Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Loyalty and memory in response to the signs

He said to them … “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’;and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” – Matthew 16:2-4

Much of the world we once knew is flipping onto its side. People in power are causing us to have questions about what we thought were foundational values, about where their loyalties lie. When our leaders disturb the order that we once relied on — that once made us comfortable — it’s only natural for us to feel lost, confused and uncertain about how to interpret the chipping and shifting road signs.

If we haven’t learned the codes and the languages, the meaning of the signs, we may feel as if we’re traveling through the fog. We grip our steering wheels a little tighter. We pull to the side and put on our flashers, trying to gain some sort of sense about whether we are going in the right direction, trying to determine which routes — and on and off ramps — are part of the Way of Christ.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com

As we travel, as we follow Jesus, folks reach out to us from every direction, in need of our compassion, care, and prayer. Their worlds are crumbling. In the rubble, they feel unsteady. They are challenged by change, by death, by the demand to transform and adjust — the call to conversion for which they were unprepared.

Our call is to listen to their cries, to hold them close in the way of our example, Jesus Christ. We hear their heartaches and their longings for solid ground. We encourage faithfulness to God’s love, to the demands of relating beyond break downs and upsets to the status quo. And we try to find our own solid footing, as we love over the divides and disturbances.

One way to stay grounded when the signs seem to point toward the land of letting go, to transformation and conversion, is checking our own memories and loyalties.

For myself recently, I’ve been invited to this through the sudden departure of a colleague, mentor and a holy man, Mr. Steven Murray, who I was honored to minister with at Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a few years ago. Earlier this month he died while mowing his lawn, leaving a giant gap in the hearts of many, as he served hundreds of people over the years as a compassionate educator. When I worked with Mr. Murray at the high school, he was the dean of students and we often would get into deep, faith-filled conversations about how to care for the teenager who doesn’t seem to care about school or others; we would grapple with the messy Jesus business of Gospel living together and always arrived at the same conclusion: we must imitate our brother Jesus, whose love was costly and full of second chances.

In my memories of Steve the signposts become clear. It is apparent where his loyalty was. It was clear what he wanted to most remember: the love of Christ. He would share this love of Christ in meaningful yet subtle ways, gently teaching how one’s dedication and devotion can inform one’s character and tone.

Loyalty is rootedness, devotion, connection. It is relational and grounded. It is based in memory of identity, in memory of fondness and hope, of memory of what values are foundational.

Influenced by loyalty and memory and built up by love, like Steve Murray, we can pay better attention to the signs surrounding us, we can gain direction and experience reflection. We can be grounded in love and truth.

Steve Murray published a song and a reflection online about his childhood friendship on the Mississippi River less than two weeks before he died. It seems, in this section, that he was paying attention to the sign of his mortality:

We had the utmost respect for the river and its power and even though we thought we were Tom and Huck, it did not take us away from our homes. We attended funerals but never our own. In those days it was not unusual to have the visitation in the front room of your house and the funeral procession would go from the church passed your house and then to the cemetery.

As we journey on this road of life with Christ, let us look around at all the people in our lives who are signs for us on how to love and live, to share and help others gain a sense of solid footing, even if their world is crumbling around them.

Like Steve Murray, let us be fed by the words of Jesus, as food for our journey to help us be awake and nourished enough to notice the signs.

For your prayer and nourishment, I offer this song “Words of Jesus” written and sung by Mr. Steven Murray. May it help you know the way. Amen!

Questions as a path to unity

Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.

Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.

He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.

I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)

I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.

I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.

Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.

Woman contemplates under the stars

Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?

What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?

Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.  2 Corinthians 4:7-10

A complicated patriotism

Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.

Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)

loving Jesus, not the nation (May 30, 2011)
some non-patriotic flag day thoughts (June 14, 2011)
This land is whose land? (July 4, 2011)

I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.

Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.

I really like what Fr. James Martin S.J. wrote in this reflection from last year about the ways that the celebration of any nation should not be elevated above the worship of God and all that God has done for us:

Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).

Photo credit: Freeimages.com

The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.

I appreciate how Christopher R. Altieri put it in his recent piece for America “We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day–but without despair”:

… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.

In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.

Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite welland frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.

But now, if I find myself making any patriotic musiceven half-heartedlyI assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.

I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.

Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

-Luke 4:18-19