Singing with my Sister Thea

Today is a day for singing. And I mean singing. 

We are celebrating the life of a Sister whose legacy continues to unfold. Sister Thea Bowman died 25 years ago today, at age 52. And Sister Thea’s life was a life of song.

Photo credit: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1001322.htm

I never got to meet Sister Thea in person. Yet, through the communion of saints and our shared membership in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I feel quite connected to her. I first heard of Sister Thea during my first telephone conversation with the FSPA Membership Director in 2003. Sister Dorothy encouraged me to pray to Sister Thea for guidance in my discernment journey. Even before she met me in person, she said that I reminded her of Thea. When I visited St. Rose Convent and learned more about Sister Thea a few weeks later, I began to understand the connection that Sister Dorothy sensed.

Now, much of who Sister Thea is and what she stood for continues to enliven me and my life of Gospel living. In her, I get to know some of the freedom that being a FSPA gifts me. She models a life of authenticity and spunk. She shows me how to speak up for justice, even if I am speaking to power. I pray that I also express joy and proclaim a fiery message of inclusion and equality.

Here is a video of Sister Thea’s famous speech to the U.S. Bishops about Black Catholic spirituality in 1989.

Our Church has a lot of work to do, to fully integrate Sister Thea’s vision– just as we have a lot of work to do to live out the invitations of the Gospel.

As we work for the Church we hope for, we shall sing. So, today is a day when I have lively African American spirituals in my head and on my lips. Today is a day when I am praying for a Church that lives out the message that Sister Thea proclaimed, a day to celebrate the joy that comes from knowing Jesus.

Today is a day for singing.

Grace and the Incomplete Flush

By Sara Zarr

Almost two years ago my husband and I bought a condo in a cool old building downtown. Great location, hardwood floors, exposed brick, pocket doors—charm and more charm. The trouble with cool old buildings is that they are rife with plumbing and electrical issues as ancient systems jury-rigged to keep up with modern times continually fail.

Our previous home had these same issues. The electrical never bothered me much—an ungrounded outlet here, a shorted breaker there, a little smoke wafting out of the dimmer switch of a summer evening. Life.

But the plumbing. The plumbing is another story. The primary symptom of its troubles (and all of my angst about it) coalesces around what is known in the biz as an “incomplete flush.” No matter how many times you flush the toilet, you can never quite get rid of all evidence that you had to use it.

This creates a low level of stress that’s with me all the time. What will I find when I go into the bathroom? What will remain when I leave? How do I politely explain to guests what to expect and not to worry about it?

“It won’t overflow,” I assure them. “It only looks like it will.”

What will they think of me?

 

I have a number of recurring anxiety dreams.

One is about being in college and realizing I have a test in a class I’ve somehow neglected to attend for the entire semester. Common. Another common one is a version of “the actor’s nightmare,” in which I’m about to go on stage before an audience only I’ve never seen a script and I might also be partially nude.

The third that I often have involves toilets, some variation of “I gotta go” and I can’t find a single toilet that isn’t dirty, overflowing with waste, in a stall without a door, in a room without a stall, or, oddly, in a flooded gym locker room. I assume this one is pretty common, too.

 

My friends and I, when we talk about our various spiritual and psychological and childhood issues, often say: “Oh, I’m just dealing with my shit.” Or, “Sorry, my shit was coming up,” when we overreact to a perceived slight or rejection.

Anything that feels like evidence of what we find ugly or gross about ourselves we equate to literal crap, and ideally we could just flush it all away and never have it bubble back up at inconvenient moments, never look messy, never feel soiled.

Sometimes I have a difficult time maintaining relationships once they feel dirtied—and they all get dirtied. I want tidy closures and sparkling reconciliation, for everything that seemed foul and repulsive to be whooshed away into the great sewer of the universe and be completely forgotten.

I have this belief that it would be less painful to be a young widow than to have to struggle through a difficult conversation in marriage, that it would be neater to have no friends at all than to work at loving people and letting them love me once we’ve seen what’s down there clogging up the drain, that it would be better to move on from a job once I’ve sent a regrettable email or missed a deadline.

I guess what I want is for there to never be evidence of my sin. I guess what I want is to never need forgiveness, understanding, patience, or mercy. I guess I don’t want to need saving. I guess I want to be perfect.

I joke about being a “perfectionist” and how it can freeze me up when I’m trying to write. With writing it’s one thing, just a minor symptom. It’s serious, though, when it comes to my spirit and my ability to have meaningful relationships (including with myself) in the light of the gospel.

Though the anxiety of not being perfect crosses every social divide, religious anxiety and some types of doctrine can really exacerbate it. My Mormon friends deal with this, I know, as do my friends from evangelical backgrounds.

But in theory, anyway, it seems like Christians should be the best at being okay with not being perfect. We confess our inability to save ourselves, and exchange our imperfection for Christ’s perfection. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to let Christ’s perfect love live in us and through us, and to know that and nothing else as our salvation.

Still, there is a point in every day where I have some version of the thought: But tomorrow I will be perfect.

The thought isn’t spiritual; a thought nowhere near to taking hold of Christ’s perfection.

It is a thought that encompasses what I will eat and how I will exercise, and that I will say nothing mean or sarcastic to my husband, that I will write a thousand perfect words and only tweet perfect tweets. I will make my hair perfect and my clothes perfect and this will probably involve buying something.

I’ll make sure no one sees me being petty, afraid, envious, stupid, or uninformed. And I will do this all through sheer force of will. Jesus doesn’t even cross my mind.

Then I wake up to the new day of perfection, and I have to use my cranky old toilet and go another round with the fact that I am messy, and my ways are messy, and my thoughts and issues are messy, and my relationships don’t always have the whiff of clean summer breezes, and everybody knows it.

Today I will need grace; I will need salvation.

Tomorrow, I will need it again.

The above originally appeared on Good Letters at Patheos and is reblogged with the permission of the author. 

 

Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.

Technology habits and the connections that really matter

Over the past five years, I have gradually become attached to a laptop. A couple of months ago, I reluctantly got a smart phone. Of course I know I am not all-that-strange for these personal facts, but as one who prefers to be more centered on my spiritual life and my relationship with God than on things, I actually feel ashamed to admit that I spend most of my time interacting with machines.

Of course, the technology can aid me in my connecting to God and neighbor, right? It’s a tool I get to control how I want, right? It doesn’t control me, does it?

Well, a quick assessment of my day reveals that I do, in fact, use technology to connect with God and serve others. I use the Daily Catholic and CRS Rice Bowl apps for prayer. I frequently listen to hymns and read Scripture reflections online. And, I certainly use technology for acts of service and activism and help moderate a Facebook group called The Vocation Discerners (which I founded years ago.) I certainly stay in touch with my dearest friends and family through email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, and even Instagram. Of course my ministry as a writer here and elsewhere requires technology too. These are not bad things!

Still, I am not proud of how much of my life is consumed by technology usage. In this season of Lent, a season that invites consciousness and conversion, I’m trying to honor my cravings for less screen time and more soul-centered time. This focus is causing a clearer portrait of the roots of my struggle to come into view.

A writer I greatly admire, Sara Zarr, recently wrote a reflection of her Internet history of the past twenty years. In the piece, she shares how she began this Lent with the intention of tracking (and possibly changing) her Internet habits. She acknowledges how using it has its pros and cons, and much of her patterns of usage are ultimately rooted in the core human need to connect, to relate. As for her Lenten intentions and possibly changing those patterns, she states “it turned out Lent … happened to be a time where I got to see and experience and lots of reminders of why I wanted to change it in the first place.”

I really appreciate Sara’s honesty about her tendency to use the Internet compulsively. She said it, but I’ve experienced it too: “It is the easiest, fastest way to relieve a moment of loneliness, to procrastinate, to fill a void, to get an ego hit, a dopamine rush, approval…I mean, we all know how that works. It’s hard to turn off and look away.”  Whoa, doesn’t she just name exactly what continues to drive us all online? Certainly, much of the shame and guilt I feel about my own technology usage is due to the things that drive me into it—not because of the fact that I am using technology itself.

Source: Pandodaily.wordpress.com

Spirit is involved in all of this. God is with us in our loneliness, in our habits of avoidance, in our needs for approval and connection. Spirit invites us into holiness and health, not disappointment or frustration. If we let the tools of technology lead us to the right places of prayer and communion, we can meet God, deepen our relationships, and serve others. But, if our human weakness and its sinful nature gets the best of us, we can lose control and technology can become self-serving or even an addiction.

Much of what’s at work is our living in a bit of gap. There’s a gap between our preferred behaviors and our actual behaviors. We can find God in this gap and discover ways to serve others, live in community, to share and participate. That’s what living the Gospel is all about.

It’s part of the reason why the Time article about the “sharing economy” fascinates me so much. I couldn’t help but to think about Jesus’ mission when I read about how many people are giving of their time and resources in order to connect with their neighbors or complete strangers (and yes, at times, to earn a bit of money) by sharing their car, their stuff and their meals. Our Gospel living is about connecting, relating and serving. It’s about communion and building community. It’s about willing the good of the other. If technology helps us with that, then it indeed can be a tool used for God’s purposes.

As we ponder the signs of this time, such as what is occurring in ecology, I believe that technology usage demands our attention. On this topic Ilia Delio writes, “…We humans are becoming something new with technology. Technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as ‘intentional technology.'”

As it turns out I need not be ashamed about my technology habits, as I’m united with many in my dilemmas. Instead, I can heed the invitation of this Lenten season and let my increased consciousness influence my choices. By the grace of God, I can change and become more intentional in my use of technology. With more intentionality I shall gain more freedom. By the grace of God, we all will.

Friday stations

It’s another Friday in Lent. It’s a day of sorrow and penance as we remember Jesus’ death on the cross.

Many of us are fasting in a bit of an extra way today. Some are abstaining from meat and other pleasures. Others are gathering in churches to pray the Stations of the Cross.

station 8
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

As community, we unite and remember the challenge and truth: Jesus suffered pain and gave of himself for our sake, because that’s the nature of true love. Truly, love willingly gives of oneself (even suffers) for the good of the other.

Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and giving of yourself for our sake! Amen!

Beautiful chaos and Lenten conversion

Recently, I asked my students what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Kingdom of God.” This (low-quality) photo summarizes the lively classroom discussion that occurred that day.

"Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As I told my students, I intentionally recorded all their comments on the board in a very messy fashion because I want them to see that the Kingdom of God is not orderly and predictable. In fact, living in the Kingdom of God that Jesus established means that we are living in the midst of beautiful chaos.

Through the incarnation Christ empowered us build the Kingdom of God. And, if we’re doing the work of building the Kingdom of God, we’re people who are moving into the chaos, out of our comfort zones, and toward the margins of society.

As we serve others we are invited into more chaos, into encounters and relationships that may disturb us. We love and serve those who Christ loves, we go against our natural inclinations and logic. We love our enemies and those who may not deserve it. We give and love without judgement or attachment. We remember that “we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

The chaos, the messiness of building the Kingdom of God is the stuff of beautiful chaos. It is also the stuff of personal and social conversion. During this Lenten season, our actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving challenge us to confront the uncomfortable corners in ourselves that are in need of God’s loving attention. As we let go of attachments and rearrange a bit of our living, an ugly seeming image of ourselves can emerge. We look at ourselves and see an inner chaos; we feel disturbed by truth. We need to grow, to be different, to convert more fully into who God made us to be.

I recently heard another Sister speak about how the chaos of a crisis gives us a chance to make a choice, frequently providing just the impetus we need to change. She connected these vital moments that invite our personal growth to the designs in God’s creation. When we study nature, she mentioned, we can recognize that the next evolutionary stage erupts when there is crisis and a need for change to occur.

I feel as if I am on this edge. The chaos of my weakness swirls about me, challenging me to make choices. I started Lent two weeks ago with a bit of my typical overambitious and idealistic intentions. And then I quickly started failing. Days would get busy and I would forget that about the extra tasks I wanted to do, like writing a card to someone I love each day. Now I am challenged to ask myself difficult questions, like why am unrealistic with myself? And, am I making enough time for others? I am challenged to move to more self-awareness and allowed to make another choice.

Each of us dance with questions and disturbances in the chaos of God’s Kingdom. We are allowed to make choices that allow for greater personal growth. We are invited to encounter the chaos that is the lives of others.

Then together–as a community–we change the structures, systems and inner oppression that don’t allow God’s Kingdom to fully come into the here and now. We forgive. We heal. We teach. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We love God with all that we are. Then, the peace, justice and love that is the Kingdom of God can be known in this time now.

Amen!