The wounds of Christ and the inauguration of Donald Trump

Last Friday morning—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—two screens were in front of me; words and images flooding in.

A glowing laptop sat upon my knees, my web browser opened to an online Bible, Psalm 34. It was there because I awoke with this song in my head, particularly the “The LORD hears the cry of the poor, blessed be The LORD” part.

I stared at these words:

Keep your tongue from evil,

your lips from speaking lies.

Turn from evil and do good;

seek peace and pursue it.

~ Psalm 34: 14-15

I heard these words:

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.

We will bring back our wealth.

Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, January 20, 2017

Photo credit: /cfmedia.deadline.com
Photo credit: /cfmedia.deadline.com

I can’t make sense of the division, the gap between the two ways. I know, though, that I want to live under the influence of Scripture, the sacred Word of God.

I wonder what is happening to the Body of Christ; whether the wounds are becoming infected. Perhaps flesh is being gouged, torn apart. Maybe blood is flooding our world and we are too blind to see. (I have been meditating on the wounds of Christ ever since Inauguration Day.)

Certainly, much stirs in my mind and heart. What will happen to the children of God who are in the most vulnerable corners of society? What will happen to those who have been declared as enemies?

I see faces of friends waiting for decades for their citizenship papers to come through. I visualize children passing their lives away in detention centers. I see the face of a teen I taught years ago—a beautiful Iraqi Muslim who had migrated out of a war zone.

I think of the millions of people who are also fleeing war zones, oppression, starvation—good people who of course would prefer to stay securely in their homeland but can’t. They are powerless in their circumstances. (I know the feeling of powerlessness.)

I remember the women—young mothers coming right off the streets, desperate to get their lives together—choosing life with every chance, only to have the structures of society spit out a mess of impossibility at them. It’s impossible (all at once) to afford food, to find a job, to have good transportation, to find secure housing and to have proper health care but somehow—perhaps by the might of love alive within them—they persevered and gained stability for their family.

I think of the polluted waters and soils; of the climate refugees moving from place to place across this planet.

I think of the words of Jesus Christ uttered from the cross, his body aching with misery: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)

I feel my own heart thirst for justice and peace for all; for a world centered on the love of Truth and guided by Gospel values—values of sacrifice for the sake of the other; values of protection of the planet and the poor and vulnerable.

Inauguration Friday was as another Good Friday, another day when the Body of Christ was wounded upon the cross.

photo credit: http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/wounds.html
Photo credit: http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/wounds.html

Meditating on the cross of Christ in the world today, I remember my deep conviction that the United States, with only 5 percent of the population but with 25 percent of the world’s wealth, needs not selfishly protect itself—we need not to give into the temptations for greed, power and pride. We must reject all of the seven deadly sins.

With all the news of heartache, fear and pain rapidly increasing in our world today, it seems we are stuck upon the cross, we are stuck in Good Friday.

We need not stay stuck. We believe in Easter Sunday and we know it is always coming in three days. We know that Christ’s wounds upon his body have been transformed, glorified.

The LORD’s face is against evildoers

to wipe out their memory from the earth.

The righteous cry out, the LORD hears

and he rescues them from all their afflictions.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,

saves those whose spirit is crushed.

~ Psalm 34: 17-19

We are that body, formed and guided by mercy, generosity and hope. We shall arise as one body united, radiating Love and Truth.

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.

Peace shouldn’t be a privilege

It’s International Day of Peace! This day is also known as Peace One Day.

This is a day for us to unite as citizens of Earth, as children of God,  and act in ways that help create peace. It’s a day of cease fire and reaching out with humanitarian aide. It’s a day to pause, to pray, and to act for the greater good, for an increase of peace and justice.

During my morning prayer today I watched the sunrise over Trout Lake and warmed my throat with my sips of hot coffee. The sky glowing with pink and gold sparkled upon the rapid waves. Once again, another scene of peace and beauty washed me with awe, overwhelmed me with gratitude.

As I prayed in peace and savored all the beauty, I couldn’t shake the feeling like something was off. I couldn’t stop feeling like it is just completely unfair that I have never been a victim of violence or lived in a war zone. I have never hesitated to sit outside and pray. I’ve never had to hide in a bomb shelter or been afraid at a check point. I have never been starving or unable to find clean water to drink.

It felt unfair that my life is so good because I am aware that millions (billions?) of people throughout the world are not so fortunate. One of the greatest injustices of being human is that we have made peace into a privilege.

Of course this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, this is not the way God intended it. Peace shouldn’t be a privilege.

I challenge you to join me and millions throughout the world and do something to act for peace today. Help us work to help bring peace to Earth today, so that everyone everywhere can experience and enjoy it on a daily basis.

You could pause and pray on your own (and then share about it on social media, if you’d like) or participate in a prayer service that is already going on, like this one in La Crosse later today. Or, you could sign up to host a prayer service in solidarity with the SOAW Border Convergence the weekend of October 7-10 here. (This is a project that I have been working on for several months along with a great team of other Catholic sisters.) You could sign an important petition advocating for peace and justice, from one of your favorite social justice organizations. You could inform yourself and others about what really prevents peace and help contribute to solutions, helping the UN meet any of the Sustainable Development Goals, as are highlighted in this video:

It’s a bit cliche, but when it comes to peacemaking, it’s quite true: the opportunities are endless.

Thank you for praying and working for peace with us!

"Sunrise at Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Sunrise at Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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

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

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

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

Except when they’re not.

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

I behold these actions with exasperation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Rabble Rouser:

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

She has, on occasion, turned the minivan around.

 

What if Jesus prayed like this?

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:

waterfall
Image courtesy of tripleblaze.com

The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.

 

hand-reaching-waterI look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.

I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:

 The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.

Dear Abba, Papi

   Take all of this and make it new.

       With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth

             And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,

 The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …

     All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …

I give you my own flesh.

 

They have no idea how gentle you are.

   How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,

    Powerful enough to heal and restore

 Every broken cell

                          Of this Cosmic Body!

lava-flow
Image courtesy of CBSNews.com

So I give you my body, this one life, that your love

     May be released into this time and place

           Like the lava of love that will never stop.

 

Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,

     To reverence each face as your beloved 

         And to bear the suffering and resistance that

               Will inevitably come

     with the grace of your humble surrender,

            infinite faith and extravagant love.

 

I love you with my whole self.

     I give this one life I have totally to you.

dove-flying
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

 

And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.

 

You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

 

May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.

 

Amen.

flowing-river
Image courtesy of usgs.gov

 

Work and rest

 

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

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

80/20: following the rules of the Pareto Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever you need.”

 

Clothing bales and hurting more than we help

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.

Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.

Photo Credit: http://www.fashioneditoratlarge.com/2014/07/five-thoughts-secret-life-clothes-obroni-wawu/

During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.

I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”

Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.

I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)

Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people.  Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.

Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.

As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.

Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.

Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.

As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.

We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31

““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.

And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”

Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.

An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

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Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

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An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:

The Advent wreath

I’m trying this again. I’m trying the traditional route of Advent. Growing up there were certain traditions my family definitely participated in. We hung stockings over our fireplace in anticipation of St. Nick on December 6.

Then at church we would choose a construction ornament from the giving tree, giving us a suggestion of a gift to buy for someone less fortunate. I always liked picking out books or mittens. Warm thoughts and warm hands are always welcomed in the winter.

Our family was always focused on giving to others, and I’m so grateful for that experience and ethic that is ingrained in me. But I never truly understood the concept of Advent until I lived some painful personal truths. At church I knew we lit candles in anticipation of Jesus, but it was quite the concept to wrap my child mind around.

Advent is to understand that we are gradually building light to embrace the darkest night of the year. That each of us takes this time to work on ourselves to BE that light, for others, for ourselves, for our loved ones and for strangers, to remember the lost and those living in that darkness of fear and pain.

It is a stirring in us of hope; it is belief in the impossible, the absurd, the miracles and the hopeless cases. It is a chance to be ridiculously optimistic and excited. It gives us a chance to open space in our hearts for whatever hope brings.

Photo courtesy of https://pixabay.com/en/candles-light-lights-evening-64177/
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Advent brings Christ, the Christ in ourselves, so we can BE Christ to each other and bring His presence forward in what we do. So I have made my wreath this year, and I will light it, and pray with it. It’s a daily reminder to bring out the light I have to share. I hope you will, too.