The myth of the self-made person and the true demand of discipleship

A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.

Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.

All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.

We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?

From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.

All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.”  It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.

For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.

This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.

So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person. God’s ways are better than my ways.

Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.

Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.

And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.

Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:

“Understory”
by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.

Photo credit: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com

Headlines and prophets: a conversation

McDonald’s workers go on strike over sexual harassment 

“Yes, I’m on my  way to visit you with Judgement.

I’ll press compelling evidence against sorcerers, adulterers, liars,

those who exploit workers,

those who take advantage of widows and orphans,

those who are inhospitable to the homeless —

anyone and everyone who doesn’t honor me.”

In North Carolina, it’s the poorest who bear the brunt of flooding

“They’ll see that you take care of the poor,

that you take care of poor people in trouble,

provide a warm, dry place in bad weather,

provide a cool place when it’s hot.”

U.S. slashes the number of refugees it will allow into the country

“Attend to matters of justice.

Set things right between people.

Rescue victims from their exploiters.

Don’t take advantage of the homeless,

the orphans, the widows.

Stop the murdering!”

Violence displaces over 30,000 in northwest Syria this month: UN

“He’ll settle things fairly between nations.

He’ll make things right between many peoples.

They’ll turn their swords into shovels,

their spears into hoes.

No more will nation fight nation;

they won’t play war anymore.”

Photo credit: Unsplash photo by Rod Long

(Scripture passages are from The Message translation in order of appearance: Malachi 3:5, Isaiah 25:3,Jeremiah 22:3Isaiah 2:5)

Reconfiguring my discipleship

Photo credit: by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.

The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”

From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

franciscan-sistesrs-house-fire

Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

franciscan-sisters-flames

Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.