Searching for God in the city of angels
Getting a good night’s sleep is impossible when everything is in a constant state of turmoil. There is a wistfulness in the air for how things felt just last week or the week before, when things appeared troubled but in hindsight now seem tame. There is much suffering, and every day it seems to grow.
I imagine all this being said between Jesus and his friends as they walked through Galilee, tired and dusty, encountering people on the brink of hopelessness. I have also heard that same voice in the early church community as they faced persecution. It is there again as Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounces the rise of Nazism in Germany and as Martin Luther King Jr. fights against racism in Birmingham, Ala.—both theologians writing from jail cells. The brokenness of the moment is heartbreakingly poignant in the sermons of Archbishop Óscar Romero and the voices of his murdered Jesuit friends in El Salvador.
I recognize that voice in me today. Maybe you do, too.
St. Teresa of Ávila repeatedly bemoans the difficulty of writing about a profound experience. She is clear that grace is needed to give us understanding and words to express what we have seen. I share her frustration and hope that grace may be present to us all, as we try to enter into each other’s worlds. So please accompany me on what seemed like any ordinary day.
It is late in the morning, and I encounter a couple of my coworkers from the university. They tell me they are on their way to pray. I ask if I may join them, and they beam their sincere welcome. I am grateful for their trust. We enter a small chapel in our building, where several others are waiting. I know all of them. We’ve become friends over the years but more so recently, as the urgency of life becomes ever more acute. The members of the group carry nothing with them except walkie-talkies that sometimes crackle and interrupt. Their carts stand neatly tucked in corners around the building, and their blue work uniforms visibly mark the separations of class and privilege we accept without question. “We are only custodians,” they tell me, painfully aware of their marginality. Their resilience and courage humble me.
They begin their informal prayer service, which they have squeezed into their morning break. The guidance of the service rotates among the men and women in complete trust. I note they don’t pay much attention to the chapel space, other than appreciating its quiet privacy. The altar and ambo are not used, and the community stands in a circle joining hands. The day’s leader voices intercessory prayers for all, having first asked what should be prayed for. The prayers, often accompanied by tears, are for their sick, for their coworkers facing financial difficulties, for those who are far, for children, their own and the world’s.
They pray for each other by name, and they intercede for the particular needs of the students and the leadership of “this great university.” No one asks who is Catholic or evangelical or Pentecostal, although I know all three groups are represented. All are immigrants, and although almost all are Spanish speakers, one woman translates softly for her fellow worker from Sainte-Lucie. The day he leads prayers, his words are translated for the rest. They share hearts. We hear Scripture quoted from memory mixed with the stories of battling cancer, fighting the deportation of loved ones, hope for their children, traveling to the border to help. We take up a collection for those too sick to work. I am most grateful for what they teach me. It is a glimpse into something so sacred that I can only call it the kingdom of God.
I have also spent time recently discovering faith communities in inner-city Los Angeles with my photographer son. Far from the affluent neighborhoods, their locations and church buildings are evidence of decades of white flight. The contrast is powerful, as communities made up almost exclusively of people of color struggle to provide even the most basic ministries that are so abundant in the affluent suburbs. Like my coworkers, they make our city function; and like them, they remain invisible to the rest of us.
Our moment is at once entirely new but also entirely familiar to generations of Christians.
I went to search for the kingdom of God with them because, as Jesus makes clear in the Beatitudes, the poor, sorrowful and meek have nothing standing in the way as they turn their gaze to God. Unencumbered by power and privilege, they are “blessed” by their vision of the reign. Just as I saw with my coworkers, the expressions of faith of the poor and vulnerable are occurring against a background of chaos and fear.
You and I live in the particularity of the United States of 2018, where millions of people wake up every morning to another day in which their future is uncertain and their forcible removal from their homes and families is a real possibility. People who have braved everything for the sake of feeding their loved ones are treated like criminals and routinely denied their humanity, jailed, deported and rejected as “illegals.”
Beyond this but connected to it, rising militarism, racist nationalism and staggering expenditures on weapons are all occurring at the same time that spending on education, health care, housing and food aid is being severely cut. We count out grimly the number of mass shootings, offering prayers as a panacea, while teachers like me watch “safety videos,” and the brisk business of selling guns continues. We close our borders to refugees, dismantle programs to aid those fleeing persecution, jailing them and separating them from their children and we cut new deep wounds into our mother earth to force out fossil fuels and choke ourselves to death. There is much suffering.
The Task at Hand
Theology is a creative task that weaves together millennia-old traditions with the urgencies of the present moment. When done properly, theological reflection allows us to see deeper into reality and discover a religious tradition’s power to face and transform that reality in faithful coherence with how we understand God’s vision for us. In our little chapel at my university, and in the locales of the inner city, I realized that our moment is at once entirely new but also entirely familiar to generations of Christians. In these communities, I saw the living faith of the poor. And this, the place where God is indispensable to life, is where any search for the kingdom of God must begin.
Our present reality, both nationally and globally, is dangerous. I do not mean just the obvious dangers of deportation or war. Those are clear. I mean the kind of danger that deceives and hides, hoping we will not notice. What is hidden inside our moment is that unless we act for the kingdom of God, the truthfulness and efficacy of the Gospel is at stake.
The custodial workers who meet every morning know this. They ask Christ to be in their midst and offer themselves and their vulnerability. For all of us who call ourselves Christians, this moment is about the biggest questions of all, about our faithfulness and discernment as beings made “in the image of God,” about our obedience to God’s vision and about our kinship as God’s creatures. What the early church, Bonhoeffer, King, Romero, the prayer group and the multitudes of Christians they represent know and we must now remember is that if we look the other way and acquiesce to evil, we obliterate God’s attempt to reach us through Jesus Christ and destroy the very possibility of that which the Son came to announce: the reign of God.
Conditions for the Search
As I think back on the upheaval faced by Jesus’ Jewish community long before his time, the disconcerting violence encountered by him and his contemporaries and the marked collective convulsions of the past century, I am alarmed; but I also recognize that there is something more being revealed in the unfolding of that story. History also reveals that moments of confusion and suffering birthed prophets through whom the Spirit spoke. These prophets nurtured communities that rekindled an active faith in what was possible, and their work produced lasting changes in consciousness that we can reawaken today. In each of these instances, as the world was fracturing, the brokenness was revealing something new.
Those of us who live in the developed world have entered a new phase in our history. This may actually be good news for our relationship to the good news. The state of confrontation and conflict we are living in is not only our present—it is the story of our past. No matter how much we romanticize it with beautiful songs like “Silent Night,” the truth (as the witnesses of the Gospel tell the story) is that political upheaval, violent ethnic and religious conflict, militarization and poverty were the conditions of the world into which Jesus was born. The New Testament, reflecting on the life of Jesus and his friends, from their first meeting through the beginnings of the movement we call the church, paints an unmistakable picture of life lived on the edge.
Just as I saw with my coworkers, the expressions of faith of the poor and vulnerable are occurring against a background of chaos and fear.
There is nothing romantic or good about a chaotic existence, and I wish it on no one, but it may be a necessary condition for understanding just what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. Today, the realization that there is nothing safe or comforting about the stories recounted in the Gospels may help us find our own place inside the big story they tell. And that story is about God’s work in the world.
Mary's Vision of the Kingdom of God
An interesting feature of the prayer group that I also witnessed throughout the inner-city parishes I visited is the central role of women’s tireless work on behalf of the kingdom. Joining over 36,000 Catholics gathered for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in March, I observed and later confirmed an astounding (but unsurprising) statistic: 70 percent of those gathered to study and train for their work in the church were women. At the same time, a careful look at the aesthetic evidence of sacred spaces in the inner-city parishes made evident just how much the poor and vulnerable turn to a woman, La Virgen María. Why is that? Why do they seek her companionship and leave testimonies of their prayers and their love?
The author of the Gospel of Luke, drawing on a voice like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, makes Mary an early herald of the purpose and nearness of God’s kingdom. In what we commonly call “The Canticle of Mary” or “The Magnificat,” Luke presents a number of clues for recognizing God’s active presence in the world (1:46-55). At first, the canticle appears not to relate much to the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and indeed many biblical scholars believe it is an early Jewish-Christian hymn. But I suggest we should read it within the context of the story.
This clear-eyed vision of the world as it should be, and in her forceful telling will be, is articulated by a radically powerless person. Mary is young, pregnant and, curiously, traveling alone and in haste through the hill country of Judah. As Luke passes along the tradition that Mary is unwed, we note that she travels to her kinswoman Elizabeth, perhaps seeking her protection. This early announcement of God’s kingdom, placed in the mouth of the woman who would give birth to Jesus and raise him, needs to be read from a space of precariousness and vulnerability. The gift of praying with the poor is that they are already there; their closeness to Mary’s situation can orient us on how to read the canticle with new eyes.
Who is this God Mary knows and wants us to know? The canticle tells us we know God not by speculation about a transcendent Other but intimately through God’s action in the world. Mary both tells and enacts the truth that God gives voice to the “nobodies.” As she speaks, Mary shows God’s action in her, which emboldens her past the limitations set up to contain her. In this, the image of the Magnificat is paradoxical. Mary is aware of her status, what the author calls her “lowliness,” and yet it is precisely this humble identification with the least that allows her to speak defiantly with them and for them. Her embrace of powerlessness as tapping into the very source of God’s power connects her religiously and culturally to an entire community of people.
God of the Lowly
Throughout Scripture, God is never praised as an abstract concept or distant other but as the one who loves and through love makes a different and wonderfully new kind of world possible. The community I pray with truly believes this. In their world, “God raises the needy from the dust, [and] lifts the poor from the ash heap” (Ps 113:7). Luke’s description of God’s action through Mary is that God shows mercy “to those who fear [God]” (Lk 1:50). In earlier times, the word fear conjured up a “fire and brimstone” God. But a more accurate way to read this is that God shows mercy to those who are consciously aware of God and act accordingly. Sailors “fear” the sea because if they do not, if they are not fully present to its ways, they will be unable to live in its demanding reality. We cannot even begin to know God’s mercy unless we are first aware of our dependence on God; otherwise we mistakenly assign to ourselves the power that is God’s alone, and we will most assuredly capsize. The kingdom of God depends on such an intentional awareness of God’s vision for creation, and this awareness must engender particular actions from us.
Unless we act, the truthfulness and efficacy of the Gospel is at stake.
God’s vision for creation, Mary tells us, cannot abide arrogance; it opposes and deposes rulers who exploit the lowly and will judge and send away the rich who avoid hearing the cries of the hungry. The canticle ends by underlining God’s “promise” to God’s beloved: Mary’s suffering people of Israel. There is nothing ambiguous here about what the vision of the kingdom of God is; it entails living into this constant and searing requirement that the lowly be lifted up, not tomorrow but today. As God keeps God’s promises, so must we.
Choosing the Kingdom
This uncompromising requirement of God’s vision for the building of God’s reign has divided Christians throughout history. There are those who retire from the turmoil and speak of the kingdom of God as a future place, somewhere in “heaven,” where the wrongs will finally be righted. Getting there is just a matter of piety, patience and, well, dying. And then there are those who try to assuage their consciences by doing the minimum for others as “charity” while building spiritual spas: luxuriant parish complexes that reinforce their separateness from the vulnerable. The result is places of comfort and security that drown out the pain of the world with elevator music.
But there are also those who, like Mary, see God acting in the world for the lowly and vulnerable and boldly take up their cause, which is God’s cause. One could say that these are three different approaches to living as a Christian in a troubled world, all equally valid. One could, but one should not unless one is ready to walk away from the Gospel.
In one of the traditions collected by Luke, Jesus is asked bluntly by scholars “when the kingdom of God would come.” Jesus responds directly in a few words. First, the kingdom “cannot be observed,” and no one will announce it by pointing it out. It is not a “place,” like heaven or a perfectly constructed temple or religious system. The reign of God is an “event.” The kingdom is not to be looked at; it is to be experienced. As Jesus continues, he challenges the scholars, telling them something often repeated throughout the Gospels: They just do not see that “the kingdom of God is among you” (17:20-21).
Any approach to the suffering of the world that does not directly engage us personally with that suffering is, in essence, a denial of the kingdom’s presence among us; it is a denial of Christ’s revelation. The offerings of flowers, candles and prayers I encountered in the inner city were addressed to Mary as the champion of the lowly, the mother who hears their cries and who carries and buries a son who died for love of them. In our little chapel and in churches all over the world, the poor make themselves present to God, ask for God’s companionship and volunteer to do the hard work.
Just as Archbishop Romero was a prophet, so too is every single person who dares to dream of God’s reign with him. Just as the Holy Spirit spoke through Martin Luther King Jr., so too it speaks through all the anonymous women and men who preceded him and walked with him. To be a prophet is a sign of our baptism, and it is time we start acting like it. Jesus Christ’s example and exhortation to us to build God’s reign of radical and dangerous love is alive in you, it is alive in me, it lives in the church, and it calls us to heroism. Where does God’s kingdom need me today, lowly as I am, to speak up and act like young Mary did centuries ago in the sun-kissed hills of Judah? This is our question.