What it takes to see God’s reign

This coming Sunday is one of my favorite feasts in the Church year: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is also known as the Feast of Christ the King.

On this feast I celebrate something I believe, deeply: from the macro of the cosmos to the micro of our hearts, the love of Christ prevails and has authority.

Photo by Brett Ritchie on Unsplash

We ponder the messiness of the Kingdom of God — which is now and not yet — in this blog. God’s reign of peace and justice was established by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it’s close at hand and not yet fully known. It’s the basis for living the Gospel, for advocating for peace, justice, and mercy being triumphant, and working tirelessly to serve all in God’s creation, and for honoring the dignity of every person. (The Kingdom of God is such an important theme on this blog that you’ll find some party music for this celebration in the archives!) As we experience the messiness of Gospel living, the tension, struggle and conversion offered to us each day, building up the reign of God is what we’re up to.

Needless to say, I have a lot of passion for the Kingdom of God. Naturally then, I was thrilled to be invited to preach for this feast by an organization I appreciate and admire: Catholic Women Preach.

As I prayed and studied the readings for the feast, I noticed that I felt invited to shift my perspective over and over, to look at the Scripture passages from different points of view.

I ended up preaching all about how a change in perspective is needed in order to see that the Kingdom of God nearby.

I’d love to get your perspective: What gets in the way of seeing the Kingdom of God around you?

Finding the faces of God in the dark

Lately, a memory keeps surfacing.

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Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

I am struggling with my mental health and, almost before it begins, I am having a particularly hard day. Sitting in my chair, trying to get started, I call my counselor for help. I tell him, “All I have on my schedule today is an appointment with my psychiatrist. That’s all I have the energy for. Can I do that and nothing else? Can I skip eating?” He replied, “You have to eat. It could be just cheese and crackers or a peanut butter sandwich, but you have to eat something.”

So that’s what I did that day. I went to my appointment and I ate a simple bowl of ramen. I was practicing self-care in the best way I could.

On my spiritual path, through depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts, I sat in the darkness for a long time. And I discovered the God Who Stays. I didn’t know where I was going when I found this God who just stayed with me in the darkness. I also gained comfort from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

If I am having a good day, God is here. If I am unable to get out of the chair, if I want to drop off the ends of the earth, God is here. I love how brilliant this psalmist is! I can’t see through the darkness around me, but God can. God sees me! God knows me always.

Gradually, as I came to a little more light and love in my life, I began to discover the God Who Heals. This is an active, moving God who groans when I groan and who breathes life into my broken bones. Paul says in Romans 8:22, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” The God Who Heals knows my pain intimately, but she also knows light and helps me reach toward it.

This memory is a good example of the God Who Heals. I am journaling and working on my low self-esteem. I know that I hate myself and I want that to change. So I write down one small step that I can take to improve it. I decide I am going to make a commitment to brushing my teeth twice a day. This seems like a basic self-care that I don’t always practice. When I tell a friend of my commitment, she asks me why I chose that action. I say, “Because I don’t want to be so gross and I want to be cleaner for others,” to which she replies, “Oh, I thought it was because you are treating yourself as precious.” Whoa! I never thought of that reason, but yes, I am treating myself as precious.

The God Who Heals is the one who is with me as I slowly try to care for myself. He helps me to see myself as precious and is patient when I am incapable.

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Sister Sarah Hennessey

Now that I am in a steady place of recovery and have more joy in my life, I am becoming acquainted with the God Who Loves. I feel that love as I face a new challenge, as I reach out to a friend in need, and as I walk in nature. The God Who Loves helps me to see myself with gentle eyes and to hold compassion for the world around me.

Recently, I took a survey about myself that measured both my creative and reactive leadership characteristics. I then passed the survey on to 15 people with whom I have worked in a variety of capacities for their input. When I received the results, the data was reported as a graph. There was a clear pattern. For many of my creative abilities, I gave myself a low rating. Everyone else rated me much higher. The measurements for my reactive tendencies were the opposite. Negative traits were also assessed: I rated myself quite high while the others gave me a much lower score. It was a stunning picture in black and white of how my self-view varies from how other people see me. The facilitator who explained the results to me said that this was a quite common pattern, especially for women religious.

The God Who Loves sees me and knows me as I am. So do the God Who Stays and the God Who Heals. All of these images of God have been growing with me as I grow. God meets me exactly where I am and helps me to become more fully myself. As my spiritual path continues, all of these images stay with me and shape me. I am so curious.

I wonder what other faces of God I will meet.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

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 litany for our inability to end gun violence

**Adapted from “A litany for the teens in Parkland, FL

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This image was captured by Sister Julia Walsh in the chapel at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

For our failure to protect life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to elect leaders who protect all life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to accept hate, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to avoid confrontation, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to allow white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to shrug our shoulders in the face of evil, God, have mercy.
For our greed, God, have mercy.
For our pride, God, have mercy.
For our violence, God, have mercy.
For our excuses, God, have mercy.
For our selfishness, God, have mercy.
For our stubbornness, God, have mercy.
For our love of guns, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of public places, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of celebration, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of diversity, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of the joy of being young, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of ordinary days, God, have mercy.
For permitting a society full of inequality, God, have mercy.
For allowing money to have more power than people, God, have mercy.
For putting any life above another life, God, have mercy.
For calling people monsters, God, have mercy.
For being numb to bad news, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the loss of life, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the evil of violence, God, have mercy.
For our failure to build a compassionate society, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love our enemies, God, have mercy.
For our failure to believe in you, God, have mercy.
For our failure to destroy our idols, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end hate, God, have mercy.
For our failure to stop racism, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our failure to follow your nonviolent way, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust You, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust each other, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love one another, God, have mercy.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.

For the faithful who honor all life, We thank you God.
For the speakers who challenge the status quo, We thank you God.
For the powerful who build unity and peace, We thank you God.
For parents who shield their children from bullets, We thank you God.
For strangers who sacrifice their lives for others, We thank you God.
For leaders who turn anger into hope, We thank you God.
For teachers who help us think carefully, We thank you God.
For prophets who speak Truth to power, We thank you God.
For policy makers who lead us on the path of peace, We thank you God.
For gun owners who beat their weapons into tools for life, We thank you God.
For peace activists who offer us an alternative vision, We thank you God.
For organizers who offer vigils and places of sanctuary, We thank you God.
For clergy who keep us focused on the Prince of Peace, We thank you God.
For ordinary citizens who offer their gifts to the greater good, We thank you God.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

 

Walking in beauty

No matter what the season, God helps me to find the beauty in the neighborhood in which I live.

Perhaps one of my biggest struggles as I develop my spiritual practices and prayer life is staying in the present moment. I find my attention wandering not only during prayer, but during meals and conversations with others. I can get quite busy and not notice what is going on around me. It’s easy to become distracted by technology and other interruptions. As I walk my pup Capoochino, I strive to treat the activity as an extension of my prayer. I attempt to quiet myself and notice all the beauty around me in the neighborhood, the changes in the foliage, the animals that scurry around. I try to take a lesson from my dog who is totally in the moment as we walk, delighting in the scents and smells.

Although it can take quite a bit more effort, it can also be important for me to notice and enjoy the “messy stuff” during our walks. I try to delight in some of the imperfections or oddities I see in nature. One of the pictures below was taken during an ice storm that occurred when we had hoped winter would be finally over. I was annoyed to have to go out in the messy weather to walk the dog. Yet, God showed me the beauty in the discomfort. Each thing I saw served as a reminder that God delights in the messiness of our lives while we change and grow.

Learning to remain in the present moment during my walks with Capoochino helps me to dedicate my day to God’s work; to put stresses into perspective and find those moments God was woven into my day.

Here are some of the images I’ve found myself awakened to during walks with Capoochino throughout the year:

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“Capoochino anxiously awaiting his walk.”
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“Frosted beauty”
trees-flower-buds
“Buds of spring!”
pink-blooms
“Waiting to bloom”
tree-flowers-rain
“Beauty in the rain”
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“Beauty in diversity”
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“St. Francis watches over our garden.”
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“Beauty in memory: these flowers were planted in memory of my dear friend Susan.”

*All photos above by Sister Shannon Fox

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER:

Sister Shannon Fox

sister-shannon-fox

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.

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

sister-shannon-fox

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.

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

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Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

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“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

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 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Finding common ground in the din of debate

Debate divides this nation, and democracy is in disarray.

On one hand, we enjoy light, good-natured disagreements:

— Is the dress blue and black or white and gold?

Photo credit: https://www.zenia.com/2015/11/19/black-and-blue-dress/

— Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?

And then, there are the more serious debates; the ones that could be causing our civility to crumble.

The latest is emotional, intense: were the high school students recently filmed in DC being racist and mocking Native Americans? Or, were they just caught up in a complex situation?

As I observe the debate and consider how our government is failing to serve the common good right now, I have noticed I am not compelled pick a side; to make a public statement condemning anyone.

Why am I reluctant to stand up for peace and justice? Am I afraid of something, like offending a partner in ministry or someone I care about? Am I undecided about what’s right and wrong? Am I refusing to stand with the oppressed and marginalized?

I have been praying with these questions because I want to be a courageous disciple; I want share Christ’s light and love. And, I think that’s why the answer — that my opinions or outcry will not contribute any peace or unity — has come to me in prayer. It will only add to the din. The last thing our society needs right now is more din and debate. It is time for us to listen to another, to dialogue, to discover our common ground and work toward rebuilding a society full of peace and justice. The kingdom of God that Jesus established, the building of which is our Christian mission.

Certainly it’s valuable for me to evaluate my hidden prejudices — to attend to the ways that judgement can influence how I understand or react to situations. We all need to do this; it’s part of growing in health and holiness.

Even more importantly, though, is the call to increase the compassion and mercy offered to others, no matter who they are. Teenagers, Native Americans, republicans, democrats, African Americans or people who look and think like us — everyone deserves compassion and mercy.

I’ve learned how to get in touch with my own darkness, with my own ability to get involved in complex social sins. I do this by trying to see myself in others — even those who are clearly different than me. In other words, I try to imagine the story of how my life might have led me to behaving badly. I could have ended up a white supremacist if I would have felt desperate and allowed myself to become convinced by the propaganda I was exposed to as a youth growing up in rural America. I could have become involved in crime; in drugs and other addictions. I could have perpetuated violence and oppression upon others. I could have flaunted my privileges in ugly ways. I can imagine the narratives, the ways my life could have gotten me into trouble. I am no better than anyone else. We are all capable of evil.

Even though my life has gone in different directions (fortunately!), I still carry the potential to give into the temptations, to succumb to the darkness. Most of us do. And freedom is found in allowing ourselves see the truth of who we are; the truth of how desperately we need God’s grace, mercy and guidance. Only with God’s help can we grow in holiness and be peacemakers. This is the light we are called to offer.

Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

When it comes to the complexity of sin and the din of debate, I believe the only way forward into God’s reign is to increase compassion and decrease judgement. Sharing this light will increase unity and peace.

Let us set down the stones and stop condemning one another.

Early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:2-11

Let us try, by the grace of God, to go and sin no more.

Change isn’t linear

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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Image courtesy unsplash.com

“I can’t believe I have to do this again,” I thought angrily to myself about a year ago as I made preparations to enter treatment for an eating disorder … for the second time. I had completed the program just six months prior. I was so frustrated with myself (as I’m sure some of the people who love me were too) for the relapse that sent me back to treatment. As I processed this fact with my therapist, she reminded me of something I’d heard before: recovery isn’t linear.

For any of us who have tried to make changes in life, to grow into healthier versions of ourselves, it doesn’t take long to also see that they — like recovery — aren’t linear; that conversion and growth are more like the messy work of spirals.

When I began treatment the first time I was overwhelmed by the many changes I had to make, but in the back of my mind I thought that by the end of the program they would be made and I would be, officially, recovered. Then I experienced some of the hardest emotional and spiritual work I’ve ever had to do. I remember lamenting to one of my counselors, like my fellow group mates would also do, “I just want this recovery process to be over.” We were consistently reminded that “recovery isn’t linear.” It was (and is) just as change; a one step forward, two steps back sort of thing.

Returning to treatment felt like I had taking more than two steps back, and I had to accept that I was going to have some of those same good days and bad days and would sometimes make mistakes, even some of the same mistakes. That making lasting, lifelong changes can be frustrating and messy. But it was necessary, and I wasn’t starting from square one. I wasn’t the same person who went through the program before. I had the capacity to deal with the challenges from a deeper place and a different perspective.

During my second trip to treatment, with the support of my therapist and a very dear friend, I was able to forgive myself, to focus more directly on the issues at the root of my eating disorder, to finally give away the clothes I wore when I was at my lowest weight. This symbolic action helped me accept my new size and forgive myself. I wouldn’t have been able to do this before.

Oftentimes you hear the saying “New year, new me;” about people making new-year resolutions such as losing weight, saving money, starting a hobby or adding a spiritual practice to their lives. My commitment to myself this year — and all those yet to come — is to continue working toward recovery from my eating disorder, a journey I began almost two years ago. I will struggle to stick with some of the important changes I’ve needed to make to stay well, but I now have the tools to deal with the struggles in a healthier way. I can learn from my successes in the past.

I remember first hearing the Serenity Prayer back in my high school English class and being struck by the power and meaning in those words as I was doing the difficult work of leaving adolescence and becoming an adult. These days, as I continue the hard work of conversion and growing closer to God, I have returned to the Serenity Prayer as frequent mantra, a reminder that making changes is the stuff of spirals.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Sister Shannon Fox

sister-shannon-fox

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.