“For what does it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?”
There are three things that really scare me right now: the decline of democracy, the trajectory of our planet’s health, and the rise of dehumanization.
Dehumanization is of particular concern because it is creeping in and being normalized in nearly every human arena. And we have seen in the past what happens when we normalize it. Yet we are careening down this path with abandon.
Perhaps your concerns are different from mine. One thing is clear regardless: there is much to worry us in these times.
One of the ways I am managing my fear is to return to an “old friend,” Etty Hillesum, whose collected journals and letters I have read off and on for years.
Learning from A Wise Guide
Etty was a young woman and non-practicing Jew in Amsterdam as the Germans overtook Europe in the late 1930’s.
She was caught up in the early, heady, intellectual days of psychiatry when Freud and Jung were revolutionizing the ways we understood ourselves. As a result, it embarrassed her even to admit to herself when she began to believe in God.
Her family had not practiced their faith so Etty had no language for what was happening to her. Her Jungian psychiatrist, Julius Spier, had recommended she read many books, including the New Testament and the poet Rilke. These became her language to describe the presence of God that overwhelmed her and brought her to her knees in wordless prayer on the rough coconut mat in the bathroom of her crowded house.
There is much to commend in reading her journals and letters, but it is this that I raise to you now.
How Etty Defeated Fear
Etty learned—through tears, writing, reading, meditating, praying, and especially by receiving God’s grace—not only to manage her fear but to embrace it until it no longer consumed her or directed her actions.
To the contrary:
even when being verbally grilled and abused by Nazis in the streets of her hometown
even while held in the detention camp of Westerbork while she waited to be sent to her death with her family in a concentration camp
even while being herded onto the train car that took her to Auschwitz
Etty always saw the suffering, shrinking, terrified human hiding inside a Nazi soldier’s uniform.
By embracing her own fear, by letting it find a home within her, by acknowledging in stark terms the annihilation she and the thousands of Jews around her faced, fear lost its hold on her.
And when fear no longer controlled her, Etty was free to love.
Protect Your Humanity Above All Else
Prior to going to Westerbork, as the Nazi storm continued to rise, Etty wrote of her fellow Jews.
She wrote about how profoundly sad she felt to witness their frantic efforts to gather and hide their belongings in hopes that when they returned to Amsterdam one day, they could retrieve their possessions.
Etty felt instead they should be frantic to guard, protect, and keep safe their most precious asset: their humanity.
She believed they should tuck away into the deep recesses of their soul the spark and flame of love given by God.
The love that lets us see our real place of belonging.
The love that helps us see through others’ brutality and surround them with love.
Because when Etty and the other Jews ever returned home, if they didn’t have their humanity to return to, then what use was the rest of it?
Of what use was life without love?
How Do We Guard Our Humanity?
Whatever your particular fears, the world is changing in dramatic and unpredictable ways and I’m pretty sure that unless we prepare ourselves with love now, we won’t be ready to see through one another’s dehumanizing behavior to the frightened child within.
Then, we may only make it worse by adding to the dehumanization of others.
To prepare ourselves we need at least these three things:
to pray, more than ever before
to read those who offer their wisdom and experience
and to gather together
We need to get on our knees, figuratively or literally. We need to cultivate our core essence of God’s love. That knowing cannot be taken away and guides our feet along right pathways. It helps us see all people as God’s beloved so we seek their shalom.
Me? I pray perpetually and silently with my heart beat. I feel in my gut and chest the pulse which fills my body with my true lifeblood, the presence of divine love.
Read scripture. Lament with the psalmists. Demand answers from God with Job. Seek the poor in the Beatitiudes. And remember with Jesus and Paul that God’s love is patient, kind, just, and forgiving.
Read the saints. Read Etty Hillesum, Desmund Tutu, Oscar Romero, Theresa of Calcutta, the Dali Lama, Dag Hammerskold, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing.
Get reacquainted with old friends, as I have with Etty, and make new ones with those who have anticipated and lived through frightening days while cultivating their love of God, love for humanity, and hope.
Gather together with your “besties”: the ones you can cry and get scared with, who will hand you tissues and a glass of wine—and who will then tell you to get up and get back to work.
Cultivate relationships with those who will listen and bolster your courage to carry on in love. Nurture connection and vulnerability.
And gather together with your fellow preachers, that you may encourage each other to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, the prophetic call to humanize the “other” when the “other” seems inhuman.
You do not have to navigate these times alone
We may not have Etty with us today, but we have one another. As church leaders and ministers of Good News, we need each other to manage our fears and figure out together how to lead and preach.
Begins next Monday!
October 29th & November 5th, 2018
6:00-8:00 p.m. CST
This is your last chance to join us for Preaching Across the Divide, where we will gain practical advice on how to preach in this difficult cultural dynamic.
January 16th to June 30th, 2019
Applications are rolling in for the limited spaces available for this preaching intensive.
You’ll establish life-giving preaching processes and mindsets while improving your craft so your sermons genuinely connect with your listeners.
With the support of a mentor in a small, dedicated group of like-minded preachers, you’ll discover how different your vocation feels when you’re preaching in community.
Don’t miss out on this opportunity to revitalize your preaching life.