For the good of the guild

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

With apologies to Agathon

Easter-cross-freeimages.com
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

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

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

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

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

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

~ Agathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

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.