In my Easter message I quoted the poet Ranier Maria Rilke: “Go to the limits of your longing.” The line comes from his Book of Hours. The full poem is as follows:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
My friend Michael-Ray Mathews, the president of the Alliance of Baptists, introduced me to the poem years ago via a beautiful song. We quote pieces to each other as encouragement: “Flare up like flame” and “make big shadows.” We know these admonitions speak to our longing.
“Go to the limits of your longing” came back to me as I prepared to preach on the theme of getting out of our heads, our comfort zones, our narrow interpretations of what God is up to in the world. Michael-Ray provided the spark: He preached the angels’ admonition to “get out” Easter 2015 following the killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo.
Michael-Ray went to Ferguson multiple times, and he other clergy started to get out of a limited understanding of racism to see something much more pervasive, systemic and enduring: white supremacy. He will tell you that as he and other clergy stood with young protesters he began to get out of one narrative about the church’s proclamations on justice, when the reality was that the church had failed black and brown youth. Michael-Ray longed and continues to long for another way in the world.
This weekend Michael-Ray will greet members of the Alliance of Baptists to their national gathering in Washington, D.C. He will welcome our own Anna Strickland, Rose Miller and Mir Georgeson as they lead a workshop on “Liberation on Campus: Best Practices for Progressive Student Ministry.” They will meet other kindred spirits who share their longing for another way in the world.
I hope Anna, Rose and Mir get the chance to meet the senior ministers and co-pastors of the host church, Calvary Baptist Church. The Rev. Maria Swearingen and the Rev. Sally Sarratt are married and are passionate spokespersons for the church’s work in the world.
“Theologically, the work of the church has been and always will be to set the table of hospitality for all people,” Maria told the Washington Post in 2017. “Right now people around the world are asking, ‘Is the table set for me?’ I want to be part of a community that clearly answers back, ‘Yes. It always has been and it always will be.’”
Maria’s longing resonates deeply with me. What about you?
Go to the limits of your longing.