Morning Worship Column: Pray Until Tears Come to Find Strength for Transformative Action

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“At Chautauqua we have the courage to look at the world situation and we are invited to feel its brokenness. This leads to tears that do not paralyze, but that empower,” said the Rev. John Philip Newell at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service. “Carl Jung said that when we weep, something of the salt sea of our origin is stirred.”

His sermon title was “Matter Matters,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 58:6-9.

Newell said when he was a student, his father, William Newell, who served as director of World Vision Canada, worked in international refugee camps.

“He worked with Vietnamese boat people and others [in crisis] and he carried a small cassette tape recorder with him,” Newell said. “Remember those? Every day he would talk about who he was meeting with, what he was doing and once a week he would send it home.”

William Newell was in Cambodia after the Killing Fields and met with children who had lost parents and parents with missing children.

“As he left the camp one day for his evening lodgings, he started to record and then began to weep,” Newell said of his father. “He chose not to turn it off or to erase it. I heard my father weeping and it was more powerful than any words, the courage to weep. My father would have cut off the strength of his action and compassion if he had turned it off.”

George MacLeod, founder of the modern Iona Community, said that matter matters. It was one of his central teachings, Newell said.

“At the heart of the material is the spiritual. How we handle one another is a holy matter,” he said. “What we do to the matter of the Earth, the just distribution of its sacred resources, is a holy matter. Our political conversation, the holy sovereignty of other nations, to approach them with dignity and truthfulness, is a holy matter.”

For 25 years, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has been leading a nonviolent revolution in Myanmar. After years of house arrest, she is now free and serving the parliament. She is leading a spiritual revolution in her land based on soul force and her understanding of the place of compassion in Buddhism, Newell said.

“Her path is threefold. First, to see compassionately, that those who are wronged and are suffering as part of us and when they are well, we are well,” he said. “Second is the courage to feel, to feel their brokenness as ours. Third is the courage to act, to embody compassion for real transformation.”

We are inseparably interrelated and when we see what we don’t want to see, it will lead to weeping, which will lead us to take costly action for change.

“St. Columba put a rule in his community that we should pray until the tears come,” Newell said. “That is how we know that something deep in the soul is stirring us to action.”

William Newell was born in Belfast, Ireland, in July 1922 on Shank Hill Road, the center of the militantly Protestant Northern Irish community.

“There was an infection of the soul that tore the nation north from south and Catholic from Protestant,” Newell said of Ireland.

Newell’s father wrote to him later in life to ask that while he was visiting in Edinburgh, Scotland, if his son would arrange for a holiday in the south of Ireland.

Newell rented a cottage in County Kerry near Dingle and on Sunday, his father wanted to go to church.

“I naïvely thought there might be a non-Catholic church, but the only one was St. Mary’s,” Newell said. “As deeply committed to ecumenism as I am, I was apologetic to my father and suggested that we did not have to go in.”

William Newell said no, he wanted to go to church and his son said they did not have to stay for the whole service. Again his father said no, he wanted to go to church and stay for the whole service.

“The blathering Irish priest, I am not aware there are any other kind, was very friendly and endeared himself to my father’s Irish heart,” Newell said. “My father went down the aisle to take communion, the bread and the wine, from [the priest] with tears in his eyes. There is hope for the world. I witnessed what I dared not imagine; my father experienced reconciliation.”

Newell then discussed Martin Buber’s writings.

“Buber wrote about redemption as the restoration of betweenness,” he said. “What are our restorations now with families, communities and nations; between us and those who are being wronged; with the Earth?”

As an example, he said, on that day in County Kerry, his Scottish, Presbyterian, teetotaling mother agreed to go to an Irish pub.

In Chautauqua, he said, we have the courage to look and see the interrelatedness.

“Pray to God that we have the courage to feel, together to weep and the deepest in us to flow into holy courage to act,” Newell said. “Then when we cry for help, God will say, ‘Here I am.’ This One is the seeing, weeping center for healing. Our true strength is here, now, deep in us. When Chautauqua is open to see, feel and act, then this place will be justified in its existence. Amen.”

The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Carol Chimento, who stayed with Jared Jacobsen’s family at Chautauqua as a child and has worked for the Planned Giving Committee, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” by Hall Johnson. Willie La Favor served as soloist. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy provided support for this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.