How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?
Witness by Ariel Burger and Night, by Burger’s teacher, Professor Elie Wiesel.

Are you an activist? Is activism something you do – or observe?

Last night I finished Night by Elie Wiesel. It’s a short book I meant to read for years, and I put it off out of selfish knowledge that its contents would rattle me. And they did, because every word is true. I felt physically ill. I don’t remember the last time I read something this painful, powerful, important, or necessary.

In the very unlikely case you’ve never heard of it – Night is a harrowing first-person account of survival in the Nazi death camps. Taken – along with his family and the entire Jewish community of Sighet, Transylvania – to Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel recounts with lucidity, humility, and eloquence the unforgettable anguish of passing through hell and leaving behind every person he had ever loved. Deeply observant, this Jewish teenager faced a prolonged dark night of the soul unimaginable to most. I defy anyone with a heart to read this book and remain unmoved.

You will read Night and feel bereft. But there is a mighty epilogue. Elie Wiesel was much more than a survivor. Before his passing in 2016, he wrote 40 books (both fiction and nonfiction), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and most notably, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He taught Humanities at Boston University for nearly 40 years.

In conjunction with Night, I recently devoured a sort-of primer on moral education – Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, who was a student of and later an assistant to, Elie Wiesel in Boston. It’s the next best thing to being in Professor Wiesel’s classes, pondering eternally significant questions such as, “How can we make the world a more compassionate place?”

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post – the steps we take after we are consumed with sadness and fury over the injustices in the world.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Professor Wiesel said he had faith. “Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” (emphasis mine)

To sit on our hands and do nothing when we are outraged is to fuel evil’s fire.

We may feel powerless, but we are not.

“Walt, a retired academic dean who [had] attended Wiesel’s classes for over a decade, [said], ‘My problem is, I do something small, write a check or something, and I feel better. I don’t want to feel better; I want to hold on to the outrage so I can do more. How do I do that?’

[Wiesel replied,] ‘The question is, how real are other people to you? Do you feel their suffering?…We can feel overwhelmed….And you can remain asleep to others’ pain. We need to find a balance between sleep and paralysis. Start with one person. A person is not an abstraction – we must be against abstraction. Six million pairs of shoes taken from children in the camps are a statistic; one is a tragedy.

But don’t just write a check; help them somehow with your own effort, your own energy. Buy them food and bring it to them. Help them find shelter. Speak to them, take the time to really speak and listen. Who will listen to them? We must be the ones who do. This means that your feelings of anxiety or calm, your presence or lack thereof for another person, your smile at a fellow human being or your turning away, your feeling overwhelmed and how you manage that – all of these little, internal things contribute somehow to the destiny of the world.’” (Witness, p. 176)

We cannot live lives of vicarious righteousness. We must step out and take action wherever we see a need. Big steps. Small steps. Forward steps.

So I ask you, and I ask myself, “How I am doing this new year, living an activist’s life? Am I obeying the daily, divine call to love?”

Am I feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Giving shelter? Speaking up – loudly – for the defenseless and oppressed?

Am I listening without judgment to the person who suffers from addiction? Am I offering compassion to the one who is sick, the one whose marriage is failing, the one whose child is estranged, and the one who has lost his job? Do I give rapt attention to the one who talks aimlessly because she’s been lonely for ages?

Who will welcome these battered hearts, if not me?

Am I asking God for help in discerning my next steps, and am I willing to accept that I am part of a greater whole, and that because God so loved the entire world, I must as well?

Or am I avoiding pain, because getting involved might cost me something?

These are questions for the would-be activist. Questions for you and me.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them,” wrote Elie Wiesel.

So – how are we doing?

Not Sure What to Believe Anymore? Encouraging Words for Today

Not Sure What to Believe Anymore? Encouraging Words for Today

My spirit stumbled as I read my friend’s words on Facebook this morning.

“I’m not sure what I believe anymore, as these past few years have been rough.”

She lost her dad to cancer two years ago.

Her mother is battling it now.

Yesterday, one of her closest friends became a widow who will raise a beautiful little girl alone.

Maybe you’ve faced similar heartaches.

Maybe you stand in the middle of a circle of suffering and spend most of your days staring at the misery, wondering, “How could God allow all this? It’s too much.”

You don’t have to be a believer in God to feel the desperation and loss of hope that Job experienced in the Old Testament book.

In great oppression men cry out;
they call for help because of the power of the mighty,
Saying, ‘Where is God, my Maker,
who has given visions in the night…

Though thus they cry out, he answers not…
– Job 35: 9-10, 12

Our souls demand answers. When we’ve reached the ends of ourselves we turn as a last resort toward the idea of heaven. Freedom from pain.

There’s a voice I hear from time to time – a memory that comes back at pivotal moments to buttress me.

I’m standing on a street in Paris during my junior year of college, just staring at my feet, complaining about my aching legs which are sore from miles upon miles of walking. The voice of my professor speaks close to my ear.

“Look up,” she says. “Always look up.”

Begrudgingly, I do. A colorful panorama of ancient, detailed architecture framed by clear blue sky awaits me.

There is so much more to discover than the layers of grime built up on my ugly black shoes and the cracked sidewalk beneath them.

I have come to know that the words, “Look up,” were etched into my mind for an even greater reason than to remind me of how earthly pleasures can distract or numb a tired mind.

But it is idle to say God does not hear or that the Almighty does not take notice.
Even though you say that you see him not,
the case is before him; with trembling
should you wait upon him.
– Job 35: 13-14

God may seem silent. He may not answer in a way that makes sense to our feeble minds. But he is ever-present. The Alpha and the Omega – beginning and end which frame our lives and time itself. Something in us recognizes this infinite power and heeds its call when we are fully honest about our need.

Our hope for our current circumstances is to LOOK UP and continually ask for the things He promises to give: Wisdom. Peace. An ability to recognize that His ways are not ours and that even in our sorrow, He will cover us.

I used to have trouble with this. A LOT of trouble with this.

My family of origin fell apart. I was betrayed by friends. I have struggled throughout my life with the demon of depression.

But I have come to know…

Dear friends and family will come to our aid. We will have the provisions we need to live in body and spirit. God will give freely – using those around us to show us His ancient, present, and forever architecture of Love.

Hands Outstretched

imageIf you’ve ever doubted that your body is miraculous, I challenge you to simply take a close look at your hands. Stretch them out in front of you and really look at them.

Each hand is composed of 29 major and minor bones, 29 joints, at least 123 ligaments, and 34 muscles to move the fingers and thumb – most of which which are located in either the palm of the hand or the forearm, since the fingers themselves do not have muscles. A hand also has 48 nerves and 30 arteries, and nearly as many smaller branches. About one quarter of the motor cortex in the human brain is devoted to the muscles of the hands. *

But these marvelous facts still don’t do the hand justice. Hands are our most important tools. We use them to lift, pull, and push. Nearly every movement, from the smallest to the most grand, involves the hand. Hands can caress, carry, convey, correct, and criticize. They can be used for love or violence. They are powerful in every way.

So what does it mean that Christ willingly outstretched his hands and allowed nails to be driven into his wrists?

In my reflections on this Holy Thursday and Good Friday, I feel the bones in my own body, its connective tissues, and remember the fact that most of the time it functions without complaint. Then I consider the brute physicality of Christ’s sacrifice for me.

Sit in this sacred space. Study your hands and your feet. Listen to your breath. Thank Him for what he endured. Seek to understand that He did it for the greater glory of your eternal salvation, and that of all the world.

The crucifixion began. Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic, pain-reliving mixture. He refused the drink. Simon was ordered to place the patibulum on the ground, and Jesus was quickly thrown backward, with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire felt for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drove a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moved to the other side and repeated the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum was then lifted into place at the top of the stipes, and the titulus reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was nailed into place.

The left foot was pressed backward against the right foot. With both feet extended, toes down, a nail was driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The victim was now crucified.

As Jesus slowly sagged down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shot along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain. The nails in the wrists were putting pressure on the median nerve, large nerve trunks which traverse the mid-wrist and hand. As He pushed himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He placed His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there was searing agony as the nail tore through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of this feet.

At this point, another phenomenon occurred. As the arms fatigued, great waves of cramps swept over the muscles, knotting them in deep relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps came the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by the arm, the pectoral muscles, the large muscles of the chest, were paralyzed and the intercostal muscles, the small muscles between the ribs, were unable to act. Air could be drawn into the lungs, but could not be exhaled. Jesus fought to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, the carbon dioxide level increased in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subsided.

Spasmodically, He was able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences that are recorded.**

Since he endured this, surely we can recommit to paths of holy surrender to the One who loves us infinitely and far beyond our understanding. Our final thoughts on this ought to be Scripture:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 

– Hebrews 12:1-3 (emphasis mine)

 

**Excerpt from “The Crucifixion Of Jesus: A medical explanation of what Jesus endured on the day He died” by Dr. C. Truman Davis – A Physician Analyzes the Crucifixion. New Wine Magazine, April 1982. (Originally published in Arizona Medicine, March 1965, Arizona Medical Association.) Full text available online here.

*E-hand.com The Electronic Textbook of Hand Surgery