Some years ago Elizabeth O’Connor, author and staff member of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., introduced me to the life and diaries of a most remarkable woman. Her name was Etty Hillesum and she wrote her diaries during the years of 1941-1943. She was Jewish living in German-occupied Amsterdam.
I believe Etty Hillesum was one of those rare people whose epitaph could read “In the worst of times she did the best of things.” The cruel, depraved, hate-filled world of Nazi Europe was the time and space in which she had to live. And in spite of all the inhumanity she witnessed and suffered, Etty Hillesum reached out in love and compassion to her fellow humans, forgave those who dealt cruelly with her and her people, and found in the Living God more power, truth, and love than I can ever imagine possible. Anyone who despairs of humanity should learn Etty Hillesum by heart. The presence of God is so beautifully obvious in her life and writings in a time when many, for good reason, could no longer even believe in God.
Etty Hillesum was especially drawn to the Gospel of Matthew and noted in particular Matthew 6:34: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for things of itself.” Surrounded by human misery, aware of the extermination of her people, and with her own destruction almost certain, she prayed, “I shall promise you one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow.”
We’ve all heard similar sentiments before. I have even offered such counsel to others. However, the truth of these words never hit home as powerfully as they did when I heard them spoken from Etty’s heart and out of the context of her life.
I am prone to prepare for all my tomorrows – tend to be a worrier–find my days haunted by the specter of “what if.’ I fret about so many things, most of which have no real bearing on my future and certainly no dire consequences for that future.
And then I try to imagine the world of Etty Hillesum–a world which in no way compares to the comfort and security I enjoy. Her world was a world of death–horrible, stinking, prolonged, inhuman death knocking at the door of every tomorrow and forever threatening to spill over into her today. Prudence would demand that she plan, worry, prepare, scheme–do anything about her tomorrow. But no, she promised her God one very small thing in a world of burning flesh and bitter tears. She promised not to burden her today with concerns about her tomorrow. Maybe that was, in part, her secret in finding joy, thanksgiving, and love in her soul when so much was trying to deny the validity of her very being.
My heart is strangely warmed and immensely challenged by Etty Hillesum. I can understand the madness of Adolph Hitler, the passivity of German Christians, and the desire for vengeance on the part of some survivors of the Holocaust better than I can comprehend the spirit of Etty Hillesum.
Besides the diaries and letters, Etty left one more piece of writing. Out of the windows of the train that carried her to Auschwitz where she died on November 30, 1943, she flung a postcard which was later picked up by a farmer. On in she had scribbled her last message to us: “We have left the camp singing.” I would bet anything that Etty was the one who began the chorus.
More than anything I want the ability to sing in a world that chooses death over life, greed over sharing, and violence over love. Maybe I can learn to sing if I too can promise God just one very small thing: that I will not burden my today with cares about my tomorrow. Let it be, Lord. Let it be.
COMMUNION: “The food you eat, the clothes you wear” was addressed to poor people who had at best a regular diet of bread and vegetables and two articles of clothing. Today if we worry about the food we eat it’s probably because we are dieting. And if we worry about the clothes we wear, it’s probably deciding what to wear from our wardrobes. We worry about other things far removed from daily existence, and we are hungry for many things, much of which we do not need and which make no contribution to our identities as children of God. And that is why we need to hear that beatitude over and over again: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
As we approach this Table may each one of us ask in all sincerity, “What am I hungry for?”
COMMISSION: Imagine the freedom we would have if we could promise God just one very small thing–that we will not burden our today with cares about our tomorrow. That advice from Jesus’ lips is so countercultural–so out of synch with the values. of our culture that it takes our breath away. But perhaps it’s time for us to catch on that following Jesus means marching/dancing to the beat of a different drummer. And we can begin by promising God just one very small thing.