We Will Continue Essay Contest Winners Announced
The "We Will Continue" Panel of Readers announces essay contest winners, following the call for papers issued to the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas by the Rt. Rev. David Reed in June:
1st Place: The Rev. Brian Fox of St. Helena's Episcopal Church in Boerne for "Levity as Resistance: Finding Safety In Suffering With Julian of Norwich"
2nd Place: Catherine Spainhour of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Kingsville and Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown for "Focus on the Good"
- The Rev. Patrick Gahan, "Viral Love"
- The Rev. Tom Turner, "Adaptation"
- Bryan Gonzalez, "Red Doors For Justice"
- Marjorie George, Carla Pineda, and the Rev. Patricia Riggins, "Harvesting A Lifetime: Deepening Our Spiritual Journey"
In the call for papers, Bishop Reed stated, "This request is another opportunity for us to speak and listen to one another across the Diocese of West Texas, to reflect theologically and practically on what we have lost and found during this season as well as consider ways the Church can live faithfully in the coming years...guided by the questions of the Baptismal Covenant."
The Panel of Readers was served by five members of the diocese, led by the Rev. Alex Holloway and including the Rev. Dr. Canon Ann Normand, Daniel Jaime, the Rev. Ram Lopez, and Dr. Raymond Reynosa.
The first and second place submissions are featured below, and a compilation of all winning submissions is accessible in PDF format for download, including footnote citations and accompanying images. Thank you to everyone who submitted papers in response to Bishop Reed’s invitation to the Diocese. Other submissions will be made available alongside the next issue of LOGOS Magazine, expected to publish in January 2022.
Levity as Resistance: Finding safety in suffering with Julian of Norwich
The Rev. Brian F. Fox; St. Helena's Episcopal Church, Boerne
"Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 304)
“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This well-known saying of the 14th-century English. mystic, Julian of Norwich, may seem trite at a first glance — but in truth, it captures the radical defiance of Julian’s writings. Julian received a divine revelation from God, and recorded her visions in a text titled Revelations of Divine Love (the first known book written by a female author in English). I was introduced to Julian’s work through Amy Laura Hall’s book Laughing at the Devil, and while reading the latter in lockdown last year I was struck by the way Julian’s circumstances mirrored our own. Writing in the aftermath of a deadly plague for a world gripped by unjust social systems, Julian’s reflections cast a vision for resisting evil. Amid a world where things are certainly not well, Julian boldly proclaims that all shall be well. In the face of suffering, she laughs at the devil knowing that the all-loving grace of God will overcome. As we persevere in defying the forces of evil in our own time, Julian reminds us that levity can lend us strength. When we see God clearly, we can undertake the holy work of resistance with light hearts and high spirits.
Julian’s visions are timely, rooted in her experience of 14th-century England. Europe was still picking through the aftermath of a devastating pandemic.¹ The great plague had swept the continent, both highly dangerous and highly contagious, and it harmed more than just physical bodies. Fear and confusion spread as quickly as sickness, and communities suffered from deep psychic trauma. It was not just the loss of life, but the loss of life as people knew it — the loss of fellowship, trust, security, hope. The plague even impeded the sacramental life of the Church, as clergy who gave last rites would soon become casualties themselves. With no clergy available or willing to visit the sick on their deathbed, many people died without final absolution — a damning fate in the popular theology of the day. The devastating effects of the plague lingered beyond the immediate pandemic, as communities lived in fear of residual outbreaks and struggled to grieve the profound loss of life and opportunity. In turn, the plague had also laid bare the inadequacies and injustices of the medieval social hierarchy. Authority figures shirked their responsibilities. Apocalyptic fear turned people towards self-dependence rather than mutual support. The rigid social hierarchy ranked some lives as more valuable than others, and the disenfranchised were painfully aware of how they had been denied a seat at the table (and even in churches, a seat at the Lord’s Table). Into this tumultuous world, Julian envisions a reality where God’s goodness — not earthly misery — has the last laugh.
Julian’s visions are timely: they speak to our own present circumstances. We are picking our way through the wreckage of a global pandemic, nursing sicknesses of body and soul, painfully aware of grave social injustices that were entrenched long before the first COVID cases. Like Julian, our baptismal vows call us to persevere in the face of such overwhelming suffering — a calling that often feels like an impossible task. Amy Laura Hall writes,
“A reasonable response to the manifold traumas around [Julian]... would have been precisely to catch a contagion of terror... [but] rather than viewing the world around her as filled to the brim with misery, she saw miracles and resilient safety. She did not deny that there was a fiend to be conquered. She did not pretend the world was simple. The Devil is a no-thing, but that does not mean Julian denied the evil around her. Because of this her laughter is all the more powerful an antidote to a religion of fear.”²
In her vision, Julian describes the contagious laughter she experiences in the presence of Jesus, as all those gathered around him laugh and cheer because the Devil has been conquered. This defiant laughter does not deny the reality of suffering, but instead resists despair. Julian sketches the balance that Christians ought to hold in order to persevere in resisting evil. On the one hand, we must be honest about the evil we find lurking in our world (how can we resist evil if we cannot name it?). On the other hand, we must approach that evil with hope — rejoicing in the triumph of Christ over evil and death. As we stumble on towards a post-COVID world, Julian’s visions invite us to laugh at the Devil along with her.
Laughter is a powerful force in Christian theology. There is an old, anecdotal church tradition known as the “Easter laugh”. It describes Easter as a season for telling jokes, recognizing that God has made a laughingstock of death and the Devil. The resurrection is an occasion for rejoicing, for feelings of light-heartedness as we sense the heavy weight of the grave being lifted. Another English writer, G.K. Chesterton, describes it like this: “Moderate strength is shown in violence. Supreme strength is shown in levity.”³ Resisting evil is serious work, but we can undertake it with a spirit of levity. Our lightheartedness becomes an act of defiance, a persistent joy rooted in the certainty of God’s great power working for us. No matter how grim the world may seem, we can refuse to be brought low. This levity gives us not only power, but energy. It is hard to sustain the holy work of resisting evil and death. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly illustrated that fact: we felt the exhausting influence of pandemic fatigue, as our vigilance slipped and our attention spans grew shorter. But levity, laughter, light-heartedness; these keep our spirits high and help us persevere for the long haul. A theological posture of joy, even in the face of suffering and misery, is not cheap optimism. It is resistance, a stubborn refusal to succumb to despair and a persistent conviction that God’s saving promises will ring true.
This spirit of levity helps us handle not only the pressures of an unwell world, but the challenges of living in community. Throughout the pandemic, we have inadvertently trained ourselves to view our neighbors as possible threats: spreaders of sickness, agents of misinformation, pawns of nefarious political agendas. We often tell stories about the ways tragedy promotes unity, how hard times bring us together. But that narrative is not intrinsically true. Hall notes, “the idea that suffering brings people closer to God or to one another is hardly an existential fact… it is as likely that suffering divides people within themselves and from one another, and that times of possible change can also tend people toward fear and a retrenchment in old divisions.”⁴ Julian witnessed many horrors — some caused by impersonal forces, and others wrought by human beings upon one another. The pandemic has revealed similar horrors in our own time. But Julian holds fast to the hope of God’s goodness. Hall continues, “Julian’s visions penetrate into the crux of this truth, inviting people, in spite of all risks, to see one another as kin, in the foolish safety of God’s present.” Julian views love as God’s chief attribute (omniamity is the term Hall coins), and sees God’s love as drawing all people together as kin. Again, this universal kinship sounds foolish and naive — as out of place as Julian’s laughter. Yet again, Julian expresses radical defiance. She resists all forces that strive to separate and divide human beings from one another, which is part of our baptismal calling as well. We affirm the dignity of every human being, because we know that we cannot resist evil on our own. We can only persevere by persisting in community.
Julian’s light-hearted resistance invites us to balance safety and vulnerability. Throughout her exploration of Julian’s visions, Hall frequently refers to the theme of safety:
“One response to suffering would be to build up a layer of protection from any potential intruder, seeing each person as a possible danger… Our task is not to be stronger than or impervious to the evil around us. [Julian’s] version of safety makes us part of God’s crown, and that crown is on a savior who is also like a nurse, caring for children.”⁵
In our own time, we see that defensive response to suffering — the impulse to lean into same-thinking silos that quickly become echo chambers. We pull away from our neighbors, looking for comfort in the presence of people who agree with us. But Julian finds safety not in invincibility, but in vulnerability. She describes the radical kinship we experience as jewels in Christ’s crown as he hangs on the cross. It’s a paradoxical image of safety, juxtaposing the bloody suffering of Christ with the care a child might receive at the hands of a nurse. Describing Christ as a nurse would have been an unusual metaphor in Julian’s day — these women were not figures of power or prestige, but figures of messy and unflinching service. Nurses would willingly expose themselves to the contagious sickness of others, risking their own health for the benefit of people who might be very different from them. Many of us have witnessed the powerful testimonies of nurses who have served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Julian’s timely wisdom suggests there is something Christ-like in the sacrificial way these nurses have cared for others. This is a different vision of resisting evil —not the violent, militaristic language of conquest and victory; but the gentle, healing image of a nurse caring for children. This is the surprising sort of resistance Julian envisions, a subversive way for us to re-envision safety in God’s all-loving presence.
Ultimately, Julian invites us to resist evil with levity as we continually remind ourselves of the safety we find in God’s love. She recasts what perseverance might mean — it is less a picture of gritty trench warfare against the armies of evil, and more like the contagious joy of friends who cannot stop laughing. There is plenty of healing to be done on the road ahead, and perhaps the Church should be reminded to picture Jesus as a nurse who tenderly cares for her children. Our baptismal calling is to be agents of hope, joy, and health on the road ahead; resisting spirits of fear, division, and destruction. The road will not be easy, but Julian warns us that God never promised an easy journey: “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved,’ but he said ‘You shall not be overcome.’”⁶
Early in the pandemic, I first heard the song “Persevere” by the Australian rock band Gang of Youths. The singer writes about the death of a friend’s infant daughter, and trying to make sense of such unspeakable loss. In a moment of the singer’s doubt and anger, his friend speaks back to him in verse: “‘God is full of grace, and his faithfulness is vast; there is safety in the moment when the **** has hit the fan... It’s not some disembodied heaven,’ he assures me then he laughs and says through tears, ‘You got to persevere.’”⁷ Julian invites us to return to the Lord with both our tears and our laughter. We can persevere in the unassailable hope that the Devil has been conquered, that there is safety in our suffering, and that all manner of things shall be well.
Focus on the Good: Proclaiming by Word and Example the Good News of God in Christ
Catherine Spainhour; Epiphany Episcopal Church, Kingsville and Grace Episcopal Church, Georgetown
"Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 305)
In mid-June, Camp Capers is one of the loudest places in the Diocese of West Texas. Campers arrive and race to greet old friends. They stuff their belongings into their cabins and shout farewells to their families. They fill camp with song, shouts, and laughter. Days are filled with activities, arts and crafts, food, music, swimming, worship, and prayer. Youth scale the climbing wall and take kayak trips. There's the Screamer, part of the camp ropes course. Throughout the day, youth and counselors take turns pulling a long rope on a pulley, hoisting their cabin mates high into the air and then releasing them to a free fall rope swing. They scream cheers, laugh, and celebrate with each camper as they overcome their fears and fly in the air. They play games like Human Clue that send campers and counselors running across camp to solve the whodunit. The youth hold devos (devotionals) where they share deeply and pray together. Camp in June is loud and filled with the energy of the Diocesan youth.
But not today. It's June2020. There are no campers in sight, and there is great uncertainty about whether traditional summer camp will happen at all this year. COVID cases are increasing across Texas and across the globe. Camp is very quiet.
Even so, a dozen or summer program staff and counselors have been at camp for the last two weeks quarantining to be ready to serve in case camp happens. They don't know what that might look like, but they are here, quarantining on site, and they are prepared for whatever work they are called to do.
Jesus said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Luke 10:2-3)
When I read this verse, I think of these young adult servants at camp. They could have stayed home. Instead, they are here; they are ready to serve.
I am at camp because my daughter has come to help with a service project, and she has invited me to join her. Diocesan camp staff and counselors are making over 2,000 camp-in-a-box kits to be mailed to youth in-need as part of a virtual summer day camp. It's hot, and the buildings we work in have all the doors open to increase fresh air circulation. The work is tedious. For one activity, we fill paint from a big tub into single portion containers. There are five colors of paint needed for each camper. Five colors of paint into 2,000 boxes. That’s over 10,000 condiment size paint containers. At another table, people assemble kits that look like they may become God’s Eye crafts. They are in an assembly line: two craft sticks go into the baggie, which is passed to the next person who adds two arm-lengths of yarn, beads, shells, and a glue dot. Zip the baggie and toss it into the box. Repeat 2,000 times.
Jesus tells his followers, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)
These young adults are living missionally; they are proclaiming the Gospel by their actions one task at a time. Most people have no idea the hours they are spending out here.
During a break, I go do what I wanted to do at camp. I leave the summer staff, who just finished singing the Doxology at the top of their lungs to the tune of Hedwig's Theme from the Harry Potter movies. My destination is the Guadalupe River that forms the eastern boundary of camp. The direct path from where I am to the river is a field, which is currently covered in tall, prickly thistles, so I stroll around the red barn and the garden. I decide to walk past the amphitheater and access the river down by the floating dock. Taking pictures outside in nature is one of my favorite ways to spend a day. I walk and wait for inspiration. There are so many interesting things to see, things that I would not even take notice of if it were not for my camera in my hand.
First, there's a birdhouse on a post. It's interesting. I take a few pictures. Then I move closer and closer. I see places where birds have pecked on the wood. The wooden post it is mounted on has great texture. When I walked over to photograph it, initially, I thought I wanted to take a picture of the birdhouse with the Guadalupe River flowing behind it. I pause. I back up and take the picture with the birdhouse and the river. Then I step forward and take a picture of the birdhouse from up close. Now closer.
I move on to the river. I walk down the steps to the floating dock and step onto it. I am startled by the drop down; the dock bounces on the water as I step. For a second, I am afraid I am going to drop my camera, but I regain my balance. My heart races, so I stop and sit on the dock. I pause. I breathe deeply. I center. I came down to the river to take a picture of the Guadalupe with this canopy of trees overhead. I point my camera at the river, change my aperture setting and shutter speed to adjust from the shade at the birdhouse to the bright reflection of the sun on the water. I focus the lens and take the picture.
I look at the river, and I am captivated by the roots of the bald cypress across the water from me. I came here to photograph the river, but I am now more fascinated by these roots. With my camera and my longer lens, I can see them up close.
I arrived at camp feeling restless. It’s been two months since we started living in lockdown. I am worried and tired of worrying. This hour along the river has calmed me in a way that I have not felt in weeks.
Camp is a holy place for many, including me. I make up excuses to drive supplies out to my adult daughters on staff. I watch for days when camp needs volunteers. I attend Diocesan retreats with friends. Our youth love this holy space, too. They make annual summer pilgrimages to the St. Francis chapel, to the river, to the dining facility in hopes of Cuban sandwiches and circle pizzas.
This camp walk is also special because I am alone to pray and simply be in the presence of God. During lockdown, all five members of my family came home bringing their schoolwork and work. We have 3 home offices setup across the house. We also added an electric organ for my college daughter who is studying organ performance. As I walk through my house, I am equally likely to pass by conversations about insurance analytics, healthcare appointment scheduling, or home building. I may also overhear Gawthrop’s Toccata Brevis playing on the organ or a college lecture. I love that my family is safe in our bubble, but I have been craving this time alone.
With my camera in hand, I set out seeking beauty. I look at the world with interest and curiosity. I am willing to take the time to be still and wait for what captures my attention. Once I find it, there are several steps I take before I start taking pictures. These steps parallel ones I take when I am seeking to be close to God.
First, I set aside the time for photography; I must also set aside time for prayer and contemplation. Before a photography day, I block out time for it. I gather my equipment, charge my batteries, map my route. I pack a snack and fill my water bottle. It’s a thoughtful process, in contrast to the pictures I snap on my phone from the passenger seat on family road trips: funny billboards, trucks with odd items in their beds, signs cities with silly names, and goats on the side of the road. Similarly, I must set aside time for prayer and reflection, even if I am worried and stressed about the day ahead, especially if I am worried and stressed. It’s not enough for me to utter “Lord, have mercy” as I see a fire truck racing past me to an emergency. I need intentional time for silence, prayer, and reflection.
Second, I take time to choose my photography subject. This afternoon at camp I walked to a wooded area above the river. I picked up my camera and thought, “What is my subject for this picture? What do I want to focus on?” Is it the copse of oaks on the ridgeline or these tiny white wildflowers at my feet? In my daily life, I don’t spend much time choosing where to set my gaze. I know my way from the bed to the coffeemaker with my eyes closed. Driving to work, I focus on the road and the traffic around me. Filtering out every distraction in my daily life is efficient and allows me to focus on my daily work. I also need to look up from my coffee mug and the road and consider if I am focusing on the important parts of my life. What would You have me focus on, Lord?
Finally, when I take photographs, I control the camera settings. How bright do I want this image? Do I want to freeze the splash of water or have it blur? Do I want that sunbeam to create a lens flare, or should I shift slightly and avoid it? I have many choices that will result in a good picture, but the decisions I make change the mood and composition of the photograph. Life is the same way. What are the camera settings of my life? Will I respond to crises in a way that encourages those around me, or will I despair? Can I slow down and pray for those at church and in my community or will I blur past them in haste? Do I acknowledge the person who is having a difficult time, or do I crop them out of my life? Taking the time to choose the camera settings of my life helps me ensure that the image I am developing in my soul and in eternity is the one I want to remember and be remembered by.
I finish my photography meditation and walk back to camp. The staff and counselors are already back at work when I return. Everyone is racing to pack the boxes we worked on earlier. There is a truck coming to take these boxes to the Community in Schools program. The staff has been working from breakfast until well past dinner for days, but their energy rises to fill, seal, and label the boxes. When we leave, there are still 3 more truckloads to assemble and pack in the upcoming days. The harvest is still plentiful, but the laborers are still few.
My daughter and I return to camp to help a couple more times. The job is too big for the number of workers, and yet, they complete it. And yes, the Kingdom of God came near.
*Header image submitted by Catherine Spainhour and titled "Continue: Seeking Christ in Creation."