Unfriended

“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~ Matthew 9:10-11

This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:

I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”

The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”

I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”

And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.

First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.

Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.

icon-friendship
“Icon of Friendship: Christ and Abbot Mena”

And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.

Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. 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 Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery

About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.

During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.

Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?

With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.

I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"rowing on Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“rowing on Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A sacred reminder

I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.

But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.

I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Frank Eichenberg
“Christ of the Breadlines” by Frank Eichenberg

Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye Houseworked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action.  Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path.  We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.

The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”  

At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.

Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?  

First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.  

While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.

Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.  

Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”

The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.

 

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Twins opener blockade action (courtesy of Joe Kruse)

Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”

 

About the Rabbler Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.”   – Rumi

“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”

This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately.  Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience.  But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.  I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail.  He does not remember.  Do you?  Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago.  Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray.  As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly.  At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face.  By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!”  The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”

That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week.  As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment.  It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way.  The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation.  I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.  

“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.”  But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”

“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again.  I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it.  There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.”  One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking.  My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast.  I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child.  Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.”  Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh.  How did Mary feel?  Was she exhausted and exasperated?  Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles?  Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands.  It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.

The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle.  My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry.  I say more “no’s” than necessary.   I am not the person or parent I want to be.  Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence.  Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says.  “I can’t, my sweet boy.”  A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.”   Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence.  In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.”  However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

A “woke” Joseph and the great Christmas challenge

Merry Christmas!

With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.

We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.

Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like

“Stay woke.”

“The woke people give me hope.”

“Now that I’m woke I can’t go back.”

If you’re not familiar with the modern colloquialism, my friend Sister Nicole Trahan offered a lovely reflection on what it means to “be woke” for Global Sisters Report in June.

Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.

This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.

Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:

When Joseph awoke,

he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him

and took his wife into his home.

He had no relations with her until she bore a son,

and he named him Jesus.

~ Matthew 1: 24-25

sleeping-Joseph-baby-Jesus--catholicprayercards.org
“Sleeping St. Joseph” (courtesy of www.catholicprayercards.org)

A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.

We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.

We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.

The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?

And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”

Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.

Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!

Merry Christmas!

The joy of receiving

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“

~ Loretta Ross-Gotta

Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!

guadalupe-steven-cottam
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

 

However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.

After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”

I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”

tamales-daughter-steven-cottam
Steven’s daughter polishing off the tamales (photo courtesy of Steven Cottam)

Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.

I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. 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 Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Fear, darkness, and Advent

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.

photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/
Photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/

Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.

I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.

Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.

In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.

Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.

Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.

When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.

At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.

Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.

Joseph_Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

St. Conrad of Parzham Photo credit: catholic.org
St. Conrad of Parzham (Photo credit: www.catholic.org)

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? Why would the Church choose to lift up and honor the holiness of those who spent their lives as doorkeepers?

The unexpectedly large number of porter saints is a testament to how central hospitality is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The refrain repeated over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures is to remember that since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we are to welcome strangers now. And Scripture reminds us continually that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. Abraham entertaining angels unaware in Genesis. Cleopas and his companion inviting the stranger on the Emmaus road in for a meal, only to discover Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus insisting to his bewildered followers that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him.

This truth is made visible during the Advent season when Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics act out the Gospel through the practice of Las Posadas (literally, “the inns”). For nine consecutive nights, we gather to re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary asking for shelter in Bethlehem. It is a deeply incarnational practice which literally challenges us to stand in the shoes of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, or to stand in the shoes of those in relative warmth and safety indoors that have to respond to their request.

Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net
Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net

“In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter,” a group sings in Spanish outside a locked door. “My beloved wife can travel no further.”

After being turned away several times, the door is opened and the group representing the Holy Family is welcomed in joyfully. “Enter, holy pilgrims,” is the jubilant refrain of those inside as they offer hospitality to the stranger – who is Christ.

During the years I worked in Hispanic parish ministry, I celebrated Las Posadas with a primarily Mexican and Central American immigrant community. During the shortest days of the year, we gathered in the dark, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together against the cold which worked its way through our wool hats and fleecy gloves. We passed a flickering flame from taper candle to taper candle, cupping our hands to carefully guard the small flame from the December wind, the warm glow lighting our faces as we processed. My breath came out in white, cloudy puffs as I sang the familiar words of the lilting melody. And then, the open door, the sung words of welcome, the warmth and light of the parish hall, the inviting scent of steaming pots of pozole and hot chocolate, the smiling faces of friends.

Tragically, in the past weeks since the election, we have seen a heart-breaking, disturbing rash of hate crimes, many directed at immigrants, especially those from Latin America or the Middle East.

In the face of our current political and social reality, the witness of porter saints like St. Conrad and the Las Posadas tradition offer an urgent challenge and poignant invitation for Christ-followers not only to open doors and keep a safe distance, but to open ourselves to conversion through encountering the stranger. To see the stranger as a blessing, not a burden. To believe we may catch a glimpse of our God if we dare to unlatch the lock, turn the doorknob, and step onto the threshold to greet those who knock.

This advent, through my work as a Spanish-language legal interpreter, I have glimpsed God through “Catalina,” a plucky, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old Central American girl. She spoke with a straight-forward, quiet confidence as she described leaving her home in the rural highlands, traveling through Mexico on buses, and entering the United States to reunite with family here.

“I wasn’t scared,” I said, interpreting Catalina’s words from Spanish to English for the immigration lawyer. “I prayed for God to be my guide. Every time I got on a bus, I would pray for God to protect me. And my prayers were answered.”

At the end of the legal consultation appointment, Catalina thanked me and clasped my hand, her bright brown eyes locking on mine with a sudden, shy seriousness.

“God is with you,” she said.

Perhaps unwittingly, this immigrant teenager girl spoke the name of God that we chant, sing, and meditate upon during these Advent days of hoping and waiting: Emmanuel. God is with us.

Catalina’s unexpected blessing challenges me to grow in trust and reminds me of the many ways my heart has been expanded through encountering the stranger on the threshold of an open door.

St. Conrad, and all you porter saints, pray for us that we, too, may open doors and make room for the coming of Emmanuel.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

This week’s guest blogger is Rhonda Miska. Like Sister Julia, this Messy Jesus Rabble Rouser is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a member of Giving Voice. She is a candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and freelance writer who teaches religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque (in the fine state of Iowa – Sister Julia’s home state!). She studied at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and her past ministries include congregation-based community organizing, coordinating a winter shelter for people who are homeless, accompanying migrant children in legal proceedings, and living in a community with adults with special needs. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

This complicated, imperfect world: a poem

child-Fall-leaves-path
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

 

 

This is a complicated world,

           but not for the sake of trying.

How do we respond?  What is it that I have done?

           Have I tried to lay in the long grass,

           to wake early and see my breath?

When did I last wait to hear,

Not answer, not voice, but a bird,

           the woodpecker’s sharp tap outside the bedroom window.

I don’t remember when I last walked in the rain

           to look up and see the downpour.

Am I afraid of getting wet, of tracking mud?

How quickly I forget my coat, a pair of boots

           Do I even remember where in the closet they are stored?

I must go out this next time.

I must remember that it is expected of me

           to not remain dry

           to track mud onto the floor boards.

It is expected that I do not remain a stoic philosopher forever.

Good reflection never came from sitting at the altar.

Unless I propose to be a monk,

           but even the monk must laugh

           and he does look up into the rain.

This is a complicated world

           but made less so because I am not a monk

           however much I would like to be.

And although not a religious

           I will still pray.

Perhaps I will even pray tonight.

Perhaps my words will carry hints of the sacred.

It is a sacred found in the ordinary;

           Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.

           Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect life.

And my feet have been introduced to mud,

           my hair drips rain.

Maybe I shall yet live

           or at the very least I will try.

 

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.

This complicated, imperfect world: an essay

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

little-girl-sandals-mud-rain
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.

And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.