Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”

~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).

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Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.

The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.

Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.

So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.

In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”

You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.

If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).

Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.

Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

Unfriended

“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ~ Matthew 9:10-11

This past fall, in the final ramp up to the election, I saw an increasingly common message in my social media feeds. Each individual message varied slightly, but more or less the message would read:

I care very deeply about X, and it seems to me obvious that all ethically minded people believe X. Therefore, if you don’t believe X, you are a villain and I don’t want to associate with you. You have no place at my table. Reveal yourself so I can unfriend you and waste no more time on our relationship.”

The first time I saw it, I thought nothing of it. “Ok, interesting … a little dramatic.” But then I saw it again. And again. Then I saw you could download a tool to automatically remove any Trump supporters from your friends list. Then I saw a tool to do the same for Clinton supporters. And then I started hearing people “unfriending” people in the real, flesh and blood world. People would say to me, “I just couldn’t believe my friend/cousin/brother-in-law supports Trump/Clinton … I’ll never speak to him again. I don’t want toxic people like that in my life.”

I understand the impulse. I am a person of strong, fiercely held beliefs. I believe in an objective moral order. I frequently clash, and strongly, with those who disagree with what I believe are tenets of the moral law. How liberating it would be to end those conflicts by painting my foes as irredeemable villains and dismissing them from my presence: “Be gone, fiend!” And then I could turn to myself in my own satisfaction and pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this foolish person who I have so rightly chastised.”

And yet, it seems such a sentiment is very far from the mind of Christ. Indeed, he told us such prayers will never make us justified. To unfriend someone–to cut someone out of our circle of relationship because they have failed us in thought, word, or deed–suffers from some serious misapprehensions.

First, it misunderstands conversion. Maybe your foe is really wrong about something: truly, grievously wrong. Do you think casting anger and resentment at them will make them see the error of their ways? Do you hope to convert them with disdain and hatred? Maybe the truth is that you just want to punish them, to get revenge on them for their small-mindedness … and it should go without saying that desire for revenge has no place in a heart that sincerely invites Christ to dwell within it.

Second, it misunderstands friendship. Friendship is not an endorsement of all the thoughts, feelings and political stances of your friends. If anyone who is my friend sees our relationship as an endorsement of my inherent sanctity or of the moral purity of my beliefs, you should unfriend me now because I will disappoint you. I am a sinner, and a struggling pilgrim on the way home–I will say and do many more stupid, sinful things before I reach my destination. But friendship is not based on us being judge, parent, or schoolmaster to our friends. Friendship is based on love and, at the end of the day, all love is unearned. It is a free gift, given in spite of the recipient’s weaknesses–otherwise, it is not love at all.

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“Icon of Friendship: Christ and Abbot Mena”

And finally, since so many of these “unfriend requests” come as the result of a political disagreement, it is worth noting that this action also misunderstands the way Christians are to be political. The Church is political. We believe in Incarnation, and that means our beliefs will take shape in this world. The Church has a responsibility to engage actively in the struggle for peace and justice. But the Church’s first and foremost responsibility is to be the Church, which means that it has to look like Jesus. Jesus’ priorities shape not only our political agendas, but how we are to pursue them. To quote John Howard Yoder (and Charles E. Moore’s recent reflection on him in Plough), we cannot “wield power and wealth ‘as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,’” but must instead “show what life is like when God is on the throne.” If we are forbidden to wield power and wealth coercively, how much less ought we use love and friendship in such a manner? Jesus would not have done so, and thus, neither should we.

Christ ate with sinners and, in fact, specifically sought them out. He told us to never judge our brothers and sisters while we still have logs in our own eyes, and to never throw stones while we ourselves stand sinful before him. He commanded us to love our enemies: modeled this for us, loving us unto death while we were still his enemies. Love, mercy, and friendship – even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is the Gospel. Even on Facebook, even in an election year.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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 joy of receiving

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“

~ Loretta Ross-Gotta

Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

 

However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.

After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”

I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”

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Steven’s daughter polishing off the tamales (photo courtesy of Steven Cottam)

Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.

I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

Spoilin’ for a fight

The Rebel Alliance’s dramatic assault against the Death Star, the X-Men’s desperate struggle against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles squaring off against The Shredder: these characters compose the narrative of my childhood. I have been utterly shaped by this litany of beloved good guys and their unending fight against their villains. Every Saturday morning and weekday afternoon it was the Power Rangers/Planeteers/Ghostbusters vs. the forces of darkness, myself firmly entrenched in the fight, shoulder to shoulder with the heroes.

A collection of childhood toys.
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

And, in addition to these fictional narratives, the real young me learned that often a fight is just what it takes to make the world a more just place. On more than one occasion when I was bullied (and parents and teachers couldn’t be bothered to notice or care) I found that a bop on the nose worked well to end my oppression. My 10-year-old self knew that the primary means of changing the world for the better came at the end of a hero’s fist.

As I have aged, I’ve certainly introduced nuance and complexity into my inner world. I know the fault lines of good and evil are rarely so obvious as they were for the Turtles; that they run straight through the center of every human heart instead. And yet, the frequency of which I think of myself as a fighter hasn’t changed at all. I might not have bopped anyone on the nose recently but in my mind’s eye, I still fight a lot. A lot. I fight things big and small. I fight against hunger and I fight for social justice. I fight against procrastination, temptation, and my lower self. I fight incivility and extremism. I fight off drowsiness and boredom. I fight countless seen and unseen enemies all day long.

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Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares statue at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City. Photograph credit: Rodsan18

And I have become convinced of the recklessness of this rhetoric.

In a fight, there is always a loser. There’s not always a winner but there is always a loser. And though I have learned very little in my short life on this earth I have realized this: people hate to lose. If someone loses a fight, rarely do they limp off and self-reflect and convert their heart. More frequently they lick their wounds, bide their time and come back swinging to even the score. Then the victor becomes the vanquished, and vice versa, and the cycle begins anew. We get stuck in it; become addicted to it.

Conceiving everything as a fight sets you up for failure. In my fight for social justice, who am I trying to beat? No one. In my fight against my bad habits, who am I trying to defeat? Myself? An idea? It’s nonsensical and it’s rarely helpful. I’d much rather win people over to a better way of being, myself included, than beat them into it.

And I’m not saying we should never fight; never perceive of our struggles as a fight. Such language has its place. St. Michael the Archangel is a warrior, and St. Paul tells us we have an obligation to fight real evil (Ephesians 6:12). The Lord goes before and fights on behalf of his people (Deuteronomy 20:4). But turning everything into a fight deprives real struggles of their meaning. Fight language can give us power and has its place … but on the day you really need to fight for something—for your very life, for your very soul—how will the call to arms have any meaning left when its also how you refer to a Facebook spat or resisting a plate of cheese fries?

So I’m vowing today to stop fighting so much. I’ll work, struggle, strive, and strain for a better world. I’ll endure, withstand, and persevere against temptation. I’ll debate, persuade, convince, invite, entreat, and enter into discussion with my ideological opponents. I imagine this paradigm shift will not be easy, but I will pray for strength from the one who blesses the peacemakers.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

Unprofessional

I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.

And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.

I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”

I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.

The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

80/20: following the rules of the Pareto Principle

If you have ever looked to improve your time management, you’ve most likely come across the 80/20 rule (more officially known as the Pareto Principle). The Pareto Principle states that frequently, the majority of effects (roughly 80 percent) come from a minority of causes (roughly 20 percent). You will most often find this principle applied in business and economics—it’s not uncommon for 80 percent of a business’s revenue to come from 20 percent of its customers, or for 80 percent of a company’s profitable work to be done by 20 percent of its employees, etc.

Pareto Principle (courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)
Pareto Principle (courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)

The application-to-time management is obvious. It would not be strange to find, according to this principle, that 80 percent of the benefits you receive in life come from about 20 percent of your time, or that 80 percent of the meaningful work you do in your job comes from about 20 percent of your tasks. So the way to optimize your time and your life would be to focus on that meaningful 20 percent and expand it, and to find out what is useless in that other 80 percent and reduce or eliminate it.

I will say that I have used the Pareto Principle to some great effect with some of my lesser habits. In terms of browsing the web I have eliminated (well, lessened) time on sites that I find unenjoyable and which add no value to my life, and increased time reading articles that are interesting or useful. On a day off I spend less time puttering around and doing menial, tedious, and frequently unnecessary tasks and more time tackling big projects or doing things I really enjoy. I’m not sure how true the Pareto Principle is in its business applications but I, at least, have found some personal value in it.

pull quoteRecently, I turned the lens of this principle to my youth ministry program. And lo and behold, I was shocked to find out how true it appeared to be! With a bunch of my different programs, I found that 80 percent of my time was spent on about 20 percent of my participants. It was always the same 20 percent who called because they forgot the calendar, lost their book, forgot their permission slip, couldn’t get a ride. It was always the same 20 percent of parents who had a problem or a concern or a question or an angry comment.

It was true on the positive side of things too—it was about 20 percent of the parents who stepped up and took a role in the program, who would help teach and chaperone and lead small groups and bring snacks; and it was about 20 percent of the kids who could be counted on through thick and thin to show up on time, come prepared, and lead their peers.

I was reflecting on all this rather militantly as I walked from my office to daily Mass. I thought, I’m going to hack and slash! If you’re a kid and you can’t figure out how to get your permission slip in on time, then you’re not coming! If you’re a flaky helper, then you’re not going to get to be a part of the program anymore! I’m going to expand the role of my good 20 percent and eliminate my bad 20 percent! Optimization! Efficiency! My program will flourish as I begin to focus on the kids and families that really matter!

I thought about it throughout the opening procession and introductory rites; all through the first and second readings. Right up to the beginning of the Gospel for the day:

“What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

A slap across the face from the Lord. I recovered my senses.

The Church is not the world. And we are called to differ from the world in many ways. This is no more true than the insistence that every life, every person, every kid matters. In fact, the one who is difficult, the one costing all the time and energy, the one you struggle with—that is the one who really matters. In youth ministry and in every ministry, we are here for all. That is the Gospel.

I walked back to my office after Mass very humbled. The Pareto Principle is great for optimizing my Internet browsing and useful when I need to balance my budget … but terrible in deciding which kid needs attention. In that case, I am called to the 99/1 principle. So I sat down, picked up the phone, looked up the first number on my “permission slip missing” list, and dialed. “Hello, this is Steven from Church. How are you? Are you still planning on coming on the retreat? That’s great. Do you have your permission slip? No worries, I can get you another copy. You need a ride? No problem, we can make that happen.

“Whatever you need.”

 

Fear and sandwiches

 

On most days at work, I sit down and eat lunch with at least a few people who are, more or less, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. While we agree on many of the problems our country faces, our ideas on how to solve them vary wildly. There are, of course, some issues on which we harmoniously agree, but they seem rare. And in our current political climate, in which nuance is lost and all that matters is who you finally cast your vote for, the candidates for whom I vote are not the candidates for whom my co-workers do. I cannot imagine voting for the people they support.A slap in the face from the Lord

And I am told that, thus, we are enemies. They are foolish and ignorant; what’s wrong with America. My co-workers are possibly evil, and reasoning with them is of no use. These people must be defeated and crushed—preferably at the polls—but if that fails perhaps more drastic action is needed. And I’m sure this is exactly what my office mates are told about me.

But for the life of me, I cannot see them this way. They might be my political rivals, in some certain contexts, on some certain days when we must both fill out our ballots … but they are also my friends. They are my family. They are good people who live generous and beautiful lives.

I do not fear them. I do not hate them. I love them. And I do not mean this in some abstract, detached way. I know their names, and they know mine. I love them and long for their good and, I truly believe, they long for mine. I work and relax with these people—they have watched my daughter play and grow. On workdays we share the lunch table and on Sunday we gather together around the table of the Lord.

©iStockphoto.com\(kcline)
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(kcline

Our divisions only become truly dangerous when we do not know one another. Danger creeps in when we start to fear people as nameless, faceless bogeymen waiting for us in the dark, rather than flesh and blood persons with real names and real stories. With a person, no matter how different they happen to be, you can compromise, you can learn something, you can conspire goodness together. You can’t reason with faceless shadows … you can only fear them, and then hate them.

So my challenge to you is—is there any one person or group that you fear? If so, see if you can break bread with them. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear is the real enemy, and I have found that nothing banishes fear like a sandwich split in two.

Undoer of knots

“It’s one of the symptoms of our time to find danger in men like you who don’t worry and rush about. Particularly dangerous are men who don’t think the world’s coming to an end. ‘It’s coming to an end, all right,’ the seer said. ‘That started the moment it was born.’”

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

It has struck me repeatedly and profoundly these last couple of weeks that we have a flair for the dramatic. Now, I should be honest from the start that I’m not sure who I mean by “we.” But at least within the circles I run in these days—the people I talk to, the people whose thoughts I read print and online—there’s a real penchant for superlatives.

This is the worst day ever.

This is the best latte ever.

Donald Trump/Barack Obama is the devil and is ruining America and only real, true patriots can stop him from his unsurpassed and unsurpassable villainy.

Rand Paul/Bernie Sanders is the new baby Jesus, come to save us all!

K-Cups will turn into monsters and destroy the planet (lest ye doubt me, this is a real thing).

Tesla cars and Space-X will usher in a new, peaceful world order of super cars and alien-human peaceful coexistence!

I am no different from anyone else in this regard. I tend to think, mired in my small viewpoint, that my problems are paramount. My heroes are superheroes, and my villains are archfiends, and my struggles are heroic in scope and legendary to tell! But, most days at least, they are not. I have no real problems. I am a human—I have vexations and frustrations, but they are normal. I have successes and joys, but they are ordinary. I am not a saint, though I am working at it.

Now sometimes, in trying to resist this over-dramatization, I can go too far the other way. It can lead me to disregard my joys as less than joyful. In the last couple of days I have watched my baby daughter start to crawl. It is miraculous. But there was a moment, as I was tearing up, that I thought “Well, this isn’t that special … I mean, all babies crawl. Every parent has witnessed this before. She’s not a super baby or anything.” That may be, but what a depressing mindset filled with tragic despair. Yes, perhaps every baby ever has learned to crawl—but mine never has! I am right to rejoice. Every spring is new—God does not tire of making them. Every breath I take is a miracle, no less so because billions of others breathe. Life may be ordinary—but that shouldn’t make it less awe-inspiring.

To accept that things matter, but not any more than they actually do: this is a tightrope, but I think one that is important for us to walk.Mary with knots rosary

Recently, I’ve come across a Marian devotion called “Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.” And, I must say, I like it quite a great deal. I feel compelled to confess that I’ve never been much of a Marian devotee. I’m a fan of Our Lady, don’t get me wrong … but so many of her devotions are so dramatic that I find them off-putting. Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Imminent Apocalypse, Our Lady of the Despairing and Totally Hosed. It’s not her fault that her friends so often speak of her in these terms, but it’s made me wary. When my problem is that I’m vaguely annoyed with a co-worker, I find it wrong to address a request for aid to her with phrases like “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” This is a powerful plea for those in real despair and I don’t criticize those who turn to her in their darkest moments and then utilize such language, but normally I need more of a “complaining and grumbling in this vale of minor inconveniences” level of assistance.

Photo by Steven Cottam
Photo by Steven Cottam

And this seems exactly where “Our Lady, Undoer of Knots” comes in. She is beseeched with a simple plea to aid us in undoing the knots—the fears, worries, and anxieties—of our daily lives. Some knots are huge, some are nigh Gordian! But most are small. An unsmoothness in a moment of marriage, an unruly disposition toward the neighbor—little knots. A spilled coffee, a flat tire, the dog taking a dump on the rug, and the baby taking a dump on the dog … successively bigger knots, but still nothing calling for heroic virtue. But we should not wait to call for divine assistance only when heroic virtue is called for. We should call for it all the time, for every moment of our day is a choice to grow in holiness or grow away from it. But we will be greatly aided in that pursuit if we can remember to keep things in perspective: remembering which knots are big, and which are really not.

Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, Pray for Us!

The point of Wanda

The last few nights I have been reading and re-reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si (Praise be to you, my Lord) on care for our common home. As I do, I keep returning to thoughts of my dog, Wanda.Wanda1

Wanda is not a very friendly or personable dog not a very useful dog. Wanda is a tired old hound dog who spends 23 hours of her day sleeping, napping, or trying to nap or sleep.

She doesn’t play fetch, tug of war, or any other game I’m familiar with dogs enjoying. She doesn’t chase cats or squirrels and she only very occasionally enjoys the presence of other dogs. When I come home, she might come and greet me by sniffing me briefly before returning to her puppy pad—if she feels like it. Many days she just lifts her head, looks at me as if to say “Oh, hey,” and then lowers it again. If it were not me—but rather a stranger or burglar—I’m pretty sure her reaction would be the same.

She has a history of abuse which has, along with her advanced age, left her with a troubled tummy. She doesn’t like to eat most food and is very picky about her treats. She will only deign to eat even her very most favorite meals (that involves boiling chicken, dicing it into tiny pieces, then mixing it into a blend of wet dog food and either kibble or rice) about half the time. Many a morning I have, tired and bleary-eyed and waiting for coffee to kick in, laboriously mushed her special blend together only to have her smell it once and then walk away without taking a bite.

Her tummy troubles also lead her to get sick easily and explosively. Twice in the year she’s slept under our roof I have come home to find she has vomited (or emitted similarly liquid excretions from her rear end) her way across the house. One of these episodes ended with a late-night carpet shampooer rental.

?

And every now and then when I look upon Wanda and see all the trouble she causes, all the effort she costs me, and couple those thoughts with a lack of sleep or patience, I find myself thinking “What’s the point of this good for nothing dog?”

When I ask that question, I tend to get an answer. I feel it rather than think or hear it. But as I read Francis’ encyclical this week, I heard the words that could give voice to the feeling.

In Laudato Si’, Francis reminds me that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”

Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis warns us of how incredibly, dangerously anthropocentric we can be. We think that we humans are the measure of all things and that all things—and all beings—were made for us and are to be used by us. If something or someone does not immediately bring us utility or happiness, then they are to be disregarded or avoided. What Francis says of humans could probably be equally applied to us as individuals as well: we think we are the center of the world and if a thing or being does not serve our ends—if it causes us frustration or discomfort or inconvenience—then it’s a problem to either solve or end.

Which brings me back to Wanda: a living being, a being which God spoke into existence who manifests something of the divine. Merely by being among the multiplicity of creation, by being fearfully and wonderfully made, Wanda gives glory to her Creator. As the encyclical states, “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the created things present in the universe.'” The “contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us.”

Wanda was not created for me. Her ultimate purpose is not to give me anything. If she gives me usefulness as a watchdog or happiness as a companion then so be it; but if she does not, she has no less a place among creation. I am not the measure of her life. Wanda is alive. She is. And that’s her point. My Father is her Creator— her point and purpose are ultimately His, not mine.

Wanda did not ask to be abused, didn’t decide to grow sick and old and then, as a result, left at a shelter by an owner that got tired of taking care of her. These things happened to her because others decided she would fit into their lives as they wanted her to, or not at all.

We have a thread of dangerous utilitarianism that runs through our whole culture. If we can’t find the “point” of someone, if we can’t discern their usefulness, then we are quick to ignore them or discard them. The sick, the old, the unborn—if we don’t want them, they run the very great risk of becoming a problem to be solved in a most gruesome manner. And Pope Francis is right to warn us of it, and call us to be better.

Is there someone inconveniencing you today that you can choose to serve rather than have serve you? Who do you need to see as a being with dignity rather than just as a means to achieving your interests? Who can be the center of your world today, other than yourself?

As for me and Wanda … I’m going to go make her dinner. She may or may not eat it. But afterwards I will pray night prayer next to her, while she naps, and mediate on the point that the bishops of Japan make: “to sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.” And I will thank God that I’m privileged to protect and tend to this creature in her golden years, as we lead each other to God. That is, after all, the whole point.