(This was originally published at Atleteia's For Her magazine, but is no longer available there.)
This past week, in the midst of this country’s political upheaval, I’ve been shaken, and so have many people around me. There is much at stake right now. There is much to fear and much to work for, and it can feel overwhelming. When life is troubling, I’m learning to go back to the kernels of wisdom I’ve already gathered, the smooth stones I carry in my pocket to remind me what matters, what God has taught me, what it means to move forward with joy and gratitude.
The peace of Jesus is not passive. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, yet he had a way of always making someone angry. Jesus constantly offended the religious leaders and welcomed everyone into the circle, whether they deserved the invitation or not. Peace is never ignoring hatred or evil, and it always includes having the courage to tell the truth. Peacemaking requires action. Following the way of Jesus usually requires more pain on my part. It asks that I be quick to forgive, set relational boundaries, speak with honesty, and often, that I give up my rights to comfort. It is never the easier way, but it is always the way of Jesus.
Questions are not something to ignore but to embrace. A life worth having is a life where you choose to stare your doubts down all the way. Once you get to the bottom of them, they shrivel. Their power is in their position in your periphery, lurking, hinting that what you believe or what you’re committed to is empty, or worse, a lie. They are loudest when you try to ignore them. But if you’re brave enough to hold them to the light, to examine their realities and their flaws, they have something bold to teach you, and their power withers. When I choose to turn my attention to my fear, to pull each sliver of my doubt from my mind, place it under the examination of God’s presence, God has proven up to the task. There’s a reason Jacob wrestled with God: The more we are brave and bold enough to deal with the fears and doubts and questions, the more we experience a God who meets us in the darkness, stays with us through the night, and sends us back into the daylight—altered, yes (Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life), but changed into something real-er, wiser, more our truest selves.
When it comes to lines in the sand, I want to draw mine on the side of generosity and grace. In politics and theological frameworks, everyone has their opinion, and most of the time life—for better or for worse—has clarified their stance. There are reasons to be liberal; there are reasons to be conservative. If there weren’t, our two party system wouldn’t still be going strong after 240 years. In the same way, theology is a complicated system. There are many ways to read the scripture, and there is much to wrestle with in the Bible. When it comes to politics and theology, I want to form my framework in the place where kindness dwells. I want to look at the world, the church, and my community through the lens of Jesus’s life and teachings. If I have to draw a line in the sand, if I have to choose what I believe about a specific issue, I want to err on the side of generosity and grace.
What makes a human being valuable is not success, but love. My son who has Down syndrome may not live up to most of the world’s expectations of power or prestige, performance or impressiveness. But our performance is never what makes us human. Intelligence is not what makes humanity as beautiful as it is. It is our ability to love and be loved, to make connections, to show empathy—these are the things that allow us to stand out from the rest of creation. These are the things that should be celebrated, in our children, in ourselves.
Kindness should be our native language. The longer I’m married (only 13 years, so I still have much to learn), the more I believe that the key to happiness in a marriage is mutual kindness. It’s the hardest and the simplest thing. (Most of the time, the simplest thing is the hardest.) Also, the key to moving forward as a country? Kindness. The key to unlocking the deep and gnarled roots of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia? It’s kindness. The more we practice listening, knowing, and befriending one another, the more the world will change around us. I believe that. Fiercely.
The elderly have powerful things to teach us, and they deserve our time and our attention. I believe our culture and our nation is suffering acutely because we have forgotten how to listen to our elders. The simple way is always the hardest, but if we want to slow down our wild lives, we could start by visiting the vulnerable; start by listening to the ones whose wild lives have been forcibly slowed down. There is deep wisdom there.
I choose whether time is my friend or my enemy. If time is controlling me, and my schedule does not reflect what I say are my priorities, I’m the one who has to make a change. I can’t blame the world for asking too much of me. I have to choose to slow my life down, and choose to make space for the people who matter most, even if that means sacrificing my status or my success.
Wise people pay attention to their bodies. My body is not simply an annoying ball of feelings that I’m forced to carry around. It’s a gift from God. It’s a friend that wants to teach me about my soul if I’m careful enough to listen. Exhaustion and stress lead me to anger and anxiety. Every time I’ve hunkered down, forced myself to work through the pain or ignore my sadness or fatigue, the more I become the person I don’t want to be: quick to rage, less able to listen to the needs around me. God gave us our bodies so we can test the wind, learn the direction from which the storm is coming. The more we listen, the more we are prepared when the storm arrives (and it always does).
Sorrow and suffering will be part of my life no matter what: I choose what that suffering does to me. I can either run from the pain of this world, or lean into it. Those who lean into suffering are battered, of course. But they come out of the battering smoother, like stones at the bottom of a river. Those who run from pain are still battered by it, but it doesn’t make them stronger, only more bitter. I don’t want pain, but when it comes I pray I’ll allow it to make me wise, that I’ll come out on the other side closer to the woman God has created me to be.
Prayer changes us because God changes us. There is nothing easy about prayer. Also, prayer is incredibly simple. This is the rich dichotomy of the spiritual life. God wants to meet with us, and also? God is already here, already active. Prayer is simply allowing ourselves to be loved by our Creator, to be redirected toward the Way of Jesus, to be made whole. There is much work to be done in the world, much work to be done in our own hearts, but it all starts with the movement of God: in us, in the world. We are loved, and prayer is simply coming back home to that love, choosing to live there in the space where our Creator is endlessly making peace, mending brokenness, and creating beauty.