here.
I don’t remember All Saints’ Day of 2011, but I know that I was miserable. It had been less than a month since I’d broken up with my boyfriend, and I was entering the darkest period of a long depression. I worried constantly about what I’d do after I graduated and whether I was worthy of anyone’s love and what the point of anything could possibly be.
I have wished often that I could talk to that person, answer the questions she didn’t have the courage to actually ask.
If I could write her a letter, I’d want to tell her that things would be just fine. I’d love to surprise her with all the things she was incapable of anticipating. I’d like to say,
Your final semester of senior year will be picture-perfect, as quirky and fun and fulfilling as you’ve ever wanted. You will neither live long-term with your parents nor work at Taco Bell. In fact, two years from now you’ll be at a coffee shop visiting gorgeous Upstate New York and your wonderful boyfriend of exactly one year, doing homework you still love for the school you attend for free in Boston. You will have few regrets.
I’d like to gloss over all the hard stuff that happened in the intervening time because we are overly prone to really unhelpful, long fits of dread. I’d just want to tell her the good things, so she’d know that she wouldn’t always be lost. She’d be found by God, by a lot of beautiful people, and by herself – not really by looking, just by going along in good faith, the way she’d always hoped these things could work.
If I really could write her a letter, though, I’d want to say those things but I’d decide against it, because I like surprises and also because of quantum physics and not killing your grandfather and stuff. Ever since I was small, I’ve thought it strange that people would want to know the future. Now I think so more than ever. It is the not knowing that reminds us how we can only unwrap the days and years one at a time, leaning into them like the gifts they are.
But do wish I could tell her, in cursive that’s not much changed, on heavy paper, in an envelope sealed with stickers:
It is not yours to know what events will happen; of course, some will be good and some bad. Only be at peace about who you are becoming. The “real world” will test and prove the lessons you’re trying to teach yourself and your improv team: trust your friends. trust the process. trust yourself. live in the moment; pay attention. more humility is better. more confidence is better. if you are really trying and really loving, things will work themselves out even if they’re tangled and painful right now.
In two years you will be more interesting. more kind. louder. more self-assured. you’ll be more savvy. more able to hold depth and lightness together in the same moment. you’ll be wiser and more gracious. you will know some more about what love means. you will know some more about what you don’t know.
When you leave school, there is no place assigned to you; for the first time you must carve your own space in the world. It is bewildering, ugly at times. But it will happen anyway. Making that space will teach you the shape of yourself, and with the help of God it will be beautiful, because you are beautiful.
Yes, I wish she’d known she was beautiful.
very happy to be at On Pop Theology today…
I like these State Forest trails. They’re ATV paths that tend to end abruptly, dumping you off in some clearing or other, no lofty views or rivers to follow. Truly unspectacular, but that’s probably why I’ve never seen another human here. I like to be here just to be here, no agenda or expectations, wandering with the trees. This is no wilderness; it’s a highly cultivated small forest, but the trees don’t know.
I am in an ecology class this fall where we all sit around bemoaning the evils of Monsanto and McDonald’s and other corporations that wield more power than many governments. Then we go back to our normal lives. We try to remember to turn off our lights and take our reusable coffee mugs around. I’m writing this post in a McDonald’s…
I want to tread lightly on the earth, but I am a blunderer, even when there aren’t sticks and rocks under foot. Birds wing away, squawking in protest at my clumsy, crunchy footfalls. I can’t pretend I don’t impact this place simply by walking in it, never mind the earth by living in it. I want to live simply, but it seems life complicates itself. I want to nestle thankfully into one spot and live, but I am a twenty-something nomad among millions.
here is the rest!
They were looking at me, everyone would think I was weird, you don’t just abandon your hands to the sky and expect to be treated like a normal human being, and there I was with tears streaming down my face because grace like rain had, indeed, fallen down on me. But could I raise my hands, say to the room yes this is me!, stand there open and unashamed? My body wasn’t used to expressing my brain.
One day: “I just want to say how much the youth group blesses me on Sundays. They set the example in worship here at the front. I love seeing them praising the Lord with their hands up and their voices strong. They are on fire for God.“
It wasn’t weird. It was brave and right. I raised my hands that day. I was a witness.
I was thirteen.
Early Sunday morning, every Wednesday night, I was there at my high school church. Bible study, youth group, cleanup afterward, every youth retreat, mission trip, leadership retreat, small group leader. I preached once and I almost cried in front of everybody. But no one asked me to be on fire. No one told me to do more or be holier. They drenched my try-harder soul in grace and more grace, in a new covenant of God’s unending senseless love; gentle reminders of my weakness and deep, strong prayers for strength. It turns out those Neo-Calvinists know a thing or two about growing perfectionist teenage girls into women turning always back to God, thankful, beloved.
I was seventeen.
It was Christian college or no college and so I went to the biggest one I could find that didn’t have a bizarre dress code. At least, the school didn’t, but here were multiple prayer groups and people speaking in tongues at Thursday morning chapel; here were preachers trying to revival us twice a week and maybe a million subtle rules for holiness. I carefully tucked the tank tops under sweaters and shrugs. Most of the time.
Here was a man I loved, and here was a crushing dark-night depression that took my breath away. Here I was a year hostage under the mantra love is a choice. Here I finally did my penance for the breakup in week after week of suffocating guilt that I couldn’t do it, I’d never love, I hadn’t made the choice.
Here God released me and some better-than-friends dragged me out, and I discovered what others had tried to tell me: Love is a choice but romance is a mystery, and love can let go. The one you loved will heal, for this is the way of things. Everyone is not mine to carry.
I was twenty-one.
I was new to New York and I was making sacrifices for God like I’d vowed after the summer in Thailand. I never would have said it, but I was here to fix the world.
I was more alone than I could have known I’d be. I was unprepared to face down urban poverty. I did everything I knew how and still the world wasn’t fixed. It was cold and I was on food stamps; I flickered and sputtered against an icy wind. I didn’t know what I was doing or why or how, and God was silent except to provide – small miracle after small miracle.
I was twenty-two.
Would you believe, with all my good-and-bad evangelical baggage, I still want to be on fire for God? I was treated gently, I think, and I found the places at Christian college to sort a lot of it out. Certainly there were at times shame and competition to get better somehow. Certainly I helped to fuel them. This is a talent of mine.
But the fire wasn’t a fiction, I know this, and even when it has gone out I never found it a childish or unrealistic thing to want. The world needs people on fire. The world needs those who don’t hold back from life, mentors and go-outers and every-day-doers, lovers of the unbearable beauty and sadness of all this sacred beat-up earth. The world needs sustainable and downwardly mobile and praying and singing and still-here when things get hard, and none of these happen by accident.
Something about being on fire. I submit that the times I burned out were the times I thought I could fuel the fire myself, and those were the times I was consumed quicker than an unimpressive dud-sparkler. I would just keep trying and fixing and asking God to make me better instead of asking God to actually help me. I don’t mean this as another twisted way of saying that my unhappiness was all my fault because I should have done better. I only mean that I am learning now what it means to be small and weak and OK with it. I am learning to say I can’t and I won’t and someone else will. I am just not responsible for everything, or for very much at all. It turns out that was kind of a conceited belief.
Yes, fire looks different now. I am learning that there’s fire everywhere and I can catch it over and over. I am doing what I do because I feel at peace here, because it’s what I love, because it’s worship – not because I’m supposed to. I’m on my knees before a blazing New England autumn, I’m praying on sidewalk benches with my friends, I’m in the glow of Eucharist candles, I’m reading 1 Corinthians and blown away by love. I’m climbing roofs and scaling ladders chasing sunsets across the sky, I’m giving thanks for this outrageous display and I’m settling in with the ember of an American Spirit every once in a while. I write what is and what could be, I cry during praise choruses, I am a witness. I’m praying for the city and the tuna fish and the future and it’s probably all insane.
I am twenty-three, and I am on fire.
I’m at On Pop Theology today. Have a look!
I’ve been repeatedly exhorted to come to chapel in order to hear my name called. About eight-five of us, new students all, stand one by one as our names are read and we are officially recognized as members of the Boston University School of Theology.
New faculty and Distinguished Alumni are also recognized today. We are told that graduates of the school are currently serving as Ivy League professors, renowned writers, bishops, and inner city pastors. Patron saint and Ultimate Alumnus Martin Luther King, Jr. is invoked. And now my name has been listed alongside these illustrious people; I am supposed to feel inspired.
I am terrified.
the rest is over here.
I am on the train to a wedding and I am worried about coming home to schoolwork. I am castigating myself by reciting all the ways I could have planned this trip better. I am brooding again over needing a job.
But I am on the train to a wedding! The trees tug me out of myself – I recall that I am barrelling through a brilliant New England October toward a coffee-and-catch-up reunion with a dear friend; and that only a few hours separate my fingers from my beloved’s. Luminescent yellow and the scarlet of a queen’s robes, farms and cities unfurl under a bright fall morning, all stretching thankfully, wistfully to take in the last few days of a near, warming sun.
How does one forget such things? What of all this gives license to dwell in anxiety? It is a crime, my enormous train station coffee replies. The silliest, and yet the saddest crime, to deny the short gorgeous days their due.
Perhaps it is too much. Perhaps I sense the joy of God at all this and it seems we could share too much, that I could burst with it, or that I could remain too long behind child-eyes and forget to return to schedules and bills. Perhaps I have learned disappointment makes me cry, and I am afraid such beauty will make me hope too much.
But I choose to stay here. Distraction does not have to be the way of things; I will not seek constant escape from pain or cower from joy. I will not leave before I have arrived. I do not belong to the unchangeable past, and it is not given to me to manage the future; it is an illusion of modernity that either can be optimized by categorizing and explaining their vicissitudes away. I do not belong to borrowed sorrows. This Friday I belong to sensibly stacked houses, a heron, a book for a favorite class, longed-for faces, and fellow travellers on these rails-between-places.
Here I discover today. Here life is banging down my door. Here is the moment eternity chooses to share with me and the Connecticut trees.