Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.
Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.
In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)
I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.
Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.
Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).
The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.
… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.
In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.
Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite well — and frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.
But now, if I find myself making any patriotic music — even half-heartedly — I assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.
I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.
Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:
“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”— “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)
Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.
We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.
Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.
Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.
As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge, we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:
133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).
134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.
135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.
Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.
As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.
Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here. Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.
. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.
Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .
As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.
No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. -Proverbs 31:8-9
Like everyone else who understands that the Bible is a book that calls us to love without limit, I am heartbroken by the splitting of families happening at the U.S./Mexico border.
You probably heard that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused the Bible to justify the sin of separating families. I am grateful that Stephen Colbert stood up for the Truth of love and justice in response, as you can see in this video.
God’s law is love. The Bible is all about love; love is the entire New Testament covenant. Christians must be more concerned with love than borders, security or any human-made law.
Love can be painful and demanding. When we really love, we often feel heartbroken. Because my heart has been so heavy about the ways that children in poverty are suffering, I wasn’t sure how to write about it. I doubted I could say anything that wasn’t already being said. I felt helpless.
But then, once the audio of children crying inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility was leaked by Propublica, I knew I didn’t need to say anything new or different. I could share this video with any of you who may not have yet had a chance to listen, and by doing so I could help give voice to the voiceless–the children trapped at the border. I could let the children speak for themselves.
Here is the video. Please listen. As you do, love the children. Imagine their faces. Please pray for them, for their parents, for those who must work in the facilities, for the people in power who can end all this horror.
However we cry, pray and act on behalf of the children and their parents, let us remember that God hears our cries; God is with us and empowering us to remain courageous for justice and peace. Thanks be to God!
The righteous cry out, the LORD hears
and he rescues them from all their afflictions.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,
saves those whose spirit is crushed.
Many are the troubles of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him from them all.
He watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
Evil will slay the wicked;
those who hate the righteous are condemned.
The LORD is the redeemer of the souls of his servants;
Children in traditional Hasidic Jewish attire run joyfully on the playground. Some of their playmates speak Spanish, others are Anglos with bobbing blond hair. Multiple languages float through the August air under the music. A Mexican band sings and strums its guitars as the sequins on the band member’s sombreros glitter in the sun. I sit with hundreds of people at picnic tables, munching food made by our neighbors: tacos, shish kabobs, falafel, pelmeni, borscht, pierogies, Maid-Rites, venison and pie. There is a sacredness to the event, a holiness to this community. This, I think, is what the reign of God might look like.
But this is not heaven. It is…
[This is the beginning of an article I wrote for America. Continue reading here.]
I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.
I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.
I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.
The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…
The smell of bread baking wafts, stills her light
as she enters bouncing, screen door clanging. Show me, Grandma. I want to know.
For the next batch, she is held firm between
warm embrace and floured dough upon tan
table. She’s stunned by the flowing union
of grandma’s arms and shaking dough.
Punch into the metal bowl, there you go.
The holy is here in the expanding yeast,
in the building of love’s awed vitality.
Rising bread and growing girl, all glory
and praise is poured forth in the communion
of kneading dough.
Have a blessed Feast of Corpus Christi, Messy Jesus Business readers! I hope you will join me in striving to honor the sacredness of every beloved body–human and otherwise–and the holiness of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament of bread and wine. Love, Sister Julia
“Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do/ For they know not
Who you are.” ~ “Pillar of Truth” by Lucy Dacus
It’s been about four hours since the birth, and now that everyone is calm and happy and relaxing, I take a minute to steal away. I descend softly down the stairs, down the corridor, and into the dim, cool, silent wood and stone chapel. On the side is the naive where the tabernacle waits, the red lamp is lit and glowing. I kneel.
“Thank you. Thank you for the gift of my son. Thank you for the gift of his life, his healthy delivery. For his mother, his sister, our whole family. I’m really overwhelmed with gratitude for these blessings. Thank you. Really.”
I pause. I look around. I breathe in the quiet for a moment.
“If I’m being honest … I’m a bit nervous. About raising a son. It’s a … confusing time to be raising a young man. A confusing time to know what it means to be a man, with so many different, conflicting ideas of manhood competing for attention. Some quite uplifting, but so many so destructive, so toxic … so short of what I hope my son will be and become.
“That’s why we named him after you. Joshua. He’ll know you by a different name of course — the Latin derivative, instead of the Hebrew — but still, he’s named for you. Please teach him, your namesake, by your example of what it means to be a man.
Meet baby Joshua (image courtesy of Steven Cottam)
“Teach him that courage does not mean the willingness to inflict pain, but the willingness to endure it for the good.
“Teach him that it is stronger to control anger, greed, and lust than to give it free rein and inflict it upon others.
“Teach him that the proper use of power is the defense of the powerless.
“Teach him that to protect and provide for his family does not stop with those who share his features, but extends to all his brothers and sisters in need.
“Teach him that it is better to die as an innocent, than to live as an oppressor.
“So many have said to me, about my son, ‘How exciting, a son!’
’Yes, exciting!’ I say.
‘He’ll get to be the one to pass on your name.’
‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘Maybe. Probably. Unless of course he is called to a different path. To be a religious brother. Or a priest. Should we be so blessed.’
‘Well, sure … but you don’t want your only son to be a priest. Who would pass on your name?’
“Hmm. Good question. Who would pass on my name? I’ll be honest Lord. It doesn’t matter to me if my name is passed on. It doesn’t matter to me if my descendants remember me. But please, Lord, let my son pass on your name. Let my descendants remember you. Let them know who you are.
“Please remember this your namesake. Remember him by granting him the grace to remember you — your name, your life, and to call upon you all the days of his.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
My priesthood? What priesthood do I have? It doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I am a Catholic sister who is deeply committed to Christ and the Church. Jesus is my center. But I have no desire to be a priest.
The words came as I was preparing for a 30-day silent, directed retreat. This is part of your priesthood. I put the phrase away and concentrated on the details of the retreat: a journal, a Bible, and good snow boots for walking in the winter woods of January. And then I began the rhythm of the retreat. Prayer, prayer and more prayer. Slowly, as I walked with Jesus from before his birth through his childhood, through the waters of baptism and his friendships and healings, his own friendship with me began to deepen. Praying through the crucifixion was different this time. It was to be witness with a close friend. I mourned with the women at the tomb. I sat vigil in the emptiness of death. And then the sun rose again. Jesus rose. My surprise and wonder were fresh and new. My love had returned. He had conquered death and the whole world was changed.
I sat with the disciples in the upper room. We were waiting. We were praying. My prayer time with the disciples blurred with the shared silence with my fellow retreatants. Gathered around the fire in the evening in total silence, a deep reverence grew, one which I had never known. We were from all walks of life and we were truly just being ourselves. I opened my Bible to the assigned reading, John 20:19-23, and my body stirred as I read these words:
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
In that moment I knew that we are all sent. We all have a priesthood to share the mission and love of Jesus in the world wherever we are. All life is holy. And Jesus is the center of so many people’s lives: whether they are married, single, ordained or religious. We are sent.
The Church refers to this as the universal call to holiness. Especially since the documents of Vatican II, we speak of all the baptized being called to be priest, prophet and king. We all participate in the one priesthood of Christ.
I pray with those, especially women and married men, who feel a call to ordination within the Catholic Church. I pray for their wounds and for their healing. I hope not to diminish their journey. At the same time, I know in my bones of the holiness of each unique call, the consecration of life itself by our God who calls us and loves into being every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey, FSPA is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
the ice drifted out
fish, otter, loons released
lake ripples broadly
overcomes brown building up
awoke, rising, bold
every budding leaf shows how
justice demands change
love is feeding others
love is breakfast on the beach
love is going out
the boat moves over
horizons, maps, mystery
the plain of blue water
the egg cracks open
baby robin sings a song
yes to this new life
love is giving
love. open. community.
love frees all to be