Bread, art and a kindergarten heart

 

“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”

My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.

As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.

But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.

Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).

As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”

She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.

I sighed, disappointed.

“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”

She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.

“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”

“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).

paper--plate-hearts
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.

And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.

How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?

Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?

I love you because you feed me.

communion-chalice-bread
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.

Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again.  It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.

At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.

I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”

Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.

Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?

I suspect the answer is almost every time.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:

Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.

Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.

Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.

Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.

Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.

We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).

Love as I’ve loved you … OR I WILL TURN THIS MINIVAN AROUND!

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a mother, nothing brings me greater joy than witnessing my daughters’ love for one another.

Each time they giggle in mutual delight at a game they’ve invented, insist on “sister snuggles” to begin the day or tenderly care for one another’s “ouchies,” I feel as though they’ve just given me an extravagant gift. No sooner have I declared that I couldn’t possibly love them anymore than I already do, they demonstrate some new kindness to one another and I find myself doing just that. “Thanks be to God,” I whisper to myself, “that my daughters are the very best of friends!”

Except when they’re not.

Like all siblings, they have their share of spats. They ferociously elbow each other as they vie for the prime spot on my lap during bedtime. My 2-year-old runs away with a bag of fresh cherries in an attempt to hoard them all for herself. My 4-year-old yells at her sister for singing the same song over and over again as we drive to the museum.

I behold these actions with exasperation.

Haven’t we cuddled together enough times for them to know there is room on my lap for both of them? Can’t my younger daughter see there are plenty of cherries in the bag for everyone if only she’d stop clutching it to her chest? Has my older daughter already forgotten how she used to belt out “Let It Go” for the duration of every car ride?

Their 4- and 2-year-old minds simply don’t comprehend the big picture, and I wish I could just make them understand:

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

You never have to compete for my love; when divided, it grows. You are family, which means you have a responsibility to one another, whether or not it’s convenient. I have provided for you in abundance, but I expect you to share. While there is nothing, NOTHING you could do to make me love you less, there are infinite ways for us to love each other more deeply … And so very many of them involve how you treat each other. Be generous. Be patient. Be kind. Do these things and you will have given me a more precious gift than anything wrapped in a box. Do these things and I’ll know you truly love me.

From my perspective as a mother, it seems so straightforward: Trust in my love for you, and show your love for me by loving one another.

And yet isn’t this precisely what I myself fail to do on a daily basis? Isn’t this the same failure that leads to school bullying and the Orlando massacre and nuclear proliferation? Isn’t this what’s wrong with the world?

I can picture God—the eternally-patient chauffeur who drives Divine Providence ever forward (even as we kick and scream from the backseat), beholding our selfishness and fearfulness and foolishness (and all the needless misery that results)—sighing in exasperation as I do: I wish I could just make them understand.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago.  Her columns for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting, particularly as it relates to the radical call of Gospel living.

She has, on occasion, turned the minivan around.

 

His church and mine: A love story

“So, you’re Catholic, but you’re married to a Lutheran pastor. How does that work?”

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question in my seven years of marriage. Depending upon the inquirer, I have a few canned answers that easily roll off the tongue, but the simplest and most genuine is this: “By the grace of God!”

illustration: Cap Pannell
Illustration by Cap Panelli Credit: http://magazine.nd.edu/news/67897

When I boarded a plane bound for Notre Dame 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the journey would…

[This is the beginning an article found in the Summer 2016 edition of Notre Dame Magazine by Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rouser, Nicole Steele Wooldridge. Continue reading HERE.]

 

 

 

About the Rabble Rouser

Nicole Steele WooldridgeNicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughters

Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago. Having majored in Theology and International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Nicole shares Sister Julia’s passion for Catholic Social Teaching. Though her goal is to travel the globe (five continents and 24 countries down … everywhere else in the world to go!), she is happily rooted in the Seattle, Washington area for now while she and her husband raise their two young daughters. Nicole’s columns for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting, particularly as it relates to the radical call of Gospel living. When she’s not working part time at a local college or chasing her girls around the house, Nicole enjoys reading spy novels, visiting microbreweries, and discussing black holes. She is extremely grateful to be a part of the Messy Jesus Business family!

Ugandan faith lesson #5: hope

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family”  (see lessons #1, #2#3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.

More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.

Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufamba (Ugandan host family father's home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufumba (Ugandan host family father’s home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.

My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.

But they have no interest in doing so.

girl from Northern Uganda, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.

Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith?  But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.

The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.

The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.

When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.”  But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.

It has certainly changed me.

hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.

Ugandan faith lesson #4: thank God for every “journey mercy”

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the fourth blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family”  by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lessons #1, #2 and #3). Tune in tomorrow to experience the final installment of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

My husband and I almost canceled our trip to Uganda two weeks before our scheduled departure.

Ethiopian airline, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

We had just found out the country’s presidential elections would be happening the day after we arrived (the date of which had not been determined when we bought our tickets the previous year). My own knowledge of the political situation in Uganda, combined with a few hasty Google searches, left me fearful that we might be entering a hornet’s nest of political protests and police showdowns—a risk which might have thrilled me 10 years ago, but which I could not stomach as the mother of two young children.

After reaching out to people I trust in Uganda (including, of course, my host family) and a great deal of prayer for discernment, my husband and I decided that canceling our trip would be bending to fears of unlikely “what-ifs” rather than reasonable concerns for our physical safety. Together, we resolved to do something which doesn’t come easily to those of us accustomed to feeling in control of our circumstances: to take a deep breath and trust in God’s protection.

The catch, of course, is that none of us is ever in control of our circumstances, and we are always in need of God’s protection. We just don’t have to confront that reality nearly as often in the United States as in other parts of the world.

In Uganda, death is never far.

It is a country which—just within my lifetime—was enmeshed in a brutal civil war, was hit early and hard by the AIDS epidemic, was the site of the world’s worst neglected humanitarian crisis, and which is still among the poorest nations in the world. Even Ugandans living in relative security, like my host family, are aware that merely driving from one city to another can be perilous given the frighteningly high incidence of traffic fatalities.

matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My Ugandan family does not take their safety for granted.

Every evening during family prayer, they thank God for the “journey mercies” which have delivered them safely home. Their prayers of thanksgiving for these journey mercies are specific and elaborate, without being morose. For them, there is no fatalism or despondence in acknowledging that their lives are entirely in God’s hands … only profound trust and gratitude.

I do not wish for the dangers of life in Uganda; there is nothing quaint or charming about the fact that the life expectancy of a Ugandan is a full 25 years shorter than my own.

Ugandan baby, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

But none of us is getting out of this world alive. My husband and I know, on an intellectual level, that we are not guaranteed to come home tomorrow. We could easily be struck down by a car accident, or a madman, or a disease …  So why does it feel disempowering or pessimistic to admit it?

Why do we let the illusion that we are “in control” fool us into thinking we have anyone but God to thank for delivering us safely through the day?

For reflection: How can we who live a comfortable existence identify and express gratitude for the “journey mercies” of everyday life?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She lacks the courage to drive a car in Uganda.

Ugandan faith lesson #3: give from substance, not abundance

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the third blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (learn from lessons #1 and #2). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next two installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Electricity can be elusive in Uganda.

The country’s power grid is both incomplete and unreliable. When I lived there in 2006, access to power shifted from region-to-region in a process called “load-shedding.”  This means those lucky enough to be connected to the grid only had power about 50 percent of the time—a reality that was at best a nuisance but could be downright life-threatening (as people living with HIV couldn’t refrigerate their antiretroviral medication).

My host dad’s computer work was repeatedly disrupted by power outages (scheduled and unscheduled), which made for slow and frustrating progress. Once, after yet another unexpected outage, he confided in me that he dreamed of installing a solar panel on top of his house. (Solar energy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Africans who wish to shed their dependence upon an inherently undependable source: the government-supplied power grid.)

Ugandan family at water well
Ugandan family at water well

My host dad had researched the costs associated with obtaining a solar panel for his home, and it was within his grasp … Or, at least, it could have been. “But,” he told me, without an ounce of regret, “Not all of my siblings have made it through secondary school yet, so I must put their need for education ahead of my desire for electricity.”

I was floored.

I understood that Jesus expects us to give from our substance and not our abundance, but I had never before stopped to consider just how many things in my privileged life I considered to be substance which were, in reality, abundance. Things like electricity.

Ugandan UNICEF feeding station
Ugandan unicef feeding station

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

How is Jesus calling me to live out His radical generosity?

I know there is no single “right” answer to this question … But, having witnessed poverty so abject as to be dehumanizing, right alongside generosity so self-sacrificing as to be miraculous, I also know that I can never, never stop asking it.

For reflection: What “necessities” could I give up in order to better live out Jesus’ call to radical generosity, especially in the face of so many unmet needs across the world?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She is happy to report that her host family now has a solar panel for their house, so that they rarely have to rely on government-supplied power.

Ugandan faith lesson #2: make time for the Lord

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.

Ugandan choir
Ugandan choir

Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)

Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.

A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.

Martha: host family cousin
Martha: host family cousin

And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.

During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.

So … What’s my excuse?

For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.

Ugandan faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the first blog post in the five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda. Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next four installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Nearly 10 years ago, my life and faith were transformed by the experience of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. Though I only lived there for three months, each day burst at the seams with discoveries, challenges and delights, such that those three months occupy an enormous share of my life’s key memories.

A few weeks ago I returned to Uganda with my husband, finally following through on a long-repeated promise to visit my beloved host family. As we danced, laughed, and prayed with our Ugandan family, we were blessed and renewed by the African spirit, a spirit which—I am convinced—suffuses anyone who has the privilege of visiting that beautiful place.

I could probably write a book about the ways in which my Ugandan family has informed and challenged my own discipleship, but I have narrowed them down to five major faith lessons.

Faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

My host family’s house is a veritable revolving door of visitors and guests. Family, friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers, community partners and complete strangers show up unannounced throughout the day, oftentimes requiring a hearty meal and/or a place to sleep.

They are always, always welcomed with enthusiastic hospitality.

Nicole with Delight, host family's youngest sibling
Nicole with Delight, host family’s youngest sibling

Part of this, of course, is cultural: the people of Uganda are renowned across Sub-Saharan Africa for their incredible hospitality. Upon entering any home, you are sure to receive a vigorous greeting: “Oooooh, you are MOST welcome!” is followed by an exchange in which your host clasps your hands for the duration of your conversation. At first, I found this constant physical touch to be somewhat disconcerting, but I came to love the way it signified the full focus of the person with whom I was talking. In Uganda, I never felt like I was competing with a smart phone (and, yes, they do exist there!) for someone’s attention.

My host family, however, takes Ugandan hospitality to another level. Far beyond cultural expectations, they invite people into their home with relentless joy … and into their hearts with unquestioning love. They set a place for their guests at the table, and prepare for them a mattress complete with mosquito net; they invite their visitors into their evening prayer ritual, and thank God for their presence among them. They do this over and over again. Every. Single. Day.

I cannot imagine how exhausted I would be if people dropped in on me with even half the frequency they do to my Ugandan family … But that’s probably because I tend to fixate on frivolous things when I am playing hostess.

host family compound
host family compound

My Ugandan family does not fret over unwashed dishes or un-mopped floors; they do not panic if someone has to eat standing up; they do not offer superficial apologies for their cooking. Their guests are not seen or treated as an interruption to plans, because guests are always planned for. My host family takes seriously Saint Peter’s exhortation to “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9) Indeed, they have created in their home a culture of hospitality in which hugging yet another visitor at the end of the day is never a burden, but rather a blessed opportunity to extend their family embrace that much wider.

host family neighborhood
host family neighborhood

For reflection: What could I do to foster an attitude of unbridled hospitality in my home and in my heart, such that every opportunity to invite someone in is welcomed as a blessing?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She is profoundly grateful to her Ugandan host family and friends for changing her life a decade ago and continuing to make her a better person today.

Wanyala ni inkugana naabi!

 

French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.