At a table with other sinners, the Eucharist unites

The first person who taught me eucharistic theology was my Lutheran grandmother. Although I have no memories of her ever uttering the words “eucharistic” or “theology,” she taught me in the way that the best teachers do: by being a living example.

Grandma’s house usually smelled like freshly baked bread. Her counter was often dusted with a layer of flour and she frequently had dough under her fingernails. My grandma structured much of her time around a pattern of stirring, kneading, baking, cooking or serving meals and snacks. No matter who came through the sunny porch, she offered the person a warm hello and an embrace.

Nearly every day at noon, neighborhood kids (along with me, my siblings and cousins) and farmers and friends would squeeze around a large table, where there was always…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Encouragement when the world feels like a mess

If you’re like me — and most people I know — the world feels like a mess.

Maybe you’re heartbroken and horrified by the latest news coming out of Syria, by the continued slaughter of human life.

Perhaps you’re worried about loved ones impacted by the fires in California — or you are one of the millions of people struggling to make it without clean air, electricity or safety. Maybe you’ve lost your home.

Or you may be the person dealing with internal trial: health problems, financial challenges or splintered relationships. Maybe someone you love has recently died and the grief has you frozen in sorrow.

It could be that your Gospel living — your faithful walk with Christ — has you meeting roadblock after roadblock. Each detour and struggle has you feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere or making any progress. You are losing hope and confidence that you’re on the right path, that God wants you to proceed. You don’t know if you have any steam left in you for loving others.

No matter which circumstances have you carrying a cross, here’s what I want to assure you today: you are not alone. Jesus is with you in all of it. The community of Christ cares for you.

To boost you up and impart consolation, I’m offering some inspiration in the mess. Here’s some goodness that keeps me going.

THE WORD OF GOD

Much of the Bible contains encouragement to persevere, to trust, to remain faithful and accept the cost of loving God and neighbor.

I’ve heard a lot of people proclaim that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” which is a cliché I dislike, because it suggests that we (individually) must handle the hard times, the painful parts of living. But such a sentiment doesn’t match what I have come to know: we are strengthened by God and community, we all are in need of help and support.

Here’s a verse that agrees: only if we rely on God, if we turn to Christ, will we be able to handle what’s tough:

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”1 Corinthians 10:13

Scripture reminds us that a paradox of the spiritual life (and discipleship, for that matter) is accepting hardships as part of the price we pay for growing closer to God; once we embrace our weakness, we’re able to know strength.

“Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Plus, Scripture assures us that God remains with us; God is the true source of our strength.

“I command you: be strong and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

FROM THE MESSY JESUS BUSINESS ARCHIVES

A poem, “encouragement” (

overwhelmed, I wonder/gazing out the window, I sigh …”

“As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry. Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond.  The challenge is to respond with love.

On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament. I begged God for mercy. I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed. As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.

Soon after, I am with my students. I decide to be real with them. ‘I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets …'”

“The myth of the self made person and the true demand of discipleship” (

“You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person.”

“It’s not our job to change people”  (

“I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe.”

MUSIC

“Hope and healing play list”

“When we serve others we touch the wounds of Christ; we encounter the heartache and pain of our neighbors. When we read the news headlines right alongside the promises of Christ, it can be tempting to doubt that the Incarnation really changed things and made the world better. Our consciousness about global oppression and the weight of natural disasters can be crushing, discouraging.

One way that I keep my eyes open to the Light is to tune into songs that feed me with encouragement and strength. I want to have music in my head that keeps me singing with hopeful joy. I want to dance to beats that help me persevere and trust that God’s in charge, that the fullness of God’s goodness is on its way.”

Plus, much of the music by Liz Vice boosts my spirit. Here’s one gem for you:

THE BIBLE, AGAIN

Praying with the Gospel stories and the lives of the saints could also offer you a lot of inspiration and encouragement.

This lovely prayer video, made by my friend Susan Francois, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, reminds us of the Gospel call to persist for peace and justice:

Lastly, this passage from Romans reminds us that much goodness is ahead:

Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

What gives you encouragement and hope in the mess? Share with other Messy Jesus Business readers in the comments below.

Sacrifice, not self-care

Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first. When a plane is experiencing difficulties and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on the masks of others. You need to always make sure to take care of yourself first. — self-help speakers everywhere

I’ve been keeping track, and in roughly the last three years, at conferences, on retreats, and in a homily or two, I have heard the above “oxygen mask” analogy a self-care mantra 13 times. And every time I do, it grates on me.  

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. — Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:34-35)

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Cross in the St Viktor Church, Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2018 (image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

If there is one major thesis about self-care in the Gospel, it is this. No one can do it alone. We believe that Jesus Christ became man and died for us because we could not save ourselves. Before that he walked among the poor, healing the sick and lifting up the lowly because they were too broken to heal themselves and too beaten down to lift themselves up. 

But if you listen to contemporary culture, even among ministers, the message is always this: don’t forget about number one. Don’t get stressed out. Don’t sacrifice your well-being. If someone else is struggling, well, you can try to help to a point but ultimately, they need to make time for themselves.

This message does not work for any of the real problems facing us. That advice does not help the truly oppressed.

How about the women in Vietnam toiling away in sweatshops, literally beaten when they try to organize for better wages and conditions? Do they need to focus on self-care?

What about the elderly gentleman at our parish whose wife now has dementia? He can’t care for her, can’t navigate the medical bureaucracy, and is becoming increasingly enfeebled himself. 

What about the tragic, uncontrollable epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings that are causing our children, as they practice active shooter drills in school, to wonder if today is their last? 

These situations do not call for self-care. They require the help of others, of those outside the situation, to enter into the fray. The women in Vietnam need for us to stop buying products from the companies that enslave them and for us to care more about them and their plight than we do about looking good. The gentleman at our parish needs his friends to bring him meals and take him to doctors’ appointments and to tend to his needs. In the wake of the recent shootings in New Zealand, a young Muslim from the area, Nakita Valerio, posted a quick message that soon went viral: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.” I couldn’t agree with her more. 

We need each other. We cannot solve our biggest problems alone. When we are strong, we need to truly exert ourselves in the causes of justice and wear ourselves out, even hurt ourselves in the struggle. And when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone, we should pray to God that we have communities that will lift us up in turn. 

In the lowest moments of my life,  I did not need a day at the spa I needed my friends to help me, to save me. I was lucky, privileged and blessed that they did. We need to create such communities for all.

This last year in youth ministry was hard. One of our students suddenly passed away from Leukemia. He was a wonderful and charismatic boy, and he left many grieving friends, myself included. Another student tried to kill himself. Between struggles with drugs, sex, parents divorcing, bullying and all sorts of other upheavals, it was an unusually grief-filled year. I was unusually grief-filled as a result. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, entire nights when I prayed for my kids. And God and I talked about a lot of things. But you want to know one thing He never said to me? If I can, for a moment, presume to know the will of the Almighty and hear His voice, I will go out on a limb and say not once did I ever see in scripture or hear from the Lord, “Keep your distance. Don’t love them too much. This is their problem, not yours. Take care of yourself.”

As the year went on, I found my daily prayers changing. On Sundays, the day most filled with youth activities at our parish, I used to pray for strength to make it through unscathed. I soon realized that was not possible; that, actually, being invulnerable requires being very disinterested and ultimately not very Christ-like. 

For to be vulnerable means to be woundable (from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound), and what is the story of the incarnation and passion if not that God himself was willing to be wounded, indeed to die, for the good of those he loved? So now I pray, “God, feel free to allow me to be wounded in your service today. Feel free to wear me out and use me up. Just promise you’ll heal me when it’s over.”

It’s not that I like being hurt. It’s not even that I don’t think self-care is important (even Jesus took his time in solitude to pray and prepare). It’s just that maybe we are focusing on it too much. Maybe we’ve taken it too far, believe in it too much, idolize it.  Believing in the cross means we can’t expect to be well all the time, and believing in the resurrection means we can’t expect to be entirely well at all in this life. We should expect to be wounded, for a while at least, just as much as we should long to be made whole.

So, might I propose a better analogy? Perhaps we should think of these ubiquitous oxygen masks, not like the ones in airplanes but the ones attached to the oxygen tanks that firefighters strap on before they race into a blaze. 

Okay, fair enough; put your oxygen mask on first. 

But the “oxygen” is not your own self-interested little ritual of wellness it’s a real, lived connection to Christ and to a community that has your back. That is what you need to survive. But then, once that mask is on, go into the blaze. Go into the flames and the heat and the danger of the world’s real injustices to bring that connection to others. 

Because your brothers and sisters can’t breathe. They are burning up. They need the help of allies, activists, friends, servants, saints — whole communities of them because if they could have done it on their own they already would have. 

Or, to put it another way take up your cross.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

‘A bad guy was killing people’: A parent’s response to the nightmare of gun violence

It’s 3 a.m. and the moon is glowing softly through the wide bedroom window. Why am I awake? I look to the side and see that our six-month-old is sleeping soundly.

painting-learning-to-rest-in-her-rhythm
Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

A repetition of the sound that woke me, “Mama!!”, comes from the room across the hall. It’s our three-year-old who, despite a strong, independent spirit, believes that a parent is needed if she is thirsty or needs the toilet that’s a few steps away or if her blanket has slipped off. 

I pause and take a deep breath, take a drink of water and then another deep breath. “Don’t go in annoyed,” I tell myself. “You don’t know what she needs until you’ve listened.”

When I go to her it takes a few minutes before I can get her to say anything besides “Mama,” but I can see that she is in fact distressed. “Was it a bad dream?” I whisper. She nods. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“There were bad guys killing people,” she says in a small, still-scared voice. And suddenly, I feel a dark weight in my own stomach and my throat tightens around the words of reassurance I want to speak. 

My mind conjures not her nightmare, but the real-life horror I’ve been hearing about on the radio the last few days. I imagine a Walmart where people – bored or excited, tired, in a hurry or casually moseying – are suddenly confronted with a rapid-fire lethal weapon that has no concept of the rich complexity of their personal stories. 

A bad guy is killing people.

And so, I can’t quite bring myself to say, “Don’t worry baby, everything’s okay, you’re totally safe.”  Instead I say, “I’m here with you, sweetheart, it was a dream, you’re surrounded by people who love you.” Because things are not okay, and I don’t really know what or where “safe” is. This has always been true, but the reality of it rests heavily on me right now. 

After a quick ritual of tucking-in and “huggy blanket, huggy blanket, down to your toes!”, my daughter drifts back to sleep and hopefully to sweet dreams of riding horses and unicorns that she reports having most mornings.

I try to return to sleep myself, but the infant who’s sharing a bed with me tonight is restless. Finally, I hold her close until her body relaxes and her breath evens into the rhythm of sleep. 

My body will not relax as my mind grinds, trying to solve an impossible problem: how do I prepare my children for an unpredictable and precarious reality while still providing them the sense of security and stability they need to thrive? How do I say, “It’s okay,” when I feel so sad and afraid?

Earlier in the day, when we had to make a quick stop to purchase the rest of their school supplies, my husband stopped the car next to the store so I could run in. I wondered if he was thinking about the same thing I was; the mother who’d recently run into Walmart in El Paso, Texas, to pick up something while she and her family were on their way to the airport. 

Her husband and children had waited, unknowing, in the car while she was murdered. How did they find out? Were they waiting for a long time, wondering what was keeping her? Did they get bored or annoyed? It’s such a small thing to run into a store, and yet …

I feel the tension in my body as I step out of the car. I close the door and then open it again; popping my head in to cheerfully say, “I’ll be right back, my lovies!” — both to reassure myself and to ensure that my possible last words to my beloved family aren’t, “Stop fussing! I’ll just be a minute!”  

Of course, the chances of me and my family being in any real danger are very slim. I know this. But I don’t like that argument. I am not exceptional — God is not any more determined to extend supernatural protection over me and my family than over those people who died senselessly. 

Even if I and my loved ones don’t encounter harm everything is still not okay, because others have and will and are encountering danger and hurt in so many ways. So, I am lying in bed, so tired, wanting desperately to fall asleep, and yet, how can I sleep to the sound of all this suffering? 

Jesus tells us many times throughout the Gospels not to worry and not to be afraid. All the while, he demonstrates through his life solidarity with the outcast and the sick; he reaches his hands out, even to the dead. I wish he would tell me what to do now.

blue-painting-orange-flowers-poem
Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

 

Soon the alarm will sound and it will be time to ready the kids for school; to make sure they eat a nutritious meal, brush their teeth and are fully dressed before they’re bundled out the door. Why am I awake? To fall asleep feels like a betrayal to those kept awake with the ache of grief or fear or the loneliness of irreconcilable loss. 

The sun will rise without regard for my mental state, rousing with its light three lively children and the mundane but necessary demands of the day. So, I hug the tension to me like a restless child, breathe deeply, pray for grace and accept the gift of rest.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

 

The familiar, the new and discernment for daily living

I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?

This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.

Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?

I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.

Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.

Photo by Rahul Jain on Unsplash

In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.

The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.

With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.

Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)

When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?

In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.

There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.

Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)

I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”

Inside Mystery Cave

A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.

Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.

It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.

I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.

I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that…   [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Old Mystery Cave sign. Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/55239532902204369/?lp=true

On parenting, poverty, and privilege

small-girl-washing-dishes-teal-dress
Nicole’s youngest daughter, Adelina, washes clothes at a pila. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.

We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.

As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.

I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.

Because we could leave.

If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.

I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).

Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.

I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).

two-small-girls-looking-at-ocean
Kiara (left) and Adelina, Nicole’s daughters, experience the beauty of a Honduran beach. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.

I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”

And yet …. the official policy of the U.S. is to treat mothers at the border (many of whom are Honduran and all of whom are trying to protect their children) as though they are criminals. We rip their children from their arms and lock them up in dehumanizing, traumatic conditions. We violate international human rights laws and — more fundamentally — God’s laws.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)

people-jungle-stations-of-the-cross
Children and adults in the Finca community walk the Stations of the Cross, honoring the sacrifice of Jesus, during Lent. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.

So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.

And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
(Matthew 5:3-6)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.

The joy of being surpassed

Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. – Yoda, to Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi”

It is good to remind myself, every now and then, that in a very real sense I am working to put myself out of a job. In two of the most important roles in my life, that of father and youth minister, I will only have succeeded if and when I am fully and finally replaced.

This has never been more on my mind than it has been this last month. Recently, I became a godfather for the first time, flying out to Chicago to stand beside my best friend and his wife as they baptized their brand new little girl. Not two weeks later, I watched as a good friend of mine was ordained a priest. And in both of these holy moments — both moments in which I stopped and praised God for the people in my life and the grace of the sacraments — my time of prayer was filled with reminders of being replaced.

The first was in the prayer I prayed for my goddaughter. Looking down into her small face and holding her tiny hand, and then later in a stolen moment of prayer after the baptismal ceremony, I found myself praying: “God, let her be the best of us. Let her surpass all of us in holiness. Let her become such a saint that we end up seeking her intercession, and may her prayers for us be even more effective than ours for her because she is that much more in your favor.”

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Steven’s friend and newly-ordained priest, Father Dan Molochko (standing), blesses Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Image courtesy of Steven Cottam.

At the ordination, in a liturgy filled with incredibly meaningful and memorable moments, the most impactful for me was watching my friend and newly-minted priest exchange the sign of peace with my spiritual director — another good friend, an incredibly gentle and holy man, a trusted mentor, and a priest who just weeks ago announced his retirement. I watched these two friends of mine embrace — one just beginning his priestly ministry, the other reaching the tail end of his — and found myself praying that my friend would be an even better priest than my mentor was.

May my goddaughter surpass me in holiness. May our new priests surpass our veteran priests in service.

What am I to make of this longing to be replaced and for those I love to be replaced as well? It is perhaps one of the most common temptations we humans face — the desire to be important. We want to be wanted; we wanted to be needed. We want people to recognize our talents and accomplishments. We love to sit at the head table at banquets and the most important seats in the assembly. Such temptations are always problematic, but in ministry, they can be especially insidious. Perhaps the greatest reason is simply for the fact that the desire to be recognized and applauded — especially for doing the work of the Gospel — is so foreign to the mind of Christ.

The Christian life is a constant call to humility, and that means seeking the lowest place. Christ constantly emptied himself — he took on flesh and claimed his place alongside the lowly and died alongside them. Christ instructed us to wash up and smile when we fast and to not let even our right hand know how much our left hand is giving. As ministers seeking to emulate this way, that means constantly dying to ourselves by always looking for places to step aside and let new ministers take up our tasks. And when they surpass us, when they do what we did even better than we did it, we ought not to sulk or pout or complain about being forgotten. We should rejoice in that God is glorified once again in a new generation.

Yet, so often we do not. As liturgical ministers, we refuse to skip a turn or take a seat and allow someone else to serve at Mass. At soup kitchens, we have to be the one to dish up, and we make the new people wash dishes in the back. We let the new girl talk at the meeting but make sure to cut her off if she starts contributing ideas that outshine our own. We sit in our place, our hard-won place, and we refuse to budge an inch.

How much better would it be if we rejoiced each time we were surpassed, especially if we had the honor of playing some special role in forming the one who replaces us? It would be all the better because being surpassed by our students is also the most natural thing in the world. If we do a good job of teaching — if we are able to pass on all we have learned to the young people we mentor — how could they not surpass us? They would have the knowledge of everything we have learned, including all the mistakes and failures we had to fight through the hard way and of which we tell the tales in the hopes of sparing them that same strife. Yet, they would also have the knowledge of everything they have learned for themselves.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra,” Lewis imagines a foreign world much like our own but unfallen. In it, the main character meets the “Eve” of this world — Tinidrill. Tinidrill is destined to be the mother of all the people who come after her, and she has a conversation in which it is revealed to her that she will not live forever but instead will be replaced and surpassed by her children and her children’s children as the history of her world marches on. The main character, and I think most readers too, expect her to be bothered by this. But she is not. Instead, she rejoices. She praises Maleldil (her name for God), saying:

How beautiful is Maleldil and how wonderful are all His works: perhaps He will bring out of me daughters as much greater than I as I am greater than the beasts. It will be better than I thought. I had thought I was to be always Queen and Lady. But I see now … I may be appointed to cherish when they are small and weak children who will grow up to overtop me and at whose feet I shall fall.

In all our dealings with the young, or with whomever we have the privilege of preaching the Gospel, let us work to make saints far greater than ourselves. Let us work to be surpassed, and let us be filled with joy when we are. Let us decrease so that Christ might increase as these new workers in the vineyard proclaim him. As Litany of Humility (a great prayer for striving against just the sort of temptations we are discussing here) reminds us: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Explanations are not easy

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Image by Greg Rakozy, unsplash.com

In the book “A Wrinkle in Time,” Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tells the children, “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

Last weekend, the global community of Christian writers quaked in shock as we absorbed the news that the influential author Rachel Held Evans, 37, had died. I didn’t know her but I admired her from afar and have had her four books on my “hope to read soon” pile for some time. The grief is heavy and hard.

And then, this week’s school shooting in Colorado took another young saint, Kendrick Ray Castillo, away from us much too soon. I’m horrified and heartbroken that school shootings are so common in the United States that we are nearly numb to the news. God have mercy on us for the wrongs that we accept. It’s awful that we allow young lives to end without alarm. It’s more than shameful.

Meanwhile, my friends in Cameroon try to survive horrific violence. Weather patterns, habitats, landscapes and populations are shifting. After being attacked in sanctuaries — places of worship — human bodies are bloodied and hurting. People are running for their lives. Families are being torn apart. Children are going hungry. Our loved ones are sick, some die way too soon. And, it’s hard to know what’s happening to democracy … but it doesn’t seem good either. The litany of heartbreak could be much longer; this is only a little list of what is making me feel so sad.

I turn to God and pray “WHY?” As I do, I often find myself remembering Mrs. Whatsit’s words. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

If often seems to me that everything is in flux around us, and the transition doesn’t feel good. I’m confident that much of the turmoil, loss and pain is a result of rapid change and our inability to adjust, allow and accept how newness is emerging, even when we don’t feel ready. The shifts are hard and we feel lost in it all, so we grasp for what we can control: our convictions and tribal tendencies. Some cling to the cross, while others cling to their guns. We look around for like-minded folks who can reinforce our opinions and ideas but, as we end up in warring camps, this isn’t helpful either. God help us.

As we bicker and brawl, let us not lose sight of the paradox of Christian discipleship: God asks for our trust and hope, while we each play our small, merciful part.

Yet we wonder why. It’s only natural for us to have many questions, to hunger for explanations when we’re disturbed by the chaos and turmoil and how quickly the world is changing. When everything from our values to our comfort zones seems to be up for grabs, we pray over and over. “WHY?!”

“Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

I am reminded over and over that I must resist the temptation to keep God in a neat and tidy box. I must not make God into an image I like, I must get to know God and allow myself to be made into God’s image and likeness. I must avoid trying to subject my suggestions to the Creator of the universe, upon the Keeper of mystery. I must remember that I am only a small human who has no idea what the big picture is, who can’t even guess how the mystery might unfold. It’s not my job to know what God is up to.

My job is to remain faithful to the Gospel, to the insistence from Jesus that we build communities based on mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. Each day I need to show up and do my part. I need to love the people that God puts in my path, live simply, serve joyfully and pray deeply. I need to broaden my awareness and deepen my contemplation. And through these acts, I hope that I am helping to build up what’s meant to be and tearing down what’s corrupt and destructive.

I have to trust that God is in control. I have to trust that God is with us in the heartache and pain of chaos and confusion. I have to trust that God’s taking care of the big picture. I have to listen to the Spirit and allow God to make all things new.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. — Isaiah 43:19

Maybe, when it comes to being a faithful Christian, it’s not our job to understand. Rather, we get to keep showing up ready to love and lean on each other. It’s the only way I know how to move forward into the mystery, the only way I know how to get through the pain. With all of you.

Strength in weakness

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  — 2 Corinthians 12:9

Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.  

Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.  

Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.  

Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.  

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Sister Shannon Fox, right, and her co-worker, Sister Kim, show strong support for their students “Because Their Dreams Matter.”

Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher.  I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.

“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.

“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”  

“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.  

“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”  

“It was hard for you?” he asked.  

“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.  

“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.

“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer.  It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.  

In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister Shannon Fox

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Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.