You might remember that in January, I quoted Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the tragedy of the Newtown massacre. A month after her daughter was murdered, she wrote
Many want the “real” story. Here is the real story: Evil visited Newtown. Now it’s our choice to respond. We choose good. We choose life. We choose hope. We choose that even though we’re sad and we weren’t perfect parents we got one thing right- we invested in eternal things. We choose love… and if we as broken hurting parents who can barely get out of bed can make this choice- I respectfully invite others to join us. Love wins.
The Reluctant Prophet in Us All
Village Church, Cummington, MA
April 21, 2013
Karen G. Johnston
Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry
What is prophesy, if not a deep, vast longing for a return to unity? Who here, particularly this week, with Boston so close to us that all of a sudden a hundred-plus miles is how wide our hearts are – who here isn’t full of a vast longing for wholeness in the midst of what has been torn asunder?
According to both Jewish and Christian understandings, Moses doesn’t initially want to be God’s prophet. Moses offers Gods many too many reasons not to choose him. Eventually, to answer Moses’ reluctance, God assigns his brother, Aaron, to help Moses speak.
Moses is not alone. There are many prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures and many of them express some form of reluctance. Jeremiah. Amos. Jonah tries to flee from God’s presence – as if that is possible! One of them so did not want to be a prophet he wished that he had been struck dead in his mother’s womb. That is some intense reluctance.
Generally speaking, the Jewish reading of Genesis is not one of a fall or of original sin, but of the original rupture, and that this is the essential and defining human impulse: to move towards unity after rupture. If that is the case, there are so many stories of humanity breaking the Covenant with God, with each other. Certainly Cain’s murderous actions are a tremendous rupture. The dogma of the Church can be seen as rupture from God, just as many post-Enlightenment intellectual and political concepts or movements. It seems we human beings have a pattern of running away not only from a divine calling, but our own divine natures.
In his book, They Made Their Souls Anew, André Neher writes about this rupture that comes before any prophetic voice begins to develop:
This was the tragedy of the prophetic return. There can be no joining without a preceding rupture. There can be no joining without the risk of another rupture.
I have to ‘fess up that this is kind of the pot calling the kettle black. I spent more than a decade covering my ears to the ministerial calling that I finally, like Jonah, could not outrun.
And then there’s everyday. There are plenty of situations where I struggle to do the right thing, even when it’s plain what needs to be done. Speaking truth to power. Speaking frankly to a beloved companion. Calling my state representative rather than hoping someone else will do it. Picking up the piece of trash someone else left on the ground. Choosing an inconvenient option because it’s better for the earth and future generations, even though it’s a pain in the you-know-what for me. I think I am not alone in this – if there’s anyone in this holy house who knows of what I speak, can I get an amen?
Our national conversation has been focused these past few months on gun violence and safety. With the violence in Boston this week, this national conversation has both broadened in what is becoming an all too familiar way. Too often, as is shown by the recent vote by Congress on gun safety, these conversations take place in ways that show the deep divisions in our country. Even in my home that does not have a television, it’s impossible to miss. In this midst of this national conversation, which sometimes sounds like it’s a national set of monologues with no one side listening to any other side, I think of a particular reluctant prophet: the mother of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I have mentioned Ana’s mother, Nelba Marquez-Greene, from this pulpit before. Our reading from today was part of our worship in January. My sense from online media reports, with the presidential and Congressional attention gun violence legislation and thus to the families whose children were murdered last December 18th in Newtown, there has been an increasing spotlight into which Nelba, and other Sandy Hook parents, have stepped.
Let us not confuse Nelba’s willingness or her abundant gifts for articulate, thoughtful engagement for ambition or enthusiasm. This is one mother who would have preferred not to have experienced the rupture of losing her six-year old daughter so violently, and yet in having no choice about that, she has stepped into a prophetic voice. I’m gonna guess there was a whole boatload of reluctance there – reluctance, regret, wishing for it to be otherwise.
Quoting Second Timothy — “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” — on the three-month anniversary of her daughter’s death, Nelba wrote this, addressing first her daughter, then America:
These are some of the reasons I am still alive: a) the unshakeable knowledge that if I ended my own life it would not bring me to where you are, b) your brother needs me and c) I have a job to do.
My hands miss combing your thick brown hair. My eyes miss delighting in your growth. My lips miss kissing your chubby cheeks. My ears miss hearing the laughter of siblings in our house. My nose misses the smell of the folds of your neck. My cheeks miss your sloppy kisses. The breasts that nursed you faithfully for your first year of life…ache. And I miss your notes under my pillow. My womb was robbed. A warrior has risen.
Guess what, America? You have my daughter’s blood on your hands. And I will not be bullied into being quiet….And, there is only one option now: UNITE for common sense solutions to address our culture of violence.
Many days are hopeless and dark for me. I pray for peace and restoration.
Tell them we don’t believe we should have to pick between protecting our rights and our children. Tell them we want new, innovative approaches to these problems. Tell them you know there is enough middle ground. Take the time to write and call your representatives.
(Facebook, Remembering Ana Marquez-Greene, excerpts, March 18, 2013)
This has been a highly charged conversation in our nation’s history and certainly, this current version is no different. There are a wide range of views and no matter where one stands politically, as a faithful people we deafen our hearing of this prophetic voice – refined by the rapturous fires of the loss of her very young daughter — at great risk to ourselves, our children, our nation’s future.
Biblical examples imply that prophets are a rare breed, that prophesy is not for the common person. The early Church is more ambivalent about this, believing that anyone could be a martyr and that martyrs and prophets though distinct, were made of the same divine cloth. As part of the Protestant Reformation in Christianity, Martin Luther proclaimed a priesthood of all believers. We can see the legacy of this when we look at the top of the Order of Worship. Go ahead, look. What does it say about who the ministers are here? “Ministers, All Members of the Church.”
The Unitarians Universalists, based on the work of the Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams in the 20th century, expanded this even further, telling us that just as all human being are ministers with direct access to Divine Mystery, we are also all prophets – not only with the ability to perceive injustice and to engage it, but that we have the responsibility to do so. Reluctantly, forthrightly, in grief or out of joy, it does not matter. It is ours to do.
I think to the Resiliency Summit that took place in Cummington, some it in this very building, last month. Expecting 80 people, 110 people showed up. People who care deeply, perhaps even prophetically, about our future, yours and mine. People who understand that we can’t keep going the way we have been going, that in order to be resilient in the face of what is ahead, we must adapt. Not everyone in that day-long meeting agreed with one another about how to go about it, and fortunately for us, agreement is not necessary for their to be effort and progress.
Now, if there was ever a topic about which I really want to hide under the covers and escape from, it’s the environmental future we have created for ourselves and all creatures on this planet. If ever there was a time when I really want to watch escapist movies or read fluffy magazines or play the math and logic games that baffle my husband but soothe my brain, it’s when this topic comes up. This stuff scares me. Deeply. It often leaves me paralyzed. It all sounds so dire. I am left feeling helpless. Hopeless.
I feel deep gratitude for those who do not feel the same reluctance that stops me in my tracks. I feel deep gratitude for the resiliency summit folks, building a stronger community right here, right now. I feel deep gratitude for Joanna Macy, a Buddhist sage and environmental activist in our times, whose actions and words inspire me and loosen the grip that reluctance has on me. She says,
So that became actually perhaps the most pivotal point in, I don’t know, the landscape of my life, that dance with despair, to see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it, but when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.
I feel deep gratitude for Nelba Marquez-Greene, and her husband, Jimmy Greene, building a more compassionate, loving community right here, right now. May the rupture their family experienced so personally, that has compelled them into an inescapable prophethood, may it move us all to build a better future in which we make real the truth they proclaim: Love Wins.
Macy, Joanna. “A Wild Love for the World,” Interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, March 17, 2011
Marquez-Greene, Nelba. Facebook, “Remembering Ana Marquez-Greene”, excerpts, January 18; March 18, 2013
Neher, André. They Made Their Souls Anew