From Chicago to Paris to Syria to a bit of airspace, in practically every corner of the planet, there is a lot of tragedy and sorrow, so many of it seemingly needless. There is much debate, much confusion, and so many honorable voices struggling to be heard amidst an overpowering shout of ugliness. This morning, it might be reasonable to wake up and, even if you are one of those fortunate to be with a truly loving family and a table full of food, ask what there is to be thankful for in a tumultuous age.
I am the last person to deny that there are scary and threatening elements in our world and many problems that need to be solved. But I believe that we have the capability to solve anything, and that there is so much to be thankful for.
To illustrate why, I’m going to talk about two experiences I had in less than twenty-four hours when I was in New York City last month for New York Comic-Con. I’d meant to write about these a lot sooner but family visits, deadlines, and NaNoWriMo delayed me a bit. Now, I think it was providential that I can share these stories at a time when people may want or need to hear them.
One night after the convention floor closed, I ended up dining at an Irish pub near the Javits Center with three other individuals who, like me, write but don’t draw comics. Our conversation rambled, as loopy post-con conversations will, but it eventually ended up on an unexpected but deeply personal topic for me: mystical Christianity.
Mystical Christianity is a side of my faith which I have turned to time and again, inspired by such things as reading the works of Robin Griffith Jones and conversing with the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago. It involves prayer, deep contemplation of the nature of God, Jesus, and existence, and introspection and a willingness to be open to the experience of God. This description makes it sound like a step above navel-gazing but it can and should be precisely the opposite. Since the time I recommitted myself to regular prayer and worship, there have been distinct moments in my life when I have seen the world look as it never has before, caught smells that could not have emanated from the surrounding environment, and woken up in the morning with ideas crashing around my brain that demand to be shared and to be lived, not only dreamed.
There is an easy tendency for non-Christians in America to look at our nation’s professed Christians and see them as unbending, inflexible, and prejudiced, holding their strictly observed tenets—at least the parts of the Bible they choose to emphasize, since so many right-wing Christians appear unwilling to engage with key parts of Christ’s message and want to revert back to the obscure technicalities of God’s specific covenant with Moses, although this is an issue for another day—up as a shield and weapon to try to enforce their beliefs on others. What upsets me about this type of faith is that it involves acceptance but not understanding. Mystical Christianity, at least the kind I have come to value, is an exploration, a search for the meaning behind what we believe. It is an exploration that often never ends and requires creative and rigorous thinking, curiosity, and an open heart, the presence so moved by the inexplicable that it abandons mental defenses. Through this method comes innovative thinking; simply look at St. Paul, whose great mystical experience led to him building off Jesus’s words and tradition to create some of the most triumphant and assuring work any human being has ever done.
Where my times of prayer, reading the Bible, and doing the hard work of active contemplation has led me is a place where I, too, feel assured. The moments when I have come into contact with the sacred in the most unlikely circumstances have affirmed for me that God is everywhere, and in every living thing, and that to begin to truly build God’s kingdom on earth I must start with the affinity I have for others and find what unites us, not that which separates us. And the beautiful byproduct of this affinity is that it increasingly leads to a life one can live fuller, with so much less fear and worry.
In the news today, so much revolves around ISIS. I believe that ISIS and their Radical Islamic State, which is far removed from the Islam practiced by a vast majority, is one of the most abhorrent and despicable forces in the world because they will sacrifice people to achieve their vision. Like Carthage, they must be destroyed. But the outcry in the United States to block Syrian refugees who have lost everything from entering our borders, looking for hope and salvation, is wretched in its own way. There are people I love dearly, professed Christians, who think all Muslims should be looked upon with suspicion and refugees be placed in camps and then sent back once Syria is secure—this is an actual conversation I had this week. Moreover, the people who often speak in such ways are the same ones who think that the act of saying “Happy Holidays” or not putting up a manger (in a country where church and state are separated) constitutes a war on Christmas. What this says to me, and may God correct me if I am in error, is that such people, some of whom I know have materially better lives than I do, are living with fear and insecurity and a deep unhappiness. My life is far from perfect, and there are several flaws in my character I keep working on, but I increasingly live without fear and with a growing joy by embracing the people I share my time on Earth.
The more I’ve learned about Judaism, Islam, and other religions, the more I’ve seen how little separates us who believe in God, and I have found that those who do not believe live some of the most moral, selfless existences on the planet. The more I have befriended and actively listened to women fighting for feminist causes, black Americans fighting against an institutionalized disregard for their persons, and the LGBTQ community who only wish to live and love and not interfere in anyone else’s right to live and love, the more I have seen God at work, the more I have felt the call for all of us to end injustice and oppression. And though there is much sadness and pain to be felt along the way, I see so much enlightenment and transformation around me, all for the better, that I might not have recognized without opening myself up to the mystery of faith, and continually finding God and hearing their message through the most unlikely conduits, even in a conversation about comic book heroes and villains over Yuengling.
The next day, I kept a promise I made to myself. My great friend and teacher Emily Steers has often told me that one of her favorite places on earth is the American Museum of Natural History, so much so that the museum’s aura inspired her soon-to-be-self-published first novel. I had never been, and years talking to Emily convinced me this was an oversight that needed correction. Therefore, I took myself to Central Park on a cool but sunny day and passed into the AMNH.
The massive variety on display in the museum—the preserved mammals and sea life, the ecosystems and longboats, the meteorites and precious stones—is too much to take in on one visit alone and was itself breathtaking. Yet that day it was the humans who interested me, in two very distinct ways. First, the AMNH has a hall dedicated to human evolution, with skeletons and recreations of every period of our development from the earliest, hairy species in Africa from whom we descended up to the modern homo sapien. The hall also explains how our senses developed, and how we built tools and developed language and gained the abilities to create art, grow crops, engage in scientific reasoning. Seeing the entire history of us laid out before me, including an early branch of our evolutionary tree so tiny that they are referred to as hobbits, was a reality check writ large. It was a reminder that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are so new and so tiny, yet we have come an immeasurable distance in a short period of time, and the possibilities for the future if we give ourselves a chance are unknown and exciting. And though I may see a benevolent creator spirit at the inception of our life and all lives, this contemplation, of our extraordinary past and unknown future, definitely does not necessitate a belief in higher powers.
Neither did the other beautiful part of my visit. This was a weekend and the museum, which is “pay what you wish,” was full of children, and a cross-section of all races and creeds and colors was eagerly scampering through the exhibits. Everywhere I went I heard them whispering or talking a mile a minute, pulling their friends or nannies or parents to their favorite exhibits, repeating information with unbridled enthusiasm. In these few moments when I stopped educating myself on natural history and stopped to listen to the children around me, I was reminded that one day these boys and girls could be running our societies, and the possibilities that could be wrought by children whose wonder and curiosity is encouraged at a young age are more than exciting to ponder. I was reminded that as long as there are children given the opportunity to learn about their world and who are eager to seize that opportunity, the future of the species can never be entirely bleak.
What I Must Do as a Thankful Person
Everything I have written above gives me reason to be thankful and to feel ultimately confident about existence. But this thankfulness is far from sufficient for a good life. Though Martin Luther, one of the people whose lives of thankfulness and daring innovation has made a difference for me centuries later, asserted that faith and grace alone save us for eternity, this did not mean that the faithful were exempt from performing good works and doing the hands-dirtying actions that build the life God wants for their children. My sense of God in all people, and my glimpse of what is possible when we act in that love and the spirit of radical hospitality that accompanies it, compel me to do more and do it better.
For I do not need to tell anyone that this world is still full of people who are afraid when God and the possibility of human potential leave us nothing to fear. These are people who are built on using their free will to accumulate excess wealth without thinking of those whom circumstances have rendered less able to succeed, people who wish to make others second-class citizens and deny them the right to make their own choices as is their human right, people who are ready to destroy others in the name of ideals or twisted beliefs (and yes, the Christian faith that fills my life with meaning produces more people than we should be comfortable with who are guilty of such actions).
If I feel thankful for the mystical presence of God in existence, the gifts of the past leading to the promises of the future, and the goodness I see around me, then it is my duty to make sure others, especially those living more dire and precarious lives than mine, can share in that thankfulness and know that the promise applies to them. And this will not be possible until the epidemics of institutional racism and misogyny are eradicated, until diplomacy reaches its most thoughtful state and war is only the last, deliberated resort, and when Christianity in America takes its place as a source of benevolent inspiration and not as policy.
2016 is still a month away, but my New Year’s resolution has been set. I already try to serve God with my writing and other efforts, but I feel I can serve more and I must translate that feeling into action.
It is the best way I can say “thank you” for all that is good even when the good is hard to find.
And I hope today that the friends I have made here on the internet and elsewhere, especially those whose struggles and sorrows I know little or nothing about, may find their own reasons to be thankful, and that their thankfulness proves inspiring and uplifting. Because I feel so much love and gratitude for the ways you have shaped me and my thoughts and beliefs.
For right now, I will be sharing turkey, pies, and wine with my family, indulging in laughter and Arlo Guthrie’s tales of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, before embarking on a spirited December and the good, necessary work ahead.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!