We’re standing on holy ground

We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.

We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.

We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…

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

(Photo Credit: GlobalSistersReport.org / CNS / Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

When disaster strikes, God remains

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Photo credit: businessinsider.com

 

The two narratives

twist together

when the waters churn

and the fears rise,

when the winds blow

and doubts intensify,

when the flames destroy

and homes burn to ash.

Every surrender surfaces

acts of courage and love.

Community is formed

around the cross of loss.

When suffering blinds us from

“trust in God” it is OK to scream

or cry or wonder if we’re being

ignored by the God of love,

to acknowledge the ache

of possible abandonment.

And in the still of the storm,

the heroes and the victims,

who are helpers and hurting

(all of us wear both badges)

make known the power of God’s

presence and the might of love.

This is our story of salvation,

this is the story of Incarnational

transformation. Although we are

frozen in fear, we arise to schlep

out junk. We splurge no more so

we can contribute more cash.

We grip arms as one

steadily moving forward

toward Sunday’s true joy.

Yes, by “love one another”

God remains real

in the midst of disaster.

Jesus is way cooler than Spider-Man!

“Why is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man?” asked a seventh grader.

His question wasn’t completely out of the blue. He, along with dozens of us spending the week at  Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in northern Montana, had recently learned a new way to proclaim God’s glory: “Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man!”  *Denotes both the sound and pose of web-slinging.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

The question about Spider-Man came up while I was sitting on a panel for a “Pastors Pondering” session — a small-group gathering in which youth can confidentially write their most burning queries about faith and (hopefully) receive an answer from a pastor. (Though I am neither Lutheran nor a pastor, the camp had graciously invited me to participate anyway.)

Much to my surprise and delight, the seventh grader’s rather cheeky query inspired one of the most profound conversations about Christian theology that I’ve ever been a part of.

So why, exactly, is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man? Here’s what we came up with:

Jesus is there for us all the time, not just during an emergency

Spider-Man swoops into people’s lives to stop the villains when a situation reaches a crisis point; then he swoops right back out again, leaving those he rescued staring off into the distance where he disappeared. But Jesus never leaves us. Our lives don’t have to be threatened for him to care about us, and — though we may experience moments of awe and marvel at his greatness — we never have to stare off into the distance wondering when or if we’ll ever see him again.

Jesus lives in community, while Spider-Man is a loner

Peter Parker must lead a dual-life, hiding his most authentic identity from those to whom he is closest. But the Jesus of the Gospels is surrounded by people who know who he is and what he does … and who truly love him. Jesus does not build credible alibis; he builds deep and mutually-loving relationships. He inspires his community, teaches them, and empowers them to continue his work. I’d much rather be friends with that guy.

Jesus doesn’t need to use violence to defeat the bad guys

The death and destruction Spider-Man leaves in his wake sometimes cause people to wonder if having a neighborhood superhero is even worth it. But Jesus doesn’t have to maim, kill, or destroy to win. Whether he is confounding the Pharisees to rescue a woman about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11) or mysteriously passing through an angry crowd intent on killing him (Luke 4:28-30), Jesus manages to undermine the evil intentions of villains without ever physically hurting them. And although Jesus’ famous instruction to “turn the other cheek” is sometimes mistaken for passive surrender, it is actually one of many acutely subversive acts of resistance to injustice that he demonstrates in his life. (For more about Jesus’ nonviolent subversion, I highly recommend “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” by Walter Wink.)

But the point is: unlike Spider-Man, Jesus fights — and wins! — the good fight without ever harming his enemies or creating collateral damage. To a peace studies major like me, there’s just nothing cooler than that.

Jesus is a savior, not a superhero

Spider-Man always wins the day. He uses his super-human abilities to vanquish villains and receives public adulation in return. He defeats the bad guys and re-establishes proper order. Jesus, on the other hand, loses … badly. He ends up disdained and condemned by his own people, abandoned and betrayed by his best friends. He begs God to spare him, but still succumbs to an agonizing, unglamorous death. Yet somehow, in doing so, he defeats death itself and upends the proper order of things forever. Jesus’ story is not heroic … but it is salvific.

Jesus loves the bad guys just as much as the good guys

I don’t know about you, but I often wonder whether I would be the hero or the villain in many scenes in my life story. My autobiography is tainted by moments of cowardice, hubris, and even outright maliciousness. In short, I’m a sinner. Given the right circumstances, I have no doubt that I would find myself on the wrong side of Spider-Man’s relentless quest for justice. But Jesus’ quest for justice is rooted in radical grace, so that even the rich man who cannot part with his possessions is loved (Mark 10:17-22); and even the fraudulent tax-collector is invited to dinner (Luke 19:1-10); and even the soldiers who nail Jesus to the cross are forgiven (Luke 23:33-34). It may not be a Hollywood ending, but it’s beyond Good News for me.

Basically, it boils down to this: Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man because Jesus is God, and he chose to die for us — all of us — anyway. Spider-Man just can’t come close to that.

. . . Nonetheless, at the end of our Pastors Pondering, we did have to admit one thing: Spider-Man has much cooler clothes than Jesus.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her Lutheran pastor husband and their two daughters. She is grateful to Pastor Dan, Pastor Tanner, and her husband for being part of the amazing Pastors Pondering that inspired this post. She also apologizes to any die-hard Spider-Man fans for any character errors; she admits that she actually knows very little about Spider-Man.

 

I’m so glad you called

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began. Luke 15: 21-24

In my work as the RCIA coordinator at my parish, I get to meet a lot of people who are coming back to a practice of faith after a long time away. Many of these people are Catholics who were baptized as children but then, for any number of reasons, never finished their other sacraments of initiation. Some are members of other denominations or even other religious faiths who had a practice of prayer or spirituality that was eventually abandoned. In all cases, whatever the reason for the cessation of practice, the fire in their hearts for a relationship with God was never fully extinguished and they are now actively seeking to kindle that relationship once again.

In all of these people I see a spark of excitement. Something in their life has shifted and now, now is the time when they are taking the step to reach out to a community. When they talk about what brought them to my office, why precisely today is the day they decided to come join the parish or join the Church, there is always a light and heat in their voice that is electrifying.

However, all too often, I will see that light dim as they talk about how ashamed or sad they are for having been away for so long. They’ll share some hurtful or harmful thing that they did or that was done to them; that made them walk away from faith.

We were raised Catholic, but then my parents got divorced and we just never went after that.

My parents were Catholic, but I had an awful relationship with them and didn’t want anything to do with their faith.

I was really involved in a parish, but then I had a big falling out with the pastor and just couldn’t bring myself to be involved any more.

In high school I was deeply involved in the Church, but the life I led in college didn’t really match Catholic teachings. I felt like a hypocrite, and just stopped attending Mass.

My husband died and my church didn’t do anything to support me — I couldn’t really forgive God or them for making me go through that alone.

Image courtesy desiringgod.org

Many are angry — some at others, but just as many at themselves. Some are ashamed. More often than not, there is a real sorrow over the choice to walk away. Even if they were in some way a victim, most of them feel the need to apologize for their absence. This regret often takes the form of a personal apology to me, the representative of the Church with them in that moment.

When people apologize to me for their absence from faith, from prayer, I always feel a bit awkward responding. As a single and very flawed minister I do not speak for the whole Church, not even my whole parish, and much less for God Almighty. But in this moment, to this person, I do represent the Church and what I say next may very well make or break their decision to continue on this path. The good news is that I do think I have an inkling of what God might want to express, and it’s what I always try to share with the individual across my desk.

I am so glad you called.

I am so terribly happy you came in. We have been weaker without you, my brother. We have had a hole in our community waiting for you to fill, my sister. I am overjoyed that you want to build a relationship with God now, and I am giddy that you want to do so with this community of believers. I do not care in the slightest where you have been — all I care about is where you are headed, where we are headed, and that’s toward a deeper friendship with our God. Apologize if you must — I’m happy to listen to what you need to say. But when you’re done, I’m going to take you around the parish and show you off and introduce you to everyone and tell them all ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found our lost friend.’

People who have been actively practicing faith for a while can forget how intimidating returning to the Church can be. Even if someone has already decided that the Church is something they want to be a part of — something of beauty they want to return to — there is often some very real fear and trembling. All too often, Christians are seen as stern moralizers who care more about naming and categorizing sin than caring for the human hearts wounded by it, and too many people come back to the faith expecting a lecture. We need to overturn this image with a better one, the image that the Gospel maps out for us — for we have been given a blueprint of response when one of our brethren makes their way back home; do not fall into the sin of the older brother, clucking your tongue in judgement when you should celebrate at the feast. If you are a Christian, do not forget your duty to hospitality (and perhaps consider sharing this blog with someone who might feel conflicted about returning to the Church).

And so I say to everyone who is thinking of returning to the Church — to those who have been disaffected, betrayed, hypocritical, distracted, skeptical or hedonistic — Come home! Reach out! We miss you! Who you were yesterday is of no concern — today is what matters. Come back; you will not be met with judgement or hostility. And if you are, if you sadly happen to come across a rare minister who does not speak words of welcome to you, then call another parish. I guarantee you will not have to walk far down the road of return before you meet a brother or sister who will respond with the joy and celebration that God surely feels at your return home.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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, adorable daughter and 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.

Praying with voices from Charlottesville and learning how I am racist

I have never been to Charlottesville. In fact, I have barely spent anytime in the American South.

Like most people, though, I am horrified and sickened by the ugliness of racism that has been expressed there recently, especially last weekend. I want to know what to do, how to help and am trying to discern what sort of reaction I can muster.

Today I’ve been mourning the death and praying with the family of Heather Heyer, the counter-protestor who was hit by a car driven by a white supremacist on Saturday. I have been feeling heartsick for the friends and family of the police officers who died in the helicopter crash, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, too. I went to a somber candlelight vigil with another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration on Monday night to pray for peace, healing and to mourn the the lives lost last weekend. I am trying to study the truth carefully, prayerfully. I know I have a lot to learn.

I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening in the United States of America. I don’t know how to pray or move forward in the mess. I am not sure where God needs me to focus my energy and prayers to help transform society, contribute to the healing of racial wounds and stand for truth and justice. I feel lost.

I have been compelled this week, therefore, to pray with some of the voices I know from Charlottesville.

First,  I re-read this poignant essay from my friend Natasha Oladokun, “Why Are We Here if Not for Each Other?” before I got ready for Sunday Mass. I highly recommend that you read and pray with this essay, too, and allow yourself to consider the hard questions. Here’s an excerpt:

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, said Jesus — the champion of the marginalized and poor, the so-called religious radical who was executed by the state, the God to whom I’ve offered my life. It is an injunction that rarely makes earthly sense, especially now: how can I bless when I have nothing left to say? And what should I pray for? A plague of locusts?

In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet Claudia Rankine asks, “Why are we here if not for each other?” This is the question I keep asking myself and whomever else will listen. Perhaps, in its own way, it’s the question. If our lives and work and words are not in the service of transformative devotion to and for our neighbors, then what, in heaven or hell, are we doing?

Secondly, I have been challenged and grateful for this message from another friend who calls Charlottesville her home, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. I have read this over and over, and am trying to take the challenge to heart:

My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,

I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff-arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday. We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it. I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.

But they are us.

I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.

I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior. I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.

I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at andi@andilit.com, and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.

So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too. I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW. But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person. If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.

We need to have our hearts broken.

But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.” So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.

And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want. I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.

But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.

Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.

And we must change. WE, the white people of America, must change.

With all my love for all of us,

Andi

These two essays have been churning questions and agony within me,  haunting me. Over and over I wonder: Am I racist too?  

The insistence of this moment is that we all realize that our actions for racial reconciliation must be both internal and external. Internally, each of us must enter into the chasm of our hearts and minds and ask ourselves the most necessary and challenging questions such as: How am I racist?   

I majored in history in college. Doing so helped me understand that all of the “isms” are complex, systemic and sinful. Racism, especially, is one of the worst “isms” that we need to confront, especially in ourselves, as it can be subtle and unconscious, and likely to come out sideways in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

That’s the way social sin works. Even if we are working against it, we still absorb some of the evil. We all are harmed. We must repent.

This tool is especially helpful to me as I work to see more of the truth of how I may be racist without realizing it:

Externally, we must work for racial reconciliation in every possible way. Prayer, education, protest, social action are great ways to start. (You can look here to see if there is #StandWithCharlottesville event happening near you.) Intentional conversation circles and dialogues are valuable. Also, the Episcopalian Bishops of Virginia offer great specific actions here in their list titled “Concrete actions in the face of white supremacists and others whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.”

No matter how we proceed through this mess, let us remember that every person is worthy of God’s love and mercy.  Let us not clump anyone into a group that we are against, but realize that even if they are acting in a way that goes against God, that they are also a child of God and need to be honored and loved as such.  Let us be clear that Christ’s love is for all people, every race, language and nation.

And, fortunately, God gets to take the lead through this struggle; it’s not all up to us. Step by step we struggle forward, letting Jesus take the lead and bring us closer to true peace, reconciliation, healing and freedom. Amen.

Photo credit: https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/

Messy Christian music playlist

Every ordinary day, I am reminded that I am weak and desperately need God.

When I forget the birthday of someone dear to me, when I lose my keys, when irritation and anger bubble up in my heart–each experience of imperfection can block my trust in God.

I am tempted to think I am worthless and ought to stop trying. In times like these, this song speaks to me.

I want to avoid admitting my brokenness. I would rather freeze and stop turning to God. Yet, I know that only God can provide the freedom and hope I need. Here is a tune to inspire faith and freewill.

I know I am a sinner. I can be cruel and selfish. Ugly thoughts and actions clog up the loving in my life. I feel dirty and worthless. Here is a song for trials like these.

Sometimes my faith doesn’t feel deep. I get it in my heart that God has the ability to work great miracles, to free me from troubles in the most dramatic of ways. Yet, my head doubts that will happen. This song helps keep hope alive.

I am constantly on a journey of conversion and transformation, as God brings me through these challenges. This tune helps me remember that God is with me in my lows and the awesome highs of life.

In the end, God’s embrace is the greatest place of peace I know. I am so restless, and God is the only source of rest and strength.

Thanks be to God for the comfort we all can know, for the music that will help us make our way through the beautiful mess of the human experience.

Amen!

 

A troubled conscience

On June 20, Pope Francis visited the gravesites of two Italian priests who were well-known for the ministry among the poor and their opposition to war. These men were prophets. When I think of someone like them, closer to home, it’s Joshua Casteel. Joshua grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, enlisted in the United States Army shortly after 9/11, was trained as an interrogator, learned Arabic and interrogated about 130 prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

One day, a Muslim prisoner asked Joshua how he could reconcile his work as an interrogator with the command of Jesus to love one’s enemies. Joshua felt the prisoner was a hypocrite but the question cut to his heart. It touched his conscience. Joshua started to ask how he could become a peacemaker and whether there is a path outside the cycle of violence.

Joshua became a conscientious objector and received an honorable discharge from the army in 2005. He went on to write plays and publish books about war and conscience and the Gospel call to love our enemies. He even went to divinity school and considered becoming a Jesuit. (I met him when I was a Jesuit novice.) In 2012, at age 32, Joshua died of lung cancer, despite never having smoked. His family believes the cancer resulted from his six months near a burn pit in Iraq.

joshua-casteel
Photo courtesy joshuacasteel.com

God called Joshua to be a prophet, and he responded to this call.

We are baptized into Christ who is priest, prophet and king. Today, we are invited to reflect on the call of a prophet and our own call to be prophets.

God created out of love. There is abundance — enough for everyone. But there is also human greed, violence and broken relationships. God calls prophets to say “This world, this violence, is not what God intends. You were created out of love, called to love each other, even our enemies.”

Jeremiah was born into this world of sin and injustice. People had turned from God and neglected the most vulnerable in society, widows and orphans. God chose Jeremiah to call people to fidelity. Jeremiah protested, “I am too young!” God reassured him: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you … See, I place my words in your mouth.”

God told Jeremiah to announce to the people “Reform your ways, or disaster will come upon you.” It was not a popular message! People plotted against him. Jeremiah was scourged and imprisoned. He remained faithful to his call, but was persecuted. He was dejected and angry.

Jeremiah laments: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” Jeremiah wanted to quit. (He tried to run away three times.) But, he said, “I must cry out.” The call is “as if fire is burning in my heart.”

Jeremiah was able to express his grief, anger and questions to God. Can we? In the end, Jeremiah praised God (“Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord”). Even when we do not understand what is happening, and we are angry with God, can we also trust God and praise God? When we gather to worship, we can express doubt, lament, pain and anger. These feelings are part of a journey of faith.

What injustice in our world, our neighborhoods, troubles your conscience? For Joshua Casteel, it was the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the violence of terrorism and the U.S. response: the “war on terror.”

What about for you? What troubles your conscience? The deep division in our society and the lack of charity and dialogue? The lack of respect for life from conception to natural death? A “justice” system quick to send people to prison, separating fathers, mothers and children from their families? An economic system that creates a great disparity of wealth? Violence against women in its many forms: street harassment, rape, exclusion?

Are you angry that God does not seem to intervene? Can you express that anger to God?

To be a prophet is not the call of a few. We are all baptized into Christ who is priest, prophet and king. What is the fire burning within you? How is God inviting you to respond, in small ways or large ways? How are your gifts and professional skills at the service of those most in need?

In the Gospel according to Matthew (10: 26-33),  Jesus commands two things: “fear no one” and preach boldly: “speak in the light,” “proclaim from the rooftops”). Jesus reminds us: God cares for each insignificant sparrow. How much more for you! God knows and loves you and sends the Spirit to empower and strengthen you in your prophetic call. How will you respond?

Note from the editorThis blog post is a version of a homily that Father Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on June 25, 2017 (Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

 

 

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

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

More than a table

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.                            —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46

Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.

But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.

“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.

My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”

“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”

“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”

“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”

“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a benchthey’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavierthey might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”

The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.

child-break-bread-sign-by-Steven-Cottam
Excited to serve hospitality around the new table (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.

Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.

So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.

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, adorable daughter and 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.

The jail we are all in

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/prison-1201356

I spend most of time going through life assuming that I am basically a good person who is OK with God. But, every now and then, I notice ugly thoughts jumble around inside me: Give them what they deserve! Or, Lock them up and throw away the key! Or, Thank God they’re not my problem to deal with!

Upon recognizing such thinking in myself there are two layers of horror and disgust. First, I am shocked by the awfulness and ugliness of the attitude, which is far from the Way of Christ. Second, I am terrified that such thoughts are authentically coming from me—a “good person.” When I realize that yes, I really thought that, it is an indicator that the structures of social sin really do have an influence over me—so much so that even my mind has shifted away from compassion and mercy.

Jesus, too, understood the ugliness of social sin and the way it can corrupt the thinking of good people. Challenged with the question “who is my neighbor?” his reply stretches his audience to widen their view:

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He  answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:29-37

The despised Samaritan becomes the “good guy,” the one who models how to practice the law of love, while the expected holy ones—the priest and scholar—miss the chance to serve. The false, deeply engrained perceptions are challenged so that the Kingdom of God can break through.

All these centuries later and across the globe, it turns out that wrong thinking has influence over our societal structures as well. Compared to other nations, the people in the United States demand more punishment for crimes; we want to be tough, not merciful. This insistence means that the for-profit private detention industry is booming. Plus, we greatly surpass every other nation for the amount of people we have put behind bars. Even though our nation has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA!

The people behind these bars are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors who Jesus calls us to love. They are the broken body of Christ in need of mercy and kindness. They are fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters. Our sin tears parents from children. Our wrong thinking—focused more on punishment than mercy—is festering wounds in families, neighborhoods and cities.

The good news is that we do not need to get stuck; no keys are really thrown away. We can repent for the sin of our wrong-thinking and continued allowance of bad public policy.

Let us give God our broken hearts and broken systems. Let us grow closer to Christ upon the Christ, bearing our wounds and sorrow. Such an intimacy with Christ can transform the prisons of our wrong thinking and create new hearts within us. The Kingdom of God shall break forth, the prisoner shall be released, and we all will be liberated from the damage of social sin.

Changed by God, we will then be able to rejoice and announce the good news: freedom and forgiveness for all, the day of favor has arrived!