I’m so glad you called

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began. Luke 15: 21-24

In my work as the RCIA coordinator at my parish, I get to meet a lot of people who are coming back to a practice of faith after a long time away. Many of these people are Catholics who were baptized as children but then, for any number of reasons, never finished their other sacraments of initiation. Some are members of other denominations or even other religious faiths who had a practice of prayer or spirituality that was eventually abandoned. In all cases, whatever the reason for the cessation of practice, the fire in their hearts for a relationship with God was never fully extinguished and they are now actively seeking to kindle that relationship once again.

In all of these people I see a spark of excitement. Something in their life has shifted and now, now is the time when they are taking the step to reach out to a community. When they talk about what brought them to my office, why precisely today is the day they decided to come join the parish or join the Church, there is always a light and heat in their voice that is electrifying.

However, all too often, I will see that light dim as they talk about how ashamed or sad they are for having been away for so long. They’ll share some hurtful or harmful thing that they did or that was done to them; that made them walk away from faith.

We were raised Catholic, but then my parents got divorced and we just never went after that.

My parents were Catholic, but I had an awful relationship with them and didn’t want anything to do with their faith.

I was really involved in a parish, but then I had a big falling out with the pastor and just couldn’t bring myself to be involved any more.

In high school I was deeply involved in the Church, but the life I led in college didn’t really match Catholic teachings. I felt like a hypocrite, and just stopped attending Mass.

My husband died and my church didn’t do anything to support me — I couldn’t really forgive God or them for making me go through that alone.

Image courtesy desiringgod.org

Many are angry — some at others, but just as many at themselves. Some are ashamed. More often than not, there is a real sorrow over the choice to walk away. Even if they were in some way a victim, most of them feel the need to apologize for their absence. This regret often takes the form of a personal apology to me, the representative of the Church with them in that moment.

When people apologize to me for their absence from faith, from prayer, I always feel a bit awkward responding. As a single and very flawed minister I do not speak for the whole Church, not even my whole parish, and much less for God Almighty. But in this moment, to this person, I do represent the Church and what I say next may very well make or break their decision to continue on this path. The good news is that I do think I have an inkling of what God might want to express, and it’s what I always try to share with the individual across my desk.

I am so glad you called.

I am so terribly happy you came in. We have been weaker without you, my brother. We have had a hole in our community waiting for you to fill, my sister. I am overjoyed that you want to build a relationship with God now, and I am giddy that you want to do so with this community of believers. I do not care in the slightest where you have been — all I care about is where you are headed, where we are headed, and that’s toward a deeper friendship with our God. Apologize if you must — I’m happy to listen to what you need to say. But when you’re done, I’m going to take you around the parish and show you off and introduce you to everyone and tell them all ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found our lost friend.’

People who have been actively practicing faith for a while can forget how intimidating returning to the Church can be. Even if someone has already decided that the Church is something they want to be a part of — something of beauty they want to return to — there is often some very real fear and trembling. All too often, Christians are seen as stern moralizers who care more about naming and categorizing sin than caring for the human hearts wounded by it, and too many people come back to the faith expecting a lecture. We need to overturn this image with a better one, the image that the Gospel maps out for us — for we have been given a blueprint of response when one of our brethren makes their way back home; do not fall into the sin of the older brother, clucking your tongue in judgement when you should celebrate at the feast. If you are a Christian, do not forget your duty to hospitality (and perhaps consider sharing this blog with someone who might feel conflicted about returning to the Church).

And so I say to everyone who is thinking of returning to the Church — to those who have been disaffected, betrayed, hypocritical, distracted, skeptical or hedonistic — Come home! Reach out! We miss you! Who you were yesterday is of no concern — today is what matters. Come back; you will not be met with judgement or hostility. And if you are, if you sadly happen to come across a rare minister who does not speak words of welcome to you, then call another parish. I guarantee you will not have to walk far down the road of return before you meet a brother or sister who will respond with the joy and celebration that God surely feels at your return home.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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, adorable daughter and 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.

More than a table

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.                            —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46

Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.

But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.

“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.

My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”

“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”

“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”

“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”

“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a benchthey’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavierthey might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”

The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.

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Excited to serve hospitality around the new table (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.

Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.

So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.

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, adorable daughter and 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.

For the good of the guild

In a few of the less-productive minutes of my day, I play an online Star Wars game on my phone. I have some beloved characters which I attempt to constantly level up: by completing certain challenges, I can make my characters faster and stronger. In the game world I am part of a guild—a group of other players that band together to tackle in-game challenges far too difficult for one player to take on alone. Currently, we are all trying to level up our best characters to advance to the hardest level of guild challenges. While I hesitate to call anything related to a video game “work,” it is going to require some effort for us all to get there. We’re going to have to play smarter, get better, and put in some game time to get our characters to where they need to be. But because we know the next set of challenges holds greater rewards, we are all anxious and eager to do so. The harder the challenge, the more experience and spoils you receive when you complete it.

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In this “in-game” screen shot, one of Steven’s characters faces challenge head on (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

And lately, I’ve noticed how very different this mindset is from the way I approach my real-world journey. In the game I’m ready to take on the next difficulty; eager for the newest challenge. I want to tackle the hardest quest because I know my character will grow and the rewards will be greater. But in life, I’m constantly trying to get away from difficulties and run from challenges. I pray that burdens will be lightened or lifted, and that obstacles will be magically removed from my path. I avoid difficult people and situations. I try to offload problems onto others. I pretend an injustice I’m staring at isn’t really as bad as it looks, or that at the least there is nothing I can do about it.

That is no way to grow the kingdom, or to build a better world. The tasks the Church faces are huge—and they will not be solved by running from them. Instead, we must run toward them. I must adopt the attitude of “game me.” Where is the next challenge? I want it. Where is the next difficulty? I’m ready to face it. What if, instead of praying for lighter crosses, we started praying for heavier ones? For more obstacles, for greater burdens? What if we did this knowing that God provides the strength for any tasks He gives us? How much more grace we would receive, and how much more we might accomplish for God’s glory!

Believing that by granting her suffering God spares someone else that burden, St. Bernadette gave thanks for every affliction she received. With willingness to suffer she became stronger, more steadfast, more patient, and more trusting in God. And she knew that more of God’s work is done with each slight forgiven; all wrong patiently borne. I wish I could more fully adopt this mindset, seeing my God-given challenges not as slights but as gifts—gifts given to a servant who can be trusted to accomplish the task.

What injustice might you be tempted to turn from and avoid today? Go out to face it! What discomfort could you feel that might advance God’s cause of peace and love? Endure it! The greater the challenge, the greater the glory when it is overcome. My in-game guild knows this. I hope that my real-world guild and I (also known as the Church) can learn to better live this lesson as well.

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, adorable daughter and 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.

With apologies to Agathon

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Image courtesy of freeimages.com

“O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”

~ Agathon

Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.

And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.

But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.

When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.

I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.

In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.

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.

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.

Let-Us-Beat-Swords-Into-Plowshares-statue
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.

mom-baby-working-computers
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.

baby-filing-Steven-Cottam
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.