The other night I had a dream about attending an emotional support group. In my dream, it was right before the holidays (a busy time for support groups), and people streamed into the room filling the large circle of chairs. In my dream, I knew most of them, and as each person took his or her seat, I felt the warmth of being surrounded by friends and familiarity.
Then, a stranger came in – a man and his special needs child. She was about 10 and a bit disruptive, making noise as he tried to take a seat and settle her down in front of him. No one said anything, but you could feel what everyone was thinking:
“I came here for help during a difficult time of year, and this stranger and his kid are ruining it for me.”
As the meeting was about to start, one person got up and left quietly. Then more followed. I, too, had felt uncomfortable and disappointed when my precious support group had been disrupted by this awkward little girl, but I was even more disappointed and embarrassed by the rudeness displayed by people who claimed to care about each other, people I loved and leaned on and trusted. I was angry, and I expressed my righteous indignation at those leaving but still within hearing distance.
“What do you people think you came here for? To feel better? The only thing that will make any of us actually GET better will be our unconditional love and acceptance of each other. How can you be so selfish?”
At this point there were only a handful of us left. I noticed the faces were those whom I trusted most, and I was glad to see them. But the man and his daughter had disappeared.
I woke up realizing my attempt to shame the ones who left did not create an atmosphere of love for this man, nor would it change their attitudes. The better thing to have done would have been to quietly accept and love the leavers just as much as I loved the ones who stayed. My dream-time righteous indignation gave me a glimpse of my real-life pride and ego that lives under the surface.
It was a powerful, humbling dream, coming at a time when I most need it. It’s election season, and there’s a lot of righteous indignation floating around, on all sides of the proverbial aisle, and in my heart, too. Righteous indignation about our choices. Righteous indignation about government control. Righteous indignation about injustice. Righteous indignation about private personal conduct and public deception. And sadly, a lot of it is justified. What’s not justified is my friends and family shaking their proverbial (and sometimes literal) fists at one another in our futile attempts to shame one another, to change our circumstances, to change the state of the world, as if we really had any power at all.
I try to keep my righteous indignation between me and God. I don’t want my anger, however justified, to poison my relationships. I know how my friends’ righteous indignation, however well-intentioned, makes me feel, which is the other reason I turn to God.
“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”
I read these words upon waking up from my dream, because it was Sunday morning and I wanted to review the scriptures before I got to Mass. These complaints of the prophet Habakkuk could have been written today, and God’s response is just as contemporary, urging patience and giving his prophet a vision of the justice to come. “The rash one has no integrity;” God says, “but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
The next reading was from Paul’s letter to Timothy. Again, the Word of God seemed to speak directly to me: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control . . . bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Am I conducting myself with love and self-control and being patient and tolerant?
Finally, I came to the Gospel account of the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith. Since scripture links faith with life and survival, it only makes sense that we’d want more of it. To me, “having faith” means having peace in my heart about the future. Most of us attempt to increase our peace of mind by having more income than expenses, a healthy savings account and retirement plan, investing in our children’s future college education, buying a home in a neighborhood with “good” schools, having a reliable car to drive – practical peace. There’s an emotional component to peace, as well. We believe we will have happiness when all our friends and family are also happy and peaceful, so we do everything we can to ensure that. And because we are such social creatures, we link our peace to the conditions of our greater society, believing we can only have peace about the future when society is living up to an enforced set of ideals. Sadly, this conditional peace is ever-elusive. We strive but always fall short, we hang our hope on the external, and fall back on righteous indignation when our conditions aren’t met.
The apostles were no different than us, and they were living in a very unstable period of history. No wonder they asked for faith. They, too, wanted peace for themselves and their children. They wanted an end to the tyranny of Roman rule and the corruption of the Jewish religious elite. They wanted the power to change the world.
Jesus’ response was an analogy with which many Christians are familiar, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This response has always puzzled me. Jesus answered a request for greater faith with a statement about power; there’s nothing more powerful than being able to control nature. But then he followed up with an analogy about the powerlessness we are called to as servants of God. To put it in modern mom terms, I’ve taken some liberties with his parable:
What mother tells her child who gets off the bus after school to throw her book bag in the house and go immediately to play with friends? Would she not rather say, “Do your homework first, then practice the piano. You can go play when you are finished.” So should it be with you. When you have done everything your higher power has directed, say, “We are simply children, and we’ve done what we were told.”
On the surface, I don’t see anything about faith or the power of faith in that parable. But faith is less about power and more about being faithful. If we want to be filled with faith (and all the hope and divine power that comes with it), we have to be faithful to become faith-full. Being faithful means doing the humble, everyday tasks of living, not receiving the power to change the world. In fact, it’s be acting faithfully in our small, seemingly insignificant obligations that we do actually change the world, one small step at a time.
Most of us want “comprehensive reform,” whether it’s global and political or closer to home in our own families, but God says no. God’s Word last weekend instructed me that reform is the result of incremental steps in favor of personal integrity, not rashly forcing solutions because I believe I’m right and have God on my side to back me up. God is the one in charge of forming and reforming the world; my part is to simply do my homework.
Righteous indignation is not a show of my faith; it’s a show of my ego. Like uprooting a mulberry tree and telling it to be planted in the sea, it is a useless show of power that does nothing to profit anyone, and probably poisons my relationships. Real faith is knowing God’s power is more than enough to settle all the scores and bring justice in the end. Real faith is trusting God to do his part in his time. My task is to love patiently while I’m waiting.