hearing and seeing, then proclaiming the goodness

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”  – Matthew 11:2-5

Jesus tells us to say it like we see it, and like we hear it.

Speaking the truth is not as easy as one would think. One of the greatest challenges of telling the truth is that people aren’t always interested in it. It seems to me that it’s quite trendy to avoid pain and suffering. Many times my stories of ministry and my proclamations of passions have been responded to with cries of “It’s so depressing to hear about all that, Julia. Can’t you talk about something else?” Yet, paradoxically, crowds gather around TV sets watching reality shows, sitcoms and the news only to hear dramatic stories about people hurting one another. With laughter and groans, people of all types allow the painful stories to flow through their lives.

What about the goodness? When it comes to saying the good stuff—to giving each other reasons to hope—I think it can be radical to speak out. Sharing the goodness is an act of resistance to the oppression. I teach urban African-American teenage boys at a high school in Chicago, and it’s amazing. In attempts to respond to Jesus’ command to tell the good news, I could easily just babble on and on and tell you stories about how incredible my students are.

First though, I think it is important to acknowledge the influence of judgments when we hear who the stories are about. When I decided to take my job, some very good people that I knew became reactionary.  I actually heard really nice Christians gasp and say “aren’t you terrified?!”  When I asked them what their question was about—whether it was about race, or boys, or urban students—the conversation would usually boil down to awkwardness from fears of people different than themselves.

Jesus set us all free enough to speak the good news, however. When I hear people say they are impressed with my ministry (because of who my students are), I am tempted to get defensive and angry. Then I remember that we are all afraid of what we don’t know.

My students have admitted that they are afraid of the woods. I used to be afraid of the city (I grew up in the woods on a goat farm in Iowa).  To do this gospel work, we all must allow grace to guide us and set us free from our fears.  The truth is that my students are the same as all other teenagers I have worked with.  They’re diverse, passionate, caring, faithful, prayerful, complex, hungry, hopeful, hard-working and curious. They’re incredible.

So, the good news!  Teens are awesome because once they learn the truth they are driven to act.  They understand, with ease, that social change comes through awareness and meaningful non-violent action.

Last week, my students were so into discussing the Gospel challenge of serving the poor that they begged me to stay in class.  (And I am pretty sure that they weren’t completely trying to skip their next classes, really.)  They spoke of being inspired by the story of Dorothy Day and how they could relate to her because she went through a conversion and changed her life. Another group of my students were so full of ideas for service projects that they had trouble picking one and getting started.  And, this past weekend, I sat in a circle with another group of teens and heard their dreams for a better world and what they were already working on as peace projects.

We all are called to do projects of peace. We all are asked to feed each other with hope and faith.  I get “godbumps” anytime I see the boundaries of difference broken, diverse people gathered in prayer and working for social change. I am so grateful for the light that shines when a young person steps forward and works for change.  One teen I know is working with the pro-life club at her school to begin a suicide awareness and prevention movement.  Another is bridging a gap between the suburbs and inner-city youth and bringing her suburban friends with her to tutor at a junior high within Chicago. I also know a young man who is uniting his passion for sports and caring for people on the margins to organize a basketball tournament for people with disabilities.

I suppose that one might say that it is my job to support these teens.  The reality is that they support me.  They keep me going and keep me hopeful.  I am honored to listen to their good news, to bless and share.  I don’t have to look too far to see and believe that Jesus and the Spirit are working to transform us and our communities.

The power of the Spirit and the miracles of the Christian church certainly extend beyond what happens in the lives of teens.  Recently, I have also been blessed to meet some amazing leaders in the emerging Church movement.  Throughout our world young adults of various denominations are living intentional community, praying and radically serving the poor, and non-violently advocating for systemic change right now.  They soak up the great traditions of Christian history, such as praying the liturgy of the hours and monastic life, and allow the Spirit to guide them to new ways of doing the work.  For example, some young adults just wrote and published a new book that combines the traditional prayers with radical responses to injustice.  It’s called Common Prayer, naturally.

God is so good and God is up to some amazing stuff.  Deaf people are really gaining their hearing, blind folks can now see, the lame are picking up their mats and dancing around, and the dead are rising to new life.   It’s beautiful to witness.  Hope is a light that shines brightly over the new city of God being built here and now.  We’re getting ready because we don’t only know another world is possible, we see another world emerging.

Rejoice and be glad, and help us get ready.  Help us spread the good news, Jesus lives!

preparing, minus materialism

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. -Matthew 24:42-44

I asked my friend Josh what insight his reflections on today’s liturgical readings brought him to.   He replied by describing how God is like a thief in the night because God loves sneaking in and taking things from us that we no longer need, but we wouldn’t give away if we were given the choice.  After God is the thief, we wake up in the morning, look around, notice something is missing and then shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, I guess I didn’t really need that anyway and it’s kind of nice to see it go, after all!”

So, we sometimes need to let go of stuff instead of accumulating more.  God can make this easier for us sometimes, by shaking up our comfort zones with blizzards, floods and droughts. Our hearts crack, freeing the weeds and the polluted parts. We sob as we mourn. Then we realize that we have been possessed by what we possessed.  We catch our breath.  It’s time, we acknowledge, to let God transform us by freeing us from what blocks us.

It’s advent. It’s time to let go. It’s time to get ready. It’s time to prepare, because we’re all invited to the best birthday party, ever.

How can we prepare to go to a birthday party in a barn with all sorts of excess? Sure, giving gifts is important, and breaking bread is essential. But we can’t do any of this without freedom. I am talking about the type of freedom that allows you to laugh the deepest belly laughs, full of snort and drool with no shame or embarrassment.  Your hair can be sticking up and your body can smell, but it won’t matter, because the love will be so thick you’ll be dizzy.  Manure and flies will surround us and we’ll praise God with more boldness than ever before.  Yes, you’re all invited to the best birthday part ever, a party for the little baby Jesus.

I need to warn you that the birthday party, although smelly and wonderful, may seem confusing if you’re clouded by excess.  To really be revolutionized by the love of God, you’re going to have to let go, and let God take over.

The late prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., warned us about the dangers of materialism, along with racism and militarism.  In his words: “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” (“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” speech delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967.)

If you let God take your stuff and take over, you might find yourself asking the hard questions, like “what does the Rev mean?!”  We squabble then realize: together, sisters and brothers, we must wake up to the truth and challenge of love.  We’ve gotta leave behind the flashy toys and the latest fads, and let the pain of division glare at us.

Personally, this pain- and promise- has left me stuttering when I’ve encountered the Salvation Army bell ringers.  I am grateful for their service and generosity.  I am blessed by the joy and holiday cheer.  But I wonder if that method is the best way, as it seems to thicken the gap.  What can we do in addition to scattering spare nickles into a safe little pot? What can we do to stop ignoring the homeless sitting on the other curb?

Jesus, and his prophet, the Rev, beg us to stay awake to how we hurt others by our consumption.  We must allow the pain to sink in as we party. If we really are ready, we’ll be poor too, free from possessions and the lies of capitalism.  Minus the materialism, we’ll be able to wake up and realize that God has stolen our hearts away.

And then we’ll really have something to party about!

royal hype

Jesus is King, the scriptures say. We celebrated this at church last Sunday because it was the Feast of Christ the King.  As I prayed and contemplated, I wondered if the feast day matters more to the Christians who live in modern monarchies than me, an American who only knows about human kings from what I have learned on TV and studying history.

To be clear, I do think of Jesus as King, but that’s only because I am focused on the “Thy Kingdom Come” stuff.   Mostly, though, Jesus is my friend, teacher, guide, and main love.  I sure do try to let him rule over my life and heart too, though, and I totally hope and believe that Jesus is ruling over the world in a very involved and intimate way.

I am also aware of how calling Jesus King, or anything of the like, is not comfortable for some Christians.

While I was in college and discerning religious life I visited many religious communities and had a lot of interesting conversations.  I remember how when I slept in a convent for the first time it felt like such a big deal, like high school prom had.  At another convent, I remember the sisters challenging me- somewhat sternly-  about how I talked about God.  I didn’t call God “God” very much at that point, but instead I said “Lord.”  I remember one of the elder sisters saying with sharpness, “Please don’t call God ‘Lord.’  If God is a Lord, then I’d have to be serf, and that’s not a God I want to worship!”

Similarly, since entering this religious lifestyle I have learned that many Christians are offended by any language that calls God “king.” Also, I understand that many Christians would prefer to say “reign of God” instead of “kingdom of God.”  I get it. It can turn some of us off from loving God if we associate him with oppressive experiences.  Also, I know we need to broaden our images of God, and to only think of God as male or King can be limiting. We need to know the infinite amount of names and not get stuck on one.  As I once heard the great late, Sister Barbara Bowe, RSCJ state, “we need to multiply our metaphors!”

But, if the Bible talks about Jesus as King, and Jesus talks about his Kingdom it seems like it’s okay to use that language.  Admittedly, I am not a Bible scholar, or even a theologian, so I am not an authority on this. I do know, however, that language helps to frame the way I serve and live.

My students and I have been discussing what the Kingdom of God means.  For many of them, it’s heaven.  For me, it’s what we’re working for now.  Both are true, but I know I am more oriented toward the latter.

When it comes to the vision, I am guided by the preachings of Jesus.  Also, I recently realized that my vision of God’s kingdom- and my understanding of monarchies in general- is greatly influenced by my favorite film, Ever After

I realized that the film- and the Cinderella story in general- have always been my favorite because its a story of social justice. It’s a story of an oppressed woman using her brilliance, beauty and brains to rise up and unite with a powerful man. She challenges and humbles the prince.  She sharply quotes Utopia and enlightens royalty about the plight of the poor.  Although there is conflict and tension eventually the prince is converted and decides to use his wealth and power to set people free.

It’s even better with Jesus. We don’t have to tell him what the poor are going through.  We don’t have to enlighten or challenge. In fact, with Christ the King, it’s the other way around.  Jesus uses the Kingdom language as as political challenge for the oppressive Kingdoms and social systems of his time, and our time too.  Jesus enlightens us and challenges us, because he is with the poor. Jesus is the poor King of Kings and he gets social justice better than anyone.

breaking up with Jesus is hard to do

“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire…”  – Malachi 3:19

“… they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  — Luke 21:12-20

Sometimes I just want to quit, because it is so hard, but then the words of the Bible sting me.

When I contemplate these scriptures, I feel like Jesus has me tucked me under His arm and is saying: “I need to know, are you really willing to die for this? How serious are you about doing this for me?” I wince. I whine that I’d rather just keep still, praying and adoring his awesomeness. Certainly, that’s the main job of some of us who are in this Christian life. But, it’s not my main job.

No, it seems that I am designed to be an action girl. I can’t say I am totally eager. Jesus can seem like an annoying friend sometimes, who is constantly demanding my attention. I roll my eyes. We argue. I remind Him that I already publicly proclaimed my devotion to Him when I agreed to be a Franciscan sister and enter my community at just 24 years old. And then I did it again when I was consecrated to Him when I made my first vows in July of 2009. These actions have totally messed me up already. I wanted those “yeses” to be good enough because they were pretty big deals. As I say all this, Jesus nods and smiles because He already knows.

For some reason Jesus (with the Father and the Spirit) keeps asking me to do more. I am so confused and resist out of disbelief.  I try to sit down and pout. I try to kick and scream “No! Leave me alone!”  After I calm down, I simply and awkwardly stutter “uh, uh, um, no, I can’t.”   Jesus laughs and reminds me that we’re united and I made vows to obey Him. I sigh and remember why I agreed to be dedicated to Him. (I like the way He sees things and His love is totally divine!)

Jesus wins the fight, of course, because, well, when it’s the Creator of the universe insisting it’s pretty much impossible to turn away.  Even though I am irritated I am still totally enamored by Him—just like I was all the other times He called me.  His power is fierce and I fall head over heals all over again.

So, I give into the demands, which are actually quite gentle. I know deeply that His ways are best; they are best for me and for the Kingdom. God can use me to help the Kingdom come, and I believe that a better world and church are possible.  I want more people to take Jesus seriously and be totally messed up by His love like I have been.

I know it’s going to be a lot of work and I am totally terrified. I know I can’t do it, really, but I know that with great grace from God, it’ll happen. I’ll try to add a voice to the song of creation that calls forth newness. I pray that I’ll be an instrument that the Holy Spirit blows through and the music is in harmony. I pray to be empty of my pride, sloth, lust, anger, and greed so that the song from my soul is in tune.  Somehow Jesus brought me into this conversion, and I seem to have said yes again.

With great trust, I let Him hold my hand and lead me into working with The Living Word. He’s called me to write. I’ve said okay, so here I go, because although it’s uncomfortable to cooperate with Jesus’ demands, it’s worth it.

Like the scripture says, I know I may be hated by all because of His name, but I decide to persevere anyhow. Persevering shall secure my life. I believe, in fact, that following His way will give me- and others- more freedom to live life to the fullest.

Plus, breaking up with Jesus is hard to do.  And, I didn’t really want to.