This issue takes up the question of how God engages with us – and how we engage with God – especially through challenge. We hope these questions will help you to dig deeper into your own experience, either in prayer, journaling, or in conversation with others.
Engaging with God
How have you experienced God’s engagement in your life? Recall a place, a person, a moment, in which you knew that God was engaging with you.
Are you open and honest with God about all your feelings and experiences, good and bad? Have you ever felt unable or even afraid to be honest with God?
How might you engage God more fully?
Where do you hear God’s voice? What messages might come from other sources, as they seek to lead you away from life?
How do you tend to react to experiences of struggle, pain, weakness, or sickness? What underlying assumptions do your own reactions reveal?
When have you experienced or witnessed the transformation of something devastating into a path for reconciliation, healing, or transformation?
Think about the struggles that you are facing right now. How might you embrace them as the place of God’s engagement with you? How is God calling to you through them?
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
Last year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders in our diocese. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed this information. I had heard it before, but this time, I truly listened.
A few months earlier I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
In this issue of Cowley we are asking the question, How does God engage with us? Throughout the scriptures, the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep is used to describe the relationship of love and care God desires to have with us. The psalmist describes this relationship with these familiar words: “The Lord is my shepherd; he makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1,2). As a shepherd would, God engages with us as our protector and provider, our companion and guide.
The Gospel of John applies this same image to the relationship between Jesus and his followers. Jesus identifies himself as “the good shepherd” who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). “The sheep follow him because they know his voice. They do not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4,5).
In January of 2021, Luke Day was named as the new strength coach for the University of South Carolina football team. At a press conference which introduced Coach Day to the wider public, he was asked about the inspiration for his mantra “Struggle Well!” Coach Day remarked that the mantra came from some personal “big-time life setbacks.” Both his charisma and brutal honesty had me hanging off his words as he went on to aver the inevitability of struggle in life. Certainly, my own experience of struggle has been arduous, life-long, and at times traumatic.
“We should trust that the offering of sickness and weakness
contributes powerfully to our total life in Christ.”
– “The Challenges of Sickness,” SSJE Rule of Life
A Peculiar Call
Sickness is, to use the language of our Rule of Life, a mark of the “fragility of human life,” a fragility that “makes sickness inevitable.” Unless we have been lucky, we have all run into the shadow of sickness over the course of our lives:
- For some of us, sickness only asks us its hard questions on those rare occasions when we come down with a cold or flu.
- For some of us, sickness only occupies our thoughts because we know or love someone who is sick.
- Some of us may have grown up chronically sick, in and out of hospitals or regularly out from school.
- Some of us may not remember a time when we were not sick, or when sickness didn’t make so many demands of our conscious energies.
- Some of us may have had an otherwise stable experience of health for years, only to now greet sickness as a life-long, incurable companion.
Whether we find ourselves bearing the marks of sickness or not, historically or now in this moment, our culture routinely teaches us certain ways of viewing sickness and health — some of which can cause even more distress than illness itself. Consider how you have reacted to your own times of sickness. Think about how the world around you often responds to the reality of sickness. These reactions reveal our fundamental assumptions about health and sickness.
Most people who meet me today do not realize that I stutter. The truth is that I have stuttered since I was a child and have worked every day of my life to speak as fluently as I do today. God has been engaging with me in my stutter in every syllable I speak, fluently or not. This is just as true now as an adult as it was when I was a child.
My journey with stuttering started in kindergarten when I began getting the feeling that whenever I spoke, words were getting stuck in my throat. I later learned that in the world of stuttering, this is called a block, when you are trying to speak but no sounds or air come out of you. It is an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling, and I remember being horrified of it as a child.
This was around the same time of my life that I began to pray. Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in a Boston suburb, I was exposed to prayer at a young age. When we would go to Mass on Sundays, I would always pray about my stutter. I would listen to the priest giving his sermon and be amazed that someone could speak so slowly, deliberately, and fluently in front of a church full of people. I used to pray that God would let me speak like that.
A decade ago, my family experienced a cataclysmic event, which forever delineated a “before” and “after” in both our individual lives and in our life as a family. In a few words, a family friend betrayed us and betrayed our trust, causing a cascade of hurt which shattered our family to the core. As if we were living out a reverse fairy tale, our once happy family plunged into darkness. Facing this brokenness, I have felt despair, hopelessness, and fear. But with God’s help, I am journeying toward hope and love.
As I try to piece together the broken pieces, reading the Psalms and writing poetry offer help. The Psalms, for example, invite me to make sense of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Likewise, writing poetry helps me to engage with the challenge of finding purpose and joy in a fallen world.
These past months have been ones of particular challenge for all of us, as we have learned to manage, and now live with, the COVID pandemic. This is especially true for us in the Community. In January, eleven of us either tested positive or manifested symptoms of the virus over the course of several days. It seems that, multiple times a day, decisions were made and remade as first one, and then another Brother, went into isolation.
Out of the background of that particular challenge comes this issue of Cowley, in which Brothers reflect on personal and global challenges. Whether the challenges are personal, such as dealing with sickness, stuttering, or discerning God’s voice, or global, such as the climate emergency, it is my experience that challenges bring with them invitations.